Sunday, 27 March 2011

boardgaming in photos

26 Feb 2011. Metropolys. It was good to bring it out again after such a long time. I've always found Metropolys to be quite unique and interesting. I taught Allen and Afif to play.

Metropolys has bidding and also a spatial element. You want to construct your buildings at certain locations to score points. Some locations give points, some give penalties. Each player has some secret objectives. You also get points for having the tallest buildings in each of the regions.

How the bidding works, and how to strategise around it, can be a little difficult to grasp at first, but once you see it in action, it'll be much easier to understand.

19 Mar 2011. Han, Allen and I played Sid Meier's Civilization again. This time Han was the Russians, Allen the Romans, and I was the Chinese. Han had a poor starting location. His armies could not explore because of the surrounding seas. He needed two rounds to get enough Trade to research the tech (Navigation?) that allowed his armies to cross water. And only in the 3rd round he could move out.

I decided to try going for a cultural victory. I got myself libraries early, and then upgraded them to universities. This was my capital. The Chinese capital starts with walls. I just realised that I didn't build any wonders throughout this game. Wonders would have been very helpful towards a cultural victory. I got myself some nice great people, which were bonuses awarded by the culture track progress. They gave me Trade which was important to keep my science progressing, and also Culture itself.

Han (yellow, Russians) and Allen (blue, Romans) were racing to conquer this hostile little village.

By now I (Mao Tze Dong) had progressed into the Level II part of the culture track. Allen (the handsome Julius Caesar) also had some cultural progress due to Rome's special ability - a free advance every time they build a city or wonder, or conquer a city or village. Han (the beautiful Catherine the Great) was a barbarian with no culture whatsoever.

In the early game I did well in science progress and in culture progress. I already had 6 universities by mid game. Naturally, doing well meant wearing a big red target. Both Han and Allen sent their armies over, even though I had declared myself to be a peaceful democracy (cannot attack cities). I negotiated with Allen a short truce. Two turns of truce was better than none. As Han's army approached, I used culture cards to kill them or push them back. I drew a reasonable number of defensive culture cards. However I couldn't stop Han from stealing my techs. That was the Russian's special ability. He could send an army into my city, sacrifice it, and learn a tech that I had. Notice that all 6 of my armies (flags) were off the board. I had launched a preemptive strike against Han. I had superior numbers and had the attacker advantage, but I couldn't beat his more advanced troops. It was a painful loss.

I was only 4 steps away from cultural victory. In the late game I gave up on science, and spent most of my Trade on advancing on the culture track. Quite often I devoted both or even all three of my cities to culture. I didn't want to progress in science further, because Han would be able to steal my techs, and that would help him to go for the science victory. He was very close to science victory. If he had not forgotten to use one of his tech abilities to gain Coins, he would have won a science victory. He didn't collect many Coins, which slowed him a little.

At this point in the game, I calculated to see whether I could advance four steps on the culture track within this round. I was just slightly short! If I had enough, I could win this round. Allen was planning a military victory by attacking my capital, but a cultural victory would end the game during the city actions phase, before the army movement phase. However, Allen's troops were not very well positioned. He needed this round to group his armies together, and then next round to strike at Beijing. That would be too late, because I would have achieved a cultural victory next round before he could attack. So this round he had to launch a different type of attack.

Two lone armies would attack my two smaller cities, not expecting to conquer them, just hoping to whittle down my units. Then two armies would attack Beijing. I didn't have many units, so this was worth a shot for him. Thankfully the Chinese special ability was they could take back one killed unit after every battle. So I didn't lose as many units as Allen had hoped, and since Beijing was walled (also a Chinese special bonus), the planned assault eventually failed. I won a cultural victory, very much helped by the blessings of my ancestors.

Han, Allen and I have now played 4 games of Sid Meier's Civilization. It has become our Game of the Month. This was unplanned. Our previous GOTM was Le Havre which we played 3 times. The next one was supposed to have been War of the Ring but we never got around to it. In these 4 games of Sid Meier's Civilization, coincidentally we have seen all 4 different victory conditions.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Castle Ravenloft

Played: once, 3 players.

The Game

Castle Ravenloft is a dungeon crawl game. It's a cooperative game. Players are typical fantasy-genre characters exploring a dungeon, with a mission to complete depending on the scenario being played. There are monsters to fight, treasures to collect, bad things happening to you, etc. You try to survive long enough to complete your mission. Your character has various stats and capabilities, like health points, armour rating, attack skills, special skills. Some can be customised before a game starts. Some can be improved during the game.

The game starts with the adventurers entering the dungeon, which is unexplored except for the few starting tiles. When the adventurers explore, they draw tiles from a deck and place them onto the table to expand the dungeon. On a player's turn, he can move and attack, and also explore if he is standing at the edge of a tile leading to a dark corridor. After these are done, he does the actions for monsters he controls. Well, the word "control" can be misleading here. Whenever a player encounters a monster, that monster is assigned to him. The monster's card specifies how it moves and attacks. So the "controlling" player is responsible for executing these, but he doesn't really have much choice on what the monster does. There is a little flexibility (but not much) and the players will try to make use of it.

On your turn, if you don't (or cannot) explore, you must draw an encounter card, which usually means something bad will happen. If you explore, depending on the tile you draw, you may need to draw an encounter card anyway. Every new tile that you explore will spawn a new monster. So basically whatever you do, something bad will happen on your turn. Encounter cards have a lot of variety. There may be traps. There may be extra monsters. They may teleport a player to some far corner of the dungeon. They may introduce a long-term effect that hinders the players, e.g. a mist that slows down movement.

Monsters have a lot of variety too, in how they move and attack, in how difficult they are to kill. One thing to be careful about is to try to not let there be multiple monsters of the same type, i.e. more than one player controlling the same monster type. When this happens, on either player's turn, all monsters of the same type move and/or attack. So it's important to quickly kill off some of them.

All the monsters that come with the game.

This giant looks pretty scary, and the dragon skeleton behind it too. However apparently neither is the biggest baddest boss, which is a vampire.

Overall the game feels very familiar. You get treasures when you defeat monsters. You track health. You roll a D20 (20-sided die) to determine whether attacks succeed. All the player characters, monsters, traps, treasures and weapons are what you'd expect to see in a fantasy themed game.

The Play

Han, Allen and I played Scenario 2, since Scenario 1 is a solo scenario. The story was that we needed to explore the dungeon to find an item at the chapel. The chapel was shuffled somewhere between the 9th and 12th positions of the deck, so we roughly know how far we need to explore in order to find it. That's a little gamey, but I guess it is necessary for game balance.

Allen chose to be a fighter. I chose to be a rogue, simply because her (or his, I'm not sure) colour was green. Han chose to be the cleric, who could heal, probably because he thought we were nuts and would need someone to save our butts. And indeed the healing power turned out to be quite helpful. All of us were beaten close to death by the monsters. In particular the gargoyles, which we had two at the same time during the game, were rather tough to beat. I got myself killed once, but this scenario allowed two come-back-to-life chances for the group (although you come back with less health points). The players lose immediately when these back-to-life tokens are used up, and one character dies and is unable to come back.

My character the rogue. Is this male or female? The two cards on the top left are one-time use abilities. The two on the bottom left are always available. All four are selected from a set belonging to the rogue. You can pick what you like for each game. The card on the top right is a monster card - a gargoyle. The card on the bottom right is a reference card. The yellow shields track the damage sufferred. The long yellow token is a reminder that I am being slowed down for one turn due to a monster attack.

The two gargoyles.

We didn't really have much of a long-term plan, e.g. about whether to stay closer to one another, or to branch off and try to explore quickly. We only started discussing halfway through the game, in the heat of battle with the monsters. My gut feel is it is probably better to stay together, so that we can watch each others' backs. Also when we reach our destination, having more hands around surely will help defeat the monsters quickly.

Allen met a particularly nasty spider. Spiders attack from afar and cause much damage, so you need to get up-close-and-personal quickly to kill them in melee combat, which they are not as lethal in. In the late game, Allen stepped on some crazy teleport device which sent him to the other end of the dungeon. That was not helpful at all. Well, maybe except for attracting monsters on that side of the dungeon towards him instead of Han and I.

Allen's fighter in the background struggling with the spider. Han and I were thinking, "Come on, just step on the darn thing and get it over and done with."

Han's dwarven cleric running away from the gargoyle and the skeleton. Naaah, not really. He's attacking them with his back to them coz he's a tough guy.

We were mostly quite reactive, attending to the monsters and encounters thrown at us, trying to survive long enough to reach the chapel. It felt like a continuously evolving puzzle that we had to solve, always trying to determine what the best course of action was given a particular situation. Eventually we found the chapel, which came with 3 monsters. We had to kill all three, and also collect the relic thingy, to win. Allen was still on the other side of the dungeon. In addition to the three monsters that must be defeated, there were others heading towards Han and I. We avoided the ones that didn't need to be killed, and focused on those critical three. One of them was quite strong, and thankfully we killed it quickly. The other two didn't last long after that. We won!

Allen's first response: "That wasn't so hard was it?" Hey, remember when we were all 1 or 2 life points from getting killed?! Well, in fact I was killed. Overall I think this being an early scenario isn't too hard. We still had one resurrection token unused. Also this early scenario only has the regular monsters and not be unique, big, nasty ones.

The Thoughts

The game is easy to learn and easy to play. Not many things to fiddle with, definitely fewer than similar games from Fantasy Flight Games. Very minimal setup is required, unlike Space Hulk or Descent: Journeys in the Dark. I like how clean the system is, and how despite so it can still provide a solid dungeon crawl experience. In the scenario that we played, the chapel being shuffled into a certain position in the deck of tiles felt scripted. The experience became that of surviving an onslaught of monsters, until the chapel came out, rather than being a real exploration. We knew roughly when we would find the chapel. This reminded me of a similar aspect in Space Hulk: Death Angel that I didn't like. The players are mostly reactive, as opposed to in a game like Space Hulk, you can plan ahead and form a long-term strategy. In Lord of the Rings, also a cooperative game, you get bad things thrown at you, but you can still look ahead to see what's coming and decide how you will prepare for them. I quickly scanned the other scenarios of Castle Ravenloft, and found that most use a similar method of shuffling your objectives into particular positions in the deck of tiles. However most scenarios have something unique to them, so hopefully they will continue to be fun.

I have never been particularly interested in the fantasy genre or in role-playing games, so I'm quite neutral to Castle Ravenloft's theme. The implementation here seems to be quite standard fare, but then I'm no expert in this area.

The game does not have a dungeon master or overlord controlling the monsters, which I found unusual. I think the approach taken is successful, because it streamlines things, and also makes the game a true cooperative game rather than a many-vs-one game. There are pros and cons to having a dungeon master, but I think the way the game is designed works very well.

If you like the fantasy genre and like dungeon crawls, Castle Ravenloft is good value for money. Good components. Easy to teach and smooth to play.

Monday, 21 March 2011

iPhone Chicago Express and Ra Ra Ra

I recently bought Chicago Express on the iPhone. Well, it's called Wabash Cannonball there, which is the name when the boardgame was first published. Before this, I've played Chicago Express in boardgame form twice (Sep 2009 and Mar 2010) . My biggest impression was that it was a very condensed game. There aren't many actions that you do, but every action is important and has many implications. You need to think very carefully. There are two perspectives that you need to have a clear grasp of - the players and the railroad companies.

Playing on the iPhone allowed me to understand the game much better. In a way, it de-mystified the game for me. I felt the game wasn't really as deep as I had originally thought it was. The key is the players' ownership of the railroad companies. I think this is the most important aspect to manage. It determines how much cash the players will be earning, and also determines the incentive for them to develop or to wreck a company. There were a few things that the AI's taught me. One of them is when to wreck your own company. In one game when I still had the naive notion that all shareholders want their company to do well, a fellow shareholder AI shattered my innocence by doing something bad to the company. I held majority shares to the Red company, and there was only one other AI minority shareholder. We were close to reaching Chicago, which would mean a one-time bonus dividend for all shareholders, and also a boost to profitability of the company. Instead of building the required tracks to reach Chicago, the AI wasted the remaining tracks of company on some completely not profitable locations, making it impossible to ever reach Chicago. It was, of course, the right move for the AI, because reaching Chicago would have benefited me, the majority shareholder, most. So I learned to beware of these rogue shareholders, and also to be careful of how to manipulate company ownership to not encourage such situations.

Wabash Cannonball (a.k.a. Chicago Express). The Red company could have reached Chicago, the pink city on the left, being only 3 tracks away.

It never reached Chicago because of these wasted tracks near the coast.

Playing against AI's gave me the luxury of spending all the time I want to study the board position and all other game status details. AI's don't mind my analysis paralysis (AP). Chicago Express is a perfect information game. So as long as you spend the effort to study all the possibilities, you will do quite well. Naturally, when playing with humans, AP is not encouraged. You should respect everyone's time, so you should go with a mix of quick evaluation and gut feel. That's the excitement of playing against humans. Also human interaction sways our judgement. E.g. taunt an opponent to outbid you for a share, thus getting him to overpay. Or plead for mercy and pretend to be in a losing position. I came to realise one thing - boardgames are fun because of our human weaknesses and limitations. Or maybe I should say, boardgames are fun because we are human. We are children. We play.

My opinion of Chicago Express as an iPhone human-vs-AI's game is lower than that of the game as a physical human-vs-humans game. It's because this is a perfect information game. Everything can more or less be analysed and calculated. Because of this I think I probably won't buy Through the Desert on the iPhone. It's also a perfect information game.

Summary of players money, income during the next dividend round, and shares ownership.

Summary of the five companies.

Tracking the three possible game end conditions: 8 times of dividend payouts, or 3 companies having sold all shares, or 3 companies having placed all tracks.

Overall my opinion of Chicago Express (as a boardgame) has dropped a bit too. Just a few games on the iPhone made me feel like I have exhausted all there is to explore in the game. Overdose.

I've recently bought and played Ra on the iPhone too. It turned out to be a rather pleasant experience. Ra was one of the heavily-played boardgames when I first got into the hobby. It was a favourite with my game group in Taiwan. I must admit there is some nostalgia in there. My iPhone Ra experience was better also because there is some randomness - the tile draws. When my two young children watched me play, they didn't understand the game much (other than collecting stuff is good, and disasters are bad), but they enjoyed chanting "Ra Ra Ra!" with me after I have used up all my suns and the AI's with unused suns were still drawing tiles. (when a certain number of Ra tiles are drawn, an epoch ends and players cannot collect any more tiles, unused suns wasted)

The main interface of Ra. The three tiles on the board are a drought tile, a pyramid tile, and a god tile.

You can check the tiles that you have collected. Here I have collected 3 pharaoh tiles, 2 civilisation tiles, and 1 monument tile.

Scoring summary at game end, the categories are pharaohs, Nile, money, gods, civilisation, monuments and suns.

One thing that I never really bothered with in Ra is that players start with 20pts. This is because during the game you may lose points. When I played with my Taiwanese friends, we just used pen and paper to record the scores after each epoch. I'm not even sure we allowed negative points. In 2004, Ra was out of print and I self-made a copy (yeah... hard to imagine... so many tiles...),. So I didn't have proper rules.

Ra on the iPhone is quite well implemented. Nice graphics, sounds and animations. The animations quickly become annoying, but you can change settings to speed it up, so it's no problem. The AI's seem decent so far, but I get a feeling they put a bit too much emphasis on collecting suns with high value. Or is it me not appreciating the importance of getting suns with high values?

Sunday, 20 March 2011

(still) learning Hansa Teutonica

I recently played Hansa Teutonica for the 5th time, and am happy that I was still learning new things from it. It was the first time I played with Afif, who had played Hansa Teutonica a number of times with a different group. He brought his experience to the game, which taught me some new lessons. I realised a mistake that I've made since my first game - at game end, network scoring is by offices! Not cities. I had thought you just count the number of cities in your (i.e. with your office presence) largest connected network of cities. The correct way is to count each office in this network. I checked my own concise reference sheet and found that I had actually got it right when I made the sheet. I need to pay more attention to what I write.

I'm going to say it even if it makes me look stupid - network building is important. "What? It took you 5 games to realise that?" Umm... yeah, sorry. In most of my early games I have been teaching the game to other new players, so I really have not explored the strategies in any depth. In my previous few games I have been particularly attracted to improving my technology. Powering up is tempting because they make your actions more efficient. And then there's the 4VPs per maxed tech. I now realise that teching up for the sake of teching up is not such a good idea. It should be something that supports your strategy, rather than being a strategy in itself.

Network building is lucrative because there are two ways it scores for you - the control of cities, plus the scoring for your largest network. In our 3-player game, Allen and I upgraded from 2 to 3 actions early, and Afif was stuck at 2 actions for quite some time. He went for bonus tokens, we stopped him (else he would have reached 15VP, which is a lot). He went for network building, we didn't quite manage to block him. So he claimed the 7VP for the east-west route, and at game end also earned 24VP for his network. I need to pay more attention to network-building.

I have not considered getting the expansion to Hansa Teutonica yet, even though I like the base game a lot. There is still so much to explore even in the base game.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Tammany Hall

The Game

Tammany Hall is designed by Doug Eckhart and published by StrataMax, Inc. If I hadn't known this, and had just played the game, I could be easily convinced that this was a game designed by Martin Wallace. It tells the story of a specific time in history, in this case immigrants arriving in a growing New York. It is of medium-to-heavy weight. It is quite vicious and has many tough decisions. Although still being a Euro-style game, it does pay attention to theme and the game feels like a story-first game and not a mechanism-first game.

Players are policitians in New York. Over the course of 16 years (and 4 elections that occur once every 4 years), they try to gain victory points (VP's) by winning wards (districts), by becoming mayor, and at game end, by having the most influence over specific immigrant groups - the English, the Italians, the Irish and the Germans.

The game board. Important information is all on the board, so it's quite practical and useful.

A turn is very simple. You deploy two of your people (called ward bosses) to the wards, or you deploy one ward boss and bring in one new immigrant. Ward bosses are basically your election candidates. You need a ward boss in a ward to be in the running to win that ward. Each ward boss also represents one vote. If you bring in a new immigrant, you get to collect a favour chip matching that immigrant, e.g. a green favour chip if you help bring in an Irish immigrant to one of the wards. These favour chips are a crucial part of the game. When elections are held, they can become votes. When there is more than one candidate in a ward, the competing players do blind bidding, spending favour chips to try to win the ward. Each favour chip counts as one vote, provided that the ward has at least one matching immigrant. So it's important to manage collecting favour chips of the four immigrant groups. At the conclusion of an election, you collect bonus favour chips if your wards have the highest population of specific immigrant groups. It's a cycle - collecting favour chips by bringing immigrants in, spending chips to win wards with those immigrants, then gaining chips again by controlling the most immigrants in each immigrant group.

Cubes are immigrants, head-and-shoulder markers are the ward bosses.

The Immigrant Leader table is used for checking who has influence over the most immigrants of each nationality.

At the conclusion of each election, at each ward, all ward bosses are removed except for the single winning candidate, including the colleagues of that winning candidate. That means if a winning player has more than one ward boss, he must discard all but one of them. So it can be wasteful if you deploy too many ward bosses. You lose them if you lose in a ward. You will definitely lose some if you deploy more than one in a ward. Helping immigrants settle down in New York is attractive because you get favour chips.

You become mayor if you win the most number of wards. You gain a bonus of 3VP, but you then need to assign city offices to your fellow players. Such city offices are basically special abilities that they can use (probably to harm you) every year until the next election. E.g. the Precinct Chairman can move immigrants around, the Deputy Mayor can collect favour chips.

One fun thing you can do is to slander your opponents. You spend favour chips to remove your opponents' ward bosses from the board. If you time it well, you may find that your candidate becomes the only remaining candidate in a hotly contested ward. Oooh... evil evil. Fun fun fun.

The Play

Han, Allen and I played a 3-player game. Probably not as interesting as with more players, but still pretty exciting. Green is not a player colour in this game. It represents the Irish instead. Due to my usual green-preference, the Irish had a special place in my heart, and I decided to be good friends with them.

I played purple, since green was not available as a player colour. THe top row are the three black slander chips, which can be used once each in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters of the game. The favour chips are green for Irish, blue for Italian, white for English and orange for German.

In a 3-player game, only one third of the board is in play initially. The other areas of the board only come into play after the 1st and 2nd elections. In the first election, I did rather poorly in controlling the immigrant groups. I only did well with the Irish. Going towards mid game, i.e. the 2nd election, the wards that I was competing in were rather sparse. Han and Allen were the ones competing in the more densely populated wards. I went for the quick wins, deploying ward bosses to the less attractive sparsely populated wards. I was first to make a nasty slander move. Since Han was the Mayor after the 1st election, he was first in turn order. I came after him, so when I used my once-per-4-years slander against him in the last year before the election, he couldn't counter it. I deployed two ward bosses to wards that only had his candidates, and then slandered both his candidates away. That gave me auto-wins in both wards, without needing to spend any favour chips. Sneaky move, heh heh. Clean politics is an oxymoron.

In a 3-player game, only this zone is in play at the start of the game.

Surprisingly I even managed to become Mayor after the 2nd election, and I was leading in VP's. However I knew it was an illusion. I was still rather weak in exerting influence over the immigrant groups. And now that I was Mayor, and both Han and Allen had seen how sneakily slanders could be used, I knew it was going to be tough. I tried to cut deals with both Allen and Han on separate occasions. When we knew there were multiple wards that we would be competing in, we negotiated to decide who to concede which one, so that both could conserve some favour chips for other fights. I wonder whether this is against the spirit of the game. The designer probably did not intend this to be a negotiation game. I think I just generally dislike blind bidding, so being able to negotiate and reduce uncertainty makes me feel more comfortable. I didn't try to negotiate for all contests, just some of them. Otherwise the game would really drag.

By the time the 3rd election concluded, I was left with only two wards. Looking very bad is an understatement. I wonder whether I had conceded too much in my negotiations. In the final leg leading up to the 4th and last election, it was mostly Han and Allen competing. My only hope was to try to get them to fight as bitterly as possible, and thus allow me to sneak in some cheap wins here and there. By this time we were getting better at protecting ourselves against slander, e.g. by deploying an extra ward boss (slanders can only remove one ward boss in a ward). There were no more new zones unlike previously, so there were no more easy wins.

Han did quite well leading up to the 4th election. His board positions were not bad after the 3rd election anyway. Surprisingly I managed to come back a little too. Allen didn't do so well, probably because being Mayor meant he didn't have any special ability (a.k.a. city offices). By game end, Han and I managed to get some majorities with the immigrant groups. Final score: Han 28, me 23, Allen 18. After the game Han explained to us that the tactic he decided on before the 3rd election was to ensure he didn't win it. He manoeuvred his positioning such that he won just one less ward than Allen. That indeed worked well for him. Mayors not only don't get special abilities, being first in turn order also made them vulnerable to attacks.

The chip icon at the bottom left means whoever wins this ward gains a favour chip of any colour.

That white rectangle at the centre is Tammany Hall itself. Not historically accurate though, due to gameplay reasons.

The Thoughts

This is an area majority game, but one thing that makes it very interesting is how there are two layers of area majority that you need to manage - winning the wards give you VP's, winning the immigrant groups give you favour chips, which is the sole currency in the game and is very important. You need to ensure you have a healthy stock of favour chips all through the game. You need them to help you win wards, to slander others, and even at game end there is a majority contest over them to score bonus points. You need to manage both layers of area majority. Winning a ward with many immigrants improves your chances of gaining bonus favour chips by controlling the most immigrants of each immigrant group, but one ward is still just 1VP. Yet without a good supply of favour chips you will become much less competitive.

Favour chips that you have and locations of the immigrants determine very much where you are able to compete. Managing the immigrant groups is very interesting. Let's say your opponent has great influence over the Italians. When competing over a particular ward, if you are able to remove the last Italian immigrant from that ward, your opponent will suddenly become much weaker. Similarly, let's say you are close buddies with the Germans. If you are eyeing a densely populated Irish ward, you just need to bring in a German immigrant to that ward, and suddenly you can bring to bear your German favour chips.

This is a game with very simple actions turn-to-turn, but with many implications to think about. The blind bidding can be quite tense. Each time blind bidding needs to be done, all players involved need to show the favour chips they have, so you do go into the blind bidding well-informed. Some may not like blind bidding though.

One last thing I must say - I really really like the Peter Dennis artwork. He does the artwork for most of Martin Wallace's games too.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Adventurers

The Adventurers is Chong Sean's game which I will be helping to bring back to him in Sabah. It was sent by sea from Taipei to Kuala Lumpur, together with some games than Allen and I bought. Chong Sean assigned me a mission to open, sleeve and play his games before I return to Sabah. And of course blogging about them is in the job specs.

The Game

In The Adventurers, players are treasure hunters extracting (a better word for "looting") treasures from an ancient Mayan temple. The ancient temple has traps and auto-defense mechanisms, and once the intruders enter, they are triggered. The entrance slams shut. A giant rolling boulder is set into motion and will eventually block the exit. So the players need to try to collect the most valuable treasures and make it out of the temple alive. Whoever survives and has treasures worth the most wins.

There are many different characters in the game. Lots of nice sculpts and good artwork. In the background is the moving wall that can crush your adventurers.

More adventurers.

Character cards. The icon on the lower left indicates the special ability. There are 6 different types of special abilities. The smaller cards are some of the treasure cards (card backs).

The game is pretty straight-forward. On your turn, you roll 5 dice, which tell you how many actions you get depending on how many treasures you are carrying. Naturally the heavier your burden, the more likely you will have fewer actions. You use your actions to move, to search for treasures, to decipher glyphs which may help you avoid traps etc. Treasures are everywhere, but depending on where they are, there are different restrictions and dangers when you try to search for them. Some are locked up and you'll need to spend some effort removing them from their alcoves. You need to try to outrun the giant boulder and not get crushed by it. There's a room with some loose floor boards, and if you fall through the floor, you land in molten lava. (and die, of course) There's an underground river with treasures on the riverbed, but it's rushing towards a deadly waterfall and if you can't get out of the river in time, bye bye. The game also has crushing walls, and a shaky bridge over a bottomless chasm. All in all, plenty of ways to get yourself killed.

One consolation is you have a backup plan. If your adventurer gets killed, you can still play the backup adventurer who enters the game mid way. However the new guy will be entering the temple behind the rolling boulder, so he or she will be pressed for time to collect treasures and exit the temple before the boulder blocks the exit.

You don't get to fight with other adventurers and you can't rob them of their treasures. You just race against them to try to get more treasures. But one nasty thing that you can do is when you cross the bridge, and you know there are others behind who want to cross it too, you can intentionally jump up and down on the bridge to try to damage it, so that by the time the others cross it, they are at a greater risk of the bridge completely collapsing. But of course, if you happen to jump too hard, the bridge may snap and you will be the one, umm, going down and never coming up.

The shaky bridge in the foreground. The underground river and waterfall in the background.

The Play

Han, Allen and I played a three-player game. We were quite greedy, and from the beginning kept picking up treasures. The fact that the boulder moved quite slowly at the beginning lured us into a false sense of safety. Soon we realised that once the boulder had picked up momentum, it could move rather quickly. Many times we decided to throw away some less valuable treasures so that we could run faster. The lava room could be a shortcut to try to overtake the boulder, but in our game, the layout of the four traps made it impossible to cross the room.

I ran the fastest, and Allen was slightly behind me. Han was too close to the boulder, and had to step into the lava room to avoid being crushed. It also meant the boulder passed him, and he had to catch up quickly. He picked up some treasures from the lava room. Allen was the only one who attempted to unlock a valuable treasure from an alcove. He did it halfway and gave up, fearing the approaching boulder. It was the right decision. If he hadn't decided to run, the boulder would have caught up with him. I was first to jump into the river and I dug up many treasures. I made it out of the river with 6 treasures. However because I spent more time in the river, Allen, who had also decided to use the river as a shortcut to beat the giant boulder to the exit, came out at the same time as I did. Han was slightly behind, because of the previous delay.

The lava room. Han was exploring it. The four spaces showing the Mayan numbers (lines and dots) have been explored, i.e. treasures collected. The giant boulder moved around the lava room (left to right), so if you can cross the lava room, it would be a shorter path than the boulder.

In the top right corner Allen was trying to unlock a treasure from an alcove.

The boulder had reached the last stretch before sealing off the exit. Allen and I had just climbed out of the river. Han was still swimming.

As the giant boulder approached, I decided that my life was worth more than my treasures. I discarded three treasures to lighten my load, and made a dash for the exit. It was the right move. I had just enough actions to make it out alive. Allen's adventurer had the stamina special ability, which allowed him (once per game) to treat the adventurer as if he had a lighter load. This allowed Allen to exit the temple comfortably. Han decided it was do-or-die. If he chucked too many treasures in order to be able to run faster and exit, he likely wouldn't have enough treasures to win anyway. In the end, it was not "do". He was just at the door when the boulder made him much flatter than before.

Allen won. He had more treasures than me, and their values added up to be more too.

The Thoughts

The production is good. The gameplay is simple and thematic. The game is a quick race to grab as many treasures as you can before time runs out. You need to balance risk and reward, and you need to make good use of your actions. Overall I feel there is not much meat to it though. I can see it would work with non-gamers. But for gamers this is probably not a game that can be played more than a few times. I feel there is not a lot of strategy in it. Ticket to Ride is simpler, yet has more strategy.

One thing that we didn't do well in our game was we didn't really plan what we wanted to do, and we didn't really try to make good use of our adventurers' special abilities. We just kept grabbing treasures. It may be better to go in with a plan, so that we don't waste actions. Maybe. But maybe it doesn't really matter anyway.

With 3 players, I feel there are too many treasures and not enough competition. I think the game needs more players to be more interesting. One problem that many others have pointed out is once the players get familiar with the glyphs, that part of the game becomes pointless, because the players already know which number corresponds to which glyph. I think this is poor component design (not a problem with game design).

One thing that I admire very much is the reference page at the back of the rulebook. It has all the important information and as long as you have a general idea of how the game works, if you forget any detail, you can find it here. This is the kind of approach I take with my concise reference sheets. All important and easy-to-forget information in one place, omit the easy-to-remember stuff.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

in the press

I was recently interviewed by a journalist from The Star newspaper (Malaysia), and the article came out today, Wed 9 Mar 2011, in the StarTwo / R.AGE section. I am pretty excited. Here's a link to the online version of the article. Update 31 Jan 2013: The link above no longer works, so I've now uploaded a scan of the newspaper article. Click image below for the full sized view.

There is an incorrect URL pointing to my personal blog as opposed to my Chinese boardgame blog. Some of the quoted words were not exactly my words. But I'm pretty happy. I have to thank Jeff from for setting this up. He's running a Power Grid competition now. If you live in KL / PJ, Malaysia or nearby, check it out.