I’m coming to find that being a Reiner Knizia fan is much like being a fan of eating. You’re constantly hungry for more, and there’s always new & exciting flavors to explore. Today we’ll sandwich Nidavellir between these hunks of Reiner bread…
Whale Riders is top-tier for Knizia family games. Dead simple rules, gorgeous illustrations, a charming theme, speedy turns, and a tense tempo are the secret ingredients to this fantastic new game.
Like many of Knizia’s best, here you take two actions of your choice on your turn:
- Sail forward one port
- Purchase one tile from your current port (with the oldest tiles being cheapest and newer tiles sliding down to replace what you purchase)
- Take a coin
- Discard any cards from your hand
- Fulfill any contracts in your hand
Keeping a rapid pace along the coast is just as important as using your actions efficiently, and those two urgent needs are usually at odds with each other. Fulfilling contracts is obviously best performed when you can fulfill all three cards in your hand with one action, but those fulfillments also grant you more money which you’ll desperately need now to draft the best tiles before your opponents can claim them. If you take the cheap tiles this turn, then the better tiles will slide into those cheap positions for you to claim next turn, but you can save an entire turn if you just pay a little extra for what you really want now.
There is a deliciously relentless push and pull between the players and the mechanisms. We’ve also found that the added variant of objective tiles (“The Clan’s Decree”) adds another layer of decisions to this space. Alternatively, I’ve heard complaints about the variable powers variant (“The Magic of the Whales”) feeling unbalanced and strategically restrictive, so we have not tried that one yet.
One of the monumental achievements of this title is just how quickly it can be taught and played. Of course, you have to keep in mind that Whale Riders features a player-driven tempo which widens the possible range of playtimes. But my most recent session was setup, taught, played, and finished in under 25 minutes. This is one of those contortionist designs that feels like a standard event game yet mystically folds itself into an itty-bitty chunk of time. For how little it costs me in money, time, and shelf space, I almost feel like a board game bandit who has stolen far more value than he deserves.
Last year, I spent an article reflecting on all the Kickstarter projects I had backed and their marketing effectiveness on me and my fellow backers. Whale Riders was one of those projects, yet I was puzzled how a gorgeous game with a solid pedigree underperformed compared to the many other games I had evaluated. My conclusion was that Whale Riders simply lacked an obvious, standout hook. Yet the thing that is important to understand about Whale Riders, and Knizia games in general, is that the hook is embedded and concealed within gameplay itself. What appears to be a far-too-basic generic game of moving along a track, buying tiles, and fulfilling contracts is in reality an acrobatic battle of wits across a tight-rope of juicy decisions. It’s the hidden interactions, decisions, and realizations—like a mystical whale that suddenly breaks through the water’s surface, emerging from the dark sea—that remind us again and again and again why we should never judge a Knizia design before we play it, and play it multiple times for good measure.
Current Rating: 8.5/10
Whale Riders: The Card Game
While they share the same name, theme, and art, Whale Riders: The Card Game is a very different beast from its bigger board game sibling. In fact, this card game is actually the older of the two games in that it is a reimplementation of a card game from 2000 called “Trendy.”
Whale Riders: The Card Game is a simple deck of cards containing five types of goods (shells, kelp, meat, pots, and pearls… arranged from least to most valuable). Each type also contains one bonus (double) card and one storm card. So it’s a very easy game for players to grasp what is in the deck and track the general progress of played and unplayed cards.
It’s a game of investing, where only one goods type will score at a time (the good that reaches its numerical threshold) and everything else that has been played in front of players will end up wasted in the discard pile. So you obviously want to work with some opponents to play goods that score points for the cards you’ve invested in while ensuring that other opponents’ cards go to waste. There is certainly an art to enticing others to join in on your risky pots or pearls by the way you lead a round with an intentional card and give off an air of confidence in your secret hand. I may only have three pearl cards to put toward the required seven to score, but if I can get the ball rolling and sweet talk my neighbor into joining in on the fun then we’ve really got a shot at scoring big with the pearls.
This is where the heart of Whale Riders: The Card Game’s fun lies. It’s not so much in clever hand management or thinky card play—both of which are strictly limited to their simplest forms here—rather, this is a card game all about nudging, enticing, scaring, and gaming your opponents in a breezy, light-hearted way. That may not be enough for this game to satisfy some folks, but for me, this one stays fast (we’re talking 10 minutes per play) and fresh enough (the “advanced game” aka “full game” comes with event cards that change up the feel of each round) that I quite enjoyed the light, above-the-table meta it provides.
Admittedly, I think the original theme of Trendy fashion designers and original game length of playing to 100 points worked better for the design than this new Whale Rider’s theme of purchase consolidation and this new shorter game length of one time through the deck. But Whale Riders absolutely has better art, it includes the new event cards (known as Ports), and it still suggests the 100 point version as a “long game variant,” so I think it’s a net positive reimplementation overall. Just be aware that some people have minor gripes about the storm and bonus (double) cards being too visually subtle and thus occasionally flying under the brain’s radar as regular goods.
For a game as quick, simple, and accessible as this, I find that I’m happy to hold onto Whale Riders: The Card Game and break it out with the right folks who enjoy engaging each other as much as (or more than) the game. Yet if I want to dive into a game of shared incentives and subtle screwage, I’m more likely to to opt for something even meatier like Irish Gauge or Modern Art. Speaking of which…
Current Rating: 7/10
Modern Art Card Game
Once again, we’re talking about an old Knizia card game made anew. Only, instead of being a complete reimplementation, this one is simply an updated production featuring even more modern art.
Those who are familiar with Modern Art the board game will find much of the same DNA here in its card game offspring. There are still five artists whose work is represented on tarot sized cards which are played one at a time from players’ hands to end up in a personal collection. Only, instead of using auctions to get these cards from any player’s hand to any player’s collection, the auctions are completely stripped away and your only option is to play these cards directly into your own collection.
With the focus being shifted from smorgasbord bidding to hand management, the cards also feature some more effects when played such as earning another card from the deck into your hand, adding a second card of the same artist to your collection, or playing a face-down card to your collection for an added dollop of mystery to the proceedings. The key is to play cards from your hand in the round when they will be the most valuable, yet no value is set in stone until the sixth card of an artist is played and the top three played suits of the round are payed out.
The interesting scoring mechanism is still here in full force, where an artist’s work can increase in value over time as long as they continue to place in the top 3. Likewise, the tricky decision of how long to save these works of art in your hand and when exactly to play them is alive and well. Yet your hand seems to lose a lot of its impact compared to Modern Art the board game when these cards no longer present an opportunity for a profitable auction.
For what many people, including myself, consider to be a legendary auctioning game, it’s rather jarring to have the beating heart of that game ripped out and cast aside, where players are left with a lifeless corpse of a card game to explore. To be fair, this is a Reiner Knizia card game, and his steady hand ensures that there is a solid design here to be enjoyed. Yet its inspiration casts a long shadow over this small box that leaves me wondering when and why I would ever choose to play the card game over the board game. The answer? I wouldn’t.
Modern Art: The Card Game retains much of the clever cogs and pretty production of its heritage, yet loses the heart of the board game and struggles to stand out as a worthwhile card game among my collection.
Current Rating: 5.5/10
While it’s not as accessible as Splendor, Nidavellir is significantly more interesting to me. The five different types of cards and their scoring styles take some getting used to, and the heroes contain a whole bunch more unique symbols that are a lot to digest on first play. But for a game that plays in under an hour, you’ll be up and running very quickly and likely have mastered all the symbology and need no reference sheet after only a few plays.
The core loop of Nidavellir—secret bidding with coins and upgrading unused coins—is where this one really stands out from the pack. Splendor can keep its fancy plastic chips and Gizmos its magical marbles and Century its… cubes. I’ll take Nidavellir and its cardboard bidding coins any day.
While the concept here is novel, I’d like to see auctions feel even more tense and meaningful. After my first play, I had hoped that I would gain a better grasp of the relative values of each card. While that did happen, I didn’t find my increased experience changing the feel or tension of the auctions by much. I wonder if the strengths of the bidding mechanism are somewhat undercut by being paired with drafts that lack significant consequences.
Between the three taverns of each round, it’s not uncommon for me to feel apathetic about the drafting options of one or two of the taverns. Everything gets you points, and going for lots of the the same color can get you more points while going for a variety of colors can earn you hero cards, which also help generate points. So the consequences of each auction range from good to great and vary rarely stray outside of that comfort zone.
Nidavellir certainly follows the tried and true path of being a safe game with an intriguing mechanism mixed in. These games always catch an “ooo” or “ahh” when their singular clever concept is revealed during the rules explanation, but they also struggle to achieve poignantly memorable moments or a wide emotional range. It’s an interesting balance that designers must face where making a broadly appealing game can lead to increased sales and popularity at the expense of the design’s dynamic personality and potent flavor. The sharp edges of a design are often what keep a game from feeling dull (go figure).
While Nidavellir perhaps suffers from being tunnel-visioned on fun-optimization to some extent, it still comes together as a solid package and worthwhile experience for me. The unanimously scowling dwarves across literally every single card in the deck may hint at the somewhat monotone gameplay lurking beneath, but the addictive loop of bidding and upgrading coins is strong enough on its own merits to disguise its shortcomings. To their credit, the creators have released an expansion, Thingvellir, that promises to make the auctions more meaningful by awarding the highest bidder with an additional drafting option from a separate pool of cards known as the Camp. Once we’ve tried it, I’ll be sure to report back on how it changes the experience for me.
Current Rating: 7.5/10
Just when I thought I already had plenty of great tug-of-war games—particularly 2-player ones including Blitzkrieg, Watergate, Mandala, and Battle Line—here comes Royal Visit busting open the saloon doors and demanding a place in my collection. Iello thoroughly crushed the production here from the colorful cloth board to the chunky block figures, And Reiner crushed the concept within this design.
As their dense pieces suggest, every character has a weighty purpose… an incentive to pull it further in your direction along this track. The guards are the boundaries for the king’s movement, and one must draw the king into the palace on their end of the board to win the game. Yet, the other way to win is to move the crown token into your palace, and the crown moves toward you every turn that you have any other figure in your palace or the entire court (the king and his two guards) on your half of the board.
The jester and wizard have unique special abilities that can be used instead of playing cards on your turn, so it’s always beneficial to have them closer to you where they can do more damage with their abilities. While you are limited to playing one type of card on your turn and moving the matching figure as many spaces as the numbers on the cards you play, the jester’s ability (when chosen) makes his cards wilds for any other single card suit of your choice, and he has the most movement-heavy numbers on his cards. The problem is that the jester has to be between your end of the board and the king to use his ability, so you frequently have to play the very cards you wish to save for a massive wild movement just to get him into position.
Meanwhile, you can use the wizard’s ability to teleport any other figure (excluding the jester) to the wizard’s location. But remember, the king must remain within the boundaries of the guards, so if you want to teleport the king then you’ll already have to have a guard past the wizard.
While the king’s cards feel like the weakest (they are only ever 1’s to move the king), you can also play two king cards to move the entire court one space (the king and his guards). This is the only way to move two types of figures in one turn, and it can be super useful in the right moments.
The two guards have their own interesting wrinkle in that you can always split your movement cards between them (whether you play jester cards as wilds or guard cards). It’s important to pull the guard on your side closer to increase your king movement potential while lassoing the opposite guard in to prevent massive king stealing plays from your opponent.
Aside from welcoming the King or the crown into your palace, the third way to win is in a tense tiebreaker that triggers the moment the deck has been depleted for the second time. At that point, whoever has the king on their half of the board wins, and all other progress you made with the crown or other characters doesn’t matter.
For a game that takes 10-20 minutes to play and fits snuggly inside a small box with a useful insert, it doesn’t get much better than Royal Visit.
Current Rating: 8/10
Yellow & Yangtze
Well it’s not exactly a “new release,” but 2018 isn’t too far behind us yet. Plus, I think we can make an exception here considering this post is already riddled with Knizia game impressions, and I can’t resist talking about the sister game to my #3 favorite of all time.
Yellow & Yangtze…. just wow. What a freaking masterpiece. You know the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” Or “Don’t spoil a good thing?” Or how about “The grass is always greener on the other side?” All the wisdom in the world should have stopped Reiner from touching his untouchable design. Yet here we are, and thank goodness he didn’t listen to that wisdom.
Yellow & Yangtze is the Tigris & Euphrates doppelgänger, alternate timeline, or long-lost twin. It’s a modernization of Reiner’s greatest work, yet it’s not a replacement. I wouldn’t put one above the other as they both share the same delicious core yet provide distinct flavors.
Y&Y is definitely something you can’t approach with the same strategy as T&E, but the fundamental similarities make me naturally want to approach it in the same way. With T&E, I love to plot and scheme my way into massively lucrative wars that swing the pendulum of momentum in my favor. These huge wars are still present in Y&Y, yet they are significantly streamlined and overshadowed by the even more important and fleeting pagodas. In T&E, the civilizations are like a slowly rising pile of snow that eventually collapse into an insane avalanche of tiles and points. In Y&Y, the civilizations are more comparable to a winter parking lot that is blanketed with fresh snow every few hours but regularly shoveled and salted.
The thing to appreciate about Y&Y is how Reiner has infused every tile type with purpose outside of its universal use. In fact, these tiles required more purpose when he also streamlined the wars down to using military (red) tiles only. That’s probably one of the key takeaways here: Y&Y is undoubtedly the more streamlined version of the two games. The trickiest thing for people to grasp and wrap their minds around and understand the ramifications for is the wars. Yet wars have been reeled in here to a single battle between two kingdoms using their military might only. And the fallout of wars is less destructive for the losing side and less rewarding for the winning side. These tweaks serve to make the game a less strategic and more tactical affair. Not better, not worse… just refreshingly different.
Bouncing back from a heavy blow is much faster and easier, and the landscape of leaders across the board is more rapid, dynamic, and fluid. Unused leaders are given purpose and unwanted tiles are given value. Rather than flying low for many turns waiting to strike a single fatal blow, you’re better off pouncing on the fleeting opportunities of each round, if you can even spot them. It seems as though every T&E complaint that someone would have regarding luck of the draw, value of the tiles, usefulness of leaders in the late game, brutality of the conflicts, etc., has been considered and addressed in one way or another here.
And somehow, that doesn’t make Yellow & Yangtze superior to Tigris & Euphrates for me. It’s merely a yang to Reiner’s masterful yin (see what I did there? ;). Between the low-key enormous shift to hexagon spaces (from squares) and the shocking addition of yellow tiles (providing wild points), there’s an entirely new pool of possibilities to explore. Many will plant their flag on one side of the fence or the other, but I think I’d prefer to sit on the fence itself and enjoy the panoramic view.
Current Rating: 10/10
As a side note, if either Y&Y or T&E catch your interest, then the best time to jump on a copy is ASAP as they are both entering the dark ages of their publishing cycle until a new publisher inevitably picks them up. And as a double side note, we got to take the BGG plastic & bamboo tiles of Y&Y for a spin and they were precisely as exotic and luxurious as that sounds (just make sure you find yourself a bigger cloth bag if you decide to upgrade your own copy, as they bafflingly left that problem up to the customer to solve).
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Article written by Nick Murray. Outside of practicing dentistry part-time, Nick has devoted his remaining work-time to collaborating with the world’s best designers, illustrators, and creators in producing classy board games with a bite. He hopes you’ll join Bitewing Games in their quest to create and share experiences that, much like a bitewing x-ray, provide a unique perspective and refreshing interaction.