Initial Thoughts on Some Recent Games
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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A couple of months ago there were the usual plethora of Geek Lists extolling the virtues of the "hot new Essen games" and so forth, all of them interesting but not really very informative because at that time, the games had either just been recently announced or had only been seen or played for a brief time. With the New Year upon us, I thought I would take it upon myself to look back at games I have actually played, purchased, or examined from the past few months. Most, but not all of these games, were touted on the Essen lists, but a few have actually slipped through the cracks, coming either from American based companies not at Essen and there are a few sleeper games out there, plus there will be a couple that were new to me, repackaged earlier games, or expansions to existing games.

I have tried to order the list with the games that I think are most likely to have long-lasting appeal near the top; the top four (Leonardo, Imperial, Pillars and Through the Ages) I rank above the rest because they are the ones I see as most likely to have the greatest lasting impact. I list right below them some really nice filler games that are a bit less weighty but nonetheless enjoyable (Mr. Jack, Space Dealer, Yspahan and R-Eco). The remainder of the games (including a couple I have tried that are not yet available in the US) are in no particular order.

I always look at the "gaming year" these days from one October to the next, with each Essen convention marking a new year. Some have said this was a "bumper crop" for Essen games, but right now I would say it' still too soon to tell -- while many of these games were very good, how many will stand the test of time and still be played alot a year from now? Going back to January 1 a year ago, everyone was certain Caylus was going to be the second coming, and while it has held a high position here at BGG, in my gaming groups it isn't played nearly as often as it was a year ago. In fact, if I were to pick the best game from last year's crop, it would be a game that wasn't at that year's Essen and one that was virtually unheralded by BGGers a year ago, January 2, 2006: Vegas Showdown, a game that was ultimately and in my view, justifiably, rewarded with GAMES magazine's game of the year after being snubbed by the highly Euro-centric SdJ committee but also by the IGA committee, whom I expected better of, and this in a year when there were not that many first-rate games from Europe.

Anyway, here goes, and I will of course indicate number of plays of each game as a basis for opinions rendered. Comments and additions to the list are welcome.
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1. Board Game: Leonardo da Vinci [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:643]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played around 15-20 times. This was the game on the early Essen lists that attracted my attention, and once the English rules and components were made available on-line, I decided I couldn't wait and made my own copy. I bought it as soon as it was available in the States and it's one of the few new games I have actually rated -- a solid "8" in my book, could be a "9" if it holds up after repeat plays. It fits the theme of inventions quite nicely, and the pressure to collect everything you need (a la Princes of Florence) is palpable. Think it will hold up after repeat playing, I believe there are different strategies to winning, and I don't see the criticisms that have been offered so far to be justified.
 
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2. Board Game: Imperial [Average Rating:7.66 Overall Rank:80]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played 4 times. This is my new personal favorite, a recent December 2006 purchase that I have played just about every gaming session since I bought it. I have been as pleasantly surprised with this one as I was disappointed with Antike by the same designer. Here I think the Rondel mechanism succeeds, whereas in Antike-- which seemed like a Civ-building game turned into a wargame/Kingmaker type game at the end--it failed miserably for me. I have tried Imperial with 3, 4, 5 and 6 players and 4 (perhaps 5) seems the ideal number. You can fall behind in cash generation if you get stuck without a country, but there's also alot of self-correcting mechanisms in the game (more money in the treasury, better the country does; if two countries attack each other's home territories usually both countries lose, etc.) and I think the replay value (particularly with the advanced set up rules where the players choose their bonds -- as with the advanced set up in Leo) is likely to be high.
 
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3. Board Game: The Pillars of the Earth [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:179]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played 10-12 times. This one is only available in German but so far I have played all my games either on BSW (with the aid of a very good English patch) or on a home-made set where all the stuff is in English. The game has been described as "Caylus light," which may be unfair to both games. I think the game is quite good and likely to take off once the English edition hits the states. The "Dutch auction" type method for placing the Master Builders in Phase 2 is a particularly unique and intriguing game mechanism I haven't seen too many other places. By the way, I strongly urge everyone to wait until the English edition is available unless you want to add 30-45 minutes to the playing time to look up all the cards. (learned my lesson on this one the hard way with Princes of Florence 5-6 years ago.)
 
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4. Board Game: Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization [Average Rating:8.21 Overall Rank:4]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played 8-10 times. This is the one that for me, at least, generates the most angst, in terms of having violently conflicting opinions on various aspects of the game. I really like the entire concept of using cards as the cornerstone and believe that many of the game's mechanisms are unique and well-executed (the sliding card row is one such feature). However, the accounting and game components are in my view unnecessarily fiddly, far more so than necessary -- a simple sliding track for each player would have done the job quite nicely -- no need for those tiny beads that are almost impossible to pick up without falling all over the place!) Playing time is going to be an issue with four players, and probably will be for most people who want to tackle the full game as well, which is the main reason I prefer the game with three. And, even if you only play the Basic Game, with no combat, the game is quite enjoyable and playable (with 3 again as the optimal number) in about an hour and a half. Not many Civ-building games I think of that can say that.
 
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5. Board Game: Space Dealer [Average Rating:6.60 Overall Rank:1137]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played 5-6 times. It's a good, quick fun game that, because of the timers, is really intense. I was concerned it would be a dexteriety contest but you really do have alot of time to plan your moves in the one minute between each play. Main criticisms I see and have heard are with the uneven times and also the extra components in each box seems a waste. (If they were going to design the game for 8, then they should have put all the components for an 8-player game in one box and sold it that way, instead of forcing you to mix and match components from two). This is probably one of the few games I know that takes longer to set up and pick up than it does to play, given all the components (and assuming you are playing with more than 5 and need to separate the cards into different piles at the end). However, right now I look forward to playing it again -- something that I cannot say for a somewhat similar game in terms of the time pressure element (Factory Fun) that appears later on this list. Time will tell if the attraction will wear off.
 
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6. Board Game: Mr. Jack [Average Rating:7.12 Overall Rank:288]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played 6-8 times. Two-player, plays quickly and once you get the character abilities down, it's really a snap to play. High replay value I think since the order of the characters coming out plus different criminals makes it intriguing. However, I am wondering if the game could be unbalanced if certain characters are chosen as Jack, having witnessed a two-turn win by Miss Stealthy as Jack in a most recent game.
 
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7. Board Game: Yspahan [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:293]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once so far. Had some problems getting the rules right, so I was slow to come to grips with this game. Seems to be quite a bit of luck in getting the right die roll as the #1 player, but there are enough choices but of course never enough time to cover all the bases. There's some question in my mind right now as to whether a caravan strategy can beat a souk strategy or not, so I need to play the game some more to make a final determination. Seems alot like Hermagor, a game later on this list, with a much shorter playing time which to me means it will get more plays, at least initially.
 
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8. Board Game: R-Eco [Average Rating:6.67 Overall Rank:1013]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played 4-5 times and recently borrowed a friend's copy for a week. One of those "sleeper" games from Japan (two others are Mermaid Rain, which I own, and Warumono2, which I do not). For a simple card game, there's quite a bit of strategy and it really fits the theme quite nicely. It's one that just about everyone who has played it has enjoyed, something that you can't say for all of the games on this list.
 
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9. Board Game: Sid Meier's Civilization: The Card Game [Average Rating:6.07 Overall Rank:4866]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played twice so far. To me, this is another sleeper game primarily because of the limited distribution (it was packaged as part of a boxed set with the Civ 4 computer game). So far I haven't bothered to install the computer game, because it was this boardgame that interested me the most. Its theme is essentially the same as Through the Ages, and with four pages of rules it's alot easier for new players to pick up. Of course, with the simpler rules it's a bit less ambitious and at times boring, plus it seems like you need to attack (or at least adopt a real strong defensive posture) to win. Nonetheless, I think this one really deserves as much attention as Through the Ages since it seeks to achieve the same objective (a relatively short version of Civilization through a card-driven mechanism) and it's unfortunate that the game has not been marketed in such a way to reach a larger audience.
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10. Board Game: Hermagor [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:739]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played twice. It's a fairly meaty game, with alot going on. It's kind of like a three-ring circus with the fairly unique chit auction element (which is probably the key to doing well at the game), the efficient placements on the board, and finally the scoring for placements in the lower right section (forget the name). It's an OK game, one I would play again but not at the top of the list. For me, it was a bit of a brain burner (like say Reef Encounter) that, in the long run, was not worth the effort. Also, didn't see the theme coming through at all. For me, I'd rather be playing Vegas Showdown or Traumfabrik.
 
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11. Board Game: On the Underground [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:647]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once. Probably will hit the table a few more times. Initially, seems too much like Paris Paris, a game I stopped playing about four months or so after it first came out. Right now, I will give this one another try or two, but not sure it has long-term staying power.
 
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12. Board Game: Graenaland [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:1593]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once (borrowed copy). Had some problems figuring out the rules although they made sense once we started playing. The game seemed to lack the excitement or unique elements of Through the Ages from the same company, and with standard setup requirements, I don't foresee a high replay value, either. So, rignt now there is no burning desire to buy it myself.
 
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13. Board Game: Factory Fun [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:564]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once. This is one of the Essen games that, based on the descriptions, seemed like it would be alot of fun. But the quick, musical chairs-like "who grabs the tile first" aspect of the game took all the fun and strategy out of it for me. Not that I am normally a slow player, but figuring out what was on each factory tile quickly was a big hurdle to overcome. Perhaps I might try it again but right now learning what's on each tiles well enough to make an intelligent choice is not something that is high on priority list, which is to say I doubt you will see me adding this one to my collection.
 
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14. Board Game: 1861: The Railways of the Russian Empire [Average Rating:7.57 Overall Rank:1150]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once. Part of the 18xx genre of games, very high quality components (unlike many of the privately produced "kit" games these days), and one that I am happy to have purchased and am looking forward to trying again. I like the game because of the absence of any stock-market manipulation since the focus is on building up one's own lines with progressive build-up from minor to major companies, somewhat reminiscent of 1835.
 
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15. Board Game: Gheos [Average Rating:6.56 Overall Rank:1189]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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1 play only. Tried this one at EQ and didn't particularly care for it. Seemed very much Carcassone-like in that you got the tile you needed at the right time or you didn't. Far too luck-driven to be considered by serious gamers, and it's only redeeming trait is that, unlike Carcassone, you have more than one tile to choose from.
 
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16. Board Game: Canal Mania [Average Rating:6.96 Overall Rank:893]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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2 plays. Both times it was suggested by someone else and I agreed to go along (reluctantly the second time). There is enough there to keep you interested, reminiscent of Stephenson's Rocket in theme but not so much in play. I would say it's not my cup of tea, as most of the ideas in the game seem borrowed from others.
 
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17. Board Game: Power Grid: Benelux/Central Europe [Average Rating:8.07 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.07 Unranked]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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1 play with the Benelux map. I appreciate how the recent Power Grid expansion maps not only offer a new playing arena but new rules to make each playing fresh and different. Eager to try Central Europe as well, although I feel pretty good about Benelux (I won the game on our first playing so I'm undefeated on that map!).
 
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18. Board Game: Take Stock [Average Rating:5.93 Overall Rank:3875]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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2 plays. Not sure we played with a rule right the first time (the "Limit" rule) and right now I'm thinking that rule could create a play length issue with fewer players -- gee, a game that could be shorter with more players, longer with fewer ... nonetheless, seems like a good stock market sim although the market cards seem to vary alot in strength, perhaps an undesirable factor that could have been eliminated by having a point value attached for the play of each card. Anyway, I am a long way from giving up on this one yet -- right now awaiting a clarification to the recent observation about play length to see if others noticed the same issue (see recent post on game page).
 
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19. Board Game: SuDoku: Das Kartenspiel [Average Rating:5.37 Overall Rank:9526]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once. Thought this would be an OK filler but it's almost too light -- and the plays seem much too obvious after awhile. No one in our gaming group, including me, seems eager to try it again, so I am not sure it will be hit the table much, if at all.
 
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20. Board Game: Augsburg 1520 [Average Rating:6.49 Overall Rank:1464]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once and, while it seems like there is a fairly good game there, I haven't felt the urge to try it again given all the other good games on this list that myself and others in my gaming circles seem alot more interested in.
 
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21. Board Game: Hameln [Average Rating:5.87 Overall Rank:4559]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once and have not been interested in trying it again. The game pace seemed to drag a bit and then accelerate toward the end, with luck seeming to play to big a factor. It's probably going to go down as one of those games with the "cutesey components" that otherwise just gathers dust on the shelf.
 
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22. Board Game: Dream Factory [Average Rating:7.11 Overall Rank:381]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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This of course is not a new one but a new edition of one of my all-time favorite games, Traumfabrik (and my favorite design of all the games from the prolific Reiner Knizia). I was reluctant to buy it, given what I heard about the phony names without real pictures of the movie stars, etc., but it's really quite humorous and of course the game plays just like the original. Plus my old dog-earred set was showing its age, so time for a remake!
 
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23. Board Game: Notre Dame [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:141]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once (prototype at EuroQuest). While many there were raving about the game and clamoring for repeat plays, I was not. It seemed like many of the mechanisms in the game were trite, had been used before, and those area majority type games are a dime a dozen. Nothing special and too bad, since Alea seems to have started on a downward spiral starting with Fifth Avenue a couple of years back (although Louis 14th was quite good, of course).
 
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24. Board Game: Fiji [Average Rating:5.84 Overall Rank:3743]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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Played once (at EuroQuest). No desire to play this one at all. The low BGG ratings are entirely justified, the game is totally luck-based and the fact that you can tie with someone and lose out (handing a windfall to the person who is trailing) makes it way too chaotic for me to even contemplate trying it again.
 
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25. Board Game: Here I Stand [Average Rating:7.96 Overall Rank:83]
John Weber
United States
Ellicott City
Maryland
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0 plays so far. This was a very recent purchase and it looks like this CDG from GMT has a great deal of potential. I bought A Mighty Fortress years ago and the idea of these 6 powers, each with different paths to victory, has been intriguing, and perhaps now with this design that historical period can come alive as, unfortunately, it did not with the other game.
 
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