German Game Authors Revisited - #11 - Alex Randolph

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From: Joe Huber
Date: Fri, 18 June 2004 10:51 am
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #11 - Alex Randolph

This is the latest version of the eleventh 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.

Alex Randolph

Games Covered:
Breakthru (3M)
Die heiße Schlacht am kalten Buffet (Ravensburger; a.k.a. Monsterfressen - Simba)
Die Osterinsel (Blatz)
Die Verbotene Stadt (Ravensburger)
Enchanted Forest (Ravensburger)
Hol's der Geier (Ravensburger; a.k.a. Raj- Winning Moves)
In Teufels Küche (FX Schmid)
Indiscretion (Piatnik)
Inkognito (Milton Bradley)
Mini Inkognito (Abacus)
Prärie (Pelikan; a.k.a. Buffalo - Piatnik)
Ricochet Robot (Hans im Glück / Rio Grande)
Ricochet Robots (Abacus / Rio Grande)
Rüsselbande (Drei Magier)
Sisimizi (eg Spiele)
Twixt (3M / Avalon Hill / Schmidt / Kosmos)
Venice Connection (Drei Magier)
Würmeln (Blatz)

In memory of Alex Randolph (1922-2004).

Alex Randolph was probably best known in the United States for Twixt, one of the truly classic games from 3M that is still in print (at least in Germany) today. But his one Spiel des Jahres win is actually for Sagaland, released as Enchanted Forest in the United States. In the meantime, he also earned two Spiel des Jahres special awards for children's games and designed some of the most mentally challenging games for adults - and some of the least mentally challenging games still appropriate for adults. The state of German games today owes much to Alex Randolph, both for his designs and for his leadership.

The king of Randolph's "children's" games is Enchanted Forest, a memory intensive game that is soundly in the realm of "family games", but which can be played and enjoyed by adults. Can be, but isn't all that often; while some game descriptions (such as negotiation-game, chip-taking-game, trick-taking-game) will scare off some number of gamers, I've found few that cause gamers to scurry away more readily than memory-game. And while Enchanted Forest offers some number of strategic possibilities, it's not enough to compensate for the memory elements for many gamers. Fans of children's games shouldn't pass up the even-lighter Rüsselbande, particularly the large edition, with it's simple gameplay and fun, stacking pigs.

A number of Randolph's other light offerings tend to be better enjoyed by gamers. Hol's der Geier is a wonderfully simple bluffing game, and one game whose influence has been widely felt. The game simply consists of everyone choosing one item from their initially identical hands, and the prize going to the player who picked the highest card - or the booby prize picking to the player who picked the lowest card. But ties are ignored on either end. Hol's der Geier, like most of the games it has spawned, has one annoying property - it can be played randomly. And once any player starts playing the game randomly, it does break down somewhat. This would be tolerable if random play could be proven not to be the best choice for all individuals, but a player who feels they are weak at outguessing other players will often feel that random is optimal, in my experience.

One of my favorite gaming experiences at the Gathering was actually in a game of Hol's der Geier. The "10" prize card - the biggest prize - was turned over as the first or second card. All four players chose their cards, and revealed them - only to reveal all four ones, the lowest cards in player's hands.

Würmeln is Randolph's own contribution to the world of Hol's der Geier-inspired games, and it's a good one. Each player chooses a number of spaces to move their racing worm, and each unique choice gets to move. Of course, one choice gets to change the finish line, adding significantly to the confusion. All in all it's a fun game, and a good one for introducing children to more adult games - my four-year-old son has no real difficulty in playing Würmeln, albeit perhaps non-optimally.

Also among Randolph's lighter, more family oriented games is Die Osterinsel, a racing game set on Easter Island, wherein players must balance advancing their statues (your statue must finish first or second in the race to have a chance of winning) with adding weight to your statue (among the statues which do finish first or second, the heaviest statue wins). It's really not much of a game for adults - it's over a little too fast - but it includes some of the best pieces ever, the plastic statues players must race. However, yet another Randolph game includes my single favorite set of pieces, the devils and infernal oven of In Teufels Küche. The game is relatively straight forward, as players race to deliver food to the over-devils, while avoiding delivering milk. The wonderful oven, which resolves battles between opposing players' devils, and the way the game lends itself to casual play both make this game a true hit, and a great decompression game after something heavier. Top Secret is essentially the same game without the great bits or odd theme, roughly the equivalent of a cone without the ice cream.

Die heiße Schlacht am kalten Buffet is as close to a gambling game as I've found that I can stand. Players race around a buffet table, trying to pick up as much food as they can, without being sent back to the start for cutting in line. On a turn, players may roll one, two, or three dice, and may move a number of spaces equal to the number of dice rolled times the sum - if the sum is 7 or less. If the sum is greater than 7, that player must go back to the end of the line. All in all, it's a fun, light filler, different enough from other games as to be worth the occasional play.

Before getting to Randolph's heavier, abstract games, I should mention Mini Inkognito, a simple deduction game that doesn't really fit in well with Randolph's other works. While I enjoy some deduction games, Mini Inkognito didn't do much for me; it was too light for my tastes, and only made it out for a single play.

Randolph's heavier games all tend to be very abstract, with a puzzle-like atmosphere to them. Among the two player set, Twixt is certainly the most well known in the United States, and has remained popular since its introduction. The game involves building fences across the game board, with one player attempting to build North-South and one East-West. I find that among Randolph's contributions to the 3M line I prefer Breakthru, a game wherein one player tries to move his special piece to the edge of the board, while the other player tries to prevent this. It's a fast, elegant game that we've frequently played on game days when waiting for a third player to arrive.

Venice Connection takes elegance to the extreme, consisting of just 16 two-sided tiles, and challenging players to complete a canal. The tiles are very nice - they earned the game a special Spiel des Jahres award, and deservedly so - but the game is one that in my experience can only hold player's attentions for so long. The same might be true of Prärie; I haven't played it enough yet to know for certain. Prärie is actually more reminiscent of Breakthru, in that players with different pieces are trying to accomplish conflicting goals. One player gets the buffalo, and must get one across the board to win. The other player must, with just his Indian (which is the only piece that can capture) and four dogs, prevent this. The pieces for the game are particularly nice, being made of wood and easily identifiable by their shape. I don't know if Randolph had any particular say in the components for his games, but overall they do stand out.

Of course, having said that I should point out Moonstar, an Avalon Hill offering which stands out only negatively on that front. It is a rather heavy thinking game, and I've seen it compared on that account to Ricochet Robot. I don't buy that comparison, though, as Ricochet Robot is a game that I've found inviting from the start, and which with negative preconceptions I quickly grew to enjoy. The game has a few real plusses as a game - among them, it handles any number of players readily, and it truly rewards skill. However, this reward is a curse as well, as players of unequal skill will see wildly different results, and those who dislike puzzles won't take well to the game at all. Those who enjoy the game should try out the contest puzzles on the Hans im Glück web site - there's a pointer on Brett & Board. Die Verbotene Stadt is very similar to Ricochet Robot, a clear precursor - and to my mind a clearly inferior game. The game board is much more congested, and the equivalent of far more "robots" are available, making the game far less eloquent.

Perhaps the least puzzle-like of Randolph's heavier games is Sisimizi, the ant-trail building game. Each player must connect a group of their anthills, located in different areas (with a limited set of placements available in each area); the first player to connect wins. The game is fairly enjoyable, but we didn't find it came out often - and I have heard (though never seen) that a stalemate can occur in a three-player game (but not with two or four players, from what I understand).

Indiscretion is an odd "game" - it's really just a deck of cards with the suits marked on the back, and the rules for a few games using the deck. One of those games, Bonus-Malus, is reasonably interesting, and the second edition contained an additional set of games I'm looking forward to trying once I have them translated.

Among Randolph's games, while Ricochet Robot (or Ricochet Robots) isn't for everyone. Those who do enjoy it tend to be very passionate about the game. I would also recommend Breakthru, Würmeln, and In Teufels Küche. Enchanted Forest, Hol's der Geier, and Twixt are classics, and for that reason are certainly worth trying out. Hol's der Geier is particularly useful to have played in order to gain a better appreciation for the mechanism it pioneered in German gaming. Finally, fans of filler games should be sure to give Die heiße Schlacht am kalten Buffet a try.

Randolph games I own, and always expect to: In Teufels Küche, Indiscretion, Prärie, Ricochet Robot, Ricochet Robots.

Other Randolph games I own: Die heiße Schlacht am kalten Buffet, Enchanted Forest, Würmeln.

Other Randolph games I might play: Breakthru, Die Osterinsel.

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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