Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (expert category winner of the Game of the Year award in Germany). The name is quirky and doesn't sound very serious. If I were browsing games at a game shop, and if it didn't have any award-winner logo, I would likely have passed on it without hesitation. Thankfully I'm not picky when I play with my regular group, otherwise I would have missed out on this fun game.

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is arguably a deck-building game, just that it doesn't use cards. It uses chips in a bag. It is also a push-your-luck game, like Blackjack.

Every player has a pot like this. You are dodgy witch doctors trying to make magic potions, and you are not quite sure how everything works. You are literally randomly chucking ingredients in to see whether things work out. Every round, all players work on their own potions at the same time. You try to make the best potion possible. The potion you make may earn you points and may also earn you some money, which can then be spent on new ingredients for your future potions. Your potions will get better and better, as your collection of ingredients improve. At the end of the 9th round, whoever scores the highest wins the game.

That droplet marker is where you start brewing your potion. Brewing a good potion simply means increasing its numerical value. It is possible to move your droplet marker. If you manage to do this, in future rounds you start your brewing from a more advantageous location, and it becomes easier to make a high valued potion. The list at the bottom left tells you the starting ingredients in your bag. Everyone starts with the same combination. Most of the starting ingredients are bad (the white ingredients). You only have one orange and one green ingredient. The flask at the bottom right is not an image drawn on the player board. It is a separate, double-sided game component. The unused side (with liquid) is showing now. Once you use it, it is flipped to the used (empty) side. I'll explain this later.

These are the game components at the centre of the table. The main game board is small. You use it to keep score, to keep track of the round number, and to remind yourselves the actions to be performed at the end of a round. Those books show the special powers of each ingredient type. The game comes with several special powers for each ingredient type, and you can choose to mix and match in any way you like.

The hanging lamps in the upper half represent the 9 rounds in the game. Special icons on the lamps are reminders that special rules apply. E.g. some ingredient types can only be purchased from rounds 2 and 3 onwards. E.g. in the last round money doesn't buy ingredients anymore, and instead is converted to points at $5 per 1VP. The icons on the banners in the lower half are reminders for things you need to do at the end of a round.

Every round you will keep drawing ingredients from this bag, one at a time. You place a drawn ingredient in your pot before you draw the next one.

Let's talk about the core mechanism, starting with the droplet marker. The droplet marker is your starting point. You want to place ingredients progressively further and further along the outward spiral, going as far as possible. Each position in the spiral specifies rewards. The further you go, the better the rewards are. If you are a trailing player, you may get to use the rat marker, placing it somewhere ahead of your droplet marker. The rat marker marks a temporary and better starting point for the current round.

Once the brewing starts, everyone performs actions simultaneously. You generally won't be interfering with one another so you can do this concurrently. Brewing simply means drawing ingredients out of the bag one by one, until you are happy with what you achieve, or you overdo it and the potion explodes. Each time you draw a new ingredient, you look at the number on it, and you place it that number of spaces ahead of the previously placed ingredient. In the photo above, the first ingredient drawn was a white 2, so it was placed 2 spaces ahead of the rat marker. The next ingredient drawn was the orange 1, so it was placed immediately ahead of the white 2. The rest all work the same way. Once you decide to stop brewing, your rewards will be indicated by the space immediately after your last placed ingredient. In the photo above, the rewards are $15 (number in green bubble) which can be spent on buying new ingredients, 3 victory points (number in box), and one ruby. Rubies can be spent to permanently improve your droplet marker position and to reset the flask.

Your potion brewing may come to an abrupt end if an explosion occurs. An explosion happens when the total value of white ingredients in your pot exceeds 7. After an explosion, you may no longer draw ingredients from your bag for the current round. Your reward is still based on that space next to your last placed ingredient (even though it has caused the explosion), but now you have to choose between money or victory points. You can't have both. You still get the ruby if the space gives you one. Having to choose isn't too bad a penalty in the early game, but towards game end, it becomes a big deal and exploding or not can mean the difference between winning and losing.

In the photo above, the white ingredients now total 6. There are white ingredients with values 1, 2 and 3. If the next ingredient drawn is a white 1, that's still fine. You hit 7 but you have not exceeded it yet. The next white ingredient can't be a 2, because there are only two 2's in the bag and both have been drawn now. If the white 3 is drawn, then kaboom!

Every round, everybody does this brewing thing, until either everyone chooses to stop or goes kaboom. You want to go as high as possible, but as you approach 7, you need to start thinking hard whether to stop or to draw one more time.

The most important thing you do after you are done with brewing and before a round ends is to to buy new ingredients. You may buy up to two per round, and if you buy two, they must be in different colours. New ingredients go into your bag. So do all ingredients drawn in the current round. You'll start the next round with a new distribution of ingredients.

The most important aspect of the game is the special powers of the ingredients. They need to be explained to paint a clearer picture of what the game is like. Let's start from the top left. The orange ingredient doesn't do much. That's why it's cheap. It mainly gives you a non-white ingredient, thus diluting the percentage of white ingredients. The blue ingredient lets you draw a certain number of ingredients from the bag, then decide whether to add one of them directly to your pot. Ingredients drawn this way and not added to the pot are returned to the bag. When you draw a red ingredient, if you already have some orange ingredients in the pot, the value of the red ingredient is boosted. The black ingredient lets you improve the position of your droplet marker. It may earn you rubies too. There is a condition though - you need to have more black ingredients in your pot than your immediate neighbours, both of them if you want the ruby too. If the last or second last ingredient in your pot is a green one, you gain a ruby. A yellow ingredient lets you return your previous ingredient to the bag, if it is a white one. This temporarily reduces your risk of exploding.

If you look closely at the score track, you will see many rats. Rats are a catch-up mechanism. Some spaces on the score track have a rat tail between them. When you trail far enough behind the leading player, you get to use the rat marker to augment your start position for brewing potion. In this photo above, the red player is only two points behind the leading yellow player, and there are no rat tails between their score markers. So the red player does not gain any benefit. The green and blue players are further behind, and there is one rat tail between them and the yellow player. So for the current round, both of them get to use their rat markers. The rat markers are to be placed in the space immediately in front of the droplet markers, because the rat value is 1.

In this photo you can see a rat marker in front of the droplet marker. That means this player board belongs to a currently trailing player. You will also notice that this particular pot has exploded. The white ingredients add up to 8. Busted! It was that last white 1 which spoiled the potion. The space next to the last ingredient shows $18 and and 5VP. The player only gets to choose one of them now. Let's say he didn't draw that last white 1. In such a case, he would also gain the benefit of that green 1. The green 1 would be the second last ingredient, and thus it would give one ruby.

At the start of every round, one such fortune teller card is drawn. These are event cards which usually affect everyone. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. This particular card doubles the rat values, so this is good for the trailing players and bad for the leading player. Fortune teller cards inject some randomness and excitement.

One notable thing in this photo is the droplet marker, which has now moved 9 steps away from the centre. This is no easy feat. It takes conscious effort to make use of rubies and ingredient powers to push the droplet this far. The second notable point is the rat marker being this far away from the droplet marker - 4 spaces! If I remember correctly, this was due to the effect of a fortune teller card doubling the rat values. The third notable point is that the yellow 4 ingredient is five spaces away from the previous ingredient - the blue 1. This looks wrong at first glance, but it is not a mistake. There was previously a white 1 ingredient between the yellow 4 and the blue 1. It was the power of the yellow 4 which allowed that white 1 to be returned to be bag, thus creating this situation above.

Now let's talk about the flask at the bottom right. It is empty now, i.e. it has been used and flipped to this exhausted side. The flask can be used at any time to return your most recently drawn ingredient to the bag, provided that it is white, and the potion hasn't yet exploded. Once the ability of the flask is used, you need two rubies to reset it. In this photo, the white ingredients total 5 points, so the pot is now in danger of exploding. The most recently drawn ingredient is a white 2, so if the flask were not exhausted, it would be reasonable to consider using it.

The Play

I did a 4-player game, the highest player count, and I think that's the best way to play. The quantities in each ingredient type are limited, so more players mean they run out more easily. There is more competition. Every round there is a comparison to see who has brewed his potion the best relative to his start position (i.e. relative to the droplet marker or rat marker). More players means more competition here too. There will likely be a wider range of victory points during the game, and thus rat tails will come into play more. Adding players doesn't affect play time much, because brewing is done concurrently. That's a plus.

The biggest excitement in The Quacks of Quedlinburg is that of playing Blackjack. In the early stages of brewing, there is no risk of exploding, but you will still be anxious about whether you'll draw a white or a non-white ingredient. That lucky draw feeling keeps you engaged. It's like buying lottery and checking the results. You feel happy when you draw a non-white ingredient, usually. Sometimes you are less happy when you draw a green or a red ingredient too early, because you won't get to utilise its power. In the later stages of brewing, the tension builds because you start risking an explosion when you draw that one more ingredient. It is not hard to memorise the ingredient composition of your bag. You can calculate your probabilities pretty accurately if you want to. However, probabilities are just that - probabilities. A 10% probability of exploding does not mean you should just go ahead and draw again. You just might draw that cursed white 3 ingredient. Yet if you back down from a 90% chance of success, you may regret it. To draw or not to draw - that's the angst you keep getting all the time.

Max was first to focus on black ingredients. Black ingredients help you move your droplet marker, so they are a good early investment. To enjoy the benefit, you need to have more black ingredients in your pot than your neighbour. Jeff and I were Max's neighbours. As we watched him reap benefits from the black ingredients, the neighbour envy kicked in and we both went for black too. Wakanda Forever! Allen sat opposite Max, so whether he took any black had no impact on Max. He didn't bother with black. After Jeff and I invested in black, we were able to deny Max because we caught up to him. In fact Jeff later overtook him. At the same time since Allen never bothered with black, Jeff and I enjoyed the black benefits as long as we had at least one black ingredient.

I was first to invest in blue. The blue combo could be terrifyingly effective. Some rounds when I used a blue ingredient, it helped me draw another blue ingredient, so I could trigger the blue power again. When I had many blue ingredients, such a chaining effect helped me reduce risk and also pushed my potion value up. Soon the others started copying my blue strategy, and not long afterwards the general supply ran out of blue 4 ingredients.

In our game the fortune teller cards triggered double rats at least twice, which was great news for the trailing players in those rounds.

These were the ingredients in my bag by game end. I had 6 blue ingredients. In the last round you don't buy any more ingredients. So this means in 6 out of 8 rounds I bought blue ingredients.

This was my potion in the final round. I was very close to maxing out my potion value - only 3 spaces away. At this point my white ingredients already totaled 7 points, so it was risky to continue to draw. I still had 2 blues, 2 greens and 3 whites in the bag, so I had more than half a chance of not exploding if I drew the next ingredient. However, too much was at stake to risk this. In fact, even the previous draw was already risky. Had I drawn a white 3 instead of the white 2, my potion would have exploded. I was already at 5 points then.

The Thoughts

The Quacks of Quedlinburg gives you that it's-my-lucky-day anticipation, and that push-your-luck anxiety. It also gives you that sense of progress and accomplishment of deck-building games. Your choices in ingredient purchase will yield results. There is some luck, and things don't always work out well, but eventually you will see the results of your decisions. Every round you get to buy up to two ingredients. Every round your bag is reset. This is akin to reshuffling your deck every round. It is like a sped up version of a deck-building game. I find the game fun and exciting. I think the KdJ win is well deserved. However I don't see the game as an "expert game" or gamer's game. I think non-gamers and casual gamers can handle it.

Each ingredient has a variety of powers. There are four recommended sets of powers which have been playtested and balanced. Once you are done with these, you can mix and match the ingredient powers as you like. We played the basic set meant for new players. The powers are straight-forward. I expect in the other more advanced sets there will be more interesting powers and more complex interactions among the powers.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

link: Cardboard Buzzsaw (from Fortress Ameritrash / There Will Be Games)

Board game reviewers and critics are no longer relevant? Being drown out due to how the boardgame hobby is becoming about endless consumption and churn for most hobbyists? I saw this article at Fortress Ameritrash - https://therewillbe.games/blogs-by-members/6532-cardboard-buzzsaw. I mostly agree. I'm thankful I'm doing blogging only as a hobby. It's only for self-satisfaction and I'm not making a living or generating any side income out of this. The industry trend doesn't affect me much. I'm happy as long as there are still good games to be played and to be written about. Doesn't matter (at least not to me and not directly) if there are many more mediocre games out there.


Cardboard Buzzsaw

by Vysetron

Updated March 15, 2019

I'm increasingly uncertain as to the future of critical board game content. As the board game industry continues to expand and the number of released games increases year after year there has been a massive shift in how games are marketed and sold. The endless assault upon the seemingly perpetually open wallets of prospective customers comes from all angles. Traditional publishers stagger their line throughout each year, timing it to grab as much of the convention season market as possible. Smaller, slower scheduled publishers unleash a torrent of marketing leading up to their releases to ensure that they don't get lost in the churn. A new Kickstarter campaign seems to go up every day. Remarkably, all of these methods are successful. More games, more games, and yet more games to feed the ever hungry audience.

This fuels and is also the direct result of another significant shift, this being in the audience itself. The majority of "board gamers" are no longer looking for the best in their favorite genres or simply waiting to try the next game from their favorite designers. Rather, they are looking to have as many new experiences as possible. To learn, play, experience, and consume the new. Newness in and of itself is the desired quality in a game, and newness has a expiration date that rapidly approaches the moment the shrink wrap is ripped from its box.

Publishers have recognized the desire for newness and have responded with more. Consumers consume, then demand yet more. The cycle continues. And somewhere in all of this, there exist relics of the previous era. Critics.

Modern board game coverage has shifted from the review to the preview. Consumers simply want to be made aware of upcoming titles so that they can place another $100 order at CSI and receive their serotonin rush when it arrives months later. To look at a game that is already out, or has been out, is useless to them when they're considering how many games to purchase rather than considering if they should purchase. Many content creators and networks have adapted to this trend and have shifted their content in this direction, providing preview commentary for games before they reach the hands of buyers/backers.

Of course there exist popular reviewers that cover games in a critical manner, but even they are often restricted to the top of the BGG hotness in order to maintain relevance with their audience. To cover a game that isn't the focus of the zeitgeist? That way madness, and poor metrics, lie.

There has been a cultural shift against criticism. Nowadays it is often viewed with skepticism rather than an open mind. To say a game is mediocre or worse is not something that is useful to the majority of modern board game media consumers. They are looking for attractive objects. Why would you bring something poor to their attention, or worse, tell them that their upcoming acquisition is a poor game? To do so is an attack on everyone involved in that game's success, which now includes themselves as board game creators and customers become ever more financially intertwined. To critique a game with any degree of harshness is to tell them that their judgement was poor, that their eye was not keen enough, that their money was wasted. It's no longer a warning against a purchase because the game is already bought - it's an insult. And a direct one.

Publishers have no reason to send games to a self-professed critic when they can commit their press copy budget to outlets who vow not to speak an ill word of their product, sometimes for a nominal fee. This feeds the trend of content drifting ever earlier from the game's release date. A critical reviewer cannot compete with a game previewer, some of whom even sport the same title of reviewer, who makes a show of legitimacy with their preproduction copy and assures consumers that their money is well invested. By the time the game actually exists the publisher's needs are already met and all prospective purchasers have already either shelved the game or loaded it onto the sell pile. Either way, a critical review no longer helps as the game is no longer going to be played.

I have seen board game critics of various means and mediums, many of whom I respect, contemplate abandoning the persuit. If they have a financial stake it's often no longer worth the time put in. If they do it for validation it's often giving them the opposite. This leaves the people that simply do it for themselves, and as one of those myself I can tell you that our output varies wildly depending on what we're able to play when. We're outsiders, competing with a massive network of publishers and their established media personalities, penning reviews for games that just came out and yet are already too old.

I wish I could say that the pendulum is at the end of its swing. That as the board game bubble bursts, board game consumers will once again become board game players and critics will once again be able to serve as the quality filter that all entertainment hobbies need. But I am no seer and I don't want to lie to you. I don't know where things are going or what the future of games criticism is and I won't claim to. Instead I'd like to wrap up with a bit of homework. I know, but bear with me. You might enjoy it.

Pull up your favorite reviewer's site, blog, Youtube page, whatever. Check their content from a year ago today. Then a year before that. Go back in large jumps like that and note the changes. You may start to notice that what brought you there in the first place is missing from what they're producing now. Alternatively you may find that they are as sharp as ever and you can still trust their word. Either way you will have gained insight into where their work has gone and if it serves your needs. I hope you find it lands in the latter category. Audit your board game media feed. You may be surprised at just how much of it is opt-in commercials.

Sunday, 10 March 2019

Three Kingdoms Redux

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Three Kingdoms Redux is designed by the husband-wife team from neighbouring Singapore - Yeo Keng Leong and Christina Ng. When it was first released, there was a decent amount of interest and discussion. Most boardgames I play are designed by Westerners. I imagine if a Westerner game designer creates a Three Kingdoms themed boardgame, it will probably be weird. Three Kingdoms is a very Chinese thing. I think you need to be Chinese, or at least Asian, to do it justice. That said, I didn't seek out the game when it first came out. Malaysians (and Singaporeans I think) have an inferiority complex. We tend to think things made in other countries are better than local products. I was never particularly confident in locally designed games. Sorry all Malaysian and Singaporean game designers. I am more or less familiar with the Three Kingdoms history and characters, but that's because it's such a big part of Chinese culture, not because I'm an enthusiast. Recently during the Chinese New Year period Jeff wanted to play some Chinese themed games. So Three Kingdoms Redux was suggested. I was interested to give it a go, so I joined him. It was then I realised that Allen owns a copy of the game. If I wanted to play, I could have played it a long time ago.

When I read the rules, my heart sank a little. This sounded like just another worker placement game. It's just that your workers are now famous characters from the Three Kingdoms period. I wasn't optimistic. Thankfully now that I have played the game, it changed my mind.

Three Kingdoms Redux must be played with exactly 3 players. The Wei player sits at the bottom edge of the game board, and the Wu and Shu players sit at the two sides of the board. Sitting positions are fixed. At the centre of the board you see this big yellow area. It is divided into 12 spaces, and these are where you place your workers to perform actions. Of the six mostly rectangular sections surrounding it, three (with the Wei, Wu and Shu characters) are player boards, and the other three positioned between the player boards are the border areas, i.e. war zones.

Each kingdom has many generals. These are the Wu kingdom generals. At most 8 generals per kingdom will appear in any particular game. One of them is the faction leader, Sun Jian in the case of Wu. So your variety comes from only the other seven. The boss is always in the game. There are two types of generals - military and civil - as can be told apart based on hat design. Every general has three basic attributes - administrative, combat and leadership. The admin and combat attributes determine how well they compete in the civil and military actions respectively. Leadership limits how many armies they can bring to war and to station at a border location.

These are the general cards of Sun Jian (boss of Wu) and Jiang Qin. In addition to the three basic attributes, every general also has a special ability written in text. Icons at the lower right indicate the troop types he specialises in. There is some advantage if a general leads his preferred troop types.

When the game starts, Wei has five generals, Wu four, and Shu only three. So Wei starts with an advantage. In the 3rd, 5th and 9th rounds every kingdom draws more generals. Shu will draw more than Wei, so that eventually everyone will have 8 generals in total. At the start of the game and each time you draw generals, you draw more cards than you need and select which ones you want. So you have some flexibility and you are not entirely at the mercy of luck.

These are state enhancement cards. You draw some at the start of the game, and during the game you may also draw more. You need to perform a build action to play these cards. They give you some advantage, and they give you points too. They cost resources to build, and some can only be built under specific conditions.

This is the Wu player board. The upper half is the farm and marketplace improvement areas. When you do improvement, you flip over the tiles. You may also move flipped tiles to the top row, after which they will provide food and wages to your armies stationed at border locations. Armies are very expensive to maintain, so farm and marketplace improvements are important.

The lower half is the tribal relations track. This is the only place you may send a general and there will be no interference from other kingdoms. When sending a general here, you may ask him to bring some BR1M gift money to please the tribes, or you may ask him to bring some muscle men to terrorise the tribes. In both cases, tribal relations will improve (as in they will be more obedient). It is important to maintain tribal relations because you score points for it at game end. A good relationship is not easy to maintain, because every round that you don't send a general, the relationship worsens by one notch. These local tribes are high-maintenance.

This is where most actions occur. There are 12 action spaces here, and at the bottom right of each space, there is an icon indicating whether it is a military or a civil action. The top row is all military, the bottom row all civil, and the middle row a mix. The nature of the central two action spaces alternate every round, and they are always the opposite. One is military, the other is civil, and next round they swap. The top row actions and the rightmost action in the middle row are all related to gathering resources - gold, rice, ships, crossbows, horses and untrained soldiers. You also get to train those untrained soldiers to become trained soldiers. The first actions in the second and third rows are for developing your farms and marketplaces, i.e. your economy. The two actions at the lower right are for drawing and playing state enhancement cards. 2nd row, 3rd action is called Control Han Emperor. When you control the emperor, you get to promote yourself to a higher rank. Each promotion gives you points, and if anyone gets promoted all the way to the Emperor rank, the game ends (but the new Emperor does not necessarily win - you need to compare scores). Controlling the Emperor also gets you a +1 token for the next round. You may boost the ability of one of your generals by 1.

The structure of a game round is simple. You spend the first half placing generals, and the second half executing actions based on where you have placed them. Generals may be placed in this central area, in the tribal area on your player board, or in a border area between yourself and an opponent. One key difference between Three Kingdoms Redux and other worker placement games is you may place workers in occupied spaces (like Carson City). Who wins the spot is deterministic. There is no fight sequence or die roll. Whoever has the stronger general or generals wins the spot and gets to perform the action. Others get nothing. In the photo above you can see Wei (blue) and Wu (red) fighting for the 3rd spot in the bottom row. The central action spaces and the border locations all work this way. Only the tribal area is a safe area with no interference possible.

This is the player order table. The player order of the round determines the alliance for the round. The 2nd and 3rd players are automatically allied. However this is a limited alliance. They only get to work together in one action space. The 3rd player gets to decide which one. In the alliance space, the strengths of the generals of the alliance are added up. So if both allied players commit generals, it is costly for the lone player to compete. If the alliance wins that space, both partners get to perform the action. This is quite powerful, but since it is limited to one space, it is not overwhelming. In fact sometimes the alliance partners have difficulties agreeing on where to place the alliance marker. Although the 3rd player has the right to choose, if he chooses a space which the 2nd player does not like, he won't get support from the 2nd player, and the alliance marker is as good as wasted.

The turn order of the following round depends on the number of actions you perform in the current round. This is not as simple as counting your generals. Your number of actions equal your number of generals only in the most optimistic case. Often you lose at some spaces, or you need to commit two or more generals to perform one action. Whoever has taken the most actions becomes start player next round, and is automatically non-allied. Being first usually means being disadvantaged. Others get to see how you commit your generals before deciding how they will compete with you. You place a strength-4 general, and your opponent may just place a strength-5 general to beat you, forcing you to either commit another general for the action you want, or give up.

This is the military VP track. During the game, once you have stationed armies at border locations, they score victory points for you every round, and such points are tracked here. The track at the top is the round track. You play at most 12 rounds, and in rounds 3, 5 and 9 you get new generals. The track at the bottom is the rank track. You get promoted each time you control the Han Emperor. If you get promoted all the way to Emperor rank, you trigger the game end.

The core process flow in the game is building your armies to capture border locations, and building your economy to support these armies stationed at the border locations. You gather untrained soldiers and train them to become proper soldiers. You then have to pair them with a weapon type (horses, spears, ships or crossbows) to make them a proper army. When you assign a general to lead troops and capture a border location, that general retires to that location, and you will no longer have him to help you perform actions for the rest of the game. So committing generals to capture border locations is not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, each army stationed consumes 1 rice and 1 gold every round. This upkeep cost is no joke, and if you can't afford to pay, there is a stiff penalty (a la Agricola). Yet the constant victory points every round is lucrative, so you don't want to fall behind. The whole game is about managing this process, trying to be efficient and controlling the timing so that you don't get stuck in a bad place.

When the game ends, scoring is done in a number of ways. There are a few areas in which you compare against your two opponents. If you do better than both, you score 5VP. If you are in second place, you score 2VP. If you are last, you get nothing. These areas include tribal relations, your rank, the number of border locations you control, and your farm and marketplace development level. During the game you need to plan ahead for each of these areas and make sure you stay competitive.

The Play

When I played Three Kingdoms Redux, I did not pick green (my favourite player colour) to play. Jeff, Allen and I just sat down, and played the kingdom nearest to us. I was Wu (red), Allen Wei (blue) and Jeff Shu (green). Allen (Wei, blue) started with five generals. Jeff and I had fewer, but we were allied. This was a fitting start, reflecting history. Shu did not start with the famous three sworn brothers though - Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Liu Bei was the lord of Shu, so Jeff did start with him. However the other generals were randomly drawn. There is a scenario that comes with the game in which all generals are predetermined. This scenario reflects history and picks the more famous generals of the era. Shu starts with the three sworn brothers, and then Zhuge Liang and Zhao Yun join them in Round 3. Wei starts with Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, the loyal supporters of Cao Cao. Wu starts with Huang Gai, Zhou Yu and Sun Ce, and Sun Quan only joins the fray in Round 3. If you are familiar with Three Kingdoms, you will know all these characters.

I found that the slightly different worker placement mechanism makes Three Kingdoms Redux very different from other worker placement games. You need to think much harder because placing a general does not guarantee you will win the spot. You need to think whether others will compete with you. You need to decide which general to send, and whether to boost his ability using the Han Emperor token or Popular Support tokens. You need to watch what kind of generals your opponents have, and assess how likely they will compete with you. Some generals are good at admin, some are good at combat. Some are middling at both, but they may turn out to be more flexible. Each time you get to pick generals, you need to consider these factors. The worker placement is certainly more complex. Whether that's good or bad depends on personal tastes. I am fine with it and I find it challenging. Just be warned it might induce AP (Analysis-Paralysis).

The alliance mechanism is interesting. It forces some cooperation between the 2nd and 3rd player. If you are part of the alliance, you really don't want to waste it. So you need to negotiate with your partner and you try your best to agree on an action space which you are both willing to commit generals to. If negotiations go nowhere, it's a win for the non-allied player.

I (Wu) amassed many soldiers and weapons in the early game, but I did not rush to capture border locations. My economy was not well developed yet and I could not afford a high upkeep cost.

One of our earliest battles was Chi Bi - the famous Red Cliff. We rewrote history. Allen (Wei, blue) won the battle with no resistance. We joked that Cao Cao was desperate for the beautiful Xiao Qiao. Every border location captured was a big deal. It was a big commitment. From that point onwards, the controller of the location had to pay upkeep costs of the armies stationed there. Also the general who captured the location would be stationed there till game-end, unable to perform any more actions. The stationed armies would score points every round, which was a big plus.

Xiao Qiao portrayed by Lin Chi-ling.

If you look closely at the centre, you will see that one of the action spaces has two of my generals (Wu, red). This particular action space was important to me, and I was adamant on winning it, thus committing two generals to make sure I won it, and to deter others from challenging me. The others might not really want it, but they were happy to psycho me into committing a second general, so that they would have less competition elsewhere.

The yellow token in the middle is the Emperor. If you win the Control Han Emperor action space, you get this token for the next round. You can use it to boost the strength of one of your generals by +1.

At the Wu-Wei border in the lower left, Allen (Wei, blue) had captured Chi Bi. At the Wu-Shu border at the top, I (Wu, red) had captured Bai Di Cheng, but now Jeff (Shu, green) had sent an army, and I hadn't sent any to compete with his, so he would be next to capture a location at this border. At the Shu-Wei border at the bottom right, Jeff (Shu, green) had captured Wu Zhang Yuan. Now Allen (Wei, blue) had sent an army, and was uncontested. So Allen would be next to capture a location here.

At the lower left you can see a white token showing two flags. This is the alliance token. In this particular round, Allen (Wei, blue) and Jeff (Shu, green) were allied, and they had agreed to place the alliance token in this Develop Farm / Harvest action space. Both of them had placed generals in this space, and both of them would get to perform the action. I (Wu, red) didn't even try to compete with them there. In fact I was so paranoid that at both the action spaces that I wanted, I committed two generals.

In our game, Allen (Wei, blue) was enthusiastic about constructing state enhancements. He had a general who gave him benefits whenever he chose that action. Unfortunately (for him) Jeff and I did compete with him, so he didn't always get to construct his enhancements. Jeff (Shu, green) liked Controlling the Han Emperor. This Liu Bei (lord of Shu) was such a suck-up to the boy emperor! Being buddies with the Emperor does get you promoted, but your general will be out of action next round (due to the hangover), so it is a costly action. Allen and I were not particularly keen to do it and we didn't compete with Jeff much. Our game eventually ended with Jeff getting promoted to Emperor level (that's one of the game-end conditions). He saw that he was falling behind in military points, and knew that he had to speed up the game lest he fell even further behind.

This was Allen's (Wei, blue) domestic affairs board (player board). His relationship with the local tribes was good, already enough to earn him points. However he had to continue to maintain the relationship until the game ended if he wanted those points. Without ongoing maintenance, relationships deteriorate every round.

I had this very powerful combo. If I sent Ding Feng to perform the Demand Tribute action, he would get me extra rice and gold. I had constructed two state enhancements which gave me extra stuff when I performed the Demand Tribute action. That was why I fought for this action space almost every round. It wasn't particularly attractive in itself, so others were not exactly keen to commit a general or two just for the sake of denying me.

Lu Fan was a general who joined me in a later round, but he was a tremendous help. With him, gold and rice became interchangeable. This solved a major headache. Building the infrastructure to produce these resources is hard work, and you have to take care of both at the same time. Being strong in one but weak in the other will still keep you hamstrung. Lu Fan gave me much flexibility. Ding Feng and Lu Fan helped me make a lot of money and produce a lot of rice. I was the richest boy on the block. I could afford to send many armies out to station the border locations.

On the military VP track, I (Wu, red) was the leader. I was the richest and could best afford to have armies stationed at border locations. On the rank track, Jeff (Shu, green) was the clear leader. He was only one step away from being able to declare himself Emperor of Middle Kingdom.

Although I was economically strongest, I did not utilise my economic strength well to gain an advantage over Jeff and Allen. I should have been more aggressive and focused. After our game, Jeff and Allen agreed that I had been too greedy, wanting everything and in the end not doing well in anything (except in being filthy rich). In the game end scoring, I fared poorly in many areas while both Jeff and Allen had decent results in some areas. I had not planned well for the game end scoring. I should have focused on one or two areas and made sure I came first. 5VP for coming first is a big deal. Eventually both Jeff and Allen overtook me, and I came last. Lesson learnt - money doesn't buy happiness, or victory points, if you don't know how to spend it well.

Final scores: Allen (Wei, blue) 44VP, Jeff (Shu, green) 42VP, me (Wu, red) 37VP.

The Thoughts

Three Kingdoms Redux is a development game and not a war game. It is a worker placement game, but not a typical one at all. The competition in the general placement gives this game a very different feeling. It is more complex and requires more thought. There is more confrontation, and this is fitting. Three Kingdoms is an age of war after all.

The core process in the game is gathering soldiers and weapons to claim border locations, while building your economy up to make sure you can afford the upkeep cost. You need to manage this process carefully because if you rush and your economy goes off balance, the penalty is stiff. Also every border location captured means one fewer general to work with, which is a heavy price. Getting this engine running smoothly and efficiently is the challenge throughout the game. While you are busy tuning the engine, you need to prepare for the end game scoring and manoeuvre yourself into favourable relative positions. Keyword is "relative". You just need to be better than the others, you don't need to be good, not exactly.

I had much fun with the generals and their abilities. I guess I was lucky with my combo. The game comes with many many generals, and I'm sure there are other fun combos to be made. The state enhancement cards were a little difficult to utilise well though. Most of ours did not come into play. In some cases by the time we wanted to play the card, we no longer met the requirement (e.g. controlling at most one border location). Maybe this is meant to be, like in Agricola. You draw many Occupation cards and Minor Improvement cards, but you don't expect to play a majority of them. You draw more so that you have more options. In Three Kingdoms Redux, it seems harder than Agricola to make good use of the state enhancements. Some players suggest drawing 2 and keeping 1 when drawing state enhancement cards.

As a Chinese with some knowledge of the Three Kingdoms era, one great joy is to see all these famous characters come into play. It is also educational. I actually don't know who this Ding Feng guy is. I should Google him. One awkward thing in the game is how you send your generals to station at the border locations. This sounds more like a demotion to me. Usually it was incompetent emperors who sent outspoken and annoyingly righteous generals to guard border outposts so that they wouldn't be a bother at court. In our game I sent my star general Taishi Ci to guard Bai Di Cheng quite early in the game. This guy was a young and talented hot shot. I told him he was doing an important job for me, earning 2VP every round, but I couldn't help pitying him. He must have been bored to death. Either that or he had taken up gardening. Or weiqi (Go).

Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Stephenson's Rocket

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Stephenson's Rocket is an older game from Reiner Knizia. It was first published in 1999, and has been out of print for many years. A new edition was released in 2018, and because of that I had the opportunity to try this highly praised game. In the second edition, there were only small changes to the rules. The game components underwent a bigger upgrade.

The train sculptures are nice.

This is the game board. This is a map of England. There are cities (dark brown), towns (light brown) and starting towns (in the colours of the railroad companies). There are 7 railroad companies on the board, and their trains start on their respective starting towns. The upper left section is the city investment chart, which records who has invested in what factories at each city. The lower left section is the share tracks, indicating the shareholding status at each company.

In this game you invest in and manage railroad companies. By holding shares in the companies and by owning train stations, you score points for the achievements of the railroad companies. To develop a company is to move the train and extend its tracks. When one company's train tracks meets those of another, these two companies merge. As the game progresses, the number of companies dwindle, and when there is only one big train network left, the game ends.

On your turn you have two actions, and there are only 3 options to pick from. You may mix and match in any way you like, except you can't develop the same company twice on the same turn. Let's talk about developing a company. What you do is simply move a train one step forward, to one of the three spaces in front of it. It cannot move backwards. On the space the train has just left, you lay a train track, thus extending the railway line. Imagine a snail slithering forward and leaving behind a trail of slime. The train in this photo has moved 3 times. I started on the orange starting town. The first move was towards the northeast. The second move too, and that connected the railroad to Guildford, a city. The third move was towards the north, and this connected the railroad to another city - Reading. That brown building is a train station, built by a player.

Whenever you develop a company, you gain one of its shares. This is how you get yourself a stake in the company. When you move the train, any other shareholder may call for a veto and suggest a different direction to take the company (pun!). A bidding process ensues to determine where the train will go. The bidding is done using shares you hold, and shares are precious. So vetos are not to be taken lightly.

The second type of action is to build a station. In this photo I (white) had built one of my stations. Stations must be built on clear land and must not touch any train when being placed. When this particular station was built, the yellow train was still on its starting town. I had hoped that when this train company was developed, the train would come to my station. Unfortunately things did not work out the way I wanted.

Stations help you score points. Every time a railroad company reaches a new town, scoring is done based on the number of cities, towns and starting towns it is connected to. The player with the most stations in the railroad network scores full points. The player with the second most scores half that. If a company visits many towns, this scoring will be done many times. Also when companies merge, they become more and more lucrative because they will have more and more cities, towns and starting towns.

When being built, a station is at least two steps away from the nearest train. That means you need foresight and forward planning. After you build your station, you need to try to guide the train to it. Else your station is wasted. The need for a train to go or to not go in a certain direction is why the veto mechanism exists. Another important mechanism is the passenger mechanism. If you drive a train to an opponent's station, you earn one passenger. At game end, whoever has the most passengers gains 6VP. Second place gains 3VP. Passengers create an incentive to help your opponents.

Now the third action type - investing in industry. You build a factory in a city by placing one of your cubes onto an empty space on the city investment chart. Each row on the chart represents one city on the board. Each city has three slots. The factories you may build are of four industry types. At game end, each industry is examined. Whoever has the most factories gains 6VP. Second most gains 3VP. There is one condition. If a city is not connected to any railroad, its factories are discarded and do not count. The black cubes on the city investment chart remind you which cities have been connected to railroads.

This is the player board. Those at the top left are the stations. The icons remind you where you can and cannot place stations. Those two in the centre are passengers collected. The lower left section reminds you the scorings to be done in three situations: (1) when a railroad reaches a city, (2) when a railroad reaches a town, and (3) when a railroad company merges with another. The lower right section reminds you of the end game scorings. All these icons look intimidating, but once you understand the rules, they are very handy.

Let talk mergers. There are only 7 companies on the board, and thus at most 6 mergers per game. However these can be critical moments in the game. You must prepare well for them. When a train touches the track of another, it is acquired by the other train company and it ceases to exist. The biggest shareholder scores points based on how many cities, towns and starting towns the company has (before the merger). The second biggest shareholder scores half that. All shareholders then swap their shares for those of the new company, at a 2:1 ratio. The result of the merger is a bigger company with more cities, towns and starting towns. The new company will be more valuable. This is how escalation happens in the game.

I have mentioned several ways of scoring. The most important two are the mergers, which is based on shareholding, and connecting to towns, which is based on station ownership. Other ways of scoring are still important, but they are supplementary.

Understanding the rules doesn't help much in understanding how the game feels when in play. Let's talk about the play.

The Play

I did a 3-player game with Allen and Jeff. The game supports at most 4 players. I was white, Jeff was brown and Allen was blue.

In the early game only three companies were activated, the green company in the west, the dark blue company in the east, and the orange company in the south. At this point our station building was balanced, and trains tended to go to the stations, because of the lure of the passengers.

Jeff (brown) invested more effort in the dark blue company. He developed it more, so he became a clear majority shareholder. The seeds of disaster were sown even at this stage, just that Allen and I hadn't realised the danger.

The dark blue company grew bigger and bigger, becoming unstoppable. At this point the red company had started operations, and had also merged with the dark blue company. Jeff (brown) was in control of the dark blue company and diligently developed it. Allen (blue) and I (white) wanted a piece and jumped in. However this was probably not such a good idea. Although we gained shares, we could not catch up to Jeff, and we only helped grow the company even further, benefiting Jeff. Jeff (brown) not only was the biggest shareholder. He also had the most stations at the dark blue company. Allen (blue) wanted to compete with Jeff in the number of stations. He had now built a station near the dark blue train, hoping to bring the train to his station. The green and orange companies were in an awkward position, being neither here nor there, having fallen far behind the dark blue company.

Allen (blue) had built a station hoping to get it to become part of the orange railroad company. If this happened, all of us would have one station each, and nobody would have any advantage.

At the top left, the dark blue train had veered left and avoided Allen's (blue) station. Now the situation was Jeff (brown) and Allen (blue) both having two stations. The green train was heading towards the tracks of the blue train, so a merger was imminent. There were two white stations (mine) and one blue station (Allen's) in the green company. When the merger happened, Allen would have three stations in the merged company and become the player with the most stations.

The purple company in the northwest, the grey company in the north, and the yellow company in the southeast, were all still dormant.

The green company had now merged with the dark blue company. There was no more green train on the map. Every merger may create a major shift in shareholding positions. If some players hold many shares in the company being acquired, their old shares will be converted to a significant number of shares in the new company. This can shake things up. Since the share conversion rate is 2 to 1, you want to create mergers when your opponents are holding an odd number of shares, because this makes them waste that odd single share.

Whenever a company is acquired, you give it a big red cross in the share tracks section. The prestigious dark blue company was later acquired by another company - the purple company. On paper it was purple gobbling up dark blue, but in practice this was not the case. Jeff (brown) had many shares in the dark blue company. After the 2:1 share conversion, he became the biggest shareholder in the purple company. Same old same old.

The purple company started operations rather late, but it swallowed the four-in-one mega company and became the new giant. The dark blue company had triggered scoring many times when it was in operation, and Jeff was the biggest beneficiary. Allen and I knew it was nigh impossible to catch up. We tried to focus on different areas, competing with Jeff separately and trying to force him to fight two fronts. Not that it helped much. We should not have let things get to this point in the first place. We should have been more alert. In Stephenson's Rocket you need to think ahead and understand the implications of your actions and your opponents' actions. It is thoughtful and deliberate.

Allen (blue) had the most stations in the purple company now (four). I helped make this happen, because I'd rather him gain an advantage than Jeff. Can't have Jeff be number one everywhere, no? If you trace the path of the orange company, you will see it had avoided one of Jeff's stations (brown). Allen and I were desperate not to concede any more advantage to Jeff. We wanted to lose less horribly.

The grey company was now alive. I (white) had set up two stations, with the intention to get them to join the giant company.

Things went according to plan. The purple company was acquired by the grey company, and now I was the biggest station owner in the main train network - five stations.

At the end of the game, only one city had no railroad connections - Brighton on the southern coast. Any factories built there were forfeit. Among the four industries, I (white) won majority in the cloth industry (second column) and the brewery industry (fourth column).

My (white) final score was 42, Allen (blue) 51. Jeff (brown) was already far ahead of us, and still counting!

In this situation, the grey company had become an isolated company. A company being isolated means it can't trigger any merger, nor can it reach any new city, town or starting town. Isolated companies no longer give shares, so you can't fight for share majority anymore. To be more accurate, the game ends not when six companies have been acquired. It ends when six companies have been acquired or have become isolated.

The Thoughts

When I read the rules of Stephenson's Rocket, I thought it felt a lot like Acquire. Competing for shareholding is important, timing the mergers and reaping benefits from them is important. In Stephenson's Rocket there will be at most 6 mergers throughout a game. In Acquire there can be more. Stephenson's Rocket does not feel like a Reiner Knizia game to me. Many of his games are succinct and minimalistic. The ways of scoring are straightforward. The genius lies in the simplicity. Usually you can easily see where the twist is, and you will admire how clever it is. In Stephenson's Rocket, although you only have three options when you perform an action, these actions can have many long-term implications. When you move a train, you may trigger many other actions - the veto, and the various types of scoring. You need to understand the big picture and you need to understand the implications of every small action, and how they affect the strategic landscape. You need to think a little deeper. This is not a game I would recommend to people new to the hobby. Like Tigris and Euphrates, you need to know what you're doing in order to enjoy the game. It's not the kind of game you can muddle through half of, grasping the tactics along the way, and just enjoy the fun ride.

This is an open information game with no randomness. This is actually a little intimidating. Imagine Chess, and Go. They sound serious and unforgiving, and very much skill-based. Stephenson's Rocket is not exactly like those games, but it does share some of their features. How a game develops is solely based on the decisions of the players. There is no luck and no randomness. Skills matter. An experienced player is expected to defeat a novice. It is better to play this game with opponents of a similar skill level. If there is a gap in skill level, you probably should to play with open discussions and analysis to guide the less experienced players. Else they will likely get trounced by the veterans.

Having played Stephenson's Rocket, I feel I understand why it was not as popular as Reiner Knizia's other games of the same period. Games like Ra, Through the Desert and Modern Art had reprints much earlier and much more frequently, and didn't have to wait 19 years. Stephenson's Rocket is not a wide-appeal game like they are. It is not as straightforward, so it is not as immediately rewarding. It is a more deliberate game. Those who have learned to love it truly enjoy it, and that's why there had always been people asking for a reprint.

The green train looks good too. Unfortunately green is a company colour and not a player colour. I always prefer to play with green pieces. White is my second choice.