Buzzworthiness: Qwirkle

The Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres awards were announced yesterday.  And the winners are…Camel Up and Istanbul!  So that means I’m 0-2 this year since I picked Splendor and Rococo.  Still, they both seem like decent selections, though both are on the lighter end of their categories.  Hopefully, I will eventually get to play both.  But for now, I think it’s high time I review the SdJ winner from 2011:

Qwirkle - image by BGG user Toulose
image by BGG user Toulose

Qwirkle was designed by Susan McKinley Ross and originally published by MindWare in 2006 (Schmidt Spiele released the SdJ winning version).  The game is an abstract color/pattern matching game for 2-4 players that takes 45 minutes to play.

Qwirkle comes with 108 wooden tiles, each showing one of six shapes in one of six colors (there are three of each color/shape combination).  At the start of the game, each player draws six of these tiles, and the player who has the most matches of one type (color or shape) will take the first turn.

On your turn, you can lay down any number of tiles that either have the same shape OR have the same color.  You can’t lay down identical tiles.  As you put the tiles into play, you’ll be building a kind of crossword puzzle, and building your row off of tiles that are already down.  So if there is a row of red-greeen-blue-yellow circles, I can lay down a green star-square-cross perpendicular to the green circle.  I could not add a green circle to the row I just added.

Once your tiles are in play, you score them immediately.  You get one point per tile in each new line you just created.  Sometimes it’s possible to make several lines with one move, and you’ll score each of them individually.  If you ever get a Qwirkle (six differently-colored tiles of the same shape OR six differently-shaped tiles of the same color), you’ll score 12 points for that line.  Afterwards, you’ll draw back up to six tiles.

The game continues until no more tiles can be drawn and one player has used all tiles from their hand.  The player who went out first scores six bonus points, and the player with the most points wins.

COMPONENTS: The components in this game consist of the 108 wooden tiles and the cloth bag.  That’s it.  The tiles are pretty lightweight, and are illustrated with one of the six different shapes – square, circle, diamond, cross, X, or star – in one of the six different colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple.  The shapes are pretty easy to differentiate, but the red/orange and blue/green can be easily mixed up in the wrong light.  By its very nature, this is not a very color-blind friendly game.  Other than that, the tiles are great.

The bag that comes with the game is large and fits all 108 tiles nicely.  You can use it to carry around the game without even having to bother with the box.  It’s excellent quality as well.  So, except for the color scheme, I give the components in Qwirkle a thumbs up.

THEME: There’s no theme here.  It’s an abstract game where you’re comparing shapes and colors.  I’m sure you could retheme the game – maybe use Norse gods and give them each special powers – but who would want to do that?  (I kid – Volüspa is nothing like Qwirkle except in the way the board builds.)

MECHANICS: Qwirkle is a game that is all about tile placement and pattern matching.  You have to be able to visualize the different patterns already on the board and figure out how to make the tiles in your hand work for you.  By not allowing you to put the same tile in a line, the game creates a puzzle that builds as the game continues.  This is not unlike Scrabble, where you’re building words off of what is already in place.  And like Scrabble, the ability to create multiple lines at once is going to be the key to success.  The mechanics of the game are very simple, as in many great abstracts, and make way for the crucial strategic decisions to be made.

Scoring in the game is fairly straightforward – one point per tile in the line.  This can get a little confusing if you’ve scored multiple lines, but still not too bad.  The ability to score 12 with a Qwirkle helps add some tension to the game (more on that in a moment).

STRATEGY LEVEL: The luck factor in this game can be high.  What you can do depends on what you draw from the bag.  You can choose to nuke your hand and start fresh, but that costs you a turn when you do it.  And it’s not a guarantee that you’ll get what you need.  The best thing to do is to make the best move with the hand you’ve been dealt.  A lot of times, that means trying to recognize where you can make multiple small lines instead of trying to just make the big ones.  There’s also some luck-pushing as you might want to hold off on extending a line to 5 – you’ll get 5 points for it, but you’ve just opened the door for someone else to swoop in and score 12 with the Qwirkle.  So pay attention.

Another thing to pay attention to is the tile distribution.  There are three copies of every tile in the game.  If you’re waiting to make a Qwirkle or avoiding giving someone else a Qwirkle, and all three necessary tiles are already in play, you’re wasting your time.  These bits of information will also help you form your strategy.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is probably one of the single most accessible Spiel des Jahres winners of recent years.  I was rooting hard for Forbidden Island that year, but I can’t deny that this game is probably easier for the whole family to get into.  Kids will get it easily as they just have to know their shapes and colors.  Adults will get into it easily as they find the strategic possibilities in the game.  It’s a game that non-gamers and gamers alike will find enjoyment in.

REPLAYABILITY: Qwirkle is a very replayable game.  The board will always build differently.  Despite being relatively minimalistic in its design, the game offers a wide variety of options with every turn.  And those options will increase every turn – there can be some serious lag at the end of the game as players try to find that optimal spot for their last remaining tiles. (Hint – as in Scrabble, you’re usually not going to get more than 2 or 3 points in the late turns, so don’t waste too much time)  If that lag affects your desire to play multiple times, then replayability might be an issue.  However, it doesn’t bother me as much as in some games.

SCALABILITY: This game is for 2-4 players, and I find that it plays pretty well with any number.  You’re going to have much higher scores with two as you’ll be playing more tiles, but I think I actually like it better with four.  There’s less you can plan for as the board keeps changing, but it keeps you on your toes.  With a limited selection of tiles, the likelihood that someone will ruin your plans is less than in some other games, but it is there (and sometimes feels like it happens more often than it should).

FOOTPRINT: Qwirkle comes in a 10.5″ x 10.5″ x 2.75″ box, which is smaller than a Ticket to Ride size box.  It’s about the same dimensions as my Alien Frontiers box (though not quite as deep).  As I mentioned, you can just use the bag to carry it around, which makes it more portable.  Once in play, the game will need some space.  Tiles are 1.25″ square, which means a full line of six tiles will be 7.5″.  And with a bunch of lines going on at once, this can easily grow out of control.  Players usually stand their tiles up in front of them rather than hold them in hand, so you’ll need space for that as well.  It’s best to play on a large table, or even spread out on the ground.

LEGACY: Qwirkle already had a reputation for being a fun abstract game that everyone could enjoy when Shmidt Spiele released it in Germany and scored the SdJ win.  I predicted that Forbidden Island would win that year, and I still would have given it to that game.  However, now that I’ve played this game, I have no problem with it winning.  I think it has everything they want from an SdJ winner – it’s easy to learn, quick to play, and has a lot of strategic depth.  It’s certainly one of the committee’s more inspired choices.

The game often gets compared to Scrabble, and you can definitely see the influence.  The games have a similar structure.  It’s much easier to come up with shape and color combos, however, than to build words.  The luck of the draw feels less punishing in Qwirkle as you’re not having to spell words with a bunch of I’s, a Q, and an X.  I definitely like Qwirkle more – not nearly as frustrating.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  It’s simple to learn, and has a lot of depth.  I enjoy it, and highly recommend it for anyone.  Thanks for reading!

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