Posted by: gschloesser | August 10, 2011

Rheinlander

Design by:  Reiner Knizia
Published by:  Hasbro / Face 2 Face Games
3 – 5 Players, 1 hour
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser

Ahhh … the Rhineland.  I’ve had the good fortune of visiting that incredibly scenic and romantic area of Germany often and look forward to my return soon.  The picturesque Rhine river winds through lovely countryside and past picture-postcard towns, many complete with medieval castles looming overhead.  Top this off with endless miles of rich vineyards covering nearly every inch of the hillsides which encroach upon the river and you have a scene of heavenly beauty.  It simply doesn’t get more stunningly beautiful than this. 

Well, when a game is released with the enticing title of ‘Rheinlander’, is it any wonder that I rushed to acquire a copy?  Plus, having the esteemed Reiner Knizia as the designer was the coup de Gras.  This was a MUST buy!

Sadly, the game evokes little if any of the warm feelings I harbor for that Germanic piece of heaven.  Even utilizing the theme, the game could have been set just about anywhere: the Thames, the Nile, the Danube … heck, even the Mississippi River with feuding landowners.  Oh, well, Herr Knizia isn’t exactly known for his form-fitting themes.  Nonetheless, his games are usually very engaging and challenging, it spite of their thinly veiled themes.  Unfortunately, although somewhat enjoyable, Rheinlander is not one of his best efforts.

The object of the game is to place one’s knights (represented by cardboard shields) onto the various territories (there are a total of 54) and gather adjacent territories to form ‘duchies’.  Placement of the knights onto the board is governed by the use of numbered cards which coincide with the numbered territories.  Each territory has three placement spaces – one land space on either side of the Rhine river and onto the river itself.

Each turn, a player’s actions are painfully simple … play a card and place a knight.  The most common play is the placement of a knight onto one of the three spaces whose number corresponds with the number of the card played.   A knight cannot be placed onto the river space unless both land spaces are already occupied.

The other use of a card to place a knight is by ‘reinforcement’.  Any card is played and a knight may be placed adjacent to one of your previously placed knights, provided it is not also adjacent to an opponent’s knight or onto a river.

In addition to placing a knight, a player may also place one of his three bastions on his turn.  A bastion does not require the use of a card to be placed, and may be placed on any empty land space.  A bastion occupies the space for the remainder of the game and acts as a barrier to the placement of any knights on that space.

Once two or more knights occupy adjacent spaces, a duchy is formed. The player with the most knights in the duchy has control and may place one of his ‘duke’ pieces into the duchy.  Unlike the cardboard counters, these ‘duke’ pieces are finely detailed plastic figures. Control of a duchy can (and often does) change depending upon who has the majority of the knights in the duchy.

If a player usurps control of a duchy from an opponent, the opponent receives a payoff  in victory points.  This payoff is calculated on the holdings which were contained in the duchy.  Each cathedral and castle in the duchy is worth one point, while the duke itself is worth one point.  Further, there are cities which vary in point value from 2 – 4 points.  Thus, if Lenny usurps control of a duchy from Eric, which contained a cathedral, a 2-point city and his duke, Eric would receive 4 points in compensation for transferring control of his duchy to Lenny.

At game’s  end, all duchies under control of a player earns victory points in the same manner, except that each duke is now worth 5 points instead of 1.  So, the idea is to get as many of your dukes on the board as possible (by controlling duchies) by games end.  During the course of the game, you don’t mind losing control of duchies so as to earn victory points, but always keep an eye on being able to get as many dukes as possible onto the board by game’s end.

Another interesting element in the game is the power of the archbishop.  If a duchy contains at least one cathedral, then the duke of that duchy is named a ‘bishop’ and is marked with an appropriate token.  The player who has the most ‘bishops’ on the board receives the ‘archbishop’ card, which is worth 5 points at game’s end.  But much more important than that is the power conveyed by possession of the card.  The possessor of the card may play a card on his turn and convert and banish an opponent’s knight who occupies the space numbered on the card played and replace the knight with his own!  This is a powerful weapon.  We found, however, that it was difficult to maintain or even capture the use of this card, which is what Knizia intended, I’m sure.

Placing a knight in a space adjacent to a castle proves powerful as well, as the castle then immediately comes under the influence of the adjacent knight.  This allows the player to place another knight onto the castle, which can then form a duchy along with the adjacent knight.  This one aspect of the game is where the ‘luck of the draw’ may be a bit too heavy, as in several of my games I actually drew numerous cards which were adjacent to castles and immediately took control of these castles, thereby forming quite a few duchies.  I then used future turns to add reinforcement knights and held on to these castles and found it very easy to maintain control of these duchies throughout the entire game.  No brilliant strategy here … just plain luck in the card draw.

The game ends once a player has placed his final knight token on the board.  All players aren’t necessarily going to deplete their supply of knights at the same time as the placement of knights next to castles allows a player to place another knight onto the castle, and the archbishop power to remove knights from the board will cause the supply of each player to vary as the game progresses.   Points are tallied as above and the player with the highest point total rules the Rhineland.

The components of Rheinlander are a mixed lot.  As mentioned, the duke pieces are outstanding with great detail and presence.  The bishop tokens are also large and a rich maroon and gold color. The artwork on the castle, bastion and cathedral tokens is also of high quality, while the numerous shield tokens are acceptable but not stellar.  It’s the board which is an outrage, however.  I will echo the comments of those who expressed displeasure over the graphic design of the board.  It is extremely bright and garish and has the appearances of a children’s game.  It becomes difficult to decipher the various tokens once the board begins to fill with pieces.  I am a big fan of the use of subtle colorings and feel that a subdued, medieval treatment of the board would have been  much more suitable here and enhanced my enjoyment of the game.  As is, it was sometimes difficult to discern the boundaries of the various territories and the overall appearance of the board was poor.

In my early games, I kept getting the feeling that there just had to be more to the game than what I was getting from it.  It felt rather bland and unexciting.  I kept hoping that it would develop and, like Durch die Wuste, would get better and more challenging with repeated plays.  Sadly, it never really did.  It simply isn’t that deep of a game.

The game itself is very straight-forward and simple.  Sure, there’s some card management and placement decisions to be made, but most seem fairly obvious to me.  In my many games, I have rarely felt threatened by what my opponents were doing, being able to pretty much pursue my own paths and strategies.  It is fairly easy to spot potential trouble spots and take steps to protect yourself against incursions.  One player also made the complaint … and this may be a valid one … that there simply wasn’t much to do on a turn.  Play a card and place a knight.  Maybe place one of your three bastions.  That’s it.  He felt too constrained.  I know that Knizia seems to like this ‘limiting’ mechanic (which is also present in Durch die Wuste), but he may have limited it a bit too much in Rheinlander.

This is not to say I don’t enjoy the game … I do.  I’ll gladly play it whenever requested.  However, I think once played a few times, the game is pretty straight-forward, intuitive and lacks much depth.  Get as many dukes on the board as possible (placing adjacent to castles is an optimum method of accomplishing this) and try to get these duchies formed around high valued cities.   If one follows this strategy, he most likely will win. Of course, others could also pursue this strategy, which likely would mean the player who drew the better cards would win.

Is this problem unique to Rheinlander?  Certainly not.  However, I think it is pretty obvious in Rheinlander on which tactics will yield the better payoffs, so once these are learned by all players, it becomes a question of who draws the best cards.

The game has enough other options piled on top to give the illusion that there are other worthwhile paths to follow.  I think this is merely deception.  The archbishop card seems very powerful, but it is very difficult to hold onto.  Thus, I think single-mindedly pursuing this strategy is likely doomed to failure.  Just pursuing castles isn’t likely to succeed either, as this is easily eclipsed by grabbing the 4 and 3 valued cities.  Nope … based on my five playings so far I think there is one optimum strategy to be pursued, that mentioned above.

Still, I enjoy the game, which surprises me.  One would think that if a game had one path to victory, it would be quickly shelved.  Somehow, I don’t think that will happen anytime soon as the game still feels different.  I do ultimately feel it will become boring and become one of those ‘once or twice a year’ games.

As for recommendations on future playings I will say that the game plays much better with 5 players as opposed to 4 as there are more cards in circulation and the board tends to get a bit more crowded.  I also think it is essential that the ‘reshuffle’ card surface early and often, otherwise the game can easily be quite dull.  I wouldn’t be opposed to adding one or two more ‘reshuffle’ cards to the deck to insure that this occurs. 

So, is Rheinlander a flop?  No.  As mentioned, for some reason I enjoy playing but don’t come away with the feeling that I’ve just participated in a challenging duel of wits.  That’s OK .. not all games have to be mind-wrenching tests of skill.  I enjoy Rheinlander on a lighter, “let’s pass a good time” sort of way.  I think it makes a decent family style game, but probably won’t hold the interest of more hard core gamers for long.  Rheinlander falls short of what it could have been, and way, way short of evoking the sort of atmosphere I was hoping from a game about one of my most favorite places on earth.

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Responses

  1. I played this once many years ago and don’t remember much. I did rate a 7 out of 10 after playing it.


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