The Elegance of Emerging Patterns
I've been smitten by Reiner Knizia's fascinating new multiplayer abstract game Einfach Genial since it arrived in the mail one month ago. The game is much deeper than it initially appears, providing interesting tactical and strategic decisions, and a neat variety of unfolding choices. It is very easy to learn, quick to play, and absolutely beautiful to look at. It is a trademark Knizia game in that it has a well-conceived random factor, a wonderful scoring system and a thoughtful, competitive balance. Indeed, in my view, this is Knizia's most elegant game, reflecting aesthetic simplicity and subtlety. It is also, and most importantly, great fun to play.
The board is a six-sided configuration of hexagons, with 8 hexagons on each side of the outer perimeter. There are 120 domino style tiles. Each tile has six instances of two of six colors (red, green, blue, yellow, orange, and purple), as well as five doubled tiles of itself. Hence, each color appears 40 times. Multiply that by six and you get 240 instances on 120 tiles. Each player (the game handles up to four), has a hand of six hidden tiles (lots of sixes, huh?). Tiles are placed alternately anywhere on the board. You score by making connecting lines of matching tiles from each of the two colors (one tile) you've placed on the board. Each player has a scoring chart with a horizontal path for each of the six colors, with a maximum of 18 in each. The object of the game is to have the best lowest score. Similar to Tigris and Euphrates (except here the scoring is visible), you are scoring simultaneously on six tracks, trying to bring all of your colors along. So if you have five colors with 18 and one with 6, and your opponent has six colors with 7—your opponent wins. When you reach 18, you can no longer score that color, although you do get to go again. If your hand is void of your lowest scoring color, at the completion of your turn you can replace all of your tiles. If that explanation isn't clear, believe me, the game is very simple and intuitive to learn, requiring no more than a few minutes of explanation.
Most of my experience with Einfach Genial is as a two-player game, so my comments reflect this. The first few times you play it seems as if there is a high random element, and that each move is obvious, that is, find the best way to maximize your score. With repeated plays, you realize that the game is as much defensive as offensive and sometimes you are better off sacrificing your own point scoring possibilities in order to block your opponent. Knowing when to block is a crucial aspect of playing this game well. The most interesting challenge is knowing when to block all scoring for a color. As the game evolves, certain colors proliferate and long scoring chains emerge. How then do you take advantage of these chains for yourself and then block them for your opponent? This takes a great deal of finesse because you have to assess how many openings there are for that color, how many instances of that color have yet to be played, and what your prospects are for blocking that color when you have the lead. Further, you can get clues as to the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent's hand by observing her scoring and blocking tendencies.
Clearly there are many interesting tactical considerations in figuring out how to both maximize your score and minimize your opponent's. Further, you must match those considerations to the ever-changing board dynamic, that is, the relative shape and supply of the six colors. With experience, I've come to appreciate the strategic dimensions of this game. After about fifteen to twenty moves, based on the shape of the board, the supply of colors and your hand, you can decide whether to play offensively or defensively. Further, you can draw your opponent into your style of play, or at least move the flow of the game in a specific direction. It's wonderful how quickly all of this happens and how spontaneously you must react to the dynamic flow of the game. Although there is certainly a great deal of randomness in the tiles you choose from the bag, hand management is surprisingly interesting, as you can assess your potential weak colors in relationship to both the scoring possibilities on the board and your opponent's score. Further, as the game proceeds, and as you become familiar with the tiles, you have a much better idea of what's remaining in the bag, and there are probabilities to be worked out.
The game plays so easily that it has almost a pastime like quality and as a result I think people underestimate its depth. That's a good thing ultimately as Einfach Genial is so accessible. Look up reviews on BoardGameGeek, and you'll see the proverbial, "I don't like abstracts, but I really like this" caveats. What I read from such responses is that Einfach Genial is charming and fun, doesn't appear to be brain-busting, yet has an addictive quality. All of those qualities are true, but I think it is also a very deep and interesting game. It combines tile placement, hand management, dynamic scoring and enough randomness to inject variety and excitement.
Abstract game purists may downgrade Einfach Genial because of the random factor. They would be fair to do so. Yet I urge players to give this game its due depth, as its subtleties are slowly revealed. Sure, there will be a few games in which your tile draws will hinder your prospects but in the fifty or so games I've played, my assessment is that the more skilled player will almost always win.
Considering Knizia's prolific and prodigious catalog of remarkable designs, it is high praise to suggest that this is his most elegant game. I am not suggesting it's his best, or the most original, simply the most elegant. The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology describes "elegant" as "tastefully ornate, refined and graceful." My impression of the word conjures an aesthetic impression, revealing both depth and simplicity, something that is pleasing and accessible, rewarding deeper investigation.
Einfach Genial takes the best elements of many Knizia games and rolls them into a fluid design—ingenious scoring, tile management, interesting choices, hidden depths. It lacks the intricacy and studiousness of a game like Tigris and Euphrates or the intensity of interaction you find in Medici or Modern Art. Perhaps it is best described as a game of casual depth.
I am delighted when a finished game sits on the table resembling a work of art. It would be fun to take digital snapshots of an array of closing positions in Einfach Genial. You would have a collection of beautiful mosaic patterns. Here is a game that blends fine play with emerging patterns in such a way that you create a work of art each time you play. That is why I believe Einfach Genial is Reiner Knizia's most elegant game.
- Mitchell Thomashow