I've often heard the name Thomas Fackler when reading Essen reports. Invariably they mention his newest design and hand made pieces and they never fail to note the price, often in the thousands of dollars! Certainly these are games for collectors rather than players. At Essen 1998 he released his most accessible game to date: Die Mauer (The Wall). Still, it was hardly a cheap item at about 100 DM per set (with a set needed for each of 3-6 players). Well, Zoch has published a version with nice wooden pieces (instead of the original metal ones) that includes six "sets" for a very reasonable price. The game also comes with a "Master Builder" block and a cloth bag in a square box.
The basic idea of the game is that the players are building a communal wall. Each player has an identical set of pieces used in its construction: 1 Tower, 1 Gate and 5 walls each with a certain number of crenellations. The Wall must be constructed according to very simple rules: No Towers or Gates may be built next to each other, they must have at least one wall section between them. That's it! (I should note that the wall is strictly linear, no branches.) One player is designated the Master Builder (this rotates around the table each turn) and play begins. Each turn consists of all players secretly selecting a single piece and revealing them simultaneously. If the Master Builder (MB) is alone in her choice then she alone builds that piece. If one or more other players have also chosen that piece then they build instead, but (and, its a big but) if these players are not ALL able to build (according to the rules) then the MB builds instead. An example might help: The MB selects a Tower. If no one else chooses a Tower then the MB builds it. However, if three other people also choose a Tower then the MB still builds as building three Towers is not permissible. (This would cause at least two Towers to be adjacent.)
Further complicating matters is the fact that the MB may select an "empty fist". If she is alone in doing this she may build any piece of her choosing. However, if one (and only one) other player also selects "empty fist" then that player gives any piece of his to the Master Builder. Ouch! A round ends when one player has used all of his or her pieces. All other players are then accessed a negative score based on their remaining pieces. The Towers are worth -15, the Gates -10 and the walls a negative equal to the number of crenellations they have. A game consists of several rounds (usually 3-5).
So really this game is just an advanced form of Rock, Paper, Scissors. The nice thing about it is that it works very well. I've played it many times with from three to six players and in all cases everyone kept wanting to play "just one more round". There truly is very little skill involved but it all comes down to psychology and trying to deduce what the MB will select. Even this isnít all that much help actually as if too many players have successfully predicted what she'll build then they'll cancel each other out and she'll build anyway. I suspect that an entirely random strategy would work pretty well and that one with even just a few simple rules would work as well as anything a player could come up with. So why does the game work? I suppose its the speed at which it plays. Turns take just a few seconds: select, reveal, build. In short, there's nothing to get in the way of the simple and mindless gameplay, no complex building rules or turn sequences.
There is some strategy to the game of course: First off, knowing what pieces the Master Builder has remaining is important, card counters will definitely be at an advantage here. Also, knowing how many of which pieces are left certainly helps. If everyone but you has placed their Tower, you know that you can select it as the Master Builder and you'll be guaranteed to build it. The number of available "Tower/Gate spots" also determines your choice: If there are Gates or Towers on the two ends you definitely don't want to choose either as you can't build them. If both ends are walls then it might be a good idea to choose a Tower or Gate, but what if there is a Gate at one end and a wall at the other? This means there's only one spot available to build a Gate or Tower. If three players (including the Master Builder) choose a Tower then the Master Builder will still build it. The only way to prevent this is if a single player chooses the identical piece. As the players can't communicate with each other you end up second guessing one another as often as you do the MB. Great fun! I've found that the game to be less random with fewer players and particularly like playing with only three: First off, its easier to keep track of who has what pieces left, secondly the game becomes a little more self balancing:
Once two identical pieces have been placed the third player may automatically build his piece once he becomes the MB. Finally, it feels easier to predict what the other players will do. In the six player game there's no point trying to figure out all five other players but with three the possibilities are more manageable. Iím not convinced that it makes all that much difference but it feels like it does.
All in all, I believe that if you can approach the game for what it is (simple and random), you'll enjoy it. Certainly it's no test of skill but it is a tremendous amount of fun. The one recommendation I would make is to make sure you don't play too many rounds, I feel that if you overplay this game its random nature will become more apparent, play just a few rounds, have a laugh and then put it away.
- Greg Aleknevicus