Saturday, 26 May 2018

boardgaming in photos: Unlock! The Island of Doctor Goorse, Bonnie and Clyde, Catan Card Game

6 May 2018. Unlock! The Island of Doctor Goorse is the third Unlock! game I have played. This time it was a 4-player game. I asked my wife Michelle to join us this time because this particular game needs to be played in two teams. I didn't want to have solo teams, so we needed at least two players per team. I wanted a cooperative experience and not a solo puzzle solving exercise. Doctor Goorse was much harder than the previous two. The publisher rates it 3 of 3 on the difficulty scale. The other two games, which I found moderately easy, are 2's. I was surprised how tough this one turned out to be. This is a good thing. Challenging is good. We had to use hints many times because we got stuck.

This was our score. It took us more than two hours to finish this one hour game (first row, left side). We had to ask for hints 7 times (first row, right side). We revealed two incorrect cards and were penalised 6 minutes (second row). We entered wrong codes 7 times and were penalised 14 minutes (third row, right side). Our final rating was 0 stars (out of 5). If you are interested to try an Unlock! game, do NOT start here! Nevertheless, this was a fun experience, because of how difficult it was. The puzzles here are quite clever, I must say.

The story is that you have crash landed on an island belonging to a rich archaeologist. Your group is split into two during the crash landing. You need to reunite before trying to escape the island together. One team is the yellow team and uses the cards with yellow numbers and alphabets. The other is the green team. Teams may not discuss or share information, at least until they find each other.

Wed 9 May 2018 was an important day in Malaysia's history. It was election day, and this election was the first time we had a change in government since independence 61 years ago. I casted my vote early, and was home by 9am. I had the rest of the day as free time, since it was a public holiday. In the afternoon I played some games with younger daughter Chen Rui. This game here is Bonnie and Clyde, one of the games in the Mystery Rummy family. This was the first time Chen Rui play this. I hadn't played it for a long time, and needed to read the rules again.

All games in the Mystery Rummy series use a few basic gin rummy mechanisms. At the start of your turn, you always draw a card. At the end of your turn, you must discard a card. In between, you may play melds and layoffs. A meld is a set of 3 or more similar cards. After a meld has been played by anyone for a particular number, cards of that number can then be played as single or double cards. These are called layoffs. A game is played over several hands. For each hand, you play until one player plays all cards from his hand. You then score, reshuffle, and start the next hand. Once anyone reaches a certain total score, the game ends. Bonnie and Clyde refers to the famous criminal couple from the 1930's. This version of Mystery Rummy comes with a long game board consisting of 10 locations. During setup, 10 cards are placed face-down along the board. Two of them are Bonnie and Clyde. During the game, if you are able to find and catch them, they each give you 10pts.

This car is an important element in the game. It starts at the #1 location. When you play melds or layoffs, you get to move the car. To catch Bonnie or Clyde, the car needs to be located where they are, and you need to play a card matching that location number too. Throughout the game you will be manipulating the car to your advantage. In addition to helping you catch the criminals, when you play cards which match the car location, they score double points. These are the key elements in Bonnie and Clyde which differ from other games in the family.

The cards played horizontally are those which will score double. This is the convention used to indicate cards which are played when the car is at the matching locations. It is usually better to play melds and layoffs when the car position is right, but it's not always easy to do. Sometimes you hold on to cards waiting for the car to move to the right locations. Sometimes you can't risk the wait, lest your opponent suddenly plays all cards and ends the hand. Sometimes you play some cards without getting double points to move the car to the right location to allow you to play other cards to score double points. Finding Bonnie and Clyde is tricky. When you to play a meld or layoff, you get to peek at the face-down card at the location matching the meld or layoff. This helps you find them. However you need to match the car location to actually catch them.

This is the Catan Card Game. It is the first edition, which is quite old. The newer edition is called Rivals of Catan. Normally when a successful boardgame gets a card version treatment, the card game version is simpler. In the case of The Settlers of Catan, its card game version is more complex. Also, it is a 2-player-only affair. It has some elements where the equivalents are in the Cities and Knights expansion of the boardgame and not the base game.

Older daughter Shee Yun is usually not interested to play boardgames, and only younger daughter Chen Rui is more willing to humour me. So I looked for a 2-player game, and decided on this. According to my records, the previous time I played this was 10 years ago!

This is the starting setup. Those cards in the middle are the draw decks. The two players each have their own areas, called principalities. You start with two towns and a road connecting them, and six production terrains surrounding them. Your objective is to reach 12 victory points. Towns are 1VP each. If you upgrade a town to a city, it is then worth 2VP. Some buildings you can construct in your towns and cities are worth VP. If you are militarily or economically stronger than your opponent, you get to control the military token and the economic token respectively. These are worth 1VP each.

Your principality looks like this at the beginning. That road card in the centre contains useful reference information. On both of the town cards at the two ends of the road, you can see a flag icon at the bottom right. These icons are the victory points. As for the six terrain cards, pay attention to the upper edge only. The cards are oriented this way specifically to indicate there is one resource at each terrain card. Whenever a terrain card produces, you rotate it counter-clockwise, so that the upper edge will show one more resource. When you spend resources, you rotate the terrain card clockwise. A terrain card can store at most three resources. Once it has three, it is full and it can't produce more.

Catan Card Game is a development game. You collect resources, then spend them to build more things, which help you collect more resources, to build more others things, and eventually collect enough victory points to win. It feels good because you are progressing, you are collecting stuff, you have a purpose, you have a plan to execute. In this photo I had expanded my principality from the original two towns to two cities and two towns. I now had 10 terrain cards compared to the original 6. During the game I told Chen Rui there were only 5 new towns that could be built, and players needed to fight for them. Usually one would get three and the other would have only two. Naturally whoever had the third new town would enjoy an advantage. It meant two extra terrain cards and thus more production. I was surprised that Chen Rui managed to beat me to it. I was so close. Unfortunately, in other areas of development, she fell far behind. She had a few strong knight cards, which were expensive to play. Quite a few times when she had accumulated many resources, the brigand event was rolled and she lost all her ore and sheep. Those were major setbacks. I played some garrison cards to protect my resources and I rarely fell victim to the brigands. As I developed more, my progress only accelerated compared to hers, and I eventually won with a big margin.

The two square wooden blocks are the tokens for military dominance and economic dominance respectively. I controlled both of them.

Despite being a card game, the luck of the draw in Catan Card Game is low. There are five draw decks in the game. When you need to draw a card, you may spend two resources to look through one entire deck to pick the one card you want. When you do this, it means you get to see every card in the deck. You will know whether there are other cards that suit your strategy which you will want to cherry-pick again later.

Playing this again after ten years felt great. It has a same enjoyable tempo like The Settlers of Catan. Every turn dice are rolled, and both players get to produce stuff, not just the active player. You keep producing until you have enough resources to build something. I have the expansion to this game, which contains 5 modules. If Chen Rui is still interested to play, there is plenty more we can explore.

Saturday, 19 May 2018

The Lepak Game

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

The Lepak Game is a Malaysianised Cards Against Humanity. I haven't played Cards Against Humanity, but it seems to be at least a little NSFW-ish inappropriate. The Lepak Game is probably less so. The game mechanism is based on Apples to Apples, just like Cards Against Humanity is.

Every round one person plays judge and issues a question. The rest compete to submit the best answer and thus score 1 point. The judge draws two cards from the question deck and picks one to play. Each contestant has a hand of eight answer cards, and must choose one to submit. Once everyone has chosen an answer card, the submissions are revealed simultaneously. The judge picks one which he thinks is best. This can be based on how well the answer matches the question. Or it can be because it's the funniest. Or it can be because the contestant has given a most convincing justification for why his card is the best. The winner becomes the judge for the next round. The game ends when one player achieves a certain score.

The answer cards are usually general statements or descriptions. The answer cards are all sorts of things related to Malaysia - foods, persons, events, brands, traditions. You need to be quite familiar with the Malaysian culture and recent events to fully appreciate the humour. The game wouldn't quite fly otherwise.

The game components: just cards. Lots of cards. Yellow backed cards are the questions, and blue backed cards the answers.

These are two questions (light grey) and their winning answers (white) in the game I played. Referring to the set on the left, it is indeed true that some Malaysians address strangers, customers, friends, colleagues or simply acquaintances whose names you've forgotten as "boss". As for the set on the right, Bersih (which is Malay for "clean") is an organisation which fights for free and fair elections, and has organised quite a few large rallies. In the round when the Bersih rally was proposed as an answer, everyone knew it was going to win. None of the other answers even came close. This wasn't a funny answer, but it was satisfying to have such an appropriate answer turn up.

The Play

The Lepak Game is more a party activity than a game in the traditional sense. It does have rules and scoring and a clear winning condition, but the winning or losing isn't all that important. The criteria for the judge to pick a winning answer are rather loose. The fun is in the answers picked by the contestants and how they try to talk their way into convincing the judge. The whole thing should not be taken too seriously. The game mechanism is there to trigger conversation and jokes. Scoring points and winning just give you an excuse to have such silly conversations.

The Thoughts

The Lepak Game is a party game. It's meant to be rowdy and it creates discussion topics. It's easy for non gamers to get into. How much fun it is depends on the group you are playing with. You want people who have a sense of humour, who are creative. It may help you discover some dark sense of humour you never knew existed in some of your friends.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

boardgaming in photos: Unlock - Squeak & Sausage, Settlers of Catan

8 Apr 2018. I played Unlock! Squeak & Sausage with the children. This was the second Unlock! series game for us. However we did not play together for our first times. I had previously played Unlock! The Formula with Allen. Shee Yun and Chen Rui played it in a separate session. They struggled with it, Chen Rui giving up halfway, and Shee Yun managing to solve the game well after the one hour mark. With Squeak & Sausage, we were much more successful. In fact it felt a little easy, more so than The Formula. The publisher rates these two games at the same difficulty level - Level 2 (of 3).

Chen Rui (11) is the youngest, but contributed much in this game. She suggested a number of wild ideas for solving certain puzzles which Shee Yun and I were doubtful about. However when we eventually agreed to try her way, it turned out to be the right way. Lesson learnt - in a cooperative endeavor, never belittle the young ones, and always respect and listen to teammates who want to speak up.

There was one particular puzzle which was the same as another we had seen in one of the Exit games. We immediately figured out how to solve it. That was a little anticlimactic.

Having played quite a few of these escape room games now, I conclude that they are just okay for me. I'm happy to play but I don't actively seek them out. They are more puzzles to solve than boardgames.

This is how we fared - 5 stars! We escaped within 45 minutes, well below the one hour mark. We didn't need to use a single hint (first row, light bulb icon on the right). We were penalised twice for flipping over the wrong cards, losing 6 minutes because of that (2nd row). We made one mistake when entering codes and lost 2 minutes because of that (3rd row, right side). So in actual fact we only spent 37 minutes to solve this game.

On Labour Day (1 May 2018) I organised a boardgame gathering, inviting colleagues to play. I hadn't organised sessions like these for a long time. I usually join sessions organised by others, especially at Boardgamecafe.net. We had 7 players in total, so it was a good opportunity to play 7 Wonders with the full complement. For this gathering I had intended to play some medium weight games. Some of these friends had come to play before, and previously I tended to pick light games, since many were new to boardgames. I thought I should increase the complexity level a little now. However we still had some new players this time. Not every new player has the same tolerance level towards game complexity. So we split into two tables after the first few 7-player games, so that we could cater to different complexity preferences.

This was my nation in 7 Wonders. I'm normally not keen on military, but this time seeing my neighbours CK and Wei Keat completely ignoring military, I decided to invest a little in building an army. One thing lead to another, and eventually I scored 18pts in total for being militarily stronger than both of them throughout the three ages. CK did later try to catch up in military strength, but he never actually managed to. Zee Zun sitting on his other side also spent on military, and there was some competition between the two of them. CK still net lost 1pt, so his effort spent on military might have been better spent on something else.

Many of us were keen on resource buildings. It seems everyone had ample production. That's not necessarily good, because it is wasteful if you don't really need that kind of capacity. Not many people invested in science. There were few green cards on the table. I did later divert some effort into science, and managed to collect a complete set of three science icons. Not much, but it's something. CK's wonder gave a science icon, and had he gone for a science strategy that could have helped tremendously. However he didn't go into science from the start, and by the time he considered it, it was a little too late. The Return On Investment was not quite there.

In this photo above, completing the second stage of my wonder allowed me to construct a building for free once per age. The card tucked under the stage 2 position was taken out to cover the stage 2 icon so that I could remind myself that I had used this power for the current age.

I played Through the Desert with Kah Wooi and CK. We had an awkward situation in our game. On the right side of this photo, you can see that all three of our yellow caravans were near one another. Caravans of the same colour may not touch one another, so our caravan placement created dead space in between these caravans. That value 3 water hole right between my caravan (green rider, yellow camel) and Kah Wooi's (blue rider, yellow camel) couldn't be claimed by either of our caravans. We couldn't play a yellow camel there. That water hole could only be claimed using a camel of a different colour.

The gist of Through the Desert is the angst in choosing where to score and where to concede. You only have two actions per turn, but there are many ways to score points. When you decide to grow in one area, you are letting others get ahead of you in other areas. You need to be prepared to lose out in other areas. In addition to choosing among multiple areas you can score points, often you need to choose between scoring points for yourself and denying an opponent. When an opponent has a lucrative opportunity, you are often forced to spend actions to deny him, or at least reduce his gains. If you don't, he may become a runaway leader. In our game, this happened a few times. When one player had the opportunity to enclose an area, and others must work towards stopping him, or at least minimizing the size of the area he could capture. Our final scores were only 5pts apart. I won only because I managed to enclose one decent area. Had CK not tried to stop me, I would have scored many more points.

The hit of the day was The Settlers of Catan. Zee Zun, Kah Wooi, Chui and CK played this. Wei Keat had played it before many times, and wanted to play something else, but he did help with explaining the game to the others who were playing for the first time. When we were in between games and deciding what to play next, I asked whether they wanted to play something of the same complexity or something more challenging. At the time the group just finished China. They felt China was light, and wanted something heavier. So I picked The Settlers of Catan, which I considered a medium weight strategy game. It was a good pick. Right after they finished it, they immediately wanted to go again. This reminds of me how amazing The Settlers of Catan can be.

Fun and laughter.

I had hoped to play The Princes of Florence (bottom left). This was a game I bought and played in my early days in the boardgaming hobby, so there is some nostalgia here. Too bad we didn't get to play this. Maybe next time.

My version of The Settlers of Catan is a very old one. It's a Chinese version published by a Japanese company - Capcom. Unlike the normal English version where the board is made up of individual hex tiles, this version uses four large board pieces. The island is in two pieces, one for the inland part consisting of 7 hexes, the other is a circular piece for the shoreline. The sea is in two pieces, both C-shaped. All pieces are double sided so there are many ways you can fit them together to create different boards, but there certainly are not as many combinations as using individual hex tiles. One drawback of this version is it has no expansions. If I want to play with expansions, I'll need to get the English version.

These are all the games played at our Labour Day meetup. Among the games I played was FITS. The experience this time was rather unexpected. We were rather unlucky. The order the shapes came up made it very difficult for us to fill rows. The game was very challenging and we often got negative points. We were only playing with the basic four player boards, and none of the expansions. This was a pleasant surprise for me.

When I taught the group Sticheln, I found that the tactics in this game can be quite difficult for new players to grasp. Despite being a card game with just numbers and colours, picking a card to play can be very tricky. There are many tactical considerations. The thought process can be complex. Many times during our game we had to remind and explain to a player that the move he just made could be disastrous, and we offered to let him take back his card play. Sticheln is great fun, especially when a careless player gets screwed over by the whole table. It is a game in which you gain points conservatively and you need to be on constant alert for major screwages which can immediately put you out of contention.

Saturday, 5 May 2018

Diner

Plays: 3Px3.

When Allen did some spring cleaning on his game collection recently, he gave me a bunch of card games from Dice Hate Me Games, which he had bought through Kickstarter. I have not heard of most of them, and randomly picked one to play with the children one recent weekend.

The Game

Diner is a real-time card game. You are waiters at a diner and you serve food to your customers. Whenever you finish serving all the food ordered by a table of customers, you score points. However if there are customers you fail to serve when the game ends, you lose points.

This above is how a game is set up. The cards are double sided. One side shows a meal, and the other side a table. The table side shows 2 - 4 meals, representing what that table of customers are ordering. There is also a tip amount at the centre. This is the score value. The first row of three stacks at the centre are the draw decks. They show the meal side. The second row with three cards are the customers waiting to be seated. Below these two rows is a discard pile.

At the start of the game, each player gets 1 or 2 round action tokens. Whenever you perform an action in the game, you must give a token to the player on your left. If you don't have a token, you can't do anything. You need to wait for the player on your right to pass you a token after he performs an action. There is no concept of taking turns. It's all done in real-time.

One action you can take is to simply claim a meal card from the top of one of the three draw decks. There is no hand limit. You can collect as many meal cards as you want, just that each costs an action token. Another action you can take is to claim a table card from the second row. You place that table in front of you. This means you have seated a party of customers, and you will be responsible for serving them. Nobody else can touch your customers. Now that you have meals cards and customer cards, you can serve your customers. When you have the right combination of meals in hand to fully serve a table of customers, you may discard these meals, and then score that table. The table card is set aside for scoring at game end. Claiming meal cards, claiming table cards (customers), and then serving customers form a complete process flow. However there is a fourth action you can take. You may spend an action token to discard a table card. Sometimes you want to do this because you don't like any of the three table cards available. Whenever a table card is discarded (or claimed), you replenish by taking a meal card from the corresponding draw deck and then flipping it over to the table side. Sometimes you want to discard a table card because it is too good but you don't want to take it yourself, and you want to deny your fellow waiters. So you tell the customers the restaurant is full and there will be a 45-minute wait, so sorry sir.

In the photo above I only have one table of customers to serve. If I manage to serve them, I will earn $8 in tips.

Meals have different rarities and values. Pancakes and eggs are cheap, steaks are expensive. Tables which ask for steak will tip more. Often you want to claim these high tip value tables, even though it may be harder to collect the meal cards to fulfill them. Some meal cards are jokers. These are normally snapped up quickly.

When two meal card decks run out, you take a short mid-game break. You shuffle the remaining deck together with the discard pile, then create three new meal card decks for the second half of the game. The next time two meal card decks run out, the game ends. You score points for tables fully served, and lose points for any tables still waiting for their meals.

We used an optional rule when we played. If all action tokens get stuck with a single player, which means he has been particularly slow in taking actions, the player to his left may take one of his action tokens. This optional rule helps keep the game going, and also creates some tension. No one wants to be the slow poke.

The Play

Playing Diner is a hectic affair. I'm always watching out for table cards I want and meal cards I need. I don't have time to pay attention to what others are doing, what they want, what they need etc. Maybe I'm still new, and if I play more, I may be able to watch my opponents better. Even without watching them closely, there is enough competition and tension. Normally everyone wants the higher valued tables and meals. Certainly everyone wants those jokers. You don't need to analyse your opponents' play areas to know they want a joker. Even if they don't need it, they'd take it to deny others.

When you already have a few tables before you, you need to be more careful when claiming cards. Claiming too many tables is risky. You don't want to get penalised at game end for not serving all your customers. Also you want to avoid wasting actions claiming meal cards you won't get to use, even if they are expensive meals.

I found that the children were able to play competitively. I had no advantage over them at all. My much richer experience in boardgames did not give me any edge. There is not a lot of strategy in this game. It is all about being watchful and being quick. A game lasts around 10 minutes. Maybe less. After we finished a game, I suggested trying another card game. As I started explaining the rules of the next game, the children became impatient and said why not just play Diner again. So we did. We eventually played three games, and each of us won once.

The Thoughts

To veteran boardgamers, Diner is nothing to write home about. If I were to read a blog post about it, I wouldn't buy it. Now that I have played it, I don't see myself itching to play again. However I can imagine situations where I would suggest it. Diner will work well as a party game. It is easy to teach, and new players can be competitive quickly. It is suitable for casual gamers and non gamers. They will feel they can achieve mastery easily, and that's a positive experience. It's a gateway game - it looks simple and unintimidating. The real-time nature makes it automatically engaging. It's a good travel game too - compact and simple.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Rising Sun

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Rising Sun is brought to you by the same team as Blood Rage. The designer is Eric Lang. It is a Euro-style conflict game with low granularity. The first similarity between these two games you will notice is how amazing the sculptures are:

The backdrop is a mythical Japan, with gods and monsters. You are great clans competing for supremacy. You play through three seasons, scoring victory points by winning battles and various other means. Whoever scores the highest after three seasons wins the game.

There are only 8 provinces on the map. The structure of the game is 3 seasons, each consisting of 7 rounds - only 21 rounds in total. Every round an active player draws 4 action tiles, picks one to execute and return the rest to the deck. Every player gets to perform the selected action, and the active player and his ally also gain a small bonus. This is a little like Puerto Rico. The active player, having seen those three tiles returned to the deck, knows 3 of the 4 options the next player will have, and can strategise accordingly. The actions you get to execute are mainly for positioning your fighters for the battles which will occur at the end of a season. Actions include raising troops, moving troops, levying taxes and triggering betrayals. The number of battles to be fought at the end of a season depends on the number of players. The provinces to be fought over are randomly determined before a season starts, so you can plan where to fight. The winner of each battle gains a war province token, which is worth points. At game end, you also score points based on how many tokens of different provinces you own. This means you are encouraged to fight in different provinces and not turtle in one or two.

The large tiles in the first row are the gods. When the raise troops action is being performed, you may train monks and assign them to pray to these gods. At 3 junctures during a season, after the 3rd, 5th and 7th rounds, god powers are triggered. For each god, only the clan with the most monks get to use the god power. God powers include moving troops, gaining mercenaries and gaining honour. Honour is the tiebreaker for all situations.

The second row is the procedures of a full season. The large boxes are for placing action tiles. Two tiles have been placed, which means two rounds have been played. That character after the 3rd, 5th and 7th rounds is the character for "god". That's when god powers are triggered. The red bordered box at the end means war time. The yin-yang icon at the start means alliances. At the start of a season there is a free negotiation session for forming alliances. An alliance must have exactly two members. The main benefit of alliances is you get to enjoy the bonus too when it is your ally's turn to pick an action. During battle, allies don't merge their armies. Only one clan can win a province. In the photo above, Allen (blue) and I (green) have formed an alliance. You can see on the far right that our alliance tokens form a complete yin-yang circle. With only three players, Han (red) is left without any ally.

Player unit sculptures are unique for each clan. I play the green clan. The leftmost is my monk. The middle two are both soldiers. Different sculptures but same function. The rightmost is my castle. One unique ability of the green clan is castles may move, thus those giant turtles. This is the mythical feudal era version of Howl's Moving Castle.

This is the player screen. It lists the unique abilities of your clan and also show your starting province. That table at the bottom right shows how many victory points you score depending how many different provinces you collected war province tokens for. Below this screen are the coins used in the game, which are beautiful.

One of the actions in the game lets you buy special abilities cards like these, which augment your clan. Some give you monsters, and the monsters all have unique abilities. Some give you money. These two give an extra soldier whenever you raise troops. I had two of these, which meant getting two extra soldiers every time the raise troops action was taken. I was going for quantity.

This reference card is double-sided. This side shows the procedures of a battle. Before a battle starts, participants bid any numbers of coins on the four big boxes here. If you win a bid, you get to use the ability written in the box. The first step is seppuku (ritual suicide). You ask your fighters to kill themselves even before battle starts, and earn 1 victory point and 1 honour per suicide. If you don't think you will win anyway, this is actually not as stupid an idea as it sounds. The second step is taking one hostage and stealing one victory point from an opponent. This doesn't sound like much, but sometimes the difference of one unit can change the outcome of a battle. The third step is winning the rights to deploy mercenaries. Mercenaries can completely change the course of a battle, but of course you need to have recruited some in the first place. The fourth step is the battle itself, which is a simple comparison of numbers. Losers all die, winners all live. The final step is earning 1 victory point per fighter killed in battle. Despite the battle step itself being simple, bidding for and winning the rights to the other four steps can greatly affect the outcome of the battle and how many victory points you earn.

The token at the bottom left is a mercenary token. These are ronin, or masterless samurai. The token at the bottom right is a war province token. This is from the first season, the spring season, and is worth 1 victory point.

Overall you can think of Rising Sun as a victory point scoring game. The story unfolds through the manoeuvring in the 7 rounds of each season, culminating in the end-of-season battles. Winning these battles and claiming war province tokens are a big part of scoring, but there are many other ways to score points too. During the battle themselves you can score points. In the normal rounds it is also possible to score points when you levy taxes.

The Play

I did a 3-player game with Allen and Han, and we were all new to the game.

This was early in the game, and our forces were still mostly in our starting provinces. My green clan started in the Kyoto province at the centre of Honshu. Han's red clan started in the Edo province, to my east. Allen's blue clan started in the Hokkaido province in the far north. Han was first to go. Since there were only 7 actions per season, as first player he would be picking 3 actions this season, while Allen and I would only be picking 2 each. Han opened the offer for alliance, pointing out that his ally would enjoy more bonuses. However this only made Allen and I more wary, and we ended up allying with each other, agreeing to join forces to subdue Han.

As the spring season came to a close, things didn't look good for Allen and I. So much for ganging up on Han. Han's forces (red) had spread out to many provinces. One thing that he used effectively was the Betrayal action. He could convert an opponent's unit to his own. Later during the game, Han's clan unique ability also proved very powerful. For his clan, money and mercenaries were interchangeable. He had a strong economy, and could easily win the bid for deploying mercenaries. He would then spend more money as mercenaries, allowing him to win the battle. Money talks! Han had an amazing spring season, winning many provinces and sprinting far ahead of Allen and I.

In the summer season, it was even more important for Allen and I to work together. We became allies again. Han was too strong! Most war provinces in the second season overlapped with those in the first, so there was less incentive for Han to win them. It was more important for him to deny us than to win those provinces for himself. In summer, Allen (blue) and I (green) were better able to march our forces to other provinces.

Each province has a hexagon next to it. The symbols in the hexagon are what you gain when you levy taxes. When the levy tax action is chosen, the clan which has the strongest presence in a province levies taxes. So positioning your troops is not only for the end-of-season battles. Levying taxes during the normal rounds can be very lucrative. E.g. for the Kyoto province (green), you earn 4 victory points when you levy taxes.

The black-and-white lines are shipping routes which connect provinces. Province interconnectivity is high. You can move from any province to any other province within 3 steps.

This was autumn, the third and last season. Han (red) was still far ahead. Allen's (blue) and my (green) alliance was not effective in reining him in at all. Come autumn, Allen decided to abandon me, and took up Han's alliance offer. At the time my score on the score track was near Han's, but Allen's was still near zero. Reaching out to Allen was the best move for Han, because he wanted to make sure the second place (me) would not threaten him. Allen knew it was impossible to win, so he changed his goal - he just wanted to not come last. I did look like I wasn't doing too poorly, but it was an illusion. The points for collecting different war province tokens were not calculated yet, and I was far behind Han in this.

The war provinces in autumn turned out to be completely overlapping those in spring and summer. For Han, who had already collected all possible colours, it was less about collecting more, and more about preventing us from collecting more. In this photo you can easily tell which provinces would have battles. We completely ignored the other provinces.

This was the fifth and last battle for the autumn season. I (green) did have many fighters, but this was no guarantee for victory. Han had a presence, and being flush with cash, he might still win the bid for mercenaries and then deploy enough mercenaries to win. Despite the actual fighting being a simple comparison of numbers, the bidding mechanism often makes the battle outcomes uncertain and exciting. A correct reading of your opponent's intentions can turn a seemingly hopeless situation into a victory.

In the end, I fell from second place to last. Han secured his victory without breaking a sweat. Allen made great advances in autumn and overtook me comfortably. Both of us were still far far behind Han.

The Thoughts

Rising Sun has lavish production and is a very Euro-style multiplayer conflict game. It has low granularity. It has high player interaction. Your end goal is to score points, so you should not fight for the sake of fighting. It's not a hot-blooded battle game. It's more the cold, calculative, bean-counting type. Many mechanisms are deterministic. Much information is open - the gods available, the special ability cards available, where battles will occur. It's all laid out and you can strategise and plan accordingly. It actually feels a little like chess. Everyone has the same information. It is the secret bidding which throws a wrench in the works. This is where you become psychological. There's some double guessing and risk assessment. There is some luck in whether you guess your opponent's intentions right. The order of action tiles coming up is also a random factor and a luck factor. That is somewhat mitigated since you do have 4 options.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Kingdomino

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Kingdomino is the 2017 Spiel des Jahres winner, designed by Bruno Cathala (Abyss, Cyclades, Five Tribes, Mr Jack). It's a family game and a light strategy game. You build your own little kingdom using domino-like tiles. These are rectangular tiles consisting of two squares. Each square has a terrain type, and possibly one or more crowns. You have an imaginary 5x5 grid in which to build your kingdom. Every round you add a tile to your kingdom. Once the tiles run out, you score your kingdom, and whoever has the highest score wins.

Everyone starts his kingdom with a 1x1 castle. You grow your kingdom outwards from here. Whenever you add a tile to your kingdom, at least one square must touch an existing square of the same terrain type, just like playing dominoes. E.g. a wheatfield square on the new tile matches up with an existing wheatfield. If you are unable to match either square of the new tile with an existing square, you will be forced to discard the new tile. The only exception in terrain matching is the castle. Any terrain matches the castle.

You may choose not to place a tile even if it there is a legal placement. Sometimes this can be beneficial, but this is rare. Discarding a tile is usually involuntary.

You score points for each connected group of terrain squares. The value of a terrain group is the size of the group multiplied by the number of crowns on it. In the photo above, the large wheatfield group is worth 6VP. Size of 6 x 1 crown = 6VP. There are two tiny minefield groups, and currently one is worth 1VP (because of the 1 crown), the other is worth nothing. If these two minefield groups can later be linked up, they will be worth more. You want to build big terrain groups, and you want to have as many crowns as possible in them, especially the bigger groups.

One important restriction is the build area of 5x5. You must never exceed 5 rows or 5 columns. You may expand out from your castle in any direction. The castle need not be fixed as the centre of your kingdom. However if you are able to make it the centre, you earn a 10VP bonus at game end. Also if you manage to place all 12 tiles claimed during the game, making a complete 5x5 kingdom with no holes, you score a 5VP bonus.

How you claim tiles is the interesting part of the game. At the start of the game, you draw a number of tiles equal to the number of players. Every tile has a number on its back, which is indicative of its value. Terrains have different rarities and different numbers of crowns, so in general some are more valuable than others. The tiles are arranged in order of their numbers. Players then take turn claiming one each by placing their pawns. If you claim the lowest numbered tile (which is roughly the least valuable tile), you will have first pick next round. If you claim the highest numbered tile, you will pick last next round. That means you'll take whatever others leave behind. This mechanism of picking both the tile and the turn order for next round is the key element in Kingdomino.

You are constantly assessing the values of the tiles both to yourself and to your opponents. You need to watch their kingdoms to know what they want. Decision-making is based not only on what you want, but also on how desperately you need to deny your opponents. The value of a tile is certainly not simply based on its number. It is much more dependent on the board situation at each kingdom.

In the photo above, the column on the right are the tiles being claimed in the current round. One of them has been taken and the player is now adding it to his kingdom, so the tile is gone. After placing the tile, this active player will pick a tile from the left column to be claimed in the next round.

The game is played over 12 rounds only. Some tiles are randomly removed during setup depending on the number of players, so once the draw pile is exhausted, everyone will have claimed 12 tiles, and the game ends.

The Play

Kingdomino plays very quickly. It's a family game, but it almost feels more like a children's game. The rules and mechanisms are simple, but there is some strategy. You do need to think ahead a little how to build your perfect little kingdom. There's the invisible 5x5 boundary you need to consider. You need to keep your options open for future rounds. The bonuses for having a perfectly centred castle and for having a complete 5x5 kingdom are not easy to achieve. Both require forward planning. I may be making this sound complicated and thinky, but in practice, everything is clean and clear, and the game progresses briskly.

Building your own kingdom is solitaire play. The player interaction is in drafting tiles and fighting for turn order. There is no aggressive player interaction, only the passive aggressive type where you claim a tile which your opponent would have wanted.

The game feels like a puzzle - how do you build your kingdom and maximise your score? How do you try to fit everything in to fulfill all the scoring criteria?

The Thoughts

Kingdomino reminds me of Santiago, because the connected area scoring is similar. Santiago is a mid-weight strategy game. Kingdomino is much lighter. It is brisk and pleasant, and can be done in 20 minutes. Ivan said he is able to play with his young daughter. The only bit she needs some help with is the multiplication. Normally I am less interested in short games because they tend to be less satisfying. In the case of Kingdomino the challenge in building that perfect little kingdom is enticing me to play again.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Quest for El Dorado

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Reiner Knizia doing a deck-building game! This game caught my attention well before it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (it didn't win eventually). This is a race game in which you use your deck of cards to advance your pawn on the race track. The race track is customisable. You can use the recommended setups or make your own. Everyone has the same starting deck of cards, and a hand size of four. During the game you improve your deck, adding and also possibly removing cards, hoping to speed you up towards your destination. Whoever reaches El Dorado first wins.

The map consists of hex spaces. Each hex indicates the resources required for your pawn to enter. Yellow hexes require coins, green hexes require machetes, blue hexes require paddles. They represent villages, jungles and rivers. When you play a card, you expend the resources on it to move your pawn onto a new hex, or along a few hexes requiring that resource type. Mountains are impassable. Grey hexes require discarding cards.

This is one of the setups recommended by the rulebook. The starting line is at the bottom right. El Dorado is at the other end.

You start a turn with a hand size of four. You may play cards to move your pawn. Then you may play cards to buy one new card (which is put into your personal discard pile). Eventually you draw back up to four cards. You may discard unwanted cards before refilling your hand. If a card you play has more than one resource, you may use it to move your pawn multiple hexes, as long as the number of resources is sufficient to pay for every hex. However if a particular hex requires multiple resources, you are not allowed to pool together a few cards to move your pawn onto that hex. You need a single card with at least that many resources. If you don't have that, you need to take another route.

When buying a card, coin cards count according to their card values. Other cards can be used, but they only count as half a coin each. In the worst case, if you don't have any coin cards, your four cards can still add up to 2 coins.

The strip at the top left is the card market. Normally you may only buy cards here. The game starts with a predetermined set of 6 types of cards. There are only three cards per type. Once all three are bought, a space is opened up. At that point, you are allowed to buy any card outside of the market. If you do so, you will be buying the first of three cards. You move the other two into the market, thus filling in the blank. The market is now full again, and the restriction of buying only from the market applies again.

The price of a card is written at the bottom. Green, blue and yellow cards have machetes, paddles and coins respectively. White cards are jokers. Purple cards give special abilities. Some cards can only be used once, after which they are permanently removed from the game.

This is a deck-building game, and most of the standard rules apply. When you buy a new card, it goes to your discard pile. You reshuffle your cards only when your draw deck is exhausted. That means a new card will only come into play after the next reshuffle. You can thin your deck. The remove action removes a card from play, i.e. the card is set aside and not put in your discard pile. The next time you reshuffle, it won't come back. Removing weak cards makes your deck more efficient.

The start cards are all value 1 cards.

I'm rich, rich, rich! This hand looks good, but may not be all that great. Yes, I can afford expensive cards, but I may only buy one per turn anyway, so this is overkill. Most of the time, on your turn you try to make use of every card, be it to move or to buy a card, because you always draw back up to four anyway.

Some mountain hexes have caves. This is a variant, which we used in our game. When you approach a cave hex, you gain a random single-use special ability token. Their powers vary, and they can be quite handy. They give good flexibility because you can keep them till the ideal moment to use them. They are fun because everybody likes lucky draws.

So, on your turn you may move, and you may buy one new card. While you race towards El Dorado, you are tuning your deck to be able to race more effectively. Your deck is your tool. Your goal is to be first to cross the finish line. Positioning on the board is important, because blocking applies. You may not enter an occupied hex, and you may not pass through such a hex either. Trailing behind others is usually bad because they'll all be in your way. Blocking is something you need to defend yourself from, and you need to use it against your opponents too.

The Play

Ivan taught Allen and I to play. I have a bad habit when playing deck-building games. When I play Star Realms, I often enjoying building that perfect deck, that I lose sight of my true objective. I like to buy red cards which let me trim away the weak starting cards. I like to focus on buying cards of just one or two colours, so that there will be more synergies. In themselves, these actions are fine and they are valid tactics. My problem is I lose sight of the goal of killing my opponent. I don't get enough combat strength quickly enough to defeat my opponent. What use is my perfect deck when I'm close to being exterminated? When playing The Quest for El Dorado, I made the same mistake. Up front I decided I was going to focus on coin cards, which would help me buy more cards. There was a good variety of cards in the game, and many looked awfully powerful. I enjoyed collecting them and making use of them. I did have some "Ladies and gentlemen... " moments, when I made fantastic moves. However, I was too lax in pushing my pawn on the board. Ivan was the leading player throughout most of the race, and I was trailing most of the time. I kept thinking once I made my perfect deck, I would pull a come-from-behind victory. I did have the strongest buying power. I bought many coin cards. I was rich rich rich! Unfortunately rich rich rich did not automatically mean win win win. What was more important was being efficient in achieving the goal. Spending too much time on deck-building was actually bad, especially since I did it at the expense of not paying enough attention to the board.

Another lesson I learned was the need to plan ahead very specifically. There was one particular stretch of river on the board which I had underestimated and did not plan for. It was four consecutive spaces of water which was part of the shortest path to El Dorado. Each space needed just one paddle, but paddle cards were rarer, and that made a stretch of four a challenge. I didn't want to buy many paddle cards, and decided I'd just take a longer path, expecting my strong deck to help me to advance quickly enough. Both Ivan and Allen strategised to make use of this stretch. They were able to cross the whole stretch within one turn, by playing a value-4 joker card. This is the kind of efficiency we are talking about!

I also learned the importance of blocking. The leading player commanded a big advantage, because he would normally be trying to take the easiest path, and that meant he would be blocking the next players from also taking that easiest path.

There are things you can strategise, but at the same time the game is very tactical. What you can do depends on what you draw. There's a tension of whether you'll be drawing the right cards at the right time. There's the fun puzzle of how to make the most of your hand of cards, given your current position on the board. A turn is usually fast, because you can only do what your cards allow you to do. You can temporarily forget about everything else.

El Dorado is at the upper left. Now the three pawns are about to enter the board section in the middle. If you trace the shortest path to El Dorado, you can see a hex in the middle requiring 4 coins. This can be a pivotal point. There aren't many cards with 4 coins or cards that allow you to enter such a space. If you have such a card, and also happen to have it in hand when you approach this hex, you will be able to take the shortest path. Otherwise you will be forced to take a detour, costing you precious turns.

As we played, the card pool dwindled to a point which surprised me. Many card types were exhausted. I wonder whether it was because we (especially me) had been buying aggressively. If it were a full four-player game, there would be even fewer cards left.

The Thoughts

I was not disappointed. The Quest for El Dorado is a quality design. You need to strike a balance between equipping yourself for the race, and running the race itself. There is a lot you can think about and strategise about, yet on your turn the things you can do are often simple and few. You can only do what your hand of cards and your position on the board allow you to do. You can plan ahead, and try to position yourself better for future turns, but what you get to execute now is usually straightforward. The most difficult decision is probably when you get the option to buy any card on the table. Hopefully before you get to that point you have been paying attention and thinking about how you are crafting your deck. You should already have a general idea what your game plan is.

This is a game of flexible depth. You can play it simple mindedly; you can choose to put in a lot of thought. Naturally if you do the latter, your chances of winning are better. Either way you play, the game is enjoyable. It might be a problem though if some players play at one extreme and some at the other. One side would be accused of being brainless, and the other side slow.

I like how the game gives me much freedom to customise my deck. Throughout the game I am always occupied, with many strategic considerations I can delve into. I think about the board situation, the cards in the market, how I am going to adjust my deck, and the strategies my opponents are using. Many of these factors are constantly changing, and I always need to adapt, and do the best with what I draw. Puzzling out what best to do with your hand is satisfying.