Chris Wray: Quick Thoughts on 5 Essen 2019 Games

We’re a little over a week past Spiel ’19, and I’ve played 25-30 new titles that were on the Spiel preview list. Like I’ve done in past years, I wanted to post quick thoughts on a few games I’ve played.

We at The Opinionated Gamers are working on writing up reviews of the games: it takes a while, because we try to play a game multiple times (and have various contributors play it) before we start chiming in.  Reviews will start rolling out soon, although I think Dale is planning a list of one-line reviews to release in the next couple of days.

These are just my personal initial thoughts, and some of the ratings below are after just one play, so keep that in mind.  Also, to cover all of these titles, I’m skipping any rule review and going straight to my opinion.  

Updates on Previous Mini Reviews

I’ve already done mini-reviews of games as part of my nightly Spiel coverage. In particular, I reviewed Anubixx, Azul Summer Pavilion, Chartae, Die Crew, Evidence, Lost Cities: Auf Schatzsuche, Nova Luna, and Tricks and the Phantom. Of those, I like Anubixx and Evidence a bit less after subsequent plays, downgrading them to “Neutral.” I like Nova Luna quite a bit more, and in fact, I’ve played it a total of 10 times since Essen. Die Crew continues to be tremendous fun, and we’ve worked through several more missions, and I now have more than 30 plays of the game!



I’m clearly a Reiner Knizia fan, and Babylonia feels like a throwback to his classic tile laying games (thought it is actually played with wooden disks). The setting may be the same as in Tigris & Euphrates, but Babylonia feels more like Samurai in its tile placement, and Through the Desert in its route building. You’re trying to build chains of your pieces around certain structures to earn points, and you can play 2 or 3 pieces at a time depending on which pieces you play. Along the way, you earn unique special powers that strengthen your tile placement or provide other advantages.

It’s pretty simple, and it plays fast. I was thoroughly engaged throughout the game. The rulebook is a bit more dense than it needed to be, but I’m intrigued by the gameplay. I played it two players, and it feels like it will really shine with more.

Initial OG Rating: I like it.


Maracaibo is predictably a mix between Great Western Trail and Mombasa. I absolutely love those latter two tiles, so I was greatly looking forward to Maracaibo, only to be disappointed after my first two plays. At this point I doubt very much that I will ever like it as much as its predecessors.

GWT and Mombasa were complex games, but they never felt fiddly to me. Maracaibo feels fiddly. And unlike Mombasa, which had clever planning for card play, and GWT, which had several novel mechanics, Maracaibo doesn’t feel all that fresh.

But my real problem with the game is that some turns feel downright boring. Aspects of the engine building are engaging, but the initial cards in the game repeat themselves in a way that feels unsatisfying. (There are numerous copies of each card, so you often have duplicates in your hand.) Plus, the cards can be quite random, and I never felt that randomness in GWT or Mombasa, though it was arguably present in aspects of those games.

In the four player game, there could be quite a bit of lag between turns, which is all the worse when you know that your next turn or two will be anti-climatic. Maybe the story/campaign mode is the big selling point — I didn’t try it — but I doubt I ever will after these first couple of plays.

Given the sky-high BGG ratings, I seem to be in the minority. But opinions have varied even among the people I played with. A fellow writer for this site enjoyed his 2-player game with me. In my 4-player game, one player seemed to enjoy it well enough. But the other two players despised the game, and I’m starting to see their point.

Initial OG Rating: Neutral.

Paranormal Detectives

In a year that is starved for decent deduction games, I was eager to try Paranormal Detectives, in which players receive clues to solve a murder mystery. The clever part here is that players can ask any non-yes/no question, but the answer will come in a manner that depends on the card they play. Some questions are answered in pantomime, others by shaping a string, others yet by drawing with somebody else’s hand. I know it sounded gimmicky, but I also thought it had the chance to be cool.

The game is decidedly gimmick-y, and my suspicions were right, so much so that I feel clairvoyant. (Maybe I’m some sort of paranormal game detective!?!) The worse part is that there’s major judgment involved in deciding if somebody won.

Ultimately this game will vary quite a bit based on the group playing it. I had a fun group in my two plays, so the game was kind of fun. Paranormal Detectives comes with more than a couple of dozen cases, and though I expect I’ll be done after about 5-6 of them, I’m glad I gave it a try.

Initial OG Rating: Neutral.

I haven’t had the chance to play the Japan side of Map Collection #7, but the Italy map is fantastic. It has a couple of new gameplay elements, including bonus points for connecting different regions, and a new type of ferry route. The elongated map made for interesting strategic decisions, as players seemed to gravitate towards north-south routes, increasing the competition for popular spaces.

We absolutely loved it. If I had played it before doing our 10 Great Ticket to Ride Maps series, it certainly would have made my top 10 list!

Initial OG Rating: Love it!


Fans of trick taking games should check out Vivaldi, which is a restoration of a classic Italian game. The game is only for 5 people, which is a bit of drawback, but the gameplay was original and entertaining, and this is a definite keeper in my trick taking collection. There’s a clever auction system for who gets to call trump (and the positive point suit). Based on the bid, they have a secret partner among the other players. Unlike in many trick takers, there is no need to follow the lead suit. I haven’t played another trick taker quite like this one: it reminded me a bit of Sticheln (one of my favorite tricksters), in that it is wide open and kind of mean, but it also at times felt like a classic game. I’m looking forward to additional plays.

Initial OG Rating: I like it.

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3 Responses to Chris Wray: Quick Thoughts on 5 Essen 2019 Games

  1. @mangozoid says:

    Great to read all your comments, Chris, and even more pleased to discover more about Babylonia – I recently played Knizia’s Samurai again (for the first time in literally decades) and absolutely loved the sheer ‘purity’ of the design, so I think you’ve just sold me on Babylonia…!

    The more I hear about Maracaibo being similar to GWT (a good game in it’s own right, o’course), the more I am actually turned off this one, tbh – there is definitely room for a runaway leader problem in GWT imho, and if Maracaibo could suffer the same fate as well as having potential randomness and downtime issues, there’s a good chance I’ll be passing on this one…


  2. Pingback: Chris Wray: Quick Thoughts on 5 Essen 2019 Games – Herman Watts

  3. Pingback: Chris Wray: Quick Thoughts on 5 More Essen 2019 Games | The Opinionated Gamers

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