Review Retrospective: Classics in their Making

To celebrate “Oldies Week” here at The Opinionated Gamers, we’ve decided to look back at some of our favorite reviews and other articles from the days of yore.  While we’re spending Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of this week sharing our current thoughts on older games, it can be particularly enlightening to see what was being said about these games back when they were being released.  Today we bring you a selection of reviews and other articles that were written 10-15 years ago, back when the games being discussed were just coming out.  These articles are an interesting window into the mindset of the hobby back in the late 1990s and help to think about these classics in the context in which they were published and originally received.

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The first stop on our tour is a review of Euphrat & Tigris from the inimitable Mike Siggins, back from the days before E&T did an about face and became T&E.  Mike’s review really helps situate the game within the context of the board game landscape of 1997, back when the state of the art was in a very different place than it is now.

Euphrat & Tigris (Mike Siggins)

Seldom has there been a longer or more speculative wait for a new release. For this was it, the much vaunted Knizia Gamer’s Game. The first allowed to exceed the magical hour, the first to put Reiner through a long and exacting development and testing process, the first to be specifically designed for gamers rather than the mass market and reputed – by anyone that played it, saw it, fed his cat or found a discarded counter in the bin – to be his tour de force. It was, in all respects, the game almost all of us were waiting for – as if Francis Tresham had said he was going to design a one hour 1829 or if Sid Meier turned his hand to sports gaming. We had Modern Art, High Society, Heller and Medici as the benchmarks; this was going to be better. And then, of all things, it didn’t show up.

Since then, we have run the gamut of emotions and rumours. Will it be any good? He’s changed the game again! He’s scrapped it and gone onto something else! He’s too busy! Hans im Glück don’t like it! And then, calm, sanity and talk of a delivery date. Will it be at Nuremburg ’96? Or Essen ’96? Or Nuremburg ’97? Finally, over a year ‘late’, it appeared at Essen and the sighs were audible. And if it is any help in relieving your pent up anxiety, Tigris is a superb game, right out of the top drawer of game design. If the dream ticket, voiced in Sumo about three years ago, was for Reiner to design the ultimate gamer’s game, he has come as close as anyone so far. My numerical indicator is reading 9 out of 10, on a par with the very best, and I suspect you’ll want to know exactly why.

Tigris is a game about great civilizations. Your task is to build kingdoms and then empires, establish trade and agriculture, ensure your borders are secure, acquire treasures and construct monuments to the gods. And you need to do all this better than your rivals. Like many of Reiner’s games, it is set firmly in ancient history and concerns the important plain between the two eponymous rivers. On this plain, you will contest four categories – Religion, Trade, Farming and War. The actual systems are as simple as laying pieces freeform on a large gridded board, not dissimilar to a stretched Heller & Pfennig, the resolution of those systems varies from instantaneous to complex and the whole package combines to make a strategically themed game with many tactical nuances.

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A year later in 1998, Alan Moon captured his first Spiel des Jahres by designing Elfenland, the game that was Ticket to Ride before there was such a thing as Ticket to Ride or its many iterations.  Greg Schloesser takes us on a trip down memory lane to a time when modern innovations in route-building were just beginning to take off, and to a time when the world was first being introduced to the wonder of Troll Wagons and Elf-cycles.

Elfenland (Greg Schloesser)

Refreshingly different.  This is not your run-of-the-mill game design that you may have experienced hundreds of times before.  There’s no dice rolling and moving your pawn around a track.  There are no event cards to read and alter the flow of the game.  There are no attempts to get majorities or secondary positions in various stocks or provinces.  No, this game is different.  It is a pioneer and has charted new paths in terms of game design … and that is an EXCELLENT achievement.

Although I’ve been heavily involved in the board gaming scene since my pre-teen years, I was sort of sheltered since our local hobby shops primarily carried traditional war games.  In fact, they didn’t begin stocking German style games (or ‘Designer‘ games, to utilize the new term of choice) until very recently.  So, I really didn’t begin to be exposed to these new, revolutionary types of games until I joined the internet world and began exploring the various game forums and websites available in cyberspace.

It wasn’t long before I began hearing the name “Elfenroads” whispered with reverence by numerous other gamers.  Many considered it to be the Holy Grail of gaming, the pinnacle of game design and development.  Unfortunately, the game was about as difficult to locate as the Grail itself, as only a very limited quantity (1200 numbered copies, according to the game’s designer Alan Moon) had been produced by White Wind Games, the designer’s own game label.   Those few rare copies which would surface on e-bay or other internet based sales forums would often fetch $300 or more.  The mere thought of my wife’s violent reaction if I spent that much money for a single game was enough to frighten me away from even considering the possibility.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would be forced to content myself with a quest to at least play the game, as I would likely never own a copy.

Then, in late 1997, the news broke:  Amigo, a German game publisher, was working with Alan to re-release this elusive gem, albeit in a bit more simplified version.  There was joy in the bayou … and the entire gaming community, for that matter.  Finally I would be able to experience … and even own … what would undoubtedly be the gaming experience of a lifetime.  I was giddy with anticipation.

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Four years later Alan Moon co-designed one of the all-time greatest games.  Larry Levy is here now to tell us why “This Pie Split’s a Hit!”

San Marco (Larry Levy)

Alan Moon has long been one of my favorite game designers. The Elfen- games, Airlines/Union Pacific, Freight Train/Reibach & Co.; all innovative, thought-provoking, and entertaining games. Over the past couple of years, however, Moon’s offerings have tended to leave me cold. Some were too family-oriented for my tastes; others too abstract; quite a few seemed to be plagued with confusion over what the “best” set of rules for them were. I don’t know if you could call it a slump, but I had begun to wonder if Alan would ever return to the level of excellence he had established during much of the nineties.

Well, I’m happy to say that the Moon Man is back. San Marco, the latest release from what appears to be the Partnership-for-Life of Moon and Aaron Weissblum, is in my opinion the best game to come out of Germany since Die Fursten von Florenz and currently ranks as my favorite Moon design.

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Next up is something a little different — a session report by Mark Jackson from over eleven years ago about this new-fangled game at the time, Web of Power, brought to us by Michael Schacht back when a cuddly panda bear game with a million and one mini-expansions was just a glimmer in his eye.

Web of Power (Mark Jackson)

Jay & I had talked on the drive in from Nashville about this intriguing new “push the wooden cubes” game, and I was looking forward to getting to play. (In fact, I enjoyed it enough that I played it again later in the weekend.)

Each player represents (I’m guessing here) the head of an order of monks, bent on influencing the Known World for good and the benefit of the people. (Yes, this is an optimistic view of ecclesiastical power struggles… what can I say?) Anyway, each player has two resources at his disposal to accomplish his ends: cloisters and advisors. The ‘battle’ rages across 12th century Europe.

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Returning to the reviews for a moment, in the early days, back in the prior millennium, there was a game called Vinci by Philippe Keyaerts.  This was long before Small World, or Small World: Cursed!, or Grand Dames of Small World, even before Leaders of Small World, Small World: Tales and Legends, Small World: Be Not Afraid, and long before Small World: Necromancer Island, Small World Underground, and Small World: Tunnels (phew, apparently it’s not such a small world after all).  Returning to the matter at hand, this was a game from a simpler age, when a game could stand or fall on its own merits with what you got in the original box — this was Vinci.

Vinci (Dale Yu)

Vinci is another new Essen 99 release. It has been called by many as “History of the World – but better”. I would have to say that I agree with this statement. Vinci takes the best parts of HotW (namely the conquest of opposing empires) while taking out the major negatives of HotW (such as the god-awfully long playing time as well as the large random element of the Civilization distribution in HotW as well as the importance of the last epoch’s empire on determining the overall outcome of the game.) If there is a downside to this game, it would be the poorly written rules that are provided with the game. There are multiple sets of errata floating around on the ‘Net. I would search for the most recent version (either on a search engine or on before playing. The only saving grace of the errata are that most of them are given by Phillipe Keyaerts, the game’s designer.

The object of Vinci is to get as many victory points as possible by expanding your empires. You get points for controlling provinces on the map (with the exception of mountain provinces) with your forces. This score can also be modified by special characteristics in some of the empires (to be explained later). At the end of each turn, you total up your points scored on the board at the time (Similar to HotW). The game ends when someone reaches the appointed point total (100 points for 5-6 players, 120 for 4 players, 150 for 3 players). A unique mechanism (which in my opinion is the weakest part of the game) is that every player is guaranteed an equal number of turns in the game. Thus, if the second player in the rotation is the first player to exceed the winning total, everyone else in rotation gets a chance to play out their turn, but the first player in rotation would not. But, this proves to be a weak point in the game and makes for a very unsatisfactory ending.

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A classic trick-taking card game from 1995 is up next — Flaschenteufel.  This seems particularly fitting because it was finally recently reprinted by Z-Man as “The Bottle Imp” after being out of print for a long time.  While the new version is missing the nice, wooden bottle from the previous printing, it does come in a smaller box at least.  Here is Joe Huber’s review from The Games Journal:

Flaschenteufel (Joe Huber)

One thing that anyone who explores German games will note is the plethora of trick taking card games; this should come as no surprise. After all, the history of trick taking card games is long and has produced some of the most popular games around the world—Bridge, Pinochle, Skat, and 500, to name just a few. I can say from experience it’s a fun variety of game to design—no matter how many variants already exist, there’s always some new twist that can be employed. But each game is at its heart abstract—you are collecting tricks, or avoiding them, or trying to gather certain cards so as to improve your score.

I was thrilled, then, to discover that Der Flaschenteufel is not only themed, but the theme is integral to the mechanics of the game. The game is themed around a short story The Bottle Imp, written by Robert Louis Stevenson back in 1893 (which is available online at In the story, a bottle will grant its owner wishes, but there are three problems. First, the wishes are often twisted or have unintended consequences, effectively cursing the owner of the bottle. Second, the bottle can only be sold for less than was paid for it. Finally, if the bottle is not sold before the owner dies, the owner will burn in hell.

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“Only one measly Knizia game?!” I hear you saying.  But wait, there’s more.  While Knizia is obviously better known for games like Euphrat & Tigris, reviewed above, there is a lesser known Knizia gem that Mr. Levy would like to draw your attention to.  Don’t let Schotten Totten’s zany theme of quarreling Scottish clans put you off.  Go ahead and “Lose Lost Cities & Give This Game a Schot.”

Schotten Totten (Larry Levy)

Well, it looks as though all the good game themes have been taken. In case you should doubt this, let me tell you that the theme of this card game involves Scottish clans quarreling over a bunch of stones in a pasture. Perfectly bizarre, and we can’t even blame the Y2K bug for it. Fortunately, this veneer is easily ignored, and what is left is yet another interesting game creation from the ever-prolific Reiner Knizia.

Scottentots is played with a 54 card deck consisting of six suits composed of cards numbered 1 through 9. There are also nine boundary-stone cards, which are the objectives of the contest. I’ll refer to these henceforth as stones. At the beginning of the game, the nine stones are laid out in a horizontal row between the players. Each player receives six cards to make up his beginning hand.

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The final stop on our tour brings us to an interesting compilation from the early days of Uwe Rosenberg’s Bohnanza of all the different ways in which people were playing the game incorrectly due to translation issues and other misunderstandings.  This was back when the rules didn’t come in the box in Hungarian, Romanian, and every other language you can imagine, and you had to turn to the ever-reliable Internet for fan translations.

Bohnanza (Mark Jackson)

As kids, we all loved to play with rubber bands. (Well, as long as we weren’t the people being winged by them.) Stretch Armstrong dolls and that foul-smelling green goo (whose brand name escapes me right now) had the same kind of elastic qualities.

One of the interesting things about Bohnanza is that the basic game mechanism is so strong that it works with a truckload of variations/mistakes/whatever on the rules… the darn thing is the Stretch Armstrong of German card games. Bohnanza is incredibly elastic. It stretches and stretches and it’s nearly impossible to break.

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Thanks for joining us on this trip down memory lane.  We hope that highlighting a few of these older reviews and other articles might help to situate some of the modern trends in the hobby within the historical context in which games and mechanisms developed.  It’s sometimes helpful in better understanding the games of today, to take a look back at the games of yesterday and the progression in between.  The most obvious examples are predecessor games such as Web of Power, Vinci, and Elfenland, but there are many other subtler ways that the designers and designs of the 1990s have influenced and continue to influence the games that are hitting the shelves today.

And if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see all those intriguing cross-references to games like History of the World, Heller & Pfennig, and Freight Train… back from the days long before everything was compared to the likes of Caylus, Agricola, or Dominion.  Those references to things like the Y2K bug, Essen ’96, and are also pretty entertaining.

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4 Responses to Review Retrospective: Classics in their Making

  1. Paul Lister says:

    Fantastic to see the writing of Mike Siggins here. It be an old article, but please give us more.

    Oh and the rest of the article was pretty fab as well :)

  2. Dale Yu says:

    Paul – I agree with you… I’m constantly amazed at the amount and quality of writing that some of the contributors here have had over the years. For many of the regulars in this article, it was hard to pick just one to highlight…


  3. Doug says:

    Been reading anything Mike writes for nearly 20 years, and boy he writes well. Still remember the agony of waiting for Euphrat to appear, the even greater agony of a copy of misaligned counters (speedily replaced by HiG!), and the generosity of English gents who sent me a RK autographed copy of the limited edition English translation. Still cherished!

    Funny – we played Elfenland last week, and broke out Elfengold last night after a 10 year break. Like rediscovering our old friend Elfenroads and the Moon triple resource clinch. Elfenroads / Elfenland+gold is a wonderful game.

  4. jeffinberlin says:

    It’s interesting that, even in the late 90’s, game reviewers were complaining about “what is far too often an industry that gets stuck utilizing familiar, stale patterns.” In retrospect, there seem to be so many more original ideas that emerged from the German board game market than today, but perhaps we’ll see it differently, too, in 10-20 years.

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