At time of writing, I’ve just finished our Essen weekend here in Sydney with 100 of my closest gaming friends (here’s a shoutout to the glorious Advent Games for organising and hosting), which means I have a bank of snapshots to come, fastly and furiously.
I’ve played probably 40 to 50 of the Essen crop now, including most of the ‘name’ Essen games. I’m still missing a few which are lined up for the coming weeks but I think I’m ready to call Maracaibo Best In Show, with Expedition To Newdale a second, making Pfister my Designer of Show. Both have card effect engines at their heart and provide campaign options, elements which vastly improve its chances of holding my interest for longer than a few plays, and which give cause to get it to the table more than the standard Euro-few times.
Featuring today? How an Essen game earns a 1.
NB. Please remember I enjoy every game I play, even all these 6’s, even the 1’s! There are just so many games where you wonder if it really needed to be made, an oft-overheard mantra at our Essen weekend.
BABYLONIA (2019): Rank 4045, Rating 7.5
This feels like a 1999 Knizia, and if it had come out then it probably would have been lauded as Knizia does it again. Gaming has moved on. It takes the surround-a-tile, majority-claims-it mechanism from Samurai (one of my least favourite Knizias). It adds an early game big-points-now element to distract you from that (building next to temples instead), reminiscent of early lake building in Java. After that, you want to get lucky with the tiles your draw, collecting your farmer tiles at just the right time (these allow you to put out more than the standard two tiles on your turn) to make big plays for high-scoring tiles. It works fine. Knizia games always will. I’m sure it’s all playtested and balanced. YMMV but for me there was too much reliance on your RHP setting you up to be able to claim something, too much luck in the draw, and the constant everyone-scores-every-turn became grating … all of which resulted in this old-school themeless approach leaving me dry.
BLOOM TOWN (2019): Rank 6183, Rating 6.9
Place one of your two tiles on your board. The space you cover dictates which of the 5 tiles you pick up from the display. You seek the happy confluence of placing a tile in the exact position in which it scores max points (each colour has the standard city-building scoring tropes – orthogonal groups, diagonal groups, adjacencies, …) and sets up points for later whilst also allowing you to pick up exactly the tile you want to play next. The angst is in what to do when the tiles don’t behave. There’s luck in the tiles, there’s luck in when the scoring tiles come out, and it seems to be over before your board feels developed. Pleasant, but there’s not much of a learning curve and each game’s going to feel much the same. (An older review from its release date here)
DAWN OF MANKIND (2019): Rank 6888, Rating 7.3
Move your meeples along a tree of action spaces – its first action defines which 2 or 3 actions that meeple can do next, and then that chosen action dictates the final 2 or 3 actions it can do. The action tree represents the journey of life – the early actions get you resources, the middle ones convert / manipulate them, and the last ones spend them for victory points and then the meeple dies. You need to choose weaker outside actions to earn more meeples. Good idea. In practice, ok but not that interesting. The same actions were executed repetitively, and doing well depended on your ability to guess what your opponents wanted to do, and them being willing to move onto your action spot and give you a free push ahead (a feature I’m not overly fond of due to its kingmaking undertones).
ELECTROPOLIS (2014): Rank 5375, Rating 7.5
You’re collecting as many complete sets of tiles as you can (there are many different types), placing them on your board. The tiles on offer each round are placed in a circle. You bid for tile-taking order – the lower the number of tiles you want, the earlier you’ll pick and the higher likelihood you’ll get exactly what you want. The later in turn order, the more tiles you’ll get, but only of those left over. The issue is that you must take a group of tiles adjacent to each other so you’ll likely be taking tiles in sets you haven’t started, which means you’ll now want to get started on those as well. Your same bid also gets you a card which provides an effect benefit as well as dictating which area of your board you can build, which later in the game mostly drives the bidding rather than the tiles. It generates quite the horrible bidding tension which I enjoyed, analysing the tile and card offers, working out what others would likely want, bidding higher or lower accordingly, and groaning loudly or cheering quietly. It came in at the right timeframe – your board felt appropriately developed – and the big scoring finale provided interesting surprises. (Dale gave it more than a 7 in his review)
HURLY BURLY (2019): Rank 10459, Rating 6.9
There are some other options but on your turn you either build your card tower or you take a catapult shot at a neighbour’s tower to knock it down. If your 4 story card tower lasts back to the start of your turn, you win. You build your catapult from a card with a clip on its top edge which is loaded with a cube, flex the card back, and launch the cube. The problem? Even catapults using double-strength cards didn’t have the strength of shot to knock anything down. The first player builds a tower on two successive turns to get up to level 4, each neighbour takes a shot (or multiple shots) and fails, the game is won and over. Theoretically fun for kids maybe, but broken components, broken game.
IT’S A WONDERFUL WORLD (2019): Rank 2622, Rating 7.7
It starts as a simple card drafting game 7 Wonders style. Draft 7 cards, chuck some for their insta-resource to help build other cards which will boost production, which at end of round should allow you to build yet more cards (If you’ve planned properly and got lucky with the draft). Repeat for 4 rounds. As the rounds progress it gets more challenging to keep track of how all the production chain reactions are going to work out, and exactly how many resources you’re going to get at each stage. That’s the challenge. It slows the game down in a good thinky way. The game is to build so efficiently that at end-game you have no resources left, and you’ve built lots of big VP cards. It’s not for everyone because the pace drops slower than people probably want or expect in a drafting game, but I liked the mental tracking challenge it posed and the simplicity of the teaching.
LETTER JAM (2019): Rank 1878, Rating 7.4
Each player has a card showing a letter outward, Hanabi style, and the goal each round is for someone to make a word using as many letters as possible that they can see, in such a way that each other player can guess what their letter is (because they’ll only be able to see the letters of the other players and don’t know their own). The aim is for each player to guess all their letters correctly enough to make a valid 5 letter word from their letters (after however many rounds). Definitely an interesting concept, but the win wasn’t that hard playing with some non-wordsmiths (making it more of an activity than a game then?) and it played perhaps a few rounds too many. It offers a nice feeling of satisfaction at working words out though, enough to want to play again at some point. I suspect you only want to play it with 5 or 6 players though for it to shine. We looked at this earlier in the year as well.
MARACAIBO (2015): Rank 1065, Rating 8.3
Mmm, meaty goodness. In each of the 4 rounds you cycle through the action rondel, but you choose which actions on the rondel you wish to do each time. Some strategies want these actions, others want those actions, and there are lots of strategies depending on your quest card and what cards you draw into. There’s risk at missing out if you try to do too many actions in a round because the first to finish a lap of the rondel sets how many actions there’ll be in the round. It means that even though you’re doing your own stuff which can’t be hurt too much by the other players, you’re still affected by the approach of other players – a balance I really like. You’re probably sloughing off way more cards for their goods than analysing and playing them for their effects, which may lessen the game a bit, but at least the effect path is there to provide opportunity for depth. A campaign mode, lots of point avenues to approach, lots of specialisation paths to try (which means rules overload but I don’t care) … count me in! (Tery reviewed this in more detail earlier)
MIYABI (2019): Rank 2231, Rating 7.5
Kiesling has us taking turns picking tiles from the common area and placing them on your personal board for points. Standard Euro fare. It has a nice twist in that each round you can only score each column once which forces you into takes that aren’t ideal for now but may hopefully lay a foundation for later. You want big tiles close together so you can build upwards for bigger later points, but this makes the tile-taking order fairly predictable. The game encourages people to diverge into different rows for end-of-game majority points but there was so much tile overlaying that it didn’t become relevant until the last round or so. The game was ok, it worked, I’d play it better next time, but it seemed too vanilla to make another play likely.
SPOTLIGHT ON: MAORI (2009): Rank 1919, Rating 6.6
26 plays: This feels under-rated to me. Cross Kupferkessel Co. with Vikings, two of my favourites, and you have a neat and enjoyable 30 minute affair that I was always going to like. Like Vikings, you’re gathering tiles and forming islands with them on your personal board, but the scoring is woven onto the tiles themselves, collecting palm trees, huts, leis, shells or ship symbols. To get tiles, rather than a cost-wheel, tiles are laid in a 4×4 grid, and you move the boat around the outside Kupferkessel style to a row/column that you want to pick a tile from. The first tile in the row is free, but each tile further away costs more hard-to-come-by shells. You can also move to a further row/column by paying out more shells if it’s worth it and you can afford it. So, interesting choices to make each turn on whether to take freebies or pay for more. One of the features / issues with the game is that all the good tiles go quickly, leaving mainly dross for the latter half of the game. Don’t set your board up waiting for a miracle completion tile, as everyone will pounce on any half-decent tile from mid-game on, meaning luck increases. But I’ve nonetheless found it engaging and well suited to the 20 min jaunt niche and it’s a semi-regular closer for us.
Thoughts of other Opinionated Gamers:
Mark Jackson: All of these responses are based on a single play…
Dawn of Mankind: I liked it… but I don’t need to own it. Some of the same-yness would be reduced by the variety of actions in the various slots, but I’m not sure enough to make a major difference.
Electropolis: Really well-designed drafting/tile-laying city-builder with a nice bit of hate-drafting and the added tension of when to go in turn order. I’d happily own this one.
It’s A Wonderful World: With the right (read: non-AP) players, very enjoyable. Avoid like the plague with AP folks.
Miyabi: While I acknowledge that the base game is vanilla, I’d be curious to see how the “in the box” expansions change and add to the game. Production was very nice.
James Nathan: I agree whole-heartedly on Babylonia, though my rating would be a much lower numerical value. It felt like it wanted to have micro-turns, but the constant scoring resolutions kept poking sticks in your spokes.
Hurlyburly is a delight and a treat! We actually have a problem being _too_ good at knocking each other’s towers down, such that it is difficult to win. Rikki suggested an alternate end game condition for 4 players to us where you can win on a turn where you knock down each other players’ tower.
Brandon Kempf: I thought Babylonia was fantastic, and can sit right along side of Blue Lagoon as my favorite of the new Knizia’s of the last couple years. I love that the early going is all about building around the Ziggurats in order to seed the board so that you can build your paths. Those token holders are straight up trash though. Bloom Town is exactly as you describe, but I don’t take as much exception to that as you do. I think it’s a wonderful little gateway game that was made for mass market shelves here in the US with it’s Walmart exclusive distribution. I’d much rather play this, than the Prospero Hall crap that keeps hitting the mass market shelves, and I’d much rather other people play this. It’s competent in what it does without creating too much overhead for the new game player buying games off the shelves of Walmart. I’ve already reviewed Letter Jam on this site and we still adore it. I like that it’s a word game where everyone has to be a part of it. You can’t just sit back and let everyone else do the hard work, you gotta get in there as well. I’m a fan of Maracaibo as well, although seemingly not as much as you. It does have it’s faults, and that basically stems from that sandbox nature and letting one person control the pace of play. I just haven’t been able to counter the four turn a round strategy yet.
Tery: My feelings about Maracaibo are exactly in line with Patrick’s opinion above. If you don’t like multiple paths and lots of actions a la Great Western Trail or A Feast for Odin you probably aren’t going to like this one, but if you do, I’d strongly suggest giving Maracibo a try.
Simon Neale: I seem to be in the minority regarding Electropolis as I found the game far too random with respect to the tile draw (even though you can minimise it with opting for fewer tiles) and when combined with the fiddly scoring mechanism (did the game really need a pollution tracker which has to be recalculated at the end of the game to allow for unpowered power stations?) the game is just not for me.
Maracaibo however I really like a lot. The multiple paths to victory and an excellent solo play option should mean that the game has a lot of future plays in store.