Monday 31 December 2007

Dschunke, Show Manager

Another visit to Carcasean on 27 Dec 2007, and another two new games (new to me) played. Dschunke and Show Manager (also later published as Atlantic Star, but both are out of print now).

Dschunke is by Michael Schact, designer of Coloretto, Zooloretto (2007 winner of the Spiel des Jahres award - the prestigious Game of the Year award in Germany), Hansa, and China. Michael Schact's design trademark is very clean and simple rules, yet with a clever twist. Quite ingenious. Dschunke, I find, is slightly less streamlined than his other designs that I have played. Slightly more things to do / special powers, but not really complex though, just not as simple (rules wise) as his other games.

The game is set in Asia, and the board shows five boats, and three merchants will move from boat to boat during the game. You make use of these merchants to do different things on the boats. There are also one or two trainees whom you can make use of. The objective of the game is to earn the most money, and you do this in a few different ways. Firstly, you can take one of the 3 merchant actions to directly earn money. Secondly, there are some special cards which let you earn money, some during the game, and some at game end, if you fulfill certain conditions (a bit like the Prestige cards in Princes of Florence). Thirdly, and this is the most frequently used one, is through a unique blind bidding which occurs every round (10 rounds total in the game). There are four types of goods in the game, and for each round the top sellers for each type of goods earn a reward - a special card, or an amount from $1 to $4. The way this blind bidding works is unique. Everyone commits a number of goods of one type, and reveals them simultaneously. The highest bidder(s) in each goods type win the reward. Goods used in the bidding do not return to your hand, even if you lose. This repeats until all rewards for all four types of goods are claimed. This is interesting because sometimes you can win a good reward with just one goods card, because everyone else thought it would be too competitive and decided not to bid for that. So, there is a lot of guessing your opponents' intentions in this game.

"I eat big tea rice!" Simon and Chong Sean playing Dshunke.

There is a crate stacking system in this game, which is related to how you gain money directly from the merchant action, and also how you gain goods cards for the blind bidding. How much money you gain, and how many cards you gain from a boat depend on how many crates you have visible on that boat. This is how the crates are loaded. You have many rectangular tiles each showing three crates. When crate tiles are loaded onto a boat, they are placed side by side making three rows, i.e. you get a 3x3 grid of crates. The next crate tile placed must be place on top of these, i.e. going to the next level. It is placed perpendicular to the previous level. So, as crate tiles are added, you gradually increase the number of levels. Upper levels will hide crates on the lower levels. The number of crates you have on the boat is how many of our crates are visible. This is a unique mechanism which I have not seen before in any other game I have played. Crate stacking (2 at a time) is one of the three merchant actions, the other two being earning money and earning goods cards. So, ideally you increase your crates on a boat before you do the other two, so that you gain more from those actions.

There are some special cards in the game which let you do various things like exchanging goods cards, gaining free goods cards, winning ties during the blind bidding, etc.

Upside down view, since I was sitting at the top edge of the board. The red junk (Chinese ship) is the start player marker. The cards on the left with black backs and white stripes are the special cards. The big flat round tokens in the background are the merchants. The single round token in the foreground is the trainee. 1 trainee for a 3 player game, 2 for a 4 player game. The long tiles on the right show the rewards for the blind bidding every round.

After the game, I found it to be just OK. I didn't quite like the blind bidding in this game, since I usually do not like blind bidding, because sometimes it seems to be just about how lucky you are with your wild guess (although it is not really a completely "wild" guess). I kept three special cards which awarded me bonus points at game end because I fulfilled the condition of having enough crates on some of the boats. Noone competed with me to place crates on boats, so it wasn't too difficult for me to achieve it. I just had to plan carefully. Maybe it was a three player game, so it may not be as interesting as a four player game. I found the merchant movement and the crate stacking to be interesting mechanisms, but the game made out of them wasn't as interesting to me. Perhaps I am biased by the blind bidding aspect.

Show Manager is a game I have heard of since long ago. Each player has four identical musicals to produce, and you try to make your productions as good as possible, by employing actors who are best suited for the roles in the musicals.

Me (right) explaining Show Manager to another player. I had only read the rules and had not played it myself at the time.

Every turn there are four actors (and I mean including actresses) displayed on the board, each costing $0K to $3K. You must hire one (except when you are putting up a show). Each actor is suitable for playing one to three roles in the four musicals in the game, to different extents. E.g. (I'm making up the names here...) Tom Cruise can play Ethan Hawke in Mission Impossible at a value of 9, and can play William Wallace in Braveheart at a value of 5, but is not suitable for any other roles in any other musicals in the game. So, you try to collect suitable actors to produce your musicals. When you produce a musical, suitable actors add value to your production, unsuitable actors don't. It is also important to find suitable actors because a full cast of suitable actors will give you bonus points. There are some "joker" actors who are suitable for all roles, but their value is a lowly 1.

The actors. The colours and alphabets indicate which musical and which role they are suitable for. The number indicate their value if they play that particular role in that particular musical.

The board above are for the ranking of completed productions. The board below is for displaying the four actors for hire every turn.

Now the tricky part is you have limited time to release your productions. Whenever you release a production, you must not have more than two "leftover" actors in your hand. Every round you must hire one actor. When you only have very few actors in your hand, you still have some flexibility in deciding which musical you want to use them for. However, as your hand size increase, you have to more or less make up your mind about which musical you are going to produce next, because you must focus on getting actors suitable for the roles in that musical.

Sometimes when you are unlucky, there are no actors on the board "usable" for you. In such cases, you can pay $2K to refresh the board, hoping you'll get a usable actor when the new cards are dealt. It can be fun too to see the next player wince when you refresh away the 9 value actor which he is waiting to hire.

Loans is an important aspect of the game, which I find is very thematic. Money is usually short. You can take loans against your earlier productions. However, doing this lowers their value - 1 value point per $1K. At game end your productions are compared against all other players' productions to determine how many victory points you earn. It is not the production value that is important, but the ranking of the production. So, it is tricky whether you should take a loan, and on which production, and how much to take. I find this thematic because it represents how you need to stage some productions to earn money to fund your next bigger production.

I was the trumpet player, so at this point in the game I have produced Ballet (blue) and King Lear (red).

This is a lighter game than I expected. I didn't like it as much as I expected, because I had expected a medium weight game. There is quite a fair bit of luck, in terms of the cards that come out. I felt a lack of control, because usually you are stuck with going for one particular musical and do not have much choice on which actor to hire. Trying to match up actors and roles and musicals is fun, but there seems to be less control than I'd like. The cheering and jeering is fun, when your opponents are getting lousy / good actors. So this is fun if played as a light game. I need to set my expectations right. Too bad the actors are all German, so I don't know any of them. It would be interesting to apply a modern movie / actors theme to this game, but I think it would be painful to try to find so many real life actors. There are many actor cards in the game.

Sunday 30 December 2007

O Zoo le Mio, Medina

I have been visiting Carcasean, the new boardgame cafe in KK (Kota Kinabalu), quite often, each time playing some new games (new to me, not new as in recently released). It has been very enjoyable. KK, although officially a city, is quite small, and the drive to Carcasean is only about 10 minutes. It's good to be back in KK. In contrast, when I am in Kuala Lumpur, I have no urge to visit the boardgame cafe there (I think it's called Mage Cafe), because of the distance, the traffic, and without my parents and in-laws to help take care of the children, Michelle and I do not have any chance to go for outings with just the two of us.

Visiting Carcasean reminds me a lot of the days in Taiwan when I visited Witch House boardgame cafe. Michelle and I visited Witch House almost every weekend to try new games. Similar to Witch House, at Carcasean, we only need to order a drink, and we can play as long as we like. We usually spend 2.5 - 3 hours there, playing 2 to 3 games. If you don't plan to buy a drink, the entrance fee is MYR5. This is a very low price, considering the number of games I get to try and can conclude that I don't need to buy. But even as a form of entertainment, MYR8 (for a drink) for 3 hours of fun is good value for money.

Sometimes I wonder whether I'm enjoying the process of learning a game more than I'm enjoying playing the game itself. When learning a game you work out its quirks and strategies, you explore what works and what doesn't. This is what I have been doing a lot lately since I have been playing so many new games at Carcasean.

On Wed 26 Dec 2007, I played O Zoo le Mio and Medina. Both are not complex rules-wise, but both require quite a bit of thinking, especially when new to the games.

O Zoo le Mio is a game about building a zoo. You compete to build the most attractive zoo. Over five rounds, all 25 tiles in the game are auctioned one-by-one, via blind bidding. The five tiles up for auction are revealed at the start of each round, so you can do some planning at the start of the round. There is a little Carcassonne feeling, in that paths much match when you add tiles to your zoo. Other features do not need to match, however you will want to put animals of the same type (e.g. sea animals, primates, etc) together, a bit like Dominoes.

Michelle, Simon and Chong Sean playing O Zoo le Mio

By developing your zoo, you compete with your opponents to attract visitors, trees and benches. There are five types of animal enclosures, and the best and second best zoos in each type of enclosure attract two and one visitor respectively. You only count the largest enclosure of each type in your zoo, so if you have two small enclosures, they count as separate enclosures, they do not add up. The zoo with the most and second most number of bushes attract two and one tree respectively (it's funny to think of it this way, but I guess the trees just symbolise the reward for having the most greenery in your zoo). And whenever your create a loop using the paths, you gain a bench. There is always competition for visitors and trees, and these pieces frequently change hands during the game as players outdo one another. However, you do not lose your benches.

I usually do not like blind bidding in games. However in this game I find it OK. You don't have much money, so the range in amount bid is usually not big. In the game we played, the bids mostly ranged from $0 to $3. There were a few $4 or $5 bids, but they were very rare. Also, you don't lose your money bid (like in Dshunke, or Beowulf), so it is less painful.

One interesting aspect is how you score. You score at the end of each of the five rounds, and your score is the number of wooden pieces (visitors, trees and benches) x the round number. So, each piece is 1pt in Round 1, but 5pt in Round 5. At first I thought this would mean that an early lead is not very useful, since the early score is so little. However, after the game I realised that it is still important not to fall behind early, because you need a strong foundation to set yourself up for scoring big in the later rounds. E.g. Michelle had an early and strong lead in bushes. For the rest of the game, noone dared to challenge her in that, because it would be too costly. So she kept the two trees confidently throughout the rest of the game. Benches are a safe bet, because they could not be taken away from you. If you get a bench in Round 1, it would score you a total of 15pts.

I like the game, in particular the puzzle aspect of how to develop your zoo, and the planning aspect in how you evaluate the available tiles in each round, and plan which ones to compete for, and how vigorously to fight for them.

In our game, Michelle grabbed many tiles with bushes, and she secured the two trees from very early in the game. Noone even got near her number of bushes. So I said she was building FRIM (Foresty Research Institute of Malaysia) and not a zoo.

My nice little zoo.

Michelle's FRIM.

Medina is an out-of-print game, and a beautiful game. Lots and lots of nice, big, colourful wooden blocks, representing palaces, stables, walls, and a bazaar. Players build the city of Medina two pieces at a time, and there are rules for each type of pieces that you place. One special type of piece that you play is the dome. It is in your colour, and is used to claim a palace. All other pieces are generic pieces.

The interesting thing about this game is when you start building a palace, it isn't owned by anyone. You have to use one of your two actions per turn to place a dome on it to claim it. This becomes a game of chicken. If you expand an unclaimed palace too much, the next player may claim it before you do. If you claim it now, you cannot expand it any further. The other dilemma is whether to claim a palace early or late in the game. If you claim one early, it may be overtaken in size by later palaces of the same colour (there is a competition for largest palace of each colour). You may hope to hold back a little, and hope that other players will be forced to help you build your palace. This is because everyone must play two pieces every turn, unless the placement is illegal. So when people start running out of pieces to play, they will be forced to expand a palace, which only you are able to claim (assuming all other players have claimed palaces of that colour). However, if you hold back until too late, there may not be enough space for that last palace ("your" palace) to expand, and your opponents will happily taunt you while they throw their remaining palace pieces of that colour into the game box.

This can be considered a full information game. The only hidden information is how many pieces and of what types that you have remaining. So, at times it can drag if a player spends too much time planning and thinking of all the possibilities. In our game, a 4 player game, we were all new to the game, and didn't know what was a good move and what wasn't, so we started off rather blindly. Soon we started to see some strategy and started to make moves that hinder others.

One thing that we were reluctant to expand is the bazaar. I called it the "pasar malam", which is the Malaysian night market. For each inhabitant in the bazaar line that is next to one of your palaces, you score one point. So, naturally you try to expand the bazaar to go around and go past your palaces. However, in our game, we got into a situation where noone was willing to expand it any further, because if someone adds one more inhabitant to the bazaar, the next player will have control of the direction he/she wants the bazaar to go. So, everyone held back unwilling to make the next move. The later I realised that Michelle, who was the next player after me, would want the bazaar to go into the same direction as I did. Previously she seemed uninterested in the bazaar, as her palaces were not nearby. However, if the bazaar had gone in the direction I wanted it to go, it would go towards her palaces too. So, I played the next two inhabitants to the bazaar, and on her turn she expanded it further the the direction beneficial to both of us, thus foiling Simon and Chong Sean's plans. So, taking into account turn order is important too.

Halfway through a game of Medina.

Those little white figures are the bazaar, a.k.a. "pasar malam".

Bird's eye view of the city of Medina.

After the game, all of us found Medina to be taxing to some extent. I think this is probably because we are all new to it, and this is mostly an open information game. Chong Sean said it feels a bit like Through the Desert, which I realise is true. You also place two things on your turn. Through the Desert is more streamlined. I like it, but not enough to want to buy it, especially not paying the high price due to it being out-of-print.

Saturday 29 December 2007

Lightning: Midway

Lightning: Midway is a 2-player card game about the battle of Midway, between the USA and Japan, during World War II. It appears like a medium complexity game on first play, but once you know it, it is quite an easy game to play. It only feels complex at first because most cards have special text and special powers, so it can be a little overwhelming at first to absorb all that. However, once you have played a few times, it becomes quite quick and simple.

Both players start with 4 objectives. The Japanese have four aircraft carriers, and the Americans have 3 carriers and 1 island - Midway Island. Both also have some force cards - I'll just call them planes here. To win, you need to destroy all four of your opponent's objectives. You choose one of three actions on your turn. Firstly, you can refill your hand up to 9 cards. Secondly, you can play up to 3 of your planes onto the table. Only planes which are on the table are availble to be used for attacking or defending. Lastly, you can choose to attack one of your opponent's objectives. To start the attack, you select a number of your planes on the table. Then your opponent select a number of his planes to defend his objective. Each plane has a number indicating its strength, and most have special conditions which increase their strengths. After that you take turns to play cards to modify the strengths of your attacking fleet and your opponent's defending fleet. There are three types of cards which do this - tactics cards, leader cards and event cards. There can only be one of each type in play during battle, so if you have played leader card, and your opponent plays another, your leader card will be discarded. These cards usually have special powers to modify your fleet strength. You, as the attacker need to have a total strength larger than your opponent's in order to destroy his objective. Your opponent only needs to match your strength to defend successfully. Card play continues until one side concedes, and if the attacker wins, the defender's objective is destroyed, and any planes which are dependent on that objective are out of the game.

After a battle, all the attacker's and defender's planes go back to their hands. This is the most interesting twist in the game to me, and this captures the feeling of the war in the Pacific theatre. planes in your hand cannot be used. They have to be played back onto the table, at a rate of at most 3 per turn. So, if you commit many of your planes in an attack or defense, you won't have enough planes for a subsequent attack / defense. However, if you do not commit enough, you may lose the current battle.

The Japanese cards. The top row (yellow side bar) are the objectives. The ones below are the planes or Force cards (green side bar). There are different types of planes - fighters, torpedo bombers, dive bombers, level bombers.

Close-up of some of the American cards.

I first played Lightning: Midway with Han, my regular boardgame kaki, early last year. We played two games. Recently I played this against my wife Michelle. I let her play the Japanese, as it is supposed to be easier. She beat me in both games, both 4:1. She enjoyed trouncing me. It was her first time playing. She had some difficulties absorbing all the information on the cards, since almost every card has some special text. However it didn't stop her from thrashing me.

Lightning: Midway is a quick and simple game, once you get past the initial learning curve and get familiar with the cards. There is some luck, since this is a card game, but it's short and interesting and exciting, so I don't mind the luck. One thing that surprised me is how I managed to play this with Michelle and not have her dislike the game (I guess winning helped). She doesn't like war-themed games. This reminds me of Memoir 44, another war themed game about World War II. I played it with her twice and she beat me soundly twice.

Tuesday 25 December 2007

That's Life, Elfenland, Chinatown

I played That's Life (a.k.a. Verflixxt), Elfenland and Chinatown when I visited Carcasean boardgame cafe on Sat 22 Dec 2007. All were new to me, and I requested for them from Chong Sean, owner of the cafe, beforehand.

That's Life is a simple and quick game. There is a track made up of different types fo tiles, some showing positive numbers, some negative numbers, and some a box and clover - the Good Luck tiles. Everyone has three pawns, and during the course of the game, you throw a die and move one of your pawns along the track. The game ends when everyone's pawns have reached the finish line. Now this is not a race game. It is about what kind of tiles you pick up. When your pawn is the last to leave a tile, you pick up that tile. Positive and negative tiles score accordingly, Good Luck tiles allow you to convert a negative tile to a positive one. Another aspect of the game is the guards, or neutral pawns. They initially guard the Good Luck and the +7 and +8 tiles. You can move them if a player pawn (yours or otherwise) is on the same tile as they are. And basically that's the game.

On your turn, you throw a die, and decide which of your pawns to move, and sometimes you can move a guard too. This is a simple game, with some decision making and some player interaction (e.g. move a guard away from a big negative tile, leaving behind your opponent's pawn before he could move it). It's quite light and can be played in a relaxed way. Suitable for non gamers. There are two expansions to this game, and supposedly they make the game more interesting and probably more to the taste of veteran gamers.

That's Life

I played a six-player game of Elfenland, commonly considered the ideal number of players. The objective of the game is to visit as many of the 20 cities on the map as you can. Cities are connected with 5 different types of routes - forest trails, grassland roads, mountain trails, rivers/lakes and desert paths. Before you can use any of the routes, a transport token must be placed onto the route (except for rivers/lakes). The transport token indicate (for the current round) what mode of transportation must be used to travel a particular route. Modes of transportation include dwarven cart, dragon, cloud, elfen bycicle etc. Different modes of transportation can be used on different types of routes, some requiring more cards to be played than others. You get 8 cards every round, and to travel along a route, you need to play a card (or two) matching the transport tile on that route. So, the structure of a round is everyone place transport tokens, until everyone is happy or runs out of tokens, and then everyone starts traveling. It is best to do the traveling part simultaneously instead of one player after another. It saves a lot of time (I'm assuming the people you play with are honest).

Elfenland is designed by Alan Moon, designer of Ticket To Ride, and won the Spiel des Jahres award in 1998 (if I'm not mistaken). It's suitable to be played as a family game, although at first play the combinations of the many modes of transportation and the different types of routes can be slightly overwhelming for a non gamer. There is some planning in the game, because you need to plan an effective path to visit as many cities as you can. Placing of transport tokens is interesting. Usually you place them where you intend to travel, to ensure you have a matching card. However sometimes another player may intend to use the same route, but prefer a different mode of transportation. That can mess up your plans if he places a transport token for which you do not have a matching card. However, sometimes you are lucky and he places a transport token which is beneficial to you too. So, sometimes you need to change your plans on the fly, making use of transport tokens placed by other players, or replanning your path when your plans are ruined by others. This is why 6 players is best. There will be much more interaction, many more routes being activated (having a transport token placed on them).

Elfenland. The boots are the player pieces. The square tiles are the transport tokens.

Elfenland is more involved than That's Life, but is not a heavy game either. It feels slightly more complex than Ticket To Ride, probably because of the many combinations of modes of transportation and types of routes, but it really is not a very complex game. There are some ways to "kacau" (screw) your opponents, e.g. by putting a transport token that they cannot use, or by playing a "trouble" token (which forces them to play an additional card before they can use the route).

We did not play using the secret destination cards. I thought that was part of the standard game, but apparently it is a variant. Your score is the number of cities visited, minus the distance between your end-game location and your secret destination. So, ideally you want to end up at your final destination. I will want to play with this variant if I get a chance to play Elfenland again.

Chinatown is long out-of-print, but due to be reprinted next year. After playing it, I am tempted to buy it. The mechanics are relatively simple. The focus is very much on negotiation and trading. I expect that it will be rare that you get very lucky and do not need to trade much. I suspect this game is best with 5. We played with 3 players, the minumum. With 5, it will probably be hardest to set up profitable businesses, thus the need for trading and negotiation is high, and this is the core of the game.

Every turn, you get some plots (I call them lands) and you get some shop tiles. You can set up a shop by putting a shop tile on a plot owned by you. However, single shops like these do not make much money. Depending on the type of shop (fireworks, laundry, restaurant, watch shop, tailor, private detective, seafood, pharmacy etc), they become much more profitable when you have 3, 4, 5 or 6 of them adjacent to each other. Of course it is easier to get 3 together, and much harder to get 6 together, but having a set of 6 is much more profitable than having a set of 3. And in almost all cases, you achieve this through negotiation. It is very rare to be able to get 3 plots adjacent to each other, and also get 3 shops of the same type, all at the same time (or close enough). So, negotiation and trading is very central, a bit like, but, in my opinion, more so than Bohnanza.

Chinatown. Simon and Chong Sean's friend.

Close-up of the Chinatown board.

The green round chips are ownership markers. The square tiles are the shops, with the number indicating how many you need to form a complete set. The card that looks like US Dollars is, of course, money. On the right is the reference card. On the top left, my rules summary reference sheet which I had prepared beforehand.

I like this. I wonder whether I'm biased because I won. But we definitely had fun wheeling and dealing. I find that sometimes I'm a bit unscrupulous when playing these kind of games. I make deals with one player and the next, seemingly offering good deals biased towards them, but secretly I know that by making more deals than other players and gaining some benefits from each deal, I will put myself in a strong position over everyone else. I'm so sneaky.

Monday 24 December 2007


I first played Loot on 1 Dec 2007. It was Chee Seng's game. This is a short and simple card game, which we played three times straight. Chee Seng originally only intended to drop by to pass to me the Lego Creator 4954 set which he helped me buy from Melbourne, but we ended up playing Loot three times and Tower of Babel once. Yes, he's an addict too.

Loot is a game by Reiner Knizia. I think I cannot stop myself from mentioning his name every time I write about a game designed by him. This is a simple card game about pirates and merchant ships. There are three types of cards in the game - the pirate cards, which come in four different colours and depict one to four skulls representing the strength of the card, the merchant ship cards, which are worth 2 to 8 coins, and the captain cards, one captain for each pirate colour, and one admiral. Every turn, you draw a card, or play a card, and the game ends when the deck is exhausted and one player has exhausted his hand.

You can play a merchant ship card to send your merchant ship out on a trade mission. Once you put out a merchant ship, your opponents can play pirate cards to attack the ship, and you yourself can also play pirate cards to attack your own ship. This is a game of escalation. You can keep adding cards until no one else is able to or is willing to top you. Then you claim the merchant ship. After you play a pirate card on a merchant ship, you are committed to that colour and your subsequent cards played must be of the same colour. Also your opponents cannot use the same coloured pirates to attack the same merchant ship. The most interesting mechanism in the game is the "one-round uncontested" rule. After you have played a pirate card to attack a merchant ship and become the strongest player in contention, if the turn passes around the table and noone else tops you, then when the turn returns to you, you claim the merchant ship. The same applies when you send out a merchant ship yourself. After sending it out, if noone attacks it (e.g. they are busy sending out their own merchant ships, or they are attacking other merchant ships and ignore yours, or they have run out of pirate cards, etc) then when the turn returns to you, you collect your own merchant ship, which now goes to your score pile, not your hand. This means the merchant ship had a successful trip and was not attacked at all.

Aarrrr! I've got lots of pirates! In the background a merchant ship is being fought over by two groups of pirates.

Close-up of a merchant ship and a pirate ship.

This is baaaad. Too many merchant ships.

This "one-round uncontested" rule makes things interesting, and created a lot of funny moments in our games. Often you get that "turn angst" feeling (despite such a simple game), because you can only do one thing on your turn, but you have a few things that you want to do. Do you attack one of your opponent's merchant ships, because if you don't, by the time his turn comes, he will claim it back? Do you put out one of your own lower valued merchant ships, hoping that the other merchant ships out there will attract all the pirates and you can slip under the radar and score some cheap points? In our games we had a number of times when everyone just sent out one merchant ship after another hoping to score cheap points and slip past the pirates. It was funny to realise that everyone had that mentality. The rules discourage you from not sending out merchant ships, because any merchant ships left on your hand when the game ends will become negative points. So, you are out of luck if you get too many merchant ships and too few pirates.

The captains cards are trumps. Pirate captains can only be played after a pirate card of the same colour has already been played. Captains beat any number of skulls played by other opponents, but are trumped by other captains (or the admiral) played later. The admiral is just like a captain, but does not need any pirate cards to be played before it, and can only be used by the player who sent out the merchant ship. The admiral is the "good guy". The captain cards add some spice to the game. No matter how good your pirate cards are, you are never sure whether they will be topped by your opponent's captain. Even if you play a captain card, it may in turn to topped by another captain or admiral card played later by another player. There are only 4 pirate captains (one for each colour) and 1 admiral in the game. I find this addition ingenious. It can create yet another type of "turn angst". Do you play your captain now, because if you don't and the turn returns to the last player who has played a card, he will claim the contested merchant ship? Maybe you will hope that another player will keep the merchant ship contested by playing another pirate card. Then you can swoop in with your captain card, beating all other players. But then what if another opponent is also waiting with another pirate card or admiral card?

In our three games, Michelle, Chee Seng, and I each won once. I was lucky to get many pirate cards in the first game, and Michelle was unlucky to get many merchant ships. In our second game we didn't shuffle the cards well, and there was one stretch where we kept drawing merchant ships only. We ended up taking turns to send out merchant ships one after another, hoping to sneak them by without attracting any pirates, and hoping the others all have the same idea. We also had an occasion of a hotly contested pirate ship being attacked by one captain, who was in turn defeated by a next captain.

Loot is a light, fun game. Easy to teach and quick to play. Like most Knizia designs, the design is clean and clever. There is definitely luck, but at the same time there are also interesting decisions to make. Although not something I'd seek out to buy, it is a handy game to pull out as a filler.

Sunday 23 December 2007

Carcasean boardgame cafe

Last night I visited the first ever boardgame cafe in my hometown of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia. It is located at S-0-28, Ground Floor, City Mall, on Jalan Lintas. It hasn't officially opened yet, there is no sign board outside, but it is already operating. I got to know the owner Chong Sean through Yoyo, who is the owner of Witch House boardgame cafe in Taiwan. I had contacted Sean before I returned to KK, and after I got back, I arranged to pay him a visit. I even had the chance to request beforehand games to play from his big collection of games.

The name of the boardgame cafe is Carcasean. Obviously a play of words on Carcassonne, the popular award-winning boardgame, widely recognised as a good gateway game for new players and families, and also one of Michelle's and my favourites. Actually, I'm not sure whether it is supposed to be pronounced as "Carca-shawn", or "Carca-seen". "Shawn" is the English pronounciation of "Sean" as in "Sean Connery". "Seen" is the pronounciation of Chong Sean's Chinese given name "Xin". This is how the cafe works (I think) - you buy drinks, and you get to play any boardgames available, i.e. just like Witch House in Taiwan. This is different from how Settlers Cafe in Singapore works. Settlers Cafe charges for time played. They have packages like 2 hours of play + free flow drinks. This is more similar to other forms of entertainment, like going to a karaoke. I, as a consumer, of course prefer Carcasean / Witch House's format, because it's cheaper and you don't need to watch your time. In fact, when I used to visit Witch House (when I was in Taiwan), sometimes I felt bad that I just ordered one drink and played for almost the whole afternoon. So, I order a second drink. Sometimes I also had lunch there before playing. Settlers Cafe opened a branch in Kuala Lumpur last year. I visited them once when they just opened. Unfortunately they closed after less than one year. I wonder whether their format just doesn't work for Malaysia, or the target market in Malaysia is not large enough like in Singapore.

Carcasean is very nicely renovated. It is spacious and bright and comfortable. At the moment they only serve drinks and no food. Rule #1, drinks and boardgames must not be on the same table. That's the right thing to do. Drinks and boardgames on the same table are just a disaster waiting to happen. I'm thinking whether they should also get mini tables, the tall but small type, for customers to put their drinks. Chong Sean has a very good range of boardgames, but he hasn't put many of them at the cafe yet. At the moment the cafe is more like a private function room for his friends to play at. Elaine and Simon, who accompanied me to visit Carcasean, commented that the coffee that they sell is one of the best brands. Unfortunately I don't drink coffee. So I had a chocolate shake. I remember it was good, but nothing much else, because, of course, my focus was the games.

Elaine and Simon playing That's Life. At Carcasean there are regular tables as well as low tables in the raised platform area, as seen in the background.

Elaine, Simon, Chong Sean, and two of Chong Sean's friends, playing Elfenland. Carcasean is quite spacious and brightly-lit. Very comfortable environment to play games.

We played three games, That's Life (3 players - Elaine, Simon and I), Elfenland (6 players, supposedly the ideal number of players - Elaine, Simon, Chong Sean, his two friends, and I), Chinatown (3 players - Simon, one of Chong Sean's friends, and I). I noticed that from the 8 games which I asked Chong Sean to bring, all are light to medium weight games. I am most happy to have had the opportunity to play Chinatown, which is long out of print (but is supposed to be scheduled to reprint next year). I learnt that Chong Sean actually bought this as a used copy from eBay. It was very nice of him to bring out this rare collectors' item for us to play.

Playing at Carcasean reminded me a lot of the days in Taiwan. Michelle and I visited Witch House on most weekends, sometimes on Saturday afternoon, sometimes on Sunday afternoon, sometimes on both days. I would survey the game shelves, including crouching low to browse the games under the long bench, and take note of games I was interested to try. Then I'd research the game rules on BoardGameGeek, and make rule summary sheets. Then Michelle and I would visit Witch House, armed with freshly read rules in my mind, and help ourselves with the games. Those were good times.

I definitely hope to visit Carcasean again before I return to Kuala Lumpur. I hope I can bring Michelle there, just to experience our Taiwan days again. It will be challenging, now that we have two young children, unlike when we were in Taiwan, before Shee Yun was born.

So, if anyone from Kota Kinabalu reads this, go visit Carcasean! Now!

Friday 14 December 2007

Age of Empires III

I have now played two games of Age of Empires III, both as two-player games against Michelle, on 1 and 2 Dec 2007. Age of Empires III is one of the hot new games this year. Although licensed with the PC game of the same name (there is no Age of Empires or Age of Empires II boardgame), this game is a true Eurogame in gameplay. Many people say that it is just a rehash of mechanics used in other Eurogames - worker placement of Caylus (but Glenn Drover has already designed this mechanism before Caylus came out), area majority like El Grande, and special buildings like Puerto Rico. However I (and many others too) do not find this a problem, since the game is good. It is quite "Euro" indeed, but it doesn't feel so similar to another game that I feel it has nothing new to offer.

Age of Empires III is a game about discovery, colonisation, trade (in a more abstract way than other aspects), development, and a little warfare. You score victory points (yes, the staple in Eurogames...) from how many new lands you discover, how well you did in colonising the new lands, the earning power of your trade empire, and from special buildings that you construct. There are many things that you can do, but you are competing with your opponents to pick these actions, which are limited. You not only compete to do the actions, but also compete to be the first player to do the actions, because in most cases, being the first to do an action is advantageous. To choose to do an action, you place your colonist into the appropriate space on the board, i.e. "the worker placement" mechanism. Everyone takes turns to place colonists, and when that's done the actions are performed in a fixed order. That's basically how the game works.

The full game board. Spaces to choose your actions are on the right, and the colonies are on the left. I placed the trade goods and buildings in the middle.

Now, what actions to choose is the juicy part. You can spend people to discover new lands. You may or may not succeed, depending on whether your expedition force can overcome the (always hostile) natives. You can send people to colonise the already-discovered new lands. You can collect trade goods, which represent your trade empire, and are an important source of income. This is handled in a simple and abstract way, but it is fine for me. You try to collect sets of 3 or 4 trade goods. A set of 3 trade goods of different types gives you $1 per round, a set of 3 of the same type gives $3 per round, and a set of 4 of the same type gives $6 per round. There is an action which you can use to select a trade good from a group of four randomly revealed at the start of a round. When you are the first to establish a size-3 colony in the Americas (North, Central, South and the Caribbean too), you also collect the trade good from there, e.g. silver in Peru, fish in New England. You can also compete for the merchant ship (only one available per round), which is basically a joker.

The spaces for competing for the merchant ship (i.e. joker trade good) and to construct buildings. There is only one merchant ship available each round, and the player with the most people placed in this space wins the merchant ship. Ties are broken by turn order. There are five spaces for constructing buildings. The earlier to place a person, the more choices you have. But you have to make sure you have enough money to pay for the buildings.

You can pay to construct buildings. Buildings from the Age I and II usually give you special powers, e.g. giving you a free missionary every round, which may steer your strategy. Buildings from Age III are usually victory point earners, depending on a certain aspect of your empire, e.g. how many regions you have colonised. Obviously, turn order is important if you want to choose the good buildings, so turn order is also something that you can compete for.

Warfare is simple. You need to spend a person to declare a battle or a war against another player. Battles are free but occur only in one region. All soldiers belonging to you and your "target" opponent kill one enemy piece. Full stop. No dice rolling, no looking up reference tables, no card play. Wars are expensive. You pay $10, and battles occur in every region where you and your "target" opponent have people. In my two games against Michelle, there was no warfare. Almost had it, but didn't happen eventually.

The colonists are the basic "people" that you have. They carry wood on their shoulders. Michelle (red) has one soldier in this photo - the guy with the gun.

Before I played the game, I was a little skeptical whether I would find it boring, since I kept hearing that it was just a rehash of mechanics from other games. I heard a lot of good things about it too though, and I downloaded and read the rules. Eventually I decided to buy it. The game surprised me in that I enjoyed it more than I expected. I found it quite well balanced. My earlier worry about the luck factor in discovery turned out to be less an issue than I thought. When attempting a colonisation, you commit a number of men, and then flip over a tile (or card). If the number of natives is more than your men, you fail and lose all your men. If you succeed, you claim the discovery tile and put a colonist in the newly discovered region. The two possibilities of bad luck are (a) you commit many men, but discover a lousy region of only two natives, wasting many of your men, and (b) you commit many men, but discover a horrible region of too many natives, wasting all your men, and you get nothing in return. After playing the game, I found that discovery is just one aspect of the game, and the luck factor does not dominate. It can set you back, but it is all about risk and reward. The more men you commit, the less risk you have.

One thing that also surprised me is that the game is good with two players. I had thought there would be too little competition. It turned out that we had enough competition for the game to be interesting. We did indeed have much more freedom to explore different strategies, but the competition level was not poor like I thought it would be.

I feel very comfortable playing the game. There are different approaches to try and to choose from. There are different types of actions to choose from, but the permutations are not as complex as Caylus. I guess you can say games of Age of Empires III will not vary as much as Caylus from game to game, but there are enough moving parts and different aspects of the game to keep things interesting. The game flows very smoothly, and you don't feel there is nothing useful you can do with your people. There is some luck in the game, in discovery, in what kind of trade goods get revealed at the start of a round, in the buildings that become available. I don't mind these too much. The buildings may be a significant factor in deciding who wins or loses, for players of equal skill, but in this situation I would use my usual argument - if the players played equally well, then they would have enjoyed the process of playing the game, of competing, of maneuvering and positioning themselves to make the most of the buildings that appear in Age III. So, if you lose because the building that you are hoping will appear does not appear, then just accept your poor luck gracefully, and congratulate your opponents for their better luck with good humour.

In my two games against Michelle, I mostly chose the colonisation and discovery paths. I got the buildings that gave me extra colonists or missionaries (who give you an extra colonist when they settle in the new world). I scored many points for my presence in the new world. Michelle pursued a trade goods path, building a very impressive trade empire. She had the benefit of more people, and going second, so it is risky for me to try to compete for the merchant ship (the joker trade good). If I placed a man there, she could immediately place one of hers there, and she could always outnumber me if she wanted to, because her turn was after mine, and she had more people to place than I did. So, I "let" her win many merchant ships cheaply, with just one man. In fact, I only dared to try to claim a merchant ship when I saw that she already had so many that she couldn't make use of another additional one.

My little trade empire. The gold coins represent $5, not $10. I was being a smart Alec and thinking that it was silly to use them as $10, I told Michelle we should use them as $5 instead. After our first game, I realised I was mistaken. It was indeed more suitable to use the gold coins as $10.

Michelle's very impressive trade empire. That pile of money is hers, and it's not the bank. The gold coins are $5 and not $10. This was our first game. But still, that's a lot of money.

Central and South America.

Michelle took some buildings that gave her extra soldiers. These buildings are quite good. Firstly having an extra person gives you more flexibility in placing your people. More choices. Soldiers who are used for discovery can earn you money, depending on whether there is much to plunder in the newly discovered region. Lastly, soldiers that you send to the colonies can be used for warfare, or as a deterrent. Michelle almost declared a battle on me. Thankfully in that round I built the Indian Allies "building", which allowed me to place two soldiers in the region where Michelle had originally planned to attack me. So, when it came to time for battle, she cancelled her plans (and wasted one man), because following through with the battle would have made things worse for her. I had two soldiers there when she only had one. That was an expensive way to prevent a battle and secure my dominance on just that one colony.

I won both games. The first one was quite close, and I only won because of the accumulated victory points from my dominance in the colonies. The second one the score was further apart. Michelle's trade empire didn't work out as well as her first one.

Thursday 13 December 2007

Nightmare Before Christmas TCG, Neuroshima Hex

Two other games which I played for the first time on 30 Nov 2007, in addition to Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage, are Nightmare Before Christmas TCG (trading card game) and Neuroshima Hex.

Nightmare Before Christmas TCG is a Nightmare Before Christmas-themed card game. I do not know the movie well, so I can't relate to it much. The game is played over 12 rounds, and at the end of the game your score based on the character cards and treasure cards (I think) that you have played. There are generally 3 types of cards - location cards, character cards and treasure cards. The currency in the game is interesting - pumpkins. But you are not given toy pumpkins. You are given a card with pumpkins on them and you hide / reveal the pumpkins with another card to indicate how many you have. Han and I just used poker chips instead.

So, you have locations, which are revealed one per turn for the first six turns, and can be added to your Halloweentown (i.e. your row of location cards) in any way you like (either to the left or to the right). Locations have special powers which you can use, if you have enough characters with enough values (I mean the numbers on the character cards and not family values or anything like that) at the location you want to use. You can use the power of only one location at the start of your turn. Then you have characters. You play character cards to locations by paying pumpkins. Characters usually have special powers too. Lastly, you also have treasure cards, which you play to score points and also to make use of their special powers. With so many special powers for the various types of cards, there is quite a lot of text to read through, especially when you are still learning the game and are not familiar with the cards yet.

The row of cards in the middle are the locations. Those below are the characters, and those above are the treasures.

The basic things that you can do are: draw cards, gain pumpkins (which you must use within your current turn, or they are thrown away), move your characters, and play cards (introducing characters or treasures). You pay pumpkins to play cards. The powers of the locations are mostly related to these actions, e.g. letting you collect a certain number of pumpkins, or make a certain number of moves. Since you score based on the values of the character and treasure cards that you play, this game is a lot about making the most out of your resources. You try to make use of the special powers of your locations, character cards and treasures, to let you "make more with less". E.g. with the deck that I am playing, there are three characters called Lock, Shock and Barrel. If I can get all three of them played at the same location, when I move Shock, the other two can move with her for free. This saves me some move actions. There are also treasures which you can play at a discount, if you fulfill another condition. So, this game is a lot about knowing your deck well and making good use of the characteristics of your deck.

Oh, and there are different decks of cards. Each deck contains different locations, characters and treasures. So each deck has different characteristics.

One thing that I find is the game feels a little solitaire. The player interaction is limited and it feels like you are mostly trying to optimise your own moves. At the start of every turn, the start player can choose a common action that everyone can take - drawing cards, moving characters or collecting pumpkins, at the cost of one card. The player who fulfills a certain criteria can take the action for free, e.g. a player who has the most character cards in play, or the least number of cards. So, naturally if you are the start player, you will prefer to choose the action which you can do for free, or if not, at least an action that your opponent cannot do for free. But it seems this is the main way of player interaction.

In our game, Han went through his deck of cards very quickly, taking the opportunity to draw cards as much as possible. He developed his Halloweentown more efficiently. I struggled with reading the text and formulating a strategy. By the time I kind of had a feel for it, I was quite behind in terms of going through my deck, and at the second half of the game, I was getting repeat cards, i.e. cards I had already played, which I could not play again. I did not manage to make use of many of the card powers which are dependent on other cards, and lost the game decisively. But I was happy that I got Lock, Shock and Barrel out together, so that when I moved Shock, I could conveniently move Lock and Barrel with her. That was a mini achievement for me. It was handly to move them to another location, so that I could use the power of that location in the next round.

The three good friends (I assume), Lock, Shock and Barrel.

Neuroshima Hex is a science fiction themed game set in an apocalyptic future (I think). However, it is actually quite an abstract game at the same time. It can be played by 2 to 4 players. Han and I played two two-player games, using different factions in the game.

You get a board with a play area in the middle made up of 19 hexes. You get a set of tiles representing the faction you are playing. You have an HQ, you have your soldiers, your modules (which enhance the abilities of your soldiers), and you also have some special action tiles in the mix. The objective of the game is to destroy, or damage as much as possible, your opponent's HQ. At the start of the game, you and your opponent place your HQ on the board. Every turn, you draw 3 tiles randomly, and must play two of them. You can play soldiers and modules onto the board, or you can play special action tiles, e.g. some allow you to move a tile, some allow you to trigger a battle, some allow you to throw a grenade to kill a soldier/module and all those next to him/it. Soldiers have different abilities, e.g. shoot (from long range), hand-to-hand fighting, block bullets, neutralise an enemy etc. They also have a number to indicate the order of battle resolution. Soldiers with number 3 (symbolising speed, I guess) attack first, before soldiers with number 2 (and eventually 1) can do so. So, for most of the game, you are playing tiles and setting up for the next battle. Battles occur when a battle tile is played, or when the board fills up. When this happens, you resolve the attacks step by step, with the number 3 characters first, then 2, 1 and finally 0 (the HQ's are 0 and they attack enemies in adjacent spaces).

The green and red factions. Sorry I don't remember their names. The tile at the top is the red HQ, and the one near the bottom right is my green HQ. On the soldier tiles, the longish triangles mean ranged attack, and the short triangles are melee attack. Some attack in multiple directions, some cause double damage (double triangles), some attack twice (e.g. with both speed 2 & 1). Some have double health (the plus sign), i.e. need to be hit twice before being killed. The red tile with a circle just below the red HQ is a module. This module is giving the three adjacent soldiers an additional ranged attack.

Yellow and blue factions. The two HQ's are next to each other!

The game has a lot of calculations, not as in mathematics, but as in "if I place this soldier here, then when a battle occurs he will kill that soldier, but will in turn be killed by this other soldier, and then this space will be vacant and that enemy soldier in that far corner will be able to shoot at my HQ". So there is quite a bit to study, like a logic puzzle. However, at the same time, your choices are limited by the 3 tiles that you draw. So you just try to do the best that you can with whichever two of the tiles that you (must) choose to play. To some extent, you are dependent on luck in drawing the right tiles in a timely manner. If you are always unlucky with your tile draws and keep drawing the wrong tiles at the wrong times, then it will be hard for you. However, everyone has a finite set of tiles (like in Samurai), which will usually be used up or almost used up. So, weak tiles now mean stronger tiles later. This mitigates the luck factor somewhat.

The factions are colourful (not literally). Each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses, and its own characteristics, which matches the back story well. Each faction will need to be played differently to be effective. In this, the design is done well to match with the theme.

I lost both games. In both games neither HQ were destroyed (reduced from 20 health points to zero), but mine was damaged more severely. In the second game I had a good start, drawing many good soldiers early on. However the balancing factor came into play, as in the second half of the game I did not have many good soldiers to draw anymore, and the tide turned. So Han came back from behind to win the second game. This is one game where I should not always insist on playing green, because green is but one of the four factions, and since each faction is unique, one should try them all.

Tuesday 11 December 2007

Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage

On 30 Nov 2007, I finally got to try the highly regarded and long out-of-print but recently reprinted Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Most people only know the Hannibal played by Anthony Hopkins in the movie Silence of the Lambs (and the sequels and prequels). But Hannibal is also a famous Carthaginian general in history who fought many battles against the Romans, before Rome became the dominant power in the Mediterranean.

Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage is a card-driven wargame, like Wilderness War (which I own since 2003 but still have not played). I can probably count this as the first pure card-driven wargame that I have played. Other card-driven wargames that I have played are Twilight Struggle (about Russia and USA trying to exert their influence around the globe during the Cold War), Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex. Twilight Struggle is card-driven, but is not quite like the typical card-driven wargame. It is actually quite difficult to classify this game. It has a bit of a Euro feel, because of the area-majority mechanism, and how the pieces represent an abstract concept of influence instead of actual armies. Hammer of the Scots and Crusader Rex, although being card-driven, are mainly block wargames. Most of their cards are generic 1 / 2 / 3 numbered cards, and only a few are events, unlike a typical card-driven wargame where each card has a number and an event or special power. So, to me, and my opponent (who else but) Han, this is a new foray.

Han played the Romans while I played the Carthaginians

The game is played over nine rounds. A number of cards are dealt to each player at the start of each round, and the players take turns to play their cards. All possible actions are determined by what cards you have. You use your cards to exert political influence, to activate your generals (who are needed to lead armies into battle), and to trigger special events. When activating your generals, you are constrained by how good your generals are. A good general like Hannibal can be activated using any card. A so-so general needs a value 2 or value 3 card to be activated. A lousy general must be activated using a value 3 card. There are a few possible ways to win (or lose) the game, but primarily you win by having more political influence around the Mediterranean than your opponent, or you conquer his capital.

At the start of the game, the Carthaginians start with all 5 of their generals. Rome only has 2 mediocre ones. Both players have about equal influence. Carthage controls North Africa and Spain. Rome controls Italy and the islands. Hannibal is in Spain. Usually Hannibal comes terrorising the Italian Peninsula. Carthage is initially strong, so in the first half of the game the Romans are on the defensive. Later, on round 6, the Romans get a powerful general, Scipio Africanus, the match for Hannibal, and with him, 10 army units. So, in this game there is a turn of the tide, like in Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge.

There is a lot of historical flavour in the game. Romans have naval supremacy, and this is represented by the Carthaginians having to roll a die every time they move by sea. The sea move may fail, and in the worst case they may lose their whole army. The events themselves add a lot of flavour to the game, e.g. Syracuse will likely revolt, because there's such a card in the deck. The change of Roman consuls every round represents Rome being a republic ruled by a Senate. The Senate changes consuls regularly to avoid military leaders getting too powerful. And of course there are elepants too (for the Carthaginians)! The rules are a lot to get through. There are quite many special situations, or exceptions handling specific aspects. This adds flavour, but also makes learning the game harder. This game is probably considered one of the easier games to learn among wargames, but to the average Eurogamer this is challenging. Not impossible, but challenging.

There are few armies and few generals in Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage. Fighting battles is an important way to win but not the only way. The political game is also important. Battles are but a means to an end, i.e. to force your opponent to lose political influence due to his soldiers getting killed in battle. Even if you win a battle, your casualties can also cause you to lose political influence. Your people don't like having their sons getting killed in battle. You don't get many new soldiers. Every round, the Carthaginians can get probably four new units, and the Romans five. Some event cards give you one or two units. You need to conserve your men. This is not Axis & Allies where you just build and build cheap infantry and send them to die as cannon fodder protecting your tanks. The Carthaginians only have 5 generals. The Romans will usually have 3 or 4 at any one time. This may actually be a more accurate representation of a war, compared to other war-themed games I have played. Generals and soldiers are a limited resource to be managed carefully.

The generals and the soldiers. Hannibal is in the centre of this photo.

The political game is somewhat interesting, but by itself I don't think it can stand. You can play cards to place political control markers, but you cannot flip a political control marker easily to your side. You can do it only if your soldiers are stepping on it. This makes an interesting consideration, and ties the battle / army movement aspect of the game with the political control aspect. At the end of each round, you count how many provinces you control, and if you have less than your opponent, you have to remove a number of political control markers equal to the difference. So this is "poor gets poorer". Some event cards and some generals' special abilities have impact on the political game too.

Battles in this game are resolved using a unique battle card system. I think it is unique. I have not seen this in other games I have played. There are many people who do not like this aspect, but it has its supporters too. After one play of the game, I like it so far. It's a quick and simple way to resolve battles. There is luck, of course, but I think it is acceptable. Whenever a battle is to be fought, you add up factors such as your general's strength, number of units, your political influence in that region, etc. This tells you how many battle cards you receive for the battle. Your opponent does the same. During battle, the attacker plays a card (e.g. left flank, right flank, frontal assult, double envelopment, probe), and the defender must play a matching card, or lose. Very simple. Naturally, if you get many cards of one type, then it is like your opponent has less or none of this type.

Another aspect I like about the battle system is the casualty concept. The longer a battle drags on, the more likely that more soldiers will be killed (both yours and your opponent's, and regardless of who wins the battle eventually). So, sometimes maybe it is a good thing to do to intentionally lose early, to minimise your losses.

The strategy cards that are dealt out at the start of every round.

In our game, as the Carthaginians, I brought Hannibal to Italy quickly, by land, across the Alps, to go beat up any Roman soldiers I could catch. Hannibal brought along two other generals, and these three guys kept busy visiting different towns terrorising the populace (stepping on political influence markers), so that I could "convince" the people to support Carthage (play cards to flip over the political control marker). I didn't bother with sieging any cities, even if there were Roman soldiers hiding inside. I had no patience. Han's Romans were defensive, but were also quick to grab any opportunity to intercept or attack my Carthaginian armies when they split up. However, Hannibal is just too strong for the Romans, and the Romans lost one battle after another. I guess that's historically accurate. Han sent some men to North Africa and did some damage (in terms of political conversion). I converted many of the Italian provinces. Battle casualties continued to haunt the Romans and they kept losing political influence. At the end of Round 5 (I think), the Romans conceded defeat, because they only had one political control marker left on the map. Scipio Africanus never had the chance to come into play at the start of Round 6.

We played one important rule wrong. After battles, you lose half the number of political control markers as your casualties, rounded down. We played 1-to-1 loss, which made things very very tough for the Romans. Since there is a "poor gets poorer" effect, things went into a downward spiral. Well, this is Han and my first time playing a card-driven wargame, so it really is a learning game. I look forward to play again, this time as the Romans. It will be a big challenge to stop or hinder Hannibal.

I don't have a firm opinion of Hannibal: Rome vs Carthage yet. I've enjoyed my first play, but maybe it's because I'm playing the "fun" side with Hannibal. I have yet to appreciate the game more to decide whether it's a game I really like and want to buy a copy too. And, of course, I need to know the rules better. I think I will need another one or two games to really get familiar with the game and then I can appreciate it much better. Perhaps Han and I should make this our "Game of the Month" (not literally) like Hammer of the Scots, and learn it well, and play it more, and then be able to appreciate all the intricacies.

One thing that really attracted me to this game is the graphic design by Mike Doyle. I like most of his work. Very classy. The box design, the rulebook, the card backs. However we found the map to be rather busy, and can at times be distracting. The map was not drawn by Mike Doyle though. I have a feeling that my urge to buy the game is more because of seeing Mike Doyle's graphic design than because of the game itself. So I shall give myself a few more plays before making up my mind. However, it seems the game is selling so well that it may go out of print again soon. I hope I'm not too late if I decide to buy it.

Sunday 9 December 2007

hidden information

When I pondered the mechanisms for randomness in boardgames (and cardgames), another topic came to me and I thought it would be interesting (well, at least to me) to explore the mechanisms for hiding information in boardgames. When I say hidden information I mean information that is known to one or more players but unknown to one or more other players. I am not referring to information that noone knows.

So, what kind of information is hidden in games? (maybe I should call this secret information) Money (e.g. St Petersburg, Modern Art), available strength or power or choices (Tigris & Euphrates, San Juan, Ingenious, Reef Encounter), identities (Werewolf, Citadels). Having hidden information in a game increases unpredictability, because you don't know what hand your opponent has, and you have to guess based on known information, or how he/she behaves. Sometimes you make moves which are not directly beneficial to you in order to confuse your opponents about your true intentions. You bluff. Bluffing is crucial in Poker. Having hidden information adds some chaos in games, and spices things up a bit. Sometimes it is necessary to prevent a game from becoming a tedious mathematical exercise, to avoid analysis paralysis. Sometimes it is the core of the game. Werewolf would not be a game at all if the villagers know who the werewolves are. In Citadels, the core of the game is choosing characters. When the hand of cards reach you, you can tell what are missing, and you'll know what characters the players before you may have chosen. After you choose a character, you pass the remaining cards to the next player, and he or she will have slightly less information to work on (one card less). When you choose a character, you can think about what information you are releasing to the next player, and how he or she will react to that. However I have not gone to that level of depth of play myself. I just think of what bad things they can do to me if I don't take so-and-so card, or what good things they can do to themselves if I don't take another so-and-so card. In Vinci, where victory points are open information, sometimes people complain that this causes analysis paralysis in the final round when all players are trying to calculate all the possible combinations of moves that can increase their own score and decrease their opponents' scores.

Some types of information are hidden in some games but not in others. E.g. money. In Medici, money is open information. In fact money = victory points because the winner is determined by how rich you are. Everyone knows exactly how much everyone else has. You know who is leading and who you need to be wary of. In St Petersburg, money is hidden, so sometimes you really are not sure how much money your opponents have and whether they'll be able to afford the craftsmen / buildings / nobles / upgrades available on the board.

There are also situations where some information is known to more than one player but not to others. There are some games with very interesting combinations of hidden / open information and how information is communicated. In Cluedo and Mystery of the Abbey, which are both deduction games where players gradually collect small pieces of information and use an elimination process to find the murderer, each player starts with a roughly equal amount of information. During the course of the game, the players try to extract information from others, while also trying to release as little information as possible to others. As the game progresses, it becomes harder and harder to remember what information you have released and to which opponent, or what cards each opponent is holding (so that you can avoid asking the wrong question which will only give you information that you already know). In Lord of the Rings, a cooperative game, with the Sauron expansion, the hobbits will not know what cards Sauron is holding. They also cannot see what cards each other is holding, although they want to communicate this information to one another so that they can plan together to beat Sauron. However, Sauron is right there at the table listening to any information exchange. This poses a tricky challenge to the hobbits.

Some games have more hidden information, some have less, or none. Theoretically, games with little or no hidden information will tend to require more skill and are more challenging to master. Think of Chess, Go, the GIPF series. Games with more hidden information will tend to be more chaotic and tend to be lighter games. E.g. Ca$h 'n Gun$, Poison. However, in practice, having much or little hidden information is not really a big factor in determining whether a game is heavy or light. The more dominant factor is randomnes / luck. Blokus is an open information game. You can see exactly what pieces your opponents have left. Yet Blokus can be played in a very relaxed way. It can be played with much thinking and planning too. I guess it is very much up to the players. Coloretto is also an open information game, but is a light game. This is because of the luck / randomness introduced by the card draw. Monopoly is also open information (I think). Gulo Gulo and Villa Paletti are open information games, but you'd hardly associate them with Chess. On the other hand, Tigris & Euphrates has hidden information, i.e. your hand of 6 tiles, which is often crucial when it comes to the wars or the civil wars (more layman terms for the official terms used in the game - external and internal conflicts). Yet it is quite a deep and challenging game.

What are the mechanisms for hiding information?

  • Cards - This is probably the most handy way of hiding information. You can hold many cards in your hand, even for games like Ticket To Ride where you will often have many many many cards. Just imagine playing Ticket To Ride using tiles instead of cards. It would be a nightmare. For almost all card games, cards are used as a mechanism for hiding information. There are exceptions, like Coloretto.

    Cards are the most convenient way of hiding information. This is Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper

  • Tiles - Scrabble, Mahjong, Ingenious, Acquire. For some, you have a rack on which to put the tiles. Tiles are often required to be of a certain shape, so that they can fit onto the board. Otherwise using cards would probably be a more convenient and cheaper way of hiding information. Pieces in Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation can probably be considered tiles. They stand up with the text side only visible to the controlling player.
  • Tokens - Order tokens in A Game of Thrones are placed face down on the board. The backs of the tokens show which player they belong to, but other players will not know the order placed. Aladdin's Dragons also uses tokens in a similar fashion.

    A Game of Thrones. The command tokens are the round ones seen on the map (face-down, only showing the player colour and icon), and also on the lower right of the photo (face-up, showing the actual commands).

  • Blocks - I'm mainly thinking of block war games like Hammer of the Scots, Rommel in the Desert and Crusader Rex. Your blocks have information only on one side, the side facing you. You only reveal your blocks when you are about to start a battle. Blocks are also a nifty way to keep track of information, i.e. the strength of your troops. Near the four edges of a block are different numbers of pips, indicating the strength level of the block. The block stands upright, and the edge on top incidates the strength level of the block.

    Crusader Rex, a block war game.

  • Screens - Tigris & Euphrates, Aladdin's Dragons, Reef Encounter, Keythedral, Modern Art, Samurai, Samurai Swords. Many of Richard Breese's games feature screens. One advantage of screens is they can be used to hide different types of components - cubes, tokens, tiles, coins. They provide an area where you can just drop these components, without needing to arrange them neatly like Scrabble tiles or cards to make sure they are not visible to others. You can just carelessly drop them behind your screen. The bad thing is if you are too careless and tip over your screen... oops!
  • Time / Memory - The (not unlimited) capacity of the human brain in memorising and tracking information is a mechanism for "hiding" information. When playing Tigris & Euphrates, technically you can watch and track what cubes your opponents collect. But it is so tedious that people just do not bother. Instead, you just get the general feeling that a certain opponent has many cubes of so-and-so colour but not many of another colour. In Modern Art, you can track how much money everyone has, because every everyone knows who paid whom how much and for which painting at every auction. But how many people actually do that? In many games, victory points get this type of treatment too. There is some tracking of victory points, but you are not exactly sure who is in front and who is trailing. In Carcassonne, you do track your points throughout the game, but the farmer scoring at game end usually has a big impact, and there is also scoring for incomplete features at game end, so sometimes you can't be sure exactly who is winning. This helps to discourage detailed calculation. Most people prefer not to bother and just play from the gut. In Through the Desert, you can track and calculate the scores of everyone at any one time. This is a open information game too. There is no score track provided, but you can calculate the scores if you want to. But most people don't bother. You just use your general gut feel to tell you who is doing well and who isn't. That's the beauty of the laziness of the human brain.

One game mechanism that is related to hidden information is blind bidding. E.g. players secretly bid an amount of money for a particular privilege, like being the start player for the round. Some people don't like blind bidding. I don't hate it, but I'm not particularly fond of it either. I guess it makes me feel a lack of control, and makes me feel I have to make a blind guess. There is blind bidding in Modern Art (bidding for a painting, of course), Aladdin's Dragons (bidding for the right to use a location), Die Macher (turn order), Felix: The Cat in the Sack (in this case, "blind" in the sense that you don't really know what you're getting), Samurai Swords (turn order), A Game of Thrones (the right to claim the throne, fiefdom, espionage, and contribution to protect the realm from the wildings).

After writing this blog entry, I realise that the amount of hidden information has little correlation to whether I like a game of not. I had thought I'd prefer games with less hidden information.