Lost Cities designer’s Art Robbery is one of the hidden gems of Essen Spiel 2021 you shouldn’t miss
Play light robbery.
Reiner Knizia has perhaps the broadest ludography of any board game designer - in every sense of the word. In a career stretching almost 40 years, the former banker has designed over 600 games in almost every tabletop genre imaginable. Knizia’s designs range from the groundbreaking and timeless - auction game classic Modern Art, strategy masterpiece Tigris & Euphrates, innovative co-op game The Lord of the Rings, two-player hit Lost Cities - to the workaday and quickly forgotten. Few CVs include a handful of wins at Germany’s most distinguished game awards, the Spiel des Jahres and Deutscher Spiele Preis, alongside dozens of licensed cash-ins - from 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man Game to S.O.S Donald!, starring Disney’s animated duck.
As such, it’s not an rare occurrence to stumble across an unfamiliar Knizia game. While the German designer is an endless fount of original designs (overall consistency notwithstanding), several of his older designs are still periodically revived in new editions, with revamped artwork or a complete overhaul of their theming. (Knizia, for his part, is infamously mechanically-minded when it comes to creating new games, leaving the look and theme of games up to publishers.)
That was the case at this year’s Essen Spiel 2021 board game convention in Germany, where a small box stamped with Knizia’s name caught my eye on the stand of Swiss publisher Helvetiq. The tall, roughly tarot-sized package had a short, punchy name to match its minimalist black-and-red cover artwork of someone with a canvas tucked under their arm: Art Robbery. Needless to say, I was intrigued.
Art Robbery has a simple premise that reflects illustrator Petra Eriksson’s striking graphics. Two to five players are robbers, who - in a Reservoir Dogs-like time-skip - have already successfully pulled off their crime and are now looking to divvy up the loot. Over four turns, sketches, sculptures, antiquities and paintings need to be split between the crew, with each circular token valued with a different number.
This is a Reiner Knizia game, and a good one at that, so there’s a twist.
Players make their stake on the goods by playing cards from their hand. Numbered cards nab you the matching token from the middle. Easy. Except everyone wants the biggest cut of the profits for themselves, so playing a number that’s already been pinched by someone else will see you take it from under their nose.
What results is a ruthless free-for-all to amass the greatest personal stash before all the tokens empty from the middle, ending the round and starting the next. At the end of four rounds - about 20 minutes - the person with the most valuable haul walks away the winner.
Except this is a Reiner Knizia game, and a good one at that, so there’s a twist. Like the strategic scoring of Tigris & Euphrates - where players only score for their lowest of four different point types, requiring them to balance their focus - and his excellent bidding game High Society, where the person with the least money left is eliminated regardless of social standing, Art Robbery springs a final surprise on the players. Some of the loot tokens include small white dots alongside their points value - which can be zero - representing alibis collected by the players’ escaping crooks. The person with the fewest alibis at the end of the game ends up taking the heat for the rest of the gang, eliminating them no matter how rich their collection of stolen goods. This makes scrapping over the scant number of alibis as crucial as wrestling over the most valuable goods, leading to entertaining back-and-forths as tokens constantly change hands and change the fortune of players in the lead.
It’s highly competitive and interactive without being mean-spirited or targeted.
There are a few more additions to Art Robbery’s gameplay - wild cards that steal any loot token from the middle, a boss token that scores only if the player also holds a 4 or 5 loot, and a lovely little wooden guard dog that protects you from someone’s attempt to pinch from your pile - but the heart of the game is in its tug-of-war tussling over the loot tokens. It’s highly competitive and interactive without being mean-spirited or targeted, the hand of cards you hold often dictating who you will steal from - which is likely to change multiple times between your own turns.
I cracked open the box expecting another middle-of-the-ground card game to be quickly forgotten, and found myself falling for its simple rules, energetic pace and stunning look. It bears repeating that Eriksson’s colourful teal swirls on the number cards and stark red, white and black palette on the ability cards combine perfectly with the game’s top-notch cards, tokens (that wooden dog!) and compact size for a game that looks as sharp as its gameplay.
Time will tell if Art Robbery goes down as just another Reiner Knizia game among the hundreds he’s created, or manages to rise to the top as something a little more special. For me, it was a real hidden gem from this year’s Essen Spiel - a small but surprisingly moreish release that doesn’t deserve to slip away unseen. Steal a look at it if you can.