The Wargamer at Essen 2015 (Part I)

By Eddy Sterckx 14 Oct 2015 0

Board gamers from all over the world flocked to Essen in Germany’s Ruhr area to be part of the world’s largest boardgame trade fair last week – and "being a part" means inspecting, buying and hauling home, as many cardboard boxes as their wallets, backs, and airline baggage restrictions can support.

Wargames are the comeback-kids of the tabletop scene, and their resurgence in the last couple of years is showing in the number (and quality) of the various releases that were on display at Essen. From naval wargaming to armoured land combat, there’s something there for everyone, so here’s an overview in alphabetical order of the various wargames that caught my attention. Given the size of the show, I’m pretty sure I missed more than a few, but here's the games I managed to get an eyeball on.

 

1714 – The Case of the Catalans is a multiplayer wargame about the War of the Spanish Succession. Diplomacy and hidden agendas are the backdrop for a grand strategy game of conquest and commercial interests with all the usual mechanics of recruiting troops and maneuvering them on a map of Europe. It's published by GMT.

 

Admiral’s Order – Algeciras 1801 is the newest expansion for this beautiful, hand-crafted, age of sail wargame that debuted 2 years ago, published by Stratagema Games. The expansions adds rules for coastal water maneuvering and coastal gun batteries and comes with a new map and the ships that fought in that engagement.

 

Warlord Games are a familiar sight at Spiel, they’ve got plenty of good stuff for the historical tabletop gamer – a favorite of mine is their Black Powder ruleset – but at the show they were concentrating on their biggest hit: Bolt Action, a WW2 miniature ruleset and 28mm figures/vehicles. Their stuff on display was of the highest quality – as usual with these guys.

Originally released almost a decade, Espana 1936 (BGG link) has quickly become the definitive card-driven grand strategic wargame of the Spanish Civil War.  The Spanish publisher Devir have a new English edition they were showing off at Essen.

 

Poland's wargaming scene seems to be thriving. First to Fight (BGG link) is just the first game in this list from that country. First to Fight refers to a famous Polish war-time poster and lets you refight the entirety of WW2 through the eyes of Polish forces in the various Allied armies.

Fleet Commander is a miniature space battle game with the focus on playability and having everything you need in one box. French publishers Capiscum say that it allows you to play epic space battles without the complexity and cost of other systems.

Generalship is the first release from South Korean publishers Baccum in which 2-4 players compete with each other in an abstract wargame using the talents and skills of 49 generals from all over European history – an intriguing design that only just hit the market. Early ratings on Board Game Geek are positive.

Columbia Games has been producing block wargames since the seventies. In order to make their games a bit more known in Europe the company’s VP Grant Dalgliesh made the trip over to Essen. They’ve got a lot of really good wargames, but I asked him to pose for the picture with my personal favorite: 2002's Hammer of the Scots (BGG link), a deep and rewarding wargame about the Scottish rebellion as portrayed in the movie Braveheart.

 

Heroes vs Warlords is an interesting example of how it sometimes takes years for a wargame to morph from an early paper prototype to a fully mature product. Designer Udo Grebe has been working on the low-fantasy empire-building game for years and it’s not quite production-ready yet, there’s still a lot of graphic work needed. It’s starting to look really good.

 

Leaders, from Austrian publisher Rudy Games, is a bit different than the rest of the games on this list. It incorporates a tablet into a cardboard Cold War-themed game, not unlike Fantasy Flight's XCOM adaptation from earlier this year. The tablet handles all the bookkeeping and fog of war so the players can get on with the diplomacy and negotiating. After last year’s Spiel I had expected an explosion of games mixing cardboard and digital, but this has not happened (yet). 

 

The Livonian Crusade is a chapter in history few wargamers are familiar with, so kudos to Estonian publisher 2D6.ee for delving into the lesser known corners of history. Lembitu is an abstract wargame named after an Estonian national hero who fought Danes, Western European Crusaders, and Russians, all intent on dominating Livonia in the 13th century. Players co-operate to defeat all invaders in this minimalist and quite unique design which I’m now kicking myself I didn’t buy there.

Wargamers always look at battles from a general’s point of view, so here’s a game that turns this around. Les Poilus ("The Grizzled") is a multi-player card game where the players are all French soldiers in the trenches of World War I, with the goal of surviving pulse-quickening events like artillery shelling, going over the top in trench assaults, and even bad weather. This one's published by the increasingly prolific Cool Mini or Not.

 

No game at Essen had more people looking longingly at it than the unsubtly-titled Mega Civilization (BGG link), a spine-shattering 20 pounds of cardboard in a box for up to 18 players. You know you’re never going to play this monster, but it looks so lovely. 

 

Classic computer economic sim M.U.L.E has finally been converted to cardboard, 30 years after its first digital incarnation. This was never an easy game and the boardgame looks a bit daunting to me. It's from Finnish publishers Lautapellit.

Pax Pamir is about what got to be called “The Great Game” – the 19th century struggle between Great Britain and the Russian Empire for the control of Asia, with Afghanistan as the central focus. This game is literally rocket science -- at least it was designed by a rocket scientist at NASA, Phil Ecklund, a most charming guy to talk to. A little exclusive here: he confided in me that his next game Pax Renaissance will be along the same lines as Pax Pamir, the more purely conflict-oriented branch of his “Pax” line of games. It's published by Sierra Madre.

Race to Berlin (BGG link) is another Polish wargame and depicts the last months of the Third Reich. The two players take the role of the Allied and Soviet commanders -- but also of the German forces faces off against your opponent. Not the first time this kind of setup has been tried, but it looked so good and sounded so intriguing I actually bought it on the spot.

 

Part II of The Wargamer's Essen report tomorrow!

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