I feel as if I must apologise to you dear reader. Not only did it take me far too long to write up my initial thoughts on the International Spiletage as Essen, but then it was so bug I had to break it into two parts. I then spent too long writing up this, the follow up to part 1! So, sorry about that. I also wish to apologise about the initial tone of this article, because the first thing I’m going to do today is complain. Oh well you’ve got to take the rough with the smooth.
We all go to games conventions to play games, not just buy them. Which is why there is a huge amount of demo space throughout Essen but getting a demo on some of those stands was beyond difficult, it was impossible.
There were a few games on my horizon that I wanted to try at the show, T.I.M.E Stories, Blood Rage, 504, Scythe and bizarrely Krosmaster Quest, but I didn't get a hands on with any of them because they were fully booked up or the stands where poorly manned. TIME stories and Scythe both required pre-booking and due to their level of hype and hotness they were pretty much booked up for the entire weekend. Blood Rage was hidden at the back of an open play area and, due to the game length, was really difficult to get into a game.
But Krosmaster and 504 just appeared to be poorly run. The Japanime stand only seemed to have one person demoing all the games, and it was a common sight to see people sitting round the tables looking bewildered or reading the rules themselves. This problem wasn't isolated to Japanime but I really fancied trying the Krosmaster Quest out. 504's problem was only a single copy of the game being demoed at the Stronghold Games’ booth (apparently there was another elsewhere but I missed it), which considering this was its debut and being the big hotness, I would have expected more.
But let’s not dwell on the negatives; let’s have a look at some more of the game I actually did get a chance to play.
I'm already calling Aya the most innovative game of the year. We may be a few more months away but I can't see any game between now and January being so unique and innovative (although T.I.M.E Stories is giving it a run for its money), because Aya is a game based around domino rally, and it works a charm.
Aya is a cooperative game exploring a new land, following a river upstream into unexplored territory. Along the way you will be trying to snap the best photographs of picturesque locations and the local wildlife. This is done by building up the river from its estuary inland using domino tiles. The best way to imagine this game is a cooperative Carcassonne, each player takes it in turn revealing a tile and then places it where they see best, trying to match up tiles to locations and animals. After twenty minutes players then get a limited number of pushes to get the river to run its course.
It’s a scoe based game, so there is no way to lose at Aya, so I was worried that there wouldn't be any game, but the time limit and cooperative nature actually make the game rather frantic as you try and agree on the best location for each tile. The reward however is the best, as you get to push over the cascade of tiles and make the pattern. This video is from our demo game at the show:
Unfortunately I Aya wasn't available to us at Essen but should be available soon.
If I'm already calling Aya as most innovative game of 2015 then Codenames is going to be the party game of 2015. It's a very difficult game to explain; laid out is a grid of Codenames with each name representing a spy or an innocent bystander. The aim of the game is to reveal all of your team's spies and you'll use word association to give clues to which Codenames are your team's spies.
My explanation really can't do justice to how great this game is; you can guarantee that the clues are going to cause some confusion. Your clues may lead to the wrong word or your team mates are just complete numpties. Every game of this has been fun and considering the game is English based, I played it with Germans, Swiss, Russians and the Welsh and it worked with all of them.
Of all the game companies that impressed me Black a Rock Games where the one who impressed me the most, not only did they have a central booth with plenty of buzz, they also had three stellar games on show. Aya was the first game I played at the Black Rock stand, Piratoons was the second.
Piratoons is a worker placement, bidding, set collection, ship building game. The aim is to build the best pirate ship, and there are a vast number of items that garner points, from flags to cannons and crew to matching hull shapes. You gather these parts via a bidding / worker placement system, that's also timed. It results in some furious bidding and cut throat competition as you try and grab the ship parts you need over your foes. It also has what I call the Carcassonne effect where each player is building a pirate ship that gets bigger and more complicated each turn.
Piratoons was my only purchase regret, it was getting towards the end of the show and I was already running out of luggage space. Boo for flight weight limits.
Taverna is a game of placing customers in a fantasy tavern, and is apparently the Spanish and Italian word for Tavern and not a word play on Caverna like I thought. It's a bright colourful world were players each own stakes in the various taverns in town and you will take turns pointing potential customers into your pub of choice and hopefully manipulating the local dignitaries in the process.
At its heart it's a simple system of choosing one of the possible patrons available and placing them in a bar and hopefully score lots of points or set up one of the many end game bonus points. Not so much a worker placement as a drinker placement game.
I was really looking forward to playing Tavern, but unfortunately it fell a little flat for me. It could be because of the mixed language mixed nationality group of players at the table; though that wasn't an issue at any other game I played at Essen. It could be because the rules explanation at the start of the game was a little poor and I have since found out that we missed one of the key mechanics of the game. Or unfortunately it may just be that the game isn't for me, that I found it far too mechanical with little in the way of interesting choices.
I would like to play Taverna again if only to make sure that missing rule didn’t change the game or the group I played with wasn’t the issue. I still think there is something there but based on the play at Essen it was sadly lacking and I wasn’t going to risk valuable luggage space on gamble.
I am sorry to say but in my opinion Epic was the worst game I played at Essen. Created by the same team behind Star Realms, Epic does what many games before have tried to do before, and that is to fix Magic the Gathering. Please don't. There's nothing wrong with Magic, there's nothing broken with it that needs fixing, so would every one please stop trying.
Epic attempts to overcome the mana curve and overpowered cards by removing the mana almost completely and making every card overpowered. Each turn you have one gold coin to spend on playing cards and cards cost either nothing or 1 gold to play.
The problem is that Epic is so quick and lightweight it will get blown away in a stiff breeze. There was just nothing to it, with a completely random deck there was little strategy to be had and tactically was just about playing the cards in hand. In all it felt far too thin and the much advertised fast playtime comes as a blessing as you haven't wasted too much time on it.
I'll put it into simple terms, Shuffle Heroes is a mash up of Magic and Smash Up, with a smattering of ancient gods. Pick two gods’ decks, shuffle them together and try to kill your opponent's gods or burn out their deck. Mechanically it is relatively simple, with the aim being to try and chain cards together. Most cards will have a condition, that if met allows you to play another card, so the crux of the game becomes chaining the best combos while actually doing something useful with those combos.
There's a lot of tactical depth available, hell of a lot more than Epic. I didn't pick it up though and that's only because it's a two player game, and I just don't get two after games to the table enough.
Last but not least was Krosmaga, a game being released for digital platforms and in a physical version at the same time. Mechanically it’s a cross between Magic and Plants vs Zombies, as you play creatures to a series of lanes to hit the opposition’s eggs (I don’t know why its eggs okay, I didn’t ask).
It’s not the most original of concepts, but what it lacks in originality it more than made up for in style. Every character and animation was beautifully rendered, in rather pretty cell shaded anime-esque style. I played the digital version and I must say I rather enjoyed the experience; my army of fighting sheep (the chap running the demo must have noticed I’m Welsh somehow) blasted through a bunch of psychotic canaries and led me to victory. I’m not sure how well the physical version will play out but the iPad version I played was a lot of fun.
Krosmaga is coming to Kickstarter soon.