Saturday, 14 January 2017

Kolejka (the queuing game)

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Kolejka is a game from Poland, set in the final days of the communist era when the economy is falling apart. Shops run out of goods all the time. If you need to buy something, you need to queue on the street to wait for the next delivery. You don't know when there will be one, but you still queue, hoping that there will be enough goods for you to pick one up when the next delivery comes.

Your objective is to collect ten items. Everyone draws an objective card at the start of the game. It specifies exactly what you need to collect. This is open information. You know what everyone else needs. The first player to buy all the things he needs wins the game.

There are five shops and a black market on the board. I played with the expansion, so there is a 7th location - the vodka shop. Each round represents one day. The first thing you do in a day is send your family members out to queue. You decide which of the 7 locations they go to to queue. Naturally when you join a queue you join at the very end of it.

These were the items I needed to buy - four portions of food (chicken), three electrical appliances (iron), two pieces of furniture (chair) and one piece of clothing.

Once all the queuing is done, you determine which shops get deliveries today. Three cards are drawn from the delivery deck to determine which goods will be delivered, and the quantities. There are five goods types in the game, which means there will be at most three shops getting deliveries. In the worst case, there is only one goods type being delivered (i.e. all three cards are of the same type).

These three cards tell you that today these goods are being delivered - two portions of food, four pieces of furniture and two packs of basic necessities.

After goods delivery comes the most important phase of the day - playing cards. Cards have a wide variety of effects. Everyone has the same set of 14 cards, each card within a set being unique. The base game has only 10 cards, 4 are added by the expansion. At the start of a week, which consists of five days (or rounds), 4 cards are randomly removed, and the remaining 10 forms your draw deck for the week. You draw three as your starting hand. In a round you may play up to three cards. At the end of the round you always draw back up to three, unless you have used up your deck. All cards, including the four removed at the beginning of the week, are reshuffled when the week ends. For the following week, you go through the same process.

Some cards affect the queue, e.g. you can let a family member jump to the head of a queue, you can push an opponent two spaces back, or you can have family member cut queue right behind another family member. You can even completely turn a queue around - last becomes first and vice versa. Some cards affect deliveries, e.g. increasing the quantity delivered, delivering an item to a wrong shop, and even shutting down a shop for one day. Naturally this last one will win you many hateful stares. Everyone takes turns playing cards, until everyone passes. Only after this the people in the queues proceed to buy goods, limited to one piece per person. Usually there won't be enough for everyone in the queues, so some will be forced to stay in the queues overnight and hope they get something the next day.

These are some of the cards you get to play.

This section in the foreground is the black market. It works differently from regular shops. If your family member comes here, he doesn't simply pick up an item. He needs to barter for it at a 2:1 rate. The unpainted pawn standing on one of the goods types means that type is discounted. You swap for it at a 1:1 rate. This pawn moves left at the end of every day, so it effectively marks the day of the week.

The other special location is the vodka shop. There are no delivery cards for vodka. All vodka cards not owned by players are stacked here. When you send family members to queue here, you can usually predict whether he will get any. Not always, since your opponents may tinker with the queue, but at least you know exactly how many bottles of vodka are available here. Vodka cannot be used to fulfill your objective directly, since no objective card specifies vodka as a requirement. Vodka has two uses. You can use it at the black market to barter for goods you need. You can also use it to swap places with a speculator who is standing immediately in front of you.

Speculators are the black pawns. They are neutral. In the first round, after every player pawn has been sent out to queue, one speculator will join every queue. Whenever a speculator manages to buy an item, that item is sent to the black market, and the speculator queues up again at the same shop.

The whole game is about sending your family members to queue, and making the best use of your cards to manoeuvre their positions and the goods deliveries. It is a race to collect all the goods you need.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. Other than Sim who taught the game, the rest were all new to the game. The core mechanisms are straightforward, more so that I had expected. The expansion adds a little complexity in how the vodka element works differently, but this should be manageable even for casual gamers. The most impactful aspect of the game is the card play. Turn order is important. I feel it is better to go later, because you can see what others play and respond accordingly. In fact there is one card which simply lets you draw another card. It effectively lets you stall one round, watching what others do.

How effective your card play is does depend somewhat on whether you get the right cards at the right time. Some cards are more powerful than others, but in most cases their uses are situational. Sometimes you try to create the situation to allow you to utilise your card well. Sometimes you hold on to a card until the right moment comes. The card which lets you reverse the order of a queue can be devastating to your opponents. In our game, Allen added three family members to the end of a very long queue, and then played this reversal card to move his three people from last place to first place. This was particularly painful for those who had queued very long to reach the head of the queue. There are many such painful yet funny moments in Kolejka. It is chaotic, yet not completely unpredictable. Once you are familiar with the card powers, you start to anticipate and you learn to avoid getting into risky situations. You also keep count of who has used or has not used which cards. In the base game everyone's deck is identical and only the order of drawing cards is different. With the expansion, things become harder to predict because four of the fourteen cards will be out of play each week. You don't know which cards are out of play. I think this is good.

I needed a lot of food, but my family members who queued for food since Day 1 were frustrated again and again. By the end of the game, I only managed to buy one bucket of KFC, despite having sent mum and dad and grandma to queue in the freezing snow for days. People cut queue, and the shop was unexpectedly closed, and the queue was reversed, etc.

The card play is mostly tactical. You assess the board situation to calculate your best move. You are driven by circumstances. There is still some long-term planning you can do. Deciding where to send your family members is often a long-term investment, because it is common for people to be stuck in queues for days. You can try to create situations that allow a card to be put to good use. There can even be collaboration and negotiation, e.g. promising not to mess up an opponent as long as he doesn't mess with you either.

Similar to Ticket to Ride, you can choose to play aggressively, grabbing items you don't need but others do. They won't be completely useless, because you can use them to barter at the black market. It is a viable strategy to simply try to collect items as efficiently as possible, even if they are items not on your objective card or items you already have enough of. Slowing down others means giving yourself a better chance. Even if you don't take the aggressive approach, you can't avoid competing because many people will want the same things.

It is good that the objective cards are open information. It is the basis for predicting what your opponents will do. It makes the game more strategic.

No one managed to complete the shopping list when our game ended. It ended under a different end condition - when one goods type ran out. There was not enough in the general stock to deliver to the shop. I guess this is more likely to happen with a higher player count.

This is one card everyone hates - temporary shop closure. The shop may have stock, but the shopkeeper has decided to take a day off on a whim. Or maybe he has diarrhea and needs to take sick leave. All the customers in the queue need to wait one more day.

These were the goods I managed to purchase. All these are products from the 1980's.

The Thoughts

Kolejka is a game with high player interaction. You are always messing with others' plans. The core mechanism is simple yet uncommon. The setting is depressing but interesting at the same time, even a little educational. It is a light game that can work with non-gamers. It is almost a party game - a little chaotic, and plenty of hurting one another. That's what makes the game fun. Don't play this with people who take games very seriously or expect everything to work out according to strategies they employ. This is a game in which you need to live moment to moment. You can't really plan too far ahead because the situation can change dramatically. You need to be on your toes all the time, making use of the circumstances as much as possible. The game will be more chaotic with more players, and I think the more the merrier. That's the whole point. It may be less chaotic with fewer players, but that would make the game dull.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

my 2016

In 2016 I played 311 games, compared to 638 in 2015. Since entering the hobby in 2004, this was the second time I played fewer than 400 games in a year. The last time this happened was in 2007, when I played 301 games. That was when I had two very young children. From these numbers it seems boardgames as a hobby is cooling off for me. Still, 311 games to a normal person is a crazy number. I am indeed gaming less in 2016. I have played 74 distinct games, compared to 118 in 2015. This was the first time I dipped below 100 distinct games since 2007. I have played 30 new games, and this was the lowest since I started keeping records in 2004. The numbers surprised me a little. I know some Fridays I didn't feel like playing and skipped Friday night gaming, but I feel I have been playing a lot in 2016. Certainly I had enough content for my blogging.

My wife and children have been playing much less too. They aren't boardgamers, and they have their own interests and hobbies. We still sometimes play as a family, but not as much as before. It's probably still much more than any average family.

There are only four games I played 10+ times in 2016. Star Realms (87) and Ascension (62) are played on the smartphone against Han. They are my fragmented time games. Pandemic Legacy (17) is the highlight of my gaming year. It was my most unforgettable boardgaming experience, playing through the campaign with the same group of friends over a few months. I played 11 games of Don't Mess With Cthulhu, a quick social deduction game.

Pandemic: Legacy

I have played 9 games of Twilight Struggle because it was released in digital form. Coconuts (6) is a children's game and dexterity game which took me by surprise. It doesn't look like much but in practice it triggers some primal, childish instinct. I have also done a few games of variants of Pandemic with the group of friends who like the series. I played the Bioterrorist variant for the first time.

Twilight Struggle

Coconuts

Pandemic: On the Brink - Bioterrorist variant.

Games that entered my collection in 2016 can be counted with two hands. I bought Forbidden Island (2nd hand), Food Chain Magnate, 7 Wonders: Duel, Pandemic: Legacy and Captain Sonar. I received as gifts Sblap and Zombie Tower 3D. I self-made Don't Mess With Cthulhu.

There were 30 games new to me in 2016:

  1. Poo
  2. Camel Up
  3. Coconuts
  4. Cheaty Mages
  5. Trickerion
  6. Zombie Tower 3D - Quite an interesting concept. Players are isolated in different sections of a crumbling building, and need to help one another fight zombies and escape by passing tools through cracks in the walls. You coordinate your actions through verbal communication, because you can't see at all what's happening on the other players' sides of the building. The twist is this is not a cooperative game. You do need to cooperate to survive, but after securing survival, only one player will be the eventual winner. There are plenty of opportunities to lie to your friends, since they can't see what you have. The publisher is super nice. They sent me a review copy, and after their Kickstarter project successfully funded, they sent me another copy - the latest edition.

    Zombie Towers 3D

  7. TIME Stories - A fun experience. This is yet another game with a revolutionary concept. Like Pandemic: Legacy, the game design didn't wow me, but the play experience was entertaining. We spent half a day playing the first scenario until we finally won. I think this is the best way to play. If you wait too long between attempts, you will forget things. In this game you need to remember details from failed attempts to help you in the next one.

    TIME Stories

  8. Fiasco - My first time playing a role-playing game. It was an eye-opening experience. During the school holidays I made it a homework for my children to complete one game, which we did.
  9. Blood Rage
  10. Sblap
  11. Quartermaster General - A design I greatly admire. So much history and possible alternative histories with so few rules and actions. And so much decision angst!

    Quartermaster General

  12. Pandemic Legacy - My personal Game of the Year
  13. Trambahn - A very clever card game for 2 players.
  14. Isle of Skye
  15. Mombasa - Very popular but only so-so for me.
  16. Citrus
  17. Android: Mainframe
  18. Via Nebula
  19. Quartermaster General – Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian War
  20. Barony
  21. Splendor - Very popular, and I like it a lot too. Feels very simple, yet has some subtle depth.
  22. Dead of Winter: The Long Night
  23. Churchill - A game of politicking among the Allies during World War 2.
  24. 7 Wonders Duel - I keep losing to my wife. But that's not why this is a great spouse game. To be honest, I have difficulty seeing it as a top ten game on BGG. I have a preconceived notion of what a top ten game is - a heavyweight strategy boardgame. 7 Wonders Duel doesn't fit that mould. But it is pretty decent. Somehow I like many of Antoine Bauza's designs, even though I keep telling myself his style (mostly light to medium weight strategy games) is not really my cup of tea. Perhaps it's time to admit I'm a fanboy.
  25. Don't Mess With Cthulhu - Fun party game of lying, getting caught lying, and not getting caught lying.
  26. Terraforming Mars
  27. Islebound
  28. Jeju Island
  29. A Study in Emerald - A game that aroused my curiosity. The core idea is interesting, but I'm not sure yet how well it works in practice. Like Churchill, the winning condition is a little convoluted, and the whole game is about how to manoeuvre yourself into the winning position.
  30. Captain Sonar - I wonder whether this is a sign of jadedness. I tend to seek out games which have some unusual new mechanism. E.g. Zombie Tower 3D, TIME Stories, Pandemic: Legacy. Captain Sonar did not disappoint. The idea was executed well, and I look forward to play more.

    Captain Sonar

One game I have been curious about is Star Wars Rebellion. Unfortunately due to licensing issues Fantasy Flight cannot distribute this to Asia. I once saw a copy at Borders, at MYR600 (approx USD135). That's a bit too much for me. I checked how much it would cost to buy online and ship it to Malaysia. It's about MYR550, which is still rather steep. Plus I don't want to risk the hassle of it getting held by and taxed by customs and having to go all the way to KLIA airport to collect it.

I was interviewed by a local Chinese newspaper in January. This was what started that streak of Pandemic games. It was mentioned in the article, and my friends who saw it said they were interested.

I have been playing games in the office, usually on Friday afternoons. We played quite regularly when we were doing Pandemic: Legacy, but it is not yet a weekly routine. It is still on and off. It is nice to introduce games to new players, because I get the chance to play my older games again. I played Tragedy Looper again, and Lord of the Rings too. Also it is nice to play some light and medium weight games, which I rarely get to play when I game with fellow gamers. We naturally tend to play heavier games.

It feels good to have no lack of players or of games to play. That makes me a happy gamer.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Captain Sonar

Plays: 7Px1, 8Px2.

The Game

Captain Sonar was the only game from the 2016 Essen batch that got me excited enough to order without trying. I watched a video review from Shut Up & Sit Down before the Essen game fair, and I decided then and there I must play this game.

Captain Sonar is a team game for eight players, with four to a team. You are a crew member of a submarine. Your objective is to find and destroy the enemy submarine. This is a real-time game. Although it comes with turn-based rules, it is designed as a real-time game so I have no interest in trying out the turn-based version.

The game box is rather heavy, and the heaviest component is this very long screen. It consists of two pieces. During play, it separates the two teams so that they cannot see the player boards of their opponents. They can only hear what their opponents say.

The four crew members of a submarine have different roles to play - captain, first mate, radio operator and engineer. If you don't have eight players, some will need to play two or more roles.

This is the captain's player board. This map is your battleground. It is divided into nine sectors. Every row and every column is labeled. The islands are impassable. The captain's job is to set the course for the submarine, and to trigger the use of equipment aboard the submarine. At the start of the game you mark a starting point for your team (X marks the spot). As you steer the submarine, you draw your path on the map. Your path must not overlap itself, so the longer you move, the fewer options you will have. Spots marked with an M are mines you have dropped.

This is the radio operator's player board and transparent plastic sheet. Captains must announce the direction every time they move their submarines. The radio operator's job is to listen to the directions given by the enemy captain. You plot the path on the plastic sheet, and try to fit it on the map, in order to pinpoint the location of the enemy submarine. Notice that the path drawn in this photo is the same as the one in the previous photo, which means the radio operator has been doing his job well, tracking the opponent's every move. However there are still many possible positions for this path on the map, so the radio operator cannot be sure yet where the opponent submarine is.

This is the engineer's player board. Every time the captain moves the submarine, something has to break. The engineer's job is to decide what breaks. All these circles are components which can break. They are grouped into four, one group for each direction in which the captain can move the submarine. Whenever the captain moves in a certain direction, the engineer must pick a component in the corresponding group to break - crossing out that component. When a component is crossed out, the equipment type it represents is out of order and cannot be used. In this photo all three equipment type - yellow, red and green - have crosses on them, so none of them can be used for now. When too many components break and are not repaired in time, the submarine suffers permanent damage. If all six components in a group break, an explosion occurs and the submarine takes one point of permanent damage. All six components are then reset - the crosses are erased. Among the bottom row of components, there are six representing the nuclear reactor. They normally don't cause trouble when crossed out, but when all six are crossed out, an explosion occurs causing one point of permanent damage. They too are reset after the explosion. The submarine is destroyed upon the 4th point of permanent damage, which can be self inflicted as above, or can be due to enemy attack.

Some components are linked by coloured lines. These represent auto-repair circuits. Whenever all four components in a linked group are broken, they all reset. E.g. the yellow group in the photo. The engineer may now erase all crosses in the yellow group. The engineer needs to utilise this auto-repair mechanism as much as possible to keep the submarine in good condition and to keep the equipment functioning. You must advise the captain which directions to move in and which directions to avoid. You need to know what equipment the captain intends to use, so that you can avoid breaking any components of that equipment type.

This is the first mate's player board. His job is the simplest, and it is like charging up batteries. He prepares equipment for use. Each time the captain moves, you charge one equipment by one step. When an equipment is fully charged, it is ready for use. In this photo, the torpedo (bottom left) and sonar (bottom centre) are both ready. The drone (top centre) is one step away from being ready. The first mate needs to know what the captain plans to do next, so that he can prepare the corresponding equipment. He is also responsible for recording any permanent damage to the submarine at the top right corner.

There are five basic equipment available to the players. To use an equipment, the captain announces so, and everyone from both teams drops whatever he is doing. The equipment use must be resolved before the game resumes. There are two conditions for using an equipment. Firstly, it must be fully charged. Secondly, there must be no damage to any of its components on the engineer's board. I'll briefly describe each equipment. When using the drone, you try to guess which sector the enemy submarine is in. The enemy captain must truthfully answer whether your guess is correct. When using sonar, the enemy captain must tell you two pieces of information, out of three options - the sector he is in, the row he is in and the column he is in. One piece of information must be true, and the other must be false. When using a mine, you plant a mine on the map and may later detonate it. A submarine at the location of the mine takes two damage. A submarine next to it takes one damage. When using a torpedo, the captain shoots up to four steps away. The damage done is similar to that of the mine. When using silence, you get to move up to four steps in any direction without needing to announce it to the opposing team. The purpose is evasion. So, you have equipment that helps you detect your enemy, equipment that allows you to attack them, and equipment to help you avoid being hunted down.

One other important element in the game is surfacing. This is an important action, but it comes with risks. When the captain decides to surface, two good things happen to you. First, the captain gets to erase the route drawn on his map. This means you are again free to move anywhere you want without being constrained by your previous path. Second, the engineer repairs all temporarily damaged components. You basically start with a clean slate. The danger though, is the captain must announce the current sector of the submarine. This means you let your opponent narrow down the search area. When you surface, everyone on your team needs to complete a maintenance procedure. This is an exercise that ties you down for a period of time, making you vulnerable. See the photo below.

This is part of the engineer's player board. When you surface, everyone on your team takes turns drawing lines around these four sections of your submarine. You must draw carefully and not touch the edges. You also need to write your initials. This must be done one by one, and once all four sections are completed, the engineer shows this to the enemy engineer for verification. Only when the enemy engineer confirms that the maintenance has been done properly can you dive and resume play. While you are doing maintenance, the enemy takes actions as normal and will be trying to find you and attack you. Or at least they will use the time to escape and hide.

The game ends once one submarine is destroyed. The other submarine wins.

The Play

So far I have played captain and engineer, and they are very very different. When I was captain, my approach was to find then destroy. In the early game I tried to use the green (detection) equipment often so that my radio operator could locate the enemy. Edwind was my first mate, and Edmond my engineer. I watched their boards closely, telling them what equipment I intended to use, so that they could align their actions with mine. My radio operator was Tyle. He got close to a mental breakdown due to the tension. He had a tough time trying to track down the enemy submarine. There were quite a few times I turned to him asking him where the enemy was, and he had nothing for me. Sometimes I saw that he had taken lots of notes and plotted a long convoluted route on his sheet, but just a moment later when I was ready to fire the torpedo, I turned to him only to see that he had just erased everything and had to start taking notes again. My heart sank and I mentally screamed what the hell man what are you doing? Or perhaps that wasn't purely mental. Once when I pressed him for the enemy position, he shushed me, telling me to keep quiet so that he could listen properly to the enemy captain. What?! How dare you shush your captain, sergeant?! He was really stressed out. Actually this was Benz's fault. He was the enemy captain, and he didn't announce his movements clearly enough. They had only three in their team, which was easier than having four in a team. Benz played both captain and first mate. He only needed to discuss with Xiao Zhu, his engineer, when planning his movement. They discussed quietly, and Benz announced his directions quietly too, so Tyle often got confused which directions were part of the discussion and which were the eventual decisions. In contrast, Ruby, the enemy radio operator, had an easy time tracking our moves. As captain, I announced my every move loudly and clearly. Benz didn't bother with detection equipment, he just wanted to arm and attack. Xiao Zhu understood it, and made sure he kept the weapons systems online. Ruby located us easily, and they even managed to score a direct hit. I knew then we were screwed, because a direct hit meant they knew our exact location. I had my Silence fully charged, and I knew I needed to use it ASAP. However at the time I was in a narrow strait. I needed to exit the strait in order to have more escape paths to pick from. I managed to exit the strait, but just as I was about to scream "Stop" to activate my Silence, Benz yelled "Stop". They took another shot, which scored an indirect hit, and sank our submarine. Game over.

The second time I played, I did two full 8-player games back-to-back. I was engineer this time. Tyle was captain, Jeixel radio operator and Zhi Nin first mate. On the opposing team we had Edwind as captain, Moe as radio operator, Li Li as first mate and Yee Wern as engineer. As engineer, I needed to remind my captain which systems were down, and which directions to move in order to trigger auto-repair. I needed to ask him what he intended to use, so that I could avoid bringing those systems down. There was once I became careless, and didn't alert Tyle that another move North would cause an explosion. We suffered self-inflicted damage. Sorry...

Benz didn't play this time. He wanted to watch us play so that he could feel the game from a bystander's perspective. He said it was nerve-racking. He could see that both our radio operators managed to track the enemy submarine very accurately, and it became a matter of who struck first. This time round I emphasised the importance of the captain announcing his moves clearly, so both the radio operators had an easier time. In the first game, my submarine was sunk by two direct hits.

In the second game that day, Moe and Edwind switched roles and Moe tried out playing captain. At one critical moment he made a bold move, detonating a mine when his submarine was right next to it. He knew he would take damage, but it wouldn't sink him yet. However if he guessed right that we were next to or at the same location as the mine, the detonation would kill us. It turned out that he was right, and he sent us to our watery graves. Our submarines were only two steps apart!

Playing Captain Sonar is a nail-biting experience. I think it is most stressful playing as captain and radio operator. The captain has the full picture and knows best how precarious a situation the team is in. The radio operator needs to pay close attention to the enemy captain, and needs to communicate with his own captain too. When sonar or the drone is used, he needs to digest and process any new information that is gained. The engineer's job is an evolving puzzle. He is constantly making judgement calls on how best to break things. The first mate's job is simpler than the rest, so this is a role suitable for a new player, or the late arrival whom you want to squeeze into a game without repeating the full rules explanation that he has just missed. A simple role doesn't mean it is a meaningless role. Its very existence increases the challenge in communicating effectively, which is a big part of what Captain Sonar is. It is the chaos and the teamwork under time pressure which makes the game so exciting. It is what makes scoring a hit so exhilarating.

I have lost all three of the games I played. However the utter joy that I see on the faces of the victors is unforgettable. After a prolonged period of stress, that final victory is not only an achievement, it is also a huge relief.

The seating positions are fixed. Those two closest to the camera are the radio operators (Moe and Jeixel). Next are the captains (Edwind and Tyle). Then the first mates (Li Li and Zhi Nin), and finally the engineers (Yee Wern and I). Captains need to sit near the middle because they need to stay in close touch with every teammate. The radio operators need to sit near the enemy captains, because they need to listen to their announcements.

We all look so serious and tense.

The Thoughts

Captain Sonar is a tense real-time team game. The rules are quite straight-forward, so this is a game you can teach both gamers and non-gamers. I think it is best to play with eight. It can be a challenge gathering enough players. I brought the game to the office so that I could recruit enough players. Since this is a team game, you get that kind of satisfaction when everyone does his part, and together you achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. A submarine hunt is suspenseful, because initially you don't know where the enemy is. The tension escalates as both teams get closer and closer to locating each other, and as torpedoes are launched and mines detonated. Although this is a real-time game, it is not necessarily a speed game. If fact if you move about too much and too hastily, you are helping the enemy radio operator track you down. Of course there are times when you need to be quick, e.g. when the enemy locks on to you and you need to run and hide.

I have played three games so far. I can't say I have explored all the strategies. However given the game mechanisms I have seen, I don't think this is a strategically deep game. I can imagine a few strategies. E.g. you may want to plant many mines, then lure your opponent into your minefield to die. You can even use surfacing to lure your opponent into the minefield. Or if you know their position precisely, surfacing can tempt them to come near you. You can dive again quickly to shoot at them as they come near, having your torpedo ready beforehand. There are only that many levers in the game, so don't expect anything too deep. However this is not an issue. This is a real-time game. The fun of it is in scrambling to put together coherent actions without blowing yourselves up. It is about chaos and communications, confusion and trying hard to focus on your tasks. The pleasure of playing this game is in the execution, not in the strategic planning. Too complex a strategy will not be feasible in such a game format.

The friends who played Captain Sonar with me enjoyed it immensely, and discussed it enthusiastically afterwards. It does have an uncommon game format. It feels weird to open up a game box to see no cards and no dice. Captain Sonar sounds gimmicky. It is certainly novel. However I think the underlying idea is materialised well. It has a sound design. This game is great fun!

The game comes with five different maps. Some have additional rules. Some of the more advanced maps have fewer islands than the introductory map, giving captains more freedom of movement, and making finding the opponent submarine harder.

Friday, 16 December 2016

A Study in Emerald (2nd edition)

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A Study in Emerald is designed by Martin Wallace, and is based on a short story by Neil Gaiman. The setting is a fictional 19th century, which mixes up the Sherlock Holmes universe, the Cthulhu mythology universe and real history. The world has been conquered and ruled by evil gods for hundreds of years, and now some humans want to fight back, to liberate humankind from evil and to restore human rule. These are the Restorationists. There are some humans who serve the evil gods loyally. These are the Loyalists. Their job is to stop the revolution. Some players will be Restorationists, and some Loyalists. However the identities and the number of members in each faction are both secret at the start of the game. Some identities may be revealed in the middle of the game. Some will only be known when the game ends. This is not a team game though. Victory is individual. Players of the same faction will share some common goals, but they are not partners. Ultimately there is only one winner.

The version I played is the second edition, which is supposed to be more streamlined and optimised than the first. I have not played the first so I can't compare.

The core mechanism is deck-building. Everyone starts with the same thin deck of basic cards. During the game, you acquire more cards from the nine locations on the board, augmenting your deck. Hand size is five. There is no limit on how many cards you can play on your turn. At the end of your turn you always draw back up to five. Unplayed cards remain in your hand. The more cards you play, the faster you will exhaust your draw deck, and thus the sooner you will reshuffle your discard pile (which probably contains recently acquired cards). You only get to perform two actions on your turn though. Every action requires at least one card. If you have multiple cards with the same action icon, you can play them all at once to perform that action to a greater effect.

There are 9 locations (cities) on the board. During setup, each is seeded with a number of cards depending on the number of players. Some cards are predetermined, while some are randomly drawn. The topmost card at each location is revealed. These are what you may acquire. You have two types of pawns. The cubes are your influence, while the portrait pawns are your agents. You spend influence to acquire cards, while you use your agents to fight. In both cases, you need to have the most pawns at a location to perform the action. When you acquire a card from a location, all your influence cubes there are consumed and go to a limbo pool. You will need to perform a recovery action to bring them back to your personal supply before you can deploy them again. When you fight, you either kill another player's agent, or you kill a monster. Killing an agent is worth victory points only if the victim is a Restorationist and you are a Loyalist. Killing a monster is only worth VP's if you are a Restorationist.

The scoring system is quite unusual. Some actions are worth VP's only if you are a Restorationist, and some only if you are a Loyalist. Some actions score for the whole Restorationist faction, and some for the whole Loyalist faction. Whenever anyone scores during the game, you assume he is both Restorationist and Loyalist, i.e. you always increase his score. The VP's which his is not entitled to are only deducted at game end. Naturally this creates a false reading on the scoreboard. Things are not what they seem.

One way the game ends is when one player's apparent score reaches a certain number. Another way is when a faction specific score reaches 10. Both are situations you need to watch out for and be prepared for. When the game ends, all identities are revealed, and VP's which you are not entitled to are deducted. After this, you check who has the lowest score. This guy has just disgraced his faction, and all members of that faction lose an additional 5VP. Only after this penalty is applied that you determine the final winner. This mechanism forces players of the same faction to look after one another, to a certain extent. You don't want your compatriot to come in dead last and drag you down.

The game board. There are 9 locations. The score track is in the upper half, at the centre. This was the start of our game so our scores were all 0. The two tracks in the middle are for the faction specific scores, purple for Restorationists and green for Loyalists.

These are some of the starting cards. The icons on them tell you what you can use them for. The train track icon means you may relocate your agents. The blue cards icon means you may acquire cards. The cube upwards icon means you may recover your influence cubes from the limbo pool. The cube downwards icon means you may deploy your influence cubes onto the board. The letter A means attack, i.e. you may fight. When you fight, the attack card is permanently discarded. So fighting must not be taken lightly. At the bottom of this attack card, you see a purple portrait icon and a green hexagon. This is a reminder that killing an agent is only worth points if the agent being killed is a Restorationist (purple) and the 3VP is Loyalist (green) points.

This is Sherlock Holmes. He's the main character in the short story, but he doesn't always appear in the game. During setup only a subset of cards are drawn from a draw deck to seed the 9 locations. When I played the four player game, less than half the deck was used. Also, by the time the game ended, there were still many cards not yet revealed. So only a small subset of cards will come into play in any game of A Study in Emerald.

Sherlock Holmes is an agent you can recruit. When you acquire this card, you also gain a new agent at this location. Blue and yellow are now fighting hard for him, with blue currently leading, five pawns vs four.

Sorry about the poor focus. This is another agent you can recruit. The purple hex at the top right means you score 1VP for Restorationists when you acquire this card.

The game has a sanity mechanism. Everyone starts with 3 sanity tokens. Some actions force you (or another player) to roll the sanity die, which may result in losing a sanity token. When you lose the last sanity token, you go nuts and reveal your identity. If you are a Loyalist, this is a good thing. You gain some benefits which strengthen your position on the board. If you are a Restorationist, the game immediately ends. The sanity mechanism is closely linked to the secret identity aspect of the game. When a guy is trying to drive himself mad, you will become more and more convinced that he is a Loyalist. Or is he feinting? The fact that a Restorationist going crazy will end the game can be a weapon for both factions. It is yet another timing consideration. If you are leading comfortably, this is one way to end the game while you have the advantage.

The Play

We did a four-player game, which is probably the minimum to make the game interesting enough. Jason has played this before, but Han, Allen and I were new. With four players, the faction distribution could be 2 vs 2 or 1 vs 3. Many aspects of the game are related to the factions and how identities need to be kept secret. I did not have a good grasp of the criticality of this and how to make use of it. So I decided not to worry about it too much. I wasn't going to spend extra effort to feint when I couldn't see a clear Return On Investment. I ended up playing the game like a Euro efficiency game. I just tried to score points as efficiently as possible. I was the first to reveal hints of what my faction was (I was Restorationist). Jason was next, and it looked like he was a Loyalist (which he eventually proved to be). Han and Allen mostly stayed non-commital. I couldn't figure out what they were. My straightforward approach worked well for me. I was focused and did not waste energy or resources scoring points which would eventually be deducted, for the sake of sowing confusion. The game felt short. It seemed we didn't have much time. This made me feel that feinting was costly and thus inefficient. But perhaps it is not a matter of feinting. Perhaps it is just a matter of not exposing oneself too early, which is more passive and thus less costly. Our game ended at a time when I felt we were about 80% through. I took a faction scoring action which pushed Han (who was leading) to 22VP to end the game. However he was not Restorationist, so after deducting the Restorationist points from him, he fell behind and I won the game.

In the game I played, all the elaborate rules related to secret identities didn't seem to matter a lot. My simplistic Euro efficiency strategy seemed to work just fine. I wonder whether it was because our game turned out to be a 2 vs 2. Allen was a Restorationist too. Had it been a 1 Restorationist vs 3 Loyalists game, my impetuous approach might have been suicide. The lack of tension from the secret identities might have been a result of groupthink too. I am not sure.

I always tried to play as many cards as possible. More cards being played meant the actions I took became stronger. I would be drawing back up to five cards anyway. Exhausting my deck sooner also meant my nifty new cards would come into play earlier. This was just basic tactics. Occasionally I would need to hold some cards and save them for a particular action, e.g. sometimes you need to save an attack card and some bomb cards to start a fight. All cards have multiple functions, so you often need to make difficult choices.

The competition at each location uses the area majority mechanism. You need to have more pawns than others in order to perform the action. Sometimes it is better to just go somewhere else with less competition. You will spend less to perform similar actions. However you can't let your opponents get all the good stuff too easily either. It's a tricky balance. Your ideal scenario is all the others fight, leaving you to pick up all the other stuff with no resistance. However it is not easy to steer things that way. Your priorities and others' priorities will conflict. Sometimes you apply persuasion, diplomacy and even misdirection, to encourage others to fight and / or to leave you alone. Everyone needs to be responsible for ensuring no one gets an easy life.

In our game I focused on buying city cards in the early game, because quite a few of them could be used to score Restorationist points. They came to good use later on, helping me push the whole faction ahead. When the game ended, Allen my fellow Restorationist was not last, so neither of us needed to take the 5VP penalty. Both Jason and Han had to take the penalty, pushing their scores further behind. I felt it was a team win. However this was wrong. A Study in Emerald is not a team game. Victory is individual. So in fact when Allen saw me leading, he should have joined forces with our "enemies" to pull me back. Maybe he did, just that it was too late to do much, because the game did end a little abruptly. Or perhaps he was happy to aim for second place given the situation then, which was valid too in an individual victory game. If first place is not realistic, you aim for second.

Jason did warn us that the game was fast before we started. I had the feeling that I could have done more, like the game was 1 or 2 rounds short. That may be the hallmark of a good game. Think Agricola. It leaves you with just that little bit of unsatiated thirst. Throughout the game I did see my card purchases take effect, and I did see my strategy pan out. You need to be alert of all the possible game end conditions. Don't be caught unprepared.

The Thoughts

My biggest impression? The game made me curious. This first game felt fast. It felt like I hadn't savoured the game properly. I guess I can only blame myself - I consciously chose a simplistic strategy. I hadn't explored the secret identity aspect much. I can't say whether it really works as intended. Another thing that makes me curious is the many cards I haven't even seen yet. The world of A Study in Emerald is rich and strange. There are still many characters and monsters I have not met. I wonder how each game will differ when different combinations of cards come into play.

A Study in Emerald is quite an unusual game. The factions mechanism and the hidden identity mechanism create a complex strategic landscape among players. I'm not entirely sure it works well, but I am happy to explore further. The tactical execution layer works fine - the deck-building, the various actions, the cards, the area majority, the resource management. It supports the strategic layer well. I'm curious to see how that strategic layer plays out differently in different games.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Jeju Island

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Jeju Island is a famous tourist destination in South Korea. The art style in this game certain reminds me of a tourism brochure.

The game board in lovely cartoonish style.

When setting up the game, you shuffle all the square tiles and distribute them evenly to the six locations on the board. During the game you will be collecting these tiles. In this photo each location has one black neutral disc. Each player will have two such discs in his own colour. As part of setup, you will place your discs on two different locations on the board.

During the game the most common thing you do is travel. You pick one stack of discs which contain one of yours, and distribute it clockwise or anticlockwise. First, you pick up the whole stack. At the next location in the direction you choose, you drop the bottommost disc. Then you move to the next location and drop the next disc. You continue until you empty your hand. The result of traveling is you empty the location where you start from, and distribute the discs originally there evenly to other locations. The newly distributed discs will be at the top of the stacks at their new locations. Once the distribution is done, everyone checks whether his disc is on top at any of the six locations. Anyone who has such discs gets to collect the topmost tile. When you do traveling, you want to do it in such a way to allow both your discs to be on top, while minimising helping your opponents. You also need to think about how your move will affect your next one.

This is the Harubang statue. If you claim a tile from a location when this is there, you get a bonus. You may move the Harubang statue anywhere (or leave it where it is) and then take the topmost tile from its new location. This is yet another consideration when you do traveling.

The tiles you collect are cute, but what are they for?

This is the answer. You spend tiles to buy scoring cards. There is always a pool of five to choose from. On your turn you may forfeit traveling to buy a scoring card. You pay the tiles as specified on the card. On the left, the question mark means you may use any tile. On the right, the Harubang icon means you get to trigger the Harubang statue when you buy this card. The numbers are the victory point values.

The two cards on the right are special ones. They give you a permanent tile icon. In future whenever you need to pay a tile with that icon, they stand in for the tile. These cards can be significant savings if you use them a lot. It's good to get them in the early game.

The Play

The game looks cute and simple, but it can give you some mental workout. Jeju Island is an open information game, so if you want to, you can spend the time to work out in detail all possible moves and their consequences. You have only two discs, so at most there are two stacks to choose from. You can choose to travel clockwise or anticlockwise. So there is a max of four possibilities. However there are many impacts you need to consider - which tiles you want, whether you get to trigger the Harubang statue, whether you will help your opponents, where the discs will rest at the end of your move. Simple actions, but many considerations.

I spent much effort grabbing the cards with permanent tile icons. This was engine building. I was strengthening myself to be more competitive for the rest of the game. I collected quite a few such cards, and put them to good use. The benefits added up. I used these cards to get more of such cards. This was like playing a development game. There was a snowball effect. However I did not win the game. One drawback of these cards is their point values are low. Allen managed to collect some high valued cards. He didn't have as many permanent tile icons, but the quality of his cards won him the game. So there is give-and-take between card powers and card victory points.

The Thoughts

Jeju Island is a light strategy game, suitable for casual gamers, non gamers, children and families. What's most special about it is the travel mechanism. This aspect feels like an open-information abstract game, but the cute artwork hides the dryness and seriousness of abstract games. There is plenty of player interaction. You are always seeking the best move to let yourself claim more tiles while denying your opponents. Your action affects the locations and positions of your opponents' discs. Since it is possible to collect tiles on other players' turns, you feel engaged all the time. This is similar to The Settlers of Catan. It makes you pay attention on others' turns. Part of Jeju Island feels like Splendor too, because you collect, collect, collect and then swap tiles for points and special abilities.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Islebound

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Islebound is a Ryan Laukat game. He has quite a few popular designs, e.g. City of Iron, Above and Below, but the only other game of his I have tried is Eight-Minute Empires: Legends. One thing unusual about this designer is he does his own artwork. So not only the game mechanisms feel familiar, the artwork feels familiar too.

In Islebound you are captain of a ship, and you sail about an archipelago gathering strength and capturing islands. You start from your own little island in a corner. Every island you visit allows you to do something. You collect goods, you recruit pirates and sea serpents, you increase your influence and so on. When you have enough influence or military power, you can attempt to capture an island. If successful, you earn a lump sum of money, and thereafter you get to use the island's ability for free, while any visitor must pay you the landing fee required to use the island ability. During the game you may construct or buy buildings, which give long-term special abilities. Once a player owns 6 buildings, the game ends. You score points to determine who wins.

The main board is assembled from 8 double-sided pieces. Many combinations are possible, creating variability. Islands with a red banner can be captured by military means, while those with a blue banner can only be captured by political means, i.e. by spending influence. Regardless of the means used, upon conquest you earn a lump sum of money, and you get to use the island ability once, as if you are visiting the island normally. Money is directly converted to victory points (1:1) at game end.

Your player board is your ship. At this point I have a crew of three. Sailors on deck are active, while those below are exhausted. Some actions in the game require sailors of specific skills, and once these sailors are used, they become exhausted. They go below decks until you perform a Rest action to revive them. Other than helping you with some specific actions, sailors can help speed up your ship and also contribute to military conquests. Your ship speed is indicated at the top right corner. That's how many steps you can move on your turn. The cargo hold is at the bottom right. There are only two resource types in the game, fish and wood. Your cargo hold has space for 10 units.

These are the buildings you can construct or purchase directly. There will always be five to choose from. There are book icons above the three on the left. This means they are available to you only if you have the required number of books. Study hard, boy! To construct a building, you pay the resources indicated at the bottom of the card. To purchase a building, you pay the price at the top left of the card. The price is also the victory point value of the card. So you are basically converting your money (money = VP) to permanent asset form. This is normally a good move, unless you have a liquidity problem. You do need some cash in hand for daily operations (visiting islands).

This is the side board, for various administrative purposes. The spaces at the top are a simple score track. Each time you reach 7 victory points, you collect a 7VP tile which give you a small bonus immediately. You keep the tile for records purposes, and reset your position on the score track. The two cards on the left are influence cards. They specify what you need to do and where you need to do them to earn influence. Once any player makes use of one such card, it is discarded and a new one replaces it. The two cards on the right are boasting cards. There is a boasting island on the main board. You visit it to utilise one of these boasting cards. When you boast, you earn VP based on the criteria on the card. Similar to the influence cards, once a boasting card is used, it is replaced.

The three characters are sailors available to be recruited. The two on the left cost $1 each. The third guy works for free. That pool of money is the collection box for whenever anyone visits a still-neutral island. The landing fee is collected here. On your turn you may forfeit your normal action to claim the money accumulated here. The $4 in this photo means it is starting to look attractive. The row of spaces at the bottom are the influence spaces. When you gain influence, you place one cube on the leftmost free space, and the number on that space indicates how much influence you gain. Naturally, you want to time your influence gain such that you get to place cubes on the higher valued spaces.

Some islands already have player cubes now, which mean they have been captured.

The Play

I did a full four-player game with Ivan, Boon Khim and Allen, and this is probably the best player count. I was rather clueless at the start of the game. The islands offer a plethora of options, and I wasn't sure what combination of actions would be effective. A player turn was simple - sail then take one action. The question was how to choose a succession of actions that was meaningful. At first I felt it was rather pointless to capture islands. It took much effort, but the benefit seemed small. I got to be toll collector and a free visit pass? That was it? I later realised I had neglected the one-time lump sum earned at the time of conquest. Money was VP, so the effort spent was worthwhile. Also the small benefits post-conquest would add up.

Allen started focusing on buildings early. Buildings = VP, and it was buildings which triggered game end, so his was a direct approach. The building abilities varies. The buildings you buy will affect your strategy, because you do want to make the most of them. You will tend to take actions which trigger your building powers.

These were some of my buildings. The one at the top left let me score 2VP every time I captured an island by political means. It was good to get this out early, and then focus my energy on politics. This gave me synergy.

The general feeling when playing Islebound is I am constantly assessing the tactical situation to find the optimal move. I watch out for opportunities, and I try not to create them for my rivals. I watch my opponents to see if they are racing with me towards a certain objective. If this happens, I must either speed up and make sure I beat them to it, or I switch tack to go for something else so as not to waste my effort. There are always many options on the board, and different options will have different values to different players at different times. You need to observe your opponents' strategies to understand how they will value the options available. You are like children in a candy shop all trying to grab candies at the same time. You can't have everything. You need to identify your favourites and focus on them.

You can play warmonger, or ruthless politician, and capture islands belonging to other players. However, this really is not a game about fighting for control. Losing an island is not really all that painful. You lose the long-term perks, but you don't need to refund the one-time lump sum. The other thing is you can't really defend against such attacks. There is little point in holding a grudge and capturing the island back. The player interaction in this game is very much the Euro type - grabbing the good stuff before your opponents do, and blocking them.

There is a little development game feel. The sailors you recruit, the buildings you buy and the islands you capture make up your engine. They create differentiation between players, resulting in players valuing available actions differently. However I feel this aspect is not particularly strong. Mostly you are still grabbing tactical opportunities and trying to play efficiently. Players don't become significantly different.

You start the game with three sailors. By now I have five.

Many islands have been captured by now. There are player cubes on them.

I like the characters in the game.

The Thoughts

Islebound is a middle-weight strategy game. It's a gamers' game. At any time it presents many options, which I think will be overwhelming to casual gamers and non gamers. I find it mostly a tactical optimisation game. There is some long-term strategy arc, but it doesn't come across strongly. I am constantly evaluating the possibilities on the ever-changing board, grabbing opportunities that come up, while making sure I don't leave juicy exploits for my opponents.

Friday, 18 November 2016

boardgaming in photos: Maori, 7 Wonders: Duel, Patchwork on iOS

30 Oct 2016. I taught the children Maori, a light strategy game that works very well as a family game. You compete to grab tiles from the 4x4 tile display at the centre of the table to place onto your personal board. Tiles have various functions, and most of the time they help you score points. The game ends after one player fills up his board.

Shee Yun (11) plays with a strategic mind. She fights for huts, because huts double the value of trees. Chen Rui (9) is obsessed with the flower circles. Some tiles have semicircles of flowers. If you can grab a pair and arrange them to form a complete flower circle, you score 10pts. That's a lot, but it's not easy to do.

On your turn you must move the boat, which travels around the perimeter of the 4x4 display. Your choice of tiles is limited to those in the column where the boat rests.

I have a complete flower circle at the top left corner.

When you place tiles on your board, trees must be aligned such that they are upright. So this is different from Carcassonne. You can't orient the tiles any way you want. Some tiles do not have trees. These give you more flexibility.

The game comes with three variants, and some of them can be mixed and matched. Adults can use the variant rules, which make the game more challenging, when playing with children. It's a good way to handicap the adults and also make the game more interesting for them.

I played 7 Wonders: Duel with Michelle again, and lost again, this time rather spectacularly. This time I experienced first hand the power of the extra turn. I had read about this in game reviews, but had not seen it in person. In this game I didn't place close attention to the wonder powers, and during the wonder selection phase, Michelle collected three wonders which had the extra turn bonus, while I collected just one. On one of her turns, she managed to complete three wonders one after another due to the extra turn bonuses. I could only stare in disbelief. This photo shows her empire. She had completed all four wonders. She won a science victory. She had collected all six types of science icons. I think even if she hadn't won a science victory, she would have outscored me. I was completely owned.

This was my kingdom. I only managed to complete one wonder, the Statue of Zeus at the top left.

The game ended in early Age III (purple card backs).

This is the iOS version of Patchwork. Quite decent.

Michelle beat me the first time I taught her to play. Playing the digital version saves much time because income calculation and score calculation are all automated.

Michelle's quilt is on the left. Mine on the right.