Chris Farrell’s top Knizia games

Farrell recently came up with his top Knizia boardgame list but there were no details at all, just the names. Farrell isn’t just any boardgamer, and darn it, that list is gold dust; and I think it needs a little help, such as adding in his comments on each game.

Who on earth is Chris Farrell?

plays the clarinet, too.

Chris is a boardgame guru of 30 years experience, including advanced wargames and RPGs, and he is a computer programmer.

His analysis of games is more critic than reviewer, and in the many debates I’ve seen between him and other boardgame gurus on BoardGameGeek.com, his analysis is always clear and never successfully refuted. Not even once, to my knowledge.

Also see Farrel’s  searcheable ratings and comments on 2300 games, played in the last 30 years. He also has an abandoned blog, but there’s good stuff there. He now (2017) keeps his fans current on twitter.

Deadly Money

Games can get a lot of hype and high ratings on BoardGameGeek, but yet have deadly flaws that the common BGG members haven’t recognised. Farrell’s critique, usually after several plays, is a great hype-buster, and although he tends to face a lot of resistance on the BGG forums, I’ve never seen a successful refutation. He has saved me a lot of money.

Meanwhile almost all the games I’ve purchased on his recommendation have been a hit with my friends and family. Even one or two I didn’t like.

And mostly with infinite replay (unless you burn out on them, of course). I may owe this guy my bank balance.

What on earth is a Knizia?

Reiner Knizia is a legendary boargame design genius with a maths Phd. He headed a medium sized bank in the UK until he decided to dedicate himself to boardgame design “To bring the enjoyment” as he expressed in his clunky german way (he’s German).  He’s created an astounding 600 games.knizia

His games are designed to be social. That means even the shy getting that social buzz we all love, since the games carry their own conversation. No need to have deep discussions about the weather or the current awkward political topic of the day.

He uses maths to perfectly balance the games. Like better modern boardgames, there are no runaway leaders, no kingmaking from losers (because it’s never clear that you are losing), always well paced, never too long,  etc etc. And they aren’t multi-player solitaire (hello Agricola), or bad tempered, four hour slogs (hello Monopoly).

Farrell’s List

Farrell and Knizia are a magic combo.

So here is his list again, but with a few adornments.

As a rough guide to average ratings, a rating below 6.3 is rather low, above 7 is high; games rarely get rated below 6 or above 7. But hyped games often go well over 7. 🙂

For instance, the left-hand number is the average rating from BGG members, which while a bit meaningless gives an indication of how likely it may be an instant hit or require perseverance (see right ->).

Games are sensitive to player numbers, so I’ve given the optimal player number as the first, followed in sequence by good player numbers, and then bracketed is ok-ish player numbers. Anything else will for sure fall flat. For sociability, 3 player games are a minimum. Stick to the optimum to give the highest chance of acceptance by your friends.

Prices and availability

Almost all these games are language independent, with rules you can download from somewhere. So go ahead and buy the dutch version if that’s all that’s available. The BGG page for any game gives language dependency info.

Many are out of print, but both BGG’s marketplace and ebay have reasonably priced copies. Paypal is a kinch to setup. For a few of the games I’ve given a rough indication of what you should pay just in case of an unreasonably high ebay price.

Heavy vs medium vs light weight

Don’t be tempted by the idea of a heavy-weight. Your friends won’t thank you. Start with the light-weights. Medium-weight is ok if you nail the rules, but that may mean 3 readings.

Explaining rules takes minutes but conversely reading them out is a time-consuming affair. So don’t be reading the danged rules out because you couldn’t be bothered to nail them yourself first. Expect rules mistakes on the first game, and read them again after.

A rules mistake sometimes makes a big difference. We hammered Sauron on our first play of “Lord of the Rings”, but only because I made a rules mistake.  Still, it was enjoyable. We’ve not beaten him since.

The List

*7.3 Modern Art, medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4, 5. Availability: 2nd user on BGG, £25. Expensive elsewhere. Knizia’s later “Modern Art, The Card Game” as sold on Amazon is not the same game, yet I’ve seen it advertised on the BGG market page for the real thing.

“This game really is an 11. If I could keep only one euro, this would probably be it.

Even after all this time – over 15 years of playing Modern Art – this game continues to amaze, impress, and inspire me. While I may have played games like Settlers more in that time frame, Modern Art is perhaps as close to a perfect “themed” game as I’ve ever played. Skill and luck are well-balanced, the pacing is perfect, there are elements of tactics, evaluation, and psychology, and it is brilliantly themed. The pieces it contains may be purposefully lousy, but the game itself is an exceptional work of art.

I’m not a terribly good Modern Art player, but I’ll give you my one tip that seems to have improved my play quite a bit: instead of trying to figure out what a piece is going to be worth, and then figuring out how much of a cut you are willing to give the auctioneer, instead try to think in terms of what economists call a “risk premium”. Usually you can figure out what an artist probably will be worth, based on where it is currently. Then try to figure out what the risk is: what are the odds, based on your hand, the other players’ holdings, where you are in the turn order, etc., that it will get trashed. Then discount your price based on your assessment of the risk. This will usually yield a sensible bid. The whole (expected value/number of players) thing is, in my opinion, bogus. You make money by taking risks on artists, and win by making good risk evaluations.
It should be said, Modern Art has a non-trivial luck element. The doubler auction cards are pretty powerful, and it sucks to not get them; and sometimes other players make unwise plays that screw things up (the “Puerto Rico” factor, although much less problematic here). But it’s all thematic, and the game wouldn’t work without the uncertainty.

A note on the ‘=’ (double auction) cards: there are several variations on how the ‘=’ cards should be played when used alone. The main contenders are the original German (player who matches runs the auction and takes all the proceeds) and the Mayfair (player who matches runs the auction and splits the proceeds with the original player). In both cases, play proceeds to the left of the player who matched. After playing both ways many times, I’ve decided I significantly prefer the original German. With the Mayfair matching rules, there is little reason not to play an unmatched ‘=’ as a fairly nasty screw-you play, and the resultant turn-skipping can be brutal for the players who are skipped. There isn’t really an ideal solution here, unfortunately. With the German variant, playing an unmatched ‘=’ is so strongly discouraged (outside of end-of-round situations) that the arbitrary turn-skipping should never be an issue.

*6.4 Beowulf the Legend, medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 5/4†. Availability: BGG 2nd user £10, or new on Amazon.

[† the divider means equally good at both player numbers]
“This is my top pick from Essen. I went in with some trepidation: a little underwhelming buzz, and some disappointment that it wasn’t a follow-up to Lord of the Rings and shares only style, not substance. But it’s been a big hit; enough to get 3 plays in the first 24 hours. I think it’s because it has something for everyone: you’ve got the auctions of several varieties. You’ve got the strategic planning of managing resources for later auctions. You’ve got the tactical game of risk management with the Risks and Scratches. The Risks themselves add a bit of chaos and some excitement and a fun factor. Despite protestations from some quarters, the theme is quite solid (better than anything else from a major label at Essen). It plays quickly and everyone is always in the action.
It actually reminds me a bit of Ra. It’s got the same auction flavor, the same tile-flipping tension, the same hard-to-quantify currency, a similar initial sense of chaos that is brought under control with repeated play. But it’s got more variety than Ra, a much better theme, and more strategic planning (although Ra is the more focussed game).
All in all, I like it a lot, and of the three major hits from Essen (Hacienda, Elasund, Beowulf), this is the only one that has a sense of being a classic.
As an addenda, I am stunned by the low-rating folks who think the theme here is pasted on. I really have no idea what they are looking for or if they are actually playing the same game; the theme in Beowulf is as good as can be found in German-style games. It is, in fact, amazingly clever. Knizia = Pasted On Theme has become an idea that way too many people are parroting without thinking. The theming in Beowulf is leagues better than the awkward at best job in Shadows over Camelot, and in my opinion Beowulf is one of the very, very few games that represents a legitimate artistic interpretation of its source material.”
It actually reminds me a bit of Ra. It’s got the same auction flavor, the same tile-flipping tension, the same hard-to-quantify currency, a similar initial sense of chaos that is brought under control with repeated play. But it’s got more variety than Ra, a much better theme, and more strategic planning (although Ra is the more focussed game).
All in all, I like it a lot, and of the three major hits from Essen (Hacienda, Elasund, Beowulf), this is the only one that has a sense of being a classic.
As an addenda, I am stunned by the low-rating folks who think the theme here is pasted on. I really have no idea what they are looking for or if they are actually playing the same game; the theme in Beowulf is as good as can be found in German-style games. It is, in fact, amazingly clever. Knizia = Pasted On Theme has become an idea that way too many people are parroting without thinking. The theming in Beowulf is leagues better than the awkward at best job in Shadows over Camelot, and in my opinion Beowulf is one of the very, very few games that represents a legitimate artistic interpretation of its source material.”

*6.8 Lord of the Rings, medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4, 3 (2,5), medium weight.

This is a co-op in which you are hobbits whom Sauron is trying to destroy.

“While fully sympathising with those who don’t like the cooperative aspect of this game, this is nonetheless the most intriguing and, IMHO, important game since Settlers of Catan. For the connoisseur, this is as far as gaming has gone into the realm of art. Has actually shocked my by having excellent replay value, an area where I expected it to fall short.”

7.7 Tigris and Euphrates, heavy-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4, 3. Available new.

“I’ve been playing the new Pegasus version, and it’s interesting how much the variant board changes the game. I didn’t think it would make that much difference, really, but it did produce a game with a very different feel to it.
The little mini-monuments, on the other hand, seemed rather awkward (especially thematically) and like they didn’t add much to the game at all.
Funny that playing the new edition of T&E has caused me to re-evaluate my rating, and kick it up to a 10. Not sure if I just had become burned out and needed a break, and now it’s back, or what. It does seem that there is a class of Knizia games that are so intense and pack so much game into a small-ish package that they can easily be over-played. For me, T&E, Blue Moon, and Beowulf all fall into this category – I love them all, and consider them some of the best games ever made, but wouldn’t want to play them every week, just because they’re so involving that after playing it you need to step back and play something lighter, like a Settlers or something.
Is the new edition worth it if you already have one of the previous editions? Probably not, given the cost of importing it. But as a game collector, the new map has enough of a different play feel, and the aesthetic of the game is quite different from either the Mayfair or the Hans im Gluck version, and I’m happy to own it (I own all three versions now). It’s probably the least graphically effective of the three editions, in my opinion – although most people I know like the Mayfair version less than I do – but I still do like the richer colors and more evocative tiles.

Interestingly, this game has not quite achieved the greatness that seemed it’s destiny when first released. Obviously, we’re talking degrees of greatness – it’s a very, very good game – but it doesn’t seem to go “over the top”. I think it’s because the luck element (in the form of the tile draws) is just a little bit too heavy, and there is far too much potential for a mistake by one player to hose or massively benefit an uninvolved third party (this is an attribute of many games which don’t suffer for it; but it’s evidenced too much in this game). Still a very fine game which is highly recommended, but just misses my top-10 all time list.”

7.1 Blue Moon City, medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3/4. Availability: expensive, 2nd user only.

“This is a really clever game. When explaining the rules, it’s actually pretty easy to make Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage jokes, because players are playing cards either for the values, 1-3, or for events, and it does actually have a touch of the flavor of Hannibal. Like most of Knizia’s recent games, Blue Moon City eludes easy classification, having elements of auction, area-control, resource management, and pure tactics. Perhaps the most striking thing is that the area-control part has scoring which often does not particularly favor the player who comes in first; in the mid-late game, it’s not unusal for everyone involved to get big payoffs, but for the “winner” to get just a token bonus.
Knizia may not be doing as many true “gamer’s games” as he has in the past, with stuff like Amun-Re and Taj Mahal becoming comparatively rare. But still, I think Blue Moon, Blue Moon City, and Beowulf represent some of the best work he’s ever done, simple and playable yet with depth, shorter but challenging, well-balanced and perfectly-executed, beautifully produced, with a blend of strategic and tactical skills, and with excellent theme and fun factors. They are perfect blends, providing something for everyone, and to me absolutely represent what good social games should be.
As an aside, I’d agree with Joe Gola that the 3-player version of the game seems slightly tighter. But I’ve been happy with both 3 and 4.”

*6.4 Quo Vadis? light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players, 5. Availability: BGG 2nd user £20.

This is a negotiation game, like Diplomacy but without the aggravation.

“One of Knizia’s best. A very nice little deal-making game, with a dual-victory condition (get to the senate AND have the most laurels) that makes who is winning very deceptive and therefore avoids all of the “you’re ahead” deal-breakers. Combined with strong incentives to deal, this makes for a very lively game. With Chinatown and Traders of Genoa, my favorite of the deal-making games.”

6.8 Priests of Ra, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

Players 4, 3. Availability: ebay and BGG £15.

“Awesome. Initial impression is that it’s got virtually all the depth and interest of Ra at a significantly lower complexity level and a cleaner, slightly quicker playing package. And it does play quite differently from the original. Not quite enough VP chips for the endgame, though.
Just got my copy in, hugely looking forward to trying it. It looks like a somewhat smoother variant on the same core engine as Ra … not sure if that means it’s more accessible but with a little less depth, or if it’s just different. Looking forward to finding out.”

6.8 Colossal Arena.  medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

Players 3, 4. Availability: 2nd user only £25.

“Seems the special powers and secret bets took a fairly dull and uninspiring game (Grand National Derby) to a very solid middle-weight entry. Recommended.
UPDATE for FFG version: Most of the new monsters FFG added are lousy, but I thought one, the Gorgon, was OK. The Demon, sorry, Daimon, and Seraphim should be put into a garbage bin and burned. Also, FFG f*cked up the endgame. Play the original endgame rules (play until all cards are exhausted), the new endgame rules are terrible.”

7.4 Samurai. medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3, 2

“The new FFG edition isn’t quite as nice as the original Hans im Gluck, but it’s still quite nice, and for these classic games which I love I kinda like having different graphical interpretations, if they’re nicely done – it makes for nice variety. In general I’m decidedly not a fan of FFG’s graphic aesthetic, but the reboots of Samurai and Tigris & Euphrates are actually pretty nice.”

7.0 Keltis: Das Orakel, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3, 4

“I  like this a lot, as once again Knizia has taken the basic Keltis engine and mixed it up into something totally new. Much more tactical, with more looking ahead to multi-move combos and setting up tactical board position. It reminds me a little bit of a shade of Taj Mahal: some of the game is looking at what the layout of the special action spaces is, and judging what strategic elements (stones, leprechauns, oracle) might work and what will be tricky. The layout of the colors on the board is very clever and adds a little bit of asymmetry to the suits.
It is, I think, significantly more complicated than Keltis, and casual gamers are unlikely to grasp it the first time through – there are a lot of moving parts and some of it is pretty subtle. But as a more “gamerly” Keltis/Lost Cities, I like it a lot.
Note: The basic/advanced version of the clovers, where you have to advance the piece you move in the regular game and can move anyone in the “advanced” game, is not entirely trivial. If playing with non-hobbyists, the basic rule actually is a lot easier to play. It smooths out an inconsistency (all the other tiles have to be acted on by the moving piece), and inconsistencies always create complexity. The game is more interesting with the advanced rules, but it does introduce a touch of edginess that can trip up even experienced players.
The iPad version is nice, and easy to set up  It does make a good game for that platform, and it may in fact be easier to learn there. On the iPhone/iPod Touch it’s pretty tiny, but still playable – I’ve enjoyed playing it solitaire on my phone in airports.”

7.2 Taj Mahal, heavy-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4

“By the time this game out, top-flight big-box games from Herr Knizia had become such a common thing that Taj Mahal was greeted with less enthusiasm than I thought it merited. This is an excellent bluffing/bidding game, with lots of ways to win and a wealth of tactical details. Trails just a little behind El Grande as my “meatier” German game of choice.”

6.7 Tower of Babel, medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4, 3. Availability: BGG 2nd user £15.

“OK, well, coming back to this one after a few years off, I’m going to dock the rating just a touch. It’s still a very good game, and classic Knizia, but I think the balance on the special action cards is a little off and feels a touch arbitrary [remove the special action cards, Chris doesn’t seem to know that they were a non-Knizia addition that spoils the game], and in general the element of the luck of the draw is not as well managed as it is in Tigris and Euphrates, say. Later in the game, you can end up drawing cards that are worthless. But it scores by being short, and simple and playing well with anywhere from 3-5 players. Like most Knizias, there is more here than meets the eye and it’s a lot less chaotic than it can first appear. A very fine game. Just not up to the level of some of Knizia’s more recent offerings, like Beowulf, Blue Moon City, or Municipium, which are more complete packages. I do think it’s as good as many “classic” Knizias, like Through the Desert.
I’m now well past 10 plays on this one, and I really like it. It’s unique. There are a lot of interesting choices. There is a lot of information to synthesize and that affects what you do. There is constant activity. It’s short-ish. It’s variable enough to generate replayability – like Ra, the details of individual decisions changes a lot from moment to moment and game to game. It’s not too complex. When I first started playing it, I thought it was neat, but that it wouldn’t challenge the classic medium-weight Knizias like Through the Desert or Samurai. Now, I’m not so sure. It might turn out to be one of the greats. It has the additional advantage of not relying on closed scoring, which some find awkward.”

6.8 Ra: The Dice Game, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4, 3, 2.

Man, that Knizia is a genius. Simple game, lots of interesting decisions, lots of tension, good game arc. It’s a simple game, but one that packs a lot of good decision points into a tight, streamlined package. Knizia has really mastered this level of medium-weight game and turned out some amazing recent stuff.”

7.2 Ingenious, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 2, 3, 4. Availablity: new, and as an app.

[You can get this on android and ipad; my niece was instantly addicted.]
“Ingenious is not strictly my sort of game, since I like theme in general (with the notable exception of the GIPF series). But Ingenious is so undeniably clever, and has such an obvious draw for gamers of almost all stripes, and is also prototypically Knizian in accomplishing so much with so little, it’s a game that still sucked me in.
Like many Knizia games, it’s fundamentally a risk management game with a heavy dose of tactics. You need to look at the whole board and judge how “available” each color will be going forward, whether you need to jump on a bandwagon now or whether you can wait a little bit while you score smaller numbers of points in colors that may be harder to get in the future.
There really is a lot going on here for such a simple game, and it is very highly recommended for almost anyone.
When playing with 4, I much prefer the team variant to the straight 4-player. The loss of control with 4 individual players seems to hurt a little, but with two teams, you’re back in business.”

6.8 Qin, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 2 (3)

No comments

6.2 Great Wall of China, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 4, 3 (5). Availability: 2nd user on ebay and BGG market place.

“Another great medium-light Knizia game. See my review here.
The Fantasy Flight edition has a nicer box-size, but the Kosmos edition is an all-around superior production. The illustrations are too muted and cards too indistinct in the FFG version.”

7.0 Through the Desert, medium-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3, 2 (4)

[has colour blindness issues]
“Another classic Knizia game whose only failing is that it is thematically fairly dry, virtually abstract. Still, tons of choices and trade-offs; very incremental (each play is small, but they add up to a lot). And while the theme isn’t strong, it’s rather graphically appealing. It’s not a regular around here anymore, but it’s a tremendous and very underrated gateway game, in addition to being a great game for hobbyists.”

6.8  Lost Cities The Boardgame, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3, 4 (2). Availability: new.

 “I’ve played a bunch of Keltis and Lost Cities: The Boardgame (I generally prefer the latter), and have come to the conclusion that in gamer circles it’s an under-appreciated classic. Give me this any day over other Spiel des Jahre winners like Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne. “Gateway Game” has become a justifiably derided term, as the label usually gets applied to games like Ticket to Ride which, while they may be fine games, are not “gateways” in the sense that they don’t actually bridge the gap between traditional or mass-market games and hobbyist games. They really are going the “wrong” way: they are games that hobbyist gamers can enjoy playing with their non-hobbyist friends, not games that can hook casual or traditional gamers into the brave new world resulting from the boardgaming revolution of the 90s. Lost Cities: The Boardgame (and Keltis) is both a far better game than most Spiel des Jahre winners, and is also an actual gateway game, especially the US Lost Cities version which has a passable theme.”

7.5 Ra, heavy-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3/4 (5). Availability: 2nd user at high prices.

[No point to this with Priests of Ra; just for completeness. Also he rates it a 7/10 these days.]
“Another alea game that started out seeming pretty good but ended up as a true classic. Has that combination of fairly simple rules and straightforward gameplay that masks a great deal of subtlety. Any designer but Knizia, and it would probably turn out that there was a single strategy that was stronger than the rest, but with Knizia you can count on incredibly fine balance. Great game with huge replay value. I believe this is the ultimate auction game.
My only compaint about Ra is that I think the luck of the draw gets a touch out of control with 5 players (with 5 players, it probably rates an 8 instead of a 10). I would generally prefer fewer players, and with 3 players, I think Ra is utterly brilliant.”

6.7 Keltis: Das Kartenspiel, light-weight. BGGicon_external_link

players 3, 4 (2). light-weight. Availability: new, cheap £5.

A card game version of Keltis.

[Only available in German. English rules are here.]
“Keltis compacted and refactored even further; this is a great and distinct game in its own right, with a different mix of cards and a very clever rule for using pairs of cards of different suits. The types of decisions are the same, but the factors that go into them are obviously different enough to make for a distinct but not misleading game.”