Sunday 23 July 2017

Five Tribes

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Five Tribes from Days of Wonder is recent enough, but not exactly new. I missed trying it when it first came out. On a recent outing to when we were deciding what to play, I grabbed it off the shelf and asked whether anyone could teach it. Happily we had both Jeff and Ivan who could.

Five Tribes is best known for the congkak / mancala-like mechanism. On your turn, you must move meeples (people). You pick up all meeples from a tile, then distribute them all. You drop one on a tile orthogonally adjacent to the original tile, then another one on a tile adjacent to the second one, and so on, until the last meeple is dropped at your destination tile. As you travel from tile to tile, you must not immediately backtrack. If you want to return to a previous tile, you will have to make a big circuit, and that's assuming you have enough meeples to let you travel that big a circuit. One important rule is the last meeple you drop must be of the same colour as at least one meeple already on the destination tile. This also indirectly means your destination must not be vacant. If we look at the photo above, slightly to the left of centre there is a tile with one yellow and one white meeple. If you pick this tile as your starting point and you pick these two meeples up, you can travel right, drop the white meeple, and then travel right again, and drop the yellow meeple. Your destination has a yellow meeple, so this move is valid.

This is how game setup looks like. You have a 6 x 5 grid of tiles, each randomly seeded with three meeples. That row of 9 small cards on the left are resource cards you can collect. The row of 3 large cards are the djinns you may summon to help you. Meeples come in five colours. They are the five tribes, and they have different abilities. When you move people, the last meeple you drop triggers the tribe ability. You remove all meeples of that colour from the destination tile. The number of meeples removed determines how strong the ability is. If you trigger the white or yellow tribe, you collect these meeples and put them before you. They are worth points at game end. For the yellow tribe, when the game ends you compare your tribesmen with every other player, and score 10VP per opponent if you have more than him. Meeples of the white tribe can be spent to claim a djinn and also to invoke the djinn's power. The blue tribe makes money. The green tribe collects resources, of which there are two categories - merchandise and slaves. Merchandise cards are worth points, depending on how many different types you manage to collect. Slaves are jokers which can be used to summon djinns, to support the blue tribe in earning more money, and to support the red tribe in assassinating more distant targets. Finally, the red tribe are the assassins. They can kill meeples on the board and also meeples belonging to players. If you kill the last meeple on a tile, you get to claim that tile, which is worth points. If you empty a tile due to your Move Meeple action, you also get to claim the tile.

That orange camel is a player marker. This tile belongs to the orange player now. It is worth 5VP (the number with the blue background). This tile has a palace icon. Each time it becomes the destination of a Move Meeple action, a palace must be built, regardless of whether the tile already belongs to a player. Palaces are worth 5VP each. Whenever a tile is the destination of a Move Meeple action, there is an associated power. Some are mandatory, like palace construction. Some are optional, like summoning a djinn (see the tile to the left of the palace tile).

You start the game with $50. Money is victory points. At first I thought $50 seemed a lot. You only use money for bidding for turn order, and sometimes you can spend money to buy resource cards. Only after playing I realised the turn order bidding can be quite competitive and costly.

In a four-player game, everyone has 8 camels. Once any player uses up his, i.e. he has claimed 8 tiles, the game ends. The game also ends if there are no more legal moves on the board.

You use the minaret-shaped player marker pieces and the small board on the right for turn order bidding. The spaces on the turn order track have different prices, ranging from 0 to 18. At the start of a round, you take turns claiming a spot and paying the price. Naturally, the more you are willing to spend, the higher the chance of going earlier. There are three spots for $0. If you bid $0, you take the lowest spot, but it is a risky one. If a player who bids after you also bids $0, he pushes your backwards. He will take his turn before you.

Some of the point values of the tiles have a blue background, and some a red background. There is meaning behind this. The blue background tiles affect how blue meeples earn money. When you trigger the blue tribe, the money you earn is based on the number of blue meeples removed multiplied by the number of blue background tiles in the vicinity - the definition of vicinity being the destination tile itself and the 8 tiles surrounding it, both orthogonally and diagonally. The tile in the centre with the orange camel has one blue meeple and one white meeple. If you start the Move Meeple action here, you can drop the white meeple on the tile to the right, and then the blue meeple on the rightmost tile, which already has a blue meeple. You will earn $6 - 2 blue meeples multiplied by 3 blue background tiles in the vicinity (5, 5 and 10).

These are the various resource cards. The rightmost is a slave. The others are merchandise. The slave only exists in the first edition of the game. In subsequent editions the slaves were replaced with fakirs (clergymen), because some players were offended by the existence of slaves. I personally don't mind the slaves. Slaves are a historical fact.

The Play

I played with Heng, Allen and Dennis. All four of us were new to the game. When Ivan and Jeff taught us the game, they said this was an AP (Analysis Paralysis) game for new players. We said AP was a player problem and not a game problem. However AP turned out to be true. There are indeed many possibilities on the game board, especially in the early game. You need to peruse the board to find the most lucrative opportunities, and at the same time plan your move such that you don't create good opportunities for the next player. If you want to be exhaustive in working out all possibilities and their consequences, it will take a long time.

Allen was first to settle into a clear strategy - the landlord strategy supported by djinns. He summoned a djinn early, which let him directly claim vacant tiles. He also made use of the red tribe to assassinate the last meeples on tiles to empty them and then claim them. In a four player game everyone has only 8 camels, so the rest of us were under tremendous pressure of the game ending soon, once Allen placed his 8th camel. The rest of us should have worked together better to slow him down, e.g. coordinating our moves to minimise leaving empty tiles, or tiles with one meeple left, especially when they are high valued tiles. It was our first time playing so we didn't think that deeply. Dennis went the merchant route, actively collecting resource cards. Heng focused on collecting yellow meeples, and later diversified into white meeples too. I mainly worked on the blue meeples, which helped earn cash. On one of my turns I spent 4 slaves to boost the income I gained from a blue tribe move. I invested in collecting resource cards too, but not as heavily as Dennis.

The board situation constantly changes, so it is difficult to make long-term plans. If you plan early, by the time your turn comes, you may no longer be able to do what you had wanted to do. You would have to analyse anew. For players who are adamant in working out all options in detail, this game can grind to a halt. I prefer to play this way: On others' turns, I analyse the board to get a rough feel of the opportunities. When my turn comes, if what I want to do is still available, I can quickly make my move. If things have changed, I will analyse the recently changed areas to see if there are new opportunities. I try to find a decent move without over-analysing, and when I make my move, I keep in mind that I should not create a windfall for the next player.

Most strategies in this game need persistence, and this somewhat conflicts with the tactical nature of the game. The everchanging board makes longer term planning difficult. However the value in the long term strategies is that they create different priorities for the players. Different players will value the same item differently. If you are pursuing a yellow meeple strategy, they will be more important to you than to the other guy who is pursuing a djinn strategy. You need to consider not only what is helpful to you, but also what others value. If you are the only player collecting white meeples, and there is a good opportunity on the board, you may get away with a low bid for turn order because the others will probably choose to do something else. Of course, someone may still decide to grab that pile of white meeples simply to deny you. When you decide on a strategy, it doesn't mean you can execute that strategy every round. Sometimes the opportunities simply don't come up. However you should always keep an eye out, and you should try to create those opportunities yourself.

Halfway through the game, an idea came to us that on average we should try to earn about 10VP per round. 10VP = $10. By using this guideline, we could better decide how much to bid for turn order. If a good move would give me 18VP, I could afford to bid $8 for it. The 10VP guide was just based on gut feel. We were not sure whether this was a fair benchmark. Going last is not necessarily bad. Although going first guarantees no one will block a move you want to make, if you go late, there may be new opportunities opening up.

Our game was played with Allen constantly exerting pressure to end the game early. I was surprised he was not the eventual winner. Heng won the game. His focus was the yellow meeples. Near game end I managed to catch up to him, and both of us earned 25VP from the yellow meeples. Heng's biggest scoring category was cash. He did not spend much on turn order bidding, and whatever he saved meant more points for him. He also scored in most other categories; not many points in each of them, but they did add up. I scored much in cash too. Thriftiness was a valid strategy!

The Thoughts

Playing Five Tribes is a pleasant experience. For a family game, it is slightly more complex than average, and it is a little thinky (or a lot if you are AP-prone). It is not the Ticket To Ride type of family game. I enjoy the feeling of trying to find gems amidst chaos. It is like those puzzles where you need to find hidden items in a large and busy drawing. In Five Tribes, that large drawing is constantly changing, and new hidden items will appear. In fact, you get to create your own hidden items. Normally I dislike games with "multiple ways of scoring", because they feel like a jumble of mechanisms forcefully tied together. Five Tribes does have "multiple ways of scoring", but I find that the spatial aspect binds them together well. When you do traveling, which pile of meeples to pick, which coloured meeple to drop at every step, and where to stop are all part of the spatial element of the game. Some tiles are worth more VP than others. Some tiles will grow palaces, and some will grow oases. There is a very real landscape to consider. The diverse parts of the game feel concrete to me. They are no longer a bunch of mathematical formulas to be manipulated.

Saturday 15 July 2017

boardgaming in photos: Lost Cities, Ra, Splendor

24 Jun 2017. Lost Cities is a classic from Reiner Knizia which I had not played for quite some time. I had to double check the rulebook when I taught Chen Rui (10), despite having played it many times before. I suggested this to Chen Rui one evening when both of us were bored, and she was just waiting for bedtime. A short filler was perfect for the occasion. She enjoyed it well enough, and we played again afterwards. She managed to win too, even though she always thinks she is not as good as me or her elder sister at boardgames. She has an inferiority complex, always feeling that she is not as capable as her elder sister or me. She is the youngest in the family, so it is normal that her sister is more advanced in many areas. That does not mean she is a poor performer. She calls me the boardgame god. I tell her I am but mortal. It's just that I have played more games than her. On the positive side, she has no pressure when playing and is never overly competitive. She just enjoys the moment with a carefree mind.

26 Jun 2017. Over the Raya holidays some colleagues came over to play. Some had come before, some were here for the first time. Some had tried boardgames before, but all were casual players and not hobbyists. Blokus is a game suitable for casual players and players new to boardgames. Zee Zun, Winter, Eva and Yong Le were first to arrive, so I started them off with Blokus. They quickly understood the importance of not getting blocked and planning how to extend their reach.

After Edwind arrived, I got them to play Kobayakawa, also a short game ideal for when you need to wait for others to arrive.

Confetti is a filler too. It's a real time game, so I told them it was better to play this standing up.

Once everyone was here, I joined them to play. We played The Message and Hoity Toity. The Message was not easy to teach. In particular the character powers were a little overwhelming. It was not easy to remember everybody's powers. The basic gameplay was actually not that complex. I wonder whether it would be feasible to play the first few games without character powers, or with a much simpler set of characters. It took one full game for the new players to better grasp how the game worked and to appreciate some of the tactics. After we finished our game, they suggested we go again, since they had spent the effort to learn the game. So we did a second game right afterwards.

In the second game I was on the red team. We were close to victory when I made a mistake which costed us the game. CK was my teammate and already had two red messages. I had a red message that I could send directly to him to allow us to win. What I hadn't expect was he would reject the message, because he was not yet sure I was a teammate. He only realised so when we flipped over the card to reveal the red message. In hindsight I should have revealed my identity before sending him the message. My character ability allowed me to expose my identity to delete a message in front of any other player. I should have done this to tell CK openly that I was his teammate. What a shame. We were so close!

Hoity Toity was fun. It was a highly interactive psychological game because everyone had to guess what everyone else was trying to do. I was rather greedy, hoping to steal money and artifacts from others early in the game. Both my thieves were caught very quickly, and I suffered a long time being laughed at - "don't worry about him, all his thieves are in jail". We were generally rather conservative, often not daring to put up exhibitions for fear of theft. Artifact thefts were rare. However when they did occur, it was painful for the victims. One funny incident was when we had four players deciding to visit the castle. One decided to try his luck by sending a thief. If any of the others put up an exhibition, he would have something to gain, even if it meant his thief getting caught by any detectives who might be present. Unfortunately all other players decided to send detectives. So the poor fellow was mobbed by detectives, and had nothing to gain but a jail sentence.

Another surprising incident was when five of us decided to visit the auction house. With so many players coming, sending a thief was risky, because whenever there was more than one thief, none of the thieves would be able to steal the money spent at the auction. To our surprise, Zee Zun made the gamble, and became the only person to have sent a thief. He managed to steal the money paid by the highest bidder.

Ra reminds me of the time I spent in Taiwan. I introduced it to my friends there, and all of us played it many times.

When I tried it with this group, it worked out well too.

They understood that when their sun tiles were weak, they needed to invoke Ra frequently to prevent those players with strong sun tiles from getting too many good tiles.

My copy of Ra is an old German version. When I first learned of this game, it was out of print. I decided to hand-make a copy. Looking back at the effort required, I feel amazed at myself. When I introduced the game to my Taiwanese friends, we played my black-and-white homemade copy endlessly. We were all fond of the game. They found a second-hand copy on eBay Germany, and secretly bought it as a birthday present for me. We had a boardgame session that day, and they insisted that I be start player. For my first turn, I naturally drew a tile from the bag. I was stunned to see a beautiful, colourful tile in my hand. It took me a while to process the information. I realised this surprise present was why they insisted I be start player. This was one very touching moment I would never forget.

27 Jun 2017. Splendor was on sale at the iOS Appstore, and I couldn't resist buying it. I have played the physical version, and I think it's a wonderful game. I did not buy a physical copy because I felt I might not have many opportunities to play it at home. Also, if I wanted to play, I could easily find friends who owned a copy. When I saw it on sale, I decided why not support the game makers. I also hoped that I would get to play the digital version sooner on later. I did get to play it soon after buying it. I enlisted the children to play with me during the Raya break. At first I thought we could play using individual devices, but it seemed quite a hassle so eventually we just played using the pass-and-play mode on one device. The game was mostly open information, so it was fine playing this way. The children liked the game. They spent the first game exploring the strategies. By the time we played the second game, Shee Yun (12) was able to plan ahead which nobles to fight for, and managed to win the game. I was certainly glad to see her apply strategic thinking and achieve victory by doing so.

One pleasant surprise I found in the electronic version of Splendor was the Challenges - single player puzzles. A Challenge consists of a set of special rules and an objective. E.g. you need to reach 18pts within 18 turns, there are only two gems per type on the board, and they are exhausted once used. In some Challenges the starting cards and the draw deck are preset. In some others only the starting cards are preset while the draw deck is randomised. In this screenshot above there are many locations shown. Each location has 10 different Challenges. There is a lot of content!

Each Challenge comes with a short historical note. This is just flavour text, but it is a nice touch.

The objective and the special rules are listed this way. So far I have attempted only a few Challenges. They are not easy at all. I have only managed to solve one. There was one I failed to solve after many attempts. I realise there is much more to Splendor than I expected. I still have much to learn. Interesting!

Saturday 8 July 2017


Plays: 1Px12.

The Game

Onirim is a solitaire card game with an unusual setting and unusual mechanisms. You are trapped in a nightmare, and you need to unlock eight doors to escape. You must do this before daybreak. Else you will be forever trapped inside the nightmare. This sounds a little disturbing.

The card deck has 76 cards. Most cards are in one of the four suits - blue, red, green and beige. 10 of the cards are Nightmares. Your hand size is five. You always draw back to five at the end of a turn. The draw deck is your countdown. If you exhaust it before unlocking all eight doors, you lose. In the screenshot above there are two numbers to take note of. The red 10 means there are still 10 Nightmares in the deck. The white 71 means there are 71 cards in the draw deck. This number is your timer.

There are four types of normal cards - sun, moon, key and door. Sun cards are the most common, followed by moon cards. Keys are rare and are the most precious.

At the start of a turn, you have two simple choices - play a card or discard a card. If you decide to play a card, it is played in the play area at the top of the screen. You may play a sun card, a moon card or a key card. The only rule here is the symbol on the card being played must differ from that of the previous card. There is no restriction in colour. If you manage to play three cards in a row of the same colour, you unlock a door in this colour. You find the door card from the deck and set it aside, then reshuffle the deck. In this screenshot above you can see that one of the green doors was unlocked by having three consecutive green cards.

The second way to unlock a door is to have the matching key card in hand when drawing the door card. In the screenshot above, I had the red key card in hand when I drew the red door. The rules say that in this situation you may choose not to unlock the door, but so far I have never done such a thing. I think you would do this only when you are doing well in a particular colour and you feel you have surplus keys. Not unlocking the door means you can save the key for a different purpose. Key cards do have a powerful ability. If you discard a key card, you trigger a Prophecy. You draw five cards from the deck, discard one, then return the other four to the top of the deck in any order you wish. You can use this ability to discard a Nightmare card. Rearranging the other four cards can be very helpful too.

When you draw a Nightmare card, this is what you see. You have four options, and usually none are appetising. (1) Discard all hand cards, (2) Discard five cards from the top of the draw deck, (3) Discard a key card from your hand, (4) Return an unlocked door.

You may examine the discard pile at any time. This helps you assess probabilities and make decisions.

The last card in the play area is a beige moon card. So the next card to be played can't be a moon card. It has to be a sun card or a key card.

The Play

Onirim is a little weird, both in the backstory and in the mechanisms. I have not seen anything quite like it. It is certainly refreshing. At first I kept winning, and I thought it was rather easy. Only after a few more plays I realised at times it can be quite challenging. There are little tactics to learn here and there. The game regularly forces you to make tough decisions. Sometimes you can roughly gauge the probabilities to make a logical decision, but probabilities are just that, unexpected things can and do occur. Sometimes you don't have enough information to make a sound decision, you just have to gamble. The 10 Nightmare cards are like bombs buried in the deck. You never know when the next one will come. This makes the game tense. There is always a sense of urgency. The times you draw a Nightmare card are often when you need to make the most difficult judgement calls. Sometimes you hesitate to discard your hand cards because they are good, but then you also worry if you discard the top five cards from the draw deck they may turn out to be good cards too. This is a clever little game that gives you a decent challenge.

One blue door away from victory.

The winning screen.

The Thoughts

Onirim is a solo card game that takes only a few minutes to play. It is a filler. It is unconventional and an interesting diversion. Don't expect it to be a game you can spend an afternoon on. At the moment it is still free on Playstore and Appstore, so if you have not tried it, I encourage you to give it a go. I say this with a tourist mindset. Onirim is an exotic local delicacy you should taste, even if it's not something that will become a staple. I believe you will be happy to have experienced it.

Saturday 1 July 2017

Cottage Garden

Plays: 3Px1, 2Px1.

The Game

Cottage Garden is a light game from Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, Le Havre). It has the Tetris-like puzzle element, similar to Patchwork and A Feast for Odin.

Every player has two 5x5 player boards. These are your flowerbeds. Your job is to fill them up with the Tetris-like pieces, which are mostly flowers (some are other garden decorations or equipment). Each time you fill up a flowerbed, you score points, and then get a new flowerbed to start over. There are flower pots and plant covers on the flowerbeds. You want to keep them exposed as much as possible, because they are what score points for you. The L-shaped piece on the left is your score board. When you score flower pots, you may advance any one of the orange scoring markers. When you score plant covers, you advance a blue marker. Notice that each step a flower pot marker advances gives you 1pt, while a plant cover marker gives you 2pt per step. Also, between 14pt / 15pt and 20pt, there is only one step, so it is a steal if you manage to get there.

The cat pieces are 1x1 pieces which help you fill up your flowerbeds. They don't score points, but they are convenient and they can be used at any time.

This is the main board, called the nursery. During game setup, it is filled with flowers tiles. Players claim flowers from this board to add to their individual flowerbeds. The die is a countdown mechanism. At the end of every player's turn, it is moved one step clockwise. When it completes a full circuit around the board, its value is increased by one. When the value reaches 6, the game enters the final stage. Upon entering the final stage, flowerbeds with too few flowers are immediately discarded. The game ends after the remaining flowerbeds are filled up by their respective owners. The twist is from this point onwards there is a penalty at the start of every turn you take. So you want to finish up your flowerbeds as quickly as possible. Otherwise whatever you score from them may not be sufficient to cover the penalties.

The die also determines which flowers are available to the active player. On your turn you may only choose from the flowers in the same row (or column) as the die. The active row sometimes needs to be refilled. If there is only one flower tile remaining, the row is refilled before you take your turn. Alternatively, you may spend one cat to refill it, giving yourself more choices.

Notice the tile at the top left corner of the flowerbed on the right. There is a flower pot on it. These flower pots score points too, not only those printed directly on the flowerbed.

When I read the rules, I thought the rule for the parasol was rather silly. If you need to borrow a flower tile from the main board to see whether it fits well on your flowerbed, you are supposed to place the parasol on the spot from which you borrowed the tile, so that you won't forget where you need to return the tile to. I thought that was unnecessarily cumbersome. However when I actually sat down to play, I realised it was indeed easy to forget where I took the borrowed tile from. I was humbled. The gamemakers knew what they were doing.

Flower tiles not yet in use are to be arranged in a queue beside the nursery (main board), so that players know what is coming next. The hand cart points to the head of the queue.

This is a completed flowerbed. Look closely and you will see that two of the flower pots are actually round tokens and are not printed on the flowerbed. On your turn, in lieu of taking a flower tile from the nursery, you may take one of these flower pot tokens. This sounds like a good deal, since each flower pot is worth 1pt. However flower tiles are much larger and help you complete a flowerbed more quickly. So usually these flower pot tokens are used to fill up those odd spaces on your flowerbeds which are hard to find flower tiles for. When scoring this completed flowerbed above, you move one orange marker 6 steps (for the flower pots) and one blue marker 2 steps (for the plant covers).

The nursery is double sided. Depending on the number of players, the rules are slightly adjusted and you need to use the appropriate side.

That red line at the elbow of the L-shaped board means something. Whenever a score marker crosses the line, you gain a cat. The scoring mechanism in Cottage Garden pulls you in two different directions - quality vs quantity. If you focus on advancing a single orange marker and a single blue marker, they will most likely exceed the 14pt and 15pt spots on the score track, and give you bonuses by jumping straight to 20pt. Being first to reach 20pt also gives you a bonus. This is the quality angle. The quantity angle presents two incentives too. If you advance your markers evenly, more of them will cross the red line, giving you more cats, which in turn help you complete more flowerbeds. Also, each time your third marker of a colour leaves the starting space, you gain a free flower pot. This again helps you fill up your flowerbeds.

The Play

Playing with the children.

When I explained the rules to the children, they sounded a little complicated, because there were quite a few situations I had to describe and explain what needed to be done when they came up. However, the actual playing of the game was very simple most of the time. The various situations I had to explain did come up, but not frequently. Most of the time you are just picking a flower tile and placing it on one of your flowerbeds. This is a casual and relaxing game.

There are some tactics in picking the flower tiles. You can see which tiles fit your flowerbeds well, and you can calculate whether you will have a chance to claim them. You can also check whether a tile you want is useful to your opponents. If it is, you probably want to take it before someone else does. Otherwise you can probably risk the wait. You can also look ahead at the tiles which will be soon entering the nursery. Sometimes it is worth spending a cat to bring them in early, so that you can get your hands on a particularly nice-fitting flower tile. There are plenty of little tricks to apply, but nothing too taxing.

Tempo is something to consider too. You want to time your planting such that when the game enters the final phase, your flowerbeds are either almost complete, or barely started. A mostly empty flowerbed means you can discard it without taking penalty, and an almost completed flowerbed means you will take minimal penalty before finishing up and scoring points.

I have listed quite a number of tactical considerations, but I am probably making it sound more complex than it actually is. This is a light game. Perhaps I am being influenced by the artwork. I cannot picture this being anything other than a leisurely pastime, like some quiet gardening work.

A 2-player game in progress.

Chen Rui suggested we put the flower pots in the cart, which I thought was a brilliant idea!

The Thoughts

Cottage Garden is a light family game, a casual game. There is some strategy, but it is generally relaxing and non-confrontational. The main selling point is the Tetris-like spatial puzzle element. How much you like the game depends on how much you like this core mechanism. The rest of the game are supporting mechanisms. Comparing Cottage Garden and Patchwork, in Patchwork you won't be able to fill up your player board, but in Cottage Garden you will fill it up again and again. There are many tools to help you do this. It is as if Uwe Rosenberg felt bad for teasing you in Patchwork, and now wanted to give you the satisfaction of getting the job done. Cottage Garden has more rules and more components, and thus should be more complex. Strangely, it doesn't feel so to me. In fact there is one aspect in Patchwork which makes me feel it is the deeper game. In Patchwork you need to consider the economic ramifications when you choose a tile. You need to plan for the future, you need to stay solvent (even if your currency is buttons). Cottage Garden is more pure in driving you towards completing your flowerbeds. It is a straightforward, pleasant game.