Monday 31 March 2014

Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts

Race for the Galaxy: Alien Artifacts is an expansion I have waited a long time for, but I realise I have not mentioned it here even though I have already bought it and played four games of it. Alien Artifacts is not meant to be mixed with any of the previous three expansions. It was developed based on a reset approach, exploring how the base game can be expanded in a different direction. Because of this, I bought a second copy of the base game. So now I have two play sets, each containing the two separate expansion arcs.

The main addition in this expansion is, of course, the alien artifact itself, a.k.a the orb. The game starts with a derelict space station (built from cards) at the centre of the table, and during the game players use their explorer teams to explore this space station and to pick up goodies. They play additional cards onto the table to expand the explored space of the station. Naturally, anything to do with this space station exploration is done by playing the Explore action card.

This alien artifact component of the game is optional. The game works with or without it. The designer recommends starting without it and only using it after you get a feel for the new cards. So far I have played two games without it, and two with. Michelle's first reaction when we played was: where are the objectives? We have become so used to having them (since the first expansion) that they felt like a recently lost tooth - the tongue keeps going there to feel the hole. The game felt brisk and clean without the objectives and the prestige points (the latter being introduced by the third expansion). Not that I don't like these additions. I do enjoy them and think they make the game richer. However it is refreshing to play a version of the game without them. I don't remember whether I felt this way when I first played Race for the Galaxy before any of the expansions came out.

I haven't quite grasped the techniques and the strategies in the alien artifact aspect of the game, so I'm not sure yet whether I like it or not. It is quite different from mechanisms introduced by previous expansions, so I think many players can't help feeling resistant to change. It does feel a little cumbersome. It seems to me I am randomly picking up goodies and VP's when I explore the artifact, as opposed to pursuing a coherent strategy and improving my ability to execute this strategy. I guess you can consider increasing your military strength a part of increasing your ability to explore the artifact, but it is unlike other broad strategies. E.g. if you go for a consume strategy, you need to have production worlds, and you need to have cards with consume powers. It's something you can build towards and get better and better at. I don't get this feeling with the artifact exploration yet.

I will need more plays of this alien artifact component to get a better feel. Unfortunately Michelle and I don't play Race for the Galaxy anywhere near how frequently we used to play when we were at the peak, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to get a better appreciation of it.

Saturday 29 March 2014

in photos: Quarriors! and other iOS games

Quarriors! was free on the iPad recently, so I downloaded it. I wasn't particularly interested to try it beforehand, but since it was free and convenient, why not? In summary, it's deck-building using dice instead of cards. On your turn, you randomly draw some dice from your bag, roll them, and then execute actions based on the result you get. Dice generally represent your soldiers. The six sides of the dice normally represent either elixir or soldier. Elixir can be used to buy more dice into your pool. It can also be used to deploy soldiers (i.e. you have other dice on that turn where you have rolled soldiers). Soldiers have three main stats - attack power, defense power and scoring power. When you deploy a soldier, you send it to fight your opponent's soldiers (if any are in play), and then hope that it will survive until your next turn, when it will score for you before returning to your pool. I found the game rather plain. You are just racing to buy strong soldiers and deploy them as often as you can to score points until you reach the target VP. There is variety in the types of soldiers, and many have special abilities. Only some soldier types are in play in each game, so there is variability from game to game. I've only played two games against the AI, and after that lost interest. Perhaps I have not given it a fair shake.

I have played many games of Ascension on the iOS, almost all against other humans. I had all the big expansions, but I resisted buying the promo packs because I felt they had poor value for money compared to the regular expansions. I recently decided to just buy them all at one go. I've got so much play out of Ascension that I'm happy to further support Stone Blade Entertainment and Playdek. Some of the cards in the promo packs are quite interesting. This Rat King is one of them. When it appears, it places Giant Rats atop all other cards in the card row, blocking them. Giant Rats are strength-1 monsters which you must defeat to get to the cards they are covering. If you are able to defeat the Rat King directly, you automatically defeat all Giant Rats for free.

This Ender of Days is the strongest monster I have ever seen. It is worth 10VP, and when you defeat it, you trigger the game end. Unfortunately the contract between Stone Blade Entertainment and Playdek is only until end of this year. I understand Stone Blade Entertainment is developing a new version of Ascension. I wonder what will happen to the current version by Playdek (which I like a lot). Will it not work completely after 2014, or only online play will be discontinued? At the rate that I'm playing Ascension, I think I'll be buying whatever new version that comes out in 2015.

Booting up Tigris & Euphrates again after a long interval is like taking out the statue of Reiner Knizia and worshipping it again. Even when only playing against AI's, I can appreciate the genius and beauty of the game. It's a very open game where you create your own opportunities. There are tensions building, dangers lurking and weaknesses waiting to be exploited. The board situation can change dramatically as wars and internal power struggles change the faces of the kingdoms. It's quite rare for a Eurogame, especially one from this era, to be so bloody and vicious.

Monday 24 March 2014

Axis and Allies 1914 (World War I)

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The Axis & Allies series has always been about World War II. In this latest release, it explores a different era, that of World War I. Strictly speaking this should not be Axis & Allies anymore. It should be Central Powers and Allied Powers. Since this is World War I, there are quite a number of changes to the rules. The technology and the political situation are different in this earlier war. The playable countries on the Central Powers side are Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The Allied side has United Kingdom, France, Russia, Italy and United States. The objective of the game is to capture two enemy capitals. For the Central Powers, one of them must be Paris, while for the Allied Powers, one of them must be Berlin.

The flow of the game is similar to traditional Axis & Allies games. On your turn, you buy units first and set them aside. Then you move units on the board to fight. Only after combat you place the newly bought units onto the board, i.e. you will only be able to use them on your next turn. Finally you collect income based on territories you control. Here are some differences from earlier versions of Axis & Allies:

  • Technology: No bombers, no aircraft carriers, no destroyers. Tanks only get invented in Round 4, and they are weaker than infantry and artillery. However attacking tanks have the ability to absorb hits, which can be very useful. There is no rule for fighters to fly out and then fly back to land. They accompany land armies and never fight at sea. They mainly act as recon to boost artillery combat strength. Artillery can be paired with infantry or tanks to boost their strengths.
  • Land armies: Land armies must contain at least one infantry. You can't have armies of tanks or artillery or anything of this sort. You can't always decide to sacrifice the cheap infantry whenever you take a hit. Being short on infantry also means you may not be able to split your army, because each half needs infantry.
  • Land combat: Land combats are only fought for one round. If both sides have surviving units, they stay put, and the territory becomes contested. Neither side receives income from this territory. For in-progress battles, the active player may choose not to combat and just maintain the stalemate. This can be a good move, because attackers tend to have poorer odds, and sometimes you do want to stall.
  • Sea combat: When navies meet, combat is optional. However if the active player wants, sea combat can be fought for as many rounds as he likes. There are sea mines now. Each individual ship that approaches an enemy port is at risk of getting hit.
  • Production: You only produce new units at your capital, except that UK can produce in India too. No new factories can be built.
  • The Bolshevik Revolution: From Round 4 onwards, if Russia fares poorly and a specific set of conditions is met, the revolution occurs and Russia will exit the game.
  • USA: USA cannot start fighting until Round 4, unless the Central Powers attack it first or Germany robs its merchant ships.

The box cover is just as epic as they have always been.

The Play

I originally scheduled a four player session with Allen, Heng and Jeff, but unfortunately Allen couldn't make it at the last minute, so we did a 3-player game. Heng and Jeff wanted to join forces, so they played the Allies while I played the Central Powers. Jeff picked to play France and UK, so Heng played Russia, Italy and US.

Game setup: The full board. The Central Powers are Germany (grey), Austria-Hungary (bright green) and the Ottoman Empire (teal, i.e. greenish blue, or bluish green). The Allied Powers are France (bright blue), UK (light green), Italy (orange), Russia (brown) and US (dull green). Both Germany and Austria-Hungary have two fronts, and need to worry about how to distribute their troops. The Ottoman Empire needs to manage Africa and the UK troops from India, and also worry about its front with Russia. UK has no troops on the European continent yet, and will need a navy to ship them over from the British Isles. It can produce troops in India, to harass the Ottoman Empire and to fortify Africa. France only has one main front, so it is more straight-forward. Russia has all three Central Powers touching its frontline, and is under much pressure. Like France, Italy has one main front, to its north, but which side will gain sea superiority in the Mediterranean is still unknown, so there is a threat of amphibious assaults. US has very few troops, and will need to get busy preparing to ship units across the Atlantic Ocean.

At sea, the Allied Powers are slightly stronger. Every major nation has a navy, but the Allies are stronger in the Mediterranean. Things are more equal in the Atlantic Ocean, but Germany moves first and that is an important advantage in Round 1.

Africa is a patchwork of colonies, with few units guarding them. These colonies are hard to attack and also hard to hold. No one has production capabilities on the African continent itself, so it is hard to reinforce.

Game setup: The French-German border. Switzerland and the Netherlands (not coloured) are neutral countries. If they are attacked, defenders will arise to join the opposing alliance. Belgium is an aligned minor power. It has the same colour as France. If it is attacked by the Central Powers, new French units will materialise to fight the invaders. If an Allied Power steps in, it doesn't not resist, and is instead spurred into action, raising armies to fight for the Allies.

Game setup: The border between Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

Game setup: Egypt is guarded by a strong British army. The dark blue chip under the British infantry represents five units, so there is a total of six infantry. The light blue chip represents one unit, so there are two artillery units here. The Allies use blue chips, the Central Powers use red ones. Similarly, dark red means five, light red means one. The two British ships next to Egypt are a transport and a cruiser.

Game setup: The European continent from UK's perspective.

Game setup: There are many minor powers in the Balkan peninsula. Albania, Serbia and Romania are aligned to the Allied Powers, while Bulgaria is aligned to the Central Powers. Greece is neutral. When a minor nation is invaded, the number of units that arise to defend it is double that of its economic value. If Greece is invaded (economic value = 2), there will be 1 defending artillery and 3 infantry.

In Round 1, there is a special rule where Austria-Hungary must attack Serbia. This marks the start of World War I.

The fight is on! Oh look at those thundering armies shaking the camera. On my first turn as Germany, I invaded Switzerland to create a flanking path (and there goes historical accuracy...). Belgium is now contested, occupied by armies from both sides. In the top right corner you can see Germany has conquered Denmark. Now the French are counter-attacking.

My German naval strategy was to sink all British ships as long as my fleet lasted, without investing more in building ships. This is commonly used in traditional Axis & Allies games. It is a delaying tactic, trying to hold off D-Day as long as possible, while USSR is being dealt with. It turned out to be quite effective here too. I destroyed the British fleet twice, the starting fleet plus one newly built fleet, before the combined Allied fleet destroyed my navy. However we later realised we missed one important rule. For the first two rounds, we forgot about the sea mines rule. If we had remembered that, my German navy might not have lasted that long.

Another rule we missed in the first two rounds was the artillery pairing rule. Some infantry should have fought with a higher strength. If we had played this correctly, there would likely have been higher losses. That probably would have made things worse for Russia, which had a tight budget.

Austria-Hungary (bright green) pinned down Italy (orange) to allow Germany (grey) to focus on France (bright blue) and UK (light green).

The game doesn't come with enough pieces. I had to borrow German infantry and also plastic chips from another Axis & Allies game. Jeff said this black German soldier took a time machine to return to World War I.

Africa is all about these small-scale battles, which tend to be quite iffy. Germany just conquered Belgian Congo, and now UK promises revenge.

France used transports to send troops from North Africa down south to contest the African colonies. Germany had no production capability in Africa and the German troops could only retreat.

Now there are only two German soldiers left.

In the Middle East, UK eagerly invaded the Ottoman Empire from Egypt. My Turks didn't concede so easily, and had already prepared to counter-attack. We ran out of red chips, so the Central Powers had to borrow some of the blue chips from the Allied Powers.

The Ottoman Turks have now destroyed the British Egyptian army, and are threatening Africa. Jeff never did build many British units in India, and thus never seriously exerted much pressure in this area. On land, Persia and Afghanistan, both neutral nations, lay between India and other territories. Both Jeff and I were reluctant to be first to invade these neutral nations, lest it thinned our forces. These nations remained a protective wall until the end of the game.

Once the Turks broke through to Egypt, they were unstoppable. The remaining Allied forces in Africa gathered in Sudan to set up a united front, but it proved too weak. The riches of Africa were mine for the taking.

After the Ottoman Empire became rich, it invested in a new navy to contest the Mediterranean Sea. Italy was getting poorer and poorer and it couldn't afford more ships. UK was unwilling to invest in ships in this arena. So the Allied Powers were still using the old ships they started the game with.

Towards the end of the game, the Ottoman Empire conquered half of Africa, and also controlled the Mediterranean Sea.

Let's now move to the Eastern Front.

Austria-Hungary invaded Ukraine, bringing along an airplane. Airplanes were a new technology during World War I.

The Russians put together a strong counter-attack, concentrating many armies here to drive off the Austria-Hungarians.

At the end of a bloody combat round, the Austria-Hungarians only had these units left.

The Germans invaded Poland when the Russians were busy fighting off the Austria-Hungarians. The Russians quickly returned to fight the Germans. Look at that huge stack of artillery which just came back from the other battle. The Germans had a fighter though, which gave all their artillery an advantage.

Russia simply didn't have enough GDP to cope with the joint assaults of the Central Powers. Its line of defense eventually crumbled. Now Heng had to contemplate how to manage the downfall of Russia. Round 4 was here, so the Bolshevik Revolution was an option. In fact, it was the better option. If would prevent the Central Powers from capturing more land. It would also prevent the Central Powers from capturing Moscow and stealing the Russian treasury, which would be a major boost for them. The conditions for the Bolshevik Revolution are (1) Moscow not yet fallen, (2) three territories next to Moscow controlled by the Central Powers, (3) one more other territory controlled by the Central Powers.

An Ottoman army is right next to Moscow now.

Fighting had commenced in Moscow. I was just one soldier short of capturing Moscow and preventing the Bolshevik Revolution. There was just that one single Russian soldier holding out. Aarrgghh!!

The Bolshevik Revolution was triggered. Russian territories captured by the Central Powers now belonged to them. Contested Russian territories could no longer be fought over, and the Central Powers must leave at least one infantry in such territories. With nothing else to fight for in the eastern front, my armies now hurriedly marched towards other fronts where they were needed. With Russia out of the picture now, I had one front less to worry about, which was a great relief.

Now let's look at the western front.

My German armies pushed steadily westwards. I had captured Switzerland and Belgium, but I didn't want to attack the Netherlands, worried that it would sap my strength. The Dutch stayed at peace for the rest of the game, despite the bloody fighting right at their border. At this point, although I had reached the outskirts of Paris, I knew my supply of troops had dried up and I wouldn't be able to go further. I was later pushed back towards the original French-German border.

At this point, the German navy had been sunk, and I didn't want to spend any money on ships. The British could freely unload troops onto the European continent. That meant I had to carefully defend my entire shoreline. I had to watch out for any surprise amphibious assault on Berlin. My purchases were quite conservative. I always bought many infantry units, and only supplemented that with a few artillery units, and occasionally fighters and tanks. I was defending using numbers. Every round I marched my units westwards along the coast (except for the detour past the Netherlands). This achieved two things - I defended my shoreline, and also maintained the pressure on the western front.

The most epic battles of the game took place in this area. The Americans had landed now (dull green). In this photo, my western front was broken. However I did have many troops on their way to fill the gap. At this point in the game the Russians were already out, so Austria-Hungary could now help out on the southern flank of the western front.

The Americans had built a massive fleet of transports and set up an impressive shipping line across the Atlantic.

The Americans landed in Denmark and captured it, but the Germans soon came to kick them out.

The Austria-Hungarians did well and went all the way to the doorstep of Paris. Ruhr was not empty. It was too crowded and we had to temporarily move the units off board. There were a few massive and intense battles in this vicinity. The Allied Powers fared poorly, and this sealed their fate. The Central Powers were economically stronger by this time, and if the Allies could not break through, they were doomed in the longer run because they would not be able to keep up with the production power of the Central Powers.

These are the units actually in Ruhr. My German airplanes gave me air superiority, making my artillery more effective. In every battle, if both sides have airplanes, they must dogfight until at most one side has any airplane left. That is the side which will enjoy air superiority.

Italy had been poor for many years, and could not match the production power of Austria-Hungary. In the early game the Italian navy gave the Austria-Hungarians much grief, dropping Italian troops in its backyard - the Balkans. By now the Italian fleet had been sunk by the Ottoman fleet, and it was the Ottoman Empire's turn to be the bully in the Mediterranean.

We played till Round 9, which took about 7 hours, excluding rules explanation and lunch break. The Allies conceded defeat. They had not lost any capital, but we knew it was only a matter of time. The momentum was irreversible. Looking back at the game, I could not say what exactly the Allies did wrong. I could only think of Indian UK not being aggressive enough possibly being one contribution to the Central Powers' victory. Or perhaps the Russians could play more conservatively, intentionally choosing not to fight already-engaged battles on its turns. If I look at the Central Powers perspective, I think one thing I got right was my shopping policy. I insisted on buying a lot of infantry, and on maintaining a steady stream of them to the front line. I kept up a constant pressure. I'd like to think German precision and manufacturing won the war. That was how it survived this war of attrition.

This was the economic situation at game end. Germany was the richest, followed by Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. Italy was the poorest. This sheet was downloaded from BGG and did not come with the game.

This was the board situation at game end. The Ottoman Empire was unstoppable in Africa, and it was preparing to attack British India. Paris was surrounded, but would probably still last a few rounds. The British and Americans were likely going to lose their foothold on the European continent soon.

The European continent at the end of World War I. Greece remained neutral. No one wanted to mess with it.

The Thoughts

Both Jeff and Heng agreed this is their favourite Axis & Allies game so far. I was a little surprised at that comment, because despite enjoying the game very much, it didn't strike me as being particularly outstanding from its brethren. Although there are many changes to adapt the game system to World War I, I feel the core engine is mostly the same. To a large extent, it is a shopping game. You need to plan ahead and know what units to buy for the coming turns. The selling points of the Axis & Allies series have always been: (1) it is quite accessible and is not too complex, (2) there is still sufficient strategy to be rewarding, (3) it is very good looking. It's a game system which allows you to have fun rolling lots of dice. The adjustments made to this 1914 version were all very well done.

The granularity of the game is appropriate. It is not overly tedious like the combined 1940 game (but I do think AA1940 Pacific and AA1940 Europe played by themselves are fine). It's still a long game, so it's something you want to plan almost a full day for. But it's a satisfying and fun experience. I'd recommend a lower player count, at most four, so that you don't wait too long for your turns.

The dice that come with the game are quite small. I think that's a good decision, because it means you can roll many of them at one go. It's exhilarating and also simply fun.

Heng and Jeff. Guys, the victory sign is from World War II. It's a Churchill thing. You got your history mixed up.

Note: A big thank you to Jeff for providing some of the photos (the better-looking ones).

Saturday 22 March 2014


Plays: 4Px1.

The Thoughts

I wasn't keen to try Nations. From the reviews that I had read, it seemed to be just a simplified and inferior version of Through the Ages. However now that I have played it, I think it is a decent civilisation game in itself, and the similarities with Through the Ages are just skin-deep. It has it's own engine and tempo, and it's own mechanisms for handling the various aspects of civ games. I guess it is hard not to compare it with Through the Ages, because it was indeed inspired by this Vlaada Chvatil magnum opus. It has no map and it uses cards as the main mechanism.

It is a good civ game. Relatively easy to teach and play, but still satisfying. It is not short (around 2hrs), but I think civ games shouldn't be short anyway. E.g. I'd call Tempus a civ-themed Eurogame and not a civ game. Civ games need to be meaty and epic. I'd happily play Nations again if anyone suggests it.

The Game

Nations is played over four ages, with two rounds per age. Within a round, players take turns executing one action, until everyone passes. There are only 3 types of actions: (1) buy a card from the central board, (2) deploy a worker to a building or army card, (3) employ an architect to build one section of a wonder. Each player has his own player board representing his nation, and there are limited slots for different types of cards - leaders, buildings, armies, colonies and wonders. When building and army cards are claimed and placed onto your board, they don't give any benefits yet. You need to deploy your workers onto them to trigger resource production or gain military strength. Colonies can only be claimed when you have sufficient military strength. They give some benefits every round. Wonders usually require a few architects to complete, and architects need stone. The number of architects in the common pool each round is limited, so they need to be fought over. You can only construct one wonder at a time. Once completed, it gives a long-term benefit.

This is the central board from which players buy cards. With four players, six slots are used for each row. Cards in the top row are the most expensive, $3 each. Cards in the bottom row are $1 each.

This is a player board. It comes pre-printed with four basic building cards and one basic army card, so they are already available to you at the start of the game. At this point I have deployed two workers to become soldiers, so my strength is 4 now. The slots on the board are a hard limit. For each type of card if you buy more than you have slots for, you will have to discard an older card to make way for the new one. The eight workers at the bottom left are for population growth. You have one opportunity for growth per round, but every growth means a permanent grain consumption increase or stability decrease. Making babies must not be taken lightly.

There are three resources to manage. Money is mainly for buying cards. Everything in the game is about cards, so running short of money is a bad idea. Stone is for hiring architects and deploying citizens. If you are short on stone, you can't shift your people to better buildings or to become stronger armies. Your people will be less mobile. So stone is important too. Grain is usually for feeding armies, and every round there is a famine which will consume grain. If you increase your population, you need to consume more grain or decrease your stability level. So you can't live without grain either.

Warfare is non-directed. You don't attack a specific opponent. Every round only one player can buy a war card, which will later affect everyone. When you buy that war card, you mark your current military strength. This is the scale of the war. At the end of the round, anyone with a lower military strength will become losers in the war. Losers lose 1VP (which is a lot), and also some resources as depicted on the war card. Resource loss can be mitigated by your nation's stability level. War cards can be used by militarily strong nations to bully all other nations. It can also be used by weak nations to protect themselves. By setting the scale of the war low, they won't need to fear losing the war.

Another aspect that players compete over is the culture level ("books"). Culture scoring is done at the end of every age, i.e. four times per game. You score 1VP per less cultured opponent. In a 4P game, the best case is gaining 12VP for being most studious.

There are some opportunities for scoring points during the game, but most of the scoring is done at game end by evaluating your nation - the wonders, buildings, armies, colonies and resources accumulated all give points.

The Play

I played this at with Ivan, Dith and Jeff. Ivan had read the rules and taught the game. Dith had played solo before and helped. Jeff and I were the pupils. Turn order was randomly determined, and I found myself the start player. The initial card distribution had many colonies, so up front I decided to go military so that I could grab colonies. It turned out I stuck to this motto throughout the game. I never spent much effort on my culture level, and as the others sprinted ahead, I decided to drop out of school (kindergarten) and just focus on being a gangster. No point trying to do both and end up being good at neither. However it was not all smooth sailing for me in the military world. Jeff competed with me, and later on so did Ivan. I had to keep up the arms race, which costed much effort and resources. Dith was the only one who ignored military. He focused on culture, and used stability to protect himself from wars. However he still had to lose the 1VP for each time he lost a war. No mitigation for that.

Nations has a worker placement feel, and it's not because of the workers that you deploy. At the start of every round, there will usually be multiple cards on the central board that you want. However you can only pick one, and you need to be prepared that whatever you don't pick may get picked up by your opponents before your turn comes around again. Not everyone will want the same things. So, you need to observe your opponents' nations to guess their intentions. E.g. if no one else is building a wonder, it is probably safe to postpone claiming an architect for the moment.

Yellow border cards are golden age cards. You gain goods or VP. They are single-use cards and do not get moved to your player board. Grey border cards are battles and are also single-use. You gain resources based on your military tech. Black border cards are the war cards. The lower half shows what resource and how much of it the losers must discard. Orange border cards are leaders. Red border cards are armies. Blue are buildings. Brown are wonders.

This is the tracking board. The outer track is for culture. I (green) am still an uncultured barbarian drawing stick figures on cave walls. The track at the top is the stability track. Dith (yellow) has the most stable nation. The track at the bottom is the military track. Jeff (red) and I are the strongest. On the left are two slots for the war card and the event card for the round. On the right is the round tracker. That section in the middle is the difficulty indicator. We all played at Chieftain level (easiest). At the start of every round we received 4 free resources. This bonus is reduced at the higher difficulties.

I now have a leader (top left) and also two colonies (bottom left). Three of my five citizens are soldiers. This is Sparta!!!

Near game end. I started building wonders late, but managed to build four before the game ended. I grew my population twice (two blank spots at the bottom left). The red (army) and blue (building) cards have VP indicators (small yellow circles with laurel wreaths) which means workers on them are worth VP's.

The final scores. Ivan and Dith tied for the win. The five rows are: VP chips, colonies, wonders, buildings and armies, resources. At game end, stability level, culture level and military strength are all treated as resources and converted to points (at the rate of 10 for 1VP). At the start of the game everyone starts with 7VP chips. Throughout the whole game I had a net gain of 1VP chip!

Friday 21 March 2014

Roads and Boats

Plays: 2Px1.

The Thoughts

Roads and Boats is a four-hour, complex Eurogame from Splotter Spellen. You build and manage a complex ecology of factories, transportation network and transporters (vehicles/vessels). It is a development game, an engine-building game as well as a pick-up-and-deliver game. That in itself doesn't sound all that remarkable, but somehow Splotter still manages to put together a game with their unique signature. It is satisfying to see the economy evolve and to have built your little empire. There is a story progression similar to Le Havre. What you need and what you do differ from early to mid to end game. There is a mean streak in that land, buildings and goods do not belong to anyone - you only own transporters and the goods they are carrying. It doesn't matter whether you built the factory or whether the good was produced from "your" factory. The game can be aggressive and confrontational with players needing to protect their turfs using walls and then also demolishing those walls to penetrate "enemy territory".

The game is a race against time to produce the most valuable (victory point-wise) goods in as much quantity as possible. I constantly feel a sense of purpose throughout the game, and time flies by. Producing shares (the most valuable good) is a long and challenging path where long-term planning and meticulous coordination are required.

The Game

Each round of the game has four pretty straight-forward phases. First is production. Buildings that harvest natural resources like clay pits, woodcutters, stonemasons, and oil rigs always produce goods. Buildings which turn raw materials into finished products produce only if the required input is supplied. Second is movement. All transporters like donkeys, carts, rafts and ships move, load goods and unload goods. This is when raw materials need to be supplied to factories or to construction sites. Third is construction. Roads, bridges, buildings and walls are constructed. Fourth is wonder construction. This is basically a countdown mechanism. Every player has the opportunity to contribute goods at his home tile towards building a wonder. Victory points will be rewarded depending on the contribution. When the wonder completes, the game ends. Regardless of whether anyone contributed to wonder building in a round, a neutral brick is always added to the wonder, so the clock is always ticking.

The main way of earning victory points is by producing goods which are worth VP - gold nuggets are 10VP, coins are 40VP, shares are 120VP. Naturally, the higher the VP value, the more difficult it is to produce. Players need to set up a complex production chain, and also a good supporting infrastructure - roads, bridges, and transporters - to make sure it runs efficiently. It is important to produce improved transporters because at game end, only goods loaded onto your transporters belong to you and are thus worth VP's to you. So you want transporters with high load capacity.

The Play

Most players think the game is best with two, and I know it's a long game, so for my first game I decided to just do a 2P game with Allen.

We used a 2P map recommended by the rules. It has some rivers which will be helpful. I (green) picked a tile next to the lake as my home location, because there was a mountain tile (reddish brown) next door on which I could potentially build a mine, and the stone plain (grey) which I could potentially quarry stone to make bricks was not far away. However later on Allen built a board factory on the mountain, so I could not build a mine there anymore. He picked a starting location right next to the other stone plain, and he quickly built a stone quarry there. Both our home tiles were forests (dark green with spots), and we built woodcutter huts to harvest logs.

The larger squares are the production buildings while the smaller squares are the goods. At the start of the game I had three donkeys to carry my goods. See how busy they are. I didn't quarry stone to make bricks. I built a clay pit on the river bank instead. Clay collected can be brought to a brick factory to be turned into bricks. That does mean one additional step compared to directly quarrying stone and making stone bricks, but each unit of clay can be turned into two bricks, so there's an advantage too.

I use the two smaller containers for the goods, and the larger tray for the buildings and other components.

Before the game starts, you need to place a transparent plastic sheet on top of the terrain tiles. During the game, when you build roads or bridges, you use a marker pen to draw them directly on the plastic sheet. This can be rubbed clean after the game. At this point in the game Allen and I had started building roads (black lines). Notice in the lower left there are two geese. When left alone on a pasture (light green tile), two animals (no more, no less) will breed and produce a third animal. There must be no building, no transporter and no goods around. They like their privacy.

You can see here the goose offspring. Also Allen and I have extended our road networks. Allen has built a raft factory, the light blue square next to the river. Rafts are the most primitive water transporters.

The only use of geese in the game is research. You need two geese and one paper to research a new technology. Don't ask me. I have no idea how this links to real life. Technology provides access to more advanced forms of transportation, specialised mines, and the oil rig.

At one point in the game Allen sent a rogue donkey into "my" area and stole my goose. I had previously bred geese, and had discovered one transporter technology. I maintained two geese so that I could continue to breed them for research. I had been neglecting them when Allen's donkey marched in and grabbed one of my unattended geese. Geese are a type of goods and thus don't belong to anyone if not loaded onto a transporter. This rogue donkey incident brutally reinforced this principle. With one goose left, I was not going to be able to breed geese anymore (well, unless I could steal one back from Allen), and my research was at a dead end. I quickly resolved to end the game as early as I could. If the game continued for long, Allen would gain a technological advantage over me. I contributed to building the wonder as much as I could, to expedite the game end.

Allen and I are now busy shipping raw materials upriver to construct new buildings there. There are mountains (reddish brown tiles) upriver, and gold to be mined!

This was the first mine (the brown pillar) ever built. That little bag represents the mine. Whenever a new mine is built, you place three iron ore and three gold ore into a bag with the same number as the mine. Thereafter you randomly draw an ore out of the bag at every production phase. When I first opened the game I was puzzled why they gave such small bags to store the game components. Only after I read the rulebook I realised the bags themselves are game components. Allen also bought a copy of Roads and Boats and he only realised this when I told him. He didn't remember whether he had thrown these bags away. Time to hunt.

We now had carts, the medium-level land transporters. Cart factories are pink. Allen built one near the bottom right, I built one at the top left.

At this stage we had five mines in total built, two built by Allen, and three by me. Allen had the specialised mine tech, which meant he could build mines that only produced gold. My mines randomly produced gold or iron. However mines don't really belong to anyone. You just need to have a transporter on site and priority in turn order to grab the newly produced ore. So Allen and I stole each other's gold in alternate rounds. The player in later player order always has priority to trigger a change in player order.

These bars placed at tile borders are walls. After than rogue donkey incident I became more conservative and played more defensively, building walls to stop Allen's transporters from making excursions into my area. Walls can actually be used offensively too, blocking opponents from buildings that they themselves build. It's nasty! Natural wood coloured walls are neutral walls, and don't hinder movement. You place a neutral wall when you demolish an opponent wall. It is a reminder that future wall construction on the same spot will be more expensive.

That black square tile in the foreground is a mint, which produces gold coins from gold nuggets. This was as far as Allen and I managed before the game ended. We were not able to build stock markets, which are the ultimate form of wealth. Although I did try to speed up the game end by actively contributing to wonder construction, I think not reaching stock markets is more due to our own inefficiency.

Our game took about 4 hours, but there was little downtime, because players execute action simultaneously unless there are points of conflict. I was constantly engaged, and in fact I felt pressed for time. I wanted to go for stock markets, but time ran out. It amazes me how a 4-hour game can make me feel I don't have enough time.