German Game Authors Revisited - #1 - Dirk Henn

Editor's Note: Academic Gaming Review will be reprinting Joe Huber's German Game Authors series in its entirety. This is being reproduced from the Google Groups's version of his posts on rec.games.board. See AGR's Links section for ways to access Usenet, the Internet's most underused resource.
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From: Joe Huber
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited - #1 - Dirk Henn
Newsgroups: rec.games.board Date: 2004-05-28 10:50:47 PST

Foreword:
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This is the latest version of the first in a series of twelve articles I have written about "German Game" authors. I wrote them for the fun of it; I claim no particular expertise on board games, nor am I a collector of board games. I just happen to play them and occasionally write about the experience. I would welcome any constructive feedback.

Disclaimer:
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This article represents my own opinions only. Some opinions are based on only a single play; some of the information presented is based on nothing more than hearsay. I will always try to note such instances, but I would always recommend playing a game before buying it (or deciding not to buy it, for that matter).

Copyright 2004, Joseph M. Huber
Updated May 20th, 2004

Author:
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Dirk Henn

Credits:
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Al Capone (db Spiele) (a.k.a. Stimmt So! - Queen)
Alhambra (Queen) (a.k.a. Palast von Alhambra)
Beziehungskisten (db Spiele)
Carat (db Spiele; Queen)
Derby (db Spiele)
Eketorp (db Spiele)
Hexenstich (Klee)
Hopfen & Malz (db Spiele)
Iron Horse (db Spiele) (a.k.a. Metro - Queen)
Premiere (db Spiele) (a.k.a. Showmanager - Queen; a.k.a. Atlantic Star -Queen)
Spekulation (db Spiele)
Tendix (db Spiele)
Texas (db Spiele) (a.k.a. Rosenkönig - Goldsieber)
Timbuktu (db Spiele)
Wallenstein (Queen)
Yukon Company (db Spiele)

I first heard of Dirk Henn through one of Mike Siggins' wonderful Essen reports. From selling games out of backpacks, Dirk has come far, earning his first Spiel des Jahres award in 2003 for Alhambra, with Showmanager and Metro also previously nominated. Many of his games are still available solely through db Spiele, though. As homemade games go, the production is excellent; I've never heard any complaints about the games because of the components.

Moreso than most current German game authors, Dirk produces a wide variety of games - from traditional card games through abstract two player games to tile laying games to his own ode to Acquire. He has designed games that are simple to understand - Alhambra can be easily understood by a new player in five minutes - and games that take a full play to really understand such as Timbuktu. And in the end it's really his breadth that makes him stand out as an author - the freedom to publish his own complex designs offers gamers many options among his work.

My first exposure to Dirk's games was with Showmanager. It is a fairly straightforward game, in which players act as show producers, collecting talent to put on the best performance possible - particularly before the large audiences of New York. Limited budgets often force players to decide between borrowing against the shows they've already opened and opening new shows with actors grabbed off the street. Showmanager is one of those rare games that offer more than the premise and mechanics would seem to. It has been a hit with both gamers and non-gamers, and works very well with six players. I've never cared as much for Atlantic Star, the re-release of Showmanager; the theme just and components just don't work as

After Showmanager, I was next introduced to Iron Horse and Timbuktu. Iron Horse, now also available as Metro, is the best tile laying game I've played. In many ways it is comparable to Linie 1, but whereas Linie 1 has a problem of conflicting goals (short routes vs. few stops vs. quickly constructed routes) Iron Horse has a clear goal, and the scoring supports the goal. Timbuktu is a unique game, combining deduction, risk management, and a small memory element into a very playable game. Players compete to deliver the greatest value in goods to Timbuktu, with thieves trying to stop them at every turn. Timbuktu tends to polarize players more than Henn's other games, not surprisingly for such an unusual game. It is one of the two games at the top of my list of games I most wish I had designed.

Carat is one of Henn's most abstract games. The scoring is unusual, in that only the player with the greatest influence over a scoring marker scores (unless there is a tie), but the score is based upon the number of players involved. Oddly (but usefully), the game plays best with three players, as the dummy player offers significant additional options. Texas, now available as Rosenkönig, is another largely abstract game, wherein players collect and use cards to allow the piece placements they desire. It only works with two players or four players in teams of two, however. However, while the two-player game evokes a wide range of responses, everyone I know has enjoyed the four-player partnership game significantly more. I'm not enough of an abstract game fan as to have been tempted by Tendix, the one Henn game I have yet to play.

There are a few classic games that have offered game mechanics used time and time again. Hol's der Geier is one, with it's simultaneously revealed "bid" mechanism. Acquire is another; there are dozens of games I've played (and far more I haven't) that offer scoring opportunities limited to the 1st and 2nd place stockholders in the various companies (or towers - Campanile - or the players with the longest trains of each type - Freight Train - etc.). Stimmt So! is Henn's entry into the Acquire scoring system arena. It's one of the easier to learn games of the genre, and thus one that seems to go over well with non-gamers. Players collect money in four different currencies, using their money to purchase six different types of good and build pluralities or scoring minorities in these goods. Like Henn's other professionally produced games, the graphics are cute but the pieces are not as distinctive as those in other German games. Alhambra, the Spiel des Jahres winning update of Stimmt So!, offers a couple of rule improvements easily applied to Stimmt So! (initial capital and money draws), plus a wall-building element that I find has no effect on my opinion of the game.

Henn has produced two other economic games of some merit, neither of which has been picked up by a major publisher. Spekulation is a stock market game (with a stock price system largely re-used in Showmanager, interestingly enough) where players have limited control over the price of stocks, and somewhat limited options for stock transactions. It has proven to be reasonably popular - helped in no small part by the fact that it handles six players without a problem - without becoming a major hit. Yukon Company is an Alaskan wilderness marketplace game that has received decidedly mixed reviews. The game is driven by a set of cards that can only be used for one of four uses (buying, selling, choosing a destination, and choosing an event), forcing players to come up with an optimal (or reasonable) set of choices quickly, with contingencies. This mechanic is one that I find very appealing, but which others find unenjoyable; where you fall in such a debate is likely to be where you fall with regards to the merit of Yukon Company as a whole. The game does have one other interesting mechanism worth noting - a mercy rule. If the leader gains a sufficient lead (which becomes smaller and smaller as the game progresses), they can declare the game over.

Eketorp is Henn's latest release from db Spiele, and seems to have slipped under the radar screen very effectively. It's a game about fortess building, with almost-but-not-quite blind bidding for materials that is similar to, but in my opinion more effective than, the similar systems used in the simultaneously released ZooSim and Fundstücke. It's an odd game - I've played it a number of times, and enjoyed it, but it doesn't compel. Actually, that's a good way to describe the previous db Spiele game, Derby. Derby is a horse racing game, which would normally not appeal much but the opportunity to adjust bids during the game makes it much more enjoyable for me than other games on the subject. Henn's other recent release is Wallenstein, a not-quite-wargame that also has failed to really draw me in - it's an interesting enough game, but the cube tower and multi-player wargame consideration detract enough as to keep it from being a favorite.

Among Henn's other games, my clear favorite is Hexenstich his contribution to the seemingly endless series of German trick-taking card games with minor twists. The specific twist in Hexenstich is that the rules for play and the rules for trick taking are completely separate. Hopfen & Malz is a beer making card game, with what seems to be a problem with overabundant cash leading to obvious strategies. Bezeihungskisten is Henn's take on the betting race game, unfortunately with all the problems that genre can have - give or take, the winner of the race will be the entrant the most players bet on to win.

Among Henn's games, my favorites are Showmanager and Timbuktu; I'd recommend Showmanager to anyone, and I'd recommend that everyone try Timbuktu. I am also quite fond of the very accessible Alhambra (or Stimmt So!), Iron Horse, and Texas/Rosenkoenig, and the somewhat more complex Yukon Company. Carat, Eketorp, Derby, and Wallenstein are all fine games as well, if less to my tastes.

Henn games I own, and always expect to: Iron Horse, Showmanager, Spekulation, Stimmt So!, Texas, Timbuktu.

Other Henn games I own: Alhambra, Derby, Eketorp, Hexenstich, Yukon Company.

Other Henn games I might play: Carat, Hopfan & Malz, Wallenstein.

Notes:
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This article may be reproduced in whole either mechanically or electronically provided the copyright notice is included and I am notified of the use before publication. I will be more than happy to try to answer specific questions e-mailed to Joe Huber

For additional information, I would recommend the following WWW sites:
Luding. The best place to go for links to reviews of board games.
BoardgameGeek The best place to find English rules translations, and much more.
The Game Cabinet. The key site for older English rules translations.
Brett & Board. The best place to go for the latest news on German board games.


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