The "Great" Debate

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The "Great" Debate
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The excellent Michael Barnes recently conducted an excellent interview with game designer Reiner Knizia. He's widely regarded as one of the best game designers ever, but his stock has gone up and down around these parts. Currently, it's up: something I didn't realise when I waded in to offer a contrary opinion.

The response begs an interesting question: what do we mean when we say "best" in this context? What qualifies a designer for an epithet of "great"?

I'm in a poor position to judge, having designed one godawful game in my entire life, which has never seen the light of day. But as a critic, I'm supposed to offer opinion on such things. So here we go.

What's always impressed me most about new designs is creativity. Board gaming is inherently limited by the things you can do with card and wood, metal and plastic.  It's straitjacketed by thousands of years of human tradition which leads us to expect games to look and play a certain way. Breaking away from these strictures as the massive weight of cultural expectation bears down on you must be unbelievably hard.

Genre-shattering designs are correspondingly rare. Genre-shattering designers, who manage the feat regularly, are even more so. And by that measure, Knizia doesn't measure up.

One of the moments when conventions got splintered to pieces was the mid-nineties when early German-style games hit the UK and America. These games are great games: great then, and still great now. Titles like Settlers of Catan and El Grande were like nothing we'd ever seen before. Their designers were rightly celebrated for that achievement, although they've not hit such heights again.

 

Knizia was not quite a part of that moment. He rode on its coat tails, with his best games appearing in the late nineties. That shows in his designs. Lost Cities and Battle Line are clear Rummy variants. Samurai and Through the Desert trace obvious lines of descent to classic abstracts. Modern Art and Medici are just fancy auctions. 

This trend, of taking tried and tested mechanics and twisting them into interesting new shapes, is almost a hallmark. It takes a lot of skill, and Knizia has more skill than most. What it doesn't take is a lot of creativity.

You could also argue that he's almost earned himself black marks against innovation by using his immense talents to churn out cookie-cutter games. His output is prodigious, focused on the German family market with titles few of us will have heard of, let alone played. But far too many look a lot like re-skinned or tweaked versions of his existing games. That's surely the opposite of creativity. 

His cleverest inventions, to my mind, are his Egyptian games Ra and Amun-Re. They contain the seeds of genius. But I'm not sure two clever titles qualifies a designer for the innovation hall of fame. 

His most celebrated title is Tigris and Euphrates. It's not a design I'd say was particularly creative, owing a huge debt to common abstracts. It's also not a game I enjoy particularly, although I can see why people do. It's a strong, lean and deep design one could play many times and still not master.

Which leads us on to another consideration. What if you don't measure a designer by their creativity, but by a simpler measure: how much people enjoy their games?

Here, the good doctor is on much firmer ground. He's got eight games in the boardgamegeek top 200, a spectacular feat considering that they're older titles in a list which favours newness and celebrity. Some of those games, particuarly Battle Line and Ra, belong to that rare category of games that offer joy to almost everyone.

So I'm guessing that fun is the criteria people are using when they talk about Knizia being a great designer. One could argue, again, that his vast output of mediocre titles should be set against this highlights, but perhaps that's a churlish attitude. 

What's more troubling is that some of his more popular games are amongst his most tedious. Samurai and Through the Desert strike me as humorless, boring games that would be better played against a machine than a fellow human being. The fact that these are celebrated would once have seemed to some as evidence of everything that was wrong with gaming. It still does to me, but it seems I'm now in a minority.

I'd argue, though, that creativity is simply a better measure of greatness. It's rarer, for starters. Since that mid-nineties explosion of German brilliance I'd say there are perhaps three people who've shown it regularly. They are Martin Wallace, Rob Daviau and the incomparable Vlaada Chvatil.

On the other side, of that triumvirate, it's only Chvatil who's regularly put out games that are both creative and fun. Daviau's designs are often packed with fresh imaginative ideas, but the execution leaves something to be desired. Wallace perfected the art of bringing balance to highly interactive and non-random games, but his titles can be dry and heavy beyond endurance.

And this is where Dr. Knizia earns his stripes. Not as the most creative designer ever, nor as the most fun, but as someone who's struck a beautiful balance of the two with so many of his games. When you step back there are remarkably few designers whose work is almost always worth your time in some way or other. I still think Vlaada is top of that heap. But Knizia wins a deserved second.

Matt ThrowerFollow Matt Thrower Follow Matt Thrower Message Matt Thrower

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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There Will Be Games

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.

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The*Mad*Gamer's Avatar
The*Mad*Gamer replied the topic: #205455 06 Jul 2015 10:29
Matt,

The fact is in 100 years no one will know who the hell Vlaada Chvatil was but they will remember Knizia. But that's the way things go, a lot of people didn't recognize Mozart's genius in his time.

I wonder if you went back and played Through the Dessert and Samurai prior to writing this article. If you didn't you should read Michael's Master of Theme article and then play these games again. Perhaps you will see them with new eyes.

I find it strange that no one is talking much about Michael's article that the Doctor posted on his website. I got a comment on Youtube in reference to your article Matt that says it sounds like you have an axe to grind...Hmmm...I don't know. Your articles are always full of such elegant prose it is hard to pull out the subtle things that may creep below the surface but I do know Michael's article seems to have people's worlds shaken.

Take Chris Farrell..He has written more articles on Knizia than anyone yet you don't find an article by Farrell on Knizia's site you find Barnes. What's even funnier and a clue to Chris' jealousy is that on BGG you see him thumb a post by a guy that didn't even listen to the interview and still brings up the banning issue 10 years later falling into line with the likes of someone named Drew who still can't get past he was the butt of a few jokes of which I can't even remember.

And what of BGG? Knizia the White Knight of BGG and he puts an article by Barnes on his website? This can't be...I wonder if Barnes heard from anyone over there with congratulations? I doubt it.

An what of Tom Vasel who in his review of Glenn's Gallery by Knizia says that Knizia could just put some scaps of paper and dice in a box and it would be published! What a knock against Knizia! It seems Tom is accusing the Doctor of not really working hard when in fact if you listened to the interview is quite the opposite. Knizia claims that the minimum time involved in game design is 3 to 4 months yet the grand designer of Viscious Fishes seems to know better?

The point is a lot of people don't get Knizia and as Chris Farrell says he's on a different level.
charlest's Avatar
charlest replied the topic: #205456 06 Jul 2015 10:40
Great article but I don't know if I agree that it doesn't take creativity to re-use mechanisms and systems already devised in interesting new ways.
The*Mad*Gamer's Avatar
The*Mad*Gamer replied the topic: #205458 06 Jul 2015 10:43
Here is the response to Matt's article posted on YouTube:

poor Matt. Hes gone and written an awful follow up article trying to sound measured and researched but comes across as someone with a weird axe to grind, using all kinds of nonsensical arguments about Knizia not being innovative, LOL. Weirdly forgetting that you could argue almost any game is "just a such and such" version of "this or that" from before. Thats the nature of games which when you think about it all boil down to some kind of abstract. His output in the 90s on its own was titanic, unmatched and yes, GENIUS. Tigris which obviously Matt doesnt like, is probably the best boardgame design of all time, on its own it would put Knizia up in the highest echelon of designers. Honestly his article sounds like some of those retard "sports analysts" that try to argue nonsensical contrarian points just to try and ruffle feathers and totally ignoring the actual facts and reasonable arguments. Troll! Trying to argue that Knizia is "Overrated" and then cobbling together some bullshit article trying to somehow intellectually waffle about what we mean by "great" is just fucking stupid. If you don't recognise Knizia as one of the greatest boardgame designers of all time, you're just fucking wrong and you may as well just quit fucking talking about them. The end.

The*Mad*Gamer's Avatar
The*Mad*Gamer replied the topic: #205459 06 Jul 2015 10:45
Good to hear Matt being called a Troll for a change instead of me !!!

LMAO!!!!!
Gary Sax's Avatar
Gary Sax replied the topic: #205463 06 Jul 2015 11:13
I, personally, do not think someone should be praised for grinding out many similar designs. A guy has got to get paid, it doesn't offend me, but I don't see it like as a plus---I absolutely agree with Matt on that. On the other hand, in his favor, I think even if you group Knizia's designs by very similar mechanics and mentally collapse all the virtually identical games into one he'd still have an amazing like 10 game catalog that would probably blow Vlaada out of the water.
Gregarius's Avatar
Gregarius replied the topic: #205468 06 Jul 2015 11:29
Personally, I find his variations on a similar design to be proof of creativity, not the lack of it. If nothing else, it at least shows curiosity. I can imagine him looking over a design and asking, "What if I did this?" Instead of just tweaking the design, he makes a new game out of it. Sometimes that works better than others, but the fact that he can make a robust game out of a tweak at all is pretty impressive.
engineer Al's Avatar
engineer Al replied the topic: #205470 06 Jul 2015 11:34
Wonderful article Matt. Well written and well stated. Excellent job. You did neglect to mention my favorite Knizia game, INGENIOUS which is a fun family classic.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #205472 06 Jul 2015 12:00
Great writers, painters, sculptors, musicians, poets, architects, etc. do not create a completely unique work every time they produce something new. Nor should they be expected to do so by the audience. All of the above creators- especially the ones we consider great- tend to go through periods of discovery, innovation and re-discovery or revision. A painter might do an entire series of paintings using a particular technique or stylistic motif. A poet might do a full book's worth of writings about a specific subject or using a specific format. This is how creators explore their mediums.

Knizia works on this level. Not on Vlaada Chvatil's level. Not to dismiss Chvatil's creativity or his ability to design great games, but the kind of thing the Knizia does is frankly quite a bit beyond what he is doing in any of his game. Several of which, I might add, are really quite derivative of past designs or concepts.

But great artists also shouldn't be expected to be the starting point for a creative thread. Bowie didn't just come up with everything he was doing in the late 1960s, early 1970s. There were influences that he worked into something new. Lovecraft didn't just come up with all of that Mythos stuff from nothing. He was drawing on the things that motivated his own creativity and developing those ideas into work of his own. This idea that a "great" artist has to be the incept point is just plain ignorant.

Part of the genius of what Knizia does is, whether you choose to accept it or not, how he has branded himself and made his name a marketable and saleable commodity. No, not every game he makes is on par with LOTR, TTD, T&E, Ra and so forth. But not every record Prince made is Purple Rain or Sign o' The Times, either. He gets that he can be successful by selling a design and letting a publisher do whatever they want with it in terms of pictures/setting- and it doesn't matter, because there is still those great 15, 20 Knizia titles that are literally timeless monuments in board game design. To dismiss his ability to become a SUCCESSFUL game designer- probably the best-known and most financially valuable name in game design in the history of the medium is foolish and shortsighted. There is more to it than "I didn't like Relationship Tightrope" or "Zombiegeddon is a lame cash-in".

Knizia is completely UNDERRATED, and the devaluing of his name is probably one of the WORST things that came out of the Ameritrash business. Likewise, the internet parrots that latched on to this "Knizia pastes on themes" thing have done a grave disservice, completely failing to see that this man has a better handle on what theme is than just about any other designer that has ever worked in this medium.

When it comes down to it, Knizia is like the Velvet Underground. It doesn't matter if you like them or not- they matter on their own terms, and their impact is profound. Likewise, your value judgment of individual games in the Knizia ludography doesn't make a lick of difference because even if you boil it down to ten titles, you are still looking at ten titles that are revolutionary, singular, influential and impactful in ways that just about nobody working today in games can match.

I've played bad Knizia games, I get it. But they were also games that I bet Knizia himself would consider to be lesser work. This does not mean that he is a hack, it doesn't mean that he's some kind of sell out or creatively bankrupt. It means that he's smart enough to take a paycheck and keep working in the medium in he loves.
Shapeshifter's Avatar
Shapeshifter replied the topic: #205473 06 Jul 2015 12:03
I agree that most of the popular Wallace designs tend to be "dry", especially Age of Steam and Brass spring to mind, but he tends to be also a designer who tries to truly capture the theme/setting of his games. When he does produce a game with a less dry theme he truly shows how intense his designs can be and how much narrative drama they can offer.
"Moongha Invaders" spring to mind, and "A Study in Emerald", both brilliant designs from both a mechanical and thematic standpoint.
Erik Twice's Avatar
Erik Twice replied the topic: #205476 06 Jul 2015 12:18
I always thought the "Knizia debate" was not so much about him or his games as it is a cultural thing. You know, like talking about the cult of the new or whether "heavy" games are better than light ones.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #205478 06 Jul 2015 12:27
I'm a dyed-in-the-wool wargamer, but one of the things I like about Knizia is his ability to get a lot of "game" out of a very spartan ruleset. There's something very graceful about his best designs. And "graceful" doesn't mean his games are effete, either. His best work offers a real crescendo of emotional stakes through the course of playing, which is pretty amazing when you can strip down the mechanics of most of his work and find only a transparent skeleton of basic math. There's some weird alchemy going on with his classic work, building these rich experiences out of simple rules and a framework that just consists of numbers. I play two-player Samurai a LOT with one of my old-school gamer buddies, and, sure, all you're doing is putting numbered tiles around cities and trying to get the higher total...yet there is a real trajectory of tension in that game, especially between two people who know what they're doing, especially with regard to the use of the special tiles. The "will they/won't they" tension of wondering if your opponent is about to spring the ronin/figure exchange/tile exchange on you is weirdly powerful. That's just one random example.

Anyway, as far as the other designers go, I like Chvatil and Daviau (I'll be nice and not say anything about Wallace), but tap me on the shoulder when they produce a body of work even remotely comparable to RA, BATTLE LINE, T&E, TAJ MAHAL, THROUGH THE DESERT, MODERN ART, SAMURAI, etc. And honestly, I'd take a lot of Knizia's B-roll (Titan/Colossal Arena, Blue Moon, Kingdoms, Money, etc) over most designer's best stuff.
iguanaDitty's Avatar
iguanaDitty replied the topic: #205485 06 Jul 2015 13:22
To me the most interesting part of this is the discussion about whether incremental change over time is creativity. I believe it is creative to build upon previous work, tweaking things here and there to see what works and what doesn't. For one thing, the tweaks can be less obvious than it appears. More interestingly, though, I think that lessons learned and ideas spurred from that sort of incremental design often makes the larger more obviously "creative" steps possible.

There's also an analogy here to prolific songwriters. The folk singer Malvina Reynolds is supposed to have said she wrote a song every morning before breakfast, and with an output like that she couldn't help but have a good one once in a while.
Applejack's Avatar
Applejack replied the topic: #205513 06 Jul 2015 16:31
I agree with Matt that Knizia has perhaps designed too many games. There are several games of his I really love to play ("LOTR: The Confrontation", "Battle Line"), but he has a ton of published games, 46 pages if you look at his BGG entry. There are a dozen games (or more) of his that I would want in my collection, and a dozen games from the same designer is more than the next closest designer. Not bad for a guy who designs abstracts primarily.

Maybe his prolific-ness is a part of why he's so successful. There's got to be a few gems in that huge a catalog.
Matt Thrower's Avatar
Matt Thrower replied the topic: #205515 06 Jul 2015 16:37
Thanks to everyone who took the time to read and comment. I can't reply to everything, but there's a few points I wanted to make clear.

First, this has nothing to do with theme. That's an old and very tired debate which would be better served by its own article, especially since it's irrelevant here. Suffice to say that my attitude nowadays is effectively that you have ConSims and abstracts and pretty much nothing inbetween.

So why pick on Knizia? Well, that's my second point: I certainly do have an axe to grind. I thought it was pretty obvious in the piece. There are several high-profile Knizia games I dislike intensely - Samurai, Through the Desert, The Confrontation and LotR. Not because they lack theme (although even Michael had a hard time justifying the theme in Through the Desert) but because I find them boring. Limp, lifeless things lacking any of the excitement, variety or interaction that are the lifeblood of my favorite titles.

Third, I appreciate that all creative work is built on what has gone before. That's obvious. But when they're standing on the pyramids built by their predecessors, some artists can leap further into the unknown than others. Knizia has not leaped as far as many of his peers. That said, I like the viewpoint that by returning to the same idea and tinkering with it to make new and interesting things time and time again is its own kind of genius and innovation. I can get behind that with Knizia's games.

Finally, I'm not and have never badmouthed Knizia as a designer, and I've always been uncomfortable with those in the community who have. Ra and Battle Line are amongst my very favourite games. Amun-Re and T&E are superbly clever things that I will always play with pleasure and admire, although I like them less than some. The question I'm looking at is whether he's truly a *great* designer as opposed to merely a very good one.
scissors's Avatar
scissors replied the topic: #205518 06 Jul 2015 17:44
sorry, I haven't got anything more to add that if knizia isn't a great designer, I don't know who is. :/ i don't even want to take issue with the article. So you think he's merely good... Who was greater Marc Chagall or Pablo Picasso? Gauguin or Van Gogh? Warhol or Basquiat? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones? beckett or ionesco? Cindy Sherman or Nan Goldin?

knizia belongs in pretty serious company, albeit in the gaming world, so it is a matter of appreciation, understanding, preference, even what point you are at personally. He belongs in the Taschen who's who of game designers if they were to ever publish such a thing. Pretty sure chvatil belongs there too and wallace obviously though I personally would choose knizia over either. but that's just me. luckily for dr knizia, there are a lot of people who feel the same way. I'm sure he can't be arsed about the rest. i certainly din't think he is overrated or being showered with unfair praise.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #205520 06 Jul 2015 18:45
I was doing a little Thought Experiment, trying to imagine the first five classes of inductees for an imaginary Game Designers Hall of Fame in my head. Based not just on quality of output, but also on overall impact or influence.

So, yeah. Totally subjective but Knizia makes my first class of inductees. Wallace? Fifth class, although admittedly I only like one game he's ever designed. Chvatil and Daviau would probably be sixth class, mostly because I feel they both have a lot more great games ahead of them.

To echo something Barnes was getting at, the thing about Knizia is he's somehow managed to build a marketable brand out of his name and design style without it coming across as obnoxious or tacky. I mean, there are dozens of iOS games with his name plastered in the title: original puzzle games that aren't even based on existing table top games. That's pretty amazing to me. While "CATAN" will always be a bigger brand than Klaus Teuber, Knizia's name is somehow bigger than any game he's ever designed. Yet he comes across in that YT interview as remarkably humble.

First Class (alphabetical):
Richard Garfield, Reiner Knizia, Charles Roberts, Sid Sackson, Klaus Teuber

2nd Class:
Don Greenwood, Richard Hamblen, Wolfgang Kramer, Alan R. Moon, Uwe Rosenberg

3rd Class:
Richard Berg, Richard Borg, Bruno Faidutti, Larry Harris, Richard Launius

4th Class:
Leo Colovini, Eric Lang, Ted Raicer, Andreas Seyfarth, Mark Simonitch

5th Class:
Stefan Dorra, Dirk Henn, Francis Tresham, Martin Wallace, Kevin Wilson
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #205521 06 Jul 2015 20:00
That's not a bad breakdown there- but I would be inclined to possibly move Kramer to the first round. The man invented the victory point track, FFS. And really, Alex Randolph has more provenance than Kevin Wilson, Launius, or any of the more modern guys on there.

It's hard to not include Berg. What that man does is so singular, and he's a great example of a designer who doesn't always make "great" games but is usually worth watching.
DukeofChutney's Avatar
DukeofChutney replied the topic: #205525 06 Jul 2015 20:21
Good article, though i probably think Knizia is greater than Chvaatil, I enjoy his games more. I would suggest that greatness is a bit too nebulous to tie down to one attribute. Whilst half of his output are really auction games i think the greatness of Knizia is that he has a good number of life style games under his belt. Most designers put out reams of play it 5 times and then done games, the Knizia games I have played all warrant a lot more than this and are really games to keep playing through life. He does draw on traditional games a lot, but that's why his games have the durability.


In a weird way i think his dependence on traditional style games is actually what makes Knizia unique and refreshing. In a world where most euro style games seem to fit into a cookie cutter set of design principles i find Knizias auction and tile games more interesting and in some respects more creative, although this is my modern eyes looking back, rather than an accurate reflection of the mid 90s.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #205526 06 Jul 2015 20:35
Aw man, yeah, I totally forgot about Randolph. I'll blame it on residual brain cell loss from playing too much Ricochet Robot back in the day.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #205528 06 Jul 2015 21:21

DukeofChutney wrote: In a weird way i think his dependence on traditional style games is actually what makes Knizia unique and refreshing. In a world where most euro style games seem to fit into a cookie cutter set of design principles i find Knizias auction and tile games more interesting and in some respects more creative, although this is my modern eyes looking back, rather than an accurate reflection of the mid 90s.


This is very significant, I think. One of the "great" things about Knizia's best games is that they tie back to these timeless kinds of mechanics.

Waaaay back in 1995 or so when I first got Settlers, a friend of mine said "this is basically Craps meets Civilization". I had not thought about it, but the basic underlying mechanic of rolling two dice with the 6/7/8 easy bets down down the 2 and 12 longshots is actually the same. That is a very different kind of bedrock for a design than deckbuilding, dungeoncrawling or worker placement.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #205532 06 Jul 2015 21:48
Can't Stop uses the same basic 'two dice, high/low probability' premise and it's both my favorite Sackson game and inarguably one of the top five beer 'n' pretzels games of all time. You can get so much mileage out of those kinds of enduring old-school mechanics, and I think that's something that's been lost in the hybrid era.
daveroswell's Avatar
daveroswell replied the topic: #205541 07 Jul 2015 00:21
Sid Sackson is one of my absolute favorite designers, with Can't Stop actually being one of my favorite games of all time.

That being said, I think it is humorous when people state the "Kinizia pastes on theme" when Kinizia produced a brilliant innovative game in Ingenious. (I always did think it had a little bit TOO much ego with the name, but still a great game and innovative scoring.)
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #205560 07 Jul 2015 12:05

daveroswell wrote: That being said, I think it is humorous when people state the "Kinizia pastes on theme" when Kinizia produced a brilliant innovative game in Ingenious. (I always did think it had a little bit TOO much ego with the name, but still a great game and innovative scoring.)


Knizia totally pasted on the theme in Cthulhu Rising. He totally phoned that game in.
Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #205563 07 Jul 2015 12:50
No. Twilight Creations pasted that theme onto a Knizia design that they purchased to sucker in geeks that will buy anything with Cthulhu on it. Knizia did not set out to make a Cthulhu game with that. You're blaming the wrong part of the equation here.
Motorik's Avatar
Motorik replied the topic: #205565 07 Jul 2015 13:18


sigh

also known by the alternate title Reiner Knizia's Jesus Fucking Christ Geeks Are Literally A Fucking Pox On Humanity