A Particularly Scottish View of Essen Spiel

Although Monkey238 and I were not able to attend the Big Show in Essen this year, we were lucky enough to have a few friends in which we could live – and game – vicariously. One of those friends was Ian L. Smith, of Glasgow, Scotland. Ian and I don’t always see eye-to-eye on games, but we are always equal in passion and respect. When Ian began recounting his tales from Essen on Twitter, I eagerly interjected and learned about a whole bevy of games I need to sink my teeth into. I prodded Ian to share his thoughts with all you, dear readers, and he eagerly agreed.

By way of an introduction, let me explain that I and around 9 of my fellow Glasgow Geeks make the annual trip to the Spiele in Essen. I was chatting with Chris (@dicehateme) on Twitter and shared a short group email I had sent around our group mailing list, and he asked if I would mind contributing something here. So there we are – what follows is, hopefully, a concise but honest review of the highlights and lowlights of Essen 2011.

About as German as you can get.

If any of you care to check out our website (www.primordialgroup.com), you will see that for the most part we are a highly-competitive, fairly-aggressive and thoroughly-sarcastic bunch of geeks from Glasgow, Scotland. We have a love of hefty economic and industrial games; for almost three straight years Die Macher has sat as our group’s all-time favorite game. I personally rank Brass slightly higher above the German Brute, with Steam and Wensleydale nearby, but you get the picture: If it’s skill-driven, tough and loaded with screwage, we are the guys you are looking for. We have a small posse of 18xx fanatics within (myself included), and a smattering of RPG fans, but for the most part we avoid luck and rush towards screwage.

The buzz in our group pre-Spiel centered around Mogel Motte, a throwaway card game from the team that brought you Hai Alarm and Kakerlacken Poker. Alas, it turned out to be a slight disappointment as we couldn’t manage to cheat within the rules. We took the cheating to such a level that we broke the game on first play. We were equally excited about the latest Czech and Polish releases – City Tycoon, Last Will & Pret-a-Porter, but perhaps the biggest buzz was for Panic Station.

Luck would have it that myself, my wife Julia and my good friend Nick had agreed to spend Thursday working for Stronghold Games. This would give us the ideal opportunity to teach Confusion (which I love), Outpost (which I don’t), Core Worlds (which had Nick ever-so-slightly moist in a private boy’s place) and Panic Station. We arrived on Thursday morning and the queues for Panic Station were unreal. I will leave it to Chris to fill you in on why this game doesn’t really work; it’s a great idea, but in my humble opinion poorly-executed. As I said to my group – it’s a game for Nerds, not a game for Geeks!

Core Worlds, on the other hand, was a bit of a revelation. Let me be honest – I hate card-drafting, hand-management games, I frankly despise Dominion and all its illegitimate children, and I found it rather offensive that Seven Wonders could be held in such high regard at Essen 2010. As an aside, I was present last year when my friend Andy played Seven Wonders – blind, drunk and blind, he didn’t look at any of his cards and played entirely randomly, and yet he won against a full table of sober and serious gamers. This kind of highlights my issue – you don’t need a whole load of skill to win these games.

Anyway – back to Core Worlds. It’s really very simple – the game is played out over 8 rounds; in each round a number of Worlds are available for conquer and these are placed in the centre of your gaming table. Along with these worlds are Military Units and Skill Cards that you can draft. You start with a small number of actions (determined by the turn) and a slightly-higher number of energy points (determined by your worlds). On your turn you can draft cards from the center pile for a cost of energy and action, place cards from your hand onto your display (for a cost of energy and action), or attack a center planet using the forces on your display. Each planet has a conquer value – shown in ground troops and airborne troops – thus, if your displayed army is sufficiently strong to match or defeat these limits, you conquer the planet straight into your planetary display, gaining you increased energy for the coming rounds. Any other cards drafted are immediately placed into your discard pile for future rounds.

Now, as I said, I don’t really get on with these games (usually too much theme and not enough strategy) but this felt different; the ability to discard an invading unit under the planet conquered gave you a chance every round to lose a less-than effective army card and thus gradually drive up the power of the hand. It was very clear at all times what strategies your opponents were adopting, and the game played fast; it seemed relatively meaty for what it was and the artwork was clear and concise. Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t buy a copy, but if ever it was suggested for play on a Wednesday night, I wouldn’t shoot the individual putting it up for play.

Whilst Nick, Julia and  I were knee-deep in space geeks, the rest of our group shot off to play Colonial, a meaty empire game – part Diplomacy, part Age of Empires, part Struggle of Empires, and altogether beautiful. They loved it, 2 copies were purchased, and it was rushed out again at midnight in the hotel. This was a mistake… a huge mistake. What had been a tight 2-hour game of diplomatic tension and empire building in the morning, turned into an alcohol-fueled war of attrition at night, and, after 3 hours of play with a likely 3 hours to go, we called it – “no more,” we decided.

Other games discovered on Thursday:
Strasbourg – Stefan Feld’s first attempt at a family game. Ideal, really, if you hate your family and wish to inflict 60 mins of screwage upon them. Obviously, we really liked it and I grabbed a copy.
Skull and Roses – A really simple bluffing game that was hugely popular; I think we purchased around 7 copies amongst us and it was probably the most-played game over the 4 nights.

Highlights of Friday included City Tycoon, a city building, resource hoarding game which made a few members’ top 3; German Rails, which of course needs no introduction and really is as good as you’ve heard; Masters of Commerce, which half our group loved, and half hated – for me it seemed like Pit with a timer thrown in and some extra chaos for good measure… a really nice idea, but badly executed. Other games to get an outing – Pret-a-Porter (didn’t play it, bought a copy, still haven’t played it, heard it was great), Regents, Mogel Motte, Master Merchant & Innovation.

Saturday started off with two clear lines of attack – Primordial Group Team 1 were heading to Abacus Games to establish if Alan Moon had fixed the broken Union Pacific with his new issue of European Airlines, whilst Team 2 were off to Vanuatu. I can say with some certainty that between us we discovered the two best games of the Spiel. I wont bore you too much with Airlines as you’ll all know it well enough soon, but some will love it, some will think its too light or too complicated; for us it was a perfectly-balanced exercise in chaos management, and tense to boot. Vanuatu on the other hand – well then, have a look again at our website and see that it has now displaced Die Macher as our group’s favorite game. It’s certainly the best game I’ve played in 4 years, and it’s arguably the best worker placement game ever. It might also be the nastiest game in recent memory. It’s a very simple principle – you have some money, a boat, some houses and a bit of time on your hands to catch fish, sell fish, beach paint, build huts and entertain tourists. The board is made up of a collection of islands which grow as the game progresses, and on your turn you have five workers to place on one of the 8 worker spots. After placement, you carry out the action and score the points or income accordingly. Easy, yes? No, No and thrice No. You see, you can only carry out an action if you have the majority of workers on the action track – if you don’t, you have to wait until you do, which means you might find yourself trying to sell fish you haven’t caught or fish in waters you haven’t sailed to. It is conceivable that as a result of your opponents being nasty b*stards, you might find yourself passing every one of your five actions and actually achieving NOTHING. This happened to Andy – it was my fault, he swore at me for 7 minutes, I laughed for 20, and I immediately bought a copy! We actually bought 5 copies – it’s that good!

Saturday also saw some lunacy at Nuns on the Run, tension at Last Will, and witnessed four members of our group gnawing their own legs off whilst enduring the absolute horror show that was The Bottom Of The Salty Sea (Upon a Salty Ocean) – brought to you from the stable that brought you Rio De La Mind If I Shoot Myself In The Genitals Now Please. I don’t know quite how they manage to come up with nice themes then choose to paint every component beige and then immerse the player in a mechanic that makes watching paint dry seem like a competitive sport. It was tedious beyond belief -everything required 1 action, even taking actions seemed to require 1 action. It took a bloody action in order to check the rules about taking actions. I asked the chap manning the desk a question and he took one of my actions. It felt as if you were at back at work but worse; it was worse than the worst job I have ever had – hang on, I think that insult might have cost me an action. Anyway – word to the wise – avoid it like the plague, unless of course you are a total mental in which case, enjoy it, it’s great, it has salt and lots of beige tiles.

We wound up on Sunday with another visit to Vanuatu – yes it really is that good – we played Aquarium – silly but fun card game, Rumble in the House – sillier but funnier game in which a Gay Robot, a Suicidal Penguin and some Ninja Ferrets move into a house with hysterical results – and String Railways 2 – it’s String Railways but with a big 2 on it! Others to mention – Innovation, Experiment, The Blue Lion, Coney Island, Cite and Urban Sprawl – but I shall leave the last words for 2 little gems.

King of Tokyo, in which you essentially roll dice and roar like Godzilla at your opponents until they get fed up being roared at and start roaring back. I’m not sure that’s the real rules, but every game seemed to end up that way. And, Klondike 1896 – words cannot describe a game which manages to create such tension that a manager in IBM (Janus) suddenly forgets how to count to 4. It’s a lovely little puzzle game with a whole hidden screwage mechanic, and it was my last purchase of the show.

Anyways, that about wraps up my inane view of Essen 2011. I’m sure I missed out lots so if you’d like any first-hand information, email or tweet me as below:



(Editor’s note: The official rules for King of Tokyo does not specifically state that you should roar at your opponents until they roar back, but I’m hoping that it will be included in the eventual expansion. At any rate, buy it and love it. I have.)



Related posts:

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  2. The State of Games, Episode 11 – The One About the Last Game On Earth
  3. Dice Hate Me at the Bookstore: The Games Bible
  4. Origins Game Fair 2011: Day 3
  5. Origins Game Fair 2011: Day 2
4 Responses to “A Particularly Scottish View of Essen Spiel”
  1. Ian Smith says:

    I must apologise for mis-titling Salty Ocean – this is entirely attributable to the fact that Nick and Andy dubbed it Salty Cock for 3 days!
    My friend Mark would like it noted that it wasn’t the worst game at Essen, the worst games was something called a truckload of penguins, a rucksack of herons, a colostomy bag of curlews – something like that. He rated it 1 on the geek and was in receipt of a designer email within seconds. The same date that befell Andy and I for rating panic station a 5.

  2. Karl Bunyan says:

    Well that ad-hoc Stronghold helping explains how you or one of your group were teaching me Confusion one day (which I bought) and then sitting next to me playing City Tycoon the next, while I was trying Drako (which I didn’t buy, but others in my group did).

    Hopefully see you next year!

  3. tomg says:

    Wow. Thanks for the summary. It sounds like I need to find copies of Vanuatu, Klondike, Core Worlds, and Colonial. King of Toyko is my son’s new favorite game thanks to Chris.
    I would be interested in hearing about some of the games that only got mentioned if possible
    By the way Chris, it looks like the link to Ian’s group is broken.
    Thanks Ian,

  4. Ian Smith says:

    That was indeed I who taught you Confusion and watched you push a dragon around a mountainous terraine the next day.

    I would be delighted to report on any other games as Chris or anyone else wishes, I believe over 4 days our group played something like 67 unique games. Of those I played I think I hold Strasbourg & European Airlines as the two most enjoyable after Vanuatu. If you so wish I’ll fill you all on why I loved them so.

    We played Vanuatu last night at three different tables of 5 gamers on our weekly games event – those who loved it from Essen were still very very taken with it, some of the other guys were a little unimpressed so clearly it’s not for everyone.

    Klondike made its way out again and it was loved by all, whilst we finished with a 90 minute Panic Station, everyone at PS agreed – nice idea but wrong mechanics and bad execution.

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