German Game Authors Revisited - #2 - Stefan Dorra

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 - #2 - Stefan Dorra
Newsgroups: rec.games.board
Date: 2004-05-28 10:50:47 PST

Foreword:
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This is the latest version of the second 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, 2003

Author:
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Stefan Dorra

Games Covered:
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Alles im Eimer(Kosmos) (a.k.a. The Bucket King - Rio Grande)
For Sale (Ravensburger / FX Schmid)
Hick Hack in Gackelwack (Zoch) (a.k.a. Pick Picknic - Rio Grande)
Intrige (F.X. Schmid / Amigo)
Linie 1 (Goldsieber) (a.k.a. Streetcar - Mayfair)
MarraCash (Kosmos)
Medina (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Njet! (Goldsieber)
Olympia 2000 v. Chr. (Hans im Glück)
Razzia (Ravensburger)
Riffifi (Winning Moves)
Die Safeknacker (ASS)
Schwarzmarkt (Amigo)
Die Sieben Siegel(Amigo)
Tonga Bonga (Ravensburger)
Um Kopf und Kragen (Berliner Spielkarten)
Volle Hütte (ASS)
Yucata (Hans im Glück)
Zum Kuckuck (FX Schmid) (a.k.a. Land Unter - Berliner Spielkarten)

Stefan Dorra has had a significant number of games published during the past decade - all of the games listed above have been published since 1992 - and has had some success, with Razzia, Linie 1, Land Unter, Tonga Bonga, and Alles im Eimer all nominated for the Spiel des Jahres - but still seems to receive little notice relative to the Knizias and Moons of the game design world. Most of Dorra's games have quickly slipped out of print, with only a limited number of new games becoming available. Still, many have cult followings; For Sale in particular often appears near the top of reprint want lists.

Perhaps some of the lack of recognition Dorra has received stems from the types of games he designs - fillers. Of the games listed above, over half are typically completed in less than 30 minutes, and only a few such as Linie 1 are of a length and depth comparable to Die Siedler. In my opinion, however, many of Dorra's shorter games are among the best examples of the genre.

For Sale is my all-time favorite filler. First, 20 properties are auctioned off, with each player receiving the same number. Then, all properties are sold - hopefully, but not always, for a healthy profit. The player with the most cash wins. The game is easy to understand, fun to play, and can be finished in 5 minutes. Nearly as enjoyable is the somewhat meatier MarraCash. Players take on three roles - property auctioneers, tourist guides out for kickbacks, and shopkeepers eager for increased business. In the end, only cash matters, and concentration of tourists brings in more cash than scattered tourists - which can mean that it's worthwhile to buy a shop purely to discourage the flow of tourists away from another of your shops. Steve Kurzban and I both enjoyed the game enough to split an extra set, thus creating a 5/6-player expansion. We're of mixed feelings about the results - I think that the game works nicely with 5, OK with 6, and the extra pawns make the 4 player game better; he's less enthusiastic about playing with more than 4.

Linie 1 is perhaps the best game I know of that is fundamentally broken for me. The tile laying portion of the game is excellent - offering both offensive and defensive opportunities and interesting tile upgrades. However, a fatal flaw - conflicting goals - effectively sabotages this part of the game. I've read on multiple occasions that the race game is flawed or anticlimactic; I don't believe the problem is within the race game itself, however, but within the victory conditions. Players are given multiple goals:

* Create a short route.
* Create a route with few stops.
* Create a route quickly.

The race is then really nothing more than an attempt to score the game. However, every endgame I've seen (the Goldsieber and Mayfair races, plus at least three variations of these) falls short for two reasons. First, they cannot be anything _but_ anticlimactic - after all, all that is really happening is scoring (sometimes effectively adding a die roll to the result). But more importantly they don't really seem to reward meeting the goals of the tile play. Some systems reward minimizing the number of stops. Some systems reward speed. Some systems reward short routes. Most reward luck, in one form or another (it's worth noting that there is a wide range in the quality of starting positions). But I've yet to find one that rewarded me for playing.

Dorra has made heavy use of the basic Hol's der Geier mechanism, wherein simultaneously played cards earn various rewards for the players. Besides For Sale (which uses the mechanism for selling off properties), Olympia 2000 v. Chr., Razzia, and Zum Kuckuck all use some form of it. Olympia 2000 v. Chr. is built around the mechanism, as players choose athletes to perform in various events. Dorra adds two twists to the game, though - the athlete who finishes last gets to pick the event after next, and each athlete has a different rating in the 5 available events. Razzia uses a different form of the mechanism, where the cards played are not completing directly but instead are specific to a locale, where they will compete with other cards specific to that locale. In the context of the game, the locales are speakeasies, and the cards represent gamblers and policemen. In many ways Razzia is similar to Adel Verpflichtet, but with a bit less depth. Hick Hack in Gackelwack simplifies the money distributing part of the game, resulting in a much tighter and more interesting game - while at the same time enabling younger players to join in. In Zum Kuckuck, players try to avoid having their nests invaded by cuckoos - a difficult task when the better a hand a player has, the smaller the nest. In the game, two nest value cards are turned over each round, with the player choosing the highest card getter the lower of the two nest values, while the player with the second highest card gets the higher of the two nest values. Then the player with the highest current nest value (often not the player who took the highest card this round) gets invaded.

Njet! is yet another trick-taking card game, with the clever bit being that trump, partners, opening lead, the value of tricks and the like are determined by the process of elimination. This has the odd - and not particularly desirable - effect of frequently playing the hand where no one wants it. After a single play it was clear that the game wouldn't be coming out often enough to keep it around. Die Sieben Siegel also ventures into the trick taking category; it is a more traditional game, but as a result is far easier to bring out on occasion. Alles im Eimer is sometimes described as a trick taking game, but it's not; it's a pleasant elimination game. Pleasant is not a word I've ever heard used to describe Intrige, a negotiation game I've carefully and intentionally avoided.

Yucata is a very abstract "race" game, where winning the race isn't always the right move, but falling behind is almost certainly bad. Certain stones throughout the race count negatively - with each additional bad stone counting more negatively. Also on the abstract front, Um Kopf und Kragen is a zero-sum betting dice game, which is reasonably clever but somewhat less involving than Yucata. Players must spend some money every turn, and can spend additional money to try to improve their die rolls. However, only the player with the best die roll will take home any money.

Volle Hütte was one of the most silent releases of 1997, occurring between the Nuremberg and Essen fairs. It remains the only board game I know of themed around barhopping. Players work to build up their bars and attract customers, only to see them walk away (sometimes without paying) to the place up the street just because they have a pool table. The game is very much one of picking on your right-hand neighbor (since her departing customers see your bar first), and doesn't have any great depth to it, but it plays quickly and always seems to be enjoyable. The same can be said for Die Safeknacker, a 15-minute game about cracking safes. Players either build teams (to tackle the tough jobs) or use a team they already have to crack a safe - the leader gets the money, but has to pay out those they've contracted for the job.

Schwarzmarkt reminds me of Volle Hütte in some ways, but not as enjoyable. Players sell goods, with roughly no control of the price they'll receive, until eventually players run out of goods twice. I've heard some good things about the game elsewhere, but it never really worked for my gaming group. In contrast, Tonga Bonga is a fairly enjoyable and innovative game, but it has hit the table less often than Schwarzmarkt. In Tonga Bonga players race to different islands, trying to pick up bonuses for being the first to arrive. Each turn players have to decide how much to pay their crew, and after that where to place their own sailors to earn the most. Riffifi, one of Dorra's more recent releases, was a disappointment for me, as it's a very abstract chip taking game, two strong strikes against it in my book. The game works, such as it is, but unlike many of Dorra's earlier works it hasn't earned a place on my game shelves. Medina has proven to be an interesting game that suffers from the problem of gameplay revolving primarily around not setting up the player on your left, while taking advantage of the mistakes of the player on your right. This isn't a problem for a light game, but puts Medina in a similar category to Knizia's Samurai for me - not as interesting as other games with only two players, and too heavy for the set-up problem not to bother me with more players.

Of Dorra's games, I would recommend MarraCash and For Sale with no hesitation. Of the others, there is a group that I enjoy (Olympia 2000 v. Chr., Die Safeknacker, Volle Hütte, Die Sieben Siegel, Hick Hack in Gackelwack, and Zum Kuckuck) and would certainly recommend to fans of lighter, "filler" games. Linie 1 (or Streetcar) is worth trying as well, to see how the endgame works for you.

Dorra games I own, and always expect to: For Sale, MarraCash, Hick Hack in Gackelwack, Zum Kuckuck.

Other Dorra games I own: Olympia 2000 v. Chr., Die Safeknacker, Volle Hütte, Die Sieben Siegel.

Other Dorra games I might play: Alles im Eimer, Linie 1, Medina, Razzia, Tonga Bonga, Yucata.

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.

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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