Ingenious, also known as Genius or Mensa Connections, is one of Reiner Knizia’s most successful and well-known designs, and is something of a modern classic. The elegant gameplay and clean, colourful visuals makes this abstract tile-laying game ideal for both children and adults. But don’t let the apparent simplicity fool you! Dr Knizia has once again employed his trademark sparseness of rules to great effect, crafting a game that is light, quick and tactical, but with enough depth to make it a satisfying experience for the more dedicated gamer.
I bought my copy several years ago, but recently played a ‘best of three’ match with Peter which has only served to remind me of why the game deserves its success.
In the box you get a large folding board, a bag of tiles, four tile racks, four cardboard scoring tracks (with coloured markers) and the single, double-sided rulesheet. There’s no fiddly set-up or sorting of components, and even a cold reading of the rules will allow most groups to be up and running quickly. Having said that, new players unfamiliar with the typical nuance of Dr Knizia’s design sensibilities are likely to take a few missteps if they are not diligent in checking over each rule carefully. The ruleset is short, but Knizia generally does familiar things a little differently, and it is because of those differences that this game shines.
The players take turns placing a tile from their racks onto the board, drawing a replacement tile at the end of their turn. Points are scored by creating connected lines of similarly coloured symbols (there are six colours in the game). Each tile is a double hexagon, with two symbols, and each symbol on their tile will score if the player can place it adjacent to one or more matching hexagons. There is something very straightforward and familiar about this, and once players get used to counting the connected hexagons (only those in straight lines radiating out from each tile symbol are scored) then the gameplay is smooth and quick.
The players record their individual scores for each of the six colours on their own score track, moving the little coloured cubes along their respective rows. And so it goes, and so it goes, until the board is filled and no more tiles may be laid.
The devil in the details
So where’s the trick? Where, exactly, is the ‘nuance of Dr Knizia’s design sensibilities’? Well, the thing is, the player with the highest overall number of points recorded on his six coloured score tracks doesn’t necessarily win. Knizia’s genius is to force the players to play a much smarter game. The winner (and pay attention here!) is the player with the highest lowest score. That is, each player’s final score is simply the single value represented by their lowest scored colour, and the player whose score (this single value) is the highest wins. This means a player who, let’s say, scores 8 across the board (in each of the six colours) will win against a competitor who manages to score 18 in five of the colours and only 7 in the other.
This one rule turns the entire game on its head. Now a simple landgrab is not enough, and just going for big points in one or two colours isn’t going to help. Somehow players must balance the points they score in each of the six colours, while at the same time attmepting to stop everyone else doing the same thing.
An important feature of the game is that it allows the differing competitive sensibilities of different groups of players to be expressed; it doesn’t force a particular style of play. Specifically, although it can be played aggressively (deliberately blocking scoring opportunities for your opponents, even if these plays score nothing for yourself) it can also be taken rather less seriously and played in a distinctly more friendly, open way. This is what makes it great for kids (and more sensitive adults!); each group can play their way and the game doesn’t demand the complicity of its players (forcing them all to play in some necessarily scripted way) to create a satisfying experience.
And having said that, I think you can guess how Peter and I played! All three of our games were close (just 1 or 2 points decided each) and after roughly the half-way point in each things started to get nasty. At that point in the game you can see in which colours your opponent is weak, and if you can close-down scoring opportunities in those colours (while, of course, maintaining your own scores) then victory is assured. More or less. Things are not that easy, of course, but the theory is sound!
There are a couple of extra wrinkles in the rules put in just to keep things moving. If, after you have laid a tile your rack contains no tiles showing symbols matching your weakest score (which means you would have no immediate opportunity to score that symbol in your next turn) then you may swap all your tiles. This is a pretty important rules that stops the game stagnating and mitigates some of the inevitable ‘luck of the draw’. (And unlike certain other tile-based games the player is not penalized for swapping tiles by being forced to miss a turn to do so.)
The other wrinkle is that if a player reaches the maximum 18 points in any colour he must (a) exclaim ‘Ingenious!’ (or ‘Mensa!’ in my British ruleset) and (b) immediately play an extra tile. (To be honest, part (a) isn’t strictly necessary!) So with this rule the game is pulling players in two different directions: there are benefits to getting high scores, but actually winning is not necessarily one of them.
The god of small things
And so, in conclusion, it’s worth noting how the slim collection of simple ideas presented in Ingenious manifest themselves when played as something that is rather more than the sum of their parts.
Such ascetic parsimony is not the objective of all games or game designers — and nor am I suggesting it should be! — but Knizia’s brand of elegant brevity is something I personally both applaud and aspire to.