Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Through the Ages

On Fri 25 Apr 2008, I took a half day leave in the morning to play games. Han came at about 8am, and we gamed till about 1:15pm. That's about 5 hours. We don't usually get to play that long in our regular Saturday afternoon sessions (usually 2pm to 5pm). We played Through the Ages, Race for the Galaxy and Starcraft, all three being new games for me. Han will be going to another city for 1.5 years because of his work, so we are trying to play more while we can.

Through the Ages was the first game of the day. Rules were not published online so I couldn't download to read beforehand. Han had to teach me on the day. Thankfully the reference sheets that come with the game are quite good. Also, as Euhan (a boardgamer in Melbourne whom I got to know on Facebook) said, it's a lot like the Civilisation PC game, which I have played a lot of. So I found it very intuitive and relatively easy to learn, despite the many rules.

Through the Ages is a card game, but this is not any regular card game. People usually think of card games as simpler, shorter, and a bit more luck driven than normal boardgames. Through the Ages is more complex and longer than most boardgames, and probably less "lucky" than the average boardgame too. It feels much more like a heavy boardgame than a card game. It is a civilisation game. You start as a small tribe, which has just learnt farming and mining and philosophy. OK, I know that sounds weird, but the game needs to give you some way of gaining knowledge at the start. From these humble beginnings, you build your nation, through the ages, all the way to the modern era. You compete to be the nation with the most culture by game end.

This game has almost everything that you'd expect to have in a civilisation game - farming to gain food, growing your population, mining to gain resources, constructing buildings that bring benefits, upgrading your infrastructure, maintaining happiness of your people, gaining knowledge in order to discover new technologies, different forms of government, building wonders of the world, great leaders in history, military and warfare. And it is all put together in a well polished way. I find the game very intuitive, to the point that I find I'd like to describe it as simple. But that's crazy, because there are many rules and this is definitely not a simple game. It just gives me that feeling.

So how does it work? Let's start with the civil cards. There are many types of civil cards, representing different things - leaders, farms, mines, buildings, technologies, wonders of the world, military units. There is a long queue of cards from which you can choose cards from. This queue is always moving, like a sushi bar kaiten belt, so cards that appear for some time but do not get picked up by any player will eventually disappear at the end of the queue. They get discarded. You need civil action points to pick cards up. Cards that have appeared for longer become "cheaper". Some cards can be placed on the table immediately after you pick them up. Some go into your hand. Leader cards are immediately played and take effect immediately. Wonders are played immediately, but you are actually just putting down the blueprint. You'll still have to spend effort and resources to build the actual thing. Buildings and military units go to your hand. You need to have accumulated enough science points to play the card onto the table. Then after that you still need to spend effort to build the actual building or train the actual troops. This is where the your two main resources come into play - food and stone. Food is food, and can only be used for feeding your people and for growing your population. Stone is everything else. In this game it represents all other types of resources, and you need it to build almost everything. Well actually there is a third important resource (if you can call it that) - your population. To build anything, you need both idle people and stone. Spend the required amount of stone, and put one idle person onto the appropriate card, e.g. a temple card, and poof, your idle worker is now a fully functional happiness-inducing and culture-generating temple.

These are just some aspects of the game that I am most impressed with. There is much much more to the game. I like the card queue concept because it means you can plan ahead, and you can see what kind of cards your opponents are taking. This helps to make a card game less random. I like the population / stone system because it is so simple and it is the foundation for many other aspects of the game to be built upon. I really admire how everything in this game comes together in an intuitive package.

Another important concept in the game is the available civil actions and military actions per turn. For almost anything that you want to do, you need to "spend" your actions. To increase your actions, you can change to a better form of government. There are also wonders and leaders who can give you extra actions. In a way, you can think of actions as yet another resource that you need to manage, like food, stone and population.

Early in the game. The 6 cards on the left are what you start with. The orange card is my initial form of government - despotism. It gives me 4 civil actions and 2 military actions per turn. The second card is for temples, which I don't have any yet. No yellow cylinder on it. The third card is a lab and I start with one of these. The next two are farms and mines, which produce food and stone respectively. I start the game with 2 each, but by this point in the game I have built a 3rd mine. The red card is my military force, and I start with one warrior. The green card is my leader Moses, which I obtained during the Ancient Age (i.e. the initiation phase of the game). The purple card is a wonder card. I picked the pyramids, and that blue cylinder means I have built the first stage of the wonder.

The board at the bottom is for maintenance purposes. You keep all your unused yellow population markers and your blue resource markers (which can represent food or stone) here. This board makes things very convenient, because it tells you when corruption will start to kick in, when you need to start managing the happiness of your growing population, how much food you need to feed your people, and also how many idle workers you have.

This is the common board. The outside track is accumulated culture, i.e. victory points. The four inner tracks are accumulated science points, military strength, rate of culture generation, and rate of science generation. That row of cards is, of course, the sushi bar kaiten belt.

In our game, we played the Advanced Game, which is the medium length game. Excluding rule explanation, it took us less than 2 hours. It was a very enjoyable game. There is always something interesting to do. Well, actually there are too many things to do and not enough actions to do them all. There is much prioritisation to be done. Tough choices to be made. I always like wonders, even when I was playing the Civilisation PC game series, so I spent much effort on them from early on, the pyramids being my first wonder. I had Moses as my leader, who allowed me to grow my population quickly. I had so much surplus food that had to make sure I my people make enough babies to eat it up and not waste. I find that I needed to work towards a breakeven point (no surplus and no shortage) so that I don't need to worry about food anymore, at least until I decide to grow my population further. Then I would need to stockpile some food. I focused much on stone production, because I feel that this is the most important resource in the game. At least it seemed so in my first game. However I fell into the trap of inefficiency. In this game, if your nation is inefficient, you will lose resources to corruption. It's complex to describe in detail in writing, so I won't bother. I kept in mind that eventually it is culture that counts, so when my infrastructure was mostly stable, I started to focus on culture generating buildings and wonders. I led the culture race for the rest of the game. That was despite my form of government still being despotism, i.e. the most primitive form of government.

Han played slightly differently. Less focus on wonders at the start, and only worked on them later in the game. He started the focus on science earlier than me. At first neither of us bothered with military might. At one point I was contemplating building up a small force to take advantage of his weaker army. However before I started doing anything about it, he started building up his military, and soon the gap was so big that I decided not to bother to try to catch up. Instead I tried to focus my effort on culture. I was attacked 3 times, and I could not defend against the attacks. In two of them Han pillaged my resources, and in the third one he took some of my maths textbooks, setting me back in science. Those were painful. Basically I lost almost all resource production / science production for those turns, because what he took was about what I could produce in one turn.

Some turns Han had so much stone he didn't know what to do with it. So he used them to build wonders, which are resource intensive. Eventually he had 3 wonders too, the same number as me. He had two revolutions during the game, i.e. change in form of government. The first was a bloody coup (i.e. one whole turn lost), but the second was peaceful because he could afford the science points.

As the end of game approached, we started paying attention to the end game bonuses, e.g. for technologies, military units, population beyond 10, etc, basically some measures that reward you for how well you have developed your civilisation in aspects other than culture. This means that although throughout the game culture is the only victory point that counts, other aspects will still help at game end. Although my culture was some distance ahead of Han on the last turn, he had fulfilled more of the end game scoring conditions. The events that had been accumulating in the event deck and had not been executed yet was also a factor. All of them must be resolved before counting the game end bonuses. Some had quite big impacts, e.g. one of them allowed the less civilised player (in this case, Han) to destroy one building of the more civilised player. This was quite crucial because by destroying one of my libraries (I think), my science production dropped to just below his, and at game end there was a 10 culture bonus for higher science production. Thankfully there was another event that allowed me to regain the science lead. I don't remember exactly now, but I think that was what happened. These events that get resolved at game end are actually "planted" into the event deck previously by the players, so here's another aspect of the game where you can plan ahead. You know what is coming (at least for the cards that you put in) and you can prepare for it. In the end, I won, but barely, 101 to 100.

Bird's eye view of a two player game in progress. This is approaching our end game, i.e. the end of Age II (as opposed to Age III in the Full Game).

Some of the card details. My three wonders, one from the Ancient Age, and two from Age I. I picked William Shakespeare to be my leader because he is, ahem, very cultured.

I find Through the Ages to be a very immersive game. I feel very involved all the time. It is very thematic. It looks complex, but in my opinion it is not really so, because of how intuitive the rules are. It surprised me how much I liked it. I decided to buy it, even though I may not have much chance of playing it after Han leaves KL.

Some people complain about the components, but I think they are very good. There are some mistakes, but I feel they are quite minor. Now I'm looking forward to play the full game of Through the Ages. I hear that Elvis makes an appearance...

Thursday, 17 April 2008

reading about prototypes

I usually don't bother to read about prototypes. Sometimes I'd rather people don't write about them too, because usually they are not allowed by the publishers / designers / etc to say much about them anyway. So, often the people who do write about prototypes end up saying how great it was, how much fun they had play-testing it, and sorry they can't say more. I feel rather left out when I read these.

I prefer not to read about prototypes also because there is (usually) no theme, title, picture or story that I can relate to and anchor on. In my mind a prototype feels like a busy whiteboard with lots of diagrams and small writings in different colours all over it, and also different coloured magnets and Post-it notes on it. Not very attractive. I guess theme is important for me, "pasted-on" or otherwise. It gives me something to look forward to, something that can trigger my imagination. Something I can be eager and excited about.

The other "problem" with prototypes is they may not get published at all, or it may take a long time for them to be published. I would rather not spend time reading about a game that I may never have the chance to play. Living so far away from places where big boardgame conventions are held, there is very little chance that I will ever be able to attend such events, to be able to play the prototypes of popular game designers, to be "at the forefront" of the boardgame industry. So, I'd rather be reading about games that are accessible to me, even though "accessible" means I need to slowly build my buylist to six or seven games, and then order "in bulk" from an online boardgame store on the other side of the earth, which I do maybe twice or three times a year. Many prototypes do eventually become real published games, at least those that get talked about in the online boardgames community. But for me they are just too distant. I'd just wait until those graphic designs start coming out, or rules get posted onto the net, or previews get released.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

why my wife loves TTR Switzerland

Michelle and I have been playing Ticket To Ride Switzerland again lately, and on Sat 12 Apr 2008 I had one of my most torturous games ever. Here's the story.

My green trains all set up to go. I like to have them arranged this way, so that during the game when I need to place them onto the board it is quicker.

Details of the game board.

Michelle clicks with Ticket To Ride Switzerland. No doubt about this. Same thing as Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld. There is just something that she gets which I simply don't, and I'm not even sure it's something that she is consciously aware of or is able to articulate. It is mind boggling. There seems to be some strategy that she picks up very naturally, but somehow I just cannot grasp. In Ticket To Ride Switzerland, she often draws many, many tickets, and often completes them all too, while I sometimes struggle even with the small number of tickets that I have. This particular memorable game that we played was like this too. Michelle drew ticket after ticket, while I struggled to connect my cities.

Winterthur and its surrounding areas.

I needed to get to Winterthur. I had two tickets that required connecting to Winterthur. There were four routes that lead to Winterthur. I had first intended to claim the one coming from the southwest, which, unfortunately for me, was claimed by Michelle first. Then I decided to try the northwestern approach. Unfortunately, Michelle needed to go to Schaffhausen too, the city northwest of Winterthur. My third option was the southeastern approach, but before I could collect enough black train cards, Michelle claimed that route to go to St Gallen. I was so jinxed that I started looking for hidden spy cameras that Michelle may have put behind me to spy on my cards. This wasn't the first time that Michelle kept claiming the routes just before I was about to do the same. There is indeed a lot of blocking in Ticket To Ride Switzerland, even if you stick to non-malicious play like we do.

I only had one last choice, the eastern approach, i.e. from Kruezlingen. I quickly claimed the route between Winterthur and Kruezlingen, but I still needed three pink train cards to link Kruezlingen to my rail network. So I started drawing cards. I drew and drew, and drew and drew. And drew some more. And then some more again. I could not get three pink cards until Michelle exhausted her trains, triggering the end of the game! I had never been so desperate for pink in my life.

I kept drawing tickets to try to collect 3 pink cards. If you think this is bad, see the next photo.

31 train cards, and only 2 are pink. 7 blacks, 5 oranges, 5 yellows, 4 whites, 3 greens, 3 reds, 1 blue, 1 locomotive/joker, and 2 precious pinks.

This is not the ticket draw deck. This is not the ticket discard deck. These are Michelle's completed tickets!

In this game, Michelle completed 23 tickets, scoring 173 points just for the tickets, and did not have any failed tickets. Her total score was 232. I only had 6 tickets, and only 4 of those were successfully completed. My total score was 83, which was not even half of her points from tickets alone. Michelle also completely exhausted the ticket draw deck.

Michelle advised me that I should claim routes the moment that I have enough cards, and not wait. Also she advised that it is good to draw tickets. Usually there will be some tickets that are already completed, or are easy to complete, and in the worst case if all are impossible or very difficult to complete, then pick one with the smallest value, accepting the penalty, and draw tickets again next turn. These are her two strategies. I tried to follow her advice, but somehow I still feel my execution is not as good. It's baffling how simple this game is, and yet somehow there seems to be something that I just don't get, as if I have some inborn blind spot.

I'll continue to play Ticket To Ride Switzerland. Michelle really enjoys it. I also enjoy it, despite the occasional torture. Nowadays I play with the expectation to lose. It's usually just a matter of how badly I lose. At least I have fun anyway.

Michelle's completed tickets. I lay them out this way when I calculate the final score. For cards with multiple possible values, I hide the values which are not applicable.

My sad, sad 6 tickets.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Lord of the Rings: Sauron

Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite games. It has three expansions, all of which I have bought, and only one that I have not played, the Sauron expansion, until Sat 12 Apr 2008. Officially the Sauron expansion requires a minimum of 3 players, 2 to play the hobbits, and 1 to be Sauron. However since I was keen to play it, we played with just 2 players. I played 2 hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and Michelle played the dark lord Sauron, since that would be easier, and I guess also devilishly fun. Of course, we used the easiest difficulty level (for the hobbits) - Sauron at 15.

In the Sauron expansion, there are new challenges for the fellowship, and also new help. What the bad guys get:

  1. Sauron - Now instead of the game system, the hobbits have a living, breathing, thinking, listening and scheming opponent playing Sauron. At the start of every hobbit's turn, even before he starts drawing event tiles, Sauron can do something bad. Sauron can play a nasty card on the hobbit, or draw more nasty cards to be used later. In addition to that, when the die is supposed to be rolled (which would be the case in the base game), Sauron is activated instead, and the effect of the card play in such situations is more severe.
  2. The black rider - He starts at Mordor at the start of every scenario board and moves towards the Ringbearer. If he meets the Ringbearer, and then makes it back to Mordor before the end of the scenario, the hobbits lose the game.
  3. There are 4 more bad event tiles added.

What the good guys get:

  1. The hobbits each have a one-time-use special ability.
  2. One new Gandalf card and one enhanced Gandalf card.
  3. Resource tokens placed on the minor activity lines of the first 3 scenario boards.

There are some other optional elements that can be added to the game. There is a set of the dark event tiles, which when used allow you to skip some tiles. There are also two special cards - Watchful Peace and The One Ring - that can be used to help the fellowship. We played with the two special cards but not the dark event tiles.

Setting up Lord of the Rings: Sauron and getting ready to start.

The hobbits have a one-time-use special power.

Now Sauron has a pet - a headless horseman.

The Sauron character card is on the right. It summarises what Sauron can do. Sauron starts with 2 Nazgul cards. Nazgul cards are powerful cards, and there are only 9 of them in the game, of course, because in the book there are 9 Nazguls.

Two of the resource tokens. Some of them come with corresponding cards, like these two. Others give awards like shields, or hobbit cards, or recovery from corruption.

In our game, the hobbits were pretty much surviving from day to day, trying to minimise damage, but unfortunately not really having a long term plan. At least that's what I felt. By the time we reached Mordor, the last scenario board (yes, we managed to get there with both hobbitses still alive) (hey, why am I talking like Gollum, using "we", when it was only me playing both the hobbits), we were low on cards and resources. I wonder whether the game was designed to force you into such a situation, which is exactly what it was like in the story, or whether better planning would have helped to avoid such a situation. I tend to think the latter.

Sauron fumbled a little at the start, being new to the job of dark lord of Mordor where the shadows lay. She spent some effort on moving the black rider, which I felt was not worthwhile, since the distance was still so big in the early game. There was also some confusion with Sam's power of only suffering one of the icons of the Sauron cards. Basically Sauron's moves were not fully optimised, due to being under new management.

However that did not matter, as the exhausted hobbits were eventually overcome by events in Mordor. The Watchful Peace had been used to push Sauron back three steps. Frodo, who had been carrying the Ring throughout the first 3 scenario boards and only handed it to Sam upon entering Mordor, succumbed to the evil forces. Sam didn't have much resources left. Before Frodo fell he had used up his shields as much as possible to summon Gandalf's help, to give Sam a better chance. 5 out of 6 Gandalf cards were used. In the end, the last event - the Big Eye - was reached. Game over... there will be no dawn.

The game ended when the last event on the Mordor scenario board was encountered - "The Ring is Mine!"

Having finally played the Sauron expansion, I think playing Sauron would be delicious. I also think it is better not to be played as a 2 player game. It was a bit of an information overload when I juggled both Frodo and Sam's cards. Also it would be more interesting and challenging for the hobbits if they were played by different players, because they would have to discuss their cards and their plans aloud in front of Big Brother Sauron. Sauron, although having more turns than the hobbits, can play his turns quite quickly, unlike the hobbits who have many more cards, resources, life tokens, shields etc to manage. In fact while I was struggling with the tough decisions, Michelle helped me with the admin work, collecting shields for me, discarding unneeded feature cards, clearing off resource tokens. But I don't think playing Sauron would be boring or too easy. I think it will be interesting.

I wonder whether playing the Sauron expansion is particularly hard when you have only two hobbits. I find this is the case for the Friends & Foes expansion, but after one game of the Sauron expansion I cannot tell for sure whether this also applies. When Reiner Knizia designed the game, two ways of balancing the difficulty when playing with different numbers of players are the life tokens and the shields required for Gandalf cards. With more players the hobbits will together have more cards and "lives". However because the life tokens are limited, it will be harder to collect those. And since Gandalf cards can only be activated by individual hobbits, they will also be harder to activate because it is harder for individual hobbits to collect 5 shields. More plays are required to tell whether two hobbits is too difficult.

The Sauron expansion certainly feels quite different from the other two expansions. I think there is still a lot more for us to learn and to explore. Sauron can definitely be played more viciously. Having lost so decisively even when Sauron was not at top form, and at easy difficulty level, makes me dread how scary it will be when Sauron is his usual self. Also consider that in our game Sauron was not able to eavesdrop on the conversation between Frodo and Sam going on in my head. Hmmm... We startsss to sound like Gollum and Smeagol.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

an old love, The Princes of Florence

In the past few weeks, Michelle and I played a number of games of The Princes of Florence, one of my earliest Eurogame purchases, and also one of my favourites. We have not played this for a long time. The Princes of Florence is a game best played with 5 players. Officially it is for 3 to 5 players (at least for the version that I own). There is a variant for 2 players, which is what we used. Since my regular gaming sessions are usually 2 or 3 players, there is no wonder I rarely bring out The Princes of Florence. It is extremely rare that I can have 5 players.

There is not much point in writing a review about The Princes of Florence, since this is already considered a modern classic and there are already many reviews on BoardGameGeek. So I'll just write about how I see it and why I like it.

The Princes of Florence is about developing your city in order to allow the great scientists / artists in your city to complete impressive works, thus bringing you prestige. You start with some money and an empty city, and throughout 7 rounds you try to gain as much prestige as possible. Each round consists of one auction in which all players participate, and then every player gets to do two actions. Different things are available to you through the auctions and the actions. You can plant forests, employ builders, employ jesters, construct buildings, introduce freedoms, and, most important of all, have your scientists and artists complete great works. How impressive a work is depends on what you have developed in your city. Different scientists / artists need different facilities to work on their respective fields. How conducive an environment you have provided to them determines how good their output is. From these great works (and maybe some passable works too), you gain prestige, and can also earn money to further develop your city.

I distill The Princes of Florence down to just basically 21 things that you can do - the 7 auctions and 14 actions. You look at the first three profession cards that you are dealt, and start formulating a plan, a general strategy. Do you try to make as many works as possible, and sacrifice a bit on quality? Do you complete fewer works but try to make every one very impressive? Do you try to score a lot of points by constructing buildings? In the first few rounds, depending on how the auctions went, and how your initial plan worked out, you may need to fine-tune, or adjust, or even completely overhaul your plans. The most exciting part of the game is probably Rounds 2 to 4, when the players have put in initial investments and set initial directions to pursue, and still have flexibility to compete and to change strategy if necessary. This is when you weigh the various possibilities and plan ahead, probably up to what you need to be doing in the last round.

To me The Princes of Florence is very much a game about planning. You have only 7 rounds. Every action is precious and you need to use them well and not waste them. A "planning game" sounds so boring. It sounds more like work, in fact. Yet I love this game. Maybe I like the feeling of realising a dream - you plan it out carefully, then watch everything gradually fall in place. But then of course things don't always go according to plan. That's where the excitement is.

The two player variant that Michelle and I play goes like this: Start with $2500 instead of $3500, auctions start at $300 instead of $200, bid on landscapes (lakes, forests and gardens) as a group and not individually, i.e. if your opponent has bid on a lake and you want a garden, you need to outbid him/her. 2 player games are definitely not as exciting as 5 player games, that's for sure. However I can still enjoy 2 player games. We are very unconfrontational, or maybe I should say very thrifty with our money when it comes to the auctions. We rarely bother to outbid each other, because if our first choice is taken, we can easily switch to our second choice. I guess that's the downside of 2-player games of The Princes of Florence - the tension in the auctions is lost. We plan our spending assuming we will be paying $300 for everything. We squeeze every prestige point out of our works, and try to have $0 left at the end of the game. I guess you can do this in a 2-player game when the auctions are not so competitive.

An overview of The Princes of Florence. Scoreboard in the middle, the auction stuff on the left, and the action stuff on the right. In the 2-player variant, we use only 5 freedoms. Here, there is only one religious freedom that can be introduced (the rectangular tile showing the hands on the action side).

The scoreboard. The small black marker marks the Round number.

Michelle's city in one of our games. Note the red border. She made one mistake in placing her lab. It should not touch the Palace (on the lower left). But it doesn't matter. She could have placed the lab anyway by just turning it 90 degrees clockwise.

One of my cities in one of our games. Note the green border. I have three jesters juggling on the roof of my palace.

Michelle and her Tetris city. Lots of prestige points from so many buildings.

In the 3 games that we've played, I won the first two and Michelle won the third. Our scores were in the 60's. In all three games, the winner had 6 works and the loser 5. I wonder whether the number of works is the most important factor in determining victory, i.e. whether quantity is more important than quality. I remember reading that someone made 8 works in a game. That is amazing. Maybe I should try that some day. Michelle likes the Prestige cards. I like jesters, and tend to like to make more works (i.e. focus on quantity). I think there is still more for me to explore in The Princes of Florence. I haven't been using the Recruiting card much, or Prestige cards, or Bonus cards.

It's good to pull out an old classic once in a while and play a few games of it. It's enjoyable to explore the strategies again and probably to try something different too. Maybe we should do Puerto Rico next.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Hannibal, Pandemic, and two Blue Moons

On Fri 4 Apr, Han came for an evening boardgame session, which is rare. We usually play on Saturday afternoons. We played Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, Pandemic, and two games of Blue Moon.

This was my 2nd time playing Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, and Han's third time. The last time we played was about 5 months ago, in November. I had to read the rules all over again. Hannibal is a more complex game than what we usually play. Even after having done some revision, we still had to look up the rules many times when we played. There were still too many details that we were not familiar with. But we felt that at least we were starting to have some grasp on strategy. Well, at least we'd like to think of it that way.

This time we swapped sides, I played the Romans and Han played Carthage. As per history, Hannibal crossed the Alps and came to Italy to terrorise the peasants, and Rome tried to focus more on exerting political influence, since Rome didn't have a powerful general like Hannibal yet. I didn't completely shy away from Mr. Hannibal all the time, and did try to sieze the opportunities to attack the invading Carthaginians when the odds were not too bad for me. Didn't do me a lot good though. I lost one early battle, which was very drawn out (i.e. heavy casualties), and when I rolled the retreat table (both players suffer losses equally based on a die roll against the battle casualty table, but the loser suffers additional losses based on a die roll against the retreat table), my whole army was wiped out! Not good.

Syracuse betrayed the Romans due to an event card played by Han. This was expected, just that I wished it were later rather than sooner. A Carthaginian general (I forgot which one) took a ship to Sicily to try to "persuade" the population to follow Syracuse's lead.

One very surprising thing happened on Turn 2 (out of 9 Turns in the game). Hannibal attacked Rome, with slightly better than average odds. It was yet another drawn out battle. Hannibal lost the battle, by a thread. Then when the retreat table was rolled, he lost all troops! Following the rules, that meant Hannibal was killed in battle. Oops. Not good for Carthage. When the guy whose name appears on the game box dies, that can't be good.

Rome breathed a sigh of relief. Carthage quickly switched emphasis to the political influence aspect of the game, and did well, with Sicily converted, that eastern Spanish province converted (I had spent some effort claiming it earlier), and also the northern Italian province claimed. Rome struggled a little to catch up, spending some effort to raise, move and consolidate troops.

Then on Turn 4, Hasdrubal, the other better Carthaginian general (also Hannibal's brother?), who had built up a size 10 army in Spain, took a ship to Sicily to attack the Roman army which had just dispersed itself a bit in preparation to convert political markers back to the Roman side. Due to Roman naval supremacy, all Carthaginian sea moves need to roll a die. Han rolled a 5 (if I remember correctly), and the ships carrying his army were sunk. Poof! The 10 units accumulated over a few turns gone to the bottom of the Mediterranean. That was when Han conceded defeat.

A photo of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage from our previous game.

This was our 2nd play, and I think we played a bit better, and were able to strategise better. It was an exciting game, with shocking twists of fate. Perhaps we should have been a bit more risk-averse than we were. We were rather impetuous, keen to fight even when the odds were just roughly equal. A better general would probably have waited for a better opportunity. Also we let some battles drag on longer than we should have allowed them to. The longer a battle is, the more casualties there will be. So sometimes it is better to concede defeat and to try to withdraw earlier, rather than gambling on. I feel our aggressive play had put more into the hands of fate than a good player would have. But we had fun anyway. Since we were both at about the same skill level (i.e. beginner), slightly sub-optimal play wasn't a fun spoiler for us.

Having played both sides now, I am able to appreciate their differences better. Carthage will usually have 5 generals all the time, and Rome usually 3 (and 4 when Scipio Africanus comes into the story). Roman generals are usually changed every year. Carthage gets at most 4 new units every year, with more restrictions on their placement, and Rome always gets 5 new units with less restrictions. I enjoy how history and historical flavour is brought out by the event cards. I admire the balance and the interrelationship between the warfare part of the game and the political influence aspect. Warfare should be a means to an end. One should not fight for the sake of fighting. Don't fight for fun. And I know fighting is fun because I have been fighting for fun in our game.

Our game took more than two hours, and we only played to Turn 4. I can't imagine how long it would take for us to complete a 9 turn game. I wonder whether people need to play to Turn 9 often, or victory is usually decided before that. I am still keen to play Hannibal again. Poor Scipio Africanus, the star general for the Romans, still hasn't had a chance to come into play. He's the only Roman general who is a match for Hannibal, and he only appears on Turn 6.

The next game we played was Pandemic, this being the 2nd time for me. Last time we lost (this is a cooperative game), and it was a 3 player game. Some say the game is easier with fewer players, so this time although we had only 2 players, we decided to play 4 characters, effectively making it a 4 player game. We played with 5 epidemic cards, i.e. medium difficulty.

A photo of Pandemic from our previous game.

This time we watched the "good cards" deck more carefully, because last time we lost due to running out of cards. Unfortunately this time we were a bit unlucky (or maybe un-careful...) with the outbreaks. We had quite a few of them. At one point when we were 2 more outbreaks away from losing the game, we used the Forecast card to look at the top six cards of the infection deck (now I know the "bad card" deck is called the infection deck). Two of the cards were for cities at Level 3 infection (i.e. will have outbreaks when infected again), and because their neighbouring cities were also at Level 3, there would be chain reactions. We realised that no matter what we did, we couldn't kill the viruses quickly enough to prevent 2 outbreaks from happening. Our only hope was the Silent Night (?) special action card, which would allow us to not draw infection cards for one turn, i.e. it would give us that crucial one more turn. And what "good card" did we draw at the end of that turn? We drew an epidemic card! (cue silly comedy sound effect - Gua Gua...)

The Operations Expert character card, the Forecast special action card, and four good cards.

But wait! That epidemic card was going to save us! The epidemic card meant the infection cards discard deck would be reshuffled back onto the top of the draw deck, on top of those two dreaded infection cards that we just saw! It was hilarious how happy we were to see an epidemic card. We were almost shouting with joy.

Unfortunately our joy didn't last long. Among the infection cards drawn, there were two other cities which hit us with outbreaks anyway. Game over. Too many outbreaks. We only cured two diseases, but were not too far from curing all. One character already had enough cards to cure the 3rd disease, and another almost had enough for the 4th, and we still had quite some cards in the "good" deck. Well, maybe next time!

Han and I started a Blue Moon tournament. Well, probably I shouldn't call it a tournament since there are only two contestants. We plan to play all combinations of match-ups using my 6 Blue Moon decks, and then total up all scores from all 30 games to determine the overall winner. Sometimes as a closer for our game sessions we'd pick two decks randomly and play two games, switching sides for the second game. This time we played the Khind and the Aqua. We both won one game, both when using the Khind, and both games ended when a player ran out of cards. We have only played 6 out of 30 games, still a long way to go.

My 6 Blue Moon expansion decks, plus the Buka Invasion expansion deck, which is more complex and which I have not learned to play yet.

The Aqua deck of Blue Moon

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Monopoly Here and Now Edition

On Sun 30 Mar 2008, Michelle and I played Monopoly: Here and Now Edition . It is basically the same game, differences being cosmetic only. I bought it primarily because of the London factor, same reason as why I bought On The Underground. My wife Michelle used to study in London, so most of the new property names in this version would be familiar to her. The other reason I bought it is I wanted to see how it plays when played by the correct rules. At BoardGameGeek, playing Monopoly is like blasphemy to some people. This is because for many people who have played lots of Monopoly before and then discovered better modern German-style games, indeed Monopoly would seem a very poor game. However Monopoly may be a victim of it's popularity in the mainstream market. To most boardgame hobbyists it probably symbolises outdated, bad games, thus it gets lots of bad ratings at BoardGameGeek, some of which may be lower than what they would be, if Monopoly weren't that prominent in the mainstream market (and have so ridiculously many different themed versions - zoos, fishing, dogs, DIY, family photos, dinosaurs, The Simpsons, Star Wars - I've seen all of these). Also apparently many people don't play Monopoly correctly, e.g. there should be no jackpot at the Free Parking space (I never played with this rule myself so I'm not sure of the details), and if you land on a property and decide not to buy it at the listed price, it will be auctioned to all, including you (I didn't know this in the past).

This Here and Now Edition doesn't come with paper money. Instead, it comes with 6 debit cards and a card reader that looks a bit like a calculator. You use this card reader to manage earning money, paying money and also giving money to another player. At first I thought this would be too troublesome and inefficient, but it turned out to be OK.

In our game, Michelle managed to buy the whole set of yellow properties (Regent Street set). For all other property groups neither of us were able to purchase the whole set. By the time Michelle started to build apartments, things started to look bleak. It seemed I was destined to die a slow death, as Michelle slowly built up her yellow set, and I had no chance of ever collecting a complete set. Then later I managed to convinced her to make a trade. It was a slightly biased trade. I let her complete the pink set (Wembley Stadium set), and she let me complete the orange set (Tate Modern set), and in addition I gave her an airport, so that she had three and I had one. By itself it was a good trade for Michelle, but considering the situation, if she had played completely ruthlessly, she wouldn't have accepted the offer, because it gave me a chance to come back. It gave me a completed set, which was crucial.

And come back I did. I built up to hotel level, and Michelle was unlucky to land on my hotels a few times, and I was also lucky not to land on her more expensive yellow properties for some time. It seemed my numerous effort to persuade her to trade paid off. That single trade of the game gave me a fighting chance to win the game. However it was not meant to be afterall. I started landing on Michelle's properties again and soon went bankrupt.

Michelle holding up the card reader. I had prepared some plastic poker chips to be used as currency, but because the denomination range was not enough (only 10K to 1M, but we needed some 5M too), we decided to just use the debit cards and card reader that come with the game.

You have airports instead of railway stations, and the utilities have changed from Electricity and Water Works to Telecoms and The Sun (a newspaper).

One of the debit cards, and some of the player pieces - airplane, mobile phone, skateboard, roller blades and the London double-decker bus.

A close-up of the card reader. You insert your card on the right to pay money, and on the left to earn money. You insert cards on both sides if one player is to pay another.

Michelle's yellow set during its early stage of development. A hotel was placed in the background for comparison. The apartments were meant to be stacked on top of one another, but we preferred to place them this way because it is easier to see.

All six debit cards. The smart chip is fake. The small oval shaped indents are what the card reader reads.

My orange set all proudly upgraded to hotels. Unfortunately I later had to sell them off to pay rent. The hotels are designed poorly. They topple over easily.

An aerial view of the full board.

I was feeling very lucky to be landing right between the majestic hotels.

The game lasted about 2 hours. If I were to evaluate Monopoly the same way I evaluate the usual Euro games that I play, then I'd say that's too long a play time considering the amount of interesting decisions I get to make in the game. Monopoly is not so good when played with two because the opportunities for trading is less, and luck factor is higher in terms of who can collect a full set, like in our game. More players means little chance of a player collecting a full set of properties all by himself / herself. This would force players to trade. We only invoked one auction in the game. So playing this rule right didn't make much difference, but then maybe we were just too used to the old way. We just kept buying and rarely bothered to remember that invoking an auction was an option. So I'm not sure whether the auctions contribute much to gameplay. It didn't in our game. I invoked an auction when I landed on The Sun (a utility, which was formerly Water Works), because Michelle already owned the other utility, and I was hoping to make her pay more to get the second utility. I bid up the price, but Michelle didn't take the bait and just let me buy it. I ended up paying more than what I would have paid if I hadn't invoke the auction. Needless to say, I felt rather stupid.

One important rule that I didn't play right in the past is that you can buy houses and hotels any time. You don't need to land on your property to do so. That makes things better. Less luck dependent. Another one is when you roll a double, you still do everything as normal (e.g. you can buy property, you need to pay rent), just that you get another turn. In the past when I played you don't do anything when you roll a double, you just roll again.

There is another unofficial rule I remember which I have used before - if you land on Free Parking, wherever you land on on your next turn, you don't need to pay rent. I have no idea where this rule came from, but at least it jives with the Free Parking.

After playing Monopoly again, this time making sure I follow all rules correctly, and don't use any variant rules, I went to Boardgamegeek to rate it. I realised I have not rated it before. Probably I had already thought of playing with the proper rules before rating it. After having done so, I thought Monopoly isn't that bad. Granted there is some nostalgia factor, but it really isn't that devoid of strategy. There are things that you can do to mitigate luck. And the luck factor does even out somewhat. There is some "engine building", as Eurogamers call it. There is the lucky draw fun factor because of the dice. So it's not a game I'd hate, and I don't mind playing it once in a while. I just need to remind myself to play with 4 players next time, which I suspect is the ideal number.

I gave it a 6.