Published by Milton Bradley
Designed by Reiner Knizia
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
2 to 4 players
about 10 minutes per game
I have used the term 'over produced' in the past, but never before has it been so appropriate. Quandary is, to all intents and purposes, a straight re-issue of Reiner Knizia's Flinke Pinke - an Amigo game which came in a box no larger than 10cm square and cost about $10. Quandary comes in a big, long box, with good quality components and costs at least three times that - the trade off is that it's generally available. It remains almost the same game, if anything a little lighter than the original, but for all that Quandary was the most played game here over Christmas. It's certainly light, but it works as well as any other Knizia designed bauble - and you'll already know if you can live with these usually punchy, but sometimes rather thin, endeavours.
The game is essentially abstract in theme, but comes closest to a basic stock market system with just five shares on offer. At the end of the game each share will be worth points and your aim, logically enough, is to ensure that you have sufficient shares of the right colours to score the most points. At the start of the game you are each given a selection of numbered tiles in each of the five colours, ranging in value from 0 to 5. In the centre of the board are five piles of six shares each. Each turn you lay a value tile, setting the current value of the respectively coloured share, and take a share from the middle to add to your portfolio. There is no selling - you just build up holdings over the course of the round. When the game ends, triggered by all six value tiles of just one of the colours being laid in Modern Art fashion, the shares you own are worth the same as the last value tile placed. So, green might have just two value tiles laid - 5 and then 1 - so green shares are worth 1 each, while red, with all six value tiles - 3,0,4,1,2,5 - not only end the round but score five each. Total up your share values, log them on the scorepad and away you go on the next round. That's it.
As can be seen, the game is simple enough in mechanism but scores with the usual Knizia trademark of having to calculate the best move at the time. When you pick up your tiles you will have a good idea of what your options are. You will see if you have a spread of colours and/or very high (4s and 5s) or very low (0s and 1s) values. The former have obvious benefits, while the low ones can be used to stuff rivals. There is also much merit in a long suit - enabling you to identify and to an extent control one colour and its closing value. In that sense any tile is a good tile, but some are better than others. However, there is a luck element in the draw, you are nearly always dependent on seeing what others lay (and in what order) and subsequently calculating your chances of a good score. As the game develops you watch each colour and can eventually work out that, say, red will be worth 1 (its current value), 0, 4 or 5 (tiles still to be played). If you hold all three you are in the driving seat (but make sure you pick up the shares quickly and time your plays), if you hold the 4 and 5 you are in a good position, but the 0 will always be a pain until it is laid.
The underlying structures are distribution of the value tiles, nicely complicated by a random selection of tiles being left out of play each round, and the timing of your rush for glory. Let's say you have established a position where you hold two of the remaining three value tiles in ivory, and three of the shares. The constant problem is whether to come out with the higher value tiles to try and up your score, in a trade off against being stuffed with a lurking low value tile. And as time ticks on, there is every chance that you may be left in the middle of building up even your 'safe' values only to have someone close the round - this obviously becomes a problem as soon as the number of vacant value spaces equals the number of opponents, as you may not get another turn.
The various approaches to share collection would not exactly fill a strategy book, but there is sufficient flexibility for this type of game. Do you go for the coup and try to pick up all six of one colour, trying to get the maximum 30 points in addition to a couple more good ones, risking a massive 6x0 point embarrassment? Or do you avoid the risky 'all eggs in one basket' strategy and spread the portfolio across three or even more colours? Or a mix of the two? It will very much depend on your tiles, what the others lay and, importantly, collect, whether the round is likely to end soon and your overall position in the game (remember, like Take it Easy, you play several rounds and need to score well in all of them). One of the interesting aspects is to watch your rivals collections, again with a view to the points position. In some cases it is possible to choose shares to deprive them of the points (though often gaining them for yourself as a side benefit) and in a three player game you can stalemate each other with two shares each, which is both good and bad - I wonder if Reiner dabbled with an odd number of shares in each colour? Again, just to avoid any possible confusion, this is not exactly chess in its complexity but it isn't throwaway fluffy either - the game is suitably named.
According to my memory and the set in the Rules Bank, there is just one change from the original game. In the Amigo version you may not choose a share in the same colour as the value tile you have just played - ie if you make blue worth 5, you can't then take a blue share at the end of that same turn. This entirely reasonable constraint is waived in Quandary, which still works well enough, but I prefer the original as it adds another dimension to play. I suggest you try it both ways, and if you decide on the more restrictive version it is as simple as adding a house rule.
And so we return to the production. Unlike Flinke Pinke which, from memory, just had a few cardboard chits and poker-style chips, Quandary really pushes the boat out. The attractive board is quite large, with spiralling tracks leading into the middle. The share counters and value markers are made of chunky resin which have a pleasant heft and that pleasing Mah Jongg 'click'. You get racks for your tiles and a very well written rule sheet. All of this comes in a nicely coloured box with the now characteristic low-key MB logo. So low-key that you have to hunt to see who produced it. It's very nice, it sits there and says, 'Play me' and the whole package is impressive. For all that, Quandary is still very expensive. The bits are good, but not that good and I would have been far happier paying around £18 to £22 rather than the £30 typically requested. It simply isn't a £30 game, or even close, and neither does the production represent that asking price - I immediately think of Trump from the same company and only then do we start to get production values worthy of the price tag.
I suppose the interesting question is whether the standard of production is worth it for the game? In terms of gamers paying the price, I would almost certainly have to say no. Unless you are deeply enamoured of the system, and like the luxury approach, buy the original and save yourself the cash, or better still buy another game with it. However, we gamers are a funny bunch and hardly the main target in MB's sights. For the mass family market, Quandary strikes me as an excellent product. It looks good, is highly accessible, has clear and concise rules and, for once, there is something to think about after you have opened the box and read the rules. I carried the game everywhere over Christmas and it went down extremely well. We usually played as many rounds as there were players (giving each a chance to start a round) and, more often than not, they wanted to play again. Why? Because the game is not as light as many, having just enough to intrigue and maintain interest, and it is of exactly the right length for its weight. The only drawback is that the game takes a maximum of four players and in many social gaming situations, this isn't enough. Neither is it suited to team play, unless one of the players happens to be a youngster who needs some help.
But, in an unusual conclusion, I would have to say on this occasion that the production has made a difference. The same game is in there, but it has already been far more popular here than its rudimentary predecessor which quickly faded. Perhaps it just needed that extra boost of proper components. The system is backed up by strong Mah-Jongg noisy and tactile qualities with the tiles, shares and racks, and as a result subjectively comes across as a 'proper', better game - one everyone seems to want to sit down and play. It's no more than a 'sum of its parts' effect, but it is definitely there. I'll admit this is a little vague, but it is an interesting point, and one MB must regularly encounter and tackle. It still won't keep you involved for ever more, but of its kind Quandary is a good, fast little light filler with some interesting choices (especially if you opt for the original rule) and always with the possibility that things will go badly wrong. Not so much fluffy then, as slightly spikey. The only other decision is whether you want to buy and store the big box and its much nicer bits, or live with the smaller one in your pocket. Either way, recommended.
The Game Cabinet - firstname.lastname@example.org - Ken Tidwell