The popular view of a German style boardgame is that of a game with a simple set of rules, short play time, and loosely attached theme. Of course, it also has a great depth of play but, the above is a common stereotype of these kinds of boardgames from people who prefer more complex, longer playing strategy games. In this article, I want to show that there are, in fact, a number of games from German manufacturers and designers that feature a more rigorous set of rules and a definite theme-first orientation and, as a result, slightly longer time of play. So, if you have a wargaming friend who still obstinately refuses to look at any of those "simple German games" be prepared to take notes for some titles that you may want to use to change their mind.
More complex German style boardgames have actually existed for as long as I can remember collecting German games (I started in the late 80s). In fact, there were four games called, originally enough, the "big four" that any German game collector worthy of the title was supposed to have in their collection. These were Die Macher, Schoko and Co., McMulti, and Energie Poker. Die Macher was put out by a small company called Hans Im Glueck. It was definitely a "basement operation" type of game in comparison to other games of the time. The others were more professional in their presentation but, Schoko and Co. by Schmidt was the only one of the four put out by a large game company.
Other more complex games existed as well. Alan Moon put out Elfenroads under his White Wind imprint with a little over 1200 copies. Karl Heinz-Schmiel published a number of more complex games under his own Moskito games company. Some of these titles include Extrablatt, Leiber Bayerish Sturben, and Tyranno Ex. The last of these was actually picked up and published by Avalon Hill who, at that period, was a huge publisher of more complex strategy games. In any case, as can be seen, these games were still published by smaller German publishing companies.
This would change in 1995. Hans Im Glueck, as mentioned above, started as a small German boardgame publisher. Bernd Brunhoffer and Karl Heinz-Schmiel were the principles involved early on with the company. Herr Brunhoffer wanted to take the company from a small operation to a more professional game publishing company. Karl wasn't interested and left Hans Im Glueck to Bernd and formed his own company, Moskito games. While Hans Im Glueck remains a small (two person) company to this day, Bernd was still very successful at bringing the level of Hans Im Gluecks output up to that of any major German boardgame publisher. In fact, in 1995 with the release of El Grande, this small company would raise the bar on game production quality.
When El Grande was announced, rumor throughout the industry was that the game was going to match its name. It would be big and have a more complex set of rules than most regular German board games. The game delivered on all counts. Even the box was big. More importantly, the game also won the German game of the year award. I don't know if this triggered the games that followed. Given the amount of development time that goes into a game it may not have but, it was the first release of a more complex game in a professional package and, by winning game of the year, seems to have opened the door to more complex and longer playing designs by major German game companies.
Two years later in 1997, Hans Im Glueck reissued Die Macher in the same format as El Grande above. The game, while considerably reworked from its earlier incarnation, was still a fairly hard-core simulation of German power politics. The same year saw HIG also issue Euphrat and Tigris in the same large box format. While Euphrat and Tigris isn't really in the same league as El Grande and Die Macher, compared to other games by its author Reiner Knizia it is certainly a complex design. I also feel, though some disagree, that it is more tightly themed than most of his designs. It's an interesting side note that one of Germany's lighter game designers chose this time to drift into a more complex design territory.
Also in 1997, Doris and Frank (a smaller game publisher), put out Ursuppe. This game is sort of a cross between Avalon Hill's Civilization and Cosmic Encounter. It is a game of evolving amoebas and featured professional level components and production values.
Since 1997, there has been a steady stream of more advanced board games from German publishers. In 1998, Ravensburger even got into the act with the release of Tikal. In 1999, Queen published the excellent economic game Die Handler. Most recently, in 2000, Kosmos published the excellent competitive city building game La Citta.
There has also been another trend in releasing these heavier games, which is the use of expansions. In 1998, Amigo issued Alan Moon's Elfenland which was a simplified reissue of the previously mentioned White Wind game Elfenroads. The game won game of the year but, there was enough call for Amigo to release the Elfengold expansion in 1999 which effectively returned the game to Elfenroads. Also, Kosmos issued the Cities and Knights expansion for their exceptionally popular Settlers of Catan (which predates El Grande by a few years). This took the game to a more wargamey type game with a considerably longer play time.
So, what does the future hold for complex German boardgames? Hopefully, many more of them. I think it is definitely a sign of a healthy German game industry that these heavier games are viable enough to keep both the larger and smaller companies publishing them. It would also be nice to see some of the older designs mentioned earlier reworked and reissued given the very successful redesign of both Die Macher and Elfenroads. While I haven't gotten to McMulti yet, both Schoko and Co. and Energie Poker struck me as designs, that while somewhat clunky, could easily be developed into excellent games. Moskito's Extrablatt would need even less work and could almost be redone as is but, with slightly more user friendly components. Overall, if these serious strategy games continue to sell well enough, the future for more complex German style boardgames should be a bright one.
- Nicholas J Sauer