Thursday 31 December 2020

my 2020

Looking back at 2020... okay that doesn't sound like an appealing idea. Indeed it has been an unusual year, all over the world. For me personally it has been a year with some big changes. I took a very different career path. I wrote a book. There has been, and there still is, much uncertainty. Amidst such uncertainty, boardgames (or any hobby) can be a soothing balm. A moment of escape. A quite solace. We still need to face new challenges every day, and sometimes things don't turn out the way we hope. Having a hobby which gives us some respite is good, maybe necessary even. Spending time with friends and family helps remind us of what's important in our lives. Not that we want to run away from our problems. Taking a break can help. Sometimes we gain new perspectives. Sometimes an unexpected idea presents itself. 

In 2020, I played 57 different games. I had about 300 plays in total. Both these numbers are lower than 2019, but not by much. What dropped significantly was the number of new games played - only 20 this year. This was the lowest since I got into the hobby in a serious way in 2004. The number of boardgame sessions I joined plummeted, and so did the opportunities to try new games. I don't buy many new games. For quite a few years most new games I played were friends' games and not my own. The number of games purchased this year was also a new low - just four! 

I wonder whether boardgame publishers are doing better due to the pandemic. Since many people are stuck at home, are they buying more boardgames to play at home? Or are people buying more computer games? If people are stuck at home with their families, maybe family games are doing better than heavy gamer games. Hardcore gamers probably play more with friends than with family, and need to attend meetups to play. 

I had three dimes in 2020. In addition to the evergreens Ascension and Star Realms, Race for the Galaxy made a come-back, because I have been playing the iPad version against AI's. The app is well-made, and the AI's are decent opponents. 

The four games I bought in 2020 are Bus, Ticket to Ride: London, Ticket to Ride: Japan and Baseball Highlights 2045. Bus because Splotter. London and Japan because both places have special meaning to my family. Michelle used to live in London, near Elephant & Castle, which is featured on the game map. As a family we have visited Japan and enjoyed our trip immensely. I bought Baseball Highlights 2045 because it is by Mike Fitzgerald, who designed the Mystery Rummy series, which I enjoyed. 

I only had a handful of new-to-me games this year, and none particularly stood out. What was a little different from past years was I managed to bring out more of my own older games. Often as boardgame hobbyists we are so busy going after the new and shiny, we neglect our own games gathering dust at home. This year, it has been a pleasure revisiting some of my own games I had not played for some time. Boardgames is not always about pursuing new novelties. This year I also managed to play some good and more recent games which I had missed previously, like Nippon, The Voyages of Marco Polo, and Vinhos. Due to the pandemic, I had fewer opportunities to play face-to-face with other gamers, so I played some games online, and these were available. 

New-to-me games in 2020: 

  1. Bus
  2. Keyflower
  3. Madeira
  4. Exit: The Game - The Mysterious Museum
  5. Exit: The Game - The Sinister Mansion
  6. Exit: The Game - Dead Man on the Orient Express
  7. Ticket To Ride: London 
  8. Nippon
  9. Endeavor: Age of Sail
  10. Pax Transhumanity
  11. Ticket To Ride: Japan 
  12. Age of Steam: Argentina
  13. Kuih Muih
  14. Crystal Palace
  15. Vinhos
  16. Gettysburg
  17. The Voyages of Marco Polo
  18. AIEOU
  19. The Crew
  20. Baseball Highlights 2045

I am designing my own game now. I started this late 2019. I have been playing boardgames for many years, and this was not the first time I dabbled in designing a game myself. Prior to this I had tried doing this at least twice, but these previous attempts eventually petered out and came to nought. For a long time I just stuck to enjoying playing, and did not contemplate making my own game. I was happy enough that way. This time I decided to go for it again because I wanted to create something I could call my own. It is a vanity project. I am doing it for fun and I'm not trying to make a lot of money from it. It's about enjoying the process, and creating something that others will have fun with too. 

I intend to go all the way with this one, likely self publishing it. I want to see the physical game in my hands. I have created a prototype and I have done some playtesting with different groups. More playtesting is needed. I'm in no hurry. I want to do this properly. The working title of the game is F My Life. It is a game about questionable life decisions. It's a little cheeky and has some dark humour. 

Friday 25 December 2020

boardgaming in photos: Star Realms, Through the Ages, Race for the Galaxy

5 Dec 2020. I have bought most of the expansions of Star Realms on iOS. It has been my fragmented time game, together with Ascension, and I have been playing it for years. Recently I started playing the challenges again. I had played it before but it did not sustain my interest for long then. This time I surprised myself a little by completing all challenges I have bought. This streak didn't start well because I started from the beginning, and soon got bored because those early challenges only had the old, basic cards. I jumped to the latest challenge, so that I could play with the new-to-me cards and new mechanisms. That turned out to be much more interesting. When I completed one campaign, I moved backwards to the one before it. Eventually I reached the previously half-completed Chapter 3, and finished it. 

The fun thing about playing against the AI is the game moves quickly and you get immediate feedback. Instant gratification. The challenges are not easy to beat, and they come with interesting twists, like different starting decks and rules variants. 

This screenshot above is from Chapter 7. This was the boss. It only had 1 life point (technically that's called Authority), and it could not ever increase its life points. However it had three outposts protecting it, and each outpost had 20 life points. To destroy one outpost, I needed to accumulate 20 points of damage within the same turn. That was a challenge. I started with 50 life points, but most of the time I couldn't deal any damage. I could only take hits. At first I tried to focus on Trade Federation (blue) cards, which would give me life points. I had hoped that they would help me last longer. That didn't work out for me. What eventually worked was focusing on increasing my firepower as quickly as possible. Once I built a deck that could generate 20 damage within one turn, it wasn't hard to do it a second and a third time. This boss was one tough and interesting boss. 

This was the boss from Chapter 4. Every two turns it gained one Gambit (those purple cards). Gambits are small advantages which you can decide when to activate. Individually they don't look like much, but when the boss is getting one every two turns and amassing a lot of them, these small advantages add up to create quite a formidable opponent. It took me many attempts to beat this boss. This screenshot above was from when I finally managed to defeat it. I forced it to discard 5 cards, i.e. its whole hand. After being bullied by it so many times, this was sweet revenge. 

When I was finally able to defeat it, I needed this many bases in my deck. 

12 Dec 2020. I have been playing some Race for the Galaxy on the iPad recently, against AI's. They provide decent challenge. They certainly do better than me in fighting for the objectives. Or maybe the problem is with me - I don't prioritise the objectives enough. I tend to place more importance in making my cards jive, and I am less willing to tweak my play towards the objectives. The AI's are good. Once one of them did a takeover of my planet. I should have paid more attention. 

I ran into some crashes when I played Through the Ages on the iPad. After I restarted the app, it crashed again when I tried to load my game. That was a bummer. I was halfway through a game and could not continue. Is my iPad too old for this? I don't remember this crashing problem the last time I played. Later on I discovered a workaround. I had to play some other game for a while before it would work again. I experienced two crashes, and in both cases by playing some other game then returning, I was able to resume. 

I find that the AI's place high priority in governments. They are willing to grab government techs which are still far on the card row, i.e. they are more expensive to claim. The AI's are also willing to take the revolution path. If you don't have enough science points to change government peacefully, you can pay a discounted price but sacrifice all civil actions for one turn. This is called a revolution. It is understandable that the AI's find this worthwhile. Better forms of government do make a huge difference. You can increase both your civil actions and military actions. You will be doing more stuff than before. 

In this game I emphasised military, because I knew it was my weakness. Although I have played many games of Through the Ages against my wife Michelle, using a physical copy, we did not use the military aspect much, other than for colonisation and some events. I'm sure you understand why. So I was never good in handling military. In this game I remained one of the strongest civilisations most of the time, and even attacked others sometimes (unsuccessfully, unfortunately). My colonisation went well enough. I had three colonies, one of which was a gift from Columbus. Other than Columbus, all my other leaders were science leaders. My technology remained in the forefront most of the time. 

The yellow and red players started points (a.k.a. culture) generation early, and were leading in points most of the time. I was furthest behind all the while and only started catching up in Age III. However by game end I had the highest per turn points being generated. Sid Meier and movie theatres contributed the most to this. 

When the game ended, there were 6 event cards to be resolved, and they were all scoring cards. At this point after scoring the first card, I (green) was the leading player. 

However when we got to the 5th event card, Yellow overtook me! For this particular event card, you look at how much science, food, stone or culture you produce. You score points based on what you produce the least of. Near game end, I had intentionally dismantled a farm, because I felt I didn't need to produce more food. My food production was low, and this hurt me. The version of Through the Ages I am familiar with doesn't have this event card. The iPad version is based on the newer board game. So I was not prepared for this event. 

When we got to the 6th and last event, I was overjoyed to have reclaimed the throne! 

Then I suddenly saw Yellow being awarded 6 more points, just enough to overtake me again. What is going on? Is the AI cheating or what? I audited what was going on, and realised it was all the fault of Bill Gates. Yeah yeah, I know I know. It's all his fault. One of his abilities is to score points upon retirement or at game end based on the player's labs. Yellow's final 6 points came from him. Bill Gates  too is in the newer version of the game, and not the version I own. That's was why I was initially confused. 

Mr Bill Gates. 

Tuesday 22 December 2020

Merry Christmas

 Here's wishing everyone joy, laughter, and a better year ahead! 

Details about this character

Friday 18 December 2020

boardgaming in photos: Ticket To Ride Nordic Countries, Ticket to Ride Marklin, Traumfabrik (Dream Factory)

5 Dec 2020. Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries is for  2 or 3 players only. It was first published in 2007, and over the years it has been kept in print. I guess it continues to be popular. Or maybe it's the whole series that's popular, thus helping every variant and expansion. Elder daughter Shee Yun is not so keen about boardgames nowadays, but younger daughter Chen Rui is usually willing to play. So we brought this out for a spin when there was only three of us. The player colours in this variant game is unusual - black, white and purple. I told Chen Rui this game features Santa Claus - that guy on the box cover. 

Christmas is coming, and this game has much Christmas atmosphere. 

This is a standalone, complete game. You don't need to use components from the base game. On all the train cards you get snow, which is nice. In Nordic Countries, jokers (locomotives) can only be used on tunnel routes or ferry routes. You can't use them on normal routes. Because of this, when taking a face-up joker you are not considered to have taken two train cards. 

All the main cities are in the south. When we started our game, all of us needed access to some of these main cities, so we were a little nervous about getting blocked. 

I (white) had initially planned to head north via a coastal path along the Atlantic Ocean. However my way was blocked by Michelle (purple) so I had to switch to the other path along the Baltic Sea. Chen Rui (black) took the same path to head north, which made me bite my nails. We might get into each other's ways. 

On that middle path Chen Rui (black) and I (white) had claimed different stretches because we didn't want to get blocked. We tried to claim routes as quickly as we could, lest the other was collecting the same colours and aiming for the same routes. Claiming routes in such a matter is dangerous. All these disjointed stretches can be easily blocked and cut off. 

One special element about this map is that 9-train grey route at the top left. It is worth 27 points! This is a regular route, which means you can't use jokers. However there is a special rule allowing you to treat any four cards as one card of any colour you want. When we played, Chen Rui contemplated claiming this route. Unfortunately by the time the game ended, she didn't manage to do it. Two turns before the game ended, if she had claimed one of the face-up green trains, by her final turn she would have enough green trains and other train cards to claim this 9-train route. Unfortunately on that crucial second last turn she chose to draw cards blind from the deck, and she didn't manage to get any useful cards. Had she chosen differently, she would have won the game, beating me by 1 point. 

6 Dec 2020. Traumfabrik is a Reiner Knizia design first published in 2000. The first version was in German, and the setting was movie-making from the 1930's to the 1950's. Since then the game has been reprinted in different versions, including an English version Hollywood Blockbuster. The English version used more modern movies, directors, actors and actresses, but in order to avoid legal issues, all the names were tweaked, and cartoonish caricatures were used instead of proper portraits or photos. I didn't like that. Between Traumfabrik going out of print and the publication of the second version, a fan created this version above using movies circa the 1990's. I liked this and could relate to these movies much better than the original, so I downloaded the files and made my own copy. 

The game is played over four rounds, and each round has eight auctions, in which you bid for various movie industry professionals in order to make movies. You bid for directors, actors and actresses, cameramen, special effect experts and musicians. Different screenplays require different combinations of professionals to complete. 

The game has a closed economy. If you win a set of tiles (professionals), the money you pay is divided equally among the other players. So the money only flows between the players, none coming in and none leaving the system. The fourth and eighth auctions of a round are handled differently. These auctions are called parties. As many tiles as the number of players are drawn, and you take turns claiming one tile for free. The turn order is determined by the total star power of actors (and actresses) you have recruited. So there is good reason to recruit many actors. First pick is always desirable. It is more likely you'll get something you need, or something of better quality. 

I had the honour of producing Lord of the Rings and I managed to get Peter Jackson to direct it! In this game it is not often that things turn out like in real life. Lord of the Rings had 18 stars, which meant at game end it would score 18 points. It became the best movie when it was released, and remained so until the end of the game. It helped me win two best movie awards (5 points each) for Rounds 2 and 3. In Round 4, there was no overall best movie award. Instead it was broken down into categories - best drama, best adventure and best comedy. Lord of the Rings won best adventure. 

Austin Powers being directed by Ang Lee was rather questionable I admit...

These were Chen Rui's movies. She had just completed Titanic. That day we had just joked about that "draw me like one of your French girls" scene, and she had complained about that huge floating door scene. By the end of the game, she managed to complete all three of her initial movies and also all those she drew during the course of the game. Not a single one wasted. She also had the most star power throughout the game and always had first pick at parties. She won the game. Although she did not make the best movie ever, the average quality of her movies was high. 

That clapboard on the right is the start player marker. 

These were my movies. Lord of the Rings was respectable, but the others were so-so. I didn't manage to complete Chicago (leftmost). If I had managed it, I might have won. 

The Marklin edition of Ticket to Ride was a collaboration with Marklin, a model train company. Every train card in the game features a different model train locomotive or carriage. All of them are gorgeous. The most unique part of this version is the passengers. Every player has three passengers, and throughout the game you have three opportunities to score points using your passengers. During game setup, you place victory point chips on every city on the board. Some cities only get one chip, some get multiple chips of different values. During play, when you claim a route between two cities, you may place one passenger at one of these cities. On your turn, you get one more option - to move your passenger and claim one victory point chip from every city he visits. Normally he can only use your train tracks, but for each passenger card you spend, he can use one track of another player. The tension in the passenger element of the game is between spending time to build long paths so that your passengers can collect more chips, and using your passengers earlier than other players so that you get to claim the higher valued chips and claim more chips before your opponents snatch them up.   

All score markers have an M on them, for Marklin, but I always associate that M with M&M chocolate. The player colours in this game are different from standard Ticket to Ride - black, white, red, yellow and purple. 

The train cards are absolutely stunning. The card at the top left is a passenger card. That joker (locomotive) at the bottom right is a special type of joker which can only be used for routes of length 4 or more. When you claim such a joker from the face-up pool, you are not considered to have claimed two cards. I think that's a good deal! 

In the early game, Michelle (red) and Chen Rui (black) developed their tracks in the west (bottom of the photo), and things looked precarious for them as they seemed to be overlapping a lot. Shee Yun (yellow) and I (white) developed our networks along the central north-south path. Shee Yun was rather unlucky in this game, and kept getting blocked by either Michelle or me. It wasn't intentional. We did need those routes which she had intended to claim. Michelle started using her passengers early and collected many chips. 

Towards late game we expanded towards the eastern (top of the photo) part of the map. Chen Rui (black) extended her network to Berlin mainly because she wanted to get those high valued chips there. She eventually claimed a 7VP and a 6VP chip from Berlin, using two separate passenger runs. When we did end-game scoring, she did well in chips despite not having many of them. 

Tuesday 15 December 2020

boardgaming in photos: Agricola, Love Letter, Forbidden Island

28 Nov 2020. My wife Michelle and I used to play a lot of Agricola. At the time our children were still very young. We would wait till they were asleep, and sneak to the study to play on the floor. We played swiftly. I bought the Gamer Deck expansion, which contains many Occupation and Minor Improvement cards. I still have not played with all of them. I also bought the major expansion Farmers of the Moor. We did play that a few times. Now that we were revisiting Agricola, we left out the Moor expansion first to allow us to ease back in gently. 

Despite a long time away from the game, we were still able to play quickly. We easily grasped the tempo again. In this particular game, my Minor Improvements were not very exciting, but I had a great set of Occupations. The most useful one was the Wet Nurse. When I built two new rooms at once, I immediately had two babies. For a few rounds I had 4 family members while Michelle still had only two to work with. That made a huge difference. 

I eventually expanded my home to five rooms. At this point I was still living in a wooden house, but later on I managed to upgrade to a clay house. I had hoped to upgrade to a stone house, but I didn't have enough time to do so. Michelle managed that and scored handsomely for her stone house. 

These in the top row were my Occupations. The first one, the Tutor, gave me 1VP per subsequently played Occupation. Since I had many good Occupations, having him was a godsend. I had planned to play many Occupations anyhow, so playing him first was a great bonus. At the rightmost, the Field Watchman and the Sower helped me with growing grain and growing vegetables respectively. Because of them, I fared well in both areas. 

29 Nov 2020. Even when Love Letter was all the rage, I didn't intend to try it, because how much fun could a tiny 16-card game be? It was because of this lovely fan-made Adventure Time version that I downloaded the files and made my own copy to play. I promptly fell in love with the game. I am thankful that I did not miss this work of genius. 

I did 4-player games with my family. My children are familiar with the game but Michelle is not very familiar with it. Sometimes elder daughter Shee Yun would deduce that someone was likely holding a certain card, and she would get it right, and Michelle would be flabbergasted. I teased Shee Yun for being Sherlock, and then said to Michelle, "It's elementary, Watson", before explaining how Shee Yun worked that out. 

Finn and Jake are best friends. You can use Jake to peek at the card of an opponent, and then on your next turn use Finn to guess his card and thus eliminate him. Technically you are no longer guessing because you've already seen his card. Your opponent will be forced to hurriedly play whatever card he is holding, because if he doesn't you will eliminate him next turn. 

Getting the Princess card early is bad. You can't play her because that eliminates you. So you will be forced to play whatever other card you draw on your turn. You don't have a choice. The Princess is only good if you get her near the end of the round, because it is the highest valued card. In this particular round, I drew both the LSP cards. LSP protects you from all attacks, until the start of your next turn. It was handy having LSP protecting my Princess. With 4 players, two turns would already be half a game round. 

I always play to 3 points, regardless of the number of players. I think playing longer than that makes the game outstay its welcome. Normally with 4 players you play to 4 points. With fewer than four, you need to score even more points to win. In this particular game, all four of us reached 2 points! The next game round would be the grand finale. That was exciting! 

Later on we had one game when Chen Rui won three game rounds straight without anyone else scoring a single point. That was the other extreme. 

In one particular game round Michelle played four Finns! As we played, we developed one theory. If a person plays Finn early, his other card is likely also Finn. It is not a good idea to play Finn early because there is little information available. So a person wouldn't want to play Finn unless he has no choice, e.g. both his cards being Finns. It is also possible his other card is Princess Bubblegum, which he can't play.  

Forbidden Island. Younger daughter Chen Rui remembers this as being a stressful and difficult game. We played with three players - Chen Rui, Michelle and I. We played at normal difficulty level. It turned out to be easier than she expected and we won without too much trouble. 

Location tiles showing the monochrome blue side are flooded. If they get flooded again they will disappear forever - removed from the game. When in the flooded state, it is still possible to save them. Just perform the shore-up action to flip them back to the dry side (multi-coloured). 

Sunk tiles sometimes break the island up and thus disconnect paths. When this happens, you will be forced to rely on special action cards or special abilities to move across the straits. It doesn't necessarily doom you, but it will make life more difficult. In our game, the helipad was at the top left, and we did our best to prevent it from getting cut off. Once we retrieved all four treasures we would need to head in that direction, get on the helicopter, and get off the island.  

Location tiles on the edges and out of the way may not seem important, but it is still useful to save them and keep the island intact as long as possible. This buys you time somewhat.   

We played a second game, this time at hard difficulty level. Things didn't go so well this time. The timing of our card draw was poor. We were forced to sacrifice green cards so that we could collect enough cards of another colour to retrieve the treasure of that colour, before we returned to collect green cards again. It took too much time and we couldn't get that last treasure before the whole island disappeared beneath the waves, sending us all to the bottom of the ocean. 

Friday 11 December 2020



The Game

Hansa is an old game, published by Uberplay in 2004. Uberplay no longer exists, but back in the day it released quite a few decent games, including China, my favourite incarnation of Michael Schacht's Web of Power. Hansa is also a Michael Schacht design, with a very 90's and 00's style. Simple mechanisms, yet having plenty of tactical decisions and much player interaction. 

A game set up for 4 players. 

After seeding the board with initial goods discs, the rest of them are organised into five face-down stacks. Goods on the board will be claimed by players. They are worth points. As they get depleted, players can decide to replenish from these stacks. Once you touch the 5th stack, the game will end after the current round. 

The merchant ship starts in Copenhagen. You are all merchants aboard this same ship. On your turn, you play captain and decides where the ship will go and how many cities it will visit. You can decide to stay put too. The ship must follow the paths on the board. At some cities, you have two or three options. At others, like Kalmar on the right side of this photo, there is only one outgoing route. 

At each city, including the city you are in at the start of your turn, you may perform at most one action. There are three action types. The first one is simply to buy a goods disc. You just take one from the city. If one player has the most market stalls, you pay $1 to him, else you pay $1 to the bank. If you are the one with the most market stalls, you pay yourself $1, which means the goods disc is free. 

The second action type is to sell goods. To do so, you must have at least two goods discs of the same colour. You may sell discs in two or more colours, but for each colour you must have at least two discs. To sell, you must also have a market stall (those small wooden discs in the cities in player colours), because the selling action consumes a market stall. The action of selling simply flips your goods discs face-down. It increases their victory point values. At game end, a face-up goods disc is worth 1VP, but a face-down goods disc is worth the number of barrels plus 1. So a 3-barrel goods disc will be worth 4VP. 

One important impact of selling goods is you may force other players to lose goods discs. If the colour you sell in is being collected by others, they must lose one goods disc of that colour. This can be painful. When you collect goods discs, you must watch out for signs of danger. 

The third action type is to set up market stalls (those discs in player colours). You discard a goods disc to gain as many market stalls as the number of barrels on the disc. 

When the game ends, you score victory points for only two things - your goods discs, and your market stall presence. At every city where you have market stalls, you gain 2VP. If you are the only player with market stalls in a city, you score 4VP instead of 2VP. 

The goods discs come in 6 colours. With fewer players, you use fewer colours. 

Replenishing the board is a decision you have to make at the start of your turn. If you decide to replenish, you must do it for all empty spaces on the board. The cost is $1. 

The Play

Hansa is not new to me. I wasn't blogging yet when I first played it, so I have never written about it. Most of the game is quite tactical (i.e. short-term). You can't really plan too far ahead. You just analyse the board situation and make the most of it. You must consider the board situation you will leave for the next player. You don't want to leave too good a situation for him. You have to watch what your opponents are trying to do. 

Setting up market stalls is the strategic, i.e. longer-term consideration, part of the game. You want to spread out a little, so that you won't get into a situation where it's hard to get things done. If you lack market stalls in a certain section of the board, and you keep finding the ship there on your turn, you will have a tougher time selling goods, and you won't enjoy those free goods or those $1 payments from other players. Setting up market stalls is board positioning that you have to plan for. 

I played a full 4-player game with my family. The rules are simple and there is not a lot to explain. You have to really sit down to play to get a better feel of how the actions relate to one another. 

Even though we were careful in watching what colours others were collecting, we still got into situations where we were forced to discard discs because others were selling goods in our colours. In the early game everyone tried to sell as efficiently as possible. Only after the first few rounds we started realising the importance of setting up market stalls. They provided longer-term and ongoing benefits. Selling goods consumed market stalls, so we needed to create more market stalls. 

The Thoughts

Hansa reminds me of snooker. You are not just trying to do what's best for yourself on your turn. You must also create the worst possible situation for the next player. Send the ship to some corner where he has no market stalls, or where there are no goods to pick up anymore. Force him to spend money to replenish. He might get lucky and draw a goods disc that he wants, but it's usually worth trying. You can also send him to cities with goods he doesn't want. Every player should try to screw the next player. This is that kind of game.   

It feels good to revisit this very 90's / 00's German game. Minimalistic yet clever.