Essen Class of '07 - One Year Later...
Will DeMorris
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With Essen only a month away I thought it was time to take a look back at the class of '07. Each of the games below is something I either own, played, demoed, or had direct exposure to over the past year. Now that the newness and hype have faded, how have each of these titles measured up? I was especially interested in things like innovation, gameplay and replay value.

Feel free to add your thoughts about the class of '07.


-Will
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1. Board Game: Agricola [Average Rating:8.03 Overall Rank:16]
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In the past year this is the most hyped and talked about game from the Class of '07. Initially I really liked Agricola. The theme was unusual, the cards added some nice variability, and I enjoyed feeling like I was building something as the game progressed. With more plays the newness and the hype wore off and I began to see Agricola differently.

Now I view it as an overly-scripted worker placement game that's real light on player interaction and long term fun. Sure the cards might alter how you run your "farm", but there's so little interaction between you and your fellow agriculturalists that you feel like you're playing a near-solitare logistics puzzle. The turn stucture is so rigid and the scoring so overbearing, that my choices oftentimes feel obvious or even forced. The so called "I" or Interativ deck doesn't help much as most of the interaction it provides is indirect or parasitic in nature.

Final assesment: A medicore game that was oversold by the hype. It suffers from a lack of real player interaction, a heavy handed scoring system and an overly scripted turn sequence. These rob Agricola of any sense of fun once the novelty wears off. It's not a bad game, but it's certainly not great.
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2. Board Game: Amyitis [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:795]
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After having a good time with Ystari's previous release Yspahan, I decided to give them another shot and purchased Amyitis at Essen '07. Unfortunately that night my wife Melissa and some friends gave the game a try and came away with less than positive reaction. This caused me to shelve the game where it was nearly forgotten and almost traded away. Before I put Amyitis on the trade block I determined I would give it a try.

My initial reaction? The rulebook is a mess! No wonder their assessment was poor. Asking someone to crack open the shrink, read the rules and explain the game cold is a tall order. Eventually I deciphered the rules by laying the game out on the table and playing a few rounds solo. We were surprised to find that Amyitis is a fun worker placement game with a good amount of interaction.

I'll admit that there's nothing really new or innovative here, but the combination of theme and mechanics works for me. I enjoyed the caravan system and the multiple ways to score. Every turn I felt that I had options and any luck elements (bad character draws), could be dealt with. And one of the best elements, to me anyways, is that I had ways to throw a monkey wrench into my opponents' plans. (Poach a fat tile you worked so hard to irrigate, lock you out of the temples, hose you out of a better caravaneer, etc.)

Final assessment: A fun game that flew under many peoples' radar. Its poor rulebook didn't help its cause either. I'll admit I'm a sucker for Mesopotamian themes, but that will only get me in the door once. Fun gameplay keeps me coming back. I could see this hitting the table every once in a while. And, as an added bonus, it scales well from 2-4 players.
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3. Board Game: Antler Island [Average Rating:6.17 Overall Rank:3978]
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I knew the Lamont Brothers had a reputation for putting out games with cute bits and mediocre rules. However the premise of Antler Island seduced me (har har) with the promise of inappropriate humor and compatibility with severe inebriation.

The first few plays were fun, the off-color jokes flew and I got to utter a lot of my favorite deer pick up lines while "rutting".

"Hey baby... I see you eat grass. I eat grass too..."

Eventually the novelty wore off and I see AI just isn't much of a game. It might be good for an occasional laugh but I'd rather just play something else instead.

Final assessment: Good for a few laughs but it quickly wears out its welcome. If it wasn't for the Stag models, AI would have been quite unremarkable. Fragor Games goes 0-3 in my book.
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4. Board Game: Army of Frogs [Average Rating:5.96 Overall Rank:4000]
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Another abstract from the creator of Hive. The game looked nice and I really liked the Bakelite pieces. Unfortunately the gameplay didn't grab me at all and I was glad when the game was over.

Final assessment: I wasn't inspired by the game and have no desire to play it again. If I need to scratch my abstract itch I'd rather tap one of the titles from the Gipf Series.
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5. Board Game: BANG! The Bullet! [Average Rating:6.96 Unranked] [Average Rating:6.96 Unranked]
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Not really fair to include this as it's just a new presentation of an already in-print game. However I was surprised at how well this was selling. Personally I can't stand Bang! Every time I've played it I wished for two things. One, it would end, and two, that I was playing Ca$h 'n Gun$ instead.

Final assessment: A terrible game in a new slick package. I saw lots of people buy it but I've rarely seen people actually play it.
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6. Board Game: Brass: Lancashire [Average Rating:8.01 Overall Rank:34]
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Martin Wallace, in my book, is a study in opposites. On one hand he's designed some of my favorite games like Empires of the Ancient World and Way Out West. On the other hand he's also designed some real stinkers like Tempus. In the end I like to keep an eye on what he's up to in case he cranks out another winner.

In 2007 his big offering was Brass. Set during the Industrial Revolution in Lancashire, players compete by developing canals, railroads, coal mines and other heavy industries. The game is broken down into two halves. The first is the "canal" phase and the second is a "railroad" phase.

Every turn I processed stuff to be transported or sold so that I could score some points and/or be in a better position to buy, sell or process more stuff next turn. Half way through the game we switch to railroads and more of the same ensues.

If it sounds like I don't care for the game, you're right. Sure it was interesting, looked pretty and seemed to have good buzz. However it just wasn't any fun. Each turn I would look at my cards and do some stuff that I hoped was the best move. Sometimes, in a roundabout manner, I would interact with my opponent by using his facilities or blocking him out of an on-board position. In the end I found the whole thing boring.

Final assessment: Another Wallace game I can comfortably pass on. It looks good and sounds interesting but lacked any fun. Martin has done better.
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7. Board Game: Container [Average Rating:7.12 Overall Rank:583]
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The Valley Games booth was right across the aisle from the Warfrog booth and boy was it hopping. Their new game Container was getting good buzz and generating a lot of foot traffic. I determined right then and there that Container was a game I had to try.

In Container I found out that the players are industrialists involved in the production, selling and shipping of goods which eventually make their way to a central island. Once a ship laden with goods or "containers" shows up, an auction ensues as the boatload of goodies is sold off. What those goodies were worth differed from player to player as each of us had a different scoring card. So while a red container was worth a lot to you, your neighbor valued it much differently.

The real meat of the game is that, for the most part, the economy is entirely player driven. Players decide which goods to produce, what prices to charge for them and how much they are willing to pay. The conditions preset by the game are few and far between. (cost of facilities, different and secret scoring cards, etc)

It sounded interesting and during the game we all thought it was. However what the game wasn't, was fun. In the end I felt like I was participating in some sort of economics thesis rather than a leisure time activity. By the halfway mark we kept asking if the game was close to ending and when it finally did so, we were relived.

Final assessment: Yet another euro economic engine that manages to be fun free. Sure the player driven economy is interesting but it's just that. Interesting. I play games to have fun not study weird group-think algorithms.
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8. Board Game: Cuba [Average Rating:7.16 Overall Rank:416]
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Ahh Cuba. The buzz was good and I was looking forward to giving it a try and seeing what it was all about. Once I made my way to the Eggert Spiele booth I grabbed a rulebook and started reading. Very pretty, I especially like the rum bottles... Hmm, set on an island in the Caribbean... You process raw goods into finished ones... You then ship off the goods to score points...

Immediately I thought of that old joke where a rocker takes the stage and yells into the mike, "This might not be your favorite song, but its got a lot of the same notes!" Just to make sure I didn't judge the game too harshly, I sat in on a demo. When my friends came back around to pick me up they asked how was Cuba.

"Have you all played Puerto Rico?"

"Yeah"

"Then save your money and just play that instead"

"Ouch"

Final assessment: A very pretty PR knockoff. Sure it has some different elements but come on. How many games like that do you need?
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9. Board Game: Darjeeling [Average Rating:6.56 Overall Rank:1891]
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When I cruised by the AbacusSpiele booth I saw Darjeeling getting a lot of play. As I looked closer I was drawn to the almost abstract nature of the board and how players moved their tea pickers around to "harvest" tiles. I grabbed a rulebook and looked into it further.

During the game players move their pickers around a field of tiles harvesting various kinds of teas. Where Darjeeling makes it interesting is how the sets are created and market timing.

Obviously the bigger the set you can turn in, the better. However the value of your set is not dependent on the number of tiles it contains, but rather the number of crates it depicts. What that means is each tile has a pattern on it depicting anywhere from 1 to 3 crate halves. So depending on how you arrange them, the tiles will create crates. So not only do you have to look for tiles with the right teas/crates on them, you have to find tiles that will best fit into patterns with your previous harvests.

When you do sell a set of crates, the demand drops for that particular tea and the price paid for it lowers. This creates a situation where a tea that has gone a long time between harvests increases in value. While a tea that gets harvested often is worth less.

Overall I found Darjeeling to be a mediocre game that dealt with pattern recognition and changing market conditions. It's pretty and in some ways it reminded me of Vegas Showdown. (Arranging tiles to make squares and score points)

Final assessment: A fun game for a couple of plays but not really worth a purchase. I would have traded my copy off by now but Melissa likes it as she plays it with our oldest spawn. (He's 7)
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10. Board Game: Galaxy Trucker [Average Rating:7.46 Overall Rank:128]
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My friend James has a good eye for fun. As we walked into the Messe Essen on Thursday morning, he told me we had to stop by the CGE booth before they sold out of their new game "Galaxy Trucker". Boy, am I glad we did. Not only did the English version sell out, but as soon as I saw the box and read the premise of the game, I knew I had to have it.

Over the past year Galaxy Trucker has turned out to be one of the best purchases from Essen '07. Its combination of part timed puzzle, part cannonball run is pure fun. Sure the game has a lot of luck, but as you gain experience with ship construction, the carnage during the cannonball run portion of the game becomes less deterministic.

In a way GT felt fresh. Here was a euro that put fun in front of elegant design. Theme in front of mechanics. And it had replay value in spades.

Here are some memorable quotes from our GT runs:

"Batteries?! Oh #&*%, I knew I forgot something." - Melissa right as time expired for ship construction.

"Separate the saucer section dude!" - My buddy James as a large meteor neatly cleaved my ship in half.

"You all want to play the normal "wussy" stage III or shall we go for Nightmare Mode?" - My other buddy Frank as he held up the III-A ship template. *It's not for the faint of heart*

Final assessment: Galaxy Trucker is one of my favorite games in recent years and a bright spot in the class of '07. It's fun, quick and hits the table often. In '08 I will definitely stop by the CGE booth again to get the GT expansion and to see what else those crazy Czechs have up their sleeves.

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11. Board Game: In the Year of the Dragon [Average Rating:7.40 Overall Rank:218]
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I'm not one to follow the Alea big box series with any regularity. I have some favorites including Chinatown and Ra, but Alea is by no means an automatic buy for me. I also heard that the last several titles weren't up to par, so I hadn't paid attention to the series in some time.

The Alea offering for Essen '07 was different as it was designed by Stefan Feld. I consider his 2-player game Roma to be brilliant, so this latest offering was worth a look.

IYotD is definitely a Euro that follows recent trends. There's not much player interaction, the turns are very scripted, it's set in China and the action selection reminds me a lot of worker placement. Despite all of this, the game worked.

IYotD is all about disaster management. Do you take actions to mitigate the bad stuff happening now? Or do you take some lumps to stave off a bigger disaster later? At the start of the game, players have a small cushion and can act with disasters up to 3 turns ahead in mind. As the months roll by, that cushion erodes. Eventually you feel like a swimmer treading water in a shark infested ocean. When the end comes you open your eyes and see who's got anything left standing. Good stuff.

No, IYotD isn't innovative but it is a good time and a damn well crafted game. I never felt like my choices were obvious. And the really important part, my success was heavily dependant on my own ability to plan. I was playing IYotD. IYotD wasn't playing me.

Final assessment: I'm glad I gave In the Year of the Dragon a try. I was pleasantly surprised by its quality and the amount of fun it delivered. I can see it hitting the table whenever we have a craving for a euro with a China theme.
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12. Board Game: Mordred [Average Rating:6.17 Overall Rank:3675]
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Well Brass: Lancashire was a dud in my book. That was a bummer for me actually. However Warfrog had two games for sale at Essen last year. The other being a reprint of Martin's 1999 game, Mordred. In Mordred the players represent knights dispatched by King Arthur to the Welsh countryside. Your mission is to civilize the populace and keep Mordred's influence in check. Compared to the original printing, this version was gorgeous. So in an effort to support the 'Frogs and the Transplant UK charity I purchased a copy.

After playing it several times I've come to a few conclusions. Mordred isn't so good. The income dice roll at the beginning of every turn is too big of a factor. With a couple of bad rolls a player can fall behind the 8-ball very easily. Next, the costs vs the benefits of attacking Mordred Men is out of whack. In other words, it just doesn't pay. Lastly, I think there is the nugget of a really good game idea in there. I like the concept of the Mordred Men as a sort of player activated enemy. How much do you want to cooperate vs how much you want to hose your fellow knights is a compelling design element. Unfortunately Mordred isn't the game to make full use of the idea.

Final assessment: Mordred has some neat concepts but fails to pull them together into a successful game. The swings of fate on the income rolls are too big. Going on the offensive vs Mordred is a waste of resources. And mostly, Martin has better games you could play instead. Warfrog goes 0-2 in '07. Damn.
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13. Board Game: Power Grid: The New Power Plant Cards [Average Rating:7.82 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.82 Unranked]
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It looks boring. It has an uninspiring theme. It's a eurogame to the core. Despite all of this my friends and I love Power Grid.

At Essen '07 Friedemann Friese & Co. had a new powerplant deck available to liven up your games of Power Grid. For approx. $8 you get a lot of gameplay value in a small package. We normally use the deck as a straight substitute for the one that came with the original game. It makes for a nice change of pace and keeps the "buy powerplants" section of the game from getting stale.

Final assessment: A worthy expansion to an old favorite. For $8 you definitely get your money's worth.
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14. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:49]
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Race for the Galaxy...

The short version? A bitter disappointment.

The long version? OK, here we go.

For me Race for the Galaxy is a tragedy whos tagline reads, "Oh what could have been". Let me make some disclosures. I love the theme. I absolutely love the art. The role selection mechanic, while not a favorite of mine, is not a problem. The iconography is also not a problem. When I first started playing RftG I thought it had huge potential and I kept thinking about it. What could I have done differently? What strategies hadn't I considered? Unfortunately RftG takes all of this possibility and fumbles it on the 1 yard line. Why? There is nearly zero player interaction.

Some will argue that RftG does have player interaction. Mr. Lehmann even went so far as to post a lengthy article that RftG has interaction but it's just not the interaction the game's detractors prefer. To all of you I say, "Bullcrap!" The extent of the "interaction" RftG offers is a poker-like element where I try guess what roles you will pick. All so I don't have to pick those roles myself. That's obervation, not interaction. And what little amount of groupthink might result from this mechanic is a damn poor substitute for true direct player interaction.

When we play RftG together, I can not trade any resources with you. I can not effectively collude with you to reign in a runaway leader. I can not manipulate the market or political forces to alter your fortunes. If I develop the most impressive military machine the galaxy has ever seen I can not attack one single resource of yours. Weak.

So in the end the lack of interaction makes RftG feel like a sci-fi themed game of solitaire. It all comes down to who can cycle through the most cards the fastest in order to get the combination of 12 cards they need.

Final assessment: After 30+ games of RftG I consider it to be a lackluster filler. It had such huge potential to be more. It could have been a contender. What a waste.
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15. Board Game: Tribune: Primus Inter Pares [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:466]
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This game had a lot of buzz going for it at Essen. Unfortunately there was no English version available at the show. So I didn't get a chance to try Tribune until BGG.Con in November.

Once I gave it a spin I was impressed. Yes the game is yet another euro worker placement exercise. However this one, like "In the Year of the Dragon", felt finely crafted. The mechanics and theme meshed well. I liked that the worker placement aspect of Tribune wasn't the whole game. This is because after workers are placed, a series of sub-games take place. Anything from bidding to power struggles for one of Rome's influential factions. I also liked that each player could choose their own set of victory conditions to pursue. This meant that your goals might not be the exact same as mine. A nice feature which I think adds tremendously to the replay value of the game. Most importantly, I thought the game was fun and had lots of good, meaningful interaction. If I did have one complaint about the game itself it's that it seems to end too quickly. However that's pretty minor and I would happily play Tribune again.

My other complaint isn't so much about the game, but rather its English language publisher. FFG normally does a bang up job with its games but in this case they really dropped the ball. At Essen and everywhere else FFG demoed it, Tribune generated a lot of positive buzz . However they took their sweet time getting the English edition to market. By the time it finally became available over 6 moths later, all that momentum was lost. It's a damn shame that such a good game got "lost in translation".

Final assessment: A well crafted euro/worker placement game that manages to be well developed and most inportantly fun. Next time I see a game I really like at Essen, I'm not waiting for some publisher to get off their ass to release an english version of it.
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16. Board Game: TZAAR [Average Rating:7.68 Overall Rank:339] [Average Rating:7.68 Unranked]
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Here's another bright spot from Essen '07. I loved ZÈRTZ and YINSH. So when I saw that Kris Burm was at Essen with a completely new game I had to give it a spin.

On the surface Tzaar reminded me a lot of Yinsh with its board dominated by criss crossing lines. However the similarities end there. I loved the 3 different playing piece classes and how I had to balance preserving each of them vs stacking them for more powerful attacks. I loved the feeling of going on the prowl after my opponent's most vulnerable pieces. I also like that there were two ways to win. (Capture the last piece of one of you opponent's classes. Or make it impossible for him to capture any piece on his first move of the turn.) Add in the quick playtime and you have a winner.

Final assessment: A worthy addition to the Gipf Project from Kris Burm. Fun and quick. Some have said that this game was unsurprisingly good Essen release. I would have to agree.
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17. Board Game: Chicago Express [Average Rating:7.23 Overall Rank:362]
Will DeMorris
United States
El Paso
Texas
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For lack of a better plan I decided to list the Essen '07 games I have played in alphabetical order. It turns out I ended up saving the very best for last.

Wabash Cannonball will never win any boardgame beauty contests. It comes in a plastic clam-shell box. It has cubes that could have been pilfered from any number of unmemorable euros. The map looks like it was printed at Kinkos. And it has the absolute ugliest money ever included in a game. However, if you can get past the presentation you will be rewarded with some incredible cutthroat gameplay with a playtime of less than an hour.

WC deals with the expansion of four American railroads as they built west. (The New York Central, Baltimore & Ohio, Pennsylvania and Chesapeake & Ohio) The players don't represent the individual railroads but rather take the part of investors looking to maximize the rate of return on their investments. To do that the players will instruct the railroads to take one of 3 actions. Raise capital through the issuance of stock, develop cities, mines and possibly forests and of course, lay track.

The keys to the game are recognizing shifting player alliances, diluting the stock held by your opponents, and very carefully timing the end of the game. Should you work with partners or go it alone to "ride" a railroad all the way to Chicago ? Do you call for the sale of a NYC share to dilute its value, or do you buy that share just so you can run it into the ground? End the game now or push your luck and go more more round? And if all this wasn't enough, there's also the Wabash Cannonball to consider. A 5th railroad that enters play once one of the original 4 reaches Chicago. It's creation or non-creation can have profound effects on the game.

The more I play WC, the more I like it. It's fast. It's cutthroat. It has brinkmanship. It awards good timing and definitely awards good planning. The first time you tank a railroad on purpose that's held heavily by an opponent, you'll be hooked.

Final impression: The single best game for me in the Essen Class of '07. It might not be completely innovative but how the mechanics of the game all come together is simply brilliant. Queen is scheduled to re-release the game at Essen '08 with typical Queen production values. It's a testament to how much I like WC, that I plan to buy a copy of the Queen reprint so it will be easier to get WC on the table.
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18. Board Game: Neuroshima Hex! [Average Rating:7.43 Overall Rank:212] [Average Rating:7.43 Unranked]
Giles Pritchard
Australia
Shepparton
Victoria
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This is a game I have really enjoyed. While it had been around in Poland in it's first edition for some time, the new second ed was released at Essen last year. This is a fantastic game, one of my most played and easily one of my all time favourites. I will give the caveat that I have playtested a little for the expansion, and was somewhat involved with the game (I wrote the blurb for the back of the box), but I should also add, I would never have done any of that if I hadn't loved the game!

Cheers,

Giles.
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19. Board Game: Power & Weakness [Average Rating:6.63 Overall Rank:4035]
Kevin Warrender
United States
Rockaway
New Jersey
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I remember reading blurbs about this game up until January when I finally decided I had to have it (and Boards & Bits got it in stock). Haven't played it enough yet though with too many other gaming options, but the games I have played I have enjoyed. And I look forward to playing it more. The learning curve is steep though (in my opinion).

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