Monday 30 September 2013

opening Sekigahara (2nd edition)

Allen bought Sekigahara when it first came out, and I played two games with him. I really enjoyed the game, and was tempted to buy it. Unfortunately the first edition sold out quickly, and GMT Games had to start a P500 project for it to determine there was enough demand to warrant a second printing. The response was good, and GMT decided to go ahead with the printing even before they reached 500 orders. I signed up for it a few months ago, so it was just a short wait for me. I received the game last week, and here's the unboxing:

It's always a joy to receive a parcel. Thankfully I was at home when the postman came. Else he would have left a note and I would need to go to the post office to collect the game, which would be a hassle.

The game was sent from the USA on 17 Sep, and I received it on 25 Sep. Only 8 days! Actually I should count it as 7 days, because of the time difference of around 12 hours between USA and Malaysia.

Upon opening the box, I found the game well protected by bubble wrap.

After taking out the top layer of bubble wrap, there was more! Also, all four sides of the game were padded with bubble wrap.

There were two free postcard games. I have not played this type of game before. It seems you only need some dice and a standard deck of cards to play. You need to cut out some counters - they are along the edges of the postcards.

The rules are in tiny font on the back of the postcards.

The 2nd edition game box is thicker. Width and length are the same. The first edition box was too small to fit everything comfortably. GMT is now selling the 2nd edition box by itself too, for 1st edition owners.

Rulebook, two reference sheets, and two sticker sheets. After I affixed the stickers onto the blocks, I would not be able to see the sticker sheets in this form, so I needed to take a photo.

The game board is thick, and consists of eight sections. The game comes with two black bags and two decks of cards - the Tokugawa deck and the Ishida deck.

The wooden blocks are hidden under the box insert. I don't like storing my games this way, so I dismantled the box insert, refolded it, and put it back. Now my game looks like this:

I found a small black rectangular box, and now I use it to store the small cubes and the special tokens. The army blocks are stored in the two black bags that come with the game.

And of course I have my loyal reference sheet prepared too.

Sunday 29 September 2013

Ticket To Ride: Heart of Africa

Plays: 2Px3.

I wasn't planning on buying this, even after seeing it at 60% off in Meeples Cafe's ding-and-dent box. I already own many Ticket to Ride maps, so I don't really need more. But of course I bought it eventually, after some encouragement from Michelle. I had a hard time trying to find where the game was damaged. I could only see a tiny sign of one corner of the box having been crushed. After I opened the game, I found one corner of the rulebook showing signs of having been damp before, but there was little damage. There was some powder on the game board which was easily wiped off, but I suspect it was part of the manufacturing and not caused by any damage during transit. So all in all I got a great deal.

The Game

The main new element in this version of Ticket to Ride is the terrain cards, which can be used to double the points when claiming a route. There are three types of terrain cards - mountain cards which can be used on black, white and grey (i.e. any colour) routes, desert cards for red, orange and yellow, and jungle cards for blue, green and purple. When you claim a route, if you also play the required number of matching terrain cards, you get double the route score. You need just one terrain card for routes of lengths 1 to 3, and two terrain cards for routes of lengths 4 to 6. Terrain cards are drawn in the same way as train cards. You draw from the display or blind draw from the draw deck. The only difference is the terrain card display has two cards instead of five. Naturally, those long length-5 and -6 routes can be quite lucrative in this game.

The terrain cards.

Another key difference from other Ticket to Ride maps is the colour distribution of the routes. Typically the colours are all mixed up and evenly distributed. In the African map, the colours clump together. The southern part is mostly red, yellow and orange. The middle part is mostly blue, green and purple. Along the eastern coast are mostly black, white and grey routes. The result of such a distribution is you often find yourself needing many cards of the same colour, no matter how you plan your path. That makes collecting cards quite a challenge.

Another challenge is most routes are single routes. The only double routes are along the coasts. That means you can get easily blocked and you will have to reroute.

Red, yellow and orange in the south, green, blue and purple in the centre, and black, white and grey along the eastern coast. Double routes are only available along the coasts, and many of them require the same colours.

The Play

The terrain cards are an interesting new option for scoring, but I find that it is the colour and route design (which actually require no new rules) that leaves a bigger impression. The game is quite challenging and feels different. It is hard to reroute, which makes the game more tense. The rules actually suggest not to play with five if you don't like brutal games. Well, not in these exact words, but I have never come across a Ticket to Ride game that issues such warnings. Even though I only played against Michelle, and we played with an implicit no-intentional-blocking agreement, blocking still happened, in a big way. Having to reroute can be quite painful on this map. It is hard to get the enough cards of a colour you want, that the jokers (locomotives) look more and more attractive.

My painful hand of starting cards. One route was along the western edge, one was along the eastern edge, and one was along the northern edge. The fourth one was mostly in the south.

Sudan is a country and not a city. It can be reached by three different routes. Such a concept has appeared before in the Switzerland map.

The artwork of Days of Wonder never disappoints.

Quite stereotypical - elephants and lions.

The Thoughts

If you are a fan of the series, this is worth checking out. It's probably not something you want to use as an introduction to the series though. You may scare people away. The terrain cards mechanism is a nice-to-have feature. It is the overall map design that makes the game challenging and exciting.

Saturday 28 September 2013

Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

Conflict of Heroes is a squad-level hex-and-counter wargame. It's a reputable game, and it has been on my maybe-I-should-try-it list for quite some time. Recently Meeples Cafe had it on sale at 60% off, and I jumped at the opportunity. I bought the first game in the series, Awakening the Bear, which is about Germany's invasion of USSR in World War 2. Each match of Conflict of Heroes uses a preset scenario, with predetermined maps, victory locations, troops composition, number of turns, reinforcement schedule and so on. Usually you score points by eliminating opponent units and taking control of specific victory locations. The player with a higher score at the end of the scenario wins.

During a game turn, players take turns to activate a unit and get 7 action points to spend on that unit to execute various actions, like moving, shooting and rallying. Once you are done with that unit, you flip it over to indicate that it has been activated, and then it is your opponent's turn to activate a unit. Every time you perform an action, your opponent has an opportunity to make a response. However making such a response can sometimes be costly, e.g. he has to spend special Command Action Points (CAPs), or the specific unit making the response has to be flipped to the activated side, i.e. it cannot be activated anymore for the rest of the game turn. So taking response actions is something to be considered and evaluated carefully. Sometimes it is worthwhile, for example some enemy units come into range and you have a good shot.

The actions in the game are straightforward. Usually you are either moving, or shooting. Many factors come into play, e.g. protective terrain like woods reduces your chances of being hit, buildings block line of sight and prevent shooting, and distance affect the likelihood of hitting a target. When taking a shot, whether you make a hit is determined by the attacking unit's firepower plus a die roll of two dice, compared to the defending unit's defense value. Rolling two dice means you will most likely get 7, but in the extreme cases you get 2 or 12. So shooting is a little iffy, but not entirely so. There are ways to improve your odds, like group shooting, or shooting from a height advantage. So it is up to you to maximise your odds, e.g. by positioning your units well. You have to decide whether it is worth the action points to shoot when your unit is not ideally positioned.

If your unit gets hit, you draw a hit tile from a bag and place it under your unit. The tile will dictate the effects of getting hit. There are many different effects, e.g. your unit cowers and cannot move or shoot, or your unit goes berserk and shoots more aggressively but becomes more vulnerable too. You can try to rally your unit to get rid of the hit tile. If you are successful your unit returns to normal. If the unit gets hit again while already having a hit tile, it is eliminated.

Many numbers are written on the unit tiles, which makes playing the game convenient. The top left number is the action point cost to shoot, a smaller number means you can shoot more frequently. The bottom left number is the firepower. The top right number is the action point cost to move. The bottom right numbers are the defense values when being shot at from the flank and from the front. The bottom centre number is the optimum range. You can still shoot at a distance up to twice that number, just that it will be less effective.

One important concept in the game is Command Action Points (CAPs). Unlike regular action points, you get some CAPs at the start of every game turn, and they are a shared pool that all units can draw from. You can use CAPs to make response actions to your opponent's moves. You can use them to supplement your currently activated unit's action points. You can use them to increase your die roll by two before you roll the dice. They are very handy, and you must use them wisely.

There aren't many units on the board, and not many components to fiddle with. Each player has a simple player board to track victory points, action points and CAP's.

Action cards. They can be played as an action. The scenarios determine which are in play and how they are to be used, e.g. how many each player starts with and how many to draw every round.

The Play

I played the first two scenarios with Allen. I played the Germans, who are on the offense, while Allen played the Soviet, on defense.

In the first scenario, I had to capture a victory location at a road junction in the middle of the board. It was open space, i.e. vulnerable to being shot at. There were some woods near the junction, which provided some cover for soldiers shooting at whoever was loitering around at the junction. I advanced cautiously towards the junction where Allen's Soviets were waiting. Unfortunately for me, as soon as the shooting started, one of my machine gun units got a critical hit and was killed instantly. That was painful. German machine gun units have high firepower and also good range. I did not dare to get my other units rush up to the junction, because they would be exposed to fire. I stationed my units in the woods across the road from the Soviets, and we exchanged fire. This was too slow, and every game turn that I did not capture the victory location, Allen earned one VP for it. I had to rush him. I sent one unit running towards one of his units, and they engaged in close combat. It was risky, because in close combat both sides are more vulnerable. It the end, I was too late. I was hoping to kill more of Allen's units before capturing the victory location in a safer manner, but I never managed to achieve better killing odds. I lost quite a few units myself. One victory for the Soviets.

This is the first scenario. The victory location is initially under Soviet control. The units with a light brown background are the Soviets. The units with a light green background are the Germans.

One of my units rushed one of Allen's units, and engaged in close combat. The horizontal pink bar means that the unit has been activated in the current game turn.

The second scenario was played on a larger map. This time the victory location defended by the Soviets was a stone house in a small village. In the direction where the Germans approached, there was just open ground, so I hesitated to send my units charging straight ahead. There were some scattered woods around the village, so I would probably have to approach from the sides to encircle the village. As soon as I started approaching, quite a few of my units were hit. One of Allen's lone units took position in the woods to my right and took pot shots at my units. I waited till he finished his action points. Then I sent one of my units to run up to it to shoot it at point blank range. It was not supported by nearby units and would be vulnerable. However, the moment that I prepared to open fire, I found out I was being ambushed. This scenario has two initially hidden Soviet units, and Allen's apparently lonely and isolated unit was actually bait! Aaarrgghh how stupid can I be! My greedy unit, hoping to get an easy shot, had walked right up to the hex next to the ambushing unit, and was summarily shot at. Point blank range indeed. My unit beat a hasty retreat to some bushes nearby.

It was not a good start at all for me. With a few units having taken hits, I decided to rally them before I advanced. Eventually I did manage to kill a few scattered Soviet units near my more concentrated group of soldiers, but I found that I was too slow. I had spent too much time and had not been advancing to the victory location quickly enough. Eventually we didn't even need to play the last round. I would need to kill all Allen's units to be able to catch up with him in victory points, and that was basically impossible. So I conceded defeat. The Bear was well awake!

The two Soviet units on the top left are Allen's lure unit and ambush unit.

This was already mid way through the scenario and I was nowhere near capturing the victory point at the centre of the map, where Allen's machine gun unit was stationed.

The Thoughts

My biggest takeaway from these two sessions: This is a very different game! Naturally Conflict of Heroes would be nothing like the VP-scoring Eurogames that I often play, but even compared to dudes-on-a-map games and other wargames it feels very different. It's on a much more personal level, and it's much more visceral. I felt I was cowering behind trees and not pushing counters on a map. I winced whenever my units got shot at. Everything feels very physical and very real. I picture myself on the scene, and the game works like how I imagine it would be during a real firefight. Woods provide cover, close range shooting is more effective, buildings block line of sight, don't get shot from behind, don't stand in the centre of an open field you idiot! And so on. It's common sense. So it feels very real. There are quite many small rules and numbers to remember, but because the rules are intuitive, at least you will remember the various considerations and factors, and thus remember that you have to look up those numbers. I think this is one of the strengths of the game. Despite the complexity, it feels intuitive, and gameplay is smooth.

One thing I learned is I am a hopeless captain. I was clueless about strategy and didn't know what works and what doesn't. Well, I guess now I know a little about what doesn't work. I was too wimpy. I had no idea how to make the best use of my squads. I wonder whether I should read up on military tactics, because I suspect they will be useful in this game.

Conflict of Heroes is a highly praised game. I can see the genius in the design. I'm not sure whether I like it yet though, in the same way that a primary school pupil doesn't know whether he likes quantum mechanics. Also I think liking or disliking the game has a lot to do with whether you like this type of game. It is not just about how well-designed the game is.

Learning military tactics is a new challenge for me. I hope to play more, and I'm sure I will improve - because there is a lot of space for improvement.

Friday 27 September 2013

video reviews

I read this discussion thread at BGG about favourite boardgame reviewers, and was a little saddened to find that we are already a TV generation. When the original poster asked the question, it was meant for both video and text reviews. When others replied, it seems that most people watch video reviews and nowhere near as many read text reviews. I realise I'm old school, in preferring text reviews. I was surprised that I might be in a small minority, and probably a shrinking one too.

I prefer text reviews because they don't dictate the pace; I do. I can skim, I can skip sections, I can easily jump ahead to read the conclusion before I decide whether I want to read the rest of the article.

Sunday 22 September 2013

in photos: simple fun

31 Aug 2013. Playing Dungeon Petz, the monster pet shop game, on Merdeka Day. It's fun to bring it out now and then. I don't play it often enough to warrant getting the expansions. I'm quite happy with just the base game. I remember having many pets is one of the keys to winning, so I tried to purchase as many as I could.

This is a worker placement game, and your workers are these lovely imps with huge ears.

Keeping many monster pets can be quite a challenge. I didn't have time to move them around in order to clean their cages, so there was still poop (brown cubes) in the cages. I didn't have enough toys to entertain them so this imp in the middle was put in charge of playing with them. Don't worry, the monsters don't bite when they are in the mood to play. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't fully satisfy their needs, and the monster on the right took one suffering cube (grey cube in the middle - it's a bit hard to make out in this photo).

8 Sep 2013. I brought the family to Meeples Cafe. Again, we played one of Chen Rui's (right) favourite games, Dixit.

Shee Yun (yellow bunny) won.

We played Pack & Stack too. We have played this before, and I didn't think much of it last time. However I enjoyed it more this time round, and I'm not exactly sure why. There is not a lot of strategy to this game, and not much player interaction. Every round the players have different types of furniture to load, and will need different types of trucks. Sometimes some players will have similar combinations of furniture, and thus will need to fight over similar trucks, but regardless of that, there will always be a race to grab a truck as quickly as you can, because the last person to grab any will not have a choice, and must draw a random truck from the draw deck. Player interaction in this game is just those few seconds between flipping over trucks and grabbing one. Loading trucks is just a Tetris-like 3D puzzle.

I found that I enjoyed this simplicity. I enjoyed playing a game with the children which they completely understood and I didn't need to guide them along the way at all. Loading trucks in this manner is not something you see often, and I enjoyed that too. It was good to sit back and relax and enjoy something different.

The number 2 means the max height available. I have wasted some space here, and will be penalised, but it is better to waste space than to have leftover furniture that you can't load. The penalty is smaller.

15 Sep 2013. Playing Antiquity on my birthday. That's a win! And I did win this game too, but that's not important. It had been a while since Michelle and I last played this so our rhythms were a bit off, especially hers. She always prefers to have San Christofori be her saint (unlimited storage, accumulate 3 of each food and luxury goods types to win), and made no exception this time. I always prefer to try something different, and picked Santa Barbara (construct all buildings to win). Her rhythm was more off than mine, so I finally scored a win after losing quite a few games.

This was my first city. I was slower than I had hoped in building my second city, and had used up all the space in my first city. I had nowhere to place three new graves, and had to pile them onto my Explorer building on the bottom left.

I was yellow, Michelle was red. I knew I needed at least 3 cities to win using Santa Barbara, and kept looking out for good building spots. We had two big mountain ranges at the centre in this game. One became a source of stone, the other, gold.

My second city was a horrible place to live in. Only one family lived here, column 1 row 3. They had a fountain behind their house, but the rest of the city was graves, graves and graves except for a giant rubbish dump and a smelly harbour. By the time I was preparing to build my second city, the famine level was already quite high and I had to add graves every round. So my second city once built immediately became a huge graveyard.

My three cities at game end. I only had 4 spaces to spare. Santa Barbara's power allows you to freely move graves from atop buildings to vacant spaces, but not the other way round. I had to plan ahead a few rounds which buildings to place new graves on (i.e. which buildings I could afford not to use) in order to leave enough space for the remaining buildings I must build.

16 Sep 2013. Playing Through the Ages on Malaysia Day. Through the Ages was once my spouse game, and it's the longest game that ever achieved this status. Michelle and I usually take 2 hours to complete a game. This time I made the Michelangelo combo, Michelangelo plus St. Peter's Basilica. It gave a nice boost to culture generation (i.e. victory points), but I think I didn't fully utilise his potential. Through the Ages is one game that Michelle often loses at, but she enjoys it a lot and doesn't mind. This time she did well and beat me 353:304. It was a sweet victory for her, after a long losing streak.

Bird's eye view of the game in Age II.

The children requested to play Heroica: Nathuz. I think it's a poor game, very obviously designed by a toy maker and not a game designer, but if the children are keen, I'm happy to oblige. They design their own dungeon and create their own additional rules.

The entrance of the dungeon is at the far end on the right. It leads into two passages, one extending towards the left, with some treasures and equipment at the end. The other leads towards the camera, and has the sceptre protected by monsters, which is what the players are trying to retrieve. Naturally no one bothered to go for the treasures, and went straight for the sceptre. My children are not exactly game designers yet I guess.

One of the rules is you must carry a torch on top of your head, unless you are also carrying the sceptre. Then you must carry the sceptre on top of your head.

Saturday 21 September 2013

Cloud 9

Plays: 4Px1.

I think I first read about Cloud 9 at Gamer Chris' blog. I know it's a simple push-your-luck game, so when I visited Meeples Cafe with the family recently, I decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

The Game

Players participate in hot air balloon rides, and try to score as many points as they can on each trip. Every round a different player becomes the pilot. The other players - the passengers - get to decide individually whether to score points and leave the balloon, or to stay on board hoping the balloon will ascend to new heights (which would bring even more points). The pilot rolls some dice (the number depends on the current altitude), which determine what cards are required for the balloon to continue ascending. The passengers make their decisions after seeing the die roll results, basically guessing whether the pilot will be able to play the required cards. Once everyone has made up his mind, the pilot must play cards if he has the required ones. The only exception is wild cards. A single wild card fulfills all dice requirements, but the pilot can decide whether to play it. If the pilot can't or won't play the required cards, the trip ends, and everyone still on the balloon scores no points. So the trick is trying to leave the balloon to score points as late as possible, and not get stuck there when the trip abruptly ends. It's like chasing a stock market bubble. You want to get out and make a killing right before the bubble bursts.

All four players still in the hot air balloon. The dice icons on the clouds indicate the number of dice to be rolled to see what cards are required for the balloon to fly higher. The point values of the altitudes are: 1, 2, 4, 6, 9, 12, 15, 20, 25. So the higher you go, the more tempting the next level becomes. The highest possible score of 25 is half of what you need to end the game. However it's not easy getting there.

The cards. You only need one wild card to satisfy all requirements depicted on the dice.

If only one player remains on the balloon, the rules change a little. This sole remaining pilot decides whether to leave or to stay before he rolls the dice.

After every trip, everyone draws one card, the balloon returns to the starting point, and a new trip starts. The game ends after a player reaches 50pts, and the highest scorer wins.

The Play

The rules are very simple, and my children (8 and 6) understood immediately. However they easily gave away their hand because when they looked at the die rolls and then at their cards, we could easily tell from their reactions and facial expressions whether they would be able to play the required cards. That made the lives of the passengers too easy. So we asked them to not look at their cards at all when they were pilot, until after all passengers have made their decisions.

Chen Rui (6) scored big in one of the early rounds, and maintained a comfortable lead. In contrast, Michelle and I floundered far behind. We were too greedy in the early game and stayed on the balloon longer than we should have. We were too desperate in the late game because we were behind, and again took bigger risks than we should have. We never managed to catch up, not even close! Chen Rui at one point told us she could easily cruise to victory by scoring just one or two points every trip. And she was right! She was already near 50, and we were nowhere in the vicinity. Shee Yun (8) put up a good effort catching up, and ended up just 1pt behind Chen Rui, who ended the game by reaching 51pts.

Game end situation. Chen Rui (yellow) had just reached 51pts. Shee Yun (orange) was only one step behind. Michelle and I (red and green) were far far behind.

As in most push-your-luck games, in the late game, if you are ahead, there is little incentive to take risks. You can afford to take smaller risks and you will likely cruise to victory anyway. If you are behind, then you must take risks and hope for greater rewards. You are behind anyway, so you might as well gamble and hope for a lucky break. Because of this nature, push-your-luck games can become less interesting in the late game. How big a problem this is depends on personal tolerance. Cloud 9 was brisk and fun for me, so although I had this familiar feeling again, it didn't bother me too much.

One interesting twist about this game is how the pilot has no option to score and leave. That means sometimes before it is your turn to become pilot, you already need to think about bailing out. The points you are going to get may not be very attractive, but then you have to balance that against whether you think you will last two consecutive rounds. This can be a tricky decision.

You can determine what colours your opponents are likely short of whenever a trip ends. If a player can't play 2 green cards, then he either has no green cards, or has only one, or has a wild card but is not willing to use it. The next time he is pilot again and needs to play green cards again, it is probably a good idea to bail out. However it may turn out that he has just drawn a green card after the previous trip. So you never know!

The Thoughts

Cloud 9 is a simple game of brinkmanship that works as a family game, a party game, a children's game and also a filler. It's a game that really tickles human greed. You are constantly engaged because every round you need to decide whether to take your winnings, or to raise the stakes. You are constantly gambling and hoping your luck will hold. I truly enjoyed playing this with my family. I probably won't suggest it when I plan a game session with seasoned gamers, since we tend to plan around heavier and more complex games. But it's a blast to play with the right target audience and on the right occasion.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

how it should be

Boardgamers often joke about things like buying too many games and not playing enough of games already bought. There are things that we tend to consider bad or embarrassing. And then there are also certain boardgame genres that we sometimes frown upon, e.g. Collectible Card Games, party games, or some genres that we don't understand and also don't bother to understand, e.g. hex and counter wargames, deep games requiring commitment like Chess or Go, and Role Playing Games. The world of non-electronic games is huge, and many different types of gamers exist. It is no wonder that many have prejudices towards others. Sometimes we set expectations about how we should enjoy our hobby, e.g. we keep telling ourselves that we should try different types of games, or we force ourselves to play every game at least three times. It's actually quite silly. Gaming is a hobby, and as long as you are not spending money that you should be spending on, say, your daughter's education, and nobody is getting hurt, and you're not doing anything illegal, then you should enjoy your hobby in whatever way you feel like. I think sometimes we judge ourselves more than others do us. It is quite unnecessary to take yourself on a guilt trip. Here are some of the different ways that people enjoy the boardgame hobby that I can think of.

Game taster vs dedicated player (or breadth vs width): Some people only play Magic: The Gathering, or Go, Chess, Mahjong, Chinese Chess, Big 2, Scrabble, Bridge, Shogi. We probably don't even call them boardgamers. We just call them Chess players, or Scrabble players etc. Nothing wrong with that. No need to try to convince them to try something different. Focusing on a single game means you can learn to play at a high level, and that's a wonderful thing. On the other hand, there is also no need to try to master every game that you play, if you don't feel like doing so. It's okay being a game taster, playing most games just once or twice to enjoy the variety, and only playing more of a few select games. It is okay to focus on enjoying the discovery process when learning new games.

Money: Don't waste money. That's a good principle. However it's not always easy to determine what is "spending" and what is "wasting". Our disposable incomes are different. I think most boardgamers feel guilty about games purchased but not played or only played a few times. A boardgame is made to last probably hundreds of plays (unless you play rough), so we tend to feel bad if we only play it a handful of times. This problem will only get worse when we buy more games. Here are two different ways to look at it: (1) You are not buying the physical components but the time spent playing. RM150 (~USD50) for 3 games would be RM50 per game, and let's say you have four players, that would be RM12 per person for 90 minutes of fun. That's not too bad. (2) You are not only buying the physical game, you are enjoying the whole process of researching the game, deciding to buy the game, eagerly anticipating the delivery or collecting the game from the post office, opening it up, punching out the components, bagging them, fondling them, inhaling that new game smell. All that must be worth something! Yeah, I can use (2) to justify the games that I still have not played.

I don't mean to encourage you to spend money recklessly. You need to decide how much you can afford. Once you have done so, just enjoy the hobby and don't feel guilty. If you want to, you can always do some game-selling or game-trading.

Look at the size of that collection: It's OK to be a collector. People collect stamps, postcards, coins, matchboxes, buttons, Gundam. Boardgames do take up more space, but not as much as, say, cars. I also think of it as buying freedom - the freedom to be able to pick a suitable game for any occasion. Heh heh... that's a nicer way of saying "I should buy this, because maybe one day I will play it".

Genres: Eurogames, Ameritrash games, RPG's, hex-and-counter wargames, CCG's, cards games, trick-taking games, 18XX games. Some people do multiple genres, some do one or two. If you feel adventurous, by all means explore. If you are content, then no need to feel that you owe it to yourself to venture off.

Light / casual / party games vs heavy games: I think many seasoned gamers tend to be a little condescending towards light games, party games and children games, dismissing them as too simplistic or lacking depth. We forget that strategising is not a prerequisite for fun. Watching my children play boardgames reminds me of this. We recently played Dungeon Petz. The strategy is definitely beyond them, but they had fun operating their pet shops. Shee Yun (8) loved one of the monsters (because it was fluffy and cute) and when it came up, she bought it, without caring whether it really suited her shop or the potential customers. She was so happy she beat us to it. And she kept collecting artifacts, which she thought was fun. Chen Rui (6) was even more clueless about competing to win. To her it was just collecting stuff from the board and running her pet shop. We recently visited Meeples Cafe, and one simple game turned out to be a lot of fun - Cloud 9. I would never have considered trying this with my regular boardgame kaki's (mates).

Shee Yun playing Dungeon Petz.

Look at all her artifacts (round markers)!

Chen Rui actually came in second place! It was because of one big move which Michelle advised her on. She gained a lot of points selling one particular pet to one very satisfied customer.

Experienced boardgamers tend to have preconceived notions of fun - what a game should have in order to be fun, and how a boardgamer should enjoy his hobby. We sometimes unconsciously limit ourselves, or we think too much and fuss over things which are not worth the trouble. Boardgaming is a hobby afterall. There are no rules to fun. You are doing it right as long as you are enjoying yourself.

So, it's okay that I still have not played Paths of Glory. I'll get around to it some day. No pressure.

Antiquity. Pollution all over the countryside is fun. But it's not the only form of fun.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Tzolk'in is one of the more widely recognised recent games, because of the gears. The first thing that comes to the minds of jaded boardgamers (like me!) is probably this: Is this just a gimmick that will soon be forgotten, and can the game stand on its own after the novelty has worn off? My opinion is the gears are just a tool to implement what is special about the game - the timing element.

Tzolk'in is a worker placement game. There are so many such games nowadays that whenever I hear this term again I roll my eyes. A worker placement game that doesn't offer anything else that is compelling will not be able to leave much impression. Tzolk'in's twist is that when you place your worker, you don't gain an action or benefit immediately. You only get it when you retrieve your worker later on. On your turn you may either place workers, or retrieve workers you have previously placed, and you are not limited to one worker in either case, just that if you place more than one worker you need to pay additoinal corn (corn = money). Workers can be left on the board for as long as you like. They are placed on the gears, which turn one notch at the end of every round. Whenever your worker shifts position, he usually moves to a space that gives a bigger benefit. So it is good to leave a worker on the board for a long time, just that during this time he is tied up with waiting.

The central gear is the one you turn. You turn it anti-clockwise, and the other gears will turn clockwise. The upper right section is the three temples. Depending on your standing at each of them, you will be awarded resources or points. The middle right section is the tech table. The lower right section is the monuments and buildings. Whenever anyone builds a building, another one replaces it, and mid way through the game the remaining buildings on the board are replaced with another set of buildings for the second half.

This particular gear is for collecting wood or corn. At the start of the game, some of the spaces have a wood tile stacked on top of a corn tile. You need to chop wood (and remove the wood tile) before you can harvest the corn (and remove the corn tile). Once the corn tile is removed, you can't harvest corn anymore, unless you have learnt a specific technology that ignores the corn tile requirement (I think of it as sustainable development).

Because of this gear mechanism, there is an interesting rhythm to the game - when to place workers and when to retrieve them, how many to place / retrieve, and maintaining enough cash (corn) to have flexibility. Sometimes when you need a worker to take a specific action, you have to plan a few arounds ahead for when he will reach that particular spot. You will be forced to retrieve workers when you don't have any on hand to place, so that's another aspect to think about.

Normally in worker placement games it is better to be the start player. In Tzolk'in it is not always so. When placing workers, you must place them on the lowest available spots on the gears. If you go late, then the weaker spots may be taken up by your opponents' workers, thus allowing you to take the stronger spots. This is provided you have enough corn of course, because placing workers on more powerful spots requires corn.

The actions that you can take when retrieving workers are not very different from other medium-to-heavy Eurogames. You collect resources, you convert them to victory points, you increase your standing at temples (i.e. an area majority competition), you construct buildings (which give you special abilities), you construct monuments (which give VP's), and so on. At the end of each quarter of the game, there is a food day. You need to feed your workers two corn each (i.e. like Agricola), and you are penalised -3VP per hungry worker. After that rewards are given depending on your standings at the temples.

The game ends when the central gear completes one full rotation, which I think is a nice touch.

The three temples. Each step indicates the resources and VP's awarded. Resources are awarded after the 1st and 3rd food days, and VP's the 2nd and 4th. The VP's above the temples are the bonuses for the leading player at each temple, for 2nd and 4th food days respectively.

The Play

I played a 2-player game against Han on BoardGameArena. I was initially a little doubtful whether it would work as a 2P game, but it turned out OK. From the start of the game, I decided to get as many workers out as possible (you start the game with three, and can increase to at most six), and to make sure they never go hungry. More men means more work get done, I thought. At the start of the game everyone is dealt four starting cards from which to pick two. These determine starting resources and special abilities. One of the cards I picked let one of my workers eat for free. Throughout the game I kept constructing buildings that gave me free meals. Eventually I had so many such powers that all six of my workers ate for free. That was fun. But then it occurred to me that such an achievement gave me exactly 0VP. What was I thinking?!

My buildings and starting card have a total of six "free lunch" icons - man with two corns and a big tick.

With fewer players, some spaces on the gears are blocked out using black markers.

It was around mid game that I realised I should have spent more effort thinking about how to score points, e.g. paying attention to the monuments available for the game (which changes from game to game), and also competing at the temple standings. I then did plan to require some crystal skulls, and then deposited them at the sacred Chichen Itza gear to earn points and gain standing. Unfortunately my strategy during the game didn't really jive with the monuments available, so I didn't go for them. Anyhow, I hadn't been spending much effort on accumulating resources, so it would be a struggle to assemble the building materials.

Han miscalculated during the first food day, and caused some of his workers to starve. That was painful as he lost more than 10VP! However he did better with resource collection, and in the second last round of the game he orchestrated one big move where he ensured he beat me at all three temples, and then by using the first player privilege he also sped up time (oh yes you can do this), causing the game to end one round early. He came from behind and beat me 56:54! I have to say this friend of mine sometimes really impresses me. He doesn't lose heart no matter how far behind he is and always plays his best. I wonder whether it is something to do with his training and his job. Afterall a doctor operating on a patient cannot easily give up and say screw this. It's a matter of life and death.

End game. Han (green) beat me (red) at all three temples!

The Thoughts

Tzolk'in is a game that is heavy on medium-term planning and coordination. It's worker placement, but I find it has quite a unique rhythm because of the timing aspect. I enjoyed this. The actions behind this core mechanism are nothing new though, pretty much what you can see in many VP-scoring Eurogames. I guess it is fine as long as the whole package is balanced well, and it has enough thematic elements. One thing I found was I needed to focus on one or two areas and I couldn't try to do everything. For example, the techs. As you progress on techs, the benefits get more and more powerful, so I feel it is better to keep using them rather than spending your actions on advancing other techs. This is the opposite of Agricola, which encourages players to take a balanced approach and to do moderately well in every area. I like that players are encouraged to specialise, because that tends to result in them have different strengths and priorities. It creates an interesting dynamic where players try to go for less competitive areas, and yet at the same time need to ensure others don't get a free hand to do what they want. I'm not sure whether this is all just because I played poorly though. It might be why I wasn't able to do well in multiple areas. I guess I will need to play more to find out.

The tech table. The four horizontal rows are the four techs. You start at level 0. When you advance to Levels 1 to 3, they make certain actions stronger. After you reach Level 3 and perform advance again, you have no more to advance, and instead you gain the benefit in the rightmost column.