Full of Eastern promise

Doctor Reiner Knizia is one of the most prolific and respected designers in modern gaming. Lately, however he’s been running on autopilot, churning out derivative games based on tinkering with mechanics from his old classics. His latest release, Qin, is a bold new experiment in which a physical copy of the game is being released alongside the iOS one, the first time this has been co-ordinated.

Qin is an abstract strategy game encased in a thin veneer of oriental theme. Players take turns laying randomly selected tiles with a combination of two red, blue or yellow squares in an attempt to pair up colours. If they can form a continuous area of two or more squares, they mark it with a pagoda token. If areas belonging to two players are joined together, then the player with the most squares in the area gets to kick off his opponents’ pagoda and take control of the whole thing. There are also village squares which get a pagoda from the first player to connect to them but again, these can be removed and replaced by another player if they get more pagodas in areas nearby. First player to put down all their pagodas win.

Reiner Knizia's Qin

Knizia veterans will probably spot that this sounds like a combination of Tigris & Euphrates, one of my favourite of his designs, and Samurai which is one of my least favourite. Both, by the way, have their own iOS conversions. In practice Qin plays a lot more like Tigris & Euphrates being a game in which players compete to build up blocks of sequential colour and use them to gain an advantage over their rivals by taking over control of their smaller groupings.

Very precise, theme-less and cerebral games like this are normally something of an anathema to me. I prefer games that combine interesting strategy with excitement, variety, narrative and conflict. But Qin does have most of the features that I find make games of its ilk worth playing: it’s simple to learn and fast to play, has added replay value through a choice of two quite different boards, and allows players to interact directly rather than just figure out increasingly efficient ways to earn victory points.

The game further won my grudging respect with its design. The menu is cleverly made to look like the contents of the game box spilling out over a table, but remains perfectly clear and easy to use. The visual design is pleasing and the graphics clear and bright. Animations are painfully thin on the ground but those we do see are neat and smooth. There’s also a lovely oriental soundtrack offering a relaxing background as your strain your neurons against the relatively demanding strategies required for success.

Whether or not you find Qin fun is going to depend heavily on how you feel about some of the big classical abstracts like Chess and Go. While it’s not in the same league as these big beasts, it draws from the same bag of charms. This is not a happy-go-lucky dice game, or one where you’ll be building interstellar civilisations and starting hi-tech warfare. It’s dense, cerebral and serious. But it doesn’t lack for either tension, as you wait to see what tiles you draw or your opponents lay, or for charm, since it has that indefinable draw that makes you want to test your skill one more time, just once more, before you turn off.

Reiner Knizia's Qin

Because this is a fairly heavy and rather abstract game the quality of the opposition is of prime importance. Without the distractions of dice or story, play stands and falls on the tension of locking minds in battle over the board. And yet again, Qin delivers the goods. There are four levels of AI quality, the toughest of which is very difficult to beat. You can also mix AI players and humans together for hot seat play, or compete directly against your friends through game center integration. That’s all the options you could want.

I kind of wanted not to like Qin. Games in its paradigm are common, charmless and often forgettable after a play or two. And I doubt I’d choose Qin over a number of other games if I were going to sit down for a board game with friends. But this beautiful looking, lovely sounding and effortlessly slick implementation completely won me over. Partly that’s because it’s got that magical combination of being easy to learn and fast to play whilst offering a deep and satisfying challenge. Developer Elately has a couple more big-name board game conversions scheduled for release that might not be quite such a good fit for the platform as Qin is. But on this evidence, they’ll do the best job possible.