Thursday 27 December 2012

1955: The War of Espionage

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

This is a 2-player-only card game about the cold war. There are six countries in play, each with a natural tendency towards democracy or communism. One player is the democrat, the other the communist. You compete to influence the countries, and in order to win, you need to influence three countries sufficiently to lock them down in your form of government; or you need to lock your opponent's home country in your form of government.

The gameboard has six tracks of different lengths for the six countries. A country's tendency marker reaching one end of the track means the country is locked down in democracy or communism. Throughout the game, the players play cards to do a tug-of-war on these six tracks, pulling the markers towards their end of the track. Each card specifies a country, a value, and a special ability. When you play a card, you either use the country and value, or you use the special ability. The country of a card doesn't completely restrict you to play the card on that particular country. Any card can be played on your home country (you pick your home country at the start of the game) and on the country where your spy is present. This spy is a pawn that you can move at the end of your turn. She (female spies are more appealing...) gives some flexibility to your card play, and may also let you play two cards instead of one. She is usually used to set up your next turn. However, moving her to a country will alert your opponent about a possible aggressive move there next turn. Maybe you want to send her somewhere else to mislead your opponent.

I lay the board this way, because I think it's easier to visualise the tug-of war. USA, UK and France have a natural tendency towards democracy, and I (democrat player) have picked France (with the shortest track) to be my home country. USSR, Hungary and Poland have a natural tendency towards communism. However it is possible for the democrat player to pick these countries as his home country. I'm not sure it's a good idea, but it is legal.

The pawns are the spies. On the sides of the board are slots for technology cards. Once obtained, these techs give ongoing benefits, e.g. increased hand size.

Normal cards have a colour - blue for democracy and red for communism. When playing a card on a country different from that shown on the card, the card is less effective if the country colour differs from the card. Here I have three UK cards, so it's probably a good idea to make some big moves in UK.

Card special abilities vary greatly. They do things like expelling your opponent's spy and sending her home, or freezing a country's marker temporarily.

You have two actions on your turn, and sometimes you can play more than one card per action. This means it is quite possible to make deep thrusts if you line up your cards well. You always draw back to your full hand size at the end of your turn (as opposed to drawing a fixed number of cards), so you usually want to fully utilise your hand. However sometimes you want to save some cards for one big coherent attack on a later turn.

When a marker reaches the end of a track, it is locked down and cannot be moved anymore. You need to lock three countries at your side to win the game. You get an instant win if you lock down your opponent's home country. This is usually hard to do because your opponent has more flexibility in influencing his home country than other countries. The different track lengths are interesting. When you pick a home country, do you want to pick one with a short track, so that it is easier for you to lock your own country? However it also means taking the risk of your opponent quickly locking your home country.

The Play

I played this with Ben. It was his game, which he bought because he thought this would be like a simplified Twilight Struggle. I taught him to play. There were not many rules, but he found the various situations confusing, e.g. when you can play which cards on which countries, and what the bonuses or penalties are depending on the spy location and card colour. The rules summary I did was quite short, but I realised those few combinations of situations can indeed be quite confusing. Maybe I need to devise a better way to teach the game.

The basic strategy seems to be about optimising your card plays. You have two actions, and you want to maximise the number of steps you move the markers towards your end. To be efficient, you need to use your spy, and manage your hand of cards. On top of this layer, there is the question of which countries to fight for. Sometimes when your opponent is close to locking down a country, you may want to use your cards in a less efficient manner in order to pull that country back towards you. There is some bluffing and double-guessing. Does the movement of the spy indicate the next target? After one big move in one country, does your opponent still have cards to do a follow-up big move? Sometimes you need to decide whether to sacrifice one country in order to focus on another one. Threatening your opponent's home country is always a viable tactic to get him to pay attention.

In my game with Ben, he picked a country with a long track as his home country, which was safer but required more effort for him to lock down. I went the opposite direction, picking a home country with the shortest track, because I wanted to quickly lock it down. In the early game we made big strides in capturing some countries. We didn't try very hard to negate each other's progress. Towards late game, as some countries got locked down, we started having much more back-and-forth on the same tracks. It was a tug-of-war which, in net, never shifted much despite the relentless pulling in one direction and then the other. Ben found that quite annoying, and eventually decided to let me win because he had been teetering on the verge of defeat for quite some time. I guess it was a relief for him.

I have secured Hungary, and am about to secure France, my home country, too.

The mercenary cards on the left are not democrat- or communist-specific. They do not count towards the card limit per action so you can always attach them to any card you play.

The Thoughts

Well, 1955 is definitely not Twilight Struggle The Card Game. There is overlap in theme and backdrop, and in a way Twilight Struggle is actually a tug-of-war. However the execution is very very different. 1955 has a lot of hand management and making combos with your cards, because you want to be as efficient as possible in your card play. However it doesn't really tell a story. It just has a generic spy theme. There is some long term strategy, but a lot depends on what cards you draw, so you have to stay flexible and make the most of your cards. The cards have a big variety of special abilities, so it is interesting to try to make good use of them, and sometimes it is tough to decide how you want to use a card - special ability or country and value.

There is some bluffing and double-guessing. Strategy is mostly short to medium term. You can save some cards for a big move a few turns ahead, but cards come and go quickly. You can never be sure the next cards you draw will be suitable for maintaining the pressure on the same country you have been focusing on. Overall 1955 is just a so-so game for me, because the game seems to boil down to effective card play, and the special abilities feel quite generic.

Saturday 22 December 2012

revisiting the 2010 games eagerness ranking

At the end of 2011, I force-ranked all games I had played which were published in 2010. This is something I now try to do every year. I also revisit the ranking of the previous year, to see whether it has changed, and whether some games need to be added. Here's the updated 2010 games eagerness-to-play ranking, with changes underlined and in italics.

    Keen to play

  1. Innovation - I'm getting comfortable with this game. The expansion Echoes of the Past adds some interesting elements, but I am quite happy with the base game and am in no hurry to expand it. Allen has bought the expansion and we have played a few times.
  2. Merchants & Marauders - The game feels very open, much like the PC game Sid Meier's Pirates. I prefer to play to a higher number of Glory points than the standard game. It gives a fuller experience.
  3. First Train to Nuremberg - I think I am going to break down and buy this. Managing the game components is a little tedious, but I like how the game requires careful planning, and there is a certain story arc to it, where you try to earn fast money and then eventually you need to plan to sell off your rail network to suckers. I have bought a copy now, but have only played this copy once. What's wrong with me...
  4. Axis & Allies Europe 1940 - I actually have not played this game even once, so I'm keen to play it. I've only played Axis & Allies Global 1940, which combines the Europe 1940 and Pacific 1940 games. It feels a bit too long for the enjoyment I get out of it, so I suspect I will like the theatre-specific games being played by themselves. I have now played this, but only against a weak AI. This game was in the top spot last year, so it has fallen a bit, but I'm still keen to play. I am now playing my second Global 1940 game against a human (by PBEM).

    Axis & Allies Europe 1940. I really need to play this.

    First Train to Nuremberg

    Happy to play

  5. 7 Wonders - There is luck. There is set collection. There is no particular innovation. There is a mesh of familiar mechanisms. But somehow this game is a lot of fun. It's an adjustable-depth game - you can think a lot and plan a lot and calculate a lot, but you can also play by gut feel (and still win). Dropped from Keen To Play to Happy To Play.
  6. Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer - Low interest in trying deck-building games. Newly inserted. I have played this many times on iOS and truly enjoyed it. It plays briskly, and is suitable for asynchronous play. There must be some special recipe in this game and not just the slick implementation making me enjoy it so much. Maybe the designers slipped some ganja in.
  7. Earth Reborn - Interesting scenarios and rich story. I have only done half of the learning scenarios, so I don't know the full game yet. It has been so long since my last play that I will need to relearn the rules and start the scenarios from the beginning again.
  8. Inca Empire - Network building, blocking, and playing good and bad event cards that always affect two players.
  9. Alien Frontiers - Complexity level feels like The Settlers of Catan. You develop and colonise. An impressive effort from a new designer and publisher team. Starting to miss this a little.
  10. K2 Newly inserted. This was a pleasant surprise. Very thematic. Mid-weight.
  11. Sid Meier's Civilization: The Board Game - Lots of civ elements, which is fun. But this game is a sprint and not a marathon. In the early game you can explore various paths, but by around mid game you'll need to decide on which victory condition to go for, maybe with one back-up plan if Plan A doesn't work out. You don't really experience the rise-and-fall feeling like in Civilization and Through the Ages. But still, a pretty good game. Dropped slightly, but is still in the same category.
  12. Gosu - I had some interest in this, but it sounds quite confrontational so I doubt my wife will be willing to play. Newly inserted. Played at BGA. Interesting card game with simple base rules, good variety in card special powers and interesting combos.
  13. 51st State - Not much player interaction, but I like how you need to constantly plan for replacing cards already played because the points-generating cards have limited capacity and quickly get used up. Dropped slightly, but still in the same category.
  14. Haggis - Climbing card game (like Big Two) that works with 2 or 3. I have only played with 2. Surprisingly that session was very funny. Learning the tricks and exploring the strategies in the game were fun.
  15. Washington's War - Relatively quick CDG.
  16. Labyrinth: The War on Terror, 2001-? - Long game. Hard decisions. Long-term planning and patience is required to achieve anything significant. The two sides are very asymmetrical. Actions are completely different, it's not just about having different strengths and weaknesses.

    51st State


  17. Forbidden Island - I'm content with Pandemic and don't really need a similar but more family-friendly game. Newly inserted. I still don't feel I need to own a copy because I already have Pandemic, but it is quite well-designed, and the tension does build up. Easier than Pandemic, but not too easy.
  18. Famiglia Newly inserted. Enjoyable and tricky two-player-only card game. There seems to be a flaw where under certain conditions one player can easily strangle his opponent and the opponent can't do anything about it. I read about it but did not manage to prove it in practice before I forgot how it was supposed to work. That's probably a good thing. I can play ignorantly and blissfully the next time I play this game.
  19. Dragonheart Newly inserted. Played at BGA. Simple two-player card game with some bluffing, double-guessing, push-your-luck, and hand management. Good filler.
  20. Merchants of the Middle Ages (I played Die Handler, the earlier version) - Requires negotiation and cooperation. Overall a well-crafted game.
  21. Evolution: The Origin of Species - The formula of focusing on one super specie seems the best strategy. If I'm right about this then the game becomes rather one-dimensional strategy-wise. This is a light card game, the fun being in creating species with interesting combinations of abilities, the ongoing struggle between hunter and prey, and the game of survival when food is scarce. Dropped a category. I still have the nagging feeling that the quality over quantity approach, a.k.a. super specie is the single best strategy.
  22. Dominant Species - The big hit which was not as big a hit for me personally. The game is interesting, there are big moves to be made and devastating disasters to try to survive through. The area majority mechanism is not quite my thing.
  23. Zombie State: Diplomacy of the Dead - More an experience game than a strategy game, but it's fun to try to survive a zombie apocalypse and to direct your nation at a strategic level. Dropped a category. I suspect the novelty will have worn off the next time I play.
  24. Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York - Good implementation of managing loyalties and betrayals. There's double guessing but I didn't mind it too much here. Deciding whether to be defensive (cheap, but you may be wasting your money) or offensive (expensive, and it's hard for your victim to protect everything, but if you fail, you will waste a lot of money) is interesting. You need to pick where to fight and where to concede. But there's area majority too.
  25. Nuns on the Run - Fun and exciting to play a novice. I have not played the nun side yet.
  26. Navegador - The key seems to be to focus on areas with least competition. Admittedly I have only played two games and there is much space for improvement for my tactics and strategies. I get a feeling I've seen most of what's there to be seen, and the urge to dig deeper is low. This has risen a little. I think the game is well balanced, and player interaction is high. You need to watch what your opponents are doing.
  27. Commands & Colors: Napoleonics - I never was a big fan of the Commands & Colors series (Memoir '44, Battlelore, Commands & Colors: Ancients). Don't quite like the cards restricting flank thing.
  28. Catacombs - I enjoy it for the novelty.
  29. London - Quirky card game that I couldn't quite grasp. I guess I can't really conclude until I try again and understand it better.
  30. Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft Board Game - Easy to learn cooperative dungeon crawl game without the need for a dungeon master. I'm not a particular fan of the fantasy / role-playing genre, so the theme dosen't do much for me.
  31. The Great Fire of London 1666 - Interesting enough theme, and mechanisms do match the theme, but the mechanisms aren't very interesting to me.
  32. Troyes - Feels familiar, a little "been there, done that". And this is despite the not-seen-before dice mechanism.

    Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York . Hmm... who among my opponents' followers should I bribe? Which city should I attack?

    Rather not play

  33. 20th Century - I like the positive message of reducing garbage and pollution. I feel like I've seen most of what's there to be seen.
  34. Horus Heresy - I feel quite restricted in what I can do and how much I can move my troops or get them to fight. The game tells a great story though.
  35. Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game - Not knowing your mission until you reach the last room rubs me the wrong way. Feels like I'm just trying to passively survive and last until the last room, as opposed to going in with an objective and a plan. Dropped a category.
  36. Tikal II: The Lost Temple - Feels like too many paths to victory that don't quite mesh together thematically. Game is very attractive and production quality is superb.
  37. Grimoire - I didn't like the double-guessing.
  38. Irondale - I didn't find this construct-buildings-in-a-grid card game interesting.
  39. Resident Evil Deck Building Game - It didn't feel very different from Dominion, so my interest is low.
  40. Leaping Lemmings - Rules and gameplay require more effort than the light theme suggests.
  41. The Speicherstadt - One nifty mechanism wrapped around an uninteresting game.


These are not ranked. Just a simple list of what I've played among expansions released in 2010.

  1. Dominion: Prosperity - Played on the computer. I like this expansion which expands the strategic possibilities.
  2. Dominion: Alchemy - Also played on the computer. This is just OK. Going for cards requiring potions feels like a "Do or Do Not" thing (Yoda), so going down that path feels like taking a different route, as opposed to the base strategies being expanded.
  3. Race for the Galaxy: The Brink of War - I'm a big fan of Race for the Galaxy. I enjoy the additional scope, but the deck is getting rather unwieldy.
  4. Power Grid: Russia & Japan - More variety for Power Grid.
  5. Agricola: Gamers' Deck - I like that the cards are not crazy and are not just a novelty. They feel like they are well thought out and well balanced. Subtle.
  6. Hansa Teutonica: East Expansion - I think I have only played it once, Allen's copy. I don't feel I have played the base game enough, so I have not decided to buy the expansion. I find that I feel this way about many expansions. I have not played the base game enough, so even if I like the base game a lot, I feel no urgency to buy the expansion. E.g. Innovation and Echoes of the Past, 51st State and The New Era. Well, The New Era is technically a standalone game, a kind of 51st State v2.0, but I'm enjoying v1.0 well enough and don't love it that much to want to spend money to replace it with v2.0.

Race for the Galaxy: The Brink of War. We call the 1 Prestige "cherry" and the 5 Prestige "flower".

Not Played

When I browsed to do this section, I was quite shocked that there were so many games published in 2010. This list is by no means complete. It's just some of the better known games that I have heard of.

  1. Runewars
  2. Dixit 2 - I have played Dixit. It's fun and lets you be creative.
  3. Cosmic Encounter: Cosmic Incursion
  4. Battlestar Galactica: Exodus Expansion
  5. Fresco
  6. Defenders of the Realm - Low interest. Some say it's Pandemic with a fantasy setting.
  7. Vinhos
  8. Age of Industry - I'm content with Brass.
  9. Glen More - Some interest to try.
  10. Battles of Westeros
  11. Luna - Low interest, because most Stefan Feld games don't click with me.
  12. Mr. Jack Pocket
  13. Julius Caesar
  14. Lords of Vegas
  15. Founding Fathers
  16. Puzzle Strike
  17. Merkator - Uwe Rosenberg game, but it seems to be doing poorly compared to Agricola and Le Havre.
  18. Rattus
  19. De Vulgari Eloquentia - Allen has it and I have read the rules. Still in the (long) queue to be played. Gosh we STILL have not played this!
  20. Conflict of Heroes: Price of Honour - Poland 1939 - Sometimes I am tempted to try war games, but I never work up the courage.
  21. High Frontier
  22. Asara - I like many Wolfgang Kramer designs. In recent years my gaming tastes have shifted to heavier games, so his new releases don't interest me as much as before, but I still like many of his classics, especially The Princes of Florence.
  23. Onirim
  24. Samarkand: Routes to Riches - If this is similar to Chicago Express, low interest.
  25. Settlers of America: Trails to Rails
  26. Invasion from Outer Space: The Martian Game
  27. Key Market
  28. Constantinopolis
  29. Poseidon - I enjoy the complexity of 18XX games, so if this is 18XX simplified, low interest.
  30. The Rivals for Catan - I have the older Catan card game, which I have not played for a very long time.
  31. Magnum Sal
  32. Hanabi & Ikebana
  33. Grand Cru
  34. Norenberc
  35. Isla Dorada - I think Bruno Faidutti is a wonderful guy - good presence on the internet, friendly and responsive; but somehow his games don't click with me. But I like Castle, which is much less famous than Citadels.
  36. Olympus
  37. Mystery Express
  38. Dust Tactics
  39. Mousquetaires du Roy
  40. The Mines of Zavandor
  41. Antics! - Limited print run, so this is hard to buy. It sounds interesting.
  42. Wok Star - Interested to try this real-time cooperative game.
  43. Sun, Sea & Sand
  44. Keltis: Das Orakel - They say it's the most strategic of the Keltis family, but I don't play the others enough to justify getting this.
  45. Black Friday
  46. Mord im Arosa - You need to listen to cubes falling and guess where they land. Interested to at least try.
  47. Junta: Viva el Presidente! - Interested to try. You get to negotiate, beg, bluff, threaten and lie.
  48. 1880: China - I only recently dipped my toes into 18XX games, but this one sounds daunting. Not so soon I think.
  49. Prêt-à-Porter - The English version is published this year and it seems to be doing well. Interested to try.
  50. The Hobbit - Reiner Knizia cooperative game. Similar to Wolfgang Kramer games, nowadays I tend to be less interested in Reiner Knizia's new games, despite still enjoying many of his older games.
  51. Show Business - I followed this game a little because it has rock stars.

Thursday 20 December 2012


Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

One word to describe the game - pleasant. The background story is that the Chinese emperor has given the Japanese emperor a giant panda as a token of goodwill, and the Japanese emperor now has to keep it in the royal garden. The imperial gardener who is in charge of the garden is now engaged in a constant struggle with the panda, which keeps eating the bamboo in the garden. During the game, players place tiles onto the table to expand the garden, move the gardener and the panda, grow bamboo, and (have the panda) eat bamboo. All these activities are done to help you complete secret objective cards. The board situation keeps changing, and players manipulate it to score their cards. Sometimes by watching the objective card types (of which there are three) and the actions taken by your opponents, you can guess what they are trying to achieve and you can try to hinder them. Sometimes you will inadvertently create favourable situations for your opponents. When one player completes a target number of objective cards, the game enters the last round. Players then total their scores to determine who wins. Objective cards have different values depending on the difficulty of completing them, so the player who triggers game end may not necessarily win.

The game is beautiful.

The objective cards. The one in the middle means you need to have a pink bamboo of height 4 on a tile with gardening tools. The victory point worth is 5. The one on the right means you need to get the panda to eat one bamboo section in each of the three bamboo colours. VP worth is 6.

On your turn you roll a die to determine a special ability which you will enjoy during your turn, and then you get to pick two different actions out of five options, e.g. moving the panda in a straight line, drawing a new objective card, and adding irrigation. The panda eats bamboos, and the gardener grows bamboos, so the board situation is constantly changing.

The player reference board. The first row of boxes are the 6 possible die roll results, each giving a different benefit. The second row are the five possible actions, from which you can pick two. The panda silhouette at the bottom left is where you place bamboos eaten by the panda on your turn. These eaten bamboos are used to complete objective cards. The spaces next to the panda silhouette are for temporary storing irrigation canals and special markers.

The Play

Wai Yan taught Allen and I this game. We missed some rules, but the general flow was correct. The game board is fully open information, but the players' objective cards are secret information. However the card backs of the three types of objective cards are different, so you have some idea about the focus of your opponents. Landscape objective cards require landscape tiles of specific colours to be arranged in a specific way. Gardener objective cards usually involve growing bamboos to specific heights on specific landscape types. Panda objective cards require you to have moved the panda to eat a certain mix of bamboos types. You start the game with one objective card of each type, and during the game one of the actions you can take is to draw new objective cards. This is how you decide which area to focus on.

In the early game, there are few landscape tiles.

Wai Yan was quite unlucky in our game, because the moves Allen and I made kept undoing what she was trying to achieve. It is probably a valid strategy to pay attention to when your opponents wince and what you are doing at the time, and do more of whatever it is you are doing. Allen completed his objective cards at an amazing speed. The game moved briskly. We were able to plan ahead, but sometimes what an opponent did could force a replanning, either because an opportunity was lost, or a new one presented itself. Some objectives required dedication and needed to be worked upon over a multiple rounds. This was one way to try to guess what your opponent was trying to do. The game ended by Allen completing his 7th objective. When we added up our points, we were on 31, 31, 30pts! Allen won by tiebreaker. Wai Yan who had an unlucky start overtook me to claim second place.

The Thoughts

Takenoko is a light strategy game and I would say it is very suitable as a family game. There is definitely some luck in the game - what objective cards you draw, what landscape tile you draw, how others' actions inadvertently help or hinder you. You just try to make the most of the situation. There are ways to read your opponents and to try to mess with their plans. Your objective cards more or less determine your strategy, but you can always decide to forgo some objective cards and draw others. The shifting situation on the board is a source of cheers and groans. Sometimes you get lucky and others complete your objectives for you. Sometimes your objectives clash with everyone else, and your efforts keep getting undone. But it's all in good fun. When there is such a cute panda in the game, it's impossible to take it too seriously.

The panda.

The hard-working gardener.

Tuesday 11 December 2012

boardgame information overload

There is so much boardgame-related information on the internet that it is impossible to keep up. I use Google Reader to subscribe to RSS feeds of blogs and websites I follow. I visit (BGG) regularly. These are the my only two regular channels for reading up the latest on boardgames. Yet I still need to apply my own filtering when I read news articles and blog posts. Here are my filtering rules. They reflect my personal preference and I would not recommend anyone to apply them wholesale.


Google Reader

  1. Kickstarter - I usually skip all articles related to Kickstarter projects, because many such projects are amateur projects. I do miss out good games because of this. Thankfully sometimes I do get to play some good Kickstarted games because of the gamers I play with.
  2. Designer diaries - Skip by default. Sometimes I read designer diaries for games that I have already played and thus am interested in the stories behind them.
  3. Session reports - I usually don't read these, but sometimes I read session reports of games that I do not know or do not even intend to play, because they make good stories, e.g. those on World War II related games by Seth Owen and Paul Owen (hmm... are they related?).
  4. Very detailed game-specific discussions - I skip those for games I'm unfamiliar with because I am unable to follow. E.g. strategy discussions and amazingly good or bad or interesting hands in Bridge.
  5. Podcasts - Skip, because I don't like the show dictating the pace. Listening is passive. Reading is active and lets me skip paragraphs.
  6. Videos - Skip. Same reason as podcasts. However occasionally I do watch a video describing a game that I am specifically interested in, just to see how it works.
  7. Detailed regurgitation of the rules - Skip. If a game interests me enough, I'll read the rules.
  8. Long articles - I either read the first few paragraphs to get an idea of whether the rest of the article will interest me, or I peek at the closing paragraph(s) to decide whether I want to learn more.
  9. Articles on games I've already played - More such articles catch my interest than articles about games I have not played, because I'm interested to hear what others think about these games, especially those who have opposite opinions. Session reports can also be more interesting because I understand the intricacies in the game.
  10. Well-known designers - I'm always interested to learn what the established designers are doing - Martin Wallace, Uwe Rosenberg, Reiner Knizia, Vlaada Chvatil, Wolfgang Kramer, etc.
  11. Articles which are not boardgame-related but are gaming-related, and nerd culture - I skip articles on console games because I have no game console. I read some articles on iOS games because I have an iPhone. I skip articles on comics, because I rarely read English comics (currently I only follow The Walking Dead). I read some articles on movies.
  12. Very personal stories on BGG - A mix. I am not one to share a marriage proposal, the birth of a child or the death of a close friend on a BGG geeklist. I don't disparage those who do, just that I personally don't feel comfortable doing so, and I usually don't read such geeklists by others. I do often read funny anecdotes related to boardgaming.

After I have decided to not skip an article, I also apply a method when reading it. I often like to jump to the conclusion section to look at the closing paragraph, or any pros and cons summary, or the rating, or the Enthusiastic / Suggest / Neutral / Not For Me / Avoid classification. If a game gets a lousy review, or if it is not a type that I am interested in, then I will probably skip the article afterall. I structure my blog posts the way they are because of my reading method. My three sections more-or-less correspond to the game rules overview, the session report and the conclusion. I want to allow my readers to pick what they want to read. I have even thought about writing the conclusions first, and then write the other two sections. I couldn't adapt to that flow of writing, so it didn't work out.

I like photos of boardgames, and descriptions of what is going on in them. Not so interested in photos of people playing boardgames, unless I know them, or the photo tells a story. No overly artsy photos please. They are good as desktop wallpapers. I prefer a photo of a boardgame to tell me how the game works and what the game is like in action.

How do you read my blog posts? Do you like their structure? Does it feel cold, like a shopping list? Any suggestions or feedback?

Sunday 9 December 2012


Plays: 8Px1.

The Game

VivaJava is a Kickstarter game about a coffee pop chart. Players brew coffee and compete to get their brews ranked in the top 5 chart, in order to earn victory points. Every round the brews on the chart deteriorate (a mechanism representing brews going out of fashion, I assume), so no matter how great a brew is, it will eventually fall off the chart, making way for newer (possibly inferior) brews.

The game board has three regions, and each region has three locations seeded with one random coffee bean at the start of every round. There are six types of coffee beans in total, each a different grade. Players take turns to claim a location and the coffee bean there, and also take the location-specific benefit or penalty, which is randomly determined at game setup. Players in the same region become one team. They need to decide to make a coffee brew together, or research. Doing research means everyone getting some research points to spend on advancing on his individual tech chart. Techs grant special abilities, all of which are helpful (e.g. collecting extra beans, setting aside unwanted beans when brewing coffee), and also give victory points at game end. Brewing coffee is the process of group members trying to make the best coffee brew. When you claim coffee beans, you put them into a bag. You can check the content at any time, but when you brew coffee, you draw a random bean (so beans) from your bag. The group decides the order of members drawing beans from their bags. Each member must draw at least one bean. After every draw, the group can decide whether to stop and let the next player start drawing beans. Eventually 5 beans must be drawn to complete the brew, and the quality of the brew is determined in a poker-like manner. E.g. five-of-a-kind is Extra Bold and is the strongest combo, while two-of-a-kind is Decaf and is the weakest combo. The full house (AAABB) is Americano and is the third strongest combo. When there are ties, they are broken based on the coffee bean grades.

The board on the right is the main board, showing three regions with three locations each. At the start of the game a benefit / penalty disc is placed on every location, and stays there for the whole game. This creates a different board every time you play. The board on the left is the score board. It has a reference chart for the various brew types and how they compare. There is also a player order track right at the edge. The large tiles on the left of the score board are the coffee brews currently on the top 5 chart.

The small wooden beads are coffee beans. Black is the highest grade, while white is the lowest.

This is the tech board, with five tech tracks that you can pursue. Every time a marker enters a new box, you gain a new tech. Some techs are costlier than others, having more steps per box.

New brews are compared against existing brews on the top 5 chart, and the top 5 chart is reorganised. Some brews may drop off the chart. Some may never make it. Scoring is done - you gain points for all brews that you have participated in making, and then all brews deteriorate - one bean is removed. Before the next round starts, turn order is rearranged in reverse order of player score, i.e. leading players are disadvantaged. For players who have done research in the current round, they have an option to exchange VP's for tech points. This is a good way to not only gain handy special abilities but also to manipulate the turn order for the next round.

That's basically how the game works. It is a constant battle at the coffee top 5 chart, trying to time your brews and hoping they will last long and give you plenty of points. There is a balancing act in gaining techs, because although they give useful abilities, you still need to make enough brews to earn VP's.

The game ends after one player reaches 21VP. Scores are totaled, including bonuses from techs, and the highest scorer wins.

The Play

I did a 8-player game, which is the max number of players, and probably the best number too. The game appears to have cooperation, but the team forming mechanism can be used as a very nasty tool to screw your fellow players. Let's say the bean types you collect are very different from the team that you are joining. In such a situation, if the team tries to brew, it is likely you won't make any good brew. Another angle is you can be forcing your fellow team members to contribute more to the brew, because your bean types likely won't help much. If the team does well, you have only contributed one bean (the minimum participation). If the team doesn't do well, you only waste one bean. Of course there are times that the team is in it together, everyone eagerly hoping to jointly create a great brew. These can be exciting moments. Every bean draw from the bag is a moment of tension - great hope, great exultations and great disappointments. There is luck in the brewing. You have some control over the probabilities, in how you collect beans and how you team up with others, but sometimes an unlucky draw can completely ruin your plan. Some people may not be comfortable with this. I find it exciting and don't mind the luck.

I focused on the black and white beans only, so that I could play mini Go.

This is Michael Jackson! In Malaysia there is a drink nicknamed Michael Jackson. It's soya milk with "cincau" / "leong fun" (something like black jelly).

The location-specific benefits and penalties combined with which bean type gets placed where often create interesting decisions. Sometimes you are forced to make difficult choices because the bean type you want is at a bad location. Also you need to take into account who you will team up with when you pick a location.

In our game we found one particular tech track quite powerful - the investor tech track. When you reach particular levels of this tech track, you gain investor tokens which let you become a non-contributing participant in a brew of another team. If that brew turns out well, you will earn VP's without having contributed any bean. In our game there were many boos of "Leech!" and "Parasite!". Ken who won the game did have an investment that turned out well. Allen made two investments I think, and I remember both did well, but he came in 5th place.

Some phases of the game can be done in parallel. Once the teams are decided, each team can more or less do their own thing. There were many discussions across the table, and eventually we just stood up and walked about to assemble in small groups to discuss and brew. It was quite a lively game, with discussions, negotiations, cheers and also polite swearing.

Here every brew has two to three player markers to indicate the participants who have contributed to making the brew. The leftmost brew, which is the top brew, has an extra marker which is the investor, a.k.a. leech, a.k.a. parasite.

Scoring needs to be done in an orderly manner, because scores and how the scoring discs stack determine turn order for the next round.

The Thoughts

I find VivaJava quite unique. The things you need to do are simple, and the game feels like a light-to-medium weight game, but there are quite a number of things that you need to consider when you make a move - which coffee bean type to collect, which team to join, which benefit to claim or penalty to accept. The techs in the game also allow you to customise your strategy. There is some luck in drawing coffee beans from bags, so it's not a game you want to take too seriously. I like the excitement in this aspect. There is still much you can do to improve your chances of brewing good coffee. You need to watch what beans others are collecting, and also consider the techs they have, when you decide who to team up with.

Timing is quite important. The decisions to brew or to research are revealed simultaneously, so you need to guess whether other teams are going to brew, i.e. compete at the top 5 chart. Ideally you want to have your brews stay on the top 5 chart for as long as possible, giving you VP's every round that they remain there. If you can make a good brew, you hope other teams have made good ones too but just a little weaker than yours, so that your brew denies them a better position. If you make a mediocre brew, you hope other teams are not making brews this round, so that your brew has a chance to reach a decent position on the top 5 chart.

I suspect the game needs a higher player count, maybe at least five, to be interesting. With more players, turn order becomes more important because if you are late in turn order, you have very few locations to pick from. Also with more players, you are forced to join teams and it becomes more important to watch what coffee bean mix and what techs other players have. I felt constantly engaged during the game I played, always asking others what they had in their bags (they could lie, which could be a valid strategy, but we weren't at that skill level yet), discussing who to team up with, whether to brew or to research, which type of brew to go for etc.

One thing I am very impressed with is the quality of the components.

Friday 7 December 2012


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

CO2 is a game about world pollution. It is played in decades, with each decade having a number of rounds depending on player count. Every game starts in the 1970's, when the pollution level is still low but is growing. The world is divided into six regions, and every decade there will be an increase in energy demand in most regions. If not enough clean power plants have been built by players in the regions to meet the energy demand, the regions will build dirty (i.e. polluting / fossil fuel) power plants. Every dirty plant has a CO2 emission value, and such values of every plant on the board add up to become the world total pollution level. If this level reaches 500ppm (parts per million), pollution gets out of control and everyone loses. The players are clean energy companies working to contain and eventually to reduce world pollution, and while doing so they try to earn victory points (from various sources) to win the game.

The basic things that you can do on your turn are simple. You only have three main options - to propose a new project, to install a project which has been proposed, and to complete the construction of a clean power plant based on an already-installed project. What's tricky is when you propose a project, it is not "yours". Another player can take this proposal and install a project, and yet another player can take this installed project and build an actual clean power plant. When you propose a project and when you install a project, you generally gain some benefit. When you build a clean plant, you need to spend money and technical resources, but you gain victory points, and you get to compete for control of the region where the plant is built.

The gameboard has quite a different style from your average Eurogame. The centre stack is the CEP pool in the CEP market. The numbers surrounding that are the CEP price track. Beyond that are the regional agendas (tall and thin) and the world summits (fat and wide). Regional agendas pair with the regions and dictate which clean energy power plant types are allowed in the regions. World summits are meetings that scientists attend to gain expertise.

Next are the regions themselves. The upper row of three spaces in a region are the slots for proposals and projects. The lower row of between three and six spaces are the spaces for power plants, which also indicate how much energy demand will grow throughout the game. Asia is the most energy hungry, with 6 slots, while Africa is the least energy hungry, with only 3 slots. Each region also has a stack of CEP's. Half of the big circle of spaces is the score track, and the other half is the pollution track.

The three stages of building a clean power plant. The top row is the proposal form, the middle row is the project form (which is actually the back side of the tiles in the top row). The benefits of installing a project are shown on the tiles, and they differ depending on the project type. The bottom row is the power plants. On each power plant you can see the VP worth (number in circle), the cost in dollars, and the cost in technical resources, which is also the required expertise level. From left to right, the clean energy technologies are recycling, biomass, cold fusion, solar and forestation.

You have a few types of resources to manage - cash, technical resources, scientists, and CEP's (carbon emission permits). You need cash, technical resources and expertise to build clean plants. You need employed scientists (either working on proposals or projects, or attending world summits) to help you gain expertise in the various clean energy sources. You need CEP's to install projects. Every player and every region starts the game with some CEP's. Regions spend them when building dirty plants. There is a CEP market where you can buy or sell CEP's. You can use it to make money, to manipulate the price, and to buy a CEP when you need one.

A close-up of the CEP market (centre), the regional agendas and the world summits. A green scientist is on the Paris summit now, covering one of the icons. Only when the other icon is claimed by another scientist will this summit conclude. Players who have participated gain one expertise in the field of their scientists, plus one more expertise for any technology covered in the summit.

There are many ways to earn victory points (VPs), e.g. building clean plants, having more expertise than others in the various clean energy fields, being rich (at game end, CEP's in hand and in regions you control are all converted to money) and completing scoring cards. Some scoring is done during the game, but a big chunk is done at game end so players need to prepare for that.

A few types of cards come into play during the game, which give each game a slightly different storyline and setting, and also give players different advantages and objectives. The event cards penalise players for not building clean plants in specific regions, but only take effect if world pollution exceeds 350ppm. In the early game they are probably harmless, but players need to estimate when pollution will hit 350ppm and whether they want to work towards avoiding the penalty or spend their efforts somewhere else and accept the penalty. UN goal cards are public information and reward the first players to build specific combinations of clean plant types. This is something for players to race for, and also encourages players to diversify. The company goal cards give secret goals to players and awards VP's depending on how well the players fulfill the requirements. Lobby cards are single-use special abilities which steer players because players usually want to capitalise on them. I find that the company goal cards and the lobby cards create much character. Without them the game would feel a little too symmetrical, balanced and bland.

The company goal card (leftmost) and the lobby cards. The company goal card means I earn 4VP for every continent I control, or I can sacrifice the card for $8. The rightmost lobby card means if I propose a project in South America, I also earn $3. Alternatively I can discard the card for one technology resource.

The Play

I did a 5-player game, and all of us were new to the game. We were lucky with the initial dirty plant draw - world pollution was low initially. However the pressure accelerated and we almost hit 500ppm, which would have made everyone lose. Although there were only three basic options to choose from, the game had quite many moving parts and little rules, and it took some time to digest and internalise them. Needing three steps to build a clean plant is interesting. You don't own any proposal or project so you can't guarantee you will get to build a plant you want, unless no one else has enough money / tech resource / expertise. You also need to be careful not to set your opponents up for a big move. There is a certain interdependency between players because despite the competition, ultimately everyone wants to get clean plants built efficiently to fight pollution. There is a nervous balance between collaboration and competition. Slots for proposals are limited, and they have different benefits, so players need to compete for them. The players also need to compete to install projects, where different project types give different benefits too. Deciding which of the six regions to work on is important too, because of the events and also because you want to compete to control regions. There is also competition at the five expertise tracks, because only the most advanced players on each track get a cash and/or VP payout. There is plenty to compete for.

I mostly worked on diversifying my plant types, because I wanted to focus on claiming UN goal cards, which rewarded diversity. I picked this strategy partly because I misunderstood my secret company goal card. I thought it rewarded me for each UN goal card I claimed, but it actually meant something else completely. Lesson learnt: don't overestimate your ability in interpreting icons. Diversifying plant types was challenging because it meant I needed to gain expertise in multiple fields. However the benefit was being one of the leaders in each field granted money and VP's.

Jeff and Sinbad clearly worked on controlling regions, which turned out to be very important because of the CEP's they gained from the regions at game end. We played one aspect of the game incorrectly which distorted it somewhat. Whenever a CEP is gained by any player or region, it is to be taken from the CEP market and not from the stock. This means the CEP price will go up more easily than what we experienced in our game. In our game, the price did not fluctuate much for most of the game, until we discovered our mistake. So no one really played around with the CEP market much. If we had played correctly, I imagine the CEP market would have been a lucrative source of income if you have surplus CEP's to sell. Heng had warned me about the confusing CEP market rules, but I said it didn't seem too complex. In the end I did miss an important rule afterall. Oops.

In this region, there are two proposals now (upper row), and one of the proposals has a scientist working on it. A scientist working on a proposal can earn expertise for his owner. This continent has two dirty plants (petroleum and gas, which have no player marker) and one clean plant (biomass, owned by the black player). The continent is currently controlled by the black player because he is the only one with a plant here.

The lower part of this photo shows the five expertise tracks. Every decade the players on the highest and second highest positions on each track earn any combination of money and VP's. Some spots on the tracks have special icons which are additional rewards.

Our game ended early, without going into the 6th decade, because the world pollution level increased beyond 350ppm, and then later fell back below 350ppm. This is one of the conditions that triggers game end. When we did the end-game scoring, we found that the CEP's made a lot of money, which was converted at the rate of $2 per 1VP. The CEP price was at it's highest ($8). Those who controlled regions with many unused CEP's earned many VP's. In hindsight, players with fewer CEP's should probably have sold them to force the CEP price down. Unfortunately in this game we didn't really get to experience manipulating the CEP market.

Our game end score ranged from 77 to 99.

A glaring mistake here. Asia's regional agenda tile (the long and thin one) doesn't have a biomass icon (yellow wheat-like icon). So that biomass plant here (mine) is illegal. I swear it wasn't me who proposed such a plant. I was just the innocent guy who came along to build a plant based on an already-existing project. Someone else had bribed the local officials to accept a non-compliant proposal.

The Thoughts

CO2 is an intricate game with closely interwoven mechanisms. There is much to remember, and it will take some time to digest. However everything makes sense and feels logical, so the game feels thematic and not like a jumble of subsystems. From one play, I don't know yet whether I like it or not. I'm still learning the game. The game has some cooperative elements, but it is in no way a cooperative game. Sometimes you do make moves that benefit others, but usually it is because you gain something too. It is technically possible for a trailing player (or two) to throw the game and make everyone lose. It is a debatable point whether this is a flaw. If you play in the spirit of the game, no one should try to destroy the world. It may not be easy either, because other players may just be forced to collaborate more closely to save the world. My view is I wouldn't want to play with such a sore loser. The threat of the world being destroyed by pollution is meant to inject brinkmanship and negotiation. How competitive can you afford to be without causing the end of the world? How do you coerce your fellow players to play the various roles in the struggle to control pollution?

Despite the many small rules in the game, I admire the fact that on your turn you only have one core action and you pick from only three options - propose a project, install a project or build a plant. Almost everything else flows from these three basic options. There are many aspects in the game where you need to compete with your opponents. You need to plan ahead which areas of expertise to specialise in and which regions to compete in, and you also need to make the most of your lobby cards and company goal card.

Monday 3 December 2012

Escape: The Curse of the Temple

Plays: 4Px1 practice game.

Escape: The Curse of the Temple was very popular at the recent Essen game fair in October. I saw it available at Meeples Cafe when I brought the children there for a family boardgame outing, and gave it a try.

The Game

Escape is a real-time, cooperative game that is played in about 10 minutes. Players explore a buried temple, collect gems, find the exit, and try to all escape within the time limit. The game comes with a soundtrack which acts as the timer. Depending on the number of players, a number of gems are placed on a gem tile. You need to remove enough gems from this tile in order to be able to escape. The game board is modular and is made of temple tiles. It starts with just a few tiles, and as players explore the temple, tiles are drawn from a draw deck and added to the board. The temple exit is among the last few tiles of the draw deck.

Every player gets five dice, and once the timer starts, everyone keeps rolling dice to perform actions. There are no turns. The dice have six sides - 2 x run, 1 x torch, 1 x key, 1 x curse, 1 x blessing. You roll your dice, and then you may use the results to do various things. Dice that have been used can then be rolled again to be used again. If you don't like what you get, you can reroll unused dice too. There is a lot of frantic dice-rolling. The only exception is the curse. The curse does nothing but locks that particular die. You will be one die short. However, if you roll a blessing, you can use a blessing to unlock two cursed dice. You can also ask a fellow player to unlock your cursed dice for you. The other die results are used to discover new rooms, to move, to collect gems and to exit the temple. The cost to discover a new room is shown on the back of the temple tiles. The costs to move into a room is shown on the front of the temple tiles already on the board. Some tiles let you collect gems. How this works is you need to get a certain number of a specific result to move a specific number of gems from the gem tile to the temple tile. In this aspect, it is often beneficial for players to work together, because to move the highest number of gems to a temple tile, you will need at least the dice of two players (e.g.10 keys). Once you discover the exit, and have reduced the number of gems on the gem tile significantly, you can attempt to exit the temple. The number of keys you need to roll depends on the number of gems remaining on the gem tile. So it can sometimes be tricky to decide whether to remove more gems to make the final exit easier, or to hurry to the exit without spending more time on removing gems and hope to get lucky with the die rolls.

In the foreground you can see the five possible die results - run, torch, blessing, curse, key.

The grey room with a large golden disc is the start tile. The two icons on it are the movement cost to move onto it. The tile just above the start tile is one where you can move gems to. You need 4 keys to move 1 gem, 7 keys to move 2, and 10 keys to move 3.

One more challenge that the game throws at you is after every few minutes, the soundtrack will ask you to return to the start tile. This makes it risky to explore too far from the start tile in case you can't get back in time for one of these mid-game checkpoints.

You win the game if every player exits the temple before time runs out.

The Play

I played this game with the whole family, i.e. man, wife and two children (7 and 5). We didn't play a proper game, considering the age of the kids. No timer, and no mid-game checkpoints. So this was basically just a practice game. I'm quite sure if we had used the timer we would all have been buried alive in the temple.

The game is simple and fast-paced. Michelle and I had no time to guide the children, so we let them fend for themselves. We weren't even able to instruct them to collaborate with us in removing gems. We were not very efficient in removing gems because at most it was just Michelle and I working together in removing gems. Chen Rui (5) was very enthusiastic about rolling blessings. She kept rolling for them and asking around for anyone who needed to remove cursed dice. Shee Yun (7) went off in a different direction and explored a different part of the temple. Eventually we all made it out of the temple, of course, since we did not have any time limit. The children enjoyed it.

Aarrgghh!... Three dice have been cursed!

The exit is a grey tile too. By now three players have exited the temple.

The Thoughts

There aren't that many real-time, cooperative games. I own Space Alert, which is very much a gamer's game. Escape is a family game. Suitable for casual gamers. Hardcore gamers will probably not be able to maintain interest for long. There is some strategy, but nothing very deep. The game is mostly about quick, simple, cooperative and frantic fun. This is certainly a game that can work in the mass market (and this is not meant to be a derogatory term).