Saturday, 29 August 2015

Viticulture and Tuscany expansion

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Viticulture, the well-received debut game from Stonemeier Games, was funded through Kickstarter, and so was the Tuscany expansion. I played Viticulture for the first time recently, with 5 of the expansion modules from Tuscany. I have never played vanilla Viticulture before, so I can't make any comparison. The version I played is probably more a revamped Viticulture than base Viticulture plus some additional rules, because even the board has changed.

Viticulture is about wine-making. You inherit a derelict winery from mum and dad. You need to revive the old family business and make it profitable again. You have to invest in the necessary facilities and equipment, you plant vines, you harvest grapes, you process grapes to make wine, wine takes time to age well, and eventually you sell it for profit and, tadaaa, victory points. Outside of this wine-making lifecycle, there are a few other ways to score points too. You also get to draw various types of cards which give you additional scoring methods and special abilities. There is no fixed number of rounds. Once someone hits 25VP, you complete the current round and the game ends. Whoever scores highest wins.

The Papa and Mama cards are just starting setup cards. They create different starting conditions for each player. Everyone does start with one big worker (the foreman) and two small workers, and $3, but other starting resources differ. I started with, on my Mama card, one purple contract card and two blue winter visitor cards, and on my Papa card, the choice of getting a medium cellar or $4 more.

This is the expansion map, which has four seasons, compared to the base game map which only has two. The worker placement spaces for the four seasons are green, yellow, orange and blue for spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively. One round is one year, and each round is played in four stages, i.e. season by season. You need to plan where to place your workers up front, because you only get your workers back at the end of the year. One special aspect of the worker placement mechanism here is the foreman - the large worker. He cannot be blocked. He can still use any space which is already occupied, just that if that space comes with a bonus, that bonus is already claimed by the first worker and he doesn't get the bonus.

The table on the left is the turn order table. Before a year starts everyone will claim a turn order position. The table shows the goodies you get to claim at every season change. The later you are in turn order, the better the goodies.

The map at the bottom left shows seven different regions to which you can send salesmen. Whenever you send a salesman, you gain a benefit (depending on the region). At the end of the game, if you have the most salesmen in a region, you score some points. This is an area majority subgame.

This is part of the player board. The three big tiles at the top are your fields. At the moment I have only planted vines in one of them. Each field has an upper limit to the total vine value (5, 6 and 7 respectively). Now I have planted a value-1 red grape vine and a value-2 white grape vine. When I harvest I will get a value-1 red grape and a value-2 white grape. If I plant multiple vines of the same type in the same field, their value numbers will add up. E.g. planting two value-2 white grape vines would give me one value-4 white grape, not two value-2 white grapes.

The lower left section are the buckets where I store grapes. There is space for only one grape per grade per type. So if I already have a value-3 red grape, and I harvest another one, I won't get a second value-3 red grape. I will have to settle for a value-2 red grape (assuming the value-2 red grape spot is vacant).

The lower right section are the wine cellars. Different combinations of grapes produce different types of wine. Both grapes and wines improve as they age, i.e. their values go up. The max is value-9.

On the player board you can also see many buildings you can build. Their costs and abilities vary. E.g. you need irrigation to be able to plant some of the higher grade vines, the windmill gives you 1VP every time you plant.

I have planted in two of my fields now, but I've sold the third field. The transparent beads represent grapes if they are in the buckets area, and wines if they are in the cellars area. I only have a medium cellar, so my wine quality can go up to at most value-6.

The Play

The game starts a little slowly, because you need to spend much time and money getting your basic infrastructure ready and setting up the whole production line. Wine-making is not a one- or two-year exercise. As the players get their wineries going, the game accelerates, and the initially daunting 25VP sudden seems imminent. Everyone gets a different starting setup. Throughout the game you keep drawing different types of cards too. Sometimes you are forced to discard some cards due to exceeding the hand limit. This variety in the cards drives players towards different directions. You want to play to the strength of your cards. You need to come up with a general strategy that is aligned with your cards. The cards give character to your winery and your play. You are not playing a generic winery and trying to outdo your opponents by doing the same things more efficiently. You can be running your business in a very different way from your competition. This is what I like about the game.

One of the cards I drew was a restaurant. It gave me a private spot to place a worker. When I placed a worker here, I expended one grape and one bottle of wine to earn 3VP and $3. The quality of the grape and wine didn't matter. 3VP might not seem like much, but it was a steady and reliable way to score points. It was the core of my business. I went for a McDonald's strategy, prioritising quantity over quality. Other than ensuring a steady supply of grapes and wine to my restaurant, I also worked on contracts for cheaper wines.

This is my restaurant. The circle drawn with a dashed line is a worker placement spot.

One of the expansion modules allows players to sell land to raise money. In our game whenever someone sold land, the rest made fun of him for being a useless rich brat, managing family finances so poorly that he had to sell ancestral land to raise money. Eventually every single one of us had to sell land. I guess we were all decadent sons.

The components are nice.

These metal coins are only available in the expansion.

These cards are: a vine card, which can be planted; a contract which can be fulfilled; and a winter visitor card. Visitors usually give you a single-use special ability. There is a lot of variety in the cards in this game.

The grey worker is a temp worker. Only the player last in turn order gets to use him, and only for one round - the current round.

Ivan, Jeff and I all scored 26VP when the game ended. We had to use tiebreaker rules. Ivan won because he had the most money left.

The Thoughts

Ivan says vanilla Viticulture is a family game, and I trust his judgement. It is simpler, has more luck, and the card powers are slightly uneven. Viticulture with the Tuscany expansion, in my opinion, is mainly a gamer's game. It is not very complex, but there are enough rules to intimidate someone who is new to the hobby.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about presenting wine-making via the worker placement mechanism. It works well enough. What I enjoy is the variety in the cards and how they create a different story for each player. The players still need to compete for the same actions, but since different resources and actions have different values to them, the decisions become more interesting.

The game will appeal to those who like wines or have an interest in the wine-making industry.

Monday, 24 August 2015

Malaysia

If you are a Malaysian, or know some Malaysian friends, please help me share this video far and wide: This Is My Home And Yours - Malaysia. This song written with friends back in 1997 has given me new meaning today, in the Malaysia of 2015. This is for everyone who loves Malaysia.

Update: If possible, please use this Facebook webpage when sharing: https://www.facebook.com/hiewchoksien/posts/10155973403365483

Sunday, 16 August 2015

boardgaming in photos: Machi Koro, Carson City

18 Jul 2015. I have played Machi Koro with the Harbor expansion four times with the children, and I have never won. I have underestimated the power of the fishing boats, especially the tuna boats. The kids love them. If you manage to trigger them, you roll two dice and earn money based on what you roll, i.e. on average $7 per boat. However you need to roll very high to trigger the tuna boats in the first place, so I felt it was not worth the trouble. I guess I was wrong. Both the children love the boats and they always go for them. The harbor (a new building in this expansion) gives you an option of increasing your roll by two if you roll high enough. When the children roll high, e.g. a 10, they always choose to increase the die roll, so that they can trigger their tuna boats. Because of that, my #10 buildings which could have been triggered are not triggered. The children end up helping each other, while I am left in the dust. I had overlooked this groupthink aspect. It's time to fight for boats!

Adding the expansion makes the game take up even more space. Managing the market is also a chore. Whenever you have fewer than 10 types of buildings in the pool, you need to draw a new card. If its type is already available, you need to add it to the stack and draw another one. If it's a new type, what we do is we rearrange the market to slot the new card in the right spot, so that all cards are arranged in increasing order of activation number. I prefer to arrange the market neatly so that it's easier to analyse. Despite the additional overhead and longer play time, I still prefer to play with the expansion. The game feels more alive, organic and unpredictable. I like surprises.

24 Jul 2015. Carson City is one of the earlier worker placement games. It has been a long time since my previous play. I checked my records and found that I had only played it once prior to this, and it was 5 years ago, in 2010. I had forgotten 90% of the rules. In this game you buy parcels of land in the new Carson township, construct buildings, make money and eventually earn victory points. The setup of the initial town is random. In our game we had an unusual setup. The town centre (red house encircled by black roads) was surrounded by many mountains. This made the initial growth challenging due to the lack of flat land.

What's unique about Carson City is how worker placement spots can be fought over. Normally in WP games once your worker claims a spot nobody else can come in or kick your worker out. In Carson City another player can challenge you for the spot. A gunfight needs to be resolved to determine who gets to stay. See the $4-for-a-building spot where the blue player and the yellow player are fighting for.

On the city map in the background you can also see two cowboys preparing to fight. The brown player is trying to rob the yellow player's building (the building has a yellow base to indicate ownership), and the yellow player has sent a cowboy to defend the building. If the brown player wins the gunfight, or if the yellow player hadn't bothered to defend his building, he will get half the income of the building, but only in the current round.

Those isolated buildings far away from the town centre are ranches. They don't need to be connected to the road network, and they earn money based on how much unowned land is next to them. As the town grows, grazing land will dwindle and ranch income will drop.

This was taken in Round 4, the final round. The town has grown much. The long S-shaped path in the foreground is the worker placement path. After all workers are placed, every location on the path is resolved in the specified order.

Most buildings generate income. Mines make money based on the number of adjacent mountains. Drugstores make money based on adjacent homes and ranches owned by the drugstore owner. Some buildings have other functionality. The church forbids robberies in orthogonally adjacent buildings. The prison gives a +2 bonus combat strength to the owner. When you have macha (buddies) working as prison guards, it means you can summon more firepower when you need it. At the end of the game, your buildings earn 2VP each too.

We used some expansions. We used the advanced side of the character cards. We also used the tiles variant for the gunfights (as opposed to using dice), which reduces the luck element. In this particular round, Ivan (yellow) picked the sheriff character. If anyone attacked and defeated his cowboys, he would earn 3VP per cowboy (no points though if he started the fight himself, win or lose). So he placed his people on spots which he knew others want. 3VP per cowboy was not a bad deal. There were some spots which he did intend to win though, because they would give him more than 3VP.

The final layout of Carson City, before final scoring. I started focusing on scoring at the end of Round 2. At the time nobody tried to stop me, and I managed to give myself a strong lead. I managed to hold on to it till the end of the game. I drew poor gunfight tiles at the start of the game (the compensation for that was I had more starting cash), so I didn't want to get into too many fights. Thankfully I decided to pounce early for points, else I would probably be unable able to keep up towards late game.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

La Granja

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

La Granja seems to be quite popular with the folks at Boardgamecafe.net. I was a little late to the party. I missed it a few times and only got to play it recently. It is a game from Spielworxx, which is well-known for it's heavy Eurogames.

La Granja is a game about farming, which is no longer a weird topic nowadays (it was when Agricola came out). You produce goods at your farm and deliver them to fulfill contracts, which give you victory points. There are a few other ways to score points, but delivering goods is the main one. You play 6 rounds, and must make the most of your limited actions.

This is the player board. You can see many cards tucked beneath it. This is one interesting aspect of the game. Every card has four different functions, but when you play it, you can only pick one. Where you tuck the card determines its function. Tuck it on the left, and it becomes a field which yields produce every round. Tuck it on the right and it may give you extra cash, extra cards, extra space for livestock (pigs) and/or additional delivery capacity. Tuck it at the bottom, and it gives you a special ability. In this photo my swineherd card gives me two additional spaces for rearing pigs. Tuck a card at the top and it becomes a contract you can fulfill to earn points (in game terms it is called a market barrow).

This the main board. There are six areas called craft buildings where you can deliver goods to fulfill contracts. These are the boxes with four rows of icons. Each player has his own row so there is no blocking. However being first to complete a contract at a craft building gives you an extra 1pt. The base point value you get depends on the current round number. In Round 2 a completed contract is only worth 2pts, but in Round 6, it is 6pts. However there is a reason for delivering early - you gain a special ability (those square tiles). Naturally the earlier you gain the ability, the more it will help you during the game.

The honeycomb area in the centre is the marketplace. When you complete a contract at your player board (i.e. you fill up a market barrow), you get to place one of your tokens here, on a space with the same value as the market barrow. Tokens here give you 1pt every round. When you place a token, you kick out all opponents' tokens immediately next to your newly placed token if they have smaller values. So there is some risk in completing small market barrows - your token may not last very long at the marketplace.

Everyone only has one type of token, the octagon. However a token means different things depending on where it is placed. At the extreme left, when placed on a field, it represents the corresponding produce. On the right, when placed in a pig sty, it is a pig. When placed in a warehouse (lower left), it is whatever goods that warehouse stores (grapes in this photo). When placed at the trade commodities location (the box icon at the centre), it is a trade commodity. A trade commodity can be spent at any time for various uses, like getting $4, getting 2 different raw produce and drawing a card.

The arrows you see on the board tell you how some goods can be processed to become other higher valued goods. This can be done at any time by paying cash. Some actions let you do this for free. Olive and grain can be turned into food. Pigs can be transformed into bacon. Grapes become wine.

This is what you do in a round. In Phase 1 you play cards, draw cards and do basic production. In Phase 2, dice are rolled to determine extra goods production and extra actions. Players take turns claiming whatever is available for the round. At the start of Phase 3 everyone secretly picks a donkey tile and then reveal at the same time. These tiles determine turn order and the number of deliveries you can make. Most deliveries are done in Phase 3. Phase 4 takes care of most other ways of scoring points, and round reset.

The Play

From reading the overview of La Granja, it may sound like a cube conversion game. It is more a planning and coordination game - you produce stuff and deliver them, and you try to produce as much as possible and deliver as much as possible within the 6 rounds of the game. There is actually not a lot of conversion going on. It's just basic goods to finished products, and often doing this does not require an action. You usually just pay for it, or spend trade commodities.

The cards make players' farms different. You want to play to your strengths. The variety is good and it makes things interesting. There is not a lot of player interaction. Some player interaction is of the I-take-it-before-you-can nature, but in La Granja this is much less punishing than Agricola. You won't be forcing your opponent's children to starve and beg for food. In the central marketplace you do kick out your opponents' tokens, but this doesn't happen all that often, because you don't complete that many market barrow contracts in the first place.

I like the challenge posed by the cards. You need to work out a cohesive strategy based on what you draw. In our game I was the king of pork. My cards let me breed pigs like rabbits, so I had many butcher friends.

The game looks complex, but once you start playing, it runs smoothly. It's not a gateway game though, so it will still be a little difficult for players new to the hobby. If you are a boardgamer, it should not be hard to learn. Some actions in the game are free and unrestricted. You don't need to wait for your turn, it does not cost a player action. E.g. upgrading goods. At any time you can spend money to upgrade, or spend trade commodities to do so. This makes me feel I have a lot of freedom to manage my farm, and I do not need to manage any tedious series of actions which span across multiple turns and multiple rounds. The main thing that is limited is the number of deliveries you can make. This you need to count carefully and plan meticulously. You need to make sure you can make enough deliveries to complete the contracts you intend to fulfill.

These are the items and actions which can become available during Phase 2 of a round. After the dice are rolled, everyone takes turns claiming a die and performing the corresponding action, e.g. claiming certain goods, performing a delivery.

This was late in the game. I (green) had two almost completed contracts (lower left). I was waiting for Round 6 to complete them because I wanted to score the full 6pts. This means I had given up on the special abilities which I would get from these craft buildings.

The Thoughts

La Granja is a medium-to-high complexity point-scoring Eurogame. It's a planning and coordination game, where you try to maximise and optimise goods production and delivery. Player interaction is on the low side. What I find satisfying is how the cards create much variety and character to each player's farm, and how you need to work out a viable strategy based on what you are dealt. This game will appeal to players who like management games. There is nothing particularly new or striking, but the overall package feels unique.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Abluxxen / Linko

Plays: 5Px3.

The Game

I have read about Abluxxen before. It is designed by the dynamite duo Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling after all. The rules sounded simple, but I could not wrap my head around the strategy even though I understood the rules. It was like reading a page in a novel, understanding every word and every sentence, but having no idea what the passage was talking about. I did not actively seek out the game, but I was pleasantly surprised by it when I had a chance to try it recently at Boardgamecafe.net.

The game is a deck of cards numbered 1 to 13, eight cards for each number, plus five wild cards. At the start of the game everyone is dealt 13 cards. The game ends when one player plays out his hand, after which you do scoring based on how many cards you have played in front of you (1pt each) and how many you still have in hand (-1pt each). The person who goes out is often the one who wins, but not always.

On your turn there is only one action you can and must take - play a set of cards. A set of cards can be any number of cards, but they must have the same value on them, e.g. three 2's, seven 6's. When you play cards in front of you, you should play them in rows, with each new row partially covering the previous row, like in the photo below.

Your most recent set is vulnerable, while earlier sets are safe, as long as they are being protected by that most recent set. By "vulnerable" I mean a set can be attacked (or "abluxxed") by another player. Whenever a player plays a set of cards, he checks whether the number of cards in the set is the same as any other player's current vulnerable set. If so, he needs to compare the values on the cards. If the current set being played has a higher value than the sets on the table, then those vulnerable sets are abluxxed. The active player first decides what he wants to do with each set being abluxxed. He either (a) takes the set into his hand, or (b) declines. In the former case, the victim must draw back the same number of cards. These can be picked from the 6 face-up cards at the centre of the table, or drawn from the draw deck. If the active player doesn't want the abluxxed set, the victim now gets to decide between (b)(i) taking the cards back into his hand, effectively wasting one turn and also exposing an earlier set, and (b)(ii) discarding the cards and redrawing.

It is good to have many cards with the same value, because that means you can play many cards on the same turn. Moreover, large sets are difficult to make, and are thus also harder to get abluxxed. Higher card values are good, because you have less risk of getting abluxxed, and you have better chances to abluxx others. I love using the non-word "abluxx"! Abluxx Abluxx Abluxxen. I hope it is not a swear word in a language I don't know.

The Play

We played with 5 players, which is the max. BGG says the game is best with 4, and works well with any player count from 2 to 5. I was mostly clueless for the first two games, and things only started to click towards the end of the second game. The rules sound simple, but there are actually quite a few tricks and tactics to the game - emergent strategies. For example, fishing. When you see a card in the card display at the centre of the table that you want, you can play a single card hoping someone will abluxx you, thus giving you the chance to take that card from the display. To enhance the likelihood of getting abluxxed, you may even want to play a card of the same value as another player who is also fishing. A player abluxxing both of you can claim multiple cards of the same value, which is very tempting.

You don't know other players' starting hands, but most of the time during the game you can see what cards they are collecting. Usually they either rob cards from other players, or take cards from the central display. They can draw cards from the draw deck, which would prevent you from knowing what the cards are, but then such blind draws are risky and thus undesirable. Card counting is a skill that can be put to good use. You don't need to memorise everything. It will already help by having a general idea of what values others are stockpiling. If you see one person collecting tons of 1's but never playing them, he may be preparing for a final kill, playing all his 1's at one go to end the game.

It is important to watch your opponents and have a good grasp of the pace of a game. Don't get caught unprepared for game end. Getting a large hand of cards is tempting. It means more flexibility and opportunities for powerful plays. However if you misjudge the tempo and someone else ends the game while you are unprepared, you will end up in the red.

I find the set collection quite exciting in this game. Normally set collection in other games is fulfilling. In Abluxxen it is not only fulfilling but also anxiety-inducing. You are never quite sure when the right time to play your huge set is. Play it at the wrong time, and you can get abluxxed, which is very painful for large sets. Your attacker will likely claim your set, forcing you to redraw. When you need to redraw many cards, chances are you will get a lousy mix, which translates to many more turns needed to clear your hand. When you have a large set, you often want to hold and wait. You may want to wait for others to play the same number of cards as your set but with a card value higher than yours, so that it would be safe by the time you play yours. The other side of the coin is you may want to wait till someone else plays a weaker set so that you can pounce on him. This is a nasty, nasty little game!

There is a psychological element. If you see that most other players are going for pairs and triplets, you may be able to get away with playing some loose singles.

The X card is the wild card. If you play a set containing only wild cards, they are considered to have a value of 14, i.e. they beat all other cards.

The Thoughts

The thing that strikes me most about Abluxxen is how difficult it is to describe it. It's not a trick-taking game like Bridge. It's not a climbing game like Big Two or Fight the Landlord. It appears to be a traditional card game, since the only information on a card that matters is the value. The colours have no gameplay meaning. They are just nice to look at and they ease gameplay. There is no suit. Once you experience Abluxxen, you will find that it breaks the traditional card game mould. It is refreshing and thought-provoking. It is amazing how much strategy emerges from such simple rules. When Kareem taught us the game, he said it was quite evil. I asked whether it was as evil as Sticheln, and he said probably more so. Now that I have played the game, I can't say he's wrong. Abluxxen is a highly interactive and clever game. Abluxxen Abluxxen Abluxxen.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Timbuktu

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Timbuktu is an older game by Dirk Henn, designer of Alhambra, Show Manager, Wallenstein and Shogun. Players are caravan owners who need to deliver goods to Timbuktu. Everyone starts with a number of fully loaded caravans, each represented by a camel with a letter on its back. The game board is made of a number of sections depending on the number of players. The camels move from board section to board section until they eventually reach Timbuktu. At each section, robbers will strike at specific locations and rob specific goods types. So the caravans will lose goods along the way. Eventually when everyone reaches Timbuktu, you sell all your goods and the richest player wins. The value of a goods type depends on how scarce it is, i.e. how many such goods have been robbed during the trip. This is quite clever and makes perfect sense.

Where the robbers strike and what goods they aim for are determined by three types of robber cards. One card type tells you the row, another tells you two specific positions (between 1 and 5), and the last one tells you two specific goods types (out of five types). When you put together one card of each type, you'll get specific information on where the robbers will strike and what goods they will demand. Before the start of each leg of your journey, every player gets a set of cards (I did a 5P game - I'm not sure about lower player counts), and thus knows where a specific band of robbers will strike. Every round the players secretly decide which of their camels to move, and then take turns revealing their cards and moving their camels. A camel can move to any of the five rows in the next section, just that if you follow the arrows it's free. Otherwise that camel (i.e.caravan) must pay one good. The camel must move to the frontmost free space within the row. Some spaces trigger an information exchange. If a camel lands on such spots, every player passes his robber cards set clockwise. That means everyone will gain more information about where another band of robbers will strike.

The main section of player board shows your camels (i.e. caravans) and what each is carrying. At the start of the game each camel carries four goods. Suggested goods combinations are printed on the player board, but you don't necessary have to follow them. The information along the bottom is the robber cards in the deck. The numbers mean the possible combinations of positions where the robbers will strike, and the goods mean the possible combinations of goods the robbers will demand.

There are always two rows in the next section a camel can go to for free, by following the arrows. To go to other rows, the camel needs to pay one good. The two spaces with the card icons will trigger information exchanges among the players.

Eventually the new section will fill up as the camels advance from the previous section. Now it's time for everyone to reveal his robber cards. Camels at the hot spots are robbed if they carry the specific goods the robbers want. Then you move on to the next leg of your journey, until you reach Timbuktu.

The Play

We had five players, which I think is the best player count. Every leg of the journey starts with players knowing very little information. However as card swaps are triggered, you'll know more and more. By the time you see the third set of cards, it is not hard to narrow down the remaining possibilities for the two remaining sets you haven't seen. You may even accurately guess them by observing your fellow players. The player board shows all the cards in the decks, which helps you calculate all possibilities.

All lined up and ready to go.

The idea of the game is quite straightforward. However I find that we played quite slowly. It may be because we are all gamers, so when presented with information, we must make good use of it and do all the maths. I cannot resist the urge to do proper analysis when I know clearly I have information to help me narrow down the remaining risk areas. Don't ask me to play by gut feel when I know I can apply logical thinking. Despite the slow progress, no one complained, because we were all doing the same type of logical deduction. This is a deduction game! That is quite unexpected.

Once the game starts, some rows will have more than one camel of the same player, e.g. the two red camels in the moon (yellow) row.

My first good was robbed, from Camel E. Those two large round markers on the left are for indicating (a) the start player for the current leg of the journey, and (b) the start player for the current round. The cards at the bottom are the robber cards.

We were taking our sweet time mulling over the board.

It was quite funny to watch others' camels step on the "land mines" because they didn't have the information I had. It was also fun to taunt others when they were unsure how to move their camels. You do need to watch how others act because their actions will give you clues about what they know. If there is a spot that everyone seems to be trying to avoid, that may well be a land mine. Or to quote Admiral Ackbar: "It's a trap!"

Eventually you'll know much information, but that doesn't mean smooth sailing. It depends a lot on how your camels are positioned in the previous section. Sometimes you are stuck with no options. Sacrificing one good to move to another row is not a small price to pay. Player order is important. You need to take into account what your neighbours know. Since cards are passed clockwise, you will know a bit of what your neighbours know, and what they know you know. You'll know when your right neighbour will take a safe spot and leave the next sticky spot for you. So you need to choose your camels wisely.

Seeing people get robbed was hilarious. This happened more in the early game. Towards late game some camels didn't have many goods on them any more, so robberies became rarer. In fact I think we had none in the final leg of our journey. That was a little anticlimactic. The difference between the values of the goods did not turn out to be a large factor, at least not as much as I had expected. Winning was more about how many goods you had remaining, and less about the goods types. I can't say whether this is normal or it was just our particular game.

Approaching Timbuktu now. We were in the second to last leg of the journey. By scanning our player boards you can see we have all suffered losses, some more than others.

I like the decorative elements of the game boards.

We called this the stock market. These are the goods robbed from the caravans. They indicate the value of each good type at game end. At the moment coffee (leftmost) is worth the most - 11pts.

Finally, arrival at Timbuktu.

The Thoughts

Timbuktu has a clean system that is easy to understand. Usually it is games from 1990's and 2000's which give me such a feeling. Some of the newer Eurogames give me an impression that they are adding stuff for the sake of having more stuff. Timbuktu is not simplistic nor is it complex. It is as simple as it can be, but not simpler. Some of the rounds can feel a little repetitive. It may be because we had a 5P game, so the number of rounds is highest. There is much deduction. You need pen and paper to take notes. I find it very engaging and there is little down time. It may drag if you play with players who take too long to think. I didn't have this problem. I'm not sure whether it's because we were all equally quick witted or equally slow witted. I'd like to think the former.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

little stories

Some little stories from recent boardgaming...

~~~~~

I played Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld with my family. The Al Capone cards in this game are the hardest to collect a full set of. There are eight of them. However if you manage to complete the set, you can potentially shut your opponent out, i.e. deny him of scoring points, for that particular hand. When we played, Chen Rui (8) was particularly obsessed with Al Capone. Once she played an Agent Meeting card to fish for an Al Capone card from other players. She managed to get one. As we waited for her to lay down a meld (of three cards), she discarded a card to signal the end of her turn. Michelle (her teammate - we played partnership rules) asked what are you doing??! It turned out that Chen Rui only had one Al Capone card when she tried to fish for one more. We had all assumed she already had two, and needed a third to form a meld.

Chen Rui plays how she likes, which is not necessarily the most logical way if you are trying to win. But then who is to say that is wrong if she enjoys it that way? Maybe we as adults can learning something from her.

~~~~~

I was quite intrigued by Kobayakawa and eventually decided to buy a copy. I tried it with my family (i.e. non-gamers). When playing only with the kids (10 and 8), they tended to think less (much less than I did when I played with other gamers), and that turned the game into a luck-heavy microgame. Later when my wife Michelle joined us, everyone started putting some thought into the decisions, which brought some strategy back. The children still tended to be impetuous, deciding to place bets most of the time. They went bankrupt quite easily. One particular round was quite funny. I had the 3, a very low card, and the Kobayakawa was a 14, a very high card. If my 3 was the lowest card (highly likely), I would gain the Kobayakawa bonus which would guarantee my victory. So of course I placed my bet. Both Chen Rui and Michelle decided to bet too, and I was secretly filled with glee - that meant more winnings for me. To my surprise, my 3 turned out to be the largest card! Chen Rui had a 2, and Michelle a 1. What are the odds?!

~~~~~

One afternoon when I was napping, the children helped themselves to some games - Love Letter and Spot It. I learned of it much later that day, and I was pleasantly surprised. I was proud and happy. This would sound silly to normal parents. I'm a gamer parent, and my children choosing boardgames over the iPad or TV means a lot to me. I don't harbour hopes that they will become gamers. They don't follow boardgame news like I do. They don't keep an eye out for new boardgames. They don't even ask to play boardgames all that often. They have no ideas about game designers or game publishers. I am contented enough that they enjoy playing boardgames. That's what matters most.

~~~~~

Something funny happened in one of our games of Love Letter. On Chen Rui's turn, she had an 8 and a 6 in hand. The 8 could not be played (else you'd be eliminated) so she could only play the 6. The special ability of the 6 was to swap cards with another player. Chen Rui chose Michelle. She gave the 8 to Michelle. When she saw the card she received from Michelle, which was a 1, she started laughing evilly. A 1 can be used to guess the card of another player, and if the guess is correct, that player is eliminated. Now that Michelle had an 8, no matter what card she drew when her turn came, she must play that new card, and the 8 would stay in her hand. So by the time Chen Rui's turn came around again, she would be able to use the 1 to correctly guess the 8 in Michelle's hand. Michelle was cornered!

Then something unexpected happened. On Michelle's turn, she drew a 1 herself! Since she had just given another 1 to Chen Rui, she knew what Chen Rui's card was. It was Chen Rui who was eliminated instead. What a dramatic turn of events! One good reason to love Love Letter.

~~~~~

Lately I have been gaming in a passive mode. I seldom think of what games to play before game night. I just show up and play whatever others suggest. This worked out well for me. I got to try some nice games which I would not have played otherwise, since they were not on my radar, or not on my to-do list. It was also nice to be lazy for a while, not reading rules, making reference sheets or teaching games. I am a lucky person. This wouldn't work if you're the only hardcore guy in your group. I am surrounded mostly by hardcore guys in my regular group.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Lords of Scotland

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A game of Lords of Scotland is played over a number of skirmishes, in which every player can potentially score points. The ultimate goal is to reach 40pts. A skirmish consists of 5 rounds, i.e. everyone has only 5 actions. An action is playing a card or drawing a card. At the end of the skirmish, you total the strength of the cards played to determine the order of claiming the spoils available for the skirmish. Normally you always pick the highest valued spoils card available.

This is how a new skirmish is set up. Four cards (corresponding to the number of players) are drawn to become the spoils for the skirmish. That means these cards are effectively out of the game and will no longer be in the card pool. The 5 face-down cards form the card row from which players can draw cards. At the start of every round, one of them is turned face-up. That means by looking at how many cards are face-up, you can tell which round you are in. If you decide to take the draw card action, and you take a face-up card, you replenish the card row with a new face-up card. You can of course pick a face-down card if none of the face-up cards fancy you.

Taking a face-up card is good because you know exactly what you are getting, but the downside is others know it too and can prepare for what you may do with it. Picking the draw card action means you are forgoing the play card action. This is one important aspect of the game - you need to balance between drawing cards and playing cards. Draw too many, and you'll lose out in the skirmishes. Play too many, and you'll deplete your resources for the next skirmish. You need to know when to fight and when to gather strength to fight another day.

When you play a card, you can play it face-up or face-down. Playing face-down means others do not know what colour or number you have played. If you play a card face-up, you can potentially use its special power. Every card has a special power depending on its colour (i.e. suit). When you play a card face-up, you trigger its power if (a) it is the only card of that colour visible on the table, or (b) it has a smaller number than all other cards of that colour. This makes small numbers more powerful - they have a higher likelihood to having their powers triggered, and they also help neuter larger numbers in their respective colours. This is quite a clever mechanism.

After 5 rounds are played, the skirmish ends and all face-down cards are turned face-up. You sum up the strength of your cards to determine precedence in picking spoils. One twist here is if you have played cards of only one colour, your total strength is doubled. This is yet another interesting mechanism. The card powers in the game are strong, and you tend to want to use as many of them as possible to hinder your opponents or to help yourself, so it can be torturous trying to stay pure. And sometimes when you decide to go single-colour, one nasty card play by an opponent can quickly mess up your plan. Yet, the doubling factor is very tempting. To be or not to be, that is the question. Also, because of this doubling rule, playing cards face-down has another value - your opponents will have to guess whether you are going for single-colour or not. Maybe you are just bluffing.

With this kind of hand, you'd probably want to go for the single-colour bonus.

The card powers are the most prominent aspect of the game. They are strong. One colour lets you draw a card, effectively saving you one precious action. One colour lets you discard a played card, which can be very frustrating to your opponent when you discard his high card. One colour lets you swap with a played card, which is the ideal pollutant to break single-colour sets. One colour lets you modify the spoils of the current skirmish, which can greatly affect the players' motivations. One colour lets you claim two spoils cards instead of one. One colour stays in play for the next skirmish, unlike other colours which are all discarded at the end of a skirmish. One colour simply copies any other face-up card on the table. There is great variety.

The Play

The biggest impression I have of Lords of Scotland is that the tables can turn very quickly. The outcome of a skirmish is often decided only in the last round, sometimes even by the last card play. Turn order has a large impact. The later you go, the less opportunities your opponents have in spoiling your plan. You can always save a strong play till the last round. The card powers can create unexpected twists. You always need to watch out for killer moves. The winner of a skirmish (i.e. highest strength and first to pick spoils) becomes the start player for the next skirmish, which is the least favourable position. This helps to balance things out somewhat. But you have to pity the guy sitting on his left, who is stuck with being 2nd player (still a bad place to be in) despite possibly having not gained much in the previous skirmish.

The various card powers can create interesting situations. Let's say the spoils cards are two high cards and two low. If one player plays a card which allows him to claim two spoils cards, all the other players will be working hard to stop him from coming first, because if he does, he'll be claiming both the high cards, leaving peanuts for the rest. Every single card in the game has a special power, so you feel like you are holding a hand of bombs, and your are often spoilt for choice on how to use them.

There is tactics in playing cards - identifying good uses for specific cards and playing them for maximum effect; and there is strategy in saving cards for big plays - like what Heng did in our game. He was leading in points, and when a new skirmish started, the lowest valued spoil card was a 5, which was already sufficient for him to win. The other three of us were not within range of hitting 40pts, so we had to work together to hold him back and deny him any spoils card. One of us played the double spoils card. If we could then force Heng into the last position, he would not be able to claim any spoils card. Everything went according to plan, and even among the three of us we could afford to jostle against one another trying to fight for a better position. Then in the 5th round Heng played a card to discard that double spoils card, and we couldn't do anything to stop him after that. He still came last in strength, but the smallest spoils card was already enough for him to win the game.

In this skirmish, the spoils cards were 7, 6, 6, 1. That meant no one wanted to be last. There is not much difference going first, second or third. Just not last please.

This is an older version of the game. Functional, but not exactly sexy. The latest version has nicer artwork.

The Thoughts

Lords of Scotland is a game with dramatic twists of fate and powerful plays. What stands out most is the card powers, but there are two other more subtle features which also make the game very interesting - the balance and timing consideration between drawing cards (gathering strength) and playing cards (deploying strength), and the dilemma of whether to attempt to deploy a single-colour army. I like the fact that high cards are not necessarily the strongest, and low cards are not necessarily the weakest. It is more often about how you make the best use of your cards.

The many card powers can be slightly overwhelming to casual players. This game does not feel like a traditional card game. It may not be an easy transition for traditional card game players.

What I remember most about the game is the anxiety of never knowing who the ultimate winner of a skirmish will be until the last moment. Not to say that card plays in the first four rounds are pointless. They are part of positioning yourself for victory. It is just that cards are powerful and when used well can turn the tables at the last minute. You never know what your opponents have up their sleeves and whether they have just the right card to undo your long-planned epic play.

You can say there are many "take that" cards in this game, cards which deal a nasty blow to an opponent that he can do nothing about. I see it this way - everyone will draw such cards, so it is more about what moments you save such cards for, as opposed to who is luckier and draws more such cards to play on his opponents. There is also a psychology element. You want to appear weak and divert attention to other players. It is best to make powerful moves late in a skirmish, when it is (hopefully) too late for others to respond. That's easier said than done. Lords of Scotland has character. It is a well-crafted, balanced (despite the seemingly crazy powers) and well-integrated system. Some people may complain "overpowered!", but when you get lots of that particular colour and still lose, then maybe it is not so overpowered after all.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

boardgaming in photos: Dream Factory, Domaine

19 Jun 2015. This is Reiner Knizia's Dream Factory, originally published as Traumfabrik, then later as Hollywood Blockbuster. The latest incarnation is Dream Factory, this name being the English translation of the original name. This copy I played was someone else's copy. I have a home-made copy which I made during the out-of-print period between Traumfabrik and Hollywood Blockbuster. It has real actors and movies from around 1990's and 2000's.

In this game you run a movie studio. You have a few screenplays and you need to assemble directors, actors, cameramen, special effects experts and so on to make movies. You employ these people mostly via auctions. The game has a closed economy. The money paid by the auction winner is evenly split among all other players. Any leftover money accumulates in the pot to be shared next round. If you spend a large sum for a particular group of workers, be prepared that you have to spend the next few rounds saving money before you can be competitive again.

With the exception of the guest star space (with a star icon), every space on a movie screenplay must be filled in order to complete the movie. At the moment I have completed one - the leftmost movie. It is worth 11pts (count the number of stars). There are three categories of movies - comedies (orange), action movies (green) and dramas (blue).

Due to copyright concerns, the game does not use real actor or movie names. These three here are supposed to be Morgan Freeman, Sylvester Stallone and Leonardo DiCaprio.

There are 8 rounds in each of the 4 stages of the game, with a predetermined number of workers available in each round. You start at the top left and move clockwise. At most of the spaces you fight for the group of workers via auctions, but on the 4th and 8th spaces, i.e. the Party spaces, everyone gets to pick one free worker. The order depends on your star power, i.e. the total star value of your actors (and actresses of course). This gives you an additional aspect to consider. Sometimes you want to fight for those high-profile stars because you want to go first at the parties.

I've completed a lousy movie on the left. I do this because at game end there is an award for worst movie. Yes, you get recognition for being spectacularly bad. Sorry to do this to Schindler's List.

A game about the movies must surely have awards. Those two on the left are awards for best movies which are given out at the end of stages 1 to 3. I made a half-decent movie early, and won these for my studio. Other players had better movies, but it took them a while to complete. So I was lucky to have a first-mover advantage. The award on the right is the award for the first comedy released.

3 Jul 2015. This is Domaine by Klaus Teuber of Settlers of Catan fame. This was published in 2003, but the original version Lowenherz was published in 1997, so this is very much a 90's game. This photo was taken during the setup phase, when everyone was building castles on the board.

The components are quite well done.

You need to enclose areas using these black markers. When an area is enclosed and has only one castle, this area becomes the kingdom of whoever owns the castle. Forests, villages and the capital, if within a player's kingdom, are worth points. Mines give income depending on how many different types you control, and every set of three similar mines is worth 5pts too. The moment a player's victory points total reaches a specific target, he wins. If the cards run out before this happens, victory is determined by whoever has the most points at that time.

I was white. My kingdom at the bottom right was under constant assault by Jeff (red). Notice that in the previous photo when he was building his domain, his borders did not yet include the mines near his castle. Now he had expanded his domain to capture these lucrative mines, which were previously mine. When your kingdom is militarily stronger than your neighbour (i.e. you have more knights), you can play an expansion card to expand into your neighbour's territory. I had to play catch-up to Jeff's military escalation. Now we were both at 3 knights.

I spotted an opportunity at the top right area. I (white) had a castle there but never had time to develop the area because I was too tied up in the struggle against Jeff (red). Ivan (orange) had been building borders for his kingdom at the top left, and had been doing expansions. This gave me some free borders, along with the borders built by Jeff on the right. I only needed a few more border stones to complete a kingdom for myself. So I did it, which gave me a large kingdom with many forests and villages. Soon after that I hurriedly did an expansion, which then gave me enough points to claim instant victory. That was quite an unexpected twist of events. I had been struggling all this while, caught in a painful border fight with Jeff.