Saturday 29 September 2012

concise reference sheets additions

Some additions, corrections and enhancements made to my concise reference sheets repository. I have 230 ref sheets now.

  1. 1989: Dawn of Freedom
  2. Chicago Express (correction)
  3. Coney Island (correction)
  4. Confetti
  5. Corporation
  6. Dominant Species: The Card Game
  7. Evolution: Time To Fly
  8. Fauna
  9. Rommel in the Desert (correction)
  10. Shinobi
  11. Ticket To Ride: Asia (correction)
  12. Town Center
  13. Urban Sprawl (enhancement)
  14. Vanuatu
  15. Zombie! Run for your lives!

Wednesday 26 September 2012

Zombies! Run for your lives!

Plays: 3Px1, 6Px1

The Game

This is a simple card game where players are trying to survive a zombie apocalypse. You win by being the last survivor, or by collecting five different items. There are two types of cards - zombie cards and item cards. Each zombie type can be defeated by another specific item type. On your turn, you usually play a zombie card in front of another player, or play an item card in front of yourself. Duplicate cards cannot be played in front of the same player. If you collect five different items, you win. If you collect five different zombies, you, ahem, become a zombie. You discard your hand of cards and cards in front of you, and from then on you just draw one card on your turn and play it on someone still human.

There is a special action you can do. On your turn you can play an item card in front of another player, or a zombie card in front of yourself. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it can be useful. If you do this, this play is considered a free action, i.e. you then draw another card and take your turn as normal. This special action can be done only once per turn.

So the game is two races running at the same time. You try to get others killed by zombies, while trying to collect five items yourself. Matching zombie and item cards always cancel each other out, i.e. both get discarded. So you play a zombie on an opponent not only because you want to get him killed, but also sometimes because you want to discard one of his items.

Box cover.

Cards with black backgrounds are zombie cards. Cards with white backgrounds are item cards. The icons on the top left corners are used for matching item to zombie. This leftmost card is a special cockroach zombie card, which cannot be killed, thus no icon.

This is how an item is used to defeat a zombie (or a zombie is used to force an opponent to use up his item).

Telephone books and mice can be used as weapons too.

The Play

My three-player game with my two children (7 and 5) dragged. I think they were being too nice. There was no ganging up to get another player killed quickly (although eventually they did do that to me, which was a relief for me). They played fair, so zombies were spread around quite evenly, and we seldom got close to five different zombies. My conclusion from that game was you should not play nice. I think the whole point is persuading others to kill someone else, and working together to throw another player to the zombies. You should negotiate, you should gang up to bully others, you should plead and beg.

When I did the 6-player game with adults, I told them this. I was first to instigate a kill, by playing a 4th zombie on a player 2 turns away from me, which tempted the next player from me to play the 5th zombie on him. The next player knew it was a golden opportunity, and since he had the right card to do it, he went for it. After that I could keep telling the (now) zombie player that it wasn't me who got him killed. Aah... I'm a politician! A zombie player still participates in the game, so if he draws a zombie card on his turn, he can decide who to play it on. Of course sometimes he has limited choices because he can't play it on other zombie players or still-human players who already have that zombie card.

After that first kill, other humans started falling like flies. However when it came to the last two survivors, things reached a kind of stalemate for a while, because the zombie players didn't particularly side with one or the other survivor, so neither survivors approached five zombie cards nor five items. Eventually I (as a zombie player) was the one who made the kill. Wai Yan had four zombies when it was my turn, while the other survivor had three. So I said if I drew a zombie that could be played on her, I'd do it. And it was such a zombie. Game over.

Four zombies means close to be surrounded.

I probably shouldn't be playing this with the kids. The artwork can be a little gross.

The Thoughts

Zombies! Run for your lives! is a very simple game, which is all about group dynamics and people skills. You are playing the players, not the game. There is not much skill to learn in terms of game mechanisms. It is all about avoiding attention and diverting it to someone else instead. It is not really my type of game, because I feel there is too little control in terms of game mechanisms. These "play the players" games can be a fun romp with the right group as long as you are not expecting any particular depth in gameplay. However things can get ugly if a game devolves into a popularity contest. This is not a game to take too seriously. Actually, it is not a game to take seriously at all. In which game can a mouse frighten a lady zombie in a bikini?

I think the game will work better and be more fun with a bigger group, because there will be more group dynamics.

Tuesday 25 September 2012


Plays: 4Px1, 3Px1, facilitated a 7P game, 2Px1

The Game

Confetti is a real-time pattern-recognition game. It is played over three rounds, each lasting only one minute. A big stack of cards is spread across the table, and players have one minute to claim cards to score points. Each card has three shapes of three different colours and three different sizes. To score one point, you need one set of three shapes of the same colour in large, medium and small sizes. They will occur on different cards. What's tricky is trying to make use of all three shapes on every card to form sets. A shape cannot be reused. If you have six cards, the most ideal situation is being able to make six sets, thus scoring 6pts. There is a penalty for taking cards which are unnecessary, i.e. are not used to make any set - 1pt per excess card.

The review copy I received from Right Games was the Russian version. If I hadn't looked up BoardGameGeek I would have read this as Kohpettu.

Each game starts with a mess of cards spread across the table. No need to shuffle.

In this example, you score 5pts, 1pt each for sets of red, yellow, green, blue and purple. The surplus are one large green circle, one medium green circle, and one small orange circle.

Cards are double sided and either side can be used.

In the first two rounds, you use each half of the deck, and you are allowed to collect up to six cards. In the third round, you use all remaining cards, and you can claim up to nine cards. For recording your score at the end of every round, you claim the appropriate number of cards, flip them over, and keep them aside. That means the card pool will reduce. Highest total score at game end wins the game.

The Play

This is a fast and furious game. You have to really focus to try to maximise your score. It is very difficult to get a perfect score within such a short time. You are allowed to release already-claimed cards back into the pool in order to take another card, but you don't really have a lot of time. You don't want to blindly claim cards when time is running out, hoping to be lucky, because for every card not used to make any set, there's a 1pt penalty.

Scoring a round probably takes longer than playing a round, until you develop a systematic way to count scores. We had a few moments of "Have I counted green?". I recommend counting according to the colours of the rainbow (and the number of corners for the black side), i.e. red - orange - yellow - green - blue - purple, or circle - triangle - square - star - hexagon - explosion.

I played this with my children (7 and 5). Surprisingly Chen Rui (5) did quite well, even tying for the win in the second game and asking to play again. Was she just lucky? Or has she really developed a technique for picking the right cards? The 7-player game (max number) I observed was very hectic. In the first two rounds there were barely enough cards for everyone, which made competition fierce. In the third round, there were nowhere near enough cards to let everyone claim nine, so the tension was even higher. Afterwards, I found out that I had made a big mistake. When playing with 5 or more players, there should only be two rounds, the first using half the cards and allowing 6 cards to be claimed, and the second using all remaining cards and allowing 9 cards to be claimed. No wonder the players struggled so badly. Oops.

This is what it's like when seven players are playing.

The game comes with a one-minute hourglass.

Game in progress. Left hand to hold down and protect your cards, two fingers on the right hand to claim cards. The rule says if you are not holding down your card properly, another player can take it.

The Thoughts

Confetti is a speed game, but it is a thinky speed game and not a reflex speed game. There is not a lot of strategy. It's mainly about pattern recognition. You can probably quickly develop a technique or two to help you play reasonably well. I have not thought a lot about it yet though. The game is suitable for casual gamers and for children. It can be a family game and a party game. A filler too. And a drinking game as well. It seems to be more fun and more challenging with a bigger group.

Monday 24 September 2012

Happy Meeple

Nicolas from Happy Meeple contacted me about his online boardgaming website which focuses on quick and easy-to-learn games. The target audience is non-gamers and casual gamers. There are no rules to read. Instead the website provides tutorials to teach you how to play. So far there are already five games available, including Lost Cities, Finito! and Keltis. There is a resource collection and level-up system which determines how often you can play, how soon you can unlock certain games etc. This aspect feels like those free Facebook games and iPhone games which tries to keep you playing and persuades you to pay for in-game cash. However so far I have not seen any option to pay anywhere. This looks like a good website for an occasional quick game or two. The interface is clean and intuitive.

I have learned to play Finito!, which reminds me a little of Bingo. In Finito! you have much more control despite the luck element, and also a strategy does exist. However it is literally a multiplayer solitaire game, like FITS. So far my record against the AI's is 1 win 1 draw 3 lose, but I'm starting to get the hang of it. It's a nifty little filler.

In Finito! the objective is to arrange your pieces in ascending order. Initially all your pieces are face-down, and you turn three over. In the first half of the game, you roll a die to determine where to place one of your three active pieces. After that you randomly turn over another piece. You continue to do this until all pieces are on the board.

In the second half you roll the die to move your pieces. The die roll determines the destination, but you pick which piece to move.

The AI beat me again! I was only one move away. I needed to move #4.

Sunday 23 September 2012

Evolution: Time To Fly

Plays: 2Px1. (played based game 4 times before this, ranging from 2P to 4P)

The Game

One thing good about this expansion is there are no changes or additions to the basic rules of the base game. It's just more cards added, but of course these are all new cards with new (and interesting) abilities. The new cards are overall more complex, so when playing the expansion for the first time, I'd recommend reading the new cards sheet before the game starts as opposed to looking up specific cards during the game when you draw a new card. The game is still quite simple - you play cards to create new species or add traits to existing species, then food abundance is determined, and all species try to survive by either eating food provided by the environment, or eating other species. There is still that cat-and-mouse game between predator and prey trying to out-evolve each other. At the end of every round, any species short of food die. The game ends when the deck runs out, and you score for every surviving animal.

The expansion comes in a box half the size of the base game. There is a second expansion, but no English version yet.

The Play

The expanded game feels very similar to the base game, just that you have more variety, and thus many more possible combinations of animal traits. I still stuck to the approach of playing few animals and giving them many traits. This still seems to be the most reliable strategy, which is a pity. I wonder whether I am missing something. Perhaps there should be some limit to the number of traits an animal can have, or certain trait combinations to be disallowed, to prevent the creation of superspecies. Currently I think once a superspecies, especially when it is a carnivore, is created, there can be a runaway leader problem. Having more players should help to rein in any potential runaway leader, so maybe 2P is not the best way to play this game.

Ink Cloud is one of the new traits. It stops a predator from eating your animal for one round, but the predator may attack again. Specialisation B is also a new trait. It lets your animal claim a food from outside the food pool. Only one Specialisation B card can be in play at any one time.

Shell, Flight and Trematode are all new traits. Flight is interesting, because to make use of Flight to escape from an attacking carnivore, your animal must have fewer or the same number of traits as the carnivore. So, if you play too many traits on your bird, it becomes a chicken.

The Thoughts

It is still fun to create animals and to compete in the fight for survival when the food supply is always fluctuating. The Time To Fly expansion doesn't change the game structure or strategy much and doesn't make it unnecessarily more complex. The additional variety is welcome and if you like the base game you should get the expansion. Just remember this is a light game and don't take it too seriously, despite how serious and science-flavoured the subject matter sounds. Individual animal traits in the game are actually quite educational, just don't try to imagine what some of the superspecies made up of a whole plethora of traits correspond to in real life. You can only find those in Pokemon.

Friday 21 September 2012

boardgaming in iOS screenshots and photos

Aug 2012. I have been playing a lot of Summoner Wars on the iOS against Han and Allen. iOS boardgaming has become something I do everyday now, playing one or two turns when I have short breaks or during wait time. Other games that we play on the iOS are Ascension and Le Havre. In Summoner Wars, previously I focused on learning to use the Pheonix Elves. Later I switched to the Jungle Elves. The Jungle Elves are fun to play. They have great mobility. Lionesses move for free, their moves not being counted towards the limit of three every round. The Lion Rider can move up to seven spaces in a straight line. They have strong attack values, but usually have low life points, i.e. easy to kill. I play them in an aggressive way, always on the offense and going for the quick kill. I tell myself I'm the Brazilian football (soccer) team. In this screenshot my lioness (far left) is about to kill off the summoner of the Tundra Orcs.

2 Sep 2012. I also tried out the Tundra Orcs myself, but didn't play that much with them. They have lots of walls, and they have some special event cards which are mini walls (3 hit points). There's one such wall in this screenshot. They have a common unit that can make multiple attacks. After each attack, you roll a die to determine whether the unit moves and attacks again. I tend to play the Tundra Orcs defensively, using my walls to slow down the enemy. The summoner has a special ability which can cause all enemy units next to my walls take wounds. One theme in the Tundra Orcs' abilities is the unpredictability. Many of them need a die roll to determine whether they will take effect.

4 Sep 2012. Another game where I was the Tundra Orcs. Han played the Goblins. Look at all those special ability icons on the Goblins! It was a combination of Han's event cards and Goblin champion special ability.

7 Sep 2012. A game I played as the Jungle Elves vs Han playing the Tundra Orcs. Right off the bat he played three (!) freeze cards on my summoner. A frozen unit cannot move, attack or use its special ability. It costs two magic to remove a freeze card. I didn't unfreeze my summoner throughout the game. I needed the magic for summoning units to defend him and to kill enemy units in order to gain magic. I managed to use event cards to get my summoner to swap places with other units, getting him out of danger (and putting the pawn in danger instead). But eventually I couldn't hold back the Tundra Orcs and I lost the game.

Zooming in to the frozen summoner. He was more frozen than Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back.

15 Sep 2012. Now I'm trying yet another faction - the Vanguards. Their units are sturdy, most have two hit points as opposed to the usual one. Some units also have heal abilities. Attack values tend to be low though. So this faction seems to be mostly about outlasting your opponent. I tend to play it defensively, in a sure-and-steady approach.

Sep 2012. Ascension continues to be fun. Now I regret a little for not buying the expansions when they were on discount. It is not that I have discovered any hidden depth in the game. It's just that it's a quick auto-pilot game with a very slick implementation on the iOS. Playing it on the iOS is like taking occasional light snacks. Nothing heavy but it is an enjoyable diversion. The game end screen (above) lets you examine the composition of your deck and those of your opponents too.

The more I play Le Havre the more I like it. Unfortunately playing on the iOS in a PBEM (Play-By-EMail) -like manner takes a long time. You do very little on your turn so it can feel like the game moves too slowly.

9 Sep 2012. I continue to try to reach for a higher solo score at Town Center. I tried to work out on paper how much I could score assuming I could select the order the cubes were drawn from the bag. However even by doing that, I could at best get to a size 12 apartment (connected green cubes) with a max height of 3, which is 81pts. Even if I add points from leftover money, a size 12 apartment doesn't seem to be sufficient to hit 100pts. Later, when I played the physical game, I found a new technique to increase apartment size. I realise it is a 3D game so when trying to plan it on (2D) paper one could easily miss some possibilities. This particular city above scored 72pts.

15 Sep 2012. This was the best I could do so far in solo Town Center, 77pts. Look at the biggest connected set of green cubes. It is the key indication of how well a city is built. A cube is connected to cubes to its left, right, front, back, top and bottom. The rules indicate it is possible to go beyond 100pts. 77pts is just a Level 5 achievement out of 10 levels.

13 Sep 2012. I bought Tikal on the iOS because it was on discount. I have the physical game, but I have not played it for quite a long time. It took me a while to play the iOS version, because I had many other games to be occupied with. The iOS version is not as pretty as the physical version, but the interface and implementation are done well enough. I found that I was a little rusty with the game when I noticed the AI's taking advantage of my mistakes and opportunities I missed. I focused on treasures, and I lost out on temples. I was not efficient at all in competing at the temples. Thankfully the treasures helped me a lot. I eventually came second place, and not too far from the first placed AI. That's a minor miracle considering my poor showing.

Thursday 20 September 2012


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The designer said what inspired this game was the sand drawings of Vanuatu. The locals draw complex single-stroke drawings made of unique patterns. The gameplay has nothing to do with this, but it is quite interesting. Over eight rounds, players explore the islands and seas of Vanuatu, doing various activities to earn money and victory points. You have a boat. You can go fishing, you dive for treasures, you sell fish to make money, you build stalls, you buy locally produced goods to sell overseas, you play tour guide, and of course, you get to draw turtles in the sand. There is a built-in limit to most of these activities. There are only that many tourists in a round (and it varies from round to round), there are only that many spots for stalls, drawings and tourists on an island, and there are only that many treasures and fish to be claimed from a sea zone. Throughout the game new tiles are revealed and added to the board, providing more items for player to fight over, but at the same time the players are also depleting these items. Positioning your boat is important, because most of the actions require your boat to be at the right place, e.g. next to the island where you plan to bring a tourist.

The key mechanism in the game is action planning, which is a form of worker placement. There are 9 actions you can do, but before anyone executes any action, there is an action planning phase. Every player has five action tokens to be placed on the action spaces. You can spread them out thinly over 5 spaces, or you can concentrate, having more than one action token for certain spaces that you are keen about. When it comes to action execution, on your turn, you can execute an action only if you have more action tokens on that action space than everyone else. If you are tied with someone else, then you are considered to have majority only if you are earlier in turn order. When you execute the action, you remove your action tokens, which would allow another player to have majority. If you don't have majority anywhere, you are forced to pick one space to remove your action tokens from without executing the action, i.e. they are wasted. If there are some spaces where you have majority and some where you don't, you must execute an action where you have majority, even if it would be ineffective. E.g. you have placed tokens to fish and to sell fish. If on your turn you have majority in the "sell fish" space but not in the fishing space, you must execute "sell fish" first, even though you have none to sell yet. That's another way of wasting your action tokens.

Turn order is important, because of how it breaks ties when two players have the same number of tokens. Turn order doesn't rotate. If you want to be start player, you need to take an action to claim this privilege. However, being early is not always good and being late not always bad. Let's say you are an earlier player. There may be some spaces where others have majority, and you hope they would take their actions quickly to pass the majority to you. But they may take their sweet time doing other actions, and because you go earlier, you also arrive earlier at the point of running out of spaces to choose from. So you are forced to remove your tokens without being able to execute the action. If you are a later player, you have less risk of encountering such a situation. Generally, it is still better to go earlier, just that you need to be wary of getting caught in such situations.

The starting setup of a 5-player game. There is an island preprinted on the board. Three sea tiles are placed next to it. Pink discs represent the abundance of fish, and brown discs represent treasures. The purple, orange and white cubes are locally produced goods. On the island you can see spaces for building stalls (square boxes), beaches for sand drawing (circle with turtle), and the max number of tourists allowed (number in white pawn). The row of boxes in the background are the action spaces.

Money is relatively tight in the game. You need money to sail, to build stalls (which are needed for selling fish, help tour guides make money, and score VP's at game end), and to buy local goods for export (earns VP's). Actions that let you make money are selling fish, showing tourists around and selling treasures. It's a delicate balance to maintain your cash flow, because if you run out of cash, your options will become limited. One tricky rule is you can never have $10 or more. Whenever you hit $10, it is converted to 5VP. Sometimes you don't want those VP's because you need the money for many other things.

There are special characters in the game. Every round you pick one from the pool before returning the one you are holding. That means you won't be able to pick the same character twice in a row. Also while you are picking characters, other players are still holding on to theirs, so this limits your choices further. Characters all give some special ability, usually associated to a specific action type, e.g. build a stall for $1 instead of $3. This encourages you to pick that particular associated action, and it also means you can guess what others are planning to do by their choice of character.

One of the character cards. The game components are in a mix of French and English, which is weird. This, I'm guessing, is the preacher. It allows you to execute an action even if you do not have majority in that action space.

The big tile is a character tile. This is the one that gives you a free goods cube of the same colour when you buy one. The small tile is a treasure tile. You can sell it for cash (one-to-one conversion), but if you keep it until game end, it's a one-to-two conversion to VP's. The black pawn is the start player marker. The thick disc is an action token. The house is a stall (for selling fish, amusing tourists and scoring at game-end). The thin disc is for tracking cash and VP's.

The Play

We did a 4-player game (player range is 3 to 5). Kareem was the only one who had played before and he commented that the game made him cry. But he was game.

Gameplay was mostly tactical, in hindsight. You don't really do that much long-term planning. Maybe some medium term strategy, like bringing tourists to an island where you have many stalls, so that the stalls will score many points at game end. Most of the time you identify the good moves based on the current situation, try to reap benefits efficiently, and then move on. The placement of new sea and island tiles is what drives the game forward. Each tile presents new opportunities that the players will compete for, but sooner or later the resources will be depleted and players need to move on to the next new area of prosperity.

Jostling at action token placement was fun - the type with pain involved. I think everyone experienced some screwage at least once and likely more than that. You need to be keenly aware of the turn order, and all the possible token-placement circumstances that can ruin your round. Sometimes you want to take a bit of risk and hope that things will work out and you can do all the actions you plan for. Sometimes you just have to pay the price (of taking fewer actions) to make sure you do get to execute these crucial actions. Being first player is no guarantee of smooth sailing. It is possible that others may decide to place more tokens per space, and those spaces happen to be where you only have one token.

Black discs on the islands mean those beaches have already been claimed for sand drawing. I have two stalls on the island on the right. Each stall scores 2VP per tourist. Having two stalls means 4VP per tourist. So I keep sending tourists here. There are already three tourists at this point.

I (green) decided not to compete on the far side of this photo, and thus was first to sail towards the near side.

The three ships at the bottom left represent foreign demand for goods, i.e. what you can purchase locally to sell overseas. A ship sails away once all requested goods are supplied to it, freeing up a slot for the next ship.

There is a constant feeling, at least for me, of always barely making ends meet. During the game, every round I made barely enough money to allow me to do other actions I wanted to do. Then we discovered one very clever move. If you can time a sell fish action precisely when you are at $0, when you have 3 fish, and when fish price is $3, you will make $9, i.e. just short of being forced to convert $10 to 5VP. Another nice trick which I saw Kareem do was to have taken the buy-goods character (which allows you to get a free good), and then buy the $3 purple good (which gives 5VP each) when there is demand for at least two. The second free good would give an additional 5VP. That's 10VP for one action, which is a lot.

I made a mistake in the rules. In the first and last rounds there should be no new tiles revealed. I taught the others to play with new tiles being revealed starting in the first round. That caused a problem in the last round, because with no new tiles revealed in the last two rounds, we ran out of useful things to do. Resources that we could fight over had been mostly depleted by the last round. Furthermore the tourist tile in the last round was 0, i.e. no tourists that round. It was an awkward final round with very little to do, and thus unusually intense competition for the buy-goods space. Sorry guys, my bad.

Due to my mistake, there was little to do in the last round except to fight for buying goods. Having action token stacks of 3 or 4 is not normal.

The Thoughts

I find the game very finely tuned - resources are being fed into the game system at just the right rate to make sure there are enough different things to fight over, yet in each aspect the resources are scarce enough that players need to work hard to compete. The game is quite tactical. You live in the here-and-now and usually focus on making the most out of the current situation and the opportunities that present themselves. There is some medium- to long-term planning, e.g. stall scoring at game-end and the positioning of your boat, but you are not really building any engine or empire based on any master blueprint. The action planning is unique and fun (the type with screwage). You can say Vanuatu is just another efficiency game where you try to make the cleverest plays round-to-round, needing only to look ahead just one or two rounds at any one time. In fact you can even say the rounds feel repetitive, because they are not really all that different. Probably the only thing that requires really long-term planning is how the play area expands and how you want to move your boat to make sure you always have something useful to do.

However I find myself liking Vanuatu despite these negative-sounding observations. Might be because I won (and I didn't expect I would until near game end). The graphics contributed to that too. There is a leisurely I'm-an-island-dweller feel to the game, despite the unforgiving action planning mechanism. You feel like you are living day-to-day happily making the most of each glorious day, not worrying about what may come tomorrow. Every day is an exciting new day. I like that the theme and mechanisms (at least those related to the actions) are quite consistent. Abstracted, but consistent. Fishing, selling fish, exporting goods, building stalls and their mechanisms in the game all make sense to me. The action planning mechanism doesn't feel realistic though. It's a mechanism for the sake of gameplay. However with other aspects of the game making up for it, I don't mind the thematic disjoint, like I do in the other recently played island-themed game Hawaii, which I think is actually more strategic. I didn't like The Speicherstadt because I felt it was one clever mechanism wrapped in a dull game. Some may see Vanuatu this way, but I find the wrapper in Vanuatu much more interesting. It has a spatial aspect. There is a constant balancing act of maintaining cash flow. The actions in the game blend much better with the setting. When I play the game, I feel the designer had decided on the setting first, e.g. the various actions the players can do, before translating them into game mechanisms - some make money, some earn points. The actions are then balanced to make the game work. This is as opposed to getting the mechanisms to work and then applying a setting.

I really like the drawings and graphics in this game. Comic-like but classy.

Vanuatu reminds me a little of Antiquity, in how resources are being depleted as the game progresses. However it doesn't have a downward spiral that you need to crawl out of. There is a more-or-less regular supply of new resources (not entirely unlike a drug dealer supplying dope), and in the worst case you run out of opportunities to score more points. You don't get starved to death and you don't need to lay body bags in your storehouse.

Here's how you draw a turtle.

Friday 14 September 2012

Dominant Species: The Card Game

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Dominant Species: The Card Game is played over 10 rounds, and in each round the players compete over a biome card. On your turn, you play a card or pass for the rest of the round. There are two types of cards. An animal card has a number on it (called the food chain value) and some icons (called elements). The number lets you compete for dominance (scoring you a number of points equal to the round number), and the icons let you compete for matching icons on the biome card (worth between 1 to 4pts). Some animal cards let you suppress another animal card in play, by rotating it to the weaker side, or even discarding it if is already weakened. The other card type is the event card - just follow instructions on it. E.g. boosting the food chain value of your cards in play, forcing everyone to pass immediately, allowing some players to draw a card(s).

Once everyone has passed, scoring for the round is done. Other than dominance scoring (total food chain value) and elements scoring (matching icons), the player or players with the highest dominance score get to advance on the survival track. This is quite important, because before the tenth and last round, instead of drawing 2 cards like previous rounds, you draw a number of cards equal to your position on the survival track. Also at game end, you gain 5pts for having the highest survival position or lose 5pts for being lowest.

The biome for the last round is preset, so everyone knows what's coming. At any one time, both the current biome being fought over and the next one are known, so you can plan ahead a little. Each biome card determines whether a certain animal type (e.g. mammals, insects, birds) gains some advantage or disadvantage, which will also help you plan how to spend / conserve your cards.

And that's almost all there is to the game. Sounds simple? And completely different from the predecessor?

The game board is small, and is only a tracker. This is purely a card game. The cards with white backgrounds are tundra cards, a type of biome card. The icons on the cards indicate elements that can score, and the two species icons on each card show species that gain an advantage / disadvantage for the round.

My animal cards. The number is the food chain value, used for competing for dominance. The icons are the elements. Some cards have icons of a stop sign on top of another species. That's the suppression icon. You can suppress one already-in-play card of that species. The bottom half of an animal card is its weaker side, to be used if the card is suppressed.

An event card. Some events take effect immediately. Some are in effect for the rest of the round.

The Play

We played a 4-player game, which seems to be a good number. Not too many players that the competition becomes too brutal, and not too few that it becomes boring. We quickly discovered the importance of, ahem, "sharing". When two players tie for dominance scoring (or element scoring), both earn the full points. So if two (or more) players are leading, and they can agree on a joint victory, they can stop spending cards to compete with each other. This is attractive because cards are scarce. It is painful to have committed many cards, only to be outspent by others and win nothing. It is important to learn when to concede, when to fight, and when to negotiate. And maybe when to backstab too (although that didn't happen in our game; not that I was thinking about it mind you).

The race on the survival track is tense. The 5pts for being on top is lucrative, and the -5pts for being behind is scary.

In the last round everyone will go all out, since you don't need to save cards for the future anymore. There is a twist though. A round can end in two ways - when everyone passes, and when a player passes while holding no more cards. That means in that final round you won't be able to play all your cards even if you have many more than your opponents. You are restricted by the player who holds the fewest cards. So having many cards for Round 10 only means that you have more cards to pick from, and hopefully that means you will be able to play better quality cards than others.

Our game came quite close. Everyone was within striking distance when Round 10 started. Round 10 felt like the final big boss battle in many computer games. It was the culmination of 9 rounds of hard work. No more Mr Nice Guy cooperative nonsense. It was Highlander time - there can only be one! Lots of suppression occurred, even causing animals to be killed off. All the most powerful cards had been saved for that climactic fight. I won Round 10, and eventually the game.

My hand of cards for Round 10.

The Thoughts

The card game version of Dominant Species is a very different animal from its predecessor, but I was pleasantly surprised that it has some similar feelings - especially how important the last round is and how you need to keep it in mind throughout the game. The game also reminds me of Taj Mahal. You usually draw only two cards per round, and you can't afford to compete fiercely every round. You need to pick your battles. Getting tied up in a long, brutal fight can be disastrous. Win or lose, you come out resource-starved. What also surprised me is the game can have a fair bit of negotiation and cooperation, because sometimes it's win-win to agree with an opponent to tie for dominance. You both score the full points, and you can conserve your cards by not prolonging the fight. However there is also a risk of getting betrayed - the opponent who ties with you and promises to not continue playing any card after you pass may have a sudden change of heart after you pass.

I like how the dominance scoring escalates. You really cannot allow yourself to miss out too much in the second half when the dominance score is 6pts and above. In the early rounds, the dominance scoring has few points, but it is still important because you need to advance on the survival track, which has a big impact in setting up for Round 10 and in game-end scoring.

It's a card game, so there is luck. But there is enough information to allow planning ahead and strategising. This is meant to be a quick (and sometimes nasty) game, just don't expect a summarised version of Dominant Species.

Sunday 9 September 2012

Town Center

Plays: 4Px1, 1Px3.

The Game

Town Centre is a city-building game. Every player has a personal board with 21 squares on which they can build their cities. The game has 10 rounds, and every round you will add at least two cubes to your city. You may buy one extra cube per round. Sometimes when the circumstances are right, some buildings will grow by themselves (called Development), i.e. you will be allowed to add extra cubes to your city.

The cubes represent different building units. Purple and red are offices. Blue is shops. Green is apartments. Black is car parks or elevators. Yellow is generators. They all serve different purposes. Offices trigger Development of apartments. Shops and car parks make money. Elevators allow building upwards (up to the 5th floor). Generators power elevators, shops and apartments, which need electricity to work. Apartments are the most important. They are usually the biggest source of victory points at game end. They also trigger the Development of shops.

At the start of a round, a number of cubes equal to twice the number of players are drawn from a bag, and the start player of that round arranges them into stacks of two. Players take turns picking one cube (naturally, those cubes beneath other cubes cannot be taken) in player order, and then pick a second cube but in reverse player order. After this is done, everyone adds the two new cubes to his city.

The biggest twist in the game is that during this stage, apartments and shops cubes cannot be placed adjacent (left, right, front, back, up or down) to existing cubes of the same type. This is a challenge because apartment and shop groups are more effective if they are big (i.e. many cubes linked up to became one big residential area or one big shopping centre). The trick is Development. During the Development phase, if a residential area contains fewer apartment cubes than the number of adjacent office cubes, it grows for free, and the new growth (i.e. new apartment cube or cubes) must be placed adjacent to existing apartment cubes. This is how residential areas grow, and this is also how two previously separate residential areas can merge to become a much bigger residential area. The Development of shops work in about the same way.

This is a home-made copy. I think the first edition of Town Center has already sold out. The designer is preparing a second edition using Lego blocks which will be available at the Essen game fair this October.

After ten rounds, money is converted to victory points $5 to 1VP. There is a 1VP penalty for each suburb space used (the spaces along the edges of the player board). The residential areas (apartments) score points in two ways - number of cubes, and height. The first cube is worth 1VP, the second cube 2VP, and so on. So the total points grow very quickly when you have a big residential area. As for height, you score 1/3/6/10VP for reaching the 2nd/3rd/4th/5th floor. Whoever has the most points wins.

The Play

Learning the game for the first time was confusing, and I at least partially blame Allen (sorry bro). After the first play I read the rules myself, and found them a little disorganised. The game being 3D and very spatial also complicates matters. You need to be able to imagine and plan in 3D. Seeing the impacts of each move is not straight-forward when you are new to the game.

In that first game, all four of us struggled and were quite clueless. Only halfway through the game it started to click for me. I hadn't planned my city very well and was forced to use many of my suburb spaces (1VP penalty per use, and also in the suburbs you can never build beyond the ground floor). However in the late game I was able to use Development to link up many of my small residential areas. That scored an obscene amount of points and won me the game.

I found the cube arrangement (by the start player) and cube selection at the start of every round quite interesting. You need to pay attention to what your opponents need.

Later on I tried the solo variant. The rules are mostly the same, but you know exactly what cubes you will get, just that you won't know the order they will come out. It is easier to plan for, but it is also more like puzzle-solving. However the random order of drawing cubes from the bag still provides much variability. It seems quite impossible to go in with a blueprint in mind and execute based on that blueprint. So far I have not figured out any sure-fire way of building a big residential area. In the solo variant you will only ever have 4 offices (including the city hall) to help trigger the Development of residential areas. I still need to work out what's the best way to place these offices. Based on the game rules, it should be possible to achieve 100pts in the solo variant. I've only managed 61pts, and the biggest residential area I could make was of size 10. Looks like I have much room for improvement.

This was the city I built when I first tried the solo variant. Now that I had some experience, I was able to completely avoid building in the suburbs, i.e. the spaces along the edges. However after the game I realised it is not really that necessary to avoid such spaces. The 1VP penalty is very much worthwhile if you make good use of the space.

A 3D game with a strong spatial element.

The Thoughts

Town Center was a pleasant surprise. Definitely something a little different. I tend to think of the words "filler" and "puzzle" negatively in the context of boardgames, but I think it is fair to say that Town Center is a thinky filler with a puzzle-like feel. The game really is not that complex, just that initially it can be hard to grasp. I'm not sure yet how much replayability there is, given the succinctness. At the moment I don't think I have found very solid techniques or tactics yet, although I understand the importance of making use of Development. However I think (and I hope) even after mastering the tactics, the random cube draw from the bag will still keep the game fresh and challenging. When playing non-solo versions, the need to react to your opponents' moves should ensure plenty of variations.

Saturday 8 September 2012


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Hawaii is a shopping game. It's a medium to heavy weight Eurogame with multiple ways of scoring. And it's a shopping game. Throughout five rounds, you use your village chief to buy all sorts of tiles from a central island, and you use most of these tiles to build villages in your private island. Tiles have various abilities, e.g. gaining resources during the game, scoring points during the game, and scoring points at game end. The central island and the locations to buy specific tiles are set up randomly at the start of every game, which provides variability. Every round, the prices of tiles and the number of tiles available are semi-randomly determined too.

The central island has ten location tiles which are randomly set up at the start of a game. Turtle shells are price tags and also determine how many tiles can be bought from a location. The number of turtle shells at a location is determined semi-randomly at the start of every round.

There are three currencies in the game - clams, feet and fruits. Clams is roughly equivalent to money, you use them to buy stuff. Feet is mobility. You use it to move your chief to the various locations to buy stuff. You use it to visit small islands to gain certain benefits and to score points. You also use it for fishing (to be elaborated further down). Fruits is a joker currency. It can be used as clams or feet, but it cannot be used in combination with them.

The central island. There's a tiny fishing bay in the lower right with four fishes chips (not to be confused with fish and chips). The quantity is semi-random and differs from round to round. It's first come first served. The four small islands at the bottom provide special bonuses and victory points. You need to pay feet to get there.

Every round you get some clams and feet, but the amount you get decreases from round to round, which means you probably want to build up your own infrastructure to produce your own clams / feet / fruits. When you buy something, you collect the price tag (which is a turtle shell with a number on it). These turtle shells are important. At the end of every round, if your turtle shell total value meets a certain minimum requirement, you score points. Players with the highest and second highest totals score a quite-decent number of points, while the rest score less. This round-end scoring can be quite significant, and quite a few aspects of the game are linked to it. Naturally, if you have more money to spend, you will be able to buy more stuff and claim more turtle shells. However one complication is most tiles are two-sided, and you can choose to use the upgraded side by paying double. The catch is if you do this, you still only get one turtle shell. So, this is more powerful tiles vs turtle shell scoring. The last action you must do in a round is passing, and when you do that, you select a spot on the turn order track for the next round. The first position gives no turtle shell, but the rest does. The later you are willing to go, the higher valued the turtle shell. So, this is next round turn order vs turtle shell scoring. Then there's fishing. Fishes are treated like turtle shells, but the number of fishes every round is limited. Do you want to grab the tiles you are desperate for, or go for the fishes first before they are taken? Yet another decision to consider.

The top row is the player order for the current round. The middle row is for players to pick turn order for the next round. I (green) have picked to be first player, but that position doesn't award any turtle tile. The other positions do. The rectangular tile at the bottom is very important. The 11 in the big turtle shell is the minimum requirement for this round. If you reach 11, you'll score points. The 9, 6 and 3 underneath means the 1st and 2nd positioned players in turtle shell value will score 9 and 6 points respectively, and anyone else meeting the minimum requirement scores 3 points. The 8 clams and 5 feet icons on the right means that's what you get before the start of the next round.

When building villages, the default and easier way is to build-few-and-build-long. Villages are built in a straight line, and must be long enough to reach a tiki at game end. Villages that aren't long enough are discarded. A village must not have duplicate buildings, so fewer villages means you are a little restricted. However there are ways to go for a build-more-and-build-short approach. You need to buy tikis. As you line up the tikis on your island, you adjust the goal post for your villages, thus allowing shorter villages. If you get enough tikis, you even get extra feet. If you have more villages, you will want to buy kahunas, which score points and also award clams. Few-and-long vs more-and-short is another area to think about.

The game ends after five rounds. Highest scorer wins.

My private island, work-in-progress. My first village has reached the tiki, but the second one still needs further expansion. The spaces along the top are for placing additional purchased tikis, which will lower the length requirement for your villages. The spaces along the left are for placing purchased kahunas, which will score points and clams, but you need to have a village before you can have a kahuna.

The Play

Money (i.e. clams, feet and fruits) is tight. You can't really afford that many items every round, and competition is fierce (maybe especially so because we played a 5-player game). Many locations quickly run out of turtle shells, i.e. shop closed. At game start, on a whim, I decided to go for fruits and the hut that scored points based on fruit variety. Fruits are the joker currency, so it's good to be printing money right? It turned out that this wasn't such a great idea. In our particular game the fruit plantations and the fruit hut were quite far, and thus expensive to travel to. In contrast, Allen picked a hut that score 1pt every time he collected a turtle shell with spears. The location to buy this hut was near the beach and thus it was easy to get to. 1pt per turtle shell with spears didn't sound like much at first, but throughout the whole game it quietly added up. Later Allen got himself a second such hut, which meant even more points.

One area I underestimated was the importance of the round-end turtle shell scoring. I also on a whim decided not to compete in this, because it seemed like a rather brutal competition. Is hindsight, that was not wise, because the points from this area were significant. I bought many upgraded tiles, which did help, but at the cost of not competing in the turtle shell scoring.

The start of every round was painful, because there were always a number of tiles I wanted to buy, and I knew I had to choose one or two types and be prepared to have other players grab the other ones I wanted. Turn order was quite important. Certain combinations of tiles work well together, so I have a feeling that there are some general areas among which you can choose to compete in. If few people compete in an area, life will be easier for them. However this may attract others to come. On the other hand, areas that appear to be quite lucrative and thus are expected to have fierce competition may frighten some away. It's a tricky balance trying to decide which areas to compete in. Some decisions in the game are quite tactical, e.g. denying an opponent a tile he is desperate although getting it is only second priority to you, or quickly grabbing a tile before an opponent can do the same to you. I feel in the long run you still need to have some coherent grand strategy, which require some commitment and consistency in your purchases.

5-player game in progress. Very competitive!

The Thoughts

I didn't really enjoy Hawaii. I don't see any problems in game mechanism or balance. What I don't like is it feels like a very generic point-scoring heavy Eurogame. It feels like a problem-solving exercise in managing the levers in the game as effectively as possible. I feel like I'm learning to master a complex piece of machinery rather than playing a game. Yes, that can be satisfying, but I find that I couldn't put my heart to it. There definitely is player interaction. Competition can actually be quite fierce, despite not being directly confrontational.

Vikings has a similar mechanism as the village-building in Hawaii, and the theme is just as thin, but I like Vikings. I think it's because the rules are simpler and more straight-forward, so I easily accept that it is just an abstract game. Hawaii is more complex and has many more moving parts, and I feel that everywhere I see how the theme is being forced upon the game mechanisms. It rubs me the wrong way. Why do tikis allow villages to be smaller? Why is there a minimal requirement for village size in the first place? Why do some turtle shells have spears that allow another way of scoring? I think I can answer all of these questions from the game mechanism and balance perspective, but from the thematic perspective, I am at a loss.