German Game Authors Revisited - #12 - Sid Sackson

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 10:52 am
Subject: German Game Authors Revisited #12 - Sid Sackson

Foreword:
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This is the latest version of the twelfth 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 13th, 2004.

Author:
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Sid Sackson

Games Covered:
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A Gamut of Games (Random House / Dover)
Acquire (3M / Avalon Hill / Schmidt)
Bazaar (3M / Schmidt / Klee)
Beyond Solitaire (Pantheon Books)
Beyond Tic Tac Toe (Pantheon Books)
Beyond Words (Pantheon Books)
Black Monday (Hexagames)
Buried Treasure (F.X. Schmid)
Business (Relaxx)
Buyword (Face2Face)
Can't Stop (Parker Brothers / Franjos)
Card Games Around the World (Dover)
Corner (Ravensburger / Aladdin)
Die Chinesische Mauer (Piatnik)
Fish and Chips (Piatnick)
Gold Connection (Schmidt)
Jati (3M)
Kohle, Kies & Knete (Schmidt) (a.k.a. I'm the Boss - Face2Face)
Massai (Abacus)
Metropolis (Ravensburger)
New York (Piatnik) (a.k.a. Property from A Gamut of Games)
Samarkand (Abacus / Rio Grande)
Sleuth (3M / Avalon Hill / Face2Face)
Das Super-Blatt (F.X. Schmid)
Take Five (Gamescience)
Venture (3M / Avalon Hill) (a.k.a. Die Bosse - F.X. Schmid)

In memory of Sid Sackson (1920-2002)

Bob Claster has created a very good site dedicated to the games of Sid Sackson here; I'd recommend visiting this site in conjunction with reading this article.

There are very few game designers in the same class as Sid Sackson. While he's only won one Spiel des Jahres award, that's far more a factor of the fact that he'd been designing games for over thirty years before the award existed than it is a reflection of the quality of his games. (It's also worth noting that seven of his other games received nominations.) I am not the biggest fan of Sackson's games - in many cases, I've found that other authors have designed games more to my taste utilizing the innovations Sackson brought to the field - but at the same time I have tremendous respect for his pioneering work in the field. But even if I ignored my respect for him, he'd still rank among my favorite game authors - he authored a number of excellent, fun games.

Any discussion of Sid Sackson must start with Acquire. Acquire was the first "adult" game I ever played, and still remains among my all-time favorite games. The central mechanism - trying to gain the first or second most shares in companies - has been reused countless times. And the board play, while not as ubiquitous, certainly has appeared elsewhere, in games such as Shark. One cannot really claim to be a fan of German games without at least trying Acquire - there's a good reason it's stayed in print for nearly forty years.

I generally dislike dice games. Liar's Dice, a favorite of many, does almost nothing for me; a quick listen to the rules is enough to scare me off most others. But Can't Stop is among my favorite of all Sackson's games; it is a wonderfully simple blending of the luck of dice with human nature, and for that reason it succeeds for me where other dice games have fallen flat.

I recently learned of two variants for Can't Stop created by Sackson himself which I don't recall having seen elsewhere. The first is a "fast" variant - players skip over opponent's markers as they make progress. The second is a "slow" variant - every space is used as usual, but a player may not stop with a white marker on top of another player's piece. While Can't Stop is so well designed as to require no variants to be highly enjoyable, I do intend to try these out at some point.

Sackson also developed Gold Connection, a boardgame using many of the same principles as Can't Stop. Players take on the role of bank robbers, and must balance their greed with the ever increasing possibility of losing their loot as they try to continue moving with increasingly full armloads of gold. While not as elegant a game as Can't Stop, it's comparably enjoyable, and a nice alternative to the original.

Bazaar isn't a game I should like - it's both completely abstract and subject to over-analysis. But for some reason I do; I think the puzzle aspect of Bazaar appeals to me enough to overcome my reservations. Samarkand, a tweak on the Bazaar mechanism, appeals to me even more as it feels less abstract. Both games involve trading with a neutral party, a mechanism than Sackson has managed to carry off particularly well. Over time, Samarkand has become my single favorite of Sackson's many designs, though Acquire remains awfully close.

Face2Face games will soon be releasing Buyword, a word game that I understand is a favorite of Bernice Sackson, Sid's wife. While I am not usually attracted to word games, I had the chance to play it recently, and found it very enjoyable. Face2Face is also releasing a new edition of Sleuth, a clever deduction game. Jati was another Sackson design that was never really released during his lifetime, which is unfortunate - it's not a bad little two player abstract game. Nothing spectacular, but good enough that I decided that it would be fun to play it five times in 2002 (all over the course of the few days I had access to a copy) so that it could appear on my 5+ list for the year.

While Venture did not originally appeal much to me, I gave it another try a couple of years back and found it more enjoyable than I had originally. Business, which was originally known in prototype form as Plan Ahead (a much more appropriate name for the game), was one of the first two releases by Relaxx in 1998 - and a year later the company was out of Business. Which is a shame, since Business is an interesting auction game. It's not a category of games that I'm particularly fond of, but the auction mechanism used guarantees that everyone will get something. All players must balance their knowledge of the future values of the various colors, their knowledge of the scarcity of the colors, their expectations of other players, and their knowledge of player's holdings to determine the best bid. The game is very abstract, and the money isn't particularly easy to deal with - we generally just have players keep their cash and bids on a sheet of paper - but in spite of these flaws I find the game quite enjoyable.

Most of Sackson's other abstract games don't work nearly as well for me. They each have some appealing central mechanism - many of which other authors have refined into games I quite enjoy - but the games end up being too dry for me to really enjoy. Black Monday, originally published in Card Games Around the World, is a great example. The multiple uses for cards - either as stock shares or to influence the stock market - is a wonderful innovation. But the game itself does nothing for me - it is slow and uninvolving, and it quickly hit my trade pile. Contrast this to Yukon Company, which also applies multiple uses to each card, and which I really enjoy. One other game that falls into this category for me is Buried Treasure (a.k.a. Das Super-Blatt, although Das Super-Blatt is missing the variant rules which do improve Buried Treasure). Buried Treasure is the oldest game I can think of (in Das Super-Blatt form) to use changing scoring by rounds in order to allow players to pursue either short term or long term goals readily.

Kohle, Kies & Knete is among Sackson's most popular games; I know many people who consider it to be indispensible. It has been described, and reasonably so, as the ultimate negotiation game. But I'm no fan of negotiation games in general, and Kohle, Kies & Knete hits on all the things I least enjoy in negotiation games. Metropolis isn't nearly as much of a problem for me, but the negotiation aspects have kept it from being a favorite, and kept it from receiving much play or much favor.

Thanks primarily to Dan Blum, I've had the opportunity to try many of Sackson's lesser-known designs in the last few years; after playing them, I've generally not found it difficult to understand why they aren't better known. Fish and Chips is a rather math-heavy abstract reminiscent of Fish Eat Fish. Corner's a reasonably clever abstract, which didn't bother but didn't thrill. Die Chinesische Mauer is a clever abstract tile laying game, that really would benefit from a stronger theme. At least I remember something of the game; while I did play Take Five, I remember nothing of the experience. I'm hoping to have better luck with Massai, another two player abstract I picked up on the basis of having reached Adam Spielt's discount list.

Sackson has authored a number of books full of games; two - A Gamut of Games and Card Games Around the World - remain readily available, and are strongly recommended. Many of the games in the books have gone on to be published, such as Property (published as New York); and A Gamut of Games provides a number of designs from other designers, some of whom are otherwise unpublished. I've only seen one book from his Beyond... series, Beyond Solitaire, but it's a particularly interesting book, presenting a set of new, different, and innovative solitaire games.

Among Sackson's games, Acquire and Can't Stop are acknowledged classics, and are not to be missed. I'd also recommend Business, Bazaar, Gold Connection, and Samarkand, and would never pass on any of Sackson's books. Buyword, Sleuth, Jati, Venture, and Metropolis are also enjoyable games, and recommended to those interested in their respective genre. Anyone who's interested in the design of games would do very well to examine all of Sackson's games; those who prefer just to play games won't hurt themselves by doing likewise. Even Sackson's games that I'm not fond of playing are innovative, and well worth the time of a play or two.

Sackson games I own, and always expect to: Acquire, Bazaar, Can't Stop, Gold Connection, Samarkand.

Other Sackson games I own: Business, Massai, Sleuth, Venture.

Other Sackson games I might play: Buyword, Corner, Jati, Metropolis.

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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