Friday, 18 January 2019

Lincoln

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Lincoln was funded through Kickstarter. It's a Martin Wallace design, with some similarities to A Few Acres of Snow, mainly in the deck-building-like mechanism. I rarely back Kickstarter games. Lincoln captured my attention because of A Few Acres of Snow.

This is a game about the American Civil War. It's a 2-player game, Union (North) vs Confederate (South). The conventional winning condition (but not necessarily the most common one) is capturing and holding your opponent's capital. The Union capital is Washington, while the Confederacy has two - Richmond and Vicksburg. The Union needs to capture both to win. The Union is richer in resources, and will grow richer as the game progresses. However it needs to achieve enough victory points at specific points in time. Failing to do so means losing the game. When time runs out, the Union wins if it meets the VP requirement, and loses otherwise. The Confederacy has another winning condition. If it can convince European countries to recognise and support it, it wins immediately.

The game board is simple, with few locations, and few fronts. The coastal towns are a front too. The Union can launch amphibious attacks on such towns, so the Confederacy needs to watch out. The first track on the right is the naval blockade track. By blockading, the Union can reduce the hand size of the Confederacy and also gain VP. The second track is the Europe track, indicating how much support the Confederacy has from the European countries. Both sides may deploy politicians to affect European politics. Battle outcomes affect European politics too. By capturing Union towns, the Confederacy also gain European support. When the status marker reaches the bottom, the Confederacy immediately wins.

Martin Wallace calls this a deck-destruction game. You don't buy cards every turn. Instead you permanently remove cards from time to time, thinning your deck. Each side has two small decks of cards set aside at the start of the game. When you exhaust your draw deck, you shuffle your discard pile with one of these small decks to form your new deck. The Union gets better new cards, while the Confederacy gets worse cards. The Union's deck is the game timer. The first time the Union player exhausts his deck, he needs to have achieved 2VP, or he loses. The next time, he needs 5VP. The 3rd and last time he needs 12VP. The game length is the time it takes for the Union player to go through his deck three times, barring sudden death conditions. For the Confederate player, there is no limit to how many times he may shuffle his deck. It is just that he gets no new cards from the 3rd reshuffle onwards.

The Union has a hand size of 6. The Confederacy has a hand size of 5, but this may be reduced to as low as 3, if the Union does blockading well. At the end of your turn, you always draw up to your hand limit. The more cards you play, the more you'll draw. It just means you will go through your deck more quickly. That is not necessarily good. If you are the Union, you need to make sure you have enough VP before the next checkpoint. If you are the Confederacy, you will dread those new cards which are weaker.

A card usually has multiple abilities, but you can only pick one to use. This is a key element of the game, which makes juicy decisions. Icons along the top row are for deployment. In this photo, there are only army deployment icons. Things you can deploy include armies, forts, ships and politicians. Ships and politicians affect the blockade and Europe tracks respectively. You don't actually deploy a physical game piece on the board. Usually when playing a card to deploy something, that card is removed from the game permanently. Thus the deck destruction.

The stars are the leadership abilities of your generals. You play stars in battle to influence the outcome. The train icons are for army movement. Some cards have action text, you can play them to use the text.

The counters with numbers on the left are the armies. The number of counters in each denomination is limited. You may not freely give change, e.g. you can't swap a single 3 counter with three 1 counters. There's a reason to that. In combat, both winner and loser lose half their counters. This is different from losing half their army strength. An army with these four counters - 3, 3, 1, 1 - has a total strength of 8. An army with 2, 2, 2, 2 also has a strength of 8. However after a battle, the first army will lose both the 1's, retaining a strength of 6, while the second army loses two 2's, retaining a strength of 4.

Those at the bottom left are forts, which only the Confederacy may build. That card in the middle lets you build a fort if you use it to perform a deploy action. The card itself will be removed from the game. You also need to discard another card, as indicated by the card icon next to the fort icon. The discarded card goes to your discard pile, and will return to your deck the next time you reshuffle to make a new deck. You often need to discard cards when deploying, and it can be painful when you have many good cards in hand. Although you get to draw back up to your hand limit at the end of your turn, you may not get the cards you need for your current situation. You can't plan ahead well if you use up most of your hand. Sometimes you painstakingly gather a set of cards for that one amazing move, only to be forced to expend cards to react to a looming threat. Yet you cannot afford not to respond. This game has many such moments.

The Roman number I on this card means this is shuffled with your discard pile the first time your draw deck runs out. This particular Confederacy card is one with no function. It has no icons. It's purpose is to waste an action discarding it. One of the actions you can take is to discard any number of cards from your hand. Well, if you happen to need to discard a card when performing deployment, you can discard this card, and save that one action. That's a small consolation. This card is a good illustration of how the Confederacy's new cards suck.

The Play

I played with Allen, and both of us were new. I read the rules and knew the game better, so I had him play the Union, which was richer. As I played, I couldn't help thinking about how Lincoln compared to A Few Acres of Snow. Afterall, I bought it because they shared some similarities. Lincoln is a simpler game. There is no colonisation or development aspect. The fighting is direct, and urgent. There are only a few fronts, and they succinctly present to you the key dilemmas of this war. There is a pressing need to act and to respond to threats. On all fronts you feel you aren't completely safe. There are only a few hotspots, and they already keep you on your toes. While you are tearing your hair out over where to attack, where to defend, the clock is ticking. This game can be nerve-wracking.

At the top right corner you can see Washington, capital of the Union (Allen). If I attacked using my small army on the right, Washington would gain a defense bonus of 10, because of the +10 modifier printed on the path leading to Washington. There was no way I would attack. Furthermore, my army was too small. On the left, I had captured two Union towns (blue), and my Confederate army was threatening to attack Washington now. From this direction, Washington only gained a +2 defense bonus. Our army sizes were about the same. This was a real threat to the Union. Allen could not risk not buffing his defenses.

At the lower right, one of my port towns was captured by Allen via an amphibious landing. This was a precarious situation for me. This port town was adjacent to both of my supply centres, both of which were undefended. The supply centre to the north was one of my capitals too - Richmond. In the centre, my army was having a tough time fighting the Union army marching down from the north. I had built a fort to help in defense. Now I had another Union army in my backyard, sandwiching my army. This was not good.

We had a high-stakes dance near Washington. Our armies had ballooned to indecent sizes. We feigned. We probed. We retreated. We didn't fight much, and the arms race escalated. Eventually the armies did clash, and it was a huge bet for us, because it would be a huge swing on the Europe track. Many men would die, and the marker would move as many steps as counters lost by the loser.

If you look closely at each location, you will notice the two halves. When there is no fighting, they don't matter. You place your soldiers anywhere you want. If you are attacked though, you can choose not to fight, and instead concede half the town to your opponent, and retreat to the other half. The town becomes a contested area. If your opponent wants to capture the town, he needs to launch another attack to defeat you or to force you to retreat. Being the attacker comes with disadvantages. The attacker must commit a leadership card (a card played for its star value) when declaring an attack. The defender may decide fight or flight, and if it is fight, he may decide whether to play a leadership card. The attacker has a dilemma when choosing the leadership card. Choose a good one, and the defender may just retreat, wasting your card. Choose a poor one hoping the defender would chicken out, and he may instead decide to meet you on the battlefield. The defender also needs to guess the intention of the attacker. Is that leadership card just fodder or is it for real? You may decide to retreat now and attack on your own turn, hoping to catch your opponent unprepared, but the leadership card he is playing now may be a feint. He may be holding on to his star general, expecting your attack.

In the top right area, you can see that Allen (Union) had pushed me back. Washington was no longer under threat. On the right, Allen's expeditionary force had captured Richmond, and was now heading into that corner to bully my isolated army. In the centre, I had managed to defeat Allen's army, and my army marched south to liberate my port town. It's next mission was to liberate Richmond. This was crucial for me because without Richmond (my supply centre), I could not raise new troops on the right side of the board. New troops can only be deployed in locations connected to a supply centre you control.

On the right side, Allen's expeditionary force was thankfully vanquished, and I managed to recapture Richmond. I had a garrison in my port town at the lower right now, to prevent another nasty surprise. In the centre, my small army managed to push ahead and capture a Union (blue) town. This was good because it gave me one step on the Europe track. If I later lost this town, I would need to undo that step.

One thing we noticed during the game was the Confederacy had better generals. My best leadership card was a 5, while Allen's best was a 4. You need to be aware of this and be prepared for the worst. If your opponent seems to have spent much time setting up an attack, he is likely to have set aside his top grade general for it. I won quite a few battles because of my leadership advantage, all other factors being equal. This is an advantage the Confederacy should make good use of.

Eventually it was politicking that won the day for me. When the Europe track was down to just two steps away from victory for the Confederacy, I had these cards in hand. Two cards with politician icons, and two other cards I could discard to deploy these politicians. It was game over for the Union. Historically this was not likely to have happened. It was incorporated into the design for game balance purposes. I had not actively played the politics game, and neither had Allen. We were busy enough with all that fighting. It was through the battles and through capturing Union towns that I managed to push the Europe marker down this far. Allen did not do much blockading either, so I did not have too much trouble with hand size.

The Thoughts

Lincoln is a game with little preamble or niceties. You go straight to the action. It is blunt and direct. The dilemmas are staring at you right in your face. You see threats on all fronts, and you see opportunities on all fronts. There is a sense of urgency because time is on no one's side. The Union is under pressure to perform, much like a sales director is under pressure to hit sales targets every quarter. Fail once and you're fired. The Confederacy has lousy cards to look forward to. Time erodes its strength. Getting poorer and poorer and not being able to do anything to stop it is a scary feeling. I like how direct the game is. You see the results of your actions very quickly. There is no slow build up. You don't need to go through many steps to train one army. This game is like a busy executive - get to the point and don't waste my time. There aren't many rules, but they are not exactly simple either. I feel the rules could have been written better. I found it a little difficult to digest. A card having multiple uses is a fun thing. When a game makes you agonise over decisions, that's a good sign.

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.