Sunday, 29 May 2011

Tikal II

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

It's not like Tikal and in fact is quite different. Only the theme is related, and it was a marketing decision. In Tikal II, players are archaeologists excavating a newly discovered Mayan temple. They explore rooms, collect treasures, and do all sorts of stuff to gain points. Most points at game end wins.

The game is played over two halves. Some scoring is done during player turns. Major scorings are done at mid and end game. On a player's turn, he picks one of the action tiles laid along the edges of the board, and then uses his explorer character to do one excavation. These action tiles drive the game, and trigger the end of each half.

The early game. At the start, 10 rooms are already discovered (but excavations not yet done). The big square tiles along the edges of the board are the action tiles. You move your boat clockwise around the river, to stop at the locations from which you want to pick an action tile.

One important concept in the game is the keys, of which there are 5 colours. You need keys to go through doors and explore the temple. You also need them during mid and end game scoring. The tricky part is when you gain a key, you must immediately decide what to use it for, and once that's decided, you can't switch. You need to decide between mobility and scoring.

As rooms are discovered, tiles are added to the board. Some rooms reward only the first player to excavate in it, some offer multiple different rewards, and of course the earlier you excavate the more choices you have. When excavating rooms you are rewarded for rooms of the same colour that you have excavated before, so it pays to specialise.

If you collect treasures, you can time to sell them at certain times when you pick an action tile. Timing is important because the values of the five types of treasures fluctuate, changing each time a sale is made.

There are cards you can draw, some giving special abilities, some scoring at game end.

At the bottom is the player board. The tent on the left indicates the play direction. In the first half it is clockwise and in the second half anti-clockwise. On your player board you can place (a) face-down keys (for scoring), (b) face-down treasures, (c) secret passage tokens (d) used action tiles. The face-up green and yellow keys on the right have been committed to opening doors.

On the left are 3 stacks of treasures. When you dig for treasure, you draw 3 from a stack and pick 1. In the centre is the treasure value. Each time someone sells treasures, this dial is rotated clockwise, i.e. the value gradually decays, and after reaching the rock bottom of 2, it will suddenly shoot up again to 5.

The Play

I played a full 4-player with Jeff, Allen and Henry. I decided to work on treasures, and picked many such actions. Not many other did this, which allowed me to time the treasure values more easily. However Allen did do some, and for a few batches of his treasures he sold them just in time before I could, and devalued my treasures. Aarrgghh...

Middle of the game. Grey rooms are sanctuaries. They don't have doors, and rely on their neighbouring rooms to have doors, e.g. the sanctuary in the centre is connected via a yellow door to the yellow room on its lower right. Sanctuaries have 4 rewards for players to excavate, i.e. everyone is only competing to be there earlier to claim the better reward.

Most others used keys more for access and less for scoring. I tried to resist this and tried to commit more keys to scoring. It did restrict my mobility somewhat, but I compensated by collecting some secret passage tokens. These one-time-use tokens allow you to enter rooms that you don't have keys for, even rooms without doors.

Allen excavated many pink rooms, which gave him lots of points. No one else spent much effort on specialising in a particular colour. Allen took the lead and eventually won the game.

The boats, used for taking action tiles. The red crate is a scoring marker. The production quality of this game is excellent.

End of the game. The treasure room (at the top) is always discovered last. Similar to sanctuaries, it has no door by itself. It gives big rewards for excavations. In our game most of us kept one secret passage token in reserve to make sure we could enter this and score.

The Thoughts

I expected the game to be so-so, and I indeed found it to be so-so. Is it a self-fulfilled prophecy? Many say one improvement over Tikal is you only choose one action tile and do one excavation, as opposed to having ten action points which can be used to do many different things. I'd call this a difference, not an improvement. They are simply different games.

I feel the game is unfocused. There are many different things to do, and the feeling I get is they are rather loosely related. Many just happen to be on the action tiles that you pick. The cards feel disjointed and unnecessary. The secret rooms outside the temple feel like they are there to give purpose and to give more use to the secret passage tokens. In Tikal, all the different actions are geared towards only two things, temple scoring and treasure scoring. I actually find Tikal easier to learn, because it makes more thematic sense and is more coherent.

I probably shouldn't be comparing Tikal II with its predecessor. They are different games that should be assessed on their own merits.

Tikal II is a pleasant game to play. No direct confrontation, not many nasty moves you can pull on your opponents, you'll rarely get stuck with nothing better to do. The production is definitely top-notch. Too bad the game isn't very captivating.

Friday, 27 May 2011


Plays: 2Px2

I referred to Gheos as triangular Carcassonne when I spoke to my wife Michelle, because of the tile laying aspect. However these two are very different games. In fact, she got confused when I said triangular Carcassonne. She remembers Gheos as the "Epoch game". So now I feel stupid for associating Gheos with Carcassonne.

The Game

Box cover - "I'd move mountains for you".

In Gheos, players are gods creating and shaping continents. They create civilisations, which in turn worship them and give them glory (a.k.a. victory points). As continents merge, civilisations meet and fight; as continents split, civilisations migrate to wherever has more farmland.

Players do not control or own any civilisation, and only invests in them by having followers in them. The number of followers you have greatly affects scoring. There are only 5 followers for each of the 6 civilisations, so you need to be quick in grabbing them.

On your turn, you pick one tile to place from your hand size of two. The tile can be placed to extend the map, or it can replace an existing tile. Unlike Carcassonne, here, all 3 sides are land sides, so all tiles can fit anywhere. The difference between the tiles are in how the land sections are divided by seas, and the distribution of the various icons. If you replace a tile, you can cause war (one civilisation exterminating another) or migration (one civilisation's continent shrinking or changing). These effects can be huge, and you must sacrifice one follower to do these.

Start tile, cubes (followers / worshippers), discs (civilisation markers), and victory points.

There are 3 ways of scoring points.

  1. When you place a tile with a temple, you score points based on matching icons on the same continent.
  2. When an Epoch tile is drawn, everyone's followers score for them based on pyramids in the followers' civilisations. Having access to pyramids is something you need to be constantly aware of, because you don't know when an Epoch tile will be drawn. Up to 8 Epoch tiles will be scored, depending on the number of players.
  3. When you decide to play one of your three wealth scoring chips. Your followers score based on wealth icons in their civilisations. This is something under your control, and you have to decide what the best timing is. Do you wait for "your" civilisations to get richer so that you'll score more? Do you score now before these civilisations get split up by other players, or get completely destroyed by another civilisation?

The game ends when a certain number of Epoch tiles have been drawn. Highest score wins.

Early game. The coloured disks mark the civilisations. That tile with a star is the starting tile.

The Play

I played some two-player games against Michelle. It struck me that this is very much a stock holding game like many train games. In Gheos you don't own any of the 6 civilisations, and instead you own followers in those civilisations, which is basically how you "invest" in these civilisations. If you have more followers in a civilisation than others, you want it to do well. You make it conquer other civilisations, you try to add pyramids and wealth to it, you try to protect it from nasty actions by other players. So, indirectly it is "your" civilisation, but you have to remember when you grow this civilisation you are also helping others who have a stake in it. Every turn you have the choice to pick one follower for free, and you have to pick wisely.

Comparing this and the next photo will show how the game state can change.

Red, green and blue civilisations have not changed much. Yellow has been split up, and the people has migrated to the northern half which has more grain. Black has grown tremendously, taking over some of the pyramids that used to be owned by Yellow. White has shrunk a lot too. It used to be militarily strong (4 swords compared to 1 sword of Black). If I remember correctly it too was split up, and then the shunned half was gobbled up by Black.

During our games we were constantly looking for opportunities for clever moves to help or hinder the civilisations. Since we had two tiles in hand, there was more flexibility and it was possible to plan for longer term, e.g. holding a good tile to be played at a more opportune time. In the first game we found that the wealth scoring chips seemed to be much more powerful than the other ways of scoring. In the second game, after we had learned some tricks, we were able to better prevent each other from making such big scoring actions. Still, wealth scoring is probably the most important scoring compared to the others. It is important to build up for it and time it well.

Bluffing came into play in our game. There was one humble red civilisation that Michelle started but never bothered to nurture or to gain more followers in. I thought she must have given up on it, and never bothered with it. Later to my surprise she suddenly made some big moves to strengthen that civilisation and also quickly picked up more followers. She had been planning to do this all along.

Pyramids (used for Epoch scoring) have an important feature - tiles with Pyramids cannot be replaced. So they form a kind of protection for some civilisations, and at the same time can restrict a civilisation which wants to expand. This is interesting. It provides some stability amidst the chaos of crazy gods shifting earth willy-nilly.

Both games were quite close. Coincidentally I won both at 99pts.

The Thoughts

Gheos was a pleasant surprise. It looks simple, but it has many possibilities for smart moves. The board situation is ever changing, and you do see the rise and fall of civilisations over just a few quick turns of placing and replacing tiles. It can get nasty, e.g. when "your" mightly civilisation is suddenly split and the inhabitants move to a smaller continent, and then they are subsequently wiped out by another civilisation which now has more military might.

Timing your scoring is very important. You need to gauge when the best time is to use your three wealth scoring chips. There can be much tension especially towards end game. You don't know exactly when the game will end (it depends on when the last Epoch tile is drawn), so if you still have wealth scoring chips, you better use them up before it's too late. Often you are forced to prioritise - there are multiple civilisations that you want to grow or to destroy, there are both offensive and defensive moves that you'd like to make. Juicy decisions.

There is luck in the tile draw. Sometimes you have the perfect plan in mind and you are just waiting for the right tile to turn up. Despite the luck element, I find that you still have many options in the game and many opportunities for clever play.

The game is quite quick and simple, but it has the feeling of an investment game - you decide which civilisations you want to invest in, and then you help them to grow. You need to be aware of where the interests of the other players are, and you need to be aware of everyone's "stock holdings". This reminds me of Chicago Express, but I think I prefer Gheos more, because there is some randomness in the tile draws. Chicage Express is a perfect information game with no randomness (other than crazy players). In Gheos you have crazy gods saying to man "Oops" or "Sorry man, nothing personal".

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

goodbye my witch

The Witch House (Taipei) is closing down, due to a directive from the city council, that bars are not allowed to operate in a non-commercial area. This was where my boardgaming hobby started, back in 2003, during a long work assignment in Taiwan. I learned Carcassonne there. Carcassonne was one of the first games that my wife Michelle and I played very heavily. It was also the game that brought a group of my Taiwanese friends together to become my first, and so far biggest, regular game group. So it is sad to hear that Witch House is closing down. I have always thought about visiting Taiwan and Witch House again, but have never got around to actually planning for it.

2004. Some of my Taiwanese friends. From left: me, Ingrid, Peter, Jessy, Cheryl. This was the little apartment that I stayed in, in the city area.

I first found Witch House on the internet when I was looking for shops in Taipei selling boardgames. The concept of a boardgame cafe was alien to me at the time. Then I had thought the pinnacle of boardgames was the Axis & Allies series. I was hoping to find something similar while I was in Taiwan. On my first visit I had trouble finding the place. It was tucked in a small alley off the main road next to the National Taiwan University. It looked nothing like a boardgame shop. It looked like a regular small restaurant / cafe (which it actually was). The selection of games for sale was limited (most of their stock was somewhere else because there wasn't enough space for displaying all the games - this was a cafe, not a shop). The type of games (Eurogames) was alien to me too. Carcassonne just felt weird the first time I played it, and I definitely did not expect to like it as much as I do now.

A few months after I started working in Taiwan, Michelle joined me there. We had no children at the time, and one of the things that we did on weekends was visiting Witch House to try new games. I would take down the names of interesting games in their library beforehand, read up the rules on the internet, and make hand-written rules summaries. This was how my concise reference sheets started. Later when Michelle became pregnant, we continued to do this. I wonder what the staff or the other customers thought - this enthusiatic guy always dragging his pregnant wife along to play games, and always bringing along a stack of notes like some mad scientist's recipe for some deadly concoction.

One of the things I remember is meeting Yoyo, the owner. He is from Germany. I remember speaking English to him, only to be surprised that he spoke fluent Mandarin. Yeah, I was rather naive. I thought all Caucasians spoke English. I remember asking him to order Medici for me. When it arrived I opened it and played it at Witch House. When he saw the quantity of the game components, he muttered that the price was too high for just some cards and cubes, and gave me a discount on the spot.

Bamboleo was a popular game at Witch House. When I was there I often heard loud crashes as the platform with the many wooden pieces toppled, usually accompanied by quickly-stifled shrieks and followed by giggles. It has been more than 6 years since my last visit. I wonder whether it has changed much.

Witch House is much more than a boardgame cafe. It is probably more well-known as a concert location for indie / non-mainstream bands and singers. Some performers started their careers here. I used to listen to music much more than now, and one Taiwanese band that I liked a lot was Luan Tan (乱弹). It was much later that I found out that they had started their career in Witch House too. I read that Witch House has been operating for more than 20 years and has been a platform for budding musicians for a long time. It has become a cultural icon. It has also become a regular target of complaints from neighbours. Rock concerts aren't exactly quiet, even with all the sound-proofing equipment that they have. There are special pads custom made to seal off their windows during concerts. I never attended a concert there though. I have only been there for boardgames.

They have a library (of books). I think they used to do traditional Chinese puppet shows too (布袋戏). The whole theme of the place is a little naughty. Some names of food and drinks are rather unconventional. I can never forget "Period Milk Tea" (as in menstruation), even though I have never ordered it. I think they still have the special offer of 10% off for ladies who do 10 push-ups. So, Witch House is a cafe, a restaurant, a boardgame cafe, a tiny concert hall, a mini library, and a pub (I actually don't remember them selling alcohol back in 2003-2004, maybe it was only more recently that they started doing it).

I don't know whether Witch House will reopen somewhere else. I hope they do, and continue to bring people into the boardgaming hobby.

Update 26 May 2011: I just received an announcement from Witch House that they will not be closing down afterall. They managed to plead with the city council and worked out a solution that will allow them to continue to operate, which includes better controlling order and noise levels during their mini concerts. Long live the witch!

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Dominant Species

Plays: 3Px2.

The Game

Dominant Species is a game with a rarely seen theme - the evolution and survival of various species of animals as an ice age approaches. Players are animals (here defined as whole animal classes, e.g. reptiles, mammals, insects), and their pieces on the board are species. Competition in the game is in two main aspects - to be the most populous, and to adapt the best to your environment. There are a number of different ways to score points, but most points come from these two.

The key concept in the game is adaptability. Each terrain tile on the map of Earth has some elements which represent what kind of environment it is, e.g. whether it has an abundance of vegetation, or fruits, or water. Each animal (remember this refers to a whole animal class) starts with being very well adapted to one specific element. This means it can only survive on terrain tiles containing that element. As the game progresses, players are able to evolve their animals to adapt to other different elements or to adapt even better to some elements that they have already adapted to. They also modify elements on Earth, making it better suited to their animals or worse to their opponents' animals. When species of two or more different animals coexist on the same terrain tile, they compete for dominance, defined as who is best adapted to the environment (i.e. composition of elements) of that specific tile. Players match the elements on that tile against their animal to determine who is best adapted. This means if you adapt very well in a few elements, you will likely dominate terrain tiles with these elements, and if you adapt weakly to many different elements, you can live in more places but may not dominate much.

Having dominance is important for being able to claim and use dominance cards, which have various effects and can be very powerful if used in the right situations. There is also a scoring near game end based on dominance, which players need to be prepared for.

Starting setup for beginners. I (green, amphibians) had more Dominance cones than others because I adapted to 3 water elements while the other animals only adapted to 2 sun and fruits elements respectively.

My animal. The amphibians have 3 water elements pre-printed on the animal card, and only 3 available slots for them to adapt to new elements. This animal card has a summary of all the available actions in the game.

The game is driven by a worker placement mechanism similar to Age of Empires III . There is an action selection section on the board, on which players take turns placing their action pawns. After all action pawns are placed, all actions are resolved one-by-one from top to bottom. Other than modifying elements on Earth and elements that your animal adapts to, you can do all sorts of other things, e.g. breed more species, kill opponents' species, explore and find new terrain, migrate your species to different terrains, spread the tundra (representing the coming of the ice age), and very importantly, score a tile based on population. Sometimes animals will lose abilities to adapt to certain elements, and this is something to watch out for. It is not necessarily bad, because sometimes you want this to free up slots for your animal to adapt to other elements.

The action selection part of the board. The black eye spots (Sauron?) are where you place your action pawns.

Some element tokens in the action selection section remain for future rounds and impact the actions available. E.g. if an element available for Adaptation is not picked by anyone, in the next round it becomes a Regression element, i.e. animals will lose this trait.

Ways to score points:

  1. Spreading tundra (game term is Glaciation).
  2. Discovering new terrain (game term is Wanderlust).
  3. Picking a single tile to score based on population (game term is Domination, which has a completely different in-game meaning from Dominance or Dominant and is often a cause for confusion).
  4. Some dominance cards give points.
  5. Bonus points every round for whoever survives the best on tundra.
  6. Near game end, there is a one-time scoring for Dominance (how well adapted to their environments the animals are).
  7. At game end, there is a one-time scoring for every terrain tile for Domination (population).

The Play

In the first game that Allen, Han and I played, Allen was the reptiles, Han was the birds and I was the amphibians. As the amphibians my unique ability was that I was adapted to 3 water elements at the start of the game, as opposed to other animals which had only 2 start elements. Unfortunately there were not many water elements on the board in the early half of the game, so I didn't do so well in Dominance (i.e. comparing adaptability). I didn't do Glaciation (spread tundra) or Wanderlust (discover new tile) much, which in hindsight I probably should have done more, because both gave points. Although throughout the first half I more or less managed to keep up with the others in points, my board position didn't look good, and I ended up resorting to violence a lot. Many of my species had died (left the game permanently - your number of species is limited), so I wanted to try to trim down Allen and Han's numbers too. That didn't turn out to be very helpful unfortunately. I (amphibians) was lowest in the food chain, which meant when it came to Domination (i.e. comparing population), ties were resolved not in my favour. I was first to use up all my species cubes, intentionally trying to flood the board by numbers. I think that helped a little, but not much. In the last round, because I had used up my species, I didn't take any more breeding action (game term is Speciation). However I forgot about Glaciation. I had a bunch of my species killed by Glaciation that round, and species killed by Glaciation are the only exception in that they go back to your supply. Had I anticipated that, I would have done breeding so that I could get more species onto the board to fight for Domination.

For the specific tile scoring (game term is Domination), points are awarded not just to the animal with the most species (most cubes on the tile), but often also to others with lesser presence. During the game I managed to keep up mostly because I managed to stay in second place for many tiles, so when Han and Allen scored "their" tiles, they also gave me some points.

Still in the early game. Tundra has spread once.

Allen lead the game in points for most of the game. Han was best tundra survivor most of the game. That was a steady points income. Han's adaptability approach was to focus on fruits. His animal (birds) has 2 default fruit elements, and he gained even more during the game. At first we didn't know that element was fruits. From a distance it looked like a bra, so we started calling Han the king of bras. Han was overall most successful in adaptability (Dominance), and near end-game the one-time Dominance scoring gave him 45pts. He jumped into the lead, and eventually won the game. All hail Triumph (lingerie brand)!

The yellow bra.

Late game. Look at all those yellow cones! (Han's)


In our game Domination scoring (specific tile scoring based on population) was the most claimed action. Most of the time all slots were claimed before anyone started placing action pawns on other action spaces. Whenever Domination (most populous) scoring is done for a tile, whoever has Dominance (best adapted) must pick and execute a Dominance card. So we tried to make sure there were tiles where we had the most species and at the same time adapted best. However it wasn't always easy to do. Dominance cards have all sorts of very interesting powers. Some can be devastating, some are quite situational, some have different importance to different players depending on the board situation.

In the second game, Allen was the insects, Han the mammals and I the arachnids. This time we used a random starting setup, which I found much less troublesome and also more interesting. Scores were close throughout most of the game. We made fewer silly mistakes. The game still took quite long to play, about 2.5hrs, i.e. not much quicker than the first game. I think this is because many actions in the game have many implications, so we must do things step by step, and not try to do things in parallel, which we usually try to do whenever we can (Merchants and Marauders in 50 minutes!).

The random setup that we used for the second game. Lots of suns, but too bad none of our animals needed suns.

I remembered how important the one-time Dominance (adapting best) scoring was, and tried to stop Han from gaining Dominance too much. Unfortunately he still did much better than either of us, and scored the max possible 45pts again when it came to the last round. Thankfully for me this time I went for the Survival scoring and managed to get many points from it. I scored 20+ points for a few rounds. Survival points aren't worth much in the early game because there aren't many tundra tiles, but towards late game it can be very lucrative if you have species on many tundra tiles.

One memorable event in this second game was Allen's usage of the Blight card in the first round, removing 5 elements from the central tile. That was rather devastating for Han, but did not hurt Allen because he had very few matching elements at the start anyway. Later in the game Allen did a Wasteland action which also hurt me. That Wasteland action let him remove all sun elements next to tundras, and in this game I was the only animal which needed sun elements. Some of my species now faced extinction. Most painful would be losing species on 3 tundra tiles, because that would greatly reduce my Survival score. Also very painful was losing Dominance in a few terrain tiles. Thankfully I had chosen a Wanderlust action that round, and I placed a new tile next to two of my endangered species, and added an element to that critical tile intersection that allowed them to survive afterall. That new tile was a wetland tile, and since only I had presence in that area, I scored a lot of points from it all for myself.

The Blight card, which Allen used to great effect.

I won this second game, mostly because of the Survival points. It was quite a close game. This game we all did better in spreading our presence and most tiles have species of all 3 animals. The Domination action was still a mandatory action - everyone picked it until all slots were occupied. I picked it often not because I had good scoring tiles, but because I wanted to deny others from scoring even more. I wonder whether that's a right thing to do and whether other game groups play like this.

In the late game, most tiles have presence of all 3 players.

That's me, in samseng (gangster) negotiation mode, declaring, "You hurt 6 of my brothers, and I will make sure 6 of your brothers will never walk again". Actually, I'm just counting 6 migration actions to allow me to maintain most presence on tundra tiles.

The Thoughts

Dominant Species is not a hard game to learn and to play. All the actions make sense. The complexity comes from the fact that many actions have a lot of downstream impacts. At the start of a round you need to read the available Dominance cards and consider the various possibilities. Will they help or hurt you? Will they help or hurt your opponents? You need to make these considerations for many of the available actions. Elements that may be removed due to Wasteland or Depletion can have a big impact. Elements available to be adapted to via Adaptation can be a big help. Glaciation and Wanderlust actions can be very damaging and helpful respectively. This is definitely not a game to play with people who over-analyse. I prefer to play it with a mix of quick analysis and gut feel. I try to analyse the board situation by taking a high-level view, I don't want to count every single species on every single tile. You can calculate all the possibilities (this is a fully open-information game), but it is just too time-consuming and it's going to be a fun-killer.

Calculating and recalculating Dominance is tedious. That's why you need the cones as reminders. Still, you often need to recheck and update. I don't mind tedium as long as the game is good. Just like Indonesia. But this is not as bad as Indonesia. The components are fine. Functional and not ugly, these are my requirements. Again, I don't really mind components as long as the game is good. That's why I seldom talk about game components.

Dominant Species is an area majority game, a genre that I'm generally not a fan of. However the game is rich enough that I don't mind the area majority part. The area majority mechanism is just one of many interesting mechanisms in the game.

In this game it is important to have both long-term and short-term perspectives. You need to grab tactical gains to make sure you don't fall behind, and you also need to prepare for the two major scoring events at game end - the Dominance (best adapting) scoring and the Domination (most populous) scoring. There is also the Survival scoring which can be a significant factor.

The Dominance cards drive the pace of the game. They add a lot of flavour and story, and they are also an important part of creating variability. They are not there for the sake of theme only.

The game is long, and I would hesitate playing it with 6, maybe even 5. But it's a fun ride, mutating your animal and spreading it far and wide, shaping Earth and its elements, and doing all sorts of nasty things to other animals. The game (and the players) can be rather brutal at times. Species can go extinct. High-scoring terrain tiles can turn into low-valued tundra. Some Dominance cards are devastating. But hey, life is tough (especially during the Ice Age), get used to it.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Tinners' Trail

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Tinners' Trail is a game about tin and copper mining in Cornwall, south western England. Players build mines to mine tin and copper, sell them for money, and then invest the money to gain victory points.

The game lasts 4 rounds. Everyone starts with a measly $5. You need money to bid for mines in auctions and also to mine ore. The other currency in the game is time. A similar system as Thebes is used. When you take an action, time required depends on the action. If you've just spent a lot of time on an action it will take longer for your turn to come around again.

Most actions are related to making developments to your mining business, e.g. digging adits (horizontal tunnels), building harbours, building train stations, installing steam pumps. They do various things like improving the number of ores you can mine with one mining action, and removing water from your mines. Water determines how costly it is to mine ores. For example 2 water cubes at a mine means every ore mined costs $2. Also once you take a mining action, you add 1 water to that mine. So mining gets expensive quickly. Also as the ores get depleted, mines gradually get abandoned because they are not economically feasible anymore.

The early game. White cubes are tin ore, orange cubes are copper ore, blue cubes are water.

In the top right corner you can see the developments that are available for each round. White discs are steam pumps, black man figures are miners, black sticks are adits, brown trains are train stations, and white ships are harbours.

One funny action is to sell pastry. You spend 1 time to earn $1. At first we thought this was rather silly, and only dumb miners would need to resort to this. It turned out we weren't very smart miners...

At the start of every round the tin and copper prices are semi-randomly determined. You must sell all that you mine within the same round. At the end of the round you invest your money to earn points (put bluntly, you buy points). Points are cheaper to buy in the early game, but you need to be careful to set aside enough money for the next rounds, else you may need to resort to selling a lot of pastry.

Tin and copper prices, which are determined at the start of every round by rolling dice. In the first round the die roll is modified by +1, and in the last round the die roll is modified by -1, which means it is more likely that prices will be higher in the early game, and lower in the late game.

This is the investment table. The numbers in the table are victory points, and the two axes are cost and round number. With the same amount of money, the number of victory points that can be bought reduces from round to round. Each spot in the table can only be occupied by two player markers, so there is some competition here too, where turn order is important.

The house-with-chimney pieces are players' mines, indicating ownership of mines.

The Play

Allen, Han and I did a three player game. In the first round, tin and copper prices were at their highest. Unfortunately I made a big mistake of digging an adit as my first action. I had thought it was a good idea because there was only one adit available, and it was a powerful action. What killed me was the time cost of 3. That meant after my turn, both Allen and Han took many turns claiming many other developments before it was my turn again. They managed to remove much water and even reduced mining cost to zero (no water at the time of the mining action). This was important because everyone was poor at the start.

Since prices were very good in the first round, I fell behind by a wide gap, because I could only afford to mine very little ore. I never managed to catch up. The ore prices fluctuated greatly during the game. When prices were low, we mined less hoping the next round would be better.

Each round usually started with everyone grabbing developments. The number of each type is limited, so competition is fierce. Board play is only moderately important. Some mines are more lucrative than others, and this affects how much players are willing to pay for them. Some developments impact neighbouring mines, so you tend to want to have your mines close to one another.

Money was always tight in our game, because we kept little from round to round, having spent most income on investments. We sold pastry rather frequently.

I never recovered from my early mistake. Han won, with Allen not far behind.

Bird's eye view of the whole game board. This was early in Round 4. If you look at the investment table on the lower right, you can see that noone did any investment in Round 2. It was because the ore prices were at rock bottom.

Towards end game, many mines have little to no ore, and lots of water.

The Thoughts

Tinners' Trail is a low granularity game. Information is all open and all things are easy to calculate. There is randomness in ore prices and the abundance of ore, but both are open information. It is unforgiving (says the guy who did a game-losing move as the 1st action of the 1st round), but it's not hard to learn, so there shouldn't be any more silly mistakes after the first game. It becomes an interesting and tight game where everyone can quickly grasp the board situation and decide how to compete.

Your actions are very much affected by the fluctuating ore prices. Sometimes you don't want to mine because prices will likely be better next round. Watching your opponents' remaining time and money is important. Sometimes you can get good bargains if they run out of either one to be able to compete with you. Similarly you don't want to present such opportunities to them.

I admire how this mostly simplistic system tells the history of mining in Cornwall. However this succinct system means this mid-weight game is not something you want to play heavily. It's a game you'd enjoy playing once in a while. Just make sure you remember digging an adit as the first action in the game is a baaad idea.

Close-up of some of the components.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

boardgaming in photos

29 Apr 2011. I played a 5-player game of Power Grid on the Japan map (part of the Russia/Japan expansion) at Old Town Kopitiam Cheras. Power Grid is a game I like a lot but I seldom get to play it. So it was good to play again. Sendai is one of the cities badly affected by the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The northern island of Hokkaido and the northern tip of Honshu are moved to an inset. This was the early game. One unique part of the Japan map is a player may start two networks instead of one. However networks must to started in six specific cities, like Tokyo, Sapporo.

Some smaller cities do not have the Phase 1 slot, i.e. you cannot connect to it in Phase 1. This makes things more difficult. Saitama on the right is one such example. It doesn't have the $10 green slot.

Mid game. Power Grid is a game where every dollar counts. Sometimes your plans can be completed ruined because you miscalculated by just $1. That was exactly what happened to me in this game. I should not have played by gut feel during the power plant auctions. Recipe for disaster.

Near game end. In our game everyone was careful in ensuring his power plants had enough capacity to power enough cities. There wasn't much threat of resources getting depleted or oven prices being pushed very high. Money was tight for most of us. Kareem's (red) power plant capacity improvement was a little behind the rest. However he had saved some money, and on one very crucial turn when he managed to catch up, he quickly expanded his network to 15 cities and ended the game, winning decisively.

Game end. Kareem 15, Jeff and Henry 14, me 13, Jimmy 12. I still like Power Grid. I have stopped buying expansions for quite some time, because I simply don't play it often enough. If I play it frequently I would buy all the expansions. Now I only have USA, Germany (base game), France, Italy, Central Europe and Benelux. No China, Korea, Brazil, Spain+Portugal, Japan or Russia.

1 May 2011 (Labour Day). Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers. Michelle's red hut is sitting on a very lucrative network of rivers. So much fish!

Part of the map created after the game ended. The meeples (followers) have been removed.

Box cover. I have the German edition. Bought in Taiwan.

My favourite part of the box cover - a hunter taking a break.

1 May 2011. I played the East expansion to Hansa Teutonica for the first time. It has some different rules. It is supposed to be more balanced and more fine-tuned, but Allen, Han and I are not good enough at this game to be able to appreciate that. Maybe I will write about this in more detail after I play it more. At the moment, I have a lot to learn even from the base game map.

The blue bonus tokens directly printed on the map (on the right) are one of the new features of this expansion. When you establish a trade route at one of these routes, you get to immediately use the special power of these tokens. Note that some cities don't have slots for offices (see the green or yellow/green banners). Only certain bonus tokens allow you establish offices at such cities.

2 May 2011. Castle Ravenloft. Han, Allen and I played the next adventure, scenario 3.

We found the lab, which was our objective, quite early. Later we realised that we had made a blunder when setting up the deck of tiles.

Fighting (and eventually killing) the boss. Afterwards we realised we made yet another blunder, but a minor one - this was not the correct figure to use. Well, at least we did use the correct character card. Castle Ravenloft is simple and fun, and gives enough variety through the encounter card drawing, the monster card drawing, and the dungeon building via tile draws. The only part I don't quite like is you know roughly when you will find your destination. So it feels like the game is throwing monsters at you while you wait for a timer to run out. It doesn't feel like I'm really exploring a dungeon when I roughly know the next tile will likely be or will likely not be my destination.

Money, a Reiner Knizia game, implemented on the iPhone. It was free for a short time so I downloaded it. I've only played a few games, so I don't feel like writing about it in detail. In this game you try to collect as much money as possible, preferably in the same currencies. At game end, you score for currencies where you have exceeded $100, you score bonus points for collecting all three of the $20 notes or $30 notes for any currency, and you also score points for the $10 Chinese coins. In my first game above, I came in dead last playing against 3 AI's.

Every round there are two sets of 4 cards for the players to secretly bid for. When bids are revealed, whoever has the highest bid picks first, and his bid is then placed at the centre, i.e. other players may take this spent set of cards. After everyone has taken cards, whatever is left at the centre is topped up to 4 cards per set from the draw deck in preparation for the next round. So basically when you bid for cards, you need them for two purposes - for bidding in future rounds and for saving some to be your money collection for game end scoring. Sometimes you may need to give up collecting a particular currency halfway through because you need to spend the money, or if there are too many others competing for it.

This iPhone implementation is done very well, artwork and interface are excellent. I'm not so sure about how strong the AI's are. I lost my first game but won the next three. Still, 4 games is a small number to draw any conclusion. Playing on the iPhone is very fast, so I have not really been thinking much about strategies, or trying to track what the AI's are collecting. I guess that's the disadvantage of playing a boardgame / cardgame implemented in electronic form - things move too fast and you don't slow down to smell the roses.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

7 Wonders

Plays: 6Px1.

7 Wonders is one of the big hits of 2010, selling out its first printing quickly and rising to the top 20 at like a rocket. The game is so popular that there isn't much about it that hasn't already been written somewhere else. So, I shall try to be brief.

The Game

7 Wonders is a card game with a civilisation theme. It is divided into 3 ages, and in each age everyone draws 7 cards, picks 1, and passes the rest to a neighbour. You pick 1 card from what you receive from your neighbour, and repeat the process until you have claimed 6 cards this age.

Cards can be buildings that you build, or they can be used to build 1 of the 3 stages of your wonder, or they can be discarded to earn money. Buildings give various benefits, e.g. producing resources, giving military strength, contributing to science, allowing you to build other buildings for free (some buildings require resources to be built). The many different buildings help you build your civilisation. They are your civilisation. Ultimately, they help you score points, some directly, some not.

The cards are beautifully illustrated. Mostly icons are used and not text.

In essence it's a game of choosing cards. You manage the direction of your civilisation as you make these choices. You manage money and resources.

One design objective of the game is to allow 7 people to play within a short time. This is achieved by having everyone pick cards simultaneously. Also you only directly interact with your neighbours, e.g. comparing military superiority, trading.

The Play

I played a 6-player game with mostly newbies at Old Town Kopitiam Cheras. It took 45 minutes including rules explanation. The game indeed moved very fast. Pick a card and pass the rest. How long can that take?

Military is a funny aspect. It's a game of neighbour-envy. Once someone starts developing military, his neighbours will feel the pressure to do the same. Once they too do that, their next neighbours will feel the pressure too. Domino effect. Jimmy sat between Jeff and I, and once Jeff started developing military, an arms race began.

Watching what others are doing is important. You should deny your opponents good cards, not just the immediate neighbours but also opponents further away.

My wonder was the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Each stage of the wonder required different resources to build and provided some benefits. When we played, everyone who had picked his card put it on his wonder board, and once everyone had done so, we turned over our selected cards simultaneously and built / used it.

Henry and Allen.

The game does take up quite a bit of space, but I think it is the right decision to make the cards big, because it will be easier to see what neighbours further away are doing.

Henry made an indecent amount of money, partly helped by Allen who bought a lot of stuff from him. Henry depleted the gold ($3) coins from the supply, and his stack of coins was as impressive as the Tower of Babel. He eventually won the game. I was happy to come second. I produced many resources which let me build some high-scoring buildings. Military also scored me some points.

I need to thank Kareem for bringing and teaching the game. I have been wanting to try 7 Wonders for a long time.

My civilisation at game end. I had completed my wonder (see those three Age I, II and II cards underneath). The red and grey numbered tokens on my board are military tokens. You earn 1, 3, 5pts for being stronger than your neighbours in Ages I to III, and lose -1pts for being weaker. I was stronger than one neighbour and tied with the other in Age I; stronger than both in Age II; and stronger than one but weaker than the other in Age III.

The Thoughts

I like it enough to pre-order it. I don't often have big groups, but the game is supposed to be best with 3 or 4 (and I often have 3-player sessions) and also I'm hoping the 2-player variant will work well with my wife and I.

7 Wonders has a constant flow of decisions. There is luck in how the cards come up, e.g. bad luck if two cards you want badly are in the same group because you can only pick one. However you have interesting decisions to make most of the time. You need to decide between picking a card good for yourself or picking a card for the sake of denying an opponent. You need to decide which strategy to pursue when two (or more!) are presented to you.

Despite the simplicity, I feel the game has strong theme - managing resources, the military arms race, the unique wonders, the tech tree aspect of some cards making other cards free. There are many different aspects to growing a civilisation, and many of them are represented in this game, despite some being in a fairly abstract way.

This is an adjustable-depth game. You can decide to play it with minimal thinking, just focusing on what cards you want to collect. You can do in-depth analysis, trying to guess each player's intentions, checking everyone's cards to count what are still in circulation. Also, this game satisfies the card combo itch. You try to collect cards that work well with your wonder and with your chosen strategy, or you switch strategy to make your cards work. It's all about collecting a set of coherent cards.