Sunday, 26 July 2015

little stories

Some little stories from recent boardgaming...

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I played Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld with my family. The Al Capone cards in this game are the hardest to collect a full set of. There are eight of them. However if you manage to complete the set, you can potentially shut your opponent out, i.e. deny him of scoring points, for that particular hand. When we played, Chen Rui (8) was particularly obsessed with Al Capone. Once she played an Agent Meeting card to fish for an Al Capone card from other players. She managed to get one. As we waited for her to lay down a meld (of three cards), she discarded a card to signal the end of her turn. Michelle (her teammate - we played partnership rules) asked what are you doing??! It turned out that Chen Rui only had one Al Capone card when she tried to fish for one more. We had all assumed she already had two, and needed a third to form a meld.

Chen Rui plays how she likes, which is not necessarily the most logical way if you are trying to win. But then who is to say that is wrong if she enjoys it that way? Maybe we as adults can learning something from her.

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I was quite intrigued by Kobayakawa and eventually decided to buy a copy. I tried it with my family (i.e. non-gamers). When playing only with the kids (10 and 8), they tended to think less (much less than I did when I played with other gamers), and that turned the game into a luck-heavy microgame. Later when my wife Michelle joined us, everyone started putting some thought into the decisions, which brought some strategy back. The children still tended to be impetuous, deciding to place bets most of the time. They went bankrupt quite easily. One particular round was quite funny. I had the 3, a very low card, and the Kobayakawa was a 14, a very high card. If my 3 was the lowest card (highly likely), I would gain the Kobayakawa bonus which would guarantee my victory. So of course I placed my bet. Both Chen Rui and Michelle decided to bet too, and I was secretly filled with glee - that meant more winnings for me. To my surprise, my 3 turned out to be the largest card! Chen Rui had a 2, and Michelle a 1. What are the odds?!

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One afternoon when I was napping, the children helped themselves to some games - Love Letter and Spot It. I learned of it much later that day, and I was pleasantly surprised. I was proud and happy. This would sound silly to normal parents. I'm a gamer parent, and my children choosing boardgames over the iPad or TV means a lot to me. I don't harbour hopes that they will become gamers. They don't follow boardgame news like I do. They don't keep an eye out for new boardgames. They don't even ask to play boardgames all that often. They have no ideas about game designers or game publishers. I am contented enough that they enjoy playing boardgames. That's what matters most.

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Something funny happened in one of our games of Love Letter. On Chen Rui's turn, she had an 8 and a 6 in hand. The 8 could not be played (else you'd be eliminated) so she could only play the 6. The special ability of the 6 was to swap cards with another player. Chen Rui chose Michelle. She gave the 8 to Michelle. When she saw the card she received from Michelle, which was a 1, she started laughing evilly. A 1 can be used to guess the card of another player, and if the guess is correct, that player is eliminated. Now that Michelle had an 8, no matter what card she drew when her turn came, she must play that new card, and the 8 would stay in her hand. So by the time Chen Rui's turn came around again, she would be able to use the 1 to correctly guess the 8 in Michelle's hand. Michelle was cornered!

Then something unexpected happened. On Michelle's turn, she drew a 1 herself! Since she had just given another 1 to Chen Rui, she knew what Chen Rui's card was. It was Chen Rui who was eliminated instead. What a dramatic turn of events! One good reason to love Love Letter.

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Lately I have been gaming in a passive mode. I seldom think of what games to play before game night. I just show up and play whatever others suggest. This worked out well for me. I got to try some nice games which I would not have played otherwise, since they were not on my radar, or not on my to-do list. It was also nice to be lazy for a while, not reading rules, making reference sheets or teaching games. I am a lucky person. This wouldn't work if you're the only hardcore guy in your group. I am surrounded mostly by hardcore guys in my regular group.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Lords of Scotland

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A game of Lords of Scotland is played over a number of skirmishes, in which every player can potentially score points. The ultimate goal is to reach 40pts. A skirmish consists of 5 rounds, i.e. everyone has only 5 actions. An action is playing a card or drawing a card. At the end of the skirmish, you total the strength of the cards played to determine the order of claiming the spoils available for the skirmish. Normally you always pick the highest valued spoils card available.

This is how a new skirmish is set up. Four cards (corresponding to the number of players) are drawn to become the spoils for the skirmish. That means these cards are effectively out of the game and will no longer be in the card pool. The 5 face-down cards form the card row from which players can draw cards. At the start of every round, one of them is turned face-up. That means by looking at how many cards are face-up, you can tell which round you are in. If you decide to take the draw card action, and you take a face-up card, you replenish the card row with a new face-up card. You can of course pick a face-down card if none of the face-up cards fancy you.

Taking a face-up card is good because you know exactly what you are getting, but the downside is others know it too and can prepare for what you may do with it. Picking the draw card action means you are forgoing the play card action. This is one important aspect of the game - you need to balance between drawing cards and playing cards. Draw too many, and you'll lose out in the skirmishes. Play too many, and you'll deplete your resources for the next skirmish. You need to know when to fight and when to gather strength to fight another day.

When you play a card, you can play it face-up or face-down. Playing face-down means others do not know what colour or number you have played. If you play a card face-up, you can potentially use its special power. Every card has a special power depending on its colour (i.e. suit). When you play a card face-up, you trigger its power if (a) it is the only card of that colour visible on the table, or (b) it has a smaller number than all other cards of that colour. This makes small numbers more powerful - they have a higher likelihood to having their powers triggered, and they also help neuter larger numbers in their respective colours. This is quite a clever mechanism.

After 5 rounds are played, the skirmish ends and all face-down cards are turned face-up. You sum up the strength of your cards to determine precedence in picking spoils. One twist here is if you have played cards of only one colour, your total strength is doubled. This is yet another interesting mechanism. The card powers in the game are strong, and you tend to want to use as many of them as possible to hinder your opponents or to help yourself, so it can be torturous trying to stay pure. And sometimes when you decide to go single-colour, one nasty card play by an opponent can quickly mess up your plan. Yet, the doubling factor is very tempting. To be or not to be, that is the question. Also, because of this doubling rule, playing cards face-down has another value - your opponents will have to guess whether you are going for single-colour or not. Maybe you are just bluffing.

With this kind of hand, you'd probably want to go for the single-colour bonus.

The card powers are the most prominent aspect of the game. They are strong. One colour lets you draw a card, effectively saving you one precious action. One colour lets you discard a played card, which can be very frustrating to your opponent when you discard his high card. One colour lets you swap with a played card, which is the ideal pollutant to break single-colour sets. One colour lets you modify the spoils of the current skirmish, which can greatly affect the players' motivations. One colour lets you claim two spoils cards instead of one. One colour stays in play for the next skirmish, unlike other colours which are all discarded at the end of a skirmish. One colour simply copies any other face-up card on the table. There is great variety.

The Play

The biggest impression I have of Lords of Scotland is that the tables can turn very quickly. The outcome of a skirmish is often decided only in the last round, sometimes even by the last card play. Turn order has a large impact. The later you go, the less opportunities your opponents have in spoiling your plan. You can always save a strong play till the last round. The card powers can create unexpected twists. You always need to watch out for killer moves. The winner of a skirmish (i.e. highest strength and first to pick spoils) becomes the start player for the next skirmish, which is the least favourable position. This helps to balance things out somewhat. But you have to pity the guy sitting on his left, who is stuck with being 2nd player (still a bad place to be in) despite possibly having not gained much in the previous skirmish.

The various card powers can create interesting situations. Let's say the spoils cards are two high cards and two low. If one player plays a card which allows him to claim two spoils cards, all the other players will be working hard to stop him from coming first, because if he does, he'll be claiming both the high cards, leaving peanuts for the rest. Every single card in the game has a special power, so you feel like you are holding a hand of bombs, and your are often spoilt for choice on how to use them.

There is tactics in playing cards - identifying good uses for specific cards and playing them for maximum effect; and there is strategy in saving cards for big plays - like what Heng did in our game. He was leading in points, and when a new skirmish started, the lowest valued spoil card was a 5, which was already sufficient for him to win. The other three of us were not within range of hitting 40pts, so we had to work together to hold him back and deny him any spoils card. One of us played the double spoils card. If we could then force Heng into the last position, he would not be able to claim any spoils card. Everything went according to plan, and even among the three of us we could afford to jostle against one another trying to fight for a better position. Then in the 5th round Heng played a card to discard that double spoils card, and we couldn't do anything to stop him after that. He still came last in strength, but the smallest spoils card was already enough for him to win the game.

In this skirmish, the spoils cards were 7, 6, 6, 1. That meant no one wanted to be last. There is not much difference going first, second or third. Just not last please.

This is an older version of the game. Functional, but not exactly sexy. The latest version has nicer artwork.

The Thoughts

Lords of Scotland is a game with dramatic twists of fate and powerful plays. What stands out most is the card powers, but there are two other more subtle features which also make the game very interesting - the balance and timing consideration between drawing cards (gathering strength) and playing cards (deploying strength), and the dilemma of whether to attempt to deploy a single-colour army. I like the fact that high cards are not necessarily the strongest, and low cards are not necessarily the weakest. It is more often about how you make the best use of your cards.

The many card powers can be slightly overwhelming to casual players. This game does not feel like a traditional card game. It may not be an easy transition for traditional card game players.

What I remember most about the game is the anxiety of never knowing who the ultimate winner of a skirmish will be until the last moment. Not to say that card plays in the first four rounds are pointless. They are part of positioning yourself for victory. It is just that cards are powerful and when used well can turn the tables at the last minute. You never know what your opponents have up their sleeves and whether they have just the right card to undo your long-planned epic play.

You can say there are many "take that" cards in this game, cards which deal a nasty blow to an opponent that he can do nothing about. I see it this way - everyone will draw such cards, so it is more about what moments you save such cards for, as opposed to who is luckier and draws more such cards to play on his opponents. There is also a psychology element. You want to appear weak and divert attention to other players. It is best to make powerful moves late in a skirmish, when it is (hopefully) too late for others to respond. That's easier said than done. Lords of Scotland has character. It is a well-crafted, balanced (despite the seemingly crazy powers) and well-integrated system. Some people may complain "overpowered!", but when you get lots of that particular colour and still lose, then maybe it is not so overpowered after all.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

boardgaming in photos: Dream Factory, Domaine

19 Jun 2015. This is Reiner Knizia's Dream Factory, originally published as Traumfabrik, then later as Hollywood Blockbuster. The latest incarnation is Dream Factory, this name being the English translation of the original name. This copy I played was someone else's copy. I have a home-made copy which I made during the out-of-print period between Traumfabrik and Hollywood Blockbuster. It has real actors and movies from around 1990's and 2000's.

In this game you run a movie studio. You have a few screenplays and you need to assemble directors, actors, cameramen, special effects experts and so on to make movies. You employ these people mostly via auctions. The game has a closed economy. The money paid by the auction winner is evenly split among all other players. Any leftover money accumulates in the pot to be shared next round. If you spend a large sum for a particular group of workers, be prepared that you have to spend the next few rounds saving money before you can be competitive again.

With the exception of the guest star space (with a star icon), every space on a movie screenplay must be filled in order to complete the movie. At the moment I have completed one - the leftmost movie. It is worth 11pts (count the number of stars). There are three categories of movies - comedies (orange), action movies (green) and dramas (blue).

Due to copyright concerns, the game does not use real actor or movie names. These three here are supposed to be Morgan Freeman, Sylvester Stallone and Leonardo DiCaprio.

There are 8 rounds in each of the 4 stages of the game, with a predetermined number of workers available in each round. You start at the top left and move clockwise. At most of the spaces you fight for the group of workers via auctions, but on the 4th and 8th spaces, i.e. the Party spaces, everyone gets to pick one free worker. The order depends on your star power, i.e. the total star value of your actors (and actresses of course). This gives you an additional aspect to consider. Sometimes you want to fight for those high-profile stars because you want to go first at the parties.

I've completed a lousy movie on the left. I do this because at game end there is an award for worst movie. Yes, you get recognition for being spectacularly bad. Sorry to do this to Schindler's List.

A game about the movies must surely have awards. Those two on the left are awards for best movies which are given out at the end of stages 1 to 3. I made a half-decent movie early, and won these for my studio. Other players had better movies, but it took them a while to complete. So I was lucky to have a first-mover advantage. The award on the right is the award for the first comedy released.

3 Jul 2015. This is Domaine by Klaus Teuber of Settlers of Catan fame. This was published in 2003, but the original version Lowenherz was published in 1997, so this is very much a 90's game. This photo was taken during the setup phase, when everyone was building castles on the board.

The components are quite well done.

You need to enclose areas using these black markers. When an area is enclosed and has only one castle, this area becomes the kingdom of whoever owns the castle. Forests, villages and the capital, if within a player's kingdom, are worth points. Mines give income depending on how many different types you control, and every set of three similar mines is worth 5pts too. The moment a player's victory points total reaches a specific target, he wins. If the cards run out before this happens, victory is determined by whoever has the most points at that time.

I was white. My kingdom at the bottom right was under constant assault by Jeff (red). Notice that in the previous photo when he was building his domain, his borders did not yet include the mines near his castle. Now he had expanded his domain to capture these lucrative mines, which were previously mine. When your kingdom is militarily stronger than your neighbour (i.e. you have more knights), you can play an expansion card to expand into your neighbour's territory. I had to play catch-up to Jeff's military escalation. Now we were both at 3 knights.

I spotted an opportunity at the top right area. I (white) had a castle there but never had time to develop the area because I was too tied up in the struggle against Jeff (red). Ivan (orange) had been building borders for his kingdom at the top left, and had been doing expansions. This gave me some free borders, along with the borders built by Jeff on the right. I only needed a few more border stones to complete a kingdom for myself. So I did it, which gave me a large kingdom with many forests and villages. Soon after that I hurriedly did an expansion, which then gave me enough points to claim instant victory. That was quite an unexpected twist of events. I had been struggling all this while, caught in a painful border fight with Jeff.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Sheriff of Nottingham

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Players are merchants (most of the time), and want to bring goods to the city to sell. Every round one player plays the sheriff, which in this game is more like a customs officer to me. The law says every merchant can only bring in one type of good. The merchant declares the type of good he is carrying to the sheriff, and the sheriff decides whether it is necessary to inspect the goods. If the merchant is caught bringing in other types of goods, or contraband, he is fined and the illegal goods are confiscated. The fine conveniently goes into the sheriff's pocket. However if the sheriff detains a merchant for inspection only to find that he is an honest trader (at least for the current round), the sheriff needs to pay the merchant instead. Think of it as compensation for not lodging a complaint to the king. The merchant can try to bribe the sheriff, asking him to close one eye, or even asking him to inspect another merchant's goods. It's all negotiable.

A number of rounds is played to allow everyone to have two opportunities to be sheriff. After that you compare wealth to determine who wins. You add up cash in hand (i.e. cash that changes hands through bribes and fines), the value of goods that get past customs, and bonuses for being the largest sellers for each of the four legitimate goods (chicken, cheese, apples and bread).

The player board is just a simple reference chart showing the steps in a game round, and also the bonuses for largest sellers. The cloth bag is for storing the goods you plan to bring into the city. It is nice, but not necessary. The number of goods must be declared truthfully. By having your cards face-down is already sufficient to hide what goods they are. You don't really need to put your cards into this bag.

There are two draw decks and two discard piles. At the start of every round, everyone draws back up to 6 cards, since most players would have attempted to transport some goods in the previous round. Before deciding which goods to transport for the current round, every merchant has one chance to discard some cards and draw the same number of cards. You can draw from a discard pile or a draw deck, or both. If you decide to draw from both, you must draw from a discard pile first, and then a draw deck; and there is no turning back to a discard pile once you start drawing from a draw deck.

When making a customs declaration, the merchant must truthfully report the number of cards and one good type. If all other cards are of this same good type, then the whole shipment is legal. But of course the merchant can mix in other goods and even contraband. Contraband goods are higher valued than normal goods, but the fine is also higher if you get caught. For goods that make it past the customs checkpoint, normal goods are turned face-up and placed next to your player board. This is to allow others to see how much sales you have made. Players compete with one another to sell the most of these four legitimate goods types. Contraband which makes it past the city gates are kept face-down, and are only revealed at game end. Some contraband cards count as two or more of legitimate goods, so there can be some surprises at game end.

Legitimate goods are placed face-up on both sides of the player board. Contraband is placed face-down above the player board.

The Play

Gameplay is all about player psychology. The sheriff needs to guess whether the merchants are sneaking in any undeclared goods or contraband. Is that loud and righteous-sounding guy who refuses to pay any bribe really an honest merchant? Is that poor scoundrel offering a tiny bribe really doing so badly in business that that is all he can afford? The merchants can pull off (or attempt to pull off) all sorts of tricks. When you are transporting fully legitimate goods, you can pretend to be seedy and lure the sheriff into inspecting your perfectly legal shipment. When all you have are weapons and jewellery under your top layer of apples, you can try to bluff your way through, scoffing at the idea of bribery. How you draw cards can be used against your fellow players too. When you draw from a discard pile, everyone sees what you are taking. You can use this information to mislead them, which was what Heng did in our game. Since the game is played over a number of rounds, you can use your track record to trick others. Being clean for a few consecutive rounds may allow you to get away with one big shipment of contraband. Playing smuggler for a few rounds can help set a trap for the sheriff when you suddenly go clean.

One thing I tried to do was to offer "honest" bribes. I offered large bribes which were calculated based on how much I would get fined if I were caught. I hinted that if the sheriff caught me, he'd earn less than the bribe amount. So why not go for a win-win? This worked somewhat. But sometimes the sheriff may not trust you and may suspect you are going to make even more money. Also sometimes the sheriff may just get annoyed with your smug look and decide to inspect your stuff just to show you who's boss.

This huge stand-up marker is to indicate who the sheriff is in the current round. Obviously the sheriff is a corrupt official.

The convention I used was to put my bribe on the bag. The sheriff can easily see how much is on offer at a glance.

The Thoughts

Sheriff of Nottingham is all about player psychology and player interaction. It is a game where you are gaming the players and not gaming a system. You need to watch your opponents closely and guess their intentions. There is no downtime. The rules are simple and this game can be easily taught to casual gamers and non-gamers. It works well as a party game.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Kobayakawa

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Kobayakawa is a microgame consisting of cards numbered 1 to 15, and a bunch of coin tokens. It is played over 7 rounds. At the start of a round, everyone is dealt a card, and one card is revealed at the centre of the table. This is called the Kobayakawa. Beginning with the start player, everyone gets to take one action. You have two choices - either draw a card then discard a card face-up (i.e. an opportunity to change your card in hand), or draw a card from the deck to replace the Kobayakawa (i.e. changing the Kobayakawa value to whatever you draw). Once everyone is done, you take turns deciding whether to bet 1 coin. Finally the players who opt in reveal their cards, and the highest number wins the pool, plus one more coin from the general supply. The twist is this: whoever holds the smallest number gets to add the Kobayakawa value to his card value. This twist is the very soul of the game.

The two face-up stacks at the centre of the table are the discard pile and the Kobayakawa.

The Play

I did a 6-player game, which seems to be the ideal number. Despite the simple rules, I find the game very thinky. When a player decides to draw a card, does that mean he has a low card and he's hoping to draw a higher one? When he decides to replace the Kobayakawa, does that mean he has a low or middling card and he's hoping to change the Kobayakawa to a higher number? The current value of the Kobayakawa needs to be considered too. A low number means it won't have a large impact at round end. You will need a high number to win. Maybe not the highest, but something close to the highest. A Kobayakawa value of 2 will let 14 beat 15, if these are the only two numbers opting in. If 12, 14, 15 are in, then 15 still wins because the bonus of 2 goes to 12, which doesn't help it win.

I find that I keep thinking about every move the other players make. Why did she do this? Why did he do that? Now of course some people may play the game very randomly, and may even win. That would make my careful deductions meaningless. The group I played with did not play that way. Everyone put at least some thought into his decisions.

The cards being discarded can be an important source of information too, and not just for card counting purposes (which is important too because it gives you definite information). Someone discarding a high card may be holding another even higher card, or may be holding a middling card and hoping to gain the Kobayakawa bonus. Even how quickly a player decides can give you a hint. A long pause would mean a difficult decision. Then looking at the discarded card may help you guess what the card still in hand is.

There is a poker feel to the game. You can observe the reactions of your opponents to guess their card. How do they react when someone changes the Kobayakawa and gets a larger number? Someone who looks happy might have a small card in hand. During the betting stage, there is also some bluffing. Someone who looks confident may be just trying to scare others into backing off. Someone who looks unsure may be trying to lure others into betting so that he can win more coins.

Turn order can make a big difference. The later you are, the more information you'll have before you need to make your decision, both in deciding your action and later in deciding whether to bet. So it is not surprising that the winner of a round becomes start player for the next round - usually the least favourable position to be in.

Our game was a 6-player game, which is the highest number, so when it came to the betting stage, many cards were already seen. With so few cards remaining in the draw deck, and only 15 cards in the game in the first place, it was easy to count what numbers remained. I tended to be conservative and I counted cards carefully. I ended up rarely betting, and it so happened that when I sat out, it was the right choice. I would have lost my bet had I committed. However, I am not sure I was playing right despite my "correct" decisions. Maybe during the action phase I should have taken the other action? Or maybe during the betting phase I should have bluffed and scared others away? One funny thing in our game was after it ended, we realised we had been playing all this while without the #15 card. It was missing right from the start and no one realised it. That probably distorted our decisions, because most likely someone had suspected that another player was holding the #15 card and thus refrained from betting.

You start with only 4 coins. If you are very unlucky, you'll go bankrupt after four failed bets. There are only 7 rounds in the game.

I like how they stylised the original Japanese name 《小早川》 and turned two of the characters into simple vertical lines.

The Thoughts

Kobayakawa is a game of knowing when to strike. It looks nothing like Poker but surprisingly it has a bit of Poker feel. There is luck, and you have limited control, so the key is judging when the right time to gamble is, or creating the right time to gamble by bluffing. There is a lot of guessing what your opponents are thinking. By looking at how much I have written about such a simple game, you can tell I am very intrigued. The depth in this game is not in how complex the calculations are, but in reading your opponents' intentions and playing the psychological game. The number of cards in the game is so low that it's easy to count all cards - what you've seen, who discarded which card. The key is how to make sense of this information. I was quite surprised such a minimalistic game made me think so much. There are some subtleties which are not immediately apparent. It's an ingenious piece of work.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

the beauty of simple games

I find that I have been enjoying simpler games recently, games that I can quickly skim the rules on the spot and teach everyone to play, and then have a good time. I used to think that being a boardgame hobbyist means enjoying the hobby is more about the games than about the players. We as hardcore hobbyists enjoy trying new games, exploring different strategies, and experimenting to see what works and what doesn't. Lately I find that I also enjoy a more relaxed manner of playing. We are still playing games, but it is less about learning the games and navigating the puzzles they present, and more about using them as a simple platform to interact with fellow players. It's gaming the players more than gaming the systems. I quite enjoy such experiences, e.g. with my Taiwanese friends, and with my family. We skip the challenging learning phase found in more complex boardgames, and jump straight into games which everyone can play competently and be competitive at. Everyone gets up to speed quickly. Also, I am less burdened with reading game rules and making reference sheets. It's a great feeling switching to a more laid-back mode now and then.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Ice Cream Combo

Plays: 3Px1, 2Px1.

The Game

Ice Cream Combo is a real-time game where players race to complete ice creams according to customers' orders. At any one time there are a number of orders on the table depending on the number of players, and these are free-for-all - whoever is the first to complete an ice cream according to the specs claims that order card, and then reveals a new order card to take its place. When a player completes his fifth order, the game ends, and everyone scores his completed order cards.

Every player has his own deck of 30 ice cream cards. Before the game starts these are shuffled, divided into three equal stacks and placed face-down in front of the player. When the game starts, all three stacks are flipper over, and the player can start making ice cream. The first thing you need to do is to convert an ice cream card into an ice cream cone. Ice cream cards are double-sided, the front being a scoop of ice cream of a specific flavour, and the back being an ice cream cone. So you have to sacrifice one scoop to make a cone. You can have at most two work-in-progress ice creams. You can move the topmost scoop between any of your two work-in-progress ice creams and three ice cream card stacks. During the game you are constantly shuffling scoops around to try to make ice creams that match one of the orders at the centre of the table.

The starting setup of a two-player game.

Two completed ice creams. The order card at the top left indicates that you need two flavours, and two scoops in each flavour arranged in this particular way. Complete this order, and you'll earn $3. If you have a cherry on the topmost scoop, you earn an extra $1. The order card at the top right requires ice cream in five different flavours. There's a rainbow coloured scoop of ice cream on the right. That's a joker and can stand in for any flavour.

There are some special cards in the order card deck. If you draw such a card, you execute special actions. E.g. one such card lets you steal a scoop from another player. There is also a card which is an ice cream cone. You can use it immediately, saving you one ice cream card which you need not flip over to become your new ice cream cone.

The player who completes his 5th ice cream declares game end. You check your completed ice creams to make sure they have all been done correctly. Ice creams with mistakes score nothing.

The Play

I played with my daughters Shee Yun (10) and Chen Rui (8), and was surprised that they both beat me. I had thought I would easily beat them at such speed games. My little princesses are all grown up now. Sniff sniff. The game is quite hectic. There is not much player interaction, since you rarely get to directly mess with others' plans. If you beat an opponent to an order which he has spent much time and effort on, that can be a big impact because all his work is down the drain now. That can be quite funny, or frustrating, or both. Overall it's a race game. You race to complete ice creams, and when possible you try to pick up odd bonus points here and there, e.g. those cherries.

I'm still new to the game, so I am not sure how feasible it is to pay a lot of attention to what your opponents are doing. E.g. to watch which orders they are going for and to avoid clashing with them, or to intentionally beat them to those same orders. My suspicion is you probably need to focus on playing efficiently. You decide on which orders to go for based on what kind of scoops you have at the time. Just go for what's convenient and hope you'll complete it before anyone else does it. Well, that may be just a newbie talking. Advanced players may be able to make better use of observing others.

My opponent Chen Rui.

The Thoughts

Ice Cream Combo is easy to teach and non-confrontational. It's a speed game and it works as a children's game and a family game. It's something you can play with casual gamers or non-gamers. Despite being a real-time game, it feels relaxing. That's probably because ice creams are inherently soothing. Mmmm...

Friday, 26 June 2015

Click Clack Lumberjack / Toc Toc Woodman (2nd Ed)

Plays: 4Px3.

The Game

Only when I looked up Toc Toc Woodman on BGG I realised there are a few different versions. The first edition rules are quite different. The latest edition (Click Clack Lumberjack) has some slight additions to the second edition Toc Toc Woodman. The rules I played was the second edition rules.

This is a dexterity game. You have a leafless tree which has nine layers. Each layer consists of a large core piece interlocked with four thin bark pieces. They interlock in such a way that if knocked sideways, the bark pieces will not fall off. However if the core piece is pushed sideways far enough so that one side of it is hanging in the air, the bark piece on that side will fall down because it is no longer supported by the layer underneath. The objective of the players is to knock the bark pieces off the tree, without knocking off the core pieces as well.

On your turn, you get two knocks with the axe (which actually functions as a hammer). Anything that falls off the tree is yours. The game continues until all bark pieces have been knocked off. Then you score points based on pieces you've claimed. Bark pieces are 1pt each, while core pieces are -5pt each.

The top layer is completely bald now. All the bark pieces have been knocked off.

Behind the tree, on the left, you can see the bark pieces which Chen Rui has arranged neatly.

The Play

The first thing I learned was the two-knocks rule is ingenious. Normally you'd use the first knock to set yourself up to score, and the second knock to actually get the targeted piece (or pieces) of bark off the tree. Well, that is if everything goes according to plan. Sometimes if your second knock is too light, you end up getting nothing other than the gratitude of the next player for having set up the tree so nicely for him. Avoiding helping the next player is a big part of the game. Sometimes when you are not confident you can claim a bark piece, you might as well adjust the tree to make it even harder for the next player.

Gaining points is something you have to do slowly and carefully. Losing points can happen very unexpectedly. Achievements come in small steps, failures can be quite spectacular. That is the excitement of the game. It is like walking a tightrope. You want to get to the other side more quickly than your opponents, but you know if you are not careful, even one misstep can put you out of the race.

One funny thing that happened in our game was when Chen Rui left the tree in a very unstable condition, and soon after Michelle took over the axe, but before she had even touched the tree, core pieces started falling off. So who should take these pieces? I'm not entirely sure. The rules may have specific rules for such a situation. I didn't check the rules then, and just made a ruling on the spot - we removed the fallen pieces from the game. Later on when it was my turn the children started blowing at the tree.

This was probably the third game. We were getting better. The tree was almost stripped bare, but all nine core pieces were still in place.

The Thoughts

Toc Toc Woodman is a dexterity game, a family game, a children's game, a casual game, and a filler. It's fun when brought out on the right occasion. I don't think you can play it many times in the same session though. At least for me, after 2 or 3 games I felt like switching to play something else. However I imagine if played as a drinking game it can be a completely different matter.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

No Thanks / Geschenk

Plays: 4Px3 recently, 2 plays many years ago.

I played No Thanks recently at Witch House, Taipei. I have played it before, but I have not written about it at my blog. I hadn't started blogging when I first played it. I chose to play it during my recent visit to Witch House because it was a simple game I could quickly pick up and teach my family. It was fun, and we played three games back-to-back. Later when I checked my rating for the game from 11 years ago, I was quite surprised to find that I had rated it a 5 (out of 10). It is now updated to a 7.

The Game

The game consists of a bunch of plastic chips and cards numbered 3 to 35. At the start of a game everyone gets the same number of chips, and some cards are removed from the deck face-down. You don't know which cards are out of the game. The start player for a round reveals the top card from the deck, and then has two choices. Claim the card, or place a chip on it and pass it clockwise. If the card is passed to the next player, then that player faces the same two choices. The round progresses, and the chips accumulate, until finally someone claims the card and all the chips on it. That player then becomes the start player for the next round - reveal a new card and decide what to do. The game ends when the draw deck runs out.

Here's how scoring works. Every card gives a negative score based on the card value, while the chips are worth 1pt each. The catch is if you have claimed cards in a running series, only the smallest card in the series counts. E.g. if you have 24, 25, 26, 27, you are only penalised 24pts.

That's all there is to the game!

The Play

In the first game we played, we had the misconception that it was good to collect cards in sequence. It's actually much better to not collect any cards at all. If you already have 24, and 26 comes up, it is not the right thing to do to claim it and hope for 25. 25 may be among the cards removed from the game. Also even if it does come up, someone else might take it just to spite you. In fact, if you can get someone else to take such a big number as 26, that's a good thing. This is not a set collection game. It is a pain avoidance game.

Michelle had a misdirected strategy in our first game.

I also learned that collecting chips is not the best way to gain points. A chip is only 1pt. The most important value in the chips is pain avoidance, not scoring. You use them to push cards to your opponents. You can't completely avoid taking cards, because eventually your chips will run out, so you need to pick the right time to take a card and the chips that come with it. Managing your supply of chips is key to maintain flexibility in controlling when you want to accept or reject a card. Running out of chips is very dangerous because it means you have no choice but to claim a card passed to you, which may be disastrous.

When a card you do not fear comes up, e.g. the 33 card when you already have 32, it's usually time to extort chips from the other players. There is no hurry to claim such a harmless (to you) card. In fact, if an opponent happens to be short on chips, it might be an even better idea to force him to swallow poison.

We overlap cards which are in sequence, so that it's easier to read everyone's play area.

Chen Rui was rather pleased with the chips she had amassed. That pile there is not the supply. It is all her money.

The Thoughts

No Thanks, like 6 Nimmt / Take 6 / Category 5, is a how-far-you-fall game. Everyone scores negative points. It's about making others do worse than you. You can try to play nice and focus on damage control in your own area, but it's more fun watching others burn harder than you. The rules are very simple, but the game has a unique and twisted evil streak which is rare, which I appreciate. Imagine noblemen smiling and pushing a gift around, saying oh no this is too precious and I do not deserve it, you must have it. The game is easy to teach, and when it clicks, the players will narrow their eyes knowingly and start nodding and smiling at one another.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Morels / Fungi

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Morels was first published by Two Lanterns, a small publisher. It received widespread praise, and was later republished by Pegasus as Fungi. It is a two-player-only card game about a walk through the forest to pick mushrooms. Not an everyday setting for sure.

A row of eight cards is set up at the centre of the table, representing the forest path and the mushrooms (and other items) along the path. The first two cards are considered to be right under your feet. You can easily pick either card here. Other cards are slightly further away, and to pick them you need to pay sticks, which is the only currency in the game. You collect mushrooms because you want to cook them to score points. You need to collect at least three of the same type in order to cook a batch. You also need a pan for each batch you cook. Pans are another type of card you can collect from the card row. Every turn, regardless of whether you've picked a card, the first card will be moved to a decay pile (and more cards drawn to replenish the card row). The decay pile represents mushrooms which are not picked starting to spoil. It will only be discarded when it grows to four cards. Players can use an action to claim all cards in the decay pile, which is a good way to gain many cards quickly. However you must stay within your hand limit. Also you don't get to pick. It's all or nothing.

There are a few other types of cards in the card row. Baskets increase your hand size. Butter and cider cards can be used as seasoning when you cook mushrooms, to increase their score value. There is one poisonous type of mushroom called the fly agaric which works like a laxative. If you pick it, your hand size is temporarily reduced and you may be forced to discard cards. This may not be a bad thing. Sometimes you want this because normally there is no mechanism to discard unwanted cards. When your hand is full, you are temporarily stuck. Another way to get rid of cards is by selling mushrooms. You need at least three to cook (and score points), but you need only two to sell. Selling gets you sticks, which, as mentioned above, allow you to pick cards which are further away.

One special type of card is the night card. When you pick such a card, you get to draw a double mushroom from the facedown night deck. These are just like mushroom cards except each card counts as two mushrooms.

The game ends when the draw deck is exhausted and the card row is empty. Highest total score from cooked mushrooms wins.

The numbers in the top left corner of the mushroom cards indicate their point values if cooked and stick values if sold.

The two cards on the left are the baskets, which increase hand size. The cards on the right are the batches of mushrooms I have cooked so far. For two of the batches I have added butter for seasoning (i.e. I get some bonus points). You need at least four mushrooms if you want to add butter.

The Play

The game that Morels reminds me of surprises me - it's Through the Ages. The similarity I see is the card row which keeps running. In Morels this is a sushi bar conveyor belt turned to super high speed. Plates of sushi fly by and you can't grab every plate you want. The fat boy sitting across from you is also grabbing plates. Furthermore, your limited table space means you need to be picky. You need to eat the sushi quickly too to make space. It's chaos! So many restrictions and challenges in your face at the same time!

The sticks in the first edition are handmade. Very nice.

The Thoughts

Morels almost feels like a real-time speed game. You are assaulted by multiple challenges and forced to make tough decisions. The pace is fast. Actions are simple. The juggling of multiple restrictions and considerations forces you to give and take. You can't have everything. You need to make sacrifices and you need to prioritise. The game is like being ejected from an airplane together with an explosion of loose currency notes. You want to grab as much money as you can before you need to pull open your parachute. There is only so much you can grab and only so much you can stuff into your pockets, collar, mouth...

This will make a nice spouse game.