BrettSpiel is a blog about board game design, written by game designer Brett J. Gilbert.

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SPIEL 2011: Schwag!

Kontor, Junkyard Races, Hab & Gut, Mozaika, Carcassonne: Das Gelfoge, Logan Stones, Carcassonnne: Die Schule, Deukalion, DGT Pyramid, Gold!, Medievalia, Tatort Themse, Circus Maximus, On The Cards, Mr Jack Pocket: Goodies, Die Pyramide des Krimsutep

Late last night I got back from my first-ever Essen, having had my mind thoroughly blown by its scale and glorious absurdity. I’d spent almost the whole four days at the fair, but there was still so much that I’d not got a chance to see or do. Fortunately, my more experienced comrades, John Yianni and Rob Harris, shepherded me through the fair’s more obscure rituals and byways, and I cannot adequately express my gratitude for letting me join them.

I shall post more news of our time at the fair shortly, but for now I’ll just take a quick look at the sizeable amount of gaming schwag I returned with. Not that this paltry amount in any way compares to what some other fair-goers must have returned with! You could have spent, spent, spent, and then happily spent a whole lot more. And some were clearly doing just that!

But, without further ado, and in no particular order, here’s what I got (total spend: €38.90, less than the price of your average big box Euro!):

Bought games

  • Kontor, Michael Schacht — Goldsieber Spiele (€5)
    I’d always liked the look of this one, and €5 for a decent second-hand German copy seemed too good to pass up. I think (details are now blurry) that this was my first purchase, up to which time I had protested (too much, you might say) that I was not going to buy any games.
  • Mozaika, Adam Kałuźa — Kuźnia Gier (€2.50)
    I’m a sucker for tile games, and this little box (brand new) with such a little price appealed to me.
  • Deukalion, Arno Steinwender & Wilfried Lepuschitz — Parker Spiele (€2.50)
    This one is a curious historical artefact: evidence laid down in the boardgaming strata of Hasbro’s short-lived foray into Eurogames. And it’s none-too-shabby either! Great graphic design and components — the 40 meeples alone are worth more than €2.50 — so tempting, indeed, that all three of us bought a copy!
  • Hab & Gut, Carlo A. Rossi — Winning Moves (€10)
    Like Kontor, this is another game that I had always hankered after, so how could I pass up a brand new box for €10? It turned out I ought to have done since we saw it going for €8 the very next day! You live and learn.
  • Gold!, Michael Schacht — Abacus Spiele (€4)
    Schacht’s quirky little card game for 2 or 3 players packs, it turns out, quite a pleasing punch, so was definitely worth the cash.
  • Medievalia, Michele Quandam — Giochix Edizioni (€2.95)
    Half-remembered details about the card play made this one a relatively blind purchase, but the nice art direction and a quick scan of the rules suggests I’ve not entirely wasted my money.
  • Circus Maximus, Jeffrey D. Allers — Pegasus Spiele (€3)
    Allers has a pretty good reputation as a designer, so the €3 price tag seemed all-too reasonable. Plus, it came in a rather swanky tin!
  • Tatort Themse, Reiner Knizia — Pegasus Spiele (€3)
    Knizia in a tin. Going cheap. Kinda hard to resist.
  • Carcassonne: Das Gelfoge, Klaus-Jürgen Wrede — Hans im Glück (€2.95)
    I love me some meeples, so six funky transparent ones packed into an equally funky larger red transparent one was a no-brainer!

Promotional items

It took me a while to tune into the whole Essen promo malarkey — small expansions for existing games that are often simply unavailable elsewhere — but you can’t really argue with ‘free’ can you? (Or a small charitable donation, for that matter.) I was pleased to get the Mr Jack Pocket expansion, and, of course, am always happy with more Carcassonne tiles! I don’t have a copy of Dominion, but am sure I can find a good home for the cards.

Personal gifts

And everything else, as they say, is gravy!

  • On The Cards, Sebastian Bleasdale — Surprised Stare Games
    Alan Paull insisted I take a complimentary copy of On The Cards with me since I had helped him and the team at Surprised Stare with the rules, something I had been only too happy to do as a way of repaying a little of all they’ve done for me during my fledgling game design career. Many thanks, then, to Alan, Charlie, Tony and Sebastian!
  • DGT Pyramid
    Here’s the thing: John Yianni, along with being a highly successful game designer, is an all-round nice guy who knows lots of other nice people at the fair. This means that, if you are not too careful, said nice people give you free stuff, principally because you happen to be standing next to him. It was rather humbling, to be honest. Thanks, then, go out to the good folks from DGT!
  • Logan Stones, John Yianni — Productief BV
    See above! Alex, one of John’s Dutch distributors, gave me a copy of Logan Stones in the dying minutes of the fair as we were chatting and playing on the Productief BV stand. If you don’t know the game, it’s a great little ‘filler’ abstract with beautiful pieces: Check it out! So thanks are due to Alex and his team!
  • Die Pyramide des Krimsutep, Ralph Sandfuchs — Krimsus Krimskrams-Kiste
    Pete Burley is another gent of the boardgaming world, and he was at the fair this year with his sons Johnathan and Freddie. I am interested to give this little game a go (once I’ve sourced the English rules). It was great to meet you, Pete: Thanks for everything, and good luck at Nuremberg!
  • Junkyard Races, John Yianni — Gen42 Games
    John wouldn’t let me leave without giving me my own copy of his latest game, a new edition of a game he first published way back in 2003. I played this back in June at the UK Games Expo and is was a blast! Thanks again, John!

This post also appears on my BoardGameGeek blog.

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SPIEL 2011: Game On!

SPIEL 2011 at Essen

In a few short hours I shall begin my very first Essen odyssey. I doubt I’ll have time (or much remaining brain power) during the fair to do the decent thing and blog from Germany, but I shall be taking plenty of pictures and will (eventually) post, at the very least, a pictorial review of my experiences when I get home.

I’m going to be in Essen for the whole four days and do have a few formal and informal appointments.

First, I shall be meeting the good people who will be publishing Oracle Pathway (although it won’t be called that) next year. I have already started to see some stunning examples of the artwork commissioned for the game and will find out more at the fair about the publisher’s plans. Apologies for the circumspection about the exact details of who, what, how and when, but when I get the all clear to talk more openly about the project then have no fear, dear reader, that I shall do so! Suffice it, however, to say, that the game is going to look amazing and that I could not be more thrilled with how it is being developed. Excitement!

I shall also be checking in with the good folks of Surprised Stare Games to see, amongst other things, the production copies of Mr Bleasdale’s On The Cards and Mr Boydell’s Paperclip Railways — should there be any left, that is. Get ’em while they’re hot!

Plus I shall also be dropping in to see my colleagues at LEGO. If you’re at the fair and you’ve not seen the new and most-excellent LEGO Heroica games yet, then make sure you go check them out!

Since this is my first Essen, I simply don’t know what to expect, other than games (and lots of them). The way other people describe it, Essen sounds almost orgiastic in its celebration of board gaming: an overwhelming, hedonistic, ludological feast.

I’m sure I will enjoy it. But will I survive it? Only time will tell…

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Games at the Grad Pad

Board games: Stone Age, Ascension, Troyes, Factory Fun

In which I take a very quick look at the games I played on Saturday at the monthly games day at the Cambridge University Centre — that’s the Grad Pad to you and me!

All four games were new to me, and the first two always appealed, so I jumped at the chance to try them out. I won’t give you the low-down on the rules, just what my designer brain made of them, good, bad or indifferent.

Stone Age — Bernd Brunnhofer (Hans im Glück, 2008)

I really enjoyed Stone Age and would love a chance to play again. As usual from this publisher, the components and artwork are first class. Set-up isn’t fiddly, the gameplay is immediate and intuitive, and because all the choices are public, it’s easy to get going because you can openly discuss other player’s choices without genuinely prejudicing your own.

It’s clear from just one play that competing for the cards is crucial, since they can generate substantial end-game bonuses. I played a 4-player game with Pete, Ray and Robin, and Pete’s victory was crushing, partly because he’d gone after the cards aggressively at the beginning.

The dice keep things lively, and introduce a nice element of ‘push your luck’ where it’s possible to take a gamble in some turns, spreading yourself thinly in the hope that a plan might just come together. Reading the intentions of other players, and trying to pre-empt them is important, as is reacting to tactical opportunities, so the player-engagement is high. This is something else that dice add to any game, because it’s always fun to share the agony and ecstasy of another player as they roll high or low, or to speculate before a roll about exactly what’s coming. For the same reason, I really liked the cards that gifted resources to all players in turn, based on the roll of a set of dice.

Stone Age is deserving of its popularity: a solid 8/10 for look and feel, playability and fun!

Troyes — Dujardin, Georges & Orban (Pearl Games, 2010)

There are lots to like about Troyes. The style of the artwork is excellent, and a welcome break from the familiar, slightly soft-focus magic realism of games such as Stone Age. In contrast, Troyes has a schematic, hard-edged, gothic precision, and it’s clear that a great deal of thought, effort and skill has gone into rendering the complex set of actions and outcomes into a coherent and elegant set of visual cues and icons. The user interface design is really well done!

But Troyes is a much harder nut to crack than Stone Age, so requires more attention from the newcomer and a greater willingness to accept a larger number of restrictions and non-obvious interactions. The dice play creates a really nice core to the game, but there are a lot of dots to join up on the periphery and, in comparison to Stone Age, there is a much greater disconnect between the player actions and the notional narrative of the game.

The game will reward perseverance, so I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a heavier eurogame. But the rules do not easily resolve themselves into intuitive gameplay — Exhibit A: The number of rules queries on BGG! — and the designer in me wanted to see fewer “You can’t do that!” moments. I’m not saying, just to be clear, that I preternaturally know better than the game’s designers; I would not be so presumptive. But throughout our game we needed to consult the rules — often to discover our desired action forbidden! — and this suggests to me that the game’s logic is a little too difficult for the casual player to map. Players have to make sense of any game before being able to play it fluidly, and Troyes, for better or worse and for a variety of reasons, does not make this cognitive leap easy.

Troyes is definitely recommended, but with provisos: 7/10 for intrigue, potential and novelty.

Ascension — Justin Gary, et al. (Gary Games, 2010)

On twitter, and as an immediate reaction to my game, I gave Ascension a one-word review: “witless”. And I can’t say that my opinion has changed. Whatever you think about the deck-building genre, it’s clear that designing a good deck-building game that’s as good as Dominion — which remains the first, best example — is hard.

Successful game mechanisms do not, in and of themselves, make successful games. You can’t simply deconstruct a good game, reconstitute some (or even all) of its parts and hope that an emulation of its creation will lead inevitably to an emulation of its success. There’s a little bit more to it than that.

Dominion succeeds because it limits players’ actions and allows for meaningful choices and genuine strategies. Ascension, in contrast, seems random and futile. Players may have options, but they don’t have choice.

I’ll summarise by giving Ascension three words instead of one: “not for me”.

Factory Fun — Corné van Moorsel (Cwali, 2006)

Last to the table was Factory Fun, which I certainly enjoyed even though I played very poorly. But there’s no getting around it: this is the epitome of multi-player solitaire. The competitive puzzle-solving genre is popular, and Z-Man’s upcoming new edition of the out-of-print and hard-to-find Factory Fun is likely to be well received (the updated tiles and graphic design look excellent), but the game is no more than a quick, light ‘filler’, and a relatively lonely one at that.

The principle of the game is clever and engaging, but there are plenty of clever and engaging fillers out there that engage more through player interaction than private intellectual activity, and I think I’d rather play those.

But Factory Fun is definitely good for the right crowd: 6/10 for being a nice idea, well executed.

This post also appears on my BoardGameGeek blog.

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