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Subject: [rec.games.board] "German" game FAQ

This article was archived around: Thu, 2 Jan 2003 16:34:55 -0600

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THE REC.GAMES.BOARD 'GERMAN' GAME FAQ v4.1 (c) 2000, 2001, 2003 by Keith Ammann QUESTIONS 1. What are "German" games? What are "family strategy" games? 2. What characterizes a "German" game? 3. Which ones should I get? 3a. A friend introduced me to ___. Will I like ___? 4. Where can I find them? 5. What is the Spiel des Jahres? What is the Deutscher Spielepreis? 6. What does that name mean? How is it pronounced? 7. Why Germany? 8. Hey! I bought this game you told me to buy, and the rules are in German! 9. Where can I learn more? ANSWERS 1. What are "German" games? What are "family strategy" games? They're pretty much the same thing. "German" games are a genre of board and card games that has recently become popular in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and elsewhere after years of popularity in Europe. They are commonly called "German" games because most of them -- including the ones by which many players have been introduced to the genre -- are designed and produced in Germany. However, some "German" games come from France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom or the United States. In its end-of-year roundup, Games magazine refers to most games in this genre as "family strategy," which sums up these games' hybrid nature and crossover appeal. In response to some dissatisfaction with the "German" label, a poll was taken in 2001 on rec.games.board in which "family strategy" and "designer" were favored as leading alternatives. The term "designer" was suggested because it alludes to the prominence of these games' designers and also connotes quality, attractiveness and a "connoisseur" market. Neither "designer games" nor the only other strong finisher in the poll, "social strategy games," has been widely accepted, and "family strategy" has seen little use outside Games magazine. "German" has become cemented as the default term. 2. What characterizes a "German" game? "German" games are defined by what they aren't almost as much as by what they are. They aren't simplistic, as are many games produced for the U.S. mass market. They are not rules-heavy, as are many games produced for the U.S. hobby market, nor do they take an inordinately long time to play. They are not military simulations, owing in part to Germany's post-World War II stigma against militarism in popular culture. As for what they are: They are attractive, with a lot of attention paid to quality of components and graphic design. They are accessible, with rulebooks that top out around six pages and typical playing times of 30 to 90 minutes. They are easily grasped by older or smarter children. They are involving, both strategically (there are always decisions to be made) and socially (players are not left out of the action when it's someone else's turn). They contain unusual and innovative play mechanisms. And they're also expensive and hard to find compared with American mass-market games, largely because they haven't been widely promoted or distributed outside a core community of hobby gamers and the rec.games.board newsgroup. Finally, they're credited. That is, the designer's name is printed on the box and is often a selling point. This is in contrast with most games on the U.S. market, for example, whose designers either remain anonymous or are buried in the back of the rulebook. 3. Which ones should I get? Depends on your tastes and your budget. Here is a selection of the most popular family strategy games (most of which happen to come from Germany), based on Aaron Fuegi's Internet Top 100 Games List (scv.bu.edu/~aarondf/top100). That list is not (and is not intended as) an objective description of the relative quality of various games, but it is a good indicator of which games are most popular within the gaming hobby -- that is, among the people who play these games and know them well. Prices given are U.S. suggested retail. * Settlers of Catan (Die Siedler von Catan). By Klaus Teuber. Mayfair (U.S.), Kosmos (Germany). $35. If any game can claim to have singlehandedly opened the international market to German games, it's this one. It's simple enough to learn by watching others play, complex enough to pump up its replay value. The object: Outpace your opponents at settling a (formerly) uninhabited island by gathering, trading and consuming commodities (wood, bricks, stone, grain and -- this is the stroke of genius -- sheep!). The board is made up of illustrated cardboard hexagons that can be rearranged for a new experience every time. Several expansions are available, the most popular of which is Seafarers (Seefahrer, $35), which lets you move around from island to island. * Puerto Rico. By Andreas Seyfarth. Rio Grande (U.S.), Alea (Germany). $35. A relative newcomer, this title took the gaming community by storm almost as soon as it was released. It takes a long time to set up, and there are a lot of different things going on once you get started, but Puerto Rico stands out because of its elegance, high degree of player involvement and variety of possible winning strategies. Players earn victory points by colonizing the island of Puerto Rico, planting crops and selling them and developing the capital city of San Juan. During each round, each player chooses an action to take place -- planting, selling or shipping goods, bringing in more colonists, etc. -- and receives a related bonus. Timing is crucial. * Tigris & Euphrates (Euphrat & Tigris). By Reiner Knizia. Mayfair (U.S.), Hans im Glück (Germany). $50. This is the upper end of the genre with regard to complexity and length of playing time, but it was praised by many as the most strategically sophisticated until Puerto Rico came along. The object: Triumph over your neighbors as you sow the seeds of civilization in the fertile crescent. Victory is determined by your ability to accumulate points in four different categories at once -- whoever has the highest lowest score wins! E&T is what's known as a "tile-laying game," meaning that one of the elements of play is the placing of tiles on the board. Knizia is probably the single most popular German game designer; he is certainly one of the most prolific. His game Samurai (Rio Grande/Hans im Glück, $40), set in feudal Japan, shares the mechanisms of tile-laying and multiple-category scoring. * Princes of Florence (Die Fürsten von Florenz). By Wolfgang Kramer and Richard Ulrich. Rio Grande (U.S.), Alea (Germany). $35. In contrast with the soloist Knizia, Kramer is known as a prolific collaborator. In this gorgeous game, players represent renaissance patrons trying to gain prestige by attracting great thinkers and artists to their estates. Auctions are a popular mechanic in German games; in Princes of Florence, each round (there are seven altogether) consists of an auction phase and an action phase. In the former, players bid on the amenities that inspire the thinkers and artists to create great works; in the latter, players pay fixed prices to introduce freedoms and construct buildings, then try to recoup their investments as the works are completed. The same design team is responsible for ... * El Grande. Rio Grande (U.S.), Hans im Glück (Germany). $40. El Grande is the earliest of a number of games involving the distribution of pieces around the board for the purpose of amassing "influence." The object: To curry favor with the king in medieval Spain. To gain influence, you have to get soldiers ("caballeros") onto the board. But the system for bidding on action cards, which allow you to pull various stunts in the hopes of gaining the upper hand, poses a dilemma: The more likely you are to get the action card you want, the fewer caballeros you can raise. In addition, a movable pawn representing the king freezes the action wherever it's placed, because you can't let the king see what connivers you all are! There are also several El Grande expansions, which Rio Grande sells in the United States as one $25 set. * Carcassonne. By Klaus-Jergen Wrede. Rio Grande (U.S.), Hans im Glück (Germany). $20. This uncomplicated game combines influence-building with the laying of square landscape tiles in a domino-like fashion. Players place tiles featuring roads, fields, walled cities and cloisters next to other matching tiles, then place pawns to control the various landscape features. But the number of pawns is limited, and a pawn cannot be reused until its road or city is completed or its cloister is surrounded, at which point the controlling player collects points and takes back his pawn. Pawns placed in fields are not taken back and score no points until the end of the game. Players do not get to choose their tiles -- every one is drawn at random, individually, at the start of a player's turn. Though basic in its rules, Carcassonne offers many opportunities for tricky tactical plays. An expansion set ($12) adds a variety of interestingly configured new tiles. * Citadels. By Bruno Faidutti. Fantasy Flight (U.S.), Hans im Glück (Germany). $20. Faidutti, a Frenchman, is known for developing light, fast-moving games. Citadels is the least light and runs the longest of all his games, but it's still lighter than many other "German" games yet just as sophisticated. Each turn, players choose from a selection of stylized heroic figures (a king, a magician, a merchant, a bishop, an assassin, etc.), keeping their identities secret. Each role provides a certain special ability, such as trading cards, collecting extra money or causing another player to lose a turn. Meanwhile, each player races to put up eight buildings in his own city. But being first doesn't guarantee victory: The player with the most valuable city takes the prize. * Vinci. By Philippe Keyaerts. Descartes/Eurogames. $30. This is about as close to a theme of military conflict as "German" games get -- then again, its designer is Belgian, and its publisher is French. The object: Gain the most points by expanding your fledgling nations and conquering their neighbors. The plural is important there, because as soon as it's obvious that a nation can grow no further, it's thrown on the scrapheap of history and replaced by a new one. * Modern Art. By Reiner Knizia. Mayfair (U.S.), Hans im Glück (Germany). $30. Another of the "first wave" German games (along with Settlers), Modern Art is built around an ingenious auction mechanism. The object: Make a pile of dough by buying and selling works by several pretentious painters. But you have to judge whether you'll make more money by collecting the works of a popular artist and cashing in on them or by being the one who sells them at outrageous speculative prices. A fast-moving game with a lot of appeal for "non-gamers." * Bohnanza. By Uwe Rosenberg. Rio Grande (U.S.), Amigo (Germany). $15. The object: Make money by raising and selling different kinds of beans. Since you have to plant them in the order you get them, you have to trade off the ones that are getting in the way of your profits. Sometimes, to avoid premature harvest of potentially valuable bean fields, you have to offer your opponents incentives to take the unwanted beans off your hands! Bohnanza is very easy to learn and play, making it another favorite among non-hobbyists. (The name is a pun on the German word for "bean.") These are the "stars," but there are many, many other popular and easily obtainable family strategy games, including Through the Desert (Knizia, Fantasy Flight/Kosmos, $38), Taj Mahal (Knizia, Rio Grande/Alea, $40), Medici (Knizia, Rio Grande/ Amigo, $30), Ra (Knizia, Rio Grande/Alea, $35), Tikal (Kramer and Michael Kiesling, Ravensburger, $35), Torres (Kramer/Kiesling, Ravensburger, $40), Acquire (Sid Sackson, Avalon Hill, $40), La Città (Gerd Fenchel, Rio Grande/Kosmos, $40), Löwenherz (Teuber, Rio Grande/Goldsieber, $40) and Web of Power (Michael Schacht, Rio Grande/Goldsieber, $30). 3a. A friend introduced me to ___. Will I like ___? "German" game designers shamelessly pillage mechanisms from both their own games and others'. This results in a number of games' having a similar feel. If you like the feel of one game, you may enjoy another that shares the same mechanisms. Here's a sampling of games that can be considered members of the same "family": Settlers of Catan, Settlers of Catan: The Card Game, Settlers of Nuremberg, Starfarers of Catan Torres, Tikal, Java, Mexica Tigris & Euphrates, Through the Desert, Samurai Medici, Quandary, High Society El Grande, Carolus Magnus Puerto Rico, Princes of Florence, Citadels Reibach & Co., Freight Train Tikal, Fossil, Ra, Time Pirates El Grande, Ra, Aladdin's Dragons Manhattan, Big City, Acquire Chinatown, Rette Sich Wer Kann, Bohnanza, Quo Vadis If this approach strikes you as high-risk (and well it may, given the price tags that these games usually carry), visit the Board Game Recommendation System at boardgamestuff.com:8000 (yes, that's a Web address). The BGRS takes input on which games you like and dislike, matches your tastes with those of other registered users and provides recommendations based on those users' opinions. The results are fairly reliable. (Mainstream games and old-school hobby games are included in the system as well.) 4. Where can I find them? Typically, family strategy games, especially the imported ones, are available only through hobby stores (the ones that also sell wargames, role-playing games and/or collectible card games) and "specialty" game stores (the ones that also sell traditional games, such as chess, backgammon and go, as well as more mainstream family games). If you're looking for a particular game, check the Game Store Database (boardgamestuff.com/cgi-bin/gamestore.pl) or the manufacturer's Web site for a retail store near you. (Because I'm writing this FAQ, I get to plug my favorite: the Old Game Store, Manchester, Vt., 800-818-GAME.) If there's nothing close by, try one of the following online retailers: Boulder Games, www.bouldergames.com Fair Play Games, www.fairplaygames.com Funagain Games, www.funagain.com For customers in Canada: The German Boardgame Co., www.germangames.com Secondhand games are frequently offered for sale on rec.games.board.marketplace and through Board Game Geek (www.boardgamegeek.com). Board Game Geek also allows users to set up trades with each other. 5. What is the Spiel des Jahres? What is the Deutscher Spielepreis? Board games are a big enough industry in Germany that awards are given out. The Spiel des Jahres ("Game of the Year") is a juried industry award, sorta like Cannes. The Deutscher Spielepreis ("German Game Award") is primarily a critics' award, sorta like the Golden Globes. However, unlike their analogues in the movie world, the SdJ tends to reward simple games with mass-market or family appeal, while the DSP favors "gamers' games" with more challenging rules and unusual mechanisms. Most of the games listed above are either winners or nominees of one or both awards. You can look up past award winners and current nominees at www.spiel-des-jahres.org (English, German) and www.kmwsspielplatz.de/spielarchiv/indxtemp.html?/spielarchiv/dsp.htm (German only). 6. What does that name mean? How is it pronounced? A lot of gamers refer to German games by their German names. Here's a handy guide for English speakers (pronunciations, especially of umlauted vowels, are extremely approximate; some of these games' English editions go by different names, as noted): (Die) Siedler (von Catan) [dee ZEED-ler fawn ka-TAHN]: (The) Settlers (of Catan) Seefahrer [ZAY-far-er]: Seafarers Städte & Ritter [SHTAYT-uh oont RIT-ter]: Cities and Knights Die Siedler Kartenspiel [dee ZEED-ler KAR-ten-shpeel]: The Settlers Card Game Die Macher [dee MAKH-er]: The "Movers and Shakers" Funkenschlag [FOONK-en-shlahg]: Electric Shock Ursuppe [OOR-zoop-puh]: Primordial Soup Löwenherz [LUR-ven-hayrts]: Lionheart (absolutely not to be confused with Hasbro's ultra-crappy Lionheart!) Adel Verpflichtet [AH-del fer-FLIKH-tet]: Noblesse Oblige (a.k.a. By Hook or by Crook) Meuterer [MOY-ter-er]: Mutineer Die Händler [dee HEND-ler]: The Merchants Um Reifenbreite [oom RY-fen-BRY-tuh]: By a Tire Width Rette Sich Wer Kann [RET-tuh ZIKH ver KAHN]: Every Man for Himself Verräter [fer-RAY-ter]: Traitor Dampfross [DUMPF-ross]: Iron Horse (a.k.a. Railway Rivals) Entdecker [ent-DECK-er]: Discoverer By the way, it's Klaus "TOY-ber," not Klaus "TOO-ber." Also, Knizia is pronounced "k'NEET-see-a." 7. Why Germany? The best anyone can surmise, Germany just happens to have a long tradition of game-playing. Combine that with a long tradition of high-quality design and manufacturing, and you have a market for well-designed, well-manufactured games. However, as a number of people have pointed out, the fact that Germany has the most robust adult/family board game industry in the world doesn't mean that board games are a form of mass entertainment in Germany, on par with, say, television. It's a hobby there, just as it is in other countries. It just happens to be a much bigger hobby. 8. Hey! I bought this game you told me to buy, and the rules are in German! Many imported "German" games are available in translated editions, but many are not. Fortunately, the board gaming community has made a number of rulebook translations available on the Web. Board Game Geek (www.boardgamegeek.com) has a large selection of archived rule translations. In addition, most of the companies that import and/or reprint games from other countries have rule translations available for free. 9. Where can I learn more? Luding (SunSITE.Informatik.RWTH-Aachen.DE/luding) is a database of game information with links to reviews in German and English. Board Game Geek (www.boardgamegeek.com) features lots of news and reviews, along with a comprehensive guide to game mechanics. -- Defenceless under the night our world in stupor lies; yet, dotted everywhere, ironic points of light flash out wherever the Just exchange their messages... --W.H. Auden ······················································ Keith Ammann is geenius@cifnet.com -§- Lun Yu 2:24