Sunday 21 January 2018

Hanafuda (Japanese traditional game) - Koi Koi

Plays: 2Px6.

I bought my cheap set of Hanafuda cards more than two years ago, and only used it to play a game for the first time recently. One difficulty was not understanding the Japanese rulebook that came with the game. I searched the internet for rulebooks, and none among those I found are exactly the same. I wonder whether there simply are multiple ways to play, and people just mix and match a set of rules they like. Overall I think I got the core mechanisms right. I don't think I've done anything that unbalances the game.

The Game

Hanafuda refers to the set of cards, i.e. the game components, as opposed to an actual game and its rules. Hanafuda cards can be used to play many different games, and Koi Koi is one of the most commonly played. It is a two-player-only game, played over 6 or 12 rounds. Each round only one player scores. After the last round, you sum up your scores to determine who wins. Let's start with introducing the cards themselves in a Hanafuda set.

There are 48 cards in total, 4 for each of the 12 months. There is a plant associated to each month, and this is equivalent to the suit concept in poker cards. So Hanafuda has 12 suits. If you look at the photo above, you will notice that within each set of four there are repeated plants or flowers. In addition to the suit concept, there is also a concept of rarity. There are four rarities: commons, ribbons, animals and brights. Most months (suits) have two commons and two specials (ribbons / animals / brights). E.g. the card with just plum blossoms is a common card; the card with plum blossoms and a bird is a special card, an animal card.

This is the peony set. Peony is the flower for the 6th month. The first card is a ribbon card, in this case a blue one. The third card is an animal card, featuring butterflies. The others are common cards.

At the start of a round, each player is dealt 8 cards, and 8 cards are placed face-up in a common pool at the centre of the table. This uses half the cards. The remaining half becomes the draw deck. On your turn you perform two actions. First you play a card from your hand. If it matches the suit of any card in the common pool, you get to claim both cards and move them to your scoring pile. It there is no match, the card played becomes part of the pool. Your second action is to reveal a card from the draw deck. Similarly, if it matches the suit of any card in the pool, you get to claim both of them. Otherwise, it goes to the pool. After completing both actions, you check your scoring pile. If the cards you own form any scoring combination, you may decide to score and thus end the round. If you can score but decide not to, you declare "Koi Koi" (which roughly translates to "Bring It On!") and continue playing. Usually this means you want to go for a higher point value combination. There is a risk though. If your opponent scores after you declare "Koi Koi", he scores double.

There are many scoring combinations in Koi Koi. The simplest one is 10 common cards, which is worth 1pt. There are others like 5 brights, 3 brights, 5 ribbons, 3 blue ribbons, 3 poetry ribbons. Every round of play corresponds to a month, e.g. Round 1 is Month 1. All 4 cards of the current month is also a scoring combination, worth 4pt.

One unusual scoring combination is Boar-Deer-Butterfly. It requires three specific cards with these animals. In this photo I already have Boar and Deer in my scoring pile, and I have Butterfly in hand. Chances are good that I can make the combo. The Butterfly card is a peony card. I have another peony card in hand - the ribbon peony card. There is currently no peony card in the pool. I can play the ribbon peony card, and then on my next turn play the butterfly peony card to claim both peony cards and complete my Boar-Deer-Butterfly combo. However there is a risk that my opponent has a peony card too. After I play the ribbon peony card, he may quickly play his own peony card to prevent me from claiming peony cards. Even if he doesn't have a peony card, he may draw one from the deck, which will result in him claiming both peony cards too. There is always a risk. When I play the ribbon peony card, I myself may draw a peony card from the deck, forcing me to immediately take both peony cards. Then the butterfly peony card in my hand will be left with no match for the moment. If the last peony card is among the bottom 8 cards of the deck, it will never enter play and I will never be able to complete the Boar-Deer-Butterfly. All of the above are what go through your mind when playing Koi Koi.

There is one special situation when you play a card which matches another in the pool, and then when you draw from the deck, it is of the same suit too. Under this situation, you do not claim any card. All three remain in the pool. Whoever plays or draws the last card in this suit gets to claim all four cards. Not all the rulebooks I found contain this rule, but I have decided to use it when I play.

You play 6 or 12 rounds, and every round only one player scores. This creates a meta layer. If you are leading comfortably, and you are in the final few rounds, you will want to aim for easy combos that allow you to score quickly and thus minimise the chances of your opponent catching up. If you are far behind, you will need to gamble and aim big. Else you will never catch up.

The Play

Shee Yun and I learned to play Koi Koi together. There are so many different cards in a Hanafuda deck that in the beginning it was daunting. It wasn't easy to remember which were brights and which were animals. At first I thought brights would be cards with the sun or the moon, but of the five bright cards, only two actually have sun or moon. I had thought animal cards would be easy, but there is a card with a crane which is a bright card and not an animal card. There is a phoenix card which is also a bright and not an animal. And then there is a bridge card which is an animal. Wha...?! There is one storm card which is a common willow card, but it shows no willow, and it certainly looks anything but common. Shee Yun was much better than I was in remembering all these details. A fresh young mind is more absorbent. For now we still play with the rulebook nearby, for easy reference. We still need that.

In our first two games we made a big mistake which severely unbalanced the game. We had thought any complete set of the same month (suit) is a scoring combination (as opposed to only the current month). That made the game exciting but rather random. Scoring was almost always done via a month combo. It became a matter of who got lucky with collecting cards of the same month. It was hard to stop. I realised the mistake only after I tried a digital version of Koi Koi. After correcting this mistake, our games became much more interesting. Month combo scoring became rare, but it was still something to watch out for. Scoring anything more than 1pt was not easy. There was an interesting balance between going for quality and going for quantity. Focusing on special cards can bring great rewards, but if the game drags on and the high hopes bear no fruit, you will be at a disadvantage trying to scrape together common cards to make cheap combos. There is always a struggle between speed and high point values. Yet another consideration is that the dealer wins if a round ends with no scoring combo from either side. This doesn't often happen, but this rule puts the onus on the non-dealer to score before time runs out.

It is important to watch your opponent and try to guess what he is thinking. There are always clues - from the cards he collects, from the cards he plays into the pool. Sometimes you want to make preemptive strikes to break some combo he might be working towards.

When you look at your hand of cards, you will automatically categorise them in different ways. Some cards are risky to play, e.g. those which may help your opponent claim cards he wants. Some cards are quite safe to play. E.g. two cards of the same suit have already been claimed, and both the remaining two are in your hand. Some cards are labelled non-urgent. Usually they are no longer useful to anyone. You want to use them to bide time, waiting for a better opportunity to play other useful-to-you cards, or waiting for a less risky situation to play other useful-to-your-opponent cards. Some cards you may want to save for later, because they will help you, just that you need to wait for the right time. You need to be prepared for the possibility that all cards will need to be played. If the game drags on, those unsafe cards will eventually need to be played. Maybe you can tempt your opponent to score a lower valued combo before you play those unsafe cards. You never replenish your hand. Your 8 starting cards are all you will ever have in your hand. Hand management - planning how to play out your hand - is core to the game.

By the time the cards are dealt, and you can see the common pool, some situations may already be obvious. If many brights are already in the pool, you can bet your opponent will try to grab them as quickly as possible. By looking at your hand and the pool, you need to assess which combos you will have better chances with. You then plan your card play accordingly. Throughout the course of a round, cards being drawn from the draw deck will change the strategic landscape. You need to adapt to it.

All this sounds strategy-heavy, but ultimately Koi Koi is largely a game of chance. We are mostly talking about probabilities. Yes there are many tactics you can employ, but this is no deterministic strategy game. It is a gambling game. You do your best to improve your chances. The game always gives you hope that you can score big. However you always need a little luck. The 8 cards at the bottom of the deck will never see play. You never know what's in there and what scoring combinations are possible or impossible for the round. That uncertainty is part of the excitement.

I kind of conscripted Shee Yun to play with me, but after she had a taste, she found it interesting and afterwards asked me to play again with her. That's a good sign.

That row in front are the common pool. Currently there are cards from 6 different months, which is considered plenty. The cards at the top right are Shee Yun's scoring pile. This photo was taken when we played wrong. We grouped cards by month (suit) because we almost always scored by completed months. After correcting our mistake, we grouped cards in our scoring piles by rarity.

I did the Boar-Deer-Butterfly!

Shee Yun made this blue ribbon combo.

The Thoughts

Playing Koi Koi was more a cultural experience than trying another boardgame. It's a traditional gambling game, which means more luck and less strategy than the average hobbyist game. That doesn't mean it is low on skill or brainless. It's just a different balance from what we boardgamers usually play. Once you get familiar with the cards and the combos, it is a fast-paced game which you play like eating Pringles - sometimes you can't stop and you keep playing, always hoping that the next round you can score something bigger. What I enjoy about Koi Koi is being greedy, and then due to that greed, succeeding in making huge combos. That is exhilarating. I also like the psychology bit - reading your opponent and trying to guess what he's aiming for. You also need to disguise your own intentions as best you can, so that you don't put him on guard. There is decent player interaction in Koi Koi.

I don't mind the luck element. Some rounds you will be unstoppable because the stars are aligned in your favour. Luck is somewhat evened out because you do play multiple rounds. Tactics will help and are not pointless. Also, it is the luck which gives the game the gambling type of excitement. It feeds you hope that maybe you can finally make that big combo, that maybe you can do even better than the current combo you already have.

I feel the game needs to be played in the 12 month format, for it to feel complete. A single round only takes a few minutes, but playing 12 months will mean 30 - 45 minutes. So maybe if to play it as a filler, do 6 months, and to play it as a proper game, 12 months.

Sunday 14 January 2018

Pandemic: Iberia

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pandemic: Iberia is a variant of Pandemic, designed by Jesus Torres Castro together with original designer Matt Leacock. The setting is different. We are now on the Iberian Peninsula in the mid 19th century. The game is 70% Pandemic, so those who are familiar with the original will feel right at home. The remaining 30% creates a different flavour, a new experience.

In the original, your goal is to find cures to the four deadly diseases. In Iberia, you won't be able to find cures. You can only perform researches. These microscopes are used to mark whether you have researched a particular disease. In the original, once you have the cure, you can treat all patients at one location using just one action. You no longer have this ability in Iberia. Treating patients is still painstakingly slow. You get a different benefit instead - a bit more flexibility when purifying water - this is a new action type which I'll explain shortly.

This is the game board. The four diseases are roughly distributed to north, south, east and west. The two tracks at the top right and along the right edge will be immediately familiar to Pandemic players. The one at the top right is the infection track. As the infection level increases, you draw more infection cards at the end of every turn and the cities on the board get infected more quickly. The track along the right edge is the outbreak track. Each time an outbreak happens, i.e. when heavy infection in a city cannot be contained in time and spreads to adjacent cities, the count is increased. Reach 8 outbreaks, and you lose the game.

This is the 19th century, so you have no aeroplanes. You can't fly from one city to another by playing city cards, at least not for every city. You can still travel directly but only between port cities. Traveling between inland cities is more difficult.

The leftmost card is a character card. The others are player cards. Here there are only city cards, the main type of player card. The other type is event cards. At the start of the game, players all start at different cities, and not a fixed HQ like in the original Pandemic which has Atlanta as your start city. You pick your start city based on your starting cards. Every city card shows a founding date. The player starting in the oldest city is the start player. This is mostly just flavour, but it's a nice touch. A bit of flexibility in choosing start city is good too. There is some variability.

Building train tracks is a new mechanism. Building a track from your current city to an adjacent city requires one action. Moving from one city to another which is connected by railroads only takes one action. When you have built an extensive railroad network, traveling between inland cities become much more efficient. Spending actions to build tracks is a necessary investment in the early game.

Another important new mechanism is water purification. In Pandemic, it costs one action to treat a disease cube in a city, removing it from the board. This still exists in Iberia. This action is remedial in nature. The new action - water purification - is preventive in nature. To do this, you spend a card of the appropriate colour, and place two water tokens in an adjacent region. A region is an area enclosed by a group of cities. Water tokens protect adjacent cities by preventing infection. Whenever a city is about to get a new disease cube, if any of the adjacent regions has any water token, one such water token must be consumed to cancel the infection. Purifying water is generally more powerful that simply treating a disease, because water tokens protect all adjacent cities. However it is more costly because you do need to spend a card. Also you have less control over it. You cannot specify which city to save the water tokens for. A region may be adjacent to some heavily infected cities and some lightly infected cities. Normally you would prefer to have the tokens be used on the heavily infected ones. However if the next infection happens at a lightly infected city, you don't have a choice to not negate the infection, saving your precious water tokens for the heavily infected cities.

In this photo there are two heavily infected cities (those with 3 cubes), and two lightly infected cities (1 cube) adjacent to the region with water tokens.

One more difference is hospitals vs research centres. You no longer have research centres. Instead you may build one specialised hospital per disease. Your research for a particular disease must be done at the corresponding hospital. Also, since there is only one hospital piece per colour, you won't be able to ever build a second hospital for the same disease. You can at most move the hospital to a new location.

The ways to lose are the same as the original. If the player card deck runs out, you lose. If the 8th outbreak happens, you lose. If you run out of disease cubes because one of the diseases has spread too much on the board, you lose. There is only one way to win - research all four diseases. Iberia retains the same tension between long-term objective and short-term needs. You must remember to plan ahead to research all four diseases, and at the same time you have to be firefighting to make sure the diseases are kept under control and don't cause you to lose the game before you manage to complete your research work.

The Play

I played with my two daughters. It was the first time for all of us playing this version of Pandemic. It was easy to get into, since most of the rules are similar to the original. Although the goal is no longer finding cures, mechanism-wise, we are still doing the same thing - we need to collect sets of cards of the same colour. The main difference is in the benefit gained after completing the set. We experience the same angst between strategic planning and tactical needs. You need the strategic view to get to your winning condition. At the same time you must not neglect the pressing need of containing the diseases. It is often difficult to prioritise, and this is what makes the game interesting. You need to discipline yourself to work towards your goal. In this aspect you need to take initiative and consciously stay on course. The disease containment aspect is more reactive in nature. Depending on where the brown stuff hits the fan, you need to respond accordingly, and as efficiently as possible. You need to stay on your toes and keenly assess the risks. Can you afford to delay treating some cities while you invest some effort on your research? This is a question you ask all the time.

In Iberia, building train tracks is generally part of your long-term plan, while purifying water is generally part of your short-term firefighting and disease containment.

In the game we played, Shee Yun's character ability was crucial. She was the politician (yellow), and one of her abilities was to swap a card with another from the discard pile. When we struggled to collect enough cards of the right colour, this ability was very handy. Our game went down to the wire. Towards late game, we went up to 7 outbreaks and would lose any time. The player deck was almost exhausted, and we were still one card short of researching the last disease, the yellow one. We counted, and knew there was only one yellow card remaining in the deck. We even had to check all yellow cards in the discard pile to determine which specific yellow card it was that remained to be drawn. We couldn't know who would draw it. If it was not the player collecting yellow cards to draw it, we would need to find a way for the card to be passed to him as soon as possible. We did not have much time left. By knowing which city card it was, we could assemble at the city beforehand, so that once we drew the card, if necessary, it could be passed to the right person with minimal delay. Just like in the original Pandemic, when passing a card from one player to another, both players must be in the city depicted on the card. We had to plan our actions in detail, not wasting any of them, in order to eventually complete the last research before time ran out. We won!

Playing with Shee Yun and Chen Rui. Cooperative games work well as family games. You are all on the same team. You discuss and plan together.

Family meeting at Albacete. All three of us happened to be there.

Yellow was the final disease to be researched.

The Thoughts

Pandemic: Iberia is a cool variant. It's 70% similar to the original Pandemic, so if you like the original, you will like this. If you don't, don't bother. I've always enjoyed the Pandemic series, so this works for me. I like it more than Pandemic: The Cure (the dice game version), but I like Pandemic: Legacy Season 1 more. It is more different than the variants in Pandemic: On the Brink, except for the Bioterrorist variant. One nice thing is Iberia comes with two variants, both based on historical events and diseases. They will make the game more challenging.

Saturday 6 January 2018

Odin's Ravens (2nd edition)

Plays: 2Px1.

I remember seeing the first edition of Odin's Ravens at Witch House, Taipei when I was there in 2003. I don't remember whether I have played it. I hadn't started keeping records then. The second edition is slightly different, but I know only from reading others' comments, not from what I recall.

The Game

Odin is the Nordic boss god. Every morning he sends his two pet ravens out to survey his realm. They fly off in opposite directions to see how things are going in the world, and return to report to him. In this two-player game, players are these dutiful ravens, and they compete to be first to return from their journeys.

These are the flight cards, the main card type in the game. To advance your pawn to a new land card, you must play a flight card showing the same terrain.

When setting up the game, you lay out all land cards in a long line. They form your flight path. Each land card has two terrain spaces. They form two long rows. One raven will fly off from the left side, go all the way to the end, make a U-turn and then fly back from the right side. The other raven flies in the opposite direction, taking off on the right, and returning on the left.

Each player has two draw decks, a flight card deck and a Loki card deck. Flight cards are used for movement. Loki cards have various special abilities. You may play any number of cards on your turn. At the end of your turn, you always draw 3 cards, in any combination you like. Your hand limit is 7. If you exceed that, you must discard the excess. Two matching flight cards can be played as a joker. Loki cards are removed from the game once played, but not the flight cards. When the flight card deck is exhausted, you reshuffle the discard pile to form a new draw deck.

This is a Loki card. There are always two abilities, and you pick one to use. On this particular card, the first ability lets you swap two land cards. The second ability lets you shift a land card slightly, so that one flight path is shortened by one space, and one space of the other flight path changes terrain.

The Play

Odin's Ravens is a simple game. It's all about hand management. You try to make the most of your hand. You want to move as far as possible and as efficiently as possible. Both Allen and I tried to maximise our travel distance every turn. Sometimes it is not possible to go far, and we bank on the next turn, hoping the 3 cards drawn at the end of the turn will help. Pairing two similar cards to become a joker sounds powerful, but it is actually a last resort. We try not to have to discard cards, because that means wasting cards. Loki cards are all about waiting for the right moment, or creating the right moment. You want to play it for maximum effect. There was one particular card which Allen drew early. He played it to create a longer path in front of me, stalling me. The game was new to both of us and we learned as we went. At the time he hadn't considered that although he was stalling me, later on his raven would be passing that same location, so he was also stalling himself, just that it would happen later. I drew that Loki card later, and with this lesson learnt, I played it at a location which I had already passed, but he hadn't.

The Loki cards are handy, and it's best to plan to make use of all of them throughout the game. It's not a good idea to keep too many in hand though. With a hand limit of 7, too many Loki cards will mean not enough slots for flight cards. You may end up frequently discarding flight cards, or pairing them to become jokers.

Player pawns are wooden ravens, one light and one dark.

At the top right corner, the flight path has been modified by Loki cards, creating a detour.

It was only after the game that I realised I had played one rule wrong. If a few spaces in a row in front of you are of the same terrain, you only need to play one flight card to move through the series until you reach the final space before the next different terrain. I had thought it must be one card per step. This consecutive terrain rule will make the game more interesting. It will be an important consideration when playing Loki cards.

The Thoughts

Odin's Ravens is a game from a different era. The first edition was released in 2002, and it was part of the highly acclaimed Kosmos 2-player series. When playing this second edition, I felt transported to a different era, a simpler time. It is not a poorer game, nor does it feel outdated, because of this. It is simply of a different style. I guess it's a bit like watching a black-and-white movie, or listening to a song from the 1980's. Old timers may enjoy such a trip down memory lane, if you have never played this game before. Newer boardgamers may enjoy tasting something from an earlier era. Like others is the Kosmos 2-player series, Odin's Ravens is a decent spouse game. Little aggression, and quick-paced.