Every year I make the c. 8 hr car journey to get to Essen, Germany from London. Why? Well Essen is where the largest (or second some years) convention for board games happens – SPIEL! Spiel, or Essen as it is often known, is a major event in the board game calendar attracting publishers, manufacturers, designers, artists and gamers from all over the world to meet in one place for four days and focus on the hobby.

It’s an incredible event and if you are looking for the big releases of the year, then this is a necessary ticket to buy. There are games announced here and that retail at the publishers stands, there are old classics on discounts at the shops in Halls 1/2/3, and there are next year’s kickstarters demoing in the back halls (4/5). It doesn’t matter what you are looking for, it will be at Essen.

That said, the format has changed over the year and in the fourth of these posts I will sum up how I feel those changes have effected the event and the industry. Change is inevitable, but it’s not a guarantee that all change is positive.

In the interim though, the format of these reports is to give you a first look from my eyes at the games I got a chance to try on each of the days at Essen – so here is my list for Day 1…

Railroad Revolution (Pictured): I am so glad I got to try this! I wanted to play this last year  but the tables were always full. Also, it’s due back on kickstarter in 2019 (if not before) with an updated set of components and an expansion.

The game is a medium to heavy Euro game where worker placement drives your ability to lay tracks, cities and get/fulfill contracts. The bulk of the game is very direct solo play scoring (it’s not about being the most / the first, it’s just about doing the thing it says on your cards and getting more cards). The only real interference from other players is that the first person in a city gains a bonus that others will then miss out on.

What’s Your Game is one of my favourite publishers in the Euro game space, and Nippon has a special place in my collection. Their other games include Loot Island, which is deeply under-rated, and Madeira which has a great dice mechanic – given I don’t like dice generally, this is saying something!

However, Railroad Revolution is a tough one for me. The game is a race across the map and a race to a player controlled finish (laying certain pieces on the board). The mechanics of it, with various coloured workers gaining different bonuses, adds something very interesting for repeated play. However, the game is subject to the risk of being called a 2hr, four player, solo game. That’s not a bad thing – many Uwe Rosenberg games are accused of the same – but I can see it being a reason to prefer other What’s Your Game titles to this one.

If you haven’t played it – give it a go. As you would expect, the mechanics designed by this team flow exceptionally and the board art is beautiful. Just don’t expect it to be as inventive or cut throat as the other games in their range. Nonetheless, I look forward to seeing what the expansion will offer.

Century Spice Road: Finally a chance to play the game that everyone was talking about last year. This simple hand-builder of a game where you pick up cards to develop an engine for changing spices into other spices, is beautiful, simple and quite fun.

This is definitely a lighter / intro game, but has the feel of a classic. They have stripped back the game to the essentials, and I can see why Plan B games are confident in launching a range of the back of this title.

There’s not much for me to say on this one though, because the game is very simple – set up your card driven engine and then turn it in order to gain the points cards. The biggest issue I have with the game is that it does run a little long for me. The game is <1hr but the last 10 or so turns are mechanically turning over the engine you built in the first half of the game and seeing where that gets you – by this point in our game it felt like the result was already determined, it was just us “playing it out”.

Good game, great art/components and certainly more depth that can be added. We would have liked some more acceleration of the game in the second half, but I think a lot of people will enjoy this game.

Imperial 2030: Follow up to a game set in Victorian times, Imperial 2030 allows you to play at war on a global scale. War driven by countries, but where the countries are driven by money and not nationalism. You can control multiple agents on the map so long as you the player have invested the most – this investment ranking can change through the game, changing control of the country.

Is this then a war game? No. Which is fascinating but also challenging. The group I played with got stuck into the four player version of the game, and found that whilst the war and board positioning was a lot of the fun and game time, the winning of the game was to be found in the taxation and investor steps of the player action selection on the board.

In some respects this enriches the game making there much more interesting emergent tactics, but there were a few in the group who felt the fun aspect of the game was detached from the element that led to the win. It was a strong game and one I will remember for a while – players of Triumph and Tragedy and Churchill, should check this out. However, players of Axis & Allies or Fire in The Lake, should think about playing it before buying it.

Steam Rollers: I haven’t played a vast number of roll and writes, so this year I was determined to get a few more in at Essen. Roll & Writes are the game category which Yahtzee belongs too – roll dice and write the score pattern on a sheet of paper. Steamrollers mixes this formula with the route building and cube delivery of Steam.

Much like Steam, I made the mistake of trying to optimise my route building only to find that others had already delivered the goods by the time I got to the city. However, there are lots of good strategies to this game and the dice do through a lot of randomness into every game session.

As a gamer who can get frustrated by the constraints of dice this game can be very challenging – sitting one hex away from your route as the dice refuse to role the right region or indeed the right track type. Most of the time this is irrelevant but I think nearly every player got hit at the end of the game as their options for using other combinations were close to pointless.

The game is sound and moves quickly at first, but there is one major frustration with the dice selection – you need a good role when you go first or second. When you go in latter parts of the turn, you know the dice will be sub-optimal, but when you go first and roll three 5’s and two 2’s that can be a real pain! There are dice manipulation tricks that can help you, but even their power is limited.

All in all, a good game but perhaps too strategic for me given the level of luck inherent in the dice.

Fubi: This was a simple dexterity game (skill based), and plenty of fun. Simply bounding a football around a pitch with players on it, but using a paddle from an old fashioned ice cream. It was a simple game, but the trick was definitely in bouncing it off the sides!

Conventions are great times to try these little games, but I always wonder about set up and storage for these. If you have a little gamer, I can see this being a big hit though.

Architectura: Interesting grid based city builder – the game asks players to take it in turns laying city tiles that (i) effect their neighbours and (ii) effect their other cards (past / present / future). This is a clever and cut throat game as buildings get destroyed and players competing with more than one opponent feel the need to cut back the leader whilst building a path to success.

This was our last game of the day, but there was a lot in the order of the cards placed, the board state when the card is placed and the interaction with others. I would definitely give this a second look and might put this on the wishlist. Simple, fast, light and some clever play strategies.

On to Day 2….