Sunday 25 March 2018

boardgaming in photos: Cyclades, Blue Moon City

3 Feb 2018. When playing Roll for the Galaxy I arrange my tiles (technologies and planets) in two rows of six, so that I can easily see how many I have. Once the 12th tile is placed, game end is triggered. I do the same thing when playing Race for the Galaxy.

11 Mar 2018. Friday is a solo game. I brought it out for a few quick games, only to find that I was lousy at this. It had been a while, but I was still surprised how poorly I did. I only played at the basic difficulty, and I couldn't even get to the finale to fight the two pirates (top right corner). I didn't even reach the 3rd and last stage of the adventures, the stage before the finale. I think I was too generous with spending my life points to thin my deck (removing poor cards - this is a deck-building game). Also I might have been too ambitious with taking on tough encounters. They did give me more powerful action cards if I beat them, but I probably bit off more than I could chew. Sorry Robinson, you are so dead.

16 Mar 2018. I did a 3-player game of Cyclades with Allen and Daniel. Allen and I had played this before, but it was the first time for Daniel, Allen's colleague who was relatively new to boardgames. It had been a while though, so Allen and I needed a rules refresher. I was green, Allen red and Daniel yellow. In the early game Daniel dumped a large sum to summon the kraken (in the background of this photo). It sank one of Allen's fleets, and temporarily cut off Allen's island at the top right from expansion. Later we realised Daniel had misunderstood the rule and had thought that summoning the kraken meant it would belong to him forever, that he could use it every turn to wreak havoc. Summoning monsters only works for one round.

I played aggressively from the start, raising armies, building fleets and invading islands. I secured money-producing locations and had a strong income, but I also kept spending money on armies and fleets, leaving none for constructing buildings or recruiting philosophers or priests. That meant I was not actually working towards the victory condition of controlling two metropolises. There were two ways to build a metropolis - build (buy) four different buildings then convert them to a metropolis, or recruit (buy) four philosophers then convert them to a metropolis. Well, there is a third way - conquest.

On the left, I (green) had positioned my fleets for an invasion of Allen's (red) island. This island was initially Daniel's (yellow). Allen captured it in the early game. That was why there was an idle yellow fleet next to it. It was Daniel's fleet from the starting setup.

Little did I know that Allen had an epic move up his sleeve. He summoned Polyphemus, who pushed all fleets away from his island and prevented invasions. In an earlier sea battle which he had lost to me, he retreated his battered fleet such that it would block my fleets. When Polyphemus pushed, fleets which could not be pushed away were sunk instead. I lost multiple fleets because of Polyphemus and Allen's strategically placed fleet. That was painful. Polyphemus protected Allen's island, but later on he also created problems for Allen. Now we weren't 100% sure about the Polyphemus rules. The rulebook was brief, we were too lazy to Google, so we just discussed and decided then and there how to play. We did not allow any fleet to be built or to sail past or next to the island with Polyphemus. That created a dead zone surrounding the island, and also prevented fleets from other islands from passing by. That greatly hindered Allen's expansion. In hindsight, we probably played this wrong. I suspect the correct way to play is fleets can still be created and sail about freely, just that they can't transport armies to the island. No invasions, no reinforcements. The way we played was too restrictive.

Our mid game was awkward. I was militarily the strongest, but had made no actual progress towards the victory conditions. Army and fleet pieces were limited, so despite being rich, there was only that many units I could build and they weren't enough to protect every single one of my islands. Allen was positioning for counter attacking and I must be careful. He obtained discount powers early, so despite not having as much cash on hand as I did, he was equally (if not more) competitive when bidding for the gods and buying (summoning) monsters. Daniel fell behind in the early game, but since he only had one island left, we were not allowed to attack him. His income was low, but over multiple rounds he saved up and threatened to build new armies and fleets to reenter the fray. Allen and I had been expending our units fighting while Daniel patiently recovered his strength in a safe corner. We knew he was an upcoming threat, but we could not launch any preemptive strike due to the single island rule. Daniel had four philosophers, so that's one metropolis ready to be built. He had some buildings on his sole island. If he could capture another island with complementing buildings, he would be able to convert the set to another metropolis. With two islands he would have enough spots for two metropolises. His main constraint was land space. I knew I had to hurry while I still had a military advantage. No time to mess around. It was time for some proper civ building.

Allen and Daniel knew they had to work together to stop me. If I channeled all my resources to civ building instead of my military, I should be able to last long enough to get both metropolises up before they eroded my domain significantly enough to stop me. One thing they miscalculated was the number of philosophers I had. They had forgotten that I had bought two earlier on. When I purchased the 3rd and 4th needed for my second metropolis, it was too late for them to stop me.

Cyclades achieves much with few rules, and simple rules. It looks like a war game but it's more than that. Economy is a big part of the game. With a poor economy you will struggle to get things done. Getting two metropolises sounds easy, but in practice it is harder. It feels so near yet so far, and that is tantalising. One thing that surprised me a little was the number of rules ambiguities we encountered with the monsters. Every monster is unique. The rulebook is brief when describing them, and we managed to raise questions that the rulebook did not explicitly address. It was a minor distraction. We managed to discuss and agree quickly how to play, and proceeded. The monsters are great fun, often throwing a curveball at you. There is always something to be exploited, or something you need to preempt.

Blue Moon City amazed me again with its clever balance between competition and cooperation. You want to participate in restoring many buildings, so that you can get many rewards, and that means working together with others because it is very expensive to fully restore a building on your own. Sometimes you do want to monopolise the rewards from a building by restoring it all by yourself, but it will likely be costly. Quite often when playing you try to partially restore a building and then leave an incentive for others to join you to reap the benefits together. Even when collaborating in restoring a building, there is competition for being the biggest contributor, because this gives a bonus.

The eastern half of the city was now fully restored. The tiles were turned to the colourful side.

The card art is taken from the many sets of the Blue Moon card game, so there is plenty of good artwork. There are 8 races in Blue Moon City, and each has different powers. This sounds daunting, but once explained, they are all straight forward and easy to remember. You can easily teach non-gamers to play. This is a light strategy game. A big part of the fun is being able to make big moves combining the card powers and card values.

Sunday 18 March 2018

boardgaming in photos: Machi Koro, Roll for the Galaxy

7 Jan 2018. Photos of Machi Koro have appeared so many times in this blog that it reminds me of how I used to post many photos of Race for the Galaxy, Through the Ages and Agricola. For the latter games, by studying the player area at game end, you can read the story of how the player has played, the paths taken, the strategies executed. My photos of these games were mostly of this nature - records of how gameplay developed. In Machi Koro, the game end player areas can be studied this way too. You can see which buildings synergise. You can see which early game buildings were chosen, and which late game buildings. However when I take photos of Machi Koro, most aren't for this purpose. It hasn't really occurred to me to take photos for this purpose. Machi Koro is not as strategically deep as the other games, and has less variability. I'm mainly taking photos about spending time with the kids.

The kids are not growing to become boardgame enthusiasts. They rarely suggest to play a game. When I do, younger daughter Chen Rui is more likely to say yes. Elder daughter Shee Yun is older now (officially a teenager) and has her own hobbies and interests. If we are to play Machi Koro, Chen Rui prefers to play together with Shee Yun, because she wants to join forces with her big sister to defeat me (not that it always works). So when Shee Yun declines to play, we often end up not playing at all.

What's good about Machi Koro is all three of us are very familiar with it. We play briskly and can fully enjoy the game.

27 Jan 2018. It had been a long time since I played Roll for the Galaxy, so when I brought it out, I had to relearn most of the rules. Michelle had basically forgotten all of it, and I had to teach her from scratch. She fumbled through her first game (after the hiatus) rather cluelessly and only started to grasp the tactics by the second game.

Many elements look and feel similar to Race for the Galaxy, but the core feeling when playing Roll for the Galaxy is different. The dice are your citizens. You expend a die to perform an action. The expended die returns to the Citizenry, i.e. the employment office, and you need to pay $1 to employ him again for the next task. Yeah, these buggers are all daily wage labourers. Having a more or less steady income to be able to regularly employ citizens is the underlying pulse of the game. If it gets disrupted, you will likely fall behind in tempo. The citizens (dice) do have different abilities (different probabilities of performing the various actions). Sometimes an action can be very effective, and sometimes not so much. While these are important too, you must never neglect the underlying blood circulation of generating enough income to reemploy your citizens over and over.

In this particular game, my space empire tried to emphasise two areas. The first was income. In this photo I had two tiles which would give me income, when I developed and when I shipped. On my player board there was a new technology yet to be completed which would also give me income when I shipped. So naturally my other emphasis was shipping. After I completed that 6-cost tech, I would have two tiles giving me income when I shipped. I had a purple die, which had a higher chance of rolling the shipping action. I had many blue dice, which had higher chances of rolling the production action. You need products to ship if you want to do shipping. I had three production planets, one each in green, blue and brown.

Roll for the Galaxy is not an easy game to teach or to learn, so it is not suitable for new gamers. The mechanisms are unusual and unintuitive, event a little convoluted. They do work, but I find it difficult to associate them with reality. They feel unnatural to me, and difficult to explain, and to digest. I find it harder than Race for the Galaxy to teach, assuming the new player knows neither game. It is a little easier if you know Race for the Galaxy, but the game mechanisms are overall quite different.

In this photo, I placed my dice this way to guarantee the shipping action (5th column). After all available dice were rolled, they were all placed in their respective columns first. The asterisk icons are wild cards, and I had chosen to place those dice in the shipping column. The cylinder icon means production. I had decided to forgo production, so I moved that production die to the shipping icon on the mini board. The production die became a shipping action. The development die (diamond shaped) stayed where it was.

31 Jan 2018. This was another game. This time I emphasised settling and production. My starting tiles gave me 2 red dice, which meant higher probabilities in rolling the settle action. I later gained two more from new tiles placed. I had 4 production planets by this point, two blue and two brown, and more to come. On the player board I had set up a stack of planets to be settled. The next one would be a high cost green planet, and I already had two dice committed. The challenge in settling high cost planets (and also in developing high cost techs) is that you will have many dice tied up until the project is completed. For this green planet I would need to place three more dice to settle the planet before all five dice could be released back to the Citizenry (the employment office).

It felt great to play Roll for the Galaxy again. I don't game as often as I used to, and because of that it feels hard to justify buying new games. I still have so many good games in my collection that I can play. Since I am rusty with most of them, playing them would be like playing a new game. I have to relearn the rules and rediscover the strategies.

If I am to buy a new game, it'll likely be because it has some hook that makes we want to try it, and I don't have easy access to a friend's copy to be able to try it. I am interested to try The Quest for El Dorado by Reiner Knizia. I used to be a big fanboy. This deckbuilding race game sounds fun and I'm curious to experience it. Another game I'm interested to try is Kingdomino, the Spiel des Jahres winner. Both of these are light to medium weight games. I think both are available in my circle of friends. Lucky!

Sunday 11 March 2018

Sidereal Confluence

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Sidereal Confluence is a complex negotiation game with a sci-fi setting. You are all alien races which have just met one another. You are colonising new planets, developing new technologies. Having met one another, you are now able to trade, and also learn from one another. This game is not about wars and aggressions. It is about interstellar cooperation and shared prosperity. You compete to contribute most to these, and your success is measured by victory points. VP's come from various actions, the most important of which is developing new technologies and sharing them with your friends.

The game is played over 6 rounds. Every interstellar civilisation starts with some planets, some resources and some technologies. Every alien race is very different. There are nine races to choose from, and they play very differently. This is one of the game's strengths. There is a big incentive to trade, because you don't produce enough of what you want, and you produce stuff you don't want which others do. You do get to develop your production and cube conversion abilities, but they likely won't be enough to meet your needs even by game end. Big research projects require a lot of resources of the same type. You need to trade a lot, and hope by cutting good deals you ultimately position yourself to be greatest contributor to intergalactic cooperation.

This is a technology card. Most technologies are conversion powers, converting resources on the left side of the arrow to those on the right side. Input and output. The tiny 5-17 means you are converting resources of roughly 5 value points to resources of 17 value points. The value point system is just a rough guide for players, based on the rarity of resources. The various resources will have different values to different players, under different situations.

This is one of the race cards. It's huge, about A4 size. It describes the race's unique abilities, and even comes with strategy tips. Before a game starts, it is best that everyone gives a short introduction of his race. The race I played was a plant based race. Planets I colonised produced double the resources, but to colonise I needed to spend double the spaceships normally needed.

Top left: Start card of a race, specifying starting resources, techs and planets. Bottom left: Reference card outlining the 3 phases of a round. The right half of the card is a donation area. Sometimes you produce goods which must be given away and cannot be used by yourself. You either trade them away, or if you fail to do so, you donate them. Top right: This is your personal deck of tech cards. Some are start techs. The rest can be developed, or learned from other races. Mostly the latter.

My four start techs. Techs are double-sided, a basic side and an advanced side. These are all on the basic side. At the bottom of each card you can see two ways to flip it to the advanced side. For my particular race, option 1 is to destroy a jungle planet and some resources, turning them into one victory point and another resource. Option 2 (which is the more common way) is to sacrifice another specific tech card. Flipping to the advanced side always gives you a better conversion power, but you need to consider whether the cost is justified.

The common area looks like this. The setup depends on the number of players. The top row consists of planets, and the bottom row the research teams. Every round you bid for these using spaceships, essentially just another currency. When you win (i.e. colonise) a planet, it produces resources for you every round. When you win (i.e. employ) a research team, you earn the exclusive right to develop a new technology. You don't immediately develop the new tech. You still need to give the research team the resources they require before you get the new tech and score.

One important concept in the bidding mechanism is the minimum bid. Each item has a minimum bid, and some are higher than others. If you bid low, there is a risk that the higher bidders (who get to pick earlier) claim items with low minimum bids, leaving behind only items with high minimum bids which you don't qualify for. You not only have to consider bidding high enough so that you get to pick what you really like, you also have to bid high enough so that you reduce the risk of leaving empty handed.

That's my planet on the left. It has a x2 marker, which is unique for my race. This planet produces double the resources.

A round consists of three phases. The first is the trading phase, where everyone engages in trading simultaneously. It is a free-for-all. You can trade resources, spaceships, planets, even promises. Promises are binding in this game. Some special actions are allowed in the trading phase, e.g. upgrading techs, upgrading planets, developing techs. When you do these, the upgraded versions become available to you in the current round, starting from the next phase, which is the economy phase. The economy phase is all about production and conversion. You produce resources to be used in future rounds. The third phase is the confluence phase, in which everyone learns new techs developed by any race in Phase 1. This is also when you bid for planets and research teams. The round structure is pretty straightforward, but execution can be time-consuming because there is a lot to digest, many deals to consider, pros and cons to weigh, and upgrades to plan. Haggling can take time, sometimes going back and forth between potential trade partners, trying to iron out a deal.

The Play

Most victory points come from developing techs. There are two parts to this. You get VP for discovering the tech itself. Simple techs in the early game are worth little, but complex ones later on can be worth a lot. The other part is the VP for sharing a tech. This depends on which round you develop the tech in. The sharing VP is high in the earlier rounds, because it is not easy to have developed techs so early. When you plan your research, you should consider both types of VP's.

Developing techs require a lot of resources, so you must develop your little empire. The hunger for resources keeps increasing and your empire must keep up. You have to decide which planets and techs to upgrade, and which techs you can afford to sacrifice. You will likely have to decide some resource types to specialise in, i.e. to be able to produce or manufacture a large amount of. You try to be self sufficient, producing the raw materials for your factories which will eventually manufacture the end products you want.

The research teams come up mostly randomly. They need different types of resources. You need to adapt to the situation. You must watch what your opponents are specialising in, whether they already have research teams they are committed to, whether they will compete with you for specific resources, planets or new research teams.

Increasing your production and manufacturing capacity, supplementing and supporting them through trading, and eventually completing massive research projects - these are the core of the game.

My race was a vegetable race, and colonisation was particularly challenging. The race card had explicitly advised that I needed to trade for spaceships early to stay in the colonisation race, but somehow I managed to fail doing so. I never had many planets. One unique ability I had was to destroy jungle planets to advance my starting techs. I traded with Allen for jungle planets. He could colonise them easily from a private deck of planets. That was his unique ability. Advancing my starting techs was nice. I earned 1VP each time I did it. However later on I wasn't sure whether it was worthwhile. I had destroyed planets for it, and 1VP seemed measly compared to VP from developing techs. I decided to switch my focus to research projects.

Tim played an unusual race, a nasty one, essentially a blackmailing syndicate. It could spend resources to steal resources from another race. Such powers were best used as threats, to convince others to cut him better deals, sometimes downright extorting them. Whoever had traded with him was immune from his stealing powers for the round, so trading with him was akin to paying a protection fee. His was a scary power. If everyone gave in to him, he would grow very powerful. So I tried to convince everyone that we should not give in to terrorism. It was easier said than done. Sometimes I too gave in, especially when I was just a small step away from completing a major project, and didn't want to risk it being delayed another round.

Another one of Tim's abilities was a poisoned gift. He could produce a set of goods, which must be given away together with a spy. Once he had planted enough spies in an empire, his stealing actions would become more damaging. This meant he had to focus on just a few empires to send spies to, so that he could sufficiently build up. Allen was the main victim of this. However he happily accepted the goods up front, spending them on his infrastructure. Ironically these resources helped Allen greatly towards self sufficiency. He built a strong production engine, and became the eventual winner. He turned to be more beneficiary than victim.

Of my four start techs, I had upgraded two of them, bottom left and top right. The advanced sides no longer showed the upgrade criteria. The tech at the top right had no resources to the left of the arrow, which meant it was a pure production tech needing no input. It was like a planet.

The game takes up a lot of space. The common area does not take up much, but each player needs much space. Every time someone researches a new tech, everyone else will benefit from it and will need to play that tech card into his area. This table we played at was not big enough. Sinbad had to place some of his cards on the low table on the left. We put some common game components there too.

During the trade phase, I prepared for the economy phase by placing resources I needed onto the tech cards where I would be using them as input. This helped me reserve resources I needed for myself. Also I could easily see which techs did not have the required raw materials yet, which I might want to trade for. The conversions (or manufacturing) during the economy phase are simultaneous. You cannot take the output from one tech card and feed it as input to another tech card. Outputs can only be used as input in the next round. So you don't get to chain your tech cards like a factory line.

This is a research team. Their name is at the top, the tech they are working on is at the bottom. This particular team needs either 18 green resources or 18 white resources. The conversion in the white box is what the new tech does.

This is one of my start techs. It has a star icon at the top left.

The Thoughts

Sidereal Confluence is a trading and negotiation game, but it is also more than that. The trading is a basic building block, a means to an end. The end is, of course, victory points. To get there, you need to work on profitable research projects. To complete many research projects, you need resources. To have many resources you need to keep developing your empire. So to me this is also very much a development game, just that trading is one of your basic tools when developing your empire and completing your research projects.

There is a lot of cube conversion. I never really got into calling the coloured cubes what they were meant to be. I just called them small green cubes, or big yellow cubes, and so on. This sounds bad because it means the theme doesn't come through, but after a while it doesn't really matter. The game is enjoyable even if I call the cubes just cubes.

It is a complex game. With 6 of us, it took about 3 hours. I'm not sure whether we were just slow. I think the game needs at least 5 or 6 to be fun. With more players, there will be more possibilities. There will be more options in the common area too - the planets and the research teams.

Saturday 3 March 2018

Pit Crew

Plays: 7Px1.

The Game

Pit Crew is a simple team-based real-time game. You are pit crews of 2 or 3 racing teams, and you compete to complete the pit stops in the shortest time possible, allowing your team's race cars to speed off as early as possible.

The game supports up to 9 players. You play in 2 or 3 teams. Each team has between 1 to 3 members. The game is played over 3 rounds. When a round starts, all teams repair their respective cars simultaneously. Once you complete your repairs, your car drives off and tries to go as far as possible. When the slowest team finally completes repairs, their car doesn't get to drive off. Instead they cry halt, and all cars already on the race track stop. The distances they have traveled are their scores. Now you do the end-of-round scoring. All cars are inspected for errors and imperfections. Penalties are applied. When you are penalised, all your opponents get to move their cars forward.

In Rounds 2 and 3, you use different cars, and your team also gains special abilities. After the third round, whoever's car has traveled the furthest wins.

Everyone uses the #27 car in Round 1. The 27 means something. I'll come to that. In Round 1, you need to replace all four tyres, and you need to refuel. Every team has its own deck of cards. Cards are numbered from 1 to 10. The total hand size of a team is 6. In a team of three, everyone holds 2 cards. In a team of two, everyone holds 3 cards. In a team of one, you hold all 6 cards. You perform repairs by playing cards. To replace a tyre, you need to play four cards next to the tyre, one after another. Each card you play must be numbered one higher or lower than the previous number. In the photo above, if you want to replace the tyre at the lower right, you start by playing a 1 or a 3. Let's say you have played a 3. The next card you play must be a 2 or a 4. The big 27 on the roof means the fuel tank capacity. To refuel, you play cards to the rear of the car. There is no restriction when playing cards, but at the end of the round, if the sum of the card values differs from 27, you are penalised. The bigger the difference, the larger the penalty.

The board is not your main playing area. It is mostly a scoring track. You do not race to complete five laps. Instead you try to move as far as possible within the three rounds. You are just trying to score as high as possible.

You use these 6 cap cards to mark sections which are fully repaired. There is one cap card for the engine, one for the fuel tank, and four for the tyres. The engine card is used in Rounds 2 and 3 only. Whenever you complete the repairs for one part of the car, you must place the corresponding cap card there. Once the cap card is placed, you cannot change the cards already played to that part of the car.

Take a closer look, and you will notice that some numbers are white, and some are black. If all cards played to a section have the same colour, you gain a turbo bonus. Your car moves two additional steps. It's not easy to do though. When you are scrambling to find the right numbers, sometimes you don't have the luxury to get the exact colour you need. In this photo you can see we have failed to assemble consistent colours in all six sections.

Car #31 is for Round 3. The XX YY at the engine means you need to play two pairs of cards to repair the engine. We have played a pair of 3's and a pair of 9's. All of them are black, so we are getting the turbo bonus.

When you don't have any cards you can play in hand, you may discard and draw. In fact, you must. However for every two cards in your discard pile at the end of the round, you suffer one penalty point, i.e. your opponents get to move one step forward.

These special ability cards (called Monkey Wrench cards) are gained at the end of Rounds 1 and 2. A number of cards are drawn according to the number of teams in the game. Each team picks one card, starting with the one furthest behind. So this is for balancing in addition to spicing up the game. That card on the left can be used as a 4 or a 5 during a round. The card on the right increases the hand sizes of two team members.

You "drive" your race car by rolling a die. When your team is done with repairs (and you are not the last to do so), one of you becomes the driver, and you keep rolling the die to move your car. You move one step ahead each time you roll a 6. This can be nerve-wracking if you keep failing to roll a 6. If there are three teams, the second team gets to move their car too in the same way. Once the last team is done with repairs, they declare the end of movement. You then do the round-end scoring.

The Play

We did a 7-player game. I was on the same team as Abraham and Allen. The other two teams had two players each. Having three players is probably more challenging, and I'm not saying that just because we lost horribly. Really. With three players, there is a higher need for coordination and communication. Playing Pit Crew is a tense experience. There are multiple parts of the car you need to worry about. You need to coordinate your card plays to avoid getting stuck with no card to play. Finding a valid move doesn't mean it will be a good move. You shouldn't blindly play any card which is technically valid. You need to consider the other cards your team has in hand, and whether your next move can help getting those cards played, and will keep your options open. Then there is also the colour to think about. None of these are particularly complex, but when you are under time pressure, it becomes very hard to keep your cool and to stay rational.

If you find that you really are stuck, waste no time in finding impossible moves. Just discard and draw. Time is precious.

The most stressful part of the game turns out to be also the most brainless part - when you are driving. It's just rolling a die over and over hoping to roll a 6 as many times as you can. There is no skill and no strategy (unless you are trying to cheat). It's all luck. Yet this is when you and your teammates will be holding your breaths, or cheering, or groaning.

My team had a poor start. We were last to complete our repairs in Round 1, and we also had a huge discard pile. Our opponents sped far far ahead of us. In Round 2, we managed to not be last. I took the driver's seat, and hard as I tried, I could not roll a single 6! By the time the bell sounded, I was still in the pit. What a waste! Needless to say, despite having first picks of the Monkey Wrench cards in both Rounds 1 and 2, we still came last. By far.

The Thoughts

Pit Crew is a party game. I think it will be best with 9, i.e. the full complement. The more chaotic the better. The rules are simple so you can easily get casual gamers and non-gamers to play. It will work as a children's game too. It is not a particularly deep game. You shouldn't be looking for depth here. It's a face-paced, heart-pumping fun kind of game. There is also a sense of satisfaction when your team manages to work well together.