Monday, June 6, 2011

FRESH BAKED - 'Qwirkle' by Susan McKinley Ross (Review) - Lucky Charms the game, or Brain Food for the Avid Gamer?

Ok, here goes. I don't want to hear any complaining that I'm looking to get a bunch of attention due to my writing reviews of first '7 Wonders' and now 'Qwirkle', recent Spiel de Jahres nominees (well, Kennerspiel de Jahres for 7 Wonders).

Qwirkle box cover

 Honestly, it's purely coincidence. I will freely admit that I did the 7 Wonders review and timed it with the nominee announcements only because I'd just opened and played the game and it worked out well that way. HOWEVER, I did not also intend to open, play and review Qwirkle just because it was nominated as well.

As fate would have it, several days prior to the announcements, I literally opened and took pictures of BOTH games on the EXACT same day. Seriously! When I saw Qwirkle was on the SdJ list I was astounded, not only because of the openings foreshadowing the announcements, but I was also thinking "Hasn't Qwirkle been out for a while?!" Who would have guessed (well, here in the US at least) that it would be nominated or even considered? I mean, it was first released in 2006! Well, apparently it was just released in Germany in 2010, thus qualifying it for the SdJ.

Anyhow, that's my story and I'm sticking to it! And, in case you don't believe me, I can show you the timestamps on the pictures. Actually, here they are:

File properties as proof...

After the announcements, I considered sending Susan McKinley Ross (Qwirkle's designer) an interview request but then I heard Garrett's Games podcast from Kublacon over the Memorial Day Weekend (which included her, Richard Borg, and Aldie) and knew that it was pointless then as I wasn't going to top that...there might be a few interesting questions to ask, but I don't think I'll pursue it at this point.

But, I can still do a review, right? Ok, now that I've gotten that out of the way, here's my review.

Qwirkle is a very simple game in terms of rules and it sounds a bit like Scrabble (the similarities here are undeniable, although there are definite differences as well):
  • On your turn, play tiles of various colored symbols from your hand to form 'words' (the rules call them 'lines' but 'words' makes more sense when describing it, especially for Scrabblers)
    • All the tiles you play must legally create or extend ONE existing word.
    • It's possible to also create/extend branching words, just like in Scrabble.
  • Score points based on the word(s) you create. 
    • You get 1 point for every tile in the word you create or extend, even if you only added 1 tile.
    • If you create/extend additional words branching off of that word you also get 1 point per tile for those words (thus, some tiles might be scored twice, once per word they are in)
    • You can also earn an additional 6 bonus points for completing a 'Qwirkle' which is a 6 symbol word (the maximum length)
    • There are no other bonuses.
That's it!

Ok, sorry, there's a bit more info that's important to know:
  • The tiles have 6 possible symbols consisting of 6 possible colors on them. 
    • There are 3 sets of these tiles. 
    • Thus: 6 symbols x 6 colors x 3 sets = 108 tiles, so 3 of each color of each symbol. 
      • This is important to remember, especially as the game draws close to the end as you know what tiles haven't been played yet and, conversely, you can determine if ALL tiles of a particular symbol and color are out.
The sealed block of tiles you get (3 layers of the same set of tiles)

  • A WORD consists of one of two things:
    • x different symbols, all of the same color (where x = 2 to 6)
    • x of the same symbol, all of different colors (where x = 2 to 6)
    • NOTE: x different symbols of x different colors is NOT a legal word - each word has one and ONLY one similar attribute - symbols OR colors.
Thus, the smallest word you will create is of length 2 and the longest word you will create is of length 6, making a range of 2-6 points per word PLUS 6 more points in the case of a 6 tile word. Of course, creating branching words will give you additional points although getting huge scores in 1 play doesn't happen very often - I think the biggest score I saw was 15 --> 12 for completing a Qwirkle (6 tile word w/ bonus) + 3 for also extending a 2 symbol word by 1 tile.

The only other thing to know is that there is no board and there are no doubling or tripling bonuses outside of the Qwirkle bonus (which is effectively a doubling bonus).

Example end of a 2-player game

Wait, you can't play that!
The first thing we noticed when playing Qwirkle was the difficulty in understanding what is and isn't a legal 'word'. In Scrabble, the dictionary TELLS you what is and what isn't legal (i.e. you 'know' what words you can play). In this game, it's just gibberish - thus likely the reason for calling them 'lines' in the rules as you can't read them like words. Sure, you could list them all out, but a simple description is generally all that's necessary. Regardless, it's still easy to get a little confused until you get the hang of it.

My Dad contemplating his move mid-game.

There were several times we made illegal moves (we THOUGHT they were legal), counted up the scores and added them into the totals, only to discover later they were illegal. Fortunately, we usually discovered it only 1/2 a turn to a turn later, so it was easy to backtrack. The mistakes were discovered when the other player was looking over the board and then realized certain plays would be strangely illegal and it made us realize something was wrong. 

You know, this game looks kind of childish - bright colors, simple shapes and fairly simple rules. In fact, it kind of looks like Lucky Charms (that yummy kids cereal)!
Yah, I kinda had that same feeling seeing this game. I'd heard rave reviews about it, but there are rave reviews about other games that truly are children's games - they end up being fun, but not something I'd normally pull out with a bunch of adults (ok, some kids games are fun with just adults, but not too many).

Oooooh! Pretty tiles!

But Qwirkle is deceivingly challenging and it's definitely not a children's game despite it's colorful and playful appearance. You have to THINK to play it. You have to consider how what you are playing might help the other players (such as setting someone up for an easy Qwirkle). You have to consider whether you want to use this tile now or whether you want to hold on to it to maybe use it to complete a bigger score later. You have to consider what your play might block (which could be either good or bad for you and for your opponent)

There are also some timing considerations. There are appropriate times to take a risk and other times you should not. You have to watch how many tiles are left and decide what you want to hold out for (or not hold out far) - getting your timing right at the end is very important.

That doesn't mean kids can't play it - they definitely can. But the great thing is that it can also be played by adults who appreciate it and can be challenged by it on another level. Ok, it's not as heavy as even some of the lighter Euros, but Qwirkle is definitely hearty brain food, not marshmallowy and sugary.

Don't let the simple rules fool you - there is more to this game than what you might expect from reading the box or the rules. I was pleasantly surprised myself and ready to play it some more. My dad and I had discussions afterwards about our 2-player game as to what might have changed the outcome. We were fairly certain that a couple of different plays of the tiles could have turned the game to my Dad's advantage. In fact, he fell behind by quite a bit mid-game after I got a couple of Qwirkles and other good scores, but he steadily made a comeback and finally got a couple of his own Qwirkles to catch up.

What do you like about Qwirkle?
Honestly, I like the bright colors and the shapes. No, I don't just like them, I love them! Especially on the shiny black tiles they are printed on - the colors really 'pop' being on the black. Also, the tiles are nice and chunky wooden bits.
Nice chunky tiles!
They're really nice to handle and easy to manage on the table without requiring a tile tray. You can play with them mixed up face-down on the table or mixed up in the large cloth bag that is included.
They are very attractive and tactile, and they look terrific on the table and will attract a lot of attention when you're playing it.

I did find the box insert to just get in the way and threw it out recycled it. Now I can just load up the cloth bag and put it in the box, then easily place it onto the game shelf next to Ticket to Ride, Lost Cities: The Board Game and other similarly sized square boxes.

The tiles in the nice canvas bag that comes with the game.

What I most enjoyed, though, was the challenge of the game. It has puzzly aspects which I love. It also has great (indirect) interactive play - you have to pay attention to what you are leaving open for the other player as much as trying to get the best score for yourself, so you can't just play blindly if you want to win.

Also, there is opportunity for taking risks to score a few more points. Of course, if I say anything else, that would be going into strategy and this is a game that I think you have to discover for yourself, so I will skip that discussion for now.

Finally, it is similar to Scrabble (but not enough for me to feel like I'm playing Scrabble) and relatively easy to understand and play which makes it accessible to a wide range of players. I think this is where the appeal is and why you can find it so readily here in the US. It's great to see that it's now in Germany and that it is up for the SdJ.

Are there any issues/drawbacks to this game?
Well, for one, it's sort of hard to wrap your head around what is and isn't legal to play for the first few turns when learning directly from the rules cold-turkey. However, once someone has it down it goes a lot smoother as they can determine what is and isn't legal when asked. There is an example game in the rules which helps, but I would have liked to have seen a couple of simple diagrams that show "this is legal" and "this is NOT legal" and explain why - that would be enough to get the point across.

Describing the game in terms of 'words' I think is a clearer way to do it - a 'line', in my mind, could possibly extend across a gap and actually include 2 words. Once you start trying to do that you realize there's a problem, but that's exactly what I did the first time through.

Also, I think scoring by writing on paper is a bit in-elegant - yes, many games do this as well. HOWEVER, a score track would be ideal as it's important to know where you stand and a visual representation of this (to go along with a very visual game) would be perfect. Note that there are a couple score tracks that people have created which you can find here: Qwirkle files  Print one out, then just find a couple of nice pawns and you're ready to go!

Finally, I think there needs to be a way to more easily distinguish between the colors, especially for color-blind players. The blue and green look very similar in lower light - for instance, with my tiles standing up in front of me they can be somewhat shaded, so I have to pick them up and look at them directly in the light to be able to tell the color differences. The addition of a dot in the corner of the tile or middle of the shape would have worked to fix this while still keeping the elegant look. Having said that, my partially color-blind father played pretty much without issues. I think there was only one time when he mis-played a color. Still, I think it could have been made a little more accessible.

Overall, I really enjoy playing Qwirkle and look forward to many more plays in the future.

What's really great about this game it is has the same puzzly aspect of Scrabble and other such games, but without requiring the ability to actually spell words - not everyone is good at word games and you don't have to be with this game - it certainly levels the playing field and makes it accessible to game players of all ages.

Also, it seems the scores are always pretty close or, if someone has a run earlier in the game, the others will often have runs and catch up (if they keep an eye out for the good tiles).

All-in-all, I think this is an excellent SdJ game choice because it's family friendly, it's beautiful, it's tactile and the game play is fun and interesting.

Now, go get and/or play this game and be ready to weigh in on the SdJ winners when they are announced on June 27th.


  1. I reviewed Qwirkle too! Was it already on the list to be reviewed - yes! Did I move it up in the list because of the SdJ - yes! But reviews tied to news is nothing to be ashamed of!

    BTW - I am going to put a link to your post - it's great!


  2. Thanks for linking to me, Frank! I wouldn't say I am ashamed, especially since it was one I was already planning on playing/reviewing. It's just that when the awards come out everyone is clamoring to write up something, anything, and I wasn't specifically on that bandwago - I just had good timing with this one! :)


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