We Need to Talk about Thurn and Taxis

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We Need to Talk about Thurn and Taxis

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There Will Be Games

Dude, look! It’s Budweis! And Pilsen!

Looking back on previous winners of the Spiel des Jahres, one comes across titles that reside in almost every gamer’s collection. If you don’t own them, you have at least heard of them and some hack reviewer has compared another game to them. Traveling back to the year of 2006, the winner of the coveted award was a title called Thurn and Taxis, a title you may not even of heard of, much less played or own. 

Back before the addition of the Kid’s and Connoisseur awards, titles had to balance along a fine line of being not too complex but also being inventive enough, if hoping to be nominated for the Spiel des Jahres. For instance, in 2006, both Shadows over Camelot and Caylus were given “special prizes” because they were considered too difficult to be nominated for Game of the Year. Maybe the intervening years have made cooperative games with betrayal mechanics more palatable, but I’d say Thurn and Taxis and Shadows over Camelot are almost equal in complexity/weight.

Thurn and Taxis emulates the creation of the postal routes in the 17th century. If that subject piques your interest, make sure you check out the postal history pamphlet that comes with the game (which explains where the game title actually comes from). I’m pretty sure it is longer than the actual instructions. The game takes place on a map of Germany. That’s right, it appeals to history buffs, geography nuts and beer enthusiasts! The gameplay is simple enough but tedious to explain. The tl:dr version is that every round there is a tableau of six cards and you must draw one town card and play one town card, creating a continuous route. Of course, it wouldn’t really be a game if that was all that is involved. You can also use one other “power” per turn: Flushing the tableau to put 6 new cards out, drawing two cards, or playing two cards. The final power has to do with acquiring a higher value carriage than would normally be allowed when closing a route. If that last bit sounds confusing, take some solace in the fact that the carriage system was so popular, they removed it completely with the first expansion.

Player interaction is sparse. You can’t physically block another player’s route with your route and hand size limitations stop you from taking a city card you think they might need just to mess them up. That doesn’t mean you can ignore the other players. If another player is rushing to fulfill the end game trigger, you may have to alter your plans to avoid being stuck with unplaced houses (negative points) or not being able to upgrade your carriages to get THOSE victory points. Since you are also drawing from the same group of cards, it is advantageous to build a route away from the other players, since you want to decrease the chances that you are going after the same card or cards. Still, watching other players isn’t very… exciting. When the biggest exchange between players is “Aww, man, you took the card I needed,” no one is likely to be on the edge of their seat.

I wrote this article about six months ago and since then this game has made it to the table on a regular basis. And the above “no one is likely to be on the edge of their seat” comment has been bugging me. The reason is that, while the player interaction on the game board itself is non-existent, the player observation/interaction off the board consistently provides some incredibly tense end game “action.” Our last few plays have crescendoed with all the players eyeing up the remaining available route cards, trying to determine exactly what the other players end-game play is going to be. My cousin sandbagged me in at least two of those games, holding sufficient cards to close his final route using Cartwright (the power that allows you to close your route with less than the required cards), limiting what points he might have gotten from the route but, more importantly, not allowing me to finish my final route and picking up the expected points. With some of those routes, I planned on picking up multiple scoring tokens including an “all color”, “7 route bonus”, “Green Route” and the single point for completing all my routes first. As you can imagine, this crushed my scoring plan, ending in a devastating defeat. I'm just going to come out and say it: The ending of Thurn and Taxis has routinely become a blood bath, adding “going postal” to the classic German setting. And that is something I never thought I would say about this quaint game of horses, carriages and mail delivery.

So why don’t we see it beside other Spiel des Jahres winners on everyone’s shelfies? Maybe it is because the rules, though essentially basic, are a little too convoluted or unintuitive. Maybe it is because you can be forced to close out a route that you have been working on for four or five turns simply because the cities you need don’t show up in the tableau. Or maybe it is simply because placing houses after you close out a route isn’t as tactically pleasing as lining up trains.

We could Monday morning quarterback the 2006 releases and argue that Thurn and Taxis wasn’t the game of the year. Many releases from that year have had more staying power and still have a dedicated fan base. But, if you get a chance, give it a couple of plays. Maybe it will click for you like it did for my family gaming group. If you decide you enjoy it, it (presently) doesn’t suffer from an overly-inflated price tag, despite being out of print.

There Will Be Games

Wade Monnig  (He/Him)
Staff Board Game Reviewer

In west Saint Louis born and raised
Playing video games is where I spent most of my days
Strafing, Dashing, Adventuring and Looting
Writing reviews between all the Shooting
When a couple of guys reminded me what was so good
About playing games with cardboard and Wood,
Collecting Victory Points and those Miniatures with Flair
It’s not as easy as you think to rhyme with Bel Air.

Wade is the former editor in chief for Silicon Magazine and former senior editor for Gamearefun.com. He currently enjoys his games in the non-video variety, where the odds of a 14 year old questioning the legitimacy of your bloodline is drastically reduced.

“I’ll stop playing as Black when they invent a darker color.”

Articles by Wade

Wade Monnig
Staff Board Game Reviewer

Articles by Wade

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Michael Barnes's Avatar
Michael Barnes replied the topic: #289763 10 Jan 2019 22:14
A rare bad choice from the SDJ jury...it almost felt like a consolation prizr for Seyfarth, having been snubbed for Puerto Rico. It’s a forgettable, uninteresting game that would have faded into obscurity if not for the accolade. but 2006 was also the year that Eurogames kind of bottomed out. If you look at the shortlist only Blue Moon City is above average at best, and it is a lesser Knizia that wouldn’t normally be a SDJ noted title. Really, Shadows Over Camelot should have won, but even it is a bit more complicated than most SDJ fare. It was a dismal year for European design (remember Australia?) and I think a lot of it has to do with it being at the peak of the BGG forums’ influence on design. This was the year of Caylus for most hobbyists at the time. But also, the AT thing really exploded in 2006 with FFG hitting its stride and a growing demand for hybrid designs, genre settings, and more competitive, interactive concepts. This is also why co-ops started to blow up at this time on the heels of SoC and Arkham Horror.

2006 was a weird time in retrospect, and really a turning point...games at that point were still kind of in a decline...I remember reading that in 2005 or 2006 that over half the B&M game shops in the US closed. Even the big players in publishing were quite small at that time, there was nothing like Asmodee happening. And you couldn’t buy Catan at Target. Games were still kind of esoteric, and the notion of a game about the German postal system was still pretty weird.

So I think Thurn & Taxis, 2006 SDJ, is emblematic of its time. It does represent how the European designers were sort of at a dead end- slapping a tepid version of PR’s role selection on TTR’s simple route-building was enough to win an award. But really, what else was there? Buccaneer? Kramer’s terrible Australia?
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #289765 10 Jan 2019 22:20
Somebody jumped the gun.

I think Thurns may be one of the prettiest euros to ever hit a table. Didn't win the talent contest, but it nailed evening gown. Sure didn't hurt it any.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #299544 11 Jul 2019 09:26
Thurn and Taxis was a disappointment. There was so much hype about it, and then when I played it was, as Michael says "slapping a tepid version of PR’s role selection on TTR."

However, as Sagrilarus says it was very pretty. And maybe if someone discovered it now, without all the hype, they would find it to be a solid family game.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #299547 11 Jul 2019 09:48
I've never played this, but I would like to say that if anyone is actually designing something specifically to try to get a SDJ award... well fuck that.
Jackwraith's Avatar
Jackwraith replied the topic: #299550 11 Jul 2019 10:10
Excellent piece. Having just recently returned from Germany, might I suggest that "beer enthusiasts" may not be the best associated audience for this game. Everywhere we went were pilsners and weisbiers. That's it. The craft beer phenomenon really hasn't reached Germany, since they already had so many local breweries that were making... pilsners and weisbiers. Ask someone for a porter and they're likely to look at you like you just set yourself on fire. That's a very minor quibble, though.

I've played T&T a couple times and, while I appreciated the intent, it never really sold me on being "fun". Maybe it was too similar to so much other stuff at the time? Maybe, as MB said, it was a cobbled-together attempt at winning a prize? I'll spare you my rant about the SDJ deciding games like Shadows Over Camelot were "too complex" for the award, since that decision was less about complexity and more about style (the question of "style" often having to do with publisher; as in, was it published by Ravensburger or Kosmos? Then it's eligible!)

There are similar "Who?" moments around that time. Anyone remember Keltis, the winner from 2008? How about Niagara from 2005? I think the SDJ has always been too confined by the question of style, rather than what the actual "best game" is, from a more objective perspective. Unfortunately, I'd lump T&T in the first category.
barrowdown's Avatar
barrowdown replied the topic: #299554 11 Jul 2019 10:57
I like Thurn and Taxis, but until I read this article I had completely forgotten about it. I think the design is fine, the art is fine, and everything is just fine. It does not do anything special though so it is remarkably easy to forget.

If if picked up a copy, it would likely end up in the closet forgotten about for years and barely played. Does anyone still play the 2005-2008 stretch of SdJ winners? Niagra, this, Zooloretto (more complicated version of a simple card game), Keltis (more complicated version of a simple card game) all seem like what someone would present as a generic euro game to use in the background of a movie.
RobertB's Avatar
RobertB replied the topic: #299556 11 Jul 2019 11:32
Played it once a long time ago, thought it was pretty meh. I don't think it caught on at the club in the same way that Amun-Re or Goa (similar time period) did. Granted, the club was into complexity back before complexity was cool, and I don't remember Thurn and Taxis being all that complicated.
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #299559 11 Jul 2019 13:35
Niagara is way more fun than T&T. I've never seen the river flowing mechanism anywhere else, and it was a great and evocative way to bring the theme in. Played it a bunch of times before moving it on, played a friend's copy of T&T once and was glad I hadn't bought it myself.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #299567 11 Jul 2019 16:25

dysjunct wrote: Niagara is way more fun than T&T. I've never seen the river flowing mechanism anywhere else, and it was a great and evocative way to bring the theme in. Played it a bunch of times before moving it on, played a friend's copy of T&T once and was glad I hadn't bought it myself.


The kid's game Marrakesh uses it as well. It's a great mechanic, would love to see something similar used more often.
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #299580 11 Jul 2019 21:16
Catan was my introduction to hobby games, but T&T was the first game I got after being introduced to the idea that gaming could be a hobby at all. I bought it because it was the most recent SdJ winner, since I even now generally believe that the award goes to good stuff.

But this one was a rare miss for the committee. It's not just forgettable, it's frankly not that much fun. Blue Moon City would have been a much better choice. I think Michael is on to something about this being a consolation prize for Seyfarth. It was also, I believe, his first published game since Puerto Rico, so I think it was crowned sight unseen.

It's technically proficient, but it feels rote. There's no spark there. It also has the dubious honor of being one of the first games I traded away.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #299581 11 Jul 2019 22:28
Nate's story mirrors mine... with Zooloretto. This was not a good era for the SdJ.
Greg Aleknevicus's Avatar
Greg Aleknevicus replied the topic: #299582 11 Jul 2019 22:32

hotseatgames wrote: ...I would like to say that if anyone is actually designing something specifically to try to get a SDJ award... well fuck that.

That's overly harsh. First off, most people acknowledge that SdJ winners are generally good games... so what's wrong with trying to design a game generally regarded as good?

Secondly, and more pragmatically, in the 2006-era, even a good game might sell only 5-10 thousand copies. A SdJ winner would almost certainly sell 150+ thousand. It's such a huge jump in sales that it's bound to have an effect on designers and publishers. I've chatted with Stefan Brueck (of Alea) about this and he confirmed that he more-or-less had to try to win the award for his company to remain viable.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #299583 11 Jul 2019 22:36

Frohike wrote: Nate's story mirrors mine... with Zooloretto. This was not a good era for the SdJ.


Amen brother. Zooloretto is a turd, didn’t even win evening gown. Don’t understand what people see in it. It’s not that it’s bad . . . it's just . . . harmless.

Which is worse, Zooloretto or Thurns & Taxis? (Seriously, don’t answer that.)
san il defanso's Avatar
san il defanso replied the topic: #299584 11 Jul 2019 22:38
Thurn & Taxis, and I don't think it's close. I kind of liked Zooloretto, though not enough to keep it around. I found myself disliking Thurn & Taxis though.
Frohike's Avatar
Frohike replied the topic: #299585 11 Jul 2019 22:55

Greg Aleknevicus wrote: most people acknowledge that SdJ winners are generally good games... so what's wrong with trying to design a game generally regarded as good?


Sometimes focusing on meeting award criteria can come at a cost, a pocket of "unfun" that seems to develop in a blind spot where design conceits are just assumed to be fun because of precedent rather than actual creative intuition, an understanding of context, or attentive playtesting. It can come off feeling formulaic to the player.
hotseatgames's Avatar
hotseatgames replied the topic: #299596 12 Jul 2019 09:23

Greg Aleknevicus wrote:

hotseatgames wrote: ...I would like to say that if anyone is actually designing something specifically to try to get a SDJ award... well fuck that.

That's overly harsh. First off, most people acknowledge that SdJ winners are generally good games... so what's wrong with trying to design a game generally regarded as good?


Don't twist my words. Obviously designing a good game is, or should be, the goal. But designing it in such a way as to maximize its appeal to some arbitrary committee, as opposed to making it for the players.... to me that is cynical and soulless.
Vysetron's Avatar
Vysetron replied the topic: #299597 12 Jul 2019 09:38
Hotseat is right on this one. Designing to win an SDJ is the board game equivalent of Oscar bait. Cynically made to sell copies, not to innovate or create a unique experience.

Also I'm surprised at the Niagara hate. Game's not amazing, but it's clever enough and cute.
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #299598 12 Jul 2019 09:51

Vysetron wrote: Cynically made to sell copies, not to innovate or create a unique experience.


For someone that designs games for a living "cynically made to sell copies" may be a fundamental design requirement before they start working on it. Those bills don't pay themselves.

But in order for a product to sell it must appeal to someone. If that person isn't me I'm ok with it, at least for any one particular title. SDJ winners are generally popular with the public if not with me personally. It's a big market.
jpat's Avatar
jpat replied the topic: #299599 12 Jul 2019 10:36
I (effectively) lost my copies of both T&T and the expansion when I moved in 2009. I had to move a lot of stuff in a truck, and we chose to chance the rain potential and lost, although only T&T/expansion and a few other things ended up being unsalvageable. My memories of the game are pretty good, though hazy.
Shellhead's Avatar
Shellhead replied the topic: #299603 12 Jul 2019 11:50

Vysetron wrote: Hotseat is right on this one. Designing to win an SDJ is the board game equivalent of Oscar bait. Cynically made to sell copies, not to innovate or create a unique experience.


Yeah, I was thinking Oscar bait too while reading this thread. It's admirable to strive to make a great game, but attempting to please a specific award committee is more likely to cause a designer to just mimic previous winners. It can become a self-destructive feedback loop that ultimately suppresses creativity and undermines the award.
ratpfink's Avatar
ratpfink replied the topic: #299677 16 Jul 2019 00:48
It's weird. I don't think this game is great, but I have played it a lot online. Like a lot a lot. I think 2 player is the sweet spot as it reduces a bit of the chaos from the card draws. I don't know why I've played it so much. There's probably not much more to learn about it, but it's just simple to get into some kind of flow with this game for me. There's opportunities for screwage, tempo considerations, timing to get right, racing and press your luck.

One comment about player interaction. I'm not sure what the definition of "player interaction" is these days. In my mind, this game is nothing but player interaction when played competitively. Every single action the other player takes is considered. Every action I take is viewed from multiple angles, how it could hurt my opponent, how it helps me now, how it helps me later, what my opponent is trying to do. To do otherwise would be to resign myself to losing.

I don't care about SDJ one way or the other. I think this is a game that leans more towards "classic euro" vs the trend of spreadsheet optimization solitaire games that really started to pick up steam a year or two after this came out. I think for the 2006 euros, it is probably best of a weaker bunch.
Space Ghost's Avatar
Space Ghost replied the topic: #299679 16 Jul 2019 01:39
If I was a collector and my goal was to collect every SdJ game, I would decline to put this in my collection -- this is just such a bad game. It reminds me of the Traveling Salesman Problem...which no game should be built around.
ubarose's Avatar
ubarose replied the topic: #299698 16 Jul 2019 13:12
Milch & Gerkins
dysjunct's Avatar
dysjunct replied the topic: #299709 16 Jul 2019 15:56
Suggestion for new article series: "We Should Probably Talk About X So We Can Get It Over With."
Sagrilarus's Avatar
Sagrilarus replied the topic: #299712 16 Jul 2019 17:01

dysjunct wrote: Suggestion for new article series: "We Should Probably Talk About X So We Can Get It Over With."


Thurns & Taxis eulogy?