woodnoggin's Fifth Essen
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My fifth time at Spiel but my first in the new halls. Somehow, despite the space being bigger, it felt like there was less to explore. With the old layout, each hall had a unique feel to it; these larger halls felt more homogeneous, with the exception of the tragically shunned Hall 4.

This time, four of us embarked on the quest, taking the train and rolling repeatedly on the following Encounter table:

1 German Rail Strike - no trains may be taken beyond Köln; Player Characters are Delayed.
2 Heart Attack Victim - if any Player Character has taken the Doctor of Medicine skill, s/he may assist for +2VPs.
3 Agoraphobic Cab Driver - each Player Character must make a Psychoanalysis roll to alleviate the driver's anxieties or be Delayed.
4 Bank Card Difficulties - any Player Character who did not buy Euros in their Home Territory is Delayed.
5 Bargain Ice Creams - each Player Character gains +1 Stamina.
6 Another German Rail Strike - trains may only be taken within Germany on a successful Luck roll.

Phew! What an adventure...

Here's the loot I managed to salvage:


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1. Board Game: Red7 [Average Rating:6.99 Overall Rank:545]
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Thursday

The doors we were waiting at opened fifteen minutes early and the stampede began. I'd heard the BGG booth would have a small number of copies of Red7 in stock, so went there first. It seems like a good choice, as I was told "you're in luck, we only have a few left!" This was before 10am. I've liked all the Carl Chudyk games I've tried so was really looking forward to this one.

We played six times in a row on the train back home. For the first five we used the short basic rules and the player who started with the highest card won each time. I'm not sure if that's because none of us cottoned onto the strategy of the game or what, but it was disappointingly predictable. We then tried the Advanced game, with the opportunity to draw cards and with scoring between rounds. That was much better - removing winning card combinations shook up the game and made each round different. The only downside was the full game now took almost an hour, compared to the 5-10 minute for a hand of the basic game. Looks like a winner and one I'm looking forward to exploring more.
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2. Board Game: Wir sind das Volk! [Average Rating:7.91 Overall Rank:535]
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I was on the fence about this one but the limited numbers available and the surrounding buzz convinced me to get a copy early. I should be able to move it on quickly if we decide it's not for us. Some 2-player games Kate and I really enjoy and get into, others, like Twilight Struggle, just haven't gained any traction. The theme is quite oddball for us and is that Ron Swanson on the cover?
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3. Board Game: Dicke Dämonen [Average Rating:6.50 Overall Rank:6205]
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A mostly-abstract area control game with regions bounded by string. What intrigued me here was the variable win condition. At some point in the game, each player must decide which colour they think will win, but they can choose when to make this decision and may not choose a colour another player has already chosen. So, do you choose early and risk the other players conspiring to ruin that colour, or do you choose late when you have more information? Sounds interesting, so I grabbed a copy first thing, prompted by mention of limited stock. I needn't have rushed - there were still plenty left on Saturday.
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4. Board Game: Tragedy Looper [Average Rating:7.33 Overall Rank:509]
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I was surprised to see this at the Z-Man booth - I thought it had sold out already. Although I didn't know much more than the general premise of the game, I took a chance on it. It sounds like the sort of thing that would be enjoyed by my theme-loving friends and, again, its popularity should make it easy to trade or sell if it doesn't work for us.
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5. Board Game Publisher: Japon Brand
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I hadn't pre-ordered any of the Japanese games as I wasn't massively interested in any of them. Secret Moon, The Ravens of Thri Sahashri and The Little Witches and the Mysterious House were vaguely on my radar and I'd agreed to pick up Trick of the Rails for a Geekbuddy, so I visited the booth early on Thursday. There I found a chaotic chain of hipsters gamers being cordoned off with string by a bemused Japanese man in a luminous raincoat. Apparently, there was some confusion with the queues which at one point were merged to much consternation. It was all too much to deal with so I returned later when things were calmer. Of course, by then most of their games were sold out. Jake picked up Secret Moon and I considered The Little Witches but the price was too high, the production quality too low and the gameplay uncertain so I passed.
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6. Board Game: Terra Mystica: Fire & Ice [Average Rating:8.51 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.51 Unranked]
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Terra Mystica has seen a lot of play with my group and is one of my favourites, so I knew I wanted this expansion. However, I wasn't at all confident that Z-Man would print enough copies, so this was a top priority purchase for Thursday morning. I'd heard that copies bought at the Feuerland Spiele booth had a small chance of containing some limited edition pieces, but I don't know whether this only applied to the German version. My copy didn't have anything special about it but I'm glad I've got it anyway.

I also picked up a bonus Oktoberfest tile for Glass Road while I was there.
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7. Board Game: Montage [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:3671]
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The Gryphon Games reprint has been out for a few years now, but I haven't seen hide nor hair of it in the UK. Luckily, they had a few final copies at their booth so I bought one along with the probably unnecessary Can't Stop expansion, Rollin' Down the Highway. It was cheap.
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8. Board Game: Samurai Spirit [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:980]
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Time to sit down and play something. As a fan of Ghost Stories and Hanabi, a new co-operative game from Antoine Bauza made me take notice. This one is a lot less mentally taxing than either of those two and felt like it had more style than substance. It's a village defence game where you're drawing enemy cards and choosing how best to deal with them. You're trying to get through the deck without the village being destroyed and you do this three times, with tougher bad guys being added for each run through the deck.

Enemies have a strength number and sometimes a couple of symbols on them, indicating good or bad effects. You can place them to the left of your board to make use of their good symbol, preventing injury, villager death or property destruction at the end of the round. Alternatively you can choose to place them on the right where they'll deal you damage equal to their strength. Once you reach a certain number of damage you can activate your special power but go beyond that number and you're knocked out for the round. You might be forced to place an enemy on the right if you've already filled up your left slots. The problem with enemies in right slots is the topmost one resolves its ability at the start of your turn. This could involve destroying a barricade, wounding you or something else. After taking two wounds you inexplicably transform into an awesome animal (I had a boar). This gives you more hit points and a better special power and was a complete surprise to us when the demo woman reached that part of the rules! In addition to all this, each character has another unique ability they can always use during their turn, or they can skip their turn to pass that ability to another player for one round.

There's some pushing your luck hoping that you get the right numbers or symbols at the right time and there's some strategy around how you use the special abilities of each character. But it felt like a lot of number crunching for what I thought would be a thematic experience. There weren't many choices (on your turn it's basically Left, Right or Share Ability) and I'm pretty sure there's a pattern you can learn that will provide an optimal route through. Bauza claims he can win any game of Ghost Stories regardless of setup and I expect he would say the same about Samurai Spirit. The thing is, with Samurai Spirit I can well believe him; it felt almost solvable.
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9. Board Game: Hyperborea [Average Rating:7.29 Overall Rank:521]
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Hyperborea is an odd one. It's still niggling at my mind after our single play - is it actually any good? At first I was put off by the plastic miniatures and the rules about attacking other players: I thought it was going to be a little too Ameritrash for my liking. So I was surprised by the lack of player interaction in our game. We started in our own corners, slowly progressed towards the middle and the game was over before we came to blows. I imagine if you wanted conflict you would have to optimise your civilisation towards that end, upgrading your movement and fighting abilities to get in your opponents' faces fast. Instead, we did our own things in our own corners.

We played the short game, which ends when one of the three win conditions is reached. Each of us concentrated on a different win condition. I went for VPs (12 needed to end the game), Jake went for Technologies (5 needed to end the game), Matt went for placing dudes on the map (all of yours need to be placed to trigger the end). Jake got there first, but Matt and I weren't far behind. The medium and long games require 2 or 3 conditions to be met respectively, but they don't all have to be met by one player. So although our game was Short, it would have only take one or two more turns to be considered a Medium or Long game, and it really didn't take very long.

My concern here is that there is a lot of unnecessary cruft to the game. If you can end even a Long game so quickly, you have no time to mess around with all the extra abilities the game offers you; you will lose to a strategy that focuses solely on meeting the endgame condition. That seems a shame. There's a lot available to explore here, but the win conditions make it a losing prospect to do so. On the other hand, this does mean that the game can be a pretty fast one when played efficiently. Of course, this is all first impressions and it could be that while one player is chasing the endgame, the others can do things that are worth points - after all, ending the game is only worth 2VPs in the final tally, you also score for areas controlled, miniatures killed, cubes gained, technologies accrued and so on.

What I liked: the bag building idea is nice. Using combinations of different coloured cubes to activate abilities works well. Being able to affect what's in your bag gives you control over what sort of abilities you'll be able to take throughout the game and really lets you customise your civilisation towards a strategy. There are a lot of options: twelve permutations for your starting civilisation, then a choice over which actions they'll be best at... definitely lots to dig into here.

What I disliked: the over-produced pieces; the price tag; the question of whether it's actually balanced; the potential for the many options to be irrelevant; the last-minute errata for what we thought was an obviously exploitable loophole.
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10. Board Game: Crokinole [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:75]
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Somehow, the other three members of my group had never played Crokinole before. There was a stall promoting their smaller boards so we tried it out. It felt too cramped for four players. The price was around 60 Euros but if I wanted one, I'd be tempted to splash out the 100+ Euros for a full size board instead.
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11. Board Game: Rise of Augustus [Average Rating:6.77 Overall Rank:777]
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By this point in the day it was a case of wandering round looking for a free table to sit down at. I think we were all worn out and just wanted a sit down. I was keen to try Madame Ching but all tables were full, so we sat down to Augustus in the same area and kept an eye out for opportunities to swap into another game. It took us two and a half games of Augustus before we got to play the game we really wanted to try.
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12. Board Game: Madame Ching [Average Rating:6.53 Overall Rank:2156]
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On a rules read-through, this reminded me of Lost Cities but it's only vaguely related. You're playing an ascending sequence of cards to move your ship across the board, scoring more points the longer the run you've created. Cards range from 1 to 55. They're played simultaneously but cards are drawn (from a face-up selection with one face-down option) in descending number order, so if you're playing low cards you get worse picks. High cards give you better picks but you're less likely to be able to continue your run as remaining numbers become fewer. If you can't play higher, you go back to the start and use your lower-numbered card to start a new run. Ending the expedition this way allows you to claim a goal tile for the space you advanced to. Spaces further on award more VPs. You can also claim skill cards with special abilities if the cards in your run had three matching symbols on them - this seemed very difficult to do without carefully crafting your hand first. The game ends when all goals have been collected or when someone collects one of each skill card.

It's a light game of hand management with an element of luck as to which cards will become available. You're hoping they'll fit with the colours and symbols you're collecting. You might start a run without knowing how it's going to finish and get lucky by picking up the appropriate cards from the row, or you might need to send out a few sacrificial expeditions to pick up a set of cards you can later use to make a better run. There are special Expedition cards you can collect from some goal tiles, or from having an expedition fail and these contain an unbalanced mix of take-that attacks, ways to improve your own cards, or simply VPs.

The game was fine but didn't excite any of us. For me, it falls into the niche already filled by Ticket to Ride. Madame Ching has perhaps a touch more to think about in terms of which cards you pick up but there was no player interaction on the board. The main interaction is stealing cards the others wanted and racing for particular goal tiles but this didn't get my heart pumping as much as a tense game of Ticket to Ride can. There's also the undesirable luck factor of drawing the right Expedition card at the right time.
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13. Board Game: Ghost Stories: The Infernal Die [Average Rating:7.62 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.62 Unranked]
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I picked up the Ghost Stories Deluxe Dice Bag which includes some unnecessary but nice looking dice. It also included The Infernal Die which I didn't have previously. It turns out, that die is only usable with the Black Secret expansion and I don't own it. Not sure if the bag will get its own BGG entry.
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14. Board Game: Five Tribes [Average Rating:7.80 Overall Rank:52]
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Five Tribes was trickier to play than it should have been because all the reference sheets were in German. I'd read the rules a while ago and tried to explain but forgot a few key points, most importantly how the scoring worked for yellow meeples. We played this one pretty quickly and I can see how it would get tiresome with analysis-prone players. We all agreed it was a good game but not a great one and not one that any of us wanted to buy.
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15. Board Game: Hansa Teutonica: Britannia [Average Rating:8.09 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.09 Unranked]
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Must have expansion for a great game. Can anyone explain why Carlisle is so massive?
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16. Board Game: Greenland [Average Rating:7.11 Overall Rank:1511] [Average Rating:7.11 Unranked]
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It was getting towards the end of the day and so it was time to pick up my pre-orders. I got the box signed by the designers who were sitting on the public side of the booth and Jake asked why I'd allowed some random guys to scribble on my game. In my haste, I didn't notice they were selling some other bits and pieces for the game at the same booth. Looking forward to trying this but wow, that rulebook is going to take some effort to get through.
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17. Board Game: Patchistory [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:789]
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Another pre-order based on last year's buzz and positive Geekbuddy comments. It came with some promo cards.
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18. Board Game: Boom: Runaway [Average Rating:6.49 Overall Rank:7768]
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I watched a preview video for this one and it looked good fun. It's a quick card game reminiscent of 6 Nimmt! or No Thanks! and you're trying to press your luck and seeing what you can get away with. To score big you need to take risks. There's also opportunity for some sneaky plays.

The nominal theme is bombs trying to escape to paradise without blowing up. There are six colours of cards numbered 1 to 7. Everyone has a hand of 10 cards and each round a Limit card is drawn showing a total number for each colour. Everyone plays a card face down simultaneously, you take a look at what has been played then play two more cards simultaneously. Totalling up the cards for each colour, you see if any went over the Limit for the round. If so, the player with the highest total in that colour takes those cards back into hand, then you check the total again. Repeat until the total is less than the Limit, at which point the player with the highest total in front of them can send their bombs face up to paradise (worth 1 plus face value at end of game), everyone else gets their bombs face down in paradise (worth 1 point each). You go through the same totalling process for each colour of card.

The fun part is in outwitting your opponents, trying to get as high a card down as possible, working out what they're planning or screwing them by pushing them over the limit with a lower card that will then score for you. There's definitely skill involved in planning how to play out a hand but with tactical opportunities based on the round's Limits and what other players are playing. I bought a copy and after playing it that evening, Phil bought his own copy the next day. It should make for a nice filler.
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19. Board Game: AquaSphere [Average Rating:7.33 Overall Rank:355]
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Another game I bought based solely on a rules read-through. It seems like there's a lot going on here and I'm not sure how the game will play as although the rules made sense individually, I haven't got a feel for how they come together. I'm hoping the cards will provide variety in a similar way to Macao, where the routes you want to follow are strongly influenced by which cards you collect.

More than one person commented on the garish and busy look of the game, but I read the rules in a black and white printout so hadn't quite realised what I was letting myself in for.
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20. Board Game: Deus [Average Rating:7.36 Overall Rank:303]
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A speculative pre-order based on little more than goodwill towards the publisher. During the fair it seemed to be doing well on the BGG and Fairplay charts, although I'm always suspicious of those results since they sometimes seem strongly influenced by which games are available for demo closest to the polling stations.

After one post-Essen play, I found it to be a decent special powers tableau builder with some spatial board play. There's not a whole lot of interaction, mostly limited to blocking other players from spaces they might want and racing for VPs available on the board. It reminded me of Race for the Galaxy but took six times as long. You have similar decisions over whether to hold onto cards for building or discard them as resources; you're ideally building up a set of cards that work off each other and searching the deck for strong combos. It's all fairly familiar. I'm hoping more plays will reveal what it provides over Race and that's likely to come from the board. I did enjoy it, just not as much as I'd expected. The rest of the table was more enthusiastic so it shouldn't be hard to get repeat plays.

Our game was won by what was effectively a Produce/Consume strategy with a nice set of green Production buildings and blue Ships. I might try a military rush against the Barbarian villages next time to make the most of the game's spatial aspect.
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21. Board Game: Agricola: France Deck [Average Rating:7.60 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.60 Unranked]
Rich P
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I had to buy this as it contains a card I designed. The Occupation that was originally called Notary is now Mastermind (Jean-Paul Sartre). Can I have my Game Designer badge now?
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22. Board Game: Concordia: Britannia / Germania [Average Rating:8.07 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.07 Unranked]
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Concordia has seen plenty of play over the last year and is popular with most of my group so this expansion seemed worth a shot. I always like a hometown map and this one can teach us some Roman names for British towns. Edutainment!
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23. Board Game: Kaleidos: 2014 Expansion [Average Rating:7.27 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.27 Unranked]
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A bit pricey at 10 Euros for a couple of cartoon drawings, but they are very dense cartoon drawings. Fun for all the family.
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24. Board Game: The Staufer Dynasty [Average Rating:7.20 Overall Rank:872]
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Friday

Again, the doors opened a little before 10 so we headed straight to the Z-Man booth to try this out. Only one table was available and it was already occupied by three Treefrog helpers but the demo guy said there was one space available. Matt and Jake knew I was keen to try this game out, so kindly suggested I take the last seat while they went elsewhere. Unfortunately, those Treefrogs are busy sorts and only had time for two rounds of the game. It was enough to get the general gist and discover whether this was a new Steding smash hit to rival Hansa Teutonica. In short: no.

The theme is chasing a medieval king around Europe, hoping he notices your efforts to spruce up the place for his arrival in each city (reminiscent of Luna in this respect). It's an area control game where the areas you want to control change from turn to turn but in a predictable manner. You start with few pieces in your supply but it didn't take us long before we had loads available to us, so the limiting factor was actions per turn rather than resources. Almost every action gives you a reward token of some sort, each with bonus abilities or resources on it, so it seems to be about efficiently collecting the ones that will further your plans best. You can plan ahead and try to claim areas that the king will visit later in the game, or that match your endgame goal cards, but then you miss out on this round's rewards. There's also the danger that the passing king will kick out some of your pieces as he passes on his way to somewhere else, so you have to consider where's he's going to travel to next.

Turn order is variable based on what actions you took in the previous round and looks like an interesting system. Your three actions are distributed throughout the turn so it's never just a case of going round the table clockwise. In practice, it didn't much matter and wasn't a hugely important part of the game and I wondered if all it succeeded in doing was making the game longer. However, we only played two turns, so it could be that in the late game where you are in turn order is crucial.

The game seemed fine but I couldn't see myself wanting to play it over numerous other medium-weight Eurogames so I passed on buying it. I think it was Chally who wrote about liking games that don't let you do stuff. This game felt like it was letting me do what I wanted and I didn't enjoy that; I prefer a bit more restrictiveness. Instead, The Staufer Dynasty was throwing meeples and bonus rewards at me just for looking at it.

Also, now I keep thinking of Harry Hill's cat:

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25. Board Game: Abraca...what? [Average Rating:6.59 Overall Rank:1951]
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Sold out on Thursday but restocked on Friday. Jake grabbed the last copy of this for me following some language barrier confusion. Our post-Essen test of the game was positive, full of laughs and gnashing of teeth. It doesn't have much in common with Hanabi, rather it's a lighter, sillier and much better take on Code 777 where the deduction can often take a back seat to mock vindictive attacks. I don't care what the odds are of me having a Fireball or not, I'm going to try it anyway because I want to kill you off! devil

Production quality is not the highest - at least one of my pieces needed a knife taking to it before assembly - but so far this has been worth the price of admission.
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