You say „board game fair“, I say “SPIEL” at Essen. It’s the Mecca for the tabletop gaming faithful. Four days of playing, trying, and buying. 160,000+ visitors (before COVID, that is). I’ve been there a few times over the last years for two days each and found it an intensive board game experience. After a two-year hiatus, I’ll be attending again this year. In preparation, I have perused Board Game Geek’s list of releases (fairly expansive, also including new editions, expansions etc.) which stands well over a thousand items for the most interesting (often, but not always history-themed) games so you don’t have to.
As always, this is not meant as a „must buy“ list or whatever other consumptionist term some people use. It is likely that I will buy only one or none of these games. Why? Because I have quite some good games already, and I like to make them count before I plunge into new adventures. Generally, there are no musts in buying. And there are no musts in attending board game fairs or conventions – obviously those can come as pretty big expenses for travel and accommodation, and I also understand if mingling with thousands of other people in a closed space does not strike you as the best of ideas in the era of COVID. Bottom line: No musts. You do you.
On to the games! They are sorted by location on the fairgrounds.
2-5 players, 90-120 minutes, for sale, $75
…and here my words from above already get me in trouble. Is Factory 42 a history-themed game? Its art is based on imperial German propaganda. Its mechanisms are supposed to emulate production and administration in a communist (or, in the game’s diction, “Marxistic”) society. …but then again, the people you play are dwarves. So, probably no. Anyway, it looks delightfully eclectic. Its central mechanic (worker placement) is one that I generally like, and it mixes the somber planning of a Eurogame with the uncertainty of resource allotment (done by “bureaucracy tower”) and its own unique thematic and artistic wildness.
This second edition is – except for some small corrections – identical with the original released in 2021.
3-4 players, 210 minutes, for sale, € 13
A small expansion for Friedrich (Richard Sivél, Histogame) which replaces the pen-and-paper bookkeeping of armies with little boxes for the generals under which army cubes can be placed.
I have written elsewhere about expansions and was rather skeptical. Expansions, in my opinion, are often not worth it. Good games can become meh when bloated by expansions, and there are not that many base games which are played often enough that their players totally need the expansion to get a new kick.
This expansion does not fulfil these criteria for me – the gameplay remains the same (but becomes a little more comfortable), and as I’ve played over 50 games of Friedrich (so, I’ve become a quite decent player) over the last 15 years, it’s one of the most durable games in my collection. Spending a little money on slightly smoother handling thus is justified even for a “deluxe” curmudgeon like me.
2 players, 120 minutes, for sale, € 55
Not quite a new edition – but not entirely a new game either. Triomphe à Marengo is the improved version of Bonaparte at Marengo (Bowen Simmons, Histogame). From what I hear, that was a pretty good game already, capturing the look and feel of a Napoleonic battle with its linear formations, its importance of combined arms maneuvers, and the bloody resolution of these formations’ maneuvers. I don’t play as many tactical games as I’d like to, nor as many Napoleonic games, so this one might just be a double winner.
3-4 players, 90-120 minutes, for sale, € 45
Another new edition! This one was originally released as The Settlers of the Stone Age (Klaus Teuber, KOSMOS) 20 years ago. Despite my wild fascination with Catan at the time, I’ve never played this particular game of stone age migrations from Africa to the rest of the world. In my opinion, that sounds a bit more epic than the usual “settling an island” thing (which also results in an extended play time). I am a bit wary that the longer play time goes together with a slightly decreased complexity and higher luck dependency – not usually a good combination, but I’m willing to try it first before passing judgement.
Obviously, this is not a simulation, but I think it highlights how (pre-)history-themed games can convey some key concepts to a broad audience – in this case, the migration from Africa and some important stone age inventions. Maybe it can even arouse some appreciation for the endurance and ingenuity of our early ancestors, often derided as primitive.
One last gripe: I’m not a fan of replacing perfectly good wooden bits with plastic figurines, calling them “miniatures”, and then assuming they are a lot better. But I guess this is me getting old.
2 players, 60-90 minutes, for sale, $ 49.95 (plus $30 if you also want a deluxe playmat)
Common myth has it that the Ottoman Empire had its golden age under sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, and then immediately began its long decline. Of course, that does not explain why the Ottomans continued to play a major role in the Middle East and Europe for centuries – most dramatically when they marched up the Balkans and besieged Vienna in 1683. Fire & Stone covers that siege in the form of a euro-influenced tactical wargame. The Ottoman forces are qualitatively and quantitatively superior, but they have to act decisively to overcome fortifications, artillery fire, and the resistance of the Austrian defenders before reinforcements can lift the siege (which would be the historical outcome).
I also notice that Capstone is getting ever deeper into serious historical gaming territory – Watergate (Matthias Cramer, Capstone Games) has been one of my favorites this year, and Weimar: The Fight for Democracy (Matthias Cramer, Capstone Games) also looks extremely interesting. I’m all here for it!
1-6 players, 60-120 minutes, for sale, € 54
Energy production is a common theme in games – at least since Power Grid (Friedemann Friese, 2F-Spiele). GigaWatt picks up on these traditions and offers its new interpretation: As per usual, different kinds of energy generation come with different consequences: Nuclear plants are big and reliable, but expensive. Wind plants are cheap and clean, but depend on the weather. Hydroplants can preserve excess energy for future rounds (presumably they are pumped-storage plants). Coal and gas plants, the standard plants in the beginning of the game, are important for fulfilling demand – but don’t hold on to them for too long, for their contribution to the climate crisis might cost you the game. That’s right: Whoever phases out their four fossil plants first wins the game. I think that’s an interesting proposition and not too far away from reality: Energy companies know that they need to get out of fossil-based power generation… but not before they can squeeze the last bucks of profit out of it.
3-5 players, 50-70 minutes, for sale, € 32
2015’s Tulip Bubble is re-released in a new English-Chinese edition. The game takes us back to the tulip mania of the 17th century Netherlands, when ever higher prices were paid for tulip bulbs… until the bubble burst and the bulbs became practically worthless. Players in Tulip Bubble at least know that the price bubble is inevitable going to burst – but which tulips to acquire before, how much to borrow to finance these investments, and when to sell the bulbs to make the maximum profits still are tricky decisions. Misjudging one or the other can backfire magnificently – and then you are stuck with a bunch of worthless tulip bulbs while your creditors knock ever more vigorously on your door. That swinginess might bother me in a longer game, but not in a brisk one-hour affair like Tulip Bubble.
Hall 4, booth I-113: Dutch Resistance: Orange Shall Overcome! (Marcel Köhler, Liberation Game Design)
1-5 players, 45-90 minutes, demo
Everybody has heard of the French Résistance, and probably also of the Soviet or Yugoslav partisans of World War II. Yet all occupied countries had their own resistance movement, and I’m glad Dutch Resistance sheds light on one of the lesser-known ones in a very personal way – all playable characters in this cooperative game are based on real people, one of them the designer’s late grandmother. The action point mechanism emphasizes the cooperative nature of the game: One action point on any given turn is always given to another character. The tight action economy (and the theme of civilian resistance against a powerful state) remind me a little of Days of Ire (Katalin Nimmerfroh/Dávid Turczi/Mihály Vincze, Cloud Island), which I quite enjoyed. Dutch Resistance comes with advance praise: The game was a finalist at the Zenobia Award.
Dutch Resistance is only available for demo at SPIEL, but will be for sale (€ 60) soon after. Shipping is expected for May 2023.
Are you interested in these games – or have you played any of them (or their predecessors) already? What are the games to be released at Essen about which you are most excited? Let me know in the comments!