Spiel 2021 Games First Impressions - Part 1

Spiel 2021 Games First Impressions - Part 1

It has become a tradition to go to Essen Spiel on Thursday and play the new games we bought over the weekend (Friday to Monday). We played 10 out of the 20 games we bought already and here are my first impressions for them (in random order). All games played with my girlfriend (two-players). All games played only once so far.

Ark Nova

The game we were personally looking forward the most too was Ark Nova. We've obviously seen Zoo themes before in boardgames but Ark Nova promises a more heavier experience which we haven't seen before. Ark Nova combines tile-placement with card-play similar to Terraforming Mars.

The rulebook is structured really well and I was able to learn the game from the rulebook within 45 minutes, of course we had to look up a few things during play but those were mostly things I missed on my first read. Ark Nova comes with an excellent reference leaflet for all iconography that answer most of the questions that come up during play.

There is a lot in this box, 200+ cards, a large main board, multiple zoo layouts that you can play (that come with special setup rules and/or player abilities). The overall component quality is good. Some boards are made of thick paper instead of cardboard but with the shear amount of stuff in this box I think this was a cost decision which I can totally understand (the game is €60,-).

We've absolutely enjoyed our first play of Ark Nova. It is crunchy with loads of interesting decisions, loads of variability with the cards and zoo layouts, and has a fine blend of mechanics. We absolutely loved building our zoo, managing it, working on conservation projects, and more! Also there is this great feeling of playing one of the Big 5 animals in your zoo! This is currently my Girlfriends favourite game from our Spiel haul.

Bad Company

One game that wasn't on our radar the moment we arrived at Spiel was Bad Company. But after we had seen it on a table we knew this was one game we would enjoy. It's most similar to Space Base which we enjoy very much.

The game is easy to learn, and is very quick to play. The overal components are good but nothing spectaculair. The artwork is awesome though.

In Bad Company you run a crew of criminals that undertake heists. Each round one player is the boss that gets to roll the dice. The boss makes 2 pairs out of the 4 dice and gets to activate the crew-members that match the sum of those pairs. The non-active player gets to active one of the pairs. By activating dice you get to complete parts of a heists/tasks, collect money to improve your crews abilities and move your get-away car to stay ahead of the police car.

Bad Company is fast, fun and addicting. Rolling dice, activating your crew members is a joy, and the art work complements that game play. The addition of a race element adds some extra tension that Space Base might be missing for us. Only doubt I have is the replay-ability but time will tell if that is an issue.


The game that was probably the most anticipated this year was Bitoku. A heavy euro game with beautiful art is usually something that attracts a lot of buzz and hype at Spiel. But is it actually a good game?

This box is physically heavy, the heaviest we brought back from the fair (yes, it beats Golem in the weight department and Golem has marbles). The box contains a huge 8-fold game board, and loads of punchboards, wooden resources and decks of cards. The component quality is absolutely fantastic and the publisher has really put a lot of love into this game, both component and art wise.

The rulebook starts with a paragraph about Bitoku being a rules heavy game, and that you can watch a video to complement the rulebook. Also it mentions that you should only invite your friends over once you're fully familiar with the components and rules of the game. This introduction got us a bit worried about the complexity. But we put up the video of about an 30 minutes (if you skip the set-up and solo rules). After this video we were ready to play actually, the core of the game is actually not that complicated. There are 4 rounds with each 4 phases (or seasons). Spring is used to draw 4 cards from your deck. During summer you perform your main actions in clock-wise order, there are 3 actions you can choose from: play a card for it's ability, place one of your dice workers below the river to perform actions or move one of your dice below the river over the river to perform actions. In autumn you get to remove one of your cards from the game to gain the reward noted on it. Winter is basically some maintenance and clean-up.

The board can be very overwhelming but most of the board is just spaces to display various tiles and cards you can get during the game. The game is really not that complicated once you know the flow, and it comes with a great player aid to help you through these different phases.

So far Bitoku is my favorite game from Spiel this year! The art is vibrant (not beige) and different. The mechanics are all intertwined and I loved playing it.


We absolutely love Roll(Flip)-and-Write style games, these are great to play because they have almost no set-up time and are done within 30 minutes most of the time. This year we bought a lot of these type of games. This one reminds us most of Encore!. In Explorers you set out to explore a map by traveling through the different terrain types.

Explorers comes with dry erase boards and markers, and at the beginning of the game you construct a unique map (each player should use the same map though). Each turn one of the players is in charge of flipping over a pair of terrain types. That player chooses one of the terrain types he/she would like to use and gets to write 3 'X's in the that specific terrain type. The other players get to write 3 'X's for the other tile's terrain type. They can also use the same terrain type as the active player but then they can only write 2 'X's. By writing 'X's you collect various resources, visit temples and various bonuses.

We enjoyed our first play of Explorers, it's quick and fun and with the different terrain tiles and achievements available each play will be different. Whether it's different enough to the other roll-and-writes we own, we still have to see and find out.

King of the Valley

When we're at Spiel we always look for Dutch publishers to see what they are bringing (we're from The Netherlands). This time the games that spoke most to us was King of the Valley.

In King of the Valley you try to win over as many subjects to join your empire. The different subjects (knights, farmers, queens, etc.) all have different scoring mechanisms. For example farmers want to be paired with farmer wife's and you want to collect as many Knights of the same Knight's Order (color).

You start the game with you King Pawn on a tile in a 5x5 grid of characters. To collect subjects or activate specialists (like the tax collector or priest) you can jump in straight lines (orthogonal or diagonal). You can either land on the character you want or skip over multiple tiles of the same type to activate/collect all of those. With money you can also buy characters from the ramp to help you with your strategy.

King of the Valley is fast and turns are super simple (move you pawn, collect/active tile(s)). The game is really interactive and you can really block your opponents by picking up the tiles they are aiming for. It's fun but nothing spectaculair, for the price-point it's a really good gateway game though. I also have a problem with the rulebook, the rules are not complicated but they have added a lot of "funny" flavour text and jokes throughout the rulebook that make it bloated and hard to reference. I think this is fine in an introduction paragraph but please don't do this throughout the rules.

Living Forest

Living Forest caught our eye because of the art and components. The game has some excellent table presence, but is it also a good game?

In Living Forest you take the roll of a Nature Spirit trying to save the forest from the flames of Onibi. During the game you will plant new sacred trees, recruit the help of spirit animals and put out fires.

Living Forest combines a really cool push-your-luck mechanic (bit similar to Port Royal). Each turn you start by turning over spirit animals until you like to stop or until you have drawn 3 solitary symbols. If you've drawn less than 3 solitary symbols after drawing you get to perform two actions. If 3 solitary symbols were drawn you get to perform only one action. The symbols on the spirit animal cards determine the strength of your actions.

We really liked playing Living Forest. The art is beautiful and draws you into the theme, the push your luck mechanic is exciting and it's really fun to collect the different spirit animals and sacred trees. There are some interesting strategies there, but we are worried about replay-ability after a while.

Paper Dungeons

While this is technically not a new Spiel release, it's released in English just before the fair. Since this was already on my wishlist I was happy to pick it up at the fair.

In Paper Dungeons you control a band of adventurers: a warrior, a wizard, a cleric and a rogue. With this group you're setting out to explore a dungeon. In the proces you get to fight minions and monsters, collect loot and find treasure.

Every round dice are rolled. The players get to use these dice for 3 actions which all use a single dice. For these 3 actions you need to use 3 different dice, you can't use the same dice twice. The actions consist of brewing potions to negate damage, crafting artifacts to give you various bonuses, level-up your adventurers or to walk through the dungeon.

Paper Dungeons is a really good roll-and-write, especially if the theme is of interest to you (to us it is!). The artwork and components are very good (big clunky dice). After round 3, 6 and 8 you get to fight increasingly stronger monsters which give the game nice built-up to the final battle.

Pier 18

Pier 18 is an 18 cards drafting game in a new series by Alley Cat games of portable "take anywhere" games. It comes in a tiny package with just the cards and the rules are printed inside the box.

In Pier 18 you draft cards from a central display and place the cards in a line to create a long Pier. When placing the cards you can overlap previous cards to create a Pier that best matches your strategy. Each player has a personal goal that you want to achieve to receive extra points. Pier cards contain different icons that all have different scoring needs, for example "lovers" want no other icons around them.

Pier 18 is lovely little card game that does perfectly what it sets out to do. Provide a thinky drafting game in a small package that you can take and play everywhere. Because it doesn't take much table space I can see this getting played in a cafe, outside during a pick-nick. The small packaging also makes this a perfect travel game.


Yes, another roll-and-write, after seeing some videos about it I was curious to pick this one up since it has a modular game board.

In Riverside you operate as a tour guide to attract tourists to your tour boats. Once you've attracted the tourists you get to take them on excursions. The game involves a lot of careful planning and you can set-up your actions in a way that there is a lot of combo-ing possible.

While we enjoyed our first play, we weren't blown away by it. There is still an extension variant to try in the box and that makes the game slightly longer and we think that might improve our experience. We will try to play it again in the coming days.

Trails of Tucana

This is also technically not a new release at Spiel, but they did release the new expansion Trails of Tucana: Ferry. We we're eyeing this one for a while now, and we were able to pick it up in a bundle deal with the new expansion. We haven't played the new expansion yet, so I'll keep this short.

In Trails of Tucana you try to connect villages on the border of a map with matching villages with the same letter. Along the way you can visit a number of landmarks that provide extra points and bonus paths.

The game is fast and easy to play, and I can see this becoming a favourite for us. Also excited to try out the expansion


We've so far played 10 new games from our 20 new games we brought home from Spiel. This week we will probably replay some of these games since work days aren't usually the best days to learn new games. Read Part 2 Here:

Spiel 2021 Games First Impressions - Part 2
The last few days we’ve been playing our remaining new Spiel 2021 games. Just as last time, I’m gonna give our first impressions about the games. All games played with my girlfriend at two-players. These games are listed in no particular order. Boonlake We really like Alexander Pfister games in