Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Pillars of the Earth

On Sat 26 Jan 2008, Han, Michelle and I played Pillars of the Earth. This was a first time for Michelle and I. Pillars of the Earth is based on a novel of the same name, by Ken Follett. I have read the book and enjoyed it, and the only thing I didn't like was that the bad characters felt unrealistic to me.

Like many other Eurogames, in Pillars of the Earth you also compete to score victory points, and this is done over six rounds. You have basically three things at your disposal to do this - 12 workers, represented by little man figures, 3 master builders, represented by chess like pieces, and craftsmen, represented by cards. The workers help you gather resources - sand, stone and wood. The master builders help you claim various spots on the board to perform various special actions, e.g. getting tax exemptions, obtaining free craftsmen, obtaining temporary workers, getting special action cards, buying and selling resources, avoiding bad events etc. The craftsmen mainly help you convert your resources into victory points.

You start with some money, which is needed to employ craftsmen and to pay taxes, and may also be needed for your master builders to claim spots on the board. Money can be tight, and you have to be careful to spend just the right amount of effort into earning money. You cannot have more than $30, so it is pointless to earn too much. However, money can become critical especially in terms of employing craftsmen or being able to place your master builder at a critical spot on the board.

The competition in the game comes from two main areas - the card selection (7 resource and 2 craftsmen cards available every round) and the master builder placement. At the start of every round, 9 cards are displayed, and players take turns to claim the cards. A resource card determines how many workers you must commit to "harvest" a particular number of a particular resource. You must have enough workers to claim a resource card. Sometimes some of these 9 cards will be left over when no one wants to or is able to claim them.

The other area of competition is placement of master builders. This is determined semi-randomly. The start player of the round draws the master builders out from a bag. The first master builder drawn can be placed (by the owning player, who is not necessary the start player) at a cost of $7. For the next master builder drawn, the cost reduces to $6, then $5, and so on, until $0. If your master builder is drawn and you do not want to pay, then your master builder stays on the semi-circle and waits. This is an interesting balance of cost and opportunity. Sometimes it is worthwhile to pay so that you can choose a spot important to you. Obviously there is some luck in terms of the order the master builders are drawn out of the bag. In our game, in the last round, all three of Han's master builders were drawn in the first 3 draws. He couldn't afford to pay, so in that round he had to place all of his master builders last. That's not good.

Michelle and Han. Michelle is drawing master builders from the bag.

The very rich game board. That half circle in the foreground is for determining how much a player needs to pay to place a master builder, if his/her master builder is drawn early. The track at the bottom tracks money.

My team of craftsmen (the cards). They mostly convert resources to victory points (represented by the pointed arch). The left-most one converts resources to money. I also have 5 resources - metal (blue), stone (grey) and sand (white).

Close-up of the board, in particular the tax exemption area. The special die (2/3/3/4/4/5) determines the amount of tax to be paid each round.

My two favourite characters from the novel, Philip and Jack.

Michelle and I picked up the game quite quickly. It seemed a little confusing at first, because of the various tools at your disposal (workers, master builders and craftsmen), and the various options on the board. However the sequence of actions is logical and orderly and we picked up the game quickly and managed to play competitively. Well, actually there are not many direct ways to hinder your opponents, and you are mainly trying to be as efficient as possible with your workers and craftsmen, and then master builders to give you additional advantages or boosts in efficiency here and there.

After playing the game, my impression is this game feels very Euro. It feels very same-ish. I guess this is because I have played Caylus before, and I have played Age of Empires III before (worker placement mechanic), and of course, many other Eurogames are about efficiency and about scoring victory points. So, there seemed nothing much new or exciting for me. Having read the book, I do recognise characters (that appear as event cards) from the book, and some locations on the board are related to the book. However, I think that's as far as the relationship with the book goes. The game doesn't really feel very much like the book. The story in the book does have the building of a cathedral as a backdrop, but it is much more than that. It is about how bad things happen to good people, and how bad people do bad things to good people, and how the good people struggle to overcome (not always successfully) difficulties and challenges in life.

Monday, 28 January 2008

TTR Switzerland

Some more plays of Ticket To Ride Switzerland, and some more discoveries. The blocking can indeed get nasty, even with just 2 players, contrary to my earlier games. I guess both Michelle and my style of playing Ticket To Ride is non-aggressive (we don't block others just for the sake of blocking, we only block when we really do need that route), so we were lucky and did not experience much blocking in our earlier games of Ticket To Ride Switzerland. Now that we have played more, and have also learnt to be more daring in drawing tickets, we experienced some games where we block each other on multiple occasions. Those were quite tense games.

The single-train routes around Zurich are the most dangerous places. Many tickets go to Zurich or cities in that area, so you can easily get blocked off and need to take alternative paths. Quite often on the first few turns of one or even both of us, we hurriedly claim these short routes. These routes are the chokepoints, like the Vancouver and Houston areas on the USA map.

We have also been completing more and more tickets. There was one game when I proudly told Michelle that I had completed 12 tickets, and not fail any one. She replied calmly, "I have 15". This was unheard of in any of our previous Ticket To Ride games. In Ticket To Ride Switzerland Michelle dares to draw tickets even when it is her very last turn. And often she can draw tickets which her network of routes already completes. It is usually worth the gamble. In the worst case that you cannot make any of the tickets drawn, you just keep the one with least penalty. The country-to-country and city-to-country cards help reduce the risk of not completing tickets. These cards give multiple options of cities / countries to connect, and connecting more distant destinations give more points naturally, but in the worst case that you cannot connect any of them, you are only penalised the lowest value on the card.

This is my current favourite version of Ticket To Ride.

Michelle's record 15 tickets completed. And she is expecting herself to break this record.

Quite a bit of blocking in this game.

Close-up of the contested area. Thankfully in the end we both managed to reach all the cities we needed to reach.

My 12 completed tickets. I had thought I would surely have more than Michelle. Those country-to-country tickets are good.

Thursday, 24 January 2008

get a carpet

I found a good use for a large, thin carpet which I bought during one of my holiday travels. Sometimes during travels I tend to buy so many souvenirs that I end up storing them in boxes because I don't have enough space at my home to display them. Now I found a good use for this carpet. It is now my boardgame playing surface. I lay it down on the table, or on the floor, before I play my boardgames / card games. This is especially good for card games (like the Mystery Rummy series), or boardgames with lots of cards (like the Ticket To Ride series). If playing directly on the flat surface of the floor or the dining table, sometimes it can be difficult to pick cards up. It is also easier to damage the edges of the cards, because you'd be trying to use your finger nails to pick up the cards. Having a carpet underneath makes it much easier to pick cards up. I should have thought of this a long time ago. My copy of Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper is pretty worn out now. But I guess that is also contributed by having played it more than 200 times.

I don't use a carpet when playing Carcassonne though. Not that my carpet has a pattern that'll make you go blind if you use it when playing Carcassonne, just that it is not necessary.

Blue Moon. These cards are from the Khind race, a child-like race which fights in groups. These cards shown are a particularly strong combination, which I was lucky to get (two of them I was lucky to draw, and one I used a special power of a Leadership card to choose from the draw deck). They make your opponent's odd numbered characters, even numbered character cards, and even numbered support/booster cards zero!

Ticket To Ride Switzerland all set up to go.

Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, a difficult to teach card game, and even more difficult to learn by yourself by reading the rules.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Gulo Gulo cooperative variant

Gulo Gulo cooperative colour matching variant. Designed by Hiew Shee Yun (2 years 10 months old) and Hiew Chok Sien (the father).

Note: This blog post requires a basic understanding of the rules to Gulo Gulo in order to be appreciated better.


  1. Find the purple tile with the little Gulo and place it face-down.
  2. Shuffle 16 regular tiles, 4 tiles per each of the 4 colours - green, red, yellow and blue. Starting next to the purple tile, lay out a trail using the regular tiles. Preferbly make a number or alphabet so that the younger player can say it aloud. Use numbers of alphabets that need only one pen stroke and does not contain crosses. E.g. 3, 5, 9, C, U, L, S, J are good. 4, T, X, H, A are not.
  3. Pour all eggs into the nest, and stick the egg alarm in.
  4. Use four Gulos - green, red, yellow and dark blue, each representing a member of the Hiew family, father, mother, elder sister and younger sister. Place them next to the start tile.
  5. The youngest player takes the first turn.


  1. Turn over the next face-down tile.
  2. Steal an egg from the nest matching the colour of this tile, without spilling any other eggs or triggering the egg alarm, i.e. the egg alarm falls out of the nest.
  3. Put the stolen egg into the black pull-string bag.
  4. Find the matching coloured Gulo and place it onto the new face-up tile.
  5. If a player fails to steal an egg, put all eggs into the bag, then setup the nest again as normal, and the same player tries again, until he or she is successful. There is no penalty other than the other players exclaiming, "Oh no!" and making silly faces.
  6. Turn order does not matter. A player can take more than one turn if agreed by all.

Game end:

  1. When the last tile (purple) is turned over, and the purple egg is stolen successfully, the game ends, and everyone wins.
  2. All four Gulos are now moved to the purple tile for a group hug.

My daughter Shee Yun. The photos are showing the game at play testing stage, since you don't see the blue and yellow Gulo yet.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

PC games

Before I got into the boardgame hobby in a serious way, my previous hobby was PC games. And it was actually boardgames that brought me into the PC game hobby. I studied computer science in university, but never got into PC gaming during my student days. For the first few years after starting work, I also did not get into PC gaming, despite being surrounded by computers all the time. (maybe I should say because of being already surrounded by computers all the time). I played some Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords in my early working years, and one day a colleague (who was very much into PC games) told me that there was actually an Axis & Allies PC game. That's what got me into PC gaming. The Axis & Allies PC game was actually quite lousy. It has a poor AI (artificial intelligence, i.e. a computer player), and it has some bugs. There is not much fun or challenge playing against the computer, and sometimes halfway through a game you can get stuck because of bugs in the program. But I do have fond memories with the Axis & Allies PC game. Ricky (who also sometimes plays boardgames with me now) sometimes visited me, bringing his laptop, and then we play Axis & Allies using our two laptops and a serial cable. It was fun. Much time saved on setting up and rolling dice. He prefers playing the Allies so I usually play the Axis. I also remember playing this against Ah Chung when I worked in Hong Kong for a few months in 1999 - 2000.

The games which I played a lot during my PC gaming days (approximately 1999 to 2003) were Shogun Total War, Civilisation II to IV, Europa Universalis II, and Pharaoh. None of the hot RTS (Real Time Strategy) games like Age of Empires II, Starcraft, Warcraft, or hot FPS (First Person Shooter) games like Counter-strike. I like "thinky" games and not "reflex" games. Not to say that there is no strategy at all in RTS games or FPS games, but they are just not my cup of tea. Shogun Total War is probably the only exception. This game was a very innovative RTS. It is much more realistic because terrain, morale, fatigue, troop type, weather, season are all factors during a battle. Soldiers don't fight in messy masses, but in organised units of 60 to 100 men. Unit formation, facing, whether you are near friendly units or surrounded by enemy units, are all factors during battle. Ben (or was it Ah Chung) commented that it was like playing Warhammer (we played exactly one game, ever), but in real time and the computer does all the tedious calculation for you. I played a lot of Shogun Total War. Its real-time battles are more about maneuvering and using formations and terrain to your best advantage, before you even engage in hand-to-hand combat. So, in my opinion, it is much less about being quick with the mouse than other RTS games. I was surprised no other PC games followed this excellent example. RTS games in the few years after Shogun Total War came out did not learn from it, and still stayed with their boring (to me) formula. Later there were Medieval Total War, Rome Total War, and Medieval Total War II. However, I didn't play those much. The strategic map part of the game became much more complicated and tedious for me, and although the graphics improved greatly, the basic strategies remained the same as in the original Shogun Total War.

A screenshot from Shogun Total War. This is the campaign or strategic level view, and not the battlefield or tactical level view. There was a debate on whether this gun factory building exists in the game, and I took this screenshot to prove that it does to other fellow players.

I even programmed a campaign editor, i.e. a scenario editor for Shogun Total War.

I started playing Civilisation II a long time after it was first released. This is a turn based game, where you start in 4000BC as a tribe of nomads looking for a land to settle, and then you build your empire up to the modern age. You grow your population, develop buildings, discover technology, build wonders of the world, trade with other civilisations, fight wars, and eventually race to be the first to build a spaceship to send colonists to Alpha Centauri (although this is just one of the victory conditions). Civ is a very addictive and engaging game. I played Civ2 a lot, Civ3 also a lot, but Civ4 not as much. I do think Civ3 is undoubtedly better than Civ2, and Civ4 is undoubtedly better than Civ3. One thing that I like about Civ4 is the AI's have more character and don't behave like emotionless calculating machines like in Civ3. In Civ4 a weak AI who is angry with you may decide to declare war on you, or a much stronger AI right next to you who can eat you for breakfast but likes you may never attack you. They feel more human to me than the ones in Civ3.

In the PC games that I have played, I mostly played single-player games. It was convenient, because I didn't need to look for opponents, and time was flexible - I could play at any time that suited me. The games I played offer much for a single player experience, so I didn't need to look for other players. I did play some online battles of Shogun Total War against other players, which was quite exciting, but internet connection was bad (dial-up) and maybe online battles with other people was too much for me, so I conveniently went back to just playing campaigns against the AI (you couldn't play campaigns online against other players). The disadvantage of playing against computer AI's is they are not as smart as humans. Some games are complex enough that you don't really see the AI's "stupidity" unless it is very obvious, but in some games the AI behaviour can get quite predictable, and the game becomes not challenging.

Some games require little or no AI, like Pharaoh, a city-building game which Michelle played even more than I did. You build a city and watch it grow, and the individual people in the city behave in certain known ways (looking for work, delivering goods), which you need to take into account when developing your city. You don't need an AI to compete with you. You are just building your own city peacefully, trying to achieve certain goals, e.g. a certain population level, or a certain level of culture or wealth. Pharaoh is a truly beautiful game. It is more beautiful than its predecessor Caesar III, and I find it is also more beautiful than its successors Zeus, and Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom. Well, Emperor was quite beautiful too. Pharaoh was fun. You plan your city and watch the little people move about being busy. It is a joy to watch your city bustling with activity. And you get to build huge monuments, which you will need a lot of patience for.

The other game which I played a liked a lot was Europa Universalis II. This is truly a niche game. It is quite difficult to learn. It is about the Age of Renaissance and Age of Discovery in Europe. It was a time when Christianity splintered, a time of sailing and discovery and colonisation. This is a game about managing a nation, its domestic policies, its religion, rebellions, exploration, piracy, technology, trade, alliances, diplomacy and warfare. There is a lot of history in the game, occurring as events throughout the game, sometimes giving you choices to steer your nation in a direction you want it to go, with different effects to your nation depending on your choice. There is a very interesting concept of Casus Belli (cause for war) and reputation. You need to have legitimate reasons for declaring war, to avoid taking a big hit on your reputation, which is important when engaging in diplomacy. Nations of different religions have different strengths and weaknesses. I learnt a lot of European history from this game. Two other things I remember fondly of are the excellent soundtrack and the simple yet impressive opening scene - the camera pans through a dark church, a solemn hymn was being sung, and the camera finally rests on the bright artwork of the window, backlit by sunlight from outside. The text during the opening scene sets the tone for the period in the game.

I later played Hearts of Iron (covering World War II) and Victoria (covering the time between Europa Universalis II and Hearts of Iron, I guess), which were by the same team that did Europe Universalis, but I didn't play them as much.

After I got into the boardgame hobby at end of 2003, I gradually stopped playing PC games. The good thing about boardgames is it is an activity that Michelle and I can do together. And when my children grow older I hope to be playing boardgames as a family activity. I don't know whether I will get back into PC gaming. Maybe when I have a lot more free time, but that will probably quite distant in the future. I had fun, and I remember these games fondly.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

In the Year of the Dragon

In the Year of the Dragon is another one of my recent purchases. I have read the rules beforehand, and have read reviews, and probably the Chinese theme also contributed to my interest in the game, because, I'm Chinese. Even though I was born in the year of the tiger.

On 15 Jan 2008 I tried my first game of In the Year of the Dragon. It was a two-player game against Michelle, my wife and convenient gaming partner. Here's how the game works.

Note: Terms used here are not consistent with those used in the game itself, but I relate to them more easily.

You start the game with two 2-storey palaces and two servants. Each floor can only accomodate one servant, so you have 2 vacancies in the beginning. There are 12 turns in a game, signifying the 12 months of the Chinese calendar. Every month, you choose one action (which usually gains you something), then you employ a servant, then an event happens (usually bad), and finally you do a month-end scoring. You also have an end-game scoring.

In the action phase, there are 7 possible actions which are randomly distributed into a number of groups equivalent to the number of players. Depending on their positions on the initiative track, players take turns to choose one action. If you want to choose an action in a group already chosen by another player, you pay $3 (which is a big amount of money in this game). These actions do various things, like giving you money / rice / fireworks, or allowing you to build / expand your palaces, or allowing you to buy priviledges (which let you score every month-end). Many actions are dependent on the servants you have, e.g. if you have an accountant, you earn more money if you take the money action.

Next is employing servants. You start with 11 cards, 9 of which showing the 9 types of servants in the game, and 2 are jokers. You must use these cards to employ servants, i.e. you will be forced to employ at least 1 servant of each type throughout the game. If your palaces are running out of space, you can hire and fire immediately, or you can hire the new guy and fire an old servant. Every time you hire (and not fire immediately) a new servant, he/she increases your position on the initiative track. This initiative track is like a mini game in itself, because the position on it determines turn order, which is important for the action phase. Some servant types have two versions - younger and older. Younger ones give a higher initiative, but are weaker if you take their associated action.

Next is events. This is usually when bad things happen to you, and your family, and your servants, and your dog, and your palaces. Sometimes the emperor taxes you $4, and he'll fire your servants if you can't pay up. Sometimes your servants get sick and go on permanent medical leave if you don't have enough doctors under your employment. Sometimes the Mongols strike and the player with the least soldiers will have one of his/her servants kidnapped (and not ransomed). Sometimes famine strikes and people die of hunger if you don't have enough rice for each palace. On the positive side, there are also celebrations and those with the most and second most fireworks get to earn victory points. But of course if you don't have any then this event is a disaster for you too. Tough luck.

Finally at month-end, you score for the number of palaces, the number of dancing girls, and the priviledges that you have. Then at game end, you score for the remaining servants you have, the Buddha statues that your monks have, and the money you have left (after you sell leftover fireworks and rice for money).

In the Year of the Dragon. Set up to start a 2-player game. You start with two 2-storey palaces and 6 yuan.

Each turn is quite simple. 1. actions (centre), 2. employ (top), 3. event (bottom), 4. scoring (outside track). Hmmm... maybe swapping the spaces for choosing actions and employing people would be more practical, although it may not look so nice.

(blurred) close-up. The job applicants showns are the farmer, the scholar, the accountant, the dancing girl and the carpenter. The actions are gain rice, gain initiative, build/expand palaces, gain fireworks.

My servants and my assets. I know Chinese, and 平 (at the back of my cards) means "flat" or "peace". I can read the individual Chinese words in this game, but I can't make sense out of the full phrase. Probably my Chinese is not good enough.

At the start of the game all the events are laid out. The events for the first two months are always peace, i.e. nothing happens. This gives you some time to prepare. After that bad things come one after another, and you just try to survive in one piece. Because you know exactly what is coming, you can plan for it. The problem is your opponents will be competing with you in choosing the actions. At times you simply cannot avoid bad things happening, no matter how you try, so you just try to minimise the damage and plan for the next disaster. This doesn't sound like fun does it? (unless you like punishing yourself)

The first conclusion I drew after playing this game is - This is probably not ideal with 2 players. There is not enough tension. When one player chooses one action in one group, the other player will usually still have good choices in the other group. In our game we never chose the same group of actions. We survived OK and were able to handle most of the events well. We kept to 2 palaces, although we expanded to 3-storeys. Although having one more palace means one more victory point every month-end, we were afraid of the famine (need 1 rice per palace). Due to the lack of tension of the action phase, we also did not fight very hard on the initiative track.

The game was OK. I hope to play this again with more players, because I think it will get more interesting. With 2 players I think the game is just so-so. I like the planning aspect and the difficult choices of where and how to minimise your damage. It feels like you are spending more effort trying to avoid disaster than trying to score points. Nothing wrong in that. I find that interesting - averting disaster as a prerequisite for being able to score good points.

I actually had an idea for designing my own game, which has some similarities to In the Year of the Dragon. My idea is the story of the Chinese people from 1900 to 2000. This was a time of turmoil in China. This was when my own grandfather left China and came to Sabah (North Borneo at the time) to look for a living and to have a new beginning. I thought about players being Chinese families going through a few generations, and trying to be the most successful family by the end of the game. I have not really decide what successful should mean. Happiness? Wealth? Fame? Being influential? Or a mix? My idea is families (i.e. players) can spend effort on various fields, e.g. politics, academics, entertainment industry, agriculture, business, even underground societies / triads (something like the worker placement mechanic of Caylus, Pillars of the Earth and Age of Empires III, but I think I had this rough idea before these games came out). Then every so often bad things (and good things) happen, e.g. the fall of the Qing Dynasty, the Japanese invasion of China, World War II, the Cultural Revolution, the opening of the Chinese economy, the return of Hong Kong in 1997, etc. During some events, the families lose much of their wealth, their family members, their power / influence, kind of like how everything is wiped away except the pyramids in the mid game of Amun-Re (and I definitely got this idea from Amun-Re). So the families have to decide how to spend their effort and resources, because some assets are permanent, and some may be temporary (if the relevant events occur to take them away). Spending effort on different industries / fields will have different risk / reward levels. I thought about using some measure of harmony as the final victory condition, to bring out a lesson that no matter how rich or influential or famous you are, it doesn't matter if there is no happiness and harmony in your family.

I only got as far as writing down my ideas in a Word document. I have left it at that for a few years, and have not gone back to it. I already have so many games that I have not played. I don't think I will be dabbling in game design any time soon.

Friday, 18 January 2008

TTR Switzerland, Carc Abbey & Mayor

I have played Ticket To Ride Switzerland and Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor, my recent purchases, some more, and find that I am liking them more as I play more.

Ticket To Ride Switzerland

I played one two-player game of Ticket To Ride Switzerland with Michelle where she completed 13 tickets! That must be a record for us among all Ticket To Ride games that we have played. So, the designer Alan Moon indeed achieved his goal of making this game very much about drawing tickets. Michelle scored 107pts from her 13 completed tickets. She did fail to complete one ticket, but that only cost her 2pts. In the mid game I struggled with some routes needed for two of my tickets, so I was reluctant to draw more tickets and focused on completing those first. Once those were done, I started to draw more tickets. Unfortunately it was too late. I did manage to complete all the tickets that I drew later, and without too much difficulty, but I probably would have done better if I had drawn more tickets earlier, because then I would have been able to plan my routes better. So, I think in this game you need not insist on drawing new tickets only after having completed existing ones. I think you should gamble a little and draw more tickets earlier, so that you can look for synergy among the tickets and plan routes better. Maybe this is applicable for other Ticket To Ride games too, just that my playing style has always been more conservative.

I probably would not have won that game anyway. Michelle drew two identical country-to-country tickets, and another which is effectively the same. I think two were Austria to France (or Italy or Germany), and one was France to Austria. These three scored her big points.

We still did not experience too much blocking. Some, but not a lot. Less than I expected from reading reviews of the game. I am guessing probably blocking will only become severe in 3-player games.

I am looking forward to play more of Ticket To Ride Switzerland.

My first impression of Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor was that it didn't make things significantly more fun, but it didn't make things worse either. Now that I have played more, I find that I am liking it more. I probably will always play with it, at least when I play against Michelle. We had one quite exciting game (to me), where Michelle scored a 63pt city very early in the game, and I had to play very aggressively to catch up and finally win. She scored another large city around mid game too, also one with the cathedral (from the Inns & Cathedrals expansion), which made things quite bleak for me. She had lapped me (i.e. more than 50pts ahead of me, because the Carcassonne scoreboard has 50 spaces). However, the huge lead caused complacency, and addition to Michelle's sleepiness, she allowed me to catch up. I scored a big city later in the game, using my mayor and big boy (big meeple) to steal the city from her mayor and normal guy (normal meeple). I also used my barn to score big points, which she didn't do. These come-from-far-behind victories are always sweet, although I probably would not have won if Michelle had put more effort into stopping me.

All set up to start.

Close up of the pieces. Front: the abbey tile. Middle (left to right): wagon, big boy (from the Inns & Cathedrals expansion), mayor (we call him big pants in Hakka - "大裤囊"), barn. Back: the seven dwarves.

The original Carcassonne and the box for the Abbey & Mayor expansion.

Game in progress. Mayor, a.k.a. big pants, in the foreground. On the right edge you can see a road that ends in the middle of a field. That's one of the new tiles that came with the new expansion. Another new tile can be just not far behind the red farmer (lying down) in the foreground - the "flyover" castle.

The abbey and the two barns in action. The roundabout with three branches at the top of the photo is a new tile. Unlike the older tiles, where a 3-way junction is considered the end of the roads, for this tile all three branches are considered the same road. Another new tile is the big city at the back, the tile with two shields.

The green wagon thinks it's a monk.

Now I find the abbey, the mayor and the barn to be quite interesting additions. The abbey is usually used for completing cities. When competing for those big cities, now there is an additional element of considering whether your opponent will use the abbey to prevent your followers from joining and stealing that big city. In our game, Michelle used her abbey to do this, scoring the big city by herself and cutting off my followers who were all set up to steal the city away from her. So, the abbey can be one very critical piece to be reserved exactly for such situations of big point swings.

The mayor is also a specialist, and unlike the abbey which can be used to complete any features, the mayor is only effective for cities. And how effective they can be. For big cities with many shields, a mayor often can only be countered by another mayor. So, while mayors can be used for scoring small cities, you'd want to make sure he (or she, just to make sure I'm not a male chauvinist) is available and ready for action.

I now primarily try to use my barn to score my farm twice, the first time when my barn kicks away my own farmer (3pt per city touching the farm), and the second time for the barn itsefl at game end (4pt per city). One thing that I like about Carcassonne is the long term planning consideration for the farmer scoring at game end. Some people recommend not to play farmers when teaching the game to beginners, which I do not agree with, because that leaves out a very important and interesting aspect of the game. I have not used the barn (kind of like a super farmer) offensively to kick away my opponent's (i.e. Michelle's) farmers. Maybe I should try that. I wonder whether that's an effective use of the barn, because by the time I use the barn, that farm probably would have had many cities, and that follower which I kick away would score big points already. If the farm doesn't have many cities in the first place, I probably wouldn't be using my one and only barn on it. The big boy (or two regular meeples) is probably more effective offensively, because I can deny my opponent points completely, although I only earn 3pt per city instead of 4pt.

Up to now I still find the wagon rather insignificant. I did try to use it frequently and scoring just a few points each time, because I suspect that is the most effective way to use it. However I find that I tent to get distracted by other opportunities around the board and can't spend too much time on the tiles near the wagon. So the wagon ends up being neglected again.

I am enjoying Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor, and will probably always play with it from now on. It's a good expansion for veteran Carcassonne players.

Board Game Internet Awards 2007

I did my daily boardgame internet surfing today, visiting BoardGameNews, and found that the 2007 Board Game Internet Awards have been announced. To my surprise, my blog won the Best New Site award! That was completely unexpected and I am very flattered. When I started the blog, it was only for the convenience offered by Blogspot. Much easier than what I used to do - manually editing HTML pages for the boardgame section of my website. I had expected myself to be making blog posts about once or twice a month, i.e. a similar frequency as how I used to update the boardgame section of my website. However I ended up enjoying blogging about my boardgame hobby more than I expected.

The BGIA was how I found the NYC Gamer blog, which was the Best Blog winner of 2006 (I think). This is a blog of quality over quantity which I admire a lot. Very good depth in the articles, and always interesting.

One thing I can say about BGIA is this is going to be a one-off thing for me, because I won't be qualified for Best New Site in 2008 anymore.

What's funny, and embarassing, is that even other people who read my blog agree that I'm writing more than I'm playing boardgames.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Blue Moon

I first played Blue Moon in early 2004, and found it to be rather so-so. I think those two games were my first games ever played against Han, my now regular boardgame kaki. It was a boardgame event at PanGlobal Insurance. We played two games of the base game (containing two races - the Vulca and the Hoax), taking turns to play each race. After that experience, I decided I don't need to buy Blue Moon. However, I continued to hear good things about it on BoardGameGeek. When Blue Moon City came out, I bought it. It uses the same theme as Blue Moon, but the gameplay is very different. I quite like Blue Moon City. And then at the end of last year, Fantasy Flight Games had a special offer for some of their games, including the various expansions to Blue Moon. I could not resist it and bought 7 of these expansions, each being a deck of cards representing a unique race in the world of Blue Moon.

My seven recently purchased Blue Moon expansion decks. And my concise reference sheet with tiny font, and the three dragons which I took from my Blue Moon City boardgame.

I found this red box which fits the decks just nice.

The six races of Blue Moon (out of eight), and the Buka, who are pirates.

Blue Moon is a two-player-only card game about the races in the Blue Moon world fighting for supremacy. In the game, each player has a deck of 30 cards. They engage in a series of fights, which are conducted by playing cards. The game ends when one player has exhausted all cards from his deck and from his hand. Whoever has won more fights wins the game. If there is a draw, then the player whose cards are exhausted loses. There are three dragons in the game which are used for tracking who has won more fights than the other. If you win a fight, you attract a dragon from the centre of the table to your side, or if your opponent has a dragon(s) on his side, you return the dragon to the centre. If you ever win four more fights than your opponent during the game, you win the game immediately, i.e. you have already attracted three dragons to your side, and win yet another fight.

And how are fights conducted? The cards consist of character cards, booster cards, support cards and leadership cards. Most cards have a fire value and an earth value on it, indicating their strengths. Whoever starts a fight decides the element of the fight - fire or earth, and during this fight, only the corresponding fire or earth value matters (usually). On your turn, you must play a character card, and may play one booster or support card. A booster card is a one-time-use card, increasing your character's strength. A support card stays in play throughout the current fight. Leadership cards are powerful and strictly one-time-use-per-game cards, played at the start of a turn. You must play cards to match or exceed your opponent's fire / earth value. Else you must retreat from this fight (i.e. lose). The fight goes on as long as the players can match or exceed each other.

Some cards have special icons indicating special powers, e.g. some cards when played force the player to end his turn immeidately. Some cards do not count towards the limit of one character and one booster or support card. Some cards can be retrieved back to your hand. Some cards can be played in pairs or in groups. Some cards allow you to not match your opponent (only for one turn). Some cards (mutants) even allow you to change the contested element. This sounds like a lot to remember, but it actually isn't. I found it quick to learn the rules and the icons of Blue Moon. However, getting to know the characteristics of each race will require playing them a few times. Quite a number of cards have text on them, so if it is your first time playing a race, you will need to spend time reading those text.

Game in progress.

Michelle already had on dragon on her side. Naturally, she chose red. That's her colour.

I have now played five games of Blue Moon, twice in 2004 when I played as the Vulca and the Hoax. The Vulca are strong in the fire element. The Hoax are technologically advanced and although not particularly strong, they make good use of their equipment / tools. After buying the expansions recently, I have played 3 more games, as the Pillar and the Aqua. The Pillar are wanderers, and have some nifty gadgets up their sleeves. The Aqua get their strength from the sea. They can call upon powerful sea creatures, and they have one powerful leadership card which allows them to shuffle the discard deck back into the draw deck. I played Pillar against Michelle's Flit (because the Pillar box is green and the Flit box is red), and Aqua against Michelle's Mimix. So far I have won all three games against Michelle. She is not very familiar with the rules and the winning conditions yet. She had one big misunderstanding in her first Mimix game, thinking that you can only play characters in pairs (those with pair icons) when their full names match. It should be only the first word of their names, e.g. Dancing Bear and Dancing Fox can be played together. No wonder she has been complaining throughout the game why she couldn't pair up any of her character cards. And no wonder she lost that game, since one of the key strengths of the Mimix is their paired characters.

So what do I think of the game? I like the game. The game really is not very complex. To me, it's a tug of war, where you try to make sure that by the time one player exhausts his/her cards, you have at least one dragon on your side. Then there's also the tricky situation of trying not to be the one to run out of cards first if all three dragons are in the middle. So sometimes, you want to end the game quickly when the advantage is with you, but sometimes you want to drag it out and make your cards last longer if it looks like the winner will be determined by who has cards left. I have a feeling that it will be rare to have a sudden death victory of attracting 3 dragons and winning one more fight. I may be wrong. One exciting element is that if a fight gets long, and the eventual winner has 6 cards or more played, he/she attracts 2 dragons instead of 1. So, whether to draw out a fight is a tricky decision. Sometimes it may be better to concede defect for one fight, to cut losses, and only try to fight back in the next fight (when you get to choose the element).

I have just started playing and exploring the game, and I find that each race has a different and unique feel. Each race has its own characteristics and its own tricks and powers, and this is achieved by using quite few icons and special text. Although some cards do have special text, I find that it is, on average, only for about one third or a quarter of the cards in a deck, and even for these cards with special text, they are quite straight-forward, i.e. no ambiguity as long as you understand the base rules clearly. The design feels quite "clean" to me. Well, afterall this is a Reiner Knizia design. (yes, I always try to sneak in his name somewhere whenever I write about his games)

At the moment I am just starting to explore the characteristics of the various Blue Moon races. It seems to me that there is quite a lot of variety, and it is achieved using quite a simple ruleset and iconology, which is impressive. In a recent interview with Reiner Knizia which I read on the internet, he mentioned that Blue Moon is a game which he spent a lot of time designing, which, had he not spent that amount of time on, he probably could have designed many more other games. I guess the challenge is in balancing the various races, making sure any combination of two races fighting can work, without any side having an obvious advantage over the other. With 8 races in the game (base game + the 6 expansions), there are 28 possible combinations of two races fighting. So, it is like designing 28 games at the same time, and when you change the powers / characteristics of one race, you have to consider how this one change will impact how this race fights with the other seven races. From a player's perpective, it is possible to experience 28 x 2 = 56 different games, because for each combination of 2 races, you can play as either race. Even with my 6 races (not counting the Buka Invasion expansion yet, which is a further expansion beyond the 8 basic races, and introduces some different rules), I already have 15 x 6 = 30 combinations to play with. I guess I am in no hurry to buy the Blue Moon base game (with the races Hoax and Vulca).

There is a lot more I need to explore in Blue Moon. I am not sure whether I will like it more or like it less after more plays, but at the moment I like it. I guess I was being a sore loser when I dismissed it in 2004 because I lost my first two games.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Power Grid Benelux/Central Europe

Power Grid is one of my favourite games, about running a power company. Players compete to buy power plants, to buy resources (coal, oil, garbage, uranium), to build their power network, and to earn money by supplying power to cities. The base game comes with a two-sided map, one side showing USA and the other showing Germany. I have since bought three expansions to Power Grid, Power Grid Italy/France, Power Grid Benelux/Central Europe and Power Grid Plant Deck 2. The first two are new maps to play on, and the third is a new set of power plants.

I have played the Power Grid base game 15 times, and each of the expansion maps - France, Italy, Belgium/Netherlands/Luxemburg, Central Europe - just once. I don't play enough of this game. I enjoy it a lot and really should play more. I think the reason I don't is I want to play it with 4 players or more. Most of my games were 2 player games against Michelle, which I think is not as good as with more players. I have also played some 3 player games with both Michelle and Han, but one element of tension lacking from a 3 player game is no one will get cut off completely, because eventually a city will allow 3 players to place a house (to indicate connection and supply to this city). So, I have been hoping to play a four player game, for a long time.

Having only played each of the four maps of the expansions only once each, I am not really qualified to do a review fo them. In fact, I am not even sure I remember all the rule changes that come with each map. Each maps comes with some minor rule tweaks, and the maps themselves also offer some variety and some uniqueness. E.g. on the map of France, Paris is made up of 3 cities, and the connection cost between these 3 segments is zero. The Central European map has some restriction about nuclear power. In the Netherlands (and Belgium and Luxemburg), the people are very eco-friendly and if the first power plant in the future market is an eco-friendly, it is available for purchase, in contrary to the standard rules. There is one city in the Central Europe map (Wein?) which allows you to buy garbage (a resource for powering your power plants) cheaper. I find that the expansions add some freshness to the game, although I really have not played the base game enough for it to start getting stale. I don't find the game to be significantly different on the expansion maps. The minor tweaks and different maps make things interesting, and are also thematic, e.g. the abundance of coal on certain maps, but Power Grid is still Power Grid. They don't (at least for me) enhance the game a lot, but they definitely do not make it worse either. It is possible that some game expansions make things worse, even though in the first place the base game must be doing quite well for the publisher to consider printing expansions. Some expansions may make things too complex for some players. Some expansions may change the nature and strategy of the game, and the change may not be welcome by all fans of the original game. For me, I like the Power Grid expansions. I just wish I had more people to play this with.

I have not tried the latest expansion - the new deck of power plant cards. The online retailer left it out by mistake, so they are sending it to me now.

The Benelux map. Luxemburg only has one city.

Close-up of a game in progress on the Benelux map.

Reference card, houses (to denote connection to cities), money (cheap generic poker chips which I bought in Taiwan; the game comes with paper money which I prefer not to use), and my four power plants (usually you are allowed to have three, but for 2-player games you can have four).

One thing that surprised me a little is that Power Grid is the #2 game on BoardGameGeek now. And the thing is, I don't know why I'm surprised. I like the game a lot and should be happy. I don't know why it doesn't have the #2 game aura to me. Maybe I'm unconsciously stereotyping the "Top 3 Games", or "#2 Game". And I know I'm undeniably a boardgame geek now that I'm starting to talk about "#2 game aura".

Friday, 11 January 2008

reading / writing more than playing

I spend more time reading and writing about games than I spend playing games. Is that sad? A little I guess. Sad because I don't get to play games as often as I'd like to. However at least I do enjoy reading and writing about games. Boardgamegeek, Boardgamenews, Fortress Ameritrash, Mikko Saari's Gameblog, ekted's Gamer's Mind, Mike Doyle's Art Play, Tao of Gaming and NYC Gamer are some of the websites I visit regularly. There is always something new to read about. It is almost a daily habit for me to visit boardgame related websites. It's not an addiction (at least I think so). I don't feel uncomfortable not to surf the internet for some time, but if it is convenient, then I'll do it everyday. It's as natural as breathing and eating. At Boardgamegeek I set "Notify me of new content" for some games which I am interested in, so whenever there are new reviews, articles, photos, etc about these games, I get a notification in my Boardgamegeek inbox. So I can rest assured I won't miss news about these games. For things like geeklists and general discussions which are not tied to any specific game, I will miss them if I don't visit Boardgamegeek frequently enough, but it is okay for me. This is an age of information overload, so it would be too tiring to try to keep up-to-date with everything. A hobby is supposed to be fun and not an obligation.

Recently I have been spending much time writing blog entries, because over my recent holidays I have been playing many new games. I started my boardgame blog for the convenience of making updates. It is much easier to use Blogspot than to manually create HTML pages and upload them. I had expected the frequency of my blog posts to be similar to my previous website updates. However the frequency increased, probably encouraged by the convenience, and also I find that I quite enjoy writing.

The first few months of my boardgame blog were mainly about covering different aspects of my boardgame hobby, my history, my preferences, types of games, etc. I also wrote about my boardgaming experiences, my boardgame sessions, and new games that I played. By now, I'm mostly writing about the sessions and the new games, doing mini reviews and sharing my thoughts. It will probably stay so from now on, with some different boardgame related topics occasionally if I can think of something interesting to write. One blog that I admire a lot is NYC Gamer. The posts are not frequent, but the quality is high. Most articles are interesting, deep and thoughtful. I don't think I have that many interesting things to say, but NYC Gamer is a good example to look up to.

My boardgame blog is mainly used as a record of my boardgame hobby. I like posting photos. I enjoy writing for the sake of writing. I think I will enjoy reading my own blog 10 years from now, maybe laughing at myself for doing such a thing as writing a boardgame blog.

So, what about playing games? At any time, if Michelle asks me, "Do you want to play a boardgame?", I will drop everything and play. Forget Boardgamegeek. Forget Blogspot. With two young children, it is not so easy to sit down to play boardgames frequently. When they are awake, they will come and make trouble. When they are asleep, we are sometimes already quite tired. I organise boardgame sessions on Saturdays, about twice a month, depending on Han's work schedule. Unfortunately since coming back to Malaysia in Dec 2004 / Jan 2005, I have not been able to develop a regular gaming group. So, it is still mostly just Han and I. Sometimes Michelle joins us. Sometimes Chee Seng joins us if he is back from Singapore. Sometimes we have other "guests stars", but those are infrequent. Maybe this year. We already have some potential new recruits.

I try to play as much as I can, and thankfully I also have Boardgamegeek and other websites, and blogging, to keep me happy and doing something related to boardgames.

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Ticket To Ride Switzerland, Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor

I bought many games in December. I bought some at the Fantasy Flight Games (a game publisher) end-of-year sale, and some from Troll & Toad, an online retailer, which also had a special sale in December. I bought seven Blue Moon (a card game) expansions, Ticket To Ride Switzerland (an expansion), Thebes, Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor (another expansion), Power Grid Deck 2 (a small expansion - just a deck of cards), Axis & Allies Guadalcanal and In the Year of the Dragon. Since I was back in Sabah, I asked for the games to be shipped to Han, and on Sat 5 Jan 2008 he brought them to me during our boardgame session.

Ticket To Ride is a game which took me a long time, and many plays, to warm up to, although it is one of Michelle's favourites. I decided to get Ticket To Ride Switzerland because it is designed specifically for 2 or 3 players. (well, I may get it anyway even if I did not have this excuse to use) There are some minor tweaks to the rules of the basic game, e.g. the tunnels (same as Ticket To Ride Europe) where you need to draw 3 random cards from the deck, and if any matches the colour you are playing, you must top up additional cards. You are now allowed to take two face-up jokers (locomotives cards), but jokers can only be used for tunnels. So, it can be very painful to try to collect cards of a specific colour for a long, normal, non-tunnel route. There are some city-to-country and country-to-country tickets. They give you options. If you complete a route to a further country, then you score higher points; closer country, lower points. In case you cannot complete the ticket at all, i.e. unable to connect to any of those countries, you are only penalised the points of the nearest country.

The map of Ticket To Ride Switzerland.

Close-up of the map and the game in play. And the cow.

A country-to-country card which gives you 3 options, and a normal city-to-city card. Deutschland = Germany, Osterreich = Austria, Italia = Italy, France = France. This expansion does not come with train cards, so we use the ones from Ticket To Ride Europe.

I have played this three times with Michelle now. I enjoy the ticket-drawing aspect of it. According to the designer Alan Moon, this expansion was designed so that people can draw many tickets, which is an aspect he likes. Maybe because the map is smaller compared to other versions, you can usually find at least one not-too-difficult-to-complete ticket when you decide to draw tickets (you also draw 3, like in the base game). Many people commented that in this expansion you can get blocked or cut off very easily. Michelle and I didn't find this to be the case. There were some blocking, but they were not too bad. Maybe for two players it is not too bad, and it only gets worse with 3 players. I find that playing Ticket To Ride with the Big Cities variant (which comes with the USA 1910 expansion) has more blocking. In terms of the excitement of getting blocked or cut off, I find that Big Cities is more exciting. Well, maybe we were just lucky in our first 3 games.

Michelle discovered something about the Ticket To Ride series which I have never realised after playing more than 170 games of Ticket To Ride and its various versions. The point value of a ticket is the same as the number of trains of the shortest possible route between the two destinations on that ticket. We checked quite a number of tickets and found that this holds true for all of them. It is quite amazing that we never realised this until now.

I like Ticket To Ride Switzerland. It has its own uniqueness compared to other versions, and I enjoy drawing ticket, and finding I only need to claim just one or two routes to complete the ticket, or sometimes I don't even need to do anything and my existing network already fulfills the ticket. I guess that's a cheapskate mentality where you gain something without putting in any effort. 不劳而获.

Some people complain that now that Days of Wonder (the publisher) is printing games in China, the quality has become much poorer than before. Ticket To Ride Switzerland is one of their first games being printed in China. I can see that the components (the cards and the gameboard, since this expansion only came with these two) are of a different quality compared to previous games. However they are actually still very good. The only thing that is poor is the box insert made of cardboard, but that's a very minor issue for me.

I have not been buying many of the Carcassonne expansions, even though Michelle and I like this game a lot. We just play the base game plus the Inns & Cathedrals expansion. I don't quite fancy the Traders & Builders expansion, having played it a number of times before, so I never bought it. I wasn't interested in the other later expansions like The River, The Count of Carcassonne, Princess & Dragon, Towers of Carcassonne either. I have played other standalone variant versions - Carcassonne The Castle, Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers (the only one I own), Carcassonne The Discovery, Carcassonne The City, Ark of the Covenant. I guess I can call myself a Carcassonne veteran.

I decided to buy Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor because I read a review commenting that it doesn't change the nature of the game, but rather enhances the existing strategies. One reason I didn't like Traders & Builders so much is the game is starting to get quite "busy" - more and more things to consider, bogging down the game, which I prefer to play briskly.

Carcassonne Abbey and Mayor adds some tiles, and 4 new elements - the abbey, the mayor, the cart, and the barn. The abbey is a tile which everyone starts with in hand, and can only use once in the whole game. It functions as a cloister, but the more important use is to fill "holes", i.e. all four sides enclosed by other tiles. It can help you complete one critical feature, e.g. a large castle, to score big and/or to free up your people who are stuck there because the tile required to complete the feature is rare or does not exist. So, it can be a life saver as well as a game winner.

The mayor is a meeple (which means "my people") with big pants. It can only be placed on castles, and its value is the number of shields in the castle. So it can be very strong in a big castle with many shields, much more so than the fat boy (big meeple) of Inns & Cathedrals. The cart is another meeple, when it completes a feature, it can move to an adjacent incomplete and unoccupied feature. The barn is a super farmer. It can only be placed on a corner of four tiles and that junction must be all grassland. It kicks aways farmers in that farm, allowing them to score as normal (3pt per complete castle). If farmers from other farms are joined to the barn's farm later, those farmers are also kicked away but only scoring 1pt per complete castle. At game end the barn scores 4pt per complete castle. It can be used offensively to kick away your opponents' farmers. It can also be used to benefit yourself. It is the only way farmers can be retrieved, and if you kick away your own farmers, you basically score that farm twice, once for your own farmer and once for the barn.

This expansion was just alright for me. Indeed it didn't change the nature of the game much. The same techniques still apply. There are some additions to make things interesting, but they are not distracting. However, it didn't make me enjoy Carcassonne much more either. I am probably just as happy with the base game plus Inns & Cathedrals. Among these four elements, I rank how much I like them as follows:

  1. Barn - Adds a little twist to the end game planning and farmer fighting.
  2. Mayor - I am actually neutral on this, i.e. the two below I don't quite like. It seems to be mostly used defensively on your own castle if you see it grow big and it has many shields.
  3. Abbey - The game loses some nastiness, because the abbey is there to save you (albeit only once). In one of our games, Michelle built a huge castle, and I played a cathedral into (triple score if castle is completed, zero score otherwise) it. I placed a number of tiles to make it difficult for her to complete that castle. Her abbey tile came to the rescue, scoring her 63pts. Maybe I'm just a sore loser so I blame the abbey for this.
  4. Cart - Maybe I don't know how to use it well, but it just feels like another meeple. Often I can't use its ability, or even if I use the ability, it doesn't score me big points. Maybe it should be used in a quantity and not quality approach, i.e. use it to score many times, each time very few points, because every time you use it, you are basically getting a "free" meeple placement.

One thing I find is now we have too many meeples. We already have the fat boy from Inns & Cathedrals, now we get 3 more new meeples. We can use our meeples freely without worrying much about running out. Some tension is lost. I guess we can try to play with fewer meeples.

However one thing I did enjoy from this expansion are the new tiles. Some of them are indeed quite interesting, e.g. the road that branches off at a junction without being broken up. So, in summary, I do not dislike this expansion (unlike some other expansions), but I can probably live without it. Well, now that I have mixed it into my Carcassonne game, I probably will just play with it and not bother taking it out.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Ivanhoe, Conquest of the Fallen Lands, Thebes

Sat 5 Jan 2008 was Han and my first gaming session of 2008. I invited an old friend Alvin, who is new to our kind of modern boardgames. That's a good start to the year. Hopefully we will finally be able to "recruit" more members to our gaming sessions.

Ivanhoe is a quick card game, which Han, Michelle and I played (Alvin was very late). It is a new game to me. It is themed around knights and tournaments, but the theme is pretty thin. The cards are just five different coloured suits with different numbers, some white jokers, and some special action cards. The objective of the game is to be the first to win all five types of tournaments, from melee, swordfighting to morning star, jousting. In other words, to win fights in all five colours. The player who starts a fight decides the type of tournament (i.e. which colour) and plays a card (or more) of that colour. Subsequent players who want to stay in the fight must play cards of the same colour to exceed the previous player's total number. There are jokers, and there are special action cards. The tournament goes on until all but one player is left standing. The winner then claims a coloured coin (the trophy?) to indicate he/she has won this type of tournament.

One interesting thing is the maiden (one of two types of jokers). Maidens have a high value of 6, and help you greatly to win a fight. However, if you play a maiden card (i.e. you become her champion) but lose the fight, you have to surrender one of your previously won trophies (coins). That's the price you pay for disappointing the lady.

My hand of cards in Ivanhoe. There are coloured cards, white cards (jokers) and special action cards. And here I have the Ivanhoe card, which can cancel the effects of any other special action cards.

The draw deck and the discard deck.

This was a high risk fight between Michelle and Han, as both of them have committed a maiden (white 6). The loser in this battle would have to surrender an already won trophy.

This is a very simple and quick card game. I did quite badly from the start, losing some hard fights, and falling behind 4, 4, 1. Since you start the game with one random coin, that means I had zero victories when both Han and Michelle already had three each. However, a surprising thing happened and I bounced back from last place to win the game. I had a lot of weak green cards which I could not use for other coloured fights. Green cards (melee) are always 1, and I had a lot of them. This won me the melee. Then in a few other tournaments, I think Han and Michelle were running out of the appropriate coloured cards, and I won those without having to play many cards. So, I guess one should never give up hope.

Conquest of the Fallen Lands uses hexagonal tiles like Settlers of Catan. The board made up of these tiles represent the land which has been taken by evil forces. The players are the good guys, and compete to conquer these lands back.

You start the game with some money, two servants, and some cards. There are three types of servants - soldiers, mages (wizards) and carpenters. You need them to play your cards. Each servant can only be used once per turn, i.e. if you play a troop card which requires two soldiers and one carpenter, then these three servants will be "used" this turn. Every turn you can pay $5 to recruit a new servant to increase your workforce. They are basically slaves because you don't need to pay them any salary afterwards (or they just like you so much to not mind that).

The cards are mostly troop cards, which have an attack and a support value. You can only play one troop card onto one hex to conquer it. The attack value of that card, plus the support values of other cards (belonging to you) already on the board and next to that hex, must equal or exceed the number of your target hex. There are some support cards, which can only be added to a hex after it has been conquered, and you also can only place one per hex. They work in a similar way as the support value of the troop cards. There are also some magic cards which let you do special things.

Close-up of Conquest of the Fallen Lands. The glass beads indicate ownership. Hexes without cards yet are not yet conquered. You can see how far behind I am (I am green).

Han: "My cards suck big time." (but he still beat me soundly)

My cards - two magic cards and lots of troop cards.

More than half the lands are conquered at this point.

My servants and my money.

Because of how hexes on the board are claimed, and how your troop cards placed on the board are usually needed to support your future conquests, the game is quite spatial. You need to plan where to start your conquest and then use it as a base to expand further. You are not required to conquer only adjacent hexes after you have conquered your first hex, but it does help a lot because of the support value of your cards already on the board. So in this game you need to watch out not to be cut off by your opponents, and you need to plan for your expansion. You can't attack your opponents, because, hey, you are all supposed to be the good guys fighting the evil forces together. But you can attack those hexes which they are planning to attack, stunting their expansion and depriving them of loot. Yes, every time you conquer a hex, you earn money based on the number on the hex. And the richest player at game end (when all hexes are conquered) wins. In the game you can spend money to recruit more servants, so every time you do so you are basically surrendering victory points. So, there is a balancing act in terms of how many servants you recruit (more servants will allow you to make more attacks, build more support buildings, use more magic), and also in terms of when to start saving money. From my first playing, this balancing doesn't seem to be too big a factor. The spatial element was more important. It was a race to be as efficient as possible in conquering the hexes, and in grabbing as many as possible before your oppoent does.

This is an interesting game and one I don't mind playing again. Hopefully I can do better next time with the spatial element, on which I did poorly this time.

Thebes is a game about archeology in the early 20th century. Players are archeologists traveling around Europe and the Middle East, studying history, digging up artifacts, putting up exhibitions of these artifacts, and attending conferences; and these four activities basically sum up the ways you score points in this game.

The element in this game which is most talked about is how time and turn order is managed. There is a track around the board showing 52 weeks of a year. Each action you take takes time, e.g. traveling for 2 weeks from London to Rome, and then spending 1 week there gaining 1 special knowledge about Egypt. After taking this action, you move your marker 3 weeks forward, indicating you have spent 3 weeks in total on your turn. The game is played over 2 to 3 years, depending on the number of players. There is no turn order. Whoever is last on the time track is the next player. Sometimes if you do an action that takes a long time, you may need to wait a long time for your turn. Sometimes if you take an action that takes a short time, you can still be last on the time track, and you can take another turn.

This game is beautifully produced, and is fun to play. It is quite immersive, as your little archeologist travel around the map picking up knowledge, excavating artifacts, attending conferences. There is a significant luck element, in the excavations. When you dig, you pull a number of tiles out of a bag. The number of tiles depends on how much knowledge you have on that location (e.g. Crete, Mesopotamia), and how many weeks you are willing to spend digging. At the start of the game, about half the tiles are sand, i.e. you gain no artifact. After any player excavates, he/she keeps the artifacts found, but returns the sand into the bag. So, the later you excavate at a site, the worse your chances become. Sometimes when you have poor luck, you draw no artifacts, or you draw low valued artifacts. So, be prepared for this and don't complain about luck.

Michelle, Alvin and Han studying for their history exam tomorrow. By playing Thebes.

The beautiful map of Thebes. There are always four items available for you to collect (lower right of this picture), and there can be up to three exhibition invitations that you can claim (upper left of this picture).

My specific knowledge (coloured books), general knowledge (open books), congresses attended, assistants recruited. On the right is a cool device used to determine how many chips you draw from the bag when you do an excavation. It depends on how much knowledge you have and how many weeks you are prepared to dig. This is way more cool than a boring table / chart.

I find this game to be quite fun to play, and quite suitable for families. Although not as simple as games like Ticket To Ride, the rules are not difficult, and are very intuitive. I especially enjoy the lucky draw factor of excavating - same reason as why I like Africa. There are meaningful decisions to be made, and planning to be done, and competition in different areas. However, one should take this as a light and fun game and play in a relaxed manner. Don't start complaining about how your planning and perfect moves were ruined by bad luck. Just have a laugh.

This was the only game that Alvin managed to play with us. He only reached my home at about 3:30pm. We had started at 2pm. He enjoyed himself and appeared quite amazed by this new type of boardgames. He said there was a time when he played a lot of Ludo with is wife because they had nothing better to do. Hopefully Alvin will join us again in future and maybe even become a regular or semi-regular player.