Sunday, 31 December 2017

my 2017

Boardgaming-wise, 2017 was more or less the same as 2016, so there is not a lot to write about. I still join Friday night gaming at, but not as regularly as before. This year I managed to join one of their boardgame retreats though, which I had never tried before. I played 335 times in 2017. I played 70 distinct games, of which 38 were new to me. These were near the 2016 numbers. My wife Michelle and elder daughter Shee Yun played even less in 2017, but younger daughter Chen Rui played a bit more. We played some Santorini and Lost Cities.

2017 was my 10th year of blogging about this boardgaming hobby. It was fun for me, therapeutic even.

My most played games were Star Realms (89), Ascension (53) and Race for the Galaxy (49). The first two are my evergreen games against Han on my phone. We have been doing this for years. Race for the Galaxy had a revival because it was released on the iPad. I joined the Beta testing and played a lot. I bought it after it was released and played some, but so far still fewer times than when it was in Beta. I only played against the AI's, and it was fun and challenging.

I played Escape: The Curse of the Temple 17 times, mostly after having taught it to a group of friends at work. We certainly had many hilarious moments with it. I had 14 plays of Onirim, an unconventional solo card game which was free on the iPad; and 10 plays of Love Letter, which is always a delight.

My most memorable moment was in a game of Hit Z Road. It was a story of incredible odds. Never give up hope, and always do your best.

The most pleasant surprise was Magic Maze. What an ingenious idea, and so much chaotic fun!

Technically I had more new games in 2017 than in 2016, 15 vs 8. However 9 of my game purchases were expansion packs of Android: Netrunner, which were on sale at Meeples Cafe. I'm not exactly sure I should have bought them. I don't really play Netrunner. I know it's a great game, but I never manage to be committed enough to get into it. I bought the expansions on the wish that I would get into it some day. I have not played with any of these expansion packs, unless you count sleeving and reading cards as playing.

I bought three games in the Exit: The Game series. These were play-once games. I bought two games from the Pandemic family - Pandemic: Iberia and Pandemic Legacy Season 2, the latter being earnestly anticipated. Pandemic Legacy Season 1 was my game of the year in 2016. The final new game of 2017 was The Impregnable Fortress, a review copy from a Singaporean designer.

These are the games new to me in 2017, in alphabetical order:

  1. Arena: Roma II
  2. Century: Spice Road
  3. Cottage Garden
  4. Custom Heroes
  5. Dice Forge
  6. Empires: Age of Discovery - I'm not sure whether this should count, since I have played Age of Empires III before. Empires is just a new version.
  7. Exit: The Game - The Abandoned Cabin. I played in this order: Secret Lab, Abandoned Cabin, Pharaoh's Tomb. Secret Lab felt a little easy, Abandoned Cabin a little hard, and Pharaoh's Tomb somewhere in between. Pharaoh's Tomb was supposed to be the hardest of this first trio of Exit games, but I had learned a spoiler before playing it, which made it slightly easier. I heard of a particular mechanism being used in the series. It didn't appear in Secret Lab or Abandoned Cabin when I played them, so I knew it was coming sooner or later in the Pharaoh's Tomb. I wish I hadn't known it.
  8. Exit: The Game - The Pharaoh's Tomb
  9. Exit: The Game - The Secret Lab
  10. Fabled Fruit
  11. Five Tribes - I like this. It is satisfying when you find clever plays.
  12. Fold-It
  13. Great Western Trail
  14. Hit Z Road - From reading the rules, it seems like a very Euro auction game, but the story comes through when you sit down to play. The game is more thematic than I expected.
  15. Igloo Pop
  16. Knit Wit
  17. Kolejka
  18. Magic Maze
  19. Medici: The Card Game
  20. Not Alone
  21. Odin's Ravens (2nd ed)
  22. Onirim
  23. Pandemic Iberia - Pretty decent. Get it if you are a big fan of Pandemic. If you are lukewarm on Pandemic, it won't change your mind. It's about 70% similar. There are some unique twists which fans will enjoy.
  24. Pandemic Legacy Season 2 - I have started playing this, but it will be a while before I write about it. I intend to complete the campaign before doing so.
  25. Pax Porfiriana - Rich and flavourful, but challenging to learn.
  26. Pax Renaissance - Ditto.
  27. Ponzi Scheme - The cover is boring and the theme is boring, but the game is more fun than I had expected. It is a game of daring and brinkmanship. Just don't screw yourself by making silly calculation mistakes like I did.
  28. Power Grid: The Card Game - The map / spatial element is removed, but this is still a pretty full experience, not a watered down card game version.
  29. Project: ELITE
  30. Sanssouci - A pleasant solitairish game from Michael Kiesling.
  31. Santorini - It's an abstract 2-player game, despite how cute it looks. I don't think it would have been half as successful if it were marketed as a serious, thinky abstract game. Good marketing and good art are important!
  32. Secret Hitler - A slightly more thinky social deduction game. It works well. The title plates are solid and impressive. You can seriously injure someone with one of them.
  33. The Impregnable Fortress
  34. Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania
  35. Unlock! - The Formula. The other escape room game I've tried. This is pretty good too. I enjoy the clever riddles.
  36. Urbania
  37. West of Africa - Brutal version of Race for the Galaxy in boardgame format, which looks completely different from Race for the Galaxy.
  38. World's Fair 1893 - This was a pleasant surprise. Simple rules, scarce actions, difficult decisions, decent strategic depth. It reminded me of the simple-yet-deep era of Eurogames.

Friday, 29 December 2017

boardgaming in photos

22 Oct 2017. Tales of the Arabian Nights. It had been a while. I felt like playing something, and conscripted the kids to play with me. I had forgotten most of the rules, and explained it clunkily while reading the rulebook. Bad idea and rookie mistake. It made the kids impatient. I should have read it by myself first so that the teaching would go much smoother.

I picked this game because elder daughter Shee Yun is into writing these days. I thought a story-telling game would be up her alley.

This is one of the special locations. You can't simply decide to enter such locations. Only special incidents give you an opportunity to visit one of these locations. Sometimes you won't even get one chance for the whole game.

Two of my status cards got me stuck for quite a while. I was a Sultan, which meant I was very wealthy. However it also meant my travel speed on land was greatly reduced due to having a large retinue. At the same time, I was a cripple. This status also reduced my movement speed. I was some distance away from Baghdad. I had settled down in another city and made it my hometown. Each time I left home, I could only visit one other city before returning home, otherwise the wife would be mad at me. From where I was, I could not reach Baghdad without stopping at another city, which meant I could never get to Baghdad to claim victory. I had enough Destiny points and Story points to win, but no way to get to Baghdad. Eventually it was an incident which let me employ Shee Yun (who was a clever scholar) to cure me of my crippled status. Only then I managed to go to Baghdad to win. Actually I wasn't sure whether I played this right. The text said I could do this, but it did not say explicitly whether Shee Yun could refuse.

This time playing Tales of the Arabian Nights felt a little draggy. I guess it was partly because of how I got stuck for some time with no way to progress. The story being told in this game is not really a consistent narrative. It is a story assembled from random snippets. It is only partly affected by your character's statuses and your decisions. The results of some of the decisions are rather random too. Sometimes you do experience an interesting journey. Sometimes it can be a disjointed experience. Winning is more luck than skill, but that's okay, because this game is more about the experience than outdoing your friends.

27 Oct 2017. Cubist, a game where you build structures with dice. This time I played a 3-player game with Allen and Heng. It was Heng's first time.

The structure in the middle is the museum. Completion of the museum is one of the game-end conditions. The museum starts with one die - the red one. The blue and brown dice are player dice. So far Allen and Heng had contributed to museum construction. I had not yet contributed any dice. I was green.

I was only one #3 die away from completing this sculpture on the left. I needed one more #3 die to stack on top of the existing #3 die. I was building some kind of rampart. We were near game end. All three of us were close to completing one last sculpture, which would end the game. It came down to whoever was first to roll the right number. He would complete his sculpture, and the points from that sculpture would put him in the lead and give him the victory.

The green card is the blueprint for the museum. The Museum is only one #6 die away from being completed.

This was Heng's first time playing Machi Koro too. I love this game and was more than happy to teach. I directly taught the Harbour expansion.

17 Nov 2017. Both Allen and I like Innovation. It has classic status between us. We don't regularly play it, but still bring it out once in a while, unlike most hobby games which only get played once or twice, and then stay on the shelf. Our games were a little lopsided, but still fun. What's cool about Innovation is there can always be an unexpected twist around the corner.

15 Dec 2017. There was a team-building event at work, and one of the activities was boardgames. Naturally I was the supplier of boardgames. Among the games picked, Captain Sonar was the most complex. Most were very simple. In the game of Captain Sonar played that day, both radio operators were competent and did not make any mistake. Blue team (left) managed to determine the exact location of yellow team (right) earlier. I was confident they would win. Knowledge was power. In the early game, blue team mostly used detection tools, to help them find the location of their enemy. Yellow team mostly used weapons, but they seemed to be shooting blindly without knowing for sure where the enemy was. However at one of their attacks, they managed an indirect hit, which greatly reduced the possible positions of their enemy. Blue team wasn't ready to counterattack due to their weapons system being offline. They had to repair it first. They never did manage to recover. Before they could get themselves organised, yellow team kept up relentless attacks and eventually sank them.

Coconuts must be played in a meeting room and not in any open area because the coconuts would fly, bounce and roll everywhere.

There was bitter competition in Halli Galli. It was a four-player game, and they had to play till two players remained. When they were down to three, play was intense and everyone managed to hold on for a long time. There were a few times Zharif ran out of cards, but the next time exactly 5 fruits of the same kind came up, he managed to ring the bell first. So he claimed a stack of cards and was back in action. It was exciting to see him back from the brink many times.

I had used Loopin Louie for a previous company event, so some of my colleagues already knew how to play.

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Custom Heroes

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

A quick and dirty description of Custom Heroes would be "Super Cho Dai Dee". It's a climbing card game like Tichu and Cho Dai Dee / Big 2, something most Chinese people around the world are familiar with. The main hook of the game are these transparent plastic cards below. The game must be played with sleeved cards. These transparent cards can be inserted into the sleeves to augment the normal cards. Cards can be upgraded. They call this the card crafting mechanism.

The transparent cards are called card advancements. Everyone starts the game with these two. You choose when you want to use them. At the end of every hand, you receive more, depending on your position for the current hand.

A game usually lasts 5 or 6 hands. To win the game, you need to first reach 10pts, and then win a hand. If there is no winner at the end of the 6th hand, only qualifying players enter the 7th hand, a championship hand, and whoever wins that wins the game, regardless of score.

The basic cards in the game are very simple - they are just cards numbered 1 to 10. No jacks, queens, kings or aces. The number of cards used depends on the number of players. You add a set of ten cards, numbered 1 to 10, per player. At the start of a hand, all cards are dealt out. Everyone gets 10 cards. Your objective is to get rid of all your cards as early as possible. A lead player first decides the combo type to play. It can a single card, a pair, a triplet and so on. The card values must be the same. Once this is decided, subsequent card plays must be of the same number of cards. The card value must match or top the latest value. You continue playing until no one is able to or wants to play any more. The last player to have played a combo becomes the next lead player and decides the next combo to play. This continues until one player plays all his cards. He is the winner for the hand. The rest then continues to play, to determine 2nd, 3rd positions etc. Once all positions are determined, everyone collects rewards. This includes points, power tokens and card advancements. The winner gets the most points, but the losers get more power tokens and card advancements. This is a catch-up mechanism. The core mechanism is simple, more so than Cho Dai Dee. You don't have all the poker combos like straights, full houses or flushes. There is no concept of suits.

During a hand, cards are played into a pile like this.

Let's look at the card advancements. They are the main selling point of the game. Card advancements are hidden behind your player screen. Every time you play cards, you may choose to upgrade them by attaching card advancements. There are four types of advancements. If you take a closer look at the photo above, you will see that near the bottom of each card there are four circles. Whenever you add an advancement to a card, one of these will be filled. Each card can accommodate four advancements at most, one of each type. In this photo two of the cards have been upgraded, and both have used the blue advancement slot. Their values have been increased.

Upgraded cards stay upgraded for the rest of the game. When you upgrade a card, you do it just before you play it, so that you enjoy the benefit. Before the start of the next hand, all cards are shuffled, and the card which you have spent a card advancement to upgrade may be dealt to another player. When cards get upgraded, the card distribution of the deck changes. There will be cards with values higher than 10. There may be fewer cards of a certain value because they have been upgraded, making it harder or even impossible to make four-of-a-kinds and triplets. On the other hand, upgrades can make five-of-a-kinds possible.

The player screen hides your card advancements. It also shows a reference table which lists the rewards to be given at the end of each hand. The red tokens are victory points. The yellow tokens are power tokens.

Some card abilities can be activated only by spending power tokens. If you play such a card and cannot afford the power tokens or do not wish to spend the power tokens, you gain some power tokens instead. Power tokens can be converted to victory points too.

There is one rule which does not exist in Cho Dai Dee. If you play a card or cards of the same value as the previous card or cards played, the next player is forced to pass. Since Custom Heroes has no concept of suits or the relative strengths of suits, cards of the same value being played consecutively happens quite often. This rule can cause some unexpected twists. You may be confident in the strength of your remaining cards, but if you get locked out of playing cards, even for just one turn, sometimes your perfect plan can become completely unravelled.

The Play

Playing Custom Heroes is very much like playing Cho Dai Dee (Big 2). The core mechanism is the same - it's a climbing game. The moment the cards are dealt, you already have to plan how to play out your hand. You need to make good use of the different combos. E.g. if you know an opponent has no pairs, you want to keep playing pairs to deny him progress. You know that weak cards in your hand will likely need to be helped by the strong cards. E.g. a lowly single 1 will likely be dependent on a 10 being played, so that you can be lead player next and play that 1. All these are familiar if you know Cho Dai Dee.

One thing that's significantly different is you don't play until one player wins. You play until there is one player left with cards. You need to determine the positions of all players, from first to last. In Cho Dai Dee, if your hand sucks you will try to do damage control, expecting to lose but trying to lose without too many cards in hand. You cut your losses. In Custom Heroes, even if you can't be first, you try to be second, or third. You don't want to be stuck with cards you can never play. The strategy changes because of this.

The advancements are precious. It's tricky deciding when to use them and when to save them for an even better occasion.

You need to keep in mind the ever changing card distribution. You need a rough idea of how it has changed, so that you can better evaluate the strength of your hand. You need to know what the highest card values are at any time. It's no guarantee for winning a hand though, because your opponents can always introduce yet another advancement to immediately modify cards. There will always be some surprise in store for you.

The rightmost card has been upgraded to a bomb. It is a single card, and it beats any combo played before it, regardless of the number of cards in the combo. However it can also be beaten by a bomb played after it. Every player starts the game with a bomb advancement.

I played a four-player game - Ivan, Allen, Abraham and I. The funniest thing in our game was how many times Abraham was forced to pass. He sat on my left, and there were many occasions when I had the exact same card value as previously played to the pile. I couldn't not play it! It was the best move. Abraham was blocked so many times that we got to a point when all it was needed was an apologetic glance from me, and he'd nod knowingly and signal to me: just do it man, just get it over and done with. In hindsight, I should have suggested to swap seats with him.

This #4 card has been upgrade twice, +9 and -1. So it's a 12 now. Negative advancements are not necessarily bad. Let's say I have a 12 and a 13. If I "improve" the 13 by -1, making it a 12, I can make a pair of 12's, which can be very powerful and handy.

Thematically, two of the advancement types are weapons, for right and left hands respectively. When you add such an advancement to a card, it is not just a number being added, a weapon will also be placed in the hand of the character. In this particular case of a negative enhancement, the weapon is a cabbage. That text at the bottom is a separate advancement. Base cards have no text. This particular text advancement reverses the strengths of cards. Smaller values now beat higher values.

The Thoughts

The card crafting in Custom Heroes is fun and interesting. It gives you many options. Even if your hand is poor, it gives you some hope of turning things around, or at least securing a middling position. Your opponents will open spring surprises at you. Since the core mechanism is a climbing game, non-gamers who know Cho Dai Dee will be able to learn this relatively easily. The card crafting is not rocket science. Some of the text card powers need some explaining though. It is not exactly a light game. It is a mid-weight game. Also, you don't play a 3-minute single hand. You need to play around 4 or 5 hands to complete a game. Complexity-wise it is higher than most climbing games. You need to worry about the power tokens, scoring victory points, and the various card advancements. Fiddling with the card advancements is some work, especially when packing the game away. You need to remove all the card advancements from the basic cards. It's the price to pay to enjoy the card crafting. Custom Heroes is something different and worth trying.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Fabled Fruit

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The legacy game mechanism is relatively new, but there are already quite a few games using it. The mad scientist game designer Friedemann Friese has taken an interest, and has now released quite a few games using legacy mechanisms. Fabled Fruit was the first of these. The key idea behind the legacy mechanism is a game can change over time. Rules may change. Game components may change. One game can be different from the next, depending on what the players have done during play. In Pandemic Legacy, many changes are permanent and irreversible. Components are destroyed. Cards are written on. People die. The irrevocability lends gravity to your actions and decisions. Fabled Fruit changes from game to game, but has no destructive aspect. If you want to, you can reset the game completely. Your actions will change the game and the actions allowed. Some actions will be disabled, replaced by new ones. The game comes with many different actions, but only a subset will be in use each game. You can play through a long campaign spanning multiple games to see every action come into play. Which actions come and which actions go depend on your group. On subsequent playthroughs of a campaign, you may not get the same combination of actions.

The basic resources in the game are five types of fruits - bananas and strawberries being two of them. You collect fruits to make juice. The game ends when at least one player makes a certain number of bottles of juice. Whoever has made the most bottles wins. In case of a tie, you compare leftover fruits in hand.

This is how a game is set up. Ivan taught Allen and I to play. This was not the first time he played. His copy of the game had undergone a few rounds of evolution to come to this state. The ten stacks in the middle are location cards. The row of five face-up cards on the right are the fruit cards. On your turn, you must move your pawn to a new location (you cannot stay where you are). If there are pawns of other players present, you need to pay fruits to them. Normally you want to avoid doing this. Once you arrive at your destination, you have two options. You may use the ability of the location. Usually it lets you collect fruits, sometimes directly, sometimes less so. Your other option is to make juice. The location card specifies the fruit combination required. If you pay the cost, you claim the location card, flip it over, and place it in front of you. It becomes a bottle of fabled juice. Since a location card has been removed from the play area, you now need to draw a replacement from the location card draw deck. Sometimes it can be a whole new type of location card. You will create a new stack and introduce a new action into the game. This is how the gameplay evolves. There are 59 different types of location cards, with 4 copies per type, making a total of 236 location cards. Playing through this whole deck of location cards is one full campaign.

Let's take a closer look at two of the location cards. You should only send your pawn to the card on the left if you happen to be one of the players with the fewest fruits. You will get to draw a number of fruit cards equal to the number you have in hand. This action is most powerful if everyone has many cards, and you are lucky enough to have just a bit less than the rest. The location card on the right lets you swap your hand with another player, the condition being that he has at most one card more than you. Also, once cards are swapped, he gets to draw one fruit card.

If you decide to make juice, the card on the left requires two types of fruits, and 3 units in each type. The card on the right requires exactly 3 pineapples and 2 grapes.

Identical location cards are stacked together, like the stack on the left. The location card stack on the right has only one card remaining. Once anyone makes juice with this card, the action of this stack will be lost. That grey wooden piece on the right is a player pawn.

The two cards are location cards which have been flipped over, showing the bottle side. The green tortoise marker is a player marker, reminding everyone including yourself which pawn on the table is yours. The strawberry marker is a special marker. It is in play only when a specific location card type is in use. When you own a fruit marker like this, it stands in for any payment you make when making juice. If a juice needs 4 strawberries, I only need to pay 3. The wooden monkey is also a special token brought into play when a specific location card type is in use. Whenever anyone makes juice, the monkey steals 2 of the fruit cards from the payment made.

The number of bottles of fabled juice required to win depends on the number of players. With 3 players, you need 4 bottles. When a player reaches 4 bottles, the round is still completed so that everyone has the same number of turns.

The Play

The game rules are straightforward. It is only at the beginning that you need a little time to digest the location card powers. You do need to internalise them, so that you can see what's more valuable, and when which will become valuable. You also want to watch out for strong combos, and risks. Some cards are aggressive in nature, so you want to avoid getting targeted. E.g. cards getting swapped, or worse - getting robbed.

This is an efficiency game. On average you want to earn two fruits per turn. If you can manage three or more, that's wonderful. You need to have a general idea of what fruits your opponents are collecting. Some actions allow players to take face-up cards, so you can see what fruits they collect. You want to know which locations they will likely want to use. If possible, beat them to it, to force them to pay you fruits, or disrupt their plans. The actions available have much variety, and the pool of actions gradually evolve. There are many tactical decisions. You must stay alert of opportunities and squeeze out all those little advantages. They will add up and help you beat your opponents to the finish line.

I feel the players' progress will be mostly quite close, so it is likely it will come down to the tiebreaker rule.

The Thoughts

Fabled Fruit is a light-medium weight game. If you put aside the legacy mechanism, it is a common efficiency game of resource gathering. However you can't really cut out the legacy mechanism when commenting on the game. It is an integral part of the game. Mutation happens not just between games but also within the same game. You need to adapt. You need to look ahead at what new action may come into play. You need to stay alert of every player's current stock of fruits. You are constantly assessing the pool of actions available to you, deciding which ones are most effective. This is the fun part of the game - adapting to change and creating change at the same time. Fabled Fruit is tactical in nature. You want to make every little tactical advantage count.

Fabled Fruit is no deep strategy game. It is a light efficiency game. What is most enjoyable is adapting to the constantly changing landscape.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Knit Wit

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Knit Wit falls under the word game and trivia game umbrella, something closer to a casual party game than the typical strategy game which most boardgame hobbyists are into. You are presented with sets of adjectives, and need to come up with an object for each set, which fulfills all adjectives of the set. Everyone does this simultaneously and secretly. The key is you need to come up with unique objects in order to score points.

These are the main components of the game - spools, strings, and tiny cards with adjectives. During the setup stage of a game, players take turns laying down these components to form a complex network, something like a Venn diagram. The strings are loops. They form various shapes and overlap one another. Spools are placed in areas enclosed by one or more strings. Each string gets one adjective associated with it. A spool is associated with one or more adjectives, depending on which string loops it is located within. Your task is to think of an object for every spool on the table. Those with many adjectives will be harder, but they are worth more points.

The #7 spool is enclosed by the red, white and purple strings. The #8 spool is enclosed by purple, white and black. The black is barely visible, you need to look closely. Setup in still in progress. These spools may later be enclosed by even more strings, and thus be associated with even more adjectives.

There are 8 spools and 8 strings in the game. A completed setup will look like this.

These buttons have different numbers of holes. Each hole means 1 victory point. Once setup is done, the game is played in a real-time format. Everyone tries to write down the names of objects for every spool as quickly as possible. The first to finish doing so (or first to decide to give up on the remaining unfilled blanks) gets to claim a button. The number of buttons is one fewer than the number of players, so the last person gets no button. The buttons are the rewards for the race aspect of the game.

There are a few very specific rules during the setup phase which ensures no spools will have the exact same set of adjectives.

The game comes with many adjective cards. It will take many games to use them all. Even when you start to recycle, the game is more about combinations of adjectives than individual adjectives, so you still have many possible combinations to play with.

A game is short. You spend two or three minutes to set up, and then around seven or eight minutes to think of objects. You score starting with spool #1. Everyone states what he has written down. If there are clashes, those players score nothing. For the rest, they need to convince everyone else their choices fulfill the requirements. If there is any objection the word is put to a vote. After all spools are scored, you add points for the buttons. The total determines the winner.

The Play

I played Knit Wit with my family twice. It feels more like a family activity or social activity than a game. The game mechanism creates many different combinations of adjectives. Different people will think of different objects due to their different cultural backgrounds, personal histories and exposure. Also everyone is trying to write something unique. You can get to know more about your fellow players by what they write. This is the social aspect of the game. Word clashes don't happen often. At least not in our games. Wrong answers don't happen a lot either. Because of that, scores tend to be close. The play experience is not much focused on trying to outscore your opponents. It is more about being creative with finding objects that fit quirky combinations of adjectives.

Shee Yun was rather strict when playing. When she couldn't think of perfectly suitable objects, she left the space blank and did not try to bend the meanings of some of the adjectives. When we came to the scoring phases, she frequently raised objections. She was strict both on herself and on others. My take when playing such a game is it is light-hearted fun and need not be taken too seriously. So I voted yes most of the time, if we had to vote. I only said no if an answer was obviously wrong or when the meaning of an adjective was twisted a bit too far. I seemed to be the only one being loose about voting. We did have a few words failed by the vote.

I don't quite remember who won the games. I just remember it probably wasn't Shee Yun because she had too many blanks.

Shee Yun, Michelle and Chen Rui.

I was rather pleased with what I came up with. The adjectives were "inorganic", "male" and "funny". My answer was Wall-E, one of my favourite Pixar animation characters.

The Thoughts

Knit Wit is short, easy to teach and has fancy components. It is an easy choice if you want to play with casual players. The game mechanism is unusual and refreshing. The game will work well as a party game. It is not a competitive game. You don't really think about strategy or how to squeeze an extra point here and there to outdo your opponent. You just enjoy all those crazy combinations of adjectives and the creativity required to come up with something unique. You even enjoy stretching the meanings of adjectives, and convincing your friends about your answer, with as straight a face as you can muster. I think for most boardgame hobbyists Knit Wit is a novelty you are happy to try, but it's not really something you pursue. It's a fun diversion and a nice change of pace, but it's not a main course you plan with fellow gamers. It's a filler. It's a trivia type game.

Friday, 1 December 2017

Pax Renaissance

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pax Renaissance is a card game by Phil Eklund, and it is in the same series as Pax Porfiriana. That means this is no simple card game. It is more complex than many boardgames, and it is truly a gamer's game. The setting is Europe during the Age of Renaissance. You are banker dynasties pulling the strings behind the scenes, manipulating politics, religion, science, trade, warfare and revolution. Your actions determine the course of history. Decide the future of Europe, and if you play the biggest part in this future, you win.

This is how a game is set up. The ten cards in the centre form a map of Europe. This is your game board. Each card is also the location of an empire. There are gaps between the empires, allowing placement of your concessions (the cubes in green, orange and yellow). The game calls them concessions, but I'm going to just call them merchants. The row of cards above with white backs are the west cards. They affect the 6 western empires. The row of cards at the bottom with black backs are the east cards. They affect the 4 eastern empires.

Every turn you get to perform two actions. You have many options. One of them is to simply buy a card from the east row or west row. Cards on the left are cheaper than those on the right. Every time a card is bought, cards to its right are shifted leftwards and a new card is drawn for the rightmost slot. This is Through the Ages style. If you have cards in hand, another action you can perform is to play a card. Depending on whether it is an east card or a west card, you play it on the right or left side of your player card. This difference is important because when you perform the operate action, you trigger either all your east cards or all your west cards.

That green card is my player card. I only have eastern empires and east cards, so they are all on the right side of my player card. The horizontal cards are the empire cards, while the vertical ones are the regular cards. You start the game controlling no empires. You get to control them via various means, e.g. marriage, conquest.

Card powers vary greatly, and each cards has multiple abilities. Most of the things in the game can only be done using card powers. So you want many cards played before you, to allow you to do many things. Each card specifies where its powers can be used. Some are specific to an empire. Some are for a whole region (east or west). These three here are all empire-specific.

Among the black, white and pink pieces, the horses are the knights. You can use them to invade neighbouring empires. They also defend an empire under attack. The cylinders are the nobles. They only defend. Black, white and pink mean Islamic, Catholic and Reformist respectively. Some wars are fought between empires, regardless of the religious beliefs of their fighters. Some wars are fought between religions, and only the relevant believers fight.

The black lines and the white lines which run around the board are trade routes. When you buy cards, the money paid accumulates in a pool. If you decide to perform a trade fair action, money is distributed from this pool. It goes to players who have merchants along the trade routes. Empires along the trade routes also get to build armies. The trade fair action gives out money and also affects the military strengths of empires. When you take this action you need to be careful not to benefit others too much, if at all.

The map cards are double sided. Most cards start with the kingdom side face-up. The other side is the theocracy side. You flip the map card over if an event causes an empire to become a theocracy. On the kingdom side there is a small icon indicating what type of theocracy the empire may become. England, France and the Holy Roman Empire may potentially become Reformist theocracies. Portugal and Aragon may become Catholic theocracies. The Papal States and the Mamluk Empire start off as theocracies, being Catholic and Islamic respectively. If they ever flip, they become theocracies in each other's religions, i.e. the Papal States may become Islamic, and the Mamluk Empire may become Catholic. We didn't have any flipping in our game. I am guessing this is quite rare.

These are the four victory cards. None are active at the start of the game. In the second half of the game comet cards start appearing. If you buy a comet card, you get to activate one victory card. From that point on, anyone who meets the requirements on the activated card may perform a victory action to win the game. In the game we played, quite often we needed both the actions on our turn to meet the victory requirements. We still needed one more action to actually claim victory. By the next turn, the winning condition had already been disrupted by the other players. The need to spend an action to claim victory is a clever stroke, making the game much more challenging.

The four victory conditions are (1) controlling more kingdoms than other players, (2) controlling more republics and laws than other players, (3) being most influential in the dominant religion, (4) controlling more merchants and merchant ships than other players. As you can see, they are all very different.

The Play

The difficulty in the early game is money. It is not easy to make money. You need money to buy cards. You want cards because they let you perform actions. The more cards the better, generally. I struggled with funding more than Han and Allen. Buying and selling cards is not an effective way to make money. You buy at at least $1, and you sell at only $2. The trade fair action is a better way. You need to deploy merchants and feel the money pool tempo. Everyone wants to execute the trade fair action at a time most profitable to him. You need to know when best to strike, before someone else does it.

Basic actions like buying cards, playing cards, and running trade fairs are not complicated. However there are many other types of actions, especially those enabled by cards, which are much more complex. This is not an easy game to teach and to internalise. Cards have a lot of text and many icons. Flavour text (historical notes) do take up much space, but aside from that, there are still many icons and keywords which are relevant to gameplay. The two card rows work in a similar manner as Through the Ages, i.e. like a sushi belt. New cards enter on the right, get moved towards the left and eventually get purchased. Usually you have some time to study the cards and plan ahead. Despite being a card game, you don't feel there is much luck. In fact it feels more like an open information game. The card rows are open information.

The game supports 2 to 4 players, and 3 seems to be the generally accepted ideal player count. In our 3-player game we had an interesting balance of power. Whenever one person threatened to win, the other two collaborated to thwart him. It was never easy to run far enough that others couldn't drag you back. The game can be quite vicious. You do need to keep tripping up your opponents. Some card powers are very powerful. I wonder whether 2-player games will be less interesting due to the higher likelihood of a runaway leader.

Only a subset of cards are in play each game. My gut feel is each game can be very different from the next, depending on what cards happen to be in play, and also the order in which they are drawn. The game is very much about considering the current landscape and making the most of it.

The black and white pieces here are the bishops. Black is Islamic and white is Catholic. Bishops are powerful pieces because they neutralise almost all abilities of the cards they are on. In our game, they were used to shut down cards which would otherwise have been able to behead queens, resulting in royal marriages being severed, and kingdoms lost.

The horizontal cards are the empires I control. I took hold of the Byzantine empire (light blue) through a royal marriage (my queen is the vertical card tucked under the Byzantine card). The three empires beneath the Byzantine card were captured through conquest - the Ottoman Empire (dark green), Hungary (light green) and the Papal States (white). If I lose the Byzantine empire, I will lose all three vassals as well.

Empires rise and fall easily. In this game you have no loyalty or attachment to empires. They are just tools. Just objects. You need to manipulate the geopolitical landscape to your advantage. You need to set up a victory condition which is easiest for you to achieve, or else you will need to chase after what someone else sets up. Since the victory conditions are rather different, it is possible that every player aims at a different thing. The game can become a race instead of a tug of war. However it will not likely stay a race all the way to the end, because if anyone threatens to cross the finish line, the others will be forced to trip him up. You may steal something from him which does you no good, but at least you slow him down and give yourself more time.

In my game with Allen and Han, we teetered at the edge of victory quite a few times. It often felt oh so close - just one action away from winning. The game situation can change quickly. There are multiple aspects to the game and thus multiple threats and also multiple opportunities. The game is not about being good at everything. It is about not being bad at everything. You can choose to be good in only one thing. That might actually be enough to win. But then it is also a little risky because you have no reliable Plan B. The only thing you must not neglect is making money.

The Thoughts

Pax Renaissance is rich, complex and challenging. The box is small and unassuming, but the game is ambitious and serious. It is a gamer's game, and only for gamers who have the appetite for some complexity. You need to commit effort to be able to appreciate and enjoy the game. I have only played one game, but I believe it has much variability due to how only a subset of cards are in use each game.

This is mostly an open information game, so it can feel quite competitive. With less luck, you feel more responsible for your mistakes and losses. You also feel proud when you make the right strategic moves. The game is satisfying in this way. You feel you have done something clever and outsmarted your opponents. Just be prepared that it comes with the kind of pressure when playing open information games. It is a battle of wits, and not everyone likes games of this nature, or will be in the mood for this type all the time.

Saturday, 18 November 2017


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

I have just written about the escape room game series Exit. Now it is the turn for Unlock. Unlock is an award winner too - the French Golden Ace award (As d'Or Jeu de l'Année), for 2017. I have only played one game in the series - The Formula.

Playing Unlock requires using a smartphone app. It acts as a countdown timer. Sometimes you are required to enter a passcode and it tells you whether it is correct. You can ask for hints. When you make mistakes, you may be penalised. You apply the penalty using the app - it reduces the time you have to escape the room.

Other than this app, what you use is just a deck of cards. There are different numbers and alphabets on the card backs. You start the game with just one scenario card. You read the scenario description aloud, start the timer, and flip the card over to see the room you are in.

This is the room. Those numbers and alphabets you can see mean you get to draw and reveal the cards from the deck with these numbers and alphabets. They are the objects you see in the room. The information on the cards are further details of the objects.

Your end goal is to escape the room in which you are locked. To do that you need to enter the right passcode into the app. To get to this final passcode, you need to solve a series of puzzles and riddles. You need to picture yourself in the room as depicted on the scenario card. There are many objects in the room. All of them will help you escape. Your task is to decipher the clues, and to make use of the objects to get more clues and more objects, until you eventually find the final passcode. Some objects combine to give you another object. Most objects are associated with a number, e.g. a lock is #10, and a key is #11. You may try to unlock this lock with this key. You do it by adding up the two numbers. The total is 21. You look through the deck for card #21. If the #11 key is indeed the right key for the #10 lock, the card #21 will tell you so, and give you a new clue, or a new riddle. If it is not the right key, the card #21 will tell you too, and you will be penalised. Usually you are asked to press the penalty button at the app, which shortens your remaining time. Because of this penalty, you must not randomly combine objects by summing up their numbers, hoping to eventually get a right answer. When you try to combine two objects, it has to make sense. You should only do it if you are confident and you have a logical explanation why the two objects should be combined. Sometimes the sum for two objects don't exist in the deck. Then you know for sure these two objects do not combine. Don't waste your breath.

You need to look closely at the cards. Sometimes there are hidden numbers or alphabets. Some cards require you to enter a passcode. This can happen in the middle of the game and not only at the end. Some cards require you to solve a puzzle where the answer is a number, and this number can be added to the number of another object. Some riddles can only be solved when you have all the necessary data, and the data is spread across many cards. Before you reveal them all, the partial information is not enough. There can be multiple riddles and puzzles at the same time. You can't be sure whether you already have all the necessary information. You need to work smart. If one path looks blocked for the moment, try something else and revisit this path later when you have more information.

You will not know which piece of information is for which riddle. In fact sometimes you may not even know whether a piece of information is a riddle or a clue for a riddle. You need to sort these out yourself. You always have a pool of information, and you need to keep breaking through to learn more, to get more riddles and to solve them too, and eventually get to the final passcode. Sometimes some cards will tell you you can discard specific cards, because the information on them is no longer needed. This helps keep you sane. If you feel stuck and need help, you can ask the app for hints. Naturally, it is most satisfying if you can solve everything without using any hints.

This is what the app looks like.

The Play

I played The Formula with just Allen. Han taught us the game. He had played before and couldn't join us. Allen and I managed to beat the game quite quickly, well under the 1 hour mark. We didn't use a single hint. That was satisfying. Han did help us along the way. He didn't directly give hints, but he did remind us to look at the cards closely, and also sometimes when he saw us spend much time checking things which he knew would yield no result, he told us flatly not to bother. So he did save us some time. Afterwards my children tried the game, and a group of friends too. I didn't give them any hints, only minor nudges, and it took them much longer to beat the game, about one and a half hours. What I find interesting is different people get stuck at different riddles. There are some which I found difficult and took long to solve, but others managed to solve quickly. Some which I found easy took others a long time to solve. Most riddles are logical in nature, as opposed to needing general or specific knowledge. In the cases of those which do require general knowledge, it is common knowledge that almost everyone should know. This is a good thing. There is little cultural barrier.

10 Sep 2017. The children struggled with the game, because it was just the two of them playing. I couldn't join them because I had already played it.

Halfway through the game Chen Rui gave up and left the table. They were stuck at the same riddles for a long time so Chen Rui was fed up and decided to go do something else. Shee Yun was determined to solve the riddles, and eventually did manage to beat the game.

There is time pressure when playing Unlock. You do need to use the app quite often, so you can't help noticing the timer. Each time you make a mistake and are penalised, you are reminded that time is running out. Exit has the same one-hour time limit, but in Exit you don't bother with the stopwatch until you are done with the game. You only check it after you are done to see how long you took. In Unlock there is no buzzing when time is up. You play on until you finally solve the final riddle, just that the app will tell you afterwards that you have done poorly.

The pleasure in Unlock is in analysing the wealth of data before you and sorting out which are the riddles, which are the clues, and which clues are for which riddles. You need to work out how to piece together the clues to solve the riddles. Step by step you solve the riddles and get more information, until you manage to reach the final passcode. There is always discussion at the table, throwing out ideas and bouncing hypotheses off one another. Due to the time penalty, before you reveal a new card you often need to think twice whether it might be a mistake.

The Thoughts

If you like riddles and IQ tests, I think you will like Unlock. In fact, to me, it feels more like an elaborate set of interdependent riddles than a boardgame. It is very different from what you'd expect a boardgame to be. When you work together with a group of friends to solve a difficult puzzle, you get a strong sense of comradeship.

If you ask me to compare Unlock and Exit, Unlock feels more thematic because it tries to make you imagine you are in that room, and the cards are actual objects you find there. The puzzles in Exit are more creative. Some of them downright amazed me. In Exit you may need to write, tear, fold, destroy and irreversibly change game components, so there is more freedom in coming up with puzzles. Unlock does make use of the app, so it has some elements which Exit is not able to support. If forced to pick which is better, I favour Exit slightly over Unlock. That said, I find these two series similar in the kind of experience and fulfilment they give you. If you like one, I'm confident you'll like the other.