The annual board game Mecca which is the Essen SPIEL has ended, and, like all attendants, I am a bit overcome by the sheer amount of games and gamers. I have only been there for two of the four days, but that was enough to try out a lot of games and enjoy the company of like-minded people… except, of course, when I was walking somewhere and had to make my way through thousands of tightly packed like-minded people. No, of course I’m kidding – the crowd at SPIEL is very friendly (and always up for a game). I am very thankful for this experience to the various people I encountered over one or the other game as well as to my two friends who went and shared most of the games with me at the fair.
Here are some of the titles I played and liked.
Hannibal & Hamilcar is a card-driven war game between a Roman and a Carthaginian player with two scenarios: The First (Hamilcar) and the Second (Hannibal) Punic War. Maneuvers and battles are only the instrument with which the goal of political control over cities and regions is fulfilled – a war game in the best Clausewitzian sense. At the fair, I played a short introductory scenario set during the Second Punic War (two turns instead of nine). Carthage foolishly let the Romans have the initiative just to see Hasdrubal’s army in eastern Italy be annihilated by the very first Roman move (reminiscent of the Metaurus) Afterwards, Hannibal felt compelled to take more risks and laid siege to Rome. While his siege attempts failed miserably (and depleted the scarce Carthaginian troops), he repelled the consular armies coming to their city’s relief many a time at the gates of Rome (this was also a classic historical Hannibal who, in the words of his officer Maharbal knew how to win, but not how to use a victory). The battles took their toll, however, and Hannibal could not stand against the constant inflow of new Roman troops. Vastly outnumbered, his army was surrounded (in an ironic reversal of Cannae) and Hannibal died on the battlefield. Both players found the game intriguing and tense and were very interested in exploring the full epic game.
If you want to know what Iron Curtain is about, Katie’s Game Corner has summarized it perfectly: “imagine if Twilight Struggle and 13 Minutes had baby”. You get the Cold War for two players in just 18 cards that represent both a country and an event – you will place the card according to its region, but also conduct an action with it, hoping to dominate this or other cards by placing more influence cubes there than your opponent. That means you have to think in the dimensions of area control to dominate the countries, spatial expansion to guarantee your access to new countries while shielding them from your opponents, and hand management to make the best of your events while not letting your opponent enjoy her benefits. My game at the fair saw mostly Soviet cards in the first and mostly American cards in the second rounds – which presented tricky challenges for the Soviets to control the damage to them as the game went on. I have also played 13 Days and 13 Minutes by the same two designers as well as David Mortimer’s Twilight Squabble, but Iron Curtain is my new favorite short Cold War game now.
When it comes to the bloody history of the mid-20th century, there are plenty of games that deal with the military campaigns of World War II, but not so many who dedicate themselves to the political prelude of it. Democracy under Siege is one of these rare games. Three players vie as democracy, Nazism and communism for political control over other nations. While much of the game plays out similar to other card-driven games, a unique feature is the moving of nations over a web-like structure of political alignment. If you can move a nation into your “home” corner, you will gain its points, but you already gain potential access to a country’s resources when it is close enough to your home corner. Let’s say, Finland moves to the “military dictatorship” section that is between communism and Nazism. Neither gets the points, but both could try to claim Finland’s raw materials (while democracy cannot). I only got to play one turn (during which communism turned despotic, Nazism built spy networks and conducted coups in Eastern Europe and democracy increased its military), but the game is surely innovative in theme and mechanics.
John Company puts players in the shoes of British merchant families who want to acquire a fortune in the trade of the East India Company so that they can retire to the plum positions of polite society – let’s say as ambassador to France or on a nice manor in the English countryside. They are jointly responsible for the fates of the company, but their individual interests may vary widely. In our game at the fair, a rush on shares of the company forced us to generate a tremendous wealth with the Indian trade to satisfy the demands of the shareholders. However, both the attacks of the Indians on our holdings and the abolition of ship-buying by the company as decreed by a law we passed in parliament wrecked this ambitious business model within the first turn. Sadly, we didn’t have more time to see the company fall apart on our watch (and find out who was best positioned to thrive in this climate of economic despair). John Company is a game that depends heavily on the play group to succeed – the more you are into wheeling and dealing, the better this system of exchanging favors gets.
Okay, this is no historical game. Not even close. Two to six players control various pieces (a bit like chess) on a hexagonal board (a bit like Chinese checkers). Now this sounds rather dry, so I’ll start over: Two to six players move armies of seafood commanded by a king crab over a plate of spaghetti. You win if you either control the center or eliminate all the other king crabs. For this task, you’ll recruit various worker and fighting frutti as well the powerful royal frutti, all of which have alliterative and rather tasty names (like the Mighty Mussel, the Shy Shrimp or the Loyal Lobster). My game began with cautious moves and economy building by all players, until a first offensive started an eruption of violence that shifted everybody’s concern to deploying fighting frutti. Some moves later most of them had gone to sleep with the fishes. Frutti di Mare is easy to learn, but hard to master and a nice blend of positional strategy and the risk of the dice. Beware, however, that the game can really make you crave a nice plate of pasta with seafood.
Essen is over, but Essen will come again next year. I’m looking forward to it.