Monday 29 October 2007

Risk Express

The packaging of Risk Express.

Risk Express was an unplanned game purchase, when I was on a business trip to Manila. I have not seen it before, have not heard or read about it before. I bought it, in no small part due to it being designed by Reiner Knizia. It did not disappoint and turned out to be quite an enjoyable game.

Risk is an old game about world conquest. I've played it in my childhood. It is played on a world map. Players attack and defend using dice, conquering one another's lands, and whoever conquers the world wins. It is a mass market game, i.e. something that you can see in a normal department store / toy shop, and not something you need to search for in a specialised hobby store. Risk is seen as the predecessor of games like Axis & Allies. Many boardgame hobbyists regard Risk poorly. Too much luck, player elimination, design problems, etc. But it is a pretty old design afterall. So, it is no surprise that it seems so bad compared to newer games. Well, at least I did enjoy it when I was younger.

Risk Express uses the same theme as Risk, and also uses lots of dice rolling, but claims to let you "conquer the world in 20 minutes!". There are 14 country cards, each depicting a country (or a group of countries), how many points you get if you conquer the country, and what is required for conquering it. A continent is just a group of country cards. There are six continents: Asia (4 country cards), North America (3), South America (2), Europe (2), Africa (2), Australia (1). Each turn, you can pick a country to attempt to conquer. It can be an unconquered country, or a country already conquered by someone else (which will be slightly harder to take over). If you conquer a whole continent, you get some bonus points, and your continent becomes safe from other players' attacks. The game ends when there are no more unconquered countries.

The whole game revolves around dice rolling, and here's how it works. You get seven dice, with the six sides showing a leader, a cannon, cavalry, and one, two and three infantry. On the country cards there are 1 to 4 lines that you must defeat, e.g. a line may have a canon and a cavalry, or seven infantry, or two leaders. After you roll the dice, you check whether you can defeat any one line. You can defeat the lines in any order. If you are successful, you can pick up those relevant dice and put them onto the appropriate line on the country card. If you are unsuccessful, you must take away one die, and then try again. Your dice gradually dwindle. You will reach a point where you defeat all lines and claim the country, or you have no more hope of doing so. That ends your turn.

The dice, dice container (which looks like a beggar's bowl) and country cards, front and back.

Details of the North American country cards.

I have played 5 games of Risk Express with Michelle (2-player games), and we quite enjoyed it. It was very noisy, because the game box, which is also the container for dice throwing, is made of hard plastic and makes a lot of noise. It was exciting. I think this excitement is an inherent aspect of dice games - throwing the dice and seeing what fate gives you is exciting and thrilling. There was a lot of cheering about unbelievably good luck and a lot of whining about consistent bad luck. It can really make you laugh to see 12 or so infantry rolled, on the very turn that you give up trying to attack the Middle East (which requires 10 infantry) after 5 or 6 failed attempts. And you'll really jump and cheer when you are down to two dice, and you need to have two leaders (1 out of 36 chance), and you roll exactly that. This also contributes to how noisy the game can be.

I enjoyed the game. It really can be played in 20 minutes. It feels a little like Pickomino, another dice game also by Reiner Knizia. There is actually not a lot of decision making. You do have to make many small decisions along the way, but most of the time the optimal decision is obvious. E.g. you rolled the dice very well and can defeat more than one line on the country card. The best choice in which line to defeat first is, of course, the most difficult line to defeat, because on your subsequent rolls you will have fewer dice and you want to keep the easier lines for your subsequent rolls. Most of the time this decision is straight-forward. There is some decision making involved in deciding which country to attack. An unconquered one (easier) or an occupied one (harder)? Do you go for a difficult country and try to collect the full set of countries for a continent, or do you just go for an easy country to earn fewer but surer points? Should you attack an opponent's country to prevent him/her from conquering the whole continent? However, overall there is not really that much tough decision making. Overall I'd say Risk Express is a fun and short game, and it can be quite exciting. Just be prepared that it can be rather noisy.

Sunday 28 October 2007

Ticket To Ride appreciation

Ticket To Ride, by Alan Moon, won the Spiel Des Jahres (Game of the Year in Germany) in 2004. Michelle likes it. I find it just OK, but I've bought all the available sequels and expansions: Ticke To Ride: Europe, Ticket To Ride: Marklin, and Ticket To Ride: USA 1910. There is a Ticket To Ride: Switzerland which just came out and I have not decided whether to buy (I probably will), and also a Ticket To Ride: Nordics which is only available in the Nordic countries. There are actually many fan-made maps too.

All the while I have not really been a big fan of the Ticket To Ride series. The game is quite simple. There really is not that much to think about or to strategise about. So, from the first time I played, I felt it was just an OK game, not especially interesting for me. However, all my friends whom I introduced it to loved the game. Lately I'm starting to appreciate it more. It is still what it is. I have not discovered any hidden strategies or new approaches of playing it. But I have come to enjoy it as a simple, relaxing, and at times also exciting game (e.g. when you have just managed to collect the cards of the right colours for you to start laying down your trains, your opponent claims one crucial track that forces you to replan your route all over again). I have learnt to enjoy its simplicity. It's not a heavy thinking and planning game like Princes of Florence or Puerto Rico, but it is fun in its own way.

I usually play Ticket To Ride in a non-aggressive way. With Ticket To Ride, that's the way I prefer to play. Some people like to play aggressively, finding opportunities to intentionally block other players, making them unable to complete their tickets. It is not against the rules, just that in the games I play we tend to be not as competitive as that. We focus on completing our tickets, and then try to draw and complete more, or we try to claim the long routes to score more points. Sometimes we do need to compete for the same routes, but that's only when we do need them to connect the cities required to fulfill our tickets. So, we let the game create the competition, rather than actively hindering one another.

Ticket To Ride: USA 1910 is a small expansion which contains a few variants that can be played on the original Ticket To Ride (USA) map. One of them, the Big Cities variant, does just that. Every ticket card in the deck requires a connection to one of the major cities in USA, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago etc. This creates much more tension in the game, because players are often forced to compete with one another. I bought this expansion mainly because of this Big Cities variant. Now I can play a more exciting 2-player game with Michelle using the most basic rules in the original Ticket To Ride. So far I have only played with the Big Cities variant from this USA 1910 expansion. I have not tried the other ones.

27 Oct 2007. End of a game of Ticket To Ride with the USA 1910 expansion, specifically, the Big Cities variant contained within this expansion. We really enjoyed playing Big Cities as a 2-player game. Very exciting. In this game we both completed 8 tickets! But I also failed to complete 1. I shouldn't have kept that one.

Ticke To Ride: Europe is the first sequel to Ticke To Ride. It introduces some new elements like train stations (if you can't reach a city, you can put a station there and borrow an opponent's track), tunnels (a random element that may force you to pay more cards to claim a route) and ferries (you must use some locomotive cards, i.e. a jokers, to claim these routes). The game is slightly more complex, but not by much. I feel so-so about this sequel.

The 3rd game in the series is Ticket To Ride: Marklin, this time using a map of Germany. The biggest addition here is the passengers. You have 3 passengers, which are powerful single-use tokens, that allow you to pick up goods tokens from cities connected by your network of routes. This is one new dimension to the game which I find very interesting. When to use your passenger is tricky. You are torn between using him early to claim the higher value tokens, and using him late so that he can visit more cities to claim moretokens. You are also under pressure to use him quickly, before those valuable tokens get claimed by your opponents' passengers. I like Ticket To Ride: Marklin the most among the first three versions of the game. A little bit more to think about, but not too taxing. And the train cards are very beautiful. Every card shows a unique train model. Marklin is the top model train company in the world.

I think I will likely buy Ticket To Ride: Switzerland, because it is designed for 2 or 3 players only, and according to reviews, it is a tension filled game due to tight competition for routes, and the map is designed in such a way that you can easily get blocked off if you are not careful. This should be fun to play with Michelle.

So now I won't be saying I'm buying yet another Ticket To Ride game just because Michelle likes them (which I always did). Actually I myself do like them too.

Thursday 25 October 2007

Battle Line appreciation

Recently I have started to play a little more of Battle Line, by Reiner Knizia, and am getting to appreciate it more. It is actually quite tension filled and has lots of tough decisions. Yet there is also some luck so there is no point agonising over your decisions too much. The amount of information you have is clear. You can easily determine the probability of you getting a certain card or making a certain combination of cards. So you make your decisions based on these probabilities, and leave the rest to fate. Battle Line plays quickly and also gives a little mind exercise, nothing too strenuous.

I have previously written about the gameplay here.

I made some rule mistakes with Battle Line. I always played with numbers 1 to 10, and with a hand size of 6 cards. I do not play with special power cards. I home-made this game, and did not make any special power cards. Battle Line was published in two versions, Battle Line being a later version, whereas the older version is called Schotten Totten, and is about Scottish highlanders fighting, as opposed to Greeks. The way I played was a mixture of these two versions. In Schotten Totten, the numbers go from 1 to 9, and players have a hand size of 6. In Battle Line, the numbers go from 1 to 10, and players have a hand size of 7. Battle Line also has some special power cards, whereas Schotten Totten doesn't. I only discovered my mistaken recently. From now on I will play the Battle Line rules, except I will leave out the special power cards.

In Battle Line, there is a lot of risk management and hand management. You try to make strong combinations with your cards, and you know your chances of getting any specific card is always half - it is either you will draw it or your opponent will. So whenever you start committing cards to one of the nine marker stones, you are taking a risk, hoping that your combination will be stronger than your opponent's, and you are also starting to reveal your intentions to your opponent. As for the hand management part, sometimes you need to make poor combinations, because you want to get rid of lousy cards from your hand, hoping that the next card you draw will be the one that you have been waiting for. Sometimes you also play a card not because it is going to create a strong combination, but because it will help you prove that you can beat your opponent at another marker stone. Then you can claim that other stone.

In summary, I'd say Battle Line is a light healthy exercise for the mind for two.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

it's Knizia's fault

I'm on a business trip in Manila, and I succumbed to the urge to buy a boardgame again. As is customary for me, I paid a visit to the Hobbes and Landes hobby store near the hotel. I don't always buy games. In my previous 7 trips, I have bought three games, Ark, a card game about loading Noah's ark with animals, Chicking Cha Cha Cha, a children's game, and On The Underground. So, on average I buy one game every two trips.

This time most of the games were the same as last time, no Age of Empires III or Thebes, the only two games that I have decided I want to buy (at least for now, but I have a very long list of potential buys too). They had Railroad Tycoon, Leonardo da Vinci, In the Shadow of the Emperor, Khet the laser game, Shogun (the successor to Wallenstein, not the first edition of Samurai Swords), Carcassonne, Oshi, Axis and Allies: Battle of the Bulge, Acquire. They also had lots of party games and lots and lots of Monopoly variants.

The game that caught my attention was Risk Express. I haven't seen that before. I took it off the shelf to have a closer look. This was a dice game version of Risk, with a tag line of "Conquer the world in 20 minutes". Then in the small print I found "Design by Reiner Knizia". My favourite game designer. I own many of his designs. I didn't buy the game on the spot just based on the name. I'm not that irrational. I went back to the hotel to check comments on this game at It seemed to be a light and quick game. Some compared it to Pickomino, another simple dice game also by Reiner Knizia, with a gambling / push-your-luck element, which I own. Then the next time I went to the shop I bought the game. I look forward to try this out.

So yes, it's Knizia's fault.

Tuesday 23 October 2007

Byzantium 2nd opinion


On 20 Oct 2007 I played Byzantium, designed by Martin Wallace, for the second time, with Han (of course). I have written about Byzantium the first time I played it, here. I quite liked it then and even considered buying a copy myself, even though Han will likely be the only opponent whom I can find and he already owns it. After the second game, I am not so sure I like it that much. I am still wondering whether it's the game itself, or the way that we have played, or maybe the fact that we played with 2 players, that is making the game less enjoyable for me. Here's how my second game went.

Having suffered a Bulgars-conquer-Constantinople defeat in my first game, I now tried to focus more on my Arab points, to keep ahead, or at least not fall behind by more than 5 points. I did not manage to stay ahead, but at least I was less than 5 points behind. This was important because as long as I was not too far behind, Han would still have to worry about me pulling off a Bulgar conquest, and then score the 5 Arab points to overtake him and win the game.

In Round 1 (out of 3), we did the usual stuff, using our Arab and Byzantine armies to conquer Persian cities mostly, as well as some Byzantine and Arabian cities. We claimed Byzantine cities too, and one or two Arabian ones. Claiming cities is a convenient and easy way to own a city. My armies were rather unlucky. Or maybe I should say I was poor at planning my military excursions. I took a bit more risk than I should have, and more than once my armies were unsuccessful in capturing cities, because I lost more men than anticipated. Maybe I should have been more conservative and built up my strength more beforehand. We did this usual stuff up to early Round 2. Han was slightly ahead in Arab points, I was slightly ahead in Byzantine points. Han had used a Bulgar action once in Round 1 and conquered a Byzantine city 2 steps away from Constantinople. Only 2 Bulgar actions were available per round.

Then around early Round 2, everything changed.

Han was in a good position to try the Bulgar conquest again. In fact he also had his Arabian army near Constantinople, on the other side from the Bulgars, across the strait. Arabian conquest of Constantinople works the same way as the Bulgar conquest - game ends immediately, and only Arab points count. So, the game changed to focus on the fall of Constantinople and the effort to prevent it. Han was in a good position to make a gamble. It did not require a big sacrifice to his overall position, and there was not much risk to him, even if his attempt failed. For me, I had to try to prevent it at all costs, because the fall of Constantinople would mean instant defeat for me. Even if it meant investing many resources, I had no choice. Round 2 ended early (as in both of us still had many "free cubes" left), because Han was setting up the stage for the Bulgar attack on Constantinople. He had used another Bulgar action in Round 2, and now the Bulgars were at the gates of Constantinople. He passed, so that he would get the first move in Round 3, and I had only one turn left in Round 2, which was insufficient for me to do anything effective to stop him.

First turn of Round 3, the Bulgars descended upon Constantinople. It was a 50-50 chance again, same as our 1st game. Five dice rolled and if Constantinople cannot roll three with 4 and above, Constantinople would fall. This time, Constantinople was luckier. Just enough of the attackers were killed at the walls of Constantinople that the Bulgars retreated. Disaster averted. Unfortunately, the other looming threat was now at the backdoor - Han's Arab army. We continued the struggle of setting up the final battle of Constantinople. Han recruited for his Arab army, and grabbed control of the Byzantium fleet to ensure they do not interfere with the Arab army (in which case the Arab army would have had to pay 4 cubes for movement along a sea route instead of the already expensive 2 cubes per move). I used the special action to become Byzantine Emperor, which gave me one elite soldier, and also allowed any "garrison" that I had (I don't remember the actual term used in the game) to defend Constantinople if it was attacked. Of course I also recruited some garrison into my Byzantine army. Unfortunately, it was of no use. Han eventually gathered a large enough force that his Arab army would capture Constantinople, even if the garrison and Constantinople itself had rolled perfect dice in defense. He needed an army of 19 soldiers for this. If the garrison had hit with all 3 dice, he would be reduced to 16 soldiers, and if Constantinople had also hit with all 5 dice, he would be further reduced to 6 soldiers (Constantinople does double kill), which would be enough to overcome Constantinople, a size 5 city. So, Han scored 5 more Arab points, and the game was over. He was already ahead of me in Arab points even before the fall of Constantinople.

So, what could I have done differently to prevent this defeat? That was the same question I asked the last time I lost. It is important for me to answer this question, because if I have no answer then maybe there is something wrong with the game design. Even during the game, Han and I spent quite some time discussing what I could do in that situation, and also what he could do to ensure a successful conquest of Constantinople. One of the things that I could have done, which we have also thought about after our first game, was for me to earn more Arab points, and to be ahead by more than 5 points. In this game I did focus more on Arab points, and although I wasn't successful in taking the lead, at least I stayed within 5 points. I think this should be a reasonable goal for all players - trying to be in the lead, but in the worst case trying to stay within 5 points. All players (this game supports 2 to 4 players) staying within 5 points mean there is always a threat of another player pulling off a Bulgar victory. Only if you are more than 5 points ahead of everyone else then you don't need to worry about it. I'm not sure how easy it is to be ahead by that much. I guess when everyone's Arab points are close, then everyone will be wary of setting up the next player to conquer Constantinople, i.e. the Bulgars will be kept 2 steps away from Constantinople, and players will be reluctant to take the Bulgars one step closer, unless they are very confident it will be beneficial to them.

Another thing I probably should not have done is to conquer that city across the strait from Constantinople. Han had earlier claimed it when it was a Byzantine city, so the rules forbade him from using his Arab army to conquer it. So it would be impossible for his Arab army to approach Constantinople from that direction. I hadn't thought about this, and I used my Arab army to conquer that city, making it an Arab city owned by me. Then Han's Arab army could go via that city (which was Arab now) to attack Constantinople. However, this city is probably not that big a factor in the consideration for whether Constantinople will fall. This city is originally Byzantine anyway, so any Arab army that manages to reach this city can conquer it and subsequently attack Constantinople. The thing that a player should not do, if he/she has any plan to attack Constantinople from that direction, is to claim it as his/hers, because your Arab army is not allowed to attack your own Byzantine city.

After the game, Han also thought of a few other possibilities for me. Building a mosque (cost is $6 for 2 Arab points) and becoming the Arabian Caliph (2 Arab points) can help me with gaining Arab points. That may not be enough for me though.

It seems this time I could not find a satisfying answer to this question of "What could I have done differently?" like last time. After this second game, I felt that we have spent too much energy and effort on the battle of Constantinople, and I had this feeling of inevitability as we danced around the preparation for this battle. It seemed futile. Was it something I could have done much much earlier to prevent this? But if it takes so much energy to prevent this, then is this a problem in the game design? Because this much energy required for this aspect of the game seems to make the other aspects of this interesting game not important anymore. E.g. why waste time on Byzantine points? Or, should the fall of Constantinople be treated as a very central part of the game, rather than an interesting twist or an interesting alternative victory condition. Maybe this should be treated as an equally likely game end condition rather than the rare exception that I have assumed it to be.

Another thought that we have is maybe this is a problem that happens when we play it as a 2-player game. I read an article on Boardgamegeek where a fellow geek commented that the problem with the 2-player game is once one player passes, the other player can only do one more action for that round. In the 3- or 4-player game, if the first player passes, the others can still continue taking actions, until everyone has passed except one. Then this last player will have only one more action. So, in the 3- or 4- player game, players will be reluctant to pass too early because the other players will be able to take many more actions.

Of course, yet another possibility is that I still have not learnt all the intricacies of preventing the fall of Constantinople to cause instant defeat for me. At the moment it really takes a lot of effort to think quite a few steps ahead to determine whether Constantinople will be a risk to me or not. So, until I get to play Byzantium more and discover more (if there is more to discover), for now my feeling is the fall of Constantinople dominates a larger part of the game than I'm comfortable with. Now Han and I are interested to try a 3-player game of Byzantium. It may be quite different.

Thursday 18 October 2007

Lord of the Rings Battlefields expansion

On 15 Oct 2007, I played Lord of the Rings with the Battlefields expansion with Han. Lord of the Rings has always been one of my favourite games. I have bought all 3 expansions to it, Friends & Foes, Sauron and Battlefields, and I have played Friends & Foes and Battlefields. This was my 2nd time playing Battlefields, and 1st time for Han. My first time was with Michelle, and we lost that game.

Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game, where the players, taking the roles of hobbits, try to go through various challenges in order to reach Mount Doom to destroy the evil One Ring. Sometimes this game can be thought of as bad things keep happening to you, and you are just trying to survive to the end. Sounds like self-torture, doesn't it? The Battlefields expansion adds a battlefield (roll eyes) element. The "battlefield" is basically a flowchart. Enemies will appear on it, and move following the arrows on it, and cause bad things to happen to you. You can prevent / mitigate these bad things by sending your fellowship members (Gandalf, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Boromir) to the battlefield to fight / stop these enemies. In a way, now we finally have the full fellowship appearing as individual pieces - the four hobbits, and the five other fellowship members.

The battlefields introduce a whole new aspect to the game. Now you need to worry about what's happening on the battlefields too. It will cost you valuable turns and cards. There are some good things that come along with the bad things. In this expansion you get some additional cards at Rivendell and Lothlorien, there are 3 more Gandalf cards that you can use, and if you kill an enemy on the battlefield, you will get some rewards. These additions mean more possibilities and more options for the hobbits.

Han played Sam in our game.

Han and I played at the easiest difficulty level - Sauron started on 15. We had one very exciting game. The battlefield drained us of a lot of resources, but we still managed to stay relatively uncorrupted throughout the first three scenarios. Han maintained a very healthy hand of cards. Han has always been a big fan of special power cards. In many games that we have played together, he tends to like collecting cards, and he enjoys planning and trying out different powerful combos of special power cards. I think this is all about the excitement and anticipation of drawing a card and seeing what you get. His habit showed in our game too. In contrast, I spent my cards pretty quickly. Maybe it was the special ability of Frodo (I was Frodo and Han was Sam) of treating white hobbit cards as jokers, which made me conveniently use up those white hobbit cards in my hand. At the end of the second scenario, Helm's Deep, (or was it the first scenario Moria?) I was surprised to find that I was still at space zero of the corruption track, despite the not few bad events we had encountered thus far and struggles that we had handling the enemies on the battlefield. I thought we were doing pretty good.

On the third scenario board, Shelob's Lair, we were already accumulating traveling cards, in anticipation of the last scenario board, Mordor, where the main activity track was a traveling track. I thought we still did alright in Shelob's Lair, although our cards were starting to dwindle. Sam ate his lembas bread (draw hobbit cards to fill hand to 6 cards). Sauron was getting closer and closer to us, mostly due to enemies on the battlefields. We survived Shelob's Lair, so Mordor here we come! Things got nasty here. The battlefield was a nightmare, probably because we didn't analyse it properly when we started the scenario, and were caught off guard by how nasty it was. The battlefield was designed in such a way that we could not choose to block enemies from advancing. If we blocked an enemy, it would take an alternative path, and on this battlefield, most alternative paths lead to the big red eye of Sauron, i.e. instant defeat. So our dear companions of the Fellowship of the Ring watched helplessly as the enemies trudged slowly along the downward spiral, giving us grief each step of the way. That was painful.

Eventually we did make it to Mount Doom, but just barely. Sam, who was ringbearer at the time, was only one step away from Sauron. So, now it came down to whether Sam would survive this last die roll. It was a 2 out of 6 chance. Han must roll a blank or a "discard 2 cards". Any other result, be it Sam or Sauron advancing, would kill Sam. Then I played the Belt card - one player: do not roll a die. I never found a good opportunity to use it (or maybe I just kept forgetting to use it), and now I was thankful I saved it until this moment. Game over. The One Ring was destroyed. We did no upset J. R. R. Tolkien by changing his ending.

That was such a close victory. Very enjoyable game.

This is the full body shot of the game.

Then later in the day I thought about it (good games make you think back about it, and that's a good thing) and realised it wasn't that close afterall. If Sam had died, Frodo could still try to destroy the Ring, and would have done so successfully because Frodo was still far enough from Sauron, and still had enough cards to discard if necessary. So by the time we reached Mount Doom, it was already a sure win. It was just a matter of whether Sam would live or not (or a matter of whether we would upset J. R. R. Tolkien by having Sam killed). The other thing I realised was we may not have played correctly. When deploying friends to the battlefields, they must go to non-grey spaces. I forgot about this rule, and I think we did violate this rule during the game. Oops. Flawed victory, we have.

The main board at the top, and scenario board in the centre. We are in Mordor now. Additions from the Battlefields expansion are those black rectangular tiles with a red eye. Those tiles trigger enemy appearance / movement on the battlefields.

The battlefield board that goes with the Mordor scenario board. Fellowship members are on the left. Notice that we have "used" Gandalf (top tile) so he has been turned over. There are already four enemies on the battlefield - the round tokens.

So what's my verdict on the Battlefields expansion? I like it a lot! There is a whole new dimension to consider, and a whole lot of new considerations and options. I like it more compared to the Friends & Foes expansion, which is the most highly regarded among the three expansions of Lord of the Rings. The thing I like about Friends & Foes is the additional scenario boards and new characters / story elements. However one thing that makes me feel very restricted is how the foes appear. If you draw a bad tile, no foe appears. If you draw a good tile, a foe appears. This makes me feel I always have bad luck. It's either one bad thing that hits you or another. It's like rolling a die and knowing you will never get a good result that you can celebrate about. It will only be different types of bad result. This is the feeling that makes me like Friends & Foes less. I am probably not being very rational, but that's the feeling I have. In Battlefields at least sometimes I can say "Yay! I drew a Fight tile! Just what I need to move along the main activity line. I'm lucky lucky lucky!" Celebrating being lucky is fun.

Some people complain about the flowcharts (battlefields), about how boring and unthematic they are. I don't mind them. They are fun and are a challenge. Reiner Knizia has put much thought into designing them. Despite the difficulty to link these flowcharts theme-wise to the Lord of the Rings story, I find they are good gameplay-wise and don't really mind. They are an abstracted version of battlefields, and simply represent how the good guys of Middle Earth need to balance their resources between helping the hobbits secretly destroy the Ring and trying to hinder Sauron's forces on the battlefields (in order to buy more time for the hobbits).

The Battlefields expansion indirectly encourages players to use the non-main activity tracks. Enemy trigger tiles (which trigger enemies to appear on or move on the battlefields) are activated when events happen and when you use the main activity track. So sometimes it makes sense to linger a bit more on a scenario board to collect the good stuff on the non-main activity tracks. But of course you'd need to balance that against the risk of being unable to complete the main activity track before you are overcome by events. Nice dilemma.

The rewards of killing enemies is tempting. Killing some enemies can even allow you to push Sauron back. In the base game Sauron never retreats. So sometimes you actually plan out how to use Gandalf on the battlefield to kill enemies, or how to maneuver the enemy to a kill space (the squares) so that you can spend two jokers (star cards) to kill it. There are many more intricacies about the battlefields, like how to position your friends to control how the enemies will move, or how to minimise damage caused by the enemies, how to use the different abilities of your five friends. I don't think I have discovered all of them.

I would like to play many more games of Lord of the Rings with the Battlefields expansion. Hopefully no more mistakes next time, and victory would be even sweeter. And I'm hoping to be able to play the Sauron expansion one day, hopefully sooner than later.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

On The Underground again

I have played a few more games of On The Underground, with Michelle, as 2 player games. Part of the reason that I bought On The Underground was that Michelle has lived in London before for a few years and I was hoping the familiarity with the Underground stations will persuade her to play the game with me. Michelle lived near the Elephant and Castle station, and coincidentally in her first game she built an Underground line to that station too.

In this game, you get tracks of 2 to 4 colours (depending on number of players), and you use them to build your Underground lines. Once you start building a line, you can only develop it further by extending at either end. You can only branch out by paying branch tokens. This cost discourages too much of branching out. There are a few different ways of scoring - by connecting to national railway stations, by connecting to terminuses, by connecting two stations with the same symbols, by creating loops (something like the Circle Line in London) and finally you also score when the passenger travels using your Underground lines. Every turn, you can build up to four tracks, and after building, the passenger will travel to one or two destinations. He (maybe a she, I don't know) may not necessarily use your lines. His principles are (1) walk as little as possible (e.g. he'd rather walk one block and take a 2 hour Underground trip, than walking two blocks), and (2) use as few Underground lines as possible (he hates changing stations and even going into a station, because, as every Londoner knows, the air in the Underground is quite dirty) (e.g. he'd rather take a 1 hour Underground trip on the same line, than taking two 5 minute trips on two different lines). If there is more than one route where both considerations are equal, the active player decides which route the passenger will take, and of course, would choose the route more beneficial to himself/herself. The game ends when the deck of destination cards run out.

Halfway through a game. Elephant & Castle station is in the lower centre of the board, the upper right corner of that "X", with a green token.

When I first played On The Underground, I felt it was quite tactical (as opposed to stategic). After playing my fourth game, I am starting to see slightly more of the strategic side. The tactical feeling comes from trying to maximise your score within your turn, e.g. connecting to terminuses or national railway stations, and also comes from trying to develop your lines in such a way so that the passenger will take your line(s) on this turn. These are still valid approaches, but now I am starting to see some other longer term considerations / strategies.

Blocking is actually one very powerful strategy. In the games we've played, we have not actively pursued this strategy, but blocking did happen. We cut each other off from being able to extend our lines further. So, you need to be careful where you start a line, and need to be careful to expand quickly enough before being blocked off. You need to be watching out for space to further expand to, so you are basically planning ahead for your line. You may not always be able to plan the exact stations you want it to go to, but you already have some rough idea where the line is going to, e.g. from the south east, cutting through the centre, and then going north.

National railway stations, terminuses and stations with symbols are also longer term considerations when you think of where to start a line or where to extend your existing line. Some areas of the map have more such stations than others. You really should think about these before you start a line, rather than only trying to maximise scoring on a turn by turn basis when the line is already started.

Another long term consideration, and this is a memory element, is remembering what destination cards have appeared and which have not. Every destination card is unique so if a destination has appeared, it will never appear again. So if you notice that many destinations in a certain area of the board have already come out, then it may not be wise to start a new line there, because the passenger will not be traveling to that area much in future.

I have only played On The Underground as 2 player games, where each player gets tracks of 4 colours, i.e. you can build 4 Underground lines. I think this game is more suitable for fewer players. 2-3 players is probably better than 4-5. You will have more control and you can plan your overall Underground network.

On The Underground is an enjoyable game for me. Not an all-time-classic type of game for me, but still a well designed game that provides challenge. A game that I'm happy to have in my collection, because, hey, it's got Elephant and Castle!

Monday 15 October 2007

Spending the Last Night On Earth in a Pirate's Cove

Two new games for me in the 6 Oct 2007 boardgame session, Last Night On Earth and Pirate's Cove. We played Last Night On Earth first, Han and I. We played the basic scenario, where the heroes (played by me) must try to kill 15 zombies before sunrise, and the zombies (played by Han) try to prevent this, or try to kill 2 heroes. There are four heroes, randomly chosen from a cast of characters. The map shows a town, with various buildings in roughly a square around the edges, and a big empty central field. The heroes start with nothing, and need to collect weapons or other equipment, and event cards, to help them on their mission. Cards are collected by searching buildings. On their turn, heroes can move (distance depends on a die roll) or search buildings, and can also shoot at zombies if they have guns. They must fight the zombies hand-to-hand if they are in the same space as the zombies. The zombies have event cards / special cards, and collect them every turn. At the start of their turn, the zombies may increase their numbers (depends on die roll). Zombies then move (slowly, just 1 step per turn) and try to surround and corner the heroes.

In our game, the heroes started a rather slowly. Not much luck at all with getting equipment. When I got guns, I either miss, or the guns run out of bullets quickly. Han had some handy event cards to play on my gun-toting heroes. My priest was brave and chose to use the power that faith gave him to fight the zombies, and unfortunately also died bravely pretty quickly. My other three heroes gathered at the school, also decided to risk it by staying there to fight the approaching zombies. They decided to stay to spend time searching the school grounds, hoping to get some good stuff before they got surrounded. Thankfully they did. So eventually they did manage to kill 15 zombies before dawn.

Last Night On Earth, The Zombie Game. This is the full name. Here the three survivors gradually get surrounded by zombies.

Han and I and the game board. The dice tower is not part of the game.

Last Night On Earth is pretty thematic and also quite simple. It does feel like experiencing a zombie movie. (Well, actually I haven't seen one.) Not really my type of game, since I'm usually not so interested in role-playing-games-like game / fantasy games. Since we only played the basic introductory scenario, I think the other more advanced scenarios are more fun. Also I think playing the heroes is more fun than playing the zombies.

After that, Michelle joined us to play Pirate's Cove (minimum 3 players required). This is published by Days Of Wonder (publisher of Ticket To Ride), and the quality of the components is top-notch. In this game, each player is the captain of a pirate ship, and compete to become the most famous (notorious?) pirate, by burying treasures, defeating other players in battle, defeating legendary pirates, etc. Each turn, every captain simultaneously and secretly decides an island to sail to. Each island provides certain opportunities, like upgrading your ship, burying your treasure, buying special ability cards. But if another captain has chosen to visit the same island, you'll have to fight it out to decide who can stay (and enjoy the benefits of the island) and who will be kicked to the "repair workshop" island. The legendary pirate(s) sails to the islands in a fixed order, so everyone knows where he will be going, and will have to decide whether to have to face him before being able to land on the desired island. So the legendary pirate is a deterrent, but if your ship is powerful enough, you may actually choose to face him and try to defeat him to win fame and glory.

In my game I started off pretty badly, getting involved in and losing a battle on the first turn. After that, my strategy was just to stay away from Michelle and Han and the legendary pirates (there are 2 legendary pirates in the game at any time, for a 3-player game), and try to win fame using less confrontational approaches, like accumulating and burying treasures. Unfortunately I tend to make bad guesses and keep ending up at the same islands as either Michelle or Han. Han did pretty well and was far ahead. However, Michelle got one very useful parrot (all respectful pirates should have one, eh?), which allowed her to carry unlimited cargo (treasures). (and don't ask me what's the logic) So she just happily accumulated a ton of treasures, and buried them all in the final round, scoring a massive amount of fame points, and won the game.

My ship. My cannons were completely damaged after a battle.

Michelle and Han. There are two legendary pirates (black ships). My green ship is already at the "repair workshop" island. The brown cubes are treasure chests.

The island in the foreground has a tavern, and you can buy tavern cards here (various useful cards). That face-up card in the centre shows rewards for the player who docks at this island. A new reward card is drawn every turn.

Pirate's Cove is enjoyable. It is a Eurogame, and has a great theme. Eurogames are often stereotyped to be thin on theme. One important aspect of the game is guessing the intentions of your opponents. Sometimes you may want to avoid battle because you are weaker. Sometimes you may want to look for a fight because you are strong (but I suspect this will be rarer, because I think people will choose where to go to based on the benefits / rewards available). There is some luck in the game, in the die rolls when you fight, in the special cards that you draw, and also in the rewards available at each island every round. I think Pirate's Cove is very good as a family game. Not difficult to learn, some luck in it, not-too-serious and very colourful atmosphere and theme.