Spiel Essen is once again behind us. It’s been crazier than ever, but this is not the reason you’re reading these lines. We’re gamers at heart and even though our daily effort is allocated mostly to publishing, we like to take time off and enjoy opening games, punching our tokens and inhale the smell of freshly printed cardboard. It is also becoming a tradition to have a weekend long gathering of friends and play as many Essen titles as we can.
This year, our board games party coincided with a local bank holiday, so instead of some mean 48 hours of non-stop gaming, we were able to extend the event to four full days and expand our range from strategy to kids games, enjoying, talking about and criticizing a whole trunk full of games, out of which a few were absolutely amazing. To top this, the setting – a wooden house in the middle of the lake district of Poland, surrounded by trees and serenity, made it into an unforgettable experience.
Without any chronological order, here’s what I played and what I am left with…
Terraforming Mars was by far the most hyped game over the summer and the first autumn months, so I was obviously very curious about it, especially since my friends advertised it as “better than Through the Ages” which is one of my favorite all-time games. I played a Polish copy which got me a bit worried at first, but the symbols on the cards made the game almost language independent. The game play is rock solid, the decisions are right where they should be, there’s fierce competition for prime spots on Mars as well as for the best or rather most suitable cards. The artwork blends perfectly with the theme, giving this game the epic feel I was expecting. For me this is the first straight 10 of the year and by far the best game of 2016!
Another game which came with high hopes was The Colonists. The price point, heavy box and the promise of a very solid euro, bordering a civilization game made me want to play it almost as badly as the aforementioned Terraforming Mars. The game plays through four ages, taking 5+ hours and huge space on the table. Sadly, that’s about all it does. By the end of age I it seemed like a very cool game, with meaningful decisions and a strong preparation for age II. In age II we were all able to create combos, little working ‘industries’ of resources and points, but the game started feeling samey. Age III was the last we played as we were approaching the 6-hour mark and the game felt already stripped of meaningful decisions. A good game creates complexity through smart mechanisms, while this one does it by adding more and more components. It’s not a bad game, but it does not live up to its promise.
Then came Islebound, a game we managed to get at Gen Con but did not have time to play until last weekend. It is an excellent game, walking well in the footsteps of Above and Below, with the same thematic feel and sharing some game mechanics, yet fresh and immersive. The fact that a 10-year old was able to play and be competitive made an even stronger impression. All I can add is that I enjoyed every minute of the game and I am very happy that it made it into our collection.
Stefan Feld’s Oracle of Delphi also came with great expectations. Unlike many of my friends, I am not a Feld fan and while I usually enjoy his games, I do not find them unique or special enough to make into my top ten. I am happy to report that in this case the game play exceeded the already high expectations. Oracle of Delphi is an excellent dice + racing game. The luck factor is limited by mitigating factors, the player powers are small but meaningful, encouraging diverse strategies, the iconography is good and for a race game I cannot see how it could be better. The dice manipulation is implemented in a smart way, so the point to point movement and the pick-up-and-delivery is complex enough to generate a wide range of approaches. The game offers an epic feeling and the satisfaction to have raced, whether you win or not.
Ice Cool is a completely different dish. First, I must complement the publisher for making a smart and ergonomic game box/board. The box-in-a-box-in-a-box is very effective, the game is easy to set up and even easier to play. It’s a flicking game, so you’d think not my cup of tea… yet I enjoyed it enough to play it several times, with a mixed group of kids and self-respecting adults, having loads of fun. I must admit that I would not play it again and again as my fingers hurt and I find it a bit repetitive, but it’s a challenge to defeat a bunch of 10-year old kids at a game they have been ‘built’ to play 🙂
So, how about some Adrenaline? In my opinion, this is a Euro disguised under a shoot-em-up coat, ready to entertain players who enjoy a healthy victory point competition as well as Doom/Quake/Counterstrike nostalgics. I must admit that when I was a kid I was pretty terrible at first person shooters, so I had the chance tp redeem myself and kill a bunch of misfits in Adrenaline. Even though I did not win, I came close enough. The cool part of the game is the presence of the negative interaction (shooting at and killing other characters) which does not bother anyone at all. It is a game about shooting in the end, but as you die and re-spawn immediately, you’re totally OK with this, sometime even asking players “shoot me, shoot me!”. Overall, Adrenaline offers a fresh playing experience and it should soon find a place in our collection.
Eurogames are the most popular in our group, so we could not go through a long playing weekend without at least a few proper euros. Ulm was the first on the list and it is a solid game. We played with the full array of components for the expert variant and it was worth it. The game play flows well, with very little down time, it allows different strategies, there is even a race component to the game which makes it more attractive and the worker placement mechanism is replaced by a push mechanic which adds an element of randomness to manage.
In the break from mind twisters, we focused a little on race and party games. Chariot Race is a good racing game, spoiled by the quality of components and the lack of artwork. It is still fun to roll the dice, race and deal a bit of damage to the other competitors, while leaving behind traps… even if you’re the one falling in them. HOP! is the opposite side of the spectrum, with amazing components, but lacking in game play. The game look gorgeous and if it were just a toy I would happily rate it a 9, but for a game – even a children game – it is underwhelming to say the least. The beautiful minis could be simple wooden cubes, the 3D board could be a single card scoring track and the game play would be exactly the same.
The last game worth mentioning is Bohemian Villages. It’s a small and rather simple dice game, which promises very little and delivers so much more! You roll your dice and assign your subjects to various buildings in several towns. Every building scores differently and you can make as many dice combinations as you can imagine. A low roll is not a bad roll and the designers have clearly done their research, because the most probable rolls are assigned to building which score throughout the game, while the least probable outcomes for those to be scored at the end, giving everyone a chance to get back in the game even after a slow start.