I am almost certain that those who participate in the board gaming hobby who have tried to tell others about it have, at one point or another, been met with a response of, “Oh, is that like Clue and Monopoly?”
What separates hobby board games from the majority of mass-market titles, aside (arguably) from fun, is the name on the box top. Like the byline on books or the signature in the corner of a painting, hobby board games typically bear the name of their creator. But more than their name, hobby board games typically bear the style of their creator as well. Just like you might expect different things from a book by Kurt Vonnegut than you would from Graham Greene, you can expect different things of a game depending on whose name is on the box top.
The Name on the Box Top may become a regular series about game designers, their trademarks, and what I think of their designs. Or it could die here. In any case, I want to talk today about one of my favorite designers: Reiner Knizia.
I know, I know: it’s not fashionable to like the good doctor, just like it’s not fashionable to like Settlers of Catan, anymore. “Games have come a long way!” we say. But Reiner Knizia really does have some fantastic elements to his games and is deserving of his accolades.
The first thing I would call one of his trademarks is creative scoring. The easiest way to get players to change their behavior is to change their target, and Knizia is a master at this. Even a simple auction filler like Money! is made interesting through Knizia’s scoring twist—essentially, having all the cards of one suit is better than picking and choosing from other suits (unless you’re very selective in your other endeavors). Players score points by suits and only keep all their points if the suit is valued at 200 or more. This can be confusing, but it forces players to reconsider how they should go about collecting cards. Should they gamble on a new suit or build up a suit they’re already comfortable in? Each suit has a maximum point value, so players must be savvy in their trades.
Money! is in many ways about collecting in big suits, using other suits to bid for what you want and withholding scoring opportunities from the other players. Tigris and Euphrates, on the other hand, is a game about balance. There are four spheres to score points in, and at the end of the game, a player’s final score is the number of points scored in that player’s weakest sphere. In other words, if a player has a monopoly on red and completely forgets black, that player will lose to the player who has only moderately built up all four spheres. Knizia alters the goal and so alters the way the game is played.
An interesting middle ground between these two scoring systems is Ra (a game that I think is brilliant but @Futurewolfie—wrongly—hates). Ra is a pure auction game, and an auction is only as valuable as what a player is collecting. Thus, a player who is trying to collect Niles might find a track full of Pharaohs worthless. A disaster tile targeting monuments means nothing to a player who has no monuments but everything to a player whose strategy depends on them. Add in that what you use to bid with is always exchanged with what was used to win the last bid, and there are decisions galore in this game. It scores differently for each player depending on what that player collects. Knizia’s scoring systems can be tough to teach, but usually if you can sell the concept, new players catch on quick.
Of course, the second trademark of Knizia games is thin theme. I love Ra, but is there anything distinctly Egyptian about it? I love Money!, but does it feel like I’m trading currency? Through the Desert is a fantastic abstract game, but that’s just it: it’s an abstract game masquerading as something more. This doesn’t bother me most of the time. Who cares if I’m in space, or ancient Egypt, or at the dawn of civilization: what I’m looking for is an excellent play experience, and here Knizia delivers.
On the other hand, Knizia has also had his hand in some licensed titles, like the Lord of the Rings co-op game and Star Trek: Expeditions. I haven’t played Star Trek, but I have played Lord of the Rings. While I enjoy the Lord of the Rings game that Knizia has created, it doesn’t feel much like Lord of the Rings. The players have to build the story themselves; the theme is brought by those playing, not by the game itself. Again, this isn’t a huge deal, but it exasperates my more theme-driven friends. (Their love for epic, all-day Fantasy Flight games often taxes me—so there.)
The third and final trademark I’ll mention about Reiner Knizia’s games is easy rules. His games are simple to teach and learn. This doesn’t mean they’re too easy or unfun (unless we’re talking about Whoowasit? and you’re not five). Knizia’s games typically offer depth without breadth: there aren’t lots of options, but each decision is meaningful. In Ra, you can only do one of three things on your turn: add a tile to the auction track, swoop in with a god tile, or call an auction. In Through the Desert, you play two camels within the guidelines of some simple rules. In Tigris and Euphrates, you take two actions per turn: playing a tile, exchanging tiles, or (re)moving a leader. In Money!, you either exchange the pile of cards in front of you for another pile or you take that pile into your hand. Because the rules to Knizia’s games are so simple, these are the games I am most frequently asked to play or bring along for family gatherings. (Not always game nights, though, and @Futurewolfie has a restraining order on Ra.)
I know this is by no means comprehensive, and I know there are varying opinions on Doctor Knizia. So let’s have ’em in the comments. What do you like? What do you not like? Is Knizia the “good doctor,” or are you eating an apple a day?