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A Kniziaphile's Collection
Joe Gola
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Knizia's games strike a chord with me. There is always always some little spark, some combination of fun and cleverness about his designs that makes me eager to play them again. It seems to me that the underlying systems in his games do not just provide goals for the players but facilitate connections between them so that they feel that they are interacting in subtle ways, and yet at the same time they can always accomplish something satisfying for themselves on their turns—if there isn't a short-term success or a step in a larger strategy, they can at least have the fun of taking a risk or making a significant decision. These systems also often provide a kind of personality to the game so that it seems to have a life of its own, where players are not just struggling amongst themselves but must also swim in a common current that is somewhat predictable but sometimes surprising.

Even more, it always strikes me that there is some kind of underlying idea at work behind the designs. They're not just collections of mechanisms that successfully facilitate ~90 minutes of competition, they also highlight some element of human nature and let the players...you know...play with it. The tensions in his games somehow resonate with truths about the outer world and ourselves, like the need for balance, the pain of choosing between equally desirable paths, the destructive force of conflict, the value of cooperation, or the advantage of anticipating trends.

Part of the affinity might be that we both come at the concept of gaming from the same direction. I am a card player at heart, and I believe that most of Knizia's designs have the card game as their model and so incorporate the best qualities of that type of game: high variability from play to play, lots of player interaction via the mechanisms of game, and a blend of luck and strategy. For that reason, it never fazes me much if I read about someone's dislike of Knizia's designs, because I know they're not for everybody; if a person has never found any enjoyment in games like spades or gin rummy, I rather doubt that they'll ever be big fans of Euphrat & Tigris or Taj Mahal. There are some exceptions to this rule, though; Through the Desert, one of the doctor's favorites of his own designs, is a purely spatial game like chess or go.

There's something else that I think trips people up with respect to Knizia, and that is that most of his games are "scalable to interest level," you might say, in that players can play the game either casually or seriously, and the game will work both ways. I've even seen Euphrat & Tigris played as a "take that" game, believe it or not. Knizia's games tend to have streamlined rules (he prefers to put the complexity in the scoring) and tend not to be overly computational or send players through a lot of if-I-do-this-and-he-does-that hoops in the way that Puerto Rico or Princes of Florence might. What all that means is that folks who don't put much stock in Knizia will often dismiss his games as fillers or luckfests after only one play. I mean, if there's no labor required in taking your turn or you can't map out all the possible consequences, it's not a "serious game" right? Sadly, this is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy; if you don't think about the game, then it becomes dumb. In other words, Knizia might just be a little too subtle for his own good. Personally I feel like many of his so-called fillers and family games have a lot more scope for thought than a lot of people give them credit for, even if they do have luck involved. Jay Little called this the "veneer of simplicity."

Anyway, what follows is the catalogue of the Reiner Knizia games in my collection and my thoughts about them. I can't really pretend that I'm any kind of Knizia expert, since there are many games on this list that I've only played once or twice, but hopefully I've figured out something halfway interesting to say about most of them.

There are some notable absences from my collection, so before anyone says "how can you call yourself a Kniziaphile and not have a copy of _______?" I'll just mention them preemptively.

Samurai: I've played this once face-to-face and a few times on MabiWeb. It's a game I'd like to have for the collection, but I don't know if I like it quite enough to buy it, considering that it's fairly expensive. It's neat in its way, but it does have that "you have to police the guy on your left" thing which I'm not that fond of. Great Wall of China or King's Gate might be cheaper alternatives.

Lord of the Rings/Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation: I'm not a fantasy enthusiast and I have to admit I've never read Lord of the Rings. I'm sure the game is perfectly enjoyable even if one hasn't read the book, but...well...I'm just not into the whole hobbit thing. Sorry.

Medici: I've played twice and I didn't care for it much; it just felt too calculational. Strangely, though, I do enjoy Medici vs. Strozzi, which is equally mathy, if not more. I guess I don't mind that kind of thinkiness in a two-player game, since a two-player game is bound to be faster and you're not going to lose a hard-fought game because of someone else's mistake.

Colossal Arena: I haven't tried it but I'm planning to pick it up the next time it's convenient.

Stephensons Rocket: Played twice and, to be honest, I'm just not sure I got it. I don't usually care much for games with no random element or hidden information, so I'm not sure how much I'll ever warm up to it. That said, I'll probably buy the new Rio Grande remake when it comes out.

For more fun with Reiner K., please see these excellent geeklists:
"Chris Ranks the Knizia Boardgames" by Chris Farrell: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/786
"Me and My Knizia" by Kane Klenko: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/9332
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1. Board Game: Africa [Average Rating:5.99 Overall Rank:2647]
Joe Gola
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Africa, Goldsieber/Rio Grande, 2001
2–5 players, 50–60 minutes. Players move their pawns across the board and uncover precious jewels, mysterious tribes, beautiful crafts and exotic animals.

A fun family game that does a great job of creating an "exploring" vibe. It's all pretty light, though there are still some things to think about; obviously players are trying to cover more territory than their opponents, and deciding how to best use the base camps can be tricky. Additionally, there are small ways that players can mess with each other if they're clever, such as moving an animal or nomad somewhere that interferes with a prime base camp location.

The first time I played was under interesting circumstances, because the game we played immediately beforehand was Lost Valley. Two games about exploration—one very heavily themed, the other relatively abstract—and what struck me was that while Lost Valley contained all the details of exploration, the game that made me actually feel like I was exploring was Africa. Adding landscape tiles in Lost Valley is a dry tactical decision, whereas in Africa I actually felt a little thrill of discovery in turning over the chits. This, to me, is the essence of what makes Knizia a great designer.

That being said, there is one problem with the game, which is that the rules are far too unintuitive and hard to explain given that the game has a lightness that clearly makes it geared more towards family play. Even seasoned gamers may find themselves struggling to understand just what the heck it is they're supposed to do.
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2. Board Game: Amun-Re [Average Rating:7.38 Overall Rank:174]
Joe Gola
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Amun-Re, Hans im Glück/Rio Grande, 2003
3–5 players, 90 minutes. An economic game set in ancient Egypt in which the primary goal is to build pyramids, though there are other sources of victory points as well. Unique provinces are auctioned, players buy farmers and pyramids for these provinces, and at the end of each round players make sacrifices to the god Amun-Ra to earn favors and a bountiful harvest.

Yes, yes, the weaving hut. I know.

My Kniziamania was not yet fully developed when Amun-Re came out in 2003, and I remember thinking "Why bother getting that one? Everyone else is going to have a copy." A half a year later I said to myself "hmm, great game, nice Hans im Glück production, I'm a Knizia fanatic...why exactly don't I have this?" I got my copy during work, sort of; I heard that the game store at the mall by my office was having a going-out-of-business sale, and I talked a co-worker into going over there for lunch. For some reason that's a happy little memory that occasionally cheers up an otherwise dreary workday.

I like Amun-Re a lot. It's an excellent game, and sometimes I think I even prefer it to Euphrat & Tigris. It's a nice thinky game, but it never feels heavy, exactly, and just when you think you've seen everything it turns out you haven't. Also, I think the use of blind bidding is genius; it adds just the right amount of uncertainty to the economy, since you'll usually have a pretty good guess as to how things will shake out but every once in a while everyone will zig or zag at the same time and you will have a completely new and interesting situation to deal with.

Someone once pointed out in an article or geeklist that the "character" of the provinces are actually pretty thematic if you happen to know the layout of ancient Egypt, and so my one criticism of the game is that it would have been nice to have had a board with more detailed artwork on the "map."

My advice for new players is that the "farmer strategy" is viable, but it has to be done right, and it's not going to work until the rest of the table is hip to how much the camel/guaranteed-income provinces are worth. Sometimes when playing on SpielByWeb I'll see opening bids of 3 for Berenike in the first round, and then another guy will spend six gold on three farmers and then steal from the sacrifice because he's afraid to be low on cash and he figures that someone else will do the sacrificing for him. This is the gaming equivalent of pointing your plane's nose at the desert floor, setting the ailerons for a tight barrel roll, and covering your eyes with your hands.
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3. Board Game: Modern Art [Average Rating:7.32 Overall Rank:180]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Arte Moderna, Odysseia, 2006, originally published as Modern Art in 1992
3–5 players, 45–60 minutes. The exciting world of the art dealer! Each player has a hand of cards representing paintings, and each turn a player will auction a painting off to his opponents. Paintings bought at auction stay face-up in front of the buyer. There are five different artists, and the artists who have the most paintings auctioned in a round are considered the most fashionable and their works will fetch money for those who have collected them. Thus, each transaction can benefit two parties; the seller earns money up front, and the buyer takes a gamble on turning a profit at the end of the round. Overall, Modern Art is an excellent blend of evaluation, strategy and psychology.

This will sound completely idiotic, I'm sure, but there are some colors that I hate with a passion. Like that institutional shade of bluish-green? Or how about that hideous pale coral that one usually associates with the lobbies of cheap Florida hotels? Anyway, the Mayfair edition of Modern Art somehow manages to include just about every color that makes me feel physically ill, and so, regardless of the fact that it's considered a Knizia masterpiece, buying a copy just wasn't an option. I don't need a thirty-dollar ipecac.

With that in mind, you will understand how I might be pretty "psyched" to hear that there was a new edition of the game with graphic design by the terribly clever Mike Doyle. What? Only available in Brazil? No problem! I found a few other enthusiasts who were willing to split the shipping charges and bingo-bango, I have a copy. The components are not quite what you would get from your typical game printed in Germany, but they're not shabby either, and I really like the artwork. Some people have insisted that the paintings in the original edition were intentionally ugly as a sly dig at the vapidity and pretentiousness of modern et cetera. If I were the type who spent Saturday afternoons sitting on retro furniture, drinking cosmopolitans and thinking about irony, I might become erotically excited by this droll bit of insouciance and find myself with an erection of the eyebrow, but life is too short for this sort of behavior. Just give me the pretty pictures and leave me alone.

As for the actual game, it's an intense and interesting game, and it can be a fun and rambunctious one too, if there is heckling and cajoling during the bidding. I feel like it's a bit too wide open, though; in Knizia's later auction games there is much less currency in the economy, so a bid is going to be "3" or "11" and not "67" or "89". Modern Art can get pretty drawn out for this reason, and also just because there is a ton to think about.
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4. Board Game: Beowulf: The Legend [Average Rating:6.44 Overall Rank:1291]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Beowulf, Sophisticated Games/Fantasy Flight, 2005
2–5 Players, 60 minutes. Players join the epic hero Beowulf on his adventures of statesmanship and daring. A fixed series of episodes are printed on the board, each offering a variety of rewards and penalties. Players offer cards of the proper suit or suits in rounds of brinkmanship-type card play, and rewards/penalties are divvied up in the reverse of the order that players drop out of the round. Players may "risk" and take cards off the top of the deck instead of from their hand, but if these do not show the required suits the player is knocked out and takes a penalty. There are multiple currencies and many different opportunities to earn points, and the fixed order of episodes means that players can look ahead and plan the expenditure of their resources.

I wasn't that interested in this one initially, as the theme and the artwork didn't appeal to me (and it sounded a little too much like "Taj Mahal light"), but at a certain point it got enough good responses from people whose opinion I trust that I decided to get a copy.

In the Q&A at the Orccon game convention in 2007 (which you can find somewhere over here: www.boardgamebabylon.com), Knizia related that he was commissioned by the publisher to create a game based on the famous Old English Beowulf poem. For a long time I was puzzled as to why anyone would go to the trouble. Did they think that the new English translation published in 2006 would spark renewed interest in the poem? Did they imagine it as a natural follow-up to their Lord of the Rings games? One might assume that they were trying to capitalize on the then-upcoming 2007 film (seeing as how Old English intellectual property laws are so hard to interpret, much less enforce), but they jumped the gun by a year and a half. Was the movie delayed? Moreover, Fantasy Flight came out with a second Beowulf game, also designed by Knizia, which was explicitly tied in to the movie and featured its imagery. So what's the deal?

Regardless, Knizia took the design brief seriously, because the game makes reference to a lot stuff from the story. The only problem is that players who are unfamiliar with the book are likely going to have a hard time really connecting with what's supposedly going on, because many of the episodes aren't very evocative if you're just looking at a couple of icons on a game board. "Heads up, gang, we're about to enter the court of King Hygelac!" The rulebook does a fairly good job of explaining the significance of each of these events, but who wants to take time out mid-game to read the Cliff's Notes?

As for the game itself, I've played it quite a few times now and while it's not one of my favorite Knizia games I do enjoy it well enough. It keeps me engaged in what is going on both tactically and strategically, either in the moment-to-moment tensions of the card play or in the planning ahead for upcoming episodes. The down side is that it's a bit luck-heavy for a relatively complex game which would seem to encourage prudence and forward thinking. Of course the other possibility is that I simply don't understand the strategy, but either way I generally have no idea why I had won or lost a particular game afterwards.

Also, I have to think that the theme is going to be a hard sell to anyone but English majors, and the design of the board is hard on the eyes and doesn't convey the story well.

Regardless, it's fun to have a nicely produced, involved game based on a thousand-year-old epic poem.
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5. Board Game: Blue Moon [Average Rating:6.78 Overall Rank:609]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Blue Moon, Kosmos/Fantasy Flight, 2004 (expansions 2004–2006)
2 players, 30 minutes. Players are generals marshaling forces in the battle for the ascension to the throne of the Blue Moon world. Each player controls a deck of characters plus supporting weapons, potions, magic, et cetera. Currently there are nine people decks plus two expansion decks for deck-building. The nine people decks each have their own distinct personalities and strengths.

I wasn't interested in Blue Moon at the outset because I didn't care for the fantasy theme; also I was very caught up in the Gipf Project at the time and so wasn't in the market for other two-player games—certainly not one which might demand further investment in the form of expansions. I patted myself on the back for not getting involved in yet another money pit. In the end, though, I was swayed by Chris Farrell's high opinion of the game, and so I decided to try it out. Now of course I have everything except the two hard-to-get promotional cards.*

I wrote a whole long review of the game here http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/110175 but to cut to the chase I'll just say that I really love the game. The key to appreciating it, I think, is understanding that you're not managing your hand, you're really managing your entire deck, and so it's pretty important that players be familiar with the cards they're working with. Every deck has lots of great cards and killer combos, but the key is knowing when to bring the hammer down for maximum effect. What's even more difficult is that you have to recognize that there are times when it's more important to get cards moving through your hand than it is to save that one doozy for the perfect moment, so sometimes you have to bite the bullet and do something sub-optimal to make things better for yourself in the long run.

Of course there's also the breadth of the Blue Moon world to enjoy. I think there's even something to be said for the artistic "wholeness" and consistency of the world that Knizia has created, with the inner circle of the four elements, the spectrum of city kids, nature girls, travelers/traders and historians/inventors, and then the periphery of aboriginals from the South, spiritual beings from the frozen North, outland sailors from the Western ocean...the only piece missing is the mysterious Phar from the East. Will Kosmos and Fantasy Flight bring the circle to a close? Good grief, let's hope so. In the aforementioned Q&A session Knizia mentioned in passing that Kosmos may have bought one of his designs to make into a second Blue Moon board game, so presumably they're still interested in the world and there will be a good chance we get to see the second wave of invaders....

Running tally of games that have a six-card/tile hand: 1


* You would think that Fantasy Flight would just up and mail them to me after all my diligent pimping of the game to everyone who will listen.
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6. Board Game: Blue Moon City [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:360]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Blue Moon City, Kosmos, 2006
2–4 players, 60 minutes. The war is over and Blue Moon City must be rebuilt. Players travel around the city and spend cards to restore the buildings, thus earning crystals which must be returned to the central monument. However, many cards can instead be used for a special ability, and meanwhile there is a sub-game of collecting dragon scales.

By the time this was released my Knizia fever had reached its current level and, unable to wait for Fantasy Flight to put out the English version, I got the Kosmos edition as soon as it hit U.S. soil. Luckily there was a very nice person from the U.K. who had a translation ready, so I was able to play it that weekend.

Blue Moon City probably won't ever replace Ra as my favorite Knizia middleweight, but I do like the game, particularly with three players, and of course it holds a special place in my collection just for being part of the Blue Moon universe. It's yet another Knizia title that keeps the brain working all the time and yet somehow manages to remain light and breezy in feel.

I also sprang for the two issues of Spielbox to get the four expansion tiles. They add a little variety, but they're not a must-have.

I have a big honking review of the game here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/111257
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7. Board Game: Bucket Brigade [Average Rating:6.11 Overall Rank:3050]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Bucket Brigade, Face2Face Games, 2007
3–5 players, 30 minutes. Players move firemen up the ladder by playing cards; when a fireman reaches the top rung, the hand is over and players score the value of their remaining cards times the multipliers of the rungs on which the firemen stand (some of which are negative). A clever "stock market" game in which one must spend stock to increase the stock's worth.

A reprint of the hard-to-find "Honeybears." Played three times and I liked it, though it will no doubt be too light for ultra-serious gamers. In terms of weight it's probably on a par with Trendy/Crazy Derby. The problem isn't so much that there is a lot of randomness, but rather that there just aren't enough cards in your hand to fully control the outcome; towards the end of the round you are often forced to play cards that you would have rather avoided. Players who have some wild cards in their hand have an advantage in that respect.

The rule that really makes the game interesting is the one by which pairs of "1" cards are valued at five instead of just two at scoring-time; players will usually want to hold onto these, but they might need to cave in and spend one of them to move the fireman up the ladder or to make a show of support in the hopes that others will jump on the bandwagon. On the flip side, if a player has two ones for a fireman that is doing poorly, he might have to waste a turn breaking up the pair so that he won't be socked with negative five points.
 
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8. Board Game: Bunte Runde [Average Rating:5.94 Overall Rank:5564]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Bunte Runde, Winning Moves, 2005
2–6 players, 15 minutes. An extraordinarily simple game: a ring is set up of colored geometrical shapes, and players move a pawn up to 3 blocks around the ring, taking the block that they land the pawn on. When all of one shape or all of one color is removed from ring, players earn coins for each block they have of that shape or color. When all the coins are paid out, the player with the most coins wins. Not every shape and color will pay out coins by the end of the game.

An odd little game. It's short and simple enough for even small children, and yet it has kind of a dry, thinky quality to it as well. I'm curious as to how a group of adults would react to it; the problem is that it's easy to tie, which might annoy some grown-ups. Anyway, it's a good game for adults to play with children since the adults won't be totally bored and the kids can be taught a little elemental strategy.

The other plus with respect to its being a kids' game is that it's mostly made up of chunky wooden blocks so there's no way that the little beggars can trash it.
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9. Board Game: Callisto: The Game [Average Rating:6.15 Overall Rank:3294]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Callisto, Sophisticated Games/University Games, 2009
2–4 players, 20–40 minutes. Try to get rid of all your tiles by laying them contiguous to your starting pillars or the other pieces you've played. Tiles left over after the board fills up score penalty points for each dot on them. Fear not if you get blocked off too early, however, because each player has one extra starting pillar they can drop anywhere in case of emergency.

Callisto is an excellent game which I would describe as versatile, because the rules are simple enough that you can easily introduce it to non-gamers but it's still interesting enough that it's fun for gamers as well. On top of that, it's nice and durable and handles every number in its player range quite well.

One thing I'd like to mention is that you really need to play one round per player as the rules suggest, since the starting player will always have an advantage. Some might imagine that this would make the game repetitive, but actually it adds an extra degree of fun, particularly in the three- and four-player game, as players will harry the leader while stragglers try to sneak under the radar. The two player game takes about twenty minutes, the four-player game takes an hour. I think I like the game best with three, as there's more drama and surprise than the two-player game but it's not as long as the four-player game.

On a final note, a lot of people are saying it's too similar to Blokus, but I've never played Blokus, so that's not an issue for me. Anyway, Blokus isn't original either: see Sudden Death.
 
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10. Board Game: Carcassonne: The Castle [Average Rating:7.08 Overall Rank:372]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Carcassonne: The Castle, Hans im Glück/Rio Grande, 2003
2 players, 30–45 minutes. Same drill as in Carcassonne: players pick a tile, place it down next to other tiles, and score points for completed structures. However, the scoring methods are slightly different in this game, plus there is a framing wall which also serves as scoring track. Located on certain scoring track spaces are bonus tiles which can be collected and used to earn even more points.

I got Carcassonne when it first came out in 2000, but my siblings and I found ourselves fairly indifferent to it, and so it only hit the table a couple of times. I wasn't particularly fired up to try out Carc.: the Castle, despite Knizia's involvement, but a friend had a copy, so I agreed to give it go. Well, I have to say, this is a fantastic game. What's surprising is the degree to which it is a strategic game, considering the tactical feel of drawing the tiles one-by-one. One can't effectively pursue every possible scoring method at once. There are also the bonus tiles to consider—how much energy to devote to collecting these versus maximizing the gains from the ones already collected.

Long story short, I think this one is a treat to play, and it has shot up alongside my favorite two-player games.
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11. Board Game: Cheeky Monkey [Average Rating:6.64 Overall Rank:1569]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Cheeky Monkey, Face2Face Games, 2007
2–6 players, 20 minutes. A fun push-your-luck game in which players draw animal tiles out of a bag to score points. Be careful, though, because if you draw the same animal twice in a turn, all your tiles go back in the bag and you get nothing! Once drawn, the chips are added to your stack, but you're still not home free, because the if another player draws an animal that matches the one on top of your stack, he can steal it! And then of course a cheeky monkey might play some tricks on you as well....

This is a fun little game with a fairly heavy luck factor, though like so many other light Knizia games it's not entirely brainless if you're paying attention. The key is the bonus tiles, which can give you a significant number of points if you've collected the most of that particular animal; these add to the decision-making process because they can change the potential reward for the risk you're taking when you draw a tile. The ability to use the monkey to swap tiles with opponents also helps players to work towards the goal of earning bonuses, but the tricky bit is that the bonus for having the most monkeys is ten points! It's also worth mentioning that there's one rule that's easy to forget but which becomes important in the endgame: if you stop drawing and only have one type of animal in front of you, you may put these chips on the bottom of your stack instead of the top.

There is also a kids' version of the game which dispenses with the bonus tiles and monkey's special ability, and this went over extremely well; the kids loved it when a grown-up would draw one too many tiles and bust, and of course when it happened to them we got to say "you were toooooo cheeky!"
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12. Board Game: Circus Flohcati [Average Rating:6.60 Overall Rank:1165]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Circus Flohcati, Abacus/Rio Grande, 2003, originally published as Zirkus Flohcati in 1998.
3–5 players, 15 minutes. There are ten suits of cards which players are collecting, and at the end of the game they will earn points equal to the sum of their highest card in each suit. Players can also earn points for triplets of the same value. Collecting cards involves a push-your-luck mechanism in which a player will turn over cards and lay them out in a row until he either chooses to take one of the cards or he turns over two cards of the same suit, in which case his turn ends and he gets nothing.

It's funny, it seems like this used to be much more highly regarded among gamers despite its lightness. Anyway, for some odd reason I really like this one. Actually, I think that Knizia has a certain genius for this style of short, breezy game; other designers seem to content themselves to merely create something short and chaotic, but with Knizia there's usually something interesting hidden in there, though you might have to look for it a little. His light games have a perfect balance between stuff that you might want to think about and the unpredictable, and the level of decision that one must make usually facilitates a certain speediness to keep the game lively. In this case, there's the tricky question of whether one goes for high-value cards, the ten-card "gala," or triplets, all of that within the context of the push-your-luck game that goes on every turn.

The game also has a dash of screwage in the form of the special cards, though if a group found this too chaotic or distasteful they could leave those cards out and I doubt it would have any effect on any other part of the game.

By the way, there's one little mystery regarding the most recent Rio Grande/Abacus edition of the game, which changed several of the rules (see http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/29623); the English and German rules leave out the 10 point bonus for declaring a ten-card "gala" and ending the game, but the French rules include it. Did Knizia intend this rule to be changed, and is its inclusion in the French rules an oversight, or was it an accidental omission in the English and German rules?
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13. Board Game: Clash of the Gladiators [Average Rating:5.88 Overall Rank:3430]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Clash of the Gladiators, Hans im Glück/Rio Grande, 2002
2–5 players, 45 minutes. A dice game where players' gladiator teams run around an arena and battle wild animals and each other. Each type of gladiator has a special function with respect to the dice rolls (swordsman allow an extra die, prong bearers can get you a reroll, etc.). The player with the most "captures" (i.e., kills) wins.

I was going through a dice games phase and I woke up one morning realizing that I absolutely had to have a copy of Clash of the Gladiators. Sad, but true. The game is a bit of an oddball, as it has a strange mixture of braininess and luck, but for some weird reason I like it and I'm happy to have it on the shelf. My take on it is that you get the intellectual fun of figuring out which match-ups will have the best odds and then the visceral fun of seeing what happens in the battle. Anyway, I wrote a series of articles discussing the various not-particularly-intuitive probabilities involved here:

http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/144814
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/144952
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/145161
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/155547

Long story short, the shield carriers are probably a lot better than you think they are...and once folks figure out that then the net casters become pretty useful too.

My only criticism is that I think the five-player game goes on too long considering the weight of the game, plus in the five-player game the players will have a little less leeway in the composition of their teams because there's only just enough gladiators to make fifteen teems of four. The other problem with five is that between their turns players can watch one of their teams get taken to shreds by the other players. I actually think that the sweet spot for this one might be three, though you lose the "free-for-all" feeling that this type of game seems to want.
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14. Board Game: Trendy [Average Rating:6.18 Overall Rank:2836]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Crazy Derby, Ravensburger, 2004, originally published as Trendy in 2001
2–5 players. A light card game with the theme of racing animals. There are five types of animal card, each with its own number (i.e., all camels are "3", all turtles are "7"). Players take turns laying down animal cards and when the number of cards laid down of a particular animal matches the number of that animal, the players who laid down those cards set them aside for scoring and a new race is begun. There are also "star" cards which count as two cards and "loser" cards which clear the table of all the cards of that animal.

This is one of those got-on-a-whim games and despite its lightness it turned out to be rather entertaining. It's not something you would necessarily play with gamers, but it's fairly interesting for a game that's so simple. As I've said elsewhere, it's a weird game, because playing it you can feel like you're just being carried along by the flow; your hand is small, you can only lay down one card a turn, and there's too much happening in between your turns for you to feel like you have a huge amount of control, and yet there are moments when the sun breaks through and you manage to steer things your way.

It's also yet another example of the "share investment/manipulation" concept that Knizia seems to enjoy exploring; other such games in his canon are Quandary/Loco, Palmyra/Buy Low Sell High, Colossal Arena, Modern Art, Bunte Runde, and Royal Turf/Winner's Circle.

The only down side is that the cards in the Ravensburger edition are thin and poorly cut (i.e., they're not all precisely the same size). I used to just assume that everything Ravensburger put out was top quality, but now I'm a little bit leery of their card games. Thankfully Amigo stills seems to be putting out good product.

Running tally of games that have a six-card/tile hand: 2
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15. Board Game: Cthulhu Rising [Average Rating:5.21 Overall Rank:10272]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Cthulhu Rising, Twilight Creations, 2008
2 players, 20 minutes. A short game that mixes thought and luck. Players lay down tiles and score the completed rows and columns in which they have the majority of tiles; positive points are scored for matching numbers, regardless of who played the tiles, as are points for having all five tiles be of their color. However, if neither of these conditions are met, the player scores negative points!

A birthday present from my buddy hseldon. The game has an odd feel to it; once things really get underway, you need to think carefully about where to place your tiles, but luck still plays a significant part in what ultimately happens. Strangely, though, this doesn't result in a game that's frustrating; rather, it feels like a breezy light game that happens to have a thoughtful, puzzle-like element to it.

The one annoying thing is that the six tiles and the nine tiles are almost identical. I had to mark them up to make it easier to tell the difference at a glance.

The Lovecraft theme is just window dressing, of course. It's basically an abstract game.
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16. Board Game: Double or Nothing [Average Rating:5.69 Overall Rank:5715]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Double or Nothing, Uberplay, 2006
3–6 players, 20 minutes. A push-your-luck card game in which players choose between going out and taking the points currently displayed on the table or staying in and adding a new card; the possible consequences of the new card include an increase of the point total, a slight decrease, knocking the player out of the round, and ending the round entirely. The last player remaining in a round faces an exciting double-or-nothing challenge.

I was drawn to the game because of the old-fashioned look to the graphics and because I like push-your-luck games (and of course because it's a Knizia). The quality is pretty good; the cards are a little thin but they seem to be well-coated with some sort of space-age polymer.

As a game, Double or Nothing is excellent to play with non-gamers, as it almost has a party-game feel to it. There is actually stuff to think about—obviously the key is to use your hand of cards to set yourself up for hitting the "double or nothing" once or twice. As Kane Klenko also mentions in his excellent Knizia geeklist, DoN doesn't always necessarily end in a satisfying way, but there will always be a few great groan/cheer moments sprinkled throughout, and for that reason it's one of those games that's best played a few times in a row. Forget about the finish line and just enjoy the ride.
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17. Board Game: Dragon Parade [Average Rating:5.75 Overall Rank:4592]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Dragon Parade, Z-man Games, 2007
3–5 players, 30 minutes. Players place markets and move the dragon parade back and forth, hoping to guess/finesse where it will land in the end.

I'm not sure precisely why, but I find this light and fluffy game to be quite charming. It's all about trying to gauge who is aiming for what outcome and then dealing with all the minor revisions along the way; the back-and-forth of the dragon is fun to watch, and sometimes there are big surprises when everyone second-guesses themselves and the dragon flies off in the wrong direction. The sweet spot may be four; I thought the board was a little too empty with three and the game is too chaotic with five.
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18. Board Game: Relationship Tightrope [Average Rating:6.20 Overall Rank:2135]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Drahtseilakt, ASS, 1999
3–5 players, 30 minutes. Balance is everything! Each trick players lay down one numbered card, with the highest card taking a certain amount of blue sticks and the lowest a certain amount of red sticks (the amount is dictated by a separate stack of cards ranging from 1 to 9, one for each round). However, over the course of the hand blue and red sticks cancel will each other out. At the end of the round players take penalty points for each stick still in front of them, and at the end of the game the player with the fewest penalty points wins.

Thankfully I have the Altenburg Stralsunder edition and not "Relationship Tightrope" (sorry, Uberplay). I think it was out-of-print when I got it but somehow Game Surplus dug up some copies from somewhere, so I jumped at the opportunity. I'm really glad I did; this is my favorite Knizia card game to date. There's a bit more strategy to this one than it might first appear. Initial hand-assessment is critical; just as in many other card games, one has to develop a plan for how to deal with "difficult" cards; simply hoping that you'll be given an opportunity to ditch them without any consequences is not a winning strategy. Naturally you'll want to save your highest and lowest cards for when the stakes are low, though everyone else will be doing the same thing. If you think your hand is suitable (if you suspect you're going to be high twice and low once) you can try to finesse it so that your penalties cancel out, i.e. that you go low on 9 and high on the 4 and 5. If you find yourself stuck between either going high or low, it's important to choose based on who would be start player if you go low (high card starts next round). If the person on your left is showing high card, go low; if it's the person on your right, you might as well go high if all else is equal.

Drahtseilakt is also notable in that it plays quite well with any number of players in its range; it's enjoyable with both three and five.

For double extra meatiness I recommend playing with the "strategic variant" where there aren't any excess cards in the deck (so there would be 27 cards for 3 players, 36 cards for 4 players, and 45 cards for 5 players).
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19. Board Game: Through the Desert [Average Rating:7.07 Overall Rank:318]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Durch die Wüste, Kosmos, 1998
2–5 players, 30–45 minutes. Players have four to five caravans of camels on the board, and each turn they may extend their caravans by two more camels. Points can be scored by taking oasis chips, connecting with palm trees, enclosing areas and by having the longest caravan in one the five colors.

I have the Kosmos edition, bought just before it went out of print. I could have gotten it for next to nothing back in the day when it was on clearance at Adam-Spielt and the exchange rate was a little more favorable, but what are ya gonna do. I realize that the camels taste the same whether they're from Kosmos or Fantasy Flight, but for years I had stared longingly at pictures of the square box with the scrawly red words, so when I finally decided to get the game that was the edition I had to have.

Sadly, I've only played this classic three times face-to-face, but what I find interesting about it is that the players' turns are these quick, small, incremental moves which cause the story to have this living, organic, independent kind of feeling, like it's unfolding all on its own, like the players are only participating in the game, not playing it (Amun-Re and Ra have the same sort of freaky otherworldliness to them, just for different reasons). It's strange that a no-luck game should have any part of that "ride" quality of a luck-heavy game...or maybe other people play it more intensely than I do and don't get that kind of vibe off of it.

The other funny thing about the game is that while many would probably consider it too dry-looking for their tastes, it's one of those games where you really feel like you're bumping up against the other players' personalities, that you can see though the other players' moves not just their intentions but their state of mind, whether they're feeling annoyed or sneaky or grasping or distracted...I suppose other games give you the opportunity to say straight out "I'm annoyed," but there's a certain kind of charm to this coded language of caravans....
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20. Board Game: Ingenious [Average Rating:7.22 Overall Rank:220]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Einfach Genial, Sophisticated Games/Kosmos, 2004
2–4 players, 30–60 minutes. The playing pieces are plastic dominoes made up of two hexagons, each hex showing one of six colors. Players take turns placing hexagons on the board and scoring lines of matching color radiating outwards from their piece. Players' final score is that of their lowest color.

This one didn't have a U.S. publisher at the outset, but it looked so groovy I just ordered a German copy.

Despite the fact that Einfach Genial is an abstract, it's my gateway game of choice. In terms of looks, it has that pleasing cardigan-and-pipe supposed-to-make-you-feel-brainy vibe of the games of the 1970s. More importantly, the gameplay is perfect for the casual gamer: simple but with a subtle depth. There is a very tricky balance between gathering points for yourself and snuffing the points for your opponents, and the game has an interesting rhythm in which players must switch gears from opportunism to damage control. For extra awesomness, try the two-on-two team variant.

Incidentally, this was yet another of the many Knizias which got an initial "meh" reaction by gamers, no doubt because of the simplicity of the rules. I'm really glad to see that people have come around to this one, because it's a great game. Why don't people just give Reiner the benefit of the doubt? Who knows.

Running tally of games that have a six-card/tile hand: 3
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21. Board Game: Escalation! [Average Rating:5.68 Overall Rank:5359]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Escalation, Z-man Games, 2007
2–6 players, 15 minutes. Tempers are flaring in Pleasantville; don't let the battle get out of control if you can't win!

Escalation is Knizia's take on the "climbing game," where players must play a higher total of cards than that played by the previous player or else take all the played cards as penalties. It's one of the lightest Knizia games in my collection, but it's still entertaining because it's fast and it has a certain loopy drama to it. The box advertises that you can have up to six players, but with that many it's as luck-dependent as flipping a coin; it plays best with two or three, I think, because at that number players can can at least have a little strategy. The key is that you sometimes might want to take cards even if you don't have to.
 
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22. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.77 Overall Rank:33]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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Euphrat & Tigris, Hans im Glück, 1997
2–4 players, 90 minutes. The cradle of civilization: players grow kingdoms and struggle for their control. Sheer force is not enough, however, players must maintain a balance between population, power, farming and trade; only he who successfully pursues all four goals will be the winner.

I got this in 2001 and it was my third Knizia after Quandary and Schotten-Totten. It was a tough call, because at the time I didn't have a game group, and E&T is a little too involved for my siblings, so I was essentially going to be buying a game "just for the collection" and which was never going to get played. However, if I was going to get it, I knew I had to spring for the sweet Hans im Glück edition.

I'm glad I took the plunge. It's a great game and a great-looking one too. The are a few other Knizia games that I enjoy even more (Taj Mahal, Ra, maybe Amun-Re?), but, really, we're talking about the difference between awesome and awesome with sprinkles.

Euphrat & Tigris is a tricky game to wrap your head around, though, not so much in terms of rules but more in regards to how seriously one is supposed to take it. I think it bollixes people up because it is a game to which you can devote a fair amount of thought—and one really does improve significantly at it with experience—and yet sometimes the tile draws make you feel like God hates your guts. It took some time for me to reconcile these two aspects in my own mind (particularly because I've played it with people who took it a little too seriously), but, happily, I have.

Another thing I'll say is that I think the game is well-themed, it's just that it's an abstraction. I thought it was very interesting to hear RK talk about E&T's theme on the aforementioned Boardgame Babylon podcast; apparently he decided that leaders must be next to the ziggurats because the Mesopotamian leaders likely drew their secular power from a supposed connection to the gods. Brilliant!

For more thoughts on the game see my session report/review here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/article/57518

Also my pal Chester Ogborn (the guy with the kick-ass hair) wrote something really sharp about it here: http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/18336 (scroll down for the sharpness).

Running tally of games that have a six-card/tile hand: 4
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23. Board Game: Excape [Average Rating:6.31 Overall Rank:1724]
Joe Gola
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Connecticut
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Exxtra, Amigo, 1998
3–6 players, 30 mintues. An interesting push-your-luck race game. Players roll two special dice and, if they roll a valid result, assign the dice to an unoccupied rung of the ladder printed on the board. When dice are placed on a rung of the ladder, they knock off any lower-value combination on rungs above. If a player's dice are still on the ladder at the beginning of his or her turn, they move their pawn forward on the scoring track, with higher rungs moving pawns farther than lower rungs.

This was out-of-print at the time that I got it but I was able to pick it up on a joint order from an online store in Germany which had some left in stock.

Exxtra is a brilliant little dice game but it has one problem: it ends with a whimper instead of a bang. When the front-runner gets within striking distance of the finish line, the sensible thing for him to do is play it safe and hang out on the "1" rung, which means that he's crawling instead of sprinting for the tape. Meanwhile, if anyone wants to take him down they have to forgo points of their own and put their dice on the "0" rung.
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24. Board Game: Genesis [Average Rating:6.48 Overall Rank:2338]
Joe Gola
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Genesis, Face2Face Games, 2006
2–4 players, 30 minutes. Players each have a supply of tiles with their symbol and four different background colors. On their turn, the players will roll two special dice which show the four colors plus two "wild" sides. The players must place tiles of the color(s) shown anywhere onto a gridded board peppered with obstacles. At the end of the game, contiguous areas of tiles of the same color will score points for the players with the largest and second-largest herds within the area, with bonuses going to the leaders in the largest area overall and the largest areas in each color.

Another Knizia "themed abstract"; whether the prehistoric theme was provided by the designer or publisher one can only guess. The setting, according to the box cover, is two hundred and fifty million years in the past, just after the Permian-Triassic extinction event; on a barren, hostile world, ecosystems form and spread, and within those new ecosystems different types of living creature strive to gain dominance. This is kind of an interesting concept—you get to have the fun of imagining what it might be like if, say, it were lizards instead of mammals that evolved into the six-foot pants-wearers. Unfortunately, the idea is somewhat undercut by the fact that among the player symbols are a sabre-toothed tiger and man; according to the know-it-alls in the paleontology world, the former did not evolve until hundreds of millions of years after the time period in question, while the latter only appeared on the scene some 200,000 years ago.

In case all that isn't confusing enough, the title of the game, "Genesis," cannot fail to bring to mind the famous book of the Bible and thus the hoary Judeo-Christian tradition which posits that all this prehistoric stuff is the bunk, there were no cavemen in leopard-skin togas, and the bones of the dinosaurs are nothing but a test of faith (which, for all we know, could actually be true, so be careful what you say within earshot of you-know-who).

Anyway, gametologically speaking, the idea behind Genesis is incredibly simple; outside of the scoring there are only ten sentences' worth of rules. The game is essentially an area majority affair, except that the board starts out empty and the areas are created by the players as they go along. The relative sizes of the areas have a bearing on how many points are scored, and this adds a nice amount of tension to the game; once you've invested in an large area, you'll want to stay dominant or else you've built up a big point-earner for someone else, but on the other hand in defending this majority you might miss your chance to break new ground and pick up a lot of small, easy points elsewhere. Meanwhile, if you do too good a job of scaring away the competition from your area it will stagnate, and a more hotly contested area in the same color will grow larger than yours and thus more valuable.

What keeps things interesting is that the board has obstacles on it that create bottlenecks and opportunities for blocking, and so players must factor this into their decisions. "My opponent has two spaces into which he can expand his herd, but there is an open area just nearby; do I have to cut him off now or can I afford to wait a turn?" Unlike many other games of this type, however, spending a tile to put the kibosh on someone else is not necessarily a wasted action, because any stray tile can be grown into an area that will pay off points in the end.

Overall Genesis shares many similarities in weight and feel to Ingenious and perhaps also to Through the Desert. Some have dismissed it as being light and bland, and it's certainly true that it's simple and that many turns will be no-brainers, but I think the game requires more thought than it might seem at first glance. Like Through the Desert, one must weigh the other players' priorities and take risks—"my opponents seem to be preoccupied with those areas there; can I take a stab at taking the lead in this area, or will I get cut off and see my effort wasted?" Also, the luck introduced by the dice is not as influential as one might think—because each die has two wild faces, there is actually a 25% chance that a player will roll exactly the combination he's looking for, and really a smart player can find something useful to do in just about any situation.

The only potential negative to the game that I can see is that some players may feel compelled to calculate and re-calculate the scores as the game nears the end, and this might make things drag in some circumstances.
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25. Board Game: Great Wall of China [Average Rating:6.25 Overall Rank:1670]
Joe Gola
United States
Redding
Connecticut
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and everything under the sun is in tune
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Great Wall of China, Sophisticated Games/Fantasy Flight, 2006
2–5 players, 30 minutes. Players each have their own deck of influence cards, some of which are merely numbered and others others of which have special powers. Before the players on the table are pairs of randomly-drawn victory tokens ranging in value between 1 and 8. On their turn, players may twice play cards against any pairs of tokens, draw two cards, or a combination of the two. When a player begins his turn with a sole majority of influence against any pair, he claims one of the tokens and puts it on his cards; this acts negatively towards his total; the remaining token is up for grabs in the same way.

A distant relation of Knizia's Samurai, with a hint of Scarab Lords. It's a little more involved than most Knizia card games, and it packs a nice punch for the amount of time it takes. The key rule is that you can play multiples of a particular type of card in one action; this means that the bigger your hand is, the more power you have, but if you spend too much time drawing cards your opponents may be able to win tokens cheaply. It's not a heavyweight, but there's more game here than the small box would suggest.
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