A(nother) love letter to Dr Knizia
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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So what's the deal Dr K? I played your top-100 games as I was getting into the hobby and I adored them. Tigris & Euphrates and Ra are two of my five perfect 10s and Taj Mahal is not far behind. Since I seemed to like your style, I looked a bit further down the list and found the games weren't getting any worse. But there were these nagging voices saying that you were past your peak, that you'd not done a 'proper' game since Amun-Re. And yet, in the last few months I tried Municipium and Beowulf: more recent games that have dropped off the radar down in the 600s. And they're wonderful too! So what is it about your games that jibes with me? I thought about it a bit and came up with a few ideas.
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1. Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates [Average Rating:7.70 Overall Rank:95]
Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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Elegance. Along with 'pasted on theme' (which I'll come to later), 'elegant' is the term most often applied to Knizia's games. For me elegance in a game is about the ratio of the complexity of playing the game to the complexity of the rules. Elegance comes about when the complexity of the decisions players make emerges naturally from the interaction of a few simple component parts, rather than being 'put in by hand' with rule exceptions and card text. Even a game considered Knizia's most difficult, Tigris & Euphrates, requires relatively few concepts to learn. There are four exceptions to the basic rules: one corresponding to each colour of tile/leader. But out of that come agonizing decisions and unlimited possibilities. Compare it to Agricola, which has its complexity and replayability bolted on through an array of action choices and literally hundreds of rule-modifying cards.

This is the same way that physicists use the word 'elegant': to describe a theory that explains a multitude of complex phenomena with simple underlying rules, and that doesn't need arbitrarily-inserted parameters to make it work. A theory so beautiful that it almost demands to be true. That's how I feel about the best of Knizia's games. As Jonathan Degann says at the Journal of Boardgame Design: "In the case of Knizia the scientist, games manifest the complex possibilities that emerge from relatively simple natural laws. If Reiner Knizia - the game designer - is indeed a scientist, he is probably a physicist." So maybe it's no coincidence that I'm a physicist myself.
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2. Board Game: Modern Art [Average Rating:7.42 Overall Rank:221]
Board Game: Modern Art
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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Interactivity. I like to ask of a game: how much of its challenge would remain if you took away all the other players? Again I look at Agricola, and a host of other worker-placement games that have fallen flatter with me (I'm looking at you, Caylus). These games are about optimisation and efficiency. A large part of the brain-space they take up is associated with planning your own optimal set and sequence of actions, as evinced by the fact that these games often have playable solo versions. The worker placement mechanic serves as a pretence at interaction, artificially inserting someone else's plan in the way of yours. I find these games irritating. What pleasure there is comes from devising a good plan, only to have it disrupted, often unintentionally.

Now what about a game like Modern Art? Without the other players, there is no game. It's a system designed to be shared; in which everything you do is about predicting and manipulating your opponents. Or Ra? The very soul of the game is presenting the other players with difficult decisions. Isn't this what a board game should be about? If I wanted to play an optimisation game in which the other players fade into the background, wouldn't I be better off with a computer? That's what I wonder when playing something like Through the Ages, pushing another bead up another track before waiting ten minutes to take another turn.
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3. Board Game: Beowulf: The Legend [Average Rating:6.36 Overall Rank:2527]
Board Game: Beowulf: The Legend
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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Theme. Let's turn to the elephant in the room. Knizia is often criticised for churning out abstract mathematical games that have a theme pasted-on by the publisher to make them palatable to the public. In the case of some of his simpler games this is justified. The mechanics of Lost Cities have very little to do with exploration and no amount of pretty pictures is going to change that. But in general this criticism results from applying a different definition of theme to the one Knizia works with. Knizia seems uninterested in theme as simulation (one might even argue that simulation is inherently incompatible with elegance); but he excels at theme as suggestion. By which I mean that Knizia uses theme as a framework to give the game mechanics sense, and the game players a language to converse in. Beowulf: the Legend was derided for turning an epic poem into a series of auctions, but just stop for a minute and imagine what it would be like as a true abstract. Not much fun, huh.

But in the very best of Knizia's games, he goes even further. He actually expresses the theme directly in the mechanics. Again, look at Modern Art. It's a game about cynical dealers speculating in art of questionable worth. Does Knizia have to tell us that with awkward flavour text? No, he wrote it right into the scoring system. And as if by magic, the players start embodying the theme; talking up their shoddy painting, knowing full well that they intend to undercut the artist as soon as they've got it off their books.
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4. Board Game: Ra [Average Rating:7.48 Overall Rank:181]
Board Game: Ra
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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Risk management versus randomness. Another common complaint about Knizia's games it that they're 'too random'. People moan about their lack of red tiles in T&E or their unsuccessful risks in Beowulf. But they're missing the point. The thread that ties together so many of Knizia's best games is risk management. It's no coincidence that his day job before he became a full-time game designer was in investment banking. It's not randomness when you are given the tools to tame it, and when managing risk is the exact skill that the game demands. Let's look at Winner's Circle, seen by many as a lightweight luckfest. But there are all kinds of interesting things going on here. Do you want to back a high-volatility or low-volatility horse? What difference does it make if that horse starts from the front or the back? How best to spread your bets over a portfolio of horses, allowing you to do something useful whatever you roll? And what difference does it make where the other players chips are?
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5. Board Game: Winner's Circle [Average Rating:6.97 Overall Rank:870]
Board Game: Winner's Circle
Martin G
United Kingdom
Bristol
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Finally, and related to the last point, what I want most of all in a game is the capacity for surprise. It might be surprising the first time someone plays a card you've never seen before in Agricola, but it won't be the next time. But when you spend turns building up a kingdom in T&E, make a seemingly unstoppable attack and then have your opponent reveal five green tiles from behind their screen, that's something that you will laugh out loud about. I know I have friends who I could just say the word 'Regret' to and they'd remember the time that horse jumped from last place to first in Winner's Circle in the space of just two rolls; the first unwillingly forced at the end of a round, and the second delightedly applied at the beginning of the next. It might have ruined my position in that game, but it gave me a memorable experience. And that, above all, is what makes Knizia's games so amazingly replayable.
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