Spiel ’10 at Essen – Day 1

Our Day 1, that is. For those among us lucky enough to have vacation days left, the world’s biggest board game fair opened the gates on Thursday already, and I can only guess that it’s easier to find a spot to stand or even a seat to try a game when it’s not the weekend. So far, I got to try less than a quarter of the games on my list of games to check – which, to be fair, is rather extensive – and still didn’t find all of them. To make up for that, I tried a bunch of games I didn’t have on my list and ended up enjoying those a lot.

Lucky for us, we live pretty close to Essen, so getting there was no problem. More lucky for us, the security people were nice enough to tell us that the line is shorter on every other entrance than on the one we arrived. Inside was the usual sensory overload of a few thousand gaming pilgrims, but no one got the idea of playing music at this fair yet, so things are much more quiet than, say, GamesCom or other computer games fairs. As always, the crowd there was only mainly human, with quite a noticeable part of the audience being elves, dwarfs or just different. The cosplayers have had a big presence at Essen for years, and I always enjoy seeing them around – and admire the skill and patience of people actually making their own costumes. I didn’t get any good photos of them – yes, I’m just slow, I missed every single group that went past. Two quite outstanding examples was a big group of furries (a fox, a bear, and a couple of ewoks … don’t hate me if you’re not ewoks, but you looked like you were) in full body cosumes that looked just amazing and one person in a Maniac Mansion tentacle costume. A real, purple Maniac Mansion tentacle. That made me smile more than anything.

So, to start the day we tried to games at Steffen Spiele. Schwarzer Kater is a rather uninteresting shell game, but it is intended as a children’s game, so me not finding it interesting can be forgiven. The other game we tried there, Linja, on the other hand, is an  interesting abstract strategy game. The objective is to move all your wooden pieces to the other end of the field, which consists of parallel bamboo sticks. The distance you move is determined by the number of pieces in the line you step into with another piece. The rules are simple, but the game isn’t, and it looks great as well.

Next we got an explanation of Millionen von Schwalben at Fata Morgana Spiele’s booth. In Millionen von Schwalben you try to get rich of a football tournament, not necessarily by winning the finals. Each game is played out by two players playing attack and defence cards against each other, cards that show that the game does not take itself seriously. We didn’t play a test game, but we might just go back for it tomorrow.

At dV Giochi we spent ten minutes playing King Up!, because that’s all it takes. The game about crowning the new king, or at least have your people in influential positions at court is very easy to understand and very hard to control, especially when you have people trying to eliminate the competition instead of getting their own people in high office first. I’d have to play a few more rounds to know whether I like the game, for the moment it appears very random.

Time No Time at Goliath was next. It’s a silly party game with an electronic alarm running while you pass action cards around and doing whatever they say as quickly as possible. Rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time. Passing the card up the front of your shirt. That kind of thing. The fair is definitely not the right place to run around the gaming table twice, and I think we’re outside the target audience for this one.

Next was a quick try of Quorridor at Gigamic, another game of getting to the other side of the board. Instead of moving your meeple, you can put a wall on the board to hinder the other player, and with some practice you might even be able to form a coherent strategy. Quorridor is another one of those beautiful wooden games, that are popping up in bigger numbers every year. Quorridor has a few years to look back upon, of course, it’s more the right age to have helped start this trend, but still: more publishers are creating games in high quality materials that are not only fun to play but also fun to touch and look at.

After that, we tried Arlecchino, another abstract strategy game. The board is filled with plastic pieces that each four show triangles of one to four different colours. You can move any tile that has at least one triangle of your colour, and you take tiles from the game by jumping over them. The less I say about this game the better it probably is, it appears that a string starting position (which is random) is the main ingredient to winning.

Some wandering around and watching games in progress later, we arrived at LudoArt and tried out Shen Shi. Shen Shi is yet another game that tried to please all the senses when playing – and succeeds. You move your little monk figurines, made from a different metal for each player, across the temple hall on cloth pillows. Everything looks and feels great, and the game promises strategic depth, but was hard to fathom in the one game we had. Also, Shen Shi brought us this memorable quote, never before spoken in any temple of any religion: “He’s almost enlightened – the bastard!”

Next in the line of multi-sensorically satisfying games – my spell checker informs me that I just made up a word – was Mana, a game played with meople made from soft leather on a board of the same material. You’re trying to kill the enemy daimyo with one of your ronin, and the square you end your move on determines which of his pieces your opponent is allowed to move on his turn. Apart from the fact that daimyo and ronin are japanese, and mana, to my knowledge, is not, I have nothing bad to say about this game and might go back to acquire one tomorrow.

We got an explanation of The Resistance, a game slightly related to Werewolf, at Indie Boards and Cards, but I won’t go into it here because you can expect a review soon, and on we went to some random games we found along the way. Ricochet Robots is mind-knotting in ways that Robo Ralley never dared to push on you, while at the same time being entirely peaceful. Panic Tower is a bit like a reverse Jenga crossed with a Manahattan. On your turn, you draw a card and then put three wooden tiles on top of the towers indicated by that card, until they crash. More of a party game, but fun.

We finally managed to find a game from my watch list again with Crows by Valley Games. In Crows build a creepy landscape and place shiny objects to attract more corvidae than your opponents. I have no idea why you do it, but it doesn’t matter much as the game is great without knowing why you do it, and it’s the only game in the fair with it’s own beautifully made rules explanation puppet video, featuring Edgar Allen Poe. I really really wanted to show you the video here, but it’s not on the interwebs yet. Bummer. Pretty sure we’re getting a copy of this one: it has creeple (crow meeple).

Walking past a lot of games that I wanted to try, but with no chance to find a a spot in one of them, we arrived in the far corner of the fair to find some things by lesser known publishers and games still looking for a publisher. We had a look at the gorgeous prototypes of Klaus Schomberg’s Schachadma, a courageous attempt to get Battleships to the strategic depth of a chess game. Your goal is to kill the enemy admiral, and instead of taking pieces you shoot them down with your boats cannons. The different kind of boats have different movement patterns and different fields of fire, so turning your boat on the board becomes important. It was getting late at this point, so we didn’t have the time to try a game, but it does look very promising. Good luck finding a publisher Klaus, I hope to see the game in stores soon.

A bit further down the corridor we tried Jets, a futuristic racing game that makes do without a game board. Instead, you move your vehicles around the table using different yard sticks, and the faster you move (the longer your yard stick), the harder it gets to turn tight corners. To spice things up, you load your cart with gadgets that make you accelerate or brake faster, help you turn tighter corners or simply push your opponents of the table. We didn’t have time to finish this one, but we did manage to get a quick explanations of i9n on the way out, a game that is thematically about drilling for oil, but is really a deduction game at heart where you try to find the one oil well that is still pumping at the end of the game. I’m sure no commentary on the current global situation is intended.

Finally, we had a rushed conversation at the MESAboardgames booth, the Portuguese publisher of Caravelas and S. Gorge Trophy, a place we definitely have to return to tomorrow to try at least one of their games. Portuguese seems to be a much more common language at Essen this year than in previous years, by the way. Other than MESAboardgames and their products, there is also Vinhos with all the demo version that I saw in Portuguese and a few more as well. Or maybe I’m just becoming more sensitive to Portuguese by now. Who knows…

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