Sunday, 7 October 2018

Azul

Plays: 2Px3, 3Px1.

Azul is a double-award winner, winning both the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis, the two most prestigious boardgame awards in Germany, and arguably the world. When I had the chance to play it, I jumped in with no hesitation. Gotta see what the fuss is about!

The Game

I'll explain how this game works backwards. Start with the end in mind. What you do in this game is you fill the the spaces on the wall, which is the 5x5 grid on the right side of your player board. You must follow the pattern shown on the wall. Every time you place a tile here, you score points. If the newly placed tile has no other tiles adjacent to it, you score 1pt. If there are others adjacent in the same row, you score 1pt per connected tile in that row, including the newly placed tile. If there are others adjacent in the same column, you also score 1pt per connected tile in that column. Let's say I place a yellow tile in the third row, I would score 2pt. The newly placed yellow tile would be touching one blue tile next to it. They form a row of size 2. There are no adjacent tiles horizontally, so no points column-wise.

Let's work backwards. In order to place tiles onto the wall, you need to first fill those lines on the left side of your player board. They are called pattern lines. During a round, once all tiles have been collected by players, you check whether you have completely filled any pattern lines. Completed pattern lines allow you to transfer one tile to the wall. The tile must be moved to the row corresponding to the pattern line. In the photo above, pattern lines 2 and 3 are complete, and one tile from each line will be moved to the wall. Other tiles in the pattern lines are discarded, so you will have a fresh empty pattern line next round. Pattern lines 4 and 5 are incomplete. The tiles will stay there for the next round.

Let's go further backwards. How do you collect tiles in the first place to put onto your pattern lines? Before the start of the game, you arrange some discs in a circle. These discs are called factories. At the start of every round, four random tiles are produced at each factory. Players take turns collecting tiles until all are claimed. You may pick any factory, and take all tiles of one colour. You then push all remaining tiles to the centre of the circle. There will be more and more tiles at the centre. Your other option is to take all tiles of one colour from the centre. At the start of a round, the start player tile (white tile with a 1) is placed at the centre. During the round, whoever is first to claim tiles from the centre must also take the start player tile.

Whenever you claim tiles, you normally pick one pattern line to place them. If the pattern line becomes full and you have surplus tiles, these tiles must be placed in the floor line. This is a penalty area at the bottom of your player board. Every tile placed here gives a penalty. The start player tile gets placed here too. Being start player for next round costs you at least 1pt. Sometimes if you don't want the tiles you claim, you may directly place them in the floor line. Sometimes when you run out of pattern lines to place tiles claimed, you are forced to place all those tiles in the floor line. As long as there are tiles available on the table, players must claim tiles when their turns come around.

The flow is straight-forward. The first half of a round is for players to claim tiles to put onto their pattern lines. Ideally you want to fill up every pattern line. The first half ends when all tiles are claimed. Then you enter the second half, which is simply processing the completed pattern lines and sticking tiles onto your wall. The second half is actually an administrative and scoring stage that can be done concurrently. It has no player interaction. If any player completes a row on his wall, the game ends. You score bonus points for three criteria at game end. For every completed row on your wall, you score 2pts. For every completed column, 7pts. For every complete set of 5 tiles of the same colour, 10pts.

In a corner of your player board you have these reminders for the game end scoring.

The player board is double sided. On the advanced side, the wall has no preset pattern. You are free to place your tiles. However, the placement is still subject to two rules. In every row, the tile colours must not repeat. In every column, the tile colours also must not repeat. This is the sudoku concept.

The Play

The game mechanisms in Azul may not feel familiar, but they are easy to grasp. However you need to play the game to start appreciating the tactics.

Firstly, you don't simply fill your pattern lines with any colours you want. If you want to do well, you need to think and plan. When placing a tile onto your wall, you want it to link up to as many other tiles as possible, preferably both horizontally and vertically. So ideally when you build your wall, you start at one spot, then expand from there, as opposed to placing random tiles at disjointed positions. You want to complete those 7pt vertical lines. You want to complete those 10pt colour sets. Even when you know which colours you want, you also need to consider what colours are available in the current round, and whether others also want the same colours. If the colour you want is lacking, or you expect others to be desperately fighting over that same colour, it may be better to forgo it this round and try next round. If you fight for it, you may only partially fill a pattern line and need to wait for the next round to complete it anyway. Perhaps it's better to fill that pattern line with another colour that is less contested.

You need to put some thought into the competition at the centre of the table. The first impulse when playing this game is probably to avoid creating any big group of tiles of the same colour, because it means someone else can claim many tiles at one go. However you will later find that sometimes you want to intentionally create big sets, because sometimes players don't want big sets. When you take more than enough tiles to fill a pattern line, the surplus all go to the floor line, and this creates a penalty. When both you and another player want a specific colour, but you have more space than him, one way to dissuade him is to create a group that is too big for him. Of course, he may decide the penalty is worth it, in addition to not letting you have your way. Azul has decent player interaction, just that it is not immediately apparent. At first glance it appears to be a multiplayer solitaire game where everyone decorates his own wall.

The floor line is a constant threat, and the risk grows towards game end, because there are fewer and fewer valid colour choices for the pattern lines. You can't place a tile colour onto a pattern line, if the space of that colour on the corresponding wall row has already been filled. You have fewer and fewer options, and it is more likely you will be forced to place claimed tiles onto the floor line. In the worst case you will lose 14pts, which is a lot. You may be regressing instead of advancing. If a round starts with many players having half-filled pattern lines, you better watch out. There may be more tiles than you can fit, and things may not end well. Alternatively, it may be a golden opportunity to sabotage your opponents.

The advanced game gives you more freedom, but there's a trap. If you don't plan ahead carefully, you will create dead zones on your wall. This was what happened to Allen in one of our games. He had a dead zone because no matter what colour he was to take for that particular spot, it would be conflicting with another spot in the same row, or in the same column. It was then we realised why the wall in the basic game had a diagonal lines pattern.

Allen lent me his copy so that I could play with my children. I got Chen Rui to play with me.

At first Shee Yun wasn't interested to play, but after watching Chen Rui and I for a while, she asked to join us for the next game.

With three players, there are seven factories in use. With two players, only five. In this photo there are already many tiles at the centre. Look at those yellow tiles! The #1 tile is still there, which means no one has taken anything from the centre yet. Whoever is first to take a set of tiles from the centre must take the #1 tile too. The #1 tile must go to the floor tile, and thus will cost you at least 1pt. I find that it is often worth the penalty to become start player for the next round. You get first dibs.

The Thoughts

Labeling Azul as an abstract game feels inappropriate, because normally people think of abstract games as dry, mathematical, open-info and serious. Azul is indeed an open-information game, and if you play very competitively, it can be ponderous and thinky. I see it as a family strategy game. One big dose of randomness is the tiles being drawn at the start of every round. How many tiles there are in each colour affects the game, and how they are distributed also affects the game. I think Azul is best played as a light strategy game. There is no need to think too much. You'll do reasonably well as long as you put a little thought into it. Analysing every logical branch might give you a slight edge, but it is not necessary for the enjoyment of the game.

I enjoyed the fact that underneath the simple rules, there are quite a few tactical subtleties to explore. It was fun discovering the various player interactions.

The publisher could have slapped on a less abstract theme. The colours could be different professions helping to rebuild a kingdom, or alien races at an intergalactic business conference. I'm glad they chose a simple, unpretentious setting. The game mechanism is pure and abstract. Slapping on some fanciful story or elaborate setting might feel forced and unnatural.

I found Azul refreshing. Often when trying to describe a game, I am reminded of mechanisms in other games, and I try to describe the game on hand by referring to those other games. The game mechanisms in Azul are not groundbreaking, but the whole package doesn't feel like anything I have played before. Okay, maybe except for Sudoku.

Friday, 28 September 2018

ROOT

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

ROOT has the cute, kawaii looks, but is actually hardcore inside, kind of like a heavy metal band with K-pop faces (no offense to fans of either genre). Players are major animal factions in a forest teeming with life, fighting for supremacy. The factions are very different, far more different than in other games with factions and different faction abilities. Here in ROOT the factions are so different that it feels like you have multiple sets of rules, one for each faction. Adding to that is another set of basic rules which apply to all factions, e.g. basic combat, card usage. In ROOT you fight, you take control of villages, you construct buildings, and you manufacture tools. These actions are just the basic layer, and they only contribute to part of your score. Your faction has unique abilities and ways of scoring, and you must make use of these to win. You compete with other factions to be first to reach 30 victory points to win the game.

There are 12 villages on the board (well, technically they are called clearings) connected by a road network. Some are connected by a river too. The square boxes in the villages are locations for buildings. Each village has a species majority. E.g. the red village on the left is a fox majority village, while the orange village on the right is a mouse majority village. You can see the fox and mouse icons next to the villages. When you perform an action at a village, usually you need to play a card matching the majority specie.

This is the bird faction player board. The section at the lower left specifies what the faction must do and may do on a turn. The most important feature of the bird faction is the Decree along the top of the board. There are four positions where you can tuck cards, and they correspond to four actions you can take - recruit, move, battle and build. Every turn you must tuck at least one new card, increasing your number of actions per turn. This sounds great, but there's a catch. If at any time you are unable to perform an action, your faction goes into turmoil. You will lose points, you will change leadership (that character at the bottom right), and the Decree will be reset. E.g. you need to recruit but you've run out of game pieces to add to the board; or you need to battle but you've already killed all opponent soldiers at your locations. The Decree of the bird faction is an accelerating train. It keeps building momentum and becomes more and more powerful, but once it crashes, it will be painful.

The most important way for the bird faction to score points is to build roosts (a type of building) - those dark blue square markers. Every turn you score points based on how many roosts you have on the board. You can earn up to 5VP per turn! However the roosts are also a time bomb. When you run out of roosts to build, you will fail your build action, and you will fall into turmoil. The Decree is powerful, but it is a double-edged sword.

The bird faction has four potential leaders. You pick one at the start of the game. Each leader gives a different bonus, and dictates the starting actions on the Decree.

These are the cards in the game. One unique way the bird faction uses cards is to tuck them under the Decree. Cards have their own abilities, which can be used by all factions. Some cards are played during battle, e.g. the Ambush card immediately kills two attackers. Cards come in four suits - the coloured bar at the top. The suit limits where you can use the card. Red (fox) cards can only be used in fox villages. Yellow (rabbit) cards can only be used in rabbit villages. The blue (bird) cards are jokers though, and can be use in any village.

The card back is beautiful. The four suits are represented here - fox, mouse, rabbit and bird.

This is the raccoon faction player board. This faction is called the Vagabond. It's not even really a faction. It's just one lone ranger roaming the forest. The raccoon collects tools, and the actions it can perform depend on the tools it has. One generic action that all factions can take is to craft tools. Normal factions do this for the victory points. After a tool is crafted, it is of no use to the factions. However the raccoon may come to trade these tools with the factions. The raccoon can provide various forms of help to the factions to earn VP's. It can even establish alliances. The raccoon can become enemies with factions too, killing their soldiers and burning their buildings. These give victory points too. Yet another source of VP's is secret personal missions. Similar to the bird faction, at the start of the game you get to pick a character to play (bottom right). This determines your starting tools, your special abilities and eventually your gameplay.

One unique ability of the raccoon is to hide in the forest, out of reach of the other factions.

This is the cat faction, and their style is to build, build, build. They score points by building. They need wood for buildings, and they build sawmills to cut down wood. The more buildings they have, the more wood will be needed for the next ones they build, so they need to keep up in wood production. According to the backstory, the cats are the current rulers of the forest, while the birds are the previous rulers. When we played, we joked that the bird faction was Barisan Nasional, trying to win back the country. Their colour is dark blue too!

Birds and cats - natural born enemies.

The otter faction is from the Riverfolks expansion. These are merchants and mercenaries, and they flourish by trading with other factions. They may recruit at any village along the river. They may move along the river. Their cards are public information, because they may sell their cards to other factions. To be precise, they may not refuse if another faction wants to buy their cards. They can at most set a high price. The ability to move along the river can be bought too, but only for one turn. If you want it next turn, you need to pay again. You may recruit otter mercenaries. They will fight alongside your soldiers, but also for one turn only. When you buy (or rent) stuff from the otter faction, you pay using your unused pawns. They go to the otter faction board. The otter faction uses these pawns to perform actions, and some actions will consume your pawns, thus returning them to your pool. One important source of VP's for the otters is the trading posts (bottom right of photo).

The card on the right is a Dominance card. This is a special card and there are only four such cards in the deck. It gives you an alternate path to victory. If you play a Dominance card, you can win by fulfilling the stated condition and then maintaining it for one full round, i.e. from your current turn to the start of your next turn. The tradeoff is your victory points are forfeit. You are switching to a different route. This particular Dominance card requires controlling three mouse villages. Controlling means having more soldiers and buildings than others.

Combat is simple. The attacker rolls two dice (which have numbers ranging from 0 to 3). The bigger number will be kills dealt by the attacker, and the smaller number the kills dealt by the defender. To deal a certain number of kills, you need to have at least that many soldiers. If the attacker has only two soldiers but rolls a 3 for himself, then he only gets to kill two defending soldiers. This combat mechanism favours the attacker, since the attacker always gets the bigger number.

The Play

We did a four player game. Ivan played the raccoon (white), Tim the cats (orange), Dith the otters (light blue) and I the birds (dark blue). This photo was taken in the early game. Cats were everywhere, but were spread thinly. The birds started with a large force at the bottom right corner.

Playing the bird faction, my plan was to expand aggressively and steadily. The leader I picked doubled my recruits. I wanted to push outwards from the southeast corner. Playing the bird faction required much computing power. I had to think ahead a few turns, to make sure my Decree did not break down and reset. Every time I tucked a new card, I needed to assess whether I would be able to perform this specific action at specific villages for the next few turns. I needed to build roosts to score points. I only tucked one card for the build action. Tucking two would be too risky. Even having just one was not easy. I had to make sure I gained control of at least one more village every turn, so that I could build one more roost. I tucked two cards for the recruit action, which meant four new recruits every turn. Having a healthy stream of new soldiers sounded great, but this came with great risk too. I was frequently at risk of running short of pawns. In addition to having already deployed pawns onto the board, I also bought stuff from Dith, thus placing pawns on his player board. Thankfully Dith and I came to a form of mutual agreement. I bought stuff from him to help him get more actions, while he tried to use my pawns quickly so that he could return them to my pool. We kept our words and did not backstab each other.

Dith struggled from the early game, due to a lack of customers. I was his only more-or-less regular customer. Ivan's raccoon could not spare pawns for him, since Ivan only had one pawn. Tim's cat faction had the most pawns, but Tim never found anything on sale particularly attractive. He just focused on building sawmills, chopping wood and constructing more and more buildings. Dith didn't have many actions, and could not deploy many soldiers onto the board. Those which were deployed did not last long either. Sometimes I was the one killing his soldiers. Not that I did so to hurt his position or to improve mine. I simply needed to fulfill my destiny - the Decree. When the Decree said battle, I had to plan to do battle. Sometimes I went into battle hoping more of my soldiers would die, because I needed those pawns for my recruit actions next turn. There aren't many games where you tell your soldiers please just die.

Tim (cat faction) made steady progress with woodcutting and building. Tim and I started with our HQ's at opposite ends of the board, so it would take some time for us to build up to any major conflict. In the early game I did kill off many of his small garrisons. It was almost impossible for him to defend them and he didn't even bother. He just concentrated on building up his infrastructure and gaining VP's. In a way, we were cooperating. I did what I did because that was how my faction worked and how I scored points. My expansion did not really prevent him from scoring points. He didn't try to stop me and just focused on his own way of scoring. We both prospered.

Ivan's raccoon kept busy with its own scoring too. He started with exploring ruins and digging for relics. Once done with all the exploration, he came trading with us for tools. He amassed an impressive set of tools. His score, Tim's and mine grew steadily and we were not far from one another. Only Dith gradually fell behind due to the lack of actions.

My bird faction (dark blue) now dominated about half the forest. Dith's otters (light blue) had an expedition force on the left which broke through into Tim's cat kingdom (orange), but it seemed a little pointless. It didn't seem to help with Dith's scoring much, and eventually Dith did not follow up with any reinforcements. Tim later recaptured that village.

I made one critical mistake with that unprotected village on the right. I was expecting the eventual clash with Tim along the river, which was my front line. I positioned my soldiers such that he couldn't break through to harass my villages behind the front line. What I forgot to consider was Ivan's raccoon. He easily slipped by and set fire to my unguarded roost. I didn't even have any eyewitness to prove his guilt and I couldn't declare him public enemy and arsonist. This was a major blow to me. When my turn came again, I could not do recruitment at any fox village. The roost which was destroyed was the only roost I had in a fox village. The Decree failed, and my bird faction fell into turmoil.

At the top left I had a red fox card, which meant I must perform recruitment at a fox village every turn. At this point I had 8 cards in my Decree, which meant 8 actions every turn. This was very powerful. In contrast, the cat faction had a fixed number of actions every turn - three.

I had a feeling that a turmoil was coming soon, but this still caught me off guard. I knew turmoil was coming because I already had 6 roosts built, and thus only one left on my player board. Once the last one was built, I was going to head for turmoil. At that time I had a Dominance card in hand, and two Ambush cards. That Dominance card required controlling three mouse villages, and I happened to have strong forces in three such villages (photo above, orange villages with blue birds). Ambush cards can be used when being attacked. I had a mouse Ambush card and a bird Ambush card, which meant both could be used to defend my mouse villages. It felt like the stars were aligned for me to play this Dominance card. However I knew I was making a gamble. By playing the Dominance card, I was forgoing my victory points. Despite the turmoil and the VP penalty, I wasn't doing too badly. If I failed to maintain control over the three mouse villages, I knew it would be difficult to regain control. The rest of the players would gang up on me. Eventually I could not resist the temptation and decided to go for broke.

Aaaaand broke I went. Despite all geared up to defend my mouse villages, in the end it wasn't any attack from Tim that stopped me. It was Dith's recruitment drive which stopped me. Tim didn't even bother to attack me, and left the job of stopping me to Dith. I forgot that Dith could recruit at any village next to the river. He only needed to recruit a bunch of otters, and they would overcrowd the village and become the controlling faction. They didn't even need to fight me. They just stood about and shook hands with my soldiers. I could not play my Ambush cards on these freshies! Everything went downhill from there for me. I even had yet another turmoil. In hindsight, after the turmoil I should have just regrouped and continued to work on VP. My situation was not that dire to call for such a gamble. I was impetuous.

The remaining contenders were Tim and Ivan. Dith and I had been messing with Tim a little here and there, since he was everywhere and we couldn't resist taking some jabs. Ivan looked harmless enough, and nobody bothered to attack him. He was the last thing we associated with a threat. By the time we realised he was getting stronger and stronger, it was too late. He had built a massive repertoire of tools. Even if we robbed him of some, he still had plenty, and he still had many ways to score points. The raccoon has many small ways of scoring points, none of which looked particularly threatening in itself, but they all add up. Eventually Ivan charged ahead and hit 30VP to win the game. Lesson learnt - everyone needs to watch and rein in everyone else. You cannot afford to ignore anyone.

The Thoughts

ROOT is a rare game which after playing I wanted to know who designed it. Cole Wehrle did not ring a bell, and I had to do some research to find out that he designed Pax Pamir and John Company, both heavy games. ROOT is certainly a complex game. Some of the rules, e.g. the generic ones applicable to all factions, are simple and succinct, but the whole package is an intricate network of interlocking mechanisms and rich player interactions. It is a complex ecosystem. Many games have multiple factions and unique faction powers, but not many have factions as wildly different as those in ROOT. We are not talking about having a generic faction template from which you apply advantages and weaknesses to create different factions. We are talking about factions built almost from the ground up. It is an impressive feat to get these different factions to work as a coherent game.

I have read a comment that playing ROOT is multiplayer solitaire, because of how each faction just focuses on its own way of scoring. You don't want to get distracted with spending effort slowing others down. In my opinion this is a player problem. It is true that you do need to make good use of your faction abilities and keep up with the scoring to stay in contention. However messing with others is an effective tool you should not neglect. You may not have the luxury to attack every other opponent, but at least make sure everybody is being reined in by somebody. In ROOT you have a delicate balance of power. Players can easily gang up on an apparent leading player. The board situation is fluid due to how effective attacks are, and how alliances can shift.

The game mechanisms in ROOT can easily be applied to a much more serious setting, or a historical setting. The forest can be a nation undergoing revolution, with many factions vying for power and plotting against one another. By choosing a Disney-like setting and such cute artwork, the publisher tones down the seriousness and the tension. This may be a good thing. I certainly like the artwork and the components. Just make no mistake, this is a complex multiplayer strategy game.

Friday, 21 September 2018

Century: Eastern Wonders - Sand to Sea

Plays: 3Px1.

Century: Eastern Wonders is the second game in the Century series, after Century: Spice Road. They are independent games, but can also be combined into a different game, called Sand to Sea. Later when the third game in the series Century: New World is released, it too can be combined with the earlier games to create new games. I have only played Sand to Sea and not Century: Eastern Wonders by itself. So this post will just be about the combo game and not the individual one.

The Game

When setting up the map for Sand to Sea, tiles are drawn randomly. Some spaces will have no island.

The full setup looks like this. Sand to Sea does not use all the components from Spice Road and Eastern Wonders. It uses a subset from both. On the right are the merchant cards from Spice Road. You have a row of four for players to pick from. The map tiles in the middle are from Eastern Wonders. The spices (cubes) on the left can be from either game. Spices are your resources. The game is about collecting spices and upgrading them, and eventually trading specific sets of them to fulfill contracts, which have point values. Once a player fulfills his fourth contract, the game ends. Highest scorer wins.

Taking a merchant card from the card row is one of the four actions you can do on your turn. The second one is simply playing a merchant card. When you play a card, you put it on the left side of your player board. Cards have 3 types of abilities. Some let you collect spices. Some let you upgrade spices to other more valuable types. Some let you convert specific sets of spices to other specific sets. The rightmost section of your player board is your storage area, and it holds up to 10 spices. In this photo you see some facedown cards on the right side of the player board. This is related to the third action type - sailing. Every player has a ship on the board. Your third action type is to sail. You get to perform the action allowed by your destination. For each step you sail, you must either move a card from the left side of your player board to the right, or play a card directly from your hand to the right side of your player board. Ideally you want to use your cards twice - firstly for the ability of the card itself, and secondly for sailing. Once a card is on the right side of your player board, it is of no use to you temporarily. You need to take the fourth action - the reset. When you reset (it's called "rest" in the game), you bring all cards back into your hand. You won't do anything else that turn. You'll start all over again next turn.

Everyone has a ship on the board. They don't block movement, but if you do sail to a spot where others are present, you need to pay them a fee (of one spice). So ships do hinder movement somewhat. Islands simply let you convert a set of spices to another, just like merchant cards. You need to have built a trading post on an island in order to use its power. If you are first to build, it's free. Otherwise it'll cost spices. In this photo, the pink and white players have built trading posts.

On the player board, the trading posts are arranged in a 4x4 grid. 4 rows and 4 columns. When you build a trading post on the map and need to take one piece from your player board, you need to check the island type, which is in one of the four spice colours matching the four rows on your board. Also you always take the leftmost piece from the row. The first trading post you build from a row is only worth 1VP, but subsequent ones are worth more. This entices you to build trading posts on islands of the same type. Now if you look at the icons along the top, these are bonuses you get when you complete columns. If you build all four trading posts in the first column, i.e. at four different island types, you gain a merchant card. For columns 2 to 4, you get to choose between a bonus tile and a merchant card. So you are torn in two directions - do you go for rows or columns? Or neither? You also need to consider whether the islands are useful to you in the first place. Sometimes it may not be worthwhile to build only for the sake of completing a row or a column.

There are three types of bonus tiles. From left: (1) Storage expansion, increasing your capacity by 3. (2) Victory points. (3) One free move when sailing. In the game we played, none of us managed to get any bonus tile. I think it's very difficult to do because you need to complete your second column to get a bonus tile. Also in the game we played, I went for speed, forcing the game to end quickly. This made it even more difficult for anyone to complete the second column.

Let me shift one row of trading posts out of the way, so that you can see the point values for each position within the same row. A total of 8VP is attractive.

On the right, the tile with the big 15 on it is a contract. If you sail here and you have 3 brown spice and 1 green spice, you may trade the spice for this contract worth 15VP. Contracts are the biggest source of VP. They appear at the harbours in the four corners of the map. When a contract is fulfilled, another will be drawn to take its place.

One contract shuffled near the top of the draw deck is this out-of-service tile with a big red cross. If you draw this tile, the harbour where a contract has just been fulfilled is now temporarily closed. You need to go elsewhere to fulfill contracts. The next time a contract is fulfilled, that other harbour will close, while this one will reopen for business. Once this out-of-service tile appears, there will only be 3 active harbours at any one time.

The Play

I played with Ivan and Tim, and we were all new to Sand to Sea, although not new to the Century series. Sand to Sea has the same style as Spice Road. On your turn you only do one simple thing. You have only four options. The flow is straightforward. You collect spices, you upgrade them, you turn them into other spices, and eventually you trade them in for contracts which are worth VP. Merchant cards and trading posts on islands are your tools. You need to build up your tool repertoire as you go, but they are mostly a means to an end. You need to decide how much effort to spend on improving your toolset and how much to spend on actually scoring points. The row and column consideration when building trading posts is a side quest. If the scores from contracts are close, then this aspect may become the game decider. Player interaction is in the form of grabbing merchant cards, racing to fulfill contracts, grabbing spots for trading posts, and hindering ship movement.

I went for speed. I just wanted to get the right spices quickly and then go grab the contracts. I didn't bother much with completing rows or columns on my player board. In the area where my ship started, there were a few islands which synergised well, so I only built a few trading posts in this area. I did need to take some merchant cards. They synergised well with my trading posts too. I operated with very few trading posts, and not that many merchant cards either.

I played white, and you can see my board presence was minimal. Ivan was pink, and Tim black. Tim was most aggressive and systematic in building trading posts. He had trading posts on all four yellow islands. He also had a full set of islands in four colours. So he had both a complete row and a complete column.

You do need to race for the contracts. At one point I forgot to watch what spices others were collecting, and one contract which I was working towards was fulfilled by Ivan ahead of me. Luckily for me the next contract matched the spices I had pretty well. I only needed a little effort to get to the right combination. I was quite lucky in that my merchant cards and trading posts synergised well. That meant good efficiency. I was the only one who managed four contracts when the game ended. My trading posts did not score me many points, but my contracts were high valued and that secured the win for me.

The Thoughts

Sand to Sea is a medium (or low-medium) complexity strategy game. It is brisk. The key is putting together an effective set of merchant cards and trading posts. They are your engine to help you gain spices and upgrade spices. Compared to Spice Road, now you have a spatial aspect. You need to think about which islands you want to use, and you need to think about movement on the map. The game naturally becomes more complex. There are more moving parts. However the pace is still quick. Your actions are simple.

One thing which Sand to Sea and Spice Road have in common is the game ends quicker than you expect. It is easy to think you have time to build your perfect little engine. You don't. While building your engine, you are also racing and grabbing points. I find this tantalising. You feel you want just a bit more time to refine your engine. You need to remind yourself you don't have that kind of luxury. The other feeling I have when playing the game is many things I want to achieve require many small steps to complete. I need to think a few step ahead, and I need to wait round after round for my turn to come to execute the next small step to realise my plan. That feeling of anticipation is wonderful. I can't wait to get to my next turn. This may be why the game moves so briskly.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Dungeon Petz: Dark Alleys

Plays: 3Px1.

Time flies. That was my first thought when I realised Dungeon Petz is already a 7-year-old game. Recently Boardgamecafe.net did a Czech Games Edition theme night, and Ivan brought Dungeon Petz. He had bought the Dark Alleys expansion but had never played it before. So this was the perfect opportunity.

Dungeon Petz has an unusual setting. You are pet shop owners, but instead of cats and dogs, you are selling monsters, to dungeon masters. Rearing monsters is certainly not easy. You need to attend to their various needs. Rear them well, and you will win fame at exhibitions and when you sell them to the right customers. The core game mechanism is worker placement.

These are some of the monsters in the game. The one on the left is from the expansion, while the other two are from the base game. The one on the left is slightly more complicated than the others. If its magical powers are not contained properly, insteading of mutating, it causes other monsters at your shop to mutate.

The Game

The biggest change in the Dark Alleys expansion is this additional game board. Dungeon Petz is a worker placement game, and this new board gives you four more spots to place your workers. At the bottom left there is a white square. Right at the centre there is a black square. At the bottom right there is an orange square. Along the bottom edge near the middle there is a four-coloured square.

The black square is the black market. During game setup, 6 items are placed in the top half of this board - an extra worker (bodyguard), a monsterling, a cage, a food tile, a cage improvement and an artifact. When you visit the black market, you get to buy one of these. They don't get replenished throughout the game. Only one person may visit the black market every round.

The orange square is where you buy accessories for your monsters. When you put an accessory on a monster, it results in an additional need to fulfill, i.e. this will require more effort on your part. However being able to fulfill an extra need can also mean doing better at exhibitions and pleasing your customer even more. So this can be quite important.

The four-coloured square allows you to peek ahead at upcoming exhibitions and customers, so that you can start planning earlier. It also allows you to draw four more Needs cards in the current round. This gives you more flexibility in fulfilling your monsters' needs. When monsters grow big (their needs become harder and harder to fulfill), and when you serve important customers, additional flexibility can be very handy.

The white square is the industrial zone, where facilities with various benefits open for business. Whoever visits gets to use these facilities.

This row of large tiles are the facilities in the industrial zone. When you visit, you get to use one facility immediately, and if at the end of the round you have surplus workers, money or relevant resources, you get to use a facility again. A new facility opens every round, so you will get more and more choices. That facility in the middle is a cleaner service. Pay money to remove two poops from your shop.

In addition to the new board and corresponding components, you also get more of the component types already in the base game. More monsters, more cages, more customers, more exhibitions. The game structure doesn't change, and neither does the general strategy. There is only a slight change in the game-end scoring.

The Play

I played with Ivan and Sinbad, while Jeff and two others played another set, also with the Dark Alleys expansion. I had forgotten most of the rules details, and must listen to the rules explanation all over again. However I did remember that this game is very much about orchestrating high profile transactions - selling the right pets to the right owners at the right time. You can see what exhibitions and customers are coming up. Your job is to collect all the items you need to do well at the exhibitions and to serve the customers well. It is a lot of planning, coordination, timing and of course, fighting for the things you need.

This is the player board. The top section is a reference chart and also a screen when you need to do the blind bidding. The blind bidding in this game is grouping your workers (imps) and coins. Each group qualifies you for one action, and actions are executed in the order of group size. Large groups mean you get to go first, but they also mean you have fewer groups and thus fewer actions.

These were the monsters I bought in the early game. That cage at the top right automatically provides vegetables every round (leaf icon with tick), but unfortunately the monster there is carnivorous (meat icon on monster), so this special ability is wasted. The cage automatically cleans one poop every round too (poop icon with tick).

What we remember most about this particular game we played is Sinbad's huge magical monster. He raised a violent magical monster from young until it reached its full size. This was one tough pet to handle. Due to how angry it was, Sinbad had to assign his imps to rein it in and prevent it from breaking out of its cage. This resulted in his imps getting injured. This meant he had two fewer imps next round. Also he would need to assign another imp to retrieve those two injured imps from the hospital. To make things worse, in the next round, the hospital space was blocked by a neutral imp, and he couldn't collect his imps even if he wanted to. The neutral imps come into play in games with fewer than four players.

What was most painful was at late game, when the monster was at full size, Sinbad could not contain it, and it broke out of its cage and ran away. That was a heavy blow. So much effort wasted. This monster would likely have helped win exhibitions and close a lucrative sale.

My two monsters were growing up, revealing more and more Needs icons (coloured rectangles). The monster on the left was a playful one (yellow Needs icons). There was once I didn't have enough imps to play with it and didn't have enough toys for it to entertain itself, and it became depressed, taking one grey suffering cube. Monsters take suffering cubes when they are sad and when they are hungry. If they take too many, they die.

My playful monster was later sold to this grandma. Grandma loves pets which like to eat and get sick easily, because she enjoys giving care.

The two monsters at bottom left and top right were my newer batch of purchase. The one at the bottom left was an unusual one. If it got angry and broke out of its cage, it wouldn't run away. Instead it would break other cages or cage improvements. This might cause other monsters to escape instead.

The two brown cubes are poop.

This section of the player board is the food storage area. Vegetables last three rounds, meat only last two. Meat spoils at the end of the next round after it is bought.

As we played, we recorded all pet sales in this manner. These are all the customers in our game and what they bought.

The Thoughts

I think you need the Dark Alleys expansion only if you play Dungeon Petz a lot, because it will give you some variety. The additional game elements are just nice-to-have and don't make the game significantly better. They give you more things to do, at the cost of increased complexity and play time. I don't recommend the expansion for players new to the game. I actually see more value in the additional monsters, customers, exhibitions, i.e. the component types already existing in the base game.