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Reiner Knizia is perhaps the most prolific board game designer of all time. The doctor’s work has won so many awards and nominations that it requires a dedicated webpage of ever-growing titles just to keep track of everything. These awards span a total of THIRTY YEARS now and represent only a small slice of the more than 700 games and books published worldwide.
Reiner’s work ranges from simple, colorful children’s games to sprawling, thinky strategy games, and everything in-between. But if there’s any common thread that runs through all of his games, it is probably best described by the man himself:
“What I want to achieve: Simple games, but then the people bring themselves into it. And you see out of the simplicity, a second level of depth. That keeps you playing.”
Dr. Knizia understands how to boil a game down to its simplest, purest essence while retaining a strong core of player influence and interaction. In the world of Knizia Games, what often appears to be a shallow puddle from above quickly reveals itself to be a deep, dynamic well beneath the surface. If there’s anything I’ve observed from the roughly 20 Knizia Games in my collection, it is that there is always more to unfold within even his most basic of designs.
Here at Bitewing Games, we are thrilled at the opportunity to publish and share with the world two more of Reiner’s brilliant designs. When Dr. Knizia presented these games to us, we experienced firsthand how they fulfill his motto of “Bringing enjoyment to the people.” As the publisher, we are currently hard a work making these clever games look, feel, and play as amazingly as possibly.
In celebration of this recent development, I thought it appropriate to share my top 10 Reiner Knizia games. At the end of this post, I’ll be revealing even more juicy details about the two Knizia Games that will part of our Kickstarter campaign later this year. So let’s strap in and explore some of the best board games in the industry from the master designer himself…
10. High Society
Now almost 30 years old, High Society is a classic card game that belongs in everybody’s collection. Players start out with the same hand of cards representing their heaping of wealth that they’ll use to acquire extravagant luxuries through bidding. The catch is that at the end of the game, whoever spends the most wealth as they flaunt their prized vanities will be cast from High Society due to their relative poverty and eliminated from victory.
What really makes High Society unique is the card play. Players starting hands of wealth are broken up into eleven cards of varying values–1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 15, 20, and 25–and deciding which cards to play into the auction can be very tricky. As opponents keep raising the bid on me, I can choose to inch my bid ahead of theirs with my low value cards, but if I win the bid then I won’t have those cards to use in future auctions! You can very quickly find yourself forced to bid far higher than you want if your only remaining cards are 12, 15, 20, and 25.
What exactly are you bidding for? Points, to put it bluntly. More specifically, there are luxury cards ranging from 1-10. These are the most straightforward. The prestige and disgrace cards are where things get hairy. The three prestige cards will double your score for each one you have in your final winnings. These cards also serve to trigger the end of the game as they are revealed from the draw pile of sequential auctions, which can often be far sooner or later than you’d like.
The disgrace cards are perhaps my favorite. These are cards that nobody wants to take, and instead of the highest bidder paying to receive the card, the first person to pass must take it and everyone else pays whatever they have bid up to that point. These cards either cut your final score in half, force you to trash a hard-earned luxury card, or give you negative 5 points.
The 2018 version of High Society is perhaps the prettiest, and it can be acquired at a very reasonable price of $15-20.
9. Modern Art
Continuing on with Reiner’s auctioning classics, here we have a richly thematic game of bidding for art that is only as valuable as everybody else thinks it is. Players act as museums and take turns auctioning off pieces of art by playing a card from their hand. If another player buys the card, then the auctioneer receives all the money, yet the auctioneer can decide to buy it for themselves and lose that money to the bank. And money here is the crux of the game, because whoever has the most at the end wins.
The only reason you’ll want to buy art is if you expect to make a profit on it at the end of each of the four rounds. But a specific artist’s work is only as valuable as the group determines them to be. The more one artist’s work is auctioned off in a round, the more valuable their paintings become to own.
Modern Art is a highly interactive experience of players tossing burning matches into several haystacks of opportunity and then scrambling to douse certain stacks with gasoline while smothering others with water depending on personal incentives. This clever yet simple premise never fails to entertain, and it’s made all the more fun by the fact that there are four different types of auctions that players participate in throughout the game.
8. Blue Lagoon / Through the Desert
This won’t be the last of my “this or that” games on this list, so I’ll prepare you with this caveat: as a huge Knizia fan, I find all of these options to be must-owns in my collection. Although they share some similar concepts and mechanisms, these games play out uniquely enough that I couldn’t bear the thought of keeping one and disposing of the other. If you prefer a more trimmed-down collection, I’ll try to point out the key differences to help you decide which may be the better fit.
Through the Desert is a part of Dr. Knizia’s legendary “Tile-laying Trilogy.” For those who love having a central, shared, interactive space where players contribute to building things up (usually with tiles) in interesting ways, Reiner’s work is arguably the greatest of all time within this genre.
With Through the Desert, players are actually placing out plastic camels instead of tiles on the board, and it is sneakily brilliant. Player turns are as quick and zippy as placing two camels onto empty spaces anywhere on the board. Yet its the objectives and limitations that make this such a killer experience.
Players will compete to reach waterhole tokens first for exclusive points, touch oases for more points and cut off opponents from reaching the same privilege, build the longest trail of each camel color for end-game points, and section off entire areas for mega scoring. With all of these juicy carrots dangling one or two spaces away from your camel routes, it becomes agonizing to decide where to send your next camels as you see your opponents snatching these carrots away first. One must balance claiming short-term gains against telegraphing long-term strategies.
Due to my icy heart, my favorite aspect of this game is forcing opponents into torturous dilemmas like I’m the Joker. When I see Opponent A telegraph an intention of stealing a token away from Opponent B, I know that Opponent B has every intention of pouncing on that token before Opponent A has the chance to seal the deal. That’s the exact moment when I telegraph my intention of stealing a different valuable opportunity away from Opponent B. Now Opponent B must decide which thing they love more, because they can only save one of them on their turn. Let the writhing begin. MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAA!!!
Everything I’ve just described about Through the Desert is also provided in the newer design, Blue Lagoon. Except instead of using camels in the desert you are using native settlers, explorers, and huts in the pacific islands. Claiming flat points from waterholes is replaced with collecting sets of goods tokens. Reaching oases is replaced with connecting islands. Sectioning off areas of sand is replaced with claiming area majorities on islands. These subtle thematic and mechanical differences make for an equally compelling yet deliciously distinct game.
Both Through the Desert and Blue Lagoon are KILLER options as fast, simple strategy games. They’re friendly enough to be accessible yet mean enough to be tense and interesting. Perhaps the ultimate factor of which game you should choose (if not both) is that Blue Lagoon is much cheaper and easier to find in stores. Either way, don’t pass these golden games up!
7. Lost Cities
Even 22 years on from its initial release, Lost Cities remains one of the absolute best 2-player games that money can buy. Fast, slick, tense, and addicting, this card game has it all. Players use a deck of cards containing five colors, each with values 2-10 and three special “handshake” cards. Each turn they must play a card onto their side, thereby committing to an expedition of that color, or they can discard it onto a shared discard board, then they draw another card to end their turn. But you can either draw from the deck or take a card that one of you discarded previously.
Committing to an expedition by playing the first card of that color onto your side means that you automatically lose 20 points at the end of the game (traveling isn’t free, you know!). So you’ll be spending the rest of the game scrambling to add more cards of that color to get yourself out of the hole and into positive points. The only problem is that you have the play the cards in ascending values, meaning that if you play an 8 on top of 3 then you’ve just given up the chance to play cards 4-7 of that color (that’s 22 points down the drain!). Even worse, your opponent sees which colors you’ve committed to and knows exactly which cards you’re desperately seeking, so they’ll be clutching onto those cards for as long as humanly possible.
Reiner knows how to do hand management games, and Lost Cities is a textbook example. With players being forced to play or discard 1 card and then draw 1 card every turn, they’ll quickly find themselves not wanting to play or discard any cards in their hand (yet). It’s a game of taking calculated risks and making painful sacrifices.
Lost Cities is the chips and salsa of 2-player games. It’s one that I can recommend to anybody as easily as I can pull it off my shelf for another round of fun.
6. Stephenson’s Rocket
This one feels like the Luna Lovegood of my list. You know, that oddball game that many people quickly dismiss as awkward and off kilter. I totally get the polarizing nature of Stephenson’s Rocket. Harsh and unthematic vetoing, unintuitive scoring, opaque strategies, disrupted player turns, etc. You’re either gonna love it or hate it.
I, for one, LOVE this game! It’s got that trademark Knizia tension with a gorgeous production from Grail Games. Stephenson’s Rocket combines the dynamic stocks and investments of rail games with a hint of Through the Desert tile laying, a dollop of Tigris & Euphrates drama, and a sprinkling of Modern Art auctioning.
Ian O’Toole’s graphic design helps hold it all together by assisting in scoring reminders which are frequently used in our plays of it. Kudos to Mr. O’Toole for helping this brilliant design reach its full potential.
While I didn’t have the heart to put it higher on this particular list due to its wonky accessibility, I enjoy this one so much that it could easily sneak into my top 25 games of all time next time I rank them. If you’re a Knizia fan or train game fan, this medium-weight game is a must-try in my book. If you are looking for a smooth experience with a zippy pace, you may be better off looking into the good Doctor’s more popular games.
5. The Quest for El Dorado
Speaking of smooth experiences, The Quest for El Dorado is arguably the most approachable deck-building game ever designed. Deck-building is a bit of a foreign ritual to those who aren’t in the know, and Quest for El Dorado makes it crisp as a cucumber. Players are simply racing through the wilderness to get to El Dorado first. Their machete cards allow them to pass through the jungle spaces, their paddle cards let them pass through the water spaces, and their money cards let them pass through the village spaces or allow them to buy better cards.
The mechanics and theme cleverly demonstrate the balance of deck building: you can get ahead now and hope to keep the lead with a meager deck, or you can fall behind a bit and invest in a better deck to rocket ahead later. While it seems like it could get rather repetitive after a few plays (especially with all the cards being used every game), this one has only gotten more intense for us as the competition has become more cutthroat across increasingly trickier maps.
As Shut Up & Sit Down astutely points out in their recent podcast episode, the card market mechanism here brilliantly solves the common issue of unreliability seen in many other deck-builders. It also injects the genre with far more player interaction thanks to explorers blocking each other’s paths and competing to cross a finish line.
The nearly infinite variety of unique map layouts and the cave bonuses provide for constantly new and engaging experiences. The fact that this game is so easy to teach (all of the rules are basically on your player board or the cards) makes it even better to put in front of anybody. I think I like it most at 2-players, where your personal options and strategies really open up between your two meeples. But it is great fun at all counts from 2-4.
4. Babylonia / Samurai
We’re back with the another game in Knizia’s “Tile-laying Trilogy,” specifically Samurai. Yet the newer and more widely available Babylonia shares enough in common that it’s worth deciding whether you want one or both.
Both games see all players starting with a hand of five tiles from their identical draw piles. These tiles are kept face up behind your shield in Samurai or standing up facing you in Babylonia, and when your turn comes around you’ll have to decide which of these secret tiles to place out onto the board. Generally, you are trying to surround pieces that started on the board with matching symbols from your supply. So there is a bit of area majority in both games, where once a board piece is surrounded by player tiles, it is awarded to the player who committed the highest total strength of matching tiles. But already this is where Samurai and Babylonia begin to diverge.
Samurai is a game of staking your claim and seizing opportunities. Stake your claim on a rice (commerce) caste by committing a rice tile adjacent to it. Whether you place a low value 2 or a big dog 4, you’ve made it known to all other players that you intend to take that rice caste piece. If you happen to win more rice caste pieces than everyone else at the end of the game, then you claim one of the three leader tokens to put you in the runnings of winning the game. As more player tiles go out onto the board, the key to victory becomes to swoop in last second and steal castes away from opponents who thought they had them on lockdown with their early tile majorities. It’s important to track how many castes you earn relative to your opponents, because you ideally only want one more commerce or religion or military caste than anyone else to claim a leader token… any more and you’ve simply wasted your efforts chasing the wrong type of caste.
Meanwhile, Babylonia has a similar mechanism of claiming city tiles with surrounding tile majorities. Except everything you do in Babylonia translates to points, and the objective becomes to seek out and steal away the highest scoring opportunities. There are four main ways to score points in Babylonia, one of which is the Samurai way of claiming city tiles with surrounding majorities. The others have more of a Through the Desert / Blue Lagoon vibe to them: Spread out a network of your tiles that connect matching cities to your matching tiles. Reach and claim crop fields by placing your farmer tokens on top of them. Place your tiles on spaces that surround Ziggurat structures and score points every time you do so. To add another layer to the strategy, the player with the majority of tiles surrounding a Ziggurat structure will get to select an exclusive special ability which can help swing the momentum in their favor.
With both of these games, you’ll find yourself endlessly surveying the entire board for the best opportunities to deny others and benefit yourself. Your secret hand of tiles combined with the ever changing board state will keep you on your toes. While Samurai keeps its winning leader concealed behind player shields, Babylonia puts them out in the open along a constantly flowing score track. Samurai emphasizes localized momentum shifts while Babylonia magnifies generalized ripple effects. Both games are masterclass designs within the tile-laying genre and well worth a play.
3. My City
I’ve already spoken plenty about My City…. How it overcomes my personal bias against low-interaction games. How it’s one of the greatest polyomino games ever designed. How it’s one of the slickest legacy games ever and top board games of 2020. We’ve now completed our 24 episode campaign, and I’m more confident than ever that this is a perfect game for any couple, family, or friends who appreciate an evolving puzzly challenge in a quick-playing, streamlined package. So go and check out my many thoughts on My City (linked above) to learn more about this 2020 hit.
Despite Reiner’s many excellent auction designs that have come before and since, Ra remains his absolute best. This one combines constrained bidding with set collection and push-your-luck into a perfect blend of Egyptian joy.
Sun tokens are dealt out to players and used to bid on valuable tiles. On your turn, you can either force an auction on the current row of tiles or add another tile to the row by drawing from the huge bag. When an auction is initiated, each player gets one chance to bid a higher sun token or pass, and the highest bidder spends their sun token and takes the row of tiles.
The hard part is deciding when to cash in and commit your best sun tokens before it’s too late. Blow your sun tokens too soon and you’ve taken yourself out of the rest of the round’s auctions, and those could end up paying out much better than everything you payed for. But clutch onto your sun tokens for too long and you may never get to use them! That’s because certain tiles coming out of the bag will be Ra tiles, and those march the round closer to a premature ending.
Like most of his designs, Knizia puts his mathematic expertise to good use here in the interesting balance of tile values and strategic options. Nile tiles can be consistently lucrative, but they are worth nothing without a flood tile. Civilization tiles will cost you points if you have none, but they won’t pay out at all until you get 3 or more types. Pharaoh tiles only pay out to whoever has the most, but they cost points to anyone who has the least. Gold tiles are simply worth 3 points each, while Monument tiles pay out when collected in large sets.
Thank goodness we have some new versions on the way, as I mentioned in my most anticipated games of 2021 post. This one is currently as difficult to acquire as a gulp of water in the heart of the Sahara.
1. Tigris & Euphrates / Yellow & Yangtze
We’ve finally arrived at Reiner Knizia’s magnum opus! The third game in his legendary tile-laying trilogy, this classic civilization game is known as Tigris & Euphrates. Reiner somehow takes the epic scope of adjacent civilizations–their rise and prosperity, their conflicts and turmoil, their wars and rebellions, their acquisitions and downfalls–and boils these things down to cold, hard, cutthroat strategy. Within the span of roughly an hour, T&E packs more theme and drama into its few pages of rules than any other game design could possibly dream of.
Your options for two actions on your turn are simple: place a tile, position a leader, flush out your hand for different tiles, or place a catastrophe tile. The ramifications of these actions are what lead to frequent moments of sheer brilliance. Positioning a leader into a kingdom which already has that type of leader (from another player) triggers a revolt. Connecting two kingdoms that each have similar leader types triggers a war. “This town ain’t big enough for the two of us” is the recurring motto of T&E’s kingdoms, and these dramatic conflicts born from calculated maneuvers with a sprinkling of luck and mystery are the magnificent crux of Tigris & Euphrates.
Folks don’t always foresee all the effects that a single tile placement can have. Within a matter of moments, a mighty kingdom that players spent all game building up can be made desolate and broken, with the victors running off with a heaping pile of points of a single color. But that’s the other essential component of T&E: the point tokens. You see, your score will not be all of your point tokens combined together at the end of the game. Nay, your score will only be the color that you have the least points in. In order to be crowned the best, a civilization must display strength across all pillars of society–agriculture, trade, religion, and government.
So the challenge of Tigris and Euphrates is to earn points in all colors, even when your kingdoms are only strong in one or two or three of them. Players will put targets on their backs by establishing lucrative kingdoms for a particular color that others desperately need. The theme oozes through the smallest of details in this game as you find yourself understanding why one kingdom would seek to rule or overthrow another. It’s a tense affair with enthralling conflicts that never fails to engage me.
Sadly, this one is also currently lost between publishers. But fortunately, there is another option out there for those who can’t wait or for those who prefer something a little different: Yellow & Yangtze. Y&Y is a game that I have not yet had the privilege to play (ask me again in a few weeks), but my research has led to these key differences: The map and tiles are hexagonal instead of T&E’s squares. The conflicts are less brutal, dramatic, and chaotic, but the gameplay is more elegant and even-keeled. The colors have different benefits and purposes, enough to throw off T&E veterans who try to approach it with their old reliable strategies. It may or may not replace T&E, depending on who you talk to. But either way, it’s an excellent iteration on a masterpiece design.
With Tigris & Euphrates (and Yellow & Yangtze), we see Dr. Knizia’s design chops on full display. This is a game that has stood the test of time, and it will continue to do so long after today’s board game industry hotness is discarded and forgotten.
Unveiling the Reiner Knizia x Bitewing Games Collaboration
Finally, let’s talk about two more Reiner Knizia Games coming at you from our very own Bitewing Games Publishing Company! If you’ve recently visited our website home page, then you’ve already noticed us teasing this collaboration. All three games in this Kickstarter bundle will feature simple rules, a quick playtime of roughly 20 minutes, and the gorgeous illustrations of our partner, Uinta Alcyon. Yet each one will feel distinctly delightful and uniquely clever, and today we want to give you a brief glimpse into Reiner’s two designs including the game titles and their descriptions!
Lawmakers are cracking down on soda, and tight regulation has made way for lucrative smuggling. One bottle per person is the new law—thus bribes, suitcase inspections, and arrests are on the agenda. Only one will emerge the Soda Kingpin.
Each round, one player takes a turn in the role of a Border Police Officer while the other players act as Travelers. In a collective quest to earn bottle caps, the police officer tries to confiscate as many sodas as possible while only the cleverest travelers will sneak across with their fizzy contraband. After each player has been the police officer (twice in a 3-4 player game, once in a 5-8 player game), the game ends and whoever has the most bottle caps wins!
Bribing and bluffing has never tasted so sweet as it does here, in Reiner Knizia’s Soda Smugglers!
The Pumafiosi (Puma Mafiosi) operate in a strict hierarchy, from the family’s boss down to the lowest Picciotti. Everyone wants to reach the top, no-one wants to end up at the bottom or even beneath the soil. Amongst these aspiring Pumafiosi, it is wise to keep your head out of the firing line. Stand out too much and you’ll soon find yourself in prison, if not murdered by the rival families.
This clever card game is a refreshingly unique blend of trick-taking and push-your-luck. Each trick, the person who plays the second-highest card winds the round, and they decide where to place that winning card into the hierarchy. You can even choose to place your measly card at the top of the hierarchy to stake your claim on the big Boss points. The catch is that these cards can be knocked down one or more steps on the hierarchy by higher value cards, and the owner of the dropping card takes penalty points!
The deceptively simple Pumafiosi from the prolific Reiner Knizia will have you second-guessing your every decision.
So there you have it! Our published bundle will feature the wily negotiations of Social Grooming (our own in-house design), the crafty bribing of Soda Smugglers, and the tricky scheming of Pumafiosi—the latter two designed by Reiner Knizia himself. Be sure to subscribe to our monthly newsletter email so you don’t miss out on further reveals and the 2021 Kickstarter campaign of this killer filler bundle! And for more juicy discussions on all things tabletop gaming—Reiner Knizia and beyond—stick around with your gaming friends here at Bitewing Games.