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Monday, September 25, 2017

Designer Spotlight: Reiner Knizia Part 2 (2002-2015)

by | published Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Back in March I looked at the first half of eminent board game designer Reiner Knizia’s career and selected my top 10 favorite games of his from 1992 – 2002. After three months of intense research and deliberation (actual reason: not enough time) I have done the same for 2003 – 2015.

•    Carcassonne: The Castle (2003):  The original Carcassone game was designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede and was released in 2000, spawning around two dozen expansions and sequels. It’s an amazing game, but there is one tiny flaw: it really doesn’t work with just two players. Carcassonne: the Castle was designed to correct that flaw, since it is only playable with two, and it does an extremely good job of it. Knizia added a clever—and, rare for him, thematic—twist whereby the city is surrounded by walls (unlike the base game, which has no geographic limits). The scoring track sits on the wall tiles, and as in Keltis (see below) there is an incentive to land exactly on certain spaces on the scoring track as they give the player rewards which can be cashed in later. All the usual Carcassonne mechanics are present as well. All in all definitely worth owning even if you already have the base game but are looking for 2-player games to add to your library.

•    Amun-Re (2003): Considered by many aficionados to be Knizia’s last “great” design, Amun-Re returns to ancient Egypt as its pasted-on theme. Every round presents players with tense choices about how much to bid for provinces (and the resources therein), how many bricks to build, how much gold to offer to the Gods. Halfway through the game everything (basically) resets, allowing players who are behind a chance to jump into the provinces which have just been abandoned. It is not a long game, but it is intense, and demands constant attention to what everyone else is doing.
•    Ingenious (2004): Call it Dominoes on Steroids. The board is a hexagonal grid, upon which players place their tiles (each consisting of two symbols from a set of six—hence, dominoes). Players score points in each symbol for producing straight lines them. So, five stars in a row will get you five “star” points. It is not hard to rack up big points, and in fact when you reach 15 points for a particular symbol you get a bonus. So it must be a crazy easy game, right?

Uh, no.

No, because once you score 15 points in a symbol, you never score points for that symbol ever again. And at the end of the game, your final total is the LOWEST score you have among the six symbols. So while it’s easy to hit 15 a couple of times, it gets wicked hard to raise your lowest score, especially since every player can see every other player’s score. So the endgame for Ingenious is a time of great gnashing-of-teeth and saying-of-naughty-words.

•    Blue Moon (2003-2006, 2014): The start of Knizia’s career corresponds to the rise of Magic: the Gathering and the collectible card game (CCG). Blue Moon was Knizia’s entry into the field, and years after the game went out of print it still has its fans—so much so that Fantasy Flight just reissued the entire game in one non-collectible box as Blue Moon: Legends (BM:L).

In Blue Moon, each player represents a race of magical beings. Each race has its own deck with its own strengths and weaknesses. The decks are customizable in BM:L for those who love deckbuilding. Each player is trying to win a series of combats so as to lure dragons to their side of the board. On a turn you may begin a new combat, add to a pre-existing one, or retreat, leaving the field to your adversary but possibly (and preferably) with a trick or two up your sleeve for the next round. Games run to about 30 minutes, and BM:L adds rules for playing a series of games. If you’re done with CCG’s, or are new to the genre but don’t want to empty your wallet buying booster packs looking for super-rare’s, BM:L is an excellent place to start.

•    Pickomino (2005): Lately Knizia seems to be pitching games more and more at the children’s games market. Pickomino is one such game, but presents enough challenge and interest to adults as to be worth your time and effort. At its heart it is a dice game of push-your-luck. Each player is supposed to be a chicken trying to pick up worms represented by sturdily-made dominoes—but honestly, it’s Knizia, so forget the theme and just enjoy the game. On your turn you start by rolling eight dice and can keep rolling them until you score high enough to pick a domino from the centre of the table—or, go bust trying. You may also get to steal a domino from another player, which adds a piquant “take that” flavour that some people love and others should avoid. If you’ve got young kids, nieces, or nephews who are bored of Yahtzee and looking for something more, you could definitely score with this one.

•    Risk Express (2006): Speaking of Yahtzee: back in 2006 , Hasbro released a series of games in its “Express Line” all of which were dice versions of evergreen favorites like Monopoly, Battleship, Clue, and so on. The one that did not get wide distribution in North America was Risk Express, which is a shame because it is probably the best of the lot. (It is possible to print and play your own copy using files on

Instead of a mapboard, countries are represented by circular cards and colour-coded by continent. Each player on his or her turn chooses one country to invade and, as in Pickomino (see above), keeps rolling dice until they succeed or bust trying. Capturing all countries on a continent locks them down (making them unconquerable) and gets you points. When all countries have been conquered, highest score wins.

Portable, easy to explain, and much faster than classic Risk, Risk Express is a perfect cottage game or light filler between rounds of Amun-Re.

•    Medici vs Strozzi (2006): Two-player games based on bidding are very hard to find; Knizia’s own classic Medici can be played with as few as three, but is better with four or five. Medici vs Strozzi was, I’m sure, designed to try to fill this niche, and it does rather well at it. Anyone who enjoys Medici should at least give this one a look. The mechanics are very similar; on your turn you will be drawing goods tiles out of a bag until you decide to stop. Then you set your bid price, and the other player decides whether to let you pay it (so that you take the goods) or overbid you (so that he/she takes the goods). As in Medici, you’re trying to get the most of each kind of good each round as well as the highest total goods in your boats.

Unlike Carcassone: the Castle, I don’t feel this game really improves on the original. If you’re looking for a good two-player bidding game, I’d recommend Jaipur or (if you can find it) Neue Heimat.

•    Keltis (2008): Here Knizia took Lost Cities, one of his two-player classics—see Part One—and expanded it for up to four players. The game still revolves around a deck of cards in five suits, this time numbered from 0 to 10 but now there are three copies of each card no “handshakes”. Keltis adds the wrinkle that you can start low in a suit and build up or start high in a suit and build down. It also adds a game board so that as you play your cards you move your tokens down one of five paths (one for each suit), and landing on certain spaces gets you a reward—extra points, extra moves down the path, or “blarney stones” which you are trying to collect for bonus points at the end of the game.

The game ends when five or more pieces pass a certain point on the board; players then receive (or lose) points based on where their pieces are, plus (or minus) some points depending on how many blarney stones they’ve collected.

Rounds are short and, as in Lost Cities, the rules recommend you play three times and add total scores. Or, you can buy Lost Cities: The Board Game which is essentially the same game and which requires you to play three rounds. Personally I prefer Keltis for its theme (blarney stones!) and its artwork.

•    Star Trek: Expeditions (2011) Here Dr. Knizia uses the springboard of J.J. Abrams’ reboot of the Star Trek franchise as an excuse to move things into “Space: the Final Frontier”.

The game bears little resemblance to his cooperative classic Lord of the Rings—to his credit, he did not just try to hammer a Trek theme onto the old Tolkien chassis. Instead, players (members of the Enterprise Bridge Team—each of course with special powers) face simultaneous threats in space vs. the Klingons and on some random planet. Like LotR, each turn something Bad happens, and players must use their limited actions to move from zone to zone, deal with increasingly-difficult crises, and stay alive. Many ways to fail, only one way to win.

It’s a good game, but suffers from the classic “just-do-what-I-tell-you” problem inherent in most cooperative games. Also, there is only one set of objectives included, so replay value is low.

•    … Okay, I admit defeat here. Although recently The Good Doctor has designed some games that have gotten good reviews and recognition (Qin, Indigo, Rondo, Prosperity), I can’t think of much to say about any of them. As I mentioned in Part One, RK seems to be spending more and more time coming up with ideas for apps and spinning out endless variations of his old classics. Look: anyone who has designed as many amazing games as Dr. K doesn’t need to prove anything to anybody. Like The Rolling Stones, Sting, or Monty Python, he’s earned the right to put out whatever he bloody well likes, and if people buy it, well then, good for them and good for him. Really.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather extensive retrospective on one of board gaming’s greats.

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