Because all the cool kids are: My Essen '14 list
Paul Agapow
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So why share a list of what Essen releases I’m interested in? Partly just to be social. Partly to alert others to interesting games they may not have noticed. Partly to solicit advice on the wisdom of my choices and to assess possible alternatives.

But mostly because everyone else is.



In a way, my list has been formed more by exclusion rather than inclusion. As it should: I (and most people) have a limited amount of money, space and time for boardgames, so decisions have to be made. With over 300 games on the Essen release list, just 10 minutes assessing each one adds up to a solid work week.

So what earns a black mark or decreases my interest?

1. Two-players: my gaming situation is such that I have lots of opportunities for gaming, but few for two-player games. Wish it was otherwise, but I have shelves of unplayed wargames that say not and it would be foolish to add to that pile.




2. Games that are popular: If someone I know is likely to buy it, I don't need to. There will be plentiful playing opportunities and a game that someone else owns is a good game.

3. Co-ops: I actually like co-ops and think they're tremendously interesting. But it's a genre that's disliked in my normal gaming circles, which reduces the number of possible plays. Also, I feel there’s been a recent wave of indifferent co-ops, that bury simple push-your-luck problem solving under an obfuscating cloud of mechanics, all without solving the usual problems of the genre (alpha players, simple push-your-luck mechanics, game experience depending on the quality of adversary/traitor). I could be convinced otherwise, but my default position is scepticism.

4. Anime artwork: Games illustrated with shrieking saucer-eyed nymphs flashing their panties are usually crap. You may call this prejudice, I call it empirical knowledge.



5. Zombies: see my previous point. (Note: I own and love both Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game and Zombicide. I still stand by this point.)

5. Under-described / under-sold games: Even at this late stage, there are still a huge number of games on the release list that consist of nothing but box art, some colour text and a handful of generic sentences about gameplay that may as well have been assembled by one of those novel-writing machines from 1884. In this exciting 4X deck builder, you're a farmer / trader / zombie / leader of a galactic empire. Using a novel drafting mechanic to manipulate a market, you’ll assemble a tableau of buildings, resulting in using deep emergent strategies … What am I supposed to be judging here? Your ability to write advertising copy?

7. Yet another freakin' deckbuilder / Euro / 4X / etc.: Further on this point - truly there is little that is new under the sun. But when a game description reads like a dozen other games released this year - let alone previous years - I can’t help but think: I already have a several games that do this and do it well. Why do I need a new one?

6. Abstracts: They just don't excite me. I realise this is irrational, visceral and pure prejudice on my part. I’d like to get over it, cultivating a more austere intellectual image, sneering at such frivolities as theme, narrative arc, story and hygiene. But just at the moment? I need at least a veneer of theme.



But let’s be positive: why attracts my attention?


1. Games I won’t get to play if I don't buy them: see above.

2. Economic / political games: are a particular fascination of of mine. It’s an interesting subject that feels like it should be perfect fodder for games. Of course, most game “economies” are anything but that, so there are many disappointments.

3. Skirmish games: a.k.a. basically crack for me. I am helpless before them.

4. Interesting games, different games, “experience" games: Ever play Camelot? Terrible game. It’s also terribly interesting for its novel game turn mechanic. Ever play Tales of the Arabian Nights? Arguably not even a game, at least not one you make meaningful decisions about winning in. Still, huge fun. There’s lots of experiences you can get from games other than contests of optimising strategy. What’s out there to be enjoyed?

5. “Family" games: not every game has to be a brain-burning, ball-busting contest. Sometimes - often - you want a pleasant, interesting, gently competitive game that plays in an acceptable time. I’m a great champion of Ticket to Ride, Kingdom Builder, and the like. They may not set the aficionados of BGG afire, but there’s space for more games like these.

These are the ground rules ... and I will violate them all horribly in the list below.
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1. Board Game: Evolution [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:329]
Paul Agapow
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Evolution always seems like a good theme for a game - what bigger competition than survival of the fittest? - but I suspect this is deceptive. A la “Bad genes and bad luck”, evolution is both overly fair (the winners, win) and grossly unfair (BOOM BOLIDE IMPACT! IN YOUR FACE! TAKE THAT PROTO-THERAPSIDS!), with little space for choice. So, I was fairly impressed by the first version of Evolution, which managed to make an interesting framework for a competitive evolution game, albeit with some rough spots.



Which leads to the this years conundrum: buy the update of the game (which reportedly works out several of the kinks in the original), buy some expansions for the old game, or buy the new associated / spin-off game Evolution: Random Mutations? I like the older game enough that it’s a hard call and would really just like to see an updated set of rules. The mutations spinoff seems like it's largely just another set of rules, although not clearly an advancement on the original, so much as a "new way to play".
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2. Board Game: Black Fleet [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:641]
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Light “family" games are okay.

I suspect many game sessions, maybe most, even those played by dedicated BGG-ers, are simple escapism. By which I mean, they take at the end of a stressful workday and serve as a distraction or an excuse for social interaction. Strategy is largely by instinct (that looks like a good move), stories are swapped, beers are drunk, you forget yourself. The occasion is not about the game, it is what it enables. And that’s okay.

The BGG Cabal are probably already changing the secret handshake, before they come over my to my place and make fun of my haircut, so I’d better be quick. The game may be just a means to an end, but that doesn’t mean the vehicle is unimportant. It has to foster friendly competition. It has to fit in a certain amount of time. It has to be involving and distracting, but not too much so. Otherwise when your gaming buddy is going for the nth time about the hilarious thing that happened at his job, and your mind is all aswirl thinking you are an actuary, how the hell can that be funny, what even is that, does it pay better than my job and there are calamitous consequences.




Damn, they’re at the door: I can hear someone fumbling a asthma inhaler back into the pocket of his cargo shorts. Anyway, my point is that at first Black Fleet looks like it - maybe, sorta, might - fit into that family-friendly but not too friendly niche: something light but not to the point of being insubstantial, a fellow traveller to TtR. And it’s pirates, an entertaining bit of chrome. But reading further in, it may veer too much towards lightness. Not to be dismissive but there is the whiff of children’s game about it.

Alternatives are surprisingly thin on this years Essen list. Spike didn’t attract me initially, due to looking too much like so many other light train games. It's difficult to get a grip on what Cargotrain may play like, although some reports offer that the experience is chaotic. Colt Express may be in contention as well, with there being a game as well as startling game-bling.
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3. Board Game: RoboRama [Average Rating:6.37 Overall Rank:6575]
Paul Agapow
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So many of our gaming experiences are trying to recapture something. You really enjoyed playing Conquistador back-in-the-day, but now the game is unavailable or the rules seemed strangely clunky. So you go looking for a second-hand copy of New World or settle for Age of Empires III. You have great memories of playing Junta, but a replay falls flat. Maybe it’s the company, maybe it’s your memory, but you try again with a copy of Junta Viva El Presidente. And so on.

There are many games like this for me, and one of them is RoboRally.

RoboRally isn’t a terrible game. In fact, it’s terribly fun. But games in the present - outide the warm glow of memory - seem to descend into an undifferentiated chaotic knife-fight, where after an hour or two someone accidentally escapes from the melee and blunders to victory. You find yourself saying That was great but …



Which explains my instinctive interest in Roborally “replacements’. Twin Tin Bots delivered some of the same juice in a tighter package, although after a moderate number of plays it seems to be getting a little old. Ricochet Robots doesn’t capture the programming or combat elements, but does make for an interesting spatial puzzle, albeit a highly specialised one. (I’ve notice that the skills required for RR tend to be highly tuned, such that if one person wins the first round, they tend to win most of the others.)

Roborama looks to straddle a few of these aspects, although first-hand reports are so far non-existent and the game doesn't really take a pre-programmed move approach. I'm also a little concerned that every game has basically the same setup. Still, it warrants investigation.
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4. Board Game: Greenland [Average Rating:7.10 Overall Rank:1511] [Average Rating:7.10 Unranked]
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On an endless journey across the plains of the midwest US, the young narrator of Willa Cather’s "My Antonia" remarks:

The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska.


This Phil Eklund game got heavy play testing around London-on-Board earlier this year but, in keeping with my general air of enigmatic cool, I took part in none of it. However, it’s only Euro23, it’s a small box, and if it’s half the game Pax Porfiriana is, it will be excellent. But most importantly, you can be sure that it will be absolutely, for better or worse, all day long, a Phil Eklund game.


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5. Board Game: Super Fantasy: Ugly Snouts Assault [Average Rating:6.87 Overall Rank:2566]
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An expansion is being released for this comedic skirmish game, which alerted me as to the existence of the original. As said, I have a thing for skirmish / “dudes in a hall” games although my gaming circle looks down on the idea of pretending to be a hardened tactician, preferring to devote their time to imitating merchants trading grain in the Mediterranean.




Of course, skirmish gaming tends to bring baggage: being two-player, being very details / nuts-and-bolts oriented, requiring an investment of time, having to play with beardy dudes with curious political opinions, etc. But SF:TLA claims to be able to manage multiple players and has an apparent difficulty / complexity that might be acceptable to casual players. So it’s of interest. Although then you have to ask why Krosmaster: Arena isn’t a compelling alternative ...
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6. Board Game: Admiral's Order: Naval Tactics in the Age of Sail – All Hands! [Average Rating:7.93 Unranked]
Paul Agapow
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Years ago, I used to share a house with a keen naval war gamer. Afternoons were spent on mammoth games of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, maneuvering ships over the lounge room floor, the painstaking fitting of rigging to model ships.




Here again, I may be trying to recapture something.

But gaming the Age of Sail is a grand thing and practically demands a grand, sweeping, visual game. You need squadrons of ships moving around, thematic sturm und drang and the rules to bring these things out. I nearly fell for Sails of Glory several times last year but never closed the deal as my desire to buy and the game being in stock didn't co-occur. SoG was also a bit pricey (once you starting buying extra ships) and I was irrationally distracted by the thick bases the ships sat upon.

Admirals Order is certainly not cheap - even if you eschew the the eye-wateringly expensive editions - and the “ships” are basically wooden logs. But this oddly seems to work in its favour, the way that Napoleon's Triumph works, like an operations map pored over by commanders. Unfortunately, a reading of the rules hasn't clarified my decision: while there’s a slew of mechanics towards controlling squadrons of ships, they are a bit fiddly and require moderately detailed records for every ship.

So I’m ambivalent about AO. Will they deliver the experience I’m looking for? It's tempting but I’m reminded of the Schopenhauer quotation that has been proffered on BGG before:

As a rule the purchase of books is mistaken for the appropriation of their contents.
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7. Board Game: Fantastiqa [Average Rating:7.05 Overall Rank:1428]
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I thoroughly approve of Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set. That is, it distills an actual adventure game from all the unnecessary bullshit of D&D as she is usually played - i.e. the 90% that consists of flipping through rulebooks, choosing spells and feats, arguing about how magic-doodad A interacts with magic-doodad B, all that bureaucratic organisational background detail bullshit that so many “role-players” are inexplicably fascinated with. (Strangely, the Lord of the Rings spends very few pages on Gandalf and Frodo debating what equipment to take and how to circumvent the Ringwraith’s high AC.) It’s still nerdy fantasy cliches, but about the action rather than the mind-numbing pin-headed logistics.



Fantastiqa flew under my radar last year - it seems that no one I knew had actually played the game, let alone bought it - and so I had it vaguely filed away as yesterdays news. But the new "rucksack" packaging of this year bought it to my attention and dovetailed with my approval of the Pathfinder. A "literary" deckbuilding adventure game? That actually sounds interesting. And different, as it doesn't do the usual pseudo-medieval, wish-fulfillment, cod-Tolkien bit.


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8. Board Game: Panamax [Average Rating:7.38 Overall Rank:466]
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A crunchy economics / production-chain / trading game is a joy. (See Roads & Boats, Crude, Container.) All those “make cubes to buy tiles to make cubes” games? Blur into one for me. I don’t find them unpleasant or a chore, so much as just forgettable. In this one you’re Phoenician traders swapping cubes for … uh … this one is set in the old West where you swap cubes for … uh … this one has a rondel!



But the spectrum between economic marvel and Yet Another Cube Pusher is an obscure one. Panamax has the whiff of Container about it, or is that just a thematic illusion? It seems that the game doesn't hold your hand and leaves your to carve your profit out where it can be found, which is how I like my economic games.

In way of alternative titles, the two "Essen" games present themselves. ESSEN The Game: SPIEL'13 was thematically repellant in the same sense that BGG: The Board Game in. Oh how hilarious. It is a game about boardgamers and the stuff we do. Conversely, ESSEN seems like it might be the closest fit for what I'm looking for. However, as often in economic games, the magic is in the details and it’s hard to tell from this or any other other ruleset as to whether it will work.
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9. Board Game: Lift it! [Average Rating:6.36 Overall Rank:3080]
Paul Agapow
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What we have here is something a little like Bausack or Tier Op Tier, except the players have to maneuver blocks into place with little cranes and hooks. Attached to their heads.

If that’s not an insta-buy, I don’t know what is.
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10. Board Game: Medieval Battle [Average Rating:7.10 Unranked]
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My therapist keeps telling me that my semi-abusive relationship with war-games is just an unfortunate series of cycles. I see a new and interesting war-game. I pore over rules and session reports before buying it. There’s a honeymoon period where I try and interest other people in playing. But soon the game and I are sitting on opposite sides of the study, staring sullenly at each other. I start seeing other war-games on the side. People ask me what happened to the earlier game and I deflect with:

“I’m .. uh .. painting the miniatures. And printing out player aids. Yeah, that’s it.”
“Oh? Because that game seemed really nice.”
“Uh, yeah it was. I mean is. But it’s visiting its sister in Sydney at the moment. Be back next month. Or the month after.”



Which is how I end up trawling through the "wargame" subcategory of the new releases. Both Medieval Battle and Black & White seem to hover in that light wargame / war-themed boardgame slot, which is a fine place to be. Realistically, if they're quick and light, they might actually get played. The two games take quite different approaches however: MB works on a sort of rock-beats-scissors abstract model (which is fine in theory but ...) while B&W is more of a block wargame.
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11. Board Game: Room 25: Season 2 [Average Rating:7.64 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.64 Unranked]
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A co-op, you say?




Despite caveats as expressed above, I really enjoyed Room 25. It’s only as complicated as it has to be, thanks to the traitor mechanic it doesn’t suffer overly from alpha-players or group-think. It might not be entirely balanced, but it works and delivers a good game experience. It’s my current favourite in the co-cop / hidden traitor genre.

Does it really need an expansion? The previous expansion / promotion (Room 25: Promo – The Audience) was fairly minor, so I have my doubts. However, this expansion looks a little like a redesign or tweaking of the original game. It apparently distinguishes between the different player characters, which always seemed like something that was missing. There's a bit of other stuff added as well, which makes me wonder if the simplicity of the original isn't being lost.

Nonetheless, I've very positive towards this title.

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12. Board Game: Fresh Fish [Average Rating:6.90 Overall Rank:2585]
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I usually look at designer fandom / anti-fandom with askance: although in principle the idea of buying games by designer makes sense (if X made game Y which you liked, look at other games made by X), in practice it seems to descend into mere quarterbacking: This game must be good/bad because it was designed by X. Which ignores the role of the production company, co-designers, natural variation, good and bad days, etcetera, etcetera.

So it was a surprise when I realised I was a fan of Friedemann Friese.




He has an impressively diverse design portfolio. Not every game is a masterpiece, but they're all interesting and worth your time. (Except Fast Flowing Forest Fellers. Because really.) So the republication of this "lost game" is certainly worth a look. Having not played the original, I haven't as yet got a feel for how the game plays (a route-builder a little like Kairo, maybe?) But the game length is right, so for the right price, this would be worth the gameble.
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13. Board Game: Abraca...what? [Average Rating:6.59 Overall Rank:1948]
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Wizards casting spells at each other seems to be the game theme of the zeitgeist, or at least of the last two years. Some of these games have piqued my interest, although it’s unclear whether that because the tactical theme sounds interesting or only the sheer number of games has created the impression there’s something I’m missing. Mebbe I should get a couple yards of dat wizard gaming stuff in, all dem fancy people seem to like it. Might look mighty fine on the table. But perhaps there’s really nothing binding all these games together than a thin thematic skin and anyway, I already have Mage Wars Arena.

Despite these misgivings, Abraca...what (and I predict great practical problems with that title, the greatest since Yggdrasil) may raise its head above the pack. It appears to be a Hanabi-like game but competitive, in which you have to fight your opponents but can’t see your own cards and have to infer them from inadvertent clues. Thus avoiding my co-op-phobia.

And giving me no excuse for not playing Mage Wars.
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14. Board Game: Mythotopia [Average Rating:6.95 Overall Rank:1255]
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OHMIGOD A MARTIN WALLACE GAME!




I refer you to previous comments about game-designer fandom. But if this opens up the A Few Acres of Snow model and permits more than two players, it could be a fine game indeed.
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15. Board Game: War Stories: Red Storm [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:7198]
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I've been deliberately retreating from Kickstarter for a while, letting the last pledges come in and not committing to new campaigns. I eyeballed but rejected the campaign for War Stories. It certainly was clever - using what is essentially variable hex size to model difficult terrain. But I passed and thankfully missed out on what was a roller-coaster campaign. (Designer goes AWOL! Late delivery! Rule changes!)

But the game has finally arrived, although my feelings are still unresolved. For one, it's a block war-game. I don't dislike block wargames, but the "fit" with the scale just seems awkward. True, the blocks allow the type and status of units to be concealed, but also seems in this case to diminish the visual flavour of the game. Also, scenarios are designed as a fog of war with secret setup and instructions for each side, which would seem necessarily to lower the replay value. The publisher says otherwise, I remain sceptical.

There’s some complaints about the rules which, although mild, give me pause. Yes, I can read threads, watch videos, download FAQs, the designer is really helpful, blah-blah-fricking-blah. Is it too much to ask for a game that works out of the box? I lose enough time to poorly written rules as it is, and interrupting gameplay to discuss, argue or reference rules is just a drag.

Definitely one to study and perhaps get a demo of.
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16. Board Game: Swedish Parliament 2014 [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:8086]
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As far political simulations go, Die Macher looms large. For those of you that regularly have 7 hours to spare anyway. For the rest of us, it looms considerably smaller. If a small thing can be said to loom.




Anyway: SP2014 takes a different angle, looking at party policy, and promises to deliver it in considerably less time. It’ll be interesting to see how - and if - it works. Theory and experience would seem to say that iterated fights over policy end up driving parties towards an indistinguishable mass in the centre. But it’s an interesting title if only for the rarity of political games. I’m already half-sold on this one.

A - perhaps related - release that also intrigues is Wir sind das Volk!, depicting the contest between East and West Germany. Again, the subject matter and approach is unusual enough to attract interest, but it being a two-player is probably going to rule it out for me.
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17. Board Game: 1879 [Average Rating:6.94 Overall Rank:7857]
Paul Agapow
United Kingdom
London
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Yes, only in the world of 18xx could you release an "introductory" game that requires ownership of one of the original games.

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18. Board Game: Manila [Average Rating:7.01 Overall Rank:624]
Paul Agapow
United Kingdom
London
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I'm not sure how I missed Manila - it seems like the sort of game that should have attracted my attention. But it probably just got buried under a mountain of box-of-plastic-fests from FFG and grinding hairshirt Euros.



Manila may be the game to scratch my economic / investment itch, although there's a gambling element in the gameplay that I'm unsure of. However, past reports and reviews are overwhelmingly positive, so I think will get the nod.

Note: this version apparently has down-graded components from the original, which will probably cause those magpies who treat their games as boxes of plastic baubles to burst into tears. I could care less.

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19. Board Game: Socken Pfeffern [Average Rating:6.18 Unranked]
Paul Agapow
United Kingdom
London
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It's like cross-boule. With weighted socks. Dispensed from a miniature washing machine.
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20. Board Game: Castles of Mad King Ludwig [Average Rating:7.67 Overall Rank:82]
Paul Agapow
United Kingdom
London
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Despite the general popularity of Suburbia, it remains on the outer amongst my too-cool-for-school gaming circle. But, naturally, I like it: the game has a good flow, is pleasantly puzzling, plays in a reasonable time: it's SimCity in boardgame form.




So, again naturally, my attention is drawn to CoMKL (another title I predict is bound to cause problems). It's like Suburbia but with a castle. Cool, huh?

Yeah, but does this make a real difference?

Of course, you're manipulating rooms not hexes, and the payoffs will be different, but I'm just not getting the USP here. So, as it's bound to be popular, I will probably rely on someone else buying it.

I will also probably skip Subdivision. Reports are that it is a lighter, less constrained game than Suburbia, which is not something that I ever considered Suburbia needed.
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21. Board Game: Mr House [Average Rating:5.96 Overall Rank:9721]
Paul Agapow
United Kingdom
London
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This list has been dominated by games that are light, slight or frivolous. While I complained above about the lack of information for many games, these two things are not unrelated. Complex, detailed games will require more of a sell, more detailed explanations of to what is happening and what is interesting or unique. Tell me that you have a game of combined-arms battles on the Eastern Front, and I'll have trouble raising the energy to roll my eyes before asking how it's different to all the other games that precede it. Tell me you have a civilization-building game and I'll ask what the gimmick is.

Tell me you have a game in which players move blocks by using cranes attached to their heads and I'll holler PREORDER! WHERE IS THE PREORDER!

Thus, while I am looking for meatier games, the lack of details is somewhat frustrating:

* Mr House mentions a lot of the right words (economic / budget / timing) but the feel of the game is hard to pick from the rulebook.

* Likewise for €uro Crisis, except details are even sparser, there not even being a rulebook.

* Hexemonia has the interesting flavour of being about growing Greek city-states, which is fortunate because little else is known about the game.

* Carcassonne: Goldrausch sounds more like a description of physical symptoms than a game. This has nothing to do with the point I was making, but the joke wouldn't fit in anywhere else.
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22. Board Game: Fief: France 1429 [Average Rating:7.49 Overall Rank:758]
Paul Agapow
United Kingdom
London
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And so we come what is, for now, the end of the list. Sure, there are other games - many other - being released and some will catch my eye. But extracting the titles above is enough for now.



Looking for meatier games, my eye fell upon Fief. The previous edition is apparently very popular with a high BGG rating, with negotiations, diplomatic marriages, assassins and mercenaries. It's described by some as a slightly lighter Game of Thrones (although I would have thought that the problem with GoT was not the weight but the length). Of course, there are concerns whether it will make Essen. It wouldn't be Essen without this.

I'll leave you now. Just remember:

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