Friday 31 May 2019


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Scythe, published in 2016, is currently ranked 8th at BGG. I only played it for the first time this year. I missed the opportunity when it was hot. Recently when Han visited Kuala Lumpur he suggested to bring it to play with us, and I happily agreed.

Scythe was inspired by a series of artwork by Polish artist Jakub Rozalski. He created a 1920's Eastern Europe in an alternate universe, one with gigantic mechs. The Great War has just ended. The advanced capitalist city-state which produced many of the mechs used during the war has now closed its doors. You play one of the neighbouring nations, rebuilding your country and eyeing the advanced technologies of The Factory. That's what the city-state is called. In this game you develop your nation, capture territories and produce resources. You try to complete as many achievements as possible. The game ends when a player completes his 6th achievement. Scores are tallied, and highest scorer wins.

This is the leader of the white nation.

Everyone starts with a faction mat (bottom) and a player mat. When you play a particular faction, your start position on the map is fixed, and your faction mat is fixed. However your player mat is randomly drawn. So even when playing the same faction, your experience will differ from game to game.

This is the faction mat. The four mechs are placed here. Whenever you build a mech, you move a mech from here to the map, and you unlock one ability. The most basic ability is the riverwalk. At the start of the game you can't even cross rivers. You can decide the order you want to build your mechs and thus unlock the relevant abilities. You don't necessarily have to start with riverwalk. The abilities you unlock by building mechs vary from faction to faction.

There are many rivers and lakes on the main board. The faction capitals are along the edges - those coloured circles. Blue is in the north, red is in the east. White in the west, black in the southwest, and yellow in the south. There's a green one in the northwest, and a purple one in the southeast. I think they are for the expansion.

The Factory is right at the centre, that space with the three hex icon. The Three hex icon means if you control the Factory by game end, you score points as if you control three hexes. There are six hexes with red borders. These are parts of a tunnel, and they are all considered to be connected. Once you reach one of the tunnel spaces, you can easily move to many other places, harassing whoever you want. The spaces on the board have little icons indicating what resources they produce. Blue is oil, red is farmers, yellow is food, grey is metal, and brown is wood.

At the start of the game you draw a number of objective cards. If you manage to complete one of them, you are considered to have completed an achievement.

These are combat cards. Their values range from 2 to 5.

This is the player mat, the most important tool in the game. Your actions are all driven by this. The player mat is divided into four groups. In the second group in this photo above you can see a white pawn. On your turn, you must move the pawn to another group, and then perform the actions listed in that group. This means you can't do the same things over and over again. If you want to do the same thing, you need to wait at least one round, so that your pawn can move back to the group you want.

On this player mat, icons with a green background are resources you gain, while icons with a red background are fees you pay. One type of action you can do in the game is upgrades. That means moving a cube from the upper half of the player mat to the lower half. Notice there are six such cubes. When you move a cube away from the top half, you will reveal a green spot, i.e. in future when you use that action group, you will gain an extra resource. When the cube is moved to the lower half (it can be within the same group or to another group), you will cover a red spot. That means in future your fee will be smaller. I find this a very clever mechanism. If you expect to use a particular action group a lot, you should do upgrades there to both increase you gain and reduce your cost.

I greatly admire this player mat. There are recesses on the mat which precisely fit the components they are meant for. It is not immediately obvious from this photo unfortunately. Every single piece, other than the player pawn, has a matching recess.

These two white figures are my farmers. When you perform the produce action, all your farmers produce resources depending on where they are standing. These two farmers would be producing one wood and one new farmer respectively, as indicated by the icons at their locations. Those two barrels of oil were not produced by them. I got the oil from a trade action. Resources must be placed with farmers. That's why the oil barrels are here.

Those two round markers are encounter tokens. Only your leader may claim them. Once you claim one, you draw an encounter card, and pick one from the rewards listed.

This is an encounter card. Some of the options require a payment.

Even after you unlock your riverwalk ability, it doesn't mean you get to cross a river anywhere you like. You may only cross the river into two specific terrain types. You need to pay attention to your opponents' riverwalk abilities so that you know which locations are within their movement (i.e. attack) range and which are safe.

In this photo you can see the recesses more clearly. At the top of the third action group you can see a group of farmers. Whenever you "produce" farmers, they are taken from here. Each time a farmer is removed from the player mat, an icon may be revealed, increasing the cost of activating this action group. There is a power icon in the second slot. From this point onwards, each time I use this action group, I need to pay 1 power. Notice that in this third action group, I have placed two cubes to cover wood cost positions. In the beginning I had to pay 4 wood to build a structure. Now I only needed to pay 2.

Battle resolution is simple. Each leader and mech is strength 1. When battle is joined, you already know their strength contribution. Two other items contribute to battle strength - your power and your combat cards. There is a power track on the main board where every faction earns and spends power. During battle, you may spend up to 7 power to increase your strength. You secretly decide how much you want to spend, and indicate it using this dial on the left of this photo (now turned facedown). You also secretly decide how many and which combat cards to use. Once both combatants have decided, their power commitment and combat cards are simultaneously revealed. Whoever has a higher total strength wins. The loser's leader, mechs and farmers all get sent back to his capital. Nobody dies. If there are resources on the battlefield, they become the victor's spoils.

This is the triumph table, or the achievement table. You get to place your star here whenever you complete an achievement. Achievements are unique, except for winning battles (3rd and 4th from the right). Your first and second victories are achievements, but your third one onwards are no longer celebrated, sorry. Other achievements include maxing out on popularity, building all four mechs, building all four structures, deploying all farmers, completing all player mat upgrades. Once anyone completes his sixth achievement, the game immediately ends. You don't get to complete the current game round.

This is the popularity track. Some actions increase your popularity, and some decrease it. Scaring farmers off their land with your mechs ticks them off, for example. Your popularity rating affects the victory point values of the three main scoring elements - your achievements, your territories, and your resources. You need to hit a popularity of 7 to reach the middle tier, and 13 to reach the high tier. At the bottom of the photo you can see a structure bonus card. One such card is randomly drawn during game setup, and it determines how your structures may earn bonus points, e.g. when built on specific terrain.

This card on the left of the player mat is a Factory card. When you access the Factory, you get to pick one such card from a small deck. It becomes an additional action group for you. This signifies you learning a new tech from the Factory. The earlier you access the Factory, the more options you have. You may only ever claim one Factory card.

The Play

We did a full 5-player game. Han brought his two sons along. I had not seen them for ages and they are big boys now!

Allen's daughter watched us play for a while.

These three bags are food. They are deluxe game components. Very nice.

These three bricks on the left are metal.

I was white, and Han's elder son black. The unique ability of the black faction is every battle won is an achievement, and not just the first two. So it has a tendency to be a warmonger. Elder son was my right neighbour, so I needed to watch out. At this point his leader and one mech were both near me, so I had to be on high alert. Thankfully the riverwalk ability was restricted to specific terrains, so I did not need to worry about the whole length of the river. At the moment I only needed to protect this particular space where I had my leader and one mech.

In the foreground I had built a windmill. The windmill serves as a farmer. It produces one resource whenever you perform the produce action. The only difference is it never moves.

My left neighbour was Han (blue). He had one expeditionary force near my area now, with one mech and four farmers. They had even produced four barrels of oil. My (white) leader and mech were on alert. This was an imminent threat. However, it was also an opportunity, since he only had one mech protecting his farmers and oil.

Elsewhere on the board, elder son (black) had sent his mechs out making use of the tunnel. He did so mainly because he wanted to complete a mission, not that he intended to attack (yet). If he wanted to attack he would not have split his forces this way.

Since Han's expeditionary force was small, I decided to grab the initiative and I attacked. Throughout our game he had been guiding and helping his sons, so he was effectively the strategist for three nations. He was too busy and underestimated the danger in this area. Eventually both his sons' nations did better than his own. My attack set him back significantly. He had spent much effort moving his mech and farmers and producing the oil here, only to lose them to my opportunistic attack.

The Han Dynasty.

The Sam Dynasty. Allen did much production. In the early game, he too overlooked a threat and got his farmers expelled and his resources confiscated.

We gradually advanced to the Factory at the centre. Younger son (red) was first to get there and to obtain a factory card. I (white) never pushed myself towards the Factory, preferring to focus on self-development. One particular type of upgrade in the game allows you to gain small benefits whenever your neighbours perform certain actions. Han made use of this well, expecting that I would do a lot of upgrading. I was a little torn. I didn't want to benefit him, but I could not resist doing my upgrading and engine-building. I still went ahead with my plan. Because it sparked joy.

Now younger son (red) had captured the Factory. All four of his mechs had been built. That army of three mechs was downright menacing. I (white) had been defeated in battle, so my leader and mechs were back at my capital. In the early game, mobility is very low. You can only move one step at a time, and you can't even cross rivers. As you improve your abilities, your mobility will increase significantly. Some factions even get to move onto lakes. With the help of the tunnel, you can get anywhere relatively easily. Nowhere is safe. It is important to watch how far your opponents have improved their mobility.

This was a battle of the Han brothers, red vs black. This was mainly for the achievement, since there was no resource to fight over. There aren't many battles in Scythe, but each battle may have severe repercussions. Both Han and Allen were badly set back due to early losses. It is not easy to gain power and combat cards. You need to conserve them. Doing battles is a game of chicken. You know once you start fighting and spending your power and combat cards, the vultures will be eyeing you and will likely swoop in during your moment of weakness. Often you want to let others fight first and exhaust their resources, so that you will have easy victims to bully.

Younger son (red) had won that battle. Elden son's (black) mech was sent back to his capital at the bottom right. Elsewhere on the board, younger son's other army was on a tunnel space, and Allen's (yellow) army too. This means they were in fighting range. Han (blue) had two armies next to a tunnel space, and I (white) had one too. I think by this point both of us had a movement range of 2. This means all of us were within fighting range. Battle could break out any time. It was a matter of whether it was worth the risk and the trouble.

We were all rather unpopular. Only Han (blue) had some semblance of respectability, being just one step away from the mid tier. It is probably best to do all the unpopular stuff early in the game. If your popularity drops to rock bottom, you can't fall any further, and you can continue to do more horrible deeds "for free". You can turn over a new leaf after you are done with all the required nasty stuff for scoring points (e.g. winning battles). You have time till game end to rebuild your popularity. All this is easier said than done. It's not easy to attack early due to low mobility and the shortage of mechs. Also it is not easy to increase popularity.

This was just before the game ended. Elder son (black), younger son (red) and I (white) all had 5 stars. Eventually it was elder son who completed his sixth achievement and ended the game.

The Thoughts

Of Jamey Stegmaier's games, I have only played Viticulture and Scythe. Both are in the top 20 on BGG now. Before I played the games, I had only read a little about them, and I did not have high expectations. After I played them, I did not find any big surprise. I don't consider them in top tier among games I've played, because I don't find any particularly outstanding touch of genius. However in both cases I found myself enjoying the game more than I expected. They are well crafted. The unassuming elements come together to create a fun and immersive experience. The games do have some clever bits. They have character and they are not just a bunch of familiar mechanisms packaged together with a pretty setting.

Scythe is mainly a development game. I hope I don't feel this way just because I primarily played it as such. I enjoy improving my abilities and becoming stronger and stronger. I greatly admire the component design of the player mat. The artwork is excellent. I think the amount of conflict is just right. Battles are simple and streamlined. They are quick to resolve. Yet they are meaningful and they can have a big impact. You need to prepare. You need to be alert. The tension among players escalates. It is a race to reach the 6th achievement. Within that time you try to maximise your score. If you are first to get your 6th achievement, you should be one of the frontrunners, but victory is not guaranteed. Timing the game end is important and players will try to manipulate it to their advantage.

Tuesday 28 May 2019

resuming Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

I bought and wrote about Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle last year. I played up to Game 3 (of 7) then, and stopped. I recently resumed playing. I started over at Game 1, and this time I made it all the way to Game 7. I did Game 1 and 2 with my wife Michelle and younger daughter Chen Rui. They hadn't played the game before. Elder daughter Shee Yun did Game 1 to 3 with me last year. I bought the game mainly because I had hoped to play with her. She is a big fan of Harry Potter. Unfortunately she is not exactly a big fan of boardgames. For Game 4 & 5 all four of us played. Chen Rui later lost interest, so only Michelle, Shee Yun and I forged on till the finale. It was satisfying to finally beat the game.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not read the books or watched the movies, there are many spoilers ahead. If you already know the story, then what I share below will be familiar. Do note that when you play the game, new content is added at every new level. I will be showing new content which is only available from Game 2 onwards. I will discuss strategy too.

Overall I found the game easier than I expected. Last year when I played, I found 4-player games much harder than 2-player games. This time round the 4-player games did not seem particularly hard. Maybe we have a better grasp of what to do and what not to do now.

I think the key to the game is defending your locations. You need to defend your first location for as long as possible, maybe even past the mid point of the game. Defending locations should not be proportionate to the number of villains. Let's say you have 3 locations and 15 villains. You should not benchmark yourself at having defeated 5 villains by the time you lose the first location, and 10 by the time you lose the second. You probably want your first location to last until the 8th villain or so. Subsequent locations trigger more event cards, and these can easily overwhelm you. Cards which can remove the enemy's control markers are precious. You need them to push back the enemy's advances.

Dumbledore is Santa Claus. Everybody gets attack, money (well, influence), health and also draws a card. Best headmaster ever!

House dice are used from Game 4 onwards. The dice are not equal. They have four icon types - attack, health, money and card. Each house die has a different distribution, emphasising one specific aspect. E.g. the Slytherin house die has three attack icons and one each of the other icons.

The Dementor is a scary villain, dealing two damage every turn.

From Game 5 onwards, you have three active villains at all times. Sometimes when they synergise, you'll have a hard time. It is not always easy to prioritise which one to target first. When you play this game you will get to know the villains more than the good guys. In every game you play, you must defeat all villains to win, so you will see every single one of them. However you most likely won't see every ally. The Hogwarts deck is thick and so far I have never exhausted it. It depends on your luck which allies get drawn and become available.

Whenever Professor Snape turns up I exclaim, "Always!"

Professor Umbridge is an annoying character in the books and the movies, and she is just as annoying in the game. She bleeds you whenever you buy any half decent card. We called her a woman.

One particular spell allows you to temporarily neutralise a villain's ability. This is quite handy. Barty Crouch Jr on the left is now neutralised. See that Hogwarts school emblem on him. His power prevents any control marker from being removed from locations. Peter Pettigrew on the right is another very annoying villain. He forces you to reveal the top card of your deck. If it is not one of your 0-cost starting cards, you have to discard it and you have to add a control marker to the location. Not only is he wasting your good cards, he is also expediting the fall of the locations. If he shows up in the early game, the risk is still small, because most cards in your player deck are still your starting cards. Unfortunately in one of our games, despite him turning up early, we were so unlucky that we kept revealing non starting cards. It meant losing the good cards we had bought, and also losing locations quickly.

Voldemort starts appearing in Game 5. He has a health of 10, which is higher than other villains. He is always placed at the bottom of the villain deck. He's the boss afterall. You only get to fight the boss after you've beaten all other minions.

Game 6 introduces Proficiency cards, one of which is on the right. During game setup, everyone gets to pick one. Proficiency cards give additional abilities. It seems to me some are better than others, so I wonder whether some Proficiency cards will never get selected. Maybe a variant is needed - everyone randomly draws one card instead of getting to choose. This forces you to adapt. Or maybe draw 2 and pick 1. Proficiency cards are based on the school subjects, which is a nice touch. In this photo, Flying Lessons let me remove control markers by spending $5. Unfortunately in this game I was cash-poor most of the time, and rarely made use of this Proficiency. What a pity.

This is a new (and stronger) version of Voldemort introduced in Game 6. Games 5 to 7 each has its own Voldemort. You play a harder one each time you move up a level. There is an advanced variant where you play with all three Voldemorts. You stack the three of them at the bottom of the villain deck, and you need to defeat all of them one after another to win.

I later switched to this Proficiency card, which I found much more useful, almost too good to be true. I could discard two spell cards to allow everyone to gain $1 and draw one card. In our games it was mostly Shee Yun buying spells, because that jived with her strengths. Most of the time the spells I had in hand were Alohomora spells - the weak starting cards giving $1 each. Discarding two of them meant losing $2, but I was going to get $1 anyway, and often that extra card I drew was an Alohomora spell. Then I'd get $2 anyway - nothing to lose. In fact I would be going through my deck slightly faster, which was a good thing. More importantly I was helping my teammates gain money and cards. This Proficiency came into good use in the early game, when a big portion of my deck was Alohomora spells. Even in late game, it was often useful, helping me swap weak spells for better cards.

This item on the left is the Elder Wand, and Shee Yun loves it. She played Hermione, so she specialised in buying spells. If she played four spells on her turn, she could give $1 to any one player. When playing the Elder Wand, you gain attacks and health based on how many spells you have played in the current turn. In this photo you can see six spell cards played. So the Elder Wand is generating 6 attacks, which is a big deal. In one of our games it was the Elder Wand which defeated Voldemort.

The Proficiency card History of Magic (bottom right) let Shee Yun give $1 to anyone whenever she bought a spell card. Hermione was all about spells, spells, spells.

The key new mechanism introduced in Game 7 is the horcruxes. There is a stack of six of them. The topmost horcrux does something bad to you. You need to roll dice to destroy horcruxes. The first few horcruxes need either one of two icons. The next few need two specific icons. The last one needs three specific icons. You can't roll dice at the start of the game. You need to buy cards which let you roll dice. So you likely won't start destroying horcruxes any time soon. After you destroy a horcrux, you claim it, and it becomes an item which helps you. Some horcruxes let you roll dice, so they help in destroying the remaining horcruxes. Whenever a horcrux is destroyed, the next one immediately takes effect. You need to destroy the last one before you can fight Voldemort.

In our game, Michelle destroyed 4 of the 6 horcruxes. She played Ron and she specialised in buying ally cards. Many ally cards let you roll dice.

Only one Hogwarts card is added in Game 7, this Sword of Gryffindor. Also, in Game 7, the character cards are replaced. This ultimate Harry card is stronger than before. The previous Harry gives anyone 1 attack whenever a control marker is removed from the location card. The new Harry gives two players 1 attack each.

Our Game 7 ran quite long. It took about 1.5 hours. I guess this is not surprising. Every new game there are more villains added. With Game 7, there are 6 horcruxes added too, and that's like 6 more villains to beat. One good thing about a longer game is you can better see the results of your deck-building. You can feel your deck getting better and better. It feels good to see those expensive cards you buy cycle into action.

The ultimate Voldemort has 20 life points! He adds a control marker to the location card every turn, which is very scary. However our Game 7 was overall quite easy. We defended Location 1 well, and only lost it quite late in the game. Halfway through the game I was already confident we would win. We defeated Voldemort with the Sword of Gryffindor. The basic 2 attack of the sword was already enough to beat Voldemort, but we rolled the red die twice anyway. Just for kicks. We happened to roll attacks, so we enthusiastically kicked the unconscious Voldemort. It was like a scene in a Chow Sing Chi movie.

Friday 24 May 2019

boardgaming in photos: Pandemic Iberia, 10 Days in Asia, R / Braverats, The Mind, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle, Ascension

15 Feb 2019. I played Pandemic: Iberia with Benz, Ruby, Xiaozhu and Edwin. We did the variant game, using the advanced yellow disease. In this game, the yellow disease wasn't active in the early game. Other regular diseases kept us busy. At this point we were in the southwest corner containing the black disease. If I remember correctly, we gathered there also because we needed to pass cards to one another. Huelva was a terminal station of the railway network we built, from which we could get to many other cities quickly. Later in the game, the yellow disease attacked and spread very quickly, catching us unprepared. We soon lost the game because we couldn't contain it.

The advanced yellow disease spreads faster than regular diseases. Whenever a port city is infected with a yellow cube, all neighbouring port cities also get infected.

16 Feb 2019. Charles, Yee Fon and Thean playing 10 Days in Asia. During the Chinese New Year period we had a BBQ at Kwe Long's new home, doing a housewarming plus New Year celebration. I brought a few games (red plastic bag in the background), but this was the only one we pulled out to play.

15 Mar 2019. This time playing Pandemic: Iberia we tried the advanced black disease. Whenever a city with no black cubes is to be infected, it immediately gets two black cubes instead of one.

We built the black disease hospital in the southeast, and we linked our railway network all the way here.

We won this game. We managed to research all four diseases, as indicated by the four microscopes. The yellow disease was the last one we researched. We had enough surplus actions to waste, so we all congregated here at the yellow hospital to celebrate our victory, with ribbon cutting and champagne.

23 Mar 2019. I bought five Ascension expansions at one go - Dawn of Champions, Dreamscape, War of Shadows, Gift of the Elements, and Valley of the Ancients. Currently I play with just these. I bought them simply because I wanted some variety. I have been playing Ascension more or less daily for a few years, well exceeding a thousand games played. I find these newer expansions just so so. Ascension is fine without them. Some are OK but not really necessary. Some are a bit tedious to me.

This above is a temple card from Valley of the Ancients. There are three temples in this expansion, one big and two small. The big one is worth 10VP, and the small ones 5VP each. Some cards show a temple icon. When you activate such an icon, you get to claim the corresponding small temple. If you activate the icon when already owning that small temple, you claim the big temple. The Temple of Life in this screenshot also grants 2 Runes.

If you defeat this monster you get to claim both the small temples at one go.

This monster has the keyword Rally. The Rally keyword is followed by a faction name or "monster". If the next card to enter the card row is of that faction or is a monster, you claim (or defeat) it for free.

15 Apr 2019. Zee Zun made a copy of R / Braverats with a Baby Metal theme. He gave me a copy. He is a big fan of Baby Metal, a Japanese heavy metal band. R is a microgame with only 16 cards. My own copy is self-made too, with a Star Wars theme.

28 Apr 2019. It had been a while since I last played Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. Prior to this I had done 4-player games with my colleagues, and 2-player games with elder daughter Shee Yun. We only made it up to Game 3 (of 7) then. Playing with four was much harder than playing with two. We didn't even manage to beat Game 2. With two, Shee Yun and I beat even Game 3 with ease. It was only then I realised the game difficulty varies much due to the number of players. Searching the internet confirmed my suspicion. Many others feel the same. Now I'm getting my wife Michelle and younger daughter Chen Rui to play as well. Cooperative games work well as a family activity - no competition and no hard feelings, and there's a healthy gotong-royong spirit. Three of us did Game 1 and Game 2, and won easily. They were meant to be tutorial games. I asked Shee Yun to join us for Game 3, and I expected a much bigger challenge due to the number of players. To my surprise, we beat the game comfortably too. I thought we must have played some rule wrong, but as far as I could tell, we didn't. Throughout the game we reminded one another to resolve villain effects and hero effects. Perhaps it was easy simply because we were a strong team? Let's see how things go when we move on to the subsequent games. I hope to be able to go all the way to Game 7. Starting at Game 4 we'll see the use of dice.

9 May 2019. Sometimes I eat lunch at the office, ordering food delivery. I'm usually done eating in 10 minutes, and have time to spare. One lunch break I taught my colleagues to play The Mind - Carol, Xiaozhu, Edwin, Benz and Ruby. They took turns playing since the game supported only four. I didn't play and just enjoyed watching them play. They loved the game. It was funny to watch them play. Once when I wasn't around and they played, Benz who was not playing at the time caught the others using a dubious strategy. They intentionally asked the player with the highest card to play it, which triggered a foul and the loss of one life, but in exchange everybody could discard all their cards, and they could advance to the next level. Strictly speaking this is not against the rules, but I think it's against the spirit of the game. Benz forbade them from doing it again.

In one particular game they played, this happened. Three different people had 3, 4 and 5. This was very difficult to play right. Immediately after the round started, all three of them got ready to play their cards, but when they saw others being just as keen, they knew they were in a precarious situation. When they played all three cards successfully, everybody cheered.