Essen guide: Travel, hotels and Essen Spiel itself

Essen 2015 logoEvery year tens of thousands of gamers descend on the German city of Essen’s huge ‘Messe’ convention centre for its annual celebration of all things board gaming, the Internationale Spieltage – or Essen Spiel to most English speakers.

As the biggest board game convention in the world* people travel from across the globe to visit it – many for the first time. If you’re one of them, especially if travelling from the UK, hopefully this run-down will give you some useful tips.

Go: Travelling to Essen

Essen trainsBy air: Unfortunately Essen doesn’t have an international airport, so unless you intend to fly in by light aircraft you’re going to be looking at arriving in Essen by train.

Düsseldorf International Airport is a 40-minute train ride from Essen, with regular flights arriving from Europe (including Birmingham and Manchester). Cologne is also less than an hour by train, with Dortmund about two hours from Essen.

By rail: Seeing as you’re going to have to get on a train anyway, another solid option (especially from the UK) is to go via Eurostar. Brussels is just over two hours from London Kings Cross, which has occasional direct trains to Essen and a regular service to Cologne (three to four hours more). I personally use the SNCF site to book tickets.

This is now my chosen mode of transport. While five hours on the train sounds like a lot, you need to remember you don’t have to be at the Eurostar terminal as early and there’s no waiting for luggage as you have it with you – and far fewer luggage restrictions. If you have a few going, you can book a table too – and game all the way!

By road: If you intend to pick up so many games that rail or air won’t cut it, or if you simply like driving, jumping in the car is of course an option. You have to be 18 to drive in Germany and (of course) abide by its road regulations but I’m reliably informed that it is an easy country to drive in.

This also then gives you the option to stay a little further from the Messe itself, as well as the option to drive to in each day (perfect for those who drag a pallet truck, with pallet, around all day). Parking (5,000 spaces) is just five minutes from the halls, costs five euros, and you can stay as long as you like (pay in cash as you exit).

Stay: The city and accommodation

It’s fair to say that while Essen isn’t the most appealing city you’ll visit, it’s very welcoming to the annual invasion of the gaming community.

On the plus side the city centre is compact and the railway station is at its heart. It has a good number of shops and restaurants and an inability to speak German isn’t much of a hurdle.

On the downside, it has very little to offer the tourist – this is not a convention I’d suggest bringing a non-gaming spouse to, unless you stay outside of Essen (see below) or book a very good hotel indeed (and they like staying in).

But again on the plus side, one of the main roads joining the town centre to the Messe, Ruttenscheider, is now a real hub of bars, cafes and restaurants. From the trendy to the Irish to the traditional, there’s a bar along here for everyone.

If you are from the UK and staying in Essen itself, its worth popping into the town’s Toys R Us just to get jealous of the kind of things the average German can expect to find in a normal toy shop!

Near the Messe: If you’re just here for the games, have a good budget and get your booking in VERY early indeed, there are several large hotels in close proximity to the Messe itself. You will be a good 30-minute walk from the town centre, but there is a regular metro service (just four stops on the U11) which will get you there in just a few minutes.

The Atlantic Congress Hotel is practically on the Messe’s doorstep, while several others are within a very short walking distance (less than 10 minutes). I’m yet to try any of these, but will be in the Mercure Plaza this year (20 minute walk to the Messe). I love a walk in the morning, and it also makes me think twice about buying more than I can carry!

You can find an Essen Metro map here.

ippCentral Essen: The most common option is to stay in the town centre and travel to the Messe each day via the Metro (about five minutes once you’re on and moving). You can get on the U11 at the central station (Essen Hbf) and get off at Messe West/Sud Gruga.

Walking is another option, taking just over 30 minutes from the central train station – or up to 45 from some central hotels.

Large chain hotels including Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn are all present near the station offering the typical big hotel experience, alongside many smaller, cheaper options.

I’ve enjoyed stays in both the Movenpick and Ibis – you simply know what to expect. But my one experience with a small budget hotel did not end well and I’ll avoid that option in future. Hotel breakfasts tend to be continental and overpriced. There are many bakeries in the town centre and I personally prefer to grab something on my way in to the halls each day.

Further afield: If you travel to Essen by car, or are on a holiday with non-gaming friends or partners, there are cheaper, more picturesque and more interesting locations to stay if you don’t mind travelling in each day. As mentioned above, Cologne and Dusseldorf are both less than an hour from Essen by rail and have much more to offer in terms of tourism.

Play: Essen Spiel itself

Essen balconyEssen Spiel is unlike any other big board game convention. Its all about retail, which means the vast majority of space is dedicated to taking your money, with small bits set aside to let you demo new releases. Don’t expect talks, competitions etc.

On the plus side, this makes it cheap. It’s only a few euros to get in each day, with a discount available for the whole four days – and additional discounts if you can buy in bulk, so its worth getting a group of you together (even if you make friends outside just to get the tickets). I’ll post prices nearer the time.

There is no – I repeat, NO – open gaming areas for you to play inside the Messe. Luckily the local hotels are very amenable to letting gamers use their often vast breakfast areas for gaming. People scuttle home from the Messe with their purchases, hurriedly read the rules over dinner and are in the hotel bars and restaurants playing a while later – and late into the night.

It’s actually a really nice part of the experience, once you get used to it. People are friendly and it’s usually easy to find a game, and I personally enjoy the idea of going shopping in the daytime and then playing my new purchases in the evening. All the big central Essen hotels are very amenable (I’ve played into the small hours at the Ibis, Movenpick and Holiday Inn), as are the smaller ones I’ve popped into to meet friends.

If you have heard talk of 10+ small halls that are a nightmare to navigate, this is in the past (at least for now). Due to refurbishment of the smaller halls, Essen Spiel currently uses the largest four halls in the Messe which makes it much easier to find your way around.

Wednesday to Sunday: When should you go?

  • Thursday and Friday: These are definitely the best days to go if you can travel over to Germany midweek. The halls are quieter, meaning you’ll have a better chance of sitting down at some demos – as well as picking up those hot titles that sell out in the first day or so (it happens every year).
  • Saturday and Sunday: Saturday is the day to avoid if you’re coming for the whole weekend, as people travel in from across Germany and its absolutely manic throughout the day. Sunday morning also tends to be busy, but it thins out a lot in the later afternoon. However don’t expect too many ‘last minute bargain’ rewards for hanging on until the end, as I’ve seen little evidence of it happening.
  • Wednesday: Since 2011 there has been an Essen Warm Up Day organised by Spiele Gilde. It costs 30 euros but is open 10am to 11pm and includes free food and non-alcoholic drinks all day. It’s a great opportunity to extend your stay and get to play some of the new releases a day before heading into Essen Spiel itself, while being easy to get to in the centre of Essen.
    Wednesday is also Essen press conference and manufacturer set-up day, so you’ll find plenty of gaming types in the city on the Wednesday evening – many toting new gaming swag picked up early from the halls. And even if you don’t want to do much after arriving, it’s worth coming on Wednesday just to be able to get into the Messe first thing on Thursday morning.

The new games

Essen is primarily about new releases, but you’d be amazed at how many companies fail to get enough copies to the show.

Much of this is blamed on production issues and shipping, but its not as if those are surprises in the board game industry. Anyway, the point is if you really want something you’re normally best off pre-ordering it.

Depending on the size of the manufacturer, pre-orders may be handled through a prepaid service via their website – or via names written on the back of a cigarette packet after sending the designer an email and keeping your fingers crossed. Either way, the best way to find out about them is directly via the website of each game you’re interested in – or more conveniently through Board Game Geek.

Each year the site runs an amazingly detailed Essen preview page which lists pretty much every game that’s coming out and any appropriate links. This is the 2014 link to give you an idea of what to expect – I’ll try to remember to come back and update it here when the new one lands (or please remind me nearer the time!).

If you are the type who wants to check out every game before you go, another great website is Essen Geek Mini. This takes the Board Game Geek list and lets you rank how interested you are in each game – and then brilliantly plots all the manufacturers onto printable maps, along with your games listed by rank. Geek heaven!

Language dependency can be an issue, as you’ll often find different versions in German and English, but also perhaps French, Polish and others. The biggest issue can be differences in pricing – German editions at the show are often cheaper, so it can be easy to grab one by mistake thinking you’re getting a bargain. And you might think there are thousands of copies of a game at the show – when there may only be a very small number in the language you need.

Another issues is demos – and how difficult they can be to get. While companies such as Days of Wonder have huge stands demoing a single game, many smaller companies – or those releasing multiple titles – have much less room. You may even find just a single demo table for a game you really want to try (or worse none at all).

While some booths will let you book a demo time, many won’t. In these situations you have the choice of waiting for a spot (a bit boring) or hoping for the best (less boring, almost guaranteed to be unproductive in terms of the demo). Your way of dealing with this is up to you – I just want to let you know so you won’t be (as) annoyed and disappointed!

The old games

Manhattan boxWhile Essen is largely about new titles, you’ll find a good number of secondhand games traders in the halls – as well as large sections dedicated to older discounted titles.

These can be brilliant for those of us outside of Germany who only ever see discounts in online stores, and have never seen a living, breathing secondhand board game shop!

But do be on your guard for the obvious pitfalls – the big two being missing pieces (for secondhand) and language dependency. If you’re thinking about picking up some titles, do your research and see if they’re language independent – and if so, whether the rules are freely available to download and print. If so, you’re golden.

You may find staff on the secondhand stands don’t have great language skills beyond German, while there can be a lot of individual games that are hard to sift through – or behind the counter where you can’t get at them. If there are specific titles/editions you’re after, its well worth printing images of the covers and taking them with you – its the simplest way past any language barriers.

I’ve found these stands most useful for older Spiel de Jahres winners, which get massive print runs in Germany when they win the award and many of which are still very popular today. You’ll find piles of old copies of games such as Elfenland, Manhattan, Tikal and Thurn and Taxis for 10-15 euros – all of which are language independent.

And finally… some other stuff

  • As well as board games, one of the halls is dedicated to other geek culture habits including comics (ithe Comic Action convention is included in your ticket), RPGs, miniature gaming, CCGs and even a bit of costume/LARPing. But these are squeezed into one hall and very much a small part of the overall show.
  • The food selection is far from brilliant, especially if you’re a healthy type. You should be able to find a beer, a sausage (apparently the currywurst is particularly good – I’ll report back this year!) or a pretzel – with varying degrees of cheese attached – all of which are actually excellent. But I’d suggest a good healthy breakfast pre-con and a proper meal on the way home!
  • I’d also suggest you bring cash (very few stands will accept cards and there aren’t many cash machines inside) and bring water – as well as wearing comfortable shoes. The convention space is massive, you’ll be on your feet a lot, and it can get pretty hot inside. Water and good shoes are essentials. On the plus side, Essen has great tap water so you’re quite safe filling up your bottle from the tap rather than spending a fortune on bottled water.

What have I missed?!

I want this guide to be as useful as possible, so please comment below or contact me directly if you have anything you think I should add or update. Cheers! (Thanks to Louise McCully and Christian Gienger for their contributions.)

* There are bigger conventions that include some board and card games, but Essen is comfortably the biggest that concentrates almost entirely on the hobby.

My Essen Spiel Wishlist 2014: The follow up

So, it’s time to compare before and after; to look back at my pre-Essen itinerary and see how many of the games I managed to get played – and how they were. Were my pre-Essen instincts sharp, or shambolic?

What did I get played from my pre-Essen ‘top 10’ wishlist?

First to FightBetween Essen and a London on Board trip to Eastbourne a week after my return, I’ve managed to get more than 20 Essen releases played – not bad. And that included seven of my pre-Essen top 10 ‘want to play’ list.

I unfortunately managed to miss out on Red 7 (sold out – but I could’ve got a copy if I’d remembered. Grrrr), Progress: Evolution of Technology (was always packed – want to try it) and Versailles (overheard a rules explanation and watched a bit of play, but wasn’t inspired – I’d still like to get a play).

Johari and El Gaucho featured in my ‘Biggest hits of Essen‘ report – while sadly Imperial Settlers, Amber Route and Madame Ching all featured in the ‘misses’ section of the same post – so I won’t go over that ground again here.

Which leaves two. If I was a lot newer to gaming, or didn’t have many gateway games, I probably would’ve come home with a copy of Mangrovia. It’s a really pretty and well designed light euro game with an interesting turn order/action selection mechanism – but not enough else to make it stand out for more experienced gamers.

But I did pick up First to Fight after a fun demo with one of the design team and one of his friends. My initial concern was, will it work? And if I’m honest after two plays I’m still not 100% sure. But I’ve seen enough so far, and had enough fun, to warrant it having been my one slightly risky buy.

What did I purchase from my ‘will purchase’ list?

Romans Go Home boxI had six games and four expansions on my ‘will purchase’ list, and managed to come home with all but two of them.

Sadly Pocket Imperium didn’t make it to Essen, while I was only going to buy Bakerspeed as a set with Paititi if they had a deal on – which they didn’t, so I stuck with just getting the latter (I’ve downloaded the English rules but not yet played it).

Romans Go Home and Sail to India were games I’d played before and wanted my own copy of. Both came home with me, and both were better than expected for different reasons: Sail to India was free (thanks AEG!), while the new rules and art for Romans Go Home made it even better than the version I’d played previously. Again, Steam Donkey featured in my ‘biggest hits’ post linked above.

The expansions for CV, Can’t Stop, Snowdonia and Stone Age all made it into the suitcase too, but none of them have been played yet – too many hot new releases to get through first! But as they add to four of my favourite games it’s only a matter of time before they hit the table (although I helped test the Snowdonia one, so I’ve played it really).

Did any ‘also rans’ turn out to be winners?

Kembles Cascade boxI mention a raft of other games at the bottom of my Essen preview post, which turned out to be a right mixed bag. Unfortunately I managed to totally miss The Battle at Kemble’s CascadeLeague of Hackers, Ucho Krola and The Golden Ages but had more luck tracking down the rest.

Having had a rules run-through or watched demos of Planes, Essen 2013 the Game and Onward to Venus I didn’t pursue them any further; none of them seemed like my kind of games and with limited time I set my sites elsewhere. I also ignored La Isla as I know several people who bought it; hopefully I’ll get a game in soon.

The big pluses from this list were Deus and Ancient Terrible Things – but without wanting to sound like a broken record,  may I refer the honourable gentlefolk to the ‘core blimey Charlie weren’t they marvellous’ post linked above. The latter I picked up at the show, the former will be mine by Christmas or I may blub like a baby.

Office 21 is actually pretty charming and if I didn’t already have Love Letter in the ‘five minutes of nonsense’ category I’d probably grab a copy. The choices seem a little more involved – you have three cards instead of two, for a start, with no cards that force you to do anything. But at the same time the right move is usually pretty obvious – and games can be brutally, ridiculously short and scripted (but in a funny way).

Castles of Mad King Ludwig boxWhich just leaves The Castles of Mad King Ludwig – the game I’ve been most on the fence about from this year’s crop of releases.

One thing’s for certain – it’s a good game. The rules are simple, the puzzley aspects engaging and it seems well balanced. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, has plenty of variety and keeps you guessing to the end. And I won my first play – and I’d play again. So why don’t I like it?

Personally, my problem with Ludwig lies in the one interactive element of the game. If you’re start player (which changes clockwise each turn), you get to draw some random tiles and place them in an order of your choosing – going up gradually in cost, with you getting all the profit from the round when other player’s buy things.

It’s important to say here that the game needs this kind of element – otherwise it would be a totally heads-down solo experience. However, the final result just doesn’t work for me. First, I didn’t enjoy making these decisions when they came to me. Second, I felt that poor decisions by other players probably led to my victory – putting tiles in cheap spots that gave me easy points. This didn’t feel satisfying, but is certainly a personal opinion – many enjoyed it and I’d certainly recommend people to play it and make their own minds up.

Essen Spiel 2014: My 10 biggest hits (and misses)

spiel-14It’s three weeks today since I played my first demo game at Essen Spiel 2014. Since then I’ve been to Edinburgh, been to Eastbourne, been to bed with the flu, and been maniacally trying to remember what I do for living after three weeks off work. Hence a lack of content about Essen. Sorry.

So to get the ball rolling again I present, in no particular order, a pithy report on the 10 games from this year’s fare that had the biggest impact on me – both positively and negatively. Longer reviews to come on the good ones once I’ve had a few more plays.

Hits

Deus boxDeus was everything I’d hoped it would be; a tableau building euro game with plenty of room for clever combos that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Some will say its a little too puzzley and heads-down, but while there’s not a lot of interaction you do need to be careful of both players’ board positions and how their tableaus are set up in terms of ending the game (a little like Race for the Galaxy and a player’s 12th card).

El Gaucho is a very pretty board, dice and tile game game that is, at its heart, a rummy variant with a few bells and whistles. I think the bling is leaving some a little disappointed at its lack of depth, but that’s looking for complexity where none was intended. Taken as a simple set collection game, embellished with actions to mitigate bad rolls, it’s a nice quick gateway game that plays in an hour.

Ancient Terrible Things takes the basic Yahtzee idea and throws in a comic book Cthulhu theme and special items/tokens, making a one-hour push-your-luck dice fest I’ve found thoroughly enjoyable so far. It’s definitely over produced, and maybe too expensive for the depth in the box, but with a nice amount of variety in the box and an expansion on the way I think there should b more than enough here to keep me entertained.

Johari is another one-hour set collection game, this time sticking to cards but keeping action selection and adding a few special powers – plus a strong turn order mechanism that really drives the game. The jewel trader theme is a bit done to death right now, but don’t let that put you off; this is a clever little brain burner that’s deceptively tricky to get right – especially with the pesky inspector having away with your fake gems.

Steam Donkey is a small box card game from the ever so slightly bonkers Ragnar Brothers. The thin theme sees you building a Victorian seaside resort (including Eastbourne) steam punk style… The basics see you spending cards to lay other cards into your tableau to score points, with the ‘advanced’ game adding some interesting player powers and interaction into the mix. Daft but clever with a unique theme.

Misses

Imperial Settlers boxImperial Settlers should’ve been another Deus. Tableau building, resource manipulation, a bit of player interaction – right up my street. And it seemed that way, until about half way through when the gaping holes started to appear. Overpowered cards you may or may not see but that will win or lose you the game; plus repetitive actions to nowhere that got boring even before the end of our first play. A terrible waste of a good idea.

Madame Ching also started promisingly; a clever card game with interesting decisions to make about how to score your points (quick risky and often, or slow and more measured). But once we started to see some of the ‘special’ cards come into play it soon became clear they were totally unbalanced and game breaking. This kind of chaos works in some games but is totally out of place here, where planning should be key but can be destroyed by blind luck.

Amber Route was probably the most beautiful game at Essen. The art is incredible, the bling off the chart (real amber pieces, anyone?) and the race idea on a constructable board  good one. In fact I had to play two disappointing demo games just to make sure I didn’t want it. Why? Because it was ridiculously easy, making everything you did seem pointless. Again, what made it more disappointing was how close it was to being cool.

Murano is a beautiful island just outside Venice. Murano the game is the driest of dry euros which started to feel old during the rules explanation and outstayed its welcome soon afterwards. an hour or so later it was over; I don’t even remember who won (it might have actually been me). Maybe I’m just done with this kind of game, but I found it totally cold and heartless. Some enjoyed it a bit, but average at the very best.

Grog Island has been chosen to represent all the games at Essen this year (and there were many) that added one interesting mechanism to the cannon – then forgot to do anything interesting with it. The idea of a bidding mechanism using different coloured dice rolled each round is ingenious; making the boring resulting marker placement/secret scoring cards game even more disappointing. Hopefully this mechanism will be back.

Essen Spiel wishlist 2014: My board and card game top 10

spiel-14With Essen Spiel 2014 just a week away, I thought it was time to boil my wishlist down to a Top 10 games of interest – or games I’m hoping to demo/play in Germany with a view to purchasing. But before that, here’s what I will be purchasing if available:

  • Steam Donkey: A card game about building a Victorian seaside resort – steam punk style. How can I possibly resist?
  • Bakerspeed and Paititi: This year’s offerings from the Austrian Board Game Museum; cheap prices and a good cause equals no-brainer.
  • Romans go Home, Sail to India and Pocket Imperium: All relatively cheap games I’ve played before and really enjoyed.
  • Expansions for CV, Can’t Stop, Snowdonia and Stone Age: All current favourites of mine where a bit of extra variety can’t hurt.

First to FightBeyond these, it was a small task of whittling the other 500 games being released this year (yes, 500) down to 10. Did I read about each and every one of them? No. I’d say I’m not that sad but in truth, given unlimited time, I probably would’ve done. However instead I whittled many away using the following criteria:

  • Any mention of: dexterity, party, children, trivia, real-time, humour: I know I know, I’m absolutely NO fun.
  • Games that don’t play two-player, or that go more than two hours: I like a lot of these games, and seek to play them, but the ones I own sit largely unplayed on my shelves.
  • Abstract, anime, horror/zombie, war games: These are usually a big turn off for me, with the occasional exception – so if a classic rises to the top I’ll look into it, but won’t seek them out as new releases.
  • Games with an Essen listed price of 50+ euros: Yup, I’m tight as well as absolutely no fun. Why are you still reading this?

That left me with 100 or so games, but many more fell by the wayside after watching videos or reading rules, as they brought nothing new to the party. It’s a sad truth that, right now, it’s so easy to publish board games everyone seems to be doing it (even me). It doesn’t push the bar up – it just puts loads more games into the middle ground.

The 10 games I most want to play at Essen

  1. MangroviaMangrovia (€30): This family game looks lovely and has an interesting action choice mechanism, plus a good price. I have high hope for it from the rules, but do want to see it in action.
  2. Red 7 (€10): This looks like a great light filler and at this price it’s an almost definite purchase. It has a really clever mechanism, where you have to take the lead to stay in the round on every turn.
  3. Progress: Evolution of Technology (€35): A hand management card game which is all about building tech trees – something I’ve always loved in both board and computer games. Some doubts raised about replayability.
  4. First to Fight (€37): The Puerto Rico action selection mechanism is one I like; and this adds an interesting scoring mechanism where you’re all using the same cards to try and fulfil missions. But will it work? Could go either way.
  5. Imperial Settlers (€40): Great art, tableau building and a little bit of messing with other players puts this high on my want to try list – but it’s essentially a card game in a big box with a big price tag.
  6. El Gaucho (€27): Worker placement and set collection, dice and tiles, nice components and art style, reasonable price – many boxes ticked. But there are a lot of euros out there – will this stand out enough?
  7. Amber RouteMadame Ching (€30): This looks an interesting mix of styles, but essentially it’s a 30 euro card game which seems a bit steep for the level of gameplay involved. But if it’s fun enough, it may be worth it.
  8. Amber Route (€tbc): While I’ve enjoyed the app on iOS it is much too luck dependent; but the board game version looks to have made significant changes.
  9. Johari (€25): A low price, set collection and simultaneous action selection pushed this way up my wishlist; but I’m not sure it’s going to be that interesting to actually play – hence needing a demo.
  10. Versailles (€30): Yet another interesting looking family level worker placement game, but with the usual caveats – will it be interesting enough to stand out from the crowd? I have my doubts.

More details of all of these can be found on my Essen Geek List over at Board Game Geek. While I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t mention the fantastic Essen Geek Mini tool that helped me plough through all of this year’s releases.

Just behind those were: Deus, Planes, Essen 2013 the Game, The Battle at Kemble’s Cascade, Office 21 and League of Hackers. And then there was Ancient Terrible Things, Castles of Mad King Ludwig, Onward to Venus, The Golden Ages, La Isla, Ucho Krola

It’s going to be a long week!

It’s soooo good: ‘Backroads’ by Lonely the Brave

League of Extraordinary BloggersSorry, bit late on this one but it proved trickier than I’d though. A week ago I simply said to myself right, the next time I think, “That is soooo good”, I’ll write about it. But that hasn’t happened until today – hence the delay.

I’ve not had a crappy week. In fact it was pretty busy; trips to London and Brighton, a one day music festival, gaming with friends. And while I saw some great bands, played some great games, saw some cool things, nothing really got the goose bumps going.

But today I wake up with a song in my head. I get up to start work, fire up YouTube and put it on. The song feels pretty old to me as they’ve been going a few years, but it’s only really getting out there now as the band’s album has finally been released after delays.

They seem to have recorded a video to it back in June, which has added even more poignancy to an already remarkable tune. I just sat back, watched it, then watched it again. And again. I thought, blimey, this is soooo good. So here it is – enjoy. Then enjoy it again, louder. You’re welcome.

 

Saw things that the rat saw
And my eyes couldn’t take them in
Just want to fall here silently
Into the arms of people I love
Under waiting stars as the ships come rolling in

But look at the way the faces turn
Eyes burn why (eyes burn why)
If you be the sky then I’ll be the bird
But look at the way the faces turn
Eyes burn why (eyes burn why)
If you be the sky then I’ll be the bird

So the power lines were leaning
And all was lost
Make a vow with the city lights
With your fingers crossed
You said I’d be a place and time
Said I’d be a man
Making eyes with a sea of lies
So you understand
That you’re raping on my dreaming
And you’re ruining my best made plans

The rat he turned and bared his teeth at you
The wake is calling, what you gonna do?
But your head’s gone
And it won’t be long
The rat he turned and bared his teeth at you
The wake is calling, what you gonna do?
But your head’s gone
And it won’t be long

So the sinners stopped and the villains turned
And I’ll be the sky and you be the bird
Let’s meet the mountains and see what they heard
And I’ll be the sky and you be the bird

And I’ll be the sky and you be the bird (x4)

Other soooo good offerings from the league:

Gearing up for Essen Spiel 2014

spiel-14Essen Spiel is just a month away. It’s the biggest event on the European board gaming calendar and arguably the most important gaming event in the world – so what makes it such a big deal?

Size isn’t everything, but 58,000 square feet of exhibition space across five halls – and over four days – can’t be ignored (that’s the size of Earls Court One and Two put together). And neither can the fact 500+ new games are released here every year; far eclipsing even the big US conventions. In worldwide terms, this is the big one.

Essen is also tied in with both the best board game magazine available (Spielbox, printed in English and German) and the industry’s most prestigious awards, the Spiel des Jahres. Winning the SdJ can add millions to sales and has helped games such as Carcassonne, Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride cross into mainstream stores.

It differs from many typical conventions in that it’s pretty much solely about retail – but at the same time isn’t about the hard sell. You go, play and buy games, then leave as if you were at a shopping centre. Then thousands of gamers meet up in the evening to play their new games; but in hotels, apartments and bars – not the venue itself.

It is also very cheap – from memory, last year it was about 20 euros for the full four days. for that you get 800 exhibitors from 41 nations; 850 new releases and world premiers; tonnes of competitions and exclusives. But it’s not for the faint of heart – be prepared to share the space with 150,000 other gamers.

for me this year it may be extra exciting. My first game design, Empire Engine, is being published by AEG and should hopefully make its début at Essen. While it may end up being a small fish in a very big pond there is currently a pretty nice buzz about it despite a low key build up, so fingers crossed!

If you’re into your board games, you owe it to yourself to go to Essen at least once. Tickets for the show are sold on the door and while hotel space is probably thin on the ground now, you’ll certainly be able to find something. It is easily accessible by flying into Dusseldorf or Dortmund, or train via Brussels and Cologne. See you there…

My pop culture road trip to… Seattle

image Growing up, I became obsessed with music. It started in my early teens with the perfumed pop of Duran Duran and Soft Cell, morphed briefly into brooding Goth before landing squarely in the UK indie alternative scene of the late ’80s.

For a while it was a very English thing for me, but around 1988/89 that got turned on its head by grunge. I was working in a London record shop at the time and remember talking to the Southern rep about the next big thing. It was something different, and wrong, every month but hey, he had to get it right one time; and that time was Sub Pop.

LameFest UK (Nirvana, Tad, Mudhoney at the Astoria, London) was a blistering experience. It was as if someone had taken the energy and excitement from punk or metal, and added feelings and desperation to replace pomp and bullshit. My music had just grown balls. That first Peel Session from ’89, kicking off with ‘Love Buzz’, still sounds fresh and vital today.

My love affair with the Seattle grunge scene was fittingly short lived. By Nirvana’s epic Reading show in 1992 I was tiring of that thump thump thump, my record shop education having opened doors to everything from traditional folk to hip hop. But it still hurt when Kurt suddenly decided his time was up a few years later.

But the list of important Seattle bands is a lot longer than you’d expect from an otherwise unremarkable, unfashionable American city. Ray Charles in the ’50s, Hendrix in the ’60s, grunge; then Band of Horses, Foo Fighters, Fleet Foxes, Sunny Day Real Estate, Kenny G… There’s always one.

While I’ve been to hundreds of gigs and festivals and have bought 1000+ CDs over the past 30 years, the anti-romance of Seattle has stayed with me; it has a scruffy, unkempt quality I can relate to. So you can keep Liverpool and New York, Manchester and Austin; Seattle is still my musical Mecca.

This love affair has been rekindled in recent years by the remarkable output of Seattle radio station KEXP. I found it quite by accident while surfing YouTube for something to listen to. I don’t even remember what it was I found; and it says a lot that the radio station stuck in my mind more than the music. Here I was, watching a live HD radio session with fantastic audio. I was hooked – it remains the one thing on YouTube I’m subscribed to.

So here’s to Nirvana, and to KEXP, and to everything else that’s musically magnificent about Seattle. I’ll make it there one day; let’s say it right now – before I’m 50, I WILL go to Seattle. And of course it helps that it’s a couple of hours from Canada – a country I’d love to spend some time in. Until then though, I’ll keep it tuned to KEXP.

More (possibly slightly more exotic) League of Extraordinary Bloggers’ road trips:

Alea Apartments, Paros: Like you need 5 reasons to visit a Greek Island…

Paros is a Greek Island (64 sq  mi) in the Cyclades, about 100 miles south east of the mainland (south of Mikonos, close to Naxos). You can fly there in under an hour from Athens, or float over the Med in 3-4 hours by ferry. We travelled over at the end of May and were greeted by my ideal temperature; about 25°c (77°f) and sunny. In the high summer, you can expect temperatures to start from 25°c, heading closer to 35°c on a hot day.

It’s a trip we’ve been on before. Two years ago seven of us headed to Alea Apartments and had a fantastic time (read all about it). This time we were just four, which very much changed the dynamic, but for me the holiday was every bit as enjoyable – just different.

While the first visit was an adventure, this time it was much more about familiarity; but I think we all appreciated it as a chance to recharge the batteries. In the past when I’ve talked about Paros I’ve concentrated a little too much on the board games, which in hindsight is misleading and could potentially put people off. So in an attempt to redress the balance, and in a truer reflection of how we spent this holiday, I’d like to break down five very distinct reasons why everyone (not just gamers) should consider a holiday to this fabulous island, and in particular to Alea.

1) The trip

There’s no getting around it; England to a Greek Island is a day out of your life. However, travelling doesn’t have to be a chore and the best journeys become part of the experience, rather than simply going from A to B.

Flying from Heathrow with BA is about as easy as things get within Europe, while the metro from the airport to the port was nicer than the London Underground equivalent (I know, not saying much!). The best thing is that the the train drops you directly opposite the right berth for the Paros ferry, leaving a hassle free stroll to the last leg of the journey.

Travelling off-season left us one ferry option, but I wouldn’t take a different one anyway. The massive Blue Star ferry takes four hours; but when that’s on a carpet-like Mediterranean in balmy sunshine while the sun goes down, I have absolutely no complaints. And there’s a bar…

2) The town of Naoussa

The ferry drops you in Paros’ main port, Parikia. It’s a nice seaside town but for me it doesn’t have the personality of Naoussa (pictured), a sleepy fishing village just 15 minutes away by road. Hiring scooters seems to be de rigueur, but I’ll stick to the bus or a taxi thanks!

Naoussa is one of those great little places that, while being unabashedly touristy in places, gives off a sense of community rather than tackiness. It’s the kind of place that feels as if it’s open all year round, rather than closing when the Brits bugger off in September.

You only have to round a couple of lesser lit corners to arrive in pretty yet urban back streets, or before popping out into farmland and countryside. It’s also very friendly, with pretty much everyone having enough English for you to get by. Lazy? Sure, but I already know two languages (English and online game nerd) and I can’t remember another one.

Better still the shops, as well as having a bit of tourist tat, tend to offer some very high quality clothes, ornaments and jewellery. Naoussa attracts an interesting mix of people, but the relaxed, traditional feel of the place seems to help the the posh yacht sect mix easily with island hopping young ‘uns.

3) 10 minutes from the apartments

Alea Apartments is about a 10-minute stroll from the centre of the village – far enough to be nice and quiet.

You’re also about a five-minute walk from two beaches (one tiny and secluded; one lovely, pictured) and about the same distance from a decent supermarket (and some other shops, including the island’s best cake bakery).

The apartments themselves are average sized and pretty basic; but this is reflected in some very reasonable prices. There’s a basic cooker and a fridge, so you can be self-catering, plus air-con. There are 14 apartments, ranging from two to four person, with at least five having a sea view.

This certainly isn’t luxury living; there’s no pool and generally nowt fancy. There is a secluded private courtyard with tables, sun umbrellas and the odd deck chair which is nice for an afternoon chill – or an evening of board games, of course.

But this isn’t a place to come if you’re looking for a fancy resort; but the beach has a bar/restaurant and everything is within walking distance, which is good enough for us.

4) The Varrias Family

People so often make the difference to a holiday and you simply can’t fault the Varrias family as hosts. On both of our trips they’ve picked us up from the port and this time also drove us back. They were a constant font of knowledge when we needed it, offering us all kinds of trips around the island and tips for food, drinks etc. The main point of contact are the two sons, Dimitris and Simos. They’re friendly and intelligent people (a teacher and a doctor) who have been brought up on the island, but have good experience away from it as well. They’ve always been around for us as much as they can, joining us for drinks, games and even meals – actually becoming part of the group (although I’m sure this isn’t compulsory!). Mum Maria provided regular home cooked treats and coffee in the mornings, and while she only has a few words of English she exudes such personality that it’s always great to see her at the start of your day. Dad Aristides is a renowned Parian marble sculptor and while not involved in the day-to-day of the apartments, he gave us a fantastic tour of the old marble mines and a local church on our previous visit.

5) Playing Cyclades in the Cyclades

And finally, yes, there are some 500 board games in reception. They range across the scale from silly, short dexterity games up to hugely involved four to five hour epics.

Any taste is catered for here and the guys are often around to teach games when they can. They love to play, so if you’re into games it’s a bonus.
I’m a self-confessed board game addict but on this trip, I barely played two games a day.

Our days soon became very uniform; stagger out of bed at 10ish, go to the beach for a swim, get some lunch then chill out in the afternoon, go out for a meal in the evening then head back for some more wine and some games.

The fact is that the games aren’t really notable in the price; it’s just an added extra you can take advantage of if and when you like. You can comfortably bring people along who simply aren’t into games – it’s just a nice place to be.

And if you just so happen to play board games 14 hours each day while they top up their tan, so be it…

My board gaming life: 2013 highlights

This time last year I did my first blog post in this style, featuring my 2012 gaming highlights. Thankfully I think I’m still in minor (rather than major) obsession territory, as my collection grew about the same amount (up by around 40 games) and I played about the same amount of games (total plays went from 444 last year to around 400 this).

I again had three game related trips away, with my second trip to Essen and a couple of trips to Eastbourne. Unfortunately we failed to make it to Paros, but the flights for our May 2014 visit are already booked and paid for.

I’m sticking to last year’s ‘highlights’ format, with the addition of a bit of looking back to last year’s predictions – but the word count is lower, promise! If you’ve got any comments or suggestions please add them below.

My 4 best gaming experiences of 2013

In no particular order:

  • Empire Engine screengrabThe Empire Engine is a very small game, but it’s mine and I made it and it’s finished and I’m proud (along with Matthew Dunstan of course – but I’m sure he’d tell you that, deep down, it’s my baby). Seeing it go online was chuffing; playing it with friends and them enjoying it was brilliant; showing it to publishers was pant-wetting in more ways than one; and who knows where things will go in 2014…?
  • Essen was, again, brilliant. I spent a similar amount of money (£150) on a similar amount of games (13), while getting to show The Empire Engine to a few publishers – which was ridiculously exciting, especially when they didn’t hate it. It was nice to go with old friend Matt too, who had a great time – and also gave the opportunity to turn it into a bit of a road trip on the way home. We took in Cologne and Brussels, but mainly for more beer and board games. Good times.
  • Space! While moving from Cambridge to St Ives did more to hinder my chance of playing games than help it, moving away from the people I play with most often, it did give me the chance to turn the kitchen-diner into a games room-kitchen-diner! Zoe is very patient with my minor obsession, probably because it isn’t really bad for me and she doesn’t hate it. And no matter what you think of them as a hobby, they certainly fill a wall rather handsomely.
  • Eastbourne (with London on Board) was brilliant fun, again, twice. We’re already booked in for Easter too, which is lovely to have to look forward to. November’s was a bit different, as we played quite a lot in couples with some really lovely people. It meant I missed out on playing some big releases I really want to get a go at (Francis Drake, Amerigo, Pathfinder, Caverna, etc etc etc…) but what I missed in hype I made up for with a fantastically relaxed weekend.

My top individual game plays of 2013

Blueprints finishedI looked back through my gaming year blog on BGG and picked my most memorable individual plays.

  • January: I unexpectedly received the card game Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation from my Secret Santa and instantly fell in love with it. I played the hell out if it that month and I’m now into double figures. Great game.
  • February: My first ever game of Basari was a real highlight. This was a début win, which is always good, and over Lloyd, which is even better – but I did genuinely fall for it on the spot. Having played since I still love it, but haven’t found a copy yet.
  • March: It was the month I thought of The Empire Engine as my game’s name, but a big win at Ra on 62 points (about 20 points clear) had to be the gaming highlight.
  • April: Being taught any game by London on Board’s Rocky is always a treat, but a game as thematic as Dungeon Lords – and while at LoB-sterCon in Eastbourne? No contest.
  • May: A new tweak of the rondels from Matt finally saw all of The Empire Engine parts fall into place – and what better location to come to this conclusion than on holiday in Prague with Zoe? Good times.
  • June: The wonderful Copycat was often one of the highlights of my gaming month, so this might be here purely on countback. A great four-player game saw us all separated by five going into the final round, with Andy sneaking the win on 97.
  • July: Its the final play of the game. I’m three points down, a distant 38 yards from the end zone. I go long – and roll three sixes! The crowd go wild (Zoe still has nightmares today)! Touchdown! 16-12! Only Pizza Box Football can do this.
  • August: A draw between finding an original version of Merchant of Venus on eBay for £20 and falling in love at first play; or losing Ingenious to Zoe for the first time – a game she thought she’d never get good at.
  • September: This had to be my first game of Rialto, which I thought I was doing well at right up until I came third. I’ve wanted it ever since, and got it for Christmas, so hopefully it’ll be seeing the table a bunch in 2014.
  • October: A hilariously protracted game of the rather wonderful Blueprints with old friends (Matt, Keith and Clare) and new friends (the design/booth team for Cornish Smugglers) alike at a random bar in Essen.
  • November: While lots of ‘couples’ games with both Karl & Ann and Donna & Paul came close, the one stand out game was my début at Twilight Struggle. Both Martin and me were new to the game, and it showed, but it was truly magnificent.
  • December: A Boxing Day game of Can’t Stop! with Zoe and her parents, who had bought it for me for Christmas. It was probably the only game I played all year with non-gamers, which is a real shame. Must try harder!

The best 12 not new but ‘new to me’ games of 2013

Merchant of VenusA slightly shorter list than last year, but it was just as good a year in terms of quality. I still don’t feel like a board gaming expert, or even a well seasoned player in comparison to my peers, but I’m happy with that – discovering all of these brilliant older games was once again a highlight.

Bought

  • Merchant of Venus: The grand daddy of space exploration is still the best, because the cleverness of the mechanisms still haven’t been bettered. Fact.
  • Rosenkonig: Probably my favourite abstract game, as well as my favourite two-player game, this is a one-on-one masterpiece.
  • Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation: The best small box civ game I’ve played. Fantastic card combos and strategy in a small box.
  • Nefertiti: A quick and clever bidding/set collection game with a closed economy that really ramps up the tension.
  • Manila: Is it a racing game? A dice game? A push your luck game? All of the above? I’m still not sure – but I love it.
  • The Castles of Burgundy: A clever and puzzley use of dice in a game that’s all about efficiency. That doesn’t make it sound good… but it is.
  • Tikal: I’m not normally keen on area control, but the action selection and score timing randomness really made it shine for me.

Not bought (yet…)

  • Twilight Struggle: A truly remarkable card-driven two-player war game that perfectly captures the history of the Cold War.
  • Dungeon Lords: Thematic, funny, nasty and hard: a brilliant combination that perfectly hits the spot.
  • Arabian Nights: A storytelling/choose your own adventure experience more than a game, this is a fun and beautifully realised change of pace.
  • Basari: A great quick-and-dirty game of chance mixed with set collection, I’m looking forward to checking out the new version in 2014.
  • Lady Alice: Cluedo, made into a ‘proper’ game with something closer to real deduction, with bluffing thrown in.

Of last year’s ‘not bought… yet’ list I only actually picked up Kingdom Builder, which I’ve had a lot of fun with. Glen More, Galaxy Trucker and Die Macher are still on my wishlist but more to look for cheap than to reach the top of it. Cards Against Humanity I’ll pick up soon, now the UK version is out, while Fairy Tale has fallen out of favour as I’m sure there’s a better card drafting game out there – even if it’s still in someone’s head!

2013 really wasn’t a year of expansions for me. Kingdom Builder: Nomads is very high on my wishlist, while Ticket to Ride: Nederland looks like a lot of fun. And it looks like we’ll finally get Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts

My most played games in 2013

Race for the GalaxyIt was another year of experiments. Out of around 400 total game plays in 2013 some 80 of those were games I only played once – many of which I wish I’d never played at all! When you add more than 60 plays of unpublished prototypes and 18 games played just twice, that’s almost half my plays in odds and sods. Only a few made double figures:

  • 22 – Race for the Galaxy
  • 13 – Ticket to Ride (various maps)
  • 13 – Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation
  • 10 – Kingdom Builder
  • 10 – Snowdonia

Just below these were Ra, Copycat and Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar.

But what’s really sad is the games that sat unplayed in 2013. Cuba was the biggest surprise, while Earth Reborn, For Sale and Lost Valley also failed to hit the table – all games I’m really keen on and another reason why I need to curb my spending in 2014.

My 7 favourite new releases of 2013

CV Essen promosI don’t feel qualified to talk about the ‘best’ games of 2013, as I’ve been trying to catch up on classics more than chasing new releases. Of the current hot 10 releases according to BGG, I’ve only played one!

But here’s a few of my favourite 2013 releases; they may not be the highest rated, but I’ve really enjoyed them (and bought all except Bruges and Sail to India):

  1. Bruges: Tons of individual cards means masses of variation in this really thinky euro, while there’s also room for chaotic and nasty player interaction.
  2. Rialto: A really clever card mechanism made this area control/card drafting/bidding board game an instant favourite.
  3. Concordia: A fantastic resource and hand management euro game, with fast gameplay but a multitude of tricky decisions.
  4. Blueprints: A clever use of dice makes this super filler endlessly replayable, with a nice dollop of push-your-luck and deduction thrown in.
  5. CV: My family game of the year. Its a cute take on the Yahtzee mechanic, with wonderfully evocative artwork that really helps each game tell a story.
  6. Sail to India: The first of the Japanese microgames to really pack a lot of game into a small package. A complex exploration game in a tiny box.
  7. The Little Prince: Make me a Planet: Another great filler, this time with cute artwork and a clever take on the tile laying genre.

Alongside these, honourable mentions go to: A Study in Emerald (bonkers Cthulu themed randomness), Coal Baron (a by-the-numbers yet compelling euro), Relic Runners (a great route building family game), Händler der Karibik (a lovely push-your-luck card game) and Enclave (a sci-fi euro I wish I’d had time to play a full demo of at Essen).

Best forgotten…

Last year I had a good whine about Kickstarter – sadly a recurring theme this year, as nightmares I’d backed dragged on. I don’t intend to mention them again after today though; true to my word I haven’t backed a game on Kickstarter since and neither do I intend to – if a game is good enough to be released, it will find its way to market.

Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artefacts didn’t make it out in 2013 but I’m reliably informed it is in stores now – just not in the UK. How on earth does this happen? It’s going to have to go some now to live up to two years’ worth of high expectations!

I did play some real turkeys this year, but I don’t want to dwell on them: all I’ll say is, I suggest you avoid Packet Row and Mauna Kea like the plague…

Bring on 2014!

Paros 2012 041With flights to Paros paid for in May; the hotel for the next London on Board trip to Eastbourne booked, and a visit from gaming buddies Karl and Ann in the calendar for February, its already shaping up to be a good year. And of course I’m already looking forward to Essen in October…

I’ve also promised myself I’ll play more games with casual gamers this year, as well as gaming friends further afield. An extremely protracted house move (aren’t they all?) made it a bit of a chore to make arrangements, but now we’re settled I hope to make amends and get back on the evangelical trail!

I’ve started work on several more gaming prototypes, including a new one in collaboration with Matthew Dunstan, so I’m hoping the game design and playtesting also continues apace. And it was a real privilege to be involved in testing one of the recent expansions for Snowdonia; hopefully I can keep myself in that loop too.

As for new purchases I really am going to try and rein them in, but when I haven’t I said that? But I may actually keep the promise this year. I’m only really in the market for Bruges, Dungeon Lords and Basari at the moment – but there are so many of those lovely 2013 releases I haven’t tried yet – Francis Drake, for one, looks amazing. And there will be so many bargains in the sales…

See you in 2014!

Becoming St Ivian, part 5: Feeling like a fan

St Ives Town logoDespite having a season ticket, the fact I go to most St Ives Town games on my own means I haven’t really felt part of things.

While everyone I’ve spoken to is friendly, St Ives is the kind of town most people seem to have lived for at least three decades, rather than three months; everyone knows everyone.

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been enjoying the games. In fact its nice to have the radio on and listen to the overblown drama of the Premier League while watching proper football; I often stroll around the pitch, watching from here and there, having a sit down every now and then. Mostly, its been a very peaceful experience (which is odd for football).

But in mid October the Saints played Potters Bar Town at home in a league game. It was on the back of two heavy league defeats on the bounce that had started to put the great start of the season in perspective. But Dunstable and Rugby were looking like contenders for the title, unlike Potters Bar who were seemingly more mid-table. As the table began to settle down, this looked like a truer test of where St Ives were in the great scheme of things.

Just one minute in, literally as I walked through the turnstiles, Potters Bar Town took the lead. My heart sank a little, as to their credit St Ives had (in my limited experience) the tendency to go blazing off for an equaliser – leaving big holes at the back. Worth a try, but at this new level it seemed to backfire more often than pay off. But attack like mad they did.

Ten minutes later, the saints equalised during a spell of pressure that simply had to result in a goal – and they kept it up for another 15 minutes until the second one went in. Panic over – this was going to be a rout! Yeah, because that’s how football goes…

It should’ve been more by half time, but wasn’t, and in the second half Potters Bar were immediately back into a better rhythm. As the minutes ticked by St Ives got deeper and deeper, which didn’t seem likely to end well after recent weeks. But despite time passing slower and slower, they held out.

About three hours later (or so it seemed), the final whistle blew. I was exhausted. I just stood there, breathing sighs of relief. They’d done it; they’d survived a real test of character against the kind of team they’d need to beat to stay in this league – and better still they’d done it when they were most likely low on confidence, especially at the back.

But for me it was equally significant; I’d really cared. For the first time I wandered home feeling like a fan. Next stop, the newsagent, to arrange to have The Non-League Paper delivered…

(Image borrowed from the Extreme Groundhopping blog – will replace when I’ve got one of my own, promise!)