Sunday 31 March 2019

Fireball Island

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Fireball Island is an old game first published in 1986. A new edition was recently published via Kickstarter. To many people this is probably a nostalgia game, bringing back childhood memories. I had not played this nor had I heard of it when I was young, so there is no nostalgia factor for me.

You are tourists visiting Fireball Island, an island rich with legends and artifacts, and has an active volcano. You are not exactly honest tourists, because you will be stealing artifacts from the island. They are worth victory points. You still do touristy stuff - visiting famous landmarks and taking photos. These snapshots are worth points too. The game can end in two ways. It ends after one player visits all three types of landmarks. It also ends when the volcano erupts. Once game end is triggered, you have two turns to return to the helicopter pickup point. If you don't make it on time, you don't score your snapshots. You have to swim to escape the island, and your camera is not waterproof. Whoever has the most points at game end wins.

The volcano at the centre of the island is carved into a statue of a local deity. Lava flows from the mouth of the statue, and can go in three different directions. The statue can be rotated, so you can somewhat control where lava flows. Lava is represented by marbles in the game. When marbles roll down the slopes, they may knock over your pawns. Sometimes you drop marbles at the statue. Sometimes you push marbles from their perches on the island. All these are done to try to knock over your opponents. This is the greatest joy in the game. When you knock them over, you get to steal their treasures.

This is the full view of the island. It is made of 3 big pieces. The general shape is a roof shape, with two slopes going left and right. When the marbles roll, they will eventually roll down to the bottom of one of the slopes. That H in the foreground is the helipad.

Once the board is fully set up, there will be treasures (round tokens) all over the place, and ember marbles (partially transparent). There are two types of marbles in the game, red fireball marbles and ember marbles. Ember marbles have perches scattered around the island, and they are pushed off their perches to attack your opponents. Fireball marbles are normally kept in a pit (not shown in this photo). When you need to use them, they are dropped into the statue and from there they roll down the slopes. Right beside the volcano (statue) you can see the giant red ruby. That's the most valuable treasure.

The card on the right is a reference card. The card on the left is a souvenir card. Souvenirs are single-use tools. This particular souvenir lets me steal an extra treasure from whomever I knock over.

These are action cards. You have a hand size of two. On your turn you must play one card then draw one card. When playing a card, you must move the number of steps as specified on the card. Coincidentally both of these are a special type of action card - Cataclysm cards. These cards cause the volcano to progress towards eruption.

Player pawns.

This mini board tracks the progress of the volcano towards eruption. It is a countdown board. It starts with three fireball marbles. Whenever a Cataclysm card is played by anyone, it is placed in a slot below this board. Upon the third Cataclysm card being played, one fireball marble is moved to the island. The cards are removed and shuffled with both the draw deck and discard pile to form a new draw deck. Once all three fireball marbles are moved to the board, you enter the game end phase.

The deck on the left is the action cards, and on the right the souvenir cards (tools).

This is a snapshot card. You collect these by visiting landmarks on the island. There are six landmarks in three different colours. If anyone collects all three colours, the game end is triggered.

The Play

I did a four-player game with Allen, Peter and Max. This is the highest player count, and I believe the best too.

Max (yellow) was the ambitious one, and aimed for the ruby right from the get-go. To get to the ruby you need to cross bridges, and bridges are unstable structures. Whenever you enter such a structure, you must stop. Going for the ruby means you'll pause once when heading in, and you'll pause again when heading out. It takes at least 2 turns. The first person to steal the ruby angers the local deity. A fireball marble is immediately moved from the countdown board to the island, speeding up the volcanic eruption.

Seeing that Max was going for the juiciest treasure, Allen decided to stop him. He played a card which would allow him to target Max with an ember marble, which was just 2 inches away from Max. To everyone's surprise, the marble not only missed Max, it bounced to the other side of the island, and knocked over Allen himself. Oops... that didn't quite go as planned.

The first two action cards I drew were Cataclysm cards, so I could not avoid speeding up the game. Max stole the ruby very early in the game, and that added a fireball marble to the island. With ruby in hand, Max was the obvious leader. The ruby was worth 7VP. The rest of us would need to catch up on points before time ran out. I went for landmarks and tried to collect as many treasures as I could along the way. Then something unexpected happened. Peter played a Cataclysm card, which would further speed up the countdown. At the time he was behind in points, and I had thought it not beneficial for him to speed up the game. I was amassing a respectable number of points, but I was far from the helipad.

We had one big misunderstanding when we played. We thought that anyone who didn't make it back to the helipad automatically lost, i.e. you die on the island and score nothing. The actual rule is if you don't get to the helipad, you don't score your snapshots. You still score for other things so you are still in contention. The way we played was incorrect, but I thought it was rather logical.

If Peter managed to get the leaders stranded (and thus killed) on the island, he just might win. The game end came rather soon, and everyone had to scramble to get back to the helipad within two turns. I was very far from the helipad, and my only hope was the caves. There are many caves on the island, all connected by underground tunnels. Whenever you enter one, you exit from another, but which one you exit from is determined by a die roll. I had to gamble that I would exit at a cave near the helipad, but unfortunately I didn't roll the right number.

The cave I exited was near Max. I ran past him, and in the process stole his ruby. Whenever you walk past anyone carrying the ruby, you get to steal it. I did it just because I could. There wasn't much point actually, since I was doomed to die on the island (based on our incorrect interpretation of the rules). It was a pity, because I had many snapshots and treasures. In this photo there is yet another mistake. You are not supposed to collect two snapshots of the same colour.

This was just after I (green) ran past Max (yellow). Both of us needed to get to the helipad on the right, but we were both still very far. I had a high movement card on hand, but unfortunately I was just one space short. At this point Peter played a card which let him launch an ember marble. I was the obvious leader, due to the many treasures and snapshots, and also that ruby I had robbed from Max. So he targeted me. I was secretly happy. From where he was going to launch the ember marble, if he hit me, I would likely be knocked one step down the slope where I was standing. Later on my turn when I was to stand up, I would be standing up on that space. This process would effectively give me one free move, and that was enough to get me to the helipad! From the depths of despair, I saw a silver lining. Peter launched the ember marble. It flew right off the island. It didn't even touch anyone. He himself was penalised for sending the ember marble off the island - one treasure surrendered. My flicker of hope was gone.

Max's turn came again. He ran past me and took back his ruby. It actually didn't really matter, because he couldn't make it back to the helipad anyway. I guess at least he felt good after taking back what was his. Then suddenly I saw new hope. In Fireball Island, if another player is in your way, you can move past him, skipping the space he is on, and saving one movement point. This was the one crucial movement point I needed! I made it back to the helipad, and on my way I stole Max's ruby again! We played the game quite casually, and didn't really think deeply. Had we been playing more seriously, Max would have gone the other direction to avoid the risk of helping me. He didn't have enough moves to get to the helipad anyway. Getting nearer did him no good. He inadvertently saved my neck.

We didn't bother tallying up the scores. I had obviously many more items than the rest. I even took the lucky penny, because I was first to get back to the helipad.

Allen and Peter managed to get back to the helipad too. Max was the only one stranded on the island.

The Thoughts

We messed up quite a few rules, but in the end it didn't really affect our enjoyment. This is not a serious strategy game. It is a children's game, a family game. The selling point is you get to shoot marbles at your friends to rob them of treasures. There is the excitement of seeing how the marbles roll and the anxiety of seeing whether you and your opponents will be knocked over. In some ways Fireball Island is more toy than game. It's not deep. It's simple and it's rowdy fun. It comes with quite many expansions, but I have not looked into what they contain.

Sunday 17 March 2019

The Quacks of Quedlinburg

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is the 2018 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner (expert category winner of the Game of the Year award in Germany). The name is quirky and doesn't sound very serious. If I were browsing games at a game shop, and if it didn't have any award-winner logo, I would likely have passed on it without hesitation. Thankfully I'm not picky when I play with my regular group, otherwise I would have missed out on this fun game.

The Quacks of Quedlinburg is arguably a deck-building game, just that it doesn't use cards. It uses chips in a bag. It is also a push-your-luck game, like Blackjack.

Every player has a pot like this. You are dodgy witch doctors trying to make magic potions, and you are not quite sure how everything works. You are literally randomly chucking ingredients in to see whether things work out. Every round, all players work on their own potions at the same time. You try to make the best potion possible. The potion you make may earn you points and may also earn you some money, which can then be spent on new ingredients for your future potions. Your potions will get better and better, as your collection of ingredients improve. At the end of the 9th round, whoever scores the highest wins the game.

That droplet marker is where you start brewing your potion. Brewing a good potion simply means increasing its numerical value. It is possible to move your droplet marker. If you manage to do this, in future rounds you start your brewing from a more advantageous location, and it becomes easier to make a high valued potion. The list at the bottom left tells you the starting ingredients in your bag. Everyone starts with the same combination. Most of the starting ingredients are bad (the white ingredients). You only have one orange and one green ingredient. The flask at the bottom right is not an image drawn on the player board. It is a separate, double-sided game component. The unused side (with liquid) is showing now. Once you use it, it is flipped to the used (empty) side. I'll explain this later.

These are the game components at the centre of the table. The main game board is small. You use it to keep score, to keep track of the round number, and to remind yourselves the actions to be performed at the end of a round. Those books show the special powers of each ingredient type. The game comes with several special powers for each ingredient type, and you can choose to mix and match in any way you like.

The hanging lamps in the upper half represent the 9 rounds in the game. Special icons on the lamps are reminders that special rules apply. E.g. some ingredient types can only be purchased from rounds 2 and 3 onwards. E.g. in the last round money doesn't buy ingredients anymore, and instead is converted to points at $5 per 1VP. The icons on the banners in the lower half are reminders for things you need to do at the end of a round.

Every round you will keep drawing ingredients from this bag, one at a time. You place a drawn ingredient in your pot before you draw the next one.

Let's talk about the core mechanism, starting with the droplet marker. The droplet marker is your starting point. You want to place ingredients progressively further and further along the outward spiral, going as far as possible. Each position in the spiral specifies rewards. The further you go, the better the rewards are. If you are a trailing player, you may get to use the rat marker, placing it somewhere ahead of your droplet marker. The rat marker marks a temporary and better starting point for the current round.

Once the brewing starts, everyone performs actions simultaneously. You generally won't be interfering with one another so you can do this concurrently. Brewing simply means drawing ingredients out of the bag one by one, until you are happy with what you achieve, or you overdo it and the potion explodes. Each time you draw a new ingredient, you look at the number on it, and you place it that number of spaces ahead of the previously placed ingredient. In the photo above, the first ingredient drawn was a white 2, so it was placed 2 spaces ahead of the rat marker. The next ingredient drawn was the orange 1, so it was placed immediately ahead of the white 2. The rest all work the same way. Once you decide to stop brewing, your rewards will be indicated by the space immediately after your last placed ingredient. In the photo above, the rewards are $15 (number in green bubble) which can be spent on buying new ingredients, 3 victory points (number in box), and one ruby. Rubies can be spent to permanently improve your droplet marker position and to reset the flask.

Your potion brewing may come to an abrupt end if an explosion occurs. An explosion happens when the total value of white ingredients in your pot exceeds 7. After an explosion, you may no longer draw ingredients from your bag for the current round. Your reward is still based on that space next to your last placed ingredient (even though it has caused the explosion), but now you have to choose between money or victory points. You can't have both. You still get the ruby if the space gives you one. Having to choose isn't too bad a penalty in the early game, but towards game end, it becomes a big deal and exploding or not can mean the difference between winning and losing.

In the photo above, the white ingredients now total 6. There are white ingredients with values 1, 2 and 3. If the next ingredient drawn is a white 1, that's still fine. You hit 7 but you have not exceeded it yet. The next white ingredient can't be a 2, because there are only two 2's in the bag and both have been drawn now. If the white 3 is drawn, then kaboom!

Every round, everybody does this brewing thing, until either everyone chooses to stop or goes kaboom. You want to go as high as possible, but as you approach 7, you need to start thinking hard whether to stop or to draw one more time.

The most important thing you do after you are done with brewing and before a round ends is to to buy new ingredients. You may buy up to two per round, and if you buy two, they must be in different colours. New ingredients go into your bag. So do all ingredients drawn in the current round. You'll start the next round with a new distribution of ingredients.

The most important aspect of the game is the special powers of the ingredients. They need to be explained to paint a clearer picture of what the game is like. Let's start from the top left. The orange ingredient doesn't do much. That's why it's cheap. It mainly gives you a non-white ingredient, thus diluting the percentage of white ingredients. The blue ingredient lets you draw a certain number of ingredients from the bag, then decide whether to add one of them directly to your pot. Ingredients drawn this way and not added to the pot are returned to the bag. When you draw a red ingredient, if you already have some orange ingredients in the pot, the value of the red ingredient is boosted. The black ingredient lets you improve the position of your droplet marker. It may earn you rubies too. There is a condition though - you need to have more black ingredients in your pot than your immediate neighbours, both of them if you want the ruby too. If the last or second last ingredient in your pot is a green one, you gain a ruby. A yellow ingredient lets you return your previous ingredient to the bag, if it is a white one. This temporarily reduces your risk of exploding.

If you look closely at the score track, you will see many rats. Rats are a catch-up mechanism. Some spaces on the score track have a rat tail between them. When you trail far enough behind the leading player, you get to use the rat marker to augment your start position for brewing potion. In this photo above, the red player is only two points behind the leading yellow player, and there are no rat tails between their score markers. So the red player does not gain any benefit. The green and blue players are further behind, and there is one rat tail between them and the yellow player. So for the current round, both of them get to use their rat markers. The rat markers are to be placed in the space immediately in front of the droplet markers, because the rat value is 1.

In this photo you can see a rat marker in front of the droplet marker. That means this player board belongs to a currently trailing player. You will also notice that this particular pot has exploded. The white ingredients add up to 8. Busted! It was that last white 1 which spoiled the potion. The space next to the last ingredient shows $18 and and 5VP. The player only gets to choose one of them now. Let's say he didn't draw that last white 1. In such a case, he would also gain the benefit of that green 1. The green 1 would be the second last ingredient, and thus it would give one ruby.

At the start of every round, one such fortune teller card is drawn. These are event cards which usually affect everyone. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. This particular card doubles the rat values, so this is good for the trailing players and bad for the leading player. Fortune teller cards inject some randomness and excitement.

One notable thing in this photo is the droplet marker, which has now moved 9 steps away from the centre. This is no easy feat. It takes conscious effort to make use of rubies and ingredient powers to push the droplet this far. The second notable point is the rat marker being this far away from the droplet marker - 4 spaces! If I remember correctly, this was due to the effect of a fortune teller card doubling the rat values. The third notable point is that the yellow 4 ingredient is five spaces away from the previous ingredient - the blue 1. This looks wrong at first glance, but it is not a mistake. There was previously a white 1 ingredient between the yellow 4 and the blue 1. It was the power of the yellow 4 which allowed that white 1 to be returned to be bag, thus creating this situation above.

Now let's talk about the flask at the bottom right. It is empty now, i.e. it has been used and flipped to this exhausted side. The flask can be used at any time to return your most recently drawn ingredient to the bag, provided that it is white, and the potion hasn't yet exploded. Once the ability of the flask is used, you need two rubies to reset it. In this photo, the white ingredients total 5 points, so the pot is now in danger of exploding. The most recently drawn ingredient is a white 2, so if the flask were not exhausted, it would be reasonable to consider using it.

The Play

I did a 4-player game, the highest player count, and I think that's the best way to play. The quantities in each ingredient type are limited, so more players mean they run out more easily. There is more competition. Every round there is a comparison to see who has brewed his potion the best relative to his start position (i.e. relative to the droplet marker or rat marker). More players means more competition here too. There will likely be a wider range of victory points during the game, and thus rat tails will come into play more. Adding players doesn't affect play time much, because brewing is done concurrently. That's a plus.

The biggest excitement in The Quacks of Quedlinburg is that of playing Blackjack. In the early stages of brewing, there is no risk of exploding, but you will still be anxious about whether you'll draw a white or a non-white ingredient. That lucky draw feeling keeps you engaged. It's like buying lottery and checking the results. You feel happy when you draw a non-white ingredient, usually. Sometimes you are less happy when you draw a green or a red ingredient too early, because you won't get to utilise its power. In the later stages of brewing, the tension builds because you start risking an explosion when you draw that one more ingredient. It is not hard to memorise the ingredient composition of your bag. You can calculate your probabilities pretty accurately if you want to. However, probabilities are just that - probabilities. A 10% probability of exploding does not mean you should just go ahead and draw again. You just might draw that cursed white 3 ingredient. Yet if you back down from a 90% chance of success, you may regret it. To draw or not to draw - that's the angst you keep getting all the time.

Max was first to focus on black ingredients. Black ingredients help you move your droplet marker, so they are a good early investment. To enjoy the benefit, you need to have more black ingredients in your pot than your neighbour. Jeff and I were Max's neighbours. As we watched him reap benefits from the black ingredients, the neighbour envy kicked in and we both went for black too. Wakanda Forever! Allen sat opposite Max, so whether he took any black had no impact on Max. He didn't bother with black. After Jeff and I invested in black, we were able to deny Max because we caught up to him. In fact Jeff later overtook him. At the same time since Allen never bothered with black, Jeff and I enjoyed the black benefits as long as we had at least one black ingredient.

I was first to invest in blue. The blue combo could be terrifyingly effective. Some rounds when I used a blue ingredient, it helped me draw another blue ingredient, so I could trigger the blue power again. When I had many blue ingredients, such a chaining effect helped me reduce risk and also pushed my potion value up. Soon the others started copying my blue strategy, and not long afterwards the general supply ran out of blue 4 ingredients.

In our game the fortune teller cards triggered double rats at least twice, which was great news for the trailing players in those rounds.

These were the ingredients in my bag by game end. I had 6 blue ingredients. In the last round you don't buy any more ingredients. So this means in 6 out of 8 rounds I bought blue ingredients.

This was my potion in the final round. I was very close to maxing out my potion value - only 3 spaces away. At this point my white ingredients already totaled 7 points, so it was risky to continue to draw. I still had 2 blues, 2 greens and 3 whites in the bag, so I had more than half a chance of not exploding if I drew the next ingredient. However, too much was at stake to risk this. In fact, even the previous draw was already risky. Had I drawn a white 3 instead of the white 2, my potion would have exploded. I was already at 5 points then.

The Thoughts

The Quacks of Quedlinburg gives you that it's-my-lucky-day anticipation, and that push-your-luck anxiety. It also gives you that sense of progress and accomplishment of deck-building games. Your choices in ingredient purchase will yield results. There is some luck, and things don't always work out well, but eventually you will see the results of your decisions. Every round you get to buy up to two ingredients. Every round your bag is reset. This is akin to reshuffling your deck every round. It is like a sped up version of a deck-building game. I find the game fun and exciting. I think the KdJ win is well deserved. However I don't see the game as an "expert game" or gamer's game. I think non-gamers and casual gamers can handle it.

Each ingredient has a variety of powers. There are four recommended sets of powers which have been playtested and balanced. Once you are done with these, you can mix and match the ingredient powers as you like. We played the basic set meant for new players. The powers are straight-forward. I expect in the other more advanced sets there will be more interesting powers and more complex interactions among the powers.

Saturday 16 March 2019

link: Cardboard Buzzsaw (from Fortress Ameritrash / There Will Be Games)

Board game reviewers and critics are no longer relevant? Being drown out due to how the boardgame hobby is becoming about endless consumption and churn for most hobbyists? I saw this article at Fortress Ameritrash - I mostly agree. I'm thankful I'm doing blogging only as a hobby. It's only for self-satisfaction and I'm not making a living or generating any side income out of this. The industry trend doesn't affect me much. I'm happy as long as there are still good games to be played and to be written about. Doesn't matter (at least not to me and not directly) if there are many more mediocre games out there.

Cardboard Buzzsaw

by Vysetron

Updated March 15, 2019

I'm increasingly uncertain as to the future of critical board game content. As the board game industry continues to expand and the number of released games increases year after year there has been a massive shift in how games are marketed and sold. The endless assault upon the seemingly perpetually open wallets of prospective customers comes from all angles. Traditional publishers stagger their line throughout each year, timing it to grab as much of the convention season market as possible. Smaller, slower scheduled publishers unleash a torrent of marketing leading up to their releases to ensure that they don't get lost in the churn. A new Kickstarter campaign seems to go up every day. Remarkably, all of these methods are successful. More games, more games, and yet more games to feed the ever hungry audience.

This fuels and is also the direct result of another significant shift, this being in the audience itself. The majority of "board gamers" are no longer looking for the best in their favorite genres or simply waiting to try the next game from their favorite designers. Rather, they are looking to have as many new experiences as possible. To learn, play, experience, and consume the new. Newness in and of itself is the desired quality in a game, and newness has a expiration date that rapidly approaches the moment the shrink wrap is ripped from its box.

Publishers have recognized the desire for newness and have responded with more. Consumers consume, then demand yet more. The cycle continues. And somewhere in all of this, there exist relics of the previous era. Critics.

Modern board game coverage has shifted from the review to the preview. Consumers simply want to be made aware of upcoming titles so that they can place another $100 order at CSI and receive their serotonin rush when it arrives months later. To look at a game that is already out, or has been out, is useless to them when they're considering how many games to purchase rather than considering if they should purchase. Many content creators and networks have adapted to this trend and have shifted their content in this direction, providing preview commentary for games before they reach the hands of buyers/backers.

Of course there exist popular reviewers that cover games in a critical manner, but even they are often restricted to the top of the BGG hotness in order to maintain relevance with their audience. To cover a game that isn't the focus of the zeitgeist? That way madness, and poor metrics, lie.

There has been a cultural shift against criticism. Nowadays it is often viewed with skepticism rather than an open mind. To say a game is mediocre or worse is not something that is useful to the majority of modern board game media consumers. They are looking for attractive objects. Why would you bring something poor to their attention, or worse, tell them that their upcoming acquisition is a poor game? To do so is an attack on everyone involved in that game's success, which now includes themselves as board game creators and customers become ever more financially intertwined. To critique a game with any degree of harshness is to tell them that their judgement was poor, that their eye was not keen enough, that their money was wasted. It's no longer a warning against a purchase because the game is already bought - it's an insult. And a direct one.

Publishers have no reason to send games to a self-professed critic when they can commit their press copy budget to outlets who vow not to speak an ill word of their product, sometimes for a nominal fee. This feeds the trend of content drifting ever earlier from the game's release date. A critical reviewer cannot compete with a game previewer, some of whom even sport the same title of reviewer, who makes a show of legitimacy with their preproduction copy and assures consumers that their money is well invested. By the time the game actually exists the publisher's needs are already met and all prospective purchasers have already either shelved the game or loaded it onto the sell pile. Either way, a critical review no longer helps as the game is no longer going to be played.

I have seen board game critics of various means and mediums, many of whom I respect, contemplate abandoning the persuit. If they have a financial stake it's often no longer worth the time put in. If they do it for validation it's often giving them the opposite. This leaves the people that simply do it for themselves, and as one of those myself I can tell you that our output varies wildly depending on what we're able to play when. We're outsiders, competing with a massive network of publishers and their established media personalities, penning reviews for games that just came out and yet are already too old.

I wish I could say that the pendulum is at the end of its swing. That as the board game bubble bursts, board game consumers will once again become board game players and critics will once again be able to serve as the quality filter that all entertainment hobbies need. But I am no seer and I don't want to lie to you. I don't know where things are going or what the future of games criticism is and I won't claim to. Instead I'd like to wrap up with a bit of homework. I know, but bear with me. You might enjoy it.

Pull up your favorite reviewer's site, blog, Youtube page, whatever. Check their content from a year ago today. Then a year before that. Go back in large jumps like that and note the changes. You may start to notice that what brought you there in the first place is missing from what they're producing now. Alternatively you may find that they are as sharp as ever and you can still trust their word. Either way you will have gained insight into where their work has gone and if it serves your needs. I hope you find it lands in the latter category. Audit your board game media feed. You may be surprised at just how much of it is opt-in commercials.

Sunday 10 March 2019

Three Kingdoms Redux

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Three Kingdoms Redux is designed by the husband-wife team from neighbouring Singapore - Yeo Keng Leong and Christina Ng. When it was first released, there was a decent amount of interest and discussion. Most boardgames I play are designed by Westerners. I imagine if a Westerner game designer creates a Three Kingdoms themed boardgame, it will probably be weird. Three Kingdoms is a very Chinese thing. I think you need to be Chinese, or at least Asian, to do it justice. That said, I didn't seek out the game when it first came out. Malaysians (and Singaporeans I think) have an inferiority complex. We tend to think things made in other countries are better than local products. I was never particularly confident in locally designed games. Sorry all Malaysian and Singaporean game designers. I am more or less familiar with the Three Kingdoms history and characters, but that's because it's such a big part of Chinese culture, not because I'm an enthusiast. Recently during the Chinese New Year period Jeff wanted to play some Chinese themed games. So Three Kingdoms Redux was suggested. I was interested to give it a go, so I joined him. It was then I realised that Allen owns a copy of the game. If I wanted to play, I could have played it a long time ago.

When I read the rules, my heart sank a little. This sounded like just another worker placement game. It's just that your workers are now famous characters from the Three Kingdoms period. I wasn't optimistic. Thankfully now that I have played the game, it changed my mind.

Three Kingdoms Redux must be played with exactly 3 players. The Wei player sits at the bottom edge of the game board, and the Wu and Shu players sit at the two sides of the board. Sitting positions are fixed. At the centre of the board you see this big yellow area. It is divided into 12 spaces, and these are where you place your workers to perform actions. Of the six mostly rectangular sections surrounding it, three (with the Wei, Wu and Shu characters) are player boards, and the other three positioned between the player boards are the border areas, i.e. war zones.

Each kingdom has many generals. These are the Wu kingdom generals. At most 8 generals per kingdom will appear in any particular game. One of them is the faction leader, Sun Jian in the case of Wu. So your variety comes from only the other seven. The boss is always in the game. There are two types of generals - military and civil - as can be told apart based on hat design. Every general has three basic attributes - administrative, combat and leadership. The admin and combat attributes determine how well they compete in the civil and military actions respectively. Leadership limits how many armies they can bring to war and to station at a border location.

These are the general cards of Sun Jian (boss of Wu) and Jiang Qin. In addition to the three basic attributes, every general also has a special ability written in text. Icons at the lower right indicate the troop types he specialises in. There is some advantage if a general leads his preferred troop types.

When the game starts, Wei has five generals, Wu four, and Shu only three. So Wei starts with an advantage. In the 3rd, 5th and 9th rounds every kingdom draws more generals. Shu will draw more than Wei, so that eventually everyone will have 8 generals in total. At the start of the game and each time you draw generals, you draw more cards than you need and select which ones you want. So you have some flexibility and you are not entirely at the mercy of luck.

These are state enhancement cards. You draw some at the start of the game, and during the game you may also draw more. You need to perform a build action to play these cards. They give you some advantage, and they give you points too. They cost resources to build, and some can only be built under specific conditions.

This is the Wu player board. The upper half is the farm and marketplace improvement areas. When you do improvement, you flip over the tiles. You may also move flipped tiles to the top row, after which they will provide food and wages to your armies stationed at border locations. Armies are very expensive to maintain, so farm and marketplace improvements are important.

The lower half is the tribal relations track. This is the only place you may send a general and there will be no interference from other kingdoms. When sending a general here, you may ask him to bring some BR1M gift money to please the tribes, or you may ask him to bring some muscle men to terrorise the tribes. In both cases, tribal relations will improve (as in they will be more obedient). It is important to maintain tribal relations because you score points for it at game end. A good relationship is not easy to maintain, because every round that you don't send a general, the relationship worsens by one notch. These local tribes are high-maintenance.

This is where most actions occur. There are 12 action spaces here, and at the bottom right of each space, there is an icon indicating whether it is a military or a civil action. The top row is all military, the bottom row all civil, and the middle row a mix. The nature of the central two action spaces alternate every round, and they are always the opposite. One is military, the other is civil, and next round they swap. The top row actions and the rightmost action in the middle row are all related to gathering resources - gold, rice, ships, crossbows, horses and untrained soldiers. You also get to train those untrained soldiers to become trained soldiers. The first actions in the second and third rows are for developing your farms and marketplaces, i.e. your economy. The two actions at the lower right are for drawing and playing state enhancement cards. 2nd row, 3rd action is called Control Han Emperor. When you control the emperor, you get to promote yourself to a higher rank. Each promotion gives you points, and if anyone gets promoted all the way to the Emperor rank, the game ends (but the new Emperor does not necessarily win - you need to compare scores). Controlling the Emperor also gets you a +1 token for the next round. You may boost the ability of one of your generals by 1.

The structure of a game round is simple. You spend the first half placing generals, and the second half executing actions based on where you have placed them. Generals may be placed in this central area, in the tribal area on your player board, or in a border area between yourself and an opponent. One key difference between Three Kingdoms Redux and other worker placement games is you may place workers in occupied spaces (like Carson City). Who wins the spot is deterministic. There is no fight sequence or die roll. Whoever has the stronger general or generals wins the spot and gets to perform the action. Others get nothing. In the photo above you can see Wei (blue) and Wu (red) fighting for the 3rd spot in the bottom row. The central action spaces and the border locations all work this way. Only the tribal area is a safe area with no interference possible.

This is the player order table. The player order of the round determines the alliance for the round. The 2nd and 3rd players are automatically allied. However this is a limited alliance. They only get to work together in one action space. The 3rd player gets to decide which one. In the alliance space, the strengths of the generals of the alliance are added up. So if both allied players commit generals, it is costly for the lone player to compete. If the alliance wins that space, both partners get to perform the action. This is quite powerful, but since it is limited to one space, it is not overwhelming. In fact sometimes the alliance partners have difficulties agreeing on where to place the alliance marker. Although the 3rd player has the right to choose, if he chooses a space which the 2nd player does not like, he won't get support from the 2nd player, and the alliance marker is as good as wasted.

The turn order of the following round depends on the number of actions you perform in the current round. This is not as simple as counting your generals. Your number of actions equal your number of generals only in the most optimistic case. Often you lose at some spaces, or you need to commit two or more generals to perform one action. Whoever has taken the most actions becomes start player next round, and is automatically non-allied. Being first usually means being disadvantaged. Others get to see how you commit your generals before deciding how they will compete with you. You place a strength-4 general, and your opponent may just place a strength-5 general to beat you, forcing you to either commit another general for the action you want, or give up.

This is the military VP track. During the game, once you have stationed armies at border locations, they score victory points for you every round, and such points are tracked here. The track at the top is the round track. You play at most 12 rounds, and in rounds 3, 5 and 9 you get new generals. The track at the bottom is the rank track. You get promoted each time you control the Han Emperor. If you get promoted all the way to Emperor rank, you trigger the game end.

The core process flow in the game is building your armies to capture border locations, and building your economy to support these armies stationed at the border locations. You gather untrained soldiers and train them to become proper soldiers. You then have to pair them with a weapon type (horses, spears, ships or crossbows) to make them a proper army. When you assign a general to lead troops and capture a border location, that general retires to that location, and you will no longer have him to help you perform actions for the rest of the game. So committing generals to capture border locations is not to be taken lightly. Furthermore, each army stationed consumes 1 rice and 1 gold every round. This upkeep cost is no joke, and if you can't afford to pay, there is a stiff penalty (a la Agricola). Yet the constant victory points every round is lucrative, so you don't want to fall behind. The whole game is about managing this process, trying to be efficient and controlling the timing so that you don't get stuck in a bad place.

When the game ends, scoring is done in a number of ways. There are a few areas in which you compare against your two opponents. If you do better than both, you score 5VP. If you are in second place, you score 2VP. If you are last, you get nothing. These areas include tribal relations, your rank, the number of border locations you control, and your farm and marketplace development level. During the game you need to plan ahead for each of these areas and make sure you stay competitive.

The Play

When I played Three Kingdoms Redux, I did not pick green (my favourite player colour) to play. Jeff, Allen and I just sat down, and played the kingdom nearest to us. I was Wu (red), Allen Wei (blue) and Jeff Shu (green). Allen (Wei, blue) started with five generals. Jeff and I had fewer, but we were allied. This was a fitting start, reflecting history. Shu did not start with the famous three sworn brothers though - Liu Bei, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei. Liu Bei was the lord of Shu, so Jeff did start with him. However the other generals were randomly drawn. There is a scenario that comes with the game in which all generals are predetermined. This scenario reflects history and picks the more famous generals of the era. Shu starts with the three sworn brothers, and then Zhuge Liang and Zhao Yun join them in Round 3. Wei starts with Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, the loyal supporters of Cao Cao. Wu starts with Huang Gai, Zhou Yu and Sun Ce, and Sun Quan only joins the fray in Round 3. If you are familiar with Three Kingdoms, you will know all these characters.

I found that the slightly different worker placement mechanism makes Three Kingdoms Redux very different from other worker placement games. You need to think much harder because placing a general does not guarantee you will win the spot. You need to think whether others will compete with you. You need to decide which general to send, and whether to boost his ability using the Han Emperor token or Popular Support tokens. You need to watch what kind of generals your opponents have, and assess how likely they will compete with you. Some generals are good at admin, some are good at combat. Some are middling at both, but they may turn out to be more flexible. Each time you get to pick generals, you need to consider these factors. The worker placement is certainly more complex. Whether that's good or bad depends on personal tastes. I am fine with it and I find it challenging. Just be warned it might induce AP (Analysis-Paralysis).

The alliance mechanism is interesting. It forces some cooperation between the 2nd and 3rd player. If you are part of the alliance, you really don't want to waste it. So you need to negotiate with your partner and you try your best to agree on an action space which you are both willing to commit generals to. If negotiations go nowhere, it's a win for the non-allied player.

I (Wu) amassed many soldiers and weapons in the early game, but I did not rush to capture border locations. My economy was not well developed yet and I could not afford a high upkeep cost.

One of our earliest battles was Chi Bi - the famous Red Cliff. We rewrote history. Allen (Wei, blue) won the battle with no resistance. We joked that Cao Cao was desperate for the beautiful Xiao Qiao. Every border location captured was a big deal. It was a big commitment. From that point onwards, the controller of the location had to pay upkeep costs of the armies stationed there. Also the general who captured the location would be stationed there till game-end, unable to perform any more actions. The stationed armies would score points every round, which was a big plus.

Xiao Qiao portrayed by Lin Chi-ling.

If you look closely at the centre, you will see that one of the action spaces has two of my generals (Wu, red). This particular action space was important to me, and I was adamant on winning it, thus committing two generals to make sure I won it, and to deter others from challenging me. The others might not really want it, but they were happy to psycho me into committing a second general, so that they would have less competition elsewhere.

The yellow token in the middle is the Emperor. If you win the Control Han Emperor action space, you get this token for the next round. You can use it to boost the strength of one of your generals by +1.

At the Wu-Wei border in the lower left, Allen (Wei, blue) had captured Chi Bi. At the Wu-Shu border at the top, I (Wu, red) had captured Bai Di Cheng, but now Jeff (Shu, green) had sent an army, and I hadn't sent any to compete with his, so he would be next to capture a location at this border. At the Shu-Wei border at the bottom right, Jeff (Shu, green) had captured Wu Zhang Yuan. Now Allen (Wei, blue) had sent an army, and was uncontested. So Allen would be next to capture a location here.

At the lower left you can see a white token showing two flags. This is the alliance token. In this particular round, Allen (Wei, blue) and Jeff (Shu, green) were allied, and they had agreed to place the alliance token in this Develop Farm / Harvest action space. Both of them had placed generals in this space, and both of them would get to perform the action. I (Wu, red) didn't even try to compete with them there. In fact I was so paranoid that at both the action spaces that I wanted, I committed two generals.

In our game, Allen (Wei, blue) was enthusiastic about constructing state enhancements. He had a general who gave him benefits whenever he chose that action. Unfortunately (for him) Jeff and I did compete with him, so he didn't always get to construct his enhancements. Jeff (Shu, green) liked Controlling the Han Emperor. This Liu Bei (lord of Shu) was such a suck-up to the boy emperor! Being buddies with the Emperor does get you promoted, but your general will be out of action next round (due to the hangover), so it is a costly action. Allen and I were not particularly keen to do it and we didn't compete with Jeff much. Our game eventually ended with Jeff getting promoted to Emperor level (that's one of the game-end conditions). He saw that he was falling behind in military points, and knew that he had to speed up the game lest he fell even further behind.

This was Allen's (Wei, blue) domestic affairs board (player board). His relationship with the local tribes was good, already enough to earn him points. However he had to continue to maintain the relationship until the game ended if he wanted those points. Without ongoing maintenance, relationships deteriorate every round.

I had this very powerful combo. If I sent Ding Feng to perform the Demand Tribute action, he would get me extra rice and gold. I had constructed two state enhancements which gave me extra stuff when I performed the Demand Tribute action. That was why I fought for this action space almost every round. It wasn't particularly attractive in itself, so others were not exactly keen to commit a general or two just for the sake of denying me.

Lu Fan was a general who joined me in a later round, but he was a tremendous help. With him, gold and rice became interchangeable. This solved a major headache. Building the infrastructure to produce these resources is hard work, and you have to take care of both at the same time. Being strong in one but weak in the other will still keep you hamstrung. Lu Fan gave me much flexibility. Ding Feng and Lu Fan helped me make a lot of money and produce a lot of rice. I was the richest boy on the block. I could afford to send many armies out to station the border locations.

On the military VP track, I (Wu, red) was the leader. I was the richest and could best afford to have armies stationed at border locations. On the rank track, Jeff (Shu, green) was the clear leader. He was only one step away from being able to declare himself Emperor of Middle Kingdom.

Although I was economically strongest, I did not utilise my economic strength well to gain an advantage over Jeff and Allen. I should have been more aggressive and focused. After our game, Jeff and Allen agreed that I had been too greedy, wanting everything and in the end not doing well in anything (except in being filthy rich). In the game end scoring, I fared poorly in many areas while both Jeff and Allen had decent results in some areas. I had not planned well for the game end scoring. I should have focused on one or two areas and made sure I came first. 5VP for coming first is a big deal. Eventually both Jeff and Allen overtook me, and I came last. Lesson learnt - money doesn't buy happiness, or victory points, if you don't know how to spend it well.

Final scores: Allen (Wei, blue) 44VP, Jeff (Shu, green) 42VP, me (Wu, red) 37VP.

The Thoughts

Three Kingdoms Redux is a development game and not a war game. It is a worker placement game, but not a typical one at all. The competition in the general placement gives this game a very different feeling. It is more complex and requires more thought. There is more confrontation, and this is fitting. Three Kingdoms is an age of war after all.

The core process in the game is gathering soldiers and weapons to claim border locations, while building your economy up to make sure you can afford the upkeep cost. You need to manage this process carefully because if you rush and your economy goes off balance, the penalty is stiff. Also every border location captured means one fewer general to work with, which is a heavy price. Getting this engine running smoothly and efficiently is the challenge throughout the game. While you are busy tuning the engine, you need to prepare for the end game scoring and manoeuvre yourself into favourable relative positions. Keyword is "relative". You just need to be better than the others, you don't need to be good, not exactly.

I had much fun with the generals and their abilities. I guess I was lucky with my combo. The game comes with many many generals, and I'm sure there are other fun combos to be made. The state enhancement cards were a little difficult to utilise well though. Most of ours did not come into play. In some cases by the time we wanted to play the card, we no longer met the requirement (e.g. controlling at most one border location). Maybe this is meant to be, like in Agricola. You draw many Occupation cards and Minor Improvement cards, but you don't expect to play a majority of them. You draw more so that you have more options. In Three Kingdoms Redux, it seems harder than Agricola to make good use of the state enhancements. Some players suggest drawing 2 and keeping 1 when drawing state enhancement cards.

As a Chinese with some knowledge of the Three Kingdoms era, one great joy is to see all these famous characters come into play. It is also educational. I actually don't know who this Ding Feng guy is. I should Google him. One awkward thing in the game is how you send your generals to station at the border locations. This sounds more like a demotion to me. Usually it was incompetent emperors who sent outspoken and annoyingly righteous generals to guard border outposts so that they wouldn't be a bother at court. In our game I sent my star general Taishi Ci to guard Bai Di Cheng quite early in the game. This guy was a young and talented hot shot. I told him he was doing an important job for me, earning 2VP every round, but I couldn't help pitying him. He must have been bored to death. Either that or he had taken up gardening. Or weiqi (Go).