Friday 31 August 2012

Tsuro, Hamsterrolle, Dixit with kids

During the school holidays I brought the children to Meeples Cafe again. They always enjoy such outings. The first game we played was Tsuro. It is a very simple tile-laying game that definitely can be played with children. The board is initially empty, and everyone places his pawn on a path at the edge of the play area. Everyone has a hand of three tiles, and on your turn you must play a tile in front of your pawn, extending the path before it, and move it along the path. The objective is to stay on the board as long as possible. If your pawn exits the board, or meets another pawn, you are out.

Throughout the game you basically try to avoid other pawns, and try to linger in areas with more empty spaces for you to place new tiles. You need to look at your tiles in hand and plan ahead how to play them. There is some strategy here. Since you always have to play a tile in front of your own pawn, you don't get to interfere with others often (or maybe I am not very good at this game).

There is a rule about the dragon tile which I didn't understand, and when I asked the staff, I was told they don't play with that rule so they don't know it either. I wonder how big a difference it makes. The game seems to work fine without it.

Tsuro is quite good-looking.

I think I have played Hamsterrolle before, about 9 years ago in Taiwan. It's a dexterity game. Everyone gets a same set of wooden pieces, and takes turns placing pieces onto the inner surface of a wheel. The wheel has dividers breaking up the space into sections, and you cannot place a piece of the same colour as another piece in the same section. Each new piece you place must be further along in one direction. That means the wheel will gradually roll in that direction. Eventually someone will cause some pieces to fall off. If you are that someone, you have to claim all such pieces. The objective of the game is to be the first to get rid of all your pieces.

Chen Rui (5) is new to Hamsterrolle.

Shee Yun (7) had just successfully added a piece. We were quite early so the cafe was still quite empty. In the background you can see the Meeples team enjoying a quick game before the crowd arrived.

The wheel is rolling towards the left. So you can see we have been placing pieces far apart initially (those on the right), and when things start to get iffy, we become more conservative and place new pieces right next to the previous pieces.

The black cone piece in front of Michelle (left) is a start piece which starts the game already in the wheel. Once the game starts, it is treated as any other piece. If you cause it to fall off the wheel, you claim it just like any other piece.

Michelle being extra careful. The blocks are about to come tumbling down.This is a game of brinkmanship. You want to go just far enough so that by the next player's turn he would cause pieces to fall off.

Chen Rui had just caused a major collapse. Look at all those pieces.

Hamsterrolle is a simple and fun family game. Good for casual players. It would work as a drinking game too. But please don't teach children drinking games.

I taught the children Dixit (my previous write-up here). Naturally I didn't expect them to be able to tell complex stories or come up with fancy poems or idioms. I just told them that when they played the storyteller they were to give a clue which should not be too easy or too hard. During the game our clues were mostly single words. Some of the clues the children gave were too specific and thus too easy to guess, because other players did not have cards that matched such specific clues. However generally the game worked reasonably well with the kids. They enjoyed it. Adults would have an advantage over them though.

Shall I try my luck in getting my photo into a government exam paper again?

Tuesday 28 August 2012

Ascension, and iOS boardgaming

I recently bought quite a number of games on my iPhone. Ascension, Le Havre, Ticket To Ride Europe (plus the in-app purchase of TTR Switzerland), Summoner Wars (and all expansions, which were on special offer) and Tikal (it was on offer too; I still have not played it since downloading it). This splurge was partly because Allen just got himself an iPad recently. Han has always been doing boardgaming on his iPad, but I have not been playing much against him using my iPhone. I usually use the boardgames I have on the iPhone as time-wasters, playing against AI's. When Allen got an iPad too, the three of us were suddenly keen to play together on the iOS platform. This is good because it means we can play more often despite Han being overseas. This year we have only been occasionally playing together online using boardgaming websites. Now we are constantly playing, having a few games running in parallel at any one time. When one game ends, we start a new game. We are boardgaming every day! That's the life!


Ascension is the only recently purchased iOS game that I have not played before. It's a deck-building game, so it is not surprising that it has quite a number of similarities to Dominion. However there are enough differences for it to have a different feel. Here's a quick summary of the differences.

  • Two currencies - Magic is basically money that can be spent to buy cards, and strength is the ability to defeat monsters. Most cards in the game give one or the other. Dominion has three currencies. Money to buy cards, action slots to be able to play more than one action card on your turn, and purchase slots to be able to buy more than one card on your turn. In Ascension you are not restricted to play only one card or buy only one card. You have more freedom, but also less challenge.
  • Lower card purchase freedom - On the table there are three types of basic cards that you can always buy / defeat - one that gives magic, one that gives strength, and a weak monster that you can defeat to gain points. Other than that, the card pool only has six cards from which you can choose. Every time a card is purchased (or a monster defeated), a new card is drawn to replenish the pool. Watching what's in the pool is important. Often you want to snatch a card before another player who wants it badly can afford it or defeat it. Whenever you take a card, you risk bringing in another card that the next player wants. Sometimes the card pool can be mostly monsters or mostly cards to be bought. Your deck composition (magic-heavy or strength-heavy) will determine how well you can claim cards in the pool.
  • Gaining victory points doesn't dilute your deck - When you defeat a monster, it goes to the void pile and doesn't go into your personal discard deck. You claim points using tokens. Most cards that you buy into your deck have both a special ability and some victory points (VP). Your hand doesn't get clogged with VP cards which can't be used for anything else. Also there is a type of card called constructs, which when played is placed in front of you permanently and gives you benefits every round. This also helps to keep your deck nimble. This can be good and bad - good because you don't get bogged down, bad because you lose the challenge of managing the efficiency of your deck.
  • More card types per game, fewer cards per card type - I think all cards are in play, as opposed to in Dominion where only 10 types of action cards are used in any one game. So you see a much bigger variety of cards in every game, but the card set is the same from game to game, unlike in Dominion where different action card combinations can drive a different emphasis and different strategies. I think there are only 3 cards per card type. That's one problem with playing computer implementations of boardgames. The software handles all the rules and you don't know the details.

The six cards in the middle are the card pool. Those with a silver triangle in the top right corner are cards that can be bought by paying magic. Those with a red circle are monsters that can be defeated by paying strength. The three cards in the top left corner are the basic cards that are always available. The row at the bottom is my hand of cards. The black area is the card play area. Those two cards tucked away at the bottom left are the constructs that I have in play.

The star in the bottom left corner means victory point value. I quite like the artwork in Ascension. It's unconventional.

At first I thought the AI's were rather poor. I easily beat them at 2P and 3P games. However, once I started playing 4P games, I kept losing. Not only that, every game I get outscored by them by a big margin even before mid-game. There must be something I am doing wrong. I am intrigued and am keen to discover the tricks that I am missing.

Ascension as a game is not all that special. But then maybe it's because I'm not a particularly big fan of deck-building games in the first place. However I find playing Ascension the iOS game very enjoyable because of the very slick interface and smooth gameplay. I am surprised that I'm liking a game more because of how well-implemented it is than the game design itself. Playdek is a very good developer.

I bought Ticket To Ride games not to play with Han or Allen, but to play with Michelle and Shee Yun (7), and also to pass time when I'm idle or when I feel like a quick relaxed game. This is the Switzerland map, my favourite of the series so far. I've completed 9 tickets at this point. Too bad the AI's are not very challenging.

Le Havre is a boardgame that takes up a lot of table space and has a lot of information, so it is difficult to squeeze onto an iPhone screen, or even an iPad screen. The interface of the iOS implementation works well enough, but it is simply not easy to play such a game with so many components on such a small screen. Font sizes are small, and you need a few clicks to zoom in to or to view certain details. That said, it's still good to have an iOS implementation of this wonderful game. I have been enjoying playing this against Han and Allen. Without an iOS version, I wonder how long it will take before we come back to playing Le Havre again. One downside to the iOS version is it can feel rather start-and-stop, because on your turn you usually only do one simple main action. After that you go back to waiting for your opponents to make their moves. If you play in a PBEM-like way, it take take quite a while to complete a game. It can feel tedious to sometimes have to simply wait for your opponent to feed his workers at the end of a round, or to wait for your opponent to decide whether to take a loan or sell a building in order to pay interest.

Your buildings can be viewed in a row. You can zoom in to see a specific building.

Beating the AI's was not much of a challenge. Playing against AI's is much less fun than playing against friends. They are not very strong. They make their moves quickly and I can't catch up with the animations on the screen. I don't bother with examining their moves and trying to outsmart them, because even without doing these I can win comfortably. When playing against friends in a PBEM-like manner (since we don't set up a time to be all online at the same time), I have time to examine my opponents' moves, and I get to enjoy the strategising and manoeuvring.

This is one feature I like a lot. This lists the recent moves by your opponents. This helps me guess my opponents' intentions and helps me plan.

I first played Summoner Wars in Jun 2010. It was a physical copy that I played then. I remember it as a nifty two-player combat game played on a chess-like board, with the game being driven by unique decks of army cards. Each player has a summoner on the board, which is like a king in chess. New units can be summoned onto the board to fight, and different unit types have different fighting abilities and special powers. The objective of the game is to kill your opponent's summoner.

The game is all card-driven. You sacrifice cards to gain magic which can then be spent to summon new units. Some cards are one time use events. Some cards are walls, which can be placed onto the board to block opponents and to protect your units. Killing an enemy unit (card) moves it to your magic pool, i.e. you can then use the magic to summon your own new units. You only go through your deck once, i.e. once it is exhausted, you basically run out of resources and can't summon more units.

I bought all the expansions, since they were on sale. That means I have access to lots of different armies and I will be able to try many different match-ups. So far I have only used the Pheonix Elves though. Still feeling my way around. The AI seems decent. It beat me a number of times and taught me some tricks. Now I also play against Han, who taught me other nifty tricks (the hard way, of course), e.g. killing your own unit can be good, because you earn that card for your magic pool, you deny your opponent a kill, and you lower your unit count. Some event cards reward you for having fewer units than your opponent. Han and my units must all fear us because we are such brutal overlords.

I find that generally it seems to be good to summon the strong champions and summon fewer common units, i.e. quality over quantity. Common units get killed easily and would fuel your opponent's magic pool. Relying more on champions mean you can have a lower unit count, and you won't feed your opponent's magic pool as much. I wonder whether this applies to just the Pheonix Elves or it applies to other armies too.

You can zoom in. My three units have surrounded the AI summoner and are about to finish him off.

Sunday 26 August 2012

After The Flood, in blood

This game of After The Flood was what inspired my previous post. Han, Allen and I played this strictly-3-player Martin Wallace design at from 26 Jul 2012 to 24 Aug 2012. Here's a write-up of the game, if you are unfamiliar with it.

Round 1

I was assigned green, my preferred colour. Yay! Allen was red, his usual colour too. Han was purple.

I raced to start the Akkad empire, which had the most armies, and managed to get it. I played in a rather cooperative manner, trying not to get too far ahead, lest I get ganged up upon. Unfortunately that didn't quite work out. I was the only one who could not get lapis lazuli, and also the only one who did not expand a city in Round 1. Expanding a city can give as much as 20pts. It requires collecting up to 6 resources, and also you need to own a not-yet-expanded city. Worker placement competition was fierce for the Irrigation and Weaving boxes (yellow and white boxes on the right), which resulted in each box having only one player left by the start of the next round.

By the end of Round 1, one of my (green) cities, the one in the south (Ur), was razed by Han, and a new city was rebuilt in its place. I fell behind - Han (purple) 30, Allen (red) 26, Hiew (green) 14.

Round 2

A clean slate again at the start of Round 2. Declines occur at the start of Rounds 2 and 4, causing some workers to be removed. Only Allen (red) had workers left in the Irrigation (grain harvesting) box, and only I (green) had workers left in the Weaving (textile producing) box. Han (purple) needed to spend some resources to place workers this round.

In the previous round I saw that Han (purple) although having the smallest empire (fewest default armies) managed to boost his army count by spending tools. Since I was trailing now, I decided to try a different approach. I increased my toolmaker (bottom right box) team to three, so that I could produce tools to build a strong military. I wanted to try forgoing the city expansion aspect (despite how significant 20pts is) and instead go for a military approach.

I didn't start the empire with the largest default army, but I significantly boosted my army count by paying tools. I also equipped my army to become the most effective in battle by paying one wood. At this point I (green) had 14 armies in stock, and both Allen (red) and Han (purple) had 5 each.

My large army stormed northwards, razing both of Han's (purple) cities in Babylon and Shuruppak. I built my own new cities there. Babylon gives 2 extra armies when starting an empire, Shuruppak makes razing your city cost 3 instead of 2 armies. I controlled Nippur, which meant I scored 3pts instead of 2pts for Sumerian provinces controlled by my armies. This big military move brought me back into contention. No one did any city expansion this round. The only scoring was from armies. Han (purple) 36, Hiew (green) 32, Allen (red) 28.

Round 3

Start of Round 3. Allen (red) already had workers in Mittani and was ready to start an empire. Mittani is the biggest empire in Round 3. One mistake that Allen made was he didn't realise when placing workers he could place fewer workers than the paid resource allowed. He wasted some workers throughout the game because of this. E.g. in this round he only needed one worker to start the Mittani empire, after which all his worker(s) in Mittani must be removed.

Han (purple) was severely blocked out this round, his Egyptian empire (left) never managing to grow beyond Egypt, mostly due to being beaten back by Allen (red). I continued my military approach, also making many tools and buying many extra armies, even equipping my armies with gold so they fought better.

My (green) humble Sumerian empire, despite the lowly three basic armies, expanded greatly because of the many mercenaries that I paid for. However, I still didn't do any city expansion. Both Han and Allen managed to expand cities again, both scoring the full 20pts. Resource competition was fierce again. In the Irrigation box I (green) had 9 workers, and Han (purple) had 8. In the Weaving box Allen (red) had 6 workers and Han (purple) had 5. Even by now I am not sure whether placing 9 workers in the Irrigation box was a good move for me. It gave me 6 grain next round, and forced Han to take only 4, and Allen 3, but this move also starved my worker count next round. I'm still not sure whether it was worth it. Certainly Allen was happy, since he (red) only had 2 workers in the Irrigation box and only lost these two in Round 4 Decline phase. Han and I both had to lose seven.

Han (purple) 58, Hiew (green) 53, Allen (red) 52.

Round 4

Early in Round 4. Han (purple) had placed a worker in Hittites (top left) in preparation to start the Hittites empire. Similarly Allen (red) had placed a worker in Kassites (top centre).

I had placed workers in Dilmun (bottom right) and Elam (right), and again used them to trade for metal and then make tools. Throughout the game I kept telling Han and Allen that I was just making harmless hammers. But of course when we met on the battlefield I screamed "Thor!!!".

Both Allen (red) and Han (purple) had started their empires. They collaborated and razed my cities in Shuruppak and Babylon. I (green) had placed one worker in Egypt (left) in preparation to start my empire. However I realised I was screwed. The moment I started my Egyptian empire, that worker would be discarded, and Han could simply march in to kill off my new empire. Even if I equipped my army well, he could afford a few more tries to exterminate my starting army. After that, I would need to place another worker in order to restart my Egyptian empire. However he could simply exterminate it again. I couldn't afford this. I only had two workers left, one of which I must reserve for the Weaving box. I could not risk paying tools to buy extra armies only to have my empire exterminated before it could start growing. Eventually I decided to give up ever starting an empire in Round 4. That was painful.

Han (purple) had built a new city in Babylon oven the ruins of my old city. Allen (red) had done the same in Shuruppak. Both their empires had grown further.

Noone did any city expansion in Round 4, but both Han and Allen scored much for their armies. I was the only one scoring zero. In the Irrigation box, eventually both of them placed the same number of workers, and I had fewer than them. In the Weaving box, Allen (red) had more workers, and Han (purple) and I (green) were tied. But Han controlled Ur, which gave him one extra textile. So in the next round, I would receive fewer resources (grain and textile) than both of them. My only consolation was I had resources saved from this round. Also I had a worker placed in Kassites so that I could trade for lapis lazuli, which I had never been able to get any up till then.

Han (purple) 70, Allen (red) 68, Hiew (green) still 53.

Round 5

The start of Round 5.

Finally I got myself some lapis lazuli (a very valuable blue gem). I even equipped my army (green) with it, resulting in my men being called gay (no offense meant to LGBT, just that we were being juveniles for a while here). This round I started my empire early, in Elam (right), because of my fear of what happened in the previous round. Han (purple) had also started his empire now, in Assyria (top centre). Assyria with 12 armies is the largest empire in Round 5. We both spent tools to boost our numbers, and ended up with the same number of armies (17).

I (green) expanded my empire cautiously, leaving a corridor for Allen's (red) Chaldea empire to emerge and march northwards to attack Han (purple). Allen at this point decided to give up on city expansion due to some tactical mistakes earlier. He had assigned many of his workers to become toolmakers, and he was going military. He missed one risk which could have caused him to be unable to start his Chaldea empire. At one point he had placed two workers in Chaldea, and had no more workers in stock. Han and I still had workers, and could have placed three in Chaldea. If we did so, Allen wouldn't be able to start his empire because another player had more workers than him. Fortunately for Allen neither Han nor I spotted that. So Allen was able to start his Chaldea empire with the max of 20 armies. They were equipped with lapis lazuli too. Yeah, another gay army. One thing he missed was that when equipping an army, you are not limited to one resource. He could have equipped his army with lapis lazuli plus another resource, so that his army would be more effective than mine, which was equipped with just one lapis lazuli.

I had invaded Kassites (top centre) to buy time. I had two gold which over two turns I traded for lapis lazuli. I wanted to see how things went before decided what to do. Timing is very critical in After The Flood. Han (purple) had started placing workers to fight for the workers area majority scoring (which occurred only at game end), so I could see how he placed his workers before I decided how to place mine.

Now I had placed my (green) workers for the area majority competition. Allen (red) was very much short of workers and could not compete much in this area, so it was mainly between Han (purple) and I. I had worker majority in Mittani (top left), Kassites (top centre), Egypt (left), Chaldea (bottom). Han had worker majority in Hittites (top left), Amorites (top left) and the Weaving box.

The massive siege of Babylon was about to start. Han (purple) had prepared the resources for one more city expansion, and Babylon was the only unexpanded city that he had now. He must keep Babylon in order to win.

The siege of Babylon went badly for Han (purple) because his army was less effective than Allen's (red). The siege was costly to Allen too. While the two leading scorers nuked it out, I happily expanded my empire around the fringes.

Soon, Han and Allen realised they needed to work together to stop me. I had prepared the goods for city expansion, and needed to ensure one of my two (green) cities survived. Allen (red) had enough armies to potentially raze both. I was quite far behind in scores and if I wanted to win I needed to make sure that Han (purple) didn't get to expand his city, and I did expand mine. I razed Han's already-expanded city in Lagash (near bottom right) and built my 3rd city. This was to deter Allen from even bothering to try to raze all my cities. So although he had invaded Nippur where one of my cities was located, in the end he didn't spend his armies to raze it. He turned back towards Han's only remaining city in Babylon and razed it instead. One thing that really helped me was the combat superiority of my better-equipped army. When Han and Allen collaborated to attack me, they failed quite a number of die rolls and had to spend more armies. I think this superiority also discouraged Allen from attacking me earlier this round, and encouraged him to go after Han whose army was inferior to his. Plus Han was leading at the time. Not razing Babylon (i.e. allowing Han to do city expansion) would doom both Allen and I.

The game ended with Han's carefully accumulated city-expansion resources being wasted. I was able to do my one and only city expansion in the whole game. I had a come-from-behind victory. Final score: Hiew (green) 113, Han (purple) 83, Allen (red) 80.

This was the only time I had the resources to do city expansion. I decided to expand Nippur because the city of Nippur had helped me a lot in scoring bonus points.

This game was certainly a roller-coaster ride for me. A poor start, then a big catch-up using a military approach, then a depressing zero-scoring round after becoming public enemy #1, and finally another come-back, probably partly due to not being perceived as any major threat anymore. The game was really close towards game-end. All three of us had reasonable chances of winning. We did make some mistakes during the game, due to being a little rusty with the rules. One thing that I was quite happy about was having gained a new perspective about the military strategy. It is viable to forgo city expansion and use a military approach to score as many points as city expansion would earn. In the past I tended to think city expansion is the core scoring method, and military scoring is more supplementary, military sometimes being used to deny city expansion.

This was my first ever win in After The Flood. It was quite a relief. But if you ask me whether the game still makes me uncomfortable, I would still say yes. This is the link to the game session transcript, complete with inappropriate comments in the chat log.

Friday 24 August 2012

why After The Flood makes me uncomfortable

Not that I dislike After The Flood. If asked to give a yes or no answer to whether I like the game, I’d probably say it’s complicated. And it’s not really just about After The Flood. It’s about the type of game in which there exists a mix of deep economy and high-impact warfare. There is a mix of constructive and destructive elements. It’s like you need to spend much effort building your own sandcastle, and in the same game someone will try to kick your sandcastle, and you have to do the same to them. It makes me a little nervous and uneasy, because I get that unsettling feeling of “that’s not very nice”. I am more at ease with straight conflict games, like Axis & Allies games, Sekigahara and Hammer of the Scots, and mixture games where the build element is simpler, e.g. A Few Acres of Snow, Wallenstein. In the latter, despite there being an element of what you have built getting torn down, at least you are less emotionally invested. I also don’t mind much the warfare in games which are primarily about development but has just a little confrontation thrown in, e.g. Endeavor and Age of Empires III. The warfare is mostly localised or is limited.

I guess one of my favourite games, Through the Ages is a game with a mix of intricate development and destructive warfare. It doesn’t make me nervous only because I always play against my wife and we play in a less aggressive way (military being used mainly for events and colonisation, and rarely for aggressions or wars). Civilization (Fantasy Flight) is this type of game, and because of the threat of war, I always need to play with an “at war” mindset. I need to be at least playing defensively, even if I don’t plan to attack others.

After The Flood

Well, that’s one theory about why After The Flood makes me nervous. However, that does not fully explain why Tammany Hall and Confucius can make me quite nervous too. So my other theory is that I play these games in a PBEM-like (Play-By-E-Mail) manner, and they are mostly open information.

When there is much time for me to ponder between turns, I find that I think too much, and end up worrying too much. I play too conservatively, because I see all the risks and I don’t dare to gamble. I expect the worse, and sometimes over-prepare, because I dare not hope for my opponents not doing their worst to me. Over-preparing means I am forgoing opportunities. I spend my resources on defensive play, some of which end up being unnecessary.

I often play these games as 3-player games with Allen and Han, and they all feel like knife fights in a phone booth. When there are three powers of roughly equal strength, it is nervous to see which two will gang up to eliminate the third, and only after that settle the fight between themselves. It doesn’t always happen, but the possibility is always there. I’m either poor at playing this metagame (not sure if it’s an appropriate way to use this term), or I’m unlucky. It is important to not appear too strong, if you don’t want to get ganged up on. However it is also bad to allow yourself to become too weak, lest you end up never being able to catch up, or another player trounce on you in order to push himself further forward. I find that I often do well in the early or mid game, only to crash and burn towards late game. There seems to be something seriously wrong with my pacing, no matter which game.

It is probably the combination of (a) being a 3-player game, (b) being a PBEM-like game, (c) being a mostly open information game, and (d) being low-luck, that makes some games quite unsettling for me. I have played some Axis & Allies Anniversary against Han before, and despite meeting criteria (b) and (c), those were 2-player games and there is some luck. Those games were very exciting and nerve-wracking, but I wouldn’t associate them with “uncomfortable”. In three player games, I sometimes feel Iike I am in a 1 vs 2 situation, because I keep expecting the worst.

Tammany Hall

Uncomfortable is not necessarily bad. It keeps you on your toes. It makes sure you pay attention and do your best. These games are exciting. Probably a little stressful, but they really engage you. You just need to know what to expect. Anyhow, I probably need to learn to relax a little.

All this came to me during an online turn-based game of After The Flood that I have just completed. I’ll be writing a session report on it.

Sunday 19 August 2012

boardgaming in photos

22 Jul 2012. Hacienda on the iPad. I usually played 4P games, but this time decided to try a 5P game. That nearly cost me my undefeated record. I (green) only beat the yellow AI by one point. Now I’m less keen to play Hacienda on the iPad because the AI’s are not very challenging.

22 Jul 2012. Shee Yun (7) beat me in this game of For The Win. She was white and I was black. It was her turn, and she only needed two basic moves to win - ninja (the shuriken) to move one step to the upper left, and then pirate (skull and crossbones) to move one step to the upper left. All her pieces would be linked up, and one of each type would be still active (face-up).

27 Jul 2012. The black box edition of Glory to Rome. Looks much nicer and neater than the original. The black box edition comes with a variant, in which some cards need to be replaced with others, and the rules are slightly changed. However we just played the original game, because most of us were already a little rusty.

In Glory to Rome a card can be used in three different ways. If used as a patron, you look at the left edge, which describes a profession. If used as a building material, you look at the bottom edge. Building materials can be used for a building or stored in the vault for points. If the latter, the coin icons at the bottom left denote the point value. If a card is used as a building, then the description in the centre applies.

This was already my 6th play of Glory to Rome, and yet I was still not quite grasping the strategies. I don’t play it frequently enough. I would like to play it more. Doesn’t hurt that now Allen has this good-looking version.

3 Aug 2012. Indonesia is a four-hour game, so it’s a little risky to bring it to OTK on Fridays, because we don’t really have that much time to play. I’m a Cinderella and need to run around midnight. Thankfully I managed to get a table of four (the ideal number of players) quickly, and off we went. Allen, Heng and I have played before, and only Dennis was new to the game, but he’s an 18XX veteran.

Indonesia is an economic game about founding production companies and shipping companies, expanding them, using them to make money, and guiding the growth of cities (the market for goods). The most important and most interesting aspect of the game is the mergers. Mergers are unstoppable once initiated. You can use this mechanism to have one of your companies gobble up an opponent’s company, or even take over a merger of two different opponents’ companies. However there is also a risk of another player overbidding you to buy the merged company. Mergers make the game very fluid and exciting. It’s a matter of life and death.

In this photo, the wooden ships are the shipping companies, the small square tiles are the production companies (green = spice companies, yellow = rice companies), and the glass beads are cities (green = small town, red = large metropolitan).

I had a rather poor start. My small shipping company was taken over in a hostile merger by Heng. I think I couldn’t have stopped it if I wanted to, because I didn’t have enough cash. After that I seemed to be getting small company after small company, never quite making it into the major league. Only by around mid game I bought a big rice company and continued to grow it to be the biggest in the country. I was the king of rice. Unfortunately rice was not exactly a very profitable product. Margins were slim because I had to spend much on shipping fees. Heng and Allen, the two shipping tycoons were laughing all the way to the bank.

Dennis was quite the menace indeed in this game. He was very intrigued by the merger mechanism, and (I suspect) often called for mergers just for the hell of it. There was one time when he intended to take over a lucrative company, but miscalculated, and ended up handing the merger to another happy buyer who had more cash than him. That seriously backfired for him. Many mergers meant the game sped up considerably. The number of companies a player can own is limited. More mergers means fewer companies being held, which means more slots to start new companies. The end of each era is triggered by company tiles running out. So having many mergers eventually means a quicker pace. I think the mergers ended up helping Allen and Heng the most. Their shipping companies became the only two big shipping conglomerates, and they also had slots for profitable production companies which had sister shipping companies to piggy-back on. It’s a left pocket right pocket thing.

In hindsight I probably should have tried to make a siap faji (microwave meal) company earlier by merging a rice and a spice company. Siap faji fetches a higher price per unit than rice, and I would have paid less shipping fees.

The game ended with all our scores quite far apart. Allen was the richest, followed by Heng, then me, and Dennis. Our game took just a little more than 3 hours, which is surprisingly short. I normally expect 4 to 4.5 hours. The red shipping company is Allen’s, and the yellow one Heng’s. Allen was the rubber king (purple), monopolising all of the rubber companies. Both Allen and Heng had some small but profitable oil companies (brownish grey). I was the rice king, owning almost every rice field. The only exception was that single field in southern Sulawesi (K-shaped island in the centre-right). That was Dennis’, and he was planning to merge it with his spice company to form a siap faji company. Both Dennis and I had spice companies. It was actually quite obvious who was going to win. Allen and Heng controlled the mid- and high-end products - rubber and oil, and Dennis and I were still floundering with low-end products - rice and spices.

I really like that Indonesia, like other Splotter games that I’ve tried, has very interesting macro-level strategies. You really need to know what you’re doing, and there’s a lot to think about and plan for. The game can be brutal if first-time players play against veterans. It is best played among equally matched players. There are many decisions to be made, and many of them matter a lot. If you win, you get a strong sense of achievement. If you lose, you can’t blame luck. Fiddliness is a common feature / problem (depending on your tolerance level) in Splotter games. To me, the gameplay is interesting enough so I think the trouble in managing the many game pieces is worth the effort.

Sunday 12 August 2012

getting to second base

OK, the title can be a little misleading. It’s partly intentional, for the shock effect. I don’t really know baseball. One thing I have been thinking about lately, is the journey of discovery within a game, as opposed to the endless discovery of new games to play. I think this has been a recurring theme for the past one or two years at my blog, although I still frequently play new games and write about these experiences. So far this year I have played an average of 4 new games per month, which is about one new game every week. That surprised me. I thought I was a jaded gamer who has mostly given up on chasing after new games. But I am quite sure my interest in new games has been steadily declining. I don’t even find Eclipse particularly tempting (blasphemy right?!). I find that I miss playing my older games more than I yearn to try new games. “Jaded” gamer is probably not an appropriate description, since I’m just jaded about the pursuit of new games, not about playing games. I am now less keen to “get to second base” with many games, and I’d rather “do the full home run” with a smaller number of games.

Let me lovingly recount the days of getting deeply involved with a game.

  1. In the beginning, you find out about the game, read some reviews, and decide it’s at least interesting enough to be worth a try, or it has potential to really click. As you get a chance to play it, you learn the rules, and you start exploring the basic tactics. You see how everything fits together. You tinker with it a little, just to see how things work.
  2. You grasp the basic strategies. You start to see the full picture, the macro view. You start formulating more advanced strategies.
  3. Gradually you discover the more subtle strategies (this may not be applicable to every game). You learn to fine-tune strategies. You learn to be more efficient. You remember and anticipate certain cards, events, circumstances, shifts in focus, etc. You are familiar with the distribution of tiles, or cards etc. You have a good grasp of the pacing. At the start of the game you can already outline a plan to follow. You know the possible ways the game may unfold. Even at the beginning of the game you can already evaluate the risks, potential rewards and implications of various starting (and early) moves. While the dust is settling, you are able to execute and adjust your strategy at the same time, sometimes even completely switching directions.
  4. You can play competitively, and your fellow players all play at the same high skill level. There is a kind of tacit understanding. You feel like you are playing in tandem, dancing impeccably precise steps on a knife’s edge. You know what to expect from your opponents, and they you. You can anticipate moves, as if multiple battles have already been fought in your minds before any actual move takes place on the game board. From your opponent’s every move, you can sense the kind of thinking he has gone through. You feel his mood. Everyone plays a close-to-perfect game. No careless mistakes. Some luck may determine the outcome, but no one makes any suboptimal move. Only calculated risks are taken. The winner being decided by luck can actually be a good thing, if it means everyone has played to his best ability, and his best ability is already the highest skill level. There are no regrets. You can truly say and mean “Good Game!” when the game ends.

This kind of feeling is what drives me to continue playing boardgames. This is what I’m trying to capture now. If it means I will miss many good games, I think it is worth it. Why keep going to second base in many games, and never quite hit any home run?

I have played a lot of 2-player Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper against Michelle. I think we are both pretty good players, except for one area - we never bothered to play the betting rule. I think when we first played it we were not sure how to bet and skipped it, and somehow we never added that part of the rules back into the game.

Michelle and I have played many many games of Race for the Galaxy, but I don’t feel we are at the expert level yet, because we mostly only play against each other. I’m sure there still are unexplored strategies despite the many games that we have played together.

Learning to play a game at the highest skill level doesn’t necessarily mean getting overly serious or competitive over a game. You do your best, but it’s not life and death. It’s a boardgame afterall. It’s about enjoying the game and savouring the challenge, not really about beating your opponent.

Different games will take different numbers of plays to reach the last “home run” stage. Also if there is too long a time between plays, you will find yourself stuck at the same base, or even going backwards, needing to relearn the rules and the strategies. To maintain a consistently high “home run” rate, there probably needs to be a limit to the number of games you play. There can only be that many games that you can keep in circulation while still remembering the rules and subtleties and being able to play at a high skill level. But you can remove games from circulation and add new games into it. I have not really adopted this approach in boardgaming, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Hmm... I imagine this kind of thinking will not be very popular with boardgame publishers and retailers. :-)

Axis & Allies Guadalcanal is one game I really enjoyed, but after that first play in May 2008, I still have not revisited it.

I like Die Macher, but rarely get to play it. The next time I play it, I’ll struggle again to remember the tactics, even if I probably will have some vague recollection of the general strategies.

I once suggested a different way of looking at ourselves (boardgame hobbyists) - the Game Taster. At that time I often felt guilty for not spending enough time on individual games, and instead distributing my gaming time widely across many different games. Then I realised I should not feel guilty, if being a Game Taster was how I preferred to enjoy boardgaming. It is fun to try different things, to learn new skills, to have new experiences, to solve new problems and to face new challenges. There is no need to force yourself to play every game you own at least X number of times, or to force yourself to become a world class tournament player in every game you own. At the other end of the spectrum, it is also prefectly OK to just master one game - think chess players and Go players.

For me personally, I feel I’m less keen a Game Taster now than two years ago, but I’m far from wanting to become some top ranking player in any one game. That just sounds like too much work. However I do have great admiration for those who do this, like Lee Chong Wei.