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Subject: Revisiting the Spiel des Jahres Winners: Keltis rss

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Chris Wray
United States
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Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: ABACUSSPIELE, Rio Grande, Z-Man Games, Others
Players: 2 – 5
Ages: 8 and Up
Time: 45 Minutes
Times Played: > 5

Keltis: Reiner Knizia wins the Spiel des Jahres…

Reiner Knizia started designing games in the 1980s, and by the 1990s, he had become one of Germany’s game design stars. He left his job as an executive at a large multinational bank in 1997, instead choosing to pursue game design full time. Since then he’s released dozens of games each year, making him perhaps the most prolific of the major game designers.

Many of Knizia’s designs have received critical acclaim, and Knizia is a favorite of game award juries each year. He has won the Deutscher Spiele Preis a record-setting four times and the International Gamers Awards twice. He is also a favorite of the Spiel des Jahres jury. By 2008, he had been recognized for 15 games:

1992 – Nomination for Quo Vadis?
1993 – Nominations for Tutankhamen, Modern Art
1995 – Nomination for Medici
1998 – Nominations for Through the Desert, Tigris & Euphrates
1999 – Recommendation for Money!
2000 – Recommendation for Taj Mahal
2001 – Special Award for “Literary Game” for Lord of the Rings
2001 – Recommendation for Winner’s Circle
2002 – Recommendation for Der Herr der Ringe: Die Gefährten – Das Kartenspiel
2003 – Recommendation for Amun Re
2004 – Nomination for Ingenious
2004 – Recommendation for Carcassonne: The Castle
2006 – Nomination for Blue Moon City

Yet despite his many successes, prior to 2008, Knizia had not taken home the Spiel des Jahres itself. As Eric Martin once wrote for Boardgame News, “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.”

Then, in 2008, Knizia finally won for Keltis. But not only did he win the Spiel des Jahres that year, he also won the Kinderspiel des Jahres (for Wer war’s?). Knizia told me it felt great to finally win the award. Ironically, he was not at the ceremony or photo shoot when his victory was announced: he encountered unexpected travel delays while returning from the Origins Game Fair in Ohio.

Keltis traces its roots to Lost Cities, an acclaimed two-player game Knizia started developing in the mid-1990s. After he completed the prototype, Knizia showed Lost Cities to a few publishers, but they turned him down, questioning the market for two-player games. Nonetheless, his influence as a designer was on the rise (he had twice won the Deutscher Spiele Preis at that point), and in the late 1990s, thinking the game would sell well, he started pressuring publishers into taking a second look. Kosmos picked it up, publishing Lost Cities with its archaeology theme in 1999.

Knizia’s intuition proved to be correct: the game did sell well. Lost Cities was released in nearly a dozen languages that year, and it has been continuously in print since. The game received high praise on release, winning the inaugural two-player Gamers’ Choice Award plus several other awards. Lost Cities has sold more than 260,000 copies, an enviable number in an industry where the average game sells less than 10,000.

Several years after Lost Cities was released, Knizia designed an offshoot called Lost Cities: The Board Game, which was a multi-player version of Lost Cities. Knizia submitted the design to Kosmos, the publisher of Lost Cities, thinking it would be a good fit. Wolfgang Lüdtke (of TM-Spiele) was doing development work for the publisher, and he contacted Knizia with a list of changes. Kosmos wanted the game to be more abstracted, thinking it be more successful in their abstract game line along with Knizia’s Einfach Genial (a.k.a. Ingenious). They also wanted to shorten the game from three rounds (which is still present in Lost Cities: The Board Game) to one and simplify the scoring.

Knizia was skeptical of the changes. He was concerned that the abstracted theme wouldn’t sell well globally. But more importantly, he thought he was risking the connection to Lost Cities, the game’s inspiration. In the end, Knizia opted to trust the publisher’s judgement, and his design went down two separate paths. Keltis, now featuring its Irish theme, was released by Kosmos in Germany and select other markets. Lost Cities: The Board Game, using the archaeology theme of Lost Cities, was released in the rest of the world (including the United States) by Jay Tummelson at Rio Grande Games.

The rest, as they say, is history. Keltis would go on to win the 2008 Spiel des Jahres and sell more than 600,000 copies. In giving Keltis the award, the SdJ jury cited the game’s nice mix of luck and tactics, which it said is seasoned with a pinch of schadenfreude.

Keltis itself spawned numerous other games, including another card game (Keltis: Das Kartenspiel), a dice game (Keltis: Das Würfelspiel), and a travel game (Keltis: Der Weg der Steine Mitbringspiel), a major expansion (Neue Wege, Neue Ziele), and a similar, slightly more complex game (Keltis: Das Orakel). Most, if not all, of the games in the series are still in print, and their franchise has easily surpassed the one million unit sales mark.

Keltis and its game family have received numerous digital adaptations. Keltis itself has an iOS app, and Lost Cities can be played on Board Game Arena.

As for Knizia, he’s still designing games. After Keltis, Knizia received another SdJ nomination in 2009 for FITS. For a great overview of Knizia’s career, I recommend Larry Levy’s “Special K” series, which he later updated.

[Author’s Note: I owe a debt of gratitude to Reiner Knizia for agreeing to be interviewed for this article. The game’s history wouldn’t have been nearly as comprehensive without his participation. Also, I owe much credit to W. Eric Martin’s January 31, 2009 article on Boardgame News.]

The Gameplay

Keltis has not been released in English. However, BGG has an excellent translation of the rules.

Keltis is played with 110 cards, 2 cards each of 5 colors numbered from 0 to 10. The players use the cards to move their figures as far as they can along the paths of stone, earning points along the way. The paths start with negative points and end at 10 points. The player with the most points at the end of the game is the winner.

The path tiles are placed on the board, and each player takes the pieces of one colour: the 4 small figures, the 1 large figure, a score marker, and a large clover leaf (which is only used to denote color). The game pieces are put on the board on the starting space.

Each player receives 8 turns. On a turn, a player must do the following actions:

◙ Either play a card into his tableau or discard a card to the discard piles. If a card is played, the player moves up one space on that color’s path. Cards must be played sequentially by color, either ascending or descending. For example, once a player has played a 10 then an 8, they, will not be able to play a 9 in that color. There are five discard piles, one for each color.
◙ Pick up a card from the draw pile or from the top of a discard pile. Thus, each player always ends their turn with exactly 8 cards.

If you are the first player to get to a path tile, you can take it. It will either give you a fixed number of points, allow you to move one space along any path (a clover leaf), or be a wishing stone. Wishing stones are worth points at the end of the game: -4 for 0, -3 for 1, 2 for 2, 3 for 3, 6 for 4, and 10 for 5 or more.

The game ends as soon as the fifth figure (in any color) reaches the goal area (the final three rows). If a path tile is picked up, its action is not taken. The game also ends if the last card is drawn from the face down pile.

Scoring equals the sum of path points (with the tall player marker being worth double), plus the sum of points from path tiles, plus the sum of points for wishing stones. Players aren’t penalized if they never start along a path, but if they don’t move far enough along one they’ve started, they can lose points.

The player with the highest score wins.

Does it stand the test of time? My thoughts on the game…

Keltis is a clever game, and it is a favorite of my family and game group. New gamers seem to enjoy the game, and it is easy to see why it won the Spiel des Jahres.

Despite the simple rules, there’s a great deal of strategy in Keltis. Sure, there’s some luck mixed in (something I like in games), but managing your hand — and deciding when to start down a path — make the game tense and exciting. The game is tough — even frustrating at times — because the best laid plans for going down a path are often dashed early in the game. The race for path tiles is always fun.

The strategies that emerge are always entertaining. It is tempting to clean up your hand by discarding cards, but timing is everything: you have to carefully monitor what your opponent is pursuing, knowing that they could pick up your discards. You also have to balance the endgame: you might have accumulated a strong hand, but getting the cards on the table can be difficult as your opponents start reaching the final three rows.

I like the artwork, and the clover-shaped pieces are a nice touch. The theme of Keltis is clearly pasted on, but given the game’s short timeframe and excellent mechanics, that is merely a minor detraction. I do wish Kosmos would include a set of English rules, but I understand the licensing considerations.

I played Lost Cities: The Board Game before I ever played Keltis. I like Keltis much better, and in fact, Lost Cities: The Board Game is my least favorite game in the line. Keltis can be played with Lost Cities components, but I prefer the artwork and abstracted “theme” in Keltis. I also like Keltis’s gameplay far more than the gameplay in Lost Cities: The Board Game: I enjoy the fact that cards can be played in ascending or descending order (a change which reduces the luck factor). Sure, this reduces some of the tension in the game (and reduces the use of the discard pile), but it also reduces the chance that a player is disadvantaged by their starting hand.

My favorite games in the Keltis line are Lost Cities (which is far more tense than the games that followed), Keltis Das Orakel (which is a heavier version of Keltis), and Keltis: Der Weg der Steine (which is a fun “travel” game that can be played in less than 10 minutes). I like Keltis itself, but it rarely gets played these days, as everybody prefers either the expansion (Neue Wege, Neue Ziele) or one of the renditions I just mentioned.

Would Keltis win the Spiel de Jahres today? I think it’d have a good shot. The game and its offshoots have sold more than a million copies, and it is easy to see why: the line is family-friendly, easy-to-learn, well-presented, and fun to play. Keltis sales are still going strong, and the game deserves its status as a modern classic.
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  • [+] Dice rolls
United States
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I hope that Keltis Or', the dice game will be put into production. This game has a scoring decision to be made with every turn.
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