Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Blue Moon - my teacher the computer

I recently downloaded a computer version of Blue Moon, programmed by a fan, which includes all 8 basic races of the Blue Moon world. Since Michelle doesn't like Blue Moon, this computer version came just at the right time, when I was hoping to get into this game.

I have bought the 6 expansion races of Blue Moon, but do not own the two races in the base game, so I decided to try these two races. I played Hoax (physically not very strong, but is technologically advanced) against the Vulca (strong in fire). And gosh, the AI (artificial intelligence) is hard to beat! I probably lost 10 games straight before winning my first game. One good thing about playing on the computer (which applies to playing against an AI as well as against human opponents, and applies to any boardgame / cardgame) is that it is much faster. The computer does all the tedious work for you - shuffling cards, counting, arranging components etc. So, I've played many many games of Blue Moon within two days, and I'm appreciating it more and more.

The thing which I appreciated most (although I have already known and expected this) is you really do need to know the card decks well in order to play well. You need to know your own deck and your opponent's deck. You need to know what are the cards in your opponent's deck which can counter your every move, so you will be careful what cards you play. E.g. when playing Hoax against the Vulca, I know that the Vulca's mutant card can be played to change the contested element from earth to fire (also vice versa) if the Vulca is being attacked by Earth 5 or more, so I need to be careful before I attack with Earth 5. You also need to know what are the powerful combos that you can use. I learnt some tricks from the AI. As Vulca attacking my Hoax, one of the powerful combos that the Vulca can play is the Fire 7 character card plus another card which only allows you to play at most one card (if I remember correctly). Since the Hoax does not have any character card of Fire 7, the Hoax will be forced to retreat.

Another important thing is knowing when to retreat. If you retreat when your opponent has played 6 or more cards, he attracts 2 dragons instead of 1. So sometimes when things do not look right, you need to cut your losses and retreat early. Luring your opponent into continuing the fight is also an important consideration. Let say you have played 3 cards, and they are not all that powerful. Your opponent may be tempted to continue the fight and try to win it. Then you play a character card, a booster card, and another booster card with the free icon (normally you can play at most one character card and one booster or support card, i.e. two cards). You are suddenly at 6 cards, and at a high number, which your opponent cannot match, and is forced to retreat, allowing you to attract 2 dragons. This brinkmanship is interesting. Looking from another angle, sometimes you can also try to bluff your opponent into retreating before you reach 6 cards.

The computer version of Blue Moon - playing the Hoax against the AI playing the Vulca.

Knowing all the possible combos you can play with your deck is one thing. Knowing when to give up trying to make these combos is another. Your hand is 6 cards. Sometimes when you know two cards being played together makes a lethal combo, you will be tempted to keep one of these two cards when you draw it, and wait for the other. Or sometimes when you have a card with a special power, you want to wait for a good opportunity to make use of this power. E.g. there is a Hoax card which if played, and then you retreat, your opponent does not attract dragons. This is a good defensive move. However, if you are too obsessed with trying to make full use of every card, you may find yourself stuck in a hole. When I played Aqua, I was stuck a few times with no character cards in my hand. When you have no character cards to play, you are forced to retreat. So sometimes it is important that you keep moving through your deck, even if it means you have to "waste" some special powers of your cards. I have seen the AI do this, e.g. when the contested element is fire, the AI played a booster card on top of its character card, which boosts the earth value (i.e. useless). Only then I realised the intention of the AI was to get rid of cards it didn't want, in order to draw more cards. You always draw up to 6 cards at the end of your turn. In this game you sometimes need to let go of opportunities.

The pace of going through your deck is also important. The game ends when one player is out of cards (from both his draw deck and his hand). Whoever has dragons on his side wins. However, if all dragons are in the centre, the player with no cards loses. So, it can be tricky whether to speed up (when you're ahead) or slow down the game end (if you're behind). Speeding up may not always be wise, because when you are at your last few cards, you may not have good cards and may lose one fight after another, giving the victory to your opponent when you run out of cards.

Playing Blue Moon against the AI has really been an express course in learning the game, and in appreciating the depth and strategy of the game. The AI is very good, and I think a lot of thought and hard work had gone into programming this. I really suspect the AI does card counting, i.e. it tracks exactly which cards you (and it) have played, and what cards are remaining in the deck. This gives the AI an advantage, because a human will find it difficult to track all 60 cards (30 cards per player). There were a few times which I thought there was a bug in the program, because the AI seemed to have broken a rule, or I wasn't allowed to do something which I should be allowed to do, or I was allowed to do something which I should not be allowed to do. However, after checking carefully all the card text and icons in play, I realised I was wrong and the program was correct. Only one thing which I still have a little suspiscion that it is a bug is that sometimes the AI retreats unnecessarily. There is a feature which allows you to reveal the AI's cards. There were a few times at game end when I used this feature to see the AI's cards, and found that it could still play cards and didn't need to retreat so soon. I wonder whether this is a bug, or whether the AI had already calculated all the possibilities and knew it could not have won the game.

After getting to know Blue Moon better, and appreciating the intricacies better, I find that Blue Moon can be a light filler game, if both players are good at it and play at the same skill level. It is certainly a game that rewards study and effort spent to get familiar with the card decks. No regrets buying those 6 expansion decks. I am tempted to buy the base set now, if only Michelle would play it with me...

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