Funagain Games

Essen '98

Article by Mike Siggins

Well, I had a great time. Having missed last year, and thus experiencing a rather jaded period with European games experienced 'second hand', it felt great to walk into the familiar halls again, see the same old faces and a few new ones, and sample the gamer's treat that is Essen. Every year I moan about the cost, smoke, fatigue and the noise, say I'll perhaps give it a miss, or switch to alternate years, but there is nothing in the hobby to beat that buzz of expectation and walking around six huge halls packed full of games. It doesn't matter that you can't cross a hall without losing people, or having three conversations en route, or occasionally need to stand around in a daze, zonked out from the relentless activity. This is where the action is - the mecca; the highlight of the year; the recharge of the enthusiasm batteries. And of course, the prime chance to find those old or obscure games, and give the wallet a pasting it will never forget. As one witty gamer summed it all up, 'Those who are about to buy, we salute you'.

And buying was a distinct pleasure this year. Games were extremely well priced, probably as a reaction to the slight perceived downturn in the market and a noticeable economic recession. The pre-race favourites - Samurai, Pfeffersacke and El Caballero - were all less than DM50, the latter coming in at a bargain DM29. Most card games were DM10 or less, which resulted in lots of 'well, who cares at that price?' buying, even allowing a couple of speculative purchases at the more expensive end - I dragged back Putsch and Visjes untried, but I'd seen enough to know they were going to be at least interesting. At one point I caught myself thinking Nanuuk!, a DM35 game, was expensive! While there were some disappointments from reliable companies (Moskito failed to produce a new game for the first time in my nine years experience), there were as ever some pleasing surprises.

lots of good games, though no great ones

If asked to sum up this year's Spiel in one sentence, I would simply compare it with Nuremberg - lots of good games, though no great ones identified as yet. But some of the new games were very good, and we still have the usual table full of 'possibles' yet to be played. I am not exactly sure why there should be this slightly 'flattened' sensation to 1998. Obviously we have to go back a couple of years or more for accurate analysis, since that is when many of the titles were conceived or selected. The overall volume was quite respectable, belying the theory that Essen 98 would see very few new releases as a reaction to the market conditions. Indeed, there were far more interesting games than I'd listed before leaving for the fair and, as usual, there was great interest in new and original designs - from any source. After all, product is hopefully needed for 1999, 2000 and on into the future. And once again the much vaunted shift of major releases from Essen to Nuremberg has not materialised. Indeed, Goldsieber even felt it prudent to release another big box game at Essen in the shape of Pfeffersacke.

So the numbers were there, but what about the quality? And how do games come to be the good, the bad or the Edison & Co? This year my secondary aim, after logging the new releases, was to find out a little about how a game gets designed, selected, amended, marketed and sold to we the punters. What is immediately clear is that, understandably, there are huge gaps between the big players, the mid sized 'Hans im Glucks' and the 'small press' outfits. The latter tend to design and test their games in house, probably within the calendar year, and publish accordingly. If they make it, fine, if not they have to sell last year's model or an expansion. In almost all respects it is a one man or small team operation. Doris and Frank for instance, riding high but tight for time following constant heavy demand for Ursuppe, produced just an expansion kit. Moskito is another example - there was not a game this year for no other reason than Karl-Heinz Schmiel found himself lacking in inspiration.

But the major players - such as Goldsieber, Jumbo and FX/Ravensburger - must choose games from outside parties, evaluate them at preliminary and senior levels, reject, accept and replace, and finally decide. Only then can they gear up to contracts, production schedules, marketing and advertising campaigns, and even start to calculate timing for Nuremberg, Essen, Game of the Year deadlines and profiles, all in the hope of selling thousands, or millions. This can all take many months, a year, or usually much more. Within this complex chain of events there can be many slips and also many changes to the game. What also became clear from questioning is that there is a degree of forecasting involved. What sort of games will the public want? Is this the right game for that profile? Will it still be fresh in two years time? What will be 'big' or just popular in 2000? Or 2002? Which designers will be the flavour of the month? The consistent and long-term reputation of the Knizias, Teubers and Kramers of this world, and of course their bankability, thus becomes vitally important. It seems there are many parallels with the car industry, where new designs are tweaked and refined by the multi-national producers to suit the market - or at least the perception of the market. What it also may mean is that we have a slightly reduced chance of seeing a Ford Ka, or VW New Beetle, from the bigger companies and an increased chance of another bog standard, inoffensively designed family car. Of course this can produce huge successes like Settlers, Liar's Dice and Modern Art but the variables leading to a success or failure are many and the decisions ultimately come down to a few powerful individuals in the industry.

The final aspect worth reporting is that after years and years of hoping, someone has finally convinced the German companies that there is real mileage in releasing English editions. Obviously this results from steady sales in the UK and elsewhere, but mainly from the explosive spread of European games in the American market - spearheaded of course by Settlers. I can only say that this hit home more than ever when I visited the States recently and found an excellent range of European titles (both domestic editions and imported) in almost every gameshop I visited. The instigator of this coup is Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games who has been allowed to produce six games - Samurai, El Caballero, Mamma Mia, Medieval Merchant (aka Pfeffersacke), Kahuna and Samarkand - simultaneously in English editions. And very nice they are too, with well laid out rules and re-labelled box art where appropriate. Of course this puts the American market, and to an extent the UK, in an interesting position. In the past the various importers have picked the best of the crop, while also exploiting the rich and deep back catalogue of German games. Now, with simultaneous release, gamers are being asked to buy unproven games, and are thus subject to the vagaries of hit rate we have enjoyed, or endured, over the last ten years. The results, for me and the various parties involved, will be interesting to monitor. It also marks the point where the strictly amateur work of translators, The Rules Bank and Game Cabinet on English rules finally meets head on with the commercial market. At present we are negotiating to see how this change will affect current arrangements, if at all, but for now all English language rule requests for these games should be directed to Jay Tummelson.

And so, to the games.

The Games

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 games I either spotted, tried out or thought might be of interest to gamers. Inevitably I have missed some titles, but I guess not too many, and I may be slightly adrift historically having unavoidably missed last year's show. Prices where quoted are those charged at the show (£0.37=DM1.00=US$0.60) and you should expect to pay considerably more by the time they reach your gaming table (and since an Essen trip is going to cost you at least DM600, you can take any savings with a pinch of salt).

2F Spiele Always a good source for interesting games, with good value guaranteed by its flamboyant proprietor, this year 2F produced a collectible card game. Well, okay, a semi-collectible varietal - there is no rarity. I question this marketing tactic since there are obvious downsides and many gamers will Just Say No as soon as the C word is mentioned. The other halls saw CCG's of all descriptions (except the real market leaders) marked down to clearance prices and gaming much reduced (and now tolerable again, thankfully). But Friesematenten and its expansion set (each with a distinctly variable card mix, so beware) were inexpensive (DM25 together), allowed play from a small purchase, and is also a decent game. Not great, but decent. The theme is building factories and making profits, and there is a huge range of outcomes possible thanks to the card variety and Herr Friese's quirky mind. The artwork is unusual rather than good - it reminds me somewhat of Illuminati NWO. One somehow wonders if this sales approach is where Wucherer should have been pointing, and perhaps the greater range of cards would have helped that game progress beyond mediocrity. The good news, especially for a quasi CCG, is that 2F have already printed the English language cards for us and both versions were available at the show.

Abacus were more active this year than I can recall. Normally a one game company, they managed to produce Samarkand, a new take on Sid Sackson's well tried Bazaar system, so we may as well call it Bazaar II with all the headaches that description implies. It was published previously in very similar form by Schmidt but there are some minor tweaks on offer. They were also meant to be releasing Mamma Mia and Mary's Erben but neither made it to the show so I can't tell you anything about them.

Abacus/Fata Morgana Abacus had also set up a obviously productive joint venture with Fata Morgana, the enigmatic company fronted by Urs Hostettler of Kremlin fame. It would be harsh, but true, to say that this designer has never quite managed to scale those design heights again and in the vein of David Watts his first game was by far his best. But there is a clever and original design mind at work here and it was with some interest that I saw four well produced little boxes on the Fata Morgana stand. Sadly Tichu, Cosmic Eidex and Ein Solches Ding are straightforward re-issues, the former two being good little card games merging several traditional mechanisms that deserve a wider audience, while the latter is the game most often keenly bought by English speakers only to find it is completely impossible to play because of the language content. That issue also put paid to an very interesting new game, Anno Domini. Remember the disaster area that was Amigo's Lifetime from 1996? This is how it should have been done. Each player has a hand of ten cards (themed to one of six subjects - each box is different). On the front is a description of a historical event such as the discovery of quarks or the invention of the harmonium or the stylites of antiquity. On the back is a date which you don't see. Your task, one per turn, is to place these cards in sequence - either before or after those already in play, gradually building a historical sequence. If the next player doesn't like what you've done, he challenges in Liar's Dice fashion. The cards are flipped and the chronological sequence checked and on we go. Without wishing to go overboard I thought this was an excellent piece of work, having enough trivia feel to be popular, along with a workable system. It was therefore very frustrating to find that everyone would need to be able to read German to play. But I know we will see it converted somehow. The only problem is that eventually you would get to know the dates of cards but I suppose you just buy more!

ADG were at the top of every gamer's wants list with their forthcoming opus, Seven Ages. A game about building empires with new systems and a vast array of possibilities, it was sadly delayed once again. Originally slated for Spring '97, it now looks as if it will be Summer '99 before we see it, or perhaps even Essen next year. A shame, but it gives us something to look forward to. Harry Rowland was in tremendous form as usual, I'd like just 10% of his enthusiasm injected daily, and was selling the latest instalment of World in Flames, which concerns America, both North and South.

Adlung have grown steadily from hesitancy and bi-annual releases to a thriving little company specialising in card games. This year you couldn't get near their big stand and sales were brisk. Including the children's titles, they released around eight new games of which we will probably be most interested in MaskenBall - a party game themed to Venetian masquerades, LowenDynastie - the new one from the talented Hartmut Witt, Titanic Der Mythos - a quick, fun Hol's der Geier style game rather darkly based on the sinking ship and hopping into lifeboats (yes, it has an iceberg card) and Verrater (Traitor) - a fascinating system of intrigue, card play and interaction. All these games were DM10 each. We all bought them as a result.

Alea had people getting very excited. A new division of Ravensburger/FX Schmid, its aim is to put out high quality, more complex games to counterbalance the noticeable recent shift in the other direction. Headed up by Stefan Brueck, who in the last few years has selected a handful of winners including Basari, this could be a real lifeline for gamers. On the understated stand (reminiscent of Hans im Gluck in profile and attitude - no bad thing) they were showing preview copies of Reiner Knizia's Ra which is due early next year. The boxes looked beautiful, the prototype components were better than many games' final editions and the game is fascinating. I was fortunate enough to play it (not easy given the demand) and it is considerably different from the play test version I had already seen. I would describe it as a clever auction game with shades of Tal der Konige in that you are bidding for batches of tiles which in turn will determine the success of your dynasty in the shape of victory points for various combinations. As ever with Reiner, you need to be keeping three or four objectives in the air at any one time and the theme, Ancient Egypt (tough one there, eh?) is going to allow for some great bits. One to look forward to.

Amigo go from strength to strength. Not only do they have the Magic and AD&D licences and a strong inventory of boardgame titles, they now also have the Spiel des Jahres winner in the shape of Elfenland. Looks like a set to me. Unlike many companies who might had spotted the bandwagon and jumped, there was no expansion for Elfenland. Expect several next year though. Instead you could go up to one of the nice Elfenladies on the stand and ask politely for a promo-pack of expansion cards - an Elfenwizard who lets you teleport around the board. Also new was Hornochsen - a 6 Nimmt variant that was getting much praise from gamers who liked the original, La Isla Bohnita (great title) which is - and I detect a slight Settlers dig here - a seagoing expansion for Bohnanza (!) and Zircus Flohcati - a kid's game from Reiner Knizia about a flea circus. All were selling well, and I wondered if I should be buying shares in Amigo yet?!

Bambus, who made me suffer the indignities of Arabana-Ikibiti last year, had a rather better game on display. Nanuuk! (DM35) is a compact little game, with abstract overtones, about Eskimoes (or should I say Inuit?) hunting on ice floes. As your little man moves around, harpooning whales, walruses and seals (I never said it was PC did I?) the ice gradually cracks up around him. He must return to his igloo to convert his catch into kayaks and sleds for movement bonuses, while his rivals do all they can to hunt faster and prevent him moving. It has a nice structure, a neatly constricted field of play and a nicely entropic end game. I thought it surprisingly good, likely to appeal rather more to the abstract experts, with some very clever ideas and excellent theme-to-system linkage. Did I just say that?

Berliner Due to restrictive EU laws, I get the opportunity to drop just one name per Essen report and since I was spoilt for choice this year, it may as well be a new one. I had the singular pleasure of meeting Reinhard Staupe at the Schmidt party on the Thursday evening, which was fortunate as I had lots of questions for him. And a more helpful, modest (Alan Moon, take note!) and likeable chap it would be hard to imagine. We had a long conversation in which he said my reviews were nothing like those of the German critics (thank goodness for that!), that he was interested and pleased at the positive UK reaction to Basari and he also explained how he had come from nowhere in recent years. The truth is that like many designers he had worked away for six years before finding success through Speed, and then the rest followed on - partly I suspect through the undeniable quality of the games, and partly by a smidgen of luck. Interesting gentleman Mr Staupe; we should keep an eye on him. Berliner were selling the cult Blindes Huhn (Blind Hen) card game which awaits initial play and Herr Staupe's latest success, David & Goliath which was a must buy as far as I was concerned. It looks as if one key rule in the game has been mistranslated, so I look forward to trying it again - I liked it before, this could really make a difference.

Casper didn't have a stand but I managed to find Dan Glimne who had a copy of his fascinating new game Stadens Nyckel. The theme is city development, adding features such as churches and so on, with a healthy dose of politics, all with Dan's trademark presentation. It sounds like an ideal exploitation of the town building creative spark started by Siedler Kartenspiel and Wettstreit, previously completely extinguished by the execrable Sim City CCG. But we should not speak ill of the dead. The game is out now in Sweden and I am looking forward to playing it.

Cwali, a Dutch firm sharing a nondescript stand with Think Games, had Visjes - a game that mad people like me bought on impulse. It is a game about shell trading and comes complete with bags of seashells. In the old days that would have been enough for me to part with my DM75 but nowadays I want to see some game play as well. Visjes has that in the shape of a proper economic system and while I have some reservations and some rules queries (English rules included) I am keen to give it a try.

DB Spiele were celebrating their tenth game, and their major breakthrough into the commercial market, with Tendix. This is a little abstract game that seemed to raise no serious comment one way or the other. I think all that happened was that people played it, bought it as the bargain it is (DM20) and took it home to explore. But a classic this is not.

Dog Friday lunchtime. It's Settlers discussion time. Gamers of both persuasions (pro and con) are getting all excited over at the Dog stand. Why? Settlers is a Kosmos game isn't it? Yes, but now there are spin-off industries too. Dog make custom built wooden boards to hold your Settlers hexes. And they are very nice indeed - about three foot square, of light wood, professionally routed and inlaid, they lacked only a decent lacquering or french polish to finish them off. While I am not likely to buy one, I can see that they would appeal greatly to people who play the game a lot. There are several models, for each of the 3/4, 5/6 and Seafahrer versions and the workmanship is superb. Reckon on prices between DM250 and DM300 depending on the size and yes, there were many buyers. I have to say it - you're all completely barmy! - but I suppose I'd crack if someone bought out a 3D Middle Earth map, so I'll be tolerant this time.

Doris & Frank Ursuppe is clearly a game with a keen following. The fans were there on Thursday morning and still there on Sunday. The one and only thing to produce was therefore the Ursuppe Expansion Kit. This allows five and six players as well as adding several new genes to the melting pot - many designed by gamers sending in their ideas. I am intrigued at some of the cards, and I can see this being played again here soon with John Webley's timely rule translation which is already in The Bank. Sales were brisk at DM25 and Doris & Frank can do no wrong, which is great to see.

DTM Motorsport Every year I go along to this stand to see if they have the promised Formula One cars, but instead this year it seemed to be bail out time. DTM Hockenheim was reduced to DM40 (a far cry from the DM100 asked initially) and they were shifting large numbers of them. It will be interesting to see if they are there next year.

EG were selling lots of their big success, Kaleidos, which is a game you should all have a look at for Christmas. We played Golden Goal, which was a simple soccer dice game wherein dice are rolled to establish goal chances, and cards are played to reduce them to reach a final score. One we could all live without. Wolfgang Kramer's Jump was causing a little stir of interest, so we checked that out as well. The idea is quite nice - all the players are in planes and must parachute out onto the board. Land on the beach and you score positive points, but land in the sea and you score minus. Play is very similar to Montgolfiere in that cards are played which then interact with each other, affecting your action. Not great.

Eurogames were intending to have a German version of Avalon Hill's Age of Renaissance but with the sale to Hasbro it looks to have been shelved. Instead they had Europe 1945-2030 (DM60), a fascinating game with a huge heft factor by which the European Union is built up over the course of four historical eras. The game is essentially one of negotiation driven by votes and reminded me most of Hartmut Witt's Koalition with a huge and almost overproduced board. While there is also much new here, there were also some niggly problems when certain gamers decided to stuff the system. We shall see if the game can survive this after repeat plays. Not likely to appeal to Little Englanders, but there are some good ideas here and we are looking forward to playing it again.

Fanfor my old mate Vlad was on top form, and he now seems to be over any success problems of past years (but he should really change that logo). With X Pasch and Konzern in recent years, and three new games of good or better quality this, he is gradually climbing out of the Waiting for Talent category into the We Should Go Along And See What He Has group. And when we arrived we were worried. ITC: International Trade Company looked for all the world like Super Konzern. There were wooden blocks, there were coloured boxes on the board, there were dice actions. But looks can deceive and what we have is a completely new game on distribution that drew good reviews from all that played it. It does use some of the X Pasch ideas, but since they are good ideas that is of no real concern - the feel and theme are considerably different. My reservation, and the reason I didn't buy it, was that the game looked a little closer to Brauerei than Konzern in length and has a slight sense of plodding, but it was good and we have high hopes for this one. Fanfor also had Fruchtchen (fruit growing) and Matschig (mud slinging), two light, simple card games that were also getting good reactions from those that played.

Goldsieber released Pfeffersacke which, for those interested, is a term of abuse for rich people. I have heard worse. This is one of the games simultaneously released by Rio Grande as Medieval Merchant so we had the unique pleasure of being able to choose the German or English editions at Essen, one of which we could play and the other one we couldn't, so that was pretty easy... but there was a premium of DM12 for the English set which needs to be ironed down or out if possible. The theme is ostensibly about trade routes in Germany but on playing the game it is quickly apparent that this was originally a railway game, or as I was subsequently advised, an airlines system. For me (and I played this one three times in all!) it is another welcome step towards the ultimate fast play railway game. It isn't quite there, and I would need to play it a bit more to see what transpires on the play balance and pacing, but it is innovative and I think you will like it if games of Railway Rivals and Bus Boss level are of interest. While I was not moved into raptures, it is not a game that I would object to playing and it may yet shine - it is that type of game that improves with exposure.

Hans im Gluck were, as is their custom, the stars of the show for we hardboiled gamers. They can always be relied upon to have something of interest, and this year they had built up an element of intrigue and secrecy around Samurai (DM48), their main release, presumably to avoid the speculation and extended wait that accompanied Tigris. But Samurai - the third in the Knizia tile laying trilogy - dutifully appeared on time, and the initial verdict is in: one of the best of the show (if not the best), if you like Tigris then you will like this, quite dry and cerebral (and not a little abstract) but a really challenging game. So that's alright then. The second game, El Caballero - downsized El Grande theme with tiles, set in the Caribbean - got rather short shrift as a result. I don't think anyone played it in my group. Nothing negative is implied by this, but simply that people wanted to play Samurai, and since El Caballero was so cheap they were quite happy to wait until they got home. If it was good it was good, if it wasn't it was just DM29 lost - so something of a bonus item, if you like. More on this one next time. Finally, the El Grande Player's Edition was handed out free to anyone who asked, putting the company PR rating up there with The Red Cross, Greenpeace and Doris & Frank. This is a pack of extra cards for Konig & Intrigant (with new numbers of course) suggested by gamers that will fit into the game we all know and like so well. Since K&I is my favourite expansion, this was a welcome release.

Historien Spieleverlag had Bauerchen & Co, a game about building German farmhouses that looked similar to Wettstreit der Baumeister and Via Mala which was a small abstract race game. Details are sparse as Jean du Poel couldn't explain much about them and we await translations.

Kosmos opened the show with the staggering announcement that Settlers products (the original plus spin offs) have now shifted 2.8 million units. Just savour that figure for a moment. So while Klaus Teuber bathes in champagne and Kosmos milk the franchise for all it can get, we gamers see the benefits of substantially improved cash flow. Remember when Kosmos were Franckh and produced dull, overpriced games year after year? Not any more. Even I was quite excited by the prospect of some of this year's games, especially the six sets of additional cards for the Siedler Kartenspiel. Sadly these didn't make it but will be out almost immediately, and will also be available from Mayfair in English in time for Christmas. What did appear was the Settlers Historical Scenario Set - including a re-vamped Cheops from last year and the Campaigns of Alexander (!). Needless to say this was snapped up by everyone who likes the system. Kahuna is a superbly produced edition of Arabana-Ikibiti and comes in the small Caesar & Cleopatra size box - an admirable upgrade, but did it really deserve it? Sofies Welt is a game based on the most overrated book of the decade - Jostein Gaardner's Sophie's World - so a German trivia game concerning philosophy issues aimed at ten year olds was deemed an unwise purchase by most present. The highlight for me, partly because it was modelling and partly because I was amazed at their cheek, was the Settlers 3D set. This is an unpainted set of 4" 3D hexes sculpted to show trees, fields, mountains and so on. You take it home, paint it, and play on it. It looks amazing (I was reminded of the spectacular Elfenroads model someone made a few years back), and it would be lovely to have, but the price is a quite ridiculous DM200. I presume it is a limited run, and may be made from resin which isn't cheap, but even so this is way too high. Who are they kidding?

Kuhlmann Well what can we say about Herr Kuhlmann? With the possible exception of Welfen & Stauffer and Hartmut Witt's half of Kampf um Rome he has churned out a debatable sequence of titles in the name of history. And I have bought them all without fail, and sold them in turn. So every year I say no more, and then he gets me. This year it was 1848, a two player card game on the German Revolution of that year. At DM15 it was hard to refuse a dual pack, coloured card game on such a subject and despite the distinctly ropey record, most of us took the bait. Well, we live in hope! Until next year.

Out of the Box Games showed Bosworth, a game concept that should by all logic be a complete dinosaur but which had a steady stream of players and buyers over the weekend. Essentially multi-player chess on a small board with cards, it was different enough to appeal to chess players of my calibre (ie awful) yet still remain a fun family game. I played, half expecting a horrible experience, but it wasn't too bad at all. Others bought it happily at the bargain price of DM30.

Perlhuhn had yet another try at the 'Closing Down Sale' ploy. I think that is four years now! Not exactly a big draw for gamers, Perlhuhn's games remain very simple but with those oh so appealing tubes and lovely components. This year they had Firmamento, a gorgeous looking abstract game based on the constellations. It seemed okay on the basis of five minutes explanation, but is not really my field.

Prestel had Das Prestel Kunstspiel, a lovely looking game on the subject of art. It is also available in English and I saw it in a London bookstore recently for about £25. Sadly it is just another trivia game with six categories of questions and challenges. I have never worked out exactly how trivia games are meant to help you learn about a subject, except by feeling a complete idiot and then being told the answer. "Who is this painting by? I have no idea. It is by Manet. Oh good. I shall be sure to remember that." Next!

Pseudon, a new Dutch company, had the railway gamers salivating with Route NL which seemed to be a distinctly unoriginal system not dissimilar to Bus Boss. But those that are keen have bought the game and I will be doubtless trying it out in the near future.

QED Games. Over pizza, schnitzel and weizenbier in the evenings there was much talk about a design that should definitely be done for next year - The Essen Game or Spiel: Das Spiel as I would have it. This would involve all the features of Essen life: Rushing around for bargains. Standing around deciding where to go next. Queuing for a chance to play a game. Visiting the cash machine. The stand that never sells anything (African artifacts are the all time champions, but this year there was handwriting recognition and a bingo system that no-one stopped to look at). And of course there is the game that hides itself behind a cloaking device until ten minutes before final departure from the halls and then everyone wants it. This year the latter effect was the worst I have EVER experienced. In five minutes my lift leaves and I am desperately trying to decide on ITC or Sulkydom having all but run out of money. A gamer walks over to me. I feel strangely worried. "Have you seen the American Civil War non collectible card game Mike? It's amazing. And there is a mad bloke selling it." Er, no. I then have to make my apologies for running off to find it. I am introduced to the designer. He is American and has a business card with Mad Scientist on it. He stands up and salutes me, and is amazed I know what butternut is. On the table is a game of my dreams. Not only is a card game, it isstrategic. I pinch myself. This is not happening, but since it happens every year it must be true. I see the time and say I want to buy it. It is too expensive (DM45), but all composure has gone, as have my Marks. I buy it anyway and will starve tomorrow on the train. He leads me across to a stand that I must have passed twenty times, but which of course I had not seen. Cloaking device, remember? It is manned by someone from Bedford, UK called Gargoyle Games. Woooh, wobblies. Twiglet zone. The game looks incredible. It must have cost them a fortune, but it has all the signs of something that might be very very good. It is called Blue vs Gray and you need two packs of the lovely cards and nothing else. I am about to go and pull someone off the street to play it.

Queen weren't due to have anything apart from readily available copies of Schnappen Jagd (see review this time). But someone somewhere pulled out the requisite digit and Putsch duly arrived, looking puffed out but very attractive. No one actually told me about this until about three hours before I was going home, so I was lucky to grab a copy. Everyone already had theirs! This is the much vaunted game about banana republics, said to be a cross between Junta and Guerilla. Sounds good eh? Well we all bought one on spec and await rules translations with something approaching all time high excitement. It certainly looks intriguing. On the stand was an advert for the game that just missed the show, Handler - a game about trade and merchants by Wolfgang Kramer. Those last two words no longer have any fixed meaning. It could be good (El Grande, Tycoon), or it could be okay (Jump) or it could be awful (Magalon - though Mike Gray mentioned that this turkey is very good for two players). But we'll all buy it anyway because the theme is right and Queen are always good value, if not always good games.

R&D Games can, quite justifiably, claim the hit of the show. Not just buzz, this was the real thing. Based on just Internet coverage, word of mouth and Richard Breese's track record in the shape of Keywood, 200 copies of Keydom (DM50) arrived on the Thursday and had completely sold out by 5pm. Chaching! Disappointed gamers were left flailing around like landed fish, hoping to be sent one by mail order. I had intended to chat to Richard and perhaps even play a couple of other games with him, but he was hard to see behind rows of gamers three deep. I said this before on Keywood, but if you don't move fast Keydom will be gone as there are only 300 in existence. Why so few? As Richard sagely observed, if he had done 1,000 he'd have sold 10. Oh, the game? Really good, and we have played about five times recently. Better than Keywood, more teutonic I would say, amazing colour components with some fantastic artwork by Richard's sister (watch out Doris!) and a really challenging game. I'd say the theme was good as well, but I am an interested party! I am not one for predictions, but I'd be very surprised if you didn't see this from a major company in the future - no schlepping around for Mr Breese, the big players were coming to him!

Ravensburger were noticeably quiet, again. As a company that is understandably geared to Nuremberg release schedules, Essen is really a PR opportunity for them. But they did have Labyrinth der Ringe, the third incarnation of the top selling Labyrinth series. This time the maze is circular, but the system will be familiar.

Regenbogen had Stimmvieh, one of those underground cult card games that was starting to get some buzz forming and which will either be a huge success or a stinker and we will all have fallen for the hype. It is an irreverent look at German politics and it will be interesting to see how it works when the rules appear.

Relaxx is a new name to me, but they had four major games at the show. Zick Zack is a re-issue of Prince Joli Kansil's word game, so one for German speakers only. Cafe International is a straight re-release of the former Spiel des Jahres winner by Rudi Hoffman. It has aged surprisingly well, but I think it can be said to be a pretty average game these days. Waterloo marks the return of Roland 'Exciting' Siegers, in the shape of a two player abstract game on my favourite battle, if one can be permitted such a thing. A bit like having a favourite disease. I was underwhelmed, but fans of Stratego and similar games may feel differently. Business was probably the best of the bunch - a Sid Sackson share dealing game which was similar in feel to Bazaar (certain combinations of shares could be exchanged for cash) but with a time and forecasting element that added a touch of Showbiz to the proceedings. Oddly enough it also has a batch auction that reminded me a little of Ra that I'd played the night before. It bears little relation to any share dealing I have ever seen, but could be said to be an abstraction of portfolio management in the very loosest sense. It was quick, it was okay, but it was not a purchase.

Schliff/Jacobsen had, by far, one of the most appealing games at the show. Diver is massive, superbly produced and themed to scuba diving in the Maldive islands. As this is something I have done, well snorkelling actually, it was immediately of great interest to me when it caught my eye. The idea of the game is that you set off from the coral islands, taking oxygen tanks of varying size, and must move around the map to dive sites so you can take pictures of different fish. Collecting a set of different coloured fish enables you to make more money for more dives and on we go. It looked wonderful, the idea is excellent, but (hunch mode on) it also appeared obvious. You know? Simple movement, buy tanks, dive, use up more air at greater depths, pick up counters, pay for everything as you go. No spark, no clever twist. An American style game trapped in a German style body. The other worrying thing is that it takes three hours to play, which has got to be an awful lot of the same thing. I may be wrong and what I should have done (but sadly ran out of time) was play it for an half hour and see what was there. As it is I shall make it priority one to pursue this one further. The underlying problem, and if I cast my mind back nine or even five years this is hard to reconcile, is that the game seemed way too expensive at DM90 (easily the going rate a few years back for such a game). They had clearly gone to town on production and the run must have been fairly limited but it was almost twice the price of any other big game and, from a new and untested company, it was too much for many people to risk. As it is, I don't know anyone that bought it. So, definitely one to return to.

Thiesen win the third world prize and probably took a lot of money over the course of the four days. If nothing else they were proof that you can still turn up to Essen, take a stand, drape it with a musty old sheet and shift lots of boxes. They were selling the gloriously named Auf Trab im Sulkydrom, a trotting horse race game that came in a wooden box with excellent components. But at a price (DM75). Those of you having flashbacks to the dire and indeed painful Traber Derby can stand easy. The game is essentially a slight tweak on the Jockey and Niki Lauda systems of card play and makes for some great fun racing. I have probably had my fill of horse racing games so I didn't buy a copy, but I will not be averse to playing this one as the opportunity arises.

Think Games. There is good and bad news. The good news is that CharlemagneÊis a very good game indeed, certainly one of the top three at the show in terms of appeal, originality and systems. It is designed by Gerard Mulder (a new name to me), and the company is Dutch, so English rules are provided. The bad news is that it was a limited edition made of wood, which cost DM120 and which has now sold out. The other good news is that it will be published by Kosmos in 1999 - so this really was a case of waiting for the paperback edition, which I duly did. The game is outstanding, but not worth that sort of outlay and it did have a curiously weak final round resolution. But everything else was impressive. The game is basically a medieval resource management system, abstracted down to approximately the complexity level of Settlers. Each player juggles four different resources which each have a different special power and also have four different values depending on the state of the nation - at times of war, soldiers are obviously useful but progressively weaker at other times. The current value is read from a simple matrix - clever, this. Basically there is a round of bidding with resources (which sees a new slant - you lose what you bid except that you can reclaim your last bid (or part bid) in its entirety if you back down) which enables you to win victory points, then an action round where you use the resources you have left to build farms, spy, pillage rivals or train artisans for castle building. The game has a clever timing device, a neat card based driver, plenty of interaction and some novel design. It also, like Settlers, works well for three or four. I was out of it right to the end, but knew I had a chance if my plan came off, and in the very last turn it did, tying me for the lead. I really liked Charlemagne a lot and this will be one to watch out for next year.

Winsome Games shared a stand with Warfrog and released Lancashire Railways, Age of Arguments and Cloudbusters. There was also a revamped colour edition of Lords of Creation which looked very nice. The former game is a completely new rail system designed by Martin Wallace and I think you can work out what the subject matter is. Cloudbusters concerns struggles between races who are forced to live on mountain tops and who must get around using airships.

The Game Cabinet - - Ken Tidwell