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State of the Union 2011: Part Two – The Analogue Stuff

So, this second bit is all about the actual stuff that we get to sit around a table and play with. Much as it’s lovely having something like Ticket to Ride or Ascension to pass the time with when you’re on the bus, it’s an entirely different experience when you’re pushing bits of plastic and cardboard around with mates. This is by no means a comprehensive “Best Of 2011” kind of post – for all those things you’ll have to wait for my opinions on The Dice Tower Awards Show in early January – but like with the post I made about iPhone games, I feel that these ones deserve a look.

Airlines Europe by Alan R. Moon is one of my favourite new releases for the year.  When I first got my hands on it I was impressed at how much was in there – despite it being a very simple game to explain and play, there’s a level of depth that you won’t find in many more complicated releases. Sure, it helps that Airlines Europe has kind of been a Work In Progress for about twenty years, what with its roots in Airlines and Union Pacific, but this feels like a brilliant refinement of those two earlier games. Accessible enough for new players while still having enough challenge for those who are more experienced? Perfect. And I still reckon this should join the ranks of Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan as the latest gateway game.

Anyone who listens to the show will know that my favourite game is Power Grid. Again, it’s one of those “simple to explain but a bugger to play well” releases that I find so appealing, but there’s always been that issue of only being playable with three or more. 2011 saw Friedemann Friese come up with The Robots expansion which put paid to this problem by proving artificial intelligences to play against. It’s a brilliant idea that – while sounding bloody odd – actually works very well in practice. Building a robot at the start of the game from random pieces provides players with an opponent that will do well up until about two thirds of the way into play, then should in theory tail off leaving the human players to fight it out. I’ve heard tales of people actually coming in behind a Robot player, but thankfully I’ve not had that happen to me… yet. Power Grid: The Robots is a brilliant idea that has extended the life of an already excellent game even further.

A bit of a surprise to me was Vlaada Chvatil’s Dungeon Petz from CGE. I’ve only played his earlier game Dungeon Lords a few times and – to be honest – wasn’t totally enamoured with it. There was so much to keep track of most of the time, it boiled my tiny little mind. I’ve handled trickier games with no problem but for some reason I’ve never got on with Dungeon Lords. Thankfully, the spiritual follow-up is brilliant. Again, there’s a fair bit to follow, but something just clicked with this one – knowing what you have to plan for combined with trying to scupper your opponents, managing your very limited resources… it’s excellent. The game is also filled with humour and (of course) looks fantastic. If you’re looking for something that’s a bit heavier to play, Dungeon Petz is a winner.

Sentinels of the Multiverse‘s fantastic co-op gameplay really won me over this year too. The amount of work that the guys at Greater Than Games have put into their own comic book universe is incredible – not just with a great little game that is fun to play but also the almost ridiculous levels of backstory that have been created for those who want to go a little deeper. Yes, the box sucks – we all know that! – but it really is what’s inside that counts. With a bunch of mates who are willing to throw themselves into the game, Sentinels is an absolute gem, encouraging players to work together and support each other. Woe betide you if you fail to co-operate though… split the party and you’ll fail for sure!

For those times when I want to play something a little different, I’m thankful that I picked up a copy of Cranio Creations’ Dungeon Fighter at Essen. This odd little mix of dungeon crawl and dexterity game is great, especially when you’ve got a larger group. Working your way through the maps as a group, taking down monsters by chucking dice at an oversized target… it’s a lot of fun. It’s also not very easy – unlike most party games, it actually offers quite a challenge. It’s rare that you’ll actually reach the boss at the end of the level, but Dungeon Fighter is one of those games where winning really isn’t the be all and end all. It’s the journey that’s all important, those high-risk dice rolls that will either claim victory for everyone or condemn the group to defeat.

Urban Sprawl has been one of the most divisive games released in 2011, either leaving those who have played it delighted or enraged. The cause of this schism? The chaos provided by the cards that add an admittedly swingy element to the game. While many people dislike it, I was a big fan of this part of the game that can either be a great equaliser or stretch out a player’s lead even further – but hey, that’s life. I’ve never been one to complain about such a thing, but many gamers saw this as too big a deal to ignore. I like a bit of randomness in my games, but for people who insist that everything must be able to be anticipated and mitigated, Urban Sprawl will send them cracked. If you’re looking for a relatively heavy game that shouldn’t be taken too seriously though, I’d heartily recommend picking up a copy.

There’s been plenty of other great games too. Quarriors took deckbuilding in a whole new direction, Space Maze was a charming little puzzler and Eruption made lava flows fun. For those seeking heavier gaming experiences Pret-a-Porter was brilliant, as was the wonderful Belfort (which I’ve only played once but can’t wait to try again – it’s that good). Now, who’s ready for 2012? Stay tuned for Part Three…

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Little Metal Dog Goes International: Essen 2011

It’s Essen Spiel week! The most wonderful time of the year! If you’ve been living under a rock and have no idea what I’m on about, Essen is the annual event that board gamers dream of. It’s our equivalent of the San Diego Comic Con, the cardboard version of E3; over 100,000 people flocking to a town in Germany to see what the games industry is going to delight us with over the next few months.

This will be my first Essen – actually, it’ll be my first visit to Germany – and I’m feeling a curious combination of excitement and nerves. I’m sure that once I arrive at the halls that’ll all bleed away as I scramble about looking at incredible games by publishers and indies from all around the world. I know that come Sunday I’ll have that feeling of it all being over too soon, that I should have grabbed more interviews… It’s going to be An Experience.

I’ve been looking through all the lists of new releases for Essen 2011 and – as is apparently customary – I’ve thrown together a few games that I’m really looking forward to getting my hands on. Whether I’ll be able to try them all out, who knows? It’s a big old place and there’s a lot of people to see. Here’s hoping though…

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Alcatraz: The Scapegoat published by Kuznia Gier

Let’s kick off with a co-op, albeit one with a difference. In Alcatraz: The Scapegoat you’re working together to spring yourself from the legendary American jail but someone’s got to be left behind. The aim seems to be to make yourself as indispensable as possible. You’re the guy who HAS to be taken along because you sure don’t want to be stuck on the rock. Part pick up and deliver, part backstabbing exercise in diplomacy, Alcatraz: The Scapegoat looks wonderfully cruel.

Bios Megafauna published by Sierra Madre Games

The mighty Dominant Species holds the crown when it comes to games involving evolution (for me, anyway) but Sierra Madre Games’ Bios Megafauna looks like it could well make a challenge for the throne. Your beasties are graded on a wide range of categories and must deal with competition from other animals as well as changes in their environment. How do you deal with such things? Why, through mutation or starting brand new species, of course. Apparently you can end up with vegetarian velociraptors and flying dolphins… who wouldn’t be intrigued?

Core Worlds published by Stronghold Games

Science fiction, barbarians, the invasion of worlds and deck-building. Wild horses couldn’t drag me away from Core Worlds, a new release from Stronghold Games. They’re a company who have developed quite a name in producing beautiful new versions of some classic titles but are now spreading out into new IPs. In around an hour players will take their fledgling civilisation, develop new technologies, build up energy resources, launch fleets and destroy their enemies before them – hopefully. Core Worlds promises an awful lot but if it pulls it off, this could be one of the games of the year for me.

Dragon Rampage published by Eagle Games

Richard Launis’ strategic dice game has been on my radar a while and after talking with him for The Little Metal Dog Show I am now fully hyped for it. Playing as adventurers trying to blag as much treasure while screwing over your opponents and making sure to react correctly to what the dragon’s doing..? It looks like while there’s plenty of opportunity to take down your opposition, you’ve got to be careful to not dig yourself into a hole and throw away a potential victory. Also, the games available at Essen will come with a “special” board. No more information on that, but I’m a sucker for limited editions.

Flash Point: Fire Rescue published by Indie Boards and Cards

Yes, yes, I missed out on the Kickstarter campaign. I am an idiot. That doesn’t mean that I can’t be excited about this one. Another one scratching that itch for co-operative play, you work together to save victims trapped inside a burning building before it’s too late. Different roles have different special abilities but the thing that really appeals is the power to smash through walls in times of desperation. After raising a ridiculous amount on money, the Essen release comes with a promo role card, a double sided game board and a scenarios book. So much potential playtime! Here’s hoping I can grab a copy.

Last Will by Czech Games Edition

I had a chance to look at Last Will at the UK Games Expo and was immediately taken with it. Think Brewster’s Millions: The Board Game or Go For Broke for grown ups; Players are given a large amount of money which must be frittered away on luxuries like theatre visits and extravagant meals or investing in property that will be left to go to rack and ruin. I love humour in games and Last Will seems to have it in spades. Designer Vladimir Suchy seems like he’s on to a winner with this one, combining a bloody funny idea with some solid gameplay.

Power Grid: The Robots published by 2-F Spiele

I love me some Power Grid and there’s nothing better than having a full requisite of players sitting around the board, filling out and fighting for every space in every town as the game goes on. So what happens if you’ve only got four players? Or even less? Friedemann Friese has thought about that and has introduced Power Grid: The Robots. Acting as AI players, each robot will be given a randomised set of rules for them to follow in the game. The rules come on tiles that will be mixed up meaning that there’s a huge range of potential robot opponents. I’m really interested in seeing how it works. Oh, and there’s the usual extra card for this year too, Der Liefervertrag (The Supply Contract) that lets you permanently move one step back in player order. Could prove very useful.

Rumble in the House by Flatlined Games

Flatlined Games present a mad looking little game where players are encouraged to (virtually) beat the crap out of their fellow housemates. Everyone controls two characters and, in a last man standing kind of affair, must force the opposition out of the house. The earlier you’re evicted, the less points that character scores and after three rounds the player with the highest total is victorious. A very quick little party game (apparently it can be done in twenty minutes, even with six players) I hope this lives up to my expectations.

Schnappt Hubi! published by Ravensburger

I honestly have no idea if I’ll even understand this one but Ravensburger stuff is generally pretty easy to get your head around. Players are either mice or rabbits who need to chase down Hubi the ghost and get him out of the house. Sounds very weird but looks amazing. Schnappt Hubi! has two stages, the first where players build the walls of the house making a maze that – thanks to the electronic gizmo that comes bundled – will be different every time the game is played. The walls come in different types including some with holes that only mice can get through or cracks that can only be reached by the rabbits that jump. Yes, it’s very much a kids game but it really looks brilliant – definitely one to pick up.

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With over seven hundred brand new games launching at Essen along with all the stuff that’s been released through the year, Aladdin’s cave has nothing on Essen 2011. I haven’t even started on the mini expansions that will be there; Small World Tunnels, Airlines Europe: Flight Ban, Carcassonne: Die Schule, Mr Jack Pocket: Goodies, Alhambra: Magical Buildings, 7 Wonders: Catan Island… How the hell am I going to get all this stuff home?!

If you’re there and you see me, do stop and say hello. Look for the bald guy with the wild look in his eyes wearing a shirt with – what else – a Little Metal Dog. This one, in fact!

See you in Germany!

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