Bruno Faidutti is a game designer from France with over 30 published games. He is probably best-known here for Citadels, a classic variable roll card game. I asked him about his reasons for attending Essen each year.
"I don't know if I would have preferred Nuremberg, where I've never been, but Essen fits better with my school holidays. Everybody also says it's more fun, more gaming and less business. It also means it's probably more tiring, with shorter nights and more alcohol. Anyway, I consider I have to attend one such fair just to keep in contact with publishers and fellow authors, to feel the mood of the gaming world, to see the new games, try to get some offered to me and buy the others.
We usually made common appointments with publishers, together with other French authors, Bruno Cathala, Serge Laget and Ludovic Maublanc. Due to day-job reasons, Serge won't be here this year. I think the other ones would be in trouble if I miss, since I'm usually assuming most of the English-speaking talk with publishers."
Bruno says he had exactly 0.7 new games on the fair -- half of Chicago Poker (designed by Faidutti and Bruno Cathala) and one fifth of Stonehenge (a game with a set of common components and rules for five games by five designers). Is Essen a good place to pitch designs? "I don't think it's the best place, but it's the only fair I always attend, and my only opportunity to meet many non-French publishers. I have to try Nuremberg some day, I think it's more efficient business-wise, but it doesn't fit with my school holidays."
He also appreciates the opportunity to meet other game designers at Essen. "That's what I do there almost all the time when I'm not showing games somewhere. I really like the casualness of the fair, that makes such chance meetings very easy." The fair was productive for Faidutti as he announced at his web page, www.faidutti.com, that "Save the Kursk!, a cooperation game about the dangers of drinking alcohol in a confined environment, had found a publisher the day before the fair."
Board game sales have been in decline in Germany for the last several years. The major publishers are responding by going for more light family games. The upside of a light game catching on would appear greater to the big companies that coming up with the next Carcassonne -- which is also available for Xbox Live Arcade. That said, there were a number of games that, at least at first play, look very solid. For the most part there was nothing that was truly groundbreaking. Right now the mechanic that has all the designers excited seems to be finding new ways for players to select from a group of actions.
The variable role mechanic goes back at least to Cosmic Encounter, where players have one or more "alien powers" that change the rules to their advantage. Puerto Rico made novel use of a similar mechanic, where a player may choose roles such as to Produce or Ship goods or Build, but the other players also get to do that action. The player who selected the action goes first and gets an extra benefit (to produce or ship one extra good, for example). Caylus expanded on this idea by having the actions on the board and allowing players to place pawns, in turn, on different game actions.
The idea of finding ways and uses for this mechanic has captured the imagination of game designers and publishers, and this was the strongest trend in the games I played and saw at the fair. Two of the best were Amyitis and Kingsburg. In Amyitis, the available actions are on cards. These are dealt, face up, into groups of three. When an action is selected, the card is flipped and shows a coin on the back. The first action of each group is free, the second costs a coin and the last costs two coins. Players may select all the actions they want, or at least all they can afford.
Kingsburg has actions numbered 1 to 18 and players each roll three dice which they can distribute individually or in groups on the spaces equal to the number on the space. This is a novel twist that has players looking around to see what numbers the others have rolled and what they can grab in what order.