Saturday, 29 August 2015

Viticulture and Tuscany expansion

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Viticulture, the well-received debut game from Stonemeier Games, was funded through Kickstarter, and so was the Tuscany expansion. I played Viticulture for the first time recently, with 5 of the expansion modules from Tuscany. I have never played vanilla Viticulture before, so I can't make any comparison. The version I played is probably more a revamped Viticulture than base Viticulture plus some additional rules, because even the board has changed.

Viticulture is about wine-making. You inherit a derelict winery from mum and dad. You need to revive the old family business and make it profitable again. You have to invest in the necessary facilities and equipment, you plant vines, you harvest grapes, you process grapes to make wine, wine takes time to age well, and eventually you sell it for profit and, tadaaa, victory points. Outside of this wine-making lifecycle, there are a few other ways to score points too. You also get to draw various types of cards which give you additional scoring methods and special abilities. There is no fixed number of rounds. Once someone hits 25VP, you complete the current round and the game ends. Whoever scores highest wins.

The Papa and Mama cards are just starting setup cards. They create different starting conditions for each player. Everyone does start with one big worker (the foreman) and two small workers, and $3, but other starting resources differ. I started with, on my Mama card, one purple contract card and two blue winter visitor cards, and on my Papa card, the choice of getting a medium cellar or $4 more.

This is the expansion map, which has four seasons, compared to the base game map which only has two. The worker placement spaces for the four seasons are green, yellow, orange and blue for spring, summer, autumn and winter respectively. One round is one year, and each round is played in four stages, i.e. season by season. You need to plan where to place your workers up front, because you only get your workers back at the end of the year. One special aspect of the worker placement mechanism here is the foreman - the large worker. He cannot be blocked. He can still use any space which is already occupied, just that if that space comes with a bonus, that bonus is already claimed by the first worker and he doesn't get the bonus.

The table on the left is the turn order table. Before a year starts everyone will claim a turn order position. The table shows the goodies you get to claim at every season change. The later you are in turn order, the better the goodies.

The map at the bottom left shows seven different regions to which you can send salesmen. Whenever you send a salesman, you gain a benefit (depending on the region). At the end of the game, if you have the most salesmen in a region, you score some points. This is an area majority subgame.

This is part of the player board. The three big tiles at the top are your fields. At the moment I have only planted vines in one of them. Each field has an upper limit to the total vine value (5, 6 and 7 respectively). Now I have planted a value-1 red grape vine and a value-2 white grape vine. When I harvest I will get a value-1 red grape and a value-2 white grape. If I plant multiple vines of the same type in the same field, their value numbers will add up. E.g. planting two value-2 white grape vines would give me one value-4 white grape, not two value-2 white grapes.

The lower left section are the buckets where I store grapes. There is space for only one grape per grade per type. So if I already have a value-3 red grape, and I harvest another one, I won't get a second value-3 red grape. I will have to settle for a value-2 red grape (assuming the value-2 red grape spot is vacant).

The lower right section are the wine cellars. Different combinations of grapes produce different types of wine. Both grapes and wines improve as they age, i.e. their values go up. The max is value-9.

On the player board you can also see many buildings you can build. Their costs and abilities vary. E.g. you need irrigation to be able to plant some of the higher grade vines, the windmill gives you 1VP every time you plant.

I have planted in two of my fields now, but I've sold the third field. The transparent beads represent grapes if they are in the buckets area, and wines if they are in the cellars area. I only have a medium cellar, so my wine quality can go up to at most value-6.

The Play

The game starts a little slowly, because you need to spend much time and money getting your basic infrastructure ready and setting up the whole production line. Wine-making is not a one- or two-year exercise. As the players get their wineries going, the game accelerates, and the initially daunting 25VP sudden seems imminent. Everyone gets a different starting setup. Throughout the game you keep drawing different types of cards too. Sometimes you are forced to discard some cards due to exceeding the hand limit. This variety in the cards drives players towards different directions. You want to play to the strength of your cards. You need to come up with a general strategy that is aligned with your cards. The cards give character to your winery and your play. You are not playing a generic winery and trying to outdo your opponents by doing the same things more efficiently. You can be running your business in a very different way from your competition. This is what I like about the game.

One of the cards I drew was a restaurant. It gave me a private spot to place a worker. When I placed a worker here, I expended one grape and one bottle of wine to earn 3VP and $3. The quality of the grape and wine didn't matter. 3VP might not seem like much, but it was a steady and reliable way to score points. It was the core of my business. I went for a McDonald's strategy, prioritising quantity over quality. Other than ensuring a steady supply of grapes and wine to my restaurant, I also worked on contracts for cheaper wines.

This is my restaurant. The circle drawn with a dashed line is a worker placement spot.

One of the expansion modules allows players to sell land to raise money. In our game whenever someone sold land, the rest made fun of him for being a useless rich brat, managing family finances so poorly that he had to sell ancestral land to raise money. Eventually every single one of us had to sell land. I guess we were all decadent sons.

The components are nice.

These metal coins are only available in the expansion.

These cards are: a vine card, which can be planted; a contract which can be fulfilled; and a winter visitor card. Visitors usually give you a single-use special ability. There is a lot of variety in the cards in this game.

The grey worker is a temp worker. Only the player last in turn order gets to use him, and only for one round - the current round.

Ivan, Jeff and I all scored 26VP when the game ended. We had to use tiebreaker rules. Ivan won because he had the most money left.

The Thoughts

Ivan says vanilla Viticulture is a family game, and I trust his judgement. It is simpler, has more luck, and the card powers are slightly uneven. Viticulture with the Tuscany expansion, in my opinion, is mainly a gamer's game. It is not very complex, but there are enough rules to intimidate someone who is new to the hobby.

There is nothing particularly outstanding about presenting wine-making via the worker placement mechanism. It works well enough. What I enjoy is the variety in the cards and how they create a different story for each player. The players still need to compete for the same actions, but since different resources and actions have different values to them, the decisions become more interesting.

The game will appeal to those who like wines or have an interest in the wine-making industry.

Monday, 24 August 2015


If you are a Malaysian, or know some Malaysian friends, please help me share this video far and wide: This Is My Home And Yours - Malaysia. This song written with friends back in 1997 has given me new meaning today, in the Malaysia of 2015. This is for everyone who loves Malaysia.

Update: If possible, please use this Facebook webpage when sharing:

Sunday, 16 August 2015

boardgaming in photos: Machi Koro, Carson City

18 Jul 2015. I have played Machi Koro with the Harbor expansion four times with the children, and I have never won. I have underestimated the power of the fishing boats, especially the tuna boats. The kids love them. If you manage to trigger them, you roll two dice and earn money based on what you roll, i.e. on average $7 per boat. However you need to roll very high to trigger the tuna boats in the first place, so I felt it was not worth the trouble. I guess I was wrong. Both the children love the boats and they always go for them. The harbor (a new building in this expansion) gives you an option of increasing your roll by two if you roll high enough. When the children roll high, e.g. a 10, they always choose to increase the die roll, so that they can trigger their tuna boats. Because of that, my #10 buildings which could have been triggered are not triggered. The children end up helping each other, while I am left in the dust. I had overlooked this groupthink aspect. It's time to fight for boats!

Adding the expansion makes the game take up even more space. Managing the market is also a chore. Whenever you have fewer than 10 types of buildings in the pool, you need to draw a new card. If its type is already available, you need to add it to the stack and draw another one. If it's a new type, what we do is we rearrange the market to slot the new card in the right spot, so that all cards are arranged in increasing order of activation number. I prefer to arrange the market neatly so that it's easier to analyse. Despite the additional overhead and longer play time, I still prefer to play with the expansion. The game feels more alive, organic and unpredictable. I like surprises.

24 Jul 2015. Carson City is one of the earlier worker placement games. It has been a long time since my previous play. I checked my records and found that I had only played it once prior to this, and it was 5 years ago, in 2010. I had forgotten 90% of the rules. In this game you buy parcels of land in the new Carson township, construct buildings, make money and eventually earn victory points. The setup of the initial town is random. In our game we had an unusual setup. The town centre (red house encircled by black roads) was surrounded by many mountains. This made the initial growth challenging due to the lack of flat land.

What's unique about Carson City is how worker placement spots can be fought over. Normally in WP games once your worker claims a spot nobody else can come in or kick your worker out. In Carson City another player can challenge you for the spot. A gunfight needs to be resolved to determine who gets to stay. See the $4-for-a-building spot where the blue player and the yellow player are fighting for.

On the city map in the background you can also see two cowboys preparing to fight. The brown player is trying to rob the yellow player's building (the building has a yellow base to indicate ownership), and the yellow player has sent a cowboy to defend the building. If the brown player wins the gunfight, or if the yellow player hadn't bothered to defend his building, he will get half the income of the building, but only in the current round.

Those isolated buildings far away from the town centre are ranches. They don't need to be connected to the road network, and they earn money based on how much unowned land is next to them. As the town grows, grazing land will dwindle and ranch income will drop.

This was taken in Round 4, the final round. The town has grown much. The long S-shaped path in the foreground is the worker placement path. After all workers are placed, every location on the path is resolved in the specified order.

Most buildings generate income. Mines make money based on the number of adjacent mountains. Drugstores make money based on adjacent homes and ranches owned by the drugstore owner. Some buildings have other functionality. The church forbids robberies in orthogonally adjacent buildings. The prison gives a +2 bonus combat strength to the owner. When you have macha (buddies) working as prison guards, it means you can summon more firepower when you need it. At the end of the game, your buildings earn 2VP each too.

We used some expansions. We used the advanced side of the character cards. We also used the tiles variant for the gunfights (as opposed to using dice), which reduces the luck element. In this particular round, Ivan (yellow) picked the sheriff character. If anyone attacked and defeated his cowboys, he would earn 3VP per cowboy (no points though if he started the fight himself, win or lose). So he placed his people on spots which he knew others want. 3VP per cowboy was not a bad deal. There were some spots which he did intend to win though, because they would give him more than 3VP.

The final layout of Carson City, before final scoring. I started focusing on scoring at the end of Round 2. At the time nobody tried to stop me, and I managed to give myself a strong lead. I managed to hold on to it till the end of the game. I drew poor gunfight tiles at the start of the game (the compensation for that was I had more starting cash), so I didn't want to get into too many fights. Thankfully I decided to pounce early for points, else I would probably be unable able to keep up towards late game.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

La Granja

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

La Granja seems to be quite popular with the folks at I was a little late to the party. I missed it a few times and only got to play it recently. It is a game from Spielworxx, which is well-known for it's heavy Eurogames.

La Granja is a game about farming, which is no longer a weird topic nowadays (it was when Agricola came out). You produce goods at your farm and deliver them to fulfill contracts, which give you victory points. There are a few other ways to score points, but delivering goods is the main one. You play 6 rounds, and must make the most of your limited actions.

This is the player board. You can see many cards tucked beneath it. This is one interesting aspect of the game. Every card has four different functions, but when you play it, you can only pick one. Where you tuck the card determines its function. Tuck it on the left, and it becomes a field which yields produce every round. Tuck it on the right and it may give you extra cash, extra cards, extra space for livestock (pigs) and/or additional delivery capacity. Tuck it at the bottom, and it gives you a special ability. In this photo my swineherd card gives me two additional spaces for rearing pigs. Tuck a card at the top and it becomes a contract you can fulfill to earn points (in game terms it is called a market barrow).

This the main board. There are six areas called craft buildings where you can deliver goods to fulfill contracts. These are the boxes with four rows of icons. Each player has his own row so there is no blocking. However being first to complete a contract at a craft building gives you an extra 1pt. The base point value you get depends on the current round number. In Round 2 a completed contract is only worth 2pts, but in Round 6, it is 6pts. However there is a reason for delivering early - you gain a special ability (those square tiles). Naturally the earlier you gain the ability, the more it will help you during the game.

The honeycomb area in the centre is the marketplace. When you complete a contract at your player board (i.e. you fill up a market barrow), you get to place one of your tokens here, on a space with the same value as the market barrow. Tokens here give you 1pt every round. When you place a token, you kick out all opponents' tokens immediately next to your newly placed token if they have smaller values. So there is some risk in completing small market barrows - your token may not last very long at the marketplace.

Everyone only has one type of token, the octagon. However a token means different things depending on where it is placed. At the extreme left, when placed on a field, it represents the corresponding produce. On the right, when placed in a pig sty, it is a pig. When placed in a warehouse (lower left), it is whatever goods that warehouse stores (grapes in this photo). When placed at the trade commodities location (the box icon at the centre), it is a trade commodity. A trade commodity can be spent at any time for various uses, like getting $4, getting 2 different raw produce and drawing a card.

The arrows you see on the board tell you how some goods can be processed to become other higher valued goods. This can be done at any time by paying cash. Some actions let you do this for free. Olive and grain can be turned into food. Pigs can be transformed into bacon. Grapes become wine.

This is what you do in a round. In Phase 1 you play cards, draw cards and do basic production. In Phase 2, dice are rolled to determine extra goods production and extra actions. Players take turns claiming whatever is available for the round. At the start of Phase 3 everyone secretly picks a donkey tile and then reveal at the same time. These tiles determine turn order and the number of deliveries you can make. Most deliveries are done in Phase 3. Phase 4 takes care of most other ways of scoring points, and round reset.

The Play

From reading the overview of La Granja, it may sound like a cube conversion game. It is more a planning and coordination game - you produce stuff and deliver them, and you try to produce as much as possible and deliver as much as possible within the 6 rounds of the game. There is actually not a lot of conversion going on. It's just basic goods to finished products, and often doing this does not require an action. You usually just pay for it, or spend trade commodities.

The cards make players' farms different. You want to play to your strengths. The variety is good and it makes things interesting. There is not a lot of player interaction. Some player interaction is of the I-take-it-before-you-can nature, but in La Granja this is much less punishing than Agricola. You won't be forcing your opponent's children to starve and beg for food. In the central marketplace you do kick out your opponents' tokens, but this doesn't happen all that often, because you don't complete that many market barrow contracts in the first place.

I like the challenge posed by the cards. You need to work out a cohesive strategy based on what you draw. In our game I was the king of pork. My cards let me breed pigs like rabbits, so I had many butcher friends.

The game looks complex, but once you start playing, it runs smoothly. It's not a gateway game though, so it will still be a little difficult for players new to the hobby. If you are a boardgamer, it should not be hard to learn. Some actions in the game are free and unrestricted. You don't need to wait for your turn, it does not cost a player action. E.g. upgrading goods. At any time you can spend money to upgrade, or spend trade commodities to do so. This makes me feel I have a lot of freedom to manage my farm, and I do not need to manage any tedious series of actions which span across multiple turns and multiple rounds. The main thing that is limited is the number of deliveries you can make. This you need to count carefully and plan meticulously. You need to make sure you can make enough deliveries to complete the contracts you intend to fulfill.

These are the items and actions which can become available during Phase 2 of a round. After the dice are rolled, everyone takes turns claiming a die and performing the corresponding action, e.g. claiming certain goods, performing a delivery.

This was late in the game. I (green) had two almost completed contracts (lower left). I was waiting for Round 6 to complete them because I wanted to score the full 6pts. This means I had given up on the special abilities which I would get from these craft buildings.

The Thoughts

La Granja is a medium-to-high complexity point-scoring Eurogame. It's a planning and coordination game, where you try to maximise and optimise goods production and delivery. Player interaction is on the low side. What I find satisfying is how the cards create much variety and character to each player's farm, and how you need to work out a viable strategy based on what you are dealt. This game will appeal to players who like management games. There is nothing particularly new or striking, but the overall package feels unique.

Sunday, 2 August 2015

Abluxxen / Linko

Plays: 5Px3.

The Game

I have read about Abluxxen before. It is designed by the dynamite duo Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling after all. The rules sounded simple, but I could not wrap my head around the strategy even though I understood the rules. It was like reading a page in a novel, understanding every word and every sentence, but having no idea what the passage was talking about. I did not actively seek out the game, but I was pleasantly surprised by it when I had a chance to try it recently at

The game is a deck of cards numbered 1 to 13, eight cards for each number, plus five wild cards. At the start of the game everyone is dealt 13 cards. The game ends when one player plays out his hand, after which you do scoring based on how many cards you have played in front of you (1pt each) and how many you still have in hand (-1pt each). The person who goes out is often the one who wins, but not always.

On your turn there is only one action you can and must take - play a set of cards. A set of cards can be any number of cards, but they must have the same value on them, e.g. three 2's, seven 6's. When you play cards in front of you, you should play them in rows, with each new row partially covering the previous row, like in the photo below.

Your most recent set is vulnerable, while earlier sets are safe, as long as they are being protected by that most recent set. By "vulnerable" I mean a set can be attacked (or "abluxxed") by another player. Whenever a player plays a set of cards, he checks whether the number of cards in the set is the same as any other player's current vulnerable set. If so, he needs to compare the values on the cards. If the current set being played has a higher value than the sets on the table, then those vulnerable sets are abluxxed. The active player first decides what he wants to do with each set being abluxxed. He either (a) takes the set into his hand, or (b) declines. In the former case, the victim must draw back the same number of cards. These can be picked from the 6 face-up cards at the centre of the table, or drawn from the draw deck. If the active player doesn't want the abluxxed set, the victim now gets to decide between (b)(i) taking the cards back into his hand, effectively wasting one turn and also exposing an earlier set, and (b)(ii) discarding the cards and redrawing.

It is good to have many cards with the same value, because that means you can play many cards on the same turn. Moreover, large sets are difficult to make, and are thus also harder to get abluxxed. Higher card values are good, because you have less risk of getting abluxxed, and you have better chances to abluxx others. I love using the non-word "abluxx"! Abluxx Abluxx Abluxxen. I hope it is not a swear word in a language I don't know.

The Play

We played with 5 players, which is the max. BGG says the game is best with 4, and works well with any player count from 2 to 5. I was mostly clueless for the first two games, and things only started to click towards the end of the second game. The rules sound simple, but there are actually quite a few tricks and tactics to the game - emergent strategies. For example, fishing. When you see a card in the card display at the centre of the table that you want, you can play a single card hoping someone will abluxx you, thus giving you the chance to take that card from the display. To enhance the likelihood of getting abluxxed, you may even want to play a card of the same value as another player who is also fishing. A player abluxxing both of you can claim multiple cards of the same value, which is very tempting.

You don't know other players' starting hands, but most of the time during the game you can see what cards they are collecting. Usually they either rob cards from other players, or take cards from the central display. They can draw cards from the draw deck, which would prevent you from knowing what the cards are, but then such blind draws are risky and thus undesirable. Card counting is a skill that can be put to good use. You don't need to memorise everything. It will already help by having a general idea of what values others are stockpiling. If you see one person collecting tons of 1's but never playing them, he may be preparing for a final kill, playing all his 1's at one go to end the game.

It is important to watch your opponents and have a good grasp of the pace of a game. Don't get caught unprepared for game end. Getting a large hand of cards is tempting. It means more flexibility and opportunities for powerful plays. However if you misjudge the tempo and someone else ends the game while you are unprepared, you will end up in the red.

I find the set collection quite exciting in this game. Normally set collection in other games is fulfilling. In Abluxxen it is not only fulfilling but also anxiety-inducing. You are never quite sure when the right time to play your huge set is. Play it at the wrong time, and you can get abluxxed, which is very painful for large sets. Your attacker will likely claim your set, forcing you to redraw. When you need to redraw many cards, chances are you will get a lousy mix, which translates to many more turns needed to clear your hand. When you have a large set, you often want to hold and wait. You may want to wait for others to play the same number of cards as your set but with a card value higher than yours, so that it would be safe by the time you play yours. The other side of the coin is you may want to wait till someone else plays a weaker set so that you can pounce on him. This is a nasty, nasty little game!

There is a psychological element. If you see that most other players are going for pairs and triplets, you may be able to get away with playing some loose singles.

The X card is the wild card. If you play a set containing only wild cards, they are considered to have a value of 14, i.e. they beat all other cards.

The Thoughts

The thing that strikes me most about Abluxxen is how difficult it is to describe it. It's not a trick-taking game like Bridge. It's not a climbing game like Big Two or Fight the Landlord. It appears to be a traditional card game, since the only information on a card that matters is the value. The colours have no gameplay meaning. They are just nice to look at and they ease gameplay. There is no suit. Once you experience Abluxxen, you will find that it breaks the traditional card game mould. It is refreshing and thought-provoking. It is amazing how much strategy emerges from such simple rules. When Kareem taught us the game, he said it was quite evil. I asked whether it was as evil as Sticheln, and he said probably more so. Now that I have played the game, I can't say he's wrong. Abluxxen is a highly interactive and clever game. Abluxxen Abluxxen Abluxxen.