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Beowulf:The Legend - Knizia's forgotten masterpiece from the last decade

Review by Martin Griffiths

Beowulf: the Legend is Reiner Knizia's lost classic, languishing outside the BoardGameGeek top 1000 due to mismatched expectations. Coming in a big Fantasy Flight box and with high fantasy artwork from John Howe, many were expecting a more Ameritrash implementation of the source material. 

But if you know Knizia, you know that's not the way he rolls. At first it may seem ludicrous that he turned an epic poem into an auction game, but if you give the game a chance you start to see the theme seeping through in more subtle ways. 

So, how does it play? The players represent Beowulf's companions on his epic quest, competing to gain the most fame and become Beowulf's successor on his death. The unusual L-shaped board depicts a linear track through the various episodes of the poem, explained in more detail inside the rulebook. Most of these 'episodes' give a chance for the players to demonstrate their prowess at various skills, aiming to collect the best rewards and avoid nasty penalties. 

The core of the game is a deck of cards in five suits representing the skills of courage (Fists), fighting (Axes), travelling (Ships), wit (Foxes),  and friendship (Drinking Horns). Each episode has five possible rewards/penalties (reduced if you don't have the full five players) and tells you which skills are needed to win them. 

Some episodes are resolved by a simultaneous blind bid of cards with matching symbols, while others use a poker-style raise/pass bidding system, with the first to pass getting last pick of the rewards. The tension of this system is reminiscent of another Knizia great, ‘Taj Mahal’. 

Added to this is a fun push-your-luck element. Before playing cards from your hand, you can choose to take a 'risk' by flipping two cards from the deck. If either card matches the suits in demand, you get to keep them, but if neither match, you're out of the bidding immediately, which can be calamitous. Some have criticised the risks for being too luck-based, but I find it more a question of knowing when it's safe to take a risk and when you really can't afford the downside. 

So what are the rewards and penalties the players are vying for? Rewards include straight-up victory points, money and special power cards for use in subsequent rounds of bidding. Penalties come in the form of 'scratches' and 'wounds', which will count against you if you aren't able to heal them before the end of the game. 

In between the major bidding episodes, there are other opportunities to replenish your cards and convert between the various resources, plus yet more auctions in which you can bid the money you've acquired on further rewards. 

It's a game about picking your battles and pushing your luck, and that's where we get back to the theme of the bravado and one-upmanship of Beowulf's company. The tension of the bidding and the drama of the risks make for lots of laughs and curses along the way.

The game plays in an hour or so and is at its best with the full five players, but works fine with three or four too. Don't miss out on this one because of the poor BGG rating; in my opinion, it's Knizia's best game of the last decade. 

Boardgameguru has Beowulf : The Legend on special offer at £7.99. We will also add a free copy to any order over £100.

Great games - shame I can't sell them to you

This blog is here to support sales in my shop. I love being able to recommend games that I think you will enjoy - and that I can sell to you - and it pains me when I play a game that makes me want to shout from the roof tops 'You must play this game' if they are impossible to source .

On Saturday I played four games that fit this description.

'Race to the Rhine' sold out within four hours of listing on my website. The mesh of theme and euro mechanics to create a war game race is ingenious. It is a logistics race. And as such not a wargame, but actually much closer to what actually wins/loses wars. Wonderful production values, straight forward play and a great theme. Awaiting a re-print.

'Thunder Alley' went even faster than 'Race to the Rhine' - all copies went in 90 minutes. As much fun as I have had from a race game - wild swings of fortune, tactical but not to the extent of causing AP, detail left out in favour of flavour. I am not a NASCAR aficionado but this creates a a great feel of cars driving at great speed , one burst tyre away from disaster and one push to victory. More on order but I understand is going to be in limited supply until a re-print.

'The Front Nine'. Getting a copy of this is in your control as it is a Kickstarter project. I was lucky enough to be gifted a copy by the designer Nick Case. You can file next to 'sail to India' as a tiny game that packs a huge punch - market manipulation, visual spatial, income optimisation - loads going on. A treat to look at as well. Rahdo's Run through video should persuade you to back this game.

'Suburbia' was published in 2012. Every time it is re-printed it sells out in weeks. I am up to 7 plays and this is my favourite city builder - not least because behind this own tableau tile layer is a mordant wit; you can create a city scape polluted and populated by mobile home communities that survive financially by fast food restaurants or you can go all gated communities and create a high tech paradise. Awaiting a re-print.

Games to take on Holiday

Everyone loves an escape from the rat race, but  a holiday usually means that you have to go a week or two without playing any games!! Well not any more, with this list of games you will be able to play anywhere, and they will all fit into your case without having to leave behind the extra swimming trunks. They are also all very family friendly, so no need to send the kids off to bed at three in the afternoon to sneak in a game or two!

55 cards in a tin! Each card will have one item in common with each of the other cards; the aim is to spot the item before someone else does a lot of fun and great for children development. All in a tin small enough that you could even carry in your pocket. It’s also ideal for the larger family as up to ten players can join in.

For the slightly older family, Sail to India is a more tactical strategy game that comes in a small box. Easy to pick up and learn, but with enough depth to keep you occupied and having fun where ever you are. Can you be the first trader to set up a trade route to India, constructing buildings, selling goods and discovering new technologies along the way.

If you don’t want to take the box, just pack the cards and some way of keeping score. A game of pure genius, select a card, make a statement about it without giving too much away. Each other player will also pick a card that hopefully matches your statement and then they will all pick a card trying to find the one you played. Simple, fun and great for children of all ages, can be played with up to twelve players (with expansions), but also great with three or four. The art work is beautiful too.

Maybe the best in micro-design, 16 cards and hours upon hours of fun. Get your letter to the princess without being caught, or catch the others to take them out of the round. It’s so simple and yet addictive, so beware when you play this, you may end up locked in your room all day!!

The quick playing dice game, you are never idle when playing Qwixx as even on someone elses turn you can still mark off your scores. You have four rows, two going from 2 to 12 and two going from 12 to 2, you will try to cross of as many numbers in each row as you can, but you can go back once you have skipped one or more numbers. The active player can choose to mark off two numbers, but has to mark one or take a penalty! Somewhat akin to bingo, but with more strategy.

Let your imagination out and let it run wild. Roll the dice and then form a story with the result, it’s that simple. Children love it as they have limitless scope to tell a story, adults also love it as they can get more and more complex with their story telling. All done with the aid of just nine dice!

Need something quick just to scratch that itch? Well look no further, Eight Minute Empire is just that, eight minutes (give or take 1 or 2!) to build your empire and defeat the others. Up to four can play this mini-masterpiece.

Not a game as such, but with a deck or two of Bicycle Playing cards you will have hundreds of games at your fingertips, from the simplest snap games, to complex Bridge and lots in between. Nearly everyone has played a card game at one stage or other and all in a pack the size of a mobile phone.

Everyone plays a card face down, they are revealed and then placed in number order on the cards already out, you don’t want to place the 6th card on any row as it means you have to take the row and the Bulls Heads there. This is a game for up to 10 players and can get noisy, does take two minutes to learn.

As it states on the box “you don’t have to be faster than the shark, just faster than your friends”. This is a card game where you are trying to avoid being bitten by the shark, stay one step ahead of your friends and you will come away all in tact, don’t and you’re shark dinner!

Cherry Picking

I am a fan of Zoch's lighter games and am surprised that they don't get seen at games clubs. This might be due to the lack of advertising outside of Germany.

The latest game from Zoch continues the line of easy to play, whimsical and attractive fillers is Cherry Picking

The players are harvesting fruit and score points for making sets and for the face value of cards that they collect. Contents - Six different fruit trees (laid on the table) - a card deck made up of 4 different types of cards - Fruits corresponding to the tress with values 0 - 6, Ladders, Wild cards and baskets (values 0-9). The cards are shuffled and six are laid out, one under each tree. The players are then dealt the remainder of the cards.

All players simultaneously choose a card from their and reveal. If anyone has played a ladder they go first and pick a card  from underneath any tree (the card they placed replaces the card they took). The card taken goes in their harvest pile which scores at the end of the game. If more than one ladder was played then the players just put the ladders in their harvest pile without collecting a card from under a tree. Not a total disaster as ladders score their square at the end of the game –for example 6 ladders = 36 points. Then the same happens with Wild Cards - you usually want to see more than one wild card so yours goes into your harvest pile and is not left on the table for someone else to snatch later  - Wildcards can be winners!. Then the fruit cards are resolved in number order - If I play a 6 Cherry I take whatever is under the cherry tree, and if you have played a zero cherry you get the 6 Ieft under the tree. So high values might get you a card you need but leave value for someone else to snatch away.   Lastly baskets play in number order and may take from any tree. This sounds a bit procedural but actually plays very quickly. When everyone has played their last card the game is scored - squares of ladders + face values of all cards + 10 points for each set of all six fruits + 10 points for a set of 4 of the same fruit which becomes 20 if you manage 5. Harvest piles are usually played open so you can see what other players are going for.

Like most Zoch games It's not brain surgery. You are likely to have a plan how you want to play from your starting hand, and what card you might want to play last so it can’t be picked up by anyone else. However it will change as you play out as Ladders become more or less valuable to you, as wild cards appear and as low value baskets start to litter the fruit trees. A lovely way to pass 20 minutes.

Hold the Press! Best of 2013 Part 6

The trouble with putting together 'best of 2013' lists is that it's quite likely that I will have not played a lot of games released in the year. Not a problem if you believe you can spot the games you are likely to like and those you won't. A comparison to 'King of Tokyo' (fine game, but does not set my heart racing) had caused me to ignore 'Quantum' - I can see how 'Quantum' can be compared to 'King of Tokyo' ; dice and special power cards - but the comparison is a disservice. One is a knock about dice fest the other is a sublime game of tactical chains, short lived strategic dreams and boundless outcomes - I played 6 times over the weekend and every game played out differently - every new game I saw new combos and tactical subtleties I had not seen before. Glorious. 

6 Plays. Rated a 9. Joint best in Class 2013

Best of 2013 Part 5

A Study in Emerald

Neil Gaimon’s short story, ‘A Study in Emerald’ is a paradigm of literary precision whereas Martin Wallace took the 3,000 or so words and poured in the anarchist history of the 19th century, the complete Cthulhu Mythos , Vampires and Zombies. My first three plays had left me agreeing with the question is the game a ‘Mess’ or ‘a glorious mess’? My fourth added the option ‘Glorious’.  A mix of deck building, majorities, hidden objectives, take that and a bit of cosmic chaos means that its not going to be a game for the control lover. You need to enter the game and play the players not just the game. It was only in my 4th outing that this clicked and just in time as one agent was converted to a Vampire, a plague of Zombies was spreading across the board towards me and an obvious 'Restorationist'  was making his bid for victory…and even though I was sure he was on my team I had to cap his main agent. A little like last years 'Archipelago' you have to manage the board and deduce the other players intentions and lay false trails your self. Delicious  and my choice as best game from 2013.

4 Plays. Rated 9/10

Best of 2013 Part 4

 ‘Caverna’ is my most played game of the 2013 crop - if you did not like’ Agricola’ because ‘its no fun/you can’t’ specialize/its not got Dwarves/feeding is boring then’ fill your boots with this magnificent game.  ‘Caverna’ adds a lot to the ‘Agricola’ formula – more animals, more resources and both a farm to build and an underground chamber to carve out and fill with rooms. The addition of currency in the form of gold and rubies adds interesting timing and conversion possibilities and the expeditions a whole new way of getting all the stuff you need. The design (and difficult production) choice to make the game playable by seven dwarves gives some clue as to the best player count – the more the merrier. At lower numbers it is an enjoyable, but solitary, optimization exercise, with higher numbers you are bumping up against Grumpy, Sneezy, Sleepy et al for the spots you want and the tiles you need.  Magnificent yes, but after 20 plays I need an expansion - I am interested in exploring the game  with 5+ player , whereas I am still happy to explore the limitless possibilities of the E,I and K decks. Excellent game – but not as good as ‘Agricola’

20 plays. Rating 8 out of 10

Best of 2013 Part 3

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Last summer I role played for the first time in 30 years.  For a whole weekend. In a 14th century manor house. With five friends. I was bored rigid.

Somehow the magic of years ago has turned to dust. The process of role playing has become tedium; the imagination necessary to breath life into paper has gone. But a little boy inside would love to recreate the wonder of the first encounter with Gary Gygax's world. Well Pathfinder won’t peel back the years but I had five amazing evenings taking my cleric through the first adventure pack with a like minded board gamer. Pathfinder is an easy canvas to paint with role playing memories – none too taxing, tells a story and often goes to the wire.

Played 16 times. Rated 8/10

Best of 2013 Part 2


Quasi-deck builders were very much en vogue with the more trad.  euro designers in Euro 13 and the genius of this game is that the action cards selected also determine your victory points at the end. Otherwise the play of the game feels remarkably like Mac Gerdt’s ,other, rondel games – you are cycling through a lot of small actions with a sense that you are always one short of what you want to achieve – and whilst what you want to achieve is a bit generic and boring (Mediterranean, trade goods, houses, ….) how you do it is very entertaining. I still prefer ‘Navegador’ but I wonder if that will change after more plays.

Played 3 times - rated 7/10

Best of 2013 Part 1

I am going to post a few thoughts about the games I enjoyed most from 2013.

 Lewis and Clark

This is happening every evening in a gaming basement near you :-

 ‘The game ends – then the scoring begins. 15 minutes and a collective 1147 points later a leader is determined, after 17 categories are tallied and compared, resources behind screens divided by two and then Min maxed for majorities. 7 of the tracks are tied and need to go the 4th breaker, secret goals are revealed and the player in last comes first.… ‘

 How refreshing 1. A Complex Euro game that scores only one point. To the winner of a race. At the End.

 How refreshing 2. An abstract design was developed in to a thematically rich and thematically coherent game.

The game itself is a thunderously brain burning 120 minutes of optimization, hand management and resource conversion. But I know how why I am going up the river. Played 3 times (won all of them – I am not going to tell you that my approach is the only way to winning though), rated 8/10 Guru tip . Never play with the AP, Sweet spot 3 or 4 experienced players