Sunday 29 January 2017

Ponzi Scheme

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Ponzi Scheme is designed by Taiwanese designer Jesse Li. Around the Essen 2016 period I had come across some positive reviews, but I was never particularly interested to try it. The subject matter is depressing, and the box cover does not inspire confidence. I got to try it at recently. I think it was Ivan who brought it. I had a pleasant surprise.

The premise of the game is you are all fraudsters running scams, offering too-good-to-be-true investment schemes to raise money to buy companies. The schemes you run are all not sustainable because the interest being promised is impossibly high. You are just trying to raise money to buy up companies, from the market as well as from one another via hostile takeovers. Sooner or later, someone will be unable to pay the interest due, and the schemes will break down. That person goes bankrupt and loses automatically. The rest then compare points. Most points will come from the portfolio of companies you own. Some will come from cash in hand, and some from luxury goods bought during the game.

There are always 9 investment schemes on the board, divided into three rows, and sorted in ascending order. The large number on each scheme card indicates how much cash you will receive when you choose to run the scheme. The card also tells you how frequently you need to pay interest in future, and how much to pay. There is a meaning to how the schemes are divided into three rows. When you choose to run a scheme from the first row, you must claim your first company in one of the four industries. That means if you already own companies in all industries, you can't run any scheme from the first row. Similarly, to run a scheme from the second row, you must at the same time claim your second company in one of the four industries. That means the prerequisite is owning exactly one company in one of the industries. The third row works the same way. If you want to buy the fourth or fifth company in a particular industry, you can't do so via starting an investment scheme. You will have to do so via hostile takeovers.

To buy a company from another player, you yourself must have a company in the same industry. On your turn, you specify an opponent and a company, then put the amount you are willing to pay into a leather folder. You pass the folder to the company owner, offering to buy his company. Now he has two options. Either accept the money and give his company to you, or counterattack by paying you the same amount and then taking your company instead. He puts that amount of money into the folder, and returns the folder to you together with your money. You only have one chance to set the price. There is no back-and-forth bargaining. Also, the transaction amount is kept secret from all other players.

Ivan, Sinbad, Allen. That long black folder in Sinbad's hands in the folder used during hostile takeovers. Everyone has a player screen to keep his cash secret. There are ways to estimate how much money your opponents have. Consider whether they have recently launched any new scheme, whether they have recently paid any big amount of interest, whether they have just bought another company, or received money due to their companies being bought.

The four stacks of tiles in the foreground are the companies in the four industries - media, agriculture, transportation and properties.

Some of the investment scheme cards have bear icons (see the bottom three). When there are five such cards on the board, the market will crash, and during that round everyone must pay interest not only for the current round but also for the next. Market crashes are dangerous. However that does not necessary mean everyone will try to stop them. If you happen to be in good shape, it might be a good time to let someone go bankrupt so that you can win the game.

The large tiles on the right are the luxury items. The game starts with four, and one of them has already been bought. The large numbers are the costs, and the small numbers the point values. Point values range from 1 to 4.

This hexagonal rondel is an important tool. The red arrow indicates the current round, and the numbers indicate future rounds. Whenever you launch a scheme, you place the scheme card next to the sector of the future round when you expect to make the first interest payment. The rondel is turned every round, and each time the red arrow points to one or more scheme cards, it is time for you to pay interest.

The Play

There are two main dimensions in Ponzi Scheme you need to manage - staying alive (ha ha ha ha...), and competing for companies. Let's talk about acquiring companies first, since that's how you score points. There are quite a few tactics involved. Even from the start when you are claiming your first companies, you are already setting yourself up to compete with the players who have invested in the same industries, and isolating yourself from those who are not yet in the same industries. If many players have vested interests in an industry, there will be more competition, but also more opportunities. If few have invested in an industry, the opposite is true. There are pros and cons in both cases. Hostile takeovers are crucial to winning. Attack at the right time, and you may catch your opponent with his pants down - not having enough cash to counterattack, or not having enough cash to dare counterattack. Miscalculate your opponent's funds, or his appetite for risk-taking, and you will find yourself losing a company to him instead. Sometimes a hostile takeover is merely a disguise for selling your own company at a good price. Set a price that your opponent can't refuse, and you'll secure much needed funds while giving away a company that you are not keen about in the first place. Hostile takeovers are very much about reading your opponents. You need to have a good guess about how much money they have left, and how highly they value a certain company. You need to observe their interest payment cycle. If a big interest payment is coming up, they are probably desperate for some cash to stay afloat.

The second main dimension is to not be the first to bankrupt. Everyone is on a slippery slope, which will only get steeper and steeper. You can be bold and reckless, but you don't want to be the first to crash and burn. Every time you run a new scheme, you are getting cash to help keep you alive and buy more companies. However you are also committed to even more interest payments, accelerating the countdown of your personal time bomb. It is quite scary. Everyone is waiting and hoping for someone else to die first. When picking investment schemes to run, sometimes you'd rather pick one with a small up-front gain and a longer repayment period or smaller repayment amount. Some other times you want to pick a scheme that gets you a huge lump sum, even if the payment period is short, and the interest amount high. Sometimes you make the decision based on your long-term strategy. Sometimes you decide out of desperation. Deciding the right type of scheme to run is a big part of Ponzi Scheme.

One needs to think hard when initiating a hostile takeover. If you do intend to buy the company, you need to set a price which your target cannot afford to pay, or is not willing to pay. If you actually hope your target will buy your company instead, the price you set must be both attractive and affordable.

In the game we played, I decided to go all out on media companies. I had five at this point. That is 15 points, which is a lot. The first company of an industry you own is worth 1pt, the second is worth 2pts, and so on.

During our game, there were a few times I was surprised by the result of a hostile takeover. Sometimes I thought the target would counterattack and buy a company from the active player instead, but he didn't and the active player (who was probably intending to sell and not buy) ended up really buying a company. This can be quite bad for the active player. He may have gained some points, but cashflow becomes tighter now.

We paid close attention to the interest payment cycles of our opponents, because you are most vulnerable just before a big payment is due. You need to do all you can to make sure you have enough cash - sell companies, start new schemes, save money. That's when people may try to buy your companies at low prices. Sharks smell blood from 5 kilometres away.

Our game ended earlier than we had expected, and it was all my fault. I made a miscalculation, and ran short of money to pay interest. I thought I still had one round to run a new scheme to earn money. In Ponzi Scheme, changing start player and rotating the rondel is done in the middle of a round. I had subconsciously thought of these as being start-of-round actions, resulting in my fatal mistake. The others were puzzled by my actions in the last round. They could see I had a big repayment due, but I still confidently initiated a hostile takeover, which was successful, and also fatal.

The Thoughts

Ponzi Scheme is a savage game. "Highly interactive" does not do it justice. The game system is already punishing, and unlike Antiquity, you will never claw your way out of the hole. You can only hope someone else dies first. There is a timing element. You want to position yourself to be most successful, except for the player who is going to bankrupt. You try to manipulate the game to end at such an opportune moment. Market crashes are a tool that may help you achieve this. Naturally, the players who don't think they are ready will try to prolong the game. Debt is ever increasing, and pressure ever mounting. The game can be suffocating. Money enters the system when players launch new investment schemes, and leaves the system when interest is paid. During the short time that money is in the players' hands, you need to make the most of it to gobble up companies.

That sinking feeling of an ever increasing debt was what originally deterred me from trying the game. Now that I have played the game, I feel it is but a stage, an erratic timer. It is within its boundaries that you need to learn to survive and compete. I like how tightly money flows, how you need to sense your opponents' weaknesses, and how you need to value how much they are willing to pay. Despite having an axe hanging over your heads, there is still much space for competition. There is no use obsessing about the axe. Avoiding it is only sufficient to not lose, it is not enough if you want to win. You need to be aggressive, just not too aggressive to get yourself bankrupted.

Wednesday 25 January 2017

Happy Lunar New Year

Happy Year of the Rooster!

Sunday 22 January 2017

boardgaming in photos: Carcassonne Hunters and Gatherers, San Juan, Captain Sonar

13 Nov 2016. Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers. It had been a while since I last played. I think it was the first time for the children.

In the original Carcassonne, the farmer scoring is a little complex and difficult to teach. In Hunters and Gatherers, this element is simplified. Instead of needing to count the number of forests (the equivalent of castles) your meadow is connected to, you simply count the number of animals you can hunt. There is no confusion with a forest being connected to multiple meadows. Each animal can only be in one meadow. This is not necessarily better, just easier to teach.

A forest with a gold nugget gives the player who completes it a benefit. This incentivises players to help others complete their forests. When you do this, you get to draw a special tile from a separate deck. These are always better-than-average tiles, and some have special powers. This is something not found in basic Carcassonne. The fishing huts are also a new element. They are scored at game end. You earn points based on the number of fishes in the whole interconnected river network.

In our game we had one humongous meadow right at the centre. Everyone fought over it. In this photo Shee Yun (yellow) was leading.

This was the end of the game. Our central meadow had become even more impressive. Slightly to the left of the centre, you can see the forest fire tile. This tile neutralises all tigers in the meadow. Normally each tiger neutralises a deer. With a forest fire tile, all deers are saved from tigers. Just don't ask me why deers don't fear fires. Near the left edge of the map, you can see a tile with a stonehenge-like structure. That's a shrine. Whoever controls the shrine controls the meadow it is in. Shee Yun was the one who drew the shrine tile, placed a meeple to claim it, and then merged that meadow to the main central meadow. So all our manoeuvring and fighting over the central meadow had been in vain. Shee Yun defeated all of us in one fell swoop.

The score track.

25 Nov 2016. Jason, Allen and I played this 2nd edition of San Juan, the Puerto Rico card game. The 2nd edition has some new cards, and some old cards are modified. It was still fun after all these years. I enjoyed the new cards. I am a big fan of Race for the Galaxy, which is inspired by Puerto Rico and shares many mechanisms with San Juan. However I've never felt San Juan unnecessary. I own both, just that my San Juan is the first edition.. San Juan is more brisk, but still quite strategic. Race for the Galaxy is richer, more complex, but it can be intimidating.

13 Jan 2017. I brought Captain Sonar to, so this time I played with gamers instead of non-gamers. We did two games. I sat out the first one since we had exactly 8 other players. It was interesting to watch them play. I felt nervous for them. Sim (left) and Jeff (right) were the radio operators. Both made mistakes when tracking the enemy submarine's path, so I knew it would take a while for them to locate each other. Eventually it was Jeff who managed to narrow down the right position first. He knew he made some missteps, so he used the path he traced as just a rough estimation. His team used the drone and sonar to help him better determine the enemy position. Eventually his team won.

Jason was the only other player who had played Captain Sonar, but prior to this he played the turn-based version, which I have never tried (and have little interest in trying). He said that with no time limit, they considered and planned many things in detail. Before the captain decided where to move, they made sure the resulting route could fit into as many positions on the board as possible, so that the enemy radio operator could not easily narrow down the possibilities. In a real-time game, there is no such luxury. Having heard Jason's description, I am even more convinced that I should not do the turn-based version.

It turned out that gamers enjoy the game very much too. Success!

In this photo you can compare how close the radio operators' trackings are to the actual paths made by the captains. Captains' paths at top right and top right, and radio operators' trackings at bottom left and bottom right. Naturally you need to compare top left to bottom right, and top right to bottom left, because the radio operators are tracking the path of the enemy submarine.

I participated in the second game. This time I played radio operator, a role I hadn't tried before. I concentrated hard on the enemy captain, almost to the point of ignoring the rest of my team, but I still managed to make some mistakes. It was not easy! I did manage to do a decent enough job, and so did my counterpart on the other team, who had by then experienced one game and understood how things worked. Both of us managed to work out where each other were. In our first encounter we both scored hits. Due to path constraints we headed off in different directions. The enemy submarine took the opportunity to surface and repair all breakdowns. My team didn't. We had self-inflicted one point of damage due to poor management of the auto-recovery circuits. That minor explosion had allowed us to clear our board of all breakdowns. Don't ask me how we shot ourselves. I had to pay attention to the enemy captain and had no time for chit chat. Both our submarine and the opponent submarine circled around, and were poised for our second encounter. We both had good ideas where the other vessel was. We were both ready to strike once we got in range. Then the enemy used Silence. For a short moment, I couldn't be sure where they were. They could be headed towards us, or headed away from us, and I didn't know how far they had moved. It turned out that they had taken a bold move, speeding right into our range of fire. They shot first, and sank us before we could fire. When both sides know where the other is, speed becomes critical.

I have played four games, and I have lost all of them. I am either jinxed or a lousy player. Now there is only one role I have not tried - the first mate. My fellow gamers commented that one of the responsibilities of the first mate was to be the bridge between captain and engineer. He does sit between them. I have never thought of it that way. I feel this is not quite right though. I think it is better that the captain communicates directly with the engineer, or the engineer proactively warns the captain. I guess the first mate can pay attention to what the captain is doing and what the engineer is doing, and point out any risks, but him being an office boy would probably be inefficient.

Saturday 14 January 2017

Kolejka (the queuing game)

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Kolejka is a game from Poland, set in the final days of the communist era when the economy is falling apart. Shops run out of goods all the time. If you need to buy something, you need to queue on the street to wait for the next delivery. You don't know when there will be one, but you still queue, hoping that there will be enough goods for you to pick one up when the next delivery comes.

Your objective is to collect ten items. Everyone draws an objective card at the start of the game. It specifies exactly what you need to collect. This is open information. You know what everyone else needs. The first player to buy all the things he needs wins the game.

There are five shops and a black market on the board. I played with the expansion, so there is a 7th location - the vodka shop. Each round represents one day. The first thing you do in a day is send your family members out to queue. You decide which of the 7 locations they go to to queue. Naturally when you join a queue you join at the very end of it.

These were the items I needed to buy - four portions of food (chicken), three electrical appliances (iron), two pieces of furniture (chair) and one piece of clothing.

Once all the queuing is done, you determine which shops get deliveries today. Three cards are drawn from the delivery deck to determine which goods will be delivered, and the quantities. There are five goods types in the game, which means there will be at most three shops getting deliveries. In the worst case, there is only one goods type being delivered (i.e. all three cards are of the same type).

These three cards tell you that today these goods are being delivered - two portions of food, four pieces of furniture and two packs of basic necessities.

After goods delivery comes the most important phase of the day - playing cards. Cards have a wide variety of effects. Everyone has the same set of 14 cards, each card within a set being unique. The base game has only 10 cards, 4 are added by the expansion. At the start of a week, which consists of five days (or rounds), 4 cards are randomly removed, and the remaining 10 forms your draw deck for the week. You draw three as your starting hand. In a round you may play up to three cards. At the end of the round you always draw back up to three, unless you have used up your deck. All cards, including the four removed at the beginning of the week, are reshuffled when the week ends. For the following week, you go through the same process.

Some cards affect the queue, e.g. you can let a family member jump to the head of a queue, you can push an opponent two spaces back, or you can have family member cut queue right behind another family member. You can even completely turn a queue around - last becomes first and vice versa. Some cards affect deliveries, e.g. increasing the quantity delivered, delivering an item to a wrong shop, and even shutting down a shop for one day. Naturally this last one will win you many hateful stares. Everyone takes turns playing cards, until everyone passes. Only after this the people in the queues proceed to buy goods, limited to one piece per person. Usually there won't be enough for everyone in the queues, so some will be forced to stay in the queues overnight and hope they get something the next day.

These are some of the cards you get to play.

This section in the foreground is the black market. It works differently from regular shops. If your family member comes here, he doesn't simply pick up an item. He needs to barter for it at a 2:1 rate. The unpainted pawn standing on one of the goods types means that type is discounted. You swap for it at a 1:1 rate. This pawn moves left at the end of every day, so it effectively marks the day of the week.

The other special location is the vodka shop. There are no delivery cards for vodka. All vodka cards not owned by players are stacked here. When you send family members to queue here, you can usually predict whether he will get any. Not always, since your opponents may tinker with the queue, but at least you know exactly how many bottles of vodka are available here. Vodka cannot be used to fulfill your objective directly, since no objective card specifies vodka as a requirement. Vodka has two uses. You can use it at the black market to barter for goods you need. You can also use it to swap places with a speculator who is standing immediately in front of you.

Speculators are the black pawns. They are neutral. In the first round, after every player pawn has been sent out to queue, one speculator will join every queue. Whenever a speculator manages to buy an item, that item is sent to the black market, and the speculator queues up again at the same shop.

The whole game is about sending your family members to queue, and making the best use of your cards to manoeuvre their positions and the goods deliveries. It is a race to collect all the goods you need.

The Play

We did a 5-player game. Other than Sim who taught the game, the rest were all new to the game. The core mechanisms are straightforward, more so that I had expected. The expansion adds a little complexity in how the vodka element works differently, but this should be manageable even for casual gamers. The most impactful aspect of the game is the card play. Turn order is important. I feel it is better to go later, because you can see what others play and respond accordingly. In fact there is one card which simply lets you draw another card. It effectively lets you stall one round, watching what others do.

How effective your card play is does depend somewhat on whether you get the right cards at the right time. Some cards are more powerful than others, but in most cases their uses are situational. Sometimes you try to create the situation to allow you to utilise your card well. Sometimes you hold on to a card until the right moment comes. The card which lets you reverse the order of a queue can be devastating to your opponents. In our game, Allen added three family members to the end of a very long queue, and then played this reversal card to move his three people from last place to first place. This was particularly painful for those who had queued very long to reach the head of the queue. There are many such painful yet funny moments in Kolejka. It is chaotic, yet not completely unpredictable. Once you are familiar with the card powers, you start to anticipate and you learn to avoid getting into risky situations. You also keep count of who has used or has not used which cards. In the base game everyone's deck is identical and only the order of drawing cards is different. With the expansion, things become harder to predict because four of the fourteen cards will be out of play each week. You don't know which cards are out of play. I think this is good.

I needed a lot of food, but my family members who queued for food since Day 1 were frustrated again and again. By the end of the game, I only managed to buy one bucket of KFC, despite having sent mum and dad and grandma to queue in the freezing snow for days. People cut queue, and the shop was unexpectedly closed, and the queue was reversed, etc.

The card play is mostly tactical. You assess the board situation to calculate your best move. You are driven by circumstances. There is still some long-term planning you can do. Deciding where to send your family members is often a long-term investment, because it is common for people to be stuck in queues for days. You can try to create situations that allow a card to be put to good use. There can even be collaboration and negotiation, e.g. promising not to mess up an opponent as long as he doesn't mess with you either.

Similar to Ticket to Ride, you can choose to play aggressively, grabbing items you don't need but others do. They won't be completely useless, because you can use them to barter at the black market. It is a viable strategy to simply try to collect items as efficiently as possible, even if they are items not on your objective card or items you already have enough of. Slowing down others means giving yourself a better chance. Even if you don't take the aggressive approach, you can't avoid competing because many people will want the same things.

It is good that the objective cards are open information. It is the basis for predicting what your opponents will do. It makes the game more strategic.

No one managed to complete the shopping list when our game ended. It ended under a different end condition - when one goods type ran out. There was not enough in the general stock to deliver to the shop. I guess this is more likely to happen with a higher player count.

This is one card everyone hates - temporary shop closure. The shop may have stock, but the shopkeeper has decided to take a day off on a whim. Or maybe he has diarrhea and needs to take sick leave. All the customers in the queue need to wait one more day.

These were the goods I managed to purchase. All these are products from the 1980's.

The Thoughts

Kolejka is a game with high player interaction. You are always messing with others' plans. The core mechanism is simple yet uncommon. The setting is depressing but interesting at the same time, even a little educational. It is a light game that can work with non-gamers. It is almost a party game - a little chaotic, and plenty of hurting one another. That's what makes the game fun. Don't play this with people who take games very seriously or expect everything to work out according to strategies they employ. This is a game in which you need to live moment to moment. You can't really plan too far ahead because the situation can change dramatically. You need to be on your toes all the time, making use of the circumstances as much as possible. The game will be more chaotic with more players, and I think the more the merrier. That's the whole point. It may be less chaotic with fewer players, but that would make the game dull.