The Internationale Spieltage—otherwise known as SPIEL or simply Essen, after its host city—is held every October in Germany. Around 150,000 people attend across four days, eager to see what the more than 800 exhibitors have on offer for the avid board game fan. There are hundreds of new games to try out and a whole lot more to pick up at bargain prices. After hours, the fair spills over into bars and hotels to the general amusement of the locals.
This was my second visit—prompted last year and this by taking part in EuropeMasters, a team-based board game competition—but my first that lasted for the fair’s duration. Even with three of the four days to wander the floor, there was a long list of games I didn’t find the time or table to play. Nonetheless, here are my highlights from those I did manage to try out. I’ll also be down in the comments (as CNightwing) to answer questions and give a short report of the competition. Now, onto the games:
Kurz gefasst: Survive the harsher-than-advertised environment of Greenland amid climate change, tribal raids, and killer whales.
Wie zu spielen: You play as one of three groups fighting for survival in 11th- through 15th-century Greenland: the ill-prepared Norsemen, the native Thule, or their more primitive rivals, the Tunit. Your people are represented by a pool of wooden cubes that either go hunting or take on special “elder” roles within the tribe that provide valuable additional actions such as domestication or the ability to travel to the new world. Unique character cards—the so-called “daughters” of the tribe—differentiate each group with their special abilities and prove important in later diplomacy via inter-tribal marriage. Greenland itself is abstracted to a two-dimensional array of biome cards, in the north or south, and either mild or cold parts of the island, each of which offers an animal to hunt or other location from which to obtain resources. There is also the new world, Markland and Vinland, to potentially colonize.
Each turn represents a single generation, and you must contend with an event card that brings a series of small disasters before getting a chance to trade with a passing Viking ship. The key activity is then deciding where to send your hunters: Do you get a little easy food from clubbing seals, chase down a dangerous narwhal for much richer spoils, or raid another player to take advantage of their good fortune? The resources you collect at this point are going to be important throughout the game: Fuel keeps your people warm, iron can prevent losses during hunting, and ivory is the only thing traders will accept. If you survive for 10 rounds, then the winner is determined by points based on population size in addition to, if you’re a polytheist society, hunting trophies acquired, or resources gathered, if you’ve become monotheist. I never reached this point, so I have no idea how hard it is to make it all the way through. Given the fact that it only took two turns to find myself in a worse position than where I started, my guess is that it’s tough.
The designers were on hand to talk about the game. Phil Eklund explained the rules in full costume, and Philipp Klarmann described how it came out of wondering exactly why the Vikings didn’t survive. (Historically only the Thule remained by the 15th century.) The game has clearly been lovingly designed, with a high attention to historical detail (and notes in the manual) that might make it too much of a chore for some people, but I was thoroughly convinced by the enthusiasm (and costume furs) on display.
Kurz gefasst: Inept wizards battle each other over several rounds to be the first to eight points. The trouble is: They don’t know what spells they can cast.
Wie zu spielen: Each of the players is a wizard, and every round you have a certain number of lives to try to hold onto as you eliminate those of the other players. The wizards can only cast eight different spells, each with a distinct effect, but there is a limited amount in every round: one copy of spell one, two copies of spell two, and so on up to eight copies of spell eight. Every player has a number of tiles in front of them from this spell pool, but much like 2013’s Hanabi, they are positioned facing away from the player. These are the only spells you can cast, so without seeing them, you have to figure out what’s most likely to be in front of you. Any successfully casted tiles are placed face-up on the board to help players keep track of what’s left, and a few others start out visible as well. Others remain undrawn for later use, however, and four are always kept hidden—revealed only by a wizard who successfully casts spell four.
So you can see the tiles available to other players and a few that nobody can use, but you have to try and cast one of your own unseen spells at least once per round. A successful conjuring means harming other players or aiding yourself, and if you fail to call out one of the spells that’s actually in front of you, you lose a life. You also get a second chance at casting after a successful turn, so long as you try the same spell or a higher one. Abraca…What?, therefore, is a hidden information game, the twist being that you are often incentivized to take the risk of calling for a spell that might not be in your arsenal but gives you the outcome you need—one that knocks out all the other wizards, winning you the round, or one that heals you up from your last life, for example.
Points are scored for surviving the round or revealing any of the four secret tiles. The first to eight points wins. It’s simple and has sturdy game pieces and nice artwork. It’s not a long game, nor can you really develop any serious tactics. It’s a great deal of fun to push your luck, even when you lose the round and stare at your implausibly low-numbered tiles in disbelief.
Verfügbarkeit: Published by Korea Boardgames Co., Ltd. The company is still looking for a North American distributor.
Kurz gefasst: Players maneuver the eponymous five tribes around the desert-themed board acquiring money and goods, assassinating people, establishing control over areas, and summoning Djinns, all in an effort to be crowned Great Sultan.
Wie zu spielen: This was one of the big hits of the fair, with English copies selling out within the first couple of days. Fortunately, there were plenty of tables where attendees could try it out. The board consists of a 5-by-6 grid of tiles, each representing an interesting place in the desert: villages, sacred places, oases, and markets. At the start of the game, every tile has three randomly chosen meeple (little human-shaped tokens) on it from the aforementioned five tribes. The yellow tribe is viziers and counts only for points at the end of the game; the white tribe is elders used to summon and power Djinns; the blue tribe is builders and brings in gold; the green tribe is merchants and acquires goods or slaves; and the red tribe is assassins who kills off meeple on the board or in the hands of your opponents.
The rules are simple but leave you with many options. On your turn, you pick up the meeple from any tile and move orthogonally, leaving one meeple behind at each stop, and the last one must be placed on a tile where another of its tribe already stands. All the meeple of that last color must be picked up and their action carried out. In general, the more you pick up at once, the better. You also get to take the action of the tile itself, which might involve buying goods from the market, summoning a Djinn, or placing a palace or palm tree. If you empty a tile, you claim it with a camel, and it will score you points at the end of the game, with more earned for any palaces and palm trees erected on it. Player order each round is determined by gold auction, so you have to spend wisely, especially since leftover money is also worth points. The game continues until there are no viable moves left or someone places their last camel, then it’s time to tally up the scores.
I liked the game, despite the fact that it was difficult to get a grip on the rules at first (language difficulties may have been to blame there). It can be a little slow at the start of each round, when people try to work out what the best possible move is, and then how much to bid for it. The way in which you move pieces around the board felt original and gives a sense of dynamic action. The game components are visually appealing, with all the wooden pieces and different colors. With points being awarded for almost everything at the end of the game, there appear to be a lot of viable strategies, especially as each Djinn has a unique power.
Verfügbarkeit: Available now from Days Of Wonder.
Kurz gefasst: A card-driven game focused entirely on the development of technology that takes players from antiquity to modern times as they strive for new discoveries and, of course, points.
Wie zu spielen: Always on the lookout for civilization-themed games, I first thought this might play like Innovation but was pleasantly surprised to find it a more streamlined experience. The focus is entirely on technology, although some other aspects of your development are abstracted onto the scoreboard and the way in which you take your turn. Each player has a hand of cards and is able to take two (at first) actions from five somewhat similar options. To discover a technology you have to pay its cost: knowledge points acquired from previously discovered cards or, more frequently, cards from your hand themselves. You can also research new technologies for free, but it takes more time. The other three options are variants of drawing more cards.
New technologies offer you upgrades to the available options and allow you to take more actions or keep more cards in your hand. You also progress along three tracks representing your prestige, population, and military power, though these only net you more points. Once players have discovered enough key technologies, the next age opens up, and everything steps up a gear, though play remains largely the same. When the game ends, you see how many points you’ve scored on the three tracks, on your player board, and on technologies you might have discovered.
After playing through just a few rounds, the biggest flaw seemed to be how much luck factored into success. It was clear that if you drew the right cards—those that helped you along a clear path on the technology tree—you were in a better position, especially as doing so didn’t leave you highly specialized and therefore lacking in other areas, as you might expect from such narrow development. Further, while you can become more efficient in performing your actions, they feel bland and similar, and unless you were discovering new technologies, it felt like your turn was wasted. My hope would be that in a full game, bad luck can be mitigated and later technologies have more interesting effects than just “+1” to this or that statistic.
Kurz gefasst: As gem traders in Jaipur’s famous jewelry market, players aim to make the right trades and influence the right nobles to come out with the most points.
Wie zu spielen: Farther east than Five Tribes, Johari has players trying to buy and sell the right gems at the right time—and make some tricky decisions. Each round consists of three actions, decided upon and carried out one at a time by the players who pick their moves in secret before they are resolved. The later you perform an action in the round, the cheaper it is, so you are always paying extra money (worth nothing otherwise) to try and get something you want before someone else can snatch it. You only have seven actions to choose from: purchasing gems immediately (not for money though, don’t let the name confuse you), trading gems to be collected later (again, not for anything you have), exchanging gems (actually giving something back this time!), selling gems (to get points), getting money, bribing the authorities to overlook your fake gems, or copying your previous action.
The gem cards themselves come in various values, and the trick is to build up a large set that you can then sell to a collector—but when another player has an inferior set, because otherwise your patron can’t brag about it. You can also sell sets of different gems to achieve the same effect, moving your marker up one of the colored gem tracks and earning more points the further along you are. Fake gems add to the fun because every time someone sells gems, you have to discard a fake, unless you’ve bribed the authorities that turn. Additionally, nobles visit the market and can effectively be bought with gem sets. Some offer improved actions; others simply give you points.
The game was fun, though hard to get the hang of at first. I amassed a large collection of blue gems before realizing I couldn’t sell them because I had all of the blue gems. The number of points you get for selling gems follows the law of diminishing returns, so you are worse off when specializing too heavily in one color. Johari seems to occupy a pleasurable space between games with no real strategy and games that take hours of your time just to learn.
Kurz gefasst: You play as a Swedish political party during the 2014 parliamentary election. Not only do you have to make sound policy decisions, but also align yourself carefully with or against other parties so that when it comes to build a coalition government, you’ll get a seat at the table.
Wie zu spielen: I couldn’t let this report close out without mentioning this game, if only for how idiosyncratic it is. Technically a follow-up to the designer’s previous 2010 Swedish Parliament, this game is a true love letter to Scandanavian democracy. The designer himself explained the mechanics of the game, and offered insights as to why he made certain decisions during the design process. A good example of this is the parties themselves, which are very similar to, but just different enough from, their real-life counterparts so as not to offend anyone.
The game proceeds by playing idea cards that represents your party’s policy or opinion on a certain issue, which shifts how the public perceives you on one of eight political axes, such as “high versus low tax” or “the European Union versus nationalism.” Other parties get to weigh in on the issue if it’s relevant to their platform or if they’re willing to pay a card. Parties then decide whether or not to align with rival factions based on their stance and whether it’s politically apt to do so. Besides the main game board, there is a small hex-grid representing the parties and their relationships to each other, which can be positive or negative. It’s these relationships that determine who will eventually form a government together. As a European whose own country (the U.K.) appears to be leaving the period of single-party government control, this fascinated me. It was explained that you needn’t win that many voters if you position yourself just right alongside other larger parties, making politics seem all the more dishonest.
The voters themselves make their minds up throughout the game, represented by well-known blocs such as “pensioners” or “the wealthy.” The board has symbols to indicate where a bloc’s characteristics lead it to stand on a given issue. (Pensioners are primarily old, and older folk care a lot more about Sweden than the rest of the country, for example.) Whichever party is most aligned to a voting bloc on its favored issues wins that bloc. Although each bloc is numerically equal at the end, a tie is decided by voter reliability, so you’d much rather win pensioners than young people.
This is not a game for everyone, especially those living under a two-party government. I didn’t get a chance to play it all the way through for myself, but I like the idea of it and that someone sat down and designed a game based around something he cared about. Compromises were made on the representation of real-life voters and issues so that the board had a more even layout, but that’s important for playability. I’m looking forward to sitting down with a couple of friends and playing a full game at some point in the future, even if we never open the box again afterward.
Verfügbarkeit: The game is self-published, but the designer was hoping to pick up a distributor at the fair. He has since made it available from various sources across several different territories.