Article by Mike Siggins.
It was always going to be a bit of a flat year. With Friedhelm Merz's passing there was some concern for the show's future, a number of companies were in trouble, there was no pre-show buzz on any titles and the big potential release, Reiner Knizia's Tigris & Euphrates, had been pushed back to Nuremburg. It was also an even numbered year and Moskito, that reliable show barometer, were overdue for a duffer... As it turned out, Herr Schmiel bucked the trend but I still came away with an all-time low number of boxes without, as yet, an outstanding title. But while it was clearly not the best show I've attended, Essen produced, as ever, half a dozen games that should please most gamers while remaining an exciting and, it must be said, essential highlight of the year.
After Herr Merz's untimely death in July, pre-show rumours were rife that this would be the last Essen. Or certainly the last Spiel in its present form, and location. Merz was seen as a superb organiser and, importantly, a charismatic, unifying force; vital to contain the disparate genres, individuals and companies within the gaming market. Whether his deputies, notably Rosemarie Geu, can continue with his work, and more to the point wrestle with the feuding and temperamental behemoths, remains to be seen. My view would be that if the show is making money, and it should be (though this is by no means a given, with Merz's philanthropic reputation), even if a new organiser were to take over, it should be able to continue, perhaps in a new location. Any show with a hundred thousand paying visitors and hundreds of exhibitors just has to be a going concern, however high the cost of the halls. Indeed, taken at face value it would be hard to imagine it failing. But I get the impression there may be other forces at work here, and there have been rumours in the past over financial instability and insufficient bonding for the Messe's requirements, so it is a case of crossed fingers and wait and see.
And so, perhaps in an effort to sweep with a new broom, the layout changed radically this year. The two main gaming halls were unaltered, but the by now familiar stand layout shifted slightly. The other halls though were completely different. The upstairs was closed, and new, larger, halls were opened to accommodate the fantasy and science fiction, wargames, children's toys, cards and fleamarkets. I never did find the computer section, but I think this was a lot smaller this year or non-existent. With the floor space changes it was difficult to say whether the crowds were slightly up or down, but I would plump for the latter - if nothing else based on the much shorter queues in the mornings.
Either way, sales were either excellent, good, indifferent or downright pathetic, depending on who you spoke to. As the show contains so many types of games it is impossible to generalise, but to focus on our hobby it would be true to say things have changed greatly in the eight years I have been to Essen, culminating in this year's record low crop. Each year the number of middle or heavyweight games has reduced and the number of light, family games (and simple card games) has steadily increased. Now while they are fine for the market they are designed for, it strikes me that we have less and less to choose from - perhaps less than ten decent European games overall in 1996. Once the rich back catalogue is greedily snapped up by each new European gamer, his current and future pickings start to look decidedly thin. Oddly, I am largely ambivalent on this point. On the downside, it could happen that all decent game production stops tomorrow, but with designers of the calibre of Knizia and Teuber and what is still a strong market, this seems unlikely. On the bright side, I have had a good run for almost ten years, never failing to identify and buy at least six new, excellent games per year from the European market and I have no reason to believe this will not continue. Granted, I would rather have ten, or fifteen, but six is better than nothing at all and we always have the smaller players (Abacus, Franckh, Hans Im Glück, Moskito and so on) to rely upon for our next Modern Art, Siedler or El Grande.
Perhaps, like global warming, this could be a short term blip in a generally abundant market, or it could be that there is indeed a shift in emphasis from well designed games to thin, 'disposable' titles with high saleability and low persistence. To strengthen the point, one despondent, but knowledgeable, German gamer at the show announced that he thought no large European company (the likes of Ravensburger, Schmidt, ASS, Jumbo, Parker, possibly Amigo and so on) would ever produce a decent game again and that this was the outcome of a strategic move to simple, throwaway lines. One need only look at Ravensburger's recent form to see evidence and, perhaps, proof of this. Personally, I remain confident that there will be at least some future games from the major players that we can enjoy as gamers, but that they will be few and far between.
I don't think for a minute one can point to collectible card games, or even computer and roleplay games, as the cause of the shift. In fact, it has surprised me how few of the big companies went into the field - a function of shrewd conservatism realising it would be a fad, or simply too slow and bureaucratic to react? We may never know, but I don't think there has been much of a switch of either creative effort or buyers away from, say, Ravensburger. People who were going to buy Vegas will still buy it, even if there are 10 million Magic cards in the very next hall. That's the public, but the hobby has certainly lost a number of people who will now play nothing except Magic, and whether they will return is an interesting question. It seems to me though that the CCG market, and mania, has now stabilised to the point where, as with D&D before them, CCGs have just become another part of the overall hobby. Still a big part, without doubt, but one that merges well, offers an alternative gaming form to all types of gamers, and is now looking set to offer crossover benefits to offset the well known disadvantages.
I have no doubt that there is still a pile of money to be made in CCGs (look out for the X Files and forthcoming licences), but the shake out has started and I now detect a sense of maturity coming through from retailers, buyers and publishers. My conclusion is, and always has been, is that Magic is so far ahead of the pack that although there are tasty scraps to be had, most of the prime meat has long since been eaten by the Wizards lion, with the Decipher jackal and the small fry coming along behind. This is fine, and to an outsider, an interesting spectacle - again with remarkable similarities on all levels to the D&D boom. For me, as long as the local retailers can survive any future drop in card revenues, and live on their, what should be by now, well lined nests, we should be fair set for a return to relative normality. Certainly the mad crowds of cardies that threatened to envelop the whole of Essen last year were noticeable by their absence. Perhaps they were all off playing the million dollar tour.
The other identifiable development was economic. Several major companies were reported to be in trouble and White Wind, Alan Moon's normally reliable source of new gamer's games, announced its closure at the show with a sale that saw most of the remaining stock rapidly sold off at bargain prices. Elsewhere, Ludodelire and ASS are rumoured to be in dire straits or already dead, but while the former were nowhere to be found, ASS (or at least a representative organisation) had a small presence. The other rumour concerned Queen, which I will stress is completely unsubstantiated, but since they took over half of one of the large halls they must at least be going out with a bang. A related concern is that several companies were not present because of the high stand prices. Walter Muller, for one, would have liked to have been at the show, but could not afford the asking price. This is one angle for the organisers, and we members of the buying public who love the diversity and depth of traders, to watch carefully.
All this contrasts with the other, generally positive, trend which was for lower prices across the board. Okay, so we Brits benefitted from an unusually buoyant exchange rate, but even so game prices, and therefore income?, were both definitely down. While not exactly giving them away, I didn't see one game that made me think, "Mmm, expensive", a lot fell into the very affordable DM20 to DM50 band and others still were pushing them out for silly money. All this before the dealmakers got working on bulk buys (ie 6 or more!) and knocked the prices down still further. The best example of all this was Eurogame's Serenissima - a sumptuously produced game that would not have looked expensive at DM 100 last year. It was marked for retail at DM60, and was eventually sold in bulk for DM35 after negotiation. The words 'Can't miss at this price' and 'Bargain' were oft heard around the stands - all in a marked change from recent years. Perhaps the recession is still biting in the German games industry, and with company failures in the wind there was a slight air of corporate desperation and then pleasure when we carted off boxes full of new releases. All this should mean that you find some good bargains in your local game shop and that prices are once again returning to the level where a speculative purchase or two doesn't seem quite such an ordeal. Let's hope these same companies offering major discounts survive to keep us well supplied in the future.
Caveats: As usual, this is not, and never could be a comprehensive list of the new games at Essen. It is a mix of the non-abstract games I either spotted, tried out or thought might be of interest to the readership at large. Inevitably I have missed some titles, but I guess not too many. Prices where quoted are those charged at the show (£0.42=DM1.00=$0.65) and you should expect to pay more by the time they reach your gaming table (but since an Essen trip is going to cost you at least DM400, you can take any savings with a pinch of salt).
(games in bold are recommended and in italics are considered strong contenders for recommendation)
1x1, purveyors of Zundstoff and Mogelei last year, did not appear this. No conceivable link with their overly generous freebie policy or debatable game quality is suspected or intimated.
2F Spiel is Friedman Friese's operation - the man with green hair who, occasionally, keeps us enthused with interesting and highly original games. Last year's very poor and therefore disappointing release, Foppen, was still on display and our Friedmann accordingly had nothing new. But his mate did. Ignoring for a moment anything Siedler related, there were two buzz games at the show. Serenissima was one, TransSib the other. The latter could be found, as a limited edition of 300, on the 2F stand for DM90. Or DM75 because it was at the show. Or DM60 if you smiled nicely and complimented Wucherer. Or even DM50 if you bought it in bulk. TransSib is a game about the Trans Siberian railway, but for once there are no tracks, trains or stations to build - this ones action, like Orient Express, takes place within the carriages. Each player takes the role of gangleader for the Russian mafia and aims to convey a range of contraband goods along the route, selling when beneficial and protecting them from rival hoods. The game involves a lot of interaction, duels, throwing people off of coaches, prices that constantly shift, and groans as the train reaches Moscow and you haven't made quite enough money. Sadly, due to time pressures I didn't get to play this one but I did watch it for a while. However, everyone else in the group rated it as one of the best at the show and it was a universal hit among the English speaking contingent. So much so that they translated the rules into English, at the show, especially for us. If you want my initial hunch, it is that TransSib will fall into the FlussPiraten camp of needing to pick on people and hurl them overboard (your call on the acceptability of this aspect), and that the mechanisms, as with his colleague's Falsche Fuffzigger, looked a little mechanical. Final judgement is reserved until I get a chance to play it.
Abacus had two new games. XXL is another in the series of small box card games but, as the name implies, comes with a pack of large cards. These are marked up with two numbers, in different colours and sizes, and the number combinations are carefully worked out. The difference, and following Mu's success, is that the box contains six games. Two trick taking, two based on losing cards and two placing games. The trouble was that none of them were particularly interesting or novel, representing, as do most of German card games, a minor tweak on an established card mechanism. Even so, I look forward to trying these again away from the noise and smoke of the halls - if they are anything like Mu they could easily grow in stature with further exposure. The other game, and a great white hope for many, was DownTown - winner of the annual German game design award and retailing at a very reasonable DM45 given that it has a huge bits factor, and sports outstanding art by the ubiquitous Doris. The theme here is town planning, and draws on elements of Metropolis, Sim City and Boomtown. Your aim is to buy shareholdings in various plots around the city that will eventually have value as either residential, business or industrial sites. Needless to say the inhabitants don't wish to live near a factory, but they do want to be near their office - you can guess how it goes from here. Each player takes it in turn to be the mayor, and can sometimes influence zoning decisions, but generally you bid, place and hope for a lucky break and occasional income. I looked at this game twice at length to keep my enthusiasm up (as by that time it had become the only candidate for a good, solid, big box game), and then finally sat down to try it. In the end, I was neither disappointed nor enthused. The game is okay, but nothing more, and it has no major weak points in play. But then it has no strengths either. If I had to say what was wrong with it, it would be that it is processional, largely repetitive and almost completely fails to engage on any level. There is nothing new here, and it is all rather obvious - a phrase I consistently overuse but which is best summarised by saying that if a journeyman designer sat down to design a game on Subject X, this is the sort of thing that would emerge after the required time input. There is nothing clever, no twists, no depth, no real development - and accordingly no desire to play it again. It has been made to work, but it has not been made to shine.
Amigo are the up and coming company in Germany. Riding the phenomenal success of 6 Nimmt and now flaunting their Magic distribution deal, if you were to believe some at the show, they are rapidly closing in Ravensburger and the other big players. I can believe it, but on the evidence of most of their range, it will not be based on the quality of their games or their timing - most of the new range had missed the Essen deadline by two weeks. As for quality, if I may tell this true story, you will get the message. Having played three disappointing card games with an Amigo demonstrator on the stand, I asked him if he could suggest any better games. He said, unprompted, "The others are worse!" and would not even demonstrate Hot Dog because he disliked it so much. The best of the bunch then was Wizard, a straight re-issue (with new artwork) of the American nomination whist variant and SchwarzMarkt, a 'thin' small box game which involved selling goods on the black market. There is an element of bluff, and some pricing strategy, but that is about all and the whole package barely reaches 'okay' but we shall try it again away from the madding crowds. At least it wasn't in a big box with corresponding price. The other games varied from tolerable but pointless - Janus and Big Bum, Little Bum - through to the good idea with asinine gameplay in the shape of Lifetime. Janus has a set of symbols on double sided cards - sometimes they match, mainly they are different. Your aim is to collect three of a kind by taking cards from other players or from the stack. When you have three, you lay them down and try for another prial, ad infinitum. This could continue all night. Lifetime is potentially a very good idea, properly handled, but was probably the worst game I played at the show. Each player is dealt seven cards with numbers between 00 and 99. One player takes a card from the deck which shows the lifespans of six famous people. He looks at his cards and chooses one of the people - let's say Marco Polo. He then places a year card down, eg xx24, that lies within the confines of Marco's life, about which the other players, unless they know their history, are kept in the dark. The other players then play cards valued on either side of all previously laid cards, trying to keep within the confines. Once a player goes outside of the approved range, he picks up all the cards as penalty points and you start again with a new 'scorer'. Of course, even if you have an idea what you need to play, you may still not have the card so you find yourself laying your 'best' card in the vague hope it will be okay. That's it. As far as I could see, there was no skill whatsoever in this game and, as a colleague said, you may as well play Animal Olympics.
ASS had nothing new, but Top Race continues to sell well. This has grown to become my joint favourite of the series with Daytona, and the betting addition really had made it a new game.
Bambus spiele had no new releases, but were again selling Flaschenteufel for DM10, a little card game from last year that I have only recently come across. It has a good theme, a number of nice ideas, again representing slants on the traditional forms, and which either entertains or annoys me in roughly equal measure. Despite three or four games I have not yet worked out quite why - but I suspect it relates to how good your hand is - so this one will have to await further investigation.
Blatz had nothing new.
Jacques Bonaventure were showing a 'new' cycling game, Giants of the Road. I say 'new' as the game is a re-issue from the 1950's and had mechanisms to match. While it was not quite roll a dice and move, it was not far off. It is however extremely attractive as it comes with a number of large plastic cyclists - the ones that you can find at French and Italian seaside resorts being raced around the beach by children. I resisted this one.
D Vision had a an interesting game on the subject of the triathlon - TriTime. It was almost a case of deja vu as we looked at the board, the shape of the tracks and the event spaces as it all looked strangely reminiscent of Lionel Game's Men of Iron. Fortunately, there were marked differences in the movement system and the way in which the winner was decided and, when you think about it, any attempt to design a triathlon game is going to produce some similar features. All that would be fine if the game were any good, but it really boiled down to 'turn a card, read it and move'. Since the cards had lengthy German text, this one quickly joined the list of eliminated possibles.
Das Spiel had a very attractive range of abstract games - Barbacan, Baubylon, Boomerang and Wabanti - superbly produced in wood with commensurate price tags. Wabanti seemed to be the best of the four, from the explanations I received, which you will know as the Reinhold Wittig game that is played with nuts (as in bolts, not conkers).
db Spiele, the backpack people, had nothing new for Essen but were selling their latest game, Premiere, which I think is up there with the best they have done.
Doris & Frank, much to my disappointment, were largely living on the kudos provided by the success of Mü. Nominated for both the Spiel des Jahres and German Game Prizes, and re-issued by Amigo sans two of the games, they probably felt, quite rightly, that they could have a quiet year and count the piles of money coming in. No consideration for we fans, I reckon! They were however not completely idle and as well as a new edition of Eselsrennen, they produced Pico, an aptly named two player card game that is close to the ultimate in minimalism. Pico comes in a bag and costs just DM4. It has around a dozen playing cards and is as simple as this: each player gets half the cards, five I think, and plays them one by one against the other player. You are trying to win the cards with points (similar to the Mü system) by beating the other player's lay. You do this by playing a card higher than his, but if you are more than twice as high, you lose. That's it. Good fun, over in about a minute, and I think the apposite term is either "trifle" or "folly" depending on your view.
eg Spiele, from Italy, had a pretty duff selection last year, but have picked themselves up and produced probably the best overall range of the show. Leading with games by well known designers, they had Reiner Knizia's Palmyra and Alex Randolph's SiZiMiZi as well as the interesting, but rather derivative, Pithagoras and the oddly Marrakash-like Ponte Vecchio. Palmyra is a good game overall, and represents yet another twist on the 'buy low, sell high' stock market mechanism. But this one has a Knizia twist, and accompanying originality, and therefore deserves instant attention. I enjoyed a it lot with the single reservation that I felt a turn order problem, in a similar fashion to Manhattan, stopped it being an outstanding game. Full review in the magazine. SiZiMiZi is an abstract game that doesn't feel very abstract and, for those that can relate to this, does a near perfect impression of being Wurmeln's wiser, more satisfying, older brother. The idea is to place and connect seven anthills with lines of marching ants. Each player is trying to do this and the net result is actually quite intriguing as the ever changing lines shift tactics, move anthills and change direction. Good, possibly very good. Pithagoras I didn't much care for, but again this was a success with the others in my group. A sort of Hols Der Geier card game that has been converted to a race format where you don't always want to go forward because of hazards. Okay, but not great. Like Fanfor below, all these games now come complete with English rules which is a welcome development and if they manage to tighten up the graphics, which vary from excellent (Ponte Vecchio) to dire (Pithagoras), eg spiele could well be a force to be reckoned with. Oh, and they are cheap at around DM35 each.
Eurogames have clearly benefitted from the injection of cash and creative control from Jeux Descartes and had what for many was the highlight of the show - Serenissima. This is an interesting game, and ignoring for a moment that its subject (renaissance trade routes in the Med) is right up my street, I want to have a quick look at Gamer Craving. Step One, and I'll admit I started it in this case, is to have the game airmailed to your house based purely on the designer's reputation (Condottiere), the theme and the bits. Step Two is to spend an age faxing the rules to a kindly chap in the States, in this case Mike Schloth, who does a rapid translation, even taking a day off work to do it. Rules are emailed back to the buyer who does not have time to read them before Essen. Step Three is to post the basic information on to the Net to increase the pre-buying fervour. Step Four is to walk into Essen and find that not only does the game have superb plastic bits, it has combat and trading and forts and little galleys into which you can place the goods and marines. At this point it all goes a little mad. Bearing in mind that no-one has even played it yet, people start lining up to look at it, fondle it or buy it. But unless you are mad, you can't buy it until the bulk purchase is ready to be executed. So you wriggle a lot and put it off for a day or so. At the end of the day, twenty-odd gamers buy the game, unplayed, on the offchance that it is any good. And fortunately it is. Based purely on a half hour run through in the noisiest hall, the game passes muster and should be somewhere between good and very good. It is not great, but it is good. More than that I can't say until I have played it fully. Also on the Eurogames stand was Das Geheimnis auf dem Nil (Mystery on the Nile), one of those deductive logic games to work out who perpetrated a foul crime. Not my scene, but again lots of people enjoyed it.
Fanfor's stand remains one where I have to be very careful to remain anonymous. The owner, Valentin Herman (or Vlad the Impaler as he is now widely known) still, to this day, has a bee in his bonnet following my review of the execrable WaldesFrust. This runs along the lines of, "If you see von Siggins, send him here and I will stick his fat head upon a pole outside my castle". His thrust is that while it is okay to offer negative reviews on games from large companies, I should not review his poxy games. Why? Because he is a small publisher and I could put him out of business. Which is, as you might expect me to say, so much hogwash. Firstly, I have nothing like the weight required to put him out of business, nor would I wish to. Secondly, I call them as I see them, whether they are from MB, Ravensburger, gamekits or one man bands. Thirdly, it matters not a jot whether a game comes from a small or big company - it still needs to work and the same consumer's money (and often more money for a comparably sized game) is required to buy a Vlad Special. And if that should be a duff game, in my opinion, then I will say so. This hopefully allows the buyer to make an informed choice and I aspire to nothing more. Right. Moving on to the point, which is that Vlad had some good looking games this year. Indeed, in many respects X Pasch was one of the more original games at the show. It was also very good value at DM20, so I bought two - one to supply the wooden blocks for my forthcoming cycling game. I also liked the look and play of his Pluschtown, a children's game with some nice ideas, and Brauerei, which had some interesting systems for making and selling beer to the market, but at four hours I decided to pass - but for that reason only. Now all this may surprise some, but despite his views, I have always held out hope for the man. I thought WaldesFrust, Nacht Der Diebe and Geweihte Steine a complete waste of paper (and wood), but I liked Hacker and elements of New Land. So every year I put on a monocle and fake moustache, and check his stand out. This year I struck gold. X Pasch is a very good little game. It is sort of an abstract card and dice business game type affair, which delivers plenty of interaction, some interesting decision making and is, as far as I can tell, quite unique. It has been well designed, to a point, and although it is a little long and possibly slightly too luck based, it is pretty darn good. Vlad hasn't gone the extra mile, but we can probably do that for him as he's such a thoroughly nice chap. But because I am me, I will go into the failings and strengths more deeply in the review. Good stuff though, a seven out of ten or better, and recommended. Cripes! Siggins endorses a Fanfor game. Whatever next?
Fiendish Games' Breaking Away, the excellent little cycling games by John Harrington, has now reached its second edition. It has improved components (the riders now fit more easily on the track) and some rules tweaks, but remains the much the same essential purchase it was before, but now more so.
Franckh-Kosmos, inevitably, caused me some trepidation. Would they have produced anything new or would they be milking the now ridiculously overblown Settlers all the way? And would the new two player card game be the same old system or a truly new design? And did I really care? Well, yes I did, so I strolled bravely past the Siedler t-shirts, baseball caps and enamel badges, brushed off a flyer for the forthcoming sailing expansion while taking a quick look at the computer game and movie clips, to see what they had. And the answer was, umm, just the Settlers Card Game and, ahh, we only brought 3,000 to the show. Is it me or are they certifiably bonkers? Anyway, armed with this information we shot off to the discount area and picked up half a dozen copies without even waiting to see if it was any good. As they say in the markets, I felt the game, at just DM20, would have good residual value... Needless to say, they sold out very quickly and many people were disappointed. So, here's the pitch. The bad news is that it is still identifiably Siedler. However, I expected no more so we'll not worry further on that one. The good news is that while I didn't get to play it properly, I saw enough to say that a) it is very different from the 3/4 player version, b) I like what they have done and c) I may well find myself enjoying this one a lot more. Without listing what will inevitably appear in the forthcoming review, they have changed a lot: there are event cards, new systems everywhere, new building types, ritter heroes, a new commodity - gold - which can be swapped for anything, the thief has been neutered (yeahhh!), and the whole thing is driven off a special dice. I'm intrigued, not least because this has all been done not as a collectable card game (though they could easily sell more card types) and because it uses some rather good images, courtesy Franz Vohwinkel and his computer graphics package. I am not 100% sure why it wasn't designed as multi-player, but I guess they didn't want to cut across the existing sales and we can always tweak it to see what is possible. Either way, this was a pleasant surprise, one that cheered me up for the whole show and set the tone for what, while disappointing on the games front, was a very enjoyable three days.
Franjos, a company unafraid of the abstract, had two new games: Pow Wow and Sabotage. The latter is a reworking of a Robert Abbott game called Leopard that can be found in his seminal New Card Games. It is a diverting, but very abstract, little two player game which involves laying lined cards on a mat. I survived about two minutes against a skilled operative, you may have more luck with it. It felt as if it might be very good if my brain would only allow me to find out. Pow Wow is a little more to my taste. Six indians are dancing around a wigwam and you have secret stakes in one or two of them, a la Heimlich. But unlike Heimlich, that interest can change before you can manoeuvre your man across the line in first place. Movement is conducted through the wigwam which contains five segments, each with radiating numbered circles. Each turn you may move any pebble down further into its segment and move that number forward. If the number is black (50% chance) you may move the indian backwards. When all the rocks have reached the edge of the wigwam, they reset to the middle and we go again. First one round wins. There are some tweaks, but broadly that is it. Okay, but too abstract for me, so I was happy enough to play it at the show.
FX Schmid had no new adult games, but pulled a marketing masterstroke by releasing Boing! - large tin drums that were beaten mercilessly by small children throughout the show. This would have been fine, but FX Schmid were located directly opposite White Wind, the traditional meeting and hovering place for those of us with rather more sensitive gaming tendencies. The temptation to take one of the drum sticks and insert it forcefully into an FX Schmid employee grew relentlessly... Meanwhile the rest of the stand played Reibach & Co, which is reportedly selling well, and it was even possible to ask for Nix für Ungut (a pan-linguistic pun on "No Offence!") but to be told it was 'not available at the show'. And indeed it wasn't. Every year there is a black hole that eats a decent Nuremburg release - Take It Easy, Traumland, 6 Nimmt - and this year it was Nix's turn. It could not be bought anywhere, least of all on the FX stand. Which is a shame, because it is a rather nice little filler system.
GoldSieber, having splashed at Nuremburg with Entdecker, Ab die Post and Carabande, had nothing new for we impoverished gamers. They did have four new children's games though - Hallo Dachs, Bananas, Maus im Nacken and Phantasia.
Hans im Glück have now really made it. Predictably, they rode El Grande's double win of both The German Game Prize and Spiel des Jahres with an unrestrained display of success. Not only did they have their usual stand, and a troupe of poncy grandees walking around the place, but they also took a whole chunk of the first hall usually occupied by Parker - moving up in the world, are we? The game had dropped to DM35 around the show, at which price it is a bargain compared to the DM80 of last year. Nothing else new then, and we await, possibly like nothing else for years, the arrival of Tigris & Euphrates at Nuremburg.
Hexagames had some of the best news at the show, but will sadly be unable to convert it into cardboard until December. Some years ago Hartmut Witt showed off a prototype ice hockey game that had everyone who saw it raving. Not only was it a good hockey game, but it was a rather good card game as well. At last, it is due to appear as Dream Team - a sort of fantasy team game which, we are assured by the designer, is still playable as the original if you can ignore the pictures. Now this is good news. They also had Shaolin and Druiden, again by Hartmut Witt, which await English rules.
Historien Spiel Basking in the glory of his Spiel des Jahres 'close run thing', our Jean pushed the boat out with Aeronautika, a sumptuously produced game of an air race from London to Paris and back. The game contains a number of super little wooden biplanes, about three inches long, an Eiffel tower and the usual loopholed rules. The other drawback is the price. DM240 in a wooden box, DM180 in the tube. Even if it were half that price I wouldn't have bought it until I have seen the game working properly - a pipe dream at best. And finally, does it strike you as fitting that after the many games that Jean du Poel has produced with disastrous rules, that he should finally succeed with Carabande, a game which requires virtually none at all?
Jumbo had nothing new.
Kuhlmann had a re-issue of their medieval wargame from some years back, Welfen and Stauffer II.
Ludodelire may, or may not, be dead. They did not have a stand, and have not to my knowledge produced the Hungaroring track to complete your Formule De set.
Mayfair had a big display of their ever growing range of 18xx games, the Sim City card game and were also selling Chris Lawson's impressive range of 18xx gamekits. My highlight was meeting Jay Tummelson who I have been conversing with on the Internet, and who brought me a set of the little metal locomotives that they sell. These, made by GHQ, are superb and now sit on my shelf ready for use in any number of railway games. Inexpensive, too.
Moskito were due an off year, and the pre-show word was that the game was simple and light hearted memory game for kids. Sing Sing is precisely that, but it is by no means a disaster. Okay, it is designed for children but we sat down to see how it worked, and it was actually good fun. Neither had Karl-Heinz skimped on design - despite its simple mechanic, there was enough here to keep the kids happy and the adults at least laughing. The game is about getting prisoners out of jail. Each prisoner is covered with three bars - wooden sticks of varying length and colour. In turn, each player visualises the board and then puts on a blindfold. The next player removes one of the bars, or when exposed, a prisoner. It is the blindfolded player's job to decide what has gone missing when he looks at the board again. If you get it right, you get to do it again. Eventually, the prisoners will start to escape and you need to collect three of a kind, or three different, to win. Quick, fun, thoughtfully designed and a must for fans of memory games. I passed, but was tempted.
Piatnik, usually a 'go to' company as they provide a regular supply of surprising and good games, let us down badly. Discounting the light and lucky Ostindien Company, by the wretched Vanaise, we were left with nothing else to try.
Professional Motor Sport, who had a low key success last year with DTM, had the new track ready and were selling extra cars quite cheaply. They also had full English rules and, thank goodness, the definitive answer to the bleedin' black flag dispute that has bugged me for a year - and I don't even play the game. The answer is that if you get a black flag on the last lap, you must go to the pits and cannot win the race. Your fault for going too fast. Not yet ready, but coming, are the special timing device and, holds breath, the Formula One variant. Looking forward to the latter.
Queen had a lot of their old games greatly marked down in price (Die Hanse and Dampfross for DM20), had a huge stand and very little else. Terra X has been renamed Exploration, but is still a Wildlife Adventure re-issue, except this time you are exploring for natural sights instead of animals. The stand would have been a complete wash-out were it not for the fact that one of the walls had a poster of the forthcoming Dark Minions expansion for the Middle Earth card game, including Wormtongue, Bill Fearny and some even better artwork and card text than before. Not that I had any interest in this, oh no, I just seemed to stand there for half an hour going wow, look at this card, and this one, ohh and look at THIS! I must say I came over all a quiver.
Ravensburger had Ex & Hopp, a quick, very light little card game that has been getting some play round here of late and Der Schatz von Mrs Jones which turned out to be a sort of strange mix of Jumbo's Tutankhamun (the one where you 'dig' down through the cardboard layers) and Maulwurf Company. For kids, really. Ex & Hopp is about as simple as card games get, and will not tax your brain too much. But it was fun and has not been jeered off the table too often.
Schmidt were strangely quiet and had very few true boardgames, emphasising puzzles and their headline release, Sculpture, which involved making a head out of hundreds of layers of cardboard. Their catalogue listed Marco Polo - a game by Wolfgang Riedesser, always a name to look out for, but this turned out to be a simple travel game which was available in four or five different editions - Italy, France, UK and so on, but didn't seem to have much in the way of gameplay. If anyone knows different, please let us know.
USPCCo had preview packs of the forthcoming X Files collectible that has all the signs of being somewhat Cluedo-like, so this one may well appeal to the fans of deductive games. They also had Mus at DM20, a traditional Spanish card game which comes with a special, and very attractive, set of cards, and some metal scoring 'pips'. We had the game demonstrated, and I bought it immediately as it represents a good mix of bluff, calculation and fun. English rules are already available and a review will follow.
Warfrog were back with two new multi-player releases: Goblin King and Medieval Empires (DM40 each). I was able to play neither at the show as they come in at around three to four hours each, but I came away clutching both games for testing when I have the time and the right combination of people. Look forward to reviews in the magazine.
Winsome are rapidly becoming one of the most productive companies in the hobby. They had three major releases for Essen and are talking about ten new titles next year. Can't wait. TrainSport: Austria is an interesting new railway system that receives a full review inside, and we can look forward to new maps for this system which, I predict, could well make a major impact on the middleweight area of railway games populated by xxxxRails and Railway Rivals. US Rails is another of those useful cosmetic system upgrades, this time for Rail Baron, and finally there was the long awaited Tracks to Titicaca.
White Wind have, sadly, folded and their presence at Essen was purely to say goodbye and sell off all remaining stock as they run down to a close in the early part of 1997. Although I had known this was a possibility all Summer, the threats of closure were interspersed with announcements of possible new ElfenXXXX titles and thus a reprieve. But it was not to be. The end of an era, my 1200 Club membership is no more, and we now have to hope that the already completed designs, any new ideas and hopefully even some of the back catalogue are snapped up by other companies. While their more recent releases have been less than sparkling, White Wind have produced some excellent games (see the company summary in a recent issue) and even if they had done nothing else, we have Elfenroads to be eternally grateful for. They will be missed.
To conclude, I would say that for the first time there wasn't a standout, must-have game of the show. There were however a handful of good games that will keep the wolf from the door until the New Year. My personal choices would be Serenissima, X Pasch, Palmyra, hopefully Settlers: The Card Game and, potentially, Dream Team when it comes out. Others who played it would add TransSib and I may yet concur. In the possibles camp are the Warfrog newies, SchwarzMarkt, Mus, SiZiMiZi, Pow Wow, XXL, Downtown, Brauerei, Nix für Ungut, Druiden, Mystery on the Nile, Flaschenteufel and Sing Sing.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell