Saturday 27 May 2017

Ticket To Ride: Pennsylvania

Plays: 2Px6.

I hadn't planned to play Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania. One fine weekend I felt like playing basic Ticket to Ride with the family on iOS (because it's quick). I found that the app had been removed from the Appstore, replaced by a new version. If you have bought the old version before, you get the new version for free, plus the Pennsylvania map. I dove into this new map without even reading the rules. Bad idea. I didn't know what I was doing. The interface is good, but not miraculous enough to teach you the new rules. Eventually I had to read the in-game rules to understand how things work.

The physical boardgame expansion contains two maps, Pennsylvania and United Kingdom. At the moment the UK map is not yet implemented in the app.

The Game

There are many long routes along the outer edges of the map. At the top left, there are ferry routes to Canada. This route type specifically requires jokers (locomotive cards).

The Pennsylvania map introduces the shareholding mechanism, albeit a simple one. Next to most routes you see logos of railroad companies. Whenever you complete a route, you get to claim one share of one of these companies. In this photo there are three logos on the route between Scranton and New York. There are four between Scranton and Allentown. Shares are scored at game end. Each company gives out points to the largest two or three shareholders. The bigger the company, i.e. the more shares that can be claimed, the higher the payout.

When you check the status of shares, this is what you see. The panel on the right shows all currently available shares. There are two numbers on each share. The first number is the sequence number of the currently available share. The second number is the total number of shares. At the top, the company JCL has three shares in total. One has been claimed, so the one currently available is the second share.

The panel at the bottom shows what I own. The large white numbers are the number of shares. Of the two smaller numbers, the first one refers to the lowest share sequence number that I have for that particularly company. The second number is the total number of shares of the company. The sequence number is important because it is a tiebreaker. When the game ends, if two shareholders have the same number of shares, the tie is broken by whoever has invested in the company earlier. You check the lowest sequence number you have. Let's take the company WM as an example. 1/4 means I was the first to have claimed a share from this company. The big 2 means I hold two shares. This means I will definitely score 1st position for WM. Even if another player also has two shares, I will win by tiebreaker because I was first to invest in this company.

This is when shares scoring is done. For this company, Michelle (FYV) has three shares and scores 10pts. Both the dummy player and I (HCS) have one share each. However since the dummy player has claimed a share earlier, it gets the 6pts for being in 2nd place. I only get 3pts for being in 3rd place.

The Play

When I started playing the Pennsylvania map, the shareholding aspect felt disjointed. It was partly because I jumped in without reading the rules. It felt like the game had veered away from the original simplicity. It took me a few plays to get comfortable. I eventually realised that the addition isn't all that complicated. However it is still an additional layer to think about, with new tactical considerations, more things to remember, more things to calculate in your mind. If you prefer Ticket to Ride to stay simple, you may not like this.

When the game starts, you must keep at least three tickets. Most of the time you do want to complete all three, because otherwise the penalty can be painful. As you work on the three tickets, you will collect shares,and you will compete with other players in shareholding. You can plan your routes based on the shares you want to collect. I don't do that myself because I find that too tiresome. I plan routes based on the usual considerations in basic Ticket to Ride - e.g. shortest path, availability of the colours I need. Shares are nice-to-have bonuses, at least when I'm still trying to complete my tickets. I do take note of what my opponents are collecting, and when given an opportunity to thwart them, I would. I just don't go out of the way to perfectly align my share collecting with my route building. When I complete my tickets, there are two general directions I can go in. I either get more tickets and continue to focus on completing them, or I forget about tickets and switch to compete in shares. In the latter case, I may build routes outside of my network, just because they give me the shares I want. This is something different from basic Ticket to Ride. In the basic game, you build isolated routes mostly to mess with an opponent (you evil person!) or to score a long route.

The shareholding mechanism affects timing. Sometimes you are tempted to claim routes early because of the first investor advantage.

Michelle and I played 2-player games, which come with additional rules related to a dummy player. When completing a route, you first claim a share for yourself, and then you claim one for the dummy player. So when the game ends, the dummy player has as many shares as both players added up. Half the dummy player's shares are randomly discarded before shares scoring is done. You can use the dummy player to help yourself or hinder your opponent, e.g. exhausting the shares of a company to deny your opponent. Due to the dummy player rules, the 2-player version is more complicated. I have not tried playing with 3 or more, so I can't say how different it is.

The Thoughts

What Pennsylvania introduces is the shareholding mechanism. It's not very complex, but it is an additional layer on top of the basic gameplay. Some may not like it because it deviates from the original straightforward nature of the game. It is something different. Some who have played many versions of Ticket to Ride may welcome the new twist.

Saturday 20 May 2017

boardgame locations in Malaysia

I recently discovered this list of locations related to boardgames. This includes boardgame and hobby shops, boardgame cafes. This may be handy if you are in Malaysia.

Monday 1 May 2017

Alchemists: The King's Golem

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Alchemists is a 2014 game. It is a deduction game with an unusual setting. I played it once a few years ago, and at the time was tempted to buy a copy. I didn't, and after that first play, never revisited it until recently when Ivan brought the expansion to The expansion is called The King's Golem and it contains a few modules. We played with all modules added.

This is the king's golem. Players now have a new type of action - working on the golem. You can experiment with the golem, to see which ingredients trigger what responses from the golem. An ingredient may cause the golem's ears to smoke or its heart to warm, or both, or neither. Ultimately you want to discover which specific combination of two ingredients animates the golem. As you experiment with the golem and learn more about it, you may submit progress reports to the king, which gives you some benefits. When you feel confident that you can animate the golem, the king will grant you access to it. If you succeed you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail you will be ridiculed. You need to use the mobile phone app when you attempt to animate the golem. This screen above is shown when you successfully animate the golem.

You need to use a new deduction sheet. Notice the sun and moon icons along the two sides. Now every ingredient has a new property - day or night. As one of your actions, you may spend a king's favour (a new resource) to visit the royal library. At the library you may study one specific ingredient and learn whether it is a day or night ingredient. This eliminates four of the eight possible alchemical component combinations.

At the bottom there are three new sections, all related to the king's golem. The first section is for recording your experiments on the golem. You record whether an ingredient causes the golem to smoke or warm. It is the component of a specific colour and size which causes the golem to smoke, and another component which causes it to warm. So the next new section is for deducting which specific components do these. Once you know the two specific components, you can work out which two ingredients animates the golem, because only two of the eight ingredients in the game contain those two specific components.

This new board is for golem studies. At the start of the game you place your player marker at the bottom left. Each time you perform an experiment on the golem, you advance to the next level. At the second level you qualify to submit progress reports to the king. To advance to the third level, you need to successfully animate the golem. When you submit a progress report, you have three options, as specified at the bottom right. Let's look at the next photo to explain these.

The first type of progress report is when you state two possible components which make the golem smoke or warm. In this photo the blue player has submitted such a report. The two face-down tiles belonging to the blue player specify two components which may make the golem warm. The second type of progress report is when you are absolutely sure which component makes the golem smoke or warm. In this photo all three players feel confident about which component makes the golem smoke. The third type of progress reporting is when you amend a previously submitted report which contains two components. You remove one of the components, i.e. you are now sure which of the two actually triggers the response from the golem.

At the end of the game, all reports are scored. Single component reports get the most points, but also get the highest penalty if you are wrong. Dual component reports get fewer points, and the penalty for being wrong is also smaller. Since you can't see what your opponents have submitted, watching what they do on this board usually doesn't help you deduct.

This is another expansion game board. These are a new type of theory you may publish. In the base game, publishing theories is done based on ingredients. In the expansion, you may publish theories based on components. If you feel confident about a component of a specific colour, you may publish a theory claiming which ingredients contain a positive or negative signed component of this colour. One big difference is to publish a theory based on components, you need to spend a king's favour. Normal publications require cash. Otherwise, publishing works the same way. You gain reputation (points). You lose reputation if your theory is debunked or it is found to be wrong at game end. You get a grant when you publish enough theories.

This is an extension of the main game board. There are two new groups of actions, at the top and at the bottom. The top section is related to visiting the royal library, as mentioned above. The bottom section is related to working on the golem. The purple icons are the new resource - the king's favour. The middle section is the merchant, which already exists in the base game. However there is a small change. Instead of three artifacts on offer per stage, you now have four. The fourth one requires the king's favour as part of the payment.

These are the starting resource cards. They are a new module. In the base game everyone starts with the same resources. If you use this module, you draw four cards and select two to determine your starting resources. It's a small change, but I like it because it creates variation among players.

This is yet another expansion module. This is the player order table. At the start of a round, you take turns claiming a spot on the table. The spot you claim determines the goodies you get. Some spots require a payment. Once all pawns are placed, the turn order is determined by their positions. When you use the expansion module, every round a different player order table is used, giving different types of goodies. This is also a simple change. It injects some uncertainty and variability.

The Play

It had been a long while since my previous play, and I had forgotten most of the strategies, so I decided to play with a simple mindset. I just wanted to enjoy the deduction process. I neglected the money game, which meant ignoring the artifacts. This is where I need to inject a warning along the lines of "kids, do not try this at home". Ignoring artifacts is certainly not a winning strategy. Artifacts are very powerful when used right. Neither Jeff nor Ivan missed out on them.

I was happy with my deductive work. Towards game end I found that I was fairly certain of the components of all eight ingredients. This sounds nice, but it is actually wasteful. I didn't have that much time to publish so many theories. Spending so much effort to learn more than I could score points from was bad. I could only console myself that I did it for science, not for glory. To play effectively, one needs to make efficient use of his resources and time.

I spent much effort on the golem too. It was the new and shiny thing so I wanted to experience and understand it. It is quite a complex expansion module and it gives players more depth to explore. What I find amazing is how this module integrates seamlessly into the base game. The experimentation you do on the golem can help you in finding out the components of the eight ingredients, and the experimentation you do on the ingredients themselves too can help you figure out what animates the golem. The overall deduction space becomes richer. The golem module feels like part of the family and not an awkward son-in-law.

I feel the new type of publication makes the game a little less competitive. I imagine it would be worse with only two players. It might be fine with four. In our game, Jeff only published theories based on components. Ivan and I fought over conventional publishing, but the competition was mild.

The deduction in the game continues to be satisfying. It's the same kind of pleasure as uncovering a mystery, or solving a difficult math problem. There is more to think about compared to the base game, but if you enjoy the base game, you are probably fine with this kind of quiet and intense calculation. In our game I decided to just enjoy the deduction and not worry too much about winning. Yes, that's my excuse for doing so poorly in the scoring department. I made two critical mistakes in my calculations. The first one was related to the components of an ingredient. Afterwards when I rechecked my calculation steps, I managed to find where I missed a step. That impacted all calculations beyond that point, ultimately resulting in a wrong theory being published. I lost points after my theory was debunked by Ivan. The other mistake I made was related to the golem. I was first to enthusiastically tell the king I could animate the golem, and I actually succeeded in getting the two ingredients right. However at the end of the game, I found that I had reversed the two components which caused the golem to smoke and to warm. Despite being able to animate the golem, the king was rather upset at my two incorrect progress reports, and I lost much face at court. Only one word described my final score - horrible. When I rechecked my notes on the golem, I found that I had recorded one of my experiment results incorrectly. An ingredient which caused the golem to warm was recorded as having caused it to smoke. No wonder my progress report was wrong. This is a game where you need to be meticulous and careful at every step, because many deductions depend on the previous steps being right. One misstep and your whole theory unravels.

I was quite confident and my deduction sheet was almost full. Unfortunately being confident didn't necessary mean being right.

The Thoughts

The King's Golem is meant for those who have already played much of the base game and want to extend the replayability or want some variability. If you have not played the base game, do not add this expansion. The base game itself is already quite rich. Some of the small additions in the expansion are, strictly speaking, non-essential. However for long-time players, the variability will be welcome. The golem module is quite a big and complex addition, and is not recommended for new players. Once you are familiar with the base game, you will appreciate how seamlessly this module combines with the original mechanisms. I am certainly impressed.