Friday 18 November 2016

boardgaming in photos: Maori, 7 Wonders: Duel, Patchwork on iOS

30 Oct 2016. I taught the children Maori, a light strategy game that works very well as a family game. You compete to grab tiles from the 4x4 tile display at the centre of the table to place onto your personal board. Tiles have various functions, and most of the time they help you score points. The game ends after one player fills up his board.

Shee Yun (11) plays with a strategic mind. She fights for huts, because huts double the value of trees. Chen Rui (9) is obsessed with the flower circles. Some tiles have semicircles of flowers. If you can grab a pair and arrange them to form a complete flower circle, you score 10pts. That's a lot, but it's not easy to do.

On your turn you must move the boat, which travels around the perimeter of the 4x4 display. Your choice of tiles is limited to those in the column where the boat rests.

I have a complete flower circle at the top left corner.

When you place tiles on your board, trees must be aligned such that they are upright. So this is different from Carcassonne. You can't orient the tiles any way you want. Some tiles do not have trees. These give you more flexibility.

The game comes with three variants, and some of them can be mixed and matched. Adults can use the variant rules, which make the game more challenging, when playing with children. It's a good way to handicap the adults and also make the game more interesting for them.

I played 7 Wonders: Duel with Michelle again, and lost again, this time rather spectacularly. This time I experienced first hand the power of the extra turn. I had read about this in game reviews, but had not seen it in person. In this game I didn't place close attention to the wonder powers, and during the wonder selection phase, Michelle collected three wonders which had the extra turn bonus, while I collected just one. On one of her turns, she managed to complete three wonders one after another due to the extra turn bonuses. I could only stare in disbelief. This photo shows her empire. She had completed all four wonders. She won a science victory. She had collected all six types of science icons. I think even if she hadn't won a science victory, she would have outscored me. I was completely owned.

This was my kingdom. I only managed to complete one wonder, the Statue of Zeus at the top left.

The game ended in early Age III (purple card backs).

This is the iOS version of Patchwork. Quite decent.

Michelle beat me the first time I taught her to play. Playing the digital version saves much time because income calculation and score calculation are all automated.

Michelle's quilt is on the left. Mine on the right.

Saturday 12 November 2016


I rarely mention my work at this blog. I currently work at a game company. We don't make boardgames though. We make mobile games. I do play mobile games, but the variety that I play for leisure is much less than the variety of boardgames I play. One of the mobile games I have been working on has just been released. It is a variant of Big 2 or Cho Dai Dee. The name of the game is Catch2, and it is now available only for Android devices. If you have an Android device, do try it out, and I'd greatly appreciate any feedback.

Terraforming Mars

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Terraforming Mars was one of the hottest games at the 2016 Essen game fair. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to play it soon after the fair. In this game every player is a company tasked to terraform Mars. Each company has different strengths and you should play to your strengths. The terraforming exercise consists of three main aspects - increasing the surface temperature, increasing the oxygen level of the atmosphere, and creating oceans. The progress of all three are all tracked on the game board. Once all three aspects reach their respective targets, the game ends. You count scores to determine who wins.

The temperature track is on the left. The curved track at the bottom is the oxygen track. That stack of blue tiles at the lower left is the oceans. When all of them are placed on Mars, the ocean project completes. The track around the edges is both the income track and the score track. When you contribute towards one of the three main projects, you increase both your income (for each round) and your score (at game end).

This is one of the companies. The company card specifies its starting capital and unique strengths. This particular company starts the game producing more plants (two green squares inside the brown rectangle) and also starts with three extra plants in stock (three green squares). Also it needs seven instead of eight plants to create a forest.

The most important element of the game is the cards. 200+ unique cards. Playing cards let you perform all sorts of actions. Some cards are single-use, some have permanent effects, some are a mix. It costs money to play a card, so you can't play them nilly-willy. Also some have prerequisites, e.g. the temperature must be at most X, or the oxygen level must be at least Y. So some cards can't be played too early, and some must be played before it is too late. You start the game by drawing 10 cards. You need to decide which ones to buy using your starting capital and which to discard. After that, you draw 4 cards every round, and in a similar manner you need to decide which to buy. You can't afford to buy everything, because if you do that you won't have enough money to actually play them, or you will have to wait too long to save enough money to play them. The key is to select a good combination of cards to use, cards that have synergy and match your long-term strategy. Sometimes you will find there are too many cards you like. You may feel like deciding which child to shoot because you know you can't have them all.

The cost and prerequisites are at the top left. On the top right are icons indicating card type. Some of these icons allow you to pay for the card using resources, some affect other cards you have played or will play in future. Cards with a green title banner are single-use, while those with blue banners have permanent effects. The Arctic Algae card lets you gain two plants every time anyone creates an ocean (icons in upper section). This is a permanent effect. You also gain one plant when you play the card (icon in lower section). This is the one-time effect. Once you get familiar with the iconography, you'll be able to tell what a card does at a glance. Before that happens, there is text which describes the card powers. The cards are quite functional.

This is the player board which keeps track of your production capacity and resources on hand. The six resource types, starting from the top left, are money, steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat. The section with the brown background indicates your production capacity, i.e. how much you produce every round. The gold, silver and bronze cubes indicate how much of each resource you have. Gold means ten, silver five and bronze one. So at this moment I have $15 and 4 plants. When playing a card related to steel or titanium, you can pay in steel or titanium respectively, each unit being equivalent to $2 or $3. Every 8 plants can be used to create a forest. Every 8 units of heat can increase the surface temperature once. Any unused energy is converted to heat at the end of a round.

I find the player board rather ugly, albeit functional enough, but I am fond of these metallic coloured cubes.

One round consists of players taking turns to perform up to two actions, until everyone passes. Once you pass, you take no more actions in that round. Other than playing a card, creating a forest and increasing the temperature as mentioned above, one more important action you can do is to activate an end-game bonus. There are many such bonuses, but there is a limited number than can be activated. Activating one costs money, and the cost increases if you do it late. Bonuses victory points come from fulfilling a certain criteria (e.g. having created a certain number of forests), or having the most of something (e.g. having the most steel and titanium). So it is not just a matter of activating a bonus, you also need to work towards the criteria.

Some actions let you place tiles on Mars. These tiles are your properties and are marked with cubes of your colour. The green tiles are forests, grey tiles are cities, brown tiles are special buildings. Spaces on Mars with blue borders are reserved for oceans. There is one capital city space which is reserved specifically for placing the capital city. Other spaces can be used for cities, forests and special buildings. Many spaces have small icons. These are rewards you get when covering the space with a tile. Rewards include plants, steel and cards.

The Play

I did a full 5-player game with Kareem, Jeff, Ainul and Dith. I always prefer playing with green. One of my two starting company options happened to be a forestation company. I gladly selected that. Among the other ten cards I drew, there were some which fit well with the forestation company, even though they were not immediately usable. I feel that the companies are all quite different, and thus don't have very direct competition. Naturally you want to play to your strengths, so companies will generally improve themselves (i.e. "build their engines") in different ways, and will have different strategic directions. In our game, I was the only forestation guy. However, there are still quite a few smaller ways that companies compete in. Tile placement is a source of competition. Sometimes you race to claim the best spots. You want to avoid helping others when you place tiles, and at the same time you try to benefit from tiles others have placed or will place. E.g. you earn money for placing tiles next to oceans, your cities earn 1VP per adjacent forest. The end-game bonuses are also a source of competition, the nature being similar to multiple races which force you to prioritise. There are not many ways you can directly hurt your opponents, but uncharacteristically the one way in which you can do so has no way to defend against. Some cards let you force an opponent to discard a certain amount of one resource type. There is no defense, other than not having said resource in a large amount. I can imagine players disliking such cards. I myself was a victim to them in our game. However overall I think they are fine. I see them as a balancing tool. If players play rationally, these cards will be used to rein in a leading player. When Kareem taught us the game, he explicitly warned us not to stockpile any resource too much, lest we become victims to such cards. Playing such cards is not free. The one doing the hurting has to pay cash to play the card.

The joy I get from Terraforming Mars is similar to that of Race for the Galaxy. It is about creating a combination of cards that work well together. In our game, some of the cards I chose at the start of the game laid the foundation for a big move near the end of the game. With the starting cards I already needed to lay out my strategic plan, and every round as I drew more cards, I needed to see which would fit into my master plan, and whether I needed to make adjustments to my plan. It was very satisfying to see everything fall into place - cards that worked well in the early game, mid game and end game, all being played at the right times. I needed to manage my cash flow to make sure I could play the right cards at the right time. I needed to make difficult decisions when I drew more good cards than I could afford to play in a reasonable amount of time.

I find the game immersive, because the flavour text, the setting and the in-game actions jive. E.g. one card allows me to create two oceans at one go, but the prerequisite is the temperature must not be below zero Celcius. That feels logical and adds a lot to the experience.

Ultimately you want to help progress the three terraforming projects - temperature, oxygen and oceans. Many actions let you augment the ability of your company, but your end goal is still contributing to the terraforming effort. It is not just about VP at game end, it is also your regular income from round to round. You need more money to do more things.

I arrange my hand according to prerequisites, which are at the top left corners. The first card requires three oceans to be on the map. The next three require the surface temperature to be beyond specific levels. The last two require oxygen to be beyond specific levels.

In our game only three players spent more effort on placing tiles on the board - Kareem (red), Jeff (yellow) and I (green). There are benefits in placing tiles. Forests are worth 1VP each. Cities score 1VP per adjacent forest. Owning tiles may help you score bonus points at game end.

This was near game end. All ocean tiles had been placed. The temperature was three steps away from the target. Oxygen was only one step away. Once a terraforming target is achieved, you won't earn VP's or increase your income for performing the corresponding terraforming action anymore. In one particular round, there were only three ocean tiles left to be played, and I had two cards in hand that would let me place three tiles in total. I was worried someone else might beat me to the ocean tiles, and I hurriedly played them. In fact at the time no one else had ocean-making cards. These cards are uncommon. I shouldn't have rushed. At the time there were other players with enough plants to create forests, so I should have been focusing on creating forests. Plants are open information. I should have paid attention to that. It was a confirmed threat, when oceans was an unknown. So others beat me to planting forests, which maxed out the oxygen level, and by the time I planted my forests, I missed out on the VP's and the income increase I could have had.

This was game end. Both oxygen and temperature were at the target levels now. On the right, I (green) had created a bend when I planted my forests, which proved to be poor play. I created a lucrative location for a city, and Kareem (red) grabbed the opportunity to place his city. My forest placement had given him 1VP more, and when the game ended, he won the game, beating me by precisely 1VP. Aaaarrgghh!

The Thoughts

Terraforming Mars is currently very popular. I tend to have reservations when playing popular games, because lately I find that games popular among gamers don't click as well for me, e.g. Mombasa. Terraforming Mars turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I quite enjoyed it. I like the details on the cards. The many actions all feel like they are indeed about terraforming. A lot of this is just flavour text and pictures, but they convince me. This game does not feel like just another Eurogame. I feel I'm playing something unique.

Ivan and Jason had already played quite a few times, and didn't join our game. They were a little overdosed and needed to play something else. One thing they said about the game was it felt like a multiplayer solitaire game. Indeed throughout most of the game you are developing your own company and you rarely directly damage your opponents. There is some competition and manoeuvring in the tile placement, and also in the various races for the bonus points, but there is little direct confrontation. Everyone works on assembling and executing his own combo of cards. This is a development game. It accelerates towards the end because companies will get stronger over time and will be able to do more and more. I like the sense of achievement in eventually completing the terraforming of Mars. It is satisfying to put together all the pieces and time when to play which card to eventually form an effective whole. This is not a game of individually developing your own little kingdom. The capability you build for your company is used for jointly transforming the red planet, together with your competitors.

I think the game will have decent replayability, because there is much variety in the companies and also the cards. Even if playing the same company, your fate and strategy will be different depending on what cards your draw, and when you draw which ones. The map is static, but I think that's a good thing, because that makes the game feel authentic and not generic. Other than the strategic view you need in developing your company and focusing on specific areas to score points, there are also many tactical decisions along the way. The competition on the map is mostly tactical in nature. You should also watch out for opportunities and risks that come up during play. I find Terraforming Mars an immersive and rich game.

Friday 4 November 2016

Don't Mess With Cthulhu / Time Bomb

Plays: 6Px11.

The Game

Don't Mess With Cthulhu is a secret identity team game, in the same vein as BANG, The Resistance and The Message: Emissary Crisis. It is a social deduction game, in which you need to deceive and outguess your opponents. The game supports 4 to 6 players. I've only played the 6-player game, so I will describe how it works based on the 6-player game.

There are 4 investigators and 2 cultists. Their identities are kept secret until the end of the game. The aim of the investigators is to prevent Cthulhu from coming to the world by finding all six elder signs to seal off the portal. They need to do this within four rounds. The cultists win by making sure the investigators fail, or by directly summoning Cthulhu to this world.

Investigator on the left, cultist on the right.

You have a deck of 30 cards, most of which are useless rocks. Six of them are rocks with elder signs, and one single card is Cthulhu itself. If the Cthulhu card is revealed at any time during the game, Cthulhu comes and the investigators immediately lose. At the start of a round, all unrevealed cards are shuffled and dealt out evenly to every player. You look at your cards, then shuffle them and lay them out before you. So you know how many cards of each type you have, but you don't know exactly which is which. The start player picks another player and reveals one of his cards. This player then becomes the active player and must reveal one card of another player (which may be the first player). This continues until six cards are revealed. If the game has not ended, all unrevealed cards are retrieved and reshuffled, and they will be used for the next round. This continues until the end of Round 4. If the investigators have not found all six elder signs by then, they lose and the cultists win.

The two cards on the left are the elder signs. The third card is a rock. The Cthulhu tokens on the right are used in the variant game. If you feel a single game is too short, you can play the campaign mode. Every time a game ends, the losers take one Cthulhu token each. Once a player collects three tokens, the campaign ends, and the player(s) with the fewest tokens win.

The Play

The rules are very simple, but when we started the game, we weren't sure what to say to one another. We made rather vague statements, which were not very helpful. Eventually we settled into the practice of declaring how many elder signs we had, one after another. I wonder whether this is normal and what other norms other game groups settle into. Declaring the number of elder signs gave the investigators some leverage to work out who the cultists were. It also gave the cultists an opportunity to lie and mislead. It is best for the cultists if they can remain unrecognised. If the investigators know who the good guys are, it is much easier for them to find the elder signs. They know who they can trust and who not to trust. In this game you can't reveal your own cards, so you are forced to listen to information provided by others and you must make your own judgement on who is trustworthy.

One stroke of genius is you only know your own card distribution but not their exact position. I can tell everyone four of my five cards are elder signs, but if the person who reveals one of my cards finds a stone, my credibility will go down the drain. A cultist can make use of this game element. If he doesn't have any elder sign, he can still claim that he does, hoping to waste the investigators' actions. When the investigators reveal a stone, he can simply say it is bad luck. In fact he should convince them to try again because the odds of finding the real elder sign have increased.

The Cthulhu card is another very clever element. It's a time bomb that can go off anytime. The original Japanese version of the game was actually called Time Bomb, and the time bomb setting fits the game mechanisms much better. Due to this instant lose condition, investigators will always have some doubt before revealing a card. What if that player is lying and I'm about to reveal Cthulhu itself? Fear leads to doubt and distrust. No matter how many elder signs have been collected, as long as the last one is not yet found, the investigators can suffer a sudden loss. The investigators can't help being at least a little paranoid.

The game naturally escalates towards a climax. As more and more cards are revealed, the likelihood of finding Cthulhu increases. The difficulty of finding elder signs also increases. The number of rounds is a countdown timer. For the investigators, it is a race against time to seal the portal. They lose if they fail. So there is a mounting sense of doom that they may not make it in time.

If you are a cultist, you don't need to lie all the time. It is better to stay low key, and only lie at the crucial moment. Go for the long haul. There was one game in which I was completely fooled by Ivan. He played investigator very convincingly for most of the game, and I was absolutely sure both he and Jason were real investigators. I was one myself. I measured the statements made by others against those made by Ivan and Jason. Any inconsistencies made me suspicious. I was very surprised when the cultists won and Ivan was one of them.

In another game, Jason announced very early that he had Cthulhu among his cards. I was an investigator, and I had Cthulhu among my cards. So he was clearly lying and he must be a cultist. I quickly called him out and asked everyone to be wary of him. The investigator team eventually won that game. After the game, Jason explained that he had lied so blatantly because he wanted to lure the real investigator with the Cthulhu card, and then accuse him of lying. Unfortunately for him his acting was not convincing enough and he ended up exposing himself. I guess such a strategy is too risky.

In Don't Mess With Cthulhu you do need to act and to lie well, but I think it is easier than in Templar Intrigue. In Templar Intrigue, if you happen to be a regular Templar Knight, you need to be proactive and claim that you are the Traitor, and that you know who the real Templar Grandmaster is. You need to think fast and collaborate with your fellow teammates in order to confuse the King. In Don't Mess With Cthulhu, playing cultist is not as difficult. Sometimes you can be honest to buy trust. It's an investment. After all, the time pressure is on the investigators. They need to find all elder signs before time runs out. Also, as long as they have not found all, there is always the fear of sudden death hanging over them - the moment Cthulhu is revealed, you win.

One thing I like about Don't Mess With Cthulhu is how unrevealed cards are reshuffled and dealt out all over again at the start of every round. The situation changes from round to round, creating both opportunities and risks, and allowing interesting situations to arise. You get different cards every round, and you can be making different statements every round.

The first time I played, I did three games back-to-back. I experienced playing both investigator and cultist, and both factions have won. Playing investigator is more straightforward. There is less need to lie. Playing cultist is trickier. You need to pick the right time and the right lies.

Ainul, Ivan, Jason, Dith. You get all sorts of expressions in this game.

We organised our cards this way. The upper row are cards revealed in the current round. The lower row are cards revealed in all previous rounds. The elder signs need to be arranged neatly so that we can keep count. The rocks from previous rounds are all dumped in a pile since there is no need to keep count of them anymore.

I found the game very interesting and decided to make a copy using the original theme (time bomb) to teach my colleagues. The game has only 37 cards so it's quick. When playing with my colleagues, quite a few funny situations came up. In one game, Edwin was a cultist and he had declared that he had no elder signs. I was an investigator, and when my turn came, there was no remaining clue that helped me pick a player to reveal his card. I was a little suspicious of Edwin at the time, and since I had nothing better to do, I decided to test whether he was honest. The very card I revealed was an elder sign! He still had five cards unrevealed, and he only had one elder sign among them. He turned red with embarrassment at being caught red handed. In another game, both Xiaozhu and Ruby claimed that they had elder signs, so they spent the round revealing each other's cards, going back and forth between them. Xiaozhu claimed that he had two elder signs, but as Ruby revealed card after card, they all turned out to be rocks. Things became very awkward when even the third card was a rock. Xiaozhu had only two cards remaining, and it was not easy for him to convince us that those two were elder signs. We all laughed. He looked desperate and helpless. The round was ending, and we had no more turns to prove whether he had been truthful. Eventually he turned out to be a genuine investigator. It was Ruby who turned out to be a cultist. She was very lucky (from a cultist perspective) to have not picked any of his elder signs.

My colleagues enjoyed playing cultist more. They were mostly hoping to get the cultist identity card. Playing cultist is more thrilling and challenging, and also more satisfying if you win.

The Thoughts

Don't Mess With Cthulhu is a party game. It's easy to teach and it works well with non-gamers. The rules themselves are simple, much more so than BANG or The Message: Emissary Crisis, but the tactics and psychology are not simplistic by any means. There is some meat to this little game. There is paranoia, suspense and deceit. You do need to think a little about how to lie, and how to identify your enemies. The game design is compact and clever. The game can work as a filler for regular gamers, be it entree or dessert. A game can be completed in 15 minutes.