Saturday 30 March 2013


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Asara is designed by the famous designer team Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling (Tikal, Torres, Java, Cavum). It's a medium-weight Eurogame about building towers. The game is played over four stages. At the start of each stage players receive money and cards, and they use these to buy construction parts to build mighty towers. The board has many districts, most of which have tower parts available for sale. Some offer other things like more money, more cards, and the start player privilege. To use a district, you need to play a card onto a vacant spot in it. The first player to use a district can play a card of any colour, and subsequently anyone wishing to use that district must play a card of that colour, or play two cards (two cards played together is treated as a wild card, but it is costly to need to spend two cards for one action). Towers come in five different colours, ranging from brown (cheapest) to white (most expensive). Tower parts of the same colour cost the same.

The board has many districts, and they have between one to seven slot for cards. Most have three or four.

The most important district is the one for building towers. When you buy tower parts, they go behind your personal screen. You need to use the construction district to actually build towers. A tower must have at least one base part and one turret part. It can have any number of body parts. Hmm... that doesn't sound right. Let me check... ah, it's called trunk parts. When taking the construction action, you can extend existing towers by adding trunk parts to it. You can also upgrade towers by replacing plain trunk parts with fancy trunk parts with golden ornaments.

The central district is the construction district, the most important one of all. When two cards are played face-down, they are treated as a wild card played.

At the end of each of the four stages, you score points for each tower and each golden ornament on your towers. At game end, there is a contest for each of the five tower colours. The highest and second highest in each category score points. There is also a contest for the overall highest (and second highest) tower, and a contest for players with the most towers. The game end scoring is significant, and players must work towards that throughout the game. If I remember correctly, in our game more than half of the final scores came from the game end scoring.

My towers. At the end of a stage, these would earn 8pts. 4pts for the four towers, and 4pts for the four golden ornaments, two each on the white and red towers.

The player screen. You keep your purchased-but-unbuilt tower parts, money and cards behind the screen. The insides of the screen contain reference information. The left panel tells you that at the end of every phase, you earn 1pt for the start player marker, every tower, and every golden ornament. The centre panel tells you how you score the end game. The highest and second highest towers in each colour score points. The overall highest and second highest towers score points too. The player with the most towers also score points. The right panel shows the tower part cost for each colour.

The only piece of information that a card is used to represent is the colour.

The Play

We did a 4-player game. That's the max number of players, and probably also the ideal number. Although some have commented that Asara is a worker placement game, I find that it feels more like an area majority game. The game does have a worker placement mechanism, but most districts have about four slots, so even if someone else plays a card in a district before you do, you are not completely blocked out until all slots are filled. The area majority feel comes from deciding which of the five tower colours you want to compete in. You can see the colours of the tower parts that your opponents are buying so you know where they have chosen to fight. You need to decide where and how hard to fight. Do you go for breadth or depth? Quantity or quality? Brown tower parts may be cheap, but brown towers don't give many points at game end, and your opponents can enter the fray easily if they decide to do so. White towers are expensive, but they can score many points at game end. Others will hesitate to compete because not getting first or second place would likely mean a poor return on investment.

The board is too big to fit on the table.

There is also a game of chicken. Being first to play a card into a district is powerful. You decide the card colour that must be used here for the rest of the current stage. This can be particularly important for the construction district. If an opponent plays a card there before you, and you don't have a card of that colour, it becomes much costlier for you to do construction. So there is pressure to be first to play a card in this district. However playing early may mean you are poorly prepared. Ideally you want to buy many tower parts and then build all at one go, conserving cards. There is a nice tension in seeing who will blink first and play that first card.

You can carry over money to the next round, and sometimes it is better to do so than to spend them on areas which may end up not being worthwhile. Asara is an area majority game, and it is all about picking and prioritising where to fight.

Smile, boss! Only the (Carcasean) shop owner Chong Sean is looking at the camera.

The final scores range between 41 and 56.

The Thoughts

Asara is a clean design. It is a medium-weight Eurogame. The theme is thin - I find it hard to imagine inserting trunk parts to an already completed tower, like playing with Lego. The gameplay is quite interactive, because you need to pay attention to what your opponents are building in order to do well. I find it very much an area majority game. You need to decide where to fight and where to concede. You need to balance between quality and quantity when you build your towers. You need to think of how to best utilise your resources to achieve the biggest possible impact. Throughout the game you need to keep in mind the game end scoring.

Sunday 24 March 2013

The Castles of Burgundy

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The basic idea in The Castles of Burgundy is players race to grab tiles from a central board, and then use these tiles to fill up their personal board to score points. Tiles come in different colours representing different terrain types. On your turn you roll two dice, and then use them to execute two actions. The numbers on the dice determine where from the central board you can pick tiles, and also where on your player board you can place tiles. There are various features on the tiles, e.g. farm animals, ships, buildings and mines, and they give different benefits, e.g. making money, performing extra actions and scoring points. When you fill up a region of connected hexes of the same colour, you score points based on how early it is in the game and how big the region is. If you are the first or second to fill up every hex of a particular colour on your personal board, you also score points.

That's the basic, central mechanism. There is much more to the game. Knowledge tiles give special abilities to players who claim and play them, including extra scoring opportunities. Placing ships lets you claim goods, which can be sold for money and victory points (VP's). Ships also let you compete for turn order, which is important because going earlier usually means more choices.

Actions being dependent on die rolls may make the game sound very luck-dependent. However you can mitigate that by using workers. Each worker spent alters a die by one pip. Changing a 6 to a 1 (and vice versa) is considered a one-pip change, i.e. it wraps around. It's usually a good idea to keep some workers around.

The game runs for 5 phases, with each phase lasting 5 rounds. Highest score at game end wins.

The central board. The group of tiles at the centre is call the black depot. You need to pay $2 (which is a lot in this game) to claim a tile from here. Around this black depot are the six normal depots, where you use dice to claim tiles. Each of the normal depots has a goods space (big square) where goods are stored. When a player adds a ship to his estate, he gets to claim all goods from any one goods space, up to the max his player board can hold (the limit being three goods types). The five squares on the top left, labelled A to E, are used for keeping goods tiles for each of the five phases in the game. Spaces A to D being empty means the game is in Phase 4 now. The column of five squares on the left are used for keeping the goods tiles for each round within a phase. The first three spaces being empty means it is the third round of Phase 4 now.
In a three-player game, not all spaces on the board are in use. We used spaceship tokens from another game to mark the spaces which were not in play.

The player board. Player boards are double-sided. This is the simpler side, and it is the same for everyone. The advanced side differs for each player. You start expanding your estate from the castle at the centre. You can only place tiles next to existing tiles. The three spaces at the lower left are for temporarily storing tiles that you claim from the central game board, i.e. you can hold at most three. The four squares at the top left are for the goods tiles - three for the three types of unsold goods, and the fourth one for sold goods, which are turned face-down.

Every player has two dice. The white die is rolled once per round to determine where the new goods tile goes on the central game board.

The Play

I did a three-player game with Chong Sean and Francis. I was the only one new to the game. My biggest realisation was how much you can mitigate the randomness in the game. I think one of the keys to winning the game is planning and manipulating your board and the overall game situation such that no matter what die rolls you get, you can always find something useful to do. That's easier said than done, and that is the charm of the game. You want to expand your holdings such that the numbers on the available land plots cover as many die roll results as possible. Trying to stay flexible has its costs and risks though. The game does reward focusing on specific scoring criteria, and if you try to do too many things at once, you'll end up being a weak jack of all trades.

Deciding whether to emphasise your own strength or to hinder your opponents is another constant consideration. It can be dangerous to let your opponents have too free a hand in growing their dominions. Yet another consideration is when you find yourself competing with another opponent (or more!) in the same field, do you continue to compete, which may result in a lose-lose situation, or do you switch to focus on other fields with less competition? This reminds me of Navegador.

The many scoring options and special abilities of the various tile types were quite overwhelming at first. Thankfully I had Chee Wee to be my Zhuge Liang. He pointed out a number of good options which I otherwise would have overlooked. In the end I beat both my opponents despite being the only newbie to the game. They protested that this didn't count - using dual-core processors is cheating.

My player board at game end. The northern half of my estate was completely filled up. I was among the earliest to fill up all light green (grassland) and river (blue) spaces on my estate, so I earned bonus chips (above my player board to the right).

The score track goes crazy between 83 and 99.

The Thoughts

I found The Castles of Burgundy just okay - not bad, nothing in particular that I dislike, but nothing particularly outstanding either. But then there's something about me and Stefan Feld designs (from among his many hits I only really like In the Year of the Dragon and Notre Dame), so I may not be the best judge of his designs. The game feels very Euro. It is a mechanism-first game. The mechanisms and the many scoring options seem sound. However I get a feeling that the many paths to victory exist for the sake of having many paths to victory. That in itself is not really a problem. It is what it is. Some players won't mind it but others will find it a turnoff. There really isn't much theme or story or setting.

I like the long-term planning and prioritisation in the game, and also the manoeuvring to make every die roll useful as much as possible. Despite these long-term strategic aspects, the randomness in the game manages to create many tactical opportunities and short-term gains to consider. The new tiles being revealed at the start of every phase and the placement of the goods tiles at the start of every round can make you rethink your plans. Sometimes a juicy opportunity surfaces which tempts you to go in a very different direction. Sometimes a golden opportunity appears for an opponent and you will have to consider whether to grab it just to deny him, even if there is little to gain for yourself. Sometimes you have to take one for the team.

It is satisfying to see your estate develop and to see your plans come to fruition. The game is rich in choices.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Animal Upon Animal: Balancing Bridge

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Animal Upon Animal: Balancing Bridge is a standalone game based on Animal Upon Animal. It is a children's dexterity game where you stack up wooden animal pieces. In this version, as opposed to simply racing to get rid of your animal pieces, you don't hold any animals. You hold some animal combination cards instead, and try to get rid of them by having animals stacked in specific configurations. On your turn, you roll a die which determines from which of the four sides of the box you must pick an animal to be stacked with the other animals already on the bridge. To achieve a combo, you need to have the specific animal combination linked together in the stack. If the stack crashes down, your penalty is drawing another card, which means it becomes harder to get rid of all your cards. The first player to get rid of all cards wins.

The game box is also the game board, although strictly speaking only that bridge is the game board. Every game starts with a crocodile already on the bridge. Other animals are randomly scattered along the four edges of the board. Each side is associated with an icon, which appears on the dice.

Some of the animal combo cards. The die is in the background. Question mark means you can pick an animal from any of the four sides of the box. Pay attention to the rightmost card - two giraffes and a panther.

With this configuration of the animal stack, I achieved that two-giraffes-and-a-panther card.

The artwork is gorgeous. Hey you tourists! Beware the crocodiles!

One of the four sides of the box. This is the desert side, the icon being a sun.

The Play

I did a two-player game with Chong Sean, while waiting for others to arrive. It didn't work very well with two players. Chong Sean made the stack topple once, and that was enough to doom him. The game was over in probably less than ten minutes. It felt rather uneventful. I think the game would be much more fun with more players. Also it was probably not a good idea to play a children's game with all adults in the first place. With more players, it will be harder to make the combos you want, because there will be more other players to unintentionally (or intentionally) spoil your plans. There will also be more crashes, which is fun.

The Thoughts

I prefer the simplicity of the original Animal Upon Animal. If you have played the original many times and still enjoy it, then Balancing Bridge can be an interesting variant. There is some luck in the card draw, and also in how you can be accidentally hindered or even helped by your opponents. As I write this I realise there is no such luck element in the original game. But then this is a children's game, so some luck doesn't really matter. Children's games are not supposed to be serious and fully-skill-based.

Thursday 21 March 2013

Kingdom Builder

Plays: 4Px1.

Qwirkle, which I previously wrote about, was the 2011 Spiel des Jahres winner. Kingdom Builder was the winner in 2012. Prior to the SdJ win, gamer interest in Kingdom Builder was probably mostly because of the designer - Donald X Vaccarino, the designer of Dominion.

The Game

Kingdom Builder, in one sentence, is a game of placing huts onto a hex-grid game board to score points. But that would be a rather unfair and overly simplistic statement. Every game is set up randomly, the game board being assembled from four pieces (the game comes with eight such pieces), and three scoring criteria picked (out of ten). So there is much variability, very much like Dominion. On your turn, you place three huts depending on the terrain card you are holding, creating a new domain or expanding your existing domain, and then draw a new terrain card for your next turn. There are seven terrain types on the board, and five can be built on, so the terrain card you draw will be one of these five. You are restricted to build on hexes of this specific terrain type. If you can expand an existing domain (a group of one or more connected huts), you must do so. Else you must start a new domain. You are restricted by the terrain card you draw, but how much that restricts you also depends on how you have been positioning your domains.

There are castles and special locations on the board. Having settlements next to castles at game end gives you points. Building next to locations lets you claim special abilities tokens. There tokens are randomised from game to game. Some are single-use, some can be used once per turn. They do fancy things like allowing you to move huts (normally once placed they stay put till game end), or letting you build extra huts under certain conditions.

The game board is modular, assembled from four pieces. Rivers and mountains are usually off limits for your huts. So are the special locations and castles.

The scoring criteria is the most important aspect determining the nature of a particular game, and how players compete to build their domains. E.g. one scoring criteria is you score 1pt for every row on the game board where you have huts. This encourages you to spread your huts out to many different rows. Another criteria is you score 1pt for every two huts in your largest domain. This encourages you to build one very big domain. Yet another criteria is you gain 4pt for every location or castle connected by your huts. This puts you in a connection game mode. Age of Steam! Some of these criteria pull you in different directions, so you have to decide which ones to pursue.

The game ends when one player exhausts his supply of huts.

The three scoring criteria cards.

The Play

The pace is quite brisk, since your turn is just placing three huts and then drawing a card for your next turn. Since the terrain card restricts where you can build, on your turn you can automatically eliminate all those hexes where you know you can't build on. From the short-term tactics perspective, the game is simple. The tricky part is the long-term planning aspect. When you have the freedom to start a new domain, where do you start it? These decisions are crucial, because they set you up for many future turns. I think the game is about how to position yourself such that in future turns, you will have good moves regardless of what terrain card your draw. You need to keep an eye on the scoring criteria, and also how others are playing. Some criteria require comparing against how well others are doing, so if players get into an arms race, it becomes expensive to everyone, while if no one wants to compete, it becomes a low-hanging fruit. Even for simpler criterias that only measure how well you do, others can block you from building your domains the way you want. You should do the same to them. E.g. blocking their expansion.

The early game is about quickly grabbing the special ability tokens, especially those that help towards achieving the objectives in the scoring criteria cards. In some games the special ability tokens work well with the scoring criteria, but in others they don't. You need to assess the situation and make the most of it.

Chong Sean is probably the most experienced in this game, and won handily, scoring more than double of what I scored. I was either the only new player, or one of two new players, and I came last. I still struggled a bit with how to optimize my moves, and to make my special abilities work towards the scoring criteria. Before I could get a good grasp, the game had ended. It was quick! Or at least it felt quick.

The scoreboard is only used at game end. Every board tile has a scoring track on its back, so you just use one of the unused board tile to do scoring.

The Thoughts

Kingdom Builder has high variability, moves briskly, and presents an interesting challenge of fully utilising the available special abilities and working towards the scoring criteria, while competing with your opponents. There is good player interaction, because of the castles and locations, and also simply because it's a spatial game. The theme is quite thin though. Like Dominion, this game is more about game mechanism than telling a story. "Placing huts on the board to score points" is not inaccurate. I'm still interested to play again, to experience the many possibilities, to learn to better utilise special abilities, and to learn to prioritise the scoring criteria better.

Despite being an SdJ winner, I think Kingdom Builder is slightly beyond the average family. What you do on your turn is simple. The rules are probably manageable, if slightly on the complex side for families. What I think will be challenging in a family setting is the strategies. I don't think the strategies are simple. To hardcore gamers they are not deep. Probably just mid weight. But I'm not sure the average family or casual gamer will fully appreciate the game. I guess it can work for more experienced gaming families or experienced gamers who prefer light- to mid-weight games. However it's definitely not a gateway game. Not something for people who just want to relax, socialise and not think much.

Kingdom Builder is a clever design that is satisfying to play well.

Friday 15 March 2013


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Qwirkle can be described as Scrabble using shapes and colours instead of letters. You create "words" in the playing area, where the tiles in a word must have the same shape of different colours, or the same colour of different shapes. You score for each word you make on your turn, 1pt per tile in each word. If you make a Qwirkle - a word with 6 tiles, which is the longest word possible - you score double, i.e. 12pts. There are six shapes and six colours in the game, making 36 combinations; and each specific combination appears on three tiles. So 6 x 6 x 3 = 108 tiles in the game. You play until the tiles run out, and one player runs out of tiles to play. On your turn instead of playing tile(s) to make a new word, you can forfeit your turn and exchange any number of tiles with the bag.

There are four Qwirkles in this photo. Horizontal blue word with all six shapes, horizontal orange word with all six shapes, vertical circles word with all six colours, and vertical stars word with all six colours.

The Play

Qwirkle won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres. It isn't the type of game that I actively seek out to play, but since I had the opportunity to try it at Carcasean (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia), I gave it a go. The rules are immediately familiar, because of the Scrabble-like mechanism. I expected a rather simple game. However as I played I found myself counting tiles, estimating probabilities and seriously strategising. The game may be a bit more strategic with 2-players, because it is easier to calculate. There's a 50% chance that a specific tile will be drawn by you.

I found that I often had to make tough decisions. It is always good to make a Qwirkle, and it is usually not easy to do so. You need to keep some tiles and wait for some more specific ones that allow you to make the Qwirkle. This takes up space in your hand of only six tiles. It is not easy to keep two or more options open, and often you need to play some tiles that you could have used to make a Qwirkle. You may even have to risk helping your opponent make a Qwirkle. There is brinkmanship in making long words. The longer a word is, the easier it is to extend it enough to make a Qwirkle. Do you want to set up an opportunity for yourself at the risk of letting your opponent grab it before you can?

Since all tiles will be drawn from the bag, as the game nears completion, it can slow down because the players have more and more information to calculate probabilities and to plan moves. I didn't find this a problem. I found it tense that time was running out and I needed to draw those few specific tiles to let me do a few more big scorings.

The Thoughts

Qwirkle is better than I expected. Easy to teach, and quick to play, but there are some interesting decisions and there is a bit more strategy than meets the eye. You can play to deny the long words by making some positions unplayable. Or you can gamble and create many opportunities for making Qwirkles. Whether to forfeit a turn to draw new tiles can be a tough choice too. You are forgoing a scoring opportunity, and you may not get useful tiles.

I'm not sure whether I would call this a light game, despite the simplicity of the rules. I guess you can play it without thinking much or calculating much, but I think this brainless approach would be a waste. There is some strategy in the game. Nothing overly complex, but it's there, and it's fun. I think it deserves the SdJ win - a good family game that everyone can play.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Meeples Cafe distributes Spielbox magazine

Meeples Cafe sent me a complimentary copy of the Spielbox magazine, which they recently started distributing here in Malaysia. Spielbox has been published in Germany for many years, and only in recent years it was published in English too.

I currently don't subscribe to any boardgame magazine - be it the physical type or the online type. My BGG subscriptions and blog subscriptions are already more than I can handle. However it was interesting to read Spielbox. This is a German publication, so the perspectives in it are different from what I am used to on BGG and the mostly English blogs that I follow. I am reminded that the boardgame community that I am familiar with is not the only one around, despite how international and how big it is. As I went through the magazine, I found it interesting to be seeing games from a slightly different perspective. Not all the boardgame aspects that the writers talk about or boardgame elements that are important to them are the same as what I'm familiar with. And there are many games that I'm not familiar with at all. It's a little like joining a game group with different tastes from your regular gaming group. Exotic.

Most of the articles seem like they are directly translated from their original German versions. It feels a little weird, because some of the expressions and jokes don't quite translate well. Chong Sean has been subscribing to Spielbox for quite a while (one of his key reasons is the free game expansions), and he has exactly the same feeling.



This particular issue of Spielbox covers many many games. Some are detailed reviews, and there are many brief overviews. I think many are games from the Essen game fair last year, thus the quantity. This is good for those who wish to discover interesting new games. There are not many articles about the boardgame hobby in general though. The Games Journal website (now discontinued) used to have these and they were very good.

Saturday 9 March 2013

boardgaming in photos

6 Jan 2013. Allen, Han and I played Innovation at The user interface is good. Not pretty, but practical. On the right you can see the number of icons of each player, which is very handy.

This was still under beta testing when we played. I'm not sure about now. One of our games crashed, unfortunately, and we couldn't finish the game. But I guess that means we contributed in finding a bug for the developer to investigate.

11 Jan 2013. A game of Ascension against Han on the iPhone. This Samael the Fallen monster is the most powerful monster (this is in one of the expansions, not the base game). If you defeat him, you keep him in front of you instead of permanently removing him from the game. From that point onwards, other monsters you defeat can be put into your personal discard deck to be used as strength cards later. Too bad by the time I managed to defeat him it was quite late in the game and I didn't manage to make much use of him.

In the same game, Han managed to get himself 9 constructs! Constructs are cards that you place face-up in front of you and use every round, as opposed to being used only once and then getting discarded into your personal discard pile to wait for the next reshuffle before they can be drawn again.

Game end score: Han 108, me 65. Samael is no fight against 9 constructs.

24 Jan 2013. I witnessed the opening ceremony of Jeff's War of the Ring collector's edition. The wooden box is huge! All miniatures are pre-painted.

1 Feb 2013. Yspahan is a slightly old game, well-known for its interesting use of dice. It's a mid-weight Eurogame. It has been quite a while since I last played. I still find it quite good.

At the start of every round, the start player of the round rolls 9 dice, and then sorts them on this dice board by numbers. The coin space (leftmost) always gets the dice with the highest number. The camel space (rightmost) always gets the dice with the lower number. The rest are placed in the other spaces in between, starting with the sack space (next to the camel space). The only way that every space will have one or more dice is if all six numbers show up. During the round, a player removes a group of dice to take the corresponding action, like collecting money, collecting camels, and placing cubes in specific regions on the board.

I like this game board very much. This photo is courtesy of

3 Feb 2013. I played Blokus 3D with Shee Yun (7). She wanted to play the pyramid board. In two player games, only half the pyramid is to be built. She wanted to build the full pyramid. So we decided to each play two colours.

I played blue. I was careless and blue was blocked out from the remaining available space at the centre.

The pyramid was almost completed.

During scoring, Shee Yun suggested that we took a photo from above. Every cube visible from above is 1pt. Each block that remains in hand is -1pt.

12 Feb 2013. I was back in KK (Kota Kinabalu) for Chinese New Year. It has been a long time since I last visited Chong Sean at Carcasean, City Mall. On my past few trips back to KK, my hometown, I have been busy with one thing or another, and didn't manage to set aside time to pay a visit. While waiting for other players to turn up, I played Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation with Chong Sean. I've always liked this game, and it was good to play it again. I was reminded again of how fine a design this is. I own both the first smaller edition and this bigger deluxe edition in this photo. However I prefer the older one which I find more portable, and the pieces are not cumbersome. I am not particularly impressed by the additional characters in the deluxe edition (not designed by Reiner Knizia), so I am willing to get rid of the deluxe edition and just keep the original edition. But then I'm too lazy to actually do it.

16 Feb 2013. Another visit to Carcasean. I watched others play BattleTech for a short while. This is a tactical wargame about giant robots fighting. It looks quite interesting.

Each model of robot has a sheet like this, to show its abilities and characteristics, like speed, armour, weapons, heat dissipation, and how damage spreads. The robot diagram is used for marking damage. There is a track for recording heat level, i.e. whether you are overheating your systems and your weapons.

22 Feb 2013. My long-time kaki (fellow gamer) Han is back in Malaysia after a one-year overseas assignment. While waiting for Allen to arrive, we continued our long-running Blue Moon tournament. We want to play every combination of the eight races against one another. I think this tournament has been running for more than three years, and we're only about halfway through playing the various combinations. This time I played the Terrah (strong in Earth), and he played the Khind (child-like race which can fight in gangs).

These are simple cards. Just strength, no special text.

Han, Allen and I played The Great Zimbabwe. Han was new to the game. This was the first time Allen and I played a three-player game. The game board is like a stealth bomber. I came in last again! But I think I learned something from this game. I find that I tend to underestimate how quickly the game ends. I'm totally off in grasping the pace of the game. In contrast, in this game Allen had been carefully planning which monuments to upgrade to reach the required VP's. At the time I was still thinking along the lines of a rough plan of making some money first, and then later upgrade monuments by utilising the God I worshipped which let me reuse exhausted resources. I am still keen to play this game again.

Game end. Allen was red and had achieved his victory requirement. Han was yellow and was just 3VP short. I was green and was still 7VP away.

Saturday 2 March 2013

Clash of Cultures

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Clash of Cultures is designed by the designer of Merchants and Marauders, a game that I quite like. Merchants and Marauders has a similar feel to the computer game Sid Meier's Pirates. Clash of Cultures has the same theme as the computer game Sid Meier's Civilization. Is this a conspiracy or what?

Clash of Cultures has most of the elements you'd expect in a civ game - exploration, establishing new cities, learning new technologies, constructing buildings in cities, managing population mood, raising armies, warfare, and wonders of the world. You start with a humble village, you explore the surrounding landscape to scout for new city locations, you collect and spend resources to construct buildings, armies and ships, and to learn new technologies. The four main ways of scoring points are controlling cities or parts of cities, learning techs, constructing wonders and completing objective cards. When you build cities and buildings, each piece is worth 1VP (victory point). You can attempt to spread your culture to cities belonging to other players, and if you are successful, you change one of the city pieces (i.e. a building) to your colour. This city piece scores for you at game end, although it belongs to your opponent (who controls the city), unless your opponent is able to convert it back to his own culture (colour). Techs and wonders both give benefits. The latter require many resources, but score more - 5VP. Techs score half a VP. Objective cards are drawn at the start of the game and at the end of every round. Each card scores 2VP if you fulfill the objective on it. Objectives vary greatly, e.g. killing a certain number of armies in the same battle, being the first to construct a wonder, having researched a specific number of complete sets of techs, and having the most ports. An objective card contains two objectives, a peaceful one and a militaristic one, and you can use either one to score the card. In this Clash of Cultures is similar to Through the Ages. There are many ways you can play, and eventually all your achievements in these different aspects are translated to VP's and compared against others.

The standard game lasts a fixed 6 rounds x 3 turns, and you get to execute 3 actions every turn. The is a variety of actions to pick from, and every action is valuable, especially in the late game, when you really want to make every action count. One important concept in the game is the number of cities and how it affects your civilisation. The number of cities you have limit the size of each of your cities. Only when you have more than one city can you build additional buildings in your cities other than the city centre which is always the first building of any city. Your city size in turn determines the efficiency of the city. A bigger city collects more resources from its surrounding spaces at one go, and can also raise more armies at one go. However a bigger city is also harder to please - if you want to elevate the mood of a big city from angry to neutral or from neutral to happy, you need to spend more happiness tokens. So it's better to make your city happy when it's still tiny, and then let it grow. Happy parents make happy children.

Games pieces in the game. In the middle are the five city pieces - a city centre surrounded by four buildings - temple, academy, fortress and harbour. Behind the city pieces are the army unit and the settler, and in front the ship.

The tech aspect is done in a slightly different way from other civ games. There are 12 groups of 4 techs each, making 48. There are few dependencies when you want to discover a tech - (1) if it is the first tech you research within a group, you must research the topmost tech, and (2) if you want to start one of the government groups, you need to have researched one specific prerequisite. Some techs give a culture token, and culture is needed for using some powerful special abilities cards, and for building wonders. Some techs give a happiness token, and these are used to improve the mood of your cities. When researching, you not only need to consider the benefits of the tech and how it will complement your strategy and objective cards, you also need to consider the culture and happiness tokens. Some techs make other techs free. This is a "soft" way of implementing a tech tree or tech prerequisite. This is yet another aspect to consider when you research.

The player board containing the tech "tree". The track at the top is used to mark your culture and happiness levels, and your resource count. My happiness level is 3 now, and I have two food. You put a cube on techs you have learned. Some of the square holes have a blue or yellow order. These techs increase your culture or happiness levels respectively, and you also gain a culture or happiness token. The three government tech groups in the bottom right are mutually exclusive. You can only own techs from one of these groups.

There are action cards gained every round, which give you one-time special abilities. Similar to objective cards, there are two ways to use them - peaceful and militaristic. This gives you flexibility. There are also event cards, which you draw and execute when you collect your 3rd, 5th and 7th culture token or happiness token. Some event cards only affect the active player, some affect everyone. Some are good, some bad. You can prepare yourself for some events, e.g. researching the appropriate disaster prevention techs. You have some control over the timing of events, by deciding when you gain your 3rd / 5th / 7th token.

Objective cards on the left, action cards on the right. These cards have two halves and you can pick which half to use.

Movement and battles are simple. There is only one land army type and one ship type. Terrain does affect movement and the ability to enter battle, so terrain can protect your cities, at least until the invader learns the road technology. Battle resolution is both sides roll as many dice as they have units, and the results divided by 5 (round down) is the number of hits scored against the opponent. Ships can travel quickly and can carry armies, and can be very powerful if the randomly generated map has many seas and rivers.

The Play

I did a four-player game with Allen, Kareem and Ivan. Only Kareem had played before, once. When I play Sid Meier's Civilization the computer game, I tend to play peacefully. This was how I played this game of Clash of Cultures too. I tended to go for the peaceful achievement part of my objective cards. It turned out to be not so easy to coordinate my development to complete my objectives. Some of them required me to be first to do such-and-such, or to have the most of such-and-such, and in a four-player game, these were harder to achieve. The other thing I tried to do was to tech up. I went for those techs which made other techs free, and then went for those free techs. Yeah, I'm a cheapskate. In the early game I did need to prioritise which techs to go for, because I wanted techs that are useful, but later on I just researched because it was free (not counting the action cost) and each tech was worth half a VP.

Allen was the expansionist, and probed far into Ivan's area. He also built a city near the centre of the board and near Ivan's quadrant. Needless to say, he and Ivan ended up in an arms race. There were more barbarian activities in the border area between Allen and Ivan, so even before the two of them started fighting, the barbarians already kept them "entertained". Fighting barbarians is not all bad. You can conquer their settlements and make them your cities. You earn money for defeating them. You can also use such battles to score objective cards. Even I took the opportunity to attack some barbarians. Allen was the big warmonger, and near game end even managed to conquer one of Ivan's cities. He had planned to proceed to capture Ivan's undefended capital which contained two wonders, but forgot that an army could not move again after battle. Those two wonders would have been a 10VP swing!

The back of the terrain tiles, i.e. the unexplored side, is fog. Allen was blue, starting in the lower left corner, Ivan yellow upper left, Kareem red upper right, me green lower right. This was still early in the game. Both Ivan and I have spent our settlers to build our second cities. The black pieces are the barbarians. There was one barbarian camp right next to Ivan's second city.

Kareem went all out culture club. As he explored outwards from his starting city, he found it to be on a peninsula. His civilization was protected by narrow seas and chokepoints. No one took the trouble to build ships to threaten his dominion. Although he didn't build many armies to attack others, his culture attacks were just as powerful. When threatened with military invasion, at least you can build your own armies and fortresses to defend yourself. But when your enemy flings poems and songs at you, there is little you can do. Every successful cultural attack is a 2VP swing, 1VP more for Kareem and 1VP less for the victim. The other benefit of culture attacks is your victim cannot immediately use the "infected" city to counter-attack your city. He needs to use another one of his own cities to fully "heal" that "infected" city first. The pen is mightier than the sword indeed! Military conquests are a bigger gamble. If successful, you capture a whole city instantly, as opposed to one building at a time in the case of cultural attacks. If you fail, you may find yourself the target of another civilisation because you are suddenly much weaker militarily.

At the border between Allen (blue) and Ivan (yellow), they both have cities with fortresses. More barbarian encampments have sprung up. Kareem (red) found his starting domain to be a peninsula.

I (green) was eying the small barbarian camp near the centre of the board. Kareem (red) has a small undefended city right next to it. Risky!

One of Allen's (blue) buildings has been culturally influenced by Kareem (red).

Clash of Cultures is a game with many facets. Despite a few rules mistakes, overall I found it quite intuitive and easy to understand. It is partly because I have played quite a few civ style games before, but I believe it is also because of the clean game design.

At game end, Kareem outscored all of us. Don't mess with the culture club! I came a close second, just 1VP behind. Allen switched to focus on science in the late game, because he had some science objectives. He caught up very quickly. Ivan's territorial expansion had been constrained by Allen's advances, but he was the only player to be able to build two wonders, which was no easy feat.

Late game. Those unhappy small cities near the centre are ex-barbarian camps. They are unhappy (red unhappy face marker) because they have been conquered. In the background you can see some of Ivan's (yellow) cities have been the victims of Kareem's (red) cultural conversion.

That red X near the upper left corner of the board is not the location of a buried treasure. It is a depleted tile, i.e. no city can harvest resources from it. Resource depletion is one of the events in the game.

The game took about 3.5hours. That was longer than a game of War of the Ring (collector's edition) which was played at another table nearby. Three of us were new to the game. I am sure things will move much quicker the next time we play. There is much text to digest and strategies to think through (especially in terms of picking techs to research) in your first game.

The Thoughts

Clash of Cultures is a clean and smooth civ game, that is still rich and rewarding. There are many aspects to it, but the rules are intuitive and not complex. The game should not be hard to learn, especially if you are already familiar with civ games. I like how open it is. You have much freedom to pursue a strategy you like, and you can mix and match focus areas for your civilisation, e.g. scientific and militaristic, or populous and cultural. The objective cards and action cards do steer your gameplay, and indirectly restricts your freedom, because you do want to make the most out of them. However they always have two options - peaceful or militaristic. There is randomness in the map setup, in events and in the objective and action cards drawn, but there are ways to mitigate risks. Being the first one to reach an unexplored tile usually lets you orient the tile to benefit you more. You can choose to research disaster-averting techs to reduce risk. You control your own timing of collecting culture and happiness tokens, so you can at least control when you draw event cards.

There are no specific rules for diplomacy, and trading rules are very simple. It is all up to the players to manage the politics among themselves.

The city pieces.

I have read a number of interesting comparisons with Sid Meier's Civilization: The Boardgame (SMC) and Through the Ages (TTA). My personal preference is TTA, COC, SMC. I feel COC is less restrictive than SMC, because in SMC the civ you pick and the winning condition you decide on very much restrict how you play (if you want to win). It is hard to switch strategy halfway, and the game feels like a sprint towards your selected victory condition. There is not much chance to change direction in mid-stride. The civilisations in COC feel rather generic - you are not the Romans or the Chinese or the Aztecs. The nature of your civilisation is mostly defined by the objective cards and action cards, because they steer how you play. I don't mind it that much though. Comparing COC with TTA, TTA doesn't have any map, and thus it has no spatial element. However in TTA I feel more strongly a sense of progressing through different eras. Great leaders rise and fade away. An industrial powerhouse in an early era can fall behind if it doesn't keep up with the times. New technologies and new government forms obsolete old ones. TTA not having the spatial element makes me like it more than COC. The spatial element in a civ game forces it to become more tactical. You focus on specific battles instead of a macro-level war or the overall pushing of your borders. I prefer the more abstracted nature of warfare in TTA because I feel like I don't need to micromanage. Not to say that there is anything particularly wrong with the combat system in COC or SMC. I like the combat system in COC better than SMC though, because the SMC system is a little convoluted.

The granddaddy of civ games is Francis Tresham's Civilization (CIV). However TTA, SMC and COC are all more similar to the SMC computer game than to CIV. I find it difficult to compare the grandchildren with the grandfather. To me it feels like CIV is in a category of its own. CIV has a spatial element, but it has that sweep of history feel, because the events cause much destruction. Revolts split nations, volcanoes and floods destroy cities. Compared to its descendants, CIV is quite spartan. Not many nation-specific abilities, no leaders, no wonders. Civilisations are defined by starting location and the tech progress and winning requirement. I have played fewer games of CIV than TTA and SMC, but there's just something special about CIV. Its descendants cannot replace it.