The Siggins Principle, which states that Essen alternates regularly between good and bad years, predicted that this would be a good show. True to form Siggo was spot on the money. It has been many years since Essen produced such a large crop of great games.
It is perhaps unfortunate that many of the large production games are a wee bit on the dry side. Fine games, all, but a bit short on the silliness factor. Don't get me wrong; I think several of these are destined to be classics (or, at least, in the running for that lofty title) but an entire evening of them is a bit much.
The big winners of the show, for me, are Euphrat & Tigris / Tigris & Euphrates (Reiner Knizia, Hans im Glück), GIPF (Kris Burm, Don & Co), Texas (Dirk Henn, db Spiele), and Arabana-Ikibiti (Günther Cornett, Bambus). Each of these is a game of territory and placement with a very abstract feel and only the thinnest veneer of theme. Tigris & Euphrates comes the closest of the three to pulling off its theme of civilization development and empire building but, in the end, the theme fails to engage and it is just a very good game of tile placement.
Canyon by Fredrick A. Herschler (DM 30) is a re-issue of the old 3M game Bid & Bluff. It is an attractive package consisting of a unique board for recording scores which depicts the canyon in question and cards used in competitive bidding which controls movement through the canyon. I passed on this one but will probably go back and pick one up as Alan Moon has been raving about it and it sounds like it has a good pace and nice interaction.
Kismet by Wolfgang Panning (DM 13) is a card game. The scuttle panned it and I never got a chance to check it out.
Dream Team by Hartmut Witt knocked around Hexagames and other places for years. It is another hockey card game and those that have play tested it say it is great. Abacus added a fantasy veneer to the game, probably inspired by the fanciful Phantoms of the Ice, a very successful hockey card game.
Adlung are the publishers of Speed, a kind of head-to-head Set, which has found a great following amongst the Set-heads in our local game crowd. This year they have three new card games on offer. Adlung also scores huge bonus points for including English, French, and German rules in all their games!
Loopino by Karsten Adlung (DM 10) is a card tossing game. Players toss their cards at a target card. A number of cards laying uncovered near the target are scored each round. The number of cards scored has to do with the kind and number of symbols uncovered on the cards nearest the target.
Snap by Aczél Zoltán (DM 10) is an unusual card game. Play proceeds through two phases. During the cold phase, on their turn players draw then discard one card. Ont their turn, any player may call out "Snap," discard one card, and thus signal the start of the hot phase. During the hot phase, players discard cards as fast as they like. If at any point the top two cards on the discard pile are of the same color, the hot phase ends (strangely enough, and this may be a problem with the translation included with the cards, the hot phase also ends if any player does not wish to discard any more cards). The winning color is determined by the top card on the discard pile. Player score the face value of all cards held in that color. They also collect all of the single digit cards from other colors which match the winning color single digit cards they hold. All of these additional single digit cards are also scored. The cards are also unusual in that the backs show the numeric value of the card but not its color. You can scope out your opponent's hands for single digit cards that you might be able to collect if you can successfully nominate the winning color.
Elements by Marcel-André Cassola Merkle (DM 10) is an alchemical card game that is very similar, in some respects, to Reiner Knizia's Medici. There are five colors with 11 cards per color. Each player is dealt 11 cards so in a five player game all cards are in use. If fewer are playing, the remaining cards are set aside. During the first round of play, players bid to order the five colors. Each player in turn places one card face down next to a card representing one of the five colors. When all colors have a card next to them, they are revealed. The colors are re-ordered to indicate the order of precedence. In the second part of the game, players bid for each of the point cards which were previously used to set the precedence of each of the colors. A player may use up to four of their cards to form a bid for any point card. The high bid is determined using chart which essentially orders the cards first by point value then by color.
This familiar player has recently become the official German distributor of Magic: The Gathering in Germany. They are supporting this core product with some other great card games.
Power Play by Tom Dagliesh (DM 10) is yet another re-issue of Slapshot/Phantoms of the Ice. If you haven't caught this great ice hockey card game in one of its earlier incarnations, be sure to grab a copy now.
Bohnanza: Erweiterungsset / The Gourmet Expansion by Uwe Rosenberg (DM 5) adds three new kinds of beans: coffee beans, cocoa beans, and brandy beans (a kind of German candy combining both coffee and chocolate). The new beans improve the three player game by adding a new short suited bean and make it possible to play with up to seven players by adding two long suited beans. I've played several games with seven players using the new expansion and I'm very happy to report that the game may even be better in this new mode than it was in the old five player configuration! You gotta get one of these.
Elfenlands by Alan Moon is promised for Nuremberg in the Spring. This is the long anticipated re-issue, after a fashion, of Moon's Elfenroads, a much sought after collectable. The board is gorgeous and the game play is speedier than in the original. (I'm still bummed that they took out Lake Siggins and the lovely Becker-Tidwell Marsh, favorite Wintering spot for giant pigs throughout Elfenworld.)
Bambus wins the entrepreneur award for fast action in the face of high demand. Their Arabana-Ikibiti was intended to be a ultra-short run of only 50 copies in preparation for a full scale release from Heidelberger at Nuremberg. The three way push of a great review in Pöppel-revue, an early Game Cabinet translation of the very promising rules set and a "best I've seen at the show" recommendation from Frank Nestel combined to create unusually high demand.
Günter Cornett rose to the occassion and managed to construct more copies even as the queues of eager gamers grew around his booth (you can read all about it, in German, of course, on the Bambus web site). I'm not sure how many copies Bambus ended up constructing on the fly but each day they would swear that they would have a few more around noon and that would be that. Then all of those copies would quickly sell out and the constant stream of disgruntled gamers all afternoon would convince Günter to make another print run for the next day! I don't know that Günter got to see much of the show but it must be nice to be wanted!
Arabana-Ikibiti by Günter Cornett is a great little abstract board and card game. Players seek to dominate an archipelego of islands. There are two cards for each island on the board. Each turn a player draws one new card and has the option to play pairs of cards to either build or take down bridges between the islands depicted on the cards. The player who controls the absolute majority of bridges onto an island gains control of the island and removes all of their rival's bridges. But those bridges may be rebuilt or bridges may be removed so islands can change hands several times during the game. The game is scored three times, once after every iteration through the pack of cards. The player who controls the most number of islands scores the difference between the number they control and their opponent controls (wouldn't just scoring the number of islands you control give you the same result?). Players can clearly see that another round of scoring is coming up and card counters can even spot the vulnerable parts of their overall plan - but can they do anything to hold on to their territory? A great game and if you missed out on Günter's limited run be sure to check out the general release from Heidelberger in the Spring.
Twilight by Wolfgang Werner was a card game that I didn't pick up, though I would be interested in hearing any comments about it. The basic theme is a conflict between cults of the sun and the moon.
Nanuuk by Günter Cornett completely slipped by me. How did I miss this one? Was it really there, Günter?
Mixtur is a German edition of the French game, Elixir originally published by Asmodée. It is a beer and pretzle fantasy card game in which players attempt to assemble all of the ingredients for a potion and then toss the completed enchantment on the other players. The artwork is amazing and the game looks quite clever. I'm still waiting for an English translation but Asmodée promises that one is in the works as they have plans to publish an English edition soon.
This new game company made up of friends of Doris & Frank launched their first game at Essen.
Quartier Latin / Latin Quarter by Dagmar Wolsing and Birgit Stolte (DM 16) finds the players setting up bars, discos, restaurants, and the occassional toilet in this fashionable district of Paris. Players launch new businesses and attempt to get them fully capitalized. Their opponents place hazards such as ruffians, leaky pipes, and flue epidemics in their way. The game is good fun and very much in the mold of those popular favorites, Mille Bornes and Grass.
Up until this year, db-Spiele distributed most of their games at Essen out of a backpack! With last year's huge success of Showmanager (in its Queen Games edition that garnered a Spiel des Jahres nomination), db's games moved onto the shelves of several in-show game shops. Dirk and Barbara also manned a fixed location in the used games hall that made it much easier to track them down. db games are hand made in small quantities but achieve a higher quality than most commercial US releases. The small supply makes the prices on these fine games extremely volatile unless you order direct from db.
Texas by Dirk Henn is a tile placement game with each player's placement options restricted by their small hand of cards. The theme is a struggle between farmers and ranchers (more in the Oklahoma mode than Texas but what the heck its in the right neck of the woods). Players score points by building large orthogonally contiquous blocks of tiles. Points scored are the square of the number of tiles in a block. Tile placement is controlled by cards which are displayed openly. Each player also has a number of appeals to the local Law who can reverse the ownership of key spots on the board. But when all of your appeals are gone you are left at the mercy of your better connected opponent. Good fun, plays fast, lots of strategy, may be a bit too dry for some but I really like it.
Iron Horse by Dirk Henn is also a tile laying game but with a railroad theme. Tile laying is similar to Linie 1/Streetcar but the tiles have a fixed orientation. There are a number of railheads arranged around the perimeter of the board and a city located at the center. The goal is to connect your railheads to either another railhead or the city at the center by the longest possible route. The hardest game to buy at Essen with the entire stock selling out in the first few hours of the first day.
GIPF by Kris Burm (DM 45) is one of the most entertaining abstract games I've played in a long time. Check out the micro-review we ran in the last issue for more on this great game. Kris plans to release a series of games that all mesh together into a larger game. It sounds like an exciting project and, with luck, we may see more of it coming together over the coming year. If you don't buy one now, don't come crying to me in a few years when these Don & Co editions are collectors' items.
Doris was frighteningly busy this year doing art for just about every big game released anywhere on the face of the planet. This, of course, left Frank free to design another true gamer's game! Ursuppe was completely sold out by Saturday afternoon and reports from American game shop say that they are continuing to sell just as fast as they can be manufactured. Frank also wins the award for producing the first board game (that I am aware of) that requires a hammer for assembly.
Ursuppe / Primeval Soup by Frank Nestel and Doris Matthäus is a break from the usual style for this dynamic duo. Small clans of amoebas struggle to survive in the primordial oceans at the dawn of time. Each clan has a small cache of points to spend each turn in order to buy unique adaptation, new abilities, or just increase the size of the clan. Each turn each amoeba must consume some of the food bits on the table then, discretely, excrete food bits which match their clan color. If there is not enough food to eat then the amoebas start to die. Another lean turn and they are removed from the game! Ursuppe is a break from the usual Doris & Frank mold along several fronts. It is more complicated both in terms of basic rules and the various powers and abilities that are offered for purchase. The game is also quite a bit longer than their usual fare, with three hour playing times being somewhat the norm till all of the players become familiar with the game. The scoring system can be particularly unforgiving during a players first few games as it takes very few mistakes to effectively drop out of contention for the win (has anyone come up with a variant scoring mechanism that can keep most players in the game till the end?). There is a lot going on in the game and it seems to be winning a huge following amongst American wargamers.
Pico 2 by Frank Nestel and Doris Matthäus is an update to their small card game released at the last Essen. Frank wasn't happy with the card distribution and this release includes his fixes.
Ciao, Ciao by Alex Randolph (DM 25) was, the Drei Magier Spiele games always are, a beautiful little game. And it was by Randolph. But my suitcase just wouldn't hold any more. It looked to be a game about bugs tight rope walking across the jungle on vines (but I wouldn't swear to it). Did I mention it was pretty?
Inauen is a Swiss company that offers a number of sports card game and one game dealing with sea critters. Sorry, folks; I went with the sea critters. We'll just have to get Siggins back in the saddle so that we can offer a more balanced coverage!
Sea Life by Adrian Inauen is a simple little game of pattern matching. The players create a small web of sea life, with predators consuming prey and growing in value until someone's predator manages to slip away without being part of another animals mid-day meal. The player who controls the lucky sea creature scores all of the points for the things that it consumed. The strategy derives from the fact that some sea creatures are more likely to connect with the web than others.
This game inventor cum company specializes in non-competitive story telling games. Moritz demonstrated a food game wherein the players draw food items at random and try to come up with a meal plan based around what they have drawn. Jos picked up a copy of their Orca game which features photos of the Puget Sound pods. Moritz plans a book on his interesting and decidedly counter-cultural games for some time later this year.
This eccentricly capitalized game company specializes in abstract games from the old New York school inspired, and sometimes lead, by Sid Sackson.
Mark by Ronald Corn (DM 50) is a game of manufacturing using recycled materials. Players are rewarded for keeping small inventories of goods for sale but are also rewarded for entering the market when demand is high. The game explores these twin tensions of green business. Cleverly, the pieces are (or, at least, appear to be) recycled materials like small glass bottles and the like.
HABA specializes in games for the very young. Lacking progeny of my own I find it very hard to review these games (though they have the distinct honor of having published the only duff Teuber game ever created - I'm suspicious that it was heavily editted on the way to publication - I believe the technical term in "improved by the publisher"). As such, I can't really comment on any of these games and, generally, give this fine publish an undeserved miss.
Bernd Brunnhofer has grown this big little company into the premiere producer of gamer's games in all of Germany (well, quite possibly the world).
El Grande: dos Großinquisitor & Kolonien / Grand Inquisitor & Colonies by Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich (DM 25) is the third installment in the El Grande series. This expansion finds Spain colonizing the New World, working the Silk Road, and flattering the French court. Play requires the basic El Grande game and this set may be combined with the earlier expansion, König & Intrigant, or not, as the players see fit. As always the production is quite good. The additions to game play look quite good. Relocating pieces is made much more powerful since the new provinces are easiest to reach by relocation and also because there are special seats in those provinces. The easiest way to produce a vacancy in one of these special seats is to transfer the cabalero currently occupying it to Seville for the Summer.
Euphrat & Tigris / Tigris & Euphrates by Reiner Knizia (DM 80) has been anticipated for quite some time and does not disappoint. The game is set in the Fertile Crescent between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Early civilizations are emerging and your goal is to nurture the balanced growth of those first kingdoms. Players attempt to score an even balance between four different colors of points by laying tiles to indicate both growth and the placement of their four leaders. This game has everything: back stabbing politics, huge monuments, hidden treasure, and art by Doris Matthäus.
The leading Dutch game company, Jumbo publishes many traditional games and also imports game designs from the US and Germany for the Dutch market.
Duden (DM 75) is a word game which is known as Oxford in its English edition. These are great games for improving vocabulary in your native tongue or any language you happen to have mastered to a fairly high level.
Kosmos continued to ride the Settlers juggernaut with a fine array of promotional items. According to reliable rumor mongers, the upcoming Settlers release scheduled for Nuremberg will be the last Settlers game set in that particular time period. Strong hints were laid, and somewhat confirmed by the Cheops promotional game, that the system will expand into other eras in the development of the Game World of Klaus Teuber (TM).
Whiskey Settlers by Klaus Teuber (DM 45) is a clever repurposing of the basic Settlers game to a new setting, the highlands of Scotland. Instead of toiling away to settle a new land, the players try to construct the best and biggest whiskey distilleries! The raw materials have been changed over to peat, water, grain, rock, and wood. The board pieces are no longer simple hexagons. Instead, they are cleverly shaped pieces that imply an orientation and allow for a more artfully designed board. Every board tile is individually rendered so that even pieces of the same basic type have a slightly different graphic. The tiles are very similar but water tyles replace sheep, rock tyles replace ore, and peat bogs replace clay. The knights become highlanders but the robbers are the same all over the world. Very nicely done and packaged in a metal cylinder one would normally expect to contain a nice bottle of whiskey. This is a very limited run commisioned by Glen Grant. Kosmos arranged to offer a small number for sale at Essen but, if you act fast and have good contacts in Germany, you may just be able to get hold of a copy.
Cheops by Klaus Teuber (DM 10) is a Settlers game set in ancient Egypt. Players toil under the hot sun to not only build new roads, villages, and cities but also to raise a mighty pyramid. The game was offered as a poster with a number of typos. Perhaps Kosmos will make it available in a more playable, and portable, format sometime in the future.
Caesar & Cleopatra by Wolfgang Lüdtke (DM 30) began life as a Risk card game. Apparently, the publishers of Risk have already licensed a card game based on their property so our intrepid game inventor went elsewhere with a new theme. Instead of the various continents, we have Romand senators. Instead of armies arrayed on either side of those senators, we have influence peddlers. We still have special mission cards that reward with various numbers of victory points. Despite the makeover the game looks to be a good two player beer and pretzel romp and is nicely produced (though, perhaps, over priced for a card game).
Halunken & Spelunken / Scoundrels & Dives by Alex Randolph (DM 40) combines many good ideas from earlier Randolph hits. Players stumble from one waterfront dive to the next, trying to avoid the roving bands of bully boys, while attempting to deduce the identities of their opponents.
Die Macher '97 by Karl-Heinz Schmiel is a refinement of the classic game of German election politics. This is a handsome production with lots of improvements to speed game play and allow for more players. A must buy for all true collectors and players who like longer, more complicated games with strong themes.
Kings & Things by Tom Wham was not ready for release at the time of the show. This new edition will feature all new art by Doris Mathaüs. Watch for it by Nuremberg.
Pseudon is a Dutch company publishing small runs of new designs. Games are packaged in proper cardboard boxes with nice cover art. Bits are of the small press run variety. Rules are in Dutch and German - no English, unfortunately.
Track Gammon by Christian Freeling is an interesting backgammon variant. Each of the playing pieces is assigned a size. A smaller piece may not leap over a larger piece, though it may land on top then hop down on a later turn.
Subsidie / Grant by Theo Jansma finds the players competing in the backstabbing world of government grants. Players must claim a grant then work to complete both the application process and the actual work before another player either steals the grant or gets the funding cut off.
Erfenis / Inheritance by Theo Jansma is good family entertainment as the players compete to inherit the eight different parts of their elderly, and very wealthy, uncle's estate. There are different mechanism to compete for each of the different parts of the estate. Players must time their run at the uncle to best coincide with the hour of his demise, constantly balancing cozying up to him versus pressuring him for a re-write of his will.
Queen has a reputation for great production in their games. The Terra-X debacle (they used the name of a popular TV series as the name for their new edition of Wildlife Adventure then last the subsequent trademark dispute) doesn't seem to have slowed them down.
Showmanager by Dirk Henn is the repackaged edition of db-Spiele's Premiere. This is an interesting little abstract game with a theater world theme. Players must hire actors to stage one of several plays. Each actor can play in one or more of the productions and can execute their roles with varying box office impact. You don't have much cash so you need to get your actors as cheaply as possible. The trick is that you can only hire two more actors than you need to stage your next production so you need to decide early on which play you are going to produce. Loans can be taken from plays that you have previously produced but the winner is the player who has the most profitable plays.
Die Kette von Saba / The Queen's Necklace by Martin Ebel is a beautiful game but too dry, long, and lacking in player interaction for my tastes. The players are reconstructing an ancient necklace recovered by archeologists. As the jewels are added to the necklace players score points based on the number of other jewels which are adjacent to the new jewel. The adjacency rules are unique and somewhat complicated to explain but easily dealt with once they are understood. Players bid for jewels during the early part of the game and, since the players spend victory points during the auctions, a player may win the game by just selling jewels during the first half of the game if bids are going high enough (I'm pretty sure I could have won the game I played in this way if I hadn't paniced and bought the last few jewels. Shrug.).
Ravensburger is still the dominant player in the German game market. Their acquisition of FX Schmid has only served to improve that position. Ravensburger has traditionally focused on the children's games market. In recent years, the number of releases for the entire family have fallen off to a very slow trickle except for the very successful Think series. The Think games are brain teasers, word games, and other entertainments involving mental gymnastics. The series is very language intensive so we haven't seen any of them turn up in translation. Maybe Allan Moon will fix this if he gets involved with Ravensburger's American line of games.
I didn't get a chance to check out the two recent Ravensburger releases that might be of interest to Cabinet readers, Fiasko by Reinhard Staupe and For Sale by Stefan Dorra. Any news on these games would be greatly appreciated.
Schmidt seem to be taking a dumbing down approach not unlike the large American game companies. Their line for the last few years has been dominated by action and party games.
Visionary by Ron Dubren wins the award for the game with the gaudiest promotion: spandex clad booth bimbos in blindfolds. The game itself is kind of cute. One player is blindfolded. Their team then draws a card and tries to describe the construct depicted on the card to the blindfolded player. The blinded player attempts to reconstruct the construct as described using oddly shaped wooden bits.
Our esteemed English colleagues serve as a clearing house for all things obscure and English at Essen. And they do a fine job of it, always turning up new and interesting games.
Office Politics was not quite ready for release at show time.
Traffic Lights is a nice little Tic Tac Toe variant involving different colored markers (red, yellow, and green - hence the name) that must be upgraded through the color range. The larger board variant (which adds an extra row or two of squares) was recommended.
Splotter is a Dutch start-up with a fine new line of video-cassette boxed games. Playing pieces are in color with reasonable, but not stunning, artwork. Each of the games comes with rules in Dutch, German, and English!
Web by Jeroen Doumen and Joris Wiersinga is a tile laying, network building game built along a theme near and dear to the Game Cabinet's heart: the World Wide Web. Players struggle to connect as many computers as possible to each of the precious modems. Good fun, some nice strategy, and the fact that the network goals (the modems, in this case) are placed as part of the tile laying distinguishes it from the other tile games on offer this year.
D'r Af! by Bram van Dam, Mirjam Gorter, Herman Haverkort, Evert-Jan van der Kaa, and Joris Wiersinga wins two awards: most designers and best trivia question for "what does D'r Af! mean?" The answer is, of course, that it is the sounds a model car makes as it rolls off the end of a table in Dutch. This is a very silly, rock 'em, sock 'em, auto racing game. Players are racing blindly down a highway with all sorts of obstruction (including jump ramps, caltrops, slow moving trucks, speed traps, and oil slicks) popping up at the last minute. Each player holds a small hand of tiles. On their turn, they add to the unfolding race track. The game ends when any one player pulls far enough ahead or the track runs off the end of the table. Its a beer and pretzel game, for sure.
Roads & Boats was on display in prototype form (and I believe orders were being taken but at a prohibitive expense). All I know about the game is that it is packaged in a large wooden box (containg a great many bits) that is used as part of the playing surface (once all the bits are unpacked).
Svea Rike is a highly recommnded new game from this Swedish company. The game chronicles the travails of the Swedish nobility right up to the time when Sweden invited Napoleon to place on of his generals as their king. Players attempt to place them in a strong enough position to save Sweden from this emberassing international incident. Stunningly, Target brought no copies to the show. Equally amazingly they are attempting an English edition but, instead of just adapting the game mechanics to the English royal succession, they have been trying to shoehorn in the American presidency. Great game but I have my doubts about the publisher.
Lords of Creation by Martin Wallace was not ready for release at the show. The art and components of this new edition of Warfrog's premiere release is top notch and will be worth the wait. Its unclear how long that wait will be, however. Perhaps we will see a releaes for Nuremberg but we may have to wait till next Essen.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell