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Neil Walter's Essen Review

Essen Games Impressions 2011

This was my 13th trip to the show and from a games on show viewpoint, rather an unremarkable and disappointing one, not helped admittedly by the non arrival of games like Ora at Labora, TheVillage and Bullfrog Goldfield that were at the very top of my potential buy list. Apart from that I can report that production quality is up, prices are up, the icons are overwhelming and that the action selection mechanic is still going strong and shows little sign of waning. There were some good games there, but not any really stand out ones. Some of the higher rated games from the show such as ‘Trajan’ and ‘Eclipse’ I haven’t tried yet as Herr Feld’s offerings and multi player conflict/civ types are no longer first choices for me, but here are some thoughts on the ones I have tried:


A game set in a South Sea Island paradise is not a setting you would associate with the meanest (brutal even) action selection mechanic you’re ever likely to come across. The potential for screwage when selecting your actions creates a lot of tension that I like. You can easily end up with no actions in a turn if you’re not careful. Believe me I know because I’ve been there! Has this put me off? Well no actually as it was all my own fault and could easily have been avoided and you just make a mental note for next time. The game is tactical and opportunistic and is essentially a race to claim (fish, treasure, goods) or place (huts, tourists, sand drawings) before anyone else. Position is important both in the turn order and where your boat is on the board. Vanuatu also features an unusual cash to vp conversion mechanic that can easily catch out the unwary. Nice artwork and thematically very strong for a euro, this is definitely one of the more challenging and original games from the show.

Walnut Grove

I thought this game evoked the Wild West rather well for a Euro. You set up a ranch, extend your lands and farm them, use the produce to feed your workers, or sell for cash and services (upgrades to your ranch and more workers to hire) in the local town. Not forgetting of course to keep sufficient back to keep the home fires burning. All good stuff. I also like the tension in the decision you sometimes need to make whether to keep produce or coins when you run out of space in your barns. Activities take place around the four seasons of the year, three of which can be conducted simultaneously, while the remaining one in Autumn of moving around the town is conducted in strict order. WG is for the most part a multi player solitaire but the simultaneous actions do keep the game moving along. I am comfortable with this in the hour time frame it takes to play, and there are sufficient things going on to maintain interest. I have enjoyed all my four games so far.

Pret a Porter

Don’t let the fashion theme put you off as despite all appearances this is a very good business game. Although there are plenty of options to choose from, perhaps too many, this isn’t a difficult game to play. Having to learn yet another set of icons is a pain and will make your first game comfortably drift past the two hour mark. But it’s worth the effort if you like economic type games. Tension comes from the continual pressure to get your buildings, employees, contracts, designs and materials all together in time for the fashion shows. All these are acquired using our old friend action selection. Cash is tight at the start and credit or emergency loans may be necessary. Third game in and it’s getting even better now with more familiarity. It’s also possible to make a comeback from a poor start so that is a further plus.

German Railways

This Queen remake of one of Winsome’s Essen 2010 bundle, Preussische Ostbahn is from the same stable as Chicago Express and they both share similarities in the way they handle the share buying and track builds. Notable differences are that the railways in GR each have different attributes which is good and also the way player actions are determined which most definitely isn’t good. Random draws from a bag to see if I get an action or not doesn’t do it for me I’m afraid, so very unlikely I’ll be playing this again. I’ll stick with Chicago Express.

Bullfrog Goldfield

One of my top games to try that was missing from the show. Fortunately I managed to get hold of a paper copy that I have since mounted and played. Good news is that it didn’t disappoint. BG is a heady mix of railway building, mining and share trading set in early 20th century Nevada. The stock market is volatile and the mines run the risk of depletion. Perfect planners look away now. Tension mounts as mines near exhaustion and investors agonise over whether to ditch their shareholding or risk holding on for another year. Great stuff! Looking forward to getting a real copy and hopefully it won’t be too long before they arrive. My best of show even though it wasn’t there!

Urban Sprawl

The core idea of town building with a dash of politics is certainly one that is very appealing to me, so I had high hopes for this game. Sadly it didn’t deliver on a number of levels. Downtime is excessive as it is not possible to plan between turns because the cards and the board position are constantly changing. You have no idea what cards will be available until your turn actually arrives. And when it does arrive any decisions were strictly limited to the cards currently on display. Swingy event cards also add an unwelcome dose of chaos that I don’t find acceptable in a 3 to 4 hour game. For a lot of the time I felt that I was a spectator rather than a player. As you’ve probably gathered I didn’t care for it too much.

Santiago de Cuba

A light and fun little game set in Cuba world. Ideal for family play but also with sufficient interest to keep a hardened gamer like me amused (ideal after 5 hours of 18xx). It very easy to explain with its simple mechanics, quick turns and playing time that comes in at between 45 and 60 minutes. There are icons to get acquainted with but not too many and you will have them down pat after a few turns. Good variability as action discs (Cuban workers and artisans) and buildings are randomly laid out for each game. Randomness comes in the form of dice rolled reflecting the demand for each good to be loaded on the ship in port. I particularly like the tactical manovering of the car around the circuit of actions especially when it nears the port. With a limited demand for goods, it’s generally better to be first there. In the crowded market of light fillers, this is a very good one.


Just when you thought it would be impossible to design another game that features buildings, yet another one comes along to prove you wrong. Whereas in games like ‘Cuba’ for example where there are lots of other very interesting things going on in the game, here there is little else happening. You build buildings, collect resources, followed by conversion to other resources, cash and vps at other buildings. Repeat for 90+ minutes. That’s it. It works but sadly its one dimensional and not particularly exciting. Shame really as Peer Sylvester’s earlier King of Siam is a very good and original game that I enjoy, so I was expecting rather more from this. On a positive note, the game certainly looks great, components are excellent and the rules are short and easy to digest.

Last Will

An originally themed game with the object of getting rid of all your money based on the idea of the 80s film Brewster’s Millions. On looks alone this game is the business. The cards are gloriously illustrated that adds to the pleasure of playing. While the game play is interesting as you try and work out the best cards or combo of cards from various different types of decks to draft and play as actions, for me there was also a sense that the game lasted way too long for what it is. Admittedly this wasn’t helped with the constant reference to the rules for explanations of the icons and card effects. I feel the game falls in that uncomfortable slot of being slightly too complicated as a filler or family game and too long to maintain your interest. It’d be fantastic with a playing time of no longer than an hour, but it isn’t with four or more. However I do like and am happy to play Last Will provided it is with no more than three players.


Well Herren Rieneck and Stadler had to come unstuck sooner or later. To be fair to ask the designers of such great games as ‘Pillars of the Earth’, ‘Cuba’and ‘World without En’d to come up with another winner was probably asking a lot. What usually makes these two’s designs a fantastic marriage of theme and game play is conspicuously absent from Fortuna. Apart from the cool card swapping mechanic there is little else to recommend it. I don’t usually mind a bit of dice rolling but felt that the outcomes here just held sway a little too much for comfort. And the object of all this activity to race your citizen along your own track to the centre of Rome doesn’t exactly get the pulse racing either. Pass.

Show Manager

This re-release of Dirk Henn’s 90’s classic introduces the forerunner of the “unwanted cards slide down the track to a cheaper price” mechanic similar to the one revived in the recent release of Urban Sprawl. A set collecting card game with the twist that your hand limit of cards potentially forces you to put on a show with a less than ideal cast of artistes. Simple, quick and fun to play for gamers and family alike. Certainly one to look out for if it’s missing from your collection.


Another action selection game where you can marry off your boys and girls with partners in other villages (for extra benefits plus offspring) as the original feature, combined with the more familiar build buildings that produce resources to get more buildings and yet more resources etc….…you get the drift. It’s workmanlike and dull even right down to the brown hues of the graphics, a total contrast to Matthias Cramer’s more colourful and excellent earlier release, Lancaster. Unless you are looking to complete your collection with a game that features goats, I recommend you give this a miss.


I am still behind on my Essen 2011 games - there are lots still to be played, but having found Eclipse i'm quite happy to keep playing the same game!

The other stand out is another game that's not available - Vanuatu. The publisher has sold out and a reprint depends on distributors persuading the Krok Nil Douil chaps their is demand.

Oh my. This game is vicious - the whole hook and competition hangs around the action selection mechanic. And you can end up placing five action tokens and taking no actions if you have been very stupid, more likely you can end up only taking two whilst a smart opponent takes four - It creates an incredible tension and competition for scarce resources. Not only can you get screwed when selecting actions you can then get rear ended by the order that other gamers take theirs.

The rest is the usual sell stuff/collect stuff/deliver stuff (though thankfully simplistic without any flim flam)

The action selection is a stoke of genius - it has put my copy of Vasco Da Gama on the trade pile - a game for euro gamers who like it bloody in tooth and claw - and most certainly not for the squeamish or solitaire cube pusher

As of mid November 2011 this is one of my top 2 Essen pics.

Call off the search!

...Because the perfect 4x, Ti3 space opera 'Lite', has been found. No need for gaming wild goose chases, no false reports of grail sightings at ZippoCon XXVI, no need for any more mixed metaphors. 'Eclipse' has just catapulted to the top of my Essen games pile, heck to the top of the 2011 pile - and this based on one incomplete 2 player game. Opening a lot of games can make me a little jaundiced about new releases, if not even cynical and having watched the hype for 'Eclipse' grow on the 'Geek, and from an unknown designer to boot, my response has been of the 'yea right' variety. Until I heard there were only 150 English language copies at Essen and then lemming mode kicked in and I immediately pre-ordered, if only to sell it on after the show to a friend who might want it. After queuing for what seemed like the whole of Friday morning at the show (25 minutes) I was close to abandoning the line but was persuaded not to - and how glad I am.

My bias is to Euro design but I do like a story and a bit of conflict. 'Eclipse' takes the best of Euro design and melds it into a Sci Fi universe, not quite Opera but certainly richly populated. What do I like so much that it makes the game my current squeeze?

1) Action selection - do one thing and on to the next player, limited down time (the curse of Space opera is that it can take a lot of pages of libretto until you get to sing). Repeat until you pass (and you can repeat the same action at no penalty) - then you can comeback in with half actions if anyone gets nasty whilst you were resting.

2) Resources v Actions - there is a balance between what you want to do and what you can afford to. Despite the game only lasting for 9 rounds (believe me it feels like 'only') you can vary the intensity of actions by saving betwwen turns, or trading between resources (especially for the Terrans)

3) The tech to upgrade ships cycle - This is the piece de resistance. There are a lot of juicy technology upgrades in the game - however at the beginning of the technology board is seeded with a small random set of advances (with more coming out each turn) - so you might see a mixture of expensive and cheap techs, or multiple copies of one of the techs (each player has to take a tech chit to benefit). It creates real tension in the timing of the 'Research' action (so often an uncontentious one) as there may only be one of the tech you need out or along the discount path you want (there are three branches of technology - but no prerequisite you just get a progressive discount on future purchases of techs from the same row). Once you have acquired the technology then upgrading is a separate action - just grab the parts that the tech. has entitled you too (well two pieces max) and place them in your ship templates. Customising your ships becomes a puzzle in itself, and your strategy in the game can be determined by a couple of synergistic early tech. grabs - in my one half game I had fire power but my opponent had manoeuvrability.

4) Upkeep is really simple - can I afford to pay for the actions I took in the last round?

The only down side to the game that I can see is that its not on general release yet