Friday 26 March 2010

Dominion: Seaside

Dominion: Seaside is the 2nd expansion to the innovative and multi-award-winning Dominion. Unlike the first expansion Dominion: Intrigue, it does not contain the full components to allow a game to be played out-of-the-box. You need some of the cards from the base game or from Intrigue. I have written about and posted photos of Dominion before, this being my first impression of the game. I never was a very big fan of Dominion. It is a likeable game, but I don't play it anywhere near as often as I play Race of the Galaxy, another popular card game. Intrigue, with more "mess up your opponents" cards, never quite intrigued me. However Seaside interested me because of its new concept of cards that can affect your next turn.

The Game

I won't describe again how Dominion works. I'll just briefly explain the "next turn" concept. Some cards have effects on your current turn and your next turn, e.g. giving you extra actions, or cards, or money. Such cards are called Duration cards, and after you play them, they stay on the table instead of getting discarded to your discard pile, so that they remind you to do something on your next turn. There is one very interesting Duration card called the Tactician, which allows you to draw 5 more cards on your next turn, provided you discard your hand in your current turn. Less than half of the cards in this expansion are Duration cards. There are many other cards which have various special powers which are not Duration cards. E.g. the Island card allows you to set it and another card aside for the rest of the game. This is pretty handy for removing victory point cards from circulation, so that your deck is more efficient. And I guess it is also useful for removing cards in games where you don't have other cards that allow you to Trash cards.

The game comes with some mats, metal tokens and metal coins, which are used for specific cards. These components are quite nice, especially the coins. They are only used as reminders / aids, but they are done quite well.

The Play

So far I have only played 2 games, only with Seaside cards. The Duration concept is interesting. In some cases it allows you to plan or prepare better for your next turn. I find that sometimes the tricky thing about whether to play a Duration card is whether you want to sacrifice the current turn (by not playing another regular action card which may be more powerful in the current turn) so that you can have a better next turn.

Another effect of the Duration cards is you spread out your discard deck a little. I have been thinking about this for a while, and still am not sure how big an impact this is. Since your played Duration cards (and sometimes some action cards that are played with them) stay on the table and do not go to your discard deck until the end of your next turn, when you need to shuffle your discard deck, you may have some such cards still in front of you that do not go back into the deck to be reshuffled. You know these cards won't come up in the next cycle that you run through your deck. You know what the cards remaining in your deck are. This information can help you plan what to do during the next cycle through your deck. I have not come up with a strategy that makes use of this feature, but I'm sure there are such strategies to be explored.

One fun card is the Treasure Map. If you have two such cards in your hand, you can Trash both and gain four Gold cards at the top of your draw deck. The Treasure Map costs $4 each, which means you are investing $8 (likely over two turns) and hoping to be lucky enough to draw both the cards on a later turn, to earn back four Gold cards, which would otherwise cost $24. I thought this was fun, and decided to give it a go. I knew I should do this early, before my deck grew too large. I only bought two such cards, and I was lucky to draw both on the same turn soon afterwards. It was a great feeling, like winning the lottery. Woohoo! Yeah... cheap thrills...

Woohoo! Two Treasure Map cards in my hand.

Michelle tried to do the same in the same game after seeing me strike jackpot. I thought it would be hard by then, because our decks had grown larger. However Michelle used a Haven card (which allows you to set aside one card to be used for your next turn) to set aside one Treasure Map card, and then she drew the other Treasure Map card on her next turn. Now that was one smart move I hadn't though of.

Both our games went quite quick, since we already knew the Dominion system quite well from previous plays on BSW. We both had the same victory points in both games, and I only won because Michelle had one turn more in both cases. So the games were very close. They were exciting races to grab as many Province cards as possible. We still haven't explored strategies around depleting 3 stacks of cards to end the game. I wonder whether these are too much harder to do when only playing with 2 players.

The Thoughts

Michelle's summary of Seaside: "It's the same". That's quite true to an extent - since the core gameplay doesn't change, despite some new twists. I think some of the cards are quite interesting. There are more fun powers compared to the base game.

People who love Dominion will most likely buy Seaside. People who don't like Dominion most likely won't. I'm in between, and for me Seaside was a good buy. One of the reasons I bought it was I hoped it'll allow me to get more plays out of Dominion. Let's wait and see whether this happens. Having more types of cards also mean more variety. I am more keen to play Dominion now, I just need to convince Michelle to play more of this. She is nowadays more keen about At the Gates of Loyang.

Monday 22 March 2010

At the Gates of Loyang

At the Gates of Loyang is commonly considered the 3rd game in Uwe Rosenberg's harvest trilogy, the first two games being Agricola and Le Havre. I like both of these earlier published games, so naturally this latest game interested me. I have read complaints about downtime. However I decided to give it a shot anyway, because the rules seemed interesting, and most people seem to agree it is good with 2 players. I'm always interested in good games that I can play with my wife.

The Game

The game is about planting various types of vegetables and then selling them to make money. You get fields of various sizes during the game, and when you plant something, the mechanism is very similar to Agricola (and Antiquity, I read). You need to use one unit of that type of vegetable as seed, and put it in one slot of the field. Then you fill the remaining slots with the same type of vegetable from the supply. After that, every time you harvest, you take one vegetable from the field.

In the game you get regular customers and casual customers. Regular customers are a steady source of income, but you are committed to serve them, and you are penalised if you are unable to supply them as promised. Casual customers are one-time affairs, and don't ever get angry with you. They are slightly harder to serve (needing 3 vegetables and not 2), but it's only a one-time transaction. Customers are the main way you earn money. You have market stalls. These are places where you can swap one type of vegetable for another. They are basically a tool to help you serve your customers. Then you have helpers. These are another type of tool to help you. There is a big variety of helpers, some allowing you to impact other players.

My play are in Round 3 of my first game. The T-shaped board are two things - a Shop where you can buy (expensively) and sell (cheaply) vegetables, and the path of prosperity, a.k.a. score track. At the top are my fields, where I had planted cabbages (white), pumpkins (orange) and turnips (red). I had 2 regular customers (blue background) and one helper (biege background).

Close-up of regular customers. You are contractually bound to serve each four times. The first time you miss a delivery, they get upset (i.e. token flipped to the red side, just like in this photo). After you have upset them, every time you miss a delivery, you are fined $2.

Artsy-fartsy shot.

Overview of the game table. Michelle was too absorbed in the game to both looking at the camera. We were in the card phase, so there was a row of cards in the centre for her to choose from. Those plastic containers on the right are my children's toys. They do not come with the game.

At the Gates of Loyang is a card game. Regular customers, casual customers, fields, market stalls and helpers are all cards. The game has an unusual way of getting cards. During the card phase of each round, players start with 4 cards in hand. On your turn, you either add one card from your hand to the central pool, or claim exactly one card from the central pool and exactly one card from your hand, and release the other cards in your hand into the central pool, where they become available to other players. This is one part of the game where you have player interaction, because you need to be mindful of what your opponents need and make sure you don't give them good cards.

The other phase of the game is the action phase, where you can do various things like sowing, serving customers, using helpers, trading vegetables etc. A player does all the actions he wants, in any order and any number of times, until he is satisfied, before the next player takes his turn.

At the end of every round, you get to progress up a path of prosperity by paying money. The first step always costs $1 (which means you should almost always make sure you have $1 in hand), and additional steps in the same round cost an amount equal to the number on the steps. This means it gets more and more expensive to progress. Positions on this path of prosperity determine victory. Tiebreakers are cash, then number of vegetables. I wouldn't be surprise if the game is often won by the first tiebreaker.

The Play

So far I have played 6 games of At the Gates of Loyang, all being 2P games with my wife. We played the first game using the beginner's variant, i.e. we each had a regular customer card in hand, which we could play at any time. We also make one big mistake of allowing fields to be re-sowed (a habit from Agricola). Fields should be discarded after you harvest the last vegetable. So the first game was a little distorted. But after the 3rd game, I think I have more a less a good feel about the game.

We made a big mistake in our first game. Fields which have been fully harvested should have been discarded and opposed to still being kept around available to be re-sowed. No wonder we did so well in our first game. We both eventually scored 18pts.

Another minor mistake - when trading vegetables with Market Stalls (top row), you need not place the vegetables you are giving onto the card. I wonder whether anyone else made this silly mistake. Well, at least it doesn't affect the game.

Helpers with a red lantern on the top left corner are those which can affect other players.

The game is very much about logistics and planning. It is about managing your supply of vegetables and the demands of your customers. Customers are crucial for earning money, and you need to make sure you have a constant "supply" of customers too. You need to maintain a healthy cash inflow so that you can keep progressing on the path of prosperity. You are restricted by the cards made available to you each round, and you have to identify the best opportunities for your business. Managing a vegetable business is tricky. There are various cards (market stalls and helpers) that help you, and they are useful under different situations.

The decision to take a loan is tough. So far we tend to take just one loan, sometimes none. You get $5 per loan, and you can never repay it. At game end you take one step back on the path of prosperity per loan. One step on the path can mean winning and losing, so we always try to avoid taking loans.

End of another game. You can tell the game has ended because the home field (field with 9 spaces) is completely empty.

In this game I had planed all 6 types of vegetables, but at this moment had not been very lucky in getting the right customers.

Later in the same game, and doing much better in the regular customer section.

Michelle's vegetable business. She had an equal number of regular (blue background) and casual (red background) customers.

The Thoughts

I find that the game is a single-path-to-victory game. You should almost always try to plant as much vegetables as possible, to give yourself a constant and big supply. Even if you can't use all the harvested vegetables for serving regular customers, you can try using them to serve casual customers, probably by using market stalls to change the vegetables to the right types. It's always good to have some vegetables in hand, because buying vegetables from the Shop is expensive. At least with market stalls you are bartering for another vegetable type and not spending your hard earned money.

You also should almost always maintain as many regular customers as you can, and serve an occasional casual customer. Regular customers give you a dependable and growing cashflow, because they gradually pay you more and more over multiple rounds. I find that casual customers are only worth the trouble if they pay at least the normal price to you. If you have more casual customers than regular customers, they pay you a discounted price. It a game design (as opposed to theme-tied) penalty for taking the easy way out. Although casual customers pay more, they need 3 instead of 2 vegetables.

Since you are almost always trying to plant as many vegetables as possible and serve as many regular customers as possible, the game becomes mostly about how you choose the cards to help you do these. That is still interesting and challenging. Just don't expect many different strategies to pursue here. I think the decisions in the game are mostly tactical, as in "let's see what I can do with what fate deals me".

The alternative side of the player board. I told Michelle that this side is to be used during Chinese New Year (red is a lucky colour for the Chinese). She almost believed me.

Bountiful harvest.

I use a glass bead as the score marker and not the small Chinese farmer piece that comes with the game. This bead is flatter and less likely to get knocked over.

The first thing that comes to mind after my first game was "multiplayer solitaire". I normally dislike how people use this term, but I couldn't help thinking of it. Indeed the player interaction level is low in this game. You are mostly absorbed with managing your little vegetable business. During the card phase, you do need to watch out so that you don't accidently release a card that is too useful to your opponents. During the action phase, there are helpers which can affect other players. However I think the player interaction is rather sporadic, and sometimes even a little forced. Not that "multiplayer solitaire" is a problem in itself. You just need to decide whether you like this kind of game. If you don't like Princes of Florence or Race for the Galaxy because you think they are "multiplayer solitaire", then you probably won't like Loyang. I like these two other games very much, but the shortage of player interaction in Loyang bothers me a little. Not too much, but there is a little nagging feeling.

Be prepared for downtime, especially in your first game. A player performs all his actions before passing the turn to the next player, and sometimes you need to really think through and plan the order of your actions. You should think of what you want to do while waiting for the previous player to complete his move. But you need to take note of his Helpers which may impact your plan. When Michelle and I played, we mostly did our actions together, and we just took note of each other's Helpers. Sometimes we had to undo, but mostly it was unnecessary. Playing in parallel helps speed up and helps keep us busy.

Compared to Agricola and Le Havre, I enjoyed Loyang less. I hope I'm not biased by high expectations. I do like it, but I'm definitely more keen to play its older siblings. One good thing about Loyang is Michelle likes it a lot. She likes it just as much as its siblings, which is good, because that means I can more easily get her to play a game with me. Like Agricola, as soon as we started playing Loyang, we kept coming back for more. It has already reached the 5-plays-in-first-year-of-purchase goal within the first week. That's how things should be with games. Every boardgame purchased should be played more than a handful of times, until you are reasonably good at it and can fully appreciate, and thus enjoy, it.

Monday 15 March 2010

Funny Friends

Funny Friends, by Friedemann Friese (Power Grid, Fearsome Floors, Factory Manager) and Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle (Attika, Meuterer, Taluva), has been called "a gamer's party game" and "A Game of Life for adults". It has a recommended age of 17+, which is unusual for boardgames. Friedemann Friese's games almost always have an interesting or quirky theme. Although his games tend to be more misses that hits for me, I find that I am usually at least interested to try them. And I like Power Grid a lot. Marcel-Andre Casasola Merkle does not have many games, but I tend to like his games, my favourites being Attika and Taluva. I wish there were more people who like Taluva.

The Game

The objective of the game is to be the first to complete five life goals. Each player gets a board which is used to track the attributes of the character he plays, and the relationship his character has with other player or non-player characters (there are always 10 characters in a game). Every player character has 9 attributes, e.g. how heavy a smoker you are, how rich you are, how religious you are, or how fat you are. In terms of relationships, you can have regular friends, you can be in relationships, you can have divorces, you can have anonymous sex, you can have kids, you can even be celibate.

The goals in the game are all described by various attributes and/or personal experiences that you've had. So throughout the game you try to steer your attributes and life experiences towards these goals. Sometimes you may have conflicting requirements between different goals. You can try to complete them at different times in a particular order which allows you to meet the requirements at the necessary times. Or you can swap goals.

The gameplay is all centred around auctions. The currency is something called "time". There is a tongue-in-cheek statement in the rulebook saying "time is money". The game starts with a puberty round, where the players can already start adjusting their attributes by claiming life cards. Every life card represents some life experience that changes your attributes and life history on your player board. After puberty, you step into "real life". Life cards are now auctioned, and you bid "time" to win them. The game goes through multiple rounds. Whenever you pass in a round, you don't participate in any more auctions, but you do get some "time" when you pass, which you can then use in the following round. The earlier you pass, the more "time" you get. The game ends immediately when a player completes his 5th life goal.

The Play

I played a 4-player game with Afif, Sui Jye and Jing Yi. They probably wanted to fulfill some secret fantasy, because they all chose to play characters of the opposite sex... hmm... Sui Jye (a hot-blooded young man in real life) even chose a pink player board. Throughout the game (first time for all of us), we enjoyed the humour of the cards, especially the artwork and how it portrays the event described in the card titles (e.g. drawing of a huge hairy arm draped over a shoulder for the card "One Night Stand"). Quite often the effects of the cards are also quite humourous (e.g. joining a bridge club makes you fat).

In our game most of us were mostly focused on our own boards. We didn't really try to mess up others boards, or try to guess what the others were trying to achieve (which we'd need to do to try the former). Sometimes we competed over certain life cards, but that was most of the interaction that we had. For friendships and relationships we usually just pick the non-player characters, because picking those do not need us to spend our Offer tokens. Offer tokens are limited so we were quite stingy, probably overly so in hindsight. These can be used for forcing someone to bring you to an event, and are also the only way to get to know a fellow player character.

Jing Yi was the one who literally had too much time on her hands. She made some very big bids that noone could beat. Unfortunately her first goal achieved was Celibacy, which restricted her options afterwards a bit. I think we only had 3 rounds of "real life" before I won the game. It was quite close, because Sui Jye would have won on his next turn. Actually I only won because he unintentionally helped me at the end of the previous round (after I had passed) by forcing me to join him in an event. At the time I needed one more friendship in order to complete my Write A Memoir life goal. None of the life cards available in the next round allowed me to gain another friendship, and I would not have won if Sui Jye hadn't befriended me. Aaahh... a friend in need is a friend indeed.

I had just completed my first life goal of being a Workaholic, which required me to be a light drinker and moderately sick. Being a Workaholic caused me to end my relationship with Peggy (a non-player character), and to become depressed (drooping flower icon). The cards below my player board are the life experiences that I had had. The red ones are the puberty cards.

How the table looked like during the game.

I was a Workaholic, then I got Totally Wasted, and now I was Enlightened. I had a One Night Stand (after I was Enlightened) with Mary, and we later had an Offspring.

My attributes and personal history (left to right, top to bottom): I was a light smoker, heavy drinker, moderate drug addict, dirt poor, very healthy, slightly plump, quite depressed, slightly religious, and moderately well-educated / wise. I never had any anonymous sex, with man or woman. Mike was my friend. I was in a relationship with Mary. We've had sex, and even had a child (pacifier token), but we were not even engaged yet. Peggy was my ex-girlfriend.

The Thoughts

Having played the game, I think it is just a very simple auction + secret goal race game. There isn't a lot of meat, and if not for the quirky theme, it probably would be rather boring. So I'd say it's an experience game. You play it to see what kind of alternative life you lead. It's something I'll play once in a while, but not regularly.

The game in a way portrays things like smoking, drinking, and drug use as positive things. They are often goals that you try to achieve. Some people may be offended, but I think if the life goals were more serious things like education level, social clubs you join, charity work you do, your position at your company etc, the game would be rather dull. However I do not recommend playing this game with people younger than 17, lest we send the wrong messages to our youngsters (e.g. it's OK to have anonymous sex).

I think the game needs 6 players (the max number) to be good. In our 4P game, we had too little player interaction. I suspect even with 5 players it's not good enough. It may be just due to the way we happened to play. It was our first game afterall. However even on BoardGameGeek most people recommend 5 or 6 players. We probably should have paid more attention to other players' attributes and tried to mess one another up more.

Sunday 14 March 2010

Planet Steam

Planet Steam is one of the games I received for doing some rules translation work. It comes in a huge box, which I find quite unwieldy and unnecessary. The game is quite expensive, and I probably wouldn't have bought it myself at the normal price. But the components are quite good. The artwork and theme is steam punk. The game is a medium-high complexity economic game with a supply and demand mechanism. You set up your production infrastructure, you produce, and you try to earn the most money to win the game.

Comparison of the Planet Steam box against some other popular games, Carcassonne, Agricola, Dominion and Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition. Planet Steam is about double the size of Dominion. It is narrower and slightly shorter than Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition, but it is thicker.

Samurai Swords's dimensions were the closest that I could find. They are about the same thickness and width, but Planet Steam is obviously longer.

Planet Steam is almost exactly as long as Carcassonne and Agricola added together. The difference in this photo seems to be big only because of the height difference and the angle at which I took the photo.

The Game

The setting of the game is in the future, on a newly colonised planet. Players are companies setting up shop on the planet to mine various resources. The central part of the game board is a grid, on which players can build platforms, and then buy tanks (as in water tanks, and not the armoured military vehicle) to be put on these platforms. The tanks allow you to extract different types of resources (water, energy, ore and quartz), depending on what upgrades you buy for the tanks. You use the resources for building more tanks and other equipment, or you sell them for profit. At the end of the game, you count your cash, the value of any resources you are still holding, and some of your assets; and whoever is richest wins.

That's the gist of the game, but of course there are many more details. There are carriers in the game, which are basically storage facilities. They limit the resources you can hold, and you spend resources to upgrade them to allow you to hold more resources. There are special characters in the game, which give unique abilities and are auctioned off to the players every round. One important part of the game is the market mechanism. The resource market starts with some supply of all 4 types of resource. As the players buy and sell resources to the market, the resource prices change, depending on the scarcity of the resources. There is a bit of a stock market manipulation feel to the game.

What a colourful game board. This is actually just the central part of the game board. The coloured platforms belong to the players. The silver balls are tanks. The plain ones produce water, the ones with a grey attachment produce ore, the ones with a black attachment produce quartz, and the ones with a white attachment produce energy. Those with a red dome produce one extra unit of resource.

The four cards on the left are carriers, which are basically your storage facilities. The picture and number on the top left show the resource type and quantity that the carrier can hold. The number on the top right is the carrier class / level, which range from 1 to 4. The plastic chips do not come with the game. The game has paper money, but I prefer using my own plastic chips. The card on the right is one of the special character cards. The number on it is turn order.

Two reference cards that come with the game. The one on top is the important one, listing all the things you can build / buy in the game and their costs, the special characters' abilities, and the end game scoring method. The bottom card is a quick rule summary.

The full board and the playing area around it. The board is quite big. The long track on the left is the supply of tanks (currently empty). The short track beside it is for tracking the number of rounds. Then you have the grid representing the geography of Planet Steam where the companies (players) can develop. The chart immediately to the right is the supply chart of the resource market, which tracks how many of each resource are still available in the market. The last chart is the price chart of the resource market.

A close-up. The brown platforms are neutral platforms, which players cannot build on.

The Play

We played a 5-player game, which is the max configuration - Han, Afif, Sui Jye, Jing Yi and I. The rules explanation took some time, as there were quite many points to cover, and also quite a number of special cases to point out. We didn't have much idea what was going on, since you really need to see the game in action to appreciate the nuances, especially the resource market part. We very quickly depleted the initial resources in the resource market, and very soon all the supply and demand was driven by what we were producing and consuming. There were quite a few extremes - some prices hit the ceiling, some hit rock bottom. We were rather clueless business people.

Sui Jye was burnt in the early game, because he came last in turn order. Tanks and other resources became very expensive for him by the time his turn came around. Afif got burnt a bit by the special character auctioning, spending too much on them. I was the first to start buying deeds. Deeds are one type of asset in the game which does nothing, but are worth $50 each at game end. I didn't have a good production capacity, and decided to try something which others were not doing yet. Han was probably first to do big scale selling to the market to earn money. He had good production capacity. Later Jing Yi also had good production, and also made much money from selling to the market.

At game end, Han won at $641. Jing Yi had more cash, but Han had one dome more (worth $50). Domes are a type of tank upgrade which lets the tank produce one more resource. Jing Yi came in second. The rest of us were in the $500's. I had the most deeds (three, worth $50 each), but I lost out in other areas.

The Thoughts

One play is not enough to say anything conclusive about the game, so these are just first impressions. I think Planet Steam is a very interactive game, because of how closely woven the players are through the supply and demand system. You need to watch what your opponents produce and what they consume. And this is not just for the current round. You need to guess and plan for what may be happening in the next round. Guessing the consumption and demand of resources can be tricky, because each resource can be used in different ways.

I was quite surprised how the initial resources seeded in the resource market was depleted very quickly. The players are very soon "on their own". I am not sure whether this is normal, but I would not be surprised if it is, and I think it is a good thing. The game centres around the player dynamics, around supply and demand. There is a tension between spending resources to develop your company for the longer run vs starting to cash in.

With 5 players we played 4 rounds, which felt a little too short. Our game lasted only 2 hours including rules explanation, which surprised me a little. I had expected a first game with 5 players to take longer. I think in 4 rounds there is barely enough time for a story arc - the initial rush depleting the starting resources, the build up of production and storage capacity, the maturing of the resource market, and eventually the cashing in. These all still happened in our game, but it happened so fast that we weren't really able to do much. Perhaps it felt that way simply because we were all new to the game.

Many compare Planet Steam to Power Grid, in particular the resource market part of it. Indeed there are similarities, but Planet Steam is more complex. It has more moving parts, is more fiddly, and the interactions in the game are more complicated. But it is not difficult to learn. The various steps in the game are quite logical and easy to understand. It doesn't really remind me of Power Grid. It reminds me more of Container, because of how the players create the in-game economy together.

Wednesday 10 March 2010

my name in a game

Last year a friend in Taiwan contacted me to help with some rules translation to Malay. He was publishing some games in Chinese for the Greater China area (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau), and wanted to include rules in some South East Asian languages too. Saboteur was one of the games. My Malay was rather rusty. I have not been using it much, especially in written form, since finishing secondary school. So I had to rely on online dictionaries a lot. I also asked a Malay friend Johan to help review my translation.

So, Saboteur is the first physical game I own that has my name inside. Woohoo!

Box cover of the Chinese version of Saboteur. The literal translation of the Chinese title is dwarf mine.

Rule booklet cover. Five languages included - Traditional Chinese (used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau), Simplified Chinese (used in mainland China), Indonesian language, Malay and English.

My name (and Johan's too) in the rules booklet.

I tend to think of Saboteur as a 30-minute Battlestar Galactica. Try this if you think Battlestar Galactica is too long.

Tuesday 9 March 2010

Agricola: Farmers of the Moor

Agricola was a game that surprised me. When I first played it, I didn't think it was all that special. Then when it became the #1 game on BoardGameGeek (recently dropped to #2), I decided to get it and try it more. To my surprise, Michelle and I got addicted to it for a while. We played it many times in the first half year, often on weekday nights, and sometimes even twice in a row.

When the Farmers of the Moor expansion was announced, I was immediately interested. Our plays of Agricola have reduced quite a fair bit since that initial burst. Maybe this expansion will help rekindle the passion.

The Game

The expansion adds a number of elements to the game. First, your farmland is not simple flat land anymore. You have some forests and some marshes. You'd need to clear these before you can use the land for farming. They are not all bad, because forests can provide wood, and marshes peat. Peat is a new resource, which can be used for heating your home. The bigger the house, the more peat (or wood) you need for heating. Fail to fully heat your home, and some family members will fall sick and be unable to work for a round.

There are more things you need to do, but you also get some new free actions cards. These actions cards are different from the normal actions. You do need to have family members available, but you do not "use them up" to take these special actions. You just take the card and put it before you. Also these special actions are not limited to be taken by only one player. Each special action is available to 2 players, but the 2nd player needs to pay food to take the action.

You get horses! You can eat them, but they are most valuable for victory points. 1VP per horse, unlike other farm animals which score at most 4VPs.

There are new major and minor improvements now, which take into account the new elements of the game. There are two more spaces for major improvements, and now each space has 2 cards, the bottom card becoming available when the top card is built. That means you have 24 major improvements as opposed to 10.

Some of the new major improvements on the left, and horses on the right. There are two small cardboard boards for these two stacks of new major improvements.

Two new special action cards, for the two player game. Each card gives a few options. You can only choose one. That cardboard piece at the bottom is the infirmary / hospital thingy. Family members who catch a cold and can't work go there to recover and gain one food during the stay.

The Play

Michelle and I played the Level 2 (of 3) complexity version of the expansion, which excludes Occupation cards, just to make sure we don't get overwhelmed. Having now played the expansion (although just once), I think the additional complexity is fine. It doesn't make things too complex, and we would have done fine if we had chosen to do Level 3 straight-away.

I started getting horses quite early, the idea being to get two early, and then let them breed. It worked well for me. I also gained 3 free horses from the Flatboat minor improvement. I had 10 horses at game end, i.e. 10VPs. I never had to eat a horse. Michelle built one of the new major improvements which allowed her to gain more peat. That helped a lot. Peat is not only used for heating. It can also be used for some of the new special actions.

We were a bit more conservative about expanding our houses and having children, because bigger houses mean more resources required for heating. I had a child first, which helped. Later when the Family Growth Without Room action card appeared, Michelle took it every round (she was start player) and grew her family to 5. I think this action is even more valuable now that there is the additional room heating requirement.

The new special actions are an interesting addition to the game. Quite often I was torn between taking one of them and one of the regular actions. The special actions are free, but you must take them before having committed all your family members to normal actions. Do you take the special action and risk the normal action you want to take being taken by your opponent? Also since you need to keep an available family member in order to be able to take a special action, you need to be careful not to use up your family members, lest you give many free actions to your opponent.

My starting plot of land. There are always 5 forests and 3 marches.

My farm at game end. I had cleared all forests and marshes. I had 10 horses!

My major and minor improvements.

Michelle's farm at game end. She had 5 family members, but they were off to work when I took this photo. She still had 2 forests on her land. Her house, although a nice stone one, was rather small. She managed 5 family members only because of the Family Growth Without Room action.

Michelle had 3 major and no minor improvements. The peat-charcoal kiln is quite useful for ensuring you have enough peat for heating.

The Thoughts

The element of this expansion that I like the most is the new landscapes. They give some variety to the starting setup. Home heating, horses, new actions and major/minor improvements are fine additions. They give you more to think about. This expansion doesn't make the game signicifantly better (Agricola is already a 10 in my book), and fortunately, nor worse. It doesn't change the game dramatically. I think you only need this expansion if you, like me, have played many games of Agricola, and want to play more and want to add some spice. I plan to, from now on, always play with the expansion, unless I am playing with new(er) players.

Monday 8 March 2010

Old Town 5 Mar 2010

I joined the Cheras OTK (Old Town Kopitiam) gamers to play again last Friday evening. It was a last minute thing, as I originally didn't expect I would be able to join them. We played a 4-player game of Ra: the dice game. This was the first time I played the real thing, as my copy was home-made. The real thing of course looked much better. One thing I didn't like though was how separate reference cards were used. In my own version I put the reference information onto the game board, e.g. how to place cubes, how to score, what to do after scoring. A bit busier than the original board, which is simple and clean, but much more convenient, in my opinion.

I found out I have been playing one important rule wrong. On a player's turn he can roll the dice up to 3 times. I had thought it was max twice. The OTK gang did worse. The last time they played, they had thought it was only once. Oww... No wonder they didn't have many disasters then.

The next game played was Chicago Express. We did a 6-player game. I didn't even know it could support six. I thought it was max five. We had a mix of moderately experienced players, minimal experience (i.e. one-game) players and newbies. I myself have played exactly once, and have forgotten most of the rules. I needed the rules refresher. Most of the strategy and nuances (at least those that I had learnt the last time) came back to me after a few turns.

In this game, the strategy I applied was simple. I became majority shareholder of the red company, owning 2 out of 3 shares (and this company only ever has 3 shares), and just focused on making sure the company reached Chicago first. It did, and I earned lots of money. During the game I tried to buy some shares of other companies, but eventually dropped out of the bidding when they got too expensive. So I ended the game with only 2 red shares, and $64. And I won the game.

I think Chicago Express is a game with very little margin for error. For the game to be enjoyable and to shine, all the players need to know it quite well. I think some very key decisions are made in the early game, so you need to know the game well so that you know what you are doing at that early stage of the game. Else you may get stuck in a bad position and suffer for the rest of the game with little hope of catching up.

In this particular game after I gained those 2 red shares, the rest of the game was mostly auto-piloted. I just had to make the red company as profitable as possible. Allen was the other shareholder holding the remaining 33% share. By spending my effort on the red company, I was helping him too, but only to half the magnitude of how much I was helping myself. He had to invest in other companies too to earn more money, but unfortunately for him the other investments didn't pay as well as the red company. In hindsight, maybe he should have intentionally wrecked the red company, just to stop me.

Whenever bidding for a share, you need to think carefully whether you'll get back the money you spent, because at game end, you only count cash and not the value of the shares you hold. When we finished the game, I joked with Chua (first play for him), "They didn't tell you that?! You were conned!!"

Chicago Express is a game that takes more plays to fully appreciate. I am still impressed with how succinct it is.

The 3rd game I played was China, which I brought, and was pleased that I got to play it. I've always liked it but have not played it for some time. By this time we had broken up into two groups, four playing China, four Middle Earth Quest, and some spectators watching the latter. I taught China to one veteran and two newcomers. The newcomers are not new to games, just new to OTK Cheras. I hope they enjoyed the game and will join the OTK group regularly in future.

Saturday 6 March 2010

Fluch der Mumie

Fluch der Mumie (also sold as Pyramid) is a game about treasure hunters collecting treasures from a pyramid, while trying to avoid being caught by the unhappy blind mummy roaming the corridors. It is not a cooperative game. Each player has the chance to win the game as an individual, including the mummy player. However there is a nice tension among the treasure hunters, who have to compete with one another, and yet at the some time cooperate to prevent the mummy from winning.

The Game

The game has an upright magnetic board. The mummy sits on one side, and the treasure hunters on the other side. The mummy's piece has two parts, each on one side of the board. These two parts always move together because they are attracted to each other by magnets. The treasure hunters can see where the mummy is. A treasure hunter only has one piece, and there is no corresponding piece on the other side, so the mummy cannot see where the treasure hunter is.

Each treasure hunter is dealt a hand of 5 cards, dictating the 5 different artifacts he needs to collect to win the game. On his turn, he throws up to 5 dice, and chooses one die for his movement. He must move the exact number of steps, so he may not always choose the biggest number. He can reroll, but there is a risk. Whenever a die shows the mummy side, it is temporarily locked and becomes unavailable to all treasure hunters. Each such die adds to the mummy's movement on the mummy's turn. A treasure hunter can reset/unlock these locked dice only by giving a bonus turn to the mummy. To collect an artifact, the treasure hunter must land exactly on that spot. He then reveals the card depicting the artifact, and this is when the mummy finds out the position of the treasure hunter.

The mummy wins the game by catching treasure hunters a certain number of times depending on the number of players. A treasure hunter is out of the game if he is caught 3 times. Often in the early game the treasure hunters will try to help the mummy catch or hinder other treasure hunters, to give themselves a better chance to win. However if the mummy scores many captures, the treasure hunters will need to work together to prevent the mummy from winning.

It is a pretty simple game, suitable for families, and the idea is quite novel.

The game board from the treasure hunters' perpective. Light and dark blue are the treasure hunters, white is the mummy. At the bottom of the board are the dungeon (where the mummy starts and where captured treasure hunters go to) and the pyramid entrance (where the treasure hunters start).

Close-up of a treasure hunter piece and the mummy piece, and also some of the spots with artifacts.

Claimed artifacts are turned face-up. Those two below are life tokens. Every treasure hunter has three at game start, and loses one every time he is caught. Lose all and you're out of the game.

Card backs of the artifact cards. There are artifacts in 5 different colours and at the start of the game you draw one of each colour.

Close-up of the mummy piece, the one on the mummy side of the board.

The mummy side of the board.

The Play

Chong Sean, Michelle and I played this twice. Chong Sean has played this a few times, and often had to play the mummy, so in both games we let him be a treasure hunter. Michelle was the mummy in the first game. In the early game Chong Sean showed us how a treasure hunter could easily harm another treasure hunter. On one of my turns I calculated that even if Michelle were to roll the highest number on the mummy die, she would be one step short from catching me. So I bravely stopped at a spot just outside of Michelle's reach. Then on Chong Sean's turn, he did the locked dice reset, giving Michelle that exact one step to catch me. Eeeevil!

As the game progressed, I collected four artifacts (one more to go) and Chong Sean three. Michelle had caught us a total of three times, and only needed one more catch to win. There was one very tense moment, when Michelle was near both of us, and it was her turn to move. She rolled well, and would have enough moves to make a catch. As she started moving her piece, Chong Sean and I fell very silent, staring at the white mummy piece taking one step after another towards us, trying to keep our faces expressionless, while we were screaming inside. The worst part was when Michelle suddenly paused. I think Chong Sean and I both held our breath and probably skipped a heartbeat as well. Was she going to charge ahead? Or change direction? Then Michelle continued on, and SNAP!, caught one of us (I don't remember who). Game over! And Chong Sean and I immediately burst into laughter. That was one climatic horror-movie moment!

In the second game I played the mummy. It was rather lonely playing the mummy, because I couldn't see anyone else on my side of the board. I only managed to make 2 captures, but Chong Sean and Michelle later told me that there were some very close calls, in one of which I was only one step away from catching Michelle, and I turned back at the last moment. Eventually Chong Sean won by collecting his 5th artifact.

I think the game will be more fun to play with more players, because there will be more captures (which are exciting for both mummy and treasure hunters), and with more artifact cards in play and being revealed after the artifacts are collected, it is easier for the mummy to narrow down the remaining artifacts to protect. With more players, the treasure hunters also have more buffer in trying to get another treasure hunter eliminated, without risking a mummy victory too much.

The Thoughts

Chong Sean commented that Fluch der Mumie is a reversed Scotland Yard (or New York Chase), and I find it very true. It is one hunting many as opposed to many hunting one. The game is easy to teach and easy to learn - quite straight-forward. Very suitable for non- or casual-gamers and families. It is an exciting and funny game. I think the game is more fun if you are a treasure hunter. The mummy player is mostly there to provide entertainment and excitement to the rest of the players, but I think even playing the mummy can be quite fun if there are more players. It is very satisfying to hear that snap when you capture a treasure hunter, and his player piece snaps onto yours on the other side of the board.