Saturday, 28 August 2010

King of Siam

I joined the Old Town Kopitiam gamers to play on Fri 27 Aug 2010. They had an all-nighter (9pm - 7am), but being mostly a Cinderella, I only breached the curfew (midnight) by about an hour. I had a great time, managing to play 3 games, 2 of them new to me - King of Siam and Innovation. The other game was Automobile which I brought and taught to Heng, Alvin and Michael.

The Game

King of Siam (2007) is I game I have been interested to try for a long time. The setting is 1874. Siam (Thailand) is in turmoil. Four factions are trying to gain control of the country. Players do not play the factions themselves, but instead can gain influence in multiple factions. When the game ends and one faction controls Siam, you win by having the most influence in this winning faction.

There are only 8 rounds in the game. Every player has only 8 cards (i.e. 8 actions) to be used for the whole game. In each round, the control of one of the eight regions on the board is determined. Each region starts with 4 random cubes. The cubes represent the power of the three local factions, Siam Royalists (yellow), Laotians (red) and Malays (blue). When a round starts, the players can choose to play cards to change the board. The round ends when all players pass in succession, and the control of the current region is then determined. If one single faction has the most cubes, it gains control; else the British comes in to take control. The game ends after 8 rounds, or it can end prematurely if the British controls 4 regions. If a local faction controls the most regions, the player with the most cubes in that faction's colour wins. If the British controls Siam, the player with the most sets of 3 differently coloured cubes win.

King of Siam all set up and ready to go. The row of tiles at the top is the order in which the regions will be resolved. They are randomly arranged for every game. The blue, yellow and red regions are the home regions of the Malay, Royalist and Laotian factions, so the starting cubes in these regions will always have at least two cubes matching the colour of the respective factions. Other than these all cubes are placed randomly.

So how do you gain cubes? Every time you play a card, you must pick a cube from anywhere on the board. This presents a dilemma, because taking the cube of a faction that you support means you are also weakening its board position.

The 8 cards have various effects. Some let you add cubes to the board. Some let you swap cubes. One let you change the order in which regions are resolved. Once you use up all your cards, you become an observer. You won't be able to claim any more cubes. You can only hope the rest of the game will turn out OK for you, and maybe try to persuade (i.e. con) the other players to do something that benefits you. To give some variety in starting positions, you get two different cubes at the start of the game. So in total you can have 10 cubes at game end.

The same set of 8 cards that every player gets.

The Play

I played a three player game with Heng (owner and game teacher) and Lester. The game seems simple, but there is actually a lot to think about. The game is mostly open information. Only cubes collected and previous cards played are hidden, but if you have good memory, the game becomes a perfect information game. There is a lot to think about because of the possible alternative ending (British conquest), the tiebreaker conditions, and the impacts of your card play. To play a card or not itself is also a painful decision. Do you wait and see how things go before you decide which faction to invest in? Will it be too late if you wait too long? At one point Lester basically said screw it and played a card Bohnanza-style - the first card from his deck. That spiced things up a little, but it probably was not an ideal move for him.

Game in progress. The Laotian (red) faction already controlled two regions, the ones with the red marker. I like the artwork of this game. Simple, evocative and functional.

The Laotians (red) did quite well since the start of the game, and we all picked up many red cubes. The Royalists (yellow) were the hopeless ones, and noone really bothered much with them. The Malays (blue) and British did pose some threat, especially the Malays, but in the end the Laotians' early lead could not be surpassed. At game end, I had 4 Laotian cubes, 4 Malay cubes and 2 Royalist cubes. In the case of a local faction controlling Siam, tiebreaker was the most cubes in the second colour. I was quite confident with my 4 Malay cubes. When Lester revealed his cubes, he had 4 Laotian cubes too, but he had 3 each of the Malay and Royalist cubes. He would have won in the case of a British victory, but with a Laotian victory, he lost to me by tiebreaker. Heng had used up his cards earlier than both Lester and I, and could not do anything for the last few rounds of the game. However when he revealed his cubes, he had 5 Laotian, 4 Malay and only 1 Royalist cube! He had invested in the Laotian faction early, and had predicted their victory correctly. I had underestimated how many Laotian cubes he had collected. I should have steered the game away from a Laotian win and invested differently.

The Thoughts

This is a clever and "thinky" game that can be played in a short time. In this respect it is like China and Chicago Express - very compressed, many important decisions within a short time. It is even more succint than both these games. I realise King of Siam is partly an area majority game, (which generally don't interest me), but I quite like this game. It plays in a short time like a filler, but there are many interesting decisions and considerations in the game. This is in no way a light game, despite the short play time. It is a pretty filling filler. Timing is very critical - when to play your cards, when to commit to a faction to support. Reading your opponent's intentions is also important.

You do need to understand the game end conditions and tiebreakers clearly before you play. There are quite a few rules related to these, but they are not difficult to understand. Don't jump in and play while you learn. You need to fully understand all the rules to appreciate the brilliance of the game.

Despite being a relatively simple game, King of Siam can cause analysis paralysis. Beware of players who need to remember everyone else's moves and examine all possible actions. I prefer to play with the cubes hidden as recommended by the rules. Some people may prefer it to be open information, but I'd rather have a bit of memory element to the game than more risk of analysis paralysis.

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