Saturday, 24 November 2007

fascination about war

Why do people like to play wargames, or war themed games? Why do people like to play games about killing people, destroying things? Why do we let children play with toy guns, toy swords? Michelle doesn't allow me to have any toy guns in the house, not even when I made my home-made version of Ca$h 'n Gun$. I had thought about buying RM2 toy guns from the nearby shop, but Michelle said I can use my finger as a gun and toy guns are not necessary. Who am I to argue with the boss.

And yet there many wargames and war themed boardgames (and toy guns and toy swords too). There are many people who like these boardgames. Why this fascination about war? Are we glorifying war? Sun Tzu's Art of War is worshipped by some in the business world. There are many people interested about historical battles. There are people re-enacting battles, like battles during the American Civil War. There are war movies. There are lots of computer games about warfare. Are humans just naturally violent and competitive?

I must admit I myself have an interest in warfare and historical battles. Not exactly a die-hard fan that can tell the difference between a Panzer and a Tiger, but at least I know these are German tanks during World War II. Before I became a true boardgame hobbyist, I played boardgames now and then, and at the time I thought Axis & Allies (about World War II) and Samurai Swords (about Sengoku Jidai or warring period in feudal Japan) were the best boardgames around. I thought the best and most challenging boardgames were all about warfare. I bought Advanced Third Reich, a hex and counter wargame (i.e. a true wargame by the common definition in the boardgame hobby), and to my surprise it was much more complex than Axis & Allies, and it was totally beyond me. I made two or three attempts to read the rulebook, but never succeeded. I haven't even started reading the scenario book. So, my copy of Advanced Third Reich is now yellowing, and even some pieces have been damaged by my daughter Shee Yun (this incident triggered me to move all boardgames to the upper shelves), and it is still unplayed. At that moment I thought these wargames were the pinnacle of boardgaming. To some die-hard fans of wargames (known as grognards), they probably are.

People who play war games (I'm using the term loosely here to mean any games with a war theme) will explain that they are not violent people, that they are pacifists; and I believe this is true. Some people say they play war games out of interest in history. Some people say when they play war games it is in memory of the people who had gone before us, who had sacrificed their lives for others. Some people have other reasons for this interest in war games.

I like war games for the intellectual challenge. When a nation or a people is at war, it is the most desperate situation for them. They exhaust all means of defeating their enemies. Desperation brings out the genious in people, in new technology (like computing and radar during World War II), in new tactics. Desperation also brings out the worst in people, in the ruthlessness and immorality of means to defeat one's enemies. The ends justify the means. To me, playing a game (not necessarily a war game) allows me to explore all means (well, at least within the rules) of defeating your opponent(s). It's a game, so it's OK to be nasty and ruthless and pitiless and evil as long as you are still following the rules. It's an avenue for doing something you probably wouldn't do in real life, or probably would not have the opportunity to do in real life (like directing a war effort). So, there is fun in a role-playing sense, pushing infantry across the board, driving tanks over your enemies' dead bodies, bombing Tokyo with your fleet of bombers, and also killing William Wallace (the Scottish independence war hero depicted in the Oscar-winning movie Braveheart), sacking Constantinople, burning Rome, assasinating a daimyo (Japanese feudal lord) with a ninja, etc.

Having a war theme is not necessary for creating competition and intellectual challenge. In fact there are many challenging and very good Eurogames that are not about war. Well, almost all Eurogames are not about war. War themed games are not popular in Germany, the birth place of Eurogames. However, a war theme does add a unique flavour to a game. There is this excitement, and anxiousness or nervousness, and tension. We're talking about life and death here. What can be more serious? Also war games can give a primitive kind of satisfaction, of being able to crush your opposition by brute force. I guess there is still a bit of cro-magnon man in us civilised modern humans. And of course if you win by clever maneuvers and good planning, it satisfies the part of you which is the intelligent and civilised modern human.

Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge is one of the recent war games that I have played. This is a battle between the Germans and the Americans and British in Europe during World War II.

I have learnt a lot of history from war games. It would be lame to justify playing war games by saying that it teaches history. People don't play boardgames to learn history. Those who say so are just giving an excuse. Learning some history is just a fun "side-effect". I learnt from playing Hammer of the Scots that a lot of details in the movie Braveheart are plainly wrong. Fabrication. The movie is based on a true story, based on history, but they didn't tell you how much was made up. Fiction. Thankfully I learnt this after I have watched the movie, because it is one of my favourite movies. If I were a historian watching the movie, I'd probably cringe and cry insolence. I learnt about World War II in the Pacific arena through Axis & Allies: Pacific and Pacific Victory (and maybe Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal too later). I have read about this period through a Japanese comic series Zipang (by Kaiji Kawaguchi 川口开治, translated as 次元舰队 in Chinese). It is very interesting to me how these two different games portray the same period of history in their own ways. Sometimes I wonder what my grandparents were doing during that time.

War games is just one type of boardgame. I don't play only war games, and I am happy that there are many other themes and many interesting mechanisms in boardgames. But war games will always be one type of boardgame that I enjoy. I don't see myself getting into hex and counter wargames, or miniature / tabletop wargames like Warhammer or DBA (I don't even remember the full name, but it is also a game with beautifully sculpted and painted miniatures). But I'll probably keep buying new releases in the Axis & Allies series. I just won't expect my wife to be playing these with me. She had nightmares about ashigaru spearmen chasing her after we played Samurai Swords.

Final food for thought: Chess is a war game too.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

mechanisms for randomness

One fine day, I spent some time thinking about what are the mechanisms used in boardgames to create randomness. It's one of those things that a boardgame hobbyist (a.k.a. geek) does. I tried to distill all the mechanisms that I know of down to the basics. I tried to categorise them. I came up with a list. But first, let's define "randomness". In the context of this blog entry, I define randomness in games as anything that players (1) mostly cannot predict, and (2) mostly cannot control. E.g. what cards you draw from the deck, the outcome of a die roll. This is as opposed to something that a player can predict or can manipulate, something that is deterministic. E.g. in Puerto Rico if you take the role of craftsman and produce lots of corn, the player next to you who also produced lots of corn will probably then take the captain role so that he can ship all his corn for victory points before you can do the same. In Pirate's Cove, you can discourage others from fighting you by upgrading your ship to be the most powerful ship in the Caribbean.

Randomness is important in a game, because without it, there is no game. If you can predict and control everything in a game, then it is not a game. It is a machine, with a known input and a known output. Chess is a perfect information game, but there is still randomness (well, at least according to this blog post) because you cannot always predict what your opponent will do. If you think about it, starting a game without knowing who will win is randomness. Randomness is important in making one game different from the next. It is the spice. It creates variety. It creates surprises. Games with more randomness can level the playing field between experienced players and newer players, and thus making it more fun for both because everyone has a more or less equal chance of winning.

After thinking about this, I find that there are only four basic mechanisms for randomness in games. Every mechanism in every game (well, I guess I can only say so for the games that I have played) that creates randomness can be categorised as one of these four. Here they are:


One of the most basic mechanisms for creating randomness. With one normal (i.e. not unbalanced) six-sided die, each of the six numbers are equally likely to appear. When you roll this die, you expect an average of 3.5, because assuming you roll many many times, the results should average out to be 3.5. There are dice with more than six sides. There are dice with less than that. Dice in Samurai Swords and Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge have 12 sides. There are games that use more than one die. The Settlers of Catan and Monopoly use two dice. Can't Stop uses four. Risk Express, Pickomino, Yspahan use a lot of dice. When more than one die is thrown, you can calculate probabilities. With two dice, 7 should appear much more frequently than 2 or 12. The possible outcomes are not equally likely anymore, and you can use probabilities to guide your decisions. Just remember probabilities are just that - probabilities. In the long run the results will reflect the probabilities, but your game may not be long enough for that to happen. So don't whine when you build your settlements next to 6 or 8 spaces in The Settlers of Catan, but noone throws 6 or 8 throughout most of the game.

Wargames often use dice as a mechanism to manage probabilities. Often you throw dice to fight. E.g. in Axis & Allies, an attacking bomber scores a hit if you roll four or less. So the probability of a bomber being successful in an attack is 67%. In Hammer of the Scots, a full strength unit (i.e. your soldiers have not been killed or injured yet) rolls more dice than a depleted unit, and thus can score multiple hits with one attack.

Some games use special dice. Lord of the Rings has a six sided die, showing different numbers of different icons, and even has a blank side. Pickomino's dice have numbers 1 to 5, and 6 is replaced by a worm. Die Macher's dice are numbered 0, 1, 1, 2, 2, 3. By having special dice, these games customise the probabilities and possible outcomes to suit the game.

Very colourful dice in Risk Express.

Even with standard dice, there can be interesting ways of using them. In Struggle of Empires, when fighting a battle, you roll two dice, and your strength is the difference between the two dice. So your possible outcomes range from 0 to 5. 1 is most likely (10/36 chance), followed by 2 (8/36), 0 & 3 (both 6/36), 4 (4/36) and 5 (2/36). In Yspahan, you throw 9 dice (you can pay to add more), and then group them by numbers, and then these groups of dice are assigned to up to six possible actions that all players can choose for this round. Sometimes when the numbers are evenly distributed, all six actions will be available. Sometimes when the results are lopsided, then some actions may not be available. This is quite innovative.

An important aspect of dice, and dice-like mechanisms, is that there is no memory. Every die roll is independent of the previous roll, and no history is kept. If you roll a 6 for ten consecutive rolls, it does not make rolling a 6 more or less likely in your next roll. The probability is still 1 out of 6. You cannot take known history into account when determining the probability of the next die roll. This is easy to misunderstand, because naturally people will think: What are the chances of rolling a 6 for eleven consecutive rolls?! So, those people at roulette tables at casinos who record past results are not behaving rationally, at least based on my theory here.

There are other mechanism which are not dice, but behave the same way, and I categorise them together with dice. E.g. the spinner in Twister.


The other commonly used mechanism for creating randomness is cards. The most important difference between cards and dice is the memory element. Consider a standard card deck. If you already have three aces in your hand, then the chances of drawing the fourth one from the deck is quite small. So the memory element exists because once you draw a card from the deck, then there is a smaller probability of that type of card appearing again, or in the case that every card in a deck is unique, then the card will never appear again. The "memory" is "reset" only when the deck is reshuffled. This memory element is important for many games.

One of the mini expansions for The Settlers of Catan replaces the two dice with a deck of cards. The cards are mostly just numbers from 2 to 12, representing the possible outcomes of throwing two dice, and the 7s appear more than the 2s and 12s, reflecting the probabilities. I think there are some special event cards too. By replacing the dice with cards, this expansion tries to make the "die rolls" more "fair", i.e. you are less likely to get a situation where a lot of 4s get "rolled" and no 8s get "rolled" at all. Different people may have different opinions about whether this is good or bad. I am just using this example to illustrate how the memory element is being used. This mini expansion is using the memory element to try to make the "die rolls" more "normal".

Using a deck of cards allows much flexibility for the game designer to control probabilities and the distribution of possible outcomes. The number of cards in the deck, the distribution of cards within the deck, the hand size of players, how many cards are drawn every turn, are all factors that determine randomness. In Princes of Florence, if you draw cards from the deck you draw five and choose one. This makes it less likely that you will be stuck with a card that is completely useless to you. So the game is basically trying to minimise bad luck to you due to randomness, and is trying to give you more choices. In Bohnanza, the more valuable cards occur less frequently (e.g. red beans) than the "cheap" cards (e.g. wax beans).

When playing a game with cards, you should make use of the memory nature of cards. In Ticket To Ride, if you remember that many green trains cards have been picked up by your opponents or have already been played by your opponents, then you probably should not be trying to claim a new long green route.

There are many mechanisms in games that are of the same nature as cards, although physically they are not cards. Mahjong is one example. I have actually seen a card version of Mahjong. That really saves space, and is much more quiet. But of course you won't get the enjoyment of shuffling mahjong tiles the traditional way, the "swimming" way. The tiles in Carcassonne is actually also the card mechanism. If you are like me and remember that there are exactly only two cloisters with roads (in the base game), then if both have appeared, you don't bother hoping to draw another one. The tiles in Tigris & Euphrates is a card mechanism, but since there are only 4 types of tiles in the bag, you can't really keep track of how many are drawn and it's quite difficult to predict what will come next. The tiles in Scrabble is also a card mechanism. Similarly, tiles in Ingenious, event tiles in Lord of the Rings (if you have drawn a lot of good ones, you'd better not dilly-dally anymore and quickly finish the scenario before you start drawing one event tile, i.e. usually bad, after another), building tiles in Attika (as the game progresses, you gradually narrow down what are remaining in your stacks), treasure tiles as well as forest tiles in Tikal.

In addition to being a mechanism for creating randomness, cards are also a very convenient mechanism for hiding information from your opponents.

Tiles in Taluva is basically a card mechanism, but in this game the luck element in the tiles is not very high, and also it is quite difficult to remember tiles (i.e. card counting). Well, at least I never bothered to do so.

The event tiles in Lord of the Rings (the square tiles in the middle of the photo with dark green backs) are a card mechanism. This photo shows Lord of the Rings with the Battlefields expansion.

Players' Intentions

I hesitated a little before deciding to add this to the list. It is a fair assumption that players play to win, and will make decisions that improve their chances of winning. That is something predictable. What is not so predictable is what your opponent(s) considers as the best move at a specific point in the game. He or she may feel that a certain move is the best, which you do not agree with. He or she may have some grand scheme behind that one move that you are not aware of. There may be some ulterior motive. Maybe he likes you and wants to let you win. Or maybe he hates you for beating him so soundly in the previous game that he is now working harder to make sure you lose than to make sure he wins (jerk).

Taking a step back, I realise that players' intentions are a random factor in every game! Well, at least in non-solitaire games. You won't be able to fully predict or control your opponents' moves. If you could, there is no point in the game.

Randomness caused by players' intentions is commonly called "player chaos" in the boardgame hobby. Some games allow you to better guess your opponents' decisions. Some games make it very difficult to predict your opponents' moves. Games with mostly or all open information are usually the former, e.g. in San Juan, if you see your opponent hurriedly building 4 or 5 cheap indigo plants, he probably has a guild hall in his hand. In many games you can observe what your opponent is doing and more or less guess what he is trying to do, what is his strategy, or what kind of information he is hiding (e.g. cards in his hands, how much hidden money he has left). In some games it is harder, e.g. in Category 5 (a.k.a. 6 Nimmt) it's hard to predict what cards your opponents have and what they will play. In some games guessing your opponent depends on how good he is. Good opponents may sometimes be easier to guess because he knows the game well. A new player may be quite clueless. In some games guessing your opponent well requires knowing him well, e.g. some people just enjoy being the assassin or the thief in Citadels, or some people just want to be them to protect themselves.

Hidden information in a common mechanism that can be used to hide player intentions. Your cards in Jambo, the number of cubes (i.e. your score) behind your screen in Tigris & Euphrates, your ticket cards in Ticket To Ride. Maybe this is another topic I can explore in the future.


The last thing that I can think of, which probably will not apply to most boardgames, and will only apply to dexterity games, is physics. Most boardgames are about information, and the physical components just represent information. Boardgames can easily be implemented as a computer program. Then you just have pixels on the screen instead of physical components representing and presenting information. Physics does not come into play in these cases. But when it comes to games like Carrom and Loopin' Louie, physics do come into play. The strength of your finger flicking the disc, the friction of the table, the slight tilt of the table etc.

Now let's see how my hypothesis can be applied to my collection of games. I'll mostly skip the 3rd and 4th, player intentions and physics, since the former is applicable to all games, and the latter is applicable to very few games. Let's see how card and dice apply to some of my games.

  • Acquire - The tiles are a card mechanism.
  • Age of steam - Has dice.
  • A Game of Thrones - Although you have cards, everyone has a fixed hand, and the key element of randomness is actually player intentions, because you don't know which card your opponent will play. Also you don't know when your ally will backstab you.
  • Amun-Re - Province card = card mechanism. Worshipping (or stealing from) Amun-Re = player intentions. I guess blind bidding = player intentions.
  • Ark - It's a card game, so obviously...
  • Blokus - No card, no dice. Only player intentions. This is a perfect information game, like Chess, and yet it is a very newbie-friendly game. I guess it depends on how seriously you want to take it.
  • Ca$h n Gun$ - Definitely player intentions, plus a bit of card mechanism in the 5 money cards revealed each turn.
  • Caylus - I can't think of any randomness other than player intention. No, wait, the first six pink public buildings are set up in a random order. And I think that's the only randomness.
  • Chicken Cha Cha Cha - Card.
  • En Garde - Card, and memory element is important because the card deck is so small.
  • Gulo Gulo - Card.
  • Hammer of the Scots - Cards you draw at the start of every year, and dice during battles and some events.
  • Hansa - Card mechanism, for the distribution of goods at each city.
  • LOTR: Confrontation - Mostly player intentions, but you can say there's a bit of card mechanism, in terms of how your opponent's characters gradually get revealed. The cards in this game doesn't really have the card mechanism that I'm talking about, because you know exactly what your opponent has in his hand. It is his intention that you have to guess.
  • Modern Art - Definitely card.
  • Monopoly - Mostly dice, and that's probably why many Eurogamers dislike it. Card too for the Chance and Community Chest card decks.
  • Mykerinos - Card, in terms of what "lands" get drawn and how they are laid out at the start of every round.
  • Power Grid - Card, for the power plants.
  • Puerto Rico - Card, for the plantations. And that's the only random element, and the impact is not very big.
  • Ra - Card.
  • Risk - Lots of dice. Cards in terms of your card rewarded after a successful attack.
  • Samurai - Card, for your hand of tiles.
  • Through the Desert - There is some randomness in the setup, in where the oases are placed, and where the water holes of values 1 to 3 are placed. I guess you can say the setup has a card type randomness, in that if you've placed a 3-value water hole, then there are fewer 3-value water holes for you to place. The game itself doesn't have any dice or card type randomness.
  • Traumfabrik / Hollywood Blockbuster - Card.
  • Villa Paletti - Here's one with physics.
  • Wallenstein - Another one with physics. When you throw cubes into the cube tower, you will not know exactly how many will fall through and come out, and how many will be stuck inside.
  • Yinsh - Perfect information game, i.e. only player intention.

Hey, my generalisation seems to work!

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Axis & Allies Battle of the Bulge

On 10 Nov 2007 I played my second game of Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge. It was Han's first time. This time I played as the Axis. The last time when I played against Chee Seng I played the Allies.

Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge is about the famous Battle of the Bulge battle during World War 2, between Germany and the Allied forces. At the time the tide had turned and the Allies were gaining ground on Germany, after having landed in Normandy and liberated territories previously conquered by Germany. This battle was one of Germany's last major offensive operations, with the objective of capturing the port of Antwerp, thus cutting off the supply line of the Allies. In retrospect the objective was overly optimistic, even though the Germans were initially successful in this battle, having planned it well and used the element of surprise well. In the end, the Germans failed to capture Antwerp. They did create a bulge in the front line at one point, thus the name of the battle.

In this game, instead of setting the same goal as the Germans had in history, the designer Larry Harris gave the Axis player a different (and more realistic) goal - to outdo the Germans. You can say it is to create a bigger bulge than was achieved in real history. For the Allies, the goal is to prevent this from happening. The game is played over 8 rounds. The Axis wins if at the end of any round they capture 24 victory points worth of towns. Else the Allies win. The Axis start with a strong presence on the board, and also some reinforcements coming in the first few rounds of the game. The Allies start with little presence, but have more reinforcements coming. In the first four rounds, the weather is bad and aircraft cannot fly, but in the subsequent four rounds, aircraft comes into play. The Allies have an advantage in the air. There is a very clear change of momentum in the game. The Axis are strong at the start, and must utilise this advantage well and play aggressively. The Allies need to try to hold on for the first four rounds, balancing between conceding ground, falling back and regrouping, and at the same time trying to hold back the Axis and not let them advance too easily. The second half of the game is when the Allies see the tide turning. This is an interesting asymmetry.

One difference between Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge and other games in the Axis & Allies series (Axis & Allies, Axis & Allies: Europe, Axis & Allies: Pacific) is that you don't get to build new units. Instead, you have a more-or-less fixed timetable for when reinforcements will arrive at the scene. This is similar to Axis & Allies: D-Day, the only game in the series that I do not own. Another big difference is how casualties are handled. In the standard Axis & Allies fare, the defender decides which unit dies, and usually it'll be the poor cheap infantry. In Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge the casualty system assigns hits randomly. And not all units die when hit. Infantry, tanks and artillery are only forced to retreat if hit once, and die only when hit twice. There can be times when the same unlucky tank is hit more than twice (i.e. will be destroyed) and the joker next to it doesn't get a scratch. Or sometimes when you attack, your (incompetent) men end up destroying all those supplies and trucks that you are hoping to capture and neglect to kill that lone infantry guarding the supplies and trucks. This casualty system is interesting and I find it is in a way more realistic too.

Trucks and supplies are another important addition. You need supplies to attack and to move. Without supplies, your men (and tanks and artillery) cannot even return fire when shot at. They will be sitting ducks. So supplies are important. The Allies have more than enough supplies, but supplies can be a bit thin for the Axis. So far in my two games supplies have not yet been a major difficulty for the Axis, but it did provide some challenge. Trucks are important for transporting supplies, and also for transporting infantry and artillery to the front lines (otherwise they can only move one step at a time).

Overview of the initial setup of the game.

One of the three reinforcement sheets for the Allies. This has a mixture of British (biege) and American (green) units.

The cool black German reinforcements.

Aerial view of the initial setup.

Slightly up close and personal with the troops.

In our game, I (as the Axis) had some pretty good die rolls from the start. In contrast, Han's die rolls were not exactly auspicious, to put it in a nice way. He had lots of 11s (you need 6 or below to score a hit, since those were 12-sided dice). The Allies do not get to shoot in the first round, and can only move after all shots were fired. This is to represent the element of surprise that the Axis had. The Axis caused some major damage in the first round. In the next few rounds, the Axis offensive was quite successful, in some areas completely wiping out the Allied resistance. However, in some towns, notably one of the northern towns, Verviers, the Allied soldiers fought bravely, despite being outnumbered. The attacking Axis forces could not kill off the defenders or force all of them to retreat and vacate the town. Some of the defenders were very stubborn and held on to the important town (3 victory points). In round 5, the bombers and fighters arrived, providing much needed support to the Allied forces. Unfortunately it was too late. The Axis were already well poised to conquer the last few towns to score more than 24VP. The Allies did not have enough ground troops to stop the still strong Axis forces. In retrospect, the Allies probably should have conceded more ground earlier, and only left token defenders just to waste the Axis' supplies (you need to spend supplies to attack, even if only attacking one lone infantry). Han had underestimated the value & scarcity of his units. He probably should have retreated a bit more to regroup, rather than standing his ground. And the not-so-auspicious die rolls definitely didn't help. One heroic moment in the battle was when a lone British tank blitzed through a hole in the German front to recapture a small town. Tanks can blitz, i.e. move twice, by paying two supply tokens instead of one. This British tank created a zone of control (also a new concept, meaning any hex adjacent to any enemy combat unit) such that I had two hexes which had no retreat path, i.e. any units there being shot at and forced to retreat will have nowhere to retreat to, and will be destroyed instead. I paid dearly for my mistake in leaving a hole in my front line.

The bulge I created when my southern force wiped out the Allied defenders. Actually I'm not even sure whether the bulge should look like that. I hope I didn't get the front line marker placement rules wrong.

The brave British tank that broke through the German defenses to recapture the town of Houffalize.

I quite like Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge. There are some new interesting concepts introduced. There is an interesting asymmetry. So far it seems that the game is very difficult for the Allies. In both my games the Axis won, the first time by round 6, and the second time by round 5. Well, maybe for the first four rounds the Axis have the advantage, so it feels as if the game is much more difficult for the Allies to win. I suspect the game will often be decided by round 5 or round 6, and need not be played to the end of round 8. If the Axis are not near achieving their objective by then, they probably should concede defeat, because by then the advantage would be on the Allied side already. Maybe only very close games need to be played to round 8. Well, that's just my guess. I may be totally wrong.

The game (in my humble opinion after only 2 plays) seems to be more "fun" for the Axis, because you can (almost) mindlessly attack and cheer on your troops. However it may be more interesting for the Allies because that's when you need to think hard about how much ground to concede, how to plan your retreat, how to execute your counter-offensive, which towns to hold on to and which ones to give up. It seems to be more challenging to play the Allies.

Now I'm looking forward to the next game in the series, Axis and Allies: Guadalcanal. It is being released this month, and after reading some articles about it, it is already a must buy for me. I heard that the next Axis & Allies game that Larry Harris will make is going to be about Stalingrad. That will be for 2008 I guess.

Monday, 12 November 2007

the convenient gaming group: my wife

If you believe some of the people at, boardgame geeks (I'm stereotyping here, saying that the average boardgame geek is male) will marry any woman as long as she is a gamer.

I am lucky to have a wife who enjoys boardgames. Michelle is not a boardgame geek like I am. She doesn't prowl and every day. In fact, she doesn't visit these sites at all. She doesn't remember who designed which game. She sometimes replies to me saying "the same guy who designed Lord of the Rings?" because I always tell her so-and-so game is yet another Reiner Knizia game. She doesn't organise boardgame sessions. She sometimes joins to play. Sometimes she offers to play a game with me. Occasionally she tells me she feels like playing so-and-so game (or feels like playing a game), and I'll be going head over feels and heading to pick up whatever game it is she wants to play.

Certainly having a spouse who can enjoy boardgames is very convenient and helps to scratch that boardgaming itch. Coming from another perspective, playing boardgames together is a good activity to spend time together. Probably better than watching TV, or watching a movie, definitely better than roaming shopping centres aimlessly (which both of us hate). I remember a time when she was very much into Japanese TV series, and I was very much into PC games (before I got into boardgames). Both were pretty "solitaire" activities (quoting a much used term at

Michelle and I started playing boardgames regularly since around end of 2003 or early 2004, when I got into the hobby seriously. At the time we were in Taiwan and we visited the Witch House boardgame cafe regularly to try different boardgames. I gradually established a regular boardgame group when in Taiwan, and Michelle joined to play almost every time. After we returned to Malaysia, we still play regularly. Sadly I do not have a regular group now, unless you call two players (myself and my guest blogger Han) a group. Sometimes Michelle joins us to play. There were times when she played more, and times when she played less, mostly dictated by the arrival of our two children. Boardgames take a backseat. Now that our younger daughter is nearing one year old, things are getting easier and she is playing more games again.

Michelle's favourite games include Carcassonne (with the Inns & Cathedrals expansion), Ticket To Ride (and others in the series), the Mystery Rummy series (we've played about 200 games of Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper), andBlokus (we mostly use our Blokus set to play Blokus Duo, the 2-player only version). She tends to prefer playing card games, because they are shorter. With two young girls to take care of, that's natural. So, sometimes she is also reluctant to learn new games, and prefers to just play a game she already knows well. She is sometimes impatient when learning a game and wants to start straight-away and just learn along the way. Typical non-gamer behaviour, although I wouldn't say she's a non-gamer, since she plays so many games. I sometimes need to rein her in, at least long enough for me to cover the important points, else she'd say "you didn't tell me that!" when she loses. Recently she also enjoyed Risk Express, a quick dice game, which can be quite exciting at times. I think the excitement is inherent in rolling dice.

She wins a fair share of games. I usually have an advantage, because I'm the one who researches games, reads the rules, and teaches them to her, and of course I also play more games (with other friends too) than she does. But when it comes to a game that she is already familiar with and good at, she plays competitively and does well. I still remember we had a stretch of 10 games of Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld, where she beat me in all 10 games. What are the chances of that? 1 in 1024. She also tends to win more than a fair share of San Juan.

20 Dec 2007. Michelle at the hospital waiting for the birth of our second daughter Chen Rui. Chen Rui was born on 21 Dec 2006.

One of the implications of having a gamer wife is when I buy games (or, more precisely, when I consider what games to buy from a long, long list of potential buys) I will specifically consider whether the games are suitable to be played as a two player game. Some games get some brownie points because Michelle may like them. Well, maybe I'm just giving myself excuses to buy more games. E.g. Ticket To Ride: Europe, Ticket To Ride: Marklin, Ticket To Ride: USA 1910 (because she likes the series), On the Underground (because Michelle lived in London for a few years), and games in the Mystery Rummy series. Well, I guess it's just practical to buy games that you think you will get the chance to play. Other than Michelle I have only one regular opponent, so it doesn't really make sense to buy games that are only playable (or only good) with 4 or more players. Well, sometimes I still cannot resist it if the game really really interests me.

Tips for having a convenient gaming group:

  • Get married.
  • Have kids. (long term investment)
  • Let her win sometimes. (although sometimes I have difficulty making her lose)
  • Patience. Sometimes it takes time to cultivate the interest in boardgames.
  • Find games that she may like, or games with themes that she may like. You'll strike jackpot if you find a game that she falls in love with. Then she'll ask to play. For my case, that's Ticket To Ride, Carcassonne.
  • Use the kids. Buy children's games, and convince her to play together with the children. Eventually children's games will (hopefully) "upgrade" to your boardgames.
  • Live with it. She may never become a gamer, but at least you can set a secondary aim of having her accept your hobby. It helps if you also accept her hobby (or in case it is something like flower arrangement, which you probably won't ever be able to sincerely get into, then give her space and time for it).

And lastly, Michelle's colour is red.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

card shuffling

How do you shuffle your cards? In my game collection, I have card games (Mystery Rummy series, Bohnanza, Lost Cities), cards games with some other components (San Juan, Settlers of Catan Card Game, Jambo), and boardgames with cards (Ticket To Ride, St Petersburg, Hacienda, Lord of the Rings). When I think about it, cards are a very clever mechanism that fulfill many purposes. They introduce luck and randomness and variability in games. They store information and define the boundaries of a game (or an aspect of it) and probabilities of those events / resources / buildings / powers appearing in a game. They are a convenient way to hide information from your opponents. Some card decks control the flow of a game, e.g. the cards in Domaine, which are divided into four subdecks from A to D. The D deck is placed at the bottom and A on top, and each subdeck has different characteristics for the start, middle and end of the game. Twilight Struggle uses a similar concept. With cards, come the need to shuffle them (usually).

The objective of shuffling cards is to make their order random. Once my cousin Edward brought up an interesting question about shuffling cards. Does a good shuffle mean when you deal out the cards, everybody will get bad hands? During a card game, if someone gets an unusually good hand, the first reaction will often be that the shuffling wasn't done well. Following this logic, it seems good shuffling means you get lousy cards. This is not correct. The objective of shuffling should be to make things random. Being random does not mean always getting bad hands, but it does mean that you should be less likely to get good hands. In card games where you deal out all cards, like Bridge, or Big 2 (Cantonese: "Cho Dai Dee"), sometimes getting a good hand means your opponent is also getting a good hand, e.g. you are getting many cards of one suit, then it is more likely that your opponents are getting more of another suit. Anyway, the objective (as far as I can think of), should always be to make the deck random.

When playing with standard playing cards, I do the interleave method. I don't know the right term for this so I'm inventing this term. You split the deck into two equal halves, and hold each half with one hand. You hold the two shorter edges of a face-down half deck with your thumb and middle finger, and press your index finger on the back of the half deck. Placing the two half decks near each other, with your middle fingers touching the table, and your thumbs near each other, you release the cards by gradually releasing your thumb. The cards from the two half decks will slap onto the table, taking turns between left and right deck, and overlapping each other. Once all cards are released, you get two half decks partly overlapping. You join them into one full deck. Gosh, that was quite a challenge to describe in words. Anyway, this is the interleave method. I have heard that doing this seven times gives the best results. I wonder whether there is any scientific proof for this. When I play the games in my collection, I do not use the interleave method.

One of the methods that I use is the overhand method. I'm not sure of this term. I think this is correct. This is the most basic method for shuffling cards. You hold the deck of cards with your left hand with your palm facing up and the deck being held on the long sides by your thumb and fingers. You use your right hand to draw part of the deck from the middle or bottom of the deck, and then put this partial deck back onto the top of the deck. You repeat this several times. Obviously this is a much less efficient method compared to the interleave method, but the important thing is it doesn't bend my precious cards.

Another method which I like is the disperse method (again, my own terminology). You just deal out the whole deck of cards into four piles. You can deal systematically from left to right, or left to right to left (etc), or deal randomly. You can use more than four piles. Once all cards are dealt out, just stack those piles together to form a new deck. This is good for dispersing cards of the same suit / same colour. In many games when cards are played or discarded, similar cards tend to clump together. Using this disperse method will break them up. This is suitable for games like Ticket To Ride, Lost Cities. After doing the disperse shuffling, I usually do a few more overhand shuffling to mix things up a bit more.

I also often use a 2-dealers version of disperse shuffling. This is when Michelle and I play 2 player card games, like games in the Mystery Rummy series. We divide the deck into two, and then both of us do disperse shuffling onto the same four piles laid out between us. This is even better shuffling than 1 person doing disperse shuffling. We do make sure that the cards are aligned in the same direction, i.e. I'll be holding the cards in the normal way, which Michelle holds the cards upside down, so that when we both deal into the four piles, the cards become aligned (because she is sitting opposite me).

On thing that I am very particular about is that cards must be the right side up, at least for the types of cards where the direction you hold them in matters, e.g. Hacienda, the Mystery Rummy games, Ticket To Ride ticket cards, Lost Cities, Lord of the Rings feature cards (those picked up on specific spaces on the main board or scenario boards), Ark, Blue Moon City, San Juan, Settlers of Catan opportunity cards. When the cards are discarded during the game, I must have them all discarded in the same direction. I cannot resist rearranging the discard deck if other players discard in the "wrong" direction. I don't do this for all games. Cards that do not matter are like those Ticket To Ride train cards, Lord of the Rings hobbit cards, China cards, Settlers of Catan resource cards.

Other than shuffling, I also apply some techniques for discarding cards. For some games, I discard cards to more than one discard deck, to make it easier for me when I pack them up or to make it easier to shuffle for the next game. For example, when playing Ticket To Ride (and others in this series), I will create four or five discard decks. So, for example, if I play 4 red cards to claim a 4-length route, I will discard each of the four cards into a separate discard deck. This breaks up the cards of the same colour. Same principle as disperse shuffling. So, after one game of Ticket To Ride, I usually just do some overhand shuffling and don't bother to do disperse shuffling. Saves me some work. When I play Lord of the Rings, I also create two discard decks, one for hobbit cards and one for feature cards. Makes life much easier when I finish the game and want to pack up. When packing up I sort the feature cards according to the locations, and then stack them up in the correct order. So, the next time I play, I can set up the game very quickly. For San Juan, when I put away the game after playing, I will put two indigo plants on top, because I usually play this only with Michelle, and at the start of the game everyone gets one indigo plant.

See the bottom of this photo of Lord of the Rings (with the Battlefields expansion). I have two separate discard decks for hobbit cards (right) and feature cards (left)

Ticket To Ride. The upper row are the five open cards that players can choose from, and the lower row are four discard decks.

Coming back to shuffling, different games have different needs in terms of shuffling cards. In some games there is a natural tendency that cards will get arranged into same suits / colours, or in an ascending number order, etc. In these games there is a need for good shuffling to make things random, because during a game the cards will tend to get arranged in some order. Examples of games with high shuffling needs are Ticket To Ride (especially when people like to claim those long routes - you'll see lots of cards of the same colours, maybe with some jokers too, all grouped together in the discard deck), Lost Cities, Bohnanza. Actually there really are quite many in this category. In some games, there is not as high a need for shuffling, because there is little or no relationship between one card and another, and they don't tend to get grouped together. E.g. San Juan. There is not really any concept of suit or colour. There is still some level of clumping, e.g. if a person pulls off a guild hall strategy, he/she will probably have the guide hall plus lots of cheap production buildings grouped together. But in general, I don't bother shuffling San Juan cards too much. Jambo is another example. On The Underground too. In some games, don't even bother shuffling. If you shuffle the Settlers of Catan resource cards, someone will call you an idiot. These resource cards are mainly an accounting mechanism. They are sorted by type and laid out as separate face-up decks. You collect an appropriate card when your settlement produces a resource. Similarly, the money cards in Hacienda, which is basically just like paper money in Monopoly or Power Grid. In Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, you need not bother shuffling your cards either. You always start with 9 cards, and your opponent knows what they are. He/she just doesn't know which one you'll secretly pick to play when it is time for your characters to fight. So, don't bother shuffling unless your opponent is the type that secretly remembers the order of your cards and tries to tell what card you have chosen by looking at the position in your hand from which you picked the card. I hope I don't have to game with such characters though.

Card shuffling methods can also be applied to other types of boardgame components, e.g. Carcassonne tiles, and event tiles in Lord of the Rings. I use the disperse shuffling method for Carcassonne, and I usually have 5 or 6 stacks of tiles (as opposed to 4 discard piles of cards). I am a big fan of the disperse shuffling method.

Can anyone tell me what are the correct terms for all these card shuffling methods?

Thursday, 1 November 2007


Today I visited a new blog about boardgames, Still Unpunched, by Oliver Harrison. Very good design and layout. And I was pleasantly surprised that my boardgame blog was actually one of the links on the front page. I am flattered. Well, I do hope I am writing something interesting for others to read. Another boardgame blog which has also listed my blog in its link section is Yehuda Berlinger's much more popular blog.