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The “Great” Debate

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The excellent Michael Barnes recently conducted an excellent interview with game designer Reiner Knizia. He’s widely regarded as one of the best game designers ever, but his stock has gone up and down around these parts. Currently, it’s up: something I didn’t realise when I waded in to offer a contrary opinion.

The response begs an interesting question: what do we mean when we say “best” in this context? What qualifies a designer for an epithet of “great”?

I’m in a poor position to judge, having designed one godawful game in my entire life, which has never seen the light of day. But as a critic, I’m supposed to offer opinion on such things. So here we go.

What’s always impressed me most about new designs is creativity. Board gaming is inherently limited by the things you can do with card and wood, metal and plastic. It’s straitjacketed by thousands of years of human tradition which leads us to expect games to look and play a certain way. Breaking away from these strictures as the massive weight of cultural expectation bears down on you must be unbelievably hard.

Genre-shattering designs are correspondingly rare. Genre-shattering designers, who manage the feat regularly, are even more so. And by that measure, Knizia doesn’t measure up.

One of the moments when conventions got splintered to pieces was the mid-nineties when early German-style games hit the UK and America. These games are great games: great then, and still great now. Titles like Settlers of Catan and El Grande were like nothing we’d ever seen before. Their designers were rightly celebrated for that achievement, although they’ve not hit such heights again.

Knizia was not quite a part of that moment. He rode on its coat tails, with his best games appearing in the late nineties. That shows in his designs. Lost Cities and Battle Line are clear Rummy variants. Samurai and Through the Desert trace obvious lines of descent to classic abstracts. Modern Art and Medici are just fancy auctions.

This trend, of taking tried and tested mechanics and twisting them into interesting new shapes, is almost a hallmark. It takes a lot of skill, and Knizia has more skill than most. What it doesn’t take is a lot of creativity.

You could also argue that he’s almost earned himself black marks against innovation by using his immense talents to churn out cookie-cutter games. His output is prodigious, focused on the German family market with titles few of us will have heard of, let alone played. But far too many look a lot like re-skinned or tweaked versions of his existing games. That’s surely the opposite of creativity.

His cleverest inventions, to my mind, are his Egyptian games Ra and Amun-Re. They contain the seeds of genius. But I’m not sure two clever titles qualifies a designer for the innovation hall of fame.

His most celebrated title is Tigris and Euphrates. It’s not a design I’d say was particularly creative, owing a huge debt to common abstracts. It’s also not a game I enjoy particularly, although I can see why people do. It’s a strong, lean and deep design one could play many times and still not master.

Which leads us on to another consideration. What if you don’t measure a designer by their creativity, but by a simpler measure: how much people enjoy their games?

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Here, the good doctor is on much firmer ground. He’s got eight games in the boardgamegeek top 200, a spectacular feat considering that they’re older titles in a list which favours newness and celebrity. Some of those games, particuarly Battle Line and Ra, belong to that rare category of games that offer joy to almost everyone.

So I’m guessing that fun is the criteria people are using when they talk about Knizia being a great designer. One could argue, again, that his vast output of mediocre titles should be set against this highlights, but perhaps that’s a churlish attitude.

What’s more troubling is that some of his more popular games are amongst his most tedious. Samurai and Through the Desert strike me as humorless, boring games that would be better played against a machine than a fellow human being. The fact that these are celebrated would once have seemed to some as evidence of everything that was wrong with gaming. It still does to me, but it seems I’m now in a minority.

I’d argue, though, that creativity is simply a better measure of greatness. It’s rarer, for starters. Since that mid-nineties explosion of German brilliance I’d say there are perhaps three people who’ve shown it regularly. They are Martin Wallace, Rob Daviau and the incomparable Vlaada Chvatil.

On the other side, of that triumvirate, it’s only Chvatil who’s regularly put out games that are both creative and fun. Daviau’s designs are often packed with fresh imaginative ideas, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Wallace perfected the art of bringing balance to highly interactive and non-random games, but his titles can be dry and heavy beyond endurance.

And this is where Dr. Knizia earns his stripes. Not as the most creative designer ever, nor as the most fun, but as someone who’s struck a beautiful balance of the two with so many of his games. When you step back there are remarkably few designers whose work is almost always worth your time in some way or other. I still think Vlaada is top of that heap. But Knizia wins a deserved second.

Five Tribes Review

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There are lots of heavy strategy games that make me feel like a bad player. There are even a few that make me feel like a bad person for decieving and manipulating my way to victory. Five Tribes is the first game that made me feel like a bad reviewer. Because, even after many games, I can’t quite make up my mind how I feel about it.

The design itself doesn’t help. It feels like designer Bruno Cathala poured a random assortment of mechanics into a pestle, ground it up, and put the fragments into a box. There’s still identifiable chunks of games like Mancala, Carcassonne and even Cyclades in there. But there’s also a lot of dust that feels familiar, yet annoyingly elusive.

It’s a pretty tasty mix, though.

Players make a grid of randomly assorted tiles, then drop three randomly coloured meeples on each one. On a turn you grab all the meeples from one tile and drop them, one by one, on a series of linked tiles, Mancala style. The last tile has to have a meeple matching the one left in your hand, and you collect all the meeples of that colour from the tile and remove them from the game.

If the tile is now empty, you get to own it and add its victory points to your total. Then you get an action, depending on the colour of your last meeple and another depending on an icon on the tile. It’s mainly more victory points. Sometimes you collect green resource cards which you sort into sets for points. Sometimes you get bonus points by adding things to the tile, or scoring adjacent tiles. Sometimes you can control an extra tile by eliminating a lone meeple there.

It sounds confusing, and it is: I’ve had terrible trouble explaining the rules. The trouble is exacerbated by an awful rulebook that’s spawned Q&A threads all over the web. Yet it’s not a difficult game to grasp. Everyone will have it mastered by the end of a single game.

The genius of the game is that the chimeric mechanics interlock to deliver an experience that works on multiple levels. At first it looks like a matter of identifying likely tiles to control and grabbing them before anyone else by outbidding them in the turn-order auction. Failing that, you just maximise your points through meeple and tile actions.

As you play, however, layers upon layers reveal themselves, until it starts to feel like it’s varicoloured meeples all the way down. You start to plan moves that won’t leave your opponents with easy control targets. Then you begin to grab useful looking cards before them, trying to work out the cost benefit ratio of who might own what. Before you know it, you’re caught up in an agonising web of what might happen with every single meeple you drop from your sweaty fist onto the board.

And at that point, you’re in trouble.

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A lot’s been made of the potential Five Tribes has for crossing over the boundary and appealing to casual and hardcore gamers alike. All those layers are the reason why. But I don’t buy into this analysis at all, for two reasons.

First, with all those hidden depths, hardcore gamers can’t play with casual players at all. If someone’s going to sit and pick over the strategic bones of every turn, they’ll wipe their opponents off the tile-based board with ease. That’s not going to be fun for anyone else, and that’s no worthwhile family game at all.

Second, working through all the options takes an age. Five Tribes is, from certain angles, a honey trap for analysis paralysis players, sucking them in with a sweetly accessible surface, then ensaring them in the strategic pits beneath.

There’s nothing wrong with a well-designed heavy game, of course. It’s just that when played like this, Five Tribes becomes boring. The game state changes massively each turn, so you can’t plan in advance. That exacerbates the issue, of course, because it makes individual turns longer. You’ll want to grab the AP gamers at the table and suffocate them with the black cloth bag that the game provides to keep meeples in.

Also, everything about the game screams to me that it wasn’t every supposed to be played that way. There’s some neat player interaction mechanics to keep things a bit loose and trashy. The best examples are the genies, cards you can buy on certain tile actions that give you a victory point bonus and a special power. Some of these are really neat, like taking control of empty tiles, or taking away some of your opponent’s collected meeples. It feels like it ought to be a light, fun family game with enough moving parts to appeal to hobbyists. Of which it is, in fact, a magnificent example, as long as you can keep things moving.

That sense is deepend by the presentation of the game. Wooden meeples are passe nowadays, but most of the other stuff is great. Chunky palm trees, golden palaces and vibrant artwork on the genie and resource cards. The player colours are soft pastels, including pink. So there are pastel pink camels in the game, which I presume is a tribute to through the desert.

Five Tribes is great family game with hidden depths which, in turn, sucks hobby gamers into an inviting pit of paralysis which can ruin the game. I can’t make head nor tail of that conundrum, and that’s what makes me a bad reviewer. I had a blast playing the game with family and friends. We enjoyed the fine blend of mechanics, the little bit of interaction and teetering dangerously on the edge of the abyssal depths. So I guess the final judgement is, if you’re going to play Five Tribes, choose your friends – and your genies – wisely.