Thursday 31 July 2014

appreciating Android Netrunner

Over the Raya holidays (Aidilfitri / Eid al-Fitr) I arranged with John to play Android: Netrunner, hoping to continue to learn this game. He's a veteran, and he actually started playing it at Spartan Games Arena, where I visited recently to play and learn from Nik. John still follows the latest expansions, but feels a bit tired of the chasing after new cards, and wants to return to basics - building decks using only the cards from the core set. That suits me just fine. I want to learn starting from the basics. We spent an afternoon at Starbucks and played five games. He taught me quite a bit about deck building, and I realised how poor my two deck builds were. By our third game I switched to playing with his decks, and actually managed one win game. As I learned more, I found that there was so much more I didn't know and needed to learn. It was a little daunting. Perhaps it's a good sign. It means I'm improving and I'm able to appreciate the depth of the game better. I hope. Here are my miscellaneous thoughts after this enjoying session of running.

  • I suddenly have an urge to sleeve all my cards. I think most if not all serious runners do this. I suddenly have this urge because I realise this game has a lot of replayability even with just the core set, and there is a lot of fiddling with the cards because of constructing and reconstructing decks. I suddenly see that even just the cards from the core set is a cultural artifact that needs to be preserved. I can't explain why I don't feel this way about Race for the Galaxy, a game I love and have played hundreds of times, until some of the cards are obviously frayed at the edges.

    I was playing John's Criminal runner deck. He uses red-backed sleeves. I'm thinking of getting transparent ones.

  • I learned that there are three main types of ice (firewalls protecting the servers), and thus also three main types of icebreaker programs to break their subroutines. In hindsight it's amazingly dumb of me how I never bothered to check this. No wonder my first attempt at deck-building was laughable.
  • John taught me to run naked (and I must explain before your imagination runs wild). Running naked means hacking at the corporation's servers in the early game when you don't have any programs installed yet. The corp doesn't have a lot of money yet, so it will not be able to rez (turn on) any powerful and dangerous ice. You don't have any program at risk of getting trashed. You can force the corp to reveal the newly placed ice, which is useful information to you. If the corp player doesn't rez his ice, you run successfully and if lucky you may even score an early agenda. So running naked is a very viable tactic.
  • To play well, you need to know almost every detail of every card. Remembering the names of the many cards is not something you force yourself to do. It actually comes naturally after you spend much time playing, discussing with your friends, and deck-building. Tell a veteran an icebreaker-and-ice pair, and he can probably immediately tell you how much it would cost for the former to break all subroutines of the latter. It's like having memorised the multiplication table. After an afternoon with John, I've learned to remember some of the more powerful cards to watch out for, like Snare and Scorched Earth.
  • Some cards can be particularly powerful, even to the point of becoming game-winners, under specific situations. The game is very much about trying to create such situations to play these cards, and also preventing your opponent from doing it to you. I have learned this in Hearthstone, but I still need to learn the cards in Netrunner better to be able to do the same. One thing that I wonder is whether this will result in groupthink. If everyone thinks a card is best used in a certain way, then the group may become stuck in a narrow mindset and not explore other viable tactics, possibly even more creative ways to use the card.
  • I am amazed at how consistent the setting and the mechanisms are. The core mechanisms are not exactly simplistic, but are not overly complex either. There are servers, firewalls, programs, subroutines, tagging, viruses, bad publicity and so on. All the card powers tie back to this handful of core elements, yet there is much variety.
  • John thinks the default decks in the core set are weak, but decent decks can be built using only cards in the core set. One just needs to tweak the decks a little and use some cards from other factions. He shared with me his deck builds. I'll probably just use them as they are for now, until I get a better feel for the deck-building aspect.
  • In one of the games where I played the Jinteki corp using a deck I built, John played the Criminal runner with a deck he built. One of the powerful Jinteki cards is Snare. If the runner accesses Snare when hacking into a server, the corp may spend $4 to discard three of the runner's hand cards. If the runner doesn't have enough, he is flatlined and loses. John was very careful about not getting caught by Snare. There were a few times when he managed to reach my server, but because I kept at least $4 on hand, he hesitated and jacked out at the last minute, deciding not to access the server after all. That saved me a few times. I actually didn't have any Snare waiting for him. I was just bluffing. In fact, after the game (which I eventually lost) I realised I hadn't put Snare into my deck at all! No wonder I didn't draw it even after half my deck was gone.

Tuesday 29 July 2014

revisiting Axis and Allies Guadalcanal

Axis and Allies Guadalcanal is a game I like a lot, despite having played it only once, in 2008. That's six years ago! Sometimes I ask myself - what am I thinking? A 6 year wait before playing one of my favourite games again?! I asked Heng to be my opponent, since he's a fan of the Axis & Allies series. He has shared his thoughts on and photos of our game on both Facebook and his blog. Take a look to see the game from his view point. He wanted to play the Japanese (orange), so I played USA (green).

The objective of the game is to gain 15pts. Points mainly come from controlling undamaged airfields, each of which scores 1pt at the end of every round. You also earn points by sinking enemy capital ships (battleships or aircraft carriers). The game board has six islands, five of which are controlled by the Japanese at the start of the game. The Americans have just invaded Guadalcanal and has control of it, but there are still some Japanese soldiers holding out. Both sides start with one airfield controlled, and more can be built by spending supply tokens.

Heng started off heavily reinforcing New Georgia. This was an important move because New Georgia had two spots for airfields. This move set the tone for the rest of the game, as you will see later.

At the start of the game, three islands were in range for amphibious attacks. As USA, I needed to control two more islands to achieve an economic balance. How much money you earn at the end of a round depends on how many islands you control. So I needed three islands in total to match the Japanese income.

I decided to play it safe, and went for the other two islands which Heng did not reinforce - Santa Isabel and Malaita. On Guadalcanal itself, I had three supply tokens which could be used to build a new airfield at the end of the round. The Japanese also had two tokens. There was one token on New Georgia. If I captured New Georgia, I could pool three tokens together to build another new airfield. This was one of the considerations for the Japanese when defending New Georgia.

I sent four fighters to support the invasion of Santa Isabel, while Heng also sent four to defend the island. The air battle went badly for me. I lost quite a few planes. The land battle went well, and I captured Santa Isabel.

End of Round 1 and beginning of Round 2. We had both built one new airfield, Heng's on Choiseul (top row, second island), and mine on Guadalcanal (bottom row, second island, i.e. at the bottom right corner). So we both scored 2pts. We each controlled three islands, so our income was equal. I had purchased a new carrier (still on my base card, off the main board, at the bottom right) to help bring fighters quickly to the front line. Unlike traditional Axis & Allies games, in Axis & Allies Guadalcanal, when carriers move, they carry their fighters along, so the fighters enjoy one extra move.

By Round 2 our two main task forces were already staring down each other at the centre of the board. This was a precarious situation. Both these sea zones were next to islands with artillery in place. Whichever fleet moved in to attack the other would get bombarded by these artillery. So the defender had an advantage.

One of my submarines sneaked among the Japanese ships to attack one of the carriers. To my delight it struck true and sank the carrier immediately! Needless to say it was a suicide mission, but it turned out to be well worth it. Heng had one transport bringing supply tokens to New Georgia so that he could build a new airfield by the end of the round.

I sent an air force to bomb the airfield at Choiseul. In hindsight, this was a rather rash decision. Heng had an anti-aircraft gun, and also could muster more planes than I could. The battle went badly for me. The US started the game with more planes than the Japanese, and by the end of this battle I had squandered away this advantage.

I lost so many fighters that at one point I didn't have enough to fill up my carriers. How embarrassing. At the top right, my transports sent supplies to Santa Isabel to allow me to build a new airfield.

End of Round 2, start of Round 3. I was 6:5 against Heng, the 1pt advantage because of the Japanese carrier sunk. At the end of Round 2, I spent most of my money on fighters (see my base card at the bottom right), to replenish those that I had lost.

Now it was Heng's turn to try his luck with his submarines. Fortunately for me both his attempts failed. His kamikaze subs died for nothing.

I was in a difficult position. Although we both controlled three islands, his three could support five airfields, but mine could only support four. Once we maxed out on airfields, he would outscore me every round. So I was under pressure to attack. This was why New Georgia, having two spaces for airfields, was very important to the Japanese strategy.

It was Round 4 now. I decided to strike! My battleship was first to enter the fray. I knew it was a risky move, but I decided I could not afford to wait. Time was not on my side. I had to gamble. I hoped to score some capital ship hits so that I could outscore Heng before his higher number of airfields left me in the dust.

This was the single biggest battle in our game. That Japanese submarine on the right had intended to sneak up on my carrier, coming from behind Santa Isabel (island at top right). However my fleet moved in to attack Heng's fleet, so that sub came to the party too late. Notice that Heng had retreated his carrier to the left. This was a good move. He kept it out of danger. Carriers have no attack capability anyway. I could have sent some bombers or fighters to attack it, since it didn't have other ships to protect it. However I was already at a disadvantage in the upcoming sea battle, so I decided I could not afford to split my air force.

This was what was left after the dust settled. No capital ships were harmed at all. However my fleet was now obviously weaker than Heng's. My only consolation was I could bombard his airfields using my ships. I got lucky and managed to damage one of them on New Georgia. Heng could not land his planes there or score points from it until he repaired it.

End of Round 4. I was 14:13 against Heng. We would pass 15pt in Round 5, and as long as he didn't score more than me, I would win. My strategic position was bad, and my long-term prospects were poor, so I had to gamble to force a win. It was do or die. I built yet another new carrier, and even spent supply tokens to forward-deploy it, so that I could get it to the frontline, carrying fighters, sooner. All airfields had been built, just that one of Heng's was damaged.

Now it was Heng's turn to go on the offensive. He loaded up his transports and advanced towards my islands. My fleet was no match for his, and I avoided a head-to-head battle. Notice that he had two battleships now. One of them was newly minted. Since he had almost vacated Choiseul, I made a move against it, using destroyers as makeshift transports to send troops there. It was a risky move, but I told myself I had to gamble. Unfortunately it didn't work out. Heng had reinforcements en route too, and my assault failed.

I made a grave mistake here, leaving two carriers undefended. Heng grabbed the opportunity and attacked. Thankfully he didn't manage to sink either carrier. I think only one was damaged and sent back to base for repairs.

Notice that in the background I had one submarine. It had just gotten lucky and destroyed a Japanese carrier. My subs were amazingly lucky in this game. Both of Heng's carriers were killed by subs. The required die roll is 1.

The Japanese had landed at Guadalcanal, screaming revenge. I lost control of the island, since Heng had a larger presence, but I still had troops guarding the two airfields. Heng would need to kill off all my remaining defenders to take control of the airfields.

At the end of Round 5, we had both passed 15pts, and we had the same number of points! The situation was bleak for me. All my gambits amounted to a painful draw, and my strategic position was only going to get worse now that Heng was making more money than me. I thought hard whether to concede, but eventually decided to just try one more round and see whether I could make a breakthrough. So we proceeded to Round 6. Although Heng had captured Guadalcanal, it was much easier for me than for him to reinforce it. He couldn't kill off my remaining defenders yet, and I couldn't easily kick him off the island either.

I thought hard about how to reduce his point-earning ability. I could bombard his airfields. I could attempt to outright capture his islands. I could try to target his capital ships. However at the same time I knew he could do the same to me. So much to think about, both offense and defense.

I had two transports each carrying one infantry positioned to invade the two lightly defended Japanese islands. However Heng had many transports ready to reinforce them. The turn order is quite important in this game. It alternates every round, and the start player is usually at a disadvantage because he has to commit how to move his units first, while his opponent can react to his actions. Heng had tons of planes coming at my battleship and two carriers. Instead of using my fighters to defend the fleet, I sent them to bomb the airfields at Bougainville. It was a crazy decision, but I knew I had to go for broke. Amazingly none of my capital ships were destroyed, although all were damaged. So they returned to base. I managed to land units on Choiseul (second island) but did not manage to capture it. I managed to damage one of the airfields on Bougainville.

Off the coast of Guadalcanal, Heng sent three cruisers to attack my small fleet trying to reinforce Guadalcanal. I only had one cruiser and one destroyer to try to hold him off, but I did have one bomber from Guadalcanal which could help.

I was lucky in that although all my fighting ships were damaged or destroyed, neither of my transports were hurt, and I managed to reinforce Guadalcanal. I still held on to those two airfields.

After completing Round 6, I found that we were still tied! All that struggle, and still a stalemate. However I knew by then I had little hope of turning the tide, so I conceded defeat.

By the time we ended the game, we had not done the aircraft landing phase. Heng had four operational airfields in range, so his eight planes were OK. I only had one carrier in range, so one of my fighters would crash into the ocean.

We did not fight a single battle on New Georgia (island in the centre), but it was pivotal to our game because of its two airfields. A very strategic location indeed! Perhaps next time I play I need to try attacking it.

Axis & Allies Guadalcanal is a game with much attrition, especially for airplanes, because every round it is the airplanes which get shot at first. Only when they survive they get to participate in attacking sea or land units. The money you earn helps, but after one or two big battles, both players' unit counts will be diminished. So conserving units is important (says the guy who threw tons of units into dubious assaults).

There is some luck in the game, and I mean it in the best possible way. Unlike other Axis & Allies games, it is the dice which determine which unit is hit, and not the defending player. You can do much to mitigate bad luck, but sometimes bad luck just strikes and there's no stopping it. Just ask Heng's aircraft carrier captains. Luck in this game throws in some unexpected results, sometimes good, sometimes bad. That's war. That's real life. However you do have much control on how big a risk you want to take. Just be prepared that nothing is 100% in your control. I like this. This is excitement.

At the moment I feel uncertain about the winning condition being victory points. At times I feel like I'm chasing points and not properly fighting a battle. I'm building airfields for the sake of points, and not for landing planes. It makes the game feel artificial. Perhaps I'm the one putting the cart before the horse. Perhaps if I learn to use the airfields better, it will feel much more natural - the airfields giving me an edge in the battle, as opposed to being just a scoring tool. In our game, I sometimes felt I was gaming the system trying to force a win, throwing caution to the wind. I didn't really care about my longer term position, because I was putting all my chips on one big bet - that I could score well in the current round and win the game. After that I wouldn't need to worry about how many units I had wasted. In real life that may not really make sense. I would be sending people to die just so I could have a few more airfields. I don't have a conclusion whether this is a problem. It's something to ponder. But overall, I had a blast with this game.

P/S: After writing this session report, I realised I might have mistaken the round numbers. I rechecked the photos and tried to remember exactly what happened, but I couldn't tell for sure whether this account of events was entirely accurate. Sorry about that.

Sunday 27 July 2014


Plays: 5Px1.

Istanbul is the latest Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (German Game of the Year - expert category). did a themed night on Spiel des Jahres nominees and winners, and I took the opportunity to check out what this latest winner is like.

The Game

The game board is made up of 16 tiles arranged in a 4x4 grid. Every tile allows you to do something, e.g. gathering goods, selling goods for money, upgrading your abilities, and spending goods or money to gain rubies. The objective of the game is to gain 5 rubies. So it is a race. It is about being more efficient than others in reaching your 5th ruby.

Everyone starts the game with a stack of discs on the fountain tile. The thick disc at the top of your stack is your merchant, and the other four stacked below are the assistants. On your turn, you move your stack up to two steps. Upon reaching your destination, you check whether there is an assistant left there previously. If so, the assistant rejoins your stack, and then you take the action of the destination tile. If there is no waiting assistant, you remove one from your stack to place him on the destination tile, and then you execute the action. If there is no waiting assistant, and your merchant doesn't have any with him either, you are unable to execute any action. You've just wasted one turn! This is the main unique element in the game.

The game board consists of 16 tiles. They can be arranged in different ways, creating different play experiences. Five tiles have rubies on them to be claimed - the four corner tiles, and the 3rd tile in the bottom row. The ways to gain rubies on these tiles differ. At the top corners, you need to gain both the special abilities from a tile in order to claim one ruby. At the bottom left corner, you turn in goods to get the next available ruby. At the bottom right, you pay cash for a ruby. On that bottom row 3rd tile, you need to upgrade your cart to size 5 to gain a ruby.

This is the player board, a cart with spaces for the four types of goods. Initially you can only store at most two of each type, but you can upgrade your cart to store up to five each. Claimed rubies are placed here too.

A fully upgraded cart with one ruby claimed. The tile at the lower left is a special ability tile. I can spend $2 to bring an assistant from anywhere on the board back to my stack.

Let's look at some examples. 2nd row 1st tile - Fill up the space for fruits (yellow goods) in your cart. 3rd row 2nd tile - Draw two bonus cards from the draw deck (on the left of the playing area) or the discard pile (on the tile itself) or both, then discard one card. 3rd row 3rd tile - Sell one or more goods displayed to earn money.

When you execute an action on this tea house tile, state a number between 3 and 12 (inclusive) then roll two dice. If the result equals or exceeds what you have stated, earn that much money. Else, earn $2.

The purple and black cylinders are the governor and the smuggler respectively. If you meet them, you get to execute a special action, and then they move somewhere else. The governor lets you buy a card or swap one from your hand. The smuggler lets you buy one good or swap one from your cart.

The Play

We did a 5 player game. From turn to turn, it is very much about planning a path for your merchant. You want to gain the most out of every tile landed upon, e.g. ideally you stop by the fill-up-spices location when you have already exhausted your spices, not when you are still half full. There are a few tactical considerations, e.g. whether the governor and the smuggler are nearby, and whether there are other merchants on the tiles you want to go to. If you visit a tile with other merchants present, you need to pay them $2 each. It's not bad enough to stop you from doing an action you really want to do, but it's not insignificant either. There is not a lot of direct player conflict or competition. It is mostly a race. It is about efficient play, and grabbing small opportunities that come up to squeeze out a bit more efficiency. You don't want to get distracted and do something that's not really necessary for your strategy. Minimise waste. Focus on what's essential.

One thing that makes the race element more pronounced is the early bird discounts. On the tiles where you can spend goods or money to buy rubies, the earlier rubies are cheaper. Similarly on the tiles where you can gain special abilities, the requirements increase each time a player claims a special ability. Such early bird discounts (maybe it is more like inflation) put pressure on players. There is a dilemma between upgrading your abilities so that you can be stronger for the rest of the game, and grabbing rubies early while they are cheaper or easier to get.

I kept joking about my criminal brother. One of the locations in the game is the police station. When you land there, you release your imprisoned relative and send him to any tile to execute an action there. This is very handy because you can save a lot of time and the trouble of going to some isolated corner. After your relative is done with his job, he stays there until another player's merchant stops by, sees him, and reports him to the authorities. That player gains a $3 reward, and your relative goes directly to jail (police station) without passing GO. I loved getting my criminal brother to do dirty jobs for me, and I kept asking the others to catch him, so that I could use him again. The other players all called me heartless. I said I was just being a good citizen. Brother or not, he should pay for his crimes.

Jeff won the game by focusing on a money strategy. He gained the ability to reroll dice early, and frequently used it at the tea house to make money. He mostly paid cash to buy rubies.

Tell me honestly. If you take a split second glance at this photo, what do you see in the drawings in the first column? I spent half the game seeing a computer monitor and keyboard and wondering what a PC has to do with this game.

The Thoughts

Istanbul left me cold. The balance and the mechanisms are sound, it's just that I feel like I've seen too many similar games. It's a cube conversion game - you collect resources and convert them into money and eventually into victory points. You try to do this more efficiently than your opponents, making many tactical decisions along the way, exploiting small opportunities that arise.

I find player interaction low. This is not about direct or indirect interaction. In Agricola you can't burn your opponent's farm, but when you take the sheep he needs for food, his family will starve. In Istanbul, you can force your opponent to pay you $2 because you're standing where he wants to go. You can buy a jewel before he does so he has to pay $1 more for the next jewel. Both games have indirect conflict, but the severity is different.

One thing that didn't work for me is the interchangeable setting. I am unable to convince myself that this game is really about Istanbul. I'm not particularly insistent about boardgames having an interesting setting or compelling backstory, but when the mechanisms don't really pull me in, the lack of a convincing setting becomes a noticeable annoyance.

I did enjoy joking about my criminal brother and that the winner will get a big wet kiss from Kareem the game teacher. This is a medium complexity game that gamers can sit down to play and find challenging and satisfying. I would play it again with a bunch of good gamer friends, but if I get to pick I'd suggest something else.

Saturday 26 July 2014

Crowdfunding - The Peides Curse: Earth

The Peides Curse: Earth is a boardgame designed by a fellow Malaysian, currently being crowdfunded. Overview:

The Peides Curse: Earth is a strategic board game for 2 – 4 players. Battle for the survival of Earth and mankind in hostile landscapes where danger lurks at every corner. Put on the superhero’s persona and harvest its power to stop Evil from spreading its malevolent supremacy over Earth. Break the curse now!

The Peides Curse: Earth is a game about saving the world from falling into the hands of Evil. The players take on the role of heroes with supernatural powers. These select few have travelled through time into the future, the year 2223, to help the Spirit battle its arch nemesis, the Evil forces that have taken control over Earth.

The players, which take on the role of the superheroes, shall race against time and with much haste to collect 9 secret codes to open the door to salvation, the Heaven’s door. The players’ strategy and cunningness are tested as they are trapped in the battle between the Spirit and Evil.

You shall be tested at every level. How good are you at deciphering and decoding the codes? How patient are you as you laboriously struggle to collect all the codes? Will you ultimately win the race?

Sunday 20 July 2014

VivaJava: The Dice Game

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

VivaJava: The Dice Game is a follow-up to the boardgame version, with quite a few familiar elements, but a rather different overall feel. It's a medium-to-low complexity race game, but has quite a few strategic considerations and is in no way a mindless luck fest. Here's how it works.

You are product department heads at VivaJava Co, competing with your colleagues to make high-quality and popular (i.e marketable) coffee blends. Your objective is to reach 21pts, and there are two main ways to score points: (1) capturing and holding the coffee blend awards, and (2) completing research tracks. What you usually do on your turn is roll five dice. What you want is to get many coffee beans of the same colour. A coffee blend consists of five dice, and how good it is is determined by how many coffee beans of the same colour it has, i.e. five-of-a-kind is the best. When comparing two blends with an equal number of like-coloured beans, you determine which is better by the bean colour, black being the top-grade bean, and white being the, umm... least prestigious grade. If the blend you roll on your turn can beat the current best blend on the table, you may snatch the award from the current holder and score 1pt. From your next turn onwards, as long as no one is able to take the award from you, you score 3pts every time your turn comes around. However your blend also deteriorates by one die per (your) turn, so eventually it will weaken (representing it becoming less popular with the consumers) and some other product department will wrestle it from you. Fighting for and retaining the best blend award is the main tempo driver in the game, but there are a few other aspects to think about too.

This is a three-of-a-kind blend using red coffee beans. Any four-of-a-kind or five-of-a-kind blend would beat it. Three-of-a-kind blends using black or green coffee beans would beat it too.

Other than the best blend award, there is also a rainbow blend award which works in a similar way. However to win it, you don't need a good blend. Instead you need to roll five different colours, which would usually be the worst blend. If you get five different colours, you may claim the rainbow blend award (and score 1pt). In future, as long as you retain it, you score 2pts on your turn. There is no deterioration or quality comparison for the rainbow blend. Anyone can take it from you as soon as he rolls five different colours.

If you fail to claim any award, you still have options. You can pick one colour type to research, or if you have rolled some black coffee beans, you can claim black dice to increase your dice count next turn. In fact, even when you are able to claim an award, you may choose to forfeit the right and do one of these actions instead. A boost in number of dice is usually helpful. The black dice have a joker face too, which is particularly handy. Your chances of making a good blend is increased when you get some extra dice. As for the research aspect, there are always five types in every game, and the combination can change from game to game. When you reach a certain milestone on a research track, you gain a special ability. When you reach the end of a research track, you gain points, but you also lose the special abilities for that track. This means people will tend to complete a research track near game end when they are going for the kill. Special abilities include things like rerolling some dice, increasing the value of a bean, even temporarily blocking everyone else from using a particular special ability. Special abilities are what help you to mitigate luck in the game. They let you make your own luck.

This is the player record sheet. The track at the top is the scoring track. The five tracks in the middle are the research tracks. When you reach the 1x and 2x stages, you gain a special ability. When you reach the coffee cup at the end, you gain points but lose the special abilities for that particular track.

The five cards contain the details of each of the five techs in the game. The game comes with many different techs so there is much variability. The black dice on the right are the extra dice that players can claim. Notice that one of the faces is a joker face.

The Play

The game is a race towards 21pts, where there is a constant pressure to grab those two awards. You can't allow someone to hold on to an award for too long, because anyone consistently scoring 3pts or 2pts every round is a big threat. You want to gain special abilities to help you, but since there is time pressure, you can't afford to have everything. There is a certain tempo that you need to watch out for. You do want to grab an award most of the time, but if you can't hold on to it, you'd only gain 1pt for your effort. So it's important to plan ahead, e.g. watching out for opponents with extra dice, and trying to grab an award at a time when you can likely hold it for a few rounds. It is probably best to be specialised in the tech area, because towards game end, they can be a great help in boosting your points. It might be better to have just a few research tracks where you can go for the end-of-track scoring, as opposed to being a jack of all trades.

The Thoughts

Although I can appreciate the strategic elements in this short-to-medium length and light-to-medium complexity game, it doesn't really have a hook for me. There is nothing in particular that I dislike. I am unable to articulate why it doesn't grab me. Maybe it's because I've just managed to digest the game after that first learning game ended, and I need to play it again, this time at a quicker pace. It's not a very deep game, and it's not meant to be one, but there are some decent tactics. There is much player interaction because you must pay attention to what others are doing, in order to have a pulse on the game progress.

I like the predecessor VivaJava more. They are quite different games. I like the shifting alliances and the push-your-luck lucky draw element in VivaJava, which do exist in the dice game version but in a different form.

Saturday 19 July 2014

concise reference sheets updated

I still often make rules summaries, but I do them in my own Powerpoint file, and accummulate a whole bunch of them before I make the effort to share them on BGG and here at my blog. Here are the latest additions, updates and corrections. I now have more than 250 games covered.

  1. A Few Acres of Snow
  2. Attika
  3. Axis & Allies 1914 (enhanced)
  4. Brass (enhanced)
  5. Cargo Noir
  6. Civilization (Gibson Games edition)
  7. Cuba Libre
  8. Dark Darker Darkest
  9. Die Macher (enhanced)
  10. Entdecker (corrected)
  11. GiftTRAP
  12. Hammer of the Scots (corrected)
  13. In the Year of the Dragon (corrected)
  14. Kemet
  15. Paths of Glory (enhanced)
  16. Roads & Boats
  17. Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island (enhanced)
  18. Tokaido
  19. Wilderness War (enhanced)

Sunday 13 July 2014

Learning Android Netrunner

I've been neither here nor there on Android Netrunner. I think it would be a very interesting game to learn, but I don't play it frequently enough, and I don't put in enough effort to learn it in depth. I don't have a convenient opponent who is particularly keen, yet I don't actively seek out the active players, despite knowing there are some in the Kuala Lumpur vicinity.

I recently picked up the courage to put out a request for some coaching games, and Nik from Spartan Games Arena invited me to come over to play. I opted to play a runner. I played Kate of the Shaper faction, an easy-to-play character. I used mostly the basic deck with just a little customisation. Nik showed me Haas-Bioroid first, and then Jinteki for our second game. Both were custom decks.

I asked many questions when we played, on overall strategy, the do's and don'ts, tactical considerations under various situations, and the different play styles of the factions. Nik was very generous and shared many insights. It was an eye-opening experience. I was amazed by the many nuances in the game. I was a little overwhelmed, not by the rules complexity or by the variety in card powers, but by the many strategic considerations that a good player needs to make when playing. Understanding and appreciating these intricacies is one thing, digesting them and applying them will take more time and effort. I felt like taking out a notebook to take notes, for fear of forgetting the insights I managed to glimpse.

  • I learned that it's perfectly normal for the runner to spend two or three turns just collecting money and drawing cards to build up enough resources for a big run (attack), or even a series of runs. There is a tempo to Netrunner - preparing and building up, and then attacking, and then regrouping and planning for the next assault. Players have to manage this timing and know when it's best to attack. For the corporation player I guess it's making sure you are well-prepared for the next time the runner attacks. For the runner it is quite pointless and can even be dangerous to attack when you are not fully ready, e.g. not having enough cash or not having enough cards in hand. The corporation will fear you when you have accumulated enough money and cards, because money usually means being able to break through ice (firewalls / defenses) and reaching the servers.
  • Managing the money aspect is not just about making money as efficiently as possible. It is also about forcing your opponent to waste money, or luring him into doing so. Nik applied this to great effect in our second game. When I had built up a small fortune, he revealed two remote servers which were big money-makers. The Jinteki identity he used required me to run against a central server (regardless of outcome) within the same turn before I could run against any remote server. His discard pile and draw deck were lightly defended, which was tempting. So I took quick snipes against them (didn't find any agenda though), and then went for his money-making assets at the remote servers before he could fully realise their benefits. Little did I know these were all part of his plan. He actually had three agendas in his hand of four cards. If I had attacked his more heavily defended hand (HQ), it could have been devastating to him. Instead, I spent most of my money running against other servers, some of which looked like low-hanging fruits and some of which looked like urgent threats. Needless to say soon afterwards he played agenda after agenda and reached 7 points before I could muster enough cash again to stop him.
  • Cards in the game do have various strong powers, but I feel the core of the game is still the psychological battle between the players. The cards are nifty tools, but ultimately you still need to outguess and outsmart your opponent. In contrast, in Hearthstone sometimes I feel that at any one time by looking at the table and at your hand, it is obvious how you should play your current turn. There really is not much to think about. It feels like the the game is mostly in how you have built your deck, and in what cards you happen to draw. There is not a lot to think about during execution. But then perhaps that's precisely what the design of Hearthstone is aiming for - a fast-paced and accessible game. In Netrunner I find that you need to keep thinking of your opponent's intentions. Why is he doing that? Is he trying to lure me into a trap? Is he merely bluffing?
  • Nik advised me that it is usually a bad idea to run using the last action (click) of the runner. If something goes wrong, you won't have time to react. E.g. if you get tagged, the corporation player will destroy your resources on his turn. Also some ice subroutines can be broken by spending actions, so having some spare actions is good.
  • Actions is an important currency too. An asset that lets you make money without needing to spend any action is more valuable than one which requires actions.
  • In Hearthstone I have reached the stage where I can appreciate the characteristics of each hero, the kind of cards they have, and the general strategies they gravitate towards. Netrunner has this too. I'm nowhere near there at the moment, but I feel it will be even more interesting than Hearthstone if I do get there.
  • I realised I have played one important rule wrong all this while. When installing ice, if the server already has other ice installed, you need to pay $1 per existing ice. It's embarrassing that I got this wrong all this while. I actually have this in my own rules summary.

Sunday 6 July 2014

Cuba Libre

The iconic Che Guevara is one of the main characters in the Cuban revolution.

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Cuba Libre is a game design from Volko Ruhnke (Wilderness War, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, Andean Abyss), and the second game in the COIN (Counter Insurgency) series. It is about the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) in which the government was toppled, and Fidel Castro came to power, establising a communist government. It also marked the start of a US embargo that is still in effect today - more than 50 years after the end of the revolution.

There are four factions in the game, and regardless of the number of players, every faction will be in play. The government faction controls the army and the police force. Its victory condition is to have all cities strongly supporting it, and to have a total of 18 points of support in the whole country. The 26 July Movement (M26) led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara aims to incite the people to oppose the government (opposing the government means supporting them). To win, the total opposition points across the country plus their bases must exceed 15. The Directorio Revolucionario (DR), an anti-communist group mostly made of students, aims to control the people, and wants the people to support neither the government nor the M26. Its winning condition is the total population under their control plus their bases must exceed 9. The syndicate is Cuba's organised crime lords. Their objectives are to have more than 7 open casinos and more than $30.

This is the starting setup. The four big boxes around the edges are the component storage areas for the four factions. Blue = government, green = syndicate, yellow = DR, red = M26. Components are limited. You can't have more soldiers on the map than pieces you have. The big circles are cities, the small ones economic centres. The other regular spaces are the provinces, coloured differently based on terrain.

There are two key concepts in this game. Having control over a city or province and its inhabitants means you have more units (soldiers / guerrillas / bases / etc) than everyone else combined. For some actions, having control is a prerequisite. The other concept is the support level of the people, which is independent of control. There are five different levels of support: actively supporting (the government), passively supporting, neutral, passively opposing (which also means passively supporting the M26 revolutionaries), and actively opposing.

Each city and province has two square boxes next to it. The first box to denote control (i.e. one of the factions has more pieces than all other factions combined), the second box to denote the support level of the people. Camaguey is now controlled by DR (yellow), but the citizens are still slightly supporting the government.

The factions have different actions and special actions. Most revolve around bringing new units onto the board, moving units around, and fighting. They work differently for different factions. The presence of units affect the control (or lack of) at each city and province. There are also actions related to making money, and modifying the support level. When the insurgents bring in new guerrillas, they enter the game face-down with the star or coin icon hidden. This means they are underground, and the government is not yet able to directly attack them. The government needs to perform a Sweep action to flush them out, before it is able to conduct an assault. However once guerrillas are exposed, the government can kill them quite efficiently. The guerillas on the other hand are not as effective in killing each other or killing government units. They need to roll a die and even if successfully only get to kill two units. Each faction has some unique special actions. The government can conduct air bombardment against exposed guerrillas. M26 can kidnap to make money and force casinos to shut down (casinos are the bases of the syndicate). The syndicate can bribe. DR can assassinate.

The player reference sheet shows all possible actions and victory conditions of each faction. This is indispensable for new players.

The octagonal pillar pieces are the guerrillas. Notice that the yellow guerrilla in the middle has a star on it. This means it is now exposed and is thus vulnerable to government forces. Also, notice that the Syndicate (green) guerrillas have now entered the economic centres (small circles). During the Propaganda round, if an economic centre has not been sabotaged by other insurgents, and there is not enough police to man these locations, the syndicate will be able to earn money from these locations.

The event cards and the round structure is quite different from other card-driven games. You don't hold cards in your hand. Instead two event cards are always open on the table, for the current round and the next. The card specifies the turn order for the round. Eligible players get to decide whether to execute the event card, to conduct operations, or to pass (and earn a little money). Every round at most two players may execute an event or conduct operations, and if you do one of these, you become Ineligible next round. Also after the first player selects a type of action, whoever comes next has only one action type to pick. It's take it or leave it (pass). If you are the first player you need to be careful in picking your action because it affects what the next player can do. You also want to look ahead at the next card, because if it's a very good event for you, you may want to pass this round so that you get to execute that event next round.

The row of icons at the top of the event card shows the player order for the round. In some cases, e.g. the card on the right, there are two different events on the same card, and they usually have opposite effects. The second event is written in a darker green box. If a player decides to execute an event, he can only pick one of them.

This is the core mechanism. The yellow and red faction markers being on the right means these factions have executed events or actions in the previous round, and are thus Ineligible in the current round. The six small boxes in the centre represent the various types of actions the Eligible factions may select. The first faction to execute picks one of the three boxes in the left column. After that the next faction to execute may only pick the small box next to the one already chosen by the first player. It's either that or pass. If you pass, you do early some spare change and you will remain Eligible next round.

There are four Propaganda cards in the deck, shuffled into each quarter of the deck. When you come to a Propaganda round, you do a victory check and then a reset. If a faction achieves its victory condition, the game ends. Else there is a bunch of things to do. Each faction gets to earn some money, based on different criteria. The US support for the Cuban government may drop, resulting in less aid money and more costly actions by the government. Both the government and M26 has the opportunity to influence support levels. The Syndicate's casinos can be reopened. Government soldiers must return to bases or to cities. These Propaganda rounds are like wintering rounds in some wargames. Players must prepare for it to help themselves as well as to hinder their opponents. Just watching out for the victory conditions is not sufficient. You need to pave the way as best you can for the next cycle.

The box at the top left is the US Alliance box, indicating how friendly US is towards the Cuban government. US begins the game friendly, but as the game progresses, the relationship will tend to sour, and the Cuban government will find it more and more expensive to perform actions. US foreign aid will dry up too.

If no one wins an instant victory from the Propaganda rounds, the game ends after the fourth Propaganda round, and victory is determined by scoring. This scoring is measured by how far a faction is from its objective.

The Play

Allen and I mostly blundered through our first game. As a 2-player game, we each played two factions - he was the government and the syndicate, while I played M26 and DR. The alternative of using AI rules to run non-player factions would have made things more complex. Still, it was quite a lot to digest, because each faction is different, and you need to know not only your own faction but also your opponents'. We fiddled with the various moving parts and forged ahead in trial-and-error mode. We were quite clueless on strategy, making it up as we went. Despite all that, it was a lot of fun. I felt very immersed in the setting. I agonised over how to recruit more guerrillas, how to flee from the government forces, how to instigate opposition and also how to find the money to do all these. I made plenty of mistakes, which was part of the fun. Now that I have completed one game, I have a better idea what not to do, but I think I will need more plays to know for sure what I should do.

One of the earliest mistakes I made was not harassing the government right from the get-go. At each Propaganda round, the US support will decrease if the government doesn't maintain 18 points of support. It's not too hard to snipe at the government to bring the support level down, but I neglected it, and the government continued to enjoy US support - i.e. cheap actions and also foreign aid. Initially I thought the government being rich was a given, but later on when US support eventually dwindled, I realised that it could be brought to its knees financially. I should have tried to force it into this corner much earlier.

One other mistake I made was not realising the importance of bases. You need to remove two guerillas to place a base, which significantly weakens your power. However once you have a base, you are able to recruit much more efficiently. I only realised this around mid game. Another area where I did poorly was money. For certain stretches during the game, both M26 and DR experienced droughts. Running out of money is bad. Many actions can be done in multiple locations, just that you need to pay for each location. Being able to afford that means you are playing much more efficiently, achieving multiple objectives within the same round. There are not many ways to make money. Few actions make money. There are at most four Propaganda rounds where factions can earn some money. Keeping an eye out on financials is important. In my case I wonder whether I had been spending too recklessly.

Allen and I gradually experimented with the various action types. We started with the basics, like recruitment, movement and fighting. As we explored, we found that the special actions could be very powerful. It was through such fiddling that we learned to make better use of our factions' unique abilities.

My two insurgent factions clumsily stumbled over each other. Strictly speaking their goals do not conflict, but some of their actions can cause harm to each other. DR can cause the people in a location to become neutral. If the people are previously actively supporting the government, then it's a big help to M26 shifting them to neutral. However if the people are previously actively opposing the government, then it's a big step back for M26, negating their hard work. I fumbled over what to do with my two factions for quite a while. Then I came up with an idea. I should let them focus on different provinces, and after they had done what they needed, they could just march to each other's provinces. They could just swap! DR needed to control the population, while M26 wanted the people to be actively opposing the government. These two goals could coexist. The people in a location could be controlled by DR and at the same time oppose the government. This all sounded perfect, but when I tried to execute my plan, I found that it was easier said than done. I had to contend with Allen's actions. His government troops were hunting me down, and his syndicate gangsters were bribing my fighters.

In the last quarter of the game (between the 3rd and 4th Propaganda cards), Allen managed to execute two event cards which made the government very powerful. One event gave him one free Assault with any Sweep action. Normally the government needs to execute a Sweep action to expose guerrillas and then execute an Assault action to kill them. Being able to launch one free Assault meant his units were suddenly much more deadlier. The other event allowed his police force to act like soldiers. They could enter the countryside to hunt for guerrillas. Normally the police can only attack in cities and economic centres. Allen had a deadly combo, and I could not come up with any countermove.

Look at that show of power in Havana! Dark blue cubes are soldiers, and light blue ones are policemen.

Allen's government (blue) and syndicate (green) factions have secured the north western part of Cuba. He has built a base (round disc) in the province next to Havana, which will help him launch further attacks to other provinces.

Las Villas is getting very crowded, and these guys are not here to peacefully watch the World Cup together. I have two M26 bases here (red discs), and I am desperate not to lose them. They took much effort to build. If anyone attacks me, they must kill all my guerrillas before they can start destroying my bases. So effectively guerrillas protect bases. Also having guerillas which are not yet exposed will further protect bases from the government, because the government needs to expose the guerillas first before it can target them.

There was one time I had this event which gave me a free M26 base and a free M26 guerilla in Havana, the capital city. At first I thought this was rather pointless, since Havana was crawling with soldiers and policemen. These free units wouldn't last. However when I thought a bit more about it, I realised it was a golden opportunity. Because of the dense population, when I did a recruitment drive, having the base allowed me to recruit a massive army of volunteers. Havana suddenly teemed with revolutionists. I took the opportunity to sway the people's support, greatly reducing the support for the government. Eventually Allen still managed to kill off my guerrillas, but at least I had fun and I had done some damage. Totally worth it! Maybe.

My DR (yellow) guerrillas rushed into Santiago de Cuba, which Allen had not been defending strongly. I have attacked, thus exposing all my fighters. Santiago de Cuba is now under DR control, since there are more DR pieces than all other pieces combined.

We reached the fourth Propaganda card without anyone achieving instant victory. In a 2-player game where we each played two factions, we needed both our factions to achieve their victory conditions in order to win instantly. We couldn't even get one of our factions to achieve its victory condition. So we had to execute the relevant steps of the final Propaganda card, and then determine victory by scoring. The faction with the highest score was the syndicate belonging to Allen. The government did moderately well. Both my insurgent factions fared rather poorly. The revolution failed miserably. History was rewritten.

Those green discs with the 3-coin icons are open casinos, open because the 3-coin icons are showing. This was the late game. Notice that the US relationship at the top left had dropped to rock bottom.

This was near game end. Allen's government (blue) and syndicate (green) factions have secured the north western part of Cuba. Government forces have also successfully mounted a number of excursions to other parts of Cuba to hunt down the insurgents. DR (yellow) only controls two locations. M26 (red) has managed to rouse the people to oppose the government somewhat, but the momentum is not strong enough. The syndicate has an amazing eight open casinos, mainly because one of the late event cards allowed Allen to reopen all casinos. Such perfect timing.

My DR guerrillas which have previously invaded Santiago de Cuba have now retreated back to Sierra Maestra. Since they are now exposed, I want to get them away before the government forces counterattack.

The Thoughts

Allen has all three games in the COIN series so far. We decided to try Cuba Libre first because it looks like the simplest. The estimated play time is 3 hours. We played for about 6 hours! Digesting the rules took some time, and having to control two different factions made it even more challenging. Strategy-wise we were really going by trial-and-error, experimenting different approaches to see which worked and which didn't. Despite the long play time, the incessant referring to the rules and the frequent rules discussions, I had a blast! This is a very immersive game. The arena is small and you have to fight for every space. There are not many pieces on the board, and every piece counts, every piece is valuable. There is a lot of pushing backwards and forwards, measures and counter-measures. It's constantly dancing on a knife edge. Beat down an enemy here, and he may come back somewhere else. Neglect one location, and your enemy will soon exploit it. It is a tight map, and with four factions vying for power, you are constantly reminded that it's a small small world.

The interrelationship between the factions is very interesting. 2-player games with each player controlling 2 factions is an interesting twist, but I think the game is best played with four players, each controlling one faction. Well, maybe I was just overwhelmed by the split personality disorder thing that controlling two factions gave me. Factions sometimes can work together, sometimes joining forces to fight a common enemy, sometimes politely going around each other so that both can achieve their own goals without hindering each other. This is a very different feeling from other multiplayer games where factions are generally the same and have similar goals. In Cuba Libre the nature of each faction is unique. This is what makes the game feel so thematic.

This should so so so be classified as an Ameritrash game, but the mechanisms feel very Euro. It's open information. There is little dice-rolling. Component count is low. The game feels very succinct. It even uses wooden cubes and discs! Yet it is also definitely not the type of Eurogame that has a strong mechanism but an interchangeable theme. Everything ties back to the story. I guess you can say it's a special breed of wargame. Or perhaps there's no need to try to pigeonhole it.

I'm a little sorry I didn't do Che justice in my play. He is probably turning in his grave now.