Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Crowdfunding: Pasaraya - Supermarket Manager

A fellow Malaysian is running a crowdfunding campaign for his design - Pasaraya. Click here to find out more.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

World's Fair 1893

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The setting of World's Fair 1893 sounds dull to me. I would not have given it a second thought had I seen it on a shelf, and I would have missed out on this little gem. This is a Eurogame with area majority and set collection, and it is implemented quite cleverly. Here's how it works.

This is the game board. It is a ferris wheel surrounded by five exhibition areas, each in a different colour. On your turn, you place one of your agents (i.e. cube) in any exhibition area, and you claim any cards next to that area. At the end of each of the three stages of the game, each exhibition area is scored based on agent majority. You score points, and also win rights to convert designs to products.

Each of the exhibition areas will have some cards. These can be design blueprints, exhibition tickets, or famous characters. Whenever you place your agent in an area, you take all the cards there. At the end of your turn, you add three new cards to the board - one each to the next three areas on the board. So the cards in each area will be claimed and then will be replenished gradually.

The first two cards (red and blue) are designs. Designs are your main source of points. By themselves they are worth nothing. You need to convert them to finished products before they can be worth anything. So collecting designs is just the first step.

The third card is a ticket. These cards are a countdown mechanism. Each time anyone claims a ticket, the timer marker moves one step around the ferris wheel. When the marker makes a complete round, a stage ends and scoring is done. The game ends after three stages. Claiming tickets affects the tempo of the game. Also tickets are worth 1VP each, which can add up to be significant.

The rightmost card is a character. These cards give you a special ability which you may use on your next turn, e.g. placing two instead of one agent, placing an extra agent in a specific area, moving a agent from one area to another. These special abilities can be quite handy, but you must use them next turn or forfeit them.

At the end of each stage, each of the five areas is scored. Players with the most and second most agents in each area score points, and also win the rights to convert some of their designs to end products. Naturally, said designs must be of the same type as the area being scored. So as you collect designs of a particular type, you need to also remember to fight for the conversion rights of the same type. In this photo, the tiles on the right are the end products.

You want to collect sets of different end products. A complete set of 5 different products is worth 15VP. A set of 4 different products is worth 10VP. A set of 3 is 6VP, a set of 2 is 3VP, and a single product is only worth 1VP.

The medals and coins on the left are what you score from winning majority in an area and from tickets respectively.

A game only lasts three stages, so you only have three chances to convert designs to products. A stage passes very quickly. The things you do on your turn are very simple, so turns pass in a snap. You just place a agent and collect cards. Sometimes there is a little more to do because you have collected tickets or you have a character card to use, but mostly it's like eating chips. You finish a whole pack before you realise it.

The Play

Gameplay is mostly tactical. In general you want to collect wide, i.e. you want to complete many sets of all five different types of products. Getting there is done via many small tactical decisions where you try to play as efficiently as possible. You want to collect designs and convert them to products more efficiently than your opponents. This game uses the area majority mechanism, so what you want to do is to compete efficiently, spending the least effort for the most gain. You want to avoid the hotly contested areas, preserving your resources, and invest your energy in less competitive areas so that you win more rewards with the same amount of resources spent. This is easier said than done, because everyone thinks this way. The situation on the board is ever changing. The competitive landscape in each area changes, and the cards available in each area changes. You are presented with five options, and you need to evaluate which is best for you. This is the juicy part of the game. Sometimes you want to win majority in an area, but another area which you don't intend to dominate turns out to have a few very attractive cards. What do you do? Do you grab those cards and waste your agent placement, risking losing majority in the area you actually want to win in? Or do you steel yourself to fight for the area, even if it means you're getting lousy cards, or even no card at all? Another thing to think about is how lucrative the options are to your opponents. You need to evaluate what they want too. Sometimes you make a move not because it benefits you, but because you want to deny your opponent. Sometimes it is worthwhile to deny your opponent at a cost to yourself.

In the early game, each player already starts off having one or two agents in some exhibition areas, so the value of each area to each player already starts to diverge. If you are already leading, you will hope to maintain the lead without expending too much more effort. There is a barrier to entry for other players. Still, since everyone wants to make end products in all five types, the early stage of the game is quite open. You don't have a strong preference which products to focus on first. You know you want to get all of them eventually. You just try to grab opportunities as they arise. By mid game, after you have already progressed in some areas, the needs and wants of every player become more obvious. If an opponent already has products of two types, he will probably want to focus his energy on the other three types. This is when you start to have a better grasp of your opponents' intentions.

Assessing the value of an area becomes more interesting when tickets and characters come into the mix. Tickets affect the tempo of the game. If you are in the lead in multiple areas, it will be good to end the stage quickly when you have the advantage. In this situation, you know your opponents are less likely to claim tickets because they want to prolong the stage. The characters can be useful to some players but not others. E.g. a character that lets you place an extra agent in the agricultural area is worth little when you already have a few agricultural end products, but it can be crucial to an opponent who has a few agricultural product designs and desperately needs to convert them to end products.

What makes the game interesting is how the many items in each area have different values to different players, and how you need to constantly assess the changing options on the board to make the right tactical decisions. You rarely get a perfect choice - the area where you want to win having many cards that suit your purposes perfectly, but that's the beauty of the game. You are presented with multiple choices with different mixes of pros and cons. It is these agonising decisions that make the game.

In the agricultural exhibition area (green) at the bottom left, the white player already has three agents (cubes), while the others have one each. The area has one design (grey - industry), one ticket and one character. This is more cards than any other area on the board. For the white player, these three cards may seem lucrative, but placing yet another agent here is a little wasteful. It might be better to place it in the red area (fine arts) to try to catch up with the leader (blue), or maybe even the grey area (industry) to secure a safer lead. This is the kind of decision you need to make in this game.

The Thoughts

World's Fair 1893 looks pedestrian, but I was pleasantly surprised. I felt nostalgia. It reminds me of the good old days, of the time when Eurogames had fewer rules, were quick to play, but still had decent strategic depth. It is a clean and clever game. I like how it constantly forces you to make tough decisions. You evaluate your options not only based on how much they benefit you, but also based on how much you will benefit the next player by not taking a particular option. I like the tempo element of the game - how claiming or not claiming tickets will speed up or prolong the game to your advantage. A game flies by quickly. You feel that you just need a few more actions to execute your perfect plan. But there is no perfect world. You have to make do with your limited time and resources, and make the most out of it - like Agricola. This is the hallmark of a good game. I am impressed.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Secret Hitler

Plays: 8Px3.

The Game

Secret Hitler is a Kickstarter game. It's a secret identity team game. Most would call it a social deduction game. There seems to be more and more such games nowadays. Werewolf and BANG were among the earlier ones. Then there were The Message: Emissary Crisis and Saboteur. More recently we had Don't Mess With Cthulhu and Templar Intrigue. The popular ones which I have not played are Coup and The Resistance.

Secret Hitler is loosely based on Germany before World War II. The game supports 6 to 10 players. I played with 8, so I'm going to explain the game based on 8 players. On the surface, everyone is a liberal. However in secret, three of the players are fascists. One of those three is Hitler himself. During the course of the game new laws will be enacted. Some laws are fascist laws and some are liberal laws. The liberals win if 5 liberal laws are enacted. The fascists win if 6 fascist laws are enacted. Both sides have an instant win condition. If the fascists manage to get Hitler elected as chancellor, they win immediately. If the liberals manage to kill Hitler, they win.

At the start of the game everyone gets an envelope like this. It contains two cards, a party membership card and an identity card. For the liberals, there is only one type of identity card, but for the fascists, you might be a regular fascist party member or you might be Hitler.

Before the first round starts, everyone closes his eyes. The two fascist party members open their eyes to identify each other. Then Hitler raises his thumb (eyes still closed) so that his supporters know who he is. Hitler knows he has two supporters, but not who they are. The liberals know nothing at all.

Every round one player becomes the president. You take turns to play president, in clockwise order. The president must propose another player to become chancellor, and then everyone casts a yes/no vote. If the candidate fails the election, the round ends early. Otherwise, the president and the newly elected chancellor proceed to enact a new law. The president draws three law cards, then discard one facedown. The remaining two are passed to the chancellor, who then discards one facedown, and enacts the last one. Most cards in the deck are fascist laws. If the law being enacted is fascist, the president might bemoan that all three cards he had drawn were fascist, so he had no choice. The chancellor might say the same. However, the president might say to the chancellor, hey I gave you a good and a bad law, why did you pass the bad one? The chancellor might retort, what? You gave me two bad laws, and now you are trying to frame me? If such a thing happens, one of these two is probably a fascist. Even if the two legislators are in alignment, you can't be sure both are liberals. They might both be fascists and they might have have discarded liberal laws without anyone else knowing. Or the chancellor might be fascist, and he is passing the liberal law so that he doesn't arouse the suspicion of the president.

These two boards indicate how many fascist (red) and liberal (blue) laws have been enacted.

When a new fascist law is enacted, special actions need to be performed, or new rules come into play. These are indicated on the board. When the second fascist law is enacted, the president gets to see the party membership card of another player. When the fourth and fifth fascist law is enacted, the president gets to kill another player. This is how the liberals can kill Hitler. Naturally, this only works if they manage to find out who Hitler is, and also if the president that round happens to be a liberal. After three fascist laws are enacted, if Hitler gets elected to be chancellor, the fascists immediately win. From mid game onwards, you need to be much more careful when voting.

The procedure in the game revolves around electing a chancellor and then passing laws, but throughout all these actions, what is most important for the liberals in to find out who is who. For the fascists, it is best to stay in hiding for as long as possible, and use deceit to mislead and to sow mistrust among the liberals.

The Play

We played three games one after another. I experienced being both liberal and fascist, and the feeling is very different. There are more liberals, but the fascist has one important advantage - the party members know who is who. It is crucial they make good use of this information, and even more crucial that they make use of the ignorance of the liberals. The fascists need to sow doubt and stay hidden. Hitler doesn't know who his supporters are, and needs to be alert of clues. There are ways for his supporters to communicate with him. E.g. when Hitler is president and he has picked a fascist member to be chancellor, he can pass one fascist law and one liberal law to the chancellor to test him. The fascist member knows Hitler's identity, and will safely pass the fascist law while bemoaning that both the laws given to him are fascist laws. Upon hearing this, Hitler will know the chancellor is his fellow fascist.

The liberals need to find out who the fascists are. It is not easy to pass 5 liberal laws, since the number of liberal laws in the deck is low. They need to be careful not to allow fellow liberals to be killed when the fourth and fifth fascist laws are passed, and they need to make sure Hitler doesn't get elected to be chancellor. When the president and the chancellor say different things, it is usually a good sign. It normally means one of them cannot be trusted. If you want to play safe, trust neither. The fascists will do their best to appear liberal, even to the extent of passing liberal laws. The liberals need to discuss openly and be critical of every little clue and suspicious action. There will be paranoia, as the fascists try to complicate matters by throwing accusations and suggesting reasonings on why so-and-so should not be trusted.

The president's job of proposing a candidate for the position of chancellor is a heavy responsibility.

The most impressive game components in the game are the hefty wooden signs for president and chancellor. You can kill a cat with them.

Kareem was the unluckiest player in our game. No one ever believed what he said. When he was a liberal and spoke out against a fascist, providing sound reasoning, everyone thought he himself was the suspicious one. When he was a fascist and tried to frame a liberal, everyone trusted the liberal instead. It was all because he already had a reputation as a strong player, so everyone was wary of him, even though what role got assigned was completely out of his control. It was hilarious (but maybe not to him) how many times he was frustrated.

During the setup phase of one of our games, when everyone except for the fascist party members had their eyes closed and the moderator announced that Hitler was to make a thumbs-up sign, one player responded "OK". The rest of us burst into laughter. Did Hitler just inadvertently reveal himself? We almost restarted that game. Eventually, the person who OK'ed was not the real Hitler. He was probably just trying to sow confusion even at the setup phase of the game. Jeez... these gamers... so calculative and cunning!

Secret Hitler is a noisy game, with speculations and accusations flying everywhere. The fascists are a minority, but they have important information which gives them an edge. The liberals need to work together and pay attention to every detail to root out the fascists. They rely on open discussion and they need to be careful in judging who can be trusted.

The Thoughts

Secret Hitler is a fine social deduction game. I had expected that having played quite a few of these, any new game would feel similar. I was pleasantly surprised that I found something new to like in this game. If you don't like this genre, Secret Hitler won't change your mind. If you like this genre, I encourage you to give it a go. Throughout the game you can observe and collect little tit bits to help you deduce who is who. However logic alone is often not sufficient. Often you need to make judgement calls on who to trust. You need to rely on your instincts. This is how psychology comes into play. This is where the human interaction is.

If you ask me what's different about Secret Hitler compared to other social deduction games, I would say it's the chancellor election and the law passing. These are its ways of presenting information for you to work on. Some social deduction games give you little to work on, e.g. Templar Intrigue, Werewolf. Some give you more, e.g. BANG, Saboteur. How they differ is the control of information - who knows what, who doesn't, and how the the information is gradually revealed to more players. The game progresses to a climax as more and more information becomes known.

In Secret Hitler, the two sudden death victory conditions - executing Hitler and Hitler becoming chancellor - make the game exciting. Regardless of the number of laws passed, the game can take an unexpected turn at the last minute. I find the game slightly more complex than other similar games, in particular the special actions and additional rules that come into play when a specific number of fascist laws are enacted. That will take a while for new players to digest and incorporate into their strategic planning. When teaching the game, one needs to regularly remind the new players to take into account these actions and rules.

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Ponzi Scheme

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Ponzi Scheme is designed by Taiwanese designer Jesse Li. Around the Essen 2016 period I had come across some positive reviews, but I was never particularly interested to try it. The subject matter is depressing, and the box cover does not inspire confidence. I got to try it at Boardgamecafe.net recently. I think it was Ivan who brought it. I had a pleasant surprise.

The premise of the game is you are all fraudsters running scams, offering too-good-to-be-true investment schemes to raise money to buy companies. The schemes you run are all not sustainable because the interest being promised is impossibly high. You are just trying to raise money to buy up companies, from the market as well as from one another via hostile takeovers. Sooner or later, someone will be unable to pay the interest due, and the schemes will break down. That person goes bankrupt and loses automatically. The rest then compare points. Most points will come from the portfolio of companies you own. Some will come from cash in hand, and some from luxury goods bought during the game.

There are always 9 investment schemes on the board, divided into three rows, and sorted in ascending order. The large number on each scheme card indicates how much cash you will receive when you choose to run the scheme. The card also tells you how frequently you need to pay interest in future, and how much to pay. There is a meaning to how the schemes are divided into three rows. When you choose to run a scheme from the first row, you must claim your first company in one of the four industries. That means if you already own companies in all industries, you can't run any scheme from the first row. Similarly, to run a scheme from the second row, you must at the same time claim your second company in one of the four industries. That means the prerequisite is owning exactly one company in one of the industries. The third row works the same way. If you want to buy the fourth or fifth company in a particular industry, you can't do so via starting an investment scheme. You will have to do so via hostile takeovers.

To buy a company from another player, you yourself must have a company in the same industry. On your turn, you specify an opponent and a company, then put the amount you are willing to pay into a leather folder. You pass the folder to the company owner, offering to buy his company. Now he has two options. Either accept the money and give his company to you, or counterattack by paying you the same amount and then taking your company instead. He puts that amount of money into the folder, and returns the folder to you together with your money. You only have one chance to set the price. There is no back-and-forth bargaining. Also, the transaction amount is kept secret from all other players.

Ivan, Sinbad, Allen. That long black folder in Sinbad's hands in the folder used during hostile takeovers. Everyone has a player screen to keep his cash secret. There are ways to estimate how much money your opponents have. Consider whether they have recently launched any new scheme, whether they have recently paid any big amount of interest, whether they have just bought another company, or received money due to their companies being bought.

The four stacks of tiles in the foreground are the companies in the four industries - media, agriculture, transportation and properties.

Some of the investment scheme cards have bear icons (see the bottom three). When there are five such cards on the board, the market will crash, and during that round everyone must pay interest not only for the current round but also for the next. Market crashes are dangerous. However that does not necessary mean everyone will try to stop them. If you happen to be in good shape, it might be a good time to let someone go bankrupt so that you can win the game.

The large tiles on the right are the luxury items. The game starts with four, and one of them has already been bought. The large numbers are the costs, and the small numbers the point values. Point values range from 1 to 4.

This hexagonal rondel is an important tool. The red arrow indicates the current round, and the numbers indicate future rounds. Whenever you launch a scheme, you place the scheme card next to the sector of the future round when you expect to make the first interest payment. The rondel is turned every round, and each time the red arrow points to one or more scheme cards, it is time for you to pay interest.

The Play

There are two main dimensions in Ponzi Scheme you need to manage - staying alive (ha ha ha ha...), and competing for companies. Let's talk about acquiring companies first, since that's how you score points. There are quite a few tactics involved. Even from the start when you are claiming your first companies, you are already setting yourself up to compete with the players who have invested in the same industries, and isolating yourself from those who are not yet in the same industries. If many players have vested interests in an industry, there will be more competition, but also more opportunities. If few have invested in an industry, the opposite is true. There are pros and cons in both cases. Hostile takeovers are crucial to winning. Attack at the right time, and you may catch your opponent with his pants down - not having enough cash to counterattack, or not having enough cash to dare counterattack. Miscalculate your opponent's funds, or his appetite for risk-taking, and you will find yourself losing a company to him instead. Sometimes a hostile takeover is merely a disguise for selling your own company at a good price. Set a price that your opponent can't refuse, and you'll secure much needed funds while giving away a company that you are not keen about in the first place. Hostile takeovers are very much about reading your opponents. You need to have a good guess about how much money they have left, and how highly they value a certain company. You need to observe their interest payment cycle. If a big interest payment is coming up, they are probably desperate for some cash to stay afloat.

The second main dimension is to not be the first to bankrupt. Everyone is on a slippery slope, which will only get steeper and steeper. You can be bold and reckless, but you don't want to be the first to crash and burn. Every time you run a new scheme, you are getting cash to help keep you alive and buy more companies. However you are also committed to even more interest payments, accelerating the countdown of your personal time bomb. It is quite scary. Everyone is waiting and hoping for someone else to die first. When picking investment schemes to run, sometimes you'd rather pick one with a small up-front gain and a longer repayment period or smaller repayment amount. Some other times you want to pick a scheme that gets you a huge lump sum, even if the payment period is short, and the interest amount high. Sometimes you make the decision based on your long-term strategy. Sometimes you decide out of desperation. Deciding the right type of scheme to run is a big part of Ponzi Scheme.

One needs to think hard when initiating a hostile takeover. If you do intend to buy the company, you need to set a price which your target cannot afford to pay, or is not willing to pay. If you actually hope your target will buy your company instead, the price you set must be both attractive and affordable.

In the game we played, I decided to go all out on media companies. I had five at this point. That is 15 points, which is a lot. The first company of an industry you own is worth 1pt, the second is worth 2pts, and so on.

During our game, there were a few times I was surprised by the result of a hostile takeover. Sometimes I thought the target would counterattack and buy a company from the active player instead, but he didn't and the active player (who was probably intending to sell and not buy) ended up really buying a company. This can be quite bad for the active player. He may have gained some points, but cashflow becomes tighter now.

We paid close attention to the interest payment cycles of our opponents, because you are most vulnerable just before a big payment is due. You need to do all you can to make sure you have enough cash - sell companies, start new schemes, save money. That's when people may try to buy your companies at low prices. Sharks smell blood from 5 kilometres away.

Our game ended earlier than we had expected, and it was all my fault. I made a miscalculation, and ran short of money to pay interest. I thought I still had one round to run a new scheme to earn money. In Ponzi Scheme, changing start player and rotating the rondel is done in the middle of a round. I had subconsciously thought of these as being start-of-round actions, resulting in my fatal mistake. The others were puzzled by my actions in the last round. They could see I had a big repayment due, but I still confidently initiated a hostile takeover, which was successful, and also fatal.

The Thoughts

Ponzi Scheme is a savage game. "Highly interactive" does not do it justice. The game system is already punishing, and unlike Antiquity, you will never claw your way out of the hole. You can only hope someone else dies first. There is a timing element. You want to position yourself to be most successful, except for the player who is going to bankrupt. You try to manipulate the game to end at such an opportune moment. Market crashes are a tool that may help you achieve this. Naturally, the players who don't think they are ready will try to prolong the game. Debt is ever increasing, and pressure ever mounting. The game can be suffocating. Money enters the system when players launch new investment schemes, and leaves the system when interest is paid. During the short time that money is in the players' hands, you need to make the most of it to gobble up companies.

That sinking feeling of an ever increasing debt was what originally deterred me from trying the game. Now that I have played the game, I feel it is but a stage, an erratic timer. It is within its boundaries that you need to learn to survive and compete. I like how tightly money flows, how you need to sense your opponents' weaknesses, and how you need to value how much they are willing to pay. Despite having an axe hanging over your heads, there is still much space for competition. There is no use obsessing about the axe. Avoiding it is only sufficient to not lose, it is not enough if you want to win. You need to be aggressive, just not too aggressive to get yourself bankrupted.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Happy Lunar New Year

Happy Year of the Rooster!

Sunday, 22 January 2017

boardgaming in photos: Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers, San Juan, Captain Sonar

13 Nov 2016. Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers. It had been a while since I last played. I think it was the first time for the children.

In the original Carcassonne, the farmer scoring is a little complex and difficult to teach. In Hunters and Gatherers, this element is simplified. Instead of needing to count the number of forests (the equivalent of castles) your meadow is connected to, you simply count the number of animals you can hunt. There is no confusion with a forest being connected to multiple meadows. Each animal can only be in one meadow. This is not necessarily better, just easier to teach.

A forest with a gold nugget gives the player who completes it a benefit. This incentivises players to help others complete their forests. When you do this, you get to draw a special tile from a separate deck. These are always better-than-average tiles, and some have special powers. This is something not found in basic Carcassonne. The fishing huts are also a new element. They are scored at game end. You earn points based on the number of fishes in the whole interconnected river network.

In our game we had one humongous meadow right at the centre. Everyone fought over it. In this photo Shee Yun (yellow) was leading.

This was the end of the game. Our central meadow had become even more impressive. Slightly to the left of the centre, you can see the forest fire tile. This tile neutralises all tigers in the meadow. Normally each tiger neutralises a deer. With a forest fire tile, all deers are saved from tigers. Just don't ask me why deers don't fear fires. Near the left edge of the map, you can see a tile with a stonehenge-like structure. That's a shrine. Whoever controls the shrine controls the meadow it is in. Shee Yun was the one who drew the shrine tile, placed a meeple to claim it, and then merged that meadow to the main central meadow. So all our manoeuvring and fighting over the central meadow had been in vain. Shee Yun defeated all of us in one fell swoop.

The score track.

25 Nov 2016. Jason, Allen and I played this 2nd edition of San Juan, the Puerto Rico card game. The 2nd edition has some new cards, and some old cards are modified. It was still fun after all these years. I enjoyed the new cards. I am a big fan of Race for the Galaxy, which is inspired by Puerto Rico and shares many mechanisms with San Juan. However I've never felt San Juan unnecessary. I own both, just that my San Juan is the first edition.. San Juan is more brisk, but still quite strategic. Race for the Galaxy is richer, more complex, but it can be intimidating.

13 Jan 2017. I brought Captain Sonar to Boardgamecafe.net, so this time I played with gamers instead of non-gamers. We did two games. I sat out the first one since we had exactly 8 other players. It was interesting to watch them play. I felt nervous for them. Sim (left) and Jeff (right) were the radio operators. Both made mistakes when tracking the enemy submarine's path, so I knew it would take a while for them to locate each other. Eventually it was Jeff who managed to narrow down the right position first. He knew he made some missteps, so he used the path he traced as just a rough estimation. His team used the drone and sonar to help him better determine the enemy position. Eventually his team won.

Jason was the only other player who had played Captain Sonar, but prior to this he played the turn-based version, which I have never tried (and have little interest in trying). He said that with no time limit, they considered and planned many things in detail. Before the captain decided where to move, they made sure the resulting route could fit into as many positions on the board as possible, so that the enemy radio operator could not easily narrow down the possibilities. In a real-time game, there is no such luxury. Having heard Jason's description, I am even more convinced that I should not do the turn-based version.

It turned out that gamers enjoy the game very much too. Success!

In this photo you can compare how close the radio operators' trackings are to the actual paths made by the captains. Captains' paths at top right and top right, and radio operators' trackings at bottom left and bottom right. Naturally you need to compare top left to bottom right, and top right to bottom left, because the radio operators are tracking the path of the enemy submarine.

I participated in the second game. This time I played radio operator, a role I hadn't tried before. I concentrated hard on the enemy captain, almost to the point of ignoring the rest of my team, but I still managed to make some mistakes. It was not easy! I did manage to do a decent enough job, and so did my counterpart on the other team, who had by then experienced one game and understood how things worked. Both of us managed to work out where each other were. In our first encounter we both scored hits. Due to path constraints we headed off in different directions. The enemy submarine took the opportunity to surface and repair all breakdowns. My team didn't. We had self-inflicted one point of damage due to poor management of the auto-recovery circuits. That minor explosion had allowed us to clear our board of all breakdowns. Don't ask me how we shot ourselves. I had to pay attention to the enemy captain and had no time for chit chat. Both our submarine and the opponent submarine circled around, and were poised for our second encounter. We both had good ideas where the other vessel was. We were both ready to strike once we got in range. Then the enemy used Silence. For a short moment, I couldn't be sure where they were. They could be headed towards us, or headed away from us, and I didn't know how far they had moved. It turned out that they had taken a bold move, speeding right into our range of fire. They shot first, and sank us before we could fire. When both sides know where the other is, speed becomes critical.

I have played four games, and I have lost all of them. I am either jinxed or a lousy player. Now there is only one role I have not tried - the first mate. My fellow gamers commented that one of the responsibilities of the first mate was to be the bridge between captain and engineer. He does sit between them. I have never thought of it that way. I feel this is not quite right though. I think it is better that the captain communicates directly with the engineer, or the engineer proactively warns the captain. I guess the first mate can pay attention to what the captain is doing and what the engineer is doing, and point out any risks, but him being an office boy would probably be inefficient.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Kolejka (the queuing game)

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Kolejka is a game from Poland, set in the final days of the communist era when the economy is falling apart. Shops run out of goods all the time. If you need to buy something, you need to queue on the street to wait for the next delivery. You don't know when there will be one, but you still queue, hoping that there will be enough goods for you to pick one up when the next delivery comes.

Your objective is to collect ten items. Everyone draws an objective card at the start of the game. It specifies exactly what you need to collect. This is open information. You know what everyone else needs. The first player to buy all the things he needs wins the game.

There are five shops and a black market on the board. I played with the expansion, so there is a 7th location - the vodka shop. Each round represents one day. The first thing you do in a day is send your family members out to queue. You decide which of the 7 locations they go to to queue. Naturally when you join a queue you join at the very end of it.

These were the items I needed to buy - four portions of food (chicken), three electrical appliances (iron), two pieces of furniture (chair) and one piece of clothing.

Once all the queuing is done, you determine which shops get deliveries today. Three cards are drawn from the delivery deck to determine which goods will be delivered, and the quantities. There are five goods types in the game, which means there will be at most three shops getting deliveries. In the worst case, there is only one goods type being delivered (i.e. all three cards are of the same type).

These three cards tell you that today these goods are being delivered - two portions of food, four pieces of furniture and two packs of basic necessities.

After goods delivery comes the most important phase of the day - playing cards. Cards have a wide variety of effects. Everyone has the same set of 14 cards, each card within a set being unique. The base game has only 10 cards, 4 are added by the expansion. At the start of a week, which consists of five days (or rounds), 4 cards are randomly removed, and the remaining 10 forms your draw deck for the week. You draw three as your starting hand. In a round you may play up to three cards. At the end of the round you always draw back up to three, unless you have used up your deck. All cards, including the four removed at the beginning of the week, are reshuffled when the week ends. For the following week, you go through the same process.

Some cards affect the queue, e.g. you can let a family member jump to the head of a queue, you can push an opponent two spaces back, or you can have family member cut queue right behind another family member. You can even completely turn a queue around - last becomes first and vice versa. Some cards affect deliveries, e.g. increasing the quantity delivered, delivering an item to a wrong shop, and even shutting down a shop for one day. Naturally this last one will win you many hateful stares. Everyone takes turns playing cards, until everyone passes. Only after this the people in the queues proceed to buy goods, limited to one piece per person. Usually there won't be enough for everyone in the queues, so some will be forced to stay in the queues overnight and hope they get something the next day.

These are some of the cards you get to play.

This section in the foreground is the black market. It works differently from regular shops. If your family member comes here, he doesn't simply pick up an item. He needs to barter for it at a 2:1 rate. The unpainted pawn standing on one of the goods types means that type is discounted. You swap for it at a 1:1 rate. This pawn moves left at the end of every day, so it effectively marks the day of the week.

The other special location is the vodka shop. There are no delivery cards for vodka. All vodka cards not owned by players are stacked here. When you send family members to queue here, you can usually predict whether he will get any. Not always, since your opponents may tinker with the queue, but at least you know exactly how many bottles of vodka are available here. Vodka cannot be used to fulfill your objective directly, since no objective card specifies vodka as a requirement. Vodka has two uses. You can use it at the black market to barter for goods you need. You can also use it to swap places with a speculator who is standing immediately in front of you.

Speculators are the black pawns. They are neutral. In the first round, after every player pawn has been sent out to queue, one speculator will join every queue. Whenever a speculator manages to buy an item, that item is sent to the black market, and the speculator queues up again at the same shop.

The whole game is about sending your family members to queue, and making the best use of your cards to manoeuvre their positions and the goods deliveries. It is a race to collect all the goods you need.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. Other than Sim who taught the game, the rest were all new to the game. The core mechanisms are straightforward, more so that I had expected. The expansion adds a little complexity in how the vodka element works differently, but this should be manageable even for casual gamers. The most impactful aspect of the game is the card play. Turn order is important. I feel it is better to go later, because you can see what others play and respond accordingly. In fact there is one card which simply lets you draw another card. It effectively lets you stall one round, watching what others do.

How effective your card play is does depend somewhat on whether you get the right cards at the right time. Some cards are more powerful than others, but in most cases their uses are situational. Sometimes you try to create the situation to allow you to utilise your card well. Sometimes you hold on to a card until the right moment comes. The card which lets you reverse the order of a queue can be devastating to your opponents. In our game, Allen added three family members to the end of a very long queue, and then played this reversal card to move his three people from last place to first place. This was particularly painful for those who had queued very long to reach the head of the queue. There are many such painful yet funny moments in Kolejka. It is chaotic, yet not completely unpredictable. Once you are familiar with the card powers, you start to anticipate and you learn to avoid getting into risky situations. You also keep count of who has used or has not used which cards. In the base game everyone's deck is identical and only the order of drawing cards is different. With the expansion, things become harder to predict because four of the fourteen cards will be out of play each week. You don't know which cards are out of play. I think this is good.

I needed a lot of food, but my family members who queued for food since Day 1 were frustrated again and again. By the end of the game, I only managed to buy one bucket of KFC, despite having sent mum and dad and grandma to queue in the freezing snow for days. People cut queue, and the shop was unexpectedly closed, and the queue was reversed, etc.

The card play is mostly tactical. You assess the board situation to calculate your best move. You are driven by circumstances. There is still some long-term planning you can do. Deciding where to send your family members is often a long-term investment, because it is common for people to be stuck in queues for days. You can try to create situations that allow a card to be put to good use. There can even be collaboration and negotiation, e.g. promising not to mess up an opponent as long as he doesn't mess with you either.

Similar to Ticket to Ride, you can choose to play aggressively, grabbing items you don't need but others do. They won't be completely useless, because you can use them to barter at the black market. It is a viable strategy to simply try to collect items as efficiently as possible, even if they are items not on your objective card or items you already have enough of. Slowing down others means giving yourself a better chance. Even if you don't take the aggressive approach, you can't avoid competing because many people will want the same things.

It is good that the objective cards are open information. It is the basis for predicting what your opponents will do. It makes the game more strategic.

No one managed to complete the shopping list when our game ended. It ended under a different end condition - when one goods type ran out. There was not enough in the general stock to deliver to the shop. I guess this is more likely to happen with a higher player count.

This is one card everyone hates - temporary shop closure. The shop may have stock, but the shopkeeper has decided to take a day off on a whim. Or maybe he has diarrhea and needs to take sick leave. All the customers in the queue need to wait one more day.

These were the goods I managed to purchase. All these are products from the 1980's.

The Thoughts

Kolejka is a game with high player interaction. You are always messing with others' plans. The core mechanism is simple yet uncommon. The setting is depressing but interesting at the same time, even a little educational. It is a light game that can work with non-gamers. It is almost a party game - a little chaotic, and plenty of hurting one another. That's what makes the game fun. Don't play this with people who take games very seriously or expect everything to work out according to strategies they employ. This is a game in which you need to live moment to moment. You can't really plan too far ahead because the situation can change dramatically. You need to be on your toes all the time, making use of the circumstances as much as possible. The game will be more chaotic with more players, and I think the more the merrier. That's the whole point. It may be less chaotic with fewer players, but that would make the game dull.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

my 2016

In 2016 I played 311 games, compared to 638 in 2015. Since entering the hobby in 2004, this was the second time I played fewer than 400 games in a year. The last time this happened was in 2007, when I played 301 games. That was when I had two very young children. From these numbers it seems boardgames as a hobby is cooling off for me. Still, 311 games to a normal person is a crazy number. I am indeed gaming less in 2016. I have played 74 distinct games, compared to 118 in 2015. This was the first time I dipped below 100 distinct games since 2007. I have played 30 new games, and this was the lowest since I started keeping records in 2004. The numbers surprised me a little. I know some Fridays I didn't feel like playing and skipped Friday night gaming, but I feel I have been playing a lot in 2016. Certainly I had enough content for my blogging.

My wife and children have been playing much less too. They aren't boardgamers, and they have their own interests and hobbies. We still sometimes play as a family, but not as much as before. It's probably still much more than any average family.

There are only four games I played 10+ times in 2016. Star Realms (87) and Ascension (62) are played on the smartphone against Han. They are my fragmented time games. Pandemic Legacy (17) is the highlight of my gaming year. It was my most unforgettable boardgaming experience, playing through the campaign with the same group of friends over a few months. I played 11 games of Don't Mess With Cthulhu, a quick social deduction game.

Pandemic: Legacy

I have played 9 games of Twilight Struggle because it was released in digital form. Coconuts (6) is a children's game and dexterity game which took me by surprise. It doesn't look like much but in practice it triggers some primal, childish instinct. I have also done a few games of variants of Pandemic with the group of friends who like the series. I played the Bioterrorist variant for the first time.

Twilight Struggle


Pandemic: On the Brink - Bioterrorist variant.

Games that entered my collection in 2016 can be counted with two hands. I bought Forbidden Island (2nd hand), Food Chain Magnate, 7 Wonders: Duel, Pandemic: Legacy and Captain Sonar. I received as gifts Sblap and Zombie Tower 3D. I self-made Don't Mess With Cthulhu.

There were 30 games new to me in 2016:

  1. Poo
  2. Camel Up
  3. Coconuts
  4. Cheaty Mages
  5. Trickerion
  6. Zombie Tower 3D - Quite an interesting concept. Players are isolated in different sections of a crumbling building, and need to help one another fight zombies and escape by passing tools through cracks in the walls. You coordinate your actions through verbal communication, because you can't see at all what's happening on the other players' sides of the building. The twist is this is not a cooperative game. You do need to cooperate to survive, but after securing survival, only one player will be the eventual winner. There are plenty of opportunities to lie to your friends, since they can't see what you have. The publisher is super nice. They sent me a review copy, and after their Kickstarter project successfully funded, they sent me another copy - the latest edition.

    Zombie Towers 3D

  7. TIME Stories - A fun experience. This is yet another game with a revolutionary concept. Like Pandemic: Legacy, the game design didn't wow me, but the play experience was entertaining. We spent half a day playing the first scenario until we finally won. I think this is the best way to play. If you wait too long between attempts, you will forget things. In this game you need to remember details from failed attempts to help you in the next one.

    TIME Stories

  8. Fiasco - My first time playing a role-playing game. It was an eye-opening experience. During the school holidays I made it a homework for my children to complete one game, which we did.
  9. Blood Rage
  10. Sblap
  11. Quartermaster General - A design I greatly admire. So much history and possible alternative histories with so few rules and actions. And so much decision angst!

    Quartermaster General

  12. Pandemic Legacy - My personal Game of the Year
  13. Trambahn - A very clever card game for 2 players.
  14. Isle of Skye
  15. Mombasa - Very popular but only so-so for me.
  16. Citrus
  17. Android: Mainframe
  18. Via Nebula
  19. Quartermaster General – Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian War
  20. Barony
  21. Splendor - Very popular, and I like it a lot too. Feels very simple, yet has some subtle depth.
  22. Dead of Winter: The Long Night
  23. Churchill - A game of politicking among the Allies during World War 2.
  24. 7 Wonders Duel - I keep losing to my wife. But that's not why this is a great spouse game. To be honest, I have difficulty seeing it as a top ten game on BGG. I have a preconceived notion of what a top ten game is - a heavyweight strategy boardgame. 7 Wonders Duel doesn't fit that mould. But it is pretty decent. Somehow I like many of Antoine Bauza's designs, even though I keep telling myself his style (mostly light to medium weight strategy games) is not really my cup of tea. Perhaps it's time to admit I'm a fanboy.
  25. Don't Mess With Cthulhu - Fun party game of lying, getting caught lying, and not getting caught lying.
  26. Terraforming Mars
  27. Islebound
  28. Jeju Island
  29. A Study in Emerald - A game that aroused my curiosity. The core idea is interesting, but I'm not sure yet how well it works in practice. Like Churchill, the winning condition is a little convoluted, and the whole game is about how to manoeuvre yourself into the winning position.
  30. Captain Sonar - I wonder whether this is a sign of jadedness. I tend to seek out games which have some unusual new mechanism. E.g. Zombie Tower 3D, TIME Stories, Pandemic: Legacy. Captain Sonar did not disappoint. The idea was executed well, and I look forward to play more.

    Captain Sonar

One game I have been curious about is Star Wars Rebellion. Unfortunately due to licensing issues Fantasy Flight cannot distribute this to Asia. I once saw a copy at Borders, at MYR600 (approx USD135). That's a bit too much for me. I checked how much it would cost to buy online and ship it to Malaysia. It's about MYR550, which is still rather steep. Plus I don't want to risk the hassle of it getting held by and taxed by customs and having to go all the way to KLIA airport to collect it.

I was interviewed by a local Chinese newspaper in January. This was what started that streak of Pandemic games. It was mentioned in the article, and my friends who saw it said they were interested.

I have been playing games in the office, usually on Friday afternoons. We played quite regularly when we were doing Pandemic: Legacy, but it is not yet a weekly routine. It is still on and off. It is nice to introduce games to new players, because I get the chance to play my older games again. I played Tragedy Looper again, and Lord of the Rings too. Also it is nice to play some light and medium weight games, which I rarely get to play when I game with fellow gamers. We naturally tend to play heavier games.

It feels good to have no lack of players or of games to play. That makes me a happy gamer.

Monday, 26 December 2016

Captain Sonar

Plays: 7Px1, 8Px2.

The Game

Captain Sonar was the only game from the 2016 Essen batch that got me excited enough to order without trying. I watched a video review from Shut Up & Sit Down before the Essen game fair, and I decided then and there I must play this game.

Captain Sonar is a team game for eight players, with four to a team. You are a crew member of a submarine. Your objective is to find and destroy the enemy submarine. This is a real-time game. Although it comes with turn-based rules, it is designed as a real-time game so I have no interest in trying out the turn-based version.

The game box is rather heavy, and the heaviest component is this very long screen. It consists of two pieces. During play, it separates the two teams so that they cannot see the player boards of their opponents. They can only hear what their opponents say.

The four crew members of a submarine have different roles to play - captain, first mate, radio operator and engineer. If you don't have eight players, some will need to play two or more roles.

This is the captain's player board. This map is your battleground. It is divided into nine sectors. Every row and every column is labeled. The islands are impassable. The captain's job is to set the course for the submarine, and to trigger the use of equipment aboard the submarine. At the start of the game you mark a starting point for your team (X marks the spot). As you steer the submarine, you draw your path on the map. Your path must not overlap itself, so the longer you move, the fewer options you will have. Spots marked with an M are mines you have dropped.

This is the radio operator's player board and transparent plastic sheet. Captains must announce the direction every time they move their submarines. The radio operator's job is to listen to the directions given by the enemy captain. You plot the path on the plastic sheet, and try to fit it on the map, in order to pinpoint the location of the enemy submarine. Notice that the path drawn in this photo is the same as the one in the previous photo, which means the radio operator has been doing his job well, tracking the opponent's every move. However there are still many possible positions for this path on the map, so the radio operator cannot be sure yet where the opponent submarine is.

This is the engineer's player board. Every time the captain moves the submarine, something has to break. The engineer's job is to decide what breaks. All these circles are components which can break. They are grouped into four, one group for each direction in which the captain can move the submarine. Whenever the captain moves in a certain direction, the engineer must pick a component in the corresponding group to break - crossing out that component. When a component is crossed out, the equipment type it represents is out of order and cannot be used. In this photo all three equipment type - yellow, red and green - have crosses on them, so none of them can be used for now. When too many components break and are not repaired in time, the submarine suffers permanent damage. If all six components in a group break, an explosion occurs and the submarine takes one point of permanent damage. All six components are then reset - the crosses are erased. Among the bottom row of components, there are six representing the nuclear reactor. They normally don't cause trouble when crossed out, but when all six are crossed out, an explosion occurs causing one point of permanent damage. They too are reset after the explosion. The submarine is destroyed upon the 4th point of permanent damage, which can be self inflicted as above, or can be due to enemy attack.

Some components are linked by coloured lines. These represent auto-repair circuits. Whenever all four components in a linked group are broken, they all reset. E.g. the yellow group in the photo. The engineer may now erase all crosses in the yellow group. The engineer needs to utilise this auto-repair mechanism as much as possible to keep the submarine in good condition and to keep the equipment functioning. You must advise the captain which directions to move in and which directions to avoid. You need to know what equipment the captain intends to use, so that you can avoid breaking any components of that equipment type.

This is the first mate's player board. His job is the simplest, and it is like charging up batteries. He prepares equipment for use. Each time the captain moves, you charge one equipment by one step. When an equipment is fully charged, it is ready for use. In this photo, the torpedo (bottom left) and sonar (bottom centre) are both ready. The drone (top centre) is one step away from being ready. The first mate needs to know what the captain plans to do next, so that he can prepare the corresponding equipment. He is also responsible for recording any permanent damage to the submarine at the top right corner.

There are five basic equipment available to the players. To use an equipment, the captain announces so, and everyone from both teams drops whatever he is doing. The equipment use must be resolved before the game resumes. There are two conditions for using an equipment. Firstly, it must be fully charged. Secondly, there must be no damage to any of its components on the engineer's board. I'll briefly describe each equipment. When using the drone, you try to guess which sector the enemy submarine is in. The enemy captain must truthfully answer whether your guess is correct. When using sonar, the enemy captain must tell you two pieces of information, out of three options - the sector he is in, the row he is in and the column he is in. One piece of information must be true, and the other must be false. When using a mine, you plant a mine on the map and may later detonate it. A submarine at the location of the mine takes two damage. A submarine next to it takes one damage. When using a torpedo, the captain shoots up to four steps away. The damage done is similar to that of the mine. When using silence, you get to move up to four steps in any direction without needing to announce it to the opposing team. The purpose is evasion. So, you have equipment that helps you detect your enemy, equipment that allows you to attack them, and equipment to help you avoid being hunted down.

One other important element in the game is surfacing. This is an important action, but it comes with risks. When the captain decides to surface, two good things happen to you. First, the captain gets to erase the route drawn on his map. This means you are again free to move anywhere you want without being constrained by your previous path. Second, the engineer repairs all temporarily damaged components. You basically start with a clean slate. The danger though, is the captain must announce the current sector of the submarine. This means you let your opponent narrow down the search area. When you surface, everyone on your team needs to complete a maintenance procedure. This is an exercise that ties you down for a period of time, making you vulnerable. See the photo below.

This is part of the engineer's player board. When you surface, everyone on your team takes turns drawing lines around these four sections of your submarine. You must draw carefully and not touch the edges. You also need to write your initials. This must be done one by one, and once all four sections are completed, the engineer shows this to the enemy engineer for verification. Only when the enemy engineer confirms that the maintenance has been done properly can you dive and resume play. While you are doing maintenance, the enemy takes actions as normal and will be trying to find you and attack you. Or at least they will use the time to escape and hide.

The game ends once one submarine is destroyed. The other submarine wins.

The Play

So far I have played captain and engineer, and they are very very different. When I was captain, my approach was to find then destroy. In the early game I tried to use the green (detection) equipment often so that my radio operator could locate the enemy. Edwind was my first mate, and Edmond my engineer. I watched their boards closely, telling them what equipment I intended to use, so that they could align their actions with mine. My radio operator was Tyle. He got close to a mental breakdown due to the tension. He had a tough time trying to track down the enemy submarine. There were quite a few times I turned to him asking him where the enemy was, and he had nothing for me. Sometimes I saw that he had taken lots of notes and plotted a long convoluted route on his sheet, but just a moment later when I was ready to fire the torpedo, I turned to him only to see that he had just erased everything and had to start taking notes again. My heart sank and I mentally screamed what the hell man what are you doing? Or perhaps that wasn't purely mental. Once when I pressed him for the enemy position, he shushed me, telling me to keep quiet so that he could listen properly to the enemy captain. What?! How dare you shush your captain, sergeant?! He was really stressed out. Actually this was Benz's fault. He was the enemy captain, and he didn't announce his movements clearly enough. They had only three in their team, which was easier than having four in a team. Benz played both captain and first mate. He only needed to discuss with Xiao Zhu, his engineer, when planning his movement. They discussed quietly, and Benz announced his directions quietly too, so Tyle often got confused which directions were part of the discussion and which were the eventual decisions. In contrast, Ruby, the enemy radio operator, had an easy time tracking our moves. As captain, I announced my every move loudly and clearly. Benz didn't bother with detection equipment, he just wanted to arm and attack. Xiao Zhu understood it, and made sure he kept the weapons systems online. Ruby located us easily, and they even managed to score a direct hit. I knew then we were screwed, because a direct hit meant they knew our exact location. I had my Silence fully charged, and I knew I needed to use it ASAP. However at the time I was in a narrow strait. I needed to exit the strait in order to have more escape paths to pick from. I managed to exit the strait, but just as I was about to scream "Stop" to activate my Silence, Benz yelled "Stop". They took another shot, which scored an indirect hit, and sank our submarine. Game over.

The second time I played, I did two full 8-player games back-to-back. I was engineer this time. Tyle was captain, Jeixel radio operator and Zhi Nin first mate. On the opposing team we had Edwind as captain, Moe as radio operator, Li Li as first mate and Yee Wern as engineer. As engineer, I needed to remind my captain which systems were down, and which directions to move in order to trigger auto-repair. I needed to ask him what he intended to use, so that I could avoid bringing those systems down. There was once I became careless, and didn't alert Tyle that another move North would cause an explosion. We suffered self-inflicted damage. Sorry...

Benz didn't play this time. He wanted to watch us play so that he could feel the game from a bystander's perspective. He said it was nerve-racking. He could see that both our radio operators managed to track the enemy submarine very accurately, and it became a matter of who struck first. This time round I emphasised the importance of the captain announcing his moves clearly, so both the radio operators had an easier time. In the first game, my submarine was sunk by two direct hits.

In the second game that day, Moe and Edwind switched roles and Moe tried out playing captain. At one critical moment he made a bold move, detonating a mine when his submarine was right next to it. He knew he would take damage, but it wouldn't sink him yet. However if he guessed right that we were next to or at the same location as the mine, the detonation would kill us. It turned out that he was right, and he sent us to our watery graves. Our submarines were only two steps apart!

Playing Captain Sonar is a nail-biting experience. I think it is most stressful playing as captain and radio operator. The captain has the full picture and knows best how precarious a situation the team is in. The radio operator needs to pay close attention to the enemy captain, and needs to communicate with his own captain too. When sonar or the drone is used, he needs to digest and process any new information that is gained. The engineer's job is an evolving puzzle. He is constantly making judgement calls on how best to break things. The first mate's job is simpler than the rest, so this is a role suitable for a new player, or the late arrival whom you want to squeeze into a game without repeating the full rules explanation that he has just missed. A simple role doesn't mean it is a meaningless role. Its very existence increases the challenge in communicating effectively, which is a big part of what Captain Sonar is. It is the chaos and the teamwork under time pressure which makes the game so exciting. It is what makes scoring a hit so exhilarating.

I have lost all three of the games I played. However the utter joy that I see on the faces of the victors is unforgettable. After a prolonged period of stress, that final victory is not only an achievement, it is also a huge relief.

The seating positions are fixed. Those two closest to the camera are the radio operators (Moe and Jeixel). Next are the captains (Edwind and Tyle). Then the first mates (Li Li and Zhi Nin), and finally the engineers (Yee Wern and I). Captains need to sit near the middle because they need to stay in close touch with every teammate. The radio operators need to sit near the enemy captains, because they need to listen to their announcements.

We all look so serious and tense.

The Thoughts

Captain Sonar is a tense real-time team game. The rules are quite straight-forward, so this is a game you can teach both gamers and non-gamers. I think it is best to play with eight. It can be a challenge gathering enough players. I brought the game to the office so that I could recruit enough players. Since this is a team game, you get that kind of satisfaction when everyone does his part, and together you achieve something greater than the sum of its parts. A submarine hunt is suspenseful, because initially you don't know where the enemy is. The tension escalates as both teams get closer and closer to locating each other, and as torpedoes are launched and mines detonated. Although this is a real-time game, it is not necessarily a speed game. If fact if you move about too much and too hastily, you are helping the enemy radio operator track you down. Of course there are times when you need to be quick, e.g. when the enemy locks on to you and you need to run and hide.

I have played three games so far. I can't say I have explored all the strategies. However given the game mechanisms I have seen, I don't think this is a strategically deep game. I can imagine a few strategies. E.g. you may want to plant many mines, then lure your opponent into your minefield to die. You can even use surfacing to lure your opponent into the minefield. Or if you know their position precisely, surfacing can tempt them to come near you. You can dive again quickly to shoot at them as they come near, having your torpedo ready beforehand. There are only that many levers in the game, so don't expect anything too deep. However this is not an issue. This is a real-time game. The fun of it is in scrambling to put together coherent actions without blowing yourselves up. It is about chaos and communications, confusion and trying hard to focus on your tasks. The pleasure of playing this game is in the execution, not in the strategic planning. Too complex a strategy will not be feasible in such a game format.

The friends who played Captain Sonar with me enjoyed it immensely, and discussed it enthusiastically afterwards. It does have an uncommon game format. It feels weird to open up a game box to see no cards and no dice. Captain Sonar sounds gimmicky. It is certainly novel. However I think the underlying idea is materialised well. It has a sound design. This game is great fun!

The game comes with five different maps. Some have additional rules. Some of the more advanced maps have fewer islands than the introductory map, giving captains more freedom of movement, and making finding the opponent submarine harder.