Monday 25 August 2008

Galactic Emperor

Han was back in KL for one day on Sat 16 Aug 2008, so we met up for some gaming. Two of Han's friends, Goh and Lim, were able to join, so we decided to play Galactic Emperor, a multiplayer conflict game set in space. It is not often that we have 4 players, so we used the opportunity to play something that needs more players to be good.

Galactic Emperor was a new game. In fact Han only opened the game that day. He had preordered it, and it had arrived in KL before he got back. I had downloaded the rules before but had only read part of it. Han assigned me the task of reading the rules before his two other friends arrived, so that I could be the rule explainer afterwards.

We only started game explaining at about 3:30pm. At first I was worried we might not be able to finish the game, but surprisingly we managed to finish at about 5:30pm. No wonder some people call this a short version of Twilight Imperium. I have not played that so I cannot comment on whether this is an appropriate description (other than the game length).

Game set up for 4 players. Four home planets, each with a fighter. Each player has a storage facility which can store 6 metals and 3 energies. That's the max you can have at any one time. In the setup everyone starts with one metal and one energy. The 7 possible roles are on the right side of the board. The various technologies are below the lower right corner of the board.

The planets. When you explore, you don't really go into unknown space and hope to find something good. You actually get to choose from these pool of planets and then place it wherever you want on the board. Of course you want to place good planets near your home planet, and poor ones (e.g. empty space) near your opponents' planets. The cubes on the tiles show what the planet can produce. Green = food, blue = metal, yellow = energy.

Spaceships. You are limited to the number of pieces in the game. Big = dreadnaught, most powerful, but only travels 1 space. Medium = cruiser, medium stregth, travels 2 spaces. Small = fighter, rather weak, but cheapest.

My starting planet Xandor.

Galactic Emperor is about building a space empire. You discover and claim new planets, produce food and resources, develop new technologies, build a space fleet, and maybe you go to war. It has a Puerto Rico structure - the role selection mechanism. Players take turns to select a role, and every time a role is selected, all players can do actions associated with that role, but the player who chose that role enjoys some special priviledges. There is a twist. The Emperor (i.e. Governor in Puerto Rico) can decide the direction of play, clockwise or anti-clockwise.

To win, you collect victory points. The main way of doing this is by controlling planets. Victory points from controlling planets are awarded only when the Regent role is selected, so they are not necessarily awarded every round. There are other ways of gaining victory points, but they are minor compared to being in control of planets. E.g. you do gain 1VP if you win a battle and destroy an enemy control marker (called "empire" in this game).

At the start of the game everyone is racing to discover new planets and to claim them. Some planets produce food, which is consumed by other planets in order to produce metals and energy (food, metal and energy are the 3 types of resources in the game). As you produce resources and earn money, you use them to research technologies that give you special advantages in certain situations, and to do your military build-up. As the military capabilities build up, there is a tension of who will make the first move. In a multi-player conflict game, there is a danger of the players engaging in warfare earlier losing out to the players who preserve their strength to be used on whoever survived the early war. 渔人得利. In warfare, your ultimate goal is to conquer planets, because these are what give you victory points. Of course each conquest also gives 1VP. So war is just the means to an end. Of course, sometimes it's fun to attack just for the sake of revenge, or even just for the hell of it. Sometimes when you get really worked up, who cares about victory points.

So, the game progresses from initial exploration and planet grabbing, to the eventual military showdown. At one stage of the game, the sun at the centre of the board will go supernova, and become a black hole. This adds a twist to the game. Spaceships can actually enter the blackhole, and then on the next turn these ships can teleport to anywhere (except a home planet) and even enjoy an attack bonus if they attack an enemy fleet. This obviously encourages warfare.

In our game, I was assigned to be the first emperor, and I actually stayed emperor until game end. There were some attempts to wrest the throne but from me, but they were just half-hearted efforts. Since Han is the most experienced among my opponents, I kept the game flow in the other direction most of the time, to make him the last in turn order. However with a game structure similar to Puerto Rico", it actually doesn't make too big a difference. In the early game I focused on getting cool technologies, choosing the Scientist role so that I get a 1 energy discount, i.e. I could afford to buy more expensive technologies. After a few rounds on military build-up, the attacks started. I think Han was the first to strike, successfully attacking and conquering one of my outposts. I retaliated and successfully wiped out both Han's and my own fleets. Oops... too trigger happy. Goh swooped in and also took one of my outer planets. From then on things went downhill for me. Everyone continued the military build-up, and soon the stakes were so high that nobody dared to make a move. I had both Goh's and Han's fleets near me, but although having the technology to give me die roll +1 when attacking, I didn't dare to make any attacks, fearing becoming the victim of the 3rd player, even if I were successful in my attack. So I was rather stuck. I dared not attack, and yet I had no other means of reclaiming "my" planets or expanding to more planets. Most of the galaxy had been explored and planets claimed. Eventually Han ended the game by triggering scoring and exhausting the pool of victory point chips. Guess who won. The guy who was never involved in any battle - Lim. I had thought it would be Han or Goh, because both of them gained ground during the war with me. Lim had been expansive and was not as consersative as Goh, so he did have a sizeable empire. I, of course, came in dead last.

Middle of the game, and two of my planets have already been taken over.

Goh, Lim (winner) and Han.

I thought the game was just so-so (being last may have made me a little biased... heh heh...). There are some small innovations. However I found the overall package to be nothing new. Nothing that really makes it a significant improvement over other multplayer conflict games. Viktory II is a similar type of game, and, to me, is better. Also, maybe I am getting a bit tired of the Puerto Rico structure, having seen it in San Juan and Race for the Galaxy too. I don't think using this structure is particularly interesting, or necessary, or thematic, in this game. I still feel the game has the turtling problem - players still tend to build-up, play defensively, and try to avoid getting into wars. And often the ones to get into the early wars will suffer. I think this is a common problem with multiplayer conflict games. However I think Viktory II handles this better and encourages attacking / discourages turtling better. Nexus Ops is also a more interesting and better multiplayer conflict game to me. So, in summary, I'd say nothing new.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

Race for the Galaxy is fast...

... and this is not just referring to how fast the games are (Michelle tells me we play 4 games in an hour). We have now played more than 100 games, and among the four games in my collection that I have played more than 100 times, it is the fastest to reach 100 plays. At this rate, I have no doubt it will hit 200, especially since the expansion Gathering Storm is coming. A second yet-unnamed expansion is in the works too, but that won't be any time soon.

GameTotal playsTime to reach 50 plays100 plays150 plays200 plays
Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper204~3m~1yr~1yr 2m~2yr 5m
Carcassonne196~2.5m~6m~1yr 3mn/a
Ticket to Ride139~8m~11.5mn/an/a
Race for the Galaxy109~2m~3mn/an/a
Lost Cities95~6.5mn/an/an/a
San Juan58~2yr 10.5mn/an/an/a

I have a feeling San Juan will stay at 58 for quite some time. It's not my 6th most played game. I'm just including it here for comparison.

My Race for the Galaxy deck is starting to show wear and tear, especially on the edges of the cards. It will take conscious effort not to examine them too closely when the expansion comes out and I mix the old and new cards. Sometimes when I shuffle the cards they actually feel a bit sticky. I guess it's because of the grease accumulated after being handled so many times. However I don't plan to use card sleeves for them, like I did for Citadels in the past. I just don't like card sleeves because they make cards hard to shuffle and they are a nuisance when you play. I don't use card sleeves for my copy of Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper either. Those cards are showing obvious signs of wear and tear.

Sometimes I also wonder what keeps me coming back to Race for the Galaxy. Definitely Michelle's willingness (and sometimes eagerness too) to play this helps in pushing up the count. Being a quick card game contributes to this. Michelle can play this very quickly and she often makes the decisions faster than I do. Her 2 action cards are often down before mine are. The other reason is I still feel there are more strategies that I have not tried. The common strategies that we have been using are military, consume (with focus on novelty goods and rare elements being the most commonly used subsets of this strategy), and to some extent development and speed-play. We have tried the alien strategy. We haven't really done any genes production strategy, although we've used the pan galactic league (rewards genes worlds and military worlds) with many genes worlds settled. I've tried an explore strategy, which didn't quite work out, so I'm not sure whether an explore strategy can really stand by itself. It might be a tactic that you should attach to a military strategy. I've tried a trade strategy, which also didn't quite work out, but it may be because Michelle actively avoided producing so that I didn't get a free ride. I'm not sure whether a trade strategy by itself can work. I need to try it again. Michelle has used the Diversified Economy effectively recently (draw cards per different good type produced, and gain 3VP for 3 different goods consumed). There are some other quirky cards that we have occasionally found good uses for, e.g. the one that gives VP for discarding cards from your hand (I guess that's a bit like the church in San Juan where you bury dead bodies for VP).

We sometimes use a mix of strategies, and also sometimes switch strategy in mid game, and these are not necessary bad things to be doing. Sometimes an aimless or unfocused play (usually very bad and is a often seen in new players trying to learn the game) can win, but then maybe it is actually a speed-play in disguise. There are still so many cards that I have not used, or have not used effectively, e.g. the research lab, or the gambling world. I feel like I have explored 95% of the game, and there is still that little mysterious, seductive and elusive part that I have yet to fully grasp. There are still some unexplored possibilities and untapped strategies.

And I play Race for the Galaxy almost only as a 2-player game. If I can find a regular 3rd player in future, there is going to be more to explore. And the 4th player...

Monday 4 August 2008

2-player Brass

On Sun 3 Aug 2008 Michelle and I played Brass for the 2nd time. Brass is a 3 or 4 player game (last time we played a 3-player game with Han), but I recently found a 2-player variant on BoardGameGeek by Henri Harju, so I was keen to try this out. If it's good, then I won't need to wait for a 3rd player to be able to play the game.

The 2-player variant, in a not-so-small nutshell, is as follows:

  1. Board
    • Inaccessible: Birkenhead, Ellesmere Port, Stockport, Macclesfield, Oldham and Rochdale.
    • Canal connection available to Scotland.
  2. Cards
    • Remove cards for inaccessible locations.
    • Remove 1 card each for Manchester, Wigan, Liverpool, Lancaster, Preston.
    • Remove:
      • 3 x Cotton Mill industry cards,
      • 3 x Port industry cards,
      • 2 x Shipyard industry cards,
      • 1 x Coal and Iron industry cards.
    • At the start of canal/rail period, remove 2/0 cards.
  3. Resources
    • Skip $1 spaces on coal and iron demand tracks
    • Start game with $25
    • Remove one -1, -3 and both 0 distant market tiles (8 left)

The game played quite well with this variant. Competition was tight enough. I still experienced planning to build an industry at a particular spot, only to see Michelle take that exact same spot just before I could do so. Both Michelle and I had to take loans quite a few times.

In the railroad (2nd) age. Seven cities/towns are not in play, and I marked them off using the silver coins. The 1 Pound spaces on the demand track on the upper left are also not used, and are covered with silver coins too.

Michelle made good use of the demand track, building coal mines and iron works when coal or iron is in short supply, thus selling her resources quickly, making money in the process and also flipping her coal mines / iron works quickly.

In our first game, I misunderstood the canal/railroad scoring throughout most of the game and only realised my mistake near game end. This time with the correct understanding, I realised that the transportation network is a very important source for victory points, and is not just an enabler for your industries. I also find that this is yet another source of cooperative / competitive tension in the game. When you build a canal or railroad, if your opponents build industries in cities at either end, although they are taking "your" spot, they are also giving your canal / railroad extra points. I find this cooperative / competitive tension quite interesting. This canal / railroad scoring also reminds me of the houses and emissaries in China. You want to be where the crowd is, because that's where the big scoring opportunities are.

I'm quite sure 3-player games would be more interesting, since there is another player to consider, especially when this game has the cooperative element of taking coal/iron from an opponent's mine for free, which helps yourself but also helps that opponent in flipping his/her tile quicker. With 3 players you'll need to think of who you would benefit less. With 2 players, you'd probably just try to build your own coal mines and iron works. However I find the 2-player variant interesting enough and worthwhile enough. Hopefully I can play this again soon.