The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Special K - Wolfgang Kramer

Larry Levy

July, 2001

It Takes Two

Wolfgang Kramer is the most celebrated game designer in Germany today and, along with Reiner Knizia, is the most famous designer in the world. With three Spiel des Jahres awards for Game of the Year in the past five years and twice as many other renowned game designs in the same period, Kramer is at the pinnacle of his profession. Most of his fans probably realize that Kramer is no Johnnie-come-lately. But it's likely that few of them know how prominent a role he played in the embryonic years of the German gaming industry.

The First StarWolfgang Kramer

The easiest way to illustrate the state of German gaming twenty years ago is to look at the annual Spiel des Jahres awards. The first presentation was made in 1979. In its first seven years, the award was almost exclusively won by reissued games that first appeared in other countries. Almost all of the designers were English-speaking. The only "native" game to win in that time frame was Scotland Yard, but even here, there was no single designer to be celebrated, only the "Ravensburger Project Team". There was still no hint of the home-grown talent that would differentiate the German gaming industry from that of Britain or the United States.

Then, in 1986, Kramer won the Spiel des Jahres for Heimlich & Co. The next year, he became the first man to win two Game of the Year awards when Auf Achse won. Germany not only had its first gaming celebrity, it had its first genuine star.

Even in 1986, Kramer was not a new name, although like most of his peers, game designing represented a hobby and not a profession. Born in 1942, he was working in industrial management when his first game was published in 1974. It was an abstract race game called Tempo in which pieces were moved not by the roll of the dice, but by the playing of cards. This early effort anticipated two common themes which run through Kramer's games. The first was innovation: giving players the option of controlling movement via card play was something new and fresh. The second theme was the reuse of ideas. Kramer worked the basic mechanic of Tempo into no less than four other racing designs (Niki Lauda's Formel 1, Daytona 500, Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix, and 1996 Spiel des Jahres nominee Top Race), modifying the rules for each effort, with the result each time being a popular and successful game.

Ten years later, when Heimlich & Co. was released, Kramer was already an established designer. Niki Lauda's Formel 1 had received an Spiel des Jahres nomination in 1980. Heimlich & Co. was his twentieth published game. So the consecutive Spiel des Jahres', while surprising, were not the product of a Boy Wonder, but the culmination of a designer gradually learning his craft.

Heimlich & Co.
Heimlich & Co.

Seventeen years after its release, Heimlich & Co. remains a delightful family game. Each player is secretly assigned one of the seven pieces in the game. During the game, players can move any of the pieces around the board. As a result of these actions, different pieces score points. When one of the pieces reaches a set amount of points, whoever controls that piece wins. The game is that simple, but by emphasizing the elements of bluff and psychology, Kramer created a timeless game, which can be enjoyed equally by children and adults.

Auf Achse, on the other hand, has not held up as well over the years. Still it was an enjoyable and innovative design in its time. A commodity delivery game, it uses trucks instead of the more typical trains, but still features the standard mechanic of transporting items from start cities to destinations on the map. Players can block their opponents by creating traffic jams and road construction, and there are a few other nice ideas in the game. But there's also a lot of dice rolling and random events, giving the game a high luck factor. It seems likely that if Kramer had designed this game ten years later it would have turned out very different.

Between these two games, Kramer released one of his more celebrated early games, Wildlife Adventure (co-designed with his wife Ursula). This game employs a novel movement system, like Tempo, while incorporating the hidden objectives of Heimlich & Co. At the start of the game, the players are each dealt a number of cards showing endangered species. They must try to reach the spaces showing their animals that are located on the game board's map of the world. Three expeditions move around the board. Each player on his turn can extend the path of one of the expeditions (no backtracking is allowed). Most spaces have three or four paths extending from them, so reaching your animals without making the destination obvious to your opponents can be difficult. "Travel vouchers" (you start with a limited supply) allow you to make extra moves, place obstacles, or exchange an animal for a new one. These and some special spaces add to the game's strategy. Wildlife Adventure is another fine light strategy game and is particularly well suited for family play. This was another game Kramer expanded upon; Terra X (1995) and Expedition (an Spiel des Jahres nominee in 1996) add additional rules, but they both use the same basic concepts.

1987's Around the World in 80 Days is somewhat similar to Wildlife Adventure, in that players use different forms of movement (this time generated by playing cards) to travel around the board. However, the following year's Forum Romanum is one of Kramer's few abstract games, a multi-player design in which players have several different ways to score. It's a short, interesting game, less intense than most abstracts.

1989's Ghost Party is another classic children's game that is enjoyed by more than a few adults. Essentially a board game version of musical chairs, it features a ghost named Hugo who doles out "fright points" if you can't successfully hide from him. Both Forum Romanum and Ghost Party were nominated for Spiel des Jahres awards.

Viva Pamplona
Viva Pamplona

Also in 1989, Kramer took a momentous step. He quit his job and became the first full-time German game designer. Professionally, it was a successful move, as he continued to churn out designs and generate sales. But few of the games were memorable. From 1990 to 1993, about the only original design that would be familiar to today's gamers is Viva Pamplona, a dicefest about the running of the bulls in Spain. Kramer did win the Spiel des Jahres for Best Children's game in 1991, for a game called Corsaro. But in the next year, he failed to be mentioned by the Spiel des Jahres committee for the first time since 1984. He was shut out again in 1993. Many critics thought that Kramer, over fifty and in a four year slump, was in the declining portion of his career.

6
      Nimmt!Wolfgang's comeback began in 1994 with the release of 6 Nimmt! and Big Boss. The former is a fast-playing card game in which players try to avoid completing rows of cards. Decried by some as random and praised by just as many as skillful, it was a widely played filler and well enough regarded to win the Deutsche Spiel Prize award that year. Big Boss is a single dimensional version of Acquire that was well received by fans of that classic. Even with these two successes, though, there was still no reason to believe that Kramer would be capable of anything more than designing good light strategy games.

Two Heads are Better than One

But then came the turning point. Kramer had always designed his games by himself. But in the early nineties, a friend and fellow game designer named Richard Ulrich came to him with a prototype. Kramer liked it and asked him if he wanted to work together. They published two joint efforts in 1993, both very light, almost party-type games. They then began a collaboration on a more substantial effort, which was released in 1995. Its name was El Grande. El Grande box artIn El Grande, the players are Spanish aristocrats trying to control nine regions of medieval Spain. Control is established through caballeros, which must be moved from their starting position in the Provinces (where they are out of play), to the player's Court (in front of the player), and then to the different regions. The player with the most, second most, and (sometimes) third most caballeros in a region gets points during a scoring round. Complicating all this are cards chosen each turn which allow players to move caballeros, remove opponent's pieces, veto actions, or even alter the point values of a region. To determine the order in which these cards are chosen, the players must choose one of their "Power Cards", but the higher the selection order, the fewer caballeros can be moved to the player's Court. The game is strategic, richly textured, and superbly designed. It was also completely different from anything Kramer had created before. So surprising was this release that some assumed that Ulrich had to be the mastermind behind the development of the game, an assertion that was subsequently disproved by the high quality of the games that Kramer would go on to create with other partners.

It's hard to overstate the significance of El Grande's publication. It basically established a new kind of boardgame, one in which players strove to have the majority of pieces in different geographical areas of the board. It proved that "gamer's games" could be big sellers and initiated a trend toward such challenging games which continues to this day. It also solidified the importance of high-quality presentation and established Doris Matthaus as the premier illustrator in her field. Finally, coming on the heels of the fabulously successful Settlers of Catan, El Grande was the second part of the one-two punch that established once and for all that Germany was the source of the finest games in the world.

Many people felt that El Grande was too complex a game to do well in Germany's family-oriented Game of the Year awards, but it swept both the Spiel des Jahres and the Duetsche Spiel Prize prizes, one of only four games to win both such honors. It remains one of the most popular games ever created and Kramer and Ulrich followed it up with several well regarded expansions.

The duo continued to collaborate and produced a couple of successful games in the next few years. El Caballero (1998) is based in the same time period as El Grande, but this time the players are exploring the New World and creating the map as they go along. The result was one of Kramer's most intense and challenging games, with many critics praising it as a more strategic and successful version of Klaus Teuber's similarly themed Entdecker. However, there were a number of El Grande fans who felt that the newer game didn't stack up to their favorite. Opinion was divided even further for Die Händler (1999), with many declaring it long and boring, while a growing group of players have ranked it as one of the best games ever. One of the problems may have been that the game's theme was trading, but the focus of the game was actually on movement and negotiation. The majority of players may have been expecting a different sort of game than they actually got.

In addition to these collaborations, Kramer continued to release solo design efforts at a staggering pace. (From 1994 to 1999, there were 53 published games that included Kramer's name in the credits, an average of nine per year!) Probably the most notable original design during this period was Hornochsen, a "sequel" to 6 Nimmt!. This followed the basic design of the Deutsche Spiel Prize winner, but added positive points to some of the cards as well as negative ones and made the play sequential instead of simultaneous. The result was a much more strategic game which was generally well received, even though it lacked the light-heartedness of 6 Nimmt!.

Another Kramer game which incorporated some previous ideas met with less success. In Magalon, a racing/maze game with a magical theme, Kramer revisited the El Grande mechanic of giving each player a hand of Power Cards, which are used here for movement and other actions. The game was absolutely skewered by the critics, although curiously it's hard to find exactly what was thought to be objectionable. The game eventually found a small fan base, but the episode serves as a reminder that a number of gaming personalities hold Kramer in lower esteem than his popularity would seem to suggest. The most common criticism is the opinion that he is capable of producing mediocre or even poor games (Magalon or another design, Evergreen, are the games most often cited) as well as excellent ones. Clearly, this is a matter of taste, and the opinion is certainly reinforced by the fact that Kramer has always designed games for every taste, including children's and family games, many of which do not appeal to serious gamers. But while it seems that everyone has at least one Kramer game they love, it is also true that there are quite a few people who do not rank him amongst their top designers. Incidentally, I am not one of them; I gladly forgive Herr Kramer's occasional missteps and focus instead on his wonderful successes. I consider him my second favorite game designer, just behind Knizia, with a wide gulf separating them and everyone else.

At any rate, there were few complaints when Kramer collaborated with a partner on more complex games. In fact, it seemed as if he never missed with this combination. In 1998, he worked with a new co-designer, an unknown named Horst-Rainer Rösner, to create a financial game called Tycoon.

Tycoon
Tycoon

This one wins my title of Kramer's Most Underrated Game. Players fly between nine cities of the world constructing hotels and factories. Money is earned for having the most hotels in a city, having factories in built-up cities, and for having a presence in many different cities. Hotels can become obsolete, forcing the owner to go back and rebuild. But the biggest twist is that movement is not unlimited--you need an airline ticket between the two cities. And tickets cost as much as hotels do! All in all, this is a finely crafted game and one of the few new quality financial games to come out of Germany. Unfortunately, the reason for this is that Germans don't seem to have the enthusiasm for financial games that Yanks and Brits have, so the game has not received the acclaim it deserves. Regardless of this, it seemed clear that Kramer was at his best when working with a partner and it didn't seem to matter what the identity of the second designer was. This was very good news for gamers, because Wolfgang was about to form another collaboration, and a considerably longer lasting one.

King of the Jungle

Michael Kiesling, like Richard Ulrich, was a gaming unknown when he started working with Kramer. He had published two of his own games in 1995, neither of which gained any notice. Soon after that, he and Kramer began collaborating and the pair released four games in '97 and '98, all light card or board games. Then, as with Ulrich, Kramer undertook a more complex design with Kiesling. The name of this game was Tikal.

In Tikal, players are archaeologists excavating Mayan ruins in the midst of a virgin jungle. This is a much stronger theme than most German games and Kramer and Kiesling utilized it extremely well. Each turn, players draw and place hexagons representing another explored portion of the jungle, so the map expands as the game goes on. The heart of the game is an innovative Action Point system, in which players have 10 Action Points per turn and can spend them on any combination of seven actions. Different actions cost from one to five Action Points. Victory points are scored by unearthing and occupying temples and collecting sets of treasures.

Several factors contributed to Tikal's enormous success. The components are absolutely gorgeous, and just as El Grande solidified Doris Matthaus' reputation, so Tikal promoted Franz Vohwinkel to the upper strata of his profession. The rules and playing aids explain the game so well that, even though Tikal is unquestionably a gamer's game, and one which is occasionally plagued with excessive downtime problems, it is readily understood and enjoyed by more casual players. Best of all, the game fits its theme beautifully, with all the mechanics coming naturally out of the game's background. Tikal swept all the major gaming awards for 1999, including the Spiel des Jahres and Deutsche Spiel Prize awards, Counter Magazine's co-Game of the Year, and the inaugural Gamer's Choice Award.


Action point cards from Tikal (left) and Torres

The Action Point system turned out to be a rich source of gaming ideas. Later that year, after collaborating on the ill-fated Evergreen, Kramer and Kiesling released Torres, which was universally regarded as the sequel to Tikal. In this game, the players supposedly are princes trying to rebuild the King's destroyed castle, but the game is essentially a multi-player abstract. Torres Action points are here again, but this time the players are building up as well as out (another case of successfully reusing an older idea, as an earlier Kramer game called Terra Turrium also featured building in three dimensions). The biggest payoffs come from having pieces on high levels of large castles. The game lacked Tikal's theming and quality components, but played much faster with little down time. It all added up to yet another Kramer/Kiesling triumph, as Torres won the pair a second consecutive Spiel des Jahres, giving Kramer an unprecedented fifth Game of the Year award. It was Kramer's fourteenth Spiel des Jahres nomination, more than any other designer.

In 2000, Kramer and Kiesling tried to see if Action Point lightning could strike a third time. Their game of Java had a similar theme and the same gorgeous components of Tikal, while utilizing the three dimensional aspect of Torres. This time, however, opinions were much more divided on the game's merits. While still claiming its share of loyalists, the overall view was that Java was something of a disappointment, particularly given its predecessors; somewhat surprisingly, the game didn't even garner an Spiel des Jahres nomination. Of course, the term "disappointment" is a relative one--many designers would have been ecstatic to have produced a game of Java's quality--and it still represents another notable addition to the Kramer resume.

Princes of Florence
Princes of Florence

Herr Kramer hadn't forgotten his other steady collaborator, Richard Ulrich. A few months before Java's appearance, the pair released Die Fürsten von Florenz, one of the most critically acclaimed games of recent years. This is a city development game with a unique focus: each player is a noble in Renaissance Italy and the reason for developing your city is to attract skilled craftsmen, thereby raising your prestige. Craftsmen desire certain buildings to work in, landscapes to relax in, and freedoms to, uh, be free in. Acquiring all these items is a challenge, however, as each player only has fourteen actions for the entire game. This makes Die Fürsten von Florenz kind of the ultimate "so much to do, so little time to do it" game. Adding to the fun is the placement mechanic, in which the players try to squeeze all the Tetris-shaped buildings and landscapes into their city. The end result is a highly challenging gamer's game whose appeal is considerably enhanced by its attractive theme. Player interaction is lower than in most Kramer games, but the consensus is that this is more than compensated by the level of planning required. The game is also marvelously balanced, as there are numerous possible strategies which can be successfully employed. Die Fürsten von Florenz won the 2001 Gamer's Choice Award (making it the second consecutive Kramer design to pick up the this award) and was selected as Game of the Year by Counter magazine.

So after looking at a quarter of a century of Kramer-designed games, is there some common thread we can cite, something that stands out in a "typical" Kramer production? That's hard to say. Certainly, the man is extraordinarily versatile. He has designed just about every kind of game--card games, abstract games, race games, auction games, placement games, and financial games--for just about every kind of player--children, families, casual players, and serious gamers. His earlier, pre-partnership games tend to be short games featuring high player interaction which are accessible to many different types of players--in short, ideal family games. His later efforts are much more strategic and richly designed, with a relatively low reliance on luck. These games also tend to be very well playtested and exquisitely crafted, with no extraneous or over-developed rules. As for the ideas in these games, all of Kramer's designs tend to be innovative without being revolutionary. And, as we've seen, he's very adept at reworking older ideas in new and different ways. But coming up with a favorite mechanic or type of game that is distinctly Kramer--I haven't been able to do it. He appears to be the master of just about every game form and is capable of using just about any kind of mechanic to implement his ideas.

As if to prove his unpredictability, in Kramer's latest batch of games he appears to be leaning once again toward lighter subjects. Der Grosse Gallier, a collaboration with yet another partner (Udo Nawratil), is a bluffing game aimed squarely at the family market. Another 2001 entry, Plem Plem, is a hilarious collection of familiar party/campfire games, all tied together with a penalty mechanic. The very fact that this zany game and the highly strategic Die Fürsten von Florenz were designed by the same man at about the same time makes you realize just how hopeless the task of categorizing a "typical" Kramer game is. The man's catalog, and his versatility, are simply too great for that.

Even though the last twelve months were not the most notable for Kramer (at least, not for more serious gamers), there seems little indication that he is slowing down. He continues to publish six or more games a year, aimed at just about every type of audience. His lifetime output is unmatched among the current major designers (the Luding web site credits him with more than 125 published games). His last eight years have been his most productive, both in terms of volume and quality of games--this after many had written him off as an effective game designer. With a track record like that, who knows what surprises Kramer may hold in store: a sixth Spiel des Jahres winner? A game to rival Settlers of Catan in popularity? The ultimate gamer's game? I only know one thing: in the world of games, history shows that betting against Wolfgang Kramer is never a winning strategy.

Next month, this series will continue with a look at the career of Klaus Teuber.

- Larry Levy

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