Friday 26 June 2015

Click Clack Lumberjack / Toc Toc Woodman (2nd Ed)

Plays: 4Px3.

The Game

Only when I looked up Toc Toc Woodman on BGG I realised there are a few different versions. The first edition rules are quite different. The latest edition (Click Clack Lumberjack) has some slight additions to the second edition Toc Toc Woodman. The rules I played was the second edition rules.

This is a dexterity game. You have a leafless tree which has nine layers. Each layer consists of a large core piece interlocked with four thin bark pieces. They interlock in such a way that if knocked sideways, the bark pieces will not fall off. However if the core piece is pushed sideways far enough so that one side of it is hanging in the air, the bark piece on that side will fall down because it is no longer supported by the layer underneath. The objective of the players is to knock the bark pieces off the tree, without knocking off the core pieces as well.

On your turn, you get two knocks with the axe (which actually functions as a hammer). Anything that falls off the tree is yours. The game continues until all bark pieces have been knocked off. Then you score points based on pieces you've claimed. Bark pieces are 1pt each, while core pieces are -5pt each.

The top layer is completely bald now. All the bark pieces have been knocked off.

Behind the tree, on the left, you can see the bark pieces which Chen Rui has arranged neatly.

The Play

The first thing I learned was the two-knocks rule is ingenious. Normally you'd use the first knock to set yourself up to score, and the second knock to actually get the targeted piece (or pieces) of bark off the tree. Well, that is if everything goes according to plan. Sometimes if your second knock is too light, you end up getting nothing other than the gratitude of the next player for having set up the tree so nicely for him. Avoiding helping the next player is a big part of the game. Sometimes when you are not confident you can claim a bark piece, you might as well adjust the tree to make it even harder for the next player.

Gaining points is something you have to do slowly and carefully. Losing points can happen very unexpectedly. Achievements come in small steps, failures can be quite spectacular. That is the excitement of the game. It is like walking a tightrope. You want to get to the other side more quickly than your opponents, but you know if you are not careful, even one misstep can put you out of the race.

One funny thing that happened in our game was when Chen Rui left the tree in a very unstable condition, and soon after Michelle took over the axe, but before she had even touched the tree, core pieces started falling off. So who should take these pieces? I'm not entirely sure. The rules may have specific rules for such a situation. I didn't check the rules then, and just made a ruling on the spot - we removed the fallen pieces from the game. Later on when it was my turn the children started blowing at the tree.

This was probably the third game. We were getting better. The tree was almost stripped bare, but all nine core pieces were still in place.

The Thoughts

Toc Toc Woodman is a dexterity game, a family game, a children's game, a casual game, and a filler. It's fun when brought out on the right occasion. I don't think you can play it many times in the same session though. At least for me, after 2 or 3 games I felt like switching to play something else. However I imagine if played as a drinking game it can be a completely different matter.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

No Thanks / Geschenk

Plays: 4Px3 recently, 2 plays many years ago.

I played No Thanks recently at Witch House, Taipei. I have played it before, but I have not written about it at my blog. I hadn't started blogging when I first played it. I chose to play it during my recent visit to Witch House because it was a simple game I could quickly pick up and teach my family. It was fun, and we played three games back-to-back. Later when I checked my rating for the game from 11 years ago, I was quite surprised to find that I had rated it a 5 (out of 10). It is now updated to a 7.

The Game

The game consists of a bunch of plastic chips and cards numbered 3 to 35. At the start of a game everyone gets the same number of chips, and some cards are removed from the deck face-down. You don't know which cards are out of the game. The start player for a round reveals the top card from the deck, and then has two choices. Claim the card, or place a chip on it and pass it clockwise. If the card is passed to the next player, then that player faces the same two choices. The round progresses, and the chips accumulate, until finally someone claims the card and all the chips on it. That player then becomes the start player for the next round - reveal a new card and decide what to do. The game ends when the draw deck runs out.

Here's how scoring works. Every card gives a negative score based on the card value, while the chips are worth 1pt each. The catch is if you have claimed cards in a running series, only the smallest card in the series counts. E.g. if you have 24, 25, 26, 27, you are only penalised 24pts.

That's all there is to the game!

The Play

In the first game we played, we had the misconception that it was good to collect cards in sequence. It's actually much better to not collect any cards at all. If you already have 24, and 26 comes up, it is not the right thing to do to claim it and hope for 25. 25 may be among the cards removed from the game. Also even if it does come up, someone else might take it just to spite you. In fact, if you can get someone else to take such a big number as 26, that's a good thing. This is not a set collection game. It is a pain avoidance game.

Michelle had a misdirected strategy in our first game.

I also learned that collecting chips is not the best way to gain points. A chip is only 1pt. The most important value in the chips is pain avoidance, not scoring. You use them to push cards to your opponents. You can't completely avoid taking cards, because eventually your chips will run out, so you need to pick the right time to take a card and the chips that come with it. Managing your supply of chips is key to maintain flexibility in controlling when you want to accept or reject a card. Running out of chips is very dangerous because it means you have no choice but to claim a card passed to you, which may be disastrous.

When a card you do not fear comes up, e.g. the 33 card when you already have 32, it's usually time to extort chips from the other players. There is no hurry to claim such a harmless (to you) card. In fact, if an opponent happens to be short on chips, it might be an even better idea to force him to swallow poison.

We overlap cards which are in sequence, so that it's easier to read everyone's play area.

Chen Rui was rather pleased with the chips she had amassed. That pile there is not the supply. It is all her money.

The Thoughts

No Thanks, like 6 Nimmt / Take 6 / Category 5, is a how-far-you-fall game. Everyone scores negative points. It's about making others do worse than you. You can try to play nice and focus on damage control in your own area, but it's more fun watching others burn harder than you. The rules are very simple, but the game has a unique and twisted evil streak which is rare, which I appreciate. Imagine noblemen smiling and pushing a gift around, saying oh no this is too precious and I do not deserve it, you must have it. The game is easy to teach, and when it clicks, the players will narrow their eyes knowingly and start nodding and smiling at one another.

Monday 22 June 2015

Morels / Fungi

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Morels was first published by Two Lanterns, a small publisher. It received widespread praise, and was later republished by Pegasus as Fungi. It is a two-player-only card game about a walk through the forest to pick mushrooms. Not an everyday setting for sure.

A row of eight cards is set up at the centre of the table, representing the forest path and the mushrooms (and other items) along the path. The first two cards are considered to be right under your feet. You can easily pick either card here. Other cards are slightly further away, and to pick them you need to pay sticks, which is the only currency in the game. You collect mushrooms because you want to cook them to score points. You need to collect at least three of the same type in order to cook a batch. You also need a pan for each batch you cook. Pans are another type of card you can collect from the card row. Every turn, regardless of whether you've picked a card, the first card will be moved to a decay pile (and more cards drawn to replenish the card row). The decay pile represents mushrooms which are not picked starting to spoil. It will only be discarded when it grows to four cards. Players can use an action to claim all cards in the decay pile, which is a good way to gain many cards quickly. However you must stay within your hand limit. Also you don't get to pick. It's all or nothing.

There are a few other types of cards in the card row. Baskets increase your hand size. Butter and cider cards can be used as seasoning when you cook mushrooms, to increase their score value. There is one poisonous type of mushroom called the fly agaric which works like a laxative. If you pick it, your hand size is temporarily reduced and you may be forced to discard cards. This may not be a bad thing. Sometimes you want this because normally there is no mechanism to discard unwanted cards. When your hand is full, you are temporarily stuck. Another way to get rid of cards is by selling mushrooms. You need at least three to cook (and score points), but you need only two to sell. Selling gets you sticks, which, as mentioned above, allow you to pick cards which are further away.

One special type of card is the night card. When you pick such a card, you get to draw a double mushroom from the facedown night deck. These are just like mushroom cards except each card counts as two mushrooms.

The game ends when the draw deck is exhausted and the card row is empty. Highest total score from cooked mushrooms wins.

The numbers in the top left corner of the mushroom cards indicate their point values if cooked and stick values if sold.

The two cards on the left are the baskets, which increase hand size. The cards on the right are the batches of mushrooms I have cooked so far. For two of the batches I have added butter for seasoning (i.e. I get some bonus points). You need at least four mushrooms if you want to add butter.

The Play

The game that Morels reminds me of surprises me - it's Through the Ages. The similarity I see is the card row which keeps running. In Morels this is a sushi bar conveyor belt turned to super high speed. Plates of sushi fly by and you can't grab every plate you want. The fat boy sitting across from you is also grabbing plates. Furthermore, your limited table space means you need to be picky. You need to eat the sushi quickly too to make space. It's chaos! So many restrictions and challenges in your face at the same time!

The sticks in the first edition are handmade. Very nice.

The Thoughts

Morels almost feels like a real-time speed game. You are assaulted by multiple challenges and forced to make tough decisions. The pace is fast. Actions are simple. The juggling of multiple restrictions and considerations forces you to give and take. You can't have everything. You need to make sacrifices and you need to prioritise. The game is like being ejected from an airplane together with an explosion of loose currency notes. You want to grab as much money as you can before you need to pull open your parachute. There is only so much you can grab and only so much you can stuff into your pockets, collar, mouth...

This will make a nice spouse game.

Saturday 20 June 2015

Infernal Affairs retheme of Templar Intrigue

When I taught my Taiwanese friends Templar Intrigue (my blog post here), I explained the mechanisms using characters from the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (later remade in English as The Departed, which won some Oscars). Templar Intrigue was a Kickstarted game, and I'm not sure whether it is possible to buy it through normal channels. For those who missed it, you may need to make your own copy if you want to try this game. If you like Infernal Affairs, then this retheme which I've made using MS Powerpoint may be of interest. I can't share this on BGG since I don't own the copyrights to the photos I used, which were downloaded from the internet. If you are interested, follow this link.

These are the cards from the original Templar Intrigue. The top row is the Royalist cards (i.e. police force). Starting from the left: card back, the king (the equivalent is Anthony Wong Chau Sang, the superintendent), a monk (policeman), and the Templar archivist (Andy Lau, the mafia mole secretly working in the police force). The bottom row is the Templar cards (i.e. mafia) - the card back, the Grandmaster (Eric Tsang, the mafia boss), a Templar knight (mafia thug) and a traitor (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, undercover cop).

There are four pages in the file I created, and here are two of them.

I put a crown icon on the superintendent card to remind the player who is dealt that card that he needs to reveal his card at the start of the game. One of the cop cards specifies a player number range at the bottom left. This means you only use that card for this specific player number range. This saves some trouble looking up the rules. The mole card has a target icon, meaning he is one of the characters the superintendent needs to hunt down.

The mafia boss card has a target icon too, he's the other character the superintendent needs to identify. There are some disjoints from the movie. In the movie the identity of the mafia boss Eric Tsang is public knowledge. Also the superintendent Anthony Wong knows who the undercover cop is (Tony Leung).

Only 12 cards are needed, and 2 of them are rule summaries, one each (double-sided) in English and Chinese. If you don't need the Chinese one, that's one card less. When I made the Powerpoint file, I miscalculated the dimensions of the cards. You can see that the cards I printed are a few millimeters short. Thankfully they still worked for me and I didn't need to redo the whole thing. My approach was to use a normal playing card as a base. I sandwiched it with a card back and a card face which I printed. Then I sleeve the whole thing with a transparent card sleeve.

These are the two main stars of the movie Infernal Affairs. If you play with 9 or 10, there will be two Tony Leungs.

Everything fits into this small ziplock bag.

Thursday 18 June 2015

Taipei meet-up and Witch House

I visited Taiwan in early June. It was a family vacation, and I took the opportunity to meet up with my old friends. My boardgame journey started in Taiwan about 11 years ago. It was then that I got hooked on Eurogames. I played frequently with my colleagues at work. It had been a long time since I last met them. Many things are different now - we have kids now, we are working in different fields - but when we got together again, the camaraderie was just like 11 years ago. I felt 11 years younger. I should to go Taipei more.

We met up for dinner, but dinner was definitely not the only thing on our minds. We brought games. Yes, I brought games all the way from Malaysia to Taiwan, which is perfectly normal. After dinner, we continued our gathering at Cher's office, which was near the restaurant. We played games in the conference room, which reminded me of how we used to play Carcassonne in the Director's office during lunch break 11 years ago (the Director was usually not in the office).

I taught them Templar Intrigue, a secret identity team game. I've written about it before here in case you do not know the game. We had much fun, and most of it was not because of the game, but because of the people - the spontaneous jokes, and how we simply click. I explained the game using the characters in the Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs (which was remade in English as The Departed). In one game Rick said he would prove that he was Tony Leung (the undercover cop) by giving Carina Lau a phone call straight-away. Each game of Templar Intrigue requires a precise procedure to be followed to allow some players to know the identities of some other players. One of the steps requires everyone to close his eyes, and then the Templar Grandmaster (the mafia boss) and the Templar Archivist (the mafia's mole in the police force) open their eyes to identify each other. In one of our games, when it was time for these two characters to open their eyes, we had three players opening their eyes instead! That led to much laughter. It was Michelle who made the mistake. She was a Templar Traitor (undercover cop in the mafia) and she thought when I announced "mole" I meant her too. Then there was another game in which only one person opened his eyes at this phase. Rick was the Templar Grandmaster and when he couldn't see anyone else with eyes open, he asked for a stop. I was the moderator so I checked everyone's cards, until I realised I was the Templar Archivist who was supposed to have opened his eyes. I was too absorbed with being moderator that I had forgotten my own character.

Templar Intrigue was a great choice. It is simple, it supports up to 10 players, and it's a riot to play.

I'm the king of the kids.

This is Tony Leung, a.k.a. Templar Traitor, a.k.a. undercover cop in the mafia.

Jessy, Crystal, Cher and I playing Carcassonne. This was one of our favourite games from 11 years ago. Others include Ra and Ticket to Ride.

We visited Witch House, where my boardgame hobby began. When Michelle and I lived in Taipei, we were regular customers. After 11 years, the place still felt the same. The main difference was we were now bringing along our children and not coming as a couple. The game in this photo is BANG!. I didn't do any preparation before the visit, since I didn't know what games were available at Witch House now. I decided we'd just play games I'd played before or simple games. Surprisingly we managed to spend about 3 hours there, which was longer than I had expected, given my lack of preparation.

This is the dice game Pickomino which I own.

Talk about horrible luck. It was my turn. On my first roll I picked two 5's, and on my second roll I picked three worms (which were 5pts each). I had 25pts locked (the row of dice at the bottom) and three more dice to roll, which was a very good position to be in. I just needed to roll 1's to 4's to further increase my point value. And what did I roll? 5's and worms! I failed my turn, and instead of claiming a tile I had to lose one.


This is That's Life!, by the formidable duo Wolfgang Kramer and Michael Kiesling. The rules are deceptively simple, but there is some clever strategy. It looks like a race game, since you roll a die to move your pawns from starting line to finishing line. However the order of arrival has nothing to do with scoring. Instead you score based on tiles you collect during the game. When your pawn leaves a tile, if it is the last pawn to do so, you must claim that tile. This means the race track is constantly changing, getting shortened whenever a tile is claimed. Some tiles are worth points, some are worth negative points. Some are Good Luck tiles, which convert negative point tiles to positive point tiles.

The unpainted cylindrical pawns are neutral pawns called guards. They are initially placed on the Good Luck tiles and the high valued positive point tiles. On your turn, you may move a guard if there is another player pawn on the same tile as the guard. For example if your pawn and a guard shares a Good Luck tile, you'd want to move the guard away first, so that when your own pawn leaves, you get to claim the tile. Similarly, if another player's pawn shares a bad tile with a guard, you'd want to move the guard away to force your opponent to pick up the bad tile later.

My tiles at game end. The three Good Luck tiles on the left convert those three negative point tiles to positive point tiles.

The night before I left Taipei, Cher and Crystal stopped by bringing some gifts. I took the opportunity to teach them Love Letter.

Tuesday 16 June 2015


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

"Targi" means the men of the Tuareg tribes, who live in the western Saharan desert. Targi is a game in the Kosmos two-player-only series, published in 2012. It has been getting consistent praise, and I was curious to give it a try. Allen has a copy. For the past few months he was often unable to join the Friday gaming sessions, so recently I suggested we meet up on a Thursday after work to play some short games. Our work locations are close. Playing in a public location means less space, so we decided to do card games with no boards.

The "board" area in Targi is a 5x5 grid of cards. The 16 border cards are fixed from game to game, but the 9 cards in the central area are set up randomly at the start of every game. During a game round, players take turns placing targi pieces (each player has three) on border cards. A targi may not occupy the same card as another targi, and also may not be placed such that it would be facing another targi across the play area. That means when you place a targi, it is monopolising that particular row or column. Once all targis are placed, if their rows and columns intersect, you get to place tribe markers at the intersections. Normally there are two intersections per player. After that the players execute actions on the cards where they have targis and tribes. Some cards let you gain resources. Some cards let you score points. The most important type if card is the tribe cards. If you have a tribe marker on a tribe card, you may pay specific resources to claim it and then add it to your tribe area. Your tribe area is a 3x4 grid in front of you, i.e. 3 rows each having 4 slots for tribe cards. Tribe cards grant special abilities. They are also worth victory points at game end. Each tribe card has a tribe icon. For each tribe card row where you have four of the same icons or four different icons, you score bonus points.

The game ends after 12 rounds, or after a player claims 12 tribe cards.

The blue and white pieces belong to the players. The light grey piece (bottom centre) is the robber. The robber moves every round, along the edge of the play area. He blocks targi placement, and when he reaches a corner card, he raids - players must surrender goods or money, or else lose victory points.

Whenever a card in the central area is executed, it is either claimed by a player or removed from the play area. A new card is drawn to replace it. The new card is kept face-down until the end of the current round. You can see one such new card in this photo.

This is a tribe card. The tribe icon is on the left. The cost is at the top right. The VP value is at the bottom right. The text describes the special ability you gain.

The Play

This is a VP-scoring game, and what you try to do every round is to maximise the effectiveness of your five possible actions. When placing targis you are directly choosing the action you want to perform. As more and more targis are placed, your options dwindle. So you need to prioritise which actions are most important to you, and grab them before you are blocked by your opponent. You need to consider what your opponent may want, so that you can try to block him too. Where your tribe markers will go depends on how you place your targis, and that's something you already need to consider when placing your targis. This is what makes Targi unique.

Most of your points will come from the tribe cards. You are constantly competing with your opponent to grab these. There is a set collection element, and a tableau building element. You want to get tribe cards which synergise. At the same time you want to prevent your opponent from doing the same.

My tableau of tribe cards at game end. I managed to put together two rows with the same tribe icons. That's a juicy 8VP.

The Thoughts

Targi is a light-to-medium weight game. More complex than the Lost Cities type, but not quite a medium weight game. It will work well as a spouse game and as a post-dinner game. It takes 30-45 minutes to play. It'll work as a after-the-kids-go-to-bed game too when I'm-too-tired-for-a-complex-game-and-I-just-want-to-unwind-a-bit. There is no direct conflict, but there is plenty of player interaction. You are competing to score the most points, trying to grab the most valuable actions and cards before your opponent. However you can't directly hurt your opponent. The targi placement mechanism which drives tribe marker placement is what's unique about the game. The set collection aspect will be familiar to Eurogamers, but it works fine. Collecting tribe cards is a tableau-building game.

The ever-shifting central area keeps players on their toes. You never know what opportunities will come up in the next round. In the game we played we exhausted the goods cards, and I think that's normal. You will cycle through the whole deck. However only about half the tribe cards came into play. So there will be variety from game to game.

Sunday 14 June 2015

boardgaming in photos: Saint Petersburg, Impulse, Jamaica

15 May 2015. Saint Petersburg was popular around 2004, and a new version has just been released, with new artwork, an addition to the rules, and the two previously published expansions included. I noticed that Jeff had stocked it at his webstore, so I decided why not revisit this old title and at the same time help him sell. I later found out he was already down to his last one or two copies, so it was unnecessary after all.

We did a full 4-player game. We played Jeff's copy, which is the first edition, and we included the New Society expansion. This expansion replaces some of the cards in the base game to rebalance it, and also adds some new cards. I have never played Saint Petersburg enough to find it unbalanced, so I never bought the expansion. Now that I've played the expansion, I quite like it. Unfortunately it has been long out of print, and it is very expensive in the secondary market. The 2nd edition contains the expansion, but I prefer the 1st edition artwork.

This was the second time I played Carl Chudyk's Impulse. This time it was a 4-player game using partnership rules. Jeff (light blue) and I (green) were on one time, and Ivan (white) and Boon Khim (purple) on the other. In the partnership game, a team wins when one of the team members reaches 20VP. I was the start player, and right off the bat all of us rushed to the galaxy centre to grab VP's.

My cards.

This was one memorable, crazy game. For the first few rounds my hand was a perfect storm for Trading (i.e. sacrificing cards for victory points). Within three rounds I was already close to 20VP, and was poised to win on my next turn. I neglected military and science, and poured all my effort and resources into scoring points. It was a gamble. It seemed mad, but it was very viable. I was betting on speed. I needed to reach 20VP before Ivan or Boon Khim could stop me. In Round 3, Boon Khim had no choice but to launch his attack. If he didn't stop me, I would cruise to victory. There was one crucial battle he needed to win. He needed to destroy my cruiser so that his cruisers could get past that sector to attack my transports, which were getting ready to score the last few points I needed to win. It was a 50-50 battle. Both of us had only one cruiser. Unfortunately I couldn't hold the line. My front (which consisted of exactly one cruiser) crumbled, and I was soon completely wiped out. It was crazy, and it was great fun.

At this point I (green) had been exterminated. Jeff (light blue) was later destroyed too by the combined forces of Ivan and Boon Khim.

22 May 2015. It was pirate theme night at Other than Madame Ching I also played Jamaica, a race game. It is not only about racing though. You also score points by digging up treasures, collecting gold coins, and even robbing the other players. These three are action cards. Everyone has a hand size of three, and every round you simultaneously pick one to play.

Your ship has five cargo holds, and each can only store one goods type - food, cannons or gold coins.

Friday 12 June 2015

Madame Ching

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

It has been a while since I last wrote about a new game I've played. I do have quite a few new-to-me games to write about, just that I have a rather long backlog to catch up on - old games played, new games played, fun experiences, photos taken. Since I'm itching to write about something new, I'll let Madame Ching cut queue.

Madame Ching is about a famous Chinese pirate Mrs Zheng who lived during the Qing Dynasty. You are her followers vying to outdo one another in leading raids, and your objective is to win the most glory to become her right-hand man.

The basic mechanism is quite simple. You have four navigation cards in hand. Every round everyone secretly picks a card and reveals it simultaneously. Then in order from lowest to highest card, you add it to a row of cards in front of you. This row of cards represents your current raiding voyage. Cards must be played in ascending order. When you add a higher card to the row, you continue your voyage. When you play a card which cannot be added to the row, you complete your current voyage and start a new one with that card. After that you pick one of the cards displayed on the board to be added to your hand. So every round is basically playing a card and drawing a card.

When you complete a voyage, you gain something. Every space on the board has a voyage value. Depending on where your ship ends its voyage, you get to claim a mission tile, which is worth victory points (in the form of coins or gems) and sometimes gives you bonus cards (called encounter cards) too. The game ends when all mission tiles are claimed. There are two other things you may gain from your voyages. Some navigation cards have skill symbols, and if your voyage cards contain specific combinations of these symbols, you get to claim a skill card. Skill cards give powerful special abilities. If you collect all four types of skill cards, Madame will promote you to captain of her flagship, the China Pearl (you get 5VP), and the game will end.

The other big reward is the 10VP for raiding Hong Kong. When sailing, you sail either to the right or to the lower right. Sailing to the lower right is usually more lucrative because the voyage value increases more quickly. To do so, you need to play a card of a colour which is new to your voyage row. To reach Hong Kong, which is at the lower right corner of the board, you need to have collected and played cards of 7 different colours, which is no easy feat.

The gameplay is all around embarking on voyage after voyage, and you try to make the most from every raiding expedition. You also need to plan which reward to go for, and when.

The two spaces at the top left are for the navigation card discard pile and draw deck. The two spaces at the top right are for the encounter card draw deck and discard pile. The four spaces between these are for the replenishment cards for the current round. The square tiles at the bottom are the mission tiles. Not all mission tiles will be in use in every game, so there will be some variety from game to game.

The three cards on the right are the navigation cards. The full number range is 1 to 55, and for each smaller range within there is a specific colour. The three cards on the left are encounter cards (bonus cards).

My current voyage has five cards. I have two kite symbols and two lantern symbols. If I can get a third symbol for either kite or lantern, I would be able to claim a skill card.

The Play

I did a four-player game with Dith, Vence and Sinbad. That's the max player count, and I think it is the best way to play. The game plays very smoothly, since every round is simple. You rarely get to directly interfere with others' voyages, but there is still much player interaction in picking cards. Sometimes you want to play a smaller card just so that you can go earlier and pick a card you want. There is an interesting pacing element. If you can adjust your tempo to be opposite of your opponents, e.g. you want lower cards when they want higher ones, you will face less competition. The nature of the competition is the who-will-get-which-first type. There are many rewards to go after, and the question is which ones you want to go for, and in what order. You can spend much effort to go for one, but if an opponent beats you to it by a hair, you will have wasted much effort and have to settle for a smaller reward.

There are many tactical decisions to make. The new cards revealed at the start of every round drive the decisions for that round. Sometimes a card useful to you comes up. Sometimes a card useful to your opponent comes up. Sometimes a card useful to multiple players comes up. Sometimes all the cards are rubbish. One of the cards is face-down, so if all the face-up cards are lousy you can go for the lucky draw.

You need strategic planning in deciding which rewards to go for, but you are at the mercy of the cards which come up, so you often need to adjust your plans, sometimes grabbing unexpected opportunities, sometimes cancelling plans altogether to do something different. The game is an interesting mix of strategic planning, tactical decisions and luck (both good and bad).

Most of the mission tiles have been claimed by now.

There is no text on the encounter cards, only icons. The card on the right is the Madame Ching card. If you complete a voyage and you are one symbol short of qualifying for a skill card, this card can be used to fill in for the third symbol you need.

These are all the rewards I have claimed during the game which give victory points. I only went for the mission tiles which give encounter cards. I was first to raid Hong Kong and gained 10VP, but after the game I found out that I had made a mistake. You are only allowed to play one encounter card per round. In order to reach Hong Kong, I had played more than one encounter card within that particular round.

The Thoughts

Madame Ching is a medium weight game. The core concept is simple. The strategy revolves around which of the many rewards to go for. There is a fair bit of luck in the encounter cards. I think they are quite powerful, and some may be overpowered (e.g. the one that lets you draw three more encounter cards). There is also some luck in what cards become available every round. Sometimes there is simply no good card for you. That's where hand management comes in. This is the main challenge in the game. There are plenty of tactical decisions to be made. The game situation is quite fluid - not unlike braving the fickle seas.

I quite enjoyed the game. The balance between luck and strategy is of the family game type, so you will feel that your decisions do matter, and at the same time luck (both good and bad) will inject excitement and laughter. Skill does not always guarantee victory. Madame Ching will work as a family game, but perhaps not for younger children, because picking objectives to shoot for requires some strategic thinking that they may not be ready for yet.

Thursday 4 June 2015

Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion

Plays (of expansion): 3Px1.

The Game

Machi Koro is a favourite among the new-to-me games played this year. It was recently shortlisted for the Spiel des Jahres award. Many fellow gamers say that it must be played with with Harbor expansion. I had the opportunity to try that, so I grabbed the chance.

If you are not familiar with the base game, see my previous blog post from a few months ago. Here are what the Harbor expansion changes:

  1. There are quite many new buildings. Many of the building numbers overlap with buildings in the base game, but naturally the building powers are different.
  2. To win, you need to construct six landmarks instead of four. The two new landmarks are the harbor (of course) and the airport. Like the landmarks in the base game, these two new landmarks have their own unique abilities too.
  3. To me, the most important change is this: Instead of having every card in the game available for purchase at all times, the central card pool now only allows 10 types of cards. At the start of the game you shuffle all cards and then draw them one by one. Cards are placed face-up in the card pool, with cards of the same type stacked together. Once you have 10 stacks, you stop. Some of these stacks may have only one card. Whenever all buildings in one stack are sold out, you start drawing cards from the draw deck again to be added to the pool. Once a 10th type of card is drawn, you stop again.

There are only 10 types of cards available in the pool. At this point most of these stacks have only one card.

The row in the middle is the landmarks. There are seven of them, but the first one is a free building. It is already constructed and functioning at the start of the game. It is a consolation building - when you run out of cash, it gives you $1. Among the other six landmarks, at this point I have built only one. The row at the bottom are my regular buildings. I prefer to arrange them by number. Each time the dice are rolled, I can easily look up the cards with the relevant number.

The Play

With the 3rd modification above, the game changes significantly. You can no longer play a game with a preconceived plan like in the base game. The starting set of 10 cards differs from game to game, and the number of initially available cards of each type will differ too. You really have to go with the flow and try to make the most of what opportunities present themselves. It is much harder to execute those perfect combos in the base game, because you can't count on specific combinations of cards being available. What's even rarer is the availability of many cards of the same type, which is often the cornerstone of powerful strategies in the base game. Many strategies which are applicable in the base game have to be thrown out the window or have to undergo major surgery.

The way cities grow now feel more organic, as opposed to those perfectly planned and executed cities in the base game. In a way the game becomes more tactical and less strategic because you can't predict what cards will come up next. You need to adapt to the ever changing card pool. You react to opportunities that crop up. The game is much more fluid. I like that.

One interesting point: with the Harbor expansion it is rare to see many copies of the same building available, unlike in the base game. Quite often if you see only one copy of a card, there is little incentive to buy it. Ideally you want many copies of a few different types of cards which combo well with one another. However, if a particular stack is neglected for long, gradually there will be more cards drawn and added to it. As the number of cards increase, that stack will become increasingly tempting because a strategy centred around it will become more and more viable. This is an interesting dynamic.

Chen Rui (8) prefers to arrange her cards by colour. The colours have meaning, e.g. red cards trigger on your opponents' turns, blue cards trigger on everyone's turns.

A three-player game takes up quite a bit of space.

I was only one landmark away from winning, but eventually was beaten to it by Shee Yun (10).

The Thoughts

With the Harbor expansion, the game does take longer to play. It is much harder to build those super-efficient engines very quickly like in the base game (e.g. buying up all the ranches and cheese factories). The two additional landmarks required do increase the play time, but they are not the biggest contributor. The main contributor is the additional challenge in getting your city's growth engine running.

I definitely prefer playing Machi Koro with the expansion. It greatly increases replayability, and makes each game more varied. In contrast, the base game feels rather limited in strategic options. It's fun, but you will tend to gravitate towards a handful of powerful combos. One thing that doesn't change is the lottery joy. You are building your city and setting up combos, and you are praying to the dice gods to grant you your number. The anticipation at every die roll and the exhilaration when hitting the jackpot are what keep me engaged and in love.

This is a wonderful light strategy game for families. My children beat me frequently. There is luck, but we still feel that we have control, that we have achieved something, that we have done something right. If we lose, it's because we just needed a little bit more of good luck. If we win, it's because we've been clever.