In the world of German games, Wolfgang Kramer may be the designer with the most awards and Reiner Knizia may be the most prolific, but when it comes to sales, the old bottom line, there is one name that stands above all others: Klaus Teuber. Much of this is due to the incredible success of the Settlers of Catan game and its many variants. But Settlers of Catan was not the first Teuber game to achieve worldwide popularity. Perhaps more than any other modern game designer, he has his finger on the pulse of the gaming world and his unerring instinct of what is acceptable to family gamers as well as more serious gamers is nothing short of phenomenal. He was far and away Germany's dominant game designer in the ten-year period from 1988 to 1997. Although he only published 21 games in that period (Knizia would easily exceed that in a typical two-year span), fully two-thirds of those titles were award-winning or notable ones, an extraordinary percentage. Even though his output since then has been very low, he continues to be one of the most played designers in the world. Germany has produced many great game designers over the years, but Teuber was the first, and perhaps remains the only, superstar of German gaming.
Now that's a pretty dramatic description, but it's easy to forget how remarkable Teuber's accomplishments were during the period cited above. Here's one example: Kramer, Knizia, and just about any other game designer you can think of started out with small, humble games and gradually learned their craft. Not Teuber. You would expect nothing less of a superstar than to have their first published game win a Spiel des Jahres.
Klaus Teuber was born in 1952. After graduating from college, he followed in his father's footsteps and worked as a dental technician, eventually taking over his father's company. At the rather advanced age of 36 he had his first game published. The game was called Barbarossa and is actually very different from anything else Teuber has designed. About the only thing it has in common with his other games is that it was an instant success. The magical career of Klaus Teuber was off and running.
In Barbarossa, each player molds two or three items out of clay. During the game, players give clues about what their sculptures are. Players score for successfully guessing what their opponent's items are. The player whose item is guessed also receives a positive or negative score; the scoring system rewards players whose sculptures are neither too hard or too easy. Most points at the end wins.
Although Barbarossa is considerably lighter than Teuber's subsequent games, it does include some features, which foretell of the designer's future efforts. For example, a player's actions are usually determined by rolling a die, but players can also spend some of their limited supply of Jewels to guarantee their action that turn. Players also begin the game with three tokens, each of which allow them to get a clue or make a guess, possibly out of turn. Even in his first published game, Teuber was stretching the limits of what could be included in a family game. The result was clearly felicitous--not only was it awarded the Spiel des Jahres, but the game continues to be reasonably popular today, as a thinking man's party game.
Teuber's next release, Timberland, is an auction game that has the players trying to grow trees in a forest, using seeds, a boar (who distributes the seeds), sunshine (to grow the trees), and a woodsman (who chops 'em down). It is completely forgotten today, but was well regarded enough in 1989 to finish ninth in the Deutsche Spiel Prize voting. Teuber also produced four other little remembered titles in the 1989-1990 timeframe, but he could surely be forgiven for this, since he was getting ready to release a game whose impact would extend far beyond the borders of Germany.
The game, of course, was Adel Verpflichtet, a title that can be loosely translated as "Noblesse Oblige". The game has also been produced under the names By Hook or Crook and Fair Means or Foul. By any name, it is a psychological game of outguessing and outbluffing your opponents, and includes a number of interesting mechanics.
The players are English lords trying to obtain and display the largest collection of antiques. The game has been compared to Rock-Paper-Scissors, but this is true only to the extent that the actions take place secretly and simultaneously. During a turn, players decide whether to go to the Auction House (where antiques can be purchased—but only by the highest bidder) or the Castle (where collections can be displayed—but only the largest collections score). Players can also play thieves (to steal money or antiques) or detectives (who put thieves in jail, thereby scoring points). Since every possible action has a counter-action, whoever can anticipate their opponents' actions best will usually win.
Adel Verpflichtet's popularity is due not only to its simplicity and high player interaction, but it's sophisticated touches as well. The rules for forming collections are not complex, but they are innovative enough to add interest. Bidding is done with checks, and acquiring and bidding the differently valued checks makes for a nice subgame. The rules for recycling arrested thieves are also well thought out. And the game has a built-in mechanism for favoring trailing players, which means that players are in the running up to the end.
The game's popularity was such that the voting for the Game of the Year awards was a foregone conclusion. Adel Verpflichtet earned Teuber another Spiel des Jahres, as well as the very first Deutsche Spiel Prize award. But the true significance of the game was that it was the first product of the German gaming industry to receive worldwide attention. True, other games had been exported outside of Deutschland before: Scotland Yard had appeared in several different languages and Heimlich & Co. had had a successful English edition (Under Cover). But Adel Verpflichtet was the first export to be acknowledged as originally a German game. Since many of these versions were by "hardcore" publishers (such as Avalon Hill and Gibson), more serious players were exposed to the game. And what they saw—short playing time, high player interaction, clever rules, attractive and functional components—was very influential in the initial opinion of what Germany could produce. To many players throughout the world, Adel Verpflichtet was the first "German game", and it served its industry very well.
So after producing an international smash hit, what do you do for an encore? Well, if you're Klaus Teuber, you arrange for your next two games to win, respectively, the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutsche Spiel Prize awards. Drunter & Drüber has the denizens of a very strange village rebuilding their town. Each player is secretly assigned one type of building, but the players are placing tiles, which destroy any existing building they overlay. However, if a tile covers a toilet, that's a more serious matter, and the players have to vote whether the tile gets played or not. Again, a very interactive game with some nice mechanics, which won the Spiel des Jahres for 1991. In Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman), the players are financiers investing in half a dozen different shipping companies. Companies increase in value and can pay interest during the game, but if the cursed Flying Dutchman encounters a company's ships, its value drops to zero and all shareholders pay a penalty. Needless to say, the players determine the space that the Dutchman visits each turn, using another innovative system of playing cards to match a randomly derived number. This game walked away with the Deutsche Spiel Prize of 1992.
At this point, it was pretty apparent what made up a typical Teuber game. They were all family games, with enough meat to interest more serious gamers. They all had a lot of player interaction with very little downtime and played in about an hour. Most interesting of all, they tended to mix rather disparate game systems. For example, the check and thief subsystems in Adel, which are quite separate from the main collection mechanic. Or the system of voting in Drunter & Drüber, which involves a limited supply of cards with different numbers of "yes" and "no" votes, and which is completely independent of the clever mechanic used to place tiles. In Der Fliegende Holländer, you have different mechanisms for determining share value, exchanging shares, playing "horseshoe" cards to determine who moves the Dutchman, and reacquiring horseshoe cards, along with two different ways of resolving the Dutchman's moves. The games were not elegant looking on paper, but in gameplay the mechanics all meshed together very well. About the only designer I can think of whose games feel like Teuber's are Francis Tresham's, who takes the idea of combining independent subgames to an even greater extreme, albeit in much longer and more complex games. But no one would ever confuse a Teuber game with the clean, somewhat antiseptic designs of Reiner Knizia--I would say they represent pretty much the opposite ends of the spectrum in German game design.
At this point, it seemed like there was little else for Teuber to do but start up his own gaming company, so he did just that. In 1993, he and Reiner Muller founded TM-Spiele (which was eventually sold to Kosmos in 1997). Not surprisingly, the company's first production was Teuber's own Vernissage. In this game, the players own art galleries and are trying to promote artists whose paintings they own (and slam those that their opponents support). This game, even more than usual with Teuber, is a mixture of several very different mechanisms and defies any kind of brief description. Suffice it to say that again, Teuber managed to combine these disparate subgames into a satisfying whole. However, unlike his earlier efforts, the game is quite bewildering to the first-time player and definitely has a learning curve. It is also the closest thing to a gamer's game he had created up to this point in his career, despite the inclusion of several randomizing elements which give the game the appearance of being family-suitable. Although it was well regarded by the critics and finished third in the Deutsche Spiel Prize voting that year, the game did not sell well, probably because of its perceived difficulty level (although the reduced clout of a new publisher may have also been a factor). Despite breaking a string of top-selling games from Teuber, Vernissage must still be considered an artistic (ha!) success.
It would be two years before Teuber would release another game. However, it would be hard to find anyone who wouldn't agree that this was time very well spent.
The Game That Changed Everything
Sometime in the 1993-94 timeframe, Teuber came to Kosmos with a mammoth project. It was a game centered on the exploration of a new land, along with the subsequent development and conflict over that land. Kosmos felt that the scope of the game was way too large, but they did like the ideas in the development portion of the game. Together with Teuber, they spent a year or so refining these mechanics into its own independent game, releasing the final product in 1995. Possibly some of you may have heard of it; it was called The Settlers of Catan.
For those readers who have just returned from a six-year vacation on Jupiter, let me explain the workings of this game. The game board is randomly constructed of tiles showing five types of terrain. Each tile is assigned a number from 2 to 12. Every terrain type produces a particular commodity. Players place their settlements on tile corners, and roads (necessary for expansion) on tile edges. Every turn, a player rolls two dice. Any tile with the rolled number produces commodities for each player with a settlement next to it. Players can use the commodities to purchase more settlements and roads, to upgrade settlements to cities (which double production), and to buy cards (which give players a variety of benefits). The first player to reach a given number of victory points (points are awarded for settlements, cities, and a few other types of possessions) wins.
The genius of The Settlers of Catan is that because of the way that commodities are generated, players rarely have the right combinations to make the purchases they want. Thus, they are forced to trade with their opponents and this trading, with its constant player interaction and minimal downtime, is what gives the game its wide appeal. Watching the settlements and roads spread across the game board has its own fascination as well. Finally, there are many viable strategies to follow, all of them very well balanced. This strategic aspect makes the game attractive to serious gamers, while its relatively low learning curve means that it still succeeds as a family game.
If I many be permitted to lapse into computer terminology, The Settlers of Catan was the "Killer App" that the German gaming industry had been waiting for. Response in Germany was immediate and overwhelming and it wasn't long before the game was being played throughout the world in unprecedented numbers. Perhaps most significantly, The Settlers of Catan was the game that finally got Americans to play a sophisticated, "German-style" game. This turned out to have a long-lasting effect: Jay Tummelson, the executive who supervised the production of the English language version of The Settlers of Catan, was so impressed by its reception in the States that he formed his own company, Rio Grande, to do the same thing with other great German games. Currently, the company features over 80 titles and is a tremendous boon to English speaking gamers the world over. But it might never have happened without The Settlers of Catan.
The only word that can be used to describe the sales of The Settlers of Catan through the years is astonishing. It shattered every record in 1995 and continues to add massive amounts of money to the Kosmos coffers. In fact, it was the best selling game in Germany in 2000, five years after its release. The Settlers of Catan has sold the unbelievable total of over 2.5 million games and together with its many spinoffs (more about them later), the franchise is responsible for the sale of over 6 million games. And there's absolutely no indication that things will change any time in the near future. The Settlers of Catan is not only the most popular game in the world, it is a phenomenon.
Again, no one was surprised when The Settlers of Catan won both the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutsche Spiel Prize Game of the Year awards. It wasn't even the only Teuber game to receive a mention. Galopp Royal is a very light game which is probably known today only for its bizarre theme: sedan chair racing in pre-Revolutionary France! Nonetheless, it was a finalist for both the major game awards.
For his first major release following The Settlers of Catan, Teuber returned to one of the components of the monster game it was developed from. Entdecker is based on the exploration mechanic from that earlier submission. Players place tiles that gradually flesh out a newly discovered land and try to gain a presence on the islands that are revealed. The game has a reasonably high luck element and is clearly aimed at the sophisticated family gamers that had enjoyed so many of Teuber's earlier games. But after The Settlers of Catan, expectations were sky high; gamers were looking for another Catan, not another Drunter & Drüber. Serious gamers, who had flocked to The Settlers of Catan in droves, saw Entdecker as so much fluff. The game finished second in the 1996 Deutsche Spiel Prize award (strangely, it wasn't even nominated for an Spiel des Jahres), but the general feeling among gamers was that this was a disappointing follow-up to Settlers.
In fact, fans of The Settlers of Catan were so clamoring for more that spinoffs of the game were a foregone conclusion. Teuber's first effort in this direction was the inevitable card game version, but the Settlers of Catan Card Game (1996) is much more than just a warmed-over version of the original. Although it uses a similar theme, this is an independent, well-designed two-player game, which includes quite a few innovative rules. Players strive to build up their areas with lands that can generate commodities and buildings, which gave unique advantages or differing numbers of victory points. Gameplay is longer, more intense, and less luck-driven. It was an impressive achievement and showed that even if Teuber planned to milk the The Settlers of Catan gravy train, he would create quality games while he was doing so.
In 1997, Teuber published Löwenherz, the last of the three games to come from the massive design that became Settlers. The conflict portion of that work was the inspiration this time around. In Löwenherz, the players are local lords trying to establish control over portions of the countryside, either by walling off territory or attacking neighboring regions. The basic mechanism is that a card is flipped showing three possible actions for that turn (these actions are either gain money, build walls, place a knight, expand your kingdom, or take a card). Each player in turn selects one of the actions. If two or more players choose the same action (which, since the game is really made for four, will always happen), they negotiate or, failing that, decide who will get to use the action with an in-the-fist auction. Players score points for territory gained. Having more knights in a region than a neighbor allows you to expand into his region, which costs him points. The game is innovative, highly strategic, tense, always very close, and completely unique. It is also one of Teuber's poorest sellers. Why? Well, unlike Teuber's earlier designs, this one is clearly a gamer's game, without even the pretense of suitability for families and other casual gamers. In addition, the unusual mechanics and challenging gameplay mean that Löwenherz has one of the steepest learning curves among German games. It's also possible that the Settlers crowd may have again been disappointed, expecting something a little lighter. Regardless of what the sales figures were, this is a magnificent game, truly appreciated by serious gamers, and an easy pick for me as Teuber's Most Underrated Game. It is also far and away my favorite Teuber design.
Teuber dominated the 1997 Deutsche Spiel Prize awards. Löwenherz was selected as Game of the Year and the Settlers Card Game finished second in the voting. In addition, another Teuber game, Die Ritter von der Haselnuß, a memory game about militaristic squirrels gathering hazelnuts, won the award for Best Children's Game. This was the second consecutive year that Teuber had won the Deutsche Spiel Prize Best Children's award--the previous year, he had won for Hallo Dachs!, another memory game, this time about hungry badgers.
After this triumph, however, Klaus returned to the profitable world of Settlers with a vengeance. It's possible that he had been disappointed in the way that Entdecker and Löwenherz had been received or that he had so many ideas about extending the basic Settlers mechanics that he was happy to satisfy its many fans. Or he could have just decided that there was too much money to be made not to milk the franchise (and who could blame him?). At any rate, for four years (early 1997 to 2001), all the adult Teuber releases were all part of the world of Settlers. Again, Teuber did not take the easy way out and simply repackage the same ideas in different colored boxes. All the new games contained new and innovative ideas and were well play-tested. And all of them sold extraordinarily well. But among hardcore gamers, Teuber's reputation began to suffer. Part of it, no doubt, was Settlers burn-out, but there was also the fact that the designer went an extended period without an original design, while rivals such as Knizia and Kramer were producing dozens of great games. As a result of this fall-off, there are probably very few gamers who currently consider Teuber to be the world's preeminent game designer, a dramatic change from the situation in 1997.
But for fans of The Settlers of Catan, the last four years have been full of new delights. Settlers variants produced in this time include the Seafarers version (which allows the initial setup to include oceans and islands, which is actually closer to Teuber's original conception; quite a few gamers consider this to be the best version of the game); the Cities and Knights expansion (probably the most complex in the franchise, it adds several city development options and more chances to interfere with your opponents' plans); six-player expansions for the original, Seafarers, and Cities and Knights games; four "historical" scenarios (Cheops, Alexander the Great, Troy, and the Great Wall of China--these all feature pre-printed maps); five different "theme sets" for the Settlers card game; Settlers of Nuremberg (which includes two pre-printed maps, the second showing the city of Nuremberg, where the players can build workshops that convert commodities into trade goods that eventually lead to Victory Points); The Starfarers of Catan (Settlers in space(!) with incredible bits, where players discover and colonize planets and try to get along with aliens); and finally, the remarkable Settlers Book, which includes 15 scenarios, 18 variants, and enough new components for the truly addicted fan to create as many new versions of the game as one could possibly want. In all, the Luding web site lists no fewer than 16 different published versions of The Settlers of Catan, probably enough to keep any gamer occupied for several lifetimes. And it would surprise no one in the industry if there weren't more such games on the horizon.
However, the dearth of non-Settlers designs may finally be coming to an end. Earlier this year, Teuber released an updated version of Entdecker, including a thoroughly revamped rules set that makes the game more palatable to serious gamers. And best of all, for the first time since Löwenherz, there is a brand new adult game from Teuber that has nothing to do with the Settlers universe. Gnadenlos (which translates roughly as "merciless") is an auction/card game with a Wild West theme. Once again there's the familiar mix of divergent game systems in a challenging family game. It's too early to tell how this game will be received, but regardless, it's good to see Klaus Teuber cranking out original designs again. Based on his previous body of work, his reputation is surely secure, but there's always the hope that yet more great games will be forthcoming. Particularly when you're dealing with a superstar.
Next month, I'll wrap up this series with a look at the career of the very prolific Reiner Knizia.
- Larry Levy