30 years: a Kronological Knizia playthrough

A quest to play through my collection of Knizia games, kronologically from 1990 to present.

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1997: A monumental achievement

Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates
1997 and Tigris & Euphrates arrived on the scene. The Dutch edition came out a year later and was the first Knizia game I saw in a local store (it looked intriguing but my gaming was mostly solitaire at the time and this clearly didn't fit). Since picking up the hobby again in 2011 I've had half a dozen opportunities to play the game (some more with an app version) and consider it my favourite. It's like the pleasures I've learnt to appreciate since the eighties by playing card games, abstract strategy, wargames and euros are all present in one package that, with familiarity, can be played in an hour. But how would it fare with my family?

Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates
With a gentle warning that it would be a little harder than the previous games I brought it to the table with Mrs. B and our daughter of 14 and son of 11. For the youngest it was frustratingly hard at first but he got the hang of it. I reined in my confrontational impulses a little but hit my daughter, who was first to start monument building, with a double disaster. It got a bit much when she crossed the river again only to be blocked by another disaster from her brother, but she handled it admiringly well. I still needed the first tiebreaker to hold her off in the final scoring. Mrs. B had kept a lower profile but surprised by ending the game with a trade war. Trailing 0-4 in base strength she produced 5 tiles while I had none to respond, which not only won her the war but also the game. Stunning drama.

We've played twice more since, consolidating understanding of the game. In the first of these Mrs. B launched another final turn war, beating me in all four categories, but I had been in control of monuments for too long to be caught. The last play turned into a catastrophe when I tried to address a dearth of trade opportunities with a late game war and found my nemesis well prepared. Meanwhile the kids are learning and expected to become tough opponents in due time. The game is proving to be interesting and challenging, epic in scope with two-hour plays but it easily holds attention throughout.

For me it is a monument of game design, strategic and evocative, timeless and sophisticated. The way the various elements such as wars, revolts, monuments and trade, interact is a marvel to experience time and again.

Board Game: Colossal Arena
Titan: The Arena is the only game to have brought together my favourite game designer with my favourite publisher The Avalon Hill Game Co (who went out of business in the following year). Don Greenwood adapted the previous year's betting card game Grand National Derby with a thematic link to Titan. The horses became a range of mythological creatures, each with its own special power that can be used by the creature's backer, along with a few other tweaks such as hidden bets. Each round ends with the elimination of a creature and the bets on the three surviving ones determine the winner.

After a few previous plays of the FFG remake Colossal Arena I introduced the original to my sons now. There are a few more rules than in most Knizia card games but for an Avalon Hill game it's very accessible and the boys soon got into the spirit (Greenwood took this system much further in Galaxy: The Dark Ages). Emotions ran a little high when the 'wrong' creatures were offed at the end but I expect this to become a regular for the three of us. One of my favourite Knizia card games, allowing a range of betting approaches and creative card play.

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Mon Jun 29, 2020 3:52 pm
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2020: Black Lives Matter

I want to express my solidarity with people of real colour.
What a world we live in, that it needs to be said that Black Lives Matter!


P.S.: On the gaming front, I introduced my favourite (Knizia) game to my family but that's a topic for next time.
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Sun Jun 7, 2020 9:01 pm
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1996: A motley pair

After a strong '95 expectations were high and the word was out that Knizia was working on a big gamer's game. But this got delayed and had its release pushed back as it went through a longer than usual development and testing process. Of course there still were a few other Knizia releases to keep gamers busy in '96, and my family over the past long weekend.

Board Game: Buy Low Sell High
First of these was Buy Low Sell High, originally published as Palmyra. This game is a clear illustration of the basic working of stock markets, leading one to suspect that the theme was changed by the original publisher and restored in the later edition (this review tells an interesting story of how the remake came about). Over three trading years (rounds) players buy and sell stocks of three types while influencing their prices through card plays (contrary to Palmyra, Buy Low Sell High has slightly different card distributions for the three stock types). Fees and dividend cards add a little more spice to proceedings, and all stocks are sold off at the end of the final trading year before determining who made the most profit.

Board Game: Buy Low Sell High
After a single play 4 years ago I introduced this to my family now. With the parents distracted elder son and daughter made it a close contest with the latter prevailing. She had already impressed me during game explanation by inquiring about card distributions and during play by confidently stating she was buying low and selling high. Meanwhile Mrs. B and I hit each other with fees, and I got burnt by the game end sell-off seeing my last oil stocks go at rock bottom prices. The game went over well with everyone. It reminds me somewhat of Botswana (Flinke Pinke, Quandary...) with buying and selling instead of simply acquiring, and realistic value fluctuations. Comparing these two games I'd say Buy Low Sell High is more subtle if less exciting. It excels as a light simulation that effectively demonstrates basic principles of stock trading.

Board Game: Twins
Twins caught my attention thanks to its rerelease by Oink Games. Over four rounds players compare two-card combinations ranking from twins to singles, with the round schedule dictating that the weakest players pay cash points into the bank or the strongest players take cash from it. This procedure is repeated until someone goes broke with the winner then determined at the end of round 4.

Board Game: Twins
The game was new to us and intriguing enough to get played thrice. It supposedly has a light poker feel which I can't really judge. It seems to come dangerously close to playing itself but there are subtle decisions about the purchase of additional cards (which injects cash into the bank) and whether you go for small gains or for the bank at the end of round 4. This was starting to wear a little thin in the last play so we'll show more restraint in the future. I also want to try out the round variety cards which are available as a freebie on Knizia's website. I have seen good comments on them and can imagine them giving the game a little extra kick for sustained interest.

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Tue May 26, 2020 1:28 pm
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1995: Auctions and races

Board Game: Hungry
Board Game: Medici
Board Game: Formula Motor Racing
Board Game: High Society


Board Game: Hungry
1995 wasn't just the year of Die Siedler von Catan but also a strong one from Knizia. First up now the new-to-me Knights of Charlemagne (originally published as Tabula Rasa). In this game cards are played in a struggle for control over ten locations, with victory points awarded on the basis of pluralities (number of cards played to a location). Each card has two possible destinations where it can go (based on its number or colour) and the game is a good example of the concept of zugzwang, as players have to manage an 8-card hand and want to postpone the choices of where to commit their cards as long as possible. A 2-player game with my older son felt a little odd to me as it seemed too simple and balanced, but it worked of course and got quite cerebral towards the end when almost all information is out into the open. I'm not sure yet how much I like this but my son did and we should play more before we get to competing two-player designs from Knizia. The next play with both my sons was a more feisty affair, trying to pick the right battles while your opponents waste too many resources battling each other. It feels more unique to me as a 3-player game and a fun one at that. There is also a 4-player partnership option which I haven't tried yet.

Board Game: Medici
Next up was Medici, a classic auction game often mentioned in the same breath as Modern Art with a design that is a development from Mercator, one of the small games in the compendium Neue Spiele im alten Rom. Players compete in a series of once-around auctions attempting to build up sets of cards of high values and/or identical suits, without overspending as payments are made with victory points. I had played the game twice with my old gaming group coming up a point or two short for the win on both occasions, but the first play with my family now was a bit unsettling as the youngest blew us all out of the water winning by a 30-point margin. Seeing him as an unpredictable opponent I lacked the nerve to push him to higher bids and an attempt to go for a free set of cards at the end turned disastrous landing me in fourth place (and with a remark that I fared better with my gaming friends). A second play under the Tuscan sun (I can dream, can't I?) went better with elder son keeping up with me initially until he got into a bidding war over the fur trade with his mum in the last round, allowing me to pull away for a big win. The later card game spinoff of Medici has worked great for us when I introduced it early in the year but the original is a little rough for family play so far. It's undeniably one of the hobby's prime bidding games though and Knizia's most elegantly designed one I feel.

Board Game: Formula Motor Racing
Formula Motor Racing is another new-to-me game in this playthrough. I had hesitated about picking it up as from youth I recall Formula One being deadly boring (my brother and father were avid watchers), but this game seemed more entertaining and possibly a good one with the kids. It offers a streamlined racing mechanism by only positioning cars relative to each other, rather than moving them on an actual circuit. By playing out action cards the players try to set themselves up for the payoff as only the positions at the end of a race count. We played a 3-race championship; the game is quite versatile as we spread it over two sessions with Mrs. B taking over a team that had been neutral at first (and not relinquishing the lead she started with). On the face of it this game doesn't seem very Knizian with its take-that plays and variety of action cards sometimes accompanied by a die roll to determine which, if any, effect they have. And as part of a range of sports titles released by Gibsons Games it may be an early example of commissioned work by Knizia. But the game is well put together and more balanced then you might think, with some fun risk decisions. It's also perfectly paced and captures the feel of (an idealised version of) its subject. A nice casual game.

Board Game: High Society
With High Society we have another classic auction game from this year. It's a great example of a Knizia game with a twist as the player with the least money left at game end is out of contention for the win, regardless of how many victory points he has gathered. Together with a few nice wrinkles (uncertainty when the game will end; the need to manage your hand of money cards; some auctions where the first player to drop out takes a hit in victory points while everyone else pays their bid) this makes for a wonderfully tense game, perhaps my favourite option for something than can be played with more than two in less than half an hour. After some plays with gaming friends in the past I introduced it to my family late last year. A great play I thought, but only Mrs. B and elder son felt like joining this time and the latter wasn't too happy to be the one to overspend (the game has a group think aspect, and we spent curiously little in this play). I took some risk with the thief and casino cards initially quadrupled for a large negative score, but with the game going to the penultimate card scored a comfortable win in the end. With its concentrated nature High Society feels harsher perhaps than Modern Art and Medici; to my surprise it has been the hardest of these three auction games to introduce to my family.

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Tue May 5, 2020 12:37 pm
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1994: Quandaries

Board Game: Kingdoms
In Kingdoms (originally published as Auf Heller und Pfennig) players take turns placing tiles and castles on a grid board. The tiles affect the value of the row and column they are in, while castles let a player score there. The game has a strong risk management aspect as most tiles are drawn randomly before being placed but the distribution of values is easily understood. The other main challenge is timing as each round you need to decide when to play your one secretly held tile and when to place your castles. There is also inter-round timing as your larger castles, offering a score multiplier, can only be played once in the course of a 3-round game.

Board Game: Kingdoms
I have a few previous plays of Kingdoms with gamer friends and an introductory one with my oldest son. This time the youngest joined as well. Both are competitive and things got tense as I went into the final round with a slender lead and less castles remaining. With the right placement and a bit of luck concerning the dragon it worked out, this time. Both sons enjoyed it a lot and are keen to play again. An excellent game offering strategic look-ahead, but also unpredictability that keeps the game exciting.

Board Game: Wildlife Safari
Botswana (originally published as Flinke Pinke and also known as Quandary, Loco and Wildlife Safari) is a share holding type of game boiled down to its essence. On their turn players collect one of five available share types, while also modifying the value of one type by playing a card out of hand. This continues until one share type has cycled through all possible values, at which time everyone scores their shares at the current values. Play as many rounds as there are players, with each player starting a round once.

Board Game: Wildlife Safari
The game was new to all of us and after two plays looks like a family favourite in the making. My daughter seems to have a knack for it, scoring two wins. I had doubts about playing this with five but found that it holds up well (it takes a while at five rounds but they wouldn't hear about shortening it). The bits of Botswana are fun to play with, though looking at other editions those of Quandary look really classy and the title is just right too.

I'm getting rather impressed by this succession of early Knizias.

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Wed Apr 1, 2020 4:55 pm
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1993: Duelling archeologists

Board Game: Tutankhamen
With Tutankhamen we're joining Knizia on his first trip to Egypt. During setup a linear path of 70 tiles is laid out, representing various types of artefacts and belonging to sets of various sizes. The game's key rule is that on his turn a player moves along the path as far as he wants, picking up the tile where he stops, but he can never move backwards to tiles he previously skipped over. Each set is scored as soon as all of its members have been collected or abandoned, giving points to the plurality holder and runner-up. A few special tiles allow steals or serve as wildcard, and the game is won by the first player to reach a points threshold.

Board Game: Tutankhamen
I played the game a fair bit with my kids a few years back and sporadically since. They all enjoyed it, though I think more for the components and process of playing than for the strategy puzzle on offer. We had our first 5-player game now, with a very tight finish when my oldest son was forced to score a set of burial masks bringing him to a point from the victory threshold and me just over it. Only later I realised he should have moved all the way to the end of the path, the bonus point there and the order of scorings would have meant he won. Two others were caught out by the 'premature' game end, it's easy to explain but that doesn't mean the implication sinks in. This is a fun and interesting little game, one of Knizia's more analytical ones but it still feels breezy to us in practice.

Board Game: En Garde

5 x 5 cards and a linear track with 2 pawns, that is all Knizia needed to create En Garde, a two-player game recreating a fencing duel. The rules are dead easy, with the number on a played card dictating the number of spaces you can move either forwards or backwards, or being used for an attack or parry at that distance. An optional advanced rule allows advance-lunge attacks. The first to get five touches wins. Despite the simplicity it's one of Knizia's games with the clearest link between game mechanisms and real-world actions, with the abstraction focusing the attention on the essence.

Board Game: En Garde
I have previously played the game with a gaming buddy and a friend who is an amateur fencer with both liking it, and taught it to my oldest son. We had two duels now, using the standard and advanced rules. The game doesn't just feel like fencing to me, at the moment it feels like I am teaching him to fence. The tactics are interesting with some focus needed for card counting, but we play swiftly. The advanced rule makes the game more dynamic though there is still something to be said for the more deliberate pace in the standard game, I think we'll keep playing both versions. This is a great little game.

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A likely inspiration for this edition:

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Tue Mar 24, 2020 4:03 pm
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1992: The first masterpiece

Well I've picked an interesting time for this gaming endeavour. A lot has happened since my last post, we even had a winter vacation which seems like something from a distant past now. There will, hopefully, be lots of time for playing games with the family at home. We have plenty of Knizia games to tackle, and there is much demand for repeat plays too. So on we go.

Board Game: Loot
Year 3 of the playthrough and we've reached the first banner year of Knizia designs (not that I was aware at the time as my gaming diet was made up of the offerings of Avalon Hill and Games Workshop). Multiple games to talk about, starting with Korsar (originally published as Pirat and also known as Loot), a small box card game that is well summarised by its original tagline of 'Jeder gegen jeden'.

Board Game: Loot
I had played the game once before as an 8-player team game. This is a variant added in later editions of the game, and an unusual one as it has partners sitting next to each other with the opportunity to see both hands of cards and discuss strategy. The game got a good run with my family now (I took just this on vacation), with my sons particularly liking it. It's fast and fun, luck of the draw plays a role but there is skill involved in choosing the right times to play your cards (I seem to have an edge with four out of eight wins).

The feeling of the game serving as a framework for players to compete with each other is perhaps what attracts me the most to Knizia designs in general, and one of his qualities is that he provides this while avoiding gratuitous 'take that' plays. While Knizia has other games with a similar feel and more substance, it doesn't surprise me that Korsar gets republished on a regular basis - it's a fine choice for casual gaming times.

Board Game: Modern Art
What to say about Modern Art here? IIRC the design started as another small card game, themed on greyhound racing, but Hans im Glück asked Knizia to develop it into something bigger. Thanks Hans, as the end result was Reiner's first true klassik and for many still the definitive auction game. It even provides a pointed satire on the art world.

Board Game: Modern Art
Modern Art was a lot of fun with my old gaming group (in hindsight it's a crime we only got to five plays). I didn't find it easy to sell it to my kids (modern art, auctions …) but Mrs. B was interested and the crisp design of the Oink edition helped (I somewhat missed Yoko, Karl and the gang but it was worth it).

It was interesting to see the kids coping, the youngest true to form as an active buyer (we had to reign him in a few times) and the older two struggling to understand things and how to deal with the various auction types. They had some on point questions such as why one would pay more than half the expected value (one of the cruces of this game). Mrs. B beat me in the first play, and our daughter pipped us both (within a 10-point margin) in the second, using the sales strategy (but still judged the game as too unpredictable).

For me Modern Art is one of the finest game designs ever, and with the right group one of the most fun ones to play. We're not quite there yet with the family but prospects are good - with Mrs. B really liking it I think we can keep the kids playing along on and everyone learning. It's good to see the renewed attention for this klassik in the last few years with some nicely produced editions that have come out.

Board Game Designer: Reiner Knizia
Quo Vadis? is a late addition to my play list for which I must thank readers Greg and Doug for giving me the nudge I needed to take it on. I snagged a local copy and convinced the family to play (the interest in Roman history helping a little).

Board Game: Quo Vadis?
This is a curious little game with players representing patrician families whose members ascend the ladder of public offices in Ancient Rome. Along the way they gather fame in the form of laurel tokens, and the player with the most will win but only if he has attained the highest office (senate) with one of his family members at game end. The crux of the game is that anyone wanting to be promoted to the next office needs approval by the majority in his current office, and players have to negotiate with each other for these favours. As an added twist Caesar can provide free passage, so his position on the board is also part of the tactical manoeuvres and negotiations.

I had some reservations about playing a negotiation game with the family but it went fine, this is a game that can adapt to the personalities of the players. There were no bruised feelings, just incredulity at the points reveal (hidden trackable information works fine for us) - I pipped Mrs. B by a point with the kids some way behind (everyone got in the senate). Another game that should grow with more experience and I look forward to playing it more. Recommended on the basis of its uniqueness even if, like me, you are somewhat apprehensive about negotiations in games. It's a Knizia after all.

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Tue Mar 17, 2020 1:51 pm
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1991: The will of the people

Board Game: Res Publica
Res Publica is a set collection card game built on a trading mechanism. Thematically it deals with the settlement of peoples leading to the development of civilisation. Over several editions the setting has changed from the classical world to the migrations period, ironic as that was the time when the idea of res publica disappeared. (And then there is Res Publica: 2230AD.)

The crux of the game, and what sets it apart from other trading games, is that trading is codified according to strict rules that limit the information players can exchange when making trade offers/requests. So good play depends on attentively following what is said around the table, and sending out the right pieces of information yourself thereby making the most out of your limited chances to trade. One needs to build up sets of people cards in order to settle and gain access to civilisation cards, and build up sets of those civilisation cards to found cities - the early ones being the most valuable. This gives a sense of urgency to proceedings, the downside being that it may be impossible to get back into contention if you fall behind too much.

I've played the game twice with gaming buddies a couple of years back and introduced it to my family now over a 5 and 4-player game. Everyone loved it so I'd say that the game is quite underrated on BGG. Perhaps many don't enjoy trading, or the luck factor (by random card draws) is more apparent than the skill factors. It didn't feel like a coincidence though that our youngest (approaching 8) tied for victory with his sister in the first, and came a single point behind Mrs. B in the second - he understood very well what was going on and what he wanted to do.
Board Game: Res Publica


Later editions of the game add a few bells and whistles, but in my early Queen edition the focus is entirely on building up sets of five cards which is fine for me. I also prefer its artwork over what came later. If I had to fault the game somewhere, it's that it takes a while to get going. That is typical of trading games though and it speeds up nicely towards the end, leaving me with a good feeling. Contrary to many trading games those with bigger mouths are not really at an advantage here. Overall a very clever and fun game and a must play for Knizia fans I'd say (you might get a pass if you really hate trading).

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Sat Feb 22, 2020 12:11 pm
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1990: Digging for gold

Fans of Reiner Knizia will recall the good Doctor celebrating his 30th anniversary as a game designer back in 2015. The first publications of boxed Knizia games only occured in 1990 though, something that he fondly looked back on in his interview by Stephen Glenn for Funagain Games (required reading for Knizia enthusiasts!).

To mark the occasion of this 30th anniversary, I'm setting out on a quest to play - with my family members - my collection of Knizia games in kronological order. This will be done according to the year of publication as listed in the BGG database (for the games, not the specific versions I own). The motivation is to get a sense of gaming history and perhaps a keener understanding of Knizia's evolution as a game designer, though the real practical benefit should be an easier answer to the recurring question "What game shall we play now?".

In this blog I'll write about the game plays along with general thoughts on these games and my history with them. Readers are invited to add their own thoughts on these games (or others from the same year); even better if they are inspired to play them.

Board Game: Gold Digger
So, digging into the year 1990 and - with his later career in mind - I have to wonder whether it was a coincidence that Knizia's first two published boxed games both had a gold digging theme. Of the two games, Goldrausch and Digging, the first made it into my collection. A version of this game, to be played with regular playing cards, was contained in the book Neue Taktikspiele mit Würfeln und Karten, where it was already suggested it could be improved with customised cards. The boxed version is certainly easier to play and feels like a vintage item. I've played it with my kids a fair bit in 2015 and about once a year since, all 2 or 3-player games. Not a big favourite but an enjoyable family game with the cartoony character art providing some laughs.

During each round of play, players can stake 3 claims on mines while also influencing the yield of these mines. It's mainly a game of timing: early claims will see other players trying to sabotage the mine, while claiming late is dangerous as you need to draw one of the 5 characters associated with the mine in order to do so. Oddly, the rules prescribe 4 rounds of this (people had more time back then). We've usually played just 1 or 2 rounds, this time we did an epic (40-minute) 3-rounder as I played with both my sons. I started out well enough but in the final round failed to stake my last claim at all, allowing elder son to cruise to a convincing win. He enjoyed that but his brother was less enthused than in his first play just a few months ago.

Overall I'd say that it's a nice enough game, and perhaps quite novel at the time, but Knizia didn't strike gold here yet. I also think that he refined its core ideas into stronger games that we'll come across later. The main issue for me in Goldrausch is that a lot of your card plays are (near) automatic with just a few real decisions in a round. Then again these auto plays are very quick so it's not a big issue. Finally it's worth noting that in the later Gold Digger version of this game players have a hand of 3 cards they can manage. While not having played so, I feel that this misses the point of the game: try to be prepared for whatever card is drawn next, and gamble when you must.

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Wed Feb 19, 2020 6:41 pm
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