Friday 25 September 2020

Crystal Palace

The Game

Crystal Palace is a game about the 1851 world fair in London, the Crystal Palace being the main exhibition hall of the event. You play as countries participating in the fair, and you want to put up the most impressive show to win fame. 

Crystal Palace features a dice placement mechanism. Dice are your workers. You place them at various locations to get things done. You get to decide the values of your dice. The higher the value of a die, the more powerful it is, as in it gets to perform an action earlier, perform it in a more profitable way, or it enjoys the privilege of being able to act at all. However, the higher the value of a die, the more expensive it will be for you. You have to pay your dice (workers). 

The game comes with many boards! This looks intimidating, but you can view them as just three types of boards. That largest one on the right is the admin board. It is just three tracks for you to mark your score, your income level, and your buzz level. At the centre you can see one board with a single track. That's the black market. You send assistants here to gain various benefits. All the other boards are just locations where you place your dice (workers) to gain resources / do stuff. The eight locations are separate boards because you need to use a different board or a different side of the board depending on your player count. The game supports 2 to 5 players. I guess it is possible for the publisher to create two large double sided game boards, each side of each game board for a specific player count. Maybe they do it the current way due to cost considerations. 

This is a player board. There are 5 player boards in the game and they are double side, so there are 10 countries you can pick from. The countries are different, specifically in the left column. You have one assistant here which you can advance to score points, if you fulfil a certain criteria. This difference drives players to pursue slightly different goals. 

The ten spaces in the middle can be filled using loan tiles or research tiles. At game end, if there are still empty spaces, you lose 2 victory points (VP) per space. When you take a loan, you lose 8 to 10 VP. Even if you manage to repay the loan, that penalty only reduces to 5 VP. Ideally you want fill the spaces with research tiles. On the right you keep track of your newspapers - one of the resources in the game. Newspapers can be gained in a few ways, and at any time they can be redeemed for other items, e.g. a new die, some cash, a gear. 

Along the bottom you can see the procedures of a game round. You start with everyone secretly setting his dice values. Once you are done, all dice are revealed, and you take turns placing dice - one die per player at a time. After that you resolve each location - players who have dice at a location perform actions. Then the orange, blue and green powers activate. Some of your cards, tiles, assistants give you such powers. 

The game is played over five rounds. You play years 1849, 1850 and 1851, two rounds per year except for 1851, because the fair will be held in the second half of the year. 

Let's look at the dice placement mechanism. At the location board on the left you can see two rows of squares. The first row has five squares and the second row four. Spaces in the first row indicate die values. These are the minimum requirements to place a die. Above the rightmost space there is a £2 icon, which means when you place a die here, you must pay £2. 

When it is time to perform actions, you check who has the highest valued die in the first row. In the case of ties, the leftmost die wins. The player with the highest die moves first. He moves his die to the first space in the second row, and performs the action associated with the location board. In this example here, there are newspaper icons in the first two spaces in the second row. This means players who move their dice here each gain one newspaper. 

If there are five dice placed in the first row, one of them will not be used to perform an action, because there are only four actions available. If you are the poor last guy with no more action space available for you, you get a £1 compensation. You may forfeit your action when it is your turn to move a die to the second row. If you voluntarily forfeit an action, you get no compensation. 

This location board on the left is the patent office. You get patents here. A patent can later be transformed into a prototype. When you do that, you score points, and you also gain some benefit. You need to pay resources to make a prototype. Usually the earlier you build it, the more points it is worth. 

Everyone starts the game with four dice. You leave two dice in your colour at the centre of the table. There are ways to gain more dice during the game. With more dice, potentially you get to do more things, but you will likely be paying more too. 

This location - the Reform Club - is for recruiting characters. The difference between characters and patents is you must immediately pay when you recruit a character. 

On the right you have the income track. It determines how much cash you earn every round. By default, your income level drops by three every round, after you collect income. This is scary, because if you hit rock bottom, you will lose points and you will lose money. It takes conscious effort to keep yourself from hitting bottom. 

On the left you have your buzz track. Buzz is another resource type. When your buzz reaches specific levels, you gain some one-time benefits. At certain milestones, you may claim privileges. Privileges give you something every round. You may claim at most two privileges per game, and you can't change them once you claim them. If you think you will move far on the buzz track, you should wait until you reach a higher milestone to claim the better privilege. If you are not ambitious, just claim the first two you can get your hands on. 

This is the black market. If you have assistants here, during the green phase of a round, you'll gain something. If you voluntarily remove an assistant who is at step 3 or higher, you get one gear (a type of resource). There is a danger here. If at any time the black market is filled up, the cops come and disperses everyone, except for that last assistant who called the cops. 

We did a full 5-player game, and I think that's the most interesting player count. 

The Play

You do lots of stuff in Crystal Palace. They are all centred around the dice placement mechanism. You collect stuff and eventually try to score points. Prototypes and characters are two important sources of points, but there are also many others sources to consider. Generally you try to identify the most lucrative sources of points and you maximise your actions to gain points efficiently. 

Money is tight. We were all wary of taking loans, but eventually no one could avoid loans. It was only a matter of how soon and how much. I was particularly adamant in avoiding loans and I was thrifty. In hindsight, that might not have been such a good idea. It should not be about avoiding loans. It should be about making sure taking the loan is worth the VP penalty, i.e. you will gain enough victory points to justify taking the loan. To save money, I often set my dice to low values. Going into the final round, I had few resources left and felt there wasn't a lot I could do, so I set low dice values to reduce money spent and to avoid loans. In hindsight, I should have been more aggressive and still tried to do something with that final round. 

The dice placement mechanism creates interesting situations. You need to watch what your opponents are trying to do, to help you decide which die you should deploy first, and where to deploy it to. As long as another player still has a die that is higher than your current highest die, there is a risk that you may not get to do what you want. That guy may come from behind to deny you. 

I feel engine-building is slightly lacking. There are ways to gain permanent powers, but there are not many such powers, and you collect them like odd pieces here and there, as opposed to being able to go in with a plan and a clear area of focus. Often competition is tactical in nature. You are analysing the board to find what's most beneficial at that point in time. You are not really building up to something. You are constantly seeking and fighting for short-term wins. 

One action in the game lets you sacrifice a die to gain points. We nicknamed this "selling piglets" (Cantonese: maai zyu zai) - the practice of sending people overseas to work as coolies. In the late 19th century and early 20th century,  many people from southern China went overseas to work as contract labourers. In Crystal Palace, doing this in the early game was lucrative, and one of us did it in the very first round. I wasn't entirely sure it was a good move, since losing 1 out of 4 dice meant losing 25% of your workforce. However, later in the game I was the one who grabbed the remaining coolie actions, because I was cheap and didn't want to feed my people. 

One thing I didn't spend attention on but somehow managed to gain a lot of was the newspapers. At one point I had 6 (max possible was 7). I hadn't been using them for most of the game, and only later on I realised how handy they could be. Sometimes when you desperately need a particular resource, newspapers can come to the rescue. You convert them to the resource you need. At one point the other players started asking me whether I collected old newspapers as a part-time job. In residential areas in Kuala Lumpur, you often hear small lorries driving around with loudspeakers blasting, "Old newspaper, old battery, suratkhabar lama, bateri lama."

The red 2 has just been screwed by the blue 5. The blue 5 was placed last. By placing the 5, the 2 would become the smallest number and would not be able to perform any action. The blue player will be the first to perform an action, followed by the white player (because his die is the leftmost among the 4's), and finally the red player (for the 4). The red player will need to pay £2 when performing the action, because the third action space requires that. 

Location 4 on the right - Westminster - is where you get to increase your influence. You gain some resources whenever you level up. Most importantly your influence affects the salaries of your characters. In most cases they get cheaper when you have more influence. In this photo you can see the white player has maxed out, while the blue player has given up. 

This is where you collect patents. 

This is where you recruit characters. Some characters combo with patents / prototypes. When you have a combo, you score extra points. You do need to turn the patents to the prototype side though. 

The red 3 was placed before the black 3. The red player didn't place it in the leftmost space because he wanted to take the assistant action (white icon). 

When you decide how to set the values of your dice, you can do it behind this little box, and then hide your dice under the box once you are done. 

Tim (yellow) filled the black market, and kicked everyone else out! Party pooper! When the black market was two slots from getting filled up, he took an action which let him place two assistants at once. I didn't see that coming and was caught off guard. 

This was Jeff's player board. He had already filled up the ten spaces at the centre. Some were loans, but he had six research tiles. Not bad! 

This was Tim's player board. His assistant had reached the highest level. He needed to have 5 research tiles to be able to reach the top, and he had that. 

I had the patent for the crystal palace. This was an unusual one. It only scored points if it was converted to the prototype side in the final round, i.e. in 1951. Normally patents score more when they are converted earlier. I set aside 2 energy and 2 gears to build the crystal palace in the final round. 

By late game, our buzz levels had not progressed very far. Most of us had claimed our privileges early (the small round discs), because we didn't except to climb far. 

The Thoughts

Crystal Palace is a heavy Eurogame. The most important element in the game is the dice placement mechanism. It is the core on which the rest of the game was built. The dice placement mechanism introduces interesting tactics and novel player interaction. Money is tight. This is a challenge that I like. Borrowing money is scary. What's important is knowing the worth of loans and making them work for you. 

Overall I feel the game somewhat lacks engine-building. I didn't feel like I was building up my capabilities. There are some permanent abilities you can gain throughout the game. It's just that they feel disjointed and they don't feel impactful. I didn't feel I was deliberately pursuing a particular strategy. I was mostly trying to identify the most lucrative action of the moment, and hoping to beat others to it. So the game felt tactical to me (vs being strategic). The country-specific scoring criteria is there to push players towards slightly different directions, but it felt shallow to me because it's quite easily done as long as you don't forget to do it. There is no struggle or tension. I guess it does achieve its goal, because players do what it wants them to do. I feel like I'm completing homework before the end of the school holidays, as opposed to enthusiastically performing actions which align to my strategic goal. 

Friday 18 September 2020

Sekigahara storage

My copy of Sekigahara is the second edition. The box is deeper than the first edition, so fitting all the components into the box is much more manageable. I didn't like the box insert, so I re-folded it, to give me more space and more freedom in how I wanted to store the components. I found a small black box which suited perfectly for the cubes and special tokens. I used a Secret Recipe cake box to create two custom boxes for the blocks. 

That's the box bottom on the left, with the box inserted re-folded to become just "wallpaper". The two red boxes on the right are for Tokugawa and Ishida blocks respectively. 

The Ishida box has a small yellow stripe, which I had cut out from the original sticker sheet. 

To open the box, first slide the string sideways. No need to untie the knot. 

Once the string is removed, start unfolding the box. Lower flap first. 

Then the upper flap. 

Finally the two sides. 

I arrange the blocks this way to ease game setup. All blocks with setup icons at the bottom right are placed together. The rest of them are arranged based on the clan mons. 

The Tokugawa box has a black stripe. 

Shift the string sideways. 

Then start unfolding the box. 

Open the upper flap. 

Then the sides. 

Tokugawa blocks are arranged in a similar manner. Those with setup icons first, and then the rest based on clan mon. By referring to this photo and the previous one showing all Ishida blocks in the game, you can work out the probabilities of which blocks are what during play. It's a lot of work though, so I don't actually do that. 

I think this little black box was originally for a key chain. 

Next let's pack up the game: 

Box bottom. 

First I put in the two boxes containing all the blocks. 

Next are the two draw bags, the two decks of cards, and that little black box. 

Now the game board. 

Two reference sheets. 

Rule book. 

This is my own reference sheet. I've made many such reference sheets for games I've played, more than 300 by now. 

Finally the box cover. 

Wednesday 16 September 2020

Pandemic Hotzone Malaysia


Fresh off the press today on Malaysia Day! Pandemic Hot Zone Malaysia is a fan-made print-and-play version of Pandemic. It's non-profit, but gosh they've put in a lot of effort! Respect! 

But why Lahad Datu featured and not Tawau? I was born in Tawau and I should lodge a formal appeal to the designers.  

More details here

Download here


Tuesday 15 September 2020

revisiting Sekigahara

5 Sep 2020. Allen and I played Sekigahara again. It's my top 3 game, so I should play more of it. This time I played Ishida (yellow) while Allen played Tokugawa, because I remember the previous time we played it was the other way round. 

Both of us were rusty with the rules, so we had to do some revision before we started. During the game we still occasionally had to refer to the rule book. 

In the early game, Allen's Tokugawa army from Edo (upper left) swiftly descended upon my castle at the centre of the board - Ueda Castle, and captured it in one fell swoop. In real history, Sanada defended the castle well and tied down a big portion of the Tokugawa army. At the upper right, I gathered my troops to attack Allen's castles. Things went well for me. I had more troops in the area. By now Allen's forces were greatly reduced here. 

At the lower right, Allen's Maeda army had struck out from their home base, approaching Kyoto. I had a vacuum in the Kyoto area, so this was a looming threat. I needed to raise troops quickly, or send some back for defence. 

On the left, my forces had been completely wiped out. In a few short and decisive battles, Allen destroyed my Uesugi army. By now he had also captured all the resource locations on the left half of the board, indicated by the small black cubes. At the upper right, I had finally captured both of Allen's castles. Now I had to station soldiers there to keep them subdued. Allen had no more soldiers in this area. He did have one muster location there, but that would not be of use for some time. 

At the lower right, my army had attacked and beaten back Allen's Maeda army. Now I was pushing towards the Maeda clan castle. The situation on the board had clearly split into eastern and western halves. 

I had only two blocks in my recruitment box at this time. I had already mustered many of my blocks onto the map. In the background you can see Allen still having many blocks waiting to be mustered onto the map. He was holding a 5-block stack, ready to deploy. My casualties were high, and this was worrying. 

The five yellow Mori blocks were located in Osaka. As the Ishida player, it is costly to deploy them - one card per block. In history, Mori Terumoto was not so happy with Ishida Mitsunari and refused to deploy. That is why he's such a pain in the neck for the Ishida player in this game. Only if the Tokugawa player attacks Osaka then all these Mori blocks will come onto the map to defend Osaka. 

On the right side of the board, I have mustered some fresh troops. At the centre of the board along the Nakasendo Highway, there was one resource location which nobody dared to capture for a very long time. It was in a kill zone. Whoever captured it risked being attacked by the other side. 

There are 9 castles and 9 resource locations in the game. Castles are worth 2VP each, and resource locations 1VP each. The player controlling more castles gets to draw one extra card every round, which is handy. The player controlling more resource locations gets to draw one extra block when adding blocks to the recruitment box. The extra block is not yet deployed onto the map, it is just being available in the recruitment box. The Tokugawa player starts with five castles to the Ishida player's four, so Tokugawa has a slight advantage at the start of the game. 

At the bottom I was originally planning to attack and capture Allen's castle. I had enough soldiers, but I didn't have the right cards. So I sent that army further to the left to capture a resource location. This was a little risky, because if Allen mustered troops at his castle, he might send his new army to the right, which was lightly defended. Thankfully this did not happen. Eventually my army returned to capture this castle. In the late game, I managed to control six castles to Allen's three. 

At the top, Allen had assembled a large Tokugawa army and had marched it along the Tokaido (highway along the coast) towards my large army at the upper right. In the late game, I was ahead in victory points, so the pressure was on Allen to wrestle castles and resource locations from me. Either that, or he had to find and kill Ishida. To capture Osaka was already impossible. It was a bridge too far. 

Ishida Mitsunari was here in this army, preparing for Allen's attack. If Ishida got himself killed, I would lose the game. This army was mostly Ukita blocks. Previously I only had one block holding the castle here, and the rest of the blocks were slightly behind the front line. I had considered stalling, so that I would win by victory points when time ran out. However when I counted our points, I found that there was still enough time for Allen to capture the points he needed. So I must still fight and I could not afford to concede points easily. 

Tokugawa Ieyasu himself was first to charge into battle (the face-up black block on the left)! 

This was how this large battle turned out. Allen lost the battle due to a loyalty challenge card I played on him. His last 2-mon Tokugawa block turned traitor and joined my side. He had played one loyalty card too, but it didn't work on me because I still had an Ukita card in hand. All my troops stayed loyal. 

This was not the only time Allen lost a battle due to a loyalty challenge. The loyalty challenge mechanism is very clever. If you have a loyalty challenge card, you will feel anxious because you are often unsure when you should play it. Play it too early, and your opponent may still have the right card to defy it. Play it too late, and you may not have the chance to play it at all. Also, the fact that you have a loyalty challenge card in hand means you have one fewer card which can be used to deploy your own troops. Having a loyalty card, which is the highest numbered card in the game, is not necessarily a good thing. 

Although Allen lost one battle here, his reinforcements soon arrived and he was ready for another big showdown. This time I was defeated and my front line crumbled. 

Time was running out, so I could eventually apply the stalling strategy. First, Ishida must retreat and get out of harm's way. I also sent one block to the left to capture that resource location nobody dared to touch all this while. It was the last round now, so victory points mattered. I needed to send a block there so that Allen would not be able to capture it without sending at least two blocks. He had one four-block army at the centre of the board, which he would need to split into three, in order to maximise the number of victory points he could get on his last turn. One division had to stay where it was, at a castle originally loyal to Ishida. A garrison was required, otherwise the castle would immediately revert to my control. The two other divisions would need to attack separately to capture two different resource locations. Eventually this proved too much for Allen's army, and he wasn't able to grab enough points. 

Ishida lost the final big battle, but won the war. Time ran out, and political pressure forced Tokugawa to surrender. 

Sekigahara is a tense and beautiful game, full of surprises and excitement!