I spent a good deal of the first few hours of Thursday at Essen 2018 wondering around open mouthed and overwhelmed. This was my first time and I was just mind-boggled at how huge it was. At the UK Games Expo earlier this year I was playing a game within minutes, but here there was so much choice I didn’t know where to look — despite having drawn up a list before arriving.
Here are some of my board game highlights from Essen 2018!
Donning the Purple
I researched this game back when I was designing my own Roman theme creation last year. I remember thinking then that it seemed conceptual intriguing and appealing to my love of anything Roman. The imperial setting was the only drawback, I felt, being a republican through and through. I had the pleasure of a personal demo from the designers who squeezed in an out of schedule slot for me.
The game fuses traditional Euro mechanics with elements of co-operative survival. In fact, it’s rather a shame that the release is likely to be overshadowed by Z-Man Games and their release of Pandemic: Fall of Rome. I did wonder if I would have as nearly as much fun should I have not been the Emperor every round as that player seemed to dominate the actions, but I felt the designers had made some bold choices and I really enjoyed the way your characters had a certain amount of stamina (the games actions points) before they popped their clogs.
Arranging an heir to replace them and maintain control of the empire was a key part of the game: kudos for that thematically immersive mechanic!
Two things that really please me in games: immersive theme and elegant mechanics. This abstract tile placement game about harvesting the rich fertile land after the flooding of the Nile uses domino like mechanics, where players draft double-ended tiles trying to match them to gain maximum resources to build point-scoring districts in their cities — or strategically placing the tiles to be able to build obelisks giving you a bonus at the end of the game.
It’s quick to learn and full of depth; elegance in a pyramid-shaped nutshell. A little dry perhaps to the average gamer but it’s worth overlooking the farming theme to try this solid new game from Catch Up Games, which I’m sure will soon become a staple on gamers shelves.
At the pre-Essen spiel industry mixer, I was chatting to a few fellow designers about the use of time travel in games. I used Anachrony by David Turczi as an example of something that pulls it off quite well. Just then a voice to my right says, “oh, that was me” and lo and behold there was David himself... #onlyinEssen!
Dice Settlers is David’s new game published by NSKN Games where you are building your dice set which gradually mitigates the luck — hopefully in your favour. You use the dice as actions, exploring the map and gaining control of hexes and resources, or spreading your influence into your neighbours villages.
I liked how the dice of different colours could only be used if you had control of the corresponding tile but I wonder how many times players forget to check this. I ended up with a brown dice when I definitely shouldn’t have had one. After a few plays I’m sure this would become second nature but perhaps if there was a way of reminding players they could only take the relevant dice the game would be slightly more elegant. There was also a bit of an issue in our group regarding some of the iconography, which weren’t always obvious and sometimes visually similar.
These are small faults though. Dice Settlers is a really great game — you could argue a souped-up Catan for the modern generation of board gamers.
This is a bit of a cheat as I actually demoed this at Tabletop Live a few weeks earlier but it’s had so much hype it felt ridiculous not to mention it here.
This game captures the cult interest in the hospital genre, just like Theme Hospital did many years ago (a Zeitgeist that has had a Renaissance with Two Point Hospital released on Steam earlier this year). Alley Cat’s timing of the release of this game is perfect and unsurprisingly it’s been a sell out at Essen.
But is it good? The answer is simply: absolutely! This is a game where patients (dice) arrive on ambulances and are then drafted into your hospital with different severity of illness. The closer the die face to one the sooner they will die without treatment. The rest of the game is essentially worker placement; sending your dice to the best rooms for treatment. Once they are rolled up to six they are ready for discharge.
The demos have been cleverly engineered so that there’s this thrilling moment halfway in where all of sudden you have too many patients and have to choose some of your patients for the chop; I’d become so attached to my spotty little friends I was mortified, but games that are able to inspire an emotional reaction like this get a big tick from me.
I did wonder whether the game would have felt less clinical — if you’ll forgive the pun — had the dice types had more of a sense of character. Theme Hospital works so well because you see them with bloated heads and slack tongues, and whilst I acknowledge this level of individuality and visual humour would be a bit of an ask here, I do think there are ways the game could have brought out the personalities of the patients more. Oh well, room for another expansion, one which I will be waiting for... patiently.
Architects of the West Kingdom
Another game to feature on many “Top 10 for Essen” lists. This is a game set in Renegade Game Studies new West Kingdom universe (having completed their North Sea Trilogy) and is a traditional worker placement game in that you are gathering resources and buying townsfolk and buildings — “nothing new here”, you say.
Wrong. In Architects you have a seemingly endless supply of workers... “but where’s the challenge then?” you ask. Well, this is the genius stroke of this game. The workers you place in different spots increase in productivity the more workers you have there, which makes total thematic sense. However, don’t be fooled into thinking you can just pile your workers into one resource and get a tonne of bricks or they will come down on you.
You see, if you have a monopoly (“Hail Mary!”) over a certain action space other players can report you to the town hall and performs citizen’s arrest. They can then ship all your workers off to jail for a nice reward. It’s thrillingly thematic which may upset players looking for a gaming experience free of take-that mechanics.
It also has a super thematic tracker for your moral compass. Feel free to abuse the black market and refuse to pay taxes but you’ll lose victory points at the end of the game and you won’t be able to develop the high-scoring cathedral.
The end game did feel a tiny bit restrictive but this is a small quibble as this is easily one of the best worker placement I’ve played all year.
A game by Sophia Wagner about going on quests to defend the realm and please the King... at least I think it was. The theme was so poorly tied to the mechanics on the main board it was difficult to immerse yourself much in the pasted on Steampunk-ish universe. There were some excellent ideas, particularly in the action bidding system — which saw players strategically trying to outnumber their opponents strength — and the sleep mechanism which delayed the use of successful action cards as they went off to the pub to celebrate and had to sleep the whole next turn.
The game had so much more potential than the abstraction of item and point card collection (which was the central feature of the game) lived up to.
A new worker placement game at the Spiel was Everdell by James A. Wilson, published by Starling Games — a sell out and difficult to get a demo seat. This is a really cute game. Each player takes control of a faction of animals in the wood of Everdell. They perform various actions to collect resources in an attempt to purchase building or specialist cards from the communal roster and expand their zoopolis.
The production value for this game is top notch with each of the resources having its own unique component (I particularly enjoyed the twigs that essentially replace the traditional wood resource). There’s even a superfluous tree used as a card holder and organiser but it doesn’t get in the way or feel gimmicky even though really it is.
It’s a light and breezy worker placement; perhaps one a family might buy as it probably plays to a younger audience in theme as well as gameplay. The mechanics are smooth but not groundbreaking. There’s very little downtime as the game allows the factions to come out of sync with each other and be in different seasons (the four phases of the game) at the same time. While not particularly thematic it’s a small price to pay for superior play-ability.
Our table felt that the opening hands — which are simply dealt to each player — undermined strategy a fair amount as it gave a clear advantage. A drafting of cards at the beginning would overcome this; the rules may even suggest that alternative as we were taught in person rather than by the book. But in all, the experience of playing Everdell is pretty much exactly that what you’d expect from the name: pleasant and picturesque.