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Essen - some very early impressions

A couple of friends have asked what I have made of the Essen 2011 crop. The right answer should be – I don’t know yet, I have not played many of the games and I have certainly not played them enough to have formed an opinion. What I do have though is some early impressions
Overall they are positive _ i have only played one game I disliked (more on that later) and I have played a few I have liked, one or two I think I am going to love and there a couple waiting in the wings which are really exciting

Like last year (with Civilization the board game) the games that registered highest on the ‘OMG it’s here and I must have it!’ scale are not really Essen releases. The first was ‘Urban Sprawl’ – I was able to pick up my P500 copy (yes I know I am a retailer and can get them at cost but some GMT games have to be in my hands as soon as humanly possible). I enjoyed my one play –I was in a minority of one though. Its long, chaotic, requires constant reassessment of the board and you can get dented by the flip of card. Sounds familiar? It should being a Chad Jensen Euro, and it does feel a lot like ‘Dominant Species’ and though this has a theme I’m more interested my cagey and qualified assessment is that I think DS the better game. 'Urban Sprawl' is a game though I want to play again (and again) to get to know the cards, like 'Through The Ages' and 'Twilight Struggle' I expect the experience to get richer with more plays and more familiarity , my fear though is that I am going to struggle to find opponents.

The other OMG game was ‘Fame and Fortune’, the expansion to Civilization – I am yet to play it but the new powers, Leaders, investments etc look like it’s going to add loads more chromatic fun to one of my favourite games

The last OMG game was’ Ora et Labora’ and it was not at Essen in an English version. I did lean over the shoulder of some Germans playing the Lookout edition and I have one very big worry about the game – the cards are tiny, they go into your tableau but all your neighbours need to see them and what they do. This could kill the game stone cold dead for me if it’s going to be interrupted every 2 minutes by players leaning over the table asking ‘what does your buttery do again?’

Of the games I have played ‘Dungeon Petz’, ‘Last Will’ and ‘First Sparks’ have been the most impressive. No one seems to agree with me but ‘Dungeon Petz’ puts me in mind of a simpler and more streamlined ‘Vinhos’ – in this game though Pets are purchased, held in cages, entertained by imps and age. To score points you need to sell them and/or exhibit them. The rule book is a little intimidating but game play is quite smooth, the hook and genius of the game is the need to keep the Petz happy, fed, entertained and contained – and the card draw system that drives this is very clever

I have not been the other Vlaada’s biggest fan with ‘Shipyard’ and 200th Century falling a little flat for me; however i really like ‘Last Will’ – it’s an efficiency engine card drafting and playing game masquerading as ‘Brewster’s Millions’.

'First Sparks' is my favourite game from the green haired one since..oh Power Grid. The game is easy to teach and play and I predict will become a top gateway game – it’s not going to be loved by some Power Grid purists, but as a 45 minute family game it’s a smash

I have invested five evenings in learning the rules to ‘Mage Knight’ – the walkthrough (essentially the rule book) is 20 pages long but printed in a font that makes equivalent to most 40 page rule books. Martin Wallace took the build a deck mechanic of Dominion and turned into to use in a short war game, Chvatil has put the mechanic at the core of a beast of a game. I’m not sure game is the right phrase, as it feels more like a universe - It is huge ; complexity, flavour, variability. At its core though is the deck building mechanic which creates Euro style questions of players in an adventure game. I have only played the walkthrough first scenario and am looking forward to delving deeper into this game – though being so complex I’m not keen to ever have to teach the game again

At the opposite end of the complexity and size scale is Martin Wallace’s filler ‘Old men of the Forest’ ‘ it’s a delightful counter intuitive card game that left me feeling like I’d been to trying to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. All profits from this go to charity, so not only can you pick up a good game but you can also do some good by purchasing here.
Ever since ‘Glen More’ erupted from Nuremburg 2010 I have been watching the career of Mathias Cramer with interest. ‘Helvetia’ is his third game and one I need to play again to make my mind up on, the action selection and method of getting more meeples is really engaging – however the rest of the game is goods conversion and a race to get those goods to market which felt a little anticlimactic.

‘Welcome to Walnut Grove’ is my least favourite of the Essen release I have played; billed as Agricola meets Carcassonne it actually has only a superficial similarity to the two classics. I am not the biggest fans of solitaire optimisation games and in each of the eight rounds three phases of them are spent taking actions simultaneously without reference to the other players at the table. The other thing that left me lukewarm is that the eight year tiles in the game are always seen so once you know what to expect (they come out semi randomly) you are planning around them.

Though I am yet to play it I am tremendously excited by ‘Eclipse’ (from the same designer as WAlnut Grove), it’s another shot at the Ti3 lite game and this looks like it might be the ‘one’ – the Euro economics combined with Ameritrash combat look like a potent combination. The other touch I like is the semi-random way the techs come out each round.

I have two weekends of gaming coming up in November and games that are queued up for table time are Vanuatu, Eclipse, Civilisation plus expansion, Urban Sprawl, Pret a Porter, Air Show, Panic Station, Singapore, Mil 1049, Nefarious, Space Bastards, Trajan, and Core Worlds – that is about the order of preference as well. Six days of gaming should be enough to give them all an outing.

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