The Daily Worker Placement

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Essen Impressions

by | published Friday, November 2, 2018

In September, my friend Kris told me he was going to Essen this year, and I was green with envy. I had gone in 2012, but fervently longed to go again. “I wish I could go”, I said. So I did. Kris ever so graciously booked all of the hotels and train tickets. We met up in Amsterdam, did the best escape room I have ever experienced, and explored the city a bit before heading to Münster where he and his pal, Robin, attended an Odd Couple concert. We spent three days in Essen, took a hot bath in a tub full of board games, then walked around Munich and Zurich before flying home. Note to others: Europe is pretty much closed on Sundays. Plan accordingly.

Despite having been before, Essen was an absolutely surreal experience. Six massive halls, crammed with every game under the sun, and countless ravenous hobbyists of all ages, a cacophony of languages from around the world. The oversized games are always my favourite, and if we had stayed the whole weekend, I certainly would have made it a goal to interact with every last one of them. That said, all three of us were positively exhausted by the end of the Friday, and I’m certain I would’ve been fully broken had I attended all four days.

Despite the shorter stay, I got what I came for, and had an absolutely incredible time.

On to the games.

Pikoko

I was optimistic as I sat down to try this bizarre twist on trick-taking, and was still pleasantly surprised. Just like any trick-taking game, players are dealt a hand of cards, and the person who plays the ‘best’ card each round wins that trick. The twist here is one we’ve all come to recognize – your own hand of cards is turned towards the other players. Think Hanabi. They know what you have, but you don’t. Before each hand begins, players make closed fist bids on how many tricks they believe each of their opponents will win. Then you get to place a bid on how many you think you’ll win, based on the open information, and on how confident (or not) other players were in your hand. You can also secretly double down on one your bids you’re especially certain of, if you wish. Correct (and close to correct) bids score points.

Then, each player’s hand is played by their left neighbour, according to pretty standard trick-taking rules. It takes a moment to wrap your head around, but once you begin playing, it all makes perfect sense.

The game also comes with gorgeous peacock card holders, made more gorgeous by the fact that all the cards look like peacock feathers. They’re not quite as functional as they need to be (we had to hold them in place to make sure not to pick up the peacock, or make other cards come out with your chosen card), but they add so much character and appeal, I would still use them over a superior card holder.

Kris, Robin and I all enjoyed it. It’s rare that you’re able to see any of your opponent’s cards before they’re played, which makes Pikoko quite novel. The fact that you see SO much allows for a lot more control, especially so in the hands of inexperienced trick-taking players, who might have felt lost in other games like it. In that way, it’s sort of the perfect gateway trick-taking game. I couldn’t make room for this one in my bag, so I hope it makes its way to North America soon. I want it.

Fuji

Wolfgang Warsch has been on a roll lately. Quacksalber, Ganz Schön Clever, BRIKKS, and now this charming co-operative endeavour.

A volcano is erupting. That’s bad. The lava is spreading. Even worse. You and your friends need to get yourselves to higher ground to claim victory, and the nearby village promises just that. If any of you gets swallowed by the lava, or becomes so injured that they can’t go on, you lose.

However, movement in Fuji is remarkably tricky and requires players pay close attention to what their left and right neighbours are trying to accomplish. You need to stay out of their way, and they out of yours. Failure to do so means that some (or all) players might sustain a serious injury and not be able to move this round. Unfortunately, the lava doesn’t care, spreading at the end of each round, all the same.

Each player has five or six 6-sided dice (each with 2 blue, 2 red, and 2 yellow faces) which they roll at the beginning of each round, before choosing which tile they will attempt to move to. And to move there, your movement value must be higher than both of your neighbours. What’s interesting is that each tile’s movement value is calculated in a different way, which is where the co-operative element comes in.

Each tile has one or more die symbols indicating some combination of colour/number/odd/even requirements. For instance: a colourless 6 and a numberless red – the only dice that matter towards your movement value are 6s of any colour and reds of any number. Add the number values of only those dice together to determine your movement value. Depending on how far you’re trying to move in a turn, once all players have locked in their destination tile, you’ll receive 0-2 re-rolls. Then you reveal. Each of your neighbours isolates and sums their dice that satisfy your destination tile. You’ll also do the same for them, isolating the dice that satisfy their destination tile. As long as a player’s total for their own destination tile is higher than their neighbours for the same tile, they’ll get to move. Otherwise, they stay put, and their butt gets a little hotter as the lava inches forward in spite of your collective failure.

I got to play this twice, and enjoyed it a fair bit. I like that each player receives a different special ability. They aren’t quite as diverse or interesting as those in Pandemic, and the fact that you’ll likely have to choose to lose that ability as you sustain damage, while challenging, is a bit of a downer. The items you can start with and collect along the way are probably the most interesting part for me. I can see myself playing this once or twice more, but then begin to grow tired of the dice comparison puzzle the game runs on. Before playing it, I was fairly certain I was going to pick this one up, but I ended up deciding against it. I’m sure someone I know will grab it when it arrives in North America come January, and I’ll play it once or twice more then.

Solenia

Between the buzz and the fact that Sébastien Dujardin co-designed Troyes, a long time favourite of mine, this was an easy buy. I tried it once we had arrived in Munich, and was not disappointed. In fact, we immediately played it a second time, with the slightly more advanced side B ships. The rules are simple, explained in fewer than 4 pages, even with examples and fluff. And it plays so smoothly and elegantly, harkening back to a design philosophy more common in the late 90s, while feeling fresh and exciting. And to top it all off, it’s absolutely gorgeous – from the arresting box cover (which I would happily frame and hang on my wall) to the serene contrasts of light and dark blues contained inside, Solenia is nothing short of stunning.

Each player receives the same curious deck of sixteen cards; curious because they each have the same circular porthole, smack in their middle, and for good reason. Each turn, you choose to place one of your 3 hand cards on an empty space under or adjacent to the yellow blimp, which always occupies the middle space of the middle board. Or, you can place on any empty space adjacent to one of your previously placed cards. And if none of those spaces suit your fancy, you can pay one or more resources to place further away from these tethers.

Each card has a number (0-2), and once placed, grants you that many of what peeks through the card’s porthole, be it resources or points. Each card also has an exit bonus, which reaps its reward when it leaves the board. See, each time a 0 airship is played, the blimp moves directly forward. However, the blimp must always occupy the middle board, so you will remove the fifth and final board, flip it over (from day to night, or vice versa) and place it ahead of the blimp so that is now the first board. All cards that were lying on that flipped board pay their bonuses to their owners before being discarded. Plus, the 0 cards have the strongest exit bonuses to balance the fact that they grant no reward when first placed. The visual effect of that board flip, though, is of time passing: slowly changing from night to day and from day to night. One of the boards is even a dawn/dusk board to signal that transitions, which is far more satisfying and beautiful than it sounds.

Using your cards and their exit bonuses, you’ll collect resources and deliver combinations of them to floating cities in return for points. Sixteen turns later, all cards have been played and your journey is at its end.

Simple, streamlined, satisfying.

Gingerbread House

Phil Walker-Harding, you beautiful man. You’ve done it again! I’m a big fan of Phil’s no nonsense approach to design. Add a novel theme and cute illustrations, and how could I say no?

This is a dead simple tile placement game where you’re attracting fairy tale characters to your growing Gingerbread House, and collecting the set of candies those characters like to draw them in and cage them up (for later baking, I presume). Placing the domino-like tiles on your 3×3 house plot immediately awards you with whatever candies or actions you cover, which in turn have candies and actions that you will cover as your house grows higher and higher.

Two things I really like about Gingerbread House: 1) Although you can trap any character from the shared supply (always 4 cards to choose from), one of the actions allows you to attract a character to your house, meaning you don’t have to worry about someone trapping that character while you’re saving up the candies you need to trap them. 2) There are goals revealed at the start of the game, which players claim each time they complete a floor of their house (max 3 cards per person). It can be tempting to continue to build up, being very specific about which candies and actions you cover to min-max character trapping, or you can rush to complete floors and grab the goal cards that best suit you, and then try to make do with the random assortment of candies you end up with.

I suspect that this is going to be a big hit!

NEOM

NEOM has been in development for seven years, using an online build for extensive playtesting, and it shows. It owes SO much to 7 Wonders (with Leaders). They took everything 7 Wonders did right and made it better. And then even did us the favour of making it a tile laying homage to SimCity. Like 7 Wonders, there are tiles that will grant you access to particular resources, and you can buy those you don’t have from your neighbours.

You can be the resource person, so everyone is buying their supplies from you; you can refine those into processed and even luxury goods, which are incredibly profitable. You can invest in commercial properties to make massive income (and money is worth a lot at game end). You can build massive residential housing, as each additional residential tile scores more and more points. You can build fire and police stations to protect you from the crippling disasters players can draft (1 for each of the 3 rounds), or choose to draft them yourself to inflict the pain on your opponents. You can hate draft a tile and discard it to build one of the 3 cornerstone tiles you drafted during setup, which have informed your strategic lens for this particular game.

I love it. I know Sean is going to adore it. This game is going to be heavily worn by this time next year.

BRIKKS

Ganz Schön Clever was the best roll and write game. WAS. BRIKKS IS the best roll and write game. Long have the people waited for a board game to capture the classic, addictive, glory that is Tetris – wait no more.

Everyone gets a sheet and a marker, starts with a different orientation of the T piece, and every piece that enters the game from then on is determined by a 6 coloured die and a regular D4. The coloured die indicates what type of piece all players must place, and the D4 indicates which orientation it will be. Before that piece falls, though, players can spend energy to rotate it so that it better suits their needs. You can gain additional energy by covering your sheet’s coloured dots with the same coloured brick. And if you have energy to spare, you can even spend 5 to ignore the roll and place whatever piece you like. You score extra points for double, triples, and quadruples (you’re all going to call them Tetrises), and completed lines higher up your sheet are worth double and even quadruple.

We played this soooo much on the train. It’s got an undeniable ‘one more game’ quality to it. I’m straight doomed if they ever release this in an app format.

Fertility

Euro dominoes. Each turn, you choose a domino (depicting two like or different resources) from your hand of three to place on the board. You receive resources for matching symbols to adjacent dominoes, and for simply placing next to wheat. Or, if you leave a 1 space hole, you can place a monument instead (most monuments is big points). Use those resources to buy new buildings for your city board and to supply those buildings with the resources they need. Unspent resources are wasted, so make sure to only collect resources you know you need.

It’s really standard euro stuff, with nothing terribly innovative, but the fact that it’s dominoes will make this a fantastic gateway game. However, I’m not sure that I would recommend it for more than 2 players. With 2 players, there’s the possibility of thinking a few turns ahead. With 3 or 4 players, strategic planning becomes improbable, downtime increases, and the board changes so much that your turns are entirely tactical.

If you dig 2 player euro dominoes, definitely check it out.

Rebel Nox

When Nicole told me there was going to be another card game set in the Capital Lux universe, my heart rate immediately spiked. It’s going to be a trick-taking game? Tears of joy. I pre-ordered it for Essen pick-up as soon as the option was made available. I adore Capital Lux, so I was reasonably excited to see if Svensson and Østby could strike gold again. And who were these mysterious additional co-designers, Anna Wermlund and Helge Meissner? Secret weapons, perhaps?

When I first read the rules to Rebel Nox a few months ago, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. ‘That’s it?’, I wondered. Then I recalled thinking the same thing about Lux (what an idiot I was), so I told myself I’d wait until the cards were dealt before passing any further judgement. After picking up my ‘insta-buys’ Thursday morning, I sat down at the Aporta Games booth with a group of Belgians for a 5 player game of Rebel Nox. About three tricks in, it clicked. I was in love.

We just lost 7 lbs of cardboard. Yeah, that’s all sprues.

It’s a team based trick-taking game, where the teams can change – even shrinking or growing in size – several times per round. When the cards are first dealt, 2 or 3 Rebel cards (4 or 5-6 players) are mixed among them. Anyone dealt one or more Rebel cards must identify themselves as Rebels. All other players are Loyalists. The team that collects the most influence in a round (6 tricks) will score bonus influence, and the fewer people on the winning team, the larger their bonus will be. And yeah, influence is how you win the game, so the more you have of it, the better. But here’s the kicker: you can’t win on your own. Your team (which may have changed several times during the round) wins at the end of a round where your collective influence is equal to [10 * number of team members].

So, while you’re trying to win tricks to claim influence for yourself, you also have to keep an eye on who belongs to which team, perhaps trying to make a play that allows you to switch teams to obtain the end of round bonus, or to team up with other points leaders to win the game. There’s a lot going on under the hood of this deceptively simple card game. It’s clever, it’s vicious, and it’s begging me to peel back and discover its many layers.

Blackout: Hong Kong

Great googly moogly! This game… THIS GAME! I’ll start by saying that I’m a Pfister Pfanboy. Great Western Trail is my favourite game, and I bust out Broom Service, Oh My Goods, and Isle of Skye on the regular. I finally played it on Halloween night (blackouts are spooky, right?) and all four of us were blown away by how great it is. It is a densely packed network of challenging and satisfying mechanisms that kept us entertained from start to finish. Even though it took us two hours to play, I was more than ready to reset the board and immediately start anew.

Each player chooses 3 cards (volunteers and specialists) they wish to play, adding them to the 3 slots at the bottom of their player board. Those cards will either collect resources, earn money, or returned an injured card from the hospital. You’ll use the resources to complete objective cards, which allow you to add one of your cubes to the map of Hong Kong (representing your contribution to the restoration of power). Each completed objective card will either award you a passive ability, become an action you perform each time you refresh your hand, or be added to your hand for you to play in future rounds. In addition, there are two objectives on your player board to complete; one allows you to play 4 cards per turn instead of 3. The other allows you to refresh your hand more easily.

Players have the opportunity to scout regions of the board still without power. Completing scouting missions are another way to gain resources and points. And certain scouting missions will simply improve your scouting ability, so that you can complete more difficult scouting missions in the future. However, each time you scout, you will need to deploy a search party using your hand cards, and one of them will be injured at random and sent to the hospital. Cards in the hospital score no points at game end, and can not be played until you send your doctor to treat them.

After purchasing new objectives, power is restored to any region a single player has surrounded with cubes, which awards points to all players with adjacent cubes, and allows the surrounding player to unlock a new action that can be performed whenever their hand refreshes.

Last, if you have 4 or fewer cards in hand (6 or fewer if you complete the corresponding objective), you get to pick up all the cards from one of your board slots. This means that the way you group your cards turn by turn is of incredible importance. In fact, there are a number of objectives that require cards of a particular colour be grouped in the same slot before in order to complete them.

Blackout: Hong Kong has such a satisfying engine, one that purrs as you perform all your unlocked refresh actions (AKA checkmark actions), and revs as you add new, more powerful cards to your team of specialists and volunteers. Going into Essen, Coimbra was my game of the year, but Blackout might just change that. We’ll have to see. Either way, bravo eggertspiele! Bravo!

The only knock I can give this game is that the art doesn’t really appeal to me. It simply doesn’t stand up to the incredibly high bar that eggertspiele has set for themselves with their existing catalogue. It’s not going to keep me from enjoying the game – I’d buy a Pfister with clip art, if I’m being honest. But would I Blackout if it was published with art on par with Coimbra and Great Western Trail? In a heartbeat!

Layers

This one wasn’t really on my radar, but we tried a round while waiting for another demo to become available. It’s a speed game in the same vein as Ubongo, where you’re trying to solve a puzzle faster than the other players. There are five double-sided ‘layers’ and, depending on the difficulty you choose, 3-5 of them are used to create the revealed puzzle, a criss-cross mish-mash of colours and shapes.

It was fun for the short time we dabbled with it, but it did nothing to grab me. What I found especially strange about the scoring was that it changed each round. How many points a person would score for finishing first, second, third or fourth in a round would vary depending on the revealed scoring tile. But… you still always want to finish first because that’s the most points. Sometimes it’s more, sometimes it’s less, but still: be fastest. It didn’t make any sense.

Arraial

Another Tetris board game, this time with a festive street party, with vibrant eye-catching illustrations. Seriously, the illustrator knocked this one out of the Messe. It’s Tetris, but you win by having the most attended street festival!!

Like Tetris, you’re placing shapes so that they fit snugly together and (hopefully) form complete lines. On your turn, you have 3 tetronimoes to choose from (some of which were chosen by the previous player), and you have 3 actions with which to rotate and place them. Each action allows you to either rotate all the pieces on the lazy Susan, or place a piece in your street carnival. Whenever you join a piece to a single piece of the same color, you attract a party-goer of that colour (no party-goers when adding additional pieces of the same colour to that group). There’s also a party-couple in each colour for the player with the most connected pieces of a colour. Last, but not least, every time you complete a line, your festival banner moves up one line to make room for pieces, and a white party-goer shows up that festival banner. As long as you don’t tear down the banner (by having it and your tetronimoes overlap), they’ll come join the party when the deck runs out.

When the deck runs out a third time, party’s over. Whoever has the most people at their street festival wins. And yeah, those party-couples are definitely worth two.

I might not pick this one up, because BRIKKS is probably enough for me, but I will never turn it down. That said, I don’t think I love it for more than 2 players. It’s fairly solitaire aside from the party-couples and the fact that you choose pieces for the following player, but 3-4 players is just increased downtime with no upside.

That’s it for simple impressions.

However, you can look forward to full reviews of the following in the upcoming weeks: Underwater Cities, Doxie Dash, Grand Dog Park, Trapwords, and Teotihuacan: City of Gods.

 

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