Eurogame Review: Reiner Knizia’s Money!

Reiner Knizia is so prolific that even great designs sometimes slip through the cracks. Case in point: Money!. Initially released in 1999 (by Goldsieber in Europe and Rio Grande in America), it didn’t really find its audience. A small Rummy/bidding game wouldn’t have attracted a lot of notice in a year that saw Tikal, Torres, Union Pacific, Lost Cities, and Ra (the last two being Knizia designs), and I honestly don’t remember even seeing the original version of the game.

We have to thank Gryphon Games for bringing it back into print as the first entry in their Bookshelf Series. They’ve provided it with a handsome production in a compact box at a reasonable price ($25), and even made it the flagship release for their line of Apps.

Since this is a set-collecting game with a bidding element, there are some mechanics that are familiar from other Knizia games. The theme is based on currency trading, as you try to build sets from among 7 different types of global money. The cards are designed to look like different real and imaginary currencies, with 9 cards in each set. These cards break down into different denominations: 3 each with a value of 20 and 30, and one each with a value 40, 50, and 60. One of the currencies represents Chinese coins, each worth 10.

Players have a starting hand of 7 cards, and turns are defined by bidding. Each turn, two new lots of currency go up for bid. There are 4 cards in each lot. Using the cards in hand, players can bid any amount for the right to choose the first lot. The high bidder can select either of the lots, replacing that lot with the cards from his bid. Second highest bidder chooses next, and so on.

Lots are replenished from a draw deck, and then the bidding cycle begins again. The goal is to focus on buying lots that will build a single kind of currency with a face value greater than 200. Any currency in which you have less than 200 points at the end of game results in 100 points being subtracted from your final score. Having all three 20s or 30s also helps, since they earn you a 100 point bonus.

The game is simple to scale from 3 to 5 players merely by removing 1 type of currency for each player below 5. It’s easy to teach, and plays in 20 to 30 minutes.

As in Knizia’s Lost Cities, Money! requires you to make difficult decisions. It all comes down to choosing the right sets to build, and unloading unfinished sets to avoid the point penalty. There isn’t as much room for pain in Money! as there is in Lost Cities. Start the wrong dig in Lost Cities and you’re going to feel the loss no matter what. Collect a bad lot in Money! and you can unload it in the next turn, and even benefit by allowing it to pad out your bid.

A number of factors have pushed this to the top of the pile during family game nights. Aside from a couple of scoring steps, there is nothing really complex about the rules. Anyone who knows how to play Rummy will figure it out right away. The bidding adds an interesting element of strategy, as you watch what other players are taking and try to place bids that will get bad cards out of your own hand without benefitting someone else.

The appealing theme, high production values, easy-to-learn rules, and a decent amount of player interaction make this one a winner. Tomorrow morning, we’ll take a look at the App conversion to see if it captured these qualities in handy portable form.

Charles S. Roberts, Inventor of the Wargame, Dies at 80

The obituary was headlined “Charles S. Roberts, train line expert, dies at 80.” You could read the entire story and not realize they were describing one of the most important figures in the history of gaming.

Charles S. Roberts was indeed an expert on trains, which were his passion. He had several careers in his long life, but his most enduring achievement was as the inventor of the wargame.

Yes: you read that right. Charles Roberts invented the modern wargame. Movement on a grid (and later on hexes)? Combat results tables? Cardboard counters representing military units? Paper maps? Variable movement costs for different terrains? The entire idea of a packaged boardgame simulating military history?

All of it these things were the invention of Charles Roberts.

There were other forms of military gaming before Roberts: miniature soldiers on table-top terrain, or the “Little Wars” of H.G. Wells. But the modern wargame emerged from a game called Tactics.

In Tactics, two players moved little cardboard squares over a map. A grid printed on top of this map (hexes came later) helped regulated movement, while different kinds of terrain slowed or sped a unit’s progress. A combination of dice rolls and reference tables determined the results of combat encounters.

Robert invented Tactics in 1952. When no one was interested in publishing it, he sold it himself out of his garage in Avalon, Maryland. In the process, Roberts and his Avalon Game Company (later called Avalon Hill) would create an entirely new kind of adult boardgaming: complex, detailed, and historically based.

Two years after founding Avalon Hill, Roberts invented Gettysburg: the first boardgame to simulate an actual battle.

The games sold well, but Roberts couldn’t keep ahead of the printing costs. By 1962, his printer, Monarch, took over his company as repayment for his debts. They would run it for another 36 years, until mismanagement finally took it down. Hasbro picked up the pieces, and continues to publish updated versions of Avalon Hill’s more mainstream titles, but the glory days of tabletop wargaming are gone.

Wargames have faded from popularity. At first, they found a comfortable home on computers, where the calculations and setup were automated. In time, even those faded away, and now only handful of dedicated hobbyists still play historical simulations.

That’s a shame, because wargames are history you can hold. When you game a particular battle, you understand it far better than you could by simply reading about it. It’s almost like role-playing, as you try to make the decisions faced by the great battlefield commanders, and see how they may have turned out differently. Wargames require time, thought, and study: things that seem in short supply these days.

If you were a certain kind of boy in the 1960s and 1970s, this was one of the things you did. Dungeons & Dragons changed all that, and most young gamers drifted from historical gaming to fantasy RPGs, myself among them. I believe that without Roberts laying the groundwork, RPGs never would have even happened. He created a new kind of gamer, and proved that there was a market for long games with complex rules and lots of numbers.

Charles Roberts never set out to create a whole new hobby. He invented his first game as a way to study military tactics in preparation for joining the military. He never did join the military, but his designs and the company he founded changed the face of gaming.

App O’ The Mornin’: Crayon Physics Review

Crayon Physics is a perfect fit for touch-based products. You can watch a video and download the PC demo at the official site, but for puzzle-fans, there’s hardly any need. This is a must-buy.

This unique puzzler was one of the delights of the the 2008 Game Developers Conference and the 2008 Independent Games Festival, where it claimed the Seumas McNally Grand Prize for excellence. It took Finnish developer Petri Purho another year to finish it, but by the time he unleashed Crayon Physics Deluxe on both PC and the App store, it was an even more polished and addictive puzzler.

The game allows you to draw any shape on the screen, and then gives that shape physical properties. The screen looks like a sheet of folded paper, and the graphics nothing more than crayon lines, making the entire game seem like a child’s drawing come to life. The visual style, coupled with low-key music, gives the game a gentle tone that belies its challenging content.

The gameplay is somewhat reminiscent of The Incredible Machine, as you create simple shapes that move and trigger other shapes into movement. You need some pretty good mouse skills to make this one work on a normal computer (the video shows it being used with a Tablet), but on an iPhone the touch controls are a perfect fit. You simply draw with your finger, and your objects take on a life of their own, be it a simple ball or a car rolling on donut wheels.

Physics games are a dime a dozen on the App store, but Crayon Physics was one of the pioneers of the genre, and it’s still one of the most accomplished puzzlers on any format.