The Knizia Papers: Camels Never Tasted So Good
An appraisal of Through the Desert by Dan Clark
Reiner Knizia is, without a doubt, one of the biggest names in board game design today. Born in Germany in 1957, Dr. Knizia graduated with a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Ulm. After a successful career in software and finance, Dr. Knizia has since retired from his "day job" and now makes games full-time.
Through the Desert was published in 1998 by Kosmos as Durch die Würste, and was nominated for the prestigious German Game of the Year award (Spiel des Jahres) during that year. It was released as Through the Desert by FFG in 2000 — the first Reiner Knizia game published bearing the flying "F"s.
Although certainly FFG wouldn't have published Through the Desert if we didn't believe in it as a game, and certainly it was a game that had already proven itself critically and in the European market, no one expected it to achieve legendary status (except, perhaps, Dr. Knizia).
Through the Desert is a game in which players take on the role of Bedouin chieftains in a nameless desert, scattered with oases and watering holes. Controlling a series of caravans, players place their camels on the game board in order to link their caravans to oases and watering holes and take control of territory on the game board. It has been compared to Go both for its area–control mechanics and its surprising strategic depth despite its relative simplicity.
The reasons for Through the Desert's success are as simple (but surprisingly significant) as the game itself. Principally, Through the Desert succeeds on its merits as a game. Being both simple and deep (a hallmark of many Knizia designs), accessible and "gamerish" allows it to appeal to a very broad audience. The fact that it is easy to learn means that everyone is a potential player — one mustn't be a die-hard gamer to pick up a copy and start playing. The fact that it presents a wealth of strategic options to the player means that it appeals to the hardened gamers. This trait is certainly not unique to Through the Desert — indeed, it's a signature of Reiner Knizia designs and a reason that so much of Fantasy Flight's Silver Line bears his name. Through the Desert stresses a simple concept executed very deeply. The rules are simple: place colored camels next to other camels of the same color to build the best caravans. The potential implications are complex: cut off your opponent from a valuable oasis through careful placement or build a long caravan to enclose a large area of desert. Through the Desert's mechanics are a perfect example of Dr. Knizia's unique style.
And then there are the "candy camels." Through the Desert features five camel colors and five player colors (plus grey-colored camels to serve as player markers). The logistical requirements of having ten distinct colors in the game presented a challenge from a component standpoint, but the solution had some unexpected side effects. The colored riders — red, blue, orange, purple, green — are serviceable and unremarkable. But the pastel camel colors are the stuff of legend. There are five camel colors, and when referring to them in conversation it is almost impossible to avoid using terms like "peach" or "lime" or "grape." They look like candy. They look so much like candy that some people are surprised to find that they aren't. And as a consequence, Through the Desert is "that candy camel game" to people all over the world.
To say that the plastic camels have a cult following is not an understatement. Leading board game fansite BoardGameGeek.com features the camels prominently in its message board emoticon system and also allows users to purchase pastel camel "microbadges" to appear under their user avatar. Even people who have never played a game of Through the Desert seem to know about the camels, and certainly the "cute factor" has won the game more than a few players who might never otherwise have given it a chance.
Today, Through the Desert remains a strong seller, buoyed up by Dr. Knizia's marvelous game design and those unstoppable "candy camels." It was recently re-released by FFG in a new larger format, and it remains the flagship of FFG's Silver Line — pretty good for a board game that's almost ten years old.
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