Monday 26 May 2008

Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal, and more of Race

On Sat 24 May 2008, Han and I played Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal, the latest in the family of Axis & Allies boardgames. This is my 6th Axis & Allies game. I have Axis & Allies (Milton Bradley 1984 version), Axis & Allies: Europe, Axis & Allies: Pacific, Axis & Allies (Wizards of the Coast 2004 revised version), Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge and Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal. The only boardgame in the series that I didn't buy is Axis & Allies: D-Day. It seemed rather scripted and I didn't like the idea. I bought Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal in December 2007 (I probably received it in Jan 2008), and this was the first time I played it.

Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal is set in World War II, in the Solomon Islands, in the south western Pacific Ocean. Guadalcanal is one of the islands in the island group. When the game starts, the island group is controlled by the Japanese, except for Guadalcanal, which has just been captured by the Americans. There are some frightened Japanese soldiers stranded on Guadalcanal, holding on to some supplies, and cut off from friendly units. The other islands are mostly lightly defended by the Japanese, but they have an armada of ships ready to transport in reinforcements. The Americans of course also have a big navy ready to invade, and one obvious advantage is the number of bombers that they have. The fleets of both sides are more or less equal.

The objective of the game is to be the first to reach 15 victory points. This is done by controlling airfields (the game starts with 2 but more can be built), and sinking capital ships, i.e. battleships and aircraft carriers. If both players reach or exceed 15pts at the same time, then whoever scores more wins. If they are still tied, then they continue to play until the tie is broken.

Initial setup of Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal. The Americans have just invaded Guadalcanal. The bases of both sides are off the board and it takes one move to move onto the board.

The American base at New Caledonia. The Americans start with slightly more aircraft.

The Japanese base at Rabaul.

The Japanese pieces. Cruisers are the new units in the series. They are on the left column - the lower half. Among the ships in the game they are most easily confused with the destroyers (right column, below the aircraft carriers), so my rule of thumb to tell them apart is cruisers are pointy at both ends, and destroyers are pointy at one end, and flat at the other.

This is Guadalcanal. The poor remaining Japanese soldiers are surrounded and cut off from their countrymen.

A view from the east, and the game box.

I played the Americans while Han played the Japanese. Since the Americans only control 1 island at the start of the game, compared to 5 islands controlled by the Japanese, I had planned to capture 2 more islands on the first turn, to even the playing field. This is important because the number of reinforcement points received at the end of each turn depends on the number of islands you control. Unfortunately Han made a strong reinforcement to New Georgia (one of the islands closer to the American side of the board which I had originally intended to capture), so I had to settle with controlling 2 islands at end of turn 1 rather than take too big a risk.

Our game was probably not played in the best way, since we were both new to the game. Despite being part of the Axis & Allies series, Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal is quite different and warrants a new look at strategy. You need to pick up the tactics all over again and cannot simply re-use those from other games in the series. We had a lot of big exciting showdowns, with ships and planes all crowding into the same sea zone, and lots and lots of casualties. I'm not sure whether this was the "correct" way to play, but at least I can say it was thrilling and fun. In an early battle, I wiped out almost the entire Japanese air force. My American air force also suffered severe losses, but I had more to start with, and some of the bombers survived to continue to wreak havoc. I kept taking photos of our big showdowns, until I lost track of which was which. Each time I thought that was going to be the game-ending decisive battle, enough units survived to keep the game interesting and the victory in contention. It was an exciting game.

In the early game, we built airfields, since these were key to scoring victory points. I had considered building them on islands in the middle of the board, so that I save space on my side of the board for safer future builds. However eventually I decided it was too risky to build too near the enemy and I chose the more conservative locations. Our airfield building were mostly on par, keeping our scores the same up to end of turn 3. On turn 4, Han built an airfield on one of the more central islands, Santa Isabel, and was then ahead of me in victory points. On turn 5 I amassed a large group of transports and infantry and artillery, and captured Santa Isabel successfully. Han did not have enough troops and transports in position to defend against such a large invading army. Controlling one more airfield than Han at the end of turn 5 would have only brought our scores even, since he was ahead of me by 1 point in turn 4. It was the sea battles involving the capital ships that decided the outcome of the game. I made a blunder with my battleship movement, moving it towards a group of innocent looking transports carrying juicy land units. I later changed my mind about where to move my other ships, and left my precious battleship in enemy infested waters. The captain must have been cursing me and my ancestors. The lone battleship was soon swarmed by the Japanese cruisers and planes.

In an adjacent sea zone, where Han had 2 carriers and 1 battleship, another big showdown was ready to begin too. I only had one cruiser there, since my destroyers could not reach there in time. However I did manage to send in 3 bombers and 4 fighters, against Han's 2 fighters. Aaah... the flexibility of aircraft, and the convenience provided by the carriers. Indeed World War II was the time when big battleships started to become obsolete, and carriers became the focus of naval warfare (if I got my military history right).

In the first battle, my battleship actually almost survived. Battleships have strong hulls and in the game, they can ignore the first hit. This was what happened to my battleship. Most ships are also resilient, i.e. if they are hit by a die-roll of 2, they are damaged and go back to base, as opposed to being outright destroyed if they are hit by a die-roll of 1. For my battleship, it was Han's 8th and last die that was a 1, which outright destroyed my battleship. That was the first capital ship sunk in the game. Ouch. In the next battle in the adjacent sea zone, enough of my planes survived the flak and air combat to deal a heavy blow to the Imperial Japanese Navy. Plus I also had a stack of artillery firing free shots at them from New Georgia. The battleship was sunk, and one of the carriers too. This was the decisive game-ending blow. End of turn 5, USA 17, Japan 16. Victory points by turns: USA 2, 3, 3, 3, 4+2, Japan 2, 3, 3, 4, 3+1.

This was one of the earlier showdowns. Han lost all the planes committed to this battle. Very bloody battle indeed. I think I lost all my fighters and only had 2 or 3 bombers surviving.

One of the bigger land battles. I eventually captured New Georgia. Look at my big fleet of transports (those six ships with poles).

The two crucial final battles. The sea zone on the left was where my lone battleship was sunk. The sea zone in the centre was where I sunk one each of Han's battleships and carriers. Now that I have taken a closer look at this photo I realised Han has strategically placed anti aircraft guns at his airfields to defend against my potential bombing runs.

End of the game. I landed a large army at Santa Isabel and took control of it.

I really like Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal. If I were to try to summarise it with one word, the first word that comes to mind is "fluid". Maybe this is due to the contrast with other games in the Axis & Allies series (other more complex wargames may already have this characteristic, just that I have not played them). In Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal, there is no concept of pinning, i.e. if you are in the same area with enemies, or move into an area containing enemies, you are not forced to stay or stop. So you have to remember that you cannot pin down your enemy units, and also that your opponent cannot do the same to you. You cannot amass your units in one area, and then strike with all of them against an enemy group in an adjacent area. Your opponent can simply choose to disperse his units to avoid a head-to-head collision that is too risky for him. This is one big difference from previous games, and I quite like it. I guess this is more applicable to this arena and to a battle of this scale.

Another aspect that I like is how during a turn the players take turns to move a single type of units. The order is: transports, battleships, aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, submarines, bombers and fighters (land units can only be carried by transports and destroyers). In previous Axis & Allies games, mostly one player moves all units before the next player makes his move. By having these alternating turns to move different types of units, there is a very interesting balance of watching what your opponent is doing and responding to it, and also being forced to commit your strategy when you yourself have to move your units before your opponent does so again next. The start player (Japan first, and then it alternates every game turn) would have a slight disadvantage because of being forced to commit first, but since you only have to move one type of units at a time, it is not too bad a disadvantage. The order of moving units is also very thematic. Transports, which must move earliest, are slow and clumsy and most vulnerable. Battleships and carriers which move next are often the core of your fleets, and are usually the most difficult to hide from enemy recon aircraft. Submarines move after all other ships, because they are sneaky bastards.

Having played the game, I have a feeling that controlling airfields is not important just from a victory point perspective, but also from a practical perspective. Aircraft in this game is important, powerful and flexible. Making good use of your airfields (and carriers) is and should be an important part of the game. In our game, we didn't make use of them a lot, and mostly thought of them as sources of victory points. Maybe this is a side effect of playing too many Eurogames. If we had made better use of our airfields we could probably have improved our play. This is a skill to hone. Aircraft is important in this game. They are not very expensive, which is probably intentional, to encourage players to make use of them. The most important feature of aircraft is their flexibility. They move last compared to other units. Bombers can move 3 spaces, and fighters 2 spaces, as opposed to ships which all move 1 space. So after all the ships have moved, you can identify where the hot spots are, and allocate your aircraft accordingly. With that said, aircraft are not overpowered either. When combat is conducted, everyone fires at aircraft first, and casualties are removed before moving on to the sea attack step. So you need to make sure you bring enough planes, lest they all get shot down by flak and enemy aircraft. In this way, air units are vulnerable. It is also important to have enough fighters to protect your bombers. Fighters are good at aerial dogfights with enemy fighters and bombers, and thus are important in the air attack step. Bombers are effective against sea and land units (and bombing airfields), so hopefully enough of them survive the air attack to come to good use. The presence of fighters may also help to take hits which otherwise may hit the bombers. The combat resolution mechanism in the game is interesting, but I won't go into details. It is in a way similar to Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge, where casualties are usually not chosen by the side losing the units, like in other Axis & Allies games. I think it's clever, thematic, and probably more realistic too.

Because of the combat resolution mechanism, one should bring along cheap destroyers with any fleet whenever possible. Often they are the ones that get hit first. They "take one for the team". In contrast, transports are the most protected ships in a fleet with multiple ship types. That makes sense too, since in this game they carry valuable "cargo", the land units and the supplies needed to fight for control of the islands and build and repair airfields. Transports are no longer the cannon fodder often used in other Axis & Allies games. In fact sometimes I wished they could help more in taking some hits since in our game I had more than enough of them. I don't think I lost a single transport throughout the whole game. I guess they had been scurrying in the safe back alley and they stayed far away from the hot spots.

Capital ships are actually not that easy to sink. Battleships ignore the first hit. Both battleships and carriers are damaged instead of destroyed if hit by a 2 (destroyed by 1). And because of the combat resolution mechanism, sometimes destroyers and cruisers take hits for them, especially considering you usually won't leave a capital ship unprotected (well, what I did in our game was not the best example...).

Another interesting aspect of the game is forward deployment. When building new units at your base, you can spend supply tokens to directly deploy them onto the board, instead of having to move them from your base to the board on the next turn. This can be important to get your troops out there to the hot spots quickly. It is not exactly cheap to do so, but sometimes it is worth it. I used this quite a few times in our game. I think Han used this less. One thing that neither of us did at all was trying to damage airfields. We did have the opportunity to do so, but we never got around to actually doing it. Maybe we didn't plan for it and thus didn't have enough units in position to have a reasonable chance of success, so we didn't risk it. Maybe we should have made a more concerted effort to bomb enemy airfields. I have a feeling this is an important thing to do to play this game well. Denying your opponent one victory point can be the difference between winning and losing.

Two other interesting features are multiple attacks and free shots. Since combats are divided into 3 steps, air, sea and land, units which can attack in all three steps (e.g. aircraft, battleships) are, in a way, better value for money than those which can only attack in one step (e.g. infantry, submarine). But of course this is assuming they survive to the next step. Free shots are when battleships and cruisers do shore bombardment, and when artillery fire at ships in adjacent sea zones. I'm not too sure how realistic the latter is, but anyway this free shot thing is an interesting consideration in the game, about where to position your battleships and cruisers to take advantage of it, and whether to buy and where to place artillery to take advantage of it.

All in all, I find Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal quite different from previous games in the family, and quite a good game too. Definitely a good purchase. It seems with the latest two Axis & Allies games (the other one being Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge), Larry Harris, the designer, was trying to make games quite different from the base game, and I like the result so far. The next game in the series is a deluxe anniversary edition of the world wide arena game, i.e. we are back to the world map. I wonder whether there will be many new innovations. I suspect there won't be too many. This one will have Italy as the sixth playable country. That should be interesting. I have already decided to buy this. I'm a fan.

We have been playing more of Race for the Galaxy. When Han is here, and also as 2-player games with Michelle. All 3 of us like this a lot. So many interesting decisions in so short a time. I have played 18 games now. This is nothing compared to those who have played hundreds of games, but I am quite sure I will hit 100 games one day. I have played San Juan 58 times. The only other games that I have played more than 100 times are Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, Carcassonne (not counting the variations like The Castle, The City, Hunters and Gatherers etc, but counting expansions to the base game like Inns & Cathedrals), and Ticket To Ride (not counting independent standalones like TTR Europe, TTR Marklin and TTR Switzerland, but counting TTR USA 1910). Even Michelle is keen about the 2 upcoming Race for the Galaxy expansions.

This was a game of Race for the Galaxy with Han and Michelle. This is about as pure a military strategy as one can get. My cards have no powers other than military - all the red circles next to "III" (except Alien Tech Institute also has a black -2 for peaceful settling). This was how I finished the game, with 23 points and only 8 cards. Han and Michelle both had 12 cards. However I didn't do too badly. Their scores were 25, and Han won by having 1 more card in hand than Michelle.

Monday 12 May 2008


R-Eco is my latest home-made game. It is a simple card game, and I decided to self-make it because it sounds interesting, and because Michelle prefers card games (due to shorter length). Also recycling and the environment is something Michelle cares about.

R-Eco is very simple. Every turn you deliver (sorted) garbage to one of the four recycling plants, and then pick up all the (unsorted) garbage from the dump site of that plant. When a plant gets four or more pieces of garbage (of the same type, of course, since each plant can only process one type of garbage), it will process them, and if you are the one delivering enough garbage to allow the plant to start processing, you earn a victory point chip.

Your hand size is 5, representing the size of your garbage truck. If by picking up garbage you exceed your hand limit, you will be forced to dump garbage illegally. Each garbage card that you are forced to dump gives you -1 victory point. However if you can avoid illegal dumping completely, you will be awarded a bonus. The game ends when one recycling plant runs out of victory point chips.

I have played 4 games with Michelle, and find this a rather clever card game, despite the simplicity. It is also quite thematic, to me. This game is designed by a Japanese, and I think the Japanese are very responsible and civic-conscious in sorting and recycling their garbage. In this game, to avoid illegal dumping is actually not that easy (at least for 2-player games, which is the only player count that I have experienced). There are ways to play that will make it difficult for your opponent not to dump illegally. Trying not to dump and trying to dump as little as possible is an interesting challenge.

Another clever thing is you can actually know what cards your opponents have, if you are willing to spend the effort. Players only get cards into their hands from the (face-up) dump sites of the recycling plants. You don't draw cards blind from the draw deck. So if you really want to, you can card-count. If you prefer to spend less effort, you can still roughly remember what cards your opponents have recently taken. Looking at what cards you will take by delivering garbage to the plants is important. This is a planning element. There is also a "chicken" element. Since only the player delivering the piece of garbage that gives a plant critical mass will be rewarded, usually you try to avoid setting up your opponent to deliver that crucial piece of garbage.

Yet another clever element is the -2 chip. Instead of simply increasing in value, there is a chip with a penalty among the stacks of victory chips. This can mess up your plan, and this gives the game yet another interesting twist.

There is yet another twist. (Hmmm... I seem to be contradicting myself, but honestly this is a simple game) If you only have one chip of a colour, that chip doesn't count. There can be two extremes for this. If you have a single -2, it doesn't count, and you're good. You don't mind picking up the -2. If you only have a single 5, then it is of no use to you. Probably the only good thing you get out of it is you end the game immediately by exhausting the victory point chips of one recycling plant. Timing is also important. Since the game ends when one plant is out of chips, manipulating the timing of the end game is also one thing to consider.

Michelle is the conservative type when playing R-Eco, and tries to avoid illegal dumping. In 2 player games there is a big bonus for not dumping - four points.

The cards and the victory point chips. For the cards I found the icons on the net and I coloured them by hand. For the chips I just drew directly on cardboard paper.

A game in progress. The upper half is where the sorted garbage is delivered, and the bottom half are the dump sites of the recycling plants, where the players would collect cards. The dump sites of the plants are refilled based on the number of garbage pieces at the plant plus one. The card backs are, naturally, the triangular recycling icon.

Close-up of the blue (glass bottles) recycling plant. Factory icon on one side, garbage bin icon on the other.

R-Eco is a simple game, with few components and few rules. It plays quick. Each turn is very simple. Yet within this small unassuming package, there are quite a number of clever and interesting twists. I find this a very well designed game. Very Euro, and I'd even say Knizia-like - concise and "a-game-should-be-as-simple-as-it-can-be-and-no-simpler". My salute to the designer Susumu Kawasaki.

This game is well worth the effort of self-making it. Michelle and I call this the "recycle game".

Sunday 11 May 2008

Through the Ages again, and Thebes too

On Sat 10 May 2008 I played my 3rd game of Through the Ages, and this time was the first time I played a 3-player game (with Han and Chee Seng). The previous 2 games were 2-player games. We played the Advanced Game (i.e. medium length), since it was Chee Seng's first time. One of the main changes adding a 3rd player is the Pact cards. As a political action, players can offer a pact to another player. They have different effects, some mutually beneficial (but not necessary in the same way), some are give-and-take (i.e. usually the weaker paying tribute to the stronger). However in our game no Pacts were even proposed. I guess there were no suitable ones, or those who drew them decided there are other better cards to use (I didn't even draw any).

After my third game, I still like it a lot. Well, this is the first time playing using my copy of the game (previous games were using Han's), so I'm at USD70 per game played. Hope this will drop by much more soon. The price of this game is fixed by the publisher / distributor, so no big discount from the online retailers, and the recommended retail price is much higher than average to start with.

After this 3rd game, I find I prefer the Full Game over the Advanced Game. I feel that's the intended way to play, and the game works best in this form. One thing I do like about the Advanced Game (which is not present in the Full Game) is the four Age III events drawn randomly and shown to all at the start of the game. These events give bonus points at game end, depending on various criteria, and because they are known from the start of the game, the players can plan for them. This is less random that the Full Game where event cards, as per the normal rule, are drawn by the players and are planted into the future event deck without other players knowing what they are.

However, in other aspects and overall I prefer the Full Game. In the Advanced Game some leaders and wonders are a little pointless because you don't have Age III to continue to make use of them. I feel that the game should really be played to the end of Age III to be complete. Playing to end of Age II feels like watching two thirds of a movie, and then you fast forward to the ending. Not satisfying enough. I want to see my upgraded mines produce more and gradually give me an edge over my opponents. I want to see my strong science lead me to a better position. I need to change government. I want to see the good foundation and infrastructure that I have built bear fruit. I think the Return On Investment would have been more if I had played through Age III.

In the early game of Through the Ages, Han and Chee Seng pondering over which cards to pick.

The central board where the cards are displayed, and the various scores and statistics are tracked.

In our game, Chee Seng was the wonder boy. He built lots of wonders. But his production was rather inefficient. Still on his basic mines and farms by game end. Han was the military strongman, maintaining his lead throughout the game, and gaining much benefit from it. Thankfully he didn't draw any aggression cards, so couldn't attack Chee Seng or me, else we'd be suffering a lot. However he did make use of a lot of the event cards. Playing them into the future event deck earned him points, and often when the events later occurred, he also benefited from them due to being the strongest. I mostly worked on efficiency and urban buildings, and science too. I think I had the most urban buildings.

In this game we had many more new colonies than our previous two. I think we had 5 during the game. At game end, there were 2 or 3 more buried in the future event deck. However only one of these were contested because the other ones would not have made a difference to the scores. There was one very good colony that gave 11 culture points (i.e. victory points), which Han won because of his military might. Colonies make the military aspect interesting, similar to some of the events, so I think even if I play the no-aggression variant with Michelle (no aggression cards or war cards in the game), the military development will still be important and meaningful. I feel the military aspect of the game should not be dropped. It makes things more interesting. By keeping the events and the colonies, military will still be important and you can avoid direct confrontation. Well, being desperate to convince Michelle to play Through the Ages with me (she hasn't played this yet, but seem to be open minded about playing it), when she usually does not like long games or confrontational games, I better not have any direct confrontation if I want her to play this a second time. The military aspect is very intertwined with other aspects of the game, e.g. leaders and wonders with military abilities, and is not an independent module that you can leave out without breaking the game.

In the end, our scores were Han 100, me 99, Chee Seng 83. It was a close game and our scores were mostly quite close during the game (at least until Han conquered the 11 culture point colony). It was a nail-biting finish when we counted the bonus scores from the four Age III event cards. Although Han was leading, he did not do as well as us in the areas that were required by these cards. And I lost by one point! I won by one point in our first game. Exciting game!

After Through the Ages, Han had to go. I taught Chee Seng Thebes. So basically we went digging up the artefacts left behind by our civilisations from Through the Ages. It was his first time playing, and he seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. I do find Thebes quite a fun game, despite the luck factor. In this game I won by one point, 92 to 91.

Chee Seng preparing to start digging for artefacts in Thebes.

The beautiful game board of Thebes.

I dug and dug, and got lots of sand. Well, to be fair, many artefacts have been discovered at this site and there weren't that many left. But still, it's painful when you spend so much time and get a result like this.

Friday 9 May 2008

Power Grid Plant Deck 2, En Garde

En Garde is a very short and simple game (called a filler in the boardgame hobby), which I home-made. It is a purely 2-player game about fencing. You have a hand of 5 cards, and you use the cards to (a) move, (b) attack, and (c) defend if attacked. There are only 25 cards in the deck, 5 cards each for numbers 1 to 5, so it is easy to cardcount. The numbers tell you many steps you can move. If your opponent is at a certain distance away from you, you can play one or more of that numbered card to attack. To defend, your opponent will need to play the same number of cards of that number. So that means if you can attack with three cards, you will surely win, because there are only 5 cards of each number in the game.

My home-made En Garde board. I use cheap Go (围棋) pieces as player and score markers.

I find the game quite clever and fun, despite being so simple. I think it can be a little shorter. In a game there are multiple fights, and the first to win 5 fights wins the overall game. Instead of 5 fights, maybe play to 3 or 4 fights. Otherwise things may start to feel a little repetitive. I wouldn't play En Garde twice in a row. However there has been quite a few times, including our most recent game, when I had come-from-behind wins, catching up from 4:1 or 4:0. So if we had played to less than 5 fights won I would have lost those games.

Overall I think fillers don't get much respect among hardcore gamers. That sounds a bit sad, but I guess that's just a fact. Hardcore gamers don't plan game sessions around fillers. Fillers are just that - fillers, short games that you play when waiting for others to arrive, or in between two long games so that your brain can take a break, or as the first or last game of the day to warm-up / warm-down. So, fillers will probably always be "supporting cast" or Pedestrian A (路人甲).

Power Grid is one of my favourite games and I own both the map expansions, France/Italy and Benelux/Central Europe. I had to take out the box insert to be able to fit everything into the same box. And now that Power Grid box is rather heavy. Naturally, when I heard about the power plant deck expansion, I decided to buy it.

Power Grid Plant Deck 2 is a small package. It's basically just a deck of cards. At first I had thought you just swap the old deck with the new one and play, but it turns out that this is just one of the ways to play using the new deck. There are a few other variants, like mixing the decks, or just using some of the big plants from the new deck. So far I have only played this once, and only using the basic variant.

The original Power Grid box, compared to the Power Grid Plant Deck 2 expansion box. Of course now I put the expansion in the original box too.

The new power plants have a dark green edge.

My power plants. On the bottom left, the old and new payout cards, and on the right the box for the expansion.

The big plants. They are not used in the basic variant.

Michelle the energy tycoon. She beat me in this game too! She almost used up her money to connect to 21 cities to force a quicker end to the game. Although I had better plant capacity than her, I didn't have enough money to connect to enough cities. Her capacity was 19. My capacity was 20, but I could only afford to connect to 18 cities. Ouch.

And what do I think of it? Well, the plants are a bit more efficient than the older ones. However it doesn't change the game a lot. Power Grid is still Power Grid. So I think this expansion is something suitable for the fans who want more variety. And actully I feel the same about the other two map expansions. They have some minor rule changes, but nothing dramatic. So, not really necessary for those who don't plan to play a lot of Power Grid.


I'm a fan. So that justifies buying all of them.

Thursday 8 May 2008

more Through the Ages & Race for the Galaxy

Through the Ages and Race for the Galaxy are my two latest game purchases, both of which I decided to buy immediately after I played them. And I'm thankful I made that decision quickly, because when Han helped me to buy them, he found that they were the second last and last copy in stock respectively. Here are some more thoughts after playing these two games a few more times.

I read through the rules of Through the Ages myself. Previously Han taught me. I found there were a few rules which I wasn't aware of. Most are small details though. After having played two games, an Advanced Game (medium length) and a Full Game (longest version), Han and I also discovered that we made some rule mistakes. Thankfully those mistakes did not spoil our overall experience. I really like Through the Ages.

One thing that I feel when reading the rules is that this is a game that probably should be taught and played at the same time. There are quite many rules, and it is difficult to remember them all without putting them into practice. So, I think the right way to teach the game is just to set it up and start playing. It is much easier to teach and explain when all the components are set up. Also since most items (except the military cards) are open information, this makes teaching along with playing easier.

In our second game (2 player, Full Game), Han and I used almost the opposite strategy from our first game. This time I invested a bit in military, while he decided not to bother. He stayed a despot till the modern age, using technologies / wonders to give himself more civil and military actions, but I changed government to a republic. He started focusing on wonders and culture earlier that I did, while I focused on science earlier. Han suffered quite a bit because of neglecting military. I robbed him and burned his buildings quite a few times. Evil deeds indeed. Probably in the Full Game it is not a good idea to do neglect military, because there is more time for you to be bullied by stronger opponents. In our previous (shorter) Advanced Game I ignored military but still did OK, probably because the game was shorter and the damage done didn't add up to too much.

In this game I worked hard on science. One of the early wonders I built was the Library of Alexandria. I had plenty of science, and could even afford to change government peacefully without any bloodshed (to change your form of government you need to spend science; there are two price tags, the lower one means you get a revolution and you lose one whole turn, the higher one means you have a peaceful transition with only spend one civil action). In contrast, I kept burning down Han's labs (or libraries?), which didn't help his scientific growth at all.

My second time playing Through the Ages. It was Age III now, but I was still a despot. I later changed to a republic. My leader was now Albert Einstein - good for science obviously. My people were well entertained. My "happy face" level was at 7 (red cube on my board).

From left to right: My farms (I have invented selective breeding but have not built or upgraded a farm to make use of this technology), my warriors (similarly I have not retrained them to become swordsmen), my leader the genius and my two wonders.

Now that we have played Age III (only played in the Full Game and not the Advanced Game), I find that there are two aspects of the game that may be a bit unbalanced. I looked up BoardGameGeek and apparently there are people who feel the same. The first item is the Age III wonders, in particular the fast food franchise, which gives culture points depending on your number of urban buildings, mines, farms and military units. I built it, and it gave me a crazy 24 culture points! I'm concerned whether this is too big a swing. The other item is the Age III event cards. These event cards reward players based on different criteria, e.g. science, population, military units, etc, and if you are lucky to draw one that suits you and plant it into the future events deck, then you can score big time. I guess these possible big scoring opportunities allow for some uncertainty and excitement at the end game. But there is also the risk of a player doing relatively well throughout the game, and then losing the game because of bad luck with these two things near the end of the game. I'm not sure how big the swings can really be. Maybe it really is not that big. Maybe if you have been doing well throughout the game, you would be better positioned to take advantage of these wonders and event cards in the first place.

On the top right, the start player card and a red military action token. Here I was halfway building my fast food chains "wonder" (the blue tokens mark the progress). I wonder why that's a wonder.

One thing that I find is that in Through the Ages you really need to balance your 5 resource types. Technically there are only two resource types in the game, stone and food. But I also consider these your resources: population, civil/military actions, and science. You cannot afford to fall behind in any of these, because if you do, that resource will be your bottleneck. Your other resources will become useless, or you won't be able to use them optimally. If I am rich in resources (as in stone and food), but do not have enough civil actions to do all the things that I want to do with them, then I'm wasting my resources. If I have lots of civil actions and stones, but I do not have idle workers to be converted into military units or buildings (or mines or farms), then I am wasting. And of course if I don't have knowledge, I will be stuck using inefficient ancient age technologies. This feels like the scoring system in Euphrates & Tigris and Ingenious. It doesn't matter if you have a lot of one resource. It is your poorest resource that will hold you back.

Another thing that I wonder about the way we played is we have little military build-up, few events planted into the future event deck, and few territories to be conquered. There was some effort spent on military, but that was rather minimal, probably because in both our games one player basically decided to give up on military, so there was no arms race. There were few events planted into the event deck too. I wonder whether this is the same for other players / groups. In our two games, there was only one territory that was ever planted into the event deck. I wonder whether this is because ours were 2-player games, and whether with 3 or 4-player games there will be more events / territories. I suspect we were a bit conservative in planting events into the event deck compared to other groups, and this was probably because we were wary of whether the events will end up benefiting our opponents more than ourselves.

I still like Through the Ages a lot after 2 plays. I hope to be able to play this with Michelle. Long games are not her thing, but she was intrigued by the game when she saw Han and I playing it. But I think in her first game I probably should play the no-aggression variant.

After a few more games of Race for the Galaxy, I continue to like the variety in the game. By now I think I have seen every card in the game, but I definitely have not used all of them. I still find that I rarely get stuck with a completely useless hand of cards, and this is one thing I quite like about the game. I also continue to feel that this is a game about focus, quite different from Through the Ages which is about balanced development of your civilisation. In Race for the Galaxy, you really should have a coherent and focused strategy, and not waste time or resources dabbling in many different things. It's about specialisation.

I also find that the games move quicker than we realise, probably because we are so engrossed in it. Often we are surprised when realising that we have reached 10 or 11 cards (game ends when one player has 12 or more cards), because we still feel that we are in the middle of the game, having still quite a number of cards in our hand that we have planned to play, but cannot, now that the game end is approaching. And this is fantastic! It is a great feeling being so absorbed in a game. I still find Race for the Galaxy very interesting and have no doubt I will play much more of it, especially since Michelle likes it too. And she is winning more than a fair share of the games. This may turn out to be another San Juan, i.e. a game that she'll tend to do better at than me.

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Michelle's blacklist and goodlist

I am lucky to have a wife who enjoys boardgames (and card games) and plays with me. Michelle is not crazy like I am about games. She doesn't surf boardgame websites or research games or buy games or organise boardgame sessions. She just plays. Since she is not really a boardgame geek like I am, she is at a disadvantage when playing games with me. I am the one who reads the rules, reads about the games (although I don't really read many strategy articles), and of course I play more than she does. Naturally, my win rate is higher than hers, especially when it's her first time playing a game. She blacklists some games, and refuses to play them. Some because the initial few losses were too painful experiences, and some for other reasons.

I think the first game ever that earned a place on her blacklist is Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation. She actually played a number of games of this with me, and I remember she won most of the early games. However later she found it just too stressful, even if she played the dark side (supposedly easier). Well, maybe I can consider Samurai Swords as an even earlier entry. This game gave her nightmares about ashigaru spearmen chasing her. I played this with her before I discovered Eurogames. She played with me because she knew I liked the game and rarely had the opportunity to play it. Now that I have so many other games, she probably wouldn't want to play this anymore. In the Year of the Dragon and Blue Moon are two other games in her blacklist. She says she is jinxed with games with dragons. Blue Moon City used to be on the list too but is now off the list. In the Year of the Dragon is a brutal game. Bad things happen to you, and you are more trying to survive than trying to score points. No wonder it left a bitter taste in her mouth. Many gamers don't like it because of the same reason, although I quite like it. Blue Moon was a painful experience for her because the rules were not very clear to her, in particular the end game conditions and some small rules for special situations. In hindsight, I probably taught the game rather hurriedly, thinking that the basic rules were actually quite simple, and the complexity lay in the cards themselves, which you'd have to appreciate by actually playing. She kept losing at Blue Moon, and often because of some rule that wasn't clear to her. So now Blue Moon is on her blacklist. I had hoped she would like it, because it is a card game, which she normally prefers because of the shorter length, and I was hoping to play with her all the different combinations with the 6 different Blue Moon decks that I had bought. Looks like now they will idle for quite some time.

Michelle decided to give Blue Moon City another chance, trying to learn the tricks that I have used to beat her in the past. She still lost, but she is doing much better now.

Cards from Blue Moon City. The character artwork is taken from the earlier Blue Moon game, which is a card game.

The half built city (completed buildings are the colourful ones), and all dragons are in town.

This is like Hong Kong. Not enough space.

Unfamiliarity with the rules is a big disadvantage for Michelle when playing against me. Since she is taught the rules and does not read them herself, there will bound to be some intricacies that are lost in translation, or strategies / ideas not so visible to her. Also she does not play as often as I do, so sometimes even when we play a game that she has played before, she would have forgetten some of the rules, or strategies. E.g. we recently played China, and although she has played this before, she had forgetten the rule about the limit for emissaries in a region, and the rule for scoring emissaries. It may be some time before we bring out China again. By then, she may have forgetten some rule again. So, her disadvantage is she sometimes never get around to remembering the rules well, because she doesn't play the games that often.

A recent 3-player game of China with Han and Michelle. Han's well connected emissaries won him the game splendidly.

Michelle has a blacklist, but she also has a list of games that she tends to do better than me at. These are mysteries. There just seems to be something about these games that she gets and I don't. Maybe it is her accountant / auditor training. Maybe there is just some crucial strategy that I don't get. Maybe the card god doesn't like me. The games are, in order of severity, Ticket To Ride: Switzerland (which I recently wrote about), Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld, and San Juan. And I have a feeling that the next game that will enter this list is Race for the Galaxy.

I don't mind playing with Michelle games that I know I will more often than not lose. At least I get to play a game. Now the question is, what should I do to entice her to get back into Blue Moon?

Saturday 3 May 2008

Race for the Galaxy

By now I have played 4 games of Race for the Galaxy, on Fri 25 Apr 2008 (one 2-player game) and Sat 26 Apr 2008 (three 3-player games). This is one of the recent hot games in the boardgame hobby, so I have read a lot of reviews, about what people like and don't like. So I have a pretty good idea of what to expect. Of course since the rules are available online, I have read them, and have even made a concise reference sheet for the game.

Race for the Galaxy is a card game, inspired by the currently still #1 game at BoardGameGeek, Puerto Rico. When I read the rules, I found it to be rather similar to San Juan, which is the Puerto Rico card game, by the same designer, Andreas Seyfarth. Race for the Galaxy is designed by Tom Lehmann.

In Race for the Galaxy, each round has 5 phases, but not all phases will be executed every round. It depends on what phase the players simultaneously and secretly decide to have. "Simultaneously and secretly" is one of the key differences from Puerto Rico and San Juan, where players take turn to select roles, and those already selected by another player cannot be selected again in the same round. The 5 phases are Explore (draw two cards and select one, i.e. San Juan's Prospector), Develop (develop a new technology), Settle (peacefully settle a planet or forcefully conquer it), Consume (convert goods to victory point chips and cards) and Produce (all productive planets produce goods). If the players all choose the same phase, then only one phase will occur that round. If they all choose different phases, then more phases will occur. Everyone gets to participate in all phases that occur, but those who chose a particular phase enjoy some bonuses, just like in Puerto Rico and San Juan.

You gain victory points in three major ways - (i) via the Consume phase, where you'll collect victory point chips during the game, (ii) from the cards that you have played, i.e. your scientific developments and planets, and (iii) from the special powers of your cards. The game ends in two possible ways, either when the victory point chips are exhausted or when a player has played 12 or more cards. So timing the game end in Race for the Galaxy is an important aspect. Sometimes you want to drag it on, sometimes to speed it up, depending on your strategy and your opponents'.

The cards were a little overwhelming at first. There is a very big variety of cards in the game. Very few cards repeat. The icons on the cards were also a bit overwhelming at first, but I soon found that the iconology is very good. Once you get familiar with them, they are very useful and easy to read at a glance. It is quite amazing that every card power can be expressed through icons. It is like the designer invented a language. But of course there are some powers that are so unique that you will have to read the text description. They do have icons too though, but you'd basically have to memorise the icons and remember what they mean, kind of like some complex Chinese characters. Most cards do not have text. And for some that do, I feel they are not really necessary. The icons were good enough for me.

Anyway, back to the variety of cards. I quite like the variety and the many possibilities offered. Depending on your strategy, the number of cards in the deck useful to you will differ. However I find that usually there will be some cards that you can use. I rarely get a feeling of having a whole bunch of useless cards. Usually at least some will be useful. Despite the great variety of cards, I find that the number of distinctly different strategies is the game is actually not that many. This is not a complaint. Just an observation and a supporting point that the game is not very complex to learn. There is a development strategy, where you focus on developments. There is a settle strategy where you try to settle many worlds. There is a military strategy where you try to build up your strength and go a-conquering. With the produce/consume strategy you produce lots of goods and consume them to earn victory points. One of the keys in any strategy seems to be focus. You need to focus on doing something well, and make use of that strength. Being diversified does not seem to be a good idea in this game.

The other important is trying to make use of the actions / phases chosen by your opponents. This is what many fans of the game say. You need to watch and guess what your opponents will do, and try to make use of that. If you know that they will Settle, which you need to do too, then maybe you can choose to Produce, which may be another that you want to do too. Of course, on the other hand you also want to try to avoid being taken advantage of this way by your opponents. This is a bit of double-guessing, which I usually don't like in games, but I like it here. Maybe the reason is if you don't want to bother watching your opponent and want to just happily build your own space empire, you can. (just that your win rate will probably be lower than a player who does watch his/her opponents) Also sometimes when you are desperate enough for an action, then you probably should choose it yourself instead of hoping that someone else will.

In our game I kept saying thoughtfully "Now I know what I'm going to do" (我知道我要做什么了), taunting Han and Michelle that I had guessed what they were going to do and I'd take advantage of their actions. Later even Michelle started saying that. Sometimes we also had a mini side race of being the first player to choose actions. We'd tease the last player, usually the one who had just gotten a full hand of cards from the Trading/Consume phase of the previous round.

The variety of cards in Race for the Galaxy.

From top to bottom, the victory point chips, the back of the chosen action card, and the four measly planets that I have played. Obviously I'm focusing on the blue good (but I don't remember what it is).

Michelle and Han.

In this game I was obviously going for the military strategy. I started with two military power cards, and soon drew a 3rd one. These 3 cards gave me a military power of 6, i.e. enough to conquer almost all military worlds in the deck. So there was no doubt that I should go for the military approach in this game.

It's difficult not to compare Race for the Galaxy with San Juan, both being card games inspired by Puerto Rico. I like San Juan and have played a lot of it. Now that I have played a few games of Race for the Galaxy, I think I will like it more, and probably will always prefer it over San Juan. I like the larger variety of cards, and it seems to me that in Race for the Galaxy there are more options, or rather I would less frequently feel helpless with the cards that I get. I feel there is more flexibility.

I do see that sometimes one may feel helpless in trying to stop or hinder an opponent in Race for the Galaxy. You can't really do something to directly stop an opponent about to win. I am fine with this and have accepted this. I guess this is indeed a race. You try to take advantage of actions chosen by your opponents, and try to avoid being taken advantage of, but there really is not much you can do to hold back your opponent. Well, maybe except when you force your opponent to consume an alien good (the most expensive type of good in the game, which your opponent could have sold for a lot of "money", i.e. cards), which is equivalent to shipping your opponent's coffee in Puerto Rico.

Michelle seems to like Race for the Galaxy (she often beats me at San Juan). I have ordered it now, and I look forward to play many more of it.

Thursday 1 May 2008


On Fri 25 Apr 2008 Han and I also played Starcraft: the boardgame (as if with that box size it could be mistaken to be a PC game - it's huge!). The rules are available online so I downloaded and read them beforehand. It didn't seem too complex.

The first thing I thought of when the box was opened was "no wonder they needed that big a box". There are a lot of game pieces. The units in the game are very nice. There is a lot of variety. Starcraft is a multiplayer conflict game where you start with small forces, then you build up your army - developing technology, constructing buildings and modules, building new units, and then go around beating up your opponents (mostly). You need to compete for resources (crystals and gas), because these are needed for building up your army. There are three different races in the game, and there are two factions for each race, and all 6 of them have different characteristics. The Zergs breed fast and are low tech but they can swarm you. The Protoss are high tech folks which tend to be more defensive. The Terrans are humans, and that's all that I know since we didn't play the Terrans.

The objective of the game is to be the first to reach 15 conquest points, which are earned by controlling areas worth conquest points. If time runs out (there is a timer mechanism), the winner is the one with the most conquest points. Each faction has a different special victory condition too which its opponents need to be wary of. And lastly, of course you win if you kill off everyone else.

In our game, I played the Zergs (because they are green and green is my colour) and Han the Protoss. I started off already with an aggressive strategy in mind, since this seemed to be most suitable for the Zergs. I quickly land-grabbed and built units to go on the offensive. However I later realised that the Zerg units sucked. OK, maybe I should say I didn't use them well. A good leader should not put the blame on his/her subordinates. Anyway, my insects (that's what they looked like to me) got killed easily, and rarely caused much damage. The Protoss seemed to be quite robust. Soon the tide turned and Han started coming after me with a vengence. The Zergs were losing on multiple fronts. The only hope was to try to reach 15 conquest points before getting completely wiped out, or before the Protoss achieved its special victory condition of controlling more areas that any other faction. Thankfully I started with my base on a 2 conquest point area, and I conquered one of Han's 1 conquest point area earlier. That helped me to race ahead on the conquest point track. So it was a race against time for me.

Han attacked my home base, and defeated my army. Oops. 2 conquest point area lost. In my last ditch attempt I attacked his home base, which only had one defender because the other units had come over to my planet to kick me out. I could only mobilise a Zergling (the most basic grunt) and a Queen (which is just a supporting unit, nothing like the queen in chess). My Zergling was killed, and it didn't even scratch the Protoss what's-his-name-again unit. However, lucky lucky me had a nasty card up my sleeve (combat is resolved by card play; no dice), which allowed my Queen to kill the Protoss unit. I captured one more conquest point, and that allowed me to win, at exactly 15 conquest points. Else by the next round I would definitely have lost. It would have been the start of the 3rd Stage (when special victory conditions become applicable), and Han would have won via his special victory condition.

The personal player mat for the Zergs. This keeps track of how many workers (a.k.a. resource collectors) you have, in the top right corner, the buildings (the trapezoids) and modules (the 3 squares near the lower left) that you have built, and also reminds you of your special victory condition (the text on top). There are 3 types of buildings, and each can be upgraded up to twice. You start the game with one building already built.

The yellow Protoss units are so cool. They look very high-tech, and they are. But they are more expensive to build. My blurred green Zerg unit in the foreground is cowling in fear. The square yellow piece is a Protoss base. The hexagonal pieces are order tokens. You can place four order tokens every round. They are placed on planets, and allow you to move troops to / on this planet, build units and/or buildings, and research technology.

Three Zerg units. The ones on the transparent stands are flying units. Actually I made a big mistake. I wasn't supposed to be able to build these units yet. I made a mistake with my building. I couldn't tell the units apart very well.

Han choosing his combat cards for a battle.

Our universe was a long boring one. The two planets are both ends are actually adjacent, represented by the yellow cresents (unfortunately both are half obscured in this photo).

Another close-up of the units, which I find are very nice. The Protoss had taken over the Zerg home base. The remaining Zergling couldn't do anything except scowl at them.

After playing Starcraft, I found it to be rather so-so. There is definitely a lot of theme, but I found it rather tedious. The card based combat system seemed straight-forward enough when I read the rules, but during the game I found it to be rather tedious. So much text to read on the cards, and so many different unit types, flying vs ground units, etc to think about. Maybe if I get familiar with it it'll be easier, or if I'm very familiar with the Starcraft world it will be easier. From my first play, I thought it was a little tedious. From the rules, it seemed there were some original and interesting ideas, like attacker can bring more units than defender thus encouraging aggressive play, but after playing it, the game seemed to be nothing very special. So, probably this is a game best for people who are already fans of the Starcraft universe.