138 Games: From Frisch Fisch to Quacksalbe

This week the 138 Games series rolls on through the late 1990s with a handful of more obscure games.  In contrast to last week’s Medici, Settlers, and Bohnanza, this week we’ve got five games for you that you may not have played and, in some cases, may not have heard about before.  Remarkably, this entry in the series includes a Friedemann Friese that is not Power Grid, a Klaus Teuber game that is not Settlers, and an Urs Hostettler card game that is not Tichu.

– Frisch Fisch –

Joe Huber:  One frequent goal, in designing a game, is to find a very simple set of rules that at the same time makes the game simple to learn, but with sufficient depth and choice that the game itself is very deep.  Go is a classic example of this, as for that matter is Bridge.  Frisch Fisch is not.

Oh, there is an absolutely brilliant rule – the expropriation rule, which very simply states that (1) every undeveloped space, every source, and every outlet must have road access, and (2) all the roads must be part of the same network.  To have reduced the complexity that this leads to into such a simple rule is simply brilliant.  Friedemann Friese has done a lot of impressive game design, but fifteen years after the release of Frisch Fisch this still remains the pinnacle, in my mind.

So if it’s so brilliant, why doesn’t it qualify?  Very simply, because visualizing the consequences of the expropriation rule is something that stumps many, or most, gamers.  I would recommend that everyone try the game – but I’d also recommend playing with someone who knows the game well, as this visualization seems to stump some very experienced and very intelligent gamers in my experience.  And without the expropriation being done correctly – the game doesn’t work.  But when it is carried out correctly, the game is unique and incredibly enjoyable.  And, due to various randomness that adds variability without detracting from skillful play, one game of Frisch Fisch is nothing like the next one.

Larry:  I agree with Joe in both areas.  I also didn’t include this game on my list, since it most certainly is not a game for everyone.  But for those who crave the exploration of something different, it should absolutely be on their Bucket List.  “Unique” is a word that gets bandied about a lot when describing games, and usually inaccurately.  But Fresh Fish is unquestionably, absolutely, and completely unique.  There really isn’t anything else remotely close to the expropriation rule in gaming and if Friedemann Friese had never designed another title, he’d be remembered fondly for this creation.

Joe:  I have to comment on one note of Larry’s.  While the expropriation rule is unique among published games – some time ago I was involved with a project, which never came to fruition, which invited a number of folks to contribute game designs.  And one person was working on a design – which independently recreated the expropriation rule; this designer had never played Frisch Fisch or seen it played.  I look at it as the best evidence I’ve seen that simultaneous development of game mechanisms happens far more often than stealing ideas.

Brian Leet:  I did nominate this game, for many of the same reasons as Joe. It is brilliant, and the very nature of what makes it challenging is also its reward. I also concur that the game simply does not work for a sizable chunk of the gaming population. But, when it does work, it sings, and you find yourself keeping track of those opponents to play with again. Also, like Joe, I’ve often kept this game in mind when looking at other designs. I call “The Fresh Fish Problem” any game which in its purest conception would be so difficult as to be practically unplayable by most gamers, and thus simplified to the point of being less interesting and a bit pablum. This was particularly true, in my opinion, of a recent Kickstarter funded release – but that is the subject of a different article.

– Löwenherz –

Joe Huber:  One of the characteristics often felt to be common to German games is a lack of direct interaction.  This is often true; German games are more likely to emphasize indirect interaction than American games, certainly.  But it’s by no means universal.  Given that I generally prefer indirect interaction to direct interaction, it’s no surprise that I tend to prefer German games to American games.

But really, it’s not direct interaction I dislike – I actually enjoy being able to tap away at another player’s position.  What tends to bother me are games where the direct interaction can be sufficient to completely take a player out.  As Löwenherz avoids this issue, I suppose it’s not shocking that it appeals to me in spite of the heavy levels of direct interaction.

But even among German games providing for direct interaction, Löwenherz is unique – it _forces_ it.  When playing with four players – the only way to play the game – there are three actions every round.  And only one of those actions – cash – can be shared.  Given that the piles of cash potentially shared are not impressive, you can count on a direct conflict for an action most rounds.  Now, it’s resolved by negotiation, so it’s not too cutthroat (save when three or more players vie for the same action) – but then many of the actions themselves are also used to directly interact, and one player grows his or her kingdom to steal territory from another.  This can be devastating – if you lose a portion of your territory because it’s cut off, you can easily end up losing more points than you gained for forming it.  But there are plenty of options to defend yourself – assuming you can win the actions that allow you those options.

There are a couple of friends of mine from high school who I still get together with when I visit my parents.  And they, like I, grew up with wargames – but unlike me, they’ve never been immersed in German games, save for the ones I’ve introduced them too.  But they’ve enjoyed the German games I’ve introduced them too enough to ask me to bring more when I’m there – but ones with something of a war element to them, if possible.  It’s no surprise, then, that Löwenherz has become a favorite to play together when we can rope in a fourth.

Larry:  Löwenherz, to me, is unquestionably Klaus Teuber’s masterpiece, Settlers of Catan notwithstanding.  It’s one of the most aggressive and nasty games I know, and yet the nastiness stems from the need to achieve goals and not because of mindless “take that!” decisions.  As Joe says, the game’s genius is that it forces the players to butt heads, and yet the rest of the game features the refined mechanisms you’d expect to find in a quality Euro.  You need to be ruthless, but you also have to be smart in picking your battles.  I believe it holds up wonderfully, better than just about any other game from the nineties.  This is one of my top ten favorite games and figures to maintain that status for a very long time.

– Zendo –

Jonathan Franklin:  This is likely the only induction game on the list.  It is really a skillful implementation of an older game, Eleusis.  Zendo uses Looney Labs Icehouse pieces.  They are skinny translucent pyramids come in three sizes and have numerous colors. The ‘master’ thinks up a simple rule and does not disclose it, such as ‘it has the buddha nature if it has a red pyramid touching the table’  The master then sets up two configurations, one has the buddha nature (a red pyramid touching the table) and the other does not.  Players then try to figure out the rule by posing examples to the master and looking at the aggregation of responses the master has given to the various configurations.  It is at the edge of the game/activity divide, but either way, a masterpiece.

Brian Leet:  I fully see this as a game, not an activity. However, you must recognize that the students compete with each other. The master is simply a facilitator of the round of play. Induction games of any nature are so rare that they will inevitably be compared. I think this is the best.

– Cosmic Eidex –

Nathan Beeler:  The game of choice when we have exactly three players, Cosmic Eidex is a beautiful little gem of a trick-taker.  It’s also a bit funky and hard to completely grok on the first play.  Or the third.  Or the eighteenth.  To give just a single backflip of the mental gymnastics involved in the game, allow me to explain the base scoring system.  Each round there are 157 points worth of cards in play, and two victory points to award.  In the normal course of things, the player who takes the most points and the fewest points will be awarded a victory point each.  However, if one of the players scores more than 100 points, the other two get the victory points.  Though, if all three are under 100 points but two of them tie, the other player snags both victory points.  If one player takes all the tricks (which may not be all the points) then that person get both victory points.  In the case of two players earning a single victory point where those points would cause them both to win, the player that scored the most points stays at six while the other drops to five and the game continues.  Finally, if all three players are at six victory points, a chaotic reverse hand is played and the winner of the game is the player who ordinarily wouldn’t have scored.  Whew!

That’s the dizzying target players have to aim at during play.  Now throw into the mix the idea that you can’t count your points as you’re playing and don’t know if you’re still under 100 but over your opponent.  Or the possibility for card strengths and values to change from hand to hand, in addition to trump suit (or there could be no trump).  Or even that there are variable player powers that constantly but possibly predictably change the implied course of a hand.  Add all that up, and I promise your mind will be happily melted by the end (player aids are critical).  All this is why you absolutely must play Cosmic Eidex before you die.

– Quacksalbe –

Joe Huber:  Most obscure games are obscure for a reason.  I first learned this as a result of my interest in classic videogames; most of the really rare Atari 2600 games are awful; the rarity was, to some extent, a consequence of the quality of the game.  The same is true, to a lesser extent, for boardgames.  There are exceptions – while it didn’t quite make my list, I could make a good case that Hotel Life is a game everyone should try, and I did include Auf Fotosafari in Ombagassa – but in general good games will be republished.

I learned about Quacksalbe while I was still absorbing the hobby, and thanks to Frank Branham I was able to track down a copy (if, unfortunately, not one of the even-harder-to-find English copies).  The game is definitely a Frank game – in this case, rather on the macabre side, as each player takes on the role of a quack.  But the life of a quack is hard; whichever treatment was most heavily applied will take the blame if the patient dies.  And of course, some patients are more valuable than others.  In the end, the doctor whose treatments have been most successful – or, often, least unsuccessful – wins.

As you might imagine, this makes for more of a beer-and-pretzels game than a brain-burner.  But the game also offers German sensibility to the gameplay, so that a game takes a half-hour consistently, while still offering lots of opportunity for nasty play.  In some sense, it’s a mix of American and German game styles, a decade before such things became popular.  (Of course, it’s far from the first such game; Die Schlact der Dinosaurier is yet another game I considered for this list, which arguably fits even better.)  Finding a copy – or someone with a copy – might be tricky, but it’s well worth the effort.

To be continued…

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6 Responses to 138 Games: From Frisch Fisch to Quacksalbe

  1. I’ve played Lowenherz and love Zendo, own Cosmic Eidex but haven’t found the right time to play it, and have Fresh Fish on my radar. I’d never heard of Quacksalbe but it sounds brilliant! I just found an Artscow deck and placed an order.

    • Wolf Wittenstein says:

      What a nice way down Memory Lane. Quacksalbe even had an extention: “Sizilianische Eröffnung” (10 new patients). Wucherer from Friedemann was another one of those “Early Crazies”.

  2. Bob Scherer-Hoock says:

    I absolutely endorse all the positive words about Lowenherz, but I’m wondering if any of the commenters have an opinion on Lowenherz vs. Domaine? I’ve always thought the Goldsieber version of my other Teuber favorite – Entdecker – was ruined by the Kosmos/Mayfair redo, but I own and very much like both Goldsieber’s Lowenherz and Kosmos/Mayfair’s Domaine, the latter seeming to me to be a quicker version that retains the best elements of the original. I don’t necessarily prefer either one. I like them both, and the choice of which to play, for me, just depends on the time available.

  3. huzonfirst says:

    Bob, I think Domaine is a solid game and worth playing. It also has a reasonable amount of nastiness in it that carries over from its big brother. However, I certainly don’t think it retains the best elements of Lowenherz. It’s more accessible and better suited for the German market, which tends to shy away from direct interaction. But while Domaine is a good game, Lowenherz is a great one. If someone in my group really preferred the later game, I wouldn’t mind playing it every now and then. But if we had a choice between the two games, I would ALWAYS suggest Lowenherz. Thankfully, we are able to get Lowenherz on the table with some frequency (we played it just last week, for example, and it was as terrific as ever). It’s been years since I’ve played Domaine and given that it does have some similarities to Lowenherz, that doesn’t bother me at all. If I were playing Domaine, there would be at least a small part of me that would be wishing I was playing Lowenherz instead.

    • Joe Huber says:

      I’ll disagree with Larry here. Domaine is a solid game – but I don’t think it’s worth playing. I find the things I like about Löwenherz completely missing in Domaine, and haven’t played it since it came out as a result.

  4. huzonfirst says:

    As a final word on Lowenherz, let me provide a description of the game that Jonathan Degann recently made: “On so many turns, you’re effectively auctioning off a gun which you know the other guy plans to shoot you with.” That is a perfect summation of the game and one of the big reasons it’s so fantastic.

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