My trip to Spiel '00 in Essen

[My wife Carrie and I just returned from Spiel '00 at Essen]

Part I: Arrival

Rathous in Munich
We arrived in Germany in Munich on Sunday the 22nd. We spent a couple days in Munich, drove to Fussen, saw the castles, went to Heidelberg, and then headed up toward Essen.

A bit of other background: The dollar was very strong compared to the Euro during October 2000. 1DM was about 43 cents currently, and it has been over 60 cents in the past. This meant everything was a bit of a bargain, and I was prepared to buy a lot of games.

Our hotel reservations had been slightly messed up and we had reservations starting Thursday night, rather than Wednesday, but we wanted to be close enough to get there early in the morning, so we decided to try to stay in Dortmund, less than an hour away. We found a hotel, which reeked overwhelmingly of cigarette smoke, which was to be an omen for the whole experience. As most Europeans, the Germans smoke a lot.

My German language skills are pretty limited. I had been to Germany once, ten years ago, and learned a very little German, and have picked up a bit more playing these games. Mostly, however, we just asked people if they spoke English.

We got an early start out of Dortmund, to get to Spiel early, since we didn't know exactly where we were going. As we drove into Essen, signs advertising Spiel were everywhere. We arrived at Messe-Essen, the convention center where Spiel is held, and parked, for 5DM. We had arrived about 8:55am, and the show didn't start until 10am. The weather was ok, but not great. Overcast, cool, but tolerable. Promptly at 9am, the ticket sales started. We got a couple of the 4-day passes and a guide book and went inside to try to find breakfast, as we were both very hungry and had not yet eaten. After a little while, a cafeteria opened up, and we got some breakfast.

As we sat and ate breakfast, waiting for the door to open, I ran into Aaron Fuegi, from the area, and several English folks. I read the guide book, and peered through the windows at the massive booths and displays the game manufacturers had set up. Hundreds of people were already waiting to be admitted. While we were waiting, I saw Reiner Knizia come in, and after he spoke to some other folks, I said hello (I had met Dr. Knizia before when I invited him to speak at MIT a year and a half ago). and caught up with him for a minute, after which he went into the hall, and we continued to wait.

A peek into the halls
Through the windows I could see the Ravensburger booth, with a huge Java sign, the Amigo booth in the background, and the Schimdt-spiele booth. Other than the occasionally overwhelming cigarette smoke, I felt like I was in heaven: I was at Spiel, it was huge, I had just chatted with one of my favorite "celebrities", Dr. Knizia, and the doors were about to open.

We mapped out where we wanted to go first, which was to do a quick once through all the halls and to the "limited edition" game booths that we were interested in.

Part II: Thursday Morning

As soon as the doors opened, people flooded in. There were a lot of people, but people entered in a rather orderly fashion. An interesting thing to notice was the demographic of the people there. I expected it to be biased toward something of the gamer stereotype, but it was much more of a generic seeming cross section than I expected. There were more men than women, but not overly so, perhaps 60/40. Many young people (defined as "younger than me"), many people my age, families with small children, and many older people (defined as "my parents age").

As we entered, many people immediately sat down to play a game. I had far too much adrenalin to sit still, and had to go see everything. We stopped briefly by the Counter booth to say hello, meet a few of the other English speakers who were about, and renewed my subscription. The basic layout of the halls was as follows: Hall 12, dominated by the Kosmos booth was by the main entrance, and actually didn't have many large booths, other than Kosmos. Through here you entered into Hall 11 and 10, where were really one big hall, and had the majority of the huge booths, and many of the sellers of new games. Past that was Hall 9, which was mostly small publishers and some less game related stuff. Halls 6 and 8 were past this, and contained miniatures, RPGs (Rollenspiel), and wargaming stuff, and most importantly, the used game dealers. Additionally, there was hall 5, which had lots of children's stuff (mostly not board games), and halls 6.1 and 9.1, which contained "Comic Action", the associated comic book convention.

Hall 10/11
So, we were in the Counter booth in Hall 12, and stopped by the Adlung Spiele booth, and bought essentially all of their games (including "Shit!" for an amazing price of 5DM). When I asked them in the Adlung Spiele booth if they spoke English they said yes, but they couldn't explain the games in English. I was briefly concerned that I would hear this over and over, but it happened infrequently. After buying most of their games, we headed into hall 10/11. Here, the rest of the "big boys" were. There was also an entrance from the cafeteria into this hall. Booths for Ravensburger, Amigo, Hans im Gluck, Schimdt-Spiele, GoldSieber, AbacusSpiele, Doris & Frank, Winning Moves and more were here. It was amazing. Each booth was probably half (or less) filled with tradeshowy stuff, displays, gratuitous stuff (like the Espresso machine in the Cafe International portion of Amigo's booth), and the rest of the booth space was tables on which to play the games. Also in these halls were several game retailers, who had stack of hundreds of games, often for ridiculously low prices. I got a great many card games for 10DM, which given the current exchange rate, works out to $4.30.

Live Action RoboRally
Amigo, one of the largest booths, was heavily pushing the Crash and Burn expansion to RoboRally. In order to do so, they had the life sized RoboRally setup, which was very amusing to see, but we rapidly learned to avoid this section of the hall if we wanted to get to the other side, as it always drew a crowd, often including TV cameras and the like. I got a chance to look at the German RoboRally, which I had not seen before. It looks very nice, with different looking robots, with colored arrows at their bases, and nicer chips for damage points and lives than the American version. It seemed very popular, even with what seemed to Carrie and I, very young children.

We gawked a while at these booths, and headed to Hall 9, where many of the limited edition games had their booths. I don't recall the exact sequence of events here, but we went to the Cwali booth, played a game of Morisi, and bought a copy (the first signed game of the trip). Morisi is beautifully produced and is fun to play. I'm eager to try out the multiplayer play. From here, we went over to the booth where Lunatix Loop was being sold, got a brief description, and purchased a copy of that, which we have yet to play.

Super Sized Torres
From here, we headed over toward hall 6, passing a giant Torres game (like the giant RoboRally game) in the process. As more and more people came to play Torres, the tower pieces became gaming tables. Very cute.

After all of this, and having purchased more games than I've mentioned, we decided to drop things off at the car, and get another piece of luggage in which to carry games. We looked at our watches, and saw that it was only noon. Wow.

Part III: The rest of Thursday

After returning from the car, we had lunch (or maybe it was the other way around). The convention center had a cafeteria which served a variety of not particularly German food, unsurprising, since it was run by Aramark. We got some Tortellini, and while we ate, I read the rules to some of the Adlung Spiele games. All of them had English rules except for Mueterer, which will supposedly have them soon, and is the much anticipated sequel to Verrater. It looks really cool.

The Queen Booth
As we returned to the hall, we walked over toward the juncture of halls 10 and 9, where Queen had a nice, but smaller booth. Next to this, Hasbro had a large booth, dedicated exclusively to a card game "Online", not to be confused with Online by Franjos, which looked neat, but I didn't get to try. We asked to be tought Online, and the woman there spoke English quite well. The game was dull. At the core, it was sort of like Mille Bournes, but less fun. The theme was arbitrary and sort of stupid, the graphics were ok, but nothing special, and overall, it was one of the only games that I played but did not buy. I'd rather play Mille Bournes, and I don't especially like Mille Bournes. This is the only game I really actively didn't like. I'll explain when I get to them why I there were two other games I played but didn't buy.

Following this, we walked through Hall 9 again. We stopped by the booth of a company which had these cute looking tree sculptures. The attendant spoke English ok, but not fluently. Through a combination of some English and lots of gesturing and examples, they explained their game, "Arbos: Das Baumspiel" aka, The Tree Game. Basically, it's Jenga, but with a tree instead of a tower. Ok, it's not really quite like that. You have this stump. It's got holes in it. You've got branches and leaves, and you take turns sticking them in holes and whatnot trying not to knock anything else down. It also comes with a whole bunch of cards with german instructions on what to do to the tree (add one piece, remove two pices, add three leaves, etc), and it wasn't clear how these were supposed to be used, but we were encouraged to "make up rules". It's cute, it's fun, and it's pretty. We bought it.

The Kosmos Booth
Ok, here's where everything begins to go all fuzzy on me, and I don't remember what occured in what order. So, instead I'm giving up on being sequential and just going to relate interesting bits in more or less any order. But first, let me recount what I do remember of the sequence:

We bought more games on Thursday, and when we left it was pouring rain. Fortunately the games avoided damage with the exception of a little bit of water on Igel Argern. We finally went to check into our hotel, which was very nice, but very modern in design. Our hotel room was all angular, stainless steal, black leather almost to the point of being comical. Fortunately, it was a mere 5 minute drive from the halls and comfortable enough.

Friday, we got in a little later, and bought even more games, and played quite a few. We spent a little while Friday shopping for gifts for family and friends, in particular my 7 year old cousin. I'll write more about this quest in a later part. When we got to the hotel that evening, we did a "test packing". We had brought two large pieces of empty luggage, and found that so far, we had 90% filled one of them. We had more shopping to do.

Crowds at Essen
Saturday was a mob scene. We thought it had been crowded on Thursday and Friday. Saturday was overwhelming. Many games started to disappear, and we resolved to essentially finish our shopping on Saturday. This made Saturday rather hectic, along with a not-so-successful attempt to bring our lunch rather than eat Aramark food (which wasn't that bad).

Sunday was much more subdued, though still crowded. We forgot about daylight savings time, so got up too early, but fortunately, there was a sign mentioning it in our hotel lobby. We finalized our shopping list and decided to try to play a few more games on Sunday than we had before. We ended the day with possibly more games than we had luggage space for, but feeling extremely pleased with the whole experience.

As mentioned above, from here on in, I'm going to take a much more free form rather than sequential approach.

Part IV: Lord of the Rings

Lord of the Rings
Thursday afternoon, we decided to stop by the Kosmos booth to try to play the much anticipated "Lord of the Rings", particularly since Dave Farquhar was demonstrating the English version. Upon arriving, we found a game in progress, and a sign up sheet all full for the rest of the day. We watched the game a little bit and resolved to arrive first thing in the morning to play. Meanwhile, hundreds of other people played "Der Herr der Ringe" in Kosmos' booth. Probably 75%+ of the tables were playing this game, with the remainder of the tables and many bare spots on the floor being occupied by other Kosmos games.

The game itself is beautiful. I was surprised at the size of the boards (they're quite large). Somehow, from the pictures, I was expecting them to be smaller. The artwork on the boards (all the art is by John Howe) is striking, atmospheric, and very well done. There
The Dark Die
are 5 hobbits (the game supports 2 to 5), an ominous (if non-anthropormorphically shaped) Sauron, the One True Ring, complete with elven runes, the "dark die" (which is white), various conical wooden markers, and a wide variety of cards.

The next morning, we failed to arrive as early as we hoped, but apparently it would not have helped, as the general German attendees had usurped Dave's table, and his copy of the game was locked in a closet for which he had no key. When we arrived in the afternoon, there was a game in progress, and we started a sign up sheet for a later play. We went off to look at and play other games. We played Cafe International, which was cute, and we later picked up for 30DM (= $13.25), which made it an "expensive" game. We arrived back at the Lord of the Rings table at our appointed time, and there was one, of the three other people who were supposed to be playing there. Dave started explaining the rules, figuring the remaining players would show up. By the time he finished with the rules, the players had not shown up, so we played with three, at the medium difficulty level. Our third party, who's name I have forgotten was Frodo, I was Sam, and Carrie was Pippin.

The details of gameplay has been described elsewhere, so I'll only give a cursory description here. Basically, there are 6 stages the hobbits have to travel through in order to destroy the Ring, four of which are associated with boards.
Shelob's Lair board
In this process, the hobbits are becoming gradually corrupted and Sauron's threat is getting gradually closer. There is no guarantee all the hobbits will survive. Each person has a hand of cards which allows them to advance the Fellowship along the tracks in various ways. As they do, "event"s occur, which usually are quite unpleasant. Much of the game revolves around planning for these events, and trying to get out of a region before too many of them happen.

We left Bag End in good spirits, having made extra preparations, and traveled through Rivendell without any trouble. We zipped through Moria relatively unscathed, and thought we were looking quite good, though Frodo was somewhat corrupted. In Lothlorien, we passed the test of Galadriel, and headed on to Helm's Deep, where things took a turn for the worse. Frodo was percariously close to corruption by Sauron, and despite I (Sam) being the Ring Bearer at the moment, it appeared Frodo would again bear the ring, which made him a high risk for corruption. We zipped through Shelob's Lair as quickly as we could, heading straight into Mordor. Twice, we had to save Frodo from the clutches of Sauron, and we (Sam and Pippin) rapidly were becoming subject to his evil influences. In Mordor, Pippin was the Ring Bearer, and was convinced to slip the ring on right near the end, and bring the ring to be destroyed, which Pippin did successfully did! We had destroyed the Ring, and we had all survived.

This is one of the most atmospherically/thematically effective games I've ever played. Partway through the game (toward the end), I found myself physically tensed up, concerned we would not succeed in destroying the Ring. It is wonderfully involving. The gameplay and negotiation of who would do what to best serve the group was fun and involving. One of my major concerns with this game was that the cooperative gameplay would make it feel like group solitaire or something. It didn't. The fact that each player is genuinely seperate (may die seperately, has seperate cards, can help or hinder the group individually) gives a strong sense of identity (Sam, I am), while the group goal was still primary. The feeling of "I want to save the Ring, but if someone has to die in the process, let it not be me" was good.

The hobbits, Sauron and the Ring
The bits and cardplay in the game are well done, and not overly fiddly or confusing (see my later comments on Der Garten des Sonnenkonig). As I mentioned above, the board artwork is beautiful. The card artwork is very nice too, but somehow didn't please me as much, with its much more subdued colors and less fantastic style. The hobbits themselves and the Ring are very nice, though the hobbits appear a bit fragile (I saw one German group plaing with Sam, Frodo, Merry, Fatty and Pippin's feet). The Ring, sadly, does not actually turn you invisible, but is made of durable plastic.

Me (and a big sign)
The strong feeling of narrative and the fun gameplay made this game a big hit for me. I highly recommend it. The amount of text is right at the threshold where you could play the German version without speaking German (with an extensive crib sheet), but you'd lose a lot of the atmosphere. I'd recommend waiting for a copy in a language you (and most of your players) speak fluently. Overall, as hoped, this was one of the best games at Essen this year.

All over, booths had copies of "Der Herr der Ringe". By the way, "Ringe" does not rhyme with "cringe". It rhymes with "finger" (at least the way we pronounce "finger" up here in Boston). I was fortunate enough to get a copy of the English version, and was eager to play again. Carrie thought it was fun and quite suspensful, but was more interested in playing new games, since we could play Lord of the Rings again, once we returned home. Replay value is something that seems it might be a slight issue with this game, though I'm optimistic about it. When the game ends, you get a score (as a group and/or individuals), which there is a definite feeling of "lets beat that next time". We got 69.

That evening, I realized it would really be great if I could get the game signed by Dr. Knizia, but also didn't want to lug the game around for all of Saturday. So, I packed up the main board, which is fortunately somewhat smaller, and put it in the bag for the next day. I was told Dr. Knizia would be at the Merz-Verlag booth around 11am, and figured I'd stop by for an autograph. Of course, at 11am, I was in the middle of a game (Port Royal, which I thought was fun and Carrie liked a lot) which I didn't want to interrupt, so I missed him. I figured I'd have to be more than content with just a copy of the game, or try to catch him on Sunday.
My Signed copy
Saturday afternoon, while vising the bathroom, I looked over to the next urnial (I know, a serious Men's Room etiquette violation), and who was standing there, but Reiner Knizia. Well, I washed my hands and left, waiting outside the bathroom. When he exited, I sheepishly pounced, having extracted the board from my bag. He was kind enough to sign, and I was giddy.

So, to sum up, I loved Lord of the Rings. It's a fun, involving, beautiful, well-executed, novel and compelling game. Repeat playability is an open question, but I hope to have an answer to that soon, and if you're uncomfortable with a cooperative game, the competetive variant may not fully satisfy you, though I haven't tried it yet. The game still manages to somehow feel a little competetive anyway, which I think is a good thing. This is in part due to the rule which says, if you happen to be overcome by Sauron while you are the Ring Bearer, but have at least 3 of the Ring tokens, you join Sauron and win. The rules describe this as part of the competetive variant, but I thought Dave described it as just one of the rules. I like this twist, because it adds an appropriate level of suspicion of your teammates.

I expect to play it again this afternoon, at which point I will update this with my thoughts on "repeat" play, insofar as "repeat" means twice. Update: I've played it again, and at least the second time, it was still a blast, and I'm still eager to play again, so my repeat playability concerns seem unfounded.

Part V: Kids' Games are Fun

I have a cousin who's about 7 years old. Last year, we got her Sagaland (Enchanted Forest) for the holidays and it was a big hit. So, it was a particular mission at Essen to find something suitable for her. While the show was dominated by the more complex games, there were still a lot of children's games. In fact, all of Hall 5 was dedicated to kids playstuff, although most of that wasn't actually games.
Pinky Rodeo
Most of it was downright weird. For example, there was giant mechanical pig which tried to knock kids off of it. Imagine a bucking bronco kind of thing, but a giant "piggy bank" style pig instead of a bull, and put this on top of a giant inflatable thing. Put a kid on the pig and the pig shakes. Hmmm. It was called "Pinky Rodeo". Hall 5 was very interesting, but we didn't spend much time there.

So, we looked for a game suitable for my cousin. We walked by one booth, which had some very cute looking children's games, including a pretty game about a little tiger. Unfortunately, we rapidly found out that they weren't actually selling at the show, but were just looking for distributors and the like. We got their web site for future reference, which I don't recall at the moment (but I have written down, somewhere :-) We moved on.

Actually, before I move on, let me talk a little more about Arbos. Arbos is nominally a children's game (Sonderpreis Kinderspiel des Jahres 2000 - Special Prize for Children's Game of the Year), but is on a similar level to Jenga. It's a dexterity game, where you are constructing a tree. It's beautiful. It comes with a large number of pieces, and assembles into a tree with lots of leaves and branches that can extend rather far. At the fair, many children were combining multiple sets (though a single set contains many pieces anyway) to create huge, sprawling, precarious trees. I'm not usually a big fan of dexterity games (my hands shake) and I wasn't much better at this one (ok, I was probably worse), but the aesthetic is so pleasing and the dexterity component seems to be at a good level, we bought it for ourselves. My cousin has a younger brother, and we thought maybe the pieces were a bit small for him and we wanted a more "German" game for my cousin anyway. Another nice bit about Arbos, is the English rules are printed on the side of the box (there's not much to them.) It basically says: You can play Arbos by alternating turns adding things to the tree, and if anything falls they become your pieces. The first person to get rid of their pieces wins. Or, you can make up your own rules. Oh yeah, it also comes with cards. We're not quite sure how to use them, but we'll figure it out :-)

One game we had seen, a couple booths down from Counter, was "So ein Zirkus", which we wanted to try. So ein Zirkus is another very pretty wooden game, with circus clowns. The circus clowns are actually a wooden tube, in which marbles may be places. The board (also wooden), has several "potholes" which are marked with a number of stars. The board is a rectangular grid 3 x about 12. Each player gets a color. On a players turn, they roll a die, which has several colors on the faces. The player may either put a marble of that color into a clown, or move a clown which has that color marble as the top showing one. If they player moves the clown, they may move it the number of spaces equal to the number of marbles it contains, so a fully loaded clown moves rather quickly. In fact, it must move that many spaces, if possible. The clowns may not move backwards, except if white, the wild color is thrown. It was cute, but not as much fun as I hoped. The clowns are very cute, and the mechanisms are nice, but a few lucky die throws seems to decide the game. We liked it enough that we decided it made a decent "back up" game, in case we didn't find anything else we liked more. Then, we found ZappZerapp.

Zoch zum Spielen, makers of ZappZerapp had a reasonably large booth right near the center of Hall 11, next to Amigo. They also make ZickeZacke, which I had heard was a cute kids game, and has nice wooden chickens, but looked like another memory game, and we thought since we had already given my cousin Sagaland, another memory game may not be optimal. We somehow didn't notice ZappZerapp much the first couple of days. Then, we were walking past the booth and heard this noise. Chaka-shak-shaka. Shaka-chak. A group was playing ZappZerapp, frantically shaking these medium sized wooden pawns, which apparently had something in them. The artwork on the box, by Doris, was beautiful, so we decided to sit for a game, and see if we could get English instructions. The person who showed us the game spoke English well enough. I am very glad we tried this one. Two other players joined us and the rules explanation began.

Cloesup of ZappZerapp piece
Each of us assumed the role of several wizards, long in exile, who were now returning home to their villages. To do so, the wizard pawns had to be moved around the board once clockwise from their exile mountains to their village. Each player starts a quarter of the way around the board from the previous player. Along the path (about halfway, for each wizard color) there are safety zones, as well as a special couple of "tower spaces", which are both safe and allow you to be dragged along by one of the other players. Now, at the core of the game, and the center of the gameboard are the magic cauldrons or whatever ( calls them "mysterious madness kegs"). There are 13 of these, numbered 1 to 13, on the bottom. Correspondingly, they contain that many little BBs The cauldrons are put in the center of the board and shuffled around. The first player then rolls the dice. Immediately everybody starts grabbing cauldrons, shaking them, and putting them back down. When they have found one they want, that put it in front of themselves. Once everyone has selected a cauldron, the numbers are revealed. Everyone who selected a cauldron numbered less than or equal to the die roll is allowed to move one of their wizards that many spaces, with the higher numbers going first. That's it.

Wow, is Zapp Zerapp fun. Distinguishing 1 BB from 2 from 3 is easy. Distinguishing 9 from 10 is a bit harder. The art and pieces are very attractive (each players pawns are different colors and different shapes) and the cauldrons are nice wooden pieces (some assembly required). The game itself actually has a little bit of strategy, with the safety zones, pawn selection, sending opponents back, the "tower" spaces, and having some freedom of choice as to how far you move (you can intentionally choose a cauldron substantially lower than the die roll). We loved it. We grabbed two copies; one for my cousin, and one for us. Along with Lord of the Rings, Zapp Zerapp was the other big hit of Essen for us.

Part VI: Traumfabrik

[I know I had said that the next part would be about the smaller publishers, but after playing Traumfabrik a few times, I wanted to write about it, so I'm doing that first.]

In Essen, Hasbro had a huge booth, and was promoting a new Reiner Knizia game, "Traumfabrik" (Dream Factory), themed around Hollywood. This didn't seem to be getting a lot of attention, given the release of Lord of the Rings, but it was a Knizia game, so I had to try it. We went up to the desk at the booth, and asked if it would be coming out in English at any point and was firmly told no, that it would be a German only release. We asked if they would be willing to teach it to us in English. They got a bit of a nervous expression, but agreed. We sat down and he explained, alternating English and German, since a German couple was interested in hearing about the game.

He did a good job of explaining the basic rules, but was a little fuzzy on some fundamental things like scoring. It looked cute, but I was not extremely impressed. Carrie had a good feeling about it, so we bought it. We brought it back to the states, and managed to play it with a friend who speaks fluent German and she was kind enough to help us clarify the rules (thanks Alison!). With the correct rules, this is a great game. Carrie was pleased to say "I told you so", and I was pleased she was right.

Traumfabrik being played
(board is inverted in photo)
Basically, this is another Knizia auction game, which I would rate as on par with Ra and Modern Art, which are among my favorites. The premise is each player runs a Holywood studio and is trying to produce movies with high star value and win awards. This is accomplished by a series of auctions. Each round is composed of seven auctions and parties, and the game lasts four rounds. Each movie under production has various requirements. For example, one movie may require a director, and actor, special effects, and music. Another may need two actors, fancy camera work, but no special effects. Each movie may optionally take a "Star" as well. The first auction is for a famous (four star) director (Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, etc.). The remaining six auctions are for lots of two or three components of a movie, each of which is rated from zero to three stars. The players bid on these lots using contracts. Once an auction has been concluded, the winner pays out the contracts to each of the players evenly. So, if in a four player game, a player wins an auction for six contracts, they pay two contracts to each other player. If the winning bid is not evenly divisible by the remaining players, the remainder is left in a "pot" on the board, which is added to and redistributed following the next auction. In addition to the auctions, there are 2 "Parties". At these, whichever studio has the most actors and Stars gets first choice of these tiles, whichever has second most second choice, etc. When a player wins an auction, they must immediately place the tiles they have won on one of the movies they are producing, in an appropriate slot. When a player completes a movie (manages to fill all the slots), the total number of stars for that movie is summed and they receive a score chit for it. If it is the first in its genre, they also receive the Oscar (5 points) for first picture in a genre. Then, they draw a new movie to add to their possible productions. At the end of each of the first three rounds, there is the reward of an Oscar (5 points) for the best picture released this round. At the end of the fourth round, there are five awards; an Oscar (10 points) for best film in each category, an Oscar (10 points) for worst film, and an Oscar (10 points) for "best director", which goes to the studio with the most total director stars in completed films. The winner is the player with the greatest total points, where points come from completed movies, Oscars, and one point per remaining contract.

Reiner Knizia, Star
The game has a nice flavor, and the bidding is great. The recycling of the contracts yields some nice dynamics, where there's added motivation to drive up the price in an auction, since all of the non-winners of the auction will benefit. The use of real actors and real movies is a nice touch, and we had fun casting Marilyn Monroe and Vivien Leigh in Casablanca. You can even cast Reiner Knizia as Star of a film, though he has a -1 star effect (useful for going for the
Traumfabrik bits
"worst film" Oscar). I've played this a few times so far, and am looking forward to playing it more. I like auction games in general, but this has much of the feeling of the best ones out there (Ra and Modern Art).

To expand a bit on the chrome: it's all about old movies, though some of the actors were young in the 40s/50s so some have done quite a bit since then :-) Only the actors, Stars, and directors (and then, only the 4 star directors) have names. The music, special effects, camera work, and directors are all nameless. The movie mix is good, ranging from Casablanca to King Kong to Bambi, to several that we couldn't figure out. "This Fist in the Neck" (in German) was figured out to be "On the Waterfront", but we still don't know what "Der Hofnarr" is, for example. There is no language other than the actor names (including "Gary Grant", oops) and the word Vertag (contract) on the contract chits. Oh, and the word "Agenten" or something on the agent chits.

There are several other nice twists such as the use of Agents (wild cards), rules for breaking ties for awards between movies (basically, first is better), the Parties, and the fact that everything except the number of contracts you currently have is open information makes for an outstanding game. Additionally, it plays in a reasonable amount of time (about an hour, maybe less), and feels like there's a good variety of playing strategies and bidding tactics to explore. I recommend this one strongly.

Part VII: Smaller publishers

The Doris & Frank Booth
One of the things I was really looking forward to about Essen was the small publishers. I was interested in seeing a lot of the home produced games and the like. Some in particular, such as Locust Games, Cwali, and Splotter I knew of it advance and made a point to visit them, and in many cases buy their games.

One of the first "small publishers" I visited was Doris & Frank. I really enjoy the games of theirs I'd played (Ursuppe and Mu in particular) and had heard enough good things about many of their other games. They had a small booth, which was constantly packed. Unfortunately, they didn't have any new games this season, though Frank's Zoo was the newest and was getting a lot of play. I picked up a whole bunch of their games (Igel Argern, Banana Republic, Pico, a signed copy of Mu, and Esels Rennen) and a Doris&Frank T-shirt with the hedgehog on it. I was interested in actually meeting them, particularly since I had exchanged an email with Frank before. They weren't there when I first visited the booth, but when I came back there was a guy there with a button that said "Frank". Shortly thereafter, a woman with a button saying "Doris" appeared, and I managed to get my copy of Mu signed and thank them for their wonderful games.

Doris & Frank
Doris and Frank were in Hall 10 with many of the larger publishers, but most of the "small publishers" were in Hall 9. We visited Locust and picked up "Lunatix Loop", which I recently got to play. Sadly, it was something of a disappointment, but I need to play again, as I think we may have been playing wrong. Not a wrong rule so much as a wrong style. We'll play riskier next time and see how it goes. Across the way was Cwali, where Corne van Moorsel was selling Morisi. I've only played it two player so far, but it's very solid, and the production value is outstanding.

Near Cwali was the Krimsu booth, where they were hawking both their new games (Strand-Cup and Haps) as well as their older games. I hadn't read much about any of these games, but they had a very good "package deal" on their two new games, and I knew they published English rules on their web site that I picked up Haps and Strand-Cup, neither of which I've had time to play yet. Also in this hall was Splotter, which I'll talk about below and a number of other small publishers, often of abstract games, as well as many atypical booths. One booth was selling comfy hanging chairs. Another, syringes and ink for refilling ink jet cartriges. Another, a drafting tool thing. I'm not quite sure how these have to do with games, but there they were.

Cheapass games, in German
Across from Splotter was the German redistributor/republisher of Cheapass games. All of them were being sold in Great Brain Robbery-like boxes. It looks like Cheapass may be moving to this form of packaging,, too. I like the boxes better than the envelopes, but I'm not really that picky. So, we wandered over to Splotter, which had several games we had heard about. First, we had to see Roads & Boats. Wow, that's a lot of pieces. Wow, 4 hour playing time is a bit long. Wow, it sure looked neat though. So, we got an overview of R&B, and decided we'd think about it. It was by far the most
Splotter booth
(everyone's crowded around Roads & Boats)
expensive game I'd seen at Essen (125DM = $55), and was large and heavy. So, we got an explanation of D'raf and Gossip which both sounded interesting enough to pick up, though I haven't had the chance to play either of them. We also looked at Bus, though it was sold out already. We asked if they would be making any more and they kind of looked sideways at each other and said something like "Well, we won't be making any more." I assume this means it will be published again, but they won't be hand making them anymore. We thought and we angsted over buying R&B, and decided that while we weren't likely to play a four hour game very often, it would be fun to try, it was a good deal at Essen, and Carrie liked the idea of the game, so we picked it up. Again, we're yet to try this one, but it's got lots of bits and seems very nice.

A couple of other small publishers were over in hall 11, including 2F-Spiele which has a new game, FlickWerk. The bright-green haired author was on hand and gave us the explanation. We played a quick round of this. The basic idea is you are laying out the network in an office, with various constraints. The game is a puzzle game and plays with up to four with one set. It's lite and quick, and will make a good between-game game. Nearby was Spielteufel which had been very crowded earlier in the show, and was less crowded on Sunday. Unfortunately, this was because the game that sounded most interesting, "Der Welt der Winder", had sold out. We got an explanation of it, and it sounds like a novel race game. We also got a demo of "Schwimmer in der Wuste", which was very pretty with many painted rocks. Unfortunately, it was a bit abstract for my taste, and we opted not to get it. They did have on of their older games, which shows (among other cows) a cow being struck by lightning on the cover. We picked that one up. There's something neat about a game with a theme of cows eating grass. We haven't played this on yet either (sense a theme here?), but it looks like a lot of fun (and they had English rules).

That's about it for small publishers now. I'll talk a little about Adlung Spiele games and GMT in a later section.

next... booths full of wooden bits, used games galore, tips for future visitors to Essen, pronunciation, rollenspiele, bringing lunch, ATMs and much much more :-)

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