Qwirkle board game: A four-sided review

The Qwirkle board game is a 2006 release from designer Susan McKinley Ross. It has won multiple awards, including the Spiel des Jahres (when it was finally released in German) in 2011. It’s a game I often mention in Top 10s etc, and still a top seller, so I wanted to give it a full review.

Qwirkle is a tile placement and pattern building family game that plays in less than an hour. It’s listed as suitable for 2-4 players aged 6+, which seems about right (and it’s fun at all player counts).

It is completely abstract, with the box containing 108 nice, chunky wooden tiles in a drawstring bag. Some people do complain about the colours not being different enough (especially the red and orange). But I haven’t found it to be an issue in OK light. Looking at comparison site Board Game Prices, you can find it for around £20 – which seems to me a real bargain by modern board game pricing standards. (Please click through via this link if you want to support my blog when picking up your games – thanks!).

Teaching the Qwirkle board game

Qwirkle is a very simple game to set up and teach. Fill the bag with all the wooden tiles, each player draws six, and away you go. On your turn you usually play one or more tiles to the table, then draw back up to six. But you can also discard any number of tiles and draw new ones instead (the old tiles go back in the bag). Play continues until all the tiles have been used, with the player running out of tiles first getting a six-point bonus.

Each wooden tiles has one of six symbols, in one of six colours. And there are three of each combination (three orange stars, three blue circles etc). When you play tiles, they must connect to at least one existing tile. And all the tiles played must be added to a single row or column. Each row/column must either contain tiles of the same colour, but showing different shapes; or tiles of the same shape in different colours. so you could add a blue square and blue circle to a blue star.

You then score one point for each tile in each row and column you added to. But you get a bonus six points for making a ‘Qwirkle’ – a completed row or column of six, either by symbol or colour. Once all the tiles are laid, highest score wins.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: As someone who loves reintroducing people to the hobby, the Qwirkle board game is a great addition to the arsenal. It sets up and teaches in minutes, is colourful and accessible, but is full of decisions. There’s even a bit of a game arc, but you’ll have a handle on everything by the end of your first game. And as it’s so fast playing, it’s a great game to play back-to-back games of. In terms of simple family games, it ticks all the boxes required to show people there’s a great middle ground in board games between children’s games and long, drawn out affairs such as Monopoly and Risk.
  • The thinker: There’s nothing to hate about this one, but as a strategist there’s nothing to love either. The tile placement nature, and luck if the draw, means its almost entirely tactical. While any strategies there are emerge in the first few minutes of play. They’re even flagged up in the rulebook for the hard of thinking! So while it’s a game I’ll happily play if others want to, there’s nothing here that would make me reach for the shelf and suggest it. Compared to a similar game with a little more depth, such as Ingenious, where I would.
  • The trasher: The Qwirkle board game is clearly ‘good’. And there’s a real satisfaction when you nail a qwirkle, especially a double one. But there are no real ‘take that’ moments, traps you can lay, or other ruses that make a game sing for me.
  • The dabbler: Love it! The simple, bright components don’t scare anyone off. And you simply need to waggle the single sheet rulebook at any friends who may be nervous you’re trying to turn them into a nerd! Yes, the overriding tenet is ‘don’t leave your opponents an easy qwirkle’. But there are interesting decisions. It is often tough to decide whether to play a tile or two to keep your score ticking over. Or throw a load away for the chance of getting that elusive qwirkle-making tile. Plus, as the game draws to a close, you can work out what’s left in the bag, and slowly those hoped-for opportunities drift agonisingly away.

Key observations

Unfortunately, without modification, the Qwirkle board game will be unplayable for some colour blind players. It’s hard to excuse this in the modern gaming world, so I’m not defending them here. Just stating it as a fact. And while I like the simple, chunky wooden pieces, others find them ugly and boring. Horses for courses.

Others simply find the game boring, which is fair enough. As I’ve alluded to above, there is no real interaction and little strategy. While things can bog down with slow, methodical players – or those unwilling to take risks. I guess descriptions such as, “Scrabble with shapes/colours instead of letters” aren’t far off the mark. But there’s no dishonesty here – it isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or be super clever.

It’s hard not to compare the Qwirkle board game to one of my favourites, Ingenious. Both have simple rules, colourful tiles in a draw bag etc. Ingenious is a much cleverer game, has a better game arc, and has more interesting tactics and strategies. But for less gamery audiences, and children, Qwirkle is a great stepping stone. And even for gamers, if you’re just wanting something lighter on the brain, I still think Qwirkle is a solid alternative on a rainy, hungover Sunday morning.

Sister game Qwirkle Cubes is also worth a mention here. It works on the same placement/ scoring system, but the bag contains coloured dice instead of tiles that are rolled when taken from the bag. The main difference is that the dice are visible, so you have an idea of what an opponent might do. But before their turn they can roll as many of them as they choose, so keeping a big element of randomness. The big downside for me is that this removes the surety you have in Qwirkle, knowing how many of each tiles remains as you approach the often crucial end game moves. But dice chuckers may well prefer the chaos.

Conclusion: The Qwirkle board game

Qwirkle is a simple and accessible family game. How fun it is will depend on your tastes, but it does exactly what it says on the tin. For what it’s worth, it will be staying in my collection. It will never make my All Time Top 40 and may not even be played once a year. But at the right time, with the right people, I know I’ll reach for it in the future.

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