Passages were Entered: Essen 2012 Impressions, with photos and "hilarious" commentary
Ben Kirman
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As has become tradition, here are our experiences on our sixth visit to Essen. This Geeklist focuses on snap personal impressions of games, rather than boring rules stuff and reviews you can find everywhere. Go look for your balanced, interesting, justified and coherent viewpoints somewhere else!

Previous GeekLists:
Essen 2009
Essen 2010
Essen 2011

This year we were me, plus the "maximise the chance of German misunderstanding" expert
Leo Kyp
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and First time Essen-er
John Watts
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We were later joined by a mysterious figure
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Also appearing variously:

Russell Martin
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"Mr Mathematics"
Andrew McGregor
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Wigan
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and "Aggressive Dave"
Dave K
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1. Board Game: Enter the Passage [Average Rating:5.15 Unranked]
Board Game: Enter the Passage
Ben Kirman
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This year's organisation was a bit of a mess, with some of us arriving one or two days into the fair (where's your priorities?), and some not arriving at all (MALCOLM). However, on the Wednesday a few of us met up and a couple of folk managed to collect some pre-orders. Between Russ, Chooi and Andy's pre-orders at Bezier games, there were a few copies of a freebie game called Enter the Passage floating about.

Now I'm not sure if this is just a UK thing, but the title of this game is a very strong euphemism for hiding the sausage, with an implication this might be somehow might involve Mr Brown's garage.

Therefore, inevitably, the entire Essen week for us was punctuated by suggesting that whenever someone left, they might be off to their room to play Enter the Passage. There were many variants on this joke, that might be handy to make a note of if an expansion is ever released.

On reading the rules, this game is actually a variant on Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition, except the werewolves are called "Virals". The equivalent role of the seer has the moderator "make a V sign with their fingers" to indicate if someone is a viral. For people in the UK, "making a V sign" is probably not something you would want to do.

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So this game wins the 2012 Essen prize for most cultural misunderstandings. A good start to the fair!

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2. Board Game: Mutant Meeples [Average Rating:6.63 Overall Rank:2842]
Board Game: Mutant Meeples
Ben Kirman
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After a hearty Schnitzel based meal (the first of many), we retired to Chooi, Andy and Russ's room to enjoy a vigorous 5 player game of Enter the Passage Mutant Meeples.

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This game is a reimplementation of Ricochet Robots, that gives each character a special power that can be used to break the rules. I hadn't played the original before so was keen to give this a go. Basically, a space on the board is chosen at random and each player simultaneously tries to figure out how to move one of the meeples to that space in the fewest moves according to some very simple rules. This is played over several rounds.

We enjoyed the game and played it twice - the second time definitely was a lot more fun since you have got used to the special abilities of the various meeples (the first game involved a lot of reference-checking). It is not one for me, but with a group of people with similar ability at spatial puzzle-solving it would be a fantastic game. Contrariwise, if your group has mixed ability it might be too frustrating for some players.

In the second game we definitely more appreciated the subtleties in the strategy, since some meeples are stronger than others, and the "Carbon" meeple that steals other powers becomes weaker as the game goes on. So thumbs up for a good game that whetted our appetite for the rest of the fair!
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3. Board Game: Carson City: Gold & Guns [Average Rating:7.67 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.67 Unranked] [Average Rating:7.67 Unranked]
Board Game: Carson City: Gold & Guns
Ben Kirman
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On the Thursday morning, myself and Essen first-timer John went to join the "rush" before the opening. You don't often see fat gamers running, so it is a bit of a spectacle, like the running of the bulls. Except slower. and with more wheezing and more empty suitcases.

Here's the view a few minutes before the doors opened:
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We made a beeline straight for the Heidelberger discount stand in hall 9. We used to keep this a secret but it isn't any more - everyone knows that you can get cracking deals there if you arrive quickly. This year I managed to grab the last cheap copy of Duel in the Dark with all the expansions. You can tell everyone knows this stand is good, because this was the view of the stand at 10:02 on the Thursday morning.

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They had copies of Dakota in English for €5 - an absolute deal for this vastly underappreciated game. I'd later pick up a copy of Battles of Westeros at the sister stand in hall 12 for cheap, and they even had Horus Heresy (2010) going for €25. Don't miss these stands!

A bunch of shopping later and we retired for (more) schnitzel after a trek on Aggressive "It's only 200 yards" Dave's suggestion. Then to crack out some games. First up, Carson City: Gold & Guns, which John got in a deal with the base game.

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Although the expansion box is worryingly empty (just a few cards, chits and some meeples), the expansion itself was really nice. The new buildings fit seamlessly into the game and the new characters added some very interesting new dynamics into the game. For example, we played with the Auctioneer, which allows you to auction off two parcels of land (together) and keep the profits. The appearance of bandits in Carson City also works nicely. They act as robbers, stealing half income like normal, but can be killed using the duel mechanism to earn bonus victory points. A nice simple mechanic that fits perfectly within the theme. I think the whole group agreed they liked the expansion - nothing felt "tacked on" and the connection with the base game is seamless. Makes a change from the forced expansions we usually see in the hobby.
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4. Board Game: Pax Porfiriana [Average Rating:7.66 Overall Rank:454]
Board Game: Pax Porfiriana
Ben Kirman
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It's been a long day, your belly is full of pork and beer, and it's midnight - what to do?

Time to break out a Phil Eklund game! Most of us are a big fan of games from Sierra Madre Games, although we can certainly understand that these games aren't for everyone. Phil's games in particular have an extremely strong focus on "experience" rather than fairness, strategy or balance. I think a gaming diet should be balanced, and for me these games are the equivalent of sushi. You can live without it, it sounds horrible, and you wouldn't want to eat it every day yet still, when you are in the right mood, you will jump to suggest it.

I'd had Phil demo me the game during the day, and read the rules briefly, so we bravely gave it a shot. With constant reference to the rules we managed to complete the game. Although Leo doesn't seem so impressed in this picture, perhaps he was worried about that Spunk that had spilled onto the table.

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For the size of the box, this game is deceptively heavy, and although the rules are simpler than Bios: Megafauna or High Frontier, the flavour is still there. Like both those games, you can attempt to follow a strategy, and hope the game allows you to complete it without turning it into an involuntary game of Enter the Passage. Definitely an "experience game", however a fantastic ride all the same, and I can definitely say I know 100% more about pre-revolutionary Mexico than I did this time last week. The game is dense with flavour text and you end up learning a surprising amount, and it really captures the feelings and frustrations of being a late 19th century Mexican Hacendado. Every schoolboy's dream.

We enjoyed the game enough that it kept coming out, and probably was the most played game of the fair (perhaps tied with Suburbia). It is a nice game to round out an evening and it was our "go to" post midnight game, despite it being 2-3 hours long. I'd probably suggest based on our experience, this game adds 30 minutes per player you add, so about 3-4 is the sweet spot. Great game though, and it led to many heated discussions about strategy through the fair.
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5. Board Game: Suburbia [Average Rating:7.54 Overall Rank:122]
Board Game: Suburbia
Ben Kirman
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Lincoln
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Another day, another Schnitzel, this time at the infamous "Drago's" restaurant next to the fair. This year they nearly got our order right, apart from Paul receiving entirely the wrong meal. At least they brought him a consolation plate of potatoes fried in bacon (which we thought must be the traditional German way to apologise).

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Back to the bat-cave and time to play some more games. This time, hot new Essen release Suburbia. This is a game where you take turns buying and placing hexes that develop a town, while balancing income from buildings and desirability that brings new residents.

Mixing the Essen promo into the game, one of us managed to recreate the fair for extra points - here you can see the fair next to the metro. Adjacent is the fancy restaurant "Drago's" and that freeway that is impossible to cross.

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We all thoroughly enjoyed this game. I do believe it is probably our favourite game from Spiel 2012. Very simple mechanics tied together with a fantastic theme. Turns are quick and the game develops in very interesting ways. There is a lot to like - the lovely graphic design (roads even match up across hexes), the huge variety of thematic effects of buildings (landfill, schools, shipping centres, and tons more), the random goals at the start (including hidden ones), the fact that not all hexes are used so every game is different. Lovely. The design is tight and works smoothly (it would be easy to overcomplicate this kind of game by including electricity, plumbing and other Sim City tropes so great job here avoiding those traps)

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In particular I love the emergent aspect of this game - each player starts with the same basic setup, and then diverges from there. The effects of buildings tend to push you towards certain city designs, and invariably everyone has a different strategy by the end of the game. The goals have a tremendous effect on this, since you are not simply always rewarded by having the biggest city. In one of our games we had the goal to have the least desirable city. This led to us building airports in the middle of residential areas and casinos next door to schools.

Great fun, with a lot of replayability and one of the rare games that we all immediately wanted to play again. Really excellent game.
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6. Board Game: Copycat [Average Rating:6.76 Overall Rank:1486]
Board Game: Copycat
Ben Kirman
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Then onto Copycat. This is one we'd heard little about but since it was trusted designer Friedemann Friese we took a punt. The game was competitively priced, and had a nice theme (politics) and solid production.

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The game is actually a mashup of several mechanics taken from other popular games. Most obviously Dominion, Agricola, Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization and Puerto Rico.

Amazingly, the mechanics work really nicely together to make a coherent and smoothly playing game. This doesn't seem possible but the game works really well. We are sure you could easily teach it to someone who had never played any of those games and they would appreciate the value of them all. For old-timers, there is a handy sheet of warnings that illustrate how the games diverge (e.g. victory points in your deck are irrelevant, Dominion fans)

The strongest flavour is that of Dominion. You optimise your deck by buying cards that are played as a whole hand during your turn.

On our first play we found a misprint in the scoring track, but Russ later realised this must be another reference to an original misprint in Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, which is clever and sneaky!

The game also includes cards with the "V sign" discussed above, and matching "Fuck You-ples" that are used to mark score and turn order. Pleasingly, gold was also a player colour.

Board Game: Copycat


So, a very clever design that we all appreciated and enjoyed. However, I personally am not sure the game will stand up to repeat plays. We played around three times during the fair and it seemed fairly clear there was an optimal strategy you could take to win.
Spoiler (click to reveal)
Minimise your deck, take a high number card and use the doubler cards/spaces.
I'm open to be proved wrong, but it does seem the inclusion of doubling as a mechanic makes other strategies (e.g. slow and steady) moot. We were scoring 40+ points a turn on the last turns of our games. The scoring track only goes to 95.


However, the game is clearly open to expansion - the core mechanics work so well, you just need to replace the deck of cards to have a whole new game. I'm certain that some bright sparks out there could build some amazing new decks for this game to take it in different directions, maybe even appropriating cards from other games... Come on guys, don't let us down!
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7. Board Game: Bios: Megafauna [Average Rating:6.93 Overall Rank:2307] [Average Rating:6.93 Unranked]
Board Game: Bios: Megafauna
Ben Kirman
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So this isn't a 2012 release (it was 2011), however this year another one of our group picked it up. Last year I thought it was one of the best games played at the fair. After a year of thought, and more plays, I'd put the game in my top 10 all time favourite games. The group played it again one night during the fair, and we fell in love all over again.

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Keeping in mind previous warnings about "experience games" from Sierra Madre Games, this is still by far the best expression of that. An uncaring and downright hostile environment in which you try your best to make your species survive through adaptation.

Other games with similar themes such as Dominant Species or Evolution: The Origin of Species are laughable playthings in comparison to the vicious interactive biology/geography/history lesson that is Bios: Megafauna. Oozing with theme (and oozing with ooze sometimes), this is a game that doesn't care if you like it. It takes the same attitude as the computer game Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II – Dwarf Fortress - "Losing is FUN". Both are in my top 10 games ever, which probably says a bit too much about me...
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8. Board Game: Smash Up [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:797] [Average Rating:6.78 Unranked]
Board Game: Smash Up
Ben Kirman
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Adding this game, I was surprised to see there wasn't already an expansion for it. In typical Alderac Entertainment Group fashion, this game seems geared towards aggressive expansion - the box is half empty for a start.

It is a light card game around the concept of "shufflebuilding". The base game comes with 8 small decks of cards built around themes. You choose two and shuffle them together, hoping the combination of styles will lead to some interesting fun. The themes are predictably Ninjas, Pirates, Aliens, Zombies, Robots, Dinosaurs (with laser guns), Wizards and less predictably Tricksters. So you end up with a deck themed around "Zombie Ninjas" or "Wizard Pirates".

If there aren't Nazis in the first expansion, we imagine they won't be far off.

The different decks are nicely themed appropriately - Ninjas focus on stealth and assassination, Dinosaurs are powerful, Wizards mess with their deck, zombies return from the grave, etc etc etc. Altogether the game is more cleverly engineered than at first glance.

Gameplay focusses on fighting over "bases", which score under various conditions, and players gain victory points. That have to be noted down using pencil and paper (what are we, SAVAGES??? p.s. "Savages" would be good for an expansion too)

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Overall the game is fast, very loose, and a lot of fun for a small package. It might be a touch over long, and some of the base abilities are a bit overpowered (or just broken, in one case). I'm not sure I'd play it all night, but it is a great filler game.

This would definitely go down a storm with fans of Munchkin (and I mean that in a genuine, non-snarky way, too).
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9. Board Game: Czech Pub [Average Rating:5.26 Overall Rank:16415]
Board Game: Czech Pub
Ben Kirman
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Lincoln
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Last year, we thoroughly enjoyed the darkly humorous game "Infarkt" from CBG.

This year, their new game is the much more light-hearted Czech Pub.

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Here we each play drinkers in a competition, trying to drink the most alcohol without being thrown out of the pub. Each turn, you play shots (whisky, peppermint schnapps, etc) and a number of beers. You then have to make a roll on the drunkenness table to see how much you are affected by the booze. The more drunk you are, the harder it is to achieve these rolls, and the less cards you draw, and the more likely you are to get chucked out. The game, like Infarkt, is a spiral into oblivion, while you desperately try to hang on in spite of your co-players. If you like, you can abstain from drinking (or have a Tea, which loses points) but if you abstain too long you get thrown out of the pub. There are a lot of cards that affect other players (steal drinks, force them to discard good drinks, swap drinks, etc.). As you score points, you also earn medals! Excellent theme!

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Overall this is a light game, but a lot of fun all the same. The mix of the cards just leads to funny situations. One time I ordered two beers and actually received a coffee and a sandwich. Other times we tried to get people as drunk as possible so they would pass out and lose turns.

Although the board is a bit drab, the experience is a good laugh, in the same dark vein as Infarkt. I would love to see an expansion with more drinks and food.


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10. Board Game: Snowdonia [Average Rating:7.41 Overall Rank:434]
Board Game: Snowdonia
Ben Kirman
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Lincoln
Lincolnshire
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On the Saturday night, we tried to get out some new games, in case we found any last minute "must buys". Russ brought his copy of Snowdonia for us to try.

Since most of our group is from the North West UK, we were all very familiar with Snowdonia the place, being the cheap holiday destination of choice for many families. Wry smiles were raised as the game starts in Llanberis, a regular stop on many depressing dreary and rain-soaked teenage holiday trips.

Players represent workers trying to develop the railway that goes from Llanberis to the summit of Snowdon, the highest peak in Wales. On your turn you choose from a range of actions that support this - getting resources, excavating new routes, building stations, etc.

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Although fairly dry, this is a solid economic game with some unique mechanics. For example, events occur in the game which represent other companies (or giant extraterrestrial robots) developing the line, which places additional pressure on you, and these events come out randomly from the bag with the resources. Weather has a dramatic effect on the players' ability to build the line. As all UK people know, Snowdon is almost always foggy and rainy, which makes the going difficult sometimes! Extra workers can be temporarily hired from the pub, as long as you can send a train to get them. Lots of lovely little things tie together to make a thematic and interesting game.

Players can also take contract cards that give special one off bonuses, and at the end of the game can be used to claim extra victory points. I'm a bit sour because I built a lot of the railway and stations in our game, but lost based on other players making heavy use of these somewhat extraneous contracts. However, it does say right in the rules that you need to do those to win, so fair enough!
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11. Board Game: Love Letter [Average Rating:7.24 Overall Rank:253]
Board Game: Love Letter
Ben Kirman
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Lincoln
Lincolnshire
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After a long few days (and several late nights playing Pax Porfiriana into the wee hours) it was time to head off. The final morning purchases made, time to tidy up our room:

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Bring only hope and Euros, leave only sprues... we earned €10 for drinking that beer!

Just time for a last game - Love Letter. A clever little card game with 18 cards in it. Here's the amazing thing - behind those 18 cards is a very rewarding filler game of deduction. All you do is draw a card and play one of those two cards, but the actions are elegantly interwoven to create a compelling game. The further a game goes on, the more information you get and the more tense the competition is between the players. Remarkable, and at just €3 without the velvet bag, a lot of value for a tiny game. A great purchase to round out a great year at the fair.
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12. Board Game: Air King [Average Rating:5.63 Overall Rank:14647]
Board Game: Air King
Ben Kirman
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Lincoln
Lincolnshire
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While waiting for our flight, we just had time to squeeze one last one in. Appropriately enough, Andy had brought Air King.

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This is a neat little filler game where you move planes between two airports. Each player has a hidden goal with 4 of the 10 planes to land, and you variously bluff and feint while trying to get your planes onto the runway. You play event cards on one another, blocking planes, giving extra moves and placing stormy weather in the way. There are some cruel extra cards that allow you to send planes all the way back to the start, but other than that a neat, quick, thematic game with a good amount of "take that" fun.

That's it for 2012, See you all next year!
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13. Board Game: Coup [Average Rating:7.02 Overall Rank:467]
Board Game: Coup
One more Ben, although it was after you had left. We hard core late fliers had some time to play this little filler game that turned out to be a bit of a gem. All out bluffing and challenging made this excellent stuff and just the right size to play on a small airport table. Just a shame we failed to get a photo for good measure.
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