Friday, 24 May 2019

boardgaming in photos: Pandemic Iberia, 10 Days in Asia, R / Braverats, The Mind, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, Ascension

15 Feb 2019. I played Pandemic: Iberia with Benz, Ruby, Xiaozhu and Edwin. We did the variant game, using the advanced yellow disease. In this game, the yellow disease wasn't active in the early game. Other regular diseases kept us busy. At this point we were in the southwest corner containing the black disease. If I remember correctly, we gathered there also because we needed to pass cards to one another. Huelva was a terminal station of the railway network we built, from which we could get to many other cities quickly. Later in the game, the yellow disease attacked and spread very quickly, catching us unprepared. We soon lost the game because we couldn't contain it.

The advanced yellow disease spreads faster than regular diseases. Whenever a port city is infected with a yellow cube, all neighbouring port cities also get infected.

16 Feb 2019. Charles, Yee Fon and Thean playing 10 Days in Asia. During the Chinese New Year period we had a BBQ at Kwe Long's new home, doing a housewarming plus New Year celebration. I brought a few games (red plastic bag in the background), but this was the only one we pulled out to play.

15 Mar 2019. This time playing Pandemic: Iberia we tried the advanced black disease. Whenever a city with no black cubes is to be infected, it immediately gets two black cubes instead of one.

We built the black disease hospital in the southeast, and we linked our railway network all the way here.

We won this game. We managed to research all four diseases, as indicated by the four microscopes. The yellow disease was the last one we researched. We had enough surplus actions to waste, so we all congregated here at the yellow hospital to celebrate our victory, with ribbon cutting and champagne.

23 Mar 2019. I bought five Ascension expansions at one go - Dawn of Champions, Dreamscape, War of Shadows, Gift of the Elements, and Valley of the Ancients. Currently I play with just these. I bought them simply because I wanted some variety. I have been playing Ascension more or less daily for a few years, well exceeding a thousand games played. I find these newer expansions just so so. Ascension is fine without them. Some are OK but not really necessary. Some are a bit tedious to me.

This above is a temple card from Valley of the Ancients. There are three temples in this expansion, one big and two small. The big one is worth 10VP, and the small ones 5VP each. Some cards show a temple icon. When you activate such an icon, you get to claim the corresponding small temple. If you activate the icon when already owning that small temple, you claim the big temple. The Temple of Life in this screenshot also grants 2 Runes.

If you defeat this monster you get to claim both the small temples at one go.

This monster has the keyword Rally. The Rally keyword is followed by a faction name or "monster". If the next card to enter the card row is of that faction or is a monster, you claim (or defeat) it for free.

15 Apr 2019. Zee Zun made a copy of R / Braverats with a Baby Metal theme. He gave me a copy. He is a big fan of Baby Metal, a Japanese heavy metal band. R is a microgame with only 16 cards. My own copy is self-made too, with a Star Wars theme.

28 Apr 2019. It had been a while since I last played Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. Prior to this I had done 4-player games with my colleagues, and 2-player games with elder daughter Shee Yun. We only made it up to Game 3 (of 7) then. Playing with four was much harder than playing with two. We didn't even manage to beat Game 2. With two, Shee Yun and I beat even Game 3 with ease. It was only then I realised the game difficulty varies much due to the number of players. Searching the internet confirmed my suspicion. Many others feel the same. Now I'm getting my wife Michelle and younger daughter Chen Rui to play as well. Cooperative games work well as a family activity - no competition and no hard feelings, and there's a healthy gotong-royong spirit. Three of us did Game 1 and Game 2, and won easily. They were meant to be tutorial games. I asked Shee Yun to join us for Game 3, and I expected a much bigger challenge due to the number of players. To my surprise, we beat the game comfortably too. I thought we must have played some rule wrong, but as far as I could tell, we didn't. Throughout the game we reminded one another to resolve villain effects and hero effects. Perhaps it was easy simply because we were a strong team? Let's see how things go when we move on to the subsequent games. I hope to be able to go all the way to Game 7. Starting at Game 4 we'll see the use of dice.

9 May 2019. Sometimes I eat lunch at the office, ordering food delivery. I'm usually done eating in 10 minutes, and have time to spare. One lunch break I taught my colleagues to play The Mind - Carol, Xiaozhu, Edwin, Benz and Ruby. They took turns playing since the game supported only four. I didn't play and just enjoyed watching them play. They loved the game. It was funny to watch them play. Once when I wasn't around and they played, Benz who was not playing at the time caught the others using a dubious strategy. They intentionally asked the player with the highest card to play it, which triggered a foul and the loss of one life, but in exchange everybody could discard all their cards, and they could advance to the next level. Strictly speaking this is not against the rules, but I think it's against the spirit of the game. Benz forbade them from doing it again.

In one particular game they played, this happened. Three different people had 3, 4 and 5. This was very difficult to play right. Immediately after the round started, all three of them got ready to play their cards, but when they saw others being just as keen, they knew they were in a precarious situation. When they played all three cards successfully, everybody cheered.

Friday, 17 May 2019

Greenland

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Just one week after Allen, Ivan and I played Neanderthal, we did the sister game Greenland, this time with Sinbad joining us so we had the full complement. Greenland was published first, so Neanderthal is a refined version with a different setting. I prefer Neanderthal to Greenland. However Neanderthal supports at most three players, compared to Greenland which supports four.

Greenland tells the story of Greenland from the 11th to the 15th century. During this period four tribes lived on Greenland. They competed, but more importantly they had to survive the harsh conditions of Greenland. It was not all that green, it was mostly snow white. Eventually three of the four tribes died out. Only the Thule survived, and they are the modern day Inuits or Eskimos.

Greenland is a worker placement game, but it is nothing like the typical Euro-style worker placement game we play. It is a heavy gamer's game with many rules, perhaps more being for flavour and storytelling than for gameplay and game mechanism. Throughout the rulebook and on the cards, you see much flavour text in italics. You feel like you are reading a condensed encyclopedia. Every game mechanism and every card refers to something in real history (and geography and biology). You play one of the tribes in Greenland. Every round you send your tribesmen out, usually to hunt, sometimes to marry into other tribes, sometimes to colonise North America. Every tribe starts off being polytheistic. During the game you may switch to Christianity. The most important difference between being polytheistic and being monotheistic is how you score points at game end. A polytheistic tribe may score points from trophy cards, while a monotheistic tribe may score points from iron and ivory resources. Both types score points for their population. The game is played over 10 rounds. Highest scorer at game end wins.

Every tribe starts with some daughters and domesticated animals. These confer advantages. Some of these cards are double sided, and you need to decide which side to use before the game starts. Other players may send tribesmen to marry your daughters. If they do, their tribes will gain the powers of your daughters.

This is the starting side of a player board, i.e. the polytheistic side. The column along the left are the positions for six types of elders, and the rest of the board indicates what each elder type gets to do in which phase of a game round. The antler icon at the top right is a reminder that a polytheistic tribe gets to score points for trophy cards.

This is the other (monotheistic) side of the player board. The icons at the top right remind you that you score points for ivory (white) and iron (black) resources. The elder abilities vary somewhat from the polytheistic side. One important difference is you get to join an inter-tribe council now. The four boxes in the four player colours are spaces for council members. You can send your elders to be council members at other players' boards. They can do the same. Your presence in other players' boards gives you points at game end.

The common play area at the centre of the table is made of cards. At the far left you have two draw decks. The second column is two colonies in North America. The rest are biomes on Greenland. The two rows have meaning. Two of the tribes live in north Greenland, and the other two south Greenland. They tend to operate nearer to home, because to work further away, they need either elders who are mariners, or sleds.

This is the procedure you follow during a game round. You always start with an event card, and usually bad things happen. The subsequent three phases are all related to placing workers and resolving their actions. Sometimes they succeed and you gain something. Sometimes they fail and you get nothing, or you lose some workers. The last two phases are mostly domestic affairs, like domesticating animals and certain elder actions.

Markland is a colony in North America. I (green) started the game with some tribesmen already settled there. Maintaining a colony here is not easy. Every tribesman who rolls a 3 or 6 dies. Every roll of 1 or 2 gives me a new tribesman here, and an energy resource (orange). The energy in Markland refers to lumber, which can be used as fuel.

If a colony becomes overcrowded, it is flipped to the harsher side, representing the natives in North America being unhappy with the newcomers. It becomes even harder to survive.

You start the game with 6 elders, which is different from Neanderthal. Also you may train more than one elder of the same type. Some elder powers are one use per round, e.g. the mariner can send 4 tribesmen to one colony or distant biome. If you need to send more than 4 to one place, or if you need to send people to two or more places, you'll need more mariners.

Most of the biome cards are hunting grounds of animals. Some let you craft tools. Many cards are dual-use. Notice many have upside-down text at the bottom. Such text are the second use. You get to use such powers after you claim the card into your hand.

This reference card is a necessity for new players. So many icons!

Notice that two biome cards have been moved to the left side of the draw decks. This means global cooling has occurred. These two are now in a colder climate. It is harder to get things done. Normally a success roll is 1 or 2. In cold climate, a success roll is 1.

In this game you can force a marriage by sending tribesmen on a Sabine raid. It is possible to negotiate and agree on a marriage, and if this happens, there is no risk for the groom's tribe. In this photo, three tribesmen have been sent to try to set up a marriage with Birgitta. They will need to roll a 1 and a 3 to successfully have one of them marry Birgitta. You need your bros to help you get a wife. In fact, at least one of your bros need to die for it, because rolling a 3 means someone dies.

This little board is to help keep track of your advantages in specific activities. Let's take the first row as an example. When performing this activity type, if the yellow player rolls a 5 or a 3, he gets to reroll once. The left column is empty at the moment. If you have a marker in the left column, the number rolled is immediately converted to a 1, which usually means success.

The Play

Greenland is a game of survival. Brutal events keep coming. It is also a development game. You try to improve your abilities to help you survive better, and score points more effectively. Whether to convert to monotheism is an important decision. You probably want to decide relatively early, so that you can focus your efforts on the appropriate way of scoring points. Winning trophy cards is hard, and so is accumulating ivory and iron. It is nigh impossible to do both well.

Living conditions are harsh, and often you try to avoid competing with others. If another player has sent tribesmen to a biome you are interested in, you may decide to go for your second choice so that you don't need to compete. Competing may mean failing, and thus wasting your efforts. Going for your second choice is a safer decision. If two players compete fiercely, they may end up destroying each other, to the benefit of the other players.

The results of your actions often depend on die rolls, so there is a significant luck element. The events are also a source of randomness and uncertainty. These simulate that age and that environment. Your decisions and strategies do still matter. You will see your hard work bear fruit, just not always. The best strategist does not always win. Playing Greenland is more about experiencing that period in history than being a luckless battle of pure skill.

This daughter was now married to a tribesman of the blue tribe, the Sea Sami.

Both Markland and Vinland, the colonies in North America, were settled now. On the cold side (left of the draw decks), the yellow player had sent hunters despite knowing it would be harder to hunt. This was because of the lure of the 3 victory points of that card.

More and more cards were moved to the cold side, and life became harder and harder.

I won and invented these tools. The one on the left was worth 3VP, which was a big deal. Unfortunately an event near game end forced me to lose it. That was painful.

Vinland had been flipped to the pink (harsher) side. However it was now on the left side of the draw deck, i.e. on the cold side. At game end, each tribesman here would be worth 2VP (as opposed to 1VP for a regular tribesman). So it was still worth the gamble sending people here.

The orca card, if it could be domesticated, would be worth 9VP. That's huge.

The Thoughts

Greenland is a gamer's game, and even for gamers, it requires some effort to learn and play. It gives a rather different experience compared to many games. I guess that's true for most if not all of Phil Eklund's games. You are being taught history using a functioning game, as opposed to playing a game with some historical theme pasted on after the game design is done.

I prefer Neanderthal because there is more flexibility and more ways to score points. In Greenland, your big decision is polytheism or monotheism, and you must do well either in winning trophies or in stockpiling ivory and iron. In Neanderthal, although you only get to choose between two marriage systems, there are many elements in your society which are worth points. In case you fare poorly in one, there are still others you can work on. The two games share many similarities. If you are going to get just one, go for Neanderthal. If you really enjoy it, then get Greenland too.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Neanderthal

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Neanderthal is a Phil Eklund design, and he is famous for complex rules and rich themes. Neanderthal is the sister game of Greenland. It was released later, but the setting is of an earlier age, so I guess you can call it a prequel. In this game you play prehistoric human species, the Neanderthals being one of them. You evolve, you develop language skills, and you form tribal societies, ushering the very start of human civilisation. At game end, you score points based on the structure of your society and your achievements.

In the middle you have the player board, which is double sided. This is the basic side, which means you have some vocal communication abilities, but nothing fancy yet. If you develop your brain enough, you will flip the player board to the advanced or tribal side. That means you've established a tribal society. The card on the left is your marriage system card. You draw a random card at the start of the game. The card is double-sided, each side showing a different system. There are a total of three marriage systems in the game, but you will have access to only two of them, those on the card you draw. Each system has pros and cons, and also determines how you score points at game end.

At the top right you have your workers. This is a worker placement game. If you look closely, one of them is bigger. That's your alpha male. If you get to use him, he gives you some bonus abilities. The discs are your vocabulary. I find vocabulary a rather abstract concept. It is an unusual mechanism. Usually you want to have many free vocabulary discs on hand, because they give you advantages in certain situations. E.g. having more swear words gives an advantage when fighting. Many actions in the game require you to commit a vocab disc on a card. This temporarily locks the disc, leaving fewer discs in your free discs pool. The action you want to do is not yet complete, until you find a way to remove the locked disc. Only then your action is complete, and you'll enjoy the benefits, plus the disc is returned to your pool.

These 12 cards form the common play area, representing prehistoric Europe. Every card is the habitat of an animal specie. Neanderthal is a worker placement game, so these habitats are where you send your workers to.

Sending your workers to a habitat does not guarantee you'll reap the benefits. You need to roll dice. The more workers (well, actually hunters) you send, the more dice you roll. In this photo, the two rows of icons on the left tell you what you need to roll to gain some benefit. The first row says if you roll two successes (usually 1's and 2's), you gain 3 workers, and you get to unlock one black and one orange vocab disc. The second row says if you roll four of the same number, you get to claim this habitat card. The information on the right side tells you what you can do with the card after you claim it. This particular card can be converted to a domestic animal. If you manage to do so, every round it will give you two new workers and let you unlock one black vocab disc.

The board situation changes. Global cooling causes habitats to shut down due to ice cover (1st row, 3rd card in the photo). Fewer habitats lead to fiercer competition among players. Sometimes players claim habitat cards. In some cases a new card is drawn to replace the card taken, but in some cases that space is left blank.

More than one player may send hunters to the same habitat. In such cases they will do one round of fighting before they hunt. Some people may die in the fight. Whoever remain standing get to attempt to hunt. The player with fewer hunters get to hunt first. If he is successful, other players leave empty-handed. This is an interesting dilemma. If you have more hunters, you have an advantage in fights, but you will be disadvantaged during the hunt.

This is an event card (bottom half) as well as a daughter card (top half). At the start of every round, an event card is drawn and resolved. It then becomes a daughter card to be auctioned off to players. The event card deck is the game timer. When the deck runs out, the game ends. The deck starts with 10 cards, but more may be added during the game. This happened many times in our game. That's a good thing, because 10 rounds is not enough to get much done. The events in the game are brutal. You can easily lose half your population, and your precious elders.

This is a reference card. The left section are all icons for events. The game has many rules and it is hard to remember all.

When bidding for daughter cards, you bid based on how many vocab discs you are willing to commit. I won this daughter by committing three discs. When the discs are still on the card, the daughter is not mature yet. She can't marry yet, and she doesn't give any benefit. You need to remove all the discs to get her to a mature age, and only then she can take a husband. Once married, both you and the husband's owner get to enjoy the benefits. You can send your own tribesman to court and hopefully marry your daughter, but it is more difficult. You might as well let others send their tribesmen. It saves you some effort, and one worker. If you are adamant about others not sharing your daughters' powers, then you'll need to spend the effort.

This is the basic side of the player board. To flip over to the advanced (tribal) side, you need to upgrade your brain. There are three spaces on the brain, and they can hold at most two discs each. The space between the black and white sections of the brain may hold one black disc and one white disc. It is holding one white disc now. You need to have 5 discs on the brain in order to advance to the tribal age. This is not easy to do.

There are four spaces for elders - the 3, 4, 6 and 5 spaces. It is not easy to promote people to elders. For the 3, 4 and 5 elder positions, you need to have upgraded specific parts of your brain sufficiently before you can promote. In this photo the #6 elder is still an elder-in-waiting, because of that black disc beneath him. That disc needs to be removed before he is officially an elder, and his elder powers take effect.

This is the other side of the player board - the tribal side. It looks very different, but it actually contains much of the same information as the basic side. The elders positions 3 to 6 are still here (along the leftmost column), and you get two more elder positions with new powers. This board organises the elder powers by phases of a game round.

This is a marriage system card. It lists the point values of various components of your society, and these vary depending on the marriage system you choose to adopt. A marriage system card may lock down some of your vocab discs. This particular marriage system above (harem) locks down one disc in each colour. This is an important consideration when you determine whether you want to switch to another system. One advantage of this harem system above is your husbands in your tableau area may move about to fight suitors from other players. Normally husbands (in this game) stay home and do nothing.

The game ends when the event deck runs out. This is not exactly predictable because some events will cause an additional event card to be added to the deck. Even when you draw the last card, and expect the game to end that round, the supposedly final event may just add yet another card to the deck. Planning is tricky near game end. You may be tempted to do something that takes a longer time but will score many points, but it is risky. If you choose to do smaller things that score few points, the game may extend, and you are left with nothing valuable to do in that additional time given.

The Play

I played a full three-player game with Ivan and Allen. I think the game is best with the full complement. There were many rules to go through and explaining rules took a long time. If you look past the many rule details, Neanderthal is essentially a worker placement game, with dice. There will be some randomness. I was spectacularly unlucky with my die rolls in the game we played, especially in the first half. I think I made no progress at all in the first three rounds. I assigned most if not all my hunters to hunt a large animal, and they failed. That meant I had wasted a whole round. If the game were a 10 round game, I had just wasted 10% of my game because of bad luck! Some events may cause elders to die. You roll dice to see whether your elders die. When such events happened, I kept rolling the exact numbers that would kill my elders. I attempted to send my tribesmen to woo others' daughters. They kept getting rejected, and sometimes they even got killed. That can be interpreted as the young man falling into depression and killing himself, or he was upset and distracted when returning home and got into a fatal accident. However we chose to interpret such incidents as the young fellow offending the girl and getting castrated. He then bled to death. The players at the next table were probably wondering what kind of horrible game we were playing, or what kind of psychos we were.

Ivan said to think of the game as a simulation. That means many random disasters will befall you, just like how life was tough for prehistoric man. This can be off-putting because Neanderthal is not an easy game to learn. If you spend so much effort to learn to play it, only to find that you are being played by it more that you are playing it, it can leave a bad taste. This certainly flashed through my mind because of my epic level of bad luck. However the epicness got so high it became entertaining. Amazing even. Eventually my bad luck dissipated and things got more normal. You do still have some control in the game. There are ways to mitigate risks. Your efforts do sometimes yield results, at least often enough that the whole exercise doesn't feel futile.

The courtship aspect of our game triggered further inappropriate table talk. Daughter cards with vocab discs are immature, and cannot be married. However it is viable to court such daughters. During the action resolution phase, it is possible that the player owning the daughter unlocks the discs and makes the daughter mature first, before the other player who has sent a suitor successfully woos the daughter, and the young couple gets married. It's a win-win because both players will gain the daughter's power. How the three of us pictured the situation was this: On the eve of the daughter's 18th birthday, the suitors queued outside her tent waiting for midnight. Once the clock struck 12 and she turned 18, it was time for the wedding and the bedding. Sometimes the vocab disc unlocking failed. We interpreted that as the parents having miscounted the daughter's age, so they had to tell the suitors to go home and come back next year. The players at the next table were probably wondering what kind of sick people we were.

Ivan (yellow) did well and was first to advance to the tribal age. At this point his player board had been flipped to the tribal side. He had two elders. Other than the marriage system card, he had five other cards in his tableau. 1st row, 2nd card is a trophy. Trophies are worth points but give no power. You can win such trophies by hunting some animal species to extinction. 2nd row, 2nd card is a domesticated animal. Domesticated animals are worth points and give some benefits. You need to win such cards from the board before you can do domestication. This particular animal is not fully domesticated yet. There is still a white vocab disc on it. The disc needs to be removed before the point value and the benefits take effect. The other three cards are daughter cards. They are all mature - no discs on them. However none were married yet at this point, partly because the suitors I sent kept failing to impress them.

This was Allen's (red) play area taken at the same time. Allen's player board was still on the basic side. He had three discs on his brain, so he was two discs away from advancing to the tribal side. He had two daughters, and both were married to Ivan's tribesmen (yellow).

This was my (green) play area taken at the same time. When you compare this against the previous two photos, you will appreciate how poorly I fared. I only had one vocab disc on my board, and this was the first free disc. That means I hadn't progressed at all! I only had one daughter, and she was very very immature (3 discs). Notice that among my workers there was one yellow worker which came from Ivan's supply. This was due to some inter-specie marriage event.

My situation was horrible in the first half of our game. Fortunately later on I spotted an opportunity - the marriage strategy. My marriage system was pair bonding, so each husband I had would be worth 3VP, which was high. I sent out many of my tribesmen to chase girls. I (green) had husbands in both Allen's (top) and Ivan's (bottom) areas.

This was my MVP who made my marriage strategy possible. He married Ivan's daughter, and the power he gained for me was in any courtship, my tribesmen would be successful. All my lads were Romeos because of him. No more risk of castration.

Three of the spots in northern Europe were covered by ice due to global cooling. We had fewer hunting grounds. Two spots were empty now because the cards there had been claimed as trophies.

At this point all three of us had advanced to the tribal age. Our player boards had all been flipped. Allen (red) saw that the marriage strategy was very effective, and decided to compete with me. He had sent 9 of his tribesmen to steal my wives! In this game it is possible to challenge a husband and try to take his place. Husband and challenger will fight. It is not easy to kill the other guy. Even if the challenger kills the husband, it is not guaranteed that he will win the heart of the missus. He still needs to woo her, which is not easy.

Allen's Operation Wife Stealing was scary. I had a lot to lose. Thankfully he was successful only in a few incidents, and I managed to retain most of my husbands, and thus the victory points.

In the end, Allen and I could not catch up to Ivan. He had many trophies, and he had domesticated animals too. Domestication was not easy to do. Allen did manage to win one trophy before the game ended. It was a large animal and it was not easy to hunt. We all cheered for him. To hunt a big animal you need to wait till you have enough people, and you will need to commit many if not all of them. Even then it is still a bit of a gamble. Such die rolls are very exciting.

The Thoughts

Neanderthal is certainly a gamer's game. It has many rules, and it has some unusual rules which require some effort to internalise. There are some unique and interesting ideas - quirky and endearing. This game will be somewhat challenging to learn even for experienced gamers. However if you take a step back and look at the whole, this is just a worker placement game, with a dose of luck. Your workers' actions aren't always successful, and disasters strike all the time. Sometimes you make no progress at all in a round, or you may even regress. This can feel very negative. I think it is bold of Phil Eklund to make such a design decision. I can appreciate the statement he is making. This is the prehistoric age after all. You have no vaccines. People die. Hunting mammoths is not exactly a walk in the park.

You do have some control amidst the unexpected twists of fate. You can mitigate risks somewhat. You can decide your risk appetite when sending workers out to hunt. You have space to strategise and try to improve your situation. You will eventually progress. You should think of Neanderthal as an experience game. Play for the experience and the story, and not purely for the competition and the battle of wits. Sometimes you really feel for your opponents when they lose half their population because of a stupid comet. The prehistoric ice age is not easy to survive.