Sunday, 31 August 2014

Heroes of Normandie

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

This is a Kickstarter game which Allen supported, and he got a ton of stuff for it. It is a squad level combat game with World War II as the backdrop. The game comes with a number of scenarios. Players can also play custom match-ups using a point system to build customised armies. The points are used not only to buy infantry and vehicles, but also to buy special equipment and special abilities.

At the start of a round, both players place order tokens on units they want to activate for the round. Each order token has a number which indicates the order of activation, and since the order tokens are stand-up blocks, these numbers are hidden from your opponent. So he knows which units you will activate, but not the sequence in which they will act. You get to place one decoy order which doesn't have any number and is only used for bluffing. Once all order tokens have been placed, players take turns activating units. Units can either move or shoot. If moving, one special move type is the assault, i.e. entering the same space as an enemy unit and fighting it. Not all units can assault. An assault will result in one of the units getting killed or being forced to retreat.

Units are thick cardboard tiles, and their characteristics and special abilities are all represented as icons on the tiles. There are various terrain features on the game boards, and their effects are all indicated using icons too. These are very handy once you learn all the icons. Basic unit characteristics include attack values against infantry units, against light vehicles and against heavy vehicles, movement ability, and defense value. Special abilities include things like being able to conceal itself, being able to cross water, opportunity fire, and shooting at multiple units. Combat is resolved by one die roll, with attack value, defense value, terrain effects and line of sight all affecting the roll needed to make a hit. When hit, some units are flipped to an injured side, while others are killed instantly.

Both players have a hand of cards, which grant special bonuses or trigger special events. There's a card which gives you an attack bonus when assaulting. There's another which lets you reroll a die. There's even one which lets you cancel a card play by your opponent. The cards are quite useful. There is no limit to how many you can play per round. At the end of the round you always draw up to your hand size. You can discard cards you don't want before you draw.

Cards in the game. Most can only be played at a particular phase of a round or in a specific situation.

Victory is determined by scenario specific rules. One common way of determining victory is the value of kills inflicted. Some platoons (and vehicles too) have kill values, and when you kill enough units in them, you will score the kill value.

The Play

This was the first scenario, a small one, using only two game boards. I played the Americans while Allen played the Germans. In this scenario, a spy plane drops a top secret document near the centre of the board, and both sides want to grab the document and then exit their sides of the board with it. There are five possible locations where the document may land, and the actual location is only determined at the end of Round 2. Allen and I carefully advanced towards the centre of the board while keeping our units under cover in the hedgerows. We used five random small square markers to mark the possible landing spots of the secret document.

My unit on the left managed to grab the document the moment it landed, and was now getting ready to run for it, while the other units prepared to get into position to hold back the Germans. My unit in the centre was standing exposed in the middle of the road and needed to get into cover ASAP. There were hedgerows on both sides of the road. At the bottom left you can see the terrain effect icons of a hedgerow. The yellow arrow with a +2 means infantry units here get a +2 defensive bonus. The stop sign on top of a grey and a purple arrow means both light and heavy vehicles may not enter the hedgerow. The triangle with a cross means the hedgerow blocks line-of-sight.

My letter bearer was now at the bottom right corner, running without looking back. At this point, which was past Round 3, both Allen and I had one light vehicle each which had entered play. I stopped mine right here in the centre of this photo. It was now hit and destroyed, but that was OK. I had intended to use it as an obstacle to stop Allen's vehicle (at the top left) as well as his infantry units.

I had the document in hand, so I had the luxury of playing defensively. Allen was forced to play aggressively because he needed to catch my letter bearer. By now I had killed a few of his infantry units, and his only unit left anywhere near the letter was outnumbered 3 to 1. I won this first match.

This is the second scenario - Saving Private Rex. The American general's dog (yes, dog) ran off into German controlled territory, so he commanded a platoon to sneak into enemy territory to get Rex back. At the start of the scenario no one knows exactly where Rex is, but there are five possible spots where he may turn up at the end of Round 2 or later. Every round he runs randomly around the board, unless an American unit catches him (somehow he recognises and hates Germans and will never follow them). If anyone fires near him, the shooting will scare him and he will run the other way. If the American unit accompanying him fires, it will scare him away too. The Americans' main objective is to get Rex back. Killing off the Germans will give a major victory.

I played the Americans again, and started at the lower left corner. The Germans had one machine gun unit near the centre of the battlefield, dug in inside a machine gun nest. It had limited visibility and could only look westwards. I had to be careful to stay outside its line-of-sight. The rest of the German units could enter the battlefield from any of the boards except for the lower left one. My units were now moving towards the centre, while Allen's Germans were closing in from the north and from the east. Rex had just appeared at the northern edge of the board. On his first random move, he ran straight towards the centre of the board, stopping right in front of the German machine gun nest. This was perfect for me, because I had a unit just two steps away from Rex. In such a situation, I could whistle to get Rex's attention, and I could order him to join one of my units. Good dog!

Allen and I did not have the patience to find Rex's token among the mountain of tokens that came with the game, so we used another dog called Hardboiled instead. Let's look at the icons on that German machine gun nest unit. The two red triangles mean this unit has a restricted line-of-sight, being able to see only a specific angle indicated by these two triangles. The crosshairs icon means this unit has the opportunity fire ability. It can shoot during the opponent's turn if an opponent's unit moves into its line-of-sight. The row-of-bullets-with-flashes icon means this unit can shoot at multiple units at the same time. The row-of-bullets-with-red-arrow icon means this unit can do suppressive fire, which won't kill an enemy unit, but will reduce its effectiveness in both fighting and moving. The skull-in-red-circle icon means once hit, this unit will die, as opposed to being flipped over to the injured side. The yellow, purple and grey arrows mean +4 bonus when shooting at infantry, +2 bonus when shooting at light vehicles, and not being allowed to shoot at heavy vehicles respectively. The big 8 means a defense value of 8. The big arrow with an X means the unit cannot move.

Rex (represented by Hardboiled) had now joined one of my units, and that unit was getting ready to run Forrest run.

It was a little anticlimactic how easy it was for me to retrieve the dog and to leave the battlefield with it. By doing that I was guaranteed a victory. Now the question was whether I would be able to score a major victory by killing enough German units. So Allen and I continued to fight. Eventually I was able to kill more of his units, but it was not sufficient to achieve a major victory. But at least my general was happy now that Rex was rescued.

I was lucky in both the scenarios that we played, being able to grab the document first, and being able to catch Rex so easily. Both these were fun-type scenarios and did not have serious tones. We had to look up rules and icon meanings quite often, but soon we were quite comfortable with the game flow and the icons, and gameplay became much smoother.

The Thoughts

The gameplay of Heroes of Normandie feels similar to Conflict of Heroes and Duel of Ages, because of the similar granularity. Due to how most information is put on the units and the gameboard, the game plays very smoothly once you learn the icons. The game flow is clean and simple. The combat factor calculation is mostly straightforward. There is a bit of luck because of the die rolls, and also because of the card play. The cards can be quite powerful, and they are a big factor during play. The game in play looks serious, despite the cartoonish look of the box cover and the rulebook. I feel the game is of light-to-medium weight, slightly more complex than Memoir '44, but less so than Conflict of Heroes. I wonder whether my experience with the first two scenarios is making me think the game has a larger luck element than it actually does. At the moment I think there is a significant luck factor, so the game should be played in a light-hearted way, closer to how you play Memoir '44 than how you play Conflict of Heroes.

One thing that it has which these two other games don't is the point system for building armies. This kind of system is commonly seen in miniature games. I have not experimented with this aspect of the game, so I can't comment on it yet. It seems to offer much variability.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Battle of the Bulge (iPad game)

Plays: intro scenario x3 as Axis, basic scenario x2 as Axis, x1 as Allies.

The Game

Battle of the Bulge is a boardgame developed purely for the iPad. Technically speaking it can be produced as a physical game, but putting it on the iOS platform takes away a lot of calculations, accounting and menial tasks that the players would otherwise have to deal with. So you can focus on the fun part and let the computer handle all the work part. The background story is, of course, that final attempt of Germany to push back the Allies during World War II, which ultimately failed. The Germans did catch the Allies by surprise, breaking through the Allied defenses and creating a huge bulge in the frontline which was how the battle got its name (the Germans and the French gave the battle a more tasteful name though). However when the Allied reinforcements rushed to the scene, the Germans were eventually pushed back. Many perished in this epic clash, on both sides.

The game comes with a few scenarios which are variations of the same battle. Each scenario is played over a specific number of days, one day being one round in the game. The Axis and the Allies take turns activating one space and all units in it. They can move or stay put. If they enter a space with enemies, they engage in battle. If the activated space contains enemies and you make your units stay, a round of battle will ensue too. Once you complete a turn, between 0 and 2 hours will pass, and the day will progress. Once dusk comes, the day ends, i.e. the round ends. Units not yet activated won't be able to move anymore. Units that have been activated will be reset so that they can move again the next day. On your turn you can decide to pass, and sometimes you do want to do this to see how your opponent commits his forces. If both players pass consecutively, the day will end early.

Victory is determined by points scored by the Axis. A check is done at the end of every day, and the victory condition for the two sides differ from day to day. In the early game when the Axis have an advantage, the victory requirement is very high. Later in the scenario as the Allies become stronger this requirement will reduce. The Allies on the other hand need to make sure the Axis does not score too many points. If they manage to keep the Axis' score below a certain threshold, they will win. This threshold varies from day to day. There are a few ways for the Axis to score points. Capturing and holding victory locations gives points at the end of every day. Crossing the River Meuse and exiting the northwest quadrant of map give points too. This represents the Axis breaking through the Allied defenses and wreaking havoc behind their lines. Killing Allied units gives points. Getting killed by the Allies will reduce the Axis' score.

Spaces on the map have various features, e.g. forests, woods, roads, rivers, towns. All these impact the movement abilities or the fighting abilities of units. There is a stacking limit of three units per space. Attacking across rivers is tricky because only one unit can cross a bridge per turn. This means the first attacker needs to attack alone, and will only get support the next turn, or even the next day. The concept of supply lines plays an important role. If you are cut off, you will fight less effectively. If you are out of supply for an extended period, you can't fight or move at all and are sitting ducks.

There are fixed events and reinforcements. You need to regularly consult the calendar of events in order to prepare for them. On the first day the Allies are caught by surprise and their infantry cannot move at all. Later on, the Axis suffer from poor supply and a random tank or mechanised infantry unit will be temporarily unable to move. Both sides get reinforcements of predetermined types and quantities at predetermined locations on predetermined days. Naturally the Allies will get more. That said, both sides need to conserve their units and not waste them needlessly.

The Axis are blue, the Allies green. The Axis start from the eastern edge of the board and strike westwards. In this particular game I played the Axis. Notice that the northern half of my army are mostly out of supply now, being cut off by that pest of a lone American tank which had broken through my lines and reached the eastern edge of the board. I lost quite horribly.

The Play

The tutorial is quite straight-forward. The things you do are straight-forward - it's just picking a space and then moving (or not moving) the units there. However, to play well, you have to pay attention to detail. You have to consider the various factors affecting the battle outcome, and you have to think ahead how to position your units. The controls are user-friendly, and it is easy to mistake this as a simplistic game. It is not. Some thought needs to go into deciding when to take a risk and when to concede ground. This is not a "throw everything at your opponent" kind of game. It is subtle, and when you play well, it is rewarding.

One thing that I worried about was whether the scoring mechanism would make the game feel artificial, i.e. whether I would be making moves for the sake of scoring points, even though in real life it wouldn't make sense, e.g. when I would be sending young men to almost certain death for no tangible benefit. I found that I had worried unnecessarily. If I had made such dumb moves, the victory point gains would have been short-lived, and I would find my overall board position suffering in the long run. So I'm glad the scoring flows quite naturally from making good tactical decisions.

In this particular game I played the Allies. The Axis played by the AI was quite aggressive and advanced quite far westwards. At one point I was able to cut off its advance units, but at this point it had reestablished a supply line. A few of my infantry units in the south were now cut off instead.

This is the same point in time as the previous screenshot, but viewed in a different mode. This is the supply mode. Red spaces are where there are units out of supply.

This is the victory point calculation screen. That bar at the top indicates the victory requirements for the day. For the Axis to win, they need to score 55pts. For the Allies to win, they need to keep the Axis score at or below 24pts. At this point the Axis score was 23pts, which meant the Allies had won. You can see that the Axis can score points for crossing the River Meuse, for exiting the northwest quadrant of the map, for capturing and holding victory towns and for killing Allied units. They lose points for their own units killed by the Allies.

The Thoughts

There is a little chess-like feel because of how it is a perfect information game, and how you take turns moving units. Battles are resolved by die roll, so the outcomes are not deterministic. But there is much you can do to control your odds in battle. Before you commit to any battle, the computer tells you what your odds are clearly. It's up to you whether you want to go ahead.

I like how the game is challenging and a little thinky. You do need to put in some effort to do well. This is not a casual game. It is something you sit down, pore over, and think through carefully. So far I have won once each as both Axis and Allies in the standard scenario. It was satisfying. However, after that I have not yet picked up the game again. I have a feeling that I have solved the puzzle, so I don't have a strong urge to revisit this battle. The historical accuracy is a double edged sword. It's realistic and immersive, but it can also feel scripted. The starting setup, the reinforcements, and the events are mostly fixed. The battle can still evolve very differently from game to game, because of how individual fights turn out and how they have cascading effects. However it's hard to avoid that deja vu feeling when the calendar of events is a 100% accurate fortune teller. I own Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge, which I only get to play once in a long while. It doesn't feel repetitive despite the fixed starting line-up and reinforcements, but that's only because I don't play it frequently enough. In my situation, the convenience of playing the iPad Battle of the Bulge games becomes a disadvantage, which is bizarre. I have not yet tried the game with human players. I expect it would be much more challenging and much less like a puzzle to solve.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Plato 3000

Plays: 2Px2.

Allen recently gave me his second copy of Plato 3000, and it was then that I realised he had two copies of the black box edition of Glory of Rome. Each copy of this black box edition came with a copy of Plato 3000. That spare unopened box of Glory to Rome is very very tempting...

The Game

Plato 3000 is a rummy-like game, much like games in the Mystery Rummy series, which I have played a lot of. A game lasts several hands, with players scoring points in each hand. The game ends when one player reaches 100pts. Within a hand, players play cards into the playing area in front of them and try to use up their cards, i.e. "go out". Played cards are worth points. When there is only one player (or team) left with cards, the hand ends, and everyone does scoring. Cards still in hand are worth negative points.

A player's turn is very typical of rummy games - draw a card, play card(s), discard a card. Here are some of the notable differences. When drawing a card from the draw deck, you draw two to pick one, and the one which you don't pick goes to a different discard pile. The game has two discard piles because of this. You are only allowed to play one meld (a set of three cards of the same type) per turn. So you can't keep multiple melds in your hand and then surprise your opponent by playing all cards at one go. Melds give you special abilities, depending on the type of card used for the meld. For example one meld type lets you draw any single card from any discard pile when you need to draw a card at the start of your turn. Another meld type lets you draw three instead of two cards when you draw from the draw deck. Yet another meld lets you remove one card from any player's play area.

There is a special card type called Theories which can be played as single cards. They trigger a special ability when played. Only one Theory can be played per turn.

Layoffs (playing a single card which already has a meld on the table) are not restricted.

What makes Plato 3000 unique is the various meld abilities. They are important tools to help the player win.

Very compact and convenient packaging.

Some of the cards. The first two cards are Theory cards, which can be played as single cards. The top-right card is an Engine card, i.e. a joker, and it is worth negative points. The cards in the bottom row are Job cards, cards which form melds.

I like the artwork very much.

The Play

The biggest feeling I had when playing Plato 3000 was a comfortable familiarity. I used to play Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper a lot, and I have played quite a few other games in the series. So playing Plato 3000 is like meeting the younger brother of a very close friend. We click immediately.

Rummy games are not complex games. There is a healthy dollop of luck. In Plato 3000 you don't really decide which meld abilities to go for. You just go with the flow and see what fate brings you, and then try to make the most of the melds that you manage to play. It's very much about taking some chances, doing a little card counting, trying to read your opponent, and making small gambles here and there. It's a little like mahjong - some luck, some skill, and once you get familiar with it it can be played mostly on autopilot while chatting about other things.

A 2-player game in progress. You can see the draw deck in the top right. There are two discard piles next to it, one parallel and the other perpendicular to it.

The Thoughts

What sets Plato 3000 apart from other rummy games I have played is the meld abilities. Overall, I don't find it significantly better or worse than others that I have played. One thing which it doesn't have compared to those in the Mystery Rummy series is the shutout, a special game-end condition which is hard to achieve, but if you succeed in it, you score a lot of points while denying your opponent from much scoring. It is an additional layer of strategy to think about.

I can easily imagine Plato 3000 being a go-to game for couples, families, flatmates, colleagues (over lunch), drinking mates, girl friends. It's something you can conveniently whip out when you have some spare time and feel like having some casual relaxed games. It's something you can easily and comfortably slip into when you feel like spending time with friends and family - like mahjong. I don't think it's something intense gamers plan ahead to play, but it will work as a filler for boardgame sessions, and it will also work when you feel like taking a break from heavy games.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Hammering the Scots again

... or maybe not...

Hammer of the Scots is a low complexity block wargame and is a good introduction game for players new to block games or wargames. I have always liked it, but it had been ages since I last played. So it's on my list of games to play under my one-hard-to-arrange-game-per-month program. I taught Allen the game. He's new, so I suggested he played the English. We played the Braveheart scenario, so I think the English is slightly easier to play, with Edward I still in play. Edward I can winter in Scotland, which is important for the English to maintain the momentum to crush the Scottish rebellion.

Round 1 of the Braveheart scenario, 1297. At the start of this scenario, most of the 14 Scottish nobles are obedient to the English, so the red block version of them are in play. Only a few are rebellious, and the blue block version of these are in play. Some of the blue blocks on the board are just Scottish infantry - the blue ovals with white X's. And that bearded guy is of course William Wallace, the protagonist in the award-winning Mel Gibson movie Braveheart.

The board was mostly red at the start of the game, so as the Scots I had to quickly attack some red nobles to convince them to support the rebellion. Most nobles in this game don't die. If you "kill" them in battle, they leave the board, and then come back as the other coloured block, i.e. they join your side instead. There weren't that many English soldiers yet in Scotland. Most of the red blocks were Scottish nobles submitting to the English throne. I must quickly bring them to my side before the English built up a significant force.

Allen was sitting on the south side of the map. I was looking at the map from the north.

Previously there were two nobles supporting the rebellion in the south, but Allen played a traitor card to convert one of them, and then beat the other into submission, so now there were no more blue blocks in the south (the far end in this photo). Thankfully my early battles went well, and I managed to, aah... "persuade" a number of nobles to turn blue.

Allen now bunched together a few red nobles in the north into a fist to face my blue army. However this was a dangerous move, because winter was just around the corner. Instead of fighting him head-on, I dispersed my army to capture the home territories of his nobles. When winter comes, all nobles must go home. If their home territories are in enemy hands, they surrender and switch sides. So wintering is something to watch out for. I probably should have emphasised this more when I went through the rules. Now I felt a little bad for pulling this squatting-at-your-homes move on him. His lightbulb flicked on and he said, "So that's how this works". After winter, the board situation became...

... this. Round 2, 1298. A sudden splash of blue in the north. Wallace sneaked south to Selkirk Forest. This is a special rule for the Wallace block. He can choose to teleport to Selkirk Forest, spend winter there, and heal two steps. The area was not yet heavily guarded by English blocks, so I was confident Wallace could break through and escape back towards the north. I decided to make use of this Selkirk Forest rule.

When Heng heard that Allen and I had planned to do Hammer of the Scots, he was interested to watch and came to be our spectator. He took this photo. Now the centre and the north were all blue, but Allen was amassing English troops in the south to strike north.

Round 4, 1300. In 1299, Edward I led a powerful army and smashed through the Scottish lines. He spent one winter in Scotland, and towards the end of 1300, he had reached the northern part of Scotland, but had taken some losses too. The Scots had larger numbers, but actually many of the blocks were badly injured. Edward I had two knight blocks with him, and together formed a formidable army. Having spent one winter in Scotland, Edward I would have to leave Scotland at the end of 1300. That would be a relief for me. Right before winter Allen used Edward I and the two knight blocks to capture three of my nobles' home territories, which forced my nobles to switch sides during the Christmas holidays.

The blocks with family crests on shields are the nobles. Their home territories are marked with the same family crests. The strength (which is also life points) of a block is indicated by the number of tiny triangles pointing upwards. When blocks take damage or gain health, you rotate them accordingly.

Round 5, 1301. After Edward I left, I quickly "convinced" the nobles in the north that rebelling was the right path. By now, only one last noble held out (in the far south) against the movement. I just needed to defeat that last guy to win an instant victory.

It was rather impossible by now for Allen to turn the tide, so he set his sights on trying to survive till the end of the scenario, i.e. denying me a sudden death victory. In Round 6 (1302), both our first cards played were event cards (players select cards and then reveal them simultaneously). This meant the year would end early, going straight to the wintering phase. Remaining cards on hand were discarded. Allen lasted another year. Then in 1303, both our first cards were event cards again! Another short year! From a board situation perspective this was bad for Allen, because during winter the Scots can train new troops in Scotland, but not the English. After two peaceful years, almost all my blocks were brought onto the map. The Scots were bloody strong!

These are event cards. I had hoped to play the Herald card (at the top) to make that last noble switch sides, which would give me an instant victory. However Allen played the Sea Move card to send two blocks to protect that last noble. The English event was resolved first, so by the time that noble switched to the Scottish side, he was forced to attack the two English blocks stationed in the same territory. Needless to say he was taught a stern lesson and changed his mind to stay loyal to the English throne. My devious plan did not work out.

In the end I mobilised a large army to defeat that last noble, who was then protected by Edward I and two other strong English blocks which had rushed to the scene. At this stage the Scots simply had overwhelming numbers and the English had little chance of putting down the rebellion. The English ended up being the ones getting hammered.

The pivotal point of this game was probably the first wintering phase in 1297, when the English lost most of the north to the Scots. Edward I later managed to orchestrate a strong offense, but unfortunately didn't use it to establish a lasting foundation. The English gains were soon reversed. By then the momentum was too much on the Scottish side.

Monday, 4 August 2014

in photos: Carcassonne, Pickomino, Viva Topo

22 Jun 2014. It had been a long time since Michelle and I last played Carcassonne, and it was like catching up with a dear old friend. This game used to be very heavily played when boardgames first became my hobby. This was a little surprising, because prior to that when I only played boardgames sporadically, I used to think the best boardgames were those like Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords. I didn't know about German games or more complex wargames then. Even when I first played Carcassonne, I wasn't particularly taken to it. I found it rather simple, and also a little weird, because I hadn't been exposed to German games. However after I bought it, Michelle and I played it more and more. Michelle was willing to play frequently because it wasn't a game about war or fighting. So I should thank Carcassonne for turning boardgames into my hobby - something I do every week, not a few times per year like with Axis & Allies.

My copy of Carcassonne contains the Inns & Cathedrals expansion and the Abbey and Mayor expansion, plus a few other smaller ones that came with magazines or were gifts from friends. I've lost track of the smaller ones. In this photo you can see the barn (large house-like piece) which is part of the Abbey and Mayor expansion.

Michelle beat me by 3 points! 203:200.

28 Jul 2014. During the Raya break I also played Pickomino with the children. Shee Yun (9) was considering her options very solemnly. I find that the children tend to be more conservative, and are willing to take a worm die result even when there is just one worm rolled. I tend to be greedier and I usually pick another number, hoping to roll more worms on the next roll. My policy might not be the best one though. I don't do all that well in this game.

Chun Rui (7) likes this game and sometimes requests for it, and she does well. I'm not sure whether she's just lucky, or she really instinctively gets the strategy.

Look at that stack of tiles next to Chen Rui. She already has four. The game is ending soon - there are only two face-up tiles at the centre of the table. The rest have all been turned face-down due to failed attempts to claim tiles.

She gets five 2's, which is not good - you want big numbers (a worm has a value of 5). Thankfully she has one 1, which she can choose to lock, and then she can reroll all those 2's and hope for something better.

The tiles on the left are Chen Rui's - 9pts. The tile on the right is Shee Yun's - 1pt. I scored 3pts.

After that we played Viva Topo!. This is a children's game, and it is truly a risk management game. Just don't use this term to sell the game to parents or to children. You have four mice and you use them to claim as much cheese as possible. They move by die roll, and the bigger pieces of cheese are always further away. There is a cat coming after the mice. Any mice caught before they can claim any cheese will have to leave empty-handed. The risk management comes in how far you want to move your mice towards the bigger pieces of cheese, and whether you should just grab the smaller pieces before you get caught. You are gambling on how much time your mice have before the cat catches up with them.

This was the early game, and many mice were still sneaking behind the cat. Eventually the cat will go around the track and chase the mice from behind. In the later part of the game, the cat will move more quickly - two steps at a time instead of just one. So the game builds up to a climax. When I play this with the children, they tend to want to help all their mice equally, while I try to focus on only some of them and I aim for the big pieces of cheese. In a game where the cat moves quickly, trying to move all mice can be disastrous and yield low returns.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

PitchCar

Plays: 3Px7, 2Px1.

During the Raya holidays Allen suggested to lend me his PitchCar set for me to try with my daughters. His children are still a bit too young for it. So I played, and I had a great time. I didn't know much about the game before, other than having seen some photos and knowing it's a dexterity game. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The Game

PitchCar is a car-racing game, where the cars are discs that you flick around the race track. There aren't many rules. If your car goes off track, or you cause another player's car to go off track, you reset all discs to positions before your turn, and you have just wasted a turn. If your disc flips over, you need to spend your next turn just to flip it back. First to complete 3 laps wins. That's the gist of it. Let's look at how it plays.

The Play

At first we designed our own race track, but I found that it wasn't very good, so after that we stuck to the recommended designs that came with the game.

The race cars.

After playing for a short while, we realised we needed to push away all the chairs. They got in the way. We had to keep moving around the table, and we ended up all sweating. The weather being hot didn't help.

This is one of the recommended race tracks. However we modified it slightly by adding a ramp.

The race tracks have barriers, which can act as guides for the cars and thus help players move their cars further.

Crossing the ramp was harder than I thought. Flick too hard and the car would go off track. Flick too lightly and the car wouldn't make it past the gap.

I wonder whether it's possible to make something like the Sepang F1 race track in Malaysia.

This was a challenging shot. Shee Yun had to be careful not to knock Chen Rui's car off the track.

Allen has not only the base game but also quite a number of expansions, so there is a lot to play with. I grouped the parts by type to ease building the next race track.

Another race track.

This part is actually not easy. Flying over the ramp is challenging. Going through that narrow corridor is also tough.

See how Chen Rui missed.

The Thoughts

This is a simple fun kind of game, but it is not mindless. You are constantly involved, and because it's a dexterity game you do need to focus. Turns are quick, are you are always eager for your next turn. When I played with the children I had to keep reminding them it was not their turn yet. We had to chant a mantra like "red blue green - red blue green" so that we kept to the proper turn order.

There is often a balance between slow-and-steady and fast-but-risky. Everyone will try to push his luck and try to go faster and further, but if you are careless or overly ambitious, you may end up going off track and wasting turns. So there is a nice tension of how far you want to push yourself. When you are behind, you need to keep your cool and not be too rash, because otherwise you might make things worse. Playing with the kids was relaxing for me, since they were not as nimble as I was and I kept winning, but I imagine the game can be quite challenging when playing against adults. We had a lot of laughs with lousy shots or unlucky shots, and we had a lot of cheers for great shots or crazy lucky shots. Say all you want about balancing risk and gain. Eventually when you play, you don't really think that much. You just immerse yourself in the simple fun and the adrenalin rush.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

appreciating Android Netrunner

Over the Raya holidays (Aidilfitri / Eid al-Fitr) I arranged with John to play Android: Netrunner, hoping to continue to learn this game. He's a veteran, and he actually started playing it at Spartan Games Arena, where I visited recently to play and learn from Nik. John still follows the latest expansions, but feels a bit tired of the chasing after new cards, and wants to return to basics - building decks using only the cards from the core set. That suits me just fine. I want to learn starting from the basics. We spent an afternoon at Starbucks and played five games. He taught me quite a bit about deck building, and I realised how poor my two deck builds were. By our third game I switched to playing with his decks, and actually managed one win game. As I learned more, I found that there was so much more I didn't know and needed to learn. It was a little daunting. Perhaps it's a good sign. It means I'm improving and I'm able to appreciate the depth of the game better. I hope. Here are my miscellaneous thoughts after this enjoying session of running.

  • I suddenly have an urge to sleeve all my cards. I think most if not all serious runners do this. I suddenly have this urge because I realise this game has a lot of replayability even with just the core set, and there is a lot of fiddling with the cards because of constructing and reconstructing decks. I suddenly see that even just the cards from the core set is a cultural artifact that needs to be preserved. I can't explain why I don't feel this way about Race for the Galaxy, a game I love and have played hundreds of times, until some of the cards are obviously frayed at the edges.

    I was playing John's Criminal runner deck. He uses red-backed sleeves. I'm thinking of getting transparent ones.

  • I learned that there are three main types of ice (firewalls protecting the servers), and thus also three main types of icebreaker programs to break their subroutines. In hindsight it's amazingly dumb of me how I never bothered to check this. No wonder my first attempt at deck-building was laughable.
  • John taught me to run naked (and I must explain before your imagination runs wild). Running naked means hacking at the corporation's servers in the early game when you don't have any programs installed yet. The corp doesn't have a lot of money yet, so it will not be able to rez (turn on) any powerful and dangerous ice. You don't have any program at risk of getting trashed. You can force the corp to reveal the newly placed ice, which is useful information to you. If the corp player doesn't rez his ice, you run successfully and if lucky you may even score an early agenda. So running naked is a very viable tactic.
  • To play well, you need to know almost every detail of every card. Remembering the names of the many cards is not something you force yourself to do. It actually comes naturally after you spend much time playing, discussing with your friends, and deck-building. Tell a veteran an icebreaker-and-ice pair, and he can probably immediately tell you how much it would cost for the former to break all subroutines of the latter. It's like having memorised the multiplication table. After an afternoon with John, I've learned to remember some of the more powerful cards to watch out for, like Snare and Scorched Earth.
  • Some cards can be particularly powerful, even to the point of becoming game-winners, under specific situations. The game is very much about trying to create such situations to play these cards, and also preventing your opponent from doing it to you. I have learned this in Hearthstone, but I still need to learn the cards in Netrunner better to be able to do the same. One thing that I wonder is whether this will result in groupthink. If everyone thinks a card is best used in a certain way, then the group may become stuck in a narrow mindset and not explore other viable tactics, possibly even more creative ways to use the card.
  • I am amazed at how consistent the setting and the mechanisms are. The core mechanisms are not exactly simplistic, but are not overly complex either. There are servers, firewalls, programs, subroutines, tagging, viruses, bad publicity and so on. All the card powers tie back to this handful of core elements, yet there is much variety.
  • John thinks the default decks in the core set are weak, but decent decks can be built using only cards in the core set. One just needs to tweak the decks a little and use some cards from other factions. He shared with me his deck builds. I'll probably just use them as they are for now, until I get a better feel for the deck-building aspect.
  • In one of the games where I played the Jinteki corp using a deck I built, John played the Criminal runner with a deck he built. One of the powerful Jinteki cards is Snare. If the runner accesses Snare when hacking into a server, the corp may spend $4 to discard three of the runner's hand cards. If the runner doesn't have enough, he is flatlined and loses. John was very careful about not getting caught by Snare. There were a few times when he managed to reach my server, but because I kept at least $4 on hand, he hesitated and jacked out at the last minute, deciding not to access the server after all. That saved me a few times. I actually didn't have any Snare waiting for him. I was just bluffing. In fact, after the game (which I eventually lost) I realised I hadn't put Snare into my deck at all! No wonder I didn't draw it even after half my deck was gone.