Ingenious review

Ingenious (2004)

Game Details
NameIngenious (2004)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [1.92]
BGG Rank370 [7.14]
Player Count (recommended)1-4 (2-4)
Designer(s)Reiner Knizia
Artist(s)Michaela Kienle, Fabio Maiorana, Scott Nicely, Simone Peruzzi and Nick Whyles
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's fine, I suppose. I guess. Whatever.

Reiner Knizia is an obviously bankable game designer with a resume long and distinguished enough that it can’t be casually discussed without serious abridgment. He’s been consistently active since the early 90s and many of his games (Samurai, Ra, Tigris and Euphrates among others) end up impressively high on lists of critically and popularly acclaimed releases. I’ve never really gotten along with his school of design though. Every Knizia game I have played has ended up feeling vaguely soulless and sterile, as if designed by a pool of genetic algorithms attempting to achieve consensus on ‘what constitutes a game’. They feel incomplete to me.

When you read about the glass bead game, or Azad, or Cyvasse or Cripple Mister Onion you get the impression of a game that exists as a stroke of world-building, devoid of detail. It’s the kind of thing you might see someone playing in a movie and think ‘that looks interesting’ without having to concern yourself about trivialities like the underlying mechanics. Every Knizia game I have played feels like that to me. They’re the board-game equivalent of a perfectly balanced spreadsheet – satisfying in and of itself, but still a distant abstraction of something more visceral and vital. While the FTSE 100 might represent the cool, analytical view of the stock-market it doesn’t remotely capture the buzz, and verve, and energy of the trading room floor from which the numbers derive. Or from which they used to derive. I guess, fittingly, that’s all done by dispassionate computer algorithms now too.

The Ingenious box

‘This is very logical, captain’

Ingenious does nothing to disabuse me of these prejudices. If you showed me an episode of Star Trek where it was being played in the background, it would absolutely fulfill every suspicion I have of its genesis. It’s not a bad game. It’s just like something designed by a Vulcan attempting to explore this ‘human concept you call fun’. It’s got all the right parts – a board, some pieces, and a set of rules by which humanoids might manipulate game-state dyadic elements in order to reach the symbolic quantification phase with a satisfactory enjoyment vector. Like Data learning the violin though, something important and perhaps entirely ineffable isn’t expressed in its design.

Ingenious board

The joy of Hex

Ingenious is a game in which players lay hex dominoes onto a hex board in an attempt to match hex colours in lines of hexes. Whenever a newly placed hex has the same colour as attached hexes, the player traces a number of straight imaginary lines through each adjacent hex and earns a point in that colour for each element along the line. The first hex you place has to be adjacent to one of the fixed colours present on the board. Afterwards, they just have to be adjacent to something that’s already in place.

If you place this, for example:

Placing a tile

When you score, it means you’re going to have hex

You’d earn two points in green – one for each hex that’s connected to the fixed green hex on the board. Sometimes you might end up placing a tile that ends up triggering a cascade of points as a result of a clever and impressive intersection. You might begin with this:

About to place a hex

Slipping inside

And then you slip in a cheeky tile that earns you something reasonably lucrative:

Placing a tile

Cha-ching!

Look at that – a cheeky hex and you earn four green points and two purple points. That’s not bad, but if you’re really lucky, and really clever, you might end up completing something more impressive which will reap a points windfall of such excessive value that you’d never have to play another game for the rest of your life. You’d be able to simply live on the point interest while sipping martinis on some sun-soaked island off of the shores of Catan.

If you ever hit eighteen points in a colour, you yell ‘Ingenious’ and then take an instant second turn. If you’re good, you might be able to chain these together to take full advantage of the spatial opportunities that the board permits. If not – well, Ingenious is far more about tactics than it is about strategy anyway.

A completed 2P board

I guess we’re done here

The game ends when there are no more spaces for tiles, at which point the winner is calculated. Every Knizia game has a twist to it somewhere in its design, and the twist is usually in the scoring. For Ingenious, the barb in the tail is that your score is the value of your lowest colour – if you have eighteen in red, yellow, purple, orange and blue you’re still only getting the two points you have in green as your end score. You can’t go deep in Ingenious, you have to go broad.

Poor scoring board

Looks impressive, but you’ve earned a total of one cool point.

That’s slightly interesting as a scoring technique but it’s more interesting in what it does to play across the length of the game – it means everyone has a reason to collect each colour, and everyone has a reason to prevent everyone else from doing the same. It also means preventing an opponent winning is usually about seeing where they’re weak and ensuring they become proportionately weaker. You don’t need to have the best score in every colour in Ingenious, you just need to avoid having the worst score in any of them. Going deep earns you the opportunity to collect big points, but it’s also risky. To develop an overwhelming lead in one colour, and the ingenious bonus that lies at the end of the track, the longer you might have to delay scoring the others.

An orange cage

Good luck scoring orange, chump

Within the constraints of your tile rack you have some ways to help make that happen. Often the tiles you have collected from the tile bag will dictate your immediate strategy – if you have lots of doubles you’ll want to leverage them for big points. If you have colours that connect disparate parts of the board, you can cash in by making the link. Your tiles can be bridges if you want but it’s important to note they can also be barricades. You can look over and see your opponent hasn’t yet scored orange and build a fortification around those tiles while they’re distracted. By the time they get around to making a move, there might be no orange available. Sure, more orange hexes will make their way into the game as a matter of course but there are ways and means a cutthroat competitor can limit your opportunities to score a specific colour. Since the board fills up quickly too it might well be the case that you’ve been thrown into a cage and didn’t even realise until it became time to act.

The more players involved, the harder it is to pull off a blockade. At the same time though that will mean more people looking to exploit scarce colours or block off a weak opponent from scoring opportunities. With two players, you place tiles in the clear white hexes. With three, the hexes bordering those move into contention. With four, the whole board opens up and so too does the possibility space of play.

A four player game

Bigger and better

I don’t want to oversell this though. This isn’t a particularly deep game and as such there isn’t a lot of scope for us to spend time diving into the gameplay and mechanisms. Everything that Ingenious is can be seen on the surface. It’s quite absorbing, in its own quiet way. It’s enjoyable, in moderation. I likely won’t turn down a game if one is offered, within reason. That doesn’t change the fact it plays very much like a stereotype of what people think abstract games are like. It’s all mathematical purity and symbolic manipulation. It’s hard to feel too much affection for something that seems designed by an alien subcommittee as part of an idle research project into human cognition.

Ingenious is not a game then for which I can passionately advocate, either for or against. If you want to shave some minutes off of your life with a board-game, this is a board-game that will permit you to do it without serious regrets. You’ll play it, you’ll have a passably entertaining time, and then you’ll forget the whole experience until someone breaks the box out again. There’s nothing bad in this design – it’s too polished for there to be any rough edges. However, there’s also nothing especially good – nothing hugely exciting or risky. Ingenious in other words commits the sole cardinal sin it can against a game reviewer – it’s only okay. My entire review here could be replaced with a shrug and a non-committal ‘it’s fine, I suppose’ and nothing of real value would have been lost. That’s a good enough bar to clear for many people. Perhaps even good enough for most. But really – we’re in a golden age of board gaming and ‘good enough’ isn’t good enough.

Ingenious bag

Reach into my bag of tricks

Ingenious benefits from being very easy to learn – it’s tractable in a way that many better games aren’t. You’re not having to convince people that once they’ve sat through the ten minute rules explanation they are going to have a blast. ‘Places hexes, score in a line, boom’ – the distance from talking to playing is incredibly short.

However, from its aesthetic to its old-school design sensibilities to the ‘Mensa’ link it prominently displays on the box it pitches itself as something more akin to a family educational aid than a game experience. You’ll be playing almost as soon as you open the box, but you likely won’t be kindling the fire that convinces people that board-gaming is where they’ll find the inner warmth that has been missing from their lives.

Ingenious is all cold, impersonal chrome and rounded corners. It’s all head and no heart. Playing can be satisfying, but it’s the same satisfaction as you might get from solving an algebra equation or filling in a sudoko puzzle. It’s a mental shiver that comes when you’ve manipulated something abstract to end up with something quantifiably correct. And I want that in my games – I like deeply thoughtful and contemplative challenges. It’s just – it’s not all I want. I want it as part of a richer, deeper and more immediately evocative experience.

Ingenious in the end is too simple, too shallow, and too disconnected from the emotional centres of my brain to offer me the gameplay I actually enjoy. I want an experience – Ingenious, at best, gives me an activity. Those more enamored with Knizia’s designs may find that entirely sufficient – like a thick gruel of calorie heavy sludge, it will offer sustenance. For me, and I suspect for most of you reading, it’s not quite enough for the game to earn your attention.

 

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