Saturday 24 October 2020

The Voyages of Marco Polo

The Game

The Voyages of Marco Polo is a 2015 game, so it's no longer a new game. I had come across many positive comments, but had never looked into it. Now that the Malaysian authorities are imposing stricter movement controls again due to the COVID-19 situation, Allen, Han and I arranged to play some games online. We picked this game. It's a rather typical Eurogame, in which you collect resources then try to convert them to points as efficiently as possible. I was predisposed to like it due to the positive comments. Now that I have played it, I find that I do enjoy it immensely. It is not ground-breaking, but it does player competition, long-term planning, conflicting priorities and scarcity well. 

In this game you play Marco Polo's business partners. You start your business trip from Venice. There are many paths to choose from, and usually you will try to visit Beijing at the other end of the map (because you get points for doing so). It is not mandatory though. Each time you stop at a city or town, you leave behind a trading post, and these trading posts give you benefits. During the game you will collect goods and use them to fulfil contracts, which give you points. There are a few different ways to score points, and the two main categories are contracts and traveling. The benefits you gain from cities and towns are mostly related to collecting goods or converting them to points. The game is played over five rounds. Every player gets five dice. You place your dice onto the board to perform actions, using a worker placement mechanism. A round ends when everyone runs out of dice. 

The starting location Venice is at the top left corner, while Beijing is at the top right. The cities give a bonus to the first player who stops by. They also give visitors an additional spot to place a die. This is equivalent to giving players a new ability. The towns usually give visitors some resources. These are awarded on the first visit and at the start of every round thereafter. 

On the game board there are many different spots you can place your dice to perform actions. Some spots only allow one player, i.e. the traditional worker placement mechanism. Some spots allow more than one player, but those who are not first to come must pay a fee. Some spots require just one die, while some require two or three to activate. How powerful your action is often depends on the die value. In the case of spots requiring two or three dice, you look at the die with the lowest value. Higher valued dice are usually better, e.g. they let you collect more resources, or travel further. However if you place a high valued die at a spot which has been used by another player, the fee you have to pay will be high. Some spots don't always need high-valued dice, e.g. if you only intend to travel a short distance, the value-1 or -2 dice are sufficient. 

Sometime you gain black or white dice. These are dice in non-player colours. You can use them as how you use dice in your colour. More dice is always good, because it means you get to do more stuff. What's particularly important about black or white dice is sometimes they allow to perform an action more than once per round. Actions spots which allow multiple players normally only let each player place dice once per round. However black and white are not player colours, and are thus exempt from this restriction. 

At the start of the game everyone gets two secret missions. Each mission specifies two cities, and the bonus points if you visit them both. Of the four secret mission cities, each one you visit also gives you points. The more you visit, the higher the total they score for you. 

You always have two spaces to carry contracts. Contracts are how you convert goods into victory points. You always start the game with one contract. During the game you may claim contracts from the board. Whoever fulfils the most contracts by game end earns a bonus. 

Every player gets a character card at the start of the game. These characters are powerful and break some rules in a significant way. They cause differentiation between players and affect their strategies. This above, Matteo Polo, was the character I drew. He gave me an extra white die and a free contract every round. The extra die was certainly handy, and I saved some effort collecting contracts from the board. However the free contract was a random one, so I had to adjust my play to follow it, as opposed to picking a contract of my choice based on my situation. 

Allen drew this character, Raschid ad-Din Sinan. He did not have to roll his dice. He could set them to any value he wanted. This was crazy powerful! However we later found out that there were ways to mitigate this seemingly unfair advantage. If Han and I quickly claimed spots which Allen needed, even if he could easily set his dice to 6, it would be expensive for him to place these 6's on already occupied spots. 

Han's character was Berke Khan. This was the cost-saving guy. When Han placed dice on already occupied spots, he didn't need to pay any fee. This saved him much headache when picking spots. 

This is one of the city special powers. These powers are randomly set up every game, so there is some variability. This particular power allows players (who have placed a trading post) to place a die to get gold. If you place a 6, you get 3 gold! Gold is the most precious type of trade goods in the game. 

This is a town special power. When you arrive you collect one camel and three coins. You do this again at the start of each round thereafter. 

The Play

All three of us were new to the game, but it felt smooth and brisk. The character powers were all strong and impactful, and I enjoyed that. The mission cards more or less dictated our travel plans. Perhaps it was because I couldn't tell which city and town powers were particularly good, so I decided on my route purely based on my mission cards. I would try to make use of the city and town powers as best I could. 

I played green. The four cities on my mission cards were marked with the gold markers on the board. At this point I had visited two of them, Moscow and Karakorum. Whenever you stop your movement in a city or town, you automatically drop a trading post. If you are just passing through, you don't get to drop a trading post. At this point I had three trading posts (green) on the board. Han (blue) had travelled in another direction. He went south from Venice. Allen (red) was still loitering in Venice. 

Black dice can be purchased by players at 3 camels a piece. Both Han and Allen were aggressive in buying them, and they were snapped up quickly. I was often short on camels and rarely bought extra dice. Maybe it was because I already had one free white die every round, so extra dice felt less urgent to me. I was often late in player order, and Allen who came before me usually took the camels action first. I could still use the camel space, but if I wanted to place a high valued die, it would be expensive. So sometimes I had to be content with placing a not-so-high die to collect some camels. 

Allen (red) caught up and overtook me to arrive in Beijing first. In fact, he smugly overshot and paid Xian a quick visit before heading back to Beijing. Since he was first to arrive, he claimed the 10 Victory Points spot and I had to settle with the 7VP spot. Han had gone to Egypt, the Middle East and India. In the end he didn't go to Beijing. Third place was worth 4VP, which might not be so attractive to him anymore. 

Dice placement spots in the screenshot above with dice stacked on top of others are those which allow multiple players. On the right, that section requiring two dice is for traveling. The last player to place dice here becomes the start player for the next round. Turn order is important. Often players will intentionally delay traveling in order to fight for the start player privilege in the next round. 

The Thoughts

When I break down The Voyages of Marco Polo, it is just another typical Eurogame of collecting resources and converting them to victory points as efficiently as possible. The two main ways of scoring points are related to (a) fulfilling contracts, i.e. collecting goods then cashing them in, and (b) travelling, which requires spending money and camels. However, I enjoyed it a lot, and it took me some thought to articulate why. 

The game manages scarcity very well. There are many things you want to do and feel like you can achieve, but you are often just that little bit short of hitting the perfect outcome you want. In the game we played, I had hoped to visit all four cities on my secret missions. I started planning this end game from Round 4. Eventually I was just a few coins short of being able to complete my grand project. So frustrating, and so tantalising. 

I enjoy how powerful the character abilities are. The rule differences are simple, but they have tremendous impact on how the players play and interact with one another. 

The game has some engine-building, which is something I like. You feel you are progressing and building towards something. The new abilities you gain from visiting cities and towns are your engine. 

The Voyages of Marco Polo is not revolutionary, but it is well crafted and well balanced. 

Friday 16 October 2020


The Game

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest one during the American Civil War. It took place over 3 days - 1 to 3 Jul 1863. The American Civil War was fought for 4 years, 1861 to 1865, so Gettysburg was at the mid point of the war. In the early war, the Confederates (south) won many battles. However the Union (north) had a stronger economy and could last longer if the war dragged on. Also the Union soldiers had been improving and were becoming a better match. The Confederates wanted to score more big victories on the battlefield, in order to put political pressure on the Union to negotiate peace. So the Confederates brought the fight to the Union. Initially there were not many soldiers from either side near the town of Gettysburg. As fighting started, more and more soldiers rushed to the scene, and the battle grew to be one involving more than 150,000 soldiers. The Confederates pushed the Union out of the town of Gettysburg, and forced it into a defensive line shaped like a fish hook. As the fighting dragged on, neither side was able to break through. On the third day, the Confederates launched a massive assault hoping to push through and route the Union. This was the famous Pickett's Charge. Unfortunately for them the charge failed. The Confederates hoped to lure the Union into counter-attacking, but the Union did not take the bait. Eventually the Confederates decided to retreat, and that ended the battle. 

Gettysburg is a Martin Wallace design from 2010. At the time he was still running Treefrog. I recently noticed Allen had this game, and we hadn't played it. I suggested we should. Gettysburg is somewhat similar to Waterloo, also part of the Treefrog line-up. I have played Waterloo and I found the rules rather confusing and unintuitive. When I read the rules for Gettysburg, I struggled too. However, now that I have made a rule summary for it and played one game, I find it easier and more manageable than Waterloo

This was the situation in the early game. There weren't many soldiers on the board yet. The Confederates had a good concentration of units at the top right. The Union had a unit in the town of Gettysburg, and some units scattered at different locations. 

During game setup, most units are placed on this reinforcement chart. This chart specifies when reinforcements arrive, and where they enter the board. The Confederates are grey, and the Union blue. The black soldiers are elite Confederate infantry, while the orange soldiers are inferior Union infantry. The Union has one elite infantry unit, and it is already on the board at the start of the game, guarding Gettysburg. 

Each player has eight command blocks like this, numbered 2 to 5, two blocks in each number. To do anything on the game board, you need to have played a command block. The game is divided into three days, and each day is further divided into four phases - morning, midday, afternoon and night. By the end of the third day, if the Confederates fail to capture two victory points, the Union wins. At any time when the Confederates capture two victory points, they win immediately. 

On your turn, you have three options - play a command block, remove a command block, or play an order disc. A command block being present allows you to play an order disc, and playing an order disc allows you to activate your soldiers in the area or in an adjacent area to perform an action. The number on a command block determines how many order discs can be played, before the command block is exhausted and automatically removed. When a command block is removed, the order discs are released back to your pool. The command block is temporarily set aside. You need to have played all eight of your command blocks before exhausted command blocks are returned to your hand. 

This area has a #3 command block, which means it can allow up to three order discs. By now two order discs have been played. When you play an order disc, you issue an order to your soldiers in the area or in an adjacent area. You may order them to march, assault, fire artillery, entrench themselves, remove disruption, reinforce one another and so on. The order disc mechanism works slightly differently between the Confederates and the Union, simulating the better organisation of the Confederates. The Confederates always have many order discs and will not run out unless you are playing badly. Every phase of a day they usually have at least two opportunities to play two order discs back-to-back. This is equivalent to throwing a double punch, and it is very powerful. The Union has a limited number of order discs and they have to be managed carefully. At the end of a phase, if there are too many of its order discs remaining on the board, and it doesn't have enough free order discs for the next phase, it is forced to use black discs in lieu of order discs. Black discs are forced pass discs, which have to be played but do not activate troops. 

Battle resolution in Gettysburg is more complicated than the average Eurogame, but it is not so by wargame standards. When an assault happens, defending artillery and infantry fire first. If the attackers suffer any injury, they have to do a morale check. This morale check may result in some attackers retreating or even dying. If any attackers remain, they now get to shoot. If the defenders take any damage, they then do a morale check too. Fighting is done for two rounds, after which the attackers must retreat if any defender remains. Shooting and morale checks are resolved by die rolls. You have to look up battle resolution tables. Various factors affect the results, e.g. whether the troops are elite units, whether the troops have taken injury, whether the defenders are entrenched, whether the defenders are on high ground, and whether the defenders are being flanked. You need to take into account all these factors and try to create situations beneficial to your soldiers. 

The Play

This is a 2-player battle game. Both Allen and I were new to it. I played the Union (blue) and Allen the Confederates (grey). The last time we played an American Civil War game we did Lincoln, also a Martin Wallace game. I played the Confederates then, so this time we swapped. 

In the early game, the Confederates had a concentration of troops at the upper right, while Union troops were scattered here and there. I (Union) had two cavalry units (dark blue kneeling soldiers) and one artillery unit near the Confederate troops. There were only two cavalry units in the whole game and both belonged to the Union. Cavalry units have a special ability. When they are to take hits, they can automatically retreat to cancel one hit. Also when they do such retreats, they can bring along artillery units. So my plan was to not spend any action activating them. I would let them get attacked and then retreat automatically. That way I would save actions. I wanted to spend my actions getting other units to assemble near Gettysburg, so that they could make a united stand. Soon I realised I had forgotten an important rule. For cavalry to auto-retreat, they needed a command block nearby. 

I had hurriedly placed a command block to allow my cavalry units to auto-retreat. At this point that cavalry unit on the left had been attacked and had taken hits (blue cubes). 

Eventually I failed to save my units near the Confederate entry point. One cavalry unit and one artillery unit had been destroyed, and the other cavalry unit was now surrounded. My other units rushed to Gettysburg and prepared to make a stand. In this game the stacking limit is four units per area. 

Last photo taken before my cavalry unit was destroyed. 

Allen captured Gettysburg by playing two back-to-back order discs. Units defending in a town is at a big disadvantage. In hindsight I should have vacated the town sooner. At this point, my first batch of reinforcements was rushing towards Gettysburg. 

These were my early game casualties. Losing three artillery units was painful. The red soldier was my only elite infantry unit. 

The stars are the victory points. Triangles are hills, and domes are ridges. Hills and ridges affect the range and line of sight of artillery units. Brown cylinders are disruption markers. When units suffer from disruption, they can't fully vacate the area they are in. At least one unit will be left behind. They are also less effective in battle.  

This was still the afternoon of Day 1. The four white rectangles along the bottom of the board represent the four phases of a day. My (Union) order discs were below the third rectangle, i.e. the afternoon phase. We were re-enacting history. The Confederates had taken the town of Gettysburg, and the Union was making a stand just outside of the town. 

We were in the night phase now. We could not do assaults and we could not fire artillery. Basically no fighting at night. We could only move troops around or do entrenchment. Entrenchment is important for defenders because it makes their positions stronger in defence. In our game I did not do any entrenchment at all, because I was worried about getting flanked. If entrenched units get attacked from a direction other than where they are entrenched against, they suffer a disadvantage in battle. Entrenchment is best when you have a long solid defence line and you can't be easily flanked. 

In the photo above you can see that Allen had captured one victory point. He had many artillery units poised to bombard my units. At this point my plan was to bring my own artillery units to the front to bombard the victory point area he had captured. I wanted to soften his troops up so that I could assault and retake the victory point area. 

This was the morning of Day 2. Allen had six artillery units around the town of Gettysburg. Many of my troops had gathered around the victory point area he held. Since it was a hill, my troops were mostly out of the line of sight of his artillery units. So they were safe from bombardment. However my infantry units on the hill at the lower right were in their line of sight. Four of his artillery units could take aim at them. This was not good. 

I positioned my infantry units near the victory point area, preparing to assault once my artillery did enough damage to Allen's defenders. 

Allen had two artillery units in Gettysburg. 

I had reinforcements along the edge of the board, ready to support. Since there was a stacking limit of four, it wasn't exactly easy to move them to the front and move injured front liners backwards. 

I did not have many artillery units, and despite firing at Cemetery Hill (centre) many times, they did not cause much damage. Allen's artillery units were much more successful when firing at my troops on Culp's Hill (lower right). 

At the lower right, Allen's troops had now captured Culp's Hill. My two infantry units there had taken heavy losses from his artillery bombardment, and I moved them backwards, leaving a vacuum. My plan was to lure him in, then use fresh troops to attack him. What I miscalculated was he could move in four units and not just two, because of his double orders. Attacking four units was much more difficult. 

The white cylinders are artillery smoke. When artillery units fire, they produce smoke, and this smoke makes them targetable by enemy artillery units. Normally artillery units can only fire at infantry and cavalry units. Whenever your artillery units fire, you need to be prepared that they may now be shot at by enemy artillery units.  

Now that Allen had captured two victory points, I had little choice. I must recapture one victory point before the end of the phase. I had to launch assaults. So we didn't have Pickett's Charge in our game. Instead it was the Union which launched an almost suicidal attack. 

Unfortunately I failed in my assaults, and Allen rewrote history. After the game, we both agreed that the Union should not have retreated from Culp's Hill at the bottom right, despite the heavy losses. After all I still had many soldiers rushing to the scene and I could afford the losses. Many of Allen's soldiers were further away and would require more actions to be moved to the frontline. The other problem was I didn't make good use of entrenchment. It would have helped me defend better and reduce losses.

We found out we had made a mistake on assaults. We had made some illegal and overly powerful assaults. Normally only two units can assault, so it is quite an iffy matter. Only the Confederates can use double orders to get four units to assault at the same time. This means entrenchment is quite powerful. 

The Thoughts

Gettysburg operates at two layers - the command blocks and order discs layer, and the actual actions on the map layer. The command system simulates the difference in capabilities between the Confederates and the Union. The Union is somewhat restricted and has to handle this aspect carefully, to avoid wasting actions. It is always under pressure to quickly use up command blocks deployed, so that order discs can be freed up. This results in few Union command blocks being in play at any one time. The Confederates do not suffer from this limitation. 

The command system also creates a timing aspect to the game. To start getting anything done anywhere on the board, it always takes two turns. One turn for placing a command block and another for placing an order disc. Once you have a command block, you can place order discs turn after turn to activate your troops, until the command block is used up. The higher numbered command blocks are more efficient, because after spending one turn placing it, you can spend the next five turns executing orders. 

The second layer of actual actions on the map include marching, fighting, bombarding and getting entrenched. Many factors affect how effectively your units fight, and you are constantly trying to create conditions beneficial to them. There is a fair bit to digest. It took us a few phases to get comfortable with the whole battle resolution procedure. 

The game mechanisms do a good representation of warfare of that age, so you feel engrossed. The setup, terrain and winning condition drive the players to behave like their historical counterparts. That can be good and bad. Good because of historical accuracy and the game feeling right. Bad because sometimes you wonder whether decisions are already made for you and you are just following a script. Are you playing the game or is the game playing you? Is there enough replayability? I think despite a natural tendency for that fishhook defence line to form around the victory point areas, there is still some variability due to how each assault and artillery bombardment can turn out differently. You need to adjust and replan accordingly. There is still variability within the overarching strategic situation. 

The Union will play defensively, making full use of defensive tactics, since it has no time pressure. It also needs to play carefully and manage the disadvantages imposed on it. The Confederates are the fun and aggressive side to play, but the onus is on them to capture two victory points before time runs out. 

This is not a game you want to play many times repeatedly. It is the same battle after all, with a fixed setup. It is good to bring out once in a while, to relive and possibly change this turning point battle in the American Civil War. 

Sunday 4 October 2020


The Game

Vinhos (which means "wines" in Portugese), is one of Vital Lacerda's earliest designs. He is a popular game designer from Portugal and he specialises in heavy Eurogames. The version of Vinhos I played was the 2010 first edition. In 2016 a deluxe edition was published and it was slightly different from the first edition. 

This is the main game board. You play business owners producing and selling wine. Your actions are all related to making wine, submitting them to fairs, and selling them to earn money and fame. 

Every player has a player board, with enough space for four estates. The three slots in the upper half of an estate are for vineyards and wineries, and the lower half is its storage yard. The storage yard initially only stores up to two years' worth of production. It can be upgraded to a cellar to store up to four years' worth of production. Having a proper cellar improves the wine quality too. 

These nine spaces at the centre of the board indicate the nine types of actions you get to perform. To perform an action, simply move your pawn to the corresponding space. Normally your pawn may only move 1 step (including diagonally). If you move further than that, you pay $1. If you go to space with other pawns, you pay $1 to each owner of these pawns. 

This chart is also a countdown timer. You only play 6 rounds. Notice there are six spaces with circles numbered 1 and 2. These indicate the two actions you get to perform every round. By default you only have 12 actions in the whole game. There is a way to perform additional actions. The wooden pawn is the progress marker. If your pawn lands in the same space as the wooden pawn, you pay $1 to the bank. 

This is a map of Portugal, with 8 regions. With 3 players, one region is out of play. You buy vineyards from the regions. Vineyards produce either red wine or white wine. You may only buy the topmost vineyard of a stack. Vineyards from each region come with a different special power. 

This section of the board is the bank. On the left you have your account balance. On the right is a status indicating whether you are taking a loan and need to pay interest every round, or you have a fixed deposit and will earn interest every round. When you sell wine, you don't receive cash. The money goes to your bank account first. You have to visit the bank to withdraw cash. In the 2016 deluxe version this mechanism is removed. Money is very tight in Vinhos. You must spend carefully. At game end, your account balance may give you victory points. See the numbers on the white shields. 

These three rows represent the three managers of the wine fair. The fair is held three times throughout the game. When you submit a wine for the fair, if it meets the criteria set by the managers, you get to place your barrels in the rows corresponding to the criteria you meet. Barrels here can be used in two ways. Firstly, you may spend wine to perform an extra action. Secondly, you may lock a barrel to score points. White shields mean points scored at game end, while red shields mean points scored immediately. 

The table on the left is for exporting wine. The numbers in the able specify the wine quality required. The numbers on the right are points you score immediately when you export. The numbers at the top are scored at game end, depending on who has the most barrels in the column. 

The four stacks of tiles on the right are the wine experts. They give you various special abilities, e.g. moving your pawn without needing to pay. They can also increase your fame level at fairs. 

My estate at the top left has one vineyard and two wineries, and both wineries are manned. I have also built a cellar, so I can store wine for as long as four rounds. My second estate at the top right is new. I only have one vineyard, and it is from a different region from the first estate. The border colour of the vineyard is different from that in the first estate. 

The Play

I did a 3-player game with Allen and Han. Han had played the deluxe version before, while Allen and I were new. 

One thing we felt throughout the game was the scarcity of actions. There were many things we could do and wanted to do, but we didn't have enough actions, and we didn't have enough money either. So we had to choose. We had to let go of some of our wishes. Every Euro was precious. We were reluctant to give even 1 Euro to another guy for moving our pawn to an occupied action space. We had to do forward planning, thinking a few steps ahead, because it helped control money spent on moving pawns. We tried to anticipate what others would do. We tried to plan the movement of our pawns to minimise skipping and running into other pawns. 

The fairs are designed to encourage competition, and all of us spent effort jostling for fame. The fame level is not reset between fairs, so if you grab an early lead, you may be able to maintain that lead for the rest of the game. Points to be gained at the fairs keep increasing, so the fairs are hard to resist. I didn't do very well at the fairs, and by the third one, I decided to give up. I didn't even submit a wine, because I saved my wines for other scoring opportunities and actions.  At the time I considered the victory point difference between first and last positioned players at the third fair. It was 10VP, not insignificant, but if it was going to take so many actions for me to try to catch up, it might not be worthwhile. 

What I decided to focus on instead was export. I produced high quality wines for export, which was a direct way of scoring points. This turned out to be a more efficient way of gaining points for me. Allen and Han later did come to compete, but they didn't invest as much effort. I was a little surprised at the final scoring to find that I won, because I had been struggling with the fairs throughout the game. I had thought I did poorly overall. The exports helped me tremendously. 

The three fairs in the game are held after Round 3, 5 and 6, which means you have less and less time to prepare for each subsequent fair. Now it was the end of Round 5, i.e. we were preparing for the second fair. The wooden pawn was in the second row, third column. 

This was Han's player board. He owned four estates! He produced a lot of wine. However he said his problem was they were mostly of low quality. 

This was Allen's player board. Both he and I owned fewer estates and didn't produce as much as Han. However we had spent more effort on increasing quality. Allen had cellars at both his estates. He also had two wineries at both. 

The Thoughts

Vinhos is a development game. It is satisfying to gradually build your own wine business. There is a strong feeling of scarcity in this game, in terms of both actions and money. So many things you want to do, but so little time. This is a good sign. There are difficult decisions to make - meaningful decisions. You really have to think carefully about how you spend every action and every cent. This is an open information game, so things can slow down sometimes due to analysis paralysis. Try not to take too long on your turn. Do your planning on other players' turns. Anyhow, you do need to plan a few turns ahead.