And here is the write up for the last day of Essen and beyond. Again, a day I spent at home and not on the fair, but the very kind Reni & Kristóf from Board Game Diaries (@board.game.diaries on Instagram) send me some pictures from the convention floor for your enjoyment.
Multiple friends reported that the crowd was actually not as bad as I had assumed and attendance felt somewhere between Thursday and Friday. I found this surprising but probably a number of people prefer other days because the fair closes an hour earlier on Sundays and of course a number of hot games will be sold out at this point. If I come to Essen again next year, I might adapt my plan and actually only skip Saturday and return for Sunday. Though to be honest, two days of Essen was already pretty exhausting. I still have a sore throat from talking over all that noise and am only slowly catching up on sleep.
I’ve used this time off the convention floor to play more of my purchases. First on the list for today was Sky Team and man, what a game! In Sky Team, the two players (no official solo mode is in the box but a BGG user has proposed one that works well) try to land a plane with limited communication. Every round, both players roll their 4 dice and then place them on various functions of the plane like the engines, flaps, breaks, or communication with the tower. After 7 rounds, they need to have a) levelled the plan, b) have not over- or undershot the runway, c) hit the breaks, and d) reversed the engines to successfully land … and not die one of the many possible ways to do so while achieving it. There is traffic that needs to be routed out of the way, air speed controlled and so, so many other problems. It’s glorious!
What’s amazing about this box is a) how well it captures the theme and b) how much content is in there. There are 20+ different airports in there that contain things like certain rotations you have to do at certain points, fuel that is running out, spontaneous traffic coming up, and more. There was even a promo available at Essen which is the Düsseldorf airport, the main large airport that is closest to Essen, which is a super nice touch.
I started playing Sky Team and immediately got the bug. It’s actually quite addictive. The production is also lovely and there is almost no plastic in sight: small parts come in a paper envelope and the box is held together by two stickers, not a transparent wrap. The only thing I could have wished for is to have the 10 toggle switches as wood instead of cardboard, but that is really a “first world problem” as the Americans would say. Plus I don’t get why the publisher did not include an official solo mode. Anyway, I have to agree with others: this game is a sensation, and even more so for the low price of 30€. If you have a chance to get it, do so!
Next was Witchcraft! which I’m afraid might be the big disappointment among my purchases. It’s the successor to Resist! which I never played but was intrigued about for a long time. In Witchcraft, the solo player plays a coven of witches that try to persuade jurors that they are indeed a force of good and not evil. Mechanically, you are drawing five witches and then decide which of three missions to attempt and whether to play each witch as hidden or revealed. They are more powerful when revealed but that also means they go into jail and cannot be used anymore. Both hidden and revealed, each witch has a special function that can often combo off other witches you played before. Also some witches get stronger the longer you can keep them in play. So there is a constant trait off about sacrificing a witch to bring the mission to a success or rather take the hit and fight another day.
The theme and artwork is lovely, and there is even a campaign in the box. I so wanted to love this. However, so far, the game has left me cold. Originally, I wanted to test it on the fair but when I came to the publisher’s booth, nobody seemed interested in explaining it to me as they awaited the designers to do some signing event or so. So I picked it up blindly based on the reputation of Resist, but that seems to have been a mistake. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good design and clever game, it just isn’t for me. I’ll likely give it one more chance and then find a better home for it.
I also managed to play World Wonders both solo and 2p, and what should I say: it’s great. Tile layers often run the danger of being trivial or getting boring on repeated plays. World Wonders of course lures players in with its great eye appeal, but the mechanisms also work quite well. Over 10 rounds (unless someone ends the game early), players purchase building tiles in various shapes as well as roads to build their own city. They have 7 gold to spend and once they have spent it all, they are out for the round which means other players might still be picking things up after them. The main constraint here is that each building needs to be either placed next to a road (which you also have to purchase and build) or a building of the same type. Each building advances your markers on one of three tracks and at the end of the game, you get VP for the lowest of those markers. So far, so boring.
Things are now spiced up with multiple facets: the road constraint already can be a problem from time to time. There are also special squares on the board you do not want to overbuild because they provide extra VP and there are lakes you cannot build on. But the main kicker is that if you voluntarily end your turn before you’ve spent everything, you can pick up one of three monuments available in the market at any time. These all come with building constraints (e.g. needs to be next to a road and a market tile) but provide additional VP. Victory points are so tight in this game that it really hurts if you end a round and NOT pick up a monument. So players are constantly in a game of chicken of trying to buy the right tiles, prevent others from getting certain types of tiles to block them from being able to place a monument, all while trying to not waste time because someone else might be eyeing the monument they themself were planning with. And of course you also want to build optimal because you also get VP if a tile is completely surrounded by other tiles.
World Wonders is one of those games that has universal appeal. You show people the wooden monuments and they are in. The tile laying is easily explained and during play, everyone has theses “if I would just have done X the round before, I could now …” moments. Good game, will definitely play again.
The big one for today was Evacuation. While reading the rules, I noticed how I was dreading it a bit and started doing other things in between reading sections. There is something in the way the rules are written and the setting that just made it difficult for all the new terms and actions to stick. With hindsight, this is quite surprising because the actions are actually rather straight forward and I can now teach it to others very easily. I would say the complexity of the rules feels easier than a Messina 1347 or Underwater Cities, but it’s the complexity in implications that got me. Why should I do one thing or the other and in what order?
In Evacuation, the old world players inhabited is going the way of the dodo and they need to tear down their existing economic engine and build it up again on the new world. This is very nicely illustrated by the two planets on the main board. The existing engine of each player is represented by cardboard discs that indicate what they produce during that player’s income at the start of each round. Speaking of which, the mix in art style is a bit unusual: while the main board, cards and specially ships are illustrated gorgeously, the cardboard tokens and player actions use a very plain style. It makes for good readability, but it still is a little bit jarring to have a factory be a mushroom-like icon on a flat-shaded single colour background when the ship next to it is this amazing painting.
Players now use a variety of actions to tear those elements down, buy spaceships and ferry population and factories over to the new world. The more efficient they do it, the more they cut short their own production capabilities on the old world which can be a disaster if the ones on the new world are not quite ready yet. Especially so since the whole game only lasts four rounds! Your ships won’t be flying back and forth, back and forth, but instead you have to orchestra exact timings to even make it worth the resources for buying a new ship.
It’s difficult to explain Evacuation properly without writing longer about it (which I will likely do in my regular format), so let me rather try to give you the feel of the whole thing: it’s tight! Like Woodcraft (first impressions) kind of tight where even one incorrectly chosen free resource can screw you over in the long run, combined with asymmetric tech upgrades, an action selection mechanism that you not only have to produce energy for to really do a large number of actions in a single round, but also where the number of cards you use for which action has multiple side effects. A simple example: each action slot has a number 1-4 assigned to itself. At the end of the round, players sum up the value of the actions they have taken (e.g. 3 times the 2-point slot actions, 2 times the 1-point actions, for a total of 8 points) and then compare them to an end of round cards that provides bonuses if a specific number is hight (e.g. 6 gives you a free resource, 12 a free building, everything else nothing). And that’s only one of the many side effects.
If all of that wouldn’t be enough, that’s only the standard game. In the advanced game, the cards you previously only used for counting the number of used actions now have alternative actions you can use instead of the ones printed on your player board. There are additional modules, goal cards, and so much more. It will definitely be a challenge to dig through this game and write a proper review for it. But my gut feeling right now is that this might actually dethrone Underwater Cities as my favourite Vladimir Sutchy game. It’s satisfying and punishing at the same time, with many things to add if I ever have the desire to, the theme is cool, the artwork great, the playtime is surprisingly quick (like 60-90min for 2-3 experienced players seems absolutely realistic to me). It’s heavy, but I’m definitely looking forward to sinking my teeth into it.
And with that, I think I managed to play and write about pretty much all of my Essen purchases except for Concordia: Roma / Sicilia which will have to wait for another time. Thanks for all the interest in my Essen write-ups. I didn’t really plan on doing them and for that to see all of them end up on the BGG main page was incredible. Hopefully next year I can plan them a bit better and add even more interviews and interesting finds. I’d love it if I would manage to get a press accreditation and be able to cover the Wednesday as well!
To counteract the usual hype in regards to Essen and also maybe elevate some FOMO of those that couldn’t go there, I thought I wrap this up by trying to answer the big question: was it worth it going to Essen and should you?
As you’ve seen, I sticked to a rather small haul of games, at least compared to the typical YouTuber 😀. Still, I’ve spent approx 400€ on games, the worst AirBnB I’ve ever been in did cost me approx 180€, train travel approx 100€, food, … let’s say in total the trip has cost me around 800€. 800€ for two days on the convention floor, some okay-ish food, little sleep, and one bag full of new games. Sure, some of them are hard to get right now, but that will change within weeks or at least months. And despite what a lot of people think, games at Essen are often more expansive (=sold at MSRP) than when they get ordered online.
I also didn’t really test that many new games at Essen. I enjoyed the chance to try out High Season: Grand Hotel Roll & Write and a bumpy rules teach plus look at the very busy board of Aelderman answered my question of whether or not it is a game for me. But all the – for me – really exciting stuff (Pampero, Inventions: Evolution of Ideas, Galactic Cruise) would have taken long waiting times to get a seat because there was only a single table and complex games take a long time for the previous group to finish. Other games like Sky Team or World Wonders were sold out so quickly, if I would have played them, I wouldn’t have been able to buy them.
Highlights like Barcelona or Voidfall I was able to play before Essen already. So I naturally spent a lot of time wandering around, looking for interesting finds and playing games that are in the 30-60min playtime region. The thing to keep in mind here is that Spiel Essen is an exhibition, not a convention. It is designed to give publishers a platform to show their new games and sell them. There are for example no open play areas at Essen, just tables on publisher booths, and those booth are expansive so tables are limited. A lot of the smaller publishers just had a single table per game or shared tables between multiple games.
I greatly enjoyed meeting up with Martin Wallace for Origin Stories (we had talked about doing that interview for months) and by chance getting to know Vangelis (one of the co-designers of Hegemony: Lead Your Class to Victory), suddenly being in a conversation with Tim Fowers, or briefly saying “hi” to ThinkerThemer. The people there and the feeling of community in this shared hobby are really the best part of Essen!
But the main reason why I went – and that reason might or might not apply to you – is to see the spectacle that is Essen once again. To witness the rush of people for limited-quantity games, the cheers when the fair opens its doors, the delight when someone discovers a game they never even knew existed. I hope I was able to share that feeling a bit with you in these write ups. Have fun, enjoy the games you already have or new purchases you just made!