So ... Beowulf.
This is a big-box, 12 and up game from Reiner Knizia. It's published by Kosmos and Sophisticated Games, the folks who brought us Knizia's classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000. It's illustrated by legendary Tolkien artist John Howe. All fairly promising indicators.
The players take on the roles of companions to Beowulf. The goal is to support him as he whacks Grendel, hunts for and takes down the Sea Hag, performs various and sundry activities of ruling Geatland, and faces off with a Dragon. At the end of the day, the companion who gained the most fame at Beowulf's side will prevail and succeed him.
Beowulf is both superficially and fundamental similar to and different from Lord of the Rings. Like Lord of the Rings, it's episodic; the players encounter episodes from the story in order, and have to deal with them by playing cards that represent travelling, fighting, guile, and so on. But the game is not cooperative; players commit to, profit from, and/or get hammered by events individually. Beowulf, like Lord of the Rings, is fundamentally about card and risk management – like Lord of the Rings, you want the right resources available at the right time to succeed, sometimes taking a risk now to conserve resources for later, or spending heavily now to avoid an immediate risk. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the risks and benefits are to you personally, not the group, and Beowulf is never in danger of not making it past Grendel, and can never survive the encounter Dragon – you are just in danger of personal failure. Have a nice day.
So how does this card and risk management play out? Your hand of cards is in 5 suits, each representing the aforementioned personal abilities. The episode track is, in the main, a series of auctions, each in one or two of these suits – so defeating Grendel requires Fighting and Valor, for example. Players bid cards from their hand for the rewards available; it can be either open bidding or hidden, simultaneous bids. Then, in decending order of bids, players choose their rewards – the high bidders get fame, treasure, more cards, or special powers, among other things. Low bidders may get either less of these things, or they may get the always popular flesh wound, or even better a severe blow to the head. These auctions are then interspersed with more fixed opportunities, where everyone can heal, draw more cards, acquire various resources, and so on.
The neat thing that throws a monkey wrench into the auctions are risks. Don't have what you need to get the job done? Facing down the Sea Hag without an axe? You can always throw your body into it. Pick two cards from the deck; if they are valid bid cards, you play them, and may get to stay in the auction. Fail, and you are out of the auction (and so may be lined up for more penalties), and take a scratch in the bargain. The scratch is not in and of itself painful. Three scratches, though, and they convert to a wound, and you're out 5 points. Three wounds, and you're looking down an immense end-of-game penalty that will effectively take you out of the game. There are many opportunities to heal scratches, but wounds are much harder to get rid of.
This whole push-your-luck mechanism is what makes the game, and keeps it from being "just another" Knizia auction game. Firstly, flipping cards knowing the risks and with the auction on the line is fun. Secondly, it adds a lot of interesting tactical risk management decisions to the auctions. This is classic Knizia – it seems so simple when you first look at it, and seems like just a random element, and yet without fanfare it adds a lot of depth and interest to the game. Do you risk early in the bidding, knowing you'll need to pick up a few symbols to get the result you want, and so conserve your cards if you fail, but risk getting kicked out of the auction early and scoring 5th place? Or do you try hanging in there by playing cards for as long as possible, thereby limiting the risk you'll come in last, but perhaps spending a lot of cards inefficiently for a middling place? Is it worth it at all to risk now for this auction, or should you just bail? How important is it to get 2 Fame instead of 2 Gold?
To win, you're going to have to do a fair amount of risking. The key is to risk when the downsides are low, and avoid finding yourself in the position of being forced to risk when you can't afford to. Risk early, at non-critical auctions, and you quickly pick up a couple scratches. With two scratches, your options become badly constrained until you can heal, because a wound will likely costs you points and be hard to get rid of. On the other hand, at the end of the game, when you're facing down the Dragon, you don't want to be forced to risk to pick up the fight cards you need to avoid the brutal double-wound for last place – you want to have the cards in hand, to have done your risking earlier, when the downsides were smaller and could have been mitigated.
If I were to evaluate this solely as an auction game, Beowulf would get very high marks. Like in Ra, you're doing all this bidding with stuff that has no inherent value – 5 different types of cards plus the occasional cash auction. Each auction is very different, with both different things up for auctions and different spreads, with some offering modest upsides for everyone but no downsides, and some having major upsides and major penalties. Additionally you have risks, which are probabilistic. You're bidding for Fame sometimes, but most of the time you're bidding some resources to pick up other resources, and to avoid penalties. Almost nothing in the game can be easily or concretely evaluated, so you're making constant judgement calls about what is worth how much, how much extra it's worth spending to get 5VP instead of the "negate one failed risk" card, and how far to push your luck. Even in Ra, which I consider a masterpiece, you can sometimes run the numbers to see exactly how many points a set of tiles is worth to various players; in Beowulf, everything is a judgment call.
But Beowulf goes beyond Ra by adding strategic planning. You know what's coming up, generally. You know you're going to have to fight the Dragon at some point; this both adds even more difficulty to figuring out how much a fight card is worth, and also gives you a chance to make trade-offs (should I bid it now or chance a risk and save it for later?) and plan ahead. In this sense it's very similar in feel to Taj Mahal; but while Taj Mahal is a personal favorite, it can be a bit opaque and unforgiving, while Beowulf is much more intuitive.
Beowulf also goes beyond Ra in giving us a good theme. Sure, maybe auctions don't really reflect how Beowulf's companions were thinking, but as you go down the track, and have to spend appropriate resources for appropriate rewards, the theme works. It's not Republic of Rome or Dune, but by the standards of euro games, it's rather good.
Beowulf is Knizia doing what he does best – an auction game, but one with depth, and variety, and fun, and like Lord of the Rings, wedded to a good theme (ably assisted by some wonderful John Howe artwork). You're faced with constant, real decisions. There is no downtime to speak of. Player skill is very important, but it has just the right amount of randomness to be fun, to mix things up a bit, and to give the game a sense of risk. Hacienda and Elasund were both quite good, but Beowulf is comfortably my pick for the best of Essen.