Impossible but true, the Essen Games Convention has closed its gates once again for a year. The light are out, the remaining games are packed once again into storage boxes, and the SPIEL 2001 now has become history. However, before we get too sad, let's directly launch into my final day which I partly spent with my favourite hobbies, the Lord of the Rings and Fantasy Games.
As far as Kosmos is concerned, their release of new games at the SPIEL this year is nearly totally focused on Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Their choice to produce new games based on Tolkien's works is not only due to the dawning of the new movie, but also they took the sales-numbers of last year's Lord of the Rings boardgame by Rainer Knizia as an indicator for the popularity of such games. Since the game could also be sold at bookstores, they sold a total of about 200.000 copies since Essen last year - a sales-number usually reserved to games receiving the Spiel des Jahres or Deutscher Spiele Preis awards. Thus, it can be understood that Kosmos released a total of 3 new titles based on Tolkien's works.
Die Gefährten (= The Fellowship) is a new game which comes in the standard Kosmos sized box, and it is totally based on the new movie which will be in cinemas in December. In this game, the players go on the dangerous trip from the Shire passing Bree to Rivendell, and from there they continue through Moria and Lorien to their ending point in this game - the Falls of Rauros. On they way there, every player will try to collect as many Hero-Points as possible (the player with most Hero-Points at the end of the game wins), but in order to win a certain degree of co-operation between the players in necessary. Everybody tries to be ahead of the others, but on the other hand the leading player will always be most exposed to attacks by Orcs or Black Riders. Encounters will be simulated through a deck of cards which will be revealed after each move. These cards show more or less strong opponents, and the strength of an opponent will be expressed by 3 different numbers, for example 8-5-2. The leading player always has to fight against the strongest power - 8 in our example. If he does not succeed, he will be re-positioned behind the next following member of the Fellowship. This player now also has to fight the monster, but with the second power-value (here: 5). This procedure is continued until the enemy is beaten, and the winner will gain Hero-points or a special ability which he can use later during the game. Especially important for the game are two dice which will be rolled by a player during his turn. The number shown on one dice he may chose to move his playing piece, whereas the other number indicates his fighting strength during this turn. If an encounter does occur, the current combat strength of player and opponent each is calculated by adding an additional roll of a dice, plus possibly any special friends possessed by the player (these can be gained during the game). Careful players thus will wait until they are strong enough to dare to take the lead of the group. Because several stops are made at intermediate targets on the voyage, a player's tactics will move between pulling back and rushing forwards.
Kulkmann's opinion: The game is totally centered around the new movie and this is strongly felt during gameplay. For the card-illustration, screen-shots from the movie are used, and this actually gives the game a somewhat queer feeling since the gameboard on the other hand is a drawing. Despite a working game-mechanism, the game is unable to loose its feeling of a merchandise-product - an observation which is strengthened by the fact that the game leaves off exactly at the same point as the movie does. On the whole, I would call this an unnecessary product. I just hope that any follow-up (which will come due to infos from a Kosmos representative) will be better.
Under their younger players label Klee Kosmos also released a new game named Der Kleine Hobbit, based on the adventures of Bilbo as described in The Hobbit. Like Bilbo, the players have to journey through Middle Earth to the Lonely Mountain, where the game will end with the final confrontation with Smaug the Dragon. As for coming forwards on their way, the players simplay roll two dice and they may use the results of one or both of them to move their playing piece forwards. However, moving fast is not always the best choice, since the players usually are well counceled to stop several times on their way in order to pick up useful items or find friends. These cards may be used to solve events which may occur - the game features a big deck of many events which are taken from the story of The Hobbit.
Although the game aims at a much younger audience, it is a more mature product that Die Gefährten. Graphics of cards and other game components stand as a harmonic whole, and the rules are sophisticated enough to offer younger players good fun during the game.
However, after discussing these two titles a certain observation cannot be refused: the flagship of the Tolkien-games at Kosmos remains Rainer Knizia's Lord of the Rings. However, the game even has been improved by the new expansion set which is released at Essen: "Die Feinde" (= the enemies). This expansion features two new gameboards, for Bree and for Isengard. Thus, the voyage of the Fellowship becomes much longer and new cards with friends and helpful items can be found. However, a major change to the rules has been introduced by the new use of enemy-cards. The players now may be forced to draw cards showing many different kinds of Sauron's Monsters. They can be defeated by cardplay, but if there are to many of them the Fellowship is overwhelmed and the game is lost. On the other hand, if all enemies are beaten at the end of a gameboard, the Fellowship may be allowed to skip certain placed and sneak ahead.
Kulkmann's opinion: To my mind, this expansion makes a good game better. The new cards and rules enhance the game and give more options to the players, but it does not become more difficult. Since the high style of artwork is kept, the games leaves an overall good impression.
A busy day was still ahead of me at Krimsus Krimskrams Kiste. Not only did I want to test their convention releases, but also an older game which I never got around to play yet. Krimsus new releases this year were totally standing under the topic of Wild West, and thus the two new cardgames both have a very typical western-situation as their theme.
Their bigger game this year is Goldrush City, and in this game the players try to become mayor of a Goldrush Boomtown. In order to get votes from the population, the players have to see that useful buildings are erected in the town, like a Blacksmith, Saloons, a Store, a Bank or even a Whorehouse. However, in order to build anything the players need building materials and to buy these they need Gold. At the beginning, the players can only get Gold by digging claims for it, but later on - once they have built some houses - an income is generated by these houses. However, it not that easy to win the game. On the one hand, the players need to get a building license from the judge and also the building materials can only be gained through auctions. However, the game gets even more tough through the use of event-cards: Indians can sneak into the town and burn down buildings, the Gouvernor might come and distract a player, or a Thief might come and steal some equipment. Most unnerving are the bandits which players can use to hinder the others: these can steal cards, blow up buildings or do some other kind of mischief. In the end, the player with the most valuable buildings has won.
The other new Wild West game at the Krimskram Kiste is Saloon, and here the players take part in one of those famous Saloon-Fightings with everybody hitting everybody. Each player has a number of consciousness-points, and in the end the only player with consciousness-points left has won the game. Players may hit each other by using their fists, they may throw inventory like bottles or chairs, or they might also try to hide for a while. Defenders on the other hand might try some kind of defensive-cards, and even the other players can join into a fight launched by two players, assisting the one or the other side. Finally, different kinds of events like the arrival of the Doctor also influence the outcome of the fight, and the outcome of the game remains unpredictable until near to the end.
Kulkmann's opinion: Whereas Goldrush City is a more strategical type of game with a playing duration of 1 to 2 hours, Saloon is much shorter to play and offers less strategy but much more player interaction. Saloon actually is a very funny game, and the options open to the players pretty well reflect the different kinds of events which might come in a Saloon-fight. Both games play rather well, but - because of the higher fun and the more extraordinary topic - I would recommend Saloon to be much more preferable.
Although several years old, today I also tested a small gem at Krimsus Krimskrams Kiste which I simply had to present. The game is called Beutelschneider (= cutpurse) and is focused on the happenings in a small medieval town. It is a game for 3 to 5 players and the main playing mechanism of the game is closely related to well known "highest card wins the round" games. There are three colours, and all of them consist of the same ranked cards: 1 to 4 gold, Beggar, Serving Wrench, Landlord, 10 Gold and Merchant. In their turn, the players play these cards following standard mechanisms: a card of the same colour as the first card usually must be served, and only if this cannot be done an other card can be discarded or a joker can be played. The player who has collected most gold at the end of the game has won.
So far - so good, but the striking factor in the game are the joker cards which add a lot of fun to the game which make it much more interesting. The highest joker is the Duke, and he usually cannot be beaten - only if another player can play the Assassin directly on the Duke the Duke is killed and the player of the Assassin wins the round (being worth an additional 10 Gold at the end of the game). Another nice combination is the Hero and the Comtesse. Being normal jokers if played solo, their function is different when one is directly played after the other. Here the later card always seduces the earlier, and thus the player of the later card will win the round. This is, unless the Duke comes on top of them, spotting their liason and prohibiting it. Last, we have the Cutpurse which may be put into a round where the player cannot serve the colour, and the player who has the Cutpurse at the end of the game has to substract 20 Gold from his total. However, on top of the Cutpurse the Town Guard may be played, capturing the Cutpurse and being worth an additional 10 Gold.
Kulkmann's opinion: I cannot remember whether I have ever seen a game so easy which is so closely connected to a fitting background story. The deck of cards is well adjusted and the cards powers nicely support the story of the game. The artwork supplements this, and I would call Beutelschneider a really attractive game. And that for a price of only 10 DM! There even exists a 7-card-expansion called Gaukelspiel, introducing more characters with quite hillarious attributes to the game.
After Krimsus, still many things were to do so I directly continued... A game which Alan R. Moon "forced" me to test and report of is Vom Kap bis Kairo. It is a cardgame from Günter Burkhardt which has been published by Adlung Spiele. The topic of the game is the building of a Railroad from the Cape of Africa up to Cairo, a task which even in our modern times has not yet been completed. The players take up the roles of different railbuilding companies, each equipped with a starting-capital of 100 Pounds. The first company which will have succeeded in building 8 pieces of track through different kinds of Landscape will have won the game.
At the beginning of a round, as many landscape cards as there are players will be available for auction. Apart from displaying a type of landscape (river, mountain, desert etc.) these cards also have a value and a track building capacity. In turn, the players will secretly bid money in order to be the first player to chose from the cards, and once all players have placed their bets these are revealed simultaneously. The player who has paid the highest amount gets to chose his landscape first, and the other players will follow in the order of their bets. The players then place the new landscape in front of their engines, and the railbuilding process will start. Each landscape needs a certain number of rails in order to be crossed, and the number of rails needed increases the more difficult the terrain becomes. In order to get the number of rails needed, the players can take the track building capacity of the landscape into their calculation, but that alone is never sufficient to complete the track through the landscape. Thus, a new landscape-card from the stockpile is revealed and the current player may decide to use the track building capacity of this card in addition the the track building capacity which he already has in order to complete the track through his landscape. This works if the number of tracks meets the number of tracks needed to cross the landscape, and a player also can take additional tracks for a price of 10 Pounds (this is rarely done due to the high price). If the track is built through the landscape, the card is turned over to its track side and the train may move forwards, but if the player should not be able to build a track he gives the landscape card which he revealed to get an additional track building allowance to the next player who adds yet another card and then may decide whether he has enough track building allowance to build his track. Rivers are the most difficult landscapes to cross because the players have to meet a high demand of track building allowance, but on the other hand a player who waits in front of a river will get bonus cards whenever other players build tracks. As said before, the first player who succeeds in crossing 8 landscapes wins the game.
Kulkmann's opinion: I would say Alan R. Moon deservingly is running over the convention sending people to Adlung to test Vom Kap bis Kairo. The game is very easy to learn and play, but it features a very nice playing mechanism and good strategy-options for the players. Especially for a cardgame with a price of only 10 DM the game has an outstanding quality.
The Lord of the Rings boom which can be observed at Essen this year also has found its way to the booth of Games Workshop, producer of tabletop-wargames. Being released at the same time as the new movie, Games Workshop presented their new tabletop-wargame at Essen which is based on the Lord of the Rings. A detailed review of this game will follow at some later date in my tabletop-wargames section, but what I can comment on now is the quality of the miniatures which will be used for the new game. I have seen a good choice of the new metal-miniatures available, and I must confess that they are looking quite similar to the characters from the movie. That - of course - brings up the question whether the makers of the movie itself have chosen the right way to present characters which thousands of people know from their imagination. Myself, I disagree with the look of the actors in the movie, but I still have to acknowledge that the new miniatures are pretty good copies of their human counterparts.
Due to my strong interest in tabletop-wargaming, another game which I couldn't release to have a closer look at was the game Mage Knight which Fanpro had licensed from the american publisher Wikids. Unlike any other tabletop-wargame, Mage Knight is designed like a collectible cardgame, where people buy starting packs and boosters of miniatures in order to collect an army. The miniatures contained in these sets are made of plastic, and - another innovation - they are fully painted. Despite mass production, the painting is done to a rather fair standard, giving the miniatures a quite satisfactory look.
But that is not the only innovation about Mage Knight. As a matter of fact, the game only consists of a minimum of rules, making it easy to learn but detailed enought to experience some interesting, strategical battles. Another well done feature is that the base of each figure contains a rotating disk which can be used to change a figure's attributes once it has been wounded in battle. All in all, it seems that the game is more than an alternative to more established wargaming-systems, and I will give you a detailed review at some later date in my tabletop-wargames section.
And last, we come to another of the real highlights of this year's convention: Die Space Schweine (= Space Pigs) from Tilsit Editions. It is a game about pigs colonizing space in order to find acorns from which they are able to produce a sacred brew according to their traditions. Every clan of pigs tries to be the first the colonize the proper planets and thus to be able to force their recipe for the sacred brew upon the other clans, and thus a race for the stars with fierce battles between the different clans occur.
Although the game bears strong similarities with Twilight Empires and also Junta, it comes with a totally new mixture of elements ensuring interesting and entertaining gameplay. Basically each round starts with the arrival of reinforcements which will be distributed between the players by the Kingpig which has been elected during the first turn. After all reinforcements have arrived and new action-cards have been drawn, the players now are allowed to move their pigs and if - after movement - there are pigs of different clans on the same planet battle occurs. This is solved by rolling a dice and adding the number of pigs present, and the battle continues until one player totally loses or withdraws. After all battles the players gain one acorn from each planet (yellow, red or blue), and if anybody has gained the proper acorns for his secret recipe in that round he has won the game. If nobody wins, all acorns are returned and the players elect a new Kingpig, with each player having as many votes as he has planets.
Sounding so far like one of the usual space-exploration games, Die Space Schweine offers a lot more rules which serve to sophsticate gameplay enough to get a good mixture of strategy and entertainment. Aliens move on the board, strategies for skilled retreats and especially the use of event and battle cards ensures ongoing variation in gameplay which prevents a round from becoming dull because a player might become overmighty. From my point of view, the game is well belanced with 3 to 5 players. So far the game is available in french and german, but I was told by a representative from Tilsit that an english version is also possible in the future.
Kulkmann's opinion: Once again it has been proved true that a publisher does not need to be one of the big players in the market to produce an outstanding game. Die Space Schweine not only offers a good composition of rules, but it also comes with hillarious graphics, rules and cards which make the game absolutely worthwhile. Especially the small jokes and twists inserted into the game by the authors make the game really worthwhile, and I recommend the game to anybody who wants to try a short, fast-paced space-opera.
Okay, and now the time has nearly come for us to part again for a year, since my live-coverage is over today, together with the convention.
I am often asked which game I would consider to be the most interesting product after having visited a convention, and this year I finally decided to give my vote of a favourite. It fell on Urland because the game offers and outstanding mix of interesting rules elements, strategy and entertainment, and in my opinion it is a game which has a replay value which even some winners of the "Spiel des Jahres" or the "Deutscher Spiele Preis" awards do not have. However, keep in mind that many more game - especially from smaller publishers - were available at the convention, and although I tried my best I certainly couldn't test them all...
As for the Prize draw, the winners will be anounced soon, but I do not yet have the games, so it may take a bit until they are sent. Kosmos was not well-suppied at the Convention, and so they have to send these prizes to me first.
However, let me thank you once again for coming back to my G@mebox constantly during the days of this convention. I am exhausted now, but receiving good praise from some of you showed me that the task was worth to undertake. I will do my best to see that all will be the same next year, although I will be in China working with the People's Congress for three months until the end of October. Perhaps I will be able to get 2 weeks of holidays, but this we will see at some later date.
Just now, all that remains to do for me is to wish all of you a good and successful year! See you next year, and take care!
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Copyright © 2003 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Trier, Germany