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Essen 2012 Releases and the BGG Top 100

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
The Essen 2011 Crop: One Year Later
Last year about this time I wrote an article where I looked over the games released at Essen 2011 and predicted where they would end up in the BGG Top 100. Now we have a new crop of games, and have had time to see where previous ones have settled.

Last year, I decided that the following games had a strong chance of making the BGG Top 100:
Mage Knight: The Board Game
Ora et Labora

All three of them are now in the BGG Top 20, having successfully maintained their momentum and finding a pretty wide fan base. Eclipse and Mage Knight: The Board Game were even successful enough to make the BGG Top 10.

I thought that Dungeon Petz, thanks to its designer and the game’s structure was likely to make the BGG Top 100. It has not quite made it, as it currently stands at #117, but at this point I think it is simply a matter of time. It may not stay in the Top 100, but getting there seems to be a pretty sure deal.

Three games I indicated would make Top 100 or not depending on their distribution:
MIL (1049)

Trajan made BGG Top 100 even before it got distribution in the US, but I am sure that the US distribution did help to propel it to its current position of #55. Neither Vanuatu nor MIL (1049) got an especially wide US distribution. Based on their current ratings, it is possible, though unlikely, that a wider distribution would have helped Vanuatu get into the Top 100. It is no longer possible that MIL (1049) will achieve this position.

The last three games were ones that I thought were “possible” based on initially strong ratings if they were able to maintain this momentum and get effective distribution:
Colonial: Europe’s Empires Overseas

None of these games were able to maintain their momentum, though Hawaii was “trashed” by some reviewers.

Looking over the BGG Top 100, the only other 2011 games that are present are ones that were released prior to Essen 2011: The Castles of Burgundy, Summoner Wars: Master Set, A Game of Thrones (Second Edition), The Lord of the Rings Card Game, and A Few Acres of Snow. So I think I did a pretty good job of picking out the games that were likely (or somewhat likely) in making the BGG Top 100 based both on quantitative and qualitative factors.

The Essen 2012 Crop

Last year I established a criterion for determining which Essen releases have a shot of making the Top 100. Based on its success last year, I am still satisfied with it so I will be using it again:

Generally, for a game to be able to make it into the BGG Top 100 it has to get pretty strong initial ratings. An initial neutral to negative response from early adopters can slow down the game’s momentum, and barring something extraordinary, prevent it from ultimately getting the quantity and quality of ratings it needs to make the Top 100 as people will get scared away from a game that rates poorly. This is particularly true since initial ratings tend to be from early adopters who are more likely to rate a game well. Once it hits a wider audience, average rating almost always goes down, meaning that the earliest ratings frequently indicate the highest average rating this game will ever get. So for the purpose of this blog, I am going to look at those games that I consider being in the running for the Top 100 and am outright rejecting games that have below a 7.80 average rating. This average rating is higher than that of many games that currently are in the BGG Top 100, but as noted above, it is reasonable to expect these ratings to decline over time.

In addition to high average ratings over time, a game needs to be able to get a sufficient quantity of ratings in order to reach the Top 100. A game with a low number of ratings but a really high average rating, like the War of the Ring Collector’s Edition, can get there, but generally you need to have thousands of ratings in order to break past the dummy ratings and have a shot at getting into the Top 100. This means that games with a wide distribution, particularly with the American audiences that are the most common on BGG, have a definite advantage in getting into the Top 100. This wide distribution comes with a cost though, as a game with one is also more likely to encounter people who do not like it, bringing the average rating down.

2012’s Essen crop is significantly weaker (from a rating perspective) then 2011’s. I am not expecting any great shake-ups in the rankings or any new games (much less two new games) in the BGG Top 10. That being said, I think there are a few contenders for games that will make the Top 100.

Very Likely
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar (8.25 average; 204 ratings)
Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar is the only Essen game that I feel is almost certainly going to make the BGG Top 100, and is definitely the only one that I think has a shot of making the Top 25. Part of this is of course just due to its average rating. 8.25, while not an exceptional start, is still a strong indicator that it will do well. CGE is a well-regarded company, and even though Tzolk’in was not designed by Vlaada Chvátil, its attachment to CGE and the savvy marketing campaign that they have conducted has definitely caught people’s attention. Having played Tzolk’in I can say that its combination of a unique timing structure with a fairly typical resource combination back-end is one that will probably do very well. It is interesting and innovative enough to get people excited, but is grounded enough in familiar territory that it is still fairly comfortable.

Ginkgopolis (7.85 average; 85 ratings)
Ginkgopolis designer, Xavier Georges, and publisher, Pearl Games, have one game that has had significant results in the BGG rankings: Troyes, and another one that has done well, but has not quite made the BGG Top 100: Carson City, which is ranked 155. In addition to continuing popular enthusiasm for Troyes, Ginkgopolis also has a fairly unique hook: players are collectively laying tiles to build a city both outwards and upwards, adding a three-dimensional spatial element. There is still lingering excitement for Pearl Games and there is a lot of talk about how “fresh” and “different” it is. That is usually a good sign.

Myrmes (7.94 average; 112 ratings)
Myrmes and Suburbia (below) both look like they have an opportunity to take the “middle-weight hit” title. Myrmes biggest advantage appears to be how thematically well-integrated it is. There are not a lot of anthill management board games out there, and the main one I am familiar with (Antics) handles the anthill problem much differently. If anything is going to sink it, it will be the games replayability. I have already heard rumblings that the game has a low amount of interplay variability, but I admit this may end up being irrelevant. It matters a lot to me, if it is true, but will not necessarily matter to other people.

Suburbia (7.97 average; 194 ratings)
Suburbia has a number of things going for it. It has an absolutely great looking graphic design and the fact that it has a city building theme which, while popular, has not yet seen an extremely successful implementation yet. A 7.97 rating is also pretty solid, particularly since it has a significant (for an Essen release) amount of ratings. It has also been sitting pretty high on the “Hotness” rating, indicating that it has maintained some level of momentum post-Essen. It has caught people’s attention, and this is likely to create a bit of a snowball effect that could make or break its overall chances in a very short period of time. Since I have played Suburbia, and quite liked it particularly for a medium weight game, I think it is more likely to fall on the “make it” side of the equation. The only question is whether it will be able to maintain its current high average rating, or if it will see a steeper decline that is more typical of Essen releases.

Distribution Dependent
Keyflower (8.15 average; 71 ratings)
Keyflower has a high initial average rating, but I consider it a bit of a “soft” rating. 71 ratings is usually less strong of an indicator then 200, which is usually at about the point where you can get an idea whether a game really has a shot at hitting the Top 100 or not. Still, an 8.15 average rating is a good start, and if it can maintain this level, while getting put in front of enough gamers, it will end up making it all the way. If anything ends up holding it back, it will be the fact that it does not really bring all that much that is “new and different.” Most recent games that have been successful have had some sort of hook to catch people’s attention, and I suspect that Keyflower’s lack of such a hook might prevent it from getting an exceptional ranking.

Terra Mystica (8.18 average; 117 ratings)
Terra Mystica has come out of Essen with a lot of buzz, getting 2nd on the Fairplay poll and also doing well on the Geekbuzz. Uwe Rosenberg is also listed as contributing to the design, and while not all his games are hits, he has enough winners, that it can be counted as a positive factor in how likely it is that a game will do well. Beyond that there are no strong “indicators” it is going to be a big success. Neither of its designers have published anything that has previously made the BGG Top 100 (though I enjoyed both Kaivai and the Scepter of Zavandor) and the publisher is not an established name. I personally, am pretty excited by this one though, and I have strong hopes that the initial reaction to the game at Essen will be sufficient to indicate that the game is both of high quality and will be able to climb into the Top 100 once it gets more publishing partners.

Al Rashid (8.06 average; 58 ratings)
Al Rashid falls into the same category as Keyflower in regards to the overall reliability of its ratings. An 8.06 is an excellent start, but with only 58 initial ratings, it is still quite possible that it will see a high rate of degradation as time goes on. Its strongest secondary indicator is its rank on the geekbuzz, where it got 6th place with a total of 105 ratings. Beyond this, there are no strong indicators about whether it will be successful in the rankings or not. Neither the designer nor the publisher is established; this is the first game the publisher has produced and none of the designer’s previous credits are hits. This is not to say the game won’t do well, it is just it has a much greater degree of uncertainty because of this.

Antike Duellum (7.80; 42 ratings)
Antike Duellum is at the very low end of the rating range where I consider Top 100 to be reasonable, and with only 42 ratings that is a poor sign, as it is far, far more common for a game to degrade in average rating over time then increase. On the plus side, the designer, Mac Gerdts, has two Top 100 games to his name (Navegador and Imperial), and this game is based off a previous design of his, though that one does not hold nearly the ranking of his two big games.

Archipelago (7.80; 120 ratings)
Archipelago’s designer, Christophe Boelinger, has two games that have achieved significant traction: Earth Reborn and Dungeon Twister. Earth Reborn is in the BGG Top 50, and has achieved quite a bit of critical fame, but did not do well enough financially to get an expansion. Dungeon Twister has a sub-7.0 rating and is sitting in the 300s. Entertainingly enough, it has a bunch of expansions. Archipelago sounds interesting, with the potential for everyone losing, and secret victory point conditions and end game triggers, but these points of interest are also points of risk. They are enough that it is easy to turn people off with them, and have been frequently commented as being among the game’s flaws. They have not been quite enough to turn me off, I am still quite interested in the game and am uncertain if they are true flaws are simply a matter of inexperienced play, but it is still something that could impact Archipelago’s chances in the rankings.

Snowdonia (7.80 average; 116 ratings)
Snowdonia may suffer the same problem as Keyflower, while having a lower average rating: there is not nearly enough to clearly differentiate it from the other worker placement games out there beyond its rather unique theme. The most common negative early comments reflect this, and it does not appear to have enough top end enthusiasm (9 and 10 ratings) to indicate that it is likely to maintain the level of momentum required to get to the Top 100. On the plus side, it does seem to effectively tie the mechanics to the theme, which is usually a good indicator that a game could be successful in the rankings, and with Lookout Games as a publisher there is a strong chance it might end up with a US distribution deal.

CO2 (7.70 average; 111 ratings)
CO2 is noteworthy simply because of how divisive it is. While, 7.70 is well outside of the usual ratings range that I consider for this article, its standard deviation (2.21) is twice that of any other game on this list. Looking at the rating comments, it is not tough to see why. There is a bit of a war going on, through the ratings, by people who are offended by CO2’s theme and those who find it particularly refreshing. Based on how frequently CO2 appeared on the hotness, and the generally positive reaction from people who appear to have played the game at Essen, I think this game still has a shot of making it into the Top 100. It is simply a matter of whether most people end up rating the game based on its gameplay or for political reasons.

So that is the field of Essen 2012 games that I think have the biggest possibility of making the Top 100. The amount of games is a little bit lighter on the top end, as I think only Tzolk’in is guaranteed a spot, but the total that has at least some potential is higher, with 11 versus 10. It will be interesting to see which of the ones on the borderline end up breaking away from the rest and shooting towards the Top 100 and which ones just fade away.
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Wed Oct 31, 2012 12:16 am
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Pre-Release Predictions: Keyflower

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Keyflower, by Richard Breese and Sebastian Bleasdale and published by R&D games, is the latest in Breese’s long line of “Key” games. I am mostly unfamiliar with these games, but was mightily impressed by the 2010 release of Key Market. This, plus a promising description of the mechanics, was sufficient to get me to pre-order the game. The rulebook was released last week, and after digging around a bit in it, I think I have a pretty good feel for what are going to be the key differentiating factors of the game.

Workers, Workers Everywhere
One of Keyflower’s core differentiating factors appears to be how the game handles worker management. At its core, it is a worker placement game, where players take turns placing one (or more workers) on the board in order to activate abilities or get access to new powers. However, unlike other worker placement games these workers are able to be spent permanently or transferred between players, with a steady infusion at the end of each season insuring that no individual player runs out.

Players are able to freely place workers on any tile on the board; even tiles that are currently up for auction are available. However, any worker that you place on another player’s tile ends up in their hands at the end of the turn. You essentially end up trading an opportunity for access now for a reduced ability to take advantage of opportunities on the board later. Workers come in four colors, with these colors having a direct impact on how the players are able to use them. A given tile starts the round as being associated with no color, but once a particular color is used to take an action on a tile, or used to bid on a tile then all further actions on that tile will require using the tiles of the same color. If you know what colors the other players have then you can use this as a weapon, taking advantage of their perceived weaknesses in order to force them into an awkward situation, as they are either unable to take advantage of a particular tile or bid on it.

It is also possible to use a space that has already been activated by another player, but only if they place more workers than a previous player. There is a hard cap of six workers that can be placed on an individual tile, so if a player is willing to be slightly inefficient in their worker usage, it is possible to prevent other players from being able to use a spot, either by making it so it is not possible to meet the minimum worker threshold and not exceed the worker limit, or by taking advantage of other player’s lack of the right color of workers.

Your ability to take advantage of this information is limited by the fact that a player’s current allotment of workers is hidden information. This makes sense to some extent, as a player’s initial allotment of workers is hidden, but as the game goes on it becomes more of a memory game, which is something that I find a bit disappointing. I understand the general desire to use hidden trackable information in order to create an illusion of tension, but I find the possibilities for being able to use known information as weapons to be far more interesting and will likely keep public information public when I play Keyflower, much the same way I did with Key Market.

Worker Auctions
Ownership of particular tiles is granted at the end of a round based on whoever has the most workers placed adjacent to the tile at that time. When someone else exceeds your bid on a tile, then you are able to move those workers, as a group to another tile. This results in what I suspect will be some pretty interesting interactions, as players are able to interfere with other player’s ability to get needed tiles, forcing those players to bid more with only a minimal effect on the bidding player, as they will lose earlier access to the available tiles without losing the action itself. I am not quite sure how relevant this will end up being, but the interaction itself looks like it has the potential to be entertaining.

Resource Management
The tiles themselves do the sort of things you would expect in a resource conversion game: give you new workers, give you skill tokens, give you resources, or give you victory points. Workers are the primary currency of the game, with skill tokens used either to help get additional workers or resources, and resources used to upgrade tiles, making them more effective, or to get victory points at the end of the game. As far as resource management games go there seems to be relatively little conversion and fairly short logistic chains. While it is helpful to get complimentary tiles, it appears that the important decisions will be mostly in the form of how you use your workers.

Spatial Reasoning
Individual tiles have roads and rivers on them to indicate how they can connect with each other. These are important both because you are required to place like on like, Carcassonne style, but also because it determines how far you need to transport goods in order to get them to the tile you want. This is relevant for tiles that need goods for an upgrade or the tiles you can collect in game that score bonus points for you at the end of the based on the number of goods on those tiles.

Keyflower looks like it is going to be a fairly average “good” game rather than anything particularly excellent or awful. For these sorts of games a lot depends on how effective and tension-inducing the interactions are, and that can be difficult to identify based on just the rules. It does look like there will be some interesting things happening in the game, but I suspect it will not be quite good enough. The main thing I will be looking for as I play is if the game is interesting enough, if what it is doing is distinctive and entertaining enough to make it worthwhile in the face of all the other resource conversion worker placement games out there. Right now I am not cancelling my pre-order, but I think it has a reasonable chance of not maintaining its status in my collection for an extended period of time.
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Mon Sep 17, 2012 4:22 pm
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Pre-Release Predictions: CO2

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
Last year I released a series of articles leading up to Essen where I read and analyzed the rulebooks of games that I thought fell under the title “Gamer’s Games.” They were reasonably popular, and I enjoyed doing them, and I think that I will do them again this year unless there is a general disinterest in the enterprise. In addition to talking about the sort of game the rules present, and my particular reaction to the rules, I will also be talking about my perception of the eventual popularity of the game, both based on the qualities I see in the rules, but also how effectively its marketing is being managed. Since the rules for CO2 were released this week, I will be starting with it.

I will be receiving a review copy of CO2. I chat with Vital Lacerda, the designer, regularly.

Predicted Popularity
CO2 is one of the games that I think will probably end up doing very well, both in sales and in ratings. There are a few reasons that I think this:

1) Vital’s previous game, Vinhos, was generally well received and is sitting in the BGG Top 200, which while not amazing, is still very good particularly, for a new designer.

2) I am convinced that one of the ways that a game can stay in the public spotlight, particularly on BGG, is through periodic releases of component pictures, especially if the game is visually striking and differentiated. CO2 is both, with a pleasing style that is very much out of the bounds of what is normally seen in board games. We have seen weekly releases of CO2 art, and the game has climbed up the hot list every time a new bit has been released. So this part of the marketing campaign has been very effective.

3) It covers a topic that is both rarely covered by board gaming and is somewhat controversial, but does not do so in an overtly political way. This alone would probably bring some attention to the game, but when combined with options 1) and 2) it leads to a potential for this game to be a hit.

4) In the US it is being published by Stronghold Games, which is a publisher that currently has a very good reputation, largely by producing previously released grail games, and a generally effective focus on customer relations. This will increase the number of people interested in trying it, and thus potentially liking it.

Now, even with those four factors, that game would not be successful if the game is bad. And while, I cannot claim with any definitive knowledge whether CO2 is a good game or not, the rule book is promising enough, that I feel that there is a good chance that the game will do well, and has a strong chance of being one of the top 5 best rated Essen releases of 2012, though I am slightly less confident of its success then I am of either Mayan Age or Clash of Cultures.

Rulebook Analysis
As can be expect, it is difficult to get a full measure of your enjoyment of a game from reading a rulebook. Still it is useful to read them simply because it gives you an idea of whether you will like a game or not, that is based on something else beyond the game’s marketing and various testimonials. CO2 is one of the games that I was most excited about coming into 2012, and I am quite pleased that they have released the rulebook to the game this early on as it will give people plenty of time to mull over the hints of the game it reveals inside.

CO2 particularly intrigues me because its theme is so far outside of the norm for the sort of themes that we typically see in board games. I actually find myself hoping that it is good, and successful, simply because it might serve as a trend setter in that area. It also helps that the game is thematically well integrated, as I doubt I would care if the game was so abstract that it was difficult to connect it to green energy. Everything fits within the larger green energy perspective being presented by the game, and the game has players doing the sorts of things that you would expect a company involved in green energy to do.

Players have a fixed number of round actions during the game, with the number of total actions depending on the number of players and game length, with only three action possibilities available. Layered on top of these three available actions, are a number of additional options that define both how players relate to the board and each other, creating a much fuller tapestry limited of the three actions would imply.

Essentially the primary focus of the game is the development and completion of projects to place sources of green energy. There are five different types of projects (forestation, solar, cold fusion, biomass, and recycling) each with their own specific characteristics. Each project has three different stages, with each stage providing an increased benefit but also increased costs; only the final stage provides victory points. One of the primary methods of player interaction is through taking advantage of other player’s completion of stages, as there is nothing that can actively prevent you from implementing or completing a project that another player has started.

On top of the three primary action options are a trio of free actions that can be taken that either allow you to either hinder other players efforts to continue a project, purchase or sell one of the primary resources of the game (Carbon Emission Permits or CEP), or take advantage of the benefits of either their initial hand of lobby cards or some of the face up UN goal cards. Each of these actions, and how they relate both to each other and the three primary actions provide additional layers of depth and nuance to the game. Moving scientists can be used as both an offensive or defensive action, allowing players to extend their own expertise in a particular type of green energy while also reducing that of their opponents. CEPs are one of the primary resources in the game, and the ability to buy or sell them allows you to directly impact how other players get access to this resource. And by taking advantage of lobbying, a player can get a surprise bonus resource, thus adding some mystery to the game and preventing other players from having a complete picture of your capabilities while completing a UN goal card is primarily a way to get victory points.

Even with these layers, there is very little in the game that appears to be particularly innovative or new. However, the vast majority of games, including many I like, are not innovative and new. So this in of itself is not a problem. What could be a problem is if the experience that the game provides is not significantly differentiated from that of other games that I have already owned and experienced. I think the game’s thematic impressiveness will help here. While I am certainly not a theme-first gamer, a tightly themed game does help in a game’s differentiation and I suspect that that, plus a few of the more mechanically interesting parts of the game will provide enough distinction to allow this game a chance for a permanent place in my collection.

What I am less certain about is CO2’s interplay variability. Vinhos, Vital Lacerda’s previous game, ultimately failed to find a permanent place in my collection because of this. While there were certain parts of the games that I felt were rather mechanically interesting, after I absorbed the game, individual plays felt a little bit too similar to quite fulfill my needs. So this particular bit of history is sufficient that interplay variability, would be a concern of mine regardless of what the rules indicated. Happily there is more evidence that this is a break from Vinhos then a continuation. For one, where Vinhos only had a limited amount of structural variability (the order of the wine experts and the weather tiles), the structural variability in CO2 is both larger and more impactful. For one, the initial game state is more varied, with CO2 levels, available UN cards, and your hand of lobbying cards all creating variations in a player’s decision process. Additionally, the game appears to be more interactive then Vinhos. Rather than building little vineyards on a player’s individual board, with most interaction being based on how in-synch they are with other player’s action selections, CO2 allows you to send your scientists to interfere with other player’s ability to complete projects and to engage in direct competition over majorities in both green energy expertise and in quantity of power plants in different regions. The benefit of each of these forms of interactions is significant and thus raises the stakes involved. All of these things are positive signs, but I still suspect that this is the place where the game has the greatest chance to fail to meet my expectations.

CO2 remains one of my most anticipated games of Essen 2012. Part of my anticipation is perhaps because I want the game to succeed. Its success could potentially pave the way for an increasing number of games that serve both as effective games as well as a statement from the designer, and even if I disagree with the statement being expressed this is preferable to another game about trading in the Mediterranean, band of heroes bashing in the skulls of orcs, or fighting naval battles in space. I do have some concerns but they are definitely surmountable, and I look forward to seeing if CO2 will both have an interesting theme and be effective as a game.
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Fri Jul 13, 2012 9:11 pm
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