woodnoggin's Fourth Essen
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Here's another report from that sickening temple to profligate consumerism. I'd skipped the last couple of years and found that the fair had expanded in my absence, with more halls open and more games to investigate. Phil and I trekked the halls on all four days; this is the story of what we found. First, a photo of what I brought back:





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26. Board Game: Dice's Zoo [Average Rating:5.84 Overall Rank:7270]
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Each player rolls their 10 six-sided dice with animals on their faces and the goal is to get rid of all your dice. Each animal has a rank and ability from elephant through to bear, boar, fox, squirrel and worm. There are also some useless results and a "double effect" face. That's more than 6 faces, so you can see that not all dice are the same.

On your turn you make a bid consisting of a set of matching animals. Other players can outbid by using a larger set of the same animal or a same-sized set of more valuable animals. The winner gets to use the animal's ability and then gets rid of all those dice. Abilities include being able to reroll remaining dice, losing extra dice, forcing opponents to lose or gain dice etc. Winner keeps the lead and can make another bid. This continues until no player has any dice left.

I liked the game although it wasn't at its best with two, I could see it being interesting with three or more. Sadly, it was priced extremely high. I can't remember what it was exactly but somewhere around 20-25 Euro, which felt too much for a little filler. The guy explaining the game was keen to point out that it contained 50 custom dice to justify the cost. It's funny how many games are now made in China to reduce costs but when publishers come over from the Far East to present their games at Essen, their prices are so high. I guess they need to cover their air fares somehow.
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27. Board Game: Tweeeet [Average Rating:6.29 Overall Rank:3365]
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A kind of team race game with those odd playing pieces Cwali loves putting in its games. Hop your bird from piece of food to piece of food, gaining energy and spending it, trying to block opponents from the choicest morsels as you go. It feels light and silly but I've a feeling there's a bit more to this game than meets the eye. We weren't sure why it needed to be a team game, but someone at the booth explained they tried it as 'every man for himself' and it was too easy for someone to become blocked completely and be eliminated. So this is the friendlier version of the game. Maybe we'll try it the other way if we feel like a mean game. Phil bought this and I wouldn't mind trying it again. Plays quickly.
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28. Board Game: Trias [Average Rating:6.52 Overall Rank:1193]
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Friday from 1pm was the time I'd set aside for completing my maths trades. Hall 4A filled with BGGers waving pieces of paper with their usernames on. I managed to find my trade partners pretty quickly, so it was an efficient and painless process. I heard others were there for ages trying to find each other.

I'd traded for Trias, which I'd played before and enjoyed, but didn't realise I was getting the first edition version, which doesn't come with lovely dinosaur-shaped pieces, just cubes. I happened to pass the Doris & Frank booth later that day and had the idea that I might be able to buy the dinosaurs from them, so I asked. They did have a bag of spare dinosaurs and in an act of wonderful generosity, they gave me them for free! I was so pleased, I bought Mü & More from them immediately.
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29. Board Game: Card City [Average Rating:6.15 Overall Rank:4142]
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I'd read the rules to this and Town Centre and was interested in either of them, although I'd read that Town Centre had sold out. Phil and I gave this a go and we enjoyed our quick play of it. It has a variant on the 'you split, I choose' mechanism which is probably better with more players, but the game played fine with two. The back of the box has text in French, English and German, but the rules inside were only in French. Luckily it came with a separate English translation.
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30. Board Game: Town Center [Average Rating:6.56 Overall Rank:2715]
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After our game of Card City, I noticed there were a couple of copies of Town Centre sat at the back of the booth. They had a sign up with the price of both games in a bundle. I asked the woman at the booth if I could buy them both, as I thought Town Centre had sold out to pre-orders. She said that was true and if I hadn't pre-ordered I couldn't buy it. She then left the booth, so I asked another bloke the same question and he let me buy both together! It comes with Lego bricks. Might end up being too similar to Card City - the rules are quite alike - although Town Centre has a vertical element and looks a bit more brain-burning.
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31. Board Game: The Jam [Average Rating:5.37 Overall Rank:9257]
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I like to try out games with quirky themes like this one, but they are often shit. This is a Russian design, and I've been to Russia and also like jam, so I was bound to enjoy the game, right? It's a card game where your cards can be recipes or ingredients. You use a combination of both to create jam, which can score on its own or be used to make pies for more points. You can use cards from your hand or from a face-up array of cards on the table. You have goal cards you can try to complete for bonus points, and this seems to be a sensible thing to do. There's a trading phase where you can offer and receive jam and pies from your opponents but ours was a two-player game, so there was no reason to do this.

It's a unique theme and the cards are good quality but the gameplay fell flat for us. On your turn, you have five cards in hand and a minimum of eight cards on the table to consider; each can represent two things so you have to find the combination of cards which make up the jam or pie which best meets your goals. But there are at least ten different fruits to make jam out of and card cycling is very slow (there's no option to discard cards and draw new ones except for the one per turn you get as standard), so often you can't do anything to further your goals and you just choose the one thing you can do with the cards available. It's frustrating to be searching for apricots the whole game... And because there are many cards to consider, it wasn't a quick game. It took us over an hour, when there wasn't enough strategy to merit such a playing time. The rules are also very unclear on how scoring works: by Phil's interpretation our scores were 164-151, by my reading they were 113-119! wow

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32. Board Game: Tea Time [Average Rating:6.05 Overall Rank:5446]
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Coming from Warrington, I'm fond of an Alice in Wonderland theme. Here, the theme is irrelevant - it's a mostly abstract set collection game but I found it quite clever. In a similar vein to Alice in Wonderland Parade, some sets will score you more than others, so you might want to avoid collecting too many of certain tiles. Phil bought a copy so I'll get to play it again.
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33. Board Game: Quo Vadis? [Average Rating:6.46 Overall Rank:1297]
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Picked up a cheap copy of the small box version. I'd played it at London On Board before and enjoyed it.
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34. Board Game: Tokaido [Average Rating:7.04 Overall Rank:413]
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Looks lovely. Box full of air but with a nice insert. I didn't get a chance to try it, but bought it anyway because there was a good buzz around it and they had a sign counting down the number of copies they had left... What was it Barnum said?
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35. Board Game: Saint Malo [Average Rating:6.47 Overall Rank:1571]
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I'm an alea fan, so I bought this without investigating further. I was expecting the boards to be bland-looking, as many games that come with dry-wipe markers have you drawing on plain, white boards, but here they're quite detailed and colourful. I can't help feeling that the drawing part of the game is to make it cheaper to produce, rather than supplying tiles of buildings and resources.
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36. Board Game: Oh no... INVASION!!! [Average Rating:5.76 Overall Rank:7633]
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Played this in the hotel after the show. It's a cooperative card game about defeating aliens. You win if you can destroy the big badguy in the centre of the table, but you have to be able to destroy his guardian aliens first. After a few turns around the table, with no defenders appearing to protect the big monster we realised that there was little reason not to just attack early in the game, so long as you had drawn a good variety of weapons between you. I did this and we won. Seems like a broken game with the rules as they stand, but also wasn't much fun to play in any case.
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37. Board Game: Pylos [Average Rating:6.33 Overall Rank:1981]
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SATURDAY

Saturday was not as busy as expected. In fact, we found it quieter than Thursday or Friday. While the first two days were full of hardcore gamers collecting pre-orders and scrambling for the tables of hot new games, Saturday seemed to be more for casual gamers and locals. There were a lot more people in costume wandering round. This worked in our favour, as we found it slightly easier to get into games we were interested in.

Our first target was Myrmes. Ystari has a reasonably good track record for me and there was some good buzz around this game. But we got there a little late and it was impossible to find a free table. It seems you just have to happen by a table as a game is finishing if you want to have a chance to try it. We were a bit luckier in this later in the day, but for now we consoled ourselves with a quick game of Pylos in the booth opposite.
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38. Board Game: Panic Lab [Average Rating:6.24 Overall Rank:2618]
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Also at the Gigamic booth was this speed puzzle game about finding an escaped monster (alien?). It involves a ring of cards depicting various monsters. They can be orange or purple, spotted or striped, with one eye or two. One player rolls the four dice which will indicate which monster you're looking for and at which point you need to start looking. You start at that point, follow the ring of monsters in the indicated direction until you find the one that matches the symbols shown on the dice. What makes things tricky is the ring of cards contains some transformation machines which alter what you're looking for, so you might start off looking for a spotted monster, but then change to looking for a striped one. There are also grill cards which represent the opening of a tunnel the monster can escape through, reappearing at the next grill along, i.e. you ignore the card in between the two tunnels when trying to find the right monster. If the monster passes through four transformation cards, it vanishes! The first player to correctly identify which monster everyone's looking for is rewarded with a red token and you need five to win.

We enjoyed it, but I can imagine it being the sort of game that messes with certain people's heads in ways they find annoying. The scoring system also doesn't prevent players without points from randomly guessing, which could lead to a negative play experience at the start of the game. Phil picked up a copy, so I'm sure it will be inflicted on unsuspecting members of our gaming group soon.
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39. Board Game: Qin [Average Rating:6.81 Overall Rank:1058]
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Reiner Knizia's new tile laying title looks a bit like Tigris & Euphrates but is actually a lot simpler. It's just about connecting tiles to make areas of the same colour. On your turn you can play one tile from your hand of three, then draw one tile. Two or more adjacent tiles of the same colour allow you to put one of your pagodas on it and claim it as yours (provided nobody else has already done this first - only one person can claim each area). Five or more of the same colour lets you put a double pagoda on, protecting it from attack. If you connect two areas of the same colour together and each is owned by a different player, the larger area takes control of the smaller and you return the loser's pagoda to their supply. You can't connect areas of the same size or areas with a double pagoda on.

The goal is to place all of your pagodas on the board and there are village squares which you can also place pagodas on if you have the most pagodas in areas touching the village. So the main points of contention are trying to claim and retain village supremacy and trying to capture opponents' small areas with your own. There is potential for clever tile placement so that you prevent your opponents from expanding.

Each tile is made up of two connected squares and I found the tiles consisting of two of the same colour were more useful because you could immediately place a pagoda on them. However, I'm sure this is just showing my inexperience at the game - there are probably some cunning ways to play the dual-colour tiles. It was quite good and one of the better recent Knizia's I've tried. It seemed to have been developed in parallel with some sort of app and it does feel like it would play well on an electronic device.
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40. Board Game: Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts [Average Rating:7.61 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.61 Unranked]
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Tom Lehmann was giving a demo of Alien Artifacts at the Rio Grande booth, although if I hadn't read about it on BGG, I'd have never known. It didn't look like many people had heard about it, as there weren't many watching the action. The biggest part of the expansion, the Alien Orb, was not on display, but there were lots of new cards to look at and a chance to quiz Tom, in particular about when it might be available! I wrote more details about it here.
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41. Board Game: Al Rashid [Average Rating:6.85 Overall Rank:2367]
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Al Rashid was riding high in the Geek Buzz charts so we wandered past and got lucky - a table was emptying and a German couple were looking for another two people to play with. This is a Persian-themed Euro with a bit of worker placement, a bit of area majority and an innovative way of resolving actions.

Each player starts with three workers, the Pasha, the Merchant and the Seer. The Pasha is the strongest piece and is worth the most VPs, the Seer is the weakest and worth least, while the Merchant is in the middle. Everyone takes it in turns to place their workers on the board (a map of Europe, Africa and Asia) or into one of the important palace areas at the top of the board (military, trader, intrigue etc.). Map areas provide resources, placing on the palaces can get you various other benefits but usually costs money. Then the areas are resolved in a fun way: going in turn order, each player chooses one region to resolve. The only restriction is there must be a worker in that area, but it doesn't have to be their own. So unless you are first in the turn order, you can't guarantee one area will be activated before the others. This can result in some screwage, as you could pick an area which would require an opponent to spend money before they have gained that money. Thoughtful placement and consideration of the timings can avoid being hit by this, but it adds an extra layer to the resolution phase. When resolving an area, whoever has the highest value of workers in the area gets to do the better action there. Second and third places get a slightly worse action.

Resources come in five types and can be converted to money only when you need to spend money. When taking resources from an area you can claim all of one type or three of any. When converting resources to money, you get more money the more different resources you put in: one resource is worth £1, two different are worth £3, three is £6 etc. (triangular numbers). The resource pieces are really nice - little wooden representations of clay pots, spice bags and silk bales.

Bonuses gained from the buildings include getting extra workers, collecting military tokens (needed to fight off trade route bandits on some of the map areas) and buying special ability cards. These represent offices you've placed a family member into and grant Titles which can give ongoing bonuses, one-off bonuses, or end-game scoring. Al Rashid's Palace is where all the endgame scoring cards are and there are quite a few different ones to choose from so you can tailor your strategy towards one or more of them. Some want you to collect cards from different buildings, others want you to collect lots of trade goods etc.

The game is a medium weight resource-collecting Euro with reasonable interaction. There's a bit of randomness in which enemy tiles will come up and you can mitigate this by either avoiding defended areas or raising your military strength. The different Titles offer plenty of strategic variability and their limited number means some may be hotly contested. Some of the text on the board is written in faux-Arabic script and is a bit difficult to read. The text on the Titles is also quite small and player aids are essential if you're to make informed choices about your purchases without slowing the game down too much. I think it would take a few games to learn what the various abilities on these cards are and during this learning curve games would take longer than advertised. The production is of good quality and it's this that raised the price of the game to 50 Euro at the fair (more outside Essen, I believe) which ultimately dissuaded me from buying it. Although it's a good game of its type, I didn't see it replacing similar games I already own. However, it's certainly worth a try if you get the chance as the method of action resolution is particularly interesting. I wished the designer well with the game and gave it a thumbs up in the Geek Buzz despite not buying it.
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42. Board Game: The Palaces of Carrara [Average Rating:7.26 Overall Rank:452]
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We also got to give this new Kramer/Kiesling game a go, with a couple of friendly Icelanders. The basic game is pretty simple and there's really not much to it. You collect resources of various values from a wheel, rotating before you pick them up so as to make some of them cheaper. You use the resources to build various building tiles in one of six cities which offer either monetary or VP rewards. You have six scoring pawns and can choose when you want to score (a bit like in Arkadia). This either involves scoring all your buildings of one type or all buildings in one city. However, you can only do each type of scoring once (and only one player can score each city), so you have to decide if you want to do this early or wait for a bigger reward. There's a good bit of tension around when the game is going to end and whether you have enough time to build and score everything you want to. Anyone can announce the end of the game at any time if they've met the three victory conditions, and you're never sure how close to finishing everyone is. At the basic level, it's a brisk family game, not too bad but nothing for gamers to return to.

Cut to later that evening... Phil had bought a copy so we tried out the advanced version. Quite a different game: the endgame conditions are variable, some of the tokens which do nothing in the basic game took on greater significance and buildings can be upgraded to a higher level than before for a unique bonus. The biggest different for me was the fact that when buying resources, you are no longer forced to turn the production wheel, you can choose to leave it where it is. This makes resources more expensive for everyone, doesn't give following players an easy choice and causes money to be tighter all round. It's a lot deeper and the combination of victory cards can create some mind-boggling decisions.

Rather than dwell on those decisions too much, I went for the easy strategy of trying to end the game quickly. This plan often works for me in Tribune: Primus Inter Pares, which has a similar menu of optional victory conditions to aim for. However, I played too slowly for my scheme to work while Martin had the exact same idea and pulled it off much more successfully. It looked like a winning strategy, but Adam had already upgraded one of his buildings and gained a super duper broken bonus for millions of points... It's probably balanced but I don't know, some of those bonus tiles look pretty powerful. Happy to play again, but don't need to own a copy.
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43. Board Game: Mage Knight Board Game: The Lost Legion [Average Rating:8.85 Unranked] [Average Rating:8.85 Unranked]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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This expansion was only available to look at and drool over. I looked but managed to keep the drool in check. Can't wait for this to be available. You get more of everything that was good in the base game plus a new way to play the game with scenarios involving fighting the rampaging General Volkare, which sound impossibly difficult. Brilliant!
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44. Board Game: Pluckin' Pairs [Average Rating:6.60 Overall Rank:3199]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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Sounded like a fun party game, so I gave it a punt. Another box that is stupidly oversized for its contents.
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45. Board Game: Trick of the Rails [Average Rating:6.48 Overall Rank:3660]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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Trick taking train game. It worked and wasn't bad as far as trick-taking games go.
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46. Board Game: Pergamon [Average Rating:6.98 Overall Rank:669]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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Another gamer at our hotel had found this available for 10 Euros and let us try it out while they played Phil's Palaces of Carrara. It was a nice game and impressed us with how it fitted its archaeology theme so well. I picked up a copy the next day (with English rules), after some exploring to find the right booth.
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47. Board Game: Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island [Average Rating:8.10 Overall Rank:13]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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SUNDAY

This had been getting good reviews so far but we hadn't managed to try it yet. I had a plan to head straight for the Z-Man booth and give it a go, but of course others had the same plan. Mine was thwarted by the staff not opening the doors we were stood at until we could see a swarm of other people being let in at a different door. The tables were just being occupied when we got there, so I never got to play. I listened to an explanation later but I couldn't tell whether it would be something I'd enjoy: adventure games are hit and miss for me. It sounded like an in-depth co-operative game with several different scenarios to play through. The way beneficial events are recycled into the deck to become problems later reminded me a little of the similar (but opposite) effect in Friday, which has the same theme. Now, Friday fell flat for me, so I think a little of that disappointment has tempered my enthusiasm for this game. I'll wait for more reviews.
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48. Board Game: Terra Mystica [Average Rating:8.29 Overall Rank:2]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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After missing out on trying Robinson Crusoe, we wandered slightly dejected around the halls looking for something to play. Miraculously, both tables for Terra Mystica were empty. Something was surely amiss. And so it was: they were booked by players already. But as they'd booked for 10am and it was already ten past, we were allowed to take their places.

I'm glad we got the chance to play it, this was my game of the show. It's a meaty and intricate territory building game with many paths to choose from and decisions to make, backed up by a varied selection of starting factions and special powers which should give it high replayability. I commented to the designer that it must have taken a lot of playtesting to balance all the abilities and he said they'd been working on this game since 1998! We only played a couple of turns to get the hang of it, but wanted to buy a copy immediately, even at 60 Euro. Sadly, it had sold out on Thursday, but it was top priority for me to pick up once I returned home.
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49. Board Game: Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890 [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:1487]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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The triple-F game. Another meaty game which wasn't possible to play in full at the show. This one is an economic and spatial affair involving transporting coal down the Ruhr. You collect coal at various points along the river and try to deliver it to towns and factories downstream to make a profit. More profit is made if you've built a warehouse in the location you're delivering to. The more river obstacles you pass along the way, the more you worsen the quality of your coal. One way you can reduce the number of obstacles is by building locks. There are also lots of upgrades and special powers you can build or unlock.

The coal is represented by black and white dice and as its quality reduces, you turn the dice so its upper face shows the coal's value. All those dice on the board give the initial impression of a completely different sort of game, but I understand that you don't actually roll any of them. I got the feeling that this was quite an involved game and I'd love to try it, but ultimately I passed on buying it. That was partly because of the high price (60 Euro, although the pieces and presentation are really nice) but also because I thought it would see limited play in my group at home, being a bit too heavy. It's the sort of thing I'd likely only get played at a convention or London On Board, so I might as well play someone else's copy.
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50. Board Game: Dominare [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:1413]
Rich P
United Kingdom
Sheffield
United Kingdom
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I like the idea of setting a series of games within the same storyline, but I don't understand why they chose to make it a copy of Renaissance Italy. It just doesn't work to distinguish it from the Euro crowd. Such a wasted opportunity.

As for the game itself, our demo was slightly marred by being told to skip the initial drafting phase - understandable when nobody has played the game before - instead we were just assigned some random agents. Consequently, their abilities didn't interact well and some players had very little effect on the board.

This is an area majority game surrounded by a card draft to create combinations of powers for better board placement or adjustment of area values. Random events will help or hinder some players each turn, usually the "scapegoat" - the player who has played agents with the highest total exposure value (ties broken by player age!). It was chaotic and swingy, with loads of card text to factor into your decisions, which felt like a lot of work for little reward, since there wasn't much you could do about opponent's abilities anyway. The number of cards in play increases as the game goes on, raising the mental load required of players. I didn't find the results of that thinking to be worthwhile. For me, this was too overblown and could have done with some streamlining.
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