Thursday, 2 November 2017

SPIEL 2017 - impressions

SPIEL, in Essen, Germany, is incredibly weird. It’s a four day festival of boardgames, which gets 180 000 visitors each year, and is spread out across a seemingly endless series of convention halls. It’s like visiting an alternate universe, where boardgaming is the most popular sport in the world: snaking queues to get boxes signed by designers, crowds pushed against tables displaying new releases, huge advertising banners for niche companies, a bus branded with the logo for Settlers of Catan, hotel bars full until late at night with people playing the games they acquired during the day.

It’s a trade fair, really. An enormous shop. I went with my dad and my brother, and we spent most of our time moving from stall to stall, getting demonstrations of whatever the publishers and designers were selling. By the end of the weekend, I’d played 35 games that were new to me. These were mostly shortened versions of full games (the publishers want to demonstrate to as many people as possible; we wanted to try as many different new things as we could), so don’t take these as final reviews. But this should give you a good idea of what they felt like.


Tiny Epic Quest
We didn’t play this one at the convention - we played my dad’s copy at the hotel after arriving on Wednesday night. There’s stuff to like here - sharp art direction that’s as close as it can be to a Legend of Zelda theme without getting lawyers involved, and tiny choking-hazard equipment that hooks charmingly onto your player figures. You send your three adventurers across the map to do quests, try to choose more efficiently than the other players, and roll dice to see how dangerous your actions were. But it doesn’t really work. There’s a lot of downtime, and very few points where you get to make interesting decisions. I picked one strategy at the beginning of the game, repeated it every turn, and got a respectable score while barely having to think. I hear it’s better with two players.


The first game we played at the convention, and a solidly good place to start. You play shipping magnates in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, buying ships, managing your coal resources, and establishing trading posts. I found the theme a bit dull, but there’s a lot of geeky historical detail for people who are into it (although my dad was disappointed to note that the Glasgow docks where my great-grandfather worked as a toolmaker were absent from the game). The mechanics are knotty and counterintuitive, but in ways that reveal all sorts of interesting strategies once you get a handle on them. Yes, it’s a bit dry, but in the same way that a dry white wine is dry. Very sophisticated and adult.

You know that pub game where you flip beermats into the air and catch them? This is that, but grafted onto a turn-based version of Space Invaders. I promise it makes more sense if you see it in action. It’s probably more fun if you’re at all competent at dextrously flipping stuff. I was terrible at it, my family was terrible at it, the demonstrators were terrible at it, and everyone else I saw having a go was terrible at it. So the cardboard alien fleet advanced inexorably towards the earth’s surface.

This was the good stuff. A tight, nasty puzzle: you roll five dice and place them on your board. Then you select cards to place between the dice. The cards will only score points in certain conditions: maybe the die on its right has to be higher than the die on its left, maybe both of the dice next to the card need to show the number 3, maybe when you add up the numbers on both dice next to the card, the sum has to be lower than five. But each card you put down changes the numbers on the dice next to it, everyone is competing for the same cards, and certain cards will score your player more points. It’s horrible, in the best way: you’re trying to build a machine that is constantly changing around you. The game is massively overpriced (£50 for a small box) but if you like this kind of thing, there’s nothing better.

Ex Libris
It’s hard to say whether this was good (the demo we had of it was rather rushed) but the concept is superb. You’re at a magic school, trying to create the best library: you get points for keeping it in alphabetical order, making sure the shelves are stable, and collecting sets of the same subject area. The card art, showing shelves of imaginary books, is beautifully done: witty and mechanically clear. We were a bit concerned that the mechanics didn’t look too exciting - it’s standard worker placement stuff - but maybe they’d spark better in a longer or more thorough demo.

Oh god this monster. The components are lavish: a board larger than most tables displaying a ludicrously detailed Arabian city; a set of cardboard steps full of complex challenges; a large wooden elephant. It’s a trading game - you build up from raw materials to expensive goods. But there are so many moving parts here: actions contingent on other actions, mechanics that interlock mysteriously with other mechanics, sections of the board cluttered with cryptic iconography, victory conditions that seemed strange and distant and unachievable. It’s hard work, and I don’t necessarily mind hard work in my boardgames, but something like this is never going to shine unless you’re willing to put the hours in, and there’s no time for that at Spiel. Mostly I was frightened I’d embarrass myself.

Justice League
The best possible palate-cleanser after Agra, this is just dumb dice-chucking fun. The art looks cheap and the components are flimsy, but this is a game about superheroes fighting superheroes where *every* character, including henchmen, can run so hard at a building that they punch a hole in the wall, and if too many holes get punched into the wall, the building collapses. Attacks send enemies flying across the map, often into other enemies, and Batman can use his grappling hook to fling his allies out of danger and his opponents into it. There’s nothing smart about this, but it understands its sources and runs with it.

Okanagan: Valley of the Lakes
A tile-laying game about farming and fishing in the Canadian wilderness. It’s got an appealing cartoon art style, but I didn’t enjoy it much - the rules aren’t complicated enough to give you many options, but are fussy enough to make it difficult to get hold of the (very specific) resources you need to score points. Maybe practice would make it a smoother ride, but I found it pretty frustrating, desperately searching for the cards which would give me the exact fish I was after. Carcassonne is very similar in style, but lets you do much more with far fewer rules.

Meeple Circus
A delight. A family game about stacking tiny pieces of wood, it’s not just a test of your dexterity, it’s a test of your ability to know your limitations, or work out creative ways of solving the puzzles the game’s cards are giving you. “Hmm”, you might think, “this card says I get points for two figures upside down balancing a plank on their feet. But they get more points if they’re higher in the air, and this figure gets more points if he’s touching an animal. So maybe I could balance them *on top of an elephant*, and solve all three problems at once”. But then everything collapses around you, time is running out, and you realise you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.

This is terribly clever: deep and crunchy, full of all sorts of options and goals, but always absolutely clear about what you might want to do and how you might want to achieve it. It’s a shame the board design makes it look like a kids’ game from the 90s, and the brightly coloured dice you throw don’t help with the cheap aesthetic. You roll a handful of dice each round, and choose which order to use them in, giving your piece a limited number of spaces it could potentially step on as it moves clockwise through the Round Table. Each space has different powers, and you’re trying to manage a huge number of different problems: knocking out the traitors on your walls, building castles in the wilderness, completing quests, sending ladies to gain influence with various factions, and so on. The vast number of competing systems and abilities should be a headache, but restricting the ways you can interact with the board solves the problem: every decision you make is interesting, but it’s always between only a few different possibilities.

My brother had bought a copy of this earlier, based on the hype it was getting. After we played it in the hotel bar that evening, I decided I was going to buy my own copy the next day. It’s difficult to explain how satisfying this is - it’s a completely abstract game about laying tiles in a grid, and its mechanics are difficult to describe without a copy in front of you. But it’s one of those games where every single rule is absolutely watertight and loaded with possibilities. It helps that the tiles you’re playing with are lovely - weighted and smooth and elegantly patterned.

Alien Artefacts
This is one that my dad bought based on its pre-release hype - my dad and my brother were impressed, but it didn’t click with me. It’s a card game where you’re building space empires, buying up and deploying planets, technologies and starships, hopefully in ways that complement each other. Turns are fast, there’s an admirable number of ways to win, and the card design is clean and functional, but despite all this I found it rather flabby. It takes a fair few turns to save up for your planets, tech or ships - you spend several turns essentially watching a loading bar rising. And once you’re locked into a strategy there’s not much need to react to changing circumstances - you just keep going through the motions. I also found that there was hardly ever any interaction between the players - there is a combat mechanic, but it felt too risky to ever engage in. Maybe a more aggressive two-player game might let it shine.


Alexandria - A Library in Cinders
A magnificent theme - the library of Alexandria is burning down and you’re running through the collapsing rooms rescuing priceless manuscripts or (in my case) being an evil Roman double agent, burning all the carpets and knocking over the braziers for points. There’s a lot of downtime between your turns, though, and I wasn’t keen on the mechanic which encouraged players to steal actions from each other. I don’t mind boardgames punishing you harshly if they also include ways to avoid or mitigate the punishment: that way, when you’re caught out, it’s your fault, not the game’s. Here, it felt like there was nothing you could do to stop other players screwing you over - it felt random and unfair. Still, when tiles are disappearing around you, fire tokens are spreading, and the library is descending into a chaotic mess, it’s hard to deny that something atmospheric is happening.

Astoundingly clever stuff. According to the (really good) card art, this is about writing pulp novels. In practice, this is irrelevant - it’s a deck-building word game where your cards have letters on them. You use these letter cards to spell words from your hand, earning you the money you use to buy cards with higher-earning letters and special powers. It plays fast, and lets you be smart and creative: tactical thinking will get you just as far as your ability to come up with anagrams. My brother has bought this one for my birthday, so I’ll be sinking a lot more time into it in December.

Flick ‘em Up
This is fun - a dexterity-based cowboy shootout game. In order to move one of your wooden cowboys, you flick a small disk, and place your cowboy where it lands. In order to shoot, you flick a smaller wooden disk from your cowboy’s location and try to knock over one of another player’s cowboys. The version we were playing at the convention was massively scaled up from the version you’d actually buy, and felt more like playing a very silly version of pool than a traditional board game. As with all dexterity games, I was terrible at it, but unlike with Flipships, this didn’t stop me from having a good time.

Loot Island
One of the most pleasant surprises of the convention - a tiny, £20 box containing what felt more like a chewy £40+ epic. You’re explorers, competing to get the best treasure. The trouble is that the treasure is cursed, and curses are expensive to remove. From this simple setup comes mechanics that are as weird as they are intuitive, leading to a whole bunch of cut and thrust between the players - smart manoeuvres and bluffs that can knock each other’s plans cleanly out of the way.

Star Saga
A throw-the-dice-and-kill-the-monsters dungeon crawler, and a well-developed example of the form. I was a katana-wielding alien, my dad was a sergeant with a flamethrower, my brother was a flying hacker-robot, and together we bounced around a spaceship smashing up enemies. It prioritises big silly fun over tactical intricacy, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and the miniatures are detailed and well made. Games like this are always expensive, though, and with a £70 price on the box, a thirty minute demo isn't enough for me to say whether this is worth getting over the genre’s more established entries, like Descent or Imperial Assault.

Edge of Humanity
A post-apocalyptic deck-builder that annoyed the hell out of my brother, but which I quite enjoyed. Each turn, you throw away the cards in your hand that you don’t want, in order to bid against other players for the cards that you do want, slowly constructing buildings and recruiting survivors. In theory, you’re gradually cycling out weak cards in favour of powerful ones. In practice, every card is useful, so you’re always trying to change what it is that your deck can do. It’s thematically focused and moves along quickly, but I don’t have masses of experience with the deck-building genre: I don’t know how well it stacks up against the competition.

Pulsar 2849
When I first saw that we were going to play this, my heart sank a bit. The board is a huge mess of lines and symbols, with bits of card sprouting oddly off other bits of card. It’s intimidating: there’s no clear indication of how you’re going to interact with it, and I was worried it was going to be another Agra. I shouldn't have worried. Yes, there’s a lot going on here, but the core is pretty simple - you’re pushing a spaceship around a map, building space stations and mining pulsars for energy. Meanwhile, you’re buying technologies and abilities that give you extra actions and let you generate points more efficiently. Once you realise this, the sprawling mechanics begin to look much more focused: like Merlin, there’s a dice mechanic that means you're always choosing between a limited set of options rather than trying to decide from everything on the board. It’s a complicated game, but one that’s fun and satisfying from the first turn.

Professor Evil and the Citadel of Time
I didn’t see another game with as big a marketing push as this - banners everywhere, and huge numbers of tables with it available to try out. It’s a co-op game about breaking into a mansion, disabling the security, and recovering stolen artefacts from the eponymous professor. The art is lovely and the mechanics are slick - we had a great time with it. But we were either very lucky with our dice rolls, or the game is incredibly easy - we sailed through it on our first run. Our best guess is that this is aimed at the family market. “Pandemic for kids” is a pretty good sales pitch, and if that’s what the game is going for, it succeeds excellently.

Nmbr 9
3D tetris! You need to fit weird, ugly shapes together, each vaguely resembling a number between 1 and 9. These shapes are jagged and strange, and don’t look like they should link up at all. But if you end up with a big enough space with no gaps in it, you can start putting shapes on top of it, and once you have a big enough space on your second level, you can start putting shapes above there too, and so on, until you end up with a strange alien pyramid. Shapes on your first level don’t score points at all, and the higher up a shape is in your stack, the more points it scores. It’s less a game, and more a strange puzzle. I found it enjoyably difficult - I imagine it’s a skill you could get very good at.

Word Domination
It’s not often you get bowled over by how virtuosic a game’s design is on its rules explanation. This is an area-control word game. You’ve got a grid of letter tiles in front of you, and every turn you’re spelling out words from the letters in a grid. Use the same letters in two consecutive rounds and you might be able to lock the letters down, claiming them as your territory. Use letters in other players’ territory and you might be able to steal the territory from them, expanding your reach. It’s sharp and slick - there’s some shared DNA with scrabble here, but while scrabble makes you feel like an idiot, this makes you feel like a damn genius, with words like “salutation”, “molasses” and “glaringly” being thrown around as if it’s no big deal. And all of this without mentioning the magnificent art, or the beautiful 1960s supervillain theming. I bought this one.

Kingdomino was fresh and exciting: an incredibly light, sub-fifteen-minute game that still allowed for a surprising amount of tactical meat. Queendomino adds a bunch of rules, extends the play time, and turns it into something much more conventional. It also makes it a better game - giving you far more options without reducing the speed of play or overcomplicating anything. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine going back to Kingdomino after this. On the other hand, it’s a shame to turn something that felt so innovative into something so solid and unsurprising.


A Song of Ice and Fire: The Tabletop Miniatures Game
I haven’t really played any tabletop miniatures games since a predictable and brief dalliance with Warhammer when I was about twelve, and my familiarity with A Song of Ice and Fire extends to reading the first book, thinking it was pretty good, and never going back to the franchise again after being spoiled on every major plot point. So I’m not in the best place to judge this game. But it felt pretty fun, despite a little of the slow unwieldiness I’ve always (probably unfairly) associated with miniatures gaming. I hear the ruleset is a little oversimplified for people who are really into this sort of thing, but if you want to play with a well-made model of Jaime Lannister heading up a team of swordsmen, this is perfectly functional.

Magic Maze
OK, wow, I’ve never played anything like this before. The theme is absolutely barking - an elf, a dwarf, a wizard and a barbarian have been defeated by a dragon who has stolen their equipment. So they’ve gone, erm, to a shopping centre? To steal new weapons and escape before anyone notices? It only gets madder from there: the game is real-time rather than turn-based, there’s a distressingly limited timer going down, and you have to play in silence. You also don’t control the characters individually - instead, every player can move any character, but only in one direction, so one player can only move the characters north, one can only move the players west, and so on. This means that you’re almost always in a state of panic, as you’ve realised that a character needs to go in a certain direction, but the player in charge of that direction hasn’t noticed yet. It’s as tense as you can get, and euphoric when you win. I bought the game and the (very generous) expansion, as it didn’t look like core box had much longevity. I don’t regret buying the expansion, but I didn’t need to - the core box already has a whole bunch of options for increasing the difficulty or playing different scenarios.

Exodus Fleet
Solid but oddly unmemorable - you’re building spaceships to transport survivors offworld, and trying to gather the scarce resources that will let you do this. Pleasingly, you have to bid to perform almost any action - other players can beat you to it if they have been managing their money better. It’s a nice mechanic, but there’s much more exciting stuff out there. And a lot of the text on the cards is annoyingly small - when selecting which planet or ship to use, you really have to squint.

War of the Worlds: The Next Wave
A deck-building two-player area control game, and a nice surprise. As the Martian fleet was slowly advancing south through the British Isles, frying civilians as it went, I was desperately trying to mobilise the army and set up bunkers, which I could only do by sacrificing my ability to evacuate the civilian population, as small pockets of guerrilla resistance bubbled up against the invaders. The art is great throughout, and it manages to be evocative and mechanically exciting with very few rules.

Dice Hospital
This was superb. You roll a bunch of dice. These are the patients in your hospital. Each turn you can treat them in the various rooms of your hospital, making the numbers on the dice go up. If the number on a die is increased above six, it is cured and discharged But if you don’t treat a die, then its number goes down - if the number drops below zero, the die is dead. Every turn you’re buying better treatment rooms and better doctors, but more and more sick dice are arriving at the hospital. My brother was concerned by the almost total lack of player interaction, but I found the puzzle sufficiently engaging that I didn’t mind staring at my own sheet for the whole game.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong
As a mash-up of Resistance and Mysterium, this felt like it was aimed directly at me. Someone in the Hong Kong police has done a murder, and the rest of the Hong Kong police are trying to figure out who. In front of each player is four cards showing murder methods, and four cards with pieces of key evidence. Another player is the Forensic Scientist - they are the only person who knows which player did the murder, and which murder weapon and piece of key evidence were found at the crime scene. They answer questions from other cards about the murder: where did it take place? What state was the body in? What time of year was it? Did anyone see anything? Meanwhile the detectives try to work out which weapon and key evidence are relevant to the Forensic Scientist’s answers, while the murderer, playing as a detective, tries to deflect suspicion and blame other people. It’s tense and weird and moody: I bought it, and fully intend to force people to play it at parties.

The Palace of Mad King Ludwig
The players are all collaborating to build a palace: each turn you pick a tile and decide where to place it. It’s always an interesting decision: there’s a huge number of ways to earn points, and you are constantly playing off guaranteed short term gain against potential long term success, and choosing whether it’s better to speed up or hold off the end of the game. The endgame is exciting, as a wall of water accelerates and overwhelms the play area. But the game has a fussiness that’s hard to ignore - after every decision you make, you need to pick up, place and maybe flip several tokens - it’s a lengthy, fiddly process and it’s easy to accidentally miss steps. And the scoring is baroque and confusing, sapping energy after the crescendo of the endgame. I imagine this would make a great app, clearing away the accountancy that gets in the way of its fun decisions.

This one has a sharp central hook: there’s a light world and a dark world, and when soldiers die in one they are resurrected in the other, leading to a constantly shifting battlefield and the need to keep an eye on what your opponents are doing on the same spaces in an alternate universe: an original spin on a familiar structure. Mechanically, though, it felt dense and stodgy, especially for a game that is essentially about setting up armies and throwing them at other armies. The man teaching us the rules was very keen to let us know that it gets much faster when the players are used to the round structure, but when big, sprawling area control games like Cry Havoc or Forbidden Stars are so tightly coiled from the beginning, there seems little point wading through the sludge here.

Unless we were misunderstanding something fundamental, this was a broken and barely playable mess. My dad bought a copy based on its excellent, unusual box art, and the fact that it was a Japanese import he was unlikely to see again. Yes, the graphic design is great, with a clean minimalism you rarely see in boardgames. But it doesn't work. You play as palaeontologists, digging up dinosaur fossils. If you get a matching set of fossils from the same dinosaur, then you can sell them to collectors, or donate them to museums. But there are so many different types of dinosaur available that you’re pretty unlikely to get even a single matching set before the game ends - you mostly spend your time picking up useless cards and waiting to see if one you want will show up. It doesn’t help that almost every fossil card looks the same, so it’s tricky to tell from a glance which cards are useful to you - you’ll spend a lot of time cross-referencing different decks looking for matches, when better card design would have made this instinctive. And in a three player game, the highest value cards are so deep in the stacks that they’ll barely show up at all. Avoid this.


Galactic Warlords
Sometimes it feels like all the obvious mechanics for area control games have been taken: new designs are no longer focused on modelling warfare, or allowing for tactical creativity, but on expressing warfare in ways no other design has used. This, therefore, is from the newly decadent age of area control. Many of the mechanics are interesting, but none of them are intuitive, plastic figures off on their own mysterious dances between assassinations and conquests. There’s a lot of good stuff here, though, and I imagine taking the time to get your head around it would be worthwhile.

Destination X
A trivia game - every round you’re trying to work out which of six countries a spy has escaped to by asking questions like “What’s the main religion of the country?” and “what is its largest export?” Once you’ve got enough information to select a country, you can catch the spy. It’s slickly done, but not especially enthralling.


The final game we played, back in my brother’s flat after returning from Germany. It’s about as old-school as you can get, a licence-free update of a 1980s star trek game, and its simulations of space battles involve elements barely seen over the last couple of decades: you’re noting damage and weapon charge with marker pens on laminated ships that move across a barely illustrated hex grid. It works nicely, though. Ship movement involves a lot of management of momentum and infuriatingly large turning circles: at first they seem to handle like drunken ice-skaters, with the key to mastery hanging just out of reach. Much of the challenge involves working out exactly the right moment to fire your weapons so that they’ll hit your opponents’ weakest shields, or spinning your own ship so that enemy torpedoes miss your weak spots. The art is functional at best, but there’s a lot of drama expressed in the mechanics.

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