Due to the pandemic, this year’s Essen Game Fair had been converted to a digital format (SPIEL.digital) in which the game previews were streamed online and digital simulations of upcoming releases where available through services like Tabletopia. Though the pandemic certainly put a damper on the in-person opportunities for the folks in Essen, the push for digital alternatives has certainly allowed for many of us who live far away to interact with the convention in ways that we wouldn’t normally be able to.
This weekend, Nikki and Corey spent some time playing through some of the board game previews from this year’s fair to see what some of these upcoming releases had to offer. We’re happy to report back on our findings on four of our favorites…
Publisher: Bezier Games
Release Date: November, 2020
Play Time: 60-90 minutes
Age Recommendation: 16+
Whistle Mountain is an incredibly colorful sequel to Whistle Stop that combines elements of worker placement, tile placement, and scoring via meeple placement (almost like Carcassonne). There’s an awful lot going on here! On their turns, players send differently sized airships out to various docks and other locations on the mountain to collect resources, retrieve scaffolding for construction, purchase machines and upgrades, or rescue meeple workers that have sadly fallen off of the scaffolding and into the whirlpool below. The game ends when the last meeple is placed or swept away by the rising waters. At that point, the player who has earned the most victory points (scored by meeples “promoted” and machines placed on the mountain) is the victor.
Promotional images from Bezier Games.
Corey: I was initially drawn to Whistle Mountain because I’m a big fan of worker placement games. This one reminded me a bit of one of my all time favorites, Lords of Waterdeep, but featured a fun and unique theme that I really haven’t seen before. There are a lot of cool elements to Whistle Mountain and I’m looking forward to spending some more time with it one day but, from my first experience, I have to say that I was a little overwhelmed by all of the mechanics. That said, I enjoyed the game and think this one will be a good pick up for those that are interested in heavier euro-style games like Agricola.
Nikki: Whistle Mountain caught my eye while checking out new games because of its bright, bold color palette. After further investigation into the game play and mechanics Corey and I decided to do a play through on Tabletopia. We had a lot of fun piecing together our scaffolding, racing to get the best upgrades, constructing some cool machines, and promoting our hard working little meeple workers. Being new to the game we did not have much strategy, and given the number of game mechanics at play, it appears that a lot of different strategies could be successful (will you try to build the most machines with the highest victory point rewards or focus on getting the best upgrades to accelerate construction or will you be a hero of your meeple workers and rescue them all as quickly as possible from the swirling whirlpool?). I think there is a lot of replay value here with the various game mechanics and so many ways to get those ever sought after victory points.
New York Zoo
Play Time: 30-60 minutes
Age Recommendation: 10+
Another fun game from Uwe Rosenberg, the esteemed designer of many well known euro-style games including Bohnanza, Agricola, and Caverna.
In New York Zoo, players race to fill their empty plots of land with Tetris-like animal enclosures and attractions. The first player to cover their entire grid with these developments is the winner.
This is done by advancing an elephant token around the zoo track at the start of each turn and completing an action that either results in adding a new enclosure to the grid or adding animal tokens to those spaces. When that elephant token moves past a breeding space, any enclosure with two more more of the indicated species will generate one offspring of the same type. When an enclosure is completely filled with animals, the player is rewarded with an attraction tile. Attraction tiles are meant to expedite the process of covering one’s grid and do a great job of filling in the holes left by the awkward enclosure shapes.
Promotional images from Capstone Games.
Corey: I had a blast playing New York Zoo! The game pieces are really fun and there’s something just so entertaining to me about breeding meerkats that just makes me chuckle. Beyond that, the game is very well designed and, while easy to learn and play, involves a good bit of strategy to it. This would be a good one to bring out with a mixed group of a board gamers as it would appeal to younger/newer and more experienced players alike.
Nikki: This is a great game for beginners or those looking for a fun new gateway game! It was super easy to get started and the rules are straightforward. We demoed this game on Tabletopia, and played with the two-player variant rules which award one bonus breeding every time one pair of your animals breed.
Play Time: 45-60 minutes
Age Recommendation: 10+
In Paleo, players forage for resources and search for cave paintings (victory points) as they struggle to survive the harsh Paleolithic landscape.
Each player controls their own party of characters (initially two), each with a unique set of skills represented by a symbol in the bottom corner of their player cards. These starting skills will be combined with use of tools that players craft along the journey to complete tasks as they battle wolves and search for food.
During each turn, players draw an initial hand of three cards face down. These cards have a variety of different card backs to represent different locations in the area. Each location presents the potential for a different type of resources on their face side. In order to acquire it, players will have to hunt mammoths, raid the caves of sleeping bears, or chop down trees. The cards tend to feature a variety of action choices on their face side which include different ways to go approach each situation. This means that you can use different types or amounts of resources to earn different payouts. The bottom option on nearly every card is ‘support’ and will allow a player to lend help to others by providing their skills (present on their player cards) to their teammates rather than completing their own independent action.
Promotional images from Z-Man Games.
Corey: There are some really cool mechanics in Paleo. I really dig the idea of including different card backs to represent different locations and having to speculate as to what you might find if you were to venture off into each of those locations. It’s a fun and interesting challenging to balance the addition of new party members with your ability to feed them at the end of each round and really drives home the resource scarcity concept. As a team, you’ve really got to manage your resources carefully and this seems to be balanced well.
Nikki: We had a lot of fun during our two-player demo of Paleo on Tabletopia. The game really forces the players to make some tough decisions (Do you kill the bear for food and other valuable resources or do you use your skills to gain one of the rare and helpful dream cards?). As a two-player game it frequently felt like we just did not have enough resources or tribe members to really accomplish much, especially at the beginning of the game. Given that, I think this might play better as a three- or four-player game, or maybe as a two-player game variant in which each player controls two tribe boards so there are more tribe members to aid in hunting, making tools and overcoming hazards.
Publisher: Queen Games
Release Date: October, 2020
Play Time: 60 minutes
Age Recommendation: 8+
In Winter Kingdom, the follow up to 2011’s Kingdom Builder, players compete to build score the most victory points while developing their kingdom based on the victory point payout conditions drawn specifically for each game.
To do so, players take turns to expand their kingdoms by revealing terrain cards (which govern the type of terrain that they can build on as a free action at the start of each turn), traversing tunnels, and using power cards to build and move houses on the board.
At the start of each game, three Winter Kingdoms cards are revealed which provide players with the routes to earn victory points during the game. These include bonuses for the size of your largest contiguous group of houses, your number of connections between castle hexes to the edge of the board, and similar.
Additionally, one Economy Card is revealed at the start of each game to determine a different condition for earning gold. Finally, a Twist Card can be revealed (though it is not recommended for your first playthrough) to add an additional level of differentiation to each playthrough.
Promotional images from Tabletopia game play simulation.
Corey: I think this is the game I’m most likely to add to my collection after its release. I really love the look of all the components and the vintage fantasy art is really cool, but, more importantly, the game plays out really smoothly. It seems from looking at it that Winter Kingdom would involve a super complex set of rules but it’s really fairly straightforward and easy to get started. Building houses and forts on the map is the primary mechanic of the game and doing so is as easy as placing them on the appropriate hexes designated by the terrain card you flip each turn. You don’t need to concern yourself with any management and exchange of resources other than gold which is used to play and upgrade ability cards.
Nikki: When we first checked out Winter Kingdoms, I was drawn to the beautiful colors and the awesome hexagonal shaped game board pieces. Placing houses and forts on the map feels similar to a game like Catan as you race your opponent to gain control of the hexes that will give you the most victory points, but the added twist comes from the ability cards each player has that allow them to move their already placed houses strategically around the board to improve their positions or block their opponents. In the two-player game, it felt like there was a lot of space on the board and that opponents could pretty much ignore each other and just race to get the most victory points. A match with three- or four-players, or two-players each controlling two colors might increase in-game conflict and the need for an exacting strategy.