SdJ Re-Reviews #19: Mississippi Queen

  • Designer:  Werner Hodel
  • Publisher:  Goldsieber, Rio Grande
  • Players:  3 – 5
  • Ages:  10 and Up
  • Time:  45 Minutes
  • Times Played:  5 (On the Rio Grande Edition)

Mississippi Queen Cover

Mississippi Queen: Racing Against Obstacles in Paddleboats

Mississippi Queen traces its roots to 1986, when designer Werner Hodel was teaching high school math and physics.  One day, when Hodel was walking up a flight of stairs to the teacher’s lounge, a mob of students came storming down.  He had to dodge them in order not to fall, moving left and right as they rushed past.  An idea clicked in his brain: a race game in which characters have to avoid oncoming obstacles.  He jotted down some initial notes and thought more about the game in the days that followed.

The first prototype was completed within a few weeks.  He called the game “Rafting,” and it simulated rushing down a wild river.  Early versions had two dice showing the power and speed.  Hodel showed the game to nine publishers between 1986 and 1995, but they all declined to pick up the game.

The game’s big break came in 1995 after Hodel won third prize at the Hippodice Spieleclub game design competition.  Hodel played Rafting with Wolfgang Lüdtke of Goldsieber, who took a copy of the prototype for consideration.

Getting Goldsieber to pick up the game took a year and a half.  The publisher would call every four to six weeks, usually on a Sunday around noon, when Hodel and his wife were sitting down to eat.  As Hodel told me, the call usually started with, “Werner, we have a problem…”  The publisher would give Hodel a few days or weeks to solve the issue, and Hodel would offer fixes and suggestions.

In one playtest, Lüdtke, Hodel, and Hodel’s young daughter, Nora, played the game.  Nora won.  Lüdtke was amused that a little girl could beat two “intelligent old men,” but that play triggered another round of game development.

One Sunday Goldsieber called with what they considered to be a big problem, and they said if Hodel couldn’t find a fix in six weeks they wouldn’t be able to publish the game.  Hodel solved the problem in four, and they called him two weeks after that to say they would like to publish the game.  Werner was ecstatic that his creation would finally be printed.  It was Goldsieber that named the game “Mississippi Queen,” thinking that going down the Mississippi in a steam boat would be better received than fighting down a cold, wild river.

Klaus Teuber, of Catan fame, was working with Goldsieber at the time, although he was also still running the dental lab he had inherited from his father.  Teuber made components for early Mississippi Queen prototypes out of materials from his dental lab.  It was also Teuber’s idea to have the rule about picking up two passengers.

Goldsieber published the game in 1997 to critical acclaim.  Hodel was on vacation in the Western United States with his uncle when his wife called and informed him that he was one of the nominees.  He said winning the Spiel des Jahres was a dream, but after that phone call the dream became a bit more concrete.  A few weeks later, when Hodel was at the Spieleautorentreffen in Göttingen, a journalist from a major newspaper interviewed him, raising his hopes.  He had heard insinuations that he might win, leading to many sleepless nights.

Finally, on a Thursday he got the call, telling him that he had won.  He rushed out into the garden and told his Nora, who was nine at the time.  She shouted: “Mam, where is the champagne?”  Hodel said he will never forget the look on his neighbor’s face!

In awarding Mississippi Queen the 1997 Spiel des Jahres, the jury noted that the game was a “big adventure.”  The year 1997 was one of the most competitive in history: other games nominated included the Catan Card Game, Löwenherz (also by Goldsieber), and Bohnanza.  Gamers were pushing for Löwenherz, but after selecting two relatively complex games, the jury sought to return to a more family-friendly experience.  Mississippi Queen ranked fourth in Deutscher Spiele Preis voting that year.

A radio journalist came to Hodel’s home to conduct an interview after the SdJ win.  The journalist asked Nora what she thought of the game.  She said, “I like it, but my Dad has even better games.”  The journalist laughed, and the comment was ultimately broadcasted.  In another funny story, about a year and a half after the win Hodel’s mother later told him she had been afraid he’d get big-headed, but she informed him that she was happy to report that he was still the same.

Mississippi Queen went on to sell 350,000 copies in its first year and many copies after that, making it one of the most successful sellers of the late 1990s.  Rio Grande published an English edition in 1997.

An expansion — Mississippi Queen: The Black Rose — was printed by Goldsieber and Rio Grande in 1998.  Goldsieber asked for the expansion a couple of weeks after the SdJ win, and Hodel completed his work on it in about six weeks.  The expansion is highly sought after, as many gamers insist on playing with it.  The expansion can be quite pricey: copies in the U.S. routinely cost more than $60.  Both Mississippi Queen and its expansion have been out of print since about 2003.

Mississippi Queen marked the second time that a Spiel des Jahres winner had been illustrated by Franz Vohwinkel.  The game was the first and only win for Goldsieber, which slowed in its pace of publishing shortly after the start of the new millennium.

As for Herr Hodel, he has self-published a few games over the years, and he continues to design games.

The Gameplay: Paddlewheeler racing, resource management, and a hint of pickup and deliver, all mixed with a modular game board…

The overview below focuses on full game rather than the introductory game, although I point out the differences.  The game isn’t complex, so I recommend starting out with the full rules.  All photographs are from the Rio Grande edition.

Each player receives a paddlewheeler with two paddlewheels, one red and one black.  The red represents “speed” and starts the game set to “1”.  The black represents “coal” and starts the game set to “6”.  All boats are placed on starting spaces on the starting tile.  A second tile is drawn for the map and adjoins the starting tile in the straight ahead position.
Mississippi Queen Overhead Shot

At the start of the game the player in the first player position begins.  In the introductory game, the game is then played in a clockwise turn order.  In the full game the player that is furthest ahead goes first each round.  Who is furthest ahead is first determined by how far along on the river a player is.  Ties are first broken by speed and then by coal.

On a player’s turn, the player may, before moving, regulate the speed on the speed wheel (red numbers). He may keep the speed or raise or lower it by one point for free. If the player wants to change his speed by more than one point, he will require coals: for each additional speed point (lowered or raised) he will need one coal point.  The number on the speed wheel indicates the number of spaces a player may move, and after he is done regulating the speed on the speed wheel, he moves that number of spaces.  A player may not move backwards or over land tiles.

A player may “push” other paddlewheelers, but this costs one space of movement per paddlewheeler pushed.  The pushed player may immediately point his paddlewheeler in a new direction.  Should the player have enough movement points to reach the space occupied by another paddle-wheeler, but not enough spare points to push aside, he cannot move onto this space.  He must still fully utilize his movement points and must move onto another space instead.  Paddlewheelers may not be pushed onto land.

Each player can make one turn of 60 degrees in either direction for free.  Each additional 60 degree turn costs one coal point. Turns may occur before, during or after the move.

If at any point the final coal point is used, the player’s coal paddlewheel is returned to the box.  If later on, the paddle-wheeler without coal wheel would require another coal point (likely to change directions), it is removed from the river and that player drops out of the game.

Whenever a paddle-wheeler reaches a new river tile, meaning one on which no other paddlewheeler has yet traveled, the player must attach another river tile. (This can happen as the result of pushing.)  To determine the direction of the new tile, the game’s dice is rolled, and the new tile will be attached to the left, middle, or right.  The tile is only placed after a player has completely finished his movement.  River tiles cannot be placed in a continuous loop.  If this happens, the dice is rerolled.  Once a river tile has been completely vacated, it can be put back in the box.  The full game starts with a stack of eleven river tiles.

In the full game, each player must pick up two passengers on his way to the finish line.  These passengers are on islands that appear on various tiles, with the number of passengers placed depending on the number of players in the game.  To pick up a passenger, a player must end his turn at a boating platform with a speed of “1”.  A player cannot collect two passengers from the same island, and once a player has picked up two passengers, he may not pick up more.

Mississippi Queen Passenger Pickup

The first paddle-wheeler that first reaches one of these end spaces wins. Remaining movement points can be forfeited to do this.

Does it stand the test of time?  My thoughts on the game…

Mississippi Queen is a fun and simple race game, and I’ve enjoyed my plays.  The game features a clever combination of several mechanics — racing, resource management, and pickup and deliver, all with a modular game board — yet it seems streamlined and remains approachable.  Watching the game board furl around the table is fun, but the most interesting part of the race is the resource management side, which can be unexpectedly tricky.

I’ve seen a few players exit the game because they found themselves needing to make a tight turn without any coal.  It can be tempting to use the coal supply to pull ahead, but the need to pick up passengers — and the uncertainty added by the modular game board — means that reaching speed “6” is rarely an effective strategy.  Mississippi Queen is one of those race games where slow and steady can win the race.

At its best the game can turn into bumper boats, and that’s why it is best with four or five players.  Mississippi Queen doesn’t seem like an interactive experience at first, but there are elements of it: you can act as an obstacle on the gameboard, push other players into disadvantageous positions, and even rush to pick up passengers before others have the opportunity.

In the end, though, this isn’t a race game with a lot of drama, at least not in my experience.  And that’s my biggest complaint: it can be a bit dry, especially where the players separate from each other.  The game’s expansion — The Black Rose — helps with this, and I don’t know that I’ll ever play again without the expansion.  (The expansion adds new tiles featuring new terrain types, materials for an extra player, an extra boat to be controlled by the player in last place, and coal refueling stations.)

The Spiel des Jahres jury says on their website that this is one of their most controversial picks.  Gamers were cheering for Löwenherz (which won the DSP), and on the heels of Catan and El Grande, it is easy to see how many thought that a more complex game might be tapped.  Nonetheless, I think Mississippi Queen was a far better pick than Löwenherz.  I love Löwenherz — and indeed count it among my favorite games — but it is too confrontational to be a SdJ winner, and it can be a bit difficult to grasp.  I think Mississippi Queen was a fine choice, but if any game was robbed it was Bohnanza.  I personally would have picked Bohnanza, and that game has arguably had the bigger impact on the hobby.  I know it still gets a lot of play time at conventions and in my game group.  That said, Mississippi Queen was was a deserving winner.

Would Mississippi Queen win the SdJ today?  I doubt it, although I don’t think that it would be out of the question.  Mississippi Queen is family-friendly and approachable, plus it adds some fresh elements to the race genre, such as using a modular board.  But as I’ve said before, race games are a dime a dozen, and I think it would face stiff competition to stand above the crowd.

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Dale: As I did back then, I believe that Mississippi Queen is an adequate race game.  I tend to enjoy racing games, and would probably never turn one down, but this one doesn’t necessarily stand out in that crowd.  I did play this a fair amount when it came out due to the relative scarcity of games, and while I no longer track my game plays, I remember playing this last year or the year before when we were looking for “classic” older games to show the newer members of our game group that were new to the hobby.

Patrick Brennan: A nice racing game, with a nice catch the leader mechanism – the leader never knows if the next portion of track is going to veer left, right or centre, so they need to position themselves carefully or face being caught on the wrong side of the track. The requirement to slow down to a stop twice in the game to do first in, first served pick-ups creates for some mid-race competition. Lots to like for a family situation as it lasts just the right length of time (20-30 minutes) for what it is. The Black Rose expansion didn’t do anything for me in terms of improving the game experience, slowing it down, so we’ve ignored it.

Dan Blum: I’ve been playing this off and on since 1997, and while it’s been more off than on I still enjoy an occasional play. It feels distinctly different from other race games and doesn’t outstay its welcome for me, so I expect to continue owning it and playing it for a while. I have the expansion but haven’t used it much. While I think this was a decent choice for SdJ, I agree that Bohnanza is the clear choice from 1997.

Joe Huber (29 plays): Unlike others, I’m generally not a fan of racing games; I believe I could count every race game I own on one hand, with at least one finger left over.  But in spite of that – or perhaps because of that – Mississippi Queen has long been a favorite of mine.  I think a lot of this is because of the variety of options offered, on any given turn.  Most race games feel highly constrained to me, due to the nature of races, but Mississippi Queen feels very fluid, at least for most turns.  It’s also nicely briefly, comfortably finishing in a half hour.

Of course, having said this, I have to note that it wasn’t my favorite – or even second or third favorite – of the games recommended by the jury in 1997.  But this is no knock on Mississippi Queen – in spite of numerous challenges, 1997 remains my favorite year ever for new games.  Mississippi Queen is one of a few games in the running for my third favorite SdJ winner ever.  Finally, I’m in the same camp relative to The Black Rose as Patrick and Dan.  I have a friend who loves the expansion; I can deal with it, but prefer the game without it.

Greg Schloesser:  Like Joe, I tend to not be a fan of race games.  Mississippi Queen was unique when it was published, and the theme and components were certainly attractive.  However, after numerous plays, most races felt lackluster and unexciting.  I would return to the game several times over the years, but it always resulted in a rather mundane experience.  I eventually sold the game and its Black Rose expansion.

Larry:  I’ve only played this once.  I thought it was pretty good and I usually don’t care for race games.  On the other hand, there’s nothing about the game that particularly distinguishes it from others in the genre and while I wouldn’t mind playing it again if it was requested by others, I would also be perfectly happy if my one play turned out to be my last of it.

I can see why it’s considered a controversial choice for the award, but it’s not hard to defend the selection.  As great as Lowenherz is, it’s way too contentious for families.  And while Bohnanza has certainly proved to be the more popular title over the years, I have to feel the SdJ had much more of an impact on Mississippi Queen’s sales than it would have for the bean game.  I mean, Bohnanza managed to sell a jillion copies even without the award.  The jury’s main concern is improving the health of the game industry in Germany and by giving the SdJ to MQ, it resulted in two bestsellers, not just one.  Hard to argue with the logic.

Mark Jackson: I enjoy -some- racing games… my rant about Formula De can wait for another day and/or article. Mississippi Queen has always been a favorite of mine – and we haven’t experienced the low tension that other writers have noted.

And put me down as one of those who really likes the Black Rose expansion – not so much for The Black Rose, but for the coaling station tiles. We actually play by just adding the coaling stations and the “crazy islands” tile to the base game, leaving out the sandbars and the floating logs.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Joe H., Mark Jackson
  • I like it.   Chris W., Patrick B., Dan Blum
  • Neutral.  Dale, Greg S., Larry
  • Not for me…
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