Every October, the German city of Essen becomes the epicenter of tabletop gaming geekdom. Tens of thousands of visitors flock to the International Spieltage fair, where publishers from around the world debut their upcoming releases over four frenetic days of rolling dice, shuffling cards and pushing cubes.
For gamers, it’s a captivating, mind-boggling, almost intimidating spectacle. Where game events in other countries, such as Gen Con in the US or the UK Games Expo, feature celebrity guests, panel discussions and side attractions, Essen is completely focused on the games – everything from light and fluffy family favorites to impenetrable brain melters.
Since this is the pinnacle of the global gaming calendar, I headed for a barrage of board games and bratwurst. These are the best new games I’ve seen.
Pandemic Legacy: Season 2
Matt Leacock & Rob Daviau, Z-Man Games, 2-4 players, 60 minutes, age 14+
in 2015, Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 took the core of the best-selling cooperative game Pandemic and added a story-driven campaign mode, creating a game world that changed permanently in response to players’ choices. Cities fell into anarchy, characters suffered trauma and secret components, and rule changes were revealed at key points in the unfolding story.
Now the creators of the game are back with Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, with some big changes to discover. Where Season 1 Taking place in a contemporary setting, the new release is set in a post-apocalyptic future where sea-based colonies of survivors battle to preserve the remnants of human civilization. The board starts out mostly empty, and players add new areas to the map as they explore. And where Season 1Because the characters are carefully designed to perform specific in-game tasks, the new game offers players the chance to build their heroes from scratch, starting with an empty RPG-style character sheet and customizing their skills.
I liked it Season 1 huge, but in retrospect I can see that the storyline, while twisty and engaging, often felt like it was running on rails. I’ll have to play quite a few games from the new release to see just how different the approach is, but on first inspection, there’s enough here to get me really excited.
Disclosure: Game co-designer Matt Leacock once paid to use some of my photography.
A handful of stars
Martin Wallace, Treefrog Games, 2-4 players, 90-120 minutes, age 13+
The third in a series of card building board games by Martin Wallace, A handful of stars casts players as leaders of civilizations fighting for control of a war-torn galaxy. As you play, you explore new worlds, develop powerful technologies and fight to conquer territory from your rivals. You start the game with a handful of cards that allow you to move your ships or populate planets. But they also serve to increase your firepower in battle, making for some tricky decisions about which to play and which to hold in your hand for use in combat. You add new cards to your deck as you colonize worlds and research technologies, becoming more powerful as the game progresses.
The most striking thing about my short demo was how much variety the game has in its setup. You randomly distribute planets around the board and place impassable black holes at various points in the cosmos, limiting movement and causing players to start colliding from the word “go”. There are also several factions to lead, from hyper-aggressive warriors to peace-loving diplomats and technologically advanced cyborgs.
It all adds up to a hostile and unpredictable universe – and one that I could happily spend hours exploring.
Stefan Feld and Michael Rieneck, Queen Games, 2-4 players, 75 minutes, age 14+
Designer Stefan Feld is known for his point salad approach to game creation, where players earn points for just about every action imaginable; the challenge lies in finding the most efficient way to maximize your score. Merlin, the latest release from Feld, continues the trend. As King Arthur approaches the end of his reign, players take on the role of knights vying to succeed him. To win, you must defeat traitors in the kingdom, increase your political influence, and build buildings across the empire.
The game revolves around a circular track in the center of the board, where each player places a wooden knight. Each round you have to roll dice, which you can use to move your token, performing different actions depending on the space you land on. This means that the order in which you use your dice becomes paramount, although you can also move a white figure representing Merlin once per round. While your knight is limited to clockwise movement, Merlin can move in either direction, giving you a bit of flexibility.
The game’s Arthurian theme may be buried under the abstract mechanical core, but if you’re a fan of Feld’s signature design style, this is a thoughtful and engaging brain teaser.
Mac Gerdts, PD-Verlag, 2-4 players, 60-120 minutes, age 12+
I hadn’t heard anything about it transatlantic before we went to Essen but the buzz in the hallways and long lines of people waiting for a demo suggested it was worth checking out. An economic game of rival shipping companies, transatlantic sees players compete to build prestigious and profitable fleets in the era of mighty steamships.
The action takes place across multiple regions, with players buying ship cards and deploying them in different oceans. The result is a series of simultaneous arms races, with players adding newer, bigger, faster and more expensive ships throughout the game, and older ships disappearing from the board as they become obsolete.
You also have to secure coal, build trading stations in different regions and compete to make the fastest Atlantic crossing. It’s a lot to keep track of, but while the game is quite complex, it’s cleverly masked by a brilliantly simple turn-based structure where players pick a single action card from their hands and do as it says: buy ships, acquire coal, build trading posts, send ships on a journey. Once you’ve played cards, they’re out of your hand until you spend a turn picking them up again, meaning it’s critical to time your actions for maximum effect.
transatlantic is a fantastic combination of strategic planning and short-term opportunism. My hour-long game seemed to fly by and kept me fully engaged from start to finish. This was my favorite game from Spiel 2017.