It had been three years: last time we were in Essen was in October 2019. 2020 was a fully virtual edition; 2021 still felt too unsafe to go. This year, it felt OK enough, especially since there was a full mask mandate on the fair – we’ll see in the next few days if indeed it was! But in the meantime, it was SO GOOD to be back in Essen for SPIEL. We played a lot, we were ALMOST reasonable on our loot, we’re exhausted – but super happy to have gone 🙂
Now we’re back home… time for a few quick notes of all the games we saw! In order of play, because that’s approximately as arbitrary as I could make it anyway. I’ve been too lazy to add publishers/authors – but I’ve provided BGG links on the titles where available. Also, credit where credit’s due: many of these pictures are my husband’s 🙂 I kept these notes very short because it’s already a very long post; but I’m happy to give more details if you have specific questions!
For the fifth year in a row, we went last week to Essen for the SPIEL board game fair. Four days of wandering in the halls, of playing a fair amount of games, of shopping… and a few very nice restaurants and cocktails in the evening, because why not 😉
This year felt somewhat less crowded than the previous years, to the point that I got slightly worried – but they did announce a 10% increase in visitors compared to last year (reaching 209K visitors); I guess the increase in surface compensated for that. But let’s talk games!
Myraclia, Rudy3 – a game where players draft cube ressources from a randomly-chosen pool, and use these cubes to terraform tiles that may give bonuses for the following turns. Very pretty and interesting mechanics; the game is on late pledge/pre-order on Kickstarter, and we ordered it.
Copenhagen, Queen Games – I liked the box art, and that’s probably the main reason why this game ended up on my list of “things I’d like to have a look at”. It’s a game where players gather cards to buy polyomino tiles to build a building facade and gather victory points as they go. It’s not a bad game, but it didn’t really click with any of us.
Imperial Settlers Roll&Write, Portal Games – a common dice roll is used as number of actions and resources to build a civilization over 10 rounds. I quite liked it, and I think I would like the solo/adventure mode, but as it is it’s a bit annoying to remember how many actions you did (and you can probably end up going to do 6 or 7 on one turn, depending on bonuses) and the resources you’ve used. Not convinced enough.
Periodic, Genius Games – I think we both really wanted to like that one, because how cool/nerdy is a game where you move around the periodic table? And where, when you ask if there’s a way to get more energy to move around the periodic table, the person at the demo explains to you that “well, no, because energy is never created or destroyed, duh”? And it is indeed pretty cool to zoom around the periodic table, but the mechanics themselves felt pretty flat. Let’s put it that way – as an educational game, it’s probably a good one; as a themed game, it was a bit disappointing.
De Stijl, Quick Simple Fun Games – this one caught my eye because of its Mondrian aesthetics. Players add cards displaying 9 colored squares to the game, covering between 2 and 5 existing squares; at the end of the game, the score is computed both on the number of distinct areas and on the size of the largest area. Quite pretty, and probably takes a few games to master, but not necessarily our type of game.
Welcome to New Las Vegas, Blue Cocker – a roll&write without dice 🙂 Players need to build casinos on their sheet, and to achieve that there is three decks of cards that give a number (that yields constraints on its placement on the sheet) and actions (that allows to eventually win points). Actually quite fun, although we messed up a rule that made our scores explode compared to the typical score 😉 However, it’s not available yet! Buuut it’s a new take on another game, Welcome to Your Perfect Home, where players build houses instead of casinos – so we got that one instead. The “Las Vegas” version is slightly more complex, but Perfect Home has another interesting set of constraints and goals – where most of the player interaction happens, since there’s a race to reach these goals first.
Empire of the North, Portal Games – a close cousin of Imperial Settlers, which I like a lot. Players also get to build their civilization and engine by adding cards to their board, and there’s a few additional mechanics, such as the possibility to go explore distant islands that yield extra bonuses. The food tokens still look like tomatoes (although they’re officially apples), and there’s also get fish as well in this version 😉 Pierre says it’s the game Imperial Settlers should have been; I might agree. We bought it as well as the Japanese Islands expansion.
Paranormal Detectives, Lucky Duck – we didn’t play that one, we only watched the explanation and the beginning of the game. Someone has been killed, and their ghost is haunting the detectives in charge of the case in order to make them understand what/where/how everything happened. And for that, they have a number of means at their disposal, that go from miming to a ouija board or even trying to assemble a hangman rope to give clues. That actually looked pretty fun, but probably not a good fit for us 🙂
Century: A New World, Plan B Games – the third game of the Century set of games, which can all be played individually or combined. The base mechanics is the same for all three: players can gather resources that they can upgrade via different actions. In the first game, the actions are given by cards that can be bought; in the second game, the actions involve moving on a map; in the third game, we get worker placement mechanics. We both like the first game and its simplicity – it has the same feeling as Splendor, and a bit more complexity, and the Golem edition is very pretty; New World is kind of nice, but not necessarily the one we’d buy in this collection.
Azul: Summer Pavilion, Next Move Games – we also didn’t play this one, only got a vague idea by watching people play for a few minutes. It’s the third Azul game, with the same mechanics of picking tiles as the first two (except now there’s also wildcard tiles). Here, the tiles are put on stars, where each branch of the star needs a different number of tiles. The mechanics of placement are slightly different from the other two Azul, but not necessarily enough of a different game to justify a buy, considering we already have (and enjoy) the Stained Glass version. It still looks very pretty, though.
Deep Blue, Days of Wonder – the Days of Wonder of the year. This time it’s a push-your-luck game, with a diving theme, where players try to get the largest amount of treasures (and hence monies, and hence points) without getting hit by the lack of oxygen or harpoons. They start with a hand of cards that allows different actions and, to help them, they can recruit more people (get more cards) that will get them bonuses or additional actions. I liked it way more than I thought I would (it’s fun!), the production quality is at the usual very high Days of Wonder standards, it plays up to 5, and we ended up grabbing a copy (finding a non-German copy in the Asmodee shops ended up being a fail; we ended up finding a French copy directly at Days of Wonder where they had a few French boxes behind the desk.)
Amul, Lautapelit – we had played a prototype of that one last year under the name Silk Road, and it was a pleasure to see the final version and to play it again (with a group of people coming from Singapore!) At every turn, players get a new card, choose a card to put on the common market, pick a card from said common market, and play a card on their board, trying to gather sets and get actions that will eventually build points for the end of the game. The extra twist is that some cards only score when they are kept them in hand, and some cards only score when they are put on the table, yielding agonizing decision-making about what to do since it IS mandatory to put a card on the table 😀 Really liked it, and it plays up to 8 with mostly simultaneous playing; we grabbed a copy, and I’m looking forward to play it again.
Minecraft: Builders and Biomes, Ravensburger – a board game adaptation of, well, Minecraft. Players can gather resources by mining them in a cube of resources, discover tiles, reconfigure their board, fight monsters, and score points doing all that. It is actually a very good adaptation of the video game, it’s not very deep but I could see that one working well in a family with kids – both simple enough and strategic enough for everyone to have fun. It’s a bit sad that the cardboard bits feel very flimsy (and that the scoring markers are larger than the scoring tracks! Infuriating 😉 ) Not a buy for us, but I’m keeping it in mind as a gift idea for that kind of situation 🙂
Glenmore Chronicles, Funtalis – a game full of Scotsmen and Scotland places and whisky, where players build their settlements by getting tiles on a track, producing resources, using resources, and trying to optimize the placement of their tiles to be able to activate them at all. One of the twists is that players get negative points at the end depending on the size of their settlements (the more tiles, the less points), so they need to get “as large as necessary, but not larger”. I lost that game SUPER BADLY, but I still enjoyed it a lot, and we came home with a box. On top of that, there’s 8 mini-expansions within the game, that all come with their little box that looks like a book, and that’s completely adorable (and no, I don’t have a picture, but believe me, it’s adorable.)
Project L, Boardcubator – players start with small polyomino pieces that they can upgrade, downgrade or change to other ones, and objective cards for which they need to gather a set of polyominos making the shape of the card (a bit like a tangram). They keep their polyominos and typically get new ones, which allows them to build more and more complex objective cards – and hopefully get more and more victory points. It’s quite pleasant and the material is really nice; I think it might have been a buy if it had been available on the booth (but it’s not out yet).
Petrichor, Mighty Boards – a wonderful theme, since players get to play CLOUDS! They need to move around and strategize to rain at the right time on the right crops to get victory points. It’s quite brain-intensive because most of the actions have a delayed effect, but it looks really interesting, although I’ll definitely get an extra game or two to really get the feel for the game. We were on the fence for a while about getting it, but we ended up grabbing a copy at the end of the fair.
Dune, Gale Force Nine – yes, THAT Dune. I think this was the largest surprise for me this year. I tend to shy away from that kind of game that has diplomacy and alliances and mind games as a selling point. But we had a short talk with someone at the booth one of the evenings who was actually quite enthusiastic and selling it very well, so we ended up grabbing a demo game when we saw a table was getting free (while we were mulling over the Petrichor decision at the next booth). I was very, VERY lost at the beginning of the game because the explanations were somewhat confusing (to a very unpleasant point), but I finally got somewhat of a feel for the game and I ended up liking it a lot. The theme is strong, I played Harkonnen and I really enjoyed it, and it ended up being a game I reaaaally wanted to play again. They were out of stock on site, but they apparently had a bit of stock in an external warehouse; we ordered a copy, and it will hopefully arrive in our shelves soon.
On the Underground: London/Berlin, LudiCreations – a transport network construction game where players try to have passengers move to their destinations in an optimal way. We only got the 3-minute explanation, no demo game, and I must admit I phased out for most of it (I probably got tired at that moment), so… I kind of don’t know 🙂
Tiny Towns, AEG – a game where players gather resource cubes (via a common card mechanism) to build buildings on their own board using geometric constraints. I liked it a lot – we got a copy, which also unlocked THE GIGANTIC AEG BAG (people who ever went to Essen know what I’m talking about 😉 ). I don’t THINK it had anything to do with the fact that I nuked the rest of the table, score-wise, but it sure didn’t harm 😉
Curios, AEG – we usually don’t spend that much time on the AEG booth, and it may be a good thing, since we ended up buying this year the two games we tested by them! Curios is a game where players are trying to get the most value from artifacts that they can gather; the twist is that they do not know the exact value of said artifacts, they only have a few clues. It ends up being fun on a game theory level, and generally speaking quite enjoyable, short, and playing up to 5. We got a copy.
Little Town, Iello – players build a common city by adding tiles to a board and activating tiles around their player marker to gather resources (allowing to add more tiles). There’s nothing wrong with it, and it’s even a pretty good game I think, but it just didn’t click for me. I might have enjoyed it more at another moment, or, or, or (we’ll never know!)
Crusaders, TMG – I must admit the theme is not necessarily something that appeals to me, but I really liked that game. Players get to move, build or attack according to a wheel around which they move tokens to get actions that are more or less strong, and the building that they build make these actions stronger. The wheel mechanic is a mix between the one from Finca and the meeple handling of Five Tribes; the whole game does have a bit of a Terra Mystica feel, and we ended up getting a copy. And since they were out of the regular box, we got the Deluxe edition – which has metallic victory points and very cool minis 😉 (And a metal sword as a first player token!)
Wingspan, Stonemaier Games – I had been looking for an English demo of Wingspan to no avail on the fair – but thankfully a friend with whom we had shared a few cocktails in the evening found an English copy and we got to play it at the hotel bar in front of a couple of drinks 🙂 It’s a bird collection and engine building game, it’s gorgeous (THE EGGS!), it’s the Kennerspiel des Jahres for this year, and it’s absolutely deserved. We found another English copy by chance at one of the store booths, and we didn’t hesitate much before buying it.
Ganymede, Sorry We Are French – a racing game where players want to get their meeples from Earth to Mars to Ganymede, so that they can fly to galaxies far far away on their rocket ships. Quite pleasant, cool mechanics, but it apparently didn’t click enough to be a buy.
Bruxelles 1897, Geek Attitude Games – I was intrigued by the Art Nouveau art, so I was happy when we found a table. Players get cards on a grid that give them different advantages; the twist is that the scoring also depends on the placement on said grid, and more specifically on the majority of money spent by players in each scoring track (column of cards). I’m not sure why I didn’t like it more, because it had potential to tick a lot of boxes, and it’s objectively well made, but it really didn’t click for me.
Just One, Repos Production – the Spiel des Jahres for this year. As far as we could tell, there was only one English table (and a lot of German ones) – and, definitely, for a word game, English is better for us 🙂 It’s a light cooperative party game, somewhat akin to Concept (by the same publisher) – one player try to find words that the other players are trying to make them guess. All players get to write a clue, but if a clue is given by more than one player, it gets eliminated before the guesser has a chance to look at it! So clues need to be helpful but not obvious, and it’s generally speaking a lot of fun (and sometimes downright impressive). We got a box, because why not – it can be a nice change from Codenames 😉
Paris: New Eden, Matagot – in a post-apocalyptic Paris, players try to re-build settlements by finding a good mix of people to populate them. To do that, they get to choose actions associated to dice that help get said people – so they need to optimize the choice and order of the actions to get what they want. I liked it quite a lot, but Pierre wasn’t convinced, so we didn’t get a copy.
And for the other buys…
A copy of Prêt-à-Porter, at Portal Games – I had bought the Kickstarter on “theme + strong euro + Portal Games” and I got my copy delivered in Essen
Railroad Evolution, the expansion for Railroad Revolution, a game that we quite like – it seems to add a few mechanics, to “fix” what’s generally considered an overpowered track, and to be playable without much hassle on top of the original game.
Play Smart, a small book by Ignacy Trzewiczek (of Portal Games) about role-playing – I had enjoyed his previous two books, they’re funny (the guy knows how to tell an entertaining story – we went to see his seminar during the fair and it was both hilarious and touching) and that’s probably worth the read
Railroad Rivals – it was an Almost Buy last year, and it was on sale this year, so I didn’t resist 🙂
A couple of SPIEL t-shirts, because they had a design contest (based on their logo) and the result is actually quite nice 🙂
One of the video games I’ve played the most in the past year or so is Slay the Spire. Since it’s getting out of early access next week (and getting more expensive 😉 ), I thought it’d be a good moment to write a few words about it.
Slay the Spire is described as “card game meets roguelike“. The exact qualification of “roguelike” is debatable, but oh well 😉 It works as follows: you start with a character with a basic deck of cards. You enter a randomly generated dungeon – with a few constraints in the rooms you can actually encounter. For each room, you either have a fight, a merchant, a resting place, a treasure, or a random encounter that may or may not be to your benefit.
The fights are turn-based combats in which you play cards – either offensive or defensive. To play cards, you need to play their mana cost – you get, by default, 3 mana per turn (and the cards have integer costs 😉 ). At each round, you get at least an idea of what your enemy is going to inflict on you – including an exact number and strength of attacks – which allows you to make decisions on which compromise to make on that turn. Moreover, the enemies themselves are mostly deterministic: with a bit of play, you start knowing what’s in front of you and how you can beat them. The fight is over when either you or your opponent is defeated. If you are defeated, it’s game over: you’ll have to start a new dungeon run. When you win a fight, you get to add a new card (typically chosen between three) to add to your deck. When you win an elite fight, you also get to add a relic, which gives effects that stays between fights.
The game is split into three “acts”, all ending with an act boss, and the acts are getting tougher and tougher – but since you keep improving your deck and getting relics, it’s supposed to balance – if you play well, that is 😉
When you first start playing the game, you’ll need to unlock most of the features: cards, relics, characters. I don’t know if I’m too fond of the approach: on the one hand, it allows to get to know the possible cards and relics with a bit of time, which may help with the learning curve, and unlocking new content is fun; on the other hand, I remember being a bit frustrated by the speed of the unlocking.
The amount of content is pretty impressive. For the normal mode, there are three characters, each with their own cards and abilities. For each of these characters, you can unlock up to 20 “ascension modes”, which make the game harder and harder. And since the game is randomized, every game is a new challenge. (And yes, there’s a way to save a seed and to re-try a run.)
There are also two “special” modes: a “daily climb”, to which modifiers are applied and all the players can compete for the highest score, and a “custom” mode, where you can create your own set of modifiers to have fun with the engine. And I was just made aware of the amount of mods that this games has – including new playable characters – I think I’m doomed.
The annoying thing is that I’m still a fairly bad player. I played, according to the statistics, 200 hours; that gave me 36 victories and 204 deaths 😛 And I’m nowhere near running in the later ascension levels (I think I reached ascension 3 on one of the characters?). It’s a challenging game – and it’s, for me, really not easy to consistently create a reasonable deck, considering the randomness of the cards that can appear. The good thing is that a run is between 40 minutes and an hour, which is a fairly low time commitment (and, more importantly: a bounded one), especially since it can be split easily between rooms.
Overall, it’s a very solid game, and one that I continue playing. The community has some very nice things going on, there’s a lot of fan artwork, a statistics database, speed runs – you name it. The development has been very active during the whole “early access” duration, typically with an update a week, a lot of tweaking, re-balancing, and patch notes to which I looked forward every week. And any game that gives me 200+h of game play is definitely worth the money 🙂 Oh, and it runs on Linux 😀
We went, for the fourth time, to Essen in Germany for the SPIEL fair (and that was the 36th SPIEL fair, if I’m not mistaken). SPIEL (or, as we tend to call it, Essen, although Essen conference center hosts a lot more things than that… I hear they have a car fair as well :P) is THE fair for all board game players in Europe – 4 full days and, this year, 190 000 visitors – that’s quite a few people.