Play, Einstein!

Beyond Scrabble and Cranium, a new generation of smart board games can test the brainiacs on your list.

"Downey," said my hard- bitten editor. "For this gift guide, I want something new; I want you to go out there and track down gifts for eggheads, highbrow, big brains—really smart people. I want puzzles that would make Houdini work for it, games to make Einstein sweat."

"Easier said than done," I muttered. After all, there are not that many really smart people around, so the market for such products is necessarily limited. And sure enough, visits to a number of prominent toy emporiums produced little in the way of amusements for brainiacs. "Challenging games?" said one clerk: "You mean like chess? How about chess?"

But orders are orders, so I turned for assistance to the World Wide Web and the official site of self-proclaimed brainy people, Mensa. And what do you know, I hit pay dirt right off the bat. Sure enough, "the High IQ Society" now has its own game, called Mensa Connections. It's an extraordinary game to play. A game for one to four players (one-player games; what will they think of next?), it involves placing colored tiles on a board to win points while ensuring opponents don't. On the plus side, the organization promises that it takes only five minutes to learn the rules and that it is a beautiful game to look at. On the downside, it costs around $45 plus shipping and handling and at the moment is available only from England. (Easier than it sounds: check out www.amazon.co.uk.)

At that point my search seemed at a dead end; fortunately, the Mensa site (www.mensa.org.uk) mentioned that Mensa Connections was the invention of one Reiner Knizia, so I Googled Mr. Knizia to see if he had any other games for brains to his credit. It turns out that Knizia is the Lance Armstrong of the board-game world, with publishers competing for his products; it was he who was selected for the coveted job of creating a board-game version of Lord of the Rings. Thus was opened to me the Wonderful World of German Games. Because it turns out that when it comes to buying, playing, and inventing games of all descriptions, the Germans lead the world. Half a dozen thriving companies churn out half a dozen games a year each, some concentrating on the kid market, but most offering products to appeal to all ages, usually meaning 12 to 14 and up. (One company, Ravensburger AG, runs its own family theme park, for Pete's sake.)

An amazing number of these games are available in English-language versions; so many that if you want to look over a substantial number of them, you have to go to a store specializing in such products. Fortunately, Seattle has a pip: Gary's Games and Hobbies (8539 Greenwood Ave. N., 206-789-889; www.garysgamesandhobbies.com), where the staff is only too glad to introduce the neophyte visitor to the full range and depth of products.

There seem to be three main categories of German-born board games: World War Two rematches (hmmm . . . ); sci-fi adventure; and, the overwhelming favorite in terms of quantity, strategy games configured in historic and/or exotic settings. The roost ruler at the moment appears to be Carcassonne, from the game factory of Hans-im-Glück. A deceptively simple game (the basic set costs only about $20), it pits two to five players against one another in building "infrastructure" round a map of the medieval walled city of the same name. Carcassonne has proliferated into a European craze, with multiple expansion sets and spin-offs (in one, Joshua and his followers populated—presumably bloodlessly—the Promised Land) and, last year, an attempt to enter the Guinness Book of Records for Biggest Board Game Ever.

As I poked among the dozens upon dozens of boxes at Gary's, I began to notice I was being nudged back again and again to a product—from Kosmos/Mayfair Games—called the Settlers of Catan. Docile in the face of superior knowledge, I purchased said game for experimenting. At first glance, it does not seem all that promising; a simple dice-driven game of competitive property acquisition on a stylized island. But after a couple of forays, I can report with conviction that Catan is not a game you will exhaust in an evening or two, or a hundred evenings, for that matter. (And, like Carcassonne, it now comes in upward of a dozen expansions and extensions.)

The genius of Klaus Tuebner's game (the basic set costs $38 at Gary's): Every time one sets out to play Catan, the game board itself changes, requiring players to create a new strategy of property acquisition, to calculate anew which of the other players will make the most advantageous ally or the most dangerous antagonist. Although much less subtle than chess, the game requires that players keep a steady eye on the whole board, sizing up new opportunities to collect resources (ore, wood, wool) and build communities, and louse up other players' chances of doing either. And, astonishingly, after only a few rounds, the whole complex, unpredictable, exhilarating procedure can be completed in under an hour.

You may opt for some other introduction to the world of German gaming: If you keep an eye out for the symbol indicating "Game of the Year," you can hardly go wrong. (I've got my eye on a skyscraper-building game called Manhattan (Hans-im-Glück/Mayfair Games, about $30.) But Catan has one big advantage for a newbie: Originally issued in 1996 by Kosmos-Verlag, it was quickly translated into English, and has built up a remarkably broad player base in America. Mention around the office that you've just gotten into the Settlers of Catan and odds are you'll see someone smile broadly.

rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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