While I’m writing about Reiner Knizia games I should make an entry about an interesting game we’ve been playing called Beowulf. It’s another game by Knizia, published by Fantasy Flight Games. Game play is engaging and surprising. It’s not a game with dice and battles against monsters. It’s about the players going together on a journey with Beowulf, competing to win enough eventual favor to become Beowulf’s successor to the throne when he dies – at the end of the journey. Fans of the legend will enjoy all the references embedded in the game play.
The game is for 2 to 5 players and takes about an hour to play. It’s not unusual for us to want to play the game again as soon as it finished.
What’s in the box?
The board is beautiful. It’s also an unusual design.
It’s a tri-fold board that lays out in the shape of an “L” and it has a round circle piece that fits in the center. There’s a plastic figure of Beowulf. It’s not very large, but intricate.
The players follow him as he journey’s along a path on the board, beginning at one edge of the board, making curving sweeps and turns and eventually ending up at the other end of the “L”.
There are some wooden coin-like markers numbered 1 through 5 and two wooden red markers. Players use a number of cards to play the game. And there are lots of cardboard “chits” to track fame, gold, wounds and other items.
The cards are of high quality and the rule book is easy to read and beautifully illustrated.
That’s a picture of Beowulf being played in our local gaming group (GOBO) in Omaha.
Each player has a collection of cards. There 6 kinds of regular cards and a very limited set of specials that become available as the game/journey progresses. Each card has either 1 or two symbols on it to represent it’s relative value. Some of the special cards have more markings.
The mask is a wild card. The players begin with 7 cards in their hands. A Beowulf card and Fighting (fist) card is included, the other 5 are randomly dealt.
The board has a trail which depicts parts of Beowulf’s story, divided into episodes. Each player travels along with Beowulf on these episodes. He begins his journey at King Hygelac’s Court. The players each have an opportunity to perform whatever activity the episode offers. The next episode is Sail to Denmark. This is followed by King Hrothgar’s Hall (I love trying to pronounce these Norse names) and other episodes until the game ends.
There are different types of episodes the players encounter, mostly divided into Minor and Major episodes.
Many episodes, both minor and major have “risks”. Risk episodes have 2 symbols that may be needed in the later episodes. A player wanting to take the risk, turns over 2 cards from the deck and gets to keep any cards that match the symbols. The Beowulf wild card is also a match. The risk is that if neither drawn card matches, the player has to give both cards up and the player receives a “scratch” token. Accumulated scratches turn into wounds. Wounds are bad.
The Selection type episode allows each player to choose one of 5 options. The player can take one treasure token worth 2, take one alliance token, take a fame token worth 2, draw 2 free cards from the deck, or discard all accumulated scratches.
Major episodes are of either simultaneous play or sequential play.
For simultaneous episodes, the players each secretly choose cards from their hand that may match the symbols shown for the episode. For the example above, the symbol is the Horn. The players are choosing these cards to help Beowulf accomplish this episode. The cards are placed face down on the table. The face down cards are simultaneously revealed. A player may have bluffed but putting cards down that do not play in this episode. They get those cards back. For the cards that do play in the episode, having matched the symbol(s) for the episode, the highest count gets first place, second highest gets second, etc. The top player gets to choose one of the prizes in the circle drawing. The next player chooses another. What gets interesting is that being last is usually bad because the prize could be a scratch or even a wound. After each player completes the episode, Beowulf moves on.
For sequential episodes, Beowulf again asks each player to contribute specific card symbols to help him defeat the challenge. Players take turns going around the table essentially raising the bid from cards in their hands. Whoever can hold out with the highest count gets first prize. Second place gets second choice and so on. Again, last place often has a negative “prize”. Cards played are discarded from player’s hands and the episode completes.
Episodes are played out along the curving path of the board until game ends. I’ve greatly simplified rules here and have omitted discussion about the interesting special cards that become available as players win prizes during the game. The special cards are often “rule breakers” or very powerful weapons.
At the end of the game, where Beowulf dies, each player tallies up points, cards, gold, and wounds (which can count against you). The highest scoring player wins.
When I first played this game I was feeling pretty confused about how to do well and eventually win. But the game felt so interesting I knew I would like it. On one of our game nights in Omaha, I asked the other adult members of the group if it would be okay for me to bring my 12-year old son along to play in a game. I remember asking if we could play Beowulf again and just as I had guessed it, he loved the game. In fact my memory of it was that he played really well with us in his first game that night. We purchased a copy of the game that same evening and then played it several times with each other and as a family with Melissa later that weekend.
Beowulf is a hit. The artwork is cool, and the game play is very engaging. Just a bit of luck and no real confrontational play, just competitive play. Melissa enjoys the game as well, and suggested we play two games in a row one afternoon. The game has that Knizia “push your luck” kind of feel that we’ve come to enjoy.
One final comment. Nicholas and I played several games one weekend and he enjoyed the Beowulf story, as told by the episodes of the game, that we decided to read the actual Beowulf story together over the next couple of nights. That’s a pretty neat benefit from a board game in this parent’s point of view.