German Game Authors Revisited - #9 - Rudi Hoffman

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From: Joe Huber
Date: Fri, 11 Jun 2004 10:58:47 -0400
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #9 - Rudi Hoffman

This is the latest version of the ninth 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.

Rudi Hoffman

Games Covered:
Café International (Mattel / Relaxx / Amigo)
Café International Kartenspiel (with Roland Siegers) (Amigo)
Dorada (Ravensburger)
Fröscheln (Klee)
Ganovenjagd (Schmidt)
Halali (Kosmos) (a.k.a. Tally Ho! - Rio Grande)
Heuchel und Meuchel (Hans im Glück)
Janus (Spear / franckh)
Maestro (Hans im Glück)
Minister (Pelikan / TM Spiele)
Ogallala (Pelikan / ASS / Amigo) (a.k.a. Up The Creek - Waddingtons)
Rette Sich Wer Kann (Kosmos) (a.k.a. Crocodile Pool Party - Rio Grande)
Satellit (Berliner Spielkarten)
Schmugglerjagd (Spear)
Schuß und Tor (Berliner Spielkarten / Franjos)
Schützenfest (Pelikan)
Siesta (by Guido Hoffman) (Goldsieber)
Spiel der Türme (Schmidt)

Rudi Hoffman? For many English-speaking German game fans, the name is not a familiar one. Look at your favorite list of the best games, and you'll have to go a long way down the list before you see Hoffman's name. On the other hand, Hoffman has a Spiel des Jahres award (for Café International, in 1989) to his credit, and he's been nominated on multiple other occasions. In many ways, Rudi Hoffman is the German equivalent of Sid Sackson or Alex Randolph; while his impact on current game design is perhaps less prominent, his role in the growth and development of the industry is comparable.

As it's the award winner - and apparently the most well known - among Hoffman's games, I'll start with Café International. Café International is, in fact, very representative of Hoffman's games. The rules are simple - players place tiles (each representing a man or woman of some nationality) at tables in a restaurant, with the restriction that each tile place must score and a limited number of seats available for each nationality. It's clearly in the realm of family game, and doesn't offer much readily apparent opportunity for strategy. However, like most of Hoffman's games it offers more than meets the eye. The strategies aren't deep, but there are choices to be made about when to play 1 rather than 2 tiles, which tiles to start with, whom to send to the bar (when no scoring can occur, one person must go to the bar to wait - generally scoring negatively), and when to replace wild tiles (which count negatively if held at the end of the game). It's certainly not a deep game, but it does offer enough meat to be enjoyable. My game group actually prefers Café International Kartenspiel, which plays very similarly but offers a more rapidly changing environment.

Maestro, which was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in the same year as Café International, is actually a better game in my opinion. It is again a tile laying game, although here players are trying to fill bands to perform ten different songs. The opportunities for strategy are somewhat greater, as players take musicians into their agency (where signing them to small contracts makes them vulnerable to be stolen by other players) before placing them on the board, allowing for a bit more control then in Café International. Maestro is also a shorter game, finishing in 15-20 minutes with experienced players (about 15 minutes faster than Café International), and to my tastes a better game.

Ogallala is yet another tile laying game, although in the case of Ogallala the tiles are actually cards. Players work to form complete canoes, with short canoes guaranteeing a score but large canoes filled with goods necessary for big payouts. There is even less control in Ogallala as in the other games, as players simply draw then place cards - but there's still some reasonable amount of strategy in the placements.

Janus is yet another tile game, although he they are removed. Janus is an abstract, mechanical strategy game, as players decide how best to use the randomly laid out board to their advantage. Because all the data is available up front, Janus isn't a very good fit for players (such as myself) who enjoy having a game move along at a good clip - the whole of the game is calculating your best move each turn. With fast players, the game was bearable; with player who choose to go one level deeper, I couldn't play it. Spiel der Türme offers a similar feel, but with somewhat faster calculations. The abstract nature was still enough to fend me off, though I wouldn't be unwilling to play it.

In contrast, Heuchel und Meuchel isn't a tile game, isn't too deep for what it is, and didn't do anything for my gaming group the one time we tried it. It's a simple movement game, where players can capture pieces of lower rank which have ascended to the same height on the board. We looked for the hidden depth, and perhaps it's there but we never saw it. The game seemed to have been completely decided by the random setup. Minister is another movement game (players work to reach special spaces on a track effectively shaped like a Q), and one that's been accused of also missing depth. In my experience, however, Minister does offer some reasonable amount of choice - many or most die rolls allow players a choice of movement - and while luck plays a significant roll, the strategy chosen also matters.

Having had some luck with Hoffman's games, I picked up Satellit on a whim. It fits right in with Minister, although here rather than moving along a track players move through increasing orbits, before performing their exploration and returning to Earth. The game offers fewer opportunities for clever play than Minister, but was entirely playable and reasonably enjoyable.

Rudy Hoffman has designed a number of abstract two player games, of varying interest and quality. My favorite is easily Tally Ho!, a well-themed hunters-vs.-animals game that is also a favorite of my son. Ganovenjagd has a cops vs. robbers theme, and also works well, if providing somewhat fewer interesting options. Schmugglerjagd and Schuß und Tor are another step down on the interest scale; both are acceptable games (the former themed around jewelry smugglers, the later a very simple soccer game), but feel dated. Crocodile Pool Party's primary redeeming quality is the enjoyment my son gets from it; I don't mind it, but would generally rather play something else.

Like most game authors, Hoffman has designed race games. I've tried two - Dorada and Fröscheln. Dorada, like many of Hoffman's games, is very abstract, and while unobjectionable didn't thrill me. Fröscheln on the other hand offers a theme (frogs hopping toward the princess) and just enough choices to make for a very pleasant game.

Finally, Schützenfest. Schützenfest is a card game. It's similar to many of the games noted above in that the rules are straightforward, and the game can reasonably be described as a family game. But again, there's more to the game than meets the eye; players are shooting at targets with the choice of hitting exactly (with one or more cards) or playing one card less than the target; hitting a target scores the target but once a player has no legal plays they are out for the round, scoring their remaining cards negatively.

For lack of a better place to put this, I'll also note that Siesta is the first published game designed by Rudi Hoffman's son Guido. It is an abstract tile placement game that has captured even me - and I'm no fan of abstracts. Players compete to form the longest shadows over their houses, with just two restrictions - suns can't be directly adjacent to shadow, and players must score something during their turn. Guido Hoffman has since had a second game, Halleluja, published, but I haven't played it.

While none of Rudi Hoffman's games are in my top ten, Tally Ho!, Maestro, and Schützenfest are close and among my very favorite short games. As an added bonus, the latter two games play very well with three players (I believe Schützenfest is actually better with three than four); I'd recommend giving all three games a play. While Café International, Fröscheln, Minister, and Ogallala aren't quite as good, they are enjoyable games which easily keep their place on my gaming shelf. It's most important to note that Hoffman has created a collection of games that feature luck as a major component; if you can live with that, the clean designs and opportunities they provide for strategy can be very enjoyable. It's easy for me to see why a number of Hoffman's games have been re-released - sometimes after more than a decade out of print.

Hoffman games I own, and always expect to: Maestro, Ogallala, Schützenfest, Tally Ho!

Other Hoffman games I own: Café International, Café International Kartenspiel, Crocodile Pool Party, Fröscheln, Ganovenjagd, Minister, Schmugglerjagd.

Other Hoffman games I might play: Dorada, Spiel der Türme.

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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