Ripping off Reiner

I think I’ve found Reiner Knizia’s biggest fear. I’ve heard him repeat it several times in different interviews now, and I think it encapsulates one of the core concerns he has as a designer.

“If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail”

It usually comes in the context of people asking about his background, as a mathematician in a former life, do you think of games as systems, do you approach them analytically? If anything, he seems afraid to do so. If you approach a problem in a same way, with a system, you risk using the tools you have, rather than the tools you need:

“When you know a solution to a given puzzle, it’s hard to find another one. When you don’t know the solution, you’re much more likely to find your own. Not knowing others’ solutions helps keep your own ideas fresh.” RK

And this helps shed light on one of the most controversial angles of Reiner Knizia – His unwillingness to adapt to evolving design patterns. While, from what I can tell, he does play games by other designers on occasion, he will freely admit that he doesn’t do so much, he mainly relies on his playtesters to make sure he isn’t treading on the toes of another design he hasn’t played. This isn’t a novel idea in most creative mediums – Everyone has heard of famous actors unwilling to see previous actors’ portrayal of the same role in fear of being influenced – But say it in the context of gaming, and it seems much more radical. Here, the Doktor isn’t exhibiting hypocondrial fear of infectious design patterns, but trying to make sure he isn’t using someone else’s hammer when really, the solution may lie in a new tool that he has yet to design.

That’s all well and good, but that doesn’t much help us figure out what makes the Doktor’s designs flow as they do – and with a corpus of 500+ games, having an overarching narrative may be much more than we can hope for. But what do I need here. I need a few characteristic design patterns of the Doktor to extract for next week’s game. From my extensive research (I now have at least one full Ipad screen full of nothing but shortcuts to Knizia games), these are the qualities I’m choosing to focus on.

Simplify Simplify Simplify

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

-Patrick Stewart upon the discovery of Engineering in Civ 4. Also some French saint or something

“My approach is that the game should have very simple rules, and depth of play comes out of these simple and unified rules.”

The Doktor’s penchant for simplifying rules is his most defining characteristic. When given the choice between a slightly optimized experience and simplicity of rules, I think it’s safe to say Reiner Knizia will chose the option of simplicity every time. Lost Cities has a reputation as being a game to play with your non-gaming partner (on a side note, don’t call it a girlfriend game, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only person who’ll judge you), and with good reason. I could explain the game in five rules – with that in mind, comes my first rule when mimicking Reiner.

Rule Number 1. Game can be explained in < 5 rules.

For example, this is how I would explain Lost Cities in Five Rules:

  1. On your turn, you play a card to one of the five expeditions in front of you, either to your side of the expedition or to the discard stack in the middle. Then draw a card from the top of either another discard stack or the face down draw deck.
  2. An expedition is only scored if you have played cards to it. To determine your score, start with a base of -20, then add the numerical values of all cards you have played to your side, give yourself a 20 point bonus if you’ve played at least 7 cards to the expedition and then multiply the result by one plus the number of handshakes you’ve played. Your score for an expedition may be negative.
  3. Cards played to an expedition must be played in ascending numerical order. Handshakes may only be played before you’ve placed any numerical cards.
  4. The game ends at the end of the turn where the last card is drawn from the pile.

So, some of the rules are multi-part, but overall I think it fits in the “under 5 rules” camp. I’m still mentally trying to process the fact that just tonight I learned how to play High Society, Ra and Medici, each in about five minutes on the tablet while preparing to write this – and each one gave me a highly satisfying gaming experience- if that doesn’t blow your mind to the stone age, then I don’t know what to do for you.

As an aside, Reiner Knizia’s penchant for simplicity has an interesting consequence – it both enhances and reduces theme in very peculiar ways. That brings us to our second points.

Theme as a Feeling, not an Event

How can you theme an advancing phalanx with lightly illustrated cards from 1 to 10 (a la Battle Line), or the thrill of making promises you don’t know if you can keep or not with pretty much the exact same deck (in Lost Cities). People go back and forth about whether Knizia games lack theme, but when they do, they tend to, earnestly, be discussing two different things.

For some people theme means eye candy – if the board and components can be aesthetically appreciated on their own as art, that should fit in to some component of the game’s framework, and if I had to put it in one place, I would file it under theme.

For others, and I believe this is the majority of people – It’s how much the game can make them vicariously experience the event being described on the board. You might not really feel like you’re dominating a galaxy in that I’m sure that’s actually a lot harder than an admittedly demanding full-day session of Twilight Struggle, but you should feel like you’re experiencing it in a stylized way. Perhaps, the way we would imagine a galactic emperor being portrayed in a popular movie – how a character like that behaves should correspond to how you as a gamer feel while playing a thematic game. It’s an idealized and stylized version of the experience.

And then, there’s a smaller community, to which I believe Reiner Knizia is a member. To him, isn’t roleplaying, it’s genuinely recreating the same feeling in your mind – you aren’t pretending to be a galactic overlord, instead, your mind is processing the same questions a galactic overlord would. To illustrate the point, take Lost Cities. The theme here is venturing on expeditions, right? Yes, but what actually is being recreated is the feeling of making promises that you don’t know if you’ll be able to keep, just like a real adventurer securing funds for an expedition. And from that angle, it accomplishes something more special than the former. I’m not pretending to wrestle with these problems (like I may be pretending to be dominating the world in a sprawling 4X game), I’m genuinely experiencing them.

How does this tie in with simplicity of design? As the rules are simplified, so too do many trappings that would make the game more specific to the actual event being portrayed – that coupled with the fact that it’s actually the underlying feeling being captured through the game makes it so that the game is evoking a feeling that may very well be present in many other circumstances? Would Lost Cities work with a ton of other themes? Sure, but only as long as they also feature not knowing if you’ll be able to keep promises you’re making.

Rule Number 2. The Player Choices are the Theme

For example, take my favorite Knizia game, Battle Line. There, the theme is a general wrestling with the decision of not revealing his hand too early (by deploying to flags), and the need to take action. As the player deploys troops, the opponent’s ability to deduce their ability and know exactly what they need to do to surpass them is increased massively.

Familiar and Minimal Components

When I think of a Knizia game, I think of a deck of cards with predictable numbers. Rarely will you see unexpected action card that will surprise the other player – even in Battle Line, the only game I can think of with a deck of special cards, the cards are very easy to explain before the game starts and the opponent will very rarely be surprised by what they can do (there are a few wilds, one that disables formations and one that makes formations go 4 deep instead of 3 seems to be an adequate explanation). Reiner uses the word “sell” more often than I expected to hear it when discussing his games. When he does so, I don’t think it means he’s actually placing the financial return over any design considerations, but rather that a game should appeal to as wide an audience as possible. Familiar components help do so, it makes the novice feel like they have a shot against the expert (even though the minimal additional components probably actually accomplishes the opposite since the randomness vectors are reduced) since we’re all coming in with the same knowledge. This is how we get rule 3.

Rule Number 3. Simple Components

I mean, just look at how simplified the Lord of the Rings Confrontation map is to as compared to Stratego. Way to cut out so much of the fat there Reiner and realize that so much of that was just not necessary for the central bluffing mechanic to work.

Familiar Setting with a Twist

“Every game designer has his own handwriting and his own strengths. I know people come from the graphical side and they draw a board and say ‘I don’t know how the game works, but I’ll draw the board and then I’ll get an idea. I’m more of the scientific person, the mathematician. And that helps you because mathematics is about building models and building complex systems. But games are not about mathematics, games are about fun and enjoyment. So I’m using my strengths where I can but I have to be careful that I’m not trying to calculate everything.” RK

With over 500 games, Reiner Knizia obviously goes through many different modes of accomplishing design. We already talked about designing to evoke a particular feeling. But going along with that, I think there’s another that goes hand in hand. Often, he’ll take a very established genre, and just explore with breaking one piece of it, and just explore how far down the rabbit hole that takes us.

The best example of this phenomena I believe is High Society. This would be one of the most simple auction games you’ve ever played (with the small twist that you bid using cards in your hand – a subtle note in the design, overshadowed I believe by the following), except for one major twist. If you have the least money left over at the end of the game, you lose.

That sounds like it shouldn’t work at all! How about a Power Grid variant where the last player to burn coal just loses the game at the end. Sounds like a terrible game! But this twist is in such a sensitive direction that it just works perfectly to turn the entire game on its head. Or that in Modern Art, the auction type is chosen by the dealer – a fairly simple twist that without it, would result in a completely trivial, boring game. But with that slight nudge – a nudge that hardly increases rule complexity at all, we have a brand new experience!

Rule Number 4. One Small Twist on an Established Genre with Massive Consequences

Now, not all games fit this mold exactly (What would Tigris & Euphrates’ twist be exactly?), but I do think it is a common thread through many of his designs, and so I’ll try to incorporate it into mine.

Controlling the Reveal of Information

Guessing what you’re opponent has, and very carefully controlling what your opponent knows about you is another massive component of Knizia’s designs. In Lost Cities, keeping your opponent from knowing that you have a hand full of white cards and that you’re just waiting for him to unload that one fucking handshake that you just know he’s holing on to because he’s on like 4 other expeditions already is key. In Battle Line, knowing whether your opponent actually has that card to complete the straight flush is vitally important. It’s a great mechanic and really emblematic of Reiner Knizia’s designs to me.

Rule Number 5. Players Make Tradeoffs in Revealing Information as the Game Goes On

Truth be told, the great inspiration for this blog was from a recent Ludology episode on Reiner Knizia. I thought to myself, if you weren’t so busy oozing feral animal magnetism, wouldn’t this be a good way to get the design juices flowing? Design a game in the style of Reiner Knizia. One thing I do believe, is that if you want to come up with a groundbreaking idea, often the best thing you can do is keep producing at high speed – even if what you’re producing is far from great. Great ideas rarely come when we’re actively looking for them – they often come by accident, when we’re least ready for them (I remember a particular interview with Matt Leacock where he revealed the mechanic of putting the shuffled cards back on top of the deck in Pandemic was a mistake a co-tester made while they experimented which turned out to be a cornerstone part of the design).

  1. Opinionated Gamers The Art of Design: Interviews to game designers #6
  2. Board game designer Reiner Knizia interview
  3. Ludology. Kniziathon
  4. SeriouslyBoard interview with Reiner Knizia
  5. Knucklebones 2006 interview
  6. The Board Gaming Life

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