Saturday 26 October 2013

in photos: dodgy Chinese guy...

16 Oct 2013. Robinson Crusoe. The Cook (a player character) and Dog (a supporting character). I didn't think much about it when I took this photo. I just wanted to capture the artwork of the game. Some time later when I looked at this photo again, I thought, if this Cook is Chinese (like me) and is stranded on an island, and is starving, and there's a dog nearby...

17 Oct 2013. Another Chinese thing... based on the Chinese Zodiac, I was born in the Year of the Tiger. Chinese readers will probably immediately start calculating how old I am. This is a beast card from Robinson Crusoe.

For the next photo let's go a bit further east, to Japan.

21 Oct 2013. Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan. This was my fourth game, and I think Han's second. I played Tokugawa (black) this time, and Han played Ishida (gold), which he had not tried before. This was one very tense game. I felt my heart pounding, and my hands were almost trembling. In the early game, I had just the right cards so I quickly sent an army to besiege and immediately capture Ueda castle (six black blocks in the background on the right).

We had many battles. Many men died. In the east, Han's Uesugi army suffered an early loss, but new troops mustered there revived his eastern force. He defeated my Date army in the east, and became a threat in the east, which is typically dominated by Tokugawa. I was probably overly keen on battles and on killing Ishida himself. I sent a large Tokugawa army mustered in my capital of Edo (in the east) westwards to fight and to try to corner Ishida. This weakened defenses in Edo, and later Edo fell to Han's Uesugi army. This was bad, because it meant my eastern front had collapsed.

I did have successes in battles in the west, whittling down Han's Ishida armies. However three of Han's mustering locations were in the far west, so he was able to keep bringing in reinforcements. In hindsight, I should have put more focus on capturing and securing resource locations and castles (they are worth VP's, and also provide more cards / troops), as opposed to just focusing on battles and positioning for them. This is a game about economy and influence too, not just about battles. This was a valuable lesson to me.

The board situation near game end. My eastern front had collapsed and the east was dominated by Han's Ishida armies (gold). With so few armies remaining, it was hard to establish fronts and protect resource locations and castles. On Han's last turn (he was second player that round) he didn't even need to initiate battle anymore. He had the cards to recapture Ueda castle, which would secure his win by VP, and even if he hadn't, he could disperse his troops to capture enough undefended resource locations and castles to win.

Of the four games I have played, three were won by VP. Only one was won by one of the protagonists being killed in battle, and that game would have been won by VP too if I had not been careless. So far no game came near to Osaka being besieged, which is the 3rd victory condition. I wonder how often others experience this. It seems to be very difficult to achieve for the Tokugawa player. There seems to be little incentive too. If the Tokugawa players is doing well economically (i.e. in overall board position), there is no need to attack Osaka, especially considering the "free" Mori troops that will muster immediately there. Tokugawa would have to do quite well militarily for it to be feasible to attack Osaka, which is deep inside Ishida territory (three of four Ishida mustering locations nearby). If Tokugawa is doing well militarily, wouldn't he also be doing well in overall board position? In this most recent game, I did consider attacking Osaka, because my eastern front had fallen and it looked like VP victory was slipping beyond my reach. Killing Ishida or capturing Osaka would give me an instant win. But of course that's easier said than done. I wonder whether this fall of Osaka victory condition is just meant to pose a constant threat to the Ishida player. The Ishida player must be wary of it, and the Tokugawa player can always attempt it if the opportunity presents itself.

Wednesday 23 October 2013

Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island

Plays: 1Px4, 2Px4.

The Game

Robinson Crusoe is a game I have read many good things about, so I was very much looking forward to it. It is a cooperative game, loosely based on the original story of its namesake. Players are stranded on an island. They need to survive, and they need to achieve the objective of the scenario that they are playing. The game comes with 6 scenarios, and each tells a different story. In the first scenario, you need to stockpile enough wood and start a fire to attract a passing ship, and while you are at it, the weather will get colder and colder, and you must get off the island before the end of the 12th round.

Every round there are many things you can do, and you need to decide which to do. Every player has two pawns, representing time and effort. You can use you pawns to do two different things, or do the same thing twice, or for some of the more challenging tasks, you can spend two pawns to make sure it gets done, or spend one pawn but risk failing. There are no player turns. Everyone discusses how the pawns should be used, and then the pawns are assigned, and actions resolved. You can explore the island, discovering goodies, finding new sources of food and wood, discovering natural shelters, encountering traces of wild beasts and triggering story elements of the scenario. You can build a shelter and improve it to protect you from weather and wild animals. You can make tools. Tools available vary from game to game, and every tool has some prerequisite, e.g. requiring wood, requiring another tool to have been made, and requiring a certain terrain type to have been discovered. You can hunt if you have discovered traces of a wild animal. You can collect food and wood from other parts of the island. You can choose to address threats. Every round one or more events occur, usually bringing bad news. They also leave behind threats, which if not addressed in time, will trigger further bad effects in a later round. Sometimes you just need to rest and heal your wounds, or be a clown and cheer up the group (improve morale, in game terms).

The first round of a game. Only a beach tile is revealed on the island.

The explorer is one of the four player characters that you can play. The row of hearts at the bottom is the health bar. If your health marker reaches the skull, your are dead and everyone loses. Friday and Dog are supporting cast. They give additional pawns. You use Friday in solo and 2P games. You use Dog in solo games, and it is recommended for 3P games too.

Lots of markers! This looks very intimidating at first, but once you understand them, they are mostly just useful reminders. You don't really fiddle with them much. The only type of marker you handle a lot are the Determination tokens (brown stars).

Brown, green and grey dice are to be rolled when you attempt Build, Explore and Gather actions with only one pawn. The dice will tell you (a) whether you succeed, (b) whether you suffer any injury, (c) whether an event occurs (usually bad). The red die is for wild animals invading your shelter. The white die and the orange die are weather dice, white having mostly snow and orange having mostly rain.

Right off the bat, survival is already a problem. With no shelter built or found, players will take wounds for sleeping in the open. There's also the constant threat of hunger. You take two wounds for eating no dinner - the only meal of the day. Also food cannot be preserved unless you have built specific tools, so any food not eaten will spoil overnight. Weather conditions, which are defined by the scenarios, also threaten survival. If your roof is not strong enough to protect you from rain or snow, you lose food and wood. On top of that, snowfall forces you to burn wood to keep warm, even if your roof is strong enough. Sounds like a game for masochists? Wait till you see the scenario-specific problems that the game also throws at you. That's where the fun begins.

Do not despair. There are things that help you. The tools are very important. In addition to the 14 possible tools you can make in every game, you also have two free random starting tools which are always helpful. Some scenarios and events give you treasures, which are usually very handy tools or one-shot powers. Each character has special abilities too. The scenarios have scenario-specific tools, which are usually crucial for completing your objective. Some are the objectives - you need to make those tools to win.

Fourteen tools are available to be made in every game. Nine of them (with arrows on both sides of the names) are fixed, the other five are randomly drawn. The upper half of the cards depict the requirements, which can be terrain types discovered, resources, or other tools. The lower half is what you get. E.g. to make a bow you need to have rope, a knife and also spend one wood. Once made, you increase your weapon level by three.

There are quite many rules details, and there are quite a few exceptions and special cases to remember. Don't be surprised to miss a few rules in your first few games. For this game, rereading the rules after the first few games is definitely worthwhile.

The Play

So far I have only played solo games and 2P games. The first few games were simply brutal. I learned the hard way about food-wasting. I happily went hunting, and gained a lot of meat. But I had no means of preserving it, and it all spoiled. What a waste. I also learned the importance of planning early to build a strong roof. Losing food and wood due to heavy rain and snow was painful. In these first few games, stockpiling enough wood felt downright impossible. The game was punishing, dealing out despair incessantly. It took a few games of learning from my mistakes before I gained a decent grasp of how to survive. I eventually won Scenario 1, using the Carpenter character whose special abilities include improved chances of successfully making tools and building things with less wood.

In this particular game, I had a headache and also injured my arm (brown broken-heart tokens). I was in bad health, close to dying. Friday too. Dog doesn't die though (no red cube - health marker). The card on the right is a treasure I found on the island. It is called Boxes, but it is effectively a fridge - my food doesn't spoil anymore.

This is bad... I had many events that caused food and wood sources to exhaust (black cubes covering the sources). Both food and wood sources at my camp (tent token) were exhausted which means I gained one food and one wood less every round. There was even an event that caused one of the previously explored tiles to become inaccessible (the one flipped over). I lost this game rather badly. In hindsight, I should have put more effort into addressing threats.

This was a game that I won. I found a natural shelter upon my first exploration - the mountain tile in the middle, and promptly moved camp and occupied the cave. That's basically a free shelter, saving me two wood. I also managed to build two tools that gave the free food and free wood tokens. Hunger was no longer a problem. This was a solo game so I only needed one food per round.

The carpenter character gave me my first win. I suspect this is the most useful character in the game, because tools are very helpful.

In the game I won, I managed to make 7 tools (bottom row, and rightmost tool in the middle row).

The scenario card. It specifies how many rounds are to be played, and when the beast and weather dice need to be rolled (top section). Four discovery tokens in the game have various red patterns. They mean different things in different scenarios, so the scenario card also specifies what they mean (middle left section). Scenarios usually have two scenario-specific tools that players can make (bottom right section). In this particular game, I successfully stockpiled enough wood.

When I played the second scenario for the first time, as a solo game, it almost felt too easy. I was helped by reasonably good luck - the treasures I obtained from the scenario-specific event all fit my purposes quite well. I fully exploited the scenario - I only explored four more tiles, because I only needed five tiles on which I could build wooden crosses.

This is Scenario 2 - Cursed Island. The objective is to build five crosses (each requiring two wood). The white cubes are mysterious fog which appears when certain event cards are drawn and when the third totem pole (and onwards) is found. Fog makes collecting resources and building crosses harder. The blue markers are the crosses.

I won Scenario 2 using the cook character. I gained a total of six treasures in this game. Three were because of a scenario specific totem pole event, the others were due to generic events. I was very lucky. Treasures don't come easily.

The scenario card for Scenario 2. Some scenarios have specific meaning associated with each totem pole discovered when exploring. Some tiles have a totem pole icon.

The two other treasures which I had used up, a beast I had hunted down, and the two starting tools that I had used up. The treasure Candles and the starting tool Hammer and Nails gave me extra pawns for building, and this was what allowed me to get so many tools made.

My first four games were solo games. The next four were 2P games with my wife Michelle. We started with the first scenario. We lost quite spectacularly twice in a row. Michelle immediately agreed when I suggested we make the game easier by adding Dog to the game (extra pawn which can only support an Explore or Hunt action). Two player games feel a little different from solo games. In the solo game, there is a free morale increase every round, which helps you get more Determination (required for triggering character special abilities), and makes the Arrange Camp action (improve morale and gain Determination) much less useful. Also you only need to feed yourself, so the fish source on your starting tile is already sufficient. Even if you want to move camp, as long as you move it to a tile with a food source, you won't need to worry much about food. I guess these adjustments are necessary because you have fewer pawns at your disposal. Else the game would become impossibly hard. But it does mean there is less variety.

When I played with Michelle, I tried not to guide her too much and not to help her decide what to do with her pawns. I reminded her about the threats we were facing, but I let her decide how she wanted to assigned her pawns and how much risk she wanted to take. She was a little discouraged by the initial losses, but once she had a better grasp of what worked and what didn't, and she won for the first time, she was more enthusiastic.

This was a game that I played with Michelle. We lost very abruptly when an event forced us to fight a beast which we were completely unprepared for. It turned out to be a bear, one of the most ferocious beasts in the game. I was promptly eaten. The bear choked on my bones and died too, but we lost the game (in game terms, when you hunt, you always succeed, and it is only a matter of whether you get injured and whether your weapon gets damaged).

In another game, we were killed by weather - one rain cloud, two snow clouds, and one animal attacking our palisade.

The Thoughts

Robinson Crusoe is a challenging game of risk management and crisis management. While you try to survive on the island, the game system keeps throwing new problems at you, and sometimes new opportunities too. You are constantly forced to make choices. Which threat do you address and which do you ignore? Among those that you need to address, which should get priority? Do you build a tool now so that you will benefit from it for the rest of the game, or do you try to eliminate a looming threat first? For many actions, you also need to decide whether to spend two pawns to guarantee success, or to use your pawns on different activities hoping you'll be successful in both and thus get more work done on the same day.

The game tells a convincing story. There are many event cards, treasure cards and mystery cards, so there is a lot of variety. The story elements are just various encounters you might have when stranded on an island (e.g. bad weather), or when you are building something (e.g. you hit your finger with a hammer), and so on. So they don't feel disjointed like how it can be in Tales of the Arabian Nights. Many events have a follow-up event, because after taking effect, the card is shuffled into the event deck, and the second effect takes place in a future round. E.g. you start getting headaches. If by the time the same card is drawn you have not discovered any cure, your headache develops into a full-blown migraine and you are out of action for one full day because you need to rest. There is no long plotline in the basic mechanisms, since it is just random events thrown at you, and many having a second delayed effect. However the scenarios do provide story arcs.

The game feels quite different between solo and 2P. I wonder whether it will feel very different again with 3P.

With cooperative games, one of the biggest questions is whether it will have the alpha gamer problem - will the game end up being one experienced gamer telling everyone else what to do? Before I answer that, one thing needs to be clear - the alpha gamer problem is a gamer problem, not a game problem. That said, I do think in Robinson Crusoe if you have an alpha gamer problem in your group, it will manifest more easily. There are no player turns. Each round is players discussing together how to assign pawns, and then the assignment is done simultaneously. There is no hidden information like cards being held by players. There is some complexity (e.g. player's unique abilities) that makes it harder for an alpha gamer to keep track of and remember everything, but once he is familiar with the game, these complexity elements won't stop him. If you are reading a boardgame blog, beware that you have a higher likelihood of being the alpha gamer in your group. :-)

Another big question is: is this game winnable only when you are lucky with the card draws and die rolls? I do think that sometimes when you have terrible luck, it is impossible to win. And sometimes when you get very lucky, the game feels a bit too easy. There is enough randomness in the game for both situations to be possible. What I feel is there is enough in between these two extremes to make you feel your effort is worthwhile and your decisions matter. The randomness in this game provides replayability, and sometimes creates interesting and even unexpected stories.

I think this game can work well as a solo game - not the basic solo game with one player character plus Friday and Dog, but solo games where you play two or more player characters. I think the game will present different challenges with different numbers of player characters.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

revisiting 2011 games eagerness ranking

Roughly once a year I force rank the games published in a particular year that I have played, which I find to be an interesting exercise. For games published in 2011, I made such a ranking in early 2013. Let's see whether I have changed my mind about these games, and also how many additional 2011 games I have played since then. The content below is mostly from my earlier blog post. Additional comments are underlined.

    Keen to play

  1. Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan - A tense card-driven block game, with simple and mostly text-free cards. It has bluffing, planning, and hand management. No dice. Whether you win or lose a battle is dependent on what cards you and your opponent are holding. However deciding whether to battle, which battle to fight first, whether to withdraw, when to play which card, which unit to commit to battle, all will determine the outcome of the battle. I have now bought my own copy - the second edition.
  2. A Few Acres of Snow - Deck-building not for the sake for deck-building. This is the deck-building mechanism supporting a game of conflict and development, and in this game it is a very appropriate mechanism. It's deck-building with a purpose, a context. But enough about deck-building. This is a game about the French-Indian War and how unwieldy it is for the British and the French to conduct warfare and develop their colonies. The two sides play very differently. The game is very thematic.
  3. Vanuatu - The unforgiving action selection mechanism is the only new (I think) mechanism and it is the single most talked about aspect of the game. However I also find the game to be well put together, to have good mechanism-theme coherence, and to offer plenty of player interaction. The whole package is a fine design. It is not just one nifty mechanism. Promoted from "Happy to Play" to "Keen to Play", because I remember it fondly and I miss it. I haven't played it for quite a while.

    Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan

    A Few Acres of Snow


    Happy to play

  4. Mage Knight: The Board Game - Fantasy themed game, but you don't roll dice all the time to determine the success or failure of your actions. The game allows you to plan ahead a lot. You decide how to best use you hand of cards, and many card abilities are deterministic. You can calculate the results. I'm not a particular fan of the fantasy setting (but I don't mind it). I like the game because of how strategic it is and how you grow your character to achieve more and more.
  5. Mondo - Real-time puzzle-like game, not unlike Galaxy Trucker, but more suitable as a family game. Elevated a little.
  6. Ninjato - From reading the rulebook it seemed like another worker-placement, multiple-ways-to-score-points Eurogame. But I liked it better than I expected. I think I like the risk taking. You train up your ninja and gather what you need to steal or to rob treasures. You need to balance between how much preparation to do and how much risk you are willing to take. Every mission is an adventure. It's nail-biting to find out whether a treasure is more heavily guarded than expected. It is tense when deciding whether to risk going for the next treasure in the house.
  7. Dungeon Petz - Buying pet monsters, taking care of them, and timing to sell them to the right customers to gain the most prestige for your pet shop. So many things to juggle, so many things to do. You need to guess how desperate others are in competing for the various pets, pet food, equipment etc in order to decide how you want to allocate your imps to compete. Dropped from "Keen to Play" to "Happy to Play", mostly because I have had the opportunity to play this once in a while, so I don't miss it as much as other games that I have not played as much.



  8. Friday - Solo deck-building game which is quite challenging. Needs a few plays to get the hang of it. Definitely worth the effort spent. Difficulty level can be increased as required. Quite fun to explore the strategies. Dropped from "Happy to Play" to "Lukewarm", because I feel I have seen all there is to see. I've played quite many games so I definitely have got my money's worth. It is still challenging and interesting, just that I have no urgency to play it again at the moment.
  9. Omen: A Reign of War - Not sure how this got here. My plays of this 2-player conflict card game were quite positive. Plenty of opportunities for clever use of card powers. I never had a bad session, but somehow I'm not so keen to play this again. Maybe I've just forgotten how much fun it is and need a refresher.
  10. Kingdom Builder - Chong Sean said this plays much better than it sounds from reading the rules. Maybe I will try this when I get the chance.New. Plays better than it sounds from reading the rules. There is variety and the strategy is more interesting than I expected.
  11. Takenoko - Pleasant gameplay, beautiful components, but nothing really pulls me back.
  12. Mundus Novus - Card game. Fun with set collection. Some special abilities thrown in. Not bad, best with a bigger group.
  13. The Road to Canterbury - Allen has a copy. It's in our unplayed list. I haven't even read the rules yet. New. Finally played it. Better than expected. Some brinkmanship. Some dark humour.
  14. Eclipse - Sorry, please don't take away my gamer badge. I would definitely like to try it if I get a chance, but I'm not eager enough to seek it out proactively. It's a multiplayer development and conflict game, executed beautifully. The "multiplayer conflict game" part doesn't particularly entice me because there are many such games around. I guess "smooth and streamlined execution" is not big enough a lure. New. I have played this now, but only the iPad version. Unfortunately the only games that I managed to complete were against AI's. The games played against Han and Allen took too long and they crashed. They disappeared, and we could not continue. I suspect a bug. The iPad version didn't thrill me much. I didn't read the rules. I only did the tutorial. If I get a chance to play the physical copy, maybe I will learn the rules properly and try to see whether playing the physical copy face-to-face is better.
  15. The Castles of Burgundy - Stefan Feld's games usually don't click with me, but this one may work. New. Not bad. Has the Feld trademark. It has the multiple-paths-to-victory thing that bores me a little, but there is also a spatial element and some risk management that I enjoyed.
  16. Ora et Labora - A building-powers and cube-production / cube-conversion engine-building game, the end goal being to score the most points. It has the Le Havre feel - many different industries to pick from and thus many different ways to score points. I have only played a handful of games and have not really explored it enough. Dropped from "Happy to Play" to "Lukewarm". It has differences from Le Havre, but I don't feel it is better than Le Havre. Maybe I just need to spend more time to discover its nuances and beauty.
  17. JAB: Realtime Boxing - Frantic real-time 2P game that requires quick pattern recognition and deliberate manoeuvring. Not as fast and furious as I had expected. You need to think a lot and think fast. Went up a little, probably because it's something unusual.
  18. Nightfall - I'm starting to find the colour matching for card chaining tedious. A game with 3P or more sometimes boils down to keeping a low profile and letting others fight one another.
  19. Power Grid: The First Sparks - Streamlined version of Power Grid with a different theme. Nice, but it didn't feel very necessary. Probably more suitable for people who don't like the maths in Power Grid. I don't mind the maths in Power Grid. Position dropped.

    Rather Not Play

  20. Risk Legacy - The idea of permanently damaging, customising and evolving your copy the game is interesting and fun, but it's still just playing Risk. I'd play it with my buddies, but it's not something I seek out. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play". Upon this revisiting of this list, many games have dropped to this category, because at this moment there are a few other games (some not published in 2011) that I'm keen to play, so my enthusiasm for these previously "Neutral" games diminished significantly.
  21. Airline Europe - Area majority is a big part of it. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  22. Lancaster New. It's a fine game, but there is nothing in particular that draws me back.
  23. Cave Evil - Squad-based combat game. Now that I think about it, it has some similarities to Summoner Wars. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  24. Urban Sprawl - Area majority games usually don't click with me. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  25. Flash Point: Fire Rescue - A cooperative game. A theme that people can easily relate to, but gameplay doesn't have a hook for me. It's "another OK game" to me. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  26. The Ares Project - The basic turn structure is simple, but I find that the game is bogged down by the many special abilities. The factions are certainly very different and unique. I wish the game were a bit more streamlined. If I can get more plays in and get to know the factions better I will probably like this better. So maybe I'm the problem, not the game. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  27. Yomi - Card game about 1 vs 1 fighting, using a rock-paper-scissors mechanism. It's much more than just rock-paper-scissors, but this core mechanism makes me a little uncomfortable. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  28. Undermining - Nothing wrong, but not very memorable either. Dropped from "Lukewarm" to "Rather Not Play".
  29. Hawaii - I recognise the solid mechanisms and the game balance, but to me it encapsulates the soulless, mechanical Euro. I don't want to play solid mechanisms. I want to play a game. The bottom three are still at the bottom, because I never gave them another chance to change my opinion.
  30. 1955: The War of Espionage - This tug-of-war can become a boring stalemate, especially in the late game.
  31. Carnival - Roll dice and use their powers to collect sets of cards. Simple; short-term tactical.

    Flash Point: Fire Rescue



These are not ranked. Just some quick thoughts.

  1. 7 Wonders: Leaders - A decent expansion, but I have not played much of it because I have not been playing 7 Wonders much. So I have not invested further in other expansions. This expansion is not getting used much at all because I rarely play 7 Wonders nowadays.
  2. Ascension: Return of the Fallen - Bought on iOS. Good to have more variety in the cards, now that I am playing Ascension so regularly. Some new concepts added, and they are simple and fun.
  3. Ascension: Storm of Souls - Ditto.
  4. Ticket to Ride: Asia - Have not yet played the Team Asia map, which I suspect will be the more interesting map. The Legendary Asia map is OK. More variety. Small twists added. I've tried the team game now. It's quite different and more interesting than the Legendary Asia map. If you want to buy this expansion, buy it for this team variant.
  5. Innovation: Echoes of the Past - Some new concepts added. Play this only after you're familiar with the base game, so as not to overwhelm yourself. It's nice to have increased breadth, but not absolutely necessary. I am thinking of getting this, but I have not been playing Innovation much lately.
  6. Power Grid: The Robots - Makes the 2P (and maybe 3P) games more interesting. It's a useful tool if you are often short on players. Otherwise not necessary.
  7. Nightfall: Martial Law - I'd say it's more of the same, i.e. good if you like the base game. Only a few small additions to rules.
  8. Evolution: Time to Fly - More animal abilities, generally a little more complex. You only need this expansion if you have already played a lot of the base game and feel like adding some variety.

Innovation: Echoes of the Past

Not Played

Some of the better known games published in 2011 that I have not played.

  1. The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game
  2. Mansions of Madness
  3. Quarriors
  4. King of Tokyo
  5. Elder Sign
  6. Eminent Domain
  7. Space Empires 4X - Han's copy is on my shelf. Maybe we'll get to play it soon, when he is back from his long overseas work assignment.
  8. Star Trek: Fleet Captains
  9. Village
  10. Discworld: Ankh-Morpork - Allen has a copy, but our unplayed list is long. I've recently started reading some Discworld novels, and they are fun.
  11. Guards! Guards! A Discworld Boardgame
  12. Trajan - Stefan Feld design that I suspect I won't like. (sorry)
  13. Battleship Galaxies - It sounded fun, but the buzz seemed to have quickly evaporated after the game release.
  14. Blood Bowl: Team Manager - The Card Game
  15. Panic Station
  16. Letters from Whitechapel
  17. Dominion: Cornucopia - My many plays of the computer version of Dominion in 2011 made me appreciate the game. However after that burst of plays against the AI's, I abruptly stopped, and didn't pursue further playing against humans. So I have no tried this expansion or the next one.
  18. Dominion: Hinterlands
  19. No Retreat! The Russian Front
  20. Fighting Formations
  21. Core Worlds
  22. Belfort - "Worker placement" is a dirty word to me now, despite the fact that there are some worker placement games that I like.
  23. Conquest of Nerath
  24. Star Trek: Expeditions - Knizia cooperative game.
  25. Olympos
  26. Last Will - I followed this game for quite some time, but after a while, it didn't seem all that unique other than the background story of trying to deplete your small fortune as quickly as possible.
  27. Colonial: Europe's Empires Overseas - Beautiful game, but the buzz seemed to die out quite quickly. What happened to this game?
  28. Glenn Drover's Empires: The Age of Discovery - Builder Expansion - I should play the base game more. I quite like it.
  29. Walnut Grove
  30. Quebec
  31. Pergamon
  32. Strasbourg - Jeff recommends this.
  33. The New Era - An improved version of 51st State. I enjoy the older game well enough, but have not been playing it intensively enough to feel like getting the improved version.
  34. Bios: Megafauna - If I had more time and fewer other games to play, I might invest in one of these Sierra Madre games which are very well researched and thematic.
  35. Singapore
  36. Coney Island - Because of how much I like China, I read up a little on this newer game by Michael Schacht. Didn't seem to be a lot to it, but then I think his games need to be played to get the real feel. The simplicity in the rules can be misleading.

Monday 14 October 2013

in photos: an arrow

21 Sep 2013. Um Reifenbreite, a game about cycling that won the 1992 Spiel des Jahres. I had not played this for quite a while. It was Shee Yun who suggested it when browsing my game shelves. I had forgotten many of the rules. Thankfully I have done a concise reference sheet before, which proved very handy.

You can say it's a roll-and-move game, but there are numbered cards which can replace bad rolls, and there are rules which mitigate luck and add strategy to the game. One of the key rules is drifting - when a cyclist immediately in front of you moves, you can drift, i.e. follow him and forgo your opportunity to roll the dice. This is useful when he rolls well. The game is played with teams of cyclists, so you want to use drifting to have your team members help one another, and you also want to use it to take advantage of other teams. There are ways of denying drifting, e.g. by playing cards (a limited resource) and by making use of features on the racetrack and positions of other cyclists.

Red sections are uphill sections. After rolling the dice, you must subtract the numbers on the red spaces. Orange sections are downhill sections. You add the numbers instead.

The game comes with many optional rules, e.g. tournament rules, even cheating rules. Too bad I don't play this often enough, so every time I play, I need to refresh myself on the basic rules, and then I don't play it for a long while, and then I forget the rules, and by the time I play again, I need another refresher yet again. Such is the life of a gamer with more games than he is able to play regularly. But then maybe it's not that bad that we regularly "visit old friends" in how we cycle back to old games we like now and then.

22 Sep 2013. Playing The Settlers of Catan with the children again.

I have played this game a few times recently, and I'm rediscovering how great it is. Not very complex, enough interesting decisions, some diversity in strategy, short play time. All the good properties of German games from the 1990's. I really should bring out The Settlers of Catan Card Game to play with Michelle again. It's a 2P only game, and it is more complex than the boardgame version.

Ticket to Ride. My copy is the first edition, with smaller cards, and the cards have black edges. This was before the game won the Spiel des Jahres.

29 Sep 2013. I indirectly bought this copy of Barbarossa from boardgame celebrity Tom Vasel some years ago. He visited Malaysia and left behind some games with a friend, who helped him sell them.

This is a riddle game. Everyone makes two or three objects out of play dough, and the others try to guess what they are. The key idea is your sculptures must be neither too hard nor too easy. You are penalised if others guess correctly early, and you are also penalised if others can't guess correctly at all. But you earn points if your opponents guess correctly at the right time. Naturally, making correct guesses yourself is another way to score points.

There are two ways to get clues during the game. Firstly, asking specific letters at specific positions of the word. Secondly, using a questioning mechanism - the active player can ask a sculptor any question as long as the answer will be one of "Yes", "No", "Maybe" and "Don't know". The questioning session continues as long as the answer is "Yes". Example of questions: Is it a living thing? Is it something you wear? Is it edible? Is it bigger than a house?

Can you guess what we made? I made those three on the left. Shee Yun (8) made those three in the background. Chen Rui (6) made the three on the right. What I made were: can, stocking, seat. Noone got any of them right! Shee Yun made: phone (mobile phone), pencil, magnet. Hers were all easily guessed. Chen Rui made: flower, carrot, potato. She meant it to be a potato, but she confused potato and turnip. Both Shee Yun and I kept guessing "P" and "potato" but she said we were wrong. Only after the game we realised she had made a mistake. Her other two sculptures were guessed correctly during the game.

During the game I thought I was going to lose, because of the penalty from noone being able to guess my sculptures. Then after I reached the game-ending score, I reread the rules and realised that if anyone reaches the game-ending score, he wins immediately. There is no need to calculate penalties. Penalties only apply in the other game end condition - when arrows are used up.

Every time a sculpture is guessed correctly, an arrow is stuck into it. Guesses are made individually and discreetly. When a player makes a guess, he writes it down on a piece of paper and shows it to the sculptor only. So even after a correct guess has been made, other players can still try to guess it and score points.

4 Oct 2013. The first play of my copy of Sekigahara 2nd edition. This was my third game, and the second game was quite some time ago. This time I played Ishida (gold) and Allen played Tokugawa (black). In the second edition, the starting setup has been changed, and Ishida is stronger in the east. He has two more Uesugi blocks. Unfortunately for me, this didn't help in this particular game, because I was very short on Uesugi cards in the early game. My armies in the east were gradually wiped out and there was little I could do.

In the west, I had an early victory, but also a bad loss due to poor cards (this photo). I lost much ground in the early game, and never quite recovered. That meant Allen drew one more card than I did, and also drew one more replacement block than I did, for most rounds.

Things got a little better for me by mid game. I was getting the right cards at the right time and I started to consolidate my forces in the west (right side of the photo). I managed to gradually push forward. I was short on troops, and had to spend cards bringing the Mori forces in Osaka onto the board. However it was still an uphill battle for me to try to capture enough castles and resource locations to be able to overtake Allen in victory points. At one time, he had his Tokugawa Ieyasu block near the middle of the board, i.e. near the front line. He had forgotten that if Tokugawa was killed in battle, I would win immediately. I was puzzled why he hadn't sent Tokugawa back to safety in Edo. He was far ahead in points and only needed to play safe and play defensively. I went offensive and caught Tokugawa with his pants down. Luckily for him he managed to escape, though just barely. Allen quickly assembled an army using the scattered blocks around the area, to protect the humiliated and running Tokugawa. I could not turn that golden opportunity into a victory, and I knew it would be hard now. What I didn't know though, was that Allen's hurriedly lumped together army was just a facade. It looked like a formidable force, but Allen only had one card he could play onto this army. If I had attacked with my slightly inferior force, I might have won, and it might have been possible for me to continue to pursue Tokugawa. In hindsight, I probably should have gambled, since the other option of trying to capture enough castles and resource locations was even less unlikely to succeed. Aaah... Sekigahara is such a delicious game of deception and bluffing.

Now that I have played Sekigahara again, I feel that it is really a simple and clean game. There is minimal clutter. The battle mechanism is very straightforward, and card play during battles is almost an autopilot thing, except for the Loyalty card element. The game is much more about the manoeuvring that leads up to the battles. It is about accumulating the right cards, getting the right blocks in place, and triggering battles in the right order hoping the new cards drawn after every battle will be useful for the next battle. You need to have some idea of what cards remain in your deck, even your opponent's. You need to remember the macro view and not get too absorbed by any single battle. Sekigahara is quite an exciting package.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Mystery: Axis & Allies 1914 battle board

I recently purchased Axis & Allies: 1914. The battle board, which is about 18cm x 20cm, needs to be punched out from a frame. I can't understand why. Why not just print it as an individual board? It is the only "component" on its component sheet. Does anyone have any guesses?

Saturday 12 October 2013

about reviews

There are quite a few problems with boardgame reviews. Not that they are badly written, just that in general they probably don't quite work as reviews.

  • It's a relatively small industry. Boardgames is a niche market. Not many people write about them. There are few (maybe none?) professional boardgame reviewers. Boardgame reviews is mostly still a cottage industry. That's not all bad, but that's what it is.
  • Most reviews are positive reviews. People write about a game usually because they are enthusiastic about it. If they play a game that they don't like, they probably won't bother writing about it. From reading boardgame reviews, you may get an impression that every game is good.
  • Reviews may be biased by preconceived notions. I'm already inclined to like the games I play. I come across this phrase quite often: "I wanted to like this game". The bias can be even bigger if it is a game I have bought myself. I have invested money in it, and I do want to like it. I'm not sure I can be fully impartial. In a way, this may be even harder than when reviewing a free copy given by the publisher.
  • Cliches. I try to avoid using these but I'm not always successful. "Multiple paths to victory", "interesting", "elegant", "strategic", "streamlined", "meaningful decisions", "fun". Sometimes I wonder whether it is a problem of reviewers running out of words and phrases to describe games, or a problem of there being so many games and thus it is hard for a game to differentiate itself.

Some of the things that may be useful to keep in mind when reading reviews:

  • Look for negative reviews. They can be much more entertaining to read, and also more informative. Sometimes what someone doesn't like may be exactly what you like. If you read many weaknesses of a game, and still feel keen to play it, then perhaps it is meant for you.
  • "Good" does not equal "I will like". Just imagine people who do not like Puerto Rico, or Agricola, or Twilight Struggle. It's actually not that hard to imagine. People can acknowledge how well designed a game is, even though they do not like it. So reading reviews should not be about ticking off all the good qualities of a game. It should be about asking yourself - will I like this game?
  • What game does it feel like? If it has a similar feel to another game that you've played before, that can be a good reference.
  • What the game is vs what the reviewer feels. You should try to be objective and keep these two apart. You may not react to the game in the same way as the reviewer. Your group may be quite different from the reviewer's. A game that is too rowdy and chaotic for the reviewer may be exactly what your group enjoys. Tense auctions and tight money to one person, may be just boring maths to another.

I find that reviews where the game has surprised the reviewer, whether by being better than expected or otherwise, are more valuable. The reviewer will be able to articulate a specific point (or a few such points), and this often captures the gist of a game and why the reviewer loves or hates it.

I always hesitate to call what I write reviews. Most of them are first impressions and not proper detailed reviews. That is why I always state how many games I have played, and with how many players, to give extra context.

I don't want to be a reviewer. I almost always decline when anyone offers to send me a review copy. I'm just a boardgamer who happens to enjoy writing about his personal boardgaming experience. Being a reviewer is too much like work. Sharing my personal experience is something I enjoy, whether the game is one I like or dislike.

Sunday 6 October 2013

Age of Steam: Korea with 5P

Fri 27 Sep 2013. I went to OTK ( because Jeff was doing a Martin Wallace night. He has been doing such themed game sessions frequently for the Friday night sessions, e.g. outer space theme, Kickstarter games, GMT games. Allen was thinking about getting Age of Steam. I have a copy, so I suggested why not try it before deciding. When we arrived, Heng was there, and the three of us decided to try the Korean map. The map in the base game is probably a bit too big for 3 players - not competitive enough. While setting up and explaining the rules, Ivan arrived. I asked whether he was interested to join us. He said yes. He has played Steam before, so we only needed to explain to him the few differences. Then as we were about to start, Jeff arrived, and wanted to play too. I couldn't recall whether Korea was suitable for 5 players. I knew it was a tough and tight map, but I couldn't find anything in the rules that said it could only support up to four. I was too lazy to switch to a different map, now that everything had been set up, so we decided, what the heck, let's just jump in. We'd know soon enough whether anyone would go bankrupt. It would be a fun experiment.

The Korean map is tough because building tracks on hills costs $3 extra, not the $2 extra in the basic rules. This $1 difference is a big deal. And Korea has many many hills. The few plains will be hotly contested and will be claimed quickly. The other important difference is that the demand of cities fluctuate. What a city demands depends on what cubes are on it. In the basic game, every city has a fixed demand for one particular colour. In Korea, a city may demand many types of goods (if it has many different coloured cubes), or it may even accept no goods (if it has no cubes). The demand changes when cubes are shipped away by players, and when cubes are added during the production phase. This demand fluctuation makes planning more challenging. You can easily get screwed by your opponents' goods delivery actions.

These are the tracks built in Round 1. Allen (blue) bid and paid for 1st player privilege. He built on plains, in the south east (upper right of this photo), and also in the centre. Jeff (black) went next, and built tracks mainly in the centre. I think he was hoping to keep his options open, giving himself many possible directions for expansion. Ivan (yellow) was third, and also had the Urbanisation action. That gave some flexibility. He built city E, and he started his railroad company in the south west (lower right). I (green) didn't have many options left, especially due to how the initial cubes were seeded. I wanted to make sure I could deliver something in the first round. I built in the north. Heng's (red) options were worse. He decided to build in the north east. Our networks were connected, which meant we had to compete head-to-head right from the start. I shipped away a purple cube in White City 1, which screwed him up because that meant he couldn't deliver the purple cube from White City 2 to White City 1 anymore. In Age of Steam, every little bit of income in the early game is crucial.

From left: Heng (red), Jeff (black), Allen (blue), Ivan (yellow). When you see people standing up to see the macro view and contemplating their moves so seriously, you know this is not an easy game.

From left: Allen (blue), Ivan (yellow), me (green), Heng (red). I think everybody was thinking "I'm screwed"... (photo courtesy of

On the Korean map there are two special links between Inchon, Suwon and Seoul, the three grey hexes connected to one another. Placing an ownership disk between two hexes is considered building a link between them, and this costs $2. I (green) made use of this, and later in the game it helped me tremendously in making long-distance deliveries. Plus, they are cheap too. I tried to expand southwards, but didn't manage to get far, because I was blocked by Jeff (black). Jeff himself was badly hemmed in too, blocked by Ivan (yellow) who was expanding northwards from the south.

Allen (blue) did not get much competition. I think it was partially because it was hard to try to compete in the south east. There weren't many cities available. Ivan (yellow) did try to block him by establishing a second network along the eastern coast.

Heng (red) connected to Pyongyang in the north. His had little space for expansion, and he was threatened by Ivan (yellow) creeping up along the eastern coast too.

Game end. Heng (red) grabbed the initiative and blocked off Ivan's (yellow) advance towards White City 2 in the north east. After a few twists and turns, I (green) managed to reach that city, and even managed to make a long distance delivery using that city. Jeff (black) eventually did manage to expand towards the south. Allen (blue) mostly stuck to the south, happily making money without being threatened much by others.

End game score. The company incomes were close throughout most of the game. We all struggled and we kept issuing shares. Towards the end I managed to make some long distance deliveries, which helped to push me slightly ahead. I always remember Age of Steam as being about these long deliveries, so I was a little puzzled why others weren't upgrading their trains. I was the only one with Level 6 trains. In hindsight, I think they were less aggressive in upgrading because it was hard to find opportunities for long distance deliveries. If they upgraded their trains too aggressively, they might only end up paying more maintenance fees and not really making use of their tech. The Inchon-Suwon-Seoul links helped me a lot.

I (green) won the game with more than 50VP. Allen (blue) and Ivan (yellow) had the same score, and Allen won by tiebreaker (cash). Jeff (black) and Heng (red) were both quite badly hemmed in, and came in 4th and 5th. Heng issued shares up to the limit of 15. Korea is a tough map!

In conclusion, it is possible for 5 players to play the Korean map, just that it will be brutal. Ideal player count is probably four.

Also see Jeff's account of this game.