Time flies when you’re having fun and our first day at Essen was much too short. Aren’t they all? Despite various traffic problems, we managed to be on time for the doors opening in the morning. The nice thing about Thursdays in Essen is that the lines are manageable, it didn’t take us five minutes to get inside.
Those of you new to boardgaming might be wondering what all this Essen fuss is about. The Internationale Spieltage – or the Essen Fair, as it’s referred to much more often – has been organised in the German city of Essen since 1983 by the Friedhelm Merz Verlag and is by now the biggest and most famous boardgame event in the world. Basically all European game publishers present their new releases at this fair and many international ones are present as well. The fair covers 43.000 square meters, and most of that space is for boardgames, with a side order of comics and role-playing games. So you can see why people are making a big deal of the fair.
We arrived with a big plan to go through the fair systematically, hall by hall, but as those plans usually do, it went out the window the moment we entered the fair. Our excuse this time is that Niko only had one day to spend here and we wanted to see as many new games together as possible. That’s not a promise to stick to the plan tomorrow, just a convenient excuse.
Our first stop was at a Wattsalpoag(booth 5-02), a publisher about which I learned only today how awesome their name is. Wattsalpoag is short for “With all that talent sitting around lets put out a game”. People there were as friendly as they were colourfully dressed and it took us about two minutes to get an explanation of A Fistful of Penguins. A Fistful of Penguins is an incredibly cute, light dice game with dice that show moose, squirrels, lions, camels kangaroos and penguins instead of numbers. All animals score differently, some requiring other animals to be present as well and although the game is a light one there is some tactics involved in choosing what to roll for. It also has utterly adorable transparent meepuins (penguin meeple – just in case you’re new here, making up words with meeple is part of our standard contract) and we’re glad to have a copy now. Afterwards we tried Jet Set, a deeper game where you build a network of flight routes over Europe. Jet Set feels like it will be fun, but was harmed a little by being shortened to play in a fair-acceptable time.
Our next stop on the wild marathon was Gigamic (12-38). We tried two rather quick games here: Coyote and Kabaleo. The former is a classic guess/outbid/disbelief game. All players put a feather in their headband without looking at it, players can see all feathers except their own. One player starts by guessing a number that he beliefs is smaller than the sum of numbers printed on all players’ feathers. The next player outbids him or doubts that number. After a player doubts the number, all feathers are revealed and either the doubter or the player before him get a tomahawk stuck in their headband. A fairly standard game made much more fun by the components. The main goal in Kabaleo is to keep your own colour a secret until the end of the game and then have the most pieces – which look amazing in bright colours on shiny white – of that colour visible on the board. However, it’s hard to say anything about the depth after one game.
Quite the opposite is true about the next game we tried, Québec: we realised quickly that it’s a deep game with many details to consider. European distribution of Québec is handled by Ystari, consequently the Canadian creator Le Scorpion Masqué can be found at the their booth (12-07). One of the games creators, Philippe Beaudoin, was not only kind enough to teach us the game, his kindness even allowed him not to utterly destroy us – although he still won, of course. By his own admission, he was making up rules during the game to ensure that. In Québec you have to constantly weigh the various benefits of your actions. You might want to put your workers to work on a building because they would go to a convenient place to score when a building is finished – but then you’re helping an opponent to construct a more valuable building. Or you place workers on your own building, but then you don’t get to execute the action associated with that location. You want to chose places with attractive actions to construct your buildings to lure your opponents there, but you also want a large area of connected buildings in the end for a higher score. Québec looks a bit threatening at first, but it’s not as complex as you will initially think and lots of fun with innovative mechanics.
We then did some wandering around, looking at a lot of games and taking notes to return, watched an explanation of Kuznia Gier‘s Alcatraz – The Scapegoat – a game I hope we’ll be able to try tomorrow – and of Twilight Struggle. We also met with Ignacy Trzewiczek shortly and had a good look at the final version of Prêt-a-Porter – it looks really great, expect an update to the review and a Components score soon. We ended up at the booth with Vangelis Bagiartakis’ Souvlaki Wars. The Greek food epic is almost as silly as its title, requiring a good deal of luck, but playing quickly and offering many, many “take that” moments. Your goal in this game is to serve many happy customers with Greek style fast food – if you can find joy in this premise, you’ll enjoy the game as well. We certainly did.
Masters of Commerce by Grouper Games (4-404 – the internet geek in my keeps thinking “Booth Not Found”) was the next game we could try. Almost the only mechanic you need to understand in Masters of Commerce is free negotiations. Players split into two groups, the merchants and the landlords, and the greatest part of the game is negotiating for rents for the next round. Those two minutes bursts of wild negotiating were chaotic with seven players. The game goes up to eleven, I am so looking forward to trying that soon. This might be the adult game with the shortest learning time at this year’s Spiel and you get a load of fun in return, so you have no excuse to not go try it out.
With time running short now, we managed two games of Finger Billiard at Yago Pool (4-212). It may not be strictly a board game, but fun nevertheless. It’s quite literally a billiard game you play with your fingers – and as usual with billiard games between me and Niko, I won one by sheer, dumb luck. After this fun distraction, we started a game of Wiraqocha at the booth of Sit Down! (5-59), but we rushed the rules and the few rounds we played because of the fair closing for the day, so we got a big pile of confusion and only a small impression of the game.
Oh, I almost forgot this one: we all tried NeuroSky’s EEG-driven computer games at 4-107. Again, it’s not boardgames, but computer games that you control with your brain just had too much geek-appeal, I had to try and Sizi and Niko had to follow. I didn’t think this sort of interface would work so well, but the game we tried – one that reacts to your level of concentration – worked really well, the bar on the computer screen and the little ant in the game reacted immediately to every distraction. The demo games are not highly polished computer games yet, but they do get the point across that the technology works – I’m torn between thinking “wow, awesome” and “yikes, creepy”.
And that was day one of Essen. We didn’t see everything we wanted to by a huge margin, but it was a very good day. I hope tomorrow will be with the same level of crowdedness as today to give Sizi and me a chance to try more games. See you there!