All Essen Games, all the time … almost

OltreMare: This is a new trading game from Mind the Move. You try to acquire commodities in sets, much as in Bohnanza, Civilization, or Zubercocktail. The gimmick here is cards that serve a variety of purposes. Each turn, you load goods that determine the parameters of your next turn – so if I load a cloth, say, it will have a set of icons determining my hand capacity, number of goods I can load, number of cards I can draw, and how far I can move my ship. That’s about it. I think the problem with the game is that it’s basically like the other good, simple trading games (Bohnanza or Chinatown), with some extra stuff added in that really doesn’t quite work; there is no functioning “second idea” here, and the primary idea – trading for cards with escalating values – has already been done better. The “board” element of the game is almost completely gratuitous and adds little (and may in fact subtract due to the serious imbalance in the harbor tokens). Each player has a “pirate” stack of discarded cards that I am hard-pressed to explain the purpose of. As a whole it’s not bad – it’s fairly hard to make a terrible trading game at this point – but it’s a classic small-press game, decent but with too much extraneous stuff, significant rough edges, and a balance that feels off. In this case, there just aren’t enough meaningful player choices and the trading is somewhat desultory. I certainly wouldn’t veto the game if people wanted to play it – the game basically works, which is something – but for me this was not close to a buy (even assuming I could).

Garden Gnomes: Again, this game got a slightly mixed, but overall still reasonably positive, response. This is an experience game, something that you enjoy the process of playing, because while you can definitely play well or poorly and feel like controlling your destiny, there is still a big luck factor. But it’s a lot of fun to play in my opinion, an interesting blend of a serious and light game. We played with 5, and verified it’s a bit better with 5 than 4. And it played very differently with a different set of people, always a reasonably positive sign.

Gärten von Alhambra: This is just not my kind of a game. In the draw-one play-one genre, I’ve come around to Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers, but that’s about it (except for the classic stupid-but-fun game Nuclear War). This reminds me of Dirk Henn’s Iron Horse (aka Metro), in that you do a lot of fairly uninteresting work to figure out where to play your one tile, but lose anyway because there is such a big variance in the quality of the tiles given a certain game state. Never mind the big kingmaking problem. On balance though it’s definitely not a painful game, as long as people don’t take forever and the game comes in at a sensible 45 minutes or less. You can play it with friends and have fun if you have nice friends, but not my cup of tea as a game.

Einfach Genial: I had somehow managed to not play this game before now, even though it’s been pretty popular amongst people whose judgment I trust. It is of course completely abstract, but the Tigris & Euphrates-style scoring, combined with the fact that’s it’s interesting but still straightforward, and challenging but not a huge brain-burner, makes it a rather engaging game. I liked it, and Kim liked it even more; we’ll probably pick up a copy. As is usual with Knizia’s bigger-box stuff, this will take a few plays to come to an understanding of.

Ys: Remember when I said it was cool to play Garden Gnomes with a new group and see how it played very differently? Well, it was modestly disappointing to play Ys with a new group and see it play almost exactly the same. I seem to be in this odd state of enjoying my games of Ys reasonably enough, approving of it as a solid enough game, but I can also see clearly that once it loses it’s “new game” appeal, it’s going to fall off a cliff.

Reef Encounter: Now, at last, we’re talking. I bought Reef Encounter with some reservations, since Richard Breese’s games published under his own label (R&D) have been close so often without ever quite making it. After playing a bunch of Essen stuff that has not managed to deliver – Garden Gnomes is overall a win but would ideally be a bit less chaotic; Ys is lacking spark; Heart of Africa is probably just bad; OltreMare is OK but rather rough – now we have one that, on initial impressions at least, can finally deliver the goods.

Reef Encounter feels like a throwback to the great tactical/resource management games of the mid-to-late 90s, a genre that seems to have faded a bit – stuff like Tigris & Euphrates, Union Pacific, Ursuppe, El Grande, or Lord of the Rings. You’re managing colonies of coral, protecting them with your shrimp, and trying to grow them in size so that they can feed your parrot fish. You can strengthen your species of coral so that they can encroach on your opponents … but the situation is quite fluid, so quickly your coral will be gone to feed your parrot fish, but the coral species you strengthened is now being used by your opponents to beat you. It is certainly most similar to Tigris & Euphrates from the 10,000 foot view, in that you are using different color tiles from behind your screen to grow colonies of coral (kingdoms), then claim them with your shrimp (leaders). Here, though, the conflict is much simpler and rarer (it’s more border skirmishes than conflicts, and shrimps once placed can’t be evicted), but the resource management is more interesting – you draft tiles instead of picking randomly, and need to manage “energy cubes”, acquired through drafting or successful conflicts, that you need in the right colors to perform almost every game actions in addition to just tiles.

I really liked Reef Encounter. Obviously, this is a fairly involved game so one play is not enough to judge, and can even be deceptive – but it sucked me in in a way that the other big box games of the year, with the exception of Goa, haven’t quite managed to do yet. It’s not overly complicated once learned – significantly simpler than Tigris & Euphrates I think, although the rulebook doesn’t make it easy to learn. Also like Tigris & Euphrates the board state changes a lot, so I’m not sure there is a huge amount of long-term strategy on offer, although there clearly is some, but that just seems the nature of the genre and there are a lot of choices and tough management decisions throughout. And the theme and variability that is so lacking in Ys is solidly delivered here. R&D games have always had basically solid themes, but usually with some weird stuff thrown in (like the bizarre resource allocation procedures in Keydom), but here it’s without glitches and is consistently well done I think. And the game is quite pleasingly colorful – not to be sniffed at.

Anyway. More play will be required to see if this is just solid, good, or if it’s even great. But I’m glad I bought it after all, and am fairly optimistic.

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2 thoughts on “All Essen Games, all the time … almost

  1. Pingback: Last Gaming of 2004 | Illuminating Games

  2. Pingback: Revolution Update | Illuminating Games

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