German Game Authors Revisited - #8 - Alan R. Moon

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 See AGR's Links section for ways to access Usenet, the Internet's most underused resource.

From: Joe Huber
Date: Fri, 11 Jun 2004 10:51:17 -0400
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #8 - Alan R. Moon

This is the latest version of the eigth 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.

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.

Alan R. Moon

Games Covered:
10 Days in Africa (with Aaron Weissblum) (Out of the Box)
10 Days in the USA (with Aaron Weissblum) (Out of the Box)
Airlines (Abacus)
Das Amulet (with Aaron Weissblum) (Goldsieber)
Andromeda (Abacus)
Black Spy (Avalon Hill) (a.k.a. Gespenster- Hexagames)
Canal Grande (With Aaron Weissblum) (Adlung)
Clippers (Eurogames)
Eiszeit (with Aaron Weissblum) (Alea) (a.k.a. Mammoth Hunters - Rio Grande)
Elfengold (standalone game) (White Wind)
Elfengold (expansion for Elfenland) (Amigo)
Elfenkönig (Amigo) (a.k.a. King of the Elves - Rio Grande)
Elfenland (Amigo)
Elfenroads (White Wind)
Employee of the Month (with Aaron Weissblum) (Dancing Eggplant Games)
Europa Tour (with Aaron Weissblum) (Schmidt)
Fishy (White Wind)
Freight Train (White Wind / Mayfair)
King Lui (with Aaron Weissblum) (Abacus) (a.k.a. King's Breakfast - Rio Grande)
Knights of the Rainbow (with Aaron Weissblum) (FX Schmid USA)
Lumberjack (with Aaron Weissblum) (Schmidt)
Mush (White Wind)
New England (Goldsieber / Überplay)
Oasis (Überplay) (a.k.a. Oase - Schmidt)
Rainbows (White Wind)
Reibach & Co. (FX Schmid) (a.k.a. Get the Goods - US Games)
San Marco (with Aaron Weissblum) (Ravensburger)
Santa Fe (White Wind)
Ticket To Ride (Days of Wonder)
Tricks (White Wind)
Union Pacific (Amigo / Rio Grande)
Wer hat mehr? (Piatnik) (a.k.a. Where's Bob's Hat? - Rio Grande)
Wongar (with Richard Borg) (Goldsieber)

While Alan Moon is not German, he has become one of the most prominent authors of "German Games" in the world. His games have frequently appeared on the Spiel des Jahres recommended list, with Das Amulet receiving a nomination and Elfenland winning the award. In various roles he has been perhaps the single greatest influence in introducing "German Games" to an American audience. Much as is seen with Knizia, Alan's big releases seem to generate excitement even before they arrive.

Alan is one of the few authors to challenge Knizia in his re-use of game ideas and mechanics into multiple, independent games. One good example of this is the trio of Elfenroads, Elfenland, and Elfengold (the Elfenland expansion). While with the passage of time Elfenroads is no longer my favorite of Alan's games, it remains one of my very favorite games overall; it's different (the traveling salesman problem is not one commonly used to build a game), requires careful tradeoffs (between the roughly exclusive cash/token and card resources), and usually leads to a close, satisfying finish. Elfenland removes the problem of limited resources, leading to a satisfying family game that finishes in much less time. Elfengold effectively restores the game to Elfenroads, but with some new random elements and a smaller board. Each game has a different audience, really; I prefer to play Elfenroads myself, but I'd play either Elfenland or Elfenlandgold in preference if the audience or time requirements demanded it. King of the Elves is a noble effort to reduce the game to a cardgame, but I found that the emphasis on stockpiling, the vast difference between strength of cards, and the tendency to drag on left me always wishing I had chosen to play any of the boardgame versions instead.

Union Pacific is the most similar to its parent game, Airlines. There are minor rule changes - all easily applied to Airlines - but really only one major difference (the presence of Union Pacific stock) and much nicer components. That said - and with the understanding that I've only played Union Pacific once, having no great desire to repeat the exercise - I find Airlines to be the superior game. The rules changes generally do improve the game, but they are easily applied to Airlines. And while I'm not fond of the Union Pacific stock, it too could easily to grafted on to Airlines. However, I found the elimination of route numbers to make board play less interesting, the graphics on Union Pacific to be inferior (and I can't say I think much of those Airlines sports), and most seriously Union Pacific has the possibility to last too long. The one time I did play, because of the Union Pacific stock (the acquisition of which slowed down the game) and the final scoring card being nearly the last card turned, players were forced to build up other player's routes, and we very nearly reached the point where there was no legal play - no route could be played anywhere on the board. In my mind, this is a fatal flaw - I have little enough time for gaming that knowing I might find myself in this situation two hours into the game is sufficient reason for me not to play it, particularly when Airlines offers the same - or superior - pleasures without the problem. That said, there are fixes to the problem, and most people I know prefer Union Pacific.

As with Airlines and Elfenroads, I have a preference for the original Freight Train over the derivative Reibach & Co. / Get the Goods. Freight Train is a game of hand management, where players must work to both keep their own trains in order and leave few (or undesirable) options for the next player. In Get the Goods, the hand management aspects have mostly been eliminated, though the collection and acquisition portions of the game largely remain. I find Freight Train to offer far more to do, and far more ways to do it - in Get the Goods, there is much more often a clear and obvious choice. Additionally, I find the 2x cards (which double the scoring of a set) in Reibach troublesome, as the rules as written make them far too powerful - the person who gets the most will usually win - and we've finally settled on a 3 action cost to draw them, and 2 action cost to play them. Get the Goods makes a fine lunchtime game - but given the time I still prefer Freight Train. In fact, over time Freight Train has grown to be my favorite of Alan's games.

Alan has designed a number of card games, most of them with a familiar feel to them and all of them reasonably enjoyable, if not always standouts. Black Spy is an interesting hearts variant, somewhat troublesome in that it's very hard to get off lead, but still enjoyable and better suited to odd numbers of players than the original. Rainbows is a derivative of rummy, with the twist being that scoring occurs in two different, independent ways. Tricks is a trick taking game with a twist; it's not bad, but I find that it's niche (partnership card game that handles 5 players) is better filled with other games, as a result of which it slipped off my play list relatively quickly. Wer hat mehr?, which has been cited by Alan as his favorite of his own games to still play, is an enjoyable Oh H*ll! variant with perhaps the worst graphics of any card game I've ever played. Where's Bob's Hat improves the graphics and adds a small twist - the dealer chooses before the hand to add or subtract 10 from the last player to take a trick with a hat in it (the 14s and 15s have hats). Where's Bob's Hat? has been a particularly good game for drawing in new players, I've found - it's familiar enough to make players comfortable while still different enough to provide some novelty.

During the time Alan primarily co-designed games with Aaron Weissblum, they have created a number of very clever games - many of which have missed my tastes. Das Amulet is a particularly clever game, forcing players to weigh both the viability of combinations of abilities and the tradeoff between more abilities or stronger ones; however, the jewel collection theme didn't draw me in as much as the rest of the game. San Marco makes excellent use of the classic you cut - I choose problem, but here I found the board play a distraction. For this reason, I prefer the 2 player cardgame Canal Grande. Lumberjack provides an interesting collection of games using one set of pieces, but the games themselves are to abstract to really capture me. Eiszeit again offers a very clever mechanism, requiring players to balance good plays for themselves with good plays for others, but as with San Marco the board play leaves me cold. Europa Tour I found far more to my liking, offering an interesting variation on games such as Racko; it's not nearly as innovative as some of their other offerings, but I enjoy it more. I actually prefer either of the 10 Days in... games, though, as the cleaner graphics more than make up for the change from boats to cars in my opinion. Even better is New England, which provides both a novel mechanism and novel boardplay, and already is my second favorite of their games together. Players must balance choice against cost, and present scoring against preparing for the future, leaving few easy choices and a very satisfying experience. My very favorite of the games Alan and Aaron have designed together, though, is King's Breakfast - a very simple game, but an amazingly well balanced one, and my second favorite filler (behind just For Sale).

Andromeda is often knocked for the "ashtray", a randomizing device used to resolve conflict, but I actually found it pleasant - it was the associated card play that really didn't work for me. And while I can see what others enjoy about Wongar, the theme failed the game for me.

Besides Elfenroads and Freight Train, there were five other big-box White Wind games published, four of which I've had the pleasure of playing. Santa Fe, which uses a mechanism derived from Wildlife Adventure in a new and innovative setting, is among the best games I've played. It offers the tension game designers stride for - nearly every turn offers a tough decision as to whether to go after immediate returns or long term gains. Santa Fe has recently been re-released as Clippers and Santa Fe Rails; I've only played Clippers, and again found it to not quite live up to the original for my tastes. Elfengold and Fishy, the original White Wind releases, can't match Santa Fe but are enjoyable games in their own right, and well aimed at the family market. Both are at heart bluffing games, and good examples of the genre. I didn't particularly care for Mush, Alan's cleverly themed dog sled race game, but in general dice games don't tend to be favorites of mine. Between that and the negotiation aspect of the game I've never been tempted by Elfenwizards.

Returning to games Alan codesigned with Aaron Weissblum, Oasis is an interesting set collection game with what I find to be a fundamental flaw - the card varience overwhelms the possible varience in the number of cards offered. The game works perfectly well in spite of this - but for me it fails to excite as a result. Employee of the Month struck me similarly - a nice little game, but not particularly exciting. To be fair, Employee of the Month has an auction mechanism central to the game, which usually isn't ideal for striking my fancy.

Alan's latest hit is Ticket To Ride, a very cleverly designed train game, offering interesting choices for both gamers and families alike. With one of the most straight-forward rule sets among all of his games, Ticket To Ride is among the most addictive - once I brought it in to work for lunchtime play, it hit the table every day for three weeks.

Five of Alan's games are among my very favorites, and therefore easy recommendations: Elfenroads, Freight Train, King's Breakfast, Santa Fe, and Ticket To Ride. Given the price difference, Elfenland plus the Elfengold expansion makes a perfectly acceptable substitute. I'd also recommend Airlines (or the easier to obtain and more popular version, Union Pacific), as well as recent hit New England and the non-gamer friendly 10 Days in the USA. Finally, while none of Alan's card games stands out to the extent his boardgames do, all of them are enjoyable and worth considering for fans of the genre. In particular, I'm always happy when Where's Bob's Hat? hits the table.

Moon games I own, and always expect to: Airlines, Elfenroads, Freight Train, King's Breakfast, New England, Santa Fe, Ticket To Ride, Wer hat mehr?

Other Moon games I own: 10 Days in Africa, 10 Days in the USA, Black Spy, Canal Grande, Elfengold, Elfenland, Fishy, Get the Goods, Rainbows

Other Moon games I might play: Clippers, Employee of the Month, Mush, Oasis

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.




German Game Authors Revisited - #9 - Rudi Hoffman by Joe Huber