Sunday, 22 May 2016

boardgaming in photos: legacy

20 Mar 2016. I bought Pandemic: Legacy because it reached the #1 spot on BGG. I like Pandemic well enough, but it's not among my personal favourites. I was curious why the Legacy version could make it to the top. I originally intended to play it with my children. We used the new copy of Pandemic: Legacy to play basic Pandemic. The rulebook recommends being familiar with the basic game before playing the Legacy rules. The children were not all that keen. So eventually I decided to play Pandemic: Legacy with a group of colleagues who were interested.

By now I have played more than 10 games of Pandemic: Legacy. I have not yet started writing about it. I plan to do so only after I see the full story of the game. Like Risk: Legacy, the game rules and game components change as you play. New elements are added. A story unfolds as you play game after game. Events leave permanent effects on the board and on characters. Changes will happen in at least 12 games. You play from January to December. Each month some new elements are added. You play a month at most twice. You get a second chance if you lose the first time (this is a cooperative game so everyone wins or loses together). If you fail both attempts, you just move on to the next month. I have completed September now. Three more months to go, i.e. at least three more games to play. So far I have been enjoying the game immensely.

The game board and game components have changed in the Legacy version. I don't feel strongly about the old or the new. From a practicality standpoint the new components are probably better. Disease cubes are smaller and are less obstructive.

10 Apr 2016. The children and I played 3 games of Coconuts. Chen Rui wanted to go again, but Shee Yun and I didn't feel like playing more. I suggested why not try the solo version. I made up rules on the spot for her. She had to stack all the cups this way, and she had to launch the coconuts into the top cup. There was no limit to the number of attempts. Each time a coconut hit home, the top cup was removed, and she continued with the next cup. The objective was to remove all cups from the stack. She actually managed to play for about 5 minutes before getting bored. In 10 years' time she would probably look back at this photo and think what a prick I was making her do such a silly thing.

17 Apr 2016. Long time no see, Friday. Now this is a real solo game. It had been a while since I last played it, so I only dared to play the beginner difficulty level. Yet I still lost. Twice. I couldn't even make it to the showdown with the two pirates. In this photo I made it to the 3rd stage (red), but I couldn't complete it. Robinson Crusoe fell down a ravine and died when exploring the island. What an idiot.

Robinson died because of these three cards. These are aging cards. Friday is a deck-building game. Each time you need to reshuffle your deck, you must add an aging card before reshuffling. Aging cards are all bad. They represent Robinson getting old, getting stupid, getting weak, getting crazy. In this particular round, I drew one Stupid card which reduces Robinson's strength by two, and two Scared cards which neutralise the highest numbered strength cards. Robinson couldn't resolve the problem, and didn't have enough life points left. Game over.

30 Apr 2016. This was my second time playing Ships. This time it was with Han and Allen. They were both new to the game. What I had learnt from my first game was the importance of planning for the end game. This time I stockpiled grain and prepared to build many warships in the last region. This photo is of the last region when the game ended. I was green, Han yellow, Allen blue. Allen was leading in points throughout most of the game, but he hadn't been storing grain like Han and I. Keeping grain to build warships in the final region is lucrative because warships give influence discs and these discs are worth many points in the final region. Both Han and I wanted to quickly reach this region and build warships so that we could catch up to Allen's score. We had to time it just nice and end the game before Allen started buying grain here himself and building many of his own warships. The cubes are merchants, and are placed when you build merchant ships. Allen could build merchant ships here to buy grain and then use the grain for warships.

Han was the eventual winner. We built many ships in the final round. Game end was triggered by having at least 5 ships in the final age (the two boxes at the top left). In this photo we had 10 ships. That means at least 6 of them had been built in the final round.

We brought out Vanuatu. This was also my second time playing. The first time was 3 years ago. I quite liked the game after my first play, but some time later started having doubts about my own judgement. If I think about it coolly, Vanuatu is not all that different from many other Eurogames. Yes, it does have quite a unique action mechanism, one which is pain-inducing. However many Eurogames are like this - one unique or clever mechanism supported by a slew of overused scoring methods and common mechanisms. I felt that if I were rational, I should not like Vanuatu that much. Now that I have played it again, I still quite like it. I don't fully understand why. The artwork helps. I think the whole package clicks. The various actions feel right and feel logical. The game is immersive. I am convinced by how the mechanisms represent the setting. There is also a sense of progress as the map expands and more opportunities appear. With three players, we already have to be very careful about how we place our action discs. There is was plenty of danger. Last time I played with four, and there were some downright painful moments when a player could do almost nothing in a round due to being blocked by others. I imagine with 5 players the feeling would be akin to self torture. This is all good pain, like a shiatsu massage for the brain.

A new version of Vanuatu is coming out. There were problems with the Kickstarter project of the first version. Many backers did not get their copies. I am happy that there is a second edition. More players will have the opportunity to try this wonderfully agonising game.

This was late game. Normally islands cannot be placed next to one another. In our game the order of the tiles being drawn forced us to create this situation.

Game end. Han came first. I was second. Allen third (not yet wrapped around the score track).

5 May 2016. Chung is an old friend from Hong Kong, a uni mate. He was in town, so I invited him over to play some games. I taught him Red7.

He liked Forbidden Island a lot. We have played Pandemic before, which he also liked. Unfortunately we lost the game (this is a cooperative game). We played the medium difficulty level. I had thought we would be able to handle it. We only managed to retrieve three of the four artifacts before the whole island sank beneath the waves, sending us to our watery graves. I wonder whether the game is harder with only two players, or our strategy was wrong. I'd like to think it is the former, but that may be my pride talking. Has anyone played with two, and is it harder than with three or four?

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Mombasa

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

I've heard good things about Mombasa lately. Han was in town recently, and our old trio (two of us plus Allen) met up to play. We decided to give Mombasa a go.

The main board is a map of Africa. It is divided into many areas, most of which give some benefit to the player who establishes a company branch there. Along the four edges of the map are four companies (red, white, orange and black) poised to expand their businesses on the continent. When you help a company expand, you move one of the little houses from the company HQ to an area on the map. When a house is removed, it may reveal coin icons. These represent the value of the company's shares. The more coins exposed, the higher the share value. Companies don't belong to anyone in particular. Anyone can invest in any number of companies. The value of your shares at game end translates to victory points.

Along the four edges of the board there are four tracks, each marking the investment level and share holdings of the players in the four companies. When you reach a certain investment level, the company gives you some additional powers.

This is the player board. At the start of every round, you secretly pick three action cards to play and place them facedown below your board. These action cards are revealed after everyone has made his choices. At the end of the round, the action cards used will be discarded to the discard piles above the player board, according to the columns they are played in. This happens after you retrieve all cards from one of the discard piles. This means the same action card can never be used in two consecutive rounds, because upon being used, it will spend at least the next round in a discard pile.

At the start of the game you have a set of action cards which is only slightly different from your opponents. Throughout the game you can purchase more, and usually better, action cards.

The player board has two halves, the left half being the gem track and the right half the accounting track. There are two benefits in advancing on these tracks. When you reach a certain threshold, you unlock an additional slot for an action card. If you hit the threshold on both tracks, you can play 5 action cards per round instead of 3. The other benefit is you score points at game end based on how far you have advanced. To advance on the gem track is simple. You just do the mining action. To advance on the accounting track is more complicated. You need to get books to lay along the track, you need to fulfill the criteria shown on the books, and then you need to take the accountant action to advance the marker. It's more work, but you get rewarded for fulfilling the criteria on the books.

This part of the main board is where you get to claim books for your accounting track. The white numbers in blue squares are the costs of the books. From the 2nd to the 7th (and last) round, some books will get a $1 bonus attached to them. This mechanism doubles as a round tracker. This photo was taken in Round 2. The two coins marking Round 2 had just been moved to the spots below the books.

In addition to action cards, you can also perform actions using your pawns. This section of the main board is where you do this. This uses the worker placement mechanism. Once a spot is claimed, no one else can perform the same action that round. Here you can claim start player rights, you can claim single-use special action cards, you can sell your action cards, you can boost your investment level in a company by having most of a specific goods type, and so on. The actions which increase investment level have a twist. To be eligible for an action of this type, you need to have played action cards showing a particular goods type, and you need to hold off using those goods. The moment you use the goods themselves, they are consumed because the action cards need to be flipped over. You will become ineligible for the increase investment action space because you no longer hold that goods type.

In this photo you can see that the red and orange companies have started expanding. The little houses are starting to populate the map. When a company expands into an area containing the branch of another company, this branch is returned to the HQ of the other company before the expanding company places its branch.

This is the investment track of one of the companies. If you reach the specific spots on the investment track, you are considered to hold shares in the company. For this particular company, reaching spaces 4, 8 and 13 mean you own 1, 2 and 3 shares respectively. If you reach space 9, you earn $1 and gain a new ability - every time you expand a company (any company), you get one more expansion point to spend.

Most of your action cards are goods cards. You use them to either buy other (better) action cards, or increase your investment level in a company. These are two basic actions that you do. Other frequently used actions include advancing the two tracks on your player board and expanding a company. At the end of the game, the main ways to score points are the value of your shares and your levels on the tracks at your player board. The game is played over 7 rounds.

The Play

Han, Allen and I are usually quick players. Mombasa turned this upside down. We all suffered from Analysis Paralysis. The rules related to action cards are not overly complex, but when it comes to execution, a lot of detailed forward planning needs to be done. Which cards you play, and where you play them, impact not just the current round but also the next few rounds. You need to think of where an card will be discarded, and when you are going to take it back into your hand. The action card mechanism forces you to split up cards that have been used in a good combo. Cards that work well together and are used in the same round will get distributed to different discard piles, and they return to your hand at different times. This all takes a lot of coordination and meticulous scheduling.

There were many things we could do. In the early game we were rather clueless what we should be doing. It took us a while to get a grasp of what kind of actions would be beneficial at which stage of the game, and how we should focus our efforts for better effectiveness.

That action card on the left is a special action card which I have claimed in the previous round, and thus must use this round. It does not occupy my basic three slots for playing action cards. Actually by this time I have four slots, because I have reached the required threshold on my gem track. Notice the four discard piles above my player board. It means I have started using my fourth slot. The special action card lets me mine two gems. It also gives me an extra gem for every other miner card I have. I do have one, the one in the middle slot. To make full use of the special action card, I will have to execute it before I execute the miner card. If I execute the miner card first, it would be flipped over, and by the time I execute the special action card, I would not get the bonus gem for extra miners.

I made one strategic mistake in our game. I did not buy enough action cards. The action cards are the engine of the game. I should have spent more effort in the early game buying more of them. There came one point in the game when I wanted to save an action card for a later round, because I was waiting to retrieve some other action cards which would combo well with it. However, I did not have enough other action cards, and was forced to play that card. The number of action cards and managing how you cycle them are important considerations for your tempo. Getting better action cards is also important because they simply help you to do more or do things you can't otherwise do with the starting action cards.

We all tried to open up additional slots to play action cards, some via the gem track and some via the accounting track. Han thinks it may not be necessary to open up both slots. Four actions may be sufficient to be competitive. Opening a new slot takes considerable effort, so you need to weigh whether it's worth doing. That effort may be better spent directly on scoring. Advancing on these tracks do give you points, but you need to evaluate whether there are other more efficient ways of scoring.

In our game, the most profitable means of scoring points was share value. Allen won handily because he had maximised his share holding in the orange company. I had invested in this company too from the early game, so it was no surprise it outperformed the other three. It had the support of two thirds of the players. I invested in it early because I had bought the orange miner card, which would give me more gems if the orange company owned more mines. That led me to both invest in the company and help it grow. In hindsight, I should have spent more effort increasing my share holding, and not allow Allen to jump so far ahead.

By late game, all orange branches were deployed onto the map. The share value hit the max of $12 per share.

The Thoughts

I find it difficult to classify Mombasa. It is a heavy Eurogame. The share holding mechanism and how players drive share prices up or down make it feel like a stock market game. However you don't freely buy and sell shares. It is more an investment game than a stock manipulation game. You can only increase your share holdings in a company, not the other way round.

The core action card mechanism is tricky. It feels unwieldy, but this is precisely where the challenge is. It is satisfying to work it out and to learn to use it to your advantage. You will need to do a lot of detailed calculations and you will need to plan out minute details over several rounds. Some people will like this, some people won't. Lately I have been in a lazy mood when it comes to playing boardgames, so I wasn't patient enough to be able to handle this action mechanism well. It felt restrictive. However this was at least partly because I didn't do very well in upgrading my action cards. You start the game with weak cards, so I can only blame myself if I don't spend enough effort to sharpen my sword.

Besides the action card mechanism, the other core mechanism of the game is worker placement. Player interaction is mainly in the form of taking an action before others can, denying them for the rest of the round. There is player interaction when you manipulate the share prices, since different players have different stakes in the four companies. There is little player interaction when you try to advance on your player board tracks. There is some player interaction when you pick your three (or more) action cards for a round. When you want to be top supplier of a certain goods type, you will need to pay attention to what action cards your opponents have bought, and have in hand, or have in their discard piles.

This is not a game for new gamers or casual gamers. You may scare them away. This is a game for people who like a challenge, and like complex coordination and planning.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Isle of Skye

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The first thing Isle of Skye reminded me of was Carcassonne. Every player builds his own kingdom in a very Carcassonne-like manner - placing tiles and making sure the sides match. There are three terrain types on the tiles - grassland, mountains and lakes. These must match when you place a tile next to another. However roads don't need to match. They can terminate in a dead-end abruptly. The tiles have many other elements - sheep, cattle, farms, ships, barrels, lighthouses etc. All these help players score points in different ways.

This is the main board. At the start of each game, four scoring tiles are drawn from a pool and placed on the spaces marked A to D. They determine the scoring criteria for each of the 6 rounds in the game. Many scoring tiles come in the box, so there are plenty of variations in the combinations and orders of these tiles, making each game different. The 6 plates on the board represent the 6 rounds in a game, and the ribbons with alphabets indicate which scoring tiles will be active for each of the rounds. E.g. in Round 1 only scoring tile A will take effect, while in Round 6 tiles B, C and D will all take effect. Taking tile A as an example, everyone scores points based on his largest lake. The lake scores 2pts per tile.

The most important part of the game is how tiles are acquired. At the start of every round, everyone draws 3 tiles and places them in front of his screen. Everyone gets to see everyone else's tiles. After that, you secretly decide which of your three tiles you will remove from the round, and how much money the other two are worth. These are done behind your player screen. You use the axe marker to decide which tile to put back into the bag, and you use your own coins to set the prices for the other two tiles. Once everyone has done this, the screens are removed, and the axed tiles are removed. Beginning from the start player, everyone gets one chance to buy one tile from another player, paying the price as indicated. If there is any tile that you don't sell, you must buy it yourself. Upon the conclusion of the tile buying phase, a player may have up to 3 tiles, one purchased from another player, and two of his own which are not bought by others. In the worst case, he may have no tile, because he can't afford to buy one, and both of his are bought by others. After all the buying is done, players add their new tiles to their kingdom, and then score the current round.

When the screens are removed, you may be surprised, e.g. a tile which you have expected to be available is being axed by the owner, or the owner has set a price which is higher than the amount you have set aside.

One crucial part of the game is how you set the prices for your tiles. Set it too low, and you would be making things easy for your opponents. Set it too high, and you may be forced to pay the price yourself. A tile is usually worth a different value to different players. Sometimes it's because of the difference in terrain and kingdom shape. A tile that fits one player may not fit others. Sometimes it's because the players are focusing on different scoring criteria, or they have collected different scrolls. Scrolls are one type of element found on the tiles. They are used for end-game scoring, different scrolls specifying different scoring conditions.

Everyone makes money at the start of a round, so money is injected into the game economy. There is a base income of $5, but you earn more for barrels connected to your castle by roads. When players buy tiles from one another, money stays in the system. When they buy their own tiles, the money is paid to the bank and thus leaves the system. The value and power of money changes depending on how much is in circulation. Every $5 is worth 1pt at the end of the game.

The Play

We did a 4-player game. Kareem taught Jeff, Allen and I to play. I completed a medium-sized lake in Round 1, which allowed me to start scoring. It was worth 8pt each time it scored, which was a decent amount in the early game. That helped put me in the lead for most of the game. Unfortunately that wasn't necessarily a good thing. From Round 3 onwards, trailing players earn some extra money, depending on how many opponents are ahead of them. The end-game scoring from scrolls can be a significant part of the final scores, so taking the lead throughout the game is no guarantee for success. Planning well for the end game is important. Kareem did this very well, buying many tiles with scrolls. I did poorly, and ended the game with just one scroll. When we did the end-game scoring, I dropped from first place to last.

Allen had a funny experience. Somehow he often came away with fewer tiles. Everyone liked buying his tiles. Maybe he was always lucky (or unlucky) to draw attractive tiles. Even when he priced them high, others still bought them. He had a smaller kingdom, but on the bright side, he was filthy rich. The money did help him to "protect" his tiles later on, pricing them beyond what others were willing to pay, or could afford to pay.

In the late game, prices sometimes went beyond $10. At this range, we had to consider carefully whether the tiles were really worth the money, because $10 was 2pts.

This was the last round, before the final scoring was done. I (green) was in the lead, but this was hollow. I was ill-prepared for the final scoring and I knew things were not looking good.

This was my kingdom at game end. I had only one scroll, at the bottom right. It gave me 1pt per tower. I had 3 such towers in my kingdom.

The Thoughts

The most special aspect of Isle of Skye is the tile pricing and buying mechanism. Evaluating how much each tile is worth to different opponents and to yourself is tricky. There are many factors to consider and priorities to weigh. There are many different ways of scoring, and many different elements on the tiles which count towards these ways of scoring. They feel abstract and uninspiring to me. I feel they exist purely for the sake of creating many different incentives. They are there to create differences in values of the tiles to different players. I can't link them to the setting. I can't imagine any interesting backstory.

The game has a spatial element - how tiles fit together and how you sometimes want to complete certain terrain sections. There is satisfaction in seeing your kingdom grow, and in optimising your tile purchases to maximise scoring across multiple criteria. The kingdom building part is mostly a solitaire game, since everyone plays in his own area. Overall the game isn't attractive to me, because of that feeling of multiple ways of scoring existing for the sake of having multiple ways to score. It is needed to support the tile buying mechanism, but it rubs me the wrong way. The tile buying mechanism itself is quite clever.

Monday, 2 May 2016

Trambahn

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Trambahn is a two-player card game. The setting is transportation tycoons building tram networks, but the game mechanisms are quite abstracted. So the setting is just a nice-to-have. In this photo you see a player's hand cards. Each player has a hand of six cards. Most cards are in one of four colours and have a card value (small number in the corners) between 1 and 10. To build your tram business, you play cards as tracks, which are sets of the same colour with numbers in ascending order. Each track must have a station card. Each track has potential to score points for you during a scoring round. There are 10 scoring sounds. The game ends after the 10th.

The first thing you must do on your turn is play one or two passenger cards. This just means playing a card from your hand to one of the four terminals. The terminals come in four colours, and the card you play must go to the terminal of the matching colour. So there are actually two ways you can use your cards - as passengers going to a terminal or as sections of tram tracks. Passenger cards trigger scoring. When a fourth passenger is played at any terminal (e.g. the yellow passengers in this photo), scoring for that colour is initiated immediately. Tram tracks of that colour score for their respective owners. After scoring is done, the four passengers are discarded. The terminal needs to accumulate four passengers again before the next scoring is done.

Playing at least one passenger card is mandatory. After you do that, playing tracks and buying stations are optional. Playing tracks simply means starting a new track or extending an existing track. You can have two or more tracks of the same colour. Every track must have its own station. When a track scores, you look at the large numbers at the top centre of the track cards. Sum that up, and then multiply it with the multiplier value of the station card. Station cards come with a x2, x3 or x4 multiplier (the large number at the bottom left). The game starts with small stations (x2), which are the cheapest. As players buy up the cheaper stations, the more expensive and more powerful stations come into play.

Before you end your turn, you have the option of discarding cards. Discarded cards are turned face-down and become your money, $1000 per card. Finally you draw cards up to your hand limit of 6. If you do nothing on your turn other than playing the one mandatory passenger card, you can discard all five remaining cards to earn $5K.

The basic colours are four, but there's a special type of card which is grey - the jokers. They can be used as passengers or as track sections. In both cases they can be considered any colour. If played as a track section, a joker has no value and isn't restricted by previously played cards, nor does it restrict cards played to this track afterwards. You sometimes want to play a joker to extend a track because when a track reaches the 8th card, it gets a one-time bonus scoring. Getting 8 cards is not easy without the help of jokers.

The 10 scoring rounds are all triggered by the two players. You have control over which colours get scored and how soon scoring happens. The dynamics in scoring is an interesting and crucial aspect of the game. If you commit many cards of a colour to build a nice long track, you may lack cards to use for scoring that same colour. This is a dilemma that often happens, unless you are exceptionally lucky to draw an unusually large number of cards in one colour.

The Play

I played against Allen. We were both new to the game. Jeff taught us. My biggest impression of the game is how important the tempo is. In the early game, Allen and I worked on different colours. When one of us triggered scoring, only that person had the appropriate colour to score points. We didn't help each other score. Later on our colours started overlapping, and we had to consider more when we played passenger cards. I had to consider whether scoring a colour would help Allen more than myself, and even if it wouldn't, I still had to consider how much more I would be scoring compared to him. Starting a colour which your opponent already has is usually a good thing, because you are forcing him to help you, or at least you are neutralising him in that colour. However you need to consider whether it is worth the effort.

Quality vs quantity is another consideration. Do you make many weak tracks, or focus on a few strong ones? In the game I played, I went the quantity path, while I think Allen gambled on making a strong track. I tried to do scoring often. When I outscored him, I only scored a little more, but I tried to do this often. I wanted to end the game before he could make a strong track and score it many times. Making a strong track was not easy. He had to collect more cards, and he had to save enough money to buy the large stations. Since I was going the reckless and hasty path, quite often I discarded all cards in hand (to turn them into money), and just hoped for the best when I drew back up to 6 cards. I wasn't trying to make any perfect track anyway, so less than ideal cards was not a major concern. I am guessing Allen probably had some good cards in hand, and he struggled whether to play or to discard them. He was more deliberate when mulling over his cards.

My strategy worked out well for me. I forced the game end and had a commanding lead. However I don't think this quantity over quality strategy will always work. There are 10 scoring rounds, and it is not exactly easy to speed it up. At most you can play 2 cards as passengers on your turn, and sometimes you may not want to play passengers of certain colours. If Allen had successfully made a strong track and scored it once or twice before the game was up, the story could have ended differently. In this game it is important to watch what your opponent is doing and to guess his intentions. Then you decide how you should be tuning the tempo.

The Thoughts

Trambahn was a pleasant surprise. It is for the most part just cards numbered 1 to 10 in four different suits, not so different from a standard deck of playing cards. Yet the game feels unique and much more than just a traditional card game. Reiner Knizia has many card games using mainly numbered cards in different suits. Trambahn reminds me of the fact that clever games can emerge from such simple components. It does not resemble any Knizia game that I know of though. It doesn't have a Knizia feel. Maybe's there's a little Lost Cities in there, but that's just a minor element of Trambahn.

One sign of a good game is the difficult decisions it forces you to make. Trambahn has this. When you want to work on one colour, you need to use the cards for both track-building and scoring, so you're often torn about where to use a card of that colour. You are often in dilemma over whether to hold on to certain cards while waiting for other cards to appear, e.g. holding on to the 9 and 10 while hoping for 6 to 8 to come. However the more cards you keep in hand, the fewer you will get to draw, thus reducing your chances of getting those cards you want. Playing a passenger card, as simple as it sounds, can involve deep considerations. Normally you'd want to advance the colours where you will score more than your opponent. However if you think deeper, you will realise that sometimes it may be good to force your opponent to score a track while it is still weak, before he adds on even more cards. Similarly, sometimes you want to hold off scoring your own track because you want to wait for more track cards to be laid. Playing a passenger card is mandatory. This is risk management. There is also a brinkmanship to it. How close to scoring do you want to set a colour up? Will you be able to control when it will eventually score, such that it happens at a time most advantageous to you?

You need to watch your opponent. You need to manage the tempo and tune it to your advantage. Trambahn is quite a unique package. The gameplay that emerges from the simple rules and components amazes me. There is luck of the draw, but that's the whole point - this game is all about how you manage what fate deals you.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Quartermaster General

Plays: 6Px1.

Quartermaster General is one of the hotter recent games. My regular gaming buddies at Boardgamecafe.net had played it a few times and it was much discussed. I missed out the first few times it was played. Only on a more recent visit I was lucky that we had exactly 6 players. Quartermaster General was brought out again, because it plays best with six. I guess it felt wrong to not play it when such an opportunity arose.

The Game

Quartermaster General uses the same setting as the global version of Axis & Allies - World War II at a global scale. The six playable countries are Germany, Italy, Japan, USA, UK and USSR. The first three are the Axis, and the last three the Allies. This is a team game. It is played over at most 20 rounds. Players score points at the end of every turn. At the end of a round, if one team has 30 points more than the other, it wins an instant victory. Otherwise the game is played to the bitter end and scores are compared then.

Game setup is a breeze. Every country starts with just one army (tank piece) at its capital.

Every country has a different number of pieces and these reflect history. Each country has its own unique deck of cards too. The total number of cards, and the type and distribution of cards are different. This photo shows the Japanese pieces and cards. The planes come with the Air Marshall expansion. The base game contains only tanks and ships.

The game starts off with the board rather empty. The situation in Europe is more tense, since four countries are crowded there. Asia is rather empty and Japan looks like it will have a good time expanding. A territory with a star is worth 2 victory points for each turn a player controls it.

Generally on your turn you do just one thing - play a card (and do what it says). You want to build an army? You need to play the Build Army card. You want to attack an enemy army? You need to play the Land Battle card. Almost all your actions in the game depend on playing a card. If you happen to not have that card, you'll have to wait. If you can't wait, you have the option of discarding cards at the end of your turn, so that you get to draw more new cards. You always draw up to the hand limit of 7. However any card you discard is lost forever. The discard deck is never reshuffled. When your draw deck runs out, you won't draw any more cards. In fact you will be penalised. Every country has a specific number of Build Army, Build Navy, Land Battle and Sea Battle cards. You can keep count of how many you, your teammates and your opponents have used. However some cards are discarded facedown so you can't be 100% sure about your opponents.

Cards are precious. They are the core engine of the game. Quite often you are forced to sacrifice some cards. You are forced to make choices. This is what makes the game interesting - the difficult decisions. Some cards when played require other cards to be spent as payment. Even at the start of the game, you draw 10 cards are must already discard 3, before forming your starting hand.

There is no concept of movement in Quartermaster General. Strictly speaking the army and navy pieces don't represent any particular army or fleet. They represent the presence of your forces in general, and your control over specific territories. When you "build" an army, it must be built next to an existing army. This means you are actually expanding your sphere of influence. To attack an enemy, you don't need to march an army into his territory. As long as you control a neighbouring territory, you can play Land Battle to destroy his influence. It is normally impossible to defend against an attack. It is a question of whether your opponent has the necessary Battle card and whether he is willing to spend it for this particular battle. It is also a question of whether you should have built an army in a vulnerable territory in the first place. It's all about how you want to use your cards, and how you think your opponents will use theirs.

There's a type of card called the Response card. These are played facedown. Some are like traps. Some are special powers that boost another type of action. They are triggered when some other condition is met. Japan has many such cards. There's another type of card called the Status card. These are special abilities you give your country. It is usually good to play them early, so that you can enjoy the benefits for the rest of the game.

Fighting for VP territories on the map is important. They are a way to secure a steady VP income. However what is every more important is securing and pushing the frontlines, while at the same time protecting your supply lines. This game is a balance of power. To do better than your opponents, you need to tilt the balance in your favour. So you are constantly looking for a breakthrough. You want to strengthen your overall position so that you will be able to pressure, then crush the enemy team.

I have only played one game, and the game ended in instant victory due to the VP gap. The other players told me that their previous games ended in this manner too. It seems the war dragging till Round 20 is rare.

The Play

Of the six of us who played, Jeff, Ivan, Jason and Dith had played before. Sinbad and I were new, so we got to pick our countries first. Sinbad picked USA, which was far from the frontlines and felt like a safer country to play. I picked Japan for pretty much the same reason. So the four veterans started in cramped Europe.

USA (green, Sinbad) decided to focus on the European theatre, and didn't bother Japan (me) in the Pacific theatre. Italy (purple, Jeff) and Germany (grey, Ivan) expanded aggressively. Germany played a Status card early, which gave it a free Battle every time it built a new army. This was very powerful. This let Ivan advance towards USSR (red, Dith) very quickly.

Being Japan (white) I thought it would be a walk in the park when I tried to create the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. However early in the game UK (yellow, Jason) played a card which made India his second capital, and also a supply centre. I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. In our game, the Asia Pacific theatre evolved into me and him pushing backwards and forwards.

Jason (UK), Sinbad (US), Dith (USSR), Jeff (Italy).

Italy (purple, Jeff) conquered Africa, because he had a Status card which let him score points for controlling Africa and the Middle East. A red line on the map means there is a strait between the two sea zones. All straits are by default controlled by the Allies. If the Axis powers want to use a strait, they need to first control the territory linked to the strait. At this moment Italy controlled North Africa, so the Strait of Gibraltar was now under Axis control. USA (green, Sinbad) could not attack into the Mediterranean Sea. It would have to at least liberate North Africa first.

Western Europe was previously captured by Italy, but now the Americans had landed. Germany (grey, Ivan) focused on hammering USSR (red, Dith). USSR could only defend and could muster little strength to counterattack. UK (yellow, Jason) had not contributed much to the European theatre.

UK (yellow, Jason) was much more active in Asia, and was now pushing towards Australia.

The US troops (green, Sinbad) in Western Europe were destroyed, and France reverted to uncontrolled status. Moscow (red, Dith) was now surrounded by the Germans (grey, Ivan).

We played using the Air Marshall expansion, which introduces the planes. It's quite a simple addition, just airplanes and some cards, and a few rules regarding the air force. Normally a territory or sea zone only allows one army or navy per country. With the expansion, an army or navy can be supported by an air force unit. When attacked, the defender may choose the air force to take the hit instead. If the defender chooses the army or navy to die, the air force can be redeployed to another location.

The Axis team - Jeff, Ivan and I. My teammates are camera shy.

Japan (white, me) won the race to Australia against the UK (yellow, Jason). However I later found out I had made a mistake. When building a navy, it must be supported by a friendly army in an adjacent land territory. When I built my navy in the Southern Pacific, I didn't have any supporting army. It was an invalid build. By the time we discovered this, it was rather late, and it would have been a pain to undo everything. So we decided to just proceed. Sorry, I had inadvertently taken advantage of you Jason.

Germany (grey, Ivan) had moved into the Middle East, and was now threatening the UK capital in India. UK was forced to respond. If it didn't, and India were lost, all UK troops in Asia would be out of supply and would be destroyed.

UK (yellow, Jason) was doing something in Europe now, capturing France. Things were not looking good for USSR (red, Dith). Germany (grey, Ivan) had it surrounded, and now even had an air force supporting the preparation for the final push.

Germany had played a Status card in the early game which gave it a free attack for every build. Ivan had actually also drawn a Status card which gave a free build after a successful attack. He kept the card and didn't play it, because he knew UK had an Event card which could cancel another player's Status card. Ivan waited until Jason played the Enigma Code card, before he unleashed this second powerful Status card. After that, it was (as my younger friends would say) "GG" (Good Game) for USSR.

We played till about Round 15. Those who had played before said this was much longer than their past games. Previously the games were decided by about Round 10 or earlier. The Japanese troops in Australia (white, me) were destroyed by the UK (yellow, Jason) eventually. USA (green, Sinbad) captured Africa and dominated the Mediterranean Sea. However the European mainland was firmly in Axis hands. Moscow had finally fallen, and there was no chance for USSR (red, Dith) to come back. The Axis team won by creating a 30VP gap. Those who had played before commented that the Axis won in their past games too, but the games developed quite differently each time they played.

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Quartermaster General. I had seen quite a few positive reviews, but I had not spent time to understand in detail how the game worked. The unit count in Quartermaster General is very low, but I am amazed how thematic the game feels and how much the setting comes across from the game mechanisms. It reminds me very much of standard Axis & Allies. The players are presented with the same kind of dilemmas. Does the Axis go for a Kill Russia First strategy? Should Germany launch Operation Sea Lion? Should USA focus on Europe or Asia, or split its resources? The card mechanism is certainly very different from Axis & Allies. The story of World War 2 is told in the cards. Not every card will be used. There are at most 20 rounds, and thus 20 main actions. Sometimes you need to sacrifice cards to play other cards. Sometimes your opponents force you to discard cards. Sometimes you voluntarily discard cards hoping to draw cards you need more urgently. The cards are the soul of the game. It is the most painful and frustrating part of the game, and it is also where it truly shines. You are always forced to choose between cards. Sometimes you have too many good cards and you are pained to pick some over others. Sometimes you get a bunch of cards which you don't need yet, and you need to think hard whether to hold on to them or to discard them, hoping to get something you can use now.

Timing is important. Sometimes luck can screw you up, giving you the wrong cards at the wrong time. The game is very much about card management and deciding when to play which card. The game gets better and better as you become familiar with the cards. Not just your own, but also your teammates' and your opponents' decks.

Some parts are not really historical, at least not that I can see. Italy has some cards which help it score points. Japan has many Response cards and can spring surprises (SUPPLIES!) on its enemies. I don't see how these relate to history. I think they are there for gameplay balance, and to give uniqueness to each country. I think that is fine.

In some ways Quartermaster General reminds me of Sekigahara. Winning or losing is not based on dice and probabilities. Battles are almost deterministic, the variable aspect being purely the decisions made by players. Are you going to spend that Battle card to attack? Does your opponent currently have the right cards to counterattack? The game is about guessing your opponents' hands, guessing their intentions, and gauging their priorities. There is bluffing and psychological play.

If I were still in the build collection stage of this hobby, I would have bought a copy without hesitation. However nowadays I have scaled down my game purchases. There are many games that I like but have not bought, like Panamax and A Few Acres of Snow. Some games I know I can easily find friends to play with because they own copies. I already have too many other games sitting unplayed on my shelves. I do highly recommend Quartermaster General.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Sblap

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Sblap is a real-time children's game similar to Halli Galli. Every card in the game has two elements, a letter of the alphabet, and an alien. At the start of the game, all cards are dealt evenly to every player. Your objective is to get rid of all your cards. You shuffle your cards to form a face-down deck in front of you. On your turn, you flip over a card and play it onto a central discard pile. If the letter or the alien of your card matches that of the previous card, a race is initiated. Everyone tries to be the first to slam his hand on the discard pile. Whoever does this first is the scorer for the round, and gets to distribute the cards in the discard pile to all other players in any way he fancies. However there is a catch. Before he does the distribution, he takes a test. He needs to think of a word beginning with the letter on the card just played. In the beginning, all the scorer needs to do is to just say one word. However, in Round 2, the scorer not only needs to come up with a new word, he also needs to remember the previous word. In this way, a chain of words is formed, and every time a player becomes scorer, he must say aloud the whole list. If he fails, instead of distributing the cards in the discard pile, he must instead take all the cards myself. This is painful. Any time a scorer fails his test, the chain of words is reset. In the next round, you start again with just one new word. The game is played until a player runs out of cards. He is the winner.

I played with my children Shee Yun (11) and Chen Rui (9). Chen Rui was saying the words aloud from memory.

Chen Rui getting stuck...

The Play

Sblap is a simple game. It's a real-time game, so it is naturally exciting, and it forces you to concentrate. The memory element makes it even more necessary to stay focused. I find that reflex is more important than memory. I didn't have much problem with memorising the chain of words. It was my quick responses which won me the game. Perhaps I feel this way because our word chain never grew very long. It was always fewer than 10 words. So the memory aspect wasn't much of a challenge for me. The kids were tripped up by the memory element. I had thought children would do better at this, because they are pure and they concentrate better.

When a scorer distributes cards, it is possible to play favourites. He can decide who to hurt and who to let off the hook. If this gets out of hand, your game can end in hurt feelings or sulking. It's not a problem of the game. It's a people problem. If you are introducing this game to friends, it's something to be aware of. This ability to target one person or more can be fun if your group is of the appropriate mindset. It can introduce alliances, cooperation, threats, betrayals, revenge and politicking, and these can turn the game into much more than what its basic premise suggests. When playing with children, I suggest not to allow the game to turn into vendettas or bullying, unless it's your kids ganging up on you (like in my case). If so, take it like an adult and just have fun with them.

The Thoughts

I find the game just so-so, because I don't like memory games. I would rather play Halli Galli which has no memory element. Sblap can be educational if you have children learning English. It can be a covert operation to grow your children's vocabulary and to get them to practise English. Sblap is not purely a children's game. It can be a party game too. It is easy to teach and fast to play. You can get casual gamers and non-gamers to start playing within minutes.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Blood Rage

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Blood Rage is an Ameritrash-themed game with a Euro implementation. It is based on Norse mythology. The world is coming to an end. You lead a clan, and you compete with other clans to pillage the land and fight for glory. You summon creatures to aid your army. You don't fight to conquer or to survive. Your only KPI is glory. Glory is your victory points.

These are some of the creatures you can summon during the game.

This was my clan. The flagbearer is the clan leader, with a strength of 3. The rest are warriors, strength 1.

The is the player board. The long red track is the action point track. At the start of every round you get a certain number of actions points to spend for the round. Some actions cost action points. Once you exhaust your action points, you must pass for the rest of the round. You can't even execute the actions which don't require action points. The three shorter tracks are your skill tracks. If you improve your red skill, you get more action points at the start of every round. Improve your blue skill, and you earn more glory for each victory in battle. Improve your black skill, and you can field a larger army on the main board. If you advance your skills to the higher levels, you will earn bonus glory at game end. You can see many empty spaces on the player board. These are for playing upgrade cards to augment your clan abilities. These upgrade cards include those used for summoning creatures.

This is the main game board. There are many territories to fight over. At the end of every round, one of the territories will be destroyed, so the world will become smaller and smaller. The number of rounds is fixed. The actions you can do include deploying a unit, moving units, pillaging a territory, playing an upgrade card and committing to a quest. Each territory can only be pillaged once per round. When you pillage, you need to check whether other players have presence in the territory. If they do, you need to fight before deciding which clan wins the pillaging rights. The losers die and to go Valhalla (which is actually a small game board by the side). Dead (temporarily) units can only be deployed again next round. In this photo two of the territories have been destroyed - those marked by the big round orange marker.

The bases of the miniatures can be detached and reattached. The colours of the bases are the player colours.

At the start of every round there is a card drafting process similar to 7 Wonders. You are dealt a hand of cards, you pick one to keep, and pass the rest to your neighbour. Repeat this a few times, and you will eventually get to see most cards being circulated. You will know most of the cards your opponents have picked (i.e. those you've seen and later don't come back), but you can't be sure who took which cards. There are a few types of cards. An upgrade card gives your clan special abilities. A battle card, like those in this photo, is played during battle and gives your army additional strength and sometimes a special ability too. A mission card which you commit to gives you bonus glory points at the end of the round if you fulfill the condition stated.

More and more territories are destroyed as the game progresses, so competition intensifies. There is a limited number of spaces in each territory. Once fully occupied, you can't deploy more units into the territory.

This territory has only three spaces, and is now full. You can't deploy here anymore.

The Play

Blood Rage feels very Euro, despite the theme, the miniatures, the artwork. You win by victory points. Fighting is just a means to an end. If you are not going to gain much glory from a fight, there is little incentive to start it. You want to make good use of your cards, and you hope to collect good combos. You want to upgrade your clan and enjoy longer term benefits. Your strategy should be aligned with the cards and special abilities you have picked. The motivations and priorities of players can diverge, because they may pick different special abilities and focuses. Ultimately, killing more enemies than your own troops getting killed still helps, so you can't run away from fighting, and you do need to fight well. In this game you are maximising your glory gains from all this warfare.

I did poorly, losing many battles. My men became gold status loyal customers at the Valhalla board. I did have one card that allowed me to score points for men getting killed, but what I earned from this was not sufficient to make up for what I lacked in other areas. Losing many men means more action points needed to deploy men to the game board again. I did not improve my skills as efficiently as Han and Allen. I fell behind and came dead last.

The Thoughts

Blood Rage is more tactical than strategic. You need to fully utilise your cards, using them to gain an edge over your opponents. You watch out for opportunities, and try to maximise your glory gains through them. E.g. playing cards at the right times, starting battles at the right times. In terms of longer term consideration, the main one is the three skill tracks. You do need to consciously invest effort in them if you want to do well in a particular track, or two, or all three. It takes commitment.

Playing Blood Rage reminds me of Kemet. It's a low body count war game, with a very Euro design. I liked Kemet better. Blood Rage works fine and feels balanced, but I did not find a strong draw. Maybe Euro-rised war games no longer click with me, but then there are counterexamples like Sekigahara and Quartermaster General. If you like Kemet and streamlined wargames, Blood Rage may be your cup of tea (or blood).