Friday, 11 January 2019

Raiatea

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

In Raiatea you are leader priests in a secret religious sect, vying for power to become high priest. This is a victory point game, whoever scores highest wins.

There are three giant statues at the bottom right. You mobilise villagers to build them. This is the main story in the game, and also the main way of scoring points. You build the statues by claiming the tokens on them. The tokens are worth VP's. You need to pay resources or fulfill some condition to claim a token. At the upper left you can see six large tiles. These are location tiles, and they are the core mechanism driving the game. You claim location tiles in order to perform actions. The upper right section is a price chart for the four commodities in the game. The bottom left section is an altar for recording the number of priests you command. The track along the left edge is the round track. Yellow circles are rounds you play, red ones are special ceremony rounds. The track along the right edge is the tattoo track, indicating how many tattoos you have, which translates to your rank.

Let's talk about the core mechanism, which is very much like Puerto Rico. During a round, everyone takes turns claiming one location tile. When you claim a location tile, you get to perform the associated actions, and so does everyone else. However you enjoy a slightly better version of the action, or some other advantage. There are 6 location tiles, and the game supports at most 5 players. This means every round at least one location tile will not be picked. Things you get to do include collecting resources, recruiting assistants, recruiting priests (who generate mana for you), collecting masks, swapping masks, getting tattooed, selling commodities and building part of a statue.

Only tokens on the first statue are revealed at the start of the game. Those on the second and third statues will only be revealed after the first and second ceremonies respectively. Normally you get to build statues only during the ceremonies. The costs of the tokens vary greatly. Some require commodities, some pearls, some mana. Pearls and mana are the two currencies in the game. Some tokens do not require resources, and instead require certain criteria to be fulfilled. Such tokens have red borders. There's one in the photo above, which requires you to have three priests. You just need to have them. You don't need to sacrifice them to claim the token. That would be an Aztec game...

If you look closely you will see the round transparent price markers in the third row. The four commodities are yam, fish, fruit and flower. This so called price chart is technically not a price chart. These are the resources or benefits you gain when you sell a commodity to the market, but normally when you claim a commodity you take it for free and don't pay these prices. Whenever you sell, the "price" goes down, and vice versa. So there's a little stock market thing going on here. Let's take the flower commodity as an example. When you sell flowers here, you will gain pearls. The black pearl means 5 white pearls.

These five cards outside of the board are forest cards. One of the actions you get to perform is to claim forest cards. In the forest you can find commodities, masks and assistants (hmmm).

The purple cards are masks, and they are one of the ways you score points. The masks have various scoring criteria, e.g. the mask on the right scores 1VP per brown assistant you employ. For masks to score, you must have matching pairs. Single masks score nothing. The mirror in the photo above is a special mask type - it is a joker and can be paired with any mask.

This is the tattoo track. When you reach certain positions on the track, you are promoted to a higher rank, and you will score points based on your rank. Your rank gives you powers which are important for the ceremonies. During ceremonies, you get to activate ritual cards which give you benefits. Before that you need to draw ritual cards. Drawing ritual cards is normally a matter of drawing a few, then keeping one. As your rank increases, you will draw more cards, which means better chances of drawing a card suitable for you. In addition to that, there is a limit to the number of ritual cards you get to activate during ceremonies. As your rank increases, this limit also increases. If you hit the top rank, there is a one-time benefit of immediately activating a ritual card in your hand. This can be lucrative.

Let's talk about the ceremony. This section of the board lists the whole process. When the ceremony begins, you get a chance to recruit priests and draw ritual cards. Next, everyone secretly places some ritual cards into the sacrifice bag. Ritual cards have various effects. Some good, some bad. Some one-time, some ongoing. Some affecting yourself, some affecting everyone. When you put your cards into the bag, you need to attach a clip of your colour, so that later on everyone will know who has contributed which card. Once all cards are seeded, it is time for the offering. Everyone secretly decides how much mana to contribute, and puts it in his hand. The contributions are revealed simultaneously. Such contributions, plus any mana already in the bag, will be used to activate the ritual cards.

The ritual cards are now taken out, and sorted in descending order of mana cost. They are activated in that order. If there is not enough mana to power all the cards, those of smaller values will be wasted.

The last part of the ceremony is the statue-building. Players take turns to claim statue tokens until everyone passes. Any tokens left over can still be claimed at the next ceremony.

This is the sacrifice bag. Ritual cards and mana offerings go here.

This is a ritual card, with my clip on it. Blue ritual cards have ongoing powers. This particular one would let me draw two more cards whenever I draw ritual cards.

These are two other ritual cards. The mana costs are at the top right corners. The card on the left gives you one tattoo. The one on the right gives you two priests.

The ritual card with the light card back is a basic card. The one with the dark card back is an advanced ritual card. Black magic if you will. The advanced rituals are generally more powerful and also tend to hurt your opponents.

These are assistants. There are 4 types, and their numbers are limited. Assistants have two abilities, an ongoing ability (first row of icons) and a one-time ability (second row). When some location cards are selected, assistants may give their owners some benefit. Let's take the green assistant on the right as an example. When the green location card is activated, a 4-sided die needs to be rolled to see whether green assistants will generate a free commodity for their owners. If your number of assistants is greater or equal to the number rolled, you get a free commodity. Since it is a 4-sided die, if you have four assistants, you are guaranteed the free commodity.

When you use the one-time ability of an assistant, you turn the assistant card 90 degrees to indicate it is used. Sometimes they can be reset, allowing you to use their one-time abilities again.

To summarise the ways of scoring: you claim statue tokens, you get matching masks, you get tattooed enough to reach higher ranks, and finally some ritual cards score points too.

The Play

Raiatea is a game of collecting resources and converting them to points. You want to do this as efficiently as possible. Some things can be done to improve your abilities, and thus your efficiency - getting assistants, getting priests, getting tattoos. When you pick a location card, you normally want to pick something that's most useful to you, and least helpful to your opponents.

The ceremony is unusual and interesting. You need to think carefully about which ritual cards to play, and how much mana to contribute. If a ritual card you add to the pool doesn't get activated, it's a waste. You need to gauge how much mana is already in the bag, and how much others will likely contribute. You want all your cards to get activated, and hopefully as few as possible of your opponents' cards get activated. In the game we played, at the last ceremony both Jeff and I seeded some high mana cost ritual cards which were not useful to us, just so that we could exhaust the mana and deny others. Pricks! When contributing mana, if your ritual cards have low mana costs, you probably want to contribute more to make sure they will get activated. They are going to be at the end of the queue.

It's seems dumb to be contributing too much mana to the pool. You may end up helping others trigger their ritual cards. Why so selfless? The mana offering is actually also a bidding mechanism. There are rewards to be gained based on how much you bid compared to others. Also the mana offering determines turn order for the statue-building at the end of the ceremony. So there are good reasons to offer more to the pool.

There are numerous tactical decisions throughout the game. You respond to opportunities that come up. E.g. a mask you need turns up in the forest, or the rewards are good at the commodity market.

The currencies - pearls and mana - are tight. Many statue tokens require them, and these tokens feel rather expensive. In the game we played, even by the end game, there were still many tokens requiring these currencies which were unclaimed. We had four players, and yet we collectively could not afford to claim all of these tokens.

The ceremonies feel important, despite mostly not directly giving VP's. The ritual cards mostly give resources, or improve your abilities. These eventually do help you gain VP's. The biggest source of VP's is the statue tokens. You will be constantly working towards them as your ultimate goal. The masks are a side quest. The tattoo track seems to be an area you should not ignore, but going all the way to the top may not be absolutely necessary.

This was Round 4. The marker was on the Round 4 space of the round track on the left. We had done two ceremony rounds, so by now all statue tokens were revealed. Many tokens on the first and second statues were still unclaimed. They could still be claimed in the third and final ceremony.

The ritual card on the left lets you claim pearls based on the number of priests you have. The ritual card on the right lets you advance on the tattoo track all the way to the next rank.

I had 9 assistants (cards with blue borders), which was a lot. This was mostly because I had many brown assistants (recruiters) in the first place. They gave me a few free assistants.

The Thoughts

Raiatea is a mid weight VP-scoring Eurogame. It's an efficiency game, with mostly tactical play. You try to make good use of opportunities that turn up, so that you can be more efficient than others in scoring points. You watch out for what forest cards come up, what statue tokens are available. You contemplate what ritual cards you draw. You try to make the most of these opportunities. I don't see any broad stroke strategies. There are assistants you can recruit, and the tattoos you can collect, but these are just general strengths and not unique strategies. The scoring criteria of the masks do give you some direction, but they are more simple directives than part of some overarching strategy.

Friday, 4 January 2019

7 Wonders: Armada

Plays: 7Px1.

The Game

7 Wonders is a successful game, having spawned many expansions, big and small. I have played some of the expansions but not all. Armada is one of the bigger expansions. It adds a naval aspect to the game, and increases player interaction in a few ways.

Everyone gets a dockyard board like this. You have four ships in four colours. Every time you construct a building or a stage of your wonder, you may also move a ship of the corresponding colour by paying extra resources. E.g. when you construct a red military building, you may move the red ship. The cost of moving the ship is printed on the dockyard board. Most of the time when you move a ship, you gain some benefit, as printed on the dockyard board too. E.g. the green ship lets you draw some island cards (see photo above) and claim one. Island cards come with various benefits.

The red ship increases your naval strength, which is a new game element. You now have not only army (military) strength but also naval strength. Unlike army strength, naval strength is compared among all players at the end of every era. The few who are strongest score points, and the weakest loses points. You are not just comparing with left and right neighbours.

The yellow ship increases your commerce level and also triggers taxation. Whenever taxation occurs, players with lower commerce levels than the player triggering taxation loses money. So this is a form of high commerce level players bullying low commerce level players. There is another side of the coin - piracy. Some cards trigger piracy, and piracy hurts players with high commerce levels.

The blue ship gives you points, just like the blue prestige buildings in the base game.

The Armada expansion comes with some new cards. You'll be playing 7 instead of 6 turns every round. Many of the new cards are related to the new naval element. Some cards let you interact with players other than your immediate left and right neighbours. You can buy resources cheaply from players who are sitting further away. You get to compare army strength with them too. Naturally you want to do the latter only when you are stronger or expect to be stronger than them.

One small change is the purple guild cards now score at most 10 points. I am guessing after introducing the new game elements some guilds can be overpowered, thus the need to set a limit.

The Play

I did a full 7-player game. If you have an 8th wonder from other expansions, you can play an 8-player game. The rulebook also comes with a team variant, where you can play in teams of two players sitting together. I have not tried this yet.

In the early game, I emphasised buildings which produced resources. I wanted to make sure I could build all three stages of my wonder. Investing in resource buildings early makes construction easier later. I noticed that no one spent much effort in constructing science buildings, so I decided I was going to be the science guy. See all those green science buildings I already had at this point. In this game the decision-making was fast and almost brainless for me. Most of the time, the moment I received the hand of cards from my neighbour, I already knew which card was best. Usually it was the science card. I didn't want to be distracted by blue prestige buildings or red military buildings. There was much thumb-twiddling for me waiting for others to decide.

I had two big problems. Firstly, I wasted many opportunities to sail my ships. Very often I was short of resources or money. This meant I missed out on many of the benefits on the dockyard board, or I got them later than I would have liked. The other problem was commerce level. I was behind most of the others, which meant I suffered much from taxation. I contributed much to the government and the pirates. I completely neglected military - both my army and my navy. I did have to lose points because of that, but it was not too painful.

My green science ship helped me discover this foggy island. Once I had this island, I was no longer affected by taxation or piracy. I just wished I had it earlier. I would have saved much money, which in turn probably meant I could afford to buy resources to sail my ships more often.

I fared poorly in sailing. My red and blue ships never moved. Green and yellow had only moved two steps each at this point. At the bottom of the yellow column you can see the pyramid icon. This means whenever I build one stage of my wonder, I get an opportunity to pay to sail my yellow ship. On different dockyard boards the pyramid icon appears in different columns.

This was my nation at the end of the game. My green ship had reached the end of the track, which was expected, since I was the science guy. Science gave me many points. The two purple guilds too. However my total score was mediocre compared to others. The penalties due to weak military was just one factor. I think the bigger problem was how I missed out on many opportunities to sail, and it had a cascading effect. I had played two yellow cards, and built all three stages of my wonder. If I had not missed any sailing opportunity for the yellow ship, it would be at at least the fifth step.

If you look at the top three green science cards, they have a new icon not seen in the base game. This new icon means it becomes the science icon which you already have the most of. It is not exactly a joker and you don't get to choose what science icon it becomes.

The Thoughts

The Armada expansion adds player interaction. You now need to compete in naval strength. You may interact with players sitting further away from you. Taxation and piracy affect everyone. In the base game, most of the player interaction is with your immediate neighbours. That was a basic design principle when the base game was designed - to make a 7 player game move briskly, don't overwhelm a player by requiring him to study closely what all the other six players are doing. Armada changes direction somewhat. The impact on player interaction is more obvious when you play with a high player count. If you only play with 3 or 4, these changes don't come into play or don't matter much. So I see Armada as mostly meant for playing with 5 to 7 players.

Armada adds complexity. It's not suitable for players new to the game. I think there will be too much to digest. I think 7 Wonders is a perfectly complete game and it plays fine without any expansion. Expansions do spice it up a bit and create same variability, but are not essential. You want expansions only if you play the base game heavily and want to get more life out of it.