Sunday 30 June 2013


Plays: 4Px1.

I brought the family to Meeples Cafe again on 19 May 2013 (gosh, I'm really far behind in my blog posts), and we tried a bunch of new games. Aquaretto was one of them. It's the sister game of Zooloretto, a Spiel des Jahres winner, which is based on an older, clever card game Coloretto.

The Game

In Aquaretto, you build a marine zoo. Unlike in Zooloretto, you now collect dolphins, seals, penguins, killer whales, hippos and even crocodiles. The central mechanism is still the same. On your turn, you can choose to draw an animal tile from the bag and add it to a truck which has space available, or you can choose to not draw a tile and instead claim a truck and all animals on it. The crux of the matter is you want to collect only a few types of animals, and you want to collect many animals of those types because they give you points. You try to avoid collecting too many animal types because that would give penalty points. What differs from Zooloretto is instead of having animal pens with a fixed number of spots, you get one big piece of land where you can freely cluster your animals. You are only allowed three animal types initially, but if you expand your land you are allowed more types. Space is still finite so you may still run out of space, but there is more freedom than in Zooloretto.

You can recruit workers, who score points for you at game end. How they score points depends on what jobs you give them (i.e. where you place them). Cashiers give you 1VP per leftover coin. Trainers (who are placed in the animal area) give 1VP per adjacent dolphin, killer whale and seal (no you can't train hippos; it would be cute, but no).

I have already expanded my marine zoo twice, at the top left and bottom right, using the 2x2 expansions. I have not yet used my 3-spaces expansions (on the left). I have two workers, and both are working as trainers. I'm lucky to be able to collect all three of the animal types that can be trained - seals, dolphins and killer whales. Animals with lightning icons are naughty animals which cannot be trained - they don't help the trainers score points.

The Play

I have always preferred Coloretto to Zooloretto. It is probably simply because it came first and I am used to the simplicity. The additional mechanisms in Zooloretto just feel a little superfluous and unnecessary to me. No bad, but if I want to play a 45-60 minute boardgame, I'd pick something else. In the Coloretto family, I prefer the 20 minute card game version to the 45-60 minute boardgame version. When I read the rules to Aquaretto, I thought it would be more straight-forward than Zooloretto. However after playing it, I find it slightly more complex. Although the core mechanism is the same, the peripheral systems are quite different, so I think it gives a different feel.

Aquaretto has a spatial element, unlike the fixed sized animal pens in Zooloretto. You have a bit more freedom in animal placement, and you have to plan and manage it. There aren't many action types, so the reference card that comes with the game is an adequate reminder. Anyway most of the time you are either drawing an animal tile or claiming a truck. One thing you have to constantly remember though is for every third animal of any type you get to claim $1, and for every fifth animal of any type you get to claim a worker. This can be easily missed in the first few games, but I think it soon becomes second nature. This aspect is interesting because it creates additional value for those 3rd and 5th animals that turn up. It adds a bit more spice to the truck selection.

Chen Rui (6) asked us to not take the truck that she wanted. I said you can't do that.

Shee Yun (8) beat both Michelle and I (both over 35). Good genes!

The Thoughts

I would say Aquaretto is more an alternative version of Zooloretto than a more complex version (it is very slightly more complex) or a more advanced version (it is not an improved or refined Zooloretto, it is taking Coloretto and going in a different direction). It is definitely a family game. It moves at a brisk pace, and there are enough moving parts to keep it interesting as a boardgame. I am biased towards the minimalism of Coloretto, but I must admit it's descendants are pretty decent light-to-medium weight boardgames.

Sunday 16 June 2013

the value of ratings

Many people who review games now prefer to rate games using a four points scale - enthusiastic/love, suggest/like, neutral/indifferent, avoid/not for me, as opposed to giving a score out of ten, or a number of stars out of five. I guess this four point scale is something that is clean and direct. You don't need to argue about the definition of what a 7 is and how it is different from an 8. However I don't think it is much more useful than a 10-point scale.

When I see the BGG rating of a game, or it's rank, what it tells me is how much the average BGG user likes this game and how well it is liked compare to other games. Now this concept of an average BGG user is abstract. There is no such real person. If my gaming tastes are close to this BGG average, then I will probably like a highly ranked game on BGG. So the BGG rating and ranking can be tools to guide me on what games I should explore. The drawback is I usually won't bother to check out games ranked beyond 300, or games with a rating below 7. This is despite the fact that there are games that I like which are outside of these thresholds. In this sense, the BGG ratings and rankings does me harm.

Average ratings and rankings consolidate inputs from many people. When a single game reviewer shares his (or her) rating for a game in his review, this is data from just one person. How useful would this information be? It depends on how closely your tastes match this reviewer's tastes. Do you know how well they match? Do you unconsciously take the rating as a sacred number? Oh this game must suck because this reviewer says so. I have a bad habit of scrolling down to the end of a review to see the rating before deciding whether to read the review itself. Maybe that is a quick way to screen out poor and average games, but I think I have missed some good games because of it too. And there is just no accounting for tastes in the first place. Even if I agree with a reviewer on ten games, there is bound to be an eleventh that our opinions differ.

Some reviewers prefer to list bullets points of pros and cons. I find that a little boring sometimes. After a while all the pros and cons sound like they come out of a checklist of possible tags to attach to a game. Is a game simply a list of strengths and weaknesses? Does everyone have the same standards for what are strengths and what are weaknesses? I think in boardgames one man's meat can be another man's poison. And vice versa, of course. Try to imagine a game that you love. If someone then lists all the weaknesses of this game, you may find that none of them matter to you. But if applied to another game that you dislike, you may find that, yeah, all such weaknesses are true and are stopping you from enjoying this other game. In my case, an example would be the unforgiving nature in Antiquity, and that same unforgiving nature in Greed Incorporated. The same applies to strengths of a game. If there is a game you simply don't like, even if someone can list 10 strengths, they wouldn't move you.

Greed Incorporated. I still have not given it a second chance. Not that I'm that strongly against revisiting it, just that it is not a priority.

OK, if ratings and rankings have limited usefulness, and can even be harmful, and pros & cons analyses quickly lose meaning, then what is a reviewer to do? I don't have a right answer. I only have an opinion. I prefer reviews that try to capture the feeling and the essence of playing a game. No need to try to describe the mechanisms and rules in detail. No need to have a comprehensive summary of all key features, as if any omission is a failure. No need to come up with a weakness if you don't feel there is any that bothers you. The same applies for strengths - there is no need to try to be fair and to acknowledge some redeeming quality in a game you dislike. I like it when a reviewer can capture what is unique about a game. Sometimes it can be some central mechanism that drives a game, which is something very concrete. But sometimes it can be just a general feeling when playing the game, which is more abstract and does not require the game mechanism to be explained in detail. I like it when a reviewer explains why a game captures his imagination, or why a game disgusts him. It is something one can relate to. Sometimes the reason a game is loved by a reviewer is the same reason that I'd avoid a game. And I'd say the review has been informative and useful to me.

Why do you read game reviews? I used to read them to learn about new games that I may be interested to try or to buy. Sometimes I read them to learn more about games I am already interested in. Nowadays I find that I tend to skim them more than I read them. I am buying fewer games than before. I probably get more enjoyment out of reading entertaining gaming anecdotes (which are more fun if they are related to games I already know) than reading information that helps with buying decisions.

To simply measure a game on a good to bad scale, regardless of the number of points on that scale, misses one important consideration - the context of the game being played. E.g. the audience. If you play games with different groups, some games will work with one group but not another. Their gaming tastes, how "hardcore" they are, their ages, their professions, all do matter. I imagine many games will have spectrums of different widths and depths if we try to measure how well they work under different circumstances. Other than people, there is also time of day, energy level of the group, weather, and festive seasons (gambling games for Chinese New Year? Horror games for Halloween?) to consider. Sometimes I ask myself - what game am I in the mood for today? It certainly helps to have a decent collection of games. No matter what kind of mood I am in, as long as it is a mood for playing games, I can always pull something off the shelf that is right for that moment. I guess that's partly why my buying urge has cooled much lately.

Perhaps there are no bad games. There are only bad moments to play a particular game.

Take 6 / Category 5 / 6 Nimmt would be funny as a drinking game with a rowdy group.

Monday 3 June 2013

iOS boardgaming

Approx 24 Apr 2013. In this particular game of Ascension, both the strength-7 and strength-8 monsters were in the card row at the same time. This was the first time I witnessed this after more than a hundred plays, but then I did have many plays of the base game before I bought the expansions, and the strength-8 card is from an expansion. I managed to get a hand with strength 7 to defeat the strength-7 monster Avatar of the Fallen, whose power in turn allowed me to defeat the strength-8 monster Samael the Fallen. This was 12VP in one turn, 4VP and 8VP respectively for the two monsters. If I didn't get the right combination of cards, I would likely have lost. Eventually I won this game with a margin much smaller than 12.

30 Apr 2013. Eclipse is one of the hottest games in recent years, reaching the BGG top ten list quickly. However neither Allen, Han nor I were interested enough to buy a copy. Allen wasn't so keen on the space theme. I thought it sounded like just another multiplayer conflict game, albeit one with cleverly streamlined rules. However when the iPad version was released, all three of us jumped in.

This particular game was still my first practice game against two easy level AI's. I was green, the AI's were red and orange. Green planets produce materials that can be used for building spaceships and monoliths, the latter being worth VP's. Pink planets produce science, which can be spent to buy techs. Orange planets print money, which is needed to execute actions. Tile borders which have full target-like icons (which are wormholes) allow passage. Those with half a wormhole or none at all do not. The seven icons along the bottom are the possible actions you can take - pass, explore, exert / withdraw influence (i.e. marking / unmarking ownership of tiles), research (i.e. buy new tech), upgrade ship design (install / uninstall techs for spaceships), build ships, and move ships. This was the last round, and the orange AI had built quite a few monoliths. These are the black upright rectangles, that can be seen in the centre tile and also in the one to its lower right.

I had been doing poorly throughout the game, managing my space empire like the noob that I was. Both the AI's were more efficient than me. However, in the last round I exploited the undefended border of the orange AI and sent my long-range fighters into its territories to quickly capture a number of tiles, many of which had monoliths. Because of this, I jumped from last place to first. But I felt dirty. The green-owned tiles on the right half were mostly captured in the last round.

The top left panel holds all available techs. Every round some random techs become available. Because of this the techs and their quantities differ from game to game. The middle panel on the left is for the techs you own. There are three tech tracks, and once you know at least one tech from a track, you get discounts for other techs of the same track. The bottom left panel is for reputation tiles earned through combat (i.e. VP's). The right panel shows your ship designs. You can adjust the abilities of your ships by using the Upgrade action.

I only played against human factions, which are the vanilla factions. There are many alien factions with different special abilities and limitations.

I have only completed one game, and I am in the middle of two others, so I'm not ready to do a proper review yet. But I can share some initial thoughts. It does feel like other multiplayer conflict games that I have played before, despite the clever and clean bookkeeping mechanism. You can call the overall package a civ game. It does have exploration, settlement, development, tech and warfare. However I find that the peaceful or development part of the game to be quite limited. Most techs are military techs, and you really cannot neglect your military. Even if you do not intend to attack, you need defenses to deter your opponents. Among games of the same period, at least for now I prefer Clash of Cultures.

16 May 2013. In this particular game of Ascension against Han, I went for a Mechana construct-heavy strategy. I knew with such a strategy I would score fewer in-game points but would score more at game end when adding the point values of my cards. However when Han widened the in-game score gap to almost 30pts, I despaired. To my surprise, when the game ended, I outscored him by even more in card value. But it was a close one.

16 May 2013. I bought the iPad version of Puerto Rico quite some time ago, when it was on sale. I put off playing it because my friends said the interface sucks. When I finally got around to play it, I thought the interface was not too bad. You see almost everything at a glance. The only problem I have with it is when you are not yet familiar with the buildings, it is troublesome to look up what they are and what they do. One aspect I like is how the lighted doorways indicate people working in the buildings.

I played with the expert AI's, and won, but it was close. I was only 2VP ahead of the 2nd placed AI. Thankfully I had ended the game without giving them a chance to operate their large buildings. Else I probably would have lost.

17 May 2013. Cafe International is another game that has been giving me a good challenge. I play the hardest AI's, and they beat me most of the time. I do have some suspicions that the 3rd positioned AI tends to play poorly and sets up good moves for the 1st positioned AI. There is definitely a left-right-hand neighbour thing in this game, like in Puerto Rico. A poor player can inadvertently benefit the player after him.

The San Juan AI's beat me frequently too! I'm starting to have doubts about my intelligence. This scoring screen may look dull, but the San Juan interface is done very well. Very intuitive and clear.

18 May 2013. Beaten by an AI in this game of Puerto Rico. The winner scored 32VP from shipping! I can only blame myself for not paying attention. The game plays quickly because the iPad does all the calculations and game component logistics for you. I become lazy and often don't bother to watch closely what the AI's are doing or to guess their intentions. That's one drawback of playing boardgames electronically, and it is not the fault of the computer. It is the fault of human nature.

Another game of San Juan that I lost by tiebreaker. Aaarrgghh!

26 May 2013. Ascension with Han. By the start of Round 3, I already had three cards with the Banish ability - Personal Wormhole, Shadowcaster and Abolisher! Deck thinning and making your deck more efficient by keeping only powerful cards is an important tactic in deck-building games. This was a windfall for me.

By the time the game ended, I only had 12 cards in my deck (number on the green coloured deck at the bottom left). Two of them were constructs (number in circle at bottom left), which were played on the table, which means effectively I had ten cards in my draw deck - the same as when the game started! I think I had banished all the starting cards.

Saturday 1 June 2013

father figure

Recently I have been playing boardgames with the children more and more. It is partly because my elder daughter Shee Yun is eight now, and is starting to shift from children's games to adult games. We start abandoning those simplified rules that I used to make up so that she could play some of the adult games. Younger daughter Chen Rui is six, and is not quite there yet. She does play some adult games, but tends to need help. Shee Yun is keen to learn new games and often likes to refer to the rules herself. She is inquisitive. She generally can handle the rules, but the strategies are still slightly beyond her.

When I play with the children, they don't really give me much challenge. The enjoyment of such sessions does not come from tense competition or the battle of wits. Instead it comes from the act of teaching, of guiding, and of seeing my children enjoy the games. When I was 12, I wanted to become a teacher. I still enjoy teaching others, be it in playing a new boardgame, or in something boring and work-related. I think I enjoy the act of communication, of seeing ideas getting through to others.

14 Apr 2013. We played Qwirkle, a love-at-first-sight game for Michelle. She asked me to buy it after her first play. Chen Rui still often makes mistakes when playing a tile, positioning it at invalid spots.

26 Apr 2013. Allen and Heng. I brought Planet Steam to OTK ( It has been a long time since I last played.

This is the first edition. The components look wonderful, but unfortunately they are not practical. Those round silver high-pressure tanks can be easily knocked over and will roll all over the place. The red caps can be easily knocked off too and you need to be careful when trying to place them onto the tanks. Fantasy Flight Games is publishing a 2nd edition. The box will be smaller and the components different. Probably not as good-looking, but hopefully more practical.

These transport vessels are basically storage facilities. The icon and number at the top left indicate the type of resource the vessel can hold, and how much can be stored.

Planet Steam is a market manipulation game. You start will limited resources, and use them to build equipment to mine more resources. You can use these mined resources to build more equipment, or you can sell them at the market. Prices and resource availability at the market are fully determined by player actions. The objective of the game is to earn the most money, so the game is all about understanding, manipulating, predicting and utilising market trends. You do spend much effort on developing your mining facilities, but the key to winning is having a good grasp of the market, and turn order. The two highest scorers in our game were the two players who were first and second players in the last round of the game. They both stored a lot of expensive resources. By the time they had sold them off for a handsome profit, such resources were no longer scarce, the market price reflected that, and other players couldn't make as much money from selling such resources.

5 May 2013. Michelle and I played Fauna with Chen Rui and Shee Yun. We still needed the measuring tape to help the children guess the body and tail lengths of the animals.

This was the first time I taught the children The Settlers of Catan. Shee Yun understood the rules, and knew how to plan to collect the right resources to build something she wants. However she didn't do it in the most efficient way. She tended to rely on swapping four resources she didn't need for one that she needed, which was definitely not ideal. Rules-wise, there was no problem.

Chen Rui (6) struggled (and I don't blame her, she's only six), so Michelle jumped in to be her strategist.

This is the Chinese version of the game, published by Capcom.

Shee Yun was red, and she worked diligently to win the longest road trophy. However neither she nor Chen Rui (yellow) planned well to improve their resource gathering abilities. I (green) was the only one who had any cities. Eventually I linked up my two stretches of road, wrested the longest road trophy (worth 2VP) from Shee Yun, and won the game by reaching 10VP.

Chen Rui requested to play Kakerlaken Poker, a game in which convincing liars will do well.

Shee Yun asked to play Wasabi. She planned meticulously to complete her recipes with style, i.e. the ingredients needed to be lined up in the exact order as the recipe. She scored many bonus wasabi cubes (each worth 1VP) because of this. I, on the other hand, didn't bother about quality, and focused on quantity. We didn't try to block each other at all. I managed to end the game and win it by completing my 10th recipe before the board filled up. This is an instant win condition and scores don't count. Otherwise Shee Yun might have won.

Shee Yun wanted to play At the Gates of Loyang. I wonder whether it's the beautiful vegetables that keeps her coming back. I don't enjoy this game much. It feels a little one-dimensional to me because it is all about maximising vegetable production and then matching demand and supply. Previously I had invented simplified rules to play this with Shee Yun. I dreaded those even more. So I suggested that we play the proper rules. She agreed. I was a little worried at first, but she managed to grasp the rules well enough, although her strategies are not quite there. I gave her strategy tips along the way, but didn't need to correct rules mistakes much. She enjoyed the game. Hmmm... that may be a bad thing because I really am not so keen about this game. Maybe I should distract her with Agricola.

The components are indeed gorgeous.

Shee Yun was the one who suggested Rabbit Hunt. In this game you play both farmer and three rabbits. On your turn you play cards face-down onto the table, and you may move your farmer to hunt for your opponent's rabbits. When your farmer steps on a face-down card, the card is revealed and if there is an icon, an event is triggered. Most cards do have icons. There are good and bad ones, e.g. gaining a carrot (needed for the farmer to move), peeking at any card, and losing all carrots if you still have a rabbit in your hand. Rabbits are special cards that start in your hand. You need to play them face-down and hope they don't get caught by your opponent.

Shee Yun is not good at hiding her intentions at all. I could read her like an open book. So I caught her rabbits quite easily, especially in our first game. When I saw her hesitate, and then place a card far far away from my farmer, it was so obvious that she was playing a rabbit card. I couldn't help but start laughing. She giggled too.

I had caught one of her rabbits.

The rabbit footprints are the card backs, i.e. the face-down cards.

Chen Rui had wanted to play Wasabi too, but she couldn't play in the afternoon, so she asked me to play with her in the evening. She took a rather different approach from Shee Yun. She intentionally tried to mess with my plans, even playing the Wasabi card to block out some of the ingredients on the board. She is always the cheeky one. But it's nice to see she has a little mean streak (or maybe I should call it a creative one) when it comes to boardgames.