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Subject: Knizia: The God of Small Things rss

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Brett J. Gilbert
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Ingenious, also known as Genius or Mensa Connections, is one of Reiner Knizia’s most successful and well-known designs, and is something of a modern classic. The elegant gameplay and clean, colourful visuals makes this abstract tile-laying game ideal for both children and adults. But don’t let the apparent simplicity fool you! Dr Knizia has once again employed his trademark sparseness of rules to great effect, crafting a game that is light, quick and tactical, but with enough depth to make it a satisfying experience for the more dedicated gamer.

I bought my copy several years ago, but recently played a ‘best of three’ match with Peter which has only served to remind me of why the game deserves its success.


In the box you get a large folding board, a bag of tiles, four tile racks, four cardboard scoring tracks (with coloured markers) and the single, double-sided rulesheet. There’s no fiddly set-up or sorting of components, and even a cold reading of the rules will allow most groups to be up and running quickly. Having said that, new players unfamiliar with the typical nuance of Dr Knizia’s design sensibilities are likely to take a few missteps if they are not diligent in checking over each rule carefully. The ruleset is short, but Knizia generally does familiar things a little differently, and it is because of those differences that this game shines.

The players take turns placing a tile from their racks onto the board, drawing a replacement tile at the end of their turn. Points are scored by creating connected lines of similarly coloured symbols (there are six colours in the game). Each tile is a double hexagon, with two symbols, and each symbol on their tile will score if the player can place it adjacent to one or more matching hexagons. There is something very straightforward and familiar about this, and once players get used to counting the connected hexagons (only those in straight lines radiating out from each tile symbol are scored) then the gameplay is smooth and quick.

The players record their individual scores for each of the six colours on their own score track, moving the little coloured cubes along their respective rows. And so it goes, and so it goes, until the board is filled and no more tiles may be laid.



The Devil in the details

So where’s the trick? Where, exactly, is the ‘nuance of Dr Knizia’s design sensibilities’? Well, the thing is, the player with the highest overall number of points recorded on his six coloured score tracks doesn’t necessarily win. Knizia’s genius is to force the players to play a much smarter game. The winner (and pay attention here!) is the player with the highest lowest score. That is, each player’s final score is simply the the single value represented by their lowest scored colour, and the player whose score (this single value) is the highest wins. This means a player who, let’s say, scores 8 across the board (in each of the six colours) will win against a competitor who manages to score 18 in five of the colours and only 7 in the other.

This one rule turns the entire game on its head. Now a simple landgrab is not enough, and just going for big points in one or two colours isn’t going to help. Somehow players must balance the points they score in each of the six colours, while at the same time attmepting to stop everyone else doing the same thing.

An important feature of the game is that it allows the differing competitive sensibilities of different groups of players to be expressed; it doesn’t force a particular style of play. Specifically, although it can be played aggressively (deliberately blocking scoring opportunities for your opponents, even if these plays score nothing for yourself) it can also be taken rather less seriously and played in a distinctly more friendly, open way. This is what makes it great for kids (and more sensitive adults!); each group can play their way and the game doesn’t demand the complicity of its players (forcing them all to play in some necessarily scripted way) to create a satisfying experience.

And having said that, I think you can guess how Peter and I played! All three of our games were close (just 1 or 2 points decided each) and after roughly the half-way point in each things started to get nasty. At that point in the game you can see in which colours your opponent is weak, and if you can close-down scoring opportunities in those colours (while, of course, maintaining your own scores) then victory is assured. More or less. Things are not that easy, of course, but the theory is sound!

There are a couple of extra wrinkles in the rules put in just to keep things moving. If, after you have laid a tile your rack contains no tiles showing symbols matching your weakest score (which means you would have no immediate opportunity to score that symbol in your next turn) then you may swap all your tiles. This is a pretty important rules that stops the game stagnating and mitigates some of the inevitable ‘luck of the draw’. (And unlike certain other tile-based games the player is not penalized for swapping tiles by being forced to miss a turn to do so.)

The other wrinkle is that if a player reaches the maximum 18 points in any colour he must (a) exclaim ‘Ingenious!’ (or ‘Mensa!’ in my British ruleset) and (b) immediately play an extra tile. (To be honest, part (a) isn’t strictly necessary!) So with this rule the game is pulling players in two different directions: there are benefits to getting high scores, but actually winning is not necessarily one of them.

The God of small things

And so, in conclusion, it’s worth noting how the slim collection of simple ideas presented in Ingenious manifest themselves when played as something that is rather more than the sum of their parts.

Such ascetic parsimony is not the objective of all games or game designers — and nor am I suggesting it should be! — but Knizia’s brand of elegant brevity is something I personally both applaud and aspire to.

This article first appeared on my blog at www.brettspiel.co.uk.
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Sheamus Parkes
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For what it's worth "Highest Lowest" always makes new players scratch their head. I always just describe it as "Most Sets of 6 Colors".

Nice review!
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Alex G

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This is the only abstract-abstract that I'm certain I like.

I really stink at it, or perhaps my wife is just really good at it -- I think I've won once, with amazing luck (and she may have intentionally played sub-optimally out of pity after so many times either just sliding over me or totally crushing me).
 
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Brett J. Gilbert
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Isamoor wrote:
For what it's worth "Highest Lowest" always makes new players scratch their head. I always just describe it as "Most Sets of 6 Colors".


I'd never thought of it like that, but you're absolutely right! That probably is a more novice-friendly interpretation.
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Brett J. Gilbert
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alexd wrote:
This is the only abstract-abstract that I'm certain I like.

I'm not much of an 'abstract-abstract' kinda guy either, but this one really engages me, probably because there isn't really any long-term strategy (just interesting short-term tactics) and the game doesn't outstay its welcome.

alexd wrote:
I really stink at it, or perhaps my wife is just really good at it -- I think I've won once, with amazing luck (and she may have intentionally played sub-optimally out of pity after so many times either just sliding over me or totally crushing me).

You 'amazing luck' would appear to be that you have such a forgiving spouse.
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Alex G

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Isamoor wrote:
For what it's worth "Highest Lowest" always makes new players scratch their head. I always just describe it as "Most Sets of 6 Colors".


With the scoring tracks in Ingenious, this doesn't seem to work well for me (since I'm not making sets of cubes, I'm looking down the board to see what's at the bottom).

The "make sets" works well for quickly following your progress and allocating treasures in Tigris & Euphrates, though. And it's how it's described in Knizia's Dragonland, though iirc, you get _something_ for non-matched things there?
 
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Alex G

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Ok, yeah, you get 10 per set in Dragonland, and one per unmatched item. Which isn't pure Tigris/Ingenious scoring, but in effect it ends up fairly close (you better darn well keep your eye on what you're weak in, not your total).
 
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Brad Weage
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55cards wrote:

The other wrinkle is that if a player reaches the maximum 18 points in any colour he must (a) exclaim ‘Ingenious!’ (or ‘Mensa!’ in my British ruleset) and (b) immediately play an extra tile. (To be honest, part (a) isn’t strictly necessary!) So with this rule the game is pulling players in two different directions: there are benefits to getting high scores, but actually winning is necessarily one of them.


I think you meant to include a "not" in that last sentence.

I read Isamoor's comment earlier in the day, and was thinking that his preference works with E&T, but is less useful here with the scoring tracks, where I find just saying your final score is your worst color is actually preferable. I'm glad to find that others feel the same way.

Overall - I like this review, but I think the organization of it tends to obscure an important point. There is a lot of emphasis on the cleverness of the "your score is your lowest value" rule - essentially claiming that this one rule is what makes the game compelling. Yet this rule, on its own, would only create an incentive for balanced scoring - and I think lead to a rather boring game where players ignored any colors that had already achieved the higher values.

For me, the clever part is the way that the "extra play for a high score" mechanism interacts with a scoring system that focuses on the need to raise the lowest score. This is pointed out near the end - even mentioning that this pulls the play in two directions - but (perhaps due to the late positioning and characterization as a "wrinkle") I don't think it comes across as an important part of the interest of the game, at least to a reader who has never played the game and might be considering purchasing it.

In every game of this I have ever played there have been several turns where it was difficult to decide if I should try to boost a low score or try to set up for the extra turn. (I don't mean the easy decision of taking advantage of a play that takes you to 18 and earns the extra turn, but rather the play before that which puts a color within striking distance of the 18.) A lot of subtle balances come into play here. The score to gain the bonus (18) has to be based on the board size and number of tiles that will be played - so it is high enough to be worth a bonus and so that everybody does not top out too soon. The typical "low" final score for a color needs to be around the 8-12 range, so that pushing past that into the 12-15 range before the end of the game is actually a deliberate "set-up for the bonus" action. The rewards of the bonus play need to be worth it but not overpowered. In this case, the simple "extra tile play" is remarkably balanced - two tiles in a row can be enough to shut off access to a color (useful if it is your opponent's lowest color) or to set up another couple points in your own lowest color. Near the end, with few places left to play, getting one more tile in play before the end can be worth quite a bit. The amazing "nuance" here is that everything on the bonus concept is so well balanced while retaining a very simple elegant rule set.

BTW: I expect that some of this is "serendipity" in action. Knizia probably based the board size on the general numbers of plays per player he felt would be right, and knew as soon as he went with the "highest minimum score" mechanic that he would also want some "in-play" reward for a high score. The simplest was an extra tile play. Based on his other designs, if that hadn't been a reasonably balanced solution - he would have added something like "an extra tile play and advance your lowest marker by one" - and I would be claiming how clever and balanced that solution was. In contrast, the choice of 18 as the top value was probably the result of considerable play-testing, rather than just a convenient multiple of 6 in the right approximate range.

In any event, this review is great - but I just thought a reader looking to purchase this might not realize how much subtle tension and decision making can be produced by the interaction of these two concepts. You will certainly appreciate the look on your opponent's face when there are only a few plays remaining with you lagging behind by one point in a color he has cut off completely - and you drop a tile into place where one end pushes your high color up to the bonus play and the other end is your low color, and then your bonus play is a double in that color scoring two points off that other end with no chance for him to shut it down first. I really enjoy moments like that in this game - even when I am the victim of them.
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Gordon Adams
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Great review.
I love this game and got hooked on it the first time I played it ( for me,a good sign of a great game).
 
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Nathan Loden
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I like to describe the "Highest Lowest" scoring like a report card. Your parents are going to judge you on the lowest score you achieve. :)
 
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