Saturday 30 January 2016


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Ships is the third game in Martin Wallace's transportation series, the first two being Automobile (which I love) and Aeroplanes: Aviation Ascendant (which I still have not played). This was the only game from Essen 2015 which I pre-ordered. So I had expectations of it.

The game board is divided into the ship technology track along the edges, and the map in the centre. When the players build ships or upgrade ships along the tech track, they get to place political control markers (disks) or merchants (cubes) in the cities in the map area. There are two types of ships. The merchant ships are, of course, for placing merchants, and the warships for placing control markers.

This is a player board. The first two rows are the warehouse and the bank, which determine how much space you have for goods and gold. As the disks get placed onto the gameboard, you will expand the capacities of your warehouse and your bank. The third row is your available pool of action cubes. The cubes in your colour also double as merchants. The fourth row lists the actions available to you. You spend cubes and gold to take actions. When you take an action, the cubes spent are placed in the corresponding action space. They are stuck here until you take the retrieve action to bring them back to the available pool. The fifth row is just a reminder for how many action cubes you get every turn, depending on which era you are in.

The cities on the map are divided into 6 regions, each region having its own colour. When you place a merchant (cube) or a control marker (disk), you gain an immediate benefit, e.g. goods, gold, victory points. When a region scores, you also earn victory points for each of your merchants and control markers.

The tech track is divided into 11 ages, and every age has two types of ships - merchant ships and warships. To be first to build a new ship, i.e. to place a ship marker in the next new age, you need to pay navigation points, which is one of the currencies in the game. Each time a new age is reached, the player who placed the first ship of that age gains points, and obsolete ships cause their owners to lose points. Players are constantly under pressure to upgrade their ships, or to dismantle the old ones before they cause too much harm.

As the cities in a region are gradually filled up, it becomes cheaper and cheaper to open up the next region. You also need to spend navigation points to open up a new region, but the cost, similar to how the tech track works, is discounted depending on how full the cities in the current region are. When a new region opens, i.e. when a player places the first merchant or control marker in it, the old region immediately closes and is scored. In this photo, the active region is the brown region. The greenish blue region is an old region and has been scored. At the moment you can see most of our merchants kept to the cities where we had control markers. This is because the control marker scores bonus points if there are merchants of the same player in the same city. However often players will end up mixing and matching because of the different benefits that can be gained from the different spots in cities.

The 11 ages on the tech track are grouped into three eras. These sail ships are from the second era.

At the start of each era, 12 cards are drawn and displayed this way. One of the actions the players can take is to claim one such card. Each of the three era decks have more than 12 cards, so the cards in play will differ from game to game.

Three different ship types representing the three eras - galleys, sail ships and steamships.

As the game progresses, spaces in the first two rows will be freed up due to the disks being placed onto the main gameboard.

The goods you collect can be sold for gold. Each of them has a special use too if you don't sell them. This adds a nice flavour to the game.

When there are five or more ships in the 11th and final age, the game will end. Players have some control over how soon the game ends. You need to analyse the board situation to determine whether it is beneficial to you for the game to drag on. In this photo there are no Age 11 ships yet. There is only one Age 10 ship, the red merchant ship on the left.

The Play

I played with Jeff, Heng and Ivan. We were all new to the game. In Ships the main thing you keep doing over and over is building and upgrading ships. Whenever you do this, you also place a merchant or a control marker on the map, which in turn means gaining resources or other benefits. Most of your actions are quite short-term tactical in nature. There is a cyclical nature in placing and upgrading ships, and also in populating cities and progressing to the next regions. There is a tempo in ships moving to the next age, and players starting to claim spots. You can score points for being first to build ships of a new age, but you need to have enough navigation points to do this. You also need to watch out for old ships which may cost you points. Every round you need to watch the tempo and try to position yourself to do the lucrative actions. You want to avoid setting up good moves for your opponents. You need to think ahead a few steps. You need to calculate and estimate the positions for the next few turns. The game flow is fluid because the actions are straight-forward. In fact they even feel simplistic and repetitive. However there is an underlying beat to all this that you must grasp and use to your advantage. You need to gauge when the next region will likely open up. You need to guess which spots your opponents will likely go for. You need to decide whether to block them or to do your own thing.

As you approach the 6th and last region, you will find that it is a boss fight. The victory points here are very lucrative, and there is no restriction on how many times you can score. You realise that 80% of the game is positioning yourself for this final showdown. If you are not prepared for this, you might be left standing in the dust.

I played rather instinctively and casually, and didn't really plan far or evaluate my options very carefully. In short, I was a little sloppy. My game was off-tempo and I soon found myself trailing the others. I missed quite many opportunities, or to be more accurate, I think I failed to set up good opportunities for myself. Instead I was hit by the old ship penalty quite a few times. This was the price I paid for not managing my pacing well. As we approached the final region, I noticed that Heng's warehouse was packed to the brim with grain. I realised then he had been stocking up for that final push. I was already behind and I knew my prospects were poor. I had to end the game as early as possible to prevent others from pulling even further away from me. That was the best thing I could do to keep my final score as close as possible to the rest. My desperation to end the game quickly benefited Ivan, who eventually won the game. He too wanted to end the game early because Heng was a major threat. Unfortunately for Heng, the two of us pushing hard to expedite the game end meant he couldn't fully unleash his fleet of warships.

Look at all that grain in Heng's warehouse! You know he's up to no good!

I (green) did rather poorly. Everyone had steamships and I was still sailing. Well, at least it was more romantic.

The Thoughts

I consider Ships a heavy Eurogame. It is a strategy game, the type gamers like. It is rather different from Automobile, which is a good thing. The four rounds in Automobile are very structured, procedural and clearly defined. In contrast, the rounds in Ships feel like endless overlapping waves, with no clear-cut termination points. Yet there is a cyclical nature and a tempo. You need to feel the pulse, and ride the wave, and manoeuvre it to your advantage. In both games you need to watch your opponents, and you need to carefully calculate and plan.

When playing Ships you need to constantly remind yourself to prepare for the final region and for the end game. Failing to do that will likely mean defeat. I've read one review which proposes that if every player is competent enough to be well-prepared for the final region, then their scores from that region will be quite close. In that case what determines victory will be how well they have been doing in the previous 80% of the game, i.e. the clever tactical moves and the little additional efficiencies achieved. That sounds logical, but I have only played one game so far, so I am not qualified to say whether it's true. So far I can only say that the end game is indeed crucial and it is something you need to position yourself for. It's not unlike the farmer scoring in Carcassonne.

I like the game, so the short summary is: no regrets in pre-ordering the game!

Sunday 24 January 2016

boardgaming in photos: gaming at Meeples Cafe and at work

15 Nov 2015. Shee Yun (10) saw Michelle and I preparing to play Russian Railroads. She seemed curious, so I asked whether she wanted to play. She said yes. This was my first time playing with three players. We used a different side of the board from the 2-player game. There were more work spaces we could use.

This time my strategy was centred around industrialisation. I had built all five factories (purple arrow-shaped tiles along the bottom edge of the player board). I had also activated my second industry marker - the purple hex-shaped wooden pawn. I didn't put much effort in railroad track building. The best I had was a grey track, i.e. Level 2.

The red, yellow and green pawns are player workers. The blue pawns are temporary workers you can fight for every round. The space you need to use to recruit them is on the left side of this photo - that space showing two blue men.

22 Nov 2015. Machi Koro Deluxe, which contains both the main expansions, Harbor and Millionaire's Row. The dice are different. The side showing a mountain means 1. There are renovation markers now. They are needed due to the powers of the cards in the Millionaire's Row expansion.

The Demolition Company is a card from the Millionaire's Row expansion. If your die roll activates it, you earn $8 but must demolish one of your landmark buildings. This is a building you need to be careful with, lest you demolish any expensive landmark building.

The Moving Company lets you, or rather, forces you to give a building to another player. This can be quite annoying to your opponents if you combo it with many Loan Offices. When you build a Loan Office (for free!), you gain $5, but each time it is activated, you need to pay $2. However if you conveniently give the Loan Office to an opponent, you will never need to pay the $2. The obligation is passed to your opponent. Evil! Both of these are from Millionaire's Row.

Look how much fun Chen Rui is having with these new evil cards in Millionaire's Row.

I have played many games of Machi Koro with my children. Since adding the Harbor expansion, I have never won. They like to gang up on me, but in this game there aren't that many ways you can collaborate. However I still do lose to them all the time. It was only after we added Millionaire's Row that I started winning again. Comparing the two expansions, I think Harbor is almost necessary if you want to play regularly. It makes the game more variable because of the market mechanism (not all buildings are available all the time). The added cards also mean more variety. Millionaire's Row adds some more cards, some of which are a little quirky. It feels less necessary, but if you've played a lot of Machi Koro, spicing it up now and then is always good. The way we played - mixing all cards in - may not be ideal, because there are probably too many card types, which makes collecting the same cards difficult. The cards may be a bit too diluted. I'm too lazy to sort out the cards though, so I'll probably continue to play this way. We still have lots of fun this way.

This was worth taking a photo. It had been such a long time since the previous time I won a game.

27 Dec 2015. The children suggested FITS, which I hadn't played for a long time.

The numbers not covered are worth victory points. The solid circles not covered will entail a penalty.

3 Jan 2016. I brought the family to Meeples Cafe. It had been a long time since our previous visit. Log from Meeples Cafe always keeps for me a complimentary copy of every issue of the Spielbox magazine. By then I had accumulated quite a stack. Our visit was a belated birthday celebration for Chen Rui, who is a December baby. It was very crowded when we got there. Thankfully we didn't go too late. Our table was one of the last few remaining.

The children wanted to play Cloud 9. We had played this before quite a few times. I don't insist on trying out new games, but I do try to avoid playing games we already own. We might as well play at home. Cloud 9 is an excellent family game. I recently tried its new incarnation Celestia. I prefer the older game, because it is simpler.

The children asked to play Dixit too. Now we do own this game, but their argument was the cards in this set was different from the ones we had. They did have a point, so we played. I (green) did very poorly. I think I came last.

Forbidden Island was another game the children suggested. We had played this quite a few times. We played twice this day, beating the easy difficulty level without breaking a sweat, but losing when we moved on to the normal difficulty level. It was quite exciting though, and in my opinion much more fun than the easy game.

This was the first game which we won.

This was the second game. The helicopter pad was in a far corner, on the right, which was a pain. It kept flooding, and we had to keep going back to pump the water away. The moment it sank, the game would be lost immediately because we would not be able to leave the island. In this photo it was flooded again, i.e. showing the blue side.

We lost the game. The water level reached the deadly stage before we could retrieve all four artifacts. The flooding had cut off our path, and we had to rely on special abilities or specific cards to get to the helipad.

The game we enjoyed most this trip was Coconuts. The idea is to use a catapult (in the shape of a monkey) to launch rubber coconuts into plastic cups. The game starts with many cups in the centre of the table. Whenever you successfully land a coconut in a cup, you claim that cup and place it on your player board. The goal is to claim 6 cups to build a pyramid. This game is harder than it looks. The catapults are not precise, and the rubber coconuts often bounce. Sometimes a coconut drops into a cup only to immediately bounce out. Sometimes it lands in a different cup after bouncing out. It's crazy!

Chen Rui taking aim.

Scoring is exhilarating.

17 Jan 2016. I played Zombie Tower 3D with the children.

21 Jan 2016. Teck Seng wanted to learn Catan, so I brought it to the office. Teaching and playing this game again reminded me how wonderful it is and why it has become a classic. In our game Eva and Teck Seng competed fiercely for the longest road trophy. On one of Eva's turns, she built three roads at one go to overtake Teck Seng and wrestle the trophy from him. Intense! I started upgrading my settlements to cities earlier than the rest, which helped me gather more resources. By the time the others started doing it, ore and grain became very scarce. I was fortunate to have started doing upgrades when supply was higher than demand.

I was green. I had two separate regions, and I never linked them up.

22 Jan 2016. I brought 10 Days in Asia to the office also upon a colleague's request. I told them this was geography mahjong. The game we played was very funny. Teck Seng and Xiaozhu played as a team. With two heads thinking, they should be doing better than the rest of us. However they kept making mistakes and tripping over each other that they ended up doing worse than everyone else. We kept hearing them exclaim oh no we should have played this card, or oh gosh we should have picked that card, or why did we place this card here? It was more entertaining than a comedy show.

We got to a point where three players were one card away from winning (excluding the duo of Teck Seng and Xiaozhu naturally). It was nail-biting. We exhausted the draw deck and had to reshuffle the discard piles to form a new draw deck. At that time I could sense I was not likely to win. I needed a China card or a Thailand card, but I hadn't seen them so far, so they must be in the hands of the other players. Sure enough, I later learned that Teck Seng and Xiaozhu had both the China cards, and Ruby the Thailand card. Ruby was the one who announced victory. However when she showed us her 10-day itinerary, we spotted a mistake. She had planned to take a train from Thailand to South Korea, but the train networks of these two countries didn't overlap. Ooops. Eventually we decided it was a tied game with no winner.

I realised I had taught one rule wrong. When you draw a card from the draw deck, if you don't like it, you can immediately discard it. I had taught my colleagues that they must replace it with another card in their hands. Sorry...

Wednesday 20 January 2016

in the media: Oriental Daily (Malaysia)

I was on a newspaper today - the Oriental Daily, a local Chinese newspaper. There was an article on boardgames, children and playing boardgames as a family activity. The reporter contacted me via my Chinese boardgame blog, and he interviewed me last Thursday. He asked me to recommend some games suitable for children. I picked from among the games I own. What do you think of the choices? Here's the link to the article at the Oriental Daily website. You may be able to use Google Translate to translate it into broken English. The printed version is below.

Sunday 17 January 2016

Zombie Tower 3D

Plays: 4Px4, 3Px1; 2 on easy difficulty, 3 on normal.

I sometimes get invitations to review games. Most of the time I decline. Only occasionally when the premise of a game intrigues me I would commit to play and review it. Playing boardgames and blogging are what I do to relax and to have fun, so I don't want to make any part of it feel like an obligation. When Cosaic first contacted me about Zombie Tower 3D, I had not heard of this game. It had some quirks which piqued my curiosity, so I thought why not.

The Game

Zombie Tower 3D is a semi-cooperative game. You are survivors stuck in a crumbling building infested with zombies. You are separated by jammed doors and fallen walls, and have no means to reach one another. The best you can do is shout to communicate and coordinate your survival efforts. You can pass equipment to one another through small slits in the walls. You can't see what's happening on your friends' sections of the building - where they are located, where the zombies and (non-player) survivors are, what equipment they have found so far. You can only communicate verbally. To win, you need to get out of the building. You must also each get a vaccine before you leave. There are two ways of leaving. The first way is by having one player get hold of both the communication device and the battery, and then everyone meet on Level 3 (I shall avoid the USA 1st-2nd-3rd floor vs UK / Malaysia Ground-1st-2nd floor dilemma by calling the floors levels). The second way is by everyone collectively gathering enough flares and then meeting on Level 1. There is a timer mechanism in the game. If you can't escape by the end of round 12, you lose. If any one of you dies, you lose.

Now here's the twist - this game is semi-cooperative. If you win together, victory points come into play, and only one player will be the winner with the highest score. The others do win too, but not all wins are the same. You score points based on how many survivors you rescue, and based whether you fulfill the three objective cards dealt at the start of the game. These cards require you to have specific items when you escape, which means you need to either have found and not used those items, or you need to have convinced others to give them to you if they have found them. This mechanism creates hidden agendas and competition among players, even as they all try to collaborate to ensure survival. Sometimes you intentionally delay the game hoping to find the equipment you need for scoring, lying to your friends that you still haven't found your vaccine. Sometimes you pretend not to have the shotgun your friend is desperately asking for, because you want the zombies to catch up with the big group of survivors he is leading and kill those survivors, who are worth 1 victory point each.

Sharing equipment is essential. E.g. if you have a gun but no bullets, or vice versa, it is useless. If one player has a gun and the other the bullets, they need to decide who to give his item to the other. Also each player needs one vaccine. An extra vaccine is of no use to you, but you need to make sure all your teammates get one, else you can't win.

This is a 4-player setup. You are supposed to only see your side of the building.

Jeixel, Calvin. In this photo I can see the cards of the player on my right, but I am not supposed to. Those cards on the board determine where new zombies pop up and where new survivors are found.

The sequence of a round is straightforward. First everyone simultaneously draw cards on their respective sides of the building to determine where new zombies and survivors appear. Then the players take turns using 3 Action Points to perform actions. Some actions require AP's, some don't. You can move. You can search, which means drawing a card from the deck for the specific level you are on. You can pick up or drop off survivors. You can heal yourself. You can use equipment. You can drop equipment through the slits on the walls, or pick up equipment left by others. You can even gain an AP by taking injury. Sometimes this is necessary.

Calvin, Kit Loong. When you search, you draw a card. The 3 card decks for each level are placed on the roof of the building. They have different card backs.

Ah Pek (Uncle) is cautiously guarding the staircase. In this photo you can see the slits on the walls. There are slits on every level.

After all players have completed their actions, it is the zombies' turn. Zombies on the same floor as humans will move towards the humans, prioritising the non-player survivors over the players. After they all move, they bite the humans in the same room as them. Survivors who are bitten turn into zombies (of course!). Players who are bitten take one point of damage. If you hit your health limit, you die and everybody loses.

Zombies go for survivors first and not the players. In this photo there are survivors on the rightmost rooms on Levels 2 and 3. So the zombies on these levels will all walk towards the right. The player character on the left is safe, at least for now. There is no survivor or player character on Level 1, so the zombies there will just chill.

This is one of the player characters. Each character has a different start location and a unique special ability. The big white box is for placing survivors tagging along with you. Survivors don't move on their own because they are too scared. They will follow you only if you tell them to.

The Play

My first two games were played with non-gamers. The idea of the 3D building immediately caught their attention. They told me the rulebook looked intimidating, but after I taught them the rules, they were able to digest them just fine. They found the rules logical and natural. They kept referring to Left 4 Dead, which I have not played before. In the first game I decided to just go for the normal difficulty level, and we lost rather spectacularly. I later found out that I had played one rule wrong, which made the game much harder than it should be. I had thought that zombies knew how to take the stairs to go hunt down humans on other levels. Actually they don't. We had inadvertently played in hell mode. For the second game, I played with a different group of non-gamers, this time playing with the correct rules. I was scarred from the first game and decided to start at easy difficulty. The difference between difficulty levels is the number of starting zombies during game setup. This time we won rather easily, and never got into particularly difficult situations. I think the easy level is mainly suitable for teaching the game or playing with casual players or children. When I played, I treated the game as a fully cooperative game. When you are still familiarising yourself with the game, you can choose to play this way. However the intention of the designers is there should be competition and hidden agendas amidst the collaboration.

To beat the game you need to communicate a lot and coordinate carefully. It is almost impossible for everyone to find exactly what he needs. Usually you will need to find ways to pass equipment among yourselves in order to win. Even just the basic requirement to win - everybody getting a vaccine shot - can be quite challenging. Sometimes you need to pass an item to the player sitting opposite you. That means first passing it to the guy on your left or right, and then him bringing it to the other wall to pass on to the final recipient. That can be very tricky to coordinate when the place is swarming with zombies. When we played we had to keep asking where are you, which slit is easier for you to get to, how soon can you get there, what else do you have, etc. Even after we finally gathered all the items we needed, coordinating the right time to get to the assembly point was a challenge too. Get there too early, and you may find yourself surrounded by zombies before your teammates are ready to leave the building.

Zombie movement follows very exact rules. They are predictable, and you must make use of this. The new zombies and survivors that appear every round can throw a wrench into your plans, but that's all part of the fun. You want to make use of your understanding of zombie behaviour to control their movement, e.g. halting them in their tracks by staying away and taking survivors away from the level they are in, or steering them in a particular direction by dropping of a survivor that way. Cruel, yes, but sometimes it's necessary. Think of it as saving yourself first so that you can in turn save more other survivors. When you are about to be bitten, you can push a survivor traveling with you forward to take the bite for you. But then he'd turn into a zombie and you'd have more zombies to contend with next round. You need to think of that too.

My non-gamer friends enjoyed the game very much and asked to borrow it. They were disappointed to find that it had sold out, but I told them there would be a Kickstarter campaign starting in February. That's Cosaic's current plan as far as I'm aware of.

Benz, Ruby, Xiaozhu, Edwin and Eva. Only Ruby, Xiaozhu and Eva were actually playing with me, but the others were interested and sat down to join us.

Kit Loong and Calvin standing behind were probably grumbling about how I had taught them the wrong rules in the game we played earlier, causing such a miserable loss.

My 3rd and 4th games were played with gamers. I decided to go for normal difficulty level straightaway, since this was not a complex game. Aaaaand Sinbad died a rather horrible death. He was rather unlucky. He was unable to save any of the survivors on his side of the building. They were all bitten and they turned into zombies, resulting is a large horde. His character was good with guns and could kill an extra zombie each time he attacked, but he couldn't find bullets for his gun, so he didn't manage to make use of his special ability at all. In hindsight we were a little careless. We should have foresaw Sinbad's sticky situation earlier and worked out how to help him out a few rounds earlier. By the time we realised the gravity of the situation, it was already too late.

Sinbad, Allen, Jason and I decided to have another go. This time we were more careful, and eventually managed to escape. We had to coordinate carefully when and where we were going to pass items to one another, and when exactly we were going to meet at the assembly point. To win the game you still need to last till the end of the round after reaching the assembly point, i.e. after the zombies do their moving and biting. I still played the game as a pure cooperative game, not quite bothering about the victory points. However my gamer friends were not so innocent. They were already thinking about post-survival bragging. Jason had two objective cards which required having the dynamite and the detonator. Allen had announced that he had them both and asked if anyone needed them. Jason tried to convince Allen that he needed the equipment to kill some zombies. However he didn't sound desperate enough, and eventually Allen didn't pass the goods to him. If Jason had put on a good enough show and convinced Allen to hand over the goodies, he would have become the top scorer. I was oblivious to all this during the game itself. It was only post-game that we discussed this, and I was able to appreciate the self-interest, brinkmanship and lying aspects that can emerge when playing this game.

Allen, Jason. This time I was playing with hobby gamers.

This time the character I played was the doctor. His special ability was he could turn a zombie back into a human, at the cost of one health point.

All the survivor tokens have a zombie side at the back.

The Thoughts

Zombie Tower 3D is a game with a wide appeal. The 3D tower is eye-catching, and the core mechanisms are intriguing. That's at least enough to get many to be interested to give it a try. It is not a particularly deep game, so it's not something gamers will play regularly or do in-depth strategy analysis on. This is a light strategy game which feels like a party game. You need to communicate a lot, and you need to coordinate your efforts meticulously. It's funny that despite all players being restricted to different sides of the building, the game is very high in player interaction. The information barrier forces players to actively contribute to the discussion.

The victory conditions in Archipelago share similarities with those in Zombie Tower 3D. It's either everyone loses, or there is only one true winner, the one with the highest score. Some complain that this makes the game less fun because a player who can't be on top will try to make everyone lose. I don't see this as a problem. In my view, we should stick to the theme and setting. In Zombie Tower 3D, surviving will always be more important than having more glory.

What would be funny though, is a group of players who should have won the game end up losing because of the mistrust among them. E.g. a player claiming he needs the shotgun to kill zombies coming at him, but others who do have shotguns being unwilling to give it to him because they believe he only wants it for the victory points. That player asking for the shotgun may actually be in trouble. Can you trust your friends?

This is a game that I imagine casual players can keep on playing and playing. For regular gamers, it still provides some challenge because of the randomness and the luck element. The normal level is not exactly easy to beat. I have yet to try the hard difficulty.

I thank Cosaic for this review copy. It's a game I will treasure. If you are interested in the game, watch out for the upcoming Kickstarter campaign, estimated to start in February.

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