Friday, 20 October 2017

Century: Spice Road

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Many people proclaimed that Century: Spice Road would replace Splendor. This was what piqued my interest in the game. Splendor had fascinated me. The rules are simple. The game is easy to teach. Yet there are subtle strategies and a hidden depth not apparent at first (or second) sight.

Century: Spice Road is a card game and a resource conversion game. You collect spices (cubes), upgrade them, then put together specific combinations to buy contract cards, which have point values. The game ends when a player reaches a certain number of contract cards. You add up points to determine who wins. To do all these, you use merchant cards like the ones above. Those two on the left with blue borders are starting cards. Everyone gets the same two cards. The first card lets you collect two yellow spices. The second lets you do spice upgrade twice. The two merchant cards on the right let you convert specific spices to another set of specific spices.

This is how the game is set up. The row of five cards are the contract cards. Each card specifies the spice combination required to purchase it. Above the first two cards there are gold and silver coins, which are worth 3pt and 1pt respectively. If you buy a contract card at either of these positions, you claim a corresponding coin. Whenever a contract card is bought, cards to its right are shifted leftwards to fill the blank, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position, i.e. Through the Ages style.

The row of six cards are the merchant cards. One of the actions you can take on your turn is to claim a merchant card from this row. If you take the leftmost card, it's free. If you take any other card, you need to place a spice on each card to its left. This means the rightmost card is the most expensive. If you take a card with spices on it, you take the spices as well. Similarly, whenever a card is taken, cards to its right are shifted leftwards, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position.

Every player has a warehouse card. You can store at most 10 spices.

These are the contract cards. They specify point values, and the spice combinations required to purchase them.

On your turn you have only 4 options: take a merchant card, play a merchant card, reclaim all merchant cards or buy a contract card. When you take a merchant card, you are deciding what ability you will have from then on. You take the card into your hand. To use it, you simply play it in front of you (on a future turn, of course). The more cards you play, the fewer you will have remaining in your hand. To be able to use those played cards again, you need to do a reset, which is spending a turn to claim all played cards back into your hand. This cycle of taking merchant cards, playing them and reclaiming them is something you will do many times. Ultimately your goal is to buy contract cards, which is the fourth option. That's the whole process. Pretty straightforward.

In this photo some of the merchant cards have spices on them. That's because someone had previously taken a merchant card which was not the leftmost one. Sometimes it is worth spending spices to take good merchant cards.

The Play

Century: Spice Road is a simple game to explain. There is little information to go through, and actions are straightforward. It is hard to imagine how the game feels by just understanding the rules. Your goal is the contract cards. You need to collect the right combination of spices to buy contract cards. So the whole game is about using your merchant cards efficiently to collect and upgrade spices. This is a deck-building game, just that your deck is your hand and you have full control over when to play which card. Everyone starts with the same two merchant cards, but as the game progresses, your hands will diverge. Some players may be collecting many cheap spices and then converting them to better spices. Some may be collecting fewer but better spices. Some may even be collecting small amounts of expensive spices then downgrading them to larger amount of cheaper ones. Some players will be better at producing a certain grade of spices than others. The deck-building is the most important aspect of the game. You want to put together a set of cards which chain together to make an efficient supply chain, like a factory production line. If you are collecting many yellow spices, you want other cards which will then convert these yellow spices to other spices that you need. It feels good to have a hand which is like a straight flush - you know exactly in what order you will play them to produce spices at the highest capacity. Once the last card is played, you reset and do it all over again, smooth as silk.

That's the general idea. In practice, there will be adjustments here and there. The spices required by the contract cards are different. So it's not as simple as repeating the same recipe over and over. There are many tactical plays to be made throughout the game. You need to grab opportunities and respond to threats. You need to pay attention to what spices your opponents are collecting, so that you know which contract cards they are going for, and whether anyone will beat you to the one you are going for. If you know you will lose the race, you should switch to something else. Even if you are ahead, you need to make sure you are not overtaken.

The contract cards row and the merchant cards row keep changing. The game system gives you time to prepare. Players tend to take the leftmost cards, so these two card rows behave like sushi belts. If an attractive card comes up at the rightmost spot, you usually have some time to prepare to fight for it. There is some planning you can do.

There are little tactical advantages you want to exploit. Let's say you have enough spices to claim the second contract card, and you see that another player will soon have the spices to claim the first one. You want to politely let him claim the first card, so that the one you want will shift to first position, and you can then claim it together with the bonus gold coin.

The long-term strategy is in how you build your hand of cards. Your hand evolves throughout the game. You need to pay attention to both improving your hand and scoring points. At the same time you watch out for tactical advantages. The game has good player interaction. It's the passive aggressive type, but it can be frustrating. Imagine spending a lot of effort collecting the spices for a high valued contract card, only to have it stolen from you at the last minute. Now you have a set of spices which you can't quite use for the other contract cards, and you need to spend more turns converting some spices to other types in order to fulfill a different contract card.

This was my hand around mid way through the game. The two rightmost cards let me collect many yellow spices. The 2nd and 4th cards require many yellow spices to produce other higher grade spices. This is synergy. As you put together your hand of cards, you will know which grades of spice you can produce efficiently. That will guide you in deciding which contract cards to compete for.

The Thoughts

Century: Spice Road is an engine-building game and a race game. OK, I'm probably losing all credibility now since I have also called it a card game, a deck-building game and a resource-conversion game. Your engine is your hand of cards. That is the core of the game. Your hand of cards determines what you can do. Putting together a set of coherent cards is satisfying. If you have done your engine-building well, playing cards requires little thought. You already have an obvious, efficient sequence in your hand. You do have to make adjustments frequently, to meet the many tactical challenges that come up. The cycle of playing cards to collect and upgrade spices, reclaiming cards to do these again and again, and eventually spending the spices to buy contract cards, defines the tempo of the game. Players will have different tempos and will not be in sync. Some players will have more cards, some few. Sometimes some will have many spices and will be on the verge of claiming a contract card, while others have barely started collecting spices for the next contract card. These are all things you need to observe and make use of.

You need to consider how many merchant cards you want to have. More is not always better. If a card doesn't really help you, you might as well spend the turn doing something else. More cards do generally mean you have more flexibility and you get more done between resets. Too few cards is a no-no.

Coming back to the question of whether Century: Spice Road replaces Splendor, I say no it doesn't. There are similarities. They have simple rules, are easy to teach non-gamers, and have more depth than is apparent. If you are buying a game with the purpose of playing it with non-gamers, then yes, either one will do. However these two games have different souls. In Splendor you need to consider the nobles and high level cards right from the beginning, and plan what capabilities you want to develop to help you eventually score some of these nobles and high value cards. In Century: Spice Road, you are building an efficient hand of cards to help you produce spices to fulfill contracts. Splendor doesn't have the kind of card synergy in Century: Spice Road. Century: Spice Road doesn't have the start-with-the-end-in-mind strategy in Splendor. You get different things from these two games.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

10 years of blogging

I have been doing this for 10 years, since July 2007. In the early days of getting into the boardgame hobby, I hungrily devoured all sorts of boardgame-related content I could find on the internet. I regularly read blogs maintained by others, like Mikko Saari, Bruno Faidutti. I enjoyed The Games Journal, and I fondly remember that Greg Aleknevicus wrote great articles. My motivation for starting a boardgame blog myself was boring. Put simply, it was just for record-keeping. I wanted a place where I could organise my boardgame experiences - the photos I took, the stories I lived, the friends I played with, what I thought about the games. Till now this hasn't changed. I enjoy record-keeping. This blog is still very much a personal journey. Nothing ambitious or profound.

Blogging is, in my opinion, out of style. My blog readership is declining. Boardgame hobbyists prefer to consume content in the form of videos. Some bloggers successfully switched to become vloggers. There are vloggers who never were bloggers. Some people do a mix of video and text content, e.g. the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down. I have never considered vlogging. Too much work. Blogging is something I can do at a leisurely pace. I write using Google Docs. I write when I have free time and when I feel like it. I don't need any elaborate preparation. There is some work in taking photos, transferring them to my laptop, editing them, organising them, uploading them. However I enjoy taking photos anyway (again, also because of how I like record-keeping), so I don't mind the effort. The other reason I never considered vlogging is I don't like the format myself. I don't watch many vlogs. I prefer reading text because I can skim text quickly. I can jump to sections which interest me. With videos, the vlogger dictates the pace.

Sometimes it feels like blogging about boardgames is a bigger pastime for me than playing boardgames is. Sometimes I spend more time blogging than playing. I play less in recent years. I still have ongoing Ascension and Star Realms games on my phone, but sometimes it can be weeks between joining boardgame sessions at Boardgamecafe.net. Recently when I had a long list of boardgames to blog about, I felt there was no hurry to play more new games because of that glut of content. The five-years-ago me would be alarmed at such blasphemy. Something is not right! Boardgames is supposed to be about playing, and not about writing. Sometimes when I almost run out of new boardgames to write about, I feel a higher sense of urgency to join the next game session, so that I will have new content. This is so upside down. This is actually what made me think of writing this article; not the fact that it has been 10 years.

Eventually I conclude that this is not wrong. It is my pastime. I am free to decide how to spend my leisure time as long as I am not hurting anyone.

I have once tried to make money from this blog. I signed up for the referral program at Noble Knight Games. If I successfully referred a customer who then made a purchase within one week, I would get a small fee. I did make some referrals which led to sales. OK, maybe not "some". It might have been just one. The total fee never reached a threshold which would justify the trouble and cost of sending it to me. After a while I stopped inserting links and ads. I tried setting up Google Ads, but Google's bots automatically rejected my application, likely because I had too many links at my blog (I create a label for every game I play). So, my blog went back to serving just my original purpose - a scrapbook of my fond memories.

I started a boardgame blog in Chinese in 2010. My mother tongue is Mandarin. There are some expressions in Chinese which I can't find equivalents of in English. I decided to write in Chinese too because I enjoy expressing myself in my native language. It meant double work. My content is mostly the same between the two blogs. Now my process is I write in Chinese, and then I write in English while referring to the structure and the content already written in Chinese, and finally I publish both posts simultaneously. I don't read blogs in Chinese nor do I follow any boardgame websites in Chinese. I am too used to reading boardgame content in English. I make up my own Chinese words for concepts and terms which are originally in English. The Chinese language boardgame community probably has different terms. Avid readers of Chinese boardgame content will find my Chinese blog queer.

I can probably proclaim myself the #1 boardgame blogger in Malaysia, but only because people don't really blog anymore nowadays. My boardgame kakis Jeff and Heng used to blog, but are not very active now. One interesting side effect of having this blog is this - occasionally newspaper journalists contact me to interview me. I think it's simply because when they google for boardgame experts or authorities in Malaysia, there is little to find other than my little blog. This sounds sad, but I think boardgames is growing in Malaysia. Else there wouldn't be journalists bothering to write about it. There are more boardgame cafes now. Boardgames is not mainstream, but it is not as niche as before. It's just that people just play and don't worry about writing about it.

Auto-posting to Facebook is important, I feel. I use dlvr.it. My volume is small, so it's free. I just need to set it up once, and after that it's worry-free. Sometimes I get questions from Facebook. I think I get more there than on Blogspot, where the blog actually resides.

One thing that still annoys me is spam posts. Blogspot does try to help, but some still get through. Once in a while a legitimate post gets held up. I don't monitor comments held up as possible spam. Because of this, there was once I approved a legitimate comment more than a year after the poor guy posted it. Sorry. I do receive notifications for posted comments, and when I see a spam post being auto-approved by the bots, I cannot resist coming personally to exterminate the spam post.

What's next for this blog? I expect it will be more of the same.

What do you like or not like about my blog? Do you find it useful? Informative? Entertaining?

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Hit Z Road

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Hit Z Road is a zombie game from Martin Wallace. Now that's not something you hear often. What I noticed most about the game before getting to play it was the art direction. The components and artwork were designed to make it look like a game hand-made by a child, reusing parts from other games, using unwanted rubbish like bottle caps, pasting stickers onto the components and even directly writing on them. The child made this game based on his experience during an arduous journey through USA. The world had fallen apart and devolved into an apocalyptic zombie wasteland. The child was part of a group traveling from Chicago to California. They had decided to make the trip because California was a safe haven. They succeeded and the child lived to tell the tale, through this boardgame.

Hit Z Road is an auction game. After listening to the rules explanation, I expected it to be a very Euro, light-to-medium weight game. What surprised me was it turned out to be more visceral. It had more story and it was more immersive than I had expected. I was pleasantly surprised.

You start the game with a group of 5 survivors. You are the leader and your pawn is in the player colour (green in my case). The other survivors are white in colour. The bottle caps are the three types of resources you have in the game. The red ones are fuel, the blue ones bullets, the yellow ones adrenaline. Your first goal is to survive. As long as at least one person in your group reaches California, you succeed. Only among the surviving players you then determine who is most successful by comparing score. Throughout the game you may collect cards with point values. If you have the most fuel, bullets, adrenaline or survivors at game end, you also score points.

This burger joint customer loyalty card is used as a player order marker.

There are even stamps on the back.

A three player game is set up this way. The deck of cards on the right is set up depending on the number of players. It is divided into three stages, the first stage having the easiest cards and the third having the hardest. At the start of a round, you draw three sets of two cards each. The players bid for turn order to pick sets. Everyone must pick a set. The small board at the bottom is what you use for this bidding process. During the bidding rounds, you may bid a higher amount or pass. You pay your bid using any combination of the three types of resources. When you take a set of cards, you execute whatever is specified on them.

At the top you can see various round tokens. These are miscellaneous items you may collect during your journey. Some cards tell you to take a specific token, and then later on some other cards tell you what happens or doesn't happen if you have or don't have a particular token. E.g. if you pick up a teenager, you may later find that he helps your group with a task that nobody else can do, or you may find that he steals your resources and vanishes. The items augment the values of the card sets. A card set becomes more attractive to the player who has a certain token which he can make use of. A card set can also be shunned by everyone except for a single player who has the right token to prevent a disaster on one of the cards. These affect how players value card sets and how they bid for turn order.

The black pawns are the zombies. The dice are used for combat. The black dice are regular dice, the red ones are the tougher ones. Combat consists of two stages. The first stage is ranged attack. You may spend bullets to shoot at the approaching zombies. You have one chance to decide how many bullets to spend. You then roll the dice. Each crosshair icon rolled kills a zombie. If there are zombies left, you now have to decide flee or fight. You may spend two fuel resources to speed away. If you don't have enough fuel, or don't want to spend it, you enter melee combat. This is a fight to the death. One side must be completely wiped out. You kill zombies by rolling the crosshair icon. If you roll a lightning bolt, you may spend an adrenaline resource to kill a zombie. If you roll crosshair + lightning bolt, you either kill one zombie, or spend an adrenaline resource to kill two. If you roll the skull icon, one of your survivors dies. If you roll skull + lightning bolt, you may spend an adrenaline to save the survivor. Skulls on the black dice always come with lightning bolts, but the red dice have skull-only faces. That's why they are tougher.

I find it interesting that the number of dice you roll during combat depends on the number of human survivors and not the number of zombies. When there are many humans and few zombies, more dice means more opportunities to kill zombies, which makes sense. However it also means more chances of getting bitten by a zombie. I try to explain it this way - since there are so many humans, there is a higher chance that someone becomes careless and gets bitten.

When there are few humans and many zombies, the smaller chances of scoring a hit against zombies makes sense. Fewer humans means less killing power. However it is also harder for zombies to kill humans. This is easier to explain - when there are more zombies than humans, not every zombie can get close to a human. The zombies will get into one another's way.

These are the bonus cards to be claimed at game end. You claim the corresponding card if you have the most fuel, bullets, adrenaline or survivors.

The Play

In our game, this was the situation after 2 rounds. Strictly speaking, any cards you claim should be added to a face-down stack and not laid out this way. I like it this way because the cards become my picture book telling my story. On the cards, the star icons at the top right mean point values. They are only meaningful if you make it to California. The icons at the top left mean resources you get to collect. The numbers at the bottom right are the zombies you need to fight. You claim the resources before deciding whether to fight the zombies. You may claim resources then flee by paying two fuel resources. You don't need to return the resources you have just claimed. However you also won't keep the card (or its point value). Some cards have additional instructions you must follow.

That card with a big #2 is another player order card. Every time you complete a bidding round, you take the corresponding player order card. You follow this player order not only when taking card sets. You also follow this player order for the bidding next round.

With these three sets of cards, naturally the top set is least desirable, since you have to fight zombies twice. Cards being grouped into pairs creates interesting combinations and variability.

I did a three-player game with Ivan and Allen. Ivan taught Allen and I to play. The early game felt mild. I could collect resources in a leisurely manner. I could spend resources to claim cards with points. The zombies were not that scary, and sometimes we gained new group members. It was only later that I realised the early game was just the calm before the storm. It was the chance to brace ourselves for what was to come. I should have been more thrifty with my resources in the early game. I had underestimated how many resources I needed for the rest of the game. Ivan was better prepared. In the early game he often forwent opportunities to score points in order to preserve even just a little bit of resources. It turned out this was prudent indeed. Cards worth points are normally cards with zombies, i.e. you often need to spend bullets and adrenaline to kill the zombies before you can claim the card. Sometimes it is better to only spend fuel to flee and forgo the card, preserving bullets and adrenaline.

Among the three of us, I was most resource-poor and ended up last. No surprise there. Both Allen and Ivan managed their resources better, but even so by game end they more or less ran out of resources too. Ivan had a little bit more, and managed to claim some of the bonus cards at game end. He won the game. Despite coming last, I had a blast with the game. This was what happened.

As things went from bad to worse, I found myself down to three survivors, and no resources. We were surrounded by six zombies, and they were a horde. We had to use at least two red dice when fighting them. Running out of resources was horrible. It meant every round I was the one forced to take the worst card set. I had no resources to bid any higher than 0. It was hard mode all the way for me.

I had thought being outnumbered 6 to 3 surely meant game over, but to my surprise I managed to survive with one last person. It was like I had plot protection and I was destined for greater things.

Unfortunately the so-called greater things turned out to be another zombie horde. This time it was 1 vs 6, and I had to fight with a red die again.

Ivan and Allen grabbed their popcorns and sat down to watch how I was going to deal with 6 zombies. Just the previous night at the airport I had killed three zombies single-handedly. That was already a minor miracle. Facing off six of them now, I muttered under my breath - you've got to be (insert-strong-emphasis) kidding me. To my surprise, and to the laughter of Ivan and Allen, I survived. The zombies fell one after another. I kept rolling, and rolling, and rolling, and the dreaded skull icon never came. I had run out of adrenaline. If I rolled a skull with a lightning bolt, I would have to die because I had no adrenaline to pay. Yet I rolled no skull plus lightning bolt, and no skull. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. Every time I killed a zombie, it was exhilarating, but I could not celebrate because I knew upon the next die roll it could well be my turn to die. I almost collapsed with relief when the last zombie fell. In total, my brave little survivor character killed 9 zombies consecutively.

For the past two months I have been writing about the many games played at the Broga Bliss boardgame retreat organised by Boardgamecafe.net. I played a good variety of games. I had not expected that the most unforgettable moment would be from Hit Z Road.

The next card I had to deal with was also the final card of the whole game I had to deal with. I needed to pay one fuel resource, or lose one survivor. I had no resource left, and I had only one survivor left - me. So I died. Poof! Most anti-climatic ending to my zombie story. I slayed 9 zombies only to die of... sorry sir, gas no stock. I guess the story was supposed to be me getting badly injured after the fight and eventually dying of my wounds. I met another survivor group which had medication, but they would only trade. They wanted fuel. I had none. They left me to die. Pricks!

I arranged all the cards I had claimed, and made this fancy storyboard. I had claimed a total of 15 cards. We played 8 rounds, and if I had claimed all cards, there would be 16. The one card short was because I had fled the zombies once.

The core game mechanism is a very Euro style auction mechanism. Cards you take are mostly independent cards, each card telling an unrelated little story or describing a scenario. However if you let your imagination take flight, you can easily link them all up into a convincing story. The items element helps. They can establish cause-and-effect relationships between some cards. The whole chain tells a consistent tale of desperate survivors scavenging, rationing resources and fighting for survival. I am sold that this is indeed a zombie game, even if my left brain teases me that this is a Euro auction game.

The Thoughts

If you remove the setting, the theme and the zombies, Hit Z Road is a game of resource management and risk management. It is an auction game. You need to spend your resources wisely. You gather resources in the early game, and you try to make them last till the end. This being an auction game means you need to be good at assessing the value of things. Is this risk worth taking? Is that victory point card worth this many resources? If you analyse with your brain that's the conclusion you will come to. If you play with your heart, it can be a rather different matter. When I played, I was immersed in the story. I built the story from the disjointed events depicted on the cards. I had to manage crisis after crisis. I had to make tough choices. I had to make sacrifices. Every bullet spent and every gallon of gas used felt painful. "Was it worth it?", I often asked. Many times I had to choose between taking a risk or not. Avoiding risk is not free. You can't afford to flee forever. You will eventually run out of fuel. Do you flee now or save the fuel so that you have the option to flee in future when you get into a worse situation than now? Every fight with the zombies is a death fight. You can never be sure which day will be your last.

The game is of low to medium complexity. Non-gamers and casual gamers can manage, so I think it will work as a gateway game. The zombie theme is a plus.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Project: ELITE

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Here's the scenario. Earth has been invaded and overrun by aliens, and only small pockets of humans continue to resist the invaders. The human resistance forms an elite team, and sends them on critical missions in the fight against the aliens. You are part of this elite team.

Project: ELITE is a cooperative game and a real-time game. Each game is a mission. You have a fixed number of rounds, and you need to complete your mission before the final round ends. Sometimes you need to kill specific enemies, sometimes you need to retrieve some artifacts, sometimes you need to sabotage some facilities. The game is partially real-time, and this is what makes the game different. At the start of a round, new aliens appear on the game board. Then you, members of the elite team, get to perform actions. Finally the aliens perform actions. The human action phase is the part which is done in real-time. You only have two minutes. Everyone has a set of four dice. You roll your own dice, and use the icons you roll to perform actions. After you use an icon, you may reroll the die and use it again. If you don't like what you roll, you can simply pick up the die and reroll. It seems that the faster you roll, the more you will get to do, but there is a catch! If you roll the alien icon, you must move an alien. This can result in the alien attacking you or your teammate. So rolling dice comes with risks.

The white dice are the player's action dice. The red icon is the alien icon, which is bad news. The other icons let you do various different actions. The green dice are the attack dice. You roll them when you attack. Each weapon has an attack value - you need to roll a certain number on the attack dice for them to count as hits. The card on the right is a character card. Each character has a special ability. The three circles at the bottom are spaces for life tokens. You remove a token each time an alien hits you. When you lose all three, you lose one die and then refill the tokens. You start the game with four dice. If you lose your last die, your character dies and everyone loses the game.

Before the game starts, you draw two cards per player. This can be any combination of equipment cards and weapon cards. You lay them all out, and then as a group you decide who takes what. The icons on the cards specify what die icons are needed to activate the card. The two cards on the left have icons with red backgrounds. This means when you activate the card with a die, that die is locked. You only take the die back next round. This means the card can only be used once per round. Also once you use it, you will have one die less for the rest of the round. Normally a weapon has three properties - range, the number of attack dice you may roll, and the minimum die value required to score hits.

My special ability is if I kill an enemy in melee combat, I may move into its space for free. This is why I have chosen the duel blades as my weapon. They are melee weapons so they synergise with my ability.

This is the game board. It is two sided and the two sides are different. On this side, the players' base is at the bottom left. This is where you start out, and this is also where you must return to after completing your mission in order to win the game. At the three other corners, there are spawn points for the aliens. All over the board you can see small arrows. These indicate how aliens move. The arrows all flow from the spawn points to the player base. You must not let any alien enter your base. If this happens you lose. On the board there are structures which block movement and line of sight. At the top left there is a schedule, which needs to be set up based on the scenario you are playing. In specific rounds there will be events (usually bad), and in some others there will be alien bosses appearing (also bad news).

These grey aliens are the foot soldiers. Each soldier type has its own set of characteristics, e.g. how fast they move, how strong their attacks are.

Player characters are beige in colour. This kind of situation is very common - you are often swarmed by aliens. There is wave after wave of aliens. While trying to stay alive by mowing them down before they overwhelm you, you also need to remember to complete your mission objective.

In the game we played, our mission was to retrieve four artifacts - those large tiles with red backgrounds and yellow hand icons. They were scattered around the board and we had to go out to them and bring them back. To move an artifact by one step required committing a die with the hand icon for the rest of the round. The number of hand icons on an artifact is also the limit on how many moves it can make per round. At the time of this photo three artifacts had been retrieved, but the fourth one was still some ways away.

Green coloured aliens are the lieutenants. They are stronger than the foot soldiers. In the background you can see a blurry red patch. That's a boss-level alien. They are tough nuts to crack and often come with very annoying powers.

Standing in the path of an alien is dangerous. If the alien moves, it will push you back and also injure you. Alien movement is performed by the players. You decide the order in executing their movement, and sometimes you have options where they move to. Naturally you want to execute all these while minimising damage. However there are often too many aliens on the board and it is not easy to completely avoid damage.

The Play

Project: ELITE is a dungeon crawl style game, in a sci-fi setting. You have special abilities, you carry weapons, and you kill monsters while trying to complete a quest. What makes the game different is the real-time execution of player actions. The real-time segments come in short bursts, unlike in Escape: The Curse of the Temple where it is all in a single 10-minute take. Still, the game does deliver adrenaline-pumping excitement. It is certainly more complex than Escape. There is more admin work, like handling alien movement and attacks, so it may not be possible or desirable to make the whole thing real-time. I think the experience would be even better if it could be done.

The break time between the real-time segments is useful. You want to catch your breath, discuss tactics, assign responsibilities and decide what to do next round.

We won the game, but it was not easy. Early on we decided to split into two teams of two, each team going in a different direction to retrieve different artifacts. Ivan's team did their part quickly, but my team struggled. We were swamped by aliens and could barely keep them at bay. Our progress was slow. There were three spawn points for aliens, and we couldn't predict where and how many would enter the board. It depended on the cards we drew.

Sometimes we had to make personal sacrifices. In one situation we had options in moving the aliens, but both options would result in some of us to getting injured. It was not just a matter of seeing which option would result in less injury, or which option would prevent already injured players from getting further injured. We also had to consider who were in more useful locations and would be able to contribute more towards the objective. Ultimately, the objective was most important. Well, unless someone was going to get killed, because then everyone would lose.

The Thoughts

The real-time gameplay is exciting. I rarely see such being implemented in dungeon crawl type games. I can only think of Space Hulk. The dungeon crawl aspect of the game is common, nothing that strikes me as outstanding. It works well enough. It is the real-time mechanism and the dice mechanism which gives the game its novelty factor.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Igloo Pop

Plays: 3Px1, 4Px1.

The Game

Igloo Pop is a listening game. That's certainly not something you hear often.

The most important and also unusual game component is these plastic igloos. There are twelve of them, and they contain 2 to 13 beads. The number of beads is written at the bottom of each igloo. In this game you need to shake the igloos and listen to the sounds they make in order to guess the numbers of beads in them.

Every player starts the game with some player markers (the green and orange discs in the photo above). During a round you use your markers to claim igloos and to make guesses. If you guess right, you claim a card (which is worth points). If you guess wrong, you lose your marker. The game ends when one player loses all his markers, or when the card deck is exhausted.

Before the start of a round, 9 cards are laid out like this. Each card has one to three numbers. You want to find igloos of the corresponding numbers and place them onto the right cards to claim those cards. Usually it is easier to find the right igloo for cards with three numbers, however these cards are only worth 1pt. Cards with only one number are worth 3pts, but of course the risk is also higher. All the igloos are shuffled, and you can't see the numbers beneath them. Once the round starts, everything happens in real-time. Anyone can pick any of the igloos up and shake it. If you are confident you know what the number is, you may claim it by attaching your marker and then placing it on one of the cards having that number. If you are not confident, or if you think there is no card with that number, you can return the igloo to the pool and move on to another. The round ends when all igloos are claimed, or when no one wants the remaining igloos. You then proceed to do scoring.

When a round ends, the game should look like this. Igloos which have been claimed using player markers are placed on cards. Sometimes a card has no igloo. Sometimes it has one, and sometimes more than one. Scoring is basically turning over all the igloos to see whether they have been placed on the right cards. If the numbers match, the card is claimed by the player. If the numbers don't match, the player loses his marker. If two or more igloos on the same card are correct, the higher number wins.

If all cards are exhausted, the game ends. If a player runs out of markers, the game ends too. Otherwise, draw back up to 9 cards on the table and go again.

The Play

This is a noisy game. Don't play it at a library. The librarian will throw you out. It's not easy to tell the number by listening. At least it wasn't for me. Some of the lower numbers are easier. The higher ones are certainly not. Sometimes you need to shake one, and then another, so that you can compare and decide which has more beads. Since it is not easy to tell the number by listening, quite often the game is about risk management. If you are not so sure, you probably want to go for the cards with three numbers. Even so, sometimes you will still guess wrong. Risk management also includes taking into account how many points everyone has scored, and how many markers everyone has remaining. If someone is down to very few markers, and you are far behind, you probably need to take bigger risks. Otherwise you'll never catch up before the game ends. If you happen to be far ahead, you may want to consider deliberately guessing wrong in order to lose all your markers and force the game to end. These are some of the little tactics in the game.

The Thoughts

Igloo Pop is a children's game and also a party game. It's noisy, nutty fun - not to be taken too seriously. It works for younger children, even if they may not fully appreciate the risk management aspect. "Risk management" is the adult in me talking. It's a real-time game, so excitement and urgency are part of the package. The unique mechanism makes this an eye-catching game (or ear-catching?). Unfortunately it is out-of-print now and won't be easy to find.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fold-It

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Fold-It is certainly unique. Your main game component is a colourful piece of cloth. It consists of a 4x4 grid, and each space in the grid contains a dish, e.g. spaghetti, sushi, pizza, chicken chop, ramen, big breakfast. The cloth is double-sided. At each position on it, the dish is the same one on both front and back. The game is a real-time game. Everyone starts with 3 life points. At the beginning of each round, a card is revealed, and it depicts a number of dishes. You must then fold your own piece of cloth in such a way that those exact dishes are visible. Whoever is last to achieve this is penalised and loses one life point. Gradually the players are disqualified, and the last person standing wins the game.

When you fold your piece of cloth, you may only fold along the straight lines forming the grid. You can't fold diagonally and you can't fold along the middle of a square. You may use either or both sides of your cloth. This card shows three dishes, and the cloth has been folded to show these exact three, no more and no fewer.

Cards come in two categories - easy and hard. The active player of the round decides which type to draw. Of these four cards in this photo, certainly the leftmost one is from the easy category. It shows only one dish. It's a matter of folding your cloth quickly, and not a matter of working out how to do it.

Those round counters with stars are the life points. When you fold your cloth, the dishes being made visible need not be in the precise positions as depicted by the card.

It's OK to be a little messy, as long as it is clear you have done your folding right. This being a speed game means often you can't be bothered with form.

The Play

The folding mechanism is certainly fresh and novel. When I first played, there were some puzzles which I got stuck with for a long time. It took a while for me to get used to the very unique spatial element of this game. When Wai Yan taught Chen Rui (10) and I to play, we didn't play by the rules. We just revealed card after card and tried to solve the puzzles. We probably spent more time learning how to solve puzzles than actually playing a proper game. Eventually we only did one proper game.

Fold-It reminds me of Ubongo. When you get stuck with a puzzle, it really bugs you and you can't let it go until you manage to solve it. It doesn't matter if you are already the last player or if time has run out. You need to solve this puzzle! After you get a better grasp of the techniques, the game doesn't become pointless. It just changes in nature. Now it is not a matter of who can and who cannot solve the puzzle. It becomes a contest of who can solve it more quickly.

The Thoughts

Fold-It is a party game, a family game, a casual game, a filler. It is a light game. This is not the type I chase after, but it has its occasions and it serves a few purposes. I am happy to have satisfied my curiosity and to have experienced its unusual mechanism.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Dice Forge

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The main selling point of Dice Forge is the fact that you get to modify your dice as you play. Everyone has two dice, and at the start of the game they are all the same. During play, you may spend gold to upgrade your die faces to better versions. Players' dice will gradually diverge. This is a little like deck-building games. Players start on equal footing but gradually augment their individual abilities.

This is the player board. You use it for recording your resource levels. The yellow row is for gold, the red row for sun shards and the blue row for moon shards. Your storage space is limited for each resource type. If it is full you can't collect more. You may expand your storage during the game. The green rows are for score keeping. Highest scorer after the last round wins the game.

The game is played over a fixed number of rounds, depending on the number of players. At the start of each player's turn, everyone including the active player rolls his dice and collects resources accordingly. The die faces mostly depict various resources in different quantities. Some die faces let you pick from two or more resource types. Some die faces grant special abilities, e.g. tripling the production of the other die.

The main board consists of seven islands floating in the sky. Each island has 2 or 3 small piles of cards. On your turn, one of your two options is to visit an island to buy a card (in the game this is called performing a heroic feat), paying sun shards or moon shards. Some cards give you special abilities, some give you points, and some give both. The number of cards available depends on the number of players. Sometimes you need to compete if others want the same cards. If you visit an island which is currently occupied, you bump the incumbent away. This costs you nothing, but the player being bumped gets a free die roll, i.e. he will gain some resources.

The other option on your turn is to visit the temple to make an offering to the gods, i.e. to upgrade your dice. You pay gold to make one or more upgrades to your die faces. The quantities of upgrades are limited, so sometimes you will need to compete too.

The game is beautifully illustrated and the production value is top notch.

The costs of cards are listed on the cards themselves as well as on the board. The game comes with variants. You can mix and match the cards available as well as the die upgrades available.

Some card powers are single-use while others are permanent. These here are all single-use. The card on the left gives me two extra rolls. The card in the middle lets me change one die face to "x3". The card on the right expands my resource storage capacity.

The Play

The gameplay is simple and smooth. You roll dice, collect resources, upgrade your dice, and ultimately your goal is to score points. The early game is mostly about upgrading your dice, and the late game is all about scoring as many points as you can before time runs out. The tricky part is balancing the transition from improving your scoring ability to using that ability to actually score points. If you only think of upgrading your dice, you will miss out on actual scoring, which is what matters in the end. If you start focusing on scoring too early, you will likely be doing it less efficiently because you have not built up your strength.

The die upgrades and the cards do have some synergy. There are combos you can make, which can help you create something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sun and moon shards behave a little differently - the kind of cards they let you buy are different in nature. You may spend two sun shards to take an extra action. This can be valuable in the early game. The earlier you improve your abilities, the more you will get to utilise them throughout the game.

The Thoughts

Dice Forge didn't work for me. It felt soulless. I only see the unique selling point - that you get to change your die faces. The rest of the game are common mechanisms pieced together to flesh out the game which is built around this single selling point. I can't say there is any major flaw or imbalance. I have only played one game. I do see there is some strategy in picking die upgrades and cards, and in finding synergies. I can't feel the story and the emotions. I only see an exercise in making upgrades and scoring points efficiently.

Player interaction exists but is limited. Die upgrades and cards are limited, so you may need to rush before some of them run out. If you can anticipate where your opponents want to go, getting there just before they do will give you a bonus because you force them to bump you off. Most of the time you are focused on upgrading your own dice efficiently, and then using them efficiently to score points.

One possible problem is your die upgrades may not always give you good returns. Even if you upgrade a die face to an exceptionally good one, there is only a 1 in 6 chance of activating that face. If you are unlucky, you never activate it, thus wasting your gold and your effort. Bad luck is very real. The fact that you get to roll dice on everyone's turn somewhat mitigates this. Since you do roll dice a lot, luck somewhat evens out.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Sanssouci

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The Sanssouci Palace is in Germany, and some call it the equivalent of the Palace of Versailles. The name is French and means "free of worry". It is meant to be more a rest and relax place than a seat of power. The Sanssouci boardgame is designed by Michael Kiesling. In this game you build the garden of the palace, and try to impress visiting noblemen.

Everyone has a player board like this. It is double sided and the two sides have different starting setups. The player board is the garden of the palace. There are 6 rows and 9 columns. The first row is fully built up. A few other spaces are built. At the top, right along the palace building itself, is a row of noblemen. These are the people you are trying to impress, one nobleman per column. Every turn you must escort one nobleman to a new location. The new location must be in the same column, but further down.

Everyone has a same deck of cards. At the start of the game, you shuffle your own deck and draw two. Every turn you play a card then draw a replacement. The game ends after you have played every card. Every card will be used exactly once. You use a card to claim a tile from the main board to place on your player board. The tiles are various types of decorative structures you can build in your garden. In this photo, the card on the left lets you claim a tile from the orange or blue rows of the main board. You must place the tile on a corresponding orange or blue space on your player board. The card on the right lets you claim a spiral structure. Sometimes if a specific structure type is not available on the main board, your card becomes a joker and you get to pick anything. These are usually golden opportunities. You are much less restricted.

This is the main board. In the centre there are five rows with two tiles each. You claim tiles from here. Whenever a tile is claimed, another is randomly drawn to take its place.

There are strict rules about placing tiles. When you take a tile from the main board, it comes from a specific coloured row. You must place this tile in the matching coloured row on your board. Also the tile is of a specific structure type. You must place it in the column of that type on your board. In essence, there is only one legal placement for any tile you claim. After placing a tile, the second action you take to complete your turn is to move a nobleman. He must move to a new spot which is further down in the same column, but he doesn't have to move in a straight line. He can take a roundabout way as long as there is an uninterrupted path to his destination. The nobleman scores points depending on which row he stops at. The further down he stops, the more points he scores. In this photo, two of the nobles on the right have started moving.

In this photo you can see a nobleman who has taken a roundabout way to reach his final destination. The third nobleman from the right has reached the bottom, and you can see his column is not yet completed. To get to his current location, he has taken a detour down the spiral structure column (second column from the right).

Now if you look at the tile above him, you will notice that instead of a garden structure, there is a portrait of a gardener. Gardeners are on the backs of every tile. When you take a tile from the main board, and the location on your player board where it is meant to be placed is already occupied, you get to flip the tile (to become a gardener) and place it at any location in the same row or column as the original intended location. This can be very handy, e.g. when you desperately need to fill a location for which you don't have the right card. However, there is also a drawback. Noblemen do not stop where a gardener is at work, i.e. you won't be able to use that location to score points.

When you place tiles, they need not connected to the palace, e.g. those two at the bottom right are currently isolated. Eventually you will want to connect all of them, to allow noblemen to visit the high value locations.

This was near game end. That nobleman in the middle had only taken one step, but I had great plans for him. I would make sure before the game ended he would walk all the way to the 6VP location at the bottom of his column. He would go left to take a long route, but he would get there. During the game I played, I focused much energy on filling the 6th row and building connections for the noblemen to get there. It was only halfway through that I realised I should have put some effort on the 5th row as well. Ideally I could get a nobleman to score both the 5VP and 6VP locations of his column. 5VP was significant.

After the game ends, each completed row and column are also worth points. That's another thing you can aim for.

The Play

Sanssouci feels like a solitaire game. You are all building your own gardens, creating your own paths, and attending to your own noble visitors. However there is some subtle player interaction. You want to watch what tiles your opponents need from the main board in addition to knowing what you need. If there is something an opponent desperately wants which is somewhat useful to you, you probably want to snatch it. If there are multiple tiles useful to you, you can prioritise which to get first by evaluating how sought after they are by your opponents. You can play without thinking about these and just worry about your own player board. The game still works. This is one reason Sanssouci works well as a family game. You can play it casually.

You get a soothing satisfaction from seeing your garden take shape and the paths link up. You will have a rough blueprint in mind. Every round, you take a small step in turning your blueprint into reality. Sometimes you are forced to change your plan, because you don't draw the cards you need or the tiles you need are not available. Sometimes you change plans because an easier path presents itself, or you just want to mess with someone else's plans. Every round you get closer to what you envision.

You don't have that many cards for the whole game, and each card can only be used once. You know you won't fill up the board. It's a question of how well you work within the limitations and how you make the best of what you draw. It is an interesting challenge. Since the deck is a fixed deck, you can somewhat plan ahead. You know the cards you want will come sooner or later. You can hold on to a card for the best moment to play it. You can plan your garden building taking into account cards you know you will eventually draw.

The Thoughts

Sanssouci is a mid-weight family game. It is a peaceful game. Planning the garden you want to build and then executing your plan step by step are satisfying. Throughout the game you score points every round, so your scoring marker races around the score track against those of your opponents. There will be pressure to keep up. You need to plan your moves a few turns ahead to maintain a steady progress. Two secret objective cards given at the start of the game also create different incentives to players, resulting in variety.