original German edition
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Many hundreds of years ago, the heart of Europe was divided. Powerful dukes ruled their duchies from their castles on the banks of the Rhine, and earned a rich income from their wealthy cities. Struggles for power were commonplace, and frequently the intervention of the more influential bishops was necessary. Now you have the chance to expand your rule over the Rhine country. Outwit your opponents to expand and gain more power. Who will become the next ruler over the Rhine?
I often have to defend my liking this game and pretty much everything about it. I think this is because Rheinlander has some quintessential Knizia characteristics which I appreciate very much but, I must admit, often annoy others.
Since other reviews have thoroughly explained the rules, I'll just make some comments on the game in general. What most appeals to me is the ease of play. Although the rules and the scoring are somewhat complicated, the player's actual move is extremely simple. Each player plays one card out of his/her hand and places a knight on that spot along the river Rhein. Play moves quickly from one person to the next, so there's no time-killing counting out of various moves like in Tikal, or endless staring at possible action cards like in El Grande. Of course, Rheinlander doesn't have the complexity of these two giants. It's sort of a more humble, more fun little brother of that genre. As for the Knizia-isms... the calculation of the final scores often reveals a surprise winner. I find this cool, since sometimes it's me! But many people I've played with were disappointed that they couldn't tell exactly what position they were in all the time. Also typical of Knizia, the standard game-playing-with-a-hammer, single-minded takeover approach is not generally rewarded. A defensive, flexible strategy is usually more successful. I like this, since I often prefer to play that way. Knizia is also not afraid to let luck play a role in a board game. Here the cards you get often limit larger strategic projects. But even if you're not winning, you can do a lot to change the balance of power on the board. I think a lot of the nay-sayers miss this nuance in the game.
I find Rheinlander to be pleasant and challenging. It's also lots of fun just trying out different and unexpected moves! My only complaint is that the game ends just when some conflicts are starting to develop. I wish it would go on just a tiny little bit longer! For those of you who are looking for a longer game or more direct conflict, you might try Rheingold. When the opposition to Rheinlander grows too powerful I'm always happy to switch to that other battle on banks of the Rhein.
First and foremost, buy this game. The theme of becoming the dominant ruler of the Rhine river valley, using very nice components, and a very strategic player interaction ingredient, makes this game a winner. However (yes, the other shoe falls), members of our group had some reservations.
The simplicity of play belies the intricacies of strategy involved. Players claim territory along the banks of the Rhine river by placing a knight on a numbered space which corresponds to a card played. Two or more adjacent areas create a duchy, whereby a duke is placed to show control. The more duchies you control, the more points you earn, and hence, victory. The grand strategy employed involves the placement of the knights, in that, literally, majority rules. If you can connect a duchy with a neighboring duchy, the player with the majority of knights in the new large duchy takes control. The point shifts can be very drastic due to a variety of realms attached to various areas which garner bonus points, and in the case of the church, add bonus abilities. Lots of fun and surprising takeovers inspire motives for revenge for later in the game. A real kicker is, when you lose a duchy the bank pays you the value of the duchy in victory points! The game ends when one player runs out of knights. The game can easily be played within an hour.
The bad part is, that it can easily be played within an hour! You just start to get your juices flowing, and really getting into play, and the game ends! Also, our groups naysayers did not like the randomness of knight placement the cards provided, and felt that players fortunate to control a high point realm in the beginning of the game have an unfair advantage. But, the biggest disappointment was the feeling of a fabulous game in here somewhere, and determining what is missing, or needs to be changed to make it one of the greats from Mr. Knizia. Maybe with repeated play a solution can be found, but regardless, as is, I really like this game.
Rheinlander is an interesting new board game about controlling duchies on the Rhein. To accomplish this control, players place knights on the board. Knights can be placed on spaces in two ways - you can hold a card for the numbered space on which you wish to play the card or you can reinforce an existing knight by playing a knight next to one of your existing knights. (There are more rules regarding placement, but this gives the gist.) Whenever two or more knights of the same or multiple knights (again simplifying here) are contiguous, a duchy is formed and the person with the largest number of knights in the duchy places a duke to show ownership. As the game progresses, one can merge two duchies, attempt to wrest control of a duchy from another player, etc. Whenever a player loses control of a duchy, that player receives points for the duchy. Also, duchies held at the end of the game receive points. There are also cathedrals and cities and castles that one can control along with a duchy and these give extra bonuses. Castles hold an extra knight; cathedrals can help you become the archbishop, which is worth points at the end and means you can convert knights to your cause in certain conditions; cities are just extra points given out at the end or to the player who loses control of a duchy when control of a duchy is wrested from another player. All in all, a fairly complex game that plays quickly and well. More kudos to Dr. Knizia for such a fine game.
Battling for control of Europe's serpentine Rhine River, you'll use your cards to place knights in numbered territories along its course. Two or more adjacent knights form a duchy, which you control with a simple majority presence. Scores have the potential to increase with the seizure of adjacent towns, cathedrals, and castles. Drawing a special card forces reshuffling of the deck and discards. Now you can discard cards of occupied spaces to reinforce your duchies elsewhere. Controlling the most churches wins you the Archbishop, allowing you to replace enemies when playing certain cards. Using barricades can prevent invasion of your duchies. When duchies change hands the loser gets points for his old duchy immediately, but the final owner scores big. The winner is the player who has gained the most points from duchies and adjacent buildings. Careful decision making and the shrewd use of recirculated cards will outweigh luck and make you a force to watch on the Rhine.
Reiner Knizia has produced a stack of fine games this year, Ra and Samurai are just two. Here's another one, this time from the rather unlikely source of Parker Brothers, for once not content to go on flogging new editions of Monopoly.
The first thing to hit you when you open it is the board, a large brightly coloured map, with a large river snaking across it. The river is split into 54 areas, each split further into spaces, normally three, the two banks and the river section between them. There are two islands in the river though and the spacing around these is a bit more complicated, with some areas only comprising two spaces. There are also a number of circles on the map, each adjoining two spaces, each of these is covered at the start of the game by a counter, one of three types, castles, churches or towns. This means that the board is subtly different for each game. The game also includes a pack of 54 number cards, one for each area, plus a card showing a joker ``Mischen'' whose appearance means that the pack is reshuffled. Then there are the player's own possessions, a set of shield markers, 25 each in a 3 player game, 20 for 4 and 17 each if you have 5 players, which mark ownership of the spaces, three ``fortress'' counters, and a set of 6 ``Dukes'', coloured plastic figures, matched to the shield colours, for each player. Finally there is game money to keep score with, 7 Bishop markers, one for each church, and one Archbishop card. In fact the two sets that I've seen so far have each had 5 Archbishop cards but you only need one of them. The box is fitted with a plastic insert that allows you to store all the bits in separate compartments, something that I've seen a lot of this year, a very good development in my opinion.
So, you're sitting there with your shields, your fortresses and your dukes, staring at the board, which is covered with castle, church and town markers, how do you play the game? Well, first each player gets five number cards, following which ``Mischen'' is shuffled into the pack. One player starts, and play continues in clockwise order. Each turn the player plays a card, places a shield marker and then sorts out any consequences. There are two methods of placement, first the obvious one, where you place a shield on the same space as the number of the card you played, and secondly, ``extension'' moves, where you discard any card from your hand, and place a shield in a space adjacent to one that you already own. You can't do this however if the space is also adjacent to someone else's, so this type of move can only used for expansion into unoccupied areas. There is only one other rule when placing shields, and that is that both banks of the river must be occupied before anyone can build a bridge on the river space between them.
Two adjacent areas constitute a ``Dukedom'', and are marked as such by placing one of your 6 ``Duke'' figures next to it. The first player to place a shield on a space adjoining a Castle marker may also place a shield on the castle. This means that you have two shields together and gives you a quick way of forming a dukedom, so the first moves in the game often involve placing shields next to castles so as to form a dukedom or two as fast as possible. This can be a barbed advantage however, since the owner of the dukedom also owns the castle, and so, if your dukedom gets taken over, your shield is removed from the castle and replaced by the new owner's. Forming a dukedom next to a church marker earns you a bishop counter, but only one per dukedom, so extending alongside a second church is only beneficial in a negative sense of denying it to another player, while a town adds a number of points, 2, 3 or 4 depending on the size of the town, to the dukedom's value.
I mentioned taking over dukedoms above, and obviously as more and more shields are placed on the board, it isn't long before the various states expand enough to meet each other. If a shield is played to connect two dukedoms, (obviously this can only occur when the matching card for the space is played, rather than as the result of an ``expansion'' move), the player with the largest number of shields in the new, larger, dukedom, becomes its owner. The player, or players whose dukedom(s) have been swallowed up, gets some compensation in the form of points (money). 1 point for the ``Duke'' figure, which is returned to them, plus 1 point for each castle or church and the relevant number of points for any towns attached to the old Dukedom. Any castles become the property of the new owner, which may mean them removing another player's counter and replacing it with their own, which often has the effect of cementing control of the new enlarged dukedom. If no one player has a majority of shields in the new dukedom,all dukes are removed and the new state is ownerless until someone plays another shield and so gets a majority. The fortress markers, three for each player, may be used as a defence against being taken over like this, since a player may play one of them each turn, in addition to playing a shield, and they may be placed on any land space without the necessity of having the matching card. The fortresses are neutral, but block that space, stopping anyone from playing a shield there, and so can provide a buttress against the possibility of someone attacking a dukedom from that direction, or alternatively may be played so as to limit the expansion of someone else's dukedom.
The only other wrinkle is the Bishop counters. If one player has more of these than any other, they get the Archbishop card. This allows you to convert other player's shields into your own, but only if you have the matching card for the space. We had just about decided that this power wasn't really worth it, until our most recent game, when I managed to get hold of the Archbishop card and had the matching cards that allowed me to convert so many of my opponent's shields that I could take over his largest dukedom. That game was decided by the Archbishop, so a more accurate evaluation is probably that it is not normally worth it.
The game runs on then, with dukedoms being formed, expanding, getting taken over, (with monetary compensation for the losers), and forming again, until one player uses their last shield. You might think that this would give you a set number of turns, but in fact, the extra shield for taking over a castle, and the occasional use of the Archbishop's power, changes the number of shields each player uses each turn, and it's important to keep an eye on the number of shields left, or you may well get caught out as the game finishes before you expect.
Once the last shield has been played, there is a final tallying up of the scores. Castles and Churches still score one point each for their owners, and towns the same 2, 3 or 4 points as in the intermediate scoring, but Dukes now score 5 points each rather than 1, and there is a 5 point bonus for the holder of the Archbishop card, assuming there is one. It's very important then to have a lot of dukes still on the board at the end of the game, and one of the big questions we have been pondering when considering strategies is whether it is a good idea to take over your own dukedoms during the game. It does mean that you score twice for the towns, castles and churches involved, but it also means that you will only get one point for one of your dukes, rather than five, unless you manage to get him back down onto the board again.
It's amazing how many variations Reiner Knizia has managed to ring on the theme of placing tiles/pieces on spaces on a board over the last year or two. Rheinländer is yet another twist, and yet manages to have a different feel to it when compared with games like Durch die Wüste and Samurai. We've tried the game with 3, 4 and 5 players, and I have to say that I don't think the game works with 3, since it evolved into a pure game of tile placing, without much interaction. You might think then that the 5 player game would be better than with 4, but I've found the reverse to be the case, with the four player game providing a good mix of strategic development and tactical interaction. That said, the game does seem to be a little forced, it seems to be a case where the initial theme, of small states rising and expanding along the banks of the Rhine, has had a game mechanic dumped onto it. I've heard some criticism of the design too, some people think that the combination of the bright board and the shield counters look garish, but all in all it's an interesting game, well worth playing, probably worth buying, and yet another that might well have been nominated for Spiel des Jahres, were it not for their absurd anti-Knizia prejudice.
SWD: The above review also appears in John's pbm magazine, `Serendipity'.