Sunday, 25 June 2017

little stories: Escape, Machi Koro

Recently Benz, Ruby, Edwin, Xiaozhu and I resumed our Escape quest - we wanted to try out all the expansions that I own. We got stuck with one particular mission - the one which required sacrificing two dice. It sounded simple enough, but again and again we failed. We had managed to complete all other missions, but the victory over this one proved elusive. It was as if we were cursed. The bright side of it was we certainly had many entertaining failures.

In one particularly game, Benz and I were separated from the other three. We had expected that the two of us would cover each other if we needed help. That was what partnership was about. However it turned out that both of us got all our dice locked! We were quite far from the rest. They were forced to launch a rescue mission to get us. It took much time and effort, and needless to say, we were nowhere near escaping the temple when time ran out.

In another game, I was down to four dice when I got completely paralysed. All dice were locked. I couldn't do anything except wait for rescue. We were quite conservative about adding the extra gem to unlock all dice. Then one of my teammates managed to reach me and unlocked all four of my dice at one go. I picked them up excitedly and rolled, only to get four black masks and immediately locked them all again. What were the chances? 1 in 1296. Whoever saved me must be thinking what a waste of oxygen I was.

We played with the curses expansion. One curse which I found particularly nasty was the one which weakened the yellow masks. Normally a yellow mask unlocks two locked dice. If the curse is in effect, your yellow masks only unlock one locked die each. This doesn't sound like much, but from experience, it easily leads to too many dice locked and it heavily hinders progress. It is definitely one of the curses you want to break sooner rather than later, if at all possible.

When we finally managed to beat the two-dice-sacrifice mission, it happened within the last 10 seconds of the countdown. All five of us managed to assemble in the same room - the one next to the exit room - with 20 seconds or so remaining. All of us had lost dice, we each had 2 or 3 left, which was a precarious situation. We needed to move one step to the exit room, and then move again to exit the temple. With few dice left, we were nervous about dice getting locked. We stayed close together, so that in case anyone's die was locked, someone else could try to help him unlock. We all frantically tried to roll the icons we needed to move. Those who did not have the right icons to move tried to get the right icons. Those who had the right icons and had a surplus die tried to roll the golden mask, so that they could immediately help anyone who had dice locked. Those who had no dice to roll watched nervously, waiting for when everyone had the right icons to move. Once everyone could move, we must move immediately. Time was running out. When we got to the temple exit, I was the first to see that everyone had enough icons to exit. I was under the silent curse so I couldn't speak. I waved my hands desperately in a shoo-shoo manner to tell everyone to run. The soundtrack was playing the last stretch of crescendo when we stepped outside into glorious sunlight. It was such a tense moment I almost screamed.

We all felt drained after this session. We had made four attempts and only succeeded upon the last. We had tried this two-dice-sacrifice mission before quite a few times in previous game sessions. I have lost count of how many times we failed.

The missions expansion of Escape comes with three difficulty levels. You play with one, two or three missions. So far with Benz's group we've only played with one mission. Given how challenging it can be with even one mission, it is unimaginable how we can survive three missions. I don't remember whether I have done two or three missions when I played 2-player games of Escape with Shee Yun, or whether I used the curses and treasures expansions. It may be more manageable without curses.

I played Machi Koro with the children again, this time swapping out the Harbour expansion and swapping in the Millionaire's Row expansion. I now firmly believe it is better to play with one or the other, not both, because the card pool becomes too diluted when both are added.

Millionaire's Row has more destructive elements. You can force your opponents' buildings to go into renovation. You can force the dreaded loan office onto your opponents. Games can drag a little longer. In our game I managed to get a good furniture factory combo going. If I rolled an 8, I would earn a huge sum which would allow me to build a landmark. Unfortunately for me, Chen Rui made use of her renovation company to force my furniture factories into renovation precisely the turn before I rolled an 8. So my 8 merely helped me cancel the renovation status. I had to wait for my next 8 to earn my windfall. This sounds a little frustrating, but if you enjoy Machi Koro and play it often, an occasional change in scenery is refreshing. This expansion is not bad, just a little different.

The star in our recent game was the Tech Startup built by Chen Rui (10), i.e. the photo above. At the end of each of your turns, you may put $1 from your own pocket onto the Tech Startup. If you manage to activate it, you collect an amount from every opponent equal to what you have amassed on it. You need to roll a 10 to activate it. When Chen Rui declared she wanted to build it, I told her it was a bad idea. At the time she only had a handful of buildings in her town. She didn't even have the train station yet so she could not roll two dice, which meant she wouldn't be able to activate the Tech Startup yet. I advised her that she should work on some smaller buildings which could be activated with a single die, and not rush into the more advanced buildings. This was what Shee Yun (12) and I were doing. Chen Rui insisted on building the startup, saying she was planning for the future. I shrugged and let her decide for herself. I suspect she decided to do it because it was cheap anyway. To my surprise, she soon built her train station, and after that she kept rolling 10's, robbing Shee Yun and I each time. Tech Startup was super effective! I joked that she had built Google. In the photo above she had invested a total of $11. Eventually she increased that to $13. Every time her turn came, Shee Yun and I winced and prayed she would not roll a 10.

I made a rather clumsy blunder. Towards late game, I commanded a strong lead. I had built the airport, so every turn that I didn't construct a building, I would earn $10. This let me steadily amass money for my next landmark. Eventually it was down to one last landmark. When my turn came again, I happily declared that I would not build anything. I greedily clawed $10 more from the bank to add to my stash. The girls burst into laughter. I didn't understand why. I was going to win and they laughed? They debated whether to tell me. I had no clue. Eventually they explained to me that I already had enough money to build my last landmark. I had $24. My last landmark costed $22. Somehow I kept thinking I needed $30 for that last landmark. I had been focusing too much on the airport, which costed $30. I had already built it and I had been using its power. Thankfully I managed to last one full round without my money being robbed by either of them, so I still managed to win, albeit one round later than I should have. The children would have had an even bigger laugh had I lost because of this silly mistake.

The children and I have many fond memories of Machi Koro. This is one game they will surely remember when they grow up.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Great Western Trail

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Great Western Trail is one of the more popular games within the past year. It is designed by Alexander Pfister, also a hot designer in recent years. I have tried his other popular games Mombasa and Isle of Skye, but I didn't like them. They gave me the feeling of a mesh of scoring mechanisms bound together. Isle of Skye does have an interesting auction system, but although I find it novel and clever, the rest of the game doesn't grab me. Mombasa has some clever mechanisms, but it also feels like just multiple systems for scoring existing for the sake of scoring. I can't feel the story. There is decent logic, but no emotion. Still, Great Western Trail has been getting high praise, so I didn't mind giving it a go. This time I found something I liked.

The game board has many one-directional routes and many nodes where the routes diverge and converge. The routes start from the bottom left corner, and they all eventually lead to Kansas City at the top right. At the start of the game, the board is already seeded with some neutral buildings (those square tiles with grey edges). What you do repeatedly during the game is travel from the starting point to Kansas City, each time bringing in a herd of cattle to sell. A turn consists of moving your pawn from one location to another, and then performing the actions allowed at your destination. You may use up to three movement points. Moving from one location to the next requires expending one movement point, regardless of the physical distance between the locations. At the beginning, locations are few and far apart, and you can travel long distances every turn if you choose too. As the game progresses, new locations are added to the board, and you will find yourself traveling shorter physical distances due to the more and more locations created on the board. You may need to increase your mobility. All this sounds illogical. I explain it by thinking of the locations as distractions. Each time you pass by a town, you are tempted to take a break. So improving mobility is actually improving your will power to forge ahead resisting the temptations along the way.

It is not always necessary to travel as far as possible all the time. Often you do want to take your time stopping at many useful locations to perform the actions they offer. Let's talk about the cattle herd mechanism. Every player starts the game with his own deck of cards, and a hand size of five. Your hand of cards represents the herd you are handling and bringing to Kansas City. How much they are worth depends on the card values. When you get to Kansas City, you may only count one card per colour. So what you want to do before you get there is modify your hand so that you have cards in as many different colours as possible, and preferably cards with higher values too. This is why you need to perform various actions during your journey. Other than modifying your hand, the locations have many other types of actions.

This is the player board. It keeps track of your abilities. Those white discs currently cover many abilities and actions which are not yet available. Once you move them away, you gain new abilities. Along the top, the three sections A, B and C summarises what you do on your turn. A is for moving your pawn. B is for executing actions. If you stop at a neutral location or a location you own, you may execute the action at the location, or a basic action. Basic actions are listed on the left. If you stop at any other location type, you may only execute a basic action. Section C is for replenishing your hand to the hand limit. The hand limit can be increased.

The central section is for placing your employees. You start the game with one each of cowboy, craftsman and engineer. Cowboys help you buy cattle cards. Craftsmen help you construct buildings. Engineers help you upgrade your train. Sometimes when you recruit a new employee, you gain a one-time benefit.

Everyone gets this same set of buildings. When you perform the construct action, you may directly construct one of these buildings, or upgrade an existing building to a new one. The number of craftsmen needed depends on which building you want to construct, and whether you are upgrading. Buildings have point values, as indicated in the shield icons. The black and green hands on buildings mean you get to charge a fee whenever anyone stops ar passes by. Placing your buildings at strategic locations can earn you some side income.

Everyone has a train pawn for marking his train technology level. Some buildings and actions let you increase your train level. Along the edge of the board, you can see the various cities your herd of cattle is delivered to after you sell it in Kansas City. How far you can sell depends on your herd value. You want to sell as far as possible, because that is more profitable. However in order to deliver the herd, your train needs to be sufficiently levelled up. Otherwise you will need to pay a fee to have your herd delivered. This effectively means you are earning less from the transaction.

Each city can be delivered to only once per player. This creates pressure to keep improving your herd value. If you can't sell to the next further city, you will be forced to sell to a nearer city, and usually there is a point penalty for selling to nearby cities. Due to the pressure to sell to cities further and further away, there is pressure to upgrade your train.

If you look closely at the train track, there are small detours leading to train stations. When upgrading your train, you may decide to take these detours to visit the train stations in order to upgrade them. What you do is move one disc from your player board to the station, thus improving your ability. Each train station allows one disc per player. If you are the first to upgrade a train station, you get a station master privilege. This is a permanent ability for the rest of the game. In this photo we have not started upgrading our trains, so you can still see the small rectangular station master privilege tiles next to the train stations.

Each player can deliver to the same city or upgrade the same train station at most once, so you will notice that the disc colours at each location do not repeat.

The large square tiles with red and blue borders are player buildings. When you visit your own building, you may perform the action allowed by the building. When you visit another player's building, you may only perform a basic action. The tepees represent Red Indian villages. They always charge a fee when you pass by or stop (see the green and black hands). One building type lets you claim tepees from the map. You can make money from such an action (representing trade with the Red Indians). Tepees may also help you complete missions to earn points.

There is a deck-building aspect worth mentioning. Everyone starts with the same deck of cards, and all of them are low valued. During the game you may purchase better cards to add to your deck. When purchasing a card, it is put in your discard pile. So it only goes to your draw deck the next time you need to reshuffle your discard pile. Everyone will need to buy better cards at some point. This is an area nobody can neglect.

The game has a countdown mechanism driven by the frequency of players making deliveries to Kansas City. Each time you arrive, one of the things you need to do is to update the game board. You have options to choose from, and depending on what you pick, you may add tepees to the board, or add hazardous locations to the board, or add workers to the worker pool. The worker pool acts as the countdown timer. As workers are added, a marker advances, and when that marker reaches a certain spot, the game enters the final round. How swiftly players travel, how frequently they arrive in Kansas City, and also their choices in augmenting the board game all affect how soon the game ends. You try to manipulate this pace to your benefit.

The Play

The number of different things you can do in this game is a little overwhelming, but what you actually do in one turn can be described simply. You move your pawn, then execute an action at your destination, and finally, if necessary, you draw cards up to your hand limit. The game is very much about thinking the big picture, and then making sure your tactical decisions consistently help you in your chosen strategy.

The underlying core mechanism is repeatedly herding cattle to Kansas City. That is your basic rhythm. Everything hangs off it. In itself it is not a strategy. It is your platform. In broad brushes, the strategic areas you need to consider are upgrading your cattle cards, upgrading your train, constructing buildings, and completing missions. You do need to upgrade your abilities and employ workers, but the purpose of these is mostly to help you with one of the four areas. Upgrading your cattle cards and train are two areas you must not ignore, since there is a constant pressure to improve your herd value and to deliver to cities further and further away. You have more freedom in deciding whether buildings and missions fit in your strategy. Buildings not only augment the actions you can perform, they also modify the map, making it more difficult for your opponents and also helping you earn some toll fees. Missions can give you some extra points, but if you fail to complete any you commit to, there is a penalty.

At the start of our game, I arbitrarity decided to focus on upgrading my cattle cards. I didn't know what would be important, so I made up my mind on a whim, mainly because I was interested to see how the deck-building worked here. One big mistake I made was neglecting my train upgrades. Each time a delivery was made to Kansas City, the train level was checked to see whether I needed to pay some fee to have my herd forwarded to its eventual destination. When I fell behind in train level, my profit was affected every time I made a delivery. The effect compounded and stunted my growth. Money was needed to purchase cattle cards and to recruit workers. Also I failed to make use of Han and Allen's progress. When upgrading your train (i.e. moving your train pawn along the train track), if there happens to be someone else's train on a spot before you, you get to skip that spot for free. E.g. if I am supposed to advance two steps, but there are two other train pawns right in front of mine, then I actually get to advance four steps in total. It is important to make use of this leapfrog mechanism. When I fell behind, Han and Allen's pawns become too far ahead for me to do leapfrogging. Han focused on train upgrades in the early game. This allowed him to be first to upgrade many of the train stations, getting him the station master privileges. Great Western Trail is a development game. Each time you improve your abilities, they help you to further improve, so there is a snowball effect. The station master privileges were quite handy, and with an overall more efficient play, Han eventually left Allen and I in the dust.

There is a fair bit of forward planning you need to do. The paths on the board are one-way streets. Once you miss or pass by a building, you won't be able to visit it again until the next cycle. You need to think ahead which buildings you want to use for your trip. You also need to think about how urgently you need to complete your current delivery.

Points come from many sources - delivering cattle to the more distant cities, completing missions, cattle cards, buildings, some upgrades on your player board, upgrading train stations. This is very much a point salad game. The two scoring aspects most closely related to your core activities are your cattle cards and delivering to cities. You must not neglect these; and as long as you don't, you will score reasonable points from them. It is a matter of whether you score more or less compared to others. In other aspects of scoring, you have more freedom to decide how to invest your energy. You want to play to your strengths, and be efficient - minimal effort, maximum gain.

The Thoughts

Great Western Trail is a development game. You are constantly under pressure to improve your abilities. It feels good to see how you are steadily building up your little engine. It reminds me a little of Goa. It also reminds me to Russian Railroad, but I wonder whether it's just because it has a railroad track. In Russian Railroad there are a few different general strategies you can pursue. You shouldn't try to do everything, because you will end up being a master of none. You need to be selective. In Great Western Trail, there are some areas you must work on. It is only a matter of sooner or later, and how high you want to go. In other areas, you have some freedom to decide how much effort to spend. Scoring is generally wide, unlike games like Navegador and Goa. In these games, you have to focus on a few areas in order to score high in them, i.e. you need enough depth. Great Western Trail is more about breadth. It is about how efficiently you are upgrading your abilities, and how efficiently you score points from the various sources.

Compared to Mombasa and Isle of Skye, I like Great Western Trail better because I like the central mechanism of repeatedly driving your herd through the map. It has a tempo and it creates a relentless pressure to upgrade yourself. The map evolves and each cycle through the map there will be differences. The players are collectively modifying the playing field. Navigating the map and deciding which path to take are an interesting problem to solve.

Player interaction is indirect. You grab stuff before others do, e.g. being first to upgrade a train station, being first to claim a spot with your building, buying the last cheap worker available. You place buildings to hinder your opponents and force them to pay you toll fees. Generally you can plan a few moves ahead without needing to worry that someone will spoil your plans. Still, you need to pay attention to what others are doing, especially when nearing the end of the game. You don't want to miss out on one final delivery which can be the difference between winning and losing.

Great Western Trail has many rules and details. It is not suitable for players new to boardgames. There is a similar feel to Mombasa and Isle of Skye, in the point salad nature. What sets it apart for me is that central cyclical mechanism. It gives the game character. All the other aspects of the game support and supplement this mechanism. The cycles may feel similar, but they are gradually evolving and you need to adapt.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Pax Porfiriana

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pax Porfiriana is based on the rule and the eventual fall of Porfirio Díaz. He ruled Mexico as a dictator for 35 years, from 1876 to 1911. You are one of his lieutenants, a local warlord. You and your fellow colleagues are all plotting to overthrow Diaz to become president yourselves.

The card at the top left is my character. Character cards are double sided. You start the game using this grey side, which means openly you are still loyal to Diaz, and you are still earning a salary of $2 per turn from him (the two cubes). Once you flip and declare your intention to overthrow him, you lose the salary, so you'd better have secured other sources of income by then.

The game comes with many cards, but only a subset is used each time you play. During setup, four Topple cards are shuffled into the deck. Scoring is done whenever anyone activates a Topple card. If one player has enough points to overthrow the government, he wins immediately. One unusual thing about Pax Porfiriana is its scoring system. There are four types of points (called Prestige). Each time scoring is done, only one type counts. It depends on what Regime the country is under at the time of scoring. If the regime is Pax Porfiriana (i.e. peace), only Loyalty Prestige matters. If the regime is US Intervention, then only Outrage Prestige matters. To win the game you need to decide which Prestige type to gather, you need to have the right Regime, and you need to have the Topple card resolved at the right time. When a Topple card is resolved, to win the game, the leading player must have more Prestige (of the right type) than the last two players plus Diaz himself combined. Diaz's Prestige is 2 by default. So even if the last two players have 0 Prestige, you still need 3 Prestige to win.

If no one manages to overthrow Diaz by the time the fourth Topple card is resolved, whoever is richest by then is the winner, because he is the most successful among Diaz's lieutenants and will eventually succeed him when he decides to retire.

Let's go back to your character card. When you declare your intention to become President, you lose your $2 salary. However making a declaration gives you 1 Prestige, which can be crucial to winning. Each character has two types of Prestige he can choose from, but once you declare, that Prestige you gain cannot be changed. Also there is no going back to serving Diaz. In this photo the Prestige options for my character are Loyalty and Command.

The card at the bottom left is an Army card. Armies can guard your businesses, or they can be your bodyguards. They can even camp at an opponent's business to extort money. The card at the bottom right is a Partner card. This card type has many different abilities. Both these cards have an oval mark, and these are the Prestige points. They are only counted if you have played the cards. To play a card you need to pay money.

This is the game board. There are always 12 cards on offer. The prices are shown. After cards are bought, remaining cards are shifted left to fill the blanks, and new cards are added at the rightmost slots, i.e. the most expensive slots. The card at the bottom right is the current Regime. It tells you what take effect during this Regime. The red and blue cards on the right are special cards which are always available. They are powerful, but expensive. Also you must use them the moment you buy them.

The card on the left is a business. The 10 at the top right corner is the cost to play the card. The single cube at the top left means a starting income of $1 per turn. The American flag at the bottom left means this business is located in the US. The mule icon means the mode of transportation to this location. The train icon means you may upgrade the mode of transportation to train for $4.

The card on the right is a bandit. You play it on a business to rob the owner of cash, and to cause unrest. As long as the business remains in unrest, it does not make money. The owner needs to spend actions to remove unrest. The Outrage Prestige icon means when you play this card on an opponent, you give him 1 Outrage Prestige.

Let's take a closer look at this Army card on the left. The train, mule and boot icons at the bottom tell you how much it costs to deploy the Army. These icons refer to the mode of transportation at the location you wish to deploy the Army to. The Mexican flag and the text Chihuahua means this Army can only be deployed in the Chihuahua region. The text Anarchy means upon playing this card, you must change the Regime to Anarchy. Cards which change Regime are valuable, since the right Regime is crucial for victory.

The Play

I did a three player game with Han and Allen. Han taught us the game. I struggled badly at the start, being very slow in getting my businesses running. Money was tight in the early game and businesses were not cheap to start. I did try to collect cards which I felt would synergise well, but without cash to play them, I was stuck with zero progress for quite some time.

Han was the Anarchist. He focused on collecting Revolution Prestige and he needed the Anarchy Regime. Allen focused on Outrage Prestige, and he needed the US Intervention Regime. I picked Loyalty Prestige, and I needed the Pax Porfiriana Regime. All three of us were quite focused on just one Prestige type. I felt it was more efficient this way. Allen was first to threaten to win, because he amassed Outrage Prestige quite quickly, mostly due to Han sending bandits his way. Economically he was able to match Han in the early game, while I floundered, so Han mostly directed the merry men his way. The first Topple card normally comes out about 40% into the draw deck, but when the first one appeared in our game, I felt it was quite soon. Allen did not manage to win at this first Topple event, with Han and I coordinating our efforts to stop him, but I was alarmed at how soon we had to be ready for the first possible push for victory. There was no time to waste! We had to be on alert right from the start.

I had thought my case was rather hopeless, since I had such a lousy start. To my surprise, we had quite a few twists of fate in our game, and all three of us had our moments of domination and near victory. We had dramatic rises and falls in fortunes. At one event, the Sonora region (I think it was) fell into turmoil. All business were destroyed, and new ones could not be started. This was devastating to Allen, who had many business there, while I was completely unscathed, because all my businesses were in USA. The underdog suddenly became the top contender. Such a game-changing event did not just come out of the left field. All cards enter the game at the rightmost, most expensive slots on the game board. They normally won't get claimed so early, so you have time to prepare, e.g. buy it yourself to cancel the event. Also once you have some rough idea of the card mix of the game, you will know it is a bad idea to put all your eggs in one basket.

Still, this is a turbulent era, so there will be many nasty events. You can mitigate but you can't avoid taking some hits. In our game we suffered an economic depression, which hurt all of us badly. A depression is triggered when two consecutive bear events occur. Han had explained this, but I had not paid attention to the bear and bull icons. I was caught unprepared. When a depression happens, income is greatly reduced, sometimes to negative, because you need to pay $1 per card in your play area every turn. You are often forced to discard some cards because you simply can't afford to keep them. When depression hit us, Allen had amassed the most cash, but with earning power plummeting, even that kind of cash wouldn't last forever. At that point I had one card in hand which could help me change the Regime to Pax Porfiriana. I was leading in Loyalty Prestige, and I would win if I could orchestrate the next Topple card to resolve with the Pax Porfiriana Regime. I was very anxious because I had it all figured out. I had enough cash and I knew what I needed to do to win. And then on Han's turn just before my victory, he changed the Regime to Anarchy. My plans went down the drain. So near to heaven, only to find myself crashing straight to hell. It was an emotional rollercoaster.

I became kingmaker on the last turn of the game. The fourth and last Topple card was on the board. Han was poised to win because the Regime was Anarchy, and he had enough money to trigger the Topple card, and would have enough Revolution points to overthrow Diaz. I could trigger the Topple card early to spoil his plans, but the game would end anyway since this was the last Topple card. Allen would be the winner because he had the most cash on hand. In the end, I decided to stop Han, since it felt wrong to not stop the most immediate threat. So Allen won, by tiebreaker (kind of).

My play area. My character card on the left is still showing the grey side, which means I have not yet openly betrayed Diaz. I still have those two cubes earning me $2 per turn. The two orange bandit cards under my character card indicate that I have been attacked by bandits twice, each time giving me 1 Outrage Prestige. This was Han's work. He had attacked Allen and given him many Outrage Prestige points earlier in the game, and then later on he said he had to give some to me in order to prevent Allen from winning. That was so... convenient. Disrupting my businesses was an... ah... unfortunate side effect. All four cards in the centre are my businesses. One of them is still suffering from unrest (red discs), so it is not making money for now. The two mines on the right have no cubes on them because we are in a depression now. Mines don't generate income during a depression.

The Thoughts

Pax Porfiriana is about competing amidst chaos. I find the twists of fate exciting. You can never be sure how long your good fortune will last. You need to be alert all the time. It is not easy to win since the rest will always work together to rein you in. Masterminding a successful coup takes patience and careful planning. If you manage to pull it off, it is very satisfying. The buildup towards the day of reckoning is tense. That feeling of almost getting there is tantalising. This is the kind of anticipation and exhilaration in football (soccer), not the kind in basketball.

Leader bashing might be a point of contention. It seems relatively easy for the non-contenders to work together to stop the leader, when to pull of a win the leader needs to get so many balls aligned. It can be frustrating to see your carefully laid plans spoiled by a rabble of losers. Still, I feel a successful coup is very much possible, albeit challenging. In fact the difficulty makes the victory sweeter. Ultimately, everyone wants to win, and not just stop somebody else from winning. It is more important to invest in your own path to victory. You should only do the minimum necessary to stop an opponent.

The victory condition is unusual and requires getting used to, but once you grasp the concept, it is not all that complicated. Overall, this is a game with many rules and details to manage. Learning it does take some effort. However the level of detail makes the game an immersive experience. This is a gamer's game, and a flavourful one.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Ticket To Ride: Pennsylvania

Plays: 2Px6.

I hadn't planned to play Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania. One fine weekend I felt like playing basic Ticket to Ride with the family on iOS (because it's quick). I found that the app had been removed from the Appstore, replaced by a new version. If you have bought the old version before, you get the new version for free, plus the Pennsylvania map. I dove into this new map without even reading the rules. Bad idea. I didn't know what I was doing. The interface is good, but not miraculous enough to teach you the new rules. Eventually I had to read the in-game rules to understand how things work.

The physical boardgame expansion contains two maps, Pennsylvania and United Kingdom. At the moment the UK map is not yet implemented in the app.

The Game

There are many long routes along the outer edges of the map. At the top left, there are ferry routes to Canada. This route type specifically requires jokers (locomotive cards).

The Pennsylvania map introduces the shareholding mechanism, albeit a simple one. Next to most routes you see logos of railroad companies. Whenever you complete a route, you get to claim one share of one of these companies. In this photo there are three logos on the route between Scranton and New York. There are four between Scranton and Allentown. Shares are scored at game end. Each company gives out points to the largest two or three shareholders. The bigger the company, i.e. the more shares that can be claimed, the higher the payout.

When you check the status of shares, this is what you see. The panel on the right shows all currently available shares. There are two numbers on each share. The first number is the sequence number of the currently available share. The second number is the total number of shares. At the top, the company JCL has three shares in total. One has been claimed, so the one currently available is the second share.

The panel at the bottom shows what I own. The large white numbers are the number of shares. Of the two smaller numbers, the first one refers to the lowest share sequence number that I have for that particularly company. The second number is the total number of shares of the company. The sequence number is important because it is a tiebreaker. When the game ends, if two shareholders have the same number of shares, the tie is broken by whoever has invested in the company earlier. You check the lowest sequence number you have. Let's take the company WM as an example. 1/4 means I was the first to have claimed a share from this company. The big 2 means I hold two shares. This means I will definitely score 1st position for WM. Even if another player also has two shares, I will win by tiebreaker because I was first to invest in this company.

This is when shares scoring is done. For this company, Michelle (FYV) has three shares and scores 10pts. Both the dummy player and I (HCS) have one share each. However since the dummy player has claimed a share earlier, it gets the 6pts for being in 2nd place. I only get 3pts for being in 3rd place.

The Play

When I started playing the Pennsylvania map, the shareholding aspect felt disjointed. It was partly because I jumped in without reading the rules. It felt like the game had veered away from the original simplicity. It took me a few plays to get comfortable. I eventually realised that the addition isn't all that complicated. However it is still an additional layer to think about, with new tactical considerations, more things to remember, more things to calculate in your mind. If you prefer Ticket to Ride to stay simple, you may not like this.

When the game starts, you must keep at least three tickets. Most of the time you do want to complete all three, because otherwise the penalty can be painful. As you work on the three tickets, you will collect shares,and you will compete with other players in shareholding. You can plan your routes based on the shares you want to collect. I don't do that myself because I find that too tiresome. I plan routes based on the usual considerations in basic Ticket to Ride - e.g. shortest path, availability of the colours I need. Shares are nice-to-have bonuses, at least when I'm still trying to complete my tickets. I do take note of what my opponents are collecting, and when given an opportunity to thwart them, I would. I just don't go out of the way to perfectly align my share collecting with my route building. When I complete my tickets, there are two general directions I can go in. I either get more tickets and continue to focus on completing them, or I forget about tickets and switch to compete in shares. In the latter case, I may build routes outside of my network, just because they give me the shares I want. This is something different from basic Ticket to Ride. In the basic game, you build isolated routes mostly to mess with an opponent (you evil person!) or to score a long route.

The shareholding mechanism affects timing. Sometimes you are tempted to claim routes early because of the first investor advantage.

Michelle and I played 2-player games, which come with additional rules related to a dummy player. When completing a route, you first claim a share for yourself, and then you claim one for the dummy player. So when the game ends, the dummy player has as many shares as both players added up. Half the dummy player's shares are randomly discarded before shares scoring is done. You can use the dummy player to help yourself or hinder your opponent, e.g. exhausting the shares of a company to deny your opponent. Due to the dummy player rules, the 2-player version is more complicated. I have not tried playing with 3 or more, so I can't say how different it is.

The Thoughts

What Pennsylvania introduces is the shareholding mechanism. It's not very complex, but it is an additional layer on top of the basic gameplay. Some may not like it because it deviates from the original straightforward nature of the game. It is something different. Some who have played many versions of Ticket to Ride may welcome the new twist.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

boardgame locations in Malaysia

I recently discovered this list of locations related to boardgames. This includes boardgame and hobby shops, boardgame cafes. This may be handy if you are in Malaysia. https://foursquare.com/grayle/list/tabletop-gaming-stores--venues-in-malaysia

Monday, 1 May 2017

Alchemists: The King's Golem

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Alchemists is a 2014 game. It is a deduction game with an unusual setting. I played it once a few years ago, and at the time was tempted to buy a copy. I didn't, and after that first play, never revisited it until recently when Ivan brought the expansion to Boardgamecafe.net. The expansion is called The King's Golem and it contains a few modules. We played with all modules added.

This is the king's golem. Players now have a new type of action - working on the golem. You can experiment with the golem, to see which ingredients trigger what responses from the golem. An ingredient may cause the golem's ears to smoke or its heart to warm, or both, or neither. Ultimately you want to discover which specific combination of two ingredients animates the golem. As you experiment with the golem and learn more about it, you may submit progress reports to the king, which gives you some benefits. When you feel confident that you can animate the golem, the king will grant you access to it. If you succeed you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail you will be ridiculed. You need to use the mobile phone app when you attempt to animate the golem. This screen above is shown when you successfully animate the golem.

You need to use a new deduction sheet. Notice the sun and moon icons along the two sides. Now every ingredient has a new property - day or night. As one of your actions, you may spend a king's favour (a new resource) to visit the royal library. At the library you may study one specific ingredient and learn whether it is a day or night ingredient. This eliminates four of the eight possible alchemical component combinations.

At the bottom there are three new sections, all related to the king's golem. The first section is for recording your experiments on the golem. You record whether an ingredient causes the golem to smoke or warm. It is the component of a specific colour and size which causes the golem to smoke, and another component which causes it to warm. So the next new section is for deducting which specific components do these. Once you know the two specific components, you can work out which two ingredients animates the golem, because only two of the eight ingredients in the game contain those two specific components.

This new board is for golem studies. At the start of the game you place your player marker at the bottom left. Each time you perform an experiment on the golem, you advance to the next level. At the second level you qualify to submit progress reports to the king. To advance to the third level, you need to successfully animate the golem. When you submit a progress report, you have three options, as specified at the bottom right. Let's look at the next photo to explain these.

The first type of progress report is when you state two possible components which make the golem smoke or warm. In this photo the blue player has submitted such a report. The two face-down tiles belonging to the blue player specify two components which may make the golem warm. The second type of progress report is when you are absolutely sure which component makes the golem smoke or warm. In this photo all three players feel confident about which component makes the golem smoke. The third type of progress reporting is when you amend a previously submitted report which contains two components. You remove one of the components, i.e. you are now sure which of the two actually triggers the response from the golem.

At the end of the game, all reports are scored. Single component reports get the most points, but also get the highest penalty if you are wrong. Dual component reports get fewer points, and the penalty for being wrong is also smaller. Since you can't see what your opponents have submitted, watching what they do on this board usually doesn't help you deduct.

This is another expansion game board. These are a new type of theory you may publish. In the base game, publishing theories is done based on ingredients. In the expansion, you may publish theories based on components. If you feel confident about a component of a specific colour, you may publish a theory claiming which ingredients contain a positive or negative signed component of this colour. One big difference is to publish a theory based on components, you need to spend a king's favour. Normal publications require cash. Otherwise, publishing works the same way. You gain reputation (points). You lose reputation if your theory is debunked or it is found to be wrong at game end. You get a grant when you publish enough theories.

This is an extension of the main game board. There are two new groups of actions, at the top and at the bottom. The top section is related to visiting the royal library, as mentioned above. The bottom section is related to working on the golem. The purple icons are the new resource - the king's favour. The middle section is the merchant, which already exists in the base game. However there is a small change. Instead of three artifacts on offer per stage, you now have four. The fourth one requires the king's favour as part of the payment.

These are the starting resource cards. They are a new module. In the base game everyone starts with the same resources. If you use this module, you draw four cards and select two to determine your starting resources. It's a small change, but I like it because it creates variation among players.

This is yet another expansion module. This is the player order table. At the start of a round, you take turns claiming a spot on the table. The spot you claim determines the goodies you get. Some spots require a payment. Once all pawns are placed, the turn order is determined by their positions. When you use the expansion module, every round a different player order table is used, giving different types of goodies. This is also a simple change. It injects some uncertainty and variability.

The Play

It had been a long while since my previous play, and I had forgotten most of the strategies, so I decided to play with a simple mindset. I just wanted to enjoy the deduction process. I neglected the money game, which meant ignoring the artifacts. This is where I need to inject a warning along the lines of "kids, do not try this at home". Ignoring artifacts is certainly not a winning strategy. Artifacts are very powerful when used right. Neither Jeff nor Ivan missed out on them.

I was happy with my deductive work. Towards game end I found that I was fairly certain of the components of all eight ingredients. This sounds nice, but it is actually wasteful. I didn't have that much time to publish so many theories. Spending so much effort to learn more than I could score points from was bad. I could only console myself that I did it for science, not for glory. To play effectively, one needs to make efficient use of his resources and time.

I spent much effort on the golem too. It was the new and shiny thing so I wanted to experience and understand it. It is quite a complex expansion module and it gives players more depth to explore. What I find amazing is how this module integrates seamlessly into the base game. The experimentation you do on the golem can help you in finding out the components of the eight ingredients, and the experimentation you do on the ingredients themselves too can help you figure out what animates the golem. The overall deduction space becomes richer. The golem module feels like part of the family and not an awkward son-in-law.

I feel the new type of publication makes the game a little less competitive. I imagine it would be worse with only two players. It might be fine with four. In our game, Jeff only published theories based on components. Ivan and I fought over conventional publishing, but the competition was mild.

The deduction in the game continues to be satisfying. It's the same kind of pleasure as uncovering a mystery, or solving a difficult math problem. There is more to think about compared to the base game, but if you enjoy the base game, you are probably fine with this kind of quiet and intense calculation. In our game I decided to just enjoy the deduction and not worry too much about winning. Yes, that's my excuse for doing so poorly in the scoring department. I made two critical mistakes in my calculations. The first one was related to the components of an ingredient. Afterwards when I rechecked my calculation steps, I managed to find where I missed a step. That impacted all calculations beyond that point, ultimately resulting in a wrong theory being published. I lost points after my theory was debunked by Ivan. The other mistake I made was related to the golem. I was first to enthusiastically tell the king I could animate the golem, and I actually succeeded in getting the two ingredients right. However at the end of the game, I found that I had reversed the two components which caused the golem to smoke and to warm. Despite being able to animate the golem, the king was rather upset at my two incorrect progress reports, and I lost much face at court. Only one word described my final score - horrible. When I rechecked my notes on the golem, I found that I had recorded one of my experiment results incorrectly. An ingredient which caused the golem to warm was recorded as having caused it to smoke. No wonder my progress report was wrong. This is a game where you need to be meticulous and careful at every step, because many deductions depend on the previous steps being right. One misstep and your whole theory unravels.

I was quite confident and my deduction sheet was almost full. Unfortunately being confident didn't necessary mean being right.

The Thoughts

The King's Golem is meant for those who have already played much of the base game and want to extend the replayability or want some variability. If you have not played the base game, do not add this expansion. The base game itself is already quite rich. Some of the small additions in the expansion are, strictly speaking, non-essential. However for long-time players, the variability will be welcome. The golem module is quite a big and complex addition, and is not recommended for new players. Once you are familiar with the base game, you will appreciate how seamlessly this module combines with the original mechanisms. I am certainly impressed.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Escape stories

Story 1

Benz's group has progressed to play Escape with both the expansion modules contained in the base game - the curses and the treasures. I asked them to add both. The curses hinder the players, while the treasures may help them. They can already win the basic game comfortably, so it doesn't make sense to add only the treasures. Adding only the curses might be a little brutal. So I decided to add both for them. The additional rules are manageable. They have attempted this three times, but unfortunately have not yet been successful. I joined them on the third attempt, but it didn't help.

One of the curses removes any die from the game if it falls to the ground. When I taught the game, I said this was one curse which they didn't need to worry about. I said just take care when rolling your dice and you'll never have to concern yourself with this curse. However, in one of the games, Xiao Zhu actually did drop a die on his lap when under that curse. He hurriedly picked it up and threw me a sheepish look, "You said dropped to the ground right? So this doesn't count." I later checked the rulebook, and found that I had taught that rule wrong. A die is lost as long as it falls off the table. Doesn't matter if it lands on the ground, on a lap or on a chair.

Later Xiao Zhu did lose a die to the ground. There was no dispute this time. We were so sure this was a harmless curse, but I guess the game designer knew what he was doing. Losing that die was fatal for Xiao Zhu. He had another curse that prevented him from moving, and he needed three dice to break that curse. The die he lost was his third die. With only two dice left, he was doomed to be stuck in the temple. The game was lost since everyone must escape in order to win.

In the game when I joined them to play, they expected I would play a leadership role and lead them to victory. Unfortunately I was struck by the curse of silence very early on, and remained mute for the rest of the game. I was quite bold in discovering new rooms, which lead to me getting heavily cursed. I also got the one-hand-on-head curse very early. I never realised keeping one hand on your head for 9 minutes could be so tiring. Anyhow, I don't think having me on the team would have made too big a difference. They were already playing quite well. They worked together well.

~~~~~~~

Story 2

In the subsequent session, I joined them to play all the way through. We had five players, and it was quite chaotic. I realised that previously I had made a mistake. When there were only four of them, I had asked them to use 16 gems. That was wrong. They should have used 14 instead. Using 16 gems made it harder than normal. Oops. Still, it took us many tries to beat the game with treasures and curses added. We only succeeded on our fifth attempt this session. That's a total of eight attempts, counting the three failed (albeit unfair) attempts from the previous session.

There were twice when time ran out while we were already at the exit. We couldn't get everyone to roll enough keys to leave the temple. Once we were so very close that we only had one player lacking keys. We had an agreement that once we reached the door, we would wait till everyone had enough keys before stepping through the exit together. After all, we would only win if everyone made it out. However this was not just a matter of team spirit. There was a practical purpose. Those who already had enough keys would still keep rolling their dice, hoping to get the yellow unlock icons. These could be used to help others in case their dice got locked. It was usually good to stick together.

There were twice we forgot to make use of one of the treasures - the one which let us remove a gem from the gem pool. Had we not forgotten, we might have won. Just one gem fewer could be a matter of life and death. Normally treasures were kept aside and used only when an opportune moment came. For this specific type, we should have remembered to apply the effect immediately and not set it aside.

In the previous session, I made fun of Xiao Zhu for dropping his dice. This time, karma struck. I got the don't-drop curse, and I lost not one, but two dice in that very game. I caused my team to fail because I had the don't-move curse too. By losing two dice, I no longer had enough dice to break the don't-move curse.

Space can be a problem when playing with five, since the game is real-time and everyone is moving pieces, drawing tiles and reaching across the table all at the same time. In one particular game, the map kept expanding in the direction furthest away from me, and I struggled to reach the room my pawn was in. I stood up abruptly, saying "I gotta go", and prepared to move and sit at the other end of the table so that I could continue to play. Ruby thought I meant I needed to go to the toilet smack in the middle of our game.

When we finally beat the game, it was very satisfying.

~~~~~~~

Story 3

In the next session, I added missions. Normally how this works is one of the six missions are shuffled into the tile stack, and you don't know which one it is until you draw it. When I taught the group to play, I taught the missions one by one, explaining specifically how one mission worked and then shuffling it into the deck. This way the group didn't have to remember all six missions.

The first mission I taught was the holy grail. Once you find the room with the grail, you need to bring the grail along with you all the way to the exit. As part of moving to another room, in addition to the two icons required, you also need to roll a fire icon to carry the grail with you to the next room. So you need at least three dice to be able to carry the grail.

The second mission I taught was the restless ghost. Once you find the coffin room, the ghost appears at the start tile. You need to go all the way back to find the ghost, then guide it to its coffin, before you can exit the temple. To persuade the ghost to move to an adjacent room, you need to be in the same room, and you need to roll two fire icons. You need not move together with it. The two fire icons "push" it to the next room.

In our game, when we found the coffin, it was four or five rooms away from the starting tile. We decided that two of us would go back to fetch the ghost, while the rest continued to explore the temple and place gems. However, without intentionally planning it, we formed a bucket brigade. We created a path with one person per room, all in an uninterrupted chain. Each of us rolled two fires, and we managed to transport the ghost very swiftly to its resting place. I must say that was quite cool and satisfying.

The ghost (old photo).

The third mission was the old tree. The game started with three additional gems. Once the room with the tree was discovered, we could move these additional gems to the room by discovering rooms on the other sides of the three walls of the tree room. In our game, the placement of the tree room was poor. In order to discover the other rooms surrounding it, we had to turn back and take a roundabout way. Whether we went left or right, it was going to be a longish path, which meant that if one direction turned out to be a dead end, it would take us much time to turn back and try the other direction. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to split up so that we could explore both directions at the same time. We hadn't thought of that then. Thankfully, the exploration went well, and we found a nice path that wound around the tree room, allowing us to place all three of the extra gems.

The tree (old photo).

In one particular game, Ruby and Xiao Zhu almost started a fight. We were all in a room trying to roll fire icons to place gems. Xiao Zhu had rolled three, and his other two dice were locked. He couldn't do anything except wait for others to unlock his locked dice, or for the gems to be placed so that he could reroll his three dice showing fire. Ruby rolled the yellow unlock icon, and wanted to help Xiao Zhu unlock his dice. Xiao Zhu said no and asked her to unlock her own locked dice. Ruby insisted on helping him. They both tried to convince the other, to no avail. The clock was ticking and both failed to explain his / her rationale. Benz and I were alarmed and stepped in to break the fight. At the time we managed to get to 10 fire icons, which meant we could now place the gems, and all the dice showing fire could be rerolled. We asked both of them to stop debating and move on. Thankfully we won that game eventually. After the game we did come back to discuss what had happened. Actually they both had their points, just that when under immense time pressure, they couldn't get those points across clearly. The real-time nature of Escape can trigger all sorts of emotions.

In all three games with missions, we managed to complete the missions and exit the temple before the final countdown. This session Edwin didn't play because he had some work to wrap up. CK joined us since he had some spare time. CK had only played the basic game previously. It was his first time playing treasures, curses and missions. After winning all three games, we joked that it must be due to having CK join us that we were so successful. Or maybe it was due to having gotten rid of Edwin. I hope he didn't hear that! :-P

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Race for the Galaxy on mobile platform (Beta)

Race for the Galaxy used to be my most played game, in particular the advanced 2-player version, which was a staple for my wife and I. The mobile version is in development now, I recently found out. It is at the Beta testing stage, and it is available for both iOS and Android platforms. I'm not sure how much longer the Beta will last. If you are interested, go sign up for Beta testing asap. Link here. The official launch date is early May.

I seldom play Race for the Galaxy nowadays. Now that I have my hands on the Beta version, I find myself playing it heavily. The AI used is the same one developed by Keldon. Keldon is a fan of the game, and developed a very good AI for it quite some time ago, in a PC implementation. I have played that. He has done such a good job that the official developer of the mobile version decided to work with him and use his AI.

Main menu. You can play against the AI or against other players. So far I have only played against the AI. I tried the multiplayer feature once, but was not able to get matched with any opponent. It might be because there aren't many Beta testers, or they are mostly in timezones different from mine.

It is a little difficult to play on a phone. Race is a game with many details, and in order to show that much information, it has to be shown in small sizes. It can be tiring to the eyes, even shortsightedness-inducing. Or perhaps the problem is with me - I'm getting too old for this size, or my phone - screen not big enough. When I tried it on the iPad, it was much better.

To view the details of a card, you can double tap or tap and hold. Details will be displayed like in the screenshot above. I tend to be too impatient to do this. I'd rather squint at the screen and get on with the game. Once you are familiar with the game, by looking at the picture and the rough positions of the icons on the card, you can generally guess correctly the functions of the card. Veterans will have no problems. Newbies may find this challenging. Race is not a mainstream game. Hobby games is not yet a mainstream hobby. So Race is a niche within a niche. That said, it is one of the better selling games. I hope the mobile version finds a large enough and profitable enough market, and introduces the game to many more players. It is a great game.

Normally you only see a summary of the AI's tableau of cards. You only see an icon for each card. The icon is similar to that on the physical card. It tells you whether the card is a world or a development, what goods it produces, whether it is a production or a windfall world, whether it is a civilian or military world, and the cost. The icon also tells you whether there are currently goods on the card. To see details of the AI's cards, you need to tap the AI area. The details will be displayed as in the screenshot above.

If you use the objectives module, the objectives will be displayed on the right side of the screen as icons. When you double tap to see details, this is what you see.

A summary of the AI's cards is at the top left. The cards in the centre are my tableau. My hand cards are at the bottom. I like how the user interface is designed. It is functional and easy to use. I did go through the tutorial. I already knew the game, so the main purpose for me was to learn the interface. Race is not an easy game to teach. The tutorial contains 3 lessons, and the rules are introduced bit by bit. The first two lessons use incomplete versions of the game. Only the third lesson uses a complete game. I think this should make things easier for newbies.

I defeated the AI. Usually I lose to it, and I am not enthusiastic about sharing those screenshots... I play with AI set to hard. It really is quite good and sometimes I learn some tactics from it.

Friday, 7 April 2017

teaching friends to Escape

By now I have taught three different batches of colleagues to play Escape: The Curse of the Temple. The first time was at home, when I invited them over for an afternoon of boardgaming. They didn't manage to beat the game after three attempts. I joined them on the third attempt. We were close, but still couldn't escape the temple in time. That was last year. Recently I taught two different groups to play at the office. Escape is a game which easily catches the attention of non gamers and casual gamers. It is addictive. Since one game only lasts 10 minutes, when you fail your first attempt, you are eager to go again, because you feel you can surely do better, and hey, it's just 10 minutes. The game being a real-time game makes it exciting for new players.

Zhi Nin, Zharif, Zee Zun, CK and Eva.

I didn't join them to play this time. I just played referee and teacher. I helped remind them of the mid-point earthquakes, when they needed to return to the starting chamber (or lose a die). Amidst the chaos, it is easy for new players to miss the change in music. I also watched out for illegal moves. Quite often when one of them tried to help another unlock frozen dice, I had to remind them that they were in different rooms, so they could not help each other.

Eva's group did not manage to beat the game. The funniest thing in the games they played was how in one of the games the group abandoned Zharif. At the time the countdown for a mid-point earthquake had started, and most of them prepared to head back to the start chamber. Zharif was still doing exploration, and discovered a lucrative room where they could place up to 3 gems. Unfortunately the rest were all running off, so Zharif could not do much all by himself. After that earthquake, the group decided not to bother with the room Zharif found, because it was very away. They headed off in the opposite direction. Zharif had no choice but to run as fast as he could to rejoin the group. Later in the game, they found that they still had too many gems in the storage, which made exiting the temple very difficult. If they had placed 3 gems in the room Zharif found, it would have made a big difference. So coordinating moves and deciding when and where to discover rooms are crucial and can make or break a game. They had a 5-player group, which meant many gems to get rid of. Almost every room with gem spaces needed to be fully utilised.

At first I expected them to play just one quick game, because Zhi Nin and Zee Zun had a online game event to run soon. However it was Zhi Nin who suggested to go again. She said it wasn't necessary for her to be online throughout the duration of the event. No one objected. And after they played the second game, they went for a third! This is how addictive Escape can be.

The third group, Benz's group, fared better and managed to beat the game. They often work closely in their day-to-day work, so they already have good teamwork. They are close friends. When they lost the first game, they started discussing what to do in the second. Whether they won the second game is a point of contention. When the music approached the third and last countdown, I made a mistake and announced the game end to them before the actual end time. They were very close to winning when they stopped. Then in the next few seconds I realised my mistake, and quickly exclaimed, "Go!" They were quick to respond and immediately resumed. By the time the last of them exited the temple, the music had stopped. However if taking into account the short delay caused by my mistake, they might have made it before time ran out.

They won the third game quite comfortably, at around the 8 minute mark. They had a good grasp of the tactics by then. The third game went very smoothly for them too - rolling what they wanted, drawing the right tiles at the right time, etc. They managed to remove every single gem from the gem storage. When they found the exit, it was a piece of cake to go outside.

They never bothered with the earthquakes. Not that they didn't care. Sometimes they were too far away. Sometimes they were too disorganised. Sometimes they were too busy trying to move gems to a room. So they always lost dice at the earthquakes. However ignoring earthquakes didn't seem to be too disastrous. They did save time, and they did manage to win.

Ruby, Benz, Edwin and Xiao Zhu.

The next step for them will be the expansion modules in the base game, followed by the modules in the two expansions. Now I've brought both Expansions 1 & 2 to the office.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Empires: Age of Discovery

Plays: 6Px1.

Empires: Age of Discovery (2015) is the second edition of Age of Empires III (2007), which contains both the base game and the Builders expansion. I have the original Age of Empires III, but I had not tried Builders before. The name has changed in this new edition of the game, due to the high licensing cost of using the AOE3 name, but the core game is the same.

The Game

Age of Empires III is not new to me, so I will just explain Empires: Age of Discovery briefly. This is a worker placement game. In the first half of a round, you take turns placing workers on spaces on the right half of the board. In the second half, these workers perform actions in a specific order. You conquer new land (the game calls this "discovery" *cough*), you send colonists to settle the new world, you collect trade goods, you construct buildings, you fight wars etc. Buildings are an important part of the game. They give you strong powers and augment your abilities, e.g. giving you an extra worker every round. One special feature of the game is you have different types of workers. The common worker is a colonist, but you can have specialist workers like soldiers, merchants, and builders. Soldiers are the only type which may kill enemy workers. Missionaries bring along an extra colonist when they migrate to the new world. Some workers have multiple uses, making them more flexible. E.g. the captain counts as two workers when competing for the merchant ship or when launching an expedition. Specialists can be used as normal colonists, just that you will be wasting their talent.

Scoring is done in several ways, the first being area majority in the colonies. At each colony, whoever has most workers gains 6 victory points, and whoever has second most gets 2VP. In case of a tie for first, the winners only get 2VP each. So there is strong incentive to be sole winner. Some buildings give VP at game end. Trade goods and merchant ships generate income every round. At game end, this earning power scores VP.

Here are five different workers. From left to right - colonist, missionary, builder, captain, soldier. I forgot the merchant. He was left out of the group photo. On the right we have a merchant ship.

The coins in the second edition are gorgeous.

The artwork of the game board is different. The colours are lighter, the design a little cleaner. I like the newer version better.

South America is divided into only 3 regions. Each undiscovered (i.e. unconquered) region has a face-down discovery tile, which specifies the strength of the natives and how much money you earn when, ahem, "discovering" the region. Discoveries are not automatically successful. Your expeditionary force needs to at least match the strength of the natives. So there is risk. The larger the force you send, the lower the risk.

These are some of the spaces you can place your workers. The green tiles on the right are the buildings. We did the full six player game. Every round only five buildings were made available, so at least one player wouldn't get a new building. Every round only one merchant ship was available. With six players, it was not easy to fight for it. In case of a tie when fighting for the merchant ship, the winner is determined using the turn order. The tricky thing is turn order changes during action execution. The turn order at the start of the round may have already changed by the time you resolve the merchant ship space.

Here is another difference between first and second edition. In the second edition, the turn order box is here on the far right. The box for competing for turn order is at the other end of the board, near the top. In the first edition, both boxes are next to each other near the top of the board. I don't quite understand the change. Maybe it is to reduce confusion? Or is there a rule change I missed?

The Play

In Round 1 of the game, I had first pick at buildings. I was second in player order and had not expected I would have first pick. However, Sinbad who was first in player order chose to place his first worker in the trade goods box. I placed mine in the buildings box without hesitation. Initially, expecting to have second pick, I had planned to get the building which gave me one extra colonist every round. When I won the right for first pick unexpectedly, it threw me off balance. I couldn't resist buying the New World Cartography building. The building itself was 4VP. The free discovery it gave me (next to it) was worth 5VP. It also saved me the manpower I would otherwise have spent on an expedition. This all sounded good. However, my decision crippled me for many rounds. The benefits from New World Cartography were all immediate benefits, and didn't help build my long-term capabilities. I had spent my initial capital, and it would take me many rounds before I earned enough money to buy another building. In hindsight, I should have picked the free colonist building.

In this game we played, Jeff and Ivan did best. Both invested well in building the capabilities of their nations. The merchant ship was won by one of them most rounds. Jeff was by far the richest player. In a way, it was good for me that they did so well. They were the obvious leaders, so the other four players collaborated to hinder them. When there was a choice on who to hurt, the preference was usually one of them. I, having screwed myself so effectively at the beginning, had to play the pauper and hope for mercy. Jeff and Ivan had difficulties with colonisation, because Sim and Dith were constant threats with their soldiers. Jeff and Ivan had to think twice where and when to send their colonists. I was the indirect beneficiary from all this. I couldn't compete in making money, launching expeditions, or getting the merchant ship. So I tried to focus on simple colonisation. That resulted in me doing better than most others in colonisation.

Sim was the warmonger. He had buildings which gave free soldiers, and he trained the most soldiers and initiated the most battles. Dith invested in warfare too. However the two of them did not have many conflicts. They coordinated their efforts to attack Jeff and Ivan. Sinbad and I did worst, and declared ourselves Belgium and Luxemburg. We were no match for the big boys - France, England, Spain and Holland.

At this point everyone wanted to colonise. The queue was almost filled up, and every player had a foot in - all six colours were represented. Most workers here were colonists. I (green) had a missionary. Sim (orange) and Dith (red) had soldiers.

At the start of the game, the Caribbean was the only region open for colonisation. Most players were not really interested in colonisation in the early game, so I (green) ended up dominating the Caribbean. Being weak meant I had to go where no one else wanted to go. I intentionally sent more workers than was necessary, as a deterrence. Others could have fought me for the Caribbean, and won, so I needed to make it costly and thus unattractive. Sim (orange) could have killed my colonists with his soldier, but it would take many turns and rounds, so he couldn't be bothered to waste his actions this way.

Sinbad (yellow) was leading in Peru. Sim (orange) had the guns. Jeff (blue) had a merchant. Sim could choose to kill Sinbad's colonist, but it would be pointless. If no player had 3 colonists in a region, the region would not score at all. Sim would need to kill Jeff's merchant so that he could be the sole second place player. If he tied with Jeff in second place, neither would score. This is a situation where you probably don't want to target the leader.

This was the end of the first of three eras. Many regions were not yet discovered.

This was the middle of the second era. All regions were discovered by now.

Near the end of the second era, Sim (orange) had majority in two South American regions. He had exactly three workers, which was required for a region to score. Unfortunately, one of the buildings purchased this round was an epidemic. All players who had three or more workers in a region had to lose one of these workers. This completely messed up his plans. He lost his third workers in both these regions, and the era ended with neither region scoring. That's 12VP lost!

These were the scores at the end of Era 2. I was leading in scores because of my colonists. I knew this would be short lived, but at least I had my moment of glory. Discoveries and buildings were scored only at game end, and I knew I was going to do poorly in these aspects.

This was near game end. See those stacks of gold coins at the top right? Those were all Jeff's. He was swimming in gold.

Final scoring. We knew it would likely be Jeff (blue) or Ivan (purple). Going into the final reckoning, I thought Jeff would emerge victorious, because he was so ridiculously rich. Also, near game end, Ivan was denied a building he wanted. He was forced to buy another building. It should still score him points, but there was a big element of uncertainty. To his pleasant surprise, this last building scored very well, and allowed him to defeat Jeff narrowly, by just 2VP!

The Thoughts

The builders are a nice addition to Age of Empires III. Handy but not overpowered. They feel like they have always been around, and not an awkward addition or patch. One ability of builders which we never used in our game was their ability to increase the VP value of regions. We only used the builders to get discounts for buildings. It is good that buildings become cheaper. The buildings drive diversity and specialisation among players, and make the game colourful. This was my first time playing a 6-player game, and I think the more the merrier. There is much more competition, which makes the game intense and dynamic. So many opponents to watch!