Sunday, 24 May 2020

Madeira





The Game

The Madeira island group is Portugal's earliest colony during the Age of Exploration. It was a launch pad for Portugese colonisation, the first stop for many expeditions.  The game Madeira is based on this period in history and the role played by this island group. You develop the islands, and use their resources to help Portugal expand its colonial empire. This is a heavy Eurogame. You win by scoring the most points.

This is a complex game, and it's challenging to summarise what it's like. When I first looked at the board and the interface of this computer implementation, I found it overwhelming. I will just touch on a few things that left the biggest impression on me.

There are only two islands on the board, one of which is divided into northern and southern halves. So there are a total of three regions. The regions produce wood, wheat, sugar and wine. Many plantations are initially forests. Only when the trees are felled do they transform into plantations. To harvest resources, you need to place workers onto the forests or plantations, and you need to perform the harvest action. At the end of Round 2, some wheat fields transform to become sugar plantations. In Round 4, some sugar plantations become wine plantations. This is historical flavour integrated into gameplay.

You have workers and you have ships in your personal supply. You deploy them onto different parts the board to do various things, e.g. gaining resources, making money, scoring points, obtaining privileges. There is a cost in deploying workers and ships. Every round you must feed them. Workers eat bread. Ships consume wood - you need to maintain them. If you fail to pay such maintenance fees for workers or ships, you will take penalty in the form of pirate points. At game end, players lose victory points based on their rankings in pirate points. This intricate balance between deploying your pieces and making sure you can afford to do so reminds me of Antiquity and Agricola. You are playing the game on a slippery slope and you need to be careful to stay afloat. The pressure is on right from the start.

The game is played over 5 rounds. At the start of the game and the start of every round, you will pick a scoring tile. Each scoring tile lets you score victory points based on a specific criteria. At the end of the first round you already need to pick one of the two scoring tiles you have at that point to score. Once scored, the tile is discarded. At the end of the third round, you score two of your tiles on hand. At game end, you score all three on hand. These scoring tiles will account for most of your victory points in the game. Your strategy revolves around them. Fighting for player order is important because it determines who gets to pick a scoring tile first. You must watch your opponents' scoring tiles so that you know how to hinder them. Sometimes you want to force your opponents to take scoring tiles which are bad for them. The scoring criteria include spending money for points, merchant ships scoring points, colony ships scoring points, and unused privileges scoring points.

The two sections at the lower right are the colony section and the market section. You get to deploy ships here. To deploy a colony ship you must pay wine (purple). You'll receive some benefit immediately. To deploy a merchant ship, you pay wheat, sugar or wine, and the reward is cold hard cash. During the scoring phase, if you have the right scoring tiles, your ships will score points.

The three rows at the lower left are three cities. When you deploy workers here, you gain bread, money or wood. The more workers you have here, the more resources you will collect. If you have the right scoring tile, presence at cities will score points.

In this screenshot above, those square tiles in the second rows under each player name are the privilege tiles. They have a variety of powers, and they are single-use. Some actions in the game let you reset these tiles, thus allowing you to use them again.

In addition to colony ships, you may deploy workers to the colony section on the right side of the board. These workers become colonists, and they produce resources for you every round. Just don't forget you'll need bread to feed them every round too.

The Play

The grand strategy in Madeira is centred around the six scoring tiles you will claim and score at different times in the game. You must manipulate this and adjust your play to match the scoring tiles you end up with. There are many tactical considerations in the game. Many of the actions in the game are linked with others, and thus have far-reaching implications. This is not an easy game to digest.

Dice are used to create some randomness and conflicting needs. They affect the costs of some actions and the risks of taking pirate points. There is a worker placement element. The number of times a particular action can be taken in a round is limited. If it is important to you, you'd better do it sooner rather than later, especially if you need to do it more than once. There is much decision angst, because there are often a few things you want to do, and you know when you choose one over another, you may not get to do that other one later on. The game has meaningful and difficult decisions, not those superficial ones where you can easily tell which the best option is.

The Thoughts

I wasn't optimistic when I started learning and playing the game. It looked like a mess to me - over convoluted. I was wary whether this was going to be yet another highly complex game jam-packed with mechanisms and rules but no soul. As I played, I gradually discovered the story and the character in the design. I like the sense of urgency and desperation in trying to feed your workers and maintain your ships. It is an intricate balance trying to deploy as many workers and ships as you can, but not too many that it causes more harm than it helps. You have to either afford the maintenance cost, or afford to take the pirate points penalty for not paying the maintenance cost. I also like how wood gets depleted, and how wheat fields turn to sugar plantations and sugar plantations to wine plantations. There is a feeling of living through history and watching an age progress.

The game has high player interaction. Many aspects of the game are tightly integrated, and this creates competition. It is hard to avoid competing. Madeira is for the heavy Eurogamer.


Sunday, 17 May 2020

Keyflower



I played Keyflower for the first time during the COVID-19 Movement Control Order period in Malaysia. It is not a new game. It's just that I never found a time to try it out. Since we couldn't go out to meet people for boardgame sessions, Allen, Han and I arranged to play online using BoardGameArena.

The Game

A big part of the game is the bidding mechanism. The game is played over 4 rounds, and the first half of a round is bidding for (mostly) tiles. Your currency is workers, and they come in four different colours. Red, yellow and blue are regular workers. Green is rare workers which you can only get under special circumstances.

The first person who bids on an item decides which colour will be used. Subsequent bidders trying to outbid him must use workers of the same colour. This makes green workers very powerful and valuable. When you use green, others may not have enough green workers to outbid you, or may not think it worthwhile.

Tiles that you win through the bidding are added to your village, which starts with one village centre tile. You also bid for player order. At the top left you can see three ships with workers and tools. These are resources which will enter the game next round. Based on player order, you will pick which set of resources to claim next round.

At the bottom are our villages. We had just started growing them. The tiles have various powers, e.g. producing resources, converting resources. To use the power of a tile, you just need to place a worker (or more) on it. You may already start using the power of a tile that is still in the common pool and not yet claimed by anyone. You may also use a tile already in another player's village, just that the worker you place there will become his next round.

The tiles are double-sided. You may upgrade them to the more powerful side by spending resources. Also you gain victory points when upgrading a tile to the other side. To do this upgrade, you need to not only have the necessary resources, you also need to deliver them to that tile. Some tiles generate resources. Sometimes you gain resources at your village centre. You need to perform deliveries to transport resources to the desired destinations. Deliveries are simply one type of tile power. The village centre has such a power, but it is not strong. You usually need more tiles with delivery powers if you want to be competitive.

Some tiles are for end-game scoring. Everyone gets three such scoring tiles at the start of the game, and they are kept secret from other players. You get to plan ahead based on these tiles. In the screenshot above, this scoring tile gives me 10pts for every set of three different tools. At the start of Round 4, everyone must pick at least one scoring tile from his hand to be added to the bidding pool. You have had time to plan to fulfill the scoring criteria, so usually you will be aiming for those tiles you add to the pool. However it is not guaranteed that you will get these tiles. You still need to win them through the bidding process. Usually you'll try to release tiles which are helpful to you but not to your opponents. This way they are less motivated to fight you for these tiles. However if some tiles are too good for you, your opponents may be forced to compete just to deny you, even if the tiles don't help them much.

After winning some tiles, your next problem will be where to place them. This stage of a round is a little like Carcassonne. The sides of the tiles must match up. Road with road, river with river, field with field. You want your village to be compact to minimise delivery distances. You want to be efficient. Sometimes tile placement affects scoring. Ideally even when bidding you should already plan where you'll be placing the tiles you will potentially win.

The village in the centre is Allen's. At one point he messed up his planning, and his village expanded in an unwieldy fashion.

This particular scoring tile gives you 12pts straight, without needing to fulfill any criteria.

I had added to the pool one scoring tile which was particularly important to me - the tile which would give me 10pts per set of 3 different tools. I had been saving up my tools for it. Unfortunately Allen competed for it and won it. That tile would probably have given me 30pts, and that would be about half my total score. When I bid for the tile, I was stingy and tried to win it with a low bid. Allen knew it was important to me, and he outbid me. I did not have enough workers to continue the fight. I lost the forest because I went cheap on one tree. Aarrgghh! Priorities!!

The Play

The bidding aspect in Keyflower reminds me of trick-taking games. Once anyone starts bidding for an item, the colour (or suit) for that item is locked. You may not have many workers in every colour, but if you are quick, you can protect your bid for a particular item by using your strongest suit or others' weakest suits. Managing your currency (workers) is an important tactical element.

From the beginning of the game you already have 3 scoring criteria in hand, and you can prepare to fulfill them as much as possible throughout the game. This is the long-term strategy aspect of the game. You do long-term planning. You develop your village based on some general goals. It is satisfying to grow and improve your settlement. There is a fair bit of optimisation. Min-maxing. You want to plan carefully and play efficiently, minimising delivery distances, fully utilising the delivery action, producing just enough resources for what you need.

There is also a worker placement aspect to the game, though not a "hard" one. During the bidding stage of a round, you can already decide to place workers to use tile powers. Being first to use a tile does not prevent others from using it. You just make it more expensive. Being first to bid for a tile does not prevent others from outbidding you, just that if you do your first bid well, you can make it expensive and undesirable for others to outbid you. The decision between bidding for a tile and using a tile is often a difficult one to make. There are many things you want to do, but you can only pick one on your turn. You watch your opponents and try to guess what they will likely go for.

The Thoughts

Player interaction is high. Complexity is medium to high. This is quite an involved strategy game that will give you a good mental exercise.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Age of Steam Deluxe Edition (2019)

Age of Steam is Martin Wallace's magnum opus and a classic. I bought it many years ago, and bought a few expansions too. A deluxe version was released in 2019, and I managed to play a copy. So here are photos of this very nice deluxe version.

7 Feb 2020. We played the Switzerland map. This was the first time I played this map. One unique aspect is all rail tracks are the same price. In the normal game, simpler tracks are cheaper, and complex tracks more expensive. I guess one way to look at this is this makes the game easier to learn because you don't need to worry about the different types of tracks. This map is tough though, because tracks are expensive, despite the flat rate.

The red borders are impassable. So are the grey mountains. These add to the challenge too.

The three side boards are designed following the flow of a game round. I find this helpful in teaching the game. This is the first side board. It covers the first three phases of a round - issuing shares to raise money, bidding for player order, and selecting your special action.

This is the second side board, and it only covers one phase - building tracks. Normally the price differs depending on the type of track tile you want to place. In the case of Switzerland, the price is fixed so you can ignore most of this board.

The third side board covers goods delivery, income, expenses, income reduction and goods growth. The markers at the top indicate each player's train capacity, i.e. how many links he can move a cube.

The money is designed to look like poker chips, which is nice. The size is much smaller than standard poker chips.

The red lines are tricky. After you place track tiles onto the board, they are easily blocked. So you must check carefully when you plan to build tracks. In this game I miscalculated once because I didn't realise there was a red line where I was planning to extend my tracks.

These two pre-printed stretches of tracks are tunnels. They are initially not in play, and take effect only by a certain round. This is yet another unique aspect of the Switzerland map. The white circles are towns. You can connect tracks to towns. Towns can be upgraded to become cities (coloured hexes). You may deliver cubes to cities but not to towns.

In the first half of the game we only developed the northern half of the map, where there were more cities and towns, and goods too.

Julian (yellow) connected to that multi-coloured city, which was a good thing. These cities accepted multiple types of cubes, which was convenient. When delivering goods, it is not necessary to use only your own tracks. You may use tracks belonging to other players, just that for these stretches, they will be getting the income growth and not you. Ainul (red) had a short track linking the blue and purple cities near each other. That tiny little track did much business in our game because I kept using it. It was a critical link between the eastern and western halves of the rail network.

I (green) was planning to connect to that multi-coloured city at the bottom left, but Julian (yellow) beat me to it.

In this photo you can see why I (green) had such a big dependency on Ainul's (red) strategically placed track. It was right in the middle of my long delivery route. I gave him much business.

Tracks need not be completed within the same round. You can build halfway and continue next round. Blue and red both currently have half built tracks.

Heng (blue) had issued 15 shares, which was the max, and could issue no more.

One scary thing about Age of Steam is Income Reduction. Every round, your painstakingly built income level drops. This happens as soon as your income exceeds 10. The higher your income, the more it is reduced. This mechanism is explained as inflation. I think it is there for game balance, and to keep you on your toes. Sometimes you intentionally hold back just to avoid the penalty. E.g. you may choose to strive for income level 20 instead of 21. At 20, it will be reduced by 2 to 18, but at 21, it will be reduced by 4 to 17! There is still a difference. For that round, you will earn $1 more, before the income reduction is done. Sometimes that does make a difference.

We started developing in the southern half. The northern half was getting saturated. Many towns had been upgraded to cities.

Cubes (goods) become more and more scarce as players deliver them. As the game progresses, some cubes become less and less attractive because players want to go for the long distance deliveries. Some deliveries are not lucrative at all. There is a mechanism which adds goods to the map. This goods growth is done once per round, and there is some randomness in which cities would produce goods. You know what's coming next at each city, but you don't know whether each specific city will produce, and if it does, how many. Goods for this goods growth phase come from a side board, and there is one player action which allows you to replenish goods on that side board. You draw cubes from a bag and decide where to place them. You may not get the colours you want. Even if you do, and you place them at your preferred cities, those cities may not produce and the goods would remain in the queue. This mechanism is the only aspect in the game where you have some randomness (die rolls).

In this photo, some cities had run out of goods, and some previously depleted cities now had new goods added.

Lugano in this far corner never had anyone building any train tracks for it, so the goods here never got delivered.

The white discs are towns, and they are the same thing as the white circles printed on the map. It is just that when you build tracks to the towns, you need to use the white discs to represent them. Later if you upgrade the town to a city, you remove both the white disc and the track tile under it, and place a coloured hex instead.

My table - Heng, me, Julian and Ainul.

The other table - Tim, Jeff and Kareem.

The other table played the Panama map.

They played much more quickly than we did, and managed to play a second map - Vietnam. Those black hexes are flooding I think.

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Bus

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Bus is one of the earlier games from Splotter Games, first published in 1999, more than 20 years ago now. Games from Splotter are now a blind buy for me, but when I heard about the reprint, I still did a bit of research before deciding to preorder. Afterall it is an earlier work and it might not be as well designed as their later games. However I found that the reviews were all good. People all said this was a strategic and cutthroat game much like Splotter's other games.

Prior to my research, the only thing I knew about Bus was the unusual * cough * ugly * box cover, which was of the same "unusual" level as Roads & Boats. This is the new box cover, and I find it lovely.

This is the old box cover.

One thing I like about the game components is the ziplock bags in the five player colours. They also provide a grey bag and an orange bag for the shared game pieces, but I prefer to use my own transparent ziplock bags for these. The rulebook (top right) looks like a bus timetable, which is nice.

These are the player pieces. The cylinders are action tokens. You get 20 for the whole game. They are single-use, so you will have at most 20 actions for the whole game. That funeral pyre in the background is made of bus routes. The bus markers on the right are for keeping track of your bus level, or how many passengers you can deliver each time you make a run.

A big part of the core game mechanism is worker placement, and the worker placement bit reminds me of Dominant Species. In the first half of a round, you take turns placing action tokens on the right side of the board. Everyone must place at least 2 tokens. From the 3rd cycle onwards you may pass. If you continue to place tokens, there is no restriction on how many. You may keep placing until you run out of tokens, or you run out of spaces to place tokens. One way the game ends is when only one player has any action token left. So it is possible for a few players to intentionally speed up the game by using up their tokens.

Once everyone is done with placing tokens, you go into the second half of the round - executing actions. Some action spaces are marked A to F. A is always the strongest action, and F the weakest. When placing an action token, you place on the A space first. The next player who wants to perform that action type must place his token on the B space, and so on. When executing the action, you don't execute from A to F. You execute from left to right. So some stronger actions are executed later than the weaker actions. That's important to consider.

The full board looks like this. At the start of the game, there are four (orange) passengers at the four corners of Central Park. In the upper right and lower left you can see two train stations. During the game new passengers enter play through these train stations. The roads are where you build your bus route. Everyone has only one route. You may not fork off (sorry that doesn't sound quite right). You may only extend your route from one of the ends. There are many black circles on the board numbered 1 to 4. They are for buildings, of which there are three types - home, office and pub. At different times of the day passengers will want to go to a different building type. Your job is to help them get there. Each passenger you deliver using your bus route gives you 1VP. This sounds simple, but it is not. The average score of the game is about 7VP, i.e. about 7 passengers delivered in total. The numbers at the building spaces dictate the order they must be filled. You must fill all the #1 spaces before filling any #2 spaces, and so on.

You can see the three building types - home, office and pub.

As part of game setup, every player sets up a 2-length bus route, and places two buildings. Kareem (red) and Allen (yellow) connected their routes to one of the train stations, to secure passengers. That's a smart move. I (green) decided to keep to the centre, hoping that by being where the busyness was, I could leech other players' passengers even though I had no connection to a train station. That did not work out so well, to put it nicely.

Let me briefly explain some of the actions you get to do in this game. First, you get to extend your route. There are strict rules around this, and as a result it is rare to have two routes overlapping on the same street. Your route will often meet others' routes at junctions, but they usually won't overlap. You can increase your bus capacity. Every round only one person gets to do this, so this action space is often hotly contested. You can place buildings on empty spaces. You can bring passengers into the city. The most important action is running your bus, called Vroom. Before any bus runs are done, you must check the time of day to determine what building type the passengers want to head to. Every building fits only one passenger. For each passenger, you examine whether the junction he is at has a building he wants to enter. If so, he just walks in. If there is none, or they are taken up by other passengers, he needs to look elsewhere. These are the passengers you as bus companies get to serve. If your bus route connects a passenger to his desired building type, you deliver him for 1VP. Your bus capacity determines how many passengers you may deliver per Vroom action.

One more thing you can do in the game is fight for the start player position for the next round. If no one fights for it, the start player marker is passed clockwise. Being start player can be crucial, and often people will fight for it.

In this photo above, the time is afternoon, and everyone wants to go to the office. All offices are now occupied (briefcase icon). There is one passenger at the train station at the lower right who is unable to get to any office. I guess it's work-from-home for you.

This clock device is an important aspect of the game. Normally the clock hand always moves clockwise one sector per round, changing the time of day from morning to afternoon to evening and back to morning again. This changes the passengers' desired destinations. Notice there is one action space next to the clock. If you place an action token here, you gain the ability to stop time. You have the option to do this just before the Vroom step, after everyone has done all the route extension, capacity increment and building placement. What this means is you can royally screw everything up for everyone. People may be expecting time to move forward, and may have executed all their actions based on this expectation. If you decide to stop time, their plans may well be all for naught. The thing is, you don't even really need to stop time. Placing your action token there already creates a major threat and forces people to think twice. The downside of it is though, if you decide to stop time, you must claim a time stone (the green or blue marbles), and each time stone is -1VP at game end.

There is an important concept called the MaxBus. MaxBus is the bus capacity of the player with the highest bus capacity. The strengths of the extend route, place building and place passenger actions are dependent on MaxBus. If MaxBus is 3, then a player may extend his route up to 3 times. This is if he takes the A action space. If you take the B action space, you extend twice. If the C action spaces, just once. The action spaces D to F are useless for now. What this all means is the actions will become stronger as the game progresses. The game will escalate and accelerate. It is important to watch out for this.

The game ends in three ways - when only one player has action tokens remaining, when time stones are exhausted, and when all building spaces are filled. All these can be manipulated by players, so you need to consider whether it's beneficial to you to drag on or to speed up.

The Play

I played with Kareem, Ivan and Allen. 4-players is supposed to be the best player count. Kareem had played Bus before, and warned us that scores would be low, around 6 to 7VP.

This is an open information game. Players actions have great impact on one another, i.e. very high player interaction. To get one simple thing done - sending one passenger to where he wants to go - takes a lot of coordination, almost like trying to align the stars. The game rules are not difficult. Compared to other Splotter games, this game is almost simplistic. Yet it is highly strategic. Many things are interlocked. You need to think and plan very carefully. There are many possibilities you must consider. This is in no way an easy game, despite how straight-forward it may seem.

Now Ivan (blue) had connected to the train station on the upper left. I (green) was the only one still running in circles at the centre not connected to any train station. More and more passengers were coming to the city via the train stations. Now there were no more #1 building spots. The next time anyone placed buildings, they would go to the #2 spots.

One thing I realised was that having more than one type of building at the same junction is usually a bad thing. Let's say a junction has both a home and an office. In the morning, let's say one passenger comes and occupies the home. Next round, when it is afternoon, the passenger will want to go to work. Since there is already an office here, he just walks in and doesn't need to take a bus at all. That's a business opportunity lost from the bus companies' perspective. So if you want to hinder your opponents, you may want to consider doing this to junctions on their routes. And you probably want to avoid doing this to your own junctions.

Every round before you deliver passengers, many other things happen, and the board situation changes. It is not easy to plan everything out nicely to make sure you can deliver. There are many things you need to do, and there are many actions by others which can mess up your plans. E.g. someone increases his bus capacity and delivers that one more passenger which you were planning to deliver. Or someone extending his route to reach destinations which he previously could not reach, enabling more deliveries. Everyone is fighting for those previous few deliveries. Yet despite the uncertainties, quite often the first action people go for is the Vroom action, because if you are slow to the party, there may be no more passengers left. Often the mentality is commit first, then try to work things out.

We made two rule mistakes. The first one was the number of action tokens. We played with 21 per player, when it should be 20. I didn't realise that each player colour had one extra backup token. I told everyone to use all of them. The second mistake was much more severe. I had misinterpreted the clock rule. I said that for the clock to tick, someone must place an action token, and use it to move the clock hand. This made things unnecessarily difficult for us. Every round someone had to "take one for the team" and spend one token just to keep the clock ticking. If the clock didn't move, it normally meant bad business for everyone. This probably dragged our game too. It certainly distorted our game experience. In our game the clock action was not a threat to stop time. It was a necessity to keep the game progressing, and we found ourselves playing a game of chicken to see who could not hold out and must sacrifice a piece just to make the clock tick. Sorry guys.

Kareem (red), Allen (yellow) and I (green) had many touchpoints. Ivan (blue) was a bit more isolated and he had a monopoly on some areas. At first I thought it was a good idea to have more touchpoints with others, because there would be more passengers going around, and I would be able to leech the passengers off others' routes. There would be more opportunities available. The problem was there was also more competition, and I often lost out. A monopoly is more powerful because once you grab a passenger and send him to a location which only you can reach, no one else can steal him away from you. If your bus route has all types of buildings, your customers will be super loyal, always taking your bus to bounce about the three building types on your route.

The road names all seem to be related to Splotter Games and their games.

Due to my incorrect rule explanation, we did not claim a single time stone the whole game. Kareem found that strange because in his previous game, the game ended when all time stones were claimed. He looked up the rules, and found out we had been playing wrong all along. By then it was late game, and we decided to continue with our silly ironman version of the game.

Overlapping routes rarely happen, because of how route extension works. Planning your route extension is important because this is a land grab. You not only stake your claim, you also block others from expanding. If you are not careful, you will be denied lucrative paths and you will be forced to make detours.

Now the only building spaces left are the #4 spaces.

Nearing game end.

The Thoughts

After playing Bus, I feel torn. It has many of the qualities of other Splotter games. It doesn't have some of the problems of other Splotter games. The qualities include being highly strategic, competitive and unforgiving. It is heavy, brain-burning and brutal. Yet it doesn't have the fiddliness of many other Splotter games, like Antiquity and Indonesia. In fact this lack of fiddliness makes it feel like a more modern game. It is more streamlined and polished. Yet after playing the game, I did not like it immediately like other Splotter games. Other than Antiquity and Indonesia, I also love Roads & Boats, Food Chain Magnate and The Great Zimbabwe. At first I wondered whether the unforgiving nature was what made me uncomfortable about Bus, but all Splotter games are like this. Why is Bus different? Eventually I concluded that the fiddliness in the other games is actually a soothing balm for me. When it keeps me busy, I feel like I'm doing something constructive and meaningful. I feel like I'm making progress. This is the kind of feeling that development games give us. So even if I lose badly, I feel I've contributed something to society. I still know I have screwed up and I lost fair and square, but I am consoled that throughout the game I have built something I can take a photo of. Bus is so streamlined that I have nowhere to hide. I can't find any excuse for myself. I need to face its brutal honesty.

Despite being an early design, Bus does not feel so. It actually feels more modern than some other Splotter games. My feelings towards it are complicated, because the mind tells me I should like it more, but the heart is siding with its younger siblings.