German Game Authors Revisited - #6 - Reiner Knizia

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, 4 June 2004 11:01:52 -0400
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #6 - Reiner Knizia

Foreword:
=========
This is the latest version of the sixth 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 June 1st, 2004.

Author:
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Reiner Knizia

Games Covered:
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Africa (Goldsieber / Rio Grande)
Amun-Re (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Attacke (FX Schmid)
Auf Heller und Pfennig (Hans im Glück)
Clash of the Gladiators (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Digging (Hexagames) (a.k.a. Gold Digger - Out of the Box)
Drachenland (Ravensburger / Rio Grande)
Drahtseilakt (ASS)
Durch die Wüste (Kosmos)
En Garde (Abacus)
Euphrat & Tigris (Hans im Glück / Mayfair)
Ferkelei (Schmidt)
Feuer Schlucker (Ravensburger)
Flinke Pinke (Amigo) (a.k.a. Quandry - Milton Bradley)
Formula Motor Racing (Gibsons)
Goldrausch (Hans im Glück) (a.k.a. Gold Digger - Out of the Box)
High Society (Ravensburger / Überplaz)
Honeybears (Piatnik)
It's Mine! (Winning Moves)
Katzenjammer Blues (Goldsieber / Rio Grande)
Das Letzte Paradies (Franckh)
Lord of the Rings (Hasbro / Kosmos)
Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (Kosmos / Rio Grande)
Lost Cities (Kosmos)
Medici (Amigo / Rio Grande)
Merchants of Amsterdam (Jumbo)
Modern Art (Hans im Glück / Mayfair)
Mole Hill (Blatz)
Money (Goldsieber / Rio Grande)
Neue Spiele im alten Rom (Piatnik)
Ohio (Jumbo)
Palmyra (eg Spiele)
Quo Vadis (Hans im Glück)
Ra (Alea / Rio Grande)
Res Publica (Hexagames / Queen)
Rheinländer (Parker)
Samurai (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Schotten-Totten (ASS)
Stephensons Rocket (Pegasus / Rio Grande)
Taj Mahal (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Too Many Cooks (R&R Games)
Traumfabrik (Hasbro)
Trendy (W&L)
Tutanchamun (Amigo)
Vampire (Goldsieber / Rio Grande)
Wheedle (Out of the Box)
Zero (Berliner Spielkarten)
Zirkus Flohcati (Amigo)

You know, I like the idea of updating these articles on a regular basis. For some authors, that is an easy task - they are releasing no or very few new games, so it's just a matter of reporting on the other older games I've caught up with. With Reiner Knizia, it's like trying to hit a moving target - he designs games faster than I can type. For those counting, I noted 48 games on the list above - without trying to hit everything. Well, more than that, really, since Neue Spiele im alten Rom contains 14. What's even more impressive than Knizia's output, though, is the amount of positive attention it's received. Knizia's games rate extremely well on Aaron Fuegi's Internet Top 100 Games list, on BoardGameGeek, and everywhere else where boardgame ratings are collected. While Knizia still hasn't taken home a Spiel des Jahres award, he has seen many of his games on the recommended list; his performance with other awards such as the International Gamer Awards has been more in line with his reputation.

All that said, Knizia is not my favorite game author. Like all of the authors who I'm covering, he's among my favorites - but compared to many in the hobby I feel like a detractor. I've always found it humerous that in AltaVista's Babelfish translator, Reiner Knizia is translated to "Pure Knizia"; pure is a word I've often ascribed to the mechanics of Knizia's games. The problem I find is that this elegance often leaves me with the feeling that the theme is irrelevant to the game, which in turn causes me to enjoy the game less than I might otherwise. Still, there is much to recommend his games.

Euphrat & Tigris represents, in my opinion, Knizia's best job of weaving together the game mechanics and the theme; as such, it is my favorite of his games. The game does a marvelous job of depicting the rise and fall of civilizations, and I find the mechanisms for resolving internal and external conflicts fascinating. I've heard complaints about the amount of luck in the draw of the tiles, but I've found that clever play can usually take the sting out of bad luck; I've also discovered over time that there is a notable skill element to the game which comes to the forefront in a game stocked with experienced players. Since the opportunity for clever play is another element I look for in the game, it's no surprise that it's among my favorite games overall.

Since Euphrat & Tigris is often considered as part of Knizia's tile-laying trilogy, it only makes sense to note the other two presently. Samurai is a passable game, wherein players attempt to gain control of two of the three factions available by exerting more influence over them in various locations in Japan. Even playing with open scoring - which I'd recommend - I find the game just average. During the game, play is often either a matter of taking advantage of opportunities offered, or avoiding leaving opportunities for the next player (as much so as is possible). Given the odd scoring effects noted elsewhere (Peter Sarrett put together an excellent example in The Game Report), it's not destined to be a favorite of mine. I feel Durch die Wüste is a better game, offering a fascinating abstract tile (well, camel) placement game with sufficient scoring opportunities to allow for success when employing varied strategies. It's definitely a game that grew on me with repeated play - I was not particularly fond of it at first - and while it's never going to be a favorite because of the inherent abstractness of the game, it is a game I expect to be playing occasionally for years.

While Auf Heller und Pfennig is a much older game, it too is a tile laying game, and therefore is worth noting here. Players try to place their markets for maximum profit, while sending thieves, vandals, and even an evil eye after their opponents. The game is very abstract and mathematical; it's a game I enjoyed at first, but one that was never played much and didn't age particularly well. Rheinländer is yet another game with a tile laying aspect. It's a game which struck me well at first, but which faded altogether too quickly; I'd still play it, but no longer own it and don't miss it. Stephensons Rocket is still another tile laying game, tied to an Acquire-like set of stock mechanisms. It's an odd game for me - there are a number of things about the game I enjoy, but there is an element of needing help from opponents that often leaves me frustrated by the game. Still a good game, but it will never be a top favorite because of this.

Africa is not a tile laying game, but instead a tile removal game - all the tiles are laid out at the start of the game, and removed during the course of the game. Africa has received a mixed reception since its release; as one of my favorite games, I've probably written as much about the game as any I've never formally reviewed. I'm closing in on my 50th play of the game, and my opinion remains unchanged - it's a fantastic game, with just the right balance of luck and opportunity for skillful play. Unfortunately, many people only see the luck, and dismiss the game, never noticing the ability to plan ahead for very profitable sequences of moves over multiple turns. I still discover something new about the game every few games - not deep new revelations, but small strategic improvements available based upon particular situations. Clash of the Gladiators, while not a tile laying game or anything like it, is another that I've found far more interest in than most. The game is a simple dicefest, in the best meaning of the term - lots of fun dice rolling, lots of long-odds gambles, and enough game to keep players coming back. It's not for those who can't stand the thought of rolling a die, or those who can't handle randomness in games, though.

Modern Art, Medici, and High Society have been referred to as Knizia's auction trilogy. Like many auction games, they can suffer as games when one or more players bid irrationally. High Society is the least prone to these problems, since the effect of irrational bidding is primarily the elimination of the irrational bidder, and as such is easily my favorite of the group. It also has the advantage of being the shortest; at most, 15 auctions will take place to determine the winner. The mechanism is very simple - for property with a positive value, the high bidder wins; for property with a negative value, the first player to drop out takes the property, but everyone else pays. Medici is nearly as simple; over three rounds, players acquire goods of five varieties, scoring for the value of their goods in each round with bonuses for collecting many goods of a particular type. Here, wild play can have a greater effect, but still the game tends to keep this in check. In Modern Art, however, winning bids are paid to the auctioning player - which has the effect of amplifying the effect of wild play, often in unexpected ways. With experienced players, I'm assured that it's a great game - but I haven't seen it, and the dry subject matter and play don't give me any great incentive to seek out such an opportunity. Of course, I don't tend to care for auctions as a primary mechanism for a longer game - in a shorter game, I don't find them a problem, but I'd rather they be a supporting device, rather than the basis for the game.

Merchants of Amsterdam is another Knizia auction game, not part of the trilogy but actually a better fit for it than High Society. The unusual reducing-cost auctions work very well, but my general dissatisfaction with games containing only auctions kicks in. Traumfabrik invokes a similar reaction from me - it's not an unpleasant game at all, but one with too many auctions. Taj Mahal employs yet another different auction mechanism, incorporating a game of chicken into the proceedings - and thus pushing my reaction from mediocre to dislike.

Amun-Re is a far better fit for my tastes, and I do in fact enjoy the game quite a bit more. Of course, the main improvement from my point of view is the limited number of auctions - while they are critical to the game, they aren't the sum and substance of the game. It's Mine! is in essence another auction game - but with only two bids (bid or pass) possible. With no defined turns, the game moves along very quickly, as players try to collect the most points in each round. While no challenge to my favorite turnless game (Pit), I do enjoy It's Mine! enough to keep around. Ra shares the theme of collecting various objects with It's Mine!, but adds a more traditional auction. The game has received much praise, but I felt it to be a bit random, and not particularly to my tastes. While Ra is clearly the more complex and deep game, I prefer the rapid pace and unusual approach of It's Mine!.

Knizia, like most game authors, has designed an extensive set of card games. Trendy is a particular favorite of mine, being popular with non-gamers and enjoyable for gamers. As the name implies, the game is themed around going with trends - which leads to a mechanism that allows players to keep the leader in check by bucking trends he attempts to set while providing sufficient incentive for following any established trends as to keep the leader closely involved. Feuer Schlucker employs a similar play mechanism with vastly different scoring, but didn't stand out nearly so well. While my memory of Feuer Schlucker is fading quickly, all I can remember of Zero at this point is that it was unobjectionable, and that I didn't feel the need for a second play. Wheedle, on the other hand, I tried multiple times in hope of finding value in. The game is a variation on Pit, with some nice innovations (scoring is more interesting and set up such that the player going out isn't necessarily the player scoring best for the round) and one rule that killed the game for us - players may trade with each other, or swap with a central card. This rule is critical to the game - cards matching the central card count negatively - but left us always trading with the central card because it was significantly more efficient. My reaction to Too Many Cooks was similar, but at a better level - the game works perfectly well, and is enjoyable, but I was hoping for something better from it - as trick taking card games go, it's not sufficiently good for me to bother playing it. Drahtseilakt offers a more interesting twist on a trick taking game, penalizing the high and low players to each trick and scoring based upon balancing high and low penalties.

Attacke is a simple card game, but not one that either clicked with my gaming group or made any lasting impression - we tried it twice, and while it worked it didn't inspire any desire for further play. Vampire I found even less enjoyable, and hasn't managed a second play. Res Publica, in contrast, has become a favorite of my group and of mine as well. The game is a simple trading game, using two separate decks of cards and limited trading rules to keep the action moving. I would recommend any of the later releases of the game in preference to the original Hexagames version; the changes made since the that release have made minor but not insignificant improvements to the game. While Money was a 1999 Spiel des Jahres nominee, I found the game very bland in two playing, and haven't been tempted to play it again. Other opinions on the game have been split about evenly.

Katzenjammer Blues, another card game from Knizia, is reasonably interesting in its play save for what I feel to be a serious flaw - the game ends just at the point it's starting to get interesting. Regardless of the number of players I played with, I found that the game was over just as players were really beginning to have meaningful play options. I've considered trying the game with two decks, but given my poor single copy experience I've never been able to convince myself to spend the money. Ohio, which in many ways has less to it, worked better for me as a game. The game is in the tradition of The Great Dalmuti (which itself is in the tradition of Karriere Poker and other games), but with the minor twist of an additional card that is just a teeny bit smaller than the previous card played, and a scoring system based on the value of tricks taken. It's a game which never went over very well with my game group, however, and while I enjoyed it I wasn't so fond of it to keep it anyway.

En Garde, while also fueled by a deck of cards, is really a two person board game, with the cards only serving to effect the movement and actions of two fencers. For a game with such a simple mechanism driving it, En Garde manages to provide a reasonable feel of fencing, at least for someone who's not a particular fan of the sport. Lost Cities is Knizia's latest entry into the field of two player games; unlike En Garde, it has a board, but also unlike En Garde, it's at heart a card game. Players play or discard a card, trying to build long and valuable adventures (ideally with lots of financial backing, which can double, triple, or even quadruple the value of an adventure), and then draw a card, either from the stack or a discard from one's opponent. It's a very simple looking game, but I found it to be quite enjoyable, though the enjoyment faded after the first twenty or so plays. Mole Hill, in contrast, wore on me fairly quickly. One player plays the mole, trying to remain free; the other the farmer, trying to fence the mole in. Players then reverse roles; the more successful mole wins. It's not a bad game at all, but I found there were relatively few options. In addition, the game felt very abstract, which didn't help. Schotten-Totten left far more options, and works much better for me as a result. A very simple set of hand strength rules results in quite a deep little game, with quite a bit of deduction possible and plenty of room for skillful play. I've never played the sequel, Battle Line, but don't particularly care for the sound of the changes, as I'm quite fond of the simplicity of the original.

Ferkelei is perhaps the strangest game of Knizia's that I've played, being nominally about pigs but as abstract as any of his games. It also has some of the weakest mechanics I've seen in a Knizia game, with few real choices to be made. While I've heard a number of positive comments about Drachenland from people whose opinions I respect, I didn't find much more in the game than in Ferkelei. Honeybears, which like Drachenland looks like a children's game, is in contrast among my favorite of Knizia's games, offering plenty of choices and enough length to offset the majority of the luck-of-the-draw issues.

Flinke Pinke (which has since been re-released in 3,721 different editions) and Das Letzte Paradies are, like many of his games, based upon perceived value; in the simply produced Flinke Pinke, players have some limited control over values and the end of the game, whereas in the lavishly produced Das Letzte Paradies players participate in auctions over the course of the game in order to act upon their perceptions. In my opinion both games make for good fillers. Zirkus Flohcati might be an even better filler, providing an interesting game with some strategy that can be played in under ten minutes. In the game, players draw cards, trying to form melds of three while retaining one high card in each of ten suits. Players may give themselves more choices, but only at the risk of losing their turn; a small number of action cards serve to better balance for the luck of the draw.

Tie-in products had rather a poor reputation on the whole when Knizia took on the task of designing a Lord of the Rings game - but no more. Knizia designed a masterpiece - a cooperative game that broke much new ground while still providing an experience that could be enjoyed by the mass market audience the game has reached. Of course, between my general lack of interest in cooperative games and lack of current interest in Lord of the Rings, the game did nothing for me. In contrast, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is little more than a Stratego variant, but is much more to my tastes - not a favorite, but one I would play if my opponent suggested it.

I've had the chance to play two "race" games by Knizia, Formula Motor Racing and Tutanchamun. Neither is a race game in the traditional sense; Formula Motor Racing uses cards to modify the order of the cars in the race; only the order matters. In Tutanchamun, the race "track", as it were, is a series of objects that players are collecting. I've only played Formula Motor Racing once, and must admit no particular desire to add to that total; the game isn't bad at all, but I found no spark to it. Tutanchamun, on the other hand, became a minor favorite of mine before repeated play caused the game to wear on me. Players have unlimited choice as to how far they move; while this could lead to a very long game with the wrong choice, we've always found the game to move right along. It's also one of the better three player games I've played.

Palmyra is notable primarily for it's modeling of supply and demand, which is rather elegant. The game itself suffers in my opinion from an inordinate degree of luck combined with a lack of control; it's a game I felt I just drifted through when I played, with no real way to influence how things would turn out. That can be acceptable when the experience justifies the amount of time spent (I find Sindbad and Dry Gulch to be enjoyable games for the experience of playing them, for instance), but with Palmyra the experience itself is rather dry. Quo Vadis suffers from a different problem, albeit one that is easily solved. As published, all scores can be calculated, which can lead to a stalemate as players find they have no incentive to negotiate. (The fix - I don't honestly remember who suggested this, but it may have been Nick Sauer - it simply to put tokens on the board face-down.) As negotiation games go, Quo Vadis isn't bad, but I'm not particularly fond of the genre and my gaming group is not at all fond of it, so it's never been very well received. It's worth noting that although the game claims it can be played with three to five players, three players really doesn't work.

Last, but not least, there is Knizia's game collection, Neue Spiele im alten Rom. I still have yet to play all the games, but those I have played include a number of decent selections, with Imperium standing out. Many of the games are similar to other Knizia games released individually (Ohio and Medici both bear a striking resemblance to games from the collection, for example), but I still find the number and variety of games make the collection a worthwhile choice.

My original impression of Knizia, when I'd played enough of his games to form an opinion, was that he's the ultimate designer of filler games. While I've since found other favorite authors who seem to specialize in fillers, such as Dorra, it is still largely Knizia's shorter games which capture me. Tutanchamun, Das Letzte Paradies, Flinke Pinke, Lost Cities, Zirkus Flohcati, High Society, Imperium (from New Games in Old Rome), Trendy, Drahtseilakt, Honeybears, and even the deeper Durch die Wüste, Africa, and Res Publica are all fine games, easily playable in 30 minutes, and I would recommend all of them. Amun-Re, Stephensons Rocket, and Clash of the Gladiators are each a bit longer, but also recommended. My strongest recommendation for a Knizia game, however, must go to one of his longer games: Euphrat & Tigris. It's worth noting that most Knizia games have a fan base; while I'm not fond of Modern Art or Taj Mahal, and can take or leave games such as Medici, Samurai, and Ra, I've heard enough acclaim for them as to suggest trying them.

Knizia games I own, and always expect to: Africa, Clash of the Gladiators, Durch die Wüste, Euphrat & Tigris, High Society, Honeybears, Neue Spiele im alten Rom, Res Publica, Zirkus Flohcati

Other Knizia games I own: Amun-Re, Drahtseilakt, En Garde, Flinke Pinke, It's Mine!, Das Letzte Paradies, Lost Cities, Schotten-Totten, Stephensons Rocket, Trendy, Tutanchamun

Other Knizia games I might play: Feuer Schlucker, Goldrausch, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, Mole Hill, Ohio, Ra, Rheinländer, Samurai, Too Many Cooks, Traumfabrik

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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