Friday 29 September 2017

Project: ELITE

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Here's the scenario. Earth has been invaded and overrun by aliens, and only small pockets of humans continue to resist the invaders. The human resistance forms an elite team, and sends them on critical missions in the fight against the aliens. You are part of this elite team.

Project: ELITE is a cooperative game and a real-time game. Each game is a mission. You have a fixed number of rounds, and you need to complete your mission before the final round ends. Sometimes you need to kill specific enemies, sometimes you need to retrieve some artifacts, sometimes you need to sabotage some facilities. The game is partially real-time, and this is what makes the game different. At the start of a round, new aliens appear on the game board. Then you, members of the elite team, get to perform actions. Finally the aliens perform actions. The human action phase is the part which is done in real-time. You only have two minutes. Everyone has a set of four dice. You roll your own dice, and use the icons you roll to perform actions. After you use an icon, you may reroll the die and use it again. If you don't like what you roll, you can simply pick up the die and reroll. It seems that the faster you roll, the more you will get to do, but there is a catch! If you roll the alien icon, you must move an alien. This can result in the alien attacking you or your teammate. So rolling dice comes with risks.

The white dice are the player's action dice. The red icon is the alien icon, which is bad news. The other icons let you do various different actions. The green dice are the attack dice. You roll them when you attack. Each weapon has an attack value - you need to roll a certain number on the attack dice for them to count as hits. The card on the right is a character card. Each character has a special ability. The three circles at the bottom are spaces for life tokens. You remove a token each time an alien hits you. When you lose all three, you lose one die and then refill the tokens. You start the game with four dice. If you lose your last die, your character dies and everyone loses the game.

Before the game starts, you draw two cards per player. This can be any combination of equipment cards and weapon cards. You lay them all out, and then as a group you decide who takes what. The icons on the cards specify what die icons are needed to activate the card. The two cards on the left have icons with red backgrounds. This means when you activate the card with a die, that die is locked. You only take the die back next round. This means the card can only be used once per round. Also once you use it, you will have one die less for the rest of the round. Normally a weapon has three properties - range, the number of attack dice you may roll, and the minimum die value required to score hits.

My special ability is if I kill an enemy in melee combat, I may move into its space for free. This is why I have chosen the duel blades as my weapon. They are melee weapons so they synergise with my ability.

This is the game board. It is two sided and the two sides are different. On this side, the players' base is at the bottom left. This is where you start out, and this is also where you must return to after completing your mission in order to win the game. At the three other corners, there are spawn points for the aliens. All over the board you can see small arrows. These indicate how aliens move. The arrows all flow from the spawn points to the player base. You must not let any alien enter your base. If this happens you lose. On the board there are structures which block movement and line of sight. At the top left there is a schedule, which needs to be set up based on the scenario you are playing. In specific rounds there will be events (usually bad), and in some others there will be alien bosses appearing (also bad news).

These grey aliens are the foot soldiers. Each soldier type has its own set of characteristics, e.g. how fast they move, how strong their attacks are.

Player characters are beige in colour. This kind of situation is very common - you are often swarmed by aliens. There is wave after wave of aliens. While trying to stay alive by mowing them down before they overwhelm you, you also need to remember to complete your mission objective.

In the game we played, our mission was to retrieve four artifacts - those large tiles with red backgrounds and yellow hand icons. They were scattered around the board and we had to go out to them and bring them back. To move an artifact by one step required committing a die with the hand icon for the rest of the round. The number of hand icons on an artifact is also the limit on how many moves it can make per round. At the time of this photo three artifacts had been retrieved, but the fourth one was still some ways away.

Green coloured aliens are the lieutenants. They are stronger than the foot soldiers. In the background you can see a blurry red patch. That's a boss-level alien. They are tough nuts to crack and often come with very annoying powers.

Standing in the path of an alien is dangerous. If the alien moves, it will push you back and also injure you. Alien movement is performed by the players. You decide the order in executing their movement, and sometimes you have options where they move to. Naturally you want to execute all these while minimising damage. However there are often too many aliens on the board and it is not easy to completely avoid damage.

The Play

Project: ELITE is a dungeon crawl style game, in a sci-fi setting. You have special abilities, you carry weapons, and you kill monsters while trying to complete a quest. What makes the game different is the real-time execution of player actions. The real-time segments come in short bursts, unlike in Escape: The Curse of the Temple where it is all in a single 10-minute take. Still, the game does deliver adrenaline-pumping excitement. It is certainly more complex than Escape. There is more admin work, like handling alien movement and attacks, so it may not be possible or desirable to make the whole thing real-time. I think the experience would be even better if it could be done.

The break time between the real-time segments is useful. You want to catch your breath, discuss tactics, assign responsibilities and decide what to do next round.

We won the game, but it was not easy. Early on we decided to split into two teams of two, each team going in a different direction to retrieve different artifacts. Ivan's team did their part quickly, but my team struggled. We were swamped by aliens and could barely keep them at bay. Our progress was slow. There were three spawn points for aliens, and we couldn't predict where and how many would enter the board. It depended on the cards we drew.

Sometimes we had to make personal sacrifices. In one situation we had options in moving the aliens, but both options would result in some of us to getting injured. It was not just a matter of seeing which option would result in less injury, or which option would prevent already injured players from getting further injured. We also had to consider who were in more useful locations and would be able to contribute more towards the objective. Ultimately, the objective was most important. Well, unless someone was going to get killed, because then everyone would lose.

The Thoughts

The real-time gameplay is exciting. I rarely see such being implemented in dungeon crawl type games. I can only think of Space Hulk. The dungeon crawl aspect of the game is common, nothing that strikes me as outstanding. It works well enough. It is the real-time mechanism and the dice mechanism which gives the game its novelty factor.

Friday 22 September 2017

Igloo Pop

Plays: 3Px1, 4Px1.

The Game

Igloo Pop is a listening game. That's certainly not something you hear often.

The most important and also unusual game component is these plastic igloos. There are twelve of them, and they contain 2 to 13 beads. The number of beads is written at the bottom of each igloo. In this game you need to shake the igloos and listen to the sounds they make in order to guess the numbers of beads in them.

Every player starts the game with some player markers (the green and orange discs in the photo above). During a round you use your markers to claim igloos and to make guesses. If you guess right, you claim a card (which is worth points). If you guess wrong, you lose your marker. The game ends when one player loses all his markers, or when the card deck is exhausted.

Before the start of a round, 9 cards are laid out like this. Each card has one to three numbers. You want to find igloos of the corresponding numbers and place them onto the right cards to claim those cards. Usually it is easier to find the right igloo for cards with three numbers, however these cards are only worth 1pt. Cards with only one number are worth 3pts, but of course the risk is also higher. All the igloos are shuffled, and you can't see the numbers beneath them. Once the round starts, everything happens in real-time. Anyone can pick any of the igloos up and shake it. If you are confident you know what the number is, you may claim it by attaching your marker and then placing it on one of the cards having that number. If you are not confident, or if you think there is no card with that number, you can return the igloo to the pool and move on to another. The round ends when all igloos are claimed, or when no one wants the remaining igloos. You then proceed to do scoring.

When a round ends, the game should look like this. Igloos which have been claimed using player markers are placed on cards. Sometimes a card has no igloo. Sometimes it has one, and sometimes more than one. Scoring is basically turning over all the igloos to see whether they have been placed on the right cards. If the numbers match, the card is claimed by the player. If the numbers don't match, the player loses his marker. If two or more igloos on the same card are correct, the higher number wins.

If all cards are exhausted, the game ends. If a player runs out of markers, the game ends too. Otherwise, draw back up to 9 cards on the table and go again.

The Play

This is a noisy game. Don't play it at a library. The librarian will throw you out. It's not easy to tell the number by listening. At least it wasn't for me. Some of the lower numbers are easier. The higher ones are certainly not. Sometimes you need to shake one, and then another, so that you can compare and decide which has more beads. Since it is not easy to tell the number by listening, quite often the game is about risk management. If you are not so sure, you probably want to go for the cards with three numbers. Even so, sometimes you will still guess wrong. Risk management also includes taking into account how many points everyone has scored, and how many markers everyone has remaining. If someone is down to very few markers, and you are far behind, you probably need to take bigger risks. Otherwise you'll never catch up before the game ends. If you happen to be far ahead, you may want to consider deliberately guessing wrong in order to lose all your markers and force the game to end. These are some of the little tactics in the game.

The Thoughts

Igloo Pop is a children's game and also a party game. It's noisy, nutty fun - not to be taken too seriously. It works for younger children, even if they may not fully appreciate the risk management aspect. "Risk management" is the adult in me talking. It's a real-time game, so excitement and urgency are part of the package. The unique mechanism makes this an eye-catching game (or ear-catching?). Unfortunately it is out-of-print now and won't be easy to find.

Sunday 17 September 2017


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Fold-It is certainly unique. Your main game component is a colourful piece of cloth. It consists of a 4x4 grid, and each space in the grid contains a dish, e.g. spaghetti, sushi, pizza, chicken chop, ramen, big breakfast. The cloth is double-sided. At each position on it, the dish is the same one on both front and back. The game is a real-time game. Everyone starts with 3 life points. At the beginning of each round, a card is revealed, and it depicts a number of dishes. You must then fold your own piece of cloth in such a way that those exact dishes are visible. Whoever is last to achieve this is penalised and loses one life point. Gradually the players are disqualified, and the last person standing wins the game.

When you fold your piece of cloth, you may only fold along the straight lines forming the grid. You can't fold diagonally and you can't fold along the middle of a square. You may use either or both sides of your cloth. This card shows three dishes, and the cloth has been folded to show these exact three, no more and no fewer.

Cards come in two categories - easy and hard. The active player of the round decides which type to draw. Of these four cards in this photo, certainly the leftmost one is from the easy category. It shows only one dish. It's a matter of folding your cloth quickly, and not a matter of working out how to do it.

Those round counters with stars are the life points. When you fold your cloth, the dishes being made visible need not be in the precise positions as depicted by the card.

It's OK to be a little messy, as long as it is clear you have done your folding right. This being a speed game means often you can't be bothered with form.

The Play

The folding mechanism is certainly fresh and novel. When I first played, there were some puzzles which I got stuck with for a long time. It took a while for me to get used to the very unique spatial element of this game. When Wai Yan taught Chen Rui (10) and I to play, we didn't play by the rules. We just revealed card after card and tried to solve the puzzles. We probably spent more time learning how to solve puzzles than actually playing a proper game. Eventually we only did one proper game.

Fold-It reminds me of Ubongo. When you get stuck with a puzzle, it really bugs you and you can't let it go until you manage to solve it. It doesn't matter if you are already the last player or if time has run out. You need to solve this puzzle! After you get a better grasp of the techniques, the game doesn't become pointless. It just changes in nature. Now it is not a matter of who can and who cannot solve the puzzle. It becomes a contest of who can solve it more quickly.

The Thoughts

Fold-It is a party game, a family game, a casual game, a filler. It is a light game. This is not the type I chase after, but it has its occasions and it serves a few purposes. I am happy to have satisfied my curiosity and to have experienced its unusual mechanism.

Friday 15 September 2017

Dice Forge

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The main selling point of Dice Forge is the fact that you get to modify your dice as you play. Everyone has two dice, and at the start of the game they are all the same. During play, you may spend gold to upgrade your die faces to better versions. Players' dice will gradually diverge. This is a little like deck-building games. Players start on equal footing but gradually augment their individual abilities.

This is the player board. You use it for recording your resource levels. The yellow row is for gold, the red row for sun shards and the blue row for moon shards. Your storage space is limited for each resource type. If it is full you can't collect more. You may expand your storage during the game. The green rows are for score keeping. Highest scorer after the last round wins the game.

The game is played over a fixed number of rounds, depending on the number of players. At the start of each player's turn, everyone including the active player rolls his dice and collects resources accordingly. The die faces mostly depict various resources in different quantities. Some die faces let you pick from two or more resource types. Some die faces grant special abilities, e.g. tripling the production of the other die.

The main board consists of seven islands floating in the sky. Each island has 2 or 3 small piles of cards. On your turn, one of your two options is to visit an island to buy a card (in the game this is called performing a heroic feat), paying sun shards or moon shards. Some cards give you special abilities, some give you points, and some give both. The number of cards available depends on the number of players. Sometimes you need to compete if others want the same cards. If you visit an island which is currently occupied, you bump the incumbent away. This costs you nothing, but the player being bumped gets a free die roll, i.e. he will gain some resources.

The other option on your turn is to visit the temple to make an offering to the gods, i.e. to upgrade your dice. You pay gold to make one or more upgrades to your die faces. The quantities of upgrades are limited, so sometimes you will need to compete too.

The game is beautifully illustrated and the production value is top notch.

The costs of cards are listed on the cards themselves as well as on the board. The game comes with variants. You can mix and match the cards available as well as the die upgrades available.

Some card powers are single-use while others are permanent. These here are all single-use. The card on the left gives me two extra rolls. The card in the middle lets me change one die face to "x3". The card on the right expands my resource storage capacity.

The Play

The gameplay is simple and smooth. You roll dice, collect resources, upgrade your dice, and ultimately your goal is to score points. The early game is mostly about upgrading your dice, and the late game is all about scoring as many points as you can before time runs out. The tricky part is balancing the transition from improving your scoring ability to using that ability to actually score points. If you only think of upgrading your dice, you will miss out on actual scoring, which is what matters in the end. If you start focusing on scoring too early, you will likely be doing it less efficiently because you have not built up your strength.

The die upgrades and the cards do have some synergy. There are combos you can make, which can help you create something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sun and moon shards behave a little differently - the kind of cards they let you buy are different in nature. You may spend two sun shards to take an extra action. This can be valuable in the early game. The earlier you improve your abilities, the more you will get to utilise them throughout the game.

The Thoughts

Dice Forge didn't work for me. It felt soulless. I only see the unique selling point - that you get to change your die faces. The rest of the game are common mechanisms pieced together to flesh out the game which is built around this single selling point. I can't say there is any major flaw or imbalance. I have only played one game. I do see there is some strategy in picking die upgrades and cards, and in finding synergies. I can't feel the story and the emotions. I only see an exercise in making upgrades and scoring points efficiently.

Player interaction exists but is limited. Die upgrades and cards are limited, so you may need to rush before some of them run out. If you can anticipate where your opponents want to go, getting there just before they do will give you a bonus because you force them to bump you off. Most of the time you are focused on upgrading your own dice efficiently, and then using them efficiently to score points.

One possible problem is your die upgrades may not always give you good returns. Even if you upgrade a die face to an exceptionally good one, there is only a 1 in 6 chance of activating that face. If you are unlucky, you never activate it, thus wasting your gold and your effort. Bad luck is very real. The fact that you get to roll dice on everyone's turn somewhat mitigates this. Since you do roll dice a lot, luck somewhat evens out.

Saturday 9 September 2017


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The Sanssouci Palace is in Germany, and some call it the equivalent of the Palace of Versailles. The name is French and means "free of worry". It is meant to be more a rest and relax place than a seat of power. The Sanssouci boardgame is designed by Michael Kiesling. In this game you build the garden of the palace, and try to impress visiting noblemen.

Everyone has a player board like this. It is double sided and the two sides have different starting setups. The player board is the garden of the palace. There are 6 rows and 9 columns. The first row is fully built up. A few other spaces are built. At the top, right along the palace building itself, is a row of noblemen. These are the people you are trying to impress, one nobleman per column. Every turn you must escort one nobleman to a new location. The new location must be in the same column, but further down.

Everyone has a same deck of cards. At the start of the game, you shuffle your own deck and draw two. Every turn you play a card then draw a replacement. The game ends after you have played every card. Every card will be used exactly once. You use a card to claim a tile from the main board to place on your player board. The tiles are various types of decorative structures you can build in your garden. In this photo, the card on the left lets you claim a tile from the orange or blue rows of the main board. You must place the tile on a corresponding orange or blue space on your player board. The card on the right lets you claim a spiral structure. Sometimes if a specific structure type is not available on the main board, your card becomes a joker and you get to pick anything. These are usually golden opportunities. You are much less restricted.

This is the main board. In the centre there are five rows with two tiles each. You claim tiles from here. Whenever a tile is claimed, another is randomly drawn to take its place.

There are strict rules about placing tiles. When you take a tile from the main board, it comes from a specific coloured row. You must place this tile in the matching coloured row on your board. Also the tile is of a specific structure type. You must place it in the column of that type on your board. In essence, there is only one legal placement for any tile you claim. After placing a tile, the second action you take to complete your turn is to move a nobleman. He must move to a new spot which is further down in the same column, but he doesn't have to move in a straight line. He can take a roundabout way as long as there is an uninterrupted path to his destination. The nobleman scores points depending on which row he stops at. The further down he stops, the more points he scores. In this photo, two of the nobles on the right have started moving.

In this photo you can see a nobleman who has taken a roundabout way to reach his final destination. The third nobleman from the right has reached the bottom, and you can see his column is not yet completed. To get to his current location, he has taken a detour down the spiral structure column (second column from the right).

Now if you look at the tile above him, you will notice that instead of a garden structure, there is a portrait of a gardener. Gardeners are on the backs of every tile. When you take a tile from the main board, and the location on your player board where it is meant to be placed is already occupied, you get to flip the tile (to become a gardener) and place it at any location in the same row or column as the original intended location. This can be very handy, e.g. when you desperately need to fill a location for which you don't have the right card. However, there is also a drawback. Noblemen do not stop where a gardener is at work, i.e. you won't be able to use that location to score points.

When you place tiles, they need not connected to the palace, e.g. those two at the bottom right are currently isolated. Eventually you will want to connect all of them, to allow noblemen to visit the high value locations.

This was near game end. That nobleman in the middle had only taken one step, but I had great plans for him. I would make sure before the game ended he would walk all the way to the 6VP location at the bottom of his column. He would go left to take a long route, but he would get there. During the game I played, I focused much energy on filling the 6th row and building connections for the noblemen to get there. It was only halfway through that I realised I should have put some effort on the 5th row as well. Ideally I could get a nobleman to score both the 5VP and 6VP locations of his column. 5VP was significant.

After the game ends, each completed row and column are also worth points. That's another thing you can aim for.

The Play

Sanssouci feels like a solitaire game. You are all building your own gardens, creating your own paths, and attending to your own noble visitors. However there is some subtle player interaction. You want to watch what tiles your opponents need from the main board in addition to knowing what you need. If there is something an opponent desperately wants which is somewhat useful to you, you probably want to snatch it. If there are multiple tiles useful to you, you can prioritise which to get first by evaluating how sought after they are by your opponents. You can play without thinking about these and just worry about your own player board. The game still works. This is one reason Sanssouci works well as a family game. You can play it casually.

You get a soothing satisfaction from seeing your garden take shape and the paths link up. You will have a rough blueprint in mind. Every round, you take a small step in turning your blueprint into reality. Sometimes you are forced to change your plan, because you don't draw the cards you need or the tiles you need are not available. Sometimes you change plans because an easier path presents itself, or you just want to mess with someone else's plans. Every round you get closer to what you envision.

You don't have that many cards for the whole game, and each card can only be used once. You know you won't fill up the board. It's a question of how well you work within the limitations and how you make the best of what you draw. It is an interesting challenge. Since the deck is a fixed deck, you can somewhat plan ahead. You know the cards you want will come sooner or later. You can hold on to a card for the best moment to play it. You can plan your garden building taking into account cards you know you will eventually draw.

The Thoughts

Sanssouci is a mid-weight family game. It is a peaceful game. Planning the garden you want to build and then executing your plan step by step are satisfying. Throughout the game you score points every round, so your scoring marker races around the score track against those of your opponents. There will be pressure to keep up. You need to plan your moves a few turns ahead to maintain a steady progress. Two secret objective cards given at the start of the game also create different incentives to players, resulting in variety.

Friday 1 September 2017

Power Grid: The Card Game

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

I like Power Grid and have collected quite a few expansions. In 2011 there was a version released called Power Grid: The First Sparks, using the stone age as its setting. It was a simplified version of Power Grid. I didn't like it because I didn't feel Power Grid needed simplifying. And then last year (2016) we had Power Grid: The Card Game. This version took a different approach. Instead of streamlining all mechanisms and the overall gameplay, the map (i.e. spatial) element was entirely carved out.

This is how the game is set up. At the top you see two rows of four cards each. These are the power plants you can buy through auctions. In the middle there are four columns of cards. This is the resource market. The columns are numbered 1 to 4, referring to the price when you buy a resource card from the corresponding column. The $1 column starts empty. Resource cards are added here only under specific situations. Normal resource cards cost at least $2. After the resource buying phase each round, there will be holes in the $2 to $4 columns. Leftover resources are shifted left, i.e. they become cheaper. The columns are then filled up using cards drawn from the resource deck.

The overall structure of a round is simple - you may buy a power plant, you may buy resources, and finally you may expend resources to generate electricity and make money. There are many types of power plants. Some require a specific resource type (e.g. uranium, coal), some can use multiple resource types (e.g. oil or gas), some don't require resources at all (e.g. hydro plants and wind farms). You spend money on plants and resources to make more money, and then spend that money on buying bigger and better plants to make even more money. You prepare for a final round after the power plant deck runs out for the first time. In this final round, the money your plants earn is directly converted to points. If you have money left over from earlier rounds, it is converted to points at a 10:1 ratio. Whoever has the most points at game end wins.

Like the original Power Grid, turn order is very important. It is something you need to be aware of at all times, and you need to manipulate it to your advantage. Turn order is determined by how much you have earned in the previous round, and ties are broken by how big your best power plant is. When auctioning off new power plants, you go in turn order. This is slightly disadvantageous to players who are leading. They must decide first which plants to bid for. They cannot wait and see. When buying resources, you go in reverse turn order. Again the leading players are at a disadvantage. They will likely lose out on the cheaper resources.

The value in the top corners is the minimum price of a power plant. If you want to buy a plant, that's the minimum bid. At the bottom left corner you see the resources required to power up the plant. At the bottom right you see how much you earn when the plant generates electricity.

Normally you only get to bid for plants in the top row. The bottom row is just a preview of what may soon become available. These two rows of cards are always arranged in ascending order. When a plant is bought, a new one is drawn to take its place. The two rows may need to be rearranged depending on the minimum price of the newly drawn plant.

I now have two power plants. The limit is three. The resources are placed below the corresponding plants. The storage capacity of a plant is double the resource amount required to power up the plant. That means you may at most buy an amount of resources needed to power the plant for the current round and the next. The numbers along the edges of the resource cards indicate the quantity. Each time you consume a resource, you turn the card 90 degrees clockwise. When you reach 0, discard the card.

The Play

The game has plenty of tactical bouts. You fight at the plant auctions and at the resource market. You fight to maintain a healthy growth. You need to keep making money and upgrading your plants, and you don't want to fall behind. You are constantly manipulating the turn order. The long-term strategy is always to get to a strong set of power plants by the last round, and to be able to power them all. The journey is full of pitfalls and unexpected twists. The order of power plants appearing is random, and this is a tricky uncertainty to manage. It affects the scarcity and the prices of resources, and your decisions on which power plant types to compete in. The order of resource cards appearing is also random.

Jostling for position at the turn order track is crucial. It is disadvantageous to be in the lead, but it doesn't make sense to stay behind all the time just to avoid this disadvantage. You do need to progress, and you can't afford to stunt your growth.

The most important player interaction is in the power plant bidding. It affects who you will compete with for resources. If affects your income and turn order too. It is important to consider your power plant upgrade path. This is the crux of the game, and it is not something you can really plan beforehand. You need to be nimble and be keenly aware of the situation. Ideally you want to save money and not change power plants too many times, but sometimes you need to get a middling plant as a stepping stone to help you earn enough money for the better plant that will come later.

I have 3 power plants now. The next time I buy a new one, I will have to decommission one of them.

We did a 6-player game, and we barely had enough space at the table.

The Thoughts

I didn't have high hopes for Power Grid: The Card Game, but it proved me wrong. I didn't like Power Grid: The First Sparks because I felt it was an unnecessarily diluted version. In Power Grid: The Card Game, a huge chunk was cut out, but surprisingly it retained much of what makes Power Grid interesting. There is still enough depth. There are still interesting interactions in fighting for power plants, in buying resources, and in managing turn order. Jaime Lannister with one hand less is still a very interesting character.

What purpose does this card version serve? It is a shorter game if you don't mind skipping the map element. It doesn't feel incomplete or dumbed down. If you specifically like the spatial element in Power Grid though, then the card game is probably not for you.