Friday, 21 September 2018

Century: Eastern Wonders - Sand to Sea

Plays: 3Px1.

Century: Eastern Wonders is the second game in the Century series, after Century: Spice Road. They are independent games, but can also be combined into a different game, called Sand to Sea. Later when the third game in the series Century: New World is released, it too can be combined with the earlier games to create new games. I have only played Sand to Sea and not Century: Eastern Wonders by itself. So this post will just be about the combo game and not the individual one.

The Game

When setting up the map for Sand to Sea, tiles are drawn randomly. Some spaces will have no island.

The full setup looks like this. Sand to Sea does not use all the components from Spice Road and Eastern Wonders. It uses a subset from both. On the right are the merchant cards from Spice Road. You have a row of four for players to pick from. The map tiles in the middle are from Eastern Wonders. The spices (cubes) on the left can be from either game. Spices are your resources. The game is about collecting spices and upgrading them, and eventually trading specific sets of them to fulfill contracts, which have point values. Once a player fulfills his fourth contract, the game ends. Highest scorer wins.

Taking a merchant card from the card row is one of the four actions you can do on your turn. The second one is simply playing a merchant card. When you play a card, you put it on the left side of your player board. Cards have 3 types of abilities. Some let you collect spices. Some let you upgrade spices to other more valuable types. Some let you convert specific sets of spices to other specific sets. The rightmost section of your player board is your storage area, and it holds up to 10 spices. In this photo you see some facedown cards on the right side of the player board. This is related to the third action type - sailing. Every player has a ship on the board. Your third action type is to sail. You get to perform the action allowed by your destination. For each step you sail, you must either move a card from the left side of your player board to the right, or play a card directly from your hand to the right side of your player board. Ideally you want to use your cards twice - firstly for the ability of the card itself, and secondly for sailing. Once a card is on the right side of your player board, it is of no use to you temporarily. You need to take the fourth action - the reset. When you reset (it's called "rest" in the game), you bring all cards back into your hand. You won't do anything else that turn. You'll start all over again next turn.

Everyone has a ship on the board. They don't block movement, but if you do sail to a spot where others are present, you need to pay them a fee (of one spice). So ships do hinder movement somewhat. Islands simply let you convert a set of spices to another, just like merchant cards. You need to have built a trading post on an island in order to use its power. If you are first to build, it's free. Otherwise it'll cost spices. In this photo, the pink and white players have built trading posts.

On the player board, the trading posts are arranged in a 4x4 grid. 4 rows and 4 columns. When you build a trading post on the map and need to take one piece from your player board, you need to check the island type, which is in one of the four spice colours matching the four rows on your board. Also you always take the leftmost piece from the row. The first trading post you build from a row is only worth 1VP, but subsequent ones are worth more. This entices you to build trading posts on islands of the same type. Now if you look at the icons along the top, these are bonuses you get when you complete columns. If you build all four trading posts in the first column, i.e. at four different island types, you gain a merchant card. For columns 2 to 4, you get to choose between a bonus tile and a merchant card. So you are torn in two directions - do you go for rows or columns? Or neither? You also need to consider whether the islands are useful to you in the first place. Sometimes it may not be worthwhile to build only for the sake of completing a row or a column.

There are three types of bonus tiles. From left: (1) Storage expansion, increasing your capacity by 3. (2) Victory points. (3) One free move when sailing. In the game we played, none of us managed to get any bonus tile. I think it's very difficult to do because you need to complete your second column to get a bonus tile. Also in the game we played, I went for speed, forcing the game to end quickly. This made it even more difficult for anyone to complete the second column.

Let me shift one row of trading posts out of the way, so that you can see the point values for each position within the same row. A total of 8VP is attractive.

On the right, the tile with the big 15 on it is a contract. If you sail here and you have 3 brown spice and 1 green spice, you may trade the spice for this contract worth 15VP. Contracts are the biggest source of VP. They appear at the harbours in the four corners of the map. When a contract is fulfilled, another will be drawn to take its place.

One contract shuffled near the top of the draw deck is this out-of-service tile with a big red cross. If you draw this tile, the harbour where a contract has just been fulfilled is now temporarily closed. You need to go elsewhere to fulfill contracts. The next time a contract is fulfilled, that other harbour will close, while this one will reopen for business. Once this out-of-service tile appears, there will only be 3 active harbours at any one time.

The Play

I played with Ivan and Tim, and we were all new to Sand to Sea, although not new to the Century series. Sand to Sea has the same style as Spice Road. On your turn you only do one simple thing. You have only four options. The flow is straightforward. You collect spices, you upgrade them, you turn them into other spices, and eventually you trade them in for contracts which are worth VP. Merchant cards and trading posts on islands are your tools. You need to build up your tool repertoire as you go, but they are mostly a means to an end. You need to decide how much effort to spend on improving your toolset and how much to spend on actually scoring points. The row and column consideration when building trading posts is a side quest. If the scores from contracts are close, then this aspect may become the game decider. Player interaction is in the form of grabbing merchant cards, racing to fulfill contracts, grabbing spots for trading posts, and hindering ship movement.

I went for speed. I just wanted to get the right spices quickly and then go grab the contracts. I didn't bother much with completing rows or columns on my player board. In the area where my ship started, there were a few islands which synergised well, so I only built a few trading posts in this area. I did need to take some merchant cards. They synergised well with my trading posts too. I operated with very few trading posts, and not that many merchant cards either.

I played white, and you can see my board presence was minimal. Ivan was pink, and Tim black. Tim was most aggressive and systematic in building trading posts. He had trading posts on all four yellow islands. He also had a full set of islands in four colours. So he had both a complete row and a complete column.

You do need to race for the contracts. At one point I forgot to watch what spices others were collecting, and one contract which I was working towards was fulfilled by Ivan ahead of me. Luckily for me the next contract matched the spices I had pretty well. I only needed a little effort to get to the right combination. I was quite lucky in that my merchant cards and trading posts synergised well. That meant good efficiency. I was the only one who managed four contracts when the game ended. My trading posts did not score me many points, but my contracts were high valued and that secured the win for me.

The Thoughts

Sand to Sea is a medium (or low-medium) complexity strategy game. It is brisk. The key is putting together an effective set of merchant cards and trading posts. They are your engine to help you gain spices and upgrade spices. Compared to Spice Road, now you have a spatial aspect. You need to think about which islands you want to use, and you need to think about movement on the map. The game naturally becomes more complex. There are more moving parts. However the pace is still quick. Your actions are simple.

One thing which Sand to Sea and Spice Road have in common is the game ends quicker than you expect. It is easy to think you have time to build your perfect little engine. You don't. While building your engine, you are also racing and grabbing points. I find this tantalising. You feel you want just a bit more time to refine your engine. You need to remind yourself you don't have that kind of luxury. The other feeling I have when playing the game is many things I want to achieve require many small steps to complete. I need to think a few step ahead, and I need to wait round after round for my turn to come to execute the next small step to realise my plan. That feeling of anticipation is wonderful. I can't wait to get to my next turn. This may be why the game moves so briskly.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Dungeon Petz: Dark Alleys

Plays: 3Px1.

Time flies. That was my first thought when I realised Dungeon Petz is already a 7-year-old game. Recently Boardgamecafe.net did a Czech Games Edition theme night, and Ivan brought Dungeon Petz. He had bought the Dark Alleys expansion but had never played it before. So this was the perfect opportunity.

Dungeon Petz has an unusual setting. You are pet shop owners, but instead of cats and dogs, you are selling monsters, to dungeon masters. Rearing monsters is certainly not easy. You need to attend to their various needs. Rear them well, and you will win fame at exhibitions and when you sell them to the right customers. The core game mechanism is worker placement.

These are some of the monsters in the game. The one on the left is from the expansion, while the other two are from the base game. The one on the left is slightly more complicated than the others. If its magical powers are not contained properly, insteading of mutating, it causes other monsters at your shop to mutate.

The Game

The biggest change in the Dark Alleys expansion is this additional game board. Dungeon Petz is a worker placement game, and this new board gives you four more spots to place your workers. At the bottom left there is a white square. Right at the centre there is a black square. At the bottom right there is an orange square. Along the bottom edge near the middle there is a four-coloured square.

The black square is the black market. During game setup, 6 items are placed in the top half of this board - an extra worker (bodyguard), a monsterling, a cage, a food tile, a cage improvement and an artifact. When you visit the black market, you get to buy one of these. They don't get replenished throughout the game. Only one person may visit the black market every round.

The orange square is where you buy accessories for your monsters. When you put an accessory on a monster, it results in an additional need to fulfill, i.e. this will require more effort on your part. However being able to fulfill an extra need can also mean doing better at exhibitions and pleasing your customer even more. So this can be quite important.

The four-coloured square allows you to peek ahead at upcoming exhibitions and customers, so that you can start planning earlier. It also allows you to draw four more Needs cards in the current round. This gives you more flexibility in fulfilling your monsters' needs. When monsters grow big (their needs become harder and harder to fulfill), and when you serve important customers, additional flexibility can be very handy.

The white square is the industrial zone, where facilities with various benefits open for business. Whoever visits gets to use these facilities.

This row of large tiles are the facilities in the industrial zone. When you visit, you get to use one facility immediately, and if at the end of the round you have surplus workers, money or relevant resources, you get to use a facility again. A new facility opens every round, so you will get more and more choices. That facility in the middle is a cleaner service. Pay money to remove two poops from your shop.

In addition to the new board and corresponding components, you also get more of the component types already in the base game. More monsters, more cages, more customers, more exhibitions. The game structure doesn't change, and neither does the general strategy. There is only a slight change in the game-end scoring.

The Play

I played with Ivan and Sinbad, while Jeff and two others played another set, also with the Dark Alleys expansion. I had forgotten most of the rules details, and must listen to the rules explanation all over again. However I did remember that this game is very much about orchestrating high profile transactions - selling the right pets to the right owners at the right time. You can see what exhibitions and customers are coming up. Your job is to collect all the items you need to do well at the exhibitions and to serve the customers well. It is a lot of planning, coordination, timing and of course, fighting for the things you need.

This is the player board. The top section is a reference chart and also a screen when you need to do the blind bidding. The blind bidding in this game is grouping your workers (imps) and coins. Each group qualifies you for one action, and actions are executed in the order of group size. Large groups mean you get to go first, but they also mean you have fewer groups and thus fewer actions.

These were the monsters I bought in the early game. That cage at the top right automatically provides vegetables every round (leaf icon with tick), but unfortunately the monster there is carnivorous (meat icon on monster), so this special ability is wasted. The cage automatically cleans one poop every round too (poop icon with tick).

What we remember most about this particular game we played is Sinbad's huge magical monster. He raised a violent magical monster from young until it reached its full size. This was one tough pet to handle. Due to how angry it was, Sinbad had to assign his imps to rein it in and prevent it from breaking out of its cage. This resulted in his imps getting injured. This meant he had two fewer imps next round. Also he would need to assign another imp to retrieve those two injured imps from the hospital. To make things worse, in the next round, the hospital space was blocked by a neutral imp, and he couldn't collect his imps even if he wanted to. The neutral imps come into play in games with fewer than four players.

What was most painful was at late game, when the monster was at full size, Sinbad could not contain it, and it broke out of its cage and ran away. That was a heavy blow. So much effort wasted. This monster would likely have helped win exhibitions and close a lucrative sale.

My two monsters were growing up, revealing more and more Needs icons (coloured rectangles). The monster on the left was a playful one (yellow Needs icons). There was once I didn't have enough imps to play with it and didn't have enough toys for it to entertain itself, and it became depressed, taking one grey suffering cube. Monsters take suffering cubes when they are sad and when they are hungry. If they take too many, they die.

My playful monster was later sold to this grandma. Grandma loves pets which like to eat and get sick easily, because she enjoys giving care.

The two monsters at bottom left and top right were my newer batch of purchase. The one at the bottom left was an unusual one. If it got angry and broke out of its cage, it wouldn't run away. Instead it would break other cages or cage improvements. This might cause other monsters to escape instead.

The two brown cubes are poop.

This section of the player board is the food storage area. Vegetables last three rounds, meat only last two. Meat spoils at the end of the next round after it is bought.

As we played, we recorded all pet sales in this manner. These are all the customers in our game and what they bought.

The Thoughts

I think you need the Dark Alleys expansion only if you play Dungeon Petz a lot, because it will give you some variety. The additional game elements are just nice-to-have and don't make the game significantly better. They give you more things to do, at the cost of increased complexity and play time. I don't recommend the expansion for players new to the game. I actually see more value in the additional monsters, customers, exhibitions, i.e. the component types already existing in the base game.

Monday, 10 September 2018

beebo beebo

This one is probably relatable ony to Malaysians, with some bits specifically to Malaysian Chinese. And I apologise to Spanish and Portuguese readers for butchering their city names. I have a specific group of friends who are into the Pandemic series of games. I taught them to play the original Pandemic. We played the bio-terrorist variant. We completed both Pandemic: Legacy seasons together. When we come across unfamiliar city names, we often create our own local-flavoured nicknames. In the past, we renamed Saint Petersburg, calling it Sri Petaling instead. Montreal became Monorail. Essen transformed to become Eason.

Eason Chan, Hong Kong singer.

This year, we played Pandemic: Iberia. Since none of us were familiar with the geography of Spain and Portugal, most of the cities were alien to us. We knew only Madrid, Barcelona and Lisbon. The rest of the cities were challenging, and naturally nicknames was one technique to help us cope.

Palma de Mallorca became Racecourse Melaka (Malacca). "Palma de" sounds like the Cantonese word for racecourse (跑马地 - pao ma dei). This Chinese word 跑马地 is also a suburb in Hong Kong (which has a racecourse). The name of the suburb in English is Happy Valley.

Bilbao-Bilbo became "beebo beebo", i.e. ambulance sirens.

Leon was still called Leon, but we associated it with this Leon below.

Hong Kong singer and actor, Leon Lai.

We did not create a new name for Gijon, but we pronounced it like a Hakka name. Hakka is a Chinese dialect spoken in southern China. It is also spoken in Malaysia, especially in Sabah. Some Kuala Lumpur Chinese speak Hakka too. "Gi" sounds like the Hakka word (杞) for goji berry or wolfberry. "Jon" sounds like the Hakka word for return. So the imaginary Hakka town of Gijon would be the place where the wolfberries return.

Each time during play when we passed by Madrid, we had to suppress the urge to break into song - this song by Jolin Tsai (Taiwanese singer) titled Amazing Madrid.

Friendship. Sometimes you need to do silly stuff together.


Sunday, 2 September 2018

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

Plays: 4Px2, 2Px3. Played up to Game 3 (of 7).

I have read all the Harry Potter books, and watched all the movies. I'm not a diehard fan, but I do enjoy the stories and the characters. Older daughter Shee Yun is a fan and she is much more familiar with the Harry Potter universe than I am. When I first heard about this game, my first thought was it would be nice to buy a copy to play with her. Unfortunately my regular suppliers didn't stock them. I didn't want to go through the trouble of buying directly from overseas. So, no Harry Potter for me. Recently I discovered that my colleague Zee Zun has a copy of the game. He bought it at shopee.com.my. It was cheap too. I wondered whether it was a pirated version. I examined his copy and found the quality to be good. It looked legitimate. So I soon bought a copy myself. When my copy arrived, I found it to differ slightly from Zee Zun's. Our dice are different. His are in solid colours while mine are semi-transparent. The icons on mine look faded and blurry. My green die is so dark it is almost black. The dice are still functional I guess. Other components are fine. So I guess I have no complaints. I wonder whether I have bought from a different seller on Shopee.

I had thought Shee Yun would be quite excited to play, but I was disappointed. Being a fan of Harry Potter doesn't necessarily mean being a fan of the boardgame. I had to ask her a few times before I was able to convince her to play with me. She did have fun when we played. She is familiar with the characters and spells. She reminded me who did what in which episode.

The Game

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is a cooperative deck-building game. You play one of the four Heroes - Harry, Ron, Hermione or Neville. There are villains and bad events in the game. Your job is to defeat all villains. The bad guys want to control the wizarding world, and they do so by capturing a few key locations. If all locations are captured by evil forces before you defeat all villains, you lose.

The board is there only to help you organise where to place your cards. It is not strictly necessary. This is a card game, with some markers to help you keep track of things. The stack at the top left is your locations. Only one is exposed at any one time. Only when it is captured by the evil forces a new one (if any is left) will take its place. The stack to the right of the location cards is the Dark Arts cards - event cards which trigger bad things. Usually you need to draw at least one Dark Arts card every turn. At the lower left you see the villain card. In this game we played, there is only one active villain at any one time. In more advanced games, there will be two and eventually three villains. The six cards on the right are Hogwarts cards - player cards available to be purchased. These are randomly drawn from the draw deck. Whenever a card is purchased from this pool, a new card will be drawn to replenish the pool.

This is a deck-building game and uses the common deck-building rules. When you buy a card, it goes to your discard pile. You don't get to use it yet. The next time your draw deck runs out, you reshuffle your discard pile to form a new draw deck. Only then any recently purchased cards will enter play, becoming part of your draw deck.

On your turn, you must resolve the Dark Arts cards first (i.e. the bad events), and then the villain cards. Only after these are done you get to execute your actions, by playing cards. The two most basic things you get to do are making money and attacking. When you make money, you get to spend it to buy new cards. When you attack, and gain attack tokens and may choose to place them on any active villain. Every villain has a health value. He is defeated when you place enough attack tokens to match his health value. Cards have various other powers, like healing, drawing more cards, giving money or attack tokens to your teammates, and reducing the evil control markers at locations.

The game is divided into 7 levels, called Game 1 to Game 7. This matches the number of books (and movies). Game 1 is simple. Some elements are added or changed in each subsequent game. It is a little like playing a legacy game. However there is no destructive element and no irreversible change. You can reorganise the components into any specific Game number you want. Naturally, Game 7 is the most complete version of the game, and probably also the longest. When you play from Game 1 to Game 7, it is a little like watching the movies all over again. Each game has its own set of locations. Dark Arts cards, villains and Hogwarts cards are added at each game, matching characters and story elements that are introduced in each movie. The player characters also get new abilities as you progress to higher levels.

This is the player board. The main function is to track your health. When your health falls to zero, don't worry, you won't get killed. You are just Stunned. The most severe part of being Stunned is (usually) discarding half your hand. So it is not too bad. Still, you don't want to get Stunned too often. It will make you very inefficient. The two cards on top are the Hero card (character card) and the reference card. This is a Game 1 Hero with no special ability. The Hero card you get in Game 3 onwards has special abilities. That pile on the right is your discard pile. Your draw deck is meant to be on the left.

This is one of the villains. The tiny text at the top right corner specifies this is a Game 1 villain. The villain card tells you the villain's ability and the reward for defeating him. The number at the bottom right is the health value of the villain. The lightning token is an attack token. You need six of them to defeat Professor Quirrell.

Every Hero starts with a unique deck of 10 cards. E.g. Harry has Hedwig. Many of the starting cards are the spell Alohomora, which gives you $1. Technically it's giving you 1 Influence, but I always think of Influence as money because you buy cards with it. Spells are one type of cards. There are also Allies and Items.

The game is like a race, between you defeating all villains and the game system capturing all locations. You need to balance between offense and defense. It's mostly about offense, since not many cards help you defend the locations. You are constantly improving your deck. You need to do this efficiently.

The Play

The first time I played was with Xiaozhu, Edwin and Zee Zun. Xiaozhu and Edwin are Harry Potter fans. Having made plans to play, we brought along our Harry Potter memorabilia. We also played the movie soundtracks during our games.

I brought this chocolate box. This was a gift from Xiaozhu. I have eaten the chocolate and I kept the box as a souvenir. I was delighted to find that there is an Item card in the game called Chocolate Frog, and it looks exactly like this.

I played Game 1 and Game 2 with Xiaozhu, Edwin and Zee Zun. Xiaozhu and Edwin were new to deckbuilding games, and the new mechanism confused Edwin a few times. He placed a newly bought card in the wrong place a few times, sometimes in his hand, sometimes on top of his draw deck. As hobbyists we can easily forget that many game mechanisms we take for granted are actually alien to non-gamers.

The rulebook suggested that players who are already familiar with deck-building games jump straight to Game 3, so I assumed Games 1 and 2 were just tutorials and were easy to beat. To my surprise, we struggled with Game 2, and eventually lost. We lost control of the first two locations quickly, and the third location was a tough one, triggering two Dark Arts events every turn. We suffered badly at the hands of Lucius Malfoy. Whenever a control marker was placed on a location, he healed. We were stuck with him for a long time. He kept healing himself. This was not a training game at all!

Later when I played with Shee Yun, we found Game 2 to be rather easy. We proceeded to Game 3, and beat it easily too. Our defense of the locations was almost perfect. We almost managed to keep them completely free of control markers. I suspected the difference in difficulty was due to the different number of players. So I checked online, and found that indeed many others had the same experience. In two player games, you improve your deck at twice the speed of four player games. You wait for only one other player before your turn comes again, instead of three other players.

Compared to other deck-building games, this one is simple. At least that's what I see so far up to Game 3. I have read the rules up to Game 7 and there aren't many additional rules coming. It is only the cards I have not seen. This level of complexity makes the game workable for non-gamers. From Game 3 onwards, the game starts to get long. I think it took about an hour to finish my Game 3. As you progress, more and more villains are added, so naturally it takes more effort to defeat them all. However the Heroes become stronger too and should be more effective at defeating villains.

A big part of the game is the shopping experience. You need to make purchases wisely. Some cards create synergy, so you should make use of that. Sometimes you want to assign certain players to focus on buying certain types of cards. That helps you increase the likelihood of having synergy. From Game 3 onwards, Heroes get special abilities, and that's even more reason to specialise and to buy cards purposefully. Most cards either help you make more money or fight better. Money helps you further improve your deck, but fighting is what you ultimately need to do to win. This is similar to Dominion. You want to make good money to improve yourself, but ultimately you need to score points. You need to know when to switch. Sometimes there is a clear turning point, but not always. In Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, what cards are available in the pool is random, so you need to react to the situation as well.

Compared to buying cards, using cards is often straightforward. Many cards can be used only in one way anyway. Some do give you options, but often the right choice is obvious. Similar to Dominion, this game is not so much about what to do with cards you draw. It is more about how to improve the odds of drawing good hands in the first place. Thus the importance of your shopping strategy.

Mr. and Mrs. Weasley came up at the same time in one of our games, so of course that was a photo moment. They cost $6, which is not cheap. Normally you won't be able to afford them in the early game. Their card type is Ally - notice the blue bar and keyword Ally.

The Malfoy father and son came up together too. This is a scary combo because both of them are triggered by a control marker being added to a location. Thankfully when Shee Yun and I were fighting them, there weren't many control markers added. We were lucky.

The Thoughts

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is a simple deck-building game. Play it for the Harry Potter theme, and not for it being a deck-builder. I'm sure that's the intention of the publisher. They are selling the Harry Potter world and not the deck-building game. The underlying game mechanism just needs to work. It doesn't need to be very good. To me it is good enough. I also think it is appropriate because this game targets the mainstream market. It wouldn't be wise to have too complex a game mechanism. In fact the deck-building mechanism already presents some challenge to non-gamers.

Just beware that the 2-player game can be too easy. I think it is best to apply the variant rules suggested by the rulebook to make it more challenging. There are also variants suggested by players at BGG.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Exploding Kittens

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Exploding Kittens was a wildly successful Kickstarter project. We are talking a USD 8.7M success here, no kidding. However I never read up much about it when it was hot. I only knew it was a simple and silly card game. I don't remember any of my regular boardgame kaki's owning it, and I never got to try it. Recently I received an extra copy of the game from Zee Zun. That was how I got to play this little slightly crazy game.

The stars of the show are, of course, the exploding kittens, like this one above. They are basically bombs. When you draw a bomb card, you are out of the game. When all but one player is left, he wins.

The game is simple. Everyone starts with a hand of cards. On your turn, you may play any number of cards. Once you are done, you must draw a card from the deck before ending your turn. There are many types of cards, and they can be used in various situations. The Defuse card lets you neutralise an exploding kitten. Instead of losing, you get to insert the exploding kitten back into the deck. There's a card which lets you peek at the next three cards in the deck. This can help you avoid being the next person to draw an exploding kitten. There's a card which allows you to skip drawing a card, and have someone else do it instead. There's a card which allows you to reshuffle the deck. There's a card which lets you rob a card from an opponent. There's a card which lets you cancel a card just played by another player. All these cards give you some control, reducing the likelihood of you drawing an exploding kitten and increasing the likelihood of others drawing it. However, overall this is still a luck-heavy game.

The Play

I played with my family. Younger daughter Chen Rui likes cats (and kittens) so she was keen to play. We made a mistake in our first game. The No card should not be able to cancel Defuse cards or exploding kittens. When Michelle tried to save herself with a Defuse card, Shee Yun played a No card to cancel the Defuse. Michelle was promptly eliminated. It was only afterwards that we learned our mistake.

There is plenty of interaction, because there are many offensive ("take that") cards. Who to play these cards on is a very human or social part of the game. It's about favouritism, it is about taking sides. It is about persuasion and negotiation, threatening and pleading. This is not a game about logical reasoning, impersonal calculations or careful strategising. This is a game about being childish, silly and petty. A game takes maybe 7 or 8 minutes. With 4 players, there are 3 exploding kittens in the deck. Regardless of how cleverly you play your cards, someone will still be drawing a card turn after turn, and sooner or later that card will be an exploding kitten and people will get blown up.

The Thoughts

Exploding Kittens is a silly and simple game. There is little depth. Don't let the "strategy" word in their marketing spiel mislead you. That's meant for the mass market, i.e. non gamers. This game is a party game and a filler. The cards make you feel you have some control, when in fact it's mostly luck. This is actually a good thing - making you feel you have control. The prime example is Love Letter. It's a lot of luck, but the game mechanisms sometimes make you feel you've pulled off a clever move.

Sunday, 19 August 2018

Wir sind das Volk (We are the People)

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Wir sind das Volk tells the story of East and West Germany in the 45 years after World War II. Having suffered defeat, Germany was divided into East and West. East Germany was under the influence of USSR, while West Germany was under the influence of the Western Allies - USA, UK and France. Those 45 years were the Cold War years, a war of ideologies between democracy and communism. Germany was a key battleground. In this game, one player plays East Germany, and the other plays West Germany. You develop your respective nations, improve the living standards of your people, and try to outdo your opponent. This is not a game of direct conflict, but it can get very brutal despite being "just" an envy game. There are a few ways to win (and lose). If your people are unhappy and stage enough mass protests, you lose. If the East German economy completely collapses, it loses. The East Germans want to promote socialism. If the socialist movement reaches a critical mass, East Germany wins. On the other hand, if the movement completely fizzles out, West Germany wins. If the game ends without any of the above conditions being met, East Germany wins. It's not easy to survive till the end as East Germany.

The left side of the border is West Germany, and the right side is East Germany. The triangles are factories. The numbers pointing north are their production capacities. The base production capacity is 1. Each connected road increases the capacity by 1. The blue cubes are unrest. For every four unrest cubes in a province, you get a mass protest. Get four mass protests and you lose the game due to your government falling apart. The pink cubes are socialists. Only East Germany can have socialists. When East Germany gets mass protests, sometimes the fourth unrest cube gets replaced by a socialist. That means some people don't become unhappy. They just turn socialist. The mass protest is cancelled because technically you don't have four unrest cubes anymore. The number of socialists East Germany has available can be influenced by both players. If East Germany manages to get all socialists onto the board, it wins. If West Germany manages to remove all socialists from the board, it wins. The octagonal pieces are living standard tokens. You normally want to increase the living standard of your provinces as much as possible and and as equally as possible. A high living standard needs to be supported by a strong economy, i.e. the production capacities of your factories. So you need to build factories, build roads, then improve living standards.

This is the starting setup. The board is mostly empty. Most provinces already have three unrest cubes. People are not happy. They have just lost a war and the country is in ruins. Of course everyone is grumpy. East and West Germany each have two factories. The mini map at the top right is Berlin. Berlin too is divided into East and West. On the main map Berlin is enclosed within the Brandenburg province of East Germany.

The game is divided into four rounds, each roughly representing a decade. A round is further divided into first and second halves. For each half, 7 cards are laid out on the table. Players take turns selecting a card to play. Once all 7 cards are used up, you deal a new set of 7 cards for the second half. At the end of a round, there is a complex procedure to go through, affecting many aspects of the game. You then move on to the next round. Each round (decade) has its own deck of cards. The cards are unique. Your story unfolds through them.

For each round, East Germany has a predetermined special card. It is placed on top, separate from the 7 normal cards (see photo above). On the East German player's turn, he always has the option of playing this special card instead of a normal card.

There are many different icons on the cards. When you play a card and decide to use it as an event, you execute what the icons specify. This is just one of the four ways you can use a card. The second thing you can do with a card is to spend the card value on building factories or roads. The third thing is improving living standards in up to three different provinces. Whenever the living standard improves, one unrest cube is removed. The fourth and last thing you can do with a card is to simply remove one unrest cube. This seems like a weak action, but sometimes it is necessary.

The drawings on these two cards are yellow, which means they benefit West Germany. Cards with drawings in red benefit East Germany. Cards with drawings in both red and yellow benefit both. If you play such a dual coloured card, you may omit one icon, usually one that would benefit your opponent. Even if a card's event benefits you greatly, you may not necessarily play it as an event. Sometimes you'd rather play it for building due to its high value.

In this photo above, the three horizontal tracks are for tracking prestige, Western currency and socialists. Many cards in the game affect these aspects, and they in turn affect what happens at the end of every round. Prestige determines player order. At the end of a round, it can affect construction, production and unrest in East Germany. Western currency is something which only East Germany needs. In history, East Germany lacked a stable currency, unlike West Germany which had the Deutschmark. The living standard of East Germany needs to be supported by having enough Western currency. Otherwise factories become rundown and roads rot. The socialist track determines how many socialists East Germany gets to add to or must remove from its pool at the end of every round. This is related to one of the victory conditions.

The vertical track is the procedure you need to go through at the end of a round. There is a lot to do and it can be rather daunting at first. I won't try to explain everything. I'll just cover the more crucial bits. One important event in recent German history is the construction of the Berlin Wall. In the game, one difficulty East Germany has to face is intellectuals fleeing to West Germany, due to better living conditions there, as well as oppression in the East. This causes further deterioration of the economy of East Germany. By building the wall, East Germany stems this flow of intellectuals. There is a cost though, both economically and in prestige. Whether to build the wall is something East Germany needs to consider carefully. During the round-end procedure, the consequences of having (or not having) built the wall take effect.

One other important thing you do at round-end is comparing living standards. This is a very core part of the game. First you compare the living standards internally among your own provinces. If there is a large enough gap, some of your people will be unhappy, and you get unrest cubes. Then you compare externally, between your provinces and adjacent opponent provinces. If your people are better off than your opponent's people, his people become unhappy. Unrest cubes added due to these comparisons can cause mass protests, and may even bring down a government.

This is the flight track, representing the severity of the exodus of intellectuals from East Germany. The row of icons above the track show all factors that affect the flight level. The higher the flight level, the more roads and factories East Germany needs to dismantle. That card at the bottom left has a flight icon in its top right corner. When such cards are played, they increase the flight level for the round.

There are many special rules related to the city of Berlin. West Berlin has no production capacity and you can't build a factory here. Its living standard tokens need to be provided by its supplier provinces. There are three such supplier provinces, corresponding to the three sectors of West Berlin - French, British and American. West Berlin is an important frontline to West Germany. It is adjacent to both East Berlin and Brandenburg, and if its living standard is high, it hurts both East Berlin and Brandenburg. However West Berliners are also a proud bunch. If they don't have the highest living standard in the whole of West Germany, they get upset. When they riot, they trigger an additional province to riot. West Germany needs to manage West Berlin carefully.

The two purple triangles are factories in Czechoslovakia, which can only be built by triggering specific events. They help the East German economy. This is just one example of the many special rules and exceptions in the game.

The Play

In history, East Germany suffered, while West Germany prospered. Since I was the one reading the rules and teaching the game, I thought I should play East Germany and let Allen play West Germany. However Jeff and Kareem who had played the game told me that it is actually easier to play East Germany. The East German player just needs to survive till the end, while the West German player is the one under time pressure to destroy East Germany before time runs out. So eventually I played West Germany, and Allen played East Germany.

In the early game we both focused on developing our nations - building factories and roads. We used cards mostly for construction, and not so much on events. When I picked cards to play, I prioritised picking those which Allen could otherwise use to hurt me badly. This was a defensive approach. I wonder whether others also tend to play this way.

West Germany has two provinces more than East Germany. Normally it is best to develop your provinces evenly. Due to having two more provinces, it takes more effort for West Germany to increase its living standard. However the West German provinces have more locations for factories and roads. As both nations improve their economies and living standards, East Germany will hit the ceiling more easily. It may run out of space to further improve and keep up with West Germany. This is dangerous.

In the early game, the economic growths of East and West Germany were on par. I was careless with West Berlin, resulting in some unrest which could have been avoided. The "Buy 1 Free 1" nature of West Berlin mass protests gave me some trouble. Allen specifically targeted that and kept me busy.

Allen rarely used the decade-specific East Germany card. East Germany was generally doing well enough, and those cards did not feel particularly powerful. As we played, I found a number of interesting bits in the game's card drafting mechanism. There are 7 normal cards per half round. At the start of a round, each player also draws 2 cards. On your turn you may play a card from your hand instead of picking one of the cards on the table. If both players only pick cards from the table, the half round will end with the 1st player having taken 4 actions, and the 2nd player having taken only 3. Another consideration is who gets to be 1st player in the second half. When moving into the second half, your turns alternate. Often you want your opponent to take the last action in the first half, so that you go first in the second half. Going first is usually better because you get first choice among the new set of 7 cards. You get to pick the most powerful card, or the card most damaging to you.

The two cards you hold in hand let you speed up or slow down the game. If you need more time, play both of them. If you want the round to end as soon as possible, don't play either of them. This needs to be balanced against how good the cards are. If you happen to be holding a card that is very good, you may not be able to resist playing it.

In my game with Allen, the high valued cards were always snatched up quickly, because we both wanted to build as much as possible. Allen never built the Berlin Wall. In the early game, East and West Germany were doing more or less equally well. In fact, my rioting West Berliners were probably making the would-be defectors think twice. So there was no pressing need for the wall. The economic impact of fleeing intellectuals was small.

Allen spent some effort on promoting socialism. I didn't do much to stop him. What we found was he probably should have spent more effort, and spent it earlier, for the socialist movement to be successful. The amount of effort he had put in was neither here nor there, so it only helped him somewhat in reducing mass protests. It wasn't a big enough push to convert East Germany to a socialist state.

At the end of Round 3 (of 4), a nasty event took both of us by surprise. Allen did not have enough Western currency to support his living standard. By that time, both of us had decent living standards. However for East Germany to sustain that, it needed Western currency. Allen was short on that, and as a result, all 10 of his factories became rundown. Being rundown meant losing the base production value of 1. Rundown factories had a base value of 0, and their production capacity fully depended on their road connections. Factories becoming rundown meant reduced production capacity, which in turn meant being unable to support living standards. Lower living standards meant unhappy people, which then meant mass protests. You can't build factories or roads in provinces with mass protests, and you need to spend effort to quell those protests before you can rebuild your economy. The shortage of Western currencies triggered a domino effect. Neither of us expected that huge an impact.

This was the end of Round 3. The East German factories (red) had been flipped to the rundown side, which features a broken gear.

The West German economy was stable now, and supported a decent living standard (see the octagons). There was now a big contrast with East Germany. West Berlin (top right corner) enjoyed a high living standard of four, making the people of East Berlin and Brandenburg green with envy. Look at how many socialists (pink cubes) there were in Brandenburg now.

By the end of Round 4, the implosion of the East German economy could not be stopped. There was still a shortage of Western currency. The already rundown factories could not be further reduced. Roads had to be dismantled. By the time we were done, there were no more roads in East Germany. The economy was truly finished. The revolution could not be contained, and East Germany fell.

The demise of the East German economy was sudden. We had underestimated how bad the shortage of Western currencies could be. From just reading the rules, one cannot truly feel the severity.

The Thoughts

Wir sind das Volk is a very flavourful game. The core mechanisms are not complex, but it does have many special rules and exceptions. It is not easy to learn or to teach. These special rules do add to the character of the game. They tell a compelling story and make the experience immersive. In the end I think they are worth the effort. Just don't try to play this with people new to the hobby. It will probably scare them off.

Playing the game gives you the same kind of pleasure as playing Twilight Struggle. You reenact history. Many historical events are simplified to a handful of parameters, like unrest, production capacity and living standards. However the game mechanisms do work, and they do make you feel you are pulling the levers. Your actions have consequences. Your strategy matters.

You can summarise the game as a pissing contest. Afterall it is about East and West Germany trying to outdo each other in achieving a high living standard. It's an envy game!

Playing the game reminded me of a German movie The Lives of Others, which I like a lot. It is a serious drama with mature themes. Certainly not meant for kids, and not your regular Hollywood blockbuster. Check it out!