“This is really cool, but what did I miss?”
Whether you’re a viewer or a player, you realize that there was an extended back story that came before which must have been really good. As enjoyable as it is to follow the continuing story – and play all the new games that continue to be released, there is also a desire to explore the history that everyone else had been enjoying all these years.
For many American gamers, the history of the world began with the Settlers of Catan, It was the first breakaway game to arrive in the United States from Germany. Settlers was released by Mayfair Games in 1996, but it arrived on a boat that included Streetcar (Linie 1), Modern Art, and the previous year’s Spiel des Jahres, Manhattan. Rio Grande Games was starting up at this time, and they soon brought us English translations of German games such as Lowenherz, Elfenland and El Grande.
The gaming clouds seemed to part as all these great games that originated in Germany became available in the United States for the first time.
Or did they?
About twenty years ago, I walked past the front window of my local hobby board game store to see what was current. I liked playing games such as “Civilization” back then, and just looking at a game board, along with its components, could fill my imagination with the possibilities of the playing experience. “Civilization” had its map of the area around the Mediterranean, with varying flood plains and city sites, that makes it look cool even if you’ve never played the game..
There was a new game in the window. It’s “map” was dominated by four big rows, each containing four spaces, plus a few extra columns of spaces on either side. That was IT. The game, published by the otherwise reliable Avalon Hill was called Tyranno Ex, and about all else that was on the “map” was some color shading and obviously superfluous jungle decorations that were intended to enhance the dinosaur theme.
“Has Avalon Hill started publishing children’s games?” I growled to myself. “I know what it takes to make a good game, and you can’t do it with just four rows of four spaces.”
A few months later, someone in my game group brought Tyranno Ex to the table. The game involved collecting different sets of dinosaurs, each of which thrived in varying types of terrain. Your goal was to manipulate the terrain in order to make it hospitable to the dinosaurs you were collecting, and then pit them against each other in a battle for survival of the fittest. Survivors advanced along the board, evolved, and scored you points. It was a lot of fun and amazingly strategic… that is for a game with just four rows each of four big spaces. “Gee, I guess if you’re inventive enough, you can make a fantastic game with very little detail on the board.”
Tyranno Ex is by Karl Heinz Schmiel, inventor of Tribune and that most complex of simple games, Die Macher. In fact, Tyranno Ex uses some very similar mechanisms as those found in Die Macher. Only instead of political parties fighting for survival, it is dinosaurs.
At the time though, the designer’s name meant nothing to me. It was games like Klaus Teuber’s The Settlers of Catan and Kramer & Ulrich’s El Grande that first made me aware of the burgeoning world of board games coming out of Germany, and of how designers there were creating challenging games with simple rules and short playing times.
“How did I ever live without German games”, I wondered. “What had I been missing all these years?”
However, Tyranno Ex was already here – but with little notice. In fact, there were already several games from Germany that had been published in the U.S., only at the time they did not carry the name of their designers prominently on the box and seemed unimportant.
Let’s take a look at some of Germany’s early immigrants to America. Were we missing anything by overlooking them at the time?
I vividly remember seeing this game’s box in my local game store. It bore a name that I didn’t understand and couldn’t pronounce, a portrait of stuffy looking guys with mutton chops and waxed moustaches, and a proud announcement that it had won some Germany’s “Game of the Year” award for 1990. Whoop de doo. Not knowing better, this award seemed about as consequential as an award for Libya’s Best TV Situation Comedy.
Once I played it, I felt that Adel Verplichtet was a brilliant game of second guessing. Players must make a series of simultaneous choices in an attempt to acquire collectible objects and show them off. The wrinkle is that the benefits and costs of the choices all depend on what choices your opponents made. If I choose to show off my possessions, and you choose to hire a thief, you’ll steal something from me, but if I instead choose to hire a detective, then I get points and your thief goes to jail. Since the relative values of these are constantly changing, pure intuition is enhanced by timing and strategy.
It was only when Settlers of Catan was released that many gamers became familiar with the name of the designer, Klaus Teuber, and then Adel Verplichtet took on a new cache, as this game was also invented by Teuber. For those who were unfamiliar with this earlier game, discovering it was like seeing “Batman Begins”, and then returning to discover the same director’s earlier delight “Memento”. The game has been republished many times. Avalon Hill, the original American publisher rereleased it as “By Hook Or Crook”, eventually Uberplay picked it up as well, calling it “Hoity Toity”, which is of course a much more appealing name than “Adel Verplichtet. In Germany, Alea republished it in the same big box line that featured Ra, Taj Mahal, and Puerto Rico. Today, it is not held in great esteem by gamers perhaps because of its reliance on luck, however, it remains a terrific family game, and there is much more substance there than its “rock/paper/scissors” origins might let on.
How much of a game can you create with a board that has four rows of four big spaces on it? In spite of what seemed like a juvenile theme, Tyranno Ex turned out to be a game with teeth. The heart of the game is actually a set of cards depicting specific genera of dinosaurs, each with its own series of varying climates which that dino type thrives in. Players collect these dinosaurs and then manipulate the current environment through tile play, attempting to get it to match the sort of climate that their own set of brutes favors. The political policy manipulation used previously in designer Karl Heinz Schmiel’s Die Macher (a yet more complex version of the game we know today) was recycled into the climate manipulation of Tyranno Ex. After scoring benefits for matches, eventually, the climate settles down, and each player’s dinos enter the playing field and battle it out. Dinos can advance in their survival skills, and matching the current environment is even better, as is… the odd lucky die roll. Yes, with battles and die rolls, this early German game was as much influenced by Ameritrash style designs as it was influenced by Eurogames. Still, no one would mistake Tyranno Ex for Space Hulk. Combat is entirely abstracted, with no maneuver. All that board lets you do is advance your critter for more points when it survives the current game turn. The game play is in the dino selection and the nearly abstract manipulation of the environment. It’s not exactly realistic, unless you picture yourself as “Mother Nature”, or one of several nature gods battling it out to see who gets to keep his pets.
Complaints against the game have been that it’s too long for what it is. I admit that it’s been years since I played it, but I never found it to be draggy. It’s a tense Euro with a good combination of strategy and tactics. The die rolling for combat does date the game, and there are other luck elements that may infuriate the modern Euro player, but for me it’s a keeper.
Kremlin is from the German speaking Urs Hostettler, who is actually of Swiss nationality, but let’s not be picky. Kremlin is a game that satirizes Soviet politics. It was first published in 1988, when there was still such a thing as the USSR and Mikhail Gorbachev was its leader. In Kremlin, players secretly invest their influence in any ten out of a selection of twenty six different Soviet politicians, and attempt to purge their way to power. Placing a politician in the appropriate party office may give him influence in choosing the Party Chief or purging rivals to Siberia. Winning the game requires a player to have control of the ranking Party Chief for three turns in which his health is stable enough so that he can wave at the admiring crowd (no cynicism in this game!). Like Adel Verplichtet and Tyranno Ex, Kremlin was published in the United States by Avalon Hill – and like Tyranno Ex, it has some of that die-rolling baggage of its time. In this case, every year, each politician must undergo a health roll, whose outcome depends on how much stress his current position is placing on him. That health roll may make him “sick” or worse, “ill”, and will age him some number of years. Once a politician’s “age” exceeds 75, he is retired from the game permanently. If you had a lot of influence on that guy, you’d better start promoting another upcoming, more youthful, candidate into the top spot.
Kremlin is exceptionally strong in its ability to deliver a theme that is matched by its game play not only in pure mechanics, but in spirit as well. It sets out to be a sardonic look at Soviet politics, and players can really get into the spirit of knocking their opponent’s politicians down a rung, placing them in positions that are bad for their health, or best of all, sending them to Siberia. As an actual game, Kremlin does not hold up so well. There are real-time aspects in bidding for control of politicians which get sloppy, and the tactics needed to advance seem chaotic to the point of uncontrollable. Players need to secretly bid for control at the very beginning of the game, and if your best politicians get exiled or killed quickly, you can be sidelined from the game pretty early on.
Urs Hostettler has gone on to be a reasonably successful game designer but his name is not well known in the U.S. His most popular game here, Tichu, isn’t usually associated with his name, and his most successful creation, the trivia game “Anno Domini” is both language and culture dependent, and so has never been published here.
Daytona 500 ; Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix
Daytona 500 is that unusual case of a German designed game that was released in the United States in 1990 by a mass market publisher, in this case Milton Bradley. Like Adel Verplichtet, this has proven to be an evergreen game that continues to be rereleased. It began in Germany ten years earlier as Formel 1; six years after Daytona 500 it was released by Mayfair Games as Detroit Cleveland Grand Prix and then again in Germany and Canada as Top Race. Being a race game, it often goes through changes with each edition, since the basic game system is flexible, and it’s an easy matter to add new race courses. Yet many fans of the system regard Daytona 500 to be the best of them, and this edition can carry a premium on eBay.
Daytona 500 was designed by game design veteran Wolfgang Kramer (El Grande, Tikal, Princes of Florence), so this is a case of a really classic German designer being published by a classic American game publisher – to little fanfare at the time. Any car racing game is by its nature fairly thematic, but this one does have some mechanics that are awkwardly tied to its theme. In Daytona 500, players have a hand of cards, most of which will be played, in an attempt to get their own car over the finish line first. The trick is that each card typically moves many of the cars forward – by varying amounts. You help your opponents as much as you help yourself… except… in Daytona 500, you are jockeying for position, attempting to leap ahead to take the inside lane where possible, and also aligning yourself behind other cars in order to benefit from a movement boost you get from “drafting”. When this was subsequently released in the U.S. by Mayfair Games as “Detroit/Cleveland Grand Prix”, it was altered, and the new format has stuck through the “Top Race” versions issued internationally. There is no drafting, but there are pinch points. If you can get, say, the “blue” car blocking the way when an opponent’s “red” car needs to pass, the movement on the card that would otherwise help the red car is joyously wasted. So you have to help your opponents… but you don’t have to help them that much if you can avoid it!
There’s a reason that this game system keeps showing up. It’s awfully clever, and plays like no other race game out there. I think its only downside is its anti-thematic nature. Playing cards which move one’s opponents does rob players from the feeling that they are actually running a race, and turns the game into more of an abstract strategic exercise. Still, if you like race games, do try a version of this. It has become a standard.
Wildlife Adventure, like Daytona 500 above, is also by Wolfgang Kramer, and has also come out in numerous English and German language editions with varying rules and game boards, as well as varying themes. The original was published by Ravensburger. Ravensburger is unlike the other publishers mentioned in that it is a German company that has distributed to the United States under its own label. They’ve mostly brought puzzles and children’s games to the U.S., and perhaps Wildlife Adventure got sent here because the pictures of wild animals make it look like a children’s game. It’s a terrific family game that has long appealed to gamers.
The theme of the original Wildlife Adventure game was that of protecting endangered species. The board contains a map of the world. Colored dots cover the map, and those maps are connected by a strategically designed set of lines which cause those dots to be haphazardly connected. Following a given line may make it difficult to return to other alternatives where the path forked. Most dots represent
the habitat for a particular species of animal. Players get dealt out a set of cards depicting up to a dozen animals, face down, and they must drive any of three paths to reach the particular habitats on their own cards. Kramer’s innovation was that the three differently colored paths are not controlled by individual players. You can extend the “yellow” path to India, hoping on the next turn to bring it up to China, but when my turn comes around, I steer it westward to the Arabian Peninsula, and now a return to China is not so easy. The game also gives players some scarce “Travel Vouchers” adding an element of economics to the game. Spending these allows me to take an extra turn, lift a prior path segment, or double back. However, players eventually find these running painfully short.
In subsequent years, Kramer redeveloped the game as Expedition in Germany, and there was even a National Geographic branded version of the game in English. The new edition changed the theme to one of exploring monuments, included more alternate paths connecting the locations, and added special rules that give players an extra turn when they create loops. Kramer said the result was a much better game, and indeed players are less likely to create futile dead ends, however I found myself preferring the less forgiving, less chaotic original edition.
Alan Moon has credited the design of his Santa Fe Rails game as an attempt to reflect his admiration for Kramer’s original, there is indeed much to admire. It plays quickly; it offers players opportunity for both tactics and strategy, and it appeals to players of a wide age range and set of abilities.
Heimlich & Company
This is yet another game from the studio of Wolfgang Kramer, also first released in the United States by Ravensburger. Like Adel Verplichtet this won the Spiel des Jahres, this time in 1986. Also like many of the games on this list, Heimlich has been redeveloped and rereleased. It returned in the U.S. as Top Secret Spies, published by Rio Grande, and included some special action cards to liven the game up.
Heimlich & Company carries a spy theme, but is a very abstract game in which different colored pawns are moved around a small board. At key times in the game, each color will score or lose points depending on its position. The innovation here was that players were secretly assigned colors. Any player could move any pawn. At any given time, you might know that “black” was winning, but you did not know which player black represented, and so did not know whether the next player had the incentive to give black a huge windfall, or set him back. Additionally, at the end of the game, players needed to place guesses on which players were represented by which pawns, and could score points for correct inferences.
The use of hidden roles has subsequently been recycled in many games through the years, from Klaus Teuber’s Drunter und Drueber (recently released in the U.S. as Wacky Wacky West), to Leo Colovini’s Clans and most recently in Stefan Feld’s In The Name of the Rose, which is clearly inspired by Heimlich.
I find this mechanism to create problems, and I find Heimlich to be very dated. The problem with hidden roles is that the game can become too impersonal. I know I’ve just hit “blue” – but who does that affect? I can’t look “blue” in the eyes and scorn him (although at least I know he won’t go into a whining spree. “Why did you hit ME? Oops! You’re not supposed to know that!”.) It becomes a little like playing an online game, even when everyone is seated at the same table! Even so, I’ve found that the similar In The Name of the Rose to be a more successful game (many disagree) because it offers more tactical opportunities to throw people off the trail, due to the fact that there are sometimes good reasons to hurt yourself or help others. Heimlich is very stripped down. Roll dice; move pawns around the circle. Roll; move. Score! Repeat. In the period after Catan, when there was a heightened interest in previously unknown German games, a copy of this out of print game could fetch a nice premium. Today it is more likely to fetch a spot on the trade pile, but it has its fans.
The AMAZEing Labyrinth
This is more family fare from German publisher Ravensburger. This game, by Max Kobbert, uses a bunch of sliding tiles, each with tunnels of varying shapes – straight, curved, “T”, etc, to create a jumble of a maze in which diverse sections are connected, and others cut off. Scattered all around are treasures and the players are going to attempt to pilfer the ones on depicted on their own secret set of cards. In his turn a player may move a tile, shifting the board around, and then move his pawn as far along the newly connected pathway as he can, trying to line himself up for treasures. If he can make it to a needed treasure unimpeded, he shows his card and claims it.
The game description seems simple and obvious, but the designer has set it all up so that it works very well, and really plays like a game. You can try to get close to a desired treasure but might find yourself cut off in a way you never expected. It’s not a brilliant strategic design, but it delivers exactly the fun and tension you expect it to and works well as a filler or as a family game.
The success of the game inspired a franchise of variations that rival those for Settlers of Catan. There is an advanced “Master” version, a kiddie version, a 3D version, a circular version, a “Lord of the Rings” version, and more. The base game, however, remains the most widely played version today.
This is a deduction game, and the earliest game I know of which pits a team of cooperative players against a single adversary. The single adversary, “Mr. X” is an unsavory criminal who is trying to elude the team of detectives on the streets, buses and subways of London. Mr. X plots his moves secretly, only coming up to reveal his location every five turns or so. Meanwhile the team of detectives stumbles around the board, hoping to get close to Mister X and nab him. Since Mr. X must reveal the particular type of transportation he has taken each turn, the detectives can deduce possible places where Mr. X has gone and they attempt to cut him off and force him into a snare.
I only played this once but I recall really admiring the “us vs. him” set up, which has been reused in much more recent games such as The Fury of Dracula, Shadows Over Camelot and the Pandemic – On the Brink expansion. The fact that it is a deduction game does encourage cooperation, as the team of detectives works to identify Mr. X’s possible moves and figure out how to trap him.
Scotland Yard was developed by a team of five designers, perhaps in house, whose names never appeared on another game. It was originally published in Germany by Ravensburger in 1983, when it won the Spiele des Jahres, and then appeared in the U.S. in 1985 published by Milton Bradley. As is the case with so many of these classics, it has been republished numerous times. In 1999 Ravensburger and Hasbro released it with a map of lower Manhattan as “N.Y. Chase”, and also rereleased the original in 1996 with updated artwork.
Ravensburger actually released a significant quantity of games in the United States, however it is really three: Wildlife Adventure, Heimlich & Company, and The AMAZEing Labyrinth, of the pre-Catan games that captured the interest of game hobbyists. A fourth one, Enchanted Forest, also won Spiel des Jahres, but this is more firmly in the children’s game category and we can pass it over. We cannot however pass over its designer, Alex Randolph.
The games of Alex Randolph
Alex Randolph (1922 – 2004) was one of the most influential and prolific game designers of all time. His personal biography crosses international lines. He was born in America, studied in Switzerland, eventually moved to Japan, and then, in 1968, to Venice, Italy where he settled for the rest of his life. During the last 40 years of his life, he designed over a hundred games. He had strong ties with many German publishers, where many of his games were initially published, and then often reappeared in the United States. So in Alex Randolph, we have an American, living in Italy, designing games for the German market, many of which eventually become available… in America. Here’s a sample of some of his best which were available in the United States, Pre-Catan.
Twixt, Oh Wah Ree, and Breakthru were all early abstract designs from 1962-1966, released for 3M Games in America. These are not German games in any sense, but they introduced Alex Randolph’s work to many American gamers. Randolph and designer Sid Sackson helped to create the legendary line of games that included Sackson’s Acquire, Sleuth, Monad, Venture, and Executive Decision. Twixt is the classic of Randoph’s 3M games. It requires players to create an unbroken line, one playing North-South, the other East-West, by connecting pegs placed a knight’s move away from each other.
Corona was released in Germany in 1974 in a beautiful edition by Ravensburger, and in a cheap and ugly edition in America, as Moonstar by Avalon Hill. It is a brain burning puzzle game in which pawns are placed on a circular board, six dice are rolled, and then players must mentally “move” the pawns in combinations to create the highest possible score. Players bid for the highest score they think they can achieve, and then the high bidder is challenged to prove he can really do it. The same principle was used twenty five years later in Randoph’s puzzle game Ricochet Robots which really develops the concept into a more satisfying and variable game.
Prairie was released in Germany in 1975, then in the U.S. by Lakeside as Tresspass, and again in Germany in 2000 as Buffalo. In its American edition it is a two player asymmetrical pure abstract, although as Prairie and Buffalo it has some nominal theming having to do with using dogs to hold back a herd of buffalo. In either case, one player gradually advances his pieces on a rectangular grid with the goal of getting one across the far end, while the other player attempts to stop that advance with a single piece that can capture, and others that can only block.
Ghosts is another thinly themed two player abstract with a bluffing element. It’s been released several times in Germany since its debut in 1980, and was released in the U.S. by Milton Bradley. The wrinkle here is that each player has eight ghost pieces, but four are “good” and four are “evil” and only the other of the pieces knows which is which. Players can advance their ghosts and they can capture, but capturing an “evil” ghost helps your opponent. You win by getting a “good” ghost to the far end, by capturing all of your opponent’s good ghosts, or by losing all your evil ones.
Code 777 is a widely admired multiplayer game of deduction. It was long regarded as a rare “grail” game but has recently been released in the U.S. by Stronghold Games. It is not just a brain burner. It is a brain incinerator.
Hols der Geier is an absurdly simple bidding game with a twist. Players make a series of simultaneous closed bids on a series of cards with point values from -5 to +10. High bid will take a card with positive points; low bid will take one that has negative points. Except. Ties cancel. When the +10 card comes out, if two players both use their best bidding card, they’ll cancel and a lower bid, maybe much lower, will win the points. This game was released in the United States as Raj in an attractive package with tiles. It’s simple, plays quickly, and is fun enough if you accept the luck element involved. The “ties cancel” bidding rule was later developed into slightly more complex games such as Montgolfiere and Sky Runner.
So there you have it. Before anyone settled in “Catan”, back when no one talked about “German Games”, “Eurogames” or “Designer Games”, there were at least a dozen games first published in Germany, many by designers who have made a reputation with great gamers’ games, which had long been available in the United States. Many were entirely overlooked here, although a good number of them were keenly sought after by hobbyists. While some argue that what makes a “Designer Game” is the appearance of the designer’s name on the box, and hardly any of these had that honor, it’s what’s inside that ultimately counts.
Generally, games coming from the American publishers of hobbyist games today are better than most of these. New designers enter the world and build upon ideas that were introduced decades ago. Nearly every game above, with the exception of Kremlin and Tyranno Ex is clearly a family game, not a gamer’s game. Still every one of these has merit and still can offer future players lots of fun and intrigue, as they have done for those players lucky enough to have discovered them when they were first released.