Sunday, 20 July 2014

VivaJava: The Dice Game

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

VivaJava: The Dice Game is a follow-up to the boardgame version, with quite a few familiar elements, but a rather different overall feel. It's a medium-to-low complexity race game, but has quite a few strategic considerations and is in no way a mindless luck fest. Here's how it works.

You are product department heads at VivaJava Co, competing with your colleagues to make high-quality and popular (i.e marketable) coffee blends. Your objective is to reach 21pts, and there are two main ways to score points: (1) capturing and holding the coffee blend awards, and (2) completing research tracks. What you usually do on your turn is roll five dice. What you want is to get many coffee beans of the same colour. A coffee blend consists of five dice, and how good it is is determined by how many coffee beans of the same colour it has, i.e. five-of-a-kind is the best. When comparing two blends with an equal number of like-coloured beans, you determine which is better by the bean colour, black being the top-grade bean, and white being the, umm... least prestigious grade. If the blend you roll on your turn can beat the current best blend on the table, you may snatch the award from the current holder and score 1pt. From your next turn onwards, as long as no one is able to take the award from you, you score 3pts every time your turn comes around. However your blend also deteriorates by one die per (your) turn, so eventually it will weaken (representing it becoming less popular with the consumers) and some other product department will wrestle it from you. Fighting for and retaining the best blend award is the main tempo driver in the game, but there are a few other aspects to think about too.

This is a three-of-a-kind blend using red coffee beans. Any four-of-a-kind or five-of-a-kind blend would beat it. Three-of-a-kind blends using black or green coffee beans would beat it too.

Other than the best blend award, there is also a rainbow blend award which works in a similar way. However to win it, you don't need a good blend. Instead you need to roll five different colours, which would usually be the worst blend. If you get five different colours, you may claim the rainbow blend award (and score 1pt). In future, as long as you retain it, you score 2pts on your turn. There is no deterioration or quality comparison for the rainbow blend. Anyone can take it from you as soon as he rolls five different colours.

If you fail to claim any award, you still have options. You can pick one colour type to research, or if you have rolled some black coffee beans, you can claim black dice to increase your dice count next turn. In fact, even when you are able to claim an award, you may choose to forfeit the right and do one of these actions instead. A boost in number of dice is usually helpful. The black dice have a joker face too, which is particularly handy. Your chances of making a good blend is increased when you get some extra dice. As for the research aspect, there are always five types in every game, and the combination can change from game to game. When you reach a certain milestone on a research track, you gain a special ability. When you reach the end of a research track, you gain points, but you also lose the special abilities for that track. This means people will tend to complete a research track near game end when they are going for the kill. Special abilities include things like rerolling some dice, increasing the value of a bean, even temporarily blocking everyone else from using a particular special ability. Special abilities are what help you to mitigate luck in the game. They let you make your own luck.

This is the player record sheet. The track at the top is the scoring track. The five tracks in the middle are the research tracks. When you reach the 1x and 2x stages, you gain a special ability. When you reach the coffee cup at the end, you gain points but lose the special abilities for that particular track.

The five cards contain the details of each of the five techs in the game. The game comes with many different techs so there is much variability. The black dice on the right are the extra dice that players can claim. Notice that one of the faces is a joker face.

The Play

The game is a race towards 21pts, where there is a constant pressure to grab those two awards. You can't allow someone to hold on to an award for too long, because anyone consistently scoring 3pts or 2pts every round is a big threat. You want to gain special abilities to help you, but since there is time pressure, you can't afford to have everything. There is a certain tempo that you need to watch out for. You do want to grab an award most of the time, but if you can't hold on to it, you'd only gain 1pt for your effort. So it's important to plan ahead, e.g. watching out for opponents with extra dice, and trying to grab an award at a time when you can likely hold it for a few rounds. It is probably best to be specialised in the tech area, because towards game end, they can be a great help in boosting your points. It might be better to have just a few research tracks where you can go for the end-of-track scoring, as opposed to being a jack of all trades.

The Thoughts

Although I can appreciate the strategic elements in this short-to-medium length and light-to-medium complexity game, it doesn't really have a hook for me. There is nothing in particular that I dislike. I am unable to articulate why it doesn't grab me. Maybe it's because I've just managed to digest the game after that first learning game ended, and I need to play it again, this time at a quicker pace. It's not a very deep game, and it's not meant to be one, but there are some decent tactics. There is much player interaction because you must pay attention to what others are doing, in order to have a pulse on the game progress.

I like the predecessor VivaJava more. They are quite different games. I like the shifting alliances and the push-your-luck lucky draw element in VivaJava, which do exist in the dice game version but in a different form.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

concise reference sheets updated

I still often make rules summaries, but I do them in my own Powerpoint file, and accummulate a whole bunch of them before I make the effort to share them on BGG and here at my blog. Here are the latest additions, updates and corrections. I now have more than 250 games covered.

  1. A Few Acres of Snow
  2. Attika
  3. Axis & Allies 1914 (enhanced)
  4. Brass (enhanced)
  5. Cargo Noir
  6. Civilization (Gibson Games edition)
  7. Cuba Libre
  8. Dark Darker Darkest
  9. Die Macher (enhanced)
  10. Entdecker (corrected)
  11. GiftTRAP
  12. Hammer of the Scots (corrected)
  13. In the Year of the Dragon (corrected)
  14. Kemet
  15. Paths of Glory (enhanced)
  16. Roads & Boats
  17. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island (enhanced)
  18. Tokaido
  19. Wilderness War (enhanced)

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Learning Android Netrunner

I've been neither here nor there on Android Netrunner. I think it would be a very interesting game to learn, but I don't play it frequently enough, and I don't put in enough effort to learn it in depth. I don't have a convenient opponent who is particularly keen, yet I don't actively seek out the active players, despite knowing there are some in the Kuala Lumpur vicinity.

I recently picked up the courage to put out a request for some coaching games, and Nik from Spartan Games Arena invited me to come over to play. I opted to play a runner. I played Kate of the Shaper faction, an easy-to-play character. I used mostly the basic deck with just a little customisation. Nik showed me Haas-Bioroid first, and then Jinteki for our second game. Both were custom decks.

I asked many questions when we played, on overall strategy, the do's and don'ts, tactical considerations under various situations, and the different play styles of the factions. Nik was very generous and shared many insights. It was an eye-opening experience. I was amazed by the many nuances in the game. I was a little overwhelmed, not by the rules complexity or by the variety in card powers, but by the many strategic considerations that a good player needs to make when playing. Understanding and appreciating these intricacies is one thing, digesting them and applying them will take more time and effort. I felt like taking out a notebook to take notes, for fear of forgetting the insights I managed to glimpse.

  • I learned that it's perfectly normal for the runner to spend two or three turns just collecting money and drawing cards to build up enough resources for a big run (attack), or even a series of runs. There is a tempo to Netrunner - preparing and building up, and then attacking, and then regrouping and planning for the next assault. Players have to manage this timing and know when it's best to attack. For the corporation player I guess it's making sure you are well-prepared for the next time the runner attacks. For the runner it is quite pointless and can even be dangerous to attack when you are not fully ready, e.g. not having enough cash or not having enough cards in hand. The corporation will fear you when you have accumulated enough money and cards, because money usually means being able to break through ice (firewalls / defenses) and reaching the servers.
  • Managing the money aspect is not just about making money as efficiently as possible. It is also about forcing your opponent to waste money, or luring him into doing so. Nik applied this to great effect in our second game. When I had built up a small fortune, he revealed two remote servers which were big money-makers. The Jinteki identity he used required me to run against a central server (regardless of outcome) within the same turn before I could run against any remote server. His discard pile and draw deck were lightly defended, which was tempting. So I took quick snipes against them (didn't find any agenda though), and then went for his money-making assets at the remote servers before he could fully realise their benefits. Little did I know these were all part of his plan. He actually had three agendas in his hand of four cards. If I had attacked his more heavily defended hand (HQ), it could have been devastating to him. Instead, I spent most of my money running against other servers, some of which looked like low-hanging fruits and some of which looked like urgent threats. Needless to say soon afterwards he played agenda after agenda and reached 7 points before I could muster enough cash again to stop him.
  • Cards in the game do have various strong powers, but I feel the core of the game is still the psychological battle between the players. The cards are nifty tools, but ultimately you still need to outguess and outsmart your opponent. In contrast, in Hearthstone sometimes I feel that at any one time by looking at the table and at your hand, it is obvious how you should play your current turn. There really is not much to think about. It feels like the the game is mostly in how you have built your deck, and in what cards you happen to draw. There is not a lot to think about during execution. But then perhaps that's precisely what the design of Hearthstone is aiming for - a fast-paced and accessible game. In Netrunner I find that you need to keep thinking of your opponent's intentions. Why is he doing that? Is he trying to lure me into a trap? Is he merely bluffing?
  • Nik advised me that it is usually a bad idea to run using the last action (click) of the runner. If something goes wrong, you won't have time to react. E.g. if you get tagged, the corporation player will destroy your resources on his turn. Also some ice subroutines can be broken by spending actions, so having some spare actions is good.
  • Actions is an important currency too. An asset that lets you make money without needing to spend any action is more valuable than one which requires actions.
  • In Hearthstone I have reached the stage where I can appreciate the characteristics of each hero, the kind of cards they have, and the general strategies they gravitate towards. Netrunner has this too. I'm nowhere near there at the moment, but I feel it will be even more interesting than Hearthstone if I do get there.
  • I realised I have played one important rule wrong all this while. When installing ice, if the server already has other ice installed, you need to pay $1 per existing ice. It's embarrassing that I got this wrong all this while. I actually have this in my own rules summary.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Cuba Libre

The iconic Che Guevara is one of the main characters in the Cuban revolution.

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Cuba Libre is a game design from Volko Ruhnke (Wilderness War, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, Andean Abyss), and the second game in the COIN (Counter Insurgency) series. It is about the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) in which the government was toppled, and Fidel Castro came to power, establising a communist government. It also marked the start of a US embargo that is still in effect today - more than 50 years after the end of the revolution.

There are four factions in the game, and regardless of the number of players, every faction will be in play. The government faction controls the army and the police force. Its victory condition is to have all cities strongly supporting it, and to have a total of 18 points of support in the whole country. The 26 July Movement (M26) led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara aims to incite the people to oppose the government (opposing the government means supporting them). To win, the total opposition points across the country plus their bases must exceed 15. The Directorio Revolucionario (DR), an anti-communist group mostly made of students, aims to control the people, and wants the people to support neither the government nor the M26. Its winning condition is the total population under their control plus their bases must exceed 9. The syndicate is Cuba's organised crime lords. Their objectives are to have more than 7 open casinos and more than $30.

This is the starting setup. The four big boxes around the edges are the component storage areas for the four factions. Blue = government, green = syndicate, yellow = DR, red = M26. Components are limited. You can't have more soldiers on the map than pieces you have. The big circles are cities, the small ones economic centres. The other regular spaces are the provinces, coloured differently based on terrain.

There are two key concepts in this game. Having control over a city or province and its inhabitants means you have more units (soldiers / guerrillas / bases / etc) than everyone else combined. For some actions, having control is a prerequisite. The other concept is the support level of the people, which is independent of control. There are five different levels of support: actively supporting (the government), passively supporting, neutral, passively opposing (which also means passively supporting the M26 revolutionaries), and actively opposing.

Each city and province has two square boxes next to it. The first box to denote control (i.e. one of the factions has more pieces than all other factions combined), the second box to denote the support level of the people. Camaguey is now controlled by DR (yellow), but the citizens are still slightly supporting the government.

The factions have different actions and special actions. Most revolve around bringing new units onto the board, moving units around, and fighting. They work differently for different factions. The presence of units affect the control (or lack of) at each city and province. There are also actions related to making money, and modifying the support level. When the insurgents bring in new guerrillas, they enter the game face-down with the star or coin icon hidden. This means they are underground, and the government is not yet able to directly attack them. The government needs to perform a Sweep action to flush them out, before it is able to conduct an assault. However once guerrillas are exposed, the government can kill them quite efficiently. The guerillas on the other hand are not as effective in killing each other or killing government units. They need to roll a die and even if successfully only get to kill two units. Each faction has some unique special actions. The government can conduct air bombardment against exposed guerrillas. M26 can kidnap to make money and force casinos to shut down (casinos are the bases of the syndicate). The syndicate can bribe. DR can assassinate.

The player reference sheet shows all possible actions and victory conditions of each faction. This is indispensable for new players.

The octagonal pillar pieces are the guerrillas. Notice that the yellow guerrilla in the middle has a star on it. This means it is now exposed and is thus vulnerable to government forces. Also, notice that the Syndicate (green) guerrillas have now entered the economic centres (small circles). During the Propaganda round, if an economic centre has not been sabotaged by other insurgents, and there is not enough police to man these locations, the syndicate will be able to earn money from these locations.

The event cards and the round structure is quite different from other card-driven games. You don't hold cards in your hand. Instead two event cards are always open on the table, for the current round and the next. The card specifies the turn order for the round. Eligible players get to decide whether to execute the event card, to conduct operations, or to pass (and earn a little money). Every round at most two players may execute an event or conduct operations, and if you do one of these, you become Ineligible next round. Also after the first player selects a type of action, whoever comes next has only one action type to pick. It's take it or leave it (pass). If you are the first player you need to be careful in picking your action because it affects what the next player can do. You also want to look ahead at the next card, because if it's a very good event for you, you may want to pass this round so that you get to execute that event next round.

The row of icons at the top of the event card shows the player order for the round. In some cases, e.g. the card on the right, there are two different events on the same card, and they usually have opposite effects. The second event is written in a darker green box. If a player decides to execute an event, he can only pick one of them.

This is the core mechanism. The yellow and red faction markers being on the right means these factions have executed events or actions in the previous round, and are thus Ineligible in the current round. The six small boxes in the centre represent the various types of actions the Eligible factions may select. The first faction to execute picks one of the three boxes in the left column. After that the next faction to execute may only pick the small box next to the one already chosen by the first player. It's either that or pass. If you pass, you do early some spare change and you will remain Eligible next round.

There are four Propaganda cards in the deck, shuffled into each quarter of the deck. When you come to a Propaganda round, you do a victory check and then a reset. If a faction achieves its victory condition, the game ends. Else there is a bunch of things to do. Each faction gets to earn some money, based on different criteria. The US support for the Cuban government may drop, resulting in less aid money and more costly actions by the government. Both the government and M26 has the opportunity to influence support levels. The Syndicate's casinos can be reopened. Government soldiers must return to bases or to cities. These Propaganda rounds are like wintering rounds in some wargames. Players must prepare for it to help themselves as well as to hinder their opponents. Just watching out for the victory conditions is not sufficient. You need to pave the way as best you can for the next cycle.

The box at the top left is the US Alliance box, indicating how friendly US is towards the Cuban government. US begins the game friendly, but as the game progresses, the relationship will tend to sour, and the Cuban government will find it more and more expensive to perform actions. US foreign aid will dry up too.

If no one wins an instant victory from the Propaganda rounds, the game ends after the fourth Propaganda round, and victory is determined by scoring. This scoring is measured by how far a faction is from its objective.

The Play

Allen and I mostly blundered through our first game. As a 2-player game, we each played two factions - he was the government and the syndicate, while I played M26 and DR. The alternative of using AI rules to run non-player factions would have made things more complex. Still, it was quite a lot to digest, because each faction is different, and you need to know not only your own faction but also your opponents'. We fiddled with the various moving parts and forged ahead in trial-and-error mode. We were quite clueless on strategy, making it up as we went. Despite all that, it was a lot of fun. I felt very immersed in the setting. I agonised over how to recruit more guerrillas, how to flee from the government forces, how to instigate opposition and also how to find the money to do all these. I made plenty of mistakes, which was part of the fun. Now that I have completed one game, I have a better idea what not to do, but I think I will need more plays to know for sure what I should do.

One of the earliest mistakes I made was not harassing the government right from the get-go. At each Propaganda round, the US support will decrease if the government doesn't maintain 18 points of support. It's not too hard to snipe at the government to bring the support level down, but I neglected it, and the government continued to enjoy US support - i.e. cheap actions and also foreign aid. Initially I thought the government being rich was a given, but later on when US support eventually dwindled, I realised that it could be brought to its knees financially. I should have tried to force it into this corner much earlier.

One other mistake I made was not realising the importance of bases. You need to remove two guerillas to place a base, which significantly weakens your power. However once you have a base, you are able to recruit much more efficiently. I only realised this around mid game. Another area where I did poorly was money. For certain stretches during the game, both M26 and DR experienced droughts. Running out of money is bad. Many actions can be done in multiple locations, just that you need to pay for each location. Being able to afford that means you are playing much more efficiently, achieving multiple objectives within the same round. There are not many ways to make money. Few actions make money. There are at most four Propaganda rounds where factions can earn some money. Keeping an eye out on financials is important. In my case I wonder whether I had been spending too recklessly.

Allen and I gradually experimented with the various action types. We started with the basics, like recruitment, movement and fighting. As we explored, we found that the special actions could be very powerful. It was through such fiddling that we learned to make better use of our factions' unique abilities.

My two insurgent factions clumsily stumbled over each other. Strictly speaking their goals do not conflict, but some of their actions can cause harm to each other. DR can cause the people in a location to become neutral. If the people are previously actively supporting the government, then it's a big help to M26 shifting them to neutral. However if the people are previously actively opposing the government, then it's a big step back for M26, negating their hard work. I fumbled over what to do with my two factions for quite a while. Then I came up with an idea. I should let them focus on different provinces, and after they had done what they needed, they could just march to each other's provinces. They could just swap! DR needed to control the population, while M26 wanted the people to be actively opposing the government. These two goals could coexist. The people in a location could be controlled by DR and at the same time oppose the government. This all sounded perfect, but when I tried to execute my plan, I found that it was easier said than done. I had to contend with Allen's actions. His government troops were hunting me down, and his syndicate gangsters were bribing my fighters.

In the last quarter of the game (between the 3rd and 4th Propaganda cards), Allen managed to execute two event cards which made the government very powerful. One event gave him one free Assault with any Sweep action. Normally the government needs to execute a Sweep action to expose guerrillas and then execute an Assault action to kill them. Being able to launch one free Assault meant his units were suddenly much more deadlier. The other event allowed his police force to act like soldiers. They could enter the countryside to hunt for guerrillas. Normally the police can only attack in cities and economic centres. Allen had a deadly combo, and I could not come up with any countermove.

Look at that show of power in Havana! Dark blue cubes are soldiers, and light blue ones are policemen.

Allen's government (blue) and syndicate (green) factions have secured the north western part of Cuba. He has built a base (round disc) in the province next to Havana, which will help him launch further attacks to other provinces.

Las Villas is getting very crowded, and these guys are not here to peacefully watch the World Cup together. I have two M26 bases here (red discs), and I am desperate not to lose them. They took much effort to build. If anyone attacks me, they must kill all my guerrillas before they can start destroying my bases. So effectively guerrillas protect bases. Also having guerillas which are not yet exposed will further protect bases from the government, because the government needs to expose the guerillas first before it can target them.

There was one time I had this event which gave me a free M26 base and a free M26 guerilla in Havana, the capital city. At first I thought this was rather pointless, since Havana was crawling with soldiers and policemen. These free units wouldn't last. However when I thought a bit more about it, I realised it was a golden opportunity. Because of the dense population, when I did a recruitment drive, having the base allowed me to recruit a massive army of volunteers. Havana suddenly teemed with revolutionists. I took the opportunity to sway the people's support, greatly reducing the support for the government. Eventually Allen still managed to kill off my guerrillas, but at least I had fun and I had done some damage. Totally worth it! Maybe.

My DR (yellow) guerrillas rushed into Santiago de Cuba, which Allen had not been defending strongly. I have attacked, thus exposing all my fighters. Santiago de Cuba is now under DR control, since there are more DR pieces than all other pieces combined.

We reached the fourth Propaganda card without anyone achieving instant victory. In a 2-player game where we each played two factions, we needed both our factions to achieve their victory conditions in order to win instantly. We couldn't even get one of our factions to achieve its victory condition. So we had to execute the relevant steps of the final Propaganda card, and then determine victory by scoring. The faction with the highest score was the syndicate belonging to Allen. The government did moderately well. Both my insurgent factions fared rather poorly. The revolution failed miserably. History was rewritten.

Those green discs with the 3-coin icons are open casinos, open because the 3-coin icons are showing. This was the late game. Notice that the US relationship at the top left had dropped to rock bottom.

This was near game end. Allen's government (blue) and syndicate (green) factions have secured the north western part of Cuba. Government forces have also successfully mounted a number of excursions to other parts of Cuba to hunt down the insurgents. DR (yellow) only controls two locations. M26 (red) has managed to rouse the people to oppose the government somewhat, but the momentum is not strong enough. The syndicate has an amazing eight open casinos, mainly because one of the late event cards allowed Allen to reopen all casinos. Such perfect timing.

My DR guerrillas which have previously invaded Santiago de Cuba have now retreated back to Sierra Maestra. Since they are now exposed, I want to get them away before the government forces counterattack.

The Thoughts

Allen has all three games in the COIN series so far. We decided to try Cuba Libre first because it looks like the simplest. The estimated play time is 3 hours. We played for about 6 hours! Digesting the rules took some time, and having to control two different factions made it even more challenging. Strategy-wise we were really going by trial-and-error, experimenting different approaches to see which worked and which didn't. Despite the long play time, the incessant referring to the rules and the frequent rules discussions, I had a blast! This is a very immersive game. The arena is small and you have to fight for every space. There are not many pieces on the board, and every piece counts, every piece is valuable. There is a lot of pushing backwards and forwards, measures and counter-measures. It's constantly dancing on a knife edge. Beat down an enemy here, and he may come back somewhere else. Neglect one location, and your enemy will soon exploit it. It is a tight map, and with four factions vying for power, you are constantly reminded that it's a small small world.

The interrelationship between the factions is very interesting. 2-player games with each player controlling 2 factions is an interesting twist, but I think the game is best played with four players, each controlling one faction. Well, maybe I was just overwhelmed by the split personality disorder thing that controlling two factions gave me. Factions sometimes can work together, sometimes joining forces to fight a common enemy, sometimes politely going around each other so that both can achieve their own goals without hindering each other. This is a very different feeling from other multiplayer games where factions are generally the same and have similar goals. In Cuba Libre the nature of each faction is unique. This is what makes the game feel so thematic.

This should so so so be classified as an Ameritrash game, but the mechanisms feel very Euro. It's open information. There is little dice-rolling. Component count is low. The game feels very succinct. It even uses wooden cubes and discs! Yet it is also definitely not the type of Eurogame that has a strong mechanism but an interchangeable theme. Everything ties back to the story. I guess you can say it's a special breed of wargame. Or perhaps there's no need to try to pigeonhole it.

I'm a little sorry I didn't do Che justice in my play. He is probably turning in his grave now.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Kickstarter: Speakeasy

I'm usually not a Kickstarter guy, or a party game guy, but this game sounds interesting - Speakeasy. A real-time, secret-identity, team game, probably best played in a party setting. Lasts 75 minutes. I rarely have a big group of players, so I may never have an opportunity to play this, but if this is something that can work for your group, check it out.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

revisiting Die Macher

My one-long-game-a-month project is going well. For June I picked Die Macher, the 4-hour game of German elections. This is a classic game, first released in 1986. It is very different from games of its era, because it is much more complex and also plays much longer. The game is best with five, so I rounded up five players about a month beforehand, and also persuaded Jeff of Boardgamecafe.net to open earlier that day, at 8pm instead of the usual 9pm, so that we could start playing earlier. Unfortunately he was ill that day and couldn't make it himself, so we went ahead with just the four of us. Not perfect, but we still had a great time.

My fellow political leaders Dith, Allen and Ivan.

Die Macher is played over 6 rounds, with one state election happening at the end of every round, except for the final round where two elections will take place one after the other. During a round players (representing political parties) take actions to influence the election in the current round as well as three other upcoming elections. The two main ways to gain votes are (1) by making sure your policies coincide with what the voters want, and (2) by being likeable (seriously). You also need to organise meetings to convert the above to votes. Votes will get converted to points, and points from state elections are a big chunk of your final score. When a state election is completed, the winning party may move media influence markers to the national board, representing gaining influence at the national level. The winning party also gets to move public opinion cards from the state to the national board, representing influencing the national opinion. Both of these affect scoring at game end. How much your party policies coincide with the national public opinion also affects how much your party membership grows, which in turn affects your income and also your score at game end. The game has many interlocking mechanisms, and gives you many levers too. It is quite a complex piece of machinery to tweak.

Here are the four election boards that form the main play area. At this point we had concluded the first election. The second election is on the board on the right, the state with 26 seats. Subsequent elections go in clockwise order, so the board at the bottom is the third, the board on the left is the fourth, and the board at the top is the fifth. When the second election concludes, that state board will be reset and used for the sixth election.

At each state board, the big square tile near the centre of the play area is the state tile, specifying how many seats the state has. The seat concept is abstracted. In practical terms it only means the max VP a player can score from the state election. It doesn't really mean there are a fixed number of seats for players to fight over. Next, the section with five colours are for indicating the popularity rating of each party. Every party is represented by one colour. Pink is not used since we didn't have a fifth player. Further outwards, the track with 1 to 50 is for keeping count of votes gained. This game features early voting and postal votes. If you look at the board on the left, which is the fourth state election and is still two rounds away, the yellow and black parties already have some votes. The four cards on each state board are the public opinions of the people in each state. The icons represent the issues in question. A white background means the people support the issue while a dark red background means the people reject it. The microphone icons on the state boards mean media control, and the large cubes on them mean some parties have influence over the media. Whoever has the most influence in a state can change one public opinion card there, which can be to help himself or to hurt other, and of course, ideally both.

When we set up the game, the first state turned out to be the biggest state in the game, with 60 seats. The game comes with 16 states of different sizes, and in any game only 7 states will come into play. Which states appear and the order of appearance affect how a game will play out. Getting the largest state in the first round means if you can win many votes, you'll earn a lot of money in the early game, and life will be much easier. As part of player set up, I secretly committed many resources to this first state. Allen and Dith had the same idea, and all three of us did quite well in the first election, making a lot of money. Unfortunately for Ivan, his party platform did not jive well with the public opinion in the first state. There was not enough time to adjust his own party platform or to try to influence the public opinion in the state, so he did not do well, and had much less money in the early game compared to the rest of us.

Allen maintained a large member base throughout the game, and also did very well in all four of the first four elections. That meant he was very rich. We all called him BN (largest political coalition in Malaysia).

Due to the abundance of money (especially Allen's), our bidding for the opinion polls went quite high. Opinion polls are the only random element in the game. Some people think it's a flaw. I think it's fine. It's good for some excitement and surprises. Every opinion poll card specifies for each party whether its popularity will go up or down, and by how much. If you win the card, you may apply the effects for one or two parties. The tricky part is when players bid for the card, it is still face-down. So you are basically gambling. If you win a card and find that it doesn't help you or hinder your opponent, there is still a consolation. You can roll dice to increase your party membership in lieu of applying any effect on the card. In some of the bidding wars we spent quite large amounts on cards which turned out to be not what we had hoped for. We could only use them for a small increase in membership. These new members had better be hardworking - we spent so much to entice them to join! I try to think of opinion polls as always useful in a way. Even if you win one that doesn't help you, you can think of it as preventing another player from hurting you or preventing another player from helping himself. That's surely worth something. There was one which I lost and regretted not having fought harder for. It turned out to be one that hurt my party's popularity, and I gained much fewer votes because of it.

Coalitions is one interesting mechanism. Every party can gain at most 50 votes in a state election, but if you form a coalition in that state, your combined votes can go as high as 100. Hitting 50 is not uncommon, so sometimes coalitions are the key to victory. Forming coalitions is not easy. You need to have played a specific shadow cabinet card in the state in question, and also the party platforms of the coalition partners must be similar enough - at least two exact matches. In our game we didn't really plan very far ahead to form coalitions, because of the many considerations involved. We mostly started discussing it only when the actual election came around. However coalitions still turned out to have affected the results of quite a few elections.

Ivan made good use of coalitions, which helped him move media markers to the national board. Only winners get to move media markers to the national board. By game end, four of his five media markers were on the national board! There was one election where Allen planned to form a coalition with me so that we could both win. However when it came to my decision whether to partner with him, I turned down his offer because I thought my chances would be better with Dith. Dith was the last player that round, and in case of ties, tiebreaker was reverse player order. So Allen partnered Ivan instead. Then when I was about to form the coalition with Dith, I suddenly realised I couldn't do so! I had just adjusted my party platform earlier that round, and now our platforms were too dissimilar to be able to form a coalition. Oops... I wished I could have crawled back to Allen to beg for forgiveness. Allen and Ivan went on to win that state election.

The board on the left is the national board. The section at the top is for media markers. State election winners may move their media markers from the state board here. Every media marker here is worth points, the earlier it is placed, the higher the value. The section in the middle is the party membership. This was still the early game, and Dith (red) had the most members at this point. The section at the bottom is the national public opinion. Such cards are moved here by state election winners. They affect party membership growth every round, and also game-end scoring.

The board on the right is just for organising game components. Those cards at the bottom are the swap pool for changing public opinions in states. In the basic rules there will only ever be 6 cards in the pool, but we used some variants which introduce more cards and thus give more flexibility.

The final scores. Our final positions: me, Ivan, Allen, Dith. The left side is for points from the seven state elections. I lost Dith's sheet so I don't have the breakdown. The scoring columns from left to right are for Allen, Ivan, Dith and I. The first, fourth and fifth states were the large states, with 60, 54 and 48 seats. The second and third states were medium states. The sixth and seventh states were small ones. From the state election scores you can see that Allen (1st column) did well in the first four states, and moderately well in the fifth and sixth. Ivan (2nd column) did well in the second, fourth and fifth. I (4th column) did will in the first, third and fifth. I was the only one to score in the last state election. The others did get votes, but they had too few votes, not enough to be converted to points.

The right side is for end game scoring. The first row is just the sum of the scores from the state elections. The second row is for media markers. Ivan made a killing. I did moderately well, not because I had many markers, but because I had some early markers, which were worth more points. The third row is for party membership. I was surprised that I had the most members. I only caught up and overtook the others in the last two elections, both of which I won. My party platforms matched the national board well, and I think that was what gave me a big boost. The fourth row is the bonus points for having the most members. The fifth row is for having party policies that match the national opinions. It was my turn to make a killing here - all five of my policies matched the national opinions. The last row is the bonuses for matching national opinions which are secured opinions, i.e. the voters are very adamant and it is hard to change their minds.

Our scores were actually quite close, except for Dith who had a tougher time because his policies tended to deviate from the others, so he was against the mainstream. Also there were a few opinion polls that hurt his party quite badly.

I was surprised our game of Die Macher took only 3.5 hours (excluding rules explanation). It was the first time for Dith and Ivan, and Allen had only played half a game before. I had expected to need 4 - 4.5 hours. It was a very fulfilling experience. Die Macher doesn't feel like a 1986 game at all.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

in photos: Age of Steam, 6 Nimmt / Category 5, Through the Ages

4 Jun 2014. I bought four 2-player maps for Age of Steam quite some time ago, but had only played one of them. I took some days off work recently, and took the opportunity to play these 2P maps with my wife Michelle. This is the Antebellum Louisiana map. Only three types of goods are used - red, blue, black. The map starts with only two cities and no towns. One special rule for this map is you can spend money to build towns, which can then be urbanised to become cities. The two starting cities are so far apart that it's not feasible to build one long track to link them up. Intermediate stops are needed.

I issued shares aggressively to gain cash, and I spent them on bidding for turn order, grabbing the urbanisation action, building towns, urbanising them to become cities, and picking goods to deliver. I did this in the first two rounds, and then realised I had made a grave mistake. I had issued too many shares and spent too much money, and I was not making enough profit. I ended up in the embarrassing situation of borrowing money to pay interests. That of course led me into a downward spiral, and eventually I went bankrupt! Disgraceful! In the mean time, Michelle simply piggy-backed on the new cities I built, building tracks cheaply, and still being able to deliver some goods. She reached the breakeven point, so she could do nothing and still win, because I was already digging my own grave. She only had to wave and smile while I crashed and burned.

My (green) income level dropped back to zero because I did not have enough cash on hand to pay dividends, and when I went negative, I was out of the game for being bankrupt.

I asked for a rematch, this time on the 1867 Georgia Reconstruction map. This map uses 3 goods types too, and also starts with two cities. What is unique here is there are some unfinished tracks which players can claim by finishing them. In this game I focused on developing the area between the two starting cities. At this point two towns have been urbanised to become cities A and C.

Most of the competition was in the corridor where the two starting cities were located, on the right side. Later when we expanded to the left side, it was not for making money. It was only for scoring points. There were no cities on the left where we could deliver goods. Michelle and I were on par in delivering goods and making money. However she (red) did much better in building more tracks and longer tracks. Eventually she won the game with a comfortable margin.

The red goods on the red cities were mostly untouched. The two red cities were right next to each other, so there was not much incentive to deliver the red goods. Such a one-route delivery would only increase profitability by $1. Now I had just built a new track from the red 123 city to the town on its lower left. This new track opened up new opportunities. I could deliver a red good in a roundabout way, all the way to the blue 456 city and then back to the other red city just next door. This was good for me, but unfortunately it was equally good for Michelle. She could do similar deliveries. So this move didn't help me gain on her at all.

8 Jun 2014. I taught my children and my niece to play Category 5 (6 Nimmt / Take 6). This is an old classic from Wolfgang Kramer, probably 20 years old.

12 Jun 2014. I think Chen Rui (7) doesn't quite get the longer term strategies in Category yet, e.g. it is not just about playing a card that won't get you into trouble now, it is also about making sure the other cards left in your hand which you will eventually have to play won't get you into trouble (or at least not too much trouble). She took many cards from the table (which is a bad thing).

On the other hand, Shee Yun (9) when playing this game kept saying she needed to think carefully. I'm glad that games are triggering her to strategise and to plan.

Chen Rui asked her elder sister for help, but when Shee Yun picked a card for her, she picked a wrong one by mistake, causing Chen Rui to take more cards. Oops!

Feeling defeated.

13 Jun 2014. There was a period when Michelle and I played Through the Ages intensively. During the recent holiday I brought it out again, and it was still as great as ever. Michelle and I play a peculiar peaceful variant. In the official peaceful variant, aggression and war cards are removed from the game. In our version we don't attack each other, but these (now useless) cards stay in the game. I suppose we keep them just in case. If at some point one of us decides to break the truce and attack, then the option is available. It is a little absurd - we are setting a rule which we may break. In practise, I think Michelle only broke the peace once, in one particular game where she was trailing by a wide margin. I don't remember whether that attack won her the game. Probably not. But at least she felt better. I think we should just use the official variant.

In this particular game, we did a lot of colonising. Michelle founded four colonies (dark green cards, upper left). I had three (lower right). I had a good start, while Michelle struggled in the early game, because she was a little rusty, not only in Through the Ages but in boardgaming in general. However she did better and better by mid game, and soon commanded a strong lead. Her empire generated more science and more culture. We competed in military strength and neither of us managed to stay on top for long. Near the end of the game, I built the First Space Flight wonder (purple card, lower left), which gave me 33VP's. It catapulted me to the front, and won me the game. I was surprised how many points it gave me. By mid game I had been expecting to lose because overall Michelle was doing better than me.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

random thoughts on Hearthstone

I've won 144 games on Hearthstone. Assuming my win rate is about 50% (which is quite optimistic of me) I should have played around 300 games now. I still enjoy the game very much. So far I have only completed one season (end of May 2014), and the highest rank I managed to reach was 15 (lowest is Rank 25, highest is Rank 1, and above Rank 1 there is a Legendary Rank). I hovered around Ranks 16 to 18 at end of May, but recently I have been doing rather poorly, being stuck at Rank 20. At Ranks 20 to 25 you can't drop ranks. Else I probably would have fallen further. I'm not sure what I am doing wrong. Or is it that there are more and more good players? Or the system is matching me with more experienced players, who are mostly better players than me? Despite the many losses, I still like playing in Ranked mode, because I get to play against strong opponents. I like the challenge and the tension.

There are some characters that I prefer over others, e.g. I like playing Warlock and Shaman, I don't quite like playing Druid, but generally I play all characters and don't have any strong preference for any one character. I pick characters based on the quests available. I have constructed one deck per character. I don't fiddle with my decks much. Sometimes when I keep losing with a particular deck, I'll review it and fine-tune it. But generally, I just play.

I get annoyed when I run into players who use many legendary cards. Legendary cards are powerful cards. You can only have one copy of each in your deck, unlike regular cards which you can have two copies of. Since Legendary cards are usually quite powerful, I often have no counter for them. I don't have many Legendary cards myself, so when I see an opponent playing one Legendary card after another, I feel helpless. I also feel frustrated because I feel I'm losing because of the cards he has access to, and not necessarily because he has built his deck better or he has played more skillfully.

I admire players who make very clever use of common cards, and players who hold back cards to be used at the right time. Not players who rely on many powerful cards.

I see some common combos. There is one where a Priest player plays a spell card to double a minion's health, and then another spell card to increase its attack value to be the same as its health value. That minion can become so strong that it can killed off the opponent Hero that same turn. The first time I saw this, I thought it was a very clever combo. However after I encountered this a few more times, I found it to be formulaic, unimaginative and annoying. I prefer opponents who have variety in their decks and who are flexible. Repeatedly used formulas and standard killer moves bore me.

Sometimes it's not just specific combos of a few cards, it's also generally how a deck is constructed. For example a deck with many murlocs is easy to build - just search for keyword "murloc" - and it can be very powerful because murlocs often boost one another's abilities. There is not much skill in building a murloc deck, and there is not much skill required to play a murloc deck effectively. I think it's quite one-dimensional. Thankfully I don't run into murloc decks all that often. If I do, then the fun is in seeing whether I can defeat it, despite knowing how powerful it can be. I am not so keen about using a murloc deck regularly myself.

I am more and more familiar with the characters and their cards now, so when I play I start to anticipate what cards my opponent may have, and I try to avoid getting myself into situations where he can deal a devastating blow. It is very satisfying to be able to reach this next level of play. There is more to think about. There is more skill involved. I think this is what makes CCG's so captivating. The fact that I'm ranting about some of the annoyances I have with Hearthstone means I'm really getting into this game, so it's a good thing. It is rewarding.

I usually just play two or three games per day, which is not all that much. Some days I play a bit more. Some days I don't play. It is very convenient to pick up the iPad and just play. The game is quick and smooth, yet is still challenging and has some depth.

I have been hoping to get to this level of play with Android: Netrunner - to go beyond the initial floundering and to start appreciating and utilising the intricacies of the game. I've installed the software to play Android: Netrunner online, but I still have not actually tried using it. It's a PC-based software, so it's not as convenient or user-friendly as Hearthstone on the iPad. Also the player pool is much smaller. I am still hesitant because it's a little intimidating, but I hope I can bite the bullet and delve further into Android: Netrunner. It is a more complex game than Hearthstone and I think it will be even more satisfying if I commit the effort to learn to play it well.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

miscellaneous: the game bringer

I didn't realise that my fellow players always think of me as the game bringer until they mentioned it recently. In hindsight, it is very obvious. It's just one of those things you don't really think about, like how the sky is blue. Whenever I go to Boardgamecafe.net, I almost always bring something (or somethings) from my game shelf. I can always find something that I'm in the mood to play. If no one suggests any game to play, I'll take out what I have brought and teach the others to play. Better that than wasting time browsing the shelves to decide what to play, and sometimes having to struggle through half-remembered rules. On a recent visit, I didn't bring anything because I was in a hurry, and when I asked my friends what we were playing, they all looked at me and asked me - didn't you bring anything?

I tend to plan ahead what to play, as opposed to going to game night with the expectation to play, but with no idea at all which games to play. Having something in mind makes me look forward to the session, and I like that feeling. I'm not insistent about what I want to bring to the table. I just want to have a Plan B when Plan A is "let's think of something to play on the spot".

I feel blessed that when I stand in front of my game shelf I can always find something I want to play. This is completely unlike those first-world-problem-joke ladies with a full wardrobe complaining about having nothing to wear, and guys with a full shelf of PC games DVD's complaining about having nothing to play. It's already June, and I realise so far this year I have only added two games to my collection - Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts (an expansion), and Love Letter (a home-made copy). I have reached a saturation point. There are still so many games in my collection that I'm eager to play, that I have little urge to try new games. I do still read about new games, just that not many of them interest me. I don't resist playing new games, just that nowadays I'm much less proactive in seeking them out.

This is an old photo. For reference only.

I recently taught Sinbad, Dith and Zoff (not sure of spelling) Thebes, a game about archaeology. One of the mechanisms in the game is, of course, digging for artifacts. You do this by spending time units to draw a number of chips from a bag. Some chips are blank, i.e. you only get dirt, while some chips are artifacts or other goodies. In this old photo above, I drew 10 chips, only to find two items of value. In my recent game, I drew 11 chips, and all turned out to be dirt! And this happened while the dig site was still quite fresh, i.e. other players have not dug many artifacts from there. That day was really not my day...

In Thebes, one card type that players can collect is conference cards. The more you collect, the more they are worth. If there is only one player collecting these, it can be very dangerous for the others. If all the others are reluctant to spend effort to hinder that single player attending conferences, i.e. no one wants to "take one for the team", then the single player may end up laughing all the way to the bank. This situation happened in our game. Dith was first to go after the conference cards. Zoff followed suit soon afterwards, and Sinbad and I eagerly urged him on. Zoff was suspicious and felt used, and later decided screw you guys I'm going for something else. He went on to do very well at the digs - the complete opposite of how I fared. We all thought he was going to win. When it came to the final scoring, we were shocked that he lost to Dith by exactly one point! We could not stop laughing and screaming we told you so! There were a few times during the game that even Dith himself advised Zoff he should grab the conference card to prevent Dith himself from claiming more. I don't think I have ever had so much laughter over a game of Thebes.

This is another old photo.

After Thebes, I taught Sinbad, Dith and Zoff Lord of the Rings. I have always liked this game, and I enjoy teaching it to new players and watching their learning process. This is a cooperative game, so I try not to tell them what to do too much. It would be like telling people spoilers while they are watching a movie. I try to only guide them gently. However during this particular game there were a few moments when I could not resist telling them "I think we gotta run". I felt like Gandalf at Moria ("Fly, you fools!"). They were quite adamant about collecting the sun, heart and ring tokens, so that they didn't have to become corrupted at the end of the scenario. However I think it is OK to miss a few, because staying on a scenario board for too long is very risky. If a few events occur one after another, it can be disastrous for the fellowship.

Overall we did quite well. Two of us hobbits did get quite corrupted and got quite near Sauron. However we never really got into any life-and-death situation. Even if these two hobbits got killed, the ring was safely with another hobbit which was still a decent distance away from Sauron. After we won the game, I broke the news to them that we were playing at the easiest difficulty level. If we had played at normal difficulty, then you, and you, would be dead.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

in photos: Entdecker, Samurai

I take back what I said about the iOS Agricola AI's. The first time I played against them recently, I thought they were pretty decent. The AI's played well and defeated me. I was a little rusty, but I could see what they were doing right and what I was doing wrong. Happily I started a second game against them, human vs two expert level AI's in a 3P game. And this was the result. The blue AI did so badly in managing food that it lost 36pts due to family members going hungry. Ever having to starve is already a big enough sin, because even one begging card (-3pts) is already a significant penalty. 12 begging cards is... unspeakable. That AI ended up with negative points. In this game, I did remember to plan for expanding my home early and increasing the family size early, lessons learnt from that first game. I didn't try to deny the blue AI food. I didn't pay attention to whether it was the other AI screwing it. Now I think the Agricola AI's is more or less like the Le Havre AI's - they are not much of a challenge, but they are available if you want a small diversion.

Spirit of the Ancients is another card from Ascension which I think is overpowered. Every time you play it, you select which Lifebound Hero it will be. The only restriction is you can't pick the same Lifebound Hero again. Every time this card is bought, the owner will pick Cetra, Guide of Ogo, another card which I think is overpowered. And then there are also many other Lifebound Heroes which are very powerful. This card is fun when you have it, but I think it's almost a card which will cost you the game if your opponent manages to buy it before you do.

16 May 2014. Allen came to play, and we revisited Sekigahara. I played Tokugawa this time (black) while he played Ishida (gold). I thought I did quite well throughout the early game. I managed to control more castles as well as more resource locations. My battle losses were a little high, but I didn't feel it was too alarming. Then I sent my leader Tokugawa Ieyasu on an attack, which failed, and on Allen's counterattack, Tokugawa got killed, and I lost the game. I was too impetuous. That attacked which I launched was a 4 blocks vs 3 blocks attack. It wasn't a crucial one I needed to win, and I was only able to deploy 3 of my 4 blocks. Allen was able to deploy all three of his. I should not have put my Tokugawa block in danger like this. What a stupid stupid stupid move that was. Allen was shocked to see Tokugawa come up when I revealed my block. It was Christmas come early for him. Our game lasted less than half an hour, since it ended in Round 3 (of 7).

I have never won any game of Sekigahara, so I think I'm getting a little desperate. I need to rethink carefully to improve my play. This game is teasing me like a seductress!

Innovation was the only game on all three of Han, Allen and my top ten lists when we did such an exercise of making these lists a few years ago. It was good bring it out again, and I still enjoy the game very much. This is a game with much chaos and much randomness. There is also some luck. Don't equate randomness and luck though. Randomness is how the game situation can change quickly, how powerful tools can suddenly become useless, how weak weapons can suddenly become crucial, and how new powers come into play. Luck is gaining an advantage (or even winning a game) due to factors beyond the players' control, i.e. you don't feel like you deserve to win, and it isn't a fruit of your efforts. It's probably impossible to draw a clear line between randomness and luck. They overlap. I'd consider Innovation a chaotic and random game, but not a luck game. You do need to strategise and work hard to make your cards work for you, in order to be competitive and to win.

Hmm... maybe I'm saying this because I won. :-P

23 May 2014. Allen's colleagues Adam and Salah, who are relatively new to the hobby, joined us to play, so we decided to pick something from the classic era, something not too long and not too complex. We decided to give Entdecker a go. This is designed by Klaus Teuber of The Settlers of Catan fame. It is from around the same era. Allen bought a copy last year and deposited it at my place for rules reading, but we never got around to playing it. So it was good to be able to check something off our to-do list.

These cardboard pieces are the native chieftains' homes. Each hut contains a secret good token, the value of which is known only to the first player who has sent an explorer to negotiate a deal with the chieftain. The player who later places an explorer on the space with an eye will get to peek at the hidden good. At the end of the game, only one player with the most explorers next to a hut will claim the good token and score points.

The game starts with an empty board, and throughout the game players draw and place tiles to fill up the map. Whenever you discover a piece of land, you have the option to place one of your game pieces onto that piece of land. When an island is completed, it is scored, and whoever has pieces on it gains points.

The large white house is a settlement. The flat yellow piece is a fortress. The small white cylinders are explorers. Settlements are strongest in competing for island scoring, followed by fortresses and then explorers. If another player needs to sail past your settlement or fortress en route to making a voyage of discovery, he must pay a toll fee. Explorers may be weakest, but after an island they are on is scored, they get to visit the chieftains and try to win influence over their tribes. That is a very important mission because the end-game scoring is a large chunk of the total score.

We are near the end-game now. The map is almost completed. Adam (yellow) and I (white) are engaged in a fierce competition over that huge island at the centre. Two of my explorers are on separate tiny islands which may turn out to be connected to the big island. Tension!

The game feels a little like Carcassonne. However, in Carcassonne you draw a tile and then try to find a place to connect it to the map, while in Entdecker you have to decide up front where you want to sail from and then you draw a tile and hope it fits. In Entdecker, you may select from face-up stacks so that you will know for sure that the tiles will fit, but it is more costly to buy such tiles.

Adam (yellow) had invested four (!) explorers on the first hut, even though Allen (purple) had only put up a weak challenge. Needless to say, it turned out to be the 15VP good - the highest valued good.

We also played Samurai, where we got completely schooled by Allen, who is a big fan of the game. This copy is a second-hand copy, and the previous owner lovingly sealed up every single tile with plastic. Amazing! I'm not a sleeving guy myself, but this kind of effort is impressive.

Pieces on Kyushu and Shikoku (on the right) have all been claimed now. I don't think I'm playing very effectively. I am green (I mean my player colour, not that I'm new to the game). I tend to be opportunistic and whenever I can I snipe away pieces just before others can claim them. I don't really have any overarching plan to try to influence specific areas.

I tried to focus on monks and rice, and seemed to be doing well in the first half of the game. However as the game wore on, my progress seemed to stall. At game end, I didn't have majority in either factions, so I didn't even qualify to compete for shogunate.