Every year the small city of Essen in Western Germany gets taken over by the board gaming hoard. Over 100,000 people cram themselves into an exhibition centre over four days where they can play around 1000 new games. I am of course talking about Spiel, the biggest board game convention this side of the Atlantic. This year was my second year at Spiel but, whereas most people go to play and buy new games, I went to work.
Working at Spiel is a unique experience. It is an experience that, on paper, should suck. We had to leave at the crack of dawn on Wednesday morning, driving half way across Europe with stock and the materials to build our booth. This was followed by four long days of demoing and selling the game. We got little sleep and little time during the day to do much else but demo. It’s intense, it’s knackering….oh and it’s seriously great fun.
This is mostly due to the awesome people who I’ve attended Essen with these past two years. Team Lords of War are some of the nicest and friendliest board gamers around. Without the copious amount of hugs, and crazy sleep deprived chats that made up most evenings, Essen would definitely not be as fun as it was. Working on a stall at Essen also introduces you to a new aspect of board gaming; you get to peak behind the curtain so to speak. For many board games are just something you buy at the shops and play with some friends but for the designers and publishers these games are their babies. When you go to conventions like this you see the absurd amount of work that goes into creating and selling a board game. You don’t just create a game, ship it off to the printers and call it a day. The amount of work that goes into building and maintaining a fan base is immense and is readily apparent at Spiel. At many stalls, Lords of War at least, the people working on there are volunteers, giving up their time because they simply love the game and love the people that make them.
Whilst behind the curtain, working at Essen also grants the opportunity to meet and chat with many other game developers who are also at the show selling their games. One highlight of the show this year for me was bumping into Christophe Raimbault, the designer of the fantastic Colt Express. Colt Express was actually the first game I ever reviewed for Big Red Barrel, and I did have a bit of a fanboy moment when I met him. He was a ridiculously nice guy, and enjoyed a good few games of Lords of War with us. I talked to him about his Spiel des Jahres win and also about the hilarious Back to the Future promo for Colt Express they were handing out for free at the show. (Available behind the bar at Loading if you ask nicely!!)
The real highlights of Spiel, for me however are all the little moments that come from just playing games with people. It’s when you teach the game to a father and daughter, for the father to return a year later and tell you that Lords of War is still his daughter’s favourite game. It’s when you teach the game to a 10 year old and have him absolutely, utterly and completely destroy you in a couple of turns. It’s when you ask a couple if they want to sit down and “murder each other”, and then watch with glee as they do exactly that. It’s simply just playing a game with a group of strangers and enjoying every bloody minute of it.
For most people though the highlight of Spiel is the many new games that are on offer. For the rest of this article I’ll run through some of the more popular games on offer at Essen 2015.
First up, the game I was most excited about before the show, Pandemic Legacy. You’ve probably already heard of Matt Leacock’s 2008 hit Pandemic. It pretty much created the genre of co-op gaming, with you and up to three other players working together to rid the world of four deadly diseases. This new edition sees Matt Leacock team up with Rob Daviau of Risk Legacy fame. The idea behind the Legacy mechanic is that the results of one game directly affect the next. In Risk Legacy, this involved naming cities and continents and marking the board with stickers that created permanent effects. The game also contained a number of sealed boxes that opened when certain conditions were met, adding new rules and components to the game. Pandemic Legacy adds these persistent mechanics to the Pandemic franchise with a few extra twists.
Whereas Risk Legacy only had a few instances where new rules were added to the game Pandemic Legacy is full of them. It’s important to say at this point that the game is FULL of spoilers and I’ll be as careful as I can to not ruin any of them for you. Your first game of Pandemic Legacy will pretty much be vanilla Pandemic. You’ll have four diseases to cure and all the familiar tools to do so. However, outbreaks now permanently mark the board increasing the panic level of the city in question causing a whole host of negative effects to the city and also to any characters who happen to be present at the time.
The real surprises however are located in the Legacy deck. A whole campaign of Pandemic Legacy takes place over the course of a year and each game see’s you tackle one month. At the start of each month you’ll turn to the legacy deck, drawing cards when told. The deck contains all your objectives and win upgrades but also any surprises and secrets that will be revealed during play. Whereas Risk Legacy had about 8 sealed compartments Pandemic Legacy has over 40 and the majority of the triggers for these are located in the legacy deck. So far I’ve only had the chance to play one game, the game in January and even this is full of a few surprises that I will not mention here. By the end of just one game the choices you make and the events that take place will leave you with you a pretty unique board. I’m incredibly excited to play more of this game and learn all the secrets it contains.
Seriously….get this game….
The next game that got a lot of attention at Essen is the intriguing T.I.M.E Stories. This game was seriously popular with the English copy selling out before the end of the first day and the German copy not long after. T.I.M.E Stories describes itself as somewhere between a co-operative board game and a tabletop role-playing game. In some ways this game bears similarities to Pandemic Legacy. Both games are full of spoilers and both games contain a deck that plays out the story. The boxed game comes with its first campaign, Asylum, and its associated pack of cards. To play a game of T.I.M.E Stories you simply just play through this deck laying cards out onto the board when told.
I’ve managed to pick up a copy since getting back from Germany but not had the chance to play it yet. I’ll leave it to our fearless leader Tim to describe how his first game went a few days ago,
“For us videogamers T.I.M.E Stories may seem somewhat derivative of a number of familiar stories with Assassin’s Creed (and in particular the use of the Animus for time traveling) being the most analogous. The first case certainly also has a few factors in common with the story seen in 12 Monkeys. T.I.M.E agents use technology to travel back in time and investigate moments in history to eliminate temporal anomalies. Unlike AC, where you are constricted to travel back into the mind of your ancestors, the technology in T.I.M.E Stories allows you to take your choice of vessel from various characters available in each scenario. In the case that comes in the box you are travelling back to a 1920’s Asylum and each take control of a flawed resident and must contend with their problems while also trying to solve the overall mystery.
The game is described with new terminology, as being a game of “decksploration” or “decksploring” game – which I am sure we will start to see clones of in future. In the game this translates to having a sealed deck that is not to be shuffled or viewed ahead of time. As you journey through the deck you reveal new rooms and locations that all have corresponding cards. These cards are laid out on the board revealing a panoramic picture of each room, which when visited gives the player the chance to find out what the text of the card reveals. Moving between and exploring locations eats up your precious Temporal Units – if all of these run out then the scenario resets and you can start again from the beginning. Only a near perfect run through will reveal the truth and allow you to correct the paradox before your next leap home – oh boy!
It also has one of the most intelligently designed boxes I have ever seen as it allows you to pack the game away in a format that “saves” your progress. Have only just started playing this scenario but am planning future (or is that past?) purchases for all the new cases added by way of expansions”
As of writing this the game’s first expansion, The Marcy Case, has already been released and more are set to follow over the coming months. Like Pandemic Legacy each campaign does have a definitive life time. Once you’ve completed an entire scenario then there’s not much in the way of replayability, at least with the same group. However, this doesn’t really bother me. Each scenario should take a fair few plays to solve so in terms of overall play time this game should be fine. My only slight concern right now is on pricing. Each expansion is priced at a little over half the cost of the full boxed game which, to me at least, seems a little steep for a big pack of cards. For many this will be fine but I just wish they were a teeny bit cheaper.
The next game I want to talk about is about as euro as it gets. 504 is the newest game by Friedman Friese the designer of the classic Power Grid. His new game is, quite frankly mad. The box contains 9 independent modules with each one representing a common gaming mechanic. These include Pick up and deliver, exploration, and military mechanics among others. At the start of every game you pick three of these modules. Depending on the three pick and the order in which you arrange them you are left with one of 504 unique games! So modules 2, 5 and 3 will give you a racing game that involves exploration and interesting technology. Worlds 4, 1 and 7 will create a military game with pick up and delivery mechanics and bonus scoring for having the most stuff.
It boggles my mind how much work must have gone into creating this game and ensuring the whole thing worked. I didn’t purchase a copy at Spiel and really want to try it out at some point. I guess the main concern right now is how many of these 504 games are actually worth playing. As someone at the show said to me whilst playing Lords of War, if even 10% of these games are great then you have still got 50 amazing games in a box. This still doesn’t really help in knowing which games are actually any good. It could take a lot of trial and error, playing a few dull games before the real classics become apparent.
Another concern is the actual uniqueness of each game. The order you pick these modules essentially reflects their importance of that particular mechanic. All games with module 4 as the first choice will be fundamentally war games. Therefore this begs the question, how different will games be when you just change the third number, the least important module. Modules 412 and 416 will both be war games with pick up and deliver mechanics but one will contain exploration and one will contain roads. Really…how different can that be?
The Bloody Inn
I only bought two games at Essen this year. Pandemic Legacy was the first. The second was The Bloody Inn, which I picked up on the last day of the show after hearing some good things about it on the show floor. I was mostly attracted by the games brutal and morbid theme. In The Bloody Inn, you play a group of innkeepers working at an establishment that isn’t doing very well. So to make ends meet you decide to murder your guests and rob their corpses. Yeah…this game is dark.
Essentially what we have here is a simple hand management game where you use the abilities of the people who visit your inn to bribe, kill, and bury the guests you murder. Each guest has some sort of job which can be used to help you in a certain action. Newsboys and other businessmen make it easier for you to bribe guests into your hand. Policeman are great at helping you murder the guests and priests are pretty good at helping you bury the bodies. You also need annexes, which each guest can be used to build. Annexes offer you places to dispose of you stacks and stacks of corpses but also provide you with all sorts of abilities that further your scheme.
Build a distillery and not only can you hide the bodies in the whiskey barrels but you can use the whiskey to pay off your accomplices, rather than using your all important cash. Build a butchers shop and the butcher has plenty of sharp knives that you can borrow if you need to kill someone. In terms of what he does with the bodies you give him….it’s best not to think about it. Added altogether this game has some interesting mechanics. It’s a nice little light game with some fantastic artwork and I’m excited to play it again.
The last game I want to talk about wasn’t even available to buy at this year’s Essen. Since the show it has been released on Kickstarter and has become one of the fastest and highest grossing board game kickstarters of all time. As of writing Scythe has close to $1.3 million with just under a week to go….and it made its first million within the first 7 days. A large part of this games appeal seems to be in its artwork. When the early shots of the box were released way back at the start of the year people got very very excited. The juxtaposition of 1920s Eastern Europe with the beautiful mech designs by artist Jakub Rozalski really are beautiful.
Since then the game itself has begun to get a lot of attention and a lot of praise, especially at Essen. The game combines the engine building of a classic eurogame with the area control and war mechanics of much more American style game. All of this is then wrapped in an interesting theme – an alternate version of the 1920s where mechs are commonplace. I really really want to play this game. The sad thing is that, as often is with Kickstarters, the final release isn’t until next August. There’s still time to pitch into the Kickstarter if you are interested but be prepared for a long wait.