October is always a rather special time of the year for us board game fanatics, as it means that Spiele, known as Essen for English language speakers, is right around the corner. What does that mean for the hobby? Well it means that there will be a boatload of new releases and the industrial city of Essen will be flooded with gamers of all nationalities.
What really sets Spiele apart, however, is its demographic. We tend to associate many of these gaming events with large groups of men, but Essen is something quite different. Families and the better-natured half of our species are certainly not an uncommon sight here. Furthermore, there are several areas for children as well as a plethora of food stalls. No dark and gloomy halls full of only snack food here, only the bright and progressive agenda set forth by the European board game culture.
I say European not because families don't play board games elsewhere but because this is where a lot of the influence is coming from. Without such a strong family board gaming tradition in continental Europe, it is unlikely that the family genre would be as strong as it is today. There was, however, a marked change and it comes from the continued influence of Kickstarter.
Previously stands for display only products or just prototypes were rare, however many up and coming manufacturers are now using Spiele as an advertising opportunity for their new Kickstarter launch or to support an existing campaign. Is this detrimental to the show? At this stage I think not, there were still 900+ new game releases but I do believe this is something to watch along with how Kickstarter continues to alter the industry for better or worse.
Anyway, enough rambling lets get on with the games, because unlike many shows nine times out of 10 you can play before you part with your cash at Spiele.
Into the valley
Upon entering hall one we were greeted by the enormous Fantasy Flight/ Asmodee demo stand. Could they have perhaps moved it a bit further away from the doors so as to not cause a blockade? Perhaps they could have but how else would we have seen all the amazing new Star Wars releases! Star Wars Legion was the first stop on the demo list for us, FFG had plenty of stands set up with gorgeous terrain and of course helpful FFG demo members. My friends stepped in as leaders of both sides whilst I advised from the sidelines impartially (Ok with a slight rebel bias).
Each faction had a hero in the form of Luke or Vader as well as some vehicles and a few squads. I have to comment on the miniature quality which is nothing short of what you would expect from FFG, it was a rather cheeky move downsizing so these are not compatible with Imperial Assault, but still, the miniatures are amazing. The rules for Star Wars Legion are certainly very accessible, being a blend of board game and wargame rules in order to keep it clean and fast. No advanced rules were used in the demo but the additional rules for each unit type such as speeders having to always move their full distance and Vader/Luke being able to deflect shots certainly add to the flavour.
Order activation is done quite interestingly, using a mix of order cards which allow you activate the units you need, whilst also making you shuffle the remaining units tokens. It's really Command and Colors meets Bolt Action. Climatically it came down to a clash between Luke and Vader, however, it did not end in quite the same way as the movies....
They also had some snow speeders on display, but unfortunately no AT-AT. Star Wars Legion will certainly be one to watch with its full release being slated for early next year.
König des jahres
Before getting to Spiele I had unfortunately not played Kingdomino, the Spiele des Jahres for 2017. How this had happened I am not quite sure but upon seeing that Dized, the board game teaching app that was being tested had it I delved right into both. Dized is quite interesting taking away the need for reading the rules as the app teaches you as you play, along with calculating your score at the end. It's a fantastic idea and for something as simple as Kingdomino it works perfectly, perhaps where it comes to Twilight Imperium we may have some issues but in this case, it was certainly fit for purpose.
Kingdomino is a light tile placing game where you will be expanding your kingdom into a 5 x 5 grid by placing what are essentially dominos. Each turn you will decide on which domino to take and on which you will take next round, based on the order of dominos the previous turn. It's fun, light and very fast which makes Kingdomino not only a worthy winner of the Spiele des Jahres but a perfect addition to any collection and Dized is a great way to learn to play it.
I will certainly be keeping an eye on Dized whilst adding Kingdomino to my hoard.
However, Kingdomino's story does not end there.....
Queendomino is Kingdomino's big sister and was released at Spiele. So what is the difference between the two and are they both worth owning?
The main changes are the addition of buildings, which can be added to your territories for various effects along with a new terrain for them to be built on and a dragon which can destroy buildings in order to deny them to your opponents, knights which allow you to re-score areas and the queen which goes to the player with the most towers and also conveys a bonus in scoring.
Is it better than Kingdomino? In my opinion no. Queendomino for me does something I was not looking for, it creates a more complex Kingdomino. If you are looking for a slightly more complex tile laying game for a family game night however then Queendomino may just be the ticket.
From success sprouts success
Queendomino was not Blue Orange's only release for Essen, oh no they had another golden ticket and it was Photosynthesis. Who knew a game about trees could be so much fun? You use sunlight to grow your trees and then use the trees to spread out your seeds before growing yet more trees, all in order to get to the highest scoring tiles upon which you will need to turn your tree into points.
Each turn the sun will move and give you light points based on whether your tree can get the light it needs, so placement is rather important as larger trees will cast you into shadow, therefore denying you any points for that much-needed growth. Not only is this a blast to play but it also looks great on your table with up to four players different shades and shaped trees taking root all over the board.
Blue Orange has really come out of nowhere with two truly great titles.
It's a kinda magic
Richard Garfield has a new game on the market! That's right the man behind Magic the Gathering has a brand new game and it's published by Iello.
Bunny Kingdoms is a card drafting, area control game in which you will be attempting to create fiefdoms, fill them full of towers and resources in order to finish the game with the most points. Each turn every player will draw a new hand of cards, pick two and pass them to the left before then activating the cards they choose. These cards allow you claim territory, add resources, build castles or grant you extra scoring at the games end.
It only lasts four rounds but believe me that's still a lot of card drafting and well sue me I am a sucker for some card drafting. Out of everything we played this was one that really stuck with and I most certainly look forward to getting some more gaming in with Bunny Kingdoms.
This year there was a lot of Kickstarter prototypes on show, so I will just cover a few of the ones that really stood out.
I guess we have to start with Joan of Arc, Mythic Games' new miniatures board game and oh boy does it look good! I was lucky enough to secure a slot in order to get a game of this and it was rather enjoyable, with some nice mechanics as well as some very flavour-full abilities. The scenarios at this point are still being constantly tweaked and were not particularly balanced, especially in the scenario I played, but it was a good experience none the less. Perhaps not for my opponent though......
Grimlord Games, the company behind Endure the Stars, also had Village Attacks for available to demo which looked every bit as good as I had hoped. They also had the 1.5 version of Endure the Stars. I cannot wait to receive our copies of these beasts mid next year. For those with a keen eye, you could also spy a teaser of their next project, Cthulhu inspired adventures on the high seas anyone?
The prototype version of Planet of the Apes was also on display and we were even able to have a quick game. The game uses an action deck for players with an un-yet finished AI system playing the human side. If they can pull off the AI in this game I think it will be quite the feat as there are a lot of variable actions but I have high hopes for this, even if it's only to get some amazing gorilla miniatures.
Right across the walkway from Planet of the Apes was the Batman miniatures game. Produced by Monolith, the guys behind Conan, I have high hopes for this and at the moment at least they are living up to them. The game looks great and seems relatively polished which is excellent considering its Kickstarter launch is in February. They are currently totting the line of 'only available on Kickstarter' but we shall see how this progresses.
Post-Essen Spiele Ramble
Of course, this was only a sampling of what I encountered/managed to squeeze into my trip. Raja of the Ganges, Alien Artifacts and Palace of Mad King Ludwig were all games I walked away from the show with and have since played and enjoyed - along with the infamous Meeple Circus which, despite having limited real gameplay, was an absolute blast.
Essen is always a highlight of my year and this year was no exception. It doesn't get much better than playing some games, meeting some awesome people and talking about board games non stop.