A.V. Club Most Read

News Newswire Great Job, Internet!
TV Club All Reviews What's On Tonight
Video All Video A.V. Undercover A.V. Cocktail Club Film Club
Reviews All Reviews Film TV Music Books
Features All Features To-Do List Newswire
Sections Film Tv Music Food Comedy Books Games Aux
Our Company About Us Contact Advertise Privacy Policy Careers RSS
Onion Inc. Sites The Onion The A.V. Club ClickHole Onion Studios

Gameological at Essen: Highlights from the world’s biggest board game fair

We found romance, fantasy pharmaceuticals, and more at SPIEL

This year's SPIEL gaming festival attracted a record 162,000 attendees. Photo: Merz-Verlag.
This year's SPIEL gaming festival attracted a record 162,000 attendees. Photo: Merz-Verlag.

Last month, I once again had the pleasure of attending the Internationale Spieltage in Essen, Germany for four days of activities at the world’s biggest board gaming festival. This year, the fair expanded to encompass a new hall, providing some much-needed breathing room for the more than 150,000 attendees and affordable spaces for designers hoping to show their wares. The excitement included a world record 1,040 players participating in one giant game of Settlers Of Catan. Between dice rolls and card draws, I donned my press badge to bring you a look at a few of the most interesting and promising games I played at the show, and I’ll be down in the comments (as CNightwing) to answer more of your questions.

Codenames

The gist: The ultra-competitive party game

How it’s played: Vlaada Chvátil has run the gamut of game styles in his career as a designer, from one of my personal favorites, Through The Ages, to the innovative Space Alert and the abstract Tash-Kalar. This year, he’s turned his hand to something more party-ready and features hints of linguistic and creative games.

To play Codenames, you need two teams, each with a leader known as a spymaster. It works best with six or eight players so that each team can engage in heated discussion. Twenty-five cards are laid out in a square grid, each with a word, place, or person written on them. The aim is to find the eight or, if you started, nine cards that belong to your team before your opponents find theirs. The spymasters have a map of the game that shows them, not only which cards belong to which team, or neither, but also which single word is the assassin—a card that, if chosen, causes that team to instantly lose the game.

Taking turns, spymasters give a clue to their team in the form of one word and one number. The word should be a hint linking together the cards they want their team to pick up, and the number indicates how many cards they think relate to the word. It’s hard to come up with relationships between random words at the best of times, but in a field of potential red herrings that you’re trying to steer your team away from, it’s even harder. Once the team members have come to some agreement, they pick a word, and the spymaster reveals whether it was correct or not. If they chose the assassin, the opposing team wins instantly, so giving a clue that might lead anywhere near that card is very dangerous. If they chose a card belonging to neither team, it is marked as neutral and the turn is over. If they chose a card belonging to the opposing team, the turn is also over, but the opponents are now one card closer to winning. Finally, if they actually chose correctly, they can keep guessing until they meet the number indicated by the spymaster, at which point they are allowed one more attempt to either push their luck or use information gathered from previous turns. This provides a way for the team falling behind to catch up.

For example, I offered my team the clue “Double 2.” I thought this was a very clever way to get them to pick “New York” and “Deutschland,” two proper nouns that are commonly said twice in a row. Of course, they didn’t get it at all, especially because German speakers don’t use the World War II version of their national anthem any more. They kept trying things that came in pairs, like “shoe” and “bread roll.” The game was genuinely good fun though, and would be perfect for a competitive group of friends or family members. One word of warning: Make sure to pick gung-ho spymasters, else they’ll draw the game out by thinking too hard. It’s also available in German, although in a language where you can make absurdly long compound nouns, I suspect the strategy might be slightly different.

Availability: Available from multiple publishers. Czech Games Edition sells the English edition.

Mega Civilization

The gist: The game for serious collectors

How it’s played: Not many people know that civilization began in 1980 when Avalon Hill released the acclaimed board game Civilization. This was the inspiration for Sid Meier’s video games of the same name, which returned to the cardboard womb on more than one occasion. But a dedicated group of fans never gave up on the original game and created the short-lived CivX Project, which tried to rebalance some rules and further expand the amount of geography and history the original Civilization was able to cover. Despite the odds against it and without resorting to the seemingly endless resources of Kickstarter, these efforts have now birthed Mega Civilization.

The game plays essentially the same way as the original: You control a civilization and your population grows each turn, allowing you to construct cities and collect “trade cards.” You then swap cards with other players to acquire sets of goods, and these can be exchanged for advancements that enhance your civilization’s powers. However, you have to be wary of devastating calamities hidden in the trade cards and often given to you by malicious players who can also confront you in direct conflict. You work your way through the Bronze and Iron Ages, and eventually, the most advanced and prosperous civilization is crowned the winner.

What makes this version special isn’t the additional technologies, or the more conflict-driven map that now stretches all the way to India, or the modified rules that aim to prevent the game from taking an entire weekend to finish. It’s the fact that, despite rights issues, a dedicated team has brought Civilization back from the dead. This is not a game for the faint hearted, requiring anywhere between five and 18 players plus a good number of hours to work through. And that’s not to mention the hefty 200-euro price tag. In fact, it was the cost that eventually stopped me from buying it, because despite coming with an elegant wooden box to hold everything, the quality of the pieces did not match my expectations for something that is effectively a collector’s edition. At the end of the day, a game is meant to be played, and without a group of friends as dedicated as those who resurrected it, Mega Civilization is only really for the serious collector.

Availability: Currently available from Pegasus Spiele.

Fog Of Love

The gist: The romantic game for two

How it’s played: One of the most difficult challenges in game design is to create a game specifically for two players. The most successful examples focus on conflict, a frequent feature of romantic relationships but not their ultimate aim. Fog Of Love attempts to capture this dichotomy by allowing players to act out a love affair from start to finish, where a happy ending doesn’t necessarily result in staying together forever.

Although Fog Of Love is card-driven, it feels more like a role-playing game. Each player has a character whose personality is defined by six tracks on the board—whether they are logical or spiritual, organized or chaotic, and so on. You pick personal and relationship goals for your character by selecting three personality traits from your hand that will be hidden from the other player. If you are a perfectionist, for instance, you want you and your partner to achieve a high score on the Disciplined track, whereas if you are greedy, you want to end up very low on your Sincerity track. Your starting position on these tracks is determined by your chosen occupation and three noticeable features picked by the other player from a different hand of cards. These are the characteristics that first attracted them to you, ranging from “cute” to “hairy.” After initial setup, you might already have an idea of whether your partner is going to suit your goals or if the relationship is doomed.

The meat of the game is in resolving the events of the relationship, which come in three flavors. A “Sweet” card might probe for personal information and help you figure out what kind of person the other player desires, such as asking what gift they would like for their birthday. “Serious” cards can introduce complications and have a much larger effect on your character’s happiness, such as meeting your partner’s family. Finally, “Drama” cards bring in storylines that wouldn’t feel out of place on a soap opera, including but not limited to death, depression, and pregnancy. Resolving an event is simple: One or both players will pick an answer to a multiple choice question, and the choice or combination of choices can push your personality, affect your happiness, or even go so far as to change one of your hidden traits.

We didn’t reach the end during my brief time with the game, but it was explained that in order to win, you would have to be happy enough, aided by achieving your personal and relationship goals, and then pick an ending that matches with that of the other player. That ending might be true love or it might be breaking up, but if both parties end up happy, then the game is won. I enjoyed the snippet I played, especially as a role-playing exercise. The game’s creators were also running a blind-date event, in which players presumably made themselves into playable characters to see how things might turn out in the long run.

Availability: The designers plan to launch their Kickstarter on Valentine’s Day 2016. More information is available on their website.

Pandemic Legacy

The gist: The serialized game of contagion containment

How it’s played: Matt Leacock’s Pandemic has managed to bridge the treacherous divide between casual board game players and more avid fans, winning dozens of accolades in the process. The cooperative game sets players against four deadly diseases that have suddenly begun infecting the planet. The game itself is straightforward: On a player’s turn they have to decide how to best spend their actions—whether that be moving to a different city, treating infected citizens, or trying to cure the diseases—before revealing where an infection will spread to next. This constant back-and-forth is made easier with special cards and abilities, but then more difficult as epidemics force you to reshuffle the infection deck and see the disease grow in certain locations. Should it build up too strong in one place, an outbreak occurs and infects neighboring areas, and that’s when you start to feel victory slipping away.

There have been expansions aplenty, but Legacy brings something new to the table that might be best described as serialization. This style of game is fairly new, to me at least, but I have seen it previously in Risk: Legacy. Simply described, the outcome of one playthrough has an impact on the way you play subsequent games. For instance, if you’re playing and there is ever an outbreak in a city where one of your research labs is located, that facility is destroyed and only the surviving research labs can be used the next time you play the game.

Pandemic: Legacy is pitching itself as a story, a role-playing game in some ways, in which the base game provides a framework for determining what the long-term consequences of your actions will be. It’s trying to follow the kind of serialization established. The creators have gone so far as to subtitle the game Season 1. The demonstrators were wary to reveal too much about what might happen over the game’s 12-month timeline, but they did say individual characters could gain skills and even develop relationships between one another. Some of the secret components, only to be opened when told, suggested significant changes to the rules. For anyone who has already played Pandemic and grown weary of deploying the same winning strategies, this will undoubtedly provide a fresh coat of paint to an already great game. To the newcomer, the Legacy system will offer a novel experience, although it’s probably best to play an unmodified practice game first to see if you’ll enjoy it.

Despite a few drawbacks—it likely plays best with a dedicated group of regulars and most of the Legacy components are stickers, designed to be used only once—I think this will be a big hit. A Season 2 is allegedly already in the works, and I suspect we’ll be seeing more serialized, one-off game experiences in the future.

Availability: Available in red or blue (no, really) from multiple publishers. Z-Man Games has the English edition.

Bad Medicine

The gist: The party game for cynics

How it’s played: I work in a city that’s home to two of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world, so it’s easy to become excessively cynical about the way they operate. Fortunately, there was someone out there with even more contempt for the industry, and they channeled that into the hilarious Bad Medicine.

You play as big pharma, formulating cures to a particular malady, pitching your new drugs to the group, and then voting for the winner. The cleverness lies in the card design. Each card is multi-purpose, with a short word at the top, a loosely defined effect in the middle, and a side effect at the bottom. A drug is formulated by combining three words to form a name, two effects that represent its benefits, and one dreadful side effect. For example, TenaCiDry is a new wonder drug designed to help sufferers of lactating toenails by encouraging fur growth in the affected areas and enhancing their ability to cook. The only drawback is ice formation in the brain, but tests have shown this to be effective in pain relief, so it’s not all bad! The game can also be played with more than four players, at which point teams are used, with one player formulating the drug and the other pitching it without seeing it in advance, which is as challenging as it sounds.

Bad Medicine is terrifically funny and cleverly written. There are tons of cards to create daft-but-plausible names, and the benefits are ripe for unusual interpretation. Side effects are quite specific but plenty silly by themselves, especially in the right combinations. We managed to solve the obesity crisis by making our patients unable to swallow, although it led to their teeth falling out and being replaced with tiny tongues. It’s easy to imagine Bad Medicine even being used in management seminars, since you have to combine creativity with corporate levels of bullshit to get away with selling drugs to the public that literally cause demons to burst forth from their heads.

Availability: Self-published and distributed by designer Gil Hova.

504

The gist: The combinatorial game of games

How it’s played: When you’ve played enough European-style games, you start to notice recurring rules and ideas. It must be difficult for game designers to not fall back on these tried and tested directions when developing something new, and it’s often hard to predict whether slight twists on these old formulas will come off as innovative or just gimmicky. 504 takes many of these common board game concepts and provides a framework from which, as the title suggests, 504 different games can be constructed. It’s no surprise then that, when announced, it launched a fierce debate as to whether this was a game or a toolkit or just a gimmick, and whether or not any of the games would be good. The designer, Friedemann Friese, anticipated many of these objections and made it quite clear that if you wanted to, you could pick a set of rules that included all of the things you disliked and subsequently not enjoy the game. Equally, he argued, if you picked rules that you enjoyed, the game would let you combine them in a new and interesting way that you would enjoy.

To construct a game, you pick three modules from a list of nine, including concepts such as “exploration” and “military.” The order in which you choose them is important, too: The first module determines the objectives or scoring of the game, the second tells you how the economy works, and the third contributes flavor or additional options to the existing rules. For instance, you might have a war game in which building roads drives your economy, and bonuses are awarded for exploration of the board, or a game about producing goods and delivering them for points, modified by special abilities to be fought over by players. 504 contains a veritable hoard of tiles, tokens, and cards with which to realize each rule-set and that in itself is a boon to the wannabe game designer.

While I didn’t get to play around with it, describing any particular set of rules would be disingenuous, anyway. The game’s strength is in its variety and ability to satiate those with a love for the process of learning and experimenting. Some games will probably be awful, but maybe some will be true gems. I can’t wait to see the first blog dedicated to trying every combination.

Availability: Available from multiple publishers. Stronghold Games will soon have the English edition.