Mandala—Design History

Since Mandala isn’t really my design, this isn’t going to be much of a design history. The game is really just a simplified version of Reiner Knizia’s Tutankhamen, for use with the Icehouse pieces.

Back in the late nineties, when I’d just discovered the exciting and colorful world of modern boardgames, I spent countless hours poring over online game reviews. At some point, I came across Rick Heli‘s review of Tutankhamen:

Unusual collection game by Knizia offers a level of elegance which has rarely been matched. Line up the tiles in any order you like. On your turn you can move your token as far forward as you like. There are so few rules I initially wondered if it was even a game.

The moment I read those words, I knew that I, too, wanted to design such games. And so, for me, a new hobby was born.

At that time, Tutankhamen had never been published in the United States, and the German version was out-of-print. I didn’t feel like paying a lot of money for a used copy, and I knew I’d get a chance to play the game eventually, so I just decided to wait.

I spent the next two years designing Icehouse games, a couple of which ended up in Playing with Pyramids. By then, I’d sort of burned-out on pyramid-game design, and I felt ready to delve into the wider world of Eurogames. As I was thinking about that, it occurred to me that I’d still never gotten a chance to play Tutankhamen, and I realized that I could use the pyramids to play a simplified version of the game. And so I created Mandala.

Working on the game affected me in two ways. First of all, although it was easier to design than anything else I’d ever designed, that very fact underscored for me how difficult it is to come up with these kinds of elegant mechanics. Mandala was only easy to design because Knizia had already done the hard work. I’m willing to bet that the idea of laying out a random string of tiles and moving pawns to collect them didn’t just pop fully-formed into his brain. I’m certain that he had to do a lot of searching through design-space to find that mechanic.

The second way that the experience affected me was that it reinforced how good it feels to work with such a simple rule-set. Working with Knizia’s design was like riding a bike that had training-wheels on it. Those training-wheels are off now, but as I work on new designs, I always try to recapture the kind of feeling I had when I worked on Mandala.


I once met Knizia at a game convention, where he was signing copies of one of his new games. As we chatted, I mentioned that I’d come up with an Icehouse version of Tutankhamen, and asked him if it was okay for me to post the rules on my website. He had no problem with it, and said that he thought such things were good for the gaming world. He’s a cool guy.

Later, Out of the Box Publishing released a US version of Tutankhamen, and I finally got a chance to play it. I found that there were a few tiles with special rules. So Mandala is actually even simpler than Tutankhamen!