Wednesday, 25 February 2015

my family's top tens

In 2012, I asked two of my gaming buddies to make our top ten lists simultaneously. It was an interesting exercise for me, because despite gaming together regularly, we never really discussed what kind of games we liked and we never gave much thought to what our top ten games were. I recently thought why not do this with my family. Maybe that would bring out some interesting findings (at least to me). And it did. I didn't ask them to write any essay on what kind of games they like. I just asked for their list of top ten games. So the thoughts below are mine, not theirs.


When I asked my wife Michelle about her top ten games, her immediate response was "those simple card games". We used to play many games in the past, but she has been less active in the past few years. Many of the games on her list are games we used to play a lot of in the past. She didn't rank them. From my records, she has played 278 different games, which surprised her when I told her so.

  • Race for the Galaxy / Roll for the Galaxy - She combines these two into one entry. They feel similar enough to her. Roll for the Galaxy is new and we have only started playing it this year. We have played a ton of Race for the Galaxy in the past, using the advanced 2-player rules.
    Race for the Galaxy

  • Through the Ages - Another game which we have played a lot of. Almost all my games of Through the Ages and Race for the Galaxy are played as 2-player games against Michelle. If you ask me to play these with others, it would feel weird. I am too used to playing only with her. I am quite sure despite our many plays, we have not explored the full strategic space because we are limited to what only the two of us can think of. We don't read strategy articles on the net. We don't play these games with others so no new ideas are injected into our gameplay. I think we have also established some unwritten rules, or conventions, and we may not even be consciously aware of some of these because we have become too comfortable with them.
  • Mystery Rummy #1: Jack the Ripper - A rummy-like card game for 2 to 4 players, but I think it's best with two. It's a game we can play on auto-pilot.

    Mystery Rummy #1: Jack the Ripper

  • Carcassonne - Our first spouse game. However we did play this with many of our friends in Taiwan. It was a big hit with them.
  • Agricola - There was a period when we played this heavily.
  • Ticket To Ride and games in the series, but not including the card game (which I own) or the dice game (which I don't).
  • At the Gates of Loyang - I was a little surprised by this entry. It must be the cute components...
    At the Gates of Loyang

  • Power Grid - 2-players is far from the best way to play, but we've done quite a few 2-player games. I own many expansions, and I'm glad I've played every single one at least once.
  • Mystery Rummy #4: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld
  • Hacienda

Shee Yun

Elder daughter Shee Yun is 9, and has played 127 different games. There are four cooperative games on her list. I wonder whether she really does like them, or I just happen to have introduced many such games to her.

  1. Escape - We played a lot of this last year.

  2. Forbidden Island - I don't own this. Our plays were at Meeples Cafe.
  3. Love Letter
  4. Machi Koro - I should consider getting a copy. We are still playing the copy Allen lent us.
  5. Samurai Spirit - She only played this for the first time recently.
  6. Robinson Crusoe - She has played a few times, but it has been a while since we last played.
  7. Zombie! Run for your lives! - I was surprised by this. Perhaps it was because I didn't like this much, so I didn't expect it to turn up on her list.
  8. Cloud 9 - Also played at Meeples Cafe.
  9. Tales of the Arabian Nights - We have not played this for a long time. She says she wants to play again.
  10. At the Gates of Loyang - When she was much younger I invented simplified rules to play it with her. Now that she is older, we can use the proper rules.

Chen Rui

Younger daughter Chen Rui is 8, and has played 107 different games.

  1. Machi Koro - This is probably the children's favourite game this year.
    Machi Koro

  2. Mat Goceng - I quite like it, but too bad my regular kakis (fellow players) don't fancy it.
  3. Dixit - Our copy at home was a birthday present for her.
  4. Love Letter - During the Chinese New Year break I persuaded my mother to play with us. I said it was quality time with her grandchildren. She was reluctant and said our games were too complex, but I managed to convince her to try it out. We had great fun and quite a few hilarious moments.
  5. Pickomino
  6. Uno
  7. Pandemic: The Cure - Chen Rui played this for the first time this year. I didn't expect this to be on her list. I thought she found the rules explanation and the gameplay too long, too complex, and boring. She seemed impatient when we played.
  8. Samurai Spirit - I was rather surprised by this too, especially when it beat the next two entries, which I know she likes. I had thought she wasn't particularly interested in this game.
  9. Spot It - She has played quite many games of Spot It.
  10. Chicken Cha Cha Cha - She often asks for this, but I wonder whether she is starting to outgrow it.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Star Realms

Plays: 2P x more than 35 games, mostly against AI's, about 5 against humans.

Quite a few fellow gamers recommended Star Realms to me, saying that it's a deck-building game quite similar to Ascension, my most played game ever. I was not particularly eager to try it out the first few times. Recently when I received yet another recommendation I was curious and decided to give it a go. I downloaded the iOS version for free. It is basically a trial version. Unlocking the full version costs USD5.

The Game

If you have played deck-building games, Star Realms will be familiar. Players start with an identical deck of basic cards. On your turn you always draw five cards, play them, and move them to your discard pile. When you buy cards from the central row, they go to your discard pile first and will only get shuffled into your draw deck the next time you exhaust it. The objective of the game is to reduce your opponent's life points to zero, so this is more like Magic: The Gathering than Dominion or Ascension. The central card row works like Ascension. There is one basic card type which is always available, and five cards drawn from a common deck. Whenever a card is purchased, a new one is drawn to replace it.

There are two currencies in the game: (1) trade value means money, and lets you buy cards; (2) attack value allows you to deduct your opponent's life points (called Authority in the game). Cards come in four colours, representing factions (similar to Ascension). Green cards tend to have stronger attack powers, and some allow you to replace cards in the centre row. Yellow cards often force your opponent to discard cards, and sometimes help you draw more cards. Red cards often help you remove cards from your deck, thinning it and making it more efficient by removing weak cards. Blue cards usually give more money and also allow you to increase your life points. There are two types of cards you can buy. Ships are normal cards which are moved to your discard pile at the end of your turn. Bases are kept in play in front of you (like constructs in Ascension), and can protect you. Some bases force your opponent to destroy them first before being able to attack you. Bases in Star Realms differ from constructs in Ascension in that they are often destroyed by your opponent and moved to your discard pile. Constructs are sometimes discarded, but not very frequently.

One important concept is the Ally concept. Many cards have an Ally ability an addition to the basic ability. This Ally ability is triggered if during your turn you have another card of the same faction in play. Bases are very important because of this Ally ability. If you have a base of a certain faction in play, you can trigger the Ally abilities whenever you draw a card of this faction, as opposed to needing to hope for drawing two cards of the same faction.

The six cards in the middle are what you can buy. The leftmost card, the Explorer, is a basic no-faction card which is always available. The other five are drawn from the common deck. In my player area (lower half), the five cards are my hand. The two horizontally placed cards are my bases. The number in the green shields are the life points, called Authority.

The iOS version comes with two campaigns, which are series of scenarios to be beaten one after another. Many of them tweak the rules a little, and are quite interesting. Too bad there aren't more of these.

The Play

I started off only playing against the AI's, and was pleasantly surprised to find them quite decent. I lost most of my early games, and that stirred my curiosity on what I had done wrong and what I needed to do to play better. I have now completed both the campaigns, and I am starting over, this time playing at the hard difficulty level. It is still very challenging. I wish there were more campaigns.

The Ally powers are very strong in Star Realms. Games start slowly, but can build up to huge climaxes. It is not uncommon to come from behind and win by dealing 25 - 30 points of damage to a leading opponent. The game is all about building towards such big turns. Drawing cards of the same factions, and drawing good combos, depends somewhat on luck, but then what cards are in your deck is all up to you.

There is a pacing you need to be aware of - when to switch from money-focus to attack-focus. In the early game you probably want to buy money-making cards to help you buy the more powerful attack cards or bases, but there comes a point when you want to focus on attacking. After all, you need to kill your opponent to win. The confrontation is more direct here than in Ascension or Dominion. One aspect which Star Realms has but the others don't is the variable ending. In Star Realms some cards increase your life points. This can change the tempo and the escalation arc of the game. If both players keep replenishing their life points, the game can become a tough back-and-forth match with both sides needing a big breakthrough to defeat the opponent.

I've always felt the interface design in the iOS version of Ascension is top-notch. The interface of Star Realms is not as slick, but it is serviceable. However there is one thing which I think Star Realms does better - it lets you see your opponent's deck and also your own more clearly. When playing the physical copy it is technically possible to remember what cards your opponent has bought and which ones he has played, so you can tell which ones are still in his draw deck or hand. In practice, most people probably don't bother to memorise this much information. In the iOS version, the app considers that you have perfect memory, and gives you this information. I like this because it allows me to quickly assess the game situation when I come back to a half-played game. I don't need to try to remember where I left off. This is very useful when playing in asynchronous mode, and especially when you have multiple games going on at the same time.

The Thoughts

My first impression of Star Realms is it is even more fun than Ascension. It tends to have more dramatic end games, when players have more powerful hands. You are building up towards these amazingly big moves, and not counting beans and grabbing points here and there. Cards in Star Realms do not have VP values so you are never buying cards because they are worth points. You always buy cards to attack, or to make more money to buy more cards to attack.

The iOS version doesn't have any expansions yet, which is a pity. Naturally there is much less variety than Ascension, which has many expansions now. The Star Realms base game is a complete, self-contained game. I don't feel there is any intentionally omitted element waiting to be filled by expansions. I wonder whether the existence of the digital version is to encourage people to buy the physical version. The physical version has quite a few expansions by now.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

hooked on Samurai Spirit

I have been hooked on Antoine Bauza's Samurai Spirit recently. I first played it at, lost (it's a cooperative game), and was keen to try again. My second and third games were played back-to-back at too. Still no win. Since then, I have bought a copy and now I am up to my 12th game. Even when there was no one interested to play with me, I played it solo, controlling four characters and using the normal rules (as opposed to the official solo game rules). I was that desperate. I finally managed to win, but unfortunately I later found out that I had made some rules mistakes. So I still have not had my first real victory yet. The game structure is simple, but it can be easy to miss some rule details.

One important rule which I missed out was this: when a samurai is overcome by bandits (i.e. total strength on the right side exceeds the samurai's limit), one barricade must be destroyed. I didn't do this. In hindsight it was a silly mistake. The flame icon on the player mat should have reminded me of this. One other mistake I had made earlier was when a bandit penalty forces a samurai to draw a bandit card to give to another samurai, that bandit card must be played on the right side of the player board, and not on the left. Here's another one. When using Daisuke's Kiai power to move a bandit card from one samurai's battle column to another samurai's player mat, that bandit card can be placed on the left side if so desired. It can even be "given" back to the giving samurai himself to be placed on his left side. Samurai Spirit has a simple structure, but the magic is all in the samurai talents and Kiai powers.

I have tried the 2-player rules. It feels a little different, and works fine. You include the talent tokens of the five absent samurais. Either player can use them at the start of a turn, but these tokens are single-use-per-game. Use them wisely.

Kyuzo has a very cool ability. If the bandit card you draw has the same number as one already on the right side of your board, you immediately defeat the new bandit and put him in the discard pile. I explained to my children than this old man is very experienced, so when he sees a similar enemy as before, he easily defeats him with little effort.

This samurai has transformed into a warrior beast. Two other samurai has lent him their talents (the small rectangular tokens). He is near his limit, but with Kyuzo's talent (light blue), he can straight-away reject any card numbered 1 to 4, since he already has those.

This was my first "win". I hadn't discovered some of my rules mistakes then. I played four characters using the normal rules, as opposed to using the solo rules. Three of my samurai had transformed into warrior beasts. Only one guy was still in human form (bottom right). At the end of the game, I still had four houses and four barricades. If I had played with the correct rules, I might have won anyway.

Sturdy Gorobei was still in human form, but he was the MVP. He took on three bosses (strength 6) before he was forced to retreat from the fight.

Another "win", but with this one I am sure I would have lost had I played with the correct rules. I had only two houses remaining, and from this photo I can tell they would have been burnt down since all four of my samurais had to pass. I actually did quite well in the first two rounds. In fact I might have done too well for my own good, because only one of my samurai were injured enough to have transformed into animal form. Despite the unfair win, it was very exciting at the time. I had ten intruders at the end of Round 3, and it was a nail-biting experience flipping them over one by one to see whether they had enough fire to burn down the village.

The top row is the ten remaining intruders which I could not defeat. I was lucky - only four of them had fire.

When playing such a difficult-to-win game, the foremost question is probably whether a victory is earned through good play or it is due to good luck. If it all comes down to luck, then the decisions made by the players would become pointless. I think it is important for players to feel they deserve the win. There definitely is luck in Samurai Spirit, but I think there is a lot that players can do to mitigate risk and to improve the chances of winning. Decisions do matter very much. If you have very bad luck, then you will probably lose no matter what you do. I think in this game after setting up all the bandits (the only randomness and uncertainty in the game), there is a certain probability that you will win. Your actions will change that probability (hopefully increasing it, of course). So it's a matter of doing your best to increase your chances, and relying on a little luck (or the lack of very bad luck) to win. There are many clever ways to mitigate luck. Sometimes you can set up a situation where the active player can do something good no matter what card he draws. In such situations you have eliminated the luck factor completely. You can't do this all the time, but sometimes being able to do this at a critical moment can be very helpful.

I like to remind others to pause and think before drawing a card. The turn structure is so simple that I think many players automatically reach for the draw deck at the start of their turns, as opposed to putting some thought into whether it's time to lend support to another player. I think some players dismiss this game as luck-heavy due to the apparent simplicity. I believe the game has some subtlety and offers many opportunities for clever play. You should not just take the narrow view of what to do on your turn. You need to take a macro view and think longer-term strategy. E.g. when do you want your warriors to take injury and transform? Do you focus on preventing barricade destruction or preventing injury (you lose the game if one samurai dies)? Which warrior's Kiai power do you want to make use of (i.e. you want to boost his combat column and get others to help him achieve the Kiai value)? Within a simple decision of whether to place a bandit on your left or right, there are many considerations. If you hope to achieve your Kiai value quickly, then maybe right. If the bandit strength is high, maybe left. If the bandit has a penalty icon but your talent allows you to ignore it, then maybe right (to make the most of your talent). If from a previous round you see that a certain defense icon is rare, then maybe left. This is a simple game? Not at all!

Now I'm curious to try Ghost Stories again. It's an older cooperative game also by Antoine Bauza, and it too has a reputation for being quite hard to beat.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

One of the hot new mechanisms at the 2014 Essen game fair was bag-building, which is actually just deck-building, except it uses coloured cubes in a bag as opposed to a deck of cards. Hyperborea uses this mechanism. Other games that I know of which uses this are King's Pouch and Orleans. I have not played those or read their rules though.

This is the background story of Hyperborea: Players are little kingdoms separated by a magical force field for many generations. They used to be part of a large, rich and advanced empire. An experiment many years ago went awry and almost destroyed the empire. Only small pieces of the empire survived, but they were separated by the magical force field which engulfed most of the empire. They developed in isolation and became very different civilisations. Now, the force field has suddenly collapsed, and the ancient lands, its ancient cities and ruins are accessible again. The kingdoms now rush in to grab all the goodies. This is where the game starts.

Everyone starts with a small kingdom at the edge of the play area, 3-tile sized. The unclaimed tiles in the central area all start face-down. A tile is flipped face-up once someone's unit is next to it. In this photo, most tiles have been flipped. Tiles have either cities or ruins. Cities let you execute actions by entering them, ruins let you collect treasures. Cities and ruins are haunted though (the grey pieces are ghosts), and you need to kill the ghosts occupying them before you can use them.

On your turn, you draw three cubes from your bag and use them to try to execute actions. Cubes come in 6 colours. On your player board you have 6 action categories, each offering two options. To execute an action you need to place the cubes of the required colours. Actions include moving, attacking, producing units, collecting gems (worth 1VP each), collecting development points (which can be traded for additional cubes for your bag) and claiming new technologies. The table at the centre of the player board is the development chart. Whenever a marker reaches a specific level, you can reset it to claim one or two cubes of the specific colour and put it into your bag.

If on your turn you empty your bag, at the end of that turn you get to do a reset, putting all cubes back into the bag so that you start afresh next turn.

These are the tech cards you can claim. There are always 8 available. If you choose to buy a tech, you may discard and redraw up to two cards before you decide which one to get. The coin icons at the top right corners of the cards are point values. Techs are mostly additional actions on which players can place cubes to trigger.

The tiles at the bottom right are the game end trigger conditions. In a short game, two conditions being met, whether by the same player or by two different players, will end the game. Meeting a condition gets you 2VP too. From left to right: gaining 5 techs, gaining 12 gems, getting all your units onto the board.

The Play

Ivan, Jeff, Laurence, Thomas and I did a 5P game. We were all new to the game. The max supported by the game is 6P.

The faction I drew was a matriarchal society, and my specialty was I could produce units (reproduce?) more quickly. During the game I picked techs which boosted my unit production even more. I intended to make full use of my ability to flood the board and control as many tiles as I could. Controlling tiles by having majority is worth points at game end.

Cities and ruins with units in them means they have been activated. The units are temporary locked. They are freed the next time you reset your bag. Once freed they may choose to immediately enter the cities or ruins again to use them again. Entering a city or ruin is a free action.

It is not hard to keep track of the cubes in your bag, unless you have collected too many. My policy was to keep the count low, because I thought it was more efficient. Easier to keep count, easier to plan which actions I would take. I would reset more frequently, which meant I could use the cities in my area more frequently too. The only downside was I would get fewer points at game end. Each cube was worth 1VP.

I also tried to keep my cube count a multiple of three, since every turn you get to draw three cubes. I wanted to avoid drawing fewer than three cubes on my last turn before a bag reset. This is a game in which you can calculate and plan down to very precise details. Combat is diceless and deterministic. As long as you are able to place the cubes to take an attack action, you kill the enemy unit. The only thing your opponent can do is to place a temporary defense token on his turn, but even so that token protects against just one attack.

You know what cubes you have. The only uncertainty is when you will draw which colours. So it's a matter of timing and order. You can plan how to use all the cubes in your bag the moment you reset it, if you want to. You can even think up multiple plans, to cater for different orders of cubes getting drawn. This is contingency planner heaven.

In a 5-player game, the starting positions are uneven. Thomas and I started slightly further away from everyone else, while Jeff, Ivan and Laurence were closer to one another. They came into contact earlier. On the surface this looks like a conflict game, but actually you don't get to kill others very often. The basic actions on your player board allows you to kill at most twice per bag reset, assuming you are willing to spend your cubes on those actions instead of others. Killing ghosts gets you 1VP for the first ghost, 2VP for the second, 3VP for the third, then 1VP again for each additional ghost. Killing player units normally gets you 1VP for the first one from each opponent only. So players will tend to race to be ghostbusters rather than fight each other.

This is the score pad. The ways you score points are: collect gems, kill ghosts, kill enemy units, gain cubes, achieve game end trigger conditions, claim techs, control tiles.

At game end, controlling a player start tile is worth 1VP. Controlling a tile in the main central area is worth 2VP, except for the single central tile which is worth 4VP.

The three cubes at the top left are the new ones I'll get to use next turn. I can draw them early so that I can plan ahead while others are taking their turns. This helps a lot in reducing downtime and keeping players engaged. Along the top you can see that I have collected one gem, and killed two ghosts. The grey cube is a waste cube. Whenever you claim a tech, you must claim a waste cube too. They normally just clog up your bag making it inefficient. However some techs accept grey cubes, so if you have many grey cubes, you probably want to consider getting such techs so that grey cubes can be useful.

The green faction's specialty is movement. They can ignore terrain effects. Normally it is harder to move into or out of swamps, mountains and forests. Unfortunately for Laurence who played green in our game, the terrain tiles drawn were mostly just plains, so his ability wasn't very useful.

The miniatures are nicely done.

Game end. Thomas (yellow) was the one to get the fifth tech. I (purple) was the one who produced all units.

The Thoughts

My first impression after completing the game was this has some Ameritrashy flavour. However the rest didn't think so. We discussed, and I realised I had been tricked by the plastic miniatures. All that detailed planning and cube counting I had been enjoying were all Eurogame elements. This is a Euro-style point scoring game, despite the conflict element. The conflict is not of the type where you want to obliterate your opponent (well, unless you want to do it just for the satisfaction). You kill mainly because of VP's, and the game incentivises you to attack ghosts more than it encourages you to attack other players.

Before I played Hyperborea, I didn't have high hopes. I was a little worried whether it was the kind of game where one unique mechanism has to hold up the whole game. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the setting and the mechanisms are well integrated. The bag-building is still at the core, but I feel the rest of the game comes together to form a consistent world, and is not just a jumble of scoring methods forcefully bundled together. The story and the setting is nothing particularly outstanding, but I like the sense of wholeness and how everything fits together naturally. I like the unique abilities of each faction, and also how the techs can further boost each faction and provide variability from game to game.

I enjoyed the game more than I expected. I like the forward planning of how to make full use of my bag of cubes. I like planning what coloured cube to add, and setting a direction for my little kingdom. Conflict is limited so I don't need to worry too much about others spoiling my plans. The interaction in the game is mostly in the form of racing to kill ghosts, to use city powers and to scavenge for treasures at the ruins. There is fighting over control of tiles, but since the number of attacks you can do is limited, you don't often get long protracted wars. They are lose-lose situations and no one wants to get into those anyway.

Hyperborea can be seen as a civ game too. There is exploration, there are techs, there is fighting. However there is no colonisation or city-building. The techs are mostly just additional actions being enabled. They give more options but don't alter the basic stats and costs of the game. I wouldn't call Hyperborea a "simplified" civ game. That would send all the wrong signals. I'll just call it a game with some civ-like features.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Happy New Year

To those who celebrate the Chinese New Year / Lunar New Year, I wish you joy, health and many happy gaming hours in the coming Year of the Goat.

Fujian Tulou is a type of Chinese rural dwelling of the Hakka in the mountainous areas in southeastern Fujian, China. They were mostly built between the 12th and the 20th centuries.

A tulou is usually a large, enclosed and fortified earth building, most commonly rectangular or circular in configuration, with very thick load-bearing rammed earth walls between three and five stories high and housing up to 80 families. Smaller interior buildings are often enclosed by these huge peripheral walls which can contain halls, storehouses, wells and living areas, the whole structure resembling a small fortified city.

The fortified outer structures are formed by compacting earth, mixed with stone, bamboo, wood and other readily available materials, to form walls up to 1.8 m thick. Branches, strips of wood and bamboo chips are often laid in the wall as additional reinforcement. The result is a well-lit, well-ventilated, windproof and earthquake-proof building that is warm in winter and cool in summer. Tulous usually have only one main gate, guarded by 100–130 mm thick wooden doors reinforced with an outer shell of iron plate. The top level of these earth buildings has gun holes for defensive purposes.

A total of 46 Fujian Tulou sites have been inscribed in 2008 by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Lost Legacy series

Plays: 4Px3.

The Game

The games in the Lost Legacy series are successors to Senji Kanai's Love Letter. You also have just 16 cards. You also have a hand size of one card. On your turn you also draw one card and play one card. Cards are also numbered and have special effects. The key difference is your objective. You can also win by being the last person standing, but if that doesn't happen by the time the draw deck is exhausted, you try to win by finding the lost legacy (one of the cards in the game).

One new concept is the Ruins. At the start of the game a card is drawn and placed face-down in the Ruins area. Initially no one knows what it is. The card powers in the game vary, some appear once, some appear on up to three cards. One lets you see a card in someone else's hand or in the Ruins, and if it is the lost legacy you win immediately. One is a trap - if someone else peeks at your card, he is eliminated. Another one is a counter-trap - if you catch someone holding a trap card, he is eliminated instead. You can see there's some psychology here. Some cards let you manipulate the Ruins, e.g. adding a card to it, peeking at a card in it, or exchanging your hand card with a card there.

When the deck runs out and there are still two or more players not yet eliminated, you enter the search phase. Everyone will be holding one card. There will be one or more face-down cards in the Ruins. You start counting from 1. Whoever's number gets called shows his card and gets a chance to guess which card is the lost legacy. Guess right, and you win. If nobody guesses it, there is no winner, and the lost legacy lives up to its name, while the players blame one another for screwing up the mission.

The Play

I played two games of Lost Legacy: The Starship and one game of Lost Legacy: Flying Garden. The rules are the same, just that the card powers and distribution are different. In fact there are variant rules to mix and match the cards from the two sets. I played too quickly, and didn't have enough time to think about the strategies. We made the mistake of not reviewing all the card powers before our first game. We just read the card text as we drew cards. In hindsight, I realise we should have reviewed all the cards together and also get some idea of how many copies there are of each type before we played. This is important information for decision-making during the game. I don't mean to make a microgame sound complicated or very sophisticated. You need to know this information to have some basis for decision-making. Else you would be playing rather randomly, which is less fun.

The Thoughts

I only have this one lesson learnt above, and no thoughts yet. Our games just flew by and I didn't have time to think and chew on the subtleties. The game is slightly less simple than Love Letter, but is still very quick. There are many similarities in mechanisms, but I am surprised the feel is quite different.

Saturday, 14 February 2015

mechanic or mechanism?

In the boardgame hobby, I keep seeing people use the term "mechanic" instead of "mechanism". "Mechanic" is a person who repairs a car or a machine. I wonder how the use of "mechanic" in this manner started. I prefer to use "mechanism", because I can't get the picture of a guy poring over a car engine out of my mind.

How about "die" and "dice"? I have always thought "die" is singular and "dice" is plural. However after I did some searching on the internet, I am now less sure. At first it seems that in the US people use "die" and "dice" for singular and plural forms respectively, and in the UK people use "dice" for both singular and plural forms. I am only sure there is no such thing as "dices". Later I found some websites which say that using "die" as the singular form is just old English. In modern English, "dice" is both singular and plural. So it's not about UK or US English. I guess I am old fashioned. I use "die" as singular and "dice" as plural.

In Malaysia, schools teach UK English. "Favour", not "favor"; "emphasise", not "emphasize". So I try to stick to the UK spelling. The only exception is probably Civilization (and other games with this word). It's the name of the game, so I don't want to change that. There are probably more games with words in their titles which are spelled differently in US English and UK English, but I can't think of any at the moment. Any that you can think of? Please add a comment. Or start a Geeklist at BGG.

Source of photo: The Telegraph - Blogs.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Machi Koro

Plays: 2Px6, 3Px2.

The Game

Machi Koro is a simple game. On your turn you roll a die and see which of your buildings get triggered. Usually you make money from your buildings. Then you may spend money to buy a new building to add to your town. Your objective is to build four landmark buildings. Similar to the normal buildings, these have unique abilities too. The first player to build all landmarks wins.

There are 15 types of buildings, each with 6 copies. There is no limit on the number of duplicate buildings you own, except for the purple ones. You can only own one copy of each type of purple building.

Buildings come in four colours. The green and purple ones can only be activated on your turn. The green ones usually just give you money. The purple ones rob from other players. Blue and red buildings are activated on other players' turns too. The blue ones give you money. The red ones let you rob the player who has just rolled the die. Some buildings affect other buildings or rely on other buildings, and this creates powerful combos. E.g. if you own many ranches, your cheese factory can become a big money generator.

The purple cards are aggression cards. You can rob other players, or exchange buildings with them.

At the start of the game you only roll one die. After you build the train station, you may choose to roll two. Some buildings are triggered by die rolls of 7 to 12, so they only work if you can roll two dice. When rolling one die, the probability distribution is flat, but when rolling two, you are more likely to roll 6, 7 or 8 than than 2, 3, 11 or 12. That's something to take into account. Also when rolling two dice, your #1 building will be out of business.

Those four at the top are the landmark buildings. They start the game face-down. At this moment I have built the train station (leftmost) and I can use its power. Landmark powers are always active. Normal buildings have a number at the top to indicate the die roll required for activation.

The Play

Machi Koro is essentially a race. The costs of the landmarks are $4, $10, $16 and $22, totalling $52. You start the game with two basic buildings, and even if you roll the right number, you will earn only $1. So the game is about how you beef up your town to make money more quickly. In the early game you normally buy frantically, but towards mid game, to buy or not to buy, and which to buy, can get trickier. Do you want to save the money for your landmarks? If you spend the money on a regular building, you are postponing building a landmark. Will the investment be worth it?

Some combos let you earn a huge lump sum when you roll the right number. Waiting for "your" number to come up can feel like buying lottery and hoping to hit the jackpot. It's exciting. It's exhilarating. It is also nerve-wracking to wait and see whether you will hit the jackpot first or your opponent. You can diversify by buying different building types, so that more numbers will benefit you. However if you don't have many duplicate cards of a specific number, the benefit you gain when it is rolled may not be much. So far in the games I have played, we tended to gamble on just one or two power combos. No sissying around. I'm not sure whether slow and steady and diversified is effective. I have not really explored that.

Sticking to rolling just one die is viable. I have won using such a strategy. Cards numbered 1 to 6 may not be as powerful as the higher numbered ones, but at least when rolling one die you know there are only 6 possible results, compared to 11 when rolling two dice. I discussed this with Ivan and he wondered whether upgrading to two dice was even necessary. You can do quite well with just one die. Maybe it depends on whether your opponents meddle with your plans by buying the buildings you want. There are only six copies of each building type. If more than one player go for a particular building type, it can run out quickly.

So far my younger daughter Chen Rui (8) is winning more than me in our head-to-head games. She likes the game very much. In one game that we played, she made up her mind up front to go for the #11-12 building, and stuck to it throughout the game. I advised her that it was difficult to roll 11's and 12's. I myself went for the more reliable #7 building strategy. However she managed to roll 11 and 12 a few times, and promptly won the game, leaving me in the dust.

Chen Rui having a great time. She has built two of her landmarks. I have not built any yet.

It works well as a 3-player game too.

Chen Rui's furniture factory strategy. With five forests and four furniture factories, she could earn $60 by rolling an 8. A furniture factory allows you to earn $3 per gear icon. So, 5 gear icons on the forests x $3 x 4 furniture factories = $60.

The Thoughts

Machi Koro is a light and breezy game. The luck factor creates excitement, yet there is still some strategising you can do. It is nothing complex. After a handful of games you will already see all the major combos you can make in the base game. The game can get stale quickly if you expect anything more than a light strategy game. On the internet (well, among gamers) the consensus seems to be that this game needs the Harbour expansion. More buildings are added. You need to build two more landmarks. Only a subset of buildings are in play in each game. It sounds like this expansion should provide more variety and more replayability. So far I have only played the base game with my children, and we are loving it. This is a good family game.

Chen Rui has built her train station now and can roll two dice.

This is how a town looks like when all four landmarks are built.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Virgin Queen

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Virgin Queen is an epic. Long, grand, complex, demanding and immersive. It is a sequel to Here I Stand, and is also designed by Ed Beach. These games have many similarities. The period covered in Virgin Queen is the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Here I Stand depicts the rise of Protestantism. In Virgin Queen, the Protestants are already well established, but there are still religious conflicts in England, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. The six major powers playable are England, France, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), the Ottoman Empire and the Protestants (Netherlands and the French Huguenots). The actions which can be executed and the ways of gaining victory points differ depending on which major power you play. Some of these do overlap, but there are some which are unique to a single power. You can wage war and conquer key cities. You convert the population to your religion, you try to circumnavigate the globe, you send pirates to raid your opponents, you establish colonies in distant lands, you set up political marriages, you plot assassinations, you sponsor great artists and scientists. There is much to do as a major player in the arena of European politics.

Virgin Queen is a card driven game. Many historical events are captured in the cards. Every round you draw some cards and take turns playing them to either trigger the event or to spend command points to freely execute actions available to your power. Some of the major powers are natural enemies, some have incentives to cooperate. However in the game it's all up to you how you want to play. Ultimately only one can win, so no alliance is permanent. Any player threatening to win will be ganged up upon by others. However in most cases victory points earned cannot be lost, so your opponents usually can only slow you down.

This game has a 43-page rulebook, so it's hard to describe in just a few paragraphs. Let me share my experience through photos.

I played the HRE, and this was my player board. This board lists the actions available to me and how many command points they cost. I have eight square markers, four of which are already on the main game board, and four remain here. Square spaces on the main board are important cities called keys. When you control one, you need to place your square marker on it. The more keys you control, the more cards you get to draw every round, and the more VP's you will have. If you manage to place all your square markers (i.e. in my case if I control eight keys), you immediately win a military victory. You do not need to capture all keys by force though. Sometimes it is possible to gain keys via diplomacy, i.e. minor powers deciding to ally with you.

This is the diplomatic status chart, showing the relationships between the six major powers and five minor powers. There is a diplomacy phase at the start of every round. If you want to attack another power, normally you have to declare war in this phase. You also negotiate peace and make alliances in this phase.

This is the Protestant Spaces chart. The left side shows how many spaces in the religious struggle areas (England, France, Scotland, Netherlands) are Protestant spaces. The right side shows how many VP's the various major powers have depending on the number of Protestant spaces. Spain (yellow column) wants to keep the number low, because when it is low, Spain will have more VP's. The Protestants (orange) and England (red) want the opposite. In this, they have a common goal. The HRE (black) has special rules on this. At the start of the game the HRE player needs to secretly decide to support the Protestants or the Catholics, or to be neutral. The VP's the HRE gets depend on this secret decision made.

If 50 or more spaces become Protestant, the Protestants will win a religious victory. Conversely if the number drops to 9, Spain or France will win.

This is the marriage chart. The five spaces on the right are for indicating the eligibility level of each bachelor or spinster. At the start of every round some new characters will appear here and players will try to find matches for the characters from their respective countries. If a marriage is agreed upon, a die roll will be performed later to determine what benefits the two countries will gain. Younger couples will have better odds of getting high rolls. If a lady remains unmarried at the end of a round, her eligibility level will drop one step. For a gentleman, he rolls a die to determine whether he drops one step or retains the same level. Aging is more unforgiving to women, just like in real life. If a character drops off the chart, he or she will no longer be available for marriage, and still stay unmarried forever.

The Play

Our game session was initiated by Dith, who owns a copy of the game. We managed to round up the full complement of six players, which is the best number. Meet-up time was 9am. By the time we finished setup and the stragglers arrived, it was about 10:30am. We started off then, and our first round lasted till about 1:30pm, around 3 hours! It was mainly because we were still unfamiliar with the rules, and we had to look them up frequently. By the time we were done with the first round, we had executed most types of actions in the game. Subsequent rounds ran more smoothly. Our game ended at 5:30pm. Total play time was about 6.5 hours. I had actually expected we would have to continue after dinner.

Reading reading reading...

From left: Dith (Protestants), Heng (Ottomans), Jeff (Spain), me (HRE), Kareem (England), Ivan (France).

The early game. At the start of the game, France and England were at war, and so were Spain and the Ottomans. Scotland was allied to France, and Kareem (England) decided up front to subdue these pain-in-the-butt highlanders first. I gave him some mercenaries during the diplomacy phase, which boosted his invasion force. Unfortunately another player played a deserter card and all the mercenaries fled. Bummer!

In my secret alignment I had chosen to side with the Protestants, so I was hoping England and the Protestants would do well, because they would be indirectly helping me. Most English (red) locations were Protestant at the start of the game - red border and white centre. The Netherlands area (orange) was still owned by Spain. Dith (Protestant) needed to start rebellions in the Netherlands and in France to allow the Dutch and the Huguenots to establish their bases. Spain (yellow) and Portugal (maroon) already had many colonies settled throughout the world - those triangles with their nations' colours. Every round treasures would be shipped back to Europe, and other nations could attempt to send pirates after the treasure ships. That was what Heng (Ottomans), Kareem (England) and Ivan (France) did in the first round. They almost robbed Jeff (Spain) clean.

I (HRE) made a stupid mistake in the first round. One of the unique scoring methods for HRE was to control three key Central European cities. Being able to do this scored 1VP per round. I had assumed I already controlled all three keys at the start of the game, and I only needed to hold on to them. Only after the diplomacy (i.e. war declaration) phase, I realised I didn't control Buda yet. It was controlled by the Ottomans. It was too late for me to declare war on the Ottomans. I could only make preparations in the first round.

My hand of cards in the first round was quite suitable for making war on the Ottomans. I had the War in Persia card which would divert some of the Ottoman forces. I also had the Foreign Volunteers card which would let me gain three regular troops. What a waste!

Ivan (France) invested much effort in sailing and colonisation. He managed to establish two colonies in South America in the early game. Colonies may grant additional cards or treasures at the start of every round. Ivan also pushed his sea captains hard to circumnavigate the globe. The first two sea captains to circumnavigate the globe would earn VP's for their nations. However sailing the oceans was risky. The rest of us watched keenly as Ivan pushed his fleet of three ships further and further along the journey. One by one the ships failed navigation rolls and had to turn back or were lost, until he had one last ship remaining and was one sea zone away from completing the circumnavigation. We held our breaths as he rolled... It failed! We all felt his pain, but it was funny as hell at the same time. So much effort wasted! Thankfully his captain didn't die and managed to make his way back to France, only to be sent sailing again by Ivan in the next round. Eventually Ivan succeeded in going around the world. Both the first two sea captains to do so were Frenchmen, and there was much glory won for France (3VP in total).

This one is an interesting card. If there was any sea captain in the Caribbean area, I could make him fail his mission and immediately return home. The story behind this was the captain was distracted by the legend of El Dorado, and neglected his duties. In the early game there were a few sea captain in the Caribbean area, busy plundering Jeff's Spanish colonies. I could have played this card on these pirates, but at the time I didn't have any particular reason to, so I let them ravage the colonies.

Round 2. The Ottomans (Heng, green) had been doing much pirating in the Mediterranean against Spain (Jeff, yellow), but now Spain was building up its own Mediterranean navy. The Protestants (Dith) had initiated some rebellions in the Netherlands and France, but they still only controlled very few cities. In Round 2, I think everyone pitied Jeff, the victim of many pirate attacks in Round 1, so no one bothered him much this time. This allowed Jeff to collect most of his treasures being sent back from the colonies. Subsequently he had many treasures to spend in Round 3, allowing him to perform more actions.

This Charles II on the left was one of my (HRE) guys. On the right was Elizabeth I of England (Kareem), the star of the show. Elizabeth I started the game at eligibility level 5, the highest level. Charlie here had a long and complicated relationship with Lizzie. They agreed to marry, but Lizzie changed her mind at the last minute, cancelling the wedding. England had one home card (i.e. a permanent card on hand) which allowed Elizabeth I to jilt her fiance. Charlie knew she was just flirting and didn't mind. He loved her too much. He was content with the presents she showered on him, which helped advance the HRE cause. Just a few years later, they got engaged again, and Charlie got jilted yet again. The last thing I expected from this game was a romantic comedy.

My HRE was mostly a land-locked nation. It was technically possible for me to build a ship, but I was limited to just one galley. So, up front I had decided to not bother with naval affairs. One unique ability I had was to sponsor Italian artists or scientists, which could potentially get me VP's. I couldn't directly participate in religious conversions. I could only indirectly help the Catholics or the Protestants. In Round 1 I missed the opportunity to declare war on the Ottomans (Heng), so at the start of Round 2 I did not hesitate to pull the trigger. The Ottomans had a great general - Sokollu Mehmed, who could lead 12 units. I had two generals, Schwendi and Zrinyi, who could lead 8 and 6 respectively. My two generals needed to combine forces to match Heng's general. In Round 2 I quickly attacked and captured Buda, the third city I needed to fulfill my scoring condition. At the time Sokollu Mehmed was still in Istanbul. I had planned to sue for peace right after that, but Heng would not hear it. He reached an agreement with Jeff (Spain) to pull a pincer move on me. Sokollu Mehmed was coming for revenge on my eastern front. My western front was barely defended, and Spain had a small army in northern Italy getting ready to attack.

Jeff came after me also because I had stolen one key city from him via diplomatic means. The Papal States were originally allied to him, so Rome was under his control. I had invested in my relationship with the Papal States and then played a card to make the Pope reconsider his options for allies. The Pope switched over to ally with me, thus giving me control over Rome, while Jeff lost control. I was suddenly perceived to be a major threat by everyone, because now I was just two keys short of achieving military victory. Even if a major power did not share a border with me and could not directly attack me, it could still play nasty cards to mess with me. It was not impossible for me to capture two more keys. If I could defeat Sokollu Mehmed, I could sweep all the way down to Istanbul. But then of course that's easier said than done. If I did break through and threaten to wipe out the Ottomans, there would be plenty of wolves knocking at my western border.

In the end, my opponents didn't need to have worried. My two generals fared poorly against Sokollu Mehmed, despite having a larger army. They lost battle after battle, and now my front was broken (photo above). I would not be able to hold on to Buda for long.

The Dutch Protestants (Dith) started rebellions and now controlled both Antwerp and Brussels. This was the start of the Dutch Republic. Most of the Dutch region was still under Spanish rule (yellow flag with red cross). There was still much work for Dith. One of the key methods for Dith to score points was to convert the populace to Protestantism. At the start of the game, as the HRE, I had selected to trust in his ability to mass-convert the people, so I picked to secretly side with Protestants. However his conversion efforts were lacklustre at best. Later we found out that he had misunderstood the rules and thought it was much more difficult and costly than it really was. No wonder he hesitated to spend command points on conversion. Aaarrgghh... I should have sided with the old-fashioned Catholics.

At this point Kareem (England) had finally managed to capture Edinburgh. He didn't want to bother with the other Scottish towns, and wanted to go for major French cities. He was going for a military victory. He had deployed fleets along the English channel and had been raiding French coastal towns, greedily grabbing VP's. Ivan (France) had not been spending much effort on military, neither army nor navy, and had to suffer this English bullying. France had both internal and external threats. The English pirates were annoying. Even more worrying was the English armies on standby across the channel. Locally, the Huguenots had initiated a rebellion. Ivan had his hands full.

One unique scoring method for France was marriages. Whenever Ivan managed to marry off a member from the Valois family, he would score 1VP. So he had been busy playing matchmaker. Also in two marriages when he rolled dice for how they turned out, he rolled very high numbers, and these marriages gave the countries involved 2VP each. 4VP from marriages was a big deal. Controlling Paris was worth 1VP every round. That was another reliable way for France to score points.

Round 3. Some new elements were added - we could now hire assassins and spies. My (HRE) situation did not look good at all. My front with the Ottomans (Heng) had crumbled. My ally the Papal States (purple) was under attack by Spain (Jeff). Rome would not hold out for long. The Ottoman corsairs had been keeping a low profile in the Mediterranean Sea for a while, because the Spanish had a stronger naval presence now.

Spanish counters.

Spain (Jeff) had sent a Jesuit priest (grey square tile with a portrait) to England to convert the people to Catholicism, and he was doing well. Some towns had been converted (solid red markers without a white centre). Kareem (England) was busy preparing to invade the European continent, and couldn't spare time to deal with the priest. Jeff took the opportunity to initiate a Catholic rebellion, attempting to murder Elizabeth I and to put a Catholic king on the throne. For such a gunpowder plot to succeed, Spain needed to roll four hits more than England during the rebellion (not easy). If the plot succeeded, Spain would instantly win the game.

Jeff counted the various factors that affected the number of dice he got to roll. He had nine dice. Kareem had five. A 5 or 6 was a hit, i.e. a one third chance for each die. Jeff rolled first, and our eyes popped to see six hits! That meant Kareem needed three of his five dice to be hits, to prevent a Spanish instant victory.

Kareem rechecking the Catholic rebellion rules and probably thinking: you've got to be kidding me...

This is it - life or death in one roll.

Two hits. Boom! Spain (Jeff) wins! Elizabeth I was killed, and a Catholic king ascended to the throne. We hadn't even completed the third round. I had expected we would play one or two more rounds. At this stage, many of us were close to 20VP, so it was quite likely someone would hit 25VP in Round 4. On BGG the consensus seemed to be that the game normally lasts 4 or 5 rounds, and rarely went on to the 6th or 7th round.

To summarise our session, one sentence: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

The Thoughts

I had a great day playing Virgin Queen. It's a game that requires much effort and commitment, but I think it's worthwhile. You feel like you've lived through history. Similar to Here I Stand, there is some luck element, and sometimes you just have to accept fate. You can strategise, you can use diplomacy to your advantage, you can do all sorts of preparation, but sometimes bad luck just strikes and you can't help it. That sounds scary, considering how much investment the game requires. So much good work put in, and you lose because of a die roll? Wouldn't that make all the meticulous scheming and careful preparation meaningless? I think the game still gives you plenty of opportunities to mitigate luck and to position yourself to benefit from events and other players' actions. It's all about how much risk you want to take and how you want to allocate your resources. Just like in real life, there is no 100% guarantee. This is what makes the game exciting. This is what makes it feel epic. You are caught in the chaos and wonder of a turbulent and fast-changing age. You do your best, and hope for the best, as your witness events unfold and heroes emerge. In my conflict with Heng (the Ottomans), I felt I had done all the preparation I could, and went in with an advantage. Unfortunately things didn't go as I had hoped, and that was beyond my control. One thing I was thankful for was in most cases you don't lose VP's gained. Losing keys will cost you VP's, but most other VP's are permanent. So even if you suffer a setback, you don't go into a downward spiral with no hope of recovering. You just need to find ways to resume scoring VP's, and pick up from where you left off.

Luck does not come only from the dice. The cards too are a factor - whether you draw useful cards, and whether others draw cards which will harm you. Having 6 players in itself is a balancing mechanism. The players will reign in one another. It is hard to imagine a runaway leader not getting ganged up upon.

Playing the Holy Roman Empire, and I think the Ottomans too, can feel like you are the supporting cast. As the HRE, I had no finger in the seafaring and colonisation pie. I couldn't directly participate in the religious struggle. The Ottomans can do plenty of pirating because they have corsairs, but being Muslims they had no interest whatsoever in the European religious struggle, and needless to say, they won't be marrying any of the Christian infidels. They only had two fronts - the Mediterranean Sea, and the frontline with the HRE. When playing with four players, the HRE and the Ottomans will be delegated to non-player powers. Despite having less variety in possible actions, they are not passive powers in a 6-player game. There are still strategies to think about and scheming to do, and it is very much possible for them to win.

Some of us felt the game is more complicated than it needs to be. Indeed Virgin Queen places more emphasis on representing history than on streamlining gameplay. Every mechanism exists for a reason and tells a story. The game has a very wide scope.

If you intend to try Virgin Queen, do be prepared to spend much time and effort. You will experience the delicate balance of power between six ruthless nations. You will be making difficult decisions while you try to lead your nation to glory or steer it away from disaster. You will set a vision for your people and set in motion events to achieve it. You may even make history, with a little blessing from above.


Note: Thank you to Jeff ( for providing some of the photos in this blog post, and also the venue for this event.