In just a few short days, Spiel 2023 kicks off. The largest board game convention in the world, Spiel (sometimes called Essen, or Essen Spiel) is the mecca for board gamers of all stripes. Over 1,000 new games will debut to the European market at the event, many of which will make their way to the United States in the near future. Some members of our team will be there, so let’s join the Meeple Mountaineers as we comb through the new releases and help you find the diamonds in the coal.
Our friends at Board&Dice keep churning out the hits. Tiletum, my pick for the best game I played in 2022, is still high on my list, and after seeing the buzz on the recent release Barcelona, I have high hopes that Nucleum fits the bill for medium-to-heavy strategy gaming delight. The setting, the designer pedigree (Simone Luciani is at it again, and this time David Turczi joined him in the lab!), and the words “asymmetric technologies” all have me reaching into my pocket to throw money at the problem.
Designer: Simone Luciani and David Turczi
Kutná Hora: The City of Silver
After completing a meeting with the CGE team at Gen Con 2023, I’m really stoked for Kutná Hora: The City of Silver. The game’s economic elements, particularly the use of a dynamic marketplace to dictate the terms of supply and demand, have me convinced that CGE is back on track after a so-so 2022 (Deal with the Devil, Starship Captains). The press sheet on the game is a bit vague, but after my walkthrough in Indy, I’m in great shape and very excited by what this game has to offer!
Publisher: Czech Games Edition
Designer: Ondřej Bystoň, Petr Caslava, and Pavel Jarosch
The Same Game
Wolfgang Warsch has never designed a bad game. I still have The Taverns of Tiefenthal in my rotation; Wavelength is my #1 party game. The Quacks of Quedlinburg is still in the BGG top 100, and I have friends that swear the That’s So Clever! line of games are the best roll-and-writes in history. I don’t know a single thing about The Same Game except that Warsch designed it…which means it’s on my list.
Publisher: Pegasus Spiele
Designer: Wolfgang Warsch
Shipyard (Second Edition)
Another game that is dictated by design pedigree; Vladimir Suchý really hasn’t done me wrong. Pulsar 2849 and Underwater Cities were great, and I thought Praga Caput Regni was a little busy, but still pretty good. I’m also hoping to try Evacuation—Suchý’s latest creation—during my time in Germany. I’m told by people I trust that Shipyard might be his best design, but it’s older and out of print. Thank goodness it is 2023—unofficially known in my home as The Year of the Great Game Reprint, thanks to re-released classics like Amun-Re: 20th Anniversary Edition and The Princes of Florence—and we are getting a new edition of Shipyard. The artwork looks gorgeous…and I love rondels!!
Publisher: Delicious Games
Designer: Vladimir Suchý
Anunnaki: Dawn of the Gods
Simone Luciani’s name appears quite often on my list; in a bit of a coup, a lot of Luciani’s designs and co-designs are hitting SPIEL this year. Anunnaki: Dawn of the Gods, co-designed by Luciani and Danilo Sabia, is a bit of a stretch based on what I’ve played from Luciani in the past—it’s a 4X game. I’m leaning hard into 4X this year with games like Voidfall, Brazil: Imperial, and a project I’m working on that includes many other 4X games including new games like The Warp. The combination of things happening in Anunnaki has me very excited for this game.
Publisher: Cranio Creations
Designer: Simone Luciani and Danilo Sabia
My kids and I enjoyed Karak, a dungeon-building, treasure-hunting family game that is still ranked in the top 10 of BGG’s childrens’ games. The chance to play a standalone sequel? Count me in. This time around, we’ve got city building in addition to the standard dungeon fare of the base game. We thought that the first game was a bit too easy, but now that the kids are older and looking for more of a challenge, it appears that the Karak sequel will fit better as a second go-round.
Despite the terrible title of this game, it is designed by Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer, the duo that has designed a number of classics together and individually (Azul, Tikal, El Grande, Colosseum, and The Princes of Florence amongst many other designs). This means the pedigree is there for any tabletop fan to at least play Terra Pyramides to see if it comes close to their design classics. I don’t know much about the game and the BGG listing is a bit vague, but I’m definitely going to demo this game if there is space at the tables during the show!
I’ll be honest, I have no idea what this game is about even after reading the BoardGameGeek description. But I do know this: the photographs I’ve seen and the German-language videos I can’t understand make the game look fantastic. And just look at that designer pedigree: Michael Keller and ode., co-designers of La Granja. Plus, it’s got Uwe’s name on the label. Regardless of everything else, that’s all this Rosenberg fanatic really needs.
I was very impressed last year by The Game Builders’s first foray into the publishing world, Applejack (also a Rosenberg game) and this new one looks to be even better. I can’t wait to get my hands on it and get it to the table!
Publisher: The Game Builders
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg, Michael Keller, Andreas “ode.” Odendahl
Tangram City looks to be another of Uwe Rosenberg’s polyomino games. His previous polyomino forays like Patchwork, the Cottage Garden trilogy, and A Feast For Odin explored the various ways one could use the standard polyomino shape within the structure of a board game to move the action along. His first try at designing a game that allowed the players to deconstruct a polyomino resulted in Patchwork Doodle. In Tangram City, he’s taken it one step further. In Tangram City, the polyominoes have been further deconstructed by shearing off their corners, opening the possibilities of new shapes and new combinations.
There’s not a lot of information about this game floating around out there, but I’ve seen enough to know that I desperately want to get my hands on it.
Publisher: Korea Boardgames Co., Ltd.
Designer: Uwe Rosenberg
From Richard Breese, the designer of the world-renowned Keyflower, and the sadly under-praised masterpiece Inhabit the Earth, comes his newest creation The Glade. The Glade is a tile-laying, set collection game set in a forest setting. Using an interesting mashup of Set, Rummikub, and Qwirkle mechanics, players will be vying to place their forest tiles on their boards in the best possible combinations to complete sets so as to score the most points they can while also leaving the fewest opportunities for their opponents to complete their unfinished sets and piggyback off of their hard work.
I watched Paul Grogan’s excellent Gaming Rules video wherein they did a playthrough of the game. While the rules seemed a bit wonky as he was explaining them, things quickly gelled once the game got started. From what I’ve seen, The Glade is another masterful design from one of the most talented designers in the field and I can’t wait to play my own copy of it.
What’s that you say? A two-player head-to-head duel using drafted cards to colonize planets and influence technology trees, designed by one of my favorite designers (Vladimír Suchý who also designed one of my favorite games from last year, Woodcraft)? Yes, please. Where do I sign up?
In case you haven’t figured me out yet, I have a tendency to fawn over specific designers. Here in the last few years, Vladimír Suchý has set himself as one of those designers I pay special attention to. This game is a good example why.
In Evacuation, the players are fleeing their old planet—it’s falling into its sun—using its resources to establish themselves on their new home world. But, travel between worlds is a costly endeavor and it won’t take long before the new home world is going to need to start producing, too. It’s a heady balance between slowing down and ramping up. This promises to be one of Suchý’s heaviest, thinkiest outings and I absolutely cannot wait to get my hands on a copy.
Patterns: A Mandala Game
Mandala is a magnificent, strange little two-player card game, my favorite of the excellent collaborations between Trevor Benjamin and Brett J. Gilbert. I need to emphasize that it is strange. Its waters are murky. The rules take less than ninety seconds to explain, but you’ll have no idea how they add up to a coherent game until you start playing. The quality of the experience deepens with the knowledge of the players, and the willingness of both players to try new tactics.
I’m not surprised Mandala didn’t take off on publication. I think it might be a bit too much of a game for people who love to think about games. I’m so excited that Lookout Games is publishing a sequel that, when I saw it on the BGG list for Essen, I let out an actual squeal. Can’t wait. I hope it’s just as confounding and strange.
Lecker Lava is German for…well, look, translation is a fickle and subjective beast. Delicious Lava works, ‘Licious Lava works even better. That alliteration is important. Mouthwatering Magma doesn’t hit the same, but it’s respectable.
I know nothing about this game. Well, no, I know very little about this game. I know there are little dinos, and I know chips hidden in the board somehow end up in their mouths. I also know I will be leaving Essen with a copy and only U.S. Customs has the power to stop me.
Publisher: Drei Magier Spiele
Designer: Sophia Wagner
SWOP sounds pretty simple. Players take turns swapping dice around on a board to create and score patterns. That’s all I’ve got for you. It could be very boring. That’s entirely possible. But I choose to believe. I’m excited to give it a try.
Publisher: biwo spiele
Designer: Otmar Bettscheider, Karin Herrmann
This seems so silly. Players estimate the length of common household items. You start with 100 points, and lose 1 point for every millimeter you’re off. The last player with points remaining wins the game. Like SWOP, it could be terrible, but I’m so enamored of the idea, and that’s what going to Essen is all about, coming across things you wouldn’t otherwise.
Publisher: Arclight Games
Designer: None Credited
Unboxed has, no contest, the best premise for a game that I’ve ever heard. You play as archeology interns who’ve come across the remains of ten different ancient board games, and you have to deduce how they were played. There is no chance that Unboxed can ever live up to the promise of that premise. It’s impossible. But imagine if it did??? Even if it comes close, that’d be pretty great.
Designer: Jordan Sorenson
The Battle of Versailles
I love a two-player game, and I love an unusual historical theme. The Battle of Versailles draws its title and theme from a real-life event in 1973, a fashion show pitting five American designers against five French designers. We’re talking names here, people. De la Renta, Halston, Dior, Saint Laurent, Givenchy. No slouches.
Tense. Short. Thematic. What more can you want? Match of the Century, from Capstone, is another one I’m really excited about, but I’m giving the edge to The Battle of Versailles.
Age of Innovation
The latest stand-alone game in the Terra Mysticaverse. Unlike the personally disappointing Terra Nova, Age of Innovation looks like it’s continuing the complex strategies involved in building the world to your own advantage.
Clemens Gerhards produces abstract strategy games that are both wonderfully clever and beautiful to look at. Flügelrad is the latest offering from the company and on a turn, players not only place a marble on the board, but they reposition and turn an impeller wheel. The wheel moves up to six marbles in a clockwise manner within the seven clusters on the board. Be the first to create a cluster of six of your marbles and you win.
This is going to be a thinky game with a challenging, fun mechanism.
Publisher: Clemens Gerhards
Designer: Andreas Kuhnekath
Over six rounds, players will play as the leaders of ruling houses in a once great city—a city devastated by a deadly plague. You’ll send Plague Doctors out to quarantine and cure people, as well as work to rebuild the city and cultivate resources to keep the people alive.
With an intriguing board and the plague still spreading throughout the game, I’m hoping to see this one hit the table soon.
Publisher: Archona Games
Designer: Thomas Nielsen, Kai Starck
Hey, That’s My Fish!
This is the anniversary updated edition with a board for easier game setup and new penguins.
Hey, That’s My Fish! is one of my favorite gateway abstract strategy games. Each turn has a player move a penguin in a straight line to a new hex tile, then removing the tile they moved from. This means the board will have more and more holes that cannot be crossed over, restricting movement.
I am more than a fan of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the inviting pencil-drawn novel by Brian Selznick. Much like designers Pujadas and Renalias (the team behind the unique selfie-centered title, Picture Perfect), I am also a fan of Hugo, the Martin Scorcese film adaptation of the book. The story touches the life of George Méliès, the magician-turned-filmmaker of the early 20th century. This game centers around the creation of his most enduring film, A Trip to the Moon.
I love worker placement, I love bumping worker placement (meaning the arrival of one meeple “bumps” or sends another meeple back to its owner). This is, without a doubt, the game that most interests me in Essen this year. The game looks fantastic on the table. The design team mentioned their desire for an immersive thematic experience, and that always raises my antennae. I’m ready to give this one a try as soon as I get the chance.
Publisher Pythagoras holds a dear spot in my heart. Last year I ordered an entire case of games from across the Atlantic just to get my hands (economically) on Pessoa, which was probably the title that most captured my imagination in 2022. Pessoa’s designer, Orlando Sá has another release with them this year called Celtae, a game of tribal development through farming, building, battling, and recruiting. This is probably the box cover I most want on my shelf. I was excited before I ever read a word, and even more so now that the game is seeing the light of day.
Mechanically—though I know it’s not the same—I get Raiders of Scythia vibes from the “place a worker and retrieve a worker” idea, and I love the addition of a rondel for the actions. With Pessoa, Sá created a tension I’ve never seen before, and I’m hopeful that he can do it again here. Players work within the game to determine scoring criteria, and they hold one ultimate decision over whether to upgrade their chief to chase a more lucrative glory. I like the sound of that. Since I won’t be in Germany, methinks I smell another order from Portugal coming on.
Like I said, I’m a sucker for Pythagoras titles right now. Lata is a game about the production of canned sardines and mackerel. I know, sounds riveting. But the card mechanism here is so unusual that I want to know what it feels like to make it work. Cards always produce materials from left-to-right, top-to-bottom. As a card produces, the particular material on the card—be it fish, tomatoes, or oil—no longer produces in each round. The idea is to produce an efficient factory that churns out combinations and canned fishies in time to sell them at market. I am reminded of a game like Chocolate Factory, which also involved purchasing/selecting cards in lots to equip a factory for efficiency. The difference here is a smaller box and a far more eccentric thematic locale.
Luís Costa and Rôla are the combo behind Café, another title in Pythagoras’s small-box line of card games, released in 2020. Though I’ve only played Café once, I was impressed by the unique feel of the puzzle. That single play is enough to make me curious about Lata. Thankfully, small-box games don’t weigh much for international shipping.
Ezra and Nehemiah
I’m pretty sure Ezra and Nehemiah is the game that most frightens me on this list. I am absolutely intrigued by the choice of setting—Israel’s exiles rebuilding in Jerusalem. Like Ierusalem Anno Domini last year, though, I am on pins and needles, though, to see if the biblical material is handled well. I am also frightened because Ezra and Nehemiah is the most complex game on my list. I don’t mind dipping my toes in the heavyweight waters, but I know my wheelhouse is a touch below this one.
Then I see the board, filled with cubes and markers and tracks and trees, and my fears are not assuaged. But alas, that will not stop me from getting this one to the table eventually. After all, when is a Garphill title not on point these days? Sam MacDonald and Shem Phillips are hot. I am sure the game will be filled with all the right tensions and mind-melting decision points that everyone loves. There are so many things I want to know every time I see even the smallest thumbnail about this one. I’m curious and I’m ready.
“Forge intrigues and close dirty deals.” I’m listening. But wait, “the godmother” on the cover is an overdressed cutesy critter fresh out of a mafia scene from the Jazz era? Now I’m really listening. Die Patin is a risk on my list. Designer Pim Thunborg has only one other release in the wild, so there is a lot of uncertainty about the game’s skeleton. Zoch Verlag’s catalog is mostly filled with children’s games and lighter fare. This is not a problem, but it does serve to temper my expectations. I’m just so drawn to what this game wants to be that I have to believe I’ll give it a try at some point.
Publisher: Zoch Verlag
Designer: Pim Thunborg
I’m a bit of a Friedemann Friese nerd. While he’s not as prolific as many other designers, he’s had a career spanning 30+ years, and is the designer behind the amazing Power Grid. Best known for his bright green hair and games with 2 “F”s in the name (in his native German at least), he has a knack for designing games with unique themes and mechanisms.
Black Friday is a re-release of the 2010 title; a stock market manipulation game. I’ve never played it before, but this new version is a completely revised and updated edition, and I can’t wait to try it out. At last count I own ten of his games, and Black Friday might make #11.
Way back in 2016 I reviewed a lightweight card drafting game called Medieval Academy. Cards played from your hand allowed you to advance along the tracks of various knightly pursuits such as jousting, sword fighting, chivalry, piety, and duty to the king. Along the way players would earn points for being further along these tracks.
Fast forward to 2023, and Blue Cocker Games is releasing a brand new version of Medieval Academy. It features the same great gameplay with all new artwork, a solo mode, and a full on board instead of tiles. I’ve always thought this game was underrated and I’m thrilled to see this new version coming to a table near you.
The thing that caught my eye about Karakum was the artwork. Stunning gradients of blues, purples, pinks, greens, and oranges, and detailed silhouettes of desert life. And that was before I even read the description.
In Karakum players attempt to earn points by collecting, then paying, resources to allow them to add camels to their caravan. Cards must match either the number or color of the last card in the caravan. Karakum is a small box card game and plays in about 30 minutes. It has similarities to Ticket to Ride in the way you select cards, but maintains a slim footprint on the table.
Publisher: Brain Games
Designer: Arif Nezih Savi
I was really impressed by Riverside, the previous release from the design team of Eilif and Åsmund. It’s a really clever, lightweight roll and write game. Now it seems like this team has moved into strategy board game territory with Footprints. Featuring a modular board, and asymmetric player abilities, Footprints is a race to be the first clan to migrate from the left side of the board to the right. Movement is determined by cards, and by the upgradeable abilities you have on your own personal player board.
Newsboys is a brand new flip and fill from the masters of the whimsical and delightful, Saashi & Saashi. Showcasing the same delightful artwork as Remember Our Trip and Photograph , Newsboys asks players to manage the route and business of a newspaper boy in late 1800s Brooklyn. As the game progresses, players will be able to expand their territory using cards and dice. As areas are marked off they will earn bonuses from offices, homes, schools, factories, and more.
Kingdomino is a pretty much perfect game (see our review here). There’s a fun expansion with giants, a big sister with a dragon, a kiddie one with lots of dragons, a 2-player version with dice and stone age dominoes with mammoths. And if we’re truly counting up everything then there’s also a lockdown produced print-and-play expansion and a demo 2-player version that was given away at conventions. What I’m saying is that there’s a lot of -omino out there. I’ve played over half of them and yet I’m still not bored of it.
Moon River bucks the trend -omino trend, however, and not just by avoiding having -omino in the title. Instead of full dominoes, Moon River has half-dominoes that jigsaw together. It’s a little like combining the two dice of Duel but here there are also cow meeple that score you points and cowboys that herd your cows around your landscape. Designers Bruno Cathala and Yohan Servais know exactly how to get my money – more domino goodness and cows. Shame they probably aren’t Herefords.
Flamme Rouge BMX
Flamme Rouge is a modern classic, a precision engineered racing game and the predecessor to last year’s hyped up Heat. Flamme Rouge BMX is a children’s version of the original, bringing the lower limit of player age down to 6+ years (although Flamme Rouge itself was only 8+ anyway). There are a few things that get me looking forward to this new version. Firstly, I have a 6 year old and I’m sure he’d be excited to try this. Secondly, it’s just a fact of life that BMX bikes, mud, bumps and jumps are infinitely cooler than boring street bikes and tarmac.
The final reason I’m interested though is that Flamme Rouge BMX has done away with the cards and hand management. In their place are tokens and bags and oh my word, is this actually a hybrid of Flamme Rouge and Meeple Mountain favourite The Quacks of Quedlinburg?!?! Could this even be a better kid’s version of Quacks than the existing Quedlinburg Dash? Only time will tell but I’m excited to find out!
There are some phrases in this hobby that get people all tingly and excited. Take, for example, ‘multi-use cards’. Some of the all time great games deploy multi-use cards to phenomenal effect. So when a game featuring multi-use cards and an on-trend theme starts getting a lot of buzz I pay attention. In Forest Shuffle players are trying to gather the most valuable trees and then attract species to those trees. Those multi-use cards can be deployed as saplings, trees or as the tree-dwelling critters and at the end of the game players tot up their points from their biodiverse forests.
Some might feel that nature themes are becoming a little cliched in the tabletop hobby, the new zombies or trains. Perhaps the recent spate of nature-based games is a reaction to the lockdowns of the pandemic or perhaps it’sits our renewed appreciation of the world around us having spent most of the past couple of hundred years as a species systematically destroying the natural world in the name of progress. Regardless of the reasons, nature games such as Cascadia and Meadow are in vogue and I’m not complaining. Particularly when Forest Shuffle is part of publisher Lookout’s Greenline label, produced on FSC certified paper and avoiding plastic completely.
Tile-laying? Check. Polyominoes? Check. Simultaneous play? Check. Sheep? Check. Tipperary ticks a lot of boxes for me, with players creating colourful landscapes full of castle ruins, whiskey and sheep. There’s even a spinning wheel known as the ‘magical stone circle’ that forms part of the tile-selection process. Gotta love a spinning wheel!
Charming as it looks, I don’t think Tipperary is going to change the tabletop landscape forever. But sometimes you just want a solid experience with interesting but not too taxing decisions that plays in under an hour and this looks like it will deliver on all counts.
Carcassonne: The Wonders of Humanity
It’s no secret that I love Carcassonne. I’ve written a Carcassonne review, a Carcassonne strategy guide, a celebration of Carcassonne’s 20th anniversary and even a haiku about it. So every year I look to Essen Spiel for what this year’s micro-expansion might be. This year’s entry into the Carcassonne series is one of the most intriguing we’ve had for a while. Four polyomino-shape mega-tiles, each the size of 5 normal landscape tiles and showing a man-made wonder.
The rules are no less intriguing, making players rush to claim these wonder tiles which each confer the owning player different ways of scoring points. What’s that? Carcassonne featuring asymmetric powers? Yes please!
Cascadia burst onto the board game scene in 2021 and quickly climbed into the Top 50 on BoardGameGeek, earning a Golden Geek Award for best light game plus other accolades. Now a long-awaited expansion has been announced. The expansion adds – you guessed it – landmarks, which provide unique end-game scoring bonuses. The expansion comes with additional wildlife scoring cards and habitat tiles and can now support up to 6 players.
Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa
Merv: Heart of the Silk Road is one of my favorite games. Designer Fabio Lopiano, and artist Ian O’Toole have teamed up again with Sankoré: The Pride of Mansa Musa. Players work on creating the great 14th century university in Timbuktu. As with Merv, players will have various paths to victory — enrolling and graduating students, teaching classes, making new curriculum, and adding books to the university’s library. Based on the description, the game appears to have something like a tech tree but based on academic disciplines rather than technologies. Enroll me now!
Billed as a Euro style 4X game, this game looks fantastic, both visually with its modular board and ship minis, and from a gameplay perspective. The game uses a card-driven action selection mechanism with a deterministic combat system. All the factions in the game are asymmetric, and players can obtain unique goals during the game. A space-based, crunchy Euro game? I’m all in on this one.
Through Ice and Snow
This is another game that seems to be right in my wheelhouse (pun intended). The theme is super interesting – exploring the Arctic and trying to find the elusive Northwest Passage. While players are competing against each other to earn the most prestige points, they need to cooperate to ensure the fleet’s survival. Run out of food or fuel, or allow your crew’s health and morale to deteriorate, and everybody loses. The game includes a worker placement mechanism with different types of workers and a modular board that varies depending on the course the fleet follows. This all sounds like a real adventure.
Publisher: 2 Tomatoes Games
Designer: Fernando Eduardo Sanchez
In addition to the games we’re looking forward to, we’ve already covered a number of titles that will make their first appearances to the European market at Essen Spiel 2023.
Check out our previous most anticipated lists for Essen Spiel and find out if we picked some winners!