Sunday, 14 January 2018

Pandemic: Iberia

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pandemic: Iberia is a variant of Pandemic, designed by Jesus Torres Castro together with original designer Matt Leacock. The setting is different. We are now on the Iberian Peninsula in the mid 19th century. The game is 70% Pandemic, so those who are familiar with the original will feel right at home. The remaining 30% creates a different flavour, a new experience.

In the original, your goal is to find cures to the four deadly diseases. In Iberia, you won't be able to find cures. You can only perform researches. These microscopes are used to mark whether you have researched a particular disease. In the original, once you have the cure, you can treat all patients at one location using just one action. You no longer have this ability in Iberia. Treating patients is still painstakingly slow. You get a different benefit instead - a bit more flexibility when purifying water - this is a new action type which I'll explain shortly.

This is the game board. The four diseases are roughly distributed to north, south, east and west. The two tracks at the top right and along the right edge will be immediately familiar to Pandemic players. The one at the top right is the infection track. As the infection level increases, you draw more infection cards at the end of every turn and the cities on the board get infected more quickly. The track along the right edge is the outbreak track. Each time an outbreak happens, i.e. when heavy infection in a city cannot be contained in time and spreads to adjacent cities, the count is increased. Reach 8 outbreaks, and you lose the game.

This is the 19th century, so you have no aeroplanes. You can't fly from one city to another by playing city cards, at least not for every city. You can still travel directly but only between port cities. Traveling between inland cities is more difficult.

The leftmost card is a character card. The others are player cards. Here there are only city cards, the main type of player card. The other type is event cards. At the start of the game, players all start at different cities, and not a fixed HQ like in the original Pandemic which has Atlanta as your start city. You pick your start city based on your starting cards. Every city card shows a founding date. The player starting in the oldest city is the start player. This is mostly just flavour, but it's a nice touch. A bit of flexibility in choosing start city is good too. There is some variability.

Building train tracks is a new mechanism. Building a track from your current city to an adjacent city requires one action. Moving from one city to another which is connected by railroads only takes one action. When you have built an extensive railroad network, traveling between inland cities become much more efficient. Spending actions to build tracks is a necessary investment in the early game.

Another important new mechanism is water purification. In Pandemic, it costs one action to treat a disease cube in a city, removing it from the board. This still exists in Iberia. This action is remedial in nature. The new action - water purification - is preventive in nature. To do this, you spend a card of the appropriate colour, and place two water tokens in an adjacent region. A region is an area enclosed by a group of cities. Water tokens protect adjacent cities by preventing infection. Whenever a city is about to get a new disease cube, if any of the adjacent regions has any water token, one such water token must be consumed to cancel the infection. Purifying water is generally more powerful that simply treating a disease, because water tokens protect all adjacent cities. However it is more costly because you do need to spend a card. Also you have less control over it. You cannot specify which city to save the water tokens for. A region may be adjacent to some heavily infected cities and some lightly infected cities. Normally you would prefer to have the tokens be used on the heavily infected ones. However if the next infection happens at a lightly infected city, you don't have a choice to not negate the infection, saving your precious water tokens for the heavily infected cities.

In this photo there are two heavily infected cities (those with 3 cubes), and two lightly infected cities (1 cube) adjacent to the region with water tokens.

One more difference is hospitals vs research centres. You no longer have research centres. Instead you may build one specialised hospital per disease. Your research for a particular disease must be done at the corresponding hospital. Also, since there is only one hospital piece per colour, you won't be able to ever build a second hospital for the same disease. You can at most move the hospital to a new location.

The ways to lose are the same as the original. If the player card deck runs out, you lose. If the 8th outbreak happens, you lose. If you run out of disease cubes because one of the diseases has spread too much on the board, you lose. There is only one way to win - research all four diseases. Iberia retains the same tension between long-term objective and short-term needs. You must remember to plan ahead to research all four diseases, and at the same time you have to be firefighting to make sure the diseases are kept under control and don't cause you to lose the game before you manage to complete your research work.

The Play

I played with my two daughters. It was the first time for all of us playing this version of Pandemic. It was easy to get into, since most of the rules are similar to the original. Although the goal is no longer finding cures, mechanism-wise, we are still doing the same thing - we need to collect sets of cards of the same colour. The main difference is in the benefit gained after completing the set. We experience the same angst between strategic planning and tactical needs. You need the strategic view to get to your winning condition. At the same time you must not neglect the pressing need of containing the diseases. It is often difficult to prioritise, and this is what makes the game interesting. You need to discipline yourself to work towards your goal. In this aspect you need to take initiative and consciously stay on course. The disease containment aspect is more reactive in nature. Depending on where the brown stuff hits the fan, you need to respond accordingly, and as efficiently as possible. You need to stay on your toes and keenly assess the risks. Can you afford to delay treating some cities while you invest some effort on your research? This is a question you ask all the time.

In Iberia, building train tracks is generally part of your long-term plan, while purifying water is generally part of your short-term firefighting and disease containment.

In the game we played, Shee Yun's character ability was crucial. She was the politician (yellow), and one of her abilities was to swap a card with another from the discard pile. When we struggled to collect enough cards of the right colour, this ability was very handy. Our game went down to the wire. Towards late game, we went up to 7 outbreaks and would lose any time. The player deck was almost exhausted, and we were still one card short of researching the last disease, the yellow one. We counted, and knew there was only one yellow card remaining in the deck. We even had to check all yellow cards in the discard pile to determine which specific yellow card it was that remained to be drawn. We couldn't know who would draw it. If it was not the player collecting yellow cards to draw it, we would need to find a way for the card to be passed to him as soon as possible. We did not have much time left. By knowing which city card it was, we could assemble at the city beforehand, so that once we drew the card, if necessary, it could be passed to the right person with minimal delay. Just like in the original Pandemic, when passing a card from one player to another, both players must be in the city depicted on the card. We had to plan our actions in detail, not wasting any of them, in order to eventually complete the last research before time ran out. We won!

Playing with Shee Yun and Chen Rui. Cooperative games work well as family games. You are all on the same team. You discuss and plan together.

Family meeting at Albacete. All three of us happened to be there.

Yellow was the final disease to be researched.

The Thoughts

Pandemic: Iberia is a cool variant. It's 70% similar to the original Pandemic, so if you like the original, you will like this. If you don't, don't bother. I've always enjoyed the Pandemic series, so this works for me. I like it more than Pandemic: The Cure (the dice game version), but I like Pandemic: Legacy Season 1 more. It is more different than the variants in Pandemic: On the Brink, except for the Bioterrorist variant. One nice thing is Iberia comes with two variants, both based on historical events and diseases. They will make the game more challenging.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Odin's Ravens (2nd edition)

Plays: 2Px1.

I remember seeing the first edition of Odin's Ravens at Witch House, Taipei when I was there in 2003. I don't remember whether I have played it. I hadn't started keeping records then. The second edition is slightly different, but I know only from reading others' comments, not from what I recall.

The Game

Odin is the Nordic boss god. Every morning he sends his two pet ravens out to survey his realm. They fly off in opposite directions to see how things are going in the world, and return to report to him. In this two-player game, players are these dutiful ravens, and they compete to be first to return from their journeys.

These are the flight cards, the main card type in the game. To advance your pawn to a new land card, you must play a flight card showing the same terrain.

When setting up the game, you lay out all land cards in a long line. They form your flight path. Each land card has two terrain spaces. They form two long rows. One raven will fly off from the left side, go all the way to the end, make a U-turn and then fly back from the right side. The other raven flies in the opposite direction, taking off on the right, and returning on the left.

Each player has two draw decks, a flight card deck and a Loki card deck. Flight cards are used for movement. Loki cards have various special abilities. You may play any number of cards on your turn. At the end of your turn, you always draw 3 cards, in any combination you like. Your hand limit is 7. If you exceed that, you must discard the excess. Two matching flight cards can be played as a joker. Loki cards are removed from the game once played, but not the flight cards. When the flight card deck is exhausted, you reshuffle the discard pile to form a new draw deck.

This is a Loki card. There are always two abilities, and you pick one to use. On this particular card, the first ability lets you swap two land cards. The second ability lets you shift a land card slightly, so that one flight path is shortened by one space, and one space of the other flight path changes terrain.

The Play

Odin's Ravens is a simple game. It's all about hand management. You try to make the most of your hand. You want to move as far as possible and as efficiently as possible. Both Allen and I tried to maximise our travel distance every turn. Sometimes it is not possible to go far, and we bank on the next turn, hoping the 3 cards drawn at the end of the turn will help. Pairing two similar cards to become a joker sounds powerful, but it is actually a last resort. We try not to have to discard cards, because that means wasting cards. Loki cards are all about waiting for the right moment, or creating the right moment. You want to play it for maximum effect. There was one particular card which Allen drew early. He played it to create a longer path in front of me, stalling me. The game was new to both of us and we learned as we went. At the time he hadn't considered that although he was stalling me, later on his raven would be passing that same location, so he was also stalling himself, just that it would happen later. I drew that Loki card later, and with this lesson learnt, I played it at a location which I had already passed, but he hadn't.

The Loki cards are handy, and it's best to plan to make use of all of them throughout the game. It's not a good idea to keep too many in hand though. With a hand limit of 7, too many Loki cards will mean not enough slots for flight cards. You may end up frequently discarding flight cards, or pairing them to become jokers.

Player pawns are wooden ravens, one light and one dark.

At the top right corner, the flight path has been modified by Loki cards, creating a detour.

It was only after the game that I realised I had played one rule wrong. If a few spaces in a row in front of you are of the same terrain, you only need to play one flight card to move through the series until you reach the final space before the next different terrain. I had thought it must be one card per step. This consecutive terrain rule will make the game more interesting. It will be an important consideration when playing Loki cards.

The Thoughts

Odin's Ravens is a game from a different era. The first edition was released in 2002, and it was part of the highly acclaimed Kosmos 2-player series. When playing this second edition, I felt transported to a different era, a simpler time. It is not a poorer game, nor does it feel outdated, because of this. It is simply of a different style. I guess it's a bit like watching a black-and-white movie, or listening to a song from the 1980's. Old timers may enjoy such a trip down memory lane, if you have never played this game before. Newer boardgamers may enjoy tasting something from an earlier era. Like others is the Kosmos 2-player series, Odin's Ravens is a decent spouse game. Little aggression, and quick-paced.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

my 2017

Boardgaming-wise, 2017 was more or less the same as 2016, so there is not a lot to write about. I still join Friday night gaming at, but not as regularly as before. This year I managed to join one of their boardgame retreats though, which I had never tried before. I played 335 times in 2017. I played 70 distinct games, of which 38 were new to me. These were near the 2016 numbers. My wife Michelle and elder daughter Shee Yun played even less in 2017, but younger daughter Chen Rui played a bit more. We played some Santorini and Lost Cities.

2017 was my 10th year of blogging about this boardgaming hobby. It was fun for me, therapeutic even.

My most played games were Star Realms (89), Ascension (53) and Race for the Galaxy (49). The first two are my evergreen games against Han on my phone. We have been doing this for years. Race for the Galaxy had a revival because it was released on the iPad. I joined the Beta testing and played a lot. I bought it after it was released and played some, but so far still fewer times than when it was in Beta. I only played against the AI's, and it was fun and challenging.

I played Escape: The Curse of the Temple 17 times, mostly after having taught it to a group of friends at work. We certainly had many hilarious moments with it. I had 14 plays of Onirim, an unconventional solo card game which was free on the iPad; and 10 plays of Love Letter, which is always a delight.

My most memorable moment was in a game of Hit Z Road. It was a story of incredible odds. Never give up hope, and always do your best.

The most pleasant surprise was Magic Maze. What an ingenious idea, and so much chaotic fun!

Technically I had more new games in 2017 than in 2016, 15 vs 8. However 9 of my game purchases were expansion packs of Android: Netrunner, which were on sale at Meeples Cafe. I'm not exactly sure I should have bought them. I don't really play Netrunner. I know it's a great game, but I never manage to be committed enough to get into it. I bought the expansions on the wish that I would get into it some day. I have not played with any of these expansion packs, unless you count sleeving and reading cards as playing.

I bought three games in the Exit: The Game series. These were play-once games. I bought two games from the Pandemic family - Pandemic: Iberia and Pandemic Legacy Season 2, the latter being earnestly anticipated. Pandemic Legacy Season 1 was my game of the year in 2016. The final new game of 2017 was The Impregnable Fortress, a review copy from a Singaporean designer.

These are the games new to me in 2017, in alphabetical order:

  1. Arena: Roma II
  2. Century: Spice Road
  3. Cottage Garden
  4. Custom Heroes
  5. Dice Forge
  6. Empires: Age of Discovery - I'm not sure whether this should count, since I have played Age of Empires III before. Empires is just a new version.
  7. Exit: The Game - The Abandoned Cabin. I played in this order: Secret Lab, Abandoned Cabin, Pharaoh's Tomb. Secret Lab felt a little easy, Abandoned Cabin a little hard, and Pharaoh's Tomb somewhere in between. Pharaoh's Tomb was supposed to be the hardest of this first trio of Exit games, but I had learned a spoiler before playing it, which made it slightly easier. I heard of a particular mechanism being used in the series. It didn't appear in Secret Lab or Abandoned Cabin when I played them, so I knew it was coming sooner or later in the Pharaoh's Tomb. I wish I hadn't known it.
  8. Exit: The Game - The Pharaoh's Tomb
  9. Exit: The Game - The Secret Lab
  10. Fabled Fruit
  11. Five Tribes - I like this. It is satisfying when you find clever plays.
  12. Fold-It
  13. Great Western Trail
  14. Hit Z Road - From reading the rules, it seems like a very Euro auction game, but the story comes through when you sit down to play. The game is more thematic than I expected.
  15. Igloo Pop
  16. Knit Wit
  17. Kolejka
  18. Magic Maze
  19. Medici: The Card Game
  20. Not Alone
  21. Odin's Ravens (2nd ed)
  22. Onirim
  23. Pandemic Iberia - Pretty decent. Get it if you are a big fan of Pandemic. If you are lukewarm on Pandemic, it won't change your mind. It's about 70% similar. There are some unique twists which fans will enjoy.
  24. Pandemic Legacy Season 2 - I have started playing this, but it will be a while before I write about it. I intend to complete the campaign before doing so.
  25. Pax Porfiriana - Rich and flavourful, but challenging to learn.
  26. Pax Renaissance - Ditto.
  27. Ponzi Scheme - The cover is boring and the theme is boring, but the game is more fun than I had expected. It is a game of daring and brinkmanship. Just don't screw yourself by making silly calculation mistakes like I did.
  28. Power Grid: The Card Game - The map / spatial element is removed, but this is still a pretty full experience, not a watered down card game version.
  29. Project: ELITE
  30. Sanssouci - A pleasant solitairish game from Michael Kiesling.
  31. Santorini - It's an abstract 2-player game, despite how cute it looks. I don't think it would have been half as successful if it were marketed as a serious, thinky abstract game. Good marketing and good art are important!
  32. Secret Hitler - A slightly more thinky social deduction game. It works well. The title plates are solid and impressive. You can seriously injure someone with one of them.
  33. The Impregnable Fortress
  34. Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania
  35. Unlock! - The Formula. The other escape room game I've tried. This is pretty good too. I enjoy the clever riddles.
  36. Urbania
  37. West of Africa - Brutal version of Race for the Galaxy in boardgame format, which looks completely different from Race for the Galaxy.
  38. World's Fair 1893 - This was a pleasant surprise. Simple rules, scarce actions, difficult decisions, decent strategic depth. It reminded me of the simple-yet-deep era of Eurogames.

Friday, 29 December 2017

boardgaming in photos

22 Oct 2017. Tales of the Arabian Nights. It had been a while. I felt like playing something, and conscripted the kids to play with me. I had forgotten most of the rules, and explained it clunkily while reading the rulebook. Bad idea and rookie mistake. It made the kids impatient. I should have read it by myself first so that the teaching would go much smoother.

I picked this game because elder daughter Shee Yun is into writing these days. I thought a story-telling game would be up her alley.

This is one of the special locations. You can't simply decide to enter such locations. Only special incidents give you an opportunity to visit one of these locations. Sometimes you won't even get one chance for the whole game.

Two of my status cards got me stuck for quite a while. I was a Sultan, which meant I was very wealthy. However it also meant my travel speed on land was greatly reduced due to having a large retinue. At the same time, I was a cripple. This status also reduced my movement speed. I was some distance away from Baghdad. I had settled down in another city and made it my hometown. Each time I left home, I could only visit one other city before returning home, otherwise the wife would be mad at me. From where I was, I could not reach Baghdad without stopping at another city, which meant I could never get to Baghdad to claim victory. I had enough Destiny points and Story points to win, but no way to get to Baghdad. Eventually it was an incident which let me employ Shee Yun (who was a clever scholar) to cure me of my crippled status. Only then I managed to go to Baghdad to win. Actually I wasn't sure whether I played this right. The text said I could do this, but it did not say explicitly whether Shee Yun could refuse.

This time playing Tales of the Arabian Nights felt a little draggy. I guess it was partly because of how I got stuck for some time with no way to progress. The story being told in this game is not really a consistent narrative. It is a story assembled from random snippets. It is only partly affected by your character's statuses and your decisions. The results of some of the decisions are rather random too. Sometimes you do experience an interesting journey. Sometimes it can be a disjointed experience. Winning is more luck than skill, but that's okay, because this game is more about the experience than outdoing your friends.

27 Oct 2017. Cubist, a game where you build structures with dice. This time I played a 3-player game with Allen and Heng. It was Heng's first time.

The structure in the middle is the museum. Completion of the museum is one of the game-end conditions. The museum starts with one die - the red one. The blue and brown dice are player dice. So far Allen and Heng had contributed to museum construction. I had not yet contributed any dice. I was green.

I was only one #3 die away from completing this sculpture on the left. I needed one more #3 die to stack on top of the existing #3 die. I was building some kind of rampart. We were near game end. All three of us were close to completing one last sculpture, which would end the game. It came down to whoever was first to roll the right number. He would complete his sculpture, and the points from that sculpture would put him in the lead and give him the victory.

The green card is the blueprint for the museum. The Museum is only one #6 die away from being completed.

This was Heng's first time playing Machi Koro too. I love this game and was more than happy to teach. I directly taught the Harbour expansion.

17 Nov 2017. Both Allen and I like Innovation. It has classic status between us. We don't regularly play it, but still bring it out once in a while, unlike most hobby games which only get played once or twice, and then stay on the shelf. Our games were a little lopsided, but still fun. What's cool about Innovation is there can always be an unexpected twist around the corner.

15 Dec 2017. There was a team-building event at work, and one of the activities was boardgames. Naturally I was the supplier of boardgames. Among the games picked, Captain Sonar was the most complex. Most were very simple. In the game of Captain Sonar played that day, both radio operators were competent and did not make any mistake. Blue team (left) managed to determine the exact location of yellow team (right) earlier. I was confident they would win. Knowledge was power. In the early game, blue team mostly used detection tools, to help them find the location of their enemy. Yellow team mostly used weapons, but they seemed to be shooting blindly without knowing for sure where the enemy was. However at one of their attacks, they managed an indirect hit, which greatly reduced the possible positions of their enemy. Blue team wasn't ready to counterattack due to their weapons system being offline. They had to repair it first. They never did manage to recover. Before they could get themselves organised, yellow team kept up relentless attacks and eventually sank them.

Coconuts must be played in a meeting room and not in any open area because the coconuts would fly, bounce and roll everywhere.

There was bitter competition in Halli Galli. It was a four-player game, and they had to play till two players remained. When they were down to three, play was intense and everyone managed to hold on for a long time. There were a few times Zharif ran out of cards, but the next time exactly 5 fruits of the same kind came up, he managed to ring the bell first. So he claimed a stack of cards and was back in action. It was exciting to see him back from the brink many times.

I had used Loopin Louie for a previous company event, so some of my colleagues already knew how to play.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Custom Heroes

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A quick and dirty description of Custom Heroes would be "Super Cho Dai Dee". It's a climbing card game like Tichu and Cho Dai Dee / Big 2, something most Chinese people around the world are familiar with. The main hook of the game are these transparent plastic cards below. The game must be played with sleeved cards. These transparent cards can be inserted into the sleeves to augment the normal cards. Cards can be upgraded. They call this the card crafting mechanism.

The transparent cards are called card advancements. Everyone starts the game with these two. You choose when you want to use them. At the end of every hand, you receive more, depending on your position for the current hand.

A game usually lasts 5 or 6 hands. To win the game, you need to first reach 10pts, and then win a hand. If there is no winner at the end of the 6th hand, only qualifying players enter the 7th hand, a championship hand, and whoever wins that wins the game, regardless of score.

The basic cards in the game are very simple - they are just cards numbered 1 to 10. No jacks, queens, kings or aces. The number of cards used depends on the number of players. You add a set of ten cards, numbered 1 to 10, per player. At the start of a hand, all cards are dealt out. Everyone gets 10 cards. Your objective is to get rid of all your cards as early as possible. A lead player first decides the combo type to play. It can a single card, a pair, a triplet and so on. The card values must be the same. Once this is decided, subsequent card plays must be of the same number of cards. The card value must match or top the latest value. You continue playing until no one is able to or wants to play any more. The last player to have played a combo becomes the next lead player and decides the next combo to play. This continues until one player plays all his cards. He is the winner for the hand. The rest then continues to play, to determine 2nd, 3rd positions etc. Once all positions are determined, everyone collects rewards. This includes points, power tokens and card advancements. The winner gets the most points, but the losers get more power tokens and card advancements. This is a catch-up mechanism. The core mechanism is simple, more so than Cho Dai Dee. You don't have all the poker combos like straights, full houses or flushes. There is no concept of suits.

During a hand, cards are played into a pile like this.

Let's look at the card advancements. They are the main selling point of the game. Card advancements are hidden behind your player screen. Every time you play cards, you may choose to upgrade them by attaching card advancements. There are four types of advancements. If you take a closer look at the photo above, you will see that near the bottom of each card there are four circles. Whenever you add an advancement to a card, one of these will be filled. Each card can accommodate four advancements at most, one of each type. In this photo two of the cards have been upgraded, and both have used the blue advancement slot. Their values have been increased.

Upgraded cards stay upgraded for the rest of the game. When you upgrade a card, you do it just before you play it, so that you enjoy the benefit. Before the start of the next hand, all cards are shuffled, and the card which you have spent a card advancement to upgrade may be dealt to another player. When cards get upgraded, the card distribution of the deck changes. There will be cards with values higher than 10. There may be fewer cards of a certain value because they have been upgraded, making it harder or even impossible to make four-of-a-kinds and triplets. On the other hand, upgrades can make five-of-a-kinds possible.

The player screen hides your card advancements. It also shows a reference table which lists the rewards to be given at the end of each hand. The red tokens are victory points. The yellow tokens are power tokens.

Some card abilities can be activated only by spending power tokens. If you play such a card and cannot afford the power tokens or do not wish to spend the power tokens, you gain some power tokens instead. Power tokens can be converted to victory points too.

There is one rule which does not exist in Cho Dai Dee. If you play a card or cards of the same value as the previous card or cards played, the next player is forced to pass. Since Custom Heroes has no concept of suits or the relative strengths of suits, cards of the same value being played consecutively happens quite often. This rule can cause some unexpected twists. You may be confident in the strength of your remaining cards, but if you get locked out of playing cards, even for just one turn, sometimes your perfect plan can become completely unravelled.

The Play

Playing Custom Heroes is very much like playing Cho Dai Dee (Big 2). The core mechanism is the same - it's a climbing game. The moment the cards are dealt, you already have to plan how to play out your hand. You need to make good use of the different combos. E.g. if you know an opponent has no pairs, you want to keep playing pairs to deny him progress. You know that weak cards in your hand will likely need to be helped by the strong cards. E.g. a lowly single 1 will likely be dependent on a 10 being played, so that you can be lead player next and play that 1. All these are familiar if you know Cho Dai Dee.

One thing that's significantly different is you don't play until one player wins. You play until there is one player left with cards. You need to determine the positions of all players, from first to last. In Cho Dai Dee, if your hand sucks you will try to do damage control, expecting to lose but trying to lose without too many cards in hand. You cut your losses. In Custom Heroes, even if you can't be first, you try to be second, or third. You don't want to be stuck with cards you can never play. The strategy changes because of this.

The advancements are precious. It's tricky deciding when to use them and when to save them for an even better occasion.

You need to keep in mind the ever changing card distribution. You need a rough idea of how it has changed, so that you can better evaluate the strength of your hand. You need to know what the highest card values are at any time. It's no guarantee for winning a hand though, because your opponents can always introduce yet another advancement to immediately modify cards. There will always be some surprise in store for you.

The rightmost card has been upgraded to a bomb. It is a single card, and it beats any combo played before it, regardless of the number of cards in the combo. However it can also be beaten by a bomb played after it. Every player starts the game with a bomb advancement.

I played a four-player game - Ivan, Allen, Abraham and I. The funniest thing in our game was how many times Abraham was forced to pass. He sat on my left, and there were many occasions when I had the exact same card value as previously played to the pile. I couldn't not play it! It was the best move. Abraham was blocked so many times that we got to a point when all it was needed was an apologetic glance from me, and he'd nod knowingly and signal to me: just do it man, just get it over and done with. In hindsight, I should have suggested to swap seats with him.

This #4 card has been upgrade twice, +9 and -1. So it's a 12 now. Negative advancements are not necessarily bad. Let's say I have a 12 and a 13. If I "improve" the 13 by -1, making it a 12, I can make a pair of 12's, which can be very powerful and handy.

Thematically, two of the advancement types are weapons, for right and left hands respectively. When you add such an advancement to a card, it is not just a number being added, a weapon will also be placed in the hand of the character. In this particular case of a negative enhancement, the weapon is a cabbage. That text at the bottom is a separate advancement. Base cards have no text. This particular text advancement reverses the strengths of cards. Smaller values now beat higher values.

The Thoughts

The card crafting in Custom Heroes is fun and interesting. It gives you many options. Even if your hand is poor, it gives you some hope of turning things around, or at least securing a middling position. Your opponents will open spring surprises at you. Since the core mechanism is a climbing game, non-gamers who know Cho Dai Dee will be able to learn this relatively easily. The card crafting is not rocket science. Some of the text card powers need some explaining though. It is not exactly a light game. It is a mid-weight game. Also, you don't play a 3-minute single hand. You need to play around 4 or 5 hands to complete a game. Complexity-wise it is higher than most climbing games. You need to worry about the power tokens, scoring victory points, and the various card advancements. Fiddling with the card advancements is some work, especially when packing the game away. You need to remove all the card advancements from the basic cards. It's the price to pay to enjoy the card crafting. Custom Heroes is something different and worth trying.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Fabled Fruit

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The legacy game mechanism is relatively new, but there are already quite a few games using it. The mad scientist game designer Friedemann Friese has taken an interest, and has now released quite a few games using legacy mechanisms. Fabled Fruit was the first of these. The key idea behind the legacy mechanism is a game can change over time. Rules may change. Game components may change. One game can be different from the next, depending on what the players have done during play. In Pandemic Legacy, many changes are permanent and irreversible. Components are destroyed. Cards are written on. People die. The irrevocability lends gravity to your actions and decisions. Fabled Fruit changes from game to game, but has no destructive aspect. If you want to, you can reset the game completely. Your actions will change the game and the actions allowed. Some actions will be disabled, replaced by new ones. The game comes with many different actions, but only a subset will be in use each game. You can play through a long campaign spanning multiple games to see every action come into play. Which actions come and which actions go depend on your group. On subsequent playthroughs of a campaign, you may not get the same combination of actions.

The basic resources in the game are five types of fruits - bananas and strawberries being two of them. You collect fruits to make juice. The game ends when at least one player makes a certain number of bottles of juice. Whoever has made the most bottles wins. In case of a tie, you compare leftover fruits in hand.

This is how a game is set up. Ivan taught Allen and I to play. This was not the first time he played. His copy of the game had undergone a few rounds of evolution to come to this state. The ten stacks in the middle are location cards. The row of five face-up cards on the right are the fruit cards. On your turn, you must move your pawn to a new location (you cannot stay where you are). If there are pawns of other players present, you need to pay fruits to them. Normally you want to avoid doing this. Once you arrive at your destination, you have two options. You may use the ability of the location. Usually it lets you collect fruits, sometimes directly, sometimes less so. Your other option is to make juice. The location card specifies the fruit combination required. If you pay the cost, you claim the location card, flip it over, and place it in front of you. It becomes a bottle of fabled juice. Since a location card has been removed from the play area, you now need to draw a replacement from the location card draw deck. Sometimes it can be a whole new type of location card. You will create a new stack and introduce a new action into the game. This is how the gameplay evolves. There are 59 different types of location cards, with 4 copies per type, making a total of 236 location cards. Playing through this whole deck of location cards is one full campaign.

Let's take a closer look at two of the location cards. You should only send your pawn to the card on the left if you happen to be one of the players with the fewest fruits. You will get to draw a number of fruit cards equal to the number you have in hand. This action is most powerful if everyone has many cards, and you are lucky enough to have just a bit less than the rest. The location card on the right lets you swap your hand with another player, the condition being that he has at most one card more than you. Also, once cards are swapped, he gets to draw one fruit card.

If you decide to make juice, the card on the left requires two types of fruits, and 3 units in each type. The card on the right requires exactly 3 pineapples and 2 grapes.

Identical location cards are stacked together, like the stack on the left. The location card stack on the right has only one card remaining. Once anyone makes juice with this card, the action of this stack will be lost. That grey wooden piece on the right is a player pawn.

The two cards are location cards which have been flipped over, showing the bottle side. The green tortoise marker is a player marker, reminding everyone including yourself which pawn on the table is yours. The strawberry marker is a special marker. It is in play only when a specific location card type is in use. When you own a fruit marker like this, it stands in for any payment you make when making juice. If a juice needs 4 strawberries, I only need to pay 3. The wooden monkey is also a special token brought into play when a specific location card type is in use. Whenever anyone makes juice, the monkey steals 2 of the fruit cards from the payment made.

The number of bottles of fabled juice required to win depends on the number of players. With 3 players, you need 4 bottles. When a player reaches 4 bottles, the round is still completed so that everyone has the same number of turns.

The Play

The game rules are straightforward. It is only at the beginning that you need a little time to digest the location card powers. You do need to internalise them, so that you can see what's more valuable, and when which will become valuable. You also want to watch out for strong combos, and risks. Some cards are aggressive in nature, so you want to avoid getting targeted. E.g. cards getting swapped, or worse - getting robbed.

This is an efficiency game. On average you want to earn two fruits per turn. If you can manage three or more, that's wonderful. You need to have a general idea of what fruits your opponents are collecting. Some actions allow players to take face-up cards, so you can see what fruits they collect. You want to know which locations they will likely want to use. If possible, beat them to it, to force them to pay you fruits, or disrupt their plans. The actions available have much variety, and the pool of actions gradually evolve. There are many tactical decisions. You must stay alert of opportunities and squeeze out all those little advantages. They will add up and help you beat your opponents to the finish line.

I feel the players' progress will be mostly quite close, so it is likely it will come down to the tiebreaker rule.

The Thoughts

Fabled Fruit is a light-medium weight game. If you put aside the legacy mechanism, it is a common efficiency game of resource gathering. However you can't really cut out the legacy mechanism when commenting on the game. It is an integral part of the game. Mutation happens not just between games but also within the same game. You need to adapt. You need to look ahead at what new action may come into play. You need to stay alert of every player's current stock of fruits. You are constantly assessing the pool of actions available to you, deciding which ones are most effective. This is the fun part of the game - adapting to change and creating change at the same time. Fabled Fruit is tactical in nature. You want to make every little tactical advantage count.

Fabled Fruit is no deep strategy game. It is a light efficiency game. What is most enjoyable is adapting to the constantly changing landscape.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Knit Wit

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Knit Wit falls under the word game and trivia game umbrella, something closer to a casual party game than the typical strategy game which most boardgame hobbyists are into. You are presented with sets of adjectives, and need to come up with an object for each set, which fulfills all adjectives of the set. Everyone does this simultaneously and secretly. The key is you need to come up with unique objects in order to score points.

These are the main components of the game - spools, strings, and tiny cards with adjectives. During the setup stage of a game, players take turns laying down these components to form a complex network, something like a Venn diagram. The strings are loops. They form various shapes and overlap one another. Spools are placed in areas enclosed by one or more strings. Each string gets one adjective associated with it. A spool is associated with one or more adjectives, depending on which string loops it is located within. Your task is to think of an object for every spool on the table. Those with many adjectives will be harder, but they are worth more points.

The #7 spool is enclosed by the red, white and purple strings. The #8 spool is enclosed by purple, white and black. The black is barely visible, you need to look closely. Setup in still in progress. These spools may later be enclosed by even more strings, and thus be associated with even more adjectives.

There are 8 spools and 8 strings in the game. A completed setup will look like this.

These buttons have different numbers of holes. Each hole means 1 victory point. Once setup is done, the game is played in a real-time format. Everyone tries to write down the names of objects for every spool as quickly as possible. The first to finish doing so (or first to decide to give up on the remaining unfilled blanks) gets to claim a button. The number of buttons is one fewer than the number of players, so the last person gets no button. The buttons are the rewards for the race aspect of the game.

There are a few very specific rules during the setup phase which ensures no spools will have the exact same set of adjectives.

The game comes with many adjective cards. It will take many games to use them all. Even when you start to recycle, the game is more about combinations of adjectives than individual adjectives, so you still have many possible combinations to play with.

A game is short. You spend two or three minutes to set up, and then around seven or eight minutes to think of objects. You score starting with spool #1. Everyone states what he has written down. If there are clashes, those players score nothing. For the rest, they need to convince everyone else their choices fulfill the requirements. If there is any objection the word is put to a vote. After all spools are scored, you add points for the buttons. The total determines the winner.

The Play

I played Knit Wit with my family twice. It feels more like a family activity or social activity than a game. The game mechanism creates many different combinations of adjectives. Different people will think of different objects due to their different cultural backgrounds, personal histories and exposure. Also everyone is trying to write something unique. You can get to know more about your fellow players by what they write. This is the social aspect of the game. Word clashes don't happen often. At least not in our games. Wrong answers don't happen a lot either. Because of that, scores tend to be close. The play experience is not much focused on trying to outscore your opponents. It is more about being creative with finding objects that fit quirky combinations of adjectives.

Shee Yun was rather strict when playing. When she couldn't think of perfectly suitable objects, she left the space blank and did not try to bend the meanings of some of the adjectives. When we came to the scoring phases, she frequently raised objections. She was strict both on herself and on others. My take when playing such a game is it is light-hearted fun and need not be taken too seriously. So I voted yes most of the time, if we had to vote. I only said no if an answer was obviously wrong or when the meaning of an adjective was twisted a bit too far. I seemed to be the only one being loose about voting. We did have a few words failed by the vote.

I don't quite remember who won the games. I just remember it probably wasn't Shee Yun because she had too many blanks.

Shee Yun, Michelle and Chen Rui.

I was rather pleased with what I came up with. The adjectives were "inorganic", "male" and "funny". My answer was Wall-E, one of my favourite Pixar animation characters.

The Thoughts

Knit Wit is short, easy to teach and has fancy components. It is an easy choice if you want to play with casual players. The game mechanism is unusual and refreshing. The game will work well as a party game. It is not a competitive game. You don't really think about strategy or how to squeeze an extra point here and there to outdo your opponent. You just enjoy all those crazy combinations of adjectives and the creativity required to come up with something unique. You even enjoy stretching the meanings of adjectives, and convincing your friends about your answer, with as straight a face as you can muster. I think for most boardgame hobbyists Knit Wit is a novelty you are happy to try, but it's not really something you pursue. It's a fun diversion and a nice change of pace, but it's not a main course you plan with fellow gamers. It's a filler. It's a trivia type game.