I have now played almost 250 games of Race for the Galaxy. I have played 30+ 2-player games with The Gathering Storm, the first expansion. Being a big fan of Race for the Galaxy, there was no doubt that I'd buy this expansion. I also fully intend to buy the next two expansions, although there is no confirmed date even for the next one.
I like The Gathering Storm, and will not be playing without it in future. It adds more to the game, and provides more variety. More start worlds, more 6-cost development cards, Improved Logistics, a development which indeed can change the pace of a game dramatically. In summary, more and better. And I also think of it as more complete, as strategies around gene worlds and alien goods worlds are more viable now. They used to be quite hard to execute in the base game.
I actually like the objectives aspect of the game. Every game, there are two 5VP most-of objectives (e.g. most novelty goods and rare elements worlds) and four 3VP first-to objectives (e.g. first player to have more than 10 cards at the end of a round and have to discard) randomly decided. When I first found out about them, I thought they would be quite tedious, and I didn't expect to like them. Something distracting and not fun, something that makes the game not pure anymore. Other players also think they introduce more luck. If your starting world and your starting hand are not helpful towards any of the randomly drawn objectives, then you are out of luck. So initially I played without the objectives.
Later I decided to try it out, just to see how it plays. It turned out to be quite alright. There is some luck, but I don't mind it. It isn't tedious. It adds another consideration when you play, which I find interesting. There are some games where neither of us have cards tending strongly to any particular strategy, and we end up choosing the strategy which can help us more towards the objectives. There is also a game of chicken in the first-to objectives. You have a 6-cost dev card that you can play, but do you want to play it now, depleting your hand, or do you play it later, hoping your opponent won't play one before you? I will likely continue to play with the objectives.
Race for the Galaxy is my current most played game, at 240+ plays. It is also Michelle's most played game, at 230+ plays. When its expansion The Gathering Storm came out, there was no doubt that I would buy it. The expansion comes with some new cards, the objectives (which most veteran players seem to prefer to play without), and the solo variant.
In the solo variant, you play the two-player advanced game against a robot. You get a bunch of unusual components for this variant, and quite a bit of unfamiliar rules for how the robot works. The robot's actions are driven by dice. Some die roll results directly dictate what the robot will do. Some results will make the robot mimic your actions. Some will make the robot take a preferred action, which depends on the robot's starting world. So basically you get to play against 9 different robots, depending on what the start world of the robot is.
Rules for the robot are rather convoluted at first. They are not like the rules for the human player at all. You still play as normal, but when it is the robot's turn to carry out actions, you do them for the robot in a very different way. There are parallels to what a human player does, but to me it was like learning a new game. The robot has a concept of credit, which is roughly equivalent to how many cards a player has in hand. The robot does have a "hand" of cards, but it uses it to search for the appropriate card (dev, 6-cost dev, regular world, or military world) to build, not for paying for the build. The robot has a concept of economy size, which is roughly equivalent to how many points a human player can earn by doing Consume. The difficulty of the solo game is adjusted by using the 6-cost development tiles (not cards), which is yet another new thing. The robot has 1 to 3 of these, each worth 6 or 9 points, depending on the difficulty level you want to play at. These tiles can be built by the robot quite easily (in my opinion) during the game, during the Develop phase (of course).
So, as you play, you also manage the robot actions, and you race against the robot. The game ends in the same way as human-vs-human games - victory point chips exhausted, or 12 cards built.
Having played about 10 solo games now, my first impression was the robot is rather dumb. There is sometimes no logic to the robot's "choices". Such "choices" are just random die roll results after all. Sometimes it feels that the robot is not making sense at all, "picking" an action that does not benefit it at all. Also it seems just very stupid to have 6-cost development cards worth 0 points. Why bother building it? Then I started to see that the robot is not really meant to be intelligent. "Robot" does not necessarily equal "Artificial Intelligence". The robot was designed to mimic a human player, or rather to mimic what a human player can achieve in a typical game of Race for the Galaxy. I say this because the robot is following very different rules to achieve it. Playing against the robot feels very different from playing against a human. It is more about managing risk and calculating probabilities (i.e. outcome of the die rolls) rather than guessing your opponent's intentions and guessing what his/her long-term strategy is.
To beat the robot you need to understand how it works, and you need to understand how to exploit its limitations, or at least know how to minimise the chances of indirectly helping it. Knowing that sometimes it "copies" your actions, you need to think twice before selecting Consume x 2 if the robot's economy size is 5 (i.e. it would score 10VP if it also does Consume x 2). The robot's main ways of scoring are the 6-cost development tiles and the victory points. I find that usually it doesn't score much from worlds or normal developments. The 6-cost dev tiles (as opposed to dev cards) are a mechanism to adjust the difficulty level. The robot most of the time will be able to play all of its 6-cost dev tiles, unless you are really really quick in ending the game. So when you decide to play with 1 6VP tile (easy), 2 6VP tiles (medium) or 3 9VP tiles (hard), you are more or less already deciding that the robot will at least have 6VP / 12VP / 27VP.
You need to watch the robot's economy size closely. To me, it's kind of a countdown timer. The robot's economy will grow, sometimes quickly sometimes not, and the bigger it grows, the more dangerous it will be. You cannot allow it to do Consume too many times, especially when its economy size is big. It can earn lots of VPs this way, and also end the game very quickly by exhausting the VPs.
In contrast, the robot playing cards into its tableau is a mostly random affair. When doing Develop or Settle, the robot just develops or settles the first card of the right type as you flip through its draw deck. The robot doesn't choose which card to play. Most of the time the robot is slower to play cards into the tableau, and normally it doesn't score lot from these cards played, especially the 6-cost development cards. But of course sometimes when the robot is lucky it will keep drawing and settling the big worlds, or it will develop a 6-cost development card which jives with its tableau well.
Correction, 28 Dec 2008. 6-cost dev cards played by the robot count as 6VP or 9VP, depending on the difficulty level, and do not score according to the special text on the cards. Thanks crushedguava for pointing this out.
One more difference between robot-vs-human and human-vs-human is you get to see many more cards, because you help the robot flip through its deck, and you can take the opportunity to see what cards have appeared. This can be useful, but I'm not quite at the level of expertise yet to make good use of this information or to do card counting.
I am now playing against the medium difficulty robot. I win slightly less than half of the games. It gives me enough challenge. I still don't feel I have fully figured out all the tricks to beat it, but I'm enjoying the exploration. My view of the solo game is it is a worthwhile exercise if you set your expectations right. It won't replace human-vs-human games. It is something very different. I still prefer human-vs-human games, but the solo game is good enough that I'd pull it out now and then to challenge myself.
My summary: The robot is dumb, but it can still beat you.
I finally got to try Magic the Gathering. Magic, as it is often called, is a revolutionary game, which created the CCG (Collectible Card Game) genre, and got many many people into this hobby, and made them spend a lot of money. When you get into a CCG, you start with buying a starter set of cards, the minimum required to start playing. After that you buy booster packs. These have 10 cards each, and the cards are random. You need more cards to customise and improve your deck. So people buy and buy and buy to collect the cards and hope to get the rare cards. I have never gotten into CCG's, and do not intend to. But I am curious about Magic the Gathering, because of how it single-handedly created this craze.
It was by chance that I got myself a starter pack. I visited Hong Kong in Nov 2008, and bought Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries at the Wargames Club at 8/F, 678, Nathan Road (I can never forget this address, even if I try to). They had a promotion, and I could select up to HKD100 worth of products from a special section and get them for free. Most were CCG booster packs, and these were probably the slow-moving stock. I don't play CCG's, so there was no point in getting booster packs. So I asked the shopkeeper which ones are complete playable games. And this starter set was one of them.
This is a special version of Magic the Gathering. It is a Chinese version, with a Romance of the Three Kingdoms (三国志) theme. It comes with two pre-constructed decks of 30 cards each. After reading the rules, I find that the basic gameplay is actually quite simple. It is like Blue Moon, where the basic structure is quite simple, but the strategies and variation will come from special powers of the cards and values of the cards. In fact, I think Magic's basic game rules are even simpler than Blue Moon. You have 3 types of cards. Land cards (I'm not sure of the standard English terminology, since the version I have is Chinese) are used to summon creatures or to cast magic spells. Creature cards are soldiers or animals which you can use for attacking your opponent or for protecting yourself from attacks. Magic cards are one-time-use cards that have effects benefiting yourself or hurting your opponent (or both). Both you and your opponent have 20 life points at the start of the game. You lose life points when you are attacked and you cannot or will not defend yourself. You lose the game if you run out of life points. You also lose the game if you need to draw a card, but you have no more cards to draw. There are some more rules about attacking and defending, e.g. if you have used a creature for attack, then it cannot be used for defending when you are counter-attacked (which reminds me of Lightning Midway, another card game), but these are the basics. Pretty simple.
I convinced Michelle to try it with me. After she played it (and won), she flatly said she didn't like it. This is the same fate as Blue Moon. She just doesn't like this kind of game, and I think it is because it is too directly confrontational. You need to hurt your opponent in order to win, be it fighting over dragons or taking life points away. She enjoys Race for the Galaxy and also finds Dominion likeable, because these are victory points gathering games, and are thus not so confrontational. Strangely she didn't seem to dislike Lightning Midway as much as Magic or Blue Moon. Maybe she won a bit too many of that (and I didn't try to let her win).
I am lukewarm about this Romance of the Three Kingdom starter set, but I see now how Magic can be very interesting. There are five elements in the game corresponding to the five land types, and creatures and magics corresponding to these five elements have different characteristics. There is so much freedom for the game designers to create interesting cards, and there can be many interesting combinations of cards. For this starter set, I think I can still play it for a few more times to learn the strategies, but unfortunately I don't think Michelle will want to play this again.
I still don't think I will get into Magic or any CCG. I don't like the blind collecting aspect. I have pre-ordered the A Game of Thrones LCG (living card game), which is a new format from its previous CCG format. This will be more like Blue Moon, where you can decide exactly what expansion to buy (there will still be many, I predict) and you'll know exactly what's in each expansion pack. No lucky draw and no chasing for rare cards. Now I need to find an alternative way to introduce A Game of Thrones to Michelle so that she doesn't dislike it from the start. Can I sell it as "just a little variation of Race for the Galaxy"?
Every year I draw a series of birthday cards, usually ten different designs, for the following year, and then whenever a friend or relative's birthday approaches, I send him/her a simple card of my own design. I enjoy doing this, because it makes people happy. I have been doing this for about 10 years. For 2008, the theme I selected was boardgames and Lego. So here are 10 "Legolised" boardgame box covers. If you are reading this blog you probably know all of them, but if there are some that you don't know, or if you want to see how these drawings compare to the original, follow the link at the bottom.
Having played some more games of Galaxy Trucker, I am now more optimistic about it. I have not yet gotten tired of it, like I worried that I might. I like the ship building aspect quite a bit. It's something constructive. It's a Carcassonne-like feeling, but here it feels even more positive and constructive (well, at least before you get to the journey part). When playing Carcassonne I focus on how to maximise scoring all through the game, and I don't stop to smell the roses. I don't really pause to enjoy the map building aspect. In Galaxy Trucker I get a strong feeling of building something.
My more recent games have all been 2-player games with Michelle. Although this game is supposed to be better with the full complement of 4 players, I find the 2-player games enjoyable too. We tend to build better spaceships and tend to survive our "business trips" better, and I don't mind that. So, looks like Galaxy Trucker will continue to get some plays.
Han brought Winds of Plunder on 23 Nov 2008. Sui Jye and Jing Yi also came to play. Sui Jye likes trains and pirates. I have already shown him Age of Steam, so now was his chance to play a pirate game too. I actually don't have any pirate game myself.
Winds of Plunder is a game that I find very hard to classify. It seems so Euro, and yet it is also very Ameritrash. There can be nasty confrontation. You can defeat an opponent in battle and grab his/her stuff. There are nasty cards that you can play on other players that they cannot defend against (i.e. "take that" cards). It is possible for multiple players to gang up on one leader, or multiple players taking advantage of the weakest player. All this sounds very Ameritrash. Yet there are also a lot of Euro mechanics. At the start of every round, you secretly note down which direction you want the wind to blow (which impacts the directions you can sail), and after everyone reveals the preferred direction, there is a round of blind bidding to decide the direction of the wind. Throughout the game, you collect victory points by doing various things. At the end of the game, you also score victory points for various achievements and improvements of your ship. The game even has Most Weapons, Largest Crew and Most Provisions cards, which are similar to the Longest Road and Largest Army cards in The Settlers of Catan, but they also provide some special ability during the game. All these features are very very Euro.
There is an area majority aspect, and there is also an action point system. The area majority aspect is how you race to be the first pirate to gain notoriety in all three ports in a region, by visiting these ports, and being the strongest pirate in town at that time. The action point system is how you have 3 actions points every turn, and you need to decide how to spend them. You can draw cards, play cards, sail in any direction regardless of wind direction of the round (which costs 3 APs), gain cubes (I am still not sure what exactly cubes represent in the game; you use them to bid for wind direction).
I have been going on and on about random aspects of the game. But how does it play? This is a game with a fixed number of rounds. Every round, after the wind direction is decided, you can sail to a new port, and you gain what is offered at that port, and then you have 3 action points to spend. Each port always gives some victory points, and one or two other things. You can increase your crew, or improve your weapons, or increase your provisions, or get a treasure map. Weapons are probably the most useful during the game, because it's a dog-eat-dog world out there. Provisions may seem to be the least useful, but they score the most at game end. Treasure maps are fun. They show a port, and if you later visit that port, you discover the treasure, and score some points. Discovering treasures scores in a kind of triangular way. The first few treasures that you find don't provide many points, but the more you find, the more lucrative they become. So it's about investment. If you spend more effort on discovering treasures, this aspect of the game will become very lucrative to you.
You can decide to fight a fellow pirate at the same port. This doesn't cost any action point. Battle is deterministic. If you have better weapons, you win. Full stop. The winner can take weapons, or crew, or provisions, or even victory points from the loser.
In our game, Han identified me as the biggest threat from the start of the game, and focused his attacks on me. Well, I am the most experienced gamer in the group afterall, so no surprise there. I would have done the same. Unfortunately for me, being at the losing end in the initial skirmishes meant I quickly became the weakest pirate. I had to try to avoid conflict as much as I could, and had to use pleading and begging to persuade others not to attack me. This is definitely an Ameritrash aspect of the game - the psychology and diplomacy. I gave up on trying to be powerful, and instead tried to focus on provisions. Unfortunately I lost out on that aspect too later, but thankfully I managed to pursue the treasure strategy well enough. I was the only one spending enough effort on that aspect to make the returns worthwhile.
There were some wild swings in the wind direction bidding. Quite often the winning bid was much much higher than the next highest bid. Sometimes when more than one player bid on the same wind direction, they lost the bid to another player wanting the wind to go in another direction, because they had hoped that the other players would spend more cubes, so they themselves committed fewer cubes. That was rather funny.
Scores were relatively close throughout the game. Han won the game in the end. He played most effectively. To my pleasant surprise, I scored the same as him, and only lost by tiebreaker. Being able to pursue the treasure strategy certainly helped. And probably my pleading and pity-mongering too, heh heh... not exacty what a pirate should be proud of.
Han was back in KL in mid November, and on 19 Nov he came and we played 300, a boardgame based on a movie of the same name, which was in turn based on a comic (well, they probably call it a graphic novel, which to me is just a fancier name) of the same name, by Frank Miller. I quite like Frank Miller and own some of his comics, including 300. I thought the comic was not bad, but I never watched the movie.
300 is about 300 Spartans standing up against the mighty Persian army. The Spartans picked a good battlefield, a narrow valley, where the numbers of the Persian army did not lend any advantage to them. The Spartans did very well, but unfortunately they were betrayed by a fellow Spartan, a deformed man who was not accepted into the Spartan army and held a grudge. The traitor led the Persians through a secret path to attack the Spartans from behind. All 300 Spartans were eventually killed, but they went down in glory, and inspired the Greek cities to stand up against the mighty Persian empire. Well that's what I remember about the story, and I may be wrong. I need to go re-read the comic.
300 the boardgame is a simple wargame about that same battle. The traitor in the story becomes a timer in the game. The Spartans have 6 turns to put up a good fight before they are being betrayed, and they need to achieve 100 glory points in order to win the game. The Persians win by preventing this from happening. The Spartans have a limited number of soldiers and characters. When they die, they die. The Persians can recycle their dead soldiers, to simulate that they do have an incredibly large army compared to the 300 Spartans.
There are a few ways for the Spartans to gain glory points, and also a few ways to lose them. The main ways of gaining points are killing Persians, and gaining ground. The Spartans can also lose points if the Persians manage to advance into the valley. There are special power cards that the players can draw every turn. They give special abilities at different junctions. These are one-time-use cards, so you need to decide what is the most effective time to use them. Some of them are tied to individual characters in the game and has some dependency on the positioning on the board, so you'd want to create the best situation possible to use your cards.
Fighting and movement are quite simple. Check your attacker strength total against a table, and roll dice. Units can get injured once by being flipped over, and if they take another injury they die. Interestingly injured Spartans fight even better, which I think is a nice touch. There is not much space for manouvering on the board, so movement is mostly about moving units forward to the frontline. Some sideway movement is allowed.
So for the Spartans (I played them), the goal is to hit 100 glory points before the game ends. It's about going all out, and agressive play. Do not fear death. It's all about the glory. I think for the Persians the mentality will be more about damage control. How to minimize the glory point gains of the Spartans, and how to reverse the gains. So the game is quite asymmetrical.
In our game, I pretty much just went all out (which I am guessing is how the Spartans should play). The game seemed pretty "normal", as in I felt this was how the story should progress. The Spartans killed many Persians, but the Persians kept advancing. I managed to gain ground once, but later had to fall back because I couldn't get enough people to the front. A better Spartan player probably would have gained more ground, and thus also scored more points. The glory points advanced slowly towards 100, but there were some setbacks. One of my characters, who'd cause me to lose 10 points if he died, died. Ouch. Han got Emperor Xerxes (worth 20 points if killed) to the front line. I think he had some nice cards up his sleeve, which needed Xerxes' presence. Things worked up to a climatic battle. It was do or die. I still had Leonidas, the leader of the Spartan army, who is also the most powerful Spartan unit. Unfortunately for me, I was just short of killing Xerxes. Xerxes survived, and time was up for the Spartans. My score was 94 points. Killing Xerxes would have won me the game.
It was nice to watch the game build up to this climax. Perhaps Han should not have risked Xerxes. We played quickly, so probably we both made some suboptimal moves here and there. But I think this is the most fun way to play this game - fast and furious. 300 is a simple and thematic wargame that can be played quickly. It might feel a little scripted, since it is trying to recreate a very specific battle.