Monday, 18 February 2008

learning Die Macher

On Sat 16 Feb 2008 I played Die Macher for the first time. I bought this game half a year ago, and only now had the chance to play it. We played a four-player game - Han, Chee Seng, Ricky and I. Die Macher is an old game, first published in 1986, and is a very well respected Eurogame. It is long and complex, unlike most Euro fare. And definitely it's theme of politics and elections in Germany is very unique. This game was out-of-print for some time, and when Valley Games reprinted it, I took the opportunity to buy it.

Learning the game by reading the rules is a challenge. I read the rules a few times, and also set up the game at least twice, just to see how it works. However I still made a number of mistakes when teaching the game to Han, Chee Seng and Ricky. When examined individually, the steps in a round are not difficult to understand. However, there are quite a number of steps, and the interrelationship between these steps, and how everything ties together, is not easy to grasp. Also because there are so many steps, it is easy to forget some of the smaller details, especially when playing for the first time.

I set up the game before my guests arrived. Michelle already balked at the look of the game after setup. Indeed the other players were intimidated even before they sat down to learn the game. Thankfully after our game they felt the game wasn't as difficult as it looked. The game setup can take a bit of time too, so thankfully I set it up before our game session. That saved some time.

Die Macher all set up before the guests arrived.

Teaching the game took quite some time. Alicia, who is a non-gamer and didn't join us to play, thought we looked funny - four grown-ups sitting at a table frowning at a game like struggling pupils (and a struggling teacher too). She even took a photo of us and teased us, "You still haven't started playing?"

Here's what the game is like. The game consists of 7 elections. Each player plays a political party, and over 6 rounds, you do all sorts of actions to try to win seats, win elections, and also improve your standing on the national stage (you don't execute any actions for the 7th election, and only do scoring, i.e. count votes). The final victory is determined by a number of factors: the number of seats won at the 7 elections, media control at the national level, party members, and party platform alignment with national opinion. The seats are won during each election throughout the game, and the other sources of victory points are all counted only at game end. So there is a nice balance of short term tactics and long term strategy.

You have a number of resources at your disposal to help your party achieve victory, and I find all of them very thematic. First, money. No money no talk. You need money to influence the media. You need money to organise party meetings. You need money for lots of stuff. You have access to shadow cabinet members, who can help you (at a price) to do various things, some helping yourself, some sabotaging an opponent. You have access to external contributors, who can give political donations to your party. Your party members also contribute money.

How you win votes in an election is also quite thematic, and is the core of the game. It is determined by three things - how many party meetings you hold in that state, how well your party platform (i.e. party policy / political view) aligns with the public opinion in that state, and how your party is generally perceived in that state. Your party has 5 party platforms, representing your party's stand on 5 political issues. Each state has 4 issues which are most important to the voters, and the majority of the voters are either pro or against each issue. So, you try to make sure your party platform matches the public opinion in the states as much as possible. (Is this game trying to portray politicians as spineless crowd pleasers?)

There are other elements in the game which fit the theme well. Parties can form coalitions for a state election, allowing their votes to be added up in determining the winner of the state election. Seats won are still kept separate though. There are opinion polls that you can buy. You don't know the outcome of the poll before you buy it. After buying it, you can decide to publish it (which may improve the public's opinion towards you, or worsen the public's opinion towards your opponents) or not. You can increase your party membership if you decide not to publish it. That's a consolation intended by the game designer, I guess. I can't think of a way to explain how in real life not publishing an opinion poll can increase your party membership. Media control is another very thematic element. If you have media control in a state, you can use your influence to change public opinion in that state (usually to align with your party's political view). You are also protected from negative opinion polls.

One thing that you can do in the game is to win votes ahead of the state elections. One of your possible actions is gaining votes in a state, even before the actual state election. This is an important thing to do because you have a limited number of party meeting cubes. You need to convert those to votes so that you can take those cubes back into your available pool. Also, converting to votes early can be good when you have a good standing at that point in time. You might as well do it now and not wait longer, because later there may be changes that worsen your standing. So, it is a lot about timing and planning.

Close-up of the central / main board. Each quadrant is one state election. The tile at the tip in the middle shows the state and the maximum number of seats that can be won by a party. Next, the five coloured tracks are the popularity level of the parties. Next, numbers (up to 50) are the number of votes. The four cards are the public opinion cards of that state. The 5 microphones are spaces for media control cubes.

My area. The telephone marker is the coalition marker. Only parties with this marker placed in a state can partipate in coalitions. Small cubes are party meetings, big cubes are media control. The 5 cards are my party platform. I want lower wages, I say no to genetic engineering, I want to lower spending on anti-terrorism measures, I want more nuclear plants, and I want to reduce social security.

The organisation board is on the left. It is mean for "organisting things", and does not mean "an organisation". It's just a convenient area for dumping all sorts of common / shared game components. The national board is on the right. It tracks your membership number and your influence at the national stage.

I think we started teaching the game at about 3:30pm, and finished the game around 5pm. Of course, we didn't play the full game (7 elections, i.e. 6 rounds). We had planned to play the shorter game (5 elections, i.e. 4 rounds). We ended up only playing 2 rounds. We didn't have much idea what was right to do and what was wrong, how much to bid for opinion polls (is EUR12K too high?), when it is most appropriate to use which shadow cabinet cards and external contribution cards, etc. We just went through the motions and tried to learn along the way. Things only started to click (a little) for me around end of Round 2. I started being able to piece things together, and to have a "big picture" view, instead of feeling swamped by the many small steps and the detailed rules. It'll probably take some more time to know the rules well, so that they become second nature, and I can go beyond them to explore strategies. Chee Seng and Han both liked the game. Ricky didn't say, but I think he liked it too. I like it so far, but really need to play one complete game to be sure. At the moment I'd say it is very intriguing.

One funny incident during the game was when we had to simultaneously decide and reveal whether we wanted to accept external monetary contributions. Everyone was supposed to pick one of the external contribution cards, and then have it face-up (and hide it in your hand) if you decide to accept contributions, and face-down if otherwise. Once everyone was ready, we revealed the cards together. The surprise was Ricky revealed a shadow cabinet card, which was supposed to be used in a totally different step. We all immediately chided him for not paying attention when the teacher was teaching (Cantonese: 你有无听书架?).

To make the game closer to heart we used some localised and "Chinesified" terms. Shadow cabinet members are 幕后黑手, roughly meaning "evil hand pulling the strings behind the scene". External contributions become 收黑钱, roughly meaning "accepting bribes / illegal contributions".

Die Macher is quite an appropriate game to play at this time, now that the general elections in Malaysia is coming. It will be on 8 March 2008. I'd be very happy if we can play Die Macher again before I cast my real vote, or maybe on the same day!

Ricky, me, Han, Chee Seng in the middle of the game. We were not smiling when I was teaching the game.

This was where the game ended. Only 2 elections held. I was going to do well in the next one (bottom left quadrant). I already have 45 votes and I have media control too.

On Sat 16 Feb 2008 we also played two other fillers before starting Die Macher. Chee Seng, Alicia, Han and I played Risk Express. My strategy was to not attack anyone else's territories and just focus on attacking the neutral pool, which was easier. Unfortunately it didn't quite work out for me. Han and Chee Seng both managed to conquer some of my territories, and I had to resort to attacking Alicia's territories (I would not have won even if I succeeded in attacking the last remaining neutral territory - Australia). One funny thing that occurred during the game is when we spin (instead of roll) the last remaining die, we tend to get the result we want. We were not trying to cheat by holding the dice with the desired side face-up. We just spinned it. It worked so frequently that it made us laugh. When someone failed an attack, we'd say, "You forgot to spin it!" In the end, when Han conquered the last territory and won the game, he did it with a spin too. You gotta spin it!

Chee Seng, Alicia, Han, playing Risk Express on the floor because the dining table was already occupied by the already-set-up Die Macher.

The other game we played was Halli Galli. This is a fun and quick reflex game, good as an ice-breaker. This is a game that is better when the players are not good at it, because then you'll have lots of mistakes and false alarms. If all players are good then I think it doesn't become fun anymore and becomes too serious and competitive. Well, as serious as a game with a loud bell can be. To align with the Chinese New Year mood, when a player rang the bell by mistake and was forced to give one card to every other player, we called that "giving angpows" (red packets). Ricky won this game coming from behind, because he beat me in the last ring, where a lot of cards were up for grabs. Damned! I was leading quite comfortably for much of the game.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

boardgame shelves

A pictorial history of my boardgame collection:

29 May 2005

This was half a year after I returned to Kuala Lumpur from Taipei. My boardgame collection started in a serious way when I was in Taipei. Back in KL the games purchased in Taiwan (Carcasssonne, Princes of Florence and other Eurogames) joined the older games purchased before boardgames became my much more frequently practised hobby (mostly Ameritrash titles like the Axis & Allies games, Samurai Swords, which I counted exactly 8 in this photo).

23 Apr 2006

The main change after one year is I have now expanded to need two photographs. Some larger games were moved to another shelf which is deeper. Also the plastic bags were put somewhere else.

The deep shelf which allowed me to store the bigger games this way, which saves space by fully utilising the depth of the shelf.

4 Mar 2007

The biggest change after yet another year is all boardgames were now on the higher shelves. This change happened after the incident where my daughter Shee Yun opened my unpunched Advanced Third Reich and damaged some of the pieces.

A better view of the "wide" collection (as opposed to "tall"). History of the World and Sid Meier's Civilization were still on a lower shelf because I was running out of space and that shelf fit them nicely.

Further zoom-in to one subsection. The dark plastic bag on the bottom left was used for storing small boxes, cheap playing cards, generic components, which I use for home-making games. The bag with a yellow side, next to the dark plastic bag contained the ziplock bags and card sleeves which I bought in Taiwan. I still have a lot left.

Not much change to this section.

14 Jan 2008

Another year, and some more additions to the collection. The shelves occupied remain mostly the same as the year before, but, of course, even more jam packed. This was just before I bought some new shelves from Ikea and before a major rearrangement of my boardgame shelves.

From another angle.

Frontal view of the bulk of my collection.

The little shelf for home-made games.

My Alea big box collection. Nowhere near complete, but I don't intend to be a completist. Ra is something I will always remember fondly. My Taiwanese friends bought this original German version for me all the way from Germany back in 2004, when it was out of print, and gave it to me as a surprise gift.

26 Jan 2008

The new shelves, together with the old. Much more space for expansion now. But I do intend to continue to be strict with my new game purchases.

I like this new lamp, which gives a warm, cosy ambience.

Another view of the collection.

Roughly half of the collection, showing the Axis & Allies games and also the Alea series.

The other half.

The shelf for home-made games is much larger than before.

Ticket to Ride and Lord of the Rings series.

Update 25 Apr 2009: Next snapshot is Apr 2009.

Wednesday, 13 February 2008


On Sat 9 Feb 2008 I visited Carcasean, and this time I took the opportunity to try Agricola, a new and highly acclaimed game that came out in the Essen game fair in Oct 2007. Only the German version has been published. The English version will only be published this year. We played a four-player Beginner game, Michelle and I, and two other customers, one of whom has played before, and was our teacher.

The first thing I can say about Agricola is I don't know yet whether I like it or not. From just one game, I can only say there isn't anything particularly innovative or surprising, well, at least in the Beginner's game (it has Intermediate and Advanced rules too). Two things that stand out are how well the gameplay fits the theme, and replayability.

Your actions in the game feel very real and relevant to the farming theme. You plow, you sow. You build stables, you breed animals. You upgrade your home, you have children. It is like a game of life and you try to improve your livelihood and increase your assets, and all through the game you try to make sure you and your family can feed yourselves. Feeding yourselves is a constant consideration throughout the game, and to me this makes the game feel quite realistic and down-to-earth, it's just like in real life. Feeding your family is your basic need, everything else is secondary, and are nice-to-have's.

Replayability comes from the tons of cards. There are very many cards that add little twists to the game and give you small special powers. Each time you play you will likely get different combinations.

And how does the game play? You start with a plot of land, a small house with two rooms, and two people (yourself and your wife). (I have no explanation for why husband and wife need to sleep in different rooms) You also have 7 Minor Improvement cards and 7 Occupation cards, which you can play during the game to gain special abilities. At the centre of the table, there are a lot of actions that you can choose to take. Every round there will be one more new action added to this pool. The new actions are determined semi-randomly, giving a story line, e.g. you can have babies only around 1/3 into the game (yes, the government says so), and you will only be able to rear pigs and cattle quite late in the game. Some of the actions have a cumulative effect, e.g. there is one "take wood" action which if not used in a round, the amount of wood that can be taken will increase. So sometimes you just can't resist taking wood (or food, or reeds, or any other resources) because there is so much of it sitting there tempting you, even though you have no particular use for it now. You'll just tell yourself, "I will need it later". This is what Valerie Putman calls the "shopping for shoes" mentality, which I find very appropriate.

Taking actions is the main source of player interaction and competition in the game. Sometimes fighting to be start player is important because being start player means you have first choice. You can deny your opponents actions which they want to take by taking them before they can. You take actions by placing your people on the card or the spot on the board, like in Caylus and Age of Empires III. This is also similar to Puerto Rico because choosing an action denies others from taking it. Other than this action selection (or "worker placement"), the other significant player interaction is the Major Improvements (that you can do to your home/farm). There is a pool of 10 cards representing these, and once a Major Improvement is taken, it is no longer available to the other players. Other than these two areas, players mostly focus on improving their own farm. No you can't go around burning other people's houses or stealing their sheep or kidnapping their children.

Once all players have placed all their people to take actions, a round ends, and all the people go home to sleep. The next round starts with adding one more action card. Every few rounds (it gets more frequent as the game progresses) you harvest, your animals breed, and most importantly, you need to feed your family. If you are short of food, you need to beg. This is a nice game and noone starves to death, but each food that you beg for gives you -3 victory points, which is a big penalty.

My farm. Black disk = stone, white disc = reed, dark brown disc = wood, yellow disc = grain, white cube = sheep, brown cube = cattle, bars = fence, big flat discs = people. My house has two rooms, made of stone, and I have two ploughed fields with nothing sowed yet. The cards on the right are the Occupation cards I have played, and the cards at the bottom are Minor and Major Improvement cards I have played. The board in the background is for displaying the 10 Major Improvement.

The lower half are the three central boards for displaying all available actions and at the same time also acting as a round marker, since one additional action card is displayed at the start of every round. Some actions are fixed actions printed directly on the board. Some are on cards, i.e. will vary from game to game, and also depends on number of players. Some resources are placed on some of the action cards / spaces, to show what you gain if you choose that action. The big flat discs are the people already sent out by the players to choose and execute actions.

My farm at game end. I have a pig (black cube) as a pet. You can put one animal in your house if you don't have any place else to put it, but you'll have to declare to the world that it's your pet. Also note the warning sign on the table. The full message is "No food or drinks on the table!".

So, you get to do all these actions, then how do you win? In a nutshell, you win by having the "best" farm. The actual scoring is quite tedious. Many factors are taken into account - how many people in your family, how many stables, how many of each resource (grain, vegetables, sheep, pigs, cows etc), what kind of house (clay is good, stone even better), VPs on some of the Minor and Major Improvement cards you have played etc. You also get penalised for various things, like unused space on your farm, having none of a particular resource, having begged for food etc.

One aspect of Agricola which I find similar to The Settlers of Catan is you collect resources to buy or build things. You collect wood to build fences, you collect reed and clay/stones to upgrade your home, you need all sorts of resources for the Minor and Major Improvements, etc. There are a lot of wooden pieces in this game.

Some people call Agricola an "engine" game, which is true to a certain extent. It feels more like a "home improvement" game to me, because it is not so much about improving your efficiency in a specific area (e.g. corn producer in Puerto Rico), but rather you are trying to be well-rounded. You should try to make use of the Minor Improvements and Occupations that you are dealt, but I feel the overall objective is more on general improvement and not specialisation (based on my one and only play).

During the game I did not manage to pay much attention to what other players were doing. Managing my own farm and my cards was already overwhelming. However observing what others are doing will be important to play well, because you need to know how and where to compete for actions. I came in second place in my first game, but later found that I probably should have come 3rd or last. I made a big mistake of upgrading my home directly from a wooden house to a stone house, and skipped the clay house stage, which is not allowed. Throughout my game I just fumbled from one round to the next, not having much idea how to make good use of my cards. I never managed to extend my home, and only managed to have one child near the end, and only because there was an action allowing me to have a child even though I didn't have a room for the kid. I managed to understand the game structure, but I was still quite clueless about strategy even at game end. Even now I still don't have much idea how I could have utilised well the cards I was dealt.

One feeling that I have when playing Agricola is a comfortable feeling of having many things to choose from. Indeed, at the start of the game, there are 17 actions to choose from, when only 8 will be chosen (4 players x 2 people each). So, even if the action which you have planned to take is taken by an opponent, you can probably find another action which will be somewhat useful to you too. That is my gut feel. Because of the wide range of things that you can do to improve your farm, I have a leisurely feeling when playing the game. Maybe I wasn't playing competitively enough. Somehow I already felt happy and satisfied that I had improved my farm and built something I was proud of, even if I didn't do as well as others.

I didn't pre-order the English version of Agricola. It comes at a hefty USD70, plus shipping to Malaysia. That's very expensive. I have been thinking of waiting for it to come out, before deciding whether I want to buy it. I want to wait for more reviews and different viewpoints. Most early reviews only sing praise. Also it will probably be cheaper to buy from online retailers. After one game, the status for Agricola is still wait-and-see, and hopefully I can try it again before deciding. Replayability, one of the much praised aspect, is not too important to me. Not unimportant, but it is secondary to me, compared to how well the game plays and how much I like the game. If I'm lukewarm to a game, then replayability doesn't really matter to me.

But I must say the "home improvement" aspect in Agricola is done well. This is definitely a thematic game, and farming is a rare theme, even for Eurogames.

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

Blue Moon - my teacher the computer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 February 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A close-up of the game.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 1 February 2008

Gaming at Work

I have been trying to introducing boardgaming to my colleagues for a few months now. Let me recount my rendezvous.

For those who know me, they know my occupation; for those who don’t, sorry, I would like to tell you but I’ll have to kill you then, :)

Basically, there is 2 different time for gaming in my work place.

Firstly, Friday lunch hour, for those familiar with Malaysia, it’s usually a long lunch hour as our Muslim friends will go praying in the mosque. I can usually game for 2-3 hours.

Secondly, my work involves night duty on weekday and 24 hour shift work on weekends and public holiday. There will usually be 3-4 people doing the shift job and the workloads really depends, you can be up 24 hours or you sleep 24 hours but most of the time, it’s in between. Therefore, it’s ideal to setup boardgame to play in-betweens.

And it’s usually a different crowd in both the 2 gaming opportunities.

My lunch hour group runs between 2 players to 6 players (including myself). Let me list the games that I have tried so far:

1 ) Star Wars: Epic Duel

This is my first game here. 4 players. Played 2 games, Easy and Fun game. Who don’t like Star Wars?

2 ) Category 5

A light party game.

3) Condottiere

3-players. Well received.

4) Mag-Blast 3rd Edition

2-players, so-so response.

5) Settler of Catan


6) Family Business

5-players. This is the first game that they sing praises of, which surprised me because I thought the game was chaotic; maybe it’s just the gamer in me. Anyway, everyone had a good time.

7) Betrayal at House on the Hill

4-players. It’s the scenario with Vampire Bats, when the Haunt started and the traitor turned up, I switched with him to become the traitor (easier for newbie to play heroes); I rolled like shit and the game end promptly because all the location needed to win is nearby, I did only minimal damages with the handful of Bats. Anyway, had a great time.

8) Through the Desert

3-players. Well liked.

9) Last Night on Earth

2 games with 2 players. 1 game with 5 players. They were impressed. The last game was the scenario where the heroes needed to destroy the spawning pit. With 1 hero dead and 2 heroes near dead but the heroine with dynamite at full health, all my zombies are on board but scattered (due to Take Over cards), it’s a race to see who reach first; I played several Locked doors to prevent the heroine from moving and managed to assemble a team of zombies lurching toward her. Then the hero finally sacrifices himself to lure away the zombies for her to runaway and win. Fantastic stuff!

10) Pirates Cove

5 players. They are so into the pirate thingy; one guy keep attacking the Legendary Pirates just to prove himself.

11) Colossal Arena

5 players. 2-3 players didn’t understand the rule well or it’s me that explain poorly.

12) San Juan

2 players (2 games). Fast and fun.

13) Dungeonquest

2 players. I lost but the other player manages to escape although with little treasures. But at least she survived.

14) Clash of Gladiators

4 players. Always fun to roll dice to attack your opponenets.

15) Iliade

3 players and 4 players. They enjoy this one.

16) Fairy Tale

2 games (4 players). Another quick game but fun.

17) Neuroshima Hex

3 players. The 2 players did not enjoy this. Make me feel like I was forcing them to play.

18) Hera & Zeus

2 games. One of my earliest game I bought in my collection.

19) LOTR: Confrontation

2 games. Well received.

20) Conquest of Fallen Land

3 players. Nice

21) Bootlegger

5 players. This is another big HIT! They enjoy the street-talk, the negotiation, rolling for whiskey, lining up the truck …. A Blast!

22) Pillar of the Earth

3-players. Enjoyed by both the players.

The Shift group has even more variable players as it depends on who I am working with that day.

1) Memoir 44

There is this one guy who like history and military stuff. Naturally I brought this to lure him into gaming.

2 ) Twilight Struggle

Again, played with the history buff, he likes them and knows a lot of the event depicted in the cards. I won as US.

3) Crusader Rex

The 3rd game I brought. We stopped the game halfway because he screwed up big time with winter attrition as Saracean despite my constant reminding.

4) LOTR: Confrontation

1 game. Played with a guy from my lunch group.

5) Dungeon Twister

2 games. Same guy from my lunch group, He really likes this game.

6) Fury of Dracula

3 games! One guy saw us playing and mentioned that he played Scotland Yard before; what other better game to bring than FoD? The first game was a learning game, second game he really start to plan ahead, third game; he played as Dracula and I managed to rope in another interested party (A vegeterian lady that i hve no idea that she is fond of horror stuff) to play as Hunter with me. (Played in different days; Dracula win all 3 games)

7) Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage

I try this game with the history buff again. He was Hannibal and I Roman. Game ended early with Roman Victory.

8) Pillar of the Earth 2 games (3 & 4 players).

I managed to get 2 newbies to try this and their response is: “I never knew boardgame can be so fun!). Second game was played with the same 2 guys plus the history buff; I was surprised that he enjoyed it so much, maybe he is a closet Euro and not a grognard; Hmmm…..

Finally, I am going away for attachment in another place for 1 month in the coming month.

My colleague said this:

“Leave some games for us; it would be boring without you around.”

These are such gratifying words. Can a geek ask for more?

Happy Gaming!