Essen Spiel Report, Part Two

After discovering that I missed half of the bloody show, I started wandering some more. These lost halls were quite a bit different, in content and atmosphere, from the big boardgame publisher halls. They were the Kentia Hall equivalent for boardgames. Here you’d find all sorts of games by small game makers and two-person companies looking to get noticed. This is where all the comics were stashed, which I ignored. There were also a few jewelry and knick-knack sellers here which I thought weird until I came across the stalls with full-on LARP gear. Holy shit was this stuff weird.

LARP gear

I readily admit to being a geek, but there’s a hierarchy to this. Boardgame players -> German boardgame players > non-German German boardgame players that download translations for untranslated games that they imported -> war gamers -> CCG players -> miniature players -> RPG gamers -> LARPers. The LARPers are at the bottom of the geek totem: I’m allowed to shake my head with an air of snobby superiority when I see them. Here, in these halls, my neck was sore from shaking at all the grown men wearing cloaks, vikings, women in renn-faire dress, and some chubby furry cat thing.

Absinthe and drinking hornsAbsinthe, liqueur, drinking horns and a viking.

These halls were their Mecca, full of stalls selling all sorts of fake swords and armour and shields and pendants and drinking horns and helmets and archery supplies and cloaks. There even was a retailer selling all sorts of bottles of absinthe and other LARP-approved liqueurs. It was all oddly curious, from an anthropological point of view, but this clearly wasn’t the place for me so I headed out to Mayfair Games’ booth where I could do something far less nerdy: play a boardgame with complete strangers.

ArcherLonely archery shop in the corner.

I sat down to play “The Dutch Golden Age” with a pair of Norwegian guys and a Mayfair demonstrator. Mayfair, of course, is one of the large American importers that localizes and publishes German games for domestic audiences. Chances are, if you play these boardgames, you have one of their published titles: they’re the ones that brought over hugely popular “Settlers of Catan” (and my personal favourite “Tigris and Euphrates.”)

“The Dutch Golden Age” mostly reminded me of “Puerto Rico,” but I say that primarily because my vocabulary for boardgames is still relatively nascent and I don’t have too many frames of reference for this. I don’t know how to classify these games by their mechanics and general themes, but if there’s a genre that contains “Puerto Rico” it would contain “The Dutch Golden Age” too. Maybe. The goal of the game is to reach a target amount of victory points, which can be acquired by investing money in colour coded fields like trade (build ships, import spices) or culture (sponsor the arts) or politics. Everything is played on a fixed board representing several Dutch provinces, each reflecting one of the mentioned fields, that you can control by placing people markers on them. Once you control them, and you can’t lose that ownership, you can buy an action — if you have the money for it — that can get you bonuses and/or victory points.

Shot of the boardgame“The Dutch Golden Age”.

Securing a new province (you start with one) requires you to position several people there first. The catch is that to do so you first need to acquire them and then move them into place. This takes money and time away from building out your other resources, the ones that more directly lead to victory points, but can lead to more money in the long term and more available actions. Additionally, there are guilds that you can finance so that you can buy actions without owning the proper coloured provinces. The guilds are essential since they’re, in the short term, cheaper than securing a province but can be a lot more expensive since they are available to the highest bidder. To further open things up, any available actions that you do have, be it on a province or through a guild, but have no use for can be auctioned off to the other players to raise some extra funds.

There were some interesting mechanics at work and they became far more evident as the game progressed, but by then I realized that I made a few mistakes. I had focused on art, but not strongly enough to get any benefit from it, and my backup plan was too dependent on luck to create a proper strategy. I was short on money and power and I would have been out of the game if not for a handful of fortuitous card draws. That’s what I didn’t like about the game the most: there was a fairly prominent random element. It wasn’t overpowering, strategy was still needed, but it was strong enough to be a potential hindrance to good decisions or a reward despite bad choices. That’s the thing I love the most about “Puerto Rico”: there’s no luck of the draw and it’s a tighter, more focused experience.

Still, if you’re looking for something new “The Dutch Golden Age” isn’t a bad choice. It seems a little excessive at times, but I can see how it can become varied and interesting and the bidding and auctioning mechanics do make it somewhat more social than “Puerto Rico.”

Once we had a sense for the game, we all agreed to call it a match. The two Norwegians headed off one way and I stepped over to the next table to observe, from behind people’s shoulders, another game being played.

watching a game“Sutter’s Mill”
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