Sunday 26 March 2017

Empires: Age of Discovery

Plays: 6Px1.

Empires: Age of Discovery (2015) is the second edition of Age of Empires III (2007), which contains both the base game and the Builders expansion. I have the original Age of Empires III, but I had not tried Builders before. The name has changed in this new edition of the game, due to the high licensing cost of using the AOE3 name, but the core game is the same.

The Game

Age of Empires III is not new to me, so I will just explain Empires: Age of Discovery briefly. This is a worker placement game. In the first half of a round, you take turns placing workers on spaces on the right half of the board. In the second half, these workers perform actions in a specific order. You conquer new land (the game calls this "discovery" *cough*), you send colonists to settle the new world, you collect trade goods, you construct buildings, you fight wars etc. Buildings are an important part of the game. They give you strong powers and augment your abilities, e.g. giving you an extra worker every round. One special feature of the game is you have different types of workers. The common worker is a colonist, but you can have specialist workers like soldiers, merchants, and builders. Soldiers are the only type which may kill enemy workers. Missionaries bring along an extra colonist when they migrate to the new world. Some workers have multiple uses, making them more flexible. E.g. the captain counts as two workers when competing for the merchant ship or when launching an expedition. Specialists can be used as normal colonists, just that you will be wasting their talent.

Scoring is done in several ways, the first being area majority in the colonies. At each colony, whoever has most workers gains 6 victory points, and whoever has second most gets 2VP. In case of a tie for first, the winners only get 2VP each. So there is strong incentive to be sole winner. Some buildings give VP at game end. Trade goods and merchant ships generate income every round. At game end, this earning power scores VP.

Here are five different workers. From left to right - colonist, missionary, builder, captain, soldier. I forgot the merchant. He was left out of the group photo. On the right we have a merchant ship.

The coins in the second edition are gorgeous.

The artwork of the game board is different. The colours are lighter, the design a little cleaner. I like the newer version better.

South America is divided into only 3 regions. Each undiscovered (i.e. unconquered) region has a face-down discovery tile, which specifies the strength of the natives and how much money you earn when, ahem, "discovering" the region. Discoveries are not automatically successful. Your expeditionary force needs to at least match the strength of the natives. So there is risk. The larger the force you send, the lower the risk.

These are some of the spaces you can place your workers. The green tiles on the right are the buildings. We did the full six player game. Every round only five buildings were made available, so at least one player wouldn't get a new building. Every round only one merchant ship was available. With six players, it was not easy to fight for it. In case of a tie when fighting for the merchant ship, the winner is determined using the turn order. The tricky thing is turn order changes during action execution. The turn order at the start of the round may have already changed by the time you resolve the merchant ship space.

Here is another difference between first and second edition. In the second edition, the turn order box is here on the far right. The box for competing for turn order is at the other end of the board, near the top. In the first edition, both boxes are next to each other near the top of the board. I don't quite understand the change. Maybe it is to reduce confusion? Or is there a rule change I missed?

The Play

In Round 1 of the game, I had first pick at buildings. I was second in player order and had not expected I would have first pick. However, Sinbad who was first in player order chose to place his first worker in the trade goods box. I placed mine in the buildings box without hesitation. Initially, expecting to have second pick, I had planned to get the building which gave me one extra colonist every round. When I won the right for first pick unexpectedly, it threw me off balance. I couldn't resist buying the New World Cartography building. The building itself was 4VP. The free discovery it gave me (next to it) was worth 5VP. It also saved me the manpower I would otherwise have spent on an expedition. This all sounded good. However, my decision crippled me for many rounds. The benefits from New World Cartography were all immediate benefits, and didn't help build my long-term capabilities. I had spent my initial capital, and it would take me many rounds before I earned enough money to buy another building. In hindsight, I should have picked the free colonist building.

In this game we played, Jeff and Ivan did best. Both invested well in building the capabilities of their nations. The merchant ship was won by one of them most rounds. Jeff was by far the richest player. In a way, it was good for me that they did so well. They were the obvious leaders, so the other four players collaborated to hinder them. When there was a choice on who to hurt, the preference was usually one of them. I, having screwed myself so effectively at the beginning, had to play the pauper and hope for mercy. Jeff and Ivan had difficulties with colonisation, because Sim and Dith were constant threats with their soldiers. Jeff and Ivan had to think twice where and when to send their colonists. I was the indirect beneficiary from all this. I couldn't compete in making money, launching expeditions, or getting the merchant ship. So I tried to focus on simple colonisation. That resulted in me doing better than most others in colonisation.

Sim was the warmonger. He had buildings which gave free soldiers, and he trained the most soldiers and initiated the most battles. Dith invested in warfare too. However the two of them did not have many conflicts. They coordinated their efforts to attack Jeff and Ivan. Sinbad and I did worst, and declared ourselves Belgium and Luxemburg. We were no match for the big boys - France, England, Spain and Holland.

At this point everyone wanted to colonise. The queue was almost filled up, and every player had a foot in - all six colours were represented. Most workers here were colonists. I (green) had a missionary. Sim (orange) and Dith (red) had soldiers.

At the start of the game, the Caribbean was the only region open for colonisation. Most players were not really interested in colonisation in the early game, so I (green) ended up dominating the Caribbean. Being weak meant I had to go where no one else wanted to go. I intentionally sent more workers than was necessary, as a deterrence. Others could have fought me for the Caribbean, and won, so I needed to make it costly and thus unattractive. Sim (orange) could have killed my colonists with his soldier, but it would take many turns and rounds, so he couldn't be bothered to waste his actions this way.

Sinbad (yellow) was leading in Peru. Sim (orange) had the guns. Jeff (blue) had a merchant. Sim could choose to kill Sinbad's colonist, but it would be pointless. If no player had 3 colonists in a region, the region would not score at all. Sim would need to kill Jeff's merchant so that he could be the sole second place player. If he tied with Jeff in second place, neither would score. This is a situation where you probably don't want to target the leader.

This was the end of the first of three eras. Many regions were not yet discovered.

This was the middle of the second era. All regions were discovered by now.

Near the end of the second era, Sim (orange) had majority in two South American regions. He had exactly three workers, which was required for a region to score. Unfortunately, one of the buildings purchased this round was an epidemic. All players who had three or more workers in a region had to lose one of these workers. This completely messed up his plans. He lost his third workers in both these regions, and the era ended with neither region scoring. That's 12VP lost!

These were the scores at the end of Era 2. I was leading in scores because of my colonists. I knew this would be short lived, but at least I had my moment of glory. Discoveries and buildings were scored only at game end, and I knew I was going to do poorly in these aspects.

This was near game end. See those stacks of gold coins at the top right? Those were all Jeff's. He was swimming in gold.

Final scoring. We knew it would likely be Jeff (blue) or Ivan (purple). Going into the final reckoning, I thought Jeff would emerge victorious, because he was so ridiculously rich. Also, near game end, Ivan was denied a building he wanted. He was forced to buy another building. It should still score him points, but there was a big element of uncertainty. To his pleasant surprise, this last building scored very well, and allowed him to defeat Jeff narrowly, by just 2VP!

The Thoughts

The builders are a nice addition to Age of Empires III. Handy but not overpowered. They feel like they have always been around, and not an awkward addition or patch. One ability of builders which we never used in our game was their ability to increase the VP value of regions. We only used the builders to get discounts for buildings. It is good that buildings become cheaper. The buildings drive diversity and specialisation among players, and make the game colourful. This was my first time playing a 6-player game, and I think the more the merrier. There is much more competition, which makes the game intense and dynamic. So many opponents to watch!

Sunday 19 March 2017


Plays: 2Px8.

The Game

Santorini is a good-looking game. It is the hotness now due to how lovely the components and artwork are. Strictly speaking it is not a new game. It was first published in 2004 as an abstract game. The latest version comes with a Greek mythology setting.

The game can be played with 2, 3 or 4 players, but I believe it started as a 2-player game. 3P and 4P are variants. When playing with four, you play in teams of two. So far I have only played the 2-player game.

You have two pawns (workers). On your turn, you must move a worker and then use him to build. The houses all have the same design - three floors and a blue dome roof. See rightmost house in the photo - that's a completed house. The play area is a 5x5 grid. When you move, your worker moves one step orthogonally or diagonally. Your current location and your destination can be of different heights. There is no restriction when moving horizontally or to a lower elevation. However if you are moving up, you may move at most one floor up. So you may move from the ground onto a one-storey house, but not from the ground onto a two-storey house.

When you build, you also build in any of the eight spaces orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to your worker. You build exactly one floor (or a roof), and you must follow the blueprint. E.g. you can't build a roof on top of a single-storey house. When a house is completed, you can't perform the build action on that space anymore. That space also becomes inaccessible to workers.

There are four completed houses in this photo. They are effectively obstacles now.

There are two ways to win. The first one is to get a worker onto a three-storey house, i.e. what the white worker has achieved in the photo above. This is not as easy as it sounds, because when you build the third storey of a house, it is often easy for your opponent to quickly build the roof, thus preventing you from using that house to win. Also you need to watch out not to create a winning opportunity for your opponent when you build the third storey.

The second way to win is to force your opponent to be unable to move and build on his turn. If he can't pick one of his workers to move then build, he loses immediately.

The play area is small. Even though your worker only moves one step, he can cover a big area. Most of the time a worker is able to build on a space two steps away from where he is, because he moves first then builds. The positioning of your workers is important. You need to block your opponent's workers. In this photo, the white workers use the completed houses and themselves to block the blue workers. The white player has built a third storey at the bottom left, and the blue player is unable to stop the white player from winning because his workers are blocked off.

What I have described above is the basic game. Once you are familiar with it, you can add the gods and heroes. The game comes with many such god and hero cards. Before a game starts, one player picks a number of cards equal to the player count, then the other players each select a card, leaving the last one for him. These cards give you special abilities, some of which break the basic rules. The difference between god and hero is god powers are permanent while hero powers are single-use. The designer recommends that when an experienced player plays with a newbie, or when an adult plays with a child, the former uses a hero while the latter uses a god, to level the playing field. When I played with Chen Rui (10), we took this approach.

Prometheus on the left is a god. He lets you build both before and after moving, but when you use this power, your worker may not move upwards. Odysseus on the right is a hero, so his power can only be used once. You may banish opponent workers next to your workers to the corners of the play area.

In this game I made good use of Odysseus' power. I was blue. I had built a third storey at the left corner. When I did that, I triggered Odysseus to send Chen Rui's workers to the right corner and the bottom corner. Having banished them far away from the three-storey building, they could not stop my worker from climbing to the top of the building to win the game.

The Siren on the left is a god. Before the game starts, you set a direction for the siren song. During play, you may forfeit a turn to move all opponent workers in the direction of the siren song. This can be very disruptive to your opponent. Theseus on the right is a hero. You can use him to kill an opponent worker. If your worker is next to an opponent worker, and he is exactly two levels lower, you may trigger Theseus to kill the opponent worker.

The basic rules are very simple and are easy to teach. There are many gods and heroes so it's hard to remember them all, even though most powers are straightforward. You will need to refer to the rules. Gods and heroes can greatly affect your strategy, both offensively and defensively. Different combinations will create different situations and tactics. Some combinations are discouraged because they unbalance the game. Some gods and heroes are even disallowed for three and/or four players. The basic game can stand on its own. However it may start to feel repetitive after 4 or 5 matches. This is a short 15-minute game. You can certainly play 4 matches in an hour. The gods and heroes add much variety and colour to the game.

The Play

Allen lent me Santorini, suggesting that it may be fun to play with my children. When Chen Rui saw it, she immediately fell for the cute artwork and beautiful components. The game even comes with a fully illustrated story book. In this photo you can see that the green play area is elevated by a plastic piece above a board which rests on the table. The board is the sea, the plastic piece the cliffs, and the play area the grassland above the cliffs. These are all aesthetics and don't affect gameplay in any way. They are just marketing, but how beautiful they are!

Santorini is an open information abstract game, which means adults will tend to have an advantage over children. There is little luck. Only when playing with some of the gods and heroes there is some hidden information, which lead to some luck due to players having to make guesses sometimes. I won most of the matches against Chen Rui, since I was able to look ahead and plan for the many possibilities better than her.

This was one of our games. On the left, White looks like it's about to win, but it is actually not the case. Blue can easily build a roof to stop him. On the right, Blue is building the Great Wall of China. In Santorini, you can move up at most by one floor, so to a worker on the ground, a two-storey house is effectively a wall blocking movement. He would need to build a one-storey house and then use it as a stepping stone to make his way up to the two-storey house.

Artemis' god power is simple but strong - you may move your worker two steps. Adonis' hero power let you charm an opponent worker. On your opponent's turn, he must ensure the charmed worker ends the turn next to one of your workers. Chen Rui and I played 8 games, and this was the combination we used in the one game where she defeated me. Artemis' power was straightforward and very handy. I struggled to make good use of Adonis' power. I couldn't quite figure out how to create a situation where it would be useful.

When playing with Chen Rui, I did not try to let her win. I did not play in a vicious manner, but I did do my best to win. Chen Rui was a little dejected when she lost game after game. When she finally won a game fair and square, she was overjoyed. I made a mistake and she made good use of the opening I left for her.

Chen Rui played white and I played blue. On the left, I had isolated one of her workers, almost completely locking him down. She had Artemis, which meant she had much higher mobility. My plan was to create more completed buildings, forming obstacles to neutralise her mobility. A few turns before this photo was taken, I built the third storey at the rightmost building. My worker was at Level 1 and would not be able to directly step up to the third storey, but my intention was to complete the building. I was not trying to win immediately. At the time Chen Rui's worker was quite far away, and I knew I would be able to build the roof before she could reach the building. There would be no risk. I was wrong. She moved toward the building, and then built a third storey at another building right next to it. I hadn't considered that. My workers were all at Level 1 and could not step up to Level 3. I had only one turn and could not build roofs at both the three-storied buildings to stop her. I only managed to build one, and she went on to win the game.

In all eight games we played, we did not encounter the other winning condition - forcing your opponent to be unable to move and build. I suspect this winning condition will happen mostly to players who know the game well and are also evenly matched. They would be good at preventing each other from grabbing a three storied house, and eventually the board would fill up. It becomes a matter of who is able to survive longer.

The Thoughts

Playing Santorini is like playing any other open-information, luck-free, abstract game, e.g. Ingenious, chess, checkers, Nine Men's Morris. Since all information is open, when you play, you tend to think a few steps ahead, simply because you can. You will think: if I do this, he will do that, and then I will respond by doing this, and so on. This game can be played in quite a serious manner, since all possibilities can be calculated, and it is only a question of how far ahead you want to look. Sometimes you can play by instinct, but when it comes to crunch time, you will pause and carefully think through your options and their repercussions. There is very little randomness, luck or hidden information, the exception being some god and hero powers. Due to the thinky nature of abstract games, some may find this game tiring. However, it's a 15-minute game, so there is no pressure of sitting down for a long, exhausting battle of wits like in playing chess. The gods and heroes certainly help to make the game feel less serious. They create much variability, because some of them change fundamental parts of the game. At its core it is still an open information abstract game, but it's closer to checkers than to chess.

Sunday 12 March 2017

boardgaming in photos: Race for the Galaxy, Ark, Pickomino, Yspahan, Arena: Roma II, 7 Wonders: Duel

29 Jan 2017. It had been a while since I played Race for the Galaxy, one of my most played games. I brought it back to Sabah to play during the Chinese New Year holidays. This set contains all the expansions in the first story arc - The Gathering Storm, Rebel vs Imperium and The Brink of War. The deck is monstrous and rather unwieldy, but I'm too lazy to sort the cards. I like the gameplay even though it's a little complex in this form.

I bought the fourth expansion Alien Artifact, and even bought a second copy of the base game because of it, since it's a new story arc. Unfortunately I didn't quite like the new mechanism in this expansion - the alien orb. I haven't played this expansion much, not even in the format excluding the alien orb. It is supposed to be better balanced than the first story arc. The fifth expansion has been released now - Xeno Invasion. I decided not to buy it, since I don't play Race much nowadays. No point getting it just for the sake of completeness.

19 Feb 2017. We had a kind-of family day of boardgaming, playing quite a few games in one long afternoon. My wife Michelle joined us at the beginning, playing Machi Koro. This was her second time playing and she didn't do as well as the first time, because she was not very familiar with the game. My children Shee Yun and Chen Rui and I had played Machi Koro many times and we knew the buildings well.

The children ganged up on me again. This was understandable, since I was the leading player throughout most of the game. When one of their aggressive cards was triggered, they normally chose to target me. Sometimes when certain powers were triggered, they would even forgo their own benefit to help the other gain an advantage. E.g. when Chen Rui rolled a 10, she would use her Harbour to convert the result to 12 so that Shee Yun's Tuna Boat could be triggered. Chen Rui didn't have any Tuna Boat herself.

We now play with just the base game and the Harbour expansion. I have taken out the Millionaire's Row expansion. It feels better with fewer cards in the mix. With too many cards, the deck is too diluted and it is difficult to collect many cards of one type or of the same family to create effective combos. Maybe next time we should play with base game + Millionaire's Row, swapping out Harbour.

The children still enjoy Love Letter. The effort spent self-making this Adventure Time themed version was definitely worthwhile. The cards are already looking a little battered. I love the artwork in this themed version, which I found on BGG. Compared to the original, I find the original rather dull. I'm sure the children prefer the Adventure Time artwork too.

This is Ark, a game about Noah's ark. Shee Yun (right) suggested it. She is going to a missionary school now, and I wonder whether that's why she is interested in this game based on a Bible story. This was the first time the children played this game.

On the right half of the photo where animals are grouped into sets, these sets represent cabins on the ark. During the game your job is to load animals onto the ark. There are many restrictions and difficulties. Large carnivores cannot share a cabin with smaller animals, because they would eat the other animals. Herbivores cannot share a cabin with your provisions, because they would eat your provisions. Every animal has a weight and will tilt the ark one way or the other depending on which side of the ark you put it. The ark must be kept in balance. Initially I wondered whether all these would be too much for the children, but it turned out OK. We just kept reminding one another and they managed fine.

This is essentially an area majority game. There are five categories of animals, and you compete to load the most in each category. I remember when I first played Ark, it felt so-so. The setting was unusual, the artwork cute, but gameplay was not particularly interesting. Having played it again recently, my opinion did not change.

Chen Rui is good at Pickomino. Or she's lucky. But not so lucky this time. I managed to beat her quite comfortably. We did a 2-player game since Shee Yun was not interested.

The tiles in the centre are the score tiles. The numbers are the dice total you need to achieve in order to claim the tile. The worms are the victory points. When you claim a new tile, you stack it on top of your existing tiles. The tile on top is still vulnerable - other players may rob it from you if they manage to roll the exact number.

This is Yspahan, on older game that has faded away. Most newer gamers will not know it. It uses dice in an interesting way, like the more recent El Gaucho (2014). At the start of a round, the start player rolls a bunch of dice and then groups them by value. For the rest of the round, the players take turns claiming a dice group to perform actions, the strengths of the actions depending the number of dice in the group.

Things seemed to go rather too smoothly in the game we played. I think both Michelle and I managed to construct all six of our buildings, and Chen Rui managed five. I wonder whether we made a mistake. It felt too easy. We did mostly ignore the caravan aspect, and we didn't aggressively hinder one another. Maybe due to these we saved much energy and managed to build our individual engines efficiently. I felt a little empty though, because things went too well. Geez... gamers are hard to please...

By Day 2 of Week 3 (the final week of the game), only Michelle (red) had 2 cubes at the caravan - the smaller board on the right.

24 Feb 2017. I asked Allen whether he wanted to go to He had to babysit his kids. So I went to his place to play instead. Arena: Roma II was one of the games we played. This is Roma Version 2. I had played Roma before, but had forgotten almost everything about it. I had to learn the rules from scratch.

This is a 2-player game. The game board is a long strip divided into 9 sections. On your turn you roll 3 dice, and use them to perform actions. If you place a die on the coin space (leftmost section of the strip), you earn coins according to the die value. If you place a die on the card space (rightmost section), you draw cards according to the die value. If you place a die on any of the seven spaces in the middle, you trigger the power of the card on that space. Six of these spaces only allow a specific die value. The 7th space - the bribery space - allows any die value, but you must pay coins according to the die value. Playing a card does not require spending a die, but there is a cost in coins.

You start the game with 10 Victory Points, which prepares you for losing VP in the early game. Every empty space in the middle seven sections causes you to lose 1VP at the start of your turn. So it is important to try to fill up your side of the strip. The game ends in two ways. You lose if you lose all VP. The game also ends when the VP tokens run out. You compare scores to see who wins. The VP tokens are the light blue and light green square tokens.

The most important element in the game is the card powers. At the top left corner of each card you can see the cost for playing the card and its defense value when being attacked. There is much variety in card powers. Some let you score VP. Some let you attack and try to remove your opponent's cards. Most cards are triggered by a die, but some require no die. In this photo, the card on the right lets me discard another one of my cards and then score VP according to its defense value.

Cards come in two colours. Green cards are buildings, yellow cards are characters.

My Ballista card lets me attack a card directly or diagonally opposite it, but it may only attack buildings and not characters. If Allen limits himself to character cards at these three positions, he will not need to worry about the Ballista. You may play a card to an occupied space. It will replace the existing card.

The second space from the right is the bribery space. You may use any die to trigger the card here, but you must pay a cost equal to the die value.

In this photo both of us had filled up all spaces. Arena: Roma II is all about how you make good use of your cards and how you respond to your opponent's cards. There is interaction between cards, e.g. how the Ballista may only attack buildings, but most card powers are individual and don't synergise with other cards to create combos. The key is how to match your card play with the board situation. If you have a card which scores points based on how many character cards your opponent has, you probably want to hold on to it until your opponent has played many characters. Or you can play a Ballista to entice him to play more characters first.

Allen and I played two games. I had a horrible start in the first game. I kept losing VP because my hand cards were high cost cards and I was unable to earn enough money due to low die rolls. It took me a long time to fill in the spaces on my side of the strip. That was painful. The second game was kinder to me. No death spiral in the early game.

Arena is a fast-paced game. There is some strategy. There aren't that many rounds - just enough for you to feel satisfied that you've done something, exercised some mental muscles. How the VP chips work is interesting. It is not necessarily about scoring as many points and as quickly as you can. If your opponent's rate of scoring points is higher than you, that's suicide. You are just expediting the game end and digging your own grave. You should instead try to force him to lose points, or you should attack his point-scoring cards. You need to slow down the game. There is an interesting balance between being constructive and being destructive. In the early game, destroying your opponent's cards can force him into a bad position, and you may even be able to force him to lose the game by running out of VP's.

I also taught Allen to play 7 Wonders Duel. I had played it with Michelle a few times, but playing it against Allen allowed me to see some aspects which I hadn't seen before. One of these is the tech tokens. When playing with Michelle, she preferred to collect many different science symbols, hoping to achieve a science victory. She didn't go for pairs of identical science symbols to claim tech tokens. When playing against Allen, we made more use of these tech tokens, and I found that some of them synergise rather well. They can also help tremendously when pursuing a specific strategy. The other aspect which came into play more was the military aspect. Responding to military threats is not just about keeping your opponent a safe enough distance away from your capital, it is also about denying him victory points. Having a military advantage can also force your opponent's hand when he is picking cards from the table. You can force him to pick military cards to protect himself, allowing you to take another card which you want, or which he would otherwise have wanted. It is interesting to see how 7 Wonders Duel gradually reveals some of these subtleties.

Sunday 5 March 2017

West of Africa

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The setting in West of Africa is yet another one of those farming-in-an-exotic-location type, like Puerto Rico and La Granja. The location they picked is the Canary Islands. It is a game about planting, harvesting, selling crops and then eventually spending the money to build settlements to earn victory points. This all sounds rather dull and been-there-done-that. However I was pleasantly surprised after playing it. The impression it left me was completely unexpected. This is a brutal, boardgame version of Race for the Galaxy!

With components so cute and colourful, "brutal" is probably the last thing you imagine it to be.

On the board are seven islands. Those on the west are fertile and suitable for agriculture, but you are not allowed to build settlements here. Also crop prices here are low. The islands on the east are the other way round. You can't plant anything here, but you can build settlements. Crop prices are high. The islands in the middle are between these two extremes. They have land for agriculture, land for settlements, and even multipurpose land.

Everyone has one boat and three workers. You can ship crops to islands with better prices to make more money. Workers help reduce the cost of planting. Agricultural land can be reused - after you harvest, you, or another player, can plant again. Residential land cannot be reused. After you build a settlement you never tear it down. The numbers on residential plots are the costs of building settlements. Settlements are all worth a fixed 3VP, so everyone will fight to build on the cheaper plots first. Building settlements is the biggest source of victory points.

Your goal is to reach 25 victory points. Once a player reaches 25VP, you complete the round, then compare scores, to see who wins (it is possible that two or more players exceed 25VP). VP mostly come from building settlements, but there are other sources. At the end of every round, mayoral elections are done on every island. Your goods are worth 1 vote each (they represent your influence), your workers and ship are worth 2 votes each. Mayorship comes with 1VP, plus the exclusive rights to build settlements on the island in the next round, until it's election time again. At the end of a round, the richest player also gains 1VP. At game end, every $10 is 1VP. However you can hoard at most $45, i.e. a max of 4VP from unused cash.

These are the mayorship tokens, specifying the island and also reminding you to claim the 1VP.

The overall flow of the game is rather simple - you plant crops, you harvest, you may ship crops to another island, you sell crops to make money, and eventually you spend the money on building settlements, which give you points. This doesn't sound like much, but the devil is in the details. Let's take a closer look.

Everyone has the same set of 13 cards. Each card specifies an action or a location. Each card has a value too (top corners). At the start of every round, you secretly pick 4 or 5 cards to use for performing actions. If you pick 5 cards, you need to pay $4. Once everyone has picked cards, you announce the total value of your cards. Turn order is determined by this total. Whoever has the smallest total goes first. Turn order is important. E.g. you plan to plant on a particular island. If another player has decided to do the same, and he goes before you, he may use up all the farmland leaving you with nothing to do, wasting a complete round. This is very painful. Normally the more valuable actions and locations have higher card values, so if you want to perform a strong action, the risk is higher. This is the part of the game which makes you nervous.

In this photo, the cards are: plant crops, sell crops and move workers.

The first card is move ship. The third card is a location. Location cards are paired with other action cards. When you plant crops, sell crops or build settlements, your action card must be paired with a location card. This means you are using two cards for one action. If you want to do two different things on two different islands, that's four cards!

This is called the minus card. It has no action or location, but it has a negative value. It's only use is reducing your total card value. This can be crucial if you need to fight for turn order. Whenever you use the minus card, you pass it to the next player. So this is a card you need to use carefully. It can be a matter of life and death.

The number of settlements that can be built in a round is limited. With 4 players, the max is 6 settlements. This again emphasises the importance of player order. Once the settlements for the round are exhausted, no one else can build any more until the next round. The cubes in the player colours mark the turn order.

The harbour on each island has a limited number of berths for ships. In this photo, the light blue rectangles are the berths. The rightmost island has five berths, so there is enough for everyone. The next island Fuerteventura only has one berth. The yellow player's ship is here now. Both the islands on the left have two berths. Both blue and green ships are at the leftmost island. When a ship arrives at a full harbour, it displaces one ship of its choice, pushing it to the next island. This doesn't sound like much, but it can really mess up a player's plan. In our game, Sim got his ship displaced by Jeff, and this one simple displacement cost him the entire round. Sim had planned to use his ship to transport his crops from one island to another, and then sell them there so that he could build some settlements. Jeff was earlier than him in turn order. When Sim's ship was displaced, it no longer had enough moves to transport his crops to the right location. That meant being unable to sell his crops since they could not be delivered to the island he had picked to do the sale. No sale, no money, no settlement, an entire round wasted. This was a huge hit to his tempo. This is the kind of disastrous screwage as seen in Vanuatu. This is the kind of situation when you see people pale.

Harvesting is automatic. It happens at the end of every round and all crops go to the storage space. No need to spend any action. However since it happens at the end of a round, your end-to-end flow from planting to building a settlement will span at least two rounds, with the harvesting happening at the end of the first round. Two rounds is the minimum. Sometimes when you want to transport your crops to another island to sell them at a higher price, things may take longer. Sometimes when you don't win the right mayorship at the right time, the process drags even longer.

You have a limited number of crop markers (four sugar canes, two grains and two grapes). You can only have this many markers on the board. E.g. if you have harvested four sugar canes but you have not yet sold them, you won't be able to plant any more sugar canes because the markers are still waiting to be sold. Each farm plot also specifies what you can plant, so that's yet another restriction you need to consider. On this island in this photo, you can only plant grains or grapes.

The crops selling price is on the left of the island name. On Gran Canaria you sell crops for $9 a piece. The lowest price is $6, and the highest $12. The default cost for planting crops is $3 per piece, but this can be discounted if you utilise your workers.

The Play

West of Africa is a game of careful planning and risk calculation. From the start you already sense the precariousness. The reason I feel it is like Race for the Galaxy is it also has the simultaneous action selection mechanism. In Race, you want to guess your opponents' actions because you want to make use of them to give you an edge. Usually it's because you want to gain something extra. Sometimes you take a risk, betting that your opponents will do a certain action, while you pick another action which depends on them having picked that action. In West of Africa, guessing your opponents' intentions is not about gaining some bonus, it is more often a matter of survival, of being able to do anything at all. If you misread your opponents, you may end up completely wasting a round. Thus the "brutal" in my one sentence summary of the game.

You face a dilemma right at the beginning. Everyone needs to do the first step - planting crops, so most likely everyone will be fighting for farmland. Is it always worthwhile to pick the lowest valued cards to ensure you go first? Or do you go for the higher valued actions and locations, hoping that the others are all going to play safe? After the first round, it can be easier to predict your opponents' moves, because your tempos may go off phase. Players may spread out to be at different stages of the production cycle. If you are the only person with sugar cane markers to plant, you can rest assured no one will take those sugar cane farmland from you.

Being out of phase with other players is generally a good thing. You will likely have less competition. You worry less about your ship being displaced. You worry less about others fighting for the same mayorship as you. However, it may not be wise to slow down your tempo just for the sake of going out of sync with your opponents. Afterall, this is a race to 25VP.

Your treasury stores at most $45. This forces you to go through the production cycle multiple times. You can't simply amass a lump sum of money and instantly build tons of settlements. The limited number of crop markers also forces you to go through the cycle many times. This means you will encounter plenty of situations where you conflict with others. You constantly worry about whether you are able to execute the actions you want to do. You are often torn between playing safe and taking a risk hoping to gain more, or simply hoping to be a little more efficient. This is a game where you need to read your opponents.

The track at the bottom is the score track. In our game Dith (red) gambled on the first mover strategy, spending a lot of money to build settlements cheaply in the early game. This gave him a significant lead, but also put him at risk because his cash flow was crippled for some time. It took a while for him to get it back to form. He was hoping to surpass 25VP before anyone else caught up, which meant he needed to end the game as quickly as possible. Eventually it did work out for him.

This was when the game ended. Dith was the only one who made it past 25VP.

The Thoughts

West of Africa is a gamer's game. Despite the idyllic art style and the cute components, this is not something for introducing newbies to the hobby. It is a game of outguessing and outmanoeuvring your opponents. You do not inflict direct harm to your opponents, but sometimes the indirect harm is just as devastating, or worse. You will find yourself planning your actions nervously, quietly contemplating the many risks before you. The production cycle is simple, but there are dangers in each step. There is a need to plan ahead, e.g. if you want to build settlements, you need to wrest mayorship from the incumbent. The game doesn't feel long, but many apparently small decisions feel weighty. There is more than meets the eye in West of Africa.