138 Games: From Taj Mahal to ZERTZ

Today the 138 Games series finishes out the year 2000 with five more games from that year that you’ve just got to try.  We have two more Knizia games for you this time, but only one more to go for the rest of the series.  Rounding out today’s five recommended games are a Schacht classic, a Burm abstract, and another Joe Huber obscure special.  Make sure to check these games out and then check back next week for the games from 2001 that you simply must play.

– Taj Mahal –

Rick Thornquist:  Here’s an indication of how good I think Taj Mahal is: it’s my favorite game.  Why is it my favorite game, you ask?  Well, there’s tons of strategy, almost no luck, lots of player interaction, almost no downtime, and with the card draw and sequence of provinces changing every game it’s always a new challenge.  What more could you want?  My favorite thing is that after almost every game I see a strategy that I hadn’t seen before – that always keeps me coming back.  I played it again just a few days ago and though it’s my zillionth play of the game, I still found it to be awesome.

Nathan Beeler:  Taj Mahal is not my favorite game, but I do love it.  I’ve heard many folks complain that the game comes down to whether or not your opponents decide to fight you over the critical things you need for your plan.  I can understand what they’re saying, and it can be annoying when things don’t come easily.  But in my experience that always seems to happen to everyone at crucial times.  Subsequently, the game becomes entirely about picking your battles.  If you’re paying attention, there’s plenty of warning when a major showdown is going to break out.  Players generally have time to plan for it, or to duck away and fight again later from a position of strength.  To me, this is fun.  Whatever the case, Taj Mahal contains a lot of experiences you can’t get from other games, and must be tried at least once.

– Traumfabrik –

Rick Thornquist:  Traumfabrik may be considered a standard auction and set collecting game if not for two things.  First is the movie theme, which allows you to do silly things like cast Jimmy Stewart in Frankenstein (I’d pay to see that).  Second, and I think this is what really appeals to most gamers, is the auction mechanism where the winner distributes his payout to the other players – a very interesting and novel system that adds strategic depth.  In the end you have a great game that’s both fun and challenging.

Erik Arneson: I love auction games, and I rank Traumfabrik as the second-best auction game of all time, only behind Knizia’s other true masterpiece of the genre, Ra.

Nathan Beeler:  Play it once, readers.  Play Traumfabrik.  Whenever I play it I always have a wonderful time, wherever I am, whoever I’m with.  If you’re like me you could become obsessed with a game with a theme like studio era movie making.  The closed economy means it’s no trick to make a lot of contracts, if what you want to do is make of lot of contracts.  But sitting back and collecting them while others complete films and collect stars will ensure you’re not a contender.  At the right times you’ll find that caution is for popinjays and cockatoos, and you must bid high.  If someone complains about bidding them up, tell them frankly, you don’t give a damn.

Larry:  Perhaps more than any other game I play, Traumfabrik is greater than the sum of its parts.  Mind you, those parts are pretty good.  The closed economy was a cool innovation and the concept of having to acquire specific kinds of items for the groupings you score with is quite clever.  Plus, it’s probably the best job Knizia has ever done of applying an attractive theme to one of his games.  But in spite of all this, it’s still just another auction game, with good, but not great mechanics.  Here’s the thing, though:  it’s just plain fun to play.  Traumfabrik is consistently enjoyable, more than the rules would lead you to expect.  This is true whether or not you find casting Boris Karloff in “Bambi” worthy of uproarious laughter.  It’s on the short list of games that are always suggested when we have 5 players and plays just as well with fewer.  And the biggest reason for that is that the fun factor is even higher than the fine gameplay.  Not a bad recommendation for a game!

– Troia –

Joe Huber:  Many – indeed, most – of the games included on this list are highly rated on BGG.  Some have too few ratings to be ranked, but most that do have a rank are ranked well.

Not Troia.

If you were to go through the rankings, looking for Troia, you would currently need to reach the 71st page before you found the game.  Of course, by the time you got there, you wouldn’t recognize many of the games; this is the no-man’s land of the rankings, too low to be much thought of or recognized, and too high to be Monopoly.  The average rating of 5.5 isn’t too suggestive of a game you need to play.  But Troia is a unique game – and a look through the ratings suggests a polarizing game, more so than a bland and forgettable game.

One of the comments from someone who doesn’t enjoy the game gives a strong clue as to why you might not enjoy the game: “More ‘Research Project at Indiana University’ than ‘Chasing Artifacts with Indiana Jones’. This is a true representation of archeology, right down to the time-consuming and random sifting through soil, hoping to find something worthwhile.”  Players literally pour over the “dirt” (in the form of tiles), trying to pick out features of interest, and align them with the various levels of artifacts in Troy.  In spite of the time-consuming and somewhat random nature of this, the game plays comfortably in an hour, and there are a number of other interesting decisions to be made such as when and what to publish.

Even so, you might hate this game.  I really enjoy it, but that’s not why I’d recommend that everyone try the game.  The reason you should play the game is simple – you’ll likely never play another game anything like it.  And that’s enough reason to play any game, in my book.

Brian Leet: And again we see why Joe and I see eye to eye on the experience of play.  I was introduced this game about seven years ago and have only had a couple opportunities to try it.  But it is unique, fun, and a nice diversion from headier fare.

– Web of Power –

Larry:  Today, we call games like Web of Power “super fillers.”  Back in 2000, we somewhat less elegantly would say, “That’s a lot of game for a short duration.”  Either way, the concept is a design that gives you a lot of bang for the buck and Web of Power was one of the first examples of that.

Kardinal und König (the game’s name in Germany) was the title that put Michael Schacht on the gaming map.  It’s a fine example of minimalist design and really reflects one of Schacht’s principal design philosophies – “Less is more.”  The scoring mechanic is tricky and surprisingly subtle.  The rules for advisors are elegant and are at the heart of the game’s strategy; I’m not sure any other game uses anything quite like them.  There’s a reasonable luck factor, but it can be minimized and seems entirely appropriate in a game of this length.  Even though the game doesn’t feel heavy, there’s plenty of strategy and scope for skillful play.  In short, when it was released, this was the perfect game when you had 3 players and less than an hour to play.  More than a dozen years later, it’s still one of the best choices in that situation.


Mark Jackson: Two-player abstracts are – at least to me – usually a complete snoozefest. Their abstract/perfect information nature leads to analysis paralysis and, if not well thought through, designs that tend towards stalemates and/or the ability to “solve” the game.  I can feel a yawn coming on even as I begin to type.

My lack of general interest in these games doesn’t stop me from recommending that pretty much everyone who takes board games seriously should play ZERTZ.  (Yeah, I’m bothered by the all-caps title, too… still not sure why the titles of all the games in the GIPF series – which ZERTZ is a part of – sound like someone “yelling” fake cuss words online.)  The shrinking board mechanic ramps up the pressure & speeds the game towards a conclusion as the decision tree is pruned by the very nature of the game. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the components are gorgeous.

To be continued…

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3 Responses to 138 Games: From Taj Mahal to ZERTZ

  1. Eric Brosius says:

    We play Web of Power in 25 minutes, and it’s a whale of a game. Mark Johnson was talking in his latest Boardgames to Go about board games (not card games) that feel like real games but play quickly, and Web of Power was the first game I thought of. I was happy when he mentioned it as an example.

  2. Doug says:

    Taj Mahal – one of the must own Euros. Amazing game…. like bringing an elephant to a knife fight. What a minute…

  3. peer says:

    Troia is a cool choice. I think its a great experience, but shouldnt be played seriously, because than it tends to slow. There are many archeology-themed games out there, but only two (imho) that capture the true feel well: Jenseits von Theben and TRoia (the latter captures the feel better, the former is the better game)

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