Spiel '91, Essen

Compared to last year's relative disappointment, there was something rather special about my recent visit to Essen. Perhaps it was the opportunity to discuss the games with the people I am going to play them with, perhaps it was the presence of more English speakers than ever before, but it was more likely that there were once again a positive, fresh atmosphere, loads of people to say hello to and half a dozen games that even a jaded German games fan could get truly excited about. All this combined with the continually expanding range of games coverage and, I suspect, slightly reduced attendance meant that Spiel '91 was one of the best I've attended.

As last year, I shall make a few comments on each of those companies and games that were of interest to me. This should amount to about twenty games from almost as many companies, but there were over 120 new games on display which should provide something for almost everyone and will result in the usual 150% increase in the Rules Bank wants list. From the Sumo self-control angle, I had a good weekend. Just eight purchases, two gifts and a couple of dice cups was the extent of the damage. I seem to be cured at last.

As ever, any views expressed are based on either a brief description and observation of the games or, in most cases, an initial play session. They are therefore subject to change in the future and the buyer should beware. Full reviews should appear in later issues as reaction, space, time and enthusiasm permit. Availability for those, like me, who can't wait for a fix should contact Just Games, Leisure Games, Custom Games, Esdevium or Spielfreaks or of course you could order direct from Adam Spiel or similar postal suppliers.

Abacus had two new games on show as well as, I think, a new edition of Dicke Kartoffeln for which I'd love to see any rules changes. The two new ones were African Queen, a wooden abstract game designed by Alex Randolph which seemed to be getting good reaction, though as ever I wasn't too inspired personally. The other game was Pony Express, one of three of Alan Moon's designs to be released at the show. Formerly a horse racing game, it has been converted into a clever racing and betting system which will appeal to the 'German' games fans.

Das Spiel is a shop rather than a company but they provided three of my purchases. All three were from France and two were by Ludodelire, the producer of Full Metal Planete and Supergang. The first of these is Formule De (Formula Dice) which is yet another Grand Prix game with spectacular production. The game system appears not dissimilar to Gearshift but we await the rules on this one like many others. I believe Steve Owen may have a set, so we may be quickly away with this one. The other one was La Vallee des Mammouths which I think I'm happy about having bought, but this was the one that I probably should have waited on. There is nothing wrong with the game on first impressions, just that the components are not really worth the £27 asking price. I suppose one impulse buy is justifiable. Lastly, they were selling Guillotine, a political game where you play a member of the French revolutionary government during The Terror. This looks right up my street and it gives me a solid incentive to read Citizens in the near future.

Rather like the ice hockey game last year, Thomas Fackler stole the show with Die Abtei der Wandernden Buecher (roughly, The Abbey of Wandering Books), a creation that very nearly deserved a place in an art gallery rather than a games exhibition. Granted, you pay for the privilege of possessing one - the asking price was around £300 (with a show discount) for each of the 200 game limited edition - but what a handsome object to own. Even better, the game wasn't at all bad. It is based on, though I believe it doesn't acknowledge, Eco's Name of The Rose and concerns monks pottering around looking into books. Each book contains a letter and the idea is to make up a word with the letters thus discovered. This sounds simple but the monastery is run on draconian lines and the monks have to be in bed at the right times and be up bright and early for matins, vespers or whatever. The upshot is a clever game that was good enough for Ravensburger to agree to market but this in turn was not good enough for our Herr Fackler, who wanted to do it properly.

The story has it that a master bookbinder was hired for a year to produce the game and it clearly shows, though the financial investment must have been frightening. The board is quite beautifully done, appearing to be either leather or parchment inlaid into a black tooled border. The pieces are metal (an alloy of some description) and individually sculpted and painted and even the player aids are made to look like stained glass windows. The books are minor works of art - each is hand carved from wood. All this is liberally sprinkled with gold leaf fleurs-de-lys and enclosed in a lacquered wood box. The overall effect is stunning, but of course at that price, which I am tempted to call ridiculous, you expect as much. On balance, I would be surprised if he sells more than fifty. I wasn't tempted once I'd sat down and thought about it a bit and mopped my brow, but at £100 I'd almost certainly be a buyer. Who knows, I may yet weaken when the job secuity looks firmer. As it is, he will sell only to the well-off collectors in our midst. Very impressive, highlight of the show, worth the trip alone and I wish him the best of luck.

Fanfor Verlag are very much a one-man band but they have mustered sufficient resources to put out Hacker, a fascinating game involving breaking into computer systems. It looks a little abstract in parts but the idea is clever and the theme remains current enough to generate sales. As seems to be traditional, the production is top notch. I understand John Webley is doing the translation for this one, so I look forward to playing it in the near future.

Franjos, a small company who seem to specialise in reprints, have put out a respectably produced version of the out-of-print Can't Stop, one of Sid Sackson's better efforts. Similar in concept to Pass the Pigs but nothing like it in the flesh, it is a dice game of deciding when enough is enough. Other than that, there are no changes and the classic simplicity of the original is retained. The drawback was that Franjos were asking DM40 for a game that could be found secondhand downstairs in the dealer area for half that. Whatever, a faithful reproduction of a good game that you definitely should own.

Hobby Products have one of the best stands at the show as far as I'm concerned. They sell mainly miniature figures (including the excellent Asterix range) which are painted to an impressive standard and are also one of the focii of the fledgling German miniatures hobby, having translated and marketed the WRG ancients range for over a year now. What caught my eye was a new boardgame that is about to surface called Domain. Looking a lot like a cross between Dungeonquest and GW's Dungeon Floorplans, this has luxurious production values and some good new ideas that may add some life to the overstuffed and complacent dungeon-delving market. One to look out for when it appears.

Laurin are a new company to me but they certainly have some of the best graphic artists in the games market. They mainly knock out retreads of Cthulhu and other RPG stuff in German, but everything is given new professional artwork of the highest order. The game that stood out, and which squeezed cash from my wallet, was their rendition of Wotan's Robin Hood. This game has some of the nicest mapboards and components I've ever seen. Although a little late for the summer films and in competition with Avalon Hill's release, I think it will be emerging as an English language game here (the designer is Julian Musgrave) so you may wish to wait for this one.

Livingstone Games had their second game in the 1,000 game limited edition series and things are much the same as with last year's Boomtown. Marvellous production, nice idea but a game with problems and no clear market. This time it was Automania, presumably a 'adult family' game concentrating on selling cars on the World markets. Its first drawback is that it contains a fair amount of bookeeping, never a popular feature, and secondly that it has some really daft chance cards which play a very important role in the game. These vary from being too strong, effectively losing the game for one or more players and thus making luck too prominent, to the downright primitive which can move your piece back two spaces for no reason at all. Talk about penalising skill; it feels like Snakes and Ladders. Automania will be subjected to a full review when I have played it again but for now I will say that in a game that needs at least six turns to complete, my group and three others questioned didn't make it past halfway. This is going to be £25-30 again in the UK and, as the guinea pig on this one, I will firmly say don't buy it till you've played it.

Piatnik are a steady company, pushing out quality playing cards and small, cardy games. This year they produced a couple of clever games, both of which are ideal short games or fillers. The first, and the better of the two, is JewelenZauber. This is a well- produced game involving a 'rook's move' system to move a pawn around a display of jewellery. Each piece of jewellery has a number of fixings for jewels which you place each turn in your colour - if you gain a majority of jewels on that piece, you score points when the game ends. Neat and rapid in play, a pleasant surprise. Next up is Wort Rummy, probably the most involved and tactical wordmaking card game I've played. Shades of Scrabble, Lexicon and lots of card game meld influences make for a real challenge. I think there may be a slight problem with the German letter distribution but you can still play in English without difficulty. I hope these both appear over here - Looping, from the same company, seems to have taken its time getting here. Review on the latter elsewhere.

Pyramo had a much talked-about solitaire game called, I think, Irrgendwe (though this could mean Contents, Rules or Instructions because I couldn't work out the title from the piece of paper supplied) but which became known as the Domino, Mice and Cheese game. Essentially it is a sliding block puzzle but the idea is to link all three mice and their respective piece of cheese using the trails on the special dominoes while replicating a fixed pattern in the middle of the board. Like Rubik's Cube, you persevere only because you know there is a solution, otherwise desperation would soon set in when playing this near-infinitely variable game. It is made of quality wood, is available in two sizes (c.£23 and £70) and would make a great present for the puzzle fan. Even I bought one just to tinker with and to sit on the shelf. Again, so simple but so clever.

As Alan Moon said one evening during a fit of normality, if you buy one game by default at Essen, it has to be Karl Heinz Schmiel's latest. I have to agree. This year Moskito displayed Extra Blatt, a game about newspapers but specifically the fight to have the best stories on the front cover. Each year at Essen you collect a buzz of feedback from the assembled masses about one or two outstanding games. Last year it was Airlines and 1853, this year White Wind, Die Abtei and ExtraBlatt were the lucky ones. It looks great, is so obvious a candidate for the modern treatment that you could kick yourself and the strategy, interaction and depth are something to marvel at. Schmiel may have the occasional design blip, but his ideas and game systems are second to none. I watched ExtraBlatt for only twenty minutes but I saw enough to convince me to make a purchase at £20. Talk was that it is a better game than Die Macher; well, we shall have to see, but it is certainly light years ahead of A la Carte.

Talking of Alan Moon, he was manning one of the busiest stands and signing boxes all over the place, something most of the German designers neglect to do (to their cost, I feel). White Wind is Alan's new company which aims to publish a couple of limited run games each year, most of which I suspect will be firmly in the family genre. As an added selling point, you can choose your personal number and this is reserved for you on all future releases. I'm number 8, so nyahhh. I think one German came over and chose 666, so I gave him a wide berth. The first two games are Fishy and Elfengold, both solid German-style games that were well received by public and companies alike. We played Fishy on the Saturday evening and this is a clever game involving some Hols der Geier-style card play. Elfengold may even be the better of the two judging by comments heard around the stand, so I look forward to playing that as well. Thankfully, all White Wind games are in dual language so we already have rules for these and you can play them out of the box, something that is rare at Essen. The best of luck to Alan and his backers.

Miscellaneous. Eurogames had Vertigo which was not exactly pushed around the stands but drew some appreciative comments and, a game I missed, Showdown has subsequently been praised by Stephan Valkyser, among others. Rostherne Games had a stand for, I guess, the first time in a while and trade was brisk. I for one continue to enjoy Manchester rather than the less accessible Chafts, but the main thing is that David is moving along once again. SFC Press looked as though they'd brought along the contents of someone's game cupboard and seemed to be selling En Garde at a respectable rate - good to see them taking the initiative of grabbing a stand, we should be there next year as well. Klaus Zoch, mad professor-inventor of Bausack, had a new game on show called Mausefest or similar which looked clever but it was abstract, wooden and expensive so I held fire on this one. One disappointment was Hotel, a new release from the designer of Kremlin but which cost nearly £40. This, added to its sole retailer not allowing the boxes to be opened, meant that I couldn't even get a look at it. However, as all the comments from those who've played it indicate it could be another winner, this was very frustrating. When the marketing gets sorted out, I'll see if they are correct.

On to MBW Wargames Weekend or back to The 18xx Series - A Case for Re-Design?.

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