Two Days at Spiel 2008
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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This list is an account of the things I did, saw, experienced, broke, bought, stole, and more while at Spiel 2008 in Essen, Germany. I was there on thursday and friday, widely regarded as the quietest days of the fair.

Before you delve into the texts I wrote, there's a few things you must keep in mind. First is that while I try my utmost best to keep criticism to a minimum, as well as to be objective as possible, it is very hard to say anything meaningful based on just a first and sometimes a second learning game. Personal preference is involved as much as anything, not to mention not being familiar with the game's strategies and tactics to set such strategies in motion. I relax my guard a little games, but even there you might get surprised. Therefore read the texts with an implicit 'in my opinion' in the back of your mind, even if I don't say it outright. You are more than welcome to share your experiences, no matter if they're different or equal.

Second, this year I made the decision to be much more strict in what to search out. I always carried a list which was longer than I could comfortably fit into two days, leading to rushed sessions and an overwrought brain aching from absorbing a dozen rule sets per day, each and every one explained in a foreign language. This year I whittled the list down a lot further than I did before, with economic and worker placement games bearing the brunt of the knife. I am not really 'into' those games---I can never play them at a competitive level---so I decided from the outset not to spend precious time on them. Titles such as Le Havre, Constantinopolis, Planet Steam, Palais Royal, and The Princes of Macchu Pichu are therefore not mentioned on this list. The whittling had the rather pleasant consequence of reducing the list to a manageable size, as well as allowing me room for discovering undiscovered little gems which would otherwise escape notice. It has been a growing desire to have some time to say what the hell and just sit down somewhere; now I could do that. To summarise: this is not a list of pure gamer's games, but a list reflecting my preferences with some randomness thrown in.

Third, ... Ehm, there is no third, save for me to wish you happy reading.
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1. Board Game: Power Grid: China/Korea [Average Rating:8.04 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.04 Unranked]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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And On The First Day...

Without any problems we (= myself and my sweetheart girlfriend) arrived in Essen. There were no freebies I was interested in this year, and the only booth I could be bothered to reach quickly was that of Martin Wallace, since he was handing out the final 200 copies of Tinners' Trail published under his new Treefrog label. But since the game was picked up by a different label, I really could not be bothered all that much. So the first thing we did was to head over to the stand of 2F-Spiele and secure the must-have expansion of China / Korea. I was asked whether I would like to make a donation to the CliniClowns in exchange for a rather weird power plant: it is a joker of sorts, and has a value of 33 1/3. Yes, that's right, the nominal value is fractional. From what I gathered is that the fraction only comes into play once you are reordering the market, with more details apparently available on Friedemann's website. I haven't looked there yet, but I will in the near future.
 
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2. Board Game: Cavum [Average Rating:6.79 Overall Rank:1060]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Figuring that going over to Martin's booth (which he shared with a number of other publishers this year) wasn't such a bad idea to begin with, we made our way to hall #5, where I more or less ran squarely into the booh from the guys at QWG. I needed to see them in order to pick up my free copy of Cavum, so here was a nice opportunity.

I was very happy and even a little proud when publisher QWG Games asked me to work on the Dutch translation for this game---it's not everyday that you get to work on a game created by one of the top design duos around. Since part of my payment consists of a copy of the game, this was one title I knew I didn't have to seek out during Spiel, being already quite familiar with it. I did not play Cavum at the fair, but I thought that describing my first experience with a prototype with 99% finalised rules might make worthwhile reading anyway.

It is a weird experience, carefully translating rules without having the benefit of practical game experience. When I first read the rules, my impression was that of something chaotic and very Age of Steam-like. Tunnels are built, can even be stacked on top of eachother, and can be blown to bits causing massive changes in the tunnel graph. I wasn't too keen to give it a try. However, on a big prototype-day at QWG Games HQ, I set aside my hesitations and just played the game. My initial impressions about it being chaotic were not correct: the dynamite changes the outlook of course, but not to the extent I had imagined. The role of mining stations was much more important, too. The overall feel of Cavum is much closer to that of a slowly growing puzzle in which you try to create and maintain an optimum route passing as many gem veins as possible. Overlaid are typical touches recognisable from earlier action point-titles: starting at 20 points, bidding for turn order, and so forth.

Actions in this game are somewhat incremental in nature, and if you combine that with the fact that everyone wants gems, the tunnel network seems to form rather easily and spontaneously. There seemed to be little direct blocking as is the case in Age of Steam; in fact, it is stations and dynamite you should be worried about. Dynamite damages the tunnel network, but not beyond repair, and that is how it should be: either you repair, or you continue with something new somewhere else. On top of all that is careful planning to get gems out of the mountain before someone else and to force premature foreclosure of a rare vein, selling gems at a competitive price, and completing assignments. The first two are interesting sub-games in their own right: I lost because I got greedy and allowed someone before me to close a vein, cutting me off from completing a major assignment.

We had fun playing, no doubt about it, but some serious thought about how the game progressed led me to believe that strategically, we butchered the game. First, we did not bid competitively for the right to chose a sequence card first. In order to pick up good assignments, you want to be the first to do so as you can pick up two of these. They are so valuable that fulfilling these means victory. Second, our tunneling wasn't very aggressive. The result was that everyone had more than enough gems left over to participate in the sales auctions. That is a sure way to kill them, because noone wants to let anybody else get away with a lot of points if they can obtain points---albeit a little less---for themselves. These auctions only work if people must chose between them and assignments. This wasn't the case in our game: auctions were more of an extra rather than an absolute necessity. The overall result was not satisfying from a strategic point of view: the person with the most assignments won nearly uncontestedly. Over the weeks I've become convinced that my ideas are a lot more sensible than what transpired on the board that day.

One thing which I will always remain happy about is Mike Doyle's artwork. For once, he created something which is both a joy to look at and a joy to play with: none of that deep, dark, high gamma contrasty stuff he so expertly ruined El Capitán and Caylus with. Cavum is quite light with all its hues in sepia, making it very pleasing to the eyes.

Assuming that I work out a better strategy for this game---and as I already indicated there is definitely lots of room for substantial improvement---then this is a beautiful and strong game by masters of their trade which should appeal to any fan of the infamous mask trilogy. Cavum is not quite the same, but it's not that hard to draw parallels either. And assuming that I don't work out a better strategy... Well, let's not bother with that line of thought for the moment, shall we?
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3. Board Game: Galaxy Trucker: The Big Expansion [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.00 Unranked]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Martin's stand (I keep on calling it that for convenience, but rest assured, there were other publishers there too!) was rather busy, and I didn't feel like purchasing a game I did not really know. So I suggested to my partner we go to hall #4, do whatever it is we wanted to do there, and make our way back to hall #12 from there. She agreed, and so we made our way to the stand of the Czechs from CGE. I bought the Big Expansion to Galaxy Trucker unseen, and since I had a first edition game, got a set of game materials for free (!) so the expansion would 'work' without there being a clash between editions---there have been numerous discussions here in which the physical differences have been discussed already. As I write this I realise I was bloody stupid in not asking the question how this 'fix' would reach other 1st-edition owners. But I guess the existence of such a compatibility pack is just cause for much merriment amongst those who helped Galaxy Trucker get to its current popular status. Do write to CGE for more information, but give the guys some time to reply: they will take some time to get back home, after all.

I have no idea how the expansion plays out; I bought this game unseen, a rare exception for me this Spiel.
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4. Board Game: Space Alert [Average Rating:7.61 Overall Rank:72]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Now at the booth from CGE was also this game, which is doing fine in creating a hype all its own these days. I confess that my interest in this game was not that great to begin with, although it appeared to be another fine title from this publisher. We watched an explanation get underway for a bit, and prepared to listen to the first warnings and messages issued by the ship's computer.

They are bloody awful to listen to.

Honestly, the ship is equipped with the most advanced propulsion drive known to man, but the science of voice synthesis seems to be stuck in the Stone Age. The sound is tinny, mechanical, and highly distorted to make it sound like a detached computer. It requires at least one player to be very attentive in order to understand what is being said. Obviously some effort was made in order to make the theme more evocative, but said effort in this case immediately put us off. Yes, I know the CD's are not a requirement in order to play Space Alert, and that what is being said is not at all complicated, but they are the icing on the cake, and I will have to play with other people who are certainly not well-versed in decyphering strange distorted voices in a different language. Yes, you can assign someone to do just that, but what is the use of using the CD then?

We have not played the game and so cannot comment on its good or bad qualities---coming from the CGE stable we're sure they cannot be that bad---but if there is one suggestion we'd like to impress on prospective buyers it's that they attempt to listen to a track in advance to see whether they agree with the voice-acting.
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5. Board Game: The Club [Average Rating:4.70 Overall Rank:10590]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Also lurking in hall #4 was the stand of Finnish publisher Tuonela Productions where a young lady was quietly explaining away their newest title The Club. I don't think it was possible to play the game at that stand (the tables were occupied with other titles) so I settled for an explanation. Later I learned that FRED Distribution also had this game 'on demo'.

I was interested in this title because of its subject matter. I am by no means a club-goer, but it being a clear parody coupled with its bright graphics appealed to me. The idea of the game is that you and your fellow players play matchmaker in the role of bartenders working at bars surrounding a dance floor. The club's crowd is dancing there, but are reluctant to hook up. In order to ignite the spark of love, the crowd must be pushed to the centre of the disco first. Adjacent persons can then form a couple, depending on the match of at least two characteristics of either person---height, music preference, state of sobriety, and mood. Depending on the goodness of the match, players are awarded points. However, there are also hidden preferences in terms of being married, being a parent, being religious, and so forth, which can all affect the quality of the subsequent relation. There are some funny jokes here: pushing two religious persons together is deemed impossible as no religious person would show up in a sleezy dance club, so the act must be one of God and is thus rewarded very liberally.

So far this is all very thematic and funny, and reminiscent of that train wreck of a game by Casasola Merkle and Friese, Funny Friends. Where it in our opinion breaks down a bit is in what you actually do. You have little control over how people are pushed together, and only know but a few hidden characteristics. We suspect the fun comes in from creating hilarious and unexpected combinations, rather than being 'The New Hitch' who matches people with merciless precision. Admittedly, we did not play this game, so we could have it all wrong. But still the fact remains that the mechanisms did not entice us to pay the full price of this game. We'll probably happily join in a game or two, but this was not a title we felt we needed to own.
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6. Board Game: Logan Stones [Average Rating:5.72 Overall Rank:7277]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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It was time we sat down and played our first game. I had put down Logan Stones as a game to try as 'last resort', when there was but 15 minutes of opening time left. However, with us now having heard and seen and bought a lot, but not having actually played anything yet, my girlfriend vetoed the matter, and so we sat down behind John Yianni's latest title.

Logan Stones is a mix of tried-and-tested older games, namely Othello/Reversi, Connect Four and Rock-Paper-Scissors. The objective is to create a straight row of four equal symbols, of which there are three types in the game: rock, paper and scissors. Players take alternate turns in adding a stone from their supply to a growing 'island' of previously placed stones, and flipping over neighbouring stones which are 'defeated' according to the well-known mantra 'rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper, paper beats stone'. There are no chain reactions, though. Since on the opposite side of a stone a different symbol is depicted, it is important to memorise the entire stone lest the placement of a new stone does not open up opportunities for the opponent to take advantage of. If there are no more stones to play, players can move stones about, of flip them in-place.

We found the game to be fast and light one, playing twice to completion. However, the memory-aspect did not sit very well with me. I prefer the 'openess' of Logan Stones's predecessor Hive where strategic effort is pronounced. There is no way to lose in that game by not remembering what insect is placed where, after all. A major plus is the bakelite production: once again you'll get a game which you can take with you to almost any environment on Earth without fear of damage.

It might be a game for you, but it wasn't for us: the price was a bit too steep for that. But perhaps, when the game is on sale, that it shows up in our collection as a title to play when you need something simple which can be easily explained to other people too---the basics are of course very familiar.
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7. Board Game: 2 de Mayo [Average Rating:7.00 Overall Rank:662]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Having exhausted hall #4 for the moment (the people from Kuznia Gier being very occupied for the moment), we proceeded to hall #6 for a game of 2 de Mayo by Daniel Val. This game recreates the events that transpired on May 2, 1808, when an untrained mob of Spaniards rebelled against highly trained and motivated French troops which had just occupied Madrid. This little game can be thought of as a 'weuro', but then one which is very short (< 20 minutes), and being just for 2 players.

The objective of the game is very simple: the French player must kill all Spaniards and secure all four gates to the city before the end of turn 10; the Spanish player must simply survive. Play is simple and straightforward: every player draws a card from a special deck reserved for either side, plays out a card if desired or required (some cards must be played immediately upon being drawn, even if they are bad for the player drawing them) and then writes down his movement orders for that turn Diplomacy-style. Then they are revealed and excecuted simultaneously, battles are resolved if necessary, and a new turn commences.

2 de Mayo is indeed a simple game, for all that remains to be explained are some rules dealing with movement and combat. I won't describe those here because they are not really necessary for this short overview. The end result is rather intruiging to watch, though. The French come in with far superior forces, but are hampered by lack of movement options, so they cannot permit themselves any frivolous moves. The Spaniards are but few, but can move like lightning. Alone they are no match against a French army, true, but by being alone they are actually harder to eradicate as a whole. I won our game by making use of a special victory condition for the Spanish; with some experience in memorising the various cards this will not be possible in the future.

Big plusses in our opinion where the speed and simplicity of the game, and the rather unusual simultaneous action selection; the game got some negative marks for the very bland and sober production which felt a bit stingy too: you only get one sheet on which to write your commands. Although copies are easily made, I would have at least expected a little blocnote, really. Nevertheless, the game was purchased and we're looking forward to seeing how the tactics and strategies work out over time.
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8. Board Game: Snow Tails [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:437]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Our next stop was over at the Lamonts in hall #9 for a game of Snow Tails. This year there seemed to be a quite a lot of 'track' games where you create and then race down your own track. In this game, you pilot your sled dogs around a track with curves and drifts and trees and all sorts of nasty things, although the Lamonts had taken pity on the poor fair-goers and had laid out a simple track to sink their teeth into.

The game is simply to be the first to cross the finish. Your speed is determined by a simple addition of the power of the dogs minus the strength of the brake, all of which can be altered by playing cards from your hand. Quite clever is the fact that steering is achieved by having dogs with unequal strength in front of your sled; the imbalance causes you to drift to the left or the right. If you are a klutz and run into the side of the track---which as beginner is a given---you need to pick up a so-called dent card which clogs up your hand and limits your movement options as you can only hold on to a fixed number of cards. The more dents you receive, the less you will be able to steer and alter your velocity. Also a rather neat trick, even though it means that once you begin making mistakes on tricky courses, you'll probably make more and more and eventually will end up as dog chow.

Fraser Lamont, musher extraordinaire and winner multiple times over of this mini-Iditarod, made sure that all we could see of his sled was a cloud of snow and finished the game just when we were about half-way, which just goes to show that with practice you can become quite the musher, even though the cards you draw are picked up at random. In that respect there is more to Snow Tails then meets the eye. It appears simple, but it's not, not really. Still, the game seemed to be more 'activity' rather than 'watching fascinating game patterns emerge'. This was the main reason which stayed our hand in purchasing a copy: we'll happily play a game, but once again, this was not a title we needed to own.

Before I forget, Snow Tails does not come with the gypsum figurines Fragor Games have become so famous for: this game is plain wood, carton and cardboard.
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9. Board Game: Kamisado [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:804]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Hall #9 was packed with small gamer's game publishers this year, so it wasn't hard to find Burley Games with their latest title Kamisado. Kamisado is a game which reminds me of a simple game I played once every while while I was still playing chess: remove all pieces save for kings and pawns and play. This simplified game improves your handling of pawn structures and broadens your understanding of sente (although in chess it's not called that---but I've forgotten what the proper term is...). In Kamisado, you move towers on a rather colourful field of squares and attempt to reach the other side first. This 'promotes' the tower to a more powerful piece known as a sumo which has the ability to push others out of the way. The catch is that you can only move forward (either diagonally or straight ahead), and must move the piece with the colour matching that of the field where your opponent landed his last piece. (So: A moves piece, lands on yellow field, then B moves a yellow tower.) The upshot is that Kamisado plays very quickly and can cause quite a bit of turnangst.

I was explained this very quickly and surely by the youngest explainer I have ever had: my guess is one of the sons of Peter Burley, the designer (and publisher) of Kamisado. We played a simple game which in all honesty I lost after five or six moves, but my opponent was so kind as to allow me to take back my move. I did not play further after we completed the game, so I can not report about the effect of the sumos which are sure to change the game's outlook. Play-wise there was nothing wrong with this title, and therefore could have bought it; my other half would not have objected. Regrettably, I found the colours to be a bit too much: I prefer more subdued and 'boring' colours in a game of this type. Nevertheless, perhaps the game will turn up in my collection in the future; good abstracts are not easy to find.
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10. Board Game: Ghost Stories [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:136]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Then, still in hall #9, the first of the titles which I Absolutely Had To Have Tried while at Essen. Ghost Stories, one of the many cooperative titles which appeared this year, by Antoine Bauza. This title has a subject which will not appeal to everyone: defending a small village against the legions of a very evil and malignant spirit who is after the ashes of his mortal body so he can be reborn. The only ones in his way are a group of Taoist monks who must cooperate to exorcise every spirit floating their way, and finally sending the Big Boss himself back to the nether regions of Hell. Monks can die if they lose all their 'qi' (life force), although they can be brought back to life---for a price.

The game itself is fairly simple once you are able to 'read' the various symbols printed on cards and tiles. Play usually progresses by drawing a ghost from the ghost deck, and placing the creepy horror onto the appropriate player board. Sometimes the ghost causes something nasty to happen when brought into the game, the most annoying of which is 'bringing along a friend'---meaning you draw another ghost (and if necessary, another, and another...). There is also a round of upkeep in which ghosts which are already present, get to do something nasty, like haunting poor villagers. This is Bad News for the monks, for the villagers are very useful in aiding the group. If too many villagers are haunted, the monks lose the game. After all ghosts have had their say, the monks have their chance to keep evil in check and sometimes even eradicate it. They can call upon a villager (for a price, of course), or they can attempt exorcisms themselves. These involve the throwing of dice---oh horror!---but you can mitigate the luck to some extent, and by cooperating with other players mitigate it even further.

The entire process of adding ghosts and getting rid of them goes on until the deck is exhausted and the big boss has been defeated. As such Ghost Stories is a war of attrition, and finding out who or what gives out first: the game or the players. To be honest, all cooperative games are wars of attrition, but in Ghost Stories I feel this aspect more. I think at least one reason is that there is no sense of 'progression' or 'change' as is the case with Lord of the Rings or Pandemic (which we'll see later on this list), and that the subject, although very strong, is still too abstract for me to identify with easily. Another reason, which I should not ignore, is that in our game we had to discuss our moves in a different language. With all the symbols and what-not, that created a barrier which only slowly evaporated. About half-way, we got into the 'schwung' of things and did the faster and more energetic nature of Ghost Stories become more apparent.

We both liked this game, although we also understood that for it to become a success with us and our player groups, there needs to be some sort of 'training ground' so players can familiarise themselves with all capabilities of monks and villagers. Or that a few players need to be able to coach newcomers through, which in our case is the most likely scenario. We bought it, although in all honesty, the price of €40 really was too high, even considering the ex ludis, the T-shirt, and extra cards. But I'll get to prices later on in this list.
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11. Board Game: Bushido: Der Weg des Kriegers [Average Rating:6.45 Overall Rank:3459]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Another popular subject this year was feudal Japan. This title piqued my interest because of a variant on the unusual I divide, you choose-mechanic. It was only a short walk, still in hall #9, to the combined stand of a lot of publishers to sit down at the offspring from the GameHeads. The daimyo---big Kahuna---picks roles for other players, namely his samurai---warlord---and a bushi---victim---whom he wants the samurai to attack. Remaining are the hatamoto who I am not sure about what he does and sensei---or wise advisor. The daimyo picks troops which the samurai then uses to fight, but where the samurai fights, and how is out of the daimyo's hands. This supposedly creates interesting psychological games where the daimyo desires one thing, but the samurai desires another and decides to go his own way and damn the consequences. Which, by the way, are laid out by hatamoto and sensei.

Honestly, this 'weuro' doesn't at all sound bad. In fact, it sounds rather clever and compelling. I would have liked to write something intelligent about gameplay, but alas, I can't. The rules explainer did the most excellent job I've ever seen in fucking up what he was supposed to do, namely explain the rules. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, why I was doing it, and how I needed to go about doing it whatever it was I was supposed to be doing, and not doing. The other players at my table were equally at a loss, resulting in a waste of at least an hour of valuable fair time. Yes, I suppose we could have asked for a rehearsal of the rules. But noone wants to admit they didn't get a single thing of whatever it was that was told, right? On many occasions you can get away with monkey see, monkey do, but not here, alas. We decided, after I called off the game after round 5 or so, that we're going to try again should the opportunity present itself, with me having had a shot at the rules too.

One thing we did learn: we were fortunate enough to play with the large demoboard featuring heavy and beautifully crafted miniature soldiers. This lent the game a very good and epic feel. The version ordinary mortals buy, however, features cardboard discs which are stacked on top of eachother. Determining strength of position is way more difficult in that situation, and there is no doubt in my mind that this will have an impact on game play. If you are able to supply your own soldiers, my advice would be to do just that.
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12. Board Game: Aronda [Average Rating:6.05 Overall Rank:6101]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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After the Bushido-fiasco, neither of us had much strength and energy left for anything major. So we headed to hall #11 for easier fare, in this case Aronda by Michail Antonow and Jens-Peter Schliemann.

Aronda has a beautiful board (which is to be expected given the publisher Clemens Gerhards, although I gather they've changed their name) allowing you to put the game on display in your living room. However, in order to find out whether that was worth the price of €35 (!) I wanted to try it first. The game is very simple: put two little pawns in the playing area---which has been divided into three concentric circles each subdivided in various segments---and see if you can 'take over' an area. This is determined by the amount of pawns and the amount of neighbouring areas a given segment has: put in half or more pawns than the segment has neighbours, and you gain control there. The more control, the better, because this is what nets you victory of the game. However, you can speed up the process. Take control of a specified amount of neighbouring areas---to be more precise, the amount of pawns you'd need to put in to get control of said area in the first place---and the segment becomes yours automatically. This might cause a chain reaction, and see you take over the board with just one added pawn.

A nice and simple idea, true, and definitely not a bad game either. Clemens Gerhards have much worse in their collection. I do now know what happens when two experienced players take control of Aronda; but I do not think there is cause for concern. There is an inherent balance between encroaching onto the board, and taking it over in one giant swoop; a degenerate trench war strategy does not appear to be very appealing. Still, the price really was too high, although I admit that when I get a raise I might be tempted to get Clemens Gerhards to send me a copy. It truly does make a good showpiece, and allows for some intelligent thinking too.
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13. Board Game: Arktia [Average Rating:5.78 Overall Rank:7357]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Time was running out fast now, and with less than an hour left, and both exhausted from the entire day, we hunted down the last simple thing on our list: Arktia, by Murmel Spielewerkstatt, conveniently located close to the exit in hall #12. Our explainer had a sore throat from talking all day, but made a valiant effort in talking us through the rules.

Arktia appealed to me because of the artwork and a favourable impression left by reading the rules. Players move about three different kinds of 'building' which make up research stations on a hypothetical ice planet. The idea is to keep your stations together as a group, while breaking up those of other players. This happens when sort-of rock-paper-scissors style the various elements get taken over by those from different players, and are then moved away, out of range of their own group. Such a forlorn module is 'captured' and taken off the board, yielding points for the capturer. Players continuously add new modules until they run out, in which case they begin removing fields of ice and thus cause the playing area to shrink. The game ends when noone can make a legal move anymore.

The game itself doesn't sound at all bad from the description, and even with the experience of a test game, I still say the game should 'work'. But in practice it feels somewhat constricted because placing and moving your own modules are subject to the rule that you may not divide your own group into two smaller ones. This makes attacking another player harder than you would think at first, and gives a game a 'tacky' feel where progress is slower than you'd ideally want. Also somewhat weird is the fact that points are awarded not only for captured modules, but also for ice tiles you removed. This feels very anti-thematic and artificial.

We didn't buy this game, mostly for reasons listed above.
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14. Board Game: Confucius [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:1256]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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And On The Second Day...

The program for the second day was rather heavy, with many explanation-heavy games. The first game on that list was Confucius, by Alan Paul. My interest was roused by the mechanism of gift giving, and then being under an obligation to help others against your will, but I found the rules to be hard going. I wanted someone to explain them to me, so I could avoid the nasty business of figuring them out on my own.

So on the second day we walked quickly to the same stand in hall #5 where we started the first day. And lo and behold, there was an empty table waiting for us. A nice explainer whose first name was Tony (didn't get the see your last name, sorry) did an excellent job of walking us through the rules. I was most impressed, given the fact that I had given up on the rule book. In fact, the game isn't really that difficult, there's just a lot of information to digest at the beginning. Players vie for victory points in medieval China by conquering foreign lands and opening up trading routes, but also by becoming minister in any of the three ministeries. Corruption and bribery are part of the game: bribe an official in the ministery of finance, for example, and all other bribes become cheaper. But the sneakiest and most insidious part is formed by gifts. Give another player a gift, and you place him under an obligation to aid you in various ways---voting your way, not surpassing your influence in a ministery, and so forth. After nine rounds of mayhem the score is tallied, and the mose succesful weasle is announced.

Confucius makes use of 'action cubes' to allow players what they will do on a turn, but you can very easily see these as 'workers' doing your bidding. This is not a genuine worker placement game though, and because of the obligations players can put eachother under, this isn't a 'friendly' game either. Also helping the speedy feel of the game is that players cannot execute that many actions in a round, and that most actions are confined to pushing stuff around on the game board. Because of the length we broke off after the fourth or fifth round, but the speed and ease with which we got underway made us decide that Confucius deserves further study. We got a copy later that day.
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15. Board Game: After the Flood [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:1051]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Before we got to try this game, we had to wait a very long time. Most other titles still on our list were very hard to get to---all occupied, games just underway, etcetera. So we went back to After the Flood and waited until an opportunity presented itself. Sometimes there's just no use for it, and you have to wait until, well, Doomsday. And for what? A title by Martin Wallace, whose designs always turn newcomers' heads to molasses. I swear, there must be a masochistic streak running in me for seeking out his games.

Anyway, after Hell had frozen over, we sat down and learned more about After the Flood. This game, designed specifically for 3 players, is about trading resources to be able to put the finishing touches to cities springing up in ancient Sumer. This nets you a good deal of points. So in order to keep the others in check you take control of armies to destroy those of others. But you have to be careful here: a 'finished' city can not be finished again, and will not give you points again. They must be destroyed first---so you can become quite stuck if you're not careful. In order to promote competition, there are more cities available than there are spaces to put them in, so the question also becomes if you can hold on to empty spaces longer than others can fill them up. Combat in this game is very simplistic: armies are ranked according to their 'capabilities' (which you can augment by committing a resource upon their formation, even when that resource is grain---imagine that, an army armed with straw swords...), and based on their rank, all you need to do is throw a 5 or higher, or a 7 or higher in order to emerge victoriously. This keeps things fast and straightforward.

Don't assume that things will be this clear once you've been explained the rules, though. And don't expect at all that you'll have an idea about what you'll need to do. This is a Martin Wallace game, after all. We struggled through the first round of five, broke off thereafter---mostly because I had misunderstood a rule and removed all the workers from the board whereas in reality they are removed as part of a phase in the game. We had been at it for some time already, and had gotten some idea of the game.

Despite an impression which would have sent everyone howling, and certainly one which was worse than other titles we had previously tried, we did get the game. One reason was that this game was designed specifically for 3 players---that is rare. Second reason is that my experience with Martin's games is that perseverance usually pays off. You just need to work at it. Only time will tell whether my intuition was correct in this case. For now, I'll be taking good care of copy #843.
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16. Board Game: Omega Centauri [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:2913]
 
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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I was really hoping this game would be available for public consumption, but alas, the sole copy the staff had available needed to be assembled by hand. And everyone was overwrought and tired and what-not. Very annoying, I would have loved to try this game. Next year, perhaps, or during one of the other main gaming events in the Netherlands and Belgium.
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17. Board Game: Pandemic [Average Rating:7.67 Overall Rank:43]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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After a well-deserved break, we returned to the gaming tables of Pegasus where the German re-release of Matt Leacock's succesful Pandemic was demoed with gusto. (I'll get back to that in a minute.) Pandemic was not on my original list of things to do at Essen, but with so many boards in play, I could not resist. After a short wait we and two other people were introduced to the backstory of finding a cure for 4 major diseases threatening to become full-scale pandemics.

This game started off the boom of cooperative titles which was released this year, and so it was interesting to try it out to see what it was all about. Since the game is 'old' I'll go straight to what we thought of the game---which we won, by the way. First, the subject matter is 'appealing' in the sense that it is very easy to sympathise with. Compared to a game like Ghost Stories, everyone knows the basics of contagious diseases, how they spread, that you need a cure, that you need research to get it, that there are people who make it their job studying them. Second, you 'achieve' something when you find a cure. One down, three to go, come on, who has blue cards? And so forth. Finally, the mechanics are simple and straightforward, and do not require lots of fiddling. Short and simple: a fun game with that unmistakable character of instant appeal. We bought it shortly thereafter.

(Ghost Stories had better live up to its promise of being more 'intense'.)
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18. Board Game: Sylla [Average Rating:6.86 Overall Rank:781]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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Sylla... We had been waiting and stalking around for ages trying to find a table to play this title. Ystari only had one table at their own booth, and because Rio Grande was located right next to Fairplay where Dominion and Macchu Pichu were the top-2 games, Sylla was relegated to a grand total of three tables on the entire fair. One of the tables was a round coffee table without seats, too.

I suppose I could have bought the game unseen: I had reserved the 'special' edition with naked butts and metal coins, and I usually like Ystari designs. But when I signed up way back when, I was under the impression Sylla was a 2 player-only game, and not, as it later turned out, a 3 and 4 player-only game. Reading the rules turned my stomach in a knot, making me very unsure whether my impulse-preorder was a good one.

Sylla has a Roman theme, but let's ignore that for the moment. What happens is that you have a collect-resources-build-stuff-collect-VPs-type of game. The resources come in the form of characters with colourful hexagons; the buildings cost those resources and are auctioned off which causes the characters to be 'tapped' Magic-style so they are longer available for the remainder of the round; collecting VPs happens in various ways: you can acquire them in a funny bid for the support of a public building, or you avert a disaster threatening Rome. But you don't get the VPs directly in the latter case, you get a marker which represents the 'state' of one of three 'issues' Rome has to deal with all the time; the more satisfied people are with the issue, the more such a marker will be worth at the end of the game. But if players ignore the needs of the population, all hell breaks lose, and the player with the least such resources loses them. He was a decadent bugger, throwing all his time and energy at the lovely ladies dancing for him instead of worrying about important civic issues.

The game is solidly crafted and contains polished mechanisms, true. In 'feel' there is a certain resemblance to Amyitis, although the games are light years apart in what they actually do and achieve. There is a tight combination of mechanics which you need to exploit as good as possible. But where Amyitis has its star structure, Sylla has a slow snowball. Not at all a bad snowball (because the number of resources is limited to three, and you 'get' them for free, so it's hard to run away), but a snowball just the same. And those games are not my forte. I lost---nearly 'of course'---and although the post mortem analysis gave me some idea of what I did wrong, I felt the price of €45 was too high to keep on chipping away at my ability to get this game 'right'. Like I said, solid title, polished mechanisms, but not my type of game, and not the type of my girlfriend either.

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19. Board Game: Robot Master [Average Rating:6.38 Overall Rank:3470]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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With just an hour to go, we decided to try Kuznia Gier's title Rice Wars, but unfortunately, a game had just started there. Although the staff promised to do their best, you can't hurry these things, and in the end we accepted the fact that such a longer title could no longer be played without severe issues. (It's okay, guys, such things happen, another time, another place, perhaps?) So instead, we looked for this simple game hidden in hall #9 at the stand of Cocktail Games. It's very simple: place cards in a square 5 by 5 cards wide. One player scores points in the rows, the other in the columns. After the last card has been played, every row and column is tallied, and the lowest scores are compared. The person with the highest lowest score wins.

Normally, cards are worth their nominal value. Put two identical cards in a row (or column), and their worth is nominal number times 10. Three in a row equals 100 points irrespective of the number printed on them. Four in a row is treated as three in a row plus a single card; five in a row as three in a row plus two in a row. (It's simpler to just see it happen, really.)

Is this game deep and insightful? No. But it's short and simple, and requires some jockeying to keep your smallest score high. But at the same time you cannot ignore the fact that a card belongs to both a column and a row. A typical Knizia, therefore. And, for once, with a small price.
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20. Board Game: Spiel [Average Rating:6.22 Overall Rank:4375]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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And with that, Spiel 2008 came to a close for us. So what did we think of the fair this year? Well, it felt 'different', although we still can't put our finger on the exact reason why. One thing which felt a little 'off' was that the games I had selected this year were, by coincidence, mostly games requiring a lot of explanation. Therefore we didn't get to do a lot---meaning 'at least a lot less than last year'. Second, because I had been much more careful in selecting my titles, there were no genuine surprises, but no genuine disappointments either. Pandemic was about as good as it got, and that wasn't even a new title. Bushido is still an open case, thanks to a butchered rules explanation. Third, we had to wait longer than usual because I had selected more gamer's games. Still, some waits really annoyed us. Take Sylla, for example. Ystari is now a succesful label, and they still only put one table at their booth. Perhaps they counted on the agreement with Rio Grande as co-publisher, but that label obviously had a different agenda with a very strong emphasis on Macchu Pichu and Dominion. And perhaps it is not my place to speculate on matters which do not concern me---but that doesn't take away the fact that Sylla was hard to find on the days we were at the fair. This was an extreme, but other games were not easy to find, either. Fourth, there is an obvious increase in prices, especially for the rarer gamer's games titles. Ghost Stories was €40, Sylla special edition €45, Pandemic €34 (!!) as a German release (!!!) no less. Okay, there were a lot of rather recent and quality titles on sale for agreeable prices (Yspahan, König von Siam, Caylus Magna Carta, ...) so that for bargain hunters, Spiel 2008 was probably better than Spiel 2007. But still.

Small things. But added together I left with a feeling that there needed to have been more. What, I do not know. Perhaps I need to be less selective, and more open for titles I might not like, if only to make the good titles look relatively better. It's a cheap psychological trick, true, but given the amount of money we spend (including hotels and dinners) I think we have a right to apply those.
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21. Board Game: Miscellaneous Game Accessory [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:2553]
Maarten D. de Jong
Netherlands
Zaandam
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So which games did not make the cut? Here's a short list with the reasons:

Le Havre --- economic engine
Planet Steam --- economic engine
The Princes of Machu Picchu --- rondel-like mechanic
Flussfieber --- racing game with logs (be serious, Friedemann...)
Wind River --- no more time
Down Under --- no more time
Expansion League of Six --- not really interested since the base game fell out of grace with me
Cities --- will be played at the Spellenspektakel
Red November --- cool idea, but screwed up by using gnomes instead of genuine sailors
Roll Through The Ages --- too frivolous, dice with civilisations... Na.
Rice Wars --- no more time
Circus Maximums --- could not find it (was it even demoed?)
Lungarno --- will be played at the Spellenspektakel
Dominion --- instant repulsion
Steel Driver --- train game
Wabash Cannonball / Chicago Express --- train game


So, at the end of this list, I just gotta know: how long did it take you to reach this point? Thanks for reading in any case!
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