Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Pandemic: The Cure

Plays: 5Px1, 4Px1.

The Game

Pandemic: The Cure is the dice game version of Pandemic. It is also a cooperative game. The world is being ravaged by four deadly diseases, and your objective is to find cures for all four diseases. You need to do this before three possible (bad) end game conditions occur - when there are too many infected people, when the infection intensity level becomes too high, or when there are too many outbreaks. These all sound exactly like the boardgame version, but in The Cure they are implemented using very different mechanisms.

On your turn, you don't get to decide freely what to do. You need to roll dice, and the die faces will tell you what you can do. You spend your dice to execute actions. You can reroll as many of the unused dice as often as you like, but if you roll a biohazard icon, that die is locked for the rest of your turn, and the infection level will increase. So when you decide to keep rerolling to get a specific action type, you are gambling on whether you'll get what you want first, or a biohazard. The basic actions include treating a disease, flying, sailing and bottling samples. Players each play a different character, and each character has a different set of dice with different die face distributions and sometimes unique die faces. A unique die face gives the character special actions unique for him.

The middle ring has two tracks. The longer green track is the infection track. The intensity level on this track determines how many infection dice needs to be rolled at the end of every turn, i.e. how quickly the diseases are making people sick. The blue track is the outbreak track, which marks how many times you've had outbreaks, i.e. one continent having more than three dice of a disease and thus spreading it to the next continent. If the markers (green syringe) on either track reaches the red area, everyone loses.

The six coasters around the ring are the continents. The dice on them are the sick people. The bigger disc on the left is the CDC (Centre for Disease Control). When you roll the plus sign on an infection die, instead of getting more sick people on a continent, you put the die here as a form of currency. You can spend these to trigger event cards - those on the right. There are always three available. When one is used, a new one is drawn to replace it.

This was the character I played. The character card shows the breakdown of the die faces, and also explains any unique action or ability the character has.

Bottling samples is an interesting action. You need to have treated a disease first, which means moving a die from the continent you're in to the treatment centre (i.e. the centre of the play area). You then place you die with the bottle icon on top of the infection die, and you move the stack to your character card. This represents you carrying a sample with you. Bottling a sample means you now have one less die to roll, because it is temporarily tied up with the infection die. It will only be released when someone finds a cure for that particular disease.

This is how you collect samples, you attach your player dice to the infection dice, and carry them on your character card.

After you are done with your actions, you may pass disease sample bottles to another player at the same location as you. Samples are needed to attempt to discover a cure. The more samples the better the chances of success. On your turn you get one chance to discover the cure for one disease, and you do this by rolling all the samples (i.e. the infection dice). You succeed by rolling 13 or higher.

The last thing you do on your turn is to spread infection. Depending on the current infection intensity level, you draw a number of infection dice from the bag and roll them, and place them on the continents accordingly. Everyone needs to do the infection step, which means every turn there will be people falling sick.

Whenever the marker on the infection track hits specific spots, an epidemic occurs. The active player takes all dice in the treatment centre plus a number of dice depending on the infection intensity level, and roll them all. They are then distributed to the continents accordingly. Epidemics represent a spurt of growth for the diseases. Whenever a continent has more than 3 dice of a specific disease, an outbreak occurs. All dice beyond the third spreads to the next continent. This may trigger a chain reaction if the next continent ends up with more than 3 dice. Outbreaks can be quite dangerous. Also you lose upon the eighth outbreak.

The infection dice are not numbered 1 - 6 like normal dice. There is always a plus sign die face, and the numbered faces have different distributions depending on which disease (colour) it is. For each continent, only certain diseases will appear, and this is indicated by the bars on the continent cards.

The green infection track is divided into sections, and each section shows how many dice need to be rolled when performing the infection action. Whenever you enter a new section (i.e. the explosion) you suffer an epidemic, which is a super infection roll. You not only have to grab some dice from the bag to roll, you also need to roll all the dice at the treatment centre, i.e. inside the ring.

The Play

My first play was a 5-player game, with four other regular gamers. We played the normal difficulty. We won. Dice-rolling was fun. There is always the anxiety of rolling biohazards. Rolling for cures was exciting too. It is no longer a sure-fire thing like in the boardgame where you need to collect 4 cards of the same colour. We had one or two hilarious failed attempts. We never quite approached the verge of losing. Maybe we were lucky. Or maybe we were smart. We did see danger approaching - infection rate increasing, dice in the bag dwindling, outbreaks happening, but we did not come to a point of it's-this-turn-or-never.

Two other players have passed samples to me - the blue player and the orange player. My own dice are grey. .

I bottled a sixth sample before I attempted to find a cure. Thankfully I did so. One die short and I would have failed. I needed 13. The plus sign counts as zero.

Due to the easy win (at least it felt so to me), the game doesn't excite me enough. I soon had an opportunity to teach it to my wife and my daughters (8 and 9). We played the easy difficulty, and we won too. What surprised me was how much all of them enjoyed the game. Shee Yun (9) even went about giving the rest of us high fives after we cured the last disease. Throughout the game she was quite concerned with each biohazard icon that we rolled. She was quite absorbed in the game. There were always threats of outbreaks. We were firefighting all the time, often being forced to pick one to save between two (or even three) equally risky areas. Amidst this constant pressure, each cure found was a call for celebration. I think the children also liked that we were working together. Anyway, she's happy, I'm happy.

Chen Rui was exhausted when we finally cured the last disease.

The Thoughts

Like Pandemic, the boardgame, Pandemic: The Cure is also a race against time to find all cures. The disease situation will keep worsening. You need to balance between the short-term need to treat patients and prevent outbreaks, and the long-term goal of discovering cures. You are constantly threatened by immediate dangers, and quite often you are forced to make tactical decisions. However you must never lose sight of your ultimate objective.

The Cure feels very familiar. The strategic landscape is almost the same as the boardgame version. It is the execution layer that is very different. I am very impressed with how the designer managed to pull this off using such different tools. Feeling similar to the original game can be a good or a bad thing. For a person like me who likes the original but is not a particularly big fan, the familiarity made me feel I don't need to own both games. However for a big fan of the original, there is probably no question about buying the dice version.

It occurred to me that cooperative games probably tend to work well as family games, in particular when there is a skill gap, e.g. parents playing with young children. Some say that a good family game needs a healthy dose of luck so that the parents won't win every time. If you are playing a cooperative game, you don't have this problem of the parents winning every time in the first place. You don't need luck for the purpose of compensating for the skill difference. You'll likely still need some randomness for variability though. One danger with cooperative games is the parents may end up dictating what the children are to do. Try to avoid that and let the children think and decide for themselves. Guide them when they are making obviously bad choices (and explain too). Give suggestions when they ask for help. Just don't play for them. When I played with my family, sometimes I even had to remind Shee Yun (the older child) not to tell Chen Rui (her younger sister) what to do.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Samurai Spirit

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Samurai Spirit is a cooperative game from Antoine Bauza (Ghost Stories, 7 Wonders, Hanabi, Tokaido), inspired by the movie Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. Naturally, the game supports up to 7 players. You are samurai defending a village from bandits. The bandits will launch 3 waves of attacks, and you win if you survive all three, and still have at least one villager family and one farmhouse remaining. All samurai must live. This is unlike Lord of the Rings where you can sacrifice yourself for the greater good.

The three waves of attacks are represented by a deck of bandit cards, which you have to go through three times. On your turn, what you usually do is draw a bandit card and fight the bandit. You do this by either placing him on the left or the right side of your samurai card. There are three slots on the left, and to place a bandit here, his icon must match that of an available slot. At the end of each wave of attack, if you have any unfilled slot, there is a penalty (don't ask, I can't explain this from a theme / setting perspective either). If you place the bandit on the right side, you add up the total strength of the bandits there and update your samurai card accordingly. You have a limit to how much you can handle. If the bandits' total strength exceeds your limit, you will be forced to bow out on your next turn.

This is my samurai character, and he has now transformed into the animal spirit form. The icon at the top left is my talent. The icon at the bottom is my Kiai super power.

After you exhaust the bandit deck, you do the resolution actions for the current wave of attack. Some bandits may have slipped past your defenses, and some of them may destroy barricades or houses. If all samurai are forced to retreat before the bandit deck is exhausted, all remaining bandits will break through to wreak havoc. After the dust settles, if there is at least one family and one house remaining, you move on to the next wave of attack.

The next wave will not be just a rehash. The bandits will bring reinforcements. Their lieutenants, who are stronger, will join the fray. If you survive the second attack, the bosses will join the third wave. This is where the real action is!

This is the village we have to protect. At this point four barricades have been destroyed, one house burnt and one family (Japanese doll icon) killed.

The samurai have some tricks up their sleeves. Every samurai has a unique talent. E.g. giving an even numbered bandit to one of the samurai sitting next to you, ignoring the penalty imposed by odd numbered bandits. On your turn, instead of fighting a bandit (i.e. drawing a card) you can lend your talent to a comrade to help him on his next turn. However one drawback is one bandit will slip past and may cause destruction if not caught before the end of the attack. Helping a friend is not something to be taken lightly. A samurai may receive talents from multiple other warriors, and thus may have one fantastic turn.

Every samurai also has a Kiai super power, which is triggered when the bandits' total strength (on his right side) exactly matches his limit. When this happens, the super power is triggered, and one oldest bandit card is discarded. This means the samurai may trigger the super power again if he later gets a new bandit with the right strength value.

When fighting bandits, it is hard to avoid getting hurt. Take two wounds, and the sense of danger will trigger a change in you, transforming you into an animal spirit form. In the animal form, you will be stronger, and your super power will become even better. After you have transformed, if you take two more wounds, your will transform again. Only this time it will be into a dead body, and everyone will lose the game.

The Play

I did a 6-player game, just one short of the max number of players. We played the normal difficulty. Most of us were new to the game. Only Ivan had played before, just once. We managed to go through the bandit deck all three times, but in the last wave too many bandits had slipped past our defenses. We already didn't have many houses remaining nor barricades to protect them. The bandits who made it to the village burnt it down several times over. It was a disaster. One thing I noticed was that by the third wave, many of us were still in human form. I think to survive the third wave we probably should have tried to transform into animal form by the second wave. The first and second wave felt like just warm-ups for the third wave. The third wave is where the climax is. That's where the real game is.

Throughout the game we kept telling each other that the key was to make use of our talents, to lend talents at the right time, and also to maximise using our super powers. However in practice it seems we didn't heed our own advice enough. Maybe making use of them is not as easy as it seems, or maybe we still hadn't figured out how to use them better or to better position ourselves to be able to use them.

The normal difficulty game feels quite hard! It may be because we haven't learnt the more subtle tricks yet. My gut feel is the difficulty level is balanced to be on the high side. Normal will only feel normal after you are very familiar with the game, and hard will be quite hard even when you are a veteran.

The Thoughts

In a way Samurai Spirit feels like a maths puzzle. The first thing I think of is on average every samurai needs to handle 7 grunts, 1 lieutenant and 1 boss (in the 3rd wave). Looking at your samurai, you know that's impossible without making good use of your talent and super power. So you need to find ways to improve your odds. It feels like a maths puzzle because the rules and simple and the things you get to do are all very straightforward. Your options and all the information in the game are presented very clearly. It feels like a simplistic game. However I think there is a subtle depth under the apparent simplicity. If you play mindlessly, it is easy to feel that your role is rather passive. Afterall you are mostly just drawing a card and then placing it on either the left or the right side of your samurai card, and once in a while you use your talent to do something else with it. There seems to be not much decision-making. However I feel that to do well, you need to set yourself up and set your teammates up for the best chances possible to utilise talents and super powers. There are such opportunities to watch out for. There are things you can do to prepare. Sometimes during our game when we pulled off such manoeuvres it felt very satisfying. We felt we had done something clever, and it paid off.

The combination of the samurai in play (who have different talents and super powers), and also the seating arrangement, will give the players different types of opportunities (or lack thereof). Some combinations will work better than others. Understanding this and being able to make the most of the strengths of the combos are key. I have only played one game, so I don't know whether it will only take a few more games to fully explore the subtleties, or many more. Since there are seven different samurai, and seating order does matter, chances are each game you play will be a little different.

I've lost my first game, and Samurai Spirit is a temptress dancing just out of reach, making me crave for another attempt.

Saturday, 17 January 2015

reviewer bias; game taster mood

Should a game review specify whether the game being reviewed is one the reviewer bought / asked for / sought out, or one that someone else suggested or was a review copy sent in cold by the publisher? To expect this caveat in every review sounds absurd. Where I am coming from though is the reviewer's personal bias. I wonder how that can be communicated. Readers can only grasp a reviewer's personal bias if they have been following him and paying attention for a long time. Sometimes they don't know it despite having read many reviews. For me, I only have vague ideas of what kind of games a few game reviewers like, from among the many reviewers whom I follow. I read too widely to remember who is who and who likes what. I wonder whether it's possible for a standalone review to communicate the reviewer's personal bias, so that the reader is better informed and reads the review in the right context.

Many times I am tempted to tell people not to trust me blindly, because I find that I tend to be biased towards the games I buy (or seek out to try etc) and against those others buy. The former almost always gets a positive impression while the latter more often than not gets a lukewarm response. This can be explained easily. Naturally I only buy or seek out games that I think I will like, so it is no surprise that I do end up liking them. And since I'm a jaded old fart of a boardgamer, most other games do tend to get automatically categorised as booooring or been-there-done-that by me.

When I play a game which I seek out to try, I am emotionally invested, because I have spent the effort reading about it, researching it, reading the rules and usually also making a rule summary for it. That adds to my personal bias. So. Don't trust me too completely. I don't trust myself entirely.

~~~~~

I find that I have been in a game taster mood lately. I think this is the after effect of Essen 2014. I normally don't consider myself a boardgamer who chases after the latest releases, but recently quite many at-least-moderately-interesting games have popped up in my boardgame circle, so I thought why not do some tasting around. I have been reading rules and making rules summaries slightly more than usual. I am enjoying this spurt of game tasting, and I'm quite content to play many of these games just once. Some of them are actually quite good, and deserve multiple plays. However it doesn't bother me too much that I may not play them again. This is contrary to my normal mantra - play fewer games and play them more times. Maybe it's just a phase which will pass, or a fancy that comes and goes.

I have been thinking about the current state of the boardgame industry, or at least boardgame as a hobby, to be like a pop industry. Many games are hot for a short time, and then forgotten. People quickly move on to the next new hotness. Boardgames are made to last many plays, and when you think of them being as short-lived as fireflies, it is hard not to feel sad. This tragedy probably applies only to hobbyists and not muggles. If you are a hobbyist, you will likely be paying attention to the many many many games that are being released every year. You want to try so many different titles, it results in you constantly jumping from one game to the next and never quite stopping or revisiting older games much. If you are a muggle, you will probably be content with just a handful of mass-market games and you get lots of plays from each game. Come to think of it, many muggles are already doing what I always tell myself to do.

One other way to look at the boardgame hobby is this: it can be a one-time consumption hobby, i.e. like watching movies or reading a book. In most cases you watch a movie or read a book just once. That one-time experience encapsulates all that the content creator wants you to see and feel. Now boardgame designers don't intend their creations to be just one-time affairs. Boardgames definitely have more replayability than books or movies. However, as a boardgame hobbyist, I don't think it's a sin being a taster. If you can afford it, and you are not hurting anyone (including yourself) in the process, who is to say what's the right way to enjoy your hobby?

Panamax. I quite like it and enjoyed my first game very much, but somehow I don't feel any hurry to play again or any urge to buy a copy.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Arkwright

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Arkwright is a heavy economic Eurogame with the industrial revolution in England as its setting. Players run factories, produce goods, and sell them to make money. At the start of the game you hold some shares of your company, and you sell some to the bank to get your starting funds. Throughout the game you can buy and sell your own company's shares from/to the bank. You increase your share price by doing good business. At the end of the game, your score is the value of the shares in your hand.

Selling goods is the most important thing you do, because it increases your share value. If you sell more than your competitors, you get a further boost. If your product has the highest desirability among all in the market, you get yet another boost. There are a few ways to increase the desirability of your products. You can upgrade your factory to produce a higher grade of product. You can improve the quality of your product. You can advertise. You can, of course, also lower the price. In terms of running your factory, you need to employ more workers if you want to produce more. You can install machinery to reduce your production cost, since they are cheaper to maintain than workers. One tricky thing about the employing fewer workers is if many people are unemployed, the market demand for your products will reduce too. The overall trend in the game is as your automate your factories, employ fewer workers and produce more goods, the market demand will gradually stagnate and even shrink, creating a more and more competitive market for everyone. This is what you have to contend with.

This is the player board. I have two factories - the clothes factory in the second row and the lamp factory in the fourth row.

This is the main game board. The top left section is the progress chart, marking the progress of the game and reminding the players of maintenance actions. The bottom left section is the actions chart. To execute an action you need to place your action tile here and pay accordingly. The central section is the desirability chart, which indicates how competitive the products of the various players are. The right section is the labour market from which players recruit workers. It is also at the same time the market demand chart. At the bottom right are the unemployed - workers who have been fired because their jobs are being done by machines now. Two of them will return to the labour market every round, which reduces the market demand for products.

These are the action tiles. You start with those in your player colour, and you may acquire the more powerful ones coloured greyish blue during the course of the game. From the top left: buy machines, buy/sell shares, buy machines (power version), improve quality (power version), recruit workers, advertise, build factory, improve quality.

The factories are the coloured square tiles. They are placed in the leftmost column. My clothes factory (white) has 1-2-1-/ written on it, which indicates how many units of clothing each of my departments can produce. I have two departments in operation, each staffed by two workers. So I am producing 3 units of clothing (1+2). I price my clothes at $8 (sorry, no Pound sign on my keyboard). My base quality is 9 (top right corner of my clothes factory tile). My quality is +2 (thumbs-up). My advertising is 0 (megaphone). The desirability of my clothing is calculated this way: 9 - 8 + 2 + 0 = 3.

At my lamp factory, two workers have now been replaced by machinery (wood coloured octagons).

There is as neutral goods producer in the game, representing low-grade goods competitors. This producer's goods are all of low desirability, but as the game progresses, the desirability steadily increases, creating an additional pressure on the players.

I played the game using beginner rules, which doesn't include technologies, events or overseas markets. I know there are such elements in the full game, but I don't know how they work.

The black cubes on the desirability chart belong to the neutral cheapskate factory. On the chart now, every product type is being produced by two players plus the neutral producer, thus three cubes in every column.

The Play

Allen, Heng, Henry and I did a 4-player game. We were all new to the game. Since we used the beginner rules, the first four rounds were predetermined. We raised funds and built factories following specific instructions. I think this made sure our game was balanced and we didn't make any stupid beginner moves which would make the game lopsided. The recommended setup ensured that for each product type there were two producers, so there was always competition.

The beginner game lasts four decades. With four rounds per decade, and the first decade being predetermined, that meant we only had 12 normal rounds remaining. 12 actions is very little, and every single one is precious.

I decided on a strategy at the start of the game. I went for the quantity over quality strategy. I wanted to buy shares often and early, while they were cheaper. Allen's big idea was to go for automation as much as possible. That would reduce his operating costs. I think both of us played with an experimentation mindset. We arbitrarily decided on a strategy, and stuck to it to see how well it worked. I didn't pay close attention to Heng or Henry's strategies, but I think they stayed more flexible, responding to the board situation more.

I didn't push my products' desirability much. I wanted to make money early so that I could buy more shares as early as possible. In hindsight I'm not sure if that was a good idea. The player with the most desirable product in each product type gets a bonus boost in share price. I had basically given up on that.

As the game progresses, you need to push the desirability of your products up to ensure you maintain competitiveness. Looks like Heng (yellow) is going the premium quality path.

Before reaching the middle of the game I could already see this game was a train heading for disaster. In the early game supply outstrips demand comfortably, but as the game progresses, you produce more, you employ fewer workers, and the demand eventually stops growing and starts shrinking. Everyone will be squeezed. The competition will become intense. Some people will be unable to sell all goods.

My approach in facing this dilemma was to stay small. I didn't want to ramp up production, because there was no point in spending more money to produce more goods when the goods were not selling. I upgraded my clothes factory, which allowed me to stay competitive till game end. I neglected my lamp factory though. Lamps are the highest end product in the game. I didn't invest much in my factory, intending to stay a small producer and being content as long as the low number produced could still sell out. Unfortunately in the last round Henry pushed his lamps' desirability so far above mine that I was unable to sell a single lamp. That killed me. I could not pay my workers and had to resort to selling shares. I could not increase my share price because I didn't sell anything. If I had run my lamp factory better I could have avoided such a disaster. I still think the buy-shares-early is a valid strategy though. My share price was not too far behind the others. If I had managed my lamp factory better I think I stood a chance of winning.

I have never upgraded my lamp factory (green). It is now obsolete, so I have to add two workers on its left, to represent higher maintenance costs. These two workers don't work, but they need to be paid. At this moment my factory is already automated as much as possible.

This is the progress chart. Each decade has four rounds, and in each round a different product is produced. We used the beginner rules for our game, so we only played 4 decades. We are now in the fourth decade (purple cube).

The Thoughts

Arkwright is a game I should like - "heavy", "economic", "Eurogame" are supposed to be a killer combo. I didn't enjoy my first game very much. We played for a long time. It is an open information game, and I think we played rather slowly. The game has a narrowing feeling. You see the crunch coming, and you desperately do all you can to survive. Sometimes that involves killing your competitors. Depending on how you look at it, it can be restrictive, or it can also be quite tense and exciting.

I found that by game end our share prices were not significantly different, and our final scores were not too far apart. I wonder whether the game railroaded us to move within a narrow margin. It might be because we used the beginner's rules. If we had more freedom in the setup stage, things may be different. Also the additional elements in the full game like the events, the technologies and the overseas markets may give more freedom and variability. More rounds in the full game will probably allow the game to develop more too. The beginner's game feels a little staid. We ourselves might be partly to blame. In our game none of us ventured to build a third factory. We were conservative. Two factories was already more than we could handle.

Arkwright has some similarities to Martin Wallace's Automobile, which I like a lot. Comparing them, I feel that Arkwright has some mechanisms which could have been simplified or done away with, without compromising the overall package. Automobile has randomness and hidden information in the market demand for cars. Players cannot precisely calculate how many cars will be sold, so sometimes you need to go by gut feel a little. That is part of the excitement. Arkwright is fully deterministic (at least the beginner game is) and may encourage analysis paralysis.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Patchwork

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

If your exposure to Uwe Rosenberg's games started with games like Agricola, Le Havre, and Caverna, you will be quite surprised with Patchwork, because it is something very different. Patchwork is a short, 2-player-only game. It is a light strategy game with a significant spatial element.

Both players start with a blank 9x9 board (see left of photo). You want to fill up your board as much as possible, using tiles bought from the centre of the table. Available tiles are arranged in a huge circular track (which takes up much space). A common pawn (see lower left of circle) is placed between two tiles in this circle, and will move clockwise. On a player's turn, he may buy one of the three tiles in front of the common pawn. The common pawn is then moved to the space vacated by the just-purchased tile.

The objective of the game is to have the most money, and the currency in the game is buttons. You spend buttons to buy tiles. Some tiles have buttons on them, and these tiles earn you buttons at specific points during the game. At end-game, you need to pay 2 buttons for each exposed space on your board. Whatever you have left is your final score.

This is the central board. It is a countdown device. The 2 players start from the outermost space and work their way inwards. The game ends when both player pawns reach the centre. Each step in this countdown track is one unit of time. When you buy tiles, you need to pay the cost in two currencies - buttons as well as time. Buttons is straight-forward. It's your main currency in the game. Paying the time cost means moving your player pawn on the central board, i.e. counting down.

The turn order mechanism is like Thebes and Tokaido. Whoever is behind on the time track goes next. It is possible to take two or more turns in a row, if your opponent is far ahead in front of you and you take small steps.

Two important things to take note of in this photo: (1) Whenever your player pawn passes one of the small 1x1 pieces, you claim it and use it to fill one space on your board. This is something you race for and try to manipulate your pawn movement to grab before your opponent can do so. (2) Whenever your player pawn passes one of the buttons, all the tiles with buttons on your personal board earn you buttons. This is how you get income, which you will need to buy more tiles.

When you can't afford to buy any of the three tiles in front of the common pawn, you have another option - you can spend time to gain buttons. You move your player pawn to the space exactly in front of your opponent, and gain a number of buttons according to how many steps you have moved. This happens quite frequently in the game I played.

This was my player board in the middle of the game. My income level was 9 - I had 9 buttons showing now on my board.

The Play

I played with Allen. Both of us were new to the game. The rules are quite simple. This is a flexible complexity game. If you want to think of all the possibilities when you make your move, you can. You can consider which of the three tiles available to you fits well on your board, whether there is one among them that your opponent wants and you should deny him, whether you are going to put the common pawn in a position favourable to your opponent after you buy a certain tile, and so on. If you want to play in a light and easy manner, you can too. You can play by gut feel and with minimal analysis. The decision you need to make on your turn is simple - spend buttons (and time) to buy a tile, or spend time to earn some buttons.

I noticed that Allen did do some tactical calculations, e.g. timing his move precisely so that he could grab one of those 1x1 tiles before I could, or so that he could take two consecutive turns. There are such clever moves that you can try to pull off. There are such small, interesting tactics in this seemingly simplistic game.

The tiles come in many different shapes, and many are quite large and unwieldy. It is quite challenging to fit them well on your player board. It is a fun puzzle to figure out from turn to turn.

The pawn always moves clockwise. The available tiles are the next three in its path.

This was my player board at the end of our game. I still had 9 empty spaces - 3 at the top left, 5 at the top right and 1 at the bottom right.

The Thoughts

I imagine Patchwork will work very well as a spouse game, i.e. when one spouse is a gamer and the other isn't. It's not long or complex, but it's challenging enough and it has some strategy. It's a cute package. It is a puzzle with a spatial element. Your circle of tiles will be different from game to game, so despite being an open information game, the game does not always progress in the same way. I think Patchwork will work well as a filler game too, and as a parent-child game with an older child. It is not a main course game, but it is a refreshing side dish.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Eight-Minute Empire

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

I wonder whether Eight-Minute Empire should be considered a microgame. It should at least qualify as a filler. It is a very shortened dudes-on-a-map game, but shortened doesn't necessarily mean overly simplified. You can't play this in 8 minutes, but once you are familiar, it is entirely possible to complete a 4-player game within half an hour.

The map is modular, you can arrange it in many different ways. We started our game with the capital in the central island, where most of our troops were amassed. We had an expeditionary force on another island, the one at the lower right. Most spaces have a token. Some tokens give bonuses. Some are face-down exploration tokens. You get to peek at it if you end your turn controlling the territory. You gain the benefit (or suffer the penalty) when you build a castle there.

The game is played over only 8 rounds. On your turn you pick one card from six from the table, and add it to your personal row. The card picked allows you to perform some actions, e.g. producing soldiers, transporting soldiers, killing enemies, building castles. Some cards also give you long-term benefits, e.g. enhancing future actions and giving bonus points. Your ultimate goal is to control territory, i.e. to have the most soldiers in the territory. Scoring is only done at game end. You score 1VP for every territory you control, 1VP for every island you control (i.e. you control the most territories on it), and you also score points for some tokens on the board and some cards you have collected.

Three turns in, and these were the cards I had collected. The upper bar shows the name of the card and any long-term benefits. The lower bar shows the action(s) you get to execute when picking it. Here are what the icons mean: Cubes mean producing soldiers, struck out cubes mean killing enemies, and cubes with an arrow mean transporting soldiers.

Wai Yan (purple) and Dith (grey) had each built a castle here. New soldiers are produced at castles or the capitol.

The Play

I did a 4-player game with Ivan, Dith and Wai Yan. It turned out the game played more like El Grande than Risk. It's actually an area majority game. Killing your enemies is not the most important thing. You just want to have more soldiers than them in as many territories as possible. Quite often in our game we begged for mercy promising that we were leaving soon anyway. The key decisions in the game are the 8 cards you pick. You need to consider what you want to do on the board, your long-term strategy (e.g. do you want to focus on producing many soldiers, or moving soldiers around more effectively, or scoring using a certain type of card), and also what cards your opponents may desperately want.

The game started with a turn order bid. I didn't know whether it was good or bad to go early, so I bid nothing. I ended up being the start player. In the later half of the game, I realised going first was not a good idea. It's an area majority game, so going early means others can see what you do and then react accordingly. I thought my board position was decent throughout most of the game, but in the late game I sensed disaster coming, and in the last round my world collapsed. I lost majority everywhere, and in the end I came dead last. I can't completely blame turn order though. I did make some (in hindsight) dubious decisions myself.

At this stage Ivan (white) had completely vacated the capitol. The rest of us were still partying on.

Towards the later part of the game, we had spread out to most corners of the map.

I had done 7 turns, and only had one last card to go. I think my choice of long-term powers was poor (i.e. icons in the upper bar of my cards). I focused on collecting blue crystals, which was something used for game-end scoring. In hindsight, I probably should have collected abilities that let me produce more soldiers or move more soldiers. Having the most blue crystals only gave me 2VP eventually.

The Thoughts

Eight-Minute Empire is more an area-majority game (like El Grande) than a dudes-on-a-map game (like Risk, Axis & Allies, Cyclades). You don't get to do whatever you want. You can only pick actions from among the six cards available. The game is less about attacking and destroying. It is more about simply having more men than others in as many territories as possible. It is also a tableau game like Race for the Galaxy, San Juan and Imperial Settlers. Throughout the game you are building a tableau of cards, and you want to make sure they jive with one another. I wonder whether the recent hot game Deus feels like this. It is also about building a tableau of cards, and the cards you pick determine what you get to do on the board.

I find I keep repeating that I don't like area-majority games. I want to be fair to the games I write about, so I feel the need to state my personal bias. The selling point of Eight-Minute Empires seems to be its shortness. Even the title reflects that. Shortness is not an important criteria for me personally, so it doesn't draw me. I'm perfectly happy to play a longer dudes-on-a-map game, or a more complex card tableau game.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Tragedy Looper

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A tragedy has just occurred (usually someone is dead). You have a time machine and you can reset time back to before the tragedy. You want to prevent the tragedy. However there is a mastermind orchestrating the whole business, and despite your best efforts, things still go wrong and the tragedy still occurs. You can reset time again using the time machine, but you can only do this a limited number of times. Your objective is to simply prevent the tragedy. Failing that, after the tragedy repeats for the last time, you have one chance to guess the secret roles of every character in the game. If you get this 100% correct, you win a marginal victory.

In Tragedy Looper, one to three players play the protagonists who need to prevent the tragedy from happening. One other player plays the mastermind, who needs to trigger the tragedy loop after loop. The game plays for a predetermined number of loops, each loop starting at the same point in time, and having a fixed number of days, unless the tragedy occurs early. One day corresponds to one round, in which the mastermind gets to play three cards face-down on three characters and/or locations, and then the protagonists get to do the same (but not necessarily on the same three characters / locations). The cards are revealed simultaneously and resolved by the mastermind. The mastermind and the protagonists get to use the characters' special abilities where possible and if desired. Finally the mastermind checks for whether an anticipated incident occurs. That's all there is to a round - card play, triggering character abilities, and triggering an incident if applicable.

The game from the perspective of the mastermind - upside down. The board consists of four locations. There are only six characters in play in this learning scenario.

Here are what you can do with the cards. You may move a character from one location to another. The protagonists may increase the goodwill level of a character. When the goodwill level of a character reaches a certain value, the protagonists may use his or her goodwill ability, which is usually useful to the protagonists. The mastermind may play cards to increase the paranoia level or the intrigue level of a character or a location. When a character reaches a certain paranoia level, if he happens to be the culprit of an incident, the mastermind can trigger this incident. A high-enough intrigue level can also allow bad things to happen, depending on the scenario being played. The protagonists and the mastermind have cards that prevent the other side from manipulating the goodwill, paranoia and intrigue levels of the characters and locations. The tricky thing is sometimes you may end up wasting a card play trying to prevent something which your opponent is not trying to do in the first place. Movement can be tricky too. When both sides try to move a character to a different destination, he will end up going to the third unexpected location.

Four characters are at the hospital now - the shrine maiden, the office worker, the doctor and the patient. There are now two goodwill tokens on the doctor, which means the protagonists can trigger one of his character abilities. There is one paranoia token on the patient. His paranoia limit is two. If he gets another paranoia token, and if he is the culprit of an incident, he will be able to trigger the incident.

Some of the mastermind's cards.

How does the deduction come into play? Everyone gets this one reference sheet which lists down all the possible plots, subplots, incidents and roles in the game. In each scenario, only a small number of plot, subplot and incidents are in play. They determine what secret roles are in the scenario, and also what constitutes a tragedy. The mastermind knows exactly which plot and subplot are in effect, and which character has which secret role. The protagonists do not know these, but they have the full list of possibilities. They do know the incidents which are in play and the days on which they may occur, but they do not know who the culprits are, i.e. who are the characters who can trigger the incidents by reaching a certain paranoia level. The mastermind needs to make use of the plot, subplot, incidents and secret roles in the game to trigger the tragedy loop after loop till the end of the game. The protagonists need to work out all this information so that they can use it to prevent the tragedy. When bad things happen, the mastermind only needs to tell the protagonists that they have happened, but need not explain who triggered it or which incident led to it. These are for the protagonists to figure out from reviewing all the possibilities on the reference sheet. Throughout each loop, the protagonists need to try different things so that they can gather as much information as possible, which will help them in the next loop, and hopefully eventually help them completely divert the flow of events from the tragedy.

This is the reference sheet that you need to mull over. It lists the possible plots and subplots in play, the possible secret roles in play and their abilities, and details of the expected incidents. This page is for learning scenarios. The other side is for standard scenarios and is more complex.

The mastermind has a challenging job. In his storyteller role, he is responsible for making sure all the rules are played right and effects applied correctly. A small mistake can completely invalidate the deductions made by the protagonists and spoil the game. In his game player role, the mastermind needs to make sure the protagonists lose every single time. This becomes increasingly difficult as the protagonists learn more about the scenario and start taking steps to preempt the various events that lead up to the tragedy.

Some of the characters. The rich man's daughter (middle) has a paranoia level of 1 (top left number) which means she goes bonkers quite easily. The boss (right) on the other hand is a cool guy and only becomes vulnerable to the mastermind when his paranoia level hits four.

The Play

I bought a copy of the game and brought it to Boardgamecafe.net. Coincidentally Ivan had also bought a copy and brought his copy. We had both expected to teach others to play, and to play mastermind for the first learning scenario. Since we both knew the solution to the first scenario, we could not both be in the same game playing this scenario. One of us would be a protagonist. So we decided to play the second scenario instead. I played the mastermind while he led the team of protagonists. Our other two protagonists were Dith and Wai Yan.

We started off a little clumsily. I had forgotten that some of the characters were not allowed at certain locations. E.g. the patient was not allowed to leave the hospital at all. When I played a movement card on him, I wasted one valuable action. The card had no effect. Scenario 2 had 4 loops, and each loop had at most 5 days. I was a little sloppy and hadn't planned ahead carefully how to defeat the protagonists in each loop. Baaad idea. Lesson learnt - it is not easy to improvise a clean murder plan on the spot. In one of the early loops, I allowed the protagonists to last all the way to the fifth day. That was too much information leaked to them. Was I mastermind or masterfoot?! As they learned more, it became harder and harder for me to get things going. They knew who the culprits were and made sure I didn't place enough paranoia tokens on them. They knew the danger locations and made sure I didn't place enough intrigue tokens on them. I tried to feint, placing paranoia tokens and intrigue tokens on unimportant characters and locations, but I wasn't sure whether they fell for it. I had to keep a straight face and nod thoughtfully no matter how they teased me.

Not only the protagonists needed to examine the reference sheet meticulously to look for possibilities. As the mastermind I too had to read it carefully to make sure that the feints I made made sense. If they didn't make sense the protagonists would easily see through them. As the mastermind I must try to keep the possibilities open. If a bad event could be caused by many different things, that was good. That meant the protagonists still had much work to do to narrow things down. It is a dilemma when deciding whether to make use of a powerful character ability or a powerful event. These can help you quickly trigger the tragedy, but they can also give away much information. It is not easy being the villain!

As the third loop dragged on, I started to get more and more uneasy. Ivan, Dith and Wai Yan had worked out many details. They knew who to watch out for, which locations to guard. They had even forced me to reveal the secret role of one of the characters. Thankfully his was only a minor role. Still, this was very useful to them because they had one less character to worry about. As I combed the reference sheet desperately for other ways to trigger the tragedy, I suddenly realised I had missed out the special ability of one of the secret roles in the game. It was a very handy power which I had neglected thus far. I used it, and successfully triggered the tragedy for the third loop. Now was the critical moment, the final loop. If Ivan, Dith and Wai Yan could figure out what I had done in the third loop, they would be able to easily prevent me from applying the same technique in the last loop. There were other ways I could try to trigger the tragedy, but they were not easy to pull off. Even if the protagonists didn't work out what I had done in the third loop, if they inadvertently rearranged the positions of the characters on the board, I might miss the opportunity to make use of that character whom I used in the third loop. It was a nail-biting moment for me.

They didn't figure it out! I pulled the same move on them, and then crumbled in relief. I did it! I was lucky. My oversight of this particular role's ability had diverted the protagonists' attention away from it. If I had made use of it earlier, I would surely have aroused their suspicion. It was an "Ahah!" moment for them when I explained what had happened.

There are some face-up action cards next to the board. These are powerful single-use-per-loop cards. Once used, they are set aside face-up until the start of the next loop.

Wai Yan, observer, Dith and Ivan. Mr Observer had played this scenario before, and when he saw my situation, he understood how precarious it was.

The Thoughts

I had a great first session with Tragedy Looper. It's a deduction game so when playing as a protagonist you need to do a lot of logical thinking and investigative reasoning. It's a complex puzzle to figure out. I imagine this type of gameplay may not be interesting for everyone. One thing good about the investigation you are doing here is it is an urgent, live situation. You are not a detective arriving at a crime scene where clues are laid out for your leisurely examination. You are thrown into the middle of a crisis and the clock is ticking while you try to gather clues and prevent the tragedy. You need to remember that your ultimate goal is to prevent the tragedy, not to completely solve the case. It is possible to save the day without working out all the details. Events can unfold rather differently from loop to loop, so you need to be on your toes, trying to guess the intention of the mastermind.

If playing as the mastermind, I think it is roughly half about executing a script, and half about participating as a competitor. You do know the plot and subplot in play, and the secret roles in play. They are your arsenal of weapons to trigger the tragedy. Playing the mastermind well means you need to prepare well, planning ahead how to defeat the protagonists in each loop, and preparing response actions for situations that may come up. If you do all these, it can feel like you are just a storyteller following predetermined procedures. However it is not possible to anticipate all the protagonists' moves, so you still need to stay flexible and you still need to react to what they do. You need to know when to fall back to Plan B (or C, or D). You can be better prepared than the protagonists because you have more information. You should make use of this advantage. You want to give the protagonists a good challenge.

I like how the tension builds up for both the protagonists and the mastermind as the game progresses. The protagonists get more nervous because they are gradually running out of loops to try to prevent the tragedy. The mastermind gets more jittery because he is gradually running out of options to defeat the protagonists. The protagonists are learning and are preempting his moves better and better with each new loop.

The game comes with 2 learning scenarios and 8 standard scenarios. I've seen the solutions to the first two, so there are eight more to go for me. If I get eight more plays out of this game that would already be worth the money. There are more scenarios that can be found on the internet, and hopefully in an expansion. There is already an expansion in Japanese for the original Japanese version of the game. I now look forward to playing Tragedy Looper again, this time as a protagonist.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

my 2014

2014 has just ended. It's always fun to look back at what I've played throughout the year, and remember the happy times spent with friends and family. I'm going to skip the long boring lists, stats and charts this time. Let's start with what I have played in 2014.

What I Played

I've had 763 plays of 132 distinct games. That's higher than the previous year. These are my fives and dimes.

  1. Ascension (483 plays in 2014) - Ascension, my LRT (train) game, has surpassed Race for the Galaxy to become my most played game, at 836 plays in total. I have 762 plays of Race for the Galaxy. The next is Dominion at a distant third - 314 plays. All my Ascension plays are on the iOS. I have not played the physical copy once. I own all the expansions on the iOS. The latest one, Realms Unraveled is quite interesting. I bought it only recently. Many crazy powerful cards. Also it contains cards which transform when specific conditions are met.

    Ascension with the Realms Unraveled expansion.


  2. Escape: The Curse of the Temple (18) - Most were played with Shee Yun (9). I bought it with its two expansions because younger daughter (Chen Rui, 8) asked for it, but in the end it was Shee Yun and I who played it the most. It's a good family activity. It can be quite challenging when you add in the more difficult modules.

    Escape: The Curse of the Temple

  3. PitchCar (12) - Another fun family game, and a dexterity game. Allen lent me his set, and it turned out to be pleasant surprise.

    PitchCar

  4. Android: Netrunner (9) - I think I have more or less given up on it. It's a lifestyle game which takes commitment to truly enjoy. It's not something you can play casually, in my opinion. To quote Yoda, it's a "do or do not" thing - there is no "try". I still hold on to my base set and first expansion cycle, hoping for the day that I will jump back in. It would be rediscovering the game all over again.
  5. Loopin' Louie (9)
  6. Chicken Cha Cha Cha (8)
  7. Pickomino (8)
  8. Love Letter (8)
  9. Templar Intrigue (8) - All played in the same sitting. A game where you play the people. You need to be able to act, and you need to lie convincingly.
  10. Race for the Galaxy (7) - The new mechanisms in the Alien Artifacts expansion felt clunky, and I didn't like them. Maybe I should just play with the new cards but without the alien artifact module itself.
  11. Spot It (7)
  12. Mat Goceng (7)
  13. Uno (5)

Most of the games above are short games played with the children. Let's look at another way of measuring - by time spent:

  1. Ascension (483 plays, 241.5hrs)
  2. Robinson Crusoe (4 plays, 8hrs) - I quite like it. I still have not played all six scenarios in the base game.
  3. Paths of Glory (1 play, 8hrs) - Finally, I managed to get this played. It has been sitting on my shelf for a few years. Allen and I did not manage to complete the game, but we did manage to get about halfway. So we managed to get a good feel of this classic. It is a little daunting, especially because of the many rules exceptions. However the basic structure and rules are not very complex, and if you put some effort into understanding why the exceptions are there (they are all for historical reasons), it all makes good sense. I encourage anyone on the fence on this game to take the plunge. It is a rewarding experience.

    Paths of Glory, a classic wargame about World War I.

  4. Android: Netrunner (9 plays, 6.75hrs)
  5. Axis & Allies 1914 (1 play, 6hrs)
  6. Civilization (1 play, 5hrs) - It was good to bring this out again. We did a 5-player game. It was epic. Disasters abounded. We crashed and burned. But all in an epic manner.

    My fellow Civilization players who stayed up with me until 4:30am - Kareem, Jeff, Damien and Ivan.

  7. Escape: The Curse of the Temple (18 plays, 4.5hrs)
  8. Agricola (3 plays, 4.5hrs)
  9. PitchCar (12 plays, 4hrs)
  10. Glass Road (4 plays, 4hrs)
  11. A Brief History of the World (2 plays, 4hrs)
  12. Sekigahara (2 plays, 4hrs) - I finally won for the first time in forever. I love this game.
  13. Roads & Boats (1 play, 4hrs) - This has all the Splotter trademarks. If you like Splotter games, you'll like it. Do be warned that it is tedious. And it's strategic, and long, and unforgiving, and unapologetic.
  14. Indonesia (1 play, 4hrs) - Played on Sloth Ninja, 4 players. It took months to complete our game. I should play this face-to-face.
  15. Race for the Galaxy (7 plays, 3.5hrs)
  16. Mat Goceng (7 plays, 3.5hrs)
  17. Die Macher (1 play, 3.5hrs) - It was great to revisit this classic. I had hoped to do a full 5P game, but we only managed to do 4P. Still, it was a good session. I have been enjoying organising these longer, heavier and more fulfilling game sessions in 2014.

    Die Macher

  18. Le Havre (2 plays, 3hrs)
  19. Heroes of Normandie (2 plays, 3hrs)
  20. Age of Steam (2 plays, 3hrs)
  21. Wilderness War (1 play, 3hrs) - This was one of my record holders for longest unplayed game - about 10 years. The setting is a rarely used one in boardgames, and I find it quite interesting. It is a card-driven game, and it tells a good story.

    Wilderness War, about the French-Indian War - Britain and France fighting for supremacy in North America, prior to the birth of USA and Canada.

  22. Level 7 [Omega Protocol] (1 play, 3hrs) - This was a very memorable game session. We had a 4-vs-1 game. I was on the good guys' team. I didn't have to teach or manage the scenario as the game master, so I could sit back and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it was.

    Level 7 [Omega Protocol]

  23. Cuba Libre (1 play, 3hrs) - So much story and character in this game!

The One-Long-Game-A-Month Exercise

One thing I did in 2014 was to plan ahead to play one game which was hard to bring to the table every month. The game selected was not necessarily a very long one. I just compiled a list of games I wanted to play, which I had not played for a long time. Some games were difficult to bring out because they needed a specific player count and a long play time, i.e. something you needed to plan ahead for. Some games were difficult to arrange to play because of the rules complexity and the need to prepare beforehand. This exercise worked out quite well for me, and I managed to play quite a few games which I otherwise would not have played till now. I didn't manage to make it every single month, but I'm happy enough with the results. Here are the games I managed to play thanks to this conscious effort.

  1. Paths of Glory (first play)
  2. Roads & Boats (first play)
  3. Axis & Allies 1914 (first play)
  4. Wilderness War (first play)
  5. Francis Tresham's Civilization
  6. Die Macher
  7. Hammer of the Scots
  8. Axis & Allies Guadalcanal
  9. Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan

I had hoped to play again A Few Acres of Snow, Antiquity and a 5-player game of Age of Steam, but unfortunately these didn't work out. Here's hoping for 2015.

Game Acquisitions

Here are the games added to my collection in 2014. #1 to #8 are all gifts from Allen. Thanks, bro!

  1. Glory to Rome - This black box edition is a grail game and I am one lucky gamer.
  2. Plato 3000
  3. Templar Intrigue - A microgame.
  4. Coin Age - A microgame.
  5. Burgoo - A microgame.
  6. This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us - A microgame. Yet to play.
  7. Town Center - Yet to play the expansion maps.
  8. Tooth & Nail: Factions - Yet to play.
  9. Mat Goceng - A review copy.
  10. Love Letter - A self-made copy with an Adventure Time theme. I had more fun with it than I expected. Good for playing with children.
  11. The Palaces of Carrara - A very decent Kramer / Kiesling game. Pacing is very important.
  12. Bottle Imp - This is an old game and a good trick-taking game. Just before the year ended, I decided I wanted a copy in my collection. This is the kind of game purchase that I want me to be doing. Don't impulse-buy. Don't get easily attracted to the new and shiny. Buy something that has stood the test of time, something that you still like after the novelty has worn off and the hype has died down. Good boy.
  13. Tragedy Looper - I quite enjoyed this. 1 play so far. A deduction game, and something very different. The anime / manga graphic style is not my thing, but the gameplay is good. This game set my heart racing. It can be very tense.
  14. Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifact - I bought it because I'm a fan of the series.
  15. Escape: The Curse of the Temple - I bought it because Chen Rui (8) asked for it.
  16. Escape: The Curse of the Temple, Quests expansion - Ditto.
  17. Escape: The Curse of the Temple, Illusions expansion - Ditto.
  18. Android Netrunner: Trace Amount - I wanted to complete expansion cycle 1.
  19. Android Netrunner: Cyber Exodus - Ditto.
  20. Android Netrunner: A Study in Static - Ditto.

I have considered buying Panamax. I quite like it. I still haven't made up my mind. Maybe I'll leave a quota slot for it in 2015. Another game I have thought about buying is A Few Acres of Snow. I do like it a lot. Mythotopia doesn't interest me because of the generic setting.

New-to-Me Games

  1. Paths of Glory (first played on 16 Feb)
  2. Love Letter (18 Feb)
  3. Okiya (28 Feb)
  4. Roads & Boats (7 Mar)
  5. Quarriors! (12 Mar) - Didn't like it.
  6. Nations (14 Mar) - A decent civ game which should not be compared to Through the Ages but unfortunately everyone is doing it.
  7. Axis & Allies 1914 (16 Mar) - Jeff and Heng thought this was the best in the series. I thought it was good, but didn't feel it was exceptional. We did have a great full-day session with it though.

    Axis & Allies 1914

  8. Napoleon (25 Mar) - An oldie, but a decent one.
  9. Shadow Hunters (28 Mar)
  10. A Brief History of the World (29 Mar)
  11. Wilderness War (4 Apr)
  12. Kashgar (11 Apr)
  13. UGO (11 Apr)
  14. Duel of Ages II (2 May)
  15. Cuba Libre (27 Jun)
  16. VivaJava: The Dice Game (18 Jul)
  17. Istanbul (18 Jul) - Didn't click with me.
  18. PitchCar (28 Jul)
  19. Plato 3000 (2 Aug)
  20. Heroes of Normandie (15 Aug)
  21. Wildcatters (22 Aug) - A game about the oil industry. It has character. The only pity is it heavily uses area majority, which is a mechanism I personally don't like. If you don't have an unusual dislike for area majority, check it out.
  22. The Palaces of Carrara (16 Sep)
  23. Las Vegas (16 Sep) - A fun and interactive game. Low to medium complexity. Very clever.
  24. Mord im Arosa (16 Sep)
  25. Terra Mystica (19 Sep) - Finally I understand why the fuss. It's a decent game.
  26. The Builders: Middle Ages (19 Sep)
  27. Take It Easy (21 Sep)
  28. Dragon Parade (21 Sep)
  29. Bananagrams (21 Sep)
  30. Level 7 [Omega Protocol] (26 Sep)
  31. Coin Age (28 Sep) - I still don't understand the fuss, and I'm now too lazy to bother.
  32. Mat Goceng (28 Sep) - I like this secret identity game from Indonesia. I think it works best with 4 or 5 players. Unfortunately it didn't click with the folks I usually game with.
  33. Templar Intrigue (3 Oct)
  34. Legacy: The Testament of Duke de Crecy (16 Oct) - An enjoyable game in which you build a family tree.
  35. Impulse (17 Oct) - A Carl Chudyk design which warrants more exploration.
  36. Glass Road (24 Oct)
  37. Burgoo (26 Oct)
  38. El Gaucho (31 Oct)
  39. The Staufer Dynasty (7 Nov)
  40. Panamax (7 Nov) - A game I like a lot. Something different. Something not run-of-the-mill.
  41. Imperial Settlers (14 Nov) - I prefer the older, less pretty and less polished 51st State. I sound like a grumpy old man waving my walking stick and going, "Back in my days we had a proper 51st State!"
  42. Genji (5 Dec)
  43. Historia (12 Dec)
  44. Tragedy Looper (19 Dec)
  45. Eight-Minute Empire (19 Dec)

I don't have any clear favourites among these new-to-me games. Here are some that I like: Paths of Glory, Wilderness War, Panamax, Tragedy Looper, Roads & Boats.

Other Thoughts

I am glad to have revisited: Hammer of the Scots, Die Macher, Civilization, The Message: Emissary Crisis, En Garde, Axis & Allies Guadalcanal, Amun-Re.

I hope to revisit in 2015: Clash of Cultures, The Great Zimbabwe, Le Havre, Automobile, Brass, A Few Acres of Snow.

I have played quite a fair bit of Hearthstone on the iPad, but I don't count it as a boardgame, so I don't keep detailed records. I consider Hearthstone the first time that I have really got into a collectible card game. I have played a few hundred games I think. Being on the iPad and having such a wide player base make playing it very convenient. I quite like the game. I have now stopped, only booting it up once in a long while. It has been satisfying to get a little into the metagame level of a CCG. I'm not a strong player, reaching at most Level 17 or so (bottom level is Level 25), but I have had fun.

I Kickstarted the digital version of Twilight Struggle on the iOS, because one word - Playdek. Hopefully this will be delivered in Mar 2015.

I still mainly play at the open gaming sessions organised by Jeff and Wai Yan at Boardgamecafe.net, and at Allen's place (all those photos with a yellow tint). Sometimes I play at home with my children Shee Yun (9) and Chen Rui (8). In 2014, Shee Yun had 105 plays of 43 distinct games, both slightly lower than 2013. In addition to many rounds of Escape, we also played Robinson Crusoe together, which was fun. Her most played games were Escape, PitchCar and Love Letter. Chen Rui had 113 plays of 40 distinct games, both these were higher than 2013. Her most played games were PitchCar, Love Letter and Loopin' Louie. Her favourite games include Pickomino, Chicken Cha Cha Cha and Barbarossa (the clay-sculpting and guessing game, not some wargame on Operation Barbarossa).

My wife Michelle played much less in 2014 - 33 plays of 20 distinct games. Most played: Race for the Galaxy and Mat Goceng (because Chen Rui likes it and it needs a 4th player to be more fun). Michelle used to be my #1 gaming buddy, but has been gradually drifting away from boardgames. Her preferred pastime is reading.

I still spend much of my hobby time on blogging - 85 posts at this blog in 2014, and 81 posts at my Chinese boardgame blog. Some posts that I like:

I don't have anything profound or new to say for 2014. It has been a good year of gaming for me personally. In particular I am quite pleased with having planned for and managing to play a few classics and a few longer strategic games. I continue to fall behind in chasing after the latest releases, but I don't really mind. I don't worry about the ones that got away. You can't catch them all. It's not worth the effort when many excellent games are still sitting around waiting to be played. I still have not played Russian Railroads (DSP winner + IGA winner + KdJ recommended), which I do have some interest to try at least once. I do get plenty of opportunities to try out new games because of the friends I game with. I always have topics for my blog lined up, and I savour taking time to think about and to write about the games I play.

Here's wishing everyone a great 2015 ahead - with plenty of games to play, and plenty of friends to play them with.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Historia

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Historia is a streamlined and abstracted civ game. It is rather different from other civ games that I have played. It takes a rather different approach in its game mechanisms. The outcome is a medium weight game which still gives you the satisfaction of watching your civilisation progress from the ancient age to the modern age.

The game is played over three ages of four rounds each. The length of a game round varies depending on the players' card play. Everyone simultaneously picks between 1 to 3 action cards to play (depending on his tech level), then reveals the chosen cards, and then in player order executes all the actions. Cards played are added to your personal queue, and you won't get them back until the end of the round or until you make use of certain special abilities. This card play continues until someone picks the revolution action card, after which the round will end, and you do the round-end scoring and maintenance activities.

The card on the left is an advisor card, which is basically a special version action card. The others are all action cards, which are the core of the game. The icons on the top right corner indicate the card type. The two rows of icons at the bottom of each action card show the effects of the card. The first row is the standard effect, and the second row is the advanced effect, which is only available after you reach a specific tech level.

Your nation is represented by very few things. The game board is mostly a progress chart on which you mark your nation's military strength and technological level. Your nation's position along the X-axis is its tech level, and its position along the Y-axis is its military strength. This means both of these aspects of your nation are linear - no complex tech tree or counting of military units and their individual strengths. The position of your nation on the progress chart has a third meaning - your form of government. This gives a bonus at the end of every round. So one marker on the progress chart tells you three things about your nation.

Two thirds of the game board is the progress chart.

This is the clock. One full cycle is one age, and the four sections represent the four rounds within an age. All those icons are reminders for things you need to do at the end of a round. They may look intimidating at first, but after doing the round-end procedure once you will be able to easily remember what they mean.

The physical aspect of your nation is represented on the small world map which takes up only a quarter of the game board. You may place cubes here to stake your claim on territory. Controlling territory lets you score points. Being adjacent to other nations lets you learn technology from them. If you are militarily stronger, you may also attack them or raid them. Battles are deterministic. There is no defending. When two nations coexist in one territory, the stronger one may spend an action to kill one cube of the weaker one. The cube is not lost forever. It just goes to the used pool. It can be refreshed and then returned to play.

The map is small and simple. The victory point value of each territory is randomly determined at the start of the game. This gives some variability. Han (yellow) started his empire in Siberia (4VP), I (green) started mine in the Middle East, and Allen (blue) started his in South East Asia. No one had expanded to the Americas yet because we had yet to learn Navigation.

There is only one resource to manage - cubes. They represent your people and their efforts. You spend cubes to advance your technology level, you spend cubes to strengthen your military, you spend cubes to build wonders of the world, and you spend cubes to claim territory. Spent cubes go to a used pool. They need to be refreshed before they can be used again.

You grow and advance your empire via card play. Ultimately the aim is to score points. Leader cards for each age give you objectives. If you meet the objectives, you score bonus points. Many other aspects in the game give points, e.g. battles, raids, certain government forms, controlling territory, making use of wonders. At the end of the third age, whoever scores the most points wins.

The card at the top left is my leader for Age 2 - Napoleon. If you fulfill the criteria listed, you score points. However the leader card itself doesn't grant any special ability. The beige coloured cards are my wonders. Notice the use of icons here. Once you understand the convention, the icons are easy to understand and to read.

The Play

Han, Allen and I did a 3-player game. Knowing the sharks that they were, I went military all the way throughout the game. I was militarily strongest for most of the game. I didn't bully them much. I probably should have done so more, exploiting my advantage. When I had free time I tried to improve my tech level. I didn't manage to keep up with them in building wonders of the world though. To a large extent it is the wonders which define your civilisation and make it unique. After all, military and tech are both very linear matters, and there is not much spatial play on the map.

We were constantly improving our nations, while at the same time maximising our scoring opportunities. More scoring opportunities came along when the second age arrived, and we had to make sure we kept up. There were a few ways to score points, so we had some leeway to decide how we wanted to score.

A 3-player game in play.

At this point we had maxed out our military levels. I (green) was two steps ahead of Han and Allen in tech level.

The Thoughts

Historia takes a rather different approach to civ games. It streamlines a lot and abstracts a lot, but what I find interesting about it is not how it simplifies, but how it uses a different way to represent your civilisation. It is a medium weight game, so don't expect the epic feeling like when you play Through the Ages, Francis Tresham's Civilization, Sid Meier's Civilization or Nations. However it does allow you to see your empire progress from the ancient age to the modern age within a regular game night, comfortably. I suspect the game will be more interesting with more players. Three players seemed to be unexciting, but that might be because we all went into military escalation mode, limiting our own options.