Thursday, 27 November 2008

Dominion

Dominion is one of the hot new games in the hobby, often described as an innovative game where you do deck building as part of the game. Because of how much I enjoyed Race for the Galaxy, when I heard about an upcoming card game with some depth, I quickly became interested. Dominion is a very different game from Race for the Galaxy, but I guess they tend to get compared because both are card games with some depth.

I first played Dominion with Ben and Ah Chung, in Hong Kong. We almost didn't play it, because Ben was immediately turned off when he heard the theme. His comment was something like "not another one of those themes". I was only able to catch their attention when I remarked that this is one of the hottest new games. Later, Ben told me that among the many games played over that weekend in Hong Kong, this was his favourite. I was surprised. I should try to play this with him and Ah Chung on BSW.

In Dominion, everyone starts with a same personal deck of 7 copper ($1) cards and 3 estate (1VP) cards, shuffled. During the game, you buy cards and gradually grow and modify your personal deck of cards. There are three types of cards in the game. Treasure cards are your income. I think of them as businesses you own (which generate income) and not as money, because when you use them to buy something, you don't lose them. You discard them into your personal discard deck, and later you will reshuffle them back into your personal draw deck. Next, victory cards. These are victory points. They do nothing but clog up your deck, but at game end, only they matter. You need to buy these cards. Lastly, action cards, and this is where the fun comes in. There are 25 types of action cards, and 10 cards for each type. In any game, only 10 types are used. These action cards allow you to do all sorts of things, e.g. drawing more cards, having more buying power, forcing your opponents to discard cards, etc.

A turn is very simple. You will have a hand of 5 cards. By default, you are allowed to use one action card (play from your hand), and you are allowed to buy one card (use treasure cards from your hand to buy any card displayed face-up at the centre of the table). After you do both, discard all used and unused cards and newly bought cards to your personal discard deck, and draw 5 new cards in preparation for your next turn. Of course, some action cards will allow you to do more than one action, some will allow you to buy more than one card, and many will allow you to do many other interesting things.

The game ends when the province cards (6VP victory cards) run out, or any three stacks of cards run out. Then you count all victory cards in your draw deck and discard deck to determine the winner.

I find Dominion a very interesting game. So far I have only played a few games, mostly with the set-up (i.e. the combination of 10 types of action cards) recommended for new players. There is a lot more to explore, and I think I will get many more plays of this game. However despite the innovation, Dominion gives me one very familiar feeling which I have seen in many Euro games - earning money / building your engine in the earlier part of the game, and then pick the right moment to switch focus to earning victory points for the remainder of the game. St Petersburg gives such a feeling very strongly. This is a disappointment for me, because this feels very formulaic to me. I get that "just another Euro game" feeling. I seem to be doing the same thing that I have done in many other Euro games, except this time I do it via an innovative mechanism. The reason I feel this way is probably because I don't have a good grasp on strategy and pacing yet. That's why that familiar Euro feel is the first thing that stands out to me. I think I have been playing rather poorly and inefficiently, and I keep underestimating how quickly the game ends. I did try to execute some strategies, but none seemed to be very effective.

Teaching Han to play Dominion. His first game, my 3rd, but he beat me decisively. Man... I suck at this game. Hopefully not for too much longer.

Left row is the victory point cards. Middle row is the treasure cards or money cards. Right rows are the action cards (a.k.a. kingdom cards).

My hand of cards, and my discard deck, with the Village card on top. I like the Village card.

I still have high hopes for Dominion, and I believe I'll have much more fun once I start to grasp the strategies. By then there will be a lot to explore, with the many possible combinations of action cards (actually they are called kingdom cards). I think Dominion is meant to be a succint and tight game, not necessarily quick, but every decision that you make should be important - what action to do, and especially what card to buy. Every decision needs to be coherent with your strategy. I have been playing poorly in that I don't really know how to make my cards create synergy. But I had one chance to experience first hand how a well built deck can deliver a super high scoring turn. It was my own turn. I didn't really know what I was doing when I built my deck, so it was a fluke, a wonderful fluke. In that game against Ben and Ah Chung, I was very far behind and had not been able to buy many province (6VP) cards. Then suddenly on one turn when I had a number of Village cards (they give +1 card and +2 actions), I kept drawing more cards and getting more and more actions. I think I had some Smithy cards (+3 cards), and I had some Remodel cards (trash, i.e. permanently discard to a central trash pile, a card to gain another card costing up to $2 more). I used my Remodel cards to trash some gold cards ($3) of cost $6 to gain province cards (6VP) of cost $8. I think I gained 3 province cards on that one turn, i.e. 18VPs. I still lost the game, but I come from a distant 3rd to 2nd position. And this wonderful turn demonstrated how exciting Dominion can be.

So. I need to play more.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Around the World in 80 Days

I played Around the World in 80 Days when I was in Hong Kong on a business trip, on Fri 14 Nov 2008 after work, at the Jollythinkers boardgame cafe. This is a game that I have heard of since a few years ago, and have been interested to try, but never had a chance to do so. I did a concise reference sheet for it quite some time ago, in anticipation of finally trying it some day.

The game is, of course, about trying to go around the world in less that 80 days. Every round, a number of traveling cards are displayed at the edge of the board, and each player takes a turn by first selecting one of the cards, then doing the associated action where the card is taken from, and then deciding whether to move his/her pawn. To move from one location to the next, you need to play traveling cards matching the mode of transportation shown between the two locations.

There are quite a number of other details, e.g. special power cards, money and how you can use them (buy a card, or re-roll a die), traveling by balloon, traveling by elephant (in India), the detective who slows down players at the same location. It takes a while to explain all these to new players, but although many, the rules are simple. Only one thing can be a little confusing at first - the concept of time. There are two layers of time, take taken by your pawn to travel around the world, which I will call travel time, and the order in which player pawns get back to London, which I will call real time. Every time you travel from one location to the next, the travel cards used will determine how much travel time is spent, and you use your marker to indicate this on the track around the board. At the end of the game, the player who has spent the least travel time wins. However, if there is a tie, then who ever reaches London first (i.e. in real time) wins. Also, the game ends when all but one player reaches London. The last player automatically loses, even if he/she has been very efficient in managing travel time. So there is a race element in real time too, in addition to the competition in travel time.

A slightly blurred photo taken using my mobile phone.

Moh Yen, Ah Chung and Ben, who is struggling about what to do next.

A better shot of the game board, but from the north.

me, Moh Yen, Ah Chung and Ben.

Around the World in 80 Days is a game that I'd play but would not buy. I'd say I'm not the target audience. This is a lighter game, suitable for families (and children) and non-gamers. I'm happy to have tried it, and Ah Chung, Ben and Moh Yen all seemed to have enjoyed it. In fact, we played it 3 times. The game is thematic. There is some interesting decision making in the game, e.g. the card that you want may not be laid out next to the action that you want to take. There is also a fun gambling element in the bonus chips at each location, for the first person to reach the location, and for the last person to leave. There are two face down chips at each location (I hope I didn't play this wrong), and whenever they are awarded, it can be good or bad for the recipient. Some give money, or special power card, or travel card, some also delay you for one more day. And then of course the special power cards introduce a lucky-draw or surprise element. Most of them are good, but usually you need to use them quickly, because when one of the two bad cards are drawn, everyone must surrender these special power cards in their hands, and the deck of cards is reshuffled. So there is a push-your-luck element if you hold on to your good special power cards for too long.

In summary, not my type of game, but it's a good family game.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Galaxy Trucker

After writing about Metropolys, I should write about Galaxy Trucker, since I compared them. When faced with the decision of buying one or the other, I decided to go for Galaxy Trucker because it is unconventional. It has a real-time aspect, where players race to build the best spaceship. The other reason is Vlaada Chvatil, the game designer. Galaxy Trucker was released one year ago, and the novelty factor never really tempted me enough to buy it. Then this year after playing Through the Ages (also by Vlaada Chvatil) and loving it, Galaxy Trucker came back on to my wishlist.

In Galaxy Trucker, you and your opponents build your spaceships, competing in real-time, and then you embark on a trade voyage. There are two very distinct phases. When you build your spaceship, there are many components you can add - cabins, guns, shields, engines, alien life support systems, batteries, and very importantly, storage facilities for goods. Every type of component has its uses, e.g. to defeat enemies, to protect your from meteors, to power up other components, to carry more crew, etc. You try to cram as much good stuff onto your ship as possible, at the same time making sure you follow the rules for ship-building, e.g. components must connect legally using the right connection types, the ship must always be one joined piece, engines must point to the back, guns must not have anything in front.

At any time during ship-building, any player (usually the one who is nearer to completing his ship) can start the countdown timer, an hourglass. After the timer runs out for a number of times (depending on the round number), everyone must stop building and prepare for the voyage.

What happens during the voyage is determined by a random event deck. Some of these event cards can be examined during ship-building, but of course that costs you valuable time which could have been spent on ship-building. The events are a mix of good and bad things, and the flight order of the players plays an important role. Being in front means bigger rewards, but also bigger risks. If the fleet encounters an enemy, e.g. space pirates or slavers, it is the ship in front that gets attacked first. If the first ship does not defeat the enemy (or chooses not to), the enemy then attacks the next ship, and so on. So the first ship is in the most dangerous position. It is also the most profitable position. If a group of planets is encountered, the first ship has first choice to decide where to land to pick up goods. If you survive the trip, you sell your goods, you earn money for sequence of arrival, you lose money for ship components lost (e.g. broken off by a meteor or shot off by an enemy), and you earn a bonus for least exposed connectors. The richest player, after 3 spaceships of increasing size and 3 voyages of increasing difficulty, wins.

I have played 4 voyages, but not a full game yet. Two were tutorial rounds for learning and teaching the game. One was a proper Round 1 (small ship), and the last was a proper Round 2 (medium ship). The ship building reminds me a little of Carcassonne, in the way how the different sides must match. But of course Galaxy Trucker is much more complex. I find it advantageous to scan the table to look for tiles that other players have looked at and returned to the table face-up. It's much easier to find a component that I need, and that has the right connectors that I need. I also prefer to look at the event cards, which help me decide how I should build my ship. Maybe my fellow players and I are still new and still slow in ship-building. Looking at the event cards does not seem to take much time compared to the time needed to build the ship. I quite enjoy the ship-building part of the game.

The voyage part of the game feels more passive, because there are not many big decisions to make. It is mainly things happening to you, and you try to react, if you can. Usually the choice is obvious, or the decisions are very simple. Parts of the voyage phase can feel a little tedious, when ships are being attacked by enemies or meteors. You need to roll two dice to decide where you are being hit, for every attack. Some cards have up to 6 attacks.

This was the third game I played, in Hong Kong, at Ah Chung's home. This was Ben's Class II spaceship. So much space wasted. Needless to say, he came in dead last, and I took this photo just to make fun of him. Hey, he even had an illegal placement, the rightmost engine tile doesn't match up with the central engine tile.

This was my space ship. I built many cabins because I had seen the event cards and many need a big crew.

I think this was Moh Yen's spaceship. I'm not too sure.

This was probably Ah Chung's spaceship.

Galaxy Trucker is an innovative game, and an interesting game. Definitely it is quite different from other games that I have played. I enjoyed it. However I have a nagging feeling that the novelty factor may not last long. Well, I haven't even played one full game, so I may be completely wrong. Maybe one good way to play (instead of the standard Round 1, 2, 3), is to play Rounds 2, 3, 3A (3A uses a big spaceship template which is quite different from 3), or to play just Rounds 3, 3A. Not to say that Galaxy Trucker is not a good game. I so far feel the replayability is not very high. It seems to be a game that you can bring out once in a while, but not too frequently, like Ca$h 'n Gun$. It's fun, it's different, but not meant for very regular play, unlike Through the Ages which I can play quite frequently.

Comparing to Metropolys in my previous post, I find Metropolys to be more intellectually challenging. In Galaxy Trucker, the ship-building is an interesting exercise, but not really too taxing after you get used to it, maybe except for the time pressure if your group plays hurriedly. The voyage part is generally not really all that interesting, except when very bad things happen to your friends, or yourself. Metropolys is simple in terms of rules, but there is more thinking involved, and I find it to be more challenging. I have only had one opportunity to try Metropolys, so my feeling my change after more plays. And I do hope to play it again.

And I do need to play Galaxy Trucker again too. Afterall I have not even played a complete game and it may be too early to pass judgement.

From playing Galaxy Trucker, I became a little conservative about Space Alert, Vlaada Chvatil's latest game this year, which also has a time element, and this one is a cooperative game. This was the only game at the Essen game fair that really interested me, which I would have bought without playing. There were other games that interested me, but this was the only outstanding one. Now I think I will wait-and-see before deciding.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Metropolys

I have been wanting to try Metropolys for quite some time (probably because of watching Scott Nicholson's video review), and was considering whether to buy without trying. I was deciding between this and Galaxy Trucker, and eventually decided to buy Galaxy Trucker because it is more unusual. Thankfully when I visited Hong Kong I had the chance to try Metropolys at the Jollythinkers boardgame cafe. Ah Chung booked a table, and four of us - Ah Chung, Moh Yen, Ben, and I went there after work, at about 7pm.

The mechanism in Metropolys is very simple. Everyone has 13 buildings. Each round, a player will propose a district to construct one of his buildings. The next player can pass (and retire from the current round), or can propose to build in a neighbouring district by placing his own higher numbered building. This continues until all but one passes, and the last proposed building gets constructed. That's all to it. Now the scoring is a little overwhelming for beginners. Not that it is complex, just that there are many ways to score. There are tokens on the board which earn you 3pt (trendy districts), 1pt (districts with subways) or -1pt (historical districts). If you have the most subway stations, you get a bonus. If you are the most recent person to build in a historical district, you get a penalty. You have secret objectives (I'm referring to the advanced game, we didn't play the family game) - points for building in districts of a certain colour, and points for building in a certain configuration, e.g. 3 buildings in adjacent districts, 3 buildings around a pillar, 2 buildings on both ends of a bridge. At game end, the player(s) with the highest buildings in each region also gets a bonus. That is quite a bit to remember for your first game. Thankfully there is a reference card containing all this information.

The game is driven by the scoring mechanism. You need to evaluate what is valuable to you, and guess what is valuable to your opponents (they will have different secret objectives). There is a strong spatial element to the game. You need to look a few steps ahead from where you place your building proposal, thinking about which direction the bidding will go. There are some small tricks, e.g. winning a bid, and then when you become the next start player, you build your small buildings at dead ends where noone can outbid you because there are no adjacent empty districts. You can build in a desirable district surrounded by undesirable districts, to discourage others from outbidding you.

Moh Yen, Ah Chung & Ben at Jollythinkers boardgame cafe. This is very near the Prince Edward MTR station (in Hong Kong).

A close-up of the gameboard. Many people complain about the board art. It is a little glaring, but I think it's fine. This photo shows the early game, and the first round was in progress. The proposed buildings have the number showing. The blue tokens with an M are the subway stations (1pt). The purple tokens with a lady in a big hat are the trendy tokens (3pt). The pink tokens with a bronze artifact are the historical site tokens (-1pt).

We played the game rather slowly. I think Ah Chung, Moh Yen and Ben were a little overwhelmed by the many scoring mechanisms. They are not regular gamers. We almost played a rule wrong. The building numbers in your hand should be kept secret from other players. They can only see the height of your unbuilt buildings, but not the numbers. A helpful staff pointed this out to us. We played very (maybe overly) carefully, always trying to avoid building on historical sites. That's groupthink at work. The staff said that in his games, no one cares much about historical sites and everyone builds on them, which spreads out the penalty.

Ah Chung won this game, having constructed two sets of buildings that met his secret goal successfully.

I am undecided about the game, and would like to play again. I think our first game went rather long, which dampened my enthusiasm. I think this is a game that can be played quickly. I won't rush out to buy this yet. But I hope to try it again. In fact, compared to Galaxy Trucker, I think I may eventually like Metropolys more. I have a feeling that the novelty factor for Galaxy Trucker may eventually fade. Well, I shall see, after I play more of it.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Dou Di Zhu 斗地主

I recently visited Hong Kong, on a business trip. I extended my stay to meet up with old friends, and we played a lot of games. We played through the night. The last time I stayed up playing games the whole night was in 2003, and it was also in Hong Kong, and it was also with Ah Chung and Ben. That time, the game was The Settlers of Catan, and I hadn't become a boardgame hobbyist yet. It happened soon after that though.

One of the games that I liked the most was, surprisingly, not one that I taught my friends (who are not gamers), but one that Ben taught Ah Chung and I. This is a very popular card game in China, which uses a standard card deck, and is strictly for 3 players. It is called Dou Di Zhu / 斗地主, which means fighting the land lord or land owner. This is probably a phrase or term people use during the cultural revolution, when the communists went against the land owners. The game has a cooperative element, because two players play against one. It is very much a gambling game - it is designed to be very addictive and it really tempts you to raise the stakes. It plays with your greed, your recklessness, or maybe your timidity.

Here's how the game plays. It has some similarity to Big 2 / 锄大D. All cards are dealt out to all 3 players (including the 2 jokers), except for three. The winner of the previous hand has the opportunity to be the landlord. He looks at his cards, and decides whether he wants to be the landlord. If he does, he shows the 3 leftover cards to the other 2 players, and then takes them into his hand. If he doesn't, he passes the 3 leftover cards to the player on his right, who then has the opportunity to become landlord. If no one wants to be landlord, the cards are reshuffled, and for the next hand the stakes are automatically doubled.

Once the landlord is decided, the other 2 players will play against him. Let's say the default stake (注) is $1. In a normal hand, if the landlord wins, he earns $1 each from the other players. If he loses, he pays $1 each to the other players. So, obviously to be landlord means you win big, or lose big.

The basic structure of the game is like Big 2 / 锄大D, i.e. it's a climbing game. The start player plays a card or set of cards, the next player can play a stronger card/set of the same type, or pass, and this repeats until a player plays a card/set that cannot or will not be beaten. The winner of this trick then starts a new trick by playing a card/set. The objective is to get rid of all your cards.

The possible sets in Dou Di Zhu are different from Big 2. Suits have no meaning. 2's are also stronger than Aces, but the two jokers are the strongest, with the coloured joker being stronger than the other. Here are the possible sets:

  • Single cards.
  • Pairs. You can play multiple pairs as a set, as long as the numbers are in sequence, and you have at least 3 pairs, e.g. 44556677.
  • Triplets. You can attach an additional card to a triplet (e.g. KKK4). You can play multiple triplets (e.g. 444555, or 444555666). You can also attach extra cards to these (e.g. 44485553666J).
  • Fours. These are bombs (will be explained later). You can attach an extra card to these, but they will then become less effective bombs, and they do not double the stakes.
  • Straights. Minimum 5 cards, but they can be as long as you want them to be.
  • Double Jokers. I mention this separately from pairs because this is the royal bomb.

No flushes or straight flushes, since suits do not matter. We did not play full houses, but I'm not sure what the formal rules say (if there are any in the first place). Ben says usually full house is not played because it is too easy to make.

Now, bombs. Bombs can be played no matter what type of set is being played in the current trick - pairs, triplets, straights etc. It overrules the type. And very importantly, when a bomb is played, it doubles the stakes. If another bomb is played later in the same hand, the stakes are doubled again, and so on. Bombs are powerful, but you may not always want to play them. If you don't think you are going to win the hand, then it is better not to bomb, because it will only make you lose more. Bombs are not common. Not all games will have bombs, and even for those that do, they may not get used. From the games that we played, we had one game with 4 bombs, but that's extremely rare. It's probably because Chung and I are new. Ben says with veterans at most he has seen 3 bombs.

Dou Di Zhu is very interesting in that it's a 2 vs 1 game. The partnership play is interesting, because you need to guess your partner's intentions, and try to cooperate. Of course, you are not supposed to share information of your cards, or give directions to each other. You should only communicate through card play. You do not need to win yourself. If your partner wins, you win too. Well, there is a little difference. If you win, for the next hand you get first chance to be the landlord. This can be a consideration.

In Dou Di Zhu, the destination is more important that the journey. You win, or you lose. If you lose, it doesn't matter how many cards you have in your hand. You will not be penalised more, or less, depending on the number of unplayed cards. So there is a lot of planning ahead required. You need to plan how to get rid of all your cards. If it looks bleak, then you might as well give up and try to help your partner win (assuming you are not the landlord).

I like the big sets that you can make in Dou Di Zhu. When you have 8 cards remaining, most people don't expect you to be able to play all in one go. This is possible if you plan well. I like the excitement of the bombs. In fact I got so excited over them that I have been using them a bit too recklessly, hurting instead of benefiting myself and my partner, thus earning screams from Ben.

There is some card counting required if you want to play well. At least you should try to remember the big cards. Ben's guideline is to remember J, Q, K, A, 2, and the Jokers. There is, of course, luck in the game, but there is much strategy and room for innovative play and interaction depending on how your opponent(s) and partner play. So I am happy that Ben taught us this game. Very good for when you have exactly 3 players. Maybe this was why it was invented - Big 2 needs exactly 4 players.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Agricola again

I played Agricola for the first time almost a year ago, at Carcasean back in Sabah. It was Chong Sean's pasted up German version. At the time the English version was not released yet, and Agricola was not yet the top ranked game on www.boardgamegeek.com. I thought it was just OK, or maybe more like undecided what I thought of it. Nothing in particular that I found very outstanding. Later when Imagine Games (Malaysian online boardgame retailer) offered a special pre-order promotion for the English version (and that was still before Agricola hit #1), I hesitated but eventually signed up. Malaysians simply find discounts irresistable. After much waiting (originally scheduled to reach Malaysia in Jul 2008), I finally went to ToyBox to pick up the game on Sat 8 Nov 2008, less than 4 hours after I received the email from Mr Ong of ToyBox telling me that it had arrived.

When Michelle and I started playing it, we couldn't stop playing. We played 4 games on Sunday, 2 on Monday, 1 on Tuesday. That's quite rare, for a game that takes about 1.5 hours in the first few plays, and still 1 hour 15 mins later. (we can probably finish a game within about 1 hour now) Michelle likes the game. I do too, more so than after my first play of it.

This was my first impression of Agricola (with an overview of how it plays).

Having played a few more games, I tried to analyse Agricola. I break it down to three main areas: (a) growing a family and upgrading your home, (b) rearing animals, and (c) growing crop. I think these are the three general directions or focus that you can decide on when you play. Maybe you will try to do all and spend equal effort on each area. Maybe you want to be king of a specific area. Aside from these 3 development directions, there are 2 other important aspects of the game: (d) feeding your family, and (e) tools and unique advantages to help you execute your strategy. Feeding your family is a very important theme. Having enough food is a constant worry, like a tightening feeling in the chest. The game design doesn't let your family die of starvation. If you are short of food you go begging for food. But begging means a very severe victory point penalty. Begging is humiliating. If you're a farmer and cannot even feed your own family, then indeed you are a disgrace. So I find this very fitting for the theme. And the tools / unique advantages are the Major and Minor Improvements (which usually cost you some resource to obtain) and the Occupations (which still cost you an action, and also food if you have more than one Occupation). Some Improvement cards give victory points, but their main purpose (and that of the Occupations too) is to help you in the 3 areas of development above. When I play the game, I look at my Minor Improvement cards and Occupation cards, and decide up front the general direction I want to follow.

Michelle's favourite part of the game is probably the Occupation cards and the Minor Improvement cards. There are so many of them in the game, that we always get different combinations. Since we are still relatively new to the game, we still often get new ones that we haven't seen before. There are just so many cards in the game. Every time we take a look at the 7 Occupation cards and 7 Minor Improvement cards dealt to us at the start of each game, we are like children opening Christmas presents.

Unfortunately, for our first six games since receiving the game, we played a rule regarding the Occupations wrong, very wrong. We played that you can do more than one Occupation card when you choose the Occupation action, and you only pay food if you play more than one Occupation card with one action. The correct rule is you can only play one Occupation when you take the action, and if this is your second time playing an Occupation card, you pay food. In hindsight, this is quite an obvious mistake. The action space on the board does clearly say, "1 Occupation". Needless to say, in our first few games, we always choose the 1 Occupation space early, and we played many Occupation cards, sometimes all 7 of them. This helped us a lot. It was too good to be true, and I had a nagging feeling that something didn't seem right. And indeed it wasn't. Now that we played the rule right, our scores went down to a more sobering 30+, as opposed to 40+, even 50+ in our earlier games. The game feels even tighter and tougher, which it already was. And I like it! Even more difficult and painful decisions to be made.

Our first game after buying Agricola, which, obviously we played wrong (so many occupation cards). I had both the Obelix cards. Agricola has many such inside jokes. Famous people drawn into the cards.

Close-up of the Obelix cards.

My little no-space-wasted farm, with a nice big stone house, thanks to Obelix.

Michelle's farm in that first game.

Minor Improvement card on the upper left, Major Improvement cards on the lower left, and the rest are Occupation cards.

More cards...

There are 4 central boards. The leftmost one is for always-available actions. The middle one partly for always-available actions and partly for more-available-every-round actions. The upper right board is only for more-available-every-round actions. The lower right board is for the 10 Major Improvements which are available every game.

Close-up of some of the central boards. We place our farmers onto the actions that we choose.

Cards...

Another no-space-wasted farm. This time Michelle's.

My big family. 5 is the max.

I had all Occupation cards in play, which, I thought was a bit too easy, and later found out that we had played incorrectly.

Michelle played a Minor Improvement on the first round, which gave her 2 food from the next round onwards until the end of the game.

This is the card. Of course, we still played the Occupation rule wrong at the time. It should be impossible to play this card in round 1, because you can only do 1 Occupation at a time.

Agricola is an exercise in frustration. And I mean this in a positive way. You feel so strongly that there is so much you want to do, but you can only do so little, more so than many other games which also give this feeling. Tough choices, painful compromises, opportunities abandoned. You always feel that you are doing very badly, but sometimes when you add up the score at the end, it actually isn't that bad, or sometimes it turns out to be much better than expected. The game makes you feel so inadequate. Probably not very suitable for people with low self-esteem. But in the end, when you look at your well developed farm (assuming you played a well-enough game), maybe with some minor flaws, you feel a sense of pride, a sense of achievement.

Agricola is also a game if planning. I tend to plan ahead what I want to do, and I plot the road map to get myself there, which resources to collect, or which Occupations to play first, etc. I plan to maximise efficiency, minimise waste. Maybe it's because I have been playing mostly 2-player games. There is less competition for actions to choose from, so it is easier to plan. Agricola is a game of chicken (though technically there is no chicken in the game, just sheep, boars and cattle). When the resources accumulate on the board, you are tempted to take them, but maybe you hope noone will take them this round, so that even more will be added next round, and you can take them then, and have the exact amount that you intend to use. But sometimes you opponent may take them just before you, and all that waiting will have been for naught. It'll take a few more turns for the resources to accumulate. So, to take them now or to gamble that they'll still be there for you later. Agricola is a game of prioritising. Too many things that you want to do. You need to decide between what to do now and what to do later. Often you need to decide what to give up and not do at all.

Agricola is a game of taking what your opponent most desperately needs. Oh yes, it can be evil. Sometimes you do this just to spite your opponent. Agricola is a game of conservation. You need to save your actions. You need to make every action count. You need to try to do more with less. Some actions allow you to do two things, and you should try to do both, rather than selecting the action twice to do one thing earlier and another thing later. So there is some coordination and planning you need to do to be able to pull this off. Agricola is a game of synergy. It is usually a good idea to pick Occupations and Improvements that have synergy. This allows you to do more with less.

Comparing Agricola to other games, I actually find some similarity with Race for the Galaxy (maybe I've just been playing too much of Race for the Galaxy, and am just seeing what I want to see). You look at your initial cards, and you usually decide on a strategy based on what what you see, before even the first turn. But of course in Race for the Galaxy, you keep drawing cards, and may decide to switch strategy depending on what cards you get later. In Agricola you don't get new cards. Agricola was inspired by Caylus. I find it more thematic than Caylus. I always felt that Caylus is collecting cubes, converting cubes, and using up cubes to gain victory points. In Agricola the cubes feel more like sheep / boars / cattle, because they can breed. That's my logic. There are aspects of Agricola which do not jive with real life, but generally it feels more thematic. One thing I like about Agricola is you need not worry about the order of activation of the buildings like in Caylus. In Agricola the moment you choose an action, you execute it, unlike in Caylus, where building effects are resolved in a strict order after everyone has placed all workers. Not everyone will agree with me. Some may like the additional challenge. I can live without it, and be challenged by other aspects of the game, and there is no shortage of that.

So, in summary, I like Agricola very much.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

gaming in photos - Race for the Galaxy

This was a game played on 2 Nov 2008. This was Michelle's tableau. And this was at the end of the game. 6 cards at the end of the game is rather few. Also this tableau doesn't seem to have much of a coherent strategy. This seems to be rather poor play, since Michelle has played Race for the Galaxy almost 200 times.

Then later she showed me her hand of cards. This was a dream-come-true hand of cards for an alien strategy. Unfortunately it turned out to be a nightmare for her, because all the cards were too expensive. She stalled and stalled, hoping to get enough cards to start executing the alien strategy, but by the time she was ready to start, it was too late. In the Race for the Galaxy base game, an alien strategy is quite hard to pull off, so we do enjoy trying it when the opportunity arises.

My tableau. I had reasonably good card draws, and in this game I could play very speedily, especially considering the 3 small windfall worlds. This spelt doom for Michelle's alien strategy.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

new kaki

"kaki" is equivalent to companion / regular opponent / fellow addict.

Sui Jye and Jing Yi came to play on 26 Oct 2008, their 3rd visit. I think they have potential to be regulars. Sui Jye has starting frequenting www.boardgamegeek.com. They have visited Toybox and bought Carcassonne: Discovery and The Settlers of Catan. Hopefully this will be a start to a regular gaming group. Good thing that they live quite nearby.

Carcassonne on 26 Oct 2008. Sui Jye and Jing Yi seemed to like this better that Carcassonne: Discovery which they had bought (because Carcassonne was out-of-stock). That big castle was a memorable moment. This was a 4-player game - Sui Jye, Jing Yi, Michelle and I. All four had people in the castle, but as it developed, Sui Jye and I were the only ones who would be able to score because we had the most people. Unfortunately Michelle had added the cathedral tile, i.e. if the castle was not completed by game end, it would score nothing. But if completed, it would score not double but triple. Sui Jye and I were desperate to close it. There were still two tiles needed, and they were not easy to find, requiring 3 sides to match (the lower left corner of the castle and that tile at the top with a green farmer). We were the last two players to place tiles, and to our surprise the last two tiles of the game were exactly what we needed to complete this castle. I shouted with joy! A 72pts castle!

Sui Jye and Jing Yi pondering over Age of Steam. Sui Jye likes trains and pirates. Too bad I don't have any pirate game.

Still early in the game. Jing Yi (yellow) on the west, Sui Jye (blue) in the centre, and me (green) on the east.

Near game end. Sui Jye and I competed a bit, fighting over goods to deliver. Jing Yi had less competition, and also had a lot of space to build long tracks. She won the game decisively. I could see it coming but couldn't stop it. Too late.

Through the Ages continue to be good value for money. Michelle commented that this is her favourite long game. When I thought about it a bit more, actually she doesn't play any other long games. She wouldn't touch any of the Axis & Allies games. So I guess I can only say this is a long game that she actually enjoys playing.

Through the Ages on 27 Oct 2008. This was near game end. I was white, Michelle red. My military strength was zero, because I sacrificed all my men to win one colony. Thankfully I only did so near game end, and Michelle didn't play any nasty war card on me. With a 14 strength difference, a war would have been devastating. My culture rate was the strongest that I have ever achieved (later on the very last turn it went up to 26). Michelle's culture rate was actually not that bad. I think she had some leader that gave culture, who was now dead, and her culture rate dropped back to 4. In this game Michelle initially led in culture points. I took the lead later, but was never very far ahead, until the last two turns.

My civilisation. I had Game Designer as my leader. This was the 2nd time I had him, and I find him fantastic! Also now I realise that labs, libraries and theatres are very good for generating culture. Many Age II and Age III leaders give culture based on these buildings. So it's a good idea to build them, and then grab a leader who works well with them.

My military never progressed beyond Warriors. I had a lot of good wonders though.

Michelle's civilisation. She likes Einstein. This was not her first time using Einstein as her leader. Her military technology never progressed beyond Warriors either, but she had other ways of increasing her strength.

Michelle tends to like gaining more actions. She had 9 civil actions and 7 military actions!

I was very constrained in actions in the early game. Michelle took both Pyramids and the blue technology giving +1 civil action. She likes getting more actions. With few actions, little food and little stone in the early game, I decided to focus on wonders, because they need not be manned. Many culture-generating wonders were built. Michelle was militarily stronger throughout the game. The gap was not big for most of the game, until near the end of Age III, when I sacrificed all soldiers to win a colony. No aggressions or wars were played at all. This has been the norm since we started playing without the Non Aggression variant. I guess we both prefer to be peaceful.

Michelle had Homer in Age I which allowed two Warriors to generate culture. I was behind in culture initially, but later managed to catch up and overtake her. Our culture points were close for most of the game, despite my higher culture. Probably because of events, especially those rewarding the stronger and/or punishing the weaker. Only on the last 2 turns my culture points jumped significantly ahead. I not only had Game Designer to give me 9pts per turn, I also had two movie theatres to give me 8pts per turn. I won quite decisively on the last two turns. I was also lucky enough with the Age III events. I managed to draw the ones that would have benefited Michelle more, so of course I discarded them. The four events at game end probably gave me more points than Michelle.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

rules blunders

Maybe I should even call these royal blunders. Not that they are so severe that they make the game unplayable or make the gameplay experience very bad. Royal because I have played the games very many times (more than 150 games of Race for the Galaxy, and more than 200 games of Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper), and only now I realise my errors.

In the advanced 2-player game of Race for the Galaxy, if my opponent chooses 2 develop action, and I choose 1 or none, I still can do development twice, just that if I have chosen 1 develop action, then I only get the discount for the first development, and if I have chosen none, then I don't get any discount for either development. In the past I have always thought I was only allowed to do one development. Oops. The same principle applies to the settle action, which I have played wrong for more than 150 games. Now that I realise this, the game is even faster! If one player chooses 2 develop and the other chooses 2 settle, then there can be 4 cards added to one's tableau in one round.

Even when playing with this rule mistake, Race for the Galaxy already often feels quick, and indeed a race. Now it will be even quicker. Not that I mind. Indeed sometimes when your early card draws are bad, or you make the wrong call, deciding to pursue one strategy but keep getting cards that are not useful after you have made that decision, any effort will seem rather futile because there is nothing you can do to stop your opponent who has raced ahead. However, I find that Race for the Galaxy has many interesting decisions, and it's all about how to make the best out of what cards you draw. There are many options for you. So I don't mind being occasionally screwed by bad luck.

Now that Michelle and I have discovered this rule error, we find it has added some additional excitement to our games. Now we have to be even more careful of speed play, and we are watchful for opportunities for speed play ourselves. Interesting!

The other royal blunder, for Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, is for a rarer situation, but I think it can mean the difference between victory and defeat. When you use a Scene card (a gavel card) to get a card from the discard pile, if that card you pick is a gavel card too, you can play it immediately. This is an exception from the rule of one gavel card per player turn. I have not played Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper after discovering this blunder. I wonder how big a difference this will make to our game.

I hope I didn't miss any rules for the other games which I have played more than 100 times - Carcassonne and Ticket To Ride.