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

Unlock!

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.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Exit: The Game

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Escape room games are a new trend. So far I have tried two games from the series Exit: The Game, and one game from the series Unlock!. The basic premise of these games is you find yourself locked up in a room, and in the limited time given to you, you need to find a way to escape. These are cooperative games with many puzzles to solve.

The games in the Exit series which I have played are The Abandoned Cabin and The Secret Lab. A game is essentially a set of 10 riddles. You start off with some information and one riddle. Each time you solve a riddle, you get more information and more riddles. Sometimes you have a few riddles on the table at the same time. You may not have enough information to solve all of them, but you will have enough information to solve at least one of them. As you uncover more information and more riddles, you will eventually work your way to the final riddle which lets you escape the room. When there are multiple pieces of information on the table, you won't know which riddle or riddles they are for. You need to work it out yourself.

This is how a game is set up. The red cards are the riddle cards. You reveal them only when explicitly instructed to do so. The blue cards are the answer cards. They don't actually tell you the answer. They are just part of a system to help you check whether your answer is correct. The green cards are help cards. The icons on them represent specific riddles in the game. If you get stuck with a particular riddle, you may use these help cards. Most riddles have 3 help cards. The first one gives you a little help, the second one gives more, and the third one tells you the solution.

At the start of the game you get this disc with three rotatable inner layers, and a booklet. Along the edge of the disc you can see the icons representing the riddles. The solution to a riddle is a combination of three chemicals. To test whether your answer to a riddle is correct, you rotate the inner layers of the disc so that the three desired chemicals are aligned below the riddle icon. A number will appear in the small window, and that's the answer card you need to check to see whether your answer is correct. The booklet contains a lot of information, but in the beginning most of it will not be meaningful. There is no explanation on how to use the information. You need to work it out yourself. Most information will only be useful when you reveal the relevant riddle card.

The Exit games are once-only affairs. This is true on two levels. It is once-only because if you already know the solutions to the riddles, you can't unknow them. It is also once-only because during play you will damage, alter or destroy components irreversibly. You will write on them, or draw on them, or fold them, or tear them, or cut them. I shall not be specific. Once you are done with your copy of the game, you won't be able to lend it to a friend to play.

The Play

It's a challenge trying to describe Exit. I can't be telling you too many details. It would spoil the game for you. I can't share too many photos either. Both my plays were with my wife and children (10 & 12). The riddles are mostly logic puzzles. There is sound reasoning behind the solution of every riddle. Technically you can try all combinations for a riddle until you eventually get the right one, but that is against the spirit of the game. It defeats the purpose.

Many of the riddles require piecing together a few clues. Some feel like mathematical questions. Some require you to associate separate elements. Some of them are quite creative. They surprised me.

The first time we played, we managed to beat the game comfortably within the hour. We only used one help card. I thought the game was easy. Not challenging enough. Our second game took 1 hour 18 minutes, and we had to use three help cards. They were all for the same riddle which we got stuck at. We eventually gave up and had to look at the solution. It was a good one. I was impressed.

The game is easier with more people. More people means more ideas. When facing a difficult challenge, there is a better chance that one of the players can think of something to try which will work. It is possible to play solo, but I think it will be less fun. Even with just two players, at least you can discuss and brainstorm. That's part of the fun - working together to achieve something.

The back of the rulebook is for recording your play - who you played with, how long you took, which riddle was most interesting etc.

The Thoughts

Exit does not feel like a boardgame to me. It is an experience. An event. It is a process of solving a series of clever riddles. If you like solving puzzles and riddles, you will probably like it. You certainly have to put on your thinking hat. The riddles are mostly logical in nature. Few have cultural elements, or are language specific, or need specific knowledge or familiarity with current events. You just need logical thinking, mostly. So the game translates well from the original German version to other languages. Logic is language independent. One thing that I find lacking is I don't really feel I'm locked inside a room trying to escape. Many of the riddles feel like they are independent. I can't imagine myself in a room searching for equipment to help me break out. The riddles themselves are clever and interesting. There is some background story you need to read aloud to get you into the mood. Just enjoy the puzzles and don't worry too much about the story. The story is not the selling point.

As a shared experience, this is a good family activity. I imagine it will work equally well with a group of friends. It's something you do together to enjoy the companionship and comradeship. You face a challenge together and achieve something together. I don't have a problem spending money to buy a game which can be used exactly once. I'm buying the journey, not the components. I have already ordered Exit: The Pharoah's Curse, which I hear is the toughest among the first three games released. I'm very much looking forward to the challenge.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Impregnable Fortress

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

The Impregnable Fortress is a game about the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War 2, designed by a Singaporean. It is a 2-player game, with one side playing the Japanese and the other the British. Singapore was under British rule then. The core game mechanism is modeled on Stratego. It is an abstract wargame. The identities of the game pieces are initially hidden from your opponent. They are revealed only during battle. To win the game you must find and capture your opponent's HQ.

You can see the British HQ at the lower left. During game setup, you arrange your 30 pieces in your deploy zone in any way you like. The strengths of your pieces vary from 1 to 9. During a fight, the weaker piece is eliminated. If the strengths are the same, both pieces are eliminated. During the game, the two sides take turn making moves, like in Chess. All pieces may move one step in any direction, except for the HQ's and the mines which may not move.

The game board shows Singapore and part of Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia. The Japanese army starts in the north, and the Commonwealth army in the south. The hexes marked with crosses are impassable. The game setup is not historical. You can set up your army any way you like as long as you stay within your deploy zone. The army composition is certainly not historical. I am quite sure the Japanese army did not plant mine fields in Johor.

There are many details on the board. Some do affect game play. If you use the advanced rules, the Jurong Line hexes can increase the strength of Commonwealth units. The major road - Woodlands Road - allows units to move two steps instead of one. It is easier to reinforce units in this area, but it is also easier for your opponent to advance to attacking positions.

The front and back covers of the rulebook list the army composition of both armies. The two sides are the same. This list is quite important. During a game you need to keep track of which enemy units have been killed, and which still remain on the board. Some units are vulnerable to specific units, so it is important to know the current composition of your opponent's army.

The two maps show suggested setups. HQ's are tucked away in corners, and protected by mines. Mines are also set up elsewhere as diversions.

Many units have special interactions. Some are in the basic rules, some only apply if you use the advanced rules. When I played, I used all the advanced interaction rules. Let's look at the group at the top left. The mine (X) kills anything that attacks it. The only exception is the combat engineer (3) which can eliminate the mine. The conscript platoon (6) can be used to clear a mine, but it dies together with the mine.

At the top right, the recon troopers (4) can force all adjacent enemy units to reveal themselves.

At the bottom left, the bomber (2) may attempt to bomb any unit on the board. If the target unit has a strength of 4 or less, it may be destroyed. You play a mini-game with those square tokens to determine whether it is destroyed. Other units won't be destroyed, but they will be exposed. The bomber is effectively also a recon plane. The anti-air gun (5) may shoot down a bomber after its bombing run.

At the bottom right, the tank troop (9) is the strongest unit in the game. However it loses to the humble anti-tank team (1). The elephant fears the mouse.

Notice that some of the units are in a darker shade. These units are only used if you play the advanced rule which allows customisation of your army. You add 10 dark units to your pool of 30 units, and from this pool of 40 you select 30 to be your army. I didn't play with this because it was my first game and I had no idea how to do customisation.

The cards are an advanced variant too. Each side has its own deck of cards. Whenever you attack, you earn a political point (the star token), regardless of whether you win that battle. You may spend two political points to draw a card. You may spend political points to play a card. The cost is specified on the card. These two cards came into play during my game. The Water Shortages card was devastating to me (the Commonwealth). Heng played it when I had 7 political points. I lost all of them and had to painstakingly collect political points all over again. The British Tanks card allowed me to resurrect my tank troop, the mightiest unit in the game. This is a very powerful card, thus the high cost.

The Play

I taught Heng to play. He played the Japanese and I played the Commonwealth. We were both new to the game. I had heard of Stratego and the general idea behind it, but had not actually played it. The setup took a while. You can think of it as part of playing the game. I protected my HQ with mines, and put it at the back, as far from danger as possible. Units with situational uses were placed away from the front too. E.g. combat engineers had better stayed away from danger until I found the mines, the weak anti-tank teams were kept safe until the enemy tank troop was revealed. I put my own tank troop at the back too, worried that it might be caught by enemy anti-tank teams easily if I used it too early. As a result, my front liners were mostly the tier 2 units, the 6's to 8's. This was my thinking when I deployed my units.

The Impregnable Fortress is a game of attrition. Initially the board looks crowded, but very soon the crowd thins. When one unit defeats another, it becomes vulnerable too because its identity is now known. Your opponent will try to kill it with a stronger unit or a unit which specialises in killing it. This reminds me of Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, which also has a Stratego-like mechanism. As the units dwindle, there are fewer and fewer pieces to protect your HQ. It is a race to find and destroy the enemy HQ. No matter how bleak things look overall, if you manage to capture the enemy HQ, you win immediately. Normally you still need to take care of the big picture. You want to maintain a front. You want to score more kills than your opponent. Both qualitative and quantitative advantages will help you in the end game of hunting down the opponent HQ.

Heng was the Japanese. In the southwest corner he had one commando which managed to break through my flank and wreaked havoc behind my front lines. It was a 6, which was one of the stronger units. I had nothing in the area which could stop it. It also cleverly avoided two mines. Thankfully my HQ was protected by a mine. This brave Japanese unit eventually died on a minefield.

There was much fighting at the centre of the board. The major road was very useful in both offense and defense. You can use the road to attack an enemy two steps away. On defense, you can also use it to stay out of range of enemy units. Every time you attack, you get a political point, so players are encouraged to be aggressive. This is good design.

My artillery battery (2) helped me tremendously. It supported friendly units within two spaces, increasing their strengths by up to 2. My infantry company (7) was almost invincible with the support of the artillery battery.

The strong units are the stars. In the basic game, you have one 9, one 8 and two 7's. These strong units can go on a rampage. It is important to keep track of which units have been killed and which are still on the board. During my game I kept tabs on Heng's strong units. I knew if his 9 was dead, my 8 would be close to invincible. I only needed to be careful of artillery support and mines. Heng managed to break through my left flank. I pushed through on the right flank. I had more units advancing, so the progress was slow. Moreover I was wary of mines and advanced cautiously, using my recon unit as much as possible.

I gained an upper hand in the centre, managing to kill all his strong units eventually. After both our #9's (tank troop) died, I revived mine by card play. I knew then the centre would be mine. Heng could not stop my advancement in the east, because I had a #8 supporting that offensive. Eventually my eastern expedition force found and captured the Japanese HQ, saving Singapore and rewriting history.

The Thoughts

When I first read the rules of The Impregnable Fortress, I was a little disappointed, because I realised this isn't a historical wargame. It is an abstract wargame which uses the Battle for Singapore as a backdrop. It doesn't try to model the actual war. Some historical details are added, giving the game flavour. The cards contain many historical details, and I like that. This is certainly not a hex and counter wargame. It is at the other end of the wargame spectrum. This is a light strategy game. You do have to put some thought into the tactics. This is closer to a mass market game than a niche market game. Non-gamers can certainly handle the basic rules. Seasoned gamers will want to start using the advanced rules straight-away. The game is supported by the Singapore National Heritage Board. I imagine it being sold at museums and tourist centres.

Singapore is an immediate neighbour of Malaysia. We share many similarities, and we used to be one country for about two years. A game about the Battle for Singapore has special meaning to me, because the historical event was close to where I live.

Here the link to The Impregnable Fortress on Boardgamegeek: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/237289/impregnable-fortress.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Magic Maze

Plays: 5Px5.

The Game

Magic Maze was nominated for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres. Recently it won the most innovative game award at the Essen game fair. I had not heard much about it before, and even if I had seen the box cover, I would have dismissed it as a game I wouldn't like. It was in a cartoonish style, and it had the typical fantasy RPG characters. And I would have missed playing a wonderful game. Ivan brought the game to Friday game night at Boardgamecafe.net, and that was how I got to try it.

The premise is silly. A team of mage, warrior, elf and dwarf has lost all its weapons, and decides to raid a shopping mall to steal what is needed. These jokers are not familiar with the mall so they need to explore it to find the right shops. Naturally, each adventurer's favourite weapon is sold at a different shop. They only have a limited amount of time to pull of this heist, before they are caught up by mall security.

Magic Maze is a real-time, cooperative game. The players don't play any specific character. Instead everyone controls all four of the characters. Every player has one action tile which specifies the action or actions he can make a character perform. Actions include moving north, south, east and west, taking an escalator, teleporting, and exploring.

This is how a game is set up. The adventurers arrive at the central court of the shopping mall. They are unfamiliar with their surroundings and need to explore to find the weapon shops. They explore by going to the edge of the tile and then drawing a new tile to place next to the current tile. The spaces which allow exploration are colour-specific. The colour code refers to a specific character. Only that character may perform exploration in that space. In this photo, the space at the right edge only allows the orange character, the barbarian, to do exploration.

The round icons are portals. You can do teleportation here, i.e. move immediately to another portal of the same colour on another tile. Again, these are colour-specific - restricted to specific characters.

This is one of the action tiles. The portal icon means I can make a character teleport. The left arrow means I can make a character move westwards.

You need to explore the mall, you need to find the right shops, you need to get each character to their respective exits, and you need to do all these in a collaborative manner where each player can only do a few very specific actions. This sounds messy, but not exactly hard. The twist is this - you can't communicate with your fellow players! You can't talk. You can't point. You can't hint with gestures or winks. You can't give any directions. Everyone needs to stay observant and think on his own. You need to be alert of where each character is and what they should be doing next. When they need to do something which requires your action, you must do it quickly. The communication restriction makes collaborating difficult. It is not easy to keep up with all four characters on the board, since everybody is moving them about all the time. It's like trying to keep track of four hyperactive toddlers at a nursery. One difficulty is sometimes when you have a certain plan for a character, your fellow players do not understand your intention. If they don't know what you are thinking, they can't help you. They don't know how to. It can be even worse. Sometimes players have different opinions about what a character should be doing. You end up angrily pushing the poor old mage back and forth, insisting yours is the right way, clenching your teeth because you can't explain what you're trying to do to your slow friend across the table.

The rulebook says there are two ways you can communicate with your fellow player. #1 is to stare at him intently (I'm serious). #2 is this big red pawn in the photo above. You can place the pawn in front of your friend to indicate to him that there is something you want him to do. Hopefully he can soon see what it is you mean. Else you can try to stare at him more intently.

The timer is an hourglass, as you can see in the photo above. It's an approximately 3 minute hourglass. A game will last longer than that, unless you are horrible at it. There are some locations on the board which let you flip the hourglass over, giving you more time. Naturally, it is best to flip right at the last moment before the sand runs out, so that you will have more time. In the photo above, you can see a red hourglass icon at the top right corner of the start tile. Every such icon can be used only once. The hourglass icon appears again on other tiles. You need to find them before you can use them.

Hourglass icons have another important use. They give you a special break time in which you are allowed to talk. This is the only exception in the whole game. After you flip the hourglass and before you take any action with any of the characters, you can talk. You can discuss, you can plan, you can agree on what to do next. You can also scream at your teammates for being dumb, but while you are doing all these, the timer is running. Say what you want to say quickly, and resume playing. Once anyone executes the next action with any of the characters, break time is over and you return to being mute. You get to talk again the next time you use an hourglass icon.

As the game progresses, you will gradually scout out the terrain (i.e. the shopping mall). The game is divided into two phases. In the first phase you find the four shops and steal the four weapons. In the second phase you escape the mall through specific exits. The key difference is in the second phase you are not allowed to use portals anymore. The moment all four characters steal their respective weapons, portals go out of order. The characters need to run to their respective exits without relying on portals. You flip that large tile at the top left of this photo to remind yourselves that portals are no longer functioning.

The Play

When Ivan explained the game, I was puzzled. The mechanisms were unusual. They felt tedious for no reason. There was no game here. Only later I realised that Ivan had saved the best for last. He only told us that we could not communicate at the end of the rules explanation. Everything clicked then. There were five of us, and we played game after game after game. I am actually unsure how many times we played. It might have been more than five.

We played the scenarios in the rulebook one by one, progressing to the next one only after winning the current one. Some rules were added in each new scenario. Sometimes tiles were added too, with new features. We were introduced to more advanced rules bit by bit. The difficulty and complexity increased gradually. It was a smooth learning experience. We never felt overwhelmed. I peeked ahead at other advanced rules we hadn't reached. Even after learning all the advanced rules, there were variant rules we could play. If we had played scenario by scenario until we tried all the variant rules, we would have had many plays of this game - good value for money! A scenario does not have a fixed map like most games with scenarios. A scenario is just a set of rules and a set of tiles. You pick a scenario based on what difficulty and complexity you want to play at. The map you build during play will be different because the deck of tiles is shuffled every time.

Magic Maze is a stressful game. It is not just the time pressure. There is also the pressure of not wanting to let your team down. You need to keep up with the board situation, and you need to keep up with what your friends are strategising in their heads. You don't want to be the weakest link. When the big red pawn is slammed down in front of you, and all your mates are glaring at you with wide eyes, it can be downright nerve wracking. What am I not seeing?! On the other hand, when your team works together seamlessly, it is extremely satisfying. Your hands flit from character to character, and you watch the characters move about purposefully and without hesitation. You feel like a master level mochi team working in perfect unison.

Source: giphy.com

We established one constant strategy when we played. We always explored the whole shopping mall before we stole the weapons, i.e. we found the exits for all four characters before doing the stealing. The reason was once we stole the weapons, the portals would be disabled, and we would lose much mobility. It was better to complete our exploration before that. The rules didn't require completing the exploration before phase 2. It was our own unwritten rule.

We all played standing up. It was simply too exciting a game to play sitting down civilly. It was a quiet rowdy game, if that makes any sense at all. We had to pay attention to all four characters all the time. We had to pay attention to where they were needed to further explore. All this while we had to remember to watch the hourglass and prepare to flip it. In one game we neglected that. We concerned ourselves with the more complex rules and tactics, and forgot about the basics. We lost that game very quickly.

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Magic Maze. In the past few months I have had a long backlog of games to write about. I normally write about games in the order that I play them, so Magic Maze had to take a number like every other game. I have been looking forward to write about it. It was an absolute joy to play. Unfortunately it was close to impossible to take photos during play, so I do not have many photos to show.

Magic Maze will work with casual gamers, non gamers and families. It has a gentle learning curve, and the immersiveness makes it an attractive game. It has a hook. It gave me a new experience. I have never felt anything like it before. What comes close is Escape: The Curse of the Temple, specifically when suffering from the silent curse. Magic Maze requires an even higher level of collaboration than Escape. You are not moving your own pawn doing your own thing. Everyone needs to move every pawn on the board.

Magic Maze is a game of suppression and elation. For most of the game you are suppressing your eagerness to communicate. Then at the breaks you get temporary relief. You quickly catch up on the crucial coordination work, and then you switch back to suppression mode. Only when the game ends that you feel the final elation. This is a game that makes you want to laugh.

Crowdfunding: Fightlings

John Peck from Germany got in touch with me about his game currently on a Kickstarter campaign - Fightlings. It's a 1v1 card game with a Memory element - you try to find matches from a pool of face-down cards. It's a short game. Your fighting deck consists of 17 cards only. There is deckbuilding - you can customise your deck. The artwork is beautiful (see above). I was intrigued to find that this card game is based on (but is not a direct port of) a successful mobile game, also called Fightlings. I am curious to try the mobile version, but unfortunately it is not yet available in the Malaysian Appstore. Check out the card game Kickstarter campaign!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Century: Spice Road

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Many people proclaimed that Century: Spice Road would replace Splendor. This was what piqued my interest in the game. Splendor had fascinated me. The rules are simple. The game is easy to teach. Yet there are subtle strategies and a hidden depth not apparent at first (or second) sight.

Century: Spice Road is a card game and a resource conversion game. You collect spices (cubes), upgrade them, then put together specific combinations to buy contract cards, which have point values. The game ends when a player reaches a certain number of contract cards. You add up points to determine who wins. To do all these, you use merchant cards like the ones above. Those two on the left with blue borders are starting cards. Everyone gets the same two cards. The first card lets you collect two yellow spices. The second lets you do spice upgrade twice. The two merchant cards on the right let you convert specific spices to another set of specific spices.

This is how the game is set up. The row of five cards are the contract cards. Each card specifies the spice combination required to purchase it. Above the first two cards there are gold and silver coins, which are worth 3pt and 1pt respectively. If you buy a contract card at either of these positions, you claim a corresponding coin. Whenever a contract card is bought, cards to its right are shifted leftwards to fill the blank, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position, i.e. Through the Ages style.

The row of six cards are the merchant cards. One of the actions you can take on your turn is to claim a merchant card from this row. If you take the leftmost card, it's free. If you take any other card, you need to place a spice on each card to its left. This means the rightmost card is the most expensive. If you take a card with spices on it, you take the spices as well. Similarly, whenever a card is taken, cards to its right are shifted leftwards, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position.

Every player has a warehouse card. You can store at most 10 spices.

These are the contract cards. They specify point values, and the spice combinations required to purchase them.

On your turn you have only 4 options: take a merchant card, play a merchant card, reclaim all merchant cards or buy a contract card. When you take a merchant card, you are deciding what ability you will have from then on. You take the card into your hand. To use it, you simply play it in front of you (on a future turn, of course). The more cards you play, the fewer you will have remaining in your hand. To be able to use those played cards again, you need to do a reset, which is spending a turn to claim all played cards back into your hand. This cycle of taking merchant cards, playing them and reclaiming them is something you will do many times. Ultimately your goal is to buy contract cards, which is the fourth option. That's the whole process. Pretty straightforward.

In this photo some of the merchant cards have spices on them. That's because someone had previously taken a merchant card which was not the leftmost one. Sometimes it is worth spending spices to take good merchant cards.

The Play

Century: Spice Road is a simple game to explain. There is little information to go through, and actions are straightforward. It is hard to imagine how the game feels by just understanding the rules. Your goal is the contract cards. You need to collect the right combination of spices to buy contract cards. So the whole game is about using your merchant cards efficiently to collect and upgrade spices. This is a deck-building game, just that your deck is your hand and you have full control over when to play which card. Everyone starts with the same two merchant cards, but as the game progresses, your hands will diverge. Some players may be collecting many cheap spices and then converting them to better spices. Some may be collecting fewer but better spices. Some may even be collecting small amounts of expensive spices then downgrading them to larger amount of cheaper ones. Some players will be better at producing a certain grade of spices than others. The deck-building is the most important aspect of the game. You want to put together a set of cards which chain together to make an efficient supply chain, like a factory production line. If you are collecting many yellow spices, you want other cards which will then convert these yellow spices to other spices that you need. It feels good to have a hand which is like a straight flush - you know exactly in what order you will play them to produce spices at the highest capacity. Once the last card is played, you reset and do it all over again, smooth as silk.

That's the general idea. In practice, there will be adjustments here and there. The spices required by the contract cards are different. So it's not as simple as repeating the same recipe over and over. There are many tactical plays to be made throughout the game. You need to grab opportunities and respond to threats. You need to pay attention to what spices your opponents are collecting, so that you know which contract cards they are going for, and whether anyone will beat you to the one you are going for. If you know you will lose the race, you should switch to something else. Even if you are ahead, you need to make sure you are not overtaken.

The contract cards row and the merchant cards row keep changing. The game system gives you time to prepare. Players tend to take the leftmost cards, so these two card rows behave like sushi belts. If an attractive card comes up at the rightmost spot, you usually have some time to prepare to fight for it. There is some planning you can do.

There are little tactical advantages you want to exploit. Let's say you have enough spices to claim the second contract card, and you see that another player will soon have the spices to claim the first one. You want to politely let him claim the first card, so that the one you want will shift to first position, and you can then claim it together with the bonus gold coin.

The long-term strategy is in how you build your hand of cards. Your hand evolves throughout the game. You need to pay attention to both improving your hand and scoring points. At the same time you watch out for tactical advantages. The game has good player interaction. It's the passive aggressive type, but it can be frustrating. Imagine spending a lot of effort collecting the spices for a high valued contract card, only to have it stolen from you at the last minute. Now you have a set of spices which you can't quite use for the other contract cards, and you need to spend more turns converting some spices to other types in order to fulfill a different contract card.

This was my hand around mid way through the game. The two rightmost cards let me collect many yellow spices. The 2nd and 4th cards require many yellow spices to produce other higher grade spices. This is synergy. As you put together your hand of cards, you will know which grades of spice you can produce efficiently. That will guide you in deciding which contract cards to compete for.

The Thoughts

Century: Spice Road is an engine-building game and a race game. OK, I'm probably losing all credibility now since I have also called it a card game, a deck-building game and a resource-conversion game. Your engine is your hand of cards. That is the core of the game. Your hand of cards determines what you can do. Putting together a set of coherent cards is satisfying. If you have done your engine-building well, playing cards requires little thought. You already have an obvious, efficient sequence in your hand. You do have to make adjustments frequently, to meet the many tactical challenges that come up. The cycle of playing cards to collect and upgrade spices, reclaiming cards to do these again and again, and eventually spending the spices to buy contract cards, defines the tempo of the game. Players will have different tempos and will not be in sync. Some players will have more cards, some few. Sometimes some will have many spices and will be on the verge of claiming a contract card, while others have barely started collecting spices for the next contract card. These are all things you need to observe and make use of.

You need to consider how many merchant cards you want to have. More is not always better. If a card doesn't really help you, you might as well spend the turn doing something else. More cards do generally mean you have more flexibility and you get more done between resets. Too few cards is a no-no.

Coming back to the question of whether Century: Spice Road replaces Splendor, I say no it doesn't. There are similarities. They have simple rules, are easy to teach non-gamers, and have more depth than is apparent. If you are buying a game with the purpose of playing it with non-gamers, then yes, either one will do. However these two games have different souls. In Splendor you need to consider the nobles and high level cards right from the beginning, and plan what capabilities you want to develop to help you eventually score some of these nobles and high value cards. In Century: Spice Road, you are building an efficient hand of cards to help you produce spices to fulfill contracts. Splendor doesn't have the kind of card synergy in Century: Spice Road. Century: Spice Road doesn't have the start-with-the-end-in-mind strategy in Splendor. You get different things from these two games.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

10 years of blogging

I have been doing this for 10 years, since July 2007. In the early days of getting into the boardgame hobby, I hungrily devoured all sorts of boardgame-related content I could find on the internet. I regularly read blogs maintained by others, like Mikko Saari, Bruno Faidutti. I enjoyed The Games Journal, and I fondly remember that Greg Aleknevicus wrote great articles. My motivation for starting a boardgame blog myself was boring. Put simply, it was just for record-keeping. I wanted a place where I could organise my boardgame experiences - the photos I took, the stories I lived, the friends I played with, what I thought about the games. Till now this hasn't changed. I enjoy record-keeping. This blog is still very much a personal journey. Nothing ambitious or profound.

Blogging is, in my opinion, out of style. My blog readership is declining. Boardgame hobbyists prefer to consume content in the form of videos. Some bloggers successfully switched to become vloggers. There are vloggers who never were bloggers. Some people do a mix of video and text content, e.g. the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down. I have never considered vlogging. Too much work. Blogging is something I can do at a leisurely pace. I write using Google Docs. I write when I have free time and when I feel like it. I don't need any elaborate preparation. There is some work in taking photos, transferring them to my laptop, editing them, organising them, uploading them. However I enjoy taking photos anyway (again, also because of how I like record-keeping), so I don't mind the effort. The other reason I never considered vlogging is I don't like the format myself. I don't watch many vlogs. I prefer reading text because I can skim text quickly. I can jump to sections which interest me. With videos, the vlogger dictates the pace.

Sometimes it feels like blogging about boardgames is a bigger pastime for me than playing boardgames is. Sometimes I spend more time blogging than playing. I play less in recent years. I still have ongoing Ascension and Star Realms games on my phone, but sometimes it can be weeks between joining boardgame sessions at Boardgamecafe.net. Recently when I had a long list of boardgames to blog about, I felt there was no hurry to play more new games because of that glut of content. The five-years-ago me would be alarmed at such blasphemy. Something is not right! Boardgames is supposed to be about playing, and not about writing. Sometimes when I almost run out of new boardgames to write about, I feel a higher sense of urgency to join the next game session, so that I will have new content. This is so upside down. This is actually what made me think of writing this article; not the fact that it has been 10 years.

Eventually I conclude that this is not wrong. It is my pastime. I am free to decide how to spend my leisure time as long as I am not hurting anyone.

I have once tried to make money from this blog. I signed up for the referral program at Noble Knight Games. If I successfully referred a customer who then made a purchase within one week, I would get a small fee. I did make some referrals which led to sales. OK, maybe not "some". It might have been just one. The total fee never reached a threshold which would justify the trouble and cost of sending it to me. After a while I stopped inserting links and ads. I tried setting up Google Ads, but Google's bots automatically rejected my application, likely because I had too many links at my blog (I create a label for every game I play). So, my blog went back to serving just my original purpose - a scrapbook of my fond memories.

I started a boardgame blog in Chinese in 2010. My mother tongue is Mandarin. There are some expressions in Chinese which I can't find equivalents of in English. I decided to write in Chinese too because I enjoy expressing myself in my native language. It meant double work. My content is mostly the same between the two blogs. Now my process is I write in Chinese, and then I write in English while referring to the structure and the content already written in Chinese, and finally I publish both posts simultaneously. I don't read blogs in Chinese nor do I follow any boardgame websites in Chinese. I am too used to reading boardgame content in English. I make up my own Chinese words for concepts and terms which are originally in English. The Chinese language boardgame community probably has different terms. Avid readers of Chinese boardgame content will find my Chinese blog queer.

I can probably proclaim myself the #1 boardgame blogger in Malaysia, but only because people don't really blog anymore nowadays. My boardgame kakis Jeff and Heng used to blog, but are not very active now. One interesting side effect of having this blog is this - occasionally newspaper journalists contact me to interview me. I think it's simply because when they google for boardgame experts or authorities in Malaysia, there is little to find other than my little blog. This sounds sad, but I think boardgames is growing in Malaysia. Else there wouldn't be journalists bothering to write about it. There are more boardgame cafes now. Boardgames is not mainstream, but it is not as niche as before. It's just that people just play and don't worry about writing about it.

Auto-posting to Facebook is important, I feel. I use dlvr.it. My volume is small, so it's free. I just need to set it up once, and after that it's worry-free. Sometimes I get questions from Facebook. I think I get more there than on Blogspot, where the blog actually resides.

One thing that still annoys me is spam posts. Blogspot does try to help, but some still get through. Once in a while a legitimate post gets held up. I don't monitor comments held up as possible spam. Because of this, there was once I approved a legitimate comment more than a year after the poor guy posted it. Sorry. I do receive notifications for posted comments, and when I see a spam post being auto-approved by the bots, I cannot resist coming personally to exterminate the spam post.

What's next for this blog? I expect it will be more of the same.

What do you like or not like about my blog? Do you find it useful? Informative? Entertaining?