Sunday 28 July 2013

Android: Netrunner

Plays: 2Px3.

Netrunner is a 1996 game by Magic: The Gathering designer Richard Garfield. Fantasy Flight Games republished it in 2012 with some modifications, and gave it the same setting as the boardgame Android, thus the new name. I have heard good things about this game even before the re-release, but never quite got interested enough to try it. It was only after the March Madness tournament on BGG this year that I started considering this game seriously. I was surprised that this reprint won, and also that it had reached 5th place in game rankings.

The Game

Android: Netrunner is a two-player card game. One player is the corporation, the other the runner, i.e. a hacker. The corporation's objective is to complete agendas worth a total of 7pts, while the runner's objective is to hack into the corporation's servers to steal agendas worth a total of 7pts. The corporation sets up servers to advance its agendas, and protects them with ice (anti-intrusion software). The runner attempts to invade to steal agendas and to destroy the corporation's assets. If the corporation's deck of cards runs out, it loses. If the runner is forced to discard cards and doesn't have enough to do so, he is flatlined and loses.

The corporation's play area is made up of servers. The draw deck is a server. The discard pile is a server. Even the hand of cards, represented by the corporation's identity card, is a server. The corporation can create new servers (called remote servers) during the game. Agendas need to played as a server for the corporation to advance and then score them. Assets can be played as servers too. Assets usually give some benefit to the corporation, or act as a diversion or a trap to confuse the runner. When the corporation plays any card, it is played face-down. So the runner will not know what it is until it is activated (flipped over) by the corporation, or exposed by the runner. The same applies to ice which the corporation plays in front of servers to protect them. Only after the runner has encountered a piece of ice for the first time will he know what it is - how powerful it is, what is required to bypass or neutralise it. There is a cost for the corporation to activate any card, so it is important to have cash on hand. Non-activated cards have no effect.

I'm playing the corporation. The row at the bottom are my servers. The first three from the left are remote servers, i.e. servers played after the start of the game. The third server is an asset and has been activated. It is giving me $1 per turn now. The fourth server is my corporate identity card, which represents my hand of cards, called my HQ. The fifth server is my draw deck. The rightmost server is my discard pile.

Most servers have ice protecting them now (the horizontally played cards). However none are activated yet. Usually you need to pay money to activate a piece of ice, and you can do it when the runner is approaching it.

The runner's play area is much less structured. Only those cards in the top right corner need to be organised into three rows by type, and this is only for convenience.

On a player's turn he takes four actions. For the corporation player the first action must be to draw a card. Other actions include playing a card, collecting $1, removing a virus, and destroying a resource card of the runner (which can only happen if the corporation successfully traces the runner). The runner has some action types which are similar to those of the corporation. The most important action type of the runner, which is also the centre of the game, is making a run, i.e. attacking a server. The runner picks a server to attack, and tries to work past all the ice protecting it to access it. The runner has hardware cards and program cards to help him do this. Icebreakers are programs which are needed to penetrate the corporation's defenses. An icebreaker first needs to have sufficient strength to interact with a piece of ice, and then often it also needs to be able to disable subroutines that the ice will trigger. Subroutines do things like terminating the run, causing harm to the runner, and tracing the runner. If the runner can work past all active defenses, he accesses the server, and gets to reveal, or steal, or remove the card. This is how agendas are stolen.

For the corporation to complete an agenda, it needs to do an action called advancing the agenda. When this is done, $1 is placed onto the card. An agenda is completed only after a certain number of coins are placed on it. It usually takes more than a turn to complete an agenda, so there is always some time when it is vulnerable to attack. The corporation can't play and then complete an agenda within the same turn. What is tricky for the runner is guessing which remote servers are agendas and which are not. Often the corporation can set traps, or diversions. This game is very much about double-guessing.

The Play

I played twice against Allen, and once against my wife Michelle. In the first session I thought it would be more fun playing as the runner, so I let Allen play that side. It turned out it was tougher than expected. In the first game I caught him unprepared for my traps, and he was flatlined (required to discard card but he had run out of cards) and lost the game. He was more careful the next game, and this time I won by scoring 7pts on agendas. The most memorable moment was a run that he made against my hand of cards (which is called the HQ in the game). At that point I had four cards, and three of them were agendas! I had no decent ice protecting my HQ and was already trying hard to appear calm. He easily hacked through. He randomly picked a card from my hand, and picked one of the agenda cards. I pretended to be frustrated with his good luck. He decided he was lucky, and didn't bother to attack my HQ again, assuming that there wouldn't be such a coincidence of me holding more than one agenda card. Had he pressed his attack, he probably would have won that game. That was an almost-peed-in-my-pants moment.

Playing the corporation, I felt exposed and vulnerable. My hand and my draw deck were defenseless at the start of the game so I had to scramble to get some ice up. Agendas are a love-hate thing. I need them to win, but they make me nervous. I try to play them as casually as I can, pretending they are just regular assets. But of course when I start advancing them, the runner will be like a shark smelling blood. Thankfully the corporation has some traps which can be advanced too, which can be used to confuse the runner and lure him into traps. I don't have a good grasp yet of whether a wider defense is better, or a deeper one. A wider one means it's harder for the runner to guess which servers hold agendas, but less ice per server means weaker defenses. A deeper defense means it is more costly for the runner to attack, or even impossible if he doesn't have the appropriate icebreakers yet. I think different situations will warrant different approaches.

Allen feeling very at home. Well, we were playing at his home.

When I played the runner against Michelle's corporation, I felt the pain of poverty. I managed to get many hardware cards and program cards in play, but I was poor most of the time. I wonder whether I shouldn't have spent so much money so quickly on equipment. Michelle on the other hand maintained a decent treasury most of the time, anticipating my attacks. Having many programs was handy, and I managed to hack into many of Michelle's servers, destroying assets, exposing decoys and stealing some agendas. However being short on cash meant I was conservative about attacking heavily protected servers. Eventually Michelle managed to score 7pts of agenda before I could get organised enough to stop her.

It's not easy to beat an accountant at moneymaking.

The Thoughts

Android: Netrunner has a rare setting, and it's not window-dressing. I find it quite interesting. The mechanisms click with the setting. I like how you need to constantly try to read your opponent's intentions. It's psychology. Is he bluffing? Is he gambling? Is he making a feint or is this for real? Will he take the bait? How do you use your actions to lie, to lure, to distract, to terrorise? This is a very interactive game and you need to pay attention to what your opponent is doing, and adjust your strategy based on what you think he's trying to do.

The game is an LCG - Living Card Game. After the initial base game, many expansions have now been released. The base game already comes with enough cards to play four different corporations and three different runner factions. However there aren't enough cards to explore the deck-building aspect of the game. When you pick a corporation (or faction) to build a deck for, you can pick any number of cards belonging to that corporation and any number of neutral cards. You can add a limited number of cards from other corporations. With the base game, you have limited choices in cards, so there really isn't a lot of deck-building you can do. I have only played three games, and have only seen one corporation and one runner faction in action, so I'm nowhere near considering buying expansions. But I do see there is much to be explored. Nowadays I am less interested in trying many games and more interested in exploring fewer games but more deeply. Android: Netrunner is a good candidate. I look forward to play more.

Sunday 21 July 2013

River Dragons / Dragon Delta

The Game

The gameboard represents a delta, with some big islands along the edges, and many small ones scattered about. Each player starts at a different big island, and the objective of the game is to be first to reach the island on the opposite side of the board from where you are. You do this by placing stones on the those small islands, then placing planks across them to make bridges, and then finally crossing those bridges.

At the start of every round, every player plans five actions he wants to execute that round by picking action cards from his hand and placing them face-down in front of him in the desired order. Once everyone has completed this planning phase, the first cards are turned over, and players take turns to execute their first action, according to the player order of the round. Once everyone's first actions are done, you flip over the second cards, and execute them, and so on. In addition to placing stones and placing planks, actions also include removing planks, moving, and canceling an opponent's action. There are three movement cards - move one step, move two steps, and jump over one pawn. Moving two steps may seem to be automatically always better than moving one step, but the tricky part is if you can't move forward to where you had intended to go, e.g. because another pawn is blocking the way, or another player in an earlier turn order has removed a plank you need, you must move in a different direction. If there is nowhere you can move to legally, you have to go back home, i.e. your start island. This can be particularly painful when you are only two steps away from winning. The jumping over action works the same way. If the pawn which you had planned to jump over has moved away, and there are no pawns which you can jump over, you are forced to go home and start again.

The cancel action can have big repercussions. When you are first in player order in a round, you'd think it would be easier to plan your moves because you will get to execute them before the others and there is less chance of their moves disrupting yours. However if an opponent chooses to cancel your action (at the cost of one action to himself), then you may find your plan for the round completely screwed.

The first player who reaches his destination wins the game.

The Play

Michelle and I played River Dragons with children at Meeples Cafe. The game seems straightforward enough, so I don't think the children (8 and 6) had any problems understanding the rules. My very first action in the very first round was canceled by Michelle. She did out out of curiosity - the let's-press-this-button-and-see-what-it-does kind. That completely messed up my plans for the round. I realised that meticulously planning my round had come to naught, because I had neglected to consider how others' actions could interfere with my plan. I was first to suffer the fate of having to return home. Michelle soon followed suit. The stars aligned for Shee Yun, and by the end of the second round she had crossed the delta to achieve an abrupt surprise win. We were not even warmed up yet!

I was green and Michelle was yellow. While we struggled near our start islands, Shee Yun (pink) and Chen Rui (red) had already built a highway between their homes.

Without even turning back, Shee Yun (pink) reached her destination before the end of Round 2.

The Thoughts

I think a game ending in 2 rounds is not the norm, so this blog post is even more a first impression than how most of my other "reviews" are really first impressions. The premise of the game is simple, so it's suitable as a family game and a party game. I think it will work best with the max number of players (six), because that's when everyone will trip over one another the most, which will be the most funny. However I can imagine this can also be frustrating to some. It can be hard to plan, and there is always the uncertainty of the cancel cards. This is a game with much double-guessing, and with plenty of opportunities to mess with your opponents, e.g. taking out the planks they are planning to use. Even if you don't intend to be evil, you will likely stumble and crash anyway. There is a little Galaxy Trucker in here - you plan as much as you can, and then see if you crash and burn or you actually make some progress through the colourful network of planks.

Tuesday 16 July 2013


Plays: 2P practice x1.

The Game

Ugg-Tect (prehistorical architect) is a team competition game. Two teams each have one architect (well, technically ugg-tect, but it's annoying to type), and the rest of the teams are workers. The architects each hold a blueprint card that the workers don't see, and they need to direct the workers of their respective teams to build the structures depicted on the blueprints. The trick is they can't use normal language or gestures. They must use the caveman language defined in the game, caveman gestures, and a big inflatable club. You do things like shake your hips and stomp your feet to indicate which building blocks to use. You say things like Manungu, Ugungu, and Kachingu to direct your teammates to move, turn, tilt and lay down the building blocks. What further complicates things is saying a word once or twice means opposite things. E.g. Konguku means to lift up, but Konguku-Konguku means to lower. When your worker does something right, you hit him on the head once. If he does it wrong, you hit him twice. So yes, you get to hit him all the time with that club.

The inflatable club is quite large.

It's the first thing that children will play with, including those children over 30 years old.

When your team completes a structure, you call for a time-out, using caveman language of course - "Ugg-tect!". The opponents' team gets to examine your structure to make sure it meets the specifications on the blueprint. If it passes examination, your team scores points according to the blueprint card. If it fails, your team loses 1pt. The game then continues until one team reaches 10pts. At any time during the competition if any team makes any mistake (e.g. using normal language), the team loses 1pt. If the architect decides the current blueprint is too hard and wants to forfeit to draw a new blueprint card, the team loses 1pt too.

A completed structure.

The Play

I played Ugg-tect with my family at Meeples Cafe. We formed teams of one adult and one child per team. However, Chen Rui (6) found the game hard, so we ended up not playing the game afterall. I did a few practice rounds with Shee Yun (8). This is not a game for shy people. I was the architect and had to stand up and do all sorts of silly things. It was certainly an attention-grabbing game.

Without a competing team, naturally there was no time pressure. We did try to complete the structures as quickly as we could. We were quite clumsy and had to refer to the reference card all the time.

Chen Rui was not very pleased with this wilting club. There must be a leak somewhere.

This blueprint card is worth 3pts.

Shee Yun the worker starting her building work.

Mission accomplished!

The Thoughts

This is obviously a party game and is suitable for big groups. I think the game is best when everyone is new to it. As you get better at it, the game would become less funny. There would be no more struggling the commands and gestures. What is left would be just hitting friends on the head. Well, I guess that in itself can be entertaining too.

In hindsight, I think the game would be better if the players are not allowed to use the reference card, or are only allowed to use it with some penalty (e.g. a time penalty), or are allowed to use it only a limited number of times. This forces them to learn the language before the game starts, and they need to depend on their memory instead of simply gluing their eyes to the sheet all the time during the game, which I think takes out the fun. Also more mistakes is more fun. The architect gets to hit his teammates twice instead of once! But remember, players on the same team take turns to play the club-wielding architect.

I think the novelty in this game will wear out quickly, but you can still use the clubs as a punishment mechanism in many other games.

I think the reference sheet is a hindrance to fun.

When I look at my daughter I don't have the heart to hit her hard on the head. But if it were my kaki (mates), it would be a very different story.

Sunday 14 July 2013


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Jamaica is a racing game with a pirate theme. You race to complete a circuit around an island, picking up treasures where you can. You collect food, weapons and money, and also spend them as movement cost. The first to pass the finish line will score many points, but may not necessarily win, because players also score points from treasures and money collected.

At the start of a round, the active player rolls two dice, and assigns one each to day and night. Then everyone simultaneously picks one card for the round, from a hand of three. The selected cards are revealed and resolved one by one, starting with the active player. Each card has two halves, for day and night actions. Actions include moving forward, moving backwards, collecting money, collecting food, and collecting weapons. The number of steps or the amount collected depends on the die value. That means sometimes your card selection will not match well with the die roll of the round. E.g. high numbers are rolled, but you don't have any move forward action; or you do have a move forward action, but the active player assigns the high number to the other half of the day.

Card artwork is fantastic. Each action card has a left (day) and a right (night) half. On this card the day action is collecting weapons, and the night action is collecting food.

Every time you move, you need to pay the movement cost depicted at your destination, which is either food or money. If you can't pay, you have to move backwards, and it is possible that you end up further back from where you started. However being unable to pay is not always a bad thing. Sometime you want to have this happen to you so that you can end your movement at a buried treasure location.

The start of the race. Start / finish line is Port Royale. The tiny white squares on the sea spaces are food requirements when you land on the spaces. If you can't afford the food, you pay all you can and then must move backwards. That die on the right is the combat die.

When two pirate ships meet, you fight! That's regardless of whether the two players involved want to or not. Fighting is simple. The attacker decides whether to spend weapons to boost his attack, and then rolls a special combat die. After that the defender decides whether to spend weapons and then rolls the die too. The winner gets to steal a treasure from the loser, or steal the content of one cargo hold, or give a cursed treasure to the loser.

The game ends once a player crosses the finish line. Scores are tallied, and the highest scorer wins.

This player board represent the five cargo holds of your ship. You can only store one resource type per hold. If all holds are full, and you have a collect resource action, you must clear out a hold before you load the new batch of resources.

The Play

Michelle and I played Jamaica with the children (8 and 6) at Meeples Cafe. The game doesn't really feel that much like a race game to me, because you don't really keep pressing towards the goal. Instead you are at the mercy of your card draws, and you make tactical decisions to gradually sail forward, picking up food, money and weapons along the way, which are needed to fuel your race. The game is not just about the destination; it is very much about the journey too. There will be competition for the treasure chests. There will be fighting and robbing one another.

There is some luck in the game, but the fact that you always get to choose from three cards makes you feel you have reasonably good control. Also everyone has the same deck of cards, which helps in balancing things. And of course when you are the active player and get to roll the dice and assign them, that's a little bit more of control. There will be times that you can't do anything very useful because of the dice and your hand of cards. You just have to try to make the most of it. I think the relaxed pace of the race helps to make you mind less about the luck factor. There is less sense of urgency, so having a bit less control (I imagine the game is representing sailors at the mercy of the winds) doesn't make you feel too frustrated. In addition to the racing, you also enjoy the manoeuvring and positioning, the robbing and double-guessing along the way.

I was first to cross the finish line, and I won the game. However Michelle who was closest to the finish line was outscored by Shee Yun, who had more money and treasures. That proves the race is not everything.

Both dice are 1's so the active player has no decision to make when assigning them. There are still many round treasure tokens scattered around the race track. When you collect a treasure, you discard the token from the board and then draw a treasure card from the centre of the board. Treasures are usually worth points. Some are special equipment. Some are curses (negative points). There are more treasure cards than there are treasure tokens, so no every treasure card will appear in every game.

The Thoughts

Jamaica is well-suited for families and casual gaming. The copy at Meeples Cafe has gone through a lot of wear and tear. Nothing broken, but it has obviously been played many times. Components are soft and rounded and not crisp and sharp. It's a well-loved game. Jamaica has that balance of luck and control that makes it suitable to be played by adults and children together, or regular players and casual players together. More experienced players will do better but will not always win. Less experienced players are not overwhelmed and don't feel they have no chance.