Tuesday 22 December 2015

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas
... and have a great 2016 ahead!

Monday 30 November 2015


Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

I supported Epic on Kickstarter because of Rob Dougherty. He was on the Ascension design team, and he designed Star Realms too. Both are games I enjoy. Epic is not a deck-building game, but you can customise your deck like other Collectible Card Games (CCG's). It doesn't have the booster pack business model like popular CCG's, e.g. Magic: The Gathering. That was one of the reasons I did not hesitate to support it. I wouldn't feel compelled to continue investing in the game system. I didn't have specific expectations. If it turned out to be something as good as Star Realms, i.e. a brisk card game with interesting card combos and decent strategy, I would be happy enough.

Epic feels like Magic: The Gathering, but that's based on my very limited understanding of Magic. The basic game is two players going head-to-head trying to defeat each other by reducing the opponent's health to zero. You deploy champions in front of you, and these champions can be used to attack your opponent or to protect you from attacks. One aspect is much simplified compared to Magic and even Hearthstone - the resource system. There is only one resource type - money. At the start of every player's turn, your money is reset to $1. That means on your turn you have $1 to spend, and on your opponent's turn you also have $1 to spend. If you spend it, good. If you don't, you've wasted it, because it won't accumulate. Next turn, you start with $1 again. Cards in the game either cost $1 to play, or they cost nothing. Very simple, but some players may feel something is lost due to this simplification. I think it's a good idea.

I made my own box, using an unused box I found at home. I wrapped the four sides with present paper, and then printed the cover of the original game box to be stuck on three of the sides. The original box can fit the 128 cards of the base game and the rulebook. However once I sleeved the cards, it was no longer possible to fit everything, not even close. Moreover I received many promos and mini expansions that were part of the successful crowdfunding effort.

There isn't a lot of extra space is this self-made box after I put everything in.

The original box is on the left.

Cards come in four colours (see icon at top left): yellow is good, red is evil, blue is science / tech, and green is nature. Cards of the same colour often boost the powers of one another, so if you play with a pre-built deck, you will want to focus on just a few colours and make good use of card combos. A legal deck has 30 cards. You are allowed to have up to 3 copies of the same card. So you can have only 10 different cards in your deck, three copies each. However to do this you need three copies of the game, because each game contains only one copy of every card.

There is an alternative win condition. If you exhaust your deck and need to draw, you win immediately. Normally you only draw one card at the start of your turn, but some cards let you draw more cards. Some card powers make you return cards to the bottom of your deck though. This extends the lifetime of your deck.

The combat mechanism is simple and similar to Magic. The active player gets to decide whether to attack, how many times to attack (as long as he has enough champions to do so) and how many champions to be involved in each attack. Each champion can only participate in one attack every turn, because after an attack they are either killed or exhausted. Upon being attacked, the passive player can decide whether to send champions to defend, and how many to send. As long as at least one defender engages the attacker or attackers, the player being attacked does not get injured. Any casualty will be between the attacking and defending champions. A champion dies if the damage it takes within the same turn reaches its health value. Else it fully heals at the start of the next turn.

The Play

I asked Shee Yun (10) to play with me. She has played Hearthstone and Star Realms before, so I said to her it's about the same. She handily defeated me in our first game.

We played twice, using the very basic rules. We randomly drew cards for our decks, since we didn't know the cards well anyway and didn't have any idea how to build a deck properly. My first impression of the game is: the cards are all very strong! Most of the time when I read a card, I start imagining the various terrific ways I can use it and many wonderful ways I can combine it with other cards. However, no matter how strong some cards may appear, it seems they will have their match. Also, no matter how powerful an opponent's attacking champion is, as long as you are willing to sacrifice a lowly defender every time it attacks, that champion can't hurt you at all. A high attack strength isn't everything.

In one particular game when things were starting to look bleak for me, I drew one card which would let me deal some damage to every champion, both Shee Yun's and mine. It was the perfect card for my situation, because she had many champions, but they all had low health values. My card would kill them all, while one of my high-health champions would live. I waited for the perfect time to play this card, and then suddenly she played one champion which could not be killed on her turn. I was stunned. I was on the verge of losing my last few health points, and my event card would have turned the tables. It was Shee Yun's turn, and I could not do anything to stop her recently deployed champion. It promptly destroyed me.

Epic is a game with dramatic twists of fate. Here's another story from our games. I had a very strong champion which had an extremely high health value of 30. I drew it early and was very pleased that I would have this champion fighting for me for a long time. It wouldn't be easy for Shee Yun to deploy enough champions to deal a total of 30 damage within one turn. Then to my utter shock she played an event card which not only killed my sturdy champion but also added its health value to her health total. She went from 30 health points to 60 health points. The champion which I thought was a godsend turned out to be a horrible curse.

That yellow coin doesn't come with the game. It's from a set of plastic poker chips I bought in Taiwan. The yellow coin is the $1. I use coins of other colours to denote the players' health points. Those two identical cards at the bottom are not regular cards. They are token cards, used to represent minor champions summoned by the players. The token cards form a separate pool which is shared by both players.

The cards played at an angle are newly deployed champions. They can't attack yet, and they can't use their special abilities yet. They can only block the opponent's attackers. They will be updated to normal status at the start of my next turn.

The Thoughts

Epic is a fast-paced player-vs-player head-to-head-fighting card game. The game system is fairly straight-forward. The cards are powerful and offer many opportunities for combos and clever play. There is still a lot more I need to explore and learn. For now I will say the first impression is positive, and early plays are promising. I think this game is very good value for money.

Tuesday 24 November 2015


Plays: 2Px4, 3Px2, 4Px1.

The Game

I'm pretty sure Red7 is the result of Carl Chudyk seeing the recent trend of microgames and deciding he wanted in too, and what a pleasant surprise that result is. Red7 has 49 cards, numbered 1 to 7. There are seven cards for each number, and they come in seven different colours - the colours of the rainbow. When comparing two cards, naturally the higher numbered card wins. When the numbers are the same, you compare colour, and the colour closer to the red end of the spectrum wins. So Red 7 is the strongest card, followed by Orange 7, Yellow 7 and so on. The weakest card is Purple 1.

I am very pleased with the component design. The cardboard insert fits one deck of cards nicely, but once you sleeve the cards, they won't fit anymore (this photo). However if you remove the cardboard insert, everything fits perfectly! See the next photo.


In the basic game, the objective is to be the last man standing. Everyone starts with seven cards, and a random card in the play area in front of him. The player with the strongest card in his play area is the current strongest player. On your turn, you execute one action, and you must end your turn with yourself being the strongest. Else you are not allowed to take your action at all and you lose immediately. You have three options on your turn. (1) Play a card into your play area. (2) Play a card onto the discard pile. This may change the domination rule, i.e. the rule which determines who is strongest. The domination rule changes depending on the colour you play. E.g. orange means whoever has the most cards of the same number is strongest. Blue means whoever has the most cards of different colours is strongest. (3) Do both - play a card into your play area, then play a card onto the discard pile. Naturally choosing the third option means you are using two cards, which is costly. Players take turns taking actions. Eventually one by one they will be eliminated because they are unable to modify the game situation to make themselves strongest. The last remaining player wins. In case you use up all your cards, the next time your turn comes again, you automatically lose.

This reference card lists the seven colours and their corresponding domination rule.

I have just described the basic rules. It takes about 5 minutes to play a game using the basic rules. In the full game, two aspects are added, and the game is longer. The first aspect added is scoring. You play a number of hands, as opposed to just one hand. The winner of a hand scores points, and the game only ends when one player reaches a target score. When a hand ends, the winner scores the cards in his play area which meet the current domination criteria. E.g. if the domination rule is most even numbered cards, then the winner picks up all the even numbered cards from his play area and puts them in his score pile. This means some cards are removed from the game, which will affect the subsequent hands. Due to this scoring rule, it is now a valid strategy to concede during a hand. Sometimes even though you are able to play cards to make yourself strongest and thus stay in the game, you may want to concede instead and let your opponent win with a low score. You can avoid the risk of losing anyway later and allowing your opponent to score big. This is damage control.

The second aspect added is drawing cards. In the basic game you never draw cards. In the full game, whenever you play a card to the discard pile, you may draw a card. If the number you play is higher than the number of cards in your play area, you draw a card from the draw deck. This means it is easier to draw cards in the early game. It gets harder as the game progresses because you will have more and more cards in your play area. This card drawing aspect creates another layer of strategy.

In addition to the basic rules and the full rules, there is also a variant rule, where some cards have special abilities. I have not tried that yet so I can't comment.

The Play

The rules are simple. The number of actions you actually get to do is very low - at most seven in the basic game. However this little filler can be quite thinky. The moment you see your hand of cards, you need to analyse it and strategise how to play the current hand. What kind of tableau should you build? Which cards will you use for building up your play area, and which will you play to the discard pile to modify the domination rule? Once the hand gets going, you need to consider how others are building their play areas, and you need to adjust your strategy accordingly. There are seven different domination rules, so even if you can't beat the others in some of them, hopefully you can find others which can help you survive. There is some luck. If you get a good hand, winning can be very easy. However it is when your get a lousy or mediocre hand that things become interesting, because that's where the challenge lies. That's when you really need to think hard and try your best to "make lemonade".

The rules are simple enough to play with children. There is some strategic depth, so younger children may not grasp all of it, even if they can follow the rules. They just may not do as well as the adults.

I have three cards in my play area. If the domination rule is highest card, I will be dominant because of my Red 7. If the domination rule is having the most of one number, I will be in a good position too because of my two 7's.

Shee Yun (10) likes the game and we have played the full game a few times. She understands the strategies and jas beaten me a few times.

She plays a yellow card to the discard pile to change the domination rule.

The cards tucked under the reference card are scored cards, i.e. they are now out of circulation.

The Thoughts

Red7 is a compact, unique game. Short, yet a little thinky. I prefer the full game, which requires playing a few hands. It is no longer a microgame when played in this format, but it has a bit more strategic depth this way. If you want to play it as a filler, go for the basic game. It still gives you some challenge and something to chew on. The game is most satisfying when you get to the point where you are able to analyse and plan upon looking at the hand you are dealt. That is the point where you appreciate the quirks of the game. There is some luck, but I don't mind it in such a short game. In fact I think being too lucky is no fun. It is when your cards are mediocre that you feel challenged and you need to work hard to do well.

Thursday 19 November 2015

miscellaneous: Love Letter, Ascension, Essen, New Through the Ages

I started a new job a few months ago, and work has been busy. My blogging has been impacted. My backlog is growing. There are often many photos queuing up to be included in my blog posts. I try to maintain some regularity, but I don't force myself to write. Blogging is something I want to enjoy doing. It should not become a chore. My new work takes much energy. It is engaging and it is satisfying. However I tell myself I mustn't allow myself to put too much time and energy into my work to the detriment of other aspects of my life - my family, my friends, and of course boardgames. Sometimes on weekday nights or on weekends I am tempted to turn on my laptop and continue to work on a piece of work I have been halfway through at the office. I need to remind myself there are other things I should allocate time for.

My new work is related to games, so I have a valid reason (*cough* perfect excuse *cough*) to bring boardgames to the office to play with my colleagues. The biggest hit so far is Love Letter. My homemade copy has an Adventure Time theme. Now my colleagues intend to make one with a Chibi Maruko-chan theme. It will be interesting to see how it turns out.

There was one particularly memorable game when Teck Seng played a 3 on Ruby, i.e. they were to compare cards and whoever lost would be out of the round. They both looked quite confident, but the moment they saw each other's cards, they started laughing. The loser had to reveal the losing card. Ruby flipped her card over, and it was a 7! That meant Teck Seng's card was an 8! They probably both thought they would win, because they had high cards. Who would have expected that this fight would end up getting them both eliminated. Since Teck Seng's identity was leaked, he was soon targeted and forced out of the round. Everyone who plays Love Letter falls in love with it!

I have now played more than 1000 games of Ascension, all on iOS. I have never played the physical copy. Ascension was my train game. I could play it very casually, usually when on the train to or from work. Now that I need to drive to work, I still manage to play a few turns everyday when I have short breaks. Despite the many plays, I don't feel like an expert. I have never had any epiphany worth sharing.

Star Realms was my other train game, and is still my current casual phone game. It is designed by Rob Dougherty, one of the designers of Ascension. I've hit 200 plays now, and similar to Ascension, I don't feel I play it well enough to be able to discuss strategy in depth. I supported the Kickstarter campaign of the recent game from Rob Dougherty - Epic. I have now received the game and so far have played it twice. Now it's in my to-blog-list queue.

What are your top to-watch games from the 2015 Essen batch? I have two this year, Food Chain Magnate from Splotter, and Ships by Martin Wallace. I am happy to have played both. I have bought a copy of Ships. I'm still thinking about Food Chain Magnate. I like it. It's a good game. But I worry it may end up being like The Great Zimbabwe - not getting played much. The game is not cheap too, considering the Malaysian currency exchange rate and the shipping cost. Looking back at the 2014 Essen batch, two games that stood out for me were Panamax and Tragedy Looper. I had played the former once, and the latter twice, and before I could play them again, Essen 2015 had come and gone. There are just too many good games!

A new improved version of Through the Ages was release this Essen. I am still thinking whether I should get it. It is 95% the same. There are very few rule changes. Some cards are rebalanced. It's very easy to pick up if you already know the previous version. Physical component design and artwork are improved. The whole thing is prettier. On Deepavali Day, Jeff organised a full-day gaming session at Boardgamecafe.net. I hadn't done any long gaming session for quite a while, so I grabbed the opportunity. It felt good spending 9 hours boardgaming. We did Through the Ages and then Food Chain Magnate.

Through the Ages. Some cards which did not have drawings in the earlier version now have drawings. They look much better.

Printing the starting cards directly on the player board is an excellent idea. This has been implemented before in previous editions of the game, but my copy is a very old edition and still uses individual cards.

I usually play Through the Ages with my wife, and we play a no-aggression variant. Because of this my game is distorted. This time, playing with Jeff, Ainul and Dith, was very different. The normal game, i.e. needing to worry more about military, was something I needed to adapt to. The higher player count was also new to me. In two ages, we exhausted the military deck and had to reshuffle the discard pile to form a new draw deck. This also meant every event had been drawn by at least one player, just that we didn't know for sure who, and we had to guess whether a particular event card had been seeded into the event deck, or was being held in hand, or had been discarded and might get drawn again. Knowledge of events became even more important.

I played rather poorly. I was a despot until about mid game, so my government was rather inefficient. Dith went culture-heavy right from the start, and had a huge lead over the rest of us. Jeff did better than Ainul and I in catching up, and eventually overtook Dith to win the game. Ainul and I never quite managed to catch up to the two of them.

One of the changes in this edition is the game board being broken up into five smaller boards. You can arrange these boards whichever way suits you best.

There are stickers for the player markers. They look good.

If you look at the yellow culture board (i.e. victory point board) you can see that Dith (red) is far ahead of us. Jeff is blue and is a distant second place. Ainul (yellow) and I (green) are close, and we take up the rear.

In this version I finally see Sid Meier's name and picture. In my version he is just Game Designer and a silhouette. Maybe the publisher explicitly asked for his permission to use his name and face.

This is the military board. One of the rules changes is related to the tactics cards. In previous versions, a tactics card is played in front of you and stays there until you play a new tactics card. Now a tactics cards you play only stays exclusively yours for one round. After that you still enjoy the benefit, but the card is moved to this military board, and other players can spend military actions to adopt the same tactic as you. This is very thematic.

One reason why Through the Ages works well as a spouse game for me is that military is still very relevant even if I don't play aggressions or wars. It is still important because of events and because you need military for colonisation. The game isn't thrown completely off balance when I take out aggressions and wars. In this recent game I played, I had much more pressure to maintain a strong military because otherwise I could be targeted by three other opponents.

The four-player game was slow. Normally before my turn came I had already decided how to spend most of my actions. I arranged my cards and civil action tokens this way to remind myself what I had planned to do. Then I could play quickly when my turn came.

I emphasised science in this game. You can see the leaders Newton and Einstein in this photo. In the ancient age I had Aristotle as my leader.

This was my civilisation at game-end. I only had two wonders of the world (purple cards) - the hanging gardens and the first space flight.

The final scores: Jeff 246, Dith 242, me 222, Ainul 203. Since the scores are in the 200's, this is not really a big gap.

Sunday 15 November 2015

Russian Railroads

Plays: 2Px5.

Russian Railroads won many awards, the most prestigious one being the Deutscher Spiele Preis (2014). It also won the 2013 Meeple's Choice Award and the 2014 International Gamers Award. It was nominated for the 2014 Kennerspiel des Jahres too. I had read positive comments and was interested to try it out. Unfortunately when it was played at Boardgamecafe.net I couldn't make it, so I missed that opportunity. Then for my birthday this year my wife Michelle said she wanted to buy me a game. This was the game she had her eyes on. She seldom plays boardgames now. She has other interests and hobbies. However since this was a birthday gift, naturally it came with "play with me" vouchers (figuratively speaking).

The Game

Russian Railroads is a worker placement game and a development game. You are industrialists building railroads, developing steam engines and growing industry in Russia. The design is very Euro, very multiple-ways-to-score-points-y. There are four main paths you can pursue - the three rail lines plus industrialisation.

This is the player board. There are three railroad tracks, and the series of purple hexagons at the bottom is the industrialisation track. The black markers on the three railroad tracks indicate how far you have extended the railroads. Some spots on the tracks indicate benefits you gain once your markers reach those spots. After you build your railroads, you can upgrade them. Black is the lowest grade. You can upgrade it to grey, then brown, then biege, and finally white. Upgrading must be done starting from the left, just like how you advance the black markers. Higher grade markers may never overtake lower grade markers, so you need to push your lower grade markers ahead before you can do upgrades to higher levels.

The Trans-Siberian Railway (the topmost) currently has two trains valued 2 and 1. That means my train can only reach the 3rd spot on the track. Some of the benefits on the tracks can only be claimed if your trains can also reach the specific spots. Thus the need to upgrade your trains.

To advance along the purple industrialisation track at the bottom, there is a type of industrialisation action you can take. It's just a simple matter of advancing the purple hexagonal marker, which scores points for you every round depending on where it is. However the higher half of the industrialisation track is broken up, and you need to build factories to link up the fragments before your industrialisation marker can advance further. Factories that you build (for now there's only one here) give benefits when your marker lands on them.

This is the main board. This is a worker placement game, so most of the board is spaces for you to place workers and take corresponding actions. This side is for 2 players. The other side is for 3 and 4. The actions on the left section are for building tracks of specific grades. The actions on the upper right are for things like developing better trains, building factories, collecting money, and advancing industrialisation. The characters on the lower right are the engineers. Engineers are additional spots to place workers on to execute actions. These actions are usually stronger. Every round there is one engineer offering an additional placement spot on the main board, and there is also one engineer who becomes available for recruitment. If you recruit him (by paying money), or her, you get a private worker placement spot. At game end there is a bonus scoring done based on everyone's engineers too.

The game comes with many engineers. These are but a subset.

Some spots take one worker, some spots require two. There's one here which requires one worker and one coin.

The train tiles are at the same time also factory tiles. The back side is the factory side. The factory ability is shown as an icon in the top left corner of the train side, for the convenience of the players.

The number of rounds is fixed. You try to maximise your scoring within this limited number of rounds and actions. There are many ways to score, but to score big you need to specialise. There is no direct conflict. Competition is mostly of the I-got-it-before-you-nyah-nyah-nyah type.

The Play

When I played with Michelle, I only realised I had made a rule mistake by our third game. We had played with too many train tiles. The number of train tiles in play depends on the player count. Having too many in play meant our train development was very slow. When you claim a new train, you must take the lowest one available. So having more in play meant we were stuck with lousy trains for a long time. Our first few games were a bit off.

The worker placement element is not particularly outstanding. It works, and that's about it. The track upgrading mechanism is something new, but that doesn't carry the game. What makes the game attractive to me is the many little nooks and crannies in the strategy space. Yes, you do keep returning to one or two of the four broad strategies, the three railways and industrialisation, but within these broad strategies there are many very specific tactics which you can exploit to score you many points. To make the most of such special powers or scoring categories, you need to do much aligning of stars. This means you can't afford to try to do everything. You need to do a few things that synergise very well, and you need to be disciplined in pursuing your strategy. Flail about, and you'll end up neither here nor there.

In the strategy space there are many small corners to explore, and it'll take many plays to try every one of them. You can try to start a game with one particular tactic in mind, but it will not always work out. It depends on the kind of engineers available, and the actions of your opponents. Also some bonus scoring cards are randomly removed at the start of every game. You may anticipate to claim a particular card only to discover at mid game that it is not in play.

In this game I focused on the Trans-Siberian Railway. My black marker is at 11 now, getting ready for the final push to the end. The grey, brown and beige markers are chugging along. The Trans-Siberian Railway has 8 slots for x2 markers, which double the railroad track score for the corresponding sections. A beige section has a base value of 4VP. When doubled it's worth 8VP. I have 3 beige sections now, which is 3x8=24VP, a quite respectable amount. There is a price to pay for all this though. My other two railroads are completely neglected. The black markers are still at 1.

The factory on the left allows all engineers you own to score once, so usually you trigger this after you've employed some high valued engineers. The factory on the right gives you two x2 markers.

In this particular game I focused on the third railway and industrialisation. I have completed the railway (black marker at 9), and my train (level 9) is able to travel all the way to the terminal station.

The orange discs are special ability discs, all very powerful. Everyone gets a set of six, and you will be able to use at most four in a game, if you meet all the criteria. In this photo I have triggered two of them and thus I have placed them on my player board.

I find that I tend to prefer working on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. In this photo, the orange special ability disc I have picked increases the base values of my brown, beige and white tracks. Their values are increased from 2 / 4 / 7 to 3 / 6 / 10. This works very well with a Trans-Siberian strategy because it has the track score doublers. That said, upgrading tracks to the max level takes much effort and persistence, so usually you only get to score big by the last or second last round.

In this particular game I emphasised the first and second railroads. At the top right corner I have three engineers and I have assigned workers to work with some of them.

The Thoughts

Russian Railroad is a very Euro Eurogame. That can be good or bad depending on your personal preference. It's a medium-heavy strategy game. The game quality is solid. It is not ground-breaking or particularly innovative, but there is decent depth and replayability.

Michelle has yet to win a game. In the last two games we both thought she was going to win, but after the final tally it turned out that I was victorious again. I probably want to keep it this way. It seems that the longer that she doesn't win, the more keen she is to play and to beat me. Nowadays getting 5 plays out of a new boardgame is a minor achievement worth celebrating. I look forward to more plays and experimenting with tactics I have not yet tried.

Monday 26 October 2015

Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

Legendary is a game series, which includes a Marvel heroes themed version. This Alien version uses the Alien movie series as its setting. This is a deck-building game, like Dominion and Ascension, but it's a cooperative game too, which is something I had not tried before among deck-building games. There is a non-cooperative variant, but I have not played that yet.

Gameplay is scenario-based. There are four scenarios for each of the four Alien movies. Each scenario contains 3 missions, and you must complete all three to win. In the four standard scenarios, the missions are all based on the corresponding movies. Each mission comes with a deck of mission cards, which are mostly alien cards or event cards that you need to fight or survive. When you set up a game, you shuffle the mission decks separately, and stack them with mission 1 on top and mission 3 at the bottom. Within each mission deck you shuffle in some unknown extra cards, which create uncertainty. Even if you have played a mission before, there will still be an element of surprise.

Aside from the mission cards, a scenario is also defined by the character cards. These are the cards you will be able to buy during the course of the game, to build up your player deck. The deck-building mechanism is more like Ascension and less like Dominion. You don't get to buy any card you want. There is a card row with 5 cards and you have to pick from there. Only after a card is bought a new card will be drawn to take its place. Cards in the game give you two kinds of basic values - money which you use to buy more cards, and strength which you use to kill aliens or scan unknown objects. Many cards have other powers, but these are the two basic currencies.

In the top row there is a deck of face-down cards. That's the mission deck, full of aliens and events. Most are bad, but some are good. Every turn one card will leave this deck and march towards the players, along that row at the top (which is now full). This row of mission cards is like a queue of ants marching steadily towards you. Any card that reaches you will be flipped over (it not already revealed), and it will need to be resolved. If it is an alien, it attacks every turn until it is killed. This means you are under constant pressure of kill or resolve these mission cards before they reach you. While they are marching towards you, you can expose them by spending strength points to scan them. You can only attack an alien after it is revealed. If you kill an alien in the top row, you create a hole in the queue. This slows down the march, because that hole needs to be filled (i.e. the cards behind it need to catch up) before the whole queue starts moving again. It buys you a little time, but just a little.

The middle row is where you place mission cards which have reached you. They are all face-up. The bottom row is the card row of cards you can buy.

One special type of alien card in the mission decks is the facehugger. If you reveal one, you are in trouble. You must try to kill it immediately within your current turn, or you must ask a teammate to kill it for you before the start of your next turn. Else this facehugger (a parasite) enters your body (gets added to your discard pile), and after your next shuffle, when you draw it, you die a gruesome death. This is a well-known scene in the movies. When playing the game, you need to think twice before revealing any mission card, in case it is a facehugger.

Every player gets a role, which determines your starting health. You also get one unique starting card, but it's not particularly strong. It's just a small advantage and a little flavour.

The rightmost card is a bought card. The rest are weak starting cards.

The overall feel of the game is a steady stream of aliens and events marching towards you, while you hurriedly equip and brace yourself to face it. It is a race against time. You must upgrade yourself efficiently or you will not be able to handle the build-up of attacks. Yet you cannot just hunker down and buy buy buy because the march of the aliens is relentless.

The Play

Han and I did the second standard scenario, which is based on the 2nd movie in the Alien franchise - Aliens. I have watched this movie before and still remember parts of it. Our first game went rather badly. Our purchase decisions were not very well thought out, and the cards we bought didn't jive very well. We couldn't push them to their highest potential. We were overwhelmed by events and aliens, because our abilities never quite grew enough. Not satisfied with such a loss, we decided to give it another go.

The second game went much better. We shopped more responsibly. He tried to focus on one icon, and I another. If you get to play cards with the same icons within the same turn, you often get some extra benefits or abilities. In addition to that we also made good use of a type of card which can be played on your teammates' turns. When you play such a card for your teammate, you get to draw a new card, so you are not really sacrificing much. Unless we saw that the card was crucial for our next turn, we always played the card to give each other a little boost. We won our second game quite comfortably. Neither of us were injured much by the aliens. We killed the alien mother with time to spare.

The second mission in our scenario was a good thing. We had to set up attack robots to help us fight the aliens. So this mission was a preparation step to help us with the third mission, which was the boss fight.

Whenever you need to take injury from an alien attack, an injury card is drawn from the injury deck. So you never quite know how badly you'll get hurt. There may be other effects too, other than losing health points. Some cards let you heal. However some injury cards explicitly forbid healing. This injury deck creates some uncertainty and excitement. It makes good story-telling.

The Thoughts

It is refreshing to play a deck-building game with a story element. It is an immersive experience. One worry that comes to mind is how replayable the game is after completing all four of the movie-based scenarios. You can mix and match missions to create your own scenarios, but I suspect such scenarios would feel weird. After all you can't just string together sections from different Alien movies and call it a new movie. However, as I think further, I realise that if I can play all the scenarios that come with a game just once each, then it is already good value for money. Tragedy Looper has 10 scenarios out of the box, and I'm not even halfway done yet. The recently released T.I.M.E. Stories has created much heated discussion around replayability, since the base game comes with only one (1) scenario. The idea sounds interesting, and I hope to be able to play it some day, but I haven't decided whether to buy a copy myself.

Monday 19 October 2015


Plays: 6Px1.

After playing The Princes of Machu Picchu at Boardgamecafe.net, I mentioned that I had not tried Mac Gerdts' Imperial. That was almost like blasphemy. Everyone said it is his best game. Thus I soon had an opportunity to play this game, tutored by a legion of sharks.

The Game

There are six major countries on the board - UK is red, France is blue, Germany is grey, Italy is green, Austria-Hungary is yellow and Russia is purple. Any land territory or sea zone beyond the borders of these six countries are up for grabs. Players do not directly control the six major countries. Instead, they invest in them. Each country sells bonds, and players buy bonds. Whoever has invested the most in a country controls the country. If another player surpasses the current controller in amount invested, he becomes the new controller. We had 6 players. Our game started with every player holding bonds of two different countries, and every player being the controller of one country. The board is quite empty at the start of the game. The major countries only have a few factories each. The brown ones produce armies, and the light blue ones naval fleets. In this photo only France (at the time controlled by Jeff) had recruited some mercenaries, getting ready for some early game conquests. Most other nations went for factory construction first.

Those two thick cards on the left are the Italian and German bonds. The numbers in the middle of the cards (4M and 9M) are the prices of the bonds. The numbers at the bottom (2M and 4M) are the dividends you get paid when the country decides to give dividends. The big numbers at the top are victory point multipliers used at game-end. Every country will have a base victory point value at game-end depending on how well it does. The more you have invested in the country, the higher your multiplier. That German flag on the right means I am currently the controller of Germany.

Every round, every major country gets to perform one action, and this is of course decided by the controlling player. The action mechanism is the well-known Mac Gerdts rondel mechanism. Actions are listed on a rondel and every country has a pawn on the rondel. To execute the action you want, you need to advance the pawn to the corresponding action space. If it is within 3 spaces away, advancing is free. Any further than that, you (the player, not the country) need to pay. So there is a form of restriction, and this mechanism also creates a cyclical nature in country actions.

The actions are: build one factory, build armies and fleets, recruit mercenaries, move armies and fleets, tax, and pay dividends. Combat is very straight-forward. No cards, no dice. It's just a one-for-one trade. You kill one of mine, I kill one of yours. Sea battles are optional. If both parties agree, fleets can coexist. That's mainly because fleets also act as transports. Capturing a sea zones or minor country allows you to place a control marker. These markers give you income when you do taxing. You can never place control markers in the homeland of another major country. When you occupy the homeland of another major country, you will temporarily disable any factory you occupy. If you want to, you can spend three units to permanently destroy a factory, but that's rather expensive.

When a country taxes, it receives income based on the number of factories and control markers it has on the board. However during tax time, the country also needs to pay the wages of all soldiers, both the army and the navy. When a country taxes, its reputation improves. When one country hits 25 reputation points, the game ends. The bonds of each country held by players will be worth some victory points at game-end, depending on the country reputation. Cash in hand is also worth victory points. Highest scorer wins.

That track at the bottom is the reputation track. Austria-Hungary (yellow) is now leading.

One other important country action is paying dividends. This is when money flows from country to player. Dividend payouts are done from smallest to largest shareholder. If a country doesn't have enough cash to fully pay its investors, some investors won't get the full amount they are entitled to. In fact the largest shareholder needs to pay the shortage. So if you are controlling a country it doesn't mean you can easily milk it dry disregarding the smaller investors. If you are a majority shareholder, you need to balance between transferring money to your personal coffers and leaving enough money for the country to compete effectively. If the country does poorly, the bonds you hold will be worth fewer VP's at game end.

In the game we played, I started off controlling Germany (grey). My investments were focused on Germany and Italy (green). I invested a little in Austria-Hungary (yellow) and Russia (purple). There was once when I inadvertently became controller of Italy (this photo). I didn't mean to take over. I just thought Heng ran the country quite well and it was good investment.

The Play

There were six of us: Jeff, Heng, Kareem, Ivan, Vence and I. I think only Vence and I were new to the game. The rest were veterans. Throughout most of the game I kept muttering: I still have no idea what I'm doing. I understood the rules. It was the strategy that eluded me. I think the genre of shareholding games is my Achilles' heel. I can appreciate the strategic depth. It is just that when I play, I struggle to separate the welfare of the player and that of the company (or the country). I feel like I have multiple personality disorder. In Imperial you need to remember that victory belongs to the investor and not the country. You are a businessman and not a patriot. As I observed how we played, I found that Vence and I (the newbies) had a hard time putting down our patriotism. She backed UK while I rooted for Germany. Old dogs like Jeff and Ivan toyed France like a golden goose and made a handsome fortune from it. They didn't ruin France. Not at all. Jeff just manipulated France's fortunes deftly so that his profits was maximised. France was his tool. He was not a servant of France. France became quite rich, and both Ivan and Jeff, being the largest shareholders, were laughing all the way to the bank.

You do want "your" country to do well. When you are a majority shareholder, the country's reputation level will significantly affect your end-game score. It is just that you must never forget your ultimate objective is your own wealth, and not the country's standing. I find this quite a challenge (because I suck at these games!). The strategies are subtle and indirect. This is what makes Imperial so delicious.

The game mechanisms are mostly simple. However I was quite amazed at how much the veterans could make out of these basic rules. At first I thought it was rather pointless to invade another major country's homeland, since you couldn't place any control marker and you couldn't make money from it. However, this happened anyway in our game. You can see in this photo that Italy (green) has invaded Austria-Hungary (yellow) and has disabled a naval factory (light blue). Austria-Hungary is now temporarily unable to produce fleets, and because of this Italy has a free rein in the Mediterranean Sea.

There is another example. I had thought it was too expensive to destroy another country's factory. It costs 3 armies. And then this happened in our game too. It turned out to be worthwhile because it set back the victim's expansion significantly. Yet another interesting observation was how some country controllers sent their troops to die just before payday, i.e. the tax action. Dead troops mean you save money. You don't need to pay dead soldiers in this game. Mutual destruction is actually a win-win situation for the shareholders of both the warring countries. This is such a mean game! Send the soldiers to die, and the politicians and businessmen shake hands and congratulate one another.

The round markers are the control markers.

Italy (green) is almost at 25 reputation points. The others are scrambling to catch up as much as possible before the game ends.

What I struggle with is how to tell whether a country is doing well, and whether things are looking up for a country. When you evaluate a country, it should not be based on whether the country will be growing stronger. It should be based on the Return On Investment. An already strong country may not give you much opportunity to make money. A humble country may have plenty of space for growth. Another thing to think about is the intentions of the current controller. If he is mostly done with milking the country, he may not be putting in much more effort to grow the country. Heng's mantra for Imperial is: invest wisely. A country's bonds can be held by multiple players. This creates interesting dynamics and complex relationships between players due to vested interests. Sometimes you collaborate, sometimes you compete.

The Thoughts

Imperial is a game with much strategic depth. It is complex not because of heavy rules or meticulous planning required. It is complex because of the intricate network of vested interests among players. The relationships between players are constantly changing as they grow their investment portfolios. If you are into this kind of shareholding games (e.g. 18XX games), you should try this. I'm rather weak at this type of games, so I still don't fully grasp Imperial. I think it is best with the full complement of players. This is when the network of vested interests is most complex and thus most intriguing. We played using some variants, which injected a little more money, and allowed more flexibility in buying bonds. This made the game more dynamic. Countries changed hands slightly more easily.