Monday, 29 September 2014

Las Vegas

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Las Vegas is a light dice game by Rudiger Dorn (Goa, Istanbul, Dragonheart, Jambo). It is played over four rounds only. In each round, each of the six casinos on the table offers at least one money card for players to fight over. Whoever wins the most money by the end of the fourth round wins the game.

During a round, you win money by placing your dice on the casinos. You start every round with 8 dice of your colour, and 2 dice of a neutral white colour. On your turn you roll all dice still in hand, and pick one of the numbers rolled. All dice of that number (whether in your colour or in the neutral colour) must then be placed on the correspending casino. Then the next player takes his turn. This goes round and round till everyone has placed all his dice. You then compare the number of dice at each casino. Whoever has the most takes the highest valued money card. Whoever has the second most takes the next highest valued card, and so on. One important twist is when there is a tie at a casino, all tied players are disqualified from that casino. This means two strong players may both get kicked out, leaving the spoils to a humble third party. It also means sometimes you can make use of the neutral dice to screw an opponent by forcing a tie between him and the neutral colour. Of course your opponents will try to do the same to you.

At Casino #5 red and blue are tied at three dice each, so both will be disqualified, and white (the non-player colour) will become the winner. At Casino #6, blue will win the highest valued money card, but since red and white are tied for second place, no one will win the second money card.

The Play

The game is quick and smooth. Being a dice game, there is definitely luck, and you don't always get to do what you want. Instead you are often presented with multiple opportunities and/or dilemmas. You need to evaluate the potential risks and rewards, and decide how much you want to gamble. You need to pick your fights, since you can't fight everywhere. Early in a round you will have more options, since you still have many dice. As more and more dice are committed, you will become more reliant on luck giving you what you want. It is important that in the early stage of a round you pick wisely, so that you won't get thwarted by bad luck too easily towards the later part of the round. But it can still happen.

The risk management and the dwindling options feel a little like Pickomino, however unlike Pickomino, you only roll once on your turn, like in Airships. One thing I like about Airships is the single roll aspect. You don't need to watch your opponents roll dice over and over. Turns are quicker.

My strategy during our game was to delay commitment as much as possible. I tended to pick the numbers with fewer dice, so that on my turn I committed fewer dice. My dice pool lasted longer, and I could watch where Chong Sean and Michelle committed their dice before I committed too many of my own. I could delay my decisions until later - where to fight and where to concede. The delay strategy has its merits, but it is not always up to you to execute it. You are still at the mercy of the dice. One thing good about it is once your opponents have played their white dice, you know they won't be able to sabotage you anymore. But then it is still possible for your own white dice to mess up your plans if your die rolls suck.

My delay tactics worked very well for me and I won the game with a large margin. This was a great boost to confidence, after having lost two games of The Palaces of Carrara so spectacularly just before this. Then Michelle said, you do win at games of luck. Hey, it's skill! I haz dah Skillz!

Money cards on the left, start player card on the right.

The Thoughts

Kareem has recommended Las Vegas to me before, saying it's simple but fun, and now that I have played it, I fully agree. The casino theme doesn't seem appropriate for children, but I think Las Vegas makes an excellent family game. It will work well with casual gamers and as a party game too (but it supports at most 5 players). It's easy-to-teach, quick-to-play, has some strategy, presents meaningful decisions, and has decent player interaction. There is always an excitement in rolling dice, especially a mighty handful of them. Sometimes bad die rolls can be discouraging, but even with a poor roll you usually have options, just that you are in damage control mode as opposed to an opportunistic investment mode.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Palaces of Carrara

Plays: 3Px2.

The Palaces of Carrara is designed by the formidable duo of Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling (The Princes of Florence, the Tikal series). I have read quite a few positive comments about it, but for quite a while I didn't come across any opportunity to try it. The English version seems to have gone out of print very quickly, although the German version seems to be still easy to find. Essen 2014 is coming, so I decided to give the game a go, and if I liked it I'd try to look for someone going to Essen to help get me a copy.

The Game

The game comes with a set of introductory rules and a set of full rules. I'll be discussing the full rules here.

On your turn, you pick one of three things to do: (1) buy bricks, (2) build, or (3) score. If you buy bricks, you first decide whether to turn the wheel. The wheel is a round table on which bricks for sale are displayed. It has six segments, and the prices of the bricks differ by segment. Every time you rotate the wheel, prices usually drop. Some brick types can become free. If you turn the wheel, you replenish it to 11 bricks, and then you pick one segment from which to buy bricks.

The wheel is the bricks marketplace. Every time it rotates, prices will drop. Let's take as an example the segment on the right with two black bricks, one green brick and one red brick. The red one costs $2, the green one $1, while the black ones are free (since no price is listed). However you can grab the black ones only if you select this segment to buy bricks from.

If you decide to build, you get to select one of the 9 buildings available on the board. The number of bricks to use depends on the size of the building, and the quality of bricks used determines in which of the six cities you may build. A picky city like Livorno only approves of buildings using white bricks (the highest grade). A cheapskate city like Lerici is OK with any type of brick.

The nine currently available buildings are in the lower left section of the board.

Buying bricks and building are simple actions in themselves. However the crux of the game is how you make use of them to work towards the third type of action - the scoring action - and also the game-end scoring. You can do the scoring action at most 6 times during a game, and it gives you money, or victory points, or both. The scoring action has three subtypes, two of which are not directly affected by your opponents, but the third one has a racing element. The first scoring subtype is the building type scoring. You pick one building type (there are six) and score all your buildings of that type. These buildings generate VP or cash based on their sizes multiplied by the VP or income value of the cities where they are located. E.g. I have two "Shield" buildings, a size-4 one in Lucca (a 2VP city), and a size-2 one in Massa (a 1VP city). I'd score 4x2VP + 2x1VP = 10VP. I will also gain two Shield tokens, one for each building. There are only five tokens per type that can be scored this way, so sometimes you need to race to grab them if you see your opponents constructing buildings of the same type. Once you've scored for a specific building type, you can't do it for the same building type ever again for the rest of the game, so you need to think carefully when to do it.

The second scoring subtype is scoring by building colour. All green buildings score VP, or all orange buildings make money. Similarly, this is a once per colour per game thing. No building tokens are earned though.

The third scoring subtype is city scoring. Every city can only be scored once per game. If one player has scored a city, that city cannot be scored anymore by anyone. Scoring the city is basically just scoring every building in that city regardless of building type. You earn VP or money depending on the city's type. You also earn building tokens for each building you have built in that city.

This is the player board. When you construct a building, you place it above one of the cities to indicate this is where you have constructed it. Livorno on the left only accepts buildings built with white bricks. Other cities are more flexible, to different degrees.

The row of boxes at the bottom are the scoring boxes. Once you score for a specific building type or building colour, you place one scoring pawn in the box to indicate that it is no longer available.

Your bricks, cash and building type tokens (none yet in this photo) are hidden behind your player screen.

A few game-end criteria are randomly determined at the start of each game. When a player fulfills all criteria, he may declare game-end and earn 5VP for doing so. The round is played to completion, and then everyone scores game-end VP based on the game-end criteria cards. You don't have to declare game-end immediately after you meet all the criteria. Sometimes it can be beneficial to let things drag on a little. However usually the first player who is positioned to declare game-end will benefit more by declaring as soon as possible.

The Play

The rulebook explicitly warns players that games can end unexpectedly early. In both games that I played with Michelle and Chong Sean, I was caught unprepared when the games ended. Facepalm moment! Chong Sean had played before, and understood the tempo better. I was simply taking my sweet time trying to build a perfect engine. Michelle was smarter than me. She watched Chong Sean keenly and when she saw him starting to take scoring actions, all alarm bells went off in her head and she knew the end was nigh. I was still dumbly oblivious. I think one big mistake I made was being unfocused. I tried to build in too many places and in too many building types. I ended up being neither here nor there. I think in this game you need to know where to compete and where to concede, and you need to focus your actions and resources.

In both games Chong Sean went straight for the game-end conditions. That is the right thing to do, because the game-end condition cards are also the game-end scoring cards. If you can fulfill all (or many) of the game-end conditions, you will score well at game-end.

There is a tricky balance between quality and quantity. You want to buy higher grade bricks so that you can build in the more lucrative cities, but at the same time you also want to buy as many bricks as possible and as cheaply as possible, so that you can build more buildings and build larger buildings. This balance between quality and quantity often leads to tough decisions.

This was the end of the first game we played. Michelle (red) did not beat me (green) by one point. She beat me by one whole circuit of the score track plus one point. At the top of the board you can see that both Michelle (red) and Chong Sean (yellow) have scored two cities each. I (green) haven't scored any.

This was the second game. I did try to concentrate on the "Shield" buildings, having built four of them, but constructing buildings in so many cities was probably not a good idea. In this particular game, one of the objective cards rewarded the player with the highest valued buildings (by total brick cost) in every city. I went for every city hoping that I'd score some bonus points cheaply if there were one or two cities neglected by Chong Sean or Michelle. In the end I did not win majority in any of the six cities. Sometimes greed is not good.

This was the end of the second game. Chong Sean (yellow) scored 126pts, and he had looped me too! I really suck at this game!

The Thoughts

I have decided I want to buy a German version of the game. I find the game very interactive. Despite the simple actions, there is much to think about during play and you need to watch your opponents closely. You are taking small steps from turn to turn, but you want to make sure for each little step you are racing in a coherent direction and not floundering about. You need to have that big-picture strategic view. You need to know what you are fighting for and what you are giving up on. Spend energy on the former but not the latter. Unexpected opportunities sometimes turn up and force you to make difficult evaluations. Do you switch gears slightly to take advantage of this tactical opportunity? Or do you stick to your master plan? Is it worth the effort to deny your opponents? Can you make use of it effectively?

I get a feeling that the game structure (the distribution of the cities, the buildings and the bricks) and the actions that you can take are but the tools. The real game is in the four objective cards that are drawn at the start of every game. They set the stage for the game. Do you need to go for quantity or quality? Do you need to focus on the building type tokens? Do you need to build a large treasury? There can be many combinations of objective cards. It's like buying Memoir '44 and getting a scenario book with hundreds of scenarios.

This is a lean game. Your actions are simple. There aren't many components. It is amazing how rich the gameplay feels despite the modest number of components and the simple framework. I feel the designers have stripped away all unnecessary elements. When I look at each additional element in the full game (compared to the introductory game), I find that every single one of them can have a big impact to the game. They are not small variants that give you a little spice and variability, appeasing you in case you find the base game bland. They are all game-changers. No wonder the designers recommend playing without them for your first game (I didn't heed that advice though).

Playing The Palaces of Carrara is like finding a treasure cave in an erupting volcano. There is plenty of gold and treasures everywhere. You can take your pick, but you need to do it quick, and you want to go for the big ones if possible. All this while others are running around grabbing treasures too, sometimes fighting over the same artifacts. You want to exit with the biggest loot when the cave is overrun by lava.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

boardgaming in photos: The Message, Escape

9 Sep 2014. Shee Yun (9) and I continued our exploration of Escape: The Curse of the Temple. Now we have moved on to the two modules in the first expansion. The green tiles here are the Illusions module. Upon completion of the two intermediate countdowns, they are removed and placed at the bottom of the stack. This creates holes in the map and players may need to re-explore those spaces. It's a little quirky, but not a major change. At least it didn't have a large impact in the game we played. We still kept the Curses module and the Treasures module. We beat the Illusions module without much trouble.

Then we moved on to the Special Chambers module. This adds a few unusual chambers to the game. Some allow players to place gems, which is a good thing, but to use them, two such chambers need to be used by separate players at the same time. This means your team needs to split up if you want to use them. There is another chamber which contains a chalice. If you discover the chalice during play (which is highly likely), you must exit the temple with it in order to win. Carrying the chalice from room to room requires an extra torch icon to be rolled. So the chalice slows players down. We managed to win again. Next, we will moving on to the second expansion.

12 Sep 2014. Playing The Message: Emissary Crisis at with a group of youngsters (which made me feel so "uncle").

This was only my second time playing this game. The last time I played, I think there were about 7 players. It was a lot of fun and we played quite a few games back-to-back. I always remember that experience fondly. So this time I was quite excited to be able to get 9 players (the max count). Sinbad and Allen were there. Sinbad has played before, and probably many more times than me. Six young men, who had not played this before, were happy to join us.

The Message is a hidden-identity team game, and a big part of the game is finding out who your friends are who your enemies are, while at the same time trying to mislead your enemies about your identity. At the beginning we were rather clueless about what best to do, and we happily started throwing black messages around. Whoever receives three black messages is eliminated. It is probably not a good idea to try to randomly kill people when you are not sure who is friend or foe. But it is funny, and it creates excitement.

At some points in our games, we had a fair bit of confusion. I am not sure whether it was because some players made mistakes and caused others to make incorrect deductions, or because some players drew wrong conclusions based on partial information. Either way, wrong assumptions can easily escalate as everyone is watching everyone else's actions. Incorrect assumptions lead to incorrect actions, which causes others to make even more wrong assumptions. In one particular game, Ah Yung played two Prove cards on Player A (sorry I forgot your name) very early in the game, which meant he definitely knew Player A's identity. Throughout the game, I watched their behaviour and felt very sure they were teammates. However when the game ended, I was surprised that they were on opposing teams. What's funny is Ah Yung himself was shocked too. He too thought Player A was on his side. Player A himself knew he was on the other team. Since there were two Prove cards played, most likely one of them made a mistake when executing the cards, and this cause the whole game to be played under an incorrect understanding (at least for Ah Yung). We had a good laugh. It was too late to try to figure out who made the mistake, but it didn't matter. The dumbfounded expression on Ah Yung's face was priceless. Neither of their teams won anyway, it was an independent identity player who won.

The detective character was the most remembered character this time, and he featured in two of the three games we played. The player playing the detective character gets to see every single Prove card played by any player, which means he is collecting a lot of information. But I guess it can be tiring too having to digest and remember all this information.

One of the funniest moments in this game is when a player, through actions, leaks a very strong hint to his identity. Everyone starts laughing because it is so obvious. One guy's special winning condition (which applied only if his identity was an independent) was he would win if on his turn someone else won. Then for a few rounds we saw him trying to give a third red or blue message to another player, i.e. blatantly trying to hand the victory to someone else. One of the beneficiaries was me. I had two blue messages in front of me, and he directly sent me a third. However I just looked at him and smiled. I wasn't on the blue team. I was actually red. He had thought I was on the blue team because I already had two blue messages and no red messages. Little did he know that I had been screaming inside for always getting the wrong colour. Also one red message which I did manage to get earlier was robbed from me. When I got the third blue message and didn't declare victory, everyone started laughing, because the cat was out of the bag. I was either red, or independent.

The Message was just as fun as I remembered. It's very engaging because you need to pay attention to what everyone is doing, or saying, or looking at, or smiling about. It's a game with plenty of table talk and joking and teasing.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

boardgaming in photos - Android Netrunner, Escape

24 Aug 2014. After playing a few coaching games with Android Netrunner veterans Nik and John, I decided to buy the remaining three expansions in the first expansion cycle. I also decided to sleeve all my cards - about 600 cards in total. By default I'm a no-sleeves guy, but after appreciating better the depth of Android Netrunner, I felt it was an heirloom, thus the urge to sleeve it. This is a game that can provide many many plays.

Previously I organised my cards in ziplock bags. Now that I have bought more, I decided to organise them this way instead. I didn't buy those CCG card boxes. I made my own, using the box of the base game. Cheap, and environmentally friendly. I use the boxes of the expansions as dividers.

Here's how I organise the cards. On the left half, starting from the bottom, the first three sections are for cards of the three runner factions. The fourth section is for neutral runner cards. The fifth is for a legal, ready-to-play runner deck. All non-card game components are put into that ziplock bag at the top. On the right half, the first four sections are for cards of the four corporations. The fifth is for neutral corp cards, and the sixth for a legal corp deck.

There are two expansion boxes hidden away. Here they are, right at the top of this photo.

I made my dividers using milk powder boxes. Not that I'm particularly stingy (though I am a little), just that spending time making accessories for your boardgames is a fun activity in itself.

Playing Escape: The Curse of the Temple with Chen Rui (7) and Shee Yun (9). We first played this some time ago at Meeples Cafe. It was something different, but I didn't intend to buy it then. The children didn't request it either. Recently, Chen Rui asked whether I could buy it for her, out of the blue. I checked around, and found that it was out of stock in Malaysia, and also out of print at the publisher level. Eventually I managed to find a second-hand copy in excellent condition. Then when we first played, Chen Rui said the soundtrack was too scary and she didn't want to play anymore. Previously when we played at Meeples Cafe we didn't use the soundtrack. We just used my phone as a countdown timer. Shee Yun and I continued to play. We tried all the variants in the base game - the treasures and the curses, and managed to win too. However, to get Chen Rui to play, some work needed to be done. I had to compose a non-scary version of the soundtrack. I used simple tunes. They were a little silly, but they got the job done. Finally Chen Rui joined Shee Yun and I to play.

We have not yet progressed to the two expansions. I want to bring Chen Rui up to speed first - to play all the variants in the base game first. Both of the expansions have several modules. Together with the variant modules in the base game, there are plenty more combinations to explore.

My opinion of the game hasn't changed much. It's not a favourite, but it's a great game to play with the kids. There is enough challenge, and the real-time aspect keeps you involved throughout the game.

Saturday, 6 September 2014


Plays: 4Px1.

Wildcatters is a 2013 Essen release from a small publisher (I think a self-publisher). I recently heard that a larger company is going to reprint it, so I was interested to give it a try to see what kind of economic game it is.

The Game

Players are multinational oil companies in the 19th century, at the start of the oil industry. They build oil rigs, produce oil, build transportation infrastructure, deliver oil to refineries, and eventually supply oil to various regions around the world. On your turn, you pick one of 8 region cards on the table to decide which region on the board you will take actions in. You will only get to take actions there or in one other white region. Due to this restriction of the region cards, and the limited number of rounds in the game, you need to piggyback on other players' turns, and you need to have some level of cooperation with your competitors. A region can only start producing oil when there are at least four oil rigs present. Building all four yourself is costly, so it is always good to have multiple players develop the same region. When one player starts producing oil, others who also have oil rigs in the region can piggyback on this player's action and start producing oil too. They need to pay him shares, so it's a win-win. When any player transports oil from a region, others can piggyback on this action too. Again, this means being able to act on someone else's turn. All these encourage players to cooperate.

There are two currencies in the game - cash and shares. Every turn you get a base $10 income, and possibly a few extra dollars depending on the region card you choose. You need to pay cash when you build infrastructure (oil rigs, trains, ships, refineries) and when you produce oil (i.e. convert an oil rig to a pumpjack, and place 3 barrels of oil on it). However when you use another player's train or ship, or when you piggyback on another player's produce oil action, you need to pay him in shares of your company. If someone delivers oil to your refinery, he is effectively forcing you to buy his oil, and you must pay him in shares too. There are many ways to spend shares of your own company, and it is important to make sure you keep a healthy number on hand, because if you run short, you will be forced to take a loan, and loans are expensive to repay.

Whenever a refinery is filled up (5 barrels delivered), the oil can be supplied to the continent where the refinery is located. The refinery owner earns four shares (of any company) per barrel, unless the barrel is his own. If you process your own oil barrels, you either supply them to the continent without earning any shares, or you discard them and earn shares as if you are processing other players' barrels. Barrels supplied to continents are placed in the scoring boxes for the respective continents. At the end of Round 5 and at game end, area majority scoring is done for every continent box. Whoever has the most barrels score some points, second most scores a little less, and so on. Scoring is also done for share holdings for each of the four companies in the game, and for cash on hand. These are the main ways to score points in the game. There are other ways such as building refineries, selecting certain region cards, and collecting wildcatter tokens.

The Play

I did a full 4P game with Jeff, Dith and Vence at Jeff has played Wildcatters once before, which was handy. Although I had read the rules, there were some finer points which I wasn't sure about, and also some which I had misunderstood. The game supports 3 or 4 players. With three players, all four oil companies will still be in play, just that one of them will be neutral, and the game setup is slightly different. I think the game is best with four.

This was the start of the game, after the initial setup was completed. Every player gets to place items onto the board for free as part of initial setup. Placement depends on setup cards dealt, so you need to work within some constraints. The setup sets the stage for the rest of the game. It provides variability from game to game.

Now Canada (i.e. northern half of the North America region) and West Russia both have four rigs, which means it is already possible to start producing oil when Round 1 starts. During setup, every player must place one refinery (large rectangle with 5 circles) on a different continent. I (green) placed mine in West Russia, Jeff (red) in the eastern half of South Ameria, Dith (yellow) in Canada, and Vence in East Asia.

Players need to build trains and ships to transport the oil produced. If others use your trains or ships, they pay you shares of their companies. If you expect to do much transportation in a region, it may be worthwhile to build your own infrastructure so that you can save on shares which you would otherwise have to pay to others for their services.

Region cards. On your turn, you must pick one, and your choice limits where you can act. Each card gives some bonus, e.g. cash, shares of a specific company, victory points. Some cards give a one-time-use privilege of clearing a non-full refinery and supplying the barrels there to the region where the refinery is located. Normally a refinery only supplies oil when it is full.

The round tokens with W's are the wildcatters, the namesake of the game. These are individual oil prospectors and small companies hoping to make a fortune in the oil rush. Every region with potential to produce oil is seeded with one or two wildcatters during game setup. When a region produces oil for the first time, each wildcatter produces one barrel of oil too. The wildcatter tokens and the oil barrels on them are auctioned to the players (i.e. multinational companies) who have presence in the region. Wildcatter tokens are worth victory points at game end. The first token is worth 2VP, but every subsequent token is worth 2VP more, so they can contribute a significant chunk of points at game end.

When you start producing oil, you swap your oil rig with a pumpjack (round disc) and place three barrels of oil (wooden cylinders) on it.

Shares and money. At the top left, you can see that Jeff (red) and I (green) have supplied some oil to North America.

Jeff's (red) oil tanker has just delivered three barrels to his refinery in South America. Two more slots to fill, and the refinery will be able to supply oil to the region.

Round 4. We are all still very much focused on the four regions where we have set up our refineries. By now the oil in Canada is almost fully depleted. In the row of boxes at the bottom, you can see that only North America, Russia, South America and Asia have received oil. Europe, Africa and Australia have been neglected.

One minor complaint I have about the game is the cards are quite thin. But then I wonder whether it is intentional, because during the course of the game you need to hold many cards in your hand, like this. What I'm holding in my hands in this photo is quite normal. In fact, I did poorly in this game. I think most of my opponents have even thicker stacks of cards. The cards don't have different denominations. No 5's or 10's, only 1's.

Round 6. This is after the intermediate scoring at the end of Round 5. Now Jeff (red) has built a refinery in Africa, and I have shipped 3 barrels there. West Russia's oil is almost depleted now. Dith (yellow) is going solo in USA - noone else is working with him in developing the region. That's an expensive effort for him, but when he does start producing oil, he will be able to grab both the wildcatter tokens there.

From this photo you can see that I (green) have been mostly collaborating with Vence (blue), while Jeff (red) mostly partnered with Dith (yellow).

One ironic thing in our game was the Middle East (i.e. West Asia) never produced a single drop of oil. Jeff and Dith developed it late. I think at one point Jeff could have initiated oil production there, but he decided not to do so because it would not have given him many points, and it would have benefited Dith too.

Game end. Vence (blue) and I (green) still had many barrels in Russia and Asia not yet transported to refineries. What a waste.

The final score. Jeff (red) won with 81pts.

The Thoughts

Wildcatters is a game with character. Definitely not a mechanism-looking-for-a-theme kind of game. I like how you need to collaborate with your opponents, while at the same time try to not allow them to benefit too much from the joint ventures. The restriction imposed by the region cards means you need to think carefully and plan carefully where you want to act. The limited number of actions makes collaboration necessary. You want to leech off others' actions. Gaming the production lifecycle is interesting. You try to grab opportunities at every step. In the game we played, I think we all tried to do a bit of everything, and didn't really attempt to focus on any particular stage of the production lifecycle, e.g. only doing the refinery part, or only doing the prospecting and production part. I wonder whether such strategies are viable.

I like 90% of the game. The 10% that stops me from wanting to buy it is the area majority scoring mechanism. I have this thing about area majority games. This mechanism tends to rub me the wrong way, and I can't really explain why. It's the same reason Dominant Species was just OK for me. Strangely, I love China. In Wildcatters, scoring mostly revolves around area majority. There are twelves areas to compete in - the seven regions to supply oil to, the shares of the four companies, and cash. That's area majority overload for me!

This is a game with a lot of heart. If you like medium-heavy economic games, and don't have anything against the area majority mechanism, I encourage you to give Wildcatters a go.