Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Power Grid: The Robots

Plays: 3P (2 humans 1 robot) x1.

The Game

I've always liked Power Grid, and own most of the expansions. Unfortunately most of the time it's just Michelle and I playing 2-player games. So I was immediately interested when I heard about the Robots expansion which introduces robot players. It allows players to add robot players when the number of humans is low, to make the game more interesting.

Each robot is made up of five parts, and each part specifies some rules governing the behaviour of the robot. The parts can be mixed and matched, resulting in many possible combinations and robot characteristics. There are also some base characteristics of the robots, which they will follow precisely unless overridden by their special characteristics. During gameplay, players need to manage the robots, and in some cases make decisions for them. The robots' actions will not always be optimal. They are there more to be exploited by the humans than to compete. Their actions are mostly predictable, so a clever player will try to use it to his advantage.

A robot is made up of five parts, and each part specifies rules the robot follows for a certain aspect of the game.

The Play

Adding a robot does feel like having an additional player, albeit not a very threatening one. 2-player Power Grid is not as good as 3+ players, so in my case it is nice to have some new dynamics. Phase 2 no longer means all cities are opened up, because the robot can now be used to occupy the second city spot to block your opponent until the start of Phase 3. Taking into account the robot's behaviour is important, and manipulating turn order is important. The cost of having an extra player (or more) is the overhead in calculating the robot's actions (most of which are deterministic) and in managing the actions themselves. Sometimes the robot can be a useful tool to hinder your opponent.

We used the Russia map. Michelle was red, the robot was yellow, I was green.

We played the red, yellow and purple regions. I (green) started near the centre of the purple region. Michelle (red) started near the border of the red and yellow regions. The robot (yellow) started in the most backwater city in the yellow region, but it quickly expanded outwards to interfere with one of us (under the guidance of the other human, of course). Look at how the robot's houses have occupied the 2nd slots of many cities, blocking the remaining player until the start of Phase 3.

Power Grid is still Power Grid though. The game doesn't feel very different. This expansion is not meant to significantly change the gameplay. In the game that I played with Michelle (and one robot), I actually came last, i.e. I lost to the robot! But I swear I was not beaten by it. I was just outmanoeuvred by Michelle. She had quickly connected 17 cities to end the game when I had not expected her to be able to afford it yet. I keep losing to her at Power Grid. Must be the accountant in her.

The Thoughts

I think Power Grid: Robots achieved what it set out to do - to allow robot players to be added when there are too few humans for the game to be interesting. If there are enough humans, say four, or even three, I'd say the robots are not necessary. There is some overhead in managing the robots, but it's worthwhile if it lets me play some interesting two-human-players games.

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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Flash Point

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Flash Point is a cooperative game about fire fighters trying to save people from a burning building. Working together, the players need to save at least 7 out of 10 victims to win.

The game starts with three victim markers on the board. Some parts of the building are already on fire and some walls damaged. Fire fighters start outside the building. On your turn, you get 4 action points to spend, and once done you do fire spreading before the next player's turn. You can spend action points to move, to open doors, to break walls, to carry victims and to fight fire. To save a victim, you need to carry him (or her, or it; yes you have to save pets too) outside the house, and call the ambulance to pick him up. Whenever a victim is saved, or is killed by fire or found to be a false alarm, a new victim marker is added to the board. So you plunge into the burning house again to answer the next distress call.

After actions are done, bad things happen. You roll dice (one 6-sided and one 8-sided) to determine where smoke will appear in the building, which is a 6x8 grid. If the new smoke appears on a clear space, the space becomes smoky. If the space is already smoky, it bursts into flame. Any smoke adjacent to fire immediately lights up too. If the space is already burning, an explosion occurs, spreading fire or damaging doors and walls in all four directions. An explosion also occurs if fire reaches hazardous materials, which are seeded on the board at the start of the game. There are also hot spots. If the smoke roll hits a hot spot, you must do an extra smoke roll and add a hot spot. If your second smoke roll hits another hot spot, you keep on rolling. Things can get out of hand quickly if you are unlucky. Damage to walls can be good or bad. A collapsed wall section lets you walk through, i.e. it's a shortcut. However, if the building takes too much damage, the whole thing comes down and the game ends.

Fire fighters can barge through burning spaces, but if caught by fire (smoke lighting up, or an explosion occurring in an adjacent space), they are knocked down and are transported to the ambulance. Victims caught by fire simply die.

Each player picks a specialist to play at the start of the game, and can switch roles during the game. Each specialist has a different special ability, e.g. the paramedic can give first aid to revive a victim, so that he can walk by himself and need not be carried. The different abilities can be useful under different situations.

The Play

I did a 4-player game. All of us were new to the game except for Allen who is partially new - he has played a computer implementation before, but the rules are slightly different. I struggled a little with explaining the rules, even though I have read it a few times before, because of the various terms they use. Once things got underway, gameplay was smooth. I guess I needed to physically see how things work before everything clicked.

We kept getting explosion after explosion. It was a race against time to save 7 victims. Like Pandemic, there is a tension between long-term and short-term goals, the long-term goal being to save people, and the short-term being to subdue the fire enough so that it doesn't get out of hand. It can sometimes be tough to decide which to prioritise.

When I explained the game rules earlier, I had explained that among the victim tokens were some false alarms which could be ignored and simply discarded. I asked my fellow players to imagine discovering a cat instead of an unconscious victim. When we actually played, we found that there was a cat token! It was only then I realised I had given a bad example. The cat needed to be rescued too and should be treated as a victim. Sorry, all cat owners.

The round blue markers are victim markers. When placed on the board, they are face down (i.e. showing the question mark). Only when a fire fighter reaches them they are turned face up. The one on the right has been confirmed to be a victim. Now the green fire fighter needs to carry her out of the building.

One funny thing that happened in our game was we kept discovering victims at one particular bed. After carrying one victim from that bed away to safety, we again heard calls for help from the same spot. Must have been some wild orgy. People kept crawling out from under the bed.

Due to the many explosions, many of the walls were damaged and the building started to get shaky. One of us had to switch role to the structural engineer to quickly fix some of the walls so that the building didn't collapse. We came very close to losing the game due to the house collapsing - just one bad dice roll away. Thankfully we eventually managed to save our 7th victim to win the game. At that point, one victim had died in the fire. We decided to try to save the last two. Unfortunately we couldn't, the building finally collapsed soon afterwards, ending the game.

We played the full game and not the introductory game, but we used the easiest level. At harder levels, there are more initial fires, hazardous materials and hot spots.

The dining room in the top left corner is burning very badly. An explosion had spread the fire outside the building. The toilet in the bottom left corner is in a bad condition too. Explosions have damaged the walls.

The fires at the dining room (top left) and toilet (bottom left) are under control now, but the kitchen in the centre is now burning very badly.

The Thoughts

Flash Point feels quite Euro, and at the same time most aspects of the game tie well with the setting. The setting feels real and is something most people can relate to. This can work well as a family game, but probably an adult will need to handle the smoke and fire spreading aspects initially. Actions are easy to understand, and the behaviours of the fire and explosions are intuitive once you see them in action. There are a few illogical aspects, but I think they are acceptable compromises to maintain balance and playability.

Flash Point reminds me of Pandemic, another cooperative game, and I can't resist comparing them. Pandemic is a little tighter, has fewer rules overhead and fewer moving parts, and has that delicious tension of the tendency of infected cities to get infected again. It is more abstract. Flash Point has a completely different setting that players can relate to more directly, as if they are present at the scene of the fire. Using memoryless dice instead of recycleable cards to determine where smoke appears means Flash Point probably has higher randomness, but I see this as a feature, not a strength or weakness. Despite the seemingly higher randomness, Flash Point feels quite balanced. Maybe the many dice rolls average out in the long run, so good and bad luck even out.

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Friday, 6 April 2012

Ora et Labora

Plays: 2Px3.

The Game

Ora et Labora means praying and working. It is about developing and running a monastery in the middle ages. This Uwe Rosenberg design has many similarities to his two earlier designs, Agricola and Le Havre, especially the latter. You construct buildings which have various abilities, and you place your people on these buildings to utilise these abilities. Buildings come from a common pool, so once a player has constructed a building, no one else can construct it, but they can pay the owner to make use of it.

Each player starts with a plot of land which is partially developed, with basic buildings, limited available space for new buildings, and some forests and moors. Forests and moors can be cleared to obtain wood and peat respectively, and the cleared land can then be used for building construction. The play area can be expanded by buying more plots of land, which can give more forests and moors, and also different landscape types (coast, sea, mountain) which allow specific types of buildings to be constructed.

The monastery grounds at the start of the game. Two moors from which peat can be harvested, and three forests from which wood can be harvested. Three basic buildings, and two vacant spots available for construction.

There is a goods accumulation mechanism similar to both Agricola and Le Havre, where all types of goods will gradually accumulate until someone takes an action (e.g. using a building, clearing a forest) to claim the goods. The amount of goods drops to zero and starts accumulating again. In this game, this mechanism is implemented using the production wheel, which makes things easier to manage. This is not the core of the game though. This is just a solution to a minor problem. So, just a nice-to-have.

The production wheel. At the start of the game, the markers for all goods are piled here, at the zero space.

The production wheel during a game. At the start of every round, the hand is rotated one notch, which will increase the numbers next to some of the goods markers. This is how goods accumulate, without needing to physically add goods tiles to many piles of goods. Pretty nifty. When a certain goods type is claimed, the marker for that goods is moved to the zero space, and it will start accumulating again from zero. The little blue house is a reminder for when the next settlement phase will occur.

Some of the goods tiles in the game. These are double sided. Pot icon means food value, fire icon means energy value, shield icon means victory points worth.

The core of the game is still the buildings, and how you make use of them. There are many ways to earn victory points. There are many types of goods in the game, and some types are worth victory points. Buildings themselves are worth points too, and you need to spend resources to build them. Every building has a settlement value, and these are scored using a special building type - the settlements. Settlements can be built only at specific times during the game. If you have accumulated the required resources, you can build one. It is not mandatory, but it is usually desirable. At game end, each settlement scores its own settlement value, and the settlement values of the four buildings orthogonally adjacent to it. So you want to place settlements next to high settlement value buildings, and vice versa.

The buildings available at the start of the game. On the vertical banner on the top left of each card are: (a) terrain type the building can be constructed, (b) resources required, and (c) building score and settlement value. The little open bible icon means these are the starting buildings. The lower half of the cards are the building powers.

Unlike Uwe Rosenberg's two previous hits, Ora et Labora doesn't have a feeding phase where you must have sufficient food set aside or suffer a penalty. This is replaced by the settlement phase, where if you don't have the resources set aside to be able to build a settlement, it would be at worst a missed opportunity rather than a penalty. Depending on how you develop your monastery, sometimes you may not want to build many settlements.

The game comes with two ways to play - Ireland and France. The difference is in the buildings. Each building card is double sided so you decide up front which side you want to play. I have not studied the differences in detail. I just know that in France you drink wine and in Ireland you drink beer.

The Play

So far I have only played 2-player games. The structure and game end condition are a little different from 3P and 4P games. I am assuming the overall feel of the gameplay is similar. In the games that I have played, we seem to focus a lot on construction. Each building is worth points (both direct victory points and the potential in its settlement value), and sometimes I construct a building more for its points than because of the intention of using it. I wonder whether this is normal. That said, some buildings and building combinations are quite useful. I sometimes use my opponent's buildings, when they suit my purpose. The cost is not too high.

There is still the greed vs planning tension. When you see that a certain good has accumulated a lot, it's very tempting to grab the lot instead of sticking to what you have been planning to do. Do I grab it before my opponent does so? Should I delay constructing that building by one turn? There are often many juicy choices, which means tough decisions.

My monastery at the end of a particular game. I have 7 settlements (cards with a blue house icon on their top right corners) out of the maximum of 8. Normally there are only 4 settlement rounds in a game, but the Castle building lets you build extra settlements.

There is also that "maximising" feeling when you play this game. You want to make the most of every action. You try to build up an efficient scoring engine. You try to develop a high-scoring monastery. Many things are achieved by many small steps, so you are meticulously planning your moves and squeezing every bit out of your actions. One of your three pawns is a prior (whom I call "the boss"), and if he is idle when you construct a building, you can immediately place him on the new building as a free action to utilise the building. You want to make use of this as much as possible. There are a few such small tactical considerations throughout the game.

For 2-player games, the game does not end after a fixed number of rounds like in the 3P and 4P game. The game ends when there is only one building left in the common pool (i.e. not yet built). So there is some tension in timing the game end. If you are using some building combo to create many goods worth victory points, you may want to let the game drag longer. If your opponent is doing this, then you want to try to construct buildings quickly to expedite the game end, even if the buildings aren't high-scoring or useful to you.

Another monastery at game end. I didn't buy any mountain plots this game.

Michelle's monastery. Or maybe I should say nunnery? The buildings with the yellow banners are the monstery itself, and they must be built adjacent to one another, extending from the initial cloister office.

The Thoughts

Ora et Labora feels very familiar, because I have played Le Havre. It feels more open, and the constant pressure in having enough food is replaced by the less intimidating settlement phases. It has a spatial element in the landscapes types and the possible expansions. I can't say which is better. Perhaps it is unnecessary to do so. If you like development games this is a good choice. If you're looking for something very different from Le Havre, you'll be disappointed. Ora et Labora is a complex development game, and it has some differences from its predecessors. I see it as one more choice on my shelf when I feel like playing this type of game. There are many possibilities to pursue in this game, and I like the sense of achievement in developing my own monastery.

The level of player interaction is similar to Le Havre and Agricola, perhaps slightly less tense, not because of the type of interaction itself, but because the game system is more forgiving. In Agricola, claiming four food from the board just before harvest time can be a very nasty action to your opponent who is short on food.

From Agricola to Le Havre to Ora et Labora, the designs have shifted to be less restrictive and more open, giving more options for scoring. However I don't see the earlier designs as inferior, just different. So Ora et Labora does not replace any of its elder brothers, it adds to the family.

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