Spiel 2014 – Essen

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A Pilgrimage, a journey of spiritual or moral significance. Some pilgrims travel to significant shrines or holy cities and some dudes even trekked across a desert once carrying a load of spices that everyone knows the names of even if nobody knows exactly what they are. Me? I went to Germany with a boatload of models and some dice.

Now I’m not saying Spiel is of some religious significance but for a lot of gamers this is it, this is where it all happens. This is the Promised Land. And to be honest, yeah, I was kinda feeling it too. What I’m offering here isn’t a full blown review, I was working during the event so didn’t get to see enough to do a full blown coverage. What you get here is my personal experience along with the games that really moved me. Enjoy!

I was lucky to be going along with Monolith to promote the Conan boardgame and after what should have been a 6h trip that became a 9h trip (is it me or is Germany’s entire road network under construction?!) we did what any sensible person does when they arrive in Germany: Food and beer. The schnitzel was very tasty however I was kind dismayed by the servers insistence on serving me Heineken. I don’t know if he was taken aback or grudgingly respected me when I requested some, and I quote, “real beer”.

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A few steins, fried meats and strudel later I was introduced to the first of many games that week: Star Realms (http://starrealms.com/). An aggressive, combat orientated deck building game. It really shocked me with its simple yet decisive rule set that allows you to play fast, exciting games using a variety of strategies. We played a few rounds and I was more then sold, to the point even that when I found out they had a stand at Essen the next day I literally walked up to the chap on the stand and said “…I played your game last night and it was f****** great, give me everything.” Moreover, he did, even as the dollar signs lit up in his eyes.

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The first day rolled around and just after setting up the table for Conan I got to witness the famous rush as people dashed into the first of three halls, eager to get their hands on all the early bird goodies! I spent most of the day on the stand but during the afternoon, I managed to get away for a bit. I went off in search of FFG’s partner’s stand in order to get my hands on the wave 5 X-wing releases. On the way, I managed to get a feel for the convention and take it all in.

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Of course the place is huge, 4 entire hangars contain the entirety of what Spiel has to offer, and there’s a LOT to see. The hall where we were contained the majority of the big names: Asmodée, iello, Matagot and the like. To be honest, apart from a quick look round, I didn’t really concern myself with these areas, I’m sure there were some great games, however, they are so well distributed and advertised that I knew I would see and play them eventually in any case. What I really wanted from Essen was to find something new and exciting, like Star Realms.

After picking up my new, favourite deckbuilding game from one very happy salesperson and then one of the last boxes of the VT-49 Decimator and YT-2400 for X-Wing from a German guy who thought I would look good as a walking billboard so offered me a free t-shirt, I truly started to explore. Now there was TONS of good-looking games there, so much so that I can’t possibly hope to go over everything I saw, so I’m just going to stick to what really made an impression on me to the point that I bought in.

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One of the first ones to draw me in, with its cute pixel art style (something that I realize is rare in games now) and its enticing resemblance to Dungeon Keeper, was Boss Monster. A Vs card game for up to 4 players where you each build your dungeon before trying to lure heroes into it. The first one to imprison the souls of 10 hapless, would-be saviors wins! They ran me through the rules and it seemed to work really well. 25€ for both the original and the  expansion, both in video game packaging inspired boxes was a good deal so they were my next purchase.

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Boss Monster’s stand was located in what I affectionately came to call the “model hall”, not because it is a shining example of everything a hall should be, but because It’s where all the miniature wargames were located! It’s also here that I first discovered what was no doubt my greatest discovery of the entire event: Journey; Wrath of Demons. Now I actually did a full on double take as I went past their stand. These are possibly some of the prettiest models I have ever has the pleasure of feasting my eyes upon. Here’s the kicker though: the plastics look JUST AS GOOD as the resin casts even after assembly (which is both carefully and intelligently done). I really cannot stress this enough, the quality of the models in this game is gob smacking. It’s based on the Chinese tale of the journey of the monkey king and the whole thing just emanates an awesome aura of Chinese culture. From the theme, to the art and all the way down to the style of the models. The game’s creator and sculptor (who has more or less become a god to me) were on hand, having flew in from Asia for Spiel. These two guys from Hong Kong just astounded me with their game and on top of that were really nice chaps, it was such a pleasure to meet them. We talked a lot about the game, their work on it and board gaming in Asia in general. I didn’t need any more reason to throw money at them and I fear that if I had tried to restrain myself then my wallet would have declared independence from my pocket before staging a major financial coup. This was only a pre-order however so I can’t wait to get my hands on the actual box!

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There was a very important lesson to be learned here however. This game was actually on kickstarter earlier this year and I missed it, I’m not sure how I managed that. I must have been living under a particularly large, internet repellant rock at the time. Yes, that must be it. Either way, shame on me, I cannot let amazing stuff like that pass me by again!

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My final stop for the day was to pick up the only game I’d pre-ordered: Choson, a card based game from Gary Kim. I didn’t know much about the game before hand but it came very highly recommended AND they were giving away a very sweet metal first player marker so I picked it up, I’ll be sure to give it a run through soon.

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Most evenings played out as a very standard: eat, do private demos, play games, go to bed late kind of routine. That night we sat down and played 3 games. Secret Moon was the first one, an Asian card game much like werewolf but only lasts 3 nights and has (in my opinion) more interesting mechanics. Kobayakawa was the second, a very interesting sort of Asian poker but with only 1 card in hand and a 15-card deck. This game was great and probably would have been my favorite that night however I wasn’t very happy with the quality of the material. It felt somewhat cheap which was a real shame even though the game itself was great! Finally, we played Dragon Run, I really liked the artwork for this one, a very classic heroic fantasy kind of style. The principle is that each players becomes one adventurer from an ill-fated party that has awoken a dragon during one of their regular underground hiking expeditions. So as not to end up as a pile of ash they have to “run” to escape the “dragon”, collecting treasure as they go. Mechanics wise the idea is to temper speed with caution in order to get as much treasure as possible whilst not attracting the dragon’s attention. I think this was definitely my favorite of the evening and one I will picking up in the near future.

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The next two day saw me reign in my spending and I spent a lot of time on Conan doing tons of demos an explanations. I got to meet plenty of great people from all over the world. I think the best demo I saw was with two Koreans and two Italians; they played one hell of a game! I also got to meet a lot of big industry players and authors as well as members of the press such as the guys from BGG or the German Tabletop Insider. I also did demos for most of them! It was so interesting meeting so many different people, hearing so many stories about gaming culture around the world as well as seeing all the cool new ideas people were coming up with.

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The only acquisitions I made during Friday and Saturday was the aforementioned Secret Moon and from the same guys One Night Werewolf: Superhero edition. I was drawn to it much like I was to Boss Monster, due to its really cool pixel art style and that it was like a one night version of werewolf but with strange player powers. That’s about the best I could make out from what the nice Chinese lady was telling me in the best English she could muster. We’ll come back to this on later don’t worry.

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I also spent a bit of time over at the Prodos Games stand. Now I hadn’t seen this range up close since Salute at the beginning of the year. All I can say is that they have come light-years since then. The quality of their models is way up, they genuinely stand out from the pack. Now my usual reaction to this kind of discovery is to find the closest starter box and buy it BUT I controlled myself. I only got the rulebook for the time being and devoured that during my free time. What a pretty book it is too! With a load of the old mutant chronicles artwork mixed in with some more recent stuff. Paul Bonners art speaks to me the same way that Greg Manchess’ (Conan) does. Anyone who knows that this is a franchise with a lot of heritage, a lot of history. The downside is that it lacks photos of the models though it being a new game I can understand why they’re not in there. The background of the universe in general has a very “classic” sci-fi feel to it, much like the artwork. The system seemed pretty solid to boot so I resolved myself to return to their stand and investigate further.

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Saturday night I got to try out the new mystery solving game: Witness. I wasn’t quite sure how this was going to work at first when my friend out the box, showing me a load of booklets and said that it was a game based on Chinese whispers. It did all come together really well though, the puzzle solving was actually very fun and challenging so I was pleasantly surprised to say the least! Next we played Samurai Spirit, a card based game based on the tale of the Seven Samurai. It’s a bit of a numbers game where you need to distribute bandits of different strengths amongst the Samurai without going over their threshold. A good gale to say the least however it is very hard and we failed to finish it twice that night. We probably need to re-evaluate our strategy! We finished off with a few rounds of One Night Werewolf. This game is buckets of fun. Imagine werewolf but it only lasts 1 night but everyone has some cool or whacky power! The best one I find is the ninja, now he can swap tiles with someone during the night phase but, bearing in mind you’re only allowed to look at your tile at the beginning of the game, he or she won’t know they’ve been swapped until it’s too late. Normally with hilarious consequences! A cracking game and I’m really glad I picked it up. I do have one gripe about it though: although it looks fantastic and the tiles are good thick card, they obviously haven’t been varnished or protected in any way so after only one round of games my tiles were looking significantly worse for wear, a damn shame if you ask me, this game would of gotten a perfect score from me otherwise.

Sunday rolled round, 4 days of nonstop shenanigans was starting to take its toll, and I think I was surviving uniquely due to the AMAZING breakfast they served at the hotel by this point. I set up the booth as per usual and after doing a fun demo game for the guys from Dice Tower the rest of the team took over for the rest of they. Bearing in mind, we were only staying until 2 that day as we had to drive back to Paris after so it wasn’t that long. With that, I wondered off to have a last look round the salon.

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This is where I have to give an honorable mention to a game I really liked they look of but didn’t buy in the end simply due to the fact my wallet was getting a bit dry at this point and I had my eyes fixed on other things. Among the Stars, a 7 wonder like game but in space where the proximity of certain cards to others is an important mechanic. Seemed a very solid game with some great artwork and nice material, shame I had to pass up on it but if it’s as good as people say then I would imagine I’ll be seeing it again soon enough.

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After that I ended up at the Dropzone Commander stand which was also where the tabletop insider guys were. After having a chat with them I got to catch up with the guys from Hawk Wargames who, like Prodos, I hadn’t seen since Salute. Also like Prodos, these guys have come a long way since then. I really like their game, I’m currently building my own UCM up and getting to learn the rules. It fills my small scale wargaming needs, the models are great quality and, one of the big selling points of this game, the terrain they offer with it is REALLY appreciated. So many games companies underestimate how people can be put off a game simply by not having the necessary terrain. Not with Dropzone Commander though! They’ve made the terrain great quality and readily available. The game is getting very popular in France too so I hope that they can keep going strong and I can get to play more and more of it! I picked up a few models to bolster my forces, mainly a UCM Starter set, some Wolverine Scout buggies as well as their obligatory Raven Type-B dropships.

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Finally I felt the ominous pull of cool models drag me back over to the Prodos games stand. All the team was on hand, so much like Hawk, I got to catch up with them a bit. I have to reiterate again, these guys have really pulled out all the stops with this game since I last saw them. I got a quick demo of the rules which were a simple enough alternate activation, D20 with modifiers system. There are also cards that can have various effects upon you or your opponent’s models. The game is heavily scenario based with both secret and public objectives. Possibly one of the most interesting pieces I gleamed from Rob, our benevolent Warzone benefactor, is that this game is designed for tournament play, with the goal being a neat and effective tournament game like Warmachine but with the flavor and feel of Warhammer 40k. Needless to say this definitely got my attention. A lot of playtesting will be required to see if the game does indeed live up to this, but the potential is there. Rob also ran me through each of the factions and how they work. I couldn’t decide between the Terminator/Strog (Quake) like Cybertronic or the slightly more classic, architectural form of the Bauhaus corporation. In the end I just took both, one due to my indecision and secondly so I could introduce people to it. I also picked up a template/counter set and a Cybertronic character called The Immortal as the model looked awesome!

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I’m very excited to break open the boxes and get playing this, with a bit of luck I can start to kindle interest in it here in France too!

After walking away with my newly acquired Loot I got the call saying that the last demo game has finished and we were heading off. We said our goodbye, loaded an ungodly amount of games into the car and set back off to France. We ran into a few bumps along the way but nothing major and made it back to Paris in good time. When I got home I proceeded to download the new Borderlands game, played that for a bit and then hit my bed like the fist of an angry god. I think I woke up something like 10 hours later. So yeah, I really needed that.

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All in all Essen was an amazing experience for me, all the people I met, all the cool stuff I saw and everything I learn’t about the industry all come together to make his event a success for me. I really appreciate Monolith taking me along for the ride. On that note, Conan did really well and is now known on an international level so we are all very pleased and rest assured, we have a LOT of stuff coming in the lead up to the Kickstarter campaign so stay tuned.

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I would definitely go back to Spiel, even in my own time. I feel I missed out on a lot of stuff but such is the nature of working events like this but hey, I’m not complaining, I saw plenty enough and had a great time. If you like games and have some free time around this period next year I suggest you swing by and you can see what it’s all about!

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