Tuesday 31 August 2010

game collection lockdown

I whine about (me) buying games all the time. It is one of the few tags at this blog with more than 10 occurrences (see Label side bar). I talk about limiting myself to 20 new games every year, including games bought, received as gifts, self-made, traded for etc. The main concern for me is not cost, but spending enough time on each game to truly appreciate it and truly enjoy it.

I created a list of reminders for myself:

  1. You don't need to own every game that you like.
  2. You don't need to play every good game.
  3. You need to play more of the good games that you own.
  4. Wait until your interest wanes.
  5. Don't impulse buy.
  6. Will you play the game more than 5 (or 10) times?

I typed this into the very spreadsheet that I use for keeping track of potential game purchases. It helps. I'm not sure how to measure how effective it is, but I think it does help. I think.

I'm reaching my 20 games quota for 2010 soon. I have already acquired 15, and I have already decided on the remaining 5. Of those 15 already acquired, 10 were purchased, 4 were gifts/rewards, 1 was self-made. No more slot for Innovation if I decide to buy it. Or 7 Wonders, or Inca Empire (Tahuantinsuyu). Or Sid Meier's Civilization the boardgame, or Agricola: Gamer's Deck, or London (Martin Wallace), or Great Fire of London 1666, or Merkator (Uwe Rosenberg). I'm listing all these just to spread the agony (or joy) a little. If I decide to buy any of these, I'll have to wait for 2011. If I want to stick to the 20 per year rule.

One idea that I'm toying with is the collection lockdown. Freeze game purchases for a certain amount of time (say half a year, or one full year), and keep revisiting older games owned, until I feel I know all of them quite well. This is 闭关练功, which is roughly equivalent to a hermit going into the mountains to shut himself from the world until he finds enlightenment. I never went past beginner level at Euphrates & Tigris. I haven't revisited Axis & Allies Guadalcanal which I liked a lot. There are quite many games in my collection that deserve more plays. I probably should keep repeating to myself this mantra: there are just too many good games, so don't try to play every one of them. I should play the ones I already own.

Axis & Allies Guadalcanal

I recently rediscovered the joy of playing Ingenious. I had not played it for a long time. My 5-year-old daughter asked to play a new game. I tried to look for something that I could simplify or modify the rules of to make it playable with young children, something without much text. I pulled out Ingenious and tried to teach it to her. She didn't fully grasp the scoring, but she got the general idea of matching the icons and trying to hit 18pts so that she could cry "Ingenious!". My wife helped her, and basically it was me competing against my wife, while my daughter thought she was the one playing. Ingenious was fun, despite how abstract and themeless it was. I have been missing this because I keep buying and playing new games. BGG is evil.

Another idea I thought about is proactively scheduling games. Keep a list of long games or complex games that are hard to get to the table, and make a conscious effort to schedule gaming events to play them. E.g. Die Macher, Indonesia, Samurai Swords, Axis & Allies Anniversary Edition (and the many different Axis & Allies games), A Game of Thrones, Civilization, Struggle of Empires. This can also apply to good games which are not really that hard to arrange to play, just that I never seem to get around to playing them, like Age of Steam and expansions, Power Grid and expansions, Brass, Amun-Re, Lord of the Rings and expansions, Hammer of the Scots.

Yet another idea is culling my games. If there's a game that I don't think I will ever play more than 10 times, then maybe I should sell it, trade it, or give it away. Even if it is a more recent purchase. If I have played a game enough times to decide whether I like it, even if I have not fully appreciated all its nuances, I probably should let go of the game.

A recent article on www.BoardgameNews.com mentioned a Netflix-like boardgame company in USA. If you subscribe to its service, you can create a list of games you want to play, and they send the games to you one (or more) at a time. You can play a game for as long as you want, and when you're done, you mail the game back, and they'll send you another game from your list. If you like a game enough to want to own a copy, you can buy it. This is quite a cool idea. Malaysia doesn't have the critical mass of boardgamers to do this, but perhaps one alternative is a boardgame library. Members store games at the library which they are willing to lend to others, and they can in turn also borrow games from the library. The library can also become a trading house helping gamers match multi-way trades. This would be a non-profit venture. There would be challenges, like where to store the games, who to manage the inventory and to run the library, etc, but if there are enough people interested and willing, this is probably workable in Malaysia.

Well well, this post started with one idea, and grew to become a messy brainstorming whiteboard. I wonder how many of these ideas I will end up actually executing.

Monday 30 August 2010


The Game

Innovation is a new (2010) card game by Carl Chudyk, designer of Glory to Rome. I have been reading about it a lot and have been very keen to try it, because of the civilisation theme and also it being a card game with some depth. I have played Glory to Rome before, and thought it was not bad. Not as good as Race for the Galaxy, but it has some interesting ideas.

Innovation has ten stacks of cards, each ranging from Age 1 (prehistoric age) to 10 (information age). Every card is one unique technology, e.g. archery, gunpowder, paper, wheel. It is in one of five different colours (representing different types if technology I guess). It has three icons, sometimes all different, sometimes all the same, sometimes a mix. There are 6 different icon types in the game, and some icons only appear on cards of specific Ages. The card also has a unique power that you can invoke. This power is called a Dogma, and is always associated with one icon type. When you activate a Dogma, if another player's playing area is showing the same number or more of that particular icon, he can decide to make use of your Dogma too (we call it "tumpang", which means "taking a free ride" in Malay). As a consolation you get to draw one card if anyone "tumpang" your Dogma action. Some Dogmas are offensive, and to protect yourself from these you need to have the same number (or more) of the associated icon as the attacker.

So managing visible icons in your play area is a very big part of the game. You can have at most 5 stacks of cards, because cards of the same colour must be stacked, and only the topmost card's Dogma can be invoked. There is a concept of Splaying. Some Dogmas let you Splay your stacks of cards either left, right or up. This means spreading the cards a little, so that some of the icons of the cards below the top card become visible. This is an interesting idea. The direction of Splay is important. Cards have icons on the upper left, lower left, lower centre and lower right. That means Splaying left will reveal one more icon per card below the top card of a stack, Splaying right will reveal two, and Splaying upwards three.

Core game play is very straightforward. You have two actions on your turn, which you can choose in any combination from (1) drawing a card, (2) playing a card, (3) Dogma and (4) Achieve. To Achieve is how you win the game. Depending on the number of players (2 to 4), you need a certain number of Achievements to win the game. If noone can do that, the game ends when the Age 10 cards run out, and tiebreaker is the cards in your Score pile. During the game, some Dogmas let you Score - put some cards into your Score pile. The cards here serve a different purpose - they are your score, and the values they represent are their Age numbers, i.e. an Age 1 card here is worth 1pt, Age 2 card 2pts etc. Other than serving as tiebreaker, the more important purpose of your Score pile is to help you Achieve. There are 15 Achievement cards available in the game, 10 are Score Achievements, 5 are Special Achievements. Those 10 Score Achievements can be claimed (i.e. Achieved) when you reach 5, 10, 15, etc points. So it's a race among all the players to be quickest to reach these milestones in order to claim the Achievements. Once claimed, an Achievement can never be taken away from you. The 5 Special Achievements are much harder to Achieve. You need to fulfill conditions such as having 3 of all icon types, or Scoring 6 cards on the same turn.

The game is not a peaceful one. Some Dogmas allow others to take cards from your Score pile, or your hand, or your play area. Only Achievements are safe. So you need to keep watching out for your opponents' offensive cards. You can't always protect yourself from them, because they can simply play a new offensive card than Dogma it on the same turn. Sometimes you simply have no way to get yourself enough of the particular icon. You can try to reduce the damage. You can try to look for other ways to fight back or to develop your civilisation so quickly that you no longer need to fear primitive attacks.

The Play

I played a four player game, and all four of us were new. The first game was overwhelming, because every card had text, and we needed to read not only our own cards but those played by others too. We didn't have much clue what to do until mid way into the game. I didn't seem to get many good cards (or more likely I didn't know how to make good use of them), and simply tried to play as many cards as I could onto my play area, and tried to get them Splayed. I only applied the general strategy (if you can call it that) of more icons good, few icons bad. At one point, Heng who was observing the game asked me, "You have something specific in mind right?". I think I just mumbled something in reply.

Towards Age 7 or so, two players (not including me) had 3 Achievements, needing one more for the win. The other two (i.e. including me) were pretty hopeless, having none (or one?). Then suddenly I drew the Combustion card. It allowed me to demand 2 cards from everyone's Score piles. Combustion's associated icon was the crown icon, and I had more crowns than everyone else. Suddenly my Score pile grew and grew. I had enough score to claim the remaining Achievements on the board (which required 40pts, 45pts and 50 pts respectively), but 3 Achievements wouldn't win me the game. I needed at least one of the five Special Achievements. Claiming the Score Achievements only helped to delay the two leading players a little.

My other option was to try to end the game by exhausting the Age 10 deck. If no one could get 4 Achievements by then, I would likely win because of my huge Score pile. Unfortunately I couldn't do so in time. Ang managed to Score enough points to claim his 4th Score Achievement. Perhaps I should have just Achieved those 3 Score Achievements as a safety precaution. But then I think Michael was trying eyeing the Special Achievements.

The Thoughts

As many reviews say, Innovation indeed can have big swings of fate. However I suspect the effect is not as big as most reviews of the game make it sound. I imagine many new players are surprised by these big swings because they don't know the cards well. The likelihood of big swings is higher in the first place because the players are new. So this is definitely a game that takes quite a number of plays to truly appreciate. You need to gradually learn the cards. You'll probably start watching out and preparing for the killer cards, whether setting yourself up to use them if you draw them, or preparing to defend against them if you don't. Later you'll learn to make use of the less fanciful cards too, so that you are never really stuck with no options. Well, I have only played one game, so this is just my speculation.

Winning mostly revolves around Scoring and Achieving. The Special Achievements seem to be very hard, but I suspect as you get better at the game they will become less intimidating. You really do need to keep in mind your objectives. You should take a long-term view in this game. In our first game we all played with a too tactical approach, just trying to Score whenever possible and then Achieve whenever we reached a milestone. I suspect the game is more strategic than that. You may concede the earlier Achievements and plan for the better stuff in the later ages.

The game doesn't really feel civ-like to me. Yes, you have progression from Age to Age, and the card powers get stronger and stronger. But then you are mostly managing and competing in icons, and racing to Achieve. The civilisation theme is represented in quite an abstract way.

I think I'll need at least 4 or 5 more plays before I'll know whether I like the game. I'm quite keen to try it again.

And sorry, no photos, because I was too busy reading my cards. Please visit BGG to see photos.

Saturday 28 August 2010

King of Siam

I joined the Old Town Kopitiam gamers to play on Fri 27 Aug 2010. They had an all-nighter (9pm - 7am), but being mostly a Cinderella, I only breached the curfew (midnight) by about an hour. I had a great time, managing to play 3 games, 2 of them new to me - King of Siam and Innovation. The other game was Automobile which I brought and taught to Heng, Alvin and Michael.

The Game

King of Siam (2007) is I game I have been interested to try for a long time. The setting is 1874. Siam (Thailand) is in turmoil. Four factions are trying to gain control of the country. Players do not play the factions themselves, but instead can gain influence in multiple factions. When the game ends and one faction controls Siam, you win by having the most influence in this winning faction.

There are only 8 rounds in the game. Every player has only 8 cards (i.e. 8 actions) to be used for the whole game. In each round, the control of one of the eight regions on the board is determined. Each region starts with 4 random cubes. The cubes represent the power of the three local factions, Siam Royalists (yellow), Laotians (red) and Malays (blue). When a round starts, the players can choose to play cards to change the board. The round ends when all players pass in succession, and the control of the current region is then determined. If one single faction has the most cubes, it gains control; else the British comes in to take control. The game ends after 8 rounds, or it can end prematurely if the British controls 4 regions. If a local faction controls the most regions, the player with the most cubes in that faction's colour wins. If the British controls Siam, the player with the most sets of 3 differently coloured cubes win.

King of Siam all set up and ready to go. The row of tiles at the top is the order in which the regions will be resolved. They are randomly arranged for every game. The blue, yellow and red regions are the home regions of the Malay, Royalist and Laotian factions, so the starting cubes in these regions will always have at least two cubes matching the colour of the respective factions. Other than these all cubes are placed randomly.

So how do you gain cubes? Every time you play a card, you must pick a cube from anywhere on the board. This presents a dilemma, because taking the cube of a faction that you support means you are also weakening its board position.

The 8 cards have various effects. Some let you add cubes to the board. Some let you swap cubes. One let you change the order in which regions are resolved. Once you use up all your cards, you become an observer. You won't be able to claim any more cubes. You can only hope the rest of the game will turn out OK for you, and maybe try to persuade (i.e. con) the other players to do something that benefits you. To give some variety in starting positions, you get two different cubes at the start of the game. So in total you can have 10 cubes at game end.

The same set of 8 cards that every player gets.

The Play

I played a three player game with Heng (owner and game teacher) and Lester. The game seems simple, but there is actually a lot to think about. The game is mostly open information. Only cubes collected and previous cards played are hidden, but if you have good memory, the game becomes a perfect information game. There is a lot to think about because of the possible alternative ending (British conquest), the tiebreaker conditions, and the impacts of your card play. To play a card or not itself is also a painful decision. Do you wait and see how things go before you decide which faction to invest in? Will it be too late if you wait too long? At one point Lester basically said screw it and played a card Bohnanza-style - the first card from his deck. That spiced things up a little, but it probably was not an ideal move for him.

Game in progress. The Laotian (red) faction already controlled two regions, the ones with the red marker. I like the artwork of this game. Simple, evocative and functional.

The Laotians (red) did quite well since the start of the game, and we all picked up many red cubes. The Royalists (yellow) were the hopeless ones, and noone really bothered much with them. The Malays (blue) and British did pose some threat, especially the Malays, but in the end the Laotians' early lead could not be surpassed. At game end, I had 4 Laotian cubes, 4 Malay cubes and 2 Royalist cubes. In the case of a local faction controlling Siam, tiebreaker was the most cubes in the second colour. I was quite confident with my 4 Malay cubes. When Lester revealed his cubes, he had 4 Laotian cubes too, but he had 3 each of the Malay and Royalist cubes. He would have won in the case of a British victory, but with a Laotian victory, he lost to me by tiebreaker. Heng had used up his cards earlier than both Lester and I, and could not do anything for the last few rounds of the game. However when he revealed his cubes, he had 5 Laotian, 4 Malay and only 1 Royalist cube! He had invested in the Laotian faction early, and had predicted their victory correctly. I had underestimated how many Laotian cubes he had collected. I should have steered the game away from a Laotian win and invested differently.

The Thoughts

This is a clever and "thinky" game that can be played in a short time. In this respect it is like China and Chicago Express - very compressed, many important decisions within a short time. It is even more succint than both these games. I realise King of Siam is partly an area majority game, (which generally don't interest me), but I quite like this game. It plays in a short time like a filler, but there are many interesting decisions and considerations in the game. This is in no way a light game, despite the short play time. It is a pretty filling filler. Timing is very critical - when to play your cards, when to commit to a faction to support. Reading your opponent's intentions is also important.

You do need to understand the game end conditions and tiebreakers clearly before you play. There are quite a few rules related to these, but they are not difficult to understand. Don't jump in and play while you learn. You need to fully understand all the rules to appreciate the brilliance of the game.

Despite being a relatively simple game, King of Siam can cause analysis paralysis. Beware of players who need to remember everyone else's moves and examine all possible actions. I prefer to play with the cubes hidden as recommended by the rules. Some people may prefer it to be open information, but I'd rather have a bit of memory element to the game than more risk of analysis paralysis.

Sunday 22 August 2010

Indonesia again

I was thinking of naming this post "Revisiting Indonesia" or "Shipping in Indonesia", but then I was worried whether it'd attract some spam comments from shady travel agents or business ventures. Indonesia (2005) is one of the most expensive games I have ever bought. It is a niche game published by a niche publisher, Splotter Spellen from Netherlands. I have only played it once before, more than a year ago, and it was a not-very-interesting 2-player game, so I have been wanting to play it again with more players. Afterall, this is a game that I use in my blog header background, representing my liking of heavy Eurogames.

The Play

Han, Afif and Reza came to play today (Sun 22 Aug 2010). Since we had 4 people and 4 hours, I decided to bring Indonesia to the table. None of them have played before. Our game took almost exactly 4 hours to play, including rules explanation (I think about half an hour, maybe slightly less).

Han, Afif and Reza.

Era A went by rather quickly, because there were 4 players, and the companies got snatched up very quickly. In R&D, most of us went with increasing the number of slots for owning companies. We were quite peaceful in the early game, mostly minding our own businesses. Afif was the first to go for the merger tech, and thus was the first to start proposing mergers. In this game, mergers usually mean hostile takeovers of companies. In the early part of the mid game, there were many mergers. I let go of a shipping company when a merger was proposed to merge it with another, because I felt shipping didn't really earn a lot of money, and I didn't want to spend too much money to protect it, lest my other companies get targeted. It was a decision I regretted later.

Han was first to propose a spice company and rice company merger, creating a siap faji company. Siap faji is a microwave meal. Afif told us it's instant noodles. So throughout our game we called it Indomie, which is a well-known instant noodles brand from Indonesia. We had a lot of Indomie companies. Health consciousness is totally lacking in the younger generation. They only eat Indomie and they don't eat rice. During the mid-game I let go of two more of my companies, one a rice company, another a spice company, because they were forced to merge with other companies to become Indomie companies, and I didn't want to own Indomie companies. Not that I cared about the health message. There was too much competition. I eventually became a rubber tycoon. I guess manufacturing, ahem, contraceptives, is more my thing.

The meat of our game was in Era B, among the flurry of mergers. Era C came and went rather quickly too. The oil companies didn't make too big an impact. Everyone was making and eating Indomie, and many were trading rubber. At mid game, there were only three shipping companies, owned by Afif, Han and Reza, and all of them spanned most of the archipelago. I was the only one without a shipping company. I think I did pretty well in operating my production companies, and had pretty good cashflow throughout the game, but I underestimated how profitable shipping companies were. Also, due to not controlling any shipping company, I could not direct the expansion of shipping routes to Sarawak, where I had a potentially quite profitable oil company. Unfortunately, the keyword was "potentially" and not "profitable".

I think this was early in Era B. I owned that 4-plantation rice company, and that 3-yellow-ships shipping company, but both were later taken away from me due to mergers.

On the left is one of the small spice companies that I used to own. Maaan... I'm being so nostalgic about my old companies... I need to learn to let go.

Those cubes are from Age of Steam. We used them to mark ship capacity usage. They are much easier to handle than the small, flat $5 coins. And they look like containers on the ships.

Second last round of the game. So many Indomie (siap faji) companies. Two were owned by Han, and one by Reza.

My pride - the Hiew Rubber Company which I defended from a hostile takeover attempt by Afif. I also competed fiercely with Han's small rubber company and denied it growth. But his rubber company was a small side business which didn't matter much to him anyway. Reza's small rice company and my small oil company on Borneo Island (foreground) never managed to grow, due to lack of shipping routes.

When the game ended and we totaled the scores, first place and second place was only $14 apart! Han had $1692, and Reza $1678, a 0.8% difference! In that final round if I had chosen to use Reza's ships instead of Afif's for some of my shipments, Reza would have won. But then I knew Reza was doing better than Afif, so I had deliberately tried to use Afif's ships more where I could. I had $1277, a very distant 3rd. Afif had $1013. His downfall was the lack of decent production companies throughout the game. Both Han and Reza had decent production and shipping companies. They mostly used their own ships for delivery, which saved a lot of money. They also had a collaboration going, prefering to use each other's shipping companies over Afif's when there was a choice. Their business networks happened to complement each other, so it was a mutually beneficial arrangement. That's what business is about afterall.

In the final round I earned $360 from my rubber plantations, but more than $180 of that went to the three shipping companies owned by Han, Reza and Afif. Money earned in the last round is doubled, so I really helped them a lot. The cities didn't grow much throughout our game, so I had to ship rather far. This was, of course, good news for the shipping companies.

The R&D chart at game end. Han was orange, Reza black, me green, Afif purple. That stack of discs on the Turn Order tech was a mistake. None of us researched that.

I'm quite pleased with my Age of Steam cubes solution to the shipping management problem.

The Thoughts

  1. You need a calculator. It makes the mergers much easier.
  2. Use some wooden cubes from another game to mark ship capacity usage, as opposed to trying to stand the ships on different sides, or placing $5 coins as suggested by the rules. Cubes are good, and cubes are cute.
  3. Take actions simultaneously when they won't impact others. It saves time.
  4. Don't underestimate the profitability of shipping companies. Aaarrgghh!!!
  5. The game is long, but it doesn't feel so because you are constantly engaged.
  6. A lot of chores in the game. Effort vs decision ratio is high. It does have a lot of interesting decisions and tense moments, but you have to be prepared to pay the price - the fiddling around with bits and the long play time.
  7. In our game noone bothered to increase the bidding technology, so when bidding for turn order, usually whoever bid earlier would lose, because the later bidders would always be willing to pay the previous bid + 1, if they wanted to go earlier. So this is an aspect that we have not explored.
  8. We mostly tried to own many companies - increasing our slots, as opposed to trying to own fewer but bigger companies. Even by game end, only Afif had the level 3 merger tech, i.e. he could propose a merger of a size 1 company and a size 2 company. The rest of us were at level 2. This meant noone could propose to merge two size 2 companies (you'd need to be at level 4 of the merger tech). I think things would be more interesting (i.e. vicious) if all of us had higher merger techs. With the level 4 tech, the shipping companies and the Indomie (siap faji) companies would be at risk. This is another aspect that can be explored further.
  9. Hmmm... saying that we "sped past" a 4-hour game is rather scary, but that's what I sincerely felt. I felt we missed exploring some aspects of the game because we had sped through it.
  10. Indonesia can be an unforgiving game, like Greed Incorporated (also by Splotter Spellen). One key mistake, or one early mistake, can cripple you. That kinda sucks when you are investing in a 4-hour game. But that's the price you have to pay. I enjoy how tense and brutal the mergers can be. This is a game that you need to stay sharp throughout. It is a game of knowing where the big decisions are, make making the right choices at those critical moments. This is truly a gamer's game.
  11. Was Indonesia worth the money that I paid for it? I don't measure a game's worth by money paid. I measure it by (a) whether I play it enough times to appreciate the intricacies, (b) whether I like the game after understanding it, (c) whether I had a good time with my friends. (c) is definitely there, and I hope to continue to work on (a) and (b).

Monday 16 August 2010

Race for the Galaxy: Brink of War

First, I'm a big fan af Race for the Galaxy, owning both previous expansions Gathering Storm and Rebel vs Imperium, and having played more than 650 games. About 250 of the recent games were played using the computerised version downloaded from keldon.net, and about 75 of them were played with the 3rd and latest expansion Brink of War. With that in mind, you know where this review is heading.

The Game

Brink of War is the 3rd and last expansion, in the current story arc. There may be other expansions expanding the base game in future, but they will not be compatible with the current 3 expansions. Brink of War introduces two key concepts, prestige and search. Prestige is the purple circles already seen on some cards in Rebel vs Imperium. It is another form of victory points (each prestige point, PP is worth one victory point, VP), but it is also much more than that. Every round the player or players with the most PP gain 1VP. If only one player has the most PP (i.e. not tied for most PP), and has earned a PP in the previous round, he also gains one card. These may not sound like much, but it is actually quite a big advantage.

Gaining PP: Some worlds and developments give you a PP once you settle or develop them. Some cards award PP's when you perform certain actions. This is very unlike VP's, which are mostly gained by Consuming. There aren't many cards that give PP upon playing them, and even fewer that give PP after played. However among these, the variety of ways to gain PP is big. E.g. conquering a Rebel military world, discard 2 cards, using a "treat-military-as-non-military" power, developing a 6-cost dev.

Spending PP: You can spend PP's, unlike the case of VP's. Some cards give special powers if you are willing to spend PP's, e.g. gaining cards, gaining VP's, taking over another world, and even stopping an attempted takeover.

The other key concept introduced in Brink of War is the one-time-use Search / Special action card. If you use it as Search, you can search the deck for a specific type of card, e.g. developments that give military strength, worlds with the chromosome icon, 6-cost developments. There are 9 categories that you can choose from. If you don't like the first matching card that you find, you can continue to search, but you must keep the second matching card. This is pretty cool. E.g. in the early game you may need some military strength to settle a number for nice military worlds you are holding in your hand, or in the late game you may want to try to find a 6-cost development that jives well with your tableau.

The other way to use this card is spending one PP to boost a normal action, e.g. Consume x 3, or Settle with -3 discount. In either case, this Search / Special action card is removed from play once used. So you better make it count!

Other than these two new aspects, you also get lots of cards, many with rather quirky powers. There's a card that lets you replace an existing peaceful world on your tableau with another world from your hand. There's even a death star, a development that costs 9 (!!) and can be used to destroy an opponent's planet (!!!!). There's a 6-cost development that awards point for negative military strength. Peace! There's a windfall world where the goods on it can be any type you want it to be, which is handy, except you can't Trade the goods. There's always a catch when something sounds too good to be true eh?

The game also has some new objectives, to add to the ones that came with the previous two expansions; and new and interesting start worlds.

The Play

I don't own the game yet. All my plays of this expansion have been using the computerised version, against 2 other AI's. They like going for prestige, and I too feel it's important. Not that the prestige leader always wins, but being prestige leader is a strong advantage. I find that I have been doing Consume strategies much less, probably because the new and shiny prestige aspect is distracting me. I also tend to be quite militaristic. Maybe because it's a simpler strategy to execute.

I realise that there are still many possibilities in Race for the Galaxy that I have not explored. Even after 650+ plays. I feel that every card in the game, and every power on every card, can play a role in a winning strategy, but there are still many cards that I have not really tried to fit into a coherent strategy.

13 Aug 2010. A 92-33-8 win. 92 is my record. There are many games scoring over 100pts that people have loaded to www.boardgamegeek.com. In this particular game, the prestige aspect earned me many points. 10PP = 10pts, Pan-Galactic Affluence gave me 10pts for those 10PP, and Federation Capital too, because its point value is the number of PP I have. Also, the most PP goal gave 5pts. I don't remember how I got the 23VP. Probably half were gained 1VP by 1VP for being prestige leader.

A game in which I had military strength of 17, and New Galactic Order (1pt per strength).

This game was won by Interstellar Casus Belli. This is a card that lets you takeover any military world from any tableau. No need for those specific vulnerabilities like having Rebel military worlds, having Imperium cards, or having positive military strength. You just need to have enough military strength to do the takeover. In this game, I did only one such takeover (Reber Sympathizers). What helped me tremendously was the power to consume 1PP for 3VP. I had Galactic Salon which gave 1VP directly when Consuming. I had Galactic Trendsetters, which Consumed 1 good for 2VP. I had Uplift Gene Breeders, which Produced 1PP and 1 gene good, just perfect to be Consumed by Interstellar Casus Belli and Galactic Trendsetters. I could gain 12VP in one Consume.

14 Aug 2010. By the 3rd last round of this game, it looked like I was going to lose, despite having three high valued worlds, Alien Guardian (9pt), Rebel Homeworld (7pt) and Alien Monolith (8pt). The red AI (left) was doing very well. Then, with a stroke of luck, I drew Rebel Council (8pt). That was what allowed me to overtake red AI.

It may seem that I win a lot of games, but it's not the case at all. All my plays of Brink of War were against 2 other AI's. I win 48% of the time, come in second 10%, come last 42%. Hmm... it seems I either do well, or I suck.

The Thoughts

Brink of War is for the fans. It should be played with both the previous expansions. The additional elements do make the game more complex, so if you already think Gathering Storm or Rebel vs Imperium is a bit too much, then steer clear. I feel they make the game richer and more interesting. This is not adding for the sake of adding. It is not more of the same. The new elements are additional facets with their own uniqueness and with new decisions you need to think about, and they integrate well with the rest of the game. The Search function is useful, especially when the deck is so big now. The key is when to use it. It may be good to use it early to get yourself off to a good start. But you may also want to use it later when your direction is clearer. The other question is whether to even use it for Searching. You may want to use it as an action booster. That can be very powerful if used right.

Takeovers happen more frequently than before, but overall it's still a rare thing. The value of takeovers (to the game) is still the fact that there is such a risk, rather than actual takeovers happening.

I absolutely love this game and can't wait to get my hands on a physical copy.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

boardgaming in photos

31 Jul 2010. Castle, played with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan. Bruno Faidutti's games usually don't click with me, not even the hugely popular Citadels. But I enjoyed Castle the last time I played it (a long time ago). I taught the game after a quick skim of the rules. There weren't many rules anyway. Most of the important text are on the cards themselves. Our game was a bit too peaceful. We simply tried to play our own cards as quickly as possible, and did not meddle with one another much. Chong Sean, who was start player, ended the game (playing his last card) before any of us could stop him. We only started interfering with one another towards the last quarter of the game. The game would be more interesting if we had been more aggressive earlier. Still, I like this more than Citadels.

6 Aug 2010. I joined the Old Town Kopitiam group to play. Henry, Jeff (pictured), Wai Yan and I played Endeavor while waiting for Han. Henry and Jeff look so darn serious.

Although I had played Endeavor once before, I didn't quite remember the details, and I didn't do so well. E.g. not getting enough people in the early game to fully utilise my buildings, getting more pouches (remove people from buildings) than I really needed. From my previous game I remembered most how one of Allen's well-timed attacks gained him a lot and costed me a lot. So in this game I made sure I had a Barracks that would allow me to attack. And this time I decided not to spend too much effort on cards.

The game turned out to be very very close. During the game I thought Jeff was going to beat all of us soundly, but surprisingly he came in last. He was familiar with the rules and Wai Yan and I kept asking him rules questions. That might be why I kept thinking he was doing best. Henry won at 52pts. Wai Yan and I had 51pts. Jeff had 46pts. I still liked Endeavor after the second play. This is one game I would have bought if not for my self-imposed game purchasing quota.

I brought Hansa Teutonica and taught Jeff, Wai Yan, Henry and Han to play. I have played it only once before (4P) and was keen to play again with 4P or 5P. Of all things that they learned, what they remembered most was how to screw with other people's plans. See how the routes are multi-coloured because of blocking. Well, admittedly that green cube in the foregound was mine, blocking Han's (purple) route. I guess I wasn't setting a "good" example myself.

More blocking. In this game when you block others, it doesn't mean they won't be able to complete their trade route. It only means they are forced to displace your cube before they can complete their trade route. Doing so is expensive for them (costing extra cubes), and is beneficial to you (you can move the displaced cube plus another one from the general supply to another path next door). So you are effectively forcing your opponent to use his action to bring your cube onto the board.

Even more blocking. We even had a tri-coloured path (purple-red-blue / Han-Jeff-Henry)!

I had established an office in the city giving extra actions, and business was good. I earned many 1VPs this way, until later when Han established an office and took over as city controller. You can still see a lot of blocking here. There's a tri-coloured path again (yellow-red-blue / Wai Yan-Jeff-Henry). I had to remind them the game was not just about blocking. If a Eurogame can be so vicious the way we played, we probably shouldn't play Diplomacy, lest we end up fighting.

Near game end. I (green) was leading in in-game points, at 19VP. Han (purple) was at 18VP. However after end-game scoring I came in a pretty distant 4th place. I had built early offices in lucrative locations, attracting many 1VPs when others completed trade routes next to my cities. However I never bothered to upgrade my number of actions much, which became a big disadvantage later. Once the others stopped their crazy blocking, they were able to very quickly build up their office networks. With four actions, it's basically place cube x 3 plus complete trade route. Han did not have a big network, but he had gained many 1VPs by controlling the improve-actions-skill city and completing trade routes there himself. He maxed out on two skills, gaining 8VP. Jeff won the game at 40VP, because of his large network and many cities controlled. Han was second with 37VP, followed by Wai Yan 34VP, me 28VP, Henry 26VP.

I'm still very keen about exploring the many possibilities in Hansa Teutonica.

8 Aug 2010. Latest version of the Race for the Galaxy program is out (keldon.net), and it now contains the Brink of War expansion. It also supports playing against other players over the internet. I have been enjoying the new expansion a lot. I have already ordered a physical copy. Prestige is an interesting new aspect. The special search power is very useful. I don't have a very good grasp of the strategy yet, but I am enjoying it a lot. Many of the new cards have quite unusual powers.

In this particular game, I had Rebel Sneak Attack and could take over worlds from either red AI (left) or green AI (right). I targeted Rebel Outpost of the green AI (5VP), because that's worth many points, and also because that AI was leading.

To my surprise, although I succeeded in taking over Rebel Outpost from the green AI, red AI (which was previously trailing by a big margin) won the game, beating me by 2VP! It had also taken over a world from the green AI. Within that last round, it gained 13VP: 3VP from the two new cards, 2VP from the 2 prestige gained for the successful takeover, 6VP from two first-to objectives, and 2VP from becoming sole winner of a most-of objective. I checked that if I had targeted the red AI instead, I would not have won anyway. It had Pan-Galactic Security Council that could have denied my takeover anyway.

Tuesday 10 August 2010


The Game

Strozzi (2008) is designed by Reiner Knizia, and is the third in a series, after Medici (1995) and Medici vs Strozzi (2006). It is not an auction game like Medici, or an auction-like game like Medici vs Strozzi. However it has many elements that remind me of these games, especially Medici. Yet the rules are quite different. Here's how it works.

The game is played over 3 rounds, and in each round every player has three flags that can be used to claim up to three ships. On a player's turn, he turns over the topmost ship card from the deck, and decides whether to claim it with one of his flags. If he doesn't want it, the next player has the opportunity to claim the ship, and so on. Once a ship is claimed, the owner must send it to Venice, Naples or Rome. Every player can only send one ship to each port. Normally a round will end with every player having sent one ship to each of the three ports.

A ship has four features:

  • Ship speed: a number that varies from 1 to 8. At the end of a round, for each port, the three players with the fastest ships score points. In case of draws, the ship which has arrived first wins.
  • Goods carried: a number of gold, cloth and/or pottery icons. When your ship reaches port, you advance on the track at that port depending on how many matching goods icons. Venice accepts gold, Naples cloth, Rome pottery.
  • Florence track icons (brown scrolls): These allow you to move up the track at Florence. The position on this track determines the start player for the next round, and also serves as tiebreaker under some situations.
  • Achievement tile icons (blue squares): Some ships have these icons, and allow you to pick one from three tiles on the board. There are three types of tiles, science, architecture and art, valued at 1 or 2. They are used for end-game scoring. The value 1 tiles also have a goods icon, which is used in the same way as the goods icons on the ship cards.

The game board is mostly unnecessary. You really just need those four tracks. The rectangular tracks are the ports where you can send ships. Ships that have arrived are placed next to the tracks, in order of ship speed.

When a round ends, players earn points based on their relative positions on the four tracks on the board, and on the relative speeds of their ships. If you reach one of the top few positions on the tracks, you score extra bonus points. At game end, players also score in each of the three achievement categories - science, architecture and art. So throughout the game you have to balance, or more often than not, choose between ship speed and goods carried. You also often need to choose which ports to compete in and which to concede. Throughout all that, you also need to remember the longer term aspect of the achievement tiles. This is quite typical Knizia - tearing you in different directions and forcing you to make difficult choices.

There is a twist in your three flags. They are not just ownership markers. Each has a unique ability. The +1 flag makes your ship faster by one. The extra goods flag lets you move one extra step on the goods track, no matter where you send the ship. The pirate flag lets you rob a ship that has just been claimed and has not reached port, unless it was claimed using a pirate flag too. This means sometimes you want to secure a ship by claiming it with your own pirate flag.

The Play

I played Strozzi with Michelle and Chong Sean. It was Chong Sean's game, but he had not read the rules. I had done so, so I taught the game (not without making some mistakes). From quite early in the game I decided to focus on the goods tracks, to give up on the ship speeds, and to collect as many achievement tiles as I could. We had only 3 players, for a game that supports 3 to 6, so I think this distorted things a little. Due to fewer players, all of us could compete in almost all aspects of the game. Points were awarded for the top 3 players, so everyone gained points. I imagine with more players, the competition would be more intense and players would be forced to focus on fewer areas. Also some players would be excluded from scoring.

I made one rule mistake which turned the game into a memory game too. At the start of the game, some ship cards are removed from the deck depending on the number of players. In between rounds, the cards removed are added back, the deck reshuffled, and some cards removed again. We didn't do the adding back of the initially removed cards, which meant we had the exact same deck in all 3 rounds. So in Rounds 2 and 3 we tried to remember what cards had come out, in order to figure out what cards were still available. Thankfully this didn't really spoil the game. In fact I could claim I invented a variant.

The game was quite close. Me 285, Chong Sean 265, Michelle 245. The gaps may seem big, but in this game scoring is all done in multiples of 5, so effectively we were only 4pts apart. I think I won because I had spent the most effort on the achievement tiles which gave bonus points at game end.

All three of us had arrived at Naples.

My achievement tiles. From left to right, science (total value 1), architecture (total value 3), arts (total value 2). Notice that the value 1 tiles have goods icons too.

The Thoughts

Strozzi is a light-to-medium complexity game, very much like Medici in weight. It reminds me of Ra - there are 3 rounds (i.e. epochs), you can claim at most three ships (i.e. groups of tiles), and you sit out from a round if you have used all three of your flags (i.e. used up your suns). You need to evaluate of the worth of a card, not just to yourself but also to your opponents. Should you claim it or let it go? Is it important enough for you to claim it using the pirate flag? Do you want to wait for better cards to come out of the deck? Also, which port to go to after you claim a ship? Arriving earlier means you are committed, because you can only ever have one ship at any port. But earlier is better in a tiebreaker situation.

There are quite many small decisions throughout the game, and you are constantly forced to choose - between goods, ship speed and achievement tiles, and even between which of the three ports to send your ships to. There is also the lucky draw type excitement, because you don't know what will come up next from the ship deck. Do you want to gamble on better ships coming up later, passing on the moderately good ship that you have just drawn?

The game is well-streamlined and well-crafted. However, to me, it doesn't stand out much from other Knizia games, so I have no urge to add this to my collection of Knizia games. Also, as is often the case with Knizia games, theme is pretty thin.

Sunday 8 August 2010


The Game

Another game played at Carcasean, which Chong Sean taught us. Players compete to buy fish as they are caught, and then try to earn as much money as possible by selling them. Richest wins.

The players take turns to be the fisherman, who reveals cards one by one from the deck, until one of the other players rings the bell to buy all fish revealed. This is a real-time game. Whoever rings the bell first gets the fish. The buyer always pays a flat $10. The fisherman gets $1 per card revealed. There are all sorts of different fish cards in the deck, numbered 1 to 3. You only have 3 trays in front of you for storing fish, each tray being able to store only one type. If you buy any fish that you can't store, you dump it to your bin, and you will get penalised for it based on the card value.

You can only sell fish at the start of your turn before you start flipping cards from the deck. You can sell from any number of your trays, but you must sell all the fish in the same tray together if you do decide to sell. The price varies depending on the number of fish you have. Price per fish is very low if you only have a few to sell, but can be quite lucrative if you have a lot of fish. So you'll want to collect many fish of the same type before you sell the batch. When you sell a fish type, you also force all other players having that fish type to discard one fish card, unless they are holding that fish type in their ice tray (everyone has 2 normal trays and 1 ice tray). The game ends when the Market Close card comes up. This is shuffled into the last few cards of the deck, and you won't know exactly when it will come up.

Everyone has 3 trays (2 normal, 1 with ice) and a bin. You have $30 at the start of the game. I like how that sea gull on the lower right looks at you with a cheeky glint in its eyes.

There are some other quirks. Octopus cards are jokers and can be placed with any fish type. Cat cards let you steal a fish from another player. Canned fish cards let you discard 2 cards from your bin. That can save you as much as $6 (two value 3 cards) in fines.

The Play

Chong Sean, Michelle and I played a 3-player game. The rules changes a little - the fisherman (i.e. seller) can ring the bell himself to buy his own fish. This is needed to make the game more interesting. I was quite aggressive in buying fish in the early game, however during mid game I kept losing out on the purchases. Either Michelle or Chong Sean would ring the bell just before I was about to do so. I had a major fish drought. Towards game end I think my desperation made me irrational and I probably spent too much buying some batches of cards that didn't really help me very much.

The paper money is beautiful. I wasn't do so well in the game. I had two empty trays. I had a face-down card on my bin. You can see the card back - a sea gull holding a fish in its beak.

Michelle was most aggressive in buying fish. She bought the most, and also was forced to dump fish a lot. However she also made a lot of money. Chong Sean was the evil one, often trying to look for opportunities to sell fish types that would force others to discard fish cards. At game end, Michelle won at $70. Chong Sean had $61. I had $34, which meant I earned only $4, because everyone started the game with $30. I was a lousy fishmonger.

The Thoughts

Cash-a-Catch is quite a funny game. Because of the real-time element, sometimes you really can't think straight and you can get easily influenced by the psychology of the group. It's not easy trying to evaluate the worth of the cards in real time as one card after another is revealed. You need to consider not only how much they are worth to you, but also how much they are worth to your opponents. Get too nervous and slam down on the bell too quickly, and you may be paying more than what the batch is worth to you. Hesitate too long, and a good batch of fish may be grabbed by an opponent before you can. It's impossible to calculate things accurately, so mostly you have to go by gut feel. And I think that's what makes the game fun. There's also the atmosphere and the psychology. If everyone is very trigger-happy, you may be forced to do the same, or you'll never have any fish to sell.

I think it's always good to reveal the cards quickly when you are the fisherman. If you do it quickly, you'll earn more because there will be more cards revealed when someone rings the bell. You'll also create tension and you won't allow your opponents time to calculate things accurately. However one drawback is the big batch of cards may benefit the buyer a lot too.

The game may sound similar to Halli Galli, because of the bell, but it really isn't. In Halli Galli you just need to identify the 5-fruit pattern and hit the bell, but in Cash-a-Catch you are frantically trying to evaluate the worth of the batch of fish on the fly as one card after another is added to the batch. If you take the game too seriously, this can be quite taxing.

The game is quick. The rules are simple, but the game isn't exactly light. It requires your full attention all the time because you are involved in every auction (yes, I think of them as auctions).

Thursday 5 August 2010

don't "fancify" boardgaming

I just read this article Games are Useless by Jacob Russell at Fortress Ameritrash and I quite like it. It's quite frank. Nowadays I too feel I can't be bothered anymore with trying to "convert" people to the hobby. I won't be shy about my hobby, but I won't be trying to actively "sell" it either. If I come across people who are interested, I'm happy to recommend games, or to invite them to game sessions. But I'm pretty sick of trying to make people like boardgames, trying to set up opportunities to introduce muggles to boardgames. It's much easier to just find others to play with who are already gamers.

Viva Topo! and Didi Dotter

Both Viva Topo! and Didi Dotter are children's games that I tried at Carcasean. Both are quite simple, so I'll write about both in the same post.

In Viva Topo! each player has a family of mice and uses them to collect as much cheese as they can. The game board is a circular track, with multiple stops. Each stop has four pieces of cheese, with the earlier stops having smaller pieces, and the last stop (i.e. finish line) having the biggest pieces. The mice race to collect cheese. They move by die roll. The pip distribution is 1, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Then 1 sides also show a cat, and the cat is the exciting part of the game. The cat starts rough halfway around the track opposite from the starting point for the mice. On your turn, you roll the die and move only one of your mice. If you roll a 1, you must also move cat. You need to move your mice quickly to avoid getting caught by the cat. Sometimes you need to settle for the smaller cheese pieces. If the cat is approaching, you may want to get your mouse to escape to an earlier stop. You get a smaller piece of cheese, but at least you mouse is safe now (once a mouse reaches a stop, it cannot move anymore).

The cat movement doubles in the later part of the game, cranking up the tension. The game ends when all mice have reached stops or have been caught.

The game board all set up and ready to go, for 3 players. The cat icons on the race track show the cat movement. The cat initially moves 1 step every time the cat icon is rolled on the die, but will later move 2 steps instead. The four corners are intermediate stops where mice can hide and claim smaller pieces of cheese. Each has two entry points. To claim the biggest cheese pieces a mouse needs to complete the full circle and get to the cheese castle at the centre.

The cat in Viva Topo! looks hungry.

At most four mice are allowed on any one space.

The starting box is a cosy mouse home. At this point one of Chong Sean's mice (blue) had reached the cheese castle and had claimed one of the biggest cheese pieces, but two of his mice were still at home. If the cat reaches the front door, they would be out of the game immediately.

The die. Two sides feature 1 and cat-face. The other four sides are 2 to 5.

Racing down the track. The cat is slowly approaching.

This little red mouse dived to safety and claimed a 2-segment cheese piece before the cat could catch it.

This is a simple and fun game. It's "only" a roll-and-move game, but there is actually some strategy in deciding which mouse to move. Should you focus on moving one or two mice to get them to reach the big pieces of cheese? Should you get a mouse to safety now or gamble on it being about to reach the next stop and get a bigger piece of cheese?

It's nothing deep, but there are some interesting decisions. It's quite exciting. And the mice (and cheese) are cute. I'm going to get a copy and I think my children (5 and 3) will like it.

Didi Dotter has cute components too - 12 rubber eggs. Each egg is made up of two halves, which can be attached together because the flat surfaces have magnets. The flat surfaces also have matching drawings. When the game starts, all half-eggs are placed face-down on the table and shuffled. Then each player picks one half-egg and put it in his egg cup. The game is a real-time game. Once the game starts, players try to find a half-egg in the middle of the table that matches his own half-egg, or any of his opponents' half-eggs. Once you find a match, stick the two halves together and claim that egg by putting it in your egg holder. When your egg cup is empty, you can choose (a) whether and (b) when to refill it with a half-egg from the centre of the table.

Setting up the game.

A round ends when all matching half-eggs have been found. Sometimes two players may be holding the two matching halves of an egg. It that case noone gets it. When a round ends you check the matches that you've made. There are 11 types of birds in the game, and you need to have matched all 11 types to win the game. 11 round discs are used to track this. One of the eggs has drawings of a fox. That's a joker and you can treat it as any bird type.

The 11 types of fowl.

The game is fast and furious. You need speed. Good memory helps, and a bit of luck doesn't hurt either. Things get pretty crazy once the game starts. And it's over very quickly. Don't even think about stopping to ask a rule question. That's what happened to Michelle. Chong Sean and I were so absorbed in the action that we couldn't stop to think or to answer her. Needless to say, she came in last. Now that wasn't very gentlemanly of us was it? Well, we were just being kids. Our game ended after the 3rd round.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Carcassonne Catapult

I asked to play this only because I managed to convince my wife Michelle to join me for a game session at Carcasean. Michelle is a non-gamer, although one who likes and has played 49 games of Through the Ages, and 360 games of Race for the Galaxy. Lately she has been less interested to join game sessions, and more resistant about learning new games. We still do some 2P games. So when I convinced her to accompany me to a game session at Carcasean, I knew I should stick to easy-to-learn and not-too-long games. Carcassonne was a staple for us when I started in this hobby, so playing one of its expansions should be pretty low-risk.

It worked out well. The rules were easy to pick up, and we had fun. That day, we played 5 different new games in total, within 2.5 hours. That's the most number of games I've played within the same visit to Carcasean among my recent visits.

The Game

The Catapult expansion adds twelve tiles to the mix, and they all show a catapult. When you draw and place a tile with a catapult, you choose a catapult action, and every player executes the action, starting with you. All four of the catapult actions involve using the wooden catapult and some small markers that come with the game. The actions are:

  1. Catch ball - Place the ruler (which also comes with the game) between yourself and the next player. You catapult a marker across the ruler, and your opponent tries to catch it. You gain 5pts if you can spring the marker across the ruler and your opponent doesn't catch it. Else he gains 5pts.
  2. Target practice - Use the catapult to throw a small round marker as close as possible to the catapult picture on the newly placed tile. Whoever's marker is closest gains 5pts. These two are just fun mini games and have no impact to the game other than the 5pt bonus. The next two do have impacts.
  3. Banish - Try to hit followers (a.k.a. meeples) on the board. Any that are hit are returned to their owners. This applies to your own followers too.
  4. Swap - Land a marker on the board, and if you do that successfully, you swap the closest opponent follower (to the marker) with one of your own from your supply.

The catapult, a ruler, and the four different markers for the four different mini games to be played with the catapult.

The Play

We played with just the base game and this expansion. No other expansions mixed in. The game progressed just like any other Carcassonne game, only with the occasional diversions that required playing with the catapult. We tried all four mini games, but as the game progressed, we mostly did Banish or Swap, since these could have big impacts, especially to the fight for control of the largest farm.

The catapult is quite unpredictable. You don't really know where the marker will go. You don't have much control. You can try to position it well, but sometimes the marker simply doesn't go where you want it to go.

This was the Target Practice mini game. We actually did use the ruler.

See the catapult tile on the right.

There were some funny moments. Once Michelle managed to swap one of her followers with Chong Sean's. She didn't have any follower in her supply, so she could choose one on the board to swap with Chong Sean's. She not only replaced one critical follower on a big farm, she also moved that victim to a city that wouldn't give points because I had more followers there. And that city was very hard to complete. That was one nasty move. Eventually Michelle won the game by a large margin because she was the sole winner of the biggest farm. I was in last place, losing to Chong Sean by only one measly point.

The Thoughts

It's good for a laugh. And that's about it. I find it distracting and I won't add it to my Carcassonne set. I think the novelty will wear off pretty quickly. The target audience for this expansion is definitely not me.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Hansa Teutonica

Hansa Teutonica didn't get a lot of attention when first released. However as more and more people played it, the positive reviews grew and grew, and it is now one of the most liked game among the games released within the past year. What is most surprising is it is a very very typical Eurogame. Nothing innovative about it. Same boring style of box cover and artwork, same boring theme of medieval merchants. Yet despite all these, it is getting a lot of good feedback. That made me very interested to try it, and I got my chance when Chong Sean got hold of a copy.

The Game

The theme of the game is merchant families in the Hanseatic League competing to gain prestige. They do this by deploying their traders and merchants onto paths on the map, and then establishing trade routes when a path is filled up with their people. When you complete a trade route, you can either open an office at one of the cities at either end of the path, or make use of the special power of one of the cities. All the actions that you can do in the game are related to placing and moving your people on the board. You can place one person. You can replace another player's person with yours, but you will spend an extra person(s) to do this, and your opponent gets to move his person plus another person(s) to some place else on the board. You can move your persons already on the board. You can bring persons from the general supply to your personal supply (El Grande-like concept). That all sounds rather boring, but the rule about kicking out another player's person turns out to be very interesting and very important.

There is a tech-tree in the game. The 5 aspects are: (a) how many actions you have on your turn, (b) how many persons you can bring into your personal supply each time you take this action, (c) how many persons on the board you can move when you take this action, (d) what coloured office spaces you can build on, and (e) points per city in your largest office network at game end. There are 5 cities on the board that allow you to improve your skills. To do so, you need to establish a trade route that touches the cities offering the specific skill, and forgo the chance of establishing an office there. So the tech-tree is the investment part of the game, where you try to improve your abilities, while building offices is the reaping rewards part of the game, because it contributes a lot to gaining points.

The player mat looks like a desk. The 5 sections on the table top are your skill levels (keys, letters, scroll, book and bags). The plate is for you to place new bonus markers as a reminder to place them onto the board when your turn is done. The front side of the table show the 5 possible actions you can take.

When you improve a skill, you take a trader (cube) or merchant (disc) off the relevant skill track and put it into your personal supply. The number revealed represents your new skill level.

There are many different ways to score points in the game, and establishing offices is definitely not all. With offices: you gain victory points for your largest office network, you gain 1VP if anyone establishes a trade route next to a city you control, you gain 1VP for some office spaces, you also gain VPs if your network spans the map and connects two specific cities at the east and west ends. Other than that, you also gain VPs for bonus chips collected (these are placed on paths and are awarded to the players who complete trade routes on those paths), and for reaching the top level of skills on the tech tree. There is so much diversity in scoring opportunities that the game is very open. The game is an interesting balance between deciding which strategy to pursue and deciding how much effort to spend on stopping other players from executing their strategies.

The game can end in 3 different ways - (a) in-game scoring reaches 20VP for any one player, (b) 10 cities are filled up, (c) bonus chips are exhausted. Much of the scoring is done at game-end, so the in-game score is not always the best indication of who is leading.

The Play

I played a 4-player game with Chong Sean, Wan and Shan. First time for all of us. I taught the game. From the start Chong Sean and I kept making many sneaky suggestions to Wan and Shan, mostly trying to persuade them to sabotage either Chong Sean or me. The game started with fierce competition around the city which allowed improvement in the number of actions skill. I stayed out of it, deciding instead of pick up a bonus marker that allowed improving a skill (which I later found out to be a rule mistake I made). I used that to increase my skill to 3 actions per turn, and never bothered with getting more.

I avoided the fiercely contested area, and instead tried to open offices in other hopefully lucrative locations (mostly skill-improvement cities), in order to earn those single VPs when other players completed trade routes next to my cities. This helped me a lot, as those locations indeed became quite popular. I also completed trade routes myself so that I could earn VPs.

Competition was fierce on the southern side of the board (far end of this photo), so I (green) decided to work on this path in the foreground which gave bonus chips. The setup in this photo was wrong. At game start there should not be any "improve one skill" bonus chip.

Shan used up her start merchant (everyone starts with only one) early, claiming the special 7VP spot at Coellen. 7VP is a lot, but then we later realised that losing a merchant early can be a big handicap. Some office spaces required merchants to set up office, and without any available, Shan was a little stuck.

I was first to start building up my network, followed by Shan. I had hoped to improve my Key tech (which awarded more VPs per city in largest office network), but Shan monopolised the path for this tech, and I was unwilling to spend so many resources to fight for it.

I (green) had built up a decent network in the north (foreground of this photo). Shan (red) had also started her network building.

Because of my big lead, Wan, Shan and Chong Sean had to work together to stop me. But I think by the time they realised my strong position it was a little too late. I had already set up my offices in very strategic locations, and I had enough flexibility to continue scoring that even if some options were blocked or made more costly, I could still pursue worthwhile alternatives. And while the rest worked to hinder me, they also sacrificed focus on their own strategies. The game actually ended due to Chong Sean giving me my 20th in-game VP. He did that hoping to ensure he would still come in 3rd place. However after the end game scoring, he came in last place. I think he was only 1VP behind Wan. Aarrgghh. But then that was probably the best he could do, because if he had allowed the game to continue, Wan and Shan would have both taken one more turn and would probably have scored even more.

I re-read the rules after the game, and found that I had made a number of mistakes, and all happened to benefit me in this first outing. Firstly, the three starting bonus chips are actually fixed and not randomly drawn from the pool. There should not have been an "improve one skill" bonus chip available. I was the one who picked that up. Secondly, the bonus chip locations are not fixed. Only the three start locations are fixed. After that, the player who has claimed a bonus chip decides where to put the newly drawn bonus chip. In our game we thought the locations were fixed. I intentionally set up office at one such path, and as others completed trade routes to claim the bonus chips, I earned VPs. The rules mistakes applied to everyone, so in a way it was fair, but then I happened to be the only player who had actually benefited from them. Sorry guys, please don't blame the game. It's the rules explainer's fault.

Chong Sean found the game quite tiring, and probably Wan and Shan too. There were so many options, and also lots of opportunities to mess with one another's plans. The game was probably a little frustrating for them due to the runaway leader problem partially caused by my rule mistakes. No, I didn't do any Jedi mind trick to convince them to fight among themselves. Of course Chong Sean would say otherwise. :-) Don't believe him. He's just trying to pull some Jedi mind trick.

The track on the left with the black cube shows the number of full cities, i.e. all available office spaces occupied.

The Thoughts

I like the game a lot and am very keen to play again, with the correct rules this time. There are many viable strategies. You have a lot of freedom in deciding how to play. At the same time, the most powerful strategy is only as powerful as how much the other players are willing to do to stop it. So the game is very interactive. You simply cannot not stop your opponents.

The rule for replacing an opponent's person with yours is a critical part of the game. It means you are never safe. Someone else can always stop you if he is willing to spend the effort. Also you often want to exploit this rule. Block your opponent and try to get him to displace your person, because by doing that you are effectively getting him to bring one of your persons onto the board on his turn. That saves you an action on your turn. In addition, that extra person comes from your general supply and not your personal supply. See how this rule encourages nastiness.

Actions in the game are very simple, so you can execute your turn very quickly. You can plan your turn ahead easily. If the board situation changes significantly by the time your turn comes around, you can quickly adjust your plans. This simplicity in execution allows you to focus on the big picture, on your overall strategy. That's a good thing. You're playing more than you're working. The many scoring opportunities can feel like a fair bit of work when you learn the game. You do need to digest that to see the full picture.

Hansa Teutonica is a game brimming with possibilities, and I feel there is a lot more to be explored. The game is the winner of the Hippodice game design competition in 2009. I have always been skeptical of game design competition winners, as they are mostly amateur or semi-professional game designs. I tend to pay attention to established publishers or well-known game designers. Hansa Teutonica has proven me wrong.