Süddeutsche Spielemesse 2018

Fall is the season for fairs and conventions. Summer’s heat has come and passed, and now people are flocking back to the warmth of inside events. Christmas comes ever closer, and so every publisher wants to bring their new games to the market – and every gamer wants to find out what is worth wishing for or giving to others. The Stuttgart Game Fair (Süddeutsche Spielemesse, Southern German Game Fair) is no exception.
As it is held a month after the SPIEL bonanza at Essen, new releases are a rare sight. However, many sellers have the newest games on their shelves (and older titles at a nice discount). And, as the fair is a rather small one, you can also take a stroll over the grounds and check out the other fairs which are going on concurrently (and for which the entrance fee is included in your ticket) – like one for model trains, or one for food.
Where the fair really shines, though, is in its various options to borrow games and try them right at the spot. In addition to a giant “isle of gaming” in the middle of the fair, you’ll always find the booth of the FsF e.V. (Verein zur Förderung spielerischer Freizeitaktivitäten, Club for the Promotion of Playful Leisure Activities). The FsF does not only have a high-quality selection of games (including quite some heavier titles), but also many helpful club members who will be able to explain almost every game to you, so you don’t have to learn straight from the box.
I took the opportunity there to play to games which had gotten a lot of praise recently – this year’s release Everdell (James A. Wilson, Starling Games) and the Spiel des Jahres winner Azul (Michael Kiesling, Plan B Games) to see if they lived up to the hype.

Everdell.jpg

Yep, the game includes a giant tree. The smart game designer knows they need an eye-catcher for the Kickstarter crowd.

Say what you want about Everdell, but it’s really cute. Your workers to be placed are little animals – I had the squirrels, other options include turtles, hedgehogs, and rabbits. The artwork of the cards and the board is adorable, and the game comes with a big cardboard tree that looks amazing. Sadly, the tree has no other function than to hold a few cards and figures. Similarly, other graphically appealing components do not have a corresponding game function (say, differences between animal factions). While the game plays smoothly, there is even less player interaction than in your average worker placement game, and even the passive-aggressive stealing of attractive spots is less pronounced. The most inventive mechanism are “asynchronous” seasons – you can proceed to summer while your fellow gamers are still in spring, for example. The players who take longer do so because they take more actions (usually good), but someone who moves through the seasons fast might be able to claim special actions first. In practice, however, that means that the game can end at quite different times for different players. I had been spawning an endless parade of critters into my city, so my gaming partner finished more than five minutes before me (in a game that took less than an hour) and had to patiently wait while I did my last turns. I see why Everdell with all its beauty and the standout tree did great on Kickstarter (almost half a million dollars raised), but its mechanisms and gameplay do not hold up to that standard.

Squirrel.jpg

These are the most vicious squirrels in town – grabbing every berry they can get hold of. Now that I think about, that does sound like regular squirrel behavior. The squirrels at my alma mater Washington University in St. Louis were infamous for stealing pizza from unsuspecting students.

Azul looks very different but is just as beautiful in its mesmerizing geometric patterns. And, as it is crowned with the Spiel des Jahres award, you can’t go wrong with it, right? Well, you can. I’m not saying Azul is a bad game, but it’s not for everybody, and certainly not for me. It doesn’t even pretend to have a theme – yeah, sure, there is some stuff about creating patterns of tiles for the Royal Palace, but nobody actually believes running a tiling business works anything at all like playing Azul. If you love abstracts, this might be a game for you, but I didn’t find joy in the mathematical puzzle. On the plus side: The game has simple and clear rules and doesn’t take long. So, from the beginning of the rules explanation to the end of the game, we took just 30 minutes to find out that Azul was just not for us.

Azul

No self-respecting vendor of wall tiles will accept you buying tiles of different patterns in the same order. After you purchase your two red tiles, the vendor will then throw the remaining mismatched tiles on the street while wailing loudly.

So, was it a waste of time to play those two games? Not at all! Now I know myself what to think of them, and I only spent a few euros for trying them out. My gaming partner for Azul was extremely hyped for the game due to its stunning looks but can now be calm and put the game out of mind. Sometimes, all you need is to be able to move on.

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