Friday, 16 August 2019

boardgaming in photos: The Message, Escape, Ascension, Dragon Castle, Santiago

20 May 2019. The children had a gathering with friends. They met up for lunch, and then came to our home. Boardgames were not specifically planned for, but since they were available, and there were games which supported nine, the girls sat down to play. I was probably the most enthusiastic one, because I got to teach new people to play. I taught them The Message: Emissary Crisis, a secret identity team game. Players need to figure out who is friend and foe, and then by knowing this, help their teammates and stop their opponents. I watched them play a whole game, guiding them and reminding them of rules as they played. Some of them were very into it, a few were a little disinterested. At one point Shee Yun and Mui Yee figured out (or should have figured out) that they were on the same team (blue). Mui Yee sent a message, and Shee Yun accepted it. Everyone expected it to be a blue message, because collecting blue messages was their team goal. However when Shee Yun flipped over the message, it turned out to be a black one (bad)! Black messages get people killed. I am not sure whether Mui Yee hadn't figured out she was on the same team as Shee Yun, or she hadn't grasped the whole point of the game. I could imagine half the table mentally slapping their foreheads thinking "Mui Yee what are you doing?!". It was quite funny. Surprisingly the blue team eventually won the game. It might have been another "blur" (clueless) player handing them the victory.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple. Shee Yun did think about teaching her friends this game before the gathering. It is a relatively simple game and it is suitable for new players and non-gamers. They played this a few times.

Some of the girls had played Dixit before.

Since Dixit is more commonly known, I did not need to teach. The girls who knew the game taught those who didn't.

They lost the first few games of Escape (this is a cooperative game where the players win and lose together as a team) but eventually managed to win.

They were very focused because this is a real-time game.

Group photo.

4 Jun 2019. This Spirit of the Ancients, in my opinion, is the most OP (overpowered) card in Ascension. When you play this card, you may use the ability of any Lifebound hero in the whole Ascension game system. Now that the game has so many expansions, there is a huge number of powerful Lifebound heroes to pick from. In this particular game, I not only had Spirit of the Ancients, I also had two other crazy powerful Lifebound heroes.

The Lunar Matriach, whom I think of as Chang E (嫦娥) of Chinese mythology, gives you 5pts, and more if you spend money (OK, technically it's runes, but I always treat it as money because you spend runes to buy cards).

Vyrak the First gives you 10pts! He is expensive, at $12, but you may spend combat strength to buy him. This makes it a little easier.

6 Jun 2019. I asked Chen Rui to play with me a Dragon Castle expansion from the Spielbox magazine. Log from Meeples Cafe has been giving me Spielbox issues for a long time. I don't play as many games as I used to, and often the expansions in the magazine are for games I don't own or have not played. It's nice to have an opportunity to play an expansion from Spielbox.

We picked a dragon card and a spirit card which we hadn't tried before. This spirit card at the top lets you discard one free tile. If a tile you want is blocked by such a free tile, this spirit ability is handy. The dragon card at the bottom awards 1pt per temple built along the edge of your player board.

This is the other side of the expansion. The tiles are arranged in an S shape.

These are two other cards we hadn't tried before. This dragon card requires players to compare yellow, green and red icons on their player boards at the end of the game. Whoever has the most in each colour scores bonus points. The spirit card allows tiles of the same value to form groups. Normally groups can only be formed using tiles of the same colour (suit).

14 Jun 2019. Santiago is an old game, published in 2003. It is now out of print. Jeff has some in stock (Boardgamecafe.biz), and I couldn't resist grabbing a copy. I had played it before and I remembered it fondly. Now that I had bought a copy, I needed to get it played, at least once. If after buying it I only put it on the shelf, I would feel guilty. I managed to loop in four others to play with me. Five players is the max, and also the most competitive. This green plantation formed in the first round had much potential. There was still much space for expansion. Two players had stakes in it, and both would try to expand it.

The initial few plantations continued to grow. As the green plantation continued to grow, benefiting the grey and wood players, others would try to stop it. In fact the blocking had started in the lower left. Three tiles had dried up by now due to lack of irrigation. The red plantation benefited the purple player the most now. He had four cubes on it. The central yellow plantation and the blue plantation on the right both had three stakeholders, i.e. more than half the players. They had better chances of further growth.

The irrigation system mostly grew northwards.

At end game, the left and right halves made a huge contrast - very dry on the left half. Santiago has few rules, but once you get into the game, you find that there are many cunning moves. There are many nasty things you can do to your opponents, e.g. forcing them to spend their hard earned money, leaving their tiles to dry, preventing them from using their emergency irrigation, blocking off their growth. There are interlocking interests. Often you collaborate with one opponent in one area, but compete with him elsewhere. This game is in the style of the 90's and early 00's. There aren't many games like these now. It is elegant yet strategic, a clever design.

Friday, 9 August 2019

Founders of Gloomhaven

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Gloomhaven is the current #1 game on BoardGameGeek. I have not tried it, nor have I read much about it. I vaguely know it has a role playing element, and some legacy / campaign mechanism. Founders of Gloomhaven is an independent game, sharing the same setting but not game mechanism. You play different founder factions of the city of Gloomhaven. You build the city together - building factories, roads, houses and most importantly prestige buildings. The bulk of the scoring comes from supplying goods to construct the prestige buildings. Once six prestige buildings are completed, the game ends and the highest scorer wins.

This is a player board. With four players, each faction monopolises the production of two of the eight basic goods. The core of the game is building more advanced factories which produce more advanced goods, and ultimately supplying goods to construct the prestige buildings. Manufacturing intermediate goods require one or two basic goods as raw material. Manufacturing advanced goods require two other goods. To be able to construct factories, and to supply goods, you need a connected network of roads. That's what you will be building together.

Those three pawns on the left are your workers. For each house you build, you gain one worker, and this worker is used in a worker placement fashion - place him in a worker spot and he does something for you. That spot is occupied and inaccessible to others until he is removed. The player board has one such worker spot, and for each faction this worker spot gives a different benefit. During the course of the game, new worker spots will be created, and you will have more and more options.

The board starts off almost completely empty. As part of setup, you do get to place two basic factories, but that's all you have. The board is divided into three sections, by a wall (along the upper edge of this photo), and by the river. To be able to cross the wall or the river, you need to build a gate or a bridge respectively. There are different terrain types. Sometimes when you build, you are restricted by terrain type, or the cost differs depending on terrain type. The coloured discs indicate building ownership. Roads are public properly. The buildings in this photo are all basic factories. In the corners you see icons indicating the goods being produced.

These are the prestige buildings. Every single one is named. There are many in the game, but only a subset will appear in each game. It depends on the card draw, and also how people vote. On each prestige building you can see goods required for construction and the points to be earned when supplying such goods. The supplier often does not score the full points, because if the goods he supplies is manufactured using other goods, he needs to share those points with his suppliers. If those suppliers too manufacture their goods using raw materials supplied by other vendors, then the rewards are shared further upstream to those vendors.

Those on the left are the medium factories, making intermediate goods, and those on the right are the large factories, making advanced goods. The numbers 4 and 6 are the building costs. Icons on the vertical banners are the raw materials needed to construct the factory as well as to manufacture the goods. To construct a factory, you need not own factories producing the prerequisite raw materials, but you need to at least trade in those raw materials. To trade in them, you need to pay the factory owner a fee.

Each player starts the game with an identical set of five action cards. On your turn, you play one card to perform an action (referring to the black section of the action card), and then everyone else gets to perform a weaker version of the same action (white section). One of the action cards lets you claim all played cards back into your hand, i.e. a reset. You will need to do this sooner or later as your hand runs out of cards. One action type lets you buy more action cards, which are better than the starting cards. If you have more cards, it will take longer for them to run out.

Those three at the top are prestige cards, indicating that the next prestige building site to be added to the board will be one of these. Whenever any player performs the card reset action, a voting will be done to vote for one of these three. This is important because the prestige building determines the scoring opportunities for everyone. You want prestige buildings which need the goods that you produce, so that you can supply such goods and earn points. Not only the supplier earns points, the upstream suppliers in the supply chain earn points too. Everyone has vested interests when it comes to voting.

The four cards at the bottom are the advanced action cards you can buy. They are usually better versions of the basic action cards.

In this photo you can see more clearly how the board is divided into three sections by the wall and the river. No one has built any gate along the wall, or any bridge along the river yet. A big part of the game is building a transportation network. You need to connect buildings and building sites with roads, so that goods can be delivered, otherwise you can't construct factories or prestige buildings. Also your own buildings may not be adjacent to each other, so you need roads to help space them out. Buildings themselves do not serve as roads and do not allow connecting through. E.g. Building A is connected to a road which is then connected to Building B, and on the other side of Building B there is a road which connects Building B to Building C. There is a connection between A and B, and between B and C, but there is no connection between A and C, because B itself is not a connector.

Whenever voting is done, the winning prestige building tile is placed onto the board to become a building site. It is not yet a completed building. The prestige card which represents the building is flipped over to become a worker spot. If you have an idle worker, you may perform the worker placement action to execute the action on the prestige card. Unlike most worker placement games, workers assigned to a task usually get stuck at their worker spots for a long time. In Founders of Gloomhaven, workers are freed up only when you perform the reset (i.e. vote). If you are eyeing a specific occupied worker spot, be prepared for a long wait because you need to wait for the owner of that worker to do reset / voting.

Prestige building sites have been placed and the top left and the bottom right. Cubes at the building sites indicate that some goods have already been supplied for the construction of the buildings. Both of these prestige buildings are still under construction. Not all required goods are supplied.

Along the wall you can now see that one player has built a gate. Gates (and bridges) work like roads, except that they allow passage only for their owners. Currently only the owner of the gate can deliver goods between the two city sections on the two sides of the wall.

This prestige building still needs two goods - bricks and cloth.

This is an important reference chart. It shows all goods types in the game, who owns the factories, and who has access to the goods. The chart also shows which goods are the prerequisites for which other goods.

Throughout the game you are competing to build factories and to supply goods to prestige buildings. You need to manipulate the prestige building choice of the city in order to help your factories. The road network will grow and connectivity gets better and better. Supplying goods to prestige buildings is the main way to score points, but there are other ways too, e.g. some worker spots give points. The game ends when the 6th prestige building is completed.

The Play

One part of Founders of Gloomhaven feels like Puerto Rico - the active player picks an action, and everyone else gets to do the same action, albeit a weaker version. This means everyone gets the same opportunities to do the same things throughout the whole game. If everyone is doing the same things, then the differentiating factor will be accumulated through the small extra efficiencies and the small tactical gains. E.g. you want to pick the buy card action when you know others can't afford to do it. You want to waste their actions so that you gain some efficiency advantage over them.

Building factories is a long term thing you need to plan for. It takes considerable effort, but factories contribute much to your score. Manufacturing advanced goods may sound lucrative, but I suspect it's not really as profitable as it seems, because you need to split the rewards with your own suppliers. Ideally you want to monopolise the whole supply chain. If you produce a basic resource, which you supply to another one of your factories which produces an intermediate good, and that intermediate good is supplied to yet another one of your factories which produces an advanced good, then whenever you supply the advanced good to a prestige building, you are retaining the bulk of the rewards. Every one of your factories along the supply chain is profiting. This is easier said than done, because your two starting goods are unrelated. Most of the time you will need access to other people's goods, and you will be helping them.

In our game I focused much effort on building factories. I lagged behind the others in the early game, because I did not produce the right goods for the early prestige buildings. However I did eventually build a cloth factory, which took much time and effort. Some of the prestige buildings needed cloth, which other people were far from being able to produce, so the cloth business helped me catch up later in the game.

Cash flow is important. Many actions need money. When you are cash poor, you will waste opportunities. When another player chooses to construct a building, you will be forced to forgo the opportunity if you can't afford it. There are some consolation actions, e.g. taking $1, placing a worker, building a road, but those are generally inefficient.

Building roads is a public service. Roads are public property. Ideally you want to let others spend their actions doing such public service, while you save your own actions for more selfish gains. If you are desperate enough to build roads, you try to avoid helping others. Sometimes that's not easy to do. There is a spatial element to the game. Sometimes you have to fight for space. Sometimes you block people by placing a building in the way of their expansion. It can be downright nasty.

There are opportunities for collaboration. Voting is one such opportunity. When you examine the three prestige cards, you will have a rough idea who will benefit most from which prestige building. Sometimes you work together with a competitor to vote for a specific prestige building because it benefits both of you equally, or simply because you don't want to let another player get another prestige building. When you build a factory which uses goods produced by another player, you are effectively committing to helping him long-term, because in future whenever you supply goods from that factory, he takes a cut.

Our late game was ponderous. Our scores were close. Nobody wanted the game to end, because everybody was trying to score just a bit more before the game ended. We desperately used the worker spots to squeeze out a few more points. We delayed the game end by intentionally not linking up roads, which would cause goods to be delivered to prestige buildings and trigger game end.

At this point all four players had built gates along the wall. Most locations in the upper left section and the middle section are well connected. Only one player had built a bridge across the river at the moment.

Once a prestige building is completed, you place a cute but strange marker on it.

There were six prestige buildings in the game now, three at the top left, two at the top right, and one at the bottom right. Four of them were completed - two at the top left, one at the top right, and the one at the bottom right. Just two more, and the game would end. However that prestige building along the left edge would never be completed. I had blocked it off. This prestige building needed two more goods, one of which I was most likely going to supply, and the other was mostly likely going to come from Dith. Dith's had much higher value, so I decided to spoil the party so that nobody got anything out of this. It was painful for me.

The final score. I (green) was tied with Dith (orange), and I only won by tiebreaker - player order.

The Thoughts

Founders of Gloomhaven is generally a development game. It is a network building game too. You compete to build factories, and you compete to set up prestige buildings which use products from your factories. You need to develop supply and manipulate demand. There is a cooperative aspect, but I see it not so much as working together for mutual benefit, but as avoiding who to help so that you have a better chance of winning. It is hard to avoid helping others, so you want to help the guy furthest behind. The game has a spatial element. You fight for space. You block your opponents.

Friday, 2 August 2019

top 50

The last time I did a ranking of games I have played was in 2012, seven years ago. I did a top ten list then. This time I go up to 50. In the new top ten, six games had appeared in the previous top ten. It's either I'm a loyal and sentimental person, or I have not progressed much from seven years ago. I don't have a very scientific method to this. Up to 24 Jul 2019 I have played about 800 games. I first listed them by how many times I have played each, and then I did several rounds of categorisation and elimination. The first round was simply assessing the likelihood that a game would be in my top 50. If I judged it impossible, I put the game in Group 9. If it was a game I loved, I put it in Group 1. Other games I placed into Groups 2 to 8 accordingly. After Round 1, the Group 1 games totaled fewer than 50. The Group 1 + 2 total exceeded 50, so I needed to trim Group 2. I re-examined all groups, reconsidering the Group 1 games too. Gradually I broke them down to smaller groups, e.g. games I felt should be in my top ten, games I felt should be roughly 11-20, and so on. Eventually I did the final ranking within these small groups. The end result was the list below.

I don't play many games, compared to other hardcore gamers. 800 is a crazy number for normal people, but it won't impress gamers. My list does not carry much authority, since there are many games I have not played, including many which are well known and highly regarded. The list is a highly personal one, reflecting my journey as a boardgame player and reflecting my tastes. My judging criteria is all over the place. The first criterion is, of course, I like the game a lot. That's completely subjective - I like it, it makes me happy. Another criterion is I admire the design. I think it's clever, or it's artful. Yet another criterion is I have played the game many times. If I don't get tired of it after many plays, it must be doing something right, e.g. Ascension, Race for the Galaxy, Star Realms. Some games are on the list because of nostalgia, because of memories they gave me. Ra, Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, Carcassonne are such games. Some games on the list are not there just for themselves. They also represent their families or multiple versions of the game, e.g. the Axis and Allies series, the Ticket to Ride series, Through the Ages, Power Grid. When I did elimination, I got rid of some games simply because they already had siblings on the list. I made way for more different types of games.

  1. Race for the Galaxy - I played many many games with my wife Michelle. We mostly played the base game and the expansions in the first story arc. We played the advanced 2-player game, with each player choosing two actions. I barely play it now, but it's still one of my favourite games.



  2. Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization - This too I have played a lot with my wife. Our games were effectively a peaceful variant, because we didn't attack each other. So our games were distorted, and I never learned to handle warfare properly for normal games.



  3. Sekigahara - A clean and exciting design.



  4. A Few Acres of Snow - I greatly admire how the deck-building mechanism conveys the difficulties of the Britsih and the French in managing this colonial war.



  5. Automobile - Martin Wallace has two games in the top ten, this and A Few Acres of Snow. Automobile is very structured and actions are limited. You need to think hard to make good use of your actions.



  6. Lord of the Rings - This Reiner Knizia cooperative game was published well before cooperative games were a hip thing.



  7. Innovation - Seven years ago when Han, Allen and I did our top ten lists in "simultaneous action selection" fashion, this was the only game that appeared in all three of our top ten lists.



  8. Hammer of the Scots - Inspired by the movie Braveheart, directed by and starring Mel Gibson. I loved that movie. Later I found out it was rife with historical inaccuracies. Still, good movie, just that it's historical fiction and not a documentary.



  9. Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal - This kind of represents the Axis and Allies series. This is my favourite in the family.



  10. Love Letter - A microgame that made me happy, and made many people whom I introduced it to happy.



  11. Pandemic Legacy - It was a memorable journey with a group of good friends. It has a place in my heart because of that journey, more than because it represents the Pandemic series.
  12. Agricola - I played a lot of this with my wife.
  13. Carcassonne - This was the game that attracted my wife and my Taiwanese friends to boardgames. I first played it at Witch House cafe, Taipei, and it was Yoyo who taught me the game. It felt weird to me, because at the time I was unfamiliar with Eurogames. I had thought Axis and Allies was the pinnacle of boardgaming. The game grew on me gradually and became one of my most played games.



  14. Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper - Excellent spouse game, relatively short, and convenient. Michelle and I played a lot when the children were young. When we dealt the cards quickly, it made Shee Yun laugh. With two players, Ripper Escaping is difficult to do, but also very rewarding. I love this element. It is always tempting. Should you gamble or not? Is your opponent shooting for the moon and do you need to take precautions? Ripper Escaping is easier with more players, which lessens the excitement.
  15. Princes of Florence - Some people label this as the when Eurogames started going down the multiplayer solitaire path, i.e. when things took a wrong turn. I can see how some aspects of the game lack player interaction, but I still think this is a great game. It's a game about good planning, accurate valuation and clever bidding.
  16. In the Year of the Dragon - Stefan Feld is a super star, but his most popular games are just okay for me. My favourite among his designs turns out to be this lesser known title. This game is about disaster management.
  17. Food Chain Magnate - Published by Splotter Games. Time and again I tell myself to try before buy, and time and again they make me regret not buying earlier. I should just preorder any next game they make, even if they say it's a Tic Tac Toe variant. There's a signature in their games. They are unapologetic, brutal, and they basically tell you to swim or die. They don't hold your hands.



  18. Civilization - A old game, and a great game, about the rise and fall of civilisations. And disasters. Holy smokes a lot of disasters.
  19. Ticket to Ride: Switzerland - This represents the series, and this is my favourite among the many variants. I enjoy drawing tickets and feeling lucky when I find that I have already fulfilled some of them. Ticket to Ride was hot when it came out, and it was meh to me when I first played it. It took a while before I started appreciating the simple fun it brings.



  20. Brass: Birmingham - My copy is the original Brass. This is the newer, generally better, version. I treat them as a series. I never tried the Age of Industry series though. I'm not sure how good it is.
  21. Age of Steam - This represents the series and the game system, including expansions not designed by Martin Wallace himself. This is an unforgiving and minimalistic game.
  22. Machi Koro - I had many joyful moments with my two daughters. They loved building fishing boats.



  23. China - By Michael Schacht. This version is now out of print. The first English version was Web of Power. A version later than mine was Han. The most recent version is Iwari. You know a game must be good if it refuses to go out of print for long.



  24. Le Havre - The Uwe Rosenberg game right after Agricola. I might actually like this more than Agricola, just that I hadn't played it as much as Agricola. I enjoy seeing the port city grow. I enjoy seeing how old industries fade, and new industries sprout, and evolve.



  25. Taluva
  26. Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation - The Lord of the Rings story condensed into a small package, yet retaining so many important details and so much flavour.
  27. Die Macher - A game very much ahead of its time. It was a long and complex Eurogame, when all Eurogames were short and simple. Also German elections is not exactly a popular setting for boardgames.
  28. Antiquity - Another Splotter game. There is tremendous pressure in the early and mid game as you struggle with depletion of natural resources and pollution. You need to be able to climb out of the downward spiral in order to move towards your win condition.
  29. Twilight Struggle
  30. Indonesia - Another Splotter title.
  31. Glory to Rome - My blackbox edition is a gift from Allen and is now a grail game.
  32. Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition - This list has two games from the Axis and Allies series, which means the series has special meaning to me. Axis and Allies was a game I played even before I was a boardgamer. I first encountered the 1984 edition when I was in primary school. I saw it at a toy shop when I was on holiday with my family in Singapore. It looked amazing, but it was expensive, and we didn't buy it. Many years later, after I had finished my studies and started working, I came across the game again when I was on a training trip to the USA. I happily bought it, and played it with my colleagues. I later got into PC games because I found out there was a PC game version of the game. All these stories are related to the 1984 edition. There are fewer stories related to the anniversary edition, but it is one of my favourite versions of the game.



  33. Here I Stand - Allen, Han and I once spent 9 hours playing this. For a few years we played together regularly. We all liked speed play, so we clicked.
  34. Ticket To Ride - Also a series with two appearances.
  35. Blue Moon
  36. Power Grid and expansions.
  37. Puerto Rico
  38. The Message: Emissary Crisis - I realise it is not easy to teach, but once you internalise the process and the concepts, it is pretty straight-forward. The procedure is simple. What can be confusing are the many situations that may arise and what needs to be done in each situation. Once you are able to play it smoothly, it is a very enjoyable secret identity team game.



  39. Hansa Teutonica - Highly interactive.
  40. Roads & Boats - Yet another Splotter game. There are five on this list.
  41. Attika
  42. 7 Wonders
  43. The Great Zimbabwe - Splotter again.
  44. Panamax - I have only played this once, but somehow I like it a lot.
  45. Vanuatu - The action selection mechanism is full of danger and brutal. One misstep may mean wasting a whole round making no progress.
  46. Three Kingdoms Redux - It's not a wargame. It's a worker placement game. It's a development game. It's fun seeing the many Three Kingdoms era characters come into play.
  47. Quartermaster General - So far I have played two games from the series, and I like the original better.
  48. Star Realms - I have played more than 500 games on the mobile phone.
  49. Ascension - More than 1200 games on the mobile phone. I have never played the physical game.



  50. Ra - A shared memory with my Taiwanese friends. This was a game we played a lot of in my early days in the hobby.

It was fun doing such a top 50 ranking exercise, even though the list is nothing authoritative and may not mean much to others. If the list brings your attention to some lesser known games, and they turn out to be fun for you too, then all the better.