ESSEN 2008: Biggest suprises / Dissapointments
David Ausloos
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First of all, what a delight it was this second year of Essen.
Last year was good but my 2-day stay this year was a good decission since it allowed me to test alot more titles of my whislist and scan the halls properly for the best deals.

Here follows som of my personal experiences, opnions about tested games and general remarks about the highs and lows of Essen 2008.
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1. Board Game: Powerboats [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:945]
David Ausloos
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Ah, one of the biggest suprises of the fair for me.
Yes, I know, this is a not exactly a heavyweight and I had scratched it off and put it back on my wishlist countless times, deciding it looked too much like a filler. Yet, when I passed the Cwali booth I couldn't resist to try it. Empty tables were a seldom sight this year so I thought...what the heck, let's gove this one a go. And boy, am I happy that I did. Not only is this one of the most elegant compact and catchy racing games I played (think a faster version of Missisipi Queen with speciality dice) but it proved alot more strategic than I assumed from the box-art and components.

A great game that forces you to constantly plan ahead and really simulates the speed of these raceboats very well. Somewere in between a lightweight and middleweigth this seems to be the kind of game you can play both with non-gamers who will learn the game in under 10 minutes and will like the elegant mechanics and heavy gamers who will undoubtly
be charmed with the strategic possibilities of movement using the cool dice-mechanic. There IS luck, but it is very subtle and adds a nice element of risk-management like in Formula Dé. Needless to say I immediatly bought the game after the demo had ended. My friend William
was already out of the race after 5 minutes despite his good spatial insights wich made me believe this game is defenitly harder than it looks.
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2. Board Game: Sator Arepo Tenet Opera Rotas [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:1233]
David Ausloos
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Talking about commercial suicide: why on earth does a publisher choose to give a game a title that nobody is unable to pronounce, let alone remember? That said, this was a must on my wishlist since the great theme and the cool mechanics seemed right up my alley.
On saturday to my suprise there was a free table at the booth that only counted a measely two demo-copies and my friend and I sat down to have a go at this appealing game. For a small publisher the components were nothing less than stunning: great board and tiles depicting a bottomless chasm and wooden and stone walkways crossing it, cool plastic miniatures representing creepy monks and gargoyles. The game attracted alot of attention of passer-buys with the only excaption of an annoying german kid dressed up as some sort of fungus who took one of my miniatures off the board while I was in the middle of a move, looked at it and commented it looked kind off "nicht ein mänchen das ich interessant finde...dieses spiel ist nicht fur mich..." Yeah, these german kids sure seemed to have their criteria right.

Anyway, 5 minutes into the game my friend William and I looked at each other and agreed with one glance that this was a sure-buy. A fantastic
original and elegant game that played with the right crowd can be a blast as long as nobody in the group suffers from analysis paralysis.
The game offers often a stunning range of possible moves and can be overwhelming because of this but at the same time renders the experience very rich and highly strategic. There is some minor
luck-element in the cards you draw that manipulate the walkways but it is completely countered with the way this mechanic interlocks with other non-luck elements in the game. The rules are truly perfect as they are. All I can say to fans of Dungeon Twister and other strategic fantasy-themed games with a fascination for spatial planning: get this little gem. It is worth every penny. Talking about pennies, at 32 euro's and gazing at the game's wonderful components it was a good deal considering it was a small publisher.



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3. Board Game: Wolsung: The Boardgame [Average Rating:5.47 Overall Rank:9332]
David Ausloos
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Attractive steampunk art, attractive components, cool premise: building of robots and exotic vehicles in a factory.
This surely looked at least like something I would enjoy on a primal level. We sat down for a three-player game but only 10 minuted into the explanation I knew this was going to be a so-so-experience and actualy playing the game didn't made me change my initial impression.
Mind you, it's not a "bad" game in the sense of being broken or amateuristic, but despite the fact it had some interesting mechanics it turned out to be far too limited (the turn-sequence is actually pretty simple and you can't do alot, just bid for resources and buy exotic robots and vehicles. That's about it. Couple this with the fact the game introduces a luck-element in all the wrong places (all three of us agreed on the same weaknesses of the game, especialy the fact that when ties are present the order of who buys first is determined bu randomly drawing cards, turning the crucial strategy of who goes first totaly useless) the final judgement was negative: I would give this game 5/10
and wouldn't be tempted to play it again with so many better similar games at hand.

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4. Board Game: Space Alert [Average Rating:7.60 Overall Rank:78]
David Ausloos
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This was at least a sure-buy for me.
The rules were absolutely stunning, being both innovative and made you want to try the thing for real as soon as possible.
Yet, all the tables were busy during the whole fair so I had no time to actually try it. No problem since I was going to buy it anyway, but what concerned me a bit is that none of the players I had seen at the demos seem to be expressing any sign of actually having fun while playing which is sort of strange since the rules seem to indicate one compact session of 10 minutes full of laughter, anxienty and tension. Seeing all those expression-less faces even made me doubt if it was as good as some hype it up to be, but in the end my curiousness won and pushed a copy in my already bursting bag.

Time for a first (long) walk to the car to load all the stuff into the trunk. I can tell you, these long distances to the carpark are the worst aspect of the fair: you have to imagine a cold rainy carpark that seems to cover and endless strip of the depressing city and you having to walk to the other side of this endless string of cars with plastic bags that seem to cut your fingers off or at least block the bloodflow
in you fingers that would in the end result in lifeless fingers anyway.
The things we have to do for the hobby...

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5. Board Game: Battlestar Galactica [Average Rating:7.83 Overall Rank:29]
David Ausloos
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Each Essen has it's "phantom" game. This year the honour was for Battlestar Galactica, a game that was announced at great length to be the big Essen release but at the fair seemed to be totaly abscent.
When we arrived at the FFG booth friday morning there was no copy in sight and when asked some seller told me the game was sold out.
What do you mean...sold out? How can such a major release by such a big company like FFG, distributed by a giant like Heidelberger be sold out? The number one hype of Essen 2008 was actually unavailable at Essen?You're joking right? Sadly not.

This was hands down the most Absurd phenomenon of Essen 2008: a game with so much sale potential having only a very limited availability for one of the biggest fairs of boardgames.
In Essen, nobody can hear you scream.

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6. Board Game: Planet Steam [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:409]
David Ausloos
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Despite of some negative comments and what had to be the ugliest box-art on the fair (why they chose the most amateuristic piece of artwork of the game as the cover is beyond reason) the wealth of cool-looking components and the premise made this little number an attention-magnet and during the my last half hour at the fair this year an empty table appeared and William and I sat down for what we hoped for half an hour of Planet Steam. Sadly we were told the game would take at least 1 hour to get through the first turn since it needed some serious explanations of all the game's sublt aspects so was asked for a brief run-through of the game's gameflow. The friendly guy at the booth did a great job of convincing us that this was far more interesting than we expected and the fluctuating resource-marked mechanic surely looked ver well designed and it is undoubtly one of the highlights of the design.

While I was tempted to grab a copy at 60 euro (wich believe me looked actually a reasonable price considering the game's amazin components...tons of chunky unique wooden pieces and alot of sturdy cardboard and exceptionaly large cards) I decided to wait for some in depth reviews. My main concern is the possiblity that the game could get a bit repetitive. It is, above all, a game about economics and recource-management and I felt It was potentialy missing some variety in the design. However, I still think there is a reasonable chance I will buy it when positive reviews are popping up. For now the so-so ratings seem to indicate it plays alot weaker than it looks.

A new questionable trend: publishers refusing to post any concrete info or rules in PDF on their sites before Essen, seemingly to create some sort of mystery fueling a hype. A very sad development in the wonderful world of boardgames.
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7. Board Game: Switch: Secrets of the Temple [Average Rating:4.76 Overall Rank:9330]
David Ausloos
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My friend William made me aware of this game's existance.
Frankly, I had never heared about this title thought I try to follow all the new released in the fantasy genre with a fierce conviction. The board looked stunning with it's detailed modular tiles with my only big fear being the fact there were alot of abstract icons on it forming the movement-paths which made it look rather scripted.

We met the designer of the game, a friendly modest guy who enthousiasticaly talked about his design wich was as a told us targetting for the eastern more mainstream market and when we played it it indeed felt like a game ideal for a more casual gamer: rather light, alot of randomness (not always a bad thing in my book) and very compact in game-length. While I think it surely will have appeal and potential (the stunning graphics surely made alot of people stop at the booth, gazing at the components in awe) it was defenitly not my kind of game and I think the biggest problem for Switch will be to find an audience for it. I could see this being sold in America through K-markt and at least attract some hobby-store drifters looking for a very light combat game. People searching for a deep strategic battlefest better look elsewere thought. I really whish the team behind this product alot of sales, there is clearly put alot of effort into this product.
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8. Board Game: Ad Astra [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:612]
David Ausloos
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Looking at the box cover of this mysterious new little conteder for filling my number 1 wishlist spot I couldn't help think Twilight Imperium. I mean, how many lions do you actually meet in space.
Alot it seems, judging from the fact how many pop up in artwork for science fiction themed games. "Wing Commander" anyone?
I watched a group test this game and the sight of the components alone made me run for the sale-booth. Sadly I was told that this was no yet available.

Ad Astra sure looks like an interesting resource management SF epic with players colonizing planets (civ-style), building structures that help them to slowly grow their resource imperium and try to block other players from forming structures that are too overwhelming.
The only think I kind of find dissapointing but will undoublty have the opposite effect on the euro-crowd is that it doesn't have a
conflict-aspect, rendering the game purely an euro. I wouldn't have mind a bit of ameritrash flavour. That said, it surely looks interesting and I will buy it as soon as the first positive reviews start to appear.

It must be said, ESSEN 2008 is the year of the SF-themed-games.

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9. Board Game: Duck Dealer [Average Rating:6.40 Overall Rank:2538]
David Ausloos
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Ok, this is wihtout any competition the weirdest phenomenon of Essen 2008: The Duck Dealer Craze.
I mean let's be honest here: we are talking about a game about ducks selling blue paint in space, components that look like they were made by an over-enthousiastic kindergarten with a stunning abscence of anything that could justify it's insane retail price of 60! euro, a game that nobody had played, nobody knew anything about...

And yet this overpriced insult on the sanity of the gameing crowd was sold out in 30 minutes? Surely this tells you more about the hobby and its minions than anything else.
Just looking at the game's actual components made me decide I was simply too sober to actually consider paying 60 euro for something this
unappealing. I know, it is a dodgy comparisson on my side, but with Planet Steam offering hundreds of stunning components for exactly the same price coupled to a design that at least in theory looked alot more appealing it was unthinkable to even consider a purchase.

I do understand that people feel tempted to buy this purely on the basis of Splotter's previous higly praised releases but there is only so much credit that a company can be granted. Possibly this is a masterpiece and I will run to the closest shop as soon as it hits the market after countless of raving reviews. In any case, it must be encouraging for small-time publishers to see that a game can be sold out with such a so-so production level and idiotic theme.
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10. Board Game: Witch of Salem [Average Rating:6.68 Overall Rank:1142]
David Ausloos
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In sync with it's theme this co-operative Lovecraftian horrorgame game proved cursed.
While the Kosmos booth had an insane number of tables with people playing the game, my 10+ attempts to find a free table spread over 2 days of Essen all miserably failed. Each time I passed the booth 10 groups had just started a new game. At a certain point I even waited 20 minutes without any luck. totaly desperate to find out more about the game I walked to one of the Kosmos-girls that were supposed to help customers learn the game and asked if she could explain the essence to me. I was stunned to get a reply that she couldn't (with an expression on her face as if I just had asked to touch her boobs, which honestly, I had no intention to do) because the game was too complex.
Too complex? It's a mass-market kosmos-game for heaven's sake!
Too absurd for words and I decided to leave the booth and scrap it off my wishlist. It seemed like my best decission of this year Essen since
ratings have been very so-so until now. Still vaguely on my radar, but surely not in the top 20 must haves. But boy, does that board look gorgeous. wonder if this will be picked up by 999 games for a release in the netherlands. Since there is some crucial text on many cards this is a risky buy for those with a limited knowledge of the german language.


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11. Board Game: Supernova [Average Rating:6.14 Overall Rank:3447]
David Ausloos
Belgium
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Hmmm, I was really looking forward to this one.
Honestly, I do like the look of sober graphics and I think Doyle is a very classy graphic designer but overall I like my boardgamegraphics a tad more lively and I prefer that dry tech-style for cd and poster-designs. I loved the playing cards but the board tiles looked a bit too minimal. After watching a group of 5 gamers play it for about 15 minutes I looked at my friend William who judging from his expression had exactly the same impression as me: this is alot more abstract than we had hoped for and somehow the gameplay seemed to complement the dryness of the visuals.

At 40 euro I decided it was probably a bit risky as a purchase. I'm now waiting for more reviews. I was hoping for a bit more Twilight Imperium and less euro.
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12. Board Game: Bushido: Der Weg des Kriegers [Average Rating:6.46 Overall Rank:3587]
Dvonn Yinsh
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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This was a surprise for me. Quite enjoyed it and picked it up.
 
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13. Board Game: Kraków 1325 AD [Average Rating:6.46 Overall Rank:2189]
Dvonn Yinsh
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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And this was the other big surprise. I didn't even want to try it but a geekbuddy booked us an appointment and I'm glad he did.

It's a combination of a trick-taking card game with area control and secret-identity deduction.


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14. Board Game: The Name of the Rose [Average Rating:6.73 Overall Rank:1199]
Dvonn Yinsh
Canada
Toronto
Ontario
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Another solid release from Stefan Feld following last year's sleeper hit, In the Year of the Dragon. Der Name der Rose is a deduction game of secret identities. It's light-medium and quite fun.
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