German Game Authors Revisited - #3 - Doris & Frank

Editor's Note: Academic Gaming Review is 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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Newsgroups: rec.games.board
From: Joe Huber
Date: Fri, 28 May 2004 10:52:24 -0700
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #3 - Doris & Frank

Foreword:
=========
This is the latest version of the third 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 March 7th, 2004.

Author:
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Doris Matthaus and Frank Nestel

Games Covered:
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Au Backe (Zoch)
Banana Republic (Doris & Frank)
Dicke Kartoffeln (Abacus Spiele)
Eselsrennen (Doris & Frank) (a.k.a. Bunny Zick Zack - FX Schmid)
Igel Ärgern (Doris & Frank)
Mü und Mehr (Doris & Frank / Amigo / Rio Grande)
Pico (Doris & Frank)
Pico 2 (Doris & Frank)
Tante Tarantel (Doris & Frank)
Urland (Doris & Frank)
Ursuppe (Doris & Frank) (plus expansion)
Vendetta (Hexagames)
Zoff im Zoo (Doris & Frank) (a.k.a. Frank's Zoo - Rio Grande)

(In addition to these games designed by Doris & Frank, Doris has done the artwork for a wide variety of games, including multiple Spiel des Jahres winners.)

The most notable component of Doris and Frank games are the hedgehogs - they take a starring role in Igel Ärgern, but are also present in some form throughout their whole catalog. My game group once even considered the appellation "Hudson Hedgehog Gamers" based on our enjoyment of Doris and Frank's games (not to mention the fact that one member of the group had a hedgehog as a pet).

Doris and Frank (the game company) is the primary publisher of games by Doris and Frank (the game designers). In most cases, the image this would draw of home-produced, DTP-quality games would be rather accurate - as much as I love db Spiele productions, for example, there is clearly a homemade feel to them. Not so with Doris and Frank (the game company again) games - the productions are polished and professional. Of course, since they are a small press this does affect the prices.

So do the games justify the greater expense?

The first Doris & Frank game published was Dicke Kartoffeln, one of just a handful of Doris and Frank games available from a different publisher. It's a business game about farming potatoes, with two different winning conditions available - a dollar win and an environmental win. It's worth noting that there are major differences between the first and second edition releases - among them, the first edition supports only four players (versus six in the second edition) and the second edition includes English instructions and combined winning conditions (for those who prefer a single winner). Business games aren't always favorites of mine, and Dicke Kartoffeln was no exception.

Also appearing the same year was Eselsrennen, a simple donkey racing game. I've never been fond of race games where you choose (or are given, as in this case) a desired order of finish, spending the game trying to make this order of finish occur. Perhaps for this reason, Eselsrennen is my least favorite Doris & Frank game.

The next Doris and Frank game released, Igel Ärgern, was a notable step forward, and for about five years stood out as the best of their releases. It's a simple hedgehog race game, where each turn players roll a die, optionally slide one of their own hedgehogs sideways, and then advance any hedgehog in the row they rolled. What sets the game apart, though, is the 40 variations (with room for more), which can be combined in far more ways than you'll ever get to play. One of the more odd combinations we've played is Last Hedgehog Standing, with black holes (instead of pits to fall into - and eventually get out of - there are black holes which remove hedgehogs from the game permanently), the ability to slide anyone's hedgehog sideways, and wrap-around. This leads to a very silly game, perfect for six players who have tired of the same old hedgehog race.

While Tante Tarantel isn't a classic, it's a rather enjoyable family game. Players have three bugs that they must attempt to get out of a spider's web - but the randomly controlled spider has a real knack for finding bugs. Interestingly, Tante Tarantel has gone over better every time I've brought it out with gamers; it's also grown on me more over time, and has become a favorite for my older son. Vendetta is more aimed at the gamer market, with players trying to keep their mob families in power. Unlike Tante Tarantel, Vendetta went over poorly the first time out, and didn't make it out a second time.

Banana Republic is a cute filler, in which players try to gain influence over local politicians through dollars, local money, assassins, and journalists (who ensure that politicians only take bribes in the local currency). There's a notable memory element to the game, as players can gain only a limited amount of information each turn, but it's not overwhelming and the game only runs for about 15 minutes.

Doris and Frank debuted Mü und Mehrin 1995. is one of the few trick-taking card games to stand above the crowd, as the mechanisms it offers (changing partners, card value varied but not tied to trick-taking ability) work very well together with either four or five players. I would recommend getting the original Doris and Frank or latest Rio Grande version both for the hedgehog suit (replaced by fish in the Amigo version) and The Last Panther, a hearts variant that was cut in the Amigo release. The Amigo release is notable for the bid cards (now in the Rio Grande edition as well, I believe), however, which help those unfamiliar with the bidding and scoring. After much play, I am now beginning to worry about the long-term replayability of , as the compensation for a bad hand (largely the wide variety of choices in trump) doesn't make up for the typically flat distribution (a result of the deck chosen) or the inability to gain key pieces of information from the bidding. Having said that, I still consider it to be a very good and enjoyable game.

Pico and Pico 2 are two versions of a simple, silly card game for two (with a three player, two deck variant I haven't tried). The Java version on the Doris & Frank web site is not to be missed, but it's also a nice way for two players to pass a minute or two. Frank's Zoo, the a more recent release, has split the gaming community somewhat - some like the partnership and hedgehog/lion rules, others decry it as nothing more than a The Great Dalmuti rip-off (of course, it's more true to Career Poker, which came out before The Great Dalmuti, than it is of The Great Dalmuti, but so be it). For my money, I like Frank's Zoo the best of all the games it expands upon, for a few reasons. One, the cycles are different, and add uncertainty to the value of some cards, a plus in my opinion. Second, the artwork is very appealing. And third, it provides a meaningful scoring system. That said, I enjoy it without the partnership rules or hedgehog/lion rules, but that's just my preference.

Competing with for their most popular release is Ursuppe (and the "Fresh Spice" expansion). This is the second "big" game Doris and Frank have attempted on their own, and unlike Fugger, Welser, Medici this one has been a big hit, selling out on numerous occasions that I'm aware of. The game itself is really very American in feel - there's a series of steps which every turn is comprised of, a fair bit of randomness, lots of player interaction, and something of a wargame feel to it (though "War of the Amoebas" doesn't quite have the right ring to it). The expansion, which adds numerous new genes to the pool, also allows the game to be played with 5 or 6 - and does a far better job with handling the additional players than I expected. The scoring mechanism speeds the game up some with more players, which successfully counteracts the effect of often have more amoebas on the board. I fear that because of the length, Ursuppe has passed through the gaming community rather more quickly than I would have liked - it takes a bit of pushing each time to get it to the table, even though it's always enjoyed once it makes it that far.

The thematic sequel to Ursuppe is Urland, which has more emphasis on board play and scoring and less on the genes. While I enjoy the game, I found that for me it paled in comparison to Ursuppe - and I couldn't help making that comparison as I played.

Finally, Au Backe is an interesting memory game, aimed firmly at children, which can reasonably be considered the Zicke Zacke Huhnerkacke card game. While it's unlikely to be a hit with hard-core gamers, it's among the best games for younger children to play with adults without anyone getting too bored.

Doris and Frank no longer release games with quite the regularity they once did, which is unfortunate - the three major releases during their period of greatest activity (, Ursuppe, and Frank's Zoo) were all quite good, and easy recommendations. From the remainder of their catalog, Igel Ärgern and Tante Tarantel clearly stand out, and I enjoy Banana Republic though it has never been a big hit. I remain hopeful that as Doris and Frank settle into parenthood they will return to a more regular release schedule, as their games are always interesting, and frequently classics.

Doris & Frank games I own, and always expect to: Frank's Zoo, Igel Ärgern, , Tante Tarantel, Ursuppe.

Other Doris & Frank games I own: Au Backe, Banana Republic, Pico, Pico 2.

Other Doris & Frank games I might play: Urland, Vendetta.

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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