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.

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The best of 2014, part 2: My top board and card gaming experiences

Empire Engine AEG main picThere’s no doubt 2014 was another big board-gaming year for me. What I’d thought about as an obsession has just become the norm, but I’m comfortable with that. I’m loving and contributing to the hobby, so who cares? It’s a brilliant community and I’m proud to be part of it.

My 6 best gaming experiences of 2014

In no particular order:

  • Paros 2012 041Paros: Our second trip to board gaming paradise to this beautiful Greek island was very different to our first, but I found it equally enjoyable. There wasn’t the same sense of adventure and exploration, while some bad news leading to an absentee made it a little sombre, but t the same time we totally relaxed and just swam, gamed and ate/drank. Our hosts were again amazing, we played 20+ games (many off of my ‘to play’ wishlist) and I really hope we can go back again – hopefully in 2016.
  • Essen: I’ve written plenty about my third trip to Essen in previous posts, so won’t say much here. I certainly hope to get some kind of pass (press/exhibitor) again in future as it was a major advantage in traversing crowds; and with the promise of the Empire Engine German edition in 2015 I’ve already got my hotel booked for next year! I won’t stay beyond the Sunday though – it proved a bit much, even for me.
  • Oxford: Empire Engine also gave me, Zoe and Matt an excuse to go to Oxford for a weekend to try and promote the game at the UK’s premier board game cafe, Thirsty Meeples. While we didn’t do much with the game, it was Zoe and my first proper touristy trip to Oxford, which was lovely, and the cafe was amazing. We’ll definitely be back to both, hopefully next year some time.
  • France 2014 the gangFrance: LoB buddy Tom invited a group of fellow gamers to stay at his family’s cottage in the south of France for a few days of country air and gaming – and lovely it was too. I ended up playing 36 games in four days, which included plenty of breaks for great food, booze and a lovely walk to find a TV and watch some World Cup footie. Would be great to do this again one day soon (if you’re reading Tom…).
  • Home and away: While I failed to get much game evangelising in this year, we did at least have some really nice weekends of gaming with like-minded gaming couples – namely Karl & Ann and Paul & Donna. This proved to be a lovely blend of walking, boozing, eating and gaming both in St Ives and London and are they very much on the agenda for 2015. I only wish I’d thought about things earlier and arranged something for New Year’s Eve – again, it’s firmly in my mind for the end of next year.
  • Eastbourne: Once again, my two trips to Eastbourne for gaming weekends-on-sea with the London on board regulars were great fun. Zoe only came to the Easter one this year, leaving me to fend for myself in November. Both were great in different ways and I think the plan is now set for following Eastbourne trips, as long as we keep getting invited.
  • St Ives Board Game Group: While Zoe and me have enjoyed our first full year in St Ives, we haven’t exactly integrated into the community. Generally it’s your typical town and people seem to have known each other for years, so while friendly enough it never feels very open. So it was great when this board game group started up and I got to meet some like-minded individuals – and they’re the ‘normal’ kind of folk too, not the weirdy nerdy ones (well, mostly). Long may it continue.

My top individual game plays of 2014

Deus boxI stopped doing my gaming year blog on BGG in October as it was taking too much time; but I’m still recording my plays there and including a little bit of extra info on each play. Here are my choices of month-by-month playing highlights:

  • January: It’s nice to be reminded how much you like  game, and doing this list has brought Manhattan Project back into my mind through all those shiny new Essen releases. Andy, Carl and me had a great close and tense game back in January that I won on 62 points – but both the other guys would’ve won on their next turns.
  • February: It was a year liberally sprinkled with great couply games weekends, but the gaming highlight was a game of Concordia with Ann, Karl and Zoe at ours. I won a wonderfully tight game that saw the four of us separated by just 12 points.
  • March: Sci-fi behemoth Twilight Imperium, bought for Andy’s 50th, took the March crown. I somehow talked people out of beating me to a pulp while sneakily lining a few points up. Just when I thought the game was up I survived another round unmolested and walked into the last territory I needed. It won’t happen again.
  • April: Finally getting my own copy of Brass, getting it to the table, then Zoe enjoying it, was brilliant – but a more typical game of ours stood out: A really close two-player game of Castles of Burgundy on a quiet evening in with a bottle of wine. The new games, the holidays, the get-togethers – all awesome. But that’s what it’s all about.
  • May: Our trip to Paros was lovely, and we played plenty of thinky games, but the stand out experiences were silly games of Cash ‘n’ Guns and Tumblin’ Dice. The former was purely daft fun, while the latter shows that it’s not impossible for me to be good at the occasional dexterity game. 
  • June: Another title was knocked off my ‘classics I need to play’ list in Manhattan – a beautifully nasty and stripped down area control abstract that was the first board game in ages I demanded back-to-back goes at after loving it the first time. Honourable mention to outdoor game Molki, which I bought after falling in love with.
  • July: I’d wanted to play Lords of Vegas for years – and when I finally did, it blew my mind. I played against two seasoned vets (Martin and Rocky) who showed me the depth the game can go to; I was purely along for the ride. Luckily both helped me along, I’m sure to their own ends, but Martin won out. And a mention for a great game of Letters to Whitechapel at the St Ives Board Game Group, where we failed miserably to capture a very sneaky Dan but had great fun trying.
  • August: Two great début experiences, with Formula D just beating off Dead of Winter for top spot. I was down and out going into the big final corner, second last of seven. But as it transpired I was the only player who could get into the outside lane and had luckily got the gears just right, letting me sling shot around the outside for an unlikely win. Shake and bake!
  • September: The beauty of Ra is its unpredictability – and September saw the perfect example. I had a strong looking tile set going into the last round, but not much could make it better. I grabbed things early but thought the time left would let Carl and Andy prosper – only to see a crazy string of Ra tiles scupper them both.
  • October: Essen and Eastbourne – what a month and so hard to pick a winner. My first games of both Deus and Caverna were amazing, but it was my plays of ebbes and First to Fight that stole the show. Both were played wit the designers, both were both fun and funny, while both were also fantastically entertaining games that I subsequently bought. Absolutely what Essen is all about.
  • November: Two variants of games I’d looked forward to a lot shared November’s prize. Basari: Das Kartenspiel was everything I’d wanted it to be (Basari in a little box while losing nothing), while the finished version of Snowdonia: The Necropolis Railway was everything Zoe and me had helped make it become in testing. Mage Wars with LoB friend Paul was also a very close contender and if I hadn’t been counting the minutes before I’d had to go home, rather than enjoying a relaxing beer, this may have taken it.
  • December: Matt Dunstan does, compared to me, have a big fizzing brain and I think he expects to beat me at any strategy game we play. At Thirsty Meeples in Oxford I taught him and manager John Deus – a game I’d played twice before. Matt started getting pretty smug half way through as the points rolled in, but I had a pretty good engine of my own going. In the final tally I’d beaten him into second by three points and oh boy, was his face a picture. I just wish he’d said, “does not compute” in a robot voice. He was genuinely surprised and yes, sadly enough it made my day.

My most played games in 2014

Race for the GalaxyIt was another year of experiments, as out of more than 500 total game plays in 2014 more than 130 were games I only played once.

When you add more than 100 plays of unpublished prototypes, that’s almost half my plays.

Only a few games made double figures again this year, with two games holding their places in the top three – but being separated by one cheeky new entry…

  • 18 – Race for the Galaxy (22 in 2013 and ‘most played’ every year ever)
  • 16 – Empire Engine
  • 12 – Ticket to Ride (13 in 2013 and still my go-to gateway)
  • 10 – Can’t Stop 

While this looks a bit grim for my top titles, lots of my favourite euros games were on or around five plays including Deus, Snowdonia, Bora Bora, Copycat, Terra Mystica and Concordia. With such a big collection, it stands to reason I’m having to spread them thin! But no, it’s not something I’m totally happy with – especially when I look at some of the crap games I was subjected to in 2014!

I really don’t think this will look the same next year. I already feel as if I want to spend more time playing the games I really like, while I’ve got a lot of ‘must play’ titles off my wishlist in the last couple of years. I’ve also signed up to the ‘33×3 Challenge‘ on Board Game Geek, which aims to get you to play 33 games 3 times each during 2015. This will hopefully encourage me to get a bunch of my favourites to he table more often.

Looking back to 2013

Merchant of VenusAfter 10 plays of Kingdom Builder in 2013, I only played twice this year. Lost Valley again failed to hit the table in 2014, while Merchant of Venus and Tikal – two of my favourite new games last year – were played a lot less than I’d predicted. But these are all on the aforementioned ’33×3′ list, so should see some more love this year!

Cuba and Earth Reborn had also gone unplayed through 2013 and I’ve since traded Cuba, while Earth Reborn won’t be far behind. They’re both good games, but the former feels too much like work while the latter I simply can’t see myself playing – I’d need a regular partner and that’s simply not going to happen. At least I managed four games of For Sale – I still can’t quite believe I didn’t play it all in 2013.

Bring on 2015!

As I mentioned above, the German release of Empire Engine this year already has me excited about next year’s trip back to Essen. It may even arrive in another language or two, which would be amazing. Also, as we’re not off to Paros in 2015, I’m hoping to go to my first UK Games Expo in Birmingham in May – even if only for a day to check it out and maybe give Empire Engine a little push there too.

I also have a couple of 2014 prototypes still with publishers, so there’s also the chance  follow up may also be at Essen too – but that would probably be too much to ask for! I do intend to stick at  designing games though; but I’m not ramping that up at all, as much as I’d like to (although working on an expansion for someone else’s game is a distinct and exciting possibility). It just doesn’t seem financially viable right now.

I’m also hoping to leverage the ‘designer’ tag a little, especially in terms of getting myself onto some podcasts in 2015. I have spoken agreements to get on as a guest for two already and if they go well, who knows? Maybe I’ll look to start doing something a little more permanent. I’ve enjoyed radio when I’ve done it in the past, so why not?

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. If nothing else, this year has taught me that I have a lot of awesome games on my shelves that I don’t play enough and that i’d love not to be rubbish at!

Part 1 here!

* For previous entries, see my 2012 and 2013 posts.

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!

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…

CONtemplation: Essen Spiel 2014

League of Extraordinary BloggersThis week’s league post assignment was CONtemplation, with the idea being everyone would talk about the San Diego Comic Con. But seeing as I couldn’t give a monkey’s about the ‘SDCC’ I figured a nice positive post about a con I do like would be preferable to one criticising one I don’t.

For me, there is but one con: the International Spieltage at Essen, or simply ‘Essen’ for short. It’s a four-day board and card game trade fair in October – with the twist being that, despite being a trade fair, it is open to the public. This gives it a uniquely chaotic feel, as publishers try to juggle paying consumers, business owners and game designers all in one packed convention space.

Over the four days something like 150,000 gamers head through the turnstiles into what feels like the world’s biggest jumble sale. Household names with huge elaborate stands such as Hasbro share the space with tiny one-man-band publishers, and all in the name of shifting units and striking deals. There is not a room to play games, or a series of lectures to attend – this is purely about demos and dollars.

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened

Thursday morning, Essen 2012, just before the floodgates opened

But this is the biggest annual event in the world for new releases (500 games are launched every year), so people come from all over the globe – and come for the four days, taking over every hotel in the city.

Convention hours are for testing and buying – the evenings are for heading back to your hotel, reading your rules, then heading into the packed bar to game with friends and strangers alike.

While it may sound odd versus a normal con, I love this clear delineation between shopping and socialising; when you think about it, it’s actually far more natural. And it really is a standard shopping experience; there are new releases, second hand stalls, bargain knock down stock, plus everything in between – as long as it’s a game. You’ll find a few comics, accessories etc, but it must be less than 10% of the con space.

And the shopping aspect adds another unexpected benefit: an almost total lack of hard sell. The people coming to Essen WANT to give the stalls their money. They’ve been saving up, godamnit, and they are going to spend their entire gaming budget on stuff RIGHT NOW. When you see a booth worker without a customer you can guarantee they’ll be taking a breath, having a drink; they know someone will be along to hassle them soon.

Shafausa designer Christophe Borgeat demos his game.

A typical demo table at Essen

Last year I went as a designer too – at the lowest of low levels. In fact I only attended one publisher meeting, which was scary enough.

Hopefully this year I’ll be going as a designer with a game that’s actually on sale, adding another dimension to my Essen experience. And if I can get some of my games other prototypes to the next level in time, maybe I can take another small step up the designer ladder too.

But whatever happens, I’ll be there first and foremost as a gamer. I will queue pointlessly on the first morning and be swept along by the excited masses, wide eyes and mouth open, as we squirm into the halls. Then once the wave of enthusiasm has broken I’ll just drift around the stands, a stupid smile plastered over my face, keeping a keen eye out for bargains and spaces at interesting looking demo tables.

I don’t think that’s the average Essen goer’s experience, but as someone who has spent much of their former life in crowds I actually find it quite soothing. I spent years living in London, working in retail, working/attending conferences and generally fighting a crowd. It’s novel and strangely peaceful to now bob around in one. I can do it all day, every day, for the whole four days, watching the little changes – a game sold out here, a price drop there.

It’s still three months away, but I’m already starting to plot my bargain and new release lists. My hotel is booked and as today is payday, this weekend I’ll book my trains (Germany is a pleasant train journey from England now, thanks to Eurostar). And no, cheeky, I can’t tell you how many sleeps it is to go. Ask me again in a few weeks…

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