Friday 28 January 2011

Inca Empire

The Game

Inca Empire was first published in 2004 by a small publisher Hangman Games, as Tahuantinsuyu, and even back then it had caught my interest, and I could spell the name without needing to double-check. However it was not widely available and thus expensive to buy, so I never managed to try it. Now Z-Man Games has published a new version with much improved components.

The game is about the rise of the Incan Empire. Players are regional rulers who compete to contribute most to the expansion and development of the empire in order to impress the divine emperor. You build roads, you explore and conquer new territories, and you build cities, garrisons, temples and terraces (farms). You start with some manpower (which is the only currency in the game), and you use it to conquer new territories and to build all sorts of stuff. Conquering new territories give you a long-term supply of manpower and also one-off victory points. New territories also provide suitable sites for new cities or garrisons. When you build something, you gain some one-off victory points, but every time a scoring round comes about, you score again for these buildings. You also score for buildings that your road network is connected to, which means you should try to link your network to buildings constructed by other players. They will certainly try to do the same to leech off your hard work. Network building is a very key part of the game. You try to block your opponents as much as possible, and you need to plan your own expansion well. Usually it's difficult to completely block off others. More often the question is prioritisation - how much effort do you want to spend and in which direction do you want to spend it.

Constructing buildings for the one-off victory points is good, because only you will earn it. You try to delay others from connecting to "your" building for as long as possible, so that you monopolise it for as long as possible. You try to build at locations inconvenient to others.

Early in the game, all players start from the Incan capital of Cuzco. Round discs which have been turned face-up are territories available to be conquered.

Top row: roads, labour tokens that have been conquered from the game board (big number is resistance level, silhouettes are labourers provided every phase, and small number is victory points), and player order marker. Bottom row: Card back of event cards, reference card showing the cost of each building and victory points awarded.

The other key aspect of the game is the event cards. Some are good and some are bad, and you play them on a pair of players, which can include yourself. This is quite unique. The event cards break or change some rules, or provide some bonuses. Some of them can have big impacts if used under the right situations. Wilderness Roads is one very useful card, because it lets you build roads without having to adhere to the pre-determined paths on the board. Rural Unrest can be devastating because it removes all roads in unconquered territories.

Event cards mat. Each card affects two players, whose colours border the quadrant that the card is played in. Only icons are used on the cards, but after one game you'll remember what they mean.

This is the timeline in the game. You just move the black token along the tracks and it'll tell you what to do.

The game has some catch-up rules that help lagging players and penalise leading players. They may feel a little artificial, but I think they are alright. It's an interesting aspect that you need to consider. E.g. when playing event cards, the last player goes first, so the leading player will have no choice in which pair of players to play a card on.

The Play

Jeff, Kevin, Jimmy and I did a four-player game at Old Town Kopitiam, Cheras, on Thaipusam (20 Jan 2011). The game supports 3 or 4 players, and I think 4-players is the ideal number. At first we were a little confused by the rules about placing roads in unconquered regions (my fault, since I was the rules teacher), but thankfully we managed to clear that up and didn't have to do much undo-ing. In the early game we all went for conquest, to secure sources of manpower. That's normal I think. You do need a strong manpower base for all the building that you are going to do for the rest of the game. However we soon found that we had a glut of surplus manpower. Every few rounds some surplus is discarded, which means you better use your labourers to build something expensive and profitable before they go home for holidays.

Thus the construction boom started, and the network building too. Every turn you can build 2 roads for free, and normally you will always want to do that, sometimes even spending your normal action to build extra roads. We tried to spread out our networks as much as possible, often going in opposite directions from where our starting locations were pointing towards, because we wanted to leech off the buildings built by others. So we never quite built to the edges of the map, and there were many buildings that 3 or even all 4 of us were connected to. The network building aspect was quite temptress-like. I felt like I could almost connect to every single important building, and yet throughout the game I never quite got there. So close, yet never actually achieved; often because someone had just built yet another new thing again which was slightly out of the way. So I had to prioritise. Which sites should I try to connect to, that would cost me the least effort and give me the most gain?

Close-up. Blue marker = city, orange marker = garrison. Cities cost more labourers to build and are worth more points. There is one error in this photo. That brown road in the middle, being a Wilderness Road, should not have been allowed because it crossed a regional border.

The score markers are cute little Incans.

The event cards were an important part of the game. The effects were cumulative and were only reset during a scoring round. There were quite many different cards and we had to refer to the rules quite frequently at first, but after one game the icons on the cards were sufficient to remind us what they do. Inca Empire has a rein-in-the-leader mechanism in the event cards. The trailing player gets to play cards first, and often wants to play a card that penalises the leader, unless he has a card that rewards himself generously. So the leader will have to be prepared for this. I'm not sure yet whether it's worthwhile to make an effort to avoid being the leader. The effects of leader-handicapping seem to be less severe than Power Grid.

Kevin was leading from the early game, and Jimmy in 2nd place most of the first half of the game, while Jeff and I struggled rather far behind. Kevin was the target of bad event cards quite a fair bit, and Jimmy too. As we entered the second half, I jumped ahead to become the leader, and also took over the role of big-red-juicy-target. There was once when I was the victim of two "one fewer road" cards, i.e. I couldn't build any road unless I took the "build extra road" action. As the game progressed, the points gained at each scoring round accelerated. We scored less than 10pts in the early game, but around 50pts towards game end.

Before we entered the final phase, I suggested that we add the Pizarro variant, because I needed to leave soon. This variant is simple and only randomised the game end, making it possibly shorter. A check is done after each of the last four action rounds to determine whether the game ends. It turned out that our game went the full length anyway, so I couldn't leave earlier anyway. However I did enjoy the variant. The uncertainty added some tension and excitement. Actually it also cost me the game. In the final phase, Jimmy had a good Pilgrimage event card (and we couldn't remember whether he played it on himself or someone else did) which allowed him to earn 7pts in lieu of building something as long as he was connected to a temple in a particular region. He made use of that 3 times, which gained him 21pts. If the game had ended earlier, he might not have overtaken me.

Look at how the networks developed. I (green) started in the southern quadrant of Cuzco but expanded more northwards than southwards. All the others went further south than I did. Jimmy (brown) started in the western quadrant and expanded both north and south. His road network was primarily on the western side of the map. Kevin (blue) started in the northen quadrant. He expanded widely in the north, and also stretched down towards the south along the eastern side of the map. Jeff (orange) started in the eastern quadrant, and mostly expanded south.

The yellow cubes are temples. Normally they can only be built in (blue) cities.

The Thoughts

I would say the three main aspects that define Inca Empire are (a) the construction of buildings for the empire for the one-off points, (b) the development of your own network for those recurring scoring rounds, and (c) the event cards. The game is almost fully open-information, the only exception being the three event cards in each player's hand. However after one game you'll know what to look out for. Due to the open-information nature, there is a risk that players may spend too long thinking about their moves. It's best to plan ahead while others are taking their turns, perhaps thinking of several possible moves before your turn comes around, so that in case some moves are prevented by others, you can still quickly pick the next best move.

The game may feel a little scripted, because in the early game you will be fighting for manpower, and you will be conquering new territories. Also the sites for cities and garrisons are fixed. So are the sites for the powerful Pilgrimage event cards. However I feel these are just general directions that the game sets, and there is still a lot of freedom and opportunities for smart play within this framework.

The game is very rewarding. You really need a strategic view of how you want to grow your road network. It is also quite interactive, because you want to block your opponents whenever you can, and you are racing to the building sites. There are many things you can do, and you are forced to prioritise. This aspect reminds me a little of Through the Desert. You need to balance between spending effort on construction (for those one-off points) and spending effort on connecting to buildings constructed by others (for the continuous stream of points). You need to judge when to stop getting more manpower and start spending it. You need to decide between playing good event cards on yourself and playing bad event cards on others. If it's a good card, which other opponent should you help? Do you play a not-so-great card on yourself to prevent others from playing a very-bad card on you?

There is a fair bit to think about, but every turn is simple, which keeps the game moving at a brisk pace. Every turn is just build two roads, and build one thing. That's all there is to building an empire - one step at a time.

Monday 24 January 2011

boardgaming in photos

31 Dec 2010. Last day of 2010, and I played Race for the Galaxy, my most played game of 2010. This includes all 3 expansions. This was a nice tableau to be able to pull off, because of those two defense 9 worlds, which were worth 9pts each.

2 Jan 2011. Battlestar Galactica. A six-player game, and my second play. The first time was very long ago, so I had forgotten most of the rules details. This situation was bad, one Cylon revealed, and three humans in the brig or in sick bay. I couldn't finish the game and had to leave early, and Chee Wee took over. The humans (I was human) managed to win, but only barely. On of the Cylons was a new player, so that was a disadvantage for the Cylon team.

Wan, who was one of the Cylon players, isn't so enthusiastic about the game anymore now that he has played 4 times. I have the same feeling as him, that there is a bit too much chrome in the game - detailed rules to bring out the theme. It is quite overwhelming to me, to try to remember all the locations on the board and what they do, the strengths and weaknesses of the characters. I feel the game could be streamlined more. Or maybe I just need to invest more time to get familiar with the details in the game. At the moment I still think it's pretty alright, and I'd be willing to play again.

4 Jan 2011. Downfall of Pompeii. Allen did some game trading with Chong Sean, and I helped bring this game from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur. I did a two-player game with Michelle. This was still the first half of the game, i.e. placing your people to occupy the buildings.

This was the second half. Mount Vesuvius had erupted and lava was spreading in the city.

Half the city was destroyed by now. In this game I forgot to keep track of how quickly the game would end caused by the tiles running out. I had tried to position as many of my people as possible to escape the city, but because I had messed up the timing, I couldn't get enough of them out before time ran out. Michelle won 20 vs 17.

5 Jan 2011. 6 Nimmt (German version). My English version is Category 5. By now I've lost count of the versions of this game. I quite like this game. It's quite clever, and can be played by up to 10 people. It has a mix of skill and luck, and it's always funny to watch someone take a row of bad cards.

20 Jan 2011. Downfall of Pompeii again, this time at Old Town Kopitiam, Cheras, and with 4 players. I taught a rule wrong - you can bring in bonus people (i.e. relatives) only after the 79AD card comes out for the first time, not before. In this game I sufferred from being the apparent leader in the first half. I had brought many of my people onto the board. So I became the target of the rest of the players. I came in 3rd. So this is actually a negotiation and psycho-your-fellow-players game. You need to appear weak and convince others to do bad things to other people. Delicious!

That little red guy in the middle was our Indiana Jones. Just a few turns before this photo was taken, he was together with the yellow guy. The lava was closing in on both sides, and there was only one narrow corridor left. Was he going to make it? He sprinted down the narrow corridor, only to have the hand of god cast down a lava tile just before him. OK, I guess he wasn't Indiana Jones afterall.

Sunday 23 January 2011


I played this with Wan, who has written about it at this blog post. Since he has done the hard work of describing the game, I can save a lot of work and just make my description brief. :-)

The Game

Genoa, formerly called Traders of Genoa, is at its core a negotiation game. Your aim is to earn the most money, and there are many ways to do so in the game. On your turn, you can create up to five possible actions, however usually you can only make use of one of them. The others you try to sell to other players, thus making more money for yourself, while likely also helping the other players. At game end, the richest player wins.

The game board is made up of building spaces and street spaces. Every building provides a benefit, e.g. collecting goods, cards, control markers or special action tiles. On your turn, you roll two dice to determine a start building. You place a stack of five action discs on it. After that you may move the stack to an adjacent building or street, leaving behind one disc. You may do so until you exhaust the stack. During the stack movement, since you can only use one of the action discs, you will try to sell your surplus action discs to others. This is where the negotiation comes in. You try to strike a mutually beneficial deal. Sometimes you may choose not to use up the stack of action discs, to deny your opponents actions, but of course that also means you lose out on making money.

Top view of the game board. Round track on the left. The outermost rows of buildings on left and right are just storage spaces and are not part of the play area. The buildings in the play area each has a name and an icon indicating the benefit it gives.

The stack of action disks. It had started at the villa on the right, and had now moved one step to the Spices building. It could now move to the Restaurant, or to one of the street spaces.

Everyone starts with four cards, each representing one of the four key card-based ways of earning money in the game, and $130.

There are various ways of making money in the game. Large orders require you to deliver 3 different goods to specific buildings. Small orders require you to deliver single goods to specific buildings. Privilege cards are worth money at game end. They each represent a building on the board, and if you have privilege cards of adjacent buildings, the values increase. Messages require action discs on the same player's turn (not necessarily your own) to connect two specific buildings. All these four are represented by cards. A fifth way is controlling buildings. To do this you need to have collected control markers, and then use an action disc on a street space to place the control markers on adjacent buildings. Whenever anyone else performs an action at your building, you earn $10 from the bank. At game end, you also earn $10 per controlled building.

And of course, you also earn money from selling off actions during your turn.

The game lasts a specific number of rounds depending on the number of players. However sometimes depending on the die rolls one or more rounds may be skipped. This creates some uncertainty.

The Play

We had a 5-player game - Chong Sean, Wan, Shan, Chee Wee and I - and I think this is the best configuration. At first we were rather slow in striking deals, because we weren't very familiar with the system and with how to value the various actions available. Thankfully the negotiations speeded up considerably afterwards, else the game would really have dragged. Some of us focused more on certain strategies. Chong Sean did many big orders, Chee Wee did many messages, I collected many privilege cards. I also tried to gain control of more buildings. Shan also worked on controlling buildings, and Chong Sean too.

My cards in the early game. A privilege card (brown) shows which building it represents, and lists the total value of a set of cards depending on how many adjacent buildings the set has. A message card (green) shows two buildings that need to be linked by action disks for the message to be delivered. A large order card (pink) shows 3 goods and the delivery destination. A small order card (blue) shows 1 good and the delivery destination.

Chong Sean and I, being the ones who have played more games than the others, are always perceived as doing better, so we were at a disadvantage in this game. We were always perceived as bigger threats, so often when one of us made an offer, another player could offer the same, and the tendency would be make the deal with that player, even though the offer was exactly the same. Chong Sean after having completed a few big orders, and me having started collecting more privilege cards, were quickly thought to be in the lead by far. Not good. Chong Sean pleaded that he had been paying a lot to buy those goods required to complete his big orders, so his net income was not a lot at all. It was true, but at the time I don't think anyone really believed him, or cared. Chee Wee kept a low profile, but he had actually earned a lot of money from delivering messages. It was also hard for me to convince others that I wasn't really doing that well, because the number of privilege cards were open for all to see, unlike the money that Chong Sean had earned from big orders (money is always secret). I kept telling them I didn't have a lot of cash and I had so few orders done. Of course Chong Sean kept telling them that the privilege cards were worth a lot.

I had started collecting more and more privilege cards.

One thing that we missed out during rules explanation was the control of buildings. Chong Sean had explained that building owners earned $10 when the buildings were used by others, but forgot to tell us until halfway through the game that ownership was also worth $10 at game end. He had been distracted by a question during rules explanation. I guess I had gained a slightly unfair advantage due to this, because I was the one who had spent the most effort in controlling buildings. I did earn quite a fair bit of money when my buildings were used. I kept trying to convince everyone that it was just spare change. I don't think anyone believed me though.

Towards game end, I had collected 9 of the 14 privilege cards. Wan had 4, and Chee Wee 1. In the final round, I decided to attempt a big deal with Wan. I asked for his 4 privilege cards for $240. By giving me his 4 cards I would earn a lot of extra money, and I was prepared to split the profit with him, giving him a bigger cut. My gut feel was I needed to do this mutually beneficial deal to give me a surer win over the other players, but at the same time I had to make sure I don't give Wan a cut so big that I'd let him overtake me. So it was a bit of a gamble on what the right cut was. We negotiated, and eventually settled on $240. He gained $140 nett, I gained $70 nett. We did quite a fair bit of maths to work this out.

By now I had nine privilege cards.

Later in the game. I (green) controlled five buildings, Shan (red) two, Chong Sean (yellow) two.

The space at the centre is the marketplace. If the die roll determines that the action disk stack will start at the marketplace, the round marker will advance by one, shortening the game by one round.

Then the game ended, and we counted our money. Wan and I were both the richest, at $850! Tiebreaker was leftover resources, and I won by 1 more resource than him. That was very very close. We checked. I actually would have won without making that trade with him, so I had actually taken an unnecessary risk. I almost offered him $250, which would have cost me the game. Effectively that deal brought Wan from 3rd to 2nd place. Chee Wee who had been quietly making a lot of money was in 3rd place.

This was what I had at game end.

After the game, we realised a mistake that we had made. The goods buildings gave two goods and not one. I guess that would have made completing big and small orders more lucrative.

As I wrote this blog post, a few weeks after our game, I spotted an error in the scoring. Wan was the actual winner, and I was in second place. I wasn't the leading player at all. The final scores were: Wan 850, me 750, Chee Wee 735, Shan 620, Chong Sean 575. If Wan and I had not made that big trade, the final scores would have been: Chee Wee 735, Wan 710, me 680, Shan 620, Chong Sean 575. So, it was correct for me to have closed the deal. It brought me from 3rd to 2nd place. It was good for Wan too, because it won him the game!

The Thoughts

Close-up of the game board.

I enjoyed Genoa. Being a negotiation game, whether the game is fun depends on the people you play with. If not played briskly enough I think the game can be a pain. And of course the game can suffer from perceived notions of the players. The game is most fun with creative and flamboyant people. From turn to turn, the game system presents different opportunities, and it is up to you to make the most of what you get, picking one action for yourself, and trying to earn more money by selling off other actions, while minimizing the help they give to your opponents. On your opponents' turns, you are very much involved too because you'd be trying to sway their decisions and trying to make use of their actions too. It's a very involved game with little downtime. You are always engaged in negotiations.

Thursday 20 January 2011

Lobo 77

The Game

This is a quick card game where everyone takes turns playing cards to a central pool, which will either increase or decrease the value of the pool (usually increase). If you cause the pool to reach a multiple of 11, you lose one life point. If you cause the pool to reach or exceed 77, you lose all life points. You don't get eliminated immediately though. You only get eliminated when you need to surrender life points but you have no more.

Card back.

Once the pool bursts, a new hand is started, with the pool cleared, all cards reshuffled and 5 cards dealt out again to each player. The game goes on until all but one player are out. Then you have your winner.

The cards are a mix of numbers. Some can be as large as 55. Some are small numbers. Some are 0. There are also some -10 cards. There are some cards which have no value but they can reverse the direction of play.

All of these are good cards. The second and third cards are the reverse cards.

This is a pretty decent hand too. Only the 55 card is a big card. The blue round tokens are the life tokens.

The Play

Chong Sean, Wan, Shan and I played this as a filler while waiting for Chee Wee to arrive. Chee Wee was arriving very soon so we challenged Chong Sean to pull out the quickest filler he could think of.

We didn't play to the end, just up to when the first person got eliminated. That was me. The game was over so quick that we had to find another filler. Chee Wee hadn't arrived yet.

The Thoughts

This game reminds me of Black Jack, but it has more control. You have 5 cards in your hand that you can choose from. There is a bit of bluffing because you need to guess what kind of cards your opponents have. You need to decide whether and when to play the big cards. There's a bit of brinkmanship in how close you want to push the pool to 77. Will it be too close to 77 by the time your turn comes around again, or will someone burst the pool before that? You tend to want to save up the good (small, or negative, or reverse) cards for yourself.

There is still a fair bit of luck. If you don't get any good cards, you can easily be the one to burst the pool. Not a lot you can do about it, but you are not completely helpless either. You can try to manipulate the pace of the pool growth. Slow it down hoping you'll draw some better cards, or push it suddenly to a big number hoping someone else with burst it before it's your turn again.

There can be big swing in fortunes, which makes the game exciting. Bursting the pool means losing all life points, so even if you do well in the earlier hands, one bad hand can bring you to the edge of defeat.

This is a quick, decent filler that feels a little like a gambling game. Definitely suitable for non-gamers. Can be played casually without thinking too much.

Tuesday 18 January 2011


The Game

A more non-gamer-friendly version of Barbarossa. That's how I'd describe Cluzzle. You make clay sculptures and try to guess what others have made, and when sculpting, you need to make your sculpture not too easy yet not too hard.

Cluzzle is played over 3 stages. At the start of a stage, everyone makes a sculpture. Then there are 3 rounds of guessing each preceded by a time-limited question round. During the question round you can ask anyone about his sculpture, but each player can only ask two questions. Once time is up, everyone writes guesses on paper.

When a sculpture is guessed correctly, both correct guessers and sculptor gain points depending on which round it is. This means if your sculpture is only guessed in the third round, you get three points. But if it is never guessed, you get nothing. Thus the incentive to make it hard, but not too hard.

The Play

I was green, and what I made was a comb. I thought that would be hard to guess, but it was guessed correctly by more than one opponent on the first attempt. Clockwise from brown and onwards - vegetables, hand, wedding cake, frying pan, Saturn. This was the first round and everyone's sculptures were quite easy to guess. They became harder as the game progressed.

We did a full six player game. I think the is best this way. With six, if your sculpture is too hard, you discourage others from even bothering to ask questions about it. The questions would be spent on other sculptures giving more hope. So it's tricky to balance the difficulty.

Also another tricky thing is the word guessed must be precise, e.g. in our game, "vegetable" vs "vegetables".

One way to make your sculpture harder but not too much so is to sculpt something related. Shan made the McDonald's arch (big M) for "fries". Aaron made the starship Enterprise for "Star Trek".

Asking, or not asking questions, is an important part of the game. Sometimes it's better not to ask because you'd be helping other players. When you need to ask a question, try to make it helpful to yourself but not to others. If you already have something in mind, ask something like whether it is usually brown in colour, as opposed to something like whether it is worn around the waist.

There were many times that we taunted each other saying we knew the answer and didn't need to ask any more questions, only to later find out the answer was wrong.

With more players, winning is probably more dependent on making good guesses, as opposed to making good sculptures. However good sculpting does help. Making your sculpture just hard enough means you get more points and also it doesn't get guessed correctly by too many other players.

The Thoughts

The game is light, easy to explain, and suitable for non-gamers. One thing I like more compared to Barbarossa is it comes with cards containing lists of words. You pick a word from the list, as opposed to trying to think of something yourself. This saves time and effort.

We had fun teasing one another about how ugly, or easy, or difficult our sculptures were.

A list of words to choose from.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Santy Anno

The Game

The background story of the game is that drunken pirates, after a jolly night out, are trying to find the right pirate ships to return to. However you actually need a clear and focused mind to do well. Perhaps a good way to play is to get everyone half drunk first. That would ensure more chaos, mistakes and hilarity.

This is how the game is played. 8 ships and 8 seats are placed around the table. Each player randomly picks a starting seat and marks it with his starting marker. In each round of the game, a certain number of cards are displayed face-up at the centre of the table. These are instruction cards and each tell you whether and where you need to move to. E.g. Move to the other ship with the same coloured hull, move to the other ship with a name starting with the same letter unless your current ship starts with R, look at the green part of your ship (which can be hull, sail, crow's nest or signboard) at go to the other ship with that part in green too. When you have a series of instructions like this, it does take some time to figure out your final destination, and in the mad rush to work it out faster than your opponents you can easily make mistakes.

Another pirate, and another ship. The features of a ship are crow's nest, sails, hull, number, first alphabet of name, and (colour of) name-board.

Once you work out your destination, you must go to the seat corresponding to that ship, and sit down. Once everyone is done, you check whether everyone is seated at the correct places, and only those who are score points. First place gets 5pts, second place 4pts, and so on. No points for 6th or later, even if you are seated correctly.

Some of the components of the game. Left: one of the 8 pirate ships. All 8 pirate ships are always in play and they don't belong to anyone in particular. On the top right are two of the instruction cards. The yellow paint bucket means "look at what's yellow on the current ship that you're at, then go to the other ship which has this part in yellow too". The +3 -5 card means go to the ship numbered either +3 or -5 compared to the current ship you're at. The round token and the rectangle both belong to a specific player. The round token is for determining order of arrival. Once you sit down at your destination, you must quickly put this token at the centre of the table. Whoever comes after you puts his on top of yours. The rectangle token represents you. When checking correctness of your final destination, this token is moved from ship to ship until all instructions have been executed.

The small board at the centre of the table. The coins on top are the rewards.

The Play

We had a 7-player game. The game accommodates 8, and I think it's best with 8, the more the better. More chaos, and more risk of getting shut out.

There were quite a few instances when people fought over the same seats. That was funny. Only one of them could be right. Once we even had three fighting over the same seat.

There were lots of mistakes made. There is a lot of time pressure. It's quite tough balancing speed and being careful. You want to be fast so that you can score higher, but if you make a mistake, you won't get any points.

The moment the game started Wan was already at a big disadvantage, because he's slightly colour-blind. This game involves a lot of checking colours of specific parts of ships across the table. Not colour-blind-friendly at all. Colours used are red, green, blue and yellow.

One of the later rounds, when we had 9 instruction cards. Before a round starts, they are flipped over in reverse order, so you really can't start working out the puzzle until the first card is revealed.

The Thoughts

This is a simple party game suitable for big groups. It's a speed puzzle-solving game. You need a sharp mind to do well, but I think it's most fun when your sharpness of mind is heavily impaired, e.g. when drunk. Even better if you can't walk straight. Then it becomes a dexterity game too. :-)

Wednesday 5 January 2011


Note: not to be confused with another game called Lifeboats. This one is a card game. No physical boat like the other one (which I have not played before).

The Game

Players are survivors of a shipwreck, stuck together in a lifeboat. They try to work together to find land, but then everyone has a secret agenda. Everyone secretly loves one character, and hates one character. So during the journey to find land, they try to get someone killed, and they also secretly hope someone will survive. The game ends when the lifeboat reaches land, and scores are then tallied. You earn points for having your character survive, having your loved one survive, having your hated one dead, and having in your possession certain objects. This means it is actually possible to win the game even if your character does not survive.

The characters sit in the lifeboat in a specific order. At the start of every round, the character in front takes a bunch of provisions (cards drawn from the provision deck) and picks one, then passes the rest to the next character to pick one. That means the nearer to the front the better chances of getting a card you want. Cards can be weapons (used during fighting), treasures worth victory points (if you still have them when and if you survive), water (you need it to prevent health loss when feeling thirsty), and other equipment of various uses. After picking provisions, each character can decide on an action to do. You can decide to help row the boat, which increases the chances of finding land, but you risk getting thirsty and losing health if you don't have water. You can start a fight with another character, in which other people can take sides. Losers get injured, and anyone involved risks getting thirsty. You can demand a provision from another player, or ask to swap places. Declining means starting a fight. You can decide to do nothing, which is sometimes the smart thing to do. After everyone has taken an action, the last character at the end of the boat picks one of the Navigation cards that have been added for the round. A Navigation card is added to the round when someone rows. Navigation cards determine whether and who slips and falls overboard, or gets thirsty. They also determine how near you are to reaching land. Navigation cards with a dove icon mean getting closer to land. The 4th dove card ends the game. If you fall overboard, you lose all possessions and one health. If you get thristy, you must have water to drink, or you lost one health. Losing all health means you're knocked out. Another health loss means you get killed.

My character, Frenchy. Medium built and strength, and worth 6pts if I survived. My special ability is I wouldn't get injured if I fell overboard.

My secret love was the First Mate. My secret hate was him too. I guess this was literally a love-hate relationship. The other two cards are provision cards - water. You can use it to for other characters, not just yourself.

So throughout the voyage, you try to survive, you try to save your secret love, you try to kill your secret enemy, and perhaps you can pick up some extra points from certain provisions. There can be a lot of negotiation when fights are about to start. There can be a lot of guessing about the secret loves / hates. Every character has different strengths (and initial health level), values if surviving (the weak kid is worth more points if he survives, but the strong first mate is not worth a lot if he does), and also unique abilities.

The Play

In our particular game with the full 6 players, I was quite the honest (OK, naive) guy, trying to row most of the time. My love and hate were both the first mate. I either gained 4pts if he lived, or 8pts if he died. Shan was the first mate, and during the game, whenever fights broke out, it tended to be the same winning 3 vs the other losing 3. Shan was on the winning team and I was on the losing team. It was rather difficult for me to try to get the first mate killed, so I soon gave up. The winning three were very lucky because Chee Wee who played Lady Lauren had obtained a gun early on. Him and Shan made an invincible team, because Shan being first mate was the strongest, and she had a weapon too.

Chong Sean, keen to stir up some fighting, was soon knocked out, and was eventually killed. He was the only casualty. The boat found land relatively quickly, and most people were not too badly injured. We later realised that we made a mistake. We needed the 4th dove card to reach land, not the third. If we had played right it would have been more interesting. More people would be closer to dying and there might be some more fighting because others would have more motivation to try to get their hated characters killed.

All the survivors sit in a neat row. Lady Lauren's side is the front, and the Kid is at the back. Purple tokens indicate injury. Sir Stephen (2nd from front), played by Chong Sean, was of size 5, so 5 purple tokens meant he was now unconscious. Another injury would kill him.

The Thoughts

Our particular game wasn't very eventful at all, because of the formation of lopsided competing teams, and the alliances didn't shift because there was no need to do so from the victors' perspective. So beware that, depending on the luck of the card draws, such uninteresting scenarios can arise. That said, players from the winning team probably should have started bickering among themselves, because afterall this is an every-man-for-himself game, not a team or cooperative game (well, I was the one guilty of thinking of this as a cooperative game, being so hardworking with the rowing and trying to save everyone - I got into the survival theme a bit too much when I should have paid more attention to the secret love/hate theme). The leading players should have been more aggressive in fighting for first place.

There can be a lot of guessing the secret cards of the other players. Who are they trying to protect or to kill? I have not quite reached that level of gameplay yet, this being my first game, but I can see this can be quite interesting. There certainly can be lots of temporary alliances and "betrayals". It's a game where you try to manipulate other players, where you need to wheel and deal. You need to act pitiful sometimes, you need to bluff sometimes (is that provision card in his hand a weapon?). It's not a game to be played with quiet, timid folks.

Saturday 1 January 2011

A la carte

This is one game that I have been keen to try because (a) the components - mini pan, mini stove and mini bottles of spices - are absolutely gorgeous, and (b) it's designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel, designer of Die Macher and Tribune. A la carte is something completely different from these two games, so I'm interested to see what a light game by Schmiel is like.

The Game

Players are cooks preparing dishes based on a variety of recipes. A recipe requires a minimum number of specific spices, and needs to be cooked within a specific temperature range. A player can only work on one recipe at a time. On your turn you have 3 actions, which you can use for rolling a die, or adding spices to your pan. Die rolls usually result in heating up your pan further. Sometimes you heat up others' pans too. Sometimes you get a special power token - a coffee cup. Adding spices means trying to pour one or more pieces of spice from one of the four spice bottles. This is tricky because it's not easy to control how many will drop out of the bottle. Sometimes the pieces get stuck and none fall out. Sometimes too many fall out, and when you get 3 or more of any spice type, your dish is ruined. Also there are some salt pieces mixed into the bottles, so sometimes you get salt instead of the desired spice.

Your little frying pan. Once you decide which recipe to attempt, you put it inside your pan to indicate so. This particular recipe requires one yellow spice (lemon?) and one green spice (leaf?), and it must be cooked at temperature level 2 or 3. Once completed, it is worth 2pts (chef's hat icon). At the moment I had two yellow spices and one salt in the pan.

Players race to complete dishes, and when one completes five dishes, the game ends, and everyone compares scores. Simple dishes are worth 1pt, but difficult ones can be worth 6pts. There is a rule that prevents you from doing only simple or only difficult dishes. There is another way the game can end - when one player completes 3 dishes with the perfect combination of spices (you can complete a dish with a surplus of spices and even salt, as long as you don't have 3 or more in each type). This player wins instantly without comparing scores.

Now, the special power tokens, a.k.a. coffee cups. Some let you cool your pan a little (normally it only heats further up, and it resets only when you start the next dish). Some let you swap your stove with another (probably) unlucky soul. There is one special recipe - the crepe - which everyone has access to, but just one. To cook the crepe successfully you need to flip it with your pan, each attempt costing one action. No spices required. But it's not easy trying to flip the darn thing.

From top to bottom: (1) the bin, where you discard failed recipes (i.e. ruined dishes). (2) coffee table for coffee cups, i.e. special ability tokens. Green side is the back of the token, pink side the front. You randomly pick a token when instructed to collect one. Once used, they are returned to to pink side of the coffee table. (3) Kitchen sink. Used spices (and salt) go here. The star tokens on the top right are used for marking recipes that you complete perfectly.

The Play

We played a "four"-player game. Chong Sean, Michelle, myself, and the team of Wan, Shan and Chee Wee. The three of them were graciously offering one another the last seat, and they eventually played together as a team. One action per team member, just nice.

All available recipes start at the centre of the table. Yellow ones are the easiest, blue ones the hardest. The spice bottles are on the right.

Chong Sean got himself three swap-stove tokens. He was the only one to have used such a token. Chee Wee did a successful crepe-flip on his first attempt! That's a valuable 5pts. Chong Sean managed to do the crepe-flip too. I decided to go for it too, and kept practising when it was not my turn yet. My success rate was like 1 in 20. Very bad. I couldn't finish the dish even by game end. There was one turn when Michelle tried to pour spices from a bottle, and none came out on all three attempts! The spice bottles are transparent, so I think it is important that before you try to spice your dish you shake the bottle a bit to try to position the right spice pieces near the opening, and to make sure the salt pieces are out of the way. But even then, you can't be sure you'll get what you want.

Eventually the team of Wan, Shan and Chee Wee won the game by a wide margin, by completing five dishes.

Another dish that I tried to cook.

The Thoughts

No doubt the components are excellent. However, I find the game rather random, and there isn't much decision-making, or at least I don't see it yet. It feels like you are going through the motions, and you just hope that you're lucky enough to be able to complete the recipes that you have chosen quickly, or perfectly. I don't mind simple games, but in A la carte I find that the depth of strategy is shallower than the rule complexity. The rules are not complex, but not exactly simple either. So I feel that learning the game is more effort than the gameplay fun I get is worth.

Still, I've decided to buy a copy, because I think my daughters will love it. They love playing with cooking related toys, and I hope this game will be one that I can enjoy playing with them.