Top 5 Games from Essen 2019

Cooper Island

With over 1500 games released at Essen Spiel this year, I obviously haven’t managed to play all of them! However, I played a lot of the hot new releases at the fair and played many more since coming back.

Overall, I thought the year was strong for Euros, but there were no stand-out must-play games. The selection of games on offer seemed less innovative in general. There were a couple of interesting releases, but no genre-defining games like Exit or Pandemic Legacy.

Without further ado then, here are my Top 5 Games from Essen 2019…

5. Azul: Summer Pavilion

Azul: Summer Pavilion

I wasn’t expecting to be so enamoured with this one. I liked the previous two Azuls well enough, but they didn’t ‘wow’ me. Summer Pavilion is a significant improvement for me personally in a couple of key ways though.

Firstly, the inclusion of wild tiles. Each round, a different colour of tile is wild, but these allow you mitigate bad tile draws. You could just get done in sometimes in the original Azul because of the way the tiles fell. Being able to add wild tiles to change how many you have of different colours makes it much easier to avoid just being unlucky.

Secondly, you draft all your tiles first, then everyone places them all. This gives you more options and increases the flexibility. Placing tiles in certain places also lets you acquire bonus tiles, which can further increase your options.

Personally, I love the extra complexity, but make no mistake, it’s a heavier, longer game and that’s not going to appeal to everyone. If the original Azul was a bit too light for you, I highly recommend trying Summer Pavilion. It’s a great addition to the set and feels sufficiently different from the other two.

4. Cooper Island

Cooper Island

This is a heavy worker placement with lots going on. It has everything you’d want from an interesting Euro: lots of choice, special abilities, engine building, opportunities to pull off great combos. When I first played it though, I wondered if it held anything new for me, but it really did. There are two key mechanisms that stood out.

The first is how the engine building works: it all revolves around building a 3D island. You keep stacking up island tiles with different types of terrain on your player board. Each time you place a tile, you get to put the matching resource on top (eg. wood on forest tiles), but the value of the resource is determined by the height of the tile! So a wood resource on a tile of height four is worth four wood. You usually have to match the island tiles when you place them, which means initial placement of tiles is quite important. It’s a unique system and gives you lots to think about.

The other mechanism I really liked was the boats. They start by sailing around your main island and then they sail round the islands of the other players. You can place bonus tiles in the path of your boats, which allow you to gain resources when they sail past them, but when your opponents sail round your island, they’ll pick up the same bonuses!

3. Fleet: The Dice Game

Fleet: The Dice Game

This was actually a Kickstarter that delivered earlier this year, but struggled getting to retail so unless you were one of the lucky few to have backed it, it was virtually impossible to get hold of. Fortunately for me, they were selling a few copies at Essen and boy am I glad that I picked it up.

It’s a roll and write with a rather thin deep-sea-fishing theme on top. It’s one of the best roll and writes I’ve ever played though. When you select dice, you use them to advance on one of a large number of tech tracks that allow you to catch different sorts of fish and grant special abilities.

You get points at the end for launching boats, catching fish and unlocking special abilities. There’s just so much potential for engine building combos each time you play. You need to adapt to the dice, but there’s such freedom of choice and plenty of ways to mitigate bad dice rolls.

The only real criticism is the lack of interaction. It’s very ‘heads down’ with everyone focussed on their own sheets. This doesn’t bother me though as it’s fairly short. For the length of play, it’s a great little puzzle.

2. Trismegistus


This is an expertly crafted game, but definitely not for everyone. Although the theme concerns making potions, it feels quite abstract. It’s very thinky and potentially AP-prone, so watch out for that. This means it can slow down quite a lot with more players. In fact, I would never want to play this 4-player. I think 3 players is the sweet spot.

The central mechanism involves you drafting dice from a central pool. Each die has a colour and a symbol, but you can use each die for a lot of different things. Essentially you’re just gathering resources, transmuting them into better versions and then spending them to gain points.

However, the colour of the die matters for some things and the symbol for other things and you have to use the die multiple times after you’ve drafted it, so there’s rarely an ideal die that does everything you want, which means you’re always trying to make the best of less than ideal choices. But there are so many choices!

It has lots of special abilities, action combos, mini tech-trees, engine building: there’s just so much going on, it can be very hard to process everything on your first couple of plays. I’m always thoroughly engrossed when playing this though. It’s fantastic!

1. Maracaibo


This was of one my most anticipated games and it didn’t disappoint. Several people have said that there’s nothing new in this one, and they’re right, but it doesn’t bother me at all. I loved it! Alexander Pfister has included a number of different mechanisms that we’ve seen in his other games, but they all worked very well before and they work equally well in Maracaibo.

Each round everyone sails once round the Caribbean and the first player to get back triggers the end of the round for everyone, so you can rush for the best action spaces and try to finish the round early or try to take lots of smaller actions and hope no one ends the round too early!

The multi-use card play is very interesting. There’s lots of variability in trying to work out the best combination of ability cards to play (like in Race for the Galaxy). You can spend cards as resources though and trying to decide whether to use a card for its resources or play it for its ability is always difficult.

There’s a wide variety of actions you can take, which are all interesting, but you can never do everything. It also has a surprising amount of indirect player interaction: you really have to pay attention to what other people are doing to make the most of your actions and point-scoring opportunities. This is the game I have played the most since coming back from Essen and I still want to play it more than any of the others.

Have you managed to play any of the Essen releases yet? Which is your favourite?

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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