Essen, Spiel 95

Report by Ken Tidwell.

Essen was a bit of a mixed bag this year. Good company and good fun but the games were a bit weak. To some degree this was as expected and partly stems from the recent emphasis on releasing games at the Nuremberg Toy Fair and, for me, their subsequent play at the Gathering of Friends in May. So some wonderful new games, such as Die Siedler, and some nice looking games, such as the Goldseiber line, were old hat by the time they arrived in Essen.

Still there were some sleepers and nice surprises. El Grande from Hans im Glück is a solid game that suffers slightly from a flurry of German on special event cards. DTM Hockenheim lead the way on (almost) affordable but overproduced games. Künst Stucke from Moskito took top honors in the abstract category. And lead a crowded field of new card games that included Speed (a two person, duel version of Set), Flaschenteufel (an interesting little trick taking cardgame), Mogelei (a lying game that just doesn't seem to work despite sounding like it probably should - perhaps there are a few missing rules in the early translations), Olé and Foppen (two variants on the same theme - Olé just edges Foppen out but both are a bit light).

The Scene

There were several interesting social events, as well. Annie Shillabeer from Essex had the honor of leading the first all female team in the Interteam international games tourney. Annie was still a bit steamed that the tournament's organizer had introduced them as the "girlie team." She was pleased that her team had placed somewhere in the middle of the pack despite being notified that they would compete at the last minute. It seems that Annie's team moved up from an alternate slot when Richard Garfield withdrew the American team when he discovered they would have to play several hours of Nomadi, Reinhold Wittig's latest offering from Blatz, as part of the tournamant. Good call, Richard!

Rudolf Rühle organized another game collector's meeting and this year's theme was cycling games. The meeting is held in German, of course, so I followed very little of it until Rudolf suddenly yielded the floor to Mike Cliffard who was taken completely by surprise but gamely rose to describe his statistical simulation of the Tour de France. It was the first time I've ever seen Click Miffard stumble for words - especially during a sales pitch!

My wife, Jocelyn, and I spent one evening in beautiful downtown Müllheim visiting the Sumo Regulars. These ratbags take over an attic room in an aging hotel, spread out over several tables, pour the finest spirits that can be acquired at the convenience store on the corner, and get down to some serious gamage. I got in one game of DTM Hockenheim (with requisite thirty minute rules discussion) and the first of many abortive attempts at Mogelei.

DTM Hockenheim has great atmosphere and an interesting game system. I'm not sure that it's worth its 100 DM price tag (he says as he eyes a conspicuous three foot long tube across the room) but it is a fine effort. I'll leave it to Tim to pass final judgment, however. A copy is winging its way to him via Moon Air so we should hear something from him in the next few weeks.

In any case, the Sumo Regulars are great fun to game with and only a crazy man (well, a lunatic really) would ever turn down an invitation to game with them. Say, someone like Alan Moon. Refusing to make the trek out to Müllheim has become something of a point of pride for the Moon-man. However, assisted by the lovely Annie and my own young wife, I managed to persuade Alan to sign a contract agreeing to make the trip next year. This was quickly witnessed and duly notarized by the quick witted Richard Garfield so I believe it will stand up in court. If not, Richard promised to circulate a rumor that Alan is selling dirt cheap moxes. We shall see.

Alan How and Mike Clifford swept across the hall cutting deals as they went. A tip of the hat to these two fine lads and their formidable negotiation skills.

Yes, well, that's all well and good but what about the games, eh?

The Board Games

El Grande - best of show. Invented by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich and published by Hans im Glück (aka the House with the Midas Touch). This is a territory game vaguely similar to Vendetta in that the board is divided up into several regions and the players compete to have the largest population in each region. El Grande has several very interesting and well balanced systems at work, however. Each player holds a set of cards numbered 1 through 13 that are used to bid for control of one of five event cards each round. Each bid card can only be used once per game and bids must be unique within a single round. The bid cards also control the movement of playing pieces from the general store to your hand. Players bid to determine the order in which they will pick one of five event cards on display each round. The event cards also control how many playing pieces may be moved from your hand to the board during that round. The only random element in the game are the event cards themselves which allow you to relocate the king (which restricts where you can place pieces on the board), rearrange pieces on the board, add more pieces to the board, score regions out of turn, and many other interesting but uncomplicated actions. If you bid high then you have a lot of control over which event card you will play but you will quickly starve your hand as the high bids do not move pieces from the general store to your hand. A low bid may stick you with a less interesting event card. The whole thing holds together very well and involves just enough strategy to feel like you have some control but not so much that your brain starts to smoke. Nice bits, to boot. Highly recommended.

Elfenwizards - Invented by Alan Moon and published by White Wind. Looks very good but I haven't gotten a chance to try it yet. I tend to concentrate on the games without English rules while at the fair.

Kunst Stücke - Invented by Karl-Heinz Schmiel. Published by Moskito. This is a very nice looking, very abstract game. Players place and move abstract shapes on a grid in an attempt to group them according to scoring chits which the players choose throughout the game. Recommended if you can deal with the purely abstract. Since Sumo liked it I think most folks will be able to overcome the dullness of the pure abstraction.

Symbioz - Published by Unicorn. A French game with the requisite price but with components more reminiscent of American efforts. This is an ecology game where players attempt to set up systems of critters that will allow them to breed and maintain that rare beast, the Symbioz. Recommended by Catherine so I had to check it out. I'll report back after we get a few games under our belts.

Zündstoff - Published by 1x1 Spiele. Funky little card/board game of space exploration. Happy little prisoners are being rocketed to their deaths in rocketships that cut through a hyperspace that twists and turns as play progresses. Wacky but not as fun as it sounds. Results of card play is just as random and uncontrollable as hyperspace.

The Card Games

Tricks - Invented by Alan Moon and published by White Wind. This is very funky trick taking card game with a very odd scoring system. Each player starts with an identical deck of cards. Cards are offered for sale and each player buys a hand. One card is used to bid for trump and declare the number of tricks you will take then the hand is played out along the lines of Hearts or Spades. The scoring chart is elaborate and I'll leave it to someone better versed in mathematics to work out whether Alan is being clever or just winging it.

Rainbows - Invented by Alan Moon and published by White Wind. Looks very good but I haven't gotten a chance to try it yet. Emanuel Soeding claims this was the best of the new White Wind games. Perhaps we'll get a review from him soon?

Speed - Invented by Reinhard Staupe. Published by Adlung Spiele. Head-to-head Set. Two players race to empty their hands by matching cards by color, shape, or number of small icons on each card. Each player holds a hand of three cards which are replenished constantly as they play onto two discard piles. To discard a card must match one of the three attributes of the top card on a discard pile. A good variant on Set without the dealer handicap. Jos liked it (but she always wins at Set).

Flaschenteufel (Devil in a Bottle) - Invented by Günter Cornett (from an idea by Robert Louis Stevenson). Published by Bambus Spieleverlag. A simple trick taking card game with an interesting twist. Cards are numbered 1 to 37 and marked with one of three colors. Card 19 is reserved, marked with the devil in a bottle, and one card per player is dealt under the devil to form a kitty. The remaining cards are dealt out. One player leads and all others must play a card of the same color if they can. The player that plays the highest card that is still under the card holding the devil takes the trick. If no card is below the value of the devil card then the highest card overall takes it. Some cards are marked with small bottles and values. These cards count against the player that takes them in a trick. The last player to take the devil is excused all of these penalties and is rewarded with a bonus equal to the values in the bottles on the cards under the devil. The cards are a bit flimsy and the art, in the words of Mike Gray, is so bad as to be considered fine art. Even so Allen "gotta have it" Howe quipped, "I would have bought one at 10 DM." The price was, in fact, 10 DM.

Olé - Invented by Wolfgang Panning. Published by Abacus. In this game players try to get rid of all of their cards. Your play must be either a higher number or higher color than the previous play. Color order is shown on the cards. If you can't play then you must take a penalty chip. When one of the players has discarded all of their cards then the others total the values of the cards still in their hands and add 5 per penalty chip.

Foppen - Published by 2F Spiel. Very similar to Olé except that this one is played out as a series of tricks. The player that plays the lowest card in a given trick sits out the next trick. First player to discard all of their cards ends the hand and all other players score the cards still in the hands. Out of the two, I preferred OlŚ but not by much.

la strada - Published by H. Fries Spiele, Kūnigsbrunn. A nicely produced game of street (well, we would say neighborhood) construction with a happier, more middle class view of the world than Wucherer. More or less an abstract game of keeping up with the Joneses.

- Invented by Doris Mathaus and Frank Nestel. Published by Doris & Frank. Vaguely similar to Was Sticht in that it is a trick taking game with a complex system for bidding and card acquisition. Beautiful cards and the best hedgehogs yet. More on this one in full review.

Mogelei - Published by 1x1 Spiele. Game of bluff and deception that allows the players to count cards and see right through all bluffs and deceptions. Another poor showing by 1x1 (unless we've missed a rule somewhere).

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell