Saturday, 23 April 2016

Quartermaster General

Plays: 6Px1.

Quartermaster General is one of the hotter recent games. My regular gaming buddies at Boardgamecafe.net had played it a few times and it was much discussed. I missed out the first few times it was played. Only on a more recent visit I was lucky that we had exactly 6 players. Quartermaster General was brought out again, because it plays best with six. I guess it felt wrong to not play it when such an opportunity arose.

The Game

Quartermaster General uses the same setting as the global version of Axis & Allies - World War II at a global scale. The six playable countries are Germany, Italy, Japan, USA, UK and USSR. The first three are the Axis, and the last three the Allies. This is a team game. It is played over at most 20 rounds. Players score points at the end of every turn. At the end of a round, if one team has 30 points more than the other, it wins an instant victory. Otherwise the game is played to the bitter end and scores are compared then.

Game setup is a breeze. Every country starts with just one army (tank piece) at its capital.

Every country has a different number of pieces and these reflect history. Each country has its own unique deck of cards too. The total number of cards, and the type and distribution of cards are different. This photo shows the Japanese pieces and cards. The planes come with the Air Marshall expansion. The base game contains only tanks and ships.

The game starts off with the board rather empty. The situation in Europe is more tense, since four countries are crowded there. Asia is rather empty and Japan looks like it will have a good time expanding. A territory with a star is worth 2 victory points for each turn a player controls it.

Generally on your turn you do just one thing - play a card (and do what it says). You want to build an army? You need to play the Build Army card. You want to attack an enemy army? You need to play the Land Battle card. Almost all your actions in the game depend on playing a card. If you happen to not have that card, you'll have to wait. If you can't wait, you have the option of discarding cards at the end of your turn, so that you get to draw more new cards. You always draw up to the hand limit of 7. However any card you discard is lost forever. The discard deck is never reshuffled. When your draw deck runs out, you won't draw any more cards. In fact you will be penalised. Every country has a specific number of Build Army, Build Navy, Land Battle and Sea Battle cards. You can keep count of how many you, your teammates and your opponents have used. However some cards are discarded facedown so you can't be 100% sure about your opponents.

Cards are precious. They are the core engine of the game. Quite often you are forced to sacrifice some cards. You are forced to make choices. This is what makes the game interesting - the difficult decisions. Some cards when played require other cards to be spent as payment. Even at the start of the game, you draw 10 cards are must already discard 3, before forming your starting hand.

There is no concept of movement in Quartermaster General. Strictly speaking the army and navy pieces don't represent any particular army or fleet. They represent the presence of your forces in general, and your control over specific territories. When you "build" an army, it must be built next to an existing army. This means you are actually expanding your sphere of influence. To attack an enemy, you don't need to march an army into his territory. As long as you control a neighbouring territory, you can play Land Battle to destroy his influence. It is normally impossible to defend against an attack. It is a question of whether your opponent has the necessary Battle card and whether he is willing to spend it for this particular battle. It is also a question of whether you should have built an army in a vulnerable territory in the first place. It's all about how you want to use your cards, and how you think your opponents will use theirs.

There's a type of card called the Response card. These are played facedown. Some are like traps. Some are special powers that boost another type of action. They are triggered when some other condition is met. Japan has many such cards. There's another type of card called the Status card. These are special abilities you give your country. It is usually good to play them early, so that you can enjoy the benefits for the rest of the game.

Fighting for VP territories on the map is important. They are a way to secure a steady VP income. However what is every more important is securing and pushing the frontlines, while at the same time protecting your supply lines. This game is a balance of power. To do better than your opponents, you need to tilt the balance in your favour. So you are constantly looking for a breakthrough. You want to strengthen your overall position so that you will be able to pressure, then crush the enemy team.

I have only played one game, and the game ended in instant victory due to the VP gap. The other players told me that their previous games ended in this manner too. It seems the war dragging till Round 20 is rare.

The Play

Of the six of us who played, Jeff, Ivan, Jason and Dith had played before. Sinbad and I were new, so we got to pick our countries first. Sinbad picked USA, which was far from the frontlines and felt like a safer country to play. I picked Japan for pretty much the same reason. So the four veterans started in cramped Europe.

USA (green, Sinbad) decided to focus on the European theatre, and didn't bother Japan (me) in the Pacific theatre. Italy (purple, Jeff) and Germany (grey, Ivan) expanded aggressively. Germany played a Status card early, which gave it a free Battle every time it built a new army. This was very powerful. This let Ivan advance towards USSR (red, Dith) very quickly.

Being Japan (white) I thought it would be a walk in the park when I tried to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However early in the game UK (yellow, Jason) played a card which made India his second capital, and also a supply centre. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. In our game, the Asia Pacific theatre evolved into me and him pushing backwards and forwards.

Jason (UK), Sinbad (US), Dith (USSR), Jeff (Italy).

Italy (purple, Jeff) conquered Africa, because he had a Status card which let him score points for controlling Africa and the Middle East. A red line on the map means there is a strait between the two sea zones. All straits are by default controlled by the Allies. If the Axis powers want to use a strait, they need to first control the territory linked to the strait. At this moment Italy controlled North Africa, so the Strait of Gibraltar was now under Axis control. USA (green, Sinbad) could not attack into the Mediterranean Sea. It would have to at least liberate North Africa first.

Western Europe was previously captured by Italy, but now the Americans had landed. Germany (grey, Ivan) focused on hammering USSR (red, Dith). USSR could only defend and could muster little strength to counterattack. UK (yellow, Jason) had not contributed much to the European theatre.

UK (yellow, Jason) was much more active in Asia, and was now pushing towards Australia.

The US troops (green, Sinbad) in Western Europe were destroyed, and France reverted to uncontrolled status. Moscow (red, Dith) was now surrounded by the Germans (grey, Ivan).

We played using the Air Marshall expansion, which introduces the planes. It's quite a simple addition, just airplanes and some cards, and a few rules regarding the air force. Normally a territory or sea zone only allows one army or navy per country. With the expansion, an army or navy can be supported by an air force unit. When attacked, the defender may choose the air force to take the hit instead. If the defender chooses the army or navy to die, the air force can be redeployed to another location.

The Axis team - Jeff, Ivan and I. My teammates are camera shy.

Japan (white, me) won the race to Australia against the UK (yellow, Jason). However I later found out I had made a mistake. When building a navy, it must be supported by a friendly army in an adjacent land territory. When I built my navy in the Southern Pacific, I didn't have any supporting army. It was an invalid build. By the time we discovered this, it was rather late, and it would have been a pain to undo everything. So we decided to just proceed. Sorry, I had inadvertently taken advantage of you Jason.

Germany (grey, Ivan) had moved into the Middle East, and was now threatening the UK capital in India. UK was forced to respond. If it didn't, and India were lost, all UK troops in Asia would be out of supply and would be destroyed.

UK (yellow, Jason) was doing something in Europe now, capturing France. Things were not looking good for USSR (red, Dith). Germany (grey, Ivan) had it surrounded, and now even had an air force supporting the preparation for the final push.

Germany had played a Status card in the early game which gave it a free attack for every build. Ivan had actually also drawn a Status card which gave a free build after a successful attack. He kept the card and didn't play it, because he knew UK had an Event card which could cancel another player's Status card. Ivan waited until Jason played the Enigma Code card, before he unleashed this second powerful Status card. After that, it was (as my younger friends would say) "GG" (Good Game) for USSR.

We played till about Round 15. Those who had played before said this was much longer than their past games. Previously the games were decided by about Round 10 or earlier. The Japanese troops in Australia (white, me) were destroyed by the UK (yellow, Jason) eventually. USA (green, Sinbad) captured Africa and dominated the Mediterranean Sea. However the European mainland was firmly in Axis hands. Moscow had finally fallen, and there was no chance for USSR (red, Dith) to come back. The Axis team won by creating a 30VP gap. Those who had played before commented that the Axis won in their past games too, but the games developed quite differently each time they played.

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Quartermaster General. I had seen quite a few positive reviews, but I had not spent time to understand in detail how the game worked. The unit count in Quartermaster General is very low, but I am amazed how thematic the game feels and how much the setting comes across from the game mechanisms. It reminds me very much of standard Axis & Allies. The players are presented with the same kind of dilemmas. Does the Axis go for a Kill Russia First strategy? Should Germany launch Operation Sea Lion? Should USA focus on Europe or Asia, or split its resources? The card mechanism is certainly very different from Axis & Allies. The story of World War 2 is told in the cards. Not every card will be used. There are at most 20 rounds, and thus 20 main actions. Sometimes you need to sacrifice cards to play other cards. Sometimes your opponents force you to discard cards. Sometimes you voluntarily discard cards hoping to draw cards you need more urgently. The cards are the soul of the game. It is the most painful and frustrating part of the game, and it is also where it truly shines. You are always forced to choose between cards. Sometimes you have too many good cards and you are pained to pick some over others. Sometimes you get a bunch of cards which you don't need yet, and you need to think hard whether to hold on to them or to discard them, hoping to get something you can use now.

Timing is important. Sometimes luck can screw you up, giving you the wrong cards at the wrong time. The game is very much about card management and deciding when to play which card. The game gets better and better as you become familiar with the cards. Not just your own, but also your teammates' and your opponents' decks.

Some parts are not really historical, at least not that I can see. Italy has some cards which help it score points. Japan has many Response cards and can spring surprises (SUPPLIES!) on its enemies. I don't see how these relate to history. I think they are there for gameplay balance, and to give uniqueness to each country. I think that is fine.

In some ways Quartermaster General reminds me of Sekigahara. Winning or losing is not based on dice and probabilities. Battles are almost deterministic, the variable aspect being purely the decisions made by players. Are you going to spend that Battle card to attack? Does your opponent currently have the right cards to counterattack? The game is about guessing your opponents' hands, guessing their intentions, and gauging their priorities. There is bluffing and psychological play.

If I were still in the build collection stage of this hobby, I would have bought a copy without hesitation. However nowadays I have scaled down my game purchases. There are many games that I like but have not bought, like Panamax and A Few Acres of Snow. Some games I know I can easily find friends to play with because they own copies. I already have too many other games sitting unplayed on my shelves. I do highly recommend Quartermaster General.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Sblap

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Sblap is a real-time children's game similar to Halli Galli. Every card in the game has two elements, a letter of the alphabet, and an alien. At the start of the game, all cards are dealt evenly to every player. Your objective is to get rid of all your cards. You shuffle your cards to form a face-down deck in front of you. On your turn, you flip over a card and play it onto a central discard pile. If the letter or the alien of your card matches that of the previous card, a race is initiated. Everyone tries to be the first to slam his hand on the discard pile. Whoever does this first is the scorer for the round, and gets to distribute the cards in the discard pile to all other players in any way he fancies. However there is a catch. Before he does the distribution, he takes a test. He needs to think of a word beginning with the letter on the card just played. In the beginning, all the scorer needs to do is to just say one word. However, in Round 2, the scorer not only needs to come up with a new word, he also needs to remember the previous word. In this way, a chain of words is formed, and every time a player becomes scorer, he must say aloud the whole list. If he fails, instead of distributing the cards in the discard pile, he must instead take all the cards myself. This is painful. Any time a scorer fails his test, the chain of words is reset. In the next round, you start again with just one new word. The game is played until a player runs out of cards. He is the winner.

I played with my children Shee Yun (11) and Chen Rui (9). Chen Rui was saying the words aloud from memory.

Chen Rui getting stuck...

The Play

Sblap is a simple game. It's a real-time game, so it is naturally exciting, and it forces you to concentrate. The memory element makes it even more necessary to stay focused. I find that reflex is more important than memory. I didn't have much problem with memorising the chain of words. It was my quick responses which won me the game. Perhaps I feel this way because our word chain never grew very long. It was always fewer than 10 words. So the memory aspect wasn't much of a challenge for me. The kids were tripped up by the memory element. I had thought children would do better at this, because they are pure and they concentrate better.

When a scorer distributes cards, it is possible to play favourites. He can decide who to hurt and who to let off the hook. If this gets out of hand, your game can end in hurt feelings or sulking. It's not a problem of the game. It's a people problem. If you are introducing this game to friends, it's something to be aware of. This ability to target one person or more can be fun if your group is of the appropriate mindset. It can introduce alliances, cooperation, threats, betrayals, revenge and politicking, and these can turn the game into much more than what its basic premise suggests. When playing with children, I suggest not to allow the game to turn into vendettas or bullying, unless it's your kids ganging up on you (like in my case). If so, take it like an adult and just have fun with them.

The Thoughts

I find the game just so-so, because I don't like memory games. I would rather play Halli Galli which has no memory element. Sblap can be educational if you have children learning English. It can be a covert operation to grow your children's vocabulary and to get them to practise English. Sblap is not purely a children's game. It can be a party game too. It is easy to teach and fast to play. You can get casual gamers and non-gamers to start playing within minutes.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Blood Rage

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Blood Rage is an Ameritrash-themed game with a Euro implementation. It is based on Norse mythology. The world is coming to an end. You lead a clan, and you compete with other clans to pillage the land and fight for glory. You summon creatures to aid your army. You don't fight to conquer or to survive. Your only KPI is glory. Glory is your victory points.

These are some of the creatures you can summon during the game.

This was my clan. The flagbearer is the clan leader, with a strength of 3. The rest are warriors, strength 1.

The is the player board. The long red track is the action point track. At the start of every round you get a certain number of actions points to spend for the round. Some actions cost action points. Once you exhaust your action points, you must pass for the rest of the round. You can't even execute the actions which don't require action points. The three shorter tracks are your skill tracks. If you improve your red skill, you get more action points at the start of every round. Improve your blue skill, and you earn more glory for each victory in battle. Improve your black skill, and you can field a larger army on the main board. If you advance your skills to the higher levels, you will earn bonus glory at game end. You can see many empty spaces on the player board. These are for playing upgrade cards to augment your clan abilities. These upgrade cards include those used for summoning creatures.

This is the main game board. There are many territories to fight over. At the end of every round, one of the territories will be destroyed, so the world will become smaller and smaller. The number of rounds is fixed. The actions you can do include deploying a unit, moving units, pillaging a territory, playing an upgrade card and committing to a quest. Each territory can only be pillaged once per round. When you pillage, you need to check whether other players have presence in the territory. If they do, you need to fight before deciding which clan wins the pillaging rights. The losers die and to go Valhalla (which is actually a small game board by the side). Dead (temporarily) units can only be deployed again next round. In this photo two of the territories have been destroyed - those marked by the big round orange marker.

The bases of the miniatures can be detached and reattached. The colours of the bases are the player colours.

At the start of every round there is a card drafting process similar to 7 Wonders. You are dealt a hand of cards, you pick one to keep, and pass the rest to your neighbour. Repeat this a few times, and you will eventually get to see most cards being circulated. You will know most of the cards your opponents have picked (i.e. those you've seen and later don't come back), but you can't be sure who took which cards. There are a few types of cards. An upgrade card gives your clan special abilities. A battle card, like those in this photo, is played during battle and gives your army additional strength and sometimes a special ability too. A mission card which you commit to gives you bonus glory points at the end of the round if you fulfill the condition stated.

More and more territories are destroyed as the game progresses, so competition intensifies. There is a limited number of spaces in each territory. Once fully occupied, you can't deploy more units into the territory.

This territory has only three spaces, and is now full. You can't deploy here anymore.

The Play

Blood Rage feels very Euro, despite the theme, the miniatures, the artwork. You win by victory points. Fighting is just a means to an end. If you are not going to gain much glory from a fight, there is little incentive to start it. You want to make good use of your cards, and you hope to collect good combos. You want to upgrade your clan and enjoy longer term benefits. Your strategy should be aligned with the cards and special abilities you have picked. The motivations and priorities of players can diverge, because they may pick different special abilities and focuses. Ultimately, killing more enemies than your own troops getting killed still helps, so you can't run away from fighting, and you do need to fight well. In this game you are maximising your glory gains from all this warfare.

I did poorly, losing many battles. My men became gold status loyal customers at the Valhalla board. I did have one card that allowed me to score points for men getting killed, but what I earned from this was not sufficient to make up for what I lacked in other areas. Losing many men means more action points needed to deploy men to the game board again. I did not improve my skills as efficiently as Han and Allen. I fell behind and came dead last.

The Thoughts

Blood Rage is more tactical than strategic. You need to fully utilise your cards, using them to gain an edge over your opponents. You watch out for opportunities, and try to maximise your glory gains through them. E.g. playing cards at the right times, starting battles at the right times. In terms of longer term consideration, the main one is the three skill tracks. You do need to consciously invest effort in them if you want to do well in a particular track, or two, or all three. It takes commitment.

Playing Blood Rage reminds me of Kemet. It's a low body count war game, with a very Euro design. I liked Kemet better. Blood Rage works fine and feels balanced, but I did not find a strong draw. Maybe Euro-rised war games no longer click with me, but then there are counterexamples like Sekigahara and Quartermaster General. If you like Kemet and streamlined wargames, Blood Rage may be your cup of tea (or blood).

Saturday, 9 April 2016

My introduction to RPG's - Fiasco

Plays: 4Px1.

My long-time boardgaming kaki (buddy) Allen has expressed interest in trying out Role Playing Games (RPG's) for quite some time. RPG's are a different genre from the boardgames we are used to playing. When I think of RPG's, the picture in my mind is a bunch of guys sitting around a table playing with paper, pens and dice, and talking a lot. From outside looking in, it's alien. There are no game boards, no fancy cards, no pretty pawns. Where's the game? I have been reading boardgame articles and following boardgame news for many years. I have by now learned a little about RPG's through osmosis, because some boardgame articles mention RPG's. I just never made an effort to try one out. Finally this year Allen decided it was time to stop being NATO (No Action, Talk Only). He got in touch with some local RPG players to request for an introductory session. I grabbed the opportunity to step into the world of RPG's.

We met up with two experienced RPG players, Darren and Kai. We had discussed much beforehand about which game to do. They wanted to make sure they picked a suitable introductory game for us. They introduced to us the many different settings, game mechanisms and game styles within the RPG hobby. We eventually decided to try Fiasco. It is a highly regarded game, and it can be completed within one session (some RPG's can play for years, each session being like an episode in a TV serie, which is almost unimaginable to me, a boardgamer). However Fiasco is not exactly a typical RPG. It puts much emphasis on storytelling, and is light on game mechanisms and rules.

Like many RPG's, the game Fiasco is basically a book. You need to prepare your own sheets of paper, pens, and dice.

The Game

Fiasco has a simple game structure and a simple set of rules governing the overall process. Each time you play, in addition to these rules, you also need the content from a scenario booklet. The game comes with a few scenarios. Many other scenarios have been written and released, including some by fans of the game. We picked a scenario about a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. The game is played over four rounds. In each round, every player gets to tell a story from the perspective of his character. The story must come to a point where the protagonist faces a dilemma. The active player can define the dilemma, then ask the other players to decide the outcome; or he can ask the others to state the dilemma, while he decides the outcome. The whole game is about players working together to construct an interesting story.

The game starts with a setup phase, to determine the key elements of the story from which the players will elaborate and expand the story. A set of dice is rolled, and it becomes a pool shared by all players. The scenario sheets list many story elements, all numbered 1 to 6. To select a story element, you need to claim a die with the corresponding number. Players take turns doing this to pick the elements they want in the story. These elements determine the relationships between players. Some will give a character a goal or mission. Some of these elements are described in a vague manner, to allow the players freedom to make up their own stories.

As the game is played, whenever a dilemma is resolved, the active player claims a die depending on whether the outcome is good or bad. You take a white die if the outcome is good, and black otherwise. The colours of these dice you collect during the game will matter eventually, when you reach the finale.

The dice we used. The game requires 2 white and 2 black dice per player. We used the blue dice to stand in for the black dice.

There will be a twist in the middle of the game, after Round 2. A procedure defined by the game rules helps insert this twist, and the players now need to incorporate this twist into their story. It is meant to push the story towards a climax. At the end of Round 4, there is another process to determine how the story ends for each of the characters. This is where the dice collected by the players throughout the game come into play. They are rolled to determine what kind of ending the characters get individually. You look up the scenario booklet to check what your die roll means for your character, and you need to conclude your story according to the general direction the scenario booklet says. The description given by the scenario booklet is usually quite generic, to give you space to fill in the details. E.g. it might say "although you did not achieve your goal, you have gained something unexpected instead".

Fiasco does not have many rules. The rules just provide a framework for the players to tell a story together. The scenario booklet gives you many interesting story elements to get you started, and it is very much up to you how you want to tell the story. The story elements provided by the game system are not meant to restrict you to tell a specific story. They are to assist you and to inspire you to tell an interesting story. They give you a rich and realistic setting to apply your creativity.

The Play

It's hard to imagine the game by describing the rules. I think it is best to just share the story that I made together with Allen, Kai and Darren.

Here's the starting setup of our story. My character was a retired government official, Mr Ron Brown, who used to be the governor of Bombay. He was on a secret mission to deliver a precious diamond from London to New York. He had already retired and had had no intention of being involved in any more political matters. It was upon the urging of an old friend that he agreed to take on one last mission for his government. To avoid suspicion, he kept a low profile and pretended to be just a retiree visiting relatives in USA. He was very nervous about the mission, and he was anxious not to fail his country. Darren's character, Pierre, was on the surface a French gentleman in the jewellery business. However true identity was a notorious jewellery thief, and he had his eyes on this diamond Mr Brown was carrying. He had his network of spies and had learned about this mission well before Mr Brown stepped aboard the ocean liner to New York. He had arranged to be sharing a cabin with Mr Brown. Kai's character was female, a young lady from a noble family which had now fallen from grace. The downfall of the dynasty was due to a much publicised case of jewellery theft, which was the work of Monsieur Pierre. Allen's character Douglas and Kai's character were newlyweds, and they were on their honeymoon. One twist that we had at game setup was there was going to be an incident between Mr Ron Brown and Douglas involving this exclamation: "Who are you? What are you doing in my closet?"

We needed scraps of paper to write down our character details and the relationships and shared story elements between our characters.

Based on what we had set up above, we had to start making up stories for our respective characters and weaving them into one coherent plotline.

It turned out that Mr Brown and Douglas had a rather complicated relationship, involving an incident in the servant quarters in India many years ago. Douglas was a bastard son born of rape when the young Ron Brown had taken advantage of one of his servants. So Douglas was actually Mr Brown Junior. Douglas had hated this father he had never met since young, and had always wanted to take revenge for the hardships he and his mother had to suffer. However when he encountered the frail old Brown Senior on this fateful journey, and confronted him, all past thoughts of revenge melted away. Douglas realised what he always wanted was not revenge. What he wanted was a father. He revealed his identity to Ron, who was utterly shocked. Ron, now that he is old and lonely, had many regrets in his life. He had thought he would die alone and uncared for, and had never imagined having a son in his life. He was overcome with emotion. He was overjoyed to learn that Douglas had just married, and he was going to meet his daughter-in-law soon.

Young Mrs Brown caught sight of Pierre soon after the ship set sail. It was a most hated face that she could never forget. She had vowed to avenge her family's honour, but for years she had failed to track down this notorious criminal. She had never expected to run across Pierre on her honeymoon trip. Pierre did not recognise Mrs Brown, and had no idea he was now a big red target.

This voyage that our protagonists were on was not just any other voyage. It was a historical voyage meant to set a new world record for sailing across the Atlantic Ocean. To the captain, this was to be the pinnacle of his career. So he was much dismayed when an officer brought news to him that another ship, of a rival captain, was setting sail on the exact same day, and was planning to beat him to making the new world record. He was even more dismayed when his head of engineering came up to him to report a problem with the ship's engines. It was not something he could fix quickly, and he advised not to overstretch the engines this trip. The captain decided he was not going to be discouraged. He knew his ship and his crew, and he knew they were going to make history. He was not going to give up easily.

Mrs Brown overhead the conversation between the captain and the head of engineering, and decided this was an opportunity she must not let slip. She knew the moment the ship reached New York, the elusive Pierre would again disappear. If she could cause an engine failure and strand the ship in the middle of the ocean, Pierre would have nowhere to run, and she would be able to plot his demise.

The resourceful Mrs Brown managed to pull it off. An explosion shook the whole ship. Pierre thought this was the perfect opportunity. In the confusion after this loud explosion, he managed to trick Ron into grabbing a fake briefcase with a fake diamond, both of which Pierre had prepared beforehand. With Ron steadfastly guarding the fake briefcase and running around trying to hide from would-be robbers, Pierre had plenty of time to figure out where the real briefcase was in the cabin he shared with the old man. Or so he thought. Young Mrs Brown was much more effective than she herself had expected. The incident she triggered led to a major fire which was now threatening to sink the ship, as opposed to just causing a delay in holiday plans. Now she had even less time to figure out how to get Pierre. It was now or never, she thought, and threw all inhibitions aside. In the chaos of passengers rushing to the lifeboats, she found Pierre, and headed straight for him, armed with a sledgehammer. Pierre was alert and seasoned enough to know trouble when he saw it, and his instincts told him to RUN PIERRE RUN. Thus began a desperate hunt amidst the fire, smoke, screams and fleeing passengers.

Unbeknownst to Ron, he had been secretly tailed and protected by two British intelligence agents traveling as a holidaying couple. With all hell breaking loose, they now approached him and revealed their identities, and made sure he still had the diamond with him. A Royal Navy cruiser was in the area, and the agents called for support. You could say things were getting serious.

Mrs Brown did not manage to get to Pierre. In an untimely explosion, they were both flung into the sea, and she could no longer find him. Ron and Douglas managed to get to a lifeboat. Douglas had expected his wife to join him soon, and when she did not come, he jumped off to search for her. Ron's heart sank as he watched his son plunge into the burning wreck. Was he going to lose his newfound son and daughter-in-law?

Thankfully Douglas did manage to find his bride. However by the time they made their way back to the lifeboat, it had become so full that it threatened to topple over when the other survivors tried to pull them aboard. The survivors immediately starting looking for items to throw out to make space for the young couple. Ron still had the briefcase and diamond, clutched protectively against his chest. It was at that moment that he realised what he truly valued in life. The briefcase and the diamond were unceremoniously dumped, and sank to the bottom of the Atlantic, never to be seen again. The Brown family was reunited.

Of course, that was the fake briefcase and fake diamond. The real diamond was found and retrieved by the British agents with the help of the navy. On the other side of the sinking ship, away from the lifeboat the Brown family was on, Pierre was fished out of the water by the navy men on the cruiser. After many years of avoiding the authorities, he was finally captured. However he was no ordinary burglar. With his extensive network of criminals in high places, it was only a matter of time before he slipped away.

Young Mrs Brown failed to take revenge, and ended up in prison. The whole ship were witnesses to her murder attempt afterall. Douglas being the loyal husband visited her regularly, and awaited her release. Ron had almost failed his country and disappointed his old friend, but these no longer mattered that much now.

The Thoughts

This story that the four of us made up together was quite a wild ride. Crazy twists came out of nowhere, and we had to think on our feet to make everything jive. Some of the twists were provided by the game mechanism, some were our own ideas. We needed to harmonise all these story elements, to make sure the story still held, and we also wanted to make it a fun story. Fiasco is very different from the boardgames I normally play. It is an exercise of joint scriptwriting. The game rules and the scenario booklet provide a framework for us to employ our imagination. Normal boardgames don't provide such an experience.

We played for about two hours, and it was an immersive, engaging two hours. Everyone had to pay close attention to the stories told by everyone else, because when it comes to your turn, you have to make sure the story told from the perspective of your character merges well with the stories of all other characters. I was a little sticky about telling a plausible story, and didn't like plot lines that went too far. The story must make sense. Not that we can't have surprises or close-to-impossible events, but the whole thing has to be convincing. If anyone suggests too crazy an idea, I tend to try to steer the story back towards a more logical or reasonable path. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or bad. You are supposed to exercise your imagination in RPG's, but how do you strike a balance between that and telling a plausible story?

RPG players have an excellent command of English. I know my sample is small - just Darren and Kai - but that was one of the biggest impressions I had from my first foray into RPG's. There were some words that they used which I did not understand and had to ask what they meant. And I thought my English was good. They truly dove into the game and acted out their roles, like what actors and drama artists do. In boardgamer circles I rarely see this level of immersion. Boardgames are more about knowing and using the rules well and doing your utmost best to defeat your opponents. You are absorbed in the competition. You are a manipulator of the game system, standing apart from the game world, which you try to control to ultimately give you victory. In RPG's, you are part of the game world, and you mould and grow your game world as you play. You are building an experience, and not trying to defeat your fellow players. Fiasco was a refreshing experience for me.

It occurred to me that Fiasco would work fine in any language. You just need to translate the scenario booklet. It would be interesting to try this with my children. It may inspire them and ignite their creativity.

Darren and Kai shared with me that in most RPG's there is a Gamemaster (GM) who controls how the story goes. The Gamemaster sets the scenario and tells the players what they see and what happens to them. The players decide what they want to do and how they want to handle situations they face. Then the Gamemaster tells them the consequences of their choices. Often this involves some success-or-fail die roll, where the success rate depends on the skills of the characters involved. Many RPG's have very detailed rules on the skills of characters, how they can be upgraded, combat resolution and so on. Fiasco is unlike most other RPG's. It is light on rules, and its focus is the storytelling. Unburdened by rules, players have much freedom to do what they like. There is no GM, because everyone is a GM.

One of the genres in RPG's is the mystery genre, where the GM sets up a case for the other players to solve. I think the next time I try an RPG I'll go for this type.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

boardgaming in photos: play and work

It feels like it has been a long time since I have done a photos post like this. I checked the photos I have been accumulating. The oldest one was from almost two months ago. Most of my blog posts are about new games I play. Photos posts are for the non-new games I play. Not necessarily old games, just games that I have already written about before in my normal blog posts. Photos posts are one form of me sharing my personal journey.

28 Jan 2016. Playing Ticket To Ride with Eva and Teck Seng. Teck Seng wanted to try the game, so I brought it to the office. We all started in the north eastern corner, so it was quite tense. All of us needed to go to Montreal.

29 Jan 2016. Ruby and Benz. In January when a local newspaper interviewed me, they asked me to recommend some games that can be played with children. One of the games I recommended was Pandemic. After my colleagues read the article, they were keen to try it. So I brought it to the office. No, don't ask me whether we do work in the office. But yes, they loved the game.

4 Feb 2016. Han was in town before Chinese New Year, and we gathered at Allen's place to play some games. Samurai is one of Allen's favourite games, and he's very good at it. I had thought this time I would finally beat him, but he won yet again. This is an older version of Samurai. The latest version has different artwork and components. I have seen the photos but not a physical copy. I think I prefer the older version, especially the black pieces, which are classy. I wonder whether Allen will buy a copy of the latest version. He already has two copies of the older version, one copy for playing and the other for collection / backup / cultural heritage.

We were done with Honshu (main island) and were now fighting over Kyushu and Shikoku.

13 Feb 2016. During the Chinese New Year holidays I taught my mum Red7. The kids had played the game before.

My mum looked clueless, but when we played, she beat all of us. There's a Cantonese saying which is roughly equivalent to "wolf in sheep's clothing" - pretending to be a pig in order to devour the tiger.

21 Feb 2016. I held an open house during Chinese New Year and invited colleagues and friends over to play boardgames. Carcassonne was popular. Those who tried it liked it so much that later on when we ran out of tables to play on, they played on the floor.

Halli Galli attracted many spectators and got the contestants really pumped up, as you can see in this photo. Kit Loong (left) got so excited that he broke the plastic stool he was sitting on. Thankfully he was not injured.

Loopin' Louie worked well for young and old, the youngest being Kwe Long's 2-year-old son. My colleagues later asked me to bring this to the office.

Risk Express is one of Reiner Knizia's lesser known games. I had not played it for quite some time. I only thought about it when I was preparing for the open house, because it's a game suitable for people new to boardgames.

This was my homemade version of Ca$h N Gun$. My wife Michelle does not allow gun-like toys at home, so I did not make toy guns. Thus the finger guns.

Zombie Tower 3D. I just checked their Kickstarter page, and the next edition has been funded successfully. Congratulations!

26 Feb 2016. Edwin, Xiao Zhu, Eva. Some of my colleagues like cooperative games, so I recommended Samurai Spirit. I said this was very difficult to beat, much more so than Pandemic. They already struggled with Pandemic, and had asked me to play with them again to teach them the strategies. I told them that they needed to be very calculative and not waste any action or any opportunities for optimisation. I was rather OCD with the components - cards must be laid out with the right side up, and must be discarded with the right side up. I kept fixing their errors for them. They probably think I'm crazy.

I taught my colleagues Samurai Spirit at the normal difficulty level, and not the easy level. The designer recommended so. Only if you keep losing at normal level do you then step down to the easy level. As I played with my colleagues, I explained the various tactical considerations behind the actions they take. We played carefully and meticulously. Part of doing well in Samurai Spirit is remembering the cards you've seen. With more people playing, we had more brains to help remember stuff. We ended up winning without too much trouble. I was surprised. This was supposed to be a difficult game. Now it felt like I had exaggerated to them about how tough the game was. When was the promised challenge?!

I thought about whether it was the right thing to do when I explained to them the intricacies of decision making in Samurai Sword. I learned many of these from scratch when I explored the game myself. To me, this exploration and learning were part of the fun. By directly teaching them these lessons I had learnt, I was denying them the joy of discovering these tricks themselves. Ultimately, I think what I did was fine, because my colleagues were not hardcore boardgamers like me. They were casual players and they just wanted to play and have fun. They were not the type to think very deeply about game mechanisms. By guiding them, I helped them speed up their learning process so that they could play more effectively and be competitive.

They later played the game by themselves, and lost. I was happy. Not because they lost, but because the difficulty I had promised earlier had finally been delivered.

4 Mar 2016. Ruby, Benz, Edmond, Xiao Zhu, Edwin. Ruby said she was interested in games with a traitor mechanism, like Templar Intrigue which I had taught them before. So I taught them Saboteur. We played 2 rounds (normally a complete game has 3 rounds). The first round was very exciting. We had 7 players, but it felt like we had 5 saboteurs! Normally in a 7 player game there should be either 2 or 3 saboteurs. You won't know for sure till the round ends. We later realised that Benz had incorrectly identified his loyal card as a saboteur card; and Edmond had misunderstood what a good dwarf should be doing, and had been doing all the wrong things. When I explained the rules earlier, I jokingly said that it was easy to identify the saboteur card because the saboteur had an evil face (in addition to the card having the text "Saboteur"). Benz had drawn a loyal card, but he thought the loyal dwarf's face looked evil, so he thought he was a saboteur. I guess I should not have made my game teaching too colourful.

I was a saboteur in this round, and I was rather confused because it seemed I had too many accomplices. It was hilarious when we found out why. It was also very exciting because being saboteur was naturally nerve-wracking. You need to pretend to be good, yet you must find ways to undermine the team's effort. For the second round, we played correctly, but it turned out to be rather anti-climactic. There were only two saboteurs this time, and the loyal dwarves managed to dig a path all the way to the gold mine very quickly, ending the round. The saboteurs didn't have time to do much damage. No accusations flying around, no nasty cards played on one another. Victory for the loyal dwarves felt boring. It was crazy. Maybe the saboteurs should have been more proactive, or the loyal dwarves should have been more aggressive in competing to be the one to find the gold mine.

This was the early part of the first round, when everyone behaved like loyal dwarves, steadfastly digging the tunnel towards the three possible locations of the gold mine.

This was near the end of the round. If I remember correctly the real gold mine was the card at the top. I had seen it using a special ability card. I was a traitor, and I had lied that the gold mine was the bottom card. At a crucial moment, I played a tunnel card that prevented the loyal dwarves from advancing to the bottom card. Playing such a card meant announcing to the world that I was a saboteur, but I was fine with that because my intention was to mislead. I wanted to lure the loyal dwarves into wasting their cards by hindering me, by undoing the damage I had done, and by pushing towards the wrong goal.

6 Mar 2016. For elder daughter Shee Yun's 11th birthday, we organised a small party, getting her to invite some friends over to play, which of course included playing boardgames. Escape was a hit with the children. After lunch, they were so eager to play that they couldn't wait for the table to be cleared. They sat down on the floor to play.

Qwirkle works well with children. The rules are not complex, and it is language independent. There is some strategy too.

The result of this game surprised me. It was younger daughter Chen Rui (right) who won. She was the youngest among the children, since the other children were mostly her elder sister's classmates. Shee Yun and Chen Rui have played many boardgames with me, so they have an advantage over their friends. However I had expected Shee Yun to win because she had been leading throughout most of the game. Chen Rui had kept one important tile and waited for the best moment to play it. She did it just before the game ended, and scored big. That catapulted her to the front to win the game. I had not expected this from my innocent little precious princess. I had underestimated her.