New Game Watch: Essen 2013

Though Origins is my annual gaming highlight, last weekend was Essen Spiel, the biggest event for the world in general. Given that, I thought I’d take a look at what new and upcoming games are the most interesting right now.

This is definitely not a thorough list. It’s just the games that I have my eye on after skimming through various news sites and blogs. And since most of those sites were mainly posting pictures and discussing the new convention hall, I turned to the two community ratings charts: BGG Geekbuzz and Fairplay. You can see the Fairplay results at Opinionated Gamers, but I’m not sure if you can find a history on the GeekBuzz page, or just see the latest convention’s results. So for posterity, here are the top ten in each:

GeekBuzz Fairplay
1. Amerigo Russian Railroads
2. Bruxelles 1893 Concordia
3. Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends Glass Road
4. Twin Tin Bots Bruxelles 1893
5. Romolo o Remo? Kashgar
6. Love Letter Rokoko
7. Serpent’s Tongue Spyrium
8. Hanabi Madeira
9. Steam Park Love Letter
10. Glass Road UGO!

It’s a little frustrating to try to make sense of this list from the other side of the world. It’s dominated by worker placement games, and I can find very little information about most of them online. (The rules are often available, but it can be difficult to get much from those alone, especially when you’re trying to catch up on so many.) I haven’t found much in the way of reviews or commentary to tell me how one new worker placement game differs from the next. But as I already mentioned, everyone is talking at length about the Essen convention hall set-up.

I’m sure that a year from now, I’ll have opinions about most of these games. But for now, all I can do is make a note of the most popular ones and try to guess at the best ones.

My initial guesses are below.

Most Anticipated Game Before Spiel: Vlaada Chvátil is one of my two favorite game designers, thanks to his strong themes that are still fun and fair to play.  Mage Knight was a disappointment, though, and I’m worried that he may be getting too complex and detailed. I’ve really been curious about Tash-Kalar, because that may determine what I think of Chvávil going forward. The early buzz is great, but then again a lot of people liked Mage Knight. Z-Man Games announced last month that they’d be picking it up for US distribution, and they had it for sale at Essen, so I should get to find out soon.

(My other favorite designer, Stefan Feld, has his fourth game of the year at Essen. I hadn’t paid much attention to Amerigo in the past, since it’s built around a gimmick from Queen Games, but I’ve finally heard enough good things that I’m looking forward to trying it out.)

Buzz Winner: The two rating systems had very different results, with only three common games in the top ten. (And one of those, Love Letter, is old enough to be getting buzz for the second year in a row.) It stands to reason that the games that rose to the top in both systems had the most universal acclaim, and didn’t just get there by gaming the system. If so, Bruxelles 1893 is the one to check out, since it’s the only game found in the top five of both. It’s a worker placement game with an art theme, and the modular board means that on a given turn, not everyone will have access to the same actions. Beyond that, I’m still waiting for someone to explain this game more clearly.

My Pick From The Buzz: If it were up to me, I would have put Russian Rails above Bruxelles 1893. (And, to be honest, the Fairplay voters agreed with me.) Not that I have very much to base that claim on; It’s another worker placement game without much information easily available yet. But it is a railroad game, which is a fascinating gaming category of its own. I’m very curious to see how the network-building, technology improvements, and out-racing opponents work when managed through worker placement.

The Dark Horse: I hadn’t heard of Twin Tin Bots before, but it looks like we might finally have a Robo Rally for the modern era. Its differences could even get my Robo Rally-hating friends to try it: You have two robots with three instructions each, so they’re less complicated and one mistake doesn’t mess up your entire position on the board. The cards you use to “program” the robots come from a pre-set hand (with a few bonuses you can earn), so your activity isn’t based largely on luck of the draw. However, you can only make minor modifications to the instructions each time, so it’s difficult to make sudden changes. It also replaces the racing and shooting of Robo Ralley with collecting “crystals” and injecting rogue commands into enemy robots, which sounds like a much more interesting interactive experience. I may be over-estimating the game right now, as some people say that its GeekBuzz ratings were just because the Twin Tin Bots booth was next to the Board Game Geek booth, and there isn’t an American distributor at the moment anyway. My big concern would be with the downtime, since it seems that people could analyze the board for a long time. I’ll keep my eyes open, though.

Upcoming Game: 7 Wonders: Babel isn’t out yet, but the details of this expansion were just released. And though I thought I was pretty much over 7 Wonders, and I haven’t even played the second expansion, this new one caught my attention. It offers two new options to change the rules that everyone is playing by. One is simply randomly-drawn cards that change costs for everyone, but the other is pieces of The Tower of Babel, which players draft and then build. Each section changes a rule, until someone later covers it up, or it may be held back in your hand all game in order to guarantee that that rule won’t change. Like Leaders before it, it sounds like this opens up huge new possibilities for the gameplay. Common strategies become better or worse from game to game, and there’s finally a simple way to interact with the whole table.

Good Pedigrees, New Tricks: While most people seem to be flocking to worker placement, there are also a lot of well-regarded designers moving outside their comfort zone. Uwe Rosenberg’s Glass Road is, as far as I know, his first non-worker-placement game in years. (It’s about hand management and simultaneously choosing actions. The trick appears to be choosing the best card for the situation, yet without choosing the same one as anyone else.) Concordia is by rondel-master Mac Gerdts, but has no rondels. And Spyrium is William Attia’s (of Caylus) first significant game in years, period. (It has a clever system for bidding for and claiming cards in the middle of the table.) The games all got early attention thanks to their designers’ reputations, but now that people are getting to try them, it’s apparent that they deserve those top spots.

Not Essen: The Two Rooms And A Boom Kickstarter went live yesterday. I’m glad to see that it didn’t get drowned out by all the news coming from Europe; it met its funding goal in a few hours. I was introduced to this game at Origins, and you can read my initial impressions from then. In short: If you like hidden role/social deduction games, this is the most promising Werewolf alternative I’ve seen. It has a very different feel, with private discussions and even showing your role card to other players, and tight time limits to make it hard to keep track of everything that goes on. Like any social hidden role game, there’s a lot of guesswork involved and the conclusion will sometimes feel arbitrary, but it will keep you engaged the whole time. I think that the basic game is probably uninteresting, but it comes with many different roles, involving special abilities and people with their own win conditions separate from the two main teams. I’m excited for this one. My only concern is that they’ve cut their 150-card set down to 55 core ones for price reasons. But they’re adding new cards frequently as they hit stretch goals, and the deck is up to 75 on the evening of the second day. It doesn’t look like that will be a problem.

 

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