Sunday, 17 May 2015

Luddites

I recently played quite a few games of Ticket to Ride and other games in the series with my family, both the physical copies and the electronic versions on tablets and smartphones. I find that I enjoy the physical versions more, which puzzles me. They take longer to play. You need to spend time setting up and shuffling cards. You struggle with the many cards you need to hold in your hand. You need to manually count who has the longest chain of trains. The electronic versions are implemented very well, and a game can be played very quickly. The only problem we had was connectivity problems. Sometimes when playing with four devices, one of them takes a long time to connect to the game, or sometimes the connection drops. That can be frustrating, and I get impatient even more easily because the digital version plays very quickly, making any downtime feel even more unbearable.

Ticket To Ride

My rational mind tells me playing the digital version is no different from playing the physical version. Information-wise they are exactly the same. The rules are the same. Playing the digital version should be better, because the computer takes away all the tedious parts of the physical game, leaving you with the key decisions to make. The digital version should distill the game down to its best parts, its essence.

The problem I have with the digital version (which others may not have) is probably that it makes the game experience too fleeting. Being more efficient does not equate having more fun. You don't slow down to smell the roses or enjoy the scenery along the way. With a physical game, you can touch; you can see real, 3D objects; you can smell too, if that's your thing. They make the experience real. You are doing something with your hands, manipulating physical objects, interacting with real physics. There is the chink of those tiny train carriages clashing. There is more toil, but that's part of the fun, or at least something that makes you think you are having more fun. I have read a theory about why we love our children, and it may be applicable here. The theory says that we love our children very much because we have invested a lot of time and effort on them. This irks me a little, as I'm a parent myself. However there may be some truth in it. Maybe part of what makes me like Paths of Glory is how much brainpower it takes to play and how many counters you need to push around the board. Maybe the fiddliness of Indonesia is part of its charm, although we don't admit it or we complain about it.

Indonesia

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Alchemists

Plays: 4Px1.

Alchemists is one of the hottest games at the 2014 Essen game fair, so it feels redundant to be describing what the game is like, since many others have already written about it. I'm tempted to skip the overview and jump straight to my thoughts, but that feels incomplete. So hopefully this doesn't bore you.

The Game

Alchemists is classified as a deduction game. You are professors of alchemy at a university in a fantasy world, and you are competing to discover the alchemical properties of eight ingredients. You perform experiments, and from the results of these experiments, you try to deduce what the alchemical components are. Let's start with a lesson on basic alchemy.

Every ingredient has three alchemical components, red, green and blue. A component is either large or small. It is either positive or negative. To determine what kind of potion you produce when mixing two ingredients, you need to find the component with a matching sign, where it is large in one ingredient but small in the other. All four pairs of ingredients above will produce the negative blue potion - the insanity potion.

Everyone starts the game knowing nothing about any of the eight ingredients. The alchemical components of the ingredients are randomised every game. The game is played over six rounds, and it uses a worker placement mechanism for players to select and execute actions. You forage for ingredients at the forest, you make potions to test on students, you test them on yourself, you try to sell them to visiting adventurers, you publish theories, you debunk theories, you transmute ingredients into gold coins. Testing potions, selling them to adventurers, and debunking theories are actions which will give you information. You need a smartphone app for these. Mixing potions require spending two ingredients from your hand. Your opponents won't see what you are mixing, but you have to announce what potion is produced. Debunking a theory does not consume any ingredient. You challenge a component of a specific colour of a specific published theory, and the app will tell you whether the sign of that component is indeed wrong.

Behind the player screen. The triangular area with many round holes is your experiment results grid. I have placed a negative red marker at the intersection of mushroom and fern, which means mixing these two ingredients produces poison.

This piece of paper with an 8x8 grid is for you to take notes. I have put crosses next to the combinations which I know are impossible, based on the information I know so far.

The smartphone app uses your phone camera to detect the two ingredients you are trying to mix. Press "Confirm" and the result will be displayed.

This is a small player board which you put in front of your player screen. You put tokens here to remind others of the types of potions you have produced. The box on the left is for your grants. Whenever you get a grant, put it here. Each grant is worth 2VP at game end.

There are several ways to score points, and most of them are related to publishing and debunking theories. You gain reputation each time you publish (reputation points are converted to victory points during final scoring). Every round, the alchemists with the most theories gain reputation. During conferences, you gain or lose reputation depending on how much publishing you've done. At game end, the app announces the alchemical properties of all ingredients. For each correct theory, you gain points. For each wrong theory, you lose points. This final revelation makes up a significant chunk of overall scores. There is one special type of theory, which I call the caveat theory. When you publish this type of theory, you secretly put a caveat in the appendix saying that you're actually unsure about one of the three components. If the theory is later found to be wrong only for that specific component, you don't lose face because hey you had stated a caveat albeit in small print. However if the theory is later found to be correct afterall, you don't gain points either. There is value in publishing such caveat theories because: you do gain reputation up front, you may gain more reputation every round if you are most-published, you may win grants from the university, and of course, you look good at conferences. Another thing to consider is such caveat theories may help to mislead your opponents.

This is the theory board. There are eight ingredients for which you can publish theories, or endorse others' theories. When you publish a new theory, you place your seal (face-down so that your opponents won't know whether you're doing a normal theory or a caveat theory) next to an ingredient, and you place an alchemical components tile next to it, claiming that the ingredient has this specific combination. In this photo, Ivan (yellow) has published a theory on red scorpion and I (green) have published one on Korean ginseng.

One other important way to score points is the artifacts, which you need to pay cold hard cash for. Only a subset of artifacts are in play in each game. They are powerful and are usually very much worth fighting for. Money is usually tight. You can transmute ingredients into gold coins, but that's an inefficient use of actions. If you publish enough theories to win grants, that's some extra cash for you, but there's much time and effort required too. I think the best approach is to sell potions to wandering adventurers. A different adventurer comes to town every round and each adventurer wants to buy different types of potions. You need to compete for turn order specifically to sell potions to the adventurers. If you know how to make the potions the adventurers want, selling potions can be a lucrative business. If you don't, you can claim that you do and then use them as guinea pigs. You can gain new information this way, just that your customer may not pay you if give them ox-tail soup instead of the elixir of wisdom they asked for.

This section of the board is where adventurers come to buy potions. When you sell a potion, you need to provide a guarantee certificate. A high guarantee like "full satisfaction or your money back" allows you to earn as much as $4. At the other extreme you can go for "there's definitely something in the flask". Even that's worth $1. The adventurer will try your potion first (yes, even the insanity potion - maybe he tries it on his cat) before deciding whether to pay you. He pays only if the product meets or exceeds the guarantee level.

A rather dodgy guy - all he wants are poisons.

After the last round ends, all alchemical properties of all eight ingredients are revealed for the final scoring. The highest scorer wins.

The Play

I did a 4-player game, the highest player count, with Ivan, KC and Ainul. Ivan was the only one who had played before, but I had read the rules beforehand.

I played in a conservative, prim and proper manner. I kept to information that I am 100% certain of, and didn't dare to rely on the various other small hints or partial information I could gather throughout the game, e.g. who had been collecting which ingredients, who had managed to produce which potions. I guess it was partly because I was still learning the ropes so too much information would have overwhelmed me. After I get more familiar with the game system, it should be easier for me to deduce more useful information from these other tit bits of data surfacing throughout the game. I was always short of money, and because of that I often tested potions on myself, as opposed to getting my students to do it for their love of science. Every round (i.e. every semester) there is a new eager student happy to test potions for the professors, but once he gets a bad experience tasting some nasty poison, he will charge a $1 fee for the service rendered. I couldn't really afford that, and I didn't want to gamble on whether my other colleagues would be producing good or harmless potions, so I had to get my hands (well, mouth) dirty. Unfortunately, the ingredients I chose to research turned out to produce mostly poisons, which mean I poisoned myself quite many times. Sometimes I half paralysed myself (I became last in turn order for the next round). Sometimes I gave myself diarrhea (one fewer action cube next round). It was not pretty, but it was all for science!

I didn't manage to sell potions to adventurers. Not even once. The early visitors wanted to buy medication and boosters, but I could only make poisons. I was being Honest Abe so I hadn't thought about selling them snake oil and experimenting on them. Anyhow it is risky and also difficult to make money when you are uncertain what you're cooking.

Ainul and Ivan were much more successful in the potions business, and they had plenty of cash. They bought many artifacts, which were an important source of victory points.

This was the only artifact I managed to buy. The VP value is in the top right corner. This printing press allowed me to publish theories for free, since I didn't need to commission a printing house.

Ivan and I published more papers, which allowed us to increase our reputations. KC made a misstep somewhere along his chain of deductions, which was disastrous for him. In Alchemists one wrong step can trigger a chain reaction, screwing up whole swaths of calculations. Once when he tried to sell a potion, his customer found that the content was something completely different from what was advertised and guaranteed. KC not only didn't make a dime from the transaction, he was also publicly humiliated right in the middle of Petaling Street (he lost reputation). That was painful.

The board is busy and looks intimidating, but once you go through the rules, you will find that it is practical and all those icons are handy reminders.

That table with the four beakers is the turn order table. At the start of a round everyone takes turns placing his beaker on a spot and claiming the rewards shown next to it. The positions of the beakers then determine turn order for the round.

The Thoughts

Alchemists has all the trademarks of Czech Games Edition games. It is designed by first-time-published designer Matus Kotry, but if I hadn't known that, you could have easily convinced me that it was designed by Vlaada Chvatil. The game reminds me of Vlaada Chvatil's games like Dungeon Lords and Dungeon Petz. They have a unique hook, and the various game mechanisms are built around this core idea. None of the mechanisms are groundbreaking. They are not christened fancy names like deck-building or bag-building or worker placement. The mechanisms support the central ideas, and this makes the games consistent and immersive.

There is one thing in Alchemists that bugs me. In the early game when I didn't yet know the alchemical components of any ingredient fully, I was already under pressure to publish theories. Conferences were coming, and I needed grant money, and I didn't want to lose out in the reputation race among published professors. So I published caveat theories. By doing this I mitigated the risk of getting one of the components wrong, and I could still achieve most of the things I needed to achieve. In the game I played, two of my early caveat theories turned out to be correct. However, since they were caveat theories, I would not score points for them at game end. There was no way I could replace them with normal theories. They were correct and nobody could debunk them. I realised that whenever I decided to go with caveat theories, I was taking a risk that if I turned out to be right, I would be sacrificing the opportunity to score points at game end. This was the price to pay to publish early while reducing risk. You can't have everything. Of course I could have tried my luck and just published normal theories, but that would really be gambling. Well, unless I could make use of other hints picked up from other players' actions, and turn it from a 50-50 gamble to an educated guess.

I think if I play more, I will get better at collecting, sorting out and making use of information revealed from other players' actions. In my first game, I dared not rely on such information much since there was much uncertainty. Even if someone had been collecting lots of toads, and had made a green potion, I could not be absolutely certain he did use the toads for that green potion. My gut feel is that in this game you need to learn to make use of indirect and incomplete information. This is not a simple, clean and clear-cut deduction game.

I can't say for sure whether Alchemists is a game that can be played on a regular basis. It is unique and unusual. My guess is you probably wouldn't play this week in and week out for long. However I think it is very suitable as a game to put in a regular rotation, taken out to play once in a while. It is very different from most games so it will always be refreshing to revisit. You won't have a problem of "naaah, it's a bit samey".

The right panel on the inside of the player screen is a summary of how you score points at game end.

I have done six experiments, thus six tokens.

This was the theory board at game end. Only five of eight ingredients had theories published.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

boardgaming in photos: TTR Switzerland, Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld, Brass

19 Apr 2015. The Switzerland map is my favourite version of Ticket To Ride. It's for 2 or 3 players only. In this version you can draw many tickets, and it is entirely possible to complete all of those you keep. This is what makes the game exciting. It is feasible to gamble and hope to draw tickets which you have already completed, or which can be completed without too much additional risk. This is a game where you often reach for the ticket deck and say in your heart, "Yes I feel lucky today!". Another thing which makes the game exciting is the area around Zurich. It is often congested and you can easily get blocked or be forced to reroute.

Michelle's tickets. Completing 11 tickets is not unusual in TTR Switzerland. I stick some cards under others so that I can cover the score circles which I should ignore when totaling her points.

The country-as-destination concept is one of the special features in TTR Switzerland. In this ticket card above, one of your destinations must be in France. The other one can be in either one of the three other neighbouring countries. There are multiple routes which lead into each one of Switzerland's neighbouring countries, so you are rarely blocked off completely. In this card above, you only score one of the three point values, depending on which country you manage to reach. Naturally you will go for the highest number you can achieve.

This is Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld. The children saw Michelle and I play, and requested to join. So I taught them how to play. We played the partnership rules, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was more fun than the 2P game. In the partnership game, it is easier to collect all cards of a colour (which gives you bonus points), because there are two players working together in each team. Also the draw deck gets exhausted more frequently, which means towards the late game you know most cards are out, and the question is whose hands they are in.

The children are new to rummy games, and do some things completely beyond our expectations. Once Chen Rui (8) picked up a card which Shee Yun (10) had discarded. Michelle and I automatically assumed she had now collected the third card of a colour, so she could play a meld. To our surprise, she didn't play any meld. She was planning to collect that colour one by one! I was on the other team, and I was the next player. I had two cards of that colour in my hand. I played an Agent Meeting card to rob both of her cards of that colour, so that I would have enough for a meld, and I could play it. I felt a little bad for having taken advantage of her inexperience.

24 Apr 2015. Brass by Martin Wallace. One of his best works. It had been quite a while and I was definitely a little rusty. It was my first time playing this as a 4-player game, and I think 4P is the best player count. I built my first factory, a cotton factory, in Blackburn. That was not a good idea. I made a mistake and thought I could build a canal to Preston, then build a port there, and then sell cotton using both cotton factory and port. I didn't realise there was no canal connection between Blackburn and Preston. Oops indeed. Eventually I had to build two canals to get to Liverpool, to build my port there. Allen (red) was rather rusty too. He built his first cotton factory in Bolton, but there was no canal connection to Blackburn or to Wigan. He too had to build two canals to reach Warrington & Runcorn, where he could build then a port. We were both the chemistry dog internet meme - I have no idea what I'm doing, not much better than Leaf (purple), who was new to the game. Jeff (yellow) was the only one who had an idea of what he was doing.

Jeff's (yellow) first cotton factory was built in Colne, just next to Yorkshire at the north eastern corner, which had a port. So he could start selling cotton earlier than the rest of us. Leaf (purple) had started with a coal mine in Oldham, which was not exactly a good idea, since coal wasn't in high demand yet. Allen joked that this was the famous Oldham Opening, but I bet at the time he wasn't sure whether that was a good or bad move either. We were just fooling around pretending to be experts and imagining there were famous standard moves like in chess.

We were now in the second half, the railroad era. Canals were now replaced with railroads. In the southeast Jeff (yellow) had built quite a few coal mines, which did good business and gave him a solid income. He had timed the construction of a few coal mines and iron mines very well, when the market (those two rows of black coal and orange icon cubes) was depleted. He could sell his newly mined coal and iron to earn some quick cash, and he was able to flip his mine tiles quickly to turn them into money-making businesses. All these happened in the first few rounds of the second half, and I knew then that the rest of us would not be able to catch up. We should have worked together to stop him, but we had enough trouble managing our own businesses.

In Brass, scoring is only done twice. We were in the second half, so these are scores from the first half. The hat markers are the score markers. Scores from the first half are about one fifth to one fourth of the total scores, so they are not a good indicator of how well the players are doing. The income levels, i.e. the round discs, are good indicators. Jeff (yellow) was now far ahead of us, and was making more money than us every round. Strong cashflow is very important in this game.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Hansa Teutonica: Britannia

Plays: 4Px1.

Hansa Teutonica, published in 2009, took most gamers by surprise. It didn't look like much. It wasn't from a hot designer. The artwork and setting are very run-of-the-mill. However most players who tried it were pleasantly surprised, and the positive word of mouth spread like wildfire, eventually making it one of the hottest games in that period. That's about 5 years ago now. Hansa Teutonica did not grow to become a classic, but it did well enough for the publisher to have released two expansions. Britannia is the second expansion which came out in 2014.

If you are not familiar with the base game, you can read my older blog post here.

The Game

The Britannia expansion is a new map, with its own quirks and with some additional rules. These additional rules are best described while referring to this photo below.

The biggest change are the Scotland and Wales regions. Scotland is in the north (left side of the photo), and paths in Scotland are blue. Paths in Wales are brown. There are restrictions around placing your pieces into these two regions. You need to have established offices in London, Cardiff or Carlisle. If you are the most recent player to have established an office in Carlisle, you have the right to place one piece in Scotland on your turn. If you are the most recent player to have established an office in Cardiff, you have the similar right except it is for Wales. London works for both Scotland and Wales. Due to such restrictions, establishing trade routes and opening offices in Scotland and Wales are a pain. Naturally, there is a reward which makes this worthwhile. Players who control the most cities in Scotland and in Wales respectively at game end will score bonus points.

In the southeast corner, the two paths going to France have a special bonus token icon drawn next to them. If you establish a trade route here, you gain a bonus action. This type of special action first appeared in the first expansion.

Yet another change is one of the game-end conditions. The game ends when 8 cities have all office spots filled up, as opposed to 10 in the base game. This impacted our game. It was how our game ended. With this change, it seems it is much easier for games to end this way, so players will need to watch out for this more carefully.

The Play

I played a 4P game with Ivan, Jeff and Chu. The gameboard is double-sided, one side for 2-3P, the other for 4-5P. I assume this means the maps are tuned well for the specified player counts. When I started playing, my first thought was this is quite complex. Only much later I realised that there are actually not many rules additions to the game. I felt overwhelmed only because I was rusty. It had been quite a while since my previous game. Playing Hansa Teutonica again made me appreciate how rich the strategic space is and how much freedom the players have. The basic actions are very simple. It's just placing your pieces, moving them about and filling up paths on the board. What make the decisions interesting are where and when to do these. The where and when determines how you upgrade your actions, where you establish offices, whether you gain bonus tokens. Ultimately all these little where's and when's form your strategic masterplan for scoring points. That is, if you have one. Otherwise you'd be just flailing around. There is much player interaction in this game. It is always a joy to stick your piece in that last spot which your opponent needs to complete a trade route. Playing this game is like going: "Jerks. Jerks everywhere."

I was mostly flailing in the game we played. I did try to establish offices more, hoping to link up York and Oxford for the 7VP. Unfortunately I underestimated how soon the game would end, and didn't manage to complete this quest. I didn't put much effort into placing pieces in Scotland or Wales. These two areas were eventually dominated by Chu and Jeff respectively. In hindsight, it was a bad idea to have not invested in those areas, wasting the privilege I had for some time when I had an office in London. If I had controlled even one office in Scotland or Wales, I would have scored 4VP (which is not insignificant) for placing second. This was probably more worthwhile than trying to shoot for connecting York and Oxford, which was a 7VP-or-nothing venture.

The tempo of the game caught most of us by surprise. I felt I was neither here nor there. I hadn't managed to max out any of my techs. I didn't have enough time to link up York and Oxford. The only thing I managed to do more of was establishing offices next to paths where people tended to establish trade routes. Each time someone (including yourself) establishes a trade route next to a city you control, you gain 1VP. I scored such baby-step single VP's more than others, giving me a lead over the others in in-game scoring. Surprisingly, this was sufficient to give me a narrow victory at the end of the game. I suspect it is because our game was rather low-scoring. We were mostly in the mid twenties.

I've always liked this player board. Informative and practical. The table top shows the five techs you can advance. The table front shows the five possible actions.

Our game-end score. Ivan says this is quite low.

At game end, Jeff (purple) monopolised the cities in Wales (brown area). Ivan had set up shop in Cardiff and Conway, but at both locations Jeff's newer offices overpowered his older ones. So eventually Ivan controlled no cities in Wales, which was a pity. If he had controlled even just one, he would have scored 4VP more.

The Thoughts

If you like Hansa Teutonica and play it often, there is no question - buy this expansion. It gives some variety, but does not change the core of the game or upset the balance. Games like Power Grid, Age of Steam and Ticket To Ride have so many expansion maps that after a while you start to question whether you really need that many. Hansa Teutonica only has 3 maps in total, so it is definitely justifiable to own them all.

If you don't like the base game, this expansion won't change your mind.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

6P Ticket To Ride: Team Asia

17 Apr 2015 was expansion night at Boardgamecafe.net, which was a good idea, because otherwise it would not have occurred to me to bring Ticket to Ride: Team Asia. This is, so far, the only team- based game in the Ticket to Ride series. I had played this as a 4-player game before, i.e. two teams of two. This was the first time I played a 6-player game, i.e. three teams.

In the team game, you cannot show your hand cards to your partner, who sits next to you. You can't communicate information about your cards. However you do have this shared rack on which you can place some ticket cards and train cards. This is your communication and sharing tool. At the start of the game, after choosing tickets, every player must simultaneously place one ticket onto his team rack. This allows partners to start communicating intentions and requests for help. In our game, my partner was Sinbad. When we placed our initial tickets onto the team rack, it was immediately obvious that we were in trouble. His ticket card (on the left) went from north to east. Mine (on the right) went from west to south. All four points of the compass!

Canton was a flurry of activity right from the get-go. It seemed every team had a ticket going to or passing through Canton.

Things were busier on the eastern half of the board in the early game. I had three tickets in my hand and all of them were for cities on the western half. So I was quite relaxed initially. My guess was Sinbad's tickets were mostly on the eastern half, so I tried to help him while I collected train cards for my own tickets. I tried to anticipate where he was trying to reach, and I laid down trains hoping I was extending the routes he was trying to take. This is something you don't get to experience in normal Ticket to Ride games. In this photo, we (green) had reached Peking (Beijing), all the way from Canton.

The western half of the board was starting to get busy now, and I was getting jittery. There were six different cities that I needed to reach in this area. Thankfully I did not get blocked. On the eastern half of the board, Sinbad and I (green) had reached Harbin now, at the top right corner. However we still needed to complete those two length-6 and length-7 routes along the northern edge. We needed to reach Dihua (modern day Urumqi). Completing long routes is not easy. We not only had to worry about whether another team would beat us to it, we also had to worry about whether we could collect the right train cards in time before the game ended. In the end, we did manage to make it. The long routes gave us many points. However we scored much fewer points in tickets compared to other teams. We were happy enough to have not failed in completing any ticket, despite the extreme locations we picked. Liv's team were the final champions.

The city of Lanchow was mentioned frequently in our game, because of how juvenile and crass we were (probably more me than others). Most Malaysians would understand this, especially if you are Chinese, and especially if you are Hokkien or Teochew. Sorry to the citizens of Lanchow.

The team mode in Ticket to Ride: Team Asia is quite fun. Something different, but without too much rules overhead. If you're a fan of the series, you should check it out. I like it with 6P more than with 4P. More competition and thus more exciting.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

consumption model

Sometimes when I run out of things to write about, my mind wanders to introspective topics. I find myself gravitating back to how we as boardgamers consume games, our modus operandi, our consumption model.

  • There are many games which I play just once. Or twice. They are like books or movies. Do it once, and you're done with it. It doesn't mean these are poor games. Most are at least decent. Otherwise I wouldn't even want to sit down to play. Some I actually quite like. Some I've even bought, like Clash of Cultures. The biggest reason for just one play is there are simply too many games to play, and not enough time to play them all. The "too many games" problem is a hobbyist's problem, a "good problem to have". Normal people aren't even aware of the existence of this many games to be troubled by it.
  • Periodic revision. This is what I sometimes do with classics and personal nostalgia games. There are some games which I don't play regularly anymore, but I'm happy to bring them out once in a while, and I still thoroughly enjoy them. Games like Amun-Re, Puerto Rico, and those from the Axis & Allies series. It's like catching up with old friends. Even if you don't hang out every weekend, it's always a joy to catch up over some mutual friend's wedding or an ad hoc midnight mamak tea time.

    Axis & Allies Global 1940

  • There are some games which I play repeatedly when I first get to know them. These are the intense love affairs. I get to understand them well, I explore them in detail, and I get to appreciate how clever they are. Recently I did this with Machi Koro, Samurai Spirit, and Roll for the Galaxy. Other previous examples I can think of are Robinson Crusoe, Friday and Town Center (solo). These intense bursts are nice, even though it may be for just a few weeks. With these games I feel I get my money's worth. This may not be the right way to measure the value of the money spent, but it's an instinctive approach and it's easy to understand. It's a straightforward method if you are looking for justification for money spent on games. I say I don't regret the money I've spent on Splotter games even though I don't get to play them very frequently.

    Friday

  • Then there are games which become half marathons or full marathons. I played Agricola heavily for probably half a year. Through the Ages lasted maybe 1.5 years. Race for the Galaxy and Ascension around 2 years. There are older ones like Carcassonne (now a once-in-a-while game) and Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper. These are games where I can see obvious signs of wear and tear due to heavy use. If you play my copy of Race for the Galaxy or Carcassonne, you can easily tell which cards or tiles are from the base game and which are from the expansions added later.

    Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper

  • The lifestyle games. I don't have one, but in a parallel universe there's a me playing Android: Netrunner like a pro and owns every data pack and every large expansion. Lifestyle games are those with so much depth and richness that a high-level player can play it to the exclusion of other games. Chess, Bridge, Go, Mahjong, Scrabble. These hobby games of ours are just temporary diversions, sideshows. I think lifestyle gamers and boardgamers are essentially mutually exclusive. I think hardcore Magic: The Gathering players would not be interested in spending much time on boardgames. I'm a boardgamer, and I simply don't have the determination or focus to become a "proper" (if there's such a thing) Android: Netrunner player.

I think most of us don't fall squarely into any single one of the categories above. Which one is most applicable to you?

It's easy to slip into thinking that the single play mode is worst and the in-depth play mode is best. My logical mind tells me that's rubbish, although a primal instinct sometimes urges me otherwise, and I need to keep telling it to shut up. There is no "right" way to enjoy your hobby. Make a throne from your games if it pleases you. Or take cat-in-box-cover photos. We certainly shouldn't judge others by their hobbies as long as they are not harming anyone. We shouldn't judge ourselves or set expectations for ourselves either.

How you consume games will depend on many things, and not only how you would like to do it, e.g. how much time you have for the hobby, your circle of friends, and the availability of games. I normally play only on Friday nights, and typically I play two games. That's not a lot, but it's good. I always have something to look forward to. I generally don't do solo-gaming, but I can easily imagine others doing it because their friends and family are not into boardgames, or they don't live near other boardgamers.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Kingsport Festival

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Kingsport Festival is a remake of Kingsburg with a completely different setting and some changes in gameplay. It is now Cthulu-themed. You play cultists rolling dice to pray to the elder gods, the Old Ones. They give you stuff to help you expand your influence in the town of Kingsport, which gives you special abilities as well as victory points. The game is played over 12 rounds, and whoever scores highest at game end wins.

The twenty large square cards on the right are the elder gods, numbered 1 to 20. At the start of every round, each player rolls three dice. You take turns placing your dice on the elder gods to invoke them. Each elder god specifies the exact total dice value required to invoke it. Also, it can only be invoked once per round. This is worker placement. Players can and will block each other. You can invoke a god using all three of your dice, or just two, or even one. However you need to consider whether you will be able to place your remaining dice on your next turn, since the spots you want may be claimed by others by then.

You get various types of resources when you invoke the gods. In game terms they are something like death, violence and tentacles, but I tend to think of them as wood, stone and iron. Every round you may spend resources to expand your influence to one new area in Kingsport. To me it's a little like constructing a new building, so I naturally think of building materials.

The main board on the left is the town of Kingsport. You always start with establishing influence in the house at the centre. Thereafter you can expand to areas adjacent to those where you already have influence.

Every area specifies the cost (icons with spikes) of establishing influence, the victory points awarded (green circles with a star) and the special abilities awarded (text). When you establish influence you place a disc of your colour in the area. The graphic design is dark, and it's hard to see the discs of the black and purple players. I bet you didn't see the black tokens at first glance.

Throughout the game, a semi-random investigator turns up every three rounds to investigate the suspicious events in Kingsport (i.e. the dodgy stuff you have been up to). The strength of the investigators are semi-random. If he is stronger than you are, you will be penalised. If you are stronger, you gain a reward. If your strengths are equal, nothing happens. You can increase your strength by influencing some areas on the board. There is also a type of card you can use to boost your strength. The strengths of the investigators will generally increase as the game progresses, and this keeps the pressure up for the players.

Some elder gods give you cards. You have three types to pick from. One type is for scoring points, one for defeating investigators and one for manipulating dice (e.g. allowing rerolls, increasing values).

This guy on the left is one of the earlier investigators. The card on the right is an event card.

God #3 lets you take one death resource or one tentacle resource. God #4 lets you take one violence resource and one magic point, at the cost of one sanity point. Everyone starts the game fully sane (12 points). Each time you invoke any half-decent elder god, you got nuts a little. That's the price you have to pay for worshipping these mad gods. If you go completely crazy, you won't die or lose the game, but each time you need to lose more sanity, you lose victory points instead. There are ways to regain sanity. Players who roll low totals may improve their sanity for free. Some actions let you recover sanity too. One twist is some cards and some areas are more powerful when you are somewhat crazy, so you don't really want to be too sane, yet you want to avoid being completely bonkers. It's a tricky balance.

The Play

I played with Ivan, Dith and Boon Khim. The highest player count is five, and I think the game is best with more players, because there will be more competition. I've played Kingsburg before, but I had forgotten what it felt like. When I played Kingsport Festival, it immediately felt familiar. The hook in this game is the dice mechanism. Since there are die rolls, there will be luck in this game. If you roll high all the time, you will do well. There are some balancing mechanisms - players who roll low get an earlier turn order, and also get to restore some sanity.

Deciding how to place your dice is the core of the game. You need to consider your opponents' die rolls. If you are going to split up your dice, will you be able to place your remaining dice on your next turn? Do you want to intentionally block your opponent? Which elder god is giving you the resources you want? Do you simply go for that or do you change plans so that you can screw an opponent at the same time? How to expand your influence is the strategic part of the game. You need to consider both the victory point scoring and the abilities you will gain from the areas you have influence over. The areas you expand into should be consistent with your overall evil master plan.

The investigators are a constant pain in the neck. Your first instinct will be to keep increasing your strength to beat them off. However I suspect ignoring them is a valid strategy too. The effort and resources saved this way can be spent on other, possibly more profitable, activities. In our game we were all rather conventional and none of us dared to ignore these pesky busybodies. So I can't prove my theory yet. Maybe next game.

The Thoughts

Kingsport Festival is a mid-weight Eurogame, even though the setting is very Ameritrashy. The mechanisms are definitely Euro, despite the death and violence. And tentacles. When Kingsburg first came out in 2007, the dice mechanism received high praise from many gamers. It is indeed clever, but I didn't particularly like or dislike it. So I am quite neutral towards Kingsport Festival too. I'm not a Cthulu fan, so the setting doesn't attract me. Nor does it bother me. However I do think the changes from Kingsburg make Kingsport Festival a better game.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

New Amsterdam

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

New Amsterdam is the old name of New York, or more precisely, Manhattan, which was originally a Dutch colony. It was traded to the British in 1664, and given the current name then, in honour of the Duke of York, who later became King James II of England. In the game of New Amsterdam, players are immigrants from Europe settling down in the new world and establishing businesses. You build new farms in the countryside, you build shops in the city, and you trade with the natives for fur to be sold back to Europe.

The game is played over 6 rounds, and the objective is to score the most points. There are a few different ways to do this. Each round starts with an auction phase where sets of 2 or 3 action tokens, and turn order markers, are auctioned off to players. This is then followed by three different action phases, in which players get to execute specific action types, using the action tokens they have just won.

These are your resources at the start of the game. You have one warehouse at the harbour, which can store four goods (black cubes). If you need to store more, you have to build more warehouses. You trade goods for fur with the natives. The yellow octagonal pieces are corn. You need corn to "feed" your shops. Every shop you own consumes one corn at the end of every round. If you can't "feed" it, you have to close shop and lose points. It's just like Agricola, except your shop can "die"! The brown pieces are wood. You need wood to build shops, to build farmhouses, and to move your trading post. You use cash in the auctions, and also for executing special actions. At the bottom right are the fur pieces. You trade with the natives for them, and then ship them back to Europe. You'll earn some cash (a one-time gain), and secure a permanent supply of goods.

These are the three action phases in every round. The first is the city phase (orange). If you have a city action token, you may either build 1 to 3 shops in any of the six districts, or you may score points using your shops. You score for each district where you have at least one shop, and you score more if you have outright majority in any district.

White is the land phase. You may either acquire a piece of land, or clear land(s) to start operating farms. To start operating a farm, you need to have built farmhouses beforehand. When you clear land, you will gain a one-time bonus of a bunch of wood and some victory points. Thereafter you will harvest corn at the end of every round.

Blue is the trade phase. You may either trade for fur (with the natives), or ship fur back to Europe.

At the start of every round, four new land cards (right) and four new ship cards (left) are revealed. The land cards are what you may claim if you have a land action token. A land card indicates how many farmhouses you need before you can clear the land and start running your farm. It indicates the one-time wood bonus and also the corn production level. Each time a player buys a piece of land, he is effectively driving the natives away. One native settlement will be moved further inland, and as the natives migrate away, it becomes harder to trade with them.

The ship cards specify the number of fur pelts required to complete a sale. The coin icons mean how much you'll earn for the transaction, and the black cubes mean how many goods you'll gain every round from then on.

That classy wooden box at the bottom right is used during the auction stage. The large round tokens are the three types of action tokens. During the auction stage they are randomly dealt into five columns. In this photo, two sets have been auctioned off.

At the top left are three areas where you can trade with the natives. In the first "retail" box you may trade one-for-one any number of times (one good for one fur pelt). In the other two "wholesale" boxes you must trade 3 or 4 goods for the whole set of 3 or 4 fur pelts.

This is the city area. If you own shops here, you can use them to score points. There is one scoring round at game end too which does not require you to spend any action. Each of the six districts here shows one special action. In every action phase of every round, everybody has the opportunity to execute one special action, even if he doesn't have an action token for that particular action phase. Normally it costs $1 to perform a special action, but if you have the most shops in the district for that special action (including being tied for most), the action becomes free for you. Besides this, shops also make money for you at the end of every round.

These bread loaf-like pieces are natives' settlements. Across the River Hudson you can see the players' trading posts. Each time a player buys a piece of land, one settlement will be displaced and the natives will move upriver. In order to trade with the natives, your trading post needs to be aligned with at least one native settlement, else you need to pay corn to travel upriver to trade. You can take a special action to move your trading post upriver, which costs 1 wood. This photo was taken in the early game, and no settlements were displaced yet.

The Play

When I play a new game, my first instinct is usually to analyse the scoring methods, and then pick out one specific strategy to stick to as much as possible. When I played New Amsterdam and tried to determine what the broad strategies were, I had some vague ideas, but there seemed to be no clear-cut, specialised strategy. You can't really focus on one area and neglect others. If you want to focus on building many shops and using them to score points, i.e. city actions, you still need the corn to "feed" your shops and the wood to build them in the first place. So you must do some land actions - chopping wood and growing corn. If you want to focus on trading with the natives, you still need wood to build warehouses to store the goods to be used for trading, and you still need wood to keep moving your trading post. It seems to me you need to have some balance in your strategy. You probably can emphasise some scoring aspects more than others, but I don't think you can afford to neglect any part of the game. I find this intriguing. This is a little like Through the Ages. Opposite examples would be Navegador and Race for the Galaxy, where you normally need to focus on a particular path.

Every action is precious. The game feels very tight and you always feel you are short of actions. The auctions for actions are intense. It is a one-round auction, so you need to think carefully how much to bid. If you bid too low, an opponent may overbid you. If you bid too high, you may be wasting your resources unnecessarily. You need to watch what your opponents are doing, guess which actions they will go for, and estimate how much they are willing to pay. In our game we tended to bid around 6 to 8. The highest we went was about 10. I don't know if that's normal. The last player to claim any action tokens gets them for free. Although he only has two sets to choose from, saving money (and resources) just might be worth it. Ivan won the game, and I remember there were quite many times he was last to claim action tokens. I spent much in the auctions, and often won the first player order marker too, but I came last. I wonder whether I have been spending too much. Or maybe I just played poorly.

One thing that really accentuates the scarcity of actions is it often costs two actions to get something done. If you want to get a farm running, you need to first spend an action to acquire a piece of land, and then you need to spend another action to clear it for farming. In between these you need to perform a special action to build farmhouses too. If you want to sell fur back to Europe, you also need at least two actions, one to buy from the natives, and another to ship the fur to Europe. It is not exactly easy to do two actions of the same type within the same round. Sometimes if you're unlucky you don't even get to do the same action in two subsequent rounds. If you do your follow-up action only in the third round, that's half the game (which has 6 rounds) to complete one operation. Competing for actions and using your actions effectively are a key challenge in this game.

One aspect which surprised me is the difficulty in managing the various resource types. You have cash, corn, wood, goods and fur, and they are needed for different activities. In the city area of the board there are two special actions which let you buy or sell corn or wood, which is basically converting between resource types. At first I thought these were rather weak. If you plan and manage your resources well, you wouldn't need to waste your special actions or money on these right? Wrong! It turns out that estimating the types of resources you need, producing the types of resources you need, and managing the resources you spend are not easy at all.

One thing that was a drag was our game sometimes moved rather slowly. I find that New Amsterdam is a game that is not easily analysed. There aren't many actions. Planning how to use them can be a very involved affair. Evaluating how much a set of action tokens is worth during the auction stage is tricky. There is a lot you can consider - which opponents will want it, how much they are willing to pay, what you yourself can do with it. In games with very deep repercussions, I usually don't bother thinking too far ahead. I calculate a little, and rely on gut feel. In our game I often executed my actions before my turn came, when I knew they wouldn't affect other players' actions. I guess I was impatient. Maybe that's why I came dead last.

My holdings. At the bottom left I had built my third warehouse and could store 8 goods. I had done shipping four times, and was now earning 7 goods per round (black boxes). I had three pieces of land, two of which had now been turned into farms. The third one had not yet been cleared, thus the wood marker on it.

These were everyone's shops at game end. Ivan (yellow) and Henry (blue) had the most, each having presence in five districts. I (green) had shops in three districts only and Dith (orange) two.

This angle is probably more familiar to most people. This. Is. Manhattan.

The Thoughts

New Amsterdam is a Eurogame, that's for sure. I find that the setting is very well integrated with the mechanisms. I feel this is a theme-first game. Ultimately it's still a VP-scoring game, but I find that I can't fiddle with the system without associating my actions with the story. The actions feel natural. I like that the strategies are not immediately apparent, which unfortunately is not the case for many Eurogames nowadays. Sometimes I feel like I've seen one, I've seen them all. With New Amsterdam I don't get this feeling. It's not quite like anything I've played before. It is not anything ground-breaking, but it is definitely not another bland VP-scoring Eurogame.

Managing your resources is a challenge. When I played I always felt I was just short of this resource, or just short of that resource. The game is very tight. Actions are very limited and you really can't afford to waste. In some aspects the player interaction is very critical - the bidding for action tokens and turn order, and the area majority competition in the city area. In other ways player interaction can be low - e.g. when you are managing your own little business empire, building farmhouses, building warehouses. Interaction can be in the form of whoever comes first having more choices. Overall I'd say the player interaction is high. You will get into each others' ways.