Tuesday 29 October 2019


Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Gugong (which means "the former palace") is a heavy Eurogame from Andreas Steding (Hansa Teutonica, Firenze).

The very first thing I noticed was how pretty these player pieces are. Each ship has a recess which fits exactly three workers. Note that this is not a worker placement game. The workers are just a type of resource. Human Resource.

The board is made up of seven sections. Every section has a spot for one card. The seven sections let you do various things, and ultimately they all help you score points. On your turn you must play a card onto one section, then claim the existing card there to become your hand card in the next round. Normally you have a hand size of four, which means you only get to play four cards per round. The hand size can be augmented. When the card you play is higher than the card you claim, you get to execute the action related to the board section. Otherwise, you need to pay 2 workers to execute the action. If you can't afford it or choose not to spend your workers, you are effectively just swapping cards. This core mechanism of swapping cards is meant to represent bribing officials. On the surface, you are courteously exchanging gifts, but when you give something valuable while the official gives you a token gift in return, everybody knows what's going on.

This is the player board. You don't actually do a lot here. It is mostly a reference card. The top half shows what you do in a round, and the bottom half shows how to score points at game end. The green oval at the bottom is jade. If you have one piece of jade, that's 1 victory point. Two pieces, 3VP, and so on. The more you collect, the more valuable each piece is, until the 6th piece onwards, which is worth 2VP each.

These recesses are for keeping workers which are sacrificed when claiming sailing rewards. There is a limit to such rewards. E.g. there is only one space for the double-worker reward, so you only get to claim this reward once per game.

Travel tokens collected when you perform the travel action are to be placed here along the top edge of your player board. Whenever you use the power of a token, you flip it over (none are flipped yet in this photo). You may cash in tokens (used or unused) for rewards. Two tokens for one worker, four tokens for 2VP, or six tokens for one piece of jade.

These are the player cards. Some have an icon at the bottom, which means you get to perform an extra action, provided that the card you play is higher than the card you claim (or you are willing to pay 2 workers).

This section is the emperor's court. Every player has one official here who needs to advance from the gate all the way to the court to meet the emperor. If your official fails to get in the door of the court before the game ends, you automatically lose. You score points if he makes it. You get more points for being earlier than others.

This is the travel section. Every player has a rider who moves about collecting travel tokens. Travel tokens give various benefits.

This is the grand canal or sailing section. You place ships, man them, and move them. The harbours give various rewards. You may claim the reward at a harbour if your ship is fully manned. One of the workers will be sacrificed. Retired, if you will.

This is the intrigue section. Everyone has a pawn which can be advanced. Sometimes you'll get to cash-in its level for some reward. Naturally, the higher the level, the better the reward.

On the right you have the Great Wall section. You send workers here to help repair and extend the Great Wall. Whenever one stretch is fully repaired, the biggest contributing player gets rewarded and all his workers are dismissed. The reward includes gaining 3VP, advancing the official towards the emperor's court, and cashing in the intrigue level. Workers belonging to other players have to stay and continue toiling.

In the foreground is the decree section. The decree tiles are randomly set up at the start of each game, and this gives Gugong variability. Decrees are special abilities you may claim by spending workers and also committing workers permanently, like these ones already on the board. Decrees also have point values.

At the start of every round you roll three dice. These are not the normal 1 to 6 dice. They have a customised distribution and they are not identical. At the end of the round, if you hold cards with these values, you gain extra workers. Using this photo as an example, if you hold a 5 at the end of the round, you'll get two extra workers, because there are two dice showing 5. These dice make some numbered cards more attractive.

This is a double-worker piece. Every player has one, but it is not in play at the start of the game. It is a sailing reward you can claim. You use it like it is one worker, but it has the strength of two. This is useful for subsequent sailing and for building the Great Wall. Siamese twins are cool.

The game is played over four rounds. If your hand size remains constant at four, you'll only get to play 16 cards for the whole game. This is an efficiency game - you need to maximise your card plays and make every action count.

The Play

Every round you need to strategise how to best make use of your cards. It is challenging when you have a hand of low cards. However you are the one making the choices, so you can't blame anyone else. You decide where to play and which cards to pick up for the next round. Starting cards are preset to ensure fairness. It is not always possible to play your cards such that they are higher than the cards you claim. You need to be prepared to forgo actions or to pay workers. This core mechanism presents a puzzle and a challenge, forcing you to prioritise. You don't always get to do what you want to do. Sometimes you want to wait and hope the board situation changes in your favour. As other players take turns, they will change the cards on the board.

Of the types of actions you can do, some need a certain level of commitment in order for the effort to be worthwhile. E.g. if you are going to collect jade, the first few don't score a lot. You need to collect more for a better Return On Investment. Some actions are still worthwhile even if you don't do them a lot, e.g. sailing gives a few specific rewards, and you may only need one or two of them to support your strategy. No need to go all out.

Overall I find the game to be tactical in nature (as opposed to strategic). Just do what's best given the current board situation. Only a few action types need some persistence. For these you need to remind yourself not to neglect them.

I (white) was quite the lackey to the emperor. My official was first to rush to court to greet His Majesty.

That silver coin is the next start player marker. It is placed in the intrigue section. Every round whoever is first to perform the intrigue action gets to claim this marker.

The Thoughts

Gugong is a multiple-ways-to-score-points game. Player interaction comes in small ways which are not particularly damaging individually. They are not directly confrontational. E.g. if you buy something earlier, you force others to buy at a higher price. Or you occupy a harbour which someone else was hoping to get to. I feel the theme is rather thin. The game mechanisms are just that - game mechanisms which support and form a coherent and challenging game. I can't quite associate them with actual history.

Friday 18 October 2019

Mooncake Master

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Mooncake Master is designed by Singaporean designer Daryl Chow. It's a simple and pleasant game about making mooncakes, a Chinese delicacy eaten during the Mid Autumn Festival celebration. I played the game on the day of the Mid Autumn Festival, which makes the experience even more meaningful.

The game box is designed to look like a mooncake box. Absolutely lovely. It comes with a box sleeve which is even prettier. Too bad I didn't take a photo of that.

A game has 3 stages, and at each stage you will make 3 mooncakes. There are only 4 rounds per stage. Every round everybody acts simultaneously. You draw three tiles, look at them, and decide which one to keep, which to give to your left neighbour, and which to give to your right neighbour. After receiving tiles from both your neighbours, you decide how to place all three of your tiles in front of you to make your three mooncakes. Each tile is a quarter of a mooncake. After 4 rounds you would have 12 tiles and they would complete 3 mooncakes. You then score your mooncakes, before removing them and starting a new round. This photo was taken in Round 4 of Stage 1. Some players had completed their three mooncakes. Others were still contemplating how to place the last three pieces.

This is the scoring reference card. The card on the left lists how the mooncakes score flavour points (FP), which are different from victory points (VP). Victory points are represented by lanterns. Let's look at the items one by one. If a mooncake contains only one flavour (i.e. one colour), it is worth 3 flavour points (FP). If it has two flavours, 1FP. Each complete egg yolk is 1FP. If a mooncake has no half yolk, that's 1FP. Finally every hazelnut and sunflower seed pair is worth 1FP. When a stage needs, you total your FP's, and compare with the others. Whoever has the most scores 2VP. Whoever has the least scores nothing. Everyone else scores 1VP. Over three stages, if you are always one of the leading players, you will score 6VP from your mooncakes.

The mooncakes come in three flavours - red bean (pink), lotus (orange) and green tea (green). In this photo you can see I was doing well so far, all three mooncakes were still single-flavoured, and egg yolks were all complete.

Things didn't go so perfectly after that. Well, at least two of the mooncakes were still single-flavoured. Let's take the middle one as an example. It has only one flavour, thus 3 flavour points. One complete egg yolk, so 1FP. No half egg yolks, that's another 1FP. There are two sets of hazelnut plus sunflower seed, so 2FP. The total is 7FP for just this mooncake.

This is a customer card, and this is the other way you score points. If one of your mooncakes fulfill the specific requirements of a customer, you may sell it to him, and score 1 victory point. In Stage 1, there is only one customer. At the start of each subsequent Stage, you add one more customer. If you are able to serve every customer every Stage, you will score 6VP. The requirements of this particular customer are the mooncake must have exactly two complete egg yolks, and it must be single flavoured.

This was taken at Stage 2. You can see there are two customers. There are many different customers in the customer deck, and this creates variability from game to game.

The Play

Mooncake Master is straight-forward and fast. You do things concurrently, so there is little downtime. Adding more players doesn't significantly impact play time. You only need to pay attention to the mooncakes of your immediate neighbours. You want to avoid giving them tiles which help them. It's not always easy to do. You still want to keep a tile that's useful to you. It is probably not worth taking a poor (to you) tile for the sake of giving your neighbours poor (to them) tiles. The game feels like a puzzle game. You first try to figure out how best to allocate those 3 tiles drawn, and after that you try to figure out how to best fit the three tiles you get into your mooncakes. You try to score as many flavour points as possible, and at the same time try to fulfill customer requirements.

Four egg yolks! This photo gave me high cholesterol.

This was Stage 3. You can see three customers revealed.

Those two half egg yolks look ugly. Well, at least there are two hazelnut + sunflower seed combos, contributing 2FP. There are only two flavours, so that's 1FP.

The second customer wants a single yolk lotus mooncake. The third customers wants a single-flavoured mooncake with three hazelnuts. The scoreboard below only goes up to 12VP, because that's the highest possible score.

The Thoughts

Mooncake Master is a cute game. Good for casual gamers and non-gamers, and also for family settings. For boardgame veterans, it works well as a filler. It's not particularly deep, but it does give some light mental exercise and it presents an interesting challenge.

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Board Game Bakes

Something a little different from what I usually post - a video on making Settlers of Catan cookies from Danielle Schneider of Board Game Bakes Youtube channel. Check it out if you're into both boardgames and baking.

Friday 11 October 2019

Mystery Rummy: Murders in the Rue Morgue

Plays: 2Px2.

The Game

I am a fan of the Mystery Rummy series. I have in my collection Jack the Ripper (my favourite), Jekyll and Hyde, Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld and Bonnie and Clyde. I have played Wyatt Earp before, but didn't particularly fancy it, so I didn't buy a copy. Murders in the Rue Morgue is rated lower than its siblings, and has been out-of-print for long periods. I recently discovered that Jeff stocks it (Boardgamecafe.net), and I couldn't resist getting a copy to see what it's like.

Murders in the Rue Morgue is based on a detective story by Edgar Allen Poe. A word of warning - major spoiler ahead if you have not read the story before. Like the rest of the series, the game has many rummy-like mechanisms. At the start of a hand, you are dealt a hand of cards, and your goal is to play them all - to go out. Whenever one player goes out, everyone scores points based on cards played, and also loses points for cards still in hand (except for the person who went out, of course). You usually play a few hands, until someone reaches 100pts. The game ends then, and highest scorer wins. On a player turn, you must draw one card, either from the draw deck or the discard pile. Then you may play cards from your hand. At the end of your turn, you must discard one card. Regular cards, called evidence cards, must be played in melds of at least 3 cards. If there is already a meld in play, you may layoff, i.e. play single evidence cards matching the meld. The other type of card is the gavel cards. You may play only one gavel card per turn. Usually they have some special power. Some can only be played under certain conditions.

This summarises the common features across the series. Each game also has some unique aspects.

In Murders in the Rue Morgue, some evidence cards have diamond icons in the lower left corner. This means they have a combo colour. E.g. dark blue and light blue are a combo pair. If you manage to play both melds, you score a 10pt bonus.

A 2-player game in progress.

This orangutan card is the most unique aspect of the game. At the start of a hand, everyone secretly picks a card to put under this orangutan card. This is called feeding the orangutan. During play, whenever you play a meld, you must feed the orangutan again. You feed it either the top card of the discard pile, or the top card of the draw deck. You get to see the top card of the draw deck before you decide which card to feed to the orangutan. If you are the one to go out, you get to claim all cards under the orangutan, and they may score you even more points. Cards that can be played will score (e.g. cards which have a meld in play), and those which can't are simply discarded.

Brilliant Deduction cards (one the right) can only be played when melds of both their colours are already in play. So it is not easy to play them. Each is worth 7pts, which is tempting, but is also a stiff penalty if you are stuck with it. It is a gavel card (icon in top left corner). You may only play one gavel card per turn.

The Play

The rules are straight-forward and the game is easy to learn. It plays smoothly. There is some luck. When I played with my wife Michelle, she had pretty bad luck and I was rather lucky, and our game was quite lopsided. The orangutan mechanism seems to make the winner win more. This feels counterintuitive to me. Shouldn't a game have a catch-up mechanism for the trailing player instead? Maybe there's something I'm not getting yet. Maybe the orangutan is meant to be something the trailing player can use to catch up.

The Thoughts

I am probably approaching Murders in the Rue Morgue with preconceived notions. My experience with it seems to confirm that it is indeed not as strong as the other titles in the series. In Jack the Ripper, the shutout mechanism (achieving something difficult which makes your opponent score nothing) is playing the Ripper Escape card after all five Victim cards are in play. This is quite exciting as players need to manoeuvre around it, beware of it, and sometimes shoot for it. In Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld, the shutout mechanism is collecting all eight Al Capone cards. Also hard to achieve, but a little easier if playing partnership rules. Murders in the Rue Morgue has a shutout rule too, but it feels somewhat easier. You need to play both melds of a combo and also play their corresponding Brilliant Deduction card. So far I still don't quite appreciate the orangutan mechanism. I will need to play more and experiment more. In Jekyll and Hyde, the unique mechanism is many cards can only be played specifically when Dr Jekyll is active or when Mr Hyde is active.

The rulebook recommends partnership play, i.e. playing with four players. Perhaps the game works better with four players. I have only played 2-player games. I have played Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld with both two and four players, and the four player game is indeed more fun.

Tuesday 8 October 2019

Caverna plus expansion

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Caverna is a reimplementation of Agricola. They share many similarities, but are also different in many ways. You are farmers developing your own farms on your individual player boards. You expand your farm, plant crops, harvest them, rear animals, slaughter them for food, and so on. The core game mechanism is worker placement. The main board shows the various actions you may take. You place your worker on a spot to claim it for the round and take the corresponding action, blocking others. Every round a new action space is added, increasing your options. You may get more workers by having babies. This lets you do more per round. The number of rounds is fixed. Every few rounds you do harvesting, which involves harvesting crops, breeding animals, and most importantly feeding your family. If you are unable to provide enough food, you take a stiff penalty. At game end, you score points for many aspects of your farm, and highest scorer wins.

This summarises the similarities between Caverna and Agricola. Now let's look at the differences.

The first difference you'll see is the player board. There are two halves. The left half is a forest. You need to clear trees to make meadows and fields, meadows for animal husbandry and fields for crops. The right half is a mountain. You dig caves and tunnels to expand your dwelling, to create mines, and to install furnishings. Furnishings give you various special abilities and some help you score points. There are many types available, but only one unit per type, so you have to fight for them.

Some spaces have yellow round icons. These are food icons. When you develop a space with food icons, you collect food. Some forest spaces have black boars. Similarly when developing these spaces you claim the boars.

This is the main board. The top part are the furnishings, 48 types in all their glory, which is intimidating for newcomers. Furnishings come in three categories. (1) Orange dwellings are living spaces you need to create before you can have children, i.e. more workers. (2) Green furnishings are resource-type furnishings. They usually help you produce resources, convert resources, or save resources when doing something. (3) Yellow furnishings are scoring-type furnishings. They usually score points based on specific criteria. The bottom part are the action spaces. The actions on the left half are available right from the beginning. The actions on the right half are made available bit by bit, one new action per round.

On the furnishing tiles, the cost to build is at the top left, and the number in the yellow shield is the point value.

These are some of the action spaces. You add resources to some of them at the start of every round. When you pick an action space with resources on it, you claim all the resources.

One mechanism that doesn't exist in Agricola is adventuring. Iron ore can be used to make and upgrade weapons, and your workers can be armed and sent on adventures. In this photo you can see that many workers (coloured discs) are armed and dangerous - wearing helmets with numbers. If you look at the action spaces of the level-9 and level-8 workers, you will see shield-and-axe icons with numbers. These are adventuring icons. When you go adventuring, you get to pick a number of benefits from a list. How many you get to pick depends on the number on the adventuring icon. How many choices you can pick from depends on the weapon level of your worker. The benefits vary. Some are simply claiming a resource. Some let you develop a forest or mountain space. They may not sound like much, but adventuring actually gives you much flexibility. Often the competition is fierce on the main board for what you need to do. Adventuring is like a safety net. You can use it to help you with the area you are most lacking in.

The second card lists your choices when you go adventuring. Let's say your worker is at level 6, and your adventuring value is 2. You will get to pick two different things between 1 to 6. This card is double-sided. This side shows your choices up to level 8. The other side shows the additional choices up to level 14.

The reason I had the opportunity to play Caverna was my fellow gamers wanted to play the expansion The Forgotten Folk, which was released last year. I missed the boat when Caverna was first released. The Forgotten Folk introduces fantasy races. Every player now plays a unique race with its own strengths, weaknesses and quirks. Depending on the races in play, some furnishings are swapped out with race-specific furnishings. Such special furnishings are not restricted to be built by their corresponding races. Anyone can build them, just that generally they will jive better with their corresponding races. The large card on the right was the race I played - the Silicoids. Instead of food, my people ate rocks. I didn't care about food much. I had to worry about rocks instead.

These two cards are elements from the expansion too. Depending on the races in play, new resource types may come into play, like these two.

When developing forest spaces, you usually do two at a time, covering them with a 2x1 tile, one square being a field for crops, and the other square being a meadow. The meadow can later be upgraded to a pasture (i.e. meadow with fences) by flipping the tile over. A pasture holds two animals. A pasture with a stable (the little house) holds four. A stable on a meadow holds one animal. In Caverna you get to keep dogs (but not cats unfortunately). You don't need to worry about living space for dogs. They sleep anywhere and don't run away. In fact, they actually help you with managing sheep. A team of dogs on a meadow guards the same number of sheep plus one. One dog guards two sheep, two dogs guard three sheep, etc. At game end, every animal including dogs score 1VP. This is simpler than Agricola where you need to look up a table to see how many animals of which species score how many VP.

The green leaf icon means harvesting (and feeding your family). From Round 6 to 12, harvesting is not predetermined. You don't harvest every round, and sometimes the harvest works differently. You only get to know whether there is a harvest at the start of the round. There will be one easier harvest, where your family eats less. There will also be one harder harvest, where you must forgo either harvesting crops or breeding animals.

Rubies is a type of resource, and they are worth 1VP each at game end. At any time you can convert rubies to other resources or spend them to develop a space on your board. Normally you can only get cows by trading in one ruby and one food. At game end, you are penalised 2VP for each animal type you don't have. The difference between having no cow (-2VP) and having one (1VP) is 3VP.

The Play

The core game mechanism in Caverna is worker placement. There are many aspects of your farm you need to improve. Many things to do, and many opponents fighting with you over them. When you play Caverna, the difficult choice is always between things you are keen to do, knowing that by picking one, the other will likely be claimed by someone else. Players may pursue different strategies, so eventually actions spaces will have different values to different people. If there is something you need to do, and it's not important to others, you can probably afford to defer claiming the action space.

Broadly speaking, the aspects of your farm you need to manage are crops, animals, mines, expanding your dwellings in order to have more workers, adventuring, and installing furnishings. Occupations cards and Improvements cards in Agricola have become furnishings in Caverna. Unlike the cards in Agricola which are dealt out to players, where everyone can only play from his hand, in Caverna the whole pool of furnishings is accessible to everyone. There is no luck of the draw and you have freedom to decide what to install, but you may have competitors going for the same strategy and the same furnishings. In base Caverna players start on equal footing. Only in the Forgotten Folk expansion you get different starting positions, abilities and handicaps due to the races.

Caverna is a mid to heavy weight game, not something I'd recommend for people new to the hobby. I think it will be overwhelming, especially the furnishings.

Allen, Kareem, Dennis. This copy of Caverna is Kareem's. He has custom storage trays which save some space when playing and also help a lot in packing the game away. This game has a ton of components.

One furnishing I installed gave me free wood for the next seven rounds, thus these wood pieces placed this way on the main board to remind me to collect them in upcoming rounds.

I had many dogs. Two were idle now and were playing in the forest by themselves. One was guarding two sheep. My pasture with a stable could actually keep four sheep. I just hadn't reorganised my sheep yet. The starting dwelling can keep one pair of animals, and I had a boar in my bedroom now (hmm... that doesn't sound right...).

This was Allen's player board. That grey animal is a donkey. You can keep one donkey at each mine.

In the late game, I managed to completely develop every space on my board. On the right I have three tunnel and cave spaces not yet furnished. Caves can be furnished, and tunnels can become mines. Now I had 7 dogs and 9 sheep. My animal husbandry went very well, due to lack of competition. Both Allen and Kareem's races were poor at developing the forest, so they focused their efforts on the mountain side of their boards. Dennis wanted to build the archery range, which needed empty meadows, i.e. no pastures and no animals. I more or less had free rein.

This was the second last round. On the main board, only one last action card was not yet revealed, the one for the final round. Caverna has more harvests than Agricola, 8 harvests over 12 rounds, compared to Agricola's 6 harvests over 14 rounds. However the harvests in Agricola are more difficult. It is not easy to prepare enough food. In Caverna making food is more convenient, and harvests less daunting.

This was Allen's player board. His race was poor at developing the forest, so he mostly worked on the mountain. At this point he had three iron ore mines and two ruby mines. Mines are worth VP. He had only developed three forest spaces.

Furnishings are printed on the furnishing boards so that you know where to place which one. They are organised by category so that it's easier to analyse and compare.

This was Kareem's player board. Some of the tiles on the mountain half were overhanging. This was due to a special ability of his race. He scored points for doing this. The yellow pawn on the right is the start player marker.

This was Dennis' player board. He had three consecutive empty meadows, arranged as such so that he could build the Archery Range and score the full 10VP for it. 10VP is a big deal. Dennis also planned up front to have many children. He built the Couple Dwelling, which could fit two workers. There was only one Couple Dwelling in the whole game and he beat everyone to it. He also built the Additional Dwelling (also unique) which let him have a sixth worker. Normally a player can only have at most five workers.

This was my player board at game end. I won at 99VP. Kareem and Allen's races were conflicting, which made the game tough for both of them, and I became the indirect beneficiary. Not just in animal husbandry but also in crops. At this point I had much fewer dogs and sheep, because I had converted many of them to money. The Sheep Market let me cash in sets of 1 dog and 2 sheep at $4 per set. Normally 1 dog and 2 sheep would be worth 3VP at game end. $4 is 4VP. My $20 was all earned from selling dogs and sheep. The Food Chamber (top right) also helped me tremendously. Every grain + pumpkin pair gave me 2VP. This furnishing gave me 18VP!

The Thoughts

Caverna is a different Agricola. Many things are similar, but there are many differences too. The differences are not superficial. The underlying economy and balance are different. I find it more forgiving. Harvests are not as suffocating. Adventuring is a backup plan you can fall back to if you are acutely short of something. Some things are simplified, like animal husbandry scoring. Also baking bread and cooking meat is easier - fewer steps. Compared with Ora et Labora and Le Havre, Caverna is still the most similar to Agricola. It's not an improved version, nor is it an inferior and gentler version. It's just different.