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Reiner Knizia on Keltis, Masters Gallery, and More

W. Eric Martin
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Board Game: Keltis
[Editor's note: This article first appeared on Boardgame News on January 31, 2009. I'm reprinting it thanks to the release of a new edition of Modern Art: The Card Game from CMON Limited, my overview of which refers to parts of this article. —WEM]

Reiner Knizia was the Spiel des Jahres bridesmaid for more than a decade, coming close to winning Germany's game of the year award with Blue Moon City (2006) and Ingenious (2004), which both received nominations, in addition to receiving recommendations from the SdJ jury for Carcassonne: The Castle (2004), Amun-Re (2003), Winner's Circle (2001), Taj Mahal (2000), Money! (1999), Tigris & Euphrates (1998), Through the Desert (1998), and Modern Art (1993), among other titles. Many in the game industry wondered whether Knizia would ever take home the big red poppel, likening his also-ran status to actress Susan Lucci's, who won her first (and only) Emmy for lead actress in a drama on her 19th nomination for the award.

Knizia's luck finally changed in 2008, however, when he won both Kinderspiel des Jahres for Wer war's? from Ravensburger and Spiel des Jahres for Keltis from Kosmos. (More precisely, his luck mostly changed for the better. He missed the SdJ awards ceremony and photo op due to travel delays following an appearance at the Origins game convention in Ohio.) Funny thing is, Keltis isn't exactly the game that Knizia had submitted to KOSMOS, and that game's existence is a good case study for how designers and publishers work together to develop a game and bring it to market.

Board Game: Lost Cities
Keltis originated from Knizia's desire to create a multi-player version of his Lost Cities card game, which first appeared in 1999 and has since been published in more than a dozen languages. "Many people call it 'the spouse game' as it seems to have hit something for the female players," he says. "But the game is only for two players, so the idea was to create something for more than two, something on a bigger scale that's not just the same card game."

Design and development of this game by Knizia and his core of playtesters took place over nearly a year. "What we tried to do with the Lost Cities board game is stay as true to the principles of the card game as possible," he says. "We didn't want to change the card game. The card principle is, I think, the core of the game of Lost Cities, but we changed from an abstract layout of the cards to a more thematic exploration where you move along the tracks and we could use tiles so that you can visualize more elements being introduced to the game."

Touchpoints to the Lost Cities card game were worked in as much as possible. The range of card values remained roughly the same — maxing out at 10 — while the number of cards was doubled, as in the variant rules for Lost Cities for four players. The starting score on a path was -20, the same hit that you take whenever you start an expedition in LC; the ability to double a score was transferred to a super-sized meeple; and cards could be played only in ascending order. "The original version that we developed is exactly what Jay [Tummelson, owner of Rio Grande Games] has now published," says Knizia, "apart from the game variants, which weren't there initially."

Board Game: Ingenious
KOSMOS received the same version of the game since it had published Lost Cities, and after working with the design, Wolfgang Lüdtke from TM Spiele, which does development work for KOSMOS, contacted Knizia with a list of changes. According to Knizia, "He said, 'We want to do it, but we would like to do it in a more abstract form because while it's a brilliant game, we think it would be more successful in Germany by putting it into our abstract line," a line exemplified by Grzegarz Rejchtman's Ubongo and Knizia's own Einfach Genial.

"We had a long discussion about it," says Knizia, "because I was quite skeptical about the change for two reasons. First, I wasn't convinced that the abstract game would be better positioned than the thematic one, particularly when you look at the international possibilities. I said, 'Even if you want to put it in the KOSMOS range of abstract games here in Germany, it doesn't make sense from a global point of view.' The second reason for me was even more important. This is my Lost Cities board game. I do not have another chance of doing one because this will be it." For Knizia, to lose that connection to Lost Cities would be to lose what had inspired the game's creation in the first place.

The compromise hammered out between KOSMOS and Knizia was for the publisher to do double development on the game, creating two sets of graphics, with the abstract version — what turned out to be Keltis — being released in Germany and Lost Cities: The Board Game being released everywhere else.

Due to the desire for shorter playing times in KOSMOS' abstract line, the game went from three rounds to one. "And now that we're moving away from Lost Cities, I didn't have a problem with the suggestion from Wolfgang Lüdtke that we go with ascending and descending [card play] because it makes the game easier to play and that's what we want for the abstract one." (The changes in card play and the number of rounds were then ported into Lost Cities: The Board Game as variants.) The scoring track was simplified by reducing all of the figures by a factor of five, further reducing the Lost Cities connection.

Board Game: Royal Visit
Board Game: Royal Visit
"I do trust the publishers to know their markets," says Knizia, "and if you let them do the game, then they have the responsibility to make the game successful." Not every change is always for the best. "I say this most kindly, but I've seen KOSMOS get it wrong, for example, changing the theme of Auf der Reeperbahn nachts um halb zwei [released in the U.S. as Times Square] and putting it in the red light district in Hamburg. Sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you get it wrong. Sometimes you're lucky, and sometimes you're not so lucky, and luck plays a big part of it. In hindsight, [the change to Keltis] was exactly the thing to do."

So how similar are Keltis and Lost Cities: The Board Game? It depends on your point of view. From a game play perspective, Knizia considers them quite different due to the variables in ascending and descending card play vs. only ascending card play and in the number of rounds; with three rounds in LC:TBG, players have time to adjust to the playing style of their opponents, and to take more or fewer risks depending on their current standing in the scores. The games are even valued differently for Kniziathon tournaments, events in which players compete in and compare their scores across multiple Knizia games. In this light, the two games are good examples of the small, yet significant variations that are possible in game design, a topic I discussed in a December 2008 column. (I'll cover their differences in more detail in a forthcoming review of the two games.) [Editor's note: Ha ha, two more articles to reprint at some point... —WEM]

Board Game: Schotten Totten
From a business perspective, however, Knizia views the two games as identical. "I could never sell both games to different publishers in one territory," he says. Instead, each territory or country will receive whichever game feels like the best fit by the publisher serving it. Canadian publisher Filosofia, for example, chose to release Keltis for its French-language version of the game.

Such market considerations are familiar to Knizia, who like many others perceives that the American point of view is more theme oriented while the German point of view is more mechanisms oriented. "If you look at Battle Line, which is Schotten Totten in Germany, when I published the game with GMT, we adapted it to the American market by introducing some more complexity, some more details, some more stuff," he says. "We introduced the extra card deck with text because GMT believed, and I agreed with them, that [those cards] would be more suitable for the market in America." Not to mention, of course, the change from a humorously illustrated battle between Scottish clans to the more realistic depiction of forces during the time of Alexander the Great.

Board Game: Modern Art
Knizia has another publisher-rebranded game in the pipeline, that being Masters Gallery from FRED Distribution, which is also releasing the title as Modern Art: The Card Game. "Modern Art is a game which is very close to my heart as it's one of my most successful games and strongest brands," he says.

In a process that reversed the Lost Cities-to-Keltis transformation, Knizia took the full blown Modern Art and boiled it down to a simpler card game. "The idea there was to say that not everyone likes or is familiar with auctions and the bidding process, particularly the general public sometimes gets the prices wrong and then the game is destroyed. I wanted to take a more mass-market approach and take the bidding out of it, but see if I could still make an interesting game out of it — and I believe I succeeded."

While Knizia showed the design to Mayfair Games, the U.S. publisher of Modern Art, the company was in a state of transition due to former CEO Will Niebling's exit, so he looked elsewhere, settling on FRED Distribution and its Gryphon Games line, which was already in the process of reprinting three Knizia titles: Money!, High Society, and Attacke (as Gem Dealer). "I'm impressed by what FRED is doing, by the quality of the graphics and how much energy and love they put into the games," he says.

Board Game: Modern Art Card Game
Discussion about Modern Art: The Card Game was almost parallel to that of Kosmos and Keltis, with Knizia wanting to have the game appear with the branding for which he'd developed it and FRED feeling that the game needed a more classic look — with works from artists like Renoir and Monet instead of make-believe "talents" like Krypto and Karl Gitter — to appeal to a wider American audience. Another concern was that Mayfair Games had repackaged Modern Art in a smaller box in the mid-2000s, which gave the title the look of a card game, potentially causing confusion on the market once the new title appeared. The resulting compromise will put Masters Gallery into Gryphon Games' bookshelf series of games and Modern Art: The Card Game into more distinct packaging for gamers who want the style of the original game. Outside of the U.S. market, the game will exist only as Modern Art: The Card Game.

As for Keltis, still in its yearlong victory lap around the German market, Knizia and KOSMOS have three related items — an expansion for Keltis, along with a card game and travel game — that will be shown at the Nürnberg Toy Fair in February 2009 and released by March. Says Knizia, with a chuckle in his voice, "I saw speculation [that the expansion] would be a five- or six-player game or would introduce special cards. I find it quite interesting to see what people speculate might be coming." So what is in the works? Those details will be revealed in a separate preview in the days to come...
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