Sunday 22 November 2009

Pandemic: On the Brink - Mutation Challenge

I have now played the Mutation Challenge variant of Pandemic: On the Brink. This is the one that introduces the purple disease. Now instead of four, you need to cure five diseases. And this fifth purple disease behaves in strange ways. Also there are 12 purple cubes only, not 24, which means you can easily run out of them and lose the game.

With the Mutation Challenge, there are three special cards shuffled into the player deck, and two special cards that will be shuffled into the infection deck after the game starts. All these cards cause purple cubes to appear or grow on the board. Most tell you to draw one or more cards from the bottom of the infection deck, and place one or more purple cubes on the city or cities depicted. These cards are the only way purple cubes appear. Purple cubes grow via a similar way as normal cubes. If you draw a card from the infection deck showing a city that already has one or more purple cubes, you add one more cube.

The appearance of purple cubes is very unpredictable, because cards are drawn from the bottom of the infection deck. In Pandemic, the discard pile of the infection deck (which tells you which cities will have disease growth) is often shuffled and added to the top of the infection deck, so you will have some idea which cards will keep coming up again and again. With the purple disease, things get trickier.

To cure the purple cube, you use 5 cards of any colour, but one of them must be of a city that currently has at least one purple cube. This can be very easy if you happen to have the right card, but if you are unlucky, this can be quite tough, especially if you have already used or discarded many of those required cards. By spending cards to cure the purple disease, you will also have fewer to cure the other 4 diseases. So you need to be careful about using and wasting cards.

Purple cubes can appear anywhere. At this point in the game, we had found a cure for the purple disease. See the purple bottle token on the top right. The black disease had also been completely eradicated (sunrise icon).

North America heavily infected with the purple disease, especially Miami.

Michelle and I played the Mutation Challenge at medium difficulty. It took us three attempts to beat the game, compared to four with the Virulent Strain variant. The purple disease was very unpredictable, and it was sometimes tough to decide whether to try to eradicate it or to just contain it. The purple disease distracted us from other diseases, and also seemed to slow down the pace of the game somewhat. I'm not sure what gave me such a feeling. It may be because we kept being instructed to draw cards from the bottom of the infection deck, which meant more and more cards were moved to the top of the deck, thus "diluting" the infection cards that we would see. So disease growth seemed to be less intensive, although it seemed to be wider.

The Mutation Challenge is very different from the Virulent Strain variant. It seems to be slightly easier (admittedly based on very few plays). From just these few initial plays, I like this less than the Virulent Strain variant, because the experience is less "fast and furious". Not that it's easy, just that how it kills you is different. The Virulent Strain stabs you in the heart. The Mutation Challenge bleeds you to death from multiple cuts. How's that for visual shock?

Having played a few more games with the various new roles, I find that these new roles are very good value for money. I discovered many interesting uses for some of the abilities of the new roles. Many of them are a lot of fun. For example, the Archivist can pick up a card from the discard deck. One trick is you play a card to fly to a city, then take the card back immediately, and use it to build a research lab, all on the same turn. The new special action cards are fun too. One of them allows you to switch roles. This can be very very useful, e.g. after a disease is cured, you can switch to become the Medic, who free-treats any cured disease by just passing by.

Now the only part of Pandemic: On the Brink I have not yet tried is the Bio-Terrorist variant. Let's hope I'll get to try this soon.

Monday 16 November 2009

Middle-Earth Quest

Han was in town, and despite a very hectic weekend, we managed to arrange a last-minute session to play Middle-Earth Quest, a game that Han has been very keen to play. This is an adventure game set in the world of Lord of the Rings, in a period between the time of the story in The Hobbit and the time of the story in Lord of the Rings itself. Sauron is preparing to gain control of Middle-Earth, and a band of heroes are trying to stop that. They need to win the game to steer the story to the starting point of Lord of the Rings. If they lose, there will be no Lord of the Rings. No Peter Jackson's Oscar-winning movies. No Risk: Lord of the Rings. No Lord of the Rings Monopoly. No society of people speaking Elven language. No tons and tons of Lord of the Rings merchandise and spin-offs. In short, the heroes have an important job.

One player plays Sauron. Up to three other players each play a hero character. The good guys have a story marker that progresses at a more or less fixed pace along a story track, towards a Finale space. The bad guy has three such story markers. He wants to move one of them to the Finale space, or all three of them to another mid-point Shadows Fall space. Both sides start the game with a randomly drawn secret mission. You try to win by pushing your story marker(s) to the Finale/Shadows Fall spaces and completing your mission, before your opponent(s) does the same. If you end the story but fail to complete your mission, or both sides end the story at the same time and both complete their missions, you determine the winner by resorting to the most primitive means - violence. You fight one last fight, between one of the heroes and the Ringwraiths, and if the hero defeats the Ringwraiths, the good guys win. Else Sauron wins.

That's the big picture. Now the fun details of what you actually do in the game.

To move his story markers, Sauron needs to play Plot cards, and keep them in play. There can be a max of 3 such cards in play at any one time, and each card advances one of Sauron's three markers, which represent three areas he can focus his effort on - (1) finding the One Ring, (2) corrupting the good guys, and (3) building his military power to conquer Middle-Earth. Most Plot cards have some conditions, so Sauron needs to fulfill them so that he can play them. Each Plot card affects a specific location. The heroes can discard a Plot card by going to that location and paying Favours, an abstracted concept, and the most important "currency" in the game.

Each hero has a deck of cards that is used for moving about the board, for fighting, and for tracking injury and tiredness. These cards are handled in quite a novel way. A hero will often need to rest to regain strength. There are some safe havens on the board, e.g. Minas Tirith, Lothlorien, where a hero can heal injuries and hide from attacks. Event cards will throw out Favours on the board for heroes to collect. Friends (like Gandalf, Boromir, Theoden) will pop up, and heroes can consult them to gain Favours or other benefits, like improving themselves or getting some nifty tool. At each location that a hero stops, he can also explore that location by drawing a location card. This is basically another form of event cards. All these cards provide the flavour and story to the game.

Sauron has minions (more powerful) and monsters (less so) at his disposal. He uses them to hinder the heroes and protect the locations of his Plot cards. Sauron also has Shadow cards to play on the heroes, and Corruption cards too. Corruption of the heroes is quite interesting. Heroes can voluntarily gain Corruption cards. If you are desperate to gain some Favours, you can "pay" for some by taking Corruption. However there are many Shadow cards where the effectiveness is determined by how Corrupted the targeted hero is. So although it's tempting, it's probably better not to take too much Corruption. Or at least you should try to get rid of it quickly. This is quite thematic and I think it's a nice touch.

The combat system is simple and fun. Only card play and no dice. There is some double guessing, because there's simultaneous card selection. And combats do not drag. Usually it's just 2 to 4 cards played (by one side) and the fight ends.

There are many more details to the game. When I first saw the many cards and components, it was overwhelming, but after reading the rules, everything fell into place and it turned out to be less difficult than I had expected. However in our first game we did have to look up the rules quite a few times to double check some details. Thankfully there is a turn order overview on the board itself, which is very useful.

The gameboard is huge, and is made up of two pieces. The board took up so much space that we had to put some of the components on vacant spots on the board itself. But the board does already have some spots reserved for some of the components. The number of cards is daunting at first, but after you read the rules, everything falls into place and it's not all that complex. This is a game where the bad guy sits at the right side of the board (i.e. south side).

Eleanor, the hero character that Han chose to play.

The various evil cards at Sauron's disposal. From left to right: Peril cards are played on heroes who enter a dangerous location. Corruption cards are played on heroes and have ongoing effects (e.g. reducing strength) until the cards are discarded. Shadow cards are one-time-use cards that can be played at various times. Plot cards are key to keeping Sauron's story markers advancing. Heroes need to work hard to discard them from play.

Saruman was still a nice guy during the period covered by the game. The flag marker with a "1" behind Saruman on the right is a location marker for one of Sauron's plot cards. The figure on the right is the Mouth of Sauron, one of the five minions at Sauron's disposal. The square token in the foreground is a moster token. These are drawn randomly by Sauron when Sauron wants to deploy a moster. Some of them are blank. The stacked round tokens are Sauron's influence.

The good guys. I didn't realise Aragorn and Boromir were that old. Or maybe they were very young during this time.

Sauron's minions. The Witch King, the Ringwraiths, and Gothmog.

In our game I played Sauron, and Han played Eleanor (not 100% sure of spelling), the pretty girl from Rohan. My secret mission was to have 3 plot cards in play when my story marker reaches the Finale space (or all 3 markers reach the Shadows Fall space). I was lucky to have mostly drawn plot cards that move the military marker, so I focused on that, allowing my story marker to advance at about the same pace as the hero's marker. Han collected many Favour tokens and managed to discard some of my plot cards. He was quite conservative it taking Corruption, and never had more than one. He tried to get rid of them quickly when he got one.

In one surprise battle he confronted Gothmog, one of my five minions, and killed him. That was some good fighting. Other than this there weren't much fighting. There were some small fights with some of my minor monsters. They all got killed. But that's OK. They are dispensible. I'm happy to just waste some of Eleanor's cards and make her tired. Han had some wasted turns because he waited too long to rest Eleanor. By then he only had very few cards in hand, and could only rest (shuffle used cards back into the draw deck) and could not move anywhere (you need cards to move). We joked that the good guys pay tickets (bus tickets, train tickets, air tickets) but the bad guys don't.

The board is rather big for just one hero, even though in a 2-player game the hero takes double turns. Eleanor never visited the north west area near the Shire, where Favours accumulated (i.e. wasted) throughout the game. But she did cover much ground. Heroes move much faster than minions or monsters. They play cards for movement and can move far as long as they have the right cards or have enough cards. Minion / monster movement is one step per Sauron action, and you have only two Sauron actions. Mounted minions move two steps, but still you can't really use your minions to catch heroes. Better just to used them to block the way or to protect plot card locations.

Game in progress. Eleanor moving to the north to thwart my plans, by discarding my plot card. The scroll token just below Eleanor is a Favour token. The track on top is the story track. The green token is the heroes' story token. The red token is Sauron's military token.

Details of the board. Every path has an icon and a number. These only affect heroes. To travel along a path, a hero must play one card with the matching icon, or pay a number of cards (of any icon) equal to that number on the path. The round tokens are Sauron's influence. The scrolls are the Favours.

The three sections on top are the three types of actions Sauron can take - place influence, draw Shadow and Plot cards, and command minions and monsters. The Shadow Pool below can hold different numbers of influence tokens depending on the stage of the story. Sauron needs to place influence here too, because many cards have a minimum requirement on influence in the Shadow Pool.

Details of two locations. The white castle on the border means a safe haven for the heroes. Locations are colour coded to make it easier to look for them when you play the game.

My very heavily guarded Plot Card location - Isengard. I have one minion and two monster token in Isengard itself, and two other minions guarding the only two paths leading to Isengard. Naturally, Eleanor would think twice before approaching.

Han contemplating his options as the Finale approached.

Details of Gothmog, one of Sauron's minions.

As we approached the Finale, I happily had three plot cards in play, fulfilling my secret mission. If my marker reached the Finale before Han's did, I would win. I guarded my plot card locations heavily, fully utilising all five minions. Even Gothmog was brought back from death using a Shadow card. I tried to guess Han's secret mission. It likely wasn't the one about fulfilling quests, since he had not been spending much effort on that. I was guessing whether it was the one about not getting too much Corruption, because he seemed to be quite adament about ridding Eleanor of Corruption. I think guessing and trying to prevent your opponent from achieving his mission should be a big part of the game.

There was one event card (not my plot card) that moved my military marker one additional step per round. It could have allowed my military marker to reach the Finale before Han's marker did. But Han got rid of this card by exploring the affected location, and eventually our story markers reached the Finale in the same round. He revealed his secret mission - it was the one about having 5 Favours. No wonder he didn't try to discard my plot cards. It was not only because they were heavily protected. It was also because he would have had to spend his Favours, and then would have failed his secret mission. Since we both fulfilled our missions, it was time for the climatic battle!

That's not good news for Han, because Eleanor wasn't exactly a fighter type. She's smart, which meant I could rarely play a Peril card on her. If I have more influence tokens at a location than how wise a hero entering the location is, I get a chance to play a Peril card on him/her. The final battle was very different from the other battles throughout the game. The hero must defeat the Ringwraiths in order to win. So I no longer had any interest in trying to hurt the hero or waste the hero's cards. I just wanted to survive. I became much more defensive. My minion was not dispensible anymore. For the hero, it was do or die.

And we fought. Round after round after round. The tension built, as Eleanor approached exhaustion, and the Ringwraiths approached defeat. It was on the very last card that Han could play, that Eleanor defeated the Ringwraiths, using the bonus ability of the combat card played. If I played a ranged combat card, Eleanor gained +2 attack. I did play a ranged combat card, and that +2 attack was just enough to kick the Ringwraiths back to Mordor (they couldn't die). The good triumphed over the evil. I actually still had some melee combat cards, and could have played one. If so I would have won the game. In hindsight, I noticed that for the first 4 or 5 rounds of combat I had been playing only melee cards. That was why Han was guessing that I probably had run out of melee cards by then, and chose to play that card which needed me to play a ranged card to be more effective. It all came down to one last card play!

Our game went on for about 3 hours. The game was fun. The two sides played very differently. Amidst the adventuring (for the heroes) and trap-laying (for Sauron), we had to keep remembering the secret missions and the story track progression. That was the most important goal to keep in mind, and it was also a form of countdown timer. I like this aspect of the game, because it gives a sense of purpose, and also a sense of urgency. The heroes are not just wandering around aimlessly. Sauron is not just hurting the heroes for the sake of being nasty. Most of his game revolves around his plot cards.

Tuesday 10 November 2009

Pandemic: On the Brink - virulent strain

So far I have only played one of the three main variants in the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion, the Virulent Strain variant. This is the simplest of the three, and thus easiest to convince Michelle to play. She is allergic to new games and new rules, despite being a fan of Through the Ages.

Let's start from the beginning. Here are what come with this expansion and what I think of them so far. There are more special action cards, and a new rule about how many such cards are to be included in any game. The number should be twice the number of players in the game. In the base game we had a fixed number of 5 special event cards. The new special action cards are interesting, and having this new rule means you'll never know which cards you'll get in a game. A new surprise element. I like this.

There are more new roles now. Some are more interesting than others. There is a new, stronger version of the Operations Expert. This addition gives more replayability. I like this too.

There are component upgrades / changes. The expansion gives you 6 plastic petri dishes for your wooden components. They look good, and they are handy to keep your components sorted. One minor complaint is sometimes it is harder to pick up a disease cube from the petri dish than from your table. The new set of pawns are smaller, which is good. The old ones really are too big. The new cards have a linen finish. It seems many people are asking for this, so Z-man Games decided to do this. I don't really mind linen finish or otherwise. The cards are thinner though, and the colour is slightly lighter. That's a pity, because sometimes when I look at the player card deck I can tell that the top card is a new card (colour is lighter). Z-man offered to give for free a set of replacement cards with linen finish. I have sent out my request. I hope to receive it safely (not necessarily soon), so that all the cards would look and feel the same.

Very good looking new components - plastic petri dishes, with realistic looking labels (which you need to stick on yourself), purple cubes for the Mutation variant and Bio-terrorist variant.

The three main variants in the expansion are the Virulent Strain variant, the Mutation variant and the Bio-terrorist variant. I've only played the first, so I'll just talk about this one. When you play the Virulent Strain variant, you use a different set of epidemic cards. There are 8 epidemic cards for the Virulent Strain variant, each discribing a different additional effect that affects one of the four diseases - the one with the virulent strain. You randomly pick a number of cards from these 8, depending on the difficulty that you are playing on. Michelle and I played on medium difficulty, i.e. 5 epidemic cards.

When the first epidemic card comes up, you'll do the same things as a normal epidemic, but you'll need to then determine which of the four diseases has the virulent strain, before performing the additional activity as directed by the epidemic card. The disease with the most number of cubes on the board is the one with the virulent strain. Every time an epidemic card comes up, something will happen to that virulent strain disease. E.g. you have to remove four cubes from the game (i.e. it becomes easier for you to lose the game by running out of cubes of that colour), or from that time onwards whenever an outbreak occurs for the virulent strain disease, it counts as two outbreaks (i.e. it becomes easier for you to lose by reaching 8 outbreaks).

Michelle and I normally play Pandemic at difficult level. When we played the Virulent Strain variant, we decided to start with medium difficulty. It took us four tries to beat the game. We found that we often had to try to cure the virulent strain disease first, or even completely eradicate it. Otherwise it would cause too much trouble. Sometimes it is hard to eradicate the disease. In such cases, we at least had to try to contain it well, to have a chance at winning. Sometimes we spend so much effort on it, we lost the game because of other normal diseases that we couldn't take care of.

Two of the new pawns. Light pink is the Epidemiologist (one per turn you can use one action to get a non-matching city card from another player located in the same city as you are in). Blue is the Archivist (hand limit is 8 instead of 7; once per turn you can use one action to draw your current city's card from the discard pile.

Left: one of the new epidemic cards from the Virulant Strain variant. Right: the new Epidemiologist role card.

A funny thing happened in one of our games. We had a bad chain of outbreaks, and as we placed red cubes onto the board, we found that the chain of outbreaks had precisely used up our red cubes (which meant we lost)! What a disappointment. We thought we did quite well. Then suddenly we remembered that our 2-year-old daughter was playing with the red cubes just a moment ago. She had gone on to play with the laptop. We both turned to her to check whether she took any red cubes. We opened one hand and then the other, and found one red cube! All was not lost yet! Chen Rui was our saviour for the day. Unfortunately it was a short day. We still lost that game soon afterwards.

I enjoyed the Virulent Strain variant. It throws some nasty surprises at you and gives you more challenges. It does force you to pay more attention to the virulent strain disease, but it can still be tough to decide how much effort you want to spend on it. Just cure it or try to eradicate it too? If it's too hard to eradicate, how far are you willing to go to try to contain it, hoping that doing this will buy you more time to cure the other diseases?

Now I'm looking forward to try the Mutation variant. The Bio-terrorist variant is a very different beast, with similarities to Scotland Yard. I'm not sure it works with 2 players, where the good player controls two characters. So I may not get to try this anytime soon.

Monday 9 November 2009

analysing games, enjoying games

I read many boardgame blogs (using Google Reader, a wonderful, time-saving tool), and visit almost every day. I read many game reviews. I have no doubt that I spend more time visiting boardgame websites and blogging about boardgames than actually playing games. Which is a bit sad. One thing that I have learnt from the many reviews reading and games playing is that you should not let others' negative opinions of a game impede your own enjoyment of that game.

The easiest example that most gamers can relate to is probably Monopoly. There was a time when it was trendy and cool to declare one's hatred of Monopoly at BoardGameGeek (well, perhaps it still is). I think many new gamers get brainwashed into thinking that Monopoly is a bad game. It isn't really that bad. And if you do enjoy it, why let others reduce your enjoyment of it, even if it really is a bad game? Axis & Allies is another example. Some people dismiss it as a "dice fest". I remember this was one phrase that struck me when I first got into the hobby. Why do some people feel so negative about Axis & Allies, a game which I thought was excellent? Why is this game ranked in the 200's (it was 2003)? Shouldn't this be top 10 material? Puerto Rico? (then #1 game) Never heard of it.

Some bloggers and reviewers are very enjoyable to read. Whether giving a positive or negative review of a game, they articulate their rationale very well and point out the strengths or weaknesses of the game. They do very good in-depth analyses of games and give thought-provoking opinions. E.g. Chris Farrell and Brian Bankler. Because of how well their arguments are worked out, I have been swayed by their opinions before, and I questioned whether some games that I liked were actually not that good afterall. They are probably right about the weaknesses of the games, but I later realised that these weaknesses may not be issues for me, or have not turned up in the games that I have played. So I should not have thought less of the games that I liked, only because other people, with different tastes and different tolerances for different flaws in games, have different opinions of these games.

There is some random screwage in the end-game of Power Grid, but I don't play it often enough (despite being a game I really like) to have this crop up. Through the Ages is called a massive accounting exercise, but I've never had so much fun doing accounting. Sometimes luck in card draw can make or break your game, but it never was an issue for the many games that I have played. Pandemic doesn't seem to be all that deep. Sometimes it feels like you'd lose no matter what you do, because you have very bad luck with the card draws. However, I still enjoy the game after more than 40 plays, and I can't even explain why. Now that I have the Pandemic: On the Brink expansion, I expect many more plays out of the game.

Sometimes ignorance is bliss. Some reviewers dissect games very well and expose all the flaws or the single paths to victory. Coke shipping (I think) is supposed to be the single most efficient way to win Le Havre. I read this somewhere. I have not tried it myself, and do not intend to. I have only played 11 games of Le Havre and have not found any game-breaking flaw myself. I intend to keep playing and enjoying the game, exploring the game myself. Maybe one day I will eventually see all the flaws and stop playing the game. For now I'll just be happy enjoying the game as a non-expert player.

This contradicts somewhat with one of my other views. I also think that to really enjoy a game, you need to be good at it, and play against others who are equally good. The game then becomes much more exciting and interesting. I guess what I am saying is you should have your own pace in exploring and improving yourself at a game. Games are about having fun, and ultimately not about winning at all costs. That's why I normally don't read strategy articles about games. I'd rather make mistakes and learn from them. It's much more fun figuring out strategies by yourself.

I now tell myself not to read reviews of games that I already own, especially if I like them. If it is a game that I don't like, I may still read a positive review, because it may tell me what I am missing. When there is so much to read on BGG, and so many new games to learn more about, the last thing you should do is feel bad about games you already own. And like.

Sunday 8 November 2009

gaming in photos & misc

Let's start with the "misc" part. In July, I made my first ever eBay purchase - an old copy of Civilization (the Gibson Games edition, which is much cheaper than the Avalon Hill edition). I only recently received the game. I was worried for a while whether it was lost in the mail. I did ask for the game to be sent by surface mail. It took more than 2.5 months to arrive. Well, at least it's here. The game is quite old, you can't tell it by looking at the photo on eBay. You'd need to look very closely to see how the board and the rules are turning brownish. I guess that's unavoidable for such an old game. My copy of unplayed Advanced Third Reich, which is probably half the age, is in about the same condition. Most of the game pieces were unpunched. The previous owner only punched out components for two players (max 7 players). She probably played a two-player game and thought the game sucked. Indeed I don't think the game works with two. I'm happy that only one counter is missing. And it is the generic round people/coin counter, which I think would rarely affect a game, unless you are poor in managing your people / money. Now I wonder when I'll get to play this copy of Civilization. It's a long game, and is not exactly easy to get to the table.

This (well, a slightly cropped version) is my avatar on

Richard Breese, famous for Reef Encounter, Alladin's Dragons and Keythedral, designed The Board Game Geek Game, in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of He asked BGG users to submit their avatars to him, to be added to the game box. He offered 1000 spots, and I was lucky to be able to submit my avatar before the spots ran out. Well, that should be no surprise. I visit BGG every single day.

This picture above show these 1000 avatars, which are printed on the box sides of the game. Can you find my avatar? (solution at the end of this blog post)

Early Oct 2009, in Pakistan. I was in Pakisan on a business trip. Due to security reasons, I spent most of my free time at the hotel. Thankfully I had another colleague Keith with me on the same trip, and I brought games. We played Blue Moon (above), Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation, and Lightning: Midway. Keith's favourite is Blue Moon. Maybe it's because he used to play some Magic: the Gathering. To keep my luggage slim, I didn't bring the dragons, so we used sugar packets as dragons.

Mini Keith playing Blue Moon. (stupid phone camera setting... grumble grumble... )

What a depressing hand - 1 character card and 5 boosters. That didn't give me much flexibility. I was playing the Flit deck, the bird-like race. I brought 5 of the 8 Blue Moon decks to Pakistan, and we tried all of them. So I'm getting some good mileage out of the money I have spent on Blue Moon. Now I keep the games at the office, for an occasional game with Keith during breaks. Let's hope we'll eventually get to play the Allies, Blessings and Buka Invasion expansions, which I still have not played.

31 Oct 2009. A four-player game of Ra: the dice game played using my home-made copy, with Sui Jye, Jing Yi and Afif. I think this was the first time I played a four player game. The board is very colourful with four players.

In the 3rd epoch, near game end, Afif, Sui Jye and I all had 2 civilisation cubes, which means we don't get penalised -5pts for not having any civilisation cubes, and we are only one cube away from gaining 5pts (for having 3 cubes). Then Jing Yi rolled four 1's - a disaster. That was the only disaster rolled in the whole game. Sometimes you don't even have a single disaster in a whole game, so I intentionally didn't teach them about disasters in detail. I only summarised it as "basically something bad will happen to everyone else, but we'll get into that if we do see a disaster". Jing Yi, of course, chose to remove two cubes each from Afif, Sui Jye and I, effectively setting all three of us back by 5pts. Now that's one perfectly timed disaster.

me, Afif, Sui Jye, Jing Yi. Playing Dominion. Dominion did not blow me away like it did many others, but the 2nd expansion Dominion: Seaside triggered my interest. The first expansion Dominion: Intrigue didn't excite me, and I have not tried it. I find one advantage of playing with 4 (or maybe 3) players is you have enough time to shuffle before your turn comes around again. With 2 I think it's better to play on BSW.

Solution to the avatar hunt. Click to enlarge. Please leave a message if you actually spent the effort to hunt and you found it without looking at the solution.

Tuesday 3 November 2009

Space Alert (tutorials)

Space Alert is one very unusual game. It is cooperative and real-time. It is by Vlaada Chvatil from the Czech Republic, who designed Through the Ages and Galaxy Trucker (both of which I like a lot), and often has very innovative and interesting ideas for games. In Space Alert, you and your teammates need to defend your spaceship for 10 minutes. If you survive, you win. The "real" part of the game is played in real-time. You listen to a sound track (there are many to choose from to provide some variety) which tells you about enemy attacks, ship malfunctions, communications downtimes, etc. During these 10 minutes, you plan your actions using your hand of cards. It sounds simple - you are just putting cards down onto 12 spaces, but it is actually quite tricky, requiring good coordination among the teammates in real-time. It's very chaotic! Once the soundtrack is over, you do an evaluation round, basically reenacting everything that had happened step by step, to see whether you survived.

I have played six games of this, and I have not even played a real mission yet! I am still playing the tutorials, and still failing them! There are three levels of tutorials - Test Runs, Simulations and Advanced Simulations. They introduce the game to you bit by bit, with new elements and new challenges being added at each new level. For now I have only reached Simulations. And I am not even beating the game yet! In fact, even for my very first Test Run, I (well, we) lost the game. I had thought the Test Run was designed to be impossible to lose.

So what do you do during a game? To summarise, you move and you press buttons. As simple as that. There are 6 rooms on the spaceship, each having 3 buttons performing different functions. The A buttons are for shooting. Each room has a different cannon, with different fire-powers, ranges and power sources, and also pointing in different directions. You often need to coordinate with your teammates to shoot at an approaching enemy at the same time, because it is much more effective in damaging your enemy. B buttons are all related to managing energy - for charging up defensive shields, moving energy cubes to where they are needed, and charging up your energy core. This is a very important aspect, which we learnt the hard way. There was one game when we (Afif, Sui Jye, Jing Yi and I) planned a very well coordinated shooting, only to find that our cannons had run out of energy cubes. Click! Click! We failed to destroy the approaching enemy, and lost the game miserably.

Then there are the C buttons, which do different things. Some allow you to control combat robots, which are needed to fight enemies which are on board. One allows you to fire homing missiles. One simply allows you to score additional victory points, but I think in this game that's the last thing I'm going to care about. I need to learn to survive first. There's even one C button that is for making sure that the computer screensaver doesn't come up to interrupt your actions. Apparently the operating system of the spaceship computer was sponsored, and thus has a screensaver with advertising content.

There are many different types of enemies in the game, which approach at different speeds, attack at different strengths, and have different shield strengths. There are also internal threats - sometimes enemies that board your spaceship, sometimes systems malfunctions. In each mission, these are randomly drawn, and you only see a few of them. This gives the game some replayability. There are some time tracks that vary how quickly enemies approach and how often and how soon they attack. Four time tracks are drawn randomly to be placed at different parts of the ship. This too increases variety.

In the foreground, the 12 time slots where you can place your action cards. The three long tracks leading away from the game board are used for determining how quickly an enemy approaches and when and how frequently it attacks.

Starting set-up of a Simulation game (which I call Level 2 Tutorial). Player characters start at the bridge - the upper white room. Green cubes are energy cubes. Green cylinders are energy capsules, which are used for recharging the central reactor. The cannons are purple, and the boxes next to them tell you the cannon range and fire-power. There are homing missiles in the background too. You only get 3 per mission.

Space Alert is a game that needs a dedicated group of players. It is actually not easy to beat, and requires good cooperation among the players. You need players who are interested enough to play it multiple times and work through the tutorials to get to the real missions. If you only play with casual players, you may never reach the real missions. I wonder whether the game will lose its appeal after you win a few real missions, the way some PC or console adventure games lose their appeal after you beat them. But even if this happens, I think I would have gained a lot of value from the game. I suspect the game will continue to be interesting even after I learn to beat the normal missions, like how Galaxy Trucker (also by Vlaada Chvatil) and Pandemic are.

Space Alert is probably a game that needs 4 or 5 players. With less than four, you need to introduce android characters, which are ordered around by the other human players. This is not very ideal when you are still trying to learn the game. There are enough for you to worry about without androids. You probably want to play with less than four after you are familiar with the game. But I think the game is meant for 4 or 5, because the fun is in overcoming the chaos of many players trying to coordinate their actions to save the spaceship.

There is one thing which I wonder whether I have been doing right. When I play the game, I don't try to move the pieces on the board much. I only sometimes move my character, to remind myself where I am. I don't remove energy cubes spent, I don't move enemy markers, I don't mark the damage done to my spaceship or to the enemies. I think I probably should do that, because that would help a lot in visualising what's happening. That would take some effort from everyone, because you need to synchronise the changes made to the board with your teammates. Else it may cause even more confusion, or worse, cause wrong planning. I should do this next time I play, and let's see whether I will fare better.

So this is just an initial impression of Space Alert. Hopefully the next time I write about this game I will have beaten some normal missions.

Sunday 1 November 2009

do computer versions spoil the game?

I'd like to talk about computer versions of boardgames which have AI's or computer opponents that you can play against. I'm not talking about computer interfaces for human vs human play, be it real-time or play-by-e-mail. I am of the opinion that these computer versions will generally spoil the game for you. In the past I have not really thought much about this, but now I'd like to look into why these computer versions spoil the original boardgames, at least for me.

The first time I noticed this happening was with St Petersburg. It was quite popular when it came out, and I think it even won the DSP award, probably the most prestigious gamer's game award. Then there was a computer version released. I played against the computer AI's a few times, not really a lot, and soon the game lost its shine. It became very mechanical to play.

Something similar happened to Yspahan, which I also own the physical boardgame of.

I learned to play Kingsburg solely from the computer version. I think I only played one game, and I was turned off by the experience. I had no urge to try again, or to try a physical copy.

Here are the reasons that I can think of that computer versions can spoil a game:

  1. Overdose - If you play too many times within a short period of time, you'll just tire of the game very quickly. Does this mean that if you only play the physical copy, you'll also tire of it after the same number of plays? E.g. by the 10th play of a game, you'd feel that you've explored all the strategies there are to the game. If so then it may be a problem of the game. But I think having too many plays within a short time can make you sick of a game. Overdose.

  2. "Solvable" - Now I don't mean solvable as in there is a sure-fire way to win a game given a certain start condition. I mean "solvable" as in at any point in a game, based on the information that you know, there is always one ideal move you should make. It may or may not be obvious, but of course if it is obvious, then the situation is even worse. If an AI can be programmed to play a game competently, then maybe there isn't really a lot of depth to the game. If it only take some calculations and some card-counting to write a competent AI, then it may mean the game can be easily analysed for ideal moves given any game situation. It may mean that there aren't really any meaningful choices to make. There is always a best move, even if sometimes it takes some time to work it out. That's no fun.

    There are good AI's for Chess. I don't think Chess is a game without depth. But I think some AI's written for some modern Eurogames are not as complex as Chess AI's.

    I have not looked at the program codes for the AI's, so I'm just making unfounded claims here. My gut feel is that generally the existance of a competent AI for a game (often Euro games) means that the game is actually not very deep. The shallowness of the game is exposed. I'm sorry to say this about Euro games, as I'm actually mainly a Euro game fan.

  3. Too fast - I'm not sure how to explain this. This may not make much sense. I think you will enjoy playing a game with 3 other human players for 1 hour, more than playing a game with 3 AI players for 15 minutes, even if every single move in these two games are exactly the same. Same setup, same results. This sounds absurd. You waste 45 minutes and you like that more?! Maybe it's the human touch, the human interaction. Maybe you feel you are playing against smart opponents and not dumb programs. You think about what your opponents are thinking, and not how the programs are written. Your human opponents can be more unpredictable. You spend more time, but you are enjoying the time exploring the possibilities in the game, not hurriedly trying to solve a math problem. Playing against AI's feels so mechanical.

Surprisingly, I could actually go back to playing the boardgame versions of St Petersburg and Yspahan and still enjoy myself. That was some time after my last vs-AI games, so I have pretty much forgotten most of the tactics and the bitter taste. I needed a little effort to remember the strategies and to rediscover the games, and I enjoyed these. The strategies came back easily, and I was soon playing quickly. And yet I still enjoyed the games. I wonder whether I am simply prejudiced against AI's.

There are counter examples. I have played Blue Moon against AI's, and it didn't sour the game for me at all. The AI is pretty good. I don't know how the programmer did it. I am quite impressed. Yet the AI's tactics didn't feel formulaic. Admittedly sometimes it makes strange moves or bad moves. At least them seemed so to me. But overall playing against the Blue Moon AI was challenging and enjoyable.

There is now an AI for Race for the Galaxy too. I have not tried it yet, and am hesitant, because Race for the Galaxy is one of my favourite games, and I don't want the AI experience to spoil it for me. I may never get around to trying this AI. Anyway, this is one game that my wife is usually willing to play.

Although I think computer versions of games (those with AI's) spoil the games for me, I think computer versions which just provide an interface for human vs human play are very handy. The Ticket to Ride implementation is done very well. It does all the tiresome train-placing, card-holding, card-shuffling, map-checking for you. You can play a game in less than a quarter of the time when playing a physical copy. Dominion is another good example. The computer takes care of all the card shuffling for you, which is a lot of effort saved.

So, computer good. AI bad. Not because they are incompetent (like many PC games AI's are), but because they expose how shallow some of our hobby games actually are, or because sometimes humans are just so hard to please.