Sunday 21 October 2018


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Hellapagos is a low-complexity survival game. It's not really a cooperative game, and doesn't feel like a semi-cooperative one either. Yet it is not a pure competitive game. You are survivors of a ship running aground, and are now stranded on a deserted island. A typhoon is coming, and you need to leave the island before it hits. If you don't manage to do so, you die on the island and lose the game. Those who manage to escape the island in time win.

The first thing to talk about is the weather deck. You draw one card at the start of every round. One of the bottom six cards is the typhoon card. When you draw it, the current round is your last round. Other weather cards tell you the rainfall of the day (i.e. the round). If it rains, you can collect rainwater. The heavier the rain, the more you can collect.

Every round everybody gets to perform one action. You have four options. You may fish (to gain food). You may collect rainwater (to gain drinking water). At the end of every round, every survivor needs to eat one food and drink one water. If there is a shortage, someone (or someones) needs to die (and lose). You vote to decide who dies. The third option is to collect wood, which is needed to build rafts, which is in turn needed for leaving the island. The fourth option is to scavenge the shipwreck to look for useful items. This is represented by drawing item cards from a deck.

You use these wooden balls when you fish and when you collect wood. They are put into a bag, and you blind draw from the bag. If you perform the fishing action, you draw one ball, and see how many fishes are on it. The number ranges from 1 to 3. This is how many fishes you manage to catch that day. If you collect wood, you decide up front how many balls you want to draw from the bag. If none of them are black, you gain a number of wood equaling the number of balls drawn. If you draw the black ball, you are bitten by a snake, you gain no wood, and you lose your action next round.

The game board serves only two important purposes. You track the quantity of food and water, and you track your progress in raft-building. There is a procedure diagram for raft-building at the centre. A marker will be placed here to indicate your progress. For every 6 wood collected, you complete one raft. One raft only supports one survivor. If you want more people saved, you need more rafts. The #6 position is for placing the completed rafts.

This is the item deck from which you draw cards. The deck holder (which is not really necessary) is in the shape of a shipwreck, because you are scavenging stuff from the shipwreck. The deck is supposed to fit sideways into the holder, but now that the cards are sleeved, they don't fit anymore. So the deck is now jammed in in this ugly manner. It's probably better to just not use the deck holder.

The card above is the weather card of the day. The 2 inside the water drop means if you collect rainwater, you gain 2 units of water. The cards below are the completed rafts. Two of them are completed, which means at most two people can be saved. To leave the island, each person also needs one food and one water, in addition to the one raft. If there is not enough food or water, it's voting time again, to see who gets left behind and who sails away with the supplies.

The track for food (fish) and water (water drop).

This is one of the item cards, and it is one with no function (other than making you laugh). Drawing cards is not risk-free. You may draw such rubbish and waste your turn.

The Play

We did a 5-player game - Tim, Ivan, Allen, Jeff and I. Most of us were new to the game. Right from the beginning we were on survival mode. The initial food and water did not last long. We realised the game was designed to get people killed. The struggle was bad enough to collect enough food and water. There was little time left to build rafts and plan for escape. We were already having a hard time surviving day-to-day. Not enough actions, not enough time. It was impossible to have everyone live. Someone would not be going home. We came to this realisation gradually, as we watched our supplies dwindle, our raft-making stall, and the weather deck deplete. It was a little scary. The whole experience was about impending doom.

We were cooperative for the most part. We discussed openly and worked together to solve our problems. There was one round when we were short on food, and someone might have to die. One of us had a resurrection card, and we discussed and agreed on who was going to die temporarily, to save some food and water, only to be resurrected the next round. Ivan often drew cards, and he willingly spent his cards for the common good. Drawing cards is usually a good thing. It can be a form of self protection. Others don't know what you have. You can persuade them that you have good stuff that helps the team, and ask them not to vote you out. Or you can threaten to shoot and kill if they try anything funny. With more cards, you have more control and more bargaining power. In contrast, when you collect wood, water or food, they go to a common pool and are not yours to decide how to use. Drawing cards is a somewhat selfish (or less selfless) action, so do watch out for people who only like to draw cards.

The typhoon came sooner than we expected. It did not feel like we had much time to prepare. We only had two rafts built, so at least three people had to die on the island. At this moment, the guy whom we decided would temporarily die was not yet resurrected. The other guy with the resurrection potion decided, sorry mate, since it's time for someone to die, you might as well die more ahem permanently. Don't come back to eat more of the remaining food and water. Now you know who your real friends are not! Allen waved the winning lottery ticket in his hand desperately (yes, there really is such an item card in the game, and it has no function) offering to share it with whoever helped him return to civilisation. No one listened.

It was time for the final reckoning. The was much voting to be done, first to see who would die of hunger and thirst, and then to see who would be forced to stay on the island due to insufficient supplies for the rafts. We realised that by the time we had to load supplies onto the rafts, we wouldn't have enough for even one person (1 food + 1 water). So we were all doomed. The end. Thank you for coming.

After the game, we concluded that the best way to play was to find an opportune moment to boost the food and water levels to a peak, and then at that instant kill off a bunch of competitors. By culling the population, the food and water would last longer, and hopefully there would be enough left to supply the rafts. In our game we were mostly playing good guys, and the need to feed five mouths every round was a heavy burden.

The Thoughts

Hellapagos is a simple casual game which will work well with non-gamers. The premise is easy to grasp and draws you in. There's a lot of Lord of the Flies in here, so the competition and player interaction quickly becomes very real and intense. This game will work well in a party setting, because of how easy it is to teach. There is voting, and thus most likely also politicking, favouritism and betrayal, so best not to take the game too seriously, lest hurt feelings. There's negotiation, bluffing and threatening, because of the cards you hold in secret. Yet the game is short and you can play a few times in succession.

Tuesday 16 October 2018

Dragon Castle

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

Dragon Castle looks like mahjong, but it's not mahjong. It is inspired by the computer game Shanghai, which has mahjong tiles, but is nothing like mahjong. In Shanghai, complex structures are built using mahjong tiles, and your challenge is to dismantle the whole structure by removing pairs of identical tiles. It is a solitaire game. Not all tiles are free to be removed. A tile is free only if there is no tile on its left or on its right. So when there is a row of tiles, only the leftmost and rightmost tiles are free. The others are all locked. When you remove a tile, the one next to it will become free. Dragon Castle uses this free tile concept.

Before you start playing, you need to build the structure at the centre of the table, which is called the old city. The game comes with a few recommended structures, but you can also design your own. This particular board shows one of the recommended structures. The numbers indicate how high you need to stack the tiles. There's a 3D diagram at the bottom right to help you visualise how the structure will look like.

Once you are done, the structure will look like this. This is a 2-player setup. The discs at the bottom left are countdown discs. You have a stack on the left, and you place one disc per space on the other spaces. The number of spaces to use depends on the number of players.

This is a player board. It starts empty, except for that one temple on the left - that black roof. During the game you claim tiles from the central board and place them onto your personal board, and you score points.

This reference card lists the actions you may do. You have one action per turn, and you have four options. The three basic actions always involve taking one tile (remember it must be a free tile) from the current highest level. The first variant is you take an additional tile. It must be an exact match of the first tile, and of course, it must be a free tile too. It can be from any level, not necessarily the highest. The second variant is you take a temple instead and put in into your personal supply. The third variant is after taking the mandatory tile, you discard it for 1pt. Normally you don't discard tiles and you place them onto your player board. The fourth action is to claim a countdown disc (worth 2pts). You can only do this when there is only one layer of tiles remaining on the main board. Claiming a countdown disc pushes the game towards the end. If an exclamation mark is revealed after a countdown disc is claimed, the current round will be the final round.

This is the exclamation mark. With two players, the game end is triggered once the second countdown disc is claimed.

When placing a tile you claim onto your player board, there is only one rule you need to remember. You may not place it onto another face-up tile. That means you may place it onto any empty space. You may stack it on top of a face-down tile, and stacking is usually good. You may not place it on top of a temple, but you don't need to try to remember that, simply because it's physically impossible. The tile would fall off.

At the top there are three face-down tiles. You may stack new tiles on top of them. The new tiles themselves must be face-up though.

The one at the top is the start player marker. The reference card at the bottom explains the consolidation mechanism. Whenever you have an adjacent group of four or more tiles of the same colour on your player board, you must consolidate them. You score points based on how big the group is, then flip the tiles over. Depending on the tile colour, you may build temples on the tiles just flipped over. Red, yellow and green groups let you build one temple. Blue, black and pink (it looks like purple in the photo) groups let you build two temples. Pink gives you a 1pt bonus too. These temples must come from your personal supply, so it is important to have collected them beforehand. Temples are worth points at game end, depending on which level they are on. The max is 3pts per temple.

If you look at the blue tiles in the foreground, you will see that by placing another blue tile, you can form a group of five by linking the single blue and the group of three. The red tiles are already at level 2, so when you reach a group of four to do consolidation, you can build a 2pt temple. If you want to create a big group, you need to plan carefully. You will need to create a few small disjointed groups smaller than size 4, and then use one tile to link them all together at one go.

In summary, when you play Dragon Castle, you are dismantling the old city brick by brick, and using those bricks to build your own new city. As you do this, you try to score as many points as possible.

Two important elements I have not yet mentioned are the dragon cards and the spirit cards. There are many such cards, and for each game you play, you randomly draw one dragon card and one spirit card. A dragon card specifies an additional scoring criterion to be applied at game end. A spirit card provides a special ability which can be triggered by paying a face-up tile or a temple from your player board. This particular dragon card (left) lets you score the values of one red, one yellow and one green face-up tile. The spirit card here (right) lets you build an additional temple whenever you do consolidation. With this in play, it is easier to build temples, which also means you want to build a healthy stockpile of temples.

The Play

I played two games with Chen Rui. She won the second game, and was very happy to have beaten me. She is the youngest at home, and often plays with the expectation to lose to her father, her mother or her elder sister. Winning is always extra satisfying for her.

There is much planning ahead in Dragon Castle. You envision the kind of new city you want to build, and you try to get the right tiles to help you build it. You need tiles of the same colours, so you must watch what colours your opponents are collecting. It may not be a good idea to go for colours which many others are already fighting over. However it is also bad to let anyone have a free reign over a particular colour. Sometimes you want to take a tile just to deny someone else. Every move you make may open up new possibilities for your opponents. That's something to consider too. You keep an eye on all the currently free tiles, and also upcoming free tiles.

It is not necessary to always go for big groups when doing consolidation. If you consider the point values, a 4-tile group earns 2pts, while an 8-tile group earns 8pts, so bigger groups sound like a much better deal. Naturally they are harder to make too. However one advantage of creating smaller groups is you can complete them quickly then build upwards. You want to create good locations for your temples. The dragon card in play greatly affects your architecture. You must make good use of it.

My pink tiles are stacked high, and I plan to build two temples at level 3 once I do consolidation for the pink tiles. I had unintentionally created an air well in my new city - that hole in the centre.

The yellow, green and red face-up tiles are built this way for the dragon card scoring, with no intention of reaching any group of size 4 for consolidation.

Chen Rui turned her temples into a pagoda.

There are only level 1 tiles on the main board now, which means you can start claiming countdown discs. If you don't think the remaining tiles will help you much, you should go for the discs and end the game as soon as possible. This way you deny your opponents the opportunity to score more. The discs are worth points too.

That dragon card at the bottom left indicates that you get to score extra points for temples in one column and in one row. Also you get bonus points if that row or that column is fully built with temples. This encourages a specific building style.

I had intended to build one complete column and one complete row of temples. My column was complete now, but my row was one short of completion. I had made a mistake. I should not have completed the column yet. Now that section at the far left only had two spaces. It was impossible for me to create a tile group of size four. Thus I could not do consolidation, and that meant I could not complete my row. I had royally screwed myself! Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!

Chen Rui had tiles at level 4! However temples at level 4 would be worth just 3pts, not 4pts.

The Thoughts

Dragon Castle is a light family strategy game. What immediately sets it apart and catches your attention is the Shanghai-like mechanism. However, it is only a small part of the game. The more important part of the game is not the dismantling of the old city, it is the construction of your own new city. You plan how to create colour groups, you build temples, and you customise your city to maximise points from the dragon card of the day. Planning your city and seeing it materialise is satisfying. There is little player interaction at the player boards, but at the main board you do have player interaction. You have to consider which colours your opponents are collecting, and that means you need to watch their personal boards. Sometimes you want to take colours you don't need simply to deny your opponents. Sometimes you delay taking a tile which would unlock another tile which your opponents want. One common situation when multiple players want the same locked tile is nobody being willing to take the tile to free it. Everyone knows the moment it is freed, it will be snatched up. So everyone delays unlocking it, until tiles on that level start running out, and eventually someone is forced to claim the blocking tile. This reminds me of Richelieu by Michael Schacht.

Sunday 7 October 2018


Plays: 2Px3, 3Px1.

Azul is a double-award winner, winning both the Spiel des Jahres and the Deutscher Spiele Preis, the two most prestigious boardgame awards in Germany, and arguably the world. When I had the chance to play it, I jumped in with no hesitation. Gotta see what the fuss is about!

The Game

I'll explain how this game works backwards. Start with the end in mind. What you do in this game is you fill the the spaces on the wall, which is the 5x5 grid on the right side of your player board. You must follow the pattern shown on the wall. Every time you place a tile here, you score points. If the newly placed tile has no other tiles adjacent to it, you score 1pt. If there are others adjacent in the same row, you score 1pt per connected tile in that row, including the newly placed tile. If there are others adjacent in the same column, you also score 1pt per connected tile in that column. Let's say I place a yellow tile in the third row, I would score 2pt. The newly placed yellow tile would be touching one blue tile next to it. They form a row of size 2. There are no adjacent tiles horizontally, so no points column-wise.

Let's work backwards. In order to place tiles onto the wall, you need to first fill those lines on the left side of your player board. They are called pattern lines. During a round, once all tiles have been collected by players, you check whether you have completely filled any pattern lines. Completed pattern lines allow you to transfer one tile to the wall. The tile must be moved to the row corresponding to the pattern line. In the photo above, pattern lines 2 and 3 are complete, and one tile from each line will be moved to the wall. Other tiles in the pattern lines are discarded, so you will have a fresh empty pattern line next round. Pattern lines 4 and 5 are incomplete. The tiles will stay there for the next round.

Let's go further backwards. How do you collect tiles in the first place to put onto your pattern lines? Before the start of the game, you arrange some discs in a circle. These discs are called factories. At the start of every round, four random tiles are produced at each factory. Players take turns collecting tiles until all are claimed. You may pick any factory, and take all tiles of one colour. You then push all remaining tiles to the centre of the circle. There will be more and more tiles at the centre. Your other option is to take all tiles of one colour from the centre. At the start of a round, the start player tile (white tile with a 1) is placed at the centre. During the round, whoever is first to claim tiles from the centre must also take the start player tile.

Whenever you claim tiles, you normally pick one pattern line to place them. If the pattern line becomes full and you have surplus tiles, these tiles must be placed in the floor line. This is a penalty area at the bottom of your player board. Every tile placed here gives a penalty. The start player tile gets placed here too. Being start player for next round costs you at least 1pt. Sometimes if you don't want the tiles you claim, you may directly place them in the floor line. Sometimes when you run out of pattern lines to place tiles claimed, you are forced to place all those tiles in the floor line. As long as there are tiles available on the table, players must claim tiles when their turns come around.

The flow is straight-forward. The first half of a round is for players to claim tiles to put onto their pattern lines. Ideally you want to fill up every pattern line. The first half ends when all tiles are claimed. Then you enter the second half, which is simply processing the completed pattern lines and sticking tiles onto your wall. The second half is actually an administrative and scoring stage that can be done concurrently. It has no player interaction. If any player completes a row on his wall, the game ends. You score bonus points for three criteria at game end. For every completed row on your wall, you score 2pts. For every completed column, 7pts. For every complete set of 5 tiles of the same colour, 10pts.

In a corner of your player board you have these reminders for the game end scoring.

The player board is double sided. On the advanced side, the wall has no preset pattern. You are free to place your tiles. However, the placement is still subject to two rules. In every row, the tile colours must not repeat. In every column, the tile colours also must not repeat. This is the sudoku concept.

The Play

The game mechanisms in Azul may not feel familiar, but they are easy to grasp. However you need to play the game to start appreciating the tactics.

Firstly, you don't simply fill your pattern lines with any colours you want. If you want to do well, you need to think and plan. When placing a tile onto your wall, you want it to link up to as many other tiles as possible, preferably both horizontally and vertically. So ideally when you build your wall, you start at one spot, then expand from there, as opposed to placing random tiles at disjointed positions. You want to complete those 7pt vertical lines. You want to complete those 10pt colour sets. Even when you know which colours you want, you also need to consider what colours are available in the current round, and whether others also want the same colours. If the colour you want is lacking, or you expect others to be desperately fighting over that same colour, it may be better to forgo it this round and try next round. If you fight for it, you may only partially fill a pattern line and need to wait for the next round to complete it anyway. Perhaps it's better to fill that pattern line with another colour that is less contested.

You need to put some thought into the competition at the centre of the table. The first impulse when playing this game is probably to avoid creating any big group of tiles of the same colour, because it means someone else can claim many tiles at one go. However you will later find that sometimes you want to intentionally create big sets, because sometimes players don't want big sets. When you take more than enough tiles to fill a pattern line, the surplus all go to the floor line, and this creates a penalty. When both you and another player want a specific colour, but you have more space than him, one way to dissuade him is to create a group that is too big for him. Of course, he may decide the penalty is worth it, in addition to not letting you have your way. Azul has decent player interaction, just that it is not immediately apparent. At first glance it appears to be a multiplayer solitaire game where everyone decorates his own wall.

The floor line is a constant threat, and the risk grows towards game end, because there are fewer and fewer valid colour choices for the pattern lines. You can't place a tile colour onto a pattern line, if the space of that colour on the corresponding wall row has already been filled. You have fewer and fewer options, and it is more likely you will be forced to place claimed tiles onto the floor line. In the worst case you will lose 14pts, which is a lot. You may be regressing instead of advancing. If a round starts with many players having half-filled pattern lines, you better watch out. There may be more tiles than you can fit, and things may not end well. Alternatively, it may be a golden opportunity to sabotage your opponents.

The advanced game gives you more freedom, but there's a trap. If you don't plan ahead carefully, you will create dead zones on your wall. This was what happened to Allen in one of our games. He had a dead zone because no matter what colour he was to take for that particular spot, it would be conflicting with another spot in the same row, or in the same column. It was then we realised why the wall in the basic game had a diagonal lines pattern.

Allen lent me his copy so that I could play with my children. I got Chen Rui to play with me.

At first Shee Yun wasn't interested to play, but after watching Chen Rui and I for a while, she asked to join us for the next game.

With three players, there are seven factories in use. With two players, only five. In this photo there are already many tiles at the centre. Look at those yellow tiles! The #1 tile is still there, which means no one has taken anything from the centre yet. Whoever is first to take a set of tiles from the centre must take the #1 tile too. The #1 tile must go to the floor tile, and thus will cost you at least 1pt. I find that it is often worth the penalty to become start player for the next round. You get first dibs.

The Thoughts

Labeling Azul as an abstract game feels inappropriate, because normally people think of abstract games as dry, mathematical, open-info and serious. Azul is indeed an open-information game, and if you play very competitively, it can be ponderous and thinky. I see it as a family strategy game. One big dose of randomness is the tiles being drawn at the start of every round. How many tiles there are in each colour affects the game, and how they are distributed also affects the game. I think Azul is best played as a light strategy game. There is no need to think too much. You'll do reasonably well as long as you put a little thought into it. Analysing every logical branch might give you a slight edge, but it is not necessary for the enjoyment of the game.

I enjoyed the fact that underneath the simple rules, there are quite a few tactical subtleties to explore. It was fun discovering the various player interactions.

The publisher could have slapped on a less abstract theme. The colours could be different professions helping to rebuild a kingdom, or alien races at an intergalactic business conference. I'm glad they chose a simple, unpretentious setting. The game mechanism is pure and abstract. Slapping on some fanciful story or elaborate setting might feel forced and unnatural.

I found Azul refreshing. Often when trying to describe a game, I am reminded of mechanisms in other games, and I try to describe the game on hand by referring to those other games. The game mechanisms in Azul are not groundbreaking, but the whole package doesn't feel like anything I have played before. Okay, maybe except for Sudoku.