Sunday, 10 February 2008

Frank's Zoo, Notre Dame, Carc Discovery, Mamma Mia

I am back in Kota Kinabalu again, and took the opportunity to visit Carcasean boardgame cafe again. Chong Sean, the owner, told me that for the past few weeks business has been very good, probably because Chinese New Year is approaching and more people are on holidays. Quite often they have a full house from 9pm onwards. I visited Carcasean on Tue 5 Feb 2008, and indeed quite many tables were occupied that night, a weekday night. I went there around 7:15pm and was lucky to be the only customer at the time, so Chong Sean could sit down to join us to play. He taught us Frank's Zoo and Notre Dame.

We started with Frank's Zoo, a quick card game. This game is played in a series of hands, and in each hand, each player races to get rid of all cards in his/her hand. A hand ends when only one player has cards remaining. All other players score points based on the order in which they went out. Within one hand, players play tricks, with the person winning one trick starting the next trick. A trick is started by having one player play 1 or more cards of the same animal. The next player can continue the trick by playing the same number of cards of another animal which can beat the current animal (e.g. fox beats hedgehog, elephant beats lion, killer whale beats seal, mouse beats elephant), or by playing the same animal but one more card of it than previously played. You can pass, and passing does not stop you from playing card the next time your turn comes. The trick continues until everyone passes. The player who played last wins the trick. The only thing you gain (at least in the basic rules) is the right to start the next trick, which is often not an insignificant priviledge.

There are 5 of each type of animal in the game, the exception being 1 joker, and 4 mosquitoes. A single mosquito can be played together with an elephant, and be considered an elephant. Chong Sean told us that there is a German idiom about mosquitoes and elephants, which is why there is such a special rule in the game.

The game plays very much like Big Two (a.k.a. Cho Dai Dee / 锄大D in Cantonese). You try to use your big cards or powerful combinations to win a trick, so that immediately following that you can get your small cards out (e.g. the mosquitoes or the small fish). The "Dee" (i.e. Twos, which are the most powerful cards in Big Two) in this game are the killer whales, which no other animals can beat. So killer whales can only be beaten by a higher number of killer whales. The "food chain" is not exactly straight-forward. There are two main branches - land animals and sea animals - but they do have some overlap. If I remember correctly, the mosquitoes and the crocodiles appear in both the land and sea branches. Not all smaller animals are beaten by all larger animals. Some animals can be beaten by more animals than others, and it is not directly dependent on size. One interesting twist is the hedgehog can only be beaten by the fox and not by any other larger animals. This makes the hedgehog-fox link in the food chain an important factor to consider. Sometimes it is important to keep a fox handy in order to beat the hedgehog.

I found the game just so-so. It is quite a light game and can be played as a quick filler. The food chain theme is interesting and applied well. However, I don't need to own it. Maybe I feel that way because of the similarity to Big Two, which is probably more interesting, and can be played with a standard card deck.

Notre Dame is a game I have been wanting to try. I was a little reluctant to play this at first, because Elaine is very new to boardgames, and this is a medium-weight game which she may find overwhelming. She did struggle with it, but she was a good sport and did her best to play well. She beat Simon, who has definitely played more games than her. Chong Sean taught us how to play but did not play with us, because he has played this very many times (200 times he said, but I'm not sure whether that was just a figure of speech or he meant it literally).

Notre Dame is primarily about card drafting. Each player has 9 identical cards, each giving you the power to do something different. Every round you draw 3 cards from your deck, choose one and pass two to your left neighbour. You'll receive two cards from your right neighbour, and you must choose one and pass the other to your left player again. And finally you will receive one last card from your right neighbour. With these 3 cards that you end up with, you are allowed to play two in that round. There is a total of nine rounds in the game, which means you will use your card deck 3 times.

There are four main resources in the game - money, cubes, victory points (VP), and rats. Rats are a negative resource. Get too many of them, and you'll be penalised (you lose 2 VPs and lose one cube from your most populated district). Cubes signify how much effort you have put into the seven districts of your board. You need cubes to take the actions allowed by each of your seven districts, and to increase the magnitude of the actions you are allowed to take whenever you use a district. E.g. the first time you use your VP district, you place one cube there and gain one VP. The next time, you add another cube, and you gain 2VP (because you now have 2 cubes). So, the benefits are cumulative. You have only 4 cubes at the start of the game, so you will need to earn more cubes from the general supply. Money can be used to buy victory points, but the most important use (I think) is to pay for the service of one of the three characters who appear every round. These three characters appear semi-randomly throughout each of the 9 rounds of the game, and it only costs $1 to obtain the service of one of them, which is usually very much worth it.

Throughout the game, the cards you get let you do various actions in various districts on your board, which let you manage one or more of these four resources - money, cubes, rats and VPs.

That is how I would summarise the game, but of course in the game itself there are many more mechanics and details which I have omitted describing. When playing the game, the end goal is to maximise VP. In the process, you'll need cubes and money to improve your "engine" and strengthen your strategy. At the same time, you need to manage the risk of the rat plague. There is some planning in the game, which is an aspect in games that I like. The game feels a little solitaire, because you rarely directly hinder your opponents, and also probably because we were all new to the game. The two main aspects of player interaction that I see is the card drafting and the carriage. The carriage is a game piece that each player has one of, and it can move around the game board, including visiting other players' districts, to collect special reward tokens. If multiple players do the carriage action a lot, then there will be competition for these special reward tokens. The card drafting is the bigger aspect of player interaction. You should observe what your left neighbour is doing and avoid giving him/her cards that he/she will find useful. You should observe what your right neighbour is doing and expect what kind of cards he/she will not need and will pass to you, and then plan your strategy accordingly. However, in our first game, we were too occupied with learning the game and managing our own actions, that we didn't really pay much attention to what others were doing. I guess after more plays this aspect of the game will become more important.

Elaine and Simon learning to play Notre Dame. Look at how much fun they are having.

Me and Chong Sean, who decided not to join us and just teach us, knowing that he would slaughter us. He is holding in his hand the hunchback of Notre Dame, which is the start player marker in the game.

Notre Dame is in the centre, and there are three player boards surrounding it, one for each player.

The black cube on the track with 0 to 9 is the rat level. Go beyond 9, and you have a rat plague. You will lose one cube from your most populated district, and 2VP.

I won the game with a big margin, because I've read about the game before and already have a general idea, and of course also because I'm a veteran boardgame player compared to Elaine and Simon. Also, they misunderstood the power of the "trusted friend" card. This card allows you to move your trusted friend to a district, then treat your trusted friend as a cube, and execute the action of that district. This trusted friend card is effectively a joker card, and can be quite handy. They didn't realise the card allows an action execution, and thought it only allows movement of the trusted friend. No wonder I received this card from them quite often. Elaine came in second place, doing not bad for a boardgame beginner playing this medium complexity game, beating Simon, who had played quite a number of boardgames with me, although not being a gamer.

I enjoyed the game, even though I feel I have not fully appreciated it yet, because I was still playing with a rather solitaire approach. I have not started paying attention to what others are doing and have not been selecting my cards taking into account this information. The game may be even more enjoyable when I reach that level. Notre Dame was on my potential buy list, and after one play, is still on the list. This is yet another very "euro" game, like Pillars of the Earth, but somehow it feels less same-ish than Pillars of the Earth. I enjoy the fact that since you always only have at most 3 cards to choose from, you are not bogged down by too complex a decision tree. This does mean there is some luck in terms of what cards you draw, but I feel there is still more planning and reading your opponents than luck. So, this is a game I'll gladly play again, and it just may graduate from potential buy list to buy list.

Next I played Carcassonne: The Discovery with Simon. I didn't realise I have never played any of the Carcassonne games with him before. As a Carcassonne newbie, he struggled a little to find places to match his tiles. He had not even started to think of strategy or tactics yet. It was mostly a learning game for him. He was at a huge disadvantage, because it was a 2-player game. Normally, if a whole group of newbies play in a 5 or 6 player game, with one or two seasoned veterans, the newbies will not fare too bad, because with more players, luck factor is higher. In our 2-player game, I tried not to play too brutally (like I usually do with Michelle), and just tried to score for myself. But I still lapped him (i.e. >50pt lead) quite quickly.

Carcassonne: The Discovery, a 2-player game with Simon.

A close-up of the game.

This was my second time playing Carcassonne: The Discovery, the first time was not too long ago, also at Carcasean, but with Michelle. That time it was a surprise discovery to me, because I enjoyed it much more than I had expected. It even made it into my potential buy list. However, I'm not so sure now. Maybe I need to play this against another veteran player to make it interesting. I still find that Carcassonne: The Discovery plays rather differently from other Carcassonne variants, and I think I still like it more than the other variants. However now I'm not sure whether it will be so enjoyable to warrant purchasing a copy. Maybe I should try it again with Michelle before I decide.

The last game we played was Mamma Mia, and Chong Sean was able to join us for this game. This is a simple card game with a memory element. Each player has 8 pizza orders, and over three rounds (the draw deck being exhausted 3 times), compete to make the most number of pizzas. Each player has 7 cards, and on his turn, he must play one or more ingredient cards of the same ingredient (pineapple, olive, salami, pepper or mushroom), and then he may play one order card. He should play the order card when he is confident that there will be enough ingredients in the stack (a.k.a. the pizza deck) for him to make his pizza. He can add ingredients from his hand. One the draw deck is exhausted, the round end scoring starts.

The pizza deck (I'm not sure whether this is the correct term, Chong Sean also calls it the oven) is now turned upside down and cards are now drawn in the same order as they were played into the pizza deck. Ingredient cards are laid out according to type. Whenever an order card is drawn, the owning player tries to complete the order using ingredients already drawn, plus any number of ingredient cards from his hand (if he has the right ingredients). If a player fails to make the pizza, the order card is returned to him at the bottom of his order deck.

So in this game there is a memory element, because you need to remember what ingredients have been put into the pizza deck, and whether there is enough for you to make a pizza. However, I find that the memory element is not as big a factor than the brinkmanship element. Whenever you play some ingredients into the pizza deck, you will need to worry about whether the next player will play an order card and use up "your" ingredients. On the other hand, you also try to use the ingredients played by your opponents. Sometimes it is an interesting dilemma between playing your order card now or later. If you play too early, there are not enough ingredients, and you will need to keep more cards or hope to draw the right cards before end of round, so that you can play the right missing ingredients from your hand when it is time for scoring. If you play too late, your opponents may play their order cards before you, and thus use up the ingredients before you can do so yourself. I find that the memory element is smaller than I had expected. It is more about hand management and planning. It is more about set collection.

I quite enjoyed this game, and have now put it on my potential buy list. I think this can be a good game with 2 players too, which is always a plus, because that means I can play this with Michelle. Michelle prefers card games because they are quick to setup and quick to play.


Aik Yong said...

Wow, looks like you go to KK quite often.

I'm surprised Carcasean did well... I always have the impression that KK people are well... not quite sophisticated when it comes to luxury - read: games.

Not quite aure what to make of your Notre Dame review, seems like the sort of game which the theme does not connect with the mechanics.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I grew up in KK and my parents still live in KK, so I do go back about twice a year.

I do hope Carcasean will continue to do well, so that more and more people get into the hobby, and I'll continue to have a place to go to to try new games whenever I'm back in KK.

Indeed Notre Dame's theme is pretty thin. But it's a good game.

wankongyew said...

I've tried Notre Dame a couple of times and generally disliked it. Since I generally respect Sean's opinion and he rated it very highly on BGG, I was surprised by that.

My main complaint is that the most important thing in the game seems to be memorizing which cards have come out and which haven't (together with their order of appearance), for yourself and your opponent, as well as the hireables.

For me, it's rather trivial to predict what an opponent would like to do by looking at his portion of the board. The hard time is remembering the cards to take full advantage. Since I generally hate memory games (because I suck at them), I dislike Notre Dame as well. I generally like games where all of the information is available on the board but you need to concentrate to analyze it.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

I've never quite thought of Notre Dame as a memory game, but I guess you are right, remembering what cards have come out is important for playing well. I played with a bit of a solitaire mindset and mostly worried more about my own position than my opponents'. I've only played Notre Dame twice, and those plays were quite far apart, so I never went past the beginner stage. So Chong Sean slaughtered me when we played.

When I played Notre Dame I mostly think of it as a card drafting game - how to choose among the cards you draw/receive, what to keep, what to pass to your opponent. Have you tried Fairy Tale? It's a game of pure card drafting.