Reducing Doug's To Play List

I've been playing games for 40 years, and usually have a small pile of things "in the queue", waiting for some table time. I will try and use this blog as an incentive to get some of these games on the table, and played. As I work through the list, I will tap in some rambling impressions.
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Doug’s Great Knizia Challenge of 2018 - September recap

Doug Adams
Australia
Oakleigh
Victoria
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Challenge progress on September 1st
Previous recaps: January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August

At the end of 2017, after fiddling with the Board Game Stats application on my smart phone, I purchased the Challenges in-app purchase. On a whim, I set up a Knizia challenge to play each my my Knizia titles 5 times each in 2018. Since January, the challenge has grown...

Challenge Completed
September 14th saw us cross the finish line and complete our challenge, with our 575th and final game, Beowulf: The Legend. What started as an 86x5 game challenge grew throughout the year up to 115x5 games, which added 145 individual plays to the task.

Thanks to Janet (474 plays) and Harrison (258), who had to live through this “experience”, along with friends Tina (14), Debbie (14), Asher (5), Kylie (3), Nadine (3), Roger (1) and Roberta (1) who chipped in with plays. And of course, thanks to everyone who contributed to the posts throughout the year with support and comments. Lastly, thanks again to Reiner and Karen for the unexpected box of goodies back in March - I am still grinning foolishly to myself over that one!


5 Steps Back
The challenge grew by 5 games this month.
d10-1 Forbidden City was gratefully received for Father’s Day, in early September.

Let us take a tour through the games that completed their five plays in September ...

Marco Polo Expedition
This is a devious little race game from Ravensburger. I always seem to forget about it, and enjoy it more than I was expecting when I do get to play it. The original German edition was titled “In the Footsteps of Marco Polo”, and the English edition’s “Marco Polo’s Expedition” just comes across as if they have phoned it in. I recall owning a German edition just after it was published and struggling with the translation. Knizia titles are usually quite straightforward, but this one with it’s odd mid-game reset seemed a little off to me. It turns out my translation was quite accurate, it was simply the game that was a little different.

The game is set post 1270. We’ve devoured Marco’s travel books, decide to join a caravan, and set out for China to gaze upon the great Mongol himself. The game is almost trivial in its mechanics. Draft cards, spend cards in a game of leapfrog across the board, possibly giving up a victory point to close the gap if you are not leading. In terms of drawing and spending the cards, it’s not unlike games such as Ticket To Ride. However the hand management decisions get quite tricky, because the cards have two traits - colour and suit - and the spaces require blends of these traits in order to move into them. You get a bit to think about when considering your hand management and drafting options.

For a 30 minute super filler, I really enjoy it. There are a few things to try … a breakaway, forcing your opponents to give up their treasure chests (victory points) to get back on the peloton, hanging back and doing just enough while amassing a nice hand of cards for a lunge at the high scoring spaces, and so on. It feels like a game where feelings could be easily bruised, but that never seems to occur.

Our games were a mix of two and three players. The two player game, where you run two caravans each, is rather good and usually comes down to a treasure chest or two at the end. The final game was memorable. Janet totally hoodwinked me and took the 6 and 5 scoring spaces at Kantschou, leaving me on the 1 and 2 spaces. She had a massive lead in chests, but I had a massive hand of cards leading into the second half of the game. I tried to use that card advantage to break away and force her to spend those chests to keep in touch. It nearly worked, and it was a rather thrilling game.

The game is under appreciated, and I recall it was at the time of release. This was when the “heavy Euro” was becoming the norm, and the masses where moving in that direction. Still, nothing wrong with the game. It is attractive, family friendly, and the dose of history doesn’t hurt either. The Marco Polo story, and the question of the authenticity of his manuscripts, is fascinating reading. If the game ever comes back, a cycling re-theme would suit it well, I think. Possibly one of the one day European classics, for example.


Lost Cities: Rivals
Lost Cities: Rivals turned up in late August, courtesy of Amazon. It was inexpensive and an easy decision to acquire it. The game has been pitched as "Lost Cities with auctions" and I guess that describes it quite well. Whereas Lost Cities, which even Reiner touts as the "spouse game", is a pleasant and gently tense game of hand management for two players, Rivals ramps it up a notch or two. The auctions totally change the game around to the point I feel as if I'm playing Ra more than Lost Cities. You either flip a card into the pot on offer, or initiate an auction ... and I've given in and just boom out "Ra". Janet knows what I mean.

The auctions lead into more tension, especially if you miss out on the pot. The winner can trash a card out of the game, and you can be sure they are going to do that if they can. Cards you had pegged as "yours", now useless to the pot winner, disappear off to the box, and there isn't a thing you can do about it. Brutal. If they are feeling particularly vindictive, they may go and meld "your" 4/8/9 for five cheap points as well. The game features nice timing tensions too, as you get a cash injection after each quarter of the game. For each coin you spend, you only get 1 share of that coin back, but it is welcome when it occurs. The cash back feels a little like Traumfabrik, but the timing of it effortlessly creates a layer of caution over your money management. You definitely don't want to go too hard with your cash too early.

Our five games were played out over ten days in late August and early September. Four of the games were two player, and Janet dominated me ... memories of my performance in other two player auction games came flooding back (Palazzo). Janet shut me out 4-0, but the last game was a marvellous, close game that I really enjoyed. The other game was played with Harrison included and it felt better than the two player game. Harrison fancies himself as a bit of an auction game meister since a memorable win in Yangtze back in March. He has been doing well at Modern Art lately too, and defeated me in his only game of Lost Cities: Rivals.

I liked this one a lot. It was a bit of a surprise just how unlike Lost Cities it was, and just how much tension the game created. Expect a learning curve as the auction element really throws you for the first game or five, and the games can feel totally different depending upon how the cards flop out. The production is solid too. I was expecting a little trouble telling the different suits apart based on early reviews, and my experience with Lost Cities: To Go, but it was fine. The icons on the cards help a lot here. Good stuff.


Blue Moon City
This game, the companion board game to the brilliant Blue Moon card game, has always been a favourite of mine. However, yet again it is a game that is rarely played, as one of my regular gaming group does not care for it at all. So much so that it is never even suggested now. It is a little unusual in that it’s a game where you need to kind of ... sort of ... work together to get ahead. You just need to ensure you get ahead the most, and try to let the others do the work for you. That nebulous, fleeting form of cooperation does not sit well with some gamers, I suspect.

The game is a wonderful example of how to produce a board game. It is stunning. Caveat: I am talking about the 2006 Kosmos edition here. With the wonderful Franz Vohlwinkel at the helm, the game has delicately lifted the artwork from the card game, and combined it with new tiles that represent initially the plans for the reconstruction of the Blue Moon City buildings, and the final structures themselves. All this art could make the game too busy, but it does not. The important game information - build costs, reward icons, and the playing pieces all “pop” off the board nicely. It’s quite an accomplishment and should be used as an example of how to make a game look good, as well as playable at the same time. Something I find modern board games are losing touch with, going for style over usability.

Personally, I adore this game. I love trying to work out how best to use my hand of cards, representing the eight races in Blue Moon, all with a special ability, and apply it to the game situation. You get a remarkable amount of flexibility, and getting stuff done is usually possible. It all comes down to whether doing that stuff is worth the card cost with respect to the payoff in rewards - crystals, cards and dragon scales. The waiting game, present in other Knizia games such as Illium and Tower of Babel, is present here as well - if you can hold out and wait for adjacent buildings to be completed, your rewards will be greater from the adjacency payouts.

Our games of Blue Moon City where played in June, August and September, in a mix of two and three player games. Each game was 40 minutes of intense game play and each one featured narrow one point victories. The closing stages of each game tends to have a lot of tension, as you are trying to secure the crystals you need to win without leaking crystals to the leader - something that is very easy to do.

Wonderful, wonderful game. Glad to see this coming back with a new publisher. I hope they get it right in terms of production. My early impressions of the mock ups made me hug my Kosmos edition a little tighter, and appreciate it a little more.


Amun-Re
This was the one that worried me. The white whale. The bridge too far. The elephant in the room, glaring at me from the shelf each time I ate dinner. How was I going to get five plays of this one in? The problem as I saw it was Amun-Re is a 3+ player game, and probably in the top five of Reiner Knizia’s heaviest games. I couldn’t see Harrison playing it, despite how much he’s impressed me this year with picking up different games. I couldn’t see myself rolling up one of my two (now one, alas) regular weekly game nights and plonking this on the table and demanding it be played - I’m not built that way. I could go to Fraser's place, fall to my knees and proffer the box and say "please" ... but that means heading across the Yarra. Them Brandybucks are strange folks ...

So how to play Amun-Re five times? Well, somehow we managed. I got in on a three player game and a four player game during weekend game meetups, and played three of them using a two player variant with Janet. The two player variant used, which I think we found here on Boardgamegeek, provided an entertaining and surprisingly fast experience. The game plays out very similarly, but you now manage two colours on the board, which you have to manage carefully to match up with your scoring power cards ... as these are now scored on colour, not player.

I was hoping that the Amun-Re card game, which advertised itself as supporting two players, would give me some inspiration. In the end it wasn’t required, and despite us having some fun with it, it’s really a filler compared to it’s older sibling.

So despite Amun-Re gnawing at me for months, in the end it was quite straightforward completing five plays of it. Some regard this as Reiner Knizia’s last great game, which I regard a load of rubbish. It could possibly be regarded as the last “heavy” game he designed, but heavy is subjective. It isn’t heavy at all compared to games that came after in the late-2000’s, where gratuitous complexity and extended play times seemed to be what gamers wanted. Yellow & Yangtze appearing this year feels heavier than Amun-Re.

Our games saw four different winners, and some moments of panic. During game three, a four player affair, my tall double-walled coffee glass toppled onto the game board. Suddenly the Nile ran brown with warm fluids, and several farmers and pyramids where swept away in the sudden and shocking event. Highly absorbent papyrus was hastily applied, the game state restored and we continued to completion. After the game was complete, I left it to dry out overnight and it suffered no visible damage, which is amazing. I’m very glad I have an apparently coffee resistant Hans im Glück edition.

If you haven’t already done so, please, please go and read the best thing ever posted on BGG. A session report from Joe Gola from back in 2004. It was hilarious back then, and is possibly funnier now.


Traumfabrik
Traumfabrik has long been a favourite game of mine. It entered the collection immediately after it was released, and there has never been a hint of it leaving. The game feels perfect to me - innovative auction system that sees money cycling back to the players, fantastic theme, classic movie stars, classic movies, hilarious mash ups ... Boris Karloff in Bambi ... and of course, the guest star, Reiner Knizia, who will degrade any movie he is cast in.

I hadn’t played this since the “revisiting Reiner” project from a couple of years ago, around the time of Olivia de Havilland’s 100th birthday (she’s now 102 ... amazing). It was a breeze playing through the five games, two of them four player, and three of them two player. The game doesn’t feel it should work with two players, but it’s fine, although we do tend to complete our movies during the fourth round, so perhaps it isn’t at tight as it should be. The final game in the series was a total beatdown, as Janet pretty much took every award except best director, and I ruefully regretted a "wait and see" tactic. The implicit race for the scoring chips opens up gaps in the remaining chips, and you are forced to take the next one down the chain still available. This hurts your score.

Nothing more to add - very glad to own the original edition. I’m looking forwards to seeing images of the Spanish “Roman Holiday” edition later in the year.


Forbidden City
This is a new game that I received in early September for Father's Day. Apparently it is a new publication of an older game about mice, or something. At its heart, it feels like Carcassonne, with an area majority scoring mechanic going on. However, again we see the scoring escalating mechanic that rewards players who are prepared to play the long game and wait. This is a Knizia trait I would barely notice if playing games in isolation, but having gone hard and heavy with his designs this year, I keep seeing this over and over again.

The game is themed on political influence in the Chinese Imperial Palace. Players take turns placing a tile from their deck into the playing area, making the palace larger. The tiles each feature a room of either white, green or pink colour, some walls, doors, perhaps a dragon icon, or some advisors in the player's colour. The idea of the game is to form large scoring rooms surrounded by walls, which earns points for the players with the most advisors in the room. The neat thing here is adjacent rooms connected by a door also score points ... hence the escalating scoring.

That essentially is the game. It is an attractive looking game, surpringly remiscent of Sakura from Osprey Games published earlier in the year. It is pleasant and quick to play, and feels a little thinky for the first game or two. There is a learning curve to this one, highlighted by our increasing scores as we played through the series to five games. It was about half way through our second game that the penny dropped regarding the subtlety of trying to trigger lucrative rooms to score repeatedly, and the tile laying and area majority aspects got a lot more interesting. In short, a game to play several times before passing judgement on it. I’m not sure how many games get to “several” these days.

All in all, a nice tile layer from Jumbo. As an aside, Jumbo published the first “Euro” game I purchased back in the late 1980’s. This was a game called Targui, a hybrid Euro/Wargame themed on the desert people of North Africa. Quite an interesting game, and the earliest Euro I can recall purchasing. Nice to see Jumbo are still going strong 30 years later.


Modern Art
Modern Art is an amazing game, and hard to believe it is from way back in 1992. I’m fortunate to own the original (I think) Hans im Glück edition, in the large flat box with nice oversized cards. The game is not one that has ever been played much, and a little like Amun-Re, I was wondering how this one was going to get five plays in during the year.

The first play was with a mid-week game group back in early March. I optimistically bought it along, never thinking it would get onto the table ... but it did. It was a five player game that I won quite handily. Winning was a surprise as I never could get a handle on this one, possibly because I never got to play it very much.

Fast forward to July. We were making terrific progress through the challenge, and titles that had been lagging in plays started to get restless on the game shelf. We could see them twitching, or at least I could. Janet, Harrison and I had just finished off our series of Modern Art: The Card Game, and had a blast with it. This led Harrison to being keen to try Modern Art.

Now ... a little history. I consider Modern Art a deep game. Mechanically simple, but 99% of Knizia titles are. However, there is a lot going on here. Seat position, tracking where the money is flowing, hand management, motives of your opponents, and so on. It is one of the legendary “fragile” games, where a weak player supposedly hurts the game. What would happen to Modern Art if you introduced a nine year old to it ... could the serious grand-daddy of auction games also function as a family game?

The answer is yes, at least for us. The first game, a three player game with Janet and Harrison in July was a raucous success. We hammed up the auction element, sort of type-cast the artists, and had a great time. From “I love Yoko’s aeroplane art” to “Bleh, Krypto’s art is just toilet”. The third game was played with the “Japanese Businessman” variant in the rules, and that was interesting in that it introduced random art into the game if we chose to invoke it after a sale. The fourth game went back to a native three player game which Janet won, and I came last as Janet used Lite Metal’s rarity as a tie breaker twice to squeeze my art collection out of scoring positions for two of the rounds.

The final game was one I was curious to try - the two player game mentioned in the German rules. It was a tight and tense affair that I won by a paltry $2000 from Janet. It was certainly interesting to try as an exercise. It worked, it was fast, but it did lack a spark ... still, glad to try it. These rules don’t appear to have survived into the current CMON edition of Modern Art.

The thing I take away from the luxury of playing five games of Modern Art in nine months is just how well it has held up for 25 years. You can see why this has stayed in print. Yet another Knizia classic.


Beowulf: The Legend
What a fantastic and rather misunderstood game. The players are companions of Beowulf, the subject of the old English story, and without which things like The Lord of the Rings may not have been written. Ah Beowulf. Geat, hero, hunk, slayer of monsters, later a king, and all round tough guy. He makes King Leonidas look like a piece of wet lettuce. We companions follow him through episodes of his noteworthy life, gently lending assistance and encouragement to him. “Oh, a monster named Grendel ... after you, my lord”

The game feels unusual and original, but if I had to find it’s roots, it’s possibly a little like Taj Mahal. Players harbour their resources, mainly cards in six suits, and commit them to the game. The structure of the game follows a linear time line, with each space representing a notable occasion in the story of Beowulf. Most of the spaces are opportunities, where players can tool up with cards and resources, heal a scratch or two, and generally prepare for what’s ahead in the story. The neat thing here is this is actually a story, with little game mechanics wrapped around it. It works very well.

The mead and potatoes of the game are the major episodes, which essentially are auctions with a number of rewards up for grabs. Each player will get a reward, but some rewards are nasty. A double wound, or a misfortune, for example. Players commit their cards in these auctions to try and be the last Geat standing, and taking a prime choice in the schoolyard pick of the goodies.

A nice feature of the game is a push your luck element called “risking”. You can flip a couple of cards up from the deck to try and match the two suits in the current risk. If you hit, they enter the game and you essentially have picked up some freebies. If you fail, the game scratches you. Three scratches becomes a wound, and three wounds is a huge victory point penalty you are unlikely to recover from. Treat those scratches before they become infected.

The game ends with the final episode, the death of the great man. Players tally up their points amassed during the story, and a winner is declared.

Beowulf: The Legend is one of the more neglected games out there. Like Tribune: Primus Inter Pares it is a fantastic piece of game design that is not played much any more. It is fast to play, offers a highly thematic connection, and it keeps the players invested all through the one hour duration. Again and again during this challenge I was struck at how downtime just isn’t a thing in Knizia designs. There is some sort of Midas touch here where he knows how to keep players engaged and active right through the game play. This is achieved by making the core design interactive, or making player turns so short and impulse-like in nature (one or two fast actions) that the games never stall.

As we have cranked through 115 or so Reiner Knizia titles during the year, playing each one five times, I can safely say the five games of Beowulf was one of the best experiences of the year. We chose one of the best for the final game play, the 575th of the challenge.


After our last game, Janet produced a Knizia Cake. It featured game components themed on the number 5, and was rather tasty. We will demolish the rest of it over the weekend, I'm sure!

September Summary:
Knizia titles played in September: 17
Knizia titles cleared five plays in September: 8



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