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The "Great" Debate
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Moongha Invaders" spring to mind, and "A Study in Emerald", both brilliant designs from both a mechanical and thematic standpoint.
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.
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.
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.
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.