The Games Journal | A Magazine About Boardgames

Take A Chance

Joe Huber

December, 2003

Gamers tend to put a lot of time and energy into carefully selecting their gaming purchases. We read reviews, check ratings, ask friends what they think, consider the publisher, the components, and whenever possible play the game first, all so that we can make our gaming dollar go further.

While I do tend to take advantage of this data when weighing my own purchasing decisions, I've found it quite enjoyable to take a chance now and again. Intentionally buy a game based on limited or no data—or even negative data. It's a risky venture—there's often a good reason why you haven't heard of the games you haven't heard of—but when a find is made it can be quite enjoyable to be the first to uncover a hidden gem.

Black ViennaProbably my single best find this way was Black Vienna. I acquired a copy of the game in a turkey swap—games I didn't care for in return for games my trading partner didn't care for. Black Vienna reached his trade pile because there was no translation available at the time, which raises one of the key requirements for uncovering hidden gems—the willingness to translate rules. German vocabulary isn't required for this—the machines do a fine job with the vocabulary, though I'd love to see a translator that automatically defaults to the game terms for some words rather than the more common use. But while vocabulary isn't a major issue, knowledge of German grammar is tremendously helpful; machine translated German is enough to determine the rules if you can decipher the grammar.

So, armed with my high school German grammar, I ran a machine translation of Black Vienna, and we gave the game a try. Lo and behold, it was a very enjoyable deduction game; I brought it to a national convention, and soon the word spread; the game is among the most coveted German games around. And I got to play my little role in a (then) decade-old game being brought into the focus of attention of German game players in the U.S. And even better, I had another good game to play.

While this is an ideal case, I've found many other games that I wouldn't have known about otherwise. Most of these happen to hit a particular interest of mine moreso than having general appeal, which makes it all the more unlikely I would have run across them if I hadn't taken a blind chance. Schützenfest is a very straightforward but enjoyable game themed around hitting targets, which is particularly good with three players. I acquired a copy purely because of the author (Rudi Hoffman). As a result of Schützenfest, I discovered the publisher Pelikan, and their Buchkassette series—a beautifully produced series of games, comparable to the 3M bookcase games and Kosmos 2-Player series. Speaking of Kosmos, a look through their older games led me to Maritim, a sailboat racing game, and Cubus, and box-building brain burner, both by Reinhold Wittig. Having played other of Wittig's games, I understand why he's not a favorite, but I do enjoy these two. (I also enjoy Mary Dowser, a bizarre dowsing and auction game, but Frank Branham let me know about that one.)

Even recent games can slip under the radar screen. I recently picked up a copy of Willi, a 1999 game from Hans im Glück, during a close-out from Adam Spielt. After quickly running a translation, we discovered an enjoyable little trick taking card game—nothing Earth-shattering, but clever and unique. An even more recent release, Vampir Connection, required getting past a different problem—a poor rule set, combined with German text on the cards. (To be fair, Pitt Crandlemire did a fine job with the translation itself, as always—but he did a literal translation, and the organization of the German rules was really poor.) Thankfully, my lunchtime gaming group is adventurous enough to slog through, and willing to make necessary logical assumptions. And to our delight, Vampir Connection turned out to be an interesting game, well worth making cheat-sheets for to help ramp up new players.

Sometimes the chance being taken is that all or most of the reviewers are wrong. My family has an interest in archeology; while I'm not the most involved, when I heard that Thomas Fackler had devised a game themed on archeological digs in Troy, I had to get a copy—even after having heard some rather negative things. I'm glad I did—I feel the theme is carried off well, and while Troia is never going to get a lot of repeated play, I'm still enjoying it.

The key when taking chances, as I see it, is to concentrate on finding games with an aspect you will enjoy. Perhaps you've enjoyed other games from the author; perhaps the theme appeals. But having a good starting point often makes it easier to overlook the negatives.

Of course, when taking chances you'll find some real clunkers. I recently tried Bau Auf for the first and last time—I think it may be the only game for adults I'm aware of that borrows mechanisms from Cootie. Some German reviewers do seem enjoy the game, so perhaps there's something I missed—my most likely culprit is always that the game is meant to be played in a different manner—but the game didn't do anything for me.

In summary, while there aren't thousands of hidden gems in the history of German games, there may well be a number that will be hits for you—if you take a chance on them. My trade pile is filled with misses—but many of my past misses have found good homes elsewhere, and I'm sure many of the current ones will too.

- Joe Huber

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