The SPIEL Games Convention at Essen / Germany


The SPIEL 04

21st to 24th October 2004

If you want to have a peek at my coverage of previous conventions, follow these links:

Friday, 22nd of October

Okay, lights on, camera running, micro is open...

Folks, here is Essen / Germany !

Wow, once again a year has gone by and the SPIEL 04 has opened its gates. I am glad to see and hear that some of you once again have found your way to my G@mebox and the coverage from the SPIEL, and I am hopeful that I will be able to entertain you with a few images and news from Essen...

However, as announced earlier, a heavy workload this year has prevented me from coming to Essen as early as in previous years, and a big traffic jam at our Autobahn 3 today delayed my arrival at the convention until 3 PM. Thus, reports will be shorter this year and I won't be able to bring in depth game reports as in other years. However, from my guestbook entries in previous years I have learned that many of you enjoy some news from smaller publishers, and thus my focus this year will be on trying to present some news especially from such small companies.

But before we go deeper, it is time for our anual


As some of you will have heard, a special 4 tile expansion for Carcassonne was exclusively released in the german games magazine "Spielbox". I was able to get hold of two of these highly wanted magazines, and I am happy to offer them here as a prize for our anual prize draw.

The expansion is called "Die Katharer" and it is focused on a religious movement which was banned by the pope in the middle ages. In gaming terms some of the cities will be populated by these people, and troops from the pope will lay siege on these cities, resulting in the cities offering less than usual victory points.

If you should be interested in getting one of these two rare expansions, just leave an entry in my guestbook until the 26th of October. The winners will be drawn from all entries after the conventions.

View and sign the Essen Guestbook !

Press Conference

An important source for news from the gaming scene is the anual press conference which is organised by the Friedhelm Merz Verlag to offer journalists a good start into the convention.

I had already suspected that the Spiel once again had grown, but here my supicions were confirmed since a representative from the Merz Verlag told that the exhibition area had grown by another 5000 square meters in comparison to 2003, now reaching a total exhibition size of 42.820 square meters. With a total of 686 exhibitors from 24 nations the participation had reached a new peak with over one third of the exhibitors coming from foreign countries, and thus the Spiel once again is able to keep its reputation as being the worldwide biggest and most important games convention.

Furthermore, the Spiel also is the time for the awards ceremony of the Deutscher Spiele Preis, and this year the award went to Sankt Petersburg by Michael Tummelhofer - the same game which had already been awarded the International Gamers Awards earlier this year. The winner of the Deutscher Kinderspiele Preis was Dicke Luft in der Gruft by Norbert Proena, and the Essener Feder for the best rules went to Fifth Avenue by Wilko Manz. In detail, the ranking for this year's Deutscher Spiele Preis was as follows:

  • 1. Sankt Petersburg
  • 2. San Juan
  • 3. Goa
  • 4. Attika
  • 5. Einfach Genial
  • 6. Zug um Zug
  • 7. Raja
  • 8. Finstere Flure
  • 9. Hansa
  • 10. Die Brücken von Shangrila.

But now the time has come for some real news and stories from Essen, and here I would like to start with a highlight which I luckily did not miss...

International Gamers Awards Ceremony

Today at 5 PM many members of the IGA awards committee did meet up at the HANS IM GLÜCK booth for the awards ceremony of the 2004 winners. Once again Greg Schlosser had succeeded in getting all relevant authors and publishers together for the ceremony, and it is very nice to see that the audience watching the whole scene grows larger each year.

For those of you who didn't have a chance to attend one of these ceremonies yet: be warned! As in previous years, Greg did unload a german speech onto the helpless audience. However, once a sudden urge to take escape has been successfully suppressed, I had to discover that as always Greg was well prepared and that he did make a rather good job.

The first lucky winner was Bern Brunnhofer (aka Michael Tummelhofer), and he received the plaque for Sankt Petersburg which was awarded as being the best multiplayer boardgame in 2004.

Next to go was Richard Borg, who once again succeeded in getting the awards for the best 2-player-game. Having won a few years earlier already with Battle Cry, he did it again this year with his WW2 strategy game Memoir '44.

However, with Richard being quite shy of publicity, he virtually had to be pushed onto the stage and there he quickly joined the group of co-designers and staff from DAYS OF WONDER with whom he gladly shared the fame of the awards.

With the awards ceremony finished, I started my first few hours on the convention with a few visits to some of the publishers which I need to do each year. First off, I went to DAYS OF WONDER and had a chat with their press representative about the future of Zug um Zug / Ticket to Ride.

Since Zug um Zug had been awarded the "Spiel des Jahres 2004" awards, the publisher had decided to do a small extra for the convention and they produced a mini expansion for the game which is called Mystery Train. In this expansion special characters which offer additional victory points are mixed into the game and thus can influence the outcome of play. The german version of this expansion was produced in a nummer of 30.000 pieces, but these will be exclusively distributed at the convention and they will not be for sale elsewhere.

However, there also have been some better news from american gamers, since the english version of this expansion will be released in the USA in November, and here the expansion sooner or later will be available in stores.

Another news about Zug um Zug is that a new version of the game featuring a map of Europe will be launched in the middle of 2005. This will not be an expansion but a new basic game instead, offering a few new rules for ferries and tunnels. The game will be availble in Europe and the USA alike, but the publisher could not give me any details as to whether the maps of that new game will also be sold separately.

Finally, there also was some good news for fans of Memoir '44. The game was not released in Germany due to the fact that the major audience of players in Germany dislikes WWII wargames, but DAYS OF WONDER now is planning a changed version of the game which will be available for the german market.

Now taking a stroll over the convention and meeting with some other people, I heard a story which was sad and shocking alike. An australian games company had been held up by the german customs a day ago. Customs had opened one of their boxes with games, and since this box contained wargames they discovered a Swastika on the cover of the box.

Unkown to the australian publisher, the display of this symbol is forbidden in Germany, and thus customs confiscated the whole load of games, including the full product run of all games and not just the wargames with the symbol. Usually these confiscated goods are going to be burned, but as far as I have heard some legal professionals have been hired and I just hope that the situation whould work out well...

Moving on, I next visited HASBRO to find out whether any new boardgames were scheduled for release there. I could not get much news here, but what I was able to find out is that a new Expansion for their quite popular Dungeons & Dragons boardgame is planned. The first expansion was received rather well, and thus a second expansion is going to follow in the middle of next year.

An item which I simply had to check out today was Die Dunklen Lande, the new expansion-set for Ohne Furcht und Adel. Four years after the succeessful release of the main game, Bruno Faidutti now has released an expansion set with a total of 25 new cards for the game. In essence, the game contains a total of 10 new character cards which can be used to replace cards from the old main game (free combinations are possible), and also 15 new building cards of buildings with special actions. These new cards offer a lot of interesting new rule variations, and they will certainly bring fresh fun into the game.

Finally, to keep my promise to start with reporting about some released of minor publishers, I went to the booth of Flying Buffalo which their shared with the new publisher Gorilla Games. They presented their new space-combat game Battlestations in Essen, and I was surprised to find a rather unusual and interesting variation of this topic.

In this game, the ships of the players move on space maps which are seperated into hexagonal spaces. Here they try to get into position to shoot at each other and defeat their opponents, but the most interesting part is that the game simultaneously takes part on a smaller level. Each player has his ship in front of him, consisting of a number of modules which serve the different functions of the ship. The crews of Marines, Scientists, Navigators etc. are hrrying around on the ship trying to man the different positions which are needed for maneuvering and firing, and this will get more and more difficult the more a ship gets damaged. The scientists actually may be sent in order to try to repair some of the damage, but this only will take if the other player(s) do(es) not take such an opportunity to initiate boarding actions in which case it will come to hand-to-hand combat between the crews.

The game goes rather smoothly and offers an intersting set of rules. I rather like the fact that players have to keep one eye on their ship and one eye on the space-map, and the handling of these two places of action has been designed rather effectively.

But now for something special...

Der Graf von Carcassonne

Once again HANS IM GLÜCK also distributes a small expansion set for Carcassonne, and as before I couldn't resist to show this new expansion here for you to see.

The new city of Carcassonne will replace the staring tile at the beginning of the game and the game will start with the city instead. Tiles will be places as normal, but in the city some special events may take place which my have an influence on the game.

Te city is divided into four quarters (Castle, Cathedral, Market and Blacksmith). A figure representing the Count of Carcassonne will be placed at the Castle at the beginning of the game. The game then starts as normal, but whenever a player causes an evaluation to take place in which he will not receive any victory points he may, at the end of his turn, place one of his figures into one of the quarters of the city. Whenever later in the game an area is completed, the players are allowed to take figures from the city and move them to this area BEFORE it has been evaluated:

  • Figures from the Castle can be placed into a city;
  • figures from the Blacksmith may go onto a street;
  • figures from the Cathedral can be re-allocated to a monastry;
  • and figures from the Market and go onto farmlands.

However, whenever a player places a new figure into the city, he MAY also move the Counto into a different quarter of the city. No figures may be removed from that quarter before the Count has left.

Well, that's my report for today. I hope you have enjoyed what you have seen and that you are not disappointed because I had to shorten my work. Tomorrow hopefully will come more, but now I simply need to catch some sleep!!!

See you tomorrow!!!

Saturday, 23rd of October

Well, here we are again...

A game which was on top of my playtesting list was Boomtown by FACE 2 FACE Games. The game has chosen the American Goldrush for its topic, and in the game the players will try to become most respected citizen in the five different boomtowns.

To reach their aim, the players have the chance to acquire Goldmines, and these will be auctioned off at the beginning of each round. The player who has bid most Gold in this auction will be allowed to chose first from the Mines available each round, and then the other players in turn have their pick to take one of the remaining cards. However, the auction price is not given to the bank, but instead all the other players will receive a share of it so that at least a certain amount of Gold is always in play. Once the cards have been auctioned, all that remains to be done for this round is the rolling of two dice which will determine which mines will yield Gold this round, allowing their owners to add a bit of Gold to their stockpiles.

The basic playing mechanism is as easy as described above, but the ral fun of playing Boomtown is when you get to its details. On the one hand, players who have acquired several mines in a town will become the town's mayor, and as a consequence of this all other players who want to purchase a mine in that specific town will need to pay special royalties to the mayor. However, the post of mayor will not stay with a player forever. If another player succeeds in acquiring more mines in that town, he will become the new mayor - at least as long as he is leading in mines.

Furthermore, not all cards which are auctioned off at the beginning of the game are mines. There also exists a variety of special action cards which allow the players a broader choice of actions. There is the possibility to open a Saloon to lure miners to spend their money, there are possibilities to rob other players, there exists Dynamite which can be used to blow up another's player's mine and many other options.

The game is really funny to play and it has a very nice, comic artwork. I liked it a lot and I can recommend it to people who like short, fast-paced games. The only unsatisfactory point is the the price of 20 Euro was a bit too high for my taste, since in essence the game is just a cardgame.

A game which made me curious just by its outer looks was Käse-Mäuse-Chaos (Cheese-Mice-Chaos) by a company called CARDCHESS. It is a game about mice families which live in a kitchen, and it is the aim of the players to be the first to get their three mice-kids home to their mothers.

All the mice kids have starting positions around the table with cheese, but at the beginning of the game all players will not know which mouse belongs to which player, since all the mice have their family colour on their downside. Thus, the players move the mice around the board, and their movement allowance is determined by lifting the different cheese-covers which have numbers printed inside. When moving a mouse, a player might also be allowed to check for the colour of a mouse, and thus the players will learn more and more where the different mice are hidden.

However, the game could not truely be called "Chaos" if there would not be any chaotic elements. The difficulties will arise due to the fact that virtually all elements of the game can be used for playing reasons. There are cats which may be moved to capture mice, there are chairs which can be turned over to block the way, the cheese-covers can be used to hide mice and immunize them against a cat, the mouseholes on the sides of the board can be used to move mice to different parts of the gameboard etc.

Although you never will be able to do everything at the same time, the game offers high playing fun since a player has many options just to hassle other players. If players concentrate on harrassing each other, the game can take quite a while since it may get quite difficult to get the mice to their final positions. What I really liked about the game was the fact the it features a lot of nicely designed playing materials which form a perfect, three-dimensional playing area, and each and every object featured there also has its place in the game.

A kind of games which I did not play too often so far are motrsport-games. I decided that this needed to chance when I saw MotorChamp by AZA-Spiele. The game did catch my eye with its cutely designed plastic cars and its good-loking gameboard, and thus I did enter a round to see whether its good looks would also be reflected by its rules.

The game can be played with up to 8 players, and each player has a team of 2 racing cars in the race. The movement on the track is driven by dice, and the number of dice (one to three) which a player may roll in his turn is reflected by the colour of the track in which the car starts it turn. In essence, a car may move faster when it starts on a straight piece of track, whereas it may only move in a lower gear (with less dice) if it starts in a bend.

Furthermore, the track features speed limits which are printed next to a few of these spaces. If a player starts on such a space and if his dice-roll outnumbers the speed-limit by more than one, the car will crash and is removed from the game. If the roll only has outnumbered the limit by one, then the car will just have left the track and it will need to let two cars pass before it may enter the track again. Similarly is dealt with the situation if a car runs into an other. Here a car which goes to fast will also either be removed from play or it will have to leave the track for a few turns.

The game offers a few additional rules for box stops and for solving movement problems, but in essence it is a fast-paced racing game in which the players have to rely on a high element of luck. It was interesting to play, but for myself I much more prefer the old Spiel des Jahres Um Reifenbreite. This is a game about bicycle-races, but it offers a set of rules which is about the same complexity but at the same time has more variants and additional options.

For my final test today I went for another game which just roused my interest by its interesting looking artwork. Four Dragons by JOLLY ROGER GAMES has taken an ancient chinese fairytale for its background story, and the cards have been chosen as to represent different elements from this story.

The game is played with two teams of two players each, and each team tries to gather pairs of "Fields" and "Rain" cards to scrore points during three rounds of play. These "Fields" and "Rain" cards are part of a larger deck of cards which have playing values between "0" and "10", and in each turn each player will play one card from his hand and the turn will go to the team which had the highest ranking card in this turn. However, there are certain restrictions on which cards a player may add to a turn, since there are four different coours of cards available in the game, and of most of these colours only a single card may be added to the whole turn.

As a round progresses, more and more cards will be used by the players and its becomes more and more an element of calculation and speculation how the remaining cards may be distributed amongst the players. However, watching out for the highest numbers in the turn is not the only important element, since a few of the cards have special functions which may cause the cancellation of certain values, the exchange of cards or otherchanges to the normal run of a turn.

I rather enjoyed the unusal element of team-play which demanded well planning and a certain degree of understanding between the two players in a team. Furthermore, the special cards serve to make gameplay even more interesting, since a special card played with correct timing may be more powerful than the highest ranking card. The game remained rather balanced since it is played in three full turns, and I experienced a tight contest which was finally decided by the final card in the last turn of the last round.

The game offers very good rules coupled with beautiful artwork, and for a price of 13 Euros it was a game I simply had to take home with me...

With the playtesting done, I dropped by the large GAMES WORKSHOP booth before I left the convention today, and here a press representative led me to a display case which did show some of the news for Warhammer Fantasy. The most striking news here was that finally the GW staff had decided to add a new race to the Warhammer Fantasy Universe, and thus GW will release the powerful Ogre Hordes in Spring next year.

Sunday, 24th of October

Incredible ! It's already Sunday !

Due to a change of plans, I had to shorten my stay a bit so that I was not able to get deep into playtesting on this last day. However, another game which needed to be covered was Louis XIV, the prototype of the new ALEA cardgame which will be released in Spring 2005.

This game once again is a game which is released in the smaller ALEA box, the size which was already used for games like San Juan or Puerto Rico. However, as seasoned ALEA-players will know, the size of the box says absolutely nothing about the playing depth offered by the game inside, and with Louis XIV I discovered this law to hold true.

As might be guessed from the title, the game is set before the background of the French monarch Louis XIV and his Court. The playing area is made up by a total of 12 character cards which all represent characters from Louis' Court. Each of these characters has special abilities, and during his turn each player will be ask to bid for using these abilities to his own benefit.

During the game, the players receive cards with secret agendas, and these the players must fulfil to get victory points at the end of the game. To do so, each player needs to collect symbols of royalty which may be received by controlling different of the 12 characters during the turn.

The successful controlling of a character in most cases requires a player to put more influence tokens on the character than all the other players, but sometimes it is also sufficient to have just one influence token on the character to receive the benefit. These influence tokens are placed on the characters by playing character cards which the players receive at the start of each turn, and thus the hand of cards a player receives strongly influences his strategy for the turn, since he has to plan in advance an guess which characters the other players might be interested in.

The game offers many neat twists in its rules which cannot be presented in this short outline. It is rather entertaining when played with four players, and I am eager to see the finished product when it is released next spring.

Something I was glad to see was that a few of the minor companies which I had mentioned in my coverage of the Spiel 03 had managed to come back this year with larger booths and renewed efforts. Last year an australian company had introduced The Kokaburra Game, and it was great to see that their efforts to come to Essen had paid off and that they were able to get assistance by CARDCHESS to produce a german version of the game.

Similarly, I had introduced you to the game Railroad Dice last year, a neat little game about using specially designed dice for railbuilding. The author had come back for this year's show, and now he presented the game in a neatly designed box, and as a special bonus he did offer a new map of Germany to be used with the game.

I also went to the GOLDSIEBER booth and had a chat with their press-representative. Seeing their new game Piranha Pedro and remembering their last game Iglu Iglu, I asked how it game that the size of the gameboxes of these two games did not keep the standard size of Goldsieber boxes. I was riddling on this question for quite some time, since a size change is not very usual in the games market because many collectors especially like to have collections of "one-size" boxes. Here I was given the answer that the size-change was due to GOLDSIEBER'S strong ties to NORIS SPIELE. GOLDSIEBER had decided to go for the uniform NORIS sized boxes, and thus all further GOLDSIEBER games are going to keep the new box sizes.

Motivated by my great interest in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, I did spend my final visit to PHALANX GAMES, since they did present their new War of the Ring strategy game which was based on the Tolkien's epic story. Already the outer appearance of the new game was quite a surprise to me, since it cames with over 200 neatly designed army and character miniatures. However, the quality of the design is also kept by all other artwork, since the famous Tolkien artist John Howe could be won to design many of the illustrations.

The game itself keeps what its title promises - it is a full capture of the whole War of the Ring. The players move armies and character pieces, and the forces of good need to hold out and hope that the Fellowship of the Ring might succeed in getting the One Ring destroyed. There is a lot of playing options, and if compared with SPI's old classic cosim War of the Ring the game seems to be better since it offers an easier access to its playing mechanisms and thus a higher degree of playability.

Some final words...

My stay at the Spiel this year was definately to short, but sometimes work cannot be arranged in a way to fit in with everything else. What I rather enjoyed was the fact that I concentrated on presenting news from smaller publishers, since this allowed me to playtest quite a few games within the few hours I could spend.

Also I have been into boardgames for a lot of years, it was interesting to see and feel that the community of small publishers and their neat little games at Essen offers a growing point of interest which should not be underestimated. Many collectors leave the convention with loads of these "smaller" games, and I guess that already these booths make a trip to Essen worthwhile.

Finally, let me invite you to visit my G@mebox again next year for my Essen-coverage. I am rather hopeful that I will be back for the full duration of the convention, and this in turn would mean that my reports would come again on a more regular basis.

Thanks for your visit !

Frank Schulte-Kulkmann (signing off for this year)

Prize Draw Winners will be notified in a few days !!!

Opening times

From thursday to saturday the convention is opened from 10 AM until 7 PM, on sunday from 10 AM to 6 PM.

Travelling to the Messe Essen

If you arrive at Düsseldorf International Airport, it takes about 20 minutes to get to the Messe Essen by Cab. If you hire a car at Düsseldorf Airport, you go onto Autobahn A44 (blue signs), and at the next motorway crossing you go over to A52, direction Essen. Take Exit "Essen Rüttenscheid".

You can also go by train to Essen Central Station. If arriving there, go to the basement and take the Subway U11 directly to the Messe Essen.

If you want to arrange lodging at Essen, you best contact the Essen-tourism-center by phone 0049/(0)201/19433 or 0049/(0)201/88720-46 or -48. Perhaps they know where some Hotel-rooms are left...

Looking for the new games? Visit Funagain Games!

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Copyright © 2004 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Trier, Germany