Knizia vs. K.622

I’m not usually a fan of cross-genre comparisons. I remember a few years back there was a GeekList aiming to associate boardgame designers with their classical composer analogues. I’m willing to play the game, if somewhat half-heartedly, when we’re talking Teuber or Knizia (I remember arguing without particular conviction for Knizia being kind of like Mozart), but when people start putting Martin Wallace and Franz Schubert into the same sentence, I rapidly lose interest.

Anyway, as some of you may be aware, I was at one point in my life – rather longer ago now than I like to admit – a clarinet player. In the last year or so, I’ve been practicing again, trying to get back in shape. I started out with the Concertino, by Carl Maria von Weber, primarily for nostalgic purposes; that was the piece with which I transitioned from being an average high school wind musician to being pretty good. Then the whole start-up thing kicked in, and I lost momentum. But I’ve recently been re-energized by Jasper Rees’ wonderful book A Devil to Play: One Man’s Year-Long Quest to Master the Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument (or “I Found my Horn: One Man’s Struggle With The Orchestra’s Most Difficult Instrument” for our UK friends; I always find these sorts of subtle title changes between the US and UK fascinating). The book helped me realize that if you’re really going to do this sort of thing when you’re 40, you don’t want to screw around with second-tier pieces. You want to go with the best. And for the clarinet, that would be Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, K.622 (Meyer) (Kam) (Stoltzman) (Marcellus), one of the greatest concertos ever written, for clarinet or any other instrument for that matter. After all, unlike Rees, I was able to competently perform the Adagio of that concerto 20 years ago, so surely the whole thing would be a worthy, and doable, goal.

So I picked up a CD with an orchestral accompaniment of the piece. I was reading the included two-page notes when I ran across this passage that I could swear that if I haven’t written, I should have:

“Here Mozart displays that most deceptive and difficult artistic feat, one that most lesser artists endlessly fail to achieve: that “less is more”. A lasting work of art does not entail showing off one’s talents, but rather capturing a subject’s psychological essence – it’s honesty – in as clear and simple a statement as possible. Mozart provides this again and again in so many of his compositions, and we are eternally surprised at his straightforwardness and lack of embellishment. And it is in this, his last concerto [the Clarinet Concerto, K.622], that Mozart’s “art of simplicity” possibly finds its finest expression.” – Douglas Scharmann, notes on the Clarinet Concerto in A Major, KV622, for Music Minus One

You swap out Mozart and replace it with Knizia, and replace Clarinet Concerto with Beowulf or Modern Art or Lost Cities, and this could almost be re-used word for word. I make no claim that Knizia’s genius is in the same league as Mozart’s – I’d give up my entire game collection before I gave up Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto alone – but still, that one could use almost identical language to describe their particular talents when compared to the artists that surround(ed) them, well, it’s rather striking.

My amazement can perhaps be understood a little better with some context. Although the notes never mention anything specific, when Scharmann says the Clarinet Concerto “lack[s] embellishment” this was probably written with later pieces, perhaps Carl Maria von Weber’s two challenging clarinet concertos (Meyer), in mind. Later composers would latch on to the clarinet’s agility as its most distinguishing feature, and write extremely technical pieces for it. The Nielsen concerto (Meyer) is legendary for having 5 fingerings that have to be hacked just on the first page. Many modern clarinet concertos are unplayable by any but elite professionals. Many concertos – including all of Mozart’s magnificent clarinet and horn concertos – are written with a specific performer in mind, and performers like to show off their technique, and for the clarinet, that often seems to mean the ability to play the notes fast. Performances of even the very musical Weber Concertino (Kam) evolved such that performers competed to play it faster and faster, past all reasonable bounds. Fortunately this is far less true today, but even so Charles Neidich, one of today’s finest clarinet players, plays it at a tempo fast enough to needlessly compromise the piece’s musical virtue (in my opinion) in his recording with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. Mozart, on the other hand, understands all the things that make the clarinet such a wonderful and versatile instrument: not only its agility, but its large range, its purity of sound, its expressiveness, its timbre that changes in each register, and its incredible dynamic range that allow it to play comfortably with any other instrument in the orchestra and has made it a staple soloist and performer in virtually any musical group, including orchestras, symphonic winds, chamber music, band, jazz, folk, klezmer, film soundtracks, and even popular music until everything had to be amped … once you start listening, you can start hearing the clarinet almost everywhere.

The topic of Mozart and his famous Clarinet Concerto is too vast to tackle in a blog. But for me, once considered, the parallels are so remarkable I feel little need to elaborate any further, and leave it up to you to explore.

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Municipium

Reiner Knizia’s and Valley Games’ Municipium is one of my favorite releases of 2008. It’s a classic recent Knizia game, reminiscent of Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, Tower of Babel, and Beowulf in its ability to cram so many interesting decisions and so much flavor into such a relatively small set of rules and a relatively short but high-intensity playing time.

When I think about the overwhelming majority of games, I think about them having a couple or a few distinct game systems that interact in interesting ways. Take Agricola: you’ve got game systems for growing crops and maintaining herds of animals and playing occupations, but those game systems interact only lightly, in the sense that you have limited actions to spend on one or the other, but your farm and your herds are managed separately.

In Municipium, there is a lot of stuff going on – competition for citizens, the Praefect, building special powers, and turn order – but everything interacts heavily with everything else, and it’s hard to pick out individual game systems. Even thought it might look like a worker placement or area control game, it’s not; it seems to me really just a single large system which has some elements of both.

Which leads me to what is my biggest problem with Municipium, and that is how to pitch it when people ask you what you want to play. Games are easier to pitch when they are like something. The classic example for me is Agricola, which to some people can be sold as “a lot like Caylus, but actually fun”. When a game fits into nice categories, like tile-laying or auction or negotiation or area-control, or more recently worker-placement or role-selection, it’s easy to sell. You can get 80% of the way there using a few words to describe the basic idea, and then talk about what makes the game unique or unusual (like Agricola’s asymmetric player positions and diversity of cards). This doesn’t work here.

Interestingly, I’ve decided that the best way to sell recent Knizia games like Blue Moon City, Beowulf, and Municipium is to go directly to the theme and not try to pitch mechanisms at all. After all, the large majority of gamers buy and play games for their themes, however expressed, not their mechanical workings. Even though these recent Knizias are fairly simple rules-wise, the mechanisms are too involved or ambiguous to explain in a brief pitch. Trying to sell Beowulf as an auction game is not the way to go, even though the central driver sort of looks like it might be an auction, and the same goes for selling Municipium as an area-control game. But if you describe it as influence-gathering in Imperial Rome, talk about influencing the citizens or the Praefect or going to the Baths to hobnob with the rich and powerful or the Tavern to get your opponents drunk, that’s something you can get traction with. And, helpfully, it’s what the game basically delivers.

Games, Theme, Lord of the Rings, and Lost Cities

So, a hypothetical question: Let’s say you’re a gamer, and you’re trying to decide whether you like a game or not (I know, I know, what are the odds?). Let’s also assume for the moment that games can be cleanly divided into two parts, theme and game-play. Which of these two halves is easier to get one’s head around?

The answer I would have given, prior to last year anyway, was that theme is easier. You can easily tell if a game is evoking a certain feel just from playing it, right? What’s so hard about that? It’s almost not even worth thinking too much about. Most game discussions seem to me to spend far, far more ink on game-play than on theme.

Or is it really as obvious as all that?

If you step back a bit and think about it, it seems otherwise everywhere else. Literature, for example. Take the Lord of the Rings, a perennial favorite of mine and, it seems, of many gamers. It’s easy to appreciate these books for their obvious craft: the use of language, the narrative flow, the easy and economical but exceptionally vivid characterization, the incredible attention to detail, the visceral struggle between good and evil. But to understand and appreciate the themes that run through the books requires digging deeper. What is the nature of the evil Tolkien is portraying? Is the Ring in itself a force of evil, or is it simply the power of it that corrupts even the stoutest of hearts? Tolkien uses the language of both, and that ambiguity in exploring the theme of good vs evil is what makes thinking about the book deeply rewarding, and gives the theme strength and subtlety beyond the Manichaeism traditional to fantasy. This is just one of the themes of the book that can be understood more fully only after appreciating the simple excitement of a well-told story.

And so it sometimes is with games, I’ve come to understand.

Take Reiner Knizia’s classic Lost Cities. For the couple readers who may not have played this game, here is a game-play summary: Lost Cities is played with what is essentially a 5-suited but otherwise standard deck of cards. On your turn, you must play a card on your side of the table, onto one of five columns, one for each suit. You can only play cards in ascending order; once you’ve played the 6, you can’t go back and play a 5. If you want to get that 5 out of your hand, you have to play it to the discard pile, but then your opponent can pick it up instead of drawing from the deck. At the end of the game your score is simply the sum of all the cards you’ve played in a column, minus 20. The face cards are not numeric, but are doublers: you have to play them before you play a numeric card, and they double your score for that suit (not always a good thing!).

Most players will be immediately struck by the constant, wrenching choices the game throws at you. There are rarely obvious plays; you might have a 2 to start an expedition with, but nothing to back it up, or a couple high cards and you have to decide whether to play them or hold them waiting to fill in some lower-valued cards. Figuring out where and what to play is never easy.

But is the game thematic? I think most players (including myself) would instinctively say no, it’s just another basically-abstract Knizia game with a theme of pretty pictures and nice presentation. The game gives you no sense of exploration or adventure. You’re just playing cards.

Well, maybe. But if you take a deeper look at the choices that drive the play of those cards, you discover that Lost Cities is a game of risk management. How risky is it to double an expedition given what you know about it so far, i.e., what cards you have in hand? Is it worth it to set out early and leave drawing the rest of the cards you need to chance, or do you want to wait and do more research, see what the draw deck gives you? Do you want to start an expedition which you know has a small risk of a negative score, but no chance of a big positive score, or do you take a risk on an expedition with a greater upside but also a greater downside?

Although I’ve never put together an expedition to a lost city personally, in my mind I imagine that it would be primarily an exercise in managing and mitigating risks – knowing when you’ve done all the preparation you can expect to do and it’s time to get going, or when there are too many unknowns and more preparation is required. Knowing which expeditions have good prospects and which don’t. And in the sense of getting right at that idea – of planning and managing risk – Lost Cities does, in fact, carry the theme wonderfully. And almost by definition this thematic success simply cannot be appreciated until you have fully grasped not just the rules, but all the subtle nuances of the game-play, and not just how to play but how to win.

So now I consider Lost Cities, along with a number of other Knizia games I hadn’t fully appreciated before, thematically compelling. It’s a different way of presenting a theme – not as visceral as being shot at in Battlestations or dodging incoming asteroids in Galaxy Trucker – but to me arguably every bit as successful.

This all came up recently because I played one of Knizia’s latest releases, Keltis. This is basically Lost Cities with room for 3 or 4 players, and a few additional touches – there are now bonus points for reaching certain checkpoints in the expeditions before the other players, which introduces a race element and makes the game-play even more exciting and interesting. Alas, we’ve lost the theme of expedition, replaced with generic Celtic art and no plausible thematic tie-in that I can discern. The game-play is still there, maybe even more interesting than it used to be, but I don’t see any theme to strengthen the story. Perhaps it’ll take another 6 or 7 years for me to have the aha! insight that illuminates this one. For the moment, though, if such things matter to you, you might want to wait for Rio Grande’s version of the game (Lost Cities: The Boardgame) which  sticks with the original expedition theme and hews more faithfully to the original card game.

War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age, Times Square

Unlike most people I suspect, what ultimately enabled me to pull the trigger on buying the new War of the Ring expansion was not to get at the new bits for the main War of the Ring game, but the new “operational” game they included using many of the same bits as the core game. Sure, I’m glad to have the upgrades for the core game, but since I wasn’t a huge War of the Ring fan I figured the maximum upside for me was modest: it would get War of the Ring onto the table for a few more plays. If there was any way the expansion was going to justify its non-trivial price tag for me, it was with the operational game.

First, let me say that anyone out there who was hoping that Nexus might have learned from the many graphic design foul-ups in War of the Ring (indistinguishable sculpts, ridiculously tiny font sizes, indistinct icons) will be disappointed. The design here is every bit as breathtaking in its blithe disregard for functionality or reason. Icons are tinier, less illuminating, and even more indistinguishable. For reasons that defy all logic recruitment counters specific to good guys and bad guys are all the same color. Relevant terrain on the board is still indistinct. The rulebook manages to make a game of just modest complexity almost completely incoherent. It all really is an amazing sight to behold, especially since the actual look of the board and many of the illustrations is so well-done. All that can be said is that the board itself is much more useable than War of the Ring’s, with spaces that are large enough for the units that will occupy them.

Anyway, enough with that already, how does the game play?

With possibly one big honking exception*, I rather like the core system of the Battles of the Third age game. In the main, the game plays very similarly to the core War of the Ring game (and for that reason if no other I think fans of the base game will find something to like here): you roll dice to see what actions are available to you (move, muster, draw cards, attack, etc.), combat involves rolling up to 5 dice with leader re-rolls, you’ve got some flavor provided by various dual-use event cards, you’ve got characters, armies, and so on. A number of complexities of the full game (Diplomacy, mainly) are gone, replaced by some more tactical concerns: the different types of units now have different flavors (finally!), damage in battle is more nuanced and can be repaired through rallying before units are actually lost, and the Shadow Player can select his “attitude”, from build-up (which allows recruitment and slows the pace of the “fate” clock which times the game) to a neutral position through all-out-offensive (which enables more troop movement but accelerates the clock).

Sounds interesting, right? Sure! Unfortunately, in actual play, this mix of stuff turns out to be bewildering, because there is almost no way for you to get any intuitive sense of what you should be doing. Should I be building up? Attacking right away? Trying to mix recruitment and offense? Who is going to be more effective, the Isengarders, Dunlendings, or Mordor Orcs? What is going on here, exactly? So much of the landscape of the game is hidden by the decks of event and action cards, the mix in the muster chits, and the expected mix of die rolls and fate tile draws, that it’s impossible to formulate a reasonable approach to the game without knowing the exact mix of cards and having a detailed knowledge of complex probabilities.

As a result, our games saw the Shadow Player soundly thrashed. These were not just garden-variety beatings, but total stuffings. Not just once, but back-to-back. Imagine ending a game of Settlers of Catan with 3 points, and that showing would feel more emotionally satisfying than what the Shadow Player has gone through in our games. The problem with a beating that bad is that it often leaves you with no comprehension of what has gone wrong, and that was the case here.

In the end, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age felt like a lot of American-style games: while there are lot of different options presented to the player, there is really only one way to play the game.** You need to figure out what that one way to play it is. Then it boils down to who can execute the pat strategies the most efficiently. The War of the Ring base game had similar issues, but it seemed less extreme: if you pursued some avenue other than what the game designer intended (or what the game design demanded) you would lose, but it at least it wouldn’t be the humiliating experience we have here.

As a result, this is one of the most incomprehensible and opaque games I’ve played in some time. I don’t think it’s exactly a bad game – I find many of the individual elements interesting in and of themselves, and many of the tactical decisions have some tension when viewed in isolation – but when taken as a whole the game is simply far too confusing for what you’re likely to get out of it. For what should be a fun roll-the-dice and mix-it-up game with obviously limited replayability, I don’t want to have to spend my first 3 games (at 3 hours or so each) just figuring out what the heck is going on. To me, it’s just not that interesting.

Now, War of the Ring: Battles of the Third Age may be incomprehensible and opaque, but designing such a game is child’s play when you’re willing to use 24+ pages of rules not written in the designer’s first language, a hundred cards, and one metric ton of plastic. Designing an incomprehensible and opaque game with one page of rules, a small board, and a simple deck of cards with no text is the work of a true master.

I admit to having no idea of what’s going on, game-wise, with Reiner Knizia’s Times Square. The basic idea is that you have various figures on the board: Sue and her two Bodyguards, Hal, and Deb. The pieces all have a matching suit of cards which move them in different ways and with different restrictions and have various effects on the other pieces. You’re trying to get them into your (sort of sleazy-looking) bar. You play through the deck twice, some stuff happens, and the game ends.

I can only imagine it’s Reiner’s further experiments in theories of game theme, as demonstrated dramatically by Beowulf. These characters actually have slightly more descriptive names, and they sort of behave in appropriate ways: Sauced, er, Saucy Sue staggers back and forth between the two bars, always surrounded by her bodyguards; Dancin’ Deb flits back and forth and allows the player who’s bar she is closest to to influence the motions of all the other pieces; and Handsome Hal moves in a more leisurely manner, and can attract other individual pieces to him. It all sort of makes sense in a thematic way that is sort of interesting, if still a little bit too abstract to be actually engaging.

The underlying game-play itself though is very strange, and I have yet to determine if there is any tension, any resource management, or any tactics. I’ve played about half-a-dozen times and I am suspicious that there is not – you just play whatever cards you’ve got and pick up some new ones. But, I say to myself, this is Reiner Knizia, not Michael Schacht. There must be something there. It’s rated as a “12 and up” game, for heaven’s sake!

As I say, bewildering.

* So what is that exception anyway? I’ve come to the conclusion that the real weak link in War of the Ring (and, by extension, the Battles of the Third Age expansion) is the action dice system itself. It is a fairly clever in concept, and I usually like dice, but when viewed in a holistic way I think they are ineffective here. They serve to constrain rather than enable. You have some idea of a strategy you want to pursue, but tactically you are too straightjacketed by what you end up rolling. Combinations of dice don’t suddenly open up interesting options that weren’t available before, although many combinations will prevent you from doing what you want. If they enabled uncertainty or excitement or an ability to bluff, that might be something – but they don’t, all dice rolls are open and can be seen by both players, so your opponent knows exactly when you have a lousy roll and how to hammer you for it. The Fellowship knows how dangerous it is to move, and can calculate the odds exactly, which seems very, very wrong.

In a large part because of this core system, both War of the Ring and Battles of the Third Age end up feeling to me like you’re wrestling with the game system, not with your opponent, which for me is not a good thing.

** For the record, the way to win as Saruman in the Rohan scenario appears to be the hyper-aggressive one. Use the “buildup” attitude for one turn, maybe two if you want to push things, then go all-out. locking into the “attack” attitude and never shifting. Any other approach appears to be dead on arrival, as we discovered.

*** Sorry for stealing your gimmick, Joe.

Ra vs. Beowulf: Smackdown

The challenger: Beowulf. Hero. Legend. Once swam in the stormy North Sea for five days – while carrying a sword in one hand and wearing chainmail. Tore demon-spawn Grendal apart with bare hands. Defeated Sea Hag in a day-long ordeal – underwater.

Reigning champion: Ra. Sun God.

Bets, anyone?

So, I had a chance to play both Ra and Beowulf in close proximity recently. Both are games that make my list of all-time classics. Both are auction games of a sort, although neither is straightforward as such (unlike, say, Modern Art or Medici). And both have had the same complaint leveled at them from time to time: they have too much luck. To what degree is this true? This is of particular interest to an auction game, because the fundamental, core issue that all auction games must wrestle with is not whether or not to have luck, but getting the impact of luck right. If we just auction off a lot of stuff clearly worth $15, that’s not very interesting (I bid $14.99!). But if there is uncertainty about how much each lot is worth, and factors that impact its worth that are random or concealed from the bidder (or known only to a subset of the bidders), then you get an interesting game – but one with some amount of luck. Getting the luck right, so that players feel that they are taking risks and not just being jerked around, is the key to success.

Interestingly, Ra and Beowulf use luck in almost totally divergent ways. In Ra, you know how much you’re bidding. You know how much the tiles are worth. But the flow of the game, what is going to become available for bid and the pace of those auctions, is random and rather fluid. In Beowulf, the lots available and the rate at which they come out are fixed and known to all. The variability is in the bids, and in what some of the lots (the scrolls) are actually worth. In Ra, you take a chance by holding out to see if something better becomes available. In Beowulf, you take a chance by pushing your luck with your bid.

The advantage of Beowulf’s luck is that it enables more long-term planning. By knowing, generally, what the future looks like but by taking a chance in the here and now, the game enables more factors to affect your immediate judgement, resulting in an evaluation process that must take into account a large number of factors. So, you take a risk knowing that the gold you may win will be quite valuable in the very near future to buy an All-Iron Shield that you can then use later against the Dragon; or you hold off knowing that the fight card will be more valuable later. Plus, by making the risks more numerous and more immediate, but less individually risky, there is more of an emotional charge on each one. The downside on each risk (getting kicked out of the auction with a scratch if you blow it) is rather significant but not severe, and the upsides of succeeding at any individual risk is modest (typically just one card), so it’s rare for an individual chance to be a game-breaker.

By contrast, in Ra the tension of each decision is more drawn-out. The decision to duck a bid, or to make a lot richer instead of auctioning, does not immediately reveal its brilliance or stupidity. If you crack now and buy a lot that does not have a Civilization tile, hoping you can get one later, the ultimate result of that risk may take the entire rest of the round to fully play out. Ra’s risks tend to be more nuanced than Beowulf’s “in or out” risks, and while the risks in Ra are unlikely to have immediate painful effects the way they can in Beowulf, you are also sometimes confronted with game-breaking risks (especially when the number of Ra tiles available before the end of the round grow short) that there really isn’t much way to properly assess other than by raw gut feel. If you take a risk and get cut off by the end of the round, ultimately acquiring nothing, this is likely to be a far more severe blow than any risk Beowulf could have hammered you with.

So, what does all this mean? I think luck becomes frustrating and problematic when it’s high-stakes, and when there isn’t a lot you can do to affect it. I think this sort of thing manifests itself differently in Beowulf and Ra.

In Beowulf, it’s not really a systemic problem per se, but because the odds of a risk succeeding are in the 50-60% range, you can see odd stuff in occasional late-game auctions when the downsides of a scratch can become negligible. It’s very frustrating to have set yourself up for a win in the Dragon’s Rampage episode, only to see a competitor take it away by succeeding in risk after risk because he’s in a position where risking has no downside for him (because one additional scratch isn’t going to matter at this point), and because he keeps getting lucky. It doesn’t happen a lot, because the situation where the one scratch isn’t going to make any difference and where the player succeeds in 5+ risks in a row are obviously fairly rare. And it’s likely to happen only the Dragon’s Rampage episode; timely play of the All-Iron Shield will tend to knock out gratuitous riskers in the final battle. But when it happens – wow, it’s frustrating. For the person on the receiving end, it’s like watching a car wreck.

In Ra, I think the negative impact of luck can be more systemic, and is related to the end-of-round, high-stakes, game-breaking type risks. If you have strong bid tiles, and if small auctions are coming up rapid-fire, and if the end-of-round is coming up quickly, you can end up facing a situation where you and one other player are dueling, trying to get a decent lot, while risking getting hosed by the end of the round. In this situation, through bad luck one of the two player can really get hammered. Obviously, how objectionable this is, is going to be decided by how often a player is caught between the bag and the end of the round.

With 3 players, I think Ra is brilliantly balanced, and this issue seems to hardly ever occur – if you’re picking blind at the end with tight time pressure, or if two players are staring at each other with a 12 and a 13 sun and playing chicken, it seems to be your own fault most likely. Almost all rounds will still end with the clock running out, but players are rarely shut out. But as the numbers of players increase, your turn frequency (and thus your control over events) goes down, and the length of the rounds does not increase proportionally to the number of players. So time pressure gets tighter, your ability to have an impact on the flow of events decreases, you get smaller (and therefore significantly more random) lots, and your susceptibility to the hand of fate increases quite a bit.

As a result, I think the impact of luck in 5-player Ra is much greater than in any version of Beowulf. That is to say, players are going to feel jerked around more frequently, at the expense of feeling like they were just knowingly taking a risk and happened to blow it. Beowulf seems to be scaled much more cleanly for the full range of players, while Ra is definitely a very different game with 3 or with 5 (I consider it possibly the greatest 3-player game ever, while I think it’s just a good game with 5). But Beowulf is a lucky game too, and the endgame auctions, where the one-scratch downside of risking in late-game auctions can sometimes be an insufficient deterrent to reckless risking, can sometimes play out in a way that isn’t particularly satisfying.

So when it comes to auction games, Ra and Beowulf are going to have to call it a draw I think (Beowulf is way ahead of Ra on theme, but that’s a discussion for a different day). I think 5-player Beowulf is much less lucky and has more player control and less frustration than 5-player Ra, but the sheer brilliance and perfect balance of 3-player Ra I think has to be judged to slightly outshine Beowulf, due to the latter’s minor faltering (which can sometimes result in frustrating runs of luck) in the late-game competitions.

Let me put it this way, though: if my collection could only include 5 German-style games, there is a strong possibility it would include both Ra and Beowulf.

Beowulf: The Legend

So… Beowulf.

This is a big-box, 12 and up game from Reiner Knizia. It’s published by Kosmos and Sophisticated Games, the folks who brought us Knizia’s classic Lord of the Rings game back in 2000. It’s illustrated by legendary Tolkien artist John Howe. All fairly promising indicators.

The players take on the roles of companions to Beowulf. The goal is to support him as he whacks Grendel, hunts for and takes down the Sea Hag, performs various and sundry activities of ruling Geatland, and faces off with a Dragon. At the end of the day, the companion who gained the most fame at Beowulf’s side will prevail and succeed him.

Beowulf is both superficially and fundamental similar to and different from Lord of the Rings. Like Lord of the Rings, it’s episodic; the players encounter episodes from the story in order, and have to deal with them by playing cards that represent travelling, fighting, guile, and so on. But the game is not cooperative; players commit to, profit from, and/or get hammered by events individually. Beowulf, like Lord of the Rings, is fundamentally about card and risk management – like Lord of the Rings, you want the right resources available at the right time to succeed, sometimes taking a risk now to conserve resources for later, or spending heavily now to avoid an immediate risk. Unlike Lord of the Rings, the risks and benefits are to you personally, not the group, and Beowulf is never in danger of not making it past Grendel, and can never survive the encounter Dragon – you are just in danger of personal failure. Have a nice day.

So how does this card and risk management play out? Your hand of cards is in 5 suits, each representing the aforementioned personal abilities. The episode track is, in the main, a series of auctions, each in one or two of these suits – so defeating Grendel requires Fighting and Valor, for example. Players bid cards from their hand for the rewards available; it can be either open bidding or hidden, simultaneous bids. Then, in decending order of bids, players choose their rewards – the high bidders get fame, treasure, more cards, or special powers, among other things. Low bidders may get either less of these things, or they may get the always popular flesh wound, or even better a severe blow to the head. These auctions are then interspersed with more fixed opportunities, where everyone can heal, draw more cards, acquire various resources, and so on.

The neat thing that throws a monkey wrench into the auctions are risks. Don’t have what you need to get the job done? Facing down the Sea Hag without an axe? You can always throw your body into it. Pick two cards from the deck; if they are valid bid cards, you play them, and may get to stay in the auction. Fail, and you are out of the auction (and so may be lined up for more penalties), and take a scratch in the bargain. The scratch is not in and of itself painful. Three scratches, though, and they convert to a wound, and you’re out 5 points. Three wounds, and you’re looking down an immense end-of-game penalty that will effectively take you out of the game. There are many opportunities to heal scratches, but wounds are much harder to get rid of.

This whole push-your-luck mechanism is what makes the game, and keeps it from being “just another” Knizia auction game. Firstly, flipping cards knowing the risks and with the auction on the line is fun. Secondly, it adds a lot of interesting tactical risk management decisions to the auctions. This is classic Knizia – it seems so simple when you first look at it, and seems like just a random element, and yet without fanfare it adds a lot of depth and interest to the game. Do you risk early in the bidding, knowing you’ll need to pick up a few symbols to get the result you want, and so conserve your cards if you fail, but risk getting kicked out of the auction early and scoring 5th place? Or do you try hanging in there by playing cards for as long as possible, thereby limiting the risk you’ll come in last, but perhaps spending a lot of cards inefficiently for a middling place? Is it worth it at all to risk now for this auction, or should you just bail? How important is it to get 2 Fame instead of 2 Gold?

To win, you’re going to have to do a fair amount of risking. The key is to risk when the downsides are low, and avoid finding yourself in the position of being forced to risk when you can’t afford to. Risk early, at non-critical auctions, and you quickly pick up a couple scratches. With two scratches, your options become badly constrained until you can heal, because a wound will likely costs you points and be hard to get rid of. On the other hand, at the end of the game, when you’re facing down the Dragon, you don’t want to be forced to risk to pick up the fight cards you need to avoid the brutal double-wound for last place – you want to have the cards in hand, to have done your risking earlier, when the downsides were smaller and could have been mitigated.

If I were to evaluate this solely as an auction game, Beowulf would get very high marks. Like in Ra, you’re doing all this bidding with stuff that has no inherent value – 5 different types of cards plus the occasional cash auction. Each auction is very different, with both different things up for auctions and different spreads, with some offering modest upsides for everyone but no downsides, and some having major upsides and major penalties. Additionally you have risks, which are probabilistic. You’re bidding for Fame sometimes, but most of the time you’re bidding some resources to pick up other resources, and to avoid penalties. Almost nothing in the game can be easily or concretely evaluated, so you’re making constant judgement calls about what is worth how much, how much extra it’s worth spending to get 5VP instead of the “negate one failed risk” card, and how far to push your luck. Even in Ra, which I consider a masterpiece, you can sometimes run the numbers to see exactly how many points a set of tiles is worth to various players; in Beowulf, everything is a judgment call.

But Beowulf goes beyond Ra by adding strategic planning. You know what’s coming up, generally. You know you’re going to have to fight the Dragon at some point; this both adds even more difficulty to figuring out how much a fight card is worth, and also gives you a chance to make trade-offs (should I bid it now or chance a risk and save it for later?) and plan ahead. In this sense it’s very similar in feel to Taj Mahal; but while Taj Mahal is a personal favorite, it can be a bit opaque and unforgiving, while Beowulf is much more intuitive.

Beowulf also goes beyond Ra in giving us a good theme. Sure, maybe auctions don’t really reflect how Beowulf’s companions were thinking, but as you go down the track, and have to spend appropriate resources for appropriate rewards, the theme works. It’s not Republic of Rome or Dune, but by the standards of euro games, it’s rather good.

Beowulf is Knizia doing what he does best – an auction game, but one with depth, and variety, and fun, and like Lord of the Rings, wedded to a good theme (ably assisted by some wonderful John Howe artwork). You’re faced with constant, real decisions. There is no downtime to speak of. Player skill is very important, but it has just the right amount of randomness to be fun, to mix things up a bit, and to give the game a sense of risk. Hacienda and Elasund were both quite good, but Beowulf is comfortably my pick for the best of Essen.

Amun-Re

Starting back around the release of Taj Mahal, maybe even as early as Ra, new Knizia big-box games started being treated with increasing skepticism by the “serious gamers” in the online crowd. I had to take to task the early adopters on rec.games.board who found nothing new of interest in Ra. I loved Taj Mahal, but found only a few takers at The Gathering when it was new, and those who I played with were unimpressed and generally unenthusiastic.

This sort of thing is easy to chuckle about in retrospect (and eBay prices on Taj Mahal and Ra seem to have borne out my point of view). Amun-Re got more or less the same treatment – “Another Knizia auction game? How many times can he do this?”. I was again surprised, not least because Amun-Re isn’t really an auction game. I think of it as a cash management or economic game. While I don’t think of Amun-Re as an enduring classic like the best of Knizia, I still like it quite a bit.

There is, however, a dark side to my fondness for the game. Prior to my recent plays, I figured there was depth to it – it’s a Knizia big-box game after all, and it certainly has the trappings of a deep game – but I didn’t have actual personal experience of its depth.

You see, before this, I had almost always won at Amun-Re, even though I am traditionally not very good at cash management games. I credit this not to superior skill or intellect, but to the fact that while I have played a number of times, I have almost always played with people with little or no experience with the game. There are lots of different elements to the scoring, and it’s easy enough not to grasp the relative importance of everything (almost everyone I’ve played with has missed the significance of the “most pyramids” awards their first game, a major chunk of points). Since figuring out complicated scoring systems is something I am usually good at, against inexperienced players I could usually win just because I understood, generally, the weight of the various scoring opportunities. Since this fairly basic level of play was usually enough to win or do well, I was never forced to evolve and seriously delve into the subtleties of the game. I could see that they were there, but I didn’t have to work them out.

So it was nice to finally get to play Amun-Re a couple times on back-to-sessions recently. The first time, I won by my usual approach of going all-out in the first scoring round to get the 5-point most-pyramid bonuses. The problem then becomes that when you play with smart people, they tend to learn. The second game did not go at all well. I came in a distant last. So I started to think about some of the big questions in this game for which I had always thought, “yeah, that’s interesting”, but never really had to come up with any answers to.

One strategic question in Amun-Re has always been, how much of a cash buffer do you want to retain from round-to-round and epoch-to-epoch? Having a cash reserve is obviously good – if others haven’t saved, you can pick up prime provinces comparatively cheaply and have money at critical sacrifice auctions. You can build pyramids where they are more likely to do some good, and generally invest your money when the overall picture is clearer. Having cash at the beginning of the second epoch, when all of a sudden provinces are much richer (and more varied) at the same time as income is drying up, is obviously good. The downside, of course, is that buying things in bulk late is prohibitively expensive and it’s better to buy farmers and power cards earlier so they can pay off for longer.

In the past I usually spent all my available cash each turn, building up a reserve only occasionally, and it’s always worked for me. But this is clearly not the right approach; Kim won the second game by curtailing her spending and investing only when the returns looked promising. Did I mention this was a Knizia game? I never seriously thought that just spending all your cash as soon as you got it was really going to be the best way to approach the game, but it’s nice to have it proven that it’s not.

Many of the subtleties to the game are tied up with the properties of the different provinces, in a loop between farmer slots, the harvest auction, and cash. While the goods available in return for sacrificing are valuable, the impact this has on how much money the farmers make is also quite significant. If you have lots of farmers, you can bid aggressively for the harvest, knowing it’ll have the side effect of making your farmers more valuable; contrarily, a player who has no farmers will find it difficult to justify bidding high even when it would be otherwise desirable, and so will have to manage expenses more carefully. Of course, if you’ve spent a lot of money on farmers, you probably don’t have a lot left over! Since this is a cash management game, your choices (or non-choices) with respect to evaluating the fixed-income provinces, farmers, and trade routes which primarily dictate your income are critical to the game.

I’ve mentioned that Amun-Re is a cash management game several times now, and I think that’s the key to appreciating it. Many Knizia games have tactical depth that grows on you as you play: Taj Mahal has techniques for when to block and when to dodge the player to your right; in Modern Art you learn in what circumstances to use the different types of auctions; in Tigris & Euphrates you learn to recognize when you can use your destruction tiles to break up empires; in Ra you learn to manage the tempo of the game; in Samurai you learn the techniques for playing the bonus tiles. Amun-Re, it seems to me, has surprisingly few of these tactical details – it’s all about evaluating the worth of complex assets. Everything you might want to purchase – the farmers, the bricks, the power cards, the provinces – has a value that depends on what you’ve already got, what’s available, what everyone else has, your own and your opponent’s current and future cash flow situation, and so on. This is evaluation on a level that makes Ra look like straightforward. The players who can figure out what everything is worth will do well.

Hopefully, I’ll do a better job next time.