Essen SPIEL 2017: Games I played
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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After visiting for the first time last year I came back to Essen SPIEL this year for a 4 day board game fest. There is nothing quite like finding your way through the crowd and getting a place at a table with an interesting game or just exploring the huge fair and all the wonders it contains. I had a blast and spent as much time as possible there to try out many different games to add to my collection. Here I will list all the games I remember playing in that time, my short reviews and general opinions. I enjoyed being there and probably will for years to come so I hope you will get some information and enjoyment out of this list yourselves.

Cheers!
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1. Board Game: Photosynthesis [Average Rating:7.40 Overall Rank:345]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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The best bet to get to play games that receive a lot of buzz prior to Essen is to plan ahead and go straight for the booth when the gates open and waves of people start to flow in. Preparation is key and knowing what is found where beforehand is a must for any respectable Essen goer

So on Thursday I made quick way with my friends to the Blue Orange stand and sat down to play Photosynthesis. Since hearing about it a few months ago I was looking forward to playing it. A theme that appeals to me, lovely art and design and a nice strategic element mixed with the general pay points for resources/upgrade said resources action point/management system.

At the beginning of the game you set up a few starting trees on the board and then the first round begins. In every round the sun moves around the board and shines on your trees from a different direction. When shined upon they produce light points(unless in the shade of another tree) that you can spend then on either planting seeds or growing seeds into trees or your trees into bigger trees. Once the trees are big enough you cut them down and based on the location on the board you score points. On one hand you need to place your trees and seeds smart to expand and get the maximum amount of sun and block others while on the other hand you need to spend points to grow and mature them. The balance between growth and expansion will in my opinion vary from game to game depending on the moves other people make and will provide lots of replay value.

Four of us had a really nice time playing it. We only played one quarter of the game so I couldn't comment on later game stages but you can already see that you need to think a couple of moves ahead in the beginning or you will find it hard to catch up. The game provides just enough "meat" not to be deemed simple and is still easy for anyone to learn. I think because of this it will appeal to a broad audience. In the end the game is easy to learn, plays relatively quickly and is gorgeous in design. Couldn't wish for a better start to my Essen experience this year.

8/10
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2. Board Game: Kingdomino [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:186] [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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After playing Photosynthesis we just shifted a table over to try out spiel des jahres Kingdomino.

Kingdomino is a quick and simple tile placement game. Each round four tiles are placed in order of their numbered backs for players to choose from, while the next set of four is revealed. The person choosing the lowest number gets to choose first from the next set of tiles and so on. Tiles have different terrain on them and the goal is to assemble as big of a surface of the same terrain type with as many crown symbols on them since end game scoring is surface x number of crowns on it.

For its speed and simple instructions there is still enough depth and planning involved into designing your terrain patterns and choosing which tile to take. This game will definitely be played by many and is a great game to start of an evening of board games with or to provide a quick interlude between two heavy games. I really enjoyed playing it and can't wait to show it to my non gamer friends who wont be able to give me "rules too complicated" excuse now muahahaha.

7.8/10
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3. Board Game: Queendomino [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:514] [Average Rating:7.47 Unranked]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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So after Kingdomino we stayed at the same table to play its big sister Queendomino.

Queendomino is basically Kingdomino with added mechanisms to make it more attractive to hard core gamers. While this is fine and the game does a good thing with the added terrain type on which you can build buildings that give additional end game scoring possibilities I find it a bit unnecessary. Don't get me wrong we all liked the game. Knights, towers, coins and the dragon(even though we didn't use it at all) all add up to the complexity and our tile building strategies differed a lot from the Kingdomino game we played. But in the end this was Kingdomino with added stuff. And I already like Kingdomino for what it is and I don't think it needs anything else while if I want a heavier game there are many other ones available.

7.2/10
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4. Board Game: Letters from Whitechapel [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:183]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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This is an older game that we played when we failed to get a table to play Otys.

It is a secret movement type game in the same style of Scotland Yard. In this one one player is Jack the Ripper while the rest are the police trying to catch him. He moves around using hidden movement and tries to kill all of his victims before being caught by the police. Has a few nice mechanisms and there is a good interaction between the police players. problem like in many other coops is that if there is a clear alpha player he will end up doing all of the decisions for others which is no fun. The game also seems to last longer than it should. All in all solid but wouldn't get it for myself.

6.5/10
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5. Board Game: Petrichor [Average Rating:7.25 Overall Rank:3133]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Petrichor was a game I looked forward to trying ever since I first heard about it a few months ago. You are a cloud and you are watering crops for points, add a lovely design of the main board and cute 3d clouds and I'm hooked.

Unfortunately here the human factor played too big of a role on a general opinion of a game. We were lucky to find the seats free as we were passing the booth. A guy started explaining the game and then some 15 minutes in one of the designers sat down to take over the explanation. This as you may know confused us a bit since some things were repeated and some were not explained at all. In the end 30 minutes have passed and then we were told that we can't play even one round, it is only an explanation demo, a thing we were not been told before we sat down. All of this plus marketing of the already existing expansion which we couldn't see open soured our mood and I decided against buying it.

The game comes down to having cards representing four seasons that provide various actions while being played. Some add water to the clouds, others make them thunderous, others move them and make them rain etc. The main board provides additional options and voting mechanisms to decide which season will come into play at the end of the round and when crops will be harvested. Currently I can't rate the game due to not playing it, maybe later I'll try the game by myself and change my first impression.

*/10
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6. Board Game: Chimera Station [Average Rating:7.55 Overall Rank:1023]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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After the Petrichor experience we got a completely different one when we had a great explanation of Chimera Station.

It is just a lovely worker placement game with a twist that you upgrade your workers by adding different ability body parts to them. You are spending your actions to either build new parts of the station or use basic or built ones for their benefits. You as well mutate your workers to make them bigger and better suited for your needs. In this lies the replay value of the game because every new game you could play different based on the body part strategy you decide to use. Given a multitude of available station parts this game can really be played plenty of times without getting boring. It ended up being the only space game I really liked this year so there's a compliment.

7.7/10
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7. Board Game: Festival of Thousand Cats [Average Rating:6.72 Overall Rank:6894]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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This is a great little quick card game. You are a cat that collects drinks and food for their party. Using a trick-taking mechanism you try to collect cards with fish symbols on them. Other cards with sake on them bring additional points but when a third sake card is taken the round ends and that cat gains no points because it got drunk. The game is simple, plays fast, has cute illustrations and a funny story behind it. Perfect for some short in between bigger games fun. Unfortunately was way to expensive for what it provides otherwise I would have bought it on the spot. Maybe will pick it up in a year or two.

7/10
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8. Board Game: Azul [Average Rating:8.01 Overall Rank:47] [Average Rating:8.01 Unranked]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Ahhh, the star of the show. Azul intrigued me with its colorfulness and I was happy to find a space at a table on Thursday afternoon while waiting for my friends.

The rules being easy is an understatement. I have learned it just by watching people play their last few rounds. It is an abstract strategy where you draft beautiful tiles of different color and try to combine them in a pattern. You need to follow a few simple rules and the game ends when the first whole row of the 5x5 grid is finished, which is generally after the fifth round. The game is fast, easy to learn but has a ton of strategy on both influencing the play of your opponents and assembling your patterns in an optimal way. Oh and did I say that it is drop dead gorgeous, I mean look at those tiles, you just have to have them. I bought it immediately after the game, got some nice extra tiles with the buy and when we came back home in the evening we played it three times while making dinner and chatting. How many games that actually have depth can you say that about. This one is a home run and will be played many many times.

9.2/10
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9. Board Game: Pulsar 2849 [Average Rating:7.79 Overall Rank:551]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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This is a new space themed game from Czech Games Edition.

It is supposed to be a mid weight dice rolling, action point system space exploration..but it just isn't. The components are small, actions are many and multiple bonus ones are available but you can only use one per turn(which then kills any combo ideas you might have had when first hearing the rules) and the theme doesn't come through at all. There is a big deal about acquiring tech points which you actually need for just a few actions which begs the question why even have this mechanic in. Overall this game could have used a few more months in the development chamber.

6.5/10
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10. Board Game: Otys [Average Rating:7.17 Overall Rank:1654]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Friday morning sprint brought me to the Otys table where my friends and I tried out this highly anticipated game.

Otys is a mid weight euro with an interesting mechanism and theme. It is the future and water levels have risen. you control a group of divers which are sent to dive the sunken towns for resources. They are activated via a push mechanism that activates them and sends them to the top. Once you use a certain level it is exhausted until recharged by various means again. The majority of the game is combining levels and their abilities with divers and their abilities. While interesting this also makes the game a bit solitarey. Divers collect resources that are afterwards used to resolve contracts. This part of the game feels a bit detached, contracts are bland, just cards with resource requirements on them, could also make luck a factor. Finally the components are not very good. There are two improvement tracks that are recorded by moving little cardboard squares on the sides of the players board. This not being attached were moved accidentally throughout the game we played and you were never sure which level you were a moment ago.

To conclude the main mechanism is nice, theme as well, the rest is ok-ish and the components are bad. Overall would play again but not buy at the current price.

7.5/10
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11. Board Game: Merlin [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:1143]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Merlin is a nice looking dice rolling worker placement game. It has simple rules, but lots of them which makes it a medium weight game. I like the fact that the icons used are intuitive so after an explanation you rarely get confused about what each action does. You use your rolled dice to move your knight clockwise or a special white die to move Merlin in any direction on a large circular action track. You then spread influence, build castles, collect resources, banners, shield etc. in a goal to finish your missions or gain majority at a certain area for the scoring phases.

It looks nice and doesn't last as long as some other games of the same difficulty. On the other hand it doesn't bring much new things to the table and there are definitely better games out there of similar fashion. So a generally nice game but that's about it.

6.8/10
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12. Board Game: Space Opera [Average Rating:7.41 Unranked]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Erm, what to say about this game..in an ongoing trend of disappointing space games of SPIEL '17 we played Space Opera.

It is an unnecessarily complicated card game where each player is a space civilization that grows and tries to win either by conquest or technology growth. It has an extremely clunky combat system, lots of typos on the cards and many little details that hamper the game play, something not needed in a game of this type. If stripped of half of its rules it could be a decent card game, but like this it is just a complicated mess that I would never play again.

3/10
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13. Board Game: Stellium [Average Rating:6.96 Overall Rank:6327]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Another Space Game..well at least in theme since it is an abstract strategy.

Stellium deals with taking out marbles of different kinds from a bag an arranging them on a board in constellations and black holes. Each different color triggers effects when it is placed that change the position of some adjacent marbles. The goal is to get mission cards with a certain pattern and then score them on your turn.

This game was nice to play even though I didn't like the idea of different surface feeling of the marbles. It was explained to us that it is by design that you could feel in the bag for exactly the type of marble you like..but then you shouldn't do it for too long. That is just fuzzy, and if you are allowed to know what you are drawing why even bother with the bag. But that thing aside game is nice, fast and enjoyable. I like Azul much better but can see people picking this one up and enjoying it as well.

6.7/10
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14. Board Game: Heaven & Ale [Average Rating:7.69 Overall Rank:564]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Now this is a really fun and lovely looking game about making beer in a monastery which I played as the last game on Friday.

Basically you move around the board paying for resources or helpers or scoring tiles that you then place on your game board. Board is divided into two sections, light and dark which give more influence and money when scored. There is many things to score and you need to balance immediate scoring for some needed cash to later game scoring for more influence. Influence is important since it moves your resource markers and your brewmeister on the points track and depending on their final positions you get scored at the end of the game. So basically you can develop a great operating cash machine of a brewery and still end up last. I liked that part since it makes you plan your moves carefully. While I didn't buy it I would definitely enjoy playing it again.

7.5/10

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15. Board Game: Noria [Average Rating:6.76 Overall Rank:2155]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Saturday morning sprint and I got us a table to play Noria, one of the most anticipated games of the fair.

Oh boy how pretty. I can be a sucker for art an here it definitely played a role in me getting it at the end. It as an economy action point based game that together with Otys provided a new action mechanism. In the case of Noria it is made with three rotating gears in which action tokens are placed. You ideally want to build and improve it in a way to have the max of 4 actions to use every round. In the game you are in a futuristic world of floating rock where you explore new ones to gather resources, build factories and produce goods. These resources and goods you use on your home base to influence politicians. At the end of the game you are scored based on your influence level on these tracks. The interesting mechanism here is the possibility to devalue certain tracks you aren't competing on and therefore sabotage other players.

I liked the game even though we got some rules wrong and I can't wait to try it again at home.

And now comes what set this game apart from Otys for an example. The quality of components, art and design, just stood out. We even got thicker tokens since the original ones in the box were slipping within the action gears. This attention to detail is what will more and more separate games in the future. With all the great illustrators and artists in the business now you can't just have a nice mechanism, you need good design as well. Box art and the first look appeal is playing an important role now when there are hundreds of new games to choose from every year.

8/10
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16. Board Game: Space Freaks [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:5941]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Next up was Space Freaks. A friend wanted to get a nice space themed game so we tried out quite a few..unfortunately again we were let down a bit.

In this game you move your freaks across a hex battle board depending on their stats. While you have a lot of customization options since you build your freaks with cards representing body parts the game ends up being a simplified version of Duel of Ages. Unfortunately the long down time stays while almost all the fun from Duel is lost in this one. Didn't like playing it and probably never will again.

5/10
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17. Board Game: Feudum [Average Rating:7.78 Overall Rank:2172]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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I heard about this game some time ago so when I saw an opening at the demo table I decided to join in an listen.

Feudum is a very heavy economic hand management game. By playing action cards you move around the land, establish towns and outposts, produce goods which you spend in guilds, fight monsters, other players and much more. Due to just witnessing a demo and this being a really complex game I cant judge it yet properly. I can say that it is drop dead gorgeous and at times it seems some rules are needlessly complicated. I will however play it for real when I get a chance and give it a proper rating. I do hope it will live up to the expectations.

*/10
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18. Board Game: Tao Long: The Way of the Dragon [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:1964]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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A quick thematic two player abstract..yum!

Tao Long is beautiful. Loved it from the moment I saw it. Staff at the booth was really nice and explained it in just a few minutes and we enjoyed playing it. You play either the heaven or earth dragon that fight for supremacy over the skies and land. By moving tokens on a circular board you end up on a specific move or an action that you can then use. The goal being defeating the other dragon by biting it or using special attacks. Dragons are represented by moving squares that drop off after enough of damage was taken. Game play is really quick and highly strategic. In addition there are different setups depending on various terrain obstacles you can place as well as harder movement rules for experienced players. This makes the game "infinitely" replayable. And it just oozes theme, I could see in my mind the two dragons twisting around each other like watching some anime while I was playing, really good stuff.

In the end I bought the game and was lucky to have the game artist Dox draw the dragons on the inside of the box for me. I have to commend him and the rest of the guys at their booth. Was really the most pleasant experience I had at this years Essen.

8.5/10
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19. Board Game: Fog of Love [Average Rating:7.62 Overall Rank:898]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Fog of love is...hmm..a cooperative two player card management roleplaying game I guess. And it is awesome.

To like this game you have to have a vivid imagination. The two of you play a young couple going through their relationship toward its final destiny, happy or sad it is up to you. My friend and I had a lovely time playing a female couple; one a big strong tv star, the other a perfectionist teacher with hygiene problems. Every round you draw cards with events you need to role play(I mean you don't need to but then why are you playing this game at all?) and vote on the resolution. This in turn increases or decreases your love as well as balances your relationship status. Whether you are a social or private couple, love traveling and doing new things or staying at home reading books etc. The thing is you try to match your own secret preferences while trying to guess your partners to make the relationship work. In the end you get a score and achieve one of the many destinies available.

We had a blast playing this game, getting into our roles and living out our story. Being a long time role player I loved this aspect of it. However we saw that you can easily be distracted by just trying to make answers fit your partners character to get max points. So I would advise if you play this game go in it for the roleplaying, not for beating the game. It also has lots of character options but events can be cycled through in just a few games so replay value probably isn't great. But that aside it was a total breath of fresh air, a new concept and a ton of fun.

8.2/10 - if I wouldn't care about replay value..and in case of this game, as well as with Time Stories..I don't
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20. Board Game: Natives [Average Rating:7.33 Overall Rank:6487]
 
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Natives! A quick card drafting card game that you play in 10-20 minutes and with an interesting simple design that works quite well.

You each represent a Native American tribe that wants to grow and prosper. On your turn you draw new cards to the general pool and then recruit tribal members that become shamans, elders, warriors, hunters etc.. These specialist then allow you to take more than one card of the proper type from the general pool on your next turn. For example hunters catch bison. In the end winter is coming card is drafted and the game ends after the last of available cards is taken and points are calculated in a couple of categories.

The game was quick and fun and I loved the names characters in the game have. There is an issue that luck probably plays too high a role in the game..but for such a short and simple game this shouldn't be a problem. You aren't playing this game to optimize it perfectly. My friend got a copy with a discount and we shall definitely play it in between bigger games.

7/10
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21. Board Game: Pixie Queen [Average Rating:7.50 Overall Rank:1879]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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At the end of Saturday we found a place at the Pixie Queen table and I am really glad we sat down to play it.

In its core it is a mid/complex worker placement game. But unlike others here you don't score victory points as much as you try to prevent losing many of them every turn. Each player is a helper of the pixie queen and we send our pixies to steal resources, produce rings and feed pixies to the queen and all in the effort to please her royal pain in the ass so she punishes us a bit less than usual. The theme of the game is felt really well, design is also nice and the actions are smart and well balanced. I would definitely play this game again even though I didn't buy it since it isn't better than many resource management games I already have. But the game definitely can hold it's place in this hard competition.

7.6/10
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22. Board Game: Onitama [Average Rating:7.59 Overall Rank:177]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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I finally got to play Onitama! It is a two player abstract that I really like but for some reason still haven bought. It is quick and very strategic with possible moves determined via available cards and play basically like a simplified chess. Due to many different moves only few of which are allowed each game this has a huge replay value. I really need to buy a copy asap.

8.2/10
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23. Board Game: Agra [Average Rating:7.47 Overall Rank:1086]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Sunday morning, you guessed it, sprint through Hall 3 to get a table for this mammoth of a game.

Was a bit disappointed that we had to wait almost 45 minutes to get someone over to explain the game since they didn't have enough of staff to tend all their tables. But then the explanation was nice a clean, which is hard to do for such a complex game. In this heavy worker placement game you produce goods, refine them, send them to merchants, meditate for more power and provide resources for the great feast Akbar, ruler of India is planning. At the end of the game you are scored on your contributions to the feast and influences within guilds. The game is drop dead gorgeous with amazing art and quality components. The theme gets through well and rounds are played really quickly for such a complex game. Actions could be illustrated a bit better since a few times we couldn't understand what the help symbols were showing and to play this game you need to have a large table..seriously, huge..tremendous!

If not for the high price I would have bought the game. But since I have many resource management ones this one doesn't tip the scale enough. Would play it again though, no questions asked.

7.8/10
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24. Board Game: Alien Artifacts [Average Rating:6.97 Overall Rank:1534]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Oh boy, this space game got a ton of buzz before spiel so when a place was free on Sunday we jumped right on it.

I wish we didn't. This was such a disappointment, probably because of high expectations. In this card 4x game you take an action per turn. You use resource cards to build your ships, planets, technology. THen in turn the more you have built the more expensive new ones cost. But the bonuses provided offset that. Each player has specific powers as well. All sounds well...but...Accumulating victory points either from fighting or exploration or technology building is highly card draw/luck dependent. Cards are double sided and you should know what the other side of the card is to see if you want to use it or not. But if you pick it up you can see the card below which you shouldn't. That is clunky design. Then if you build more things you will have trails of cards leading off your table in later game phases. Attacking is again pure luck and weird and the cards you draw outweigh the ships you are attacking with every time. Just nothing in this game works properly. It lasts 2-4 rounds depending if playing full game and trying it out and the round is done when all cards from the deck are drawn. So I ended up just drawing max number of cards each round just to speedup the process. Didn't make me play any worse than if I kept some in my hand for "smarter" play. That also tells something. Will definitely never play this one again.

4/10
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25. Board Game: Calimala [Average Rating:7.27 Overall Rank:1564]
Ivan Barilar
Croatia
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Quick paced, medium weight, economy worker placement game.

On your turn you place one of your action tokens between two actions you want to perform. You collect resources to build your trading caravans/posts or ships, you deliver silk to big towns and you help construct cathedrals. Whenever someone uses the same action space as you you get to use the action again. When the fourth token is placed on the same action space one of 15 scoring rounds starts, each tim for a different resource, town, cathedral etc. So you have a choice of aiming for the first rounds or making long term plans to score best in later scoring.

I bought the deluxe edition before playing because I was greedy. Then I tried it out and was relieved that it wasn't a bad buy. While nothing extraordinary and with sketchy art this game is really fast, has many scoring rounds and a fun modular action system and scoring system that will make the game highly variable and give it lots of replay value. One thing that bugged me is that you can exploit the action system in case when you stack your actions on one another. You can end up not being able to perform subsequent actions in which case you get to draw one time use action cards and like that give yourself lot of flexibility. This can be a big advantage in end game situations and can't be explained via theme. A variant on this rule would be a nice thing to have. Otherwise a nice game that plays really fast for its difficulty/complexity so will end up played more then it otherwise would.

7.5/10
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