Sunday, 28 June 2020


The Game

Nippon, designed by Paula Soledade and Nuno Bizarro Sentieiro, was released in 2015. Recently I also played another game by them - Madeira - which was a 2013 game. I never followed this designer duo closely, though their names are certainly familiar. Having played two of their games recently, and enjoying them both, I decided to look up what else they had designed. To my surprise Panamax (2014), which I had played before and enjoyed immensely, was also by them. I had forgotten about this. I guess I will be paying more attention to them from now on.

The background story of Nippon is the Meiji Restoration in Japan, which started in 1868. You play the role of industrial conglomerates, developing new industries and producing goods to be supplied to both local markets and overseas markets. This is a point scoring game. There are three stages, and at the end of each there is an area majority scoring depending on how well you have supplied goods to local markets. At game end, you score points based on how well you have developed your industrial empire. Other than these, throughout the game there are also a few other ways you score points.

The main game board featuring a map of Japan.

Let's talk about the core mechanism. On your turn, you have two options - claim a worker, or consolidate. If you claim a worker, you take it from the action table (see above) and place it on your player board. You then perform an action in the column from which you took the worker. Workers come in different colours, and you will want to claim workers in as few colours as possible. Taking workers in many colours costs more money, and money is tight is this game.

These two above are player boards. Along the top are six spaces for you to place workers you've claimed. I (blue) had claimed three workers, two white and one yellow. If you want to claim workers on consecutive turns, you can do it at most 6 times, because you only have 6 spaces. Eventually you'll need to do consolidation. Consolidation is kind of like pay day. You dismiss all the workers from your player board, by paying $3,000 per colour. During consolidation, you also discard any cash and coal on hand, and then you earn cash and coal based on your income level (yellow track) and mining level (black track). You earn income before paying for the workers. That's why fewer colours is important. You want to have as much money left as possible for your next few turns of claiming workers to perform actions.

The tempo of worker-worker-worker-etc-then-consolidate depends a lot on how long your money and coal can last until you need to consolidate again. It also depends somewhat on your appetite for many colours. Sometimes you decide to consolidate earlier because if you take yet another colour, you're going to be too poor the next cycle.

One crucial thing you do during consolidation is claiming a scoring tile to place on your player board. This picture above shows the scoring table at the bottom of your player board. It shows 9 aspects of your industrial empire which will give you points at game end. Scoring tiles you claim and place here determine how much each aspect is worth to you. Tiles once placed are permanent and cannot be changed. Tile values range from x2 to x5 VP, and quantities are limited. The more workers you have when consolidating, the higher valued the scoring tile you get to claim.

In the picture above, at the top left corner, you'll score 3VP per $6,000 leftover. At the bottom right corner, you'll score 5VP per pair of contracts fulfilled.

As the game progresses, players have to plan for and commit to the end game scoring. Watch how your opponents are going to score, so that you know how to hinder them. Watching this also helps you decide where to compete and what to avoid.

Let's look at the action table again. Many actions require money, e.g. improving tech (white track), improving mining level (black track), building factories, building trains, and installing machinery at factories. Most of the actions eventually lead to producing goods, and goods have two end points. They are either supplied to local markets, mainly to get you influence points, or they are sold overseas, fulfilling contracts.

On the main game board the Japanese isles are divided into four regions, and each region is set up with two large squares showing products which are in demand. There are 6 types of products, ranging from low tech to high tech. When you supply goods to a region, you get to place your influence markers (the small squares in player colours - blue, red and yellow). At the end of each of the three stages of the game, you compare influence levels at each region to do scoring. There are some numbers pre-printed on the board. These represent the influence of overseas companies. When doing scoring, overseas companies compete too. When players place influence markers, they may cover the influence values of the overseas companies. Eventually as more and more of these numbers are covered, the influence of overseas companies dwindles.

In this picture above, the table in the upper half shows the victory points that will be scored by the top three companies in a region, for stages 1 to 3. Overseas companies compete as one entity. The table in the lower half shows what influence marker you can place by supplying how many units of which product type to the local market.

The other end use of products is selling them overseas, also known as fulfilling contracts. In the picture above, those eight tiles at the top are the contracts. The top half of a contract specifies how many different product types are required, and how many units of each type. The bottom half specifies the rewards, which can be cash, income level and/or victory points. The income level reward is important, because this gives you more money every time you consolidate.

Those red squares in the second row are influence markers. Quantities in each value are limited, so you need to use them wisely.

The third row are the factories. The number in the black cube on the upper right side of a factory specifies how many units of coal are required to activate the factory to produce one batch of goods (default is 1 unit). If you have additional machinery installed, your factory may produce up to 3 units at a time. A factory may store at most 4 units. If the warehouse is full, you can't produce more. Icons at the bottom left indicate the special ability of a factory. These are powerful and you must choose carefully.

On the left you of this picture can see the worker supply area, and along the bottom, the progress track with a white progress marker. Whenever the workers in one of the action table columns are exhausted, you refill by taking a group of workers from the supply area. Whenever the supply area is exhausted, the white progress marker advances one step. There are three marks along the progress track which indicate when a stage ends. The last three spaces of the progress track are yellow instead of green. What this means is the marker advances once per round (i.e. after every player takes a turn), instead of when the worker supply area is exhausted. These will be the last few rounds of the game. You will have only 3 actions left and you had better be prepared for this.

The Play

Allen, Han and I played on BoardGameArena. We played twice. The first time round we made many silly mistakes and did not play very efficiently. The second time round we had a better idea and scored much higher than our first game.

The pace is fast. What you do within a turn is simple. The players' cycles will diverge, and that can create interesting situations. You often need to consider the worker colours you want to take, and also what colours your opponents have taken or will likely take. Sometimes you compete, sometimes you avoid the competition. Often you need to have a rough plan what you are going to do throughout your current workers-then-consolidate cycle. You know how much money and coal you have on hand. They more or less limit how many things you can do.

There is a strong feeling of a development game. You are building your industrial empire bit by bit. You work towards producing goods, and you use them to win victory points.

This is a game in which you are constantly juggling between staying flexible and committing. You want to stay flexible because you want to compete effectively, but the game forces you to make commitments when there is still uncertainty in the future. Which aspects will you focus your scoring on? Are others going to compete aggressively with you in those aspects? You watch your opponents closely. They too need to make such commitments, and adjust their play.

At the bottom right of this picture, Allen's brown and black factories have no special abilities (no icons at the lower left). What's special about these factories is they need less coal to activate compared to their counterparts. That's their special ability.

The two rows at the bottom are factories not yet built. There are many options, and thus many different special abilities to ponder. Normally you'll start with the low tech factories (yellow and white), because you don't have much tech in the early game.

I (blue) had claimed 5 workers, and still remained at 2 colours, red and purple, which was good. In this particular game I aimed to complete as many contracts as possible. I had already completed four at this time (those with green ticks). In my scoring table you can see I had placed a x5 scoring tile for contract completion.

At each of the 4 regions, there are 8 rectangular spaces for trains and ships. Trains give additional influence value, and help players compete. Ships are worth 2VP at each scoring, provided you are most or second most influential.

The white progress marker was on the third space, which means the first stage scoring had just concluded. I (blue) had pressed on to trigger this scoring early, because the situation then was very beneficial to me. In the 2nd and 4th regions only I had influence (other than the overseas companies), so I would score the 2nd place VP with very little effort spent. Allen had many products he could supply to the local market, and I sped up the progress to trigger scoring before he could do so.

This was a typical first stage scoring. Overseas companies were still very strong, coming in first everywhere.

By the third stage scoring, the situation was completely different. The overseas companies were weak now. I did very poorly this time, scoring much less than Allen and Han.

The end game scoring makes up a big part of your final score, so you need to prepare for it well.

Han (red) had claimed 6 workers, so on his next turn he must do consolidation. Having claimed 6 workers means he would be able to claim a x5 scoring tile when he consolidated next turn.

The Thoughts

Nippon requires agility. What leaves the biggest impression on me is how you are constantly torn between needing to commit to how you'll score points at game end, and wanting to stay flexible for as long as possible. It is like running a startup business. You have to confidently commit to your customers that you will deliver the goods, while you frantically juggle all the dirty work to get things done. There is no comfort zone. You are driving at full speed and the path ahead is only partially mapped out. At the same time you have to contend with these monkeys (other players) throwing spanners in the works. All the time you need to watch what your opponents are doing. The area majority scoring means you can't escape competition. You have to fight. This is a game with high player interaction.

You have the feeling of progress and achievement, because a large part of the game is a development game. You build your industrial conglomerate, constructing factories, installing machinery, learning new techs, increasing mining capacity etc. The worker-then-consolidate cycle is an interesting mechanism which creates opportunities for clever tactical play.


wacklodge said...

Awesome! Those old games remind me of chilhood when we used to play DOS GAMES on an old pc which my mom bought me. It was actually my first computer ever and I loved playing on it. I remember playing Lemmings and old Sid Meier's. It was great!

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