Sunday, 27 August 2017

Medici: The Card Game

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Medici is a classic Reiner Knizia design, part of his auction trilogy including Ra and Modern Art. I find it funny that there is now a card game version of Medici. To me Medici is a card game. So I feel this version is a variant, and not really a simplified, boardgame-converted-to-card-game version of the original. The core mechanism has changed, but the scoring system is almost identical, so the game feels like an old friend with a new haircut. Same, but different, but still the same.

The game is played over three rounds. You collect 5 cards each round, and score points at the end of the round. Whoever scores the most at the end of three rounds wins. All this sounds familiar. For the details, let me start with the scoring mechanism.

A card has two pieces of important information - (1) card value, (2) merchandise type. Total card value is compared at the end of every round. Players score points based on their relative positions. Whoever has the highest total scores 30pts, and whoever has the lowest scores nothing. The rest scores somewhere in between. Once this is done, the card values are ignored for future rounds. There are five merchandise types. When you collect a merchandise, you keep it till the end of the game. At the end of each round, for each of the merchandise types, you compare who has the most and second most. You count cards collect in the current round as well as in all previous rounds. The players with the most goods in each merchandise type get to score points. In addition, if you have 5 goods of the same type, you score 10pts. This is a bonus you receive regardless of whether you have more or fewer than your opponents.

Now let's look at how you collect cards. Throughout the game, players draw cards from a common draw deck to form a line. You must take at least one card on your turn, and it must be the last card in the line. When you start your turn, you may draw one to three cards from the deck to add to the line. You draw them one by one, and may decide to stop at any time. If there are already cards in the line, you may even decide not to draw at all. When you decide to stop drawing and to claim a card (which must the the last one), you may also take a second and even a third card. The condition is they must be picked from the second and third last cards in the line. That means you can take at most three cards on your turn.

Each time you draw a card, you need to be mentally prepared that you may need to claim it, because it will become the last card in the line. If it is your first draw, you still have a second chance if that card sucks. If it is your second draw, then things get a little sticky. If the card is so-so, do you gamble on the third draw, which may give you a worse card? Or do you claim it, even if it is not particularly good, cutting your losses. This happens all the time in the game.

Once you claim your fifth card in a round, you sit out until everyone gets his fifth card. Then you score. In this photo above you see two cards with green backgrounds. These are special cards which do not count towards the five card limit. Having claimed these cards above, I am considered to be exactly at my limit of five cards. You can see that I am focusing on dye (blue) and cloth (purple). My total card value of 13 is rather poor. However I have collected 5 pieces of cloth. This is Round 1, so having reached 5 pieces of cloth means I am well in the lead and it will be hard for others to compete. Having 5 pieces also means I can safely claim the 10pt bonus every round from now on.

This is the situation at Round 3. The cards at the top are what I have collected this round. I started with that black 7, which is good when you want to compete for highest total card value. However, later on I had the opportunity to collect many furs, and I took it, abandoning my plan to compete in total card value. I ended up collecting 5 furs this round, which is good, but that first card was a waste.

The Play

When playing Medici: The Card Game you feel you are always pushing your luck. You are always thinking should I draw another card? When you draw an excellent card or an atrocious one, the decision is usually easy. Excellent card? Stop and claim it. No point in being greedy and hoping the next card will be a good one too. There is always next round. Atrocious card? Just draw the next one. It can't be much worse. Most of the time though, the card you draw is somewhat good or somewhat bad. This is when things get interesting. It is not always clear whether it is better to draw another one. You face such decisions all the time. Every draw can be a blessing or a curse. This is what makes the game thrilling. Life is like a box of chocolates.

You must pay attention to what your opponents are collecting. You don't directly hurt your opponents, but competition is everywhere and comes from all angles. You need to worry about card values, you need to worry about the number of goods. You find yourself repeatedly counting your opponents' cards. Just one point of difference can mean earning something, or earning nothing. When you choose to claim a card, it can immediately translate to an opponent (or more) losing out on points. This can be a mean game. Sometimes you can make a move which causes others to lose points without yourself gaining anything.

There is a dose of luck. You need to adapt. You need to assess risks and returns. You need to decide how to compete given what you are dealt. You do have plenty of choices to make. You are not at the mercy of lady luck.

Compared to the original Medici, the key mechanism which has been replaced is the auction mechanism. Without auctions, player interaction is reduced. You can't force an opponent to pay an arm and a leg for a set of cards he is dying to buy. If an opponent gets very lucky with his card draw, there is little you can do. You can still gang up on a leading player to prevent him from scoring high in too many areas. There are still ways the players' actions will balance out the luck. The original Medici has similarities to Coloretto and Zooloretto. When a set of cards consists of good and bad ones, it becomes tricky to assess its value. You are torn between wanting and avoiding it. Also different players want different things, so the same set of cards is worth different values to different players. These are not present in Medici: The Card Game. The new core mechanism is simpler, quicker, and is centred around the gambler's push-your-luck mindset. Both old and new mechanisms have their merits.

This is how a 5-player game in progress looks like.

The Thoughts

Medici: The Card Game has Reiner Knizia's signature. It is a light-to-medium weight game. Simple but by no means simplistic. You are constantly watching the playing field and you keep assessing what each card is worth to different players. It was fun to experience this new incarnation of the old classic. Compared to the original it is slightly simpler and quicker, but I see it as a variant and not a card game version, or a simplified version. Whether you have played the original or not, this is worth a try.

Friday, 25 August 2017

boardgaming in photos: boardgame retreat, Acquire organised a boardgame retreat on the weekend of 12-13 Aug 2017, these were some of the participants. They have done this many times, but this was the first time I participated. In the past, the format of the retreat was a full-day schedule of game sessions, with score-keeping and prizes for the top scorers. This time the format was free-and-easy, making it more family-friendly. That was why I signed up and brought the family along. I played many games, the children played some and also made use of other facilities at the retreat venue, my wife enjoyed her reading.

The retreat was done at Broga Bliss, about an hour's drive from Kuala Lumpur. It is near Broga Hills, which is a popular hiking location. We started Saturday afternoon and ended Sunday noon. It was refreshing for us city-dwellers to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and get some fresh air. The mobile network was poor and the WiFi slow, so we were happily disconnected. It was liberating.

I woke early on Sunday morning, and took a walk with Chen Rui who was also up early. The hills were misty. The surroundings were not quiet at all. We heard crickets, cicadas, frogs, and probably many other creatures we couldn't name. This was a lively choir compared to the lifeless silence of Sunday mornings at home in KL.

Right next to Broga Bliss was a rubber plantation. It was still in use.

7 Jul 2017. We played Acquire more than a month ago at This is one of Allen's favourite games. That day we had played Five Tribes, and after we were done, we wanted to do a shorter game. So we picked this, since most of us had played it, and it was quick to teach to Dennis who had not done it before. There are many versions of Acquire, and this is the best one. It has reached grail status. It is not easy to find, and if you are lucky enough to see a copy on eBay, it'll cost an arm and a leg. It is saddening that there has been quite a few editions after this one, but none measured up.

We did a four player game - Allen, Dennis, Heng and I. I knew Allen was the expert, so I mostly copied his strategy when I played. I still remembered that it was important to get yourself involved in the early acquisitions, so that you would earn money and would have a healthy cash flow to continue buying shares and making money from more acquisitions. I ended up having a portfolio quite similar to Allen's.

There are seven companies (hotel chains) in the game. These cards are the shares.

Allen and I played almost like we were playing a cooperative game. We managed to position ourselves as highest and second highest shareholders in many of the companies which were acquired in the early game. I felt a little bad - it was as if we were colluding against Dennis and Heng. We did have pretty lucky tile draws that allowed us to manipulate many early acquisitions. Heng joked that the foremost strategy in Acquire was - draw the right tiles! Indeed having the right tiles at the right moment is immensely powerful. Sometimes you hold on to a tile waiting for it to become crucial. Making wise investments is also very important. It is something you have control of. You need to read your opponents and read the board situation.

In this photo, Red was on the verge of being gobbled up by Yellow. If anyone had tile 3B or 4C, he could trigger the acquisition. Purple and Light Blue were of the same size. This is interesting because if a player triggers an acquisition, he can choose which company to buy the other out.

Now Purple was larger than Light Blue, so if a merger took place now, it would be Purple gobbling up Light Blue.

I knew Allen was good at Acquire, so from the beginning I never expected to win. I just played with a happy-go-lucky mindset. Only towards late game I realised I was doing well, and I should have aimed for victory. I neglected the fact that towards late game, investing in the large companies became more important. Although they were safe from acquisition and wouldn't give any acquisition payout, the shares themselves would have a high value, and these companies would give a large game-end payout. I stuck to the buy-into-small-companies tactic longer than I should have. It was important in the early game, but less so later. Eventually Allen did win, as expected. I was close behind. Had I been more ambitious, it could have been me. Lesson learnt - never belittle yourself. Heng and Dennis were both not that far behind either. They had many shares in the large companies. Although they missed out on the small companies which were acquired by others, they did become shareholders of the large companies earlier. They earned good payouts at game end. Cash flow was the crucial factor that gave Allen and I an edge. There were a few times Heng and Dennis had to forgo the opportunity to invest because cash was tight.

It still amazes me that a design like Acquire was published in 1964. It was certainly ahead of its time, and it still does not feel outdated.

Saturday, 19 August 2017


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Urbania is about renewing old buildings in the city. You are urban planners responsible for redeveloping the city. You're going to make this city happening all over again!

During game setup, you randomly fill the board with building tiles. These tiles are double-sided, a run-down side and a renewed side. Most tiles are to show the run-down side. Only the five tiles at the city centre (the fat cross shape enclosed by monorail tracks) show the renewed side. The run-down side of a tile shows some information. The number underneath the safety helmet indicates the cost to renew the building. The number at the top right corner is the victory points you get when you renew the building. Buildings come in seven colours, each representing a different building type. To renew a building, you need to spend helmets in the same colour as the building. However for the blue buildings, their helmet icons are multicoloured, which means you can use any one helmet colour to renew a building.

On your turn you have four options. The most common action is to draw cards. Resource cards are laid out for you to pick. Five are turned face-up. You may also blind draw from the deck. This is like Ticket To Ride. The cards in this photo are the resource cards. There are helmets and coins on resource cards. Helmets are for renewing buildings, and coins for recruiting specialists. Similar to renewing buildings, when you want to recruit a specialist, you need to use coins in the same colour as the specialist. On the rightmost card you can see a multicoloured coin. That's a joker. You can treat it as any colour.

Most of the gameboard is the 7x7 grid representing the city. Outside of the city centre, the city is divided into four quadrants (districts) by highways. The highways are a little hard to see from this photo though. Districts play a role. Some project cards (secret objective cards) are based on renewing a specific district as much as possible. Also, when a district has two or fewer run-down buildings remaining, the game ends.

The track around this section is the score track. The spaces in the middle numbered 0 to 8 serve two purposes. The cubes track how many buildings of each type (i.e. colour) have been renewed. These numbers determine how many victory points the corresponding specialists earn every turn, if they are in your employ. The discs track how much it costs (in coins) to employ each specialist. The price always starts at $1. Each time a specialist is employed by any player, the cost goes up by $1. It is important to compete for specialists, since they give you VP every turn. Also, the recruitment costs of specialists is a trigger for game end. When 3 or more specialists cost $5 or more, the game ends. If you want the game to end quickly, you can try to recruit specialists to push up their recruitment costs.

Three of the six specialists. When many buildings of a particular colour are renewed, the value of the corresponding specialist will increase, making him or her more attractive to players. However the recruitment cost is not always in sync with the VP-earning power of a specialist. Sometimes there may be little competition for a high-value specialist. Sometimes there may be much competition for a low-value specialist.

These are project cards. When you take the draw card action, instead of resource cards, you may draw project cards. These are secret objective cards, and they score points at game end. You may draw as many of them as you want, but you can only make use of three of them. During the game you need to take the Submit action to commit to a project card. In this photo, the card on the left will score based on the recruitment cost of this specialist. You score recruitment cost multiplied by 5. The card on the right will score 6VP per garden renewed. Gardens are L shaped buildings as depicted on the card.

When you Submit a project, you need to pay 10% of your VP's at the time of submission. Naturally you want to Submit early, when your VP is still low. However in the early stage of a game you are likely unsure how well you can fulfill the requirement of the project card. It is an interesting dilemma - when to commit to a project.

The card on the left is a reference card, listing the four possible actions on your turn: draw cards, renew building, recruit specialist, submit project. The card in the middle is a specialist currently in my employ. The card on the right is a resource card which I have spent. When you spend the helmet value of a resource card, the card is played before you and not to the discard pile. When played before you, the coin value of the card is not yet expended. In future, you may still spend the coins. Only then you place the card in the discard pile. You may directly spend the coin value of cards in your hand, but if you do so, the card goes immediately to the discard pile, i.e. you lose the helmet value.

The Play

I played with Kareem and Jeff. The basics of the game are straightforward. There are only four actions to choose from on your turn. You are collecting resources on one side, and then spending them on things to help you score points on the other side. Renewing a building gives you points immediately. Recruiting a specialist gives you points every turn. Submitting a project is a long-term investment and commitment, and gives you points at game end. Urbania looks very different from Ticket To Ride, but feels similar, because of this collect-collect-collect-spend tempo. Furthermore, resources come in different colours, just like the train cards in Ticket To Ride. The collect-collect-collect-spend tempo is oddly satisfying. It is like you are saving some coins every day, and then at the end of the week, you can afford to splurge on a nice meal.

You need to pay attention to what colours your opponents are collecting, so that you get a sense of which buildings types and specialists they are competing in. Hotly contested types will require more effort, but the VP gain may be worth the effort. Neglected types are not necessary bad. They can be low hanging fruits. You can gain some benefits with minimal effort.

There are some tactics when competing for specialists. If you can afford a specialist, you may not want to immediately recruit him. It may be better to let someone else recruit him, and then you recruit the specialist from your opponent. You will be spending $1 more, but it may be much easier for you to retain the specialist for longer, because to take him away from you your opponent would need to pay even more. The turn-by-turn VP gain from specialists can be very lucrative. You must not let any player get away with hoarding many specialists.

It is important to guess your opponents' project cards. You can do so by watching what they do. If you can work out their project cards, you can avoid helping them through your actions. Knowing your opponents' intentions can also help you decide on your own project cards. For example if you know an opponent is working on a specific district, and that district happens to have many hospitals, and you have a hospital-related project card, then it is probably a good idea to submit that hospital project card, because you know your opponent is going to help you a lot. You want to leech!

At this point I had drawn three project cards. Eventually these were the three I committed to. I didn't draw more. I was happy enough with the first three I drew, and didn't want to spend any more actions drawing project cards.

I have two specialists at this point, and I have submitted two projects. The projects are face-down. They are kept secret from your opponents. I have been renewing red and green buildings, thus these resource cards in front of me.

When you do renewal, you must spread out from the city centre. You may only renew buildings which are orthogonally adjacent to an already renewed building. This means buildings in the corners tend to be harder to reach.

The game is coming to an end. There are already four specialists with a recruitment cost of $5 (see the discs). The human shaped pawns are the players' score markers.

When we played, we kept complaining about the poor art direction. Not that the drawings are ugly. They are by Franz Vohwinkel, the master level boardgame artist. The artwork is simply not pragmatic. It is a pain to read the board situation. We all blamed the publisher Mayfair for not doing a proper editing job. The artwork is too colourful and confusing. After a building is renewed, its type is no longer important, so the renewed side of the building tile need not be so flamboyant. The tiles can be just simple square tiles instead of being all sorts of weird and unwieldy shapes.

In this photo you can see more clearly the highway which divides the city into districts. It's the road with a traffic jam.

The Thoughts

Urbania is a middle-weight game that feels like a light-weight game. Despite the simple rules, if you think a little deeper about the strategies, you will discover some interesting tactics. You can play with a simple mindset - collecting stuff and spending them to score points and to fulfill your own project cards. However, if you are playing with competitive players, this won't be enough to win. There is some subtle player interaction and there is an element of reading your opponents. You want to let your opponents work for you, and you want to avoid helping them.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Not Alone

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Not Alone is a one-vs-many game. The many is a team of space explorers stranded on the mysterious planet Artemia, waiting for rescue. The one is a powerful and malicious alien creature which controls all life-forms on Artemia, and which now wants to assimilate these unexpected visitors into the local hive-mind ecosystem. Can the explorers stay sane and away from the creature long enough for their rescuers to arrive?

This is the countdown track. The pawn on the left is the rescue counter. It marks how much longer the humans need to wait before the rescue ship arrives. The pawn on the right is the assimilation counter. It marks how close the creature is in assimilating the humans. This is effectively a race game, whoever manages to get his pawn to the star position first wins.

The three discs at the top belong to the creature. They are the Hunt tokens used for hunting the humans. The disc in the middle is the creature token which represents the physical presence of the creature itself. This token is always in use every round. The other two tokens are available to the creature under specific conditions, e.g. the play of a Hunt card. When playing, we joked that the token with an A looked like an Avengers token, and thus must be super powerful. The A actually stands for Artemia, the name of the planet.

The cards with the green back are the Hunt cards. The creature always has a hand size of three, and normally gets to play one Hunt card per round.

This is how the game is set up. The 10 cards arranged neatly at the bottom form the game board and represent the 10 locations on Artemia, each with a different ability which the humans get to use. At the start of the game, each human player has one each of cards numbered 1 to 5, which means he can only access the first five locations. At the top of the photo you can see a pool of cards numbered 6 to 10. During the course of the game the human players may claim these cards to increase their options.

At the start of a round, each human plays a location card from his hand face-down, committing where he will be for the round. The humans may discuss how they want to play, but the creature is listening, so they can't be too explicit. The humans have to hope that their teammates know what they are thinking and will play in a cohesive manner. After the humans are committed, it is the creature's turn to decide where to hunt. This is done by placing the Hunt tokens on the location cards where it thinks the humans are. Then you check whether any humans are caught. They will suffer penalties. Depending on the Hunt token, they may lose Will counters, they may lose cards, they may be denied the ability of the location, the assimilation counter may advance, etc.

The most crucial part of the game is advancing your counter on the countdown track. The rescue counter automatically advances at the end of every round. The humans can perform certain actions, e.g. using location abilities, to make additional advancements. The assimilation counter advances when the creature catches a human using the creature token, and also when a human loses his last Will counter. Every human starts with three Will counters. Will counters can be spent to return played location cards into your hand, but it is a risky thing to do, because you will get closer to losing them all. When you lose them all, the creature's assimilation counter advances, and you reset your character by taking back all your location cards and your three Will counters. You can use location abilities to return location cards to your hand, thus delaying the usage of Will counters, but in the long run it is a matter of stalling, not completely avoiding.

The locations on Artemia help the humans in different ways. They can speed up the rescue ship. They help you reclaim played location cards. They give you new location cards. They give you Survival cards. Survival cards are usually powerful, similar to the creature's Hunt cards. Each human may play at most one Survival card per round. One key difference between Survival cards and Hunt cards is the humans need to perform an action at a location to draw a Survival card, while the creature automatically draws back to three Hunt cards every round.

These are some of the creature's Hunt cards. Those target icons on two of them mean when you play these cards, you get to use the target Hunt token for the round.

The Play

Ivan taught us to play. He had played before, as the creature, so this time he wanted to try being human. He asked me to take the role of the creature. So I was public enemy in our game. There were five of us in total, thus four human players. At the start of the game, having four human players seemed very beneficial to the creature player. They only had five locations to pick from, and I felt I would have to be very unlucky to miss all four of them. Also one of the five locations, #5, was particularly attractive - it allowed the human player to gain a new location card. This was very useful. It was best to get such additional cards early, so that for the rest of the game you'd have more options. It was natural that the human players would be very tempted to make use of this location in the early game. I missed one consideration though. Location #1 was the creature's lair, and if a human made use of it, it could trigger the location ability of the location of the creature. So if I hunted at location #5, the humans could just go to location #1 and still trigger the ability of location #5.

Playing the creature was all about guessing where the humans were. I could see what location cards they had played to determine what options they had remaining. I had to remember which new location cards they managed to claim. I looked at how many Will counters they had to guess what they would try to do. For me the tension came from the ever ticking countdown clock - the rescue team was on the way. I had to assimilate the humans before time ran out, and the ticking clock often jumped ahead by one or even two extra steps. It was nice being omnipresent and powerful, but that didn't mean assimilating the humans was easy. I had a deadline to meet. The humans were stressed out as well, like mice being stalked by a monstrous cat, occasionally supported by devilish kittens (the extra Hunt tokens). Every round they played location cards, leaving fewer and fewer in hand. They could take cards back but that usually meant spending Will counters. Doom approached from both directions, or in Manglish (Malaysianised English) - turn left die, turn right also die. They struggled to survive and were often torn between lying low and waiting patiently, and being bold and helping the rescue team arrive sooner.

Both the creature's Hunt cards and the humans' Survival cards are powerful cards. They create drama and twists. Without them, I believe the game would be a little staid, because all other information is open - the location cards that have been played, the number of Will counters remaining, the available options of each human. Hunt cards and Survival cards create opportunities and help make impossible saves. I would say they help address a weakness in the core mechanism. They make the overall package better. They are powerful but not so much that you feel you win or lose by the luck of the draw. These cards are a supporting element, not the core.

Despite the difficulty in coordinating their actions due to the ever listening creature, the humans still have many ways to collaborate and help one another. They can choose to apply the ability of a location card or a Survival card on a fellow player who needs it more than themselves. Often a human can take one for the team, suffering injury to protect a teammate. The humans do feel like a team playing a cooperative game.

In this particular round, as the creature, I could use two Hunt tokens. Location #4 comes with a yellow marker. This marker starts the game off-card. When a human player triggers location #4, he may move the marker on- or off-card. Moving it on-card means charging up a beacon, and moving it off-card means activating the beacon, which causes the rescue counter to advance by one step. So it takes two human actions at location #4 to speed up the arrival of the rescue team by one step. It is possible to achieve this within one round if two humans come here (and are not caught by the creature).

The human player on the left had played location cards 1, 2, 3, 5 and 9, which meant it was much easier for me to guess where he was going. But beware the Survival card. There just might be one which could save this player from such a sticky situation.

This was near end game, and it was going to be a close finish. On the rescue team track, some spots have an A. If the rescue counter stops at these spots, in the next round the creature gets to use the Artemis Hunt token. The human players will try to avoid these spots. Most of the time it is ideal to move two steps per round, to completely avoid the A spots. That means moving one extra step on top of the one free step every round. However sometimes it is worthwhile to move three steps, even if it means landing on an A. In fact sometimes it is necessary. This is a race game after all.

Our game was close. The tension built towards a climax, and I think this is how most games will be. As the creature I tried to focus on humans who were already low on Will counters. Every step towards assimilation was precious. In the late game, when the rescue ship was about two rounds away from arriving, we came to a situation where one of the humans had only one Will counter remaining, and also only two location cards in hand. Big Red Target, in my eyes. My assimilation counter was two steps away from victory. If I could catch him in person (i.e. using my creature Hunt token), my assimilation counter would move one step for catching him in person, and another for reducing his Will counters to zero. That meant victory for me. Since he had only two cards left, I had a 50% chance of winning this round, assuming no Survival card upset my plan. Of his two locations, one was very enticing, because it would let the rescue counter advance an extra step. The other one was meh. I could decide to prowl the yummy location, since it was obviously the better location. However the human would know I was thinking this way, and might thus choose the meh location just to stay away from danger. So maybe I should pick the meh location so that I would catch him. He would deduce that I would think this way too, so the most dangerous location might actually be the safest one. Then why not just go for it? This is the kind of double guessing which happens all the time in this game. Eventually I decided the human must be having a do or die mindset by this stage. So I placed my creature Hunt token on the yummy location. I was right! Game over for the humans. Welcome to the warm embrace of Artemia.

The Thoughts

Not Alone is a light-to-medium weight game. It takes 30-45 minutes to play. What makes it attractive is the cat-and-mouse mechanism and how the creature and the humans need to guess one another's intentions. Even among the human players they need to guess what their teammates are thinking. The humans are under constant pressure. Their location cards dwindle, their Will counters dry up, they slowly slide towards the hive mind. They fight to survive till help arrives. The creature is mighty, but also has a heart-pounding urgency to assimilate the humans before they escape its grasp. This game has great atmosphere!