Saturday 31 July 2010


Macao is the latest game in the Alea big box series, and it is by Stefan Feld (In the Year of the Dragon, Notre Dame). That's a combination that makes gamers pay attention. I read some descriptions of the game, but it didn't pique my interest. However, given the chance to try it, I wouldn't turn it down. Chong Sean is a collector of the Alea series and has the complete set, including the very-hard-to-find Alea version of Chinatown. So there was no doubt he would buy Macao. Thus, my chance to give it a go.

The Game

The theme of the game is setting up business in the Portugese colony of Macau, and gaining prestige points (PP) by delivering goods to various European cities, by straight-away buying them, and a few other means. The core innovation in the game is the windrose. Every round six dice in different colours are rolled. You pick two colours and collect cubes in those colours according to the numbers rolled. The catch is if you pick a high number, the cubes you collect will only be available many rounds later. If you pick a smaller number, the (fewer) cubes will become available sooner. Cubes (called Action Cubes / AC) are the key resource in the game. You need them for everything. You use them to claim quarters on the board (and collect goods), you use them to fight for turn order, you use them to move your ship, and you use them to activate cards and use many of the powers that activated cards give you. The tricky part is all cubes made available in a particular round must be used up within that round, or they are forfeited. They cannot be saved for later.

The windrose is on the right. When you collect cubes, you put them next to the corresponding die icon, and then turn the windrose one step. Cubes pointed to by the big arrow are the ones available to you that round. E.g. if I pick one red cube and three purple cubes now, the single red cube will become available immediately this round, together with 3 grey, 3 blue and 2 green cubes that I have collected earlier. The three purple cubes will become available two rounds from now.

On the left is the tableau, which contains some reminders, and is used for keeping non-activated cards. You can keep at most 5 of them.

Another key part of the game is the cards. At the start of the game and at the start of every round, a number of cards are revealed, and players take turns to pick one card from the pool. These cards can be helpful, but only if you manage to activate them (by paying the exact combination of cubes required). The cards are like an approaching train wreck looming over your head throughout the game. You must take a new card every round. If you ever have more than 5 non-activated cards, you are forced to discard one, and suffer a -3PP penalty. At end game, each non-activated cards also give you -3PP. So when choosing cards you need to balance between how useful the cards are and how easy they are to activate.

My personal tableau. When this is full, it's bad news. During our game I could not activate any of these in time before I had to take a 6th card. -3VPs. Aarrggh... On the cards, the cubes on the top left mean the requirement to activate the card, the icons on the top right mean the card type (office card, person card or building card), the text in the middle are the card powers, the yellow and brown numbers at the bottom corners are used for determining the tribute rate. The three square tiles on the bottom right are my goods.

When you pay cubes to claim a city quarter, you collect the goods tile in the quarter. These goods tiles are considered to be on your ship as soon as they are collected. You pay cubes to move your ship, and whenever it reaches a port, you can unload goods to gain VPs. The first goods tile unloaded gives 5PP, followed by 3PP and 2PP. So it's a race to deliver goods for the most PPs, if multiple players have collected the same goods type.

The quarters in the city of Macau. The square tiles (blue or coffee-brown background) are goods tiles available to be claimed. The hexagonal tiles are players' ownership markers, in orange, reddish brown, white and yellow. We placed some cubes on the board only for reference purposes, because Wan is slightly colour-blind.

Another element for competition is that at game end, each quarter in your largest connected group of quarters is worth 2VP. So you want to build a big group while stopping your opponents from doing so. This sometimes conflicts with the goods that you want to collect. Thus another source of decision angst.

Earning cash is not easy to do. Delivering goods does not give cash. Some special goods tiles give cash, and the only other way is card powers. Every round a tribute table is updated to show how much money can be paid in that round to gain a certain number of PPs. This tribute rate often varies from round to round. You will want to try to develop some earning power to be able to make use of this source of PPs.

The game board. When the game starts, twelve sets of two cards are placed along the two long edges. They track the game progress (12 rounds in a game). I made a mistake when teaching the game. These cards should be face-up. We corrected this only at mid-game. Two thirds of the board is the sailing area. All ships start in a corner next to the wall. On the right is the tribute track, which tells how much money can buy how many prestige points.

The Play

I played a 4-player game with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan, all of us new to the game. The game was freshly punched after we sat down. We all punched while I taught the game. It took us a while to grasp how to select dice and how to plan around the restrictions tracked by the windrose. There are only 12 rounds in the game, and that really is not a lot. There was a clear build-up from few cubes available in the early game, to the peak number of cubes around mid game, and then gradually the cubes dwindled again towards game end. Chong Sean went with the easy-to-do cards approach, preferring to select cards that are easy to activate rather than cards that are powerful. He was very quick in getting cards activated. By game end he managed to activate all cards, i.e. no penalty at all. Wan also managed to do the same. Shan and I both suffered penalties from not keeping to 5 or less non-activated cards, as well as still having such cards at game end. We also suffered penalties for not having any cubes available for a particular round. The penalties in this game remind me of In the Year of the Dragon - the game of disaster management. Notre Dame has this impending doom element too. Stefan Feld must have a little sadist tendency.

I activated one card that allowed me to claim quarters cheaper, so I tried to build up a big connected group of quarters, and also tried to claim one quarter every round, if I had enough cubes. I had a card which gave me bonus points for claiming the darker coloured quarters (there are only 6 on the board, and they are harder to claim), so these two cards jived quite well. I didn't do so well in delivering goods, my ship being left behind by the rest.

I didn't pay much attention to cards of other players. There were too many of them, and the text was small too. I did pay some attention to the goods that they have collected and quarters that they have claimed. I didn't pay a lot of attention to their windroses either, which I think would be important to do sometimes.

Around mid game. About half the city quarters had been claimed. Chong Sean's ship (brown) was the furthest ahead, and mine (white) was furthest behind. Wan (yellow) and Shan (orange) were on the same spot. The wall track (between the city and the sea) is for determining turn order. Whoever is most advanced along the track moves first. In case of ties, the person with the disc on top of the stack goes first. You can spend cubes to advance along this track.

Money seemed impossible to come by at first, but towards mid game we found that we could gradually earn some money. By the second half of the game, some of us had quite regular income, and bought PP almost every round. The ship movement was rather slow at first, but in the second half accelerated quickly. The goods deliveries gave big chunks of PPs.

I underestimated how quickly the game end approached. There were a few things I had planned to do, and I realised too late that I wouldn't have enough rounds or cubes to complete all of them. I had to compromise. Eventually I had two undelivered goods, some cards underutilised, and some cards that I could not even activate. I did not plan well for the cube dwindling in the second half of the game.

Chong Sean won the game decisively at 76PP. I had 63PP. Shan and Wan both had 46PP, but Shan beat Wan by tiebreaker - position on the wall track.

Near game end. Most goods tiles have been delivered - many of the PP spots at the ports have been covered by goods tiles.

The Thoughts

I have a feeling that generally the best strategy is to pick the dice with big numbers. Having more cubes means more things that you can do, even though it means doing them later. So I suspect it's generally OK to start slow, and plan for the big moves in the second half of the game. Having many cubes set up for future rounds also allows you to select cards that you know you can active, as opposed to selecting cards that you hope you will be able to activate. Of course sometimes you will need to select some smaller numbered dice for urgent needs, but my feeling is more cubes is usually better.

Despite the interesting dice selection + windrose mechanism, Macao feels like just another typical Eurogame to me. It feels like the result of a mechanism looking for a game. It reminds me of why I didn't like Diamonds Club, but I think Macao is a more interesting game compared to Diamonds Club. Trying to collect cards that have synergy is interesting. Planning around the dice is also an interesting puzzle to solve. The game has multiple moving parts that are all interlinked. Often you need to compromise between different opportunities, not only because you don't have enough resources or time to do both, but also because sometimes doing one will mess up the other. Do you want to compete in turn order? How quickly should you race to the ports? Which port to visit first? Which quarters to claim? The puzzle parts of the game - cubes to collect, usage of cards - can feel a little solitaire-like, but there are actually many aspects you need to compete with your opponents.

There is quite a fair bit of variety in the cards, which is good. The game is satisfying to play because you need to juggle multiple balls. Just don't expect much in terms of theme (Action Cubes?!). At least it isn't a cube conversion exercise (except when you convert some to money).

Friday 30 July 2010

Campaign Manager 2008

Campaign Manager 2008 is a 2-player card game I have been interested to try for some time, because the designer also designed Twilight Struggle, a game I quite enjoy. I managed to convince Chong Sean to buy a copy so that I could try it.

The Game

The game is about the US presidential elections in 2008. You are the campaign manager for one of the candidates, and you try to get your candidate elected to the White House. There are 20 battleground states in the game, which vary in the number of electoral votes they give. Your objective is win enough states to reach 270 votes. At any one time, four states are in play. You play cards to gain support in the states - to place a disc of your colour onto the state card. Each state has a defense issue side and an economy issue side. One of these issues is the majority issue, and the other is the minority issue. This can be switched by the player's card play. If all the supporters on the majority issue side are your supporters, you win the state immediately.

The state of West Virginia. The two rows of round spaces represent supporters - red for McCain, blue for Obama, white for undecided voters. The track on the right shows which issue, economy or defense, is the majority issue. You win a state when all supporters on the majority issue side are your supporters. On the left you can see the key demographic (currently Clinton Democrats).

There are some other aspects. A breaking news card is drawn every time another state comes into play, usually impacting that card. Some (usually more powerful) cards force you to a die and potentially give some benefit to your opponent. Every card has two possible voter key demographics, which, like the majority / minority issues, can be affected by card play. Some cards give a very powerful effect if the key demographic in the targeted state matches them.

The scoring track on the right is quite unique. Whenever you win a state, you add a bar representing the number of electoral votes to your part of the scoring track. Quite clever, and saves a lot of effort with the calculator. In the middle is the Breaking News cards, events cards that are drawn whenever a new state comes into play. They usually impact that new state, but not always. The reference sheet at the bottom is for some Going Negative cards. If you use the card, you roll a die and your opponent may gain some benefit.

Some McCain cards. Most of the card is flavour text. Most important is the effect description at the bottom.

On your turn you either draw a card, or play a card. Hand limit is 5. The cards have various powers, and all are related to the various aspects described above. You win once you reach or exceed 270 votes.

That's the gameplay. Pretty straight-forward. However there is one important aspect that happens before you start playing the game - the card drafting. During a game you will have only 15 cards in your deck. However for each side in the game there are 45 cards. Before you start a game, you create your deck of 15 cards by (doing 15 times) drawing three cards then selecting one. So sometimes you have to make difficult decisions about what cards to keep, and you use this drafting to formulate a strategy. When the game starts you won't know what kind of cards your opponent has, but after you play through your decks once, you'll know and you'll be able to plan your moves better. In my opinion this aspect is the most interesting part of the game.

The Play

Chong Sean and I played the introductory game first, where you use a preset deck. He applied a simple strategy that I didn't see until it was too late. He only focused on the big states, and he let me win the smaller ones. In hindsight it was an obvious strategy. The only excuse I can come up with is I didn't know there were so few big states. Chong Sean, playing Obama, won by a big margin.

After that first game, my reaction was: that's all? It seemed there wasn't much meat to the game. It's just drawing a card or playing a card. Sometimes you put a disc onto the state, sometimes you shift the majority issue, sometimes you change the key demographic. I was a little disappointed I must admit.

Chong Sean contemplating his cards. At any time there are four states being contested over.

Then a few days later we played a normal game, i.e. with the drafting. We switched sides, this time I played Obama while he played McCain. Well, technically we played the candidates' campaign managers. As we did the drafting, I tried to pick cards that allowed me to draw another card(s), so that it would save me a turn. I only picked two cards which allowed me to convert neutral voters to my supporters if the key demographic matched the cards. Little did I know that these cards could be so powerful. After the game started, both Chong Sean and I used these cards well. They played an important part when picking a new state. If we had one of these cards in hand, we would try to pick a state with the matching key demographic.

This second game was much closer. The big and medium states came out early. Chong Sean won Florida, the biggest state. I won a number of other medium and medium-large states. It came down to the last three states. Eventually I won the game after winning the 3rd last state.

This was our second game, and it was a much closer game.

Down to the last three states.

The Thoughts

After the second game, I like Campaign Manager 2008 much more. It definitely should be played with drafting. I'd say if you are a regular game player, skip the intro game. Just skim through the card deck, and then start a normal game. Learning how your opponent has built his deck, and then adjusting play to counter his strategy, is a big part of the game, and I'd say that's completely lost in the intro game. Will he have a lot of those key demographic cards? How many media cards will he have? (these cards stay in play until discarded by another media card, so if you don't have a single media card but your opponent does, you are in trouble) Will he intentionally pick more cards for the issue that you are strong in? In our second game, playing McCain, Chong Sean intentionally picked more economy cards which Obama is strong in. Unfortunately (for him) I had decided to focus a lot on economy, so I had more economy cards than him.

Looking at the individual aspects of the game, nothing really stands out. However when everything is put together, it is a quick and interesting game with a fair bit of planning, bluffing and hand management. There are quite a number of interesting decisions, and you need to manage the pace. Spend too much effort on winning one state, and you may suddenly lose the next few states to your opponent. You will find yourself often torn between defending one state and trying to go for the win in another. Sometimes even the choice of playing a card or drawing a card can be a tough one. There is quite a bit of brinkmanship in the game.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Die Macher full game

Finally, I got to play Die Macher again. This was the third time for me, but the first time playing the full game with 7 elections. I played with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan. All of us have played before, but none of us have played it much, so we still had to refer to the rules a lot. The first election took us more than 1.5 hours! Thankfully we still managed to finish the game in 4 hours. The 7th election is only for scoring, so that means we spent 2.5hrs on 5 rounds, just half an hour per round after the initial slog.

Chong Sean has the Hans Im Gluck German edition, which I think has a better graphic design than my Valley Games English version.

Top: Stack of coalition tiles to indicate states where I can form coalitions; my player marker, Grune = Green Party. Bottom (card backs): Party platform cards; outside contribution cards; shadow cabinet cards.

In our game, the first and third states were rather big states, while the second and fourth were rather small. Later on as the 5th to 7th states came up, the 5th was also moderately big, while the last two were medium states. Competition was fierce right out of the gate, for the 1st big state. Eventually it was won by a coalition (not involving me). The coalition had more than 50 votes, so non-coalition parties would not be able to win. Throughout the game we had many coalitions, and many states were won by coalitions.

The first four elections, first one being the 48 state at the top, then going clockwise. 15 is the smallest state in the game. I (green) had invested heavily in the first state, pushing my opinion trend to the top, but alas I still lost due to not being in a coalition.

The setup sheet. I invested heavily in Hessen, the first state, increasing my opinion trend twice as well as placing 6 party meeting markers. Too bad I didn't win the election. I also placed a media marker in Bremen the 3rd state. The column on the right was the bid amounts to determine start player. I didn't have much idea whether it was good to be first or last player, and bid 0 half the time.

We played with a variant where the pool of available public opinions kept growing, as opposed to being fixed at 6 cards. This gave much more flexibility to players and created more opportunities. Chong Sean said this was the designer's original intention. When an election concluded, public opinion cards in that state which were not moved to the national opinion board were added to the pool. Also when conflicting public opinions were revealed, they went into the pool too. I think I like this better. I felt less restricted by luck.

Chong Sean commented that in previous games, the parties grew to become more and more like one another, because everyone tried to match the same public opinions of the states (aah... spineless populist policitians...). I wasn't so sure this was the best strategy. Perhaps it would be better to stand out from others, so that whatever you to manipulate public opinion would not help other players at the same time, and may in fact hurt them while benefiting you. It's probably risky though. It means you are less likely to be able to form coalitions, because your party's platform is too different. Perhaps the best strategy is some middle path.

My five party platform cards. This version of Die Macher was published when the introduction of the Euro currency was still being debated. Thus that coin icon on the second card from the left.

Our competition in media control was fierce too. I forgot about one of the shadow cabinet powers which allowed you to replace an opponent's media marker with yours. That's a very powerful move because you are reducing an opponent's control and increasing yours at the same time. Chong Sean pulled this on me and I learned the hard way. And of course I applied this trick afterwards. That said, this is not something you can do very often, because your shadow cabinet cards are limited.

I learned that media control really is quite important, because it not only allows you to change the public opinion of the state, it also protects you from bad opinion poll results. Another indirect but also very important benefit is sometimes you don't want the public opinion of the state to change. Having media control stops others from changing the public opinion.

I had media control in this state - 2 green media cubes.

As the game progressed, I felt a sense of doom, because I wasn't winning many elections, overall my party platform differed the most with others, even though I had some common policies. I tried to gain as many seats as possible during the elections, despite knowing that I didn't have a good chance to win the elections themselves, because seats = points. Since I didn't win many elections, I didn't get to move public opinion cards to the national opinion board. Chong Sean, Wan and Shan all had party platforms that better matched the national opinion board, which meant they gained more members every round, and more members = more income in rounds 1, 3 & 5.

Generally we were quite conservative with our money, and I think probably unnecessarily so. Our money was indeed tight in the early game, but by mid game we could actually afford more than what we bid for the opinion polls and the start player choice. Towards game end, we had so much money left that the last opinion poll card was won at > $100K. In the early game these went for $1K to $3K.

As the 6th election came, I saw one good opportunity to screw all the other players. On the national opinion board there was one secured national opinion against genetically modified crops. All the others also opposed GM crops, but my party had no preference on this issue. If I could remove this national opinion from the national board, it would hurt all the others. However a secured national opinion is hard to remove. You need to add an exact opposite card to the national board. There was exactly such a card in the 6th election. If I could win the 6th election, I would definitely move that card to the national board, so that I would reduce everyone else's scores. There's a Chinese saying, "hurting others with no gain for oneself", which is perfectly applicable and is a good thing in this situation. However Chong Sean saw this coming, and worked to stop me. When we totaled up the votes for the election, I won the election by 3 votes! I was shocked, and so was Chong Sean. I think somewhere along the way he miscalculated. Another reason that I won was that my party platform matched the public opinion in that state quite well.

So, I managed to discard that secured national opinion opposing GM crops afterall. Woohoo! Then when we checked the 7th election, I won that too! It was also due to good matching between public opinion and party platform. These last two elections which I won as sole winner caused a lot of damage to the other players, because I moved a total of four public opinion cards to the national board, drastically changing it. After we did the game-end scoring, I won the game narrowly, by only 10pts. I did plan ahead for the 6th and 7th elections, and tried to manipulate the public opinion and my party platform accordingly, but I didn't anticipate these to have such a big impact, because both states were just medium sized.

End game scoring. Left side is the seats gained throughout the 7 elections, which are summed up and then copied to the first row on the right side. The other scoring aspects on the right are: media markers on the national board (which can be moved there after winning an election), party members & bonus for most and second most members, matching of national opinions & bonus for matching secured national opinions.


  1. Definitely play the full game of Die Macher. I think the shortened game with 5 elections (i.e. just 4 rounds, since the last election is scored immediate after the second last) is not a proper game at all. I think the same thing about the medium-length version of Through the Ages. You should go for the full experience and not settle for a half-baked version.
  2. You really need more plays to be able to piece everything together, to get a full picture and to be able to plan. Die Macher has many moving parts. You need to understand how all these different aspects come together and how they work together as a whole. Only then you can prioritise and work out your strategy. Unfortunately game length is a hindrance to play this frequently. You need to find some players who are willing to invest the time and who have the same level of interest.
  3. Despite the length of the game, I feel constantly engaged. I need to watch closely the party platforms of all opponents, which will help to guess their intentions - where will they fight and where will they concede? Will they go for media control? How will they change the public opinions? Are there opportunities for coalitions? Forced coalitions? Watching everyone's party platforms can be a little tiresome, but it's something that you must do.
  4. The game is not only about where to fight. It is also about when to fight. Your set of shadow cabinet cards and outside contribution cards are limited. When will you use them? There is a memory element to this as well, because remembering what cards your opponents have played is useful.
  5. In any game only 7 states will come into play. This can provide a lot of variability. Depending on the sizes of the states, money can be tight or otherwise. The order of the states also impacts the game.
  6. The game is very thematic. All aspects are true to the theme.
  7. There is randomness in the game - die rolls for determining party membership growth, party platform cards that you draw, public opinion cards that are revealed, opinion polls, etc. The opinion polls are known to be the biggest source of complaint. But then you do have ways to mitigate it - by saving enough money to win the card yourself, or by having media control so that you won't suffer any negative effects. There are so many things that I can do in the game, that I feel I'm in control, as opposed to feeling I'm at the mercy of luck.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

El Grande Intrigue and the King

El Grande is a classic area majority game. It is considered the pioneer of area majority games. It was published in 1995, and this was an era when most eurogames tended to be middle-weight, e.g. The Settlers of Catan, Through the Desert, Taj Mahal, Ra. I think only after 2000 we had more and more eurogames of higher complexity, e.g. Age of Steam, Puerto Rico, Amun-Re, Agricola, Through the Ages. I have tried El Grande once about 6 years ago when I just got into the hobby. Unfortunately I tried a 2-player game, which made the game a very poor experience. This is a game best with five. One can even argue that the player count of two should not have been on the box. Since I was going to have a 4P game session, I decided to give El Grande another try.

The Game

The game is played on a map of Spain, divided into 9 regions. There is one special region - the Castillo (castle, I think) - where you can drop cubes (called caballeros in the game). Throughout the game you manipulate cubes on the map, trying to have as much presence as possible, in order to score as many points as possible. The game has 9 rounds, and scoring is done every three rounds. There is a King token on the map. The region that he is in is locked, no one can move cubes into or out of that region. Also, normally players can only place cubes in regions adjacent to the region where the King is.

The King token in El Grande is one of the most well-known game pieces in the hobby.

We played with the Intrigue and the King expansion, which to me is more a variant than an expansion. It's a different way of playing the game. The cards used and the way they work are different. Everyone has a deck of 18 cards, and at the start of the game you remove 5 from the game. Each round you will select a card to play. The cards have 3 parts - a number which determines turn order for a round, icons indicating how many cubes you can move from your unavailable pile to your available pile, and a special action. Within a round, players take turns to play a card, and they are not allowed to play a same numbered card as a previous player. Once all cards are played, turn order is determined. The first player will not execute the special action on his card, and instead execute the King action (move the King anywhere). He will get to move many cubes from his available pile to the board. The players in the middle get to do their special action, and they will move fewer cubes onto the board. The last player also doesn't do his special action. He does the Intrigue action instead, which is to disperse all cubes in one region to any number of other regions. He will get to move only one cube onto the board.

Due to the existance of an unavailable pile (called your "provinces") and an available pile (called your "court"), you need to manage a steady supply of cubes in your available pile. Else it is useless to play big numbered cards because you won't have cubes to move onto the board.

I (green) started in a corner. The bigger cube marks your home province and does not mean additional strength. If you are the sole majority player you gain 2pts extra.

The Castillo is an interesting twist. When placing cubes onto the board, you can decide to put some into the Castillo. Cubes in there are hidden and are scored like a normal region during the scoring round. After that, players simultaneously and secret decide where to move all the cubes to. So they are like paratroopers, dropping in to a region to boost your numbers.

The special actions in the game are all related to different ways to manipulate cubes (yours and your opponents) and scoring. E.g. one allows you to move all opponents' cubes from available pile to unavailable pile, one allows you to score one region immediately. Everyone has the same set of cards to start with. The 5 cards removed create some uncertainty, but you know what cards your opponents may have, so you can plan to defend against them. By seeing what have been played, you will also know what cards you are now safe from.

The Play

I played a four-player game with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan. Chong Sean has played the game before, but not Wan and Shan. Chong Sean and I competed quite fiercely at the Castillo throughout the game. I made a conscious effort to remember how many cubes everyone had, and mostly remembered right. After the first scoring round, I was leading by an obvious margin. I didn't have many more cubes on the board than others, but in the round right before the scoring round, I took the Intrigue action, dispersing my cubes to many empty regions or regions where I could score for 2nd or 3rd place. It was a good idea, mininal investment for maximum effect. However, being an obvious leader had its drawbacks, because naturally everyone else would gang up on me.

What made it worse was I lead by a big margin again after the second scoring round. Then after the second scoring round, we realised we played a rule wrong. When using the Intrigue action, you cannot leave behind a cube in the region where you decide to disperse your cubes. That changed things. I deducted 8pts from my score, to correct the situation. So I wasn't leading by that much afterall. Unfortunately the psychological effect of the big gap could not be undone. I didn't do so well in the last third of the game, and eventually Chong Sean overtook me to win the game.

The Castillo in the background.

The Thoughts

I roughly know how the Intrigue and the King expansion differs from the base game, and I think I like the base game more. In the base game, 5 cards are turned over randomly every round, so there is some randomness in what special actions will be available every round. The game is more tactical because you can only analyse the cards when you see them. In the expansion, you can plan better and you have more control, but it seems like a bit too much work for me, and I prefer the game to be lighter. Maybe if I play more and get more familiar with the game, I would prefer the expansion.

I have been playing many area majority games lately, In the Shadow of the Emperor, San Marco and now El Grande too. And I have repeated myself too many times that I'm generally not a fan of area majority games. El Grande is just an OK game for me (please don't stone me for blasphemy). I prefer it to be played at a brisk space and in a light-hearted manner, thus my preference of the higher randomness in the base game.

I'm happy to have tried El Grande again, and indeed it is much better with 4 players. I think 5 will be even better. There is an interesting balance of managing your cube supply, your cards, and your presence on the board. You try to make the most out of the special actions, and you need to use the King's location to protect your regions as well as to attack other regions. The Castillo throws in a double-guessing element, adding some spice to the game. The Intrigue and the King expansion adds more to the card management aspect of the game, because special actions are in your hand now as opposed to being revealed every round.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Age of Steam Ireland

I played Age of Steam again after a long time. I played a 3-player game of the Ireland map, with Chong Sean and Aaron. Chong Sean said that the Ireland may is one of the highest ranked expansion maps to Age of Steam. There are some changes to the base game. Many cities on the western side of Ireland do not accept goods or produce goods. Goods accepting cities are mostly on the eastern side and near the coast. Urbanisation action is changed. You can't upgrade a town to a city. Instead you can remove one good from the board, i.e. nasty move to deny an opponent a delivery. Engine action is made weaker. When you choose it, you don't automatically gain an engine level. Instead, you have the option of gaining 2 engine levels by completely forfeiting both your move goods actions that round.

Chong Sean has played many games of Age of Steam. I have played some, but in all cases I was the game teacher. When I played with Chong Sean, I realised I had been playing some rules wrong. I had played that when adding goods onto the board, you could only add the 2nd and 3rd cubes onto the board if you had rolled 2 or 3 dice of the same number. That made the game more difficult, and the Production action more important. I also missed the rule that your new railroads must be connected to you own network. In the past I mostly built to extend my own network, so the impact of this mistake probably was not so big. Anyway, it is good to now know how to play more correctly.

Our game started relatively peacefully. Chong Sean started in the middle, with the intention of cutting me and Aaron off from the other halves of the board (which of course he only told us much later). Aaron started in the south, and I started in the north. Chong Sean was most aggressive in issuing shares and planning far ahead for the long deliveries. Aaron (first game for him) was most conservative in issuing shares. We actually had to encourage him to build track and not forfeit his action. Afterall, tracks = VPs.

In mid game, I made one very painful mistake. I had planned to build tracks to reach a purple city, so that I could deliver two goods that round. Only when I was about to build tracks that Chong Sean pointed out to me that I needed to build on 4 hexes, not 3. This meant I needed to have taken the Engineer privilege which allowed building 4 instead of 3 hexes. That really messed up my plans. I could only partially build the intended track, and had to deliver other less profitable goods. Thankfully I still had enough cash to pay for maintenance and pay dividends.

My "Oh SHIIIII... I'm screwed" moment, which Chong Sean found so funny that he had to take a photo.

This was where I made my mistake. I had intended to connect that town on the left of the black city to the #3 purple city at the bottom left. There were 3 hexes between the purple city and the town, so I thought I only needed to build 3 hexes. I didn't realise that I also needed to upgrade the tile containing the town, because it didn't have a railroad leading out towards the direction of the purple city. In this photo I had upgraded the town hex and had built one track towards another town. Only in the next round I could complete the railroad to the purple city.

Towards the later half of the game, we started taking the Urbanisation (i.e. remove one good on the Ireland map) privilege a lot, unfortunately with me being the target most of the time. Thankfully I had enough goods to deliver and the loss of some goods did not hurt me too much. I think having access to both the red+blue cities helped me a lot. I had access to 1 black and 2 purple cities too. Yellow was the only colour I didn't have access to. Once I knew there were enough goods to last me until end game, I worked on building more tracks for the VPs.

By the end of the final round, all three of us had the exact same income level! However Chong Sean had issued a few more shares than Aaron and I. Aaron had issued one share less than I. It was in the track building that outscored them, and I won the game. Me 118, Aaron 107, Chong Sean 97.

A very busy board.

I enjoy Age of Steam a lot and think it's a wonderful system. I really should play this more. I have 3 maps myself and have only played 2 of them.

The earlier tracks in the game. I (green) built in the north, and Chong Sean (red) built in the middle.

Early in the game. Chong Sean had already built a railroad track crossing from west to east.

Mid game. Aaron (black) had now built a coastal railway along the south of Ireland. Chong Sean had blocked me from extending past the brown city in the centre.

Southern Ireland was very congested now.

I (green) managed to build past Chong Sean's "wall" afterall, connecting to the #4 purple city via a town.

Now you see more and more tracks built for scoring and not for delivery.

Monday 26 July 2010


Ubongo is a real-time puzzle game that Chong Sean introduced to me. It was a game very popular with his customers when he still operated Carcasean as a cafe. His copy of the game has seen heavy play.

Look at how worn out the game pieces are. This copy at Carcasean has seen lots of play.

The Game

In Ubongo, you are given a board and some Tetris-like pieces, and you try to fit them onto the shape on the board within a short time, before the sand timer runs out. If you can solve the puzzle in time, you can collect gems from a central board. There are 6 lines on the central board, and your pawn stands at the head of one of these lines. Gems are placed along these lines. When you solve a puzzle, you can move your pawn a number of steps (depending on how quickly you solved it compared to other players) to the head of another line. Then you collect 2 gems from that line nearest to you (if any remain). The objective of the game is to collect many gems of one colour. You score for only one colour, so you'd of course choose the colour which you have the most number of gems. Gems collected in other colours are only used as tiebreaker.

Gosh, I spend one sentence explaining the most important part of the game, and eight to explain the scoring system...

The central game board with gems all set up to go.

These two photos summarise the game. In this case we rolled the shield icon on the special die, so I had to fit the four pieces below the shield icon (top right) onto the board.

This was how I did it. I collected two gems, red and blue.

The Play

Play was very quick, because Chong Sean is a real shark at this game. He probably has played this too many times when he taught his customers. The game is really fast and furious, because not only the puzzles need to be solved within the time limit, you also need to move your pawn and collect gems before time runs out. Sometimes even if you finish before another player, you may want to wait till he collects gems, because the gem colour that you want may become available after he collects the ones he wants, i.e. they are further down the same line where he collects his gems. This means you also need to be careful not to collect gems in a way that will set the next player up to collect valuable gems to him.

A game lasts 9 puzzles. The timer is less than one minute I think. So a game can probably be finished within 15 minutes.

The Thoughts

The game is quite fun! Definitely there is a strong spatial element, and some people won't like this, or are not good at this (or both). I think the game should be played by more or less equally skilled players for it to be the most fun. It can be very exciting. There is a way to compensate for skill differences. Every board has two sides, an easier side and a harder side. The former uses three puzzle pieces, the latter four. But I don't think everyone will find this a satisfactory way to compensate for skill differences. At least I don't.

There is a lot of variety in the game. There are 36 boards. For each puzzle there are 6 combinations of pieces that can be used, i.e. there really are 6 puzzles on one side of one board. So you have 216 (36 x 6) hard puzzles and 216 easy puzzles. You won't easily memorize the solutions, but of course as you play more you'll learn the techniques to solve the puzzles.

I bought a copy of the game, because my wife saw a photo I took and said "buy it". I've played it with my children (5 and 3), them using the easy side of course. We don't use the timer. My older daughter can manage the puzzles most of the time. My younger daughter usually needs help and encouragement, because as soon as someone else completes a puzzle before she does (which is almost all the time), she stops working on her own puzzle and starts sulking.

Ubongo is a good family game. It's light. And it's such a joy to shout "UBONGO!!" when you complete your puzzle.

Should this be pronounced "you-BONG-go" or "ooo-BONG-go"? I prefer the latter. Sounds more primitive and authentic.

Sunday 25 July 2010

San Marco

I played San Marco at Carcasean on 22 Jul 2010. I'm back in KK (Kota Kinabalu) again, which means visits to Carcasean to try new games and to revisit good older games with Chong Sean.

The Game

San Marco is a medium complexity area majority game with an I-split-you-choose mechanism at its core. The game is played over 3 phases, where players try to score points by having presence in the 6 regions on the board. The regions are connected by bridges, which restrict movement. The game starts the players owning few bridges, and during the game they can build more. When you place your cube (OK, I'm not sure whether they are supposed to be "people", or "influence", or something else - physically they are cubes) onto the board, if the target region is connected to other regions by your bridges, you can place your cube in an adjacent region instead. When a Doge (i.e. scoring) card is played, you can move the Doge across anyone's bridges, but you pay 1VP to an opponent if you use his bridge.

Setting up the game. 8 cubes of each player are randomly placed onto the board by die-rolling (see die symbol in the regions). The numbers in the regions are VPs for whoever has the highest and second highest presence. The sun on the lower right indicates the phase of the game.

This is how the game works (for a 3-player game). At the start of the round, one player draws 6 good cards and 4 bad cards, and splits them in any way he wants into 3 sets. Then the other 2 players select one set of cards each, leaving one last set for him. As a player claims cards, he uses them to take actions. The simplest cards allow you to place one cube in a specific region, or adjacent one if you have the necessary bridge. The Bridge card lets you build a bridge. The Transform card lets you change a cube to your colour. The Banish card lets you remove cubes from a region - you select the region then roll a die, and then remove that number of cubes from the region. There is a risk of removing your own cubes if the number of opponents' cubes is small and you have your own cubes in the region. The Doge card lets you move the Doge then score the destination region. These are the good cards. The bad cards are number cards ranging from 1 to 3. Once anyone collects bad cards that add up to 10 or more, he's out of the current phase. Other players who have less than 10 do one more round. The differences in bad card values also determine bonus points for players with less than 10. The bigger the gap between your bad card value and the that of the worst player, the more bonus points you score.

Three phases are played, and then the game ends.

Cards in the game. Top: Banishment, Doge (scoring), Transform. Bottom: Region cards for you to play a cube (and then possibly move to an adjacent region).

Close-up of the San Marco region. The Doge is the red dude. Cubes on bridges don't mean aristocrats crossing bridges. I thought they were were I first saw artistic photos of this game. Cubes on bridges indicate ownership.

The Play

I played the game with Chong Sean (who has played before) and Aaron, a new friend. When I did the card splitting, I tended to split them quite evenly - the sets tended to have about the same mix of good and bad cards. Aaron went with a more extreme approach, he often had one very big set with many good and bad cards, and the other 2 sets only had one good card each. Twice Chong Sean could not resist and took the biggest sets, and later this came back to haunt him, because not only he had one less round, the bad value gap also gave many bonus points to Aaran and I, especially Aaron. I had also succumbed to the big set temptation. Eventually Aaron won the game with 61pts. I had 49pts, Chong Sean 45pts.

I did this split quite evenly.

Near game end, when most of the bridges had been built.

The Thoughts

The first thing I have to say about San Marco is that I love the artwork. Unfortunately, I'm not a big fan of area majority games, so it won't be a game I'll request to play often. The game design is clean and simple. The bridge building is an interesting long term planning aspect that you need to think about. The player who has to split the cards has the toughest job. I think it early games this part can really slow down as new players struggle to understand the implications and to evaluate the cards. However I think once you get familiar with the game this can be done much more quickly. Selecting a set is usually less strenuous, but it is still an interesting decision. Overall this is a middle-weight game, because there are a few aspects you need to think about at the same time. It is not only about area majority. You also need to consider the bridge building, the phase ending condition, and the bad card value gap bonus.

Saturday 24 July 2010

In the Shadow of the Emperor

In the Shadow of the Emperor was a half impulse buy, i.e. I only broke half a rule about buying games that I had set for myself. It was on sale, and it is considered by some to be a hidden gem that never received the attention it deserved. So I decided to give it a shot.

The Game

The game is about politics in the Holy Roman Empire (i.e roughly modern-day Germany and some surrounding regions). You manage a family of aristocrats, guiding them through a few generations, as they compete to get elected to powerful positions - to become an Elector of one of the seven Electorates (~provinces), and even to become elected Emperor of the HRE.

The game is played over 5 rounds only. The core of the game is the elections. Every round there are elections at the 7 Electorates, to determine whether a new Elector will take power, or the old Elector will stay. Who takes power is determined by presence in the Electorate - aristocrats, knights, cities controlled. After the elections at the Electorates, they may be another election for the Emperor's position, if a challenger has stepped forward to demand an election. Everything else in the game is to help you work towards success at the elections.

The game board. The track on the left is for tracking money. The track at the top tracks the round and shows the bonus for the current emperor. The 3 regions in the middle are religious Electorates (diocese), and only unmarried aristocrats can become Elector. The 4 regions at the bottom can have single or married Electors.

One important aspect of the game is aging. Your aristocrats will grow old and die, and you need to make sure you give birth to enough sons (or adopt) to maintain a big healthy family. Whether you get a son or a daughter every round is determined by a gamey mechanism - the types of actions you take in the previous round. Most actions that you take are represented by a pink or a blue card. If you have taken more blue than pink, you get a boy, else a girl. Getting a son means you have one more aristocrat on the board. If you get a daughter, you can try to marry her off to another player. She joins the other family and gives 1 more vote in Electorate elections. But you get 1VP for the successful marriage proposal. If you are refused, or if you don't want to bother trying, your daughter becomes a nun and you earn $1. Talk about selling off your daughter...

The actions are the main activities you do. Each action type is limited. Once all the cards of an action have been taken, that action is not available anymore. There is a lot of variety in the actions - making an aristocrat younger, bringing in a new young aristocrat, bringing in a knight, claiming a city, marrying your son and a foreign princess, moving an aristocrat (or couple) to another Electorate, promoting a knight to a baron, deny an Electorate votes for the Emperor, giving extra votes to an Electorate, and even challenging the current Emperor for his throne. All these actions affect how you compete in the elections. The actions have different costs, so you need to spend your money wisely.

Some of the action cards. Top left: One single bachelor gets married, i.e. strength becomes 2. Top right: Claim a city. Bottom left: Move an aristocrat to another Electorate. Bottom right: hey... why did I take two exact same cards to use as examples?! Idiot...

There are many different ways to score victory points in the game. Becoming an Elector of an Electorate gives 2VP. Successfully marrying off a daughter gives 1VP. One action card gives 2VP. Claiming cities give VPs. One Electorate's special power is 1VP. The Emperor gains VP depending on the round. Supporters of the winner in an election for Emperor get 1VP. When playing the game you need to be aware of all of these. VPs are hard to come by and you need to make use of every opportunity, not only to earn VPs, but also to deny others of them.

The Play

We randomly assigned Han to be the Emperor at the start of the game. Throughout the game, every round someone challenged the Emperor. We thought no harm trying. In hindsight, it may not be such a good idea, because if you know you can't win, you are basically giving 1VP to the bystander who will naturally support the winner. I was kingmaker most of the game, as in most of the time it was Han the Emperor vs Afif the challenger or vice versa, and I had enough votes to decide who won. I only tried to become Emperor once, but was unsuccessful. I focused my effort in getting my aristocrats onto the board, neglecting city building, which meant I had less cash. I had so many aristocrats that I ran out of aristocrat tokens. I gave them good healthcare (i.e. rotate anti-clockwise to make them younger) so they stayed alive longer. However, towards later game I had a whole bunch of them dying together, suddenly making my presence much weaker.

Throughout the game I have been selecting mostly the pink actions, so I have been getting daughters every round. In contrast, Han has been choosing the blue actions, and I think he had sons every round. Just like in real life. I have two daughters, and him two sons.

Han (yellow) and Afif (red) having a fierce fight over Mainz Diocese. Han's strength is 4 (a couple gives 2, knight 1, city 1). Afif's strength is 6 (1 couple giving 2, 2 bachelors giving a total of 2, city 1, knight 1).

Both Afif and Han claimed cities earlier, and they had more money, which allowed more flexibility in taking actions. Cities also helped in Electorate level elections.

By the final round, I knew I was pretty screwed, due to my loss of momentum. Also I have not been Emperor even once. When the final scores were revealed, I did come in last, but did not do as bad as I had thought. I had 23pts. Afif had 26pts, Han 25pts. It was quite a close game. Every single VP counts!

The Thoughts

In the Shadow of the Emperor is very much an area majority game. I also realise that it is a perfect information game. Well, except for the victory points (and I think it is better that the VP is hidden). So if you spend time to calculate the repercussions of your moves and those of your opponents', the game is quite deterministic, and it can drag if everyone tries to analyse every possible move and all the implications.

The players have a wide range of choices. So the game feels quite open. There are many things you can do, some beneficial for short-term, some long term. One thing I like is all the actions are very thematic. You can boil everything down to simple area majority competition, but all the actions that you can do in the game are associated to something realistic. You do feel like you are pulling the strings and helping your clan fight for supremacy.

It is also a manipulation game - you need to manipulate your opponents. Try to appear weak. Try to make someone else appear strong. Sow mistrust. It can even become a negotiation game if you try to make deals with your opponents. You can lie, beg, threaten, make promises, break promises. These are not explicitly encouraged nor disallowed by the rules, so it's up to you how you want to play.

I find that I generally don't enjoy area majority games, so I am biased against In the Shadow of the Emperor. But I appreciate how thematic the game is and how everything ties together. There are a lot of little rules to remember, e.g. in the many different action cards. Every Electorate also gives some benefit to the player controlling it. I joked that the game has as many exceptions as Ameritrash games. Overall, I find that everything ties together quite well.

Wednesday 21 July 2010


I started my boardgame blog around mid 2007. Recently, for the first time in my boardgame blogging life, I received a free copy of a game, because of my blog. It was pretty exciting and flattering for me. I have never expected something like this, since I don't think my audience is big enough. Han teased me that I have now been elevated to the status of game reviewer, and that even he and Afif are now elevated to the status of playtester team of a game reviewer. So here's my experience.

The parcel. All the way from the other side of the world - USA.

Shrink-wrapped in orange plastic, and well protected with plastic bubble sheets, which both my daughters started popping immediately.

The box front.

Back of the box.

The game comes with this storage tray, which is quite handy.

The game board, with mock starting positions of colormonsters.

The back of the game board, action cards, ref sheets, storage sheets. I think this is a fully home-made game. It truly is a labour of love. There is so much work that went into it. The cards are thick, but sizes are not all uniform. The ref sheets and storage sheets are done very well. The board is slightly thin, but it's workable.

The other components. Top row: stones, from which gems or cards can be harvested. Once harvested stones are flipped over to become rubble (far right). Middle row: gems in 6 colours, dice. Dice are colour-coded to match the game board, to make it easier to tell where new stones will appear. Bottom row: Gold, currency (only $1 and $2), action cards (front and back). My only complaint about components is the stones (the triangles). They are thin and can be hard to handle.

The Game

The game starts with players creating their baby colormonsters, made up of 3 segments, each segment having one mouth. Every round, dice are rolled, and stones are added to the board. The colormonsters harvest gems (and action cards) from these stones if they have a mouth next to the stone. Once harvested the stones turn into rubble. Players get to trade with one another and with the bank. Different colour combinations of gems can be sold to the bank for different prices. With the money earned, you can buy action cards or gold. You need to collect 7 gold to win the game.

In the early rounds you can grow your colormonster. The new segments added have two mouths. Colormonsters reach adult size at 7 segments. You can move your colormonsters and adjust the positions of their mouths. You try to position them to harvest as many gems as possible, or to have the best chances to harvest more gems in future rounds. You compete against other colormonsters for board position.

The action cards are mostly good. You can use them to help yourself or to hinder your opponents. Some even let you collect gold, which saves a lot of effort. However there is one type of action card that forces you to give away gems to other players.

When a player reaches 7 gold, all other players have a chance to do another round of trading, to try to achieve victory in the same round.

The Play

Afif, Han and I played a 3 player game. The game went pretty fast. I think most of the mechanism is familiar, so many of the actions could be taken simultaneously. We only paused a little when some actions had dependency on turn order, e.g. when two colormonsters could harvest from the same stone. The colormonster later in turn order would not gain anything because the stone would have turned into rubble by then.

Afif spent a lot of money on buying action cards. And oops... I didn't explicitly tell him there were bad cards in the mix. OK, game explainer's fault. I just tried to position my colormonster to be touching hexes of as many different numbers as possible. I didn't move my colormonster much. I think Afif and Han also did not do it much. Maybe we did not play to block others aggressively enough, since our colormonsters all seemed to be positioned well enough. Perhaps we should have tried to cordon off more space for ourselves.

I was the first to reach 7 gold, triggering the final trading round. Han was able to reach 7 gold too, so we were tied for the win. Afif was just short of 1 gold.

Early game. The colormonsters had not grown to adult size (7 segments) yet.

Mid game. All the colormonsters were adult sized now.

I had gems in five colours. I needed another yellow so that I could trade the full set for $12. I had 3 Gold at this point. $12 would allow me to buy another 2 Gold.

Three stones which I could not reach due to being blocked by rubble.

Near game end. So much rubble... And only then we realised Afif had made a mistake with his (red) colormonster. The colormonster must be connected touching sides, not touching corners.

The Thoughts

ColorMonsters gives me a feeling that the designer has played The Settlers of Catan before - the hexes, rolling dice to produce resources, the open trading, and the spatial element of competing for positions on the board. It feels like a typical resource-collection-and-conversion Eurogame. One unique part is the growth and movement of the colormonster. How do you jostle for position to ensure you have more room in future? How to block your opponents? How to avoid getting locked down by rubble? I think we have not explored this spatial element much. We just focused on collecting gems. There seemed to be an abundance of resources, so I didn't feel the urgency to compete with the other colormonsters. Only in the late game I realised things I could have done better earlier to avoid getting stuck where I was.

That said, I feel the flexibility to fight for positioning is limited. You need to keep your colormonster in one piece. Sometimes that means you will only be able to move very few segments. The board seems mostly quite static, with minor skirmishes when colormonsters approach one another. Despite the alien life form theme, the game is mostly an abstract strategy game.

Going off-topic here: When I look at the game components and rules of ColorMonsters, I get a feeling that the designer is not a boardgame geek like I am. The way the rules are written and structured, and the terminology used, make me think that this is not a person who has played hundreds of different games and read hundreds of game rules. Definitely not a person who lives on like it's oxygen (which I do). Like a reflex response, I immediately had an urge to suggest doing the rules, or designing the game, or changing some keywords to be like so-and-so other games. Then I thought again and realised that it may not be a good thing. I think sometimes we old timers are so used to the way games are, we become resistant to new ideas or different approaches. One can argue that there are reasons that some things are done the way they are. I say at the same time we need to keep an open mind.

I am quite impressed with the effort put into ColorMonsters. I have toyed with some game designing ideas, but never went much further. The game itself has some interesting ideas, but overall it doesn't really stand out. I have only played the game once, so these are my first impressions. Further plays may reveal more, in particular the spatial competition aspect which I have not yet explore much of.

If you are interested in the game, visit