Qwirkle, by Susan Mckinley Ross, is a tile laying, light abstract strategy game, in which 2-4 players compete to score the most points by creating lines of tiles that either share a common color or symbol.
The tiles in Qwirkle consist of six different shapes in six different colors, with three copies of each shape in each color. Players begin the game by randomly selecting six tiles from the bag to form their “hand” which is kept secret from the other player(s). Each player then announces the longest line that they can create of either one symbol or one color without repeating and exact copy of a tile, and the player who can create the longest line plays first. After placing a line on the board the player then draws the same number of tiles as he played to replenish his hand. The player earns points equal to all of the lines he creates or adds to, with it being one point per tile per line. If one of those lines happens to be six tiles long and thus include all six copies of a shape in each color or all six shapes in one color the player scores a Qwirkle for 12 points. If while creating a Qwirkle, the player formed or added to any other existing line he earns those points in addition to those earned for the Qwirkle. If a player dislikes the tiles he has, he may choose to discard any number of those in his hand and draw replacements in lieu of playing tiles. After drawing the replacement tiles, the discarded ones are returned to the bag. Players continue laying tiles or discarding and redrawing until there are no more tiles in the bag and one player lays their final tile. The player who successfully plays his last tile earns an additional six points and the game ends with the highest score being the winner.
Plain and simple, Qwirkle is a fine game, at its best as a family game, but also enjoyable as light filler for the more hardcore gamers amongst you. I personally rate Qwirkle a 7.5 out of a possible 10 and it only just recently slipped out of the Life in Games Top 50. For those interested in the “Wife in Games” (Heather’s) rating, she puts it at an 8.5 out of 10. In addition to my high opinion of Qwirkle, it was the winner of the prestigious Spiel des Jahres (German Game of the Year) award in 2011.
Part of what makes Qwirkle so appealing is its simplicity. I have seen children as young as six play and do well. It is quite similar to Scrabble, but distilled down to its essence without the need to read or spell. My wife, also an accomplished Scrabble player, is particularly fond of this aspect of Qwirkle. Although it is a very light game, there is certainly room for skillful play. Careful placement of tiles, and the awareness of when to take a lesser score to prevent a potentially bigger one by your opponent are crucial skills to success in Qwirkle. It is also relatively easy, but quite important, to count what tiles are left to help determine the safety of plays and the odds of you and your opponents drawing what they need. While you do not have perfect information, as your opponent’s hands are hidden, one can still get a pretty good idea of what tiles remain and thus a player’s chance of having or drawing them. This allows for a certain degree of calculated risk taking to either grow your lead or try for a desperate comeback when trailing. It is always nice when a light game at least offers the chance of a comeback. In a game like Chess or Go, we expect to be punished for our inferior play and acknowledge our defeat with a concession when the game has become unwinnable. In a family game with a mixture of luck and skill, like Qwirkle, skill should make a difference but it is more fun for the players if there is hope until the end. Qwirkle carefully walks the tightrope between luck and skill at just the right level to be a successful family board game.
As with any game, Qwirkle has some flaws, or at least things that a hyper competitive maniac gamer such as my self considers flaws. Luck, yes my age old enemy, is quite a factor in Qwirkle and even more so the better the players. Obviously, if the players are roughly equal in skill, and one happens to draw what they need more often they are going to win. This can be frustrating as one player scores Qwirkle after Qwirkle despite your cautious plays and attempts to prevent this outcome. In theory, this should be mitigated somewhat by the option to dump tiles and draw replacements while skipping your turn. Unfortunately, it is rarely worth it to dump tiles to try and improve your hand or in search of a Qwirkle. This is because the score per turn is generally so low.
For example, the average score per turn is roughly six points. Even if you can only add one tile, you will likely score between two and four points. By skipping a turn and drawing tiles, however many, even if you get exactly what you need you will probably score between 10 and 15 points. However, there is no guarantee you will draw what you need or that your spot will still be there on your next turn. Realistically, your likely outcome for dumping tiles is somewhere around six to eight points. Divided between your current turn and the one you skipped, this puts you around three to four points anyway. So even if dumping results in a slightly better than average turn, it is still not likely to score you many more points than if you had just played out your bad tiles.
Therefore, the mechanism that exists to help one overcome poor luck with tile draws, generally is not worth doing and thus ineffective. This is without a doubt my biggest issue with Qwirkle and means that when I choose to play it I simply must accept that a close game could well be decided by luck. Acceptable with the family, but less so with the gaming group.
Lastly, Qwirkle is listed as a game for 2-4 players, but I find, much like Scrabble, that the game becomes even more random as players are added. This is often not the fault of the game so much as the players being of vastly different skill levels. Setting to the left of the bad player and win the game is sadly a viable strategy. I suppose this is great if your are in that seat, but somewhat less great if your are not and forced to watch as the beginner leaves opening after opening for the more experienced player to mop up. Due to this, situation, I am really not a big fan of Qwirkle with more than two players unless I am teaching the game to kids. Perhaps this would not bother the more casual gamers amongst you, but it is certainly a turn off to the more serious players.
Despite my issues with the luck factor in Qwirkle, I really do consider it a great game. It is wonderful for couples who are looking for something light to play while having a quiet evening at home. I know a number of senior citizens who absolutely love Qwirkle, for the game itself, as well as the big bright shapes that make it easy to see for those with vision problems. Qwirkle is also quite popular with kids, and is a good choice of a game to teach youngsters and start them down the gaming road at an early age. Any game with such wide appeal, is certainly doing something right, and it speaks volumes about how many more people will play a game if it is simple to learn. Simple, fun, and enjoyed by gamers and non-gamers alike is a pretty strong description for any game, and it fits Qwirkle to a tee!
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