Essen 97 - Better Late Than Later

Report by Kurt Adam (

Well, it's only been 4 months since Essen, but I'm finally getting around to doing my report on the show. Some of you may have read my report from last year, which was my first. This year I got to play old hand while showing my wife and the Banklers around the amazing Spiel fair. First of all, I'm glad that I went again this year, since I feel the crop of games was better. Also, since I'd already been there once, I felt a little more able to deal with the sheer size of the fair. Plus, it's nice to see some of the gamers and designers that I know through the net, Sumo, The Game Report, etc. that I wouldn't see otherwise since we live in different countries.

I'm sure everyone is well versed now on what the hot games were (for those keeping score at home: Ursuppe, Tigris and Euphrates, and Fresh Fish were the pick of the show for new games and the new version of Die Macher was great as well). I generally fell in with the consensus on those. Since that's already been covered, I'll thought I'd talk about some of the people I saw, and some of the less known games I tried. As to pictures, I'm continuing in my trend of last year in getting shots of all the designers I can to let everyone know what the people associated with these names on their boxes look like. Two interesting random bits were the two Tamagotchi board games, and the Settlers Card Game tournament (with a top prize of 100,000DM).

Our group's base of operations was the mighty Savoy. If you go to the fair (or Essen in general), you should stop in for dinner. It's to die for. If you're a carnivore, order the Ritter Pfanne, and you'll be in heaven.

We got in two days before the fair opened to the public. However, the day before the show opens, exhibitors and press can enter to get the jump on things. It definitely pays to have connections, since a press pass (or an exhibitors pass) gets you in free, early and through a side door! We met up with Doris and Frank (publishers of the aforementioned Ursuppe as well as Mu, Igel Argern, and a bunch of other great games) and Dagmar and Matthias (who I'd met the year before and got to know better at last year's Gathering). You can tell from the picture that the show hasn't opened yet due to the combined clues of 1) light from the giant retractable door that was letting very cold air in and 2) lack of cigarette smoke. Believe people when they say that the fair gets smoky.

We took advantage of our early entrance to rifle a few of the used game dealers for good deals. This is a big attraction of the fair, since you can find games that are impossible to get over here for nothing at the used stands. Thanks to Jacqui's near Sparrow Hawk qualities we were able to score quite a few good deals.

After wandering around with Alan Moon (here playing Arabana-Ikibiti with a very nice friend from Bremen) for a while, we hooked back up with Matthias and went to his and Dagmar's house in nearby Kettwig (the nut without the jacket is Brian Bankler). Their home town lies on the river and is very beautiful. It was originally supported by weavers and the town put up this fountain a few years ago. The water pours down to make it look like a loom.

Anyway, back at the fair the next day, we snuck around the side avoiding the line and got down to business. I first worked my way back down to the used dealers to catch up with Barbara Weber (the 'b' in db spiele, here with the 'd', Dirk Henn). I'd done a deal with her to get a slew of copies of Premiere (nominated for the Spiel de Jahres last year in the Queen Games edition named Showmanager) and Timbuktu. After throwing a whole bunch of marks her way for that, I gave her more for their two new offerings, Iron Horse and Texas.

Iron Horse is the better of the two to me. It's a networking/tile-laying game (somewhat like Linie 1 without the race at the end). The outer edges of the square board have starting spots for the player's railroads (evenly distributed around the board). The tiles show crossing track the twists and turns around. The object is to make the longest set of disparate tiles that either end at the edge of the board (for 1 point per tile) or at town in the center (2 points per tile). A bit dry for some, but I find it very enjoyable to see all the snaky rail lines build up as the game progresses.

Texas is an abstract game about a battle between the cattle ranchers and the sheep ranchers (Alan Ladd is not in it, however). It can be played by two or four (with two player teams). The board is a grid which starts with the sheriff in the center. Each player has a set of cards that move the sheriff around the grid printed on the board in different directions and distances. If you can move the sheriff onto an open space, claim it for your side. You also have a limited number of opportunities to convert a space marked by the other side to your faction. At the end, the contiguous groups are totaled up and most points wins.

After the db spiele adventure, it was off to the Hans im Gluck booth to try to get a chance to play Tigris and Euphrates. We eventually did thanks to the Herculean efforts of Manu doing a running translation as we played with two very nice Germans. Special kudos to Hans im Gluck for at least attempting to have German rules for the two new releases (Tigris and the revamped Die Macher). They didn't end up getting them together in time, but I finally got them in the mail a few weeks ago. Also, after hearing rumors of a special deal, I packed the Castillo from my original El Grande. It turned out to be a good thing since in exchange for giving them my Castillo, I got a new Castillo, a free copy of the new expansion (Grossinquisitor & Kolonien), a new set of the disks you use to select regions that would actually lay flat, and a Hans im Gluck tote bag.

We didn't get to play Tigris that day, but we did meet up with our esteemed editor and Reiner Knizia (my picture is slightly fuzzy since it decided to focus on Hans im Gluck chief Bernd Brundhoffer, but that's Reiner on the left, the Texan, and half of Jacqui to the right). Goldsieber had their stand nearby complete with a Carabande set up (using at least three copies of the basic set and two of the action set), a giant Mississippi Queen (with dolls for the belles) and prototypes for Lowenherz and Mississippi Queen.

Back the next day, we checked in with Doris and Frank (left to right: Frank, Ottmar, Doris, Matthias and some foreigner) to find that both Ursuppe and Quartier Latin were selling like hotcakes. Quartier Latin is the game that Dagmar designed with Birgit Stolte (left to right: Dagmar, Birgit, Matthias). The game is a fun team game (4 or 6 players) that has you trying to develop business in the Latin Quarter while sending hooligans and bombs against your opponents. It is one of the many games that Doris did the art for in this year's release crop (she claims that it was too much to do this year).

We wandered over to the Bambus stand to check out Arabana-Ikibiti. When we first arrived, Frank dubbed it best of show (although I don't know if he still holds that opinion), and Alan Moon raved as well. Despite the latter dubious recommendation, we queued up for it only to find that they had sold out and would need a few hours to make up more copies.

A quick stop at the press room for a drink, a sit down, and a bathroom break enabled us to run into the traveling sideshow that was the British contingent. Mike Clifford was running the show in lieu of the sadly absent Mr. Siggins. I hooked up with Merfyn Lewis, his daughter and another of their friends (whose name eludes me, I'm sorry to say), and we gave one of the new Ravensburger games, Der Zerstreute Pharao, a try. It's a memory game where there are a bunch of symbols distributed into holes in the box and then covered with a grid of pyramids with one space left. A set of cards show which symbol you're looking for, and each player takes turns moving one pyramid (15 puzzle-style) until the piece is found scoring points for the player who reveals it. In addition, you're supposed to turn the box so that it faces each player on their turn in the same direction. A bit of brain pain to say the least.

The group of us wandered back over to Bambus, but there were no Arabana-Ikitbitis to be found. Next door, however, was franjos. We sat down to try out their new offering, Mark. Talk about heft factor! The game is about recycling and comes with bits of cardboard, plastic caps, glass jars and bottle caps. The idea is that each player is running a recycling service and trying to turn a profit with the detritus they're brought. On your turn, you roll two special dice which give you a choice of types of refuse that you can operate on. An operation can be bringing in a new piece to your center, processing one in your center, or putting it out on the market to earn money. The market works such that you earn more the later you sell your goods, but you can't wait too long or the game could end (when 4 of the 5 types are filled out). You're also penalized for keeping too many things in your center, so there's pressure along each stage of the pipeline to keep things move. Most money at the end wins. I enjoyed the game, although it's very light. Others cast aspersions on me, but I got it pretty cheap since Merfyn worked a deal for a group of us. (Thanks, Merfyn!)

After all this, I ran off to the collector's meeting. The subject this year was Wolfgang Kramer. The meeting is kind of a tricky proposition since it's all in German (of which I speak about 10 words - all gaming related), but it's nice to see the games and the people. Manu ended up going with me and translating on the fly as much as he could through Herr Kramer's southern accent. It certainly made the meeting a lot more interesting. Thanks to Manu for service above and beyond the call.

One interesting tidbit from the meeting was the reason that Terra-X's name was changed to Expedition. Apparently, there is a German educational television show named Terra-X. Queen thought that they could work out a nice cross pollination deal between the game and the show, and so named the game Terra-X. However, the producers of the television show wanted a 25% of the sales of the game, which was far more than Queen was willing to pay, so they had to change the name and scrap thousands of copies of the game.

After the meeting, I wandered back to our secondary base of operations, the F.X. Schmid booth to pick up Alan Moon (since he was doing the corporate businessman act). They had one strange game there called Plumpsbar. It came complete with four little plush teddybear figures that were used in some way in the game. I never found out exactly how the game worked, but it was certainly interesting to see. Another kids game that they had was Flohzirkus. Alan, Jacqui and I played this one with a friend of Alan's from the German F.X. Schmid. The box serves as the playing surface and is divided into four areas with a hole in the middle. Each player has a set of chips that they try to flip into the different areas tiddlywink-style in order to have the most chips in a particular area. It was pretty fun, especially given the ability to knock other peoples chips out (at least if you have any more tiddlywink ability than me). There were some special chips included that would negate a whole area, which could be pretty brutal when used effectively.

Alan, Anja, Marion and I hooked up with two of Alan's German friends (Fred and Sabrina) and we decided to go see what Piatnik had to try out. The two games that we did try didn't go down very well with the group.

The first was Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race. This was a trick taking game where the two suits represented the two rowing teams of Oxford and Cambridge. At the end of each hand, the Boats would be advanced along the river (shown on the score pad) depending on how many tricks were played in that suit. Each player also got differing points for tricks depending on whether that team was further ahead in the race. The mechanism was somewhat interesting, but got bogged down with the same problem that I have with Trumpet in that just about the time you've got something going with the tricks, the hand is over and you need to reshuffle and redeal, often completely negating your previous plans.

The other game was Bronco Ranch, which I liked a bit more than Alan and some of the others. Each player received a mat showing their horse pen divided into a grid. Throughout the grid is pen is filled with horse tiles that are square with colored edges. When you place a horse into your pen, you must make sure that all the connected colored edges match up. There's also a mechanism that allows you to play offensive cards to screw people out of horse. We didn't play this one to completion.

Reconfiguration happened again and this time the group consisted of Richard Breese (designer of Keywood - here (left) with Graham Lipscomb, designer of Creeper and Colliding Circles), Keywood Cheeves (namesake of the aforementioned Keywood), Ken Tidwell (our Esteemed Editor), Marion and myself. We tried to get in a game of Showmanager (so that I could teach it to Ken), but couldn't find a copy not being played. We settled down to a table with Die Kette von Saba and played that. In this game, you're reconstructing a necklace using different tiles showing configurations of jewels. The jewels are in a number of different types (four or five) and denominations (1 to 4) and there are two of each jewel tile. The board shows the necklace with holes where the jewels will be added. The game is in two phases, an auction phase where you can acquire new jewels and a placement phase, although you can place jewels during the placement phase instead of auctioning them. If you opt for this, you can get more points than waiting until the placement phase. The points for placement during either phase are determined by the number of contiguous jewels (in orthogonal directions) and the number of jewels on the card. The necklace is symmetrical, so if you place your 4 pearl tile down in the top left then the other 4 pearl must go in the upper right. The game didn't quite grab me since you got caught out most of the time having to auction things from your hand that you'd just picked up just to keep from putting down something that may be worth more later. Not a stellar effort, but maybe fixable.

That was it for Friday, so we toddled back to the hotel with our purchases and proceeded to have a great dinner and talk with Ken and his wife, Jos.

Saturday saw me in the thick of the British (Richard Breese, Stuart Dagger and a friend of Stuart's whose name I don't have written down). They wanted to try the new Die Macher. I wanted to find out the changes, since I already had the old game. However, getting in a game had seemed unlikely earlier in the week since all of the demos were going on at the Moskito booth on four small tables. Since the game takes four hours, it looked troublesome to time it correctly to be there as a table was finishing up without having competition. We stood about for about 20 minutes, and got lucky. The group had decided to play through just one of the seven elections to get the flavor without blowing half the day. Karl-Heinz Schmiel's English can be pretty dicey, so I ended up doing the teaching with him since I knew the old game. I'd get the gist of the current phase from Karl through comparing the old game to it, and then walk the others through it. It was certainly tricky, but we made it through and Karl thanked me when we left (although maybe he was just happy to see us go).

The only other thing that needed to be done was to go over to the 2F Spiele booth to see the game that Manu had declared best of show, Fresh Fish. As I said above, this was indeed one of the best games of the show. (See my review elsewhere on the cabinet). Friedemann seemed to be enjoying the hot selling of his newest creation. On a side note, this isn't a bad picture of him since he pretty much looked like that during the whole fair.

Sunday we did a little bit of final recon before going back to the hotel to watch the final Formula 1 race of the season. Sunday night was spent packing our enormous suitcase (the largest allowed by the airlines without paying extra) with our purchases, games for Peter Sarrett, and gifts for friends and family. All in all, a great show.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell