Essen 2018: 15 Board Game Highlights (Part Two)

Essen 2018 Highlights - Orbis

Welcome to part two of my board gaming highlights from Essen 2018. This was my first time at Essen and I was mind-boggled at just how big the event was! Here are some more of my board game highlights from Essen 2018!

A Pleasant Journey to Neko

On Friday morning I had a look through BoardGameGeek's list of games at Essen 2018 that had escaped hype but were well worth checking out. Research for my current game design has led me to seek out any nautical themed games and so I was instantly drawn to A Pleasant Journey to Neko. In this game you sail around the Antarctic delivering resources and hoping to catch a glimpse of the penguins, the very cutely themed victory points of this game. But whereas the gameplay of Everdell was equally as pleasant, here — despite the name — the euro-style mechanics are deep-rooted and challenging.

This was probably the most elegantly designed complex game I played at Essen. In theory there was a lot going on — it has several phases where you have to bid on cards, sell fish, roll dice and draft them, resolve actions using the dice, build harbours and ships, move your pieces, and much more — and the game could have been overwhelming, but designer Citie Lo has not only perfectly balanced this game but also guided the players through each phase in a fluid and intuitive fashion that by round two I was already developing a strategy to win. It reminded me of Keyflower; few games of this complexity have achieved such elegance and seamlessness.

That being said, the visuals were a bit busy. Whilst the art would have looked great in a gallery, here it was distracting. Citie Lo also did the art and perhaps struggled to divorce himself from his vision versus practicality. Were I the publisher I would have stripped back some of the art to give the game a cleaner feel. I also wonder whether the cutesy theme might put some more serious gamers off, and really this is a game for that demographic.  This would be a shame as A Pleasant Journey to Neko’s more apt title would be A Most Excellent Gaming Experience at Essen.

Now Boarding

Similarly on the research bent, I wanted to check out any pick-up and delivery games; particularly ones to do with travel. In Now Boarding you co-operatively work together to fly around the US picking up passengers before they get too angry and leave the airport. Lose three passengers this way and the game is over. It’s played across one in-game day in increasingly intensifying rounds. The real novelty here is that all players play simultaneously and in “real time”: there’s an egg timer and each turn all players must perform all their actions before it runs out.

There’s a lot of innovative thinking this game, which is also very streamlined in its design, however the real-time aspect may not only be off-putting for many players, I also wasn’t really sure what it added. Every turn I played I finished what I needed to do well before the time ended. Thematically, I wasn’t sure why we were co-operating as we were supposed to be different airlines (there are even routes on the map only certain airlines can take). The visuals were really well put together and clear but having the passengers and money on the same card was frustrating if you wanted to purchase any upgrades for less than you had, as there was no change.

I would love to see a competitive expansion for this game, which perhaps removes the real time aspect. The game was sufficiently interesting without it and it felt a little like it was trying to be different for difference sake.

Essen 2018 - Now Boarding (Credit: Flower Games)

Mobsitters

Relative newbie to the industry (and hailing from my hometown of Croydon) East Street Games were testing their prototype for their upcoming card game Mobsitters. The idea is each player is a babysitter, but not an ordinary one: you’re babysitters for Mobsters! Sure, you could earn a measly income just doing your job and looking after the kids but where’s the fun in that?

These babysitters can earn a shed-load more doing dirty deeds on the side… or attempting to steal from their boss when their back is turned. But watch out because the other Mobsitters are looking to trip you up, either by dobbing you in to the big boss or shopping you to the police.

It’s a quick game with a joyous theme, and despite the large amount of luck you still feel like you make meaningful choices. Definitely worth keeping an eye on when it comes to Kickstarter soon, you can subscribe to their mailing list to keep updated.

Prehistory

Getting a demo for this game was neigh on impossible. Fortunately I was flying solo on Sunday so was able to join another group who had one seat spare. I was really excited about this game. It seemed to me to be Stone Age Mach II. As I prepared to take my seat the group before ours were just leaving. “That was a lot”, one of them said, somewhat overwhelmed. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.

As you might expect from the title, this is a game about Stone Age tribes gathering resources, exploring the local area for potential new campsites and rich land, and even dabbing cave paintings  — humanity’s first artistic expression. It’s an epic worker placement game played across several seasons, where your cubes are both your resources and your action points. It’s a spawler with separate player boards, action board and modular exploration board.

The game felt like the designer had sat down and experimented with every new mechanic in their head, but had then forgotten to take out what was too complex or clever but distracting. The ideas were vast and as long as you didn’t have to actually play the game they were brilliant. But there was so much going on it was impossible to work out any kind of strategy and, unlike A Pleasant Journey to Neko, the phases felt clumsy and awkward. Rather than analysis paralysis my brain was exploding from overload.

Despite this, the game was a sell out at Essen. Perhaps this just went over my head… or perhaps the people buying it had been unable to demo it. Personally, I was a bit disappointed. “That was a lot,” seemed like the best way to describe this overly ambitious but mechanically innovative game.

Essen 2018 - Prehistory (Credit: A-Games)

Orbis

Orbis is a God of a game where you play as… what else but a God! From the Latin Orbis Terrarum, meaning globe, each player must create their own world by drafting hex tiles of different types: volcanoes, waterfalls, fertile land, grassland and temples. Fundamentally abstract, each turn you select a tile and the surrounding tiles gain followers (cubes) of that colour making them more valuable if players choose to take them later on. Gradually you build up your cosmos in a pyramid shape until finally choosing a God to sit supreme at the top.

This is elegance incarnate. It draws on mechanics in games such as Splendor and has the flow of Century: Spice Road. It’s immensely satisfying to slowly terraform your world, gaining points for the best adjacency, the most temples, or fulfilling your personal God’s victory condition. It’s great for families and more serious gamers alike.

You could argue it lacks originality, as there’s nothing groundbreaking here but in much the same way that Everdell commits beautifully to the mainstream of its genre, as does Orbis. This game is a real win — reminiscent of the PlayStation game Populus or the PC game Master of Olympus — in style as well as art.

Endeavour

My brain nearly frazzled on Sunday afternoon, I decided to give one last game in the Messe hall a go before I headed back to the hostel. I choose this one because, why? You guessed it: nautical theme. Endeavour is an area control, worker placement game where each player takes the control of a colonial nation and attempts to expand their empire to the new world.

Each turn follows the same phases of buying a building, paying for workers and then choosing actions. It’s pretty easy to get to grips with and could easily be played by most age groups. The strategy comes in choosing where to expand. Each area you take over comes with a bonus, which boosts up the number of workers you have, gives you more money, increases your building materials, or boosts your card carrying capacity. You can also gain an extra bonus for connecting two adjacent locations.

The games most unique feature is its use of slavery, which is does without making light of the subject. Players can buy slaves through the game for a bonus in resource gathering but if a player triggers emancipation all slave-owners lose points per slave.  It’s thematic without inciting offence.

It’s a solid game, although perhaps a little on the expensive side. That being said, the production value is high, it comes with excellent components and organisers as well as an asymmetrical expansion. People fascinated with this contentious period in our history will not be disappointed.

Endeavour Age of Sail (Credit: Burnt Island Games)

Ruthless

Did I say my brain was frazzled, already? Well somehow I managed to be convinced to play a last game back in the hostel late Sunday night. This is real evidence of my board game addiction as this game is a deck builder and they’re not really my cup of tea.

In many ways however, Ruthless reinvents the deck-building genre by fusing traditional deck building with more Euro-style mechanics and Poker. Each player is building their deck of pirates — which come in four suits — by paying to hire them from the Inn. The game zips along: rather than those pirates going into your discard pile they come straight into play.

Each card has different actions such as, my personal favourite, starting a brawl in the Inn, which removes one pirate from the roster. It’s heavily thematic and ruthlessly fast-paced. Each round ends when both players run out of cards to play and then sets are scored using Texus Hold‘em methodology.

Given the hype around Dice Hospital, Alley Cat Game’s other release seems to have fallen off the radar but that is a real shame. This is fantastic game, supremely well-balanced, fluid gameplay and beautiful art. For £25 it’s a must for any gamers collection and my top pick of the Spiel!

Other Notable Games at the Spiel

There are some glaring omissions from this list. It was impossible to play everything and some games were harder to get a seat at than others. Notably I didn’t get around to playing Teotihuacan, which sold out by Saturday. I also didn’t get around to playing Coimbra, Holding On, or Discover. I hope to rectify that in the coming months.

I did have some shorter demos of games I wanted to mention. The new expansion to Concordia, Venus, has a team mode, which is definitely underused in this type of game. Ocean Crisis debuted at the Spiel and comes to Kickstarter next year: a topical co-operative game about clearing the ocean of waste before it’s too late.

As does Magnate: The First City, a Sim City–esque board game giving real depth of strategy to the property mogul genre. And Deadwood, a game I backed on Kickstarter, was finally released at the Spiel. I have my copy at home so look forward to opening the beautifully designed box/book soon and getting it to the table.

Check out part one of my highlights from Essen!