Friday, May 25, 2007

A Game That Should Be Reprinted: Lowenherz

There were only four of us at the Appalachian Gamers meeting this week, and so we decided to play some games that seldom get to the table because they don’t play more than four. I requested Lowenherz, the 1997 Klaus Teuber game that was printed in the USA by Rio Grande Games. I had not played Lowernherz before and Ted Cheatham has raved about it.

I now agree with Ted. This is a great game. In fact, I hope that someday it gets reprinted.

Now, many of you probably know that a variant version of Lowenherz is still available. I am referring to Domaine, a Mayfair game that may actually have prettier pieces than the original Lowenherz. And after looking at Boardgamegeek, I can safely say that there are people who prefer Domaine to Lowenherz. And that’s fine. Maybe someday I will get a chance to play Domaine. But for now, Lowenherz has captured my imagination.

Let’s talk about what the games have in common. Both games are semi-abstract games of medieval conquest. Players try to enclose areas of the board with walls, and then score points for every square they’ve captured. Cities enclosed in your areas yield big bonus points.

Control of each area is indicated by the colored castles and knights inside it. Additional knights can be placed next to your castles and knights that are already on the board. But once placed, knights don’t move; this isn’t a true wargame.

Instead, a player can expand one of his enclosed kingdoms if his kingdom has more knights than an adjacent kingdom. This creeping expansion can slowly rob adjacent kingdoms of valuable victory points.

What are the differences between Lowenherz and Domaine? The biggest difference is how actions are taken. In Domaine, each player has a hand of action cards and can play one on his turn. A simple, clean mechanism with no conflict.

In Lowenherz, one card with three actions on it is drawn every turn. Players then try to claim one of the three actions, and conflicts arise when two or more players try to claim the same action on the card. These conflicts can be settled either with negotiation, or by an auction if players can’t reach an agreement. These conflicts and negotiations are often the most interesting part of the game. The one-card mechanism generates a lot of in-your-face confrontations.

The continuing process of building walls also generates conflict on the gameboard. At the start of the game, there are lots of wide open spaces, and players need not expand at someone else’s expense. But as the walls come up and kingdoms are formed, conflicts with your neighbors can no longer be avoided. Late-game expansion usually comes at someone’s expense.

There can be element of smack-the-leader to the game, but there are also some strategy cards that can make this syndrome counter-productive. When players are allowed to take a card, they get to search the deck for the card that they think will help them the most. Among these cards are ones that generate extra victory points at the end of the game. You can try to smack the leader, but if one player is squirreling away several victory point cards, you may not know the real leader is. In our game, I won because of hidden victory points.

Lowenherz is a smart strategy game for people who don’t mind tense struggles for power. Whenever we only have only four gamers at the table, I may ask to play Lowenherz.

And I hope someday to see it in print again.


Mikko said...

I remember hearing Löwenherz was the biggest flop in Rio Grande Games history - thus you can be pretty sure Rio Grande isn't doing the reprint. With Domaine out, I wonder if anybody else is (or if it's even possible rights-wise).

Not that I care much, to be honest, as I'm strictly in the "Domaine is gazillion times better than Löwenherz" group.

huzonfirst said...

Mikko, I've heard the same thing, straight from Jay's mouth, so I agree, the chances of a reprint are mighty low (although with Valley Games reprint fever gripping the land, you never know). Just to provide a counter opinion, I think Domaine is a good solid game, but Lowenherz is in my all-time Top Ten (easily my favorite Teuber design). But these tend to be two very polarizing designs (just how nasty do you want a game to be?).

Philippe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Philippe said...

You can transform your "Domaine" into a version very close to the original "lowenherz" by printing the cards on this web page. The rule changes are in french, but you could probably figure it out.

This modified version was made by Guylain Campagna.

Anonymous said...

I much prefer Lowenherz because of the bidding for the actions. But I use Domaine's scoring because it is much cleaner.

qzhdad said...

I think if everyone has played Lowenhertz is more fun. But Domaine is so much easier to teach and get right into playing.

cfarrell said...

The problem with Lowenhertz is that the conflict is frequently too arbitrary. 3 things to pick and 4 players means that someone is going to go into competition while others get actions for free. Obviously, it's virtually always better - significantly better - to get the free action. But often when you're player #4, the choice of who to "pick on" comes down to 6 of one, half-a-dozen of the other too often, and when choices like that become arbitrary people feel put-out, whether they really have been unfairly singled out or not.

It's different in a game like Basari, where the actions are pre-selected and the game of bluff and double-bluff is a key to the action. You flip your tiles, you groan when you see dupes because you got it wrong, but that's the key - you feel like you got it wrong. If you're player #1 in Lowenherz and player #4 opts to compete with you instead of player #2, you feel picked on, especially when there are multiple nearly-equivalent choices. Arbitrary or nearly-arbitrary choices that hurt other players are virtually always bad for a German-style game. Nuclear War or the Paranoia Mandatory Bonus Fun Card Game, OK. A fairly serious game, not so much.

Everyone I know, including a couple of die-hard Lowenherz fans who swore they would never switch, has ultimately been converted by Domaine. While I'm sure that there are people out there who will prefer the original, I think the wide majority of people who get enough play time on both will come around to the more modern game.