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.

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