Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Carson City

The Game

In Carson City, players develop a cowboy town from humble beginnings, buying parcels of land, constructing buildings and roads, earning money, and most importantly, earning victory points. During the game there are multiple ways to earn victory points, e.g. buying them in cash, or earning them based on the number of buildings you own. At game end, you also earn victory points for buildings and mountains you own. Carson City is a worker placement game like Agricola and Caylus, and one innovation that it brings to the worker placement mechanism is gunfighting. Your cowboys can fight for spaces on the board.

The game lasts only 4 rounds. At the start of a round, each player selects a character, which determines turn order for that round, and also gives special abilities. After that you place your cowboys on the board. You need not place all cowboys. You can save some to help in gunfights that you get into. After all players are done with placing cowboys, the actions are resolved in a specific order. There are many types of actions - earn money, gain roads, gain guns (which help in gunfighting), buy parcels of land, construct buildings, earn victory points (multiple spaces awarding points based of different criteria) etc.

The action spaces in Carson City. Actions will be executed in the order as specified on this track. Some of the spaces on this track are not action spaces but are just reminders for specific things to be done, e.g. purchasing of land parcels, buildings making money.

One of the character cards, the grocer. She gives you $8, or doubles your income from building. Other components (clockwise from top left): one of my cowboys / workers, guns tokens, roads, money.

The core of the game is the development of Carson City. There are many different types of buildings, most giving some income based on certain criteria. A mine gives $3 per adjacent mountain. A ranch gives $1 per adjacent empty land. A bank gives $3 per adjacent house and per mine belonging to the owner. Houses enter the game with other buildings - you build a house for free anywhere when you contruct some other building. They are all initially neutral and benefit all players' buildings. However it is possible to buy over a house (by buying the parcel of land it is on) to make it benefit only your buildings. Land price is interesting. There is a base price of $1, but it goes up by $1 for every building/mountain on or adjacent to it, i.e. it can cost as much as $10 (e.g. you buy a parcel of land under a neutral house that is fully surrounded in all 8 directions). There is an interesting tension in when to buy land - buy it early while it is cheap but a building on it may not be very profitable yet; or buy it later when there are more adjacent buildings but at a higher price. The income of buildings can be changed by players' actions, e.g. as more houses are built next to a saloon, its income will increase. When buildings are constructed next to a ranch, its income drops!

A very useful building reference sheet, which tells you whether a building comes with a free road-building action, whether it comes with a free house, how it generates income, and whether it gives you guns.

Now let's talk about the gunfighting. In this game you can fight over action spaces. You can fight over parcels of land to purchase. You can attempt to rob another player's building (but you can't burn it down). When you fight, you roll a die, and then add the number of guns and idle cowboys you have. Some buildings give you guns (ranch, prison, mine). There is also an action space that gives you 3 temporary guns for the current round. One of the characters gives guns too, but of course also only for the round that you choose him. If you lose a gunfight, it means you lose the right to use an action space, or you lose the right to buy a specific parcel, or in the case of your building being attacked, you lose half its income. However your cowboy returns to your pool, increasing your strength for the next gunfight, if there is one. At worst, that means an extra cowboy to place next round. You don't lose your cowboy.

The gunfighting adds an extra layer of consideration to the worker placement mechanism. When you place a cowboy on an action space, it is not guaranteed that you will be able to take that action. Sometimes you need to have some firepower to deter others, or even to attack others. That said, starting gunfights is a risk to yourself too. If your attack fails, you waste a cowboy that round, which you could have used for something else.

The dice are huge and unweildy. I have no idea why this size.

The Play

Allen, Afif, Atiqah and I played a 4-player game. All of us were new to the game. In the game setup (random every game), many of the mountains were close to one another, creating some very lucrative sites for mines. The town centre was near the western edge, which made things a little cramped. We had some gunfights, but not many. We mostly built and built, and tried to earn as much money as we could. The gunfights were rather iffy. Even if you have a few guns more than your opponent, you can get unlucky and lose the fight. I guess it's all about taking calculated risks. There may actually be more incentive for a trailing player to take such risks to try to catch up. For a leading player it may be better to go for safer, if less profitable, options.

From the start of the game Atiqah had one parcel of land which was ideal for building a mine. It was surrounded by 5 mountains! However she kept missing out on building a mine, sometimes due to losing gunfights, sometimes because there were no mines available to be built. She didn't manage to build the mine until the second half of the game. The buildings available to be built each round is random, except for the first round when at least 2 mines and 2 ranches are available. This creates some variability.

Carson City after two rounds.

Close-up of the town. The town centre was that house on the right surrounded by four roads (black sticks). The coloured tiles show player ownership of land parcels or buildings. The little black arrows on them are used for pointing at the numbers indicating the building income. That orange parcel sandwiched between five mountains was Atiqah's.

Carson City had grown a little bit more.

I was first to get robbed. I think I lost $12 or so. It was significant enough, but thankfully not too devastating. There were some twists of fate in our gunfights. There was one time when Allen and I competed for the 3-extra-guns space and the $5-per-VP space. We fought for the extra guns space (which is resolved earlier) only because we both wanted to win the $5-per-VP space. I won the 3 extra guns, but when it was time to fight for the $5-per-VP space, Allen had gained some more guns by having built a jail. We were on about equal footing again. Then he rolled a two! Ha ha... time to die my friend... and I rolled a one!!! So he ended up being the one laughing all the way to the bank to buy VPs.

I was the first to start using the spaces for buying VPs. We had been building and making money, but had not been thinking much about VPs. I think this was the crucial move that won me the game. In round 3 (of 4) I gained a bunch of VPs at $4 a piece, and it gave me a big lead. In hindsight, all of us should have started thinking about VPs much earlier. In Carson City there is a cash limit at the end of every round, which depends on the character you have chosen. If you exceed the cash limit, you are forced to buy VPs at $10 a piece, which is basically daylight robbery. Every round there are some spaces which you can use for buying VPs, at better rates, ranging from $2 to $5. At the end of every round, the cheapest space is blocked off permanently. Buying VPs early means you can get a good rate, but you need to be careful to keep enough money for the next round (to buy parcels of land and to construct buildings).

The "workers" in this game are cowboys. The white cowboy is the sheriff. If you choose the Sheriff character card, you can this extra white sheriff piece for the round. Noone can attack the sheriff, and the sheriff also cannot attack anyone. So it's quite a powerful piece. I had used it to claim the $4-per-VP space.

There are other means of gaining VPs. There are action spaces rewarding VPs based on number of parcels owned or buildings owned or guns owned. Naturally you won't own much property or guns at the start of the game. Then in the later game when everyone has more of these, there will be tougher competition for these action spaces. So in Carson City there is an important decision on timing when to start shifting from building infrastructure to earning VPs.

The Thoughts

To me Carson City is more a "we build this city" game than a worker placement game. I think it is quite well balanced (at least for the 4-player game). The size of the city area feels just right - big enough for each player to get started off in the early game without feeling too constrained, and small enough that players need to fight for space as they enter mid game. The number of action spaces is numerous enough that you don't feel forced to engage in gunfights to be able to do anything useful. But of course some action spaces are more attractive than others, so there is some incentive for starting gunfights.

City building is interesting, because you are always competing with other players for good locations. When you place the free houses you also want to make sure you get the most out of them and at the same time minimize the benefit other players gain. The limited number of buildings available each round, and the different costs, are yet another source of competition. Different buildings have different interactions with other buildings, so depending on what you already own and what are already built on the board, different buildings will have different values to different players. Sometimes you may need to buy a building not to benefit yourself but to deny others.

Overall though, Carson City is just an okay game for me. The formula of build-infrastructure-then-convert-to-VPs in the game feels a bit too familiar, although the game does have a number of new ideas.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

boardgaming in photos

7 Oct 2010. Le Havre. I suspect I now like this more than Agricola, which I rated a 10. Maybe I need to change my rating for Agricola to a 9, since I rated Le Havre 9.5. Part of the reason that I rated Agricola a 10 was I kept playing it over and over again. I played many games in the first year that I bought it. Nowadays I don't play it as often, and I think I am more keen to play Le Havre. I like how Le Havre feels more open. You are not so restricted by the feeding requirement like in Agricola.

This was my play area. I tend to build lots of buildings and only ship goods once or twice. I think there's still much strategy space that I have not yet explored in Le Havre. I can't resist building stuff.

Michelle's play area. She likes the Shipping Line (leftmost card in the top row).

The main board. There was $12 on the cash offer space (botton left) and yet both of us ignored it. $12 = 12VP.

We don't use the storage spaces on the game board (the orange roofs), so about a third of the game board is wasted space. We use a separate storage box which we place next to the game board.

16 Oct 2010. Another game of Le Havre played recently. That Fish Restaurant on the right was a special building (there are many special buildings in the game but only a few will ever appear in each game). I had used Marketplace to peek at upcoming special buildings, so I had known it was coming. So I worked towards building both Fishery and Smokehouse, which worked well with the Fish Restaurant. I could use the Fishery to collect 6 fish, then use Smokehouse to turn all 6 of them into smoked fish (while earning $3), then use Fish Restaurant to sell all for $18. This was not too bad, but eventually I didn't use them much afterall, because towards the later part of the game there were other more lucrative means of making money.

16 Oct 2010. Innovation. I forgot to take photos when I first learned the game and wrote about it. I have since bought a copy myself, together with my order of Axis & Allies Europe 1940. I have now played a few more games, and I think I can now decide that I do like it, since I am still keen to play it. Another good thing is my wife likes it. Lately she has been reluctant to learn new games and to play longer games. Innovation being a card game made it easier to convince her to try something new, and so far she has been enjoying the game.

There is indeed some luck in the game, and some card powers are so strong that your position can be quickly devastated if you are a victim of such powers. However the fact that Achievements can never be taken away from you mitigates these big swings somewhat. Also as you get more familiar with the game you will learn to watch out for the powerful cards and plan for them. You will gradually gain a slightly more strategic or macro view of the game, as opposed to just a short-term tactical view. I enjoy exploring the different powers of the cards (every one is unique). It is interesting to figure out how to best use your cards in the current game situation. The game situation can change greatly, and the usefulness of a card can vary greatly depending on the timing.

I now find that it isn't too difficult to win the Special Achievements. You do need to plan for it. Having drawn the specific card which gives an alternative way to win a Special Achievement does help. Now that I have played a few more games, Special Achievements don't seem so impossibly hard anymore.

This was the first game that I taught Michelle. At this point I had gained 5 Achievements (i.e. need one more to win). I was in Age 10, more advanced than Michelle. Both our score piles had been emptied, but I could try to rebuild it to get the Age 9 Score Achievement, or I could go for one of the Special Achievements. I had Robotics, and I Dogma'ed it. It allowed me to draw and meld an Age 10 card, and execute its powers. I drew Software. It's Dogma effects scored me a 10. It also made me draw and meld an Age 10 card, and execute its powers...

... I drew A.I. (Artificial Intelligence). Now A.I. is a strange card. When its power is executed, if Robotics and Software are top cards in the game (which was the case here), if there is a single player with the lowest score, he/she wins instantly. I had just increased my score pile from 0 to 20 this turn...

... Michelle still had 0 in her score pile. So she won! SkyNet had just gained self-awareness and was destroying mankind. The human who had contributed least to science won. Who says the game isn't thematic?!

17 Oct 2010. Afif, Atiqah and I visited Allen, and I taught them China. Allen had these nice plastic bowls in different colours. I used one matching my green pieces.

China is my favourite Michael Schacht game. Simple, clever, fast. Lots of player interaction because you are always competing and cooperating at the same time. We played two games back-to-back, since even the first game including explanation took only about 40 minutes.

Scores for the first game were very close! Before the game started I reminded everyone that scoring from officials (emissaries?) could often determine victory, and my prediction came true as it was indeed my officials scoring that won me the game. However they all did very well in establishing long connections, which I tend to do not so well when I play. In our second game I could no longer beat them. They did much better with the officials.

Friday, 15 October 2010

saturation point

I found it quite amusing when I came up with the game taster concept, and was quite happy when this triggered some discussions among fellow gamers around the world. The game taster concept is something that allows us, as hardcore gamers, to understand and accept ourselves and our game buying/playing behaviour. Perhaps the saturation point concept can be helpful to us too, in a different way.

Saturation point: The number of games in your game collection past which you start having games that will be unplayed for longer than you are comfortable with.

The saturation point is an ideal. You have just the right number of games that whenever you want to play a game, you can always find something that you will enjoy playing. You can always find something suitable for the occasion and company, something of the right length and complexity. And yet you will never feel bad about any of the games not getting played frequently enough. The "frequently enough" criteria differs from game to game of course, and for different people too. E.g. I'm happy enough if I can play Civilization once every 2 years, but I hope to play Carcassonne at least 2 to 3 times a year.


One simple way to look at this is asking yourself whether you own any game that you wish you can play more frequently than you are doing now. Naturally the saturation point will vary greatly for different people. Some people have more opportunities to play games than others. Some people play shorter games than others. Some people buy games if they feel there is at least half a chance they will get played. Some people are determined buy only games that will get played. Some people buy a game even though the chance to get it played is low, e.g. "I don't have this type of game so it'll be good to have one in case I decide to try such games in future" or "it's a good game so better buy it before it becomes out-of-print". Some people are perfectly fine that some if their games may never get played. In such cases the saturation point concept does not apply.

My saturation point is probably around 120 games. And I own 200+. I once tried to imagine if I were to sell or give away some of my games, which would be the ones to go. I could only come up with about 10 that I was willing to part with. So, I will probably never be able to cut my collection down to my saturation point. Here are some things I have thought about, which can help to move towards the saturation point. I am not sure I am strong enough to do all of them, but maybe this can be useful to others.

To part with 80 games from here? It's like asking me to sell my daughter. Not exactly. But almost.

  1. Slow down buying - This is something I do with a little success, via my 20 new games per year quota (including gifts and self-made games). For 2010, I'm at 22 now, but one of the games was a review copy, and another was a free copy for helping with rules translation. Let's hope before end of the year I don't need to browse the list again and find other exceptions. I have found this self-imposed quota quite useful. It forces me to be selective. Still, I have quite a number of 2010 acquisitions that I have not played more than a handful of times, e.g. Factory Manager, In the Shadow of the Emperor, Funny Friends, Planet Steam. If I had bought more games, the list would probably be even longer.
  2. Trim your collection - Sell or give away games that you don't particularly like, or you are OK not to play any more. Don't trade, because you'd be getting other games back. Well, unless you are trading many-to-one. Do a health-check on your games. A "healthy" game is one that gets played often enough. If you don't really play it much, maybe you should let it go, even if it is a game you like.
  3. Freeze your collection size - Force yourself to sell or give away games before you buy new ones. Or trade games. Trading games is a good way to be able to try new games without letting your collection grow out of control. You also help the less-loved games in your collection find better homes.
  4. Play with others who buy games - E.g. joining groups or game clubs that also buy games. This can reduce your need to buy games. You can try-before-buy more.

At the Gates of Loyang. This is one 2010 purchase that got played a reasonable number of times.

Factory Manager. This is one 2010 purchase that I wish I can play more.

Nowadays gamers are very spoilt. There are too many good games out there, and from the internet we get so much information about all these games. Not that we should shut ourselves out from the outside world. Reading about games and looking at photos of games can be a joy in itself. A friend once introduced me to a book titled The Paradox of Choice. I never managed to finish the book, but I think the gist is too many choices is a bad thing. You spend too much time and energy trying to find that optimal choice, when you can probably make a reasonably good choice by spending just a fraction of the effort.

One good mantra is this - you can never play every good game. So just choose a subset of good games and be happy with it. Learn to play them well and get the most out of them. Many good games are worth much more than a handful of plays that they often get from hardcore gamers (or game tasters). When you feel that you have gained all that you want from a certain game, sell / give / trade it away and then get into something new in depth. Of course all this while you can still continue to be a game taster, exploring different new games. Who knows when you'll find another game that you'll decide to fall in love with.

What's your saturation point? And how does it compare with your collection size?

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Space Hulk: Death Angel

The Game

Space Hulk: Death Angel is basically Space Hulk the card game. It comes in a much smaller and also much less expensive package. However the game format changes from a 1-on-1 contest (space marines vs aliens) to a cooperative game, where players are the marines trying to complete their mission. The game is all cards, except for one type of token, and one die.

The players control teams of space marines. Each team has two members. All the marines line up in single file. They need to go through a number of corridors to reach the destination where they can complete their mission. They will be attacked by genestealers (aliens). They need to survive long enough to reach the destination and then complete their mission.

At the centre of the play area the space marines are arranged in single file. At the head of the column is the location card of the current location. It describes special rules for the location, and also dictates how many genestealers appear each round. On two sides of the column are some feature cards (air vents, branch corridors, doors etc), and the genestealers.

Every round, you select one of three possible actions for each team you control - (a) attack, (b) support, (c) move and activate. Attack means you shoot genestealers. Support means you place support tokens on marines. These allow you to reroll the die, whether in offense or defense. Move and activate means you can swap places with the guy before or after you, you can switch facing (left or right), and in some cases there are items at your current position that you can activate or use. The tricky part of choosing actions is you cannot choose the same action twice in a row. That means the players need to coordinate their actions, e.g. they should not be all attacking in the same round, because in the next round they will not be able to attack.

Two Attack action cards. The number on the top right determines the order in which the actions are to be executed.

More genestealers will appear every round, and they will attack the marines next to them. The more genestealers attacking the same marine, the higher the chance of the marine getting killed. Genestealers can be on the left or right side of the marines. The facing of the marines is important because they can only shoot at genestealers that they are facing. Often it is preferable to have the facing arranged in a zebra pattern - one facing left, the next facing right, then the next facing left again, and so on.

All the marine action cards have some special ability. They make each of the marine teams unique. Some of them are strong offensively, some are strong defensively. Some have useful special abilities, e.g. casting a force field that prevents a group of genestealers from attacking (or being attacked). There is a lot of flavour here and it is important to make good use of your marines' special abilities.

The Play

Han, Allen and I dived into the game after a quick run-through of the rules. We did rather poorly with shooting. We were lousy shots (bad die rolls). On one occasion when one flamer marine had the chance to shoot a burst of flames (number rolled = number of genestealers killed at one go), he rolled 0, on a 6-sided die numbered 0 to 5. Allen lost one of his marines quite early. Surprisingly most of the other marines lasted quite long. We didn't kill many genestealers, and the swarm around us grew and grew, but somehow we managed to keep them at bay with our fists and swords. We were quite lucky with the genestealer attack die rolls.

The positioning of our marines was bad. We had two guys who were only good at hand-to-hand combat stuck far behind, where there were no genestealers. What a waste. It was quite tedious to try to move them up, since the Move action only allowed moving one step at a time.

We had one very dangerous build-up of genestealers on our left. There were so many genestealers in that swarm that if they attacked, the target marine would certainly die. Many times we had to rely on one of our marines' special ability to cast a force field to block this swarm. However this force field thing was associated with a Support action, which meant we could only use it every other turn. This also meant every other turn some guy would die. Thankfully at one of the locations we picked up an artifact that held this particular swarm back for one turn. That saved one life.

This is one big scary swarm of genestealers. The icons on the cards are for determining how they move. Event cards dictate how genestealers with specific icons move in specific ways. Being attacked by 5 genestealers already means certain death. We had 14 here.

Towards the later game, our shooting skills improved a little. I guess we had had a lot of on-the-job training. On one occasion one of my marines, Lexicanium Calistarius, killed five genestealers in a row, on the same turn! His special ability was every time he made a kill, he could attack again. Normally a marine can only attempt to kill one genestealer on a turn. This Lex guy was probably the top shooter, because of this heroic feat.

This is not a draw deck. This is how many genestealers had accumulated at one position.

We rushed past room after room. The army of genestealers surrounding us became bigger and bigger. Things looked more and more bleak. We started losing more and more men as we approached the last room, where our objective lay. When we entered the final room and examined our objective, we suddenly saw a glimmer of hope. Our objective was to fix a control panel and press the red button. This required the activate action. We realised that all this while this was a suicide mission. We were not expected to survive. We were expected to complete our mission. There were still about half of us left. We could just ignore the approaching genestealers, and try to get the control panel to work.

Three marines could squeeze into the small space in front of the control panel. Two of them tried to make some repairs, and the third pressed the button. We needed to roll 0, 1, or 2 (i.e. 50% chance), now that we had done two fixes. The button presser was one of Allen's marines, who had two support tokens, which meant two rerolls in case he missed. And guess what. He missed all three rolls! Shaky finger because of too much coffee!! No more Starbucks for you! The three stooges squatting in front of the control panel had about 2 seconds to look at one another and say "Oops" before they were dragged away by genestealers.

We were at the last room. The control panel was right at the middle on our left, so the three marines in the middle could reach it.

At this point in the game Han, Allen and I were all standing up and cursing our luck. All was not lost yet though. We still had two marines remaining (out of the original twelve). Needless to say, these two gentlemen no longer cared whether they lived. 10 of their brothers had just died before their eyes. Their only thought was to press that red button. The question was should both take turns trying to press it and hoping it would work at least once, or one should do some repair so that when the other pressed the button the chance of success would be higher. Two 50% chances or one 66% chance. We went for the latter. In hindsight, mathematically speaking, the former had a higher probability of success. But then when you are outnumbered 1 to 100 by hostile aliens, you may not be able to think straight. So, the die was cast. This was the final die roll of the game, win or lose. The red button lit up! Woooooohoo! We won!

The two marines who completed the mission.

Note: I took some liberty with some of the details of the story, to make it more interesting.

Note 2: I later realised that we had played some rules wrong, and most likely we would have failed in our mission. Support tokens can only be used for attack or defense rerolls, and not for activations. Also the control panel can only be activated once per turn. That means we should have only had one chance to do one repair, and then once chance to press the red button.

The Thoughts

At first the game seemed a little convoluted, and it did take some time to get familiar with and make good use of the special powers of each of the marine teams. However once we got used to the mechanism, the game was quite fast paced. I like how the tension mounts as the marines rush towards the objective while the genestealers pile up. You are constantly trying to kill off as many genestealers as you can, even though it's an uphill battle, while trying to move as quickly as possible. You need to plan and coordinate carefully your actions, like a well-trained elite squad.

We certainly had one fantastic game. However I have some worry about replayability. You don't know your mission at the start of the game. You only find out about it when you enter the final location. This doesn't feel logical. Without knowing your mission, one game won't differ much from the next. The random event cards and random locations create some variability, but from our game, they didn't seem to tell much story. Basically you are just trying to survive whatever is thrown at you.

We did not peek at the other missions in the game. I guess we need to play more to decide about the replayability.

One thing that I admire is how the designer did not implement some life point system, e.g. three hits before a marine gets killed. The game is more exciting without this. Every genestealer attack, even if involving just one genestealer, means at least a 33% chance of getting killed. You are constantly on your toes, never quite knowing how long you will last.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010


The Game

Shipyard is, of course, a game about building ships. It is well known for having multiple rondels - a mechanism made popular by games like Antike and Imperial, and indeed, it has five, and they work in different ways. This may sound daunting, but the game is actually not that complex. It does have many many components, but they all fit the theme logically.

The game lasts a fixed number of rounds. Within this time, you build ships and score points for each of them. At the end of the game, you score points for how well you have fulfilled two secret government contracts.

Everyone has a shipyard consisting of 9 slots, where you put your ship pieces. A complete ship must have one hull piece, at least one middle piece, and one stern piece. A ship can have various equipment, e.g. cranes, smokestacks (we called them chimneys), propellers, cannons, cabins and sails. Different equipment needs different types of mounting points on the ship piece for you to be able to attach them to your ship, and they provide different benefits. Your ship must always have a captain, and may carry crew members - officers, soldiers or merchants. Whenever you complete a ship, you must immediately send it for a shakedown (kind of like a test drive), and for this you need to have rented some canals. It is during the shakedown that you score points - for the speed of your ship, for the equipment and crew, and also for special icons along the canal where your ship sails. Some icons reward you for safety features, e.g. number of lifeboats. One icon rewards you for cannons and soldiers. There are a few other different icons which reward you for different aspects of your ship.

The player board is mostly open space. The nine slots at the bottom are your shipyard. At the top left corner are reference charts for determining ship speed. At the top right corner is a reference chart for scoring when your ship does its shakedown cruise.

Some of the components in the game. Top left are employee tiles which give you special abilities. These two that I had gave me a free cannon and a free crane whenever I chose the make equipment action. Top right are the government contracts (face-down). In the middle row: a canal tile that I had bought, a commodities tile, a smokestack, and a propeller. At the bottom, $4.

At the start of the game you have 3 green and 3 blue government contracts. At certain points in the game you must discard some of them, and at game end you will only have one of each colour. You score bonus points at game end for how well you fulfill the contracts. This means at the start of the game you have a few options, and as the game progresses you need to decide on which one to focus on.

The actions that you can take in the game are mostly about getting the ship pieces, the equipment and the crew for your ships. You also need to get canals for the shakedown cruises. You can buy commodity tiles which can later be sold for cash or bartered for equipment or crew. You can get employee tiles which give you some special abilities, e.g. getting a free soldier whenever you take the recruit crew action, or selling coal for a higher price.

The action selection mechanism in the game is a little like a worker placement game, but with the action spaces (which are tiles) constantly moving around a track. On your turn, you move the action tile your pawn is on to the head of the "train". This action tile is the one that you have chosen on your previous turn. You can't choose it again on your current turn. Then you choose your action. You can't choose action tiles with other players' pawns on them. If you choose an action tile that is behind one or more other players' pawns, you gain money. This means you are rewarded for choosing actions that have not been chosen for some time. This description sounds convoluted, but seeing it in action makes it much easier to understand.

The rondel mechanism for gaining equipment, gaining crew and gaining employee works just like those in other games. A rondel has a number of segments each specifying what is available. When you take an action related to that rondel, the marker moves one step to the next segment, and you get what that segment shows, unless you pay money to move the marker further, so that you can get something else. Naturally, you should try to save cost by picking the rondel you need when the marker is at a favourable position.

The game has two game boards which combine to become one very big board. The left two thirds of the upper board show the commodities, ship pieces and canals that are available for purchase if you choose the appropriate actions. At the top right corner there is a countdown track. The right side is the action track, with money kept inside the track. Action tiles will keep moving along this track, and when you choose an action, you place your pawn on the tile.

In the lower board, the two circles at the top left are the rondels for getting equipment and crew. The hexagonal rondel below them is for selling commodities or bartering them for equipment or crew. On the right side you have the the "rondel" for the employee tiles. Around that you have your score track. The boxes at the bottom are for storing the various equipment and crew pieces.

The action track.

The Play

The game setup is quite a bit of work, because of the many components. They need to be stored in an orderly manner to make it easier to set up the next time round.

From the early game, I had more or less decided on the government contracts that I wanted to focus on - (a) ships that have soldier-cannon pairs, and (b) many small ships, the more the better. I very much went for a quantity over quality policy, while trying to have as many soldier-cannon pairs as I could. I mostly sacrified speed. This saved me cost in renting canals too. When your ships are slow, you don't need long canals to test drive them.

Han wasn't too sure what to do in the early game, and spent many actions earning money. His policy was: when unsure what to do, earn money first. That worked out quite well. Having a lot of cash meant he later could spend it on extra actions, and also he was able to move the rondel markers extra steps to allow him to get what he wanted. Cash buys flexibility. Han built big ships, and worked a lot on ship speed. His ships scored high, and during the shakedown cruises, he also made good used of the blue riband icon, which rewarded him for ship speed.

Allen built big ships too. In the early game he misunderstood that he needed to have bought ship pieces with the appropriate mounting points before he could get the relevant equipment for his ships. Actually he could have obtained the equipment first and set them aside. Equipment only needed to be attached when a ship was ready to sail. I think this set him back a little.

At game end, Han's score was too far ahead for either of us to be able to catch up. I did score well for my government contracts, but it was not enough. The bonus score for the "quantity-over-quality" contract is quite good, but I guess the downside is when you build small ships, the ships themselves won't earn you many points.

My player board near game end. I had completed 3 ships, and was almost done with the last two.

I only ever needed two canals, because all my ships were quite slow.

The Thoughts

Shipyard looks daunting, but is actually not very complex. It's mostly about collecting stuff to build your ships, and then scoring your ships once they are completed. One analogy is you are making cakes, and you need to buy your ingredients at the supermarket. You can buy them in any order. Some are necessary, some are nice-to-have. You try to gather all the ingredients as quickly as possible, and as cheaply as possible. You need to decide on how best to customise your cakes.

Government contracts are a bigger part of the game than I expected. I scored about half my points from them. They really drive the strategy of the players, and I imagine once you get familiar with the contracts, it will become easier and easier to guess what your opponents have. The government contracts can drive the players in different directions. They set the long-term goals.

In our first game, the game felt a little solitairish, in that everyone just focused on his own ships. You can't directly interfere with others' ships. There are opportunities for blocking your opponents. E.g. picking actions that you think they will want, moving the rondel markers to positions that are less favourable to them, or buying the ship pieces / commodities / canals that they will want. In the first game I wasn't able to think that far. With more plays, I will be able to take into consideration opponents' needs better. Overall, player interaction is of this indirect type.

To me, the rondel mechanism, or the action tile track mechanism, aren't really the selling points of the game, although these seem to be the most mentioned aspects. To me they are just tools that fade into the background as I get familiar with the game. When I play the game I'm building ships and not gaming a mechanism. I quite enjoy the ship building theme. There is a sense of satisfaction whenever I build a good ship.

If I take a step back and think about the game design, I'd say there's nothing ground-breaking. There are quite some unique elements, but these mechanisms quickly become second nature and I don't think about them much, whether they are good or bad, innovative or otherwise. To me, they just work. Somehow, Shipyard is a game that really makes me feel the theme. I get a feeling it grew out of a theme looking for some mechanisms, and not the other way round. It is a solid medium-high complexity Eurogame. If you like building stuff and admiring them, give it a go.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Magical Athlete

The Game

The box cover.

In a nutshell: Pick 5 characters to compete in 5 roll-and-move races, and each character has a unique ability.

Slightly longer version: During the character chosing phase of the game, players take turns to add one character to the board, then decide whether to buy one of the characters on the board. Everyone starts with $8. When a character first appears on the board, he or she costs $4. As more characters get added, older characters get shifted and become cheaper. When the board is full, you must buy one of the characters, so that there is space for the next player to add another new character.

This side of the game board is used during the buy phase. Characters are added to the board from the left. As players decline to buy characters, more and more will accumulate, and they get pushed to the right, and their costs drop. The right most character costs $0.

After everyone has 5 characters, the races start. At the start of each race, players secretly choose a character and then reveal them at the same time. The race track has 30 spaces and no other features. You roll a die to move your character. The winner and 1st runner up gain 3VP and 1VP in the first race, 4VP and 2VP in the second and third race, and 5VP and 3VP in the last two races.

The core of the game is the unique abilities of the characters. Every single one of them is unique, and not all characters will be in play in a game (some are randomly removed at the start of the game). The Martial Artist skips over spaces occupied by other characters. The Siren draws other characters one step towards her. The Pirate kidnaps anyone by bringing him/her to the same space as him. The Merchant can change places with another character. Cupid moves 5 spaces whenever a male and a female are on the same space (but then the number of females is much less than males, so this power is wasted if a race only has males). Some characters can make others lose a turn, which can be very painful.

Four of the characters that I had bought. You get the character card, and a small cardboard strip which is the actual character during the race.

Close-up of the tiny characters. I like the artwork.

The Play

I spent $4 on the Merchant, but Ah Keong, who had the Assassin, killed my Merchant before the races started. Aarrgghh... I did get a different random character as compensation, so that I could still participate in all 5 races. Ah Keong's Cupid was very very powerful. There was one female character in that particular race and somehow, boy and girl kept meeting up. Cupid sped ahead and noone could come close.

The Cupid was far far ahead of the rest. The Siren was the only female character. The problem is she always draws everyone towards her. This makes it easier for a male character to land on the same space as her, thus giving the Cupid 5 steps.

This was a closer race.

My Necromancer. He can force another character to move backwards.

The Pirate was a lot of fun. In that race there was always someone who broke out from the pack, only to be summoned back by the Pirate.

I had the Martial Artist in the last game which could move very fast by skipping over occupied spaces. I was slowed down by another character (I forget the name) which could force you to lose a turn when you pass her. However near game end I managed to roll high and reach the goal. It was a lucky roll. I did poorly in the early game, but I won the last two races (5VP for each victory), and that gave me the win for the overall game.

The Thoughts

Very light game, but not completely mindless, because you do have to evaluate the value of the characters during the buying phase, and you have to decide which character to use for each race. Sometimes even during a race you need to decide whether to activate your power, and if so who to use it on.

A very simple game suitable for playing with children. Lots of luck naturally. Artwork is cute. 5 races feel slightly long, but I suspect 4 may feel too short.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Power Struggle

My regular boardgamer friends and I often joke that there are so many interesting new games coming out all the time we can never catch up with playing all the games that interest us. Power Struggle was released around Essen 2009 (a big annual game fair held in Essen, Germany, in October). Allen had bought it for some time, and we only managed to get it played now, when Essen 2010 is just around the corner. Power Struggle was one of the games that caught my attention when it was first released, but it gradually slipped off my radar as I got distracted by other new and shiny games. When I found out that Allen has a copy, I was happy to read the rules for him and teach the game.

The Game

Power Struggle is about company politics. You compete to become chairman of the company. You make your cronies board members or division heads. You create departments, merge departments, recruit employees, fire employees, buy shares. You abuse your (chairman or division head) powers. You bribe others to let you abuse their powers. As employee motivation plummets, you can squeeze even more out of abusing your powers. Division heads can resign and bring all their department heads to join the board, causing a major power shift in the company. Division heads may also choose to resign peacefully to become an external consultant, and in that process get all their loyal department heads and staff fired. This is quite a full-featured parody of the corporate jungle.

To win the game, you need to achieve at least 4 out of 6 possible victory conditions. There are many possible actions in the game. I won't describe the whole game in detail. I think explaining these victory conditions will give a good feel of how the game works.

  1. Gain a certain number of influence points. You gain influence by being chairman or board member. Or firing 3 of your employees (ouch). There is also a special power card (of the Legal division head) which allows you to fire someone else's employee and gain influence. To be chairman you need to have the most and the most senior board members. Every round the old chairman resigns and a new chairman is elected by the board. The board is a volatile place. There are only 5 seats, and whenever a new guy joins the board, the oldest board member is forced to leave. It's a strict first-in-first-out policy. Being a board member for a long time doesn't guarantee you'll become chairman. There may be a reorganisation that forces you out before you have a chance to become chairman.
  2. Create a certain number of main departments. One of the actions that you can do is to create a main department by merging 2 normal departments. There is also a special power card that creates a main department. You can also pay an obscene amount of money to do this. The advantage of main departments is they never get closed down, even if they have only the department head and the deputy head left. Normal departments are forced to close down when the last employee is fired or transferred. Also main departments count as 2 votes when "electing" the division head. However the disadvantage is if a division head resigns to join the board, the main department head and deputy cannot join the board with him. They are needed at their department.
  3. Own a certain number of shares. There are share blocks representing 1 to 7 shares. For one action you get to buy only a block. Naturally it is more efficient to buy a big block. However the cost for a bigger block is significantly higher than that of a smaller block. Shares will give income every round. The tricky part is share income is determined by the number of blocks rather than the actual number of shares. So spending a ton of money on one big block will give you lower income than spending a little money on a few small blocks. But then of course bigger blocks will help you much more in achieving your share holding objective.
  4. Gain a certain number of corruption points. You do this by bribing people, or by accepting bribes. You bribe for the special powers held by other players. You can even bribe for those that they have just bribed away from others. When a power is bribed away, it changes to a more powerful version, so there is incentive to bribe. Also, if you refuse a bribe, the briber can fire one of your employees. So, in a way, you are bribed and threatened at the same time.
  5. Have external consultants in at least 3 divisions. Normally you achieve this by having division heads getting ousted, or voluntarily resigning. They can choose to become external consultants in their specific fields. It is also possible to pay an arm and a leg to hire an external consultant. Just like in real life.
  6. Do better than your archenemy. At the start of the game you are secretly assigned an archenemy and 3 areas (out of the five above) in which you need to do better than him. If you can do so, regardless of whether you have reached the minimal requirement of these 3 areas, you are considered to have achieved the archenemy victory condition. Sometimes you may get assigned yourself as your archenemy. In that case you need to beat everyone else in 2 of the 3 areas.

The game board. The top section (on the left of this photo) is for tracking 5 of the victory conditions. Your need to advance to the green section of the tracks to be considered having achieved that victory condition. The rest of the board is the company organisation chart. Chairman at the top, followed by the board, then division heads, then all the departments. At the far right is the motivation track which uses a big blue marker. Every round this starts at 6, and it can go down or up (usually down).

The victory condition tracks. If you reach the yellow space at the top, you are considered to have fulfilled the requirement in this area for the archenemy victory condition.

There are quite a number of other things you get to do in the game. E.g. if you are the head of the Development division, you can attract employees from other divisions to yours. Motivation level of staff is a funny thing. In this game you often want to drive motivation down, because for many of the special powers that you can use (err... abuse), they become more powerful when motivation is poor.

The player reference sheet, which I think is indispensible. The left side shows the list of actions that you can choose from. The right side shows the special powers of the chairman and the 6 division heads, both the unbribed weaker version and the bribed stronger version. Green pawns are executives - department manager, division head, board member or chairman. Grey cubes are employees. You have an envelope for your bribe offer (we called it the angpow packet). I kept saying "Take the money but give me back my angpow packet". The card on the right is the special power card of the Development Division Head.

The Play

The game took quite some time to explain, because there are not only these various victory conditions to explain, there are also the many different possible actions to explain. Some of the actions have 2 to 3 options, e.g. when performing restructuring, you can move 2 normal departments, or move a main department, or create a main department. Most of us were quite clueless about what we should be doing when the game started. We mostly competed for division head positions and board member positions. Those were easier-to-understand aspects.

Each department has a different colour code. Departments with two managers are main departments.

The currency in the game.

As the game progressed I tried to focus on my three archenemy objectives. My archenemy was myself, so I needed to do better than everyone else in 2 of these 3 areas. Focusing on all three was good for me. If I could meet the minimum requirement for all three, and be the leader in two, that would be 4 victory conditions met. Money was not as tight as we expected. We were quite thrifty in the early game. I was first to buy a big share block. Not that I needed it (it wasn't one of my archenemy objectives), just that I wanted to mess with others. They might have share-holding as one of their archenemy objectives.

I didn't control many divisions at the start of the game, but I tried to use the bribed Development division head power to attract employees to my departments. By having more staff, I could create new departments, and then merge them into main departments. Main departments was one of my archenemy objectives.

I did quite a lot of bribing (since corruption level was one of my archenemy objectives too). In the early game everyone accepted bribes. Only later on we started to decline, to deny the briber the special power. One nasty thing that you can do in this game is after a division head power is bribed away from you, you get your division head to resign. This disables the special power, and the idiot who has just bought it from you will start cursing at you. Bribing changed form towards the end game. In the early game we were all honest bribers (if there can be such a thing). We offered a decent bribe, and we purely wanted the special power. Towards the later part of the game, we bribed also because we wanted that corruption point (offering a bribe immediately scores the briber a corruption point, but the target only earns the corruption point if he accepts the bribe). The special power was nice, but was not necessarily the main attraction. The briber was threatening to fire the target's employee. Also not accepting meant falling behind on the corruption track. The bribe offers became smaller and smaller. We were more blackmailing than bribing. Sneaky bastards!

Allen (blue) was chairman for quite long and gained many influence points. He also had two board members.

On the left, a share block for 7 shares. On the right, the special power cards of the Chairman and the Accounting Division Head. These cards have two sides - the silver unbribed side has a weaker power, and the golden bribed side has a stronger power. Both of these are the bribed versions. I have been doing a lot of bribing.

Since I was the rules reader and game explainer, I had a better grasp of the game and was first to achieve the 4 victory conditions. However, I now realise we probably missed one rule related to main departments. When creating one, 2 employees need to be fired. I think we forgot to do that. I had the most main departments, so this mistake "benefited" me the most.

The Thoughts

One unique aspect of Power Struggle is how there are 6 different goals for you to pursue, and you can choose which ones you want to go for, as opposed to one single victory point track in most Eurogames. This reminds me of Tribune. Power Struggle is much more thematic, and more complex. The strategy in both games can be difficult to grasp, because you have many options, and it takes time to appreciate how all the moving parts work and how to make them work for you, as opposed to randomly fiddling with them to see what happens.

One thing that I was initially worried about was whether the theme would be a turn-off. I work in a corporate environment. Office politics isn't a topic that I get excited about. Having played the game, I find the theme very well done. It ties very well to the game mechanics, and makes the rules feel very logical. I didn't mind the theme at all.

I like the game. I like how there are multiple areas that you need to compete in, that you need to prioritise. The secret archenemy is a clever mechanism. It gives the players slightly different priorities, and yet it doesn't restrict them from pursuing other goals. It is interesting to try to guess what your opponents are aiming for, so that you can try to foil their plans.

There are indeed many moving parts, and there are quite many rules and special powers you need to digest and remember. I find that it helps to just keep in mind your end goal - four of the six victory conditions that you want to achieve. Pick your goals, and try to make sure all actions that you take drive you towards them.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Vasco da Gama

The Game

Vasco da Gama was a game I played at Old Town Kopitiam, Cheras, on Fri 1 Oct 2010. It is a medium-high complexity Eurogame, and it uses the worker placement mechanism, which is nowadays widely used and has been suffering from some backlash because of this. Vasco da Gama has been getting mostly positive reviews, but there are also negative comments saying that it very much epitomizes the "typical Eurogame", that it lacks innovation. So this was a chance to find out for myself what that game was like.

Is this game you purchase expedition projects, recruit captains and crew, and send ships out on expeditions. There are different types of projects (or ships) you can buy. Every ship needs a captain, and a certain number of different crew types in order to be ready to sail. The ship also has a value, which determines how far it can sail, the higher the better (and more expensive of course). The expedition mechanism is quite unique, and is something that seems to be less mentioned than the worker placement mechanism. There are 6 ports on the map, each with a different number of slots for ships, and each slot specifying a minimum requirement (for the ship value). When you send a ship out, it can go to any slot as long as the minimum requirement is met. You get a landing bonus and you score victory points. At the end of each round, if a port is full, the ships score some victory points, and are then forced to move to the next port. However, there may not be enough slots at the next port, or a ship may not meet the minimum requirements of the available slots. In such cases, the ship is discarded. The expedition mechanism is the core of the game. You earn victory points when your ships reach a port, when a port becomes full, and also possibly at the end of every round (depending on your ships). There are landing bonuses (which can be projects, captains, crew or money), and some ships also give income at the end of every round. All other aspects of the game are just means to help you work towards the expeditions.

The twist that Vasco da Gama adds to the worker placement mechanism is the uncertainty of how much it will cost to go earlier. There are discs numbered 1 to 20 determine turn order and action cost. When you choose an action, you must also select a numbered disc to put on top of your player action disc. Every round there is a threshold set beyond which actions are free. E.g. if the threshold is 8, then actions 1 to 7 will cost money, and actions 8 to 20 are free. Action 1 will cost $7, action 2 $6, action 3 $5, and so on. If you can't pay, or decide not to pay, you earn some consolation cash. The tricky part is that after all actions have been chosen, this threshold may shift up to 3 steps away (either way) from the base value. In the best case you may save $3 for some of the earlier actions that you have chosen. In the worst case you may have to pay $3 more, which is a lot in this game.

Other areas of the board are for buying crew, buying captains, buying projects (I think of them as ships), getting cash, and claiming a character. There are 4 characters which give different benefits: an extra action (normally you have 4 for each of the 5 rounds), a special crew type (missionaries), start player privilege and a merchant ship. The merchant ships are owned by noone. If you gain and deploy one, it only gives you the landing bonus and does nothing else for you. However, it can mess up the expeditions for other players (occupying a spot they need), or help you with the expeditions (completing a port to help your ship score and progress to the next one).

The game board. The upper right section is for recruiting captains and crew. The lower right section is for gaining cash or employing one of the four characters. The lower left section is for buying projects (ships). The upper left section is the most critical expedition section.

Close-up of the projects (ships) section. When you place your coloured action disc, you must add a numbered disc on top. In this area, you can buy one project for $1, or buy two projects for $4, or buy a special project for the number of crew members it needs. The special project is special because once bought it is immediately flipped over to become a ship (without you having to supply the required crew). It can be expensive but it saves you a lot of trouble.

The crew / captain section. When you recruit crew members, you pick from one of the four doorways. The cost depends not on the number of sailors, but on the number of different colours, i.e. you can recruit 5 sailors of the same colour for $1! You can recruit 1 captain with every batch of sailors you recruit, and the cost of the captain is the number of sailors you recruit. Continuing the example above, you'd be paying $5 for the captain, which is very expensive. This is another dilemma for you to ponder over.

The Play

We did a four-player game, Jeff (game teacher and played once I think), Pang (1st time), Jimmy (played once) and I (1st time), which was the full player count. We played about halfway when Jeff realised a critical rule mistake, and we had to restart. We had been resolving actions by area as opposed to by number. Oops. Surprisingly none of us felt it was a problem up till then. It was upon a double check that Jeff realised the mistake. I think he felt something was off because the game seemed more restrictive than the previous time he played.

I had one captain (short dark blue guy) and three crew members of different colours (think of colour as specialization). I had three projects, one of which had been flipped over to become a ship. You can flip a project to the ship side any time, as long as you "pay" the required number of crew members of different colours. The project side of the tiles show ship value (top left), number of different coloured crew members required to flip it (top right), benefit provided every round in cash or victory points when it is at a port (bottom right), and how early it comes up (bottom left). The ship side of the tile only shows ship value (top left) and benefit for every round it is at a port (top right).

The strongest impression I had of the game was how tight money was. The uncertainty of the action cost was a big source of cheers and groans. In some rounds when the cost was +2 or +3 more than the base cost, many of us got in trouble, being forced to forfeit some actions and earn the consolation cash instead (which was usually not much). Sometimes when the base cost was high, we had to plan to collect consolation cash, because with 4 players, 16 of the 20 action discs would be claimed, so some of us were forced to take the low numbered action discs which we knew we couldn't afford. Because of how tight money was, the fight for those 2 money spaces was intense. The irony was if you wanted to go early enough to claim the money, you might need to pay money to go earlier in the first place, making your net earning less. Also another player might gamble on the actual action cost to be lower, and take the action disc with an even smaller number than what you had chosen. Then you'd be stuck with 2nd choice instead of 1st. This is brinkmanship.

These are called the VdG (Vasco da Gama) tiles - the source of pain and relief (at different times). The scroll on the top left tells you how much the action cost for the round will shift. It is revealed only after everyone has placed his action discs. The number on the top right is the base action cost for the next round, and the two numbers on the lower right are the cash made available at the money spaces for the next round.

I didn't do so well in managing my cash-flow and was often poor. I did manage to get a number of captains early, so that I didn't need to worry about that aspect much for the rest of the game. Captains always return from expeditions (unlike crew which needs to be recruited again), so after an expedition ends, you get the captain back and can reuse him for the next expedition. I didn't do so well in getting projects (ships) or crew. One thing that amazed me a little is how none of my ships launched were sent back early. Not that I had many. But they managed to keep moving from one port to the next, and they kept giving me income and victory points.

Jeff wasn't so lucky with the timing of his expeditions. I'm pretty sure he sent out more and better ships than I did, but many of them were sent back early when the port they were in became full, and they couldn't get a slot at the next port. Well, at least he still scored for the ship launch, the landing bonus, and full port bonus. He only missed the longer term regular benefits.

Jimmy probably did about the same as me. Not sending out many ships, but overall I think still more than me. Pang accumulated a huge crew and held out from starting expeditions. He sent out quite a number of (neutral) merchant ships when he held the merchant ship character. Then suddenly in the 2nd half of the game he sent out 3 huge expeditions at the same time, all to the furthest (and most profitable) port. That gave a huge launch score. Although at the time that port didn't have any other ships, before game end, it filled up, and he scored the full port bonus for his 3 ships. That sealed his victory. Our scores were Pang 81, Jeff 64, me 61, Jimmy 53.

In the 4th round, Pang (yellow) launched a massive armada with ship values 11, 11 and 9. That's 31 points!

In round 5, the most distant port filled up.

In fact, most of the ports filled up. What a sight it was.

The Thoughts

Vasco da Gama was more complex and more interesting than I had expected. The twist it adds to the worker placement mechanism is nice, and creates a lot of tension, but what captured my interest more was the expedition mechanism. Not that it was very original, but to me it was fun. You need to coordinate all your other actions in the game to help you compete in the expeditions. I had expected a medium weight game, but now I think it is a medium-heavy weight game, because of how you need to plan and coordinate your actions towards success at the expeditions. Often actions by other players can mess up your plan and you need to adapt and even change plans completely.

I find the game very interactive. How to pick the numbered discs is a tough decision. Which of the four areas to compete in first is a tough decision. Managing your finances is very challenging. As for being a "typical, unoriginal Eurogame", I'd say indeed there's nothing very innovative or new. However I do find it challenging, interesting and satisfying. I do think the artwork is rather boring. Very typical Eurogame style. And you have those characters with unique abilities, which appear in so many games. I think these, plus the usage of the worker placement mechanism, turn us jaded boardgame veterans off. So if these are the reasons why Vasco da Gama doesn't interest you, I say give it a chance. Surely Hansa Teutonica has even more boring artwork and theme, but it's an excellent game.