by Aaron Haag
Essen was different this year. Why? Well, it all began with a long "must visit & play" list with more than 50 booths and even more games on it. We've never had so many games on our list before and this gave us already an indication of the amount of good or at least interesting sounding games. Clearly, one day would not be enough to even look at every game on the list. In addition, we had decided to spend more time at the booths discussing the new releases with the publishers. Again, that would not help us in making all the visits we wanted. So here's a report of our visit on Saturday.
We started with visiting R&D Games the moment we arrived. We had been asked to collect our pre-ordered Reef Encounter before 11am and we wanted to make sure that we get our copy before the game is sold out. Quite to our surprise there were still a lot of games available at about 10:30. Unfortunately, Richard Breese was not around so we could not ask him about how successful the game had been so far nor did the two kids appear to be much interested in explaining the game to us. Anyway, just by appearance Reef Encounter differs by a lot from the former Key... series of R&D games. The game comes in a sturdy, large box, the size and quality similar to those of Goldsieber or Kosmos. In the meantime I've punched the bits and I can say that the complete game is made of high quality material. The rules are clearly written but the three tier approach of explanation makes you wonder what the game is all about until you've completely read through them. Anyway, it's a game of terrain and resource management and at first glance appears to be of equal complexity and tactical richness as Euphrat&Tigris. Can't wait to play it.
Our next stop was the Yun booth in hall 9.1, a hall dedicated to "Comic Action" in the previous years. This year though, it had to be used to provide extra space for the many new game publishers in Essen. At Yun we had a look at Gruftmaster Director's Cut, a reworked Gruftmeister with a new movement system. After a brief explanation we decided against playing it - not our type of game.
We walked back to hall 10 to visit the Rio Grande booth where we met Jay Tummelson himself. We had a quick chat with him about their newest releases. We learnt that the market for German/European type games is still expanding in the US and that some German games even sold better in the US than in their country of origin.
On we went to Argentum, a new games publisher from Cologne, Germany. Argentum has been founded just 6 months ago by three gaming enthusiasts, Roman Mathar, Petra Brandenburger and Maik Hennebach. Maik explained their three new games to us: Gartenzwerge e.V. designed by Roman, UFOs! Fritten aus dem All designed by Petra and Metallurgie designed by Maik. Gartenzwerge e.V. (The Garden Gnomes Society) is a bidding game about the breeding of garden gnomes. UFOs! Fritten aus dem All (UFOs! Chips from Outer Space) is a boardgame about the invasion of earth by aliens trying to establish fast food restaurant chains. Despite these rather weird themes both games offer new game concepts and from a first look seem to provide lots of possibilities for developing winning strategies. Both games provide much more challenges than you might think at first glance.The third game Metallurgie is an abstract card placing game which belongs into the same category as Ebbe und Flut from Adlung - it's a similar real brain teaser. For a small new game publisher the quality of the components is more than remarkable, it's the best I have seen since a long time. These guys know what gamers like; even the Ziploc bags for counters are provided in sufficient quantity. Expect reviews of these fine games here soon.
Our next visit was to Sphinx Games, also in hall 5. There we met Henning Poehl who demonstrated his two new card games Popeln and Hexenhammer to us. Popeln tries to prove that size does matter as it is a game about an activity many players should be familiar with - nose picking, a theme that I didn't come across in gaming before. As we all know the action of nose picking requires appropriate "tooling": depending on the type of nose you need a finger with the best possible fit in terms of length, width and tilt to get at the much desired booger. The game caused some comments of disgust by onlookers because of the - in their opinion - unsavoury subject, but then isn't it all a matter of taste? Hexenhammer (Malleus maleficarum) uses an equally controversial subject: witch hunting. Because of this Henning decided to give it an R-rating (16years and up.). The game itself is an adaptation of Tyler Sigman's Witch Hunt released 4 years ago as a game kit. This time it comes with professionally made cards in a proper box and with improved rules. While Hexenhammer appears to be a tactical card game, Popeln seems to be a more light-hearted game living from the subject proper. Both games will be reviewed here soon.
Spieltrieb was next on our list. They mainly develop game as contract work for larger firms. We were interested in Windschatten, developed for "Gerolsteiner", a German mineral water & soft drinks company. The game is about bike racing with each player controlling 3 bikers. We learnt from Till Meyer and Nicol Stiehl that they are planning to release a second edition of this nearly sold out game sometime next year.
Next in hall 5 came Kronberger Spiele. We had a go at their new game Frantic Frankfurt only to find out that the attribute "frantic" is to be taken literally. Speed is the essence to win the game, both in identifying the right spot for placing a card and in lightning fast placement of cards. Moritz and I were way to slow to have any chance against the guy presenting the game to us (who claimed that he learnt the game only the day before and that a bit of practice is all that is required to play it that well). We were a little concerned about a possible flaw in the game: because of the speed in which the game is played and the fixation on one's own cards there is not really a chance of identifying illegal moves by other players, which could spoil the fun in some groups. We decided that Frantic Frankfurt is not a game for us.
As usual there were many interesting independent publishers in the "role-players dominion", hall 6. Among them we found Angelo Porazzi, who presented his games Warangel and Peacebowl for the first time in Germany. Warangel has proven to be an immense success in Italy, garnering prizes and recognition. It is a fantasy wargame which stands in the tradition of the old "International Team" games (IT were legendary infamous for their bad rules and translations, but renowned for their themes and love for visual detail). It even uses some ideas for fantasy races from the IT game Zargos Lords (one of their best efforts), but improves greatly on it. So far there are an immense number of races with well-balanced special abilities (also available in expansions) that can duke it out on the hexmap. A great plus of Warangel are the simple and accessible rules, clearly a labour of love. Another interesting game is the new Peacebowl, which one could recommend to the Mr. Bush as an alternative to invading other countries. In the future of Peacebowl conflicts are solved quickly with football games!Peacebowl plays amazingly fast (a game can be completed in 10 minutes) and is a lot of fun. A "beer and pretzel" game, clearly, but with enough decision making to keep it interesting.
Angelo is representative of the new gaming generation in Italy, and he clearly is in love with his products. We're sure we will see more of him!
On we went to Eagle games, also in hall 9. There we met the very friendly Pat Braun who told us about their new game Bootleggers. Bootleggers is set the period of prohibition in the United States and players control a mob of bootleggers who use their muscle to convince speakeasies to sell their whisky. Several types of resources need to be managed properly: whisky crates, trucks and mob members, influence, muscle and last but not least money. It's what Eagle Games term their "first Euro-American hybid game". Since all tables were occupied and we didn't have the time to wait he immediately offered to reserve a table for us for later in the afternoon. When we returned we not only found a table reserved for us but Pat had also arranged that Steve Gross (SDR Games), one of the designers of Bootleggers, was there to play the game with us. Perfect! Steve did a very good job in leading us into the game and we had a lot of fun playing 4 complete rounds with him. In retrospect I'd say we did rather well against him as Sebastian managed to play a "double wham" on him, a possibility he had hinted at us earlier in the game (Sebastian played a Thug card on him to steal all crates from his truck and then another Thug card to steal the now empty truck. You should have seen Steve's face after that - okay Steve, it was three players against you, but it was real fun). Anyway, Bootleggers made a very good impression of us not only because it is a very nicely produced game with lots of components that add flair to the game but also the game mechanics seem to provide enough depth for challenging game sessions. It will be reviewed by us soon.
As Pat Braun had suggested we passed by the Pro Lodo booth in the same hall to have a look at their new Hispaniola designed by Michael Schacht. Hispaniola is trick taking game about pirates - pirates being the "in theme" for games in Essen this year anyway. We will play and review this game soon. In addition they reprinted Der Ausreisser, a bike racing card game which we played a lot in the 90s and Keythedral by Richard Breese, the latter one with an improved board layout.
On our way back to hall 10 we passed the Yuhodo booth, a Japanese game publisher. Already last year we had a chance to play their Masquerade card game, which had some serious rule translation problems. This year Satoshi Nakamura told us that he had changed his translator, who now is native English speaker. We played their new game Fairy Tales later that night in the hotel and yes, the English rules are written quite well. In the game players try to collect valuable sets of character cards. Characters either support each other or hinder each other; both represented in victory point bonus or malus. The cards are beautifully drawn but a little heavy in terms of information provided on them.
Despites last year's Coyote experience we could convince Sebastian to join in on our visit to the Kidult boot in hall 12. We wanted to have a look at their card games released this year. Druids is a new release from Essen and we played it twice later in the evening. This card game has some surprising challenges which it reveals only after you've played it several times. We particularly liked the clever combination of timing and bluffing the game asks for. Waz Baraz has been released already earlier this year but was new to us. Compared to Hexenhammer by Sphinx with its scary looking drawings, the sparingly clothed witches in Waz Baraz look more like having been drawn by the Barbie designers of Mattel: A-size brain, D-size boobs. The third game Fab Fib is a bluffing card game. Its game mechanics suggest that it could be a card variant of Liar's Dice and as you may know this is one of our favourite game session closers. We'll let you know how it compares to Liar's Dice once we've played this one.
Bruno Faidutti's games have always been a "must have" for us. Therefore his new Boomtown was high on our wish list. It is an auctioning game about gold digging, where players try to make the most money out of their gold mines. As with many Faidutti games, some chaos elements were thrown in by adding action cards (the text of the German version not always being comprehensible).
Last year's surprise Atta Ants received an expansion pack which adds three more terrain features. There is a tunnel allowing shortcuts to the nest and across the board to the other end of the tunnel (provided that card has been placed) and twigs, which can be used to build "transportable paths" between tiles making it possible to enhance the already possible bucket chains to a high speed version. The third type of terrain feature is stones, which can be used to block paths. According to Richard de Rejk the expansion sets adds more tactical possibilities to the game. Black Molly comes in the same type of plastic box with the same sized cards as Atta Ants. We only had time for a brief explanation of the game concept by Richard: players have four fish each and their task is to keep the fish alive as long as possible in the fish tank. But two threats eventually lead to the death of the players' fish: a Black Molly, trying to eat them and stationary machines, squashing the poor animals. A steady current in the fish tank adds a level of difficulty to manoeuvre the fish.
We had pre-arranged a meeting with Brian Walker at the Fairplay booth to have a look at his revived Games International magazine - issue #17 had come hot from the press to Essen. We learnt that the magazine has been received very positively on the fair and quite right so. It's a full colour magazine printed on high quality paper and maintains the style and quality of the editorial contents and reviews of the first 16 issues released almost 15 years ago. The printed version of the magazine can be subscribed online and is delivered via air mail outside of the UK.
While we were talking to Brian the guys from Fairplay were conducting an interview with Günther about his PC version of Sankt Petersburg. Much to our surprise the Westpark Gamers were pretty much known amongst the game publishers and rather often we heard the remark "Oh, yes, you are the guys who did the Sankt Petersburg thing". By the way, rumours tell that Günther is working on an update, which fixes the bugs reported so far and adds a better 2-player AI.
Brian Walker told us about daVinci and their second expansion pack Dodge City for their much praised Bang card game. The brief explanation of the new cards was followed by a short introduction to Dancing Dice, which caught our attention because of the similarities with Liar's Dice.
No, Doom - The Boardgame was not the reason we visited the booth. Instead, I was mainly interested in FFG's reprint of Titan - The Arena since I like the game a lot and never managed to buy a copy before it went out of print. FFG now call the game Colossal Arena. The game rules are basically the same, but Colossal Arena comes with 12 creatures with special abilities of which 8 are selected randomly for a game. Another new game is Senator, which I unfortunately confused with Kingdoms that I bought instead. Kingdoms is a reprint of Knizia's Auf Heller und Pfennig, a game I never liked very much. I only realized my mistake back in Munich and can only hope that Moritz has bought a copy of Senator himself.
Just before 7pm we reached our final stop for the day: Z-Man games. There was too little time to have a detailed look at their new games so Moritz, who was going to stay another day, arranged a visit with Zev Shlasinger for Sunday. Zev is known to release games with rather weird subjects, some of which found their way on our table, with mixed receptions. Their new game Camelot Legends, which is "not a collectable cards game but plays like one", caught our attention and I am sure Moritz brought back a copy for him.
Despite of other reports I believe that Essen 2004 has seen a lot of good games, in fact a lot more than last year. Okay, there's no real scoop by any of the larger German publishers. But the overall quality of games especially by the smaller publishers has improved significantly. In fact the fair was so packed with good games that we missed a lot of the good stuff on our list, notably: "Ys" by Ystari, the much hyped "Oltemare" by Mind the Move, "Große Geschäfte" by BeWitched (I really hate that I had to skip this one) and "Das Zepter von Zavandor" by Lookout Games to name just a few. Conclusion: one day of Essen just isn't enough.
And here's the list of games we brought back to Munich. Expect reviews of these soon:
|Games brought back from Essen|
|7 Ages, ADG|
|Age of Steam Expansion 2+3, Warfrog,|
|Anno Domino VIP, Abacus,|
|Anno Domino Spiel Des Jahres, Abacus,|
|Atta Ants Expansion, The Realm of Fantasy|
|Black Molly, The Realm of Fantasy|
|Boomtown, Face2Face Games|
|Bootleggers, Eagle Games|
|Camelot Legends, Z-Man games|
|Chamelequin, R&D Games|
|Clocktowers, Jolly Roger Games|
|Colossal Arena, Fantasy Flight Games|
|Dancing Dice, daVinci|
|Das Zepter von Zavandor, Lookout Games, J. Drögemüller|
|Der Graf von Carcassonne,HiG, Wrede|
|Die dunklen Lande, HiG, Faidutti|
|Ohne Furcht und Adel Expansion, Hans im Glück|
|Fab Fib, Kidult|
|Fairy Tale, Yuhodo|
|Flandern 1302, Queen|
|Frantic Frankfurt, Kronberger Spiele|
|Gärten der Alhambra, Queen|
|Gartenzwerge e.V., Argentum|
|Grosse Geschäfte, Bewitched|
|Ideology, z-man games|
|Im Auftrag des Königs, Adlung|
|Ins Innere Afrikas, Phalanx|
|Jekyll und Hyde, Bambus|
|Kingdoms, Fantasy Flight Games|
|Mystery Train, Days of Wonder|
|Neuland, Eggert Spiele|
|Oltremare, Mind the Move|
|Paths of Glory, GMT|
|Piranha Pedro, Goldsieber|
|Quest for the Dragonlords: Advanced Game Expansion, Dragonlords|
|Reef Encounter, R&D Games|
|Sole Mio, Abacus|
|Struggle of Nations, Warfrog|
|Sword of Rome, GMT|
|UFOs Fritten aus dem All, Argentum|
|War of the Ring/Herr der Ringe, Phalanx|
|Waz Baraz, Kidult|