Sunday 31 July 2016

Power Grid: Australia

Plays: 6Px1.

I own many expansion maps of Power Grid, but in recent years I have stopped buying because I don't play Power Grid often. I don't own the Australia / India expansion, but I had a chance to try it when Ivan brought it to The cities on the Australian map look like this.

One cheeky thing about this map is the cities are drawn upside down, because Australia is "Down Under". The map has a few variant rules. One of them is that when you expand your network, you can spend $20 to establish presence in any city on the board. This is why those two isolated networks in the red area can exist.

Another rule change is related to nuclear plants. Nuclear plants are not allowed in Australia. However uranium is mined in Australia and exported. When you play this map, the nuclear plants represent uranium mines instead. During the bureaucracy stage, instead of powering cities for you, they earn you cash directly based on the uranium price at the time. Every time a player sells uranium, the price drops. At the end of every round, the price recovers, based on the resource replenishment table - that row in pink.

The third main rule change is in Stage 3 of the game. Resource prices jump up due to a new tax. In this photo you can see the resource market being split into two sections, the shorter section currently being empty. This section is only used in Stage 3 when resources become more expensive.

This photo was taken in the early game. We had six players, and five were crowded in eastern and south eastern Australia. I (green) started in Brisbane and Gold Coast. The two main cities Sydney and Melbourne each have two halves, each half being treated as an individual city, with no connection cost between them. This is attractive to players.

Sinbad was blue. He started in Perth. There were only 5 cities in this area, so once a player started here, nobody else wanted to come because it would be suicide to crowd into such a small area in the early game.

Ivan (I think) was yellow and started in Sydney, and got surrounded by Allen (red). He had to spend the $20 to jump to South Australia. I (green) expanded peacefully in Queensland.

Jeff (black) wouldn't leave me alone and jumped to Queensland to mess with my expansion. He needed to escape the south eastern corner anyhow because it was crowded. It was just a question of where to jump to. Purple had jumped to the Northern Territory. Sinbad (blue) had filled up Western Australia, and had now jumped to Tasmania.

Despite the few rule changes, Power Grid is still Power Grid. The basic principles and strategies still apply. This is a game won and lost on dollars and cents. Every Elektro (the currency in the game) counts. I was a little sloppy and by late game could not catch up with the rest. I was a little wasteful. I probably spent more than I should have when bidding for power plants. I wasn't meticulous enough in my planning. One thing I like about Power Grid is how every time I lose, I can look back and see exactly why I lost. This shows how strategic the game is, and how much my decisions matter. Players who like Power Grid will like this map. When we played, we used the expansion power plants (they have green borders). Ivan and Jeff said this power plant deck is better balanced. I'm not yet at the skill level to be able to appreciate this balance myself.

This photo was taken when we entered the 3rd Stage. The moment Stage 3 began, we had to move the 6 cheapest resources of each type to the $9 and $10 spots, i.e. the smaller section of the resource market. From that point on, resources would cost at least $3. The $1 and $2 spots were no longer in use. Our eventual winner was Ivan. He powered the exact number of cities required to win. No others could reach that in the same round as him, so there was no need for a tiebreaker. In Power Grid, players often tie in the number of cities powered, so money often comes into play as the tiebreaker. Uranium mines (nuclear plants) play an important role in Australia because in the last round, they still generate income, and that additional money can often mean win or lose.

Monday 25 July 2016

boardgaming in photos: Lost Cities

6 Jul 2016. I played Machi Koro with the children. This is one of their favourite games. Chen Rui (9) doesn't have a strategic mind yet, and makes decisions on a whim, mostly depending on which buildings she finds interesting. She plays the way which makes her happy, not the way which makes her win. Maybe there's something to learn from this. Shee Yun (11) understands the strategy and makes her decisions which lead her to a final goal. She identifies synergies between cards. It pleases me to see her think strategically.

Chen Rui made a mini pyramid out of the Renovation markers.

The kids still try to gang up on me. However we play the advanced rules using the ever-changing market system, so it's hard to collaborate against another player. The cards don't always come up the way you hope they will. I won again this time.

We still mix together all the cards from the base game, the Harbour expansion and the Millionaire's Row expansion. It's not a good way to play, because the cards are too diluted. It's hard to focus on any specific strategy. We really should spend some time creating a smaller set to play with.

This time I constructed many blue buildings, which allowed me to earn money on any player's turn.

7 Jul 2016. Lost Cities is an oldie. Back in the day (well, about 10 - 12 years ago) this was the spouse game. Nowadays I don't hear it being mentioned much. I suspect many gamers new to the hobby haven't even heard about it, which is a shame. It is still as delicious as I remember it. Michelle and I played briskly. Play-and-draw, discard-and-draw, play-and-pick-up. It was like synchronised sparring. Yet there are quite a few tricky decisions to be made along the way, and gambles to make. Sometimes the game takes an unexpected turn.

I fared horribly in this particular game. I had drawn all three of the yellow handshake cards early in the game, but not other yellow numbered cards. Michelle discarded a yellow card early in the game, so I thought she must have few such cards to be able to decide so early that she was giving up on yellow. I decided I should go for yellow and make a killing. I played the three handshake cards, and waited to draw more yellow cards. To my dismay, Michelle picked up the yellow card she had discarded, and proceeded to start her own yellow expedition. That was not a good sign. She drew more and more yellow cards, and I drew pitifully few. It was a disaster. I had started the red, green and blue expeditions, but they were just for buying time hoping to draw yellow cards. Most of these side quests just broke even. Instead of yellow cards, I drew lots of white cards. Now (at the time of this photo), the draw deck was running out, and I was stuck in an unenviable position of having not enough yellow cards to play, and too many white cards and not quite enough time to play them.

I played Ticket To Ride: The Card Game with the family. I bought this when Michelle and I were still very much into the Ticket To Ride series. However I didn't really fancy it, and seldom played. I brought this out because the children hadn't tried it. They are familiar with the Ticket To Ride series, but this was new to them. They liked it, and they did much better than us. I wonder whether they liked it because they beat us.

There is some aggression in this game. You need to collect train cards. To do that, you need to first play them onto the table, and then on later turns move them to your safe storage pile. While the train cards are still on the table, they are vulnerable. If other players play cards of the same colour as yours, your cards will be discarded. Thus the aggression. A few elements look familiar, but this is quite a different game from Ticket To Ride.

Sunday 10 July 2016

Twilight Struggle on iOS

When I first heard that GMT and Playdek were going to make an iOS version of Twilight Struggle, I was quite excited. I supported the Kickstarter campaign with no hesitation. Playdek had always delivered good products (Ascension, Summoner Wars and Agricola on iOS), so I had high confidence. I only pledged for the iOS version and not other items like the PC version or the physical items for the boardgame. The iOS version was originally scheduled to release in Mar 2015, 9 months after successful funding. It was eventually released in Jun 2016, much later than expected. Thankfully I wasn't actively waiting for it. It was a fire-and-forget decision for me. Otherwise I would have been frustrated by the long wait. Now that it's here and I've played a few games, I'm happy with it, and glad to have supported making it a success.

It is not easy to transfer such a complex boardgame onto the small iPad screen. I must admit I took some malignant pleasure in thinking about how Playdek was going to do it. Now that they have done it, I must say they did a pretty good job. The user interface is intuitive. I can easily see information that I need, or if it is not immediately visible, I can easily find it. When fully zoomed out, I can see 90% of the world map, which is nice. I can zoom in to specific regions. At the lower left and lower right corners (see screenshot above), the square buttons let you do this. CA means zooming in to Central America, SA means South America, and so on. Near the top left and top right corners, the symbols in squares are events which are in effect. If you press one of the symbols, the relevant card comes up.

Each region has a little meter to let you know how well you and your opponent are doing. The Europe meter is near the left edge of this screenshot. The left half being filled with blue means USA has achieved Domination in Europe. A quarter on the right being filled with red means USSR has Presence. If you tap the meter, you'll be shown a detailed breakdown of how the region will score. See next screenshot below.

This is the scoring details screen for Asia. How many points each side will score are shown in the two columns on both sides. The big red 05 in the middle means USSR will net gain 5VP if the Asia scoring card is played. The Twilight Struggle scoring is a zero sum game where only one side will have points. If the other side scores, the former needs to lose points first, until it reaches zero, before the latter starts gaining points. The 06 in the red box at the top means USSR is currently in the lead by 6VP.

This is the space race. USA (blue frame) is at Step 2 and USSR (red frame) is still at Step 0.

This is Central America. In this screenshot I have opened up the game log details. These allow you to see what has happened throughout the game. Other than the game log, you can also easily check which cards are in the discard pile (it is especially important to know which scoring cards have been played and which are still to come) and which cards have been permanently removed from the game.

The Help button on the left (the green circle with a question mark) is very useful. It is context-sensitive. When I press it, it shows me the rules relevant to the action or screen I am executing or viewing. This saves me much trouble in searching through the rule book. One thing I don't like though is the tutorial. Twilight Struggle is a complex game and it is not easy to make a rulebook-for-dummies. I tried reading through the tutorial and I didn't have patience to complete it in one sitting. Later when I came back, I found that I had to start from scratch and I could not continue from where I left off. Eventually I decided to skip the tutorial and just went ahead to play. Since I had played the physical boardgame before I still had a general idea of what I was supposed to do.

This is the overview screen. It tells you which Turn you are in, how many Action Rounds there are in the current Turn, and which cards have been played in previous Action Rounds.

So far I have played against the AI four times, and I'm now in my 3rd game against Han. I found that I am lousy at managing the DEFCON level. The DEFCON concept in Twilight Struggle determines how close the world is to nuclear war. The DEFCON level starts at 5, which is the best and safest level. Each time a player initiates a military coup, the DEFCON level drops. Some card plays also affect DEFCON. If DEFCON hits 1, nuclear war breaks out and the world is destroyed. The game ends, and the player whose turn it is is the loser. In my first three games against the AI, I lost all three because of DEFCON (screenshot above). In one game, I played a card which required both sides to roll a die to determine who gained points. The card also allowed the victor to adjust the DEFCON level. I had misunderstood and thought the active player was to decide how to adjust the DEFCON. The AI won the die roll, and since it was the victor, it decided to lower the DEFCON, which was already at Level 2 when I played the card. Nuclear war broke out, and I was blamed because I was the active player at the time. In another game, I played a card which gave the AI 1 operation point when DEFCON was at Level 2. I had neglected that the AI could use this paltry 1 ops point to start a coup, which it did. DEFCON went to 1, and I was blamed again for destroying the world. I was schooled by the AI! I now appreciate much better the intricacies in managing DEFCON.

Now finally, one game that I did win against the AI. I played USA and I managed to reach 20VP for an instant victory. In my 4 games against the AI so far, it seems the AI doesn't put much emphasis on the space race. In this screenshot you can see my USA is already at Step 5 of the space race, but the AI's USSR is still at Step 1.

Before the iOS version was released, I hadn't played Twilight Struggle for quite some time, despite owning a physical copy of the game. It is good that the iOS version got me playing this great game again. I enjoyed my plays. It felt good getting to know the game again, appreciating the beauty in its design and the tactics required to win. In the past, I had never got to learn this game well because usually there was a long gap between each play. By the time I played again, I had already forgotten the tricks I learned from my previous game. The iOS version helped me learn and enjoy the game much better.

As with all digital implementations of boardgames, there is a risk of burnout due to playing too much within too short a time. I feel this a little with Twilight Struggle. With a physical boardgame, you can't avoid the "work" required in managing the components and in doing calculations in your head. Despite calling these "work", they are part of the fun too. Digital implementations remove these. It is good in that you save time and you get straight to the crux of the game. However it can also be bad in that the experience is too blunt, too condensed and too naked. Suddenly you feel you have seen all there is to it, because the trappings of playing a physical boardgame have disappeared. I find that I am now intentionally not playing Twilight Struggle too much so that I don't burn out on it.

One thing I like about the digital implementation is before you roll the die for an important move, your odds of success are shown. So you can always change your mind before you commit to your move. With this, I don't need to memorise the rules related to calculating odds. I just need to have a rough idea of the factors which affect my odds. This is very convenient.

One thing I notice is I rarely get to the Late War stage. It might be because I keep losing by DEFCON heh heh... This is a pity because I don't get to experience what the Late War is like. There is a Late War variant scenario which comes with the iOS version, which I think is meant to address this problem. It starts the game in Turn 8 (of 10). Han and I are trying this now. It seems to be very tough for USSR though.

Update 17 Jul 2016: I just realised I had misunderstood the rules for the Late War scenario. I had played two complete games assuming the victory condition was the same as the standard game. I lost the first game due to DEFCON and never got to the end of Turn 10. In the second game, I did get to the end of Turn 10 and the final scoring. Han played USA and he had around 5VP after the final scoring. However the app said I won. I was puzzled. I had to look up the rules before realising that the victory condition was based on USA having 20VP. USA needed to have more than 20VP after the final scoring to win the game. Victory was no longer based on 0VP. No wonder when I played USSR it felt so impossible. I didn't realise I was actually doing well keeping USA from reaching 20VP. I had thought I really sucked at this game. Embarrassing...

The AI that comes with the digital version is decent enough, but it is not as interesting as a human opponent. It is sufficient if you want to learn the game or if you want to play a relaxed and casual game. Once you know the game well, it probably won't be much of a challenge. Despite my blunders with the DEFCON level when I played against the AI, I generally managed to outscore it because I played more efficiently. If I had lasted long enough, I'm sure I would have won eventually.

If Twilight Struggle is a game that interests you, the iOS (or PC) implementation is a good way to get into it.


Thursday 7 July 2016

introducing boardgames

Wed 22 Jun 2016 was a public holiday right in the middle of the week. It was difficult to plan anything elaborate for such an odd off day in the week, so I invited some colleagues over to play boardgames. Most of them have played some boardgames, but none are hobbyists like me. There are still many games they have not tried, so there are plenty of new-to-them games I can bring out. I have not been doing such a thing for quite a while - introducing boardgames to new (or relatively new) players. In recent years I mainly play with fellow boardgame hobbyists. It was only since starting a new job last year that I began playing games with non-gamers again - my colleagues. It is nice to play the role of experienced guide again, because I get to teach and play lighter games which I have not played for some time.

Escape: Curse of the Temple was probably the noisiest game we played that day. We made three attempts and failed at all three (it's a cooperative game). I wonder whether it was because we had five players, and the game is harder with five. I didn't join the first two games and only played the third because my friends wanted to see "how the expert did it". We still lost, but I'd argue at least we were closer to winning. We did get to the exit, but we didn't roll enough key symbols to allow everyone to leave safely. The real reason of the loss was not so much that we couldn't roll enough keys at that critical moment. In fact we shouldn't have put ourselves in such a situation in the first place. Earlier in the game we should have removed more gems from the gem pile so that we wouldn't need to roll that many key symbols to exit. It was frantic and fun, and we hadn't even started using any of the advanced rules or expansions.

Bohnanza was Uwe Rosenberg's magnus opus before he came up with the unusual idea called Agricola. It was a game I bought in the early days of entering the hobby. Bohnanza is a game of trading and negotiations.

When I taught the game, I told my friends the most important rule was you are never allowed to rearrange your hand. At the start of your turn, you must plant (i.e. play) the first card in your hand. Often doing this will disrupt your plans because that card is not the right card you want to play at that time. The whole idea of this game is trading away cards that will disrupt your flow, and getting cards that you want.

There are many types of beans. If you happen to be the only player planting a particular type of bean, it will be easier for you to collect that bean type because nobody else wants it. Normally your opponents won't allow you such a profitable monopoly for long though. In this game you can even donate cards that you don't want, provided the recipient is willing to accept them (he may choose not). "Donation" jokes abounded when we played (you'll need to know Malaysian politics to appreciate them).

Bohnanza works well with large groups. I think it plays best with 5 to 7 players.

I didn't join Funny Friends since it only supported six players. This is an adult-only game of life. I introduced the game by saying it was a game of promiscuity. In this game you are going in and out of relationships with the other players and also NPC's (non-player characters). To win, you must achieve 5 life goals. Each life goal is defined by a set of personal characteristics, e.g. to be enlightened you need to achieve Level 3 in religiousness and Level 2 in intelligence. You have a player board which tracks all your characteristics, e.g. how much you drink, how fat you are, how much drugs you take, how depressed you are. To adjust your characteristics you compete with other players in bidding for life style cards. E.g. if you win the chain smoking life style card, your smoking stat will hit the roof and so will your sickliness stat.

The player board also keeps track of who your friends are, your current and past partners, and your children. Your one night stands are recorded here too.

Sunday 3 July 2016

revisiting Lord of the Rings

My gaming group of colleagues likes cooperative games. Now that we have completed Pandemic Legacy, we still have quite a few cooperative games lined up to play next, e.g. Lord of the Rings, Forbidden Island, Pandemic: The Cure, the various expansions of Pandemic, and Robinson Crusoe. They wanted to try Lord of the Rings next. So far we have played three games, twice playing just the base game, and once adding the Friends & Foes expansion.

24 Jun 2016. This was the first time I played with this group. Benz (green - Pippin) and I (blue - Merry) died first, and we were soon followed by Ruby (orange - Fatty). When I explained the game, I said the track represented how good or bad the characters were. The hobbits would gradually turn bad. When we had hobbits falling beyond the Sauron position, my friends interpreted it as "you're worse than Sauron!". I guess I still have room for improvement in explaining the game mechanisms in a way that makes sense to new players. In addition to this, I had also explained one of the player actions as praying. When you pray, you become a better man - so you take one step towards the good end of the track. So far my friends are buying it, although this may not make sense in all situations.

The other two hobbits in this game were Xiao Zhu (yellow - Frodo) and Edwin (red - Sam). They didn't last much longer than the rest of us. Sauron soon caught up with them. Sauron reached the #1 position, when they were at positions #1 and #2, killing both at the same time. I think this was the first time ever I had Sauron at the #1 position. I don't remember having lost so spectacularly before. So Xiao Zhu and Edwin had to take a commemorative photo with Lord Sauron. All hail the new boss!

Playing Lord of the Rings again after such a long time reaffirmed how much I like it. Each time you need to draw a tile, it is a nervous moment. You are often caught in dilemmas. You want to collect the many powerful cards on a scenario board, but can you afford to risk the events (almost all bad) occurring? You have the right cards to rush to the end of the scenario board, but you are still missing some life tokens (without which you will be corrupted). Do you rush or do you stay and gamble, hoping to grab a few more life tokens before events destroy you? I find that new players tend to worry more about the missing life tokens. I am usually more concerned about escaping the events and finishing a scenario board as soon as possible. I don't know for sure whether I am right. Maybe I'm just conservative so I'd rather accept the corruption damage that is knowable than risk getting hit by an unknown number of additional events.

Before I taught my friends Lord of the Rings, I was a little concerned whether they would like it. The previous game we played together was Pandemic Legacy, where most of the game elements were easily relatable. The game mechanisms in Lord of the Rings are more abstract. There is no map. The ideas of friendship, traveling, fighting and hiding are implemented in a rather abstract way. Thankfully they did like the game.

At times when we played we became rather superstitious. Sometimes we had incredible stretches of bad luck, and we'd say the active player had a cursed hand. Sometimes he or she would switch to using the left hand instead, hoping to change fate. Sometimes when one player offered to reveal the next tile for another, the active player would be alarmed and would yell "hell no your hand is crap!" You can say we were really immersed.

I am thankful I had bought all the expansions to Lord of the Rings. My copy of the base game is the old version. The new base game has a different design which doesn't match the old expansions. So far I haven't heard anything about expansions being released for the new base game.

There is one thing in the Friends & Foes expansion which I don't like. In this expansion foes are introduced. If the first tile you draw on your turn is a good tile, a foe will appear. This means regardless of whether the tile you draw is good or bad, something bad will happen. For me, this eliminates the warm I-feel-lucky-today feeling which I get in the base game. If I think rationally, I can understand this is necessary in order to balance the game. The expansion does not just add foes and other new challenges. It also provides more tools to help the hobbits complete their mission. For me, preferring the base game over the expansion is the heart talking and not the brain. I do like the additional locations and characters that come with the expansion. I wish I could have them without this bad-is-guaranteed situation. I am perfectly happy to play just the base game, if I only play Lord of the Rings once in a while. If I play it more frequently, then I will be adding the expansion, for the variety.

We still need to beat Friends & Foes. After we manage that, we may move on to the Battlefields expansion, and then maybe the Sauron expansion. The latter will be a little different, because it's no longer fully cooperative. It is one (Sauron) against the rest (the hobbits).