Friday, 22 January 2021

Yokohama

The Game

Yokohama, by Hisashi Hayashi, is a heavy Eurogame published in 2016. It's a Japanese themed game designed by a Japanese, so you can rest assured the setting and cultural aspects will be portrayed properly. Mechanism-wise, this is a typical point-scoring Eurogame. I played it with Allen and Han on BoardGameArena. When I first read the rules, it seemed a little intimidating. Now that I have played it, it is not as complex as I had imagined.


This is how a 3-player game is set up. The size of the play area differs based on player count. Every tile that makes up the play area is a location in Yokohama. Each location allows you to perform a specific type of action. I consider this a worker placement game, although technically you only have one worker - your company president, who is supported by a team of assistants. On your turn, you first deploy up to 3 assistants anywhere on the board. You then move your president to a new location, and perform the corresponding action. The new location must not have another president present. This is the worker placement aspect of the game. Each location your president passes through and the final destination must have at least one of your assistants. Think of the assistants as always going earlier than the president to make appointments, arrange travel logistics and book accommodation. Once the president reaches the new location, you check your Power at the location to determine how strong your action is. The president and the assistants each contribute 1 Power. Each building you own also contributes 1 Power. Once you complete your action, all assistants at the location are returned to your hand and become available again for new assignments. The president stays on the board. You only have a limited number of assistants. Managing how many and where you deploy them, and how quickly they return to you, are an important aspect of the game. 

In the screenshot above, the pawns are the presidents, and the cubes the assistants. At the bottom of each location you can see 5 rewards listed, for Power levels 1 to 5. These describe how strong your action is depending on Power level. In some cases you must have at least 2 or 3 Power to be able to gain anything from a location. Things you do at a location include gaining resources, taking orders, gaining techs, and converting resources to victory points. Orders are a way to convert resources to points. At any time you may pay the resources listed on an order to complete it and score it. 


In addition to the main board, there are a number of management boards which represent specific locations on the main board. These three above are the Employment Agency, the Port and the Customs House. The Employment Agency is where you get to take more assistants, shops and trading houses into your hand, i.e. you come here to get more game pieces. Normally what you get at the start of the game won't be enough. To get shops and trading houses, you have to pay too. The Port is where orders can be taken. The Customs House is where you trade imported goods (the rarest resource type) for points. 


These three management boards are the Dock, the Lab and the Church. The Dock works the same way as the Port. You come here to take orders. The Lab offers techs, which are permanent powers you get to enjoy for the rest of the game. The Church is for converting resources to points. 

There is no fixed number of rounds. Instead you have 5 different ways a game can end. When you are unable to fill order spots at the Dock or the Port, the game ends. When you use the Church or the Customs House, you must leave behind an assistant. Once the total number of such committed assistants reaches a certain count, the game ends too. The final two ways the game ends are when any player builds all of his shops, or all of his trading houses. The players have some control over how the game ends and whether it ends at a time beneficial to them. 

The Play

When I first started playing, the number of options was overwhelming. So much to do! I didn't have much idea what's best to do first. So I stuck to the general principles of resource conversion games - just try to gather resources as efficiently as possible. They will be useful sooner or later. This turned out to work well for me. In this aspect, Yokohama is similar to other resource conversion Eurogames. Being efficient is always good. 

What stood out for me in Yokohama was the worker placement mechanism. It is quite different from typical worker placement games, so at first I didn't even think of it as worker placement. When you deploy assistants, you either deploy three to different locations, or two to a single location. Naturally, being able to deploy more is more efficient. However that means you need good forward planning. You can only use one location on your turn. Scattering assistants about means they will be stuck on the board for a longer time, waiting for the president to come and use them. Sometimes when you are in a hurry to achieve high Power at a location, you need to place two assistants there. Not ideal, but sometimes necessary. Since your assistants are paving the way for your president, you need to think ahead where your president wants to go. You also need to consider how much Power you need when your president eventually arrives at a location, so that prior to his arrival, you have already spent enough turns dropping in the required number of assistants. In my mind, this whole thing about a busy president's meeting schedule and a team of assistants scurrying around to make sure everything is properly arranged is the soul of the game. What the president actually does, i.e. the resource collection and conversion to points, are not particularly noteworthy. Sometimes you deploy an assistant to a location because the location is on the president's route, not because you actually want to use it. It is a little wasteful leaving this assistant there and never use him. If you can work this location into your strategy, it might be beneficial. 

Positioning of your president is important because you can use him to hinder your opponents. When your president is present, your opponents' presidents may not use the location. Also they need to pay you if they want to place assistants, or if their presidents pass through. Money is tight. If you can extort some toll fees from your opponents, it's a good thing.  

Watching how your opponents place their assistants is an early warning mechanism. You can roughly guess what they intend to do in the next few rounds and what strategies they are focusing on. 

The board setup is random, so before the game starts you already need to analyse the board situation and have a rough idea how you want to play, and what strategies would be easier to execute. 

The shops and trading houses are the engine-building aspect of the game. When you build them, you can gain points and other benefits. They permanently increase your Power at a location. If you intend to use a location frequently, you should build something there. It will save you assistants and time. It is a commitment not to be taken lightly though. If you end up not using the building much, it's a waste. Buildings are expensive. 

The Power mechanism is interesting. You need to have 4 Power to construct a building, and getting to 4 Power takes some forward planning. Usually you will need to have three assistants supporting your president. You also need to make sure you have a building in hand. All locations give a bonus to the first visiting player to achieve 5 Power. That's yet another thing that causes competition among players. 


My (red) president was on 1st row, 4th location. Han's (blue) president was on 2nd row, 1st location. Allen's (green) president was in his hand. When your president has no good place to go to, you may forfeit his action and take him back into your hand. Next turn you may deploy him anywhere instead of needing to move him step by step from one location to another. Forfeiting one action is usually not a good idea. It's almost equivalent to wasting one full turn. 

You can see that each location has a brown card at its top right. The brown cards are construction sites. The four small spaces are for shops, and the one large space is for a trading house. If you look at 3rd row, 3rd location, both Han (blue) and I (red) have one shop. 


In this particular game, most of the resource locations were on the right half of the board. Both the rightmost cards in the 1st row were fishing grounds. The rightmost card in the 2nd row was the tea plantation. The rightmost card in the 3rd row was the copper mine. Only the silk farm was on the left side, in the 4th row. Since I had decided to focus on resource collection, I spent most of my time on the right half of the board. Between the Dock (2nd row, 1st location) and the Port (4th row, 2nd location), the Port was nearer to where I operated, so I mostly took orders there, so that I didn't have to move far. 


The three cards at the top left are the achievement cards. They are randomly drawn during game setup. When you fulfil the condition stated, you score points, without needing to consume any resources. The first player to fulfil the condition scores the point value on the left side of the card. Others who fulfil the condition later scores the point value on the right. These achievements give players another objective to aim for. 

The card in the middle, next to the achievements, is an order card. It requires 4 tea and 1 silk, and it is worth 8 victory points. There is a country flag at the top of the order card. This particular order is from France. You score points for collecting country flags. There are five countries: France, England, Germany, USA and the Netherlands. 


These are the completed orders and the claimed technologies. The technologies come with country flags too. 


At this point the order deck had run out, and there was one spot at the Dock which could not be filled. The game end was now triggered. The current round would be completed, and then another full round played, before the game ended. 


3rd row, 1st location was the Customs House. All three of us had committed some assistants here (cubes), and we all hoped to visit before game end to convert our imported goods to points. The game ended more abruptly that we had anticipated. We were not quite ready. I was earlier in turn order, and quickly went to the Customs House to surrender my imported goods. This was bad news for Allen and Han, because I now blocked this location from their presidents. Han still managed to use another method to trigger an action here, but it was a weaker version and did not score him as many points as he would have scored normally. 

I (red) completed the most orders, while Han (blue) had the most techs. 

The Thoughts

Yokohama is a resource collection and conversion game, which sounds boring and doesn't do it justice. I find the president and assistant management interesting. There are many things you can do, but you won't be able to maximise everything. You can only try your best to do as much as possible with as few actions as possible. There are no direct ways to attack your opponents, but there is certainly no lack of player interaction. How you position your president, how you race to grab various rewards, and the area majority contest are all ways you will compete. You can say it is peaceful competition, but it can be ruthless competition all the same. I find this a heavy game and wouldn't recommend it to new players, since there is a lot to take in at the same time. Not that it is very complex. It is the breadth that may be challenging for new players. For regular boardgamers, this game is rewarding to learn and play. 

Friday, 15 January 2021

horror stories - Betrayal Legacy

I bought Betrayal Legacy more than a year ago. This is a legacy game. I had originally intended to play the whole campaign with a same group of colleagues. However a few of us moved on to new jobs, and we had fewer opportunities to play. We only managed to play up to Chapter 3. I thought it was unlikely we would complete the rest of the campaign, so I decided to change plans. I tried to recruit my family to continue this campaign with me. There are 14 campaign mode games to be played in total, a tutorial game and 13 proper games. I had done the tutorial and the first three chapters, so there were 10 more chapters to be played. 

When I tried to sell the game to my family, younger daughter Chen Rui was the most intrigued. Playing traitor sounded like a great idea. My wife Michelle wasn't so keen on games with aggression, so she wasn't comfortable with the idea of turning traitor and having to fight. Elder daughter Shee Yun wasn't too interested. She's mostly playing online multiplayer games nowadays. Thankfully I was still able to convince everyone to give it a go, and we had an enjoyable time with the game, playing three chapters over the new year long weekend. Michelle said the game wasn't as scary as I made it sound. I probably oversold the horror part of it. She thought of it more as a cooperative game. She didn't want to play traitor, so we agreed if she happened to be assigned that role, we would find some way to reassign it to someone else. Shee Yun was very engrossed when we played. She usually plays seriously. She learns the rules quickly and knows how to utilise opportunities. She plays purposefully for the win. Chen Rui's life goal is to be the traitor. She plays based on what fancies her and what she finds fun, and she doesn't always care about winning or what the system is driving her towards. In our games she did happen to play traitor quite a few times, which made her happy. Our game sessions took a bit longer than I expected - about 2 hours per game. 

Warning: Major spoilers ahead. If you have not played and intend to play Betrayal Legacy, you may not want to read on. I write about Chapters 4 to 6 in this blog post. 


This was Chapter 4 (Year 1797), and the story started at a funeral. There was a mining accident, and thirteen miners died. The funeral was held at the cemetery in front of the house. In the first half of the game, Michelle and I explored the outside of the house, while Shee Yun (yellow) and Chen Rui (blue) explored indoors. This was the situation when the Haunt was triggered. The Haunt is the incident which changes the game, usually turning one of the players into a traitor, and from that point onwards the game transforms from a cooperative one to a traitor-vs-heroes contest. 


The child in yellow pyjamas is holding a teddy bear behind her back. Chen Rui (blue player) and Shee Yun (yellow player) encountered both the NPC's (non-player characters) in our game. The green one was a man, and the purple one a woman. The man, a grounds keeper, was rather annoying. When you encountered him, you had to swap an item for a random new one, or take mental damage. The woman was good. If you spoke to her you could look at the top three tiles from the room deck and bury two to the bottom of the deck. You would have some control over which room would be discovered next. These NPC's are occasionally changed. In the next game it may be a different character. There are three NPC's in the game - man, woman and animal. 


I was the one who triggered the Haunt. Normally it would be this same person who turned traitor. However in Chapter 4, the traitor was to be the player with the highest Knowledge. At that point, it was Chen Rui (right). So her wish came true. See how happy she was reading the rulebook. 


Our story involved a pukwudgie. I had to look up Wikipedia to learn that this is a creature from Native American folklore. It is similar to "child ghost" in South East Asian folklore. If you rear a pukwudgie, you can get it do things for you like finding something lost, stealing something and cheating when gambling. A pukwudgie is more a handy minion type of monster than a scary predator type. In our game, Chen Rui the traitor was suspected to be in league with a pukwudgie. We heroes needed to collect enough evidence to put her on trial. Only if we managed to convict her could we lynch her. We were not allowed to hurt her before that. To gather evidence we had to catch the pukwudgie and force it to confess. 

At this stage, we had only explored the outside of the house (the group of tiles on the right in the photo above) and the ground floor (tiles on the left). We had not explored the basement or the upper floor. 


Michelle (red) and I (green) were both outside. The tile I was on had a crow icon, which was the omen icon. When you discover a tile with an omen icon, you will need to draw an omen card, and you will need to roll dice to see whether the Haunt is triggered. Often the person triggering the Haunt is the one who turns traitor. It was this specific tile I discovered which triggered the Haunt. 


Since Chen Rui was the traitor, she had to read the traitor's booklet. The heroes (i.e. good guys) read the heroes' booklet. The two sides do not know what is written in the booklet of the other side. You can decide when to reveal relevant information to your opponents, typically at a time convenient to you. 


When preparing to play traitor, Chen Rui placed many components on her player board. These were the traps she could set in this scenario. They looked intimidating. This was a fun scenario for the traitor - so many toys! What was funny was one of the traps she set - the crib - ended up hurting her much more often than it hurt the rest of us. In this scenario the traps affected the traitor too. 

Michelle, Shee Yun and I worked hard at chasing down the pukwudgie in order to force evidence out of it. Unfortunately we had poor die rolls, and we also kept forgetting to use the once-per-game reroll ability. We were all worried about Chen Rui hunting us down. We could not attack her yet because we needed to prove her guilt first. We were slow in gathering evidence. While we were doing this, Chen Rui busied herself outside the house doing searches. We had no idea what she was searching for, but we knew she was definitely up to no good. She placed many "Searched" tokens outside. We didn't know what they meant or how we could get rid of them. We did not dare to go near, in case they would hurt us. We watched helplessly as Chen Rui placed more and more of them. 

Eventually we managed to gather some evidence. Not a lot, but enough to be worth an attempt to put Chen Rui on trial. Shee Yun was the one confronting Chen Rui, and I was present too. Both Shee Yun and I carried evidence on us, and we needed as much evidence as possible on the same tile as Chen Rui when confronting her. Shee Yun's die roll odds were decent, but unfortunately she failed to roll what we needed. She had already used her reroll power earlier in the game so she couldn't reroll. We could not prove Chen Rui guilty. On Chen Rui's next turn, she promptly announced that she had won. It turned out that she wasn't actually trying to kill us off, although she could do that to win. Her target was the pukwudgie too. This pukwudgie had been going out of control, threatening her and demanding things from her. So she herself wanted to capture and imprison the pukwudgie. All that "searching" was actually preparing to capture the creature.  


That pink rectangular token was a piece of evidence I carried. The rune tokens represent evidence in this scenario. I had two (green) omen cards. The second one, a porcelain doll, was treated as a ghost I carried with me. Spooky doll! Whenever a character dies in Betrayal Legacy, you add a ghost sticker to the location he or she is in. Some equipment in the game becomes more powerful when you use them at locations with ghosts. So it can be useful carrying a ghost doll with you. You will always have at least one ghost wherever you are. My Calling was Occultist. Whenever I rolled dice based on my traits, I could add 1 to my result if there was a ghost around. Since I carried the porcelain doll with me, I would always enjoy this benefit. 


This was Chapter 5, Year 1830. I think this is a nod to the classic train game 1830. The house owner was Chen Rui. She was turning mad. Her sanity was reduced, but her might increased. Michelle, Shee Yun and I were guests at her home. This time we mostly explored the upper floor (the group of tiles at the bottom) and the basement (group of tiles at the top). 


This Bloody Room on the left looks scary, but it's a good tile to discover. If you search the room successfully, you can find an item.  The two skull icons at the bottom left are the ghost icons. Two people have died in this room in the past. 


When the Haunt happened in this game, we found that a portal had opened, leading to the underworld. No one turned traitor immediately. We were all heroes and our job was to seal the portal. To do that we had to collect spell fragments found around the house. The problem with these fragments was some of them were active. When we touched these, we would turn traitor. We could only collect the dormant fragments to seal the portal. The dormant fragments could turn active, so carrying them was a risk. A hero working hard to seal the portal may suddenly go crazy. 

When we triggered the Haunt, there were three fragments in the house, two dormant and one active. To seal the portal we needed four fragments, so we still needed to explore the house to find two more. Immediately after the Haunt was triggered, Chen Rui ran upstairs to where the active fragment was, and muahahaha turned herself traitor! After she transformed, she still had one action point. She turned around and smiled at Michelle who was just next door, and shot her dead. Chen Rui had a gun which was operated based on the knowledge trait, and she had high knowledge. This was not good. 

In this game I was a decent fighter, but not Shee Yun. Also, she didn't have any weapon with her. When Chen Rui came after us, Shee Yun immediately turned tail and ran, leaving me to fend for myself. How could my own daughter do this to me?! With only two of us left, it was going to be difficult to gather four fragments, especially when there weren't even enough dormant fragments on the board yet. With Chen Rui coming at us, we could soon be killed. My thinking was to take the fight to her and eliminate her first, before we continued to search for fragments. Shee Yun's plan was to find a weapon first. I did end up fighting Chen Rui a few times. I was lucky I did not promptly get myself killed. Both of us were only slightly injured. 

Then something unexpected happened. Another active fragment appeared. Shee Yun and I looked at each other, and we both thought: screw this I'm going to turn traitor. Both of us ran towards the active fragment. She was closer to it and would beat me to it. She and Chen Rui giggled gleefully. They would be teaming up to whack daddy again. 

I thought I was doomed, but then when I used one of my equipment, I found myself teleported to the room with the active fragment. I greedily picked up the fragment, and turned myself traitor, while Shee Yun looked on in horror. It was going to be two strong fighter traitors against one weak hero. Time to declare game over. At this point Chen Rui asked me, can a traitor attack another traitor? She still wanted to kill me! I looked up the rulebook, and could not find a definite answer. Normally a game has only one traitor. I decided that in the spirit of the scenario, the traitors were on the same team and should not be attacking one another. That wouldn't be logical. Chen Rui was disappointed.  

Red was Michelle. That was where she was shot dead by Chen Rui. 

Chen Rui wasn't too keen about taking down Shee Yun, so I had to do the job. Then another twist came. A third active fragment appeared. That was a life saver for Shee Yun. She quickly grabbed it and joined us at the dark side. The game ended with three traitors winning. It was a dark day for humankind. 

Shee Yun (yellow) transformed in this room. 


Chapter 6 occurred in 1849. This group photo turned up. I don't know what it's actually for. After we completed the chapter, we were instructed to discard the photo. I am guessing that since there were a few possible stories for Chapter 6, the one we had did not use the photo, but another one would have. I am impressed that the game makers took the game components this seriously. The five figurines were not just random characters. The game makers found five models to take this photo, and the figurines were designed to match them. 


Our Chapter 6 was the monster ants scenario. It was one with no traitor. This was a fully cooperative scenario, and that disappointed Chen Rui somewhat. She wanted to play traitor and kill everyone else. In our story, Shee Yun (yellow) was the one triggering the Haunt and she was first to run into the queen ant monster, the large teardrop shaped monster token in the photo above. The queen ant had three drone ants on her, representing her bodyguards. When she fought, these bodyguards allowed her to reroll. 

Once the queen appeared, she would visit a number of locations in a specific order. She would lay eggs at each location. If she reached the final location, the heroes would lose. At the end of every hero's turn, a new tile must be revealed, and a drone placed on it. Drones prioritised filling up the queen's bodyguard team. Once that's done, they would hunt down and attack the characters closest to them, including the NPC's. 

As heroes, we could set up traps for the queen. We knew the order it would visit the series of locations, so we could predict her path. If we managed to ensnare her, we would kill her bodyguards and stall her momentarily. That would be the best time to strike. 


The monster ants acted once per round, like an automata traitor. We revealed many tiles this game, and brought on many drones. The swarm of ants killed both our male and female NPC's. I wished they had killed the animal NPC, the annoying hound, but the hound was a strong fighter and survived. It would have been nice to have the female NPC around. She was the only helpful NPC. Too bad we couldn't save her. 

One thing we were lucky with was the second destination of the queen came up very late. The queen needed to go to the kitchen, but it was nowhere to be found. At one point we were worried whether we had misplaced the kitchen tile and we searched the tile deck to make sure it was there. It was. Phew. When the queen could not see its next destination, it would feel lost and stay where it was. In our game, it squatted at the front door for a loooong time pondering the meaning of life. We had plenty of time to set up traps for it. We knew it would definitely need to come into the house and walk through the main hall to get to the kitchen when the kitchen showed up. In the photo above, the pink rectangles are the traps we had set for her. 


By the time the kitchen tile was drawn and placed, we were ready to fight the queen. I (green) was the designated queen killer, since I was strong in battle this time. Earlier in the game when I explored the underworld I obtained this tool, the Sphere of Amber, which was quite powerful. It was single-use. When I needed to roll dice, instead of rolling I could decide to use a result of 8. The queen's might was 7, which meant when fighting she would roll 7 dice, and her results would be a 7 on average. Fighting her using the Sphere of Amber was not a guaranteed win, but the odds were better than average. When the queen rolled, she got an abysmal 4. I easily slapped her dead. The heroes won with zero casualties! 

The orange octagon on the right is the hound, the animal NPC. Michelle (red) was weak in fighting this time, and hid at the lower right corner. I (green) was stronger so I tried to lure the drone ants away from her. 

After playing Chapters 4 to 6, I was surprised that we didn't have many deaths among the players. Only Michelle's character died in Chapter 5. In previous games I witnessed many more deaths. We tended to prefer to play the same characters if they survived, so many of our family records had the same persons appearing again and again. They always went back to the house again when they were older.  Perhaps that adds to our story. 

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Kickstarter: Ping Yao

 


Ping Yao is a game about the earliest bank networks in China, set in the Qing Dynasty. Ping Yao itself is the city where such bank networks started. This game is a medium-weight Eurogame with dice placement as the core mechanism. The artwork and production look amazing. It is on Kickstarter now. Quite many reviewers have reviewed the game and done videos for it. Check out their Kickstarter page.  

Friday, 8 January 2021

boardgaming in photos: Escape, Ascension, Epic, Lords of Runeterra

 
13 Dec 2020. When I brought out Escape: The Curse of the Temple again, I realised I really was rusty. I have played it many times with elder daughter Shee Yun. We have done all the modules in both the expansions. This time, it took us a few attempts to win. We were only playing the very basic mode, without even the Curses or Treasures modules which come with the base game. 


Younger daughter Chen Rui was still afraid of the soundtrack which comes with the game, so we used the non-scary soundtrack I composed. I teased her, aren't you a bit too old to be still using this non-scary soundtrack? 


This was one rather extreme game of Ascension I played against Han. This was his last turn. The victory points had been exhausted (0 star with red glow at the centre). Han was at 54VP (small star along the top edge) and I was at 10VP (star at bottom left). He had 13 runes (grey triangle) and 57 attack (red circle)! There were no monsters in the centre row for him to attack now. If he spent the 57 attack on the 2-health cultists, he would be defeating them 28 times! Over the many years of playing Ascension, I think this was the first time I encountered such a situation. 


The reason was this specific card. This allowed Han to treat all Mechana heroes as constructs, i.e. they could stay on the table and didn't have to placed in the discard pile. Because of this he had many Mechana cards in play every turn. 


Completely slaughtered... 193 vs 63. More than 3 times my score.  


This is Epic on iOS. I own the physical game, but have only played it a few times. I remember it fondly as a quick and fast-changing game. However I never spent much time to learn it better and play it more. I noticed the app version was free-to-play, so I downloaded it to give it a go. It turned out to be a disappointment. It was not well polished. Not having bells and whistles was forgivable. What annoyed me was the user interface design. It was workable, but it made the game feel tedious to play. I don't remember the physical game being so much hassle. During battle, both players have opportunities to play cards until both pass. In the app, this was implemented in such a way that I had to press some button a number of times before I could get one single fight resolved. It wasn't smooth at all and I think it could have been done better.  


My biggest gripe is the speed of the AI. It takes a long time to think. I can't stand that. Simplistic or the lack of visual effects and sound effects do affect the user experience, but these are not problems with gameplay. The AI speed and the user interface (UI) design are the showstoppers for me. One more example of why I don't like the UI is how I view the details of a card. When I bring up the card details screen, I have to click a button to close it. A better way would be to let me touch and hold the card to call up a details box, and when I lift my finger, dismiss the details box. Alternatively when the details box is open, just let me touch anywhere to close it, instead of requiring I press a specific button. All these annoyances add up to stop me from enjoying the actual game. It felt like a poor game. This app version of the game really can use some refinement. 


Legends of Runeterra is a very different story. This is a digital-only 2-player card game based on the League of Legends universe. It has beautiful artwork, impressive visual effects and sound effects, and good UI design. The user experience is excellent, and reminds me of Hearthstone. All these are games of the same genre. It is two players building decks then going head-to-head trying to reduce the other's health to zero. 


It is probably grossly unfair for me to compare Epic with the other two titles. Its production budget and development team are likely much smaller than the other two. It doesn't make sense to compare a low-budget indie film with a Hollywood summer blockbuster. Still, I think the UI and AI speed in Epic need to be improved. 

In the screenshot above, there are many keywords in yellow on the character card. When you touch a keyword, an explanation pops up. 


The onboarding experience of Legends of Runeterra is excellent. I don't know the universe or the characters, but it is still fun for me. It's just another generic fantasy setting to me. I'm not sure I will play this for long though, because I'm too lazy to do deck-building. I used to play Hearthstone, and that didn't last very long for this reason. I find Legends of Runeterra rather similar to Hearthstone. Some elements are exactly the same. 


Every round players receive mana, which is then spent to play cards. Some cards are characters, and others are spells. Spells have one-time effects. Characters stay in play and are used to attack your opponent and to defend yourself against attacks. In the first round you get one mana, in the second round two mana, and so on. Just like Hearthstone. One difference is that up to three unspent mana can be carried over to the next round, and such mana can be spent on spells. Another difference is the round structure. In Hearthstone, when it is your turn, you gain mana, play cards and attack. After that your opponent takes his turn. In Legends of Runeterra, when a round starts, both players gain mana, and then they take turns performing actions, until both pass. Within one round, only one player gets the attack token and may initiate attacks. The other player may only defend. So players only get to attack every other round. 


I recently purchased the Brink of War expansion in the Race for the Galaxy app. This is the third and last expansion in the first story arc. I have been playing this a lot, so it's well worth the money spent. The main element introduced in Brink of War is prestige, a special and rarer type of victory point, which can help you earn extra regular victory points. The expansion also includes many interesting and quirky cards. 

After adding this expansion, I sometimes run into problems. Occasionally the AI's take a long time to think. Once in a while, the app crashes, and I can't resume the game which is in progress. I am forced to start a new game. That's a shame. If this happens, it is usually when the game is building up to a climax. I wonder whether my iPad is just too old for this. Too much processing. With all three expansions in play, Race for the Galaxy is quite complex. Also I prefer to play with the maximum number of players, i.e. with three other AI's, and I set all the AI's to the strongest level. I'm now going to try playing with just two other AI's. Let's see if this helps avoid crashes. 

In the screenshot above, I scored 57VP, which I thought was respectable. However one of the AI's scored 61VP. I had two 6-cost developments which scored 11VP each, which was decent. The winning AI mostly scored via prestige and consumption. 

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Baseball Highlights 2045

The Game

Baseball Highlights 2045, released in 2015, is designed by Mike Fitzgerald, who is famous for the Mystery Rummy series. I am a fan of the series, so this game piqued my interest. Unfortunately this was not widely available in Malaysia when it was first released. Only recently I noticed a 2nd-hand copy on the market, so I went for it. 

The game reimagines baseball in the year 2045. The sport has gone into decline for some time, but is now revived due to introduction of robot players and cyborg players. The human players are still the most popular ones. They are good in defence, and due to their popularity, they generate the most income for their teams. Robots are the best hitters, but are not as popular as their human counterparts. The cyborgs are the best pitchers. Each type of player has its own unique strengths. 

Baseball Highlights 2045 is mainly a deck-building card game. It does not directly translate the rules and mechanisms of baseball into a table top game form. Instead it uses abstracted and simplified mechanisms to convey the intense competition between two baseball teams. It is primarily a two player game, but you can do 4-players in a tournament mode, and you can also play it solo against an AI. 

You play a series of mini-games. Typically you play best of 7, which means you will play at least 4 mini-games, and at most 7. Within each mini-game, you play only six cards. When a mini-game ends, the six cards played generate income, which you use for buying new cards. For each new card (baseball player) purchased, you must retire one of those six players who have just played. Your team size (i.e. your card deck) stays constant at 15. As you play mini-game after mini-game, your deck becomes stronger as you recruit better players and retire the weaker starting players. You must pay attention to the players your opponent buys, so that you can adjust your deck and your play accordingly. 


Game setup is simple. Two player boards, two shuffled starting decks, and six free agent cards. The free agents are the players you will get to buy at the end of every mini-game. The pawns represent potential hits. The colours represent runner speed, with red being the fastest runners, and white the slowest. 


Card functions can be divided into two parts. The big box is for immediate actions, while the rest are threats and special abilities. The game flow is a little unconventional. Even if you know baseball well, the procedure may feel weird initially, as if two separate matches are being played concurrently on two separate fields. Let me explain how a player turn works. 

On your turn, you just play one card. The first thing you do is resolve any text in the immediate action box. Sometimes this lets you defend against threats made by your opponent on his most recently played card. Sometimes this gives you extra offense abilities. Once the immediate actions are resolved, you switch to look at your opponent's board. On his most recent turn, he might have issued threats. You now resolve such threats. This means he is going to create hits which you have been unable to or have decided not to prevent. He may score points at this time. Once you are done resolving hits on your opponent's board, you return to your own board to issue your own threats. You are now setting up your own offense. Normally you just look at the threat boxes (grey rectangles) on the card you have just played, and place hitters on your board. Your card specifies whether these hits are singles (hitter and runners will move one base), doubles (two bases), triples or home runs. It also specifies whether the player is a fast, medium or slow runner, which affects how fast he runs when he is on 1st to 3rd base. Your hits are not resolved yet. You need to wait for your opponent's turn to give him an opportunity to react. 

So a player turn is divide into three phases. The first and third are you doing stuff, while the second one is your opponent doing stuff. 


The longer track at the top is the score for the current mini-game. The shorter one on the left is how many mini-games you have won so far. The draw deck is at the top right. The space at the bottom right is your discard pile. At the bottom left you may place an On Deck card. At the start of a mini-game, you may put one of your hand cards here then draw a replacement. During play, you may discard a card with a Pinch Hitter icon to play this On Deck card instead of a card from your hand, or play a card from the top of your deck. This represents you bringing in a specific player to bat when you are in a critical situation, or betting your luck on your deck because no other players in hand can deal with the difficult situation you are in. You can use this On Deck mechanism to put a good player in reserve and wait for the right moment to summon him. If you don't use him in the current mini-game you can still use him next mini-game. You can also use the On Deck mechanism to get rid of weak players. At the end of a mini-game, you can choose to discard your On Deck card. It is usually good to use the On Deck option, because effectively you will be seeing 7 cards instead of 6. You have more flexibility. 

In the photo above, I have runners on 1st and 2nd base. However the current played card has no threats - no grey rectangle. So I am not threatening any hits, and those two runners will not be going anywhere yet. 


In this photo above, I have two pawns on the home base, representing my threats to hit. On the card just played, there are two grey rectangles which are Singles. Thus the two pawns. These pawns are red because the runner icon on the card (bottom left) is red. 

White runners are the slowest. They move as many bases as the batter's hit. If the batter hits a Single, they advance one base. If the batter hits a Double, two bases, and so on. Blue runners are similar to white runners, except if they are on 2nd base, they will always run back to the home base and score. Red runners are fast and they run one base more than the batter's hit. 

Player type (natural, robot and cyborg) plays an important role. Many abilities in the game apply specifically to a certain type, e.g. cancelling all hits by a robot player. It is important to know the player type distribution of your opponent, and buy the right cards which are good against his majority type. 

The Play

When Michelle and I first played, we followed the recommendation in the rulebook and played the 3+7 format - 3 season matches and 7 tournament matches. This format is recommended for new players, to allow them more time to learn the game mechanisms. We found this a slog. The starting players were uninteresting. The idea of possibly needing to play 10 matches back-to-back was daunting. We didn't manage to finish the game. The next time we played, we used the standard format, which doesn't have the three season matches. It has three rounds of buying players, and then jumps right into the tournament matches - best of 7. Playing this format was much more fun. With the standard format, we already had purchased (i.e. better) players in our first mini-game. With only 15 cards in your deck, and every mini-game typically using 6 or 7 cards, you have to reshuffle almost once every other game, and players which have played before will start making appearances again. 

This is a game about denying your opponent. The cards come with a wide variety of abilities, and you always want to utilise them to the max. The tricky part is sometimes you don't know for sure when the best time is to play a card. You aren't even sure a decent time will come up in the current mini-game at all. Let's say you have a card which cancels all hits by a robot. Are you going to hold on to it until your opponent plays a strong robot card? Does he have one in hand in the first place? If he doesn't have one then you may be wasting other better opportunities to play your card. It's not always easy to determine when the best time is to play a card. 

At the start of a mini-game, when you draw your hand of six cards, you already need to formulate a rough plan how to play your hand. It sounds like a simple exercise of just deciding on the sequence of playing your cards, but there are quite a few details you have to consider. In general you want to get many players onto the bases, and then hit a homerun or a big hit to get them back to the home base to score points. That's one angle in planning your hand - how to score efficiently and utilise as many of your threats as possible. Another angle is how to defend. Depending on how your opponent plays, you may find that you need specific cards to defend against his moves, and that may disrupt your initial plans. Yet another consideration is the metagame. If you remember well how your opponent has built his deck, you will be thinking not only about the card he has just played, but also what cards he may still have in hand. If you know he has many cyborgs, even if he has just played one, you may not spend your anti-cyborg card to counter this one. He may be baiting you with this cyborg. So you may want to hold on to your anti-cyborg card and wait for another even stronger cyborg card from him. 


Normally you keep score using the round token at the bottom right. When Michelle and I played, we found it easier to just use runners who made it back to home base. Those cards tucked under the player board are players who have been fired from the team. They now go to play in the minor league. 

They look like spectators. 


The first two cards are robots. Notice the keyword just below the profile pictures. Robots are generally good hitters, so they tend to have more threat icons (grey rectangles). The card on the right is a human, i.e. a natural. 

Within a mini-game, if both players are at the same score after having played all six cards, you go into extra innings. Both players draw 3 cards and pick 1 to play simultaneously. You resolve both cards and see if anyone outscores the other. If you are still tied, you pick another card from the remaining two. This goes on until the tie is broken.

Michelle and I played one very exciting tournament. Our matches won went up to 3:3, which meant we had to play the final 7th match. By then both our teams were strong. Most of them were purchased players and only a few original players remained. This photo above was our line-ups in that final match. Only Michelle still had one original player, the second one in the first row. 

Imagine holding one of these rows of cards in your hand. When you count the grey rectangles (threats), you get a rough idea how many points you can potentially score. Some immediate actions allow you to score more. Playing a mini-game is a process of converting these threats to points. You try to maximise your conversions, while disrupting your opponent's conversions as much as possible. Offense and defence. 

The Thoughts

Baseball Highlights 2045 is a very flavourful game. Despite not being a mechanism port from real baseball, the design does convey the excitement of a tight back-and-forth match. A direct mechanism port would probably be too tedious. You play a series of microgames, and you only play 6 cards in each microgame. However these microgames are all linked together. From microgame to microgame, you gradually improve and finetune your deck of cards, and you see your deck-building produce results and powerful plays. There is a memory element, because you need to remember which cards your opponent has bought, and also which ones you yourself have bought. 

It is exciting not knowing what cards your opponent has in hand. Often you are not sure whether a much feared card is in there waiting for you to play a card which it can totally shut down. When a mini-game starts, you have much flexibility. As the mini-game progresses and more and more cards are played, you have fewer options to respond to your opponent's plays. You need to consider both maximising your scoring and staying agile in defence. It is not always possible to utilise all the abilities of your cards. You need to decide what to sacrifice. 

There are many baseball terms in the game. Baseball lovers will enjoy this. I don't know baseball well, so some of the terms don't mean anything to me. I have to look them up to understand what they mean in real baseball, to better appreciate how these real-life baseball rules have been translated into boardgame form. The game rules are clear, so even if you don't know baseball at all, you can still play and enjoy the game well. You'll just miss a little warm familiar feeling.