Sunday 27 September 2009

Red November

Date: Mon 21 Sep 2009
Venue: Carcasean boardgame cafe

I asked Chong Sean to teach me Red November, since he has played it before. Red November is one of the many cooperative games that were released around last year. In this game, players are Russian gnomes stuck in a submarine, the Red November, where things keep going wrong one after another. The gnomes try to survive for one hour, waiting for rescue. You win together if some of you survive, with the submarine not completely destroyed, after one hour.

The game uses a Thebes-like mechanic for tracking time. When the gnomes take actions, every action costs time, and your use a white marker to temporarily mark how much time you've used on your turn. After your turn is done, you need to check how many red stars you have passed on the time track. For each star, you draw a disaster card. Usually bad things will happen. There are some spaces which award you tools, but there are less of these than the disaster spaces. Many types of bad things can happen. Fires start, fires spread, rooms flood, doors become stuck, the oxygen level drops, the heat level rises, the pressure increases, the missiles malfunction and threaten to explode, and worst of all, a giant kraken approach and eye the submarine hungrily. When you take a turn, you basically move about the submarine and attempt to fix a problem, e.g. unlocking a door, pumping out water, reducing the heat level to the next stable state, etc. You can also go to the equipment room to collect tools, or go to the captain's room to collect grog (vodka?), which is considered a type of tool. Grog allows you to fix problems quicker, and if a room is on fire and you don't have a fire extinguisher, drinking grog is the only way to give yourself enough courage to enter the burning room. But then, drinking means getting drunk, and you may pass out because of your exertion. If the room where you lie unconscious is on fire or is flooded, you die.

The submarine can get destroyed in a number of ways. There are three tracks on the board showing heat level, pressure level and oxygen level. If the marker on any of these tracks reach the last spot, the submarine is destroyed. There are also four major disasters, which, if not prevented in time, will destroy the submarine. E.g. missile malfunction, kraken attack.

Chong Sean and I played a 2-player game, controlling 2 gnomes each. I am pleased that the game has two green gnomes, a dark and a light one. So I could still stick to playing with green. We were quite conservative when trying to fix problems. In this game, every problem takes at most 10 minutes to fix. You can try to spend less time to fix a problem, but risk wasting your time because you may fail to fix it. E.g. if you decide to spend only 5 minutes, you roll a 10-sided die to see whether you manage to fix the problem. Roll and 6 or more, and you fail. Chong Sean is quite conservative and usually prefers to spend about 8 minutes on a problem. Spending more time means a higher likelihood of fixing a problem, but also less time to work on other problems.

We were relatively lucky and didn't fail many times when fixing problems. There was one turn on which I had a gut feel that I would roll a 10, so I decided to spend 10 minutes on the problem. If you spend 10 minutes, you are guaranteed to fix the problem and do not need to roll the die, but I rolled the die anyway, and it was a 10! My completely baseless prediction turned out to be true! Every time that we chose to spend 10 minutes on a task, we rolled the die anyway, just so that we could feel good if we rolled a high number.

We didn't play the traitor variant, where a gnome may abandon his comrades and win the game by himself, if the submarine is destroyed. So when we drew "hatch stuck" cards, we assigned the "stuck" tokens to the outer hatches, or to rooms which lead to the outer hatches. When you draw a "hatch stuck" event card, you roll the die to determine which room will have one of its hatches locked, but once the room is determined, you can choose which hatch to be the one to get locked. Maybe a little unthematic, but I think if otherwise the game becomes too difficult or too luck-dependent.

More and more rooms were flooded, or were on fire, or were locked up, as we retreated and decided not to spend more effort to save those rooms. As we approached the arrival time of our rescuers, we depleted the disaster deck, and now the kraken card gets shuffled in as we reshuffled the whole deck. Chong Sean said he had never seen the kraken card drawn before. The kraken is hard to defeat, because (a) you need to be able to gain access to one of the three external hatches in order to leave the submarine, and (b) you need the aqualung to be able to go outside. Guess what... we drew the kraken card soon after we started using the reshuffled disaster deck. The kraken timed event was to happen in 15 minutes. We checked the time track, and to our relief, that would be exactly at the 0 mark. The rules say the event will only happen if we pass that event marker, so we were safe. Phew...

Later on we drew yet another timed event card which we wouldn't have been able to prevent, but the event time was yet again on exactly 0 minute mark. We were very unlucky to have drawn these major disasters so soon after the deck reshuffle, but we were also very lucky that neither would occur. Eventually we won the game, with none of the three tracks nearing the last space.

My two green gnomes at the start of the game, each starting with 2 tools. Gnomes start the game with the sober side. I have turned over the card of the dark green gnome to show the four levels of intoxication.

This was still early in the game, still about 15 minutes into the game (in game time, not real time). Rooms 4 and 5 were slightly flooded. Room 10 (captain's room, in front) was already on fire.

Close-up of the running gnomes.

At one point my dark green gnome collected 9 tools. They are (top to bottom) coffee to reduce intoxication level, grog, water pump, fire extinguisher, 3 crowbars, and 2 of something that helps you fix malfunctioning missiles.

The blue gnome had passed out after having drunk grog and completed a task. Thankfully the room he was in was not flooded or on fire. Room 3 had been completed locked up. Room 6 at the top had been flooded and locked up too.

The front of the submarine was all burning.

Game end. All our gnomes were still alive and hiding in the last room which was not flooded or on fire.

Red November is quite thematic, I would say. Many things that you can or cannot do, or what can and cannot happen in the game, are logical. There are quite many types of tools available in the game, so in the beginning you'll need to spend some time looking up what they do. However there are icons to help you remember. The rules are not complex.

Han has played this before and didn't quite like it. Maybe his comments made me set my expectations lower, so I found the game to be alright. Not a game that I plan to buy, but I wouldn't mind playing again. That said, although there isn't anything in particular that I dislike, there isn't anything in particular that draws me either. Bruno Faidutti is a popular designer, but somehow I find that I don't have any particular liking in any of his games. My favourites are probably Incan Gold / Diamant and Castle. I don't quite like Citadels, maybe because I was scarred by the very slow 6/7-player games that I have played. I like Red November more than Citadels, but probably slightly less than Incan Gold.

Saturday 26 September 2009

Diamonds Club

Date: Sat 19 Sep 2009
Venue: Carcasean boardgame cafe

Diamonds Club is the kind of game that Ameritrashers (well, at least those who love to hate most Euros, especially more recent Euros) would use as a poster boy of the decline (or lack of progress) of Euro games. The mechanics are abstract, the theme is thin, you collect various things and convert them into other things to score victory points in different ways. There are "multiple paths of victory" (an overused phrase for praising games), there are meaningful decisions to be made, there is not much luck; yet the game does not excite me at all, despite being the #7 game at the prestigious Deutscher Spiele Preis awards. And the DSP caters to hobby gamers as opposed to the family market. The whole time playing the game, it gave me a been-there-done-that feeling.

That's my view. And that's from the perspective of a jaded Eurogamer, which, of course, is not representative of all gamers. Diamonds Club is actually a fine game, if you have not played too many similar games. The game seems to be well balanced (I've only played it once, so I'm just guessing here). There are multiple options and different priorities you need to consider. There are different strategies you can pursue. It is a medium complexity Eurogame which is not difficult to learn. So I'd say it's a fine game, even though I have no urge to play it again.

In the game, you collect gems, then used them to buy things to decorate your estate. Different things score in different ways. There are also some special awards for being first to achieve certain goals, e.g. first to build three rose gardens, or first to build all four types of decorations. The game ends after one player has filled up 14 spaces of his estate.

Every round you start with a certain amount of money, and you place your coins on a grid to collect items (permits, ships, mines), to improve a technology track, to compete for initiative, etc. Each space on the grid can be used only once, and if you want to use a space which is adjacent to other spaces that have already been used, you have to pay extra. After spending money, you (usually) collect gems. You then use these gems to buy various items to decorate your estate, e.g. fountains, forests, palm trees. If the game has not yet ended, you start a new round, with a different random grid layout.

The grid forces some player interaction, because you need to watch what your opponents want, and try to block them or make them pay more money for what they want to get. When buying decorations for your estate, there is also some player interaction because players who are 2nd, 3rd or last to buy a decoration type have to pay more gems.

There is a small technology track on your personal board. One track allows you to score more points per forest. One allows you to gain extra gems for each gem shipment. The 3rd one allows you to start with more cash at the start of every round (cash is not brought forward to the next round).

The individual player board. Each board is slightly different. There is a minimum requirement that you must build (those three rectangular spaces near the top). On the right are the three technology tracks.

This is the grid or central game board on which the players compete for stuff. With 3 players, the rightmost two columns are not used, and there is a nice red door with a "Closed" sign. The top part of the board are where you buy decorations or forests. One spot for each player, which means you can buy at most 7 decorations/forests. The track at the bottom is for competing for initiative.

This shows most of the components of the game. On the top left you can see the special objective awards.

To collect a shipment of gems, you need a set made up of 3 things - a mine, a ship, and a permit. You can the gem of the same colour as the mine, and the quantity is the lower number of your ship and permit tiles.

In our 3P game, Chong Sean focused on getting many gems and buying many decorations, Han tried to go for a forest strategy (planting forests while increasing their value), and I went for a zoo strategy (collecting sets of bird park, deer pen and fish pond). Chong Sean also went for the special awards (all are related to decorations), winning many of them. Chong Sean eventually won the game, but all our scores were close.

One thing that I wonder is how flexible your strategy really is. Chong Sean commented that since I went for the zoo strategy, I should have tried to push the game towards an earlier end. Indeed zoos are cheaper to build, but score less than decorations. So I probably should have tried to fill up my estate quicker, perhaps by planting some forests too, which is also cheaper than the standard decorations. Han pursued the forest strategy. He did have many forests, but in the last round of the game there weren't many spaces on the grid that allowed him to increase his forest value. So he probably needed to have been focusing on doing this throughout the previous 3 rounds (I think we played 4 rounds). This made me think whether you can't quite switch strategy once you've committed to one. Or maybe the normal decorations should always be your main focus, and zoos and forests just supplementary parts.

Well, I may never find out, because there are too many other games I'd like to try at Carcasean and I doubt I'll come back to Diamonds Club.

Friday 25 September 2009

Fresh Fish

Date: Sat 19 Sep 2009
Venue: Carcasean boardgame cafe

Fresh Fish is an old (1997) quirky Friedemann Friese game that I have been interested in trying for some time. Friedemann Friese is well known for unusual themes in his games, and I'm usually at least interested to try them out. Not many of his games turn out to be big hits for me though, despite the initial interest. I don't know why.

Fresh Fish is definitely another unusual game. At least I have not seen any other games like this. You reserve plots and construct buildings on a grid. The game board starts with 4 factories. During the course of the game, outlets corresponding to the 4 types of goods produced by the 4 factories will be built. Each player must build one of each type of outlet, and the objective of the game is to make sure your outlets are as close to their respective supplying factories as possible. You also want to make sure you conserve your money, which is used for bidding for outlets when they turn up.

On your turn, you have two options - you can reserve a plot of land, or you can draw a building tile randomly. In the second situation, if you draw a normal building, you must build it on one of your own reserved plots. If you draw an outlet, it is auctioned (blind bidding), and all players who have yet to build that type of outlet can bid for it.

The most important, and unique, and possibly confusing part of the game is expropriation (this is a word I have just learnt, because of this game). This is when all players check the game board, and find that some spaces must be converted to streets due to the expropriation rules. Such streets must be built immediately, even if it means some reserved plots will be used. The player cubes used for reserving these plots are returned to their owners. The expropriation rules state that all factories and outlets must have street access, and all street squares must be connected. This can be difficult to grasp from just reading the rules, but once you see it in action, it's not that difficult to understand.

Han, Chong Sean and I didn't have much idea how to reserve plots and how to bid for outlets, so we just played from our guts and learned along the way. I was most aggressive in bidding for outlets, and got many of my outlets established early. Unfortunately physically near did not necessarily mean short delivery route. One of my outlets was blocked by a building, and had to use a very long, round-about delivery route. That, together with having no money left, gave me a score of 16pts (high is bad) and I came last. Score is total distance of delivery routes minus remaining money. Han played well and was the one who forced the long delivery route on my outlet. Unfortunately he had one distant outlet too because early in the game he drew that outlet, when he didn't have any reserved plot near the corresponding factory. Since he was the active player, and tied auctions go to the active player, both Chong Sean and I bid $0, thus forcing him to take the outlet. Chong Sean also played well, and conserved his money well too. He won the game with 7pts, to Han's 9pts.

Early in the game, before any streets were built. The three yellow-background buildings are factories, and the harbour in a corner at the top is the fourth "factory". Spaces with cubes are reserved plots.

Some streets have been built. My toy shop (green roof, only two spaces south of the toy factory) was screwed. It was near the factory, but was forced to take a long delivery route. Notice that with 3P, we only play a 8x8 area. We use extra tiles to mark off the border.

The only thing that is not so good is the production values and graphic design. The game looks rather bland, and the small cubes are not helpful. Colour scheme is not very good either.

I find Fresh Fish quite enjoyable. It isn't as confusing as I had expected, from reading other people's remarks before I played the game. It certainly is quite different. Being different or quirky does not necessary mean a game will be liked, but in this case I like this game. It also plays quite fast, as your actions every turn are simple. Two things discourage me from buying this game. First, it doesn't seem to work well with just 2 players, which is the player number I usually have. Secondly, it's out of print.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Chicago Express

Date: Sat 19 Sep 2009
Venue: Carcasean boardgame cafe

Chicago Express is a game I have been looking forward to try for some time. In fact I almost wanted to buy before trying. It is called a streamlined version or introductory version to the 18XX games, which are train games with an investment element. You buy shares in railroad companies, you develop the companies, but in the end the most important thing is you are making money out of all this.

We played a 3P game - Han, Chong Sean and I. I have heard some people warn of 4P games, because the players may end up each owning one company, and the game becomes less interesting. I'm not sure whether this is a valid concern though.

In this game, players are investors investing in railroad companies. When you buy a share of a company (which is done by auction), you gain the share and the money is paid to the company. Then the company uses this money to expand. Expansion is an action taken by a player, and that player must be one of the shareholders of the company (but not necessarily the majority shareholder). As a company expands, it increases its earning power, which will affect how much dividend it can pay to its investors the next time dividends are to be paid.

Another action that players can take is to develop hexes on the game board. This usually increases the earning power of the railroad companies that have expanded into that particular hex. Sometimes it gives a one-time income to these companies.

There is a long-term goal for the four starting railroad companies - to reach Chicago. This is an important goal, because it gives a big increase in earning power, and railroad companies that reach Chicago will pay a special one-time dividend. So it is in the best interest of the shareholders to have their companies reach Chicago. The first time that one of the four companies reaches Chicago, a special event also takes place - the Wabash Cannonball company is started, a 5th company that the players can invest in, expand and earn money from.

On a player's turn, there are only 3 choices (well, 4 if you count passing) - to put a share up for auction, to expand a company or to develop a hex. It seems very straight-forward, but it actually isn't. Players do not equal companies, so you have think of them separately. When you take an action you have to think about whether you are benefiting another player, and if so by how much. Do you want to win a share in one company so that you can control it and intentionally mess it up? Do you want to put a share up for offer just to dilute the earnings of a company? Do you take an action for the sake of speeding up the game end or triggering the next dividend payout? Do you want to delay them instead? The rules are straight-forward, but the strategies are not so simple. This is quite interesting. Another consideration is each company only has a limited number of shares that it can issue. Once they are all out, the company won't be able to raise more money, and no one else can get an additional share in that company.

The very very well produced Chicago Express, from Queen Games. Four companies (red, green, blue, yellow) start on the eastern edge fo the board and expand towards Chicago. The dials on the left record the actions taken by players, and when two dials reach the red section, a dividend round is triggered.

One share from the yellow railroad company, and two from the green railroad company.

Our game started with Han obtaining shares in two companies, and Chong Sean and I one each. From quite early in the game, I had a nagging feeling that I was rather screwed. This was because of share ownership of the companies. I had no majority share in any good company, which meant if I expanded these companies, I'm benefiting either Han or Chong Sean more, or at least equally. I was majority shareholder in one company, but it was the furthest from Chicago, and no one was interested in expanding it due to poor potential.

At game end, indeed I came last. During the game, two companies reached Chicago, Han being the majority shareholder in one, and Chong Sean the other. Han also had some shares in "Chong Sean's" company, and I had some in "Han's". There was a race between these two companies (red and blue) to reach Chicago.

We didn't do a lot of development during our game. The contribution of development to company profits seemed small. We did auction many shares and we did much expansion. The game end condition was triggered by three companies running out of shares. The other possible game end conditions are (a) 3 companies running out of train tokens used for expansion, (b) 3 houses / development markers left, (c) dividend payouts have been made 7 times.

Han won the game with Chong Sean not far behind. I was far behind. In hindsight, I probably should have been more aggressive in buying shares early. Han was cash poor in the early game, but his shares allowed him to earn much money throughout the game. It the early game, when the shares were not very diluted yet, he earned a lot of money from his share holdings.

I tried to manipulate the share holdings, but didn't seem to go anywhere with my attempt. The game developed very quickly, and before I knew it I was already stuck in a rut. I didn't even have time to think about what exactly I did wrong. I think I probably should have bid more aggressively for shares.

Chicago Express is a quick game. It is also a very subtle game. Despite the simple rules, there are many things you need to consider. There is quite a bit of thinking required. I definitely have not fully explored the game yet, and would like to try again, and hopefully do better. We did not do much development during the game. I had been focusing a lot on trying to manipulate share ownership, and I wonder whether that was the right thing to do in the first place. We did not do much about the Wabash Cannonball company, the 5th company that popped up when one of the other four companies reached Chicago. There is probably more thought I need to give to what shares to auction, and how much to bid.

Another thing that just occurred to me is there can also be some diplomacy in the game, e.g. players making unofficial pacts to stop the leader. The rules do not allow players to trade shares among themselves, but there's nothing stopping players from collaborating. Another things to note is this is a completely open information game, so it rewards skillful play. But of course this may also encourage analysis paralysis.

For the moment Chicago Express doesn't yell out to me "Buy me! Buy me!". But it's definitely an interesting puzzle that I'd like to study further.

Wednesday 23 September 2009

Cartagena II

Sat 19 Sep 2009, Carcasean boardgame cafe. I played Cartagena II with Chong Sean and Han. This is very similar to Cartagena, and in fact Chong Sean told me you can play this using the components from Cartagena. There are just some rule twists.

In this game, each player controls a team of pirates, and races to get all his pirates to a pirate town. The race track is made up of 5 modular boards. There are 7 types of icons on the race track, which affects how you move your pirates. You move pirates by playing cards. When you play a card, you move one pirate to the next empty space showing the same icon as the card. Sometimes a pirate can run very very far ahead if many of the icons are covered by other pirates (whether yours or your opponents'). You don't get to draw cards every turn. To draw cards, you must move an opponent's pirate forward (in the original Cartagena you move your own pirate backwards to collect cards). The opponent pirate moves to the next occupied space, and you get to collect up to two cards, depending on how many pirates there are.

So when you move your own pirates forward, you try to get them to move as far as possible. When you have to help your opponents, you try to help them as little as possible, while still trying to get yourself two cards if you can. When moving your pirates, you have to think about whether you are setting up the next player for an even better move. If you have played a map card to move a pirate very far ahead, the next player may also have a map card and may be able to move his pirate even further ahead, because your own pirate has just occupied the next most advanced map space. Another tactical consideration is breaking up your opponents' opportunities for big moves. If you see a whole chain of compass spaces being occupied, you may want to break the chain by moving one of your pirates who happen to be standing on a compass space, so that the next player can't make a big move by playing a compass card.

One twist in the game is the boat. The track is broken down into two sections, with a sea (river? channel?) in between. This forces a break-up of very big moves. There is also a mini area-majority competition on the boat. The player(s) who has the most pirates on the boat can move the boat for free. Else it costs one action. You get three actions on your turn. Also because you have 3 actions, there is some planning that you can do. Sometime you can do powerful combinations of actions, which is amazing considering how simple the game is.

The first section of the race track. The game is missing two yellow pirates, so Chong Sean has used some generic piece in their place. See th yellow pawn on the right.

This is the second section of the track, with a town at the end, and a pirate flag waiting to be hoisted.

Some of the cards, which I think are beautiful.

In our game, Chong Sean got off to a good start, since he is more familiar with the game. That turned out to be a bad thing, because it meant Han and I preferred to help each other because we were wary of him. Soon some good card combos put me ahead, and I never looked back.

I just realised that Cartagena II is actually a race game when I started writing this blog entry. Somehow when I played the game it didn't feel that way to me. Maybe it is because it is so much more about card management and planning. It didn't feel like the pirates were running very hard. It felt more like they were magically jumping ahead. This is actually a fairly abstract game. This game reminds me of That's Life, which also has a team of pawns moving along a track. Cartagena II is more about managing your whole team of pirates and how to use your actions effectively. It actually doesn't feel like a race game to me, where speed is most important. There is a lot of player interaction, because all your actions have implications to others.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Kakerlaken-Poker and Kakerlaken-Suppe

On Sat 19 Sep 2009 I played two quick and funny games with Chong Sean at Carcasean boardgame cafe while waiting for Han to arrive, Kakerlaken-Poker (Cockroach poker?) and Kakerlaken-Suppe (Cockroach soup?). They don't sound exactly appetising, but when you see their colourful and funny artwork, you'll realise they are light-hearted fun.

We played Kakerlaken-Suppe first. This is a reflex game, very ideal as a party game, and probably will be very noisy too. Cards are distributed evenly to all players, and whoever gets rid of his or her cards first wins. On your turn, you take one card from your deck, turn it over and put it at the centre of the table. Then you say the name of the vegetable shown on the card. However, if the previous card(s) showing has the same vegetable, you can't say the name of that vegetable, and must say the name of another one. Also, you can't say the name of the vegetable that the previous player has just said. The previous player may have said a name that didn't match the previous card played (e.g. because it was the same vegetable that his previous player had named). If you are lost for words, or say the wrong thing, you are penalised and must collect all the cards at the centre of the table. Then you start another round.

There's more. There are some soup-tasting cards. When these cards turn up, you say "Slurp!". These cards show one of the four vegetables. Once one of these soup-tasting cards are in play, whenever that vegetable shows up, you must say "Slurp!" instead of the name of the vegetable. Remember the rule that you can't say the same thing as the previous player? If he has said "Slurp!", whether due to the soup-tasting card or a vegeable matching the previously played soup-tasting card, you must say "Mmmm!" (i.e. the cockroach soup tastes so good).

The four types of vegetable cards - carrot, pepper, leek and mushroom, and two of the soup-tasting card.

So the whole game is about making sure you say the right thing - pepper, mushroom, leek, carrot, Slurp!, or Mmmm!, while remembering all the rules and exceptions and exceptions to exceptions. Play it very quick, and someone is bound to make a mistake.

This is a party game like Halli Galli, and I think it's a bit tricker, because you have to say something (and make sure you say the right thing) rather than just hitting the bell. This is probably pretty good with children and with new players / casual players.

Kakerlaken-Poker is by the same designer, with similar artwork, but it is quite a different game. And it's nothing like poker, other than that you need to keep a poker face. This game is probably best played with a larger group. Chong Sean and I played a 2P game, which was still alright, but probably not as funny as (and I do mean "as funny as", not "as much fun as") a 4P or more game.

In this game, there is only one loser and the rest are all winners. The moment someone collects 4 pests of the same type, he loses and the game ends (and he does something silly or embarrassing or illegal if your group had agreed on some penalty beforehand). A player starts a round by passing one card to the player on his left, and declares what type of card it is. He can lie if he wants to. The player receiving the card can decide to challenge or to pass on the card. If he decides to challenge, he makes a guess on whether the previous player has lied, and then flips over the card. If he is right, the first player takes the card and puts it in front of himself face-up. If he is wrong, he takes the card himself. If the receiving player decides to pass the card on, he looks at the card before passing it on. He can declare the card to be what the previous player has claimed it is, or declare it to be something else. Then the next receiving player has to decide what to do - to challenge or to pass on the card. This continues until someone issues a challenge resulting in someone taking the card, or until the card reaches the last player. At this time the last player must challenge, since he is not allowed to pass the card back to the start player.

So this game as all about lying and tricking your opponents into taking unwanted pests. When you lie, you want to do it so convincingly that your opponent will believe you. When you tell the truth, you want to do it in such a way that others won't believe you.

6 of the 8 types of pests in Kakerlaken-Poker - bat, cockroach, stink bug, fly, toad, rat.

In our 2P game, there are some special rules. And of course there is no card passing at all. When I give a card to Chong Sean, he must challenge me immediately, and vice versa. So it all comes down to who is the better liar (or guesser). As I played the game, I found that there is another layer to it, in how to pick a card to play, and what to lie about when you do want to lie. There is also some thought when you challenge a card passed to you. If you already have many toad cards, and the guy giving the card to you says it's a toad, it may be better to say you believe it, because if you don't, and it turns out to be a toad afterall, then you'd have to take it, which is bad for you. You can also observe what pests the other players are afraid of, and pick your cards (and your lies) accordingly. So the game isn't as simple or thoughtless as one may initially be lead to believe. But of course you can play it mindlessly if you want, and this is probably how you should play it when in a party environment. This is a laughter-generating game.

One thing that I really like about both Kakerlaken-Poker and Kakerlaken-Suppe is the artwork. I think it's excellent.

Monday 21 September 2009

Snow Tails

I am back in KK (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah) again, and as usual, am visiting Carcasean boardgame cafe frequently again to play games. I am looking forward to playing many new games, and to writing about them too.

The first new game this time is Snow Tails, a game about dog sled racing. You have a sled pulled by two dogs. You "drive" your sled by playing cards. Every player has his own deck of canine cards, with numbers 1 to 5. On your turn, you must play 1 to 3 cards (if playing more than one, they must be of the same number). They can be applied to left dog, right dog or brake. The number of spaces your sled moves is left dog number + right dog number - brake number. If your two dogs are not pulling at the some strength, your sled will drift to the left or right, depending on which dog is pulling harder. That's how you turn.

My speed was 4, i.e. I would move 4 steps. 5+2-3=4. My drift is 3 and is to the left (5-2=3). I can distribute these 3 drift steps any way I like among my four forward moves.

Then there are damages. You have a hand of 5 cards. If you slide past a corner too fast, or bang into a tree, or bang against the wall, you get dent cards. Dent cards basically occupy hand space, so you will have less flexibility when managing your cards. If you get 5 dent cards, your sled falls apart and you lose immediately.

I played this with Han and Chong Sean, and we played one of the intermediate difficulty tracks, since we are veteran gamers, ahem. We had trees (technically they are called saplings), and we had one section where the track narrowed dangerously. We had one hairpin turn too. We were quite conservative in taking dents. Throughout the game Han and Chong Sean only had one dent each. I was the only one with 2 dents, and I regretted very much for allowing the second one to happen. The cost in flexibility was much more than I had expected. Chong Sean cruised to a comfortable win. I was slightly behind Han, and we both crossed the finish line on the same round. However, I was lucky to draw a 5 card, and although in real time I crossed the line after him, because I passed the line further than he did, I was considered to have beaten him by a hair. That was an unexpected twist, as I had been doing quite poorly for the last stretch of the race, due to my 2 dents.

I was green, and was first to enter the forest. Being positioned where I was, I had blocked one possible path for Han and Chong Sean.

Snow Tails is simple and interesting. There is actualy some thought that you need to put into how you play your cards. There is also some forward planning you need to do - what card to play on your next turn, how to maneuver your sled to avoid trees, to turn corners, to not overspeed when entering corners. I was slightly surprised by the game. There is more thought to it than I had expected. I had thought it would be simpler and more tactical.

With three players, we did have some player interaction, e.g. trying to get into each other's way, trying to block another player's path, but it wasn't really a lot. I think the game will be more interesting with more players. It supports up to 5.

Sunday 20 September 2009

5P Automobile

On Fri 11 Sep 2009, I finally joined the Old Town Kopitiam Cheras (OTK Cheras) gamers to play for the first time. I have been talking about joining them to play since slightly more than a year ago, when my regular kaki (gaming buddy) Han was being transferred to another city because of work. By now Han is expecting to return to KL soon. The OTK players are regulars, so the cafe reserves two rectangular tables with sofas for them every Friday.

I was one of the earlier arrivals, so I played Wyatt Earp with Jeff and Wai Yan as a starter. I have played this 5 years ago but have forgotten most of the rules. It's by the same designer (Mike Fitzgerald) of the Mystery Rummy series, so there are many similarities. However my impression of it hasn't changed since the last time I played. I didn't enjoy it as much as the other Mystery Rummy games. What was funny in our game was how I kept getting Hideout cards, and I kept playing them on Jeff and Wai Yan's melds to deny them points. Still, it didn't help to prevent me from coming in last. Serves me right for being nasty.

After Wyatt Earp, I played a 5P game of Automobile, this being the first time I played with 5P, the supposedly ideal number of players. I played with Jeff, David, Afif and Reza, who all played this game for the first time.

5P Automobile can be quite brutal. Competition is more fierce, because the number of slots for distributors is the same as when playing with fewer players, and the demand for luxury cars is the same too. The game becomes quite tight. There were a few times when some distributors had to be fired because there weren't enough slots, or when the players controlling them didn't have the right car type that they could sell. It suddenly dawned on me this advantage of producing all 3 types of cars - it can help your distributors keep their jobs. You have more flexibility when fighting the distributor war.

I made a very stupid mistake in the first round. Well, maybe I should say I made two very stupid mistakes. I console myself by telling myself that I made stupid mistakes because I had been a good teacher and had been paying more attention to teaching than to playing. First mistake was placing three distributors, when I was 4th (or 5th?) in turn order. That's bad, because in Round 1, there are very few slots for distributors, and when you are far behind in turn order, it's risky to place so many distributors. Although distributors are good, and it's always good to place some earlier, I probably shouldn't have placed 3 (the max allowed per action). In Round 1, I was the only person to build a factory for cheap cars, anticipating the later growing demand for such cars, and trying to avoid competition in mid range cars. Second mistake - I should not have built 2 factories. That would force me to produce at least 5 cars every time I produce. In Round 1, there is no general demand for cheap cars, and there are only 3 distributor slots for them. I didn't control the Howard character, so I couldn't sell 2 cars using him. So I could sell at most 3 cheap cars, even if no one competed with me. Why the heck did I build 2 factories? Third mistake - I realise I actually made three, not two - I decided not to produce cars in Round 1. I decided to build two more factories instead (a 3rd car factory on the cheap car spot, and a parts factory), to lay foundations for the future, and to avoid the losses and the loss cubes penalty for failing to sell cars. After I did that, I suddenly realised that I had basically just hired and fired 3 distributors in the same Round. The three jokers didn't have cars to sell. Bye-bye. Hello three loss cubes (which is even more than if I had just produced five cheap cars and failed to sell two of them).

A photo of Automobile taken earlier. For more photos taken on the actual day, see here

The game was very enjoyable, despite my silly mistakes. 5P Automobile is tough and challenging. Surprisingly, there were still times when we underestimated the demand for cars, and thus produced less than we should have. I think somehow we tend to focus on the market demand, which is only one of three ways of selling cars. There are other avenues - the Howard character, and the distributors. We had incidents of players discounting cars out of fear of failing to sell, but it turned out that the market demand was high enough for all cars to be sold. The car buyers must be laughing... But we did have incidents of having too many cars too, and players taking loss cubes as a result.

One trick that we learned was to build one advanced factory late in the game, and then closing it. Closing a factory costs you $100, but it also allows you to get rid of half your loss cubes. In Round 4, each loss cube will cost you $40. So if you have lots of loss cubes, you can consider this. The other possible advantage of building that single factory is to allow you to have cars in all three classes. I did this, the single factory being a mid range car factory. I only produced very few mid range cars, but the flexibility that it gave me helped me a lot in the distributor wars. Also since I wasn't producing many cars anyway, I didn't have to worry too much about being unable to sell all of them. And of course, some profit from these sales wouldn't hurt.

I have played Automobile 7 times now, and I think indeed the game is best with 5. 4 is quite good too, but I think 3 would be less interesting. With 5, you get pain - the good type of pain.

Friday 18 September 2009

gaming in photos

31 Aug 2009. Pandemic. This was one very unusual game of Pandemic. Michelle and I now play exclusively at hard difficulty (i.e. 6 Epidemic cards in the deck). In this particular game, our card draws were lucky, and we made all the right choices. We eradicated one disease after another, and once we eradicated one, infection cards for it keep turning up (i.e. no effect). It was almost a perfect game. We eradicated three diseases, and by game end, there was only one city still with sick people - Shanghai with two red cubes.

5 Sep 2009. Galaxy Trucker. I was quite confident when I built this spaceship. I had lots of cannons and lots of engines. I didn't bother much with crew size, since from the event cards that I had seen, they weren't that important. Then one of the earliest events that came up was a war zone. The player with the least crew had to lose goods. I had no goods yet, so I had to lose batteries. Without enough batteries to power my double-cannons and double-engines...

...eventually my spaceship ended up like this. I guess I should consider myself lucky that I still had one human crew left to bring this piece of junk back safely.

My 3rd spaceship in the game turned out better, but it wasn't enough for me to catch up after my disastrous 2nd journey.

12 Sep 2009. Han and I played Waterloo again, the 2nd time for both of us. This time we switched sides so I played the French and he played the Allies. Waterloo has an interesting mechanism for tracking injury / death of your soldiers. Injury / death are represented by damage cubes, and these cubes are like baggage. Infantry units can carry up to five of them with them when they move. If any infantry unit is forced to carry 6 cubes, that unit is eliminated. So carrying the cubes away from the front line represent injured units retreating to safety, while fresh units take up their spots at the front. In this particular photo, one of my infantry units carried 5 cubes with it to retreat to safety.

In our game, Han executed a very good cavalry flanking move. Massing some cavalry, he charged my left flank, and killed off many of my cavalry, and one precious leader and one infantry unit. Killing cavalry units do not count towards the victory conditions, but cavalry units are important and when put to good use can be devastating.

I brought some of my own cavalry units from my right flank to come save my crumbling left flank. I eventually did beat back Han's brave cavalry group, but overall I lost more cavalry units than him. It was a painful lesson. I should have been more careful.

Three injured infantry units hiding away from the fight. You need to save your infantry units because they count towards the victory conditions. Another twist in the game is if you run out of damage cubes (e.g. you have been too efficient in getting infantry units to carry them to the rear) and need to assign some damage to units which are fighting, you must then eliminate some infantry units to free up some damage cubes. I imagine this as injured soldiers dying from their injuries.

This was the end of the game. We were only at Round 4 (of 9). The Prussians had just arrived at the battle (but only two units - see upper right corner). At the start of Round 4, I suddenly spotted a gap in the Allied front lines, and used two cavalry units to charge through it to attack two badly injured Allied infantry units. That gave me enough kills to achieve a French instant victory. So Napoleon rewrote history again.

Han and I both felt it was hard playing as the Allies. We had learned from our first game, and played better (I'd like to think so), but still by the time the Prussians arrived, the Allied forces were spread very thin. Well, not that the Frenchmen had much reserves left. I wonder whether we were still playing overly aggressively. Could the Allies have stalled for time more? After all, they win after Round 9 as long as the French don't achieve their goal. The French probably should be playing aggressively, to try to win the game before the Prussians arrive.

After our second game, I still find Waterloo to have a bit too many look-up tables for my liking. Many factors to consider when referencing these tables too. Combat resolution feels a little convoluted. But it does feel realistic. (aah... the compromise between elegance and being thematic) Indeed after a while we got familiar with the tables and it became quicker to look up. But if I play this game again a few months from now, I'd likely have to learn this looking up all over again. Painful.

13 Sep 2009. Hammer of the Scots. Han and I have not played this for quite a while. He had recently been reading about Robert the Bruce, and was interested to play this game again. Of course, we played the second scenario - The Bruce. Han played the Scots and I played the English. This was early in the game, and I had sent the English King Edward I and two knights into Scotland.

Hammer of the Scots is a game about the Scottish war of independence, inspired by the Mel Gibson movie Braveheart (which I loved and later found out it was full of fiction). The game mostly centres around controlling the 14 Scottish nobles. Nobles either side the English or the Scots. When you defeat an enemy noble, instead of killing him, he joins your side. The two sides play very differently, and the game is very interesting. It is considered an entry-level wargame. Not too complex, and at the same time very thematic.

By the fourth year, Han had already coverted the whole of northern Scotland to blue (Scottish side). Things were not looking good for the English. I have been making use of English knights a lot. The advantage they give is their strength. However the down side is they are for short-term use only. In the Bruce scenario, they can't spend winter in Scotland and must leave the board at the end of the year (go home for Christmas).

This was on very big battle where the Scots (blue) attacked the English (red). The English king was in Scotland that year. If either king died, the game would end in an instant victory for the other side. The 12 blocks lying down were the main attackers and defenders. The blocks still standing were the reserves, and would arrive at the battlefield only by the 2nd round of battle. A battle only lasts 3 rounds, after which the attacker must retreat if there are defenders remaining.

This particular battle went well for the English. We learned that when big battles like these happen, the defender gets a big advantage, because he gets to roll dice first. The attacker will usually be badly hurt before he can even start attacking.

Han retreated from this battle. I later pursued, and suffered the same fate, and had to retreat. We played until the last year of the scenario, and Han won the game decisively, with 8 nobles vs my 5 nobles. In hindsight, I probably should have spent more effort on controlling nobles and setting up for the longer term, as opposed to trying to set up big battles and making use of knights so much. I should have brought in more infantry (which were not as strong as knights but could stay in Scotland over winter). I still enjoy Hammer of the Scots a lot.

Jing Yi, Sui Jye, Han, playing Modern Art. Sui Jye was interested in trying this. I have not played this for quite a while myself.

Wednesday 2 September 2009

gaming in photos

23 Aug 2009. Race for the Galaxy with Gathering Storm expansion. This was early in the game. I had played Drop Ships, and had both Galactic Imperium and Imperium Lords in my hand. The military path was in no doubt.

My tableau at game end. 53pts. I had four 6-cost dev cards, and all three of the military ones. I had many gene (green) and alien (yellow) windfall military worlds, which means I kept trading and gaining lots of cards.

Guess what... Michelle beat me. She had 55pts. He start world was Doomed World, which she had discarded but I put it here half hidden. She had 5 of the 6 objectives!

29 Aug 2009. Through the Ages. Michelle and I had just completed Age III of a 2-player game. She was only 4 points ahead of me before resolving the last four events.

I was exactly 10 points ahead of her (in a ~250pt game) after the 4 events were resolved. 3 were in my favour. This was a close game. I had been trailing her the whole game.

My leaders, wonders, colonies and special techs. I find that I quite like the Hanging Gardens, which allow me to forgo an early temple or two. In this game, I think the key for my win was the two Age III wonders that I managed to build. Michelle didn't have any Age III wonders.

My civilisation. I had focused on my stone production and science throughout most of the game.

Michelle's wonders, special techs, leaders and colonies. I just realised she had so many extra blue and yellow tokens. James Cook is upside down because he had "early retirement" due to the Iconoclasm event that I had planted into the event deck. Good thing that I drew the Iconoclasm card, else Cook would have spent many more turns generating 8 points for Michelle.

Michelle's civilisation. I just realised that we both like labs and theatres.

Lord of the Rings with Battlefields expansion. Han and I managed to win this once, and that was the only time I managed to beat this game (this is a cooperative game where the players play against the game system). Michelle and I have tried many times, but never even got close to winning. This time we tried each controlling 2 hobbits, but we failed yet again. I don't know what we did wrong. Yet I don't want to read strategy articles on BoardGameGeek. I want to figure this out ourselves. It's starting to get rather frustrating though.

We tried twice over that weekend, both times with 4 hobbits. The first time we lost when at Shelob's Lair, i.e. we didn't even reach the last scenario board. On the second attempt we did reach Mordor, but we were nowhere close to destroying the Ring. We played at easy difficulty, i.e. Sauron starts at 15. Are other people finding Battlefields hard? Harder than Friends and Foes? How does the difficulty vary with different numbers of players?

30 Aug 2009. Elasund, a cousin of The Settlers of Catan, based on a novel which was in turn based on the original award-winning Settlers of Catan. I like Elasund. It has many similarities to Settlers of Catan, and yet is so different. The complexity is about the same, maybe slightly more, because of how permits work. I hadn't played for quite some time and was rusty. Despite the rules lookups, I enjoyed revisiting this game.

Race for the Galaxy with Gathering Storm expansion. I took this photo because this was the first time SETI (the 6-cost dev) gave me this many points - 12pts. But I'm sure there are others who have scored even more. I did have pretty lucky card draws in this game. I did not actually build the Alien Tech Institute (horizontally placed on top). I held the card in my hand at game end. I didn't have enough cards or turns to build it. It would have scored me 8pts.

On 31 Aug 2009, Michelle and I played the 2-player variant of Automobile again, and I learned something new from my loss. I realised that sometimes it's good to make losses in business, as long as you make sure your opponent loses more. In this game, Michelle produced cars very recklessly. Since she produced before I did, by the time it was my turn to produce, I was conservative and did not dare to produce many, because I doubted there was enough demand for that many cars.

In Round 3 of the game, both of us managed to sell most of our cars anyway. Michelle only failed to sell one car. In fact, there was still a little unfulfilled demand for some of the price ranges. In Round 4, Michelle failed to sell six cars. Throughout the whole game, I sold all cars that I produced. Yet I still lost the game by about $400, even though Michelle wasted a lot of money due to unsold cars. So I learned about destructive production. Don't let your opponent have an easy time selling cars. Take some risk of not selling cars, as long as you can get your opponent to fail to sell even more cars. It's a cutthroat business world.