My Top 5 Reiner Knizia Board Games

Herr Knizia with his bow tie (Photo credits: Tall_Walt@BGG)

Knizia is a master game designer and is unmatched in productivity and peerless in the breadth of his designs. His games are mostly light to mid weight Euros with a largely abstract feel to it. That makes sense given his math background. However, when he chooses to integrate theme, it is fabulous and seamless (See Lord of the Rings). More Importantly, many of his games have simple and intuitive rules and can be taught in minutes. Don’t be fooled though, underlying this simplicity are several layers of game play that only emerges during multi-player interactions: something which is not easy to predict or anticipated from just reading rules. This so call emergent properties in game design is highly sought after and can be found in numerous Knizia games. More recently, it feels like Knizia is tinkering and incorporating different game mechanisms popularized by other designers into his own designs. Without doubt, Knizia is my all-time favorite board game designer. From his massive list of published games, these are the 5 games I treasure most in my collection.

Samurai

High hats, Buddhas, wait, where are the rice paddies? (Photo credits: ddkk@BGG)

Samurai is an area majority set collection game where you are capturing pieces on the board by placing hexagonal tiles around cities or villages to enclose the pieces. There are three types of pieces: Buddhas, High hats and Rice paddies. Cities hold two pieces of any type, villages hold one and Edo holds 3. Each tile you place has a specific numerical value that can capture one or more pieces on the board. For example a “3 Buddha” or “2 High hats”. There are also wild card “samurai” tiles which are valuable and can contribute toward all three types of scoring. Once all tiles are placed around a piece or pieces, thus enclosing it, the person with a numerical superiority will capture the piece.

Samurai is all about timing, timing and timing. You can set yourself up for a big capture of multiple pieces but more likely, you can sneak a victory by opportunistic capturing of pieces carelessly left unguarded by your opponents. The game would be good if you merely win by getting a majority but in typical Knizia fashion, you win by holding a majority in one piece and then capturing another majority in a second category after discarding the first. The back and forth second guessing about which piece to capture is absolutely delectable. The game plays fast but not too light: loose but not too chaotic. Against an experience opponent, it boils down to how the tiles come out and how you can best take advantage of the opportunities. For this reason, Samurai ranks nearly on top of my Knizia list.


Amun-Re

Give me farmers or give me stone just don’t leave me all alone (Photo credits: Tim Synge@BGG)

Amun-Re is one of my earliest purchase and also the one I constantly want to play. It is hard to describe why. While some of it is nostalgia, Amun-Re just has the right balance of player interaction and smoothness to warrant a place on my Top 5 Knizia.

In Amun-Re, players bid for districts along the Nile to cultivate, develop and construct pyramids over the span of 2 eras: the Old and New Kingdoms. A number of districts per player are auctioned off each round in an escalating auction with overlapping bids. If you get kicked off a bid, you can place a bid in another district, just not that one you get kicked off. I love how you win in auctions not only from purchasing what you want but also from extorting princely and hopefully crippling sums of money from your opponents who won the bid. Once you win a district, you can invest in farming, buy power cards or bricks to build pyramids. Farmers will provide income while pyramids will score points. There is a delicate balance between earning money and scoring points. After 3 districts are auctioned off and scored, the Old Kingdom is flooded and collapses, setting the stage for a revival of the New Kingdom where only the pyramids from the old still stand. This means auction values can change dramatically between New and Old kingdoms.

Apart from the tense auctions for districts, the blind cumulative offerings for Amun-Re’s favor at the end of each round is also novel, especially when the game was first published. The blind bids allow players to collectively determine income and receive favors (or punishment) from the gods.

While auctions and blind bids are unpredictable and drawing power cards can be a luck-fest, I am oddly unfazed by it. Perhaps the luck can be partially mitigated by careful planning. One real drawback though is that the game is superior with 5 and really should be played only when you have a full complement. Knizia is a master of the auction mechanism and it shows on Amun-Re.


Traumfabrik

Best version of the game by far. Hollywood, stop being so greedy! (Photo credits: Samoan_Jo@BGG)

There are a lot of reasons for me to love this one. But mainly, I adore the closed economy in Traumfabrik which also appears in another Knizia game call Orongo. Both are good games but I like the structure and theme better in this one. I have the original German version of the game equipped with CD and features real actors, which makes the theme come through even more.

In Traumfabrik, players try to assemble different elements to produce the most successful movies. Through a series of winner-take-all blind bidding, players auction for directors, actors, visual effects, guest stars, sound effects, etc. However, each element is rated from zero to five stars, with a five star director, crew or actor clearly bringing you more glory…. and points. Once all elements are assembled on a movie script, the movie is produced and the total number of stars from all the elements are added up to give you a final score. The higher the score the better the production values and the easier it is to win an award. Awards are given based on category of film produced and also the quarter in which it is produced. Each production also scores the number of stars it has collected at the end of the game.

The strength of Traumfabrik for me is no doubt the closed auction. For every winning bid, the money spent by the winner is equally distributed among all the losers. Hence the money just circulates around and is never removed nor increased. This ratchets up the auction as losing a bid means getting money from your opponents, allowing them to have a higher purchase power in future rounds. I am not a fan of blind bidding or auction but how Knizia implements this mechanism in Traumfabrik makes it a stand out enough to enter my top 5 selection.


Quest for El Dorado

Oh Knizia, your revival is sweet indeed. (photo credits: Eric Martin@BGG)

This is part of Knizia’s revival where he tinkers with mechanisms popularized by other designers: In this case, Donald X. Vaccarino’s groundbreak game call Dominion. Quest for El Dorado is Knizia’s take on a deck builder which provides a breath of fresh air and is a big hit for us.

In El Dorado, Knizia uses the deck building mechanism to design a racing game. Players send adventurers on a wild race across a modular map to be the first to reach the temples of El Dorado. The modular map features a variety of terrain which needs to be traversed in order to reach the final destination. Here, the deck builder aspect comes into play as players will purchase and play specific cards to allow adventurers to cross over different terrains. Some cards also provide special skills to overcome obstacles. Players who have experienced Dominion will feel quite at home. The deck builder rules feels familiar to Dominion but with several tweaks including being able to hold on to some cards for future play. This tweak allows players to anticipate crossing over specific terrain in future turns by hoarding the cards they need. This crucial tweak essentially lessens the frustration of waiting for the right card at the right moment. The addition of a spatial map and the racing element also makes the game unique. Overall, Knizia’s decision to employ a deck building mechanism for this game is the right call.

There are many ways to shape the deck as there are many paths to reach El Dorado, but being able to balance movement with card purchases is critical for victory. Games are tight and winners are but a step or two ahead. Come from behind wins are not rare and this makes the game memorable and epic… which is a standout for us.


Taj Mahal

Taj Mahal in the hands of Knizia is a thing of beauty (Photo credits: Tim Synge@BGG)

Taj Mahal is another Knizia design I enjoy thatt doesn’t see enough table time. But when it does reach the table, I am always excited to play. That desire has not lessen over time.

Taj Mahal sees Knizia trying to incorporate a bidding mechanism based on elements of trick-taking. On the board are 12 districts in India which the Mughal will visit in random order. At each stop, players gain the Mughal’s favor by competing for the control of different elements of the district. There are 5 categories to compete for and players play cards showing one or more icons of a category they wish to win with the majority being crowned winner. The kicker here is that the majority is assessed at the end of each player’s turn and not at the end of each round. So if a player plays a card and has sole possession of the lead when he is again active the following round, even with a single card majority, he or she is declared the winner of that category and can cash out. Even if you don’t have majority, you can also exit the round just to refresh your hand of cards. Leaving the round early allows you to pick up more cards with a wider selection available.

Winning different categories in each district allows you different benefits to score points. Winning the economy sets up an engine to score a points based on sets of previously collected goods; winning the palace allows you to build a chain or roads, Others such as the monk or princess allows you to get upgraded cards to help during the auction. Thus, each round, if you are in a pitch battle with another player in the same category, you must decide to either stick the course and risk it all to win that category or leave early and cut your losses. Such is the painful dilemma of Taj Mahal.

The game is painful… and delightful at the same time.


The sixth game on the list:

Medici

The one I should like but don’t:

Tigris and Euphrates

The one I really need to play more:

Modern Art

The criminally underrated one:

Orongo

The next one on my list to play:

Babylonia