Teaching Time: 1 mins
Playing Time: 45 mins
Setup Time: 0
Value For Money: Mid
Abstract games sit in a weird place in relation to hobby gaming and its more mainstream end. Relatively speaking they are extremely unpopular in hobby gaming, which is not to say that they are unpopular as such, but considering that for most people half or even all the boardgames they know will be abstract they are not well regarded. Draughts, Go, Othello, Connect 4 and arguably Chess are just some of the abstract games that everyone recognizes and for some people form the whole of their tabletop experience. However, in the hobby end of things, on BGG Azul is the highest ranked semi-abstract at 41 and for full abstract you’re looking at Go at 152. Abstracts regularly struggle on Kickstarter and, to the point of the current review, the SDJ have chosen to recognize only Focus and Qwirkle in the pure abstract boardgame category (arguably Rummikub also). Considering that there was 20 years between Focus and Qwirkle you’d expect something pretty special to have convinced the SDJ committee to break that run.
Qwirkle is pretty simple, it comes over as Scrabble without letters or board, though it is somewhat more interesting than that implies. Tiles come with one of six symbols in one of six colours on them. Players take turns playing as many tiles as they wish of a single colour or symbol in the playing area so long as they connect to another tile and match either the colours or symbols of tiles already in their row or column without repeating a symbol in a line of a single colour or a colour in line of symbols. Players score a point for each tile in a line they added to and a bonus six if they complete a line of six, being a ‘Qwirkle’. That’s very much it as far as the game goes.
Play is obviously quite simple and it takes a little while for things to heat up at all, unlike Scrabble where putting together a word on even your first turn can be a puzzle, there’s very little challenge to matching colours and symbols when only one or two options are actually in play. Once the basics of a few columns and a few rows are down though, things get reasonably interesting pretty swiftly. Since colours and symbols are not permitted to repeat then building a board on which six-point bonus giving ‘Qwirkles’ is even possible requires play that is semi-co-operative. Most of the game is a sort of push your luck set-collection affair where choices revolve around claiming a few small point chances and possibly giving an opponent the chance to pick up a bonus for slotting in the last part of a row or holding off and hunting for the key piece yourself, trying to slot in multiple tiles on a row in one pleasing go.
Physically slotting in titles has a pleasing tactile feel, though the chunky wooden tiles are produced with a surprising lack of colour blind support. I’m not colour blind, but except under direct light I struggled to tell the green of the tiles from the blue. Additionally, for players with a spark of OCD the fact that a large chunk of the strategy turns on forcing situations where perfect rows cannot be completed is likely to cause some friction.
So, returning to the start of the point here, is Qwirkle something special to make the SDJ break its run? Not really. Its perfectly good and quickly becomes a satisfying play experience after a slow start, but it makes very little sense as an SDJ winner.
Interestingly, Qwirkle is one of the SDJ winners that chooses not to display the seal of victory on the box. While this right isn’t free (its one of the main ways the SDJ raises the funds to run the award) it’s a no brainer for most winners, or even most nominees. I don’t know what motivated this decision on the part of Qwirkle’s publishers but if I was going to guess I’d say that the fact that Qwirkle doesn’t fit into the usual SDJ pattern would be a large part of it. Firstly, the SDJ is generally an award for the best hobby gateway game of the year, and Qwirkle is not a gateway game. No new abstract game is a gateway game because how could they be? As mentioned at the start of this review, the idea of someone who hasn’t heard of Draughts but has heard of Qwirkle is almost bizarre, and there really aren’t a mass of abstract games for Qwirkle to be a gateway to. Secondly, mechanically Qwirkle doesn’t bring anything revolutionary or even very new to the tabletop. Looking at the years around it, the two before and the two after bring Dominion, Dixit, Kingdom Builder and Hanabi, Dominion’s creation of the deck builder is the poster-child for a mechanic shifting the tabletop around it, Dixit’s abstract clue giving has become its own mini-genre and the simple genius of Hanabi’s turned around cards is jaw-droppingly smart and simple. Qwirkle looks a little adrift in such company. Finally, Qwirkle doesn’t even really have the sort of original table presence or presentation that picks out many SDJ winners, even if the game didn’t play like Scrabble without letters or board it would feel like it because its components consist of a bag and a pile of block tiles, essentially a Scrabble set without a board or racks.
None of which is to say that Qwirkle is a bad game, because its not, it just happens not to make much sense as an SDJ winner. Particularly in 2011, and even more so given that it was the year that Forbidden Island, arguably even more apt as a gateway co-op game than Pandemic, was nominated. Feel free to pick it up as a lightweight and very portable abstract, jammed in its bag without box or board it carries easily and its wooden block pieces will take a beating. If, like me, you’re on an SDJ collection thing then I promise that Qwirkle will not be your least favourite.