4 Days in Essen: the fair, the city, the games! (+short reviews)
jan w
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Get yourself a nice drink and grab a seat, cause this tale ain't a short one.

Another year, another Essen, but for me it would be the first time to actually spend 4 days in the world's capital of boardgames. I didn't know till quite late whether I'd have the time, so I only started looking for a place to stay till late September. Hotels were extortionately overpriced (for my range), but luckily I found an apartment that was very reasonable, so I snagged it for Thursday till Sunday, no questions asked.

However, I wouldn't be traveling alone. My girlfriend, an architect, wanted to see some of the industries in the area. And though she loves gaming, too, we decided we wanted to see something of the sights as well. So two days at the fair and two days of sightseeing it would be.

I'll update this on the go, otherwise it'll be next week before I get this posted. Pics on their way too.

Here's what I brought back:
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1. Board Game: Road to the Rhine [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:6099]
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So Thursday morning we set out for the 2h20min drive to Essen. I'm superstoked, as usual, and drive like a German. We'd left a little later than foreseen, however, and upon arriving near the Messe, the usual first parking is closed. Shock. Terror. What now? The guard ushers us to drive further. I drive, slowly, checking what to do, where to park, how much later am I going to be? What games will be sold out before I enter the fair? The panic rises as the next guard tells us to continue further down the road, until at some point, I see what looks like a parking lot so drive into a side street that leads underneath the halls. Both entrances here were blocked off as well, as well as another one further down the tunnel. On the other side, I see a parking lot so I drive in, only to realize that it belongs to a wellness business with sauna's and whatnot, so I leave. Further down the road, my heart sinks as the few spots there are only supposed to be used for 2 hours a day max.

So I return to the main road, drive even further and get ushered into the next tall parking lot building. Luckily, there's room here. I couldn't believe that so many people had shown up before 11am on a Thursday! I was more anxious than ever, cause I'd never missed the initial "let's all try to get in at once" at 10am sharp. Truth be told, we weren't far at all. Even more so, there's ticket booth for people coming from the parking and U-Bahn stop, so no extra queues either. And we could enter the fair from hall 2 instead of the chronically jam packed hall 12.

Lesson learned: the parking lots further down the road are not as bad as they seem!

On with the games!
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2. Board Game: Phantom [Average Rating:6.48 Overall Rank:7157]
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This wasn't high on my wishlist, but wondering in hall 5 and seeing the empty tables, we jumped on the opportunity to try this 2 player only game in which you are one of two ghosts haunting the house and trying to be the most frightening one so the other will leave. There's only room for one ghost per house you see, and this is how they settle feuds...

overview
In the game, you'll be trying to scare off the inhabitants of the house in order to score points. The older residents are harder to get rid of, because they frighten less easily. The baby though, doesn't realize what's up and is the hardest to scare.

There are four predetermined areas in the house in which the residents roam. You play cards on either side, consisting of location cards and ghost cards (which come from separate decks - your chose how many from each). A location shows how many ghost can be present, and can only be played in certain areas. The ghost cards are the meat of the game, as each kind has an ability that allows you to move the residents, take cards from your opponents, etc.



review
Our game played pretty fast, but had a few hickups. First, there's the ghost cards. They have an icon which depicts their type (which is good), but then they also come in different forms, such as: spectres, haunts, etc. These are defined by a coloured border which is really hard to discern at times, and as text, for which they chose a rather illegible font. There are certain residents that scare off (ie destroy) all ghosts of a certain type. There are quite a few things to keep track of, so the information being hard to read really bogs the game down.

At times I couldn't draw locations for certain areas, so was more or less unable to play anything there, which set me back quite a bit. My gf won in the end by capturing the last card when we were tied, which leads me to believe the game is quite well-balanced.

The artwork is inconsistent, dark, and just not very attractive.


verdict
Whilst a solid game, it had a few things running against it. The graphic design was a bit shoddy, as was the artwork. It also reminded me of Omen, which we'd gotten rid of already, and another Smallbox design: Hemloch. And we still hadn't tried Smash Up, which, as far as I could tell, also resembled it in a way, but accommodated up to 4 players rather than just two, and offered more variation, oh, and was a lot prettier.

With this in the back of my mind, I decided to wait until we'd played Smash Up at least. Later on, she said she quite liked it, but when we made a list of our priorities, it didn't make the cut.

Not bad, but I believe there's better.
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3. Board Game: Masters of Trade [Average Rating:7.12 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.12 Unranked]
jan w
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Then, at 13h sharp, the exchange for the no shipping math trade took place in hall 4A. I'm sure that for those not in the know, this must have seemed like something of a flash mob. Sorry for those who expected me to dance


Find me

I had 9 games to hand out, 9 games to receive, so I had a list of who got what and some passwords or descriptions of certain people. I think the whole thing took less than 15minutes Everything went super smoothly. The only person whom I couldn't find had sent me a message that his plane was late and if we could arrange the next day. Not a problem. Everybody was friendly and happy with their new games

I'm not sure I'll participate with as many games next year, because this highly limited my buying possibilities the first day. Or I just need to get there on time so as to not be parked too far away for a short walk back and forth!

Thanks to everyone who traded with me!
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4. Board Game: BraveRats [Average Rating:6.48 Overall Rank:1809]
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After a short distraction I remembered my initial fear: games being gone in no time at all! When walking up to the entrance at 11am, I already saw people leaving with huge bags filled with games! How did they get in and out so fast? This memory spurred me on to my absolute must-stop for the fair: Japon Brand.

I really, really wanted "R" but knew that it was sold out in the online shops that carried it, so this summer, when my girlfriend went to Japan for three weeks to participate in a workshop on how to rebuild the Sendai area (the province where the tsunami hit the hardest, I believe, I asked
Simon Lundström
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where she might get hold of it. The game was not to be found anymore, though.

So when I heard it would be re-released for Essen this year, "R" was my first must-have of the show!

So rushing over to the booth, kicking myself for getting distracted by Phantom, I could not believe my eyes when I saw that not only did they have "R", they also had the original version of Love Letter! I love the artwork of Noboru Sugiura and was bummed with the thought of only having the AEG artwork, so this was a great surprise indeed!

I went up to the sales person, and asked them for a copy of each. In true Japanese tradition, they started smiling and apologizing: Love Letter had sold out. Yes already.

So I got "R", somewhat beaten by the idea that getting up half an hour too late had cost me valuable time and made me miss a probably unique opportunity to... and then I saw Seiji Kanai, the designer. I hesitated for a moment, because I'm not that outgoing a person, but decided for the greater good that I had to give it a shot. I introduced myself to Seiji as being a big fan of both Chronicle and last year's Master Merchant, and told him how we'd played a game and he'd signed my copy, and how happy I was to see "R" being re-released. He was so nice! He was genuinely happy to have a fan and I asked him if I could buy the display copy of Love Letter. I'm not sure if he understood, but he opened up a box and took out a copy - there were still LOADS left! So no need for worry - but luckily for me I persisted, even if it wasn't necessary, I got my copy of Love Letter!

overview
R is a 2 player game consisting of exactly 16 cards. Each player gets the same set of 8 cards displaying characters with a value from 0-7 (one each) and a special power. Each player selects a card, places it face down, then reveals it simultaneously. The highest number wins, unless the powers mess things up. Oh, and they do. First to win 4 battles wins the game (unless a princess is successfully played against a prince).

review
The artwork is great, so is the card stock, and the game came in a lovely little letter which included the rules in several languages. We played the game twice so far, and each session only lasts about 5 minutes. I like the fact that a lot is going on with so few cards, and so few rules. The link with Chronicle is definitely there. The fact that cards can influence the next round also makes things interesting. You can somewhat calculate what options the other player has, but the question remains: does he play the obvious, or does he realize that you realize and thus play differently? The rules state not to over think it, and I think it's good advice: you can't calculate your way out of this one; you need to play fast, read the other player, and have a good dose of luck.

verdict
It was a blind buy. At 4 euros, how could you go wrong? I enjoyed the first tests, and am curious to see if, with time, we'll get better at it, or start to see patterns.

The author also suggests using it instead of rock-paper-scissors to determine a start player, and the rules include loads of variants that I haven't tried yet!
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5. Board Game: Love Letter [Average Rating:7.28 Overall Rank:216]
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Can't believe my luck that Seiji Kanai had his own version for sale as well! Love the artwork! Played it only once so far and was mostly confused. I believe it was selling extremely well between Japon Brand and AEG, so perhaps I don't need to explain how this one works.

In any case, it was over before I realized it, and I didn't see immediately how to influence the game. So the verdict remains out, though I have good faith in Kanai
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6. Board Game: Ginkgopolis [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:320]
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Next in line was Ginkgopolis, the new game by Xavier Georges. Since Troyes and Tournay, and especially Tournay actually, I've been curious to see what he would come out with next. I think I see in Ginkgopolis a sort of continuation of Tournay, which started out with a 3x3 grid but only build in the height. I love Tournay, so Ginkgopolis was on my wishlist in no time at all.

The Pearl Game booth was just around the corner from Japon Brand, so it was a logical move to go there immediately after. We didn't get a table immediately, mooched around for a bit but then decided to wait for a free spot.



overview
In Ginkgopolis you are trying to score as many victory points as possible. You do this by extending the city in certain directions, and a majority game in the end. Turns consist of playing one of your cards to either receive a resource or tile, receive a number of points/resources/tiles according to what's in play, or place a tile on top of, or next to existing tiles. Basically, you need to juggle resources, tiles, when to score points and where to vie for majority.


review
The game took some time to get into. There are a few quirks to it that made the first game a bit slow to pick up, but I can't see those being an issue after the first game. I had a hard time remembering that you only get income when you extend, not when you build on top of. I kept forgetting that you could play cards on their own, and didn't need to play tiles every turn.

Towards the end, the game gets harder and harder to play something you really want. Getting tiles you need becomes hard (you can only play a higher number on top of a lower one, unless you spend a lot of points).

The game flows pretty smoothly though, with your options reduced to four cards per turn, and only a few actions possible. Having to pass cards (drafting) to the next player after your turn makes it harder to prepare yourself, but includes tactical plays by using a card an opponent might want. I always find these kind of choices hard in a multi player game, because you're basically setting yourself back to potentially hinder the opponent, whilst the other players advance.

Having so much going on though, I wasn't considering the other players except for tactical placement, which in the end proved to be worth quite a lot of points in our game (a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, with one winner taking all). It was hard to keep track of who was winning, and in the end, it was my girlfriend who won our 4 player game.


verdict
I all, I think there's not a lot of new things here, but the package does work. I'm keen on trying it again. We hesitated a bit, and didn't buy it immediately. It was hard to really figure out if it would get more comprehensible or remain a bit vague and hard to control. In the end we went back on Friday to get it, together with an awesome tote bag.

Our adversaries here were Dominique and Laurent, two Belgians whom we would run into again later on...
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7. Board Game: Uchronia [Average Rating:6.55 Overall Rank:2109]
jan w
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After our session of Ginkgopolis, we walked into hall 6 and then 9. We walked straight up to the Iello booth, and I saw Uchronia. It was on the list, since I like a lot of the concepts in Glory to Rome, but don't like the overall game. Uchronia had been on my list for a long time, so when a table freed up, we didn't hesitate.

overview
Uchronia is, whether the lawyers agree on it or not, very much a brother of Glory to Rome. It changes in that buildings are available to everyone at all times, so the luck of the draw is less evident. Buildings are therefore different cards than the role/material cards. The rest remains largely the same: you play a card on your turn to perform its action. 2 of the same count as a wild. You don't have foundations anymore, you just need to discard a same-colour card from the central pool. You don't follow either, but when you plot (draw cards), you can copy someone else's last played role (if you have a matching activity card). Extra activities (as they are called here) will allow you to perform the same role multiple times.



Review
We matched up with 3 dutch people and speed read the rules since no demo'er was in sight. We got going, but it was slow. The game retains the same kind of feel where you don't really know what to do in the beginning, and everyone was suffering from it. The best path of action is rarely obvious. The building cards don't really sound that great (probably they are in combination with others).
To make things worse, the woman was really bored out of her mind. She seemed to hate playing, but she had played Glory to Rome before. It made the atmosphere very unpleasant. Even if you don't like a game, you can have a laugh about it together, but not here. I was glad they decided to call it quits after not too long, but the experience for us had been horrible. It's hard to say where the game went wrong or where the people bothered us.

verdict
A bad experience, but largely due to our company. The game itself didn't wow us, but perhaps in other company it might have been more fun. We didn't consider buying it, and didn't go back to it either.

Richard Garfield sat at the Iello booth signing the King of Tokyo bonus card "Richard's Gift" and the queues were some of the longest I've seen at the fair. The next day as well, it seemed almost impossible to get to Sir Garfield. Dominique told us later that even though he wanted his signed so badly, he had to give up in the end.
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8. Board Game: Tokaido [Average Rating:7.05 Overall Rank:440]
jan w
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Well if ever there was a shiny game at Essen this year, Tokaido sure was it. The box in itself was a work of art and high quality printing. The illustrations were beautiful, but when I got a box in my hands and saw the added gloss printing and details of the box, I was really impressed.

Tokaido had been on the wishlist, since I enjoy the last player moves mechanic from Glen More very much. Girlfriend said it was pretty enough to just buy and put up on a shelf really, so no problem getting her convinced to try a demo.

We were looking at the booth, seeing if a table was free when we noticed our earlier adversaries, Dominique and Laurent were there as well. Just then a table freed up and we just said "shall we?" and took our places.

overview
In Tokaido you're a traveller on his way to good ol' Edo, Japan's capital in the olden days. On the way, you stop for a wash in the onsen, have some food, meet some other travellers. The game board depicts a linear path which has locations printed on it, such as a store where you buy gifts, scenic spots, travellers etc. The last person on the track is the person who gets to move. He can move forward as far as he wants to, and then the now-last player moves. At every stop you collect things, sometimes having to pay for them.

Every now and then there's an obligatory food stop, which can net you 6 points if you have the money to buy something. The earlier you go, the cheaper the food.

Most things you do net you cumulative points. For example, the first scenic spot nets you 1 point. The second 2, then 3,... At the end of the game, there are some extra bonuses for having the most of something.



review
In our game, I rushed ahead, choosing to dedicate myself to collecting souvenirs. The others stayed more behind, getting everything they could. I was a bit displeased at the end when this figured to be a much more viable "tactic", and wonder how much tactic there is if collecting everything you can is just as viable a strategy as trying to get bigger but fewer big scoring moments.

The game plays very, very smoothly. If you're last, you move your pawn to an empty spot. You perform the action there, which usually means getting something, or paying something, then getting points. That's IT. In this sense, it was a great winder-downer for the end of the day, and we all enjoyed the experience.

During our game,
Simon Lundström
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walked past, and I called out to him, recognizing him from last year's Japon Brand presentations that he did. I'd bothered him quite a bit via geekmail about all sorts of japan-related things, so I thought I'd say hi, and thank you. Obviously I haven't been on BGG tv and he didn't recognize me, or my username (for which I don't blame him), so Simon, if you're reading this, it was me, playing a game of Tokaido, who called out to you

verdict
Hard to say. We enjoyed it, but it being late, we weren't going to get a must have illustration from the artist, who sat at the booth drawing things inside the lids of the boxes of those who wanted it. I'm pretty sure he sat there doing this more or less all four days, from 11 till closing time, so much respect for Xavier Gueniffey Durin.


An example of what you got drawn into your lid.

We were undecided about the game, and we weren't going to get an illustration anymore anyway, so we would let it rest and see if we came back to it. In the end, we didn't. I'd like to try it again. It's a nice experience, but it's not the kind of game I'd like to play often I think. It dropped off our list of priorities, and we didn't go back for it in the end. I think Dominique picked it up, so there's a reason to hook up once back in Belgium!
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9. Board Game: Perplexus Epic [Average Rating:7.45 Overall Rank:3106]
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So after the fair we were in a slight hurry to get to our apartment, because we were supposed to be there before 8pm. Luckily, it was pretty close to the Messe and we got there easily. Once at the door though, I realised I'd forgotten the last name of the owner, and his first name wasn't on the door... Just as we were about to head back to the car to see if I had the info somewhere, his room mate showed up who had just gone to walk the dog: "you must be looking for the apartment? come on up!". Luck strikes again! He was a really nice chap and showed us around, then we went out to find something to eat.

We ended up in Der Kleine Zodiac, which is a bio pizzeria of sorts. I'm no vegetarian or health nut, so I was slightly sceptical how a veggie (or vegan even) pizza could be tasty. But I must admit, it was a delight!

There was an American chap having a hard time ordering, and a friendly German customer helped him out. I recognized him later as being the owner of one of the second hand booths in hall 4. I asked the American if he were here for the fair, and so it turned out to be the designer of Perplexus. I hadn't heard of it, but he had his prototype in his jacket pocket, a glued plexi cube. He was really nice and we helped him out for his order a bit afterwards as well.
 
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10. Board Game: Hotel Tycoon [Average Rating:5.44 Overall Rank:15322]
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After food, we messaged Dominique and Laurent to check if they were up for a game at their hotel. They were staying at the Ibis and I'd checked on a map and it was only 14min on foot. We went over and Dominique would wait for us outside, but we didn't find him. We went in, looked around and there were loads of tables, all full, all playing games! I never stayed over night so I never experienced the late night gaming sessions!

Dominique had said that we might have to play in the room, since they were going to close the gaming area soon. I couldn't believe they would kick out all these people... I tried him again, and sure enough we figured out that he was actually staying at another Ibis hotel...

We decided it was getting late as it was, and we weren't going to make it to the other Ibis. I had "R" in my pocket, so we grabbed a beer and played that. I then saw someone wondering around with a copy of Kalua in his hands, and decided to ask if he fancied a game. He agreed and joined us with his wife. They told us they had a game shop in the UK (I forget where) and explained the game to us.
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11. Board Game: Kalua [Average Rating:5.61 Overall Rank:10861]
jan w
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Basically you're a god and you want to be the only god worth praying to. To do this, you either play some cards that make your people happy or convert a lot of infidels, or you cause global disasters and cause havoc to others so that they either become atheists or throw themselves into a fiery volcano. Sounds like fun?

You do this by making sure you keep enough people in your religion whilst diminishing the stock of the other players. Once everyone but one is out of worshippers, that player wins!

The theme helps a lot here. Underneath, the mechanics aren't very innovative. But the package is a good romp and I can see it come out often as an end of the night sort of thing.

Our 2 sessions so far went quite well, with a lot of hollering in both. I think everyone enjoyed it quite well, though perhaps it's not a must buy for everyone.

I did however pick it up later, on our way out on friday
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12. Board Game: Courtier [Average Rating:6.69 Overall Rank:2031]
jan w
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Friday morning, first thing's first. I wanted to test Smash Up, but all tables were occupied. When a table for Courtier freed up, I pounced. I love area control and it's been long since I've seen a medium weight game of this type that I really enjoy.

Overview
In Courtier, you're trying to control different persons from different factions. Petition cards are where you score points. They depict 2 of the available characters, and if you control both, you can pick up the petition as points for yourself. Some petitions are open to all players, some others are private. Each faction also has a special power, and whoever has the most influence in a faction, gets to use its power.

To influence a character, you need influence cards. These either depict a character or his faction, allowing you to choose whom you'll influence. Then there's power cards. Power cards allow for some more devious actions for you to perform, such as switch cubes placed on the board for example. You always draw up to five cards, and you get to chose from the power card draw deck and the influence card draw deck.

Every time a petition is completed, a sort of event card is drawn which will influence the board as well. It might fill up certain characters with neutral cubes, allowing anyone to control them. These events speed up the game a lot. You continue playing until the card "the queen is arrested!" has been drawn, which brings upon the end of the game.

review
Our game went super fast. Mostly due to the fact that AEG is a company that knows it's marketing and thus set up the games in such a way that demo's would run short. The endgame event card was put in as the 4th card, where normally it's towards the end of the deck, and stacked on top were cards that filled up the board with neutral tokens, which made the scoring of petitions easy as.

Be that as it may, the game is fast. There's a lot of choices and you have to pick your battles wisely, gun for special powers that suit you and chose between power cards or influence. There's a lot going on, and I can see different strategies to winning. You have to make do with the petitions that come up, which means that the board is not static. Having scored a petition, all cubes are removed, so unlike say El Grande, you start from 0 every time you score points in an area.

verdict
It was a very quick few rounds, so hard to judge, but at a price point of 20€ I had made a mental note that I would most likely pick it up. It has a lot going on, a lot of interesting twists that make for an area control game that's unlike any other I've played before. I can't compare to the other Tempest line games as I haven't played them, though. I found the theme as bland as could be, but Courtier certainly changed my initial opinion of the line.

I would pick it up later, together with Smash Up.
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13. Board Game: Smash Up [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:640] [Average Rating:6.84 Unranked]
jan w
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After playing Courtier, we managed in a quick game of Love Letter. It was, quite literally, over before I realized we had started. I'll not write more about it because I really have little or no idea

When that was over, a table of Smash Up freed up, and we didn't hesitate a second.

Overview
If you didn't hear about this already, you must have been living under a rock. Smash Up is a card game in which you use minions and actions to win bases. Bases will grant a number of points depending on who has the most power there. A certain total number of power has to be reached, at which point the base is scored. There's a lot of back and forth due to the special powers of minions and the action cards. First to X points wins.

Review
Our demonstrator was mixing up a card from each faction, so we would draw random factions, but I would have nothing of it. I picked ninja's and zombie's. My gf picked Wizards and the demoer then suggested she add robots, because they have more minions and the wizards less.

We got started and with a background in more complicated card games, I felt right at home. I saw the possibilities, I saw how it was light, yet provided ample choices. She had a bit of a hard time at first figuring out what to play first and had a bit of help from the demoer, but towards the end she was on top of things and giving me a seriously hard time. In the end, our demo ended with each of us at 8 points, which was agreed to be the point total for the demo.

Having played it since, I believe that it's all about setting yourself up for a big turn to swing the scales. Basically you're playing just one minion and one action per turn, so often things weigh up as you slowly progress. The ideal situation is where you have a means of jumping ahead suddenly and closing the deal.

verdict
It was on the wishlist, now it was on the shopping list. I would pick it up later that day.

I think it's a great little card game with ample opportunity to mix up factions for a new flavour, without being extremely demanding or confusing. I have to applaud AEG in that the card texts are all very much to the point. I've not once had a rules issue, which tends to pop up with these kind of games.

And with more factions in the pipeline, I can see this getting many more plays. AEG spoke of: Ghosts, Carnivorous Plants, Bear Hunters (??? There was a promo image at the booth - I think they'll go through life as "the russians"), and I forgot what else. They told us some factions, but even more are in the pipeline that weren't allowed to be mentioned just yet.
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