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Neil Walters picks eight games from Essen 2010


Top notch euro game that utilises dice in a unique way. Dice by nature are random but Troyes has very little luck. I have played this half a dozen times and while high die rolls are generally more useful, I have never felt that my low rolls were having a major impact on how I was doing. The major feature is that everyone’s dice are available to all, at a cost naturally! You have to temper the natural tendency to persistently take your own dice that are free. Money can be tight but does not count for anything in its own right at the end of the game, so paying for dice is not as bad as it might first appear. It does matter though which and whose dice you choose and of course your gain is another player’s loss. The setting is the medieval city of Troyes that is divided into three sectors, military (red dice), civic (yellow dice) and church (white dice). The number of different coloured dice you roll is dependent on how many of your men occupy a particular area. The dice are used to undertake various actions such as booting out other player’s men replacing them with your own, building the cathedral, helping to get rid of enemy invaders or earning more cash. One of you main actions will also be to hire artisans from each of the city areas for their specific abilities that could help you achieve more VPs, cash or even give potential bonuses to your dice. There are 27 such artisans in the game (9 per area) but only 3 of these per area will be called upon for each game. In addition only one per area will be revealed in each of the first three rounds of the game. This gradual seeding is great for me as I don’t have to remember them all at once. Great replay value as each game will be different depending upon what combination of artisans appear. Two other excellent features are worth mentioning. Players can earn influence during the game, from fighting invaders or building the cathedral for example. Influence can then be spent to mitigate their own dice, such as re-rolls or flipping of dice as well as bringing on additional men to allow you to hire more artisans or claim another spot in one of the three game areas. I also like the way that the game system deals with the enemy invaders. Each round an additional two invader cards are introduced that can upset players plans but like a bad penny they will keep coming back each round to haunt you until the players eventually deal with them. There is an aspect of co-operative play here to get rid of the card if it affects everyone. No downsides to the game for me I can think of, so all in all, one of the best games from the Essen show.


As a fan of the rondel mechanic, there was little chance that I was not going to like this game. For the uninitiated the rondel is a very clever but simple device for controlling all the player’s actions. It consists of a circle drawn on the game board divided into eight segments. With the exception of one particular segment, the Market action, which occurs twice, each of the other six are completely different. In your turn you advance your marker up to three segments (you can move further but it’s prohibitively expensive to do) and complete the action on the segment you finally decide to land on. There is no blocking so you have the freedom to plan your future moves as you wish. It also has the advantage that you can see what your fellow players are up to as well. Tension comes with those actions where there is an incentive to get to a particular segment first, as some actions have a limited number of resources or benefit to pick up, or the resources become increasingly more expensive as cheaper ones have already been taken. In my view it is one of the most innovative mechanics to have come out in the last ten years. It’s clean, simple and totally transparent with the added attraction of very little down time in play. Even in five player games it’s your turn again before you know it. But it’s not good enough having a great mechanic if the rest of the game doesn’t shape up. No fears here either. Set in the 15th century, you are a Portuguese explorer building a colonial empire. You can explore the seas and oceans going east, found colonies, sell sugar, gold and spices for profits to invest in ever more ships to continue your quest eastwards. Or not. You could also be that “stay nearer to home type” of explorer. After all sailing long distances is time consuming and expensive. So why not hang back a little and snaffle up a few colonies that the others have left behind, and perhaps build lots of factories to process the goods for lots of cash instead. Both alternatives might work and can work. I’ve seen both happen successfully. Along the way you can also build churches to recruit workers, shipyards to build your ships and also obtain privileges for instant cash and future victory point potential. It is a game of maximising the efficiency of your actions both in your selection on the rondel but also the volume of benefits you can manage to reap in a single turn. It is also a game where you have to keep a close eye on what the other players are doing, as the market for selling and processing goods is dynamic. Prices could easily have dropped by the time your turn comes round again. You need to be particularly aware of what your right hand neighbour is selling, and be prepared to adopt a flexible strategy. All this adds up to just my type of game. The components are excellent and the artwork on the board is the very best combination of great to look at and total clarity. To be honest, I’m really struggling to come up with any negatives to say about Navegador and instantly became a favourite from the Essen crop. There may be some, but if so they’re not immediately apparent to me. Navegador is not totally original of course, but my feeling is that there is a natural progression and improvement in the rondel series. In my view this is the best of the series so far and if you haven’t tried one before, then I think you should seriously consider treating yourself to this one.


After your first game of Vinhos, your head may be spinning from the overall complexity and volume of options, but trust me it does get easier! Thematically fantastic as I love wine... you don’t have to like wine to play, but it helps. You are setting up you own estate in Portugal which can accommodate four vineyards. Each vineyard specialises in one variety of grape (either white or red) from one of the eight wine growing regions of Portugal. Once you have decided on a particular grape variety for one of your vineyards you are stuck with it for good or bad for the rest of the game. You need to give thought to what variety you pick as your decision will have large bearing on how your game pans out. You only have 12 basic game actions in the whole game so you need to be focused on what actions are important as you can’t afford to waste them willy nilly. Each two game actions followed by a bank and wine production phase constitutes a game year, so six game years total make up the game. After years 3, 5 and 6 there is a wine fair where you must exhibit one of your wines for tasting and hopefully earn more VPs. Getting your wine production engine going as early as you can is a good thing. The main focus is getting at least three and possibly four vineyards up and running by the end of year 2. This will ensure that you get the volume of wine production for the rest of the game to earn money and VPs and the wine fairs. You will also need wine to exchange for additional actions above the basic twelve with help from your wine managers. A ready supply of cash is required to invest in infrastructure for your vineyards to enhance the quantity and quality of your wine, eg wineries, enologists and cellars. What I like about this game is the juggling act you have to perform to get the best advantage from your choice of actions. The timing and sequencing of your actions is crucial. You have a limited number of them and the order you carry them out is important. Depending on the game situation and your strategy there will be some actions you may not need at all in the entire game, but equally there will be other actions such as getting more vineyards that will be a must at some point. Also I think the game concept of cash in hand and separate bank account is inspired. It’s different and it works although it does add an extra layer of complexity that may not be to everyone’s taste. Going to the bank to draw out cash for future purchases costs an action. There are alternatives in the game to get more cash that don’t require an action but which is best? Possibly you may need to do both. It is these kinds of choices that really make the game interesting to play. Another example is where you can take an action to go to the wine fair early. You will get a choice of benefits up front for doing so but is it worth wasting a full action out of your precious twelve when you can just turn up at the fair for no action cost later? Make no mistake, this is a heavy euro game but one that has been lovingly put together by the designer over many years. And it shows. It may take up to half an hour to explain the rules to others but the time investment is worth it. The iconography on the board is very clear and to be fair once you’re under way it flows fairly smoothly given its depth. I recently played a four player with 2 noobs and it took roughly 2.5 hours, but I would say allowing 45 mins per player for your first game is about right. Experience of the game will be key in how you do and newcomers will be at a disadvantage as there is clearly a learning curve. There is a lot going on and it’ll take a few plays to sink in. A little randomness is thrown in, which is good as it keeps the game fresh and the players on their toes. This is in the form of weather that can add or deduct up to 2 from your wine production values. Fortunately the weather forecasts in the game are better than the ones you see on the telly as you are given advance warning at the start of a year of how production will be affected by the end of the year. So at least you have a couple of actions to try and mitigate the weather’s effects if you wish. With the exception of ensuring that you really must have at least three vineyards up and running by the end of year 2, there are many viable paths to pursue and for me exploring these is what makes Vinhos fun and interesting to play.


A new race game with lots of innovation and one that really gives the feel of what rally racing is all about. The dice mechanic is really clever with a push your luck element. Each die represents a gear (1st to 5th) that you can only roll once in your turn plus two acceleration dice that you can use anytime during your turn. Each die only allows you to move your car one space. Each die also has one or two hazards showing on the faces and if three turn up during your turn your car goes out of control with a subsequent loss of time. And time is what the game’s all about. Most car racing games are of the traditional first past the post type where you are directly competing against other cars to reach the finish line first. But in Rallyman the important thing is to achieve the best time when crossing the line. At the end of your turn you will receive a card corresponding to the gear you finished your turn in, ranging from 10 seconds if you’re in 5th gear, then down in 10 second increments to 50 seconds in 1st gear. At the end of the stage you will tot up all your cards for your final stage time. While it would be nice to drive continually along in 5th, there is always going to be those pesky corners to negotiate and how well you handle them will determine your final stage time. Typically your car will be approaching corners in gears 1 to 3 so a degree of advance planning is required to negotiate them without going out of control. You never feel that your fate is totally determined by the outcome of your die rolls. To some extent the game has a solitaire puzzle feel about it and it’s heaven for those who enjoy some forward planning. Like the real thing, the cars are run at intervals, so the first car away will get two full turns before the second car goes and so on. Some see the waiting around to have your turn as a weakness of the game but it’s one I don’t share. We are only talking about a few minutes here. Indeed I don’t mind going last as I can see how the other cars in front are negotiating the course and I can copy or make alternative plans as appropriate. The potential downside to going last is that the cars in front could possibly throw dirt into the corners that may force you to use a lower gear. During your turn you have the choice of throwing your dice in one of two ways. You can roll your dice one at a time that gives you the opportunity of stopping if there is a possibility you may crash if you continue. Alternatively you can take a chance and roll them all at once and by so doing earn seconds in the form of chips. This is a great feature and adds extra tension to the risk taking element of the game. These chips can either be save to reduce total time at the end of the stage, or used during a future turn in lieu of a die roll to offset any possibility of going out of control. I am a big fan of race games in general be they cars, horses, bikes, or whatever. However for me race games can sink or swim depending on how the random disaster features in the game are handled. It’s a fine line, but penalties have to be severe enough both to maintain tension in the game and keep true to the sport while at the same time not be so severe as to wreck a player’s chances especially early in the race. I think that Rallyman gets this balance right. You can assess the risk before throwing the dice, and also the time penalty for going out of control is one minute total for your turn i.e. just 10 seconds more than you would normally get if you were in 1st gear. In some circumstances you can lose the ability of rolling all the dice, but this will only last until the end of the stage. The game lasts three stages (each stage is about 20 mins long) and this is really the minimum you need to race to get the best from the game. Rallyman is very well supported online with dedicated six stage rallies such as the Monte Carlo and Corsica and I’m really looking forward to trying these out. I also notice that the designer always replies to any rules queries that crop up on the Geek. I really like this game and it is evident that the designer is a big fan of rallying. The boards provided with the game can be put together in a seemingly infinite number of ways so you will possible never need to play exactly the same stage twice if you so wish. Further variety is provided on the reverse of each of the four boards that shows the same track but in snowy conditions. You can even have a stage with both normal and snowy conditions. This will give you an interesting decision on tyre selection that is another aspect of the game that adds variety. A unique feature that this race game brings to the genre is that you never really know who has won the stage until the final count of your time cards. Rallyman brings a lot of totally fresh ideas to the table and has already established itself as one of my firm favourites.

Era of Invention

Era of Invention is a game about the development and production of inventions at the turn of the 20th century, for me thematically appealing and unusual as well. Although there is nothing significantly new in the game play, there is a subtle re-mixing of the usual ingredients that gives the game a different feel that I like. Describing how the game works is simply done. You place two action tokens (three in a 3 player game) one at a time in an empty slot in one of the six action areas on the board. Each action area has two slots available, so twelve slots all told. You then carry out those actions one at a time in any order. Both activities are carried out in strict player order. In addition, players also start the game with between one and five extra action tokens again depending upon the number of players. One of these can be used at any time and in any area after a regular action. Apart from the odd bit of end of turn tidying up and preparations for the following round that’s all there is to it. In a sentence, stick your tokens down and do the actions. Which for me is actually quite a pleasant change. The simplicity of the mechanics leaves you free to concentrate on the interesting bits such as deciding what your best selections will be bearing in mind what other players are doing, your position within the turn order and how best to manage your scarce resources. Turn order is important as first player rotates clockwise after each round. This means that the first player in turn one will be the last player is turn two, so there is definitely an element of forward planning required here, as actions that you would ideally like to take next turn will not necessarily be available. For me this adds to the challenge. The idea of the game is to turn your scarce resources into a combination of factories (to produce different resources), designing new inventions (for mainly VPs or possibly cash) and producing the aforesaid new inventions (for VPs or cash). It is not sufficient to concentrate just on one of these activities alone, but equally spreading your actions too thinly across all three activities will likely dilute your overall potential. There is a finite number of regular actions in the game so you need to make them count. Along with many other games, this is an exercise in efficiency and timing, and a very good one at that. I have seen a game won with loads of factories, and in contrast another where the winner has not bought or produced any factories at all. Some criticism has been levelled centred on games that people have played just the once with 5 players, and mainly around the assertion (misplaced I think) that players sitting in 4th and 5th position at the start of the game are at an acute disadvantage. While I don’t agree this is necessarily the case (two of my games have in fact been won by the player in 4th start position). It is fair to say though that the five player version is a lot more challenging to play and less forgiving on mistakes, but it plays very well for 3 or 4. I’ve really enjoyed my games so far and I’m looking forward to future plays.

After Pablo

This game has had a very low profile since its Essen release. I suspect that one of the reasons may have been down to its theme, namely the producing of cocaine by the cartels from Columbia and their subsequent sale to Mexico and the USA, so if that is a concern to you, read no further. This would be a pity because if you can get past the potential “bad taste”, After Pablo is actually a very interesting and well designed game. None of the individual mechanics are particularly new. There is a little bit of card drafting, area control, “take that”, auctions, attacking and the ability to take extra actions that we have all seen somewhere before, but not necessarily all in the same package. You will potentially be earning VPs both during and at the end of the game in a number of different ways. Such as from being the boss of either the Columbia or Mexican cartels, fighting other cartels, the smuggling and sale of cocaine, and the exchange of cash for luxuries that can be converted into VPs. The heart of the game and for me what makes it stand out is the function of the multi purpose cards. These show the portraits of various cartel members, eg assassins, politicians, guerrillas, etc together with their various abilities. Pretty much everything you do involves the playing of cards. If you use the card for fighting for example, you are giving it up for using its potential transport capability when smuggling drugs across the border. I like the fact that there are both different strategies to adopt but you also can take advantage of various one off tactical choices that can occur during the game. You also have a limited supply of influence markers at your disposal that are used to claim control of the Columbian and Mexican cartels and also to influence the DEA (extra actions). The random element to the game is how successful you smuggle or sell to the USA. The backs of the cards show either a blank alley or a police car. If the police car is revealed then one of your influence is “arrested” and in the normal course of events you will have to wait a lot of turns to get it back. But even this random element can be mitigated by the extra actions provided by the DEA. There is even more scope to the game than I have time to cover here, and there are plenty of options to consider and do. Thematically it has the feel of what I would imagine (naturally I only know what I read and see on the telly!) the illegal drug industry would be like. It can be played in around 90 minutes by 2 to 4 players, but I think it is at its best with 4.


K2 is the world’s second highest mountain and reputedly one of the most challenging a dangerous to climb. Difficult to categorise this one as it’s not really a race game. It’s not the first man to the top either, but more of the highest you can possibly get and survive. Each player has two parties that begin the game at base camp with the overall objective of getting them as high up the mountain as you can whilst preventing the other players from doing the same. The higher up the mountain you climb, the more VPs you will earn, but if your party does not survive until the end of the game, those VPs are lost. There are two drivers to the game. The first is your own deck of cards that allocate movement and also improve your chances of survival. Each player’s deck is identical but individually shuffled. All the cards will be used at some point (indeed you will go through your own deck twice) but clearly the cards will come out in a different order each time. The second driver is the weather, which can be good, bad or worse depending upon the current altitude of your team. But you do get highly accurate advance notice, so a lot better than real life if you were really on the mountain. Players choose one from their hand of three cards and reveal them simultaneously. These will either allow your party to move or increase their survival rating. Priority for moving first rotates after each round of cards played. This is important especially when a party reaches nearer the top as the number of parties that can occupy the same place are strictly limited. There is nothing to prevent a party from reaching the top and staying there for the remainder of the game, weather permitting of course, thereby preventing anyone else reaching your ledge. Such behaviour is probably frowned upon in the mountaineering fraternity, but in game terms it works rather well and we like it! If the weather gets really bad you can always pitch your tent! I rather like the “push your luck” element as you consider how far up the mountain you can get away with and survive. You will also have to time your surge to the summit taking into consideration the future weather patterns, where your opponents are on the mountain and turn order. K2 is a highly original game with plenty to think about within a short playing time of around 15 mins per player. For those who want a tougher challenge, the reverse of the standard board shows the mountain with slightly more treacherous routes up in bad weather. The ultimate challenge is using the bad weather side with the alternative “bad weather” cards. I can’t wait to try it!

First Train to Nurenburg

FTtN is an updated version of Martin Wallace’s Last Train to Wensleydale. Along with the less colourful graphics, the new package includes a double sided board with the familiar Wensleydale map on one side and a new map set around Nurenburg on the other. The board also includes some additional iconography in the form of arrows that helps you identify pick up points for stone that greatly improves ease of play. The game also features a dedicated 2 player, 4 player as well as two different 3 player versions. Without beating about the bush I think this is one of MW’s finest games all time and a totally different style of railway game from his earlier “Steam” and “Rails” series. I’m not sure how he went about creating this but I think it’s a brilliant design. It has pretty much everything... bidding for influence, variable turn order for different phases, track building, picking up goods and passengers, securing the best rolling stock, takeovers of track, cash (in the form of investment cubes) management. Each game will play out differently on the board as the goods and passengers are seeded randomly at the start, so a different puzzle to solve as you try and work out potential optimal routes. The minor downside to this is that it will take slightly longer than average to set up before each game. One of the really compelling aspects about this game is the juggling act you have to perform with the influence tracks. All are potentially important, but you are forced to prioritise. The idea of the game is to build a network of tracks to link up to goods and passengers. The latter are transported on trains that are hired each turn to earn VPs and profit. Once the tracks have served their purpose you will then need to convert them into one of the major neutral railways, the Midland or the NER. Maintaining unprofitable track of your own ultimately costs you profit (end of game VPs) and also the ability to build future track as there is a limited supply to build with. Along with many features of the game this is a tricky balancing act. The game forces(!) you to diversify in many ways. For example there are two types of goods and also two different passengers, one for each of the two major railways. End of games VPs are earned for a set (one of each type) so there is nothing to be gained by concentrating on even just three. You will also need to keep an eye on how you spend your investment cubes. They are dual purpose, used both for bidding on influence and also for building your track. How much do you need to spend or possibly hold back for next turn? Influence is key to performing your actions and comes in the form of four different tracks. One determines the order you build track, another is the order you hire trains and ship goods and passengers and the final two represent the major railways and your ability to convert your defunct track. There is just one variable in play. Some of the influence up for auction each turn will be randomly drawn so if you are particularly desperate for one type, there is no guarantee that it will turn up. So in summary a great game in its own right and a railway game that has a totally different feel to any other ones I’ve played. And that’s a lot!

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