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Special K - Reiner Knizia

Larry Levy

September, 2001

The Man Who Grew

If you asked one hundred fans of German gaming throughout the world who their favorite current designer is, I'd be willing to bet that a majority of them would answer Reiner Knizia. If you could travel five years back in time and mention this fact to a gamer of that day and age, he might be surprised, but probably wouldn't be shocked. Even though in 1996 Knizia was known almost exclusively for designing short games, he was well respected and clearly possessed great potential. But if you mentioned to our fictitious gamer of the past some of the games of Knizia's that had earned him that honor, games like Euphrat & Tigris, Taj Mahal, Lord of the Rings, Merchants of Amsterdam, and Stephenson's Rocket, I think he truly would be flabbergasted. Designs like these didn't seem to be in Knizia's future, and certainly not in his near future. Beginning as a designer who was known for developing a very narrow range of games, today Knizia seems capable of designing games of almost any type, for almost any audience, all of remarkably consistent quality. More than any other game designer I can think of, Reiner Knizia is the man who grew.

An Unheralded Beginning

Dr. Reiner KniziaReiner Knizia was born in 1957. He earned a doctoral degree in Mathematics and found work in the banking industry, eventually rising to a managerial position where he supervised over 300 people. Even as a child, he was designing games and the designs became more sophisticated as he grew older. In fact, some of his later published games date back to prototypes originally developed when he was in college. (Quo Vadis, which began life as "Civil Servant", is one such game.)

The world first became aware of Dr. Knizia via a 1985 magazine article in which he described a 2-player abstract creation of his called Complica. He contributed two other articles during the eighties before finally publishing his first two games in 1990. These were a pair of card games called Digging and Goldrausch. Both were reasonably well received (in fact, Goldrausch finished fifth in the 1990 Deutscher Spiele Preis voting) but there were no reviewers hailing the appearance of a new star in the world of gaming. The two games have their share of innovations, but they are also both quite luck dependent and are not particularly representative of what we've come to expect from a Knizia design.

In 1991, Knizia published four games, including three abstract games (for some reason, we never hear about the Knizia Abstract Trilogy) and his first notable game, Res Publica. This is a card-based trading game with a civilization building theme that features the exchange of limited information. It has received mixed reviews over the years, but always seems to be in print and won the first Fairplay "a la carte" award as Card Game of the Year.

1992 was the breakout year for Knizia. Not only did he publish six games (then as now, Knizia has never had problems finding publishers for his many creative efforts), but the designs were of a decidedly higher quality that firmly established him as a new force to be reckoned with. Included among this latest batch were Revolution, an interesting two-player abstract tile-placing game, and Pirat, a card game in which you play your swashbucklers on opponent's treasure ships in order to capture booty (this earned Reiner his second consecutive a la carte award). Better remembered is Quo Vadis, a fast and engrossing negotiation game thinly themed to fit ancient Rome. Players try to move their pieces up the corporate ladder of the Roman senate by obtaining a majority of the votes at the piece's location, usually requiring the cooperation of an opponent. Quo Vadis is also the first of the author's games to include a twist in the scoring or winning conditions-something that would soon become a hallmark of a Knizia design. In this case, the players receive points for each piece they move, but regardless of his point total, a player cannot win unless he gets a piece into the topmost location. The game's speed and clean design sets it apart from most negotiation games and the design (which earned Knizia his first Spiel des Jahres nomination) was warmly received upon its publication.

But Quo Vadis' reception was in no way comparable to the acclaim given to the final Knizia design of 1992: Modern Art. This is a deceptively simple auction game in which the players are art speculators buying and selling the works of five up-and-coming artists. On a player's turn, she auctions off one of the paintings in her hand, pocketing the bid if an opponent buys it and paying the bank if she buys it. After the fifth painting of an artist is sold, the round ends and the players turn in their paintings. Paintings from the three highest selling artists that round get cash from the bank, with the top selling artist's paintings getting the most. In subsequent rounds, the selling bonuses become cumulative, but only if an artist finishes in the top three that round. After four rounds, the player with the most money wins.

Modern Art cardsModern Art is a game of valuation judgment. Players must determine how much each artist's paintings will be worth, based upon the earlier bonuses, the paintings which have already been sold, the cards in their hand, and their opponent's actions. Selling paintings is just as valuable a cash source as the bonuses; in fact, it is entirely possible to win the game without ever purchasing a painting. A further subtlety of the game is that each painting is sold using one of five kinds of auctions and different auction types can produce more or less money in different circumstances. Decisions must be made with each auction, so that player involvement is constant. It all adds up to an absorbing and challenging package that plays in just one hour.

Modern Art also represents the first time that players and critics noticed an unusual thing about many Knizia designs. With subsequent plays, more and more strategies are revealed. So many of his games appear simple on the surface, but have hidden depths. Being able to discover new nuances is one of the most enjoyable aspects to playing a Knizia game and certainly helped Modern Art's reputation.

The crowning achievement came when Modern Art won the 1993 Deutscher Spiele Preis as Game of the Year. However, in what would soon become a recurring theme, the game lost out in the Spiel des Jahres that year to Call My Bluff, a much lighter design. Most people figured that Modern Art was too much of a gamer's game for the family-oriented Spiel des Jahres.

1993 was another good year for Reiner, with all four of his published games being notable ones. Attacke (which was later released in modified form as Ivanhoe) is a card game in which the winner is the first to win challenges in each of the five suits. Das Letzte Paradies (The Last Paradise) is a lavishly produced auction game in which the players must choose between developing or preserving the properties they've purchased. En Garde is a very simple card game (there are only 25 cards and no suits) which nonetheless manages to capture the back-and-forth feel of the sport of fencing. The best known of the 1993 crop was Tutanchamun, a lightning-fast set collecting game very loosely based on the archaeological discovery of King Tut's tomb. Tutanchamun There are 15 different sets of tiles (with 1 to 8 tiles in each set) and at the beginning of the game, all the tiles are laid face up in a snake-like row. The players place their tokens at the beginning of the row and, on their turn, advance to the tile they wish to take and add it to their collection. But they can never move backwards. When all the tiles in a set have either been taken or passed over, the two players with the most tiles in that set score. First to reach a given point total wins. It's that simple, but like so many Knizia games, it has a lot more going for it than first meets the eye. The game finished second to Modern Art in the Deutscher Spiele Preis voting of 1993.

By now, the profile of a typical Knizia game seemed to be pretty clear. They were mostly card or abstract games, although he also occasionally delved into auction or negotiation games. They were usually based on a single simple idea and were well developed from that idea. The designs were very clean, but sparse. The themes, even more so than was usual for German games, were simply pasted on and were, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant. The games usually contained surprising depth for such simple designs. And they were all very short: a half hour or less (most of them quite a bit less), with the exception of Knizia's opus, Modern Art, which weighed in at a hefty 60 minutes. By 1993, Knizia had to be considered one of the leading designers of snappy filler games, particularly if you didn't mind somewhat dry, abstract designs.

The highlight of 1994 was the publication of the New Games in Old Rome collection. This contained the rules for fourteen games, along with the components necessary to play them all. Many of the games were the progenitors of future Knizia releases. The collection was an impressive achievement and only served to heighten Knizia's growing reputation.

QuandaryAs for the games that were published independently that year, two are well known. Flinke Pinke is a tiny game of share valuation (it would later be more lavishly produced as Quandary) in which players set the share prices at the same time they choose which shares to own; at game's end, the shares are worth their last set price. Another rapid game which is far more interesting than its simple rules would lead you to believe. The other game is Auf Heller und Pfennig, an abstract (but nasty) tile placement game which feels very much like the product of a mathematician's mind.

In 1995, Knizia, who had already established himself as one of the more prolific designers in Germany, reached new heights with no fewer than nine published games. One of them was Turf Horse Racing, a card-based racing game recently re-released as Royal Turf. Making more of a splash at the time of its publication was High Society,High Society -
      courtesy BoardgameGeek a simple auction game out of the Hols der Geier school. As in most games of this type, players bid for randomly drawn items. But that's where the similarities end. First of all, players bid sequentially, not secretly, but they cannot make change, so they must carefully manage the denominations in their hands. Moreover, some of the cards hurt the player acquiring them; in these cases, the low bidder must take the card. Finally, there's another Knizia twist: the player with the least money at the end cannot win. So players must try to acquire the best items while making sure that their cash doesn't dwindle too low. High Society is generally considered to be the best Hols der Geier-type game ever created and remains an extremely popular filler.

But the star of the class of 1995 was Medici. This is an auction game set in Renaissance Italy. Players are collecting five different types of commodities of differing values. In essence, the game consists of only three concepts. First, the active player picks the cards to be auctioned one at a time, stopping when she likes so that one to three cards are auctioned each turn. Next, each player can only purchase five cards a round-if the goods in the current auction would send you over that total, you cannot bid. Finally, there is a detailed scoring system that rewards specializing in commodity types but also emphasizes the total value purchased each round. (Medici is the first Knizia game in which the scoring mechanism plays such a critical role. This would become a common theme in some of his later games, with much more convoluted scoring systems.) Like so many of Knizia's games, Medici is filled with difficult decisions in its short playing time. With Medici, High Society, Modern Art, and others, Knizia could now be considered the king of the auction game designers.

1996 produced more of the same for Reiner as he released five new games. (It was at about this time that people really started marveling at both the number and quality of games that Knizia was producing. Obviously, not everyone liked every game he created, but he seemed truly incapable of producing a broken or poorly tested design. There is a remarkable level of consistency in his games that continues to this day.) The 1996 crop included Palmyra, a stock market type game set in the ancient world; Members Only, an unusual betting/bluffing game in which players try to predict the number of cards that will be played in five categories; and Grand National Derby, yet another card-based horse racing game in which players bet on the horses during the race and one horse is eliminated each round. The following year, Don Greenwood of Avalon Hill changed the horses to mythical monsters and gave each one a special power to create the popular game Titan: The Arena. A few years later, Greenwood added even more features to the game (some would say too many) to come up with a sequel, Galaxy: The Dark Ages.

Looking over what I've written up to this point, I'd have to say the account appears a little dry and workmanlike. That seems to be entirely appropriate to the subject, since Knizia at this time was cranking out one good game after another, but many found his designs somewhat mechanical and lacking in theme. (I've seen one reviewer describe his games as soulless.) But the gaming world could hardly expect that Knizia was about to enter a cocoon and that a dazzling set of butterflies would emerge.

Three Tiles a-Layin'

The thing about metamorphosis is that it takes a lot of time. Thus Knizia, who had released a total of 14 games the two previous years, only published two new designs in 1997. One of them was Mole Hill, a two-player abstract whose cute theme masked a pretty clever, strategic game. The other was a little number called Euphrat & Tigris, a game which proceeded to surprise an awful lot of people who thought they knew what Knizia was capable of.

Actually, in one sense, Euphrat & Tigris should have been anything but a surprise: it was one of the most anticipated games ever created. Two years earlier, the industry began whispering that Knizia was finally working on a gamer's game, one far longer and more complex than anything he had yet attempted. The buzz on the early prototype was positive, but either Reiner, publisher Hans im Glück, or both wanted something better, so the game was delayed while further development took place. It finally appeared more than a year after its imagined publication date, but it was soon obvious that the wait was well worth it. Euphrat & Tigris was almost immediately hailed as Knizia's masterpiece (even today, it is still generally considered his best game) as well as one of the greatest games ever designed. In fact, in Aaron Fuegi's popular "Internet Games 100" list, Euphrat & Tigris is the highest rated game, by a reasonably wide margin, and has been for quite some time.

Euphrat & Tigris is the first of what I would call Knizia's "thematic" designs: games with evocative settings, more closely tied to their theme than Knizia's earlier games, but still a little mechanical and abstract. In this case, the theme is civilization building between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, the area that served as home to the Babylonians and other ancient cultures. Each player has a hand of tiles, which come in four colors. Euphrat & Tigris tiles Players also have four leaders, one for each tile color. A turn consists of placing two tiles and/or leaders on the board. When a tile is placed, if the contiguous group of tiles it expands contains a leader of the tile's color, the owner of that leader gets a cube of that color. Conflicts occur when two leaders of the same color try to occupy the same area and these result in larger numbers of cubes being rewarded to the victor. There are other rules (treasure cubes that can be allocated to any color, monuments that award cubes each turn, and disaster tiles that remove already placed tiles), but those are the basics. The real key to the game, however, is the victory condition, which uses an idea so clever and so simple, it's amazing that no one had thought of it before. Each player's final score is equal to the number of cubes he has in his smallest color. Thus, players have to work in all four colors in order to succeed.

Euphrat & Tigris has an almost limitless scope for skill and is thus considered one of the most challenging games to ever come out of Germany. Just as impressive as the quality of the game is how different it was from anything Knizia had produced before. The stronger theme, the length, the multifaceted mechanics, and the overall richness of the design was a revelation. Knizia's many fans were exultant and his critics were forced to reevaluate his work.

Many thought that Euphrat & Tigris would finally earn Knizia his first Spiel des Jahres, but again, the committee seemed to consider it too much of a gamer's game and instead chose Elfenland (thereby recognizing another long overlooked designer, Alan Moon). There was no such uncertainty about the Deutscher Spiele Preis, however, and Euphrat & Tigris's easy win gave Knizia his second such award.

Now that Knizia had shown this new dimension in his design ability, the gaming world anxiously awaited his new output. He certainly didn't disappoint as he released the astonishing total of 13 games in 1998. Among these were: Katzenjammer Blues, a challenging, underrated card bidding game in which, uniquely, the items being bid upon could then be used to make bids; Honey Bears, a race game in which you want to have as many cards associated with the leading bears as possible (but you need to play those cards in order to make those bears do well); It's Mine!, a lightning fast, highly social auction game in which the separate card types are scored using different rules; Exxtra, a Can't Stop-like dice game with some unusual mechanics; and Zirkus Flohcati (Flea Circus), a family card game with enough decisions to interest more serious gamers. But without a doubt, the games of that crop that gained the most attention were Durch die Wüste (Through the Desert) and Samurai. In the former game, players place camels of five different colors, trying to have the largest group, as well as surrounding areas and occupying special spaces. It's a fast-playing, multi-faceted, multi-player abstract game that has proved to be very popular. Samurai tiles In Samurai, three different types of scoring pieces are laid out on a board showing several islands of Japan. Players lay their tiles next to the pieces and whoever can bring the most points next to a piece wins it. Again, there's a twist with the scoring system: in order to win, you must have the most points in one of the three areas, but your score is the total number of points in the other two areas. This game was a little more contentious (many people were put off by the scoring mechanism), but was still very well received.

Together, Euphrat & Tigris, Durch die Wüste, and Samurai were labeled by many as Knizia's "Tile Laying Trilogy". In some ways, this was a silly distinction, as he had created tile laying games before and would create more in the future. But it did show an essential truth in Knizia's design methodology: he would explore a particular game genre and come up with several different concepts. Investigating these new concepts would lead him to different game ideas, which often resulted in him releasing related games at much the same time. Even though the games would be clearly related, they would all be quite distinct and of such uniform quality that there was no problem with sharing design notions. The end result in this case was that Knizia, whose range only a couple of years earlier was thought to consist only of card and auction games, was now considered to be the leading designer of high-skill tile-laying games.

Hobbits and Pharaohs and Trains... Oh My!

Amazingly, Knizia's 1999 collection was even larger than the previous year's - 16 games published in only 12 months! Among them was one of his most popular designs, Lost Cities. This is a relatively simple two-player card game in which players play numbered cards associated with one of five legendary cities. Only higher valued cards can be played at a single location; in addition, cards which double the city's score can only be played before any of the numbered cards. The twist is that if a city is started, it's total value must be sufficiently high or it will subtract rather than add points to the player's total. Despite the straightforward rules, the game has surprising depth and took much of the gaming world by storm, attracting many non-gamers in the process. It was snubbed by the major German awards, but easily won the Gamer's Choice Award as the best two-player game of the year.

Knizia released a couple of other two-player card games in 1999 that together with Lost Cities form another trilogy of sorts. In Schotten-Totten, the players are simultaneously playing to nine different three-card hands, trying to form a higher ranking collection at each spot than their opponent. In Tabula Rasa (which can also be played with three), cards come in five colors and are ranked from 1 to 5. On your turn, you play a card either to its appropriate number pile or color pile, with the objective being to have the most cards in each pile. What each game has in common (other than elegantly simple rules and entertaining game play) is the tension generated because you want to delay your plays as long as possible. With this "trilogy", Knizia appreciably added to the family of challenging non-abstract two-player games that could be played in a half hour or less.

Ra

Among gamers, Knizia's most renowned game of the year had to be Ra, a thinly themed auction game set in ancient Egypt. There are about half a dozen types of tiles in the game, each of which is scored differently. Tiles are drawn one at a time and the players decide when the entire group is auctioned off. But the real innovation in the design is the way you bid. There are differently numbered Sun counters in the game (Ra was the Egyptian Sun god) and they are equally divided between the players at the beginning of the game. Players can only bid with the value of one of their Suns. When a player wins a bid, she places the Sun of that value in the center of the table, where it will go to the winner of the next auction. As he had with Katzenjammer Blues, Knizia was playing with the very foundations of auction games. (He did it again in another 1999 game, Money, in which players are trying to collect sets of currency and the currency itself is used to bid with.)

In addition, Knizia hadn't yet used up his store of tile-laying ideas. Rheinländer was the latest game to be added to his famous trilogy. In this one, the players use cards to place knights, dukes, bishops, castles, and churches, trying to create the highest scoring empire. Expectations may have been a little too high for Rheinländer, due to its famous cousins, and many gamers considered it lighter than expected and a disappointment. It is still an interesting game, perhaps better suited for older families than serious gamers.

But the other tile-laying design of that year was a doozy. Stephenson's Rocket (named after the world's first passenger-carrying locomotive) depicts track building in England in the early days of the railroad and, for once, Stephenson's Rocket - courtesy BoardgameGeek Knizia does a surprisingly good job of matching the gameplay to this theme. Each player gets two actions a turn, including extending one of seven rail lines or placing stations (in the hope that a railroad will run through it). When a rail line is extended, the player takes a share of its stock. However, any other player with stock in that line can object to the direction of the extension and the player willing to lose the highest number of shares determines where the line will expand. Lines can also merge during the game. Having the most stations on a line and the most stock in a railroad pays off during the game, as well as at its end, and the player with the most money wins.

Stephenson's Rocket is a marvelous game of pure skill with unique, and very intense gameplay. The mechanism whereby shares are used to resolve building disputes is one of Knizia's finest, since by spending shares to influence a line's path, you risk losing control of it in the future. There are a huge number of choices to be made throughout the game and proper judgment must be exercised from beginning to end in order to win.

Stephenson's Rocket, however, is not a terribly popular or well-known game. No doubt the game's difficulty and steep learning curve have contributed to this, even though Euphrat & Tigris probably ranks just as high in both of those areas. The theme should have given the game a boost, but few train-game lovers have been willing to embrace a title that is neither an 18xx design nor a crayon game. Whatever the reasons may be, this great game isn't played nearly as much as it should be and qualifies as my pick for Knizia's Most Underrated Game.

Speaking of underrated, Knizia's snubbing by the Spiel des Jahres committee may have reached its zenith at about this time. Both Ra and Samurai weren't even nominated for the 1999 Spiel des Jahres (Money was his only nominated title), which led many to suggest that the jury was hopelessly biased against the designer, a claim that was becoming harder and harder to refute. The two titles fared better in the Deutscher Spiele Preiss, with Ra finishing second (to Tikal) and Samurai fourth.

The onset of a new millennium did nothing to reduce Knizia's prodigious output, as he released 15 games in 2000 (if you're counting, that's 44 games in three years!). It also saw him expand his range in even greater ways, making him not only the most prolific, but one of the most versatile designers in the industry.

Of course, Knizia hadn't forgotten his roots - he could still create a solid card game like Vampire. This is a rummy variant in which players can make melds in six suits, but at the end of the game (here's that Knizia twist!), the shortest meld in each suit is discarded. This game got a rough reception at first, as many players were expecting a game that actually had something to do with vampires; it has taken a while for the game's inherent qualities to be recognized.

But the Knizia games that got the most publicity were far more ambitious than this. In Merchants of Amsterdam, players compete in auctions to try to gain the most items in different commodities, in warehouses in the districts of Amsterdam, and in New World settlements, all against the setting of actual Dutch history. The grabber in the game is a mechanical clock, which ticks down the price until one player slaps it (simulating, appropriately enough, a Dutch auction). This was another solid, meaty Knizia design.

Traumfabrik (Dream Factory) is one of Knizia's best themed games, as the players use real actors, actresses, and directors from Hollywood's Golden Age to cast great films from the past. Yet another excellent auction game, the gimmick here is that the winning bids are distributed among the player's opponents, but it is the irresistible theme that has made this title so popular.

Taj MahalThe big game from 2000 was Taj Mahal, an involved and unique commodity acquisition game. There are twelve rounds in the game and during each of these, there are six competitions being conducted simultaneously. These contests are decided through an innovative card play mechanism that features Poker-like dropping out and bluffing. There is much more to the game, including a convoluted scoring system that seems to be de rigueur for recent Knizia games. The game also found plenty of fans and won the 2000 Deutscher Spiele Preis award in an extremely close contest over two Wolfgang Kramer collaborations, Torres and Die Fursten von Florenz. It was Knizia's third Deutscher Spiele Preis, proof that this group of voters appreciated his talents, even if the Spiel des Jahres jury didn't.

But the real interest that year surrounded the most highly anticipated Knizia design since the appearance of Euphrat & Tigris three years earlier - Lord of the Rings. Creating a game based on one of the most beloved works of fiction of all time was challenging enough; tying it to a major motion picture only upped the stakes. But the real reason that gamers eagerly awaited this title was that Knizia set himself the task of creating a cooperative game, in which the players competed against the system and won or lost as a group. Such games were not unheard of, but none of them had ever been designed with German version of Lord of the
      Rings serious gamers in mind. It seemed like an impossible challenge (not unlike the one facing Frodo and his friends), but Reiner pulled it off, creating a game that was both challenging and appealing enough to hold the interest of its intended audience. Most impressive of all, highly competitive gamers, used to resorting to any legal tactic to win, gladly joined forces with their fellow players to try to defeat Sauron. It was a design as far removed from Quo Vadis or Quandary as you could imagine, yet only a half dozen years after those then typical Knizia titles had appeared, the same author had created this groundbreaking game, virtually inventing a new gaming genre in the process.

So with his tremendous growth as a game designer, is it still possible to characterize a typical Knizia game in the year 2001? Yes, but it's not as straightforward as it was in 1996. Knizia's shorter games still tend to focus on the execution of a single idea. His longer ones are much more involved and often feature a complex scoring system. While many of his designs are now quite thematic, I still don't feel his games are particularly well themed. (For example, Lord of the Rings has all the Tolkien atmosphere and settings you could want, but the gameplay, in which tiles are drawn and players must then play appropriate cards, is still pretty abstract in nature.) To me, the most consistent feature of his games of any length is how thoroughly designed and playtested they are. As I mentioned earlier, his games almost always "work" and I find an amazing percentage of them to be "good" or better. This is particularly remarkable considering how many designs he releases every year. It is this combination of prolific production and consistently high quality that lead so many to view Knizia as the preeminent game designer in the world.

Thus far, 2001 has not been a stellar year for Knizia. Although he has released his usual large crop of games, most have been aimed at family audiences and the lack of a major Knizia title during a calendar year for the first time since 1996 has been felt throughout the gaming world. One design that many thought would fill that role was Africa, a tile placement game that seemed to have all the necessary elements and which had many gamers enthused. The general disappointment that resulted when the game appeared was due more to a misleading description from the publisher than any fault with this solid family game. And, in fact, Knizia continues to release interesting, innovative games. Dark Side, for example, is a highly social game that requires equal elements of deduction and bluffing. But even if 2001 proves to be an inevitable off-year for the designer, no one doubts that the future should hold many marvels from Knizia. At 44, he is still a young man and it's easy to forget that he's only been publishing games for twelve years-particularly when you realize that he's released 93 games over that span. Even if Knizia's game design skills merely maintain their current high levels, he is sure to continuing producing great games. But for years, Reiner Knizia has been making a habit of surprising people with his new-found abilities; it would be imprudent to assume that he won't continue to grow even more.

- Larry Levy

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