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Derek Thompson
United States
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Qwirkle is an abstract game by American designer Susan McKinley Ross and published by MindWare. It has actually been available in America since 2006, but has received renewed attention since it won last year’s Game of the Year award in Germany upon publication there. How does a six-year-old game stack up against today’s offerings? Here’s a reminder of my scoring categories:

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: Qwirkle’s box is somewhat smaller and thinner than the standard Ticket to Ride / Dominion box, and for good reason: all that’s in the box are a bag of tiles and some rules! I say “tiles,” but these are actually extremely thick, wooden blocks that can stand up on end, eliminating the need for tile holders. They are very chunky and fun to hold. Not all of mine are evenly cut, but that’s negligible unless you play with people who are real sharks. Though that’s all the game has, there are 108 of these large blocks. When I first began working on this review, I had thought the MSRP was $30, which I thought was reasonable, but it turns out the MSRP is $25 and most places have this for $17-$22 online. I think that is good as the price could possibly be, as most $20 MSRP games are just small card games. Let me emphasize that the minimal amount of components is not a complaint but something I really enjoy. I love when a designer can get a lot of game out of very minimalist components, and it makes the game look more elegant and less intimidating to the uninitiated. My only complaint is that there really should have been a score pad and pencil included.

Accessibility: When I read the rules of the game, it immediately clicked with me. However, I was worried that even though the rules were easy, the few nuances would be difficult for me to explain well. That wasn’t the case at all, and this is a game where you can just jump right into it and start playing. The rulebook is one of the shortest I’ve seen. Basically, players have a hand of tiles which all have a specific color and shape on them (there are three copies of each tile in the bag). On your turn, you connect to the existing tiles (much like in Scrabble) so that the rows and columns you create have a common trait (either all the same shape, or all the same color) and score points for every column and row in which you play (again, like Scrabble). Alternatively, you can spend your turn swapping in tiles for new ones from the bag (sounds familiar…). The nuance is here: each column and row cannot have duplicates, so there a row can only ever be six tiles long (every shape of the same color, or every color of the same shape), and when you make such a row, you’ve pulled a “Qwirkle” and score six extra points. The game ends when someone uses up all their tiles and that player scores an extra six points as well. It’s often described as “Scrabble without words” and that is fairly accurate, although it shares small similarities with Set and Ingenious. Since Scrabble is so ubiquitous in America (even more so now, thanks to Words with Friends), Qwirkle is an extremely easy game to teach.

Depth: Apart from the major change of dropping letters from the equation, Qwirkle also differs from Scrabble in that there is no set board on which to play. That is both a positive and a negative: it gives players much more freedom of movement, but it also makes blocking Qwirkles considerably more difficult than blocking moves you’d want to make in Scrabble. However, blocking is still a possibility, and there are other subtleties to the strategy in the game. 108 tiles is actually not very many, and knowing that there are three of each tile means that you can quickly survey the board to see if a Qwirkle is still viable. You can also deduce your opponents’ tiles fairly accurately in the endgame. Hand management is also a very important part of the game because of this clever tile distribution, and it’s often a good idea to spend a turn swapping tiles in hopes of setting up a Qwirkle. This is a strong contrast to Ingenious (another well-known abstract tile game), because Ingenious rewards your creation of terrible hands by letting you replace them for free without using a turn. Qwirkle does have a lot of luck, but players that think the strategy purely lies on board positioning, who ignore the hand management and the tile counting, are going to overestimate the amount of luck in the game. Anyone can win a single game of Qwirkle, but I would not be surprised if an expert advertised that he could beat a beginner at least six out of ten games.

Theme: Well, Qwirkle doesn’t have one! However, I think that the game is very fun to watch being played, and that you can let your imagination run with the shapes and colors that you see. My sister-in-law frequently committed throughout the game on the shape made by the tiles: “It looks like a man! Now it’s a man riding a horse! Now it’s a mansion!” and so on. It’s not as if Qwirkle raises any expectations for a thematic experience, but you can still let the game be about more than just winning, because it’s so beautiful to watch.

Fun: I’ve enjoyed my games of Qwirkle and look forward to playing more. However, the main problem I had with the game is that I think it has a bit of a runaway leader problem. I really enjoy when games have a way to catch the leader – not necessarily ways to ruin the current leader with him unable to help it, but alternative strategies or minor offensive play. I mean things like shooting the moon in a game of Hearts, or the ability to aggressively block the leader’s worst color in Ingenious. The only real way I see an early lead swinging in Qwirkle is from a high dose of bad luck, not from anything that the players do. I haven’t played hundreds of games, though, so it’s entirely possible that I’m wrong. All that being said, Qwirkle is a short game – maybe half an hour – so it’s a minor niggle, and the best solution is just to play again.

If you want a serious, competitive abstract game, I would recommend Ingenious or other of its ilk. If you want a simple, fun abstract game with a healthy dose of luck, Qwirkle is worth its low price of entry.

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