Friday 27 September 2019

Res Arcana

Plays: 4Px3.

The Game

Res Arcana is designed by Tom Lehmann, designer of Race for the Galaxy, which I am a big fan of. It is published by a new company, Sand Castle Games, and it is their first product. Production quality is excellent. These guys know what they are doing. After I read about the game, I became interested. Unfortunately it is not being distributed in Malaysia, so eventually I ordered it from Amazon.

In this game you are mages competing for glory. This is essentially a card game. Most game components are cards or tiles. There are many types of items in the game - artifacts, magic items, places of power and monuments, and they have various powers. You produce resources and spend them to buy items, which help you produce more resources and do many different nifty things. Your end goal is to score 10VP. Whenever anyone reaches or exceeds 10VP, the game ends.

Most items in the game have some power, and usually you get to use the power once per round. Some items are worth victory points. The first row is the places of power. There are always five in the game. They are double sided and you randomly pick a side to play during game setup. Places of power tend to be expensive (cost is in top left corner), but their powers are strong, and they are worth victory points. Usually their victory point value depends on some criteria, e.g. how many gold resources you manage to place on them. The second row is the magic items. You get to pick one for free every round. They are not particularly strong, but still useful. Every round you must pick a different one. The third row is the monuments. Only two are revealed, but you may choose to buy from the top of the deck, because all monuments cost four gold. Monuments are worth 1-3 VP. There are five resource types in the game.

Every player gets his own deck of artifacts, 8 artifacts per deck. You are randomly dealt the 8 artifacts at the start of the game, and you get to examine each one before shuffling them to form your deck. You then draw 3 artifacts to form your hand. At the end of every round you draw 1 artifact. The cost to put an artifact in play is in the top left corner. A grey hexagon means any resource. The artifact on the right is worth 1VP - the red wax seal means victory points. The artifact on the right has a dragon icon and a beast icon in its top right corner. Some powers are applicable only to dragons or beasts. Dragons are the main means of offense in the game. They force all other players to lose life (green resource). If the victims run out of life, they have to discard other resources instead, substituting at a 2:1 ratio. This can be painful.

The round token is the start player marker. It is worth 1VP to whoever is holding it. If you are first to pass in a round, you claim this marker and you will be start player next round, if there is a next round. Sometimes that 1VP can be a matter of win or lose. You may need exactly that 1VP to reach 10VP. However if you pass early for the sake of that 1VP, you need to consider whether others who fully utilise their actions for the round can surpass your 10VP.

There are five resources (called essences) in the game. Yellow is gold, and it is more precious than the rest. You have to spend gold to buy monuments. Green is life. It is what dragons attack. Often you need to have life to sacrifice to dragons in order to preserve your other resources. Black is death. Red and blue are elan and calm, but I call them fire and water. The resources do have some character, and are not completely generic and interchangeable.

The card at the bottom right is a mage card, i.e. your character card. Every game you get to pick one from two drawn. You get to examine your artifact deck, shuffle it to draw three, then examine your hand of three, before deciding which mage to play. There is much consideration you need to make before the game starts. This particular mage lets you collect a water or life resource at the start of every round, and also protects you from one attack. The magic item card at the top right is tilted 90 degrees, which means it has been used in the current round and cannot be used again till next round.

These are monuments. There are always two face-up for you to pick from, and you can do lucky draw and buy the top card from the deck too, because they all cost exactly 4 gold. Monuments have point values (number in red wax seal). Both these face-up monuments have single-use per round powers - see that rotate-card-90-degrees icon.

The Play

I would describe Res Arcana as condensed and intense. It's a game you can play in a short time, and at a brisk pace, but it is also a game in which you need to think a lot and consider many factors. It is thoughtful and deliberate. At game setup you already need to analyse your personal deck of artifacts and your two mage options. You have to consider which places of power are in play, and what the two starting monuments are. You should have a rough plan already even before the game starts. If you can identify a good combo, right off the bat you should already be executing your strategy with a laser sharp focus. Often you need to race to grab the place (or places) of power that is needed for your game plan. You do need to react to what others do too. If the game is an aggressive one with may dragons, you'll need some protection. If someone else is clearly running faster than you, you probably should work with others to trip him up. The main way to interfere with others is the dragons. It is a simple mechanism, but it is very effective. Not defending against dragons can be very costly.

I did two games back to back with Allen, Dith and Ivan. In both games, one player sprinted ahead and crossed the finish line well ahead of the rest. If you manage to find a strong combo, and execute it efficiently, you can run away with the game if others are unable to stop you or run as fast as you. 10VP feels distant at first, but once you get your engine going and your are in an efficient action execution cycle, 10VP is suddenly very achievable. No wonder some people call this medieval Race for the Galaxy.

When you have a lot of green (life), you are less worried about dragons. Dragons don't only target green. Every dragon allows you to take some other form of penalty in lieu of green, e.g. another resource type, or discarding a hand card. Sometimes you want to save other things as dragon protection. If you are the aggressor, you want to attack when many opponents do not have what it takes to defend. By forcing them to discard resources to substitute for green at a 2:1 ratio, you will be severely punishing them. When dragons attack, they attack everyone else. If many people do attacks, it will be a tough game for everyone. You will be forcing one another to discard resources, slowing everyone down.

This mage on the left is an alchemist. He transforms regular resources into gold.

13 Sep 2019. This was the third game I played, this time with Allen, Jeff and Tim. It was Allen's third play too, but Jeff and Tim were new to the game. The game went differently from my first two games. In my deck I had two artifacts which would have helped me with dragons, but unfortunately I did not have any dragon. I had artifacts which helped me produce fire and gold, so I decided to go for this particular place of power in the photo above - the Cursed Forge. I feel that places of power are almost a necessity if you want to win. You need to plan to get one, save resources for it and beat others to it, then utilise it to go for your 10VP. My play was still a little messy. The Cursed Forge was not exactly an ideal fit for me, it was just the least bad. Others were worse. In the final round I had to pass hurriedly for that 1VP on the first player marker. I needed that 1VP to get to 10VP. However both Allen and Tim were able to reach 10VP too that round, and both of them had more leftover resources than me. Allen had 7 and Tim 6. Allen was the eventual winner.

After playing this third game, I imagine Res Arcana to be a cross-country obstacle team race. Your artifacts and mage are your starting team. They are what fate deals you and you have to live with them, using their powers as best you can. Even the "useless" ones can be discarded for 2 resources a piece. Magic items are temporary helpers for your team, who can be very useful in the right situations but are generally like interns. Places of power and monuments are star players that your team and everyone else's teams are competing to recruit. You need to pick those who work well with your existing team.

The Thoughts

Res Arcana is a fight among kungfu masters - victory is decided swiftly, but behind every kungfu move there are years of training and generations of refinement. The fight is short, the pace is fast, but behind all the seemingly thoughtless execution there is actually much consideration and deliberation. You need to be able to assess the situation well and take into account many factors in order to play effectively. You need to have a plan, and you also need to be nimble. Basically you need to know what you are doing, or you'll be lying in the dust in no time, wondering what your opponent has done to you. This reminds me a little of how Splotter's games are like.

I think it is possible that win or lose is already decided once the cards are dealt. If you get a killer combo, and none of your opponents have anything half decent, as long as you don't do anything stupid, you will cruise to victory on autopilot. I don't think this is a serious problem though, because I don't think it happens all that often.

Res Arcana, once it clicks, gives me that delicious feeling of an unspoken understanding among rivals. Ooh I know what you're thinking and what you're trying to do, and I know what I should be doing to stop you, and I know you know that I know. When everyone understands what's going on, you all enter the zone together. One innocent-looking card play, and you start to grasp what the fellow is trying to do, which place of power he is probably working towards, or which monument he's eyeing. It is very satisfying to play at this level.

Replayability feels low. There are only 40 artifact cards. With 4 players, 32 of them will be used. There are 10 mage cards. With 4 players, 8 will be viewed, and 4 will be used. The five places of power will always be in play, the question is only which side you use. After my first two games, I felt I had seen all the cards in the game. So I instinctively felt things were samey. However if you do the math, there are actually many permutations of artifacts and mages you can get. Add to that the permutations of places of powers and initial monuments, and you get many possibilities. The biggest part of the game is analysing the scenario and devising a plan. Then when the rubber hits the road, you make tactical adjustments as you learn what your opponents have and what they are aiming for.

Expansions for Res Arcana have been announced. I see the box insert certainly can accommodate more cards and tiles.

Tuesday 24 September 2019

boardgaming in photos: All Manor of Evil, Carcassonne, Love Letter, Lost Cities

28 Aug 2019. I taught my colleagues Tyle and Jeixel to play Lost Cities, the classic two-player game from Reiner Knizia. This used to be the spouse game. It's only cards with numbers and colours, and yet the master designer has created something that is highly interactive and presents many difficult decisions. When they started playing, I was a little worried they would end up with negative points. In the end they did alright. It was satisfying to see them work out the tactics and to see the strategies click.

30 Aug 2019. A six player game of All Manor of Evil. The previous time I played, it felt impossible to survive till the second clock card was drawn from the deck. This time, the game ended with the second clock card. So it is not that impossible after all. I guess the first time I played we had more people incentivised to awaken one of the elder gods. This time round, only Ivan was desperate to awaken an elder god. For some others it was nice-to-have but not life-and-death. I needed to survive till the second clock card, and I tried to remove awaken tokens from the elder gods as often as I could.

We created a convention. The action card picked in the previous round, which may not be picked in the current round, is placed face-up in front of the player, so that everyone can clearly see it. Once the action card for the current round is picked, it is placed face-down and sideways overlapping the previous round card. It is easy to glance around the table to see if everyone has picked a card for the current round.

This was still early game - not many awaken tokens on the elder gods. Later on things became much more precarious.

In this particular game I used the #4 action frequently to get more treasures. The #4 action lets you claim the top card from the deck if it is a treasure. The risk is it might not be a good one, e.g. it might come with a high insanity value. I needed to get to the second clock card, so drawing more cards from the deck was good for me. In the second half of the game, I sensed that I probably had more victory points than everyone else, but I knew I was also high in the insanity department. I tried to discard insanity tokens, but unfortunately by game end I still had too many. As the game ended, only Ivan was eliminated due to his character traits. Of the five left, I had the most insanity, so I was next to get eliminated. I counted my victory points, and had I not gone crazy, I would have won. Too bad!

31 Aug 2019. I came across this Agricola phone wallpaper on social media. Unfortunately it didn't fit my phone well. The alignment is a little off.

4 Sep 2019. I taught my colleagues Love Letter. They had a lot of fun, even those watching. We used paper clips as score markers. Love Letter is a microgame with only 16 cards, but it does take some effort to teach, especially when explaining some of the interactions of the card powers. It is a joy to watch new players pick up the intricacies as they play.

9 Sep 2019. It had been four years since I previously played Carcassonne. I used to play a lot of Carcassonne, with my wife Michelle and with my Taiwanese friends. Over the years I have collected many expansions, big and small. What was new to us this time was the Half and Half expansion, from Spielbox magazine. This expansion features half tiles - the triangular tiles. There's one in the middle of this photo. At the start of the game, every player gets two half tiles. On your turn, you may forgo drawing a regular tile and play one of your half tiles instead. In the photo above, that completed castle on the right previously had one of my regular meeples. It had been stuck there for a long time because I couldn't draw the right tile to complete the castle. On the left, Michelle's (red) big meeple was eyeing my incomplete castle. If her incomplete castle and mine joined up, she would win majority and score, and I would get nothing. By playing my half tile I completed the castle on the right and released my meeple. I also locked up Michelle's big meeple because she didn't have the right half tile to play into that triangular space to complete that castle with her big meeple. This was terribly mean of me, locking up her important big meeple for the rest of the game.

I think the Half and Half is just so-so. The half tiles are helpful. You can save them for a crucial moment. However I think a big part of the fun of Carcassonne is hoping to draw something that's useful to you. So I find such a kind of better control unnecessary. So Half and Half is nice if you want to have a bit of variety, but it's just a novelty and is not necessary.

Friday 20 September 2019

Era of Kingdoms

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Era of Kingdoms is a card game. Each player develops his own kingdom mostly independently. You draft cards from a common pool. You play cards into your kingdom to increase resource production, which then allows you to play better cards and further improve. You level up your kingdom to gain access to better cards, from basic to intermediate and eventually to advanced cards. After a certain number of advanced cards are drawn from the deck, the game ends and you compare scores to see who wins.

This is a town hall card. It is just a reminder for when your kingdom reaches the intermediate stage. You place this card onto your player board when you enter the intermediate stage.

If you flip over the town hall card, you convert it to a castle. This is also just a reminder - for when your kingdom reaches the advanced stage.

You start the game with an empty player board. The nine spaces on the left are for your buildings. Well, strictly speaking you only have eight. The centre space is reserved for your town hall and castle, i.e. glorified status indicator. You can't place any regular building at the central spot. The three spaces on the right are for your heroes. Space is limited. Once you've constructed a building, you can't simply decide to tear it down for something else. However you can upgrade the building to something else of the same category. As for heroes whom you recruit, if you use up all three slots, you may fire one of them to make way for a better hero.

The main board displays 6 basic cards, 3 intermediate cards and 1 advanced card. When you are to take a card, you may pick from these face-up cards, or blind draw from the relevant deck.

The "B" at the top right corner means this is a base card, which must be played onto an empty space. It can later be upgraded, i.e. have other upgrade cards played on top of it.

This card on the right has an upward arrow in the top right corner. This means it is an upgrade card, and must be played on top of another card or stack of cards of the same family. Icons at the top left are the resource requirements. Icons at the bottom are the resources being produced. The number at the bottom right is the victory point value. This card on the left, Wall, has numbers at the bottom left. These two numbers are attack and defense values respectively. In this game you may attack your opponents and attempt to rob them.

This is a player reference card. On your turn, you get three actions. You spend them to either take a basic card, or play a card. That's all. Once you are done, you may discard any number of cards from your hand, and then redraw up to your hand limit (usually 5). Depending on which level your kingdom is at, you may get to draw intermediate cards or advanced cards during the redraw phase. With the basic action you can't take intermediate or advanced cards.

The second card in the top row is an event card. When you play such a card, you execute what the text says and discard the card.

The card at the top right is an advanced card. The other three are intermediate cards. These cards are much more costly to play than basic cards. Look at all those icons along the top.

Everyone starts the game with three such Treasure cards. They are worth 1VP each. If you are short of one resource to play a card, you may buy the missing resource from any other player by paying him a Treasure. He can't refuse. You are effectively giving him 1VP, which is a lot. VP's are not easy to come by. When you conduct an attack by playing an Attack event card, you attack every other player. Anyone who fails to protect himself must give you one Treasure. Attacking can be lucrative. If you run out of Treasures, you no longer need to fear attacks, but you will have less flexibility when you have no Treasure.

The Play

From the rules, Era of Kingdoms does not seem like much. However, in play, I find the game smooth and pleasant. You are purposefully upgrading your kingdom, and being constantly progressing is a positive and encouraging experience. You are always competing with others for good cards on the main board. There is a race element in trying to grab all the good cards. Not every card will have the same value to every player, but often a good card is a good card and there will be more than one player eyeing it greedily. There is aggression. Not a lot, but enough to make you think. Stealing treasures is lucrative enough to make you want to attack others. Yet if you are militarily weak and decide not to do anything about it, the worst case is losing 3VP to the warmongers, and losing some flexibility. I think this is a clever balance.

On the card backs of the basic, intermediate and advanced cards you can see the crests of four kingdoms. They are simple on the basic cards, but get prettier and more elaborate on the intermediate and advanced cards. I like this.

In the early game I had buildings producing all four types of resources. I placed them in the four corners of my kingdom, because I noticed there was a type of building which increased production of adjacent buildings. I wanted to leave space for such buildings. Unfortunately for the rest of the game I never managed to get such buildings. Wasted effort.

My top right and bottom right buildings were Level 2 buildings now. Both my heroes were Level 2 too. With a total of four Level 2 cards in play, I qualified for intermediate kingdom, and that was why my town hall card was now placed in the middle of my player board.

All three of my heroes had attack and defense strengths (bottom left corners of the cards).

A 3-player game. I had 5 Treasure cards on the right side of my player board now. This was because I had launched an attack, and managed to rob one Treasure card each from Allen and Ivan.

In our late game, almost every single advanced card was claimed by whoever it was taking his turn. They were all valuable, and we could all afford the resources. It felt like a no-brainer. I wonder whether this is an imbalance problem, or it just so happened that all three of us managed our resource production well enough to be always able to build any advanced card that came up. In late game, it was all about maximising efficiency and squeezing out every VP that we could out of our kingdoms. We no longer needed to bother with improving production. Late game was a little dull, but thankfully it was not long.

The Thoughts

Era of Kingdoms doesn't do anything groundbreaking. It is a light and pleasant game in which you are purposefully progressing and constantly improving. It's equivalent to a feelgood movie - don't expect anything deep, just relax and enjoy the process. This is a light-to-medium weight that will work for non-gamers and casual players.

Friday 13 September 2019

Terror Below

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Terror Below is a Kickstarter game. You are specialists on giant underground monster worms, operating in a canyon full of worm activity. These worms attack and destroy, and they lay eggs too. You score points mainly by collecting and delivering worm eggs, and by killing worms. Whoever reaches 20VP first wins the game. However if anyone loses all three of his leaders, the game ends in a sudden death, and you compare scores immediately.

This impressive worm sculpture is, unfortunately, not a game component. It's decoration. You don't actually use it in play.

The main play area is a 6x6 grid. Along the edges there are five buildings where you can deliver eggs for points. The three sections at the bottom represent the three currently active worms. Along the top there are four active missions, i.e. scoring cards. Whenever anyone completes a mission and claims a card, you draw another to replace it.

These are mission cards. These specify the type of egg to deliver to a specific building to score points. All buildings accept all types of eggs. However the default score is only 1VP. If there is a suitable mission, you claim the mission card instead of scoring that measly 1VP. The other type of mission is killing worms (not shown in this photo). Some missions specify a worm type, some don't.

The three cards in the top row are the worms cards. They are randomly drawn. On each card, the two numbers are the coordinates where the worm is detected. The pattern on the right indicates where the worm will attack relative to its current position. The number in the star tells you how many action cards will trigger an attack. On every player's turn, an action card is played below one of the three worms, so eventually there will be enough to trigger one of the worms to attack. The number in the heart is the worm's health value, i.e. how difficult it is to defeat it.

The spaces below the worm cards are for players to play action cards. If an action card played has arrows on them, the worm will move according to the arrows. E.g. this pick-up truck card causes the #3 worm to move two steps north. Sometimes players play face-down cards below the worms. These face-down cards are only revealed and resolved when an attack is triggered. So the player who played that card knows whether and in which direction the worm will move before attacking.

These are the action cards of players. You have a hand of three. Usually you play one per turn. You always replenish back to three. The number at the top left is the number of action points you get. If there are arrows at the bottom, you will move a worm.

At the start of the game, you choose any one of the five buildings to be your starting point, and you place your pawn (a vehicle) there. Every turn is just playing an action card, then spending the action points given by that card. There are only a few types of action. The basic one is simply moving, one action point per step. You may clear rubble. Rubble prevents movement. Whenever you clear a third rubble, you get to draw a tool card or a weapon card. That's you finding useful stuff in the rubble. You may pick up an egg. When you do that, you forfeit any remaining action points you may have. Your turn ends. You may cash in an egg for points when you are at a building. When doing this, you get to use the special ability of the building. You don't have an action for attacking a worm, because worms are underground. You have to wait for a worm to attack before you can try to kill it.

Disk #2 means Worm #2. When a worm is activated to attack, it lays an egg at its current position, and it attacks in a specific pattern around its current position. Normally you want to avoid being at a location under attack. However if you want to fight the worm, you need to position yourself at such a location. It's not always easy to predict where the worm will attack, because the last card played onto a worm can cause it to move one last time before attacking.

At the start of the game everyone draws 3 leader cards and picks one as the starting leader. When your leader dies, you pick a successor from the other two. If all three are killed, the game is over and you compare points immediately. If you are trailing, you need to be careful not to kill anyone's last leader. The hospital, which is one of the buildings, lets you resurrect a leader. If you deliver an egg to the hospital, you may revive a dead leader. Zombie!

The card on the left is a tool card, and on the right a weapon card. This military satellite is a little crazy. Once you start using it, every turn it bombards one random location. Like in Akira. If there's a worm, it is killed, and you'll score points. If there's another player, his leader is killed. If your own vehicle happens to be there, oops, your leader is dead.

The Play

Terror Below is a light tactical game with a generous dose of luck. You can't really strategise much. You are mostly analysing the current situation to determine what the best move is. It depends on what cards you have, what eggs are available, where the worms are, which worms are close to attacking, what missions are available. You can often do nasty things to your opponents, e.g. sending a worm their way, using cards to steal their eggs. There is much luck. Sometimes a newly drawn mission is a windfall because you are at the right place to easily complete it. Sometimes when you finally manage to pick up an egg, you find that there is no mission for that egg colour. So you can only deliver it for 1VP. Some egg missions give 4VP. That's a 400% difference! Also, since you draw action cards, tool cards, and weapon cards, there certainly will be luck. Sometimes you draw cards perfect for your situation. Sometimes you get cards useless for your situation.

There is a race element. Often you race to complete a lucrative mission. So you have to watch what your opponents are doing.

Those beige coloured rocks are rubble. Each space has at most 2 pieces of rubble. Rubble blocks movement. You need to clear it before you can enter.

The blue car now has access to two eggs!

When you clear rubble or pick up an egg, you place them on your leader card. If that leader dies, you lose all of them. If you kill an opponent's leader, it can be a major setback for him. That on the right is the card back of a leader card, i.e. the dead side. However he can be resurrected at the hospital.

If you are at a building, worm attacks can't hurt you.

Most of your points will come from these mission cards on the left. Some tools and weapons help you earn points. Delivering eggs and killing worms give points. You use those tokens on the right to keep track of these loose points.

The Thoughts

Terror Below is a simple game suitable for casual players. It is mostly tactical in nature. It's not a game you take seriously. It's a fun romp you play in a relaxed manner.

Friday 6 September 2019


Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Wingspan from Stonemaier Games recently won the 2019 Kennerspiel des Jahres award. When I had the opportunity to give it a go, I grabbed it.

The first thing you notice is how pretty the game is - so many beautiful drawings of birds. This is like an encyclopedia of birds. I can easily imagine some people already wanting to buy it because it is gorgeous. The first icon at the top left of a card is the habitat icon. When you play a card onto your player board, you must play it to the correct habitat row. The icons below that is the diet - the food cost you have to pay to play the card. There are a few other icons along the left edge. The feather icon means point value. Below that is the nest type. The number of egg icons tell you how many eggs the card can hold.

This is your player board. A game is played over 4 rounds. In Round 1, you get 8 actions, represented by the 8 cubes. In subsequent rounds, you get fewer actions, but your actions will (should) become stronger. You start the game with one each of the five food types - the round tokens along the top. The 15 spaces on the board are where you may play cards. At each row you must play from left to right. In this game there are only four types of actions. The first one is simply playing a card. The other three are related to the three rows on your board. The first row action is collecting food. The second row is collecting eggs. When you collect eggs, they need to be placed on cards which still have capacity. Eggs are needed for playing cards and they are also worth 1VP each at game end. The third row action is collecting cards.

At the centre of the table there are always three face-up bird cards for you to pick from. If you don't like any of them, you can blind draw from any draw deck. The eggs come in many colours, but the colours don't mean anything. They are just pretty to look at. The dice tower is in the shape of a bird feeder. At first I thought it was unnecessary. However now I think it does help somewhat. During play, whether a die is in the tray or otherwise matters. So having a tray helps.

The die faces are various food types. Foods are resources you need to spend to play a card.

The rightmost card is a secret objective card (called a bonus card). You get one at the start of the game, and during play you may get more. You score points at game end depending on how well you fulfill the criteria specified. This particular card gives me 2VP per bird card which eats only worms and nothing else.

I have played one card to this row. When I perform the draw bird card action, I refer to the icons in the space immediately to the right of the last card played. The icons in this photo mean draw one bird card, then if you spend an egg, you may draw another one.

Cards with a brown bar give you some extra benefit whenever you perform the associated action. Using this photo above as an example, if you perform the gain food action, you first gain two food (because of the two dice icons), then you gain the brown bar benefit of the rightmost card, and you work leftwards resolving all the brown bar benefits.

The game is played over four rounds. Every round there is a round-end scoring based on a different criterion. The criteria are randomly determined at the start of the game. At this point in the game we had completed Round 1, and its round-end scoring had been completed. Our action cubes were placed here to mark how much we scored, and also to reduce our actions for the next round. The criterion for Round 1 was a specific nest type. Whoever had the most such nests (and these nests must have at least one egg in them to count) would score the first place bonus. The criterion for Round 2 was having water bird cards in play.

Some cards let you bury other cards under them. Such buried cards are worth 1VP each at game end.

The Play

Wingspan is an engine-building game. Playing cards improves your engine. Your three other actions - gaining food, gaining eggs and gaining cards - help you play more cards to further improve your engine. So there's a cycle going on. You feel progress. You get a sense of achievement. While building your engine, you plan how to most effectively score points. There are many ways to do so. Eggs are points. Birds played are worth points. Your secret objective cards give you points. Every round there are round-end points to fight for. Some cards give you extra ways to earn points.

At the start of the game you draw five cards, and they affect your strategy, at least in the early game. You also get five food, one of each type. Of you five starting cards, you need to decide which ones to discard. Every card you keep incurs the cost of one food. If you keep all, you won't have any food left. Your starting hand and your starting secret objective set a direction for you. During the game, how your opponents play will affect your strategy. The cards that come up in the common pool will also affect your decisions. You will take advantage of tactical situations. You want to grab opportunities that come up, e.g. a food you need turns up in the dice tower (well, bird feeder), or a bird you want turns up in the card pool.

There is little direct player interaction, and no direct aggression. You can grab food which you know your opponents need. You can grab birds they want. You can compete viciously for the round-end bonuses. You can minimise performing actions which trigger their birds' powers. However, generally this is a peaceful game. If you prefer games with direct attacks, you may find this one a little multiplayer solitaire-ish. After all people are building their own engines and don't get to interfere with others' engines much.

In the game we played, I spent much effort on my two secret objective cards - the starting one and one more which I drew early in the game. I almost always picked cards which helped in fulfilling these secret objectives. One thing I realised only at game end was many of my birds were high-valued. I hadn't consciously pursued such a strategy. It just happened. In the early game, Jeff played a card which could generate free eggs. This helped him tremendously throughout the game. He had an egg empire. He saved many lay egg actions. Ivan had one card which let him bury other cards under it. He used it profusely and scored many points there.

What I will remember most about Wingspan is not the pretty pictures, or the solid game mechanism. What I will remember most are the juvenile jokes we told all night long playing this game. We were a group of grossly over-aged boys that night. All these inappropriate jokes of course started because of the most important action in the game - playing a bird (card). "Are you going to play your bird?", "I'm done playing my bird, your turn now", "a bird with two eggs", "the key is not the birds, but the eggs" (Jeff won because of his huge number of eggs). That evening we were all primary school kids again laughing at the same silly jokes over and over. The joke which cracked me up the most was actually a serious question from Dennis, "Jeff, does this game have solo rules?". Immediately after this was blurted out, the other four dirty minds at the table came to the same interpretation and everyone started laughing. "Yes, of course you can play this solo" was the answer. On a more serious note, the game does actually come with solo rules. You play against an Automa and try outscore it.

When you want to gain food, you can only get what is available in the dice tray. You take the food, and remove the corresponding die from the tray. When there is only one food type remaining, you may choose to reroll all dice before picking a food.

It is good to take cards with brown bars early in the game, because you will have more opportunities to use their powers.

We did a 5-player game. I developed my board in an even manner, progressing at each row more or less evenly. Jeff on the right took a completely different approach. His bottom row was completely filled by now, but this middle row was still untouched. This was because he had a bird which gave him free eggs. So there was no urgency at all to improve his lay egg action.

This was my board at game end. There is food on some cards. When a card allows you to stockpile food, such food is worth 1VP per piece at game end. This is similar to cards being tucked beneath, and eggs. Two of the cards have pink bars. These powers are triggered on other players' turns. Someone does something specific, you get some specific benefit.

The Thoughts

Wingspan is a well-deserved winner of the KdJ. It is eye-catching. The topic is unique. Production quality and production design are top-notch. Game mechanism is decent. It is a medium-weight game. It is a pleasant experience, even without the juvenile jokes.