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My Essen Impressions

I've had a chance to play most of the new Essen releases and so far, it's stacking up as a typical year: one notable game, some pretty good titles, few real stinkers but also not many games that will continue to get regular play. Somewhat disappointing, but then that's what Essen has been for the past several years. Lately, it seems that Nuremberg has generated much better games. Still, it's by no means been a total loss. Here's my take on the new titles I've played so far, in order from most to least favorite:

Age of Steam - Unquestionably the best game to come out of Essen this year. Martin Wallace's facility with train games is remarkable and this has got to be his best. The refinements to the Lancashire Rails/Volldampf system are excellent, the decisions are numerous and tough, money management is crucial and very challenging, and the various actions (which are reminiscent of Puerto Rico but which is actually closer to the system used in Bus) work great. Just a very satisfying, deep game which flows smoothly with very little downtime. Like its predecessors, there's the possibility of a bit of kingmaking at the end, so some groups may want to discuss how to handle this before they start. Easily makes the list of my ten favorite games of all time. Rating: 9 out of 10.

Moderne Zeiten - There's a big drop from AoS to this game, but this is still an enjoyable design that I'll gladly play. Plays fast, contains interesting decisions, and has a unique feel. My one five-player game seemed to end rather quickly, so this one may play best with four. Of course, I have yet to play this game by its proper rules(!) (see above), but I at least I know there is some version of this game I will enjoy. Rating: 7.

Arabana Opodopo - Fine job of converting the excellent two-player Kahuna to a multi-player game. Cornett added just enough rules to make the game work with more players, while keeping the concepts that make Kahuna so good (an accomplishment, I imagine, that was harder than it sounds). I look forward to trying the Gods variant. Rating: 7.

ad acta - A solid, pleasant system that moves quickly. I guess you could really plot and plan a lot here, but looking one or two turns ahead still seems to make for a good game. A little lacking in excitement, as befits the theme. Rating: 7.

Canal Grande - Alan Moon, the master of reworking his own designs, does it again (aided and abetted by his partner Aaron Weissblum) with this two-player card game version of the classic San Marco. The Doge voting mechanic gives this one a different feel than its parent, but the dividing mechanism is as enjoyable as ever. San Marco is still a better game (so I see no reason to play Canal Grande with four), but CG is nonetheless a fine two-player and would be a great game to take on the plane. Rating: 7.

Odin's Ravens - Good two-player filler, with interesting decisions and very fast play. It feels something like Babel Lite, although I certainly feel the Rosenberg design is much deeper. But Ravens is still a solid game with scope for clever play, and I anticipate it will get plenty of play. It's only drawback is its variable time to play, and that can easily be handled with simple variants. Rating: 7.

Mogul - A good filler, a little frustrating at times, but an innovative auction system implemented well. More than a little luck in the way the cards come out and, particularly, in whether your opponents choose to give you the chips when you need them. But overall, yet another good "small" game by Michael Schacht. Seems to play better (more control) with four or five than with six. Rating: 7.

Clue: The Card Game - Ranking this game so highly probably summarizes my feelings about the Essen crop as well as anything. Still, there's nothing wrong with this American title, which accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: retain the pleasurable, deductive portions of Clue, while excising the unnecessary board play and die rolling. The different subcategories enhance the experience and the Action cards work well. Rating: 7.

Fische Fluppen Frikadellen - Another solid economic game from Friedemann Friese. However, I only like the single table version. This is a game in which you need to work out your trading strategy carefully and that isn't compatible with multiple tables, when you're rushing to get your turns in so you don't fall behind the pace of the other tables. With one table, there's the possibility of the same cycle of shops being used to death, but most games are more varied than that. Using different blocks of 12 cards out of the 36 provided for the random set-ups is a great design concept. Rating: 7.

Trias - This features interesting mechanics and some scope for clever play. However, it's undeniably abstract and feels a little dry to me. I'll certainly play the game and probably enjoy it, but I don't think it's one I'll be suggesting. Rating: 7.

Clans - This strikes me as a very typical Leo Colovini design: very abstract, short, pretty straightforward, with interesting, but not brain-bending decisions, and, for me at least, good but not great. The territory scoring rules give the game a different feel, which is nice, and this makes the simple movement rules more interesting than they appear at first. But it's a little too abstract to really get my heart beating. Keeping your scoring tribe hidden really doesn't affect the game much; just avoid helping out whichever color is in the lead, since it certainly belongs to some player. Rating: 6.

Fist of Dragonstones - Blind bidding and Bruno Faidutti both usually spell trouble for me, but this is a nice, light design that works well as a quick-moving filler. The innovative concept of reappearing fairy gold really makes the game work, since it allows you to enjoy the tension and speed of blind bidding while lessening the sting of just missing out on a bid. Interpolating the one-time special cards with the less powerful regular cards is another good idea. A pleasant game experience as long as it doesn't overstay its welcome. Rating: 6.

Gang of Four - This card game from the Climbing family (other games from this family include Tichu, Frank's Zoo, and The Bum Game) has a different feel than those other games. It is probably the lightest and most chaotic of the group, but there's still plenty of scope for strategy and good judgment. A game of huge potential point swings, where the outcome is always in doubt until the very end. A worthy addition to this fascinating family of games. Rating: 6.

Zoosim - The theme is pleasant and there's some potentially tough decisions to be made. But the constant auctions make the game very repetitive and there's not quite enough else going on to make up for this. Having to check how all your opponents compare with you prior to each auction doesn't help matters. Not bad, but there's plenty of other auction games I'd rather play. Rating: 6.

Cannes - Another one I'm undecided on. The gameplay, which deservedly gives the game it's reputation of Roads & Boats Lite, is absorbing and enjoyable. But the game ends so damn quickly, seemingly just when you're ready to start accomplishing something. We have to see if this can be altered with different playing styles, if variants can help, or if the game just doesn't work. I still hold out hope, however. Rating: 6 (but could wind up a 5 or a 7).

Bayon - Nice light card game with some original ideas. It seems necessary to use cheaper discoveries to finance the more expensive ones, which accelerates the game and makes the gameplay more interesting. A pleasant filler. Rating: 6.

Keythedral - This one could improve its rating, but I'm not sure I'm overly anxious to give it another shot. Very similar to Cannes, in that the gameplay is interesting, but the ending is abrupt. After playing several times, I just decided that there wasn't enough to the game to retain my interest. Another valiant effort by Richard Breese, but the only one of his games that I really enjoy completely (Aladdin's Dragons) is the one that was professionally developed. Rating: 6.

Wheedle - This original Knizia design from American publisher Out of the Box (Apples to Apples) is a slightly more strategic version of Pit. It accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, which is to be a frantic, simultaneous trading game requiring some skill and good judgment. A good filler, particularly for those that like party games. Rating: 6.

Fundstucke - Sheesh, blind bidding again! But under the right conditions, this is another pretty good "small" game. The right conditions are a small number of players, where you have some control of your fate. Since the bids show how many items you can take as well as when you select, you stand a good chance of predicting how your opponents will bid. The clever tiebreaking mechanism helps as well. Works quite well with three, might work with four, wouldn't think of playing with any more players. Rating: 6.

VOC - This is a strange one. The central mechanism of navigating while drawing with your eyes closed (while your fellow passengers shout out usually helpful directions) is a lot of fun. But this near party-style mechanic is the centerpiece of a game that has the potential for a good deal of planning and negotiation. It's an uncomfortable mix. There's also the prospect of your opponents deliberately hindering you, which adds a bit of mean spiritedness to what might play best as a rollicking design. Finally, the game seems to take too long. As always, a fascinating set of concepts from Splotter, but it's starting to look as if they might benefit from a better development team. Rating: 5 (which could rise if we play it again).

Blooming Gardens - A set-collecting game with a few interesting frills. My only game was with six players, which is clearly too many, as the game simply becomes a race and the player getting the luckiest draws will win. With two or three players, there would not only be more time to develop strategies, but you could take your opponents' melds into account without slowing the game to a crawl. Rating: 5 (but this could easily improve with fewer players).

Krone & Schwert - There are some good ideas here, but the game just doesn't work. Card distributions affect the game way too much, revolts occur almost constantly (particularly toward the end of the game), and there's plenty of room to expand, so players never attack each other. Consequently, very few of the allowable actions are ever employed, resulting in a predictable, tedious game. In addition, my five-player contest lasted much too long. Rating: 5 (and I'd rate the five-player game no better than a 4).

Station Manager - This is a real nothing, a drab Rummy variant with drab looking cards to match. We've come to expect much better than this from Michael Schacht. I assume this was only published to make a "trilogy" of train cover games. Fortunately, the other two games of the set are much better. Rating: 4.

Dwarves - The good news is that the rotating, three dimensional board is a marvel. The bad news is that it can't hide a pretty dismal design. There are some interesting card selection rules, but you're fishing blind for your objectives. Even worse, there's no incentive to play defense, because the tiles worth the most to your opponents are almost worthless to you. Outside of the board, the components are really cheap, with tiles of varying thickness that were disintegrating after one play. Finally, the game is about three times as long as it should be. Rating: 4 (and that may be kind).

Where There's A Will - The rules say this is a bluffing game, but it seemed more like guessing to us. Most of the cards are face down and the whole thing seemed so pointless, we cut the game way short. Maybe we haven't given this one a fair shot, but I don't see it coming out again. Rating: 3.

To summarize the latest Essen, Age of Steam is tremendous, Moderne Zeiten is a winner, and there's a few other worthwhile games. I'm not unhappy with this crop, but I expect we'll see better efforts in Nuremberg. I'm already looking forward to several of those games.

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