Sunday, 22 July 2018

Clans of Caledonia

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Caledonia is the what the Romans called the area of Scotland. I had to look this up. In Clans of Caledonia, you play competing clans, each developing its own farming and manufacturing industry. This is a development game and a resource production and conversion game. Eventually you convert all your efforts to victory points. It has a strong spatial element, and a little bit of supply and demand mechanism. It's a medium weight strategy game, leaning towards the heavier side.

The game board is made up of four large pieces. They are double sided so there quite many combinations you can play with. There are rivers and lakes dividing the land into sections. During the game you want to have settlements in many sections, because there is an end-game scoring for settlements. You will need to attain certain levels of technology to be able to expand your settlements across rivers and lakes.

The five shields on the left side of this scoring board represent the five rounds in the game. These shields are randomly set up before the game starts, and each shield specifies a round-specific scoring. E.g. every two processed goods scores 3 points. The square tiles at the centre are the contracts. These are refilled at the start of every round. You may claim a contract and then later fulfill it by supplying the goods required. The contract indicates the rewards. The most common rewards are imported goods - cotton, sugar cane, tobacco and hops. These are worth points at game end. Normally you can only hold one contract. You need to fulfill it before claiming a new one.

This is the market board, which shows the prices of the locally produced goods. If anyone buys such goods (from the bank), the price goes up. If anyone sells, the price drops. To buy or sell, you need to use merchants - those cubes. Used merchants are placed here to indicate which goods you have bought or sold. Within the same round, you cannot buy something you've sold earlier, and you cannot sell something you've bought earlier. Merchants are returned to your hand at the end of the round.

The two tiles are a starting resource tile and a clan tile. They are set up randomly, and you draft them before the game starts. The unique ability of the Campbell clan is they build factories for processed goods at a discount. The more of the same factory type you build, the bigger the discount.

This is your player board. These columns of pieces are your production facilities. You needs to spend money to build them, i.e. place them on the main board. The first column is sheep farms, they produce wool every round. The second column is cattle farms, which produce milk. Both these farms can produce mutton or beef too, but you need to slaughter your animals, and thus have to remove the farms from the map. No more wool or milk next round. The third column is cheese factories. Each converts one milk to one cheese every round. The fifth column is grain fields. Each produces two grains per round. The fourth column is bakeries, which convert grain to bread, and the sixth column is breweries, which convert grain to beer. The two rightmost columns are your workers - woodcutters and miners respectively. When you build a woodcutter's hut or a mine, it makes money for you every round. Regular factories must be built on plains, while woodcutter's huts must be built in forests, and mines on mountains.

The cubes along the bottom row are merchants. You can spend money to train more, i.e. move them off the board to become available for use. The helm piece indicates your shipping technology. You need to improve this tech if you want to expand your settlements across rivers and lakes. The two small tiles at the bottom right are techs you can spend money to improve too. They increase the income from woodcutters and miners.

This player reference card lists all the actions you can do. Every round the players take turns performing one action at a time, until everyone passes. Many actions cost money. As your funds dry up for the round, you will soon run out of actions you can do, and will be forced to pass.

Random ports are set up at the four corners of the map before the game starts. Ports give single-use bonuses if you connect to them. You connect to a port by building right next to it, or near enough such that your shipping tech is high enough to connect your building with it. Once you use a port bonus, you place your marker on the port to indicate so, like in this photo. The bonus of this particular port is a simple $10 income.

This port at the bottom right lets you swap two of your production facilities with something else (except grain fields).

Constructing buildings is expensive. You not only have to pay for the building itself, you also need to pay for the land. The land price is shown on the map. Hexes with many terrain types are expensive, because you can build anything on them. Hexes with just one terrain type are cheap.

The main flow in the game is building production facilities, producing goods, converting goods, and eventually fulfilling contracts, thus gaining imported goods which are worth points at game end. There is also a cycle of generating income to fuel your production. You spend money on woodcutter's huts and mines so that you can make more money in the future. During the game there are ways to score points. The round-specific scoring can give many points and is something you want to plan for. At game end, in addition to the imported goods, there are two other major ways of scoring. Firstly, you compete in the number of contracts fulfilled. The player who does best scores the most, and others score less. Secondly, you compete in the number of settlements you have. A settlement is a group of connected buildings. Rivers and lakes break up settlements, so if a connected group is split by a river, that group is considered two separate settlements.

One interesting aspect of this settlement competition is the sheep farms and cattle farms. When one such farm is removed because you decide to slaughter the animals for meat, it may cause a settlement to break into two. For game end scoring purposes, this can be a good thing. It is possible to specifically plan for such a thing.

The Play

Allen and Han. Han was in town, and we had planned to meet up to play together well ahead of time. He brought the game and taught us to play.

During game setup everyone gets to start two settlements. Right from the get go you need to think about your board positioning. This greatly affects the rest of your game. Will you have space to expand? Are you near ports? What are the terrain types and land costs nearby? Will you get hemmed in by your opponents? And so on and so forth. There is a rule in the game which allows you to trade at lucrative prices whenever you build next to an opponent. This is an incentive for players to build near one another, and results in competition and tension. I played white, Han was blue and Allen red.

I (white) pretty much ignored my settlement in the lower left. At this point I had three settlements. One at the lower left, and two in the group at the lower right. That group was split by a river, so this was two settlements, one on each side of that river. Allen (red) had four settlements now. He had two groups of buildings, and both were divided by rivers, so each group was actually two settlements. Han (blue) had the most - 5 settlements. By this point he had not only expanded across rivers, he had also expanded across lakes. He was also first to have reached a port - the one at the top right.

Han's strategy was to make money first. He very quickly deployed all his woodcutters and miners. These two columns on his player board were now empty. Also he had upgraded their techs so every one of them earned a higher amount of money. More money means more things you can do. Han was the most successful in expanding his business empire across the map.

I (white) was the weakest in expansion on the map. I could not hope to compete in the number of settlements. Only Allen could compete with Han. However I did work hard on the contracts, completing them early, and completing them as frequently as I could. I became #1 in contracts and secured my lead till the end. The competition for space on the map was intense. We all needed space to build our farms and factories. Our buildings needed specific terrain types. There was the competition for number of settlements hovering over us (well, maybe not me). So there was a constant pressure to fight for land.

The round-specific scoring affected how we played. Points didn't come easy, and we needed to make every bit count. In our game, the Round 4 scoring was 3pts for every two processed goods. To make the most of that, Han stockpiled a lot of processed goods, saving them till scoring and only using them in the next round. I had considered that, but I wanted to complete my contract quickly so that I could get a new one. Claiming contracts costed money from Round 3 onwards, so I wanted to claim them early. I was also worried someone else might take what I wanted.

The scoring track looks busy and confusing, but is actually not complicated. The main scoring markers are the three round ones at positions 25, 20 and 18. The three hex-shaped markers at 9, 8, 4 are just markers to keep count of each player's number of settlements. This is just for the convenience of seeing where you stand in the settlements competition. The grey, green and brown markers are the total numbers of cotton, sugar cane and tobacco the players have collected from contracts. The total number needs to be tracked because at game end, these three imported goods score points based on scarcity. The goods type with the lowest count is worth 5pts each, the one with the medium count is worth 4pts each, and the one with the highest count is only worth 3pts each. Before you claim a contract, you need to evaluate how many points it is potentially worth based on what imported goods it gives. You also need to consider whether you will affect the imported goods value when you complete the contract.

That pad on the right is the scoring pad. It lists all the things you score for at game end. Unused goods and cash are worth points.

My board situation did not look good and I had expected to do poorly. However our final scores were not too far apart, and I managed second place, due to the contracts. Han was the clear winner. Neither Allen nor I could beat his money kingdom. Being cash-rich meant he had plenty of options and he could do more than us. Allen was actually quite rich too, because his clan power let him sell milk without merchants and at the best price.

The Thoughts

The goods production, goods processing and eventual conversion to points in Clans of Caledonia are not particularly notable. We see this in many Eurogames. The spatial competition is something I find interesting. Many Eurogames abstract away the map play. I like the player interaction in the spatial aspect of the game. The money-first strategy seems to be very powerful. I can't think of any reason not to follow it, which is a problem if I am right. It would mean the strategy is one-dimensional. I wonder whether players who have played more will all tend to take this approach. Perhaps it is not a matter of whether to pursue this general approach, but a question of how far to pursue it. Like in Dominion, the key is deciding when to stop building your engine and actually start using your engine to earn victory points. Money is your tool and more money makes you more powerful, but it is still just a means to earn points. Your ultimate objective is points.

I like the clan powers. Without them I think the clans will feel rather bland. They drive players to play in different ways, and different combinations of clans in a game will result in a different experience. You want to make good use of your clan power, and you also need to understand your opponents' clan powers. Knowing how they will play is useful. The clan powers bring personality to the game.

I find there is a good mix of tactical and strategic decisions in the game. The strategic aspects include making use of your clan power, reaching out to ports, building many settlements and completing many contracts. Amidst working towards these longer term objectives, you encounter many decisions that are tactical in nature. You watch what contracts your opponents are holding, what goods they are holding, where they might be competing with you on the map, what the round-specific scoring criterion is. You analyse the situation and pick the most efficient move. There will be opportunities and threats you need to react to, e.g. someone encroaching on "your" land. There is plenty to keep you busy, and this is one of the strengths of the game.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Unicornus Knights

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

One of the designers of Unicornus Knights is Seiji Kanai of Love Letter fame. The other designer Kuro is also well known in Japan. Unicornus Knights is a very different animal from Love Letter. It is a mid-weight cooperative game, with some role-playing elements. It has a medieval fantasy setting. The Kingdom has been invaded by the evil Empire. The King is dead, and the capital captured. The Imperial army is terrorising the realm. The sole survivor of the dynasty is the Princess. She is determined to avenge her family and reclaim the throne. She will march to the capital and kick the smug Emperor out, and she will stop at nothing. You are generals of the Kingdom, and your job is to help the Princess reclaim the Kingdom. This must be done within 10 rounds, before the Empire solidifies its power.

All this sounds fine and dandy and patriotic. When we played, it turned out to be a hilarious exercise of playing nanny to our impetuous (to put it nicely) Princess. The Princess is a non-player character (NPC) and acts based on clearly defined rules. You have little control over her. She charges towards the capital, disregarding dangers and ignoring advice. When she runs out of supplies, she gathers more on the spot, and starts off again once she has enough. As generals loyal to the Kingdom, you have to make sure she doesn't get herself killed. If this happens you lose. It is okay to get yourself killed though. You'll just switch to play a different Kingdom general next round. Try not to die, because you'd lose your allies, armies and supplies. It is usually bad to die.

This is our dear Princess. We all call her Siao Za Bo behind her back, which in Hokkien means Crazy Woman.

This is the Princess's character card. The 5 inside the heart is life points. If she takes her 5th injury, she dies. The 6 inside the shield is her command ability. It determines the army size she can lead.

This is how a game is set up - capital at the far right, and Princess at the far left. Kingdom generals (i.e. the players) are along the left edge, near where the Princess is. Most tiles are guarded by Empire generals. Every Empire general has his own character card. We put these along the edges of the map, near the respective on-map characters, so that it's easy to refer. There are Empire armies all over the place, some led by Empire generals, some not.

In our game there were four of us playing. If we count the Princess as well, that was five of us against about twelve generals and dozens of armies. It looked daunting. At first I thought that since the Princess would make a bee-line for the capital, we could just focus on defeating the Empire generals and armies along her path. We could ignore those further away from the path, and save precious time and resources. However there was a catch. We would eventually need to defeat the Emperor who was stubbornly guarding the capital. His strength was determined by the number of Empire generals still on the board. If we only defeated a few of them, his strength would be still very high, and it would be very difficult to beat him.

The structure of a round is simple. The Kingdom generals (i.e the players) take actions, then the Princess acts, and then the Empire generals and armies act. As Kingdom generals, you only have 5 action types, and they are all simple. The number of actions you get depends on the number of players. The two most basic actions are raising troops and gathering resources. You can only raise troops in cities, towns and villages, and the number of soldiers you can raise per action depends on the population density. You can gather resources anywhere, but it is only efficient if you do it at resource-rich locations, i.e. cities, towns, villages. The relationship between soldiers and resources is a very core part of the game. When your army marches one space, every soldier consumes one resource. If you are leading a huge army, it will eat a lot. You need to have a lot of resources to get it to march long distances. This is a logistical problem you need to think about and plan for all the time. Don't keep a large army when you don't need it. You'll just have more mouths to feed. However when you need to fight a tough enemy, you need to make sure you have enough fighters and enough food for them too.

Marching and attacking are the same action. When you try to march into an enemy-occupied space, you will attack him. If you defeat him, you march in. If you fail to completely defeat him, you stay put.

In addition to the number of soldiers in your army, the cost of marching also depends on terrain. Some terrain types are easy to march into, and some are harder. In this photo, the road space with the green -1 icon means you pay one resource fewer, whereas the forest spaces with the red +1 icons means you pay one extra resource.

Let's talk about the combat mechanism. It is a little unusual. This here is an Empire general. The 5 in the heart icon is life points. You need to deal this much damage to defeat this general. The 6 in the shield icon is the combat strength of the general. The shield icon means a different thing when it appears on the Princess card and the Kingdom general cards. For Empire generals, total combat strength is general's combat strength (i.e. shield icon) plus army combat strength (number of soldiers in the army). When you fight an Empire general, you need to allocate a number of dice equal to his total combat strength. Let's say this general above is leading 3 soldiers. You will need 9 dice in total. If you are able to roll 11 dice, you must assign 9 of them. You apply the results of these 9 dice. Naturally, since you have 2 surplus, you would have discarded 2 dice with unfavourable results. Now let's say you are only able to roll 7 dice, you would be 2 dice short. The Empire general would deal 2 points of damage to you, because of this shortage. This is even before you apply the results of those 7 dice you have rolled. The Empire general does not roll dice. Only you do.

This above is a Kingdom general. The heart icon works the same way as Empire generals. Take this much damage and you die. The shield icon means something else. For Kingdom generals it means your army size limit. The number of dice you get to roll during battle depends on the number of soldiers in your army. So this guy here normally gets to roll at most 5 dice, because that's the highest number of soldiers he can lead. There are some cards and character abilities which allow Kingdom generals to roll more dice. That little table on the right defines how well a character fights. The left half is for when he attacks, and the right half for when he defends. When attacking, Urgan deals damage on 5's and 6's, and takes damage on 1's and 2's. That's just average. However on defense, he deals damage on 3's to 6's, and only takes damage on 1's. So he's a very good defender. It is better to lure enemies to attack him.

Another one of your action types is drawing a support card. These are special abilities cards, and many are quite handy.

The last action type is sending stuff. You send one or more of your soldiers to a nearby comrade or the Princess, and he (or they) may bring resources along, up to 10 resources per person. This is an important action type. You often need to help your teammates out. It is also a means to manage the Princess. Send her troops to slow her down, or send her resources to speed her up. Send her troops to protect her and help her fight. It is easy to get stuck in the countryside with insufficient resources to allow your army to march. Gathering resources yourself in such situations is inefficient. It is better to ask your friends in nearby cities to gather resources and then send them to you.

After the Kingdom generals (i.e. the players) complete their turns, the Princess takes hers. She only cares about advancing towards the capital, and she takes the shortest path. Only if two paths have the same distance, you get to decide for her. She only stops to gather resources when she is unable to march. Once she gathers enough (or one of you gives her enough), she resumes her journey.

Once the Princess is done, the Empire generals and armies act. Empire generals have different behaviours. Most of them stay where they are, and only attack when you or the Princess is standing right next to them. Empire armies behave like this too. They ignore you unless you approach them. Some Empire generals are defensive. These strictly stand their ground, and won't budge even when you walk right up to them. If you want to defeat them, you have to be the one starting the fight. Only a few Empire generals are aggressive. The moment you or the Princess comes within a certain distance, they are triggered and start moving towards the nearest Kingdom character.

One important aspect in the game is the Fate cards. The first time any Empire general is approached by a Kingdom general, a Fate card is drawn to possibly establish some story between them. Special rules may come into play, affecting their behaviours.

If the Princess manages to enter the capital within 10 rounds, you win. If she dies, or is late, you lose.

The Play

We did a 4-player game. Ivan had played this before. Allen, Tim and I were new. The game comes with quite a few Kingdom generals, so you have plenty of variety. There are even four versions of the Princess. You can pick a style you like. They give different benefits. There are many Empire generals too, but every game most of them will be on the board, so the variety is less. Right off the bat we could already analyse the board situation and plan what to do, based on the locations of all the characters on both sides. We discussed how to make the best of our character abilities, and who to play what role. Ivan's character enjoyed a benefit when near the Princess, so he was in charge of staying close to her and protecting her. Allen's character was a support character. Since he was near Ivan, his role was to support Ivan by sending him troops and resources. Tim's character was a fighter, so he was our strike force.

Tim's character was the girl on the left in the foreground. When the game started, she had no army (no round soldier tokens beneath her). She must either recruit or have another Kingdom general send her troops. That lady with a huge black hat to the right was an Empire general, a necromancer. She summoned zombies in empty spaces on her tile every round, so if we wanted to defeat her, we must strike at her directly and swiftly, else the zombies would keep coming and drown us.

This area was tough - so many Empire armies.

The blurred old guy at the centre is Ivan's character. He had now entered the desert to fight a monster. The monster was strong, but thankfully didn't have any army. Allen's character, a young lady, is at the far left. She was now recruiting and gathering resources.

Tim's character had now defeated the necromancer. The zombies here would be attacking him, but at least there wouldn't be new zombies being generated by the necromancer anymore.

On the right, that angry bald guy with a red background is an aggressive type Empire general. He had been triggered and was heading towards Tim's character. My character is the blurred bearded dwarf in the foreground. I planned to move nearer to the bald guy to lure him towards me. I was strong in defense.

The Princess was moving slowly, and was still wandering in the desert on the left. All four of us had plunged in and were pushing the front line.

Having a pint with Her Highness.

That's Allen's character Annelie at the top right. When she approached the Empire general Chancellor Kostov, the Fate card drawn was Love At First Sight. If Annelie could reach Kostov, he would be immediately defeated by love, and become an ally. No need to fight at all, which would save soldiers and resources. So this was nice. From this point till the end of the game, all of us couldn't stop making fun of Kostov for being a perverted lolicon. Must be because of his ridiculous hair.

Ivan and Allen pushed towards the top left. Tim and I pushed the middle path, staying ahead of the Princess. I was now standing between angry bald guy and the Princess, waiting for him to throw his army at my well-prepared defenses.

There are cards and events which change how the Princess behaves. Some may cause her to head in a different direction, towards a specific character. This can be good and bad. Good if it helps to keep her from trouble. Bad if it delays her too much from reclaiming the throne. Some support cards let players move the Princess. These are precious and are very powerful when used at the right time.

When Allen's character (top right) approached the Empire general at the bottom left, the Fate card he drew happened to be "Love at First Sight" again! Now these three were in an "it's complicated" relationship. A love triangle! What drama! Maybe it was because Allen's character was badly injured. She had taken 3 damage and would die upon the next damage. So, old or young, men fell for her because who could bear to hurt this delicate flower?

We entered the last phase of the game. Tim's character was already in the capital tile slapping around those armies protecting the Emperor. The Princess was on the right, only a few steps away from the capital tile. That guy in dark armour on the right was an unusual one. He was not an Empire general, and did not contribute to the Emperor's strength. We did not need to defeat him to weaken the Emperor. However, if we defeated him, we could use him as a powerful weapon to defeat the Emperor. In our particular game, since we had been successful in defeating (and seducing) the Empire generals, there was no need to fight this dark knight. We ignored him. Those two Empire generals on the far left were twins. If we defeated one of them but not the other, at the end of the round, the defeated twin would resurrect. These twins were a pain in the neck. These are examples of unique stories and characteristics of the generals in the game.

Tim's character continued to terrorise the capital, preparing for the final attack.

The Princess was previously on the right side and preparing to enter the capital tile. However something unexpected happened. The Princess' fate was linked to one of the remaining Empire generals. If she met up with him, he would renounce the Empire and follow her instead. So now she was heading in a completely different direction. Other than playing nanny, protector and supplier, we also had to play secretary to Her Highness, scheduling appointments for her.

Eventually it was Tim's character who defeated the Emperor, and allowed the Princess to march into the capital amidst ecstatic cheering from the crowd. Peace returned to the Kingdom. Earlier in the game Tim's character defeated the robot girl Empire general, who then became an ally. The robot girl had a single-use ability, which converted all die rolls to kills, but only for one battle. Tim saved this till the final battle against the Emperor, and won a decisive victory. He didn't even need to roll the dice.

The Princess reclaimed the throne, and to our pleasant surprise, none of us got killed in the process. Yay us!

The Thoughts

I had a great time with Unicornus Knights. We had a fun bunch of players, and also a number of funny incidents, made possible by how the game works. I see the game as a puzzle which the players need to collaborate to solve. From the beginning, you already need to analyse the game setup and decide how you want to play. Depending on how your strategy pans out, you may need to adjust your plans. It feels like a puzzle because the Empire generals and armies set up on the board don't move about much. Their actions are all calculable. Seen as a mathematical exercise, the game doesn't seem all that sexy. However the Fate cards and Support cards will throw in some surprises and opportunities. There is much character in the game. Both Empire generals and Kingdom generals make you feel you can imagine their backstories easily. They feel alive. Empire generals are not just generic pawns to defeat. Kingdom generals are not just abstract powers you can use as a player. The Fate cards inject stories and twists to the game. They certainly injected a twisted love story in our game.

There are two aspects of the design I admire. Firstly, the army and resources dilemma. It is a simple but clever mechanism that succinctly represents a very real logistical problem. The second aspect is the battle mechanism. It took a while to understand, but once I grasped it, I found it very nifty.

Variability comes from the random game setup, the Kingdom generals, and the Princess version (there are four to choose from). Most of the Empire generals are in play every game, so by your second game you should have seen all of them. You will also have seen most of the Fate cards after the first two games. If replayability is defined as how long it takes for you to see all content, then this is a 4 - 5 play game. The true replayability is more than that, because difference in setup and the Fate cards drawn will create difference experiences and different stories.

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Pandemic Legacy Season 2

Plays: 4P x 18.

Pandemic Legacy Season 2 is a spoiler-heavy game, so in talking about it I have to use the same method as when I wrote about Season 1. In Part 1 I will talk about how the game works, and you will see items that you have access to before your first game. I will also talk about my opinions of the game. Part 1 is spoiler free. Part 2 will not be. I will share my experiences with the game. Part 2 is meant for sharing with others who have also completed the full campaign.



Part 1

The Game

The story in Season 2 starts 71 years after the end of Season 1. By the end of Season 1, humanity was almost wiped out by the four deadly diseases. Some off-shore havens were constructed, and they became important production centres, supplying food and goods to the cities on the mainland, which were greatly reduced from their former glory. Haven citizens were spared the worst of the diseases. Now, humanity still struggles to survive. Recently some distant mainland cities stopped communications. The leaders in the havens launched an expedition to the mainland to find out what had happened to these cities. They never returned, and mainland cities continued to drop off the grid. Now a second expedition is being launched to look for our leaders, and you are part of this second expedition. You need to help supply goods to the mainland cities still in contact with the havens, and you need to find our leaders, and re-establish contact with the lost cities. Something is very wrong and you need to find out what's going on.

There are quite a few changes in Season 2. The core mechanisms in Season 1 were the same as base Pandemic. In fact players were encouraged to use the Season 1 components to play basic Pandemic before playing with the legacy rules. Season 2 makes a number of changes to the original core mechanisms.

In Season 1 and in base Pandemic, the board is infected with disease cubes, and you run around treating patients and removing disease cubes. Your objective is to find cures for all four diseases before time runs out, and before any of the diseases spread too much.

In Season 2, you no longer have 4 different diseases. The grey cubes on the board are not diseases. They are goods which you supply to the mainland cities. You are no longer removing cubes from the board. Instead, you want to add cubes to the board. When infection cards are drawn, instead of adding disease cubes, they remove goods cubes. If a city runs out of goods, and is then hit with an infection card, a green plague cube is added. This is considered an incident, and it is recorded on the incident track. When the 8th incident occurs, you lose the game. This is equivalent to the outbreak track in base Pandemic.

Normally you can't remove plague cubes from the board. So they are not the same as disease cubes in base Pandemic. Only special action cards will allow you to remove plague cubes. You want to stay away from plagued cities. If your character starts his turn in a plagued city, he is exposed to the plague, and may be scarred (suffer a permanent disability), or may even die from illness (the character will no longer be available to play in future games).

Similar to Season 1, when you play Season 2, you play through a campaign consisting of 12 months. You play each month once or twice. If you win on your first attempt, you move on to the next month. Otherwise you get a 2nd chance. After the second time playing the same month, regardless of win or lose, you move on to the next month, which will bring new content, and possibly new rules or changes in rules.

At the start of your campaign, most of the world map is blank. The havens have lost touch with many cities. You have three havens (white cities at sea), and nine mainland cities, three each in blue, black and yellow. In Season 2, there can be multiple copies of the same city card in both the player deck and the infection deck. At the beginning of the campaign, every city has 3 cards in both decks. This is a big difference. In Season 1, if a city card has been drawn from the infection deck, you know that city won't get infected again until the next epidemic card and the next reshuffle. In Season 2, this no longer holds true. If two or three cards of the same city are clumped together near the top of the infection deck, the goods at this city will be depleted very very quickly.

During the campaign you need to explore the blank spaces on the board. In this photo you can see five areas which can be explored. To do exploration, or recon, you need to first build a factory at the city from which you will recon. You then need to spend a specific combination of cards to perform the recon action itself. For example, to perform recon in North America, you need to first build a factory in Washington. You then need to spend any three blue city cards to recon. When performing recon, you get to open a sealed box. There are new game components, and possibly new rules, and part of the world map will be revealed. Doing recon is not easy. Doing recon from Washington will require 8 blue cards, 5 for the factory, and 3 for the recon action itself. At the start of the campaign, it is not even possible to recon from Europe, the Middle East or Africa. In Europe, you need four different blue cards to recon. You only have three blue cities, and thus can get at most three different blue cards. You will need to have found and connected to more blue cities to have added more blue cards to the player deck before you can consider trying to recon in Europe.

The off-shore havens are production centres, and are permanent factories. Neither player deck nor infection deck have cards for the havens, so they truly are safe havens. In Season 2 there is a new type of card shuffled into the player deck - production cards. If you are at a factory, be it an off-shore haven or a mainland city which has had a factory built during the current game, you may play a production card to mass-produce supplies at your current location. There are two ways of using the card. Producing at your current location is the basic usage. The advanced usage allows you to produce at all factories on the board. However this comes at a cost. You must tick a box on the card (with a permanent marker and not a pencil). When all boxes on a production card are ticked, the card is to be destroyed and removed forever from the player deck. So this is a long term implication you need to consider. This is yet another legacy mechanism - some actions are irreversible and permanent.

In Season 2, one new basic player action is to produce one goods cube. This is much less efficient than using production cards to produce goods cubes at factories, but often it is necessary. You are constantly under pressure to keep the mainland cities supplied, to prevent plagues. Player characters may carry goods cubes. They may pick cubes up, they may drop cubes off at cities, they may pass cubes to other characters. The tactical fire-fighting aspect in this version of Pandemic is producing and supplying goods cubes to mainland cities. The strategic objective aspect is to complete the required number of missions in the current month. The missions change over time, and they drive the story you experience. The story is about re-establishing communications with mainland cities which you have lost touch with, and finding out what had happened to them and to your leaders who had gone missing.

This is one of the character cards. Before starting your first game, you get to create five characters. At most four will be in use when you play. You can decide which four. The game gives you many profile pictures to choose from, but only 5 professions with which to customise your initial characters. Each profession gives a special ability. As you play, you may gain new abilities or new weaknesses. They are stickers which will occupy the spaces on the right. Weaknesses have priority over abilities. In case all five spaces are taken and you need to add a weakness, you stick the weakness over an existing ability, which means you not only gain a new weakness, you also lose an old ability.

The row of tiny grey boxes are exposure spaces. If your character begins a turn in a plagued city, he is exposed, and you much scratch off the leftmost box which has not been scratched yet. If a scar icon is revealed, you take a scar, i.e. a new weakness or disability. If a skull icon is revealed, your character dies and becomes unavailable for future games. You need to be careful to keep your character away from those green plague cubes. You can touch them when you run around the map, but try not to stop at a city with these green cubes, because on your next turn you will be exposed, unless someone is able to remove the green cubes, or move you somewhere else.

This was Ruby's character, Nutnutty. Five of us played Season 2 together, and we each created one character. We tended to play with our own characters. That meant less variety, but it made us more attached to our characters. Benz's was the 5th character. The game only supports 4 players, but he played together with us anyway, despite not having a character to control. We discussed our options and we strategised together as a team.

Nutnutty was a labourer, which meant that when building a factory (Supply Centre) she could substitute a card with two goods cubes. When we were able to gain a new ability, we gave her the ability to build a factory with one card fewer. That meant she could build a factory with just three cards and two cubes. In our games she was always assigned to be the factory builder. This was efficient. We focused the factory building related skills on her. However this was also risky. If this character died, we would suffer a severe blow. We had all eggs in the same basket.

Doing some LARPing.

At the start of every game, you get a number of goods cubes to distribute to the cities and havens as you like. During the game you need to manage the production and supply of goods to help the cities stay healthy, while working towards the objectives of the month. There are two ways to lose. You lose if you are unable to manage the goods supply well enough to prevent the 8th plague incident. You also lose if you run out of time - you exhaust the player deck before completing your missions. There is only one way to win. You must complete the required number of missions. Sometimes there are more missions available than are required to win. You get to choose which ones you want to attempt.

As you progress from one month to the next, the starting supply of goods cubes reduce, which makes the game more and more difficult. You will also discover more and more of the world map, and gameplay evolves.

The Play

Completing the full campaign took us 6 months. We played 18 games in total. I played the whole campaign with the same group of friends - Benz, Ruby, Xiaozhu and Edwin. The game supports up to 4 players, but this being a cooperative game, playing with five wasn't a big problem. The fifth player was a talk-only participant - no character to control, but he could join all the discussions and strategising. The fifth player was also a backup in case one of us could not play. The campaign is best played with the same group of friends, so that there is continuity. Since the game changes and more and more rules are added, it is difficult for someone new to join halfway. He would have missed the previous shared experiences of the group too.

We found the early games rather easy. Only by May or June we felt the difficulty rising. As we progressed further, the game felt harder and harder. We felt pressed for time. If we could not get the missions completed within the first few rounds, the incidents would likely overtake us. There were some games which we realised were impossible to win. Some of the missions were impossible to complete due to the state of the board at the time, and we would not be able to complete the required number of missions. The best we could do was perform the actions which would make it possible for us to complete those impossible missions next game. Later, I found out that I had made a mistake. There was one standard mission which I had removed from the game earlier than I should. Biiiiig oops. It was rather difficult by then to work backwards to see how things would have been different, but my guess is we wouldn't have been stuck with mission impossible. If you are going to play Season 2, don't be careless like me.

Playing Season 2 felt like following a TV series. There is a more-or-less set story for you to discover. You likely won't stray far from the main storyline - which regions you will recon first, which truths you will learn next, and so on. If you fall behind schedule, there are cards which will direct you to reveal information to get you up to speed. In the games we played, we always managed to keep to schedule, so we did not need these cards to help us catch up. The campaign feels a little scripted to me, compared to Season 1. It is not that there are no scripted events in Season 1. I think the main difference is that in Season 2, the scripted events are tied to specific locations. You will tend to discover portions of the map roughly in a set sequence. In Season 1, the whole world map is available to you from the start, and the locations of key events are random. So Season 1 feels more open and has more possibilities. In Season 2 you are like a detective trying to piece together a sequence of events, while in Season 1 your fate is less predictable. It depends on what has happened in previous games, and what you do in your current game. In this aspect, I prefer Season 1 over Season 2.

We encountered two incidents of "are you going to save your wife or your mother". Both Edwin and Xiaozhu were caught in plagued cities. At the start of their next turns they would get exposed, which meant they could become scarred or even die. My character had the ability to bring one other character to my location, but I could only do this once on my turn. I could only save one of them. No matter who I chose, the other would be sad. What a dilemma!

The Thoughts

Like Season 1, I didn't find the game design in Season 2 particularly impressive. It works fine, just that it doesn't amaze me. Also now that I have experienced Season 1, the legacy format campaign does not have as big a wow factor as before. There are still some surprises, which was fun. The feeling of playing Season 2 is a little different from playing Season 1. If you enjoyed Season 1, I think you will like Season 2.

You can play Season 2 directly without having ever played Season 1, but I suggest doing them in sequence. The story flows better. Also I like Season 1 better, so you can try that first, and only if you like it then consider playing Season 2. The main thing about Season 2 is it is more different from other Pandemic games.

Overall, I still had fun with Season 2, although it wasn't as magical as the first time round. Season 1 was the highlight of my gaming year when I played it. Still, getting played 18 times is much better than most of the games I have bought. This was time and money well spent. It was another happy journey with my group of Pandemic friends.



Part 2

Spoiler alert! If you have not completed the full campaign of Season 2, best not read on. If you are done too, or have no intention of playing, then let's share some stories.

The Stories

I don't have a coherent or complete record of my 6 months of experience with Season 2. These will be just snippets that I recall.

When we discovered the new action of building radio towers, it didn't seem particularly useful, and we didn't plan to make use of it much. Benz was suspicious about it and said we should just build anyway, because there might be some surprise waiting for us. We should not only build radio towers, we should also spend the end game production units to convert them to permanent towers. He turned out to be right, of course. Lo and behold - the mission which required building radio towers at cities of different colours.

When we found the frequency scanner, we made use of it aggressively. Whenever we felt an Epidemic card was coming up in the player deck, we used the frequency scanner to help us draw four cards from the player deck. Epidemic cards drawn this way were ignored. This felt a little gamey, like we were exploiting a loophole, but I think the designers meant us to use it this way.

The character created by Benz - Snake - never came into play. Benz was our 5th player. Sometimes when Ruby could not play and he stepped in to play, he just played Ruby's character Nutnutty. Nutnutty accumulated many useful abilities. It would be a waste not to use her.

We discovered that Edwin has a secret tendency towards self-injury. Many times he wanted to have his character Eve suffer exposure, so that he could scratch off an exposure box to see what it revealed. Or maybe he's just curious, or likes the excitement. Many times the rest of us warned him not to do anything crazy.

We had done recon in Africa and Northern Europe. We still needed to recon the Middle East. There was a plague in Cairo. This was bad news. There were three of us in Cairo now. Anyone unable to leave before the start of his next turn would get exposed.

This looked scary, with so many Hollow Men on the board, but we actually welcomed the Hollow Men. According to the story, they were our enemies. However Hollow Men appearing meant not losing supply cubes due to infection, and fewer plagues breaking out. That meant we had a bit more time to complete our missions. If we had too many Hollow Men in a city, the population would decrease, but we were ready to let the cities die off anyway. The cities didn't help much towards completing our missions. Having surviving cities at game end did contribute to the production units, but in the later half of the campaign, there weren't many upgrades we were particularly keen to get anyway. It was a little twisted that we loved the Hollow Men and prayed for them to appear.

Hong Kong became an important hub. After we did recon for Asia, we made Hong Kong our base and created many sea lanes to other Asian cities from there.

It was very challenging to complete The Plan. We managed to collect the black, blue and yellow card sets with some difficulty. The red set was a much more difficult. The percentage of red cards in the player deck was small. We had not spent much effort removing cards from our decks to Box 6. By the time we needed to have a more healthy ratio of red cards in the player deck, it was too late to be able to do much fiddling with the deck.

In our campaign we did manage to have some infection cards moved to Box 6. It was easier to do the infection cards because sometimes we needed to visit those cities anyway to supply them. Moving player cards was harder. We often didn't have many player cards in the discard pile in the first place. Also there was usually little reason to visit those cities other than wanting to move their corresponding cards to Box 6. Our player deck grew and grew and eventually we needed to use all ten of the Epidemic cards. I wonder whether this is normal for other groups.

Eventually we did manage to complete The Plan. It was on our second attempt though.

21 Jun 2018. For the whole campaign all of us stuck to the same characters. The downside was we didn't get to play with different abilities. The upside was we got very emotionally attached to and very invested in our characters. Amazingly, no one died all the way up till the start of December. We did get scarred, but we survived. Our first death was in December. The mission in the finale month required injecting ourselves with a deadly dose of virus. When a character did this, he must keep scratching off the exposure boxes on the character card until he found either a scar or a skull icon. Empty spaces were ignored. If the character survived this, he had to travel to Johannesburg, carrying the virus in his body, in order to win. The team needed to have a factory in Johannesburg too, to study the virus sample and to mass produce a vaccine. The virus carrier would die, regardless of win or lose, because the dose injected was lethal.

Xiaozhu's character Leon was the first to attempt injecting himself with the virus. At the time he only had one scar revealed, and we thought it would be relatively safe for him to do this. To our surprise, the next icon he revealed was the skull icon. The dose was more than his body could handle and his was a swift death. This came as a shock to us. Xiaozhu had to take another character to continue the game. This turned out to be a blessing, because there was one character which could help us build shelters, which was what we needed at the time. Johannesburg was plagued, and we needed to assemble there to deliver the virus sample and to build the factory. Without a shelter we would be exposed to the plague.

The next to inject the virus was Edwin's character Eve, and she lived, at least long enough to carry the virus to Johannesburg. The virus carrier was very weak and movement was greatly impeded. Thankfully I had the ability to teleport people to where I was, and I managed to bring Eve to Johannesburg quickly. Regardless of win or lose, Eve would still die at the end of that game, because the virus dose was lethal. So we lost two comrades who went through heaven and hell with us for twelve months.

Once Edwin / Eve (pink) arrived in Johannesburg, we told him not to move and just wait for the factory to be completed. Benz (playing Nutnutty) was in charge of collecting enough cards to build the factory. The rest tried to pass him cards he needed. Xiaozhu (black, playing the new character) built a shelter and protected everyone from exposure. Johannesburg was a forsaken city with 0 population. It was permanently plagued.

Eventually we did manage to build that factory and win the game. It was our first attempt for the December month. This photo above showed the opening ceremony of the new factory, signalling victory and also the end of our 6 month long (real-time, not in-game time) campaign. Notice the traces of ink on our index fingers. These were mementos from the historic Malaysian election day on 9 May 2018.

Some of the character profile pictures which we didn't use.

Our final score was 588 - which was middling. We were in the third rank out of five.

This was the biggest (but not the only) mistake I made. I removed this mission from the game earlier than I should have. This made some of our games impossible to win. This mission was a generic one which we would have been able to fall back to if the others were impossible. When we had those impossible games, I blamed ourselves for not having planned well enough ahead. I thought it was normal that we would need to spend one or more games to set ourselves up to win in a subsequent game.

The Hollow Men cards often made us cheer. They often meant fewer plagues, and thus more time to try to save the world.

This was how our game board looked like after we completed the campaign. Kolkata was an important hub. It had a factory so we would fly there directly from our starting haven Arashiyama in the Mediterranean Sea. Also Kolkata was only one step away from Hong Kong, another important hub. We didn't have a factory in Hong Kong. It was very hard to collect red cards to build a factory in any red city like Hong Kong. In the late game many missions required being in Asia, so the route from Arashiyama to Kolkata to Hong Kong was an important one. The radio tower in Hong Kong was also an important one because of the scarcity of red player cards. We needed the tower to help us pass red cards to one another.

We had built a factory in Lagos, partly in remembrance of Kawasaki, a much loved character who died in our Season 1 campaign in Lagos. Because of this factory, the population of Lagos eventually grew to 8. We named that off-shore haven near Lagos Kawasaki too. We all missed him very much.

We mostly ignored North and South America in the second half of the campaign, and let the cities die off by themselves. We were too occupied in Asia.

After we completed the campaign, I found there were still some unopened components. These stickers are nice, but I have no idea what they are for. Just for fun?