Monday, 31 March 2008


It has been a slow month in boardgaming, being busy with work. On Sat 29 Mar, Han came for a session. The previous session was 4 weeks ago. Definitely too long ago. This time he brought along his niece Juliet, who is not a newbie, but this was the first time she joined us in one of our sessions, and although I have met her before, I think this was the first time we played a game together. We played Pandemic, In the Year of the Dragon and Felix: the Cat in the Sack.

Han brought Pandemic, a very new arrival (but he had already played it three times before our session yesterday), and also a game I was very much looking forward to try. It has been getting many positive reviews. Pandemic is a cooperative game, where the players are a team of scientists and doctors trying to save the world from four deadly diseases. The only way to win the game is to find the cures to all four diseases before time runs out, but there are multiple ways to lose. You lose if there are too many outbreaks, if any one disease has spread too widely, and, of course, when time runs out.

The game starts with all players having a meeting in Atlanta. Some cities are already infected with deadly viruses, so the smart guys need to have a meeting to decide what to do. Each player is a specialist in a particular field, and has a special ability, usually allowing him/her to ignore a specific rule/restriction. Other than that all players have the same abilities and can do the same things. Once the game begins, the players will be traveling around the globe trying to do two things: to find cures to the diseases, which is the long term goal, and also to control the diseases locally at specific cities, which is a short term goal. There are two decks of cards in the game, which I don't remember the names of and will just call the good cards and the bad cards. Every end of turn the active player draws 2 good cards and 2 (or 3, or 4, depending on the infection rate) bad cards. The good cards mostly show a city and a colour representing one of the four diseases. You need to collect 5 cards of the same colour to cure the disease of that colour. You can also use the cards to do actions specific to the city, e.g. flying to/from the city, building a lab (needed for developing a cure and can also be used as an airport). Each city only appears once so sometimes keeping track of which cities have been used or discarded is important. The good deck also contains some one-time-use special action cards. The bad cards also show cities and colours, but instead of being useful to you, they increase the infection level of the cities shown. The maximum infection level that a city can take is 3 (i.e. 3 cubes placed on it). Once this is exceeded, an outbreak occurs, which means instead of adding one infection cube to that city, you add one infection cube to every neighbouring city. Sometimes this can cause a nasty chain reaction. Thus the importance of keeping the infection level down while at the same time working towards the cures. In the bad card deck the cities also appear only once, and here it is usually quite important to keep track of the cities that have come out.

One key aspect of the game is the Epidemic cards. These cards are shuffled among the good cards. When an epidemic occurs, many bad things happen. The infection rate increases, i.e. you may be drawing more bad cards per turn from now on. You draw the bottom card from the bad deck and add 3 infection cubes to the city depicted on it, i.e. that city will either be on the verge of an outbreak or it will already have one. Then you shuffle the discard deck of the bad deck and put it on top of the deck. This means that the cities which have had infections before will have infections again, just that you won't know in what order. I find this ingenious.

Han and Juliet. We had completely eradicated the red disease (I think of it as SARS) by this time.

The board is nice. The components are nice. The only gripe I have with the components is the board gets a bit crowded. Not enough space for the disease cubes, the player pieces and the labs (the "longhouse").

One solution is to stack the infection cubes like a tower. See the blue tower in the background.

Pandemic is a race against time. You lose if your good deck runs out before you find cures to all four diseases. You lose if the 8th outbreak occurs. You also lose if any one of the diseases become so widespread that you run out of cubes to be placed onto the board. I find Pandemic to have a good balance between tactical and strategic play. It is also easy to teach and quite quick to play. I quite like it, and would have decided to buy it after playing it if Han hasn't already bought it. It is simpler and shorter than Lord of the Rings, another cooperative game that I like a lot.

I find Pandemic to be quite exciting. We played the medium difficulty level, i.e. with 5 epidemic cards mixed into the good card deck. Han was the medic, and was able to remove 3 infection cubes with one action as opposed to the normal 1 cube per action. Juliet was the scientist, who could find a cure to a disease using 4 cards instead of the usual 5. I was the researcher (who was, coincidentally, green - my colour), i.e. I could build a lab without needing the card for the city that I was in. Juliet started with many red cards, so we started off focusing our effort in Asia curing SARS. We not only found a cure, we even eradicated it, which means the virus was completely wiped out and new SARS infections could not occur anymore. So from that point onwards we kept hoping to draw red cards from the bad deck because that would mean no effect.

After that we had some nasty outbreaks of the black disease (rat plague?) in India and the Middle-East. That was where our attention turned to next. We eventually managed to cure that, but not eradicate it. It may not always be worth the effort to eradicate a disease. Yellow fever was the next to strike. We had a few more outbreaks. Then in our last round we realised we had lost. I had enough blue cards and was near enough to a lab to cure the blue disease, but Juliet was just short of one yellow card to cure yellow fever. I had 2 yellow cards at convenient locations which I could have passed to her, but her turn came first so I couldn't get to those cities in time to be able to pass her the cards. Not enough actions left. We were out of time. We only needed one more turn, just one turn and not even one round. In hindsight we probably should have planned our last few rounds more carefully. Also if we had saved our airlift special action card, it would have saved the day.

I really enjoyed the game and hope to play again.

It was my third time playing In the Year of the Dragon, but the first time for Han and Juliet. They did well! Han won with 109 points, Juliet was only one point behind at 108, and I, the supposedly experienced teacher, came last at 105. Maybe I was too good a teacher.

We finished up with Felix: the Cat in the Sack. I have played this before but never with 3 players. Some special rules need to be applied for 3 player games. When I last played this I thought it was just so-so. I still think it is just so-so, and I also think it is probably better with 4 or 5 players, and not as good with 3.

Friday, 14 March 2008

playing older games, Elasund

On the weekend Michelle and I played an older game, Elasund, which I bought more than 2 years ago, and have played 11 times according to my records. Elasund is designed by Klaus Teuber, designer of The Settlers of Catan, and the background story of Elasund is related to The Settlers of Catan too. The Settlers of Catan was so popular that someone wrote a novel about it, and in the novel, Elasund was the first city established in Catan. So, this was boardgame-inspire-novel and then novel-inspire-boardgame.

I enjoyed our play of Elasund a lot. It was a quick game, since both Michelle and I already knew the rules, and some details which we didn't remember were easily looked up in the rules and in the reference cards. We played the game in maybe 45 minutes, and the pace was quick and exciting. Not that Elasund is a type of game usually described as quick and exciting, but rather it was how we played that made the game feel exciting. We played very efficiently. We were focused. We didn't waste time looking up rules or thinking long about strategy. We made decisions quickly when decisions were needed. The game felt more like a race than a city building game. In a way, I guess you can consider Elasund a race game, because you are indeed racing to reach 10 victory points.

After the game, I felt very fulfilled and satisfied, the kind of feeling you get after participating in a close race. I think I should play more older games. You can play fast, if all the players are already familiar with the rules. You don't need to spend time reading rules / teaching the game. You are not learning the game now, you can focus on strategy, utilising all you have to try to win. Rules become second nature, like gravity, like the air that you breathe, and you are now focusing on what matters most. You know your opponents are good, so you don't have to pull your punches. You are all playing at full capacity. You can feel free to explore all strategies, sneaky or otherwise, because you don't need to worry about your opponents being unfamiliar with the rules, and thus thinking you unsportsmanlike by exploiting obscure rules. In fact, you expect the same from your opponents, and this makes things exciting because you know your opponents are capable of all kinds of tricks and tactics.

For most games, familiarity brings out the best in the game. One tragedy for boardgame hobbyists (at least this does apply to me somewhat) is that you know of and play and own so many games, you end up only playing each once, or very few times. Just enough to start appreciating it, but not yet to be good at it. Boardgame hobbyists tend to be very up-to-date about new game releases, and there is always a lot of interesting new games to try, so older, already played, games tend to get lower priority.

Playing an older game gives a comfortable, cosy feeling, like catching up with an old friend. You reminisce on the last time you played, or funny experiences in the past. You know it so well, and it knows you very well too (okay... this may be taking the old friend analogy a bit too far).

Bottom line. I really should be playing more of some of my older games.

Princes of Florence is supposed to be one of my favourite games, and I haven't played it since 25 Sep 2005.

Friday, 7 March 2008

playing die macher

On Sat 1 Mar 2008, I finally played a complete game of Die Macher. Not a standard, full, 7 election game, but the short version, consisting of 5 elections. This time, I started to feel I was playing the game and not just learning it. We played a 3-player game, Han, Michelle and I. It was Michelle's first time playing, so I had to spend about 40 minutes teaching her the rules. Michelle is the impatient type when learning new games, her favourite line being, "Can we just start playing now and learn along the way?". While teaching her the game rules, she asked me at least three times, "There are more?" (还有啊?). And the first time was just after teaching her the scoring methods, the formula for counting votes, and the first two steps of a round (12 steps in total per round). I decided to teach it the other way round - the objectives, the vote calculation, which is the core formula in the game, and only then the actual step-by-step rules. Thankfully Michelle did manage to sit though the whole rules explanation without going crazy.

And we played.

And after the game Michelle said to me, "This is not that difficult afterall". And that was my sentiment too. Although Die Macher is quite complex, and there are many rules, and many different actions to do every round, in the end it just comes down to votes. The votes are the main factor in affecting your victory points. Although there are multiple ways of earning victory points, you must remember that everything you do, think of how it'll impact your votes. There are lots of things going on in the game, but when you have the votes as your reference point, then they will start to make sense. I'm oversimplifying, but this perspective does help to digest the game. You can then start to see the big picture, which states your party is weak in (the people don't agree with your party's policies) and you may want to give up on, which states that your party is strong in that you may want to invest more effort, where the opportunities are that you can form coalitions with others, and also very importantly, what will your opponents likely do?

Michelle and Han, after Round 2 (i.e. 3 state elections remaining).

Some of the state markers. The number indicate the maximum number of seats that can be won. This is a little abstracted in this game. There is no fixed number of seats that the players fight over. The number of seats that a player wins is determined by the number of votes won. Not realistic, but I guess it helps to eliminate complex calculations.

The fourth and biggest state. I had already converted votes previously. See my green vote marker on 48 votes. I had media control (3 big green cubes). I made one of the issues a key issue (the No. 2 tile). Needless to say, I won big time in this state. All three parties had coalition markers (the telephones). Michelle won the bid for turn order in this round and forced a coalition upon me (because we had 3 matching policies). I had thought she would a coalition with Han in order to jointly beat me in this state.

Having played a complete game, here are some of my thoughts. Firstly, it is probably not ideal to play with only 3 players. Most people agree that it is best with 5 players, and I have a feeling that is true. It will be a challenge, because more players mean a longer play time. I think we did OK in our game in terms of speed. We did some things simultaneously when they didn't impact the decisions of other players, to speed things up. We finished the game in about 2 hours. For a short version game (4 rounds and 5 elections, as opposed to 6 rounds and 7 elections), that means half an hour per round. The first round was the slowest and once things were smoother we played quicker. In our game, all 3 parties ended up with very similar party platforms. We tended to gravitate towards the same policies. I am not sure whether this is normal. We tended to mostly influence the public opinions in the states, and also to adjust our party platforms, towards similar combinations. I don't know whether it just so happened that our party policies were similar in the first place, or whether the states' public opinions were similar from the start, resulting in this experience. Or maybe it just so happened that we were using similar strategies. I think with more players, there will be more differences in the party platforms, and thus there may be more situations of parties changing to be more different from others, and more fighting (not literally - we are all civil and suave politicians) to influence the public opinions in different directions. In our game we were a bit too harmonious and agreeable.

For the same reason, I also think playing the full, standard game (6 rounds and 7 elections) will be a better experience. There will probably be more variety in public opinions, and less luck in terms of the party platform you get. You likely won't get a party platform that matches the public opinions in all states. In our game, I felt that this luck element contributed a lot to my win. In the initial setup, I had a very good party platform that matched the first state very well, and also matched the other states well enough (at least from those known public opinions at that point). And because in our game the ideologies of our parties tended to converge, Han and Michelle could not overcome my initial advantage. When the party platforms are similar, the parties will tend to do equally well in the elections.

A longer (well, standard) game also means sending your media control marker to the national board in the early game is a much more painful thing to do. A longer game means more long term planning, and a trickier balance between short and long term objectives, i.e. winning seats in the state elections, and doing well at the national level.

I quite like the game. I think it is quite thematic. All those actions and steps are relevent to politics and elections. I felt that party platforms and public opinions were more dynamic that I had expected. Although you can only change one of your party policies once in a round, there are multiple ways to manipulate the public opinions in the states - by media control, by having more votes than everyone else added up. And the most important thing is you can actually manipulate the public opinions in advance, before you reach election time. Before I played the game I didn't realise that this aspect of the game can be quite dynamic, and I think it is a good thing. You feel you can do something and you are not at the mercy of luck.

One unusual thing in our game is both the state with the most seats (80), and the one with the least (15) appeared in the game. We had quite a few big states.

Final score: me 392, Han 306, Michelle 299. The victory points split was roughly half from the seats won in the state elections, and half from the national board (party members, media control, matching national opinions). I thought this was a very clever and fine balance that the designer, Karl-Heinz Schmiel, had achieved. Michelle did better than Han in the state elections, but Han did better in the national arena and beat her by just 7 points.

I like the game a lot. I just wonder whether I will ever have a chance to play the full 7 election game with 5 non-first-time players. One can always wish, I guess.