That's a Palm Pilot on the left, and a pink iPod mini on the right. Yes, I've been doing BGTG that long!
Me, in 2016
I went to Essen last month, and you've probably heard me on a podcast about it. I posted one episode before the event, one during, one after, and even was a guest on Doug Garrett's podcast, too. With a little more good fortune, I'll be able to post one final episode talking with someone else who was there about his unique experience.
This was in 2016, of course. I was at Essen once before, way back in 2003. That was before I had my podcast (before podcasts had even been invented!), so I wrote an article instead. It was for a fantastic web magazine for our hobby called The Games Journal. Edited by Greg Aleknevicus, The Games Journal had some reviews but focused on deeper topics most of the time. I was very proud to have my article included in Greg's magazine. It lasted for several years, then had run its course. The website is still out there, and I encourage anyone avid about our hobby to dig through those archives and read some good stuff. Most of the articles' authors are still active in the hobby, and can be readily found here on BGG or elsewhere online. I'm certain that they'd love to hear from a new reader.
Even though my own article about Essen 2003 is still available on the old website, Greg was happy to let me cross-post it here on BGG. On my blog, it might get seen a little more easily, and it ties into the latest podcast more readily.
This year I finally got my chance to attend our hobby's biggest event, the Spiel game fair held in Essen, Germany each October. My wife and I went on trip to Europe to celebrate our 15-year wedding anniversary, her present to me was a suggestion that we go to Germany and squeeze in a day at Essen. Wow, and she's not even a gamer! Knowing that I'd have very little time after returning home to finish this article for The Games Journal, I decided to split this into a before/after report.
I've been reading about Essen for a long time. I don't mean just in preparation for this trip, I mean for years. My exposure to the wider world of boardgaming came in 1996 thanks to Ken Tidwell's website, The Game Cabinet. After first providing an Internet home for the shared collection of early rules translations, Mike Siggins' Rules Bank, Ken also provided online archives for back issues of Sumo and more contemporary reports. Sumo magazine That's were you could—and still can—find reports for Essen back to 1990 written by Mike Siggins and others. They're great fun to read even now. Siggins' writing style is always entertaining - you get a glimpse of the wonder of these "foreign" games in the years before Mayfair, Rio Grande, and Funagain. It's also entertaining to read the first impressions of now-stalwart games such as El Grande, Medici, or Settlers of Catan.
Besides the information on the games, each report paints a more complete picture of the event itself. So I already know about the gaming that goes on at the hotel in Mülheim, the smoke, the difficulty in finding vegetarian cuisine (not a issue for me), the apparent two-year cycle of quality releases, the used game market and so on. Perhaps most important of all, I know that with just a single day at Essen, I need to put the thought of actually playing any of the new games out of my mind altogether. There just isn't enough time, especially since this often requires waiting in line. No, my time will be better spent just gawking about, taking it all in, snapping photos, and buying some things.
Even my game buying might be limited by the spare room in my luggage. I did stuff an extra empty bag in there - hopefully I can shove the clothes from my vacation in the bag for the flight home, freeing up room in the main suitcase for games. I'm eager to see that used game market. Beyond that, I'll be keeping my eyes out for games that won't be available as domestic English editions later, or more obscure titles that I won't easily be able to order through German mail order. Generally, I'm content to wait for popular opinion about the new games to stabilize, anyway. Sometimes early impressions (fueled by over-exuberance or rules mistranslations) don't reflect a game's long-term quality.
In contrast to the years when Siggins and Tidwell were first attending Essen, there's now a lot of news available before the event itself. For the past several years, Knut-Michael Wolf, publisher of the German magazine Spielbox, has used his accompanying website to collect information about the games we'll see at the show. I gather that the publishers themselves send Mr. Wolf most of his information, though some trickles in through other sources as rumors and tidbits. Mik Svellov has always translated this information into English on his website, Brett & Board. Now he's been joined by Patrick Korner, doing English translations for Rick Thornquist's must-visit website, Terminal City Gamers. Siggins, Tidwell, Svellov, Korner, and Thornquist... they're in a long line of enthusiastic hobbyists who have spent considerable time sharing their knowledge and excitement about games. Others such as Frank Schulte-Kulkmann and Bruno Faidutti have provided early reports from Essen. Thanks to all of you, as well as those I've failed to name.
My trip to Germany began two weeks before Essen and since I was without Internet access during that time, it offered a good opportunity to sit back and observe. I was mildly surprised to find almost no presence for boardgaming visible to the general tourist. I checked several bookstores and newsstands for game magazines but I only found the same things you'd find in North America—magazines for video games. I saw no games being played and none of the Germans I met showed any flicker of understanding when I mentioned I'd be meeting friends in Essen at the end of my vacation.
I did see a full-page ad for Toys R Us in Munich that listed Alhambra along with the usual spread of toys on sale. In Salzburg, Austria I strolled past a toy and game store (closed, unfortunately) that displayed the new King Arthur in the window, along with Spiel des Jahres winners Alhambra and Villa Paletti. The shop also displayed Europa Tour, Die Maulwurf Co., and Sagaland. In the Czech Republic I saw something similar, where Prague's equivalent of Wal-Mart stocked Carcassonne, Settlers, and Tikal but little else of interest.
That game inventory is far superior to the retail presence for our sort of boardgames in North America, but not what I had expected in Germany. I'd say the titles displayed represent family-friendly games and established favorites from years ago. (Mind you, I generally prefer the lighter, family-style games.) Perhaps "gamer's games" are almost as exclusive as they are at home?
Buy The Game?
In reading through reports from past years, one of the bits of advice Ken Tidwell offered was, "Buy the game." As in, "buy the game even if you're not sure about it." That was true back in 1995, but I think three factors make it a lot less applicable today.
First--and most important--is the number of American publishers that are producing excellent domestic editions of Europe's best games. The delay in the appearance of these American versions has been reduced dramatically so you don't have to wait long for them to become available. Second, the current poor relationship of the dollar to the Euro means the bargains aren't there as they used to be. (The exchange rate alone means that the same game will cost 20% more than it would have just twelve months ago). Third, the relative ease of ordering from German mail order shops means you don't have to physically go to Germany to get good deals. (True, the shipping costs are considerable, but not bad when amortized over a large order with your friends.) Plus, North American buyers get a 16% discount from the removal of Europe's Value-Added Tax—an advantage I won't get at the fair itself.
All this means that my plans for game purchasing at Essen are modest. Many of the games I'm interested in will be available in English back home, probably for less money. Still, I may give in to temptation, picking up one or two bigger games, it's still fun to be the "first kid on your block" sometimes.
My attitude about limited edition productions, inevitably from small or unknown publishers, is wait-and-see. That sounds backwards—limited editions sell out, don't they? In theory, yes. In practice, I've observed that many of the best limited edition games get picked up by a larger publisher (e.g. High Bohn, Aladdin's Dragons). Others still have the games in stock a year later and no one is playing them anymore. Yes, this attitude might make me miss out on the next Elfenroads, but it's a risk I'm willing to take. There are too many other good games worthy of my money and too many games already on my shelf to speculate on unknown limited editions.
So what do I want to see up close, if not buy? After going through all of the advanced information, my checklist ended up:
• Finstere Flure (2F) • Maya (Abacus) • Die Fugger (Adlung) • Halli-Galli X-Mas Edition & Yellowstone Park (Amigo) • Schwarzarbeit (BeWitched) • Logistico (Cwali) • High Noon (daVinci) • Feurio (Erlkönig) • Global Powers (Eggert) • Attika, Carcassonne: Die Burg, Carcassonne: König & Späher (Hans im Glück) • Lord of the Rings Risk Expansion (Hasbro) • Junk Yard Races (JKLM) • Attribute (Lookout) • Borgia, Das Zeitalter Napoleons, Der Trojanische Krieg, Revolution (Phalanx) • Industria, Lucky Loop (Queen) • Crazy Rally & Tortuga (Red Omega Studio).
Arrival (and First Games)
I'd made prior arrangements via email to stay at the same hotel as the editors of Counter magazine. Besides the "big three" of Stuart Dagger, Mike Clifford and Alan How, a lot of the contributors such as Dave Farquhar and Merfyn Lewis also stay there. After rolling into town on Thursday night, I got to meet those folks at their post-Essen gaming session that goes on in Mike's hotel suite each night. So even before I'd made it to the fair I got to play Attika and Cronberg, plus watched a little of Railroad Dice and Maya.
Attika was certainly enjoyable, but I'm not sure if it's any more than that. What? Isn't "enjoyable" all a game needs to be? That's a good question, and how you answer that will factor heavily into what you think of this year's (any year's) crop of Essen games. Your answer is also influenced by how many games you already have available. There are two schools of thought on this issue. For some folks, every game that is enjoyable is recommended. If their wallet and game cabinet can withstand it, they may even be a required purchase. Others may find some new games enjoyable but not clearly better than favorites they already have on the shelf. For them, they'd be happy to play someone else's copy so there's no need to own it themselves.
I'm in the second group, which colors my opinion of new games. There are perhaps only 3-4 games that are published each year that I feel I need to own and even those sometimes displace older games in my collection. New games find the bar higher and higher each year. A bidding game has to be as good or better than my copies of Medici or For Sale and a car racing game needs to match Ausgebremst for me to buy it. This attitude is helped greatly by the fact that I have other friends in my game group that buy games, and I have other opportunities to try the new titles at our SoCal Games Days.
Getting back to Attika, this means that while I found the game enjoyable—but not a must-buy—other gamers might easily decide they need to own it. It's good enough for that, certainly. Also, if I was just starting to build my game collection and didn't already have some games of a similar strategic "heft," I would probably snap this up. As it is, I thought some more about the game the morning after - already a good sign - and decided some more sophisticated (or correct!) strategies would make for a better game. I'd like to try it again.
I found Cronberg to be a surprisingly good little game. I say surprisingly, because I'd read a little about this earlier on Brett & Board, including Mik Svellov's positive review. The rules and downloadable gamekit were also available, and by looking those over I thought the game seemed a little conventional. Perhaps prone to overanalysis, too. Happily, that isn't the case. It can be compared to Auf Heller und Pfennig (Kingdoms) in that you're playing tiles to create criss-crossed scoring opportunities.
Bonobo Beach (aka Cronberg)
However, Cronberg is lighter and faster than Knizia's game (which I've always sort of enjoyed), without the added layer of multiple rounds and double/triple score pieces. Our game took half as long as I expected and there was no analysis problem at all. (Later at the fair I decided to buy Bonobo Beach, which is the exact same game, same publisher, just offered in an alternate theme - prime sunbathing spots at the seashore.)
It's an impressive sight. Essen was generally so packed with people that getting through the aisles was difficult. And this was only Friday! The next day's attendance would be even greater. The crowd, while thick, was a lot more pleasant than those that I've rubbed shoulders with at American conventions. You know what I mean? A very normal crowd. More twenty-something guys than anything else but not overwhelmingly so. There were lots of women, children and older folks too. Everyone was clean and generally sociable.
In a nutshell, there were far fewer of the weirdos and nerds so prevalent at the American cons I've attended. If boardgaming is ever to gain as much of a presence in our society, it will need to see a similar shift in audience. Wider participation in our hobby isn't likely as long as we've got so many games about orcs or gamers wearing costumes. Actually, there was one hall (of about six) that featured various dragon-y things, swords and armor merchants. Craig Berg called it the American convention inside Essen!
The fair was more like a trade show—about trying and buying—than the hobby cons I'm used to. Sort of like one of those Home & Garden shows at a convention center. There is no separate dealer's room because the whole place is a dealer's room. Nor are there seminars or rooms for open gaming (do that back at your hotel). Seminars are getting hard to find at American cons, too, and here at Essen I think it's a missed opportunity. With essentially all major publishers and designers onhand, I would've loved to hear some talks given by those knowledgeable people about past and upcoming titles, the design and publishing process, strategy analysis or an economic report for the industry.
Then again, it may just reflect the different nature of the hobby in German society. I understand some of this information was presented to a much smaller, private audience of the hobby press. The avid boardgamer can read about it later in magazines and on websites.
The biggest companies (Ravensburger, Amigo, Hasbro, Kosmos) have big plots of floorspace, with displays, tables for trying the games, and some staffers to explain them. The small publishers have a single booth to display and sell their games, just enough room to demonstrate them. In between are the medium-sized companies (Abacus, Piatnik, Clementoni, etc.) with a few stalls' worth of space and a few demo tables. I thought it was especially slick how Amigo, at least, had demo tables with the game board printed directly onto the tabletop. Also, I spotted a number of oversized versions of games (e.g. Pueblo, Gobblet, Hamsterrolle) for demo purposes.
Abstract games made a good showing. I think an oversized Abalone set was the first game I saw upon entering the fair. Gigamic had a good-sized section, and elsewhere I saw lots of folks trying Yinsh. There were even areas for Go and Bridge. Chess was notably absent. I spotted Crokinole for sale at one booth, and Carrom at another.
The Flohmarkt is another story. I made a beeline to this hall at the start of my day. Unlike at American cons, this flea market isn't individual gamers selling off their old stuff. Instead it's a dozen or so used game dealers that have a lot of inventory. There are some bargains to be had—I nabbed For Sale for 5€—but these folks generally know the value of what they're selling. I saw several copies of Ave Caesar, all going for about 50€. That's not much less than the game usually sells for on German eBay.
A lot of what's on offer at the Flohmarkt are older games of medium desirability. There were plenty of copies of Hols der Geier, Drunter & Drüber, and Venezia, for example. I thought the flea market was best for mixed-reaction games that you want to try, but couldn't justify paying full price plus shipping for. If I had more room in the suitcase I might've walked off with Casablanca, Zug Nach Westen, or a spare copy of the original Entdecker.
Then there are the new game dealers, lots of them. This is where I spent most of my time, hunting for bargains despite not buying much. It's just fun! Some of the German mail order shops I've used before were there, such as AllGames4You and Playme.de (not Adam Spielt, though) but many other dealers were unknown to me. These all sold shrink-wrapped games, had almost identical inventories with little variation in price. I saw Carcassonne: Die Burg from 10.90€ - 11.50€, for instance.
More Than Just Games
Next to the game publishers' stalls were companies selling various toys. For instance, we bought a rainbow drawing pad and solar-powered toy windmill. Good souvenirs for our kids but maybe not what you expect at Essen. There were some bigger toy booths, too—Lego was there, promoting their Bionicles models. In the first hall, some sort of interlocking magnetic construction toy had enough tables, floorspace, and customers to rival Hasbro and Ravensburger.
The online boardgame portal Brettspielwelt had a booth with some computers hooked up. The Hippodice Boardgame Club, organizers of an annual game design competition, was there with a stand showing past winners that were picked up by professional publishers (e.g. Vino, Mississippi Queen). They also had a large section of floor where a dozen aspiring game designers had prototypes to demonstrate.
A few game magazines had stands, too. Counter was the only English-language print magazine but others in German were Spielbox, Spielerei, and Fairplay. The latter was worth a couple visits throughout the day since they collect early impression ratings from fair attendees, displaying the running tally on a board. Despite these being early opinions from mostly family gamers, I've found them to be a reasonably accurate indicator of Essen's better games.
As a gamer-parent, I was very interested in seeing the hall dedicated to kids. It wasn't what I expected. Turns out the children's boardgames are displayed and demonstrated right in the main halls - there's no distinction made in the fair layout. Amigo, Drei Magier, Selecta, and of course Haba had notable areas for kid games, complete with shorter tables and chairs. This was a busy area, too. It was all very impressive. The actual hall for kids was for something else, a way to burn off some extra energy. There was a giant inflated climbing wall, and an inflated "bounce house" that looked like a sinking Titanic. Bigger kids could try a bungee-trampoline combination, or play in a human foosball game. (I wanted to try that myself!)
Comics get second billing on the official Essen promotion material and their dealers come close to filling one hall. That still leaves a considerable majority of the Messe Essen center for games. I understand that CCGs took up a lot of space in earlier years, but not any longer. Magic: The Gathering was easy to find, but not overwhelming. Same goes for the fantasy miniatures games and computer games were barely there. In fact, I think saw as many computer game conversions of boardgames (e.g. Carcassonne, Euphrat & Tigris) for sale as I did for original computer games. Not too many of either, in other words.
The recent Spiel des Jahres winner, Queen's Alhambra, was everywhere. Besides Queen's own section, I saw it being played elsewhere, sometimes by folks sitting on the ground, and it was offered for sale at just about every dealer at attractive prices (17€). The existing boardgame "franchises" (and past Spiel des Jahres winners), Settlers and Carcassonne, were just as prevalent.
Kosmos was making a big splash with Klaus Teuber's boardgame reinterpretation of a popular computer game, Anno 1503. It sounds like something I'd like (Teuber, exploration theme), but I knew I wouldn't have time to learn the game, and I'd wait for the Mayfair edition anyway. Not too long, hopefully.
Unless I missed it, King Arthur had less of a presence than I expected. Don't misunderstand--Ravensburger had this Knizia game prominently displayed in the front-and-center position as you entered the fair. Perhaps I had the wrong expectation. I thought Essen 2003 might have been the "King Arthur Essen" where all of the buzz would be about the significance of this new boardgame technology. I didn't see that. I didn't even see many people playing it. That could've been because the audio features in it required more quiet than you could get at a the crowded fair. In fact, the folks I did see playing King Arthur were doing so inside a special double-booth closed by a heavy curtain, made to look like a small castle. That must've been it. Also, it's one of the priciest new games around, even with Essen deals (44€ was the least expensive I saw, discounted from 60€ list).
Hans im Glück showcased Knizia's addition to the Carcassonne series, Die Burg. It's a 2-player game where you lay out what's inside the castle walls. Those walls appeared to start the game in a fixed position, being something like the cardboard frame that encloses a game of Seafarers. Rather than a simple rectangular layout, the walls have a couple inside corners (to provide tactical "texture," I'd imagine). I wonder if alternate setups would be interesting, either by reconfiguring the frame pieces or an expansion (homemade or published)? It was all I could do to resist buying this one, between the Carcassonne system, Knizia name, low price, and the fact that my wife and I were just finishing our vacation tour of some European castles. Even the medium-sized box was too much for my remaining space and Rio Grande's English edition is coming very soon.
On Friday morning, I checked the "scout ratings" at the Fairplay magazine booth. The top games were Yinsh, San Juan, and Maya. Later in the afternoon I swung back to find the same top three, but Maya had climbed to the top and Feurio had joined them. When I commented on Maya's improved rating to someone at Fairplay, he stressed that there were always other good games at Essen that most people have missed, the trick is to find them. Well, maybe. When I asked for any tips on such hidden gems, he didn't have a suggestion. (Maybe he didn't have many opportunities to try games himself at the fair, being busy at his booth.) At any rate, the final tally posted to Fairplay's website after Essen identified the following as the best games: Princes of the Renaissance, San Juan, Yinsh, Maya, Fresh Fish, Railroad Dice, Attika, Finstere Flure, Pingvinas, and Ludoviel.
International Gamers Awards
Near the end of the day, a small crowd gathered around the Alea booth to hear Greg Schloesser present this year's International Gamers Awards for General Strategy Multiplayer (to Age of Steam) and General Strategy 2-Player (to Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation). Puerto Rico's special award for General Strategy Multiplayer during the January-June 2002 period was also presented.
Now, Greg does not speak German, but he got some help to have his considerable speech translated to that language, then did an amazing job of wrapping that New Orleans accent around so many German words. There were a few grins here and there in the German-speaking audience with his pronunciations, but no look of incomprehension. They certainly understood what he was saying.
The rest of us, of course, did not. That's the funny thing about the award. Essen doesn't slow down for a full-blown awards ceremony—the IGA presentations were made while the rest of the fair was going on. The people that gathered around were mostly English-speakers who knew about the award, so most of the audience couldn't understand what was said! Just the same, it's a well-considered gesture to make the announcement in the native language of the country hosting the game fair. Greg and everyone involved in the IGAs are doing a fine job, and I know the recipients appreciated the recognition for their excellent games.
After the IGA presentation we left Essen. I had made all the purchases I thought I could fit in the suitcase and there wasn't enough time to learn anything new. What did I buy? Probably not what you'd guess. I bought Settlers of Catan! That's right, in 2003 I bought Essen's biggest game from eight years ago. Of course I already own the game. In fact, it was the first German-style boardgame I bought, Mayfair's first edition back in 1996. Since then I've owned the third edition because I like the cover art, getting Seafarers along with it. The reason I wanted to own yet another version of the game was Das Buch, which I'd ordered from Adam Spielt before my trip. This is the book of tips, tactics, and—most of all—scenarios and components for Settlers that is only available in German. Though it can certainly be used with the American editions of the game, I really wanted all of the components to match. So, I needed a German edition of Settlers, and not the new one with molded plastic pieces. Give me the original wood edition, please! I bought German Seafarers, too.
The boxes for those two games are large, so my luggage space was already challenged. Even more so when I bought another Kosmos big box, a copy of Giganten on sale. I filled the remaining room in the suitcase with new card games and smaller boardgames: Yellowstone Park, Bonobo Beach, Die Fugger, Die sieben Siegel, BSZZZZ!, Fliegen, Tortuga, High Noon, plus the older games For Sale and Lao Pengh. The only game I regret not buying is Feurio, which would have been unfortunately topical when I returned to Southern California.
The "Internet blackout" I entered by leaving for vacation two weeks before Essen means I didn't know to look for some things. The free variant card for Verräter or a chance to try Feurio online, for instance. Plus, I now see that there were some interview sessions with notable game designers Kramer, Moon, Meyer, Knizia, and Friese. Too bad, I would've enjoyed meeting and hearing Alan talk about games.
My final experience at Essen was a dinner with several friends I'd known for years via email. This was the highlight of my Essen experience. I've never been to The Gathering, but have read reports from that event that identify meeting old and new friends as the best part. This was the same, I suppose. We ate at a Croatian restaurant no more than a block from the fair, where I had the last schnitzel of our trip. My wife Candy and I sat across or next to Craig Berg, Mik Svellov, Henning Kröpke and his girlfriend Angelika, with many more at the long tables. Some of the discussion was about games, but mostly it was just a wonderful dinner with friends. We particularly enjoyed hearing about Craig's wife Kim and how her attitude about games matched Candy's!
Earlier that morning several folks had asked Candy what she planned to do while I was at Essen. To my delight and theirs, she always answered that she was pretending to be a gamer for a day and would stay with me throughout the fair. She did just that, too. Afterward, I asked Candy, a non-gamer, what her impressions were of the event. She said she found it typical of other trade shows and conventions. Noting the great variety of attendees—children, women, older people, and entire families—she found it "inspirational that there were more normal people than freaky people." She thought it was fun how all the games were set out, with people to teach them... even though she herself didn't care to play any. Then again, she pointed out that we weren't there for her anyway, that she was more of an observer. Most of all, she said the best part was meeting the people I was excited to see.
My own impressions are similar. It was wonderful to see the fair itself but my favorite part was meeting people. I don't think I can justify the expense of going back to Essen just to see new games and make some purchases. Don't be misled by all the stories of great game deals into thinking the trip can come close to paying for itself. In fact, I bet I could buy every new Essen game that interests me sight-unseen via mail order (plus older games via Boardgamegeek or German ebay) and save money compared to another Essen trip. But the people, that's different. How do you put a price on meeting wonderful people and having a good vacation? You can't, of course. In my case it worked well to add a little Essen to what was already a great trip to Europe, seeing castles and medieval towns. I can't imagine doing it any other way, in fact. Some gamers can visit Essen multiple times, but for most it's out of reach. I don't know if I'll ever make it back to Essen, and not because I didn't have a good time—I did. It was good to be there, fun to see the newest games and delightful to meet long-distance friends. I'll enjoy playing the few games I brought back, placing orders for some more and above all continuing my email friendships.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that you don't need to go to Essen. It's fun but not necessary. Buy the games at home and have a gaming weekend. You know, back in The Game Cabinet days, there was only Essen and The Gathering. With the expansion of our hobby (perhaps helped along by the popularity of Boardgamegeek and spielfrieks), a wonderful explosion of other game events has occurred within the past couple years. So go to Unity Games, Gulf Games, the Oasis of Fun, Games Round-Up, Batty's Best Game Fest or the next new event. I'm confident you'll meet wonderful people there, too.
That's a Palm Pilot on the left, and a pink iPod mini on the right. Yes, I've been doing BGTG that long!
I don't actively write on this blog so often, preferring to use my podcast season geeklists to publish new episodes. That's where they've gone since I restarted the podcast after the hiatus, including some recent episodes before & during Spiel 2016 in Essen, Germany.
I was also sending out a steady stream of photos over social media. If you didn't catch them on my Twitter feed (@BoardgamesToGo), or copied over to the Facebook page (facebook.com/BoardgamesToGo), then you can see them here!
I'm still on my break, but coming out of my hermit's cave to post daily mini-podcasts from BGG.con, like I did last year. The first one (kind of a test while I'm still home) is posted. It and further daily updates can be found at my season 11 geeklist entry. Hope you enjoy them.
With a little luck, I may get to be a guest on others' podcasts or videocasts during my time away from BGTG. When that happens, I'll post something here on my blog. It's obviously not MY show, but if you like hearing what I have to say about games, you can get some of it here. This year, I was again lucky enough to be part of the Game Night! crew's avalanche of episodes for the Spiel des Jahres, Kennerspiel des Jahres, and Kinderspiel des Jahres. The latter was posted a couple weeks ago, while the main & Kenner award shows were just posted now. Sometimes I feel like the curmudgeon when I get to be on Game Night!, since that videocast is about sharing the enjoyment & appreciation of our games, while I can't get out of critic mode. Working in my favor, though, is the fact that I'm getting to play games with friends I don't see often enough. So it's a fun time regardless.
Arkham Horror, Amun Re, R-ECO, Ora Et Labora, Napoleonic Wars
(Can anyone geekmail me how to CENTER this row of user avatars in BGG formatting?!)
First up is the summary show about the Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres. Lincoln, Nikki, Dave, Aaron, and I share our opinions about all six nominees, then go on record with our predictions & favorites. A while ago we did the same in a different episode featuring the Kinderspiel nominees.
Here are links to the other episodes where the nominated games were actually played. I was on a few of these, too.
If you're so inclined, please subscribe to the YouTube channel for Boardgamegeek. Lincoln always says that the more subscribers they get, the more control YouTube gives them over how their content is managed & displayed.
Thanks to the entire Game Night! gang, especially hosts Lincoln & Nikki for letting me crash their studio and pontificate with them about some fantastic games.
That's a Palm Pilot on the left, and a pink iPod mini on the right. Yes, I've been doing BGTG that long!
I wish I would've included these instructions years ago, when I first moved my blog over to BGG. I only just learned myself that blog subscriptions don't automatically include their comment subscriptions--those require an adjustment to the default settings. Read on.
Since I moved the blog to BGG that's been a little hard for folks to figure out. But really, it's simple. In the top right on the blog page (any blog on BGG, not just mine), there's both an RSS and Subscribe link. Use the RSS one for a blogreader like Feedly, Google Reader, etc. The Subscribe link is more for people who like to live their life completely within Boardgamegeek. Clicking that will add my blog to your list of items you get notified internally here on BGG (and via email, if you like) when they're updated.
Now you're subscribed to my entries in the blog. But you also want to know when listeners & I enter a conversation in the feedback comments, don't you? For that you need to do a few more steps.
Go to the BGTG blog here on Boardgamegeek. Click the Subscribe link on the right side if you haven't already. Once that's done, you also need to click on the down arrow next to the UNsubscribe button, which allows you access to the Edit Subscription link.
That takes you to another screen where there's a dropdown selector that permits switching your blog comment subscription to Yes, instead of the default (No). Don't forget to hit the Save button to finish this process!
(Now that I have my podcast season geeklists, commenting on the blog may go the way of the dodo. But for now, this is how you keep up with the feedback.)
Ok, now I'm finally on my break from the podcast. I wanted this one last, odd episode as a chance to reflect on the 10 years I've been doing the show. (And as longtime listeners remember, I never really think of it as a "show." I like to think of it more as an "audioblog.")
To answer the question that keeps coming up, my break/hiatus/sabbatical won't last forever. I'm not quitting, I'm just taking a year off. Maybe it won't be that long, but the point is to take a significant break while I recharge my batteries and think about some other things. Also, I'll still be boardgaming the whole time I'm on this break, and I'll keep posting to BGG. I've enjoyed posting my Recent Gaming geeklists, and hope some of my listeners read & respond to those. I've also been having fun talking with the boardgame community on Twitter (@BoardgamesToGo). Come join us! You may even spy on the occasional episode of Game Night!
On this episode you'll hear me talk about envying the way other podcasts and videocasts have taken the idea of "seasons" from television and used it to frame their broadcasts. That never occurred to me in the old days, but I wish it had. Well, I've decided to retroactively apply annual seasons to all of my episodes, and put them all up on BGG in a series of geeklists. I'm really happy with how it all came out. Whether new listeners discover my old episodes, or you go back and re-listen to part of one you remember, it should now be easier. They were always on the podcast feed, but now they've got an easy place to find on the web. Also, the geeklist format has proved useful and robust for so many purposes. They're easier to subscribe to, and they're a good place for comments. I even cut & pasted my accompanying blog entries for those old episodes, putting them in the geeklist entries. I may even look into porting over some of the notable comments/discussion from those old episodes.
Yes, this may mean that the focus for writing & feedback shifts to these geeklists instead of this blog. That's ok. Blogs on BGG are nice, but they're just not as convenient for everyone as geeklists. I think the geeklists will work better for everyone.
As I've said many times, my original impetus for creating Boardgames To Go was demonstrating how do-able an amateur podcast could be. I hoped there would be more boardgame podcasts available for me to listen to on my drive, run, or whatever. It worked! Well, I know for a fact that these podcasts would've come along anyway. But if I did my small part to create some to arrive a few months earlier than they otherwise would've, then I take some small pride in that. Geekspeak/Boardgamespeak was first (Aldie is always on the leading edge!), but I'm pleased to be the Avis of boardgame podcasts. Although Aldie let Boardgamespeak lapse as he moved on to other projects, there are other podcasts besides mine that have been chugging along for years & years. Tom Vasel & Doug Garrett have each racked up over 400 hundred episodes, Eric marches to the beat of his own drummer, and Dave & Stephen have recorded over one million hours. Congrats to all! I'm happy to be in this club.
Am I a man or am I a muppet? If I'm a muppet then I'm a very manly muppet!
Stephen Glenn and Mark Jackson rejoin me (Mark JOHNson) to continue this series. In 2012, these two guys polled a number of experienced gamers (a few designers, many reviewers, all enthusiasts) for their top games, consolidated their answers, and asked to come on my podcast to count down the results. I was pleased to be part of the poll, and doubly pleased to have them on Boardgames To Go. I really like how Stephen describes this:
"a fun list to discuss over coffee & pie."
The poll was for our favorite games, not necessarily the best games. We even got to submit a top fifteen, which took the usual tough request for a top ten and gave us the breathing room for five more titles. I know in my case, it made it easier to add some very recent games to my longstanding favorites. On each podcast we're counting down a bunch of titles until we get to a final show with the Top Ten. I'll be interspersing 100 Great Games countdown episodes with my other podcast episodes.
As you may recall, Stephen, Mark, and I already finished our countdown of 100 Great Games in an earlier episode. However, for a long while we'd planned to do one more episode together--this one--where we talk about our own picks, surprises, disappointments, trends, and so on. I foolishly thought this would be posted before Christmas! Will I never learn?!
We started by going over our own individual picks, listed below. I've highlighted the ones on our lists that never made it into the 100 Great Games list, and we each get a little time to trumpet our appreciation for these favorites.
With all of this data, it's only natural to look at them and count up which designer featured most prominently in the 100 Great Games. We can also look at the most popular years of publication, and the publishers. In this case I simply counted up the number of mentions for each. One could make a good argument that there should be more consideration for appearances near the top of the list instead of the bottom. Nonetheless, I think the "awards" look right, and am pleased by the outcomes.9
We also compared this list (compiled in 2012) to the earlier edition Mark & Stephen did (in 2005). Which games appeared on both lists and made the biggest jumps forward? Which went the other direction? Again, the position on the list should really be factored in here (but wasn't). It takes a lot more oomph to climb from #12 into the Top Ten than it does to climb from #92 into the 80s. Nonetheless, more interesting topics for your second cup of coffee, and slice of pie.
Big drops: Too many! So many good games are published every year that many other good ones get pushed off a list like this. The guys did the first list seven years before this new one we discussed on the podcast. A full 44 new games entered the list, pushing out an equal number of old favorites. That's what happened to some classics like Union Pacific, I'm The Boss, Smarty Party, San Marco, Taboo, Chinatown, and many more.
In the Top Ten episode I posted a poll that asked my listeners for the recent (post 2012) games that might have joined the 100 Great Games list if we'd conducted the survey a short time ago. Are there any instant classics to make their way onto the list? No doubt there are. I was surprised to find the listeners only settling on a couple, however (and no one suggested a write-in I might have missed in the poll). Those two newcomers would be Android Netunner & Terra Mystica.
One a related note, the guys & I considered what recent games we might have been tempted to put on our individual lists, above. We spared ourselves the difficult choice of deciding which personal favorites would've been pushed out. (It's not always the bottom of our lists, since some of these games "take the place" of established ones. Or, at least, they could.)
And that, finally, brings the 100 Great Games project to a close. I felt honored to be asked my favorites as part of the first time Stephen & Mark did this a decade ago, and again in 2012. The chance to discuss it all on my podcast was a big endeavor, one that probably took too long for everyone involved, but was also great fun. I can tell from the download stats & comments that it was a favorite for my listeners, too. For all of these things, I'm grateful to Stephen & Mark, to those listeners, and to our wonderful hobby. The list project on the podcast has really been a kind of celebration for all of us. Thanks for listening.
(It's also my second-to-last episode before my big break. One more to go, and that's scheduled to be recorded tonight...)
Yes, I'm still going on a "sabbatical" from this podcast. But no, that hasn't happened yet! In fact, I still have three more episodes to post before I go quiet on you. This one, the 100 Great Games epilogue, and then my "goodbye for now" episode. Two of those are already recorded, and the final one will be soon. Soon!
The one you've got before you is a sequel, of sorts. Back in 2013 I went on a boardgaming road trip to Dave Arnott to visit Jeff, Mark, Joe, and John in Fresno. On the way back we recorded an episode (#135)--in the car--where we talked about the games we played, and the weekend in general. Now Dave & I have done that again, but this time we talk about the games and something else: Dave's role as one of the hosts of BGG's video show GameNight!, as well as a couple word game apps he produces with some partners, Noodle Doodle and Tuklu. Since this is recorded in the car, on a smartphone, there's quite a bit of background noise. I did some post-processing on it to remove some of that, while hopefully keeping Dave & I sounding like human beings...not cyborgs having a conversation in a steel pipe.
We played a lot of great games that weekend, not all of which get discussed in the podcast. Jeff is working on his 10x10 challenge for 2015, so it was fun to help him get in some of those plays with games like Basari, Jäger und Sammler, Port Royal, and Industrial Waste. We also played 5ive Straight, XCOM: The Board Game, Res Publica, and Potato Man. Most of those are my kind of game. XCom really isn't, but we all wanted to try. Wouldn't you know, although my boardgames experience was just so-so with this one, it prompted me to re-install XCOM: Enemy Unknown on my computer. I've played it for a few weeks, but am again reaching that point where I may need to delete the thing because it's such a timesuck. Either that or develop more self-control and just quit the game sooner!
GameNight! has been steadily gaining a larger & larger audience, no doubt fueled by Lincoln's amazing production schedule and the obvious on-screen camaraderie of the four main hosts: Lincoln, Nikki, Aaron, and Dave. (Me, I love the intro credit sequence & catchy song. Normally I watch that, some of the intro, then skip the rules & most of the play to get to the post-game discussion. That's my favorite part.) I wanted to see how much Dave could tell us about the behind-the-scenes aspects of this awesome video show. At the time we recorded the third season for GameNight! had not started yet, but now it has.
Dave's also been working with his puzzle-designing partner, Aaron Weissblum, as well as app developer Eric Snider on a couple of addicting word game apps. These are clever & fun little puzzles that scratch that word game/party game itch. We got to talk a little bit about what goes into creating those, too.
P.S. We didn't really even talk about it on the podcast this time, but just like two years ago we worked in some Letterboxing on this road trip. It was fun driving through some little towns in "California's heartland." I've driven the I-5 and CA-99 farmland corridors through the middle of the San Joaquin Valley my whole life, but this was one of the few times I went more than a dozen miles lateral to those arteries to find little places like Ducor in the southeastern valley.
You're hearing Boardgames To Go, a podcast about family strategy boardgames. I'm your host, Mark Johnson, coming to you from Santa Clarita, California...
It happened a week ago, actually. On March 3, 2015, my podcast has officially been running for 10 years. Never on a regular schedule (as my listeners know!), but slowly chugging along. As I think I said in at least one of those many episodes, I never expected to be doing this so long. However, the feedback I've received has been so rewarding, it's been a joy to record & publish every episode.
My plan is to produce three more, then take a break (my sabbatical, as I like to call it!). Two of those episodes are already recorded, then the third will be my wrapup of BGTG's first decade. I don't know who first thought of the concept of "seasons" for podcasts (it didn't exist back when I started), but I wish I had! I'm not exactly sure in what form Boardgames To Go will return--probably something remarkably identical to what you've been hearing all these years. That's what I'm going to go off & think about. Those three episodes still-to-come are
• another road trip show, • the 100 Great Games epilogue, and • my "first decade" retrospective about the podcast & hobby
I just checked my stats. There have been over half a million downloads of my little podcast that I always preferred to think of as an "audioblog" more than a "show." There have been meta analyses, session report & feedback episodes, All About... discussions, lots of friends, a few conventions, some "interesting" audio quality, a defunct voicemail number, a companion blog, and always tons of that amazing feedback.
Even while I'm off "the air," I'm still going to be around, posting here on BGG, responding to email, showing up at SoCal games days and BGG.con in Dallas. In fact, it's been fun to anticipate my time away from the microphone, and I've been posting more on my Twitter feed & Facebook page, as well as the BGTG guild and some geeklists about my recent gaming.
P.S. That MP3 above is my first episode, posted way back in 2005. Ouch, I hadn't listened to it in a very long time. It's flat in sound, short in duration, and covers an odd mix of games. I took a shot at "thematic games" in my first episode! Sheesh...
Like a lot of you, I keep track of the games I play, mostly to look back on and contemplate. The end of the year is the perfect time to do that, and I've been doing it since 1996. I don't track wins or much else--mere reflecting on the games played last year (total plays & unique titles) is what I enjoy. Even though I'd like to focus on my favorites, there are just so many new, interesting games that make their way to the table. You know I'm not a Cult of the New guy, but that's not true of all of my friends.
However, this year I'm joined by someone who really DOES rack up a lot of plays of his favorites. Martin Griffiths, better known here on BGG by his username qwertymartin, plays a LOT of short card games and quite a few of his meatier favorites, too. In fact, he flat-out plays a TON of games. Unlike me, he's not including online plays, either--these are all face-to-face plays (like Davebo will respect!).
That's not the only reason I asked Martin to join me, though. He thinks deeply about games, and writes in-depth analyses of them. Besides the conversations he & his insightful buddies have on their GameChat League, Martin keeps a blog you should be reading, QWERTYUIOP, and has recently re-launched his contest for the best written game reviews, Voice of Experience. If that's not enough, check out the Cult of the Critical guild, where I believe he's a charter member.
It comes through in his writing, and Martin's own user profile has several key elements that resonate with me. Knizian elegance, Chicago Express over Le Havre, and shorter card games? Sign me up! When you get to his mini-editorial about his dissatisfaction with recent 'mainstream' euros, I feel I've found a kindred spirit! Too bad he lives halfway around the world from me.
I got into the hobby when a friend introduced me to Carcassonne and directed me to Playin' Games (a London FLGS) for more of the same. A whole new world opened up! I've always loved games but had no idea ones this good existed.
ThreeFourFiveSixSeven years on, my collection has grown to over 507090120130120, I'm (former) co-organiser of one of the biggest games clubs in the world (meetup.com/LondonOnBoard), and I seem to spend half my life on the 'geek. A familiar story I'm sure!
My gaming favourites fall mainly into three categories:
Reiner Knizia! I've played over 304050 of Knizia's games now and there are very few I don't like. Tigris & Euphrates is my all-time favourite, with Ra, Taj Mahal, Stephenson's Rocket and Winner's Circle close behind. Also games by other designers that I consider to have the 'Knizian' sense of elegance: China, King of Siam, San Marco for three.
Economic games that give players an interactive system to explore and exploit. I'm not talking about tedious optimisation/resource conversion games like Caylus or Le Havre, I'm talking about Brass, Container, Chicago Express. Martin Wallace is a key designer in this field, though his games are quite hit-and-miss for me.
Cards cards cards. I love card games, and particularly those in which card combinations can do unexpected and wonderful things. Race for the Galaxy, Innovation, Tichu, several of the Adlung-Spiele games... Cosmic Encounter and Twilight Struggle fit here too, even if they come with more accoutrements.
Don't fall in love with me yet, we only recently met
My top 10 lists my highest-rated games, while my hot 10 is the most recent games that I have rated 8 or higher. Oh, and my avatar is the cover of the album 69 Love Songs by the Magnetic Fields, one of my favourites.
Swedish Meatballs I've been a member of the GameChatLeague Swedish Meatballs Division since it was founded in May 2011, and consider it to be my home on the 'geek. Wonderful as the wider community is, there's something really cool about getting to know a small group of gamers around the world so well. I wrote this article about my gaming tastes for one of the early Meatball lists.
I've learnt a lot about my gaming tastes and where they differ from the BGG consensus by playing around 10 new-to-me games per month for the last three years. At first I took the BGG ranking as gospel (much like my teenage years when I was guided to new music by 'top 100 albums' guides in magazines), but now I know what I'm looking for, I can pick out favourites from way down the rankings on the basis of reading a review or the rules.
While I'm more a Eurogamer than anything else, I'm not a fan of a lot of recent 'mainstream' Euros. I find worker placement a lazy mechanic, I generally dislike games with individual player boards and no shared space, nor do I like games where you spend more time optimising your own sequence of moves than thinking about what the other players are doing. I no longer particularly see 'multiple paths to victory' as a virtue, when they feel more like Easter eggs put in by the designer than emergent properties of the design ("Oh, you discovered the starvation strategy, congratulations").
Knizia came to be my favourite designer because his best games are the opposite of this. As far as I know he's never used worker placement, and his games are almost always about interaction not optimisation. I'm also a big fan of elegant rules and risk management, two Knizia hallmarks. Having played most of the Knizias on my hit list, I'm always looking out for 'Knizian' games from other designers.
Lately I'm more and more appreciating direct conflict and rough edges. I'm wary of games described as 'streamlined' or having good catch-up mechanisms. I like unexpected, laughter-provoking screw-you moves. I also appreciate unusual, modern-day themes over yet more medieval yawnsomeness. For example, recent games that have caught my fancy are Lords of Vegas, Tammany Hall and Power Struggle.
Another thing I tend to like is hand management and card interactions. I have always liked classic card games, and that's led me to modern versions like Haggis and Battle Line. I also like a lot of recent card-combo games like Race for the Galaxy, Glory to Rome and Innovation.
Martin plays SO many games (173 different titles for 600 total plays!), that by the time we added my totals (195 different titles for a total of 400 total plays), we had PLENTY to discuss just covering our "Five & Dime" titles. It was a great conversation and just scratched the surface of more talks I'd enjoy having with Martin.
...But those other conversations will have to wait until after my break from podcasting. I'm now calling it my "sabbatical," since it's intended to be a substantial length of time when I can recharge my mental batteries. It also reinforces the fact that it won't last forever--I fully intend to return to the podcast after this break.
Games Discussed (our collective Five & Dime lists)
P.S. Games Played--by all of Boardgamegeek--in 2014
Want to see what game plays were logged by all users of Boardgamegeek for 2014? It's here. What do you think? Dominated by the Cult of the New, only short games, evergreen classics, or something else? To me, anything older than three years doesn't feel like Cult of the New anymore. Though I'm not sure it's "classic" for a few more years. Also keep in mind that this is not what the entire hobby is playing. Just the subset of the hobby that is crazy enough to log their plays on a website...
1. Magic: The Gathering (20,114,694) - Insane number of plays, but it IS M:tG, after all! A classic.
2. Poker (1,003,035) - I'm guessing these include a lot of online plays. Classic.
3. Android: Netrunner (70,676) - First Cult of the New (CotN) title (ignoring the fact that the original was released in 1996!)
4. Dominion (48929) - Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) winner from 2009. Classic.
5. Love Letter (47643) - Still CotN, still hot. Also helps to be short.
6. Coup (43692) - CotN & short
7. Race for the Galaxy (38785) - From 2007, a modern classic.
8. Chess (38619) - From 1475 (acc. to BGG), a classic classic.
9. Splendor (37080) - Definitely CotN, and recent Golden Geek winner and SdJ nominee
10. King of Tokyo (35836) - Still feels new, but actually from 2011. Is that classic?
11. 7 Wonders (34744) - Kennerspiel des Jahres winner from 2011, just past the new/old boundary
12. One Night Ultimate Werewolf (30826) - CotN, though "parent" game Werewolf is a classic
13. Hanabi (30460) - CotN, and SdJ winner from 2013
14. Star Realms (28629) - CotN, and a Kickstarter success, right?
15. Carcassonne (27767) - A "golden age" euro, and SdJ winner from 2001. Classic.
16. Pandemic (24153) - SdJ nominee from 2009, more of a modern classic now?
17. Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (23566) - A 2013 release, still CotN
18. The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game (21928) - A 2011 release, so now a perennial classic?
19. The Resistance (19183) - Dates from 2009, but was it widely known then?
20. The Resistance: Avalon (19125) - If this 2012 title were combined with above, would place just behind Chess
21. Ticket to Ride (19064) - SdJ winner from 2004, and definitely a modern classic
22. Lords of Waterdeep (17822) - From 2012, is this transitioning to modern classic?
23. Settlers of Catan (17724) - Landmark SdJ winner from 1995, the defining modern classic
24. Agricola (17100) - Released in 2007, and English in 2009(?). That makes it a modern classic.
25. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (16729) - From 2012, still CotN, still hot