Sunday, 3 May 2015

boardgaming in photos: TTR Switzerland, Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld, Brass

19 Apr 2015. The Switzerland map is my favourite version of Ticket To Ride. It's for 2 or 3 players only. In this version you can draw many tickets, and it is entirely possible to complete all of those you keep. This is what makes the game exciting. It is feasible to gamble and hope to draw tickets which you have already completed, or which can be completed without too much additional risk. This is a game where you often reach for the ticket deck and say in your heart, "Yes I feel lucky today!". Another thing which makes the game exciting is the area around Zurich. It is often congested and you can easily get blocked or be forced to reroute.

Michelle's tickets. Completing 11 tickets is not unusual in TTR Switzerland. I stick some cards under others so that I can cover the score circles which I should ignore when totaling her points.

The country-as-destination concept is one of the special features in TTR Switzerland. In this ticket card above, one of your destinations must be in France. The other one can be in either one of the three other neighbouring countries. There are multiple routes which lead into each one of Switzerland's neighbouring countries, so you are rarely blocked off completely. In this card above, you only score one of the three point values, depending on which country you manage to reach. Naturally you will go for the highest number you can achieve.

This is Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld. The children saw Michelle and I play, and requested to join. So I taught them how to play. We played the partnership rules, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was more fun than the 2P game. In the partnership game, it is easier to collect all cards of a colour (which gives you bonus points), because there are two players working together in each team. Also the draw deck gets exhausted more frequently, which means towards the late game you know most cards are out, and the question is whose hands they are in.

The children are new to rummy games, and do some things completely beyond our expectations. Once Chen Rui (8) picked up a card which Shee Yun (10) had discarded. Michelle and I automatically assumed she had now collected the third card of a colour, so she could play a meld. To our surprise, she didn't play any meld. She was planning to collect that colour one by one! I was on the other team, and I was the next player. I had two cards of that colour in my hand. I played an Agent Meeting card to rob both of her cards of that colour, so that I would have enough for a meld, and I could play it. I felt a little bad for having taken advantage of her inexperience.

24 Apr 2015. Brass by Martin Wallace. One of his best works. It had been quite a while and I was definitely a little rusty. It was my first time playing this as a 4-player game, and I think 4P is the best player count. I built my first factory, a cotton factory, in Blackburn. That was not a good idea. I made a mistake and thought I could build a canal to Preston, then build a port there, and then sell cotton using both cotton factory and port. I didn't realise there was no canal connection between Blackburn and Preston. Oops indeed. Eventually I had to build two canals to get to Liverpool, to build my port there. Allen (red) was rather rusty too. He built his first cotton factory in Bolton, but there was no canal connection to Blackburn or to Wigan. He too had to build two canals to reach Warrington & Runcorn, where he could build then a port. We were both the chemistry dog internet meme - I have no idea what I'm doing, not much better than Leaf (purple), who was new to the game. Jeff (yellow) was the only one who had an idea of what he was doing.

Jeff's (yellow) first cotton factory was built in Colne, just next to Yorkshire at the north eastern corner, which had a port. So he could start selling cotton earlier than the rest of us. Leaf (purple) had started with a coal mine in Oldham, which was not exactly a good idea, since coal wasn't in high demand yet. Allen joked that this was the famous Oldham Opening, but I bet at the time he wasn't sure whether that was a good or bad move either. We were just fooling around pretending to be experts and imagining there were famous standard moves like in chess.

We were now in the second half, the railroad era. Canals were now replaced with railroads. In the southeast Jeff (yellow) had built quite a few coal mines, which did good business and gave him a solid income. He had timed the construction of a few coal mines and iron mines very well, when the market (those two rows of black coal and orange icon cubes) was depleted. He could sell his newly mined coal and iron to earn some quick cash, and he was able to flip his mine tiles quickly to turn them into money-making businesses. All these happened in the first few rounds of the second half, and I knew then that the rest of us would not be able to catch up. We should have worked together to stop him, but we had enough trouble managing our own businesses.

In Brass, scoring is only done twice. We were in the second half, so these are scores from the first half. The hat markers are the score markers. Scores from the first half are about one fifth to one fourth of the total scores, so they are not a good indicator of how well the players are doing. The income levels, i.e. the round discs, are good indicators. Jeff (yellow) was now far ahead of us, and was making more money than us every round. Strong cashflow is very important in this game.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Hansa Teutonica: Britannia

Plays: 4Px1.

Hansa Teutonica, published in 2009, took most gamers by surprise. It didn't look like much. It wasn't from a hot designer. The artwork and setting are very run-of-the-mill. However most players who tried it were pleasantly surprised, and the positive word of mouth spread like wildfire, eventually making it one of the hottest games in that period. That's about 5 years ago now. Hansa Teutonica did not grow to become a classic, but it did well enough for the publisher to have released two expansions. Britannia is the second expansion which came out in 2014.

If you are not familiar with the base game, you can read my older blog post here.

The Game

The Britannia expansion is a new map, with its own quirks and with some additional rules. These additional rules are best described while referring to this photo below.

The biggest change are the Scotland and Wales regions. Scotland is in the north (left side of the photo), and paths in Scotland are blue. Paths in Wales are brown. There are restrictions around placing your pieces into these two regions. You need to have established offices in London, Cardiff or Carlisle. If you are the most recent player to have established an office in Carlisle, you have the right to place one piece in Scotland on your turn. If you are the most recent player to have established an office in Cardiff, you have the similar right except it is for Wales. London works for both Scotland and Wales. Due to such restrictions, establishing trade routes and opening offices in Scotland and Wales are a pain. Naturally, there is a reward which makes this worthwhile. Players who control the most cities in Scotland and in Wales respectively at game end will score bonus points.

In the southeast corner, the two paths going to France have a special bonus token icon drawn next to them. If you establish a trade route here, you gain a bonus action. This type of special action first appeared in the first expansion.

Yet another change is one of the game-end conditions. The game ends when 8 cities have all office spots filled up, as opposed to 10 in the base game. This impacted our game. It was how our game ended. With this change, it seems it is much easier for games to end this way, so players will need to watch out for this more carefully.

The Play

I played a 4P game with Ivan, Jeff and Chu. The gameboard is double-sided, one side for 2-3P, the other for 4-5P. I assume this means the maps are tuned well for the specified player counts. When I started playing, my first thought was this is quite complex. Only much later I realised that there are actually not many rules additions to the game. I felt overwhelmed only because I was rusty. It had been quite a while since my previous game. Playing Hansa Teutonica again made me appreciate how rich the strategic space is and how much freedom the players have. The basic actions are very simple. It's just placing your pieces, moving them about and filling up paths on the board. What make the decisions interesting are where and when to do these. The where and when determines how you upgrade your actions, where you establish offices, whether you gain bonus tokens. Ultimately all these little where's and when's form your strategic masterplan for scoring points. That is, if you have one. Otherwise you'd be just flailing around. There is much player interaction in this game. It is always a joy to stick your piece in that last spot which your opponent needs to complete a trade route. Playing this game is like going: "Jerks. Jerks everywhere."

I was mostly flailing in the game we played. I did try to establish offices more, hoping to link up York and Oxford for the 7VP. Unfortunately I underestimated how soon the game would end, and didn't manage to complete this quest. I didn't put much effort into placing pieces in Scotland or Wales. These two areas were eventually dominated by Chu and Jeff respectively. In hindsight, it was a bad idea to have not invested in those areas, wasting the privilege I had for some time when I had an office in London. If I had controlled even one office in Scotland or Wales, I would have scored 4VP (which is not insignificant) for placing second. This was probably more worthwhile than trying to shoot for connecting York and Oxford, which was a 7VP-or-nothing venture.

The tempo of the game caught most of us by surprise. I felt I was neither here nor there. I hadn't managed to max out any of my techs. I didn't have enough time to link up York and Oxford. The only thing I managed to do more of was establishing offices next to paths where people tended to establish trade routes. Each time someone (including yourself) establishes a trade route next to a city you control, you gain 1VP. I scored such baby-step single VP's more than others, giving me a lead over the others in in-game scoring. Surprisingly, this was sufficient to give me a narrow victory at the end of the game. I suspect it is because our game was rather low-scoring. We were mostly in the mid twenties.

I've always liked this player board. Informative and practical. The table top shows the five techs you can advance. The table front shows the five possible actions.

Our game-end score. Ivan says this is quite low.

At game end, Jeff (purple) monopolised the cities in Wales (brown area). Ivan had set up shop in Cardiff and Conway, but at both locations Jeff's newer offices overpowered his older ones. So eventually Ivan controlled no cities in Wales, which was a pity. If he had controlled even just one, he would have scored 4VP more.

The Thoughts

If you like Hansa Teutonica and play it often, there is no question - buy this expansion. It gives some variety, but does not change the core of the game or upset the balance. Games like Power Grid, Age of Steam and Ticket To Ride have so many expansion maps that after a while you start to question whether you really need that many. Hansa Teutonica only has 3 maps in total, so it is definitely justifiable to own them all.

If you don't like the base game, this expansion won't change your mind.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

6P Ticket To Ride: Team Asia

17 Apr 2015 was expansion night at Boardgamecafe.net, which was a good idea, because otherwise it would not have occurred to me to bring Ticket to Ride: Team Asia. This is, so far, the only team- based game in the Ticket to Ride series. I had played this as a 4-player game before, i.e. two teams of two. This was the first time I played a 6-player game, i.e. three teams.

In the team game, you cannot show your hand cards to your partner, who sits next to you. You can't communicate information about your cards. However you do have this shared rack on which you can place some ticket cards and train cards. This is your communication and sharing tool. At the start of the game, after choosing tickets, every player must simultaneously place one ticket onto his team rack. This allows partners to start communicating intentions and requests for help. In our game, my partner was Sinbad. When we placed our initial tickets onto the team rack, it was immediately obvious that we were in trouble. His ticket card (on the left) went from north to east. Mine (on the right) went from west to south. All four points of the compass!

Canton was a flurry of activity right from the get-go. It seemed every team had a ticket going to or passing through Canton.

Things were busier on the eastern half of the board in the early game. I had three tickets in my hand and all of them were for cities on the western half. So I was quite relaxed initially. My guess was Sinbad's tickets were mostly on the eastern half, so I tried to help him while I collected train cards for my own tickets. I tried to anticipate where he was trying to reach, and I laid down trains hoping I was extending the routes he was trying to take. This is something you don't get to experience in normal Ticket to Ride games. In this photo, we (green) had reached Peking (Beijing), all the way from Canton.

The western half of the board was starting to get busy now, and I was getting jittery. There were six different cities that I needed to reach in this area. Thankfully I did not get blocked. On the eastern half of the board, Sinbad and I (green) had reached Harbin now, at the top right corner. However we still needed to complete those two length-6 and length-7 routes along the northern edge. We needed to reach Dihua (modern day Urumqi). Completing long routes is not easy. We not only had to worry about whether another team would beat us to it, we also had to worry about whether we could collect the right train cards in time before the game ended. In the end, we did manage to make it. The long routes gave us many points. However we scored much fewer points in tickets compared to other teams. We were happy enough to have not failed in completing any ticket, despite the extreme locations we picked. Liv's team were the final champions.

The city of Lanchow was mentioned frequently in our game, because of how juvenile and crass we were (probably more me than others). Most Malaysians would understand this, especially if you are Chinese, and especially if you are Hokkien or Teochew. Sorry to the citizens of Lanchow.

The team mode in Ticket to Ride: Team Asia is quite fun. Something different, but without too much rules overhead. If you're a fan of the series, you should check it out. I like it with 6P more than with 4P. More competition and thus more exciting.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

consumption model

Sometimes when I run out of things to write about, my mind wanders to introspective topics. I find myself gravitating back to how we as boardgamers consume games, our modus operandi, our consumption model.

  • There are many games which I play just once. Or twice. They are like books or movies. Do it once, and you're done with it. It doesn't mean these are poor games. Most are at least decent. Otherwise I wouldn't even want to sit down to play. Some I actually quite like. Some I've even bought, like Clash of Cultures. The biggest reason for just one play is there are simply too many games to play, and not enough time to play them all. The "too many games" problem is a hobbyist's problem, a "good problem to have". Normal people aren't even aware of the existence of this many games to be troubled by it.
  • Periodic revision. This is what I sometimes do with classics and personal nostalgia games. There are some games which I don't play regularly anymore, but I'm happy to bring them out once in a while, and I still thoroughly enjoy them. Games like Amun-Re, Puerto Rico, and those from the Axis & Allies series. It's like catching up with old friends. Even if you don't hang out every weekend, it's always a joy to catch up over some mutual friend's wedding or an ad hoc midnight mamak tea time.

    Axis & Allies Global 1940

  • There are some games which I play repeatedly when I first get to know them. These are the intense love affairs. I get to understand them well, I explore them in detail, and I get to appreciate how clever they are. Recently I did this with Machi Koro, Samurai Spirit, and Roll for the Galaxy. Other previous examples I can think of are Robinson Crusoe, Friday and Town Center (solo). These intense bursts are nice, even though it may be for just a few weeks. With these games I feel I get my money's worth. This may not be the right way to measure the value of the money spent, but it's an instinctive approach and it's easy to understand. It's a straightforward method if you are looking for justification for money spent on games. I say I don't regret the money I've spent on Splotter games even though I don't get to play them very frequently.

    Friday

  • Then there are games which become half marathons or full marathons. I played Agricola heavily for probably half a year. Through the Ages lasted maybe 1.5 years. Race for the Galaxy and Ascension around 2 years. There are older ones like Carcassonne (now a once-in-a-while game) and Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper. These are games where I can see obvious signs of wear and tear due to heavy use. If you play my copy of Race for the Galaxy or Carcassonne, you can easily tell which cards or tiles are from the base game and which are from the expansions added later.

    Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper

  • The lifestyle games. I don't have one, but in a parallel universe there's a me playing Android: Netrunner like a pro and owns every data pack and every large expansion. Lifestyle games are those with so much depth and richness that a high-level player can play it to the exclusion of other games. Chess, Bridge, Go, Mahjong, Scrabble. These hobby games of ours are just temporary diversions, sideshows. I think lifestyle gamers and boardgamers are essentially mutually exclusive. I think hardcore Magic: The Gathering players would not be interested in spending much time on boardgames. I'm a boardgamer, and I simply don't have the determination or focus to become a "proper" (if there's such a thing) Android: Netrunner player.

I think most of us don't fall squarely into any single one of the categories above. Which one is most applicable to you?

It's easy to slip into thinking that the single play mode is worst and the in-depth play mode is best. My logical mind tells me that's rubbish, although a primal instinct sometimes urges me otherwise, and I need to keep telling it to shut up. There is no "right" way to enjoy your hobby. Make a throne from your games if it pleases you. Or take cat-in-box-cover photos. We certainly shouldn't judge others by their hobbies as long as they are not harming anyone. We shouldn't judge ourselves or set expectations for ourselves either.

How you consume games will depend on many things, and not only how you would like to do it, e.g. how much time you have for the hobby, your circle of friends, and the availability of games. I normally play only on Friday nights, and typically I play two games. That's not a lot, but it's good. I always have something to look forward to. I generally don't do solo-gaming, but I can easily imagine others doing it because their friends and family are not into boardgames, or they don't live near other boardgamers.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Kingsport Festival

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Kingsport Festival is a remake of Kingsburg with a completely different setting and some changes in gameplay. It is now Cthulu-themed. You play cultists rolling dice to pray to the elder gods, the Old Ones. They give you stuff to help you expand your influence in the town of Kingsport, which gives you special abilities as well as victory points. The game is played over 12 rounds, and whoever scores highest at game end wins.

The twenty large square cards on the right are the elder gods, numbered 1 to 20. At the start of every round, each player rolls three dice. You take turns placing your dice on the elder gods to invoke them. Each elder god specifies the exact total dice value required to invoke it. Also, it can only be invoked once per round. This is worker placement. Players can and will block each other. You can invoke a god using all three of your dice, or just two, or even one. However you need to consider whether you will be able to place your remaining dice on your next turn, since the spots you want may be claimed by others by then.

You get various types of resources when you invoke the gods. In game terms they are something like death, violence and tentacles, but I tend to think of them as wood, stone and iron. Every round you may spend resources to expand your influence to one new area in Kingsport. To me it's a little like constructing a new building, so I naturally think of building materials.

The main board on the left is the town of Kingsport. You always start with establishing influence in the house at the centre. Thereafter you can expand to areas adjacent to those where you already have influence.

Every area specifies the cost (icons with spikes) of establishing influence, the victory points awarded (green circles with a star) and the special abilities awarded (text). When you establish influence you place a disc of your colour in the area. The graphic design is dark, and it's hard to see the discs of the black and purple players. I bet you didn't see the black tokens at first glance.

Throughout the game, a semi-random investigator turns up every three rounds to investigate the suspicious events in Kingsport (i.e. the dodgy stuff you have been up to). The strength of the investigators are semi-random. If he is stronger than you are, you will be penalised. If you are stronger, you gain a reward. If your strengths are equal, nothing happens. You can increase your strength by influencing some areas on the board. There is also a type of card you can use to boost your strength. The strengths of the investigators will generally increase as the game progresses, and this keeps the pressure up for the players.

Some elder gods give you cards. You have three types to pick from. One type is for scoring points, one for defeating investigators and one for manipulating dice (e.g. allowing rerolls, increasing values).

This guy on the left is one of the earlier investigators. The card on the right is an event card.

God #3 lets you take one death resource or one tentacle resource. God #4 lets you take one violence resource and one magic point, at the cost of one sanity point. Everyone starts the game fully sane (12 points). Each time you invoke any half-decent elder god, you got nuts a little. That's the price you have to pay for worshipping these mad gods. If you go completely crazy, you won't die or lose the game, but each time you need to lose more sanity, you lose victory points instead. There are ways to regain sanity. Players who roll low totals may improve their sanity for free. Some actions let you recover sanity too. One twist is some cards and some areas are more powerful when you are somewhat crazy, so you don't really want to be too sane, yet you want to avoid being completely bonkers. It's a tricky balance.

The Play

I played with Ivan, Dith and Boon Khim. The highest player count is five, and I think the game is best with more players, because there will be more competition. I've played Kingsburg before, but I had forgotten what it felt like. When I played Kingsport Festival, it immediately felt familiar. The hook in this game is the dice mechanism. Since there are die rolls, there will be luck in this game. If you roll high all the time, you will do well. There are some balancing mechanisms - players who roll low get an earlier turn order, and also get to restore some sanity.

Deciding how to place your dice is the core of the game. You need to consider your opponents' die rolls. If you are going to split up your dice, will you be able to place your remaining dice on your next turn? Do you want to intentionally block your opponent? Which elder god is giving you the resources you want? Do you simply go for that or do you change plans so that you can screw an opponent at the same time? How to expand your influence is the strategic part of the game. You need to consider both the victory point scoring and the abilities you will gain from the areas you have influence over. The areas you expand into should be consistent with your overall evil master plan.

The investigators are a constant pain in the neck. Your first instinct will be to keep increasing your strength to beat them off. However I suspect ignoring them is a valid strategy too. The effort and resources saved this way can be spent on other, possibly more profitable, activities. In our game we were all rather conventional and none of us dared to ignore these pesky busybodies. So I can't prove my theory yet. Maybe next game.

The Thoughts

Kingsport Festival is a mid-weight Eurogame, even though the setting is very Ameritrashy. The mechanisms are definitely Euro, despite the death and violence. And tentacles. When Kingsburg first came out in 2007, the dice mechanism received high praise from many gamers. It is indeed clever, but I didn't particularly like or dislike it. So I am quite neutral towards Kingsport Festival too. I'm not a Cthulu fan, so the setting doesn't attract me. Nor does it bother me. However I do think the changes from Kingsburg make Kingsport Festival a better game.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

New Amsterdam

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

New Amsterdam is the old name of New York, or more precisely, Manhattan, which was originally a Dutch colony. It was traded to the British in 1664, and given the current name then, in honour of the Duke of York, who later became King James II of England. In the game of New Amsterdam, players are immigrants from Europe settling down in the new world and establishing businesses. You build new farms in the countryside, you build shops in the city, and you trade with the natives for fur to be sold back to Europe.

The game is played over 6 rounds, and the objective is to score the most points. There are a few different ways to do this. Each round starts with an auction phase where sets of 2 or 3 action tokens, and turn order markers, are auctioned off to players. This is then followed by three different action phases, in which players get to execute specific action types, using the action tokens they have just won.

These are your resources at the start of the game. You have one warehouse at the harbour, which can store four goods (black cubes). If you need to store more, you have to build more warehouses. You trade goods for fur with the natives. The yellow octagonal pieces are corn. You need corn to "feed" your shops. Every shop you own consumes one corn at the end of every round. If you can't "feed" it, you have to close shop and lose points. It's just like Agricola, except your shop can "die"! The brown pieces are wood. You need wood to build shops, to build farmhouses, and to move your trading post. You use cash in the auctions, and also for executing special actions. At the bottom right are the fur pieces. You trade with the natives for them, and then ship them back to Europe. You'll earn some cash (a one-time gain), and secure a permanent supply of goods.

These are the three action phases in every round. The first is the city phase (orange). If you have a city action token, you may either build 1 to 3 shops in any of the six districts, or you may score points using your shops. You score for each district where you have at least one shop, and you score more if you have outright majority in any district.

White is the land phase. You may either acquire a piece of land, or clear land(s) to start operating farms. To start operating a farm, you need to have built farmhouses beforehand. When you clear land, you will gain a one-time bonus of a bunch of wood and some victory points. Thereafter you will harvest corn at the end of every round.

Blue is the trade phase. You may either trade for fur (with the natives), or ship fur back to Europe.

At the start of every round, four new land cards (right) and four new ship cards (left) are revealed. The land cards are what you may claim if you have a land action token. A land card indicates how many farmhouses you need before you can clear the land and start running your farm. It indicates the one-time wood bonus and also the corn production level. Each time a player buys a piece of land, he is effectively driving the natives away. One native settlement will be moved further inland, and as the natives migrate away, it becomes harder to trade with them.

The ship cards specify the number of fur pelts required to complete a sale. The coin icons mean how much you'll earn for the transaction, and the black cubes mean how many goods you'll gain every round from then on.

That classy wooden box at the bottom right is used during the auction stage. The large round tokens are the three types of action tokens. During the auction stage they are randomly dealt into five columns. In this photo, two sets have been auctioned off.

At the top left are three areas where you can trade with the natives. In the first "retail" box you may trade one-for-one any number of times (one good for one fur pelt). In the other two "wholesale" boxes you must trade 3 or 4 goods for the whole set of 3 or 4 fur pelts.

This is the city area. If you own shops here, you can use them to score points. There is one scoring round at game end too which does not require you to spend any action. Each of the six districts here shows one special action. In every action phase of every round, everybody has the opportunity to execute one special action, even if he doesn't have an action token for that particular action phase. Normally it costs $1 to perform a special action, but if you have the most shops in the district for that special action (including being tied for most), the action becomes free for you. Besides this, shops also make money for you at the end of every round.

These bread loaf-like pieces are natives' settlements. Across the River Hudson you can see the players' trading posts. Each time a player buys a piece of land, one settlement will be displaced and the natives will move upriver. In order to trade with the natives, your trading post needs to be aligned with at least one native settlement, else you need to pay corn to travel upriver to trade. You can take a special action to move your trading post upriver, which costs 1 wood. This photo was taken in the early game, and no settlements were displaced yet.

The Play

When I play a new game, my first instinct is usually to analyse the scoring methods, and then pick out one specific strategy to stick to as much as possible. When I played New Amsterdam and tried to determine what the broad strategies were, I had some vague ideas, but there seemed to be no clear-cut, specialised strategy. You can't really focus on one area and neglect others. If you want to focus on building many shops and using them to score points, i.e. city actions, you still need the corn to "feed" your shops and the wood to build them in the first place. So you must do some land actions - chopping wood and growing corn. If you want to focus on trading with the natives, you still need wood to build warehouses to store the goods to be used for trading, and you still need wood to keep moving your trading post. It seems to me you need to have some balance in your strategy. You probably can emphasise some scoring aspects more than others, but I don't think you can afford to neglect any part of the game. I find this intriguing. This is a little like Through the Ages. Opposite examples would be Navegador and Race for the Galaxy, where you normally need to focus on a particular path.

Every action is precious. The game feels very tight and you always feel you are short of actions. The auctions for actions are intense. It is a one-round auction, so you need to think carefully how much to bid. If you bid too low, an opponent may overbid you. If you bid too high, you may be wasting your resources unnecessarily. You need to watch what your opponents are doing, guess which actions they will go for, and estimate how much they are willing to pay. In our game we tended to bid around 6 to 8. The highest we went was about 10. I don't know if that's normal. The last player to claim any action tokens gets them for free. Although he only has two sets to choose from, saving money (and resources) just might be worth it. Ivan won the game, and I remember there were quite many times he was last to claim action tokens. I spent much in the auctions, and often won the first player order marker too, but I came last. I wonder whether I have been spending too much. Or maybe I just played poorly.

One thing that really accentuates the scarcity of actions is it often costs two actions to get something done. If you want to get a farm running, you need to first spend an action to acquire a piece of land, and then you need to spend another action to clear it for farming. In between these you need to perform a special action to build farmhouses too. If you want to sell fur back to Europe, you also need at least two actions, one to buy from the natives, and another to ship the fur to Europe. It is not exactly easy to do two actions of the same type within the same round. Sometimes if you're unlucky you don't even get to do the same action in two subsequent rounds. If you do your follow-up action only in the third round, that's half the game (which has 6 rounds) to complete one operation. Competing for actions and using your actions effectively are a key challenge in this game.

One aspect which surprised me is the difficulty in managing the various resource types. You have cash, corn, wood, goods and fur, and they are needed for different activities. In the city area of the board there are two special actions which let you buy or sell corn or wood, which is basically converting between resource types. At first I thought these were rather weak. If you plan and manage your resources well, you wouldn't need to waste your special actions or money on these right? Wrong! It turns out that estimating the types of resources you need, producing the types of resources you need, and managing the resources you spend are not easy at all.

One thing that was a drag was our game sometimes moved rather slowly. I find that New Amsterdam is a game that is not easily analysed. There aren't many actions. Planning how to use them can be a very involved affair. Evaluating how much a set of action tokens is worth during the auction stage is tricky. There is a lot you can consider - which opponents will want it, how much they are willing to pay, what you yourself can do with it. In games with very deep repercussions, I usually don't bother thinking too far ahead. I calculate a little, and rely on gut feel. In our game I often executed my actions before my turn came, when I knew they wouldn't affect other players' actions. I guess I was impatient. Maybe that's why I came dead last.

My holdings. At the bottom left I had built my third warehouse and could store 8 goods. I had done shipping four times, and was now earning 7 goods per round (black boxes). I had three pieces of land, two of which had now been turned into farms. The third one had not yet been cleared, thus the wood marker on it.

These were everyone's shops at game end. Ivan (yellow) and Henry (blue) had the most, each having presence in five districts. I (green) had shops in three districts only and Dith (orange) two.

This angle is probably more familiar to most people. This. Is. Manhattan.

The Thoughts

New Amsterdam is a Eurogame, that's for sure. I find that the setting is very well integrated with the mechanisms. I feel this is a theme-first game. Ultimately it's still a VP-scoring game, but I find that I can't fiddle with the system without associating my actions with the story. The actions feel natural. I like that the strategies are not immediately apparent, which unfortunately is not the case for many Eurogames nowadays. Sometimes I feel like I've seen one, I've seen them all. With New Amsterdam I don't get this feeling. It's not quite like anything I've played before. It is not anything ground-breaking, but it is definitely not another bland VP-scoring Eurogame.

Managing your resources is a challenge. When I played I always felt I was just short of this resource, or just short of that resource. The game is very tight. Actions are very limited and you really can't afford to waste. In some aspects the player interaction is very critical - the bidding for action tokens and turn order, and the area majority competition in the city area. In other ways player interaction can be low - e.g. when you are managing your own little business empire, building farmhouses, building warehouses. Interaction can be in the form of whoever comes first having more choices. Overall I'd say the player interaction is high. You will get into each others' ways.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

concise reference sheets updated

My collection of concise reference sheets continues to grow. See the full list of games for which I have done such reference sheets here (more than 250 of them). Download the latest set (version 20) here. Additions and updates since the previous version are as follows:

  1. Alhambra
  2. Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal (updated)
  3. Cartagena
  4. Glass Road
  5. Hare and Tortoise (updated)
  6. Heroes of Normandie
  7. Historia
  8. Imperial Settlers
  9. Lewis & Clark
  10. Machi Koro
  11. The Message: Emissary Crisis
  12. Morels
  13. The Palaces of Carrara
  14. Panamax
  15. Pandemic: The Cure
  16. Roads & Boats (updated)
  17. Roll for the Galaxy
  18. Samurai Spirit
  19. Targi
  20. Tragedy Looper
  21. Virgin Queen
  22. Wildcatters

Monday, 30 March 2015

boardgaming in photos: Ubongo, Kakerlaken Poker, Pandemic, Medici

14 Mar 2015. Playing Ubongo with the whole family. In this round Chen Rui (8) could not complete her puzzle when time ran out on the hourglass. We now all play the normal difficulty side of the puzzle boards, i.e. four puzzle pieces compared to three at the easy difficulty level.

Shee Yun (10) came to help, even though time had run out and Chen Rui would not be able to collect any gems anyway. I often do this too. I just can't rest without solving the puzzle. Doesn't matter that I won't be collecting any gem. I just want the satisfaction of being able to solve the puzzle.

There are six variants to every puzzle in Ubongo. The combination of puzzle pieces is different in each variant, but in all variants it is possible to combine the pieces in a way that fits the shape on the puzzle board precisely. I wonder how the designer came up with the outline shapes and the six variants. Also how to decide what the available puzzle pieces should be. This can't be all done by hand right? He would need some computer program I guess? How would that work? What's the algorithm? The more I think about it, the more interesting it is.

Kakerlaken Poker (Cockroach Poker), a lying game. The basic idea is you hand a card to an opponent face-down, and you state what it is (fly, scorpion, toad etc). You opponent needs to decide whether you are lying. With three players, the number of cards is too high to be easily held in two hands. We needed these card racks from 10 Days in Asia. Chong Sean taught me this technique.

I like the artwork. If I'm not mistaken every card is unique. Every rat card is different. Some are cuter than others.

This was the first time I taught the children Pandemic. They had played Pandemic: The Cure before, and liked it. So I promised them I'd teach them the original boardgame. We played the easy difficulty level, and almost managed to win. We eventually lost due to too many outbreaks. I think we could have won if I had given them more instructions. However I wanted to let them make their own decisions as much as possible. Let them make mistakes and learn from their mistakes. Losing and learning from it is better than winning and learning nothing.

Chen Rui always wants to play the Medic character, be it in Pandemic: The Cure or Pandemic. Perhaps she thinks he's awesome because he treats sick people most efficiently.

20 Mar 2015. This is Medici, one of the games in Reiner Knizia's auction trilogy, the other two being Ra and Modern Art. I own all three. It has been quite a while since I last played Medici. In this particular game that we played, I had one incredibly lucky first round. The other players had all bought goods earlier than me (which sometimes can be a bad thing), and they all had at least three goods on their ships (max is 5). Then it came to my turn to draw goods cards. The first card I drew was a 5, i.e. the largest possible value for normal goods. I decided to draw a second card, and it turned out to be the 10-value gold card! Needless to say, I went on to draw a third card, which would prevent everyone else from buying this batch because I was the only one with enough space to buy it. And that third card turned out to be a valuable 5 too! I only spent $1 to buy this 20-value batch. Later in the round, I was the last player remaining with space on my ship. There would be no more auctions at this stage. I must draw cards from the deck to directly fill my ship. I couldn't decide what cards to go for, but the consolation was they were free. So in this first round (of three), I had spent only $1. This is not normal at all, especially since I also won the $30 reward for most valuable ship. They rest said I was bullying newbies. I said it was just unbelievably good luck. I don't usually do so well in this game.

My copy is the Rio Grande first edition, and the graphic design is problematic from a usability standpoint. The score track shows only odd numbers, which is, of course, odd. The multiples of 10 are not highlighted. On the cards, each type of good has a specific colour for its border, e.g. cloth cards have a red border. However on the game board you need to identify the good pyramid by the drawing and not by colour. The cloth pyramid (rightmost) doesn't have any red border or red highlight to help you identify it. The artwork itself is actually okay. But usability design is...

Medici is a very 90's design. Not many rules, but there's a fair bit of strategy. Not much theme or story. It's trim and straight-to-the-point. Some may find that dry. You can say it's a pure game with no frivolous appendages. It doesn't try to use rules or mechanisms to tell you some story. Whatever story you derive from it (like my $1 for a fortune story here) is born from players playing and not from game rules telling it to you. I think gamers tend to play theme-heavy games or complex Eurogames. Bringing out a clean, crisp classic once in a while is a nice change of pace and is refreshing.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Thunder Alley

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Thunder Alley from GMT Games is a team racing game based on NASCAR racing. Each player manages a team of cars, and the number of cars per team depends on how many are playing. The game comes with different race tracks, and the number of laps to complete differs by track. You score points based on the final positions of your cars. The leading car at the end of every round also scores 1pt. At game end the team with the highest total score wins.

A round consists of players taking turns to activate their cars, until every car has been activated exactly once. You draw a number of cards at the start of the round, and play them to activate your cars. In our 3P game, we drew 6 cards for 5 cars, i.e. all but one card would be used. There are four types of movement cards. The simplest is the Single movement cards, which allow the player to move only the activated car. Most other card types usually allow (in fact, force) other cars to move. If you play a Draft card to activate a car, that car may move sideways first (possibly pushing other cars away or backwards) and then moves forward, chaining along the whole train of cars in front of and behind it. If you play a Pursuit card, the effect is similar, except that you push the chain of cars before you but leave behind the chain of cars behind you. If you play a Lead card, you don't affect the cars before you, but you pull the chain of cars behind you.

In addition to the movement type, a movement card also specifies the distance you move, the damage your car will take, and special restrictions or bonuses. Damage to your car can be temporary (e.g. tyres, fuel) or permanent (e.g. engine, body). Temporary damage can be repaired during pit stops, but there is nothing you can do about permanent damage. Any car with 3 points of damage or more moves more slowly when activated, but is not affected when it is pulled along by other cars.

The movement cards. At the top left, the larger value is the normal movement value, while the smaller one applies when you reenter the race after a pit stop. At the top right, a damage type is specified.

At the end of every round, an event card is drawn. Usually something bad will happen to a car with a specific type of damage. The event card will have a green flag or a yellow flag. Green flag means all is well. In car racing, the yellow flag means caution (e.g. there has been an accident on the race track, or there is rain). When it is raised, all cars must slow down, and may not overtake one another. The result is all cars will catch up to the leading car, and then they resume racing only after the yellow flag signal is cancelled. In the game, the yellow flag is like a reset, allowing trailing cars to catch up. It is literally a catch-up mechanism.

The game ends at the end of the round in which at least one car passes the finish line, which means every car will have been activated the same number of times.

The Play

I did a 3P game with Heng and Ivan, and we each had 5 cars. This was a team game, so we kept trying to maximise the potentials of our cards by pushing or pulling along other cars on our teams. We wanted to avoid helping others, but it was not always easy or even possible. I think sometimes it is more important to try to position yourself to be helped by others than to try to avoid helping others. E.g. squeezing your car between two cars belonging to another player will force him to help you if he wants one of his cars to help the other one. We had 6 cards every round for our 5 cars, which meant sometimes we could be screwed by poor card draws. If we drew many Single movement cards, we would have fewer opportunities to get our cars to help our other cars.

At the start of every round when you draw your hand of cards, it can take a while to analyse the board situation and think through how you are going to make the most out of your cards. New players beware. Also the board situation can change drastically between your turns, even in a 3P game, so your perfect plan can become rubbish and you need to rethink your strategy. It is important to stay flexible. However sometimes others' moves can inadvertently help you too, and create opportunities for you. You will want to grab these.

If some of your cars are disqualified (due to being lapped or voluntarily retired), you can forfeit a turn. Sometimes this can help, because by the time your next turn comes, you may have a better use for one of your cards. Also sometimes you may want to see how your opponents play before you react. However this can also be risky. Everyone is trying to leave his opponents behind. Forgoing one turn can be dangerous because you may find yourself cut off from the leading pack and being unable to catch up.

The race was about to start so every car was lined up neatly before the starting line.

The race had just started (this was still the first round), but already two cars had been left behind, one of mine (green) and one of Ivan's (yellow). The rest of the cars were mostly still in one leading pack, except for one of Heng's cars (black) lagging slightly behind. It should be able to catch up to the leading pack soon.

The two draw decks are the movement cards (left) and the event cards (right).

Cars which are lapped are automatically disqualified at the end of the round. They still score points. They just claim the last available position and score the points for that position.

You will have at most six cars on your team, which is when playing 2P. This player board is for recording damage to your cars, and points scored.

We were in the 2nd lap now. All four of my remaining cars (green) were in the leading pack on the left, which was good. Heng (black) had three, Ivan (yellow) only one. Both Heng and Ivan had cars left behind. The outlook was quite positive for me. However in the middle of the race a yellow flag came up, which did a kind of reset for us. We all took the opportunity to do pit stops to repair damage. It was good timing since most of our cars were close to their 3rd damage. When there is a yellow flag, the penalty for a pit stop is much less.

After the yellow flag event, there was one crucial bend move in which my chain of cars was overtaken and then left behind. That was one major turning point in the game, after which I never managed to recover. I switched from dominating the leading pack to having no presence at all. Eventually I came last. Heng was the ultimate winner, with a comfortable margin ahead of Ivan and I.

Of 15 cars in the race, the positions my cars earned were 7, 8, 9, 11, 14. Not good!

The Thoughts

There is definitely some luck in Thunder Alley (the movement cards you draw, the event cards, and whether others' actions mess up your plan or create opportunities for you), but there is much in your control too. You need to evaluate the board situation and plan how to best use your hand of cards. The board situation is constantly changing, so often you need to adapt, and you need to try to stay flexible. There is constant jostling to try to leave opponents behind and to try to position your cars to maximise the chances of others helping you. You try to create opportunities. You try to prevent your opponents from making big moves.

It's a team game, so you want every car to do well, not just the leading car. The point differences between the car positions are small - only 1pt between each position, except for the 1st place, which is 4pts more than 2nd place. You cannot rely on just your leading car to win the competition for you. Others need to do well too. Yet 4pts is not insignificant either. Also there is the 1pt bonus every round for the leading car at the end of the round. That can be quite significant too. You need to balance between getting everyone to be team players, and allowing your superstar to show off.

I'm not a car-racing fan and I am not familiar with the sport. I find Thunder Alley quite fun. This is a game where you need to analyse and plan. You try to do your best with the cards you draw and the opportunities that present themselves. There are opportunities for clever play, and when you pull off a genius move, it is very satisfying. This is not the kind of game where you roll dice, push your luck, gamble, and have some mindless fun. It is a little thinky. There's still some good and bad luck that you can cheer or swear at. It can be quite rewarding when you manage to execute a killer move, like snatching the 1st position from your opponent just before a round ends.