SdJ Re-Reviews #33: Qwirkle

  • Designer: Susan McKinley Ross
  • Publisher:  MindWare, Schmidt, Others
  • Players:  2 – 4
  • Ages:  6 and Up
  • Time:  45 Minutes
  • Times Played:  > 10 (And many more on iOS…)

Qwirkle: An SdJ win six years in the making…

Qwirkle Box

In the spring of 2005, two good friends of Susan McKinley Ross were playing Scrabble at her house.  Both were talented Scrabble players, and Susan was enjoying watching them, when she realized that her favorite part of Scrabble is making words in two directions at once.  A few days later, she had the idea for Qwirkle.  “I had a dream where I saw something similar to a finished Qwirkle game. I woke up and decided it looked interesting enough that I should try to make it.”

Susan was already a freelance toy and game designer, focusing on children’s products.  She had founded her own product design company, Idea Duck, in 2002.  “It was fairly easy for me to get the first paper prototype made within hours of my dream.  The game evolved during development, but it was always about making lines of color and lines of shapes.”  One of the changes in development was the addition of a bonus for getting six tiles in a row.  Susan called the game Abstrackle.  

Susan had shown several of her creations to MindWare, but they had not picked up any of her submissions.  Nonetheless, she thought Abstrackle would fit well within their product catalog, especially since they sold many beautiful wooden games.  “MindWare was very enthusiastic about it as soon as they saw it.”

They ultimately agreed to publish the game, and their only modification was to switch the title to Qwirkle, which Susan agrees is a “much better name.”  Susan enjoyed working with MindWare, commenting that they “did a great job of bringing Qwirkle to market.”  The game was released in the United States in 2006.  

Susan made an additional change to the game after seeing the printed copy of the First Edition: “Almost as soon as I received the published version with the spiffy Qwirkle packaging, I realized that a finished set of six tiles needed to be called a Qwirkle. So it was called a Qwirkle in the second edition of the rules. It helped create a fun connection between the name and the game.”  

The game received critical acclaim on release, winning a few notable gaming awards, but it wasn’t eligible for the Spiel des Jahres until years later because it didn’t have a German release.  The game’s trip across the pond is itself quite interesting.  

After Qwirkle was released in the United States, Susan’s husband, Chris, started sending out review copies.  He sent a copy to Scott Alden, founder of BGG, for use at one of the early BGG conventions.  He also sent one to W. Eric Martin, who ran Boardgame News.  Scott called Qwirkle the sleeper hit of 2006 on the Garrett’s Games and Geekiness podcast, and Eric named Qwirkle his game of the year in 2007.

Scott and Eric’s enthusiasm led to game designer Jeff Allers asking Eric to bring a copy of Qwirkle when he visited Berlin.  Eric and his wife, Linda Formichelli, met Jeff and a few other game designers at Michael Schmitt’s game café, Spielwiese, for the first-ever “After-Essen Party,” which is now an annual event.  Eric and Linda played Qwirkle with designers Thorsten Gimmler and Andrea Meyer.  As Eric once wrote on Boardgame News, “Andrea made light of the game, as many do when they first hear the rules for Qwirkle (‘That’s all there is to it?’), but Linda and I crushed the two of them, with me barely eking out the win.”  As Eric has said, though Qwirkle’s rules are simple, it is a game where experience matters.  

As luck would have it, Thorsten Gimmler was an editor and product manager at Schmidt Spiele.  He contacted MindWare about releasing the game in Germany, and he started working with them to do so.  The German edition was published in 2010, giving it SdJ eligibility.  Susan said, “I’m deeply grateful for the chain of events that led to Qwirkle being published by Schmidt Spiele. I think they’ve been the perfect publisher for Qwirkle in Germany.”

Qwirkle was nominated for the 2011 Spiel des Jahres, competing against Forbidden Island and Asara.  Susan said she was “surprised and ecstatic” when she found out she was nominated, adding that there was lots of screaming and jumping up and down.  “For at least six months after Qwirkle was nominated, I would think, wow, Qwirkle was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. Wow. It took a while for the nomination to sink in, let alone the win.”

In giving Qwirkle the award, the jury praised the fast gameplay and beautiful way the tiles spread across the table.

To date, Qwirkle has sold more than two million copies and been released in more than a dozen-and-a-half languages.  It is for sale in more than 30 countries.  It spawned a spinoff game, Qwirkle Cubes, as well as a card game, Qwirkle Cards.  There’s a Star Wars Edition, a Disney Edition, and a Simpsons Edition.  There is also a popular iOS App.  For more information on Qwirkle’s accolades and other products, check out Susan’s website, Idea Duck.  

Susan continues to design games.  As for Qwirkle, not only is it still in print, but it is widely available, both at game stores and at big box retailers.  As Susan told me, “MindWare has done an excellent job of keeping the Qwirkle momentum strong.”

[Author’s Note:  I owe an enormous thank you to Susan McKinley Ross for agreeing to be interviewed for this article.  I also thank Eric Martin and Jeff Allers, both contributors to this site, for their insights on the history of the game.   Jeff says he still has “that early-edition battered up copy of Qwirkle that Eric gave” him, joking that it was the first copy of the game to be played in Germany. Although it was not an Essen release, the Spielwiese’s imported Qwirkle game was played every After-Essen Party from 2007 up until it was released in Germany and won the award.]

The Gameplay

Qwirkle consists of 108 tiles, three each of tiles in six colors and six symbols.  You’ll need a paper and pencil to keep score during gameplay.

Each player draws six tiles to create his or her hand.  Tiles stand so that only the player can see the printed side.  Players declare the largest number of tiles in their hand that are all one shape or all one color, and the player with the most matching tiles (not including duplicates) plays those tiles to start the game.  Play then advances clockwise.

You typically do three things on your turn:

  1. Place one or more tiles.
  2. Tally your score.
  3. Draw tiles from the bag to bring your hand back up to six.

If you can’t or don’t want to place tiles, you may discard instead.  This takes your entire turn.  You set set aside the discard tiles, draw the same number of tiles from the bag, and then mix the discarded tiles back into the bag.

The following rules apply to tile placement:

  • At least one of the tiles you play must touch side-to-side with a tile that has already been played.  You must match the color or shape of the line.  
  • You can play multiple tiles as long as all tiles played are the same color or shape and are placed in the same line.  
  • If you play multiple tiles, they do not need to touch each other, although they must be added to the same line.
  • You cannot play duplicate tiles in a line.

Given the above, there is a maximum of six tiles per line.  Additionally, as the game advances, spaces will naturally be created where no tile can be placed.

For scoring, a player earns one point for each tile in a line that he or she created or added to.  A tile can score two points if it is part of two lines.  

Whenever you create a line of all six colors or shapes it is called a Qwirkle.  It scores 12 points, six for the tiles in the line plus six bonus points.  

When there are no more tiles in the bag, the game continues as before, but players no long draw up to six tiles.  The game then ends when a player runs out of tiles.  He or she scores six bonus points.  

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

Qwirkle is a beautiful design, and I admire how the game creates an interesting and ever-changing experience out of so few rules.  The game is simple enough that even small children can understand it, yet fun strategies and tactics emerge.  The components are beautiful — the chunky wooden tiles are part of the game’s appeal — and gameplay is fast.  In short, Qwirkle has a lot to love.  

Qwirkle combines elements of hand management and tile placement in a way that is approachable yet strategic.  It is tempting to simply go after the most points — “Yes, I’ll take that 5-point line!” — but that can often be a losing approach.  In my experience, this game should be played defensively… don’t set others up for a Qwirkle!  And manage your hand so you can get a few.  

The game is beautiful, and like any good entry in the tile placement genre, it is fun to watch the game spread across the table.  That is particularly true with Qwirkle’s brightly-colored tiles.  The game is an excellent family game, and I see why it has sold so well.  

Qwirkle is an objectively good game, but it often gets brushed aside in the hobby.  I must admit that I haven’t always enjoyed Qwirkle as much as I do now.  I liked my first play well enough: it reminded me of Scrabble, only without constant fussing over whether a particular combination is a word.  Then I played with my Scrabble-loving parents, who still preferred Scrabble.  (It turns out that their favorite part of Scrabble might just be that fussing!)  With just two plays I had not yet found the game’s depth — although I suspected it was there —  and the game felt too abstract for even me.  I went neutral on the game and traded it away.  Then, on a friend’s recommendation, I tried the iOS App and started finding new ways to play.  At about the same time, a member of my game group brought his copy, and it was a big hit with everybody.  That’s a long-winded way of saying Qwirkle has clawed its way back to “I like it.” status.  I now have a copy on my shelf.  

Would Qwirkle win the SdJ today?  I think it would have a good shot.  As I’ve said before, the modern SdJ jury, unlike much of the hobby, is not afraid of abstract strategy games, and I think it has room to give one the award every few years.  Qwirkle has much of what the jury is looking for: easy-to-understand rules, family-friendly play, and beautiful components.  It is easy to see why Qwirkle was picked in 2011, and I think it’d have a shot against more recent nominees.  

Thoughts from Other Opinionated Gamers

Erik Arneson (20+ plays): Qwirkle is a truly delightful family strategy game. Elegant in its simplicity and just a lot of fun to play, like another gem of the genre: Blokus. My collection has few abstract games in it, but I’ll bring Qwirkle to the table anytime. Now, I just need to get my hands on the Star Wars edition…

Joe Huber (7 plays): Qwirkle is an enjoyable game – I’ve played with gamers, with my family, and with my extended family as well.  But for me, it’s too abstract a game to really be a favorite with me – I’m happy to play, but I’m never the one to suggest the game.  And I must admit to being more tempted by the Disney edition than the Star Wars edition…

Larry (about 10 plays):  Qwirkle is a pretty good game and an ideal gateway title.  I push my rating up to “I like it” because I can play it with my mom or other casual gamers and have it work for them, while enjoying myself as well.  It’s not terribly deep, but there’s still things to think about and basic strategies to follow.  Defensive play may be rewarded a bit too much, but it’s not a serious problem.  This was a perfect SdJ winner and I’m not surprised by the game’s success.

Jeff Allers: It’s funny, but even with the backstory that Chris explained above, I went through similar phases as he did with the game.  I liked it well enough at first, but preferred more thematic games, even if the themes were “pasted on.”  Then my wife took to it, and it was a nice way for her to connect with her gamer husband. But then I bought the iOS version for our iPad, and she practiced against the expert AI.   After that, she was unbeatable!  I soon became addicted to the iOS version as well, and I still enjoy getting a quick game in while I’m travelling short distances in the Berlin subway. Now my games with my wife are pretty intense, and we enjoy introducing others to the game.  In the U.S., I’ve especially enjoyed finding a viable alternative for my casual-gaming friends who like to play the decision-less “Mexican Train Dominoes.”

Yes, that beat-up copy of Qwirkle that Eric gave me a long time ago is still easily my most-played game every year, and if that isn’t Spiel des Jahres material, I don’t know what is.

Mark Jackson: This is my mom’s favorite game – and has become a family holiday staple. It reminds me of the board play of Scrabble without the need to memorize obscure words…

Patrick Brennan: A nice abstract, tile matching, point collecting game. There’s the constant dilemma of trying to maximise points whilst not setting up the next player to get even more points. The decision tree of candidate good moves isn’t too broad, so play tends to tick along nicely with the occasional pause – a good thing in an abstract. Yes it feels like an illiterate man’s Scrabble, with the crossword feel and the tile swapping action. Being alert to the tiles that are gone (there are 3 of each) will help you determine safe plays which opponents can’t build off, so there’s a bit of board perusal and counting required. There’s not a lot of tension or drama though – it’s more of a gradual points acquisition pastime.

Matt Carlson:  I don’t usually care much for abstracts, but the bright colors and shapes pull me in.  I find it a great way to get domino players into a much more interesting game.  It is curious I haven’t made the Scrabble connection, but I think I enjoy Qwirkle so much because of the aforementioned similarity to Scrabble’s placement rules.  It remains in my collection as a good “introduction to gaming” game…

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers

  • I love it!  Erik Arneson, Jeff Allers
  • I like it.  Chris W., Larry, Mark Jackson, Patrick Brennan, Matt C.
  • Neutral. Joe H.
  • Not for me…

 

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One Response to SdJ Re-Reviews #33: Qwirkle

  1. I kept meaning to add to Chris’s write-up, but never actually did so, instead writing only now after it’s posted.

    I’m still in the “love it” camp for Qwirkle, and it’s a prime example of a game that looks like nothing while having a lot going on under the hood. You might not care to discover that skill — the game is abstract, after all — but the more you play, the more you can anticipate what others will do so that you can block them, make a leading play that will help you later on, and so forth.

    As in the story above, I once taught Qwirkle to a gamer friend who competed in Scrabble tournaments and thought it looked like nothing, but I whomped him thoroughly. Everything that he knew for Scrabble worked against him in Qwirkle. As with so many games, you need to meet the game halfway, adapting your playing style to the nature of the gameplay and learning how to use those elements to your advantage.

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