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Special Ks: An Update

Larry Levy

April, 2004

About three years ago, I wrote a series of articles about three designers I dubbed the Special Ks of German gaming: Wolfgang Kramer, Klaus Teuber, and Reiner Knizia. Obviously, these gentlemen haven't been idle since those articles appeared—they've been cranking out games just as they always do. So I thought it might be a good idea to update the original series by taking a look at the Special Ks published designs over the last three calendar years.

Wolfgang Kramer: New Tricks for the Old Dog

Wolfgang KramerAt the close of my earlier article on Kramer, I wondered what surprises he might hold in store for us and stated that it was never a good idea to bet against him. Kramer did indeed reveal a heretofore unknown side of his talents, but it didn't happen immediately.

In fact, 2001 was one of Kramer's least productive years. He only had three non-children's games released. One, Der Grosse Gallier, which was designed with Udo Nawratil, was the first of his big box collaborations to really flop. The second was Top Secret Spies, a remake of the Spiel des Jahres (SdJ) winner Heimlich & Co. that added a deck of cards for some special effects. The third game, Plem Plem, is a party-type design that combines a lot of old drinking/betting games into a frankly hilarious whole. But one little known (and very fluffy) success does not a gaming year make and 2001 had to be regarded as a down year for Kramer.

The turnaround didn't take long, however, as Kramer, who had just turned 60, had one of his finest years ever in 2002. (Of course, the games weren't designed in 2002, they just happened to be released during that year.) The most impressive fact about his output is that it included two very meaty solo designs. Up to this point in his career, the only heavy games Kramer had designed had been with collaborators. His solo efforts focused on light strategy or family games. But here were two gamer's games, with no partner in sight, at a very advanced stage of Kramer's career. As surprises go, this was a very unexpected and very welcome one.

The first solo design to appear was Goldland. This is an exploration/planning game with a unique feel. The players explore a fictional land by revealing tiles and adding them to the table to gradually fill in the board. Goldland "backpack" The tiles include different types of adventures the players can attempt and they gain points for establishing the most camps on an adventure type. There is also a treasure at the far corner of the board and the first player to reach this tile gains a sizable bonus. But what really distinguishes Goldland is the way players gain access to tiles. To survive an adventure, a player needs different types of equipment. For example, he may need two guns for a particular adventure tile. In order to get those guns, the player has to visit another tile, where he can acquire a gun if he has a shovel. Shovels can be found at yet another tile, and so on. Players can't just carry around everything they find because the more equipment they have, the slower they move. The end result is a pleasing puzzle the players have to solve, while still staying a step ahead of their opponents. This is a much more challenging design than anything Kramer had ever produced on his own and the final product was quite popular.

But the other solo Kramer design of 2002 went even further into the realm of gamer's games. WildLife (not to be confused with Kramer's earlier Wildlife Adventure) is an area majority game with an evolution theme. Each player takes the part of a particular creature. There are six creatures and six different types of terrain (there are two areas of each terrain type on the board). Each creature has varying abilities in the different kinds of terrain. Through card play, players place and move their creatures in the various areas of the board. Other cards also enable players to evolve their creatures to gain better capabilities in a terrain type and to acquire brand new abilities (like Intelligence and Defense). And every turn, each player must auction off at least one card to his opponents, which they must use immediately! It's all tied together with a complex scoring system that seems like it would be more at home in a Knizia game than one by Kramer. But the end result is excellent: a meaty and multi-faceted game with totally unique gameplay. Again, it wouldn't have been too surprising to see this come from one of Kramer's many collaborations, but based on his previous work, no one would have expected him to create a game like this on his own. The old dog had learned some new tricks and darn good ones at that.

WildLife got off to a slow start with the gaming public, thanks to a small publisher and some problems with the rules. But it got a major boost when it was picked up by the American publisher Uberplay and its selection by Games Magazine as its Advanced Strategy Game of the Year seems to have guaranteed that this fine game will not be forgotten.

As it turned out, Kramer did quite nicely with collaborative efforts in 2002 as well, as he combined with his most frequent partner, Michael Kiesling, to produce a couple of well received titles. Mexica was the third entry in the Action Point Trilogy, joining Tikal and Java. Like the earlier designs, the game was set in an unexplored locale (in this case, it is the development of Mexico City by the original Mexican tribes) and each player receives a certain number of Action Points with which to conduct their turn. Distinguishing this entry was the construction of canals to separate land masses and the ability to conserve unused Action Points. Although still a meaty game, Mexica is the lightest of the three designs, allowing it to fill a comfortable niche. A few have questioned whether going early in the turn order is a disadvantage, but generally the game is viewed as a worthy successor to the previous Action Point games.

PuebloKramer also combined with Kiesling to produce Pueblo, an abstract building game using irregularly shaped three-dimensional blocks similar to the ones found in Soma. The idea here is to place your blocks on the board in order to minimize the number of exposed faces of your color. The game proved to be very popular and made the Top Ten lists of quite a few gamers.

Even in a year which produced such brilliant games as Puerto Rico and Age of Steam, Kramer would have to be considered the most successful designer of 2002 because of the sheer number of quality games he released. This was reflected in the gaming awards. All four of the games cited above were nominated for the International Gamers Awards (IGA, the new name of the Award Formerly Known as the GCA). All but WildLife finished in the top ten of the Deutscher Spiele Preis awards (the DSP, which is the meatier of Germany's two Game of the Year awards). And Pueblo received the Spiele der Spiele, Austria's Game of the Year award.

The good fortune that may have allowed Kramer to have such a stellar 2002 also may have meant that he had little to offer the following year. Whatever the reason, it was a very quiet year for him, with the only notable adult title being Die Nacht der Vampire, a family game designed with Horst-Rainer Rösner (who Kramer had worked with earlier to create the excellent Tycoon) that has made little impact. 2003 was a good year for another partnership, however. Beginning in 1995, Kramer started designing children's games with Jürgen Grunau and Hans Raggan. The trio's output has proved to be successful and they've published ten games together. They identify themselves as the "Krag Team" and that is often the only thing listed in their design credits. Anyway, this group had a very productive 2003, releasing three titles. Among these was Robbie Rutschpartie, which was nominated for the SdJ Best Children's Game award, and the delightful Gulo Gulo, a dexterity game that charmed as many adults as children. Kramer has always had an affinity for children's designs and his 2003 output did nothing to tarnish his reputation in this area.

It looks as if Kramer's recent alternating year syndrome may continue in 2004, as he already has several interesting titles lined up. Of course, only time will tell how successful the year will be for him. Regardless, we should continue to expect great things from Wolfgang Kramer, who has shown he is still very much in his prime. And the one thing we know this great designer will provide us is yet more surprises!

Klaus Teuber: Life Beyond Settlers

Klaus TeuberFrom 1998 to 2000, Klaus Teuber's ludography consisted entirely of spin-offs from the Settlers franchise and children's games. It was by no means a barren period for him, as these were popular, quality designs. However, there were more than a few Teuber fans who wondered if he'd ever devote his considerable talents to projects not connected with the magic Settlers name.

Happily, in 2001, he began to do just that. Gnadenlos! was the first completely original Teuber design since Löwenherz. Based in the American Old West, it is vintage Teuber: a mix of skill and luck, lots of player interaction, several different subsystems, and, above all, a fine family game. It was a successful throwback to such earlier designs as Drunter & Drüber and Der Fliegende Holländer and proved once again that he had few peers in creating games that could challenge and delight families.

Teuber also took a page from the Kramers and Alan Moons of the gaming world and reworked one of his earlier designs. In Die Neuen Entdecker, he tried to beef up 1996's Entdecker by enlarging the board, changing the income system, allowing the purchase of specific tiles and adding a completely new land exploration subsystem. The changes were a success and the revised game won Austria's initial Spiele der Spiele award. Interestingly, a number of veteran players stated their preference for the original game, but if nothing else, the new version seemed to raise the awareness of the earlier design, which had always been overshadowed by Settlers. Players now had a choice of two fine exploration games to play.

Of course, Teuber wasn't ignoring the Settlers franchise and 2001 also saw the release of Starship Catan. This bore almost the exact same relationship to the popular Starfarers of Catan that The Settlers Card Game bore to the original Settlers: a two-player card-based game, with a theme similar to the older game but very different mechanics. Once again, Teuber was successful in making the card game version just as good as the original and Starship Catan received an IGA nomination.

Chip Chip Hurra "catapult"The final significant release in Teuber's very busy 2001 was Chip Chip Hurra, a mesmerizing children's game in which players launch memory chips onto a board with a makeshift catapult and then move their robots to claim them. It's one of those games that the adults secretly play after the kids have gone to bed and it earned an Spiele der Spiele recommendation.

2002 was quieter, but the one major Teuber release was a big one: The Settlers of the Stone Age. In this standalone spin-off, those crazy Catanians are now cavemen trading bones and animal skins in order to increase the fortunes of their tribes. The game features a set map with land masses representing five of the world's continents. This version has considerably more mobility than most Settlers games, as the tribes must send out nomads to establish settlements in new lands. The Settlers of the Stone Age turned out to be very popular and many gamers have listed it as their favorite Settlers variant. It was rewarded with an IGA nomination for Game of the Year.

2002 also saw the second Kosmos game based around the Lord of the Rings movies (the first appeared the previous year, with each one tied to one of the first two movies of the Trilogy). The games were humorously credited to JRR Hering, which is actually a pseudonym for Teuber and four other Kosmos designers/developers. The games are strictly family fare, but manage to take advantage of the films' stupendous popularity in a reasonably entertaining fashion.

2003 featured two notable Teuber releases, neither of which involved Settlers. The game industry's two most anticipated designs that year were Knizia's King Arthur (more on that later) and Teuber's board game version of Anno 1503, a computer strategy game which is wildly popular in Europe. Teuber didn't disappoint, pulling off the difficult feat of creating a game quite faithful to the original, which still worked perfectly well as a board game. The design includes mechanics similar to other Teuber designs, including Settlers of Catan, The Settlers of Catan Card Game and Entdecker. Players collect resources and use them to develop their home island, giving them more abilities. Players can also purchase ships to explore other islands, which also add to the players' capabilities. There are five separate objectives in the game (e.g., a certain number of buildings, a certain amount of gold) and the first player to achieve three of them simultaneously is the winner. Curiously for Teuber, the level of player interaction in the game is quite low, although complaints that it is simply multiple solitaire were exaggerated. Possibly he recognized that in planning games such as this one, players can be content playing against the game system and that lower interaction means fewer chances for opponents to mess with your plans. Whatever the reason, Klaus proved once again that he has his finger on the pulse of the gaming public, as Anno 1503 was a major hit and this family friendly game figures to be a strong contender for the 2004 SdJ award.

The other major Teuber project for that year was of greater interest to serious gamers: a redesign of his most challenging game, Löwenherz, a game with a deserved reputation of being "nasty". The new game was called Domaine in the U.S. (its German title remained Löwenherz). The principal change was to eliminate the earlier version's contentious action selection process. Instead, players played an action card from their hand, paying to use it (a process somewhat reminiscent of Collectable Card Games like Magic). An income subsystem was added as well. Players could also raise money by selling their cards, which were then available to be chosen by the players in future turns. The rest of the game—enclosing areas of the board and attacking adjacent areas—remained much the same. The game still featured more explicit attacking than most German games, but eliminating the negotiation over the actions, which led to hard feelings in some gaming groups, did lead to a kinder, gentler game. The result was another unqualified hit for Teuber. Critics loved it: it finished fifth in the DSP voting, received an IGA nomination, and won a Spiele der Spiele recommendation. Many experienced gamers who were turned off by the aggressiveness of the earlier game declared the new version a masterpiece. Most fans of the original Löwenherz liked the nastiness of the 1997 game, but still found the new version to be a well-designed, if somewhat tamer game. As with Entdecker, the updated game meant that there was a version of Löwenherz that almost everybody liked.

Teuber rounded out 2003 by extending the world of Settlers to two new audiences. Settlers of Zarahemla, which was basic Settlers with a few new tweaks added, was specifically targeted at Mormons by the new publisher Uberplay, which found that Latter Day Saints families played considerably more games than the average American family. Uberplay surmised that these groups would welcome more challenging fare that also tied into their faith and they were proved to be correct. Teuber also released Die Kinder von Catan, a greatly simplified 3D version of the classic for kids aged four and up. After all, it's never too early to get the tykes started on the right kinds of games!

As 2004 dawned, Klaus Teuber had silenced those who thought he'd spend the rest of his career cranking out Settlers variants. He has produced a steady stream of highly successful designs over the last several years, both in and out of the Settlers franchise, including yet another megahit (Anno 1503 sold 30,000 copies within six weeks of its debut!). He must once again be ranked among the profession's leading designers and the gaming world is a better place because of it.

Reiner Knizia: A Walk on the Light Side

Reiner KniziaFrom 1997 to 2000, Reiner Knizia enjoyed an incredibly productive period of game production. Not only was his output during this time as extensive as usual, the games were of extraordinarily high quality and included many classic gamer's games. No one could have reasonably expected him to maintain this pace and, in fact, beginning in 2001, the meatier games began to be replaced by lighter designs. Knizia himself stated that he was more interested in exploring some of these less challenging concepts, which are actually more in line with the games released earlier in his career.

The game that really marked the transition for Knizia's output was Africa. Its appearance and scope led many to believe this was yet another meaty design from the good doctor, when in fact it was never intended to be more than a family game. Now that the initial disappointment has faded, the game (which features exploration and set collection) has gathered a dedicated following who appreciate the subtleties hidden in its simple structure.

There was no such controversy over Knizia's most popular release of 2001, Royal Turf. This was acclaimed from the very start as one of his best light designs. A reprint of 1995's Turf Horse Racing, it involves players betting on a series of horse races. No one owns any horses; rather, each player on his turn moves a horse that hasn't been moved yet that round. Moves are determined by a special die and each horse is affected differently by the various rolls . The mixture of bluff and light strategy resonated with a wide variety of gamers and earned the game an Spiel des Jahres nomination. (Ironically, Knizia, widely viewed as being routinely snubbed by the Spiel des Jahres jury, was the only Special K designer to receive any nominations from this group during the last three years.)

Another 2001 design which received an Spiel des Jahres nomination was the Fellowship of the Ring card game. Like many of Knizia's Lord of the Rings games, the theming here was thin, but this in no way detracted from his innovative spin on area majority games. Players play cards to surround places of power, trying to have the most points in play. Once an area is fully surrounded, the player who placed the last card chooses where the next area will be, allowing him to take advantage of previous placements. This enjoyable game was re-released the following year by Fantasy Flight Games as King's Gate, which sensibly replaced the cards with tiles.

Other notable Knizia releases in 2001 were the Friends and Foes expansion for his cooperative Lord of the Rings game; Maginor (a redesign of his earlier Vegas, which added fantasy and magic into the mix); The Dark Side (an unusual mix of party game mechanics and light deduction); Monopoly - Stock Exchange (an electronic version of the classic in which properties are sold piecemeal via shares rather than as a single unit); and My Word! (the English language version of his earlier fast-playing word game Diabolo).

Knizia designs have always been popular with American publishers, but the trend really exploded in 2002. Not only were there the usual redesigns of older titles—Gold Digger (Goldrausch), Kingdoms (Auf Heller und Pfennig), and the aforementioned King's Gate—but there were also new games specifically designed for the U.S. companies. Too Many Cooks (R&R Games) is a clever rolling trick card game (that is, the trick continues around the table until one player can claim it) themed around making soup (it even has a Soup Nazi-ish "No Soup Today" card!). Wheedle (Out of the Box) adds a little skill to the classic real-time trading game Pit. Probably the most successful of Reiner's American releases was Rome (GMT), which was a set of three redesigned games from his earlier New Games in Old Rome collection, including a chariot racing, area majority, and light war game.

Lord of
the Rings: The ConfrontationKnizia's most renowned game of the year still came from good old Deutschland, however. Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation continued his successful series of Lord of the Rings themed games. This one is a two-player affair reminiscent of Stratego, but with more varied combat and special powers for each of the pieces. The end result is a highly strategic design that was enthusiastically embraced by lovers of two-player abstracts. The game won the IGA award for best two-player game of the year, the second Knizia game to receive that honor (Lost Cities was the first).

Other highlights for 2002 included the Sauron expansion for Lord of the Rings (which allows one player to play the Dark Lord and compete against the others); Clash of the Gladiators (a very atypical hack 'n' slash dicefest, which is still a lot of goofy fun); Drachenland (a movement/set collecting family game); Korsar (a redesign of Pirat, which now includes provisions for partnership play); and Flotte Flosse (a children's game in which the players must use their nets to capture the selected fish).

Just as with Teuber, Knizia's 2003 was dominated by two hotly anticipated releases. The one that had the gamers salivating was Amun-Re. For the first time since 2000, there was going to be a Knizia gamer's game and the good doctor did not disappoint. Based in ancient Egypt, Reiner's favorite setting, Amun-Re has players bidding on plots of land bordering the Nile using an innovative simultaneous auction mechanism. Amun-Re The plots differ in the number of farmers they can support, the number of Power cards they can supply, and other aspects. Players then purchase cards, farmers, and stones for pyramids (which are the principal source of Victory points). Finally, there is a simultaneous sacrifice to the gods, which determines income and a few other things. A typically complex scoring system determines the winner. Amun-Re's varied mechanics, rock-solid design, and excellent game balance (there are quite a few paths to victory) combined to make this one of the finest games of the year. It finished first in the DSP (Knizia's fourth such award, tying him with Teuber), missed out on the IGA multi-player award by one vote (losing to Martin Wallace's brilliant Age of Steam), and received an SdJ nomination and an SdS recommendation. Knizia proved that even though his current focus was on lighter designs, he could still produce a gamer's game that could stack up to anyone's.

If anything, there was more anticipation for King Arthur. The game was billed as a huge advance in the fusion of electronics and board gaming. Set in medieval England, the players undertake tasks, which require that they decide between various courses of action. The game's processor remembers these decisions (and does so automatically, by the spaces the pieces move to) and uses them to determine the way the game responds (via a variety of characters) to each player. It looked like The Next Big Thing, but in fact, there were some problems. Under some circumstances, the electrical contacts didn't work as well as advertised. The hype also led many serious gamers to expect the gameplay to match the technology and most were disappointed with what was always intended to be a fairly simple game. Despite all of this, the game did sell well (and won the SdS Game of the Year award), so the project must be considered a success. Maybe not the Next Big Thing, but another unique achievement for Knizia.

There was considerably more to Knizia's successful 2003 than just those two games and his resume that year included a couple of atypical projects. In the first, he used another designer's creation as the basis for his own game. That was the genesis of Carcassonne: The Castle, a two-player version of Klaus-Jürgen Wrede's stupendously popular design. Knizia's changes included providing an irregularly shaped border in which to place the tiles (the castle), relaxing the tile adjacency rules, giving bonuses for reaching certain point totals first, and a few other innovations. The result was more of a gamer's game than the original, but was still appealing to more casual players. Knizia's other unusual design was Scarab Lords, a standalone two-player game that has the feel of a Collectable Card Game. In yet another Egyptian-like setting, players play cards of different types, strengths, and powers to try to capture six different areas. There is even a deck-building aspect: after the first contest, the players get to add additional cards to their decks from a third deck, with the loser choosing first. Knizia's take on the CCG genre is intriguing and the game is strong enough to exist without the usual countless expansions.

Other Knizia designs that year included: Fish Eat Fish, a card game whose light theme and playful artwork belie its occasionally nasty gameplay; Flea Circus, a very fluffy family game that featured cute rubber cat and dog scoring pieces; and Atlanteon, a redesign of Revolution, a fine, but little remembered early abstract.

Knizia's 2004 promises his usual large output, including more redesigns of older games, interesting new creations, and some more groundbreaking projects (including a true CCG, Blue Moon, and a Motley Fool-themed game!). But so far, there are no gamer's games on the horizon. It seems, therefore, that his successful exploration of his lighter side will continue, but of course, there's no telling when the next Knizia metamorphosis will occur.

So in summary, the conclusion of 2003 finds all three of the Special K designers at the top of their game (so to speak). They may no longer dominate the German gaming scene the way they once did, but that is due more to the development of many excellent old and new designers than any lessening of their skills. It seems likely that all three of them will be providing us with many more wondrous games in the years to come. I look forward to continue cataloging the careers of these three gaming giants.

- Larry Levy

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