Tuesday 24 June 2008

2008 favourites

Since getting into the boardgame hobby at end of 2003, I have never really thought about what my favourite games were each year. I have read other gamers writing about their favourites each year, and I enjoyed it. However I have never thought about my own favourite games for any particular year. For 2008, it occurred to me that I already have 2 favourites. Of course this may change, since we are only in June now, but this is the first time I have this feeling about favourtes. My criteria for qualifying as a "2008" game is quite loose. Not by published date. Not really by purchase date either, or first time played, but first time played is probably the closest thing to what I can call a criteria. My 2 favourite games are Through the Ages and Race for the Galaxy. Ticket To Ride: Switzerland would be third.

So far Race for the Galaxy is my most played game in 2008. Almost hitting 50 plays now. I have played Through the Ages 7 times, and that's a lot of time considering this is a long game. Han, Michelle and I played a Full Game of Through the Ages last weekend, without the non-aggression variant that Michelle and I use. I learned a few more rules mistakes that I have made (even after having played 6 games - I guess once you have assumed that's the right way to play, you don't really read the rules again and won't realise you've been playing wrong). Firstly, when sacrificing your soldiers in battle to double their strength, you lose those yellow tokens permanently. You don't return them to your yellow bank. Same thing applies when sending your people to colonise. Now that is painful. There is no easy way to add yellow tokens to your yellow bank once you lose them. In the Full Game, you also lose 2 yellow tokens permanently at the end of Ages I, II and III, so suddenly population and food matters much much more. In our game Han and Michelle almost used up all the yellow tokens in their yellow banks. We struggled to produce enough food to grow our population. With this, it seems that the Fast Food Chain is not as overpowered as I had thought, since it is actually not that easy to have that much population. But it is still very powerful. Han built it and scored 21 pts I think.

Correction, 25 Jun 2008: I checked the rules again, and found that I didn't make a mistake afterall. When sacrificing units, whether to colonise or in a military conflict, the yellow token doesn't get removed permanently. It only goes back to your yellow bank.

The other mistake I made was when a building is destroyed, the yellow token is not returned to the yellow bank. It gets returned to the idle worker pool. So in this case, the effect is less severe than I thought. You don't need to grow your population again. You just need to spend the stones to build that building again.

In our game, Han sprinted ahead on the culture track from the start and never looked back. We never managed to catch up. He set up some mutually beneficial pacts with Michelle too. Neither Michelle nor I set up any pacts. This was the first time I saw a pact in play. This was only my 2nd 3-player game. Other games were 2-player games. Han was military strong, and I kept competing with him in military strength. Michelle was a bit lax in military, since she trusted the gentlemen at the table wouldn't bully her (at least not too much). And we didn't (not much anyway). Michelle was culturally 2nd place most of the game, closer to Han than to me, because I was always a distant third. At one point Michelle had 4 colonies and James Cook as her leader, who gave 2 culture per colony per turn. That was scary. Thankfully near the end of the game I was able to catch up and overtake her on the culture track, although just barely. Michelle says that I am always like that - always "come from behind". I guess I do tend to emphasise on building a strong infrastructure to give myself a strong foundation to be competitive in the late game. In Through the Ages, I find that falling slightly behind in culture doesn't matter, because at game end, many culture points are awarded based on other aspects of your civilisation, e.g. infrastructure, science, military units, etc.

In our game of Through the Ages on Sat 21 Jun 2008, the starting card row had lots of yellow cards - action cards that give one-time bonuses / special actions.

Michelle and Han, nearing the end of Age I.

Michelle and I have played so many games of Race for the Galaxy that I can even come up with some meaningful statistics. Most game recorded were 2-player games. Only a few were 3-player games (with Han). Winning scores range from 23 to 65, average 35.9, median 34. Losing scores range from 13 to 44, average 26.6, median 26. Difference in score between winner and loser can be as big as 38, average being 9.3, and median 7. The very high scoring games were all using consume strategies. I have now found that the consume strategy can be very powerful. It is more tedious to set up, since you need to have some production worlds, you need to have good consume worlds, and you need to spend actions producing goods before consuming them for points. However once all is set up, the victory point chips just keep rolling in, unstoppable. Well, this may be because we always play the advanced 2-player game, i.e. you can choose 2 roles per round. So you can do Consume and then Produce for the next round. The consume strategy may not be as easy in 3 or 4 player games.

Race for the Galaxy, 21 Jun 2008. I won with only 6 cards, the least number of cards I have ever won with. For those who have played this game, this is obviously a consume strategy - 22 victory points scored.

Another win with the consume strategy, this one focusing in particular on novelty goods (light blue).

22 Jun 2008. My highest ever score so far, 65pts. This is also a consume strategy focusing on rare elements (brown). My luck with the cards was simply amazing. I had so many rare element cards. I had both Mining Robots and Mining Conglomerate, which the Mining League rewards you for. I had three 6-cost development cards. I also had the Tourist World, which helped tremendously with the consume strategy.

I have developed a convention for recording games of Race for the Galaxy. I record the results of all my games played. For Race for the Galaxy, I started with my usual convention, but it has since evolved to have its own convention. It started with something like:

fyv31, hcs29

which means Michelle won the game with 31 points, and my score was 29 points. Then it became:

FYV cards 19, special 10, chips 2 = 31
HCS cards 23, special 5, chips 1 = 29

which breaks down the points earned from normal cards, special 6-cost development cards, and victory point chips. Next:

FYV cards 19, special 10, chips 2 = 31 (13 cards)
HCS cards 23, special 5, chips 1 = 29 (11 cards)

I added the number of cards played by each player onto their tableau.

FYV cards 19 (13), special 10 (1), chips 2 = 31
HCS cards 23 (11), special 5 (1), chips 1 = 29

Number of cards moved to after the score of the normal cards. And I also specified the number of 6-cost development cards.

FYV[4] cards 19 (13), special 10 (1 - new galactic order), chips 2 = 31 (mostly military)
HCS[1] cards 23 (11), special 5 (1 - galactic federation), chips 1 = 29 (military)

Finally I added the start world in square brackets after the player name. I listed down the name of the 6-cost development cards. I usually describe the general strategy used. Sometimes I added a paragraph below to describe interesting aspects of the particular game.

Non gamers (and probably gamers too) will think I'm crazy.

In a recent game of Mystery Rummy: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld, after I had done my first card draw, my hand had 10 evidence cards of different colours, and 2 gavel cards. There are only 11 different colours in the game. Needless to say, I lost that hand. The rummy god doesn't like me.

Thursday 12 June 2008

Race for the Galaxy settle-windfall-then-trade strategy

When Michelle and I play two-player Race for the Galaxy, we use the advanced version for two players, i.e. there is an additional Develop card and an additional Settle card for each player. Michelle is starting to have a winning streak in Race for the Galaxy now, and I am starting to dread that the same thing will happen as with San Juan and Mystery Rummy 4: Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld. These are games that somehow Michelle has an undoubtedly higher win rate than me. It is as if she has some inherent skill, or I have some inherent weakness, at these games. Maybe it is some intrinsic ability to assess risk and opportunity.

One strategy that Michelle often uses in Race for the Galaxy is the settle-windfall-then-trade strategy, which until now I have not figured out how to beat. Maybe I have in all wrong and should be copying it instead of trying to beat it. When she chooses her two roles, she would choose Settle and Consume-Trade. She would settle a windfall world, which comes with a good (but will normally not produce goods in future), and then sell the good to gain cards. Very fast turnaround. Within the same round she has settled a world and gained a bunch of cards. And sometimes among those new cards there would be yet another convenient windfall world, and she'd do the same thing again. And I would say to her, "又来这一招?". It is quite an efficient strategy indeed. Often I find myself holding on to just three or four cards and struggling to gain more, while her struggle is because of having to go through her 14 or 15 cards to decide which ones to discard (too many juicy choices).

I find that I rarely end a game with 12 or more cards. I think I have a tendency to be overly picky about what cards to play. I like to have cards that form a coherent strategy and once I have some rough idea where I want to go, I tend to be a bit inflexible, I think. I think I do not react well to my opponents' moves. I am too absorbed in building my ideal space empire. I think I enjoy the "engine building" aspect of the game too much, and I will rarely be able to play a speed game well. There is still so much to learn and to explore in Race for the Galaxy.

Wednesday 11 June 2008

non-aggressive Through the Ages

For a gamer, if you have a spouse willing to play a 3-hour Full Game of Through the Ages with you, there is probably not much else you can ask for. Michelle not only sat down to play a game of Through the Ages with me on Saturday afternoon (7 Jun 2008), she even beat me! 275 to 257. And we played a second game the next day.

We played the non aggressive variant, i.e. no aggression cards (you attack your opponent, and if successful, you grab resources, or destroy buildings, or take science, etc), and no war cards (potentially more destructive all-out wars where the severity of the outcome depends on the relative strength of the civilisations involved). This does not make military might irrelevant. It is still important, because there are many events rewarding the militarily stronger civilisation and punishing the weaker, and also there are colonies to fight over. In fact, I think removing the aggression and war cards make more colonies appear. We had about 6 colonies in both our games.

It was great fun! It was tiring for Michelle, since the games were long. The first game was probably around 3 hours, and this was after we spent the morning at the swimming pool with the children. The second game took maybe 2.5 hours. I skipped the Advanced Game and let her jump straight into the Full Game. It was probably a little overwhelming for Michelle, but I think she managed OK. Well, she did win the game!

Michelle and Through the Ages, near game end of our second game.

Michelle had the same comment as when I first played the game. This is a game where you cannot afford to neglect any single aspect of your civilisation. Ignore science, and you won't be able to keep up with your opponents' powerful buildings / efficient mines and farms / stronger military units. Ignore production, and you won't be able to build the new buildings / mines / soldiers even if you have the technology. Ignore food, and you won't have enough population to be turned into buildings / mines / soldiers. Ignore governments and related technologies, leaders or wonders, and you won't have enough actions to do all that you want to do.

Now that I have played 5 games of Through the Ages, I still like it a lot. In fact I may like it more than the Civilisation IV PC game. Or maybe I should say it removes some of the things that I don't like about the PC game. Two things that I find tedious in the PC game are warfare and the end game. Sometimes when playing on higher difficulty levels, I tend to need to wage a lot of war to gain an advantage over the AI's. This can be tedious sometimes (but not the time I meticulously planned to destroy the Greek because the warmongering Alexander the supposedly Great attacked me three times unprovoked). The end game can also be tedious when suddenly you switch focus solely to building your spaceship. Your civilisation is big and unweildy and a chore to manage, and usually by the time you get there either you are already the clear leader and victory is just a matter of spending much more time at the PC, or even when there is a serious contender in the space race, the space race itself is really not all that interesting. Either you have already set yourself up well (strong science and good production capacity), or you have not. By the time modern age is here, there are not many interesting decisions to make anymore.

Warfare in Through the Ages is very simplistic, but I'm satisfied with it. It is more about maneuvering and planning - developing military technology, training troops, drawing some defense cards, how many troops to sacrifice in case you need to spend them on claiming a colony. By the time you attack, or are attacked, you have already had the chance to prepare for it. You can only blame yourself if you are too poorly prepared for it. So the very simplistic battle resolution doesn't bother me.

The end game in Through the Ages is at least not as tedious as Civilisation IV. In the last few turns of the boardgame, you still feel there is much you have planned to do but time is already running out. It is not the case in the PC game. You feel like you don't have anything very interesting to do anymore. In the boardgame, there is still a feeling of having fewer interesting choices. There is usually not much point in improving infrastructure, increasing population, or discovering new technologies anymore, and the focus is solely on wringing that extra bit of culture (the victory points in this game) out of your civilisation. However the Age III events add some spice to the end game. These events award culture points based on various different aspects of your civilisation. You know which events that you have seeded into the event deck, but you won't know which are the ones you opponents have seeded. So at least you will feel that aspects other that culture do matter at game end.

One of the biggest advantages of PC games is they hide away all the boring accounting from you, saving you a lot of time and effort, and allowing you to focus on the fun bits. In Through the Ages there is some accounting that you have to do, but I find it simple and intuitive, so for me it doesn't get in the way of having fun. There are still times when I forget things though, e.g. I forget to make use of leader special powers, or powers of special technologies. And sometimes when Michelle's people eat a stored food, she moves the blue cylinder back to the yellow bank instead of the blue bank. Well at least that's easy to spot and fix.

There are still some things that I am not entirely sure of when I play, and occasionally I still have to refer to the rules. But overall I still think the game is quite intuitive and really is not very complex, just that there are sometimes some rare situations that you need to look up in the rules to make sure you handle them right. There is one thing I am still not sure of. With the Age III event card that awards culture based on your technologies, do you count cards that are covered by others? E.g. an older government card that has been covered by your newer government card, or an older special technology card that has been covered by a newer version of that special technology. I interpreted it as yes, you should count them, because you have spent science points discovering them. I wonder whether this is the official interpretation. It makes sense to me.

When Michelle first saw the fast food chain wonder card, she had a different interpretation from mine. I don't remember the exact text. My interpretation: you score 2pt for workers on mines + 2pt for workers on farms + 1pt for workers on urban buildings + 1pt for workers who are military units. Michelle's interpretation: you score 2pt for workers on mines OR 2pt for workers on farms, plus 1pt for workers on urban buildings OR 1pt for workers who are military units. From looking at the text on the card, I think my interpretation is the intended design. However, I think this way the fast food chain is overpowered compared to other Age III wonders, so we eventually agreed on Michelle's interpretation.

I guess I should check or ask on BoardGameGeek other players' viewpoints / interpretations on these.

My civilisation (1 of 3). I had 4 wonders, all mainly culture generating. Einstein was my Age III leader, but I forgot to make use of his power to gain culture when playing a technology card.

My civilisation (2 of 3). I was a despot most of the game and was stuck with 4 civil actions and 2 military actions for much of the game. Thankfully I eventually switched to a Monarchy, and I also had the Civil Service special technology card that gave me 2 more civil actions. I have only ever bothered to gain one more military technology, a rifleman. Not much variety there. I did spend resources in training troops, which was important for fighting over colonies. I had so many yellow cylinders, all because of my colonies (see next picture).

My civilisation (3 of 3). My 3 colonies and special technologies.

Michelle's civilisation (1 of 3). Michelle also had 4 wonders. Having many early wonders hinders you from taking the later wonders, because to pick a wonder card you need to spend additional civil actions based on how many existing wonders you already own. Michelle colonies have a bit more variety compared to mine.

Michelle's civilisation (2 of 3). Michelle has many blue cylinders. No worries about corruption.

Michelle's civilisation (3 of 3). Lots of good science and culture generating urban buildings.

A follow-up (Thu 12 Jun 2008):

I have checked on BoardGameGeek and confirmed that for Fast Food Chain, you indeed score for every worker, i.e. my interpretation. Other players do not find Fast Food Chain to be overpowered compared to other Age III wonders. So maybe it is just the way that we tend to play that makes Fast Food Chain seem overpowered. However I do remember reading somewhere else on BoardGameGeek that there are also some others who feel Fast Food Chain is one of the more powerful ones among the Age III wonders.

I have also found out that obsolete special technologies (e.g. Masonry when you already have Architecture) and obsolete government forms (e.g. Republic when you already have Democracy) should be discarded immediately and thus when you are rewarded for technologies, for example when building the First Space Flight wonder, you do not get rewarded for these technologies because they are no longer in your play area.

Thursday 5 June 2008

Railroad Tycoon, and others

Sat 31 May 2008 was a good session. We had 7 plays of 5 different games, Railroad Tycoon (new to me), Pandemic, Blue Moon (x2), R-Eco and Race for the Galaxy (x2). Three of them being card games certainly helped in achieving so many games played within one session. Also Pandemic is a pretty quick boardgame to play. Even Railroad Tycoon, which was new to Michelle and I (but we've played Age of Steam before), went quicker than I had expected.

Railroad Tycoon was our main course, and we started with it. Some game groups start with short fillers during their game sessions, but since my game group is just Han and I (and sometimes my wife Michelle, and once in a while Chee Seng too, when he's back from Singapore), we usually don't need to play fillers while waiting for other players to arrive. We just dive straight in. Our fillers are usually just closers, but not so much to wind down after a tiring game, than to fully utilise any remaining time before Han has to go. We'd play another main course if time allows.

Before Han even got here, the first thing I worried about Railroad Tycoon was whether it would fit on my dining table. Thankfully it fit just nice, and the sides of the board didn't hang off the edges of the table. However we didn't have any more space at the sides of the table, and had to put our money and trains on the game board itself. The board really is huge. It is actually 3 separate pieces put together side by side, each piece folds twice, so there are actually 9 sections.

Michelle and Han and the huge Railroad Tycoon board.

Railroad Tycoon is a game about developing your railroad company. You start with no money and need to issue shares to raise money. You build tracks to connect cities. You deliver goods from cities that supply them to cities that demand them. By delivering goods (which should be thought of as capturing the business at a city, rather than as a one time delivery), you increase your victory points, depending on how long a distance the goods have traveled. Your income (which you collect at the end of every turn) is also adjusted. You can use your opponents' tracks to deliver goods, but for each opponent's link (connection between 2 cities) that you use, he/she earns the victory point instead of you. The game ends when a certain number of cities run out of cubes to deliver.

Railroad Tycoon is designed by Martin Wallace and Glenn Drover, and is based on Martin Wallace's earlier game Age of Steam, a highly regarded game, which I own. Compared to Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon is more forgiving, more flexible, and has a bit more flavour. I wouldn't say it is a "dumbed down" version, since I actually find them quite similar. Maybe you can say it is "easier" due to being more forgiving, but it is not "easier" as in being significantly simpler. Some extra stuff compared to Age of Steam are the tycoon cards and the operations cards, both of which provide some more flavour and variety. Tycoon cards are secret objective cards randomly dealt to each player at the start of the game, which give you bonus points if you achieve the secret objective. There are different types of operations cards. Some give a bonus to the first player achieving a certain objective. Some give special powers (e.g. you build a hotel at a city and you earn money whenever anyone connects to that city), some allow you to do one-time special actions (e.g. build four tracks on plains for free).

That's my current engine level - level 2. You start at level 1 and can work your way up to level 6. Each engine level means you can deliver a cube to a city that many links away. The cubes are the goods, and you deliver them to cities of the same colour. The trains mark ownership of the tracks. The brown buildings are just markers to indicate empty cities.

A view from the north. The game comes with paper money and not those colourful plastic coins. But I prefer these coins which are easier to handle.

In our game, Michelle and I started our railway networks in the northeast, which is a lucrative area with many goods to deliver and concentrated cities, i.e. much money to be made, and cheap to build your network. While Michelle and I competed directly, Han focused on the southeast. Not as lucrative as the northeast, but at least there was no direct competition in terms of building tracks and delivering goods. I went for a quick win strategy, upgrading my trains quickly and delivering goods as much as I could. This was mostly due to the threat that was Michelle. However, Michelle was a bit slower in upgrading her train and in delivering goods, and focused instead on track building. I used some of her tracks, in my haste to ship goods quickly before Michelle could do the same to them, and thus gave her some free points. She did not ship many goods, but scored big via the operations cards, by connecting to the objective cities specified on them. 21 out of her 45 points were from fulfilling objectives on the operations cards. Han made use of many of the operations cards that provide free actions, saving him some money. Throughout most of the game I was in the lead. However I was not likely to achieve my secret goal on my tycoon card (to have built the most number of tracks - Michelle built many more than I did), and Han and Michelle might catch up by game end. Thankfully I managed to end the game quickly, while I still had a strong lead. So despite fulfilling their tycoon cards (to some degree at least), they were not able to catch up.

So, our game was quite quick. Probably just 1 hour 15 minutes, including rule explanation. I like Railroad Tycoon. It is quite similar to Age of Steam, and I don't think of it as an inferior cousin, as some others may think. I just think of it as a slightly different version. Well, I'm not an expert though. I have only played very few games of Age of Steam. One thing about Railroad Tycoon is the board seems too open for just 3 players. Since Han started his network in a different area of the board, by the end of the game none of his tracks touched any of mine or Michelle's. There is just so much space on the board that we didn't need to compete spatially. There were still many areas of the board which were not used by game end. So, I think the game will be more interesting with more players. Maybe 5 would be an ideal number. 6 would probably make things too slow.

Han's rail network. We used a water tower as a round marker. The water tower is just another empty city marker. The black train on the right is the start player marker.

The end of the game. Michelle (red) had set up connections all the way to Chicago. My train technology was at level 5.

I finally won a game of Pandemic. This was on normal difficulty level, i.e. 5 epidemic cards used. I think we were quite lucky with the cards. We drew many infection cards (what I used to call "bad cards") which were for diseases that we had already eradicated, so those cards had no effect at all. Because this is a cooperative game, it has the problem of the experienced players telling the inexperienced players what to do. Both Han and I have played before, but not Michelle. The game was quick. She was distracted by our 3 year old daughter Shee Yun, and she just followed what Han and I asked her to do. By the time we won the game, she still did not have much idea what was going on. So the next time we play I'll just shut up and let her make her mistakes and learn from them.

Han and I have an ongoing Blue Moon league (if you can call a 2-player league a league). Each time we have the opportunity to play, we choose a combination of races that we have not played before, and play two games, swapping sides for the second game. We then record our results on a table. This time we played the Khind and the Pillars. The Khind won both games. They seem to be pretty strong so far in our league.

Blue Moon. We used different coloured jelly as dragons. I bought the 6 expansion races and not the 2 races in the base game, so I do not have the dragons that come with the base game. I could use the dragons from Blue Moon City, but was too lazy to go get them.

R-Eco was quick. I think I have been a bit too merciless on Han. He ended the game with negative points.

Race for the Galaxy is still good. I have played 24 games now. Only about 10% of games in my collection have that many plays.