Saturday, 21 April 2018

Kingdomino

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Kingdomino is the 2017 Spiel des Jahres winner, designed by Bruno Cathala (Abyss, Cyclades, Five Tribes, Mr Jack). It's a family game and a light strategy game. You build your own little kingdom using domino-like tiles. These are rectangular tiles consisting of two squares. Each square has a terrain type, and possibly one or more crowns. You have an imaginary 5x5 grid in which to build your kingdom. Every round you add a tile to your kingdom. Once the tiles run out, you score your kingdom, and whoever has the highest score wins.

Everyone starts his kingdom with a 1x1 castle. You grow your kingdom outwards from here. Whenever you add a tile to your kingdom, at least one square must touch an existing square of the same terrain type, just like playing dominoes. E.g. a wheatfield square on the new tile matches up with an existing wheatfield. If you are unable to match either square of the new tile with an existing square, you will be forced to discard the new tile. The only exception in terrain matching is the castle. Any terrain matches the castle.

You may choose not to place a tile even if it there is a legal placement. Sometimes this can be beneficial, but this is rare. Discarding a tile is usually involuntary.

You score points for each connected group of terrain squares. The value of a terrain group is the size of the group multiplied by the number of crowns on it. In the photo above, the large wheatfield group is worth 6VP. Size of 6 x 1 crown = 6VP. There are two tiny minefield groups, and currently one is worth 1VP (because of the 1 crown), the other is worth nothing. If these two minefield groups can later be linked up, they will be worth more. You want to build big terrain groups, and you want to have as many crowns as possible in them, especially the bigger groups.

One important restriction is the build area of 5x5. You must never exceed 5 rows or 5 columns. You may expand out from your castle in any direction. The castle need not be fixed as the centre of your kingdom. However if you are able to make it the centre, you earn a 10VP bonus at game end. Also if you manage to place all 12 tiles claimed during the game, making a complete 5x5 kingdom with no holes, you score a 5VP bonus.

How you claim tiles is the interesting part of the game. At the start of the game, you draw a number of tiles equal to the number of players. Every tile has a number on its back, which is indicative of its value. Terrains have different rarities and different numbers of crowns, so in general some are more valuable than others. The tiles are arranged in order of their numbers. Players then take turn claiming one each by placing their pawns. If you claim the lowest numbered tile (which is roughly the least valuable tile), you will have first pick next round. If you claim the highest numbered tile, you will pick last next round. That means you'll take whatever others leave behind. This mechanism of picking both the tile and the turn order for next round is the key element in Kingdomino.

You are constantly assessing the values of the tiles both to yourself and to your opponents. You need to watch their kingdoms to know what they want. Decision-making is based not only on what you want, but also on how desperately you need to deny your opponents. The value of a tile is certainly not simply based on its number. It is much more dependent on the board situation at each kingdom.

In the photo above, the column on the right are the tiles being claimed in the current round. One of them has been taken and the player is now adding it to his kingdom, so the tile is gone. After placing the tile, this active player will pick a tile from the left column to be claimed in the next round.

The game is played over 12 rounds only. Some tiles are randomly removed during setup depending on the number of players, so once the draw pile is exhausted, everyone will have claimed 12 tiles, and the game ends.

The Play

Kingdomino plays very quickly. It's a family game, but it almost feels more like a children's game. The rules and mechanisms are simple, but there is some strategy. You do need to think ahead a little how to build your perfect little kingdom. There's the invisible 5x5 boundary you need to consider. You need to keep your options open for future rounds. The bonuses for having a perfectly centred castle and for having a complete 5x5 kingdom are not easy to achieve. Both require forward planning. I may be making this sound complicated and thinky, but in practice, everything is clean and clear, and the game progresses briskly.

Building your own kingdom is solitaire play. The player interaction is in drafting tiles and fighting for turn order. There is no aggressive player interaction, only the passive aggressive type where you claim a tile which your opponent would have wanted.

The game feels like a puzzle - how do you build your kingdom and maximise your score? How do you try to fit everything in to fulfill all the scoring criteria?

The Thoughts

Kingdomino reminds me of Santiago, because the connected area scoring is similar. Santiago is a mid-weight strategy game. Kingdomino is much lighter. It is brisk and pleasant, and can be done in 20 minutes. Ivan said he is able to play with his young daughter. The only bit she needs some help with is the multiplication. Normally I am less interested in short games because they tend to be less satisfying. In the case of Kingdomino the challenge in building that perfect little kingdom is enticing me to play again.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

The Quest for El Dorado

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Reiner Knizia doing a deck-building game! This game caught my attention well before it was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres (it didn't win eventually). This is a race game in which you use your deck of cards to advance your pawn on the race track. The race track is customisable. You can use the recommended setups or make your own. Everyone has the same starting deck of cards, and a hand size of four. During the game you improve your deck, adding and also possibly removing cards, hoping to speed you up towards your destination. Whoever reaches El Dorado first wins.

The map consists of hex spaces. Each hex indicates the resources required for your pawn to enter. Yellow hexes require coins, green hexes require machetes, blue hexes require paddles. They represent villages, jungles and rivers. When you play a card, you expend the resources on it to move your pawn onto a new hex, or along a few hexes requiring that resource type. Mountains are impassable. Grey hexes require discarding cards.

This is one of the setups recommended by the rulebook. The starting line is at the bottom right. El Dorado is at the other end.

You start a turn with a hand size of four. You may play cards to move your pawn. Then you may play cards to buy one new card (which is put into your personal discard pile). Eventually you draw back up to four cards. You may discard unwanted cards before refilling your hand. If a card you play has more than one resource, you may use it to move your pawn multiple hexes, as long as the number of resources is sufficient to pay for every hex. However if a particular hex requires multiple resources, you are not allowed to pool together a few cards to move your pawn onto that hex. You need a single card with at least that many resources. If you don't have that, you need to take another route.

When buying a card, coin cards count according to their card values. Other cards can be used, but they only count as half a coin each. In the worst case, if you don't have any coin cards, your four cards can still add up to 2 coins.

The strip at the top left is the card market. Normally you may only buy cards here. The game starts with a predetermined set of 6 types of cards. There are only three cards per type. Once all three are bought, a space is opened up. At that point, you are allowed to buy any card outside of the market. If you do so, you will be buying the first of three cards. You move the other two into the market, thus filling in the blank. The market is now full again, and the restriction of buying only from the market applies again.

The price of a card is written at the bottom. Green, blue and yellow cards have machetes, paddles and coins respectively. White cards are jokers. Purple cards give special abilities. Some cards can only be used once, after which they are permanently removed from the game.

This is a deck-building game, and most of the standard rules apply. When you buy a new card, it goes to your discard pile. You reshuffle your cards only when your draw deck is exhausted. That means a new card will only come into play after the next reshuffle. You can thin your deck. The remove action removes a card from play, i.e. the card is set aside and not put in your discard pile. The next time you reshuffle, it won't come back. Removing weak cards makes your deck more efficient.

The start cards are all value 1 cards.

I'm rich, rich, rich! This hand looks good, but may not be all that great. Yes, I can afford expensive cards, but I may only buy one per turn anyway, so this is overkill. Most of the time, on your turn you try to make use of every card, be it to move or to buy a card, because you always draw back up to four anyway.

Some mountain hexes have caves. This is a variant, which we used in our game. When you approach a cave hex, you gain a random single-use special ability token. Their powers vary, and they can be quite handy. They give good flexibility because you can keep them till the ideal moment to use them. They are fun because everybody likes lucky draws.

So, on your turn you may move, and you may buy one new card. While you race towards El Dorado, you are tuning your deck to be able to race more effectively. Your deck is your tool. Your goal is to be first to cross the finish line. Positioning on the board is important, because blocking applies. You may not enter an occupied hex, and you may not pass through such a hex either. Trailing behind others is usually bad because they'll all be in your way. Blocking is something you need to defend yourself from, and you need to use it against your opponents too.

The Play

Ivan taught Allen and I to play. I have a bad habit when playing deck-building games. When I play Star Realms, I often enjoying building that perfect deck, that I lose sight of my true objective. I like to buy red cards which let me trim away the weak starting cards. I like to focus on buying cards of just one or two colours, so that there will be more synergies. In themselves, these actions are fine and they are valid tactics. My problem is I lose sight of the goal of killing my opponent. I don't get enough combat strength quickly enough to defeat my opponent. What use is my perfect deck when I'm close to being exterminated? When playing The Quest for El Dorado, I made the same mistake. Up front I decided I was going to focus on coin cards, which would help me buy more cards. There was a good variety of cards in the game, and many looked awfully powerful. I enjoyed collecting them and making use of them. I did have some "Ladies and gentlemen... " moments, when I made fantastic moves. However, I was too lax in pushing my pawn on the board. Ivan was the leading player throughout most of the race, and I was trailing most of the time. I kept thinking once I made my perfect deck, I would pull a come-from-behind victory. I did have the strongest buying power. I bought many coin cards. I was rich rich rich! Unfortunately rich rich rich did not automatically mean win win win. What was more important was being efficient in achieving the goal. Spending too much time on deck-building was actually bad, especially since I did it at the expense of not paying enough attention to the board.

Another lesson I learned was the need to plan ahead very specifically. There was one particular stretch of river on the board which I had underestimated and did not plan for. It was four consecutive spaces of water which was part of the shortest path to El Dorado. Each space needed just one paddle, but paddle cards were rarer, and that made a stretch of four a challenge. I didn't want to buy many paddle cards, and decided I'd just take a longer path, expecting my strong deck to help me to advance quickly enough. Both Ivan and Allen strategised to make use of this stretch. They were able to cross the whole stretch within one turn, by playing a value-4 joker card. This is the kind of efficiency we are talking about!

I also learned the importance of blocking. The leading player commanded a big advantage, because he would normally be trying to take the easiest path, and that meant he would be blocking the next players from also taking that easiest path.

There are things you can strategise, but at the same time the game is very tactical. What you can do depends on what you draw. There's a tension of whether you'll be drawing the right cards at the right time. There's the fun puzzle of how to make the most of your hand of cards, given your current position on the board. A turn is usually fast, because you can only do what your cards allow you to do. You can temporarily forget about everything else.

El Dorado is at the upper left. Now the three pawns are about to enter the board section in the middle. If you trace the shortest path to El Dorado, you can see a hex in the middle requiring 4 coins. This can be a pivotal point. There aren't many cards with 4 coins or cards that allow you to enter such a space. If you have such a card, and also happen to have it in hand when you approach this hex, you will be able to take the shortest path. Otherwise you will be forced to take a detour, costing you precious turns.

As we played, the card pool dwindled to a point which surprised me. Many card types were exhausted. I wonder whether it was because we (especially me) had been buying aggressively. If it were a full four-player game, there would be even fewer cards left.

The Thoughts

I was not disappointed. The Quest for El Dorado is a quality design. You need to strike a balance between equipping yourself for the race, and running the race itself. There is a lot you can think about and strategise about, yet on your turn the things you can do are often simple and few. You can only do what your hand of cards and your position on the board allow you to do. You can plan ahead, and try to position yourself better for future turns, but what you get to execute now is usually straightforward. The most difficult decision is probably when you get the option to buy any card on the table. Hopefully before you get to that point you have been paying attention and thinking about how you are crafting your deck. You should already have a general idea what your game plan is.

This is a game of flexible depth. You can play it simple mindedly; you can choose to put in a lot of thought. Naturally if you do the latter, your chances of winning are better. Either way you play, the game is enjoyable. It might be a problem though if some players play at one extreme and some at the other. One side would be accused of being brainless, and the other side slow.

I like how the game gives me much freedom to customise my deck. Throughout the game I am always occupied, with many strategic considerations I can delve into. I think about the board situation, the cards in the market, how I am going to adjust my deck, and the strategies my opponents are using. Many of these factors are constantly changing, and I always need to adapt, and do the best with what I draw. Puzzling out what best to do with your hand is satisfying.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Majesty: For the Realm

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Majesty is designed by Marc Andre (Splendor, Barony), and you can see his style in this game too - simple actions coming together to make a richer-than-expected strategy game. You feel the game is more than the sum of its parts.

To summarise the game in one sentence - you collect twelve cards to score points. It really does come down to just that. It is amazingly simple. Everyone starts the game with his own kingdom. These kingdoms are identical - the same set of eight buildings. You also have 5 workers (the white meeples).

You have a card row at the centre of the table. This is your sushi belt style card row, like in Through the Ages and Century: Spice Road. On your turn, you pick a character from the card row to add to your kingdom. You place the character below a building matching his profession, and trigger the building power. Usually the benefit you gain is proportional to the number of characters you have at the building, i.e. existing employees plus the new recruit. So you are incentivised to collect many characters of the same profession.

When picking a character from the card row, if you take the first character on the left, it is free. If you choose a character further down the line, you need to pay a worker for every character you skip over. Those workers are placed directly onto the characters you skip. In this photo the first two characters have many workers because they have been unpopular and people have been skipping them. As characters amass more and more workers, they become more attractive. When you take a character with workers on them, you take the accumulated workers as well.

The building powers are all straightforward. When you place a character at the mill, every character at the mill including the new recruit earns $2. When you place a character at the brewery, every character here earns $2 and gains one worker. Then all players with at least one character at the mill earns $2 flat.

Money is victory points. All that money you earn during the game are points. At the end of the game, you do two types of scoring to earn more points - breadth and depth. Breadth refers to how many of your buildings (aside from the infirmary) have characters. The square of that number is your score. If you have characters at all seven of the normal buildings, you get 7 x 7 = 49 points (or $49). Depth refers to having many workers at each building type. For all seven normal building types, you check who has the most characters. The winner or winners gain the point value shown at the bottom right corner of the building card. In the photo above you can see the mill gives you 10pts if you have the most characters here.

That rightmost building is the infirmary. You don't recruit people here. Only injured characters come here. Whenever a player recruits a soldier, he triggers an attack on all other players. Whoever doesn't have enough guards to repel the attack suffers injury - the leftmost character is injured and sent to the infirmary. This means the character is no longer working at the building he was originally assigned, and the building is now weaker. You can heal injured characters by recruiting healers at the cottage. Each time you recruit a healer, one character at the infirmary is healed and returns to work.

The building cards are two sided. The A side powers are simpler, the B side powers are more advanced. You have a variant game right out of the box.

The coins are hefty, much like Splendor.

The draw deck is adjusted based on the number of players. By the time it is exhausted, everyone will have claimed exactly 12 characters. Your job is to make the most of your 12 employees to earn as much money as possible. You not only have to think of the combos you are going to make, you also need to consider what others are trying to do. Some buildings affect others. You need to consider the breadth and depth scoring at game end. You choices are constrained by what cards appear in the card row by the time your turn comes around. You often need to adjust your plan to make the most of what fate deals you.

The Play

I did a four-player game with Jeff, Kareem and Allen. Both Jeff and Kareem had played Majesty before. Allen and I were new. The pace of the game was brisk. Afterall, all you do on your turn is simply pick one card. Sometimes you do need to think a bit before deciding, but most of the time you can already plan and think before your turn comes. Also if you are low on workers, you can't choose far anyway and normally don't need to worry about the cards you can't reach. The card row is constantly changing, so the game can feel quite tactical. You are often responding to the situation and trying to make the best of it.

From what Jeff and Kareem said, the queen strategy seemed to be a strong one, so I decided to try that out. Every queen earned $5, so each time I married a new queen, the dowry increased to $10, $15, $20 etc. The blue character in the middle was a guard, who protected my kingdom from attack. Jeff went the soldier route early, when the rest of us were not well prepared to defend ourselves. Whenever a player attacks, he attacks all other players. If one player attacks early and attacks frequently, it is hard to defend against, because if your number of guards doesn't catch up and match his number of soldiers, every time he attacks, you still get hurt, and he becomes even harder to catch up to. Also if all other players try to defend themselves by recruiting guards, there won't be enough guards to go around.

Refer to the photo above. If I failed to defend against an attack, my mill employee, being the leftmost character, would be injured and would go to the infirmary. My two queens were on the right, so they would be last to get hurt. Usually the characters on the left becomes cannon fodder, shielding other characters in the kingdom.

At this stage I had 4 queens. I wasn't able to defend myself well, and had two injured characters in the infirmary now. I needed healers (characters for the 3rd building) to help them recover and resume their duties.

Some cards are dual character cards. If you claim such a card, you may choose either one of the characters. The second and third cards both had a soldier, so all of us wanted to take them to prevent Jeff from attacking again. It is often expensive to make such a defensive move. You would be preventing a setback but would not be advancing your position. You would be saving others too, but would get no reward. Dual character cards give you an option to use the card for another purpose, which may be helpful to you. You may gain something while averting disaster.

This game has high player interaction. The soldier is the most direct form of player interaction, but it is certainly not the only such element. At game end, everyone compares their characters in every building type. That's area majority competition. You need to watch which buildings your opponents are trying to win. The worst case is coming second in all the buildings you compete in. You earn nothing. You must watch your opponents to understand what they want, and which characters they highly value. Sometimes you must deny them, and ideally you gain something while you do that.

The Thoughts

Majesty plays like a lightweight game but satisfies like a midweight game. 12 moves are all you get, but they entangle you in an intricate network of strategic considerations. It's a serving of lembas bread. It's just a small bite, but it is filling. It is easy to teach so you can play it with casual gamers and non gamers. For old timers, this is no deep strategy game, but it's a clever little gem worth exploring and appreciating.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

boardgaming in photos: Cyclades, Blue Moon City

3 Feb 2018. When playing Roll for the Galaxy I arrange my tiles (technologies and planets) in two rows of six, so that I can easily see how many I have. Once the 12th tile is placed, game end is triggered. I do the same thing when playing Race for the Galaxy.

11 Mar 2018. Friday is a solo game. I brought it out for a few quick games, only to find that I was lousy at this. It had been a while, but I was still surprised how poorly I did. I only played at the basic difficulty, and I couldn't even get to the finale to fight the two pirates (top right corner). I didn't even reach the 3rd and last stage of the adventures, the stage before the finale. I think I was too generous with spending my life points to thin my deck (removing poor cards - this is a deck-building game). Also I might have been too ambitious with taking on tough encounters. They did give me more powerful action cards if I beat them, but I probably bit off more than I could chew. Sorry Robinson, you are so dead.

16 Mar 2018. I did a 3-player game of Cyclades with Allen and Daniel. Allen and I had played this before, but it was the first time for Daniel, Allen's colleague who was relatively new to boardgames. It had been a while though, so Allen and I needed a rules refresher. I was green, Allen red and Daniel yellow. In the early game Daniel dumped a large sum to summon the kraken (in the background of this photo). It sank one of Allen's fleets, and temporarily cut off Allen's island at the top right from expansion. Later we realised Daniel had misunderstood the rule and had thought that summoning the kraken meant it would belong to him forever, that he could use it every turn to wreak havoc. Summoning monsters only works for one round.

I played aggressively from the start, raising armies, building fleets and invading islands. I secured money-producing locations and had a strong income, but I also kept spending money on armies and fleets, leaving none for constructing buildings or recruiting philosophers or priests. That meant I was not actually working towards the victory condition of controlling two metropolises. There were two ways to build a metropolis - build (buy) four different buildings then convert them to a metropolis, or recruit (buy) four philosophers then convert them to a metropolis. Well, there is a third way - conquest.

On the left, I (green) had positioned my fleets for an invasion of Allen's (red) island. This island was initially Daniel's (yellow). Allen captured it in the early game. That was why there was an idle yellow fleet next to it. It was Daniel's fleet from the starting setup.

Little did I know that Allen had an epic move up his sleeve. He summoned Polyphemus, who pushed all fleets away from his island and prevented invasions. In an earlier sea battle which he had lost to me, he retreated his battered fleet such that it would block my fleets. When Polyphemus pushed, fleets which could not be pushed away were sunk instead. I lost multiple fleets because of Polyphemus and Allen's strategically placed fleet. That was painful. Polyphemus protected Allen's island, but later on he also created problems for Allen. Now we weren't 100% sure about the Polyphemus rules. The rulebook was brief, we were too lazy to Google, so we just discussed and decided then and there how to play. We did not allow any fleet to be built or to sail past or next to the island with Polyphemus. That created a dead zone surrounding the island, and also prevented fleets from other islands from passing by. That greatly hindered Allen's expansion. In hindsight, we probably played this wrong. I suspect the correct way to play is fleets can still be created and sail about freely, just that they can't transport armies to the island. No invasions, no reinforcements. The way we played was too restrictive.

Our mid game was awkward. I was militarily the strongest, but had made no actual progress towards the victory conditions. Army and fleet pieces were limited, so despite being rich, there was only that many units I could build and they weren't enough to protect every single one of my islands. Allen was positioning for counter attacking and I must be careful. He obtained discount powers early, so despite not having as much cash on hand as I did, he was equally (if not more) competitive when bidding for the gods and buying (summoning) monsters. Daniel fell behind in the early game, but since he only had one island left, we were not allowed to attack him. His income was low, but over multiple rounds he saved up and threatened to build new armies and fleets to reenter the fray. Allen and I had been expending our units fighting while Daniel patiently recovered his strength in a safe corner. We knew he was an upcoming threat, but we could not launch any preemptive strike due to the single island rule. Daniel had four philosophers, so that's one metropolis ready to be built. He had some buildings on his sole island. If he could capture another island with complementing buildings, he would be able to convert the set to another metropolis. With two islands he would have enough spots for two metropolises. His main constraint was land space. I knew I had to hurry while I still had a military advantage. No time to mess around. It was time for some proper civ building.

Allen and Daniel knew they had to work together to stop me. If I channeled all my resources to civ building instead of my military, I should be able to last long enough to get both metropolises up before they eroded my domain significantly enough to stop me. One thing they miscalculated was the number of philosophers I had. They had forgotten that I had bought two earlier on. When I purchased the 3rd and 4th needed for my second metropolis, it was too late for them to stop me.

Cyclades achieves much with few rules, and simple rules. It looks like a war game but it's more than that. Economy is a big part of the game. With a poor economy you will struggle to get things done. Getting two metropolises sounds easy, but in practice it is harder. It feels so near yet so far, and that is tantalising. One thing that surprised me a little was the number of rules ambiguities we encountered with the monsters. Every monster is unique. The rulebook is brief when describing them, and we managed to raise questions that the rulebook did not explicitly address. It was a minor distraction. We managed to discuss and agree quickly how to play, and proceeded. The monsters are great fun, often throwing a curveball at you. There is always something to be exploited, or something you need to preempt.

Blue Moon City amazed me again with its clever balance between competition and cooperation. You want to participate in restoring many buildings, so that you can get many rewards, and that means working together with others because it is very expensive to fully restore a building on your own. Sometimes you do want to monopolise the rewards from a building by restoring it all by yourself, but it will likely be costly. Quite often when playing you try to partially restore a building and then leave an incentive for others to join you to reap the benefits together. Even when collaborating in restoring a building, there is competition for being the biggest contributor, because this gives a bonus.

The eastern half of the city was now fully restored. The tiles were turned to the colourful side.

The card art is taken from the many sets of the Blue Moon card game, so there is plenty of good artwork. There are 8 races in Blue Moon City, and each has different powers. This sounds daunting, but once explained, they are all straight forward and easy to remember. You can easily teach non-gamers to play. This is a light strategy game. A big part of the fun is being able to make big moves combining the card powers and card values.

Sunday, 18 March 2018

boardgaming in photos: Machi Koro, Roll for the Galaxy

7 Jan 2018. Photos of Machi Koro have appeared so many times in this blog that it reminds me of how I used to post many photos of Race for the Galaxy, Through the Ages and Agricola. For the latter games, by studying the player area at game end, you can read the story of how the player has played, the paths taken, the strategies executed. My photos of these games were mostly of this nature - records of how gameplay developed. In Machi Koro, the game end player areas can be studied this way too. You can see which buildings synergise. You can see which early game buildings were chosen, and which late game buildings. However when I take photos of Machi Koro, most aren't for this purpose. It hasn't really occurred to me to take photos for this purpose. Machi Koro is not as strategically deep as the other games, and has less variability. I'm mainly taking photos about spending time with the kids.

The kids are not growing to become boardgame enthusiasts. They rarely suggest to play a game. When I do, younger daughter Chen Rui is more likely to say yes. Elder daughter Shee Yun is older now (officially a teenager) and has her own hobbies and interests. If we are to play Machi Koro, Chen Rui prefers to play together with Shee Yun, because she wants to join forces with her big sister to defeat me (not that it always works). So when Shee Yun declines to play, we often end up not playing at all.

What's good about Machi Koro is all three of us are very familiar with it. We play briskly and can fully enjoy the game.

27 Jan 2018. It had been a long time since I played Roll for the Galaxy, so when I brought it out, I had to relearn most of the rules. Michelle had basically forgotten all of it, and I had to teach her from scratch. She fumbled through her first game (after the hiatus) rather cluelessly and only started to grasp the tactics by the second game.

Many elements look and feel similar to Race for the Galaxy, but the core feeling when playing Roll for the Galaxy is different. The dice are your citizens. You expend a die to perform an action. The expended die returns to the Citizenry, i.e. the employment office, and you need to pay $1 to employ him again for the next task. Yeah, these buggers are all daily wage labourers. Having a more or less steady income to be able to regularly employ citizens is the underlying pulse of the game. If it gets disrupted, you will likely fall behind in tempo. The citizens (dice) do have different abilities (different probabilities of performing the various actions). Sometimes an action can be very effective, and sometimes not so much. While these are important too, you must never neglect the underlying blood circulation of generating enough income to reemploy your citizens over and over.

In this particular game, my space empire tried to emphasise two areas. The first was income. In this photo I had two tiles which would give me income, when I developed and when I shipped. On my player board there was a new technology yet to be completed which would also give me income when I shipped. So naturally my other emphasis was shipping. After I completed that 6-cost tech, I would have two tiles giving me income when I shipped. I had a purple die, which had a higher chance of rolling the shipping action. I had many blue dice, which had higher chances of rolling the production action. You need products to ship if you want to do shipping. I had three production planets, one each in green, blue and brown.

Roll for the Galaxy is not an easy game to teach or to learn, so it is not suitable for new gamers. The mechanisms are unusual and unintuitive, event a little convoluted. They do work, but I find it difficult to associate them with reality. They feel unnatural to me, and difficult to explain, and to digest. I find it harder than Race for the Galaxy to teach, assuming the new player knows neither game. It is a little easier if you know Race for the Galaxy, but the game mechanisms are overall quite different.

In this photo, I placed my dice this way to guarantee the shipping action (5th column). After all available dice were rolled, they were all placed in their respective columns first. The asterisk icons are wild cards, and I had chosen to place those dice in the shipping column. The cylinder icon means production. I had decided to forgo production, so I moved that production die to the shipping icon on the mini board. The production die became a shipping action. The development die (diamond shaped) stayed where it was.

31 Jan 2018. This was another game. This time I emphasised settling and production. My starting tiles gave me 2 red dice, which meant higher probabilities in rolling the settle action. I later gained two more from new tiles placed. I had 4 production planets by this point, two blue and two brown, and more to come. On the player board I had set up a stack of planets to be settled. The next one would be a high cost green planet, and I already had two dice committed. The challenge in settling high cost planets (and also in developing high cost techs) is that you will have many dice tied up until the project is completed. For this green planet I would need to place three more dice to settle the planet before all five dice could be released back to the Citizenry (the employment office).

It felt great to play Roll for the Galaxy again. I don't game as often as I used to, and because of that it feels hard to justify buying new games. I still have so many good games in my collection that I can play. Since I am rusty with most of them, playing them would be like playing a new game. I have to relearn the rules and rediscover the strategies.

If I am to buy a new game, it'll likely be because it has some hook that makes we want to try it, and I don't have easy access to a friend's copy to be able to try it. I am interested to try The Quest for El Dorado by Reiner Knizia. I used to be a big fanboy. This deckbuilding race game sounds fun and I'm curious to experience it. Another game I'm interested to try is Kingdomino, the Spiel des Jahres winner. Both of these are light to medium weight games. I think both are available in my circle of friends. Lucky!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Sidereal Confluence

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Sidereal Confluence is a complex negotiation game with a sci-fi setting. You are all alien races which have just met one another. You are colonising new planets, developing new technologies. Having met one another, you are now able to trade, and also learn from one another. This game is not about wars and aggressions. It is about interstellar cooperation and shared prosperity. You compete to contribute most to these, and your success is measured by victory points. VP's come from various actions, the most important of which is developing new technologies and sharing them with your friends.

The game is played over 6 rounds. Every interstellar civilisation starts with some planets, some resources and some technologies. Every alien race is very different. There are nine races to choose from, and they play very differently. This is one of the game's strengths. There is a big incentive to trade, because you don't produce enough of what you want, and you produce stuff you don't want which others do. You do get to develop your production and cube conversion abilities, but they likely won't be enough to meet your needs even by game end. Big research projects require a lot of resources of the same type. You need to trade a lot, and hope by cutting good deals you ultimately position yourself to be greatest contributor to intergalactic cooperation.

This is a technology card. Most technologies are conversion powers, converting resources on the left side of the arrow to those on the right side. Input and output. The tiny 5-17 means you are converting resources of roughly 5 value points to resources of 17 value points. The value point system is just a rough guide for players, based on the rarity of resources. The various resources will have different values to different players, under different situations.

This is one of the race cards. It's huge, about A4 size. It describes the race's unique abilities, and even comes with strategy tips. Before a game starts, it is best that everyone gives a short introduction of his race. The race I played was a plant based race. Planets I colonised produced double the resources, but to colonise I needed to spend double the spaceships normally needed.

Top left: Start card of a race, specifying starting resources, techs and planets. Bottom left: Reference card outlining the 3 phases of a round. The right half of the card is a donation area. Sometimes you produce goods which must be given away and cannot be used by yourself. You either trade them away, or if you fail to do so, you donate them. Top right: This is your personal deck of tech cards. Some are start techs. The rest can be developed, or learned from other races. Mostly the latter.

My four start techs. Techs are double-sided, a basic side and an advanced side. These are all on the basic side. At the bottom of each card you can see two ways to flip it to the advanced side. For my particular race, option 1 is to destroy a jungle planet and some resources, turning them into one victory point and another resource. Option 2 (which is the more common way) is to sacrifice another specific tech card. Flipping to the advanced side always gives you a better conversion power, but you need to consider whether the cost is justified.

The common area looks like this. The setup depends on the number of players. The top row consists of planets, and the bottom row the research teams. Every round you bid for these using spaceships, essentially just another currency. When you win (i.e. colonise) a planet, it produces resources for you every round. When you win (i.e. employ) a research team, you earn the exclusive right to develop a new technology. You don't immediately develop the new tech. You still need to give the research team the resources they require before you get the new tech and score.

One important concept in the bidding mechanism is the minimum bid. Each item has a minimum bid, and some are higher than others. If you bid low, there is a risk that the higher bidders (who get to pick earlier) claim items with low minimum bids, leaving behind only items with high minimum bids which you don't qualify for. You not only have to consider bidding high enough so that you get to pick what you really like, you also have to bid high enough so that you reduce the risk of leaving empty handed.

That's my planet on the left. It has a x2 marker, which is unique for my race. This planet produces double the resources.

A round consists of three phases. The first is the trading phase, where everyone engages in trading simultaneously. It is a free-for-all. You can trade resources, spaceships, planets, even promises. Promises are binding in this game. Some special actions are allowed in the trading phase, e.g. upgrading techs, upgrading planets, developing techs. When you do these, the upgraded versions become available to you in the current round, starting from the next phase, which is the economy phase. The economy phase is all about production and conversion. You produce resources to be used in future rounds. The third phase is the confluence phase, in which everyone learns new techs developed by any race in Phase 1. This is also when you bid for planets and research teams. The round structure is pretty straightforward, but execution can be time-consuming because there is a lot to digest, many deals to consider, pros and cons to weigh, and upgrades to plan. Haggling can take time, sometimes going back and forth between potential trade partners, trying to iron out a deal.

The Play

Most victory points come from developing techs. There are two parts to this. You get VP for discovering the tech itself. Simple techs in the early game are worth little, but complex ones later on can be worth a lot. The other part is the VP for sharing a tech. This depends on which round you develop the tech in. The sharing VP is high in the earlier rounds, because it is not easy to have developed techs so early. When you plan your research, you should consider both types of VP's.

Developing techs require a lot of resources, so you must develop your little empire. The hunger for resources keeps increasing and your empire must keep up. You have to decide which planets and techs to upgrade, and which techs you can afford to sacrifice. You will likely have to decide some resource types to specialise in, i.e. to be able to produce or manufacture a large amount of. You try to be self sufficient, producing the raw materials for your factories which will eventually manufacture the end products you want.

The research teams come up mostly randomly. They need different types of resources. You need to adapt to the situation. You must watch what your opponents are specialising in, whether they already have research teams they are committed to, whether they will compete with you for specific resources, planets or new research teams.

Increasing your production and manufacturing capacity, supplementing and supporting them through trading, and eventually completing massive research projects - these are the core of the game.

My race was a vegetable race, and colonisation was particularly challenging. The race card had explicitly advised that I needed to trade for spaceships early to stay in the colonisation race, but somehow I managed to fail doing so. I never had many planets. One unique ability I had was to destroy jungle planets to advance my starting techs. I traded with Allen for jungle planets. He could colonise them easily from a private deck of planets. That was his unique ability. Advancing my starting techs was nice. I earned 1VP each time I did it. However later on I wasn't sure whether it was worthwhile. I had destroyed planets for it, and 1VP seemed measly compared to VP from developing techs. I decided to switch my focus to research projects.

Tim played an unusual race, a nasty one, essentially a blackmailing syndicate. It could spend resources to steal resources from another race. Such powers were best used as threats, to convince others to cut him better deals, sometimes downright extorting them. Whoever had traded with him was immune from his stealing powers for the round, so trading with him was akin to paying a protection fee. His was a scary power. If everyone gave in to him, he would grow very powerful. So I tried to convince everyone that we should not give in to terrorism. It was easier said than done. Sometimes I too gave in, especially when I was just a small step away from completing a major project, and didn't want to risk it being delayed another round.

Another one of Tim's abilities was a poisoned gift. He could produce a set of goods, which must be given away together with a spy. Once he had planted enough spies in an empire, his stealing actions would become more damaging. This meant he had to focus on just a few empires to send spies to, so that he could sufficiently build up. Allen was the main victim of this. However he happily accepted the goods up front, spending them on his infrastructure. Ironically these resources helped Allen greatly towards self sufficiency. He built a strong production engine, and became the eventual winner. He turned to be more beneficiary than victim.

Of my four start techs, I had upgraded two of them, bottom left and top right. The advanced sides no longer showed the upgrade criteria. The tech at the top right had no resources to the left of the arrow, which meant it was a pure production tech needing no input. It was like a planet.

The game takes up a lot of space. The common area does not take up much, but each player needs much space. Every time someone researches a new tech, everyone else will benefit from it and will need to play that tech card into his area. This table we played at was not big enough. Sinbad had to place some of his cards on the low table on the left. We put some common game components there too.

During the trade phase, I prepared for the economy phase by placing resources I needed onto the tech cards where I would be using them as input. This helped me reserve resources I needed for myself. Also I could easily see which techs did not have the required raw materials yet, which I might want to trade for. The conversions (or manufacturing) during the economy phase are simultaneous. You cannot take the output from one tech card and feed it as input to another tech card. Outputs can only be used as input in the next round. So you don't get to chain your tech cards like a factory line.

This is a research team. Their name is at the top, the tech they are working on is at the bottom. This particular team needs either 18 green resources or 18 white resources. The conversion in the white box is what the new tech does.

This is one of my start techs. It has a star icon at the top left.

The Thoughts

Sidereal Confluence is a trading and negotiation game, but it is also more than that. The trading is a basic building block, a means to an end. The end is, of course, victory points. To get there, you need to work on profitable research projects. To complete many research projects, you need resources. To have many resources you need to keep developing your empire. So to me this is also very much a development game, just that trading is one of your basic tools when developing your empire and completing your research projects.

There is a lot of cube conversion. I never really got into calling the coloured cubes what they were meant to be. I just called them small green cubes, or big yellow cubes, and so on. This sounds bad because it means the theme doesn't come through, but after a while it doesn't really matter. The game is enjoyable even if I call the cubes just cubes.

It is a complex game. With 6 of us, it took about 3 hours. I'm not sure whether we were just slow. I think the game needs at least 5 or 6 to be fun. With more players, there will be more possibilities. There will be more options in the common area too - the planets and the research teams.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Pit Crew

Plays: 7Px1.

The Game

Pit Crew is a simple team-based real-time game. You are pit crews of 2 or 3 racing teams, and you compete to complete the pit stops in the shortest time possible, allowing your team's race cars to speed off as early as possible.

The game supports up to 9 players. You play in 2 or 3 teams. Each team has between 1 to 3 members. The game is played over 3 rounds. When a round starts, all teams repair their respective cars simultaneously. Once you complete your repairs, your car drives off and tries to go as far as possible. When the slowest team finally completes repairs, their car doesn't get to drive off. Instead they cry halt, and all cars already on the race track stop. The distances they have traveled are their scores. Now you do the end-of-round scoring. All cars are inspected for errors and imperfections. Penalties are applied. When you are penalised, all your opponents get to move their cars forward.

In Rounds 2 and 3, you use different cars, and your team also gains special abilities. After the third round, whoever's car has traveled the furthest wins.

Everyone uses the #27 car in Round 1. The 27 means something. I'll come to that. In Round 1, you need to replace all four tyres, and you need to refuel. Every team has its own deck of cards. Cards are numbered from 1 to 10. The total hand size of a team is 6. In a team of three, everyone holds 2 cards. In a team of two, everyone holds 3 cards. In a team of one, you hold all 6 cards. You perform repairs by playing cards. To replace a tyre, you need to play four cards next to the tyre, one after another. Each card you play must be numbered one higher or lower than the previous number. In the photo above, if you want to replace the tyre at the lower right, you start by playing a 1 or a 3. Let's say you have played a 3. The next card you play must be a 2 or a 4. The big 27 on the roof means the fuel tank capacity. To refuel, you play cards to the rear of the car. There is no restriction when playing cards, but at the end of the round, if the sum of the card values differs from 27, you are penalised. The bigger the difference, the larger the penalty.

The board is not your main playing area. It is mostly a scoring track. You do not race to complete five laps. Instead you try to move as far as possible within the three rounds. You are just trying to score as high as possible.

You use these 6 cap cards to mark sections which are fully repaired. There is one cap card for the engine, one for the fuel tank, and four for the tyres. The engine card is used in Rounds 2 and 3 only. Whenever you complete the repairs for one part of the car, you must place the corresponding cap card there. Once the cap card is placed, you cannot change the cards already played to that part of the car.

Take a closer look, and you will notice that some numbers are white, and some are black. If all cards played to a section have the same colour, you gain a turbo bonus. Your car moves two additional steps. It's not easy to do though. When you are scrambling to find the right numbers, sometimes you don't have the luxury to get the exact colour you need. In this photo you can see we have failed to assemble consistent colours in all six sections.

Car #31 is for Round 3. The XX YY at the engine means you need to play two pairs of cards to repair the engine. We have played a pair of 3's and a pair of 9's. All of them are black, so we are getting the turbo bonus.

When you don't have any cards you can play in hand, you may discard and draw. In fact, you must. However for every two cards in your discard pile at the end of the round, you suffer one penalty point, i.e. your opponents get to move one step forward.

These special ability cards (called Monkey Wrench cards) are gained at the end of Rounds 1 and 2. A number of cards are drawn according to the number of teams in the game. Each team picks one card, starting with the one furthest behind. So this is for balancing in addition to spicing up the game. That card on the left can be used as a 4 or a 5 during a round. The card on the right increases the hand sizes of two team members.

You "drive" your race car by rolling a die. When your team is done with repairs (and you are not the last to do so), one of you becomes the driver, and you keep rolling the die to move your car. You move one step ahead each time you roll a 6. This can be nerve-wracking if you keep failing to roll a 6. If there are three teams, the second team gets to move their car too in the same way. Once the last team is done with repairs, they declare the end of movement. You then do the round-end scoring.

The Play

We did a 7-player game. I was on the same team as Abraham and Allen. The other two teams had two players each. Having three players is probably more challenging, and I'm not saying that just because we lost horribly. Really. With three players, there is a higher need for coordination and communication. Playing Pit Crew is a tense experience. There are multiple parts of the car you need to worry about. You need to coordinate your card plays to avoid getting stuck with no card to play. Finding a valid move doesn't mean it will be a good move. You shouldn't blindly play any card which is technically valid. You need to consider the other cards your team has in hand, and whether your next move can help getting those cards played, and will keep your options open. Then there is also the colour to think about. None of these are particularly complex, but when you are under time pressure, it becomes very hard to keep your cool and to stay rational.

If you find that you really are stuck, waste no time in finding impossible moves. Just discard and draw. Time is precious.

The most stressful part of the game turns out to be also the most brainless part - when you are driving. It's just rolling a die over and over hoping to roll a 6 as many times as you can. There is no skill and no strategy (unless you are trying to cheat). It's all luck. Yet this is when you and your teammates will be holding your breaths, or cheering, or groaning.

My team had a poor start. We were last to complete our repairs in Round 1, and we also had a huge discard pile. Our opponents sped far far ahead of us. In Round 2, we managed to not be last. I took the driver's seat, and hard as I tried, I could not roll a single 6! By the time the bell sounded, I was still in the pit. What a waste! Needless to say, despite having first picks of the Monkey Wrench cards in both Rounds 1 and 2, we still came last. By far.

The Thoughts

Pit Crew is a party game. I think it will be best with 9, i.e. the full complement. The more chaotic the better. The rules are simple so you can easily get casual gamers and non-gamers to play. It will work as a children's game too. It is not a particularly deep game. You shouldn't be looking for depth here. It's a face-paced, heart-pumping fun kind of game. There is also a sense of satisfaction when your team manages to work well together.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Happy Lunar New Year

Here's wishing everyone great health and plenty of laughter in the coming year! Gong Xi Fa Cai!