Tuesday, 30 June 2009

New York Chase / Scotland Yard

I played a 5-player game of New York Chase at Carcasean boardgame cafe on 26 Jun 2009. Chong Sean was Mr. X (game owner / cafe owner is normally asked to do the honours of being on the lonely one-man team), Han, Kevin, Choo (2 new friends) and I played the detectives.

I actually intended to try Scotland Yard (played on a map of London), which is the older game and is very similar. Chong Sean has both Scotland Yard and New York Chase. Somehow we ended up playing the latter. Maybe it was because it has more elements - the helicopter and roadblocks.

New York Chase is a game about a team of detectives trying to catch Mr. X, the fugitive. Mr. X moves secretly and records his trail secretly on a piece of paper. The only clues he leaves are the modes of tranportation used to get from one location to the next (taxi, bus or subway). In specific rounds, Mr. X must reveal his location, making himself vulnerable. The detectives need to make good use of such opportunities to quickly surround and corner Mr. X.

Each detective has a limited number of tickets for the 3 types of transportation. Once he uses up his tickets, he cannot move anymore. If Mr. X can last until all detectives are unable to move anymore, he wins. If he is captured (by simply being on the same spot as another detective), he loses.

There are some twists. Mr. X has two double-move cards which can help him to get out if tight spots. He also has some black tickets (wild cards) which can hide his mode of transportation, and can also be used to take a ferry, which the detectives can't take (NYPD forgot to buy them some ferry tickets I guess). The detectives have a helicopter which can be used 3 times in the whole game to transport one detective quickly to any place in the city. There are also road blocks (if you play with less than the maximum number of detectives allowed) that can be set up when a detective leaves a location.

The game is a lot of deduction (for the detectives) and bluffing (for Mr. X to try to escape) and double-guessing. The detectives need to work together, just like in any cooperative game. The game mechanics is quite simple. Scotland Yard would be even simpler, without helicopters or roadblocks. The game is also a lot about planning. Mr. X needs to plan ahead for the rounds when he has to reveal his location. He needs to make sure he is at a place with many escape routes. The detectives need to plan for these rounds too, to make sure they are at strategic locations to be able to react quickly the moment Mr. X's location is revealed.

Chong Sean. The game comes with this hat-like thing, to allow Mr. X to hide his eyes, so that the other players cannot see which part of the board he is looking at. Something like this is useful for Ticket to Ride too.

New York. Four detectives at their randomly drawn start positions. Mr. X is off the board for now. His location is secret.

Close-up of the streets of New York. The pawns are half transparent, so that you can see the numbered locations.

Mr. X is the white capped pawn. The yellow pawn is riding the helicopter and is about to disembark to the spot on the left of Mr. X. The yellow disks are the roadblocks. When a detective leaves a spot, he can leave behind a roadblock. Depending on the number of detectives in play, the number of roadblocks differ. Once they are all on the board, you can still set up a new roadblock, but you'll have to take down one of the existing roadblocks.

Chong Sean was nervous in the game, because all of us were plotting aloud how to trap him and catch him. There was nothing subtle about it. He probably felt like a goat listening to the butchers discussing how it was going to the slaughtered. We had him trapped by about Round 18, just past the mid point of the game. So the detectives won. Chong Sean checked that the last time he played, Mr. X was also captured at about that time. The helicopter was a tremendous help. We had used up all three of our helicopter flights, and if we hadn't caught Chong Sean at that point, we might not have been able to do so anymore for the rest of the game. Roadblocks did not seem very helpful. Maybe we haven't learnt to use them well yet.

Quote of the game: "I hate helicopters" by Chong Sean.

I enjoyed the game. This is suitable for families, and I'll probably try to get a copy. I'll likely get the Scotland Yard version though, because my wife used to live in London, so the nostalgia factor may make her enjoy it more.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Chateau Roquefort

I played Chateau Roquefort with Han and Chong Sean at Carcasean boardgame cafe on 26 Jun 2009. This game is marketed as a children's game, but it can actually get rather thinky. It looks gorgeous, and it is quite unique. I haven't seen anything quite like it. There are elements of memory and puzzle-solving, also a bit of nastiness (if you want to play that way).

Each player controls 4 mice, and uses them to explore the castle to look for cheese. The castle is no ordinary castle. Rooms in the castle can shift positions. There are trap doors which will capture your mice. If two of your mice land on rooms showing the same type of cheese, you gain a cheese tile of that type. There are 7 types of cheese, and you need to collect tiles of 4 types to win.

On your turn, you are allowed to take 4 actions. An action can be moving a mouse one step, removing a roof, or triggering the room-shifting. The castle is initially all covered up and you need to remove some roofs to see the rooms inside. Roofs are returned to their positions at the end of a player's turn, if there is no mouse in the way. Thus the memory element - you need to try to remember where the various types of cheese are before the roofs go back. Also because the rooms can shift, it becames trickier to remember which piece of cheese has moved where.

There are 3 traps in the castle - which are basically holes. You are not allowed to jump across them. Well, actually you are, but you'd look silly. Your mice are not allowed to jump across the traps. If someone slides the rooms in such a way that a hole moves to where one of your mice is, that mouse falls through and is now trapped in the dungeon. You have one mouse less. It is possible that you accidentally cause your own mouse to fall through a trap. If you are leading, it is possible for your opponents to gang up on you and do a few consecutive slides to make you lose your mouse.

The beautiful castle of Chateau Roquefort.

The seven types of cheese. In the background you can see some of the roofs. On the lower right you see the room tile which can be used to slide the rooms in the castle. Push it in from one end, and another room tile will fall out from the other end. Then you use that other tile to initiate the next room-sliding.

Some spots on the board are safe from the traps. See the spaces without a lowered floor. That red mouse next to two traps is actually perfectly safe, at least as long as it stays where it is.

All mice wear silly smiles.

The game actually has a bit of Tikal / Mexica / Java feel to it. I am surprised that I am comparing it to these medium-heavy games. The similarity is, of course, the action point system. You have 4 action points, and you need to think about how to best make use of it. There can be many permutations of what you can do. Of course Chateau Roquefort is not as heavy as these 3 games in the Mask Trilogy, but it can be thinky in a similar (but less severe) way as them.

How heavy the game feels depends on how seriously you take it. All the components and the gimmicky feel point to a light gaming experience, which can indeed be the case. So, it is not advisable to play this with super competitive or overly serious people. The game may drag.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

gaming in photos

20 Jun 2009. Through the Ages. This is what we call the "Michael combo" - Michelangelo, the Hanging Gardens and St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo (whom we call Michael as if he's an old friend) can give a big culture boost in Age I and II. Ideally you also get some more advanced temples which have more happy faces. He can be a game decider. In this particular game I manage to make this combo, and indeed this contributed significantly towards winning the game. He wasn't that big a factor in Age I, and early Age II, because Michelle had also built some theatres and had good culture. However towards the latter part of Age II, Michael started to pull me further and further ahead, and Michelle never managed to catch up (even though Michael retired by the end of Age II).

Le Havre. This game went pretty well for me. I managed to focus well on two areas which I wanted to focus on - building ships and shipping goods, and the steel industry. I had many industrial buildings, and later managed to build the Bank, which rewards points for industrial buildings.

The view from Michelle's side of the board. She worked more on grain / cattle / leather industries. She bought and built many craftsman buildings in the game, and used the Marketplace often. The Marketplace lets you collect 2 different goods, plus 1 more for each craftsman building you own. Eventually she could take all 8 different goods when she visited the Marketplace.

Galaxy Trucker. Do you notice the mistake? I built a purple alien life support (the purple structure on the lower right connected to the two cannons), but forgot that it needed to be connected to a cabin (white round thing) for it to be effective. So it was wasted, and I couldn't employ a purple alien (+2 to firepower).

Michelle's spaceship. She couldn't find a suitable cannon, so her front cannon pointed right, which is funny.

Lord of the Rings with Battlefields expansion. We tried this many times and still could not win it (this is a cooperative game). I can't recall how Han and I managed to beat it when we played it. Michelle played Sam, and Sam died at Shelob's Lair (2nd last scenario board). I played Frodo, and only managed to reach space 54 on the Mordor board (last board). Unfortunately I was overtaken by events. The event marker reached the last space. Game over.

The battlefield board for the Mordor scenario board. We used Aragorn (hex with 3 sword & axe icons) and Legolas (hex with 2 sword & axe icons) to create a traffic jam for the enemies (the round tokens) to slow their advance. If an enemy needs to move but is blocked at both possible destinations, it doesn't move. This play also redirected the enemies to the exit point on the lower left, as opposed to letting then wreak havoc in the central spiral.

21 Jun 2009. Through the Ages. James Cook stared longingly at the opponent's five colonies (dark green cards) across the table. This was a frustrating game for Cook. I got him as my leader, when neither Michelle nor I had many colonies. After I got him as my leader, every time there was a colony to fight over, I kept losing it to Michelle, despite the power of Cook, the strength from my Navigation special tech, and the strength from my colonisation cards. Cook was probably cursing for being employed by me, a lousy boss who couldn't give him enough support to capture more colonies.

Columbus: So what have you done for your country? I fully utilised my power and captured this nice fertile territory for the motherland. I hand the reins to you, and what have you done? Nothing! Not a single new colony! You were just leeching glory from the old colony.
Cook: (his constipated expression said it all)

These were all the resources available to Cook for colonisation, but every time a colony appeared, Michelle had just enough to beat me to it. Mostly it was because she had a much stronger army.

Michelle's five colonies. I guess I should be thankful that I denied her Cook. Else she would be earning 10 culture points per turn just from Cook!

My civilisation at the end of the game. Victory for me.

My Pyramids is upside down because of the Ravages of Time event - one Age A wonder loses its power and instead generates 2 culture per turn.

Michelle's civilisation. She has been getting Robespierre more often than not lately, using his ability usually only once. We gave a slightly rude Cantonese (a Chinese dialect, spoken in Hong Kong and southern China) adjective to these one-time-use leaders like Robespierre and Columbus - 赵完松. This phrase is often used in the context of you making a girl pregnant and then irresponsibly dumping her.

The other part of Michelle's civilisation.

This was the first time I hit 30 culture points per turn. However later on I checked and found that I may have miscalculated. Oops... Don't tell Michelle.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Monopoly Deal

Monopoly Deal was an impulse buy. It was relatively cheap. Well, it was arguably free, since I bought it with vouchers redeemed using loyalty bonus points. I read one positive review about it recently, saying it's quick and fun and good for casual players. And that's probably it, in a netshell.

Monopoly Deal is a card game. You draw 2 cards (5 if you managed to exhaust your hand on your previous turn, which is a tactical consideration) at the start of your turn. You can play up to 3 cards during you turn. You can convert cards on hand into money in front of you. You can lay down properties. You can play action cards. There are many types of action cards. Some let you charge someone else rent. Some let you swap a property with another player. Some let you rob a property, or even a completed set of properties from another player. The objective of the game is to complete 3 sets of properties.

Some of the cards. Money come in different denominations. When you are forced to pay, you don't get change. So having only $10 notes when asked to pay a $2 bill means you are giving someone a very big tip.

My daughter Shee Yun and my wife Michelle.

I played two quick games with Michelle. The games took less than 10 minutes each. There is a fair bit of luck in terms of what properties you draw. There are some interesting uses of cards. Some cards have multiple uses so you will need to make some decisions, but overall the decisions to be made in this game are not many, and are often not hard. With 2 players I think luck becomes too big of a factor. The game is not very interesting. You can use it to pass time. With more players things may be better (but I haven't tried that), since there can be some beat-up-the-leader if any one player appears too far ahead, and the properties being more spread out makes it less likely that one player will draw all the properties of the same colour (just like the boardgame).

For gamers, I wouldn't recommend this game, unless you intend to play with casual players, or children. Even if you are looking for a lighter filler game, you'd probably want something a bit more interesting and has a bit more tension in the decision-making, like Lost Cities, or For Sale, or Mamma Mia, or Coloretto, or 6 Nimmt! / Category 5. But I'd say it is better than Monopoly Express. At least there is more interaction, and there is no tedious calculation.

Now I have to agonise over whether this counts as a game purchase for 2009. I tried to set myself a quota of 20 games per year. I will have to agonise over whether I should force myself to play it 3 more times, to meet the 5-plays-in-first-year-of-purchase criteria. Well, the criteria should probably have been used as a gauge before I bought the game. Moral of the story - don't impulse-buy.

Well... technically I didn't pay for it...

(this can go on and on)

Sunday, 21 June 2009

A Game of Thrones LCG, and games with too much work

I recently played A Game of Thrones LCG again, with Han. This time we did deck-building. Well, it's a rather limited deck-building, since we only had two basic decks for each House. He had lent me his Lannister and Targaryen decks, and I had lent him the Stark and Baratheon decks. The basic decks come with less than 60 cards. When doing deck-building, you need to have 60 cards, and there can be at most 3 copies of the same card. So we didn't really have much maneuver space using only 2 basic decks. Anyway, this was just our initial foray into deck-building.

On 13 Jun 2009, we played Stark (Han) against Lannister (me), just like in the novels. This was our 3rd game, but our first time trying deck-building. The deck-building aspect didn't really come out very much, at least it didn't feel so to me. Well, maybe having two copies of Jaime Lannister (a powerful character) in the deck did help to increase my chances of drawing him (which I did). The Lannisters are very rich, and managed to get more characters in play quickly. They also won many intrigue challenges, which meant I kept discarding cards from Han's hand. The Starks are strong militarily, and tend to win military challenges, which meant Han was more successful in killing my characters. Thankfully I had some cheap characters and could afford to have some getting killed. Knowing that the Starks have a Valar Morgulis plot card (which kills all characters of all players), I was wary not to have too many strong characters in play when Han had few. He would play that card and just reset everything. So I guess I'm starting to see how players adjust strategies based on knowledge of the House decks.

As the game progressed, the Starks could not keep up to the Lannisters' wealth, and could not bring in enough characters to compete with the Starks. The Lannisters won the duel.

Having played 3 games, and having started dabbling in deck-building, I still feel like a newbie (which is probably not surprising). The game has so many special powers it is difficult to remember all. When you have many cards in play, and almost every card has some special power, it is daunting. It felt like so much work trying to keep track of all of them. The basic rules are not complicated, it's the special powers that make the game rather tiring to play, at least for a newbie like me.

I suspect the base game is much less fun than when you have more cards to do some proper deck-building. My guess is the base game just gives you a flavour, but you really need to buy more cards for the game to shine. I may be wrong, since I have not yet played with more than 2 players. The game will likely be much better too with 3 or 4 players, because the titles will come into play. I am hoping to play a 3P game with Han and Chong Sean when I return to Kota Kinabalu. I look forward to seeing how the titles affect gameplay.

Playing A Game of Thrones LCG reminds me of games which have too much work, so much so that it is starting to lessen the enjoyment of the players. For AGOT LCG, this is the case for me at least for now. I compare it with Blue Moon, and at least for now I prefer Blue Moon, because there are less special powers, and less rules, and yet every deck still feels unique and has a lot of flavour. It is impressive that this is achieved with such (relatively) simple rules. That's Knizia for you. And no wonder. He admitted that he spent a lot of effort in creating Blue Moon.

Another game with too much work is Indonesia, but maybe that's just because we played 2P. I'm not sure whether it is possible to reduce this "work". Perhaps it is not possible. Perhaps it is just the price you have to pay to play the game. Think of all the setup you need to do for Through the Ages. So today to save some setup effort (for the 2nd game), Michelle and I played two back-to-back games of Through the Ages. In the evening she fell asleep at about 9pm.

Indonesia

Indonesia is the most expensive game that I have ever bought. It is a niche game. Small publisher (Splotter from the Netherlands), complex game (well, to be precise, a complex Eurogame), really targeted for the hardcore gamer. In the past I probably would not have bought it. Unfortunately I find that my game-buying habit could not resist the permeation of my wife's logic - "you work so hard, you should pamper yourself a little". I have even pre-ordered Martin Wallace's Automobile. This was the first time I initiated a pre-order by myself. So I now tell myself - buying games is not about the cost. It's about buying games that you will play and will enjoy. So I try to be selective about games that I buy, one gauge being that I expect to play them at least 5 times in the first year, but I don't think too much about the price now.

Indonesia is an economic game, about expanding your companies and meeting the demands of cities, about setting up shipping routes to deliver the goods, and very importantly, about the acquisitions and mergers of companies. You win by being the richest at game end. There are three eras in the game, and in each era there are a number of companies of different types that can be acquired. The era usually ends when there are no more companies to be acquired. Acquiring companies in this game is actually free. I guess it actually symbolises you starting a company. The interesting part is the mergers. These are the bold strategic moves that can win or lose you the game, whilst the expansion and operations of your companies are more tactical and incremental in nature.

To give an overview of how mergers work, the R&D (Research & Development) aspect needs to be explained. There is a "slot" technology that determines how many companies you can own. There is a "merger" technology that determines the maximum number of company deeds that can be involved in a merger you propose. Every company starts as one with a single company deed. When two such companies merge, they become one company with two deeds. If this larger company merges with another single-deed company, the merged company will be a 3-deed company. So you cannot propose a merger that involves 3 deeds, if your "merger" technology is not at level 3. You also cannot propose a merger if you do not have a free slot. However, one interesting thing is, you can propose the merger of two companies even if neither are owned by you. This means it is possible for you to take over two companies owned by your opponents in one go! When a merger is proposed, noone can prevent it. The companies will be merged, and the question is only who will own it. All players, including the former owners, must have cash in order to bid for the merged company. If you own one of the former companies, let's say one that was 9 times bigger than the other merged company, you can't just pay some spare change to buy over the other smaller former company. You need to have enough cash to afford the whole of the merged company. After the merged company is won by a player, the bid is paid to the two former owners, according to the ratio of the previous company sizes.

The supply and demand of the game is also interesting. At the start of each era, the players get to place some new cities. Cities are your sources of demand. A city of size 1 demands 1 of every type of good that is available on the board. Cities of size 2 and 3 demand 2 and 3 of each type respectively. If a city is fully supplied, it grows one size. Players can manipulate whether cities grow by supplying or not supplying certain goods to them. One interesting thing about meeting demand is if there is demand, and you have the ability to meet it, you must meet it, even if you will make a loss from the business transaction. Why a loss? It's because when you ship a product, you must pay the shipping company. Sometimes the money you earn from selling your product is not enough to cover the shipping cost. Hey, that reminds me of how expensive shipping boardgames from USA to Malaysia is. Because of this "must supply" rule, sometimes you'd rather not expand your company (to produce more goods). Turn order is also important because if there is another player producing the same goods as you, you may want to ship first, so that you can choose to fulfill the demand of cities nearer to your production company, or you may simply want to be able to sell your products (when overall demand is less than supply). However, you may also want to ship your goods last, because you may be hoping that your opponent will be forced to ship to those ulu-ulu (distant / rural) places, so that you won't be forced to do the same because the demand at such places has been fulfilled.

Indonesia set up and ready to go. The table on the bottom left shows turn order and technology level. The large square tiles are the companies available to be acquired (to me it feels more like companies that you can start).

The transparent green, yellow and red beads are cities of sizes 1, 2 and 3 respectively. The small yellow tokens are two different rice companies. The expansion of a company is blocked by other companies and by cities, and of course also by geography.

This was the start of Era B (the new companies that become available have a "b" on the bottom right of the company deed tiles). The types and mix of companies available at each era change.

Close-up. The red tokens are Siap Faji - microwave meals. Siap Faji companies are the result of a special type of merger, between a rice company and a spice company.

So there are quite a few interesting mechanisms to consider in this game. I quite like it. So far I have only played one game, and it was a 2-player game. 2-players is not a very good way to play the game. The ideal number of players is supposedly 4 players (the game officially supports 2 to 5). In our game, the companies merged and grew to be very large. Because they were so big, it was a pain in the neck managing the operations of the companies. This is a game with many pieces, and with a lot of physical work to do. You need to keep flipping tokens back and forth. This is too much work for 2 players. The count of tokens and the number of companies on the board will probably be about the same no matter how many players you have. So having 2 players do 4 players' work is tiring. And slow. I think we spent about 4 hours, and still hadn't finished the game. It would probably be over the next turn, but Michelle was just too tired to go on and conceded defeat.

The game is actually not all that complex. You can go through one round quite quickly. It's the operations part of the game that can really slow down and drag. There are many interesting decisions to be made throughout the game. The evaluation of companies is interesting. But this is a game that the publisher would be justified to include a calculator in the box. When merger time comes, because the increment in bid must be a multiple of the number of tokens of the merged company, a calculator will really come in handy, especially when you have company sizes like 13. Some people think Power Grid needs a calculator, which I disagree. It's just addition. In Indonesia, you have multiplication.

One complaint I have is Sabah is ugly. Sabah is my home state, and is a part of Malaysia, not Indonesia. Sabah is the north eastern province of the Borneo Island, the big central island on the board. If you compare it to a real map, it looks nothing like the real thing.

On a more serious note, what many people have complained about - the poor usability design - is quite true. Some spaces are too small. Given that you need to do so much token flipping, the board should be designed to be more practical. It does look good, but usability could have been better.

So will Indonesia meet my 5-games-in-first-year-of-purchase target? It may not, simply due to the ideal number of players being 4. Michelle didn't like Indonesia, at least not with 2 players, because it was just too tiring. In the same amount of time we could have finished a game of Through the Ages with an hour plus to spare. Is Indonesia worth the money I paid for it? I think so. I think so, because I do quite like it. However it'll probably be like Die Macher and the Axis & Allies games - something that I'll get to play only once in a long while, but I'd really enjoy those games. Can you find other games of about the same style and complexity that have the same fun level, but are cheaper? That's a definite yes. So, to buy or not to buy, I guess that depends on your personal criteria.

Other expensive niche games that I know of include Planet Steam and Antiquity. They both sound like games I'll like. I'm hoping Planet Steam will be republished and will become cheaper. I doubt Antiquity will be republished, and the cost being probably double that of Indonesia, I don't think I will buy it. I don't have a money printing machine at home yet.

21 Jun 2009. Correction: I mean to say Antiquity, and not Roads and Boats, in the paragraph above.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Manoeuvre

Han and I played Manoeuvre on 13 Jun 2009. He has played it before, and it was my first game, so he played the Spanish (weaker) and I played Great Britain (stronger).

Manoeuvre is a simple wargame. It is played on a 8x8 grid, and each side has 8 units. To win, you either kill 5 opponent units, or you need to have influence over more spaces on your opponent's side of the board than your opponent has over spaces on your side of the board, when the cards run out. Every turn, you first discard then draw up to 5 cards. Then you can move 1 unit (infantry 1 step, cavalry up to 2 steps). Finally you can decide to attack. You can attack by bombardment (cannons), by firing volleys (guns) or by assault (close combat). Combat resolution is by die roll. The loser may be forced to retreat, or may take injury (i.e. be flipped over to the weaker side), or both, or may even be killed straight-away.

The game is very much driven by the cards. For each of your 8 units, there are 5 cards in the deck. To use any unit to initiate an attack, you need to play a card belonging to that unit. With a hand size of only 5, this can be tricky. Also, single attacks are often not very effective. Many terrain features provide defensive bonuses, so it's tough being the attacker. To improve your chances, you need leader cards. These cards allow you to use more than one unit to attack the same enemy unit simultaneously. So you have to maneuver your units to flank or surround that enemy unit. There are very few leader cards in the deck. The other way is using two or more units to attack the same enemy unit one after the other. Or you can try to surround your enemy unit and prevent it from retreating. A unit that is forced to retreat but cannot, dies.

So the game is very much about maneuvering, and bluffing too. Getting the right cards at the right time is tough, so you have to make your own luck. You may need to keep discarding cards to get the right ones, or you may need to maneuver your troops so that you can make good use of the cards you are holding. The number of shots fired is relatively low. But then, dying is only two hits away. Also when a unit is injured, it's strength also decreases, making it a ripe and tempting target.

Despite seemingly much luck in the game, in the cards you draw, and in the die rolls, I think Manoeuvre is actually quite strategic. There is much you can control, much you can do to maximise your odds. Skillful play is rewarded. It also pays to know your deck well, and your opponent's too. You can plan ahead based on this knowledge. There is also chance for bluffing (although I'm definitely not at that level yet). You can advance a unit pretending to have some good cards for it. You can retreat a unit to lure your opponent into pursuing you, when you actually have some powerful cards for it in your hand.

In our game, Han cycled through his cards quite rapidly, and also advanced to my side of the board more aggressively. Most of the fighting took place on my side of the board. There was quite a bit of maneuvering and positioning before the first shot was fired. Fighting was intermittent, but towards the end grew to be more and more intensive. Han was more successful at killing off my units. I was soon down to 4 units. The 5th loss would spell my defeat. Then I managed to deal some damage and took out some more of his units, so that he also only had 4 units remaining. Unfortunately by then the game end was approaching as we were both near the end of our decks, and almost all surviving units were on my side of the board. Neither of us could make the 5th kill, so Han won by territory control.

My army of Great Britain, and its deck of cards.

The starting setup. You can deploy your troops any way you like, on the first two rows on your side.

Early in the battle. Only a few tentative shots fired.

Towards game end. Too bad I wasn't able to score my 5th kill. Han won the territory victory decisively.

Manoeuvre makes me think of Memoir 44, not because they are similar, but because they are wargames of about the same complexity level. Well, maybe Manoeuvre is slightly more complex. I think there is more control in Manoeuvre though, which is a good thing. In both games you are restricted by the cards you get. But in Manoeuvre at least your movement is not restricted. I never quite liked the left, centre and right division of the command and colours system, where the cards you get dictate which units (on which section of the board) you can activate. It may sound like I like Manoeuvre much more than Memoir 44, but actually I like both of them about the same - just OK. Not a big fan, but can enjoy playing.

There is only one thing I hate about Manoeuvre - the spelling. What language is this? It was a pain when I tried to search for the game on www.boardgamegeek.com so that I could record a play. It was a pain when I had to record it in my game log. It was a pain when I was writing this blog entry, such that I had to copy it onto my clipboard, so that I just had to press Ctrl-V the next time I had to type it.

Friday, 19 June 2009

different number of players

Playing games like Agricola and Le Havre made me think of how the same game can differ with different numbers of players. These two games are examples where the game components actually change with different numbers of players. In Agricola, some Occupation cards only come into play when you have 3+ or 4+ players. In Le Havre, the standard buildings that will appear will change. The number of ships (which is the same as the number of rounds) and the types of ships also change. Games of this type make me feel bad, especially if I like the game. Nowadays I usually only get to play 2-player games against my wife. Only occasionally I get to play 3P or 4P games, and very rarely 5P. So I feel bad for missing out on the chance the play these games with more players. Le Havre is not as "bad" as Agricola. Having played a 3P game, I realised there are only a few more buildings. And for 4P and 5P, there are only 2 more buildings than the 3P game. So I feel I have almost experienced the full range of possibilities. Agricola is the painful one. There are so many 3+ and 4+ (players) Occupation cards that I have not tried. I've tried playing a 2P game with the 3+ cards, and found that they don't really work in a 2P setting. I guess I need to find more friends.

Some games make minor adjustments to accomodate the different number of players, in order to make the game work. In Power Grid, with different numbers of players, the number of regions on the map to use changes, the number of coal, oil, garbage and uranium that you replenish into the energy market changes, the number of cities to trigger Phase 2 changes, the number of cities to end the game changes. The spatial change also occurs in Through the Desert, Metropolys, Wasabi, Attika, China. Other examples include Citadels (number of role cards to discard / display / pass around for choosing) and Through the Ages (number of cards change slightly to balance the number of players, number of cards that get removed every turn changes - this is for pacing the game, Pacts can come into play with more than 2P), Caylus (stable not used, turn order strictly alternates), Ghost Stories, Coloretto, Mamma Mia. In these games, there need to be some adjustments to keep the game interesting, or to simply make sure the game still works. This is not to say that a design is weak or less elegant because such adjustments are needed. If the game is fun, it's a good game.

Some games are designed with a specific number of players in mind, and they usually work best only with that intended number of players, although there are tweaks that can be made to accomodate a different number. Star Wars Original Trilogy Edition (3P), The End of the Triumvirate (3P, obviously), and I'd say A Game of Thrones (5P) too.

Multiplayer conflict games probably need more players to make things interesting - Risk, A Game of Thrones, Struggle of Empires, Samurai Swords, I guess Twilight Imperium too. These games thrive on alliances and betrayals and the tricky balance of power among multiple parties.

Some games have no rule change at all, but feel very different depending on the number of players. In 2P St Petersburg be prepared to be very cash rich. 5P Princes of Florence is much more tense than 3P. Ditto Amun-Re. These latter two are at their best when played with the full complement. 2P Carcassonne is much more strategic than 5P. 5P Ticket to Ride has much more tension and blocking (intentional or otherwise) than 2P. I guess you can also consider Attika to have no rule change at all. Only the "board" size is different to allow sufficient space for the appropriate number of players. The game has a different feel with different numbers of players. Pandemic also feels quite different with different number of players. Lord of the Rings (a cooperative game) has a clever and subtle way of balancing the number of players. At the end of each scenario, players need to collect 3 types of life tokens, but there are only 3 of the sun and heart tokens (and 5 of the ring token). So that means if you have 4 or 5 players, someone is bound to not have enough tokens. So more players means more cards and more resources that can be pooled together to beat the game, but it also means your hobbits will tend to be short on life tokens and will get corrupted quicker. Another aspect is the Gandalf cards. You can only summon Gandalf (sorry, I don't mean to make him sound like some lowly expendable minion) when a single hobbit has 5 shields. When you have more players in the game, it becomes harder for a single hobbit to accumulate 5 shields.

How important is "scalable" in determining whether a game is good. Now that I think about it a little, I think it's not important at all. As long as the game is good with the intended number of players, I'd say it's a good game. Take Mahjong. It's 4P, and if you love it, it doesn't matter that it's a 4P-only game (I am temporarily ignoring the 3P variant in Malaysia). "Scalable" is just a conveniece factor to consider when you buy a game, or bring a game to an outing.

Now I need to go back to wait for my children to grow up so that I can play a 4P game of Agricola.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Le Havre

Le Havre is the name of an important port city in France. My copy of the game actually went to France before it reached me. A friend visited France on a business trip, and I ordered the game from an English online retailer, and had it sent to my friend so that she could bring it back to Malaysia for me.

Le Havre was inspired by both Caylus and Agricola. Mechanics-wise it seems to be more like Caylus, because of how buildings have an entry fee and give different benefits. Theme-wise it feels more like Agricola, because of the constant need to pay food. However overall it feels quite different from both. It really does feel like witnessing the growth and development of a port city. Industries change over time. More people fish and make smoked fish in the early game. Later on people may turn to steel-making. The city also grows. New buildings get built, increasing options for the players and shifting the focus of the game to more lucrative businesses. Older types of business, like making charcoal or building wooden ships, gradually get forgotten.

Through all this, the players build their business empires and try to make the most money and own the most valuable assets (buildings and ships). Every round (which consists of 7 player turns) the players need to pay food, and this food requirement keeps increasing. One way to help alleviate this burden is by owning (building or buying) ships. Ships reduce the amount of food you need to pay (I'm not sure how this ties to the theme or to real life though). Ships can also be used to sell goods. This is one important way to make money.

So how does it all work? A player turn in Le Havre is very simple. First you add some goods to some offer spaces on the board. There are 7 types of goods being offered - cattle, grain, clay, wood, fish, iron and money. These accumulate over time, just like in Agricola, but only two items get added on each player's turn, rather than all spaces getting replenished at the start of a round. After adding goods, you have two choices. Either you take all goods from one offer space, or you send your person (you only have one, unlike the many in Caylus and Agricola) to use a building. Buildings provide many different benefits. Some allow you to gain goods. Some allow you to upgrade goods. Some allow you to earn money. Some allow you to construct buildings. Two important ones are the wharf, which allow you to build ships, and the shipping line, which allow you to ship (i.e. sells) goods.

There are some actions which you can do without any restrictions during your turn. You may pay cash to buy buildings, or sell your building for half it's value. In this game you are usually cash-poor (well, maybe that's just me). Buying buildings is not something you will be doing often. More likely you will be gathering resources to construct the buildings. Owning buildings, especially the ones that you will use often or the ones that others will use often, is good. Most buildings have an entrance fee, which must be paid to the owner (the town, i.e. the game, or the players). So owning an often used building means you save some cost, or you earn some fees from other players, or both.

There are 16 goods types in the game (excluding money), 8 basic types and 8 upgraded types. E.g. iron is upgraded to steel, cattle is upgraded to meat, grain is upgraded to bread. Different goods have different characteristics. Cattle is not considered food (it's a pet) and you can't pay in cattle when you need to pay food. But meat is food. 1 meat is 3 food. Wood can be used as energy and is worth 1 energy. But if you upgrade wood to charcoal, it is worth 3 energy. Coal (3 energy) is upgraded to coke (10 energy). Hide (worth 2 Francs if you ship it) is upgraded to leather (worth 4 Francs). This may all seem quite complex, but I actually find it quite intuitive. I enjoy the variety and the realism. It all seems quite logical to me.

A 2-player game just set up and ready to go. The round blue disks (not yet turned over) will tell you what goods to add to the offer spaces. The offer spaces are the bottom row. The orange roofed buildings are where you are supposed to stack all the goods (not yet on offer), but I have a different storage solution (see below), so I don't use these spaces on the board. The deck of cards on the top left are the surprise special buildings. The 3 columns are the standard buildings. There is a round card on the right, which tells you how much food you need to pay at the end of the round. When the round ends, the card is turned over, and there's a ship at the back. This ship becomes available to be build or bought from the next round onwards. There are some spaces on the right-side board for the 4 types of ships - wooden ships, iron ships, steel ships and luxury liners. There are 4 buildings already built at the start of the game, on the right side of the game board.

Here's how I store my game pieces. This is very convenient. I should do this for my other games too.

The buildings. Only the top most buildings are available to be constructed or purchased. Upper left icon(s) are the materials required if you want to build them. Upper right icon(s) on the entry fee. Upper right number is the sorting number (buildings are sorted within each column). The number on the big coin is the value of the building. You can pay this to buy it if you don't want to or don't have the resources to build it. This is also most much the building is worth at game end. However some buildings cost you more than this value when you buy them. The central icons show the functionality of the buildings.

Reference card on the top left, telling you the food requirement at the end of each round, whether the town will build some buildings, and what kind of ships are available at the end of each round. Loan card on the top right. Start buildings (for the 2-player game) at the bottom. The three green buildings allow you to construct other buildings.

Many have compared Le Havre to Uwe Rosenberg's previous game Agricola, the #1 game on www.boardgamegeek.com, and commented that it is much more open, and I agree. It is less restrictive in terms of food requirement. In Agricola lacking food and getting a begging card is a disaster, but in Le Havre it only means going to the friendly loan sharks (大耳窿). Their interest rate is low and they don't hang dead chickens at your door. Because of this, the game is more flexible and you can think longer term. You can sacrifice the short term and pick up some loans. But do try to eventually pay them off before the game ends.

There is one thing that I can't explain when comparing Le Havre to Caylus. The buildings mechanism is almost identical, but I like the Le Havre buildings more. They feel more thematic while Caylus buildings feel abstract, "Euro". When I play Caylus (and not that I dislike the game) I feel like I'm just collecting cubes of different colours and using them to construct new buildings or converting them into victory points. Le Havre is essentially the same in this respect, but somehow it feels more real. Maybe the ordering of the 3 building stacks in Le Havre provides a story arc. Buildings don't get constructed in a strict order, but within these 3 stacks they do follow a strict order. Generally the cheaper buildings and earlier industries do come out earlier, and the more advanced industries appear later.

Although the game is quite open, there can still be some blocking. Some buildings tend to be used more often than others. Sometimes players happen to need the same building at the same time (e.g. when you have collected enough resources to build a ship, you will want to visit the Wharf). Sometimes a building can be "locked" for many turns, because the player occupying it happens to decide to collect goods on his next few consecutive turns. In this case his person stays on the building, just loitering and annoying the other people queuing outside (赖死不走). This may be surprising to some, since there are so many buildings, and each player only has one person, but it does happen sometimes.

After my first play, I worried whether the game would feel repetitive. Most of the buildings in play are the same. There are only 6 special buildings in each game, and not all are built. These are drawn randomly from a pool of special buildings, and they provide some variety to the game. Now that I have played a few more games, I find the game to be quite replayable. Despite the same general story arc, there are enough different strategies to explore - there are different industries to invest in, you may want to construct and buy many buildings, you may want to earn your fortune by selling goods. Some of the special buildings that come up can provide very different strategies, even though there are only very few of them per game. Many of these provide some special way of earning money. Because money is scarce, such buildings may drive a player's strategy.

One thing that is exciting about Le Havre is how it accelerates towards the end. In the last few rounds, you suddenly realise how few turns you have left, and start to plan carefully how to fully utilise them (ahem... I guess I can't blame Michelle and Han for teasing me for being a sloooow player). You need to make tough choices to abandon some activities and focus on others.

Michelle enjoying Le Havre.

My buildings, and one ship.

Later in the same game. I had 4 ships now. Notice that the Wharf has a brick on it. That means the Wharf had now been upgraded to be able to build iron / steel ships. The first player to use the Wharf to build non-wooden ships must pay this single brick.

So far I have played three 2-player games and one 3-player game. I had a lot of fun. In my first game, I built many ships, heeding the advice from reviews I've read, and also from the rulebook. That saved me much effort in later turns in getting food. Having many ships also allowed me to ship goods to earn money. I especially enjoyed shipping cattle and bread. Interestingly, cattle is worth 3 Francs, but if you slaughter it to become meat, although it can provide 3 food, it is now only worth 2 Francs.

There was a game where I spent much effort constructing buildings. Towards end-game I built the two large buildings (like those in Puerto Rico and San Juan) which provide bonus points depending on other buildings you own. I think I owned half the city in that game, although I didn't do much shipping (if any). There was a game when I produced much steel to be sold for a handsome profit, but generally I find that getting into the steel industry is hard.

I like Le Havre a lot, and look forward to many more plays, maybe even as much as Agricola.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

gaming in photos

29 May 2009. Race for the Galaxy (with Gathering Storm expansion). The alien strategy worked out surprisingly well for me. I scored 45pts. I had the Alien Rosetta Stone World in my starting hand, and two peaceful but expensive Alien worlds. I decided to try an Alien strategy. I drew the Alien Tech Institute after mid game, and Terraforming Guild even later. They both sure scored big-time for me.

31 May 2009. I don't remember taking a full overview shot of Through the Ages before, so here's one. This is how we like to lay out our game. Discard decks near the head of the card row, for convenience. Government card always on the left, followed by urban buildings, then farms & mines, then military units, tactics card, and then wonders, blue techs and colonies on the right. Leaders tend to be on the right of the token bank. Wonders under construction is also always there (and the leader gets shifted slightly to the right), to remind ourselves. Retired leaders are put to the side and not discarded. We respect our elders.

My wife Michelle is a little addicted to Through the Ages. She quite often requests for this game, and we usually take 2 hours to play. I never imagined this, and especially not with a 2-hour game. She doesn't often request games. Past games she has requested include Ticket to Ride (and siblings), Carcassonne, Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper.

1 Jun 2009. Through the Ages. I don't remember how I had so much stone. Probably partly due to an event card. Maybe they breed...

14 Jun 2009. Han was in town and came to play. Over the weekend we played A Game of Thrones LCG, Manoeuvre, Metropolys, Le Havre and Wasabi (this photo).

My daughter Shee Yun, Michelle and Han. Shee Yun watched us play without giving much trouble. I have "played" Wasabi with her before. We each took one recipe (which was not secret) and then took turns to pick and play ingredients directly onto the board to try to complete the recipes, and they must be "with style" (in the exact order). Just an exercise in pattern matching. But for a 4-year-old that seemed to be interesting enough.

Nasty chefs threw down ugly patches of wasabi making much of the board unusable.