Thursday, 18 December 2014

revisiting 2012 eagerness ranking

Roughly once a year I force rank the games published in a particular year that I have played, which I find to be an interesting exercise. And roughly one more year after that I revisit the list to see whether my opinion has changed, and whether there are more games of that year which I have played. This is a revisit of the 2012 list. I keep all my previous comments. Additions are underlined.

    Keen to play

  1. Android: Netrunner - I only have the base game plus 3 expansions from the first expansion cycle, and there is already a lot to explore. I have not played that many games yet. I enjoy the games so far and I feel there is a lot more to learn. I think I will enjoy it even more when I learn to play better. This can be a lifestyle game, i.e. a gamer can play just this one game, like Magic: The Gathering, or competitive Scrabble, or Chess. I can't imagine myself playing just one game, but I'd like to spend more time on this game. This is one situation where I would reply "It's complicated" if someone asks me my relationship with a game. I like Netrunner but I don't play it regularly. I know I like it and yet I don't spend the effort to meet up with other runners. Now I have bought the 3 other expansions from the first cycle, completing this cycle. I have sleeved all my cards. And yet I have not played it for a long time. What am I doing?!
  2. The Great Zimbabwe - Very interactive Splotter game, which is best when all players know what they are doing - how to prevent runaway leaders, how to adjust the pace of the game, how to neutralise opponents' special abilities. Some strong plays need multiple other players to work together to counter, so the game shines when there is a high level of familiarity among the players.

    Android: Netrunner

    The Great Zimbabwe

    Happy to play

  3. Clash of Cultures - a well-implemented civ game. I still have not played it after buying my own copy. Dropped from Keen-To-Play to Happy-To-Play.
  4. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island - A punishing and rich cooperative game that has a lot of variety.
  5. Star Wars: X-Wing - A fun romp. Clean and quick dogfighting system. Pew pew pew!
  6. Ascension: Immortal Heroes (expansion) - I am playing all the available expansions on the iPhone almost every day. I have 5 ongoing games at all times. Since playing this is so convenient on the iPhone, I have zero urge to play a physical copy. Increased in ranking, because I'm always happy to play it on my iPhone.
  7. The Palaces of Carrara - Interested to try this. Previously not played. I've bought a German version now, since the English version is out of print. It's a clever game where gauging pacing is very important.
  8. Escape: The Curse of the Temple - I have only played this in a family setting, and never with the full rules. We only used a simple timer and not the soundtrack, so we didn't need to return to the starting point at specific times. Promoted from Lukewarm to Happy-To-Play, because I have been having fun playing this with daughter Shee Yun (9).
  9. Love Letter - I wonder how much game there is to it. It's only 16 cards. Previously not played. It's light, relaxing fun. Good with children.
  10. 1989: Dawn of Freedom - Similar to but different enough from Twilight Struggle.
  11. CO2 - A tight game where you need to watch out not to set up good moves for your opponents, and yet sometimes it's hard not to.
  12. Las Vegas - Heard good things about this one. Previously not played. A pleasant lightweight game.
  13. Ticket To Ride: The Heart of Africa - A map that is tough because of how the route colours are distributed, or rather, clumped. Variety is always good when you enjoy the Ticket To Ride system.
  14. Dominant Species: The Card Game - Not much like Dominant Species. Cards are precious and you need to pick when to fight and decide how hard to fight. Sometimes you need to know when to concede. It has brinkmanship, and even some player-negotiated cooperation if that's how you choose to play.
  15. Fleet - A pleasant surprise. A quick card game where you need to make the most of special abilities you buy. Dropped a little, but still Happy-To-Play.
  16. Mage Knight Board Game: The Lost Legion (expansion) - More variety for the base game. Dropped a little, but still Happy-To-Play.

    Clash of Cultures

    Dominant Species: The Card Game

    Lukewarm

  17. VivaJava: The Coffee Game - A game where you need to compete and cooperate at the same time. Pulling coffee beans out of the bag is exciting and has that gambling feeling. Best with a big group.
  18. Shinobi: War of Clans - A clever card game where you need to hide your identity while secretly trying to help your faction win. Players need to carefully maintain some balance, because if your faction appears too strong, it will soon get cut down. There is also a timing aspect to it. If your faction can get a boost at the right time near the end, it will win even if it becomes obvious who you are working for. Dropped from Happy-To-Play to Lukewarm.
  19. Kemet - Part of the new generation of dudes-on-a-map games, like Cyclades. It has a Euro core, like Cyclades. While Cyclades is driven by auctions, which decide what you can do in a round, and thus require that you don't neglect making money, Kemet is driven by special ability tiles, which customise your nation, and also a limited action type mechanism.
  20. Tokaido - Very pretty. Previously not played. An OK game. I love the artwork.
  21. Terra Mystica - A hot game with a lot of good buzz, and now an award winner too. Previously not played. I see why this is very popular. It has good strategy, and there is much variability. Every tribe plays differently, and you need different approaches to compete against different tribes.
  22. Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar - A "plan a few turns ahead" game. I didn't expect to like it because of the "worker placement" label, but it turned out that I enjoyed it more than I expected, even though it is a worker placement game. Dropped from Happy-To-Play to Lukewarm.
  23. Town Center - Burnt out on the solo game because I feel I have solved the puzzle. I'd be more willing to play non-solo games. Promoted a little because Allen lent me the Kickstarter version which comes with variants like London, Paris, Hong Kong. I still haven't tried them though.
  24. Edo - It has an interesting action selection mechanism. There is area majority competition on the board. Most memorable part is the aspect where when you send your samurai onto the board to do your work, you need to have either stockpiled enough rice to pay for their expenses, or you need to keep producing rice to keep them on the board.

    VivaJava: The Coffee Game

    Shinobi: War of Clans

    Rather Not Play

  25. Sunrise City - Quite tactical. Most memorable is the scoring system - you are always trying to precisely hit the 10pt mark when you score points, because when you do so, you earn two stars instead of one (stars determine victory at game end, so they are the real victory points). Sometimes you "help" others score points to push them over the 10pt mark. Dropped from Lukewarm to Rather-Not-Play.
  26. Seasons - Dice game with card drafting. All about planning for the best use of your cards. Dropped from Lukewarm to Rather-Not-Play.
  27. For The Win - Perfect-information, abstract 2P game, a little like Hive.
  28. Zombie! Run for Your Lives! - Light card game with a lot of getting your friends killed by zombies.

    Zombie! Run for Your Lives!

Not Played

Here are some of the games published in 2012 that I know of or have heard of, but have not tried. Looking at this long list, I think I am no longer at the forefront of the gaming hobby. I don't mind though. I'm happy enough to just try a handful of newer games every year, as long as I have enough good games to play.

  1. Lords of Waterdeep - I have not read much about it. It seems to be just a regular worker placement game with a fantasy setting.
  2. Mage Wars
  3. Star Wars: The Card Game
  4. Mice and Mystics
  5. D-Day Dice - Allen has it.
  6. Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game
  7. Zombicide
  8. Rex: Final Days of the Empire - I have played Dune once. It was good.
  9. Legends of Andor
  10. Virgin Queen - Allen has this.
  11. Archipelago - I have been following this game a fair bit. A game about exploring and development. One aspect that detractors don't like is how a losing player can force everyone to lose by letting the game devolve into a rebellion. I guess this depends on the group you play with.
  12. Suburbia
  13. 7 Wonders: Cities (expansion)
  14. Wiz-War (8th edition)
  15. Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery
  16. Keyflower
  17. Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small
  18. Dominion: Dark Ages (expansion)
  19. Libertalia
  20. The Manhattan Project
  21. Space Cadets
  22. Andean Abyss - Allen has this too. Seems interesting, but probably needs four players.
  23. Myrmes - Some said it's a little like Antiquity. That got my attention.
  24. Infiltration
  25. Merchant of Venus (second edition)
  26. Samurai Battles
  27. Trains
  28. Yedo
  29. Snowdonia
  30. 1812: The Invasion of Canada - Sounds like an innovative Euro-ish war game in the vein of Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan.
  31. Coup: City State
  32. Star Trek: Catan
  33. Ginkgopolis
  34. Copycat
  35. Goblins Inc
  36. Morels
  37. Galaxy Trucker: Another Big Expansion - I'm no longer buying expansions because I don't play Galaxy Trucker often enough nowadays.
  38. Antike Duellum
  39. Atlantis Rising
  40. Africana
  41. Crown of Roses Allen has this. A multiplayer block wargame.
  42. Targi - Some interest. It can be a spouse game. Allen has this I think.
  43. Pax Porfiriana
  44. Spellbound
  45. Chicken Caesar
  46. Abaddon
  47. Urbanisation
  48. Alien Frontiers: Factions (expansion)
  49. Uchronia
  50. Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant - Martin Wallace design. Seems much less well received than Automobile.
  51. Le Havre: The Inland Port - I need to play Le Havre more.
  52. The Ladies of Troyes (expansion)
  53. Doctor Who: The Card Game
  54. Axis & Allies 1941
  55. Guildhall
  56. The Convoy
  57. P.I. - Martin Wallace design. But I prefer his heavier games and not the lighter ones.
  58. Samurai Sword (the Bang-like game, not Samurai Swords / Ikusa / Shogun)
  59. Kingdom of Solomon
  60. Garden Dice
  61. New Amsterdam - Heard good things.
  62. Starship Merchants
  63. Qwixx
  64. Zooloretto: The Dice Game
  65. Qin - Reiner Knizia design. Interested to try.
  66. Ruhrschifffahrt 1769-1890
  67. Legacy: Gears of Time - I followed this for a while some time ago.
  68. Divinare
  69. Oddville
  70. Zong Shi
  71. Tooth & Nail: Factions - Allen has it. Read rules. Still have not played. Forgot rules. Read rules again. Still haven't played. Will probably forget rules again. I sense a pattern.
  72. Indigo
  73. Nightfall: The Coldest War (expansion)
  74. Sheepland
  75. The Doge Ship
  76. Flowerfall - A game about dropping cards onto the table. How's that for unconventional?
  77. Mondo Sapiens - I remember Mondo fondly, a real-time game of constructing your own world from tiles where you want to make sure the tile edges match. Mondo Sapiens is a standalone variant game.
  78. Pala
  79. Keltis: Das Würfelspiel
  80. Rondo - Reiner Knizia abstract game. Interested to try after reading about it in Spielbox magazine.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Panamax

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Players are directors as well as shareholders of their respective shipping companies. During the course of the game, they need to run a profitable business signing contracts with customers from different regions, and shipping goods between the eastern and western ends of the Panama Canal. What determines the final victory is personal wealth though, not company coffers. So while managing your shipping company, you need to constantly remember to grab opportunities to make yourself rich. You get to buy shares, which hopefully will pay dividends and will be worth more at game end. There are a few other actions in the game which contribute to your personal wealth.

Your company's holdings and your personal holdings need to be kept separate. The company's money is kept on the company clipboard. Your personal wealth is off the clipboard.

The game only has three rounds, which seems very few, but I found it to be just right. At the start of a round, a bunch of dice are rolled to determine the actions that will be available in the current round. Every time a player's turn comes, he picks one die and does the corresponding action. The dice will dwindle and once they are all gone, the round ends.

This is the action dice table, which shows how many dice remain for the round, and what actions each die represents. The left half are for ship movement, and right half for signing contracts and loading cargo onto ships (and trains).

Generally there are only two types of action - load cargo and move ships. If you choose to load cargo, you may sign a contract before you load. A contract is an agreement with a customer to deliver a certain number of containers of specific values. A contract comes with dice (representing containers of goods) which you can load onto your own ships or other people's ships. One important restriction is within the same turn you may only load at most one container per ship. What this means is you often need to load containers onto others' ships, and thus use their ships to help you deliver containers. Also ships cannot start moving if not enough goods are on board, so in the case of your own ships, you also often want others to load their goods onto your ships. This is what makes Panamax interesting - you are competing, but you cannot avoid collaborating with your competitors.

The other action is to move ships. For one action die you usually get a number of moves, and you must use them all. Some moves are specific for moving through locks, some are specific for moving through waterways. Sometimes you are forced to help someone else because you are not allowed to forfeit moves. One interesting mechanism here is the push mechanism, which is best illustrated by the photo below:

The easiest way to imagine the push mechanism in Panamax is this: push pencils.

When a chain of adjacent locks are all full of ships, if a ship (or a fleet) enters this chain of locks from one end, it will push all the ships along the chain, effectively giving them all one free move, until they exit the chain into a lake or the open sea. This is a very important mechanism because this saves many actions. You want to use this to deliver your goods efficiently. You also want to use this to force others to help you. If your ship is blocking the start of a chain of locks, others coming after you will be forced to push you ahead. You get a free ride, at least till the next lake.

The Panama Canal has two lakes and three stretches of locks.

The size of each water lock is 4 units. Ship sizes vary from 1 to 4. So two or more small to medium sized ships can form groups and fit into the same lock together.

Your company makes money when goods are delivered, i.e. the containers of your colour reach the other end of the canal. At the end of every round, your company needs to pay dividends to all shareholders. If it is unable to pay dividends, the share value will drop, which is bad news for all shareholders, since share value is one of the measures of personal wealth at game end. The company needs to pay maintenance fees for all containers on the board depending on where they are. Some spaces charge a higher fee than others. If for the round you have not delivered enough containers, and there are some still sitting in the warehouse space, that's a very expensive fee of $5 per container. Every round your company is under pressure to do enough business to avoid such exorbitant fees. Ideally you want to deliver all goods before the end of the round, but that's not easy to do. So the next best you can do is to make sure your containers stop at spots with lower fees. If your company runs out of money, you as director have to pay on behalf of the company. I guess these are not sendirian berhad (private and limited liability) companies. If you run out of money too, then you have to take a loan to finance the company. We didn't get into such a situation during our game. I suspect if it comes to this, you can pretty much forget about winning, unless everyone is doing just as poorly as you are.

Dice in player colours don't need to be rolled. They are only used to represent cargo values.

It may seem that containers are what matter the most, and ships don't matter. That is not true. When your ship completes a trip, you gain a reward, regardless of whose cargo was delivered. This reward can be in the form of personal wealth gained, or a professional card. Some professional cards give you additional ship movements. Some even give bonus points at game end if you meet certain criteria.

The Play

I played with Ivan, Jeff and Damien. Both Ivan and I had read the rules and we taught the game to the others. All four of us were new to the game. Four players is the maximum player number, and I think it is probably the best way to play.

What stood out most to me was how interdependent the players are. You want to work with your competitors. You don't want to be left out. Going alone is disastrous. You want to create incentive for others to help you. You want to create situations where your opponents are forced to help you. You lure your opponents into win-win situations. Yet once the usefulness of your partner in a particular transaction ends, you should not hesitate to dump him and go for your own selfish gains. He would (at least he should) do the same.

My company's clipboard. The moment you load all containers from a contract card onto ships (or trains), you are considered to have fulfilled the contract, even though you have not yet completed the delivery. You won't get paid yet. That's done upon delivery. For fulfilling a contract, you receive a round token (black bordered) representing the nationality of your customer (European Union, Eastern USA, Western USA or China). You place this round token on your company clipboard, and some spaces will grant you benefits, e.g. allowing you to buy one share, or perform extra movements. When you "deliver" a passenger via a cruise ship, you also gain a round token (the red bordered one). This can be placed onto your company clipboard to gain a permanent ability, e.g. more choices when selecting contracts, loading an extra container.

There is some share buying in Panamax, but don't expect anything like to the stock market manipulation in 18XX games. The shares and dividends are just a small part of Panamax. In fact you can't sell shares at all. Every company can issue at most 5 shares. Starting the game with one share of your company means your fate is quite closely tied to your company. Doing well in the game is mainly about running your company competently. You can buy shares of your opponent's companies. It'll increase their share values, and also increase their burdens because they need to pay more dividend. Hopefully you make the right choice and get a good return on investment.

Some of the special ships in the game, not owned by any particular player company. There are special rules around how they work.

The Thoughts

I like Panamax a lot. It is a breath of fresh air. If you ask me what game it is like, I can't say at all; and that's precisely what I like about it. It's an economic game. It is of medium-to-high complexity. There are quite many small rules details, and the rulebook can be confusing, but once I understood the overall structure, I realised that everything I did in the game was just about two things: (1) loading goods, or (2) moving ships. I like that the players are a tight ecosystem, heavily depending on one another and yet still competing to come out on top. There are opportunities to hurt your opponents, but I think it is more worthwhile to spend effort on collaboration with different combinations of partners than to spend effort on damaging a single opponent. Well, unless you play a 2P game, which is a zero-sum game.

Some of the mechanisms are gamey. The push pencil thing is comical, but it works as a game mechanism. There is some luck factor, e.g. in what contracts come up and also what financial advisor card you draw, but there are ways to mitigate luck and to plan ahead. Most information in the game is open, the only exception being the financial advisors (a type of card used for end-game scoring). Sometimes it feels like you have too much to digest and analyse on your turn. However ultimately it is just about loading goods and delivering them. Your basic actions are straight-forward.

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Staufer Dynasty

Plays: 4Px1.

Disclaimer: I didn't read the rules myself, and we learned and played the game speaking Cantonese and Mandarin, so some of the game terms I use here may be completely off.

The Game

The Staufer Dynasty is an area majority game played over five rounds. The board consists of six provinces, and the king visits a different province from round to round. The provinces have various numbers of government positions, and you want to send your officials to take up these positions. At the end of every round, one or two provinces will score, and when they do, you compare officials. Whoever has the most will score the most points and gain some benefits, and others will score fewer. Officials at scored provinces are then all fired, and go back to the general supply.

The game board is made of one turn order board at the centre, and six province boards around it. It takes up quite a lot of space, more than I had expected. That big purple pawn is the king.

Two of my officials. The big one on the left counts as two of the little ones on the right. Some spaces on the board only allow big officials.

On your turn, you have two options - hire or deploy. If you choose to hire, you are basically taking officials from the general supply into your personal supply. Your officials are your main currency in this game. If you choose to deploy, you send one official to claim one government position on the board. If this is at the province where the king is visiting, there is no transportation cost. If it is further away, you need to pay the carriage fare in the form of... your officials. These officials are placed onto the board (not the general supply). They can be claimed back into your hand in later rounds. When your new official takes up his new post, you also need to make a payment depending on the post being taken. This payment is made in the form of... officials again. They are, again, placed on the board, and similarly they will go back to your hand in future rounds. So you see, getting one person one job requires much effort and sacrifice from many people.

This table here is the round events tiles. Every row corresponds to one round in the game. We have completed the first round, so these here are for rounds 2 to 5. The first segment of each row indicates which province will score. The second segment shows the criteria for a possible second province to score, e.g. the province with the fewest remaining treasures or the province with the most number of officials. If the province that meets the criteria happens to be the same province as indicated in the first segment, then only that one province is scored, and it is scored just once. The third segment is mainly a reminder for some upkeep tasks, but one important part is how many steps the king will move, because it determines how many officials the players will claim back from the board, and also the traveling costs for the next round.

This is the Milano province. It has five spaces, and the costs are shown next to each space. The rewards when Milano scores is 10VP for the strongest player, 5VP for second place, and 4VP for everyone else who has presence. Those tiles below are the treasures. Whenever you deploy an official you get to claim the treasure(s) under his seat.

There are many treasure tokens in this game which give various special abilities. Some score points. Some give long-term benefits. Some give a one-time ability like waiving the transportation fee. When you hire officials, you can usually claim a treasure. When you deploy an official, usually you will also claim a treasure. Deciding which treasures to go for adds a layer to the strategy. Most of these treasures are quite useful, and it is fun to coordinate the right moment to make the best use of them.

Scoring is done in quite a few ways. The province scoring is done regularly throughout the game. Some treasures score points. There are also three secret objectives dealt before the game starts. They score at game end depending on how well you fulfill the conditions stated.

At the start of the game you are given three secret objectives, which are scored at game end. The first one here scores points based on the number of officials remaining on the board at game end. The second one scores points if I have majority in Strasbourg. The third one scores points for each set of officials placed to make such a pattern on the board.

The Play

I did a four player game with Ivan, Sinbad and Dith. Ivan taught the game. Playing the game is very much about tactical analysis to determine the most juicy opportunities. You can invest in some long-term abilities to help you for the rest of the game. Like any area majority game, you need to decide where to spend effort to compete, and how to fully utilise your resources - gaining the most points with the least investment. Of course this depends a lot on your opponents' actions and where they are focusing. The treasures are quite fun. They come into play when you decide whether to hire or deploy, and who to hire and where to deploy. Sometimes your decision is based more on the treasure you want more than who you really want to hire or where you really want to deploy. It is exhilarating when you get to use treasures to make big moves.

You oscillate between hiring officials and deploying them. There is a rhythm to it. Naturally you want to be deploying more and hiring less, because deploying is where you will score points (mostly). But you can't deploy when you don't have enough resources. Hiring is gathering resources. It is important to manage your pool of officials. They are your money. You need to time when to hire and when to deploy. The turn order mechanism is another layer to think of when you decide between hiring and deploying. There are many interwoven tactical decisions to make in this game.

The turn order mechanism is interesting. Each player has three secretaries here, and their positions in the queue at the centre determine when the player gets to take an action. There are only two action types - recruiting officials or deploying them. If you recruit, your secretary joins the queue on the right. If you deploy, he joins the queue on the left, and that queue starts from the other end. Once all secretaries have left the central queue, the round ends, and there will be two newly formed queues. These merge to become the new central queue, determining the turn order for the next round.

Ivan and Sinbad. Sinbad looks distressed but he's actually doing very well. He's the only guy collecting the point scoring treasures. None of the others wanted to get tied down competing with him.

The Thoughts

For me personally The Staufer Dynasty doesn't offer any new excitement. The turn order mechanism is clever, but the game overall doesn't leave much of an impression. There are many tactical decisions. There is healthy direct competition. There is no strong theme or story. It is a competently put together and passable game to me. Unfortunately there isn't anything that makes it particularly memorable. The Staufer Dynasty is designed by Andreas Steding, who designed Hansa Teutonica, a game which I admire very much. Hansa Teutonica has a paper-thin setting too, but the mechanisms and competition are much more compelling.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

El Gaucho

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

What brought my attention to El Gaucho was the publisher - Argentum Verlag, which published Hansa Teutonica a few years ago. Different designer though. El Gaucho is a medium-weight Eurogame with set collection as your core activity. You are collecting cows to be sold for money, which is victory points. The larger your batch of cows, the more VP's you'll get. There are five different cow types, and when collecting cows, those of the same type must form a set, and the cow values in the set must be in either ascending or descending order (i.e. a little like Lost Cities or Keltis).

My cowboys and my cattle. You collect cows in sets, and you must go in ascending or descending order. The moment you bring a new cow which breaks the sequence, you must sell the old set to start a new one. The value of a set is the number of cows in the set multiplied by the cost of the most expensive cow. So my brown cow set is $36, and my yellow cow set is $8. For now.

Buying cows is your main activity, and there are a number of mechanisms and special abilities around that. The actions you can take depend on die rolls. Every round a new start player will roll all the action dice for the round, and then everyone will pick two from the pool to execute actions. You use dice to buy or reserve cows, and the die or dice you use must match the value of the cow (whether the full cost or the deposit cost) precisely. No more, no less. Naturally the start player has more options than the last player. One tricky part in buying cows is you can't collect your cow until all cows in the same row have been bought or reserved. So sometimes you need to "take one for the team" and buy that last ugly unwanted cow (no mother-in-law jokes please). Or you can persuade someone else that it is a sound investment.

Other than buying or reserving cows, the other thing you can do with dice is to gain or use special abilities. There are 6 different types, and they do things like allowing you to rob a cow from another player (he will get compensation in the form of victory points though), allowing you to insert a newly bought cow in the middle of a set (thus circumventing the must-be-in-sequence rule) and allowing you to change one die to any value. For each of these special actions, within the same round you can either gain it or use it, and never both. You can't gain one and use it immediately. You can't use one and gain the same ability immediately to be used in the next round. Special abilities are usually a good investment. You can easily find an appropriate opportunity to use them.

The game ends after the stack of cows run out. Everyone sells all remaining cows, and richest (in VP) wins.

The green area of the game board is the pasture, with rows of cows on sale. The yellow area of the game board is the town, with various buildings where you can earn special actions. The fenced area is your dice tray.

The dice tray seems gimmicky at first, but I found it to be very practical. It stops the dice from knocking over other pieces, and having the dice at the centre of the table makes it easy for everyone to see what is available. It's not absolutely necessary, but I appreciate it.

The Play

We did a 4-player game, and I think El Gaucho is better with a higher player count, because there would be more competition among players. There is a cyclic rhythm to collecting cows and scoring (selling) them. There is a build-up to a climax, where you get increasingly nervous whether your competitor collecting the same cow type would steal that juicy $12 cow from your set and immediately sell it together with his set, earning a windfall and also significantly devaluing your set. This happened to me. I should have seen it coming. I was pondering Boon Khim's cows, and thought if I were him I would so steal my cow and then sell the set for a tidy profit. At that moment I realised I had neglected the danger for too long. Boon Khim smile apologetically to me and said sorry, and did exactly what I was thinking about. Great minds think alike.

The game is quite interactive because you need to watch what your opponents are collecting. You need to guess who will (or will not) go for what, because whether and when you get to claim cows from the board depends on whether others have also bought or reserved the other cows in the same row. The special abilities are nifty tools to help you with the set collection.

Cowboys lying down on cows mean you've made a downpayment. You need to pay the balance using another action before the cow is yours. Cowboys standing up on cows mean you've made the full payment. You are just waiting for the whole row to be tagged by cowboys (regardless of full or partial payment) before you can claim your cows.

The Thoughts

I like that in El Gaucho your scoring has a cyclical rhythm to it. There is a build-up and a climax and the accompanying tension. This is unlike many VP-scoring Eurogames where almost everything you do gives you some points. El Gaucho is a medium weight game that plays smoothly. Afterall you are just collecting cows of the same colour. The mechanisms and special abilities around the core set collection activity give you the means to outdo your opponents and to be creative. You don't really go through many cycles of scoring. You only have a few opportunities to maximise the values of your cow sets. The game doesn't outstay its welcome.

Monday, 24 November 2014

boardgaming in photos

27 Oct 2014. Allen, Han, Jia Yaik and I started a game of Indonesia on Slothninja quite some time ago, and the game took about half a year to finish. I took some screenshots during our game, and had intended to write a session report about it. When I looked back at the screenshots, it looked like too much work to analyse every twist and turn and to try to remember what was going through my mind during the game. So I've decided to forget it. Here's one screenshot of the map.

Han was the big winner in this game, and the signs were already showing in the early game. He played a smooth game. Indonesia is an unforgiving game. You need to know what you're doing. If you dig a hole for yourself, it's not easy to climb out. It feels like you have many crucial decisions to make throughout the game, and one bad decision can set you back a lot. There will be big changes throughout the game - people losing companies due to mergers, rice companies and spice companies transforming into siap faji (microwave meals) companies. These changes are not brought about by random dice rolls or lucky card draws. They are all part of a natural progression driven by player actions. The challenge is in how to anticipate and shape the events in the game.

Half a year to play a game is crazy though. Next time we should play face-to-face.

26 Oct 2014. Hacienda is a Wolfgang Kramer design which both Michelle and I like. Many people have made custom maps for it, but till now I still haven't downloaded any to play. By now Hacienda is no longer a hotness game.

Hacienda is a tile-laying game. You buy cards, then play cards to place tiles. You also directly pay to place some special tiles. Tiles placed help you make money or give you victory points. Points are scored once at mid-game and then again at game end. The hexes are haciendas or farms. The round tiles are animals. The lakes are a type of tile you can place too. They score points for your haciendas and animals next to them.

Michelle and I always compete to reach as many markets as possible using our animals. The markets are those single buildings in the middle of the grassland (pampas) areas. Creating a link of animals to markets lets you earn money, and each market you connect to is also worth victory points. The more you connect to, the higher the value per market. So Michelle and I always strive to not get left behind.

In this game, I won mainly because of lakes. I had started placing them earlier, and had also managed to place more than Michelle.

Michelle expanded her (red) haciendas aggressively, until she ran out of red hexes. So she had to use yellow ones instead. This was game end.

Playing my homemade Love Letter with the children. This is one of Chen Rui's (left) favourite games.

Agricola. We still play the family game rules, i.e. no Occupation cards or Minor Improvement cards. The children still don't quite have that strategic view and are not yet able to plan ahead very well. So I sometimes need to remind them and give them little tips. But I think they do enjoy building up their farms.

This is my farm. Not all that great. I have a fancy stone house, but my animal husbandry is rather poor - only one tiny pasture and a few shabby stables.

Shee Yun's animal husbandry is much better. She has all three types of animals (the cubes), sheep, wild boar and cattle.

Chen Rui's farm has too much unutilised space, but she does have a nice stone house.

29 Oct 2014. This is a homemade version of Reiner Knizia's En Garde. I did this quite a long time ago. The game is very simple and very quick, but at the same time it fits the fencing setting very well.

The fencing ground is on the left, the scoreboard on the right. The black and white markers on the left are our contestants, the ones on the right are the score markers. In this game you play cards to move or to attack. The number on the card determines how many steps you can move or from what exact range you may attack. Defense is done by playing a card (or cards) of a matching number. A round ends as soon as one contestant manages to score a hit. That's one point for him. If the deck (which has only 25 cards, five each of numbers 1 to 5) runs out, whoever is further from his starting corner wins the round.

Very few components required, yet it is a very clever game.

I taught Shee Yun (9) Caesar and Cleopatra. This is a game a bought about 10 years ago in Taiwan. I had not played it for a very long time. I only thought about it when I was browsing my shelf to look for games I could teach Shee Yun.

In this 2-player game, players compete to grab Roman officials from the centre. There are 5 types of officials, and every turn there may be an event triggering one of them to decide to support one of the players. You play numbered cards on your side of the officials groups, and whenever there is a reckoning, whoever has the highest total wins one official. You can play cards face-up or face-down, but if you play face-down, you only get to play one card, as opposed to two when playing face-up. Shee Yun was reluctant to reveal her cards and kept playing them face-down. That was not a good idea. She ended up playing much fewer cards than me. You always draw back up to your hand size at the end of your turn, so there is no need to conserve cards.

In addition to numbered cards, there are also special action cards, like the rightmost one here. There is one special type of numbered card called a Philosopher card. It is worth 0, but it changes the rule for the next reckoning. The player with the smaller total value wins instead.

31 Oct 2014. Sticheln is an old trick-taking game which I quite like. It has two features which make it very interesting. There is a pain colour (or suit) that you must select at the start of every hand. Each card you capture is worth one point, but if you capture cards of your pain colour, they are worth negative points based on the card value. The other interesting feature is for every trick, any colour played that is different from the colour of the first card played is a trump colour. This means it is quite rare for the first card to win any trick, because as soon as someone else plays a different colour, that new colour will trump the first card.

When playing Sticheln you need to be careful not to win cards of your pain colour while winning as many other coloured cards as possible. It is important to watch others' pain colours, because sometimes you do want to serve them a good dose of pain. You manipulate your opponents' fears to allow you to win tricks. You appeal to their greed to help you get rid of your pain colour. What an evil game!

Allen, Ivan and Ainul. We played at Boardgamecafe.net. I arrived early and there were only three of us initially. Since we were waiting for others to arrive, I suggested playing one quick round of Sticheln. Halfway through sorting out the cards needed for a 3-player game and explaining the rules, another friend arrived. We asked him to join us, and we re-sorted the cards and restarted the game explanation. Then halfway through that, yet another friend arrived, whom we invited to join us too. This repeated a few times until we had 8 players - the max the game could support. This was my first time ever playing 8-player Sticheln. It's probably not the best number, but it was funny to have tried it this way. The big numbered cards are scary! Negative twenty?! Oh yeah...

I have played River Dragons (Dragon Delta) with my family before as a 4-player game. That time Shee Yun won within two rounds as we were not prepared to stop her. This time I played this as a 6-player game, all players being boardgame veterans. The game was, needless to say, quite different from my previous experience. A more crowded board meant we got into each others' ways more easily. Then the other thing is we had no qualms with programming dragon cards to mess with one another. A dragon card cancels an opponent's action, which can severely mess up his programmed sequence of moves.

That black #2 bridge looks dodgy. Looks like a government project going nowhere.

Guess who's the ninja.

We built quite a complex mishmash of bridges. Dith was the eventual winner. In that last round, we could have played dragon cards to stop him, but we were all hoping someone else would do it, so that we could save one action. Our selfishness worked against us and allowed Dith to complete his final dash.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Burgoo

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Burgoo is a gift from Allen, and is another microgame which he Kickstarted. Burgoo is a meat and vegetable stew (I hadn't known that). The game components of Burgoo are very simple - just a pile of tiles representing 6 different ingredient types. Everyone starts with a column of 12 ingredients, and a hand of 6 different ingredients. The objective of the game is to use up all ingredients in your column.

The ingredients of burgoo include beef, carrots, spices, celery, potatoes and and onions.

On your turn you do three things. First, you throw an ingredient from your hand into the pot (i.e. the central pile of non-player ingredients). You then announce top or bottom, and if any of the top (or bottom) ingredients in anyone's columns match this ingredient you've just throw in, everyone gets to throw them into the pot too. The second step is simply to pick one ingredient from the pot and put it in your hand. The third step is to again throw an ingredient from your hand into the pot. This time, instead of ingredients from your columns (and your opponents') tagging along, you (and only you) get to split one of your columns at a position matching that ingredient which you've just thrown in.

These are my two columns of ingredients, one with seven and the other with two. Those five ingredients in a small pile are ingredients in my hand. That big pile in the background is the pot.

On your turn you are throwing in one ingredient, then taking one, then throwing in yet another one. The net result is you are losing one ingredient every turn. However there is one special situation in which you get to collect more ingredients into your hand. If during the first step of your turn, one of your neighbours has an ingredient going into the pot (i.e. they are utilising your action) and that ingredient is the last one in its column, instead of going into the pot, the ingredient goes into your hand. Ingredients remaining on hand can be important, because it's the tiebreaker if two or more players use up their columns at the same time.

The Play

I asked my children to try this microgame with me, and they both defeated me soundly. In fact they both used up their ingredients on the same turn, and they had to determine victory by tiebreaker. The game is very short. It's an open information game. You get to configure your column at the start of the game so you can already plan how to maximise your efficiency in using up ingredients. There are not that many rounds in a game, because you only have 12 ingredients to get rid of, and you will usually get rid of at least one every round, sometimes more when you are able to have two matching ingredients at the ends of different columns, or when you are able to leech off others' turns. So the game is centred around little tactical decisions to rid yourself of ingredients as efficiently as possible.

Chen Rui has split her original column into three columns by now.

Shee Yun is organising her ingredients well. If she throws in orange and announces top, she can use up two tiles at one go. The same is true if she throws in white and announces bottom. She has also set up for the remaining ingredients.

The Thoughts

There is not much to the game. It's a short efficiency exercise, where you will find yourself analysing open information, trying to improve your efficiency without helping your opponents. Burgoo is a filler that doesn't feel very filling.

24 Nov 2014: I realised I've made a severe mistake. You don't execute all three actions on your turn. You pick just one! That changes everything. I need to play this again and reassess my opinion.