Sunday 26 August 2018

Exploding Kittens

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Exploding Kittens was a wildly successful Kickstarter project. We are talking a USD 8.7M success here, no kidding. However I never read up much about it when it was hot. I only knew it was a simple and silly card game. I don't remember any of my regular boardgame kaki's owning it, and I never got to try it. Recently I received an extra copy of the game from Zee Zun. That was how I got to play this little slightly crazy game.

The stars of the show are, of course, the exploding kittens, like this one above. They are basically bombs. When you draw a bomb card, you are out of the game. When all but one player is left, he wins.

The game is simple. Everyone starts with a hand of cards. On your turn, you may play any number of cards. Once you are done, you must draw a card from the deck before ending your turn. There are many types of cards, and they can be used in various situations. The Defuse card lets you neutralise an exploding kitten. Instead of losing, you get to insert the exploding kitten back into the deck. There's a card which lets you peek at the next three cards in the deck. This can help you avoid being the next person to draw an exploding kitten. There's a card which allows you to skip drawing a card, and have someone else do it instead. There's a card which allows you to reshuffle the deck. There's a card which lets you rob a card from an opponent. There's a card which lets you cancel a card just played by another player. All these cards give you some control, reducing the likelihood of you drawing an exploding kitten and increasing the likelihood of others drawing it. However, overall this is still a luck-heavy game.

The Play

I played with my family. Younger daughter Chen Rui likes cats (and kittens) so she was keen to play. We made a mistake in our first game. The No card should not be able to cancel Defuse cards or exploding kittens. When Michelle tried to save herself with a Defuse card, Shee Yun played a No card to cancel the Defuse. Michelle was promptly eliminated. It was only afterwards that we learned our mistake.

There is plenty of interaction, because there are many offensive ("take that") cards. Who to play these cards on is a very human or social part of the game. It's about favouritism, it is about taking sides. It is about persuasion and negotiation, threatening and pleading. This is not a game about logical reasoning, impersonal calculations or careful strategising. This is a game about being childish, silly and petty. A game takes maybe 7 or 8 minutes. With 4 players, there are 3 exploding kittens in the deck. Regardless of how cleverly you play your cards, someone will still be drawing a card turn after turn, and sooner or later that card will be an exploding kitten and people will get blown up.

The Thoughts

Exploding Kittens is a silly and simple game. There is little depth. Don't let the "strategy" word in their marketing spiel mislead you. That's meant for the mass market, i.e. non gamers. This game is a party game and a filler. The cards make you feel you have some control, when in fact it's mostly luck. This is actually a good thing - making you feel you have control. The prime example is Love Letter. It's a lot of luck, but the game mechanisms sometimes make you feel you've pulled off a clever move.

Sunday 19 August 2018

Wir sind das Volk (We are the People)

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Wir sind das Volk tells the story of East and West Germany in the 45 years after World War II. Having suffered defeat, Germany was divided into East and West. East Germany was under the influence of USSR, while West Germany was under the influence of the Western Allies - USA, UK and France. Those 45 years were the Cold War years, a war of ideologies between democracy and communism. Germany was a key battleground. In this game, one player plays East Germany, and the other plays West Germany. You develop your respective nations, improve the living standards of your people, and try to outdo your opponent. This is not a game of direct conflict, but it can get very brutal despite being "just" an envy game. There are a few ways to win (and lose). If your people are unhappy and stage enough mass protests, you lose. If the East German economy completely collapses, it loses. The East Germans want to promote socialism. If the socialist movement reaches a critical mass, East Germany wins. On the other hand, if the movement completely fizzles out, West Germany wins. If the game ends without any of the above conditions being met, East Germany wins. It's not easy to survive till the end as East Germany.

The left side of the border is West Germany, and the right side is East Germany. The triangles are factories. The numbers pointing north are their production capacities. The base production capacity is 1. Each connected road increases the capacity by 1. The blue cubes are unrest. For every four unrest cubes in a province, you get a mass protest. Get four mass protests and you lose the game due to your government falling apart. The pink cubes are socialists. Only East Germany can have socialists. When East Germany gets mass protests, sometimes the fourth unrest cube gets replaced by a socialist. That means some people don't become unhappy. They just turn socialist. The mass protest is cancelled because technically you don't have four unrest cubes anymore. The number of socialists East Germany has available can be influenced by both players. If East Germany manages to get all socialists onto the board, it wins. If West Germany manages to remove all socialists from the board, it wins. The octagonal pieces are living standard tokens. You normally want to increase the living standard of your provinces as much as possible and and as equally as possible. A high living standard needs to be supported by a strong economy, i.e. the production capacities of your factories. So you need to build factories, build roads, then improve living standards.

This is the starting setup. The board is mostly empty. Most provinces already have three unrest cubes. People are not happy. They have just lost a war and the country is in ruins. Of course everyone is grumpy. East and West Germany each have two factories. The mini map at the top right is Berlin. Berlin too is divided into East and West. On the main map Berlin is enclosed within the Brandenburg province of East Germany.

The game is divided into four rounds, each roughly representing a decade. A round is further divided into first and second halves. For each half, 7 cards are laid out on the table. Players take turns selecting a card to play. Once all 7 cards are used up, you deal a new set of 7 cards for the second half. At the end of a round, there is a complex procedure to go through, affecting many aspects of the game. You then move on to the next round. Each round (decade) has its own deck of cards. The cards are unique. Your story unfolds through them.

For each round, East Germany has a predetermined special card. It is placed on top, separate from the 7 normal cards (see photo above). On the East German player's turn, he always has the option of playing this special card instead of a normal card.

There are many different icons on the cards. When you play a card and decide to use it as an event, you execute what the icons specify. This is just one of the four ways you can use a card. The second thing you can do with a card is to spend the card value on building factories or roads. The third thing is improving living standards in up to three different provinces. Whenever the living standard improves, one unrest cube is removed. The fourth and last thing you can do with a card is to simply remove one unrest cube. This seems like a weak action, but sometimes it is necessary.

The drawings on these two cards are yellow, which means they benefit West Germany. Cards with drawings in red benefit East Germany. Cards with drawings in both red and yellow benefit both. If you play such a dual coloured card, you may omit one icon, usually one that would benefit your opponent. Even if a card's event benefits you greatly, you may not necessarily play it as an event. Sometimes you'd rather play it for building due to its high value.

In this photo above, the three horizontal tracks are for tracking prestige, Western currency and socialists. Many cards in the game affect these aspects, and they in turn affect what happens at the end of every round. Prestige determines player order. At the end of a round, it can affect construction, production and unrest in East Germany. Western currency is something which only East Germany needs. In history, East Germany lacked a stable currency, unlike West Germany which had the Deutschmark. The living standard of East Germany needs to be supported by having enough Western currency. Otherwise factories become rundown and roads rot. The socialist track determines how many socialists East Germany gets to add to or must remove from its pool at the end of every round. This is related to one of the victory conditions.

The vertical track is the procedure you need to go through at the end of a round. There is a lot to do and it can be rather daunting at first. I won't try to explain everything. I'll just cover the more crucial bits. One important event in recent German history is the construction of the Berlin Wall. In the game, one difficulty East Germany has to face is intellectuals fleeing to West Germany, due to better living conditions there, as well as oppression in the East. This causes further deterioration of the economy of East Germany. By building the wall, East Germany stems this flow of intellectuals. There is a cost though, both economically and in prestige. Whether to build the wall is something East Germany needs to consider carefully. During the round-end procedure, the consequences of having (or not having) built the wall take effect.

One other important thing you do at round-end is comparing living standards. This is a very core part of the game. First you compare the living standards internally among your own provinces. If there is a large enough gap, some of your people will be unhappy, and you get unrest cubes. Then you compare externally, between your provinces and adjacent opponent provinces. If your people are better off than your opponent's people, his people become unhappy. Unrest cubes added due to these comparisons can cause mass protests, and may even bring down a government.

This is the flight track, representing the severity of the exodus of intellectuals from East Germany. The row of icons above the track show all factors that affect the flight level. The higher the flight level, the more roads and factories East Germany needs to dismantle. That card at the bottom left has a flight icon in its top right corner. When such cards are played, they increase the flight level for the round.

There are many special rules related to the city of Berlin. West Berlin has no production capacity and you can't build a factory here. Its living standard tokens need to be provided by its supplier provinces. There are three such supplier provinces, corresponding to the three sectors of West Berlin - French, British and American. West Berlin is an important frontline to West Germany. It is adjacent to both East Berlin and Brandenburg, and if its living standard is high, it hurts both East Berlin and Brandenburg. However West Berliners are also a proud bunch. If they don't have the highest living standard in the whole of West Germany, they get upset. When they riot, they trigger an additional province to riot. West Germany needs to manage West Berlin carefully.

The two purple triangles are factories in Czechoslovakia, which can only be built by triggering specific events. They help the East German economy. This is just one example of the many special rules and exceptions in the game.

The Play

In history, East Germany suffered, while West Germany prospered. Since I was the one reading the rules and teaching the game, I thought I should play East Germany and let Allen play West Germany. However Jeff and Kareem who had played the game told me that it is actually easier to play East Germany. The East German player just needs to survive till the end, while the West German player is the one under time pressure to destroy East Germany before time runs out. So eventually I played West Germany, and Allen played East Germany.

In the early game we both focused on developing our nations - building factories and roads. We used cards mostly for construction, and not so much on events. When I picked cards to play, I prioritised picking those which Allen could otherwise use to hurt me badly. This was a defensive approach. I wonder whether others also tend to play this way.

West Germany has two provinces more than East Germany. Normally it is best to develop your provinces evenly. Due to having two more provinces, it takes more effort for West Germany to increase its living standard. However the West German provinces have more locations for factories and roads. As both nations improve their economies and living standards, East Germany will hit the ceiling more easily. It may run out of space to further improve and keep up with West Germany. This is dangerous.

In the early game, the economic growths of East and West Germany were on par. I was careless with West Berlin, resulting in some unrest which could have been avoided. The "Buy 1 Free 1" nature of West Berlin mass protests gave me some trouble. Allen specifically targeted that and kept me busy.

Allen rarely used the decade-specific East Germany card. East Germany was generally doing well enough, and those cards did not feel particularly powerful. As we played, I found a number of interesting bits in the game's card drafting mechanism. There are 7 normal cards per half round. At the start of a round, each player also draws 2 cards. On your turn you may play a card from your hand instead of picking one of the cards on the table. If both players only pick cards from the table, the half round will end with the 1st player having taken 4 actions, and the 2nd player having taken only 3. Another consideration is who gets to be 1st player in the second half. When moving into the second half, your turns alternate. Often you want your opponent to take the last action in the first half, so that you go first in the second half. Going first is usually better because you get first choice among the new set of 7 cards. You get to pick the most powerful card, or the card most damaging to you.

The two cards you hold in hand let you speed up or slow down the game. If you need more time, play both of them. If you want the round to end as soon as possible, don't play either of them. This needs to be balanced against how good the cards are. If you happen to be holding a card that is very good, you may not be able to resist playing it.

In my game with Allen, the high valued cards were always snatched up quickly, because we both wanted to build as much as possible. Allen never built the Berlin Wall. In the early game, East and West Germany were doing more or less equally well. In fact, my rioting West Berliners were probably making the would-be defectors think twice. So there was no pressing need for the wall. The economic impact of fleeing intellectuals was small.

Allen spent some effort on promoting socialism. I didn't do much to stop him. What we found was he probably should have spent more effort, and spent it earlier, for the socialist movement to be successful. The amount of effort he had put in was neither here nor there, so it only helped him somewhat in reducing mass protests. It wasn't a big enough push to convert East Germany to a socialist state.

At the end of Round 3 (of 4), a nasty event took both of us by surprise. Allen did not have enough Western currency to support his living standard. By that time, both of us had decent living standards. However for East Germany to sustain that, it needed Western currency. Allen was short on that, and as a result, all 10 of his factories became rundown. Being rundown meant losing the base production value of 1. Rundown factories had a base value of 0, and their production capacity fully depended on their road connections. Factories becoming rundown meant reduced production capacity, which in turn meant being unable to support living standards. Lower living standards meant unhappy people, which then meant mass protests. You can't build factories or roads in provinces with mass protests, and you need to spend effort to quell those protests before you can rebuild your economy. The shortage of Western currencies triggered a domino effect. Neither of us expected that huge an impact.

This was the end of Round 3. The East German factories (red) had been flipped to the rundown side, which features a broken gear.

The West German economy was stable now, and supported a decent living standard (see the octagons). There was now a big contrast with East Germany. West Berlin (top right corner) enjoyed a high living standard of four, making the people of East Berlin and Brandenburg green with envy. Look at how many socialists (pink cubes) there were in Brandenburg now.

By the end of Round 4, the implosion of the East German economy could not be stopped. There was still a shortage of Western currency. The already rundown factories could not be further reduced. Roads had to be dismantled. By the time we were done, there were no more roads in East Germany. The economy was truly finished. The revolution could not be contained, and East Germany fell.

The demise of the East German economy was sudden. We had underestimated how bad the shortage of Western currencies could be. From just reading the rules, one cannot truly feel the severity.

The Thoughts

Wir sind das Volk is a very flavourful game. The core mechanisms are not complex, but it does have many special rules and exceptions. It is not easy to learn or to teach. These special rules do add to the character of the game. They tell a compelling story and make the experience immersive. In the end I think they are worth the effort. Just don't try to play this with people new to the hobby. It will probably scare them off.

Playing the game gives you the same kind of pleasure as playing Twilight Struggle. You reenact history. Many historical events are simplified to a handful of parameters, like unrest, production capacity and living standards. However the game mechanisms do work, and they do make you feel you are pulling the levers. Your actions have consequences. Your strategy matters.

You can summarise the game as a pissing contest. Afterall it is about East and West Germany trying to outdo each other in achieving a high living standard. It's an envy game!

Playing the game reminded me of a German movie The Lives of Others, which I like a lot. It is a serious drama with mature themes. Certainly not meant for kids, and not your regular Hollywood blockbuster. Check it out!

Friday 17 August 2018