I went to Essen last week! And since I bought a ton of games, and played a ton more, and since I desperately owe you guys a blog post, I think it’s high time for a rundown of the show.
“Essen” is the nickname for Internationale Spieletag, a board game fair that takes place every year in the town of Essen, Germany. Did I say “a” boardgame fair? Because it’s really “the” boardgame fair—the biggest in the world, and by far the most important. Three massive halls of a gargantuan convention center fill up with game companies, game retailers, hobby shops, demo booths, rabid fans, and eager designers trying to promote their games, pitch to publishers, or both. PAX and GenCon might be bigger, but they also have a much wider focus. Essen is tabletop games, pure and simple, with four solid days of nothing but games, games, games.
(And of course bratwurst, because this is Germany, and that’s the quickest, cheapest meal to grab while on your way to more games.)
I’ve wanted to go to Essen for years, but last year was the first time it was financially feasible—since I live about three hours away now, and 60 Euros for a train ticket is a lot cheaper than 1200 bucks for a plane. I talked my friend Will, a fellow game geek I’ve known since second grade, who happened to be studying in Oxford at the time, to come and join me, and I loved it so much that I immediately planned a return trip. This time I got a hotel room early (landing me with a much better one) and managed to convince my friend Nick, from my old game group in Utah, to pony up the $1200 and join me. I also brought my 10-year-old son, because he happened to be on vacation most of the time—I had to get him excused from one day of school, which is no small task in Germany, but we did it. The three of us headed up and made our plans.
I’d been watching the various Essen previews on BoardGameGeek for a while, so I’d already concocted a list of what I wanted to see while I was there. The first stop on the first day was Portal Games, for a game I’d actually preordered: Legacy: the Testament of Duke de Crecy. I bought this one sight unseen, based solely on the previews, and I was not disappointed. This ended up being my hands-down favorite game of the fair, so I’ll save my description of it for last.
After that we wandered a bit, taking in the sights, and we ran across another game from my watch list: Rokoko, though I got the Eagle Games version so the box says “Rococo.” The only place we could find that was running a demo of this one was Pegasus Spiele, their German publisher, and their booth was a crowded morass, so I bit the bullet and bought this one, again, unplayed and untested. This was worth it to me, though, because I got it with my two daughters in mind; they love to play games with me, but they really get tired of how many “daddy games” have fighting in them, and Rococo is about making dresses for a fancy ball. I brought it home and played it with them (12yo and 7yo), and it was a major hit, so well done. The 7yo isn’t likely to win anytime soon, but she can play it easily, and the game is still fun for me. I recommend this one highly.
Day one also saw the purchase of my other favorite game from the fair, and probably the wackiest, most out-there game I’ve played all year. I dropped by the Repos booth to pick up the 7 Wonders: Wonder Pack, and saw that they were running demos for Rampage, another game from my watch list and from the same 7 Wonders designer, Antoine Bauza. He was already one of my favorite game designers, and Rampage cemented this status more firmly than ever. Put simply, it’s a game where you set up by building a city out of cardboard tiles and little wooden people (as shown here), and then the point of the game is to KNOCK IT DOWN WITH GIANT WOODEN DINOSAURS. This is already cool, but what makes it so great is that the mechanics behind the destruction are classically Euro-gamer, with careful management of actions, and scoring based on set collection, and all kinds of “respectable” gaming tropes…it’s just that in this case, the actions are things like flicking your dinosaur across the table to move it, crokinole style, or picking it up and dropping it on a building full of tasty wooden meeples. It is equal parts ridiculous and awesome, and just as much fun for adults as it is for my 5-year-old. Huge kudos to Bauza and his co-designer, Ludovic Maublanc, for even attempting this insane balancing act, let alone pulling it off.
While I spent the fair looking for games I could play with my kids, my friend nick was on the prowl for space games; he’s a huge fan of Twilight Imperium, and we playtested five or six similar titles looking for something that scratched the same itch but in a short time frame, and/or a better sense of focus. He really loved Quantum until a string of bad dice rolls killed it for him, and kind of liked Theseus, but not enough to pick it up. All of these brain-burning space games were wearing on my 10yo’s patience, however, so when an eager demo-er at some random booth offered to show us a kiddie-looking dungeon crawl game, we said yes as a concession to my son. That’s how we stumbled onto Super Fantasy, a game I’d never seen from a publisher I’d never heard of, which Nick and I both bought about 40 minutes later. Despite the kiddie-looking art, Super Fantasy has some of the most clever, tactical, hack-and-slash gaming I have ever played. It uses dice as action points, allowing you to allocate them however you want each turn. You only get six, but say you need to move, kill a monster, and pick a lock on a chest: how do you divvy them up? Can you afford to risk two dice on the attack, or do you need three? The game handles special abilities, experience and leveling, treasure, equipment, and so on in the simple, elegant way that other dungeon crawlers like Descent have always tried for and missed the mark, and yet without sacrificing any fantasy flavor. I especially loved the way you charge up abilities and then spend them. Such a great game, and with phenomenal support: the Red Glove website posts new maps and scenarios for free, and there are two expansions coming in the next few months. If you like fantasy and dungeon crawls, definitely check this one out.
My last purchase of Day One (yes, this was still all Day One) was Luchador!, a little dice game from my watch list that had some of the best demo staff at Essen. You can tell a good demo from two factors: they control the length of the demos (so the tables aren’t tied up for hours), and they make the games look fun. The Luchador! demo guys were REALLY getting into it, which not only attracted a big crowd but helped everyone, even if they weren’t actually playing, figure out how the game worked. Fun little touches, like having to high-five your team-mate in a tag-team match, and shouting out the countdown when you try to pin somebody, go a long way. This wasn’t a groundbreaking game by any means, but it’s fun and short and portable, and that fills an awful lot of niches for a guy with five kids. It’s simple enough for my 5yo, which is a nice bonus, plus there’s a lot of cool Lucha Libre flavor, including wonderful descriptions of each character’s special moves. Some of the Mexican culture bits are awkward, like the name “El Cobra Vuelo,” which doesn’t really work, but that’s more than made up for by names like “Ay! Dolores,” which you’ll have to trust me, is hilarious.
How did we spend our first night? By playing Super Fantasy, obviously. Seriously, guys, it’s an incredible game.
Day Two saw a distinct lull in the purchasing frenzy, mostly because we’d already hit most of our watch list games and were now on the prowl for something new. I wanted to love Countdown: Special Ops, but it had some weird logic problems and didn’t really hit the “careful planning caper team” sweet spot I was hoping for. I really wanted to try out Freedom: The Underground Railroad from Academy Games, but every time I went by they said “we’re demoing that tomorrow, come back,” and eventually they ran out of tomorrows. Exodus: Proxima Centauri was easily the best space game we tried all weekend, but they didn’t have any promos and Nick was pressed for space in his luggage, so he resolved to just pick it up after he got home. Why was Nick pressed for space? Because our one major purchase of the day was a big one. A significant subset of Essen games are miniatures games, and we often found ourselves stopping to admire some jaw-droppingly gorgeous minis only to demo them and realize that the rules are terrible; it’s almost like the rules are an afterthought, as an excuse to sell the figures. When we finally stumbled onto Dropzone Commander, we were shocked and delighted to realize that the rules were every bit as awesome as the minis. It’s an “epic scale” game, meaning that the infantry are about 10mm high and come five to a base, with the main units being tanks and air support; the game focuses on rapid deployment and redeployment, and it plays fast and smooth while still having an impressive amount of depth. They offered a starter set with two basic armies, but Nick went whole hog and bought a “large army” bundle for each of the four factions. They threw in some templates and two massive terrain sets for free, and we walked away with a hefty pile and a serious airline baggage weight limit problem.
I don’t think I bought any games on Day Two, though I did break down and buy my son a foam sword from the Mytholon booth. I did find three of the Lord of the Rings Adventure Packs I needed, and in English even, but I didn’t have enough cash on me so they promised to hold them so I could come back the next morning. I hit an ATM bright and early on Day Three and swung back to pick them up, and they gave me too much change; when I pointed this out and gave their money back, they gave me two free Munchkin promo cards, in German, which I will happily mail (and possibly write on, with John Kovalic’s permission) to whoever can give me the most compelling reason in the comments.
Day Three was another flurry of buying, but tempered by learning that some of my watch list games were delayed in production, and thus unavailable at the fair. The main one in this category was Sultaniya, which I was really excited about, but oh well. The first purchase of the day was Tokaido: Crossroads, the expansion for another Antoine Bauza game. I also picked up the special promo character. I got the base game, Tokaido, at last year’s Essen, but despite the stunning art the game itself was too simple to really enjoy with anyone but my 5yo and 7yo; they love it, though, so back I went to keep the collection complete. The new one adds some more depth, but I don’t know if it will enter my adult game night rotation yet. Still, though—that art is incredible.
Another game with incredible art is Ace Detective, from Passport Games, which I’d been eyeing all weekend in its little back corner of Hall 3. It’s a storytelling game about noir detectives, where you chain cards together and weave a cooperative story about a murder investigation, with the added fun of being able to place “evidence” on different suspects to see which one is guilty at the end. It’s kind of a combination of Once Upon A Time and certain parts of Android, but more focused than the former and far more playable than the latter. The best part, though, like I said, is the art: the cards are made with original paintings—and sometimes original quotes—from Black Mask magazine, an old pulp detective rag that gives the game a delicious noir flavor. We finally got to demo it on Day Three, and I snapped it up right after.
Nick wanted to play some of the more complex games, like Nations (which I loved) and Amerigo (which was being demoed very poorly by Queen Games, so we never got a chance to play it). I was having fun—we even got to talk to Rustan Hakansson, a co-designer of Nations, and he signed Nick’s game when he bought it—but my son was getting restless again, so we made another goal to play absolutely anything he thought looked cool. He must have been in an archeological mood, because we tried Relic Runners (which he and Nick both liked more than I did) and Escape: The Curse of the Temple (which was another Queen Games title, so we had to literally force our way into a demo game. They REALLY need to control their demo space a little better). Escape has been out for a while now, long enough to have two expansions, but I’d never heard of it until Mur Lafferty recommended it last month at VCON. It’s a real-time game, with the same “10-minute CD” thing I loved in Space Alert, but instead of brain-burning puzzle-solving it’s a mad dash through a ruined temple, trying to lift a curse and escape before the CD stops and the temple collapses. It’s a fantastic group game, because there are no turns and no down-time—you’re literally just rolling dice like mad, flipping tiles and moving little gems and trying to coordinate with the other players in ten breathless, chaotic minutes. I bought the game, both expansions, and all three Essen promos (plus the free promo), so I guess you could say we liked it
Our last stop of the day was the AEG booth, where I had an appointment the following day to pitch my card game to two of their design guys. AEG’s one of my favorite game companies, so I wanted to make sure to give myself time to play their stuff instead of just pitching and running. The two I was most interested in were Smash Up (which debuted at last year’s show, but I never played for lack of time) and Canalis (which is part of the Tempest line I spent all my time last year playing ). Canalis, I must admit, immediately turned us off due to the game art; the other Tempest games are gorgeous, but Canalis just didn’t seem to fit, and we (foolishly) lost interest. (But stay tuned, because we’ll get back to this in a minute.) Smash Up, on the other hand, looked great and seemed to play well, plus they were stupidly cheap, so I grabbed the game and the Cthulhu expansion (the other expansion was sold out), and we headed back to the hotel to play some games.
Day Four was shorter than the others, and I had some stuff to do off-site, so we only spent a few hours at the fair. Nick basically just went from booth to booth all morning, getting all the free promos he could find, and then we dedicated our entire afternoon to AEG. At last year’s fair an AEG guy had explained the Tempest line to us, and my friend Will and I both thought it sounded like a good setting for a heist-themed card game I’d been noodling around with. This year, armed with a year of playtesting, a fancy prototype, and an appointment for a pitch meeting, I was determined to wow them with my game. Because I was determined to be there on time, we got there almost an hour early, and since there was nothing else to do we sat down to a demo of Canalis. I noticed it was designed by Philip duBarry, who’d also designed Courtier, which was my number one game from last year’s fair, and wondered if I’d been too hasty in passing it off. Barely five minutes into the demo, Nick and I looked at each other in embarrassed surprise—this was one of the best games we’d played all weekend. Canalis combines card-drafting and resource-shipping and road-building (well, canal-building) in a deeply tactical, absolutely cutthroat game of city management, carefully balancing screw-you mechanics with long-term planning and a hint of randomness. It was AMAZING. If not for Legacy, duBarry might very well have designed my favorite game of the fair two fairs in a row. I bought it instantly, and Nick and I played again as soon as we got home.
My pitch session went well—the AEG guys didn’t LOVE my game (or they have very good poker faces), but they liked it, and wanted to take the prototype back to show everyone else. My focus on a heist/robbery theme was, they said, not a perfect fit for Tempest, which is more of an intrigue setting than a criminal one, but they started pitching ideas for how to retheme it before I could even offer any, so I take that as a good sign. We also discussed the possibility of just keeping the modern heist theme, which thrills me, because that’s one of my very favorite genres and it’s grossly under-served in the game market. What we did not discuss, but which would make me APOPLECTICALLY HAPPY, would be a retheme into AEG’s stellar Legend of the Five Rings setting, replacing my factions with samurai clans, and the heists with various forms of battle and court drama. Obviously, at this stage nothing is set in stone and they haven’t bought the design and I have no claims on any of their intellectual properties, so don’t quote me and don’t hold your breath. I will reiterate, though, that the pitch session went well, and I have high hopes that something will eventually come of it.
After the pitch, Canalis in hand, we returned to our hotel and camped out in the game room (a conference room dedicated to open gaming, because the city really rolls out the red carpet for the game fair). We gave a shot to Nick’s one blind impulse purchase, The Fallen City of Karez, which might have the worst rulebook ever written. The game is semi-co-op, which is Nick’s favorite thing, and it has a lot going for it in general, but it left us feeling kind of blah. We hope some further plays will reveal hidden wonders, but as it stood Nick was bummed he’d bought that instead of leaving room in his luggage for Canalis.
Our other play of the evening, bringing us full circle, was Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy. This is a game from Michiel Hendriks, a first-time designer, which he shopped around for three or four years even after winning a game design award for his prototype. Kind of puts a damper on my high hopes for my very first pitch session, doesn’t it? The game is simple and beautiful: you play the head of a family in pre-revolutionary France, arranging marriages and forming alliances and guiding your family through four generations of glory and honor. The gameplay is simple and incredibly intuitive, with the best melding of flavor and mechanics I’ve ever seen in a game. You could literally teach people how to play simply by describing the theme behind it, which is an astonishing feat. There’s even a single player variant (a big plus for me, stranded so far from my game group) where you play the game backwards, piecing together a family tree in a kind of genealogical puzzle. The game is deep, fun, flavorful, and eminently replayable. I can’t recommend it highly enough, and it wins the Dan Wells prize for “Best Game of Essen 2013.”
Will I be back next year? I would love to, but it will be tricky. I’m moving back to the US in August, and probably flying to WorldCon almost immediately after, which dries up the budget for transatlantic flights pretty soundly. That said, it’s my favorite con of the year, and it would take a minimum of convincing to make me throw budget to the wind and fly over for one more go. And if by some miracle I have a card game coming out (wildly unlikely, but you never know) I’ll be there with bells on.
And that’s my Essen report. Just over 3500 words, which would be an awesome word count for NaNoWriMo, but a tad long for a blog post. Even one of my blog posts. I promise I won’t wake you wait three months for the next one.