Thursday 23 February 2017

in the news: Sinchew Daily

A reporter from a local newspaper Sinchew Daily, Tsae Jeng, contacted me mid January. She was working on an article about boardgames, and was interested to experience firsthand the boardgame hobby. We arranged an interview session, which eventually turned out to be 90% boardgame session and 10% interview session. It was casual and relaxed. We played four different games, all with three players. I am excited about being in the papers. I am also glad that boardgames is getting exposure in the mainstream media. I feel I'm doing my little bit in promoting the hobby.

I had shortlisted quite a few games for Tsae Jeng to pick. Of the four we eventually played, three were cooperative games - Pandemic, Hanabi and Escape: The Curse of the Temple. The fourth game was the ever popular Love Letter. So we've played both boardgame and card game; we've played a real-time game (Escape); we've played a weird game where you hold you cards backwards (Hanabi); we've played a microgame with only 16 cards (Love Letter). I say that's pretty good variety and a decent introduction to the hobby.

The article was published on 14 Feb 2017 (Valentine's Day!). For those who read Chinese, you can click on the photos below to read the article. The first one below is the introduction. Not surprising that an image such as this was used. Most people automatically think of Monopoly when they hear "boardgames".

One strange thing about Malaysian Chinese newspapers is they contain a mix of Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese, even within the same article. The titles and headings are Traditional Chinese, but the content is Simplified Chinese.

This next photo is the full view of the article. The font is small, so if you want to read the content, click the next few images, which are the zoomed in shots of the 5 different sections.

The copy of Love Letter I have at home is a self-made version using the Adventure Time theme, so I asked Tsae Jeng to go find an image of the original.

Tuesday 21 February 2017

Crowdfunding: Pasaraya - Supermarket Manager

A fellow Malaysian is running a crowdfunding campaign for his design - Pasaraya. Click here to find out more.

Saturday 18 February 2017

World's Fair 1893

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The setting of World's Fair 1893 sounds dull to me. I would not have given it a second thought had I seen it on a shelf, and I would have missed out on this little gem. This is a Eurogame with area majority and set collection, and it is implemented quite cleverly. Here's how it works.

This is the game board. It is a ferris wheel surrounded by five exhibition areas, each in a different colour. On your turn, you place one of your agents (i.e. cube) in any exhibition area, and you claim any cards next to that area. At the end of each of the three stages of the game, each exhibition area is scored based on agent majority. You score points, and also win rights to convert designs to products.

Each of the exhibition areas will have some cards. These can be design blueprints, exhibition tickets, or famous characters. Whenever you place your agent in an area, you take all the cards there. At the end of your turn, you add three new cards to the board - one each to the next three areas on the board. So the cards in each area will be claimed and then will be replenished gradually.

The first two cards (red and blue) are designs. Designs are your main source of points. By themselves they are worth nothing. You need to convert them to finished products before they can be worth anything. So collecting designs is just the first step.

The third card is a ticket. These cards are a countdown mechanism. Each time anyone claims a ticket, the timer marker moves one step around the ferris wheel. When the marker makes a complete round, a stage ends and scoring is done. The game ends after three stages. Claiming tickets affects the tempo of the game. Also tickets are worth 1VP each, which can add up to be significant.

The rightmost card is a character. These cards give you a special ability which you may use on your next turn, e.g. placing two instead of one agent, placing an extra agent in a specific area, moving a agent from one area to another. These special abilities can be quite handy, but you must use them next turn or forfeit them.

At the end of each stage, each of the five areas is scored. Players with the most and second most agents in each area score points, and also win the rights to convert some of their designs to end products. Naturally, said designs must be of the same type as the area being scored. So as you collect designs of a particular type, you need to also remember to fight for the conversion rights of the same type. In this photo, the tiles on the right are the end products.

You want to collect sets of different end products. A complete set of 5 different products is worth 15VP. A set of 4 different products is worth 10VP. A set of 3 is 6VP, a set of 2 is 3VP, and a single product is only worth 1VP.

The medals and coins on the left are what you score from winning majority in an area and from tickets respectively.

A game only lasts three stages, so you only have three chances to convert designs to products. A stage passes very quickly. The things you do on your turn are very simple, so turns pass in a snap. You just place a agent and collect cards. Sometimes there is a little more to do because you have collected tickets or you have a character card to use, but mostly it's like eating chips. You finish a whole pack before you realise it.

The Play

Gameplay is mostly tactical. In general you want to collect wide, i.e. you want to complete many sets of all five different types of products. Getting there is done via many small tactical decisions where you try to play as efficiently as possible. You want to collect designs and convert them to products more efficiently than your opponents. This game uses the area majority mechanism, so what you want to do is to compete efficiently, spending the least effort for the most gain. You want to avoid the hotly contested areas, preserving your resources, and invest your energy in less competitive areas so that you win more rewards with the same amount of resources spent. This is easier said than done, because everyone thinks this way. The situation on the board is ever changing. The competitive landscape in each area changes, and the cards available in each area changes. You are presented with five options, and you need to evaluate which is best for you. This is the juicy part of the game. Sometimes you want to win majority in an area, but another area which you don't intend to dominate turns out to have a few very attractive cards. What do you do? Do you grab those cards and waste your agent placement, risking losing majority in the area you actually want to win in? Or do you steel yourself to fight for the area, even if it means you're getting lousy cards, or even no card at all? Another thing to think about is how lucrative the options are to your opponents. You need to evaluate what they want too. Sometimes you make a move not because it benefits you, but because you want to deny your opponent. Sometimes it is worthwhile to deny your opponent at a cost to yourself.

In the early game, each player already starts off having one or two agents in some exhibition areas, so the value of each area to each player already starts to diverge. If you are already leading, you will hope to maintain the lead without expending too much more effort. There is a barrier to entry for other players. Still, since everyone wants to make end products in all five types, the early stage of the game is quite open. You don't have a strong preference which products to focus on first. You know you want to get all of them eventually. You just try to grab opportunities as they arise. By mid game, after you have already progressed in some areas, the needs and wants of every player become more obvious. If an opponent already has products of two types, he will probably want to focus his energy on the other three types. This is when you start to have a better grasp of your opponents' intentions.

Assessing the value of an area becomes more interesting when tickets and characters come into the mix. Tickets affect the tempo of the game. If you are in the lead in multiple areas, it will be good to end the stage quickly when you have the advantage. In this situation, you know your opponents are less likely to claim tickets because they want to prolong the stage. The characters can be useful to some players but not others. E.g. a character that lets you place an extra agent in the agricultural area is worth little when you already have a few agricultural end products, but it can be crucial to an opponent who has a few agricultural product designs and desperately needs to convert them to end products.

What makes the game interesting is how the many items in each area have different values to different players, and how you need to constantly assess the changing options on the board to make the right tactical decisions. You rarely get a perfect choice - the area where you want to win having many cards that suit your purposes perfectly, but that's the beauty of the game. You are presented with multiple choices with different mixes of pros and cons. It is these agonising decisions that make the game.

In the agricultural exhibition area (green) at the bottom left, the white player already has three agents (cubes), while the others have one each. The area has one design (grey - industry), one ticket and one character. This is more cards than any other area on the board. For the white player, these three cards may seem lucrative, but placing yet another agent here is a little wasteful. It might be better to place it in the red area (fine arts) to try to catch up with the leader (blue), or maybe even the grey area (industry) to secure a safer lead. This is the kind of decision you need to make in this game.

The Thoughts

World's Fair 1893 looks pedestrian, but I was pleasantly surprised. I felt nostalgia. It reminds me of the good old days, of the time when Eurogames had fewer rules, were quick to play, but still had decent strategic depth. It is a clean and clever game. I like how it constantly forces you to make tough decisions. You evaluate your options not only based on how much they benefit you, but also based on how much you will benefit the next player by not taking a particular option. I like the tempo element of the game - how claiming or not claiming tickets will speed up or prolong the game to your advantage. A game flies by quickly. You feel that you just need a few more actions to execute your perfect plan. But there is no perfect world. You have to make do with your limited time and resources, and make the most out of it - like Agricola. This is the hallmark of a good game. I am impressed.

Wednesday 1 February 2017

Secret Hitler

Plays: 8Px3.

The Game

Secret Hitler is a Kickstarter game. It's a secret identity team game. Most would call it a social deduction game. There seems to be more and more such games nowadays. Werewolf and BANG were among the earlier ones. Then there were The Message: Emissary Crisis and Saboteur. More recently we had Don't Mess With Cthulhu and Templar Intrigue. The popular ones which I have not played are Coup and The Resistance.

Secret Hitler is loosely based on Germany before World War II. The game supports 6 to 10 players. I played with 8, so I'm going to explain the game based on 8 players. On the surface, everyone is a liberal. However in secret, three of the players are fascists. One of those three is Hitler himself. During the course of the game new laws will be enacted. Some laws are fascist laws and some are liberal laws. The liberals win if 5 liberal laws are enacted. The fascists win if 6 fascist laws are enacted. Both sides have an instant win condition. If the fascists manage to get Hitler elected as chancellor, they win immediately. If the liberals manage to kill Hitler, they win.

At the start of the game everyone gets an envelope like this. It contains two cards, a party membership card and an identity card. For the liberals, there is only one type of identity card, but for the fascists, you might be a regular fascist party member or you might be Hitler.

Before the first round starts, everyone closes his eyes. The two fascist party members open their eyes to identify each other. Then Hitler raises his thumb (eyes still closed) so that his supporters know who he is. Hitler knows he has two supporters, but not who they are. The liberals know nothing at all.

Every round one player becomes the president. You take turns to play president, in clockwise order. The president must propose another player to become chancellor, and then everyone casts a yes/no vote. If the candidate fails the election, the round ends early. Otherwise, the president and the newly elected chancellor proceed to enact a new law. The president draws three law cards, then discard one facedown. The remaining two are passed to the chancellor, who then discards one facedown, and enacts the last one. Most cards in the deck are fascist laws. If the law being enacted is fascist, the president might bemoan that all three cards he had drawn were fascist, so he had no choice. The chancellor might say the same. However, the president might say to the chancellor, hey I gave you a good and a bad law, why did you pass the bad one? The chancellor might retort, what? You gave me two bad laws, and now you are trying to frame me? If such a thing happens, one of these two is probably a fascist. Even if the two legislators are in alignment, you can't be sure both are liberals. They might both be fascists and they might have have discarded liberal laws without anyone else knowing. Or the chancellor might be fascist, and he is passing the liberal law so that he doesn't arouse the suspicion of the president.

These two boards indicate how many fascist (red) and liberal (blue) laws have been enacted.

When a new fascist law is enacted, special actions need to be performed, or new rules come into play. These are indicated on the board. When the second fascist law is enacted, the president gets to see the party membership card of another player. When the fourth and fifth fascist law is enacted, the president gets to kill another player. This is how the liberals can kill Hitler. Naturally, this only works if they manage to find out who Hitler is, and also if the president that round happens to be a liberal. After three fascist laws are enacted, if Hitler gets elected to be chancellor, the fascists immediately win. From mid game onwards, you need to be much more careful when voting.

The procedure in the game revolves around electing a chancellor and then passing laws, but throughout all these actions, what is most important for the liberals in to find out who is who. For the fascists, it is best to stay in hiding for as long as possible, and use deceit to mislead and to sow mistrust among the liberals.

The Play

We played three games one after another. I experienced being both liberal and fascist, and the feeling is very different. There are more liberals, but the fascist has one important advantage - the party members know who is who. It is crucial they make good use of this information, and even more crucial that they make use of the ignorance of the liberals. The fascists need to sow doubt and stay hidden. Hitler doesn't know who his supporters are, and needs to be alert of clues. There are ways for his supporters to communicate with him. E.g. when Hitler is president and he has picked a fascist member to be chancellor, he can pass one fascist law and one liberal law to the chancellor to test him. The fascist member knows Hitler's identity, and will safely pass the fascist law while bemoaning that both the laws given to him are fascist laws. Upon hearing this, Hitler will know the chancellor is his fellow fascist.

The liberals need to find out who the fascists are. It is not easy to pass 5 liberal laws, since the number of liberal laws in the deck is low. They need to be careful not to allow fellow liberals to be killed when the fourth and fifth fascist laws are passed, and they need to make sure Hitler doesn't get elected to be chancellor. When the president and the chancellor say different things, it is usually a good sign. It normally means one of them cannot be trusted. If you want to play safe, trust neither. The fascists will do their best to appear liberal, even to the extent of passing liberal laws. The liberals need to discuss openly and be critical of every little clue and suspicious action. There will be paranoia, as the fascists try to complicate matters by throwing accusations and suggesting reasonings on why so-and-so should not be trusted.

The president's job of proposing a candidate for the position of chancellor is a heavy responsibility.

The most impressive game components in the game are the hefty wooden signs for president and chancellor. You can kill a cat with them.

Kareem was the unluckiest player in our game. No one ever believed what he said. When he was a liberal and spoke out against a fascist, providing sound reasoning, everyone thought he himself was the suspicious one. When he was a fascist and tried to frame a liberal, everyone trusted the liberal instead. It was all because he already had a reputation as a strong player, so everyone was wary of him, even though what role got assigned was completely out of his control. It was hilarious (but maybe not to him) how many times he was frustrated.

During the setup phase of one of our games, when everyone except for the fascist party members had their eyes closed and the moderator announced that Hitler was to make a thumbs-up sign, one player responded "OK". The rest of us burst into laughter. Did Hitler just inadvertently reveal himself? We almost restarted that game. Eventually, the person who OK'ed was not the real Hitler. He was probably just trying to sow confusion even at the setup phase of the game. Jeez... these gamers... so calculative and cunning!

Secret Hitler is a noisy game, with speculations and accusations flying everywhere. The fascists are a minority, but they have important information which gives them an edge. The liberals need to work together and pay attention to every detail to root out the fascists. They rely on open discussion and they need to be careful in judging who can be trusted.

The Thoughts

Secret Hitler is a fine social deduction game. I had expected that having played quite a few of these, any new game would feel similar. I was pleasantly surprised that I found something new to like in this game. If you don't like this genre, Secret Hitler won't change your mind. If you like this genre, I encourage you to give it a go. Throughout the game you can observe and collect little tit bits to help you deduce who is who. However logic alone is often not sufficient. Often you need to make judgement calls on who to trust. You need to rely on your instincts. This is how psychology comes into play. This is where the human interaction is.

If you ask me what's different about Secret Hitler compared to other social deduction games, I would say it's the chancellor election and the law passing. These are its ways of presenting information for you to work on. Some social deduction games give you little to work on, e.g. Templar Intrigue, Werewolf. Some give you more, e.g. BANG, Saboteur. How they differ is the control of information - who knows what, who doesn't, and how the the information is gradually revealed to more players. The game progresses to a climax as more and more information becomes known.

In Secret Hitler, the two sudden death victory conditions - executing Hitler and Hitler becoming chancellor - make the game exciting. Regardless of the number of laws passed, the game can take an unexpected turn at the last minute. I find the game slightly more complex than other similar games, in particular the special actions and additional rules that come into play when a specific number of fascist laws are enacted. That will take a while for new players to digest and incorporate into their strategic planning. When teaching the game, one needs to regularly remind the new players to take into account these actions and rules.