Pevans reports from Essen
This is my revised report from the 2012 Spiel games fair in Essen, Germany. It concentrates on the games I played at the show and have played since. I will expand this with my notes on other publishers over the next few weeks, aiming to cover all the new games.
It is written as a narrative, to be read through from the introduction, but you can also use the links below to jump to a specific publisher or game. The narrative continues in part 2 of Pevans's Spiel '12 report.
|Days of Wonder||USA|
|Hans im Glück||Germany|
|Mesa Board Games||Portugal|
|Mind the Move!||Italy|
|Sierra Madre Games||USA|
|Surprised Stare Games||UK|
|Article 27||Stronghold Games||7/10|
|Copycat/Fremde Federn||2F Spiele/Rio Grande Games||7/10|
|Ginkgopolis||Pearl Games/Z-Man Games||8/10|
|Iron Sky||Revision Games||6/10|
|Kosmonauts||Mesa Board Games||7/10|
|La Loire||Mind the Move||7/10|
|Palaces of Carrara||Hans im Glück/Z-Man Games||7/10|
|Pax Porfiriana||Sierra Madre Games||8/10|
|Ragami||Mesa Board Games||7/0|
|Rome & Carthage||Grosso Modo Editions||5/10|
|Samurai Sword||dV Giochi||8/10|
|Shadows over Camelot – the card game||Days of Wonder||4/10|
|Sheepdogs of Pendleton Hill||Stratamax||7/10|
|Snowdonia||Surprised Stare Games||9/10|
|We Will Wok You||Pegasus Spiele||6/10|
|* Provisional rating on my highly subjective scale|
I was taken by surprise on my annual trip to Essen this year – it was warm! I expect to put on a pullover as well as a jacket when I go outside, not have to take my jacket off. By Sunday afternoon, the sun was blazing down, but it had been getting hotter and more humid in the halls since Wednesday afternoon. Mike Dommett and I drove over this year (it provides so much more luggage space than flying!) and arrived in time to take a turn round the halls while exhibitors were still setting up.
This is my favourite time at Spiel. Most of the stands are complete – some have even been shut up for the night – and it’s possible to chat to exhibitors without customers intervening (often). However, you may have to dodge the odd pallet of games or reversing van. Mike made a beeline for the secondhand dealers to hunt down copies of Ave Caesar while I said hello to people and had my first look at some of the new releases.
That, of course, is the purpose of this article: to introduce you to the new board games that I saw at the show. To begin with, I’ll cover the games I played at the show (less than a dozen). I’ll add more as I play them and will put up as complete a list as I can on my website (www.pevans.co.uk/Reviews is the place to look). A couple of caveats first, though. These are very much my first responses to what may not have been a complete – or accurate – play-through of the game. Secondly, when I say a new game is like an older one, I am not suggesting that it is a copy, this is just a bit of shorthand description.
If all this is new to you, let me explain what I’m talking about. The Spiel games fair is the biggest board games event in the world and is held at the Messe (exhibition centre) in Essen for four days towards the end of October each year. Spiel ’12 took place on 18th-21st October and I was there for all four days. What makes Spiel special is that, although plenty of business gets done, it’s a public fair and the emphasis is on playing the games. Most of the publishers’ stands are spaces with tables and chairs for people to sit and play.
Mike and I joined up with Pete Card and the three of us grabbed a table at the Eggertspiele stand first. Eggert had three new games on display. Qin is a Reiner Knizia design with a Chinese theme. It’s a territory-grabbing game that looked very abstract to me: brightly coloured square tiles to place on the board and bobbin-shaped wooden markers to show ownership. An English language edition is published by R&R Games. Reiner Knizia is also the designer of Spectaculum, a game of sponsoring travelling circus shows on their journeys around their kingdom. The winner is the player who makes the most money.
However, the game we played was Yedo (designed by Thomas Vande Ginste and Wolf Plancke), set in the Japanese capital during the Shogunate. The board is a colourful representation of the city, divided into districts. Players are clans currying favour with the new Shogun. They send their representatives (“Disciples” in the rules) into the city to carry out missions, which generally require specific items as well as a disciple in the right district(s). Completing a Mission may provide players with money and other assets, but its main purpose is to score some “Prestige” points. The winner is the player with the most prestige after 11 rounds.
Each round starts with an auction. Seven different assets are available for players to auction, but they can only buy one each round. The assets involve include new disciple pawns, mission cards (players start with some) and weapons. Losing an auction doesn’t mean you can’t get a particular asset, though. They can also be bought in one or other district on the board. However, it’s usually cheaper to get them in the auction. A random event then affects the game before players start placing their disciples. Only a limited number can go into a district – some only have room for one disciple – so turn order can be important here.
In placing their disciples, players must look out for the City Watch, which can arrest them if they’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then they get to take actions with their disciple pawns. Most districts provide several actions, depending on just where the disciple is placed. They can also be used to complete a Mission. After 11 rounds, players tot up the points from their Missions, add any bonuses and the player with the most points wins.
I had great fun playing Yedo. On first play, it provides a terrific tactical and strategic challenge as well as a great atmosphere. The Missions are part of this atmosphere as well as the main way of scoring points and the focus of the players’ strategy. Interestingly, most of the game’s mechanisms are very familiar from Princes of Florence, but this is a very different game. It was a great start to the fair for me and I give Yedo a provisional 9/10 on my highly subjective scale.
After a sausage in a bun (aka lunch), we eyed up the Hans im Glück stand and were able to grab a table for their new board game, Die Paläste von Carrara (The Palaces of Carrara is the English language edition from Z-Man Games). Designed by the first rate team of (Michael) Kiesling and (Wolfgang) Kramer, the game features a turntable – not unlike Ora et Labora. Like that game, the turntable is divided into sections. The different materials (coloured blocks) used in the game are drawn at random and placed on the turntable, which is then turned to change their prices.
The other major component of the game is a deck of tiles made up of several types of building each in the same range of values. Players can build these by using the right number of blocks. However, the colours used limit which cities these can be allocated to. The cities are worth either money or victory points in different multiples. Of course, it’s harder and more expensive to build in the more valuable cities. Players can then score either their buildings in a particular city (each can only be done once in the game) or their buildings of a particular type.
To make things harder, you can only do one of these in a turn: buy some blocks (which has the effect of making those you didn’t buy cheaper for other players), use blocks to construct a building (take a tile) or score a city or a building. Scoring also gives the player wooden markers in the shape associated with the building(s). These are worth additional points at the end of the game, as is any surplus cash. The game ends either when all the buildings have gone or when someone reaches the specific game end conditions shown (worth a few extra points to the first to get there).
This is a typically clever game from Kramer and Kiesling and, indeed, Hans im Glück. It’s rather too dry for me to give it top marks, but I enjoyed The Palaces of Carrara. I certainly expect it to be much played in coming months. I give it 7/10 on my highly subjective scale.
Mike and Pete had trouble finding me the following morning (one advantage of a press pass is getting into the halls early and bagging a table), so I had played Ginkgopolis with three Scandinavians. (“Newly-weds!” scoffed the eldest of the trio as the young couple opposite us bickered gently.) This is an interesting tile-laying game from Belgian publisher Pearl Games (Z-Man is doing the English language edition), designed by Xavier Georges. The story of the game is that, in the near future, we will build our cities from Gingko Biloba trees. The players are competing urban planners doing just that. They start with some square tiles in the three colours that represent different city functions. Each tile is numbered and numbers 1-3 of each colour form the initial city grid on the table. Players can extend the city by laying new tiles adjacent to it (‘urbanizing’) or by placing tiles on top of those already in place. They put markers on top of the tile to show ownership: these will score points when someone builds over it or at the end of the game.
What players do in a turn depends on the card they play. There’s a card for each tile, which is what is needed to build on top of it. Players keep the card and get the bonus shown on the bottom when they take resources. There’s a neat mechanism for getting the cards for new tiles into the deck. Other cards are for urbanising and these are recycled into the deck. Players can also play cards to gain more of the resources – tiles and markers – they need to build the city. Playing the card for a tile ‘operates’ that part of the city to generate resources.
Several events can trigger the end of the game. Players then get bonuses for each ‘district’ of the city, according to who has the most markers there. The districts are contiguous groups of the same colour of tile. So, as well as considering the tactical options of placing a tile, you also need to have an eye on the strategic considerations of the districts.
It took a while to get the hang of just what you can do in a turn and then how best to build up the city. It looks like having your markers built over is a good move. Not only do you get immediate points for this, but you get the markers back to re-use. As the supply of these is limited, getting some back is very useful – and I certainly suffered from a shortage of markers. I really enjoyed Ginkgopolis, though. It’s an ingenious and entertaining game and I give it a provisional 8/10 on my highly subjective scale.
Italian publisher dV Giochi had several new card games on show. Top of the list was Samurai Sword, Emiliano Sciarra’s development of his Wild West gunfight game, Bang!. As the title suggests, this version has a Japanese setting. To begin with, players choose a role at random. One player will be the Shogun, supported by one or more Samurai, depending on the number of players. Other players are Ninja and there may be one Ronin, again, depending on the number of players.
In their turn, players can play as many cards as they are able to, including one attack. If successful, the attack removes ‘Resilience’ points from the defender. Lose all your points and you’re out until your next turn. You must also give your attacker an ‘Honour’ point. On the bright side, you’re now ‘harmless’ and can’t be attacked until you’ve taken your next turn. (Players are also harmless if they run out of cards.)The game ends when one player has lost all their honour (all players lose an honour point when the deck runs out, so the game won’t go on for ever). While one team will come out on top, one player on that team will also win, depending on how much honour they have left. Samurai Sword is a quick-fire game that is great fun. It addresses the problems I always had with Bang! – that it’s a knock-out game that can leave players twiddling their thumbs while the others finish the game and that there’s nothing for players to do if they have no cards in hand. Add to this the effective Samurai theme and I think this is an even better game than Bang!. I give it 8/10 on my highly subjective scale.
Grosso Modo is a new, French publisher who had an intriguing wargame on show. Rome & Carthage is for four players in two teams: Rome and Byzantium versus Carthage and Alexandria. Each player has the same set of army pieces: infantry, chariots, ships and an elephant. However, the strength of any unit in battle depends on the cards played by the player. Again, each player starts with the same set.
Battles happen when two units are in the same space and will end with one of them being taken off the board. Hence, the game becomes one of cat and mouse around the cards in players’ hands. Everybody has one high value card that doesn’t come back, but other cards re-cycle, bringing other values into players’ hands. The question is: how much do you want to win this battle? How high will your opponent go? And can you afford to lose this piece?The game is a bit odd: there’s no real military strategy, nor any value in taking territory (one side wins by holding both their opponents’ capitals). As only the ships can cross the Mediterranean, all the other units are channelled through the Middle East on one side of the board and Spain/North Africa on the other side. They galleys then fight it out for control of the Med. I was not surprised to discover that this is actually a re-print of a game from the 1950s.
However, as well as providing the original game, Grosso Modo have added rules to expand the options available to players – such as using ships to transport ground troops across the sea. Hopefully, these make the game more interesting, since I was not impressed by the base game. It’s not without interest – the challenge of out-guessing your opponent being at the core of the game – but I was underwhelmed. Rome & Carthage gets a provisional 5/10 on my highly subjective scale.
The three of us hit the Rüttenscheider Hausbrauerei for our evening meal on Friday (day two of the show). This is the German equivalent of a brewpub, serving its own beers and a fine selection of food (mainly involving slabs of meat). Their dark wheat beer is a favourite of mine as it has the key characteristic of good, tasty beer: the more of it you drink, the more you want another one. While drinking our first half litre and waiting for the food, we tried another of dV’s games, Kalesia. This was billed as the winner of the “best unpublished game” award from last year’s Lucca games festival, so I thought it was worth a look.
It worked well with three players as there are three factions fighting for dominance of the forest – a 5x5 grid of cards laid out on the table. Players have a hand of cards dealt from a deck containing cards for all three factions. They also get a secret faction card that identifies who they want to win. The forest cards are resolved in numeric order – though they are laid out randomly. All the players secretly select some cards which are turned over when everybody’s chosen. The faction with the highest total across all the cards played wins that section of the forest.
This continues until players have only three cards left. These cards are passed to the player on the left, everybody picks up the cards they’ve played so far and the game continues. This is a neat touch as it makes you think about which cards you want to pass on as well as which to play. The game ends when any faction gets three forest sections in a row. In a three-player game, the player who was backing that faction wins. With four players, teams of two support each of the main factions, but both teams can lose if the third faction wins.
I thought I was doing well in our game as everybody seemed to have cards for my faction. Pete out-played me, though, getting a win for his faction just as our food arrived. Clearly there’s more to this game than is immediately apparent. Kalesia is a clever game that plays quickly and with some subtlety. It makes a decent filler for gamers (particularly if you start with an identical set of cards for each player) or a neat family game – though the bare-breasted mermaids may provoke some discussion (their opponents, the equally female centaurs, wear breastplates). I give it a provisional 7/10 on my highly subjective scale.
Having returned to the hotel, we were roped in to a game of Shadows over Camelot – the card game. Designed by Bruno Cathala and Serge Laget, this is what the title says: a card game version of their highly successful co-operative board game. As in the original, the players are Knights of the Round Table (though one may be a traitor) and must complete quests to save Camelot from the several threats facing it. Victory or defeat is determined by the number of white and black swords achieved: seven white swords means a win for the Knights, seven black their defeat.
So far, so good and the theme lends itself to much banter around the table – mainly Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it has to be said. My problem is that this is a memory game. Each turn, the next player takes a card off the top of the deck and places it on the top of the pile. This goes on until somebody thinks there’s enough strength in the pile to succeed in a particular quest. The pile is sorted out by quest and the numbers totted up. If there’s not enough strength, the players get a black sword. If there’s too much, they get several black swords. Only if the numbers are just right do they get white swords. Additional swords may be added for the other, subsidiary quests.
To break the monotony, occasional Merlin and Morgan cards provide twists to the rules or the process or impose forfeit-like conditions on the players. However, the game essentially consists of turning over cards until someone’s had enough. In order to win, players need to remember what cards have been revealed. However, the game is only fun if they don’t remember! Our great example was Pete calling a quest that just succeeded. He was actually a traitor and thought we would lose the quest! Shadows over Camelot – the card game can clearly be fun in the right circumstances, but the combination of a memory game (groan) with forfeits (shudder) put me right off. It gets a provisional 4/10 on my highly subjective scale. Which is a shame as I really like the original Shadows over Camelot (as you can see from my review).
On the Saturday of Spiel I was playing in the EuropeMasters tournament rather than playing new games. So it was Sunday when Mike, Pete and I tried out Iron Sky at the Arctic Union stand. This is an umbrella for several small games publishers from Finland and Iron Sky comes from Revision Games. Designer Juha Salmijärvi was on hand to take us through the game. It pits two teams against each other. One is the invading Space Nazis from the dark side of the Moon, the other Earth’s gallant defenders! Yes, it’s the game of the film.
The board comes in sections showing different parts of the Earth. This allows players to fight over part or all of the planet. With six players, we used all three sections – I was defending Australasia against Mike’s invading Nazis (reminding me of our wargaming past when my Russians fought Mike’s Germans). The game starts with the defence forces spread out (one in each area) while the invaders mass in the ‘sky’ (stacked on the edge of the board). Then the fun begins.
Battles are resolved by playing cards. Players have a couple available, but can only see the backs of them. This indicates whether the card is offensive (more cross-hairs), defensive (more shields) or neutral. Once both have chosen, the cards are revealed and the attacking side of the attacker’s card compared to the defending side of the defender’s. Each cross hair that is not blocked by a cross-hair kills a unit – the advantage of stacking up several units is that you can lose a unit or two without losing the area. If only one side is left, they control the area.
This is a neat combat system, giving players some idea of how their attack is likely to go while providing some surprises. The scoring track is also ingenious. There is one on each section of the board and it has two markers. One shows the current state of the invasion (in terms of areas held), while the other shows the ‘high water mark’. That is, the most areas held by the invaders at any point. At the end of the game, the defenders get points according to the current state, while the Nazis get points according to the high water mark. Both sides get points for the individual areas they hold and the side with the most points (across all sections) wins.
Our game ended in a victory for the Nazis, despite their having been pushed back from their high water marks. One wrinkle is that the invaders have limited forces – defeated units are extra points for the defenders, while the defenders get their casualties back to, potentially, re-use. I was particularly miffed as I was doing a good job holding off Mike … until Pete lent him a helping hand from his section of the board!Iron Sky was good fun and has some clever elements. However, it didn’t really grab me. It’s a game I’d be quite happy to play again, but not one I’m going to rush out and buy. And I wonder how much replay value it has. I give it a provisional 6/10 on my highly subjective scale.
A new strategy game from Emanuele Ornella and Mind the Move! is something of an event (I’m a fan of both Hermagor and Oltre Mare). The game is La Loire, set around the eponymous river in France in the fifteenth century as the first postal system begins. The board shows the river with the cities of Nantes and Orléans in opposite corners of the board, also connected by two roads, one on each river bank. The players start with two pawns, a merchant in Nantes and a messenger in Orléans. These travel the roads from one city to the other, visiting the villages in between to buy goods (the merchant) and deliver messages (the messenger).
On arriving at a city, a messenger can buy fresh messages. The merchant can sell goods and then invest in building. ‘Palace’ buildings in either city give the player bonuses in that city. Alternatively, they can set up a farm at a village or upgrade an existing farm to a castle or replace it with a monastery. All of these give a discount to any merchant who buys there, also scoring the owner a point. The monastery also allows the owning player to buy the very valuable beer or the most valuable messages.
In case this isn’t enough, one of the villages will be host to the circus. The clever pricing mechanism for goods also serves to move the circus about. Catching up with the circus allows a player to hire one of the many characters available. Each of these provides some bonus: a premium on selling, perhaps, a discount on purchases or maybe the ability to carry more on the road. Each of these appears to have their place and just who you hire will depend on what you want to do – and what your opponents are up to.
This all sounds absolutely fascinating. However, when we played it, the game took quite a while to get going. It was several turns before anybody was in a position to build anything and hiring a character took even longer. This may be due to a misunderstanding of the rules (oops!) and I am determined to give La Loire another go. For the moment, it gets a provisional 7/10 on my highly subjective scale.
I spent much of Sunday trotting round to the parts of the halls I hadn’t managed to visit earlier, trying to make sure I didn’t miss anything (invariably, there are things I don’t spot during the show). Mike and I loaded the last boxes into the car – damn, we could have fitted a few more in! – and hit the road back. Eurotunnel decided we could wait an hour for a train, but otherwise the trip was uneventful. Now I just need to play all these new games. I’ve made a start at Swiggers and will continue at MidCon. Watch this space to hear about them.
Continued in part 2 of Pevans's Spiel '12 report
Photographs by Pevans (P) and Mike Dommett (M) and Pevans played with Photoshop. Game artwork courtesy of the publishers.
This report was first published in To Win Just Once 129 (November 2012).