German Game Authors Revisited - #10 - Wolfgang Kramer

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, 18 June 2004 10:37 am
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #10 - Wolfgang Kramer

Foreword:
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This is the latest version of the tenth 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 9th, 2004.

Author:
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Wolfgang Kramer

Games Covered:
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6 Nimmt! (Amigo) (a.k.a. Take 6 - U.S. Games)
Abenteuer Tierwelt (Ravenburger) (a.k.a. Wildlife Adventure)
Athos (franckh)
Auf Achse (FX Schmid)
Auf Achse - Das Kartenspiel (FX Schmid)
Big Boss (franckh)
City (Jumbo)
Daytona 500 (Milton Bradley)
Der Dreizehnte Holzwurm (with Michael Kiesling) (Queen)
El Caballero (with Richard Ulrich) (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
El Grande (with Richard Ulrich) (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Evergreen (with Michael Kiesling) (Goldsieber / Rio Grande)
Expedition (Queen) (a.k.a. Terra-X)
Forum Romanum (franckh)
Die Fürsten von Florenz (with Richard Ulrich) (Hans im Glück) (a.k.a. The Princes of Florence - Rio Grande)
Goldland (Goldsieber)
Das große und das kleine A... (Amigo) (a.k.a. Who's the A... - Phalanx)
Das große Unternehmen Erdgas (Ravensburger - Promotion)
Heimlich & Co (Ravensburger) (a.k.a. Under Cover)
Holiday AG (FX Schmid)
Hornochsen (Amigo)
In 80 Tagen um die Erde (Ravensburger) (a.k.a Around the World in 80 Days)
Mitternachtsparty (Ravensburger) (a.k.a Midnight Party, Ghost Party, Hugo - Das Schlossgespenst)
New York, New York (FX Schmid)
Nizza (Schmidt)
Das Phantom (Amigo)
Pueblo (with Michael Kiesling) (Ravensburger)
Der Schatz des Pharaos (Berliner Spielkarten)
Terra Turrium (franckh)
Torres (with Michael Kiesling) (FX Schmid / Rio Grande)
Tycoon (Jumbo)
Versunkene Stadt (with Michael Kiesling) (Clementoni) (a.k.a. Sunken City - Überplay)
Viva Pamplona (FX Schmid)

There is really only one author who can rival Klaus Teuber in terms of recognition by the Spiel des Jahres jury and Deutscher Spiele Pries voters - Wolfgang Kramer. With the selection of Torres in 2000, Kramer won his unprecedented fifth Spiel des Jahres; Raja has recently been chosen as a 2004 nominee and offers Kramer his first chance at his sixth award. Kramer has designed family games and gamer's games, abstract games and themed games, card games and board games. He has also collaborated extensively with Richard Ulrich and Michael Kiesling and others in recent years, creating some very memorable games in the process.

Two of Kramer's collaborations with Ulrich have proven particularly successful; El Grande is not only a Spiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Pries winner, but also one of the best regarded German games ever - evidenced for example by its lofty position in the Internet Top 100 Games List. One of my most memorable gaming experiences ever occurred playing El Grande, and I still enjoy the occasional play it receives. In the game players vie for control of Spain; the game feels more like a wargame than most German games even though the war elements are very abstract. The game is propelled by the choice of five actions made available each turn, and the tough decisions to be made in balancing available caballeros, deployed caballeros, and the actions. The biggest complaint I've heard about the game is that it's too abstract; while I can understand that opinion (I've held it about many games myself), the theme in El Grande works for me.

El Caballero hasn't received the same degree of praise as El Grande, and reasonably so, but it does do a fine job of re-using the theme in a new and different way. Because of the endless expansions recent Spiel des Jahres winners have generated, there's a tendency to overlook El Caballero, when in fact it's a wholly different game; it's just the theme that was re-used. El Caballero particularly stands out with three players, often a difficult number to find a game for. However, it is even more abstract than El Grande, which bothers many people and has limited my opportunities to play the game.

Rivaling El Grande in its regard among gamers is the Kramer / Ulrich offering Die Fürsten von Florenz, which was a hit from the start and has only grown in stature over time. It's not a game that will appeal to everyone - there is a strong multiplayer-solitaire aspect to the game, and it's not a light game. Basically, players are working to develop their villas in such a way as to allow their artisans to produce great works while also setting up to steal away other artisans and score whichever bonus opportunities they have picked up. The game particularly appeals to me in offering lots of choices to players. One of the most admirable qualities about the game in my opinion is the way in which the theme is interwoven - while it is a complex game, it is not hard to explain and players understand the rules quickly.

I'm must admit that among Kramer's collaborations with Michael Kiesling I've never played three of the most well known - 1999 Spiel des Jahres winner Tikal, and the thematic sequels Java and Mexica. I have played the related game Torres a number of times, and after initially enjoying the game found it faded for me. The equally abstract Pueblo hasn't even managed a second play; both games are quite good but just fail to appeal to me enough to bother with. I played Evergreen fairly soon after it was released, and also found it too dry - the theme was appealing but the game didn't emphasize the theme. The most recent Kramer / Kiesling design I've played is Sunken City, which incorporates a number of interesting ideas and some very nice components, but again failed to engage. My favorite game designed by this team is Der Dreizehnte Holzwurm, a simple cardgame which I didn't try until 2003 and have yet to play again, but which rockets up to "keep an eye out for a copy" status. This puts it a significant step ahead of the other four games, none of which I currently own or feel any need to.

Kramer has a clear, stated appreciation for Acquire, and it shows. Big Boss was explicitly designed as a tribute to Acquire, and it gives its predecessor a run for its money. It's been described as a 1-D Acquire, but that's not really true - while the game is played on a line rather than a rectangle, height has been added as a new dimension in the game. I enjoy Big Boss quite a bit as a game - it offers a number of interesting decisions, since there are advantages to adding to a large chain early and to adding to it late, as well as to buying cards to increase future options. And it must be said - Big Boss has, in my opinion, the best packaging ever designed for a game. Holiday AG is another Acquire-like game, albeit a much less interesting one. Players work to connect groups of travel destinations, in a series of truly one dimensional boards. After two plays, neither of which clearly demonstrated that anything other than good luck was a winning strategy, the game hit my trade pile. Tycoon also hit my trade pile fairly rapidly, although it has much more going for it than Holiday AG. The biggest problem we had with the game was that it wasn't engaging - we performed our actions, built up our positions on the board, and didn't feel any desire to do so again after the first few plays.

Kramer has designed a number of card games, but for some reason I haven't played many; one of the few I've played is 6 Nimmt!, which is a fun, light game in the Hol's der Geier family. It's a big hit with my family, which is always a plus, and has gone over well with my game group after the brain cells have stopped firing. I have also tried the sequel, Hornochsen, and while theoretically offering more strategy it definitely offers less game. Not that it's bad at all - it just fails to engage at the same level as the lighter 6 Nimmt!. Der Schatz des Pharaos is mostly a card game, a reworking of Around the World in 80 Days. It has garnered very mixed reaction, but I enjoy it as a filler/closer. And it's a great example of the value of small packaging; I like both games about equally, but kept Der Schatz des Pharaos and traded Around the World in 80 Days, because the latter takes up far more shelf space. Das große und das kleine A... isn't a bad game, but the artwork really isn't appealing, and the name of the re-release doesn't help.

Wildlife Adventure, which has been updated and re-released as Terra-X and then Expedition, is a classic German game, with interesting decisions in a family-friendly game. It's also my favorite game I can't win. I've played the game about 20 times, but have won all of once, in spite of half those games being 2 or 3 player games. Most gamers I know seem to prefer Expedition, which removes the event cards; I've never played the game in the Expedition format, so I can't compare them. Das große Unternehmen Erdgas feels like a predecessor to Wildlife Adventure, in that players are working to play connected pieces to reach destinations. However, it plays as more of a track-building game, wherein players lay natural gas pipe in order to deliver make deliveries across Germany. I've only played twice, which is about enough to say (1) the game doesn't work for 2 players, in spite of what the box says - you really want 4 or 5, and (2) the basic game works reasonably well; we thought the event cards might add to the game, but haven't gotten around to trying the game with them yet. If you really like the Wildlife Adventure system or track building/delivery games, Das große Unternehmen Erdgas might be worth keeping an eye out for.

Auf Achse won the Spiel des Jahres; I think otherwise the game would be long forgotten. Not because it's a bad game, mind you - I enjoy it quite a bit, at least so long as there aren't too many players - but because it has a number of design elements that make gamers cringe - a die roll for movement, something of a multiplayer-solitaire element other than for the auctioning of contracts, event cards of wildly varying goodness, and so on. I've heard the game described as N-Rails without the track building, which isn't a very enticing description. In spite of this, the game succeeds at the family-game level; good route planning and careful evaluation in the auctions is rewarded. Under Cover also won the Spiel des Jahres, and would be even more likely to be forgotten if not for that. It's actually a fun closer - the attempts to avoid giving away too much information early causes players to do reasonably silly things, which when combined with the desire not to think too hard can be rather enjoyable. While Viva Pamplona didn't win a Spiel des Jahres award, it's an even more enjoyable light game, and one of the rare games that works best with a full complement of six players. There is some strategy to the game, in which players always try to stay just in front of the bull, but the game is still clearly dominated by luck. Midnight Party is another light Kramer game that seems to draw people in - my only play was quite enjoyable, if not sufficient to put the game on my purchase list.

The Top Race/Daytona 500/Niki Lauda's Formel 1/etc. series of games is very well regarded; I'm not a particular fan of racing games, so I've only played Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix and Daytona 500. I can't say my game of Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix was a terribly memorable experience, but it was played with what may be too many players (six). I do enjoy Daytona 500, but it doesn't seem to come to the table very often. Athos is an interesting little game of monks climbing a mountain; nothing great, I think, but I've kept it around for a second play. City, a simple economic game where players work to maximize their income from shops in a city (and more than vaguely reminiscent of Marracash, although there are very significant differences), has one of the least attractive boxes I've seen, and one of the oddest set of reactions. I played it three times; one time the group enjoyed it quite a bit, the other two completely panned it. Since I agreed with all three assessments, that was enough.

And then, there are the other games. Kramer has designed a huge number of games over the years, and not surprisingly there are a number that just don't appeal to me. Terra Turrium is basically a far less interesting predecessor of Torres. Das Phantom is a family game themed around The Phantom of the Opera, and we couldn't get through it and on to the next game fast enough. Forum Romanum is an abstract game with beautiful pieces, but not one that's interesting enough to have made it to a third play. Finally, Auf Achse - Das Kartenspiel isn't really a bad game - just not a terribly interesting one. It's not dissimilar to Mille Bornes, but not quite as interesting. New York, New York is a timing game that didn't thrill me; I found Schacht's Banditos a much better choice in that genre. Goldland is an exploration game that also is in danger of being set aside for another designer's improvement - Lost Valley uses the limited carrying capacity much more thematically and produces a better game as a result, though Goldland is entirely playable and a good choice for those enjoying puzzle aspects.

Wolfgang Kramer has, over the course of his career, developed so many interesting and innovative games that it's very likely that anyone who enjoys German games will find some that appeals to her. The comparison to Knizia is interesting; both have developed a very large number of strong games, with Kramer having built far more theme into his while Knizia has stripped his games down to the pure strategy level. Which of these styles will appeal more depends strongly upon the individual gamer, but there can be no doubt that both have contributed significantly to the current state of game design.

My choices among Kramer's games are fairly easy: Auf Achse, Big Boss, Wildlife Adventure, Die Fürsten von Florenz, El Grande, and Viva Pamplona! are all favorites of mine, though none is currently among my very favorite games. While I haven't played it, I'm getting the itch to finally try Tikal, and I wouldn't be shocked to see it enter the above list. And I am really looking forward to Raja, which I hope will add to what I already believe to be a very strong year for new games. In general, one can't go far wrong trying Kramer's award winning and award nominated games.

Kramer games I own, and always expect to: Auf Achse, Big Boss, Die Fürsten von Florenz, El Grande, and Viva Pamplona, Take 6, Wildlife Adventure.

Other Kramer games I own: Daytona 500, El Caballero, Goldland, Der Schatz des Pharaos.

Other Kramer games I might play: Athos, City, Der Dreizehnte Holzwurm, Evergreen, Das große Unternehmen Erdgas, Hornochsen, Midnight Party, Pueblo, Sunken City, Torres, Tycoon, Under Cover.

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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