Wednesday, 7 October 2015


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Mottainai, by Carl Chudyk, is the spiritual successor of Glory To Rome. The overall system certainly feels familiar, but there are quite a number of changes too. It's taking the core concept of Glory To Rome and reimplementing it using some new tricks and techniques. I struggle whether to try to explain how to play Mottainai. It's not an easy game to teach or to learn, because the ideas are unusual. One single card can mean many different things. It is not easy to digest and to grasp how the many different aspects fit together as a whole. I shall try to briefly describe the game, leaving out some details.

Mottainai is a card game. Players are monks, and these monks produce handicraft. Each piece of handicraft produced is worth victory points, and the bulk of your victory points will likely come from handicraft. Each handicraft completed also gives the maker a special ability. There are only 54 cards in the game, and every card is unique. On your turn, the first thing you need to decide is whether to play a card as an action card. If you decide to do so, you tuck the card under the top edge of your player board (in the Task area in the photo above). Then you start executing actions. You start with the action cards on all other players' boards, and you execute your own action card last. This means when you select a card to play as an action card, you have to consider that your opponents will be using it on their turns. This is a mechanism also found in Impulse. There will be at most one action card at a player board. When you turn comes around again, you discard the old action card to the central pool (called the "floor") before you play a new action card. You can decide not to play an action card. Instead of executing your desired action, you draw a card for your next round. You still get to execute others' action cards, but since you don't have one yourself, when their turns come, they can't leech an action off you.

Every card in the game has five possible uses. Depending on how it is used, you play it at a different location. If a card is turned into handicraft, it is played on the left or right side of your player board. The text at the centre of the card takes effect. If a card is played as an action card, it is tucked under the top edge of your player board, as described earlier. If a card is played as a helper, it is tucked under the left edge. A helper allows you to perform additional actions. Whenever you execute an action card, whether on your own player board or on an opponent's player board, every helper of the same type as that action card gives you an extra action. If you have matching completed handicraft on the left side of your board, each helper gives you two extra actions instead of one.

If a card is claimed as raw material, it is tucked under the bottom edge of your player board. If you use the Craft action to make a piece of handicraft, you need to have the appropriate materials at your craft bench (bottom edge). These materials at the craft bench can be moved to your sales area - the right edge. Materials here are worth victory points, if you have handicraft on the right side of your board of the corresponding types.

The floor, i.e. the centre of the table, is a common card pool. It starts with some cards, and more cards are added to it whenever an old action card is discarded. You can claim a card from the floor using the Monk action or the Potter action. The Monk action turns a card into a helper. The Potter action turns a card into raw material.

To produce handicraft, there are two action types - Craft and Smith. In both cases the handicraft to be produced must be a card in your hand. When Crafting, you need to have the required raw materials at your craft bench (bottom edge of player board). When Smithing, you need to have the required raw materials in your hand. One twist here is the raw materials are not consumed when you complete the handicraft. The raw materials stay where they are, be it your hand or your craft bench.

Where you place your completed handicraft (left or right) matters. Place it on the left, and you can boost the strength of your helpers. Place it on the right, and raw materials that you move to your sales area will be worth victory points. Another consideration is the game end condition. Once a player has 5 completed pieces handicraft on one side of his player board, the game ends. If you have a strong lead and you want to end the game quickly, you should focus on one side. If you want to delay the game end, you need to diversify. The game also ends when the draw deck runs out. I've only played one game, so I don't have a feel of how frequently this happens.

The Play

I own, and I have played quite a few games of Glory To Rome. Mottainai has many similarities, but also differs in some aspects. Despite my familiarity with the predecessor, I still felt clumsy when learning Mottainai. I think this is a Carl Chudyk trademark. He is a mad scientist of a game designer and his games are quirky. It might be my familiarity with Glory To Rome that made me feel caught off guard when learning Mottainai. I needed to unlearn and then relearn. The rulebook does say that the game is tricky to pick up, so I'm sure I'm not the odd one out. To appreciate this game you need to put in some effort.

It was fun to explore how Mottainai revamped the Glory To Rome system. It has fewer cards, and many aspects are condensed. When creating handicraft, the raw materials are not consumed. There is a hand limit checked at the start of every turn. There are only 5 types of materials, not 6. The amount of materials needed to create a piece of handicraft is reduced. The whole action system is refitted. In Glory To Rome if you want to leech an opponent's action, you have to play a card. In Mottainai you don't need to play a card. One new thing in Mottainai is where you place your completed handicraft has meaning. It's another aspect you need to consider.

The Thoughts

In the end, I am not quite able to describe what I feel when I play Mottainai. It's a little weird. It's not easy to digest. However once everything clicks, it is interesting and satisfying. I can't say whether Glory To Rome or Mottainai is definitely better than the other. Mottainai is leaner and more compact. Some mechanisms are simply different so you can't compare apples to oranges. I own Glory To Rome, so I don't feel a strong urge to get a copy of Mottainai. If I owned neither, I might tilt towards Mottainai, because it plays in a shorter time without sacrificing any strategic depth.

Saturday, 3 October 2015


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Infiltration is designed by Donald X Vaccarino of Dominion fame. Players are hackers who have successfully hacked into the computer system of a mega corp. They compete to steal as much information as possible. Their entry into the system does not immediately trigger an alarm. However they do leave traces, and the security system picks these up and analyses them. Sooner or later the system will realise it has been infiltrated, the alarm will sound, the gateway will be sealed, and any hacker who has not jacked out by then will be locked on by the tracking program and captured. Only those who have escaped in time can win the game, and the winner is, of course, the one who has stolen the most secrets.

The mega corp's data storage is divided into many layers, arranged in a V shape here. You enter the system at the first room in the top right corner. Each room contains some information. Each room also has different features, e.g. triggering events, making tools available, even bringing in non-player characters. Room cards are randomly drawn so they are different from game to game. Their order will also be different. This introduces variety. There is one secret room on the right, by itself. This is a special vault, and only under special circumstances a player can enter it. There is no guarantee for any particular game that it will be accessed.

That game component at the centre is the proximity counter. It shows the alert level of the security system. It is at 00 now. When it hits 99, the game ends. Hackers who have not yet escaped the complex automatically lose, regardless of how much data they have managed to steal. The proximity counter is basically a countdown mechanism.

These are your cards. The four on the right (without pictures) are the action cards. Everyone has the same set. Those on the left are the item cards. You start with some specific items based on your character, and some randomly drawn items. At the start of a round, everyone secretly picks a card to play. Once everyone has committed, the players take turns revealing their cards and executing them. The four action cards are Advance, Retreat, Extract and Interface. Advance and Retreat are simply moving deeper into the complex or backing out. Extract means downloading data. Every room contains some data files, and players need to race to download them. This is done in cut-and-paste mode and not copy-and-paste, so once a file is downloaded by one hacker, it is no longer available to others. Interface means making use of the unique ability of a room. It is usually a one-time thing, so it is also first-come-first-served. As you can see, hacking is a race. However being first to enter a room entails some risk too. Most rooms trigger an event upon first entry, and the event can be bad for your health.

In lieu of an action card, you can play an item card. These are usually more powerful, but they are single-use. Some are quite situational so you need to pick the right time. Some items let you advance quickly through the system, some items let you download more data than usual, some items let you manipulate the proximity counter, some items let you steal data from others.

This is one of the characters. Characters don't have unique abilities. The only gameplay difference they make is the two specific item cards each character starts with. All that text on the character card is flavour text. A character can get injured during play - you flip the character card to the other side. When injured, you can only move (Advance or Retreat) in alternate rounds, i.e. you are moving at half speed. Some rooms and some items allow you to heal yourself.

How much the proximity counter increases every round depends on a die roll. So you are never exactly sure how quickly this countdown timer will tick. There is a modifier though, so that you have a rough idea. The die roll modifier is negative at the start of the game, which means the proximity level usually increases slowly in the beginning. However the modifier tends to increase during the game, so the countdown speed will accelerate, building up to a climax.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. Most of us were new to the game. I had one item which propelled me to the front. It gave me an advantage over the others. I also had quite a few good items, and the right conditions for using them came up. I managed to make very good use of them, and I amassed quite many data files.

That black guy in front (left) is my character. When you are alone in a room with many data files, it's a windfall. You will be able to download many files at one go. When multiple hackers do downloading at the same time, they each get fewer files. Sometimes when too many hackers download at the same time, some will leave empty-handed. Who gets files and who doesn't depends on turn order of the current round.

Seeing that I had a good lead, I decided I should play safe and retreat early. I paid close attention to the proximity counter. I knew it would accelerate, so I knew I should start retreating around the time it reached halfway. Some of my fellow hackers were injured early in the game. This is painful and can really mess your tempo up. Sometimes when you can't move, and you don't have anything else to do at your current location, you will be wasting an entire turn.

I became a runaway leader. In Infiltration there aren't many cards that let you directly attack another player, so the other hackers could not gang up to rob me of my data files. The situation was awkward for them. They could sense the danger of staying too long, but they didn't have many files, so they had to bite the bullet and go deeper to hunt for more. The decision was much easier for me. It was time to run, Forrest, run.

Ivan had now advanced to the second floor (the other half of the V formation). Rooms on the second floor have better goodies. The room Ivan is in has 6 data files. The first floor rooms in our game mostly had two data files only. Only one had four.

Ivan had one item which was a shortcut. If he was caught still in the system when the alarm sounded, he could sacrifice some data files to take a shortcut to exit the system. This meant he had a get-out-of-jail-free card, and he could gamble and dive deeper. Still, I was quite confident I would win, because I had quite a large pile of data files, and I had played conservatively, allowing enough time to exit. What I hadn't thought of though, was the group psychology. I was a clear leader by mid game, which meant I was also a big red target. For the trailing players who had little hope of leaving safely, the mentality was "I'm gonna die anyway so let's drag everyone else down with me". Just as I was about to step out of the (virtual) gate, it slammed shut on me - someone had played an item card that jacked up the proximity counter. My estimation of how much time I needed to escape was quite accurate, but I hadn't anticipated this. Ivan became the only one who was not tracked down by the police, and he was the automatic winner. My wealth of data amounted to naught. I should have tried to convince my fellow hackers that once I made it out there I would make good use of the stolen data and expose all the corruption and wrongdoings we discovered. It was a noble cause and their sacrifices in helping me would be all worthwhile, right?! Guys?!! Y U do dis?!!!

The Thoughts

When Ivan taught us the game, he described it as Incan Gold on steroids, which I think is a very concise summary. You need to steal the most data to win, but if you fail to escape with the data, it all amounts to nothing. So it's about how far you push your luck. The main differences are (1) Infiltration is richer in mechanisms and setting (it's a Fantasy Flight Games game afterall), and (2) you only get one run in Infiltration compared to five expeditions in Incan Gold. The game mechanisms in Infiltration fits the setting well, so it is immersive. Player interaction is the race type and not the direct type. There is a sense of adventure because you never know what will come up in the next room. This game can be rethemed to fantasy adventurers exploring a dungeon hunting for treasure (don't get eaten by the dragon!), but that's not my type. Cyberpunk is more attractive to me.

The countdown timer (i.e. proximity counter) creates excitement and a building sense of urgency. You need to be on your toes. You need to judge the right time to start running. The variety in data rooms and items creates surprises and variability from game to game. These make the game colourful. The game concept is straight-forward and the premise is interesting. It may look a little complicated, but I think this can be a good introductory game.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

1812: The Invasion of Canada

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The War of 1812 was the first time USA launched an offensive war after its formation. In the USA it is also called the Second War of Independence, which is puzzling to me, since it was USA attacking Canada hoping to grab more land when UK was busy dealing with Napoleon in Europe. The war lasted about 2.5 years, and ended in a peace treaty with neither side gaining or losing ground (I mean that in a literal way). USA and Canada were best buddies ever since, as far as I understand.

In the game 1812, there are five factions in play. The American side has the American regular army and the American militia. The British side has the British regulars, the British militia and the Red Indians. The game supports 2 to 5 players, and regardless of the number of players, all five factions are in play. Some players will control more than one faction if fewer than five play. The game can last up to 8 rounds, but may end as early as Round 3. Within each round, each faction gets to go once. The order of play is random. You draw a cube out of a bag to determine which faction goes next. The next cube is drawn only after a faction finishes its turn. Every faction has its own deck of cards. The hand size is always three. On your turn you must play one movement card to move one or more of your armies. How many, and how far they can move depends on the card you play. If your armies occupy the same spaces as allied armies, you can bring them along. It is important for allied factions to utilise the movement cards of one another. You don't really get all that many moves during a game.

Battle is simple, and also quite innovative. You roll dice corresponding to the colours and numbers of armies on the battlefield. However the number of dice in each colour is limited, so even if you have many armies of a particular colour, only a small number of them can fight. The rest need to wait in line. The advantage of numbers is just that you can last longer. During a battle, some of your armies will get killed, and some will rout. If you have the numbers, you will more likely outlast your opponent. It's all about attrition. This battle mechanism also means you want variety in your army groups. Many different colours means you get to roll more dice. The die face distribution differs between the various factions. The British regulars never rout. The Indians rout easily. The hit rates also differ. Other than scoring a hit and routing, there is a 3rd die face - the blank side. Now blank doesn't mean nothing happens. In fact it is often an important decision point. Blank means you have to decide whether a particular army stays to fight or retreats to an adjacent space. Normally you can only retreat to friendly territory, or a battle space. However, the Indians have a special ability. They can retreat to an undefended enemy homeland space.

The goal of the game is to control more enemy objectives than your opponents when the game ends. Enemy objective spaces are worth 1VP or 2VP. The tricky part is when you are fighting in the enemy homeland, they always roll dice first. So overall it is slightly easier to defend your homeland than to capture an enemy space. The game can end in a draw if neither side controls more VP at game end. Within each faction deck there is one special movement card called the truce card. From Round 3 onwards, once one side (Americans or British) plays all its truce cards, the game ends at the end of that round. Managing your truce cards is important, but sometimes you don't get a choice. If it is the only movement card in your hand, you must play it on your turn, because it is mandatory to play a movement card every turn.

The Play

I played with Han and Allen. Allen and I were new. We played as the American team, him playing the American regulars (blue) and me the American militia (white). Han played the British, i.e. all three factions - regulars (red), militia (yellow) and Indians (green).

This was Round 1, Turn 1. There is an exception here - the first faction to take a turn is always the American regulars. This makes sense. It's historically accurate. This is why the game starts with the blue cube on the first space of the turn order track (on the right). The game already starts with armies set up on the board. The red area is Canada, the blue area is USA.

The star symbols mean victory points. Objective spaces have one or two of them. A fight is about to start here. The Americans have just invaded Canada. There are 2 American regulars (blue) and 4 American militia (white), vs 1 British militia (yellow) and 2 Indians (green).

The cards on the left and right are movement cards. They have soldier silhouettes. You must play one movement card on your turn. The card in the middle is an event card. You may play up to two on your turn. The events differ by faction and have historical relevance. After you become familiar with the events of all factions, the game becomes more strategic because you understand the faction characteristics better. The movement card on the right is also a truce card. It is a powerful movement card because it allows you to move 4 armies, and each of these armies get to move two spaces. When you have this card in hand, it is very tempting to play it, because such a strong move may just give you enough VP to win the game at the end of the current round.

Lake Erie and Lake Ontario make up two thirds of the border between USA and Canada. It is a natural barrier and much marching and fighting need to be done along the lakeside. However some movement cards allow armies to cross the lakes by boat, so you can't leave your lakeside territories unguarded. In this photo the British has amassed a large army and is ready to strike.

This is one of the larger-scale battles. The American marker near the top left corner means the Americans have captured one objective space worth 1VP.

The British captured this territory due to the (green) Indian's special ability. There was a battle in the territory to the northeast. The British side was losing, but in the midst of the chaos the Indians retreated to this undefended American territory (using their unique ability). Once this became British controlled, the other British units were able to retreat here. Allen and I had overlooked the Indian's ability and had not properly defended against it. Han's Indians were a major pain in the neck during our game.

Every faction in the game has one or two bases, where new units are deployed. The number of new units every round is fixed. Units which are routed during battle re-enter play at the bases too. The American bases are balanced - both the southwest and southeast corners can issue both regulars and militia. The British bases are not as evenly distributed. There is only one British regulars base in the northeast corner. There is only one Indian base near the middle. Only the British militia has two bases. So it is harder for the British to maintain well balanced armies.

At this point in the game, a great battle between the two lakes had left the area thinly garrisoned, so both sides were trying to rush troops there to fill the void. Han's British troops behind enemy lines had captured an American territory, and Allen and I were scrambling to catch these pesky guerillas. We (the Americans) had captured a territory in the northeast, but had not ventured far from there because Han (the British) had been building up a large force preparing to attack.

The battle between the lakes was intense. At this point the Americans were holding on to a 2VP British territory. In the middle of this photo, a lone Indian unit (green) had again escaped the clutches of the American army. The hunt was still on.

The American base at Albany was captured by the British. Not good! Allen and I did eventually manage to get rid of this small British force, but the fall of Albany had affected our tempo.

This was near the end of the game. The Americans were in the lead, but would not be for long. The British soon overtook us and the game ended in their favour. We played the full 8 rounds, but after the game we found out that we had made a mistake. We had thought that an early end required all 5 truce cards to be played. The correct rule is the game can end early as long as one side plays all its truce cards, i.e. 3 British truce cards or 2 American truce cards will do. If we had played correctly, the game would have ended early.

The Thoughts

1812 is a great game! The core mechanisms are innovative and simple. The game is flavourful, despite the simplicity and abstraction. I like how victory and loss hangs in a shaky balance. It is hard to win big. When you invade, the defenders have an advantage in battle, and their supply lines are shorter. Timing is important. The game is less about building up a strong overall position to systematically force your opponent into submission, and more about pressing a temporary advantage to quickly end the game on your terms. You need to gauge the tempo carefully. You are always wondering whether your opponents have enough truce cards to end the game. From Round 3 onwards you feel like you are tossing a faulty grenade to and fro, never quite sure when it will blow up, if at all. The randomised turn order creates uncertainty and excitement. You cannot plan precisely. You need to stay flexible. You feel torn between quick tactical gains and strategic positioning. It is amazing to me how interesting the emergent gameplay is, when the rules are short and simple.

Sunday, 20 September 2015


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

In Cubists you are sculptors - cube artists - who use dice as the material for sculptures and buildings. You race to complete commissioned artwork, and you contribute towards building an art museum. Both of these give victory points. The game ends when someone completes five sculptures, or when the museum is completed.

These four columns of components are (from left):

(1) The player board. Every turn you roll two dice. You can use them to build sculptures in one of your two workshops here. If you choose not to, or if you can't use the dice yet, you can store them in your storage space (top right corner of your player board). You can store at most two dice. When you build a sculpture, you should build it according to the specifications of the customers. This is a business afterall. The customer requirements are in the next column.

(2) The players race to complete these sculptures requested by customers. Whoever completes one takes the card, and earns one or two bonus dice. The point value of a sculpture card is in the yellow star. The number of bonus dice is indicated by the red cubes. The most important use of the bonus dice is to contribute to building the art museum. You can use them for other purposes, and sometimes it makes sense to do so, but they are usually best used as museum building material, because they score 2VP per die.

(3) This is the construction site of the museum. It starts with one red die as a cornerstone. A blueprint card is randomly drawn at the start of the game (that green card), and everyone builds according to it.

(4) These are the artist cards. When you have two or three dice of the same value, you can use them to book an artist. Artists give a one-time special ability. Once you book an artist, you can use him any time from your next turn onwards. Once used he is discarded (sad but true). An opponent may take over your artist. If he has two (or three) dice of the same value, and that value equals or exceeds the value of your dice on an artist, he can eject your dice and place his in their place. So you probably don't want to wait too long before using your artist. There is much variety in artist abilities. E.g. some give you a die of a specific value, some let you modify the value of a die.

The basic rules around building a sculpture and building the museum are the same. When you add a die next to another, the values of these dice must be different by exactly 1. E.g. you can only place a 3 or a 5 next to a 4. When you add a die on top of another, their values must be the same. You can only place a 4 on top of another 4.

These are the artists. At the moment three are booked. The third artist booked with a pair of 1's has no loyalty at all. Any pair including another pair of 1's can take him away. The second artist booked with 6's is harder to sway, but it is not impossible.

The Play

I did a 3-player game with Allen and Han. I played in a simple way, focusing on just the sculptures, and contributing to the museum construction as often as possible. The competition in completing the commissioned works is fierce. There were a few times Allen was narrowly beaten in completing a sculpture, and it was quite painful for him because it meant much effort had been wasted. The new sculpture order coming in may not look anything like your half completed masterpiece, so often you need to start from scratch. Before you abandon a sculpture you can use the dice for signing up artists. That is a small consolation, but it's better than none.

I'm still unsure about going for artists. Some of them do seem powerful, but I feel they are risky - others may steal your artists. Also they are not exactly cheap, costing at least two dice. I only invested in artists when I had spare dice which I couldn't find a good use for. You do need to consider the artist abilities in the context of the current sculpture orders. Some artists may give you an edge in completing certain orders. Sometimes they let you take a combo-rific turn when the stars line up. That is fun and satisfying.

Deciding which sculptures to work on is something you need to do all the time. If many opponents are working on the same one, there is a higher risk of losing out. If someone is almost done with a sculpture, you probably don't want to go anywhere near it. Sometimes two sculptures are similar, and you want to build in such a way that you have the flexibility to complete it as one or the other. The number of orders is small, so there is no avoiding the competition. You need to choose wisely and hope for the best. This is a tactical decision you make all the time.

Which die values to use in your sculptures is another thing to consider. Ideally you want one workshop to use lower values and the other higher values, so that no matter what you roll, you can fit that die somewhere.

We played very quickly. I'm not sure whether it's us or it's the game. We generally play games at a brisk pace, often starting to take our turns before others finish taking theirs. In Cubist you only roll two dice on your turn. Even if you have two dice stored from your previous turn, that's only four dice in total to consider. There is not that much to think about when you need to decide where to place them. On other players' turns, you should take note of what they are doing, e.g. which sculptures they are going for and which artists they are investing in, but there is still plenty of time to think of your own medium- and long-term strategy. I find this a light and speedy game.

This is my player area. I have completed two sculptures at this moment. They have given me three bonus dice, and I have used them all.

The art museum construction is still in progress. I (green) have contributed two dice. Han (beige) has contributed two too.

The Thoughts

Cubist is a light family strategy game. It's easy to learn. There is a spatial element to it. There is some luck and excitement in the die-rolling. You have a medium-term goal to chase after in the commissioned works, and a long-term goal in the art museum.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Crowdfunding: The Award Winning Game

This is a Kickstarter project with a cheeky name, launched by my southern neighbours. The game looks good. Check it out especially if you are Singaporean.

link: a Netrunner story

A good article I read at Shut Up & Sit Down - a story at the 2015 UK Netrunner Nationals.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

boardgaming in photos: the trio

There was a period when Han, Allen and I gamed together regularly, usually at my place or Allen's. Our play styles are similar. We tend to play quickly, sometimes taking actions even before our turns come. Sometimes we are so self-conscious about not playing speedily enough that even before others tease us for thinking too long, we already start apologising "Sorry sorry, AP AP" (Analysis Paralysis). I enjoy our brisk pace. Han is now living in another city, so we don't get to play together often, but when he's in town we try to meet up. On his recent visit we managed to game for two days, playing both old and new games.

This is God's Playground by Martin Wallace. My previous play was probably two years ago. The game is about the history of Poland. Poland has always been sandwiched by bullies. Players take the role of Polish dynasties, working together to defend Poland while at the same time competing to be the most powerful clan. This is a game where you sometimes sacrifice the greater good for selfish ambition.

The situation in Prussia (northwest) and Greater Poland (west) is not good. Only Allen (blue) is invested in Prussia (the discs are estates), and only I (white) am invested in Greater Poland. This means only one of three players has strong incentive to defend these regions. This is dangerous. If an enemy successfully invades and sets up camp, it can spread to neighbouring regions.

The Hapsburgs is an unusual enemy. For the first three rounds (of four) they don't launch military attacks, and instead exert political influence, reducing the influence of Polish nobles. Only in the fourth round they may attack Poland. In the third round, the Ottomans attack the Hapsburgs instead of Poland. You can try to help the Hapsburgs by fighting the Ottomans. However the Hapsburgs are not grateful people. If you don't defeat the Ottomans in Round 3, they will conquer the Hapburgs, they will be militarily stronger in Round 4, and they will attack from two fronts in Round 4. If you manage to defeat the Ottomans, they will be weaker in Round 4, but they will still try to attack you. The Hapsburg, instead of thanking you for saving their backsides, will instead think you are ripe for military conquest. So you have a lose-lose situation. In our game I was the only one heavily invested in Greater Poland, which was the entry point of the Hapsburgs. So I had to deal with them every round, and I saved their butts in Round 3, and I had to endure their attack in Round 4. Very annoying!

This was Round 3. My personal army (white) supported by the national army (grey) beat up the Ottomans kau-kau (severely). We placed many white and grey success cubes in the Ottoman box. One funny thing in our game was I kept rolling 1's during battle, which was very bad because it meant losing units. The national army was a shared resource. All three of us could use our influence to borrow it. Han and Allen kept screaming at me "what are you doing?!!". Each time I led the national army in battle they had to pray hard I didn't get more soldiers killed, leaving them a much diminished army when their turns came around.

This was the middle of Round 4, i.e. final round. Most of the spots for estates were occupied. The only remaining vacant spots were in Prussia, because that region was pretty doomed. The enemy was strong, the defenses thin.

The enemies (black cubes) had invaded Prussia. They were many, and we only had two nobles (the blue and white cubes) to tie them down. All the enemies that we could not pin down would spread to the neighbouring regions. Many of our estates were soon burnt down. It was not a pretty sight. Earlier during the game we thought we did quite well. Not many enemies managed to break through our defenses. Little did we know they had saved the best for last.

This was the final score. It was amazingly close. I (white) only won because of the tiebreaker rule - whoever has more nobles remaining on the board wins.

I taught Allen Machi Koro. This was his first time playing. We played using the Harbour expansion straight-away.

Han has played Machi Koro before with other gamers in Johor Bahru.

The three of us are now playing a game of After the Flood online at Sloth Ninja Games. I fared horribly, and even before mid game we all knew I was screwed. Han played the best. Now Allen and I are trying to see whether we can turn the tide. After the Flood is an intricate exactly-3-players game. If I play as a neutral party, Han will cruise to victory. If I team up with Allen, Allen has a chance to win. So I'm playing the troublemaker now (or if you want to put it nicely, the balancing factor). But perhaps I'll backstab Allen at the last minute. Just for kicks.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

The Princes of Machu Picchu

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

The Princes of Machu Picchu is an older game by Mac Gerdts. In this age of glut in boardgames, a 2008 game is already considered old. Mac Gerdts is famous for the rondel mechanism in his designs. I've always felt the rondel is just a tool he uses, and it's misleading and unfair to simply describe his games as rondel games. His games have different characters, and they are not defined by the rondel, clever though it is as a tool.

The gameboard of The Princes of Machu Picchu is based on a famous photo of Machu Picchu, and it behaves like a huge irregular rondel. Players move their pawns (the princes) from district to district, triggering the power of the district being entered. Normally you only take one step to move to an adjacent district, but you can spend a llama to jump to any district.

The discs are your workers. You need to spend goods to recruit them. Once assigned to work in a particular district, they stay there for the rest of the game, unless you fire them. When a production district is activated, anyone with workers there can pay corn (the basic currency in the game) to produce goods. Some districts let you spend goods to recruit priests. Some districts let you spend goods to pray. These are the main ways you collect and spend goods.

This is a scoring card. Everyone starts with one, and can collect more as the game progresses. Each card has two main icons telling you how you will score. This particular card tells me each of my corn farmer and cloth maker scores 1VP. The three gold statues at the top means something too. The story in the game has two possible ends, either Machu Picchu is discovered and conquered by the Spaniards, or it remains safely hidden. If it stays safe, everyone does normal scoring and the highest scorer wins. However if it is conquered, players need to compare their total gold value. Whoever has the most gold triples his score, and whoever has the second most doubles his score. This is truly a game changer.

Some districts are adjacent to many others, some just a few. When you move your pawn, you need to think a few steps ahead. What options will be available to you next turn, and the turn after that? There is always the option of paying a llama to go anywhere you want, but that's expensive.

Everyone has a runner on this mountain track. There are a few ways to get him to advance, the main one being praying and making sacrifices. When your runner reaches certain milestones, you gain some goods. What's most important though is getting to the top. That's when you get to draw a new scoring card. Once your runner hits the top, he goes back to the foot of the mountain and starts again. You want to keep him going and going so that you can collect more scoring cards.

This is the marketplace. One of the districts on the board lets you buy and sell goods here. When you buy, take the good off the market. The price will go up. When you sell, place the good here. The price goes down.

This is the player reference card. The table on the left shows what you need to pay for each type of worker you want to train.

These are the priests. Once someone starts recruiting priests, numbers will be revealed. The most recently revealed number at each row tells you how many steps each priest can make your runner take. If you examine the numbers you will find that it keeps decreasing as more priests are recruited. This creates tension as players race to recruit the early, more powerful priests. There is also a dilemma between popular and less popular priest types. If many others recruit the same priest type as you, the priest strength weakens. However you can possibly rely on them to trigger prayer time, saving you a valuable action.

This scoring card on the left tells me that each of my puma priests and sun priests are worth 1VP.

The large round tokens near the top trigger the end of a round. On your turn you can decline to take a normal action and instead claim a token. Every token gives a bonus. Once the third token is claimed, the round enters a final phase. Players have some control over the tempo of the game. If you want to speed up the game, grab these tokens quickly.

The key to the game is the scoring cards. To get more cards you need your runner to run often and run far. To get your runner to run, you need priests and you need to pray. To do these you need goods. This summarises the whole flow of the game. Scoring cards are secret, so you are never exactly sure how your opponents are going to score. However you can make educated guesses based on their play. If someone is recruiting many cocoa farmers, he probably has a few such scoring cards. The two possible end game situations are the biggest uncertainty in the game. You can't be 100% sure whether you will have more gold than the other players. You need to carefully evaluate which outcome is better for you. Once you decide how you prefer the game to end, you need to do all you can to manipulate the game tempo and to score points. I think this end game twist is a master stroke.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. At the start of the game, progress felt slow. Priests were not cheap at all, and there were so many of them. The production districts could only produce once per round. How were we going to buy all those priests? However as we built up our teams of workers, I found that we could plan and optimise our turns much better and we could play much more efficiently. Setting up a good sequence of actions can help your runner leap far ahead.

There is a cooperative element. Or maybe I should call it a leeching element. You can rely on other players to activate production districts where you already have workers or temple districts when you already employ the corresponding priests. As long as your have the corn to pay your workers, or the llama and goods to sacrifice, you can piggyback on your opponent's actions, saving you valuable turns. However you also need to be careful not to be caught unprepared. E.g. since each production district only produces once per round, if it gets activated by someone else when you don't have the corn to pay your workers, you are missing out on production for this round. When you activate a district you may be helping your opponents, but sometimes there is sufficient incentive to do so, because as the one doing the activation, you get a bonus, e.g. an extra good.

The production chain in The Princes of Machu Picchu is not complex. Your end goal is always the runner and drawing scoring cards. You always need to choose your actions to make the most of your scoring cards. You need to constantly think of the two possible end situations. If everyone is determined to save what remains of the Incan empire, recruiting all priests before the last round ends is actually not difficult. However there is always some rich fellow thinking about the x3 bonus, which is very tempting. Also if you think you are falling behind in normal scoring, turning traitor may be your only chance at winning. In addition to these, there will also be players hesitating between which outcome to push for. While they hesitate, time is being wasted and they may not be recruiting priests quickly enough. This intricate balance between saving Machu Picchu and selling it out is amazing.

These were the scores at game end. Among the five of us, eventually only Jeff and I tried to save the empire. Although recruiting all priests appeared daunting at first, as we neared game end, it turned out to be within grasp. Unfortunately we fell short. Not by much though. Ivan, Salah and Heng all felt they had a chance at being richest. I (green) came in dead last. I can only console myself that I died a patriot.

The Thoughts

I have played a few other Mac Gerdts designs - Antike, Navegador, Concordia. They are all good games and I like them. In The Princes of Machu Picchu I found something more. The end game twist really makes the game shine. This game is not just about scoring points efficiently. A big part of it is assessing how the game will likely end, determining how you want it to end, and adjusting your play accordingly. You need to watch your opponents as they do the same. You need to guess their intentions. This constant struggle and manoeuvring between preserving and betraying the empire is what makes this a great game.

Saturday, 5 September 2015


Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Pictomania is a game from Vlaada Chvatil, and it is completely different from his magnum opus Through the Ages. Pictomania is a real-time party game. It is a family game of speed and quick wits. It is a game about drawing and guessing what the drawings mean. The twist is both drawing and guessing are done at the same time, by everyone.

Everyone gets one set of equipment like this. The board is for drawing. The tiles with stars on them are award tiles. Every round you award them to fellow players who guess your drawing correctly. The first to guess right gets 3VP, the second 2VP, and the rest 1VP each. You want to give them all out, because if any is left, you lose victory points. The cards are for guessing the drawings of other players. They are numbered 1 to 7 and are in your player colour. .

Before a round starts, 6 solution cards are revealed and everyone gets to study them. The cards are placed on stands, and each card is matched to an icon. Every player draws two mission cards, a number card and an icon card. This pair of mission cards determines what you need to draw. Taking this photo as an example, if you get the six-sided star and the number 2, you have to draw a comb.

Once everyone has read all tho solution cards, and knows what he needs to draw, the round starts. Actions are all simultaneous. There are no turns. You need to draw your own drawing and also guess what others are drawing. When guessing a drawing, if you feel confident it is a specific numbered item on a specific solution card, you need to find that number from your hand of cards, and play that card face-down next to the drawing. This is a first-come-first-serve thing. If another player has already played a card to that drawing, you will need to slap your card on top of his. After a round ends, when the drawing owner examines how many people have guessed right, he does it in the order the cards were played. If you guess right, you earn points based on how early you have played your card. If you guess wrong, you may be penalised. At the end of each round, if a single player has made the most mistakes, he loses points.

As a round progresses, once you are happy with your drawing and with the guesses you have made, you can decide to exit the round. You do this by grabbing an exit tile. Exit tiles have different numbers of stars (which mean victory points), so there is a race to grab the most valuable tile. The number of exit tiles is one less than the number of players. Once the last tile is taken, the round ends. No more drawing, no more guessing. The slowest player will not get an exit tile.

Those stacks of multicoloured cards next to the drawings are the guesses made by the players. On my board (green) you see a black tile with 3 stars. That's the exit tile, and it's worth 3VP. I was first to grab an exit tile this round.

The game is played over 5 rounds. After the 5th round, the highest scorer wins. There are many solution cards in the game, and they come in different difficulty levels. New players can start with the easy ones. Veterans would probably enjoy the impossible ones more.

The Play

Pictomania is a game of quick thinking and smart thinking. If you are good at drawing, it certainly helps. However what is more important is deciding what to draw to communicate your word or phrase to others. Let's take the word "weekend" as an example. Ivan got this word in our game. He drew two simple pictures, one of a guy working at his laptop, and the next one of the same guy throwing down his laptop and running away while cheering aloud. I would not have thought of this. I would probably just draw a row of seven boxes and shade the last two.

Every player's solution is a different number, and you can use this to your advantage. If you are very sure that one particular opponent's solution is a #4, then you can ignore all the other #4 words. However, one funny thing that often happens is when you are trying to find in your hand a specific number to guess a particular drawing, you realise that you have already played that number. That means you are probably losing out on two drawings - the earlier one which you have guessed wrong, and the current one which you won't be able to play the right card on.

Being the first to guess right is a big advantage, so you do want to pay keen attention to your opponents. At the same time you don't want to waste time by not drawing your own picture. This is what makes the game exciting, and also chaotic. Since this is a real-time game, everyone is very involved all the time. There is no downtime.

A flurry of activity.

The drawing on the left is the story "The Boy Who Cried Wolf", and the drawing on the right is "Lord of the Rings".

These are the higher difficulty cards. I like!

The Thoughts

Pictomania is a party game, a family game, a casual game. It is easy to learn and players will immediately feel engaged. It is a good warm-up game, and also works well as an icebreaker game. Some of the drawings will trigger discussions and jokes, not necessarily because they are ugly. It can be because of how the drawing owner decided to present his word. I prefer the tougher solution cards. Some really make your jaw drop and start praying you won't get them.