Saturday, 24 September 2016

boardgaming in photos: family time

28 Aug 2016. Chen Rui (9) requested to play Confetti. This is a real-time game. Within one minute, you need to pick 6 cards (9 in Round 3) from among many spread out all over the table. Each card has three different shapes in three different sizes. After time runs out, you examine your cards and score 1pt for every set of small, medium and large shapes of the same type, e.g. a set of small, medium and large circles. That means in the best case you earn 6pts. However it's not that easy to find cards that complement one another so perfectly. A game round only lasts 1 minute, but the scoring can take much longer than that. Look at how the children were scratching their heads.

It was impossible to take photos of the game during play, since I was too busy searching for and claiming cards. During play, the whole table was a mess of cards all spread out, not tidy like this photo. We were doing scoring in this photo.

My wife's hobby is reading e-books. My children read physical books, watch Youtube, and play on the iPads. They all have their own preferred pastimes, and are not boardgamers like I am. Once in a while we do sit down as a family to play games, and I am grateful for that. It is my version of an ideal family weekend activity.

This is Ingenious, a Reiner Knizia game from 2004. I remember I bought it on impulse when I was on a business trip. At the time I greatly enjoyed visiting game stores, and when I did so, I always had the urge to buy something. Sometimes I regretted such impulse purchases, but not so for Ingenious. Playing it again made me happy. It is such a simple yet clever game. It is very easy to teach, yet it has some strategic depth.

The tiles gradually forming a landscape is beautiful to behold.

The children like to push individual colours to the 18pts max, which allows them to take an extra turn. I guess they feel this is a fun achievement. I tend to be more conservative and try to concentrate on scoring all my colours evenly. At the end of the game, your score is that of your colour with the lowest score. However going for the max is not a poor strategy at all. Towards game end, an extra turn can be crucial.

31 Aug 2016. I have played a lot of Machi Koro with the children. This was the first time for Michelle. I had been complaining that mixing in both the expansions was a bad idea, but I hadn't got around to doing anything about it. This time I finally put my foot down and spent some time sorting out the cards. I separated the cards into three sets - base game and the two expansions - and used a marker pen to mark the expansion cards. Don't cringe.

This time we played with just the base game plus the first expansion. It was indeed better than having the second expansion also mixed in. We were able to make better combos because it was easier to collect repeat copies of cards. The card deck was less diluted.

The children still like the fishing boats. Shee Yun (11) plays with strategy in mind. She won this particular game. Chen Rui (9) still plays on a whim. She buys what she likes. Sometimes we can't resist reminding her to buy this or not to buy that. If we don't, she would probably fall even further behind.

Maybe next time I should try playing with just base game plus second expansion.

Although it was Michelle's first game, she did well. She and Shee Yun were jostling for first place. I did poorly. At one point I purchased a furniture factory without having any mine yet. Shee Yun questioned my decision, but I brushed her off saying I knew what I was doing. I wanted to buy the furniture factory first before someone else beat me to it. I would buy the mines later. However, the mines were swept up by others before I could afford to buy them. I was left with a completely useless furniture factory. Having spent money on a useless building meant an opportunity cost. It affected my tempo and I never managed to catch up. I should have listened to my daughter.

One thing funny when playing with the children is whenever a die is rolled resulting in one or more players robbing another, the robbers immediately and gleefully extend their hands to the victim asking for money. It's childish, this kind of back-and-forth robbing, but it's a simple and pure joy.

Those little dots at the lower right corners are the marks I made on the expansion cards.

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Dead of Winter: The Long Night

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Dead of Winter: The Long Night is not an expansion to Dead of Winter. It is a standalone game. It introduces some new elements, but the core mechanisms are the same. It feels like playing the same game with some expansion modules added. If you have not played Dead of Winter before, read my blog post from last year. I won't describe the core game in this blog post. I will only describe what's new.

The characters are all new. That means new stories, new abilities, new Crossroad cards.

In addition to the six remote locations found in the first version, The Long Night has three more locations. The first new location is Raxxon, a research facility where mysterious experiments have been conducted, and I assume went horribly wrong, because they seem to be related to the whole zombie apocalypse. You can visit Raxxon and perform searches. The equipment here tends to be better. However it is a dangerous place and each search requires rolling the Exposure die. In The Long Night, every round some mutated zombies appear. These are more powerful zombies which emerge from Raxxon. The other thing you can do at Raxxon is to prevent such zombies from entering play. There are many types of mutated zombies, each type having its own special rules. You don't need to remember all these rules. You just read the cards as they come into play.

That obese zombie is one of the mutated zombies. This one is hard to kill. It spews poison. If you are unlucky when you try to fight it, everyone at the same location will get injured.

The two other new locations are the bandits' hideout and the graveyard. Bandits are another new element. Bandits visit the six basic remote locations to scavenge too, just like your survivors. They carry resources they find back to their hideout. Their scavenging attracts zombies, so the remote locations get overrun by zombies more easily. You can visit the bandits' hideout to steal their goods, or to raid them. It is not without risk though. You may get hurt. However one thing good about this way of collecting resources is you can see what exactly you're getting. Resource cards gathered by bandits are turned face-up, unlike those at remote locations which you can only see upon drawing from the decks.

These improvements are new too. Some of these are randomly drawn at the start of a game. You need to gather sufficient materials to build an improvement. Once built, anyone at the colony may use it.

The first improvement we built in our game was this toilet. In the game, whenever anyone uses a resource card, it is discarded to a waste pile, representing waste accumulating at the colony. If left unchecked, overflowing waste demoralises everyone, and when morale hits zero everyone loses. Toilet duty is necessary. The toilet allows you to clear 2 additional waste cards when you perform the clear waste action. Normally you get to clear only 3 waste cards.

All the new elements extend the original rules and don't really change them. You face more difficulties, but you also get some advantages and equipment that help you. You get a bit more variety.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. I played the original Dead of Winter more than one and a half years ago. What I remembered most from that session was - this is not a cooperative game! It should not be played with a cooperative game mentality. This time I kept reminding myself to be selfish. I did not draw the traitor card. My personal objective was to collect a fuel card and a survivor card. One of my starting items happened to be a fuel card, so I was already halfway to meeting my personal objective. However finding a survivor card wouldn't be easy. Survivors can be found at all six remote locations, but in all cases they are the rarest card type.

My personal objective card was Martyr. At first I didn't realise what the meaning behind this objective was. Only halfway through the game I realised I was supposed to collect the fuel and the survivor so that I could light the survivor on fire. This is dark humour. Give a man firewood and he will be warm for one night. Light him on fire and he will be warm for the rest of his life.

Although quite a few of us had played the original Dead of Winter, for our session we selected the introductory scenario of The Long Night. It had only four rounds. Our group objective was to collect 2 resources from each of the 6 remote locations. This was going to be a tribute. I did help to search for resources, but I was in no hurry to add them to the tribute pile. I kept them in hand, announcing that it was better to do so in case of any emergencies, e.g. crises that require specific resources. In truth, holding back was an act of self-interest. If I helped complete the tribute too early, before my own personal objective was achieved, the game would end and I would lose, while anyone else who had completed his personal objective would win. I was not going to let the rest run ahead and win without me. Holding on to 2 resources from Location 6 (the gas station) which the others did not have yet was my insurance policy. So you see this game is ultimately about personal victories. The group objective is just a prerequisite, unless you are the traitor.

These two were my starting characters. Both were good at searching. Any die roll of 2 and above could be used for searching. This was good for both the group objective and my personal objective. Unfortunately my pretty girl athlete died in the first round. I triggered a Crossroad card event. A group of zombies which had been previously locked up in an armoury had broken out. I had three options. If I took the safest one, which was to kill any zombies that had escaped and then lock the door to prevent others from escaping, my characters would be injured and I would have nothing to gain. I decided to take the riskiest option, which was to attempt to kill all the zombies in the armoury. If my characters managed to survive this, they would gain access to the riot gear in the armoury, and from then on they didn't need to roll the Exposure die whenever traveling. This fight got my athlete girl killed, but thankfully my other character, a coach, survived. Since I lost one character, I now had one fewer die in my pool. Not good.

I was not the only one to lose a character right at the start. Jeff was the other unlucky fellow. For him it was worse. His lone survivor was a blind guy, who was horrible at searching. Jeff would have preferred to have him killed, because if you lose your last character, you get to draw a new one. Anyone else would have been better at searching than a blind man. Jeff sent Mr. Blind to Raxxon to perform searches, but he survived every Exposure die roll. For a moment Jeff was playing Kill Doctor Lucky. What's even funnier was Mr. Blind found a flamethrower at Raxxon, and went on to burn hordes of zombies. A blind guy flailing around with a flamethrower is not something you want to go near to.

That guy on the left is Mr. Blind.

Although we lost two members in the first round, all-in-all the scenario turned out to be easy to beat. We managed to handle most crises with no issue. We were steadily collecting the resources required for the tribute. We collaborated effectively, and there was no suspicious behaviour from anyone. It seemed we did not have a traitor, and later our hunch was proven right.

Jeff's Mr. Blind situation is one point of contention some players will have. Jeff was stuck in a rather hopeless situation. He was not a traitor. Since he knew he would likely lose, should he have played in such a way to make everyone else lose too? On one hand, you can say this goes against the spirit of the game. If he is good guy, then it doesn't make sense for him to hurt the colony. On the other hand, from a game mechanism and win or lose perspective, everyone losing means he is on par with the rest, while supporting others to win despite his own loss means he is at a lower position than the rest. This is against the spirit of doing your best in a competition. For me personally, I choose the first approach. I prioritise the story over the relative positions of the players. Had I not found the survivor card which I needed to win a personal victory, I would have still contributed the resources in the final round so that others who had achieved their personal objectives would win. However I can only say this is my personal preference. I can't pass judgement that this is the "right" thing to do. Every group needs to come to its own conclusion. It would be best if everyone in the group has the same preference. I don't see this as a problem of the game design.

In our game, eventually everyone except Jeff managed to complete his personal objective. So we all won, not as a group, but as individuals.

We split up to search different locations.

The first location my coach went to was the gas station.

Resource cards found at the remote locations have a number at the bottom to indicate which locations they are from.

There was no one left at the colony. We were all outside scavenging. The toilet which we had built was underutilised. Since nobody was home, the place was quiet and no zombies were attracted here. Also the food we had stockpiled was not consumed.

I only found the survivor card on the right in the last round.

By late game most of the locations were full of zombies. It would be suicide to do any more searching without thinning the herd.

The Thoughts

To me, The Long Night and Dead of Winter are mostly the same game. The Long Night added some elements, and thus some complexity, but I don't think these additions affect the fun level much. What's fun about Dead of Winter is already in the original game. The additions just add variety. If you play Dead of Winter a lot, then you should get The Long Night, because it'll give you more characters and scenarios to play with. If you haven't tried either one, I'd recommend the first game over the second, but just slightly. The additional stuff is not necessary to enjoy the essence of the game.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

boardgaming in photos: Coloretto, For Sale

19 Aug 2016. I keep quite a few games at the office. I bring games which I think may inspire my colleagues in their work, but I also bring them simply to have fun. This day I taught my colleagues Mamma Mia and Coloretto (this photo). The response to Mamma Mia was just so-so. I guess the memory element felt like work. Coloretto was very well received. I was again reminded what a clever and fun game it is. Everyone quickly understood the most important technique in the game - "make it dirty!"

I'm going to take the opportunity to explain this classic game. You collect cards to score points. They come in many different colours. At game end, only three colours count towards your score. You will be penalised for cards in other colours. So you want to collect many cards in three colours, while avoiding cards in other colours. You don't need to decide on which specific colours to score points with at any time during the game. You only decide when the game ends.

What makes this game a lot of fun is its mechanism of collecting cards. Every round every player must collect one set of cards, which can vary from 0 to 3 cards. A round starts with the same number of empty sets as there are players. On your turn, you either draw a card and add it to a set, or you do not draw a card but instead claim an existing set. Once you claim a set, you temporarily sit out from the game. You rejoin when the next round starts.

What makes the game so delicious is how you get to contaminate your opponents' collections. Everyone's collection is open information, so you can easily see what colours everyone wants and doesn't want. When one set contains one card which is valuable to one player, everyone else will want to contaminate it with a colour that he doesn't want. Sometimes you create a set which is particularly valuable to you, e.g. containing two colours that you want, only to have someone else claim it before you can, denying you at his own detriment. Sometimes you end up taking a lousy set which you have helped build, because everyone else has taken all other sets. The game is full of these funny situations.

When I played with my colleagues, they were quite cautious, sometimes even taking a set with only one card in a colour they want, rather than risk it getting contaminated later. This is a highly interactive game because you must always pay attention to what your opponents want and don't want. There is constant discussion, unsolicited "advice", and cheers or groans depending on what colour is drawn from the deck. It's as lively as a party game.

I had thought the game must be out of print, now that it has a descendant Zooloretto which has won so many awards. I asked Jeff (of BGC) and found that it is still very much in print. I have always liked Coloretto more than Zooloretto. Zooloretto is a full-fledged board game and has more stuff, but I feel the additional stuff is not really necessary. I prefer enjoying the gist of the game in its pure form. Coloretto is an old game now and is rarely discussed. If you have not tried it, I highly recommend it.

One day, a few weeks after introducing Coloretto to my colleagues, I noticed that they took it out for a spin by themselves, teaching another colleague who had not tried it before. This is the sign of a good game. It spreads.

26 Aug 2016. For Sale is an old game too, also a classic game more discussed a decade ago around the time I got into the hobby, but now not mentioned much. I rounded up a group of colleagues to teach them the game. This game supports up to 6 players. This is an auction game. In the first half you bid for houses, and in the second half you try to sell them off to the highest paying customers. My colleagues keep encouraging one another to bid higher. This is a dangerous thing to do. If you run short of cash too early in the first half of the game, you may end up with many lousy houses, and this greatly affects your profitability in the second half.

Cards with higher values have nicer houses. #22 is a mansion. #9 is a wooden hut on the coast.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Splendor

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Splendor was very hot for a while, and won quite a few awards. I missed it during its peak, and only played it for the first time recently.

This is how a game is set up. 5 random noble tiles are picked from a pool of 10 - those at the top of this photo. There are 3 levels of cards varying from cheap to expensive. For each level, four cards are drawn and laid out in a row. Whenever a card is bought or reserved, a new one is drawn to fill the blank. There are six types of chips, five are gems (black, white, red, green, blue) and the sixth type is gold (yellow).

The objective is to reach 15 victory points. Some cards are worth VP. Nobles are worth VP. Once a player reaches 15VP, the game ends after the current round, and the highest scorer wins. On your turn, there are only two types of action to pick from. First, you may collect gems. If you do so, you may either collect three gems of different colours, or two of the same colour. You are allowed to do the latter only if there are at least four gems left in that specific colour. The second action type is claiming a card. The cost of a card is specified at the bottom left corner. To buy a card you pay the required gem combination to the bank. Cards are gem producing facilities. Once you own a card, on every future turn it is considered to produce a gem of a specific colour which you can spend on buying a new card. Cards effectively give you discounts for future cards. E.g. if you already own two blue cards, you only need to pay one blue gem chip to buy a new card that costs 3 blue gems.

Every card produces only one gem. The three levels of cards differ by cost and VP worth. Cheaper ones tend to have low or no VP value. Expensive ones have higher VP values.

You may reserve a card without paying its cost. In this case you still claim it, but you place it face-down in front of you and you don't get to use its ability yet. In addition to the card, you also take one gold. The gold chip is a wild chip and can stand in for any gem. On a future turn you may pay the full cost of the card to turn it face-up.

The noble tiles specify the conditions you must fulfill to claim them. The conditions are in the form of specific combinations of cards. Once you meet the criteria, you immediately claim the corresponding noble. This does not require an action. Nobles are an important source of VP.

That's basically it. It doesn't sound like much, but let's look at how it feels during play.

I arrange my cards and chips this way so that at a glance I can easily tell what I can afford to buy, or what I'm short of to buy a certain card.

The Play

I played two games, both with 4 players, the highest count. At BGG most people think it's best with 3, but 4 seems to work quite well too. After Ainul explained the rules, I thought this game seemed rather simplistic. Your turn is very very simple. The actions are all straight-forward. You do need to have some short- or mid-term goals, and you need to spend a few turns achieving each of them. The game is a race to 15VP. What's interesting is how you get there. Splendor is a development game. Every card you buy contributes to your engine. Every card improves your buying power. You are constantly building your strength. You need a decent engine to be competitive. In my first game I focused very much on the engine-building. My reasoning was that if I could quickly build a strong engine, I would be able to run faster and outscore my opponents. I bought many cheap cards, because in terms of production capacity they were most cost-effective. Being able to buy more cards also meant it would be easier to win nobles. The nobles are the long-term strategy aspect in Splendor. You have to plan for them and watch which ones your opponents are going for. They are worth about 3VP each, and can easily become the difference between winning and losing.

My strategy was balanced development - having some of everything.

After the first game, I realised focusing too much on engine-building was not a good thing. I felt I was wasteful. I should not have delayed going for the VP cards for so long. I had underestimated the tempo of the game. A strong engine was good, but if I didn't use the capacity much, I probably shouldn't have developed that much capacity in the first place. This game is about developing just enough for you to be competitive in scoring. Overcapacity means waste. Identifying what's most worth doing and finding a path and a combo of cards that get you to 15VP most quickly are what make the game intriguing. When the 12 starting cards and 5 nobles are laid out, you can already start thinking about your strategy. You need to keep reevaluating and adjusting your strategy as the game progresses, depending on what your opponents are doing, and also what new opportunities present themselves.

Whenever a new card is drawn to replace a purchased (or reserved) card, the situation changes. Sometimes at the start of your turn a new card comes up which you can get for free. I like this aspect of the game. I like surprises. Other than this randomness, the game is an open information game. If you like to calculate things to death, you can. Your opponents' cards and chips are all open information. There are no dice and no probabilities to worry about. The only uncertainty is what cards are coming up next. I welcome this. This keeps the game lively.

Player interaction is high. You must watch your opponents. You don't want to keep getting in situations where you painstakingly collect gems to buy a card only to have someone else buy it just before you can afford it. You need to gauge when to fight and when to avoid a fight. If nobody can afford a particular card which you want, you can probably wait a little longer before buying it. If you see that an opponent who wants the same card as you will beat you to it, you probably should concede this card and shift your aim to something else. What throws a wrench in the works is the reservation mechanism. Suddenly you realise you cannot be sure anymore of your calculations. This reservation rule is a stroke of genius. Being able to reserve a card and take one gold sounds overpowered, but it is not. After reserving a card, you still need to spend a future turn to flip it. The gold sounds nice, but it is still just one gem, compared to the three gems you can take on a normal turn. Reserving a card is not to be taken lightly.

In Splendor you need to have a clear long-term plan, and you need to stay flexible with your mid-term tactics. The game situation constantly changes, and you must take these changes into account. You must not take actions on a whim. Your actions should be aligned towards a clear goal. Else you would be wasting actions.

Pay attention to your opponents and know what they want, be it cards or nobles. Know your enemies, so that you know how to pick your battles. In this photo, the cheapest cards have all been bought, so there are only two rows left. Of the 5 nobles, 3 have been claimed, so only 2 remain at the centre.

The Thoughts

I did not have expectations before playing Splendor. I knew it was well-received. What I had gathered from the various comments was that it was a light family game, and it was mostly abstract with a pasted-on setting. Now that I have played it, I find there is some depth to it that is not immediately obvious. There are some complex games where despite the many rules and different ways of scoring points, once you start playing them, you have a clear idea what needs to be done in order to do well. You know the pros and cons of your options. Splendor works the other way round. The actions are simple, but I find that it is not always easy to tell whether an action is good or bad. There is an opaqueness in the strategy. I mean this in a good way. It is not that the rules confuse you and you don't know what you should be doing. It is that many things are interlinked, and there is uncertainty in the cards which are yet to come, so it is hard to be precise about how valuable an action is. Sometimes it is not even a question of more valuable or less valuable. It can be a question of valuable or not valuable.

You can play without thinking about these too much. It is a very accessible game and it can be played in a relaxed manner. It works well as a family game.

The setting of Splendor is indeed pasted-on. Behind the facade, it is an abstract development and race game. But what a beautiful facade it has. Splendor is clever game with plenty of juicy decisions.

The excellent artwork makes playing the game a joy.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Barony

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Barony is a design by Marc Andre, designer of Splendor. I missed the Splendor party and didn't get to play it when it was at its hottest. I did see it being played, but each time that happened I was already sitting at another table playing another game. Then on my recent visit to Boardgamecafe.net I got to play both Barony and Splendor. Sometimes good things come in pairs.

To explain what Barony is, I want to start with the scoreboard. You are competing feudal lords trying to claim and develop territories, gaining power by building towns and forts, and then cashing in your power to elevate your status. The first player to get promoted to Level 5 triggers game end, and whoever has the most points wins.

The scoreboard is your career path. You start at 0VP at the top left corner. Every time you amass VP chips worth 15VP or more, you may turn them in to get promoted, moving your marker one step right. There is a reason for the second and third rows. Towns that you have built can be upgraded to cities, and each time you do this, you gain 10VP by moving your marker one row down. When the game ends, it is not necessarily a player at Level 5 who will win. A Level 5 player who hasn't built any city (i.e. 60VP) may lose to a Level 4 player who has built two (65VP). In addition to the VP on the scoreboard, any VP chips you have in hand are worth points too. These are the chips that you have not yet redeemed for a promotion.

These are the VP chips you gain every time you build a town or fort. They represent your power. Which chip you gain depends on where your town or fort is built. Farmland is the most valuable terrain. Mountains are least valuable. The numbers on the left are what the chips are worth when you redeem them for a promotion. The numbers on the right are what they are worth at game end if they are still in your hand.

This player reference sheet lists all 6 action types you have. On your turn you can only pick one action. You may recruit soldiers at a city. You may move your soldiers. As part of movement, you may be attacking an opponent's soldier or town. Combat is simple. You just remove his piece. Full stop. If you remove a town piece, you may rob one VP chip from your victim (your pick). So players usually need to protect their towns. You may convert your soldiers to towns or forts, and towns may be upgraded to cities. As mentioned earlier, you may redeem VP chips to get a promotion. The last action type is a little unusual (#5 in the photo). You may permanently remove one soldier from your stock to place another soldier from your stock to any empty edge space on the board. You only have 7 soldier pieces in the game, so sacrificing one permanently seems a rather high price to pay. However in the game I played, this action was used.

The largest building is a city, the smallest a town. The medium sized building is a fort. Cities and forts cannot be attacked and also block enemy movement. However quantities are limited so you need to use them wisely. The number of soldiers you have is also limited. You need to manage them carefully.

The Play

We did a 4-player game, which was the maximum. Ivan was yellow, Ainul red, Allen blue and I green.

The map is constructed from large tiles consisting of 3 hexes each. The map is set up randomly. The number of tiles to be used depends on the number of players. As part of game setup, every player needs to place 3 cities. The first cities of the players are placed in player order. Then the last player places his other 2 cities, followed by the 3rd player, then 2nd, then 1st player. So this is a little like The Settlers of Catan. Farmland is most valuable, so everyone eyes them greedily. Lakes are valuable too, because cities built next to lakes can recruit 3 soldiers at a time instead of the normal 2. This photo was taken in the early game. No towns or forts were built yet. Some players recruited soldiers. For my (green) first move I sent out my initial soldiers to claim land.

In the north, Ivan's (yellow) city was sandwiched by mine (green) and Allen's (blue). It would be hard for him to expand from this city. There were many farmland hexes here, so everyone wanted a piece, and wouldn't let anyone else easily monopolise the area. We ended up in a lose-lose situation. Not good, but perhaps necessary.

At the top left, I (green) had built two towns, and each was protected by a soldier. Any space with two pieces was completely safe and couldn't be attacked. Cities and forts are safe too, and are also permanently impassable to enemies. The advantage of cities and forts over two-piece sets is they don't need maintenance. Two-piece sets mean tying down your soldiers for defense. The moment a soldier moves and leaves behind a town or another soldier, whatever is left behind becomes vulnerable. My towns were right next to Ivan's (yellow) city, which meant he could recruit soldiers and send them to burn my towns. At this moment there was no immediate threat, but as soon as he started recruiting I would have to stay alert. Ivan himself had a soldier protecting his town next to Allen's (blue) city. At the top right, Ivan had recruited soldiers and they were rampaging the countryside. I needed to watch that direction too.

Protecting towns is important because if you don't, your hard earned VP chips may be snatched away. However, Barony is an efficiency game. Having to commit many soldiers to guard duty is inefficient, and that's very bad.

Ivan's (yellow) soldiers were advancing towards me (green). Were they going to be builders or raiders?

In the west, Ainul (red) had a big swath all to himself. He took his time recruiting soldiers, then sending them out, and eventually he would be converting a whole bunch of them into towns and forts all at one go. He was going to collect a lot of VP chips.

I (green) had two starting cities in this southern region. This was good country too - not many others around to harass me. My city on the right was next to a lake, so it could recruit three soldiers at one go. Two of my soldiers had been sent out to "chup" (reserve) farmland hexes. More were coming to claim spots. I wanted to do the conversion to towns and forts at the same time, saving me precious turns.

Ainul (red) had thought he was safe, and had underestimated the threat posed by Allen (blue). After Ainul converted his army of soldiers into towns, Allen sent in an expeditionary force, which now threatened to burn many towns. Ainul only had one soldier handy, which was not sufficient to protect his towns. This would become disastrous for Ainul who had many VP chips on hand. Barony is an open information game, so it sometimes feels chess-like. You can think ahead a few steps - if I do this, my opponent will likely do that, and I will then do this, and so on. The possibilities are many, but not endless. Yet sometimes you will miss out a possibility, and your opponents will exploit that. Or sometimes when your opponents decide to gang up on you, it is difficult to stop them. Diplomacy and psychology are tools you can use. There is a human side despite the game sometimes feeling like an abstract game.

In the south, I managed to build many towns without being bothered by others. I had built both my forts here, and together with the city between them, they formed my Great Wall. That town on the right could be upgraded to a city, which would complete the Great Wall. You can see that Ivan (yellow) had raised troops in the background. If he advanced towards me, I would need to quickly upgrade that frontier town.

In the first half of the game, I felt there was much land, but in the second half I started to feel the pinch. Available land dwindled, and whatever remained to be claimed had lower value. That meant more spaces needed to be claimed to make up the 15VP required for promotion. Thankfully I still had enough land within easy reach. Else I would need to invade others.

In the west, many of Ainul's (red) towns had been burnt by Allen (blue). Now Ainul had raised fresh armies and surrounded Allen's raiders. One of Allen's soldiers had settled down and converted itself to a town. The other was going to retire here and be on permanent guard duty. The two-piece rule meant Ainul could never attack Allen here, as long as that lone soldier stayed with the town piece.

My (green) situation was looking good. I was able to build aggressively without being hindered much. Barony is very much an efficiency game. Whoever manages to avoid getting embroiled in war is in a good position, but that's easier said than done. Now I was preparing for my final push, sending out my last batch of soldiers to build towns and collect VP chips in order to do my last VP chip redemption and promotion.

Ivan (yellow) hatched a plan to slow me (green) down, recruiting two soldiers here. I had one soldier here, while the other six were in the south preparing for my final push. I had no more soldiers in my pool to recruit to protect my tiny northern province. So I had to position my lone soldier this way. I could not protect that town on the left, but at least I could limit the damage to just that town. The soldier would protect the town he is in, and also the town to the north, at least from attacks from the southern direction. I examined the positions of my other six soldiers in the south. They would get me more than 15VP when they converted to towns. After taking into account one highest valued VP chip that Ivan would rob from me, I would still have exactly 15VP. I was still on track for that final crucial promotion.

In the far right you can see a lone blue town - Allen's. He had performed that sacrifice action, removing one of his soldiers from the game to place another soldier on that hex. The soldier was then converted to this town. Later it was upgraded to a city, and became a threat to Ivan (yellow). Cities can recruit fresh soldiers.

Eventually I got promoted to Level 5 and ended the game. I had the most points, but just barely. Allen was at Level 4 and had built two cities. I had built one. Had I not built that one city, he would have outscored me.

The Thoughts

Barony is a succinct game. It is a development game where everyone tries to be as efficient as possible, making it feel like a race to the finish line. However it is also a merciless war game where one miscalculation can put you out of the race. It is almost an abstract game, because it is a perfect information game. There is no randomness once the game starts. No dice. No cards. Only the map setup is random (and this provides variability). Ideally you want to be able to focus on your own development without being disturbed by your opponents. However warfare, or the threat of warfare, cannot be avoided. A threat will at least force you to spend actions defending yourself. In the worst case you will lose towns and precious VP chips. Robbing VP chips from others is lucrative. A pure race of efficiency is not going to happen because whenever a leader begins to emerge, the rest will collaborate to slow him down (assuming a non-two-player game). There can be diplomacy and negotiations, since this is a multiplayer wargame. How heavily they are used depends on the play style of the group.

The actions in the game are simple. Your turn consists of only one action, so the game progresses briskly. The simplicity allows you to quickly understand the strategy and appreciate the tactics. When I first saw photos of the game, I had no interest at all. It looked like yet another Ameritrash style multiplayer wargame. Barony turned out to be a much more Euro design. Slick, clean, lean and mean. Sometimes downright mathematical, and sometimes frightfully brutal. It can feel a little dry because it is an open information game. It can also feel intimidating and serious, like how chess can be. It depends on your group.

It is a highly interactive game. Players will fight for lucrative locations. They will bump into one another and they will be either tempted into launching attacks, or forced into making defensive moves. Barony is a wargame requiring precision and forward planning, and not one where you simply holler and charge and hope to win. More intellectual, less visceral. I find it a clever design.