Wednesday 31 August 2016


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Barony is a design by Marc Andre, designer of Splendor. I missed the Splendor party and didn't get to play it when it was at its hottest. I did see it being played, but each time that happened I was already sitting at another table playing another game. Then on my recent visit to I got to play both Barony and Splendor. Sometimes good things come in pairs.

To explain what Barony is, I want to start with the scoreboard. You are competing feudal lords trying to claim and develop territories, gaining power by building towns and forts, and then cashing in your power to elevate your status. The first player to get promoted to Level 5 triggers game end, and whoever has the most points wins.

The scoreboard is your career path. You start at 0VP at the top left corner. Every time you amass VP chips worth 15VP or more, you may turn them in to get promoted, moving your marker one step right. There is a reason for the second and third rows. Towns that you have built can be upgraded to cities, and each time you do this, you gain 10VP by moving your marker one row down. When the game ends, it is not necessarily a player at Level 5 who will win. A Level 5 player who hasn't built any city (i.e. 60VP) may lose to a Level 4 player who has built two (65VP). In addition to the VP on the scoreboard, any VP chips you have in hand are worth points too. These are the chips that you have not yet redeemed for a promotion.

These are the VP chips you gain every time you build a town or fort. They represent your power. Which chip you gain depends on where your town or fort is built. Farmland is the most valuable terrain. Mountains are least valuable. The numbers on the left are what the chips are worth when you redeem them for a promotion. The numbers on the right are what they are worth at game end if they are still in your hand.

This player reference sheet lists all 6 action types you have. On your turn you can only pick one action. You may recruit soldiers at a city. You may move your soldiers. As part of movement, you may be attacking an opponent's soldier or town. Combat is simple. You just remove his piece. Full stop. If you remove a town piece, you may rob one VP chip from your victim (your pick). So players usually need to protect their towns. You may convert your soldiers to towns or forts, and towns may be upgraded to cities. As mentioned earlier, you may redeem VP chips to get a promotion. The last action type is a little unusual (#5 in the photo). You may permanently remove one soldier from your stock to place another soldier from your stock to any empty edge space on the board. You only have 7 soldier pieces in the game, so sacrificing one permanently seems a rather high price to pay. However in the game I played, this action was used.

The largest building is a city, the smallest a town. The medium sized building is a fort. Cities and forts cannot be attacked and also block enemy movement. However quantities are limited so you need to use them wisely. The number of soldiers you have is also limited. You need to manage them carefully.

The Play

We did a 4-player game, which was the maximum. Ivan was yellow, Ainul red, Allen blue and I green.

The map is constructed from large tiles consisting of 3 hexes each. The map is set up randomly. The number of tiles to be used depends on the number of players. As part of game setup, every player needs to place 3 cities. The first cities of the players are placed in player order. Then the last player places his other 2 cities, followed by the 3rd player, then 2nd, then 1st player. So this is a little like The Settlers of Catan. Farmland is most valuable, so everyone eyes them greedily. Lakes are valuable too, because cities built next to lakes can recruit 3 soldiers at a time instead of the normal 2. This photo was taken in the early game. No towns or forts were built yet. Some players recruited soldiers. For my (green) first move I sent out my initial soldiers to claim land.

In the north, Ivan's (yellow) city was sandwiched by mine (green) and Allen's (blue). It would be hard for him to expand from this city. There were many farmland hexes here, so everyone wanted a piece, and wouldn't let anyone else easily monopolise the area. We ended up in a lose-lose situation. Not good, but perhaps necessary.

At the top left, I (green) had built two towns, and each was protected by a soldier. Any space with two pieces was completely safe and couldn't be attacked. Cities and forts are safe too, and are also permanently impassable to enemies. The advantage of cities and forts over two-piece sets is they don't need maintenance. Two-piece sets mean tying down your soldiers for defense. The moment a soldier moves and leaves behind a town or another soldier, whatever is left behind becomes vulnerable. My towns were right next to Ivan's (yellow) city, which meant he could recruit soldiers and send them to burn my towns. At this moment there was no immediate threat, but as soon as he started recruiting I would have to stay alert. Ivan himself had a soldier protecting his town next to Allen's (blue) city. At the top right, Ivan had recruited soldiers and they were rampaging the countryside. I needed to watch that direction too.

Protecting towns is important because if you don't, your hard earned VP chips may be snatched away. However, Barony is an efficiency game. Having to commit many soldiers to guard duty is inefficient, and that's very bad.

Ivan's (yellow) soldiers were advancing towards me (green). Were they going to be builders or raiders?

In the west, Ainul (red) had a big swath all to himself. He took his time recruiting soldiers, then sending them out, and eventually he would be converting a whole bunch of them into towns and forts all at one go. He was going to collect a lot of VP chips.

I (green) had two starting cities in this southern region. This was good country too - not many others around to harass me. My city on the right was next to a lake, so it could recruit three soldiers at one go. Two of my soldiers had been sent out to "chup" (reserve) farmland hexes. More were coming to claim spots. I wanted to do the conversion to towns and forts at the same time, saving me precious turns.

Ainul (red) had thought he was safe, and had underestimated the threat posed by Allen (blue). After Ainul converted his army of soldiers into towns, Allen sent in an expeditionary force, which now threatened to burn many towns. Ainul only had one soldier handy, which was not sufficient to protect his towns. This would become disastrous for Ainul who had many VP chips on hand. Barony is an open information game, so it sometimes feels chess-like. You can think ahead a few steps - if I do this, my opponent will likely do that, and I will then do this, and so on. The possibilities are many, but not endless. Yet sometimes you will miss out a possibility, and your opponents will exploit that. Or sometimes when your opponents decide to gang up on you, it is difficult to stop them. Diplomacy and psychology are tools you can use. There is a human side despite the game sometimes feeling like an abstract game.

In the south, I managed to build many towns without being bothered by others. I had built both my forts here, and together with the city between them, they formed my Great Wall. That town on the right could be upgraded to a city, which would complete the Great Wall. You can see that Ivan (yellow) had raised troops in the background. If he advanced towards me, I would need to quickly upgrade that frontier town.

In the first half of the game, I felt there was much land, but in the second half I started to feel the pinch. Available land dwindled, and whatever remained to be claimed had lower value. That meant more spaces needed to be claimed to make up the 15VP required for promotion. Thankfully I still had enough land within easy reach. Else I would need to invade others.

In the west, many of Ainul's (red) towns had been burnt by Allen (blue). Now Ainul had raised fresh armies and surrounded Allen's raiders. One of Allen's soldiers had settled down and converted itself to a town. The other was going to retire here and be on permanent guard duty. The two-piece rule meant Ainul could never attack Allen here, as long as that lone soldier stayed with the town piece.

My (green) situation was looking good. I was able to build aggressively without being hindered much. Barony is very much an efficiency game. Whoever manages to avoid getting embroiled in war is in a good position, but that's easier said than done. Now I was preparing for my final push, sending out my last batch of soldiers to build towns and collect VP chips in order to do my last VP chip redemption and promotion.

Ivan (yellow) hatched a plan to slow me (green) down, recruiting two soldiers here. I had one soldier here, while the other six were in the south preparing for my final push. I had no more soldiers in my pool to recruit to protect my tiny northern province. So I had to position my lone soldier this way. I could not protect that town on the left, but at least I could limit the damage to just that town. The soldier would protect the town he is in, and also the town to the north, at least from attacks from the southern direction. I examined the positions of my other six soldiers in the south. They would get me more than 15VP when they converted to towns. After taking into account one highest valued VP chip that Ivan would rob from me, I would still have exactly 15VP. I was still on track for that final crucial promotion.

In the far right you can see a lone blue town - Allen's. He had performed that sacrifice action, removing one of his soldiers from the game to place another soldier on that hex. The soldier was then converted to this town. Later it was upgraded to a city, and became a threat to Ivan (yellow). Cities can recruit fresh soldiers.

Eventually I got promoted to Level 5 and ended the game. I had the most points, but just barely. Allen was at Level 4 and had built two cities. I had built one. Had I not built that one city, he would have outscored me.

The Thoughts

Barony is a succinct game. It is a development game where everyone tries to be as efficient as possible, making it feel like a race to the finish line. However it is also a merciless war game where one miscalculation can put you out of the race. It is almost an abstract game, because it is a perfect information game. There is no randomness once the game starts. No dice. No cards. Only the map setup is random (and this provides variability). Ideally you want to be able to focus on your own development without being disturbed by your opponents. However warfare, or the threat of warfare, cannot be avoided. A threat will at least force you to spend actions defending yourself. In the worst case you will lose towns and precious VP chips. Robbing VP chips from others is lucrative. A pure race of efficiency is not going to happen because whenever a leader begins to emerge, the rest will collaborate to slow him down (assuming a non-two-player game). There can be diplomacy and negotiations, since this is a multiplayer wargame. How heavily they are used depends on the play style of the group.

The actions in the game are simple. Your turn consists of only one action, so the game progresses briskly. The simplicity allows you to quickly understand the strategy and appreciate the tactics. When I first saw photos of the game, I had no interest at all. It looked like yet another Ameritrash style multiplayer wargame. Barony turned out to be a much more Euro design. Slick, clean, lean and mean. Sometimes downright mathematical, and sometimes frightfully brutal. It can feel a little dry because it is an open information game. It can also feel intimidating and serious, like how chess can be. It depends on your group.

It is a highly interactive game. Players will fight for lucrative locations. They will bump into one another and they will be either tempted into launching attacks, or forced into making defensive moves. Barony is a wargame requiring precision and forward planning, and not one where you simply holler and charge and hope to win. More intellectual, less visceral. I find it a clever design.

Saturday 27 August 2016

Quartermaster General – Victory or Death: The Peloponnesian War

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The name is too long, so I'm going to call it just Victory or Death. Victory or Death is a sequel to Quartermaster General, and uses similar mechanisms. However the setting is completely different. This is no longer about World War II. This is about the Peloponnesian War, more than 2000 years earlier. The game is still a team vs team war game, but this time it is 2 vs 2 instead of 3 vs 3. The combatants are Sparta and Corinth on one side, and Athens and the Delian League on the other. A full game may last up to 15 rounds, after which a final scoring is done and whichever team with more points wins. Intermediate scorings are done every 3 rounds, and if any team creates a lead of 10pts or more, it wins immediately - a sudden death victory.

The soul of the game is still the unique decks of each faction. Almost everything you can do in the game depends on playing or spending a card. On your turn, by default you can only play one card. You can play a second card, which must be of a specific type - Prepare cards - if you sacrifice another card from your hand. Since there are only 15 rounds, that means you will have between 15 to 30 actions in the whole game. At the end of your turn, you always draw back to 7 cards. If you have played or spent more cards, you will draw more. Your discard pile is never reshuffled to form a new draw deck. Once your draw deck is exhausted, you don't draw any more. If you run out of cards to play, there will be a 1VP penalty every round. In this game, 1VP is a big deal.

Actions as simple as mustering an army or attacking an enemy in an adjacent space require a card play. You only have that many muster and battle cards in your deck, so you need to be prudent. The mix of cards of each faction is different, and they have very different characters. Sparta is strongest on land, and has many cards for mustering armies and conducting land battles. Athens dominates the seas, and has many cards for mustering navies and fighting sea battles. One thing that the game doesn't have is the ability to move troops. Your armies and navies on the map don't represent actual armies and navies. They represent your presence.

Other than the basic muster and battle cards, there are Event cards. You apply the effects stated immediately when you play such a card. There are Prepare cards which are played face-down in front of you. Their effects are triggered sometimes by an opponent's action and sometimes by your own action. There are Status cards which are played face-up in front of you. These give you special abilities, e.g. being able to score points by fulfilling certain conditions, being able to perform extra attacks.

There are only two unit types - armies and navies.

The cards are the soul of the game. They drive everything you do.

One source of victory points is city pieces. Quartermaster General does not have this. Every faction starts with one home city. Cities score 1VP each at every scoring stage. Other than cities, some cards also let players score points, some directly and some having prerequisites. Some territories are worth VP's, but only at the end of Round 15.

The yellow circles with numbers mark the territories which are worth VP's at game end. Both home provinces of Sparta and Athens are worth 3VP.

There's a new mechanism in Victory or Death called the bribery mechanism. You may sacrifice a card to get a coin (i.e. bribery marker). At any time this coin can be placed on an empty province, and this province will support your cause until the start of your next turn. Bribed provinces help you create a supply line, allowing you to extend your forces. When combined with some cards, they allow you to place new cities. Bribery creates more possibilities.

Every faction has a different card back. This is the card back of Athens. Those coins are the bribery markers.

It's hard to explain how the game feels by only describing the key rule elements. Let's look at how it plays.

The Play

We did the full four-player game. Jeff and I had played Quartermaster General before, but not the other two players, so we agreed that the two of us should be on different teams. Jeff played Corinth, while I played Athens.

This is the starting setup. Sparta is red, and starts at the southern tip of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. Athens is blue, and starts at the eastern tip of the Greek mainland. Sparta's ally Corinth is purple and also starts on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, but on the northern shore. Athen's ally the Delian League starts on an island in the west.

Corinth (purple) started our game harassing the Delian League (yellow) relentlessly. It established a foothold on the island of Sicily in the west, threatening the Delian League homeground from both directions. Athens (blue) had a mighty navy and decided to expand east, because there were two islands with end-game VP's in the east. Sparta (red) didn't want any direct confrontation with Athens at sea, and expanded eastwards along the southeastern edge of the map, avoiding the Athenian navy. Corinth, Athens and the Delian League had coins (bribery markers) on standby in the bowl at the top left. It's good to have at least one coin on standby, because some bad events can be avoided by spending a coin.

These two on the right were my (Athens, blue) status cards. One gave me 1VP whenever I sank an enemy fleet. The other gave me 2VP at each scoring stage in which I was able to garrison Attica, the province just next to Athens. The two on the left were my Prepare cards, which had been played face-down. My opponents did not know what they were. I could use them to plan a big move. I could also use them to bluff, hoping to scare an opponent into delaying an attack.

Corinth (purple) had destroyed the starting city of the Delian League (yellow). The Delian League had now established a new base on the eastern side of the map. Sparta (red) had expanded all the way to the mainland on the east, and had placed a new city. Athens (blue) continued to expand in the east, because the Delian League had played some status cards which gave VP's if the Athenian alliance controlled some of the sea regions here. With the Delian League exterminated in the west, Corinth and Sparta could now combine forces to press towards Athens. Attica became a key battlefield. Quite a few cards in the game featured Attica, and this was how the designer presented history in the game. Athens had great incentive to claim and protect Attica, while Sparta and Corinth had good reason to prevent that from happening. Once you get familiar with the card decks, you can better plan for how to make use of cards that you will eventually draw. You will also learn to anticipate your opponents' moves. You know the tricks up their sleeves. You just don't know which cards exactly they have in their hands at any one time. It's all about timing.

I can't help comparing Victory or Death with Quartermaster General. The Delian League is a lot like Italy, because of its many scoring cards. I don't think that's historical, but it does make the game interesting and balanced. Sparta is like Germany - invincible on land. Everybody is like Japan. It seems that every faction has many Prepare cards - secrets and traps to ensnare opponents.

Sparta's (red) new city in the east was destroyed. So was its expedition fleet. The Delian League (yellow) had established a second city in the north east. Unfortunately (for me), on the Greek mainland, Athens (blue) had fallen to the numerous attacks launched by Sparta and Corinth (purple). Sparta had been rather tentative in the first half of the game, barely advancing towards Athens, probably because it didn't have the right cards in hand. However it did play many powerful Status cards, setting itself up for spectacular moves in the late game. E.g. one card gave Sparta an extra attack upon mustering a new army, another card let Sparta launch an extra attack after executing a normal one. Athens had 3 or 4 cards in its deck which could help prevent the sacking of its capital. However I had only played one of them, which was ultimately insufficient. I had spent the others on other uses. I underestimated how much protection Athens needed. The Athenian alliance led in points throughout most of the game, but was soundly beaten at the final scoring. The sacking of Athens was crucial. Sparta gained 1VP for burning the city. Athens lost 4VP in the final scoring because of the 3VP of the territory, and 1VP of the city itself. Sparta had been building up towards this final climax, eventually succeeding in executing its plan.

Athens in ruins. I guess one consolation is that this is historically accurate.

The Thoughts

Similar to Quartermaster General, Victory or Death is a game of simple turns and few actions. Yet it manages to deliver much historical flavour. Due to how few actions you have, there is much decision angst. Every card in your deck can potentially be put to good use, but there are only 15 rounds in the game, possibly fewer. So you have to choose. You can only hope to pick an effective combination of cards to use, and you hope to draw the right cards at the right time. The game is very much about timing and hand management. You have to make the most of what you draw. It is possible to sacrifice two cards to find a specific basic card from your draw deck. This gives you a way out if you are really stuck with very bad luck, albeit at a cost.

After you become familiar with the game, you will experience an additional layer of double-guessing. You know all the tricks your opponents have, and vice versa. It comes down to what you think they will try to do in that specific game. You try to guess their intentions based on their actions. You try to hide yours and hope to catch them unprepared.

Compared to Quartermaster General, there are more Prepare cards (called Response cards in the earlier game). So players are spending more time laying traps and making elaborate plans of attack. When you see more and more Prepare cards in front of your opponents, the tension escalates. You worry whether there's a card which will completely foil your next move, and whether they are going to finally unleash hell next turn. All this secret planning makes the game feel a bit more complicated. The bribery mechanism also adds some complexity. The game is less straightforward than its predecessor.

The overall feeling is still similar. The card decks together contain a rich collection of historical and theoretical events. There are many possibilities. When you play, you are converting these possibilities into real actions and events. Sometimes it is your choices which drive the story, realising some possibilities and eliminating others. Sometimes you are forced to react to your opponents' actions. It is an intricate dance. You manage your inventory of potential actions, deciding which to sacrifice and which to use.

Game components.

Sunday 21 August 2016

Via Nebula

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

In terms of graphics and components design, Via Nebula is the cutest Martin Wallace game that I have ever seen. If I hadn't known beforehand that this was his design, I would never have guessed it based on the art style. I played the game not because of the art though. It was because of the pedigree. What's important is still the gameplay.

Players are builders rebuilding the Nebula Valley, which used to be a thriving civilisation. Many ruins were left behind during its decline, and it is over these ruins that players will construct new buildings. The old kingdom has also left behind resources. By sending out explorers, you locate these resources and make them available to everyone. Most of the valley is covered by mist, making the land untraversable. You need to spend effort mapping these mist covered spaces to make them accessible. When a construction site is connected to a resource location via an uninterrupted chain of glassland, the resources can be transported to the site to be used as building material. A building must be constructed according to specs, which means it must use the exact combination of materials as specified by a contract. Players start with some contract cards in hand, and there are always four open-to-all contracts on the board. When you complete a public contract by constructing the building required, you claim the contract card for points, and also get to enjoy a one-time benefit as specified on the contract. If another player happens to be collecting resources hoping to complete that same contract, this is bad news for him. The materials he has collected may not be useful anymore. He can't return them. He can try to use them for another building, but if there is any surplus, he will be penalised. There are plenty of ways to get penalised, and they are all related to wastage. If you explore a resource location and make resources available, and if not all of them are used up by game end, you will be penalised for wasting natural resources. If you stockpile resources at your building site and fail to complete the building in time, you will be penalised for wasting too. There's an environmental conservation message here.

The game ends after a player completes his fifth building. Everyone else gets one more turn. You score points for the building contracts, for resource locations you have explored, and for mist covered areas you have mapped.

Players' buildings are not only different in colour, they are also of completely different shapes, which is nice. Unnecessary, but very nice. Space Cowboys, the publisher, knows what they are doing.

You can see that some spaces are covered with plain green grassland tiles. These are previously mist covered spaces which have now been mapped. The grassland tiles represent a transport network.

This is a player board. Again, very nicely done. The central area with a white background lists all action types you can perform. You have 2 action points per turn. Most actions require 1 action point. Only mapping misty forests requires 2 action points.

This is how your player board should be set up at the start of a game. This is for a 4-player game. You have 4 stacks of 3 grassland tiles each. Every time you map a misty space, you place one of your grassland tiles onto the board. You earn 2VP for every stack you deplete. You only have two explorers whom you can send out to explore resource locations. When you send one out, he stays on the board until all resources at that location are collected. Those half-hex tiles are your construction sites. You use such a tile to claim half a ruin space for construction. Those five on the right are your buildings, waiting to be constructed.

When setting up the board, the round resource tokens are randomly placed. They determine what resources are available where. These round tokens need to be explored by an explorer before the actual resources are placed on the board and made available. The game does start with some resources already available. Their locations are randomly determined too. The black pools and the spaces with monsters are permanently inaccessible. They serve no other purpose than getting in the way. Well, that plus making you happy because the monsters are lovely. The spaces showing scattered wooden planks are the ruins. These are where you build.

On the right the brown player has sent an explorer to explore a resource token, and as a result these stones were placed here, available to all players. To claim a stone, you simply move it from this resource location, through empty grassland spaces, to your own construction site. The delivery path is blocked by other resource locations not yet exhausted, construction sites, buildings, still mist-covered spaces, and monster spaces.

In a 4-player game, one space allows up to two buildings. The black and brown players are currently sharing a space, each having a construction site on one half of that space.

Construction sites need to be connected to resource locations by empty grassland, so that you can deliver resources to your sites for building. Grassland is your delivery network. In this photo, some buildings are already completed, while some construction sites are still stockpiling resources. At this stage the networks of grassland are still fragmented.

The Play

We did a four-player game - Ivan, Boon Han, Kareem and I. This was the highest player count. Prior to playing I read some comments saying that this was a light Martin Wallace game. Now that I have played it, I disagree. I think people feel it is light because of the artwork. This is by no means a simple game. It is not heavy in rules, but that doesn't mean it is light in strategy. I find there is a delicate balance between cooperation and competition. To be more precise, you are not cooperating; you are using one another. You need to fight for good ruin locations, but if you greedily plonk down many construction sites in an area, denying others, you will find that you are discouraging them from doing any exploration in the area, be it to unlock resources or to clear mist away. You'll end up having to do all the work by yourself. The key in this game is to create win-win situations. You want to create mutually beneficial relationships - offers others can't refuse. When you explore a resource location, sometimes it's because you need that resource type yourself. Sometimes it's because you predict others will need it and will exhaust it quickly. In Via Nebula the players collectively create and evolve the supply-and-demand ecology. When demand is higher than supply, you are fighting to grab resources before they run out and someone needs to unlock more. When supply is higher than demand, the players sitting on unwanted resources need to find ways to increase demand. Else their explorers will be stuck for a long time, maybe even till game end.

This is a very spatial game, since it is very much about building a transport network. As we played, we joked that this game was a cute version of Age of Steam. Most of the time you get to perform two actions on your turn. This is a mechanism often seen in Martin Wallace's games, and here it is again used most cleverly. Quite often players get into a blink-and-you-lose situation. E.g. two players need a mist space explored, so that they can gain access to a resource location, in order to collect a resource and then complete a building. However neither is willing to spend that one action to explore the mist space. If A does it, he will have only one more action, which he can only use to collect a resource. When B's turn comes, he can first collect a resource and then complete the building, ahead of A. You need to watch your opponents!

In the early game, when the transportation network is fragmented, construction sites can only rely on nearby resource locations. As the game progresses, more and more mist spaces will be cleared, and the initially fragmented networks will join to become larger and larger networks. Construction sites will have more and more options. There is a feeling of escalation and acceleration. I can easily imagine this game having a much more serious setting. This is a game of economy and logistics.

Our scores were close. Most points were from completing buildings. Some were from exploring resource locations, some from exploring mist spaces. As long as no one makes any major blunder, the scores will be close. Building VP's don't vary greatly. Players don't have very different overarching strategies. Some may emphasise certains areas slightly more than others, but generally you just try to make good tactical moves and build efficiently. Sometimes you need to score small tactical victories when you find opportunities to screw an opponent. This was what Kareem did to me. He fulfilled a contract which I was working on. At the time I thought he was working towards another contract, and had no urgency in completing the building I was working on. I was forced to switch to another contract, and I had to waste a resource which the new contract didn't need. At game end, I lost to him because of this. Aaarrggh! Don't trust the cute graphics. This game can be nasty!

I had initially expected the game would end with many penalties being dished out, due to resources still left standing at resource locations, and resources still left at unfinished buildings. However it turned out that most of us managed to complete all our buildings, and all the resource locations were exhausted. I guess we were all pretty decent planners. After a player completes his last building, everyone else still has one more turn, which consists of two actions. As long as you are not too far behind, you will be able to finish all your buildings, or at least plan to not have any unused materials at a construction site.

The white and green construction sites in the foreground each have one resource, wood and pig respectively. At this moment these sites are only connected to one resource location, the wood resource location just behind them, owned by the white player. Normally, the green player should not have been able to deliver a pig to his construction site. In this case, it is because the green player has delivered a wood to his site, and then used the power from another building to transform that wood to a pig.

There are two empty spaces on the right with no grassland tile. They used to be resource locations, but the resources have been depleted. So they are now considered empty grassland too, and they form part of the transport network. There is no need to place grassland tiles.

This is near game end. If you look carefully, you will see that the construction sites at the bottom right are connected all the way to the pig resource location at the top left. The transport network covers almost the whole board now.

The Thoughts

Via Nebula is a mid-weight strategy game. It's an economic game. It's a train game with no trains. Seeing a Martin Wallace game presented this way is refreshing. If this helps introduce new players to his designs and his style of games, it can only be a good thing. If I compare Via Nebula with his other games, it isn't really of the same category as strategy games like Brass, A Few Acres of Snow or Automobile. Via Nebula is less complex, but it still has decent strategy. It fills a different need compared to these heavyweights. It still gives you mental sparring with your opponents. It requires careful calculation and clever tactical manoeuvres. You have to be cunning and ruthless. You need to create incentives to lure opponents into doing what you want them to do. Often they will do the same, and you will take the offer because you know ultimately it's good for you too. The cute artwork is an anesthetic. It makes you think the game is light when it is not. Even after playing it, you still feel it is light. But it's not. That's the power of good artwork.

Saturday 20 August 2016

concise reference sheets updated

It has been a long time since I last uploaded any new concise reference sheet. Here are the games that I have made reference sheets for since the previous version.

  1. 51st State (updated)
  2. 7 Wonders: Duel
  3. A Few Acres of Snow (updated)
  4. Alchemists
  5. Ark
  6. Camel Up
  7. Cheaty Mages
  8. Coconuts
  9. Epic: The Card Game
  10. Giants (corrected)
  11. Glory to Rome
  12. Hoity Toity / Adel Verpflichtet
  13. Meuterer
  14. Poo: The Card Game
  15. Russian Railroads
  16. Saint Petersburg
  17. Ships
  18. Zombie Tower 3D

Download the reference sheets here.

The full list of games can be viewed here. I have 291 games in my collection of concise reference sheets now.

Sunday 14 August 2016

Android: Mainframe

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Android: Mainframe is a game based on the Android universe. It is originally an abstract game published in Germany, called Bauhaus. Players try to form regions on the board by placing walls. When a region is walled up, and it contains the marker or markers of only one player, it is locked and will score points for this player. There is a deck of program cards. A pool of four face-up program cards are maintained throughout the game. On your turn, what you usually do is execute one of these program cards to perform an action, e.g. placing walls, moving a wall, or moving a marker. The game ends when the deck of program cards run out.

Each player plays a different character. Every character has 5 unique program cards, and 3 are randomly drawn for each game. These are powerful, single-use cards which you can execute as your action on your turn. The third and last thing you can choose to do on your turn is to simply place one of your markers on the board. Placing a marker requires wasting the top card of the general draw deck, so the countdown doesn't slow down when you do this.

The square tokens are the player markers. They are two sided. The side showing the face is the default state. The side showing player logo is the locked state. When a region is secured by a player, he turns all his markers inside the region to the locked state. A secured region cannot be altered in any way - markers cannot be moved in or out, walls cannot be touched. In this photo there is already one secured region - the 2x1 region with a purple marker. It is only worth 2 points - the region size of 2 multiplied by the number of tokens, which is 1.

This is the card back of a character-specific program card. Each character in the game has his own set of unique program cards. At the bottom left you can see the default (face) side of the player marker, and on the bottom right the locked side showing the character logo.

These are the generic program cards displayed at the centre of the table. The upper left and lower right cards let a player place walls onto the board in these exact configurations. The upper right card lets a player move one wall. The lower left card lets a player move a player marker, whether his own or an opponent's.

The game shares the same artwork from Android: Netrunner.

The Play

I did a four-player game, which is the higher number of players supported. All four of us were new to the game.

On the right, a large region was about to be created, and everyone wanted to get in. It is not easy to create and monopolise a large region, because it is very easy for others to put down a stake.

Ivan (purple) had completed and claimed the zigzag shaped region, which was a lucrative one. 5 spaces x 2 markers meant 10 points for him. At this point all other secured regions were low valued. Most were forcibly secured by opponents. This is defensive play - by "helping" an opponent secure a region, you are wasting his marker and neutralising a threat at the same time. Would you be better off spending your turn building your own region? Possibly. It depends.

I was red, and was trying to build the region on the left. It didn't take long for others to start barging in.

Later Boon Han (green) swapped one of his markers with mine (red), and the yellow player played one of his unique cards to cut the potentially large region into multiple small regions. I ended up scoring one (1) glorious point for all my efforts.

Ivan (purple) continued to stay in the lead, because of the 10pts he had scored in the early game. He just needed to play conservatively to maintain his lead, scoring small points here and there and preventing others from creating any large region. At this point there were two potentially large regions. I was the only one working on the region on the left. The other large one near the top had all four players fighting.

The large region was later completed. Initially it was not secured due to the presence of markers from multiple players. Boon Han (green) played one of his unique program cards and managed to move the markers of all his competitors out of the region. This allowed him to secure the region with three markers present. 7 spaces x 3 markers meant a whopping 21pts! What a twist! He overtook Ivan and went on to win the game.

The Thoughts

Android: Mainframe didn't give me a good first impression. It is difficult to do long-term planning. You are limited to what program cards are available when your turn comes around again. The card pool can change dramatically, especially in a four-player game. The board situation can also change dramatically. You may have a perfect plan in mind, but more often than not the moment you start executing Step 1, your opponents' actions will already completely mess up your plan. So the game becomes a very tactical one of trying to spot opportunities that come up at the start of your turn. There is little incentive to plan far ahead, because the game situation is so volatile. In this game it is very easy to attack and to interfere with your opponents, and hard to defend your own positions. I felt helpless when playing. It was frustrating. It is difficult to make large regions, because your opponents will gang up on you if they know what they're doing. Most of the time you can only hope to score small victories, and hope they will be enough as they add up.

The card deck is the countdown timer. Players feel time pressure as it dwindles. You need to watch the deck closely. If time runs out before you can complete your perfect, huge region, all your hard work will be in vain.

It helps if you are familiar with the cards in the deck. If a certain type has appeared many times, you know you won't get many or even any from then on. If a certain type hasn't appeared, you can expect many more to come.

The big twist near the end of our game changed my mind about Android: Mainframe somewhat. I appreciated better the importance of the 3 unique program cards. You draw these at the start of the game, and they are your long-term strategy, in this sea of short-term considerations and tactical moves. These cards are powerful, and you should try to position yourself to be able to make use of them. This is easier said than done. Of my own three unique cards, I never managed to use two of them, and the one I did use was not all that effective. However if you manage to pull off a great move, it is exhilarating. You need to know your character and your opponents' characters. This helps you plan your killer move, and prevent others from pulling theirs off. It's like football (soccer) - you may not score all that often, but when you do, it feels wonderful. It's also like fishing. You have a long boring wait where you don't feel like you're making any progress, but when (or if, to be more precise) you get a nice catch, it's a joyous moment.

Overall, Android: Mainframe is not a game I'm eager to play, because I feel I have little control. I'm mostly waiting for my turn to come again, and hoping at that point a good opportunity will come up. I don't bother to analyse the board situation and the available program cards on others' turns, because by the time my turn comes, any analysis I have done might be useless. I think the game is best played briskly and lightly. Our game went slowly, and that contributed to my negative impression. The player count may be a factor too. It will be less chaotic with fewer players, and I might have enjoyed it better that way.

Saturday 6 August 2016

boardgaming in photos: Take 6, Loopin' Louie

22 Jul 2016. These photos were taken at a work event which I organised. They were not taken by me. They were taken by a few colleagues with much better photography and photo-editing skills. Thus the games are more photogenic that in my usual photos. This card is from Take 6, a.k.a. 6 Nimmt. There are many versions of this classic card game. My copy is Category 5, an older English edition published in the US which is now out-of-print. It doesn't have the bull heads like in the original German edition. The penalty points are depicted as boring black squares, which mean something related to hurricanes.

The work event was run as a full-day team competition, with everyone divided into four teams. I took the opportunity to inject some games. When I did Category 5, I further split the teams into halves, so we had eight sub-teams playing the game like an 8-player game.

In each round in Category 5, the players simultaneously pick a card from their hands to play (they start the game with 10 cards). Once everyone has decided, the selected cards are revealed at the same time.

The revealed cards are then added to the four rows at the centre of the table, following specific rules. When a 6th card is about to be added to a row, instead of placing it at the 6th position, the person who played that card must instead claim the first five cards, which come with penalty points. The card being added becomes the new first card for that row. The objective of the game is to gain as few penalty points as possible.

Right from the beginning when you have 10 cards, you need to start planning how to play your hand. You need to consider not only the rows on the table. You must also consider the choices you will have remaining in your hand. As the game progresses, you will have fewer and fewer options, so you need to plan for flexibility in the late game.

Loopin' Louie is a real-time game. The battery-powered Louie rides a plane in circles and tries to knock your hens (the round discs) off the roof of your barn. You have a lever right next to your barn, which you use to deflect Louie's flight path, not just to protect your hens, but also to try to redirect him to attack your opponents, preferably at angles which are difficult if not impossible to defend against.

For Loopin' Louie I arranged 4 preliminary matches and 1 final match. The four teams each sent a representative for each of the four preliminary matches. Only the winners of the preliminary matches get to advance to the final match. I introduced some variant rules. The first preliminary match was played normally. From the second game onwards, everyone started with 2 hens instead of 3. I didn't want the activity to drag, so this helped. For the second game, contestants must use their left hands. I think we happened to have a left-handed contestant (boos from the other teams), but I don't remember whether he won that match. For the third match, each contestant needed an assistant. The contestant himself must close his eyes. The assistant was responsible for telling him when to press the lever. The fourth match was also played with eyes closed, but this time the assistant couldn't even speak. He must instead tap the back of the contestant to signal to him to strike.

For the final match I returned to the normal rules. Not all teams had reps at the final match, since some had lost all reps in the prelim round. By the time we were down to two contestants, they happened to be from the same team. They kept going on and on, until someone teased them - Why are you fighting so hard? You are bros from the same team anyway! As the room erupted in laughter, one of them got distracted and quickly lost.

Loopin' Louie is a children's game which adults can get very absorbed in.