Friday, 13 July 2018

Unicornus Knights

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

One of the designers of Unicornus Knights is Seiji Kanai of Love Letter fame. The other designer Kuro is also well known in Japan. Unicornus Knights is a very different animal from Love Letter. It is a mid-weight cooperative game, with some role-playing elements. It has a medieval fantasy setting. The Kingdom has been invaded by the evil Empire. The King is dead, and the capital captured. The Imperial army is terrorising the realm. The sole survivor of the dynasty is the Princess. She is determined to avenge her family and reclaim the throne. She will march to the capital and kick the smug Emperor out, and she will stop at nothing. You are generals of the Kingdom, and your job is to help the Princess reclaim the Kingdom. This must be done within 10 rounds, before the Empire solidifies its power.

All this sounds fine and dandy and patriotic. When we played, it turned out to be a hilarious exercise of playing nanny to our impetuous (to put it nicely) Princess. The Princess is a non-player character (NPC) and acts based on clearly defined rules. You have little control over her. She charges towards the capital, disregarding dangers and ignoring advice. When she runs out of supplies, she gathers more on the spot, and starts off again once she has enough. As generals loyal to the Kingdom, you have to make sure she doesn't get herself killed. If this happens you lose. It is okay to get yourself killed though. You'll just switch to play a different Kingdom general next round. Try not to die, because you'd lose your allies, armies and supplies. It is usually bad to die.

This is our dear Princess. We all call her Siao Za Bo behind her back, which in Hokkien means Crazy Woman.

This is the Princess's character card. The 5 inside the heart is life points. If she takes her 5th injury, she dies. The 6 inside the shield is her command ability. It determines the army size she can lead.

This is how a game is set up - capital at the far right, and Princess at the far left. Kingdom generals (i.e. the players) are along the left edge, near where the Princess is. Most tiles are guarded by Empire generals. Every Empire general has his own character card. We put these along the edges of the map, near the respective on-map characters, so that it's easy to refer. There are Empire armies all over the place, some led by Empire generals, some not.

In our game there were four of us playing. If we count the Princess as well, that was five of us against about twelve generals and dozens of armies. It looked daunting. At first I thought that since the Princess would make a bee-line for the capital, we could just focus on defeating the Empire generals and armies along her path. We could ignore those further away from the path, and save precious time and resources. However there was a catch. We would eventually need to defeat the Emperor who was stubbornly guarding the capital. His strength was determined by the number of Empire generals still on the board. If we only defeated a few of them, his strength would be still very high, and it would be very difficult to beat him.

The structure of a round is simple. The Kingdom generals (i.e the players) take actions, then the Princess acts, and then the Empire generals and armies act. As Kingdom generals, you only have 5 action types, and they are all simple. The number of actions you get depends on the number of players. The two most basic actions are raising troops and gathering resources. You can only raise troops in cities, towns and villages, and the number of soldiers you can raise per action depends on the population density. You can gather resources anywhere, but it is only efficient if you do it at resource-rich locations, i.e. cities, towns, villages. The relationship between soldiers and resources is a very core part of the game. When your army marches one space, every soldier consumes one resource. If you are leading a huge army, it will eat a lot. You need to have a lot of resources to get it to march long distances. This is a logistical problem you need to think about and plan for all the time. Don't keep a large army when you don't need it. You'll just have more mouths to feed. However when you need to fight a tough enemy, you need to make sure you have enough fighters and enough food for them too.

Marching and attacking are the same action. When you try to march into an enemy-occupied space, you will attack him. If you defeat him, you march in. If you fail to completely defeat him, you stay put.

In addition to the number of soldiers in your army, the cost of marching also depends on terrain. Some terrain types are easy to march into, and some are harder. In this photo, the road space with the green -1 icon means you pay one resource fewer, whereas the forest spaces with the red +1 icons means you pay one extra resource.

Let's talk about the combat mechanism. It is a little unusual. This here is an Empire general. The 5 in the heart icon is life points. You need to deal this much damage to defeat this general. The 6 in the shield icon is the combat strength of the general. The shield icon means a different thing when it appears on the Princess card and the Kingdom general cards. For Empire generals, total combat strength is general's combat strength (i.e. shield icon) plus army combat strength (number of soldiers in the army). When you fight an Empire general, you need to allocate a number of dice equal to his total combat strength. Let's say this general above is leading 3 soldiers. You will need 9 dice in total. If you are able to roll 11 dice, you must assign 9 of them. You apply the results of these 9 dice. Naturally, since you have 2 surplus, you would have discarded 2 dice with unfavourable results. Now let's say you are only able to roll 7 dice, you would be 2 dice short. The Empire general would deal 2 points of damage to you, because of this shortage. This is even before you apply the results of those 7 dice you have rolled. The Empire general does not roll dice. Only you do.

This above is a Kingdom general. The heart icon works the same way as Empire generals. Take this much damage and you die. The shield icon means something else. For Kingdom generals it means your army size limit. The number of dice you get to roll during battle depends on the number of soldiers in your army. So this guy here normally gets to roll at most 5 dice, because that's the highest number of soldiers he can lead. There are some cards and character abilities which allow Kingdom generals to roll more dice. That little table on the right defines how well a character fights. The left half is for when he attacks, and the right half for when he defends. When attacking, Urgan deals damage on 5's and 6's, and takes damage on 1's and 2's. That's just average. However on defense, he deals damage on 3's to 6's, and only takes damage on 1's. So he's a very good defender. It is better to lure enemies to attack him.

Another one of your action types is drawing a support card. These are special abilities cards, and many are quite handy.

The last action type is sending stuff. You send one or more of your soldiers to a nearby comrade or the Princess, and he (or they) may bring resources along, up to 10 resources per person. This is an important action type. You often need to help your teammates out. It is also a means to manage the Princess. Send her troops to slow her down, or send her resources to speed her up. Send her troops to protect her and help her fight. It is easy to get stuck in the countryside with insufficient resources to allow your army to march. Gathering resources yourself in such situations is inefficient. It is better to ask your friends in nearby cities to gather resources and then send them to you.

After the Kingdom generals (i.e. the players) complete their turns, the Princess takes hers. She only cares about advancing towards the capital, and she takes the shortest path. Only if two paths have the same distance, you get to decide for her. She only stops to gather resources when she is unable to march. Once she gathers enough (or one of you gives her enough), she resumes her journey.

Once the Princess is done, the Empire generals and armies act. Empire generals have different behaviours. Most of them stay where they are, and only attack when you or the Princess is standing right next to them. Empire armies behave like this too. They ignore you unless you approach them. Some Empire generals are defensive. These strictly stand their ground, and won't budge even when you walk right up to them. If you want to defeat them, you have to be the one starting the fight. Only a few Empire generals are aggressive. The moment you or the Princess comes within a certain distance, they are triggered and start moving towards the nearest Kingdom character.

One important aspect in the game is the Fate cards. The first time any Empire general is approached by a Kingdom general, a Fate card is drawn to possibly establish some story between them. Special rules may come into play, affecting their behaviours.

If the Princess manages to enter the capital within 10 rounds, you win. If she dies, or is late, you lose.

The Play

We did a 4-player game. Ivan had played this before. Allen, Tim and I were new. The game comes with quite a few Kingdom generals, so you have plenty of variety. There are even four versions of the Princess. You can pick a style you like. They give different benefits. There are many Empire generals too, but every game most of them will be on the board, so the variety is less. Right off the bat we could already analyse the board situation and plan what to do, based on the locations of all the characters on both sides. We discussed how to make the best of our character abilities, and who to play what role. Ivan's character enjoyed a benefit when near the Princess, so he was in charge of staying close to her and protecting her. Allen's character was a support character. Since he was near Ivan, his role was to support Ivan by sending him troops and resources. Tim's character was a fighter, so he was our strike force.

Tim's character was the girl on the left in the foreground. When the game started, she had no army (no round soldier tokens beneath her). She must either recruit or have another Kingdom general send her troops. That lady with a huge black hat to the right was an Empire general, a necromancer. She summoned zombies in empty spaces on her tile every round, so if we wanted to defeat her, we must strike at her directly and swiftly, else the zombies would keep coming and drown us.

This area was tough - so many Empire armies.

The blurred old guy at the centre is Ivan's character. He had now entered the desert to fight a monster. The monster was strong, but thankfully didn't have any army. Allen's character, a young lady, is at the far left. She was now recruiting and gathering resources.

Tim's character had now defeated the necromancer. The zombies here would be attacking him, but at least there wouldn't be new zombies being generated by the necromancer anymore.

On the right, that angry bald guy with a red background is an aggressive type Empire general. He had been triggered and was heading towards Tim's character. My character is the blurred bearded dwarf in the foreground. I planned to move nearer to the bald guy to lure him towards me. I was strong in defense.

The Princess was moving slowly, and was still wandering in the desert on the left. All four of us had plunged in and were pushing the front line.

Having a pint with Her Highness.

That's Allen's character Annelie at the top right. When she approached the Empire general Chancellor Kostov, the Fate card drawn was Love At First Sight. If Annelie could reach Kostov, he would be immediately defeated by love, and become an ally. No need to fight at all, which would save soldiers and resources. So this was nice. From this point till the end of the game, all of us couldn't stop making fun of Kostov for being a perverted lolicon. Must be because of his ridiculous hair.

Ivan and Allen pushed towards the top left. Tim and I pushed the middle path, staying ahead of the Princess. I was now standing between angry bald guy and the Princess, waiting for him to throw his army at my well-prepared defenses.

There are cards and events which change how the Princess behaves. Some may cause her to head in a different direction, towards a specific character. This can be good and bad. Good if it helps to keep her from trouble. Bad if it delays her too much from reclaiming the throne. Some support cards let players move the Princess. These are precious and are very powerful when used at the right time.

When Allen's character (top right) approached the Empire general at the bottom left, the Fate card he drew happened to be "Love at First Sight" again! Now these three were in an "it's complicated" relationship. A love triangle! What drama! Maybe it was because Allen's character was badly injured. She had taken 3 damage and would die upon the next damage. So, old or young, men fell for her because who could bear to hurt this delicate flower?

We entered the last phase of the game. Tim's character was already in the capital tile slapping around those armies protecting the Emperor. The Princess was on the right, only a few steps away from the capital tile. That guy in dark armour on the right was an unusual one. He was not an Empire general, and did not contribute to the Emperor's strength. We did not need to defeat him to weaken the Emperor. However, if we defeated him, we could use him as a powerful weapon to defeat the Emperor. In our particular game, since we had been successful in defeating (and seducing) the Empire generals, there was no need to fight this dark knight. We ignored him. Those two Empire generals on the far left were twins. If we defeated one of them but not the other, at the end of the round, the defeated twin would resurrect. These twins were a pain in the neck. These are examples of unique stories and characteristics of the generals in the game.

Tim's character continued to terrorise the capital, preparing for the final attack.

The Princess was previously on the right side and preparing to enter the capital tile. However something unexpected happened. The Princess' fate was linked to one of the remaining Empire generals. If she met up with him, he would renounce the Empire and follow her instead. So now she was heading in a completely different direction. Other than playing nanny, protector and supplier, we also had to play secretary to Her Highness, scheduling appointments for her.

Eventually it was Tim's character who defeated the Emperor, and allowed the Princess to march into the capital amidst ecstatic cheering from the crowd. Peace returned to the Kingdom. Earlier in the game Tim's character defeated the robot girl Empire general, who then became an ally. The robot girl had a single-use ability, which converted all die rolls to kills, but only for one battle. Tim saved this till the final battle against the Emperor, and won a decisive victory. He didn't even need to roll the dice.

The Princess reclaimed the throne, and to our pleasant surprise, none of us got killed in the process. Yay us!

The Thoughts

I had a great time with Unicornus Knights. We had a fun bunch of players, and also a number of funny incidents, made possible by how the game works. I see the game as a puzzle which the players need to collaborate to solve. From the beginning, you already need to analyse the game setup and decide how you want to play. Depending on how your strategy pans out, you may need to adjust your plans. It feels like a puzzle because the Empire generals and armies set up on the board don't move about much. Their actions are all calculable. Seen as a mathematical exercise, the game doesn't seem all that sexy. However the Fate cards and Support cards will throw in some surprises and opportunities. There is much character in the game. Both Empire generals and Kingdom generals make you feel you can imagine their backstories easily. They feel alive. Empire generals are not just generic pawns to defeat. Kingdom generals are not just abstract powers you can use as a player. The Fate cards inject stories and twists to the game. They certainly injected a twisted love story in our game.

There are two aspects of the design I admire. Firstly, the army and resources dilemma. It is a simple but clever mechanism that succinctly represents a very real logistical problem. The second aspect is the battle mechanism. It took a while to understand, but once I grasped it, I found it very nifty.

Variability comes from the random game setup, the Kingdom generals, and the Princess version (there are four to choose from). Most of the Empire generals are in play every game, so by your second game you should have seen all of them. You will also have seen most of the Fate cards after the first two games. If replayability is defined as how long it takes for you to see all content, then this is a 4 - 5 play game. The true replayability is more than that, because difference in setup and the Fate cards drawn will create difference experiences and different stories.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Pandemic Legacy Season 2

Plays: 4P x 18.

Pandemic Legacy Season 2 is a spoiler-heavy game, so in talking about it I have to use the same method as when I wrote about Season 1. In Part 1 I will talk about how the game works, and you will see items that you have access to before your first game. I will also talk about my opinions of the game. Part 1 is spoiler free. Part 2 will not be. I will share my experiences with the game. Part 2 is meant for sharing with others who have also completed the full campaign.

Part 1

The Game

The story in Season 2 starts 71 years after the end of Season 1. By the end of Season 1, humanity was almost wiped out by the four deadly diseases. Some off-shore havens were constructed, and they became important production centres, supplying food and goods to the cities on the mainland, which were greatly reduced from their former glory. Haven citizens were spared the worst of the diseases. Now, humanity still struggles to survive. Recently some distant mainland cities stopped communications. The leaders in the havens launched an expedition to the mainland to find out what had happened to these cities. They never returned, and mainland cities continued to drop off the grid. Now a second expedition is being launched to look for our leaders, and you are part of this second expedition. You need to help supply goods to the mainland cities still in contact with the havens, and you need to find our leaders, and re-establish contact with the lost cities. Something is very wrong and you need to find out what's going on.

There are quite a few changes in Season 2. The core mechanisms in Season 1 were the same as base Pandemic. In fact players were encouraged to use the Season 1 components to play basic Pandemic before playing with the legacy rules. Season 2 makes a number of changes to the original core mechanisms.

In Season 1 and in base Pandemic, the board is infected with disease cubes, and you run around treating patients and removing disease cubes. Your objective is to find cures for all four diseases before time runs out, and before any of the diseases spread too much.

In Season 2, you no longer have 4 different diseases. The grey cubes on the board are not diseases. They are goods which you supply to the mainland cities. You are no longer removing cubes from the board. Instead, you want to add cubes to the board. When infection cards are drawn, instead of adding disease cubes, they remove goods cubes. If a city runs out of goods, and is then hit with an infection card, a green plague cube is added. This is considered an incident, and it is recorded on the incident track. When the 8th incident occurs, you lose the game. This is equivalent to the outbreak track in base Pandemic.

Normally you can't remove plague cubes from the board. So they are not the same as disease cubes in base Pandemic. Only special action cards will allow you to remove plague cubes. You want to stay away from plagued cities. If your character starts his turn in a plagued city, he is exposed to the plague, and may be scarred (suffer a permanent disability), or may even die from illness (the character will no longer be available to play in future games).

Similar to Season 1, when you play Season 2, you play through a campaign consisting of 12 months. You play each month once or twice. If you win on your first attempt, you move on to the next month. Otherwise you get a 2nd chance. After the second time playing the same month, regardless of win or lose, you move on to the next month, which will bring new content, and possibly new rules or changes in rules.

At the start of your campaign, most of the world map is blank. The havens have lost touch with many cities. You have three havens (white cities at sea), and nine mainland cities, three each in blue, black and yellow. In Season 2, there can be multiple copies of the same city card in both the player deck and the infection deck. At the beginning of the campaign, every city has 3 cards in both decks. This is a big difference. In Season 1, if a city card has been drawn from the infection deck, you know that city won't get infected again until the next epidemic card and the next reshuffle. In Season 2, this no longer holds true. If two or three cards of the same city are clumped together near the top of the infection deck, the goods at this city will be depleted very very quickly.

During the campaign you need to explore the blank spaces on the board. In this photo you can see five areas which can be explored. To do exploration, or recon, you need to first build a factory at the city from which you will recon. You then need to spend a specific combination of cards to perform the recon action itself. For example, to perform recon in North America, you need to first build a factory in Washington. You then need to spend any three blue city cards to recon. When performing recon, you get to open a sealed box. There are new game components, and possibly new rules, and part of the world map will be revealed. Doing recon is not easy. Doing recon from Washington will require 8 blue cards, 5 for the factory, and 3 for the recon action itself. At the start of the campaign, it is not even possible to recon from Europe, the Middle East or Africa. In Europe, you need four different blue cards to recon. You only have three blue cities, and thus can get at most three different blue cards. You will need to have found and connected to more blue cities to have added more blue cards to the player deck before you can consider trying to recon in Europe.

The off-shore havens are production centres, and are permanent factories. Neither player deck nor infection deck have cards for the havens, so they truly are safe havens. In Season 2 there is a new type of card shuffled into the player deck - production cards. If you are at a factory, be it an off-shore haven or a mainland city which has had a factory built during the current game, you may play a production card to mass-produce supplies at your current location. There are two ways of using the card. Producing at your current location is the basic usage. The advanced usage allows you to produce at all factories on the board. However this comes at a cost. You must tick a box on the card (with a permanent marker and not a pencil). When all boxes on a production card are ticked, the card is to be destroyed and removed forever from the player deck. So this is a long term implication you need to consider. This is yet another legacy mechanism - some actions are irreversible and permanent.

In Season 2, one new basic player action is to produce one goods cube. This is much less efficient than using production cards to produce goods cubes at factories, but often it is necessary. You are constantly under pressure to keep the mainland cities supplied, to prevent plagues. Player characters may carry goods cubes. They may pick cubes up, they may drop cubes off at cities, they may pass cubes to other characters. The tactical fire-fighting aspect in this version of Pandemic is producing and supplying goods cubes to mainland cities. The strategic objective aspect is to complete the required number of missions in the current month. The missions change over time, and they drive the story you experience. The story is about re-establishing communications with mainland cities which you have lost touch with, and finding out what had happened to them and to your leaders who had gone missing.

This is one of the character cards. Before starting your first game, you get to create five characters. At most four will be in use when you play. You can decide which four. The game gives you many profile pictures to choose from, but only 5 professions with which to customise your initial characters. Each profession gives a special ability. As you play, you may gain new abilities or new weaknesses. They are stickers which will occupy the spaces on the right. Weaknesses have priority over abilities. In case all five spaces are taken and you need to add a weakness, you stick the weakness over an existing ability, which means you not only gain a new weakness, you also lose an old ability.

The row of tiny grey boxes are exposure spaces. If your character begins a turn in a plagued city, he is exposed, and you much scratch off the leftmost box which has not been scratched yet. If a scar icon is revealed, you take a scar, i.e. a new weakness or disability. If a skull icon is revealed, your character dies and becomes unavailable for future games. You need to be careful to keep your character away from those green plague cubes. You can touch them when you run around the map, but try not to stop at a city with these green cubes, because on your next turn you will be exposed, unless someone is able to remove the green cubes, or move you somewhere else.

This was Ruby's character, Nutnutty. Five of us played Season 2 together, and we each created one character. We tended to play with our own characters. That meant less variety, but it made us more attached to our characters. Benz's was the 5th character. The game only supports 4 players, but he played together with us anyway, despite not having a character to control. We discussed our options and we strategised together as a team.

Nutnutty was a labourer, which meant that when building a factory (Supply Centre) she could substitute a card with two goods cubes. When we were able to gain a new ability, we gave her the ability to build a factory with one card fewer. That meant she could build a factory with just three cards and two cubes. In our games she was always assigned to be the factory builder. This was efficient. We focused the factory building related skills on her. However this was also risky. If this character died, we would suffer a severe blow. We had all eggs in the same basket.

Doing some LARPing.

At the start of every game, you get a number of goods cubes to distribute to the cities and havens as you like. During the game you need to manage the production and supply of goods to help the cities stay healthy, while working towards the objectives of the month. There are two ways to lose. You lose if you are unable to manage the goods supply well enough to prevent the 8th plague incident. You also lose if you run out of time - you exhaust the player deck before completing your missions. There is only one way to win. You must complete the required number of missions. Sometimes there are more missions available than are required to win. You get to choose which ones you want to attempt.

As you progress from one month to the next, the starting supply of goods cubes reduce, which makes the game more and more difficult. You will also discover more and more of the world map, and gameplay evolves.

The Play

Completing the full campaign took us 6 months. We played 18 games in total. I played the whole campaign with the same group of friends - Benz, Ruby, Xiaozhu and Edwin. The game supports up to 4 players, but this being a cooperative game, playing with five wasn't a big problem. The fifth player was a talk-only participant - no character to control, but he could join all the discussions and strategising. The fifth player was also a backup in case one of us could not play. The campaign is best played with the same group of friends, so that there is continuity. Since the game changes and more and more rules are added, it is difficult for someone new to join halfway. He would have missed the previous shared experiences of the group too.

We found the early games rather easy. Only by May or June we felt the difficulty rising. As we progressed further, the game felt harder and harder. We felt pressed for time. If we could not get the missions completed within the first few rounds, the incidents would likely overtake us. There were some games which we realised were impossible to win. Some of the missions were impossible to complete due to the state of the board at the time, and we would not be able to complete the required number of missions. The best we could do was perform the actions which would make it possible for us to complete those impossible missions next game. Later, I found out that I had made a mistake. There was one standard mission which I had removed from the game earlier than I should. Biiiiig oops. It was rather difficult by then to work backwards to see how things would have been different, but my guess is we wouldn't have been stuck with mission impossible. If you are going to play Season 2, don't be careless like me.

Playing Season 2 felt like following a TV series. There is a more-or-less set story for you to discover. You likely won't stray far from the main storyline - which regions you will recon first, which truths you will learn next, and so on. If you fall behind schedule, there are cards which will direct you to reveal information to get you up to speed. In the games we played, we always managed to keep to schedule, so we did not need these cards to help us catch up. The campaign feels a little scripted to me, compared to Season 1. It is not that there are no scripted events in Season 1. I think the main difference is that in Season 2, the scripted events are tied to specific locations. You will tend to discover portions of the map roughly in a set sequence. In Season 1, the whole world map is available to you from the start, and the locations of key events are random. So Season 1 feels more open and has more possibilities. In Season 2 you are like a detective trying to piece together a sequence of events, while in Season 1 your fate is less predictable. It depends on what has happened in previous games, and what you do in your current game. In this aspect, I prefer Season 1 over Season 2.

We encountered two incidents of "are you going to save your wife or your mother". Both Edwin and Xiaozhu were caught in plagued cities. At the start of their next turns they would get exposed, which meant they could become scarred or even die. My character had the ability to bring one other character to my location, but I could only do this once on my turn. I could only save one of them. No matter who I chose, the other would be sad. What a dilemma!

The Thoughts

Like Season 1, I didn't find the game design in Season 2 particularly impressive. It works fine, just that it doesn't amaze me. Also now that I have experienced Season 1, the legacy format campaign does not have as big a wow factor as before. There are still some surprises, which was fun. The feeling of playing Season 2 is a little different from playing Season 1. If you enjoyed Season 1, I think you will like Season 2.

You can play Season 2 directly without having ever played Season 1, but I suggest doing them in sequence. The story flows better. Also I like Season 1 better, so you can try that first, and only if you like it then consider playing Season 2. The main thing about Season 2 is it is more different from other Pandemic games.

Overall, I still had fun with Season 2, although it wasn't as magical as the first time round. Season 1 was the highlight of my gaming year when I played it. Still, getting played 18 times is much better than most of the games I have bought. This was time and money well spent. It was another happy journey with my group of Pandemic friends.

Part 2

Spoiler alert! If you have not completed the full campaign of Season 2, best not read on. If you are done too, or have no intention of playing, then let's share some stories.

The Stories

I don't have a coherent or complete record of my 6 months of experience with Season 2. These will be just snippets that I recall.

When we discovered the new action of building radio towers, it didn't seem particularly useful, and we didn't plan to make use of it much. Benz was suspicious about it and said we should just build anyway, because there might be some surprise waiting for us. We should not only build radio towers, we should also spend the end game production units to convert them to permanent towers. He turned out to be right, of course. Lo and behold - the mission which required building radio towers at cities of different colours.

When we found the frequency scanner, we made use of it aggressively. Whenever we felt an Epidemic card was coming up in the player deck, we used the frequency scanner to help us draw four cards from the player deck. Epidemic cards drawn this way were ignored. This felt a little gamey, like we were exploiting a loophole, but I think the designers meant us to use it this way.

The character created by Benz - Snake - never came into play. Benz was our 5th player. Sometimes when Ruby could not play and he stepped in to play, he just played Ruby's character Nutnutty. Nutnutty accumulated many useful abilities. It would be a waste not to use her.

We discovered that Edwin has a secret tendency towards self-injury. Many times he wanted to have his character Eve suffer exposure, so that he could scratch off an exposure box to see what it revealed. Or maybe he's just curious, or likes the excitement. Many times the rest of us warned him not to do anything crazy.

We had done recon in Africa and Northern Europe. We still needed to recon the Middle East. There was a plague in Cairo. This was bad news. There were three of us in Cairo now. Anyone unable to leave before the start of his next turn would get exposed.

This looked scary, with so many Hollow Men on the board, but we actually welcomed the Hollow Men. According to the story, they were our enemies. However Hollow Men appearing meant not losing supply cubes due to infection, and fewer plagues breaking out. That meant we had a bit more time to complete our missions. If we had too many Hollow Men in a city, the population would decrease, but we were ready to let the cities die off anyway. The cities didn't help much towards completing our missions. Having surviving cities at game end did contribute to the production units, but in the later half of the campaign, there weren't many upgrades we were particularly keen to get anyway. It was a little twisted that we loved the Hollow Men and prayed for them to appear.

Hong Kong became an important hub. After we did recon for Asia, we made Hong Kong our base and created many sea lanes to other Asian cities from there.

It was very challenging to complete The Plan. We managed to collect the black, blue and yellow card sets with some difficulty. The red set was a much more difficult. The percentage of red cards in the player deck was small. We had not spent much effort removing cards from our decks to Box 6. By the time we needed to have a more healthy ratio of red cards in the player deck, it was too late to be able to do much fiddling with the deck.

In our campaign we did manage to have some infection cards moved to Box 6. It was easier to do the infection cards because sometimes we needed to visit those cities anyway to supply them. Moving player cards was harder. We often didn't have many player cards in the discard pile in the first place. Also there was usually little reason to visit those cities other than wanting to move their corresponding cards to Box 6. Our player deck grew and grew and eventually we needed to use all ten of the Epidemic cards. I wonder whether this is normal for other groups.

Eventually we did manage to complete The Plan. It was on our second attempt though.

21 Jun 2018. For the whole campaign all of us stuck to the same characters. The downside was we didn't get to play with different abilities. The upside was we got very emotionally attached to and very invested in our characters. Amazingly, no one died all the way up till the start of December. We did get scarred, but we survived. Our first death was in December. The mission in the finale month required injecting ourselves with a deadly dose of virus. When a character did this, he must keep scratching off the exposure boxes on the character card until he found either a scar or a skull icon. Empty spaces were ignored. If the character survived this, he had to travel to Johannesburg, carrying the virus in his body, in order to win. The team needed to have a factory in Johannesburg too, to study the virus sample and to mass produce a vaccine. The virus carrier would die, regardless of win or lose, because the dose injected was lethal.

Xiaozhu's character Leon was the first to attempt injecting himself with the virus. At the time he only had one scar revealed, and we thought it would be relatively safe for him to do this. To our surprise, the next icon he revealed was the skull icon. The dose was more than his body could handle and his was a swift death. This came as a shock to us. Xiaozhu had to take another character to continue the game. This turned out to be a blessing, because there was one character which could help us build shelters, which was what we needed at the time. Johannesburg was plagued, and we needed to assemble there to deliver the virus sample and to build the factory. Without a shelter we would be exposed to the plague.

The next to inject the virus was Edwin's character Eve, and she lived, at least long enough to carry the virus to Johannesburg. The virus carrier was very weak and movement was greatly impeded. Thankfully I had the ability to teleport people to where I was, and I managed to bring Eve to Johannesburg quickly. Regardless of win or lose, Eve would still die at the end of that game, because the virus dose was lethal. So we lost two comrades who went through heaven and hell with us for twelve months.

Once Edwin / Eve (pink) arrived in Johannesburg, we told him not to move and just wait for the factory to be completed. Benz (playing Nutnutty) was in charge of collecting enough cards to build the factory. The rest tried to pass him cards he needed. Xiaozhu (black, playing the new character) built a shelter and protected everyone from exposure. Johannesburg was a forsaken city with 0 population. It was permanently plagued.

Eventually we did manage to build that factory and win the game. It was our first attempt for the December month. This photo above showed the opening ceremony of the new factory, signalling victory and also the end of our 6 month long (real-time, not in-game time) campaign. Notice the traces of ink on our index fingers. These were mementos from the historic Malaysian election day on 9 May 2018.

Some of the character profile pictures which we didn't use.

Our final score was 588 - which was middling. We were in the third rank out of five.

This was the biggest (but not the only) mistake I made. I removed this mission from the game earlier than I should have. This made some of our games impossible to win. This mission was a generic one which we would have been able to fall back to if the others were impossible. When we had those impossible games, I blamed ourselves for not having planned well enough ahead. I thought it was normal that we would need to spend one or more games to set ourselves up to win in a subsequent game.

The Hollow Men cards often made us cheer. They often meant fewer plagues, and thus more time to try to save the world.

This was how our game board looked like after we completed the campaign. Kolkata was an important hub. It had a factory so we would fly there directly from our starting haven Arashiyama in the Mediterranean Sea. Also Kolkata was only one step away from Hong Kong, another important hub. We didn't have a factory in Hong Kong. It was very hard to collect red cards to build a factory in any red city like Hong Kong. In the late game many missions required being in Asia, so the route from Arashiyama to Kolkata to Hong Kong was an important one. The radio tower in Hong Kong was also an important one because of the scarcity of red player cards. We needed the tower to help us pass red cards to one another.

We had built a factory in Lagos, partly in remembrance of Kawasaki, a much loved character who died in our Season 1 campaign in Lagos. Because of this factory, the population of Lagos eventually grew to 8. We named that off-shore haven near Lagos Kawasaki too. We all missed him very much.

We mostly ignored North and South America in the second half of the campaign, and let the cities die off by themselves. We were too occupied in Asia.

After we completed the campaign, I found there were still some unopened components. These stickers are nice, but I have no idea what they are for. Just for fun?

Sunday, 24 June 2018

Tesla vs Edison

Plays: 6Px1. (2nd edition rules using Powering Up expansion)

The Game

The backdrop in Tesla vs Edison: War of the Currents is the years 1880 to 1896 in USA, when the first electricity networks were being built. It was an age of invention, with companies competing to bring electricity to the masses. There was competition between two approaches in delivering electricity - direct current (DC) and alternating current (AC). In history, we know that eventually AC won, but in this game, it is not necessarily so. You are the CEO of a company competing with others to develop new technologies and to install electricity networks in the many cities in northeastern USA. Game end scoring is primarily based on your company share value, but there are a few other ways to score. The game is played over a fixed 6 rounds, and scoring is only done at game end.

The map portion of the game board shows northeastern USA. It is completely blank at the start of the game. No one has built any electricity network yet. In the middle you can see three tracks in yellow, grey and light blue. These are the technology tracks. You need to have achieved specific levels of technological competency before you can build electricity networks in specific cities. Cities have different levels of requirement. The bottom section with many black boxes is the share value track.

This thin and long piece is the player board. It represents your company. The first card above it is you - the company CEO. At the start of each of the three phases of the game, you recruit an employee. The guy next to the CEO is employee #1. The four face-down cards below are divisions you can choose to create during the game. They give you points and unique benefits. The divisions of every company give different benefits.

The game is played over three phases, and each phase has two rounds. So the total is 6 rounds. Every round players take turns activating employees to perform actions. The CEO is considered an employee too. Bosses have to work too yeah. In phase 1, you only have two employees so you get to do at most two actions per round. In phase 2, you get a third employee, so you'll have up to three actions per round. Eventually in phase 3 you can have 4 actions per round. You can choose to combine the abilities of two employees to perform one action. However by doing this both of them are exhausted for the current round, and you will be taking one action fewer.

The icons along the left edge of an employee card indicate his abilities. Lightning bolt is invention skills, gear is manufacturing skills, dollar sign is financial skills, megaphone is propaganda skills. If there is a number next to the icon, the employee has the corresponding skill, and the number indicates skill value. If there is no number, the employee has no such skill, and cannot perform actions which require this specific skill.

There are only 4 types of action you can do - develop technology, claim a project, create a new division at your company, and do propaganda. Let's look at them one by one.

The three tech tracks are AC (yellow), DC (light blue) and bulb (grey). In the beginning, everyone starts at Level 1 in all three techs. The bulb tech is a prerequisite for the other two. E.g. if you want to make use of your Level 3 AC tech, your bulb tech needs to be at Level 3 too. You need either AC or DC tech to claim a project at a city, i.e. to build the electricity network for that city. Every city specifies a minimum tech level, but doesn't care whether you go AC or DC. Going AC or DC only matters to the company claiming the project. There is a track indicating the current electricity trend. If the trend is AC, and you run an AC project, your stock value goes up extra steps. However if you run a DC project, your stock value still goes up, but fewer steps than normal. You can choose to advance both AC and DC techs, but it will cost you more actions and may not be worthwhile. Most companies have unique abilities that drive them towards either AC or DC.

The action of advancing a tech requires both invention and manufacturing skills. If you have enough, you can advance more than one step. If the employee advancing the tech has financial skills too, he may claim a patent. In future anyone using your patented tech must pay you a fee.

The second action is claiming a project, i.e. placing your cube in a city. Every city awards its electricity project to only one company. After claiming your first project, you will want to claim projects in cities near your existing projects, because doing so in further locations incurs additional costs. When you claim a project, you are basically paying money to increase your stock value and your dividends received at the end of every round.

Claiming a project requires no specific skill, but if the employee doing it has financial skills, he can run projects more cheaply.

The third action is creating a new division at your company, i.e. flipping over one of the cards below your player board. Each division requires a different employee skill, and each gives a different ability. In the photo above, I have created three new divisions. The first division is my lab. With the lab, every time my CEO advances a tech personally, he gets 2 extra invention skills and 2 extra manufacturing skills.

The fourth and last action is doing propaganda, and you need the propaganda skill for this. You exhaust one of the available propaganda cards and use its powers. All propaganda cards give you some money. They also allow you to either adjust fame (player order) or adjust the electricity trend. Your employee doing the propaganda also gets to use his own propaganda value to adjust either fame or trend. Usually you want to be earlier in turn order, and usually you want the current trend to match the electricity type your company focuses on.

At the start of the game, everyone holds four shares in his own company. You can never sell these shares. Throughout the game, there is a limited number of shares of each company that can be bought. The four shares you control is a lot. Your fate is pretty much tied to your company. You have every incentive to make it successful. You can't get rid of your shares like in other stockholding games.

At the end of every round, you have the opportunity to trade one share, and then to buy one share. Trading means selling one share and then immediately buying another. You earn (or pay) the price difference. Buying is often not easy to do, because money is tight. Often you can't afford to buy. At game end, the VP worth of company shares is based on the ranking of their values. The highest valued shares are worth 6VP each, the next highest 5VP each, and so on.

Buying and selling shares affect their values. When you buy a share, the value goes up $1 per phase. When you are in Phase 1, that's only $1, but in Phase 3, it's $3. When you sell a share, the value drops one stage. What this means is on the board, the share value marker moves sideways to the left. Refer to the photo above. If a share is at $34, it drops directly to $30. This horizontal drop is the same in Phase 2 and 3. This was something we did wrong in our game. We had thought it was one stage per phase. Needless to say, shares being sold was a nightmare for every CEO at the table. We inadvertently played an ironman version of the game. This was the only part of the game that made me uncomfortable. Your share value can get destroyed rather arbitrarily. If someone buys your share in Phase 1, then sells it in Phase 2 or 3, you will be hurt badly. It was afterwards that we realised our error.

In the very last round, i.e. the second round in Phase 3, share prices are no longer affected by buying or selling. This protects your shares from last-minute manipulation just before game end.

Victory points from shares take up a big portion of the final scores. You also gain VP for cash in hand - 6VP for the player with the most cash, 5VP for the second most, and so on. If you have created divisions at your company, you can earn up to 10VP. The Works division of each company grants a unique scoring method. That will give some VP too if you have created that division and fulfilled its scoring requirements. Scoring is all done at game end. Throughout most of the game, you are positioning yourself for that. Interim situations during the game do not matter. What's important is getting into a strong position at game end.

The main story line in Tesla vs Edison is advancing your techs so that you can claim projects in the various cities. You grow your share value. At the same time you also pursue the other ways of scoring, hoping to line everything up precisely at the end of the 6 rounds.

The paper money should be called card money. Each note is big, thick and solid.

These are the company shares you can buy. Not many are available. The company founder's four shares will always be a big portion of a company's shares.

The horizontal track with yellow and light blue is the trend in electricity tech. The marker is now at level 2 of the yellow side, which means AC is the current trend. If a company starts an AC project, its share value will increase 2 extra steps compared to the norm. Conversely if a company starts a DC project, its share value will increase 1 step fewer.

If you examine the tech track carefully, you will see that the purple, blue and green players are focusing on AC (yellow) while the red, black and white players are focusing on DC (light blue).

At the start of Phase 2 and 3, when bidding for new employees, these new employees each come with a free share. Such free shares are semi-randomly assigned. So you not only need to consider the employee skills, you also need to consider the share value.

The Play

We did a full 6 player game. This game should be played with a high player count, probably at least four. You need to have enough players on both the AC and the DC side to make things interesting.

The early game was relatively uneventful. We took our time to "chup" (book) our first cities, which would more or less define the regions we would be competing in and who we would be competing with. After those initial cities, it took a long time for us to get busy claiming other cities. Throughout the mid game we spent more time on advancing techs, manipulating share prices. It was by late game that we started busying ourselves with the spatial element of the game again.

Buying and selling shares was crucial, due to how they affect the share prices, and the big role shares play at game-end scoring. Money was always tight, and often we could not afford to buy shares. Sometimes when we did, we had not enough money left to claim projects in the next round. The money to be earned from the propaganda action did not look like much, but since money was so tight, every little bit felt precious.

There were a few things we constantly fought over. Turn order was important. It was usually beneficial to go first. Also the 1st player enjoyed a share price boost every round. The player holding the highest patent could also get a share price boost. These were tactical wins that kept us on our toes. Every company had unique abilities, and we tried to make use of them as much as possible. Dith played Edison, and one of his abilities was he could earn money by promoting DC. He pushed the marker on the electricity trend track towards the DC side frequently, and he made a lot of money. This also meant he was naturally inclined to develop DC himself.

Although the game is every company for itself, due to how some would tend to go for DC and others AC, there is some collaboration among those going for the same tech type. The relationship is not really a cooperative one though. It is more like hoping others will do your work for you (pushing the electricity trend towards your side).

You don't have many actions. You have at most 18 for the whole game. They feel precious. You spend them carefully. Money is scarce too. Everyone is trying to position himself for the end game. Sometimes you pull some nasty moves on your competitors' share prices. Sometimes you invest in their shares because you believe they will end up strong. There is group psychology in the share buying and selling. It's not always straightforward to compare two companies. You can compare the board positioning, patents, turn order and current techs, but sometimes a mere whim of the group can decide which share is invested in and which is abandoned. After all, everyone wants to go where everyone else is going. This sounds a little scary, but it is partly because we had played the share selling rule wrong. Share prices would be less volatile and less subject to sabotage with the correct rule. Also, the company founder always holding 4 shares means everyone is still mostly vested in his own company. The stockholding is not as freeform as other stockholding games.

The map only started filling up in late game. Expansion was slow in mid game.

This was my company at game end. Other than shares of my own company, I had bought and kept some Thomson shares. The unique ability of Thomson was its share price was not affected by selling. Since we played the wrong rule in share price reduction, this ability became very attractive. Thomson shares sold out quickly. I managed to create all four new divisions for my company - the cards below the board were all flipped to the active side.

These were the final share prices. Allen's Tesla (dark blue) shares had the highest price, followed by Jeff's Thomson shares. Kareem (red) and I (green) were very close. Too bad I could not boost my share price past his. Dith's Edison did worst (at the far left - $13), but it was partly because of our rule mistake. When we dumped his share, it crashed like a lead ball.

Dith had so much cash! It was like ghost money! (joss paper / hell money)

The Thoughts

Tesla vs Edison took a long time to play, but it's more a medium weight game than a heavyweight. You only have 4 action types, and they are not complicated. I like how each company has some unique abilities and how some will incentivise them to go for AC or DC. There is a constant tug of war between the AC and the DC factions. This is a development game. It feels good to progress your techs and to expand your network of cities. It feels good to create new divisions for your company and enhance your abilities.

The stockholding part of the game makes me a little nervous. Stockholding games have always been my weakness. Even if we had played with the correct rules, I would still have been anxious. However, compared to other stockholding games, Tesla vs Edison would be more "safe" for me, because it is less freefrom. Every player still has a big stake in his original company. Company ownership is much less volatile than full fledged stockholding games.

The VP value of shares is based on ranking and not absolute value. This may be a concern for some. Let's say the top four shares are all very close. The top share is worth 6VP, but the fourth will only be worth 3VP. That's half of the top share, when their actual share values may not be far apart. This can feel cruel. It is all about relative positions, and not about actual value. I am not too bothered, but I imagine this feels like a disjoint for some.

Tesla vs Edison is a decent Kickstarter game. It has an interesting premise, a fun dynamic and excellent production.