I had a chance to give two of the new Essen games a spin.
Ys is a bluffing/placement game, very similar to Aladdin’s Dragons. Players take turns placing “brokers” valued 0-4 in various regions, hoping to have the strongest pieces in the region and score gems, points, or special actions. Two things differentiate Ys from Aladdin’s Dragons: firstly, each turn you place one piece face-up and one face down, so there is more information available as to who is strong where (and the choice of what to place revealed and what to hide is an interesting one in and of itself). Secondly, in Ys the “regions” you are competing for work in a two-dimensional kind of way: when you place a broker, it usually will count for two things. The city is in the shape of a circle, with four quadrants, each of which has three sectors. Each broker will count both for winning the sector, as well as the entire quadrant.
What’s missing from Ys is the nicely-themed rewards for winning areas. Usually, you either get some points now, or some gems that will be worth points later based on how many you accumulate and another little market subgame, a separate “region” for placing brokers which serves to value the gems. There are some action cards you can win, but they are pretty flavorless. Gone are the nice magician, guardhouse, flying carpet, or trader from Aladdin’s Dragons (or, as he’s known around here, the “idiot trader” since he’ll trade, say, two red for one red). Nice theme really does make a difference, and it’s easy to take the masters here for granted – the themes in games like Aladdin’s Dragons, Taj Mahal, Tigris & Euphrates, Amun-Re, Union Pacific, or Through the Desert may seem thin, but they are definitely there and do work and do add quite a bit to the game. Whatever it is exactly, Ys doesn’t have it.
Still, all that said, I did like Ys. I like games with the bluffing and unpredictability of a lot of hidden placements. And Ys does confront you with interesting choices constantly, as there are far more ways to employ your brokers than you have brokers to use, and the tension there feels just at the right level – it doesn’t overwhelm you with options, but things are always very tight and you have to have a plan. And in another huge win, the game is just the right length at about 60-90 minutes, although it might be subject to player lock-up with all the choices.
Here is the ugly reality, though: Aladdin’s Dragons is $30 from FunAgain. Ys is $57. The games are fairly comparable, and Aladdin’s Dragons is simply a lot better. You can get Ys for less from Adam Spielt if you buy a bunch of stuff to amortize the shipping, but it’s still not going to come down to the $30 price point where it wants to be. Honestly, for me this is a disposable game, maybe 5 plays, 10 plays tops; it’s got a lot of nice stuff, but ultimately isn’t that memorable. If someone else in your group buys it, definitely give it a couple plays, because it’s neat, but it’s really hard to recommend at the price, given it doesn’t have anything truly novel in it.
Garten-Zwerge e. B., on the other hand, is a very neat, clever, and unusual game. Players compete to breed the best garden gnome, dog-show style (whether any of the gnomes have eyes that can accidentally pop out is left unclear in the rules). Starting with lowly brown and orange gnomes, you sell the “services” of your own gnomes, bid to lease other player’s gnomes (lots of sealed bidding, so if you can’t take bidding constantly, stay away), and compete in shows. Why they didn’t simply use a dog-breeding theme, which it is very faithful to and might have sucked more people in, is not clear to me.
There is a lot of randomness in the game – when two gnomes breed they may produce a valuable gnome or a worthless one – but this is a fundamentally light game that doesn’t go on too long, so the chaos works for me. There are a couple minor balance issues: the first turn is a little awkward as everyone starts in identical positions and there aren’t that many different choices until the second turn, when things start to develop; I’m not sure the balance on the gnome competitions is quite right; and one of the events (the one that ensures that an offspring gnome will be at least as high-ranking as the highest-ranking parent) is rather powerful and causes problems if one player has a Green gnome (there are two copies of that event in the deck – I’d get rid of at least one of them, and discard it if it comes into play if one or more Green gnomes is already out). But the game has a very nice theme, clever bidding mechanisms, it’s not too long, it handles 6 players quite well, you’ll always have some chance as long you keep some cash in reserve (although money can be rather tight), and it gives you tough money management decisions and interesting choices – a solid winner. Plus it’s only $15, so while it’s clearly not going to be infinitely replayable, at the price it doesn’t have to be.