This is my account of my visit to this year's Spiel games fair. There's quite a lot in this article, so you can use an index to find the bits you want. Or just read it as a narrative (it's printable too).
I’m sure you don’t need reminding that the annual games fair in Essen is the biggest games event in the world. This year’s event was no exception with 147,156 visitors coming to look at some 200 new games. I came away invigorated by everybody’s enthusiasm and the new games. Even four days does not allow you to experience more than a fraction of the show. This is therefore my report on my personal experience at this year’s Spiel.
I don’t know what it is about Düsseldorf airport, but it seems to be different every time I go there. This year I found a shuttle bus to the airport railway station. Strange, I thought, it’s only been a walk away before. However the ride took me well away from the terminals to a new-ish 6-platform station. I later discovered that this mainline station is in addition to the poky 2-platform station on a spur line under the airport. German railways then proved that, in one respect at least, they are well down to the standards of the British. The train was crowded and I had to stand.
Apart from this, the transport worked smoothly: I arrived at my hotel, checked in, went for dinner and played a few games with other members of the British contingent. I also met Japji Khalsa, who introduced me to his game, Zort. Still in prototype form, this is a very abstract pattern-matching game. It has some very clever features and plays well – this from yours truly, who doesn’t like this kind of game. For a prototype, the game was nicely produced, too. Japji operates as Khalsa Brain Games and you can check out his games on his website.
On to the fair proper when it opened on Thursday morning. There are changes to report at the Messe (exhibition halls), too. The administrative areas have been refurbished and now look very modern – all oatmeal and pale wood. Some of the halls have been renumbered and bits of Spiel moved around as well. Notably what was Hall 3 and used to house the children’s games is now 5 and has taken over the ‘odds and sods’ mantle from hall 9. In turn, this hall is now home to the comics (Spiel embraces the Comic Action fair), while the children’s games were in hall 4. The usual suspects were in much the usual places, so my first move was to take the tour and check out what was happening.
It was immediately clear what is expected to be big this year: The Lord of the Rings. Several halls were dominated by big pictures of the Fellowship characters from the film, there were lots of licensed games and even movie clips on a (wide) video screen. Later investigations turned up some Harry Potter material as well, but clearly LotR is expected to be bigger in Germany.
Some time later I fetched up at the Warfrog stand where I was introduced to Martin Wallace’s latest game, Liberté. This is a board game of the French Revolution. The players play cards to place influence for one of the three factions (red/revolutionary, blue/moderate and white/monarchist) in an area of France. When an election happens, one of the factions will win control of the Government. Players score points for contributing to the performance of the factions: first and second in the winning faction, first in the opposition. There are a number of other ways of scoring points.
After four elections, the game is over and the player with the most points wins. Except that an election may also end in a landslide for the reds. In this case the game ends at this point and the player with the most red points (which can include cards in hand unseen by other players) wins. Alternatively, the whites can stage a counter-revolution if they hold enough of the key geographical areas at any point after the second election. This ends the game, and the leading player in white wins. So there are three different ways of ending the game and winning. If you’re aiming for one, you have to be on the lookout for somebody trying something else. This is a cracker of a game and one I can’t wait to play again.
I also hit the Amigo stand and tried a couple of their new games. Gargon (designed by Rüdiger Dorn) is another in the company’s series of card games in small boxes (and also published in English by Rio Grande). Another interesting light card game – the kind of thing German game designers excel at. The aim is to collect scoring cards in the six colours – lower value cards being worth more and a zero doubling your score. There is also a bonus for the player/s with the most cards in each colour. In a turn, the start player plays 1-3 cards of any colour (except three of the same). The others must play the same combination (for example 1 of one colour, two of another) with an extra restraint on the last player: s/he must play colours that others have already played. As the backs of the cards show their colour and must always be visible – even in your hand – all sorts of tactical ploys are possible.
A player may also pass and pick up three cards from one of the two draw piles (spread out so you can see the colours). Resolving the cards is a bit fiddly, but easy once you understand it. First, cards are revealed. Starting with the first player, high cards beat the highest card of that colour in other players’ hands. Losing cards are discarded – but replaced by drawing another card into your hand – winning cards go into your points pile. Unopposed cards just win.
The game ends when either draw pile is exhausted. Bonus points are distributed and points added up. The highest score wins. With three players the options were clear and the game was fairly controlled. I can see it being more random with more players.
In contrast, Big Deal is a big board game with cards, money and other bits. It is a company and share-dealing game. Players play shares of the various companies and gain income from these, provided they can afford the appropriate resources needed for the company. However, other players can attempt a take-over by playing cards themselves and offering to buy you out. Even if you defend your company, your cash reserves will be depleted by buying your opponent’s shares, leaving you vulnerable to another attack. Cash can be raised by selling shares or resources back to the bank and there are several other wrinkles to the game. It ends when one player is bankrupt, at which point the player with the most valuable portfolio wins.
This is an interesting game – though I wasn’t convinced that I’d been told the rules correctly (other people were told different rules!). However, as played it was entertaining stuff that provoked some ding-dong battles. The only problem I can see is that the other players were unable to overhaul the player who took an early lead. I look forward to getting the rules sorted out and seeing how good a game this really is.
As well as Dungeons & Dragons expansions and CCGs (Harry Potter, of course), Amigo had several more new games on display. Café International Card Game is an adaptation of the board game by Rudi Hoffmann and Roland Siegers. Die Gnümies was described to me as being about funny names, but it’s designed by David Parlett and Rio Grande are doing an English edition (Gnumies), so there must be more to it than that. A new edition of Wolfgang Kramer’s Heimlich & Co adds event cards to the venerable game (an English edition from Rio Grande is entitled Top Secret Spies). The latest development of the Bohnanza theme is High Bohn, designed by Uwe Rosenberg and Hanno Girke. Rosenberg’s solo effort is Limits. And then there’s Schussfahrt, a kids game about snowboarding past hostile Yeti designed by Ralf Menzel. (Another one getting the Rio Grande stamp of approval as The Yeti Slalom.)
Thursday evening featured a pleasant meal followed by playing some games at the hotel. In this case, it was older games that I won’t bore you with now.
Friday started with two games on the Piatnik stand. Leo Colovini’s Meridian is a pretty abstract game that didn’t grab me. Players get limited opportunities to play stacks of pawns (a bit of resource management here) between each pair of parallel lines (meridians) across the board. The aim is to gain control of the islands, which run across the board at 90 degrees to the lines. Once everybody’s played their pieces you score up. There’s a bit of a challenge here, but not a lot. Rio Grande have published the game in English.
The other was Cortez, designed by Hermann Huber. The game is set in Tenochtitlan as the Conquistadors and Aztecs struggle for control of the temples at the centre of the city. There are lots of things you can do in your turn, limited by the cards you hold, and again you have to manage your resources. I found it an interesting strategy game, with lots of possibilities. Then somebody discovered that, according to the rules, everything is negotiable! This puts a different complexion on the game. It might add a different dimension or it might cause the whole thing to drag interminably. Another one to play again, but it looks like it could be good.
Adlung are the stars of card games and, as usual, had a slew of new games. I tried three. Pompeii is a pattern-matching game designed by Frank Brandt. You have to lay cards so that they do not match the cards next to them. But you score by getting cards that match in the same row, column or diagonal. Luckily this is a fairly light game, otherwise it would be a real brain-burner. A neat game, but not really my cup of tea.
Markus Nikisch’s Alibi has a dozen suspects with a selection of different characteristics (length of hair, body shape, clothing et al). The rest of the cards show different characteristics. Players play in turn, building up a set of characteristics around the table. Any time there’s a set of five matching characteristics for a suspect, you arrest him (and score points). So you try not to let too many characteristics build up – or play an Alibi card to prevent a suspect being arrested. The game works well, but it’s very slight.
Winhard (Reinhard and Erwin Pichler) is clearly aimed at children with its bright illustrations of squirrels and nuts. Players are trying to get rid of their cards, playing higher or lower than the card currently on the top of either deck. Certain cards switch the direction between higher and lower, which is the key to getting rid of all your cards. I expect it to make a decent filler. I was also introduced to Günter Burkhardt’s Vom Kap bis Kairo, a highly involved game with a railway theme. Players bid points to gain terrain, which they lay in front of their train. They turn cards to see if they are able to build across the terrain – the tougher the terrain, the more points it is worth. Amazingly, you keep track of your points on a piece of paper. Oh dear.
Designed by Bruno Faidutti and Leo Colovini, Vabanque comes from Winning Moves and has a casino theme. It is played over exactly four turns, in each of which players decide which of the gaming tables they will try to win – or steal – by playing cards face down. Once they’ve taken their winnings, the players increase the stakes for the next turn. The game boils down to the bluff and counter-bluff in playing your cards, which is not enough for me. Winning Moves also had Ulysses (designed by Andrea Angiolino and Pier Giorgio Paglia), played across a board of the Mediterranean. Each player has four (secret) goals to reach, one in each of four areas; first to achieve them wins the game. Each turn one player proposes where Ulysses’ ship moves next. The others can challenge and there’s lots of card play. This game felt slighter in play than it looked beforehand, but it may have been unbalanced with only three players.
Interestingly, Jumbo’s new board game is Odysseus by Dominic Erhard and also has hidden objectives for each player. This time Odysseus moves round the abstract board, encountering various adventures. Each player scores points for three of the types of adventures: first to ten wins. Again cards are used to decide where the ship moves. Each player is also backed by one of the Gods and can use their God’s power once a turn to help. I can see this being a fun family game. Other new Jumbo games were clearly aimed at children.
Friday evening saw a major get-together of British, American, Danish, Belgian, French and other gamers over a meal at the infamous Istra restaurant (scene of much Slivovitz drinking last year!). Once again this was followed by an adjournment back to the hotel for a few games – though in this case there were so many of us that it was an adjournment to several hotels. Again the games I played were old favourites.
Making an early start on Saturday morning finally got me a table on the Kosmos stand. Kosmos had a substantial range of new games and I only played a few of them. Bali is one of a series of four-player card games and is designed by Uwe Rosenberg. As you’d expect, there are intricate rules for what cards you can play when. However, the basic idea is to get the dobber (representing the puppet master, apparently) to move to one of the four islands where you will score points. One of the features of the game is that each player has a different hand of cards at each island and plays with the appropriate set.
Neue Entdecker is an updating by Klaus Teuber of his Entdecker from a few years ago. The players explore the blank board, laying tiles to show islands and sea. You get the opportunity to place pieces on new islands and score points when they are complete. There are several differences in the detail (particularly in the way discovery chips are found and scored), but it is essentially the same game as the original.
Der Herr der Ringe: Die Gefährten (which I think translates as Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship) was just one of the LotR tie-ins. This one covers the journey in Fellowship of the Ring. The players are hobbits. Each turn they get an event card. Each rolls dice to move down the trail and to give their fighting strength for the turn. Then a card is turned for an opponent to fight the lead hobbit (first – the others get involved if he loses). Along the way the players score points and the winner is the player with most when they reach Amon Hen (where the fellowship is broken, of course). The game is quite fun and has some nicely worked mechanics. However, nobody could describe it as a deep game. The designer’s name is given as J R R Hering – a little in-joke for followers of the Kosmos/TM development team’s games.
Other games from Kosmos included Klaus Teuber’s Sternenschiff Catan (Starship Catan), a two-player card game derived from Starships of Catan. Mayfair Games are producing an English language edition, which was also at the show. There is an expansion for Lord of the Rings, which will also be available in English later. This includes an extra board, adding Bree and Isengard to the adventure, and enemy cards for the players to defeat. The others in the four-player card games series include Gnadenlos! (Klaus Teuber), about prospecting for gold in the Wild West, and Eden (Gal Zuckerman), a game of plant growing.
US publisher GMT Games was at Spiel this year for, I think, the first time. Amongst the games on display was Flagship (Dan Verssen), which is available on GMT’s pre-publication ordering. This is a card game of spaceship combat along CCG lines. You start with a number of spaceships in front of you and a hand of cards. You play cards to add weaponry and crew to your ships, to boost your attacks and to defend against your opponent. You attack your opponent’s ships, with the aim of destroying his flagship, but each ship that attacks will be less able to defend itself if attacked. With several different races to play, each with their own strengths, the game has plenty of re-play value. Good stuff.
Zoch had a new dexterity game for us to marvel at. Designed by Bill Payne and called Villa Paletti, the game has wooden pillars (in various cross-sections and colours) and floors. Players place their pillars, put the next floor on top and then try to remove pillars to place on this floor using the wire hook provided. The rules are actually fairly complex, but I’m sure this can just be played until the whole lot collapses and somebody loses.
Alea use Spiel as an opportunity to show a prototype for next year. This time, the game was Puerto Rico, a relatively complex and lengthy game from Andreas Seyfarth. I didn’t get the chance to play it, but it was getting good reports, in general, from those who did. I look forward to playing it in a few months’ time. The new games for this year were Wyatt Earp and Die Händler von Genua (Merchants of Genoa), which we have been playing for a while now, and Royal Turf¸ which is a development of Reiner Knizia’s game previously published by Gibsons as Turf Horse Racing.
Parent company Ravensburger had a few treats amongst the crop of children’s games. Chief of these was a new edition of Shark, the classic share-dealing game designed by Jean Vanaise (and originally published by Flying Turtle). San Marco (Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum) was also in evidence and there was an Alex Randolph game, Big Shot.
The only brand new game from Goldsieber was Küpferkessel Compagnie from Günter Burkhardt. Africa (Reiner Knizia), Das Amulett (Alan Moon and Aaron Weissblum), Isis & Osiris have all been around for a while. I caught up with Nur Peanuts!, a very silly dice rolling game. Players roll dice to move round the board and have the option to pay the value of the space they’re on in order to move again. The aim is to be on the highest value space at the end of the round and gain cash (difference in value of spaces) from the others. You can also buy spaces so that you, rather than the bank, get the cash. You only have a finite supply of money and it’s all too easy to run out. I enjoyed it, but it lasted just a shade too long.
Hans im Glück were basking in the glory of another Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) prize and this year’s Deutscher Spiele Preis (German Games Prize) for Carcassonne. They had a freebie add-on for the game. Der Fluss (The River) is another dozen tiles, all of which show a river as well as other features used in the game. The tiles are used to start off the game – though the river itself is not another scoring opportunity. The new game here was Müll & Money (Jürgen Strohm), a logistics game about production and waste management. I haven’t played it yet, but it certainly looks good (Rio Grande are producing the game in English as Industrial Waste). Medina, from Stefan Dorra, is also new this year, but has been around for a while now – and is available in English from Rio Grande, though I still haven’t played it. It made second place in this year’s Deutscher Spiele Preis.
A newcomer was Phalanx Games. The company has produced a very handsome new edition of Frank Chadwick’s classic American Civil War board wargame, A House Divided. It was available in both English and German and a number of British gamers were to be seen carrying copies away with them.
Doris & Frank’s new game was Urland, a thematic progression from Ursuppe. In this game the players’ pieces are clawing their way onto land from the sea. As in the earlier game, players get the opportunity to buy genes for their creatures to evolve – hopefully gaining a competitive advantage. The bidding system is clever, using pieces in stock to bid, but paying by removing pieces from the board. The mechanics of the game are quite intricate. For example, one player decides which area of the board will score, but doesn’t get the opportunity to move pieces. Other players do, but have to guess which area will be scored. Clever stuff. As usual D+F have produced rules in English and the gene cards are provided in both German and English.
Colony was an interesting find. It looks like a meaty strategy game of exploring and exploiting the New World. The suggested playing time of six hours reinforces this view. However, the publishers assured me that it is not a game, it is an educational tool. Their market is schools and educators, not gamers. The idea is that, through the game, children learn about the oppression and exploitation of the Americas. There are lots of resources for this on a CD that is packaged with the game. This has been produced by an international group in English, German and Spanish. Spieltrieb handle the game in Germany, but there isn't a UK distributor yet.
On Saturday night I joined several others to visit the Rüttenscheider Hausbreuerei – a micro-brewery/restaurant in the nearby Rüttenscheid district. The gimmick here is that you order your beer by the barrel. The barrel is racked up at the end of your table and you get to pour your own beer. Great fun. Followed, of course, by a few more games back at the hotel.
This is when I got the chance to try Martin Wallace’s Volldampf (published by TM Spiele). This is the latest development of the system Martin started with Lancashire Railways. Players raise money from loans, bid to buy sections of railway and increase their income by transporting goods along their (and other people’s) railway lines. One immediate difference with this game is that players issue shares instead of taking out loans. They then have to pay a dividend each turn, rather than interest. Not a huge change, but you cannot pay off the shares in the way you can loans. So you’re stuck with paying out dividends throughout the game. The big change is in the way railway track is apportioned. In the previous games, you were bidding to buy a specific section of track. This would generally connect two towns, possibly more, giving what can be immediately useful routes. In Volldampf, you are bidding for the right to build (at a cost) in an area of the board. In general the individual sections connect to one town at most. So it’s more difficult to build useful routes on your own and players are more likely to co-operate and use each other’s track. It certainly put paid to my usual strategy of building up a network in one part of the board! A good addition to the series, particularly as the production is to TM’s usual high standard.
There was nothing new from AZA Spiele this year. The Essen-based games company had extra sets of cars available for their motor racing game, MotorChamp, which was launched last year. A refined set of English rules was also available. Depending on commitments, there may well be a new AZA game for 2002.
Reiner Knizia continues on his apparent quest to have a game published by every game company in existence with a Scruples-type game from Clementoni. Called Dark Side, the German language element was too much for linguistically-challenged Brits. Other Clementoni games looked more accessible: Der Grosse Gallier and der Kleine Kommissar.
Designed by Philippe Keyaerts, Evo has been this year’s game from Eurogames (now under the parent company's name, Descartes) and the company had a great, large-scale demo set with model dinosaurs on their stand. New games included So ein Hundeleben (A Dog’s Life is the English title and the designer is Christophe Boelinger), in which the players are dogs collecting bones and marking their territory. Draco & Co, from Michael Schacht and Bruno Faidutti, is the latest in the company’s line of smaller "Blue Games" and has an Arthurian theme. The new pair of circuits for Formula Dé are Zhuhai (China) and Sepang (Malaysia). And a new edition of Bruno’s La Vallée des Mammouths was in evidence.
English language editions were on show from Mayfair Games, including the brand new Starship Catan. Plus Hell Rail (Third Perdition), a new edition of James Kyle’s game that was originally published by Galloglass Games.
Andy Merritt had brought some copies of his Too Many Cooks to the show and was busy losing his voice explaining the game to German players. The game comes packed in a foil take-away tray and contains edible ingredients. "If you don’t like the game, you can cook and eat it," explains Andy.
Queen Games had another crop of interesting looking board games. Im Zeichen des Kreuzes is a complex-looking Crusades game from Ronald Hofstätter. However initial reports suggest it is a simpler game than it appears. Venezia is also from Herr Hofstätter and, again, looked a relatively complex strategy game. Der Magier von Pangea (Ralf Burkert) and Hexen Rennen (Wolfgang Panning) are both smaller and appear to be simpler games. Atlantic Star is Dirk Henn’s re-working of Showmanager to a theme of transatlantic liners.
Dutch company Splotter had Ur, 1830 BC, which attracted much interest in certain quarters as a transposition of the 18xx mechanics to the Ancient World. The idea is that the players are building irrigation channels and supplying water to where it’s needed.
Francis Tresham was present, representing Tresham Games, with the latest kits for 1825. A new, Tresham-designed 18xx game is due out next year. 1831 is set in Ireland with lots of colour. The long-awaited Revolution (Francis’s game of the religious wars in and around the Netherlands) may well see the light of day next year, as well.
There was a four-pack of new railway games from Winsome Games. These were Freight Yard (designed by Max Michael), Iron Road (Franz-Benno Delonge), Pampas Railroads (Martin Wallace) and Rebel Rails (John Bohrer). With keen pricing for anyone buying a set of all four, Winsome sold out of their limited stock on the first day of the fair.
Why Spire is a new company with a new game, Tenjo, which they had brought over from the USA. This is an abstract game, though based on the struggle for control of the Japanese islands. The game looks wonderful, but it has a hefty price tag – not surprising given the quality and quantity of the components. You can find out more at the Tenjo website.
The trip home worked very smoothly: underground, railway, shuttle bus to airport terminal. Then I checked the departures board and couldn’t spot a flight to Heathrow at 2:30. Quick check of ticket: it’s 1:15. Instead of a leisurely two hours to check in and get to the plane I had 45 minutes! A sprint to the check-in desk followed, where a laconic Lufthansa clerk perused my ticket. "Plenty of time," he said and my luggage and I were passed through. Phew!
That was Spiel for another year. I look forward to playing more of the new games over the next few months. Of the games I did try at Spiel, Liberté was my firm favourite. Volldampf and Urland look good, too.
Page created 24th November 2001. Last updated 15th May 2014.
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