Playing the Essen haul
Stuart Platt
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So - this is the somewhat ridiculous stack of games that I lugged home from Essen last month.



This geeklist will provide initial thoughts on the games as they reach the table.

(Please note: these short mini-reviews are not rules overviews. There are plenty of those. Editorial comment may presume some knowledge of the game mechanisms.)
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1. Board Game: Altiplano [Average Rating:7.62 Overall Rank:671]
Stuart Platt
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This one appeared around the top of many 'MUST HAVE' lists prior to the fair, and actually sold out to preorder on Thursday.

For context - I like but don't LOVE Orleans, but find the pick up and deliver aspect of the expansion essential.

The biggest barrier in Altiplano is knowing where to start. You are presented with a vast array of handles to pull and buttons to press, without an obvious route to vistory. After a few plays, I think you need to do a bit of everything.

Bag building (basically deck building with chits) is a fun mechanism and here I find the luck is much more mitigatable than Orleans. I felt it was easier to control the contents of my bag.

Wrangling the machine to do as you want is made harder by the logistic puzzle of needing your 'worker' to be in the region to do a particular action. You only get one free move per turn, so planning your actions efficiently is another fun layer to the puzzle.

I like Altiplano a lot. Once you get past the slightly overwhelming number of options and start to build an engine, there's real fun and satisfaction to be had here. It doesn't replace Orleans, but I think I prefer it.
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2. Board Game: Merlin [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:1151]
Stuart Platt
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So, controversy regarding the distribution model aside (kickstarter only - bypass distribution - except its on the UK release list this week...) let's judge the game on its own merits.

I really, really like the game. Weight wise, this sits around the Castle of Burgandy level, albeit with a slightly broader range of options / decisions.

There has been some push back on Merlin regarding the dice luck being such a prominent part of the game. Action selection has the players' pawn / knight moving round a communal roundel - with a 'roll and move' random-input element. Yes, what you roll is how far your knight can move which determines the action they take.

I'd argue that the flags (one of several THINGS that you collect) provide plenty of luck mitigation. I also feel that the game asks you to accept that one of the 3 actions you take on a turn (powered by the players' dice) will often be sub-optimal - to set up the action you REALLY need to take.

There are lots of ways to score - and each way tends to be 2-3 points - so no obvious MUST DO strategies. Its fun and puzzly and I'm very much enjoying playing it.

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3. Board Game: Montana [Average Rating:6.83 Overall Rank:2642]
Stuart Platt
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Firstly, this game is fine. Good even. Just unremarkable.

Components are good - I particularly like the spotty cow meeples. Its pretty light, playable in around an hour and has nice, unremarkable choices where you collect the stuff you need. Spin a spinner to get workers (which is a decent novelty, but ultimately a fairly shallow gimmick) and light, relatively uncompetitive worker placement - multiplayer solitaire decisions to get stuff.

The communal board with the area control and "4 in a row for a bonus" mechanism is also fine. Clear, straightforward and vanilla.

So yes - I like Montana, but amongst a stack of better and more interesting fair, it doesn't stand out.
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4. Board Game: Kitchen Rush [Average Rating:7.61 Overall Rank:1601]
Stuart Platt
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Kitchen Rush is fun. Really fun. And chaotic.

This is a timed, cooperative game with egg timers. For some in my group that gives it 3 large NOPEs. They are wrong. Kitchen Rush is ace.

This game replicates my sense of working in a fast moving kitchen, getting the customers in, taking their order, getting the ingredients, cooking and seasoning dishes against the clock.

The use of egg timers as your workers / action selection pawns to pace your options throughout the 4 minute rounds is clever - but the frantic nature of the cooperative play means you're never sat around waiting for things to do.

Its a raucous high energy exercise - that is super tough and challenging. There will be few more exhilarating experiences in boardgaming this year than getting a 6 money / 2 star meal done JUST under the wire!

Yes, its slightly silly - and not something I'll play all the time, but as a palate cleanser or an opener, there are few more fun than Kitchen Rush.
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5. Board Game: Rajas of the Ganges [Average Rating:7.71 Overall Rank:420]
Stuart Platt
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Now this added itself to my MUST HAVE list very late in the day.

The design pedigree meant it was one to watch, but it was the elaborate worker placement on a gorgeous central board and the tile drafting of Carcasonne style map tiles onto personal boards which made me press the button on this one.

It does not disappoint. This is a medium weight euro which looks three times more complicated than it actually is. There are bonuses and special powers EVERYWHERE in this game, and the actions you take often cascade into another couple of bonus actions. Rather than overwhelming, however, the excellent iconography meant I didn't have to refer to the rulebook at all once setup was complete.

My favourite feature is that the score, which increases as you do stuff, moves clockwise round a track on the outside of the board.

Yeah... so what?

Well, the money track goes around the board anticlockwise, and game end (and victory) is triggered by having those markers cross. So you can go heavy points, or heavy money, or a bit of both? Its all very interesting and fun.

The art is gorgeous. The theme exists... Sort of. Its playable in 90 minutes and will get a ton of play going forward.

One of my favorites so far from Essen
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6. Board Game: Keyper [Average Rating:7.56 Overall Rank:1245]
Stuart Platt
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I typically dislike auctions in games. They often ruin the experience for me. Despite this I really enjoy Keyflower.

I like the logistic puzzle if offers and the satisfaction of building a town. That said, the auctions do stop it from being a favourite. If only there were another way of getting the same sort of feeling with a more interesting action selection mechanism?

Ta da!

Keyper is great.

My favourite things in the game are

* Different coloured meeples are specialists at certain tasks. Every meeple can do everything, but using a specialist gives you a bonus.

* You have to offer the chance to follow your action to the other players. If they join you, then both get a boost.

* The one-per player folding boards which allow players to customise the communal actions available to players in the next round. The other KEY choice (I like puns - which is fortunate because the game is dripping with them) is "when do I claim a board as my own?" After doing so, you secure every meeple played on that board for the whole round as your own.

The beauty of this last choice, is the Mexican stand off between players as they decide which board to claim. Post claim, every placement on that board becomes agonising. Yes, I'd LOVE to follow your action... but then I'm giving you my meeples!

Anyway, beyond this awesomeness is more generic resource gathering, building and upgrading to earn points - all of which is fun and engaging if not revolutionary. I do enjoy the ability to customise your end game scoring too - so no matter the route you took, there's probably something to do with all those chickens / sheep / deer / goats etc.

This is a winner and will stay in the collection. In fact, I can't wait to get it to the table again.
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7. Board Game: Gaia Project [Average Rating:8.71 Overall Rank:14]
Stuart Platt
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Duston
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So, Terra Mystica is in my top 5 games of all time. Hardly a surprise - loads of people love it. I approached this space remake / re-implementation with enthusiasm and interest, but not blindly.

Given the choice, I'd take hackneyed fantasy settings over hackneyed space. I prefer chunky wooden components to slightly chintzy plastic buildings. Plus, what does this do to justify its existence or be a preferred choice to the old favourite?

Honestly, I'm not sure. Things that I like:

* The magic purple token pots are a great deal more dynamic and have more options for the players. Working out when power is generated by building at neighbouring range is also more intuitive.

* Modular boards offer variety and adjust to accommodate the player count. Also, the challenges of expanding across the gaps between planets changes the feel of the game. It feels difficult to expand out and starting positions is more important than ever.

* The building of cities / federations is simpler to grok.

* Erm...

Its Terra Mystica in space. It feels like a variant at this point. Almost like a remake or sequel movie that exists because of numbers on a page demand it rather than an artistic vision or need for it to exist.

This isn't a real criticism, by the way. It's still Terra Mystica, albeit in a less attractive package with some variant / polished rules. I just don't know why it exists?

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8. Board Game: The Climbers [Average Rating:6.92 Overall Rank:1199]
Stuart Platt
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Duston
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I don't tend to like abstract games. (Azul notwithstanding...spoilers)
but The Climbers is different. This is the game I wanted Santorini to be.

A very attractive game with an "ooh, what are you playing?" factor - Climbers has teeth and is full of clever moves, surprising escapes and a genuine sense of outsmarting your opponents when you win.

Its pretty quick, but not so fast as to feel inconsequential. We enforce a 'no takesy backsy' rule for this as taking advantage of mistakes is a key part of the game.

I love how it looks. The tiny ladders are great aesthetically and practically perfect. I have just ordered a lazy susan to make play easier.

This has quietly become one of my favourite short games.

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9. Board Game: Nusfjord [Average Rating:7.53 Overall Rank:1069]
Stuart Platt
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Total Rosenberg fanboy over here. I include Feast for Odin & Caverna &
Le Havrein my favourite games of all time.

Njusford is, as many have already pointed out, a lighter Rosenberg in the mould of Glass Road. Its quite straightforward, and perhaps a little too simple in terms of variety from game to game.

Player interaction is quite limited and whilst that isn't a problem in his bigger games where's there's loads to do, the small amount of buttons to press didn't excite me.

Its a tight little game, with the management of a fish and gold economy (with a nominal share feature that honestly doesn't amount to a hill of beans) that is surely well designed and, for a few games at least, will be fun and satisfying. Like the fish you trade, however, I don't think it has legs.
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10. Board Game: Reworld [Average Rating:6.84 Overall Rank:3621]
Stuart Platt
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Wow! This game had such a disconnect for me from the rule book to the tabletop. Having read the rules I'd pegged this as a 7 Wonders weight drafting game with a second half which is little more than an elaborate scoring phase. This game has layers and logistical puzzles I wasn't prepared for.

The drafting of pods, modules and shuttles in the first half is fun, fast and likely to become even more cut-throat as players become more experienced. The use of simple, numbered cards to claim the tiles - and to indicate the row that piece has to be deployed, is interesting and sets up the big logistics puzzle which is unpacking this stuff once we reach the new home world.

Deploying your terraforming is so much more than a simple rote action thanks to the 'achievements' which are claimed on a first past the post method. First to empty row 3? 5 points. Built a city that is 8 tiles long? 7 points etc. etc. There are probably a dozen of these which give you pause for thought and genuine player interaction when unloading your cargo.

I was very pleasantly surprised by the depth of decision making throughout and the player interaction that I didn't think existed on first scan of the rules. Really good and this will stay in my collection.
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11. Board Game: Meeple Circus [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:1052]
Stuart Platt
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So imagine Animal upon Animal - but for gamers.

Now imagine that game with an intentionally annoying, 2 minute circus music timer. Add the pressure of all the players at the table watching you. Intently. Waiting for that precariously balanced elephant get bucked off by a slightly antsy horse. And when it all comes tumbling down - the only person to blame is you - or Dave across the table who breathes too heavily.

This is a whole heap of fun and much more stressful than I anticipated. The criteria cards which show you how to score each round offer a range of challenges from 'easy' to 'there's no conceivable way for that to balance...#physics."

This isn't an 'every week' game. Probably not an 'every month' game. But for gatherings with gamers and non-gamers this has more to it than AonA, or a Jenga - with the theme that comes through strongly.

I mean, who doesn't want to build their own circus act?

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12. Board Game: Charterstone [Average Rating:8.11 Overall Rank:94]
Stuart Platt
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Without wanting to go on a diatribe about the meaning of life, the universe and everything - I strongly believe that most of the things that happen in life and their interpretation as a good or bad thing are directly correlated to the expectations of the beholder. Not particularly deep, but having become increasingly aware of this, everything makes more sense.

With that - I was VERY excited about Charterstone. Having been lukewarm on Stonemaier's earlier games - BOTH Viticulture & Euphoria left me cold. I understood why they were popular and why people like them, but I found them oddly soulless and mechanical.

Despite this, the style and mood of Scythe appealed to me, so I played a demo at Essen 2015 and fell in love.

Scythe is one of my favourite games. This lengthy preamble means that expectations couldn't have been higher for a worker placement (check) legacy (check, check) game from the designer of Scythe (triple check!)

And.....

It actually surpassed my expectations.

Now, I'm playing this with my wife and this is definitely a weight of game that she naturally warms to (Near and Far is one of her favourite games of the year) so that is contributing. I also acknowledge that the game is probably at its best with more players (4 feels like it would be a sweet spot) but the constant trickle of new mechanisms, and the drip feed of story as we interact with [SPOILERS] in the story all adds up to a thoroughly charming exercise.

Yes, its a light worker placement in game 1 - and probably ends up being a medium weight worker placement at game 12 but the journey is so fun and the twists and turns along the way which evolve your play are constantly engaging. What do you think is in my new crate? How will this new building change the next game? What about when [SPOILERS] introduces [SPOILERS] and increases my available [SPOILERY SPOILERY SPOILERS]!

I can't wait to finish the campaign and play all over again with my gaming group.
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13. Board Game: Azul [Average Rating:8.01 Overall Rank:49] [Average Rating:8.01 Unranked]
Stuart Platt
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I don't like abstract games. Not that I'm a super strong theme person either - I'll happily play heavy eurogames with only the slightest dusting of a thematic dust, but I find the connection of mechanisms and theme as a tool for remembering and understanding mechanisms helps me enjoy a game significantly more.

The white cubes that duplicate themselves at the end of a turn is a lot harder to remember than "Breed your sheep!"

Azul is a classic example of the exception that proves the rule. Super simple to play. Easy to understand what the gamestate is at any time so you can upset the plans of the other players. Absolutely lovely, clunky tiles which offer a tactile joy to proceedings.

Plus, the puzzle is fun, pretty quick and - with the exception of the scoring which takes a couple of times round to work out for some players - clean and accessible for any experience of gamer.

This will, unexpectedly, appear in my top 10 of the year.
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14. Board Game: Agra [Average Rating:7.48 Overall Rank:1084]
Stuart Platt
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Wow! What a game.

Deep and crunchy - but relatively straightforward once you get past the intimidating, up-front rules teach - Agra takes resource management and order fulfillment up to the next level.

I love the various ways you can generate and process goods to get closer to what you need. The graphic design / component choice to have generic, player coloured contextual pawns on the board makes it easy to see exactly what each player has at any one time - which matters for chasing the orders / guild requirements / Akbar's Amazon wishlist. Separate meeples would make this much harder or less clear.

I love the 'cool stuff' special abilities available from favour and meditation. Yes, this is more rules overhead, but it makes you feel very clever when you can manipulate the machine to produce what you want / need to get that order in before your opponent.

The game shares a designer and several features (contextual markers for resources / lots of 'cool stuff') with La Granja - which I also enjoy, though I prefer Agra. This is a proper HEAVY game in an era where those are few and further between. I actually prefer it to Lisboa- another great, heavy game of the 2017, which is thematically stronger, but not quite as satisfying to play.

This could be the game of Essen.
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