A selection of new releases,
reviewed by Mike Siggins
I have this idealistic view of the German games industry that is clearly mistaken. I imagine queues of eager designers approaching the big players in the hope, nay the desperation, that their prize design will be given the nod. Not necessarily for the pittance on offer, but for the undoubted fame and glory. The assumption here is that design supply exceeds demand, that the company will select only the very best on offer, and that all is right in the world. Or, if you prefer: Many come, but few are chosen. Realistically, all this is tempered by the requirement to deliver the right game for the family market - not necessarily for gamers - but they should still be innovative and good, right?
Well, a group of us sat there last weekend and manfully ploughed through over a dozen of the latest games from Germany. At the end of the session, just one passed muster - the El Grande expansion - with perhaps another couple of decent efforts. The rest were, sadly, average to rubbish - not judged only as gamer's games, but against the standards of German game design that we have come to expect over the last few years. Fortunately, with my attitude recently adjusted, I did not get too depressed by the experience, and was instead simply bewildered as to how so many had slipped through the net.
So how does this happen? Let's say our typical journeyman designer, who we shall call Helmut for the sake of atmosphere, has a frantic winter of game designing (this might be '95/96 with the lead time). He comes up with ten 'smallish' titles and, having established a bit of a name for himself, he schlepps around to half a dozen big game companies. Each one looks at the games left with them, and presumably puts them through a rigorous testing procedure cutting out any chaff, and developing as needed. Presumably, again, there are many other games in the frame and each is chosen on its merits. What must be the key element though is that each company has to put out something each year, and if you are Goldsieber, or FX Schmid, I suppose you might be expected to launch four or even eight titles at Nuremburg. With this in mind, it might be fair to say that the quota could be the source of the problem. With good designers tending to a couple of games a year (Herr Knizia being the obvious exception), the 'quantity', B Stream merchants come to the fore. And if 1996 was a sparse year for design, the companies are forced to commission something and therefore accept games that might not get a second look in more fertile years. Is this really the case? And if so, why aren't they out there actively encouraging good game designs?
The other puzzling aspect is the new arrival. This year it is Messrs Buckhardt and Neugebauer who between them have designed a handful of games of quite staggering mediocrity. How do these people break in to an exclusive market? I can understand it if they come up with the next Settlers, or even a range of games that are completely original. But as we shall see, this is not the case. So are they dating the R&D Director's daughter, as one group member indelicately suggested? Is the game market actually more like the book market, where there are strata of ability, popularity (and literary merit?) and anyone can find a niche? If this is the truth, then we need to be told (and to quickly work out who represent the Barbara Cartland and the Iain Banks equivalents). Or is it that the German market is so desperate for 'product' that the publishers will take anything that could conceivably be called a game, and the public will buy anything that is nicely packaged?
It also set me to wondering whether it was time to put forward all those very mediocre designs I have discarded because not only were they several aeons short of Knizia on the evolutionary scale, but also because I really wouldn't want to put my name to them. They worked, they were quick, a theme could be concocted, but there was nothing there. All were shelved because they lacked that something extra, that crucial idea or clever twist that sets them apart from the norm. The slipstreaming in 6 Tage Rennen, the sparse brilliance of High Society, the elusive magnet in Take It Easy. And the designers that can produce this added dimension are, for me, way above that norm. I don't think this all-important talent is one I have, and I am aware of my limitations. But then a whole slew of games come along that display much the same qualities as my rejects, and I really start to wonder. Not because of envy, but because I still see having a game published in Germany as something to aspire to, to be proud of, and am deeply puzzled when they don't match up. I guess, like school exams, the standard must be dropping. And I suppose we should ask the question whether we as players, the publishers, and the designers are happy to settle for average or good games, or to aim for the best?
So are my concerns raised last year after Essen - that the German market is shifting ever further towards the simpler, unexciting, derivative but saleable game - coming true? On the evidence of these games, yes. But there is hope. Ravensburger have finally extracted their head from the sand and have made a conscious decision to select, and publish, better games from next year. An admirable but difficult task, and a surprising, if not generally public, admission that they had perhaps got it wrong. Alan Moon will not let much in the way of future rubbish slip by at FX Schmid USA, and Franckh, Hans im Gluck and Moskito remain broadly loyal to quality rather than quantity. So as before, we hope that for every ten uninspiring little card games, we might get one playable game, and for every twenty of those, we might get another Medici, Modern Art or El Grande. Or even a Settlers. The odds are still acceptable, given that most games are far from terrible, but not exactly what you'd call a sure thing. The main problem is that we are constantly obliged to 'filter' - buying, trying, remaining enthusiastic through setbacks, in the hope of an infrequent reward.
Goldsieber, 2-4 players, £8/$12
Designed by Peter Neugebauer
Oh dear. Oh deary deary me. This is one of those games that as soon as someone explains the rules, you know it is never going to come out again. The basic idea is that you have a deck of cards with various sorts of fish pictures. On your turn you can turn over a card, and then another. If the second card doesn't match the first, you can continue turning until you decide enough is enough. If you stop before you match two fish, you keep those you have caught. If you pull a twin, you lose everything. That's it. Sound familiar? It's Pass the Pigs/Can't Stop without the quality. Eight quid. ChaChing! Kleine Fische is one of those games, like Top Secret, that occasionally pops up in the wrong category. This could quite happily fit into the Goldsieber kids' range and, as such, will possibly provide entertainment for that group of gamers. For you and me, this is one to avoid - so you have already saved more than the price of Sumo!
Goldsieber, 3-6 players, £8/$12
Designed by Wolfgang Luedtke
Wolfgang is a critic turned designer, and by coincidence a long term subber to Sumo, so I can at least see how he might have made the break into the big leagues. He would at least know the right people to talk to. So what has Herr Luedtke delivered for our delectation? Well, it's a little card game that is won by getting rid of your cards. The round is a bidding exercise by which you look at your topmost card, which has a combination of eight different symbols on it, and decide how many of these symbols there might be around the table. You then bid and the next player decides whether to accept and up the bid, or challenge. Starting to sound familiar? The problem is you don't know what is likely to be on the other cards, so you tend to bid blind or, at best, on a hunch. If you are the last one in, you discard a card.
In fairness, Nimm's Leich isn't too bad, in that it works to a point and is quite good fun, but it just seems to be another case of 'me too' design which is, essentially, superfluous. Why? Because Nimm's Leich is indeed Liar's Dice with cards, but without the natural flair and mathematical simplicity of that classic. It is neither an improvement (although it is considerably quieter than those rattling dice cups!) nor a sufficiently different game to make the venture worthwhile. I suppose one must consider the Monopoly and Settlers card games, but both of these are quite distinct as mechanisms, serving both different players and tastes. Nimm's Leich has none of these advantages, and in fact is inferior to the original with its lack of important bidding knowledge. Okay, but again a rather puzzling choice, and not one to spend your money on.
Goldsieber, 2-4 players, £8/$12
Designed by Gunter Buckhardt
Now this is the first of Herr Buckhardt's little gems and like all three of his 'designs' it has an interesting core idea, but doesn't actually get round to working as a game. Bit of a drawback, that. The theme is a good one, hunting buffalo with your indian tribe. The buffalo are laid out in sections and it is the players task, over the course of three hunts, to collect the most buffalo points. This is achieved by selecting seven cards with which to contest the first hunt, laying hunters (numbered cards) and warriors. Each of the warriors will fight rival warriors in an advanced form of rock paper scissors - chief beats everyone, squaw beats chief, medicine man beats brave and squaw etc. At the end of the fighting, the tribe with the most hunter values will gain the biggest buffalo, the second gets the next one and so on. That's it really. The big drawback is that it is virtually impossible to decide tactics because it is largely random, so you select cards not knowing if you will need them, and play cards in the hope that they will still be around in seven lays time. Disappointing, since the 'dual control' is an interesting idea.
Goldsieber, 3-4 players, £8/$12
Designed by Stefan Dorra
We can deal with this one very quickly for it is that all too common beastie, the trick taking partnership trump game. It is pretty plain vanilla in that the card play has no perverse Stichelnesque rulings, but it does have super trumps and a couple of minor tweaks - 'booty' (bonus) cards for one. Where it scores and stands apart from the norm, rather like Was Sticht and Mu before it, is in the pre-game. This is a rather clever matrix of colours and card categories - trumps, super trumps, booty cards, value of tricks and so on. Each player takes it in turn to place a marker on the matrix saying, "No! Blue is not trumps!" (hence the name of the game) and covering that box. Play proceeds until there is just one vacant box in each line, thereby establishing the terms of the coming contract. Not bad, a little difficult to influence matters, and an original idea well executed. You'll know if you want to buy this one or not. Bingggg! Next!
Goldsieber, 4-6 players, £8/$12
Designed by Martin Wallace
And so we come to one of the better ones of the batch, which is not saying much, but Und Tschuss does work, is fun, and, like Njet! and For Sale, fits the category of small box game rather well. The aim with this one is to avoid coming second (my natural resting place, usefully) and to know when to get out. The mechanism is rather neat. Play is in rounds with one player dropping out each time. For the first round it is the player who lays the lowest card who takes the lowest value card as compensation. In the second round it is the player with the lowest total of the two cards, then three, and so on until there are only two players left, when it twists and the highest total claims the big card and the second curses manfully. Not a bad little game, if rather difficult to play well due to the luck element, but not as good as For Sale if you are torn between two purchases.
Designed by Stefan Dorra
This one is strange. It is a sort of light stockmarket game in which you pay in coloured chips to buy shares, take the coloured chips back in rotation (this takes ages, and seems to add little to the game) to fund future purchases and then try and guess which shares are going to go up and down. Share (also colour coded) prices are supported by a minimum number of the respective chips, and moved up if that colour chip is in the majority. If the minimum is not reached, the price drops. There are some artificial restrictions on what shares may be traded at any given time, and the whole thing was about as engaging as show jumping. That's it. It takes a good 30 minutes to slug through to the end, and I'm blown if I can see any skill or tactics in it - and I won. Let me know when you've worked them out please, but I'd be cautious with that credit card in the meantime.
Fx Schmid, c£17/$25
Designed by Dominique Erhard
Dominique Erhard has been quietly building an enviable track record. Already sporting Condottiere, Serenissima, Droids and Montgolfiere on her palmares, Johnny Controletti is the latest novel, if not quite as spectacular, design. The game is one of bluff and gambling. You are each given a pile of banknotes which vary in value from 0 to 5,000. Each turn a player rolls a coloured dice which determines who he will face off against. The other player must present him with face down banknotes which he can decide to take into his wallet, without question, or to challenge. If he challenges, he must roll more than the sum offered on one die. So if you pay over 7,000, he is stuck (can't beat seven on a d6) and you get the money back plus the same again from the challenging player for his outright cheek. If you've paid him 1,000 however, and he beats it, he can ask for more and so on until the other players have dozed off. Of course occasionally you try and palm him off with three zeroes. Ahhh, the excitement. The thrills. I can hardly sleep at night as it is.
Fx Schmid, c£17/$25
Designed by Stefan Dorra
Now this one isn't too bad at all, if you like Stefan Dorra games. I cannot be said to be a huge fan, and perhaps this coloured my judgment a little, though, again, there are good ideas here, but precious little repeat gaming value. The idea is to keep your cockatoos safe in their nests while rampaging cuckoos try to move in. You are dealt a hand of numbered cards which also carry full and half cockatoo icons. Add these up and place that many cockatoos (=lives) in front of you. This is meant to show, broadly, how strong or weak your hand is and I thought it a nice feature, as long as the cards and cockatoos are truly linked. The rest of the game is Hol's der Geier meets 6 Nimmt. Two numbered 'nest' cards are turned over which are the cards to be played for this round. Each player chooses one of their number cards (the 'extreme' cards numbered 1-12 and 49-60 are most useful) and places it face down, revealing simultaneously in time honoured fashion. The player with the highest number takes the lowest value nest card of the two and lays it face up in front of himself. The player with the second highest number takes the other nest card. Other players stand pat. If a player has already gained nest cards in earlier rounds, any new cards won are simply added to the pile; the topmost card being the present 'nest' value. The player who now has the highest nest card on show loses a cockatoo by flipping it to become a cuckoo. Play progresses for a number of rounds with a curious scoring system tacked on the end. The tactics, interesting enough for a couple of outings, are basically to play high enough to get the safe (well, short term) lower nest card, or low enough to duck the transaction altogether - hence the 6 Nimmt motif. Not bad, good fun and worth a try.
Fx Schmid, c£17/$25
Designed by Gunter Buckhardt
Our Gunter again, but this time we need a qualification. It is just possible that all four of us have missed an important rule for this game. It certainly feels like there is one missing, and it badly needs something else as there is a major hole in the mechanism which means you curl up and die of boredom after one turn. So if we have all missed it, shout, and discount the following. But if, as I suspect, we have played it correctly, this one represents the biggest disappointment of the batch.
Why? Because it looks absolutely stunning. A regional map of medieval Britain, some cute little hexagonal wooden markers, an obvious empire building theme and lots of neat (if quaint) concepts like voting for the king, controlling areas, being involved in every combat and so on. However, when one gets down to actually playing it, there is in fact just one decent idea, and that doesn't work properly. So a whole box full of overproduced goodies is condemned because of another weak system, which I shall now explain briefly.
The map has several regions which start the game empty. You each take turns to fill them up with your counters, and then when the map is full, you go after other's regions by 'diplomatic' overtures (this means fighting, but they needed a cover). Each region carries a voting strength, and a player is trying to get a fixed number of votes/regions for the win. That's it, as far as we could tell. The game stagnated in the usual way of these things, with one player not wishing to commit to an attack in case he made himself an easy picking, and we packed it up. Quite unbelievable, really.
The original bit is the diplomatic discussions. You have a hand of numbered cards from which you secretly select up to five. These are revealed to your opponent and anyone else along for the summit, and then you roll dice. Put the dice on the cards, multiply the card by the die number, and you have your total. Now this could be different and good if there were any real skill or thought involved, but there isn't.
Long Live the King is best summed up by a friend of mine, Alan How, who is not genetically disposed to moderation in his praise of games. Even he termed it 'disappointing', which is as close to outright damnation as it ever gets round these parts. Case closed, and I shall be treating the words 'Gunter Buckhardt' as 'Danger! Novice Designer!' until he proves me wrong.
[Ken: I have to leap in here and make a few comments. One of the problems I have always had with Condotierre is that it is one of those games where doing nothing is often the best plan. It looks to me as though Gunter were trying to start from Condotierre and try to fix that one problem. In Long Live the King, the first player to use up all of their cards triggers a scoring round. If none of the players have a sufficient lead to end the game then all players are dealt a fresh hand of cards from those that had already been played. I like that mechanism a lot. In fact, the game almost works for me except that the die roles make it far too random. It might even work if you halved on the dice roles to make your resulting score more dependant on the cards played. Damn good try, though, Gunter.]
Fx Schmid, c£17/$25
Designed by Gunter Buckhardt
Oh my, they're getting worse. This game is truly dire and I was left completely amazed that FX Schmid should consider it worthy of consideration, let alone publication. Gunter's idea this time is to recreate that old chestnut of climbing the corporate ladder. Okay, passable theme. Each player has a number of heart-attack candidates, aspiring to the heights of the director's washroom (bitter, me?). They are also dealt an equal number of influence cards. Each round takes the form of a one on one contest with a rival - the one who plays the highest value influence cards progresses to the next round. However, the loser gets his cards back and takes the difference between the winning and losing totals from the kitty, adding a Wrott & Swindlers style element. The kitty can run out, so it is luck of the draw if there are still cards when you need them. Far be it from me to suggest ducking the first two contests to pick up a load of cards, for that would be unsportsmanlike. Okay, so you progress all the way to the top in this fashion, conserving cards if possible. At the end, all the cards from the discard pile are shuffled and divided into nine piles. We are not told why. The top man gets three piles (chosen at random), next one two and so on. Two piles are not allocated. Add these to your existing influence points that you managed to conserve and the winner is not the top man, but the one with the biggest total influence. Brilliant! The fact that an unlucky selection at the end (cards vary from 1 to 20!) can easily offset any preceding good play doesn't seem to be of concern to Herr Buckhardt, and so another turkey sinks beneath the waves. Avoid. Like the plague.
Designed by Stefan Dorra
I have lost count of the games designed by Stefan Dorra in this overview. It cannot be less than four, probably closer to half a dozen. And this is the only one that was good enough for an immediate second play. And a third. Okay, so we played it ten times in the two sessions. This is a good game, but stay those credit cards for just a moment. For Sale is a filler. A small box, very quick, mildly interesting, light filler, just like you used to get from Ravensburger in the good old days. Not exactly High Society, but then it is much faster, and definitely not a turkey. Games take no more than five or ten minutes of breakneck play, and it can accommodate up to five players with no drawbacks.
How does it work? The game is in two sections - buying property and then turning a profit. The first phase sees twenty properties valued 1 to 20 up for sale. At the start of the game you have only 15 in cash to buy in using the clever, poker-style bidding system. As many houses as there are players are turned over. Each player bids in turn with the sure knowledge that if he drops out first, he will get the lowest value house cheaply, and if he stays in to the death he will get the best one at a price. Let's say there are houses worth 2,5,7,8,20. Clearly the 2 is rubbish, there are some middling buys and a desirable property. Player one bids 2 beans, player two bids at least 2 and can raise as much as he wants, or ducks and takes the 2 house. Play proceeds round, the bids constantly rising to the level of pain, when someone cracks or runs out of money. If you drop out, you get half your bid back (crucial, this) and take the lowest available house, but the last bloke left in pays out his entire bid. This is nice. It means you can't often afford not to bid, because you will get the rubbish, but you have to make sure all the others don't cave and leave you with the last house and few cash reserves. Yes, you get a decent card, but the cash is king in the first round.
Once all the houses are sold, it is time to sell them on for cheques. These are valued 0 to 20, with two zeroes. Again, as many cheques as there are players are turned for a round, and everyone lays a house card face down for simultaneous revelation, Hol's Der Geier fashion. The highest house takes the biggest cheque, and so on down to the lowest. Repeat until all houses are sold. The player with most money (cheques plus cash) wins. Now I know this one sounds very simple, and it is, but it is not a no-brainer like Kleine Fische - there is just enough there to keep everyone interested, especially as a late night closer. It is intriguing because it has the old Knizia hook of deciding, as in High Society and Medici, what a numbered card is worth - sometimes the card draw spread will mean no one bids, taking a house in turn, and sometimes (with houses valued at the extremes of 1 and 20) it gets very tense. All in all though, it scores with the speed of the action, surely the main attribute of a decent filler. It is also one of those games you want to play again to see precisely where you went wrong.
Hans im Glück, £9/$14
Now, at last, we're talking. El Grande is an excellent game but one that can occasionally stagnate on the decision making front. You may sit there at the end of a round with Hobson's Choice or with perhaps two or three available cards of which only one is worth the candle. The solution, which comes in the form of an inexpensive small box expansion kit, is to give each player a set of eighteen cards from which each discards five at the start. This leaves each player with a selection of cards with which to play the game in his own style. Each card has an action use, similar to but not the same as the original cards, and it is your choice when to use them rather than being at the mercy of the deck.
The obvious conclusion is that Hans im Gluck have decided to graft some of the elements of CCGs onto the El Grande chassis. This is no bad thing, since apart from a strange decision on future card availability (Hans im Gluck are providing extra variant cards for the set, but these are only available directly from the company - building up a mailing list perhaps?), it can all be bought cheaply at once. The trade off is that you lose some of the chaos, mild to start with, but the benefits are huge: play becomes much more interesting, enabling a strategic plan of sorts, knowing that each player might be able to do the same things to you, and now each card also carries an extra edge - social ranking.
The name of the game derives from the player ranking after playing the cards. The highest card becomes king, with the same benefits as before, but now the lowest card also has a strength - he becomes the Intrigant, a schemer who can move caballeros around quite usefully at the end of a turn. If it is a scoring round, this can become a very powerful tool. So card play is now four dimensional - high to be the king, low for the fifth columnist; balancing the need to constantly recruit and place caballeros; ensuring a good turn position and, of course, the actual action on the card as well. All good stuff.
I can wholeheartedly recommend Konig & Intrigant. It makes El Grande quite a lot different in feel, yet similar enough to have the same strengths as before, while adding a much needed degree of tactical card play and tightness to the game. It is also increases variety, which is never a problem for this gamer. The three games we have played so far have been very close, with regional decisions being decided by the odd caballero and it is certainly very interesting deciding which cards to leave out and the timing of the others. Also, being 'last' as the Intrigant is far from a shabby proposition, nicely counterbalancing the King's move and making even the low cards very useful at times. This combined with the variant cards from Hans im GlŸck, and presumably more expansions in future (since there is no theoretical limit to the 'deck building' - Hans im GlŸck supply blank cards and ask for suggestions), will make for some fascinating games.
Following that edifying selection, it is worth mentioning that all we may have is a timing problem. The games yet to appear from the Nuremburg batch are reputed to be of a much higher standard, and in the case of Teuber's Lowenherz there is a rather excited buzz forming as I write and a review to follow soon. So, with Settlers The Seafaring Edition, Mole Hill, Mississippi Queen, the first Settlers Cardgame expansion (with about a dozen in the pipeline, I should imagine...), Wucherer and Inkognito, we may yet have the best to come. I really hope so.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Mike Siggins (email@example.com)