Essen 2005 – Thursday 13th October

This was my seventh trip to Essen and, as always, it was a very enjoyable affair. Lots of bright shiny new games to look at; meeting and playing games with friends I’ve not seen for 12 months; and spending too much money but not giving a damn. Two days at the fair is just right for me. It’s enough time to see most of what you want to see, chat and find out about what’s hot and what’s not, while avoiding the unbearable crush of Saturday and Sunday.

Flying out on Thursday morning meant that I got into the halls at about 10.30. After stashing the empty suitcase, I headed first towards the Alea booth to check out their latest prototype: Um Ru(h)m und Ehre. I wasn’t surprised to find Greg Schloesser and Rick Thornquist among the first group trying out the game. Their verdict was that it plays pretty well but is much lighter than some of the classic Alea big box games, with lots of dice rolling. It looks like a set-collecting game with a pirate theme (yes, yet another pirate game!)

After that, I headed for the Rio Grande booth. I had e-mailed Jay Tummelson a few weeks ago and he’d said they had hoped to have most of their new releases available at the show. Now, last year, the English editions were in short supply so I’d decided to pick up what I was interested in very early on. Although some of my most eagerly awaited picks hadn’t made it (Hazienda and E+T cardgame), I did pick up Caylus, Dragon Riders, Carcassonne: The Discovery and Ark, while Jay also threw in copies of Carcassonne: The River 2 expansion and the Puerto Rico expansion. He also had copies of Techno Witches and the new Power Grid maps but I passed on these. Mayfair was my next port of call to see what English editions they had. Quite a few was the answer with many of the DaVinci line being there. I held onto my money as far as these were concerned until I’d had the chance to try them but did pick up English copies of Mesopotamia and Elasund (the latest in the Catan adventures series), which Keith Thomasson had said was receiving some reasonable buzz.

By that time, my bag was already getting very heavy so I went and transferred the early purchases to my suitcase and headed for hall 9, where a lot of the smaller companies are. Fragor Games were in here with their new sheep game, Shear Panic. I had a quick chat with Gordon Lamont, who is a really nice guy and who thanked me for advertising the game on my site. Luckily, I had pre-ordered my copy, because they had sold out of all 500 copies by Wednesday afternoon (before the fair had officially started). Good news for them but I guess lots of people will have been disappointed to miss out. Fragor had also done a great job with their booth with lots of sheep skins and faces decorating the place. Gordon also suggested they might be doing a two player version next year, so they’ll be able to re-use the stuff for their booth next year. Wandering around, I bumped into Mike Siggins and Martin Leathwood who were trying out Castle Merchants by Z-Man Games. They weren’t overly impressed but I was later able to try the game myself.

Next up was the Warfrog stand, with Geoff Brown giving me grief about not immediately buying their new game Byzantium. Now, he knows I do always buy Martin’s releases but tend to wait until later on so I’m not carting the game around all day. But he claimed that every year I drive him mad by not parting with my cash straight away, unlike their other customers who complete the transaction in less than a minute. This is the jovial banter I’ve come to expect so, true to form, I left him hanging and noted down that I should leave my purchase of Byzantium until the very last minute. All this time, I had not actually sat down to play a game. This changed when I bumped into Greg again and Ward Batty, who were on their way to the Fragor booth to try out Shear Panic. They asked if I wanted to join them and it took about a nanosecond for me to agree. On the way, however, Greg bumped into someone he wanted to chat to and, although Ward and I were happy to talk to each other about his Atlanta games days and other things, by the time we got to Hall 9, we were late for the time he’d booked to play and Gordon had to let someone else try it in our place. Undaunted though, we went over to the Abacus area and persuaded them to teach us Sushi Express. Our teacher, Miriam, was extremely good and spoke perfect English much to our embarrassment. We felt better though when she admitted she was studying English at university and had spent time in both the USA and Scotland learning the language.

Sushi Express is a light push your luck dice game by Michael Schacht, which takes about 30 minutes to play. The idea is that you’re driving delivery vans around a city trying to keep your customers supplied with sushi. There are 8 different coloured customer cards and some tip cards. Players get 3 points for the first card they gain in a colour and 1 point for each extra card in that colour. Also, the player with the fewest tips at the end of the game loses points. Players bid for the right to roll first by placing a token on the highest number they think they can roll with two standard dice. The player bidding closest to 12 rolls first. They have two attempts to roll at least the number bid. If successful, they move the number of spaces bid and if they pass the Sushi Express space, choose a customer card from those on display. All other players get to move what they bid without needing to roll. If the first player was unsuccessful, he doesn’t move and the next placed bidder gets to roll the dice to try and reach their bid. Once the customer card supply is exhausted, the game ends and whoever has the most points wins. In our game, Greg and I tied for first place. We all quite enjoyed this as a fun game and I picked up a copy to bring home.

We then went and tried Castle Merchants at the Z-Man Games booth. We were taught by Z-Man head honcho, Zev Shlasinger. The players are merchants who are trying to sell their wares at five different castles. They are rewarded with gold, with most gold going to the player who first supplies a castle and less gold for each subsequent supplier. Cards are used to determine the terrain to be travelled over and also to allow a player to travel over that terrain. Rock falls can be placed in front of your opponents to slow them down but, basically, it’s a race to try and visit as many different castles as you can before everyone else gets to the rich pickings first. Ward had a big problem early on, which prevented him from keeping up with the other players. So, after about a third of the game, he knew he had no chance of winning. We also thought there might be a bit of a runaway leader problem but this may have been because we   weren’t nasty enough with our rockfalls. The game overall was ok but it wasn’t one I was tempted to pick up. I decided to call it an afternoon after that and so headed to my hotel for a quick change. I had arranged to meet up with friends, Angela Caunce and David Blowers, that evening so headed over to the Jung Hotel, where they were staying. While waiting for them to appear, I chatted for a while with Valerie Putman from Ohio (I think), who was making her first trip to Essen. She had the same reaction as everyone who makes their first trip to Essen, remarking how huge it is.

After Angela, David and I had eaten at a local Chinese restaurant, we returned to the Jung to play another couple of games. First off was Lucca Citta by Da Vinci games. This was a pretty quick card game about building palaces and opening them to the public. Each player is trying to complete up to five different palaces. To do this, you need to have played five cards of that palace. The cards will show a number of windows and shields, as well as a number above the door. The shields are used to determine player order while the windows increase the value of the palace when complete. Each round a number of triplets of cards are laid out and the player with the most shields has first pick. These cards are added to the palaces under construction and any that have five cards are moved to the completed area and points equal to the number of windows are noted down on paper. On any subsequent turn, a completed palace can be opened to the public, which results in bonus points according to the size and completeness of any unopened palaces of the same type held by the other players. Once the deck is exhausted, players get to open any remaining completed palaces and whoever has amassed the most points wins. It took us a while to work out what we were doing but, once we got the hang of it, I quite enjoyed it. However, it seemed to be over a bit too quickly so I’m not sure how much opportunity there is for strategic planning.

The other game we played was Railroad Dice 2 from Wassertal Spieleverlag, the follow-up to a game that was very well received when it was released two years ago. The game is about developing a track network to connect up various stations on the board and moving passengers between those stations to accumulate more money. It is very similar in concept to many other railway games but the type of track that can be laid is shown on the faces of the dice so you can’t always lay what you want when the dice are being unkind. This second version adds complex dice, which allow you to upgrade simple straights and curves, allowing the routes to weave among each other. I am not overly keen on this type of game but it played ok and Angela did the best job of developing her network and deserved the easy win she achieved, despite me trying my best to mess up her plans. And that was it, for the first day. I’ll try and add my report on Friday’s gaming tomorrow or maybe later in the week.

Cash Trap

I was contacted yesterday by a new UK game company, New Century Games, who originate from just up the road in Cheshire. They have just released a new game: Cash Trap, and will be at Essen next week to promote it. The game looks like a simple “get all your pieces from one side of the board to the other” type game but your efforts are complicated by the fact that movement is dictated by cards you play and there are plenty of opportunities to block an opponent’s pieces. Details of the game can be found on the game’s website. The game has also been tested by the Halesowen Boardgames Club and they seemed to have fun with it. The game’s not going to challenge the heavy abstracts in the Gipf series but it looks like it will be a nice family game. I look forward to trying it soon.