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.

Game Night

As usual, we had a little round of light filler as we waited for folks to show up. I mentioned I had heard good things about Geschenkt as a light card game, so Chris promptly assembled a copy form Land Unter and some spare chips. As these sort of minimal games go, it wasn’t bad; cards are worth 3-33 negative points, and when it comes your turn you can either pay a point to the kitty to pass or take the topmost card, along with the points on it. At the end of the game, runs of cards (22 through 25, say) count negative only for their smallest card. It’s OK, there is some tension, but it’s certainly neither great, high-skill, nor obviously very replayable. It’s probably bumped off my “buy” list. We then moved on to the much more reliable king of light filler, For Sale.

There were then a couple requests to play the “Gnome game”. The reception was slightly mixed; a couple people liked it, Milton was less enthused. We played with 4, and I think the game is definitely a bit better with more – more options, without adding too much to the length. As I said in a previous write-up, the game is a bit chaotic and bidding-heavy, but it works for me. Not something I’ll play every week, but nice for variety.

Next up was Heart of Africa, from Phalanx. First, let me take aim at the large and slow-moving target of this game’s many production problems: the rules are very poor, with some terms (like “trading outpost”) never clarified or defined. The number of graphics errors is rather impressive (conflict chits have the wrong icon; action chit icons are often actively misleading or simply unhelpful).

So if you get past that, is the game any good? After one play, I’m almost, but not quite, ready to judge. It’s a mix of a bidding game (similar auction techniques to Traumfabrik) with a Vinci-like conquest game. You bid points for a pair of action chits which both tell you how many action points you get to spend moving your traders around and also give you one-shot special powers. The winner then gets to take a turn (everyone else watches), then score for areas he controls.

There definitely seem a number of surplus mechanisms in the game. There are two entirely different combat schemes, one for fighting neutrals and one for fighting other players, neither of which seems to quite work right. The prestige track and the ability to manipulate the area VP values seemed to be of marginal relevance to the game.

In the end, it felt a lot like a History of the World crossed with Vinci crossed with a bidding game. But the game felt out of whack somewhat. When you win a bid, you can generally do so much that it’s really hard to plan, and downtime starts being an issue. The combat resolution felt a little arbitrary. A lot like History of the World, it’s about setting up back-to-back turns more than tactics. And I was never a big fan of the cash-redistribution scheme in Traumfabrik; I always felt it was too “damped”, meaning that you’re going to win about one auction in four and the price just doesn’t matter much. And at only about 4-5 turns per player, it felt like there wasn’t much development, just a last-turn-grab for VPs that started on the first turn.

In the end, I don’t think the game works, and most of my fellow-players would say I’m being generous here. I am rather surprised by the overall pretty high rating and positive comments it receives on BoardGameGeek. If you like Vinci, and don’t mind the poor rulebook, graphic design gaffes, and spurious game elements, check it out, but use some care, I’d say. I’m at the point where I thought it might have enough good stuff in the bidding and turn chits to merit giving it one more shot, but I’ll need to find another group if I want to play again I think. It’s definitely not the win that Phalanx needs to keep me as a customer at this point.

As our game of Heart of Africa was happening, Kim was teaching Ys. They played with 3. It got a lukewarm reception. Nobody was thrilled, except maybe because they weren’t playing Out of Africa. After the post-game wrapup, I’m going to theorize that Ys really needs 4 players. The balance and tension seems to be calibrated for that number, and the game hasn’t been scaled enough for fewer players (as Aladdin’s Dragons does by shrinking the number of areas by putting out fewer treasure tokens and fewer artifacts). Kim said there just wasn’t enough interesting competition with fewer players.

New Games: Ys, Garten-Zwerge e. B.

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.

New Essen Games

Each year I buy a couple fewer games from Essen. This year there were quite a few that were tempting, but I didn’t buy too many in my first round of direct-from-Europe orders (and I should say that with the dollar worth so much less than it was just 3-4 years ago, things are not the deal they used to be). There was an interesting bit on record collecting on NPR (“Lost in the Grooves”) Wednesday in which one of the guests mentioned that in order to keep her collection under control and keep from buying everything, she had to have three reasons to buy a random record that she came across (they don’t necessarily have to be good reasons – cool cover art or an intriguing track name were OK – just reasons). We can now see if I can retroactively come up with 3 reasons why I bought these:

  • Reef Encounter: Appealing theme, Richard Breese is reasonably reliable for functioning game, limited edition which will probably represent a reasonable investment. Richard Breese self-published games are reliably decent but never great, so as a designer he’s right on the bubble – if this had been another “Key” game, I probably would have passed, but the reef theme sucked me in.
  • Ys: Well-produced, derivative from Aladdin’s Dragons which is a personal favorite, limited edition again. Really only one of those reasons counts for anything, but it’s a major one. This is one that I have genuine optimism for (i.e., it might end up hitting 10 plays).
  • Garten Zwerge e B – Truly bizzare theme, new company with an interesting lineup, bidding game. The game design itself is actually not unusual, but it’ll be interesting to see if the theme (breeding garden gnomes) is too weird for people. Game number two that I have genuine optimism for, actually.
  • Metallurgie – small (I need more good small card games in my collection), cool graphics & theme, by the same company (Argentum) that did the above and another interesting-looking game. This was a throw-in.
  • Telebohn – Wierd, I own all the other Bohnanza stuff, and, uh, it was cheap. I think that third reason doesn’t really count. But once you own 8 Bohnanza expansions, and the the last couple (Bohnaparte/Dschingis Bohn) were good, you feel sort of compelled to keep picking them up.
  • Sole Mio! – Again, small and cheap; and I was a fan of Mamma Mia! for quite a while before it just hit the end of the road and I never played again. I was hoping this might give me some enjoyment out of the game again, but it was probably a borderline call.
  • Revolution – I have great respect for Francis Tresham’s designs. I still play 1825, and even Civilization occasionally, so while this wasn’t a no-brainer – his best stuff is no less than 10 years old – I wasn’t going to pass on this. Unless it turns out to be terrible (very unlikely), it’ll be a decent investment.
  • Out of Africa – It’s a bidding game, cool graphics, and Phalanx is improving somewhat although I’d still like their games to be better than they are. I’ll give Ted Racier’s upcoming WWI game a shot, but these probably represent Phalanx’s last chance with me. If one of the three doesn’t hit 10 plays, I will approach their stuff with much more skepticism in future. I’ve cut them a lot of slack for games that just weren’t as good as they should have been, because the graphics are excellent, the games certainly haven’t been bad, and their hearts are in the right place. But that only goes so far.

I really like this whole “three reasons” concept, but obviously I’m still working on what it means to me. Either that, or I shouldn’t have bought a couple of those.

Stuff I would have picked up in previous years but didn’t:

  • Antiquity – Splotter is just too unreliable. Roads & Boats was great for a very niche game, but so much of their other stuff has been great concepts that they couldn’t take the last bit to a decent game. So this is a wait-and-see.
  • Im Shcatten des Kaisers, Mall World – I’ll wait for the English versions.
  • Candamir – Tempted. Mayfair hasn’t announced an English version, and it sounds reasonably internationalized except for the flavor text (but don’t quote me on that). I’ll hang on and see if an English version is announced sometime soon, but this will be a must-buy eventually.
  • Carcassone schlock – I’ve got The Castle and Hunters and Gatherers. How much more does one need?
  • Sea Sim – Again, Cwali disappointed with Logistico so they are no longer on my must-buy list. Another wait-and-see.
  • Razzia, Geschenkt, die Weinhandler – In my never-ending search for small-box games that last more than a couple plays, I’ll pick these up eventually I think.

Anyway, looking forward to giving a bunch of these a try (especially Garten Zwerge, Ys, and Revolution). I’ll let you know how it goes.