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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Designer Spotlight: Reiner Knizia Part 1

by | published Friday, January 2, 2015


In the mid 1990’s a new wave of German boardgames arrived in North America, spearheaded by the now-classic Settlers of Catan. Its designer, Klaus Teuber, became one of a select club of designers that had name recognition among gaming enthusiasts. Today, these designers often get their name ‘above the title’ much like Scorcese or Tarantino get their names above the title of their films.
Teuber has basically spent his career spinning off sequel after sequel to his original design. Another designer, whose first successes were released at the same time as Teuber’s, has become famous (or infamous, depending on whom you ask) for designing games using a variety of mechanics (often requiring some mathematical skill to master) on a myriad of themes (often—critics charge—only loosely related to the gameplay). That man, whose game-design career has entered its third decade, is Reiner Knizia.
In recent years Dr. Knizia (for he is a PhD in Mathematics) seems to be spending more time on coming up with ideas for iOS apps. Nonetheless, his boardgame legacy is so long and so successful that I was urged by Sean to split his career into two parts, the better to cover the many classic games he has designed. This article will highlight ten games from the first (some would argue best) decade of Knizia’s career. If your collection consisted of just these ten games, you would have a pretty darned good collection. As I worked on this list I again marvelled that one man could be responsible for so many classic games in such a short time span.

•    Quo Vadis (1992) Unusual (for Knizia) in that it is a game relying almost totally on negotiation, and hence well-integrated with its theme of Roman politics of the Republican era. Players represent families pushing their scions up the cursus honorum (the Roman political ladder). On your turn you must move one of your family members from one level to the next, always toward the Senate; however, you generally cannot move without the consent of other players—which is where the negotiation comes in. Simple, elegant, Quo Vadis’ only downside is that it really cannot be enjoyed with fewer than four players, and preferably needs five.
•    Modern Art (1992) Players represent art galleries vying to end the game with the highest valued paintings by five artists. The game is played over four rounds. On your turn you play and auction a card from your hand representing a painting by one of the artists. One twist is that each card also forces you to perform a different kind of auction (free bid; once-around; close-fist; set-your-price). Another is that playing a card increases the value of that artist—which means you’re usually helping someone else make money, too. Modern Art is best with four or five players.
•    Kingdoms (1994) A classic Knizia design in that its fantasy theme has no real bearing on gameplay (it was originally set in a medieval marketplace) and that it relies heavily on players’ calculation abilities to keep track of scores. The game is played over three identical rounds; the player with the most points at the end of the game wins. On your turn you play a tile onto a square grid—either a tile randomly drawn from the pile (which makes that grid space worth a certain number of points) or one of your castles (which will score the sum of all tiles in its row and column at the end of the round). There are various twists: some tiles are worth negative points; other tiles block or change the value of tiles in their rows and columns; each of your castles multiplies its score by differing amounts. All in all engrossing and very different with 2, 3, or 4 players.
•    Tigris & Euphrates (1997) The mechanics of this game are unique, even if its theme (ancient civ building) is not. Again taking place on a square grid, players do not play colours—rather, each colour represents a different kind of power (military; religious; naval; trade) with player-tribes represented by symbols (lion; archer; vase; elephant). The result is a fluid game where you can never get too Tigris and Euphretescomfortable with your position, as it is all too easy for another tribe to come along and chase you away. Players can also build monuments, which generate power every turn—but which can also be taken over if circumstances are right. Scoring uses what is now considered a classic Knizia method: your final score is the least of your four power totals, so running up a huge score in military, for example, will do you no good if you have only six naval points.
•    Ra (1999) Along with Modern Art and Medici (another masterful Knizia design from this decade) Ra stands as a classic in the bidding and set-collection genre, this time set in ancient Egypt. There are three Eras, with scoring at the end of each Era and special scoring at the end of the game. Players take turns pulling tiles out of a bag. Most tiles represent things of value (monuments; power; fertile land; technology) that join an auction pool on the board. Occasionally a tile will force an auction. A player may instead call ‘Ra’ and go straight to an auction without pulling a tile at all. All bidding is done using wooden pieces called “suns”, numbered 1 to 13 (or 16, depending on the number of players). When you bid on a set of tiles, you also get the sun which happens to be in the centre of the board, which is replaced by the sun you just used for your bid. So you’re always trying to get the best value for whatever suns you have in front of you. You want everything, of course, but you’re not going to get it; the challenge is to maximize your take while minimizing everybody else’s. There’s more to the game than this, but the game has tremendous depth as well as thrill as players push their luck and psych each other out with the bidding.
Lost Cities•    Lost Cities (1999) Perhaps one of the best two-player games around, Lost Cities can be taught in ten minutes and almost always leaves you wanting ‘just one more game’. Again, the theme is rather incidental, but for the record players are explorers who are trying to best each other in undertaking up to five expeditions. Each expedition is a different-coloured suit in a deck of 60 cards. On your turn you play or discard a card first and then draw a new one (another classic Knizia twist which usually throws gin rummy players off for at least five games before they get used to it). The draw deck acts as a kind of hourglass as players push their luck laying down cards in each suit. You generally don’t want to start an expedition unless you have a few cards of that suit already, since you are penalized at the end of the round if the sum of the cards in a given suit in front of you is less than 20. Furthermore, you’re forced to play cards in ascending (if not necessarily sequential) order, so 2, 5, 8, 9 is ok but 7, 6, 5, 4 is not. Lost Cities rewards patience and boldness in equal measure, and learning to use the draw deck to control the tempo of the game is essential.
•    The Lord of the Rings (2000) Knizia has actually published two games called Lord of the Rings: this one, published with the release of the first Peter Jackson movie, and another one meant for children a few years later. The latter is actually pretty good, but it’s this one which I want to highlight because of its integration of theme, its co-operative gameplay, and because it’s bloody hard! Each player takes the role of a Shire hobbit who is helping to get the One Ring to Mordor to be destroyed. Gameplay spans several episodes, each on its own board, with players using cards to help the Fellowship overcome obstacles. On a separate board each player’s purity is being tracked, with Sauron (controlled by the game) gradually pulling everyone into Corruption (and elimination from the game). Players will have to cooperate and sacrifice to make sure even one of them makes it to Mordor. Can be played solitaire, as all coop games can, but is best with three or four.
•    Dream Factory (2000) A lighter bidding game I selected mainly because its theme and gameplay actually mesh well, and the theme (making movies) is so much fun, particularly for cinephiles. If you can get your hands on the original German version (Traumfabrik) which uses real Hollywood stars and graphics, so much the better, but the North American version is still fun despite the cartoony graphics and humour which can get old pretty fast. Over a series of rounds players bid for stars, directors, and technical crew to complete films, aiming for quality where possible, but there are points to be had for the biggest “turkey” as well. Best with four or five.
•    Battle Line (2000) This game was originally called Schotten Totten and had a theme of Scotsmen tossing cabers—which should tell you how important the theme is here. The game bears some resemblance to Lost Cities, with players competing simultaneously on multiple ‘fronts’. In this case, though, instead of aiming for higher sums, each player is trying to play the best three-card “poker hand” on his/her side of the front. Straight-flushes beat 3-of-a-kind, which beat flushes, which beat straights. This version, with its ancient-world theme, expands on the basic rules of its hairy predecessor by adding a separate deck of tactics cards which adds variety to gameplay, but I actually prefer the original version for its simplicity and elegance.
•    The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation (2002) The Good Doctor’s take on the classic “Stratego” with a heavy Tolkien varnish. The forces of good and evil spar over a diamond-shaped map with special rules for terrain. Many pieces also have special LotR-related powers. The game is available both in small-box and “deluxe” versions, but both have exactly the same gameplay. An excellent “gateway” game for a niece or nephew who’s read the book and/or loved the movies.

In the next installment, we will look at Knizia’s output since 2002. Until next time!


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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One thought on “Designer Spotlight: Reiner Knizia Part 1

  1. […] than three years ago–and my, how the time flies–I wrote about the early career of Reiner Knizia, whose career spans three decades, several Spiel […]

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