Wednesday 25 December 2013

Kuhhandel Master

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Kuhhandel Master is an enhanced version of an older game, Kuhhandel a.k.a. You're Bluffing, first published in 1985. I had not played the original game before, but it did sound familiar. The new version can be played using the original rules, but since I learned it with the full new rules, I will now only want to play it that way.

Kuhhandel Master is a card game with lots and lots of auctions. You try to collect full sets of animal cards. There are ten types of animals, with four cards each. Let's start with the end game scoring. You score points for the complete sets you have at game end. Each animal type has a VP value. You add them up. Then depending on how many complete sets you have, you multiply the sum with this number. The animal VP values vary greatly, from 10 to 1000, but because of this multiplication that you need to do, you must not underestimate the value of the lowly 10VP animal.

On your turn you have two options. You can either draw a card from the deck to be auctioned off, or you challenge an opponent who has a same animal type as you do. When you auction a card, everyone else bids until only one bidder remains. You then have a choice of selling the card, or keeping it. In the latter case you pay the last bidder the amount that he has bid. When you challenge an opponent, you put one or two of an animal card onto the centre of the table, and he does the same. You then offer a number of money cards face-down. He has the option of taking the money and letting you get all the animal cards, or accepting the challenge. If he wants to fight for the animals, he gives you one or more money cards face-down. You both take each other's money, and secretly look at how much there is. Whoever has paid more gets the animals. It is through these challenges that animal cards will become grouped together, and once all 10 animal types have formed complete sets, the game ends.

The money in this game is one very interesting aspect. Everyone starts with: 2 x $0 / 3 x $10 / 1 x $20 / 1 x $50. Those $0 money cards may seem unusual, but they are an important part of bluffing. When challenging others, you can add those $0 cards face-down to make your opponent think that you've committed a lot of money. The game has a closed economy. There is no bank like Monopoly. You earn money from or lose money to your fellow players. Also there is no giving change. If you win a bid at $40, but are only able to pay using a $50 money card, you won't get the $10 change. Each time a donkey card is drawn, there is new money injected into the game - everyone gets one more money card, starting with $50 for the first donkey, and then $100, $200, $500 for the remaining ones. What this means is the value of money will deteriorate. If you are richer than your opponents, you want to take advantage of that before everyone gets the next windfall.

Two additional elements compared to the original game are rats and pedigree cards. If you have the rat cards set at the end of the game, it cancels one of your animal sets. This can be very painful because the number of animal sets you have is a multiplier for determining your final score. When a rat is drawn from the deck, the active player immediately passes it to the next player. This next player can accept it, or play a money card on it (face-down) to divert it to his next player. This process goes on until a player cannot resist taking the accumulated money cards, or he runs out of cards that he can add to the pile. When a rat owner challenges another rat owner, whoever offers less money takes all the rats at the centre of the table.

Pedigree cards are special animal cards. For each of the ten types of animals, there is one corresponding pedigree card. At game end, if you own a pedigree card and the matching animal set, you add 250VP to your VP sum before applying the multiplier (number of animal sets). If you own a pedigree card but not the matching animal set, you add 250VP after the multiplier is applied. Pedigree cards are auctioned using the Dutch auction. The active player starts a countdown from ten, ten referring to the number of money cards the buyer must pay to claim the pedigree card. As the countdown proceeds, any bidder can stop it, thus offering a specific number of money cards to buy the pedigree card. The active player may decide not to sell it. If so, he pays the highest bidder the number of money cards he offered.

Because of the rats and the pedigree cards, those $0 money cards become quite useful. These animals are won by the quantity of money cards and not by the value of the money cards.

Scoring example: My three animal sets are worth 500+350+160=1010. I have a dog pedigree card to go with my dog set, so 1010+250=1260. I have three complete sets, so 1260 x 3 = 3780. I have two lone pedigree cards, so 3780+250+250=4280.

The Play

I played with Allen, Heng and Jeff. This is a closed economy game, which means whenever someone becomes richer, someone else has become poorer. The wealth levels of players will go up and down, and it is important to gauge how strong or weak your opponents are. You want to challenge them when they are weak. Even when they are strong, sometimes you want to take the opportunity to challenge them too with the intention to lose but to earn a handsome sum from them. When they are rich they will probably be more willing to spend, especially when you challenge them with an animal card they are desperate for.

You need to watch what animals your opponents are collecting. You need to read your opponents during the challenges. Ideally you want to win by spending just a tiny bit more than them, or you'd want to lose but earn a huge sum from them. There is much bluffing involved. During a challenge, only the two players involved will know the amount that exchanges hands. The others won't know. During such moments the two trading players should try to mislead the other players, or at least try not to reveal any clues. Stay cool when you get a lousy deal, or pretend to be upset when you've just made a killing. It is usually in the interest of your trading partner to play along, because he would want to mislead the others too.

In the early game I probably spent too much money on buying animal cards, which left me weak for quite some time later on, and I had difficulty buying cards for some time. When others were later happily spending their money cards buying animals, I had to patiently collect money cards and rebuild my wealth. At one point I had a very full hand of many $0 and $10 cards. All I needed was for rats and pedigree cards to come up. And eventually they did, of course.

It was still early in the game and I was down to just a few cards.

I think in our game the donkeys came out quite early, so the additional money cards entered the game early. The $500 money card was already in the game at this point, because all four donkeys were out.

The tension ramps up as the game nears the end, because by then you get a clearer and clearer idea of who is leading, what animals each player may be targeting, and and what needs to be done to stop your opponents.

Heng won the game. He had the horses, which are worth 1000 base VP. This was not the only reason he won. He also captured other animal sets. The rest of us probably should have worked together harder to stop him. Overall the number of animal sets and pedigree cards won by the players were quite close.

When I had this many cards, and a pedigree card came up, I would pretentiously complain, "Do we have to start at ten? Why can't we start at fifteen?"

The Thoughts

On the surface this is a game about set collection, but the most important thing about the game is actually the auctions, which means you need to know how to evaluate the worth of a card or a set of cards. There is also an important bluffing and mind-reading element when you challenge others. The game is very interactive because you need to pay attention to what others are doing, how money is changing hands, and what cards have yet to turn up. You need to pay attention to the ebb and flow of the wealth level of the players, making use of your opponents' weak moments, and even their strong moments, when they are more likely to overspend.

The basic mechanisms are straight-forward. The evaluation of a card's worth is not always so.

Adding the rats and the pedigree cards doesn't make the game much more complex. Having learned the game this way, I think I will find it bland without these two elements.

Monday 23 December 2013

Merry Christmas!

I wish you plenty of quality time spent with friends and family playing boardgames.

Wednesday 18 December 2013

in photos: Tzolk'in Tribes and Prophecies, Monopoly

10 Nov 2013. I played The Settlers of Catan with the children - a game that Chen Rui (left, 6) claims is her favourite now, even though she is quite clueless about strategy.

Barbarossa, a clay-moulding guessing game. I made the three in the foreground. Chen Rui made the three on the left behind mine, and Shee Yun the three on the right. I made a van, a cello and a rope. Chen Rui made a rope (the one at the back, and that bulge is a knot), a carrot, and something else - I forget. Shee Yun made a fridge, a carrot, and an eraser I think.

We didn't use the play dough that came with the game. They look wet and oily. We used the children's play dough.

30 Nov 2013. The children persuaded me to play Monopoly with them. Of all games. We have plenty of decent children games at home, and they have to pick Monopoly. But I guess what's important is spending time together. And I realise I'm probably somewhat prejudiced against this game. The children don't have any preconceived notions. They treat Monopoly as any other game in my collection, and they like it. It is probably partially due to me having it on the iPad (I think I downloaded it when it was free).

We didn't finish the game though. We stopped after playing for about an hour, or slightly more. The kids were bored. See I told you Monopoly sucks.

We didn't use the toy credit cards and toy card reader that come with the game. I find them annoying and cumbersome. We used plastic coins I bought in Taiwan and paper money from Power Grid: Factory Manager.

13 Dec 2013. I played Tzolk'in with the Tribes and Prophecies expansion at This photo shows the prophecy board. The first quarter of the game (rightmost spot) does not change, but for each other quarter some special rules will apply and some special scoring will be done too at the end of the quarter. E.g. in Quarter 4 (leftmost tile) whenever a player gains a crystal skull, he must decrease his position at one temple. At the end of the quarter, you lose 5VP if you have no crystal skull. You are not penalised if you have one or two. You gain points if you have three or more. These prophecy tiles are randomly drawn and revealed before the game starts, so you can plan for them up front.

That big tile at the bottom is a tribe tile. You get two at the start of the game and pick one. Your tribe gives you a special ability throughout the game. Mine lets one worker take a stronger action than he is supposed to be able to, if I pay one corn (i.e. $1). I find this quite powerful.

In this particular game there were two monuments that gave points for tech achievements, and also one prophecy related to techs, so I focused a lot on gaining techs. By game end, I was maxed out on three of the four tech tracks. This game has quite many moving parts and players will need at least the first game to get a grasp of what's going on. In this game, two of us have played before and two were new to the game, and there was an obvious gap between our scores at game end. I remember I was quite clueless in my first game too, not knowing how to plan ahead and work towards some of the monuments.

My overall impression of Tzolk'in hasn't changed. The timing aspect of the worker placement is interesting, and once you get into the rhythm, it's a clean and clever concept. However the rest of the game mechanisms are quite typical of VP-scoring Eurogames - multiple ways to earn VP's, collecting resources to convert them into VP's, and some area majority competition. Overall still a decent game. I like the expansion and would prefer to always play with it, but if you're new to the game, start without it. It gives some variety. It doesn't change the game much.

Sunday 15 December 2013


Plays: 4Px1.

Bremerhaven and Le Havre are from the same publisher, and the artwork is done by the same artist. Le Havre is the largest port in France, while Bremerhaven is the largest port in Germany. However these two games are by different designers and are very different.

The Game

In Bremerhaven, every player runs his own port, and you try to score the most points at game end by maximising your wealth and your prestige. Victory Points = cash x prestige.

The core mechanism is blind bidding. Every round a number of ships (bringing in various goods), a number of trucks (demanding various goods), and various actions are available for players to bid on. Everyone has five cards of various values, and you take turns playing a card face-down next to the thing you want. Once all cards are played, they are all turned face-up. If more than one player have played cards on one spot, then whoever has the highest card value total wins and gains the benefit, while the others leave with nothing. There are two exceptions - the build action space and the card upgrade action space allow losers to take actions, but they have to pay the difference between their total card value and the winner's total card value. Once all competition at the centre of the table is resolved, players take what they have won and do their own thing at their player boards.

The top row is for the ships which bring various goods. The bottom row is for the trucks which demand various goods. The six action spaces in the centre row are: earn parking fees, gain a building card, perform a build action, upgrade a card, determine market prices, change turn order.

You make money mainly by taking goods from ships (for free) and then delivering them to the trucks (which pay you). You only have three berths for ships and four loading bays for trucks. Two of the loading bays are not even available initially. You need to do build actions to open them up. Every ship and every truck that you win will stay at your port for a certain number of rounds, thus tying up your berths and loading bays. The length of stay of a truck is basically your time limit to fulfill the truck's demand. If it leaves without all the goods it wants, you are penalised.

Money is just one multiplier for your final score. The other one is prestige. Prestige is not accumulated. Instead, it is a measure of the highest total prestige value you have ever achieved throughout the game. Ships and buildings have prestige values. Buildings, once constructed, stay forever, but ships come and go. So your total prestige will fluctuate. What is important is your highest ever achievement, not what you have at game end.

The player board. Berths for ships on the left, and loading bays for trucks at the top. Whenever a ship or truck arrives, you place a number of time tokens on it, and remove one token at the end of every round. Once all tokens are removed, the ship or truck leaves. Initially only the six spaces on the left half are available for temporarily storing goods and constructing buildings. You need to use build actions (and pay money) to remove the construction cards on the right half to make more space available.

Stars mean prestige. Ships and buildings have stars. The track on the right is to mark your highest ever prestige total.

Notice the bollards at the berths. Some ships specify a minimum number of bollards required. If you don't build enough bollards, you won't be able to get some of the larger ships.

Buildings give special abilities. The build action lets you construct buildings that you've won from the building card space, add bollards, and also expand available space at your harbour. The upgrade card action lets you discard the lowest card from your set of five, and replace it with a higher valued card. So you can compete better next round. The set market prices action lets you determine the prices of all four types of goods for that round. Trucks leaving that round pay players according to these prices. Naturally you will want to maximise your earnings and minimise those of your opponents, if they have trucks about to leave. If no one takes this action, prices are determined by a random card. The turn order action not only determines turn order. It also determines the tiebreaker advantage and the salary for the round.

At the end of every round, an event card (which can be good or bad) is drawn for the next round, and the game end countdown (either 1 or 2 steps) is also determined. The number of rounds in a game varies from game to game.

The Play

Ainul, Ken, Heng and I did a 4P game, all being new to the game. It all started peacefully enough, as we tried to figure out the game, but soon those moments of hey-why-did-you-put-your-card-on-the-same-spot-as-mine started coming, and evolved to become downright vicious competition. We had plenty of escalations as sometimes two, and even three, players kept committing more and more cards to the same spot. It was painful for all involved, even the winner, because he had to spend many cards. This destructive bidding that we had was probably partly due to a rule mistake we made. We had thought that the buy building card space allowed more than one player to buy a card. We had some rounds when the second or third player on that space paid to buy the next building card that came up. Since we had more building cards in players' hands than we should have had, the competition for the build action space was very heated.

The bidding can get very brutal. Look at how competitive it is! Green has committed three cards (out of five available), and Red and Blue two each.

That said, I suspect the bidding would still have been quite cutthroat even if we had played correctly.

I did not do much card upgrading, and my cards were the weakest. So I had to settle for going for spots that I didn't think others would want. In a way that helped, because it meant I got into fewer contests. But then sometimes it may be good to compete. If your cards are strong enough and you can read your opponents well, you will be able to kill two birds with one stone - win what you want and deny your opponents.

I had a building which let me adjust the duration the ships and trucks stayed at my port. I almost always made them stay for a shorter period, so that they tied up my space for less time, and I could do more business. It was very helpful. However it was Ken who did the best in making money. By mid game his wealth had shot ahead and he left us in the dust. I was quite sure he was going to win. In the late game he made a call which costed him the game. He wanted to boost his prestige. To do that he had to build bollards so that he could receive large ships with high prestige values. He invested quite a lot to do that. Unfortunately the end result turned out to be not worth the money he sank into this effort. Ouch.

The Thoughts

What I remember most about Bremerhaven is the brutal blind bidding wars. The logistics and coordination part with the ships and trucks are okay - not bad but not particularly exciting either. They mainly provide a context and an ever-changing backdrop for the competition in the bidding rounds. You must watch your opponents' boards to determine what they need and guess what they want. There is not much long term strategy. Player boards don't really develop to become very different from one another, although the buildings do provide some variety and player ability differentiation. The timing aspect is interesting. You need to be careful with your money. In the second half, you need to start scrutinising every dollar spent to make sure it will give you sufficient returns. If not, you are basically throwing away VP's. The prestige element is also about timing. You only need to hit a good peak once during the game. It doesn't have to be exactly at game end. You don't need to maintain a high prestige total throughout the game. You only need to orchestrate that one perfect storm. Planning for and grabbing that right moment is an interesting challenge, especially when you often don't get what you want from the bidding wars. One tough decision that sometimes comes about is after you have hit a decent peak, do you want to spend more effort to go for another even higher peak? Is there enough remaining time to do so?

Some won't like the unforgiving nature of the blind bidding mechanism. I think it is indeed quite harsh, but I find it very funny too. How players crash and burn spectacularly and get one another killed in the bidding rounds can be quite entertaining, even when you are part of that mess. My game being played with a group of crazy fellows certainly helped make it a fun experience. I can imagine if played with serious types the game can be a grim and merciless one. But then maybe some will like it that way too.

Sunday 1 December 2013

miscellaneous: Robinson Crusoe, buying games, format for gamenight, etc

Robinson Crusoe volcano scenario (#4)

I recently taught Han Robinson Crusoe. We beat the first scenario quite easily, both still in good health and with the bonfire all ready even before Round 10 when the ship sailed by. I have played the second scenario, so we decided to be adventurous and went straight to Scenario 4. This scenario only has 8 rounds, and from the 4th round onwards some spaces will be covered by lava from the erupting volcano, forcing you to keep moving camp (or die). To win, you need to discover a number of temples (represented by the totem poles on some of the terrain tiles) and do Exploration on them, drawing a certain number of Mystery cards (which can be treasures, traps or beasts). The damning thing is in this scenario where you desperately need to Explore (so that you can keep moving camp to avoid the lava as well as to find temples and explore them), the Explore action costs an extra pawn.

Han and I should have died in Round 5. We had forgotten about the lava, and our camp was overrun. We decided to cheat. We undid half a round to the end of Round 4 where we should have remembered to move camp, and continued from there. We eventually won, but it was quite close. We were both sick and badly wounded. We had barely enough actions to complete all the required Exploration. We were lucky with the final temple exploration. We only had one beast card. The other four were all treasures.

I find that for each scenario in Robinson Crusoe you really need to go in with a plan, knowing clearly how you should prioritise your actions. Some characters seem to be better suited for some scenarios. I can't say for sure yet, but it's my gut feel. I still feel the Carpenter is the overall best character, because it is important to build tools and shelter. The Explorer is useful in Scenario 4 because of the amount of exploring you need to do. The characters are important not only for their special abilities, but also for their unique invention. Having certain inventions available in a game can be quite useful.

Milsims in Melbourne

I didn't visit them. I was in Melbourne for a short holiday (all holidays are too short). Han, who had worked in Geelong (near Melbourne) for a year, recommended visiting the local game store Milsims. I visited their website, and found some very good deals in the sales section, e.g. Axis and Allies 1941, the simpler version of global Axis & Allies. If I were a completist, buying this would be a no-brainer. But I don't really need this game. If I feel like playing global Axis & Allies I'd prefer to play the Anniversary edition. So I congratulate myself - I didn't buy just because there was a discount, and I didn't buy just because it was convenient. Well done in controlling the impulse buy.

I'm sure I would have enjoyed visiting the shop. They do seem to have a huge catalogue. Just visiting and browsing and seeing so many games on the shelves would have given me a natural high, even if I don't buy anything. I checked my (quite modest) watchlist against their catalogue, in particular for games that I can't easily find in Malaysia. Their Second World War at Sea: Coral Sea was temporarily out of stock. If it were in stock, my determination would be a little shaky. I tell myself I don't need more games now, because currently there are many games in my collection that I am keen to play but am not playing enough. I shouldn't worsen this situation. This is probably why none of the recent Essen games rang the "must buy" bell for me.

The quota

I'm not going to hit the 18 games quota in 2013. I'm at 14 now (and three of them are Android: Netrunner expansions). Should I reduce this quota to 12 new games, i.e. one per month? I have been thinking about getting Cavum if I have quota left, but now that Allen has bought it, maybe I don't need to. Now I'm eyeing Clash of Cultures, which I have played once and quite like.

Monthly focus

This is one viable way to enjoy the boardgaming hobby:

  • Limit yourself to buying (or opening) one new game per month. Make that your game of the month. Play it more. Explore it in depth. Play other games too, but allocate enough time to fully appreciate that new game.
  • Sell games that you are not keen to revisit or are unlikely to revisit.
  • Keep the collection to a size where you expect to play every game at least once a year.

I know I won't be able to do this, but no harm theorising right? I know I probably won't be able to maintain any rigid discipline about one game per month, but at the moment I do have a handful of games on my hotlist that I hope to play more of and to learn the intricacies of. So it's not something I have to try hard to do, it's just that I won't be precisely keeping count. Selling games will be more challenging. Some games I keep for the nostalgia. Some I keep for "insurance" - maybe I will find time to play it one day, or it will be handy when I have a party at home (and I haven't organised any for at least two years). The hardest bit (close to impossible) is ensuring every game gets played at least once a year. I wrote a simple Excel macro which lists down for me games in my collection rated 8 or above which I have not played for more than a year. I, um... don't use it very often nowadays. It's too embarrassing.

A series of medium-weight games

I find that when I plan for a game session, the default mode is almost always to plan around one heavy main course, and maybe one more optional medium or short game, depending on how much time is left. I wonder whether it is because (a) nowadays many games tend to be more complex? or (b) the games I tend to like now are more complex? Why not plan 3 or 4 medium-weight games, each around 45min to 1hr long? I realise I have developed a blind spot for these medium-weight games, which are mostly Eurogames. They tend to get lumped into the category of "games you don't schedule game night around", a.k.a. "not a main course game". Or "filler". I should plan to play Metropolys again.

2 Nov 2013. Chen Rui wanted to play a game. I think she wanted to play Monopoly, but I wasn't keen on it at all, so I tried to persuade her to play something else. Eventually she picked Keltis, which I had not expected at all. She has never been particularly interested in it. I don't know why she picked it. I'm just glad I don't have to play Monopoly. Her hands are still small so she always struggles when there are many cards to hold.

She actually did quite well in this game! In the end she only lost by four points. Once she saw the final score, she quickly put her score marker (brown) on ahead of mine and declared that she had won.