Thursday 15 May 2014

revisiting a classic - Francis Tresham's Civilization

My one-epic-game-per-month scheme is going well. For May, I picked the 34-year-old Civilization, and managed to put together a 5P game. I have played 3P and 4P games, about 5 years ago, so this time I wanted to try a different player count. I didn't dare to go too high though, since the game is long. I had expected our 5P game to last about 5 hours, but we ended up playing for 7 hours! And that's excluding rules explanation. However I was very immersed in the game and it didn't feel that long to me at all.

I bought my copy from eBay quite a few years ago, soon after my initial plays. It's the Gibson Games version and not the Avalon Hill one, so it's much cheaper. My copy is quite old. The game box, game board and rule book are all yellowing.

My four fellow players who stayed up with me until 4:30am - Kareem, Jeff, Damien and Ivan.

I was the only one who had played the game before, so I let the others pick their starting locations first. The starting locations determines the nations played. The progress conditions and winning conditions differ by nation, taking into account how favourable the starting locations are.

I sat at the northern edge of the board, so my photos are all upside down. To make things easier I will describe the game using left and right as opposed to east and west. Kareem (red) picked the left edge. He was Babylon. Jeff (black) picked the upper left corner - Egypt. Damien (blue) picked the right edge - Africa (I guess that's Carthage). Ivan (orange) picked the lower right corner of the light orange area. He was Thrace. The pink area was not in play. Ivan (orange) and Damien (blue) couldn't reach each other yet by sea until one of them discovered astronomy, which is required to sail the open seas. So both of them had only one front to worry about in the early game.

After the rest had picked their spots, I still had three possible choices - the bottom edge, the lower left corner or a small Greek island at the middle of the board. Kareem said the bottom edge was a tough nation to play. The tiny island in the middle seemed rather tough to play too. So I decided to take the lower left corner - Assyria. It was very near Kareem's starting location so he considered me a major threat. I didn't intend to fight so early. I just wanted to migrate towards the Lebanon and western Turkey area (as I had done now in this photo) where there were fertile lands and a good number of city sites. Kareem and I had some border skirmishes. I tried to stay away from him so that we didn't both get dragged down in an early war. The others had not come into contact with one another yet, so no fighting for food yet.

In the top right corner you can see the progress chart. This is basically a race track. The objective of the game is to reach the end of the track. The chart is divided into 5 eras. By default your nation advances one step every round, but you need to meet a certain criteria before you enter a new era. Near the end, you need to have achieved a certain level of technology and wealth for each step. Different nations enter the next era at different points on the chart. In this photo you can see we are all on the last spot of the first era, because to enter the second era we need to have two cities (square markers). Everyone has one city except me (green Assyria).

At this point we had all expanded and were touching one another (no no not that way). Everyone had two or more cities except for Damien (blue Africa), so he was the only one still stuck in the first era on the progress chart. Jeff (black Egypt) and Damien (blue Africa) was now battling it out at their border. I (green Assyria) was not in a comfortable place - I bordered all three of Kareem (red Babylon), Jeff (black Egypt) and Ivan (orange Thrace).

This was when the first major disaster struck - Jeff (black Egypt) drew the Civil War disaster card. He was now in progress flipping over some units (round tokens) and cities (square tokens) to mark the part of his nation which would secede. Notice the flipped over tokens at the top left. Some of these would be picked by himself, and some others would be picked by another player he nominated. He would then have to pick which half of his nation to continue to govern. The other half would go to the nominee. Damien (blue Africa) was weakest at this point, and was made the beneficiary.

The Greek area didn't have much fertile land, but had many city sites, so Ivan (orange Thrace) was able to build many cities. I (green Assyria) sent some colonists there to grab some of the islands too.

Those surfboards are ships.

Here you can see the aftermath of the first civil war. Damien's nation (blue Africa) had greatly expanded towards Jeff's area (black Egypt). Jeff was now struggling to push Damien back. Kareem (red Babylon) and I (green Assyria) had a nervous coexistence at the bottom left. Units can share the same territory as long as the total number does not exceed the capacity of the territory. People will only fight if there is not enough food.

On the progress chart in the background, you can see that now most of us are in the third era, the prerequisite being having technologies of three types. There are four types in the game - Arts, Civics, Crafts and Sciences.

We had a few more civil wars. Kareem (red Babylon) was next to get hit. He bordered Jeff (black Egypt) and I (green Assyria), and he didn't want to give a chunk of his empire to anyone who was an immediate threat, so he could only pick between Damien (blue Africa) and Ivan (orange Thrace). Eventually he chose Damien, and that's why you see blue had suddenly sprung up in the lower left, at the opposite end from its starting location. This was a headache for me (green Assyria), because now I had fronts with all four opponents!

Ivan (orange Thrace) suffered a civil war too, and gave away half his nation to Kareem (red Babylon). So the previously diminished Babylonians were now riding high again. The Babylonians had astronomy, and later sent a naval task force across the Mediterranean to launch an amphibious assault against blue Africa.

On the progress chart, Jeff (black Egypt), Kareem (red Babylon) and I (green Assyria) were stuck at the end of the third era, because we didn't have 7 technologies yet. Ivan (orange Thrace) did his trading well and was first to buy his 7th technology. He held on to commodities until he had many to cash in at one go, making them worth much more. So although in some rounds he didn't buy any tech, in some others he could afford to buy two techs at the same time.

I made this reference sheet. This side is for the techs. The other side is for the disasters. The spaces on the right are for summing up your tech values. This will save a lot of punching away at a calculator. I have bought seven techs now, and they are worth a total of 690VP.

Kareem (red Babylon) was hit by quite a number of civil wars, and he screamed RANDOMMMMM. I tried to console him that disasters were very normal. I see the disasters as a balancing mechanism. Whoever suffers one gets to bring others down with him or gets to pick a beneficiary in the case of a civil war. So naturally players will try to hurt a leading player, or help a trailing one. Some disaster cards are secret and are inflicted upon an opponent by trading the card to him. Players will usually try to trade such disasters to the leading players. I see disasters as a good thing, because they create the dramatic rise and fall of empires in the game. But then after Kareem suffered his third civil war, I don't think I sounded very convincing to him when I described the merits of disasters.

I was lucky to not have had any civil wars. Three out of five of us were hit at least once. However I did suffer from famines very frequently. Players can reduce the impact of famines by discovering pottery and holding grain cards in their hands. Jeff (black Egypt) and Ivan (orange Thrace) did this. By stockpiling grain, they increased the frequency of famines. The famine card was in the grain card stack, so grain cards being held back meant we cycled through the now thinner grain card stack more quickly, and thus also drew the famine card more frequently. This is a very clever design. I hate hate hate the famines, but I must say this is quite a nifty mechanism.

Every city needs to be supported by two units. Whenever you are short of units, you need to convert unsupported cities to units. So it is important to have access to fertile land (well, it's either that or access to a lot of barren land) in order to support a decent population, which in turn supports a large number of cities, which then allows you to produce more goods, which can be traded and then cashed in to buy techs.

In one particular round Kareem (red Babylon) was hit by both a civil war and civil disorder. In a civil war you'd lose part of your nation. When there is civil disorder, if you have more than four cities, you convert the fifth city and onwards back to units, losing those cities. After Kareem's civil war ended, he had lost so many cities that he didn't even have more than four cities to qualify for civil disorder. Hey, there's always a bright side.

In one of Kareem's later civil wars, his nation was already quite diminished so he didn't have much to secede. That was how I (green Assyria) got this tiny island city on the right from him.

This was when we ended the game. At this point, Kareem (red Babylon) had suffered so many civil wars that he had given the rest of his original Babylonian empire at the left edge of the board to Damien (blue Africa). Damien had a poor start, but later became one of the most powerful empires. At this point, Ivan (orange Thrace) was poised to win the game. He had achieved the score required to advance all the way to the end of the progress track. Kareem (red Babylon) and I (green Assyria) were on par with him on the progress track, but our winning requirements were higher due to our better start locations. We needed to buy one more tech this round to reach the winning requirement, else we would not be able to progress. Unfortunately we couldn't put together enough decent deals to afford that one last tech. So we declared Ivan the winner.

One thing that amazes me about Civilization is how minimalistic it is. Compared to more recent civ games like Through the Ages, Fantasy Flight Games' Sid Meier's Civilization and Clash of Cultures, it has no different types of soldiers, no forms of government, no buildings within cities, no wonders of the world, no multiple ways to win / score points and no great leaders. It has significantly fewer techs. The only thing it has more than the others are disasters. It sounds like a game for people who like to take punishment. However, despite the simplicity, it does not lack in strategy. You have to plan ahead very carefully. You have to be shrewd in negotiations. There will be chaos, but amid the chaos you will realise that your civilisation can still march ahead steadily. Losing people and cities is not as bad as it seems. It is your culture and your civilisation that matters. Wealth and territories come and go, but no one can take away your knowledge. That is what Civilization is about.

Maybe next time a 7-player game?

Monday 12 May 2014

in photos: with the children

This is a card from one of the Ascension promo expansions, and I think it is overpowered. So far it seems anyone who manages to buy it will win. When you play it, you claim all heroes in the centre row, and put them at the top of your draw deck. That is a very powerful move. The card is expensive, which means you probably will only be able to afford it in the late game, and you may not get to actually use it that many times. Still, I feel it is too powerful.

I bought Agricola when it went on sale on iPad/iPhone. Playdek did the development, so the interface is good. However Agricola is a game with many components and many cards, so overall I think playing the physical game is better. You can see the full picture in one glance, as opposed to having to scroll and switch views on the touchscreen. Playdek is good, but they are not god. Still, there are advantages in playing the software version. It saves a lot of work in game setup, managing components and scoring. The AI's seem to be quite good. I am a little rusty. When I played against the toughest AI, I lost by quite a wide margin.

1 May 2014. May Day holiday was game day with the children. Shee Yun (9) wanted to play FITS, a Tetris-like game. This really is multiplayer solitaire. It is playing different puzzles at the same time and then comparing results. But there is simple fun to be had.

I played Hanabi with Chen Rui (7).

We need to work on our collaboration skills - we only scored 10VP, a lousy score. Full marks is 25VP.

The children often suggest Barbarossa, a game where you make sculptures and then try to guess others' sculptures.

Shee Yun (red, left) made a badminton racket, a saxophone and a sandwich. Chen Rui (white, background) made water and two others I don't remember. I think the round one is an eye. I (white, foreground) made a brick, a biscuit and a lighthouse. I thought my lighthouse was made quite cleverly - not too easy and not too hard, but the children guessed it even before the game started. Is it that obvious?

4 May 2014. When playing Pickomino it is not good to roll lots of small numbers.

Shee Yun (in the background) has not finished practising piano, so no boardgames for her yet. I can be a tiger dad too sometimes.

It's not easy taking a photo while playing a game of Loopin' Louie. Chen Rui had "angin" that day (i.e. she was on a roll) and beat me in four straight games.

Love Letter. Chen Rui played the #1 card and wanted to guess the card in my hand. If she guessed right, I would be out of the game.

This was the first time we played Love Letter correctly, i.e. with the correct card distribution. Previously I mistook that there were two of every card type. The gameplay still felt similar, although more character guesses were attempted, because there were five #1 cards now.

Shee Yun wanted to play Zombies! Run for your Lives!. This is not a game I would want to play with gamers, and not a game that can be taken very seriously. It's a game where you can pick on someone and be nasty to him, so if not managed properly it can result in hard feelings. However if everyone plays in a hold-hands-sing-song way, the game can last forever. No one would allow anyone else to get killed by zombies, and yet when anyone threatens to win, it is easy for others to bring him down a notch. The game would get stuck in a neither here nor there situation. So the game is best played in a light-hearted way. Nasty plays are just friendly jabs. My children fed me to the zombies quite a few times, and of course I resurrected as a zombie myself to chase after them. Brainnnns!!

Sunday 11 May 2014

Duel of Ages II

Plays: 2Px2 (learning scenarios).

The Game

Duel of Ages II is about combat in a virtual world, where characters and weapons from many different time periods, even futuristic ones, can come together to create very crazy scenarios. The battles are a futuristic sporting event, where contestants are transported into a virtual world and can be transformed into any character. The game is scenario-based. The simplest scenarios are just about "killing" all members of the opposing team. There are scenarios where you need to score points, e.g. by killing enemies, capturing enemies, damaging the enemy base, contributing treasures to some god and completing encounters. Regardless of the scenario objectives, you will need to fight. This is a squad level combat game where you control individuals.

The things you can do are very much what you can imagine you'd need to do in real-life combat. You move about. You shoot (but only if you have a ranged weapon). You melee-attack. You exchange weapons with your teammates. You salvage guns from a dead opponent. You perform opportunity fire at enemies who move within your line of sight. Every character is defined by a long list of abilities, each for a different purpose. Your Melee value determines whether you successfully attack an opponent in melee combat. You Damage value determines how much you hurt your opponent in a successful attack. Your Power value determines whether you inflict more (or less) damage to your opponent. There are three different shooting-related skills - Aim, Point and Throw. They are used for different types of ranged weapons. You also have stats to determine whether you are physically strong enough to carry a weapon, and whether you are intelligent enough to use it.

There is no dice in combat. You draw cards instead. Depending on the skill difference, e.g. attacker's Meles vs defender's React when you are melee-attacking an enemy, the card will tell you whether you are successful. If you are successful, you'll draw another card to tell you whether you need to apply any modifier to the amount of damage to inflict. Naturally, your chance of success is higher when there is a positive skill difference, but due to the variety in the cards there is no 100% guarantee.

This is a challenge card. The third column (sword icon) tells you whether your attack is successful, depending on the skill difference between you and your opponent. The fourth column (starburst icon) tells you whether you inflict additional or less damage if your attack is successful.

Facedown encounter tokens are placed all over the board at the start of every game. You send your characters to challenge these, and if you pass the challenge, your character gains one or more pieces of equipment. To pass a challenge, your character needs to have a specific skill (e.g. Intellect Level 6). The first attempt is always a little iffy, since the encounter challenge is initially facedown. However once revealed, if you have failed in the first attempt, you can always try to get another character with the required skill to pass the encounter.

The Play

Allen and I played two learning scenarios. The first one was all about melee combat. Ranged weapons were not in play. It was a straightforward kill-all-enemies scenario. The match started with everyone rushing for the encounters to pick up weapons, but very soon Allen sent one of his characters after one of mine, and the fighting started. This was a brute force contest. The pre-determined characters on the teams were more-or-less equal, so to gain an advantage Allen and I had to rely on the weapons we picked up, and also on trying to gang up on opponent characters. He picked up some wild animals (they are a type of weapon), and set them loose on me! Fighting was generally short and sweet. Characters have around 5 life points, and usually 2 or 3 successful attacks will get one killed. It's not usually easy to injure an opponent though, because even if you successfully hit him, sometimes you do not cause any damage. So weapons are important.

My four characters in the first game. Notice the long list of statistics along the right edge of each card.

That character at the top left, William Wallace, is on my team - the white team. There are two white bands on the sides of the character token. Allen has just set a dog on him! The other two characters, the sergeant and the gladiator, are both on Allen's team - the black team. They are ganging up on Wallace.

The redhead on the left is one of my team members. That stack on the right is a melee in progress. It has one of my team members, one of Allen's, and also Allen's panther. The yellow token in the foreground is an encounter token. We should not have placed it there during the scenario setup, because that's deep water and our characters can't get into that hex.

The second learning scenario was all about ranged weapons - melee weapons were out of scope. The victory conditions were a little different. My team had six characters, and in order to win I must kill off Allen's team of four within 9 rounds. For him to win he just needed to have at least one survivor. Things didn't quite work out as expected. I had lousy luck with the encounters, and kept getting non-melee weapons which were also not ranged weapons. I kept getting armour or transportation tools. But I needed guns! I not only didn't get the right weapons, I also tended to get equipment which my characters were too stupid to know how to use or not skilled enough to use effectively. Allen's characters got guns early, and he came after me instead! By the time I managed to get some decent ranged weapons and also swapped weapons around so that my characters could use their weapons effectively, I was already down by a few members. Things were not looking good. The supposed hunters had become the hunted. It would be impossible for me to win if Allen decided to just run and take pot shots, but he stayed put and we duked it out just for the heck of it. In the end I took more losses and lost quite miserably.

This is the 2nd scenario. My football player and WWII soldier have climbed up the hills (white patches). They look like they are trying to get into favourable shooting positions, but the football player actually only has a grenade which has an attack range of 2, and the soldier only went uphill to get to an encounter token (from which he didn't get anything useful).

The orange marker on the top left is a machine sentinel, and it's currently shooting at my blond girl team member. The other four characters are all armed with ranged weapons now, so they are carefully inching towards each other. Hiding inside buildings gives some cover and makes it harder for your opponent to hit you, but doesn't completely prevent it.

The Thoughts

I think I have to admit to myself now that squad level combat games are probably not my type. I was reluctant to tell myself so after I tried Conflict of Heroes. I could appreciate the clever design and how immersive it was, but I wasn't sure whether I really enjoyed it. I also enjoyed the stories that unfolded when playing Earth Reborn and how action-packed the game was, but till now I have not revisited it. I think whether you like Duel of Ages II will depend on whether you like this genre of games.

The crazy combinations of characters and weapons is a little disturbing to me, because it is implausible. However I think it is precisely this which will draw many players to the game. It makes the game very colourful. Once you get past this, the gameplay actually feels quite realistic. You need to worry about line of sight, terrain effects, capacity to carry equipment, and making the most of your characters' abilities. You can imagine yourself standing in the middle of the play area, thinking about what to do next. There can be a fair bit of randomness in the encounters. Even if you pass, you may not draw the appropriate weapons for the scenario. The randomness in combat feels about right - your chances are better if you have the right skills and weapons, but you can never be 100% sure.

Modern day guy in the centre uses bow and arrow, while colonial age guy on the right uses a neutron pulse rifle. This is very normal in this game.

Monday 5 May 2014

in photos: Robinson Crusoe, Chicken Cha Cha Cha, Pickomino

27 Apr 2014. I tried Robinson Crusoe Scenario 3 - Rescuing Jenny as a solo game.

After the shipwreck, she's stranded on another smaller island. She can't take care of herself and you need to build a raft to save her from that smaller island, and then build a lifeboat to leave the main island together before time runs out. I failed quite miserably. I did manage to get Jenny off the smaller island, but she was no help at all. She just ate the food and slept the whole day saying she needed to recover. I got Friday killed because I asked him to hunt some food for us. The wild beast turned out to be a cheetah, and it mortally wounded Friday. Sorry friend, rest in peace.

The inventions on the scenario sheet are not actually potential tools to help you with your mission. They themselves are the objectives of the mission.

One other factor that contributed to the loss was bad fengshui at my humble abode. I moved into a cave, i.e. from the beach tile on the left to the mountain tile in the middle, because it saved me the effort of building a shelter. However the mountain tile only produced one food, compared to the beach tile which produced one food and one wood. Towards the late game, I was short of wood and was nowhere near being able to build the lifeboat.

I was rather unlucky with exploration too. It took me a while to find any grassland, which I needed in order to make rope. I needed rope to make both the raft and the lifeboat. When I finally managed to make rope, I drew an event card that broke the rope, which meant another round of delay. Eventually time ran out on me. Maybe attempting this scenario as a solo game isn't such a good idea. I think I need more characters to share that burden named Jenny.

When Shee Yun saw me play, she said she wanted to play too. So after I lost the game, we set up Scenario 2, which she had not tried before. Scenario 2 is the exorcism scenario. We were quite lucky with the event cards, and the mysterious fog was slow to spread. It didn't hinder our cross building. Look at how happy she is to have won.

The white cubes are the fog, and the blue cubes the crosses. We had plenty of wood and managed to build the required five crosses quite easily.

Chen Rui wanted to play Kakerlaken Poker. This is nothing like Poker, except for a bit of lying and bluffing. Naturally she was no match for me when it came to lying.

We used card holders from 10 Days in Asia, something Chong Sean taught me.

Chen Rui loves playing Chicken Cha Cha Cha and often suggests it. I think it's because she has won a few times, so she remembers the game fondly. I'm not quite a fan. It's a memory game. If I apply a technique to help me memorise the tiles, I will usually win. When I'm too lazy to do so, I fare poorly. So the game feels like work to me.

I often need to negotiate with her to play other games instead.

I taught Chen Rui Pickomino, and she liked it. This is a dice game with a little maths, some risk evaluation and some risk management. But of course to her it's just rolling dice, adding up the numbers and catching worms (on the tiles).

We enjoyed taunting each other about snatching each other's unprotected tiles.

Sunday 4 May 2014

Hearthstone thoughts

I think I have played about 60 games of Hearthstone by now, and I'm really enjoying it. This is the first time I got this far with a Collectible Card Game (CCG). I have never played this much of any other CCG's before, or LCG's (Living Card Games). Basically I have never gone in depth into any CCG or LCG. With Hearthstone I'm now tinkering with a bit of deck-building. I don't consider myself anywhere near being an expert, but I am enjoying the game immensely. I don't feel any pressure or urge to spend real money to buy cards. The game already comes with many free cards, and by simply playing as the 9 different characters you can earn more free cards, at least until they advance to Level 10. The daily quests (usually along the lines of winning a certain number of games using a particular character) award gold, which can then be used to buy card packs. I usually just play to complete these quests, and the gold I earn allows me to buy a new pack every few days, which I'm quite happy with. Here are my random thoughts about the game.

Having many cards in hand is important, and so is drawing more cards than the standard one-card-per-turn. More cards in hand means more flexibility to react to threats. Holding many cards in itself is also a threat, and makes your opponent think twice before making any move, because he will worry about whether anything he does will invite a deadly counter-attack. I have learned that it is not always a good idea to try to play as many cards as you can, fully utilising the mana gained during your turn. Sometimes it is better to just hold on to a card, and only play it when the effect is greatest. Some cards should be saved for more desperate situations. It is still important to keep playing minions and attacking your opponent, to maintain a pressure on your opponent. It is just that you must try to have a reserve so that you have some flexibility. I always get nervous, even if I'm winning, when I'm out of cards and can only rely on that one card draw per turn.

It is important to know your opponent's character - the general style of play as well as the specific cards for the character that he may have in his deck. Knowing these means you know what to watch out for, so that when you play you avoid making risky moves. For example, one of the characters has a spell which can turn any minion into a frog. So if you have enough mana to play two medium-strength minions or one-high strength minion, you may want to go with the two medium-strength ones. I'm just getting into this level of play, and I find it very enjoyable. When you get decimated by the same card a few times, you start to remember it.

If you want to have a coherent strategy, or a specialised strategy, you probably want to do deck-building. The game allows you to play with a random deck or with your own pre-built deck. I'm not sure how the system builds your random deck. It probably just follows some generic formula, like how many minions and spells of a certain cost, and how many character-specific cards plus how many neutral cards. The system-built random decks seem to work at a basic level, but if you want a bit more control and if you want to experiment with certain strategies, then you have to spend the effort to deck-build.

One opponent showed me a very impressive move. He didn't have many fancy minions, and during our game I felt I had a slight lead. Then suddenly within one single turn he killed me using his lone mediocre minion. He played a spell to increase the minion's health, then played another spell to double its health, then played yet another spell to increase the minion's attack value to be the same as its health. Suddenly, I was facing a 22-attack, 22-health monster grinning down at me. Game over.

Sometimes when I lose I whine that the other guy won because he had better cards. In the back of my mind, I don't think it's always true. I feel most if not all powerful cards have some way to counter them. Usually if you know your opponent may have a certain powerful card, you can adjust your play to mitigate the impact of getting hit by it. Of course there is still some luck, this being a card game. Even if you have the right cards to counter a certain powerful card, it doesn't mean you will draw them at the right time. I don't play very competitively. The game offers casual play as well as ranked play. At the moment I'm comfortable not spending real money to buy cards to boost my strength. Maybe later on, if I get very competitive, but at the moment I don't see it. I'm thankful that Blizzard offered this game free. I'm sure there will be players who decide to buy cards, and I don't see it as a bad thing. Blizzard has produced a great product and they deserve to make money from it. In fact I feel I should spend some real money. Maybe I'll buy some packs just to support them.

I get annoyed when an opponent can already kill me off but still wastes time summoning minions and casting spells instead of just getting it over and done with. When I know I'll lose, I don't just concede and exit. I give my opponent the pleasure of making that final kill. But if I see the guy still going around in circles trying to set up some elaborate and unnecessary master stroke, I get annoyed and feel like just leaving the room. When I win I'd just stab you straight in the chest and get it over and done with. Thank you and good game.

If my attempt to get into Android: Netrunner can be like Hearthstone I'd be very happy. I have been wanting to go in-depth with Netrunner, but am still not there yet. Allen has agreed to join me. I have passed to him all my runner cards for deck-building, while I fiddle with the corporate decks. However we have yet to start our regular plays. The idea is to play it as a quick filler each time we meet, before we move on to the main course.