Monday, 17 May 2010

After the Flood

After the Flood is a strictly 3-player game by Martin Wallace, about the rise and fall of ancient civilisations in Sumeria. It is a complex eurogame, typical of Martin Wallace, which means it is also very thematic and it brings out the history and the background of the subject matter very well. On Sat 15 May, Han and Allen came to play, and Han taught us this game.

The Game

The game is played over 5 rounds, and players take multiple actions within each round. The players play 2 roles - the local people and workers of Sumeria and the powerful empires which fight over control of various provinces in the Sumer region. You assign workers to produce grain and textile, and to work metal into tools. You also assign them to provinces neighbouring Sumeria so that you can trade with these provinces. Every round you produce a limited amount of grain and textile. You trade them for other goods like wood, metal, oil, gold and lapis lazuli. Goods are needed for many things - deploying workers, gaining extra troops, strengthening your army, and very importantly, expanding your cities. Expanding a city is something that can only be done once to a city, and it awards you victory points depending on how many resources are spent.

On the military side of things, every round you get to start one empire. There are three preset empires every round with different numbers of soldiers and starting locations. If you have a worker in a province where an empire can start, you can do so, discarding your worker, collecting your soldiers, and placing the first one in the province. Thereafter you expand your empire by placing a soldier in a province adjacent to one you already control. You can fight other empires, which is done by rolling two dice. Your soldiers do not kill workers of other players. They just prevent the workers from trading. If your soldier controls a province, you can trade there as if you have a worker. You can spend soldiers to destroy cities. You don't gain victory points for this, all you gain is an empty spot to build a new city, and probably you deny your opponent one city to expand. Both can be important, because expanding a city can give up to 20pts. Every province you control at the end of the round gives you victory points, and after that all soldiers are removed from the board. So these empires start a fresh every round.

Workers don't go away every round. Some of them go away in Rounds 2 and 4, so there is a form of reset too on the industry side of the game.

The game board. It looks a little intimidating, and I'd say a little ugly too. But it contains lots of very useful information, and I think it is quite practical. Give me a practical board over a beautiful board any time.

A close-up of some of the provinces. Light coloured provinces are Sumeria. Many of such provinces provide some benefit if you build or own a city in them. The dark coloured provinces are outside of Sumeria. The resource icons tell what resources can be traded for there.

Top row: The discs are gold, tools and oil. The cubes are metal and wood. Then an expanded city, the smaller square being the expansion marker. Bottom row: Two workers and a soldier.

Blue discs are lapis lazuli. White cubes are textile, yellow cubes are grain.

The irrigation and weaving boxes are very important because they determine how much train and textile you produce at the start of a round. At the start of the game everyone has one worker, so every produces the same amount of goods.

Resource values on the top left tell you how many workers one unit of a resource can be used for placing. Grain, metal and tools only can be used for boosting the number of soldiers you receive for an empire, by 1 / 2 / 3 per unit of resource respectively.

So in summary, you gain points from having your soldiers occupy provinces, and expanding your cities. A province containing your city can be controlled by an enemy soldier, but as long as your opponent has not destroyed the city, you can still expand it and earn points. Expanding cities is a long and hard road. You need to plan ahead and collect various resources. Given the limited resources that you produce and can trade, and disruption by enemy soldiers, this is quite hard to do. At game end, there is a special area majority scoring based on workers. Some provinces outside Sumeria have this scoring, and the irrigation space for producing grain and the weaving space for producing textile too.

The Play

Our game started with everyone building cities all over Sumeria, which is normal (and recommended by the rules). Most provinces give some benefit when you build or own a city in it. This helps to create some differences among the players from the start. Everyone started the game with a good set of resources. We didn't quite know what to do with them. We didn't really spend much on equipping our armies or boosting their numbers. So we ended up using up the initial resources for expanding cities. Expanding cities is a funny thing. It is an end in itself. Once you achieve it, you don't care much about that city anymore. In fact, you may even want your opponents to destroy it, so that it would release one spot for city building. You are more concerned about keeping safe cities that have not been expanded, because they are the ones with potential.

I had a poor start in the game, making myself vulnerable. I had thought I'd focus more on the industry / economy aspect of the game, but I underestimated how important the military aspect is. Military conquest not only gives victory points. It is also important for controlling trade rights or denying your opponents trade rights. I wasn't aggressive enough from the start, and made some dumb moves which invited attacks. I struggled through most of the game so much that Han and Allen started teasing me for being an AP (analysis paralysis) player. Indeed I tend to do this when I'm stuck and I try to get myself out of the hole I have dug for myself. In this game it didn't work out. I came in dead last, but thankfully not too far behind. I even had to employ pity tactics to beg the others to attack me less. I also kind of played kingmaker towards game end. I had enough resources to make one more city expansion of the best type (i.e. I had 2 wood plus all 4 types of luxury resources, which give 20pts). However, there was some risk that my last remaining unexpanded city may get destroyed by either Han or Allen. Han had one unexpanded city, Allen had two. To mitigate risk, I needed to destroy one of these and build a new city over the ruins, so that I would have a backup unexpanded city. If I destroyed Han's city, it would have been his last city. He probably would have been able to destroy another city and build a new one to expand, but why invoke his wrath and risk retaliation? His armies were near both my existing unexpanded city and the potential sites I could build a new one. I would be in deep trouble if he destroyed both my old city and the new one that I would build.

Allen had 2 unexpanded cities, so I had a good excuse (err... in a way I guess) to destroy one of them. He would still have another one. Also the other reason is his armies were further away, and although he could easily reach my old city, it would be harder to reach the newer one I was planning to build. So I chose to destroy one of Allen's cities and build a new one of my own over the ruins. Throughout all this reasoning and discussion, I was actually secretly kingmaking. I expected Han would see the opportunity to mess with Allen's plans by destroying his other (and last remaining) unexpanded city. This would benefit Han and disadvantage Allen, since the two of them were competing for top position. At the same time tempting Han to attack Allen would mean I had an even better change of being spared. It may even give me a chance of moving up to second place.

And indeed Han grabbed the opportunity and attacked. Allen had the resources to do a 10pt city expansion, but had no city to expand. However I still couldn't beat him. He scored 121. I had 110. Han won the game at 133. Even if Allen had been able to perform a city expansion on the last round, he would not have beaten Han.

So this game actually has some diplomacy and meta game! There is a nice tension of trying to keep a balance among the 3 players. This reminds me of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms. In our particular game, it was mainly a competition between Han and Allen, as a result of my dumb moves in the early game, but at least I still felt I wasn't a complete non-factor throughout the game. But it took me such a long time to make my moves - there was so much to think through. I was desperate to try to do better, but it didn't work out unfortunately.

Near the end of the first round of the game.

A close-up of the game in progress.

On the fifth round, Han and Allen fought fiercely over gaining majority of this province of Assyria, because the most powerful empire would start here. To start an empire you need to have a majority of workers (ties allowed) in the province. Han (purple) and Allen (red) kept adding workers here turn after turn. This escalation was good for me, because this meant they were spending their actions here while I did other things. It also meant they were spending many resources and workers (both limited) here. 鹤蚌相争,渔人得利.

Eventually Han gave in, and Allen started the Assyrian empire. He had to lose all 6 of his workers as part of the start empire action. Ouch. Han's 5 workers here were a waste too, because it was more than enough to gain majority.

Near game end.

The Thoughts

After the Flood is tight game and a challenging game. Resource production is capped every round, and how much grain and textile you gain is based not on the absolute number of workers you have assigned to producing them, but on the relative number of workers all players have. This means the competition to outproduce others can become quite nasty, if every tries to pile on more and more workers. Or it can be very peaceful, if everyone keeps the same number of workers, so that everyone gains the exact same amount of resources. Sometimes by adding more workers you don't produce more, you just make others produce less. Nasty eh?

The game has a very good integration of the industry and military parts. The military part is a little like History of the World, Britannia and 7 Ages, where different preset civilisations pop up at specific locations with specific numbers of soldiers. In itself this aspect is quite simple. However at the same time you have to think of the industry layer of the game - where and when to assign workers, when to trade. Timing can be very critical. Sometimes you may want to place your workers quickly and trade quickly, before the non-Sumerian provinces get occupied by enemy soldiers, and you are prevented from trading. A trade action can sometimes be quite complex. With one trade action, you can trade once at every province. So usually it is preferable to get your workers (and soldiers) set up at multiple provinces, and then do one big trade action, as opposed to doing multiple smaller trade actions. You need to manage this timing. Watch our for the enemy soldiers!

When expanding an empire (i.e. spreading your soldiers around), it is possible to sacrifice soldiers to expand more than one province per action. You are sacrificing how far you can expand, but gaining the advantage of being able to do it quickly. Sometimes you want this speed. You also have to watch out for your opponents doing this. The enemy may be at the gates earlier than you expect.

I am quite impressed with the story that After the Flood tells, and how it tells it. You see the rise and fall of civilisations and powerful armies. You see industries and trade prosper and decline. The game seamlessly weaves together a simple war game and a medium complexity "cube conversion" game, creating a very challenging, tense and complex game.


GeekInsight said...

How would you compare this game to Brass? It seems to have about the same level of complexity, which I think is a good thing.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Both games are complex, but I think Brass is tougher to grasp. Obviously in After The Flood the confrontation is more direct, but in Brass there are many ways for you to mess with your opponents' plans too. Both games have many aspects you need to compete in.

In After The Flood, every round you start with limited resources and you need to choose what to do with them. You can't really increase your resource production much. You can more easily cause others to produce less. In Brass, you are constantly building industries and trying to make them profitable, so that you can improve your regular income. It's an ongoing struggle throughout probably 80% of the game, but you will see your income improve eventually.