Thursday 27 September 2007

my game taste: control vs chaos

I like games that make me feel that I deserved the victory (or the loss). So I guess I am on the "control" side. I tend to like games in which I feel I have choices, and my decisions have impact on whether I eventually win or lose the game. I don't like to win just because I am lucky. I want to earn my victory. And when I lose, I like to be able to look back and know what I did wrong, and to know that I could have done something to prevent the loss, or to at least to do better, whether that means winning or just ending up in a better position that where I actually was. Then I will only have myself to blame, and I will know how to improve in my next game.

Power Grid is a game which I feel has a lot of control. There are many things to consider in this game - making sure you gradually upgrade your power plants to have enough capacity, making sure you have the resources to power up your plants, making sure you have access to cities to sell your power, and amidst all that, you need to watch your finances. The phrase I use to describe why I like Power Grid is: When I lose a game, I can trace back and tell exactly what I did wrong or neglected. I feel I am in control, and thus I am responsible for my own loss (or victory). Maybe I feel this because there are so many things to do and so many factors to consider when playing the game. Does more work to do give an illusion of control? Hmm... maybe a topic for a future post...

Some people feel that sometimes winning or losing in Power Grid eventually comes down to what power plants appear near the end of the game. Some players can do everything right, but still lose because of what power plants come up. I have not experienced this and at least for now do not find this a problem. Maybe I haven't played Power Grid enough. I do remember one game against Mikko Saari, another (much more popular) boardgame blogger, on, when on the last turn we bid ferociously for a power plant that both of us needed. The price went very high, and eventually he won the bid, paying a hefty price. Then the next power plant that came up (and was available only to me since he had already bought a plant that turn) was an even better one. I paid only the minimum price. At the end of that game, we could power the same number of cities, so we had to go to the tiebreaker - money. And I won because I had more money left. So, in a way, I was lucky that I gambled, hoping to get a better or comparable power plant to the one that we were fighting for, and then I did get one. I'm not sure whether Mikko felt that was a frustrating loss. But I think both of us enjoyed the game (despite playing with only 2). We enjoyed the journey, despite the ending being slightly less satisfying.

I think this is alright. We did our best to be competitive, and we remained competitive until the end. Although it was a little luck that determined the final victor, we wouldn't have got to that point if either one of us didn't play as well as the other. I had the feeling that I have done my best, and I had seen my effort translate into positive results, i.e. still remaining in the competition. So I am OK that it was a little luck at the end that tipped the scales in my favour. At least I wasn't trailing all the while, and then a stroke of luck suddenly propelled me from a bad position to victory.

The Settlers of Catan is a game with two dice. Dice = luck right? But somehow I feel that I have sufficient control in this game. With 2 dice, at least you can work out the probabilities - 2's and 12's will be rare, 7's will be most frequent. Sometimes you get lucky streaks. Sometimes you get lousy streaks. But when I play, I feel that there are things that I can do to mitigate my risks, or to maximise my chances of winning. Where to build my settlements, whether to upgrade a settlement to a city, whether to use a soldier card to send the robber away, whether to build a port settlement, whether to build roads or to start a settlement. These are decisions that I need to make. So I guess control, to me, means there are things that I can do, even if there are luck factors determing the final outcome.

There are some games which many people like, but somehow I am not as fond of as most others. I try to think of why I don't like them as much as others. One reason may be I feel I do not have enough control. These games include Ra, Citadels, and For Sale. Ra is a good game. I like it, but not as much as my friends who play it with me. This is an auction game, where over 3 rounds you collect various tiles, each having different ways of scoring. I find the theme nice, e.g. you need flooding tiles for your river tiles to be worth anything, if you have no culture tiles you get penalised, monument tiles last through all 3 rounds. The auctions are unique. You only have 3 (or 4) numbered suns per round, and you use them to bid for a set of tiles. This means you can win at most 3 (or 4) sets of tiles per round. Every time it is your turn, you only have 3 choices - add a random tile to the set, initiate an auction, or use the special power of a god tile that you have. That's simple enough. But of course at the macro level there is much more to consider. I think I feel I don't have much control because I'm just not so good at analysing and planning at the macro level. I seem to do quite poorly in Ra most of the time. Sometimes it is quite unbelievable. I can even score less than 10 points, despite having played so many times. I'm not sure whether it's because usually I play with more people, and thus have less control. It's a good game. I just suck at it.

Citadels is a game where players compete to build the most valuable city. During the course of the game, each player takes turns to secretly choose to be a character from a set of character cards. The first player to choose has the most choices. The last will have the least choices. The character you choose gives you special abilities, like stealing from another character, killing another character, swapping all cards with another player, or destroying someone else's building. In this game, often I feel I don't have enough control, especially when I keep being the victim of the thief or the assassin. The thief or assassin cannot specify which player to steal from/kill and can only specify which character to steal from/kill. So the unlucky player who chose that character will be the victim. There is some double guessing in this game. E.g. if you have many green buildings, people may think that you will choose the merchant character to earn money from those green districts, and thus they may choose to be assassin / thief and then kill / steal from the merchant. So you intentionally avoid picking the merchant. But then, maybe they'll think you won't pick the merchant because that would be so obvious. So maybe you should choose the merchant afterall. But them someone may see through your plan to take this gamble and try to kill / steal from the merchant anyway. This can go on forever. But in the end I think there is not much point to think so much. It would just make the game extremely slow (something that I have experienced and it was a pain). So, Citadels is not my type of game. There seems to be not much point in thinking too much, and it seems your best laid plans will be useless if you get unlucky (getting killed / stolen from), which is something you cannot really prevent.

For Sale is a game in which I always feel very helpless. I rarely win in this game, and I lose quite often to first time players. This is also a game about reading your group, especially in the 2nd half of the game when you need to choose your house cards simulatenously to compete for the cheques. In a way, you can say there is no luck at all, because with perfect memory you would know what house cards everyone has. So you are just guessing what card everyone will play. There is no luck, because what card to play is up to the players. Unfortunately it is usually not easy to predict what the group will do. You may hope that everyone will play low cards, so you will only need a medium low card to win the highest valued cheque. Even if most players do as you predict, if just one person decides to play a high card, you will end up with the 2nd highest valued cheque, which, sometimes can be much less than the #1 cheque. A lot of time when I play this game I feel my effort is futile. Either I also just suck at this game, or it is just too difficult to predict what a group of people will do.

In the hobby, some people define the terms "chaos", and "randomness" or "luck" very strictly. Luck/randomness is about the outcome of a die roll, what cards you draw, etc. Chaos arises out of the different decisions made by players, the different mentalities and playing styles of the players. Usually the more players, the more chaos. Some games are more chaotic than others. Drawing a bad event tile in Lord of the Rings is (bad) luck. Getting numbers that are clumped together in Category 5 is (usually bad) luck, but what cards are chosen and played by each player is chaos (although they are constrained by what cards they get too). Whether anyone will veto a character in King Me is definitely chaos. There were times when noone was willing to spend their veto card when the first character was proposed to be king, hoping that other players would do it, resulting in the first proposed character to become king. That made a very short round indeed.

I find that I am actually more comfortable with luck than chaos. With luck, at least I know there is nothing at all I can do. Or sometimes I can at least accurately calculate the probabilities, and then act accordingly. Being able to calculate the probabilities does not mean being able to predict the outcome, but it gives me a feeling of control. With chaos, it just seems futile. The human mind has too many possibilities. I feel helpless. I don't have enough information to make a decision I'm confident about. Maybe this is because of my job as a manager. I always try to get enough information to make the right decisions, and I always try to be in control of the situation.

There are perfect-information games that can be quite chaotic too. Through the Desert is a game that I like a lot, but at times it can be a little chaotic too, especially when played with more players. At times, it is possible that all the other players happen to be competing with all five of your caravans, and your caravans are, unfortunately being cut off from oases, or hemmed in by one or more opponents. And there is not much you can do. Well, perhaps you could have placed your caravans in less competitive locations during the game setup, but that is not always possible especially with more players. Generally when I play Through the Desert it is not chaotic, and I feel I have full control. The decision angst comes from deciding which caravan to expand. But sometimes chaos happens.

One game in which I do not have much control, but still enjoy is Pickomino. This is a dice game. There is some decision making and risk taking, but also a lot of luck. But maybe the game is short, and the theme of chicken fighting over BBQ worms is just so silly, and due to the excitement of dice rolling, I find the game enjoyable and don't really mind the lack of control. But when I look through the list of games that I own and like, I realise that there are very few games that I like that have little control. So, maybe I am a control freak.

What about fun? Often when boardgame hobbyists discuss deep topics at, eventually this question will be raised. So what? It doesn't matter as long the game is fun, right? There are some games where the lack of control makes things fun. It is something to laugh about. For me, most of the time, fun means investing effort and time (in a game), and seeing my effort come into fruitation, and seeing my strategy and (good) planning earn me victory. So, I am on the "control" side, and "control" means meaningful decisions, and that you have to think and work for your win.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Diamant at A Famosa

Over the weekend of 15-16 Sep 2007, I went on a trip to A Famosa with some friends from university days. Being me, I brought along two bags of boardgames and cardgames. As usual, we didn't play every game that I brought. I am always on overkill mode when it comes to bringing games for trips. It is always better to have more choices. We played Villa Paletti, Diamant, For Sale and Ca$h n Gun$. Diamant (also later published in English as Incan Gold) was the only game new to me. I made a home-made version, using pictures from the internet, and Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) pictures. Too bad I forgot to sing the Indiana Jones song when we played.

We started with Diamant. This is a very simple game, for up to 8 people, and is probably best with at least 4 players. Players go on 5 expeditions, and in each expedition try to collect as many diamonds as possible. Every turn, individual players secretly and simultaneously decide whether to proceed with the expedition. If you proceed, you may gather more diamonds, but you may also run into a disaster and lose all that you have collected so far in the current expedition. If you retreat, diamonds that you have collected in this expedition will be safe, and you also pick up any leftover diamonds (which could not be divided equally earlier on the way in) on your way out. So this is a game about evaluating risk and reward, about push-your-luck. Maybe let's not sound so bookish. It's about taking gambles!

There is also an element of guessing your opponents. Sometimes you need to guess whether your opponents will be turning back or not. If you turn back, you can collect leftover diamonds. However, if there are more people turning back than there are leftover diamonds, then no one gets any. Even if there were enough to share, you'd be getting less because you have to share with others. So, you may decide it is better to take a risk and go deeper into the cave.

Diamant is quite fun, and quick too. It is a game of cheering and cursing, sometimes at the same time. There can be very different strategies. Alicia played the most conservative strategy. She was often the first to retreat when signs of danger started appearing. Cherng Liang chose the most risky strategy - no risk no gain - and was often the last to turn back. Unfortunately, sometimes it meant his doom. Well, I guess he enjoyed the excitement. There was one expedition when he was the last remaining adventurer, and then scored big when the next card revealed was a 15 (or 17?). He earned 15 diamonds, plus those that he had already collected along the way. That put him in a very distant lead over everyone else. However, to our surprise, Alicia won that game, using the conservative approach. She collected diamonds slowly but surely, and sometimes scored small windfalls when she was the only adventurer turning back, and thus collecting all the "leftovers" for herself. Cherng Liang probably would have won had he been slightly more conservative in the later expeditions. But then, no risk no gain, and no pain no fun (for other players to laugh at his misfortune).

I like Diamant and it's a great game to play with new players.

Ricky, Cherng Liang, Chee Seng and Alicia played Diamant

I used white plastic Go (wei2 qi2) pieces for secretly deciding whether to proceed with an expedition or otherwise.

The cheering of the brave adventurers who went deeper and found more diamonds.

You can see some of the graphics I used for this home-made game. The Indiana Jones portrait, the tent, the scorpion, the big round diamond with a number.

Villa Paletti is a dexterity game and a family game, about building a tower, until it comes crashing down. Each player has 5 pillars, and they keep recycling them from lower floors and moving them to the top floor. The objective is to have the pillars with the highest point values on the top floor when the tower collapses. The rules are actually a little more complex than I expected, because there are some special cases to handle, so although it is suitable for children, it is probably better to have an adult who knows the rules to play with them, or at least to teach them until they know the rules well.

It was fun to watch grown men kneeling on the floor in weird positions eyeing the structure from different angles.

Villa Paletti: This is only level 1 and we are already so stressed out.

Full concentration

Ca$h n Gun$ was another home-made version game. I quite like it. Up to 6 can play, and I think it is best with 5 or 6 players. The memorable moment from this session was how Ricky got killed in Round 2 of one game. All three of Cherng Liang, Chee Seng and I pointed guns at him, and he dared to not withdraw. When the bullet cards were revealed, there were two "Bang Bang!" and one "Bang!", i.e. all 3 were bullets. Ricky was shot 3 times, and was killed instantly. Cherng Liang, who was the only player new to this game and had found it confusing at first, teased Ricky, "Hey you don't know how to play, do you?".

For Sale is a quick card game broken down into two halves. In the first half, players buy properties by auction. Each round, a same number of properties as the number of players are displayed for sale, and players take turns to bid money. As players start backing out from the bidding, the first to back out gets the most lousy house among those displayed. The second to back out gets the next lousiest, and so on. The twist is everyone can get back half the number of coins they have bid (rounded up), and only the last remaining bidder (who will get the best house) pays full price. In the second half, every round, a same number of cheques as number of players are displayed. Players secretly and simultaneously choose a house that they have bought previously to sell. As the houses are revealed, the best house gets the highest valued cheque, 2nd best gets the next highest valued cheque and so on.

There is a lot of guessing your opponents' intentions. Sometimes it can be tricky to decide which house to sell. If you pick a good one hoping to win the highest valued cheque, one of your opponents may have chosen a house just slightly better than yours. If you pick a lousy house to sell, you may be allowing your opponents to win some high valued cheques easily using also lousy house only slightly better than yours.

Almost everyone that I played this game with likes it. It is also a highly regarded filler game in the boardgame hobby. However I find it just so so. Maybe because I always do badly at this. Maybe I'm just bad at guessing the intentions of the group. This is a game I keep in my collection to play with new players or people who seldom play games. If they have fun, I'm happy.

We played 9 games from about 11:30pm to 2:30am. It was great to catch up with old friends and to have fun together. The cheering and cursing of Diamant was most memorable for me. I did not win a single game out of the 9 games! Well, what is important is we had fun.

getting in-depth

Having access to too many games is a problem (whether you own them, or play in groups that own them, or otherwise). As a boardgame hobbyist owning many games, the problem that I have is I rarely get to play and know a game in depth. I am just too spoilt for choice. Also I always keep myself up-to-date on new releases, and often cannot resist buying a new game that looks interesting (although I think I'm getting less easily impressed by new titles nowadays and don't decide to buy a new game so easily).

I have been meaning to write about this, when I came across a well written article on the Gone Gaming blog, titled Investment in gaming. I highly recommend this article.

I own many games. I play even more, considering my regular boardgame kaki Han also has a sizeable collection, and our collections mostly do not overlap. I don't play as much as I'd like to, with two young children at home (not old enough to play non children boardgames). We usually, no, we always have a backlog of games that we have bought and have not yet played. As a result, we rarely get to play any single game many times, especially when it's a medium or longer game.

To me, it is a pity. There are many good games which require repeated plays to learn their nuances and strategies. Through repeated plays you try different tactics and hone your skills. You improve your game and play at a higher and higher level. You enjoy this competitive level of play, pitting your wits against equally good, or better opponents. You appreciate the beauty of the game and enjoy the intense gameplay. That's my ideal. Unfortunately this doesn't happen for most of my games. I think the only games where I can claim I have reached this stage are Carcassonne, Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper and Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. Well, maybe Lord of the Rings too, although I recently read an article at which described a strategy that I have never thought of before - intentionally allowing the scenarios to end via events. Sometimes some strategies of some games will forever go undiscovered if you only play games within a small circle of friends (which definitely applies to me).

There are many games that I like which I wish I could play more and get better at. Puerto Rico, Power Grid, The Princes of Florence. Tigris and Euphrates is one deep game that I have never felt I have learnt to play even at a basic competency level. When I read this very detailed session report at, I was very impressed and awed by the depth of the game and also the level of play of the experts at this game.

So, what can I do about this? Or what should I do about this? One of the things that Han and I tried was the Game of the Month concept. The idea is over one month, every time that we meet up, we will play one specific medium to higher complexity game. We still play other games, but we will only play this specific game as our "main course". We still play other shorter or at most medium length games, but we will focus on learning and mastering that one Game of the Month. We did this with Hammer of the Scots, a game about the Scottish War of Independence. This game was inspired by the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart, a movie about William Wallace. As a sidenote, despite the movie being one of my favourites, there are many historical inaccuracies. So, watch it as a good movie, not as a documentary or for learning the history. And I learned this from the rules of Hammer of the Scots. Back on topic. Han and I did play Hammer of the Scots quite a number of times. Although I wouldn't call ourselves experts, at least we did get to know the game quite well and can truly enjoy the gameplay without worrying about rules mistakes. This is a wargame, and despite being at the lower end of the the complexity spectrum, getting all the rules right is still a challenge for people used to Eurogames. It was a great experience playing and learning the game, trying different strategies and reliving different versions of history. So, our Game of the Month concept execution was a success for Hammer of the Scots.

We also did something similar for Power Grid. There was a period of time when we played Power Grid frequently, often with Michelle as well. So, I'd say we did get quite familiar with it. Unfortunately we have not tried it with 4 players, which would make things a little different. In Power Grid, each city allows up to 3 players to supply power to it. So in a 4 player game, there is a risk that someone will be cut off from a city that he/she wants to supply. I wonder whether it would be a big impact to gameplay, and will probably keep wondering for quite a long time, until I have the chance to play Power Grid more with more than 3 players.

Unfortunately, other than Hammer of the Scots and Power Grid, we have not managed to do the game Game of the Month thing with other games. Well, we were not that strict about "Month". We do play those two games more frequently over a few months. Nowadays with our busier schedule, sometimes we only get to meet up once a month, so the Game of the Month concept has been long abandoned. Now I wish I could do this with Byzantium, an interesting and deeper Eurogame that Han recently bought and we have played once.

Another thing that I do now to avoid (well, maybe I can only say reduce) this butterfly syndrome of tasting many games but only one or twice, is to stop myself from buying too many games. I really should slow down. No point having more games than I am able to play. I try to avoid buying "hot new games", which people are all talking about and praising. I try to wait until there are at least some negative reviews of the game, or at least until there are people pointing out some things that they do not like about the game even if they do like the overall game. I try to really know a game before I decide to buy it, e.g. reading the rules (if available), reading reviews, reading session reports, looking at photos. When I was in Taiwan I even had the opportunity to play it at Witch House before deciding whether to buy. I keep a game wishlist in an Excel spreadsheet, in which I track games that I am interested in, and rate them according to my interest level (10 being I have decided to buy a game, 4 to 6 being interested with different likelihoods of buying it eventually, and 1 to 3 being I have, at least for now, decided I won't buy it). I try to not easily "graduate" games to a 10 rating.

I did this with Age of Empires III, one of the hot new games that came out this year. Well, eventually I have decided to buy it (although I have not actually bought it yet). But hopefully after reading so much about it, I won't be disappointed when I do get to play it.

There is a Chinese phrase which can describe my current situation with boardgames - "zou2 ma3 kan4 hua1" - which means looking at flowers while riding a horse. When you are in a hurry, you won't get to really enjoy the view. Maybe the English phrase can also be applied here - stop to smell the roses.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Byzantium, Wings of War, Roma

On my Sat 8 Sep 2007 boardgame session I played two new games, Byzantium and Wings of War. We also played Roma.

Han and I started with Wings of War, while waiting for Shankaran to arrive. This is a game about World War I dogfighting - fighter planes trying to outmaneuver and shoot down their opponents. It is a game I have been interested to try. Each player gets one or more planes, and they plan their fighters' movements 3 at a time, and they shoot at their opponents whenever they get within aim and within range. You win by shooting down your enemies.

Each plane has different characteristics - how nimble or maneuverable it is, which is reflected by the movement cards; how good the weapons are, which is reflected by the shooting cards (or whatever they are called, damage cards?); and how sturdy the plane is, which is simply reflected by how much damage it can take before it is destroyed. To move your plane, you secretly assign movement cards. These are revealed simultaneously as your opponents. The movement cards have an arrow on them, which determines how your plane will move, e.g. going straight, turning to one side, turning backwards, or even suddenly slowing down.

I find the design to be very clever and also thematic - how the cards capture the characteristics of a plane, and how you are trying to outguess your opponent, and how shooting is handled. When you are shot at, you draw damage cards. Some tell you how much damage you suffer, some tell you that your opponent missed and you suffer no damage, some tell you you are smoking or you are on fire, and some even tell your opponent that his or her gun is jammed and cannot be fired temporarily.

We didn't finish our game though. Shankaran called to say he couldn't join us, so we stopped in order to move on to our "main course", Byzantium. In our game of Wings of War, we spent a long time circling and maneuvering, and there was very little shooting because we seldom managed to get into position or in range. Hmm... either we were playing too well or we suck at this.

Byzantium is designed by Martin Wallace, who designed Age of Steam, Struggle of Empires and Liberte. Some of Martin Wallace's games have very interesting twists in their victory conditions, and Byzantium is definitely one of them. Byzantium's setting is the time when the Byzantine empire (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) was about fall, the Arabs were rising, and the Persian empire was already deteriorating. Players control both the Arabs and the Byzantines (and even the Bulgars, which will be discussed in more detail later), and they try to gain the most influence as puppeteers in this war between the Byzantines and the Arabs.

At the start of the game there are many Byzantine cities, some Persian cities and a few Arabian cities. Each player has one Byzantine army and one Arabian army, and a supply of cubes and money. Cubes in this game represent many things. They can become soldiers in your army, they can be used to claim a city as yours, and they can be spent to perform special actions. The most frequent action in the game (at least in our game, which was a 2 player game), is the movement of your army. Your army can move to a friendly city (e.g. Byzantine army going to a Byzantine city) or a hostile city (e.g. Byzantine army going to an Arabian city). Preferbly you move to a hostile city, so that you can attack it, and then claim victory points. The main ways of scoring victory points are by capturing a city, either by conquering it with your army, or by claiming an unclaimed city directly, costing you one cube.

Early in the game. Cities with purple stacks are Byzantine, white stacks are Arabs, no stacks mean Persian. Those with a cube on top of the stack means a player has claimed or conquered the city.

I find that the game is very spatial, i.e. about the positioning and movement of your two armies on the board. You try to maximise your opportunities for conquests (and thus scoring) while trying to block your opponents. Cities are only worth points when they are larger, sizes 2 or 3. Every time a city is conquered, it's size reduces by one, and conquering size 1 cities gives no victory points nor money. Your Byzantine army can only attack Arabian cities, and vice versa. You can make use of a special action (civil war) to have an army attack a city of the same culture, but this costs an extra cube and there is a limit on how frequently this can happen. You can attack your opponents' armies too. Soldiers can get killed (naturally), but you don't earn victory points from this.

First two rows represent your Byzantine and Arabian armies respectively, from left to right, elite soldiers, regular soldiers (both form part of your mobile army), levies (who can "pop up" at any city under attack to fight the invaders, i.e. hinder your opponents) and supply (you pay supply every time your army moves). Bottom row is your Byzantine and Arabian treasuries, and your "free cubes" (you can use them for free).

That little pawn is my army. When it is standing next to a white Arabian city, that means it's the Arabian army.

Byzantium has an interesting way of scoring Victory points. You earn two types of victory points, the Byzantine victory points and the Arab victory points. They are tracked separatedly and are totaled to determine the overall victory points. There are two twists. Firstly, if your score on one side is more than double that of the other side, the lower score is not added to your total. This forces you to be balanced in earning victory points. You are not on the Byzantine side or the Arab side. You are on both sides at the same time. The second twist is the Bulgars.

The Bulgars can attack from the north west of the board, very near Constantinople, the Byzantine capital. Activating the Bulgars is done by a player, if he/she chooses to do so. The Bulgars can increase their army size by 4, or increase army size by 2 AND attack a city. They can be activated at most twice in a round, i.e. at most a total of 6 times throughout the 3 rounds of the game. If the Bulgars successfully conquer Constatinople, the game ends prematurely, and only the Arab victory points count. This is the second twist in the victory contidions, and this is how I lost the game.

On the bottom left are the special actions available for each of the 3 rounds of the game. Each action is only allowed once per round, although there are some duplicates. The orange cubes are the Bulgars.

Han did a Bulgar action on the first turn of Round 3, attacking Constantinople. I rolled 5 dice to represent the defense of Constantinople. I needed 3 of them to be 4 or higher, i.e. it's a 50-50 chance. There were only 2. The Bulgars sacked Constantinople, and scored 5 bonus points for Han. Only Arab victory points counted, but anyway at the time Han's Arab score was already higher than me, so he won the game.

It was a little anti-climatic for me, as I felt I had done well in the first two rounds in terms of positioning and movement of my two armies. At the end of Round 2, I was ahead in Byzantine victory points and Han was ahead in Arab victory points, but we were close on both tracks. I thought I had a decent chance for victory by the end of Round 3. Unfortunately I had underestimated the Bulgar risk. I had thought it would take one more Bulgar special action to increase their army size by 4, before there would be a decent chance of success for them to try attacking Constantinople. So, Han's Bulgar attack came as a surprise to me. I had miscalculated the probability. It was actually 50-50, and was a very worthwhile gamble, at the cost of only 1 cube.

After the painful defeat, I immediately started thinking. Was this something that I could have prevented and planned for? Was there something that I could have done that would have made a difference? Was it all about bad luck in that last dice throw? Could this be a design flaw? (in a Martin Wallace game??!) My conclusion was, it was something that could be planned for and prevented. It was my own oversight that lead to my defeat. In this particular situation, I could have passed first at the end of Round 2, so that I would be the start player in Round 3, and then I could make that Bulgar attack instead of Han. If the Bulgars were successful, I would have won because I was less than 5 points behind Han on the Arab victory point track. The 5 point bonus from conquering Constantinople would propel me to the leading position. If the Bulgars failed, I would still be in a good position, because that failed attack would have killed off many Bulgars and the one remaining Bulgar special action would not likely be sufficient for Han to launch a successful attack afterwards. The other possibility is if I had achieved a 6 point lead on the Arab victory point track, the Bulgar attack would not have been a threat at all.

So, I think the Bulgars is a very good element of the game, which forces you to think and plan for it, be it in making defensive moves, or using it to achieve victory, or simply using it as a threat, thus forcing your opponent to spend valuable actions to counter your threat. The Bulgar alternative victory condition is what I find to be a touch of genious in many good games, e.g. the Ripper Escape card in Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, and connecting two shrines using a chain of your buildings in Attika.

Game over. The Bulgars had conquered those two cities leading to Constantinople, and also Constantinople itself.

Han and I have played two games of Roma before. In those two games, we played very offensively, killing off or sending off each other's cards, and thus forcing each other to lose victory points. At the start of your turn you lose 1VP for every empty space you have on your side, and you lose the game when you reach 0VP. This time, we both tried the other extreme, racing to grab all victory points from the common victory points pool (game ends when the common pool is exhausted). Well, at least we were doing that in those few rounds of our very short game, maybe around 5 minutes. By the time we started preparing for some offensive moves (preparing to send off / kill each other's cards), the game was already over.

A photo of Roma taken when we first tried it in July.

At the start of the game you get 4 cards, look at them, and give 2 to your opponent. At the start of this game Han gave me the Templum and Basilica, both buildings that earn you victory points, but only if they are built next to the Forum. He didn't have any Forum and neither did I. The Forum is an important victory point generating building. I placed the Templum and Basilica so that there was an empty space between them, where I could build a Forum if I were to get one later. Luckily I did get one (I think I used one of the charater powers of another card to pick any card from the deck), and promptly selected and built it on the designated spot. Han also got a Forum and built it. Then on Turn 4 or so, I rolled the right numbers on my 3 dice, and poof, game over. I have exhausted the common victory points pool.

Some people complain about luck in this game. Han said if a game can be this quick, why complain about luck? Just play again if you're not happy with the outcome. I think that there is quite a bit of meaningful decision making and planning in this game, even though they are dictated by your die rolls and what cards you draw from the deck. Although there is luck, there is enough thinking and choices for the players, for the game to be interesting. Even if you get lousy cards and lousy die rolls, there is still something you can do to, well, at least not lose too badly. It is choices and meaningful decision making that makes a game interesting. Sometimes luck will spoil your effort, but if you can accept that this does happen sometimes, then there is no problem. For me, the luck is a little more than I like (maybe the existence of dice makes me biased), so it is an OK game for me, nothing to write home about, but I'm happy to play this as a light and quick filler game.

Thursday 6 September 2007

how to teach games

In 2004 I wrote an article in Chinese about teaching games. It was a consolidation and a summary of a number of boardgame articles I have read on the internet, plus a little bit of my own thoughts. I posted that article to a new website set up by my Taiwanese boardgame group (Boardgang). I think it has been obsolete for very long. I don't even remember the URL. Later another Taiwanese boardgamer posted this article on his website, and that's how I found it. Actually, my sister found it when searching my name on Google, and told me about it.

Here's a summarised (a slightly updated) version of the article.

  1. Know the rules well beforehand.
  2. Teach using a top-down approach:
    • Set up the game
    • Introduction & overall objective (< 15 seconds)
    • Overall structure (< 2 mins)
    • Detailed rules explanation
    • Special cases explanation
    • Basic strategies
  3. When teaching:
    • Don't let questions interrupt your flow, postpone answering questions if appropriate.
    • Stress / repeat important rules.
    • Use a logical order.
    • Don't be too long-winded. Some rules can be taught after the game has started.
  4. When playing:
    • Watch the new players and give hints if they seem to be doing something wrong.
    • Consider making hidden information (e.g. cards in hand) public in the first game.
    • Let new players take back moves if they have made a mistake, even undoing other players' previous turns, if everyone agrees.
    • If a rule mistake is discovered during the game, it is not always necessary to correct it immediately. If everyone agrees, play with the wrong rule for this game. Make the correction when you play next time.
  5. Read the rules again after the game.
  6. Other tips:
    • If introducing new players to the hobby, choosing a suitable game is important. If the new players do not seem to be enjoying, you might as well stop the game and try another one.
    • Don't miss crucial rules. It can be frustrating for a new player to discover that he/she has not been made aware of an important rule halfway through the game.
    • Don't rush into the game. Some new players can be impatient. At least cover the basics before you start playing.
    • Don't tell the new players what to do. Give hints if they make obvious mistakes, but do let them think, strategise and explore the game.

Me teaching a game at the Little Wooden House in Taiwan. Snacks can be a hindrance to teaching games, if your audience is more interested in the snacks than your rule explanation. Snacks can be a hazard to boardgames too, e.g. oily snacks may damage your games. I remember once (or more than once) in Taiwan when we wanted to eat Doritos corn chips while playing, we put the chips into a big bowl, and then we eat it using chopsticks. Fantastic solution.

Tuesday 4 September 2007

Mag Blast, Anima: the Shadow of Omega

In the boardgame session on Fri 31 Aug 2007 (Merdeka Day), I played two new games, Anima: the Shadow of Omega and Mag Blast. For a change, this time we played at Han's parents' home in Kepong. Usually Han comes to my place. Unfortunately, it was a 2-player session again. One of Han's friends said he might come, but in the end couldn't make it.

We started with Mr Jack, which we have played before. This is a 2-player only game, with one player being Jack the Ripper, and the other being the inspector. There are 8 characters on the board, which shows streets, street lamps, houses, manholes, and police roadblocks. Both players take turns to move these characters and use their special powers. There are only 8 turns in the game, and four characters are moved every turn, i.e. a character will only move at most 4 times in the whole game. One of the 8 characters is the true identity of Jack the Ripper. The Jack player wins by escaping from one of the 4 corners of the board, by avoiding capture until end of the game, or if the inspector player makes a wrong accusation. The inspector player wins by capturing the real Jack.

We have played Mr Jack a few times, and so far Jack is always captured. It's not easy being the Jack player. Often the identity is revealed quickly, and after that it is easy to use any one of the other 7 characters to capture Jack. This time, in the game where Han played the Jack player, he almost won. He lasted until Round 8. There were still 3 suspects out of 8, although I knew it must be either Red Sherlock Holmes or Yellow Lamp Guy, because Green Lady had an alibi. So at the last round, I had to make a 50-50 guess, and thankfully I guessed correctly. So Jack was caught yet again. My guess was not totally random. I observed that Han on his previous turn seemed to be extra concerned about how to make Red Sherlock Holmes not reachable by other characters. So I guessed Red Sherlock. This was the closest we got to have the Jack player win.

In the next game when I played Jack, Jack was already identified by Round 3, and prompty captured by Round 4. I tried to be smart and tried to do something unexpected (I tried to escape early). That didn't work out. Now I think the best strategy for the Jack player is to stay unidentified until the end of the game. Although escaping is a way to win, I think it should not be attempted easily, and should just be used as a threat to restrict the inspector player. In trying to ensure Jack does not escape early, the inspector may be forced to make some moves that will delay the discovery of Jack's true identity. This reminds me to the other game with the same theme, Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper. Ripper escaping is a victory condition but it is hard to achieve (note: I mostly play 2-player games), but defending from it makes the game much more interesting.

Anima: the Shadow of Omega is a card game. It is a fantasy / adventure / role-playing game. You control a team of characters who have different strengths / abilities. You collect weapons / power cards; you fight monsters, or other players; and in order to win, you need to complete one small quest and one big quest.

I didn't do very well throughout the game. I was slower in recruiting and was stuck with 3 characters for some time, compared to Han's 4 (4 is the max), because during that time none of the available locations allowed me to recruit new characters. However, I got one card that totally changed things. It was the Betrayal card. At the time Han's team was about to attack mine, and I played the Betrayal card so that one of his characters joined my team instead. The game ended soon after that, when my team completed the big quest. That was a little anti-climatic. That one card single-handedly turned the game around.

I'm generally not a big fan of role-playing games, where you build up your character(s) to go fight monsters or fulfill quests. So, the game was just so-so for me. But the graphics are nice. Japanese manga style graphics, and many pretty girls.

Mag Blast is a much simpler game, and is also a card game. Everyone starts with one HQ spaceship and four other spaceships protecting its four sides. Each turn, you discard then draw action cards until you reach the hand size of 5 cards, and then you play any number of action cards. Your objective is to destroy your opponents' HQ spaceship, by first destroying the spaceship(s) on one of its sides (thus exposing the HQ), and then shooting at the HQ. The action cards have many uses, the most important being to shoot (or BLAST!). Other uses include repairing your own ships, hijacking your opponent's ships, intercepting your opponents' fighters, stalling your opponents' with an asteriod field, and even ramming your opponents' ships with one of your own.

Mag Blast (Third Edition). My HQ ship still protected on all sides, although some of my ships have taken some damage (those Blast cards underneath the ships.

"These cards suck big time!"

You can have more than one ship protecting one side. You HQ also indicate what race you are and its special ability.

Mag Blast is a light game, not to be played too seriously. We played with two, but I think it will be more fun with more. More chaotic, but more fun too. There is quite some luck in terms of what action cards you draw and what spaceships you get. There is some strategy, but not a lot. Don't bother thinking too much. After two plays, I think the best strategy is to try to use up your 5 action cards every time. You always refresh to 5 cards at the start of your turn anyway, so you might as well use them all. In the 2nd game which I lost, I probably should not have held on to the Direct Hit cards, Board Enemy Ship card and Immediate Destruction card for so long, hoping to get a Blast card. You need a combination of Blast card - Direct Hit card - Board Enemy Ship card to hijack your enemy's spaceship. It's a powerful action, but I think I wasted too much time waiting for the stars to align. I did manage to do it, but I wonder whether it was worthwhile.

This may be a nice game to play with children aged 8 - 12.