Sunday, 17 October 2021

Beyond the Sun - Level 4 tech

 

On 25 Sep 2021 Allen, Han and I played Beyond the Sun again, online. We had played this before, but had never managed to develop a Level 4 tech, so we were keen to attempt that. This time we succeeded. It was Han who developed the Level 4 tech. I wanted to do it too, and if I had insisted, I would have been able to achieve it. At one crucial junction, I picked a colonisation action over a research action. I knew that to forgo research meant I would not likely be able to reach the Level 4 tech before the game ended. I decided to colonise because by doing so I would be first to have four colonies. That would give me achievement points. You can't have everything. That's life. Once anyone claims the first achievement, you know the end is nigh. 

One of the techs Allen developed this game allowed players to jump (move their spaceships) then earn ore if they manage to wrest control from other players. This was a powerful tech that encouraged expansion and aggression. When you wrest control of star systems from others, you are also removing their farm or mine tokens, and adding your own. This is highly lucrative, killing three birds with one stone! Even peaceniks like me couldn't resist the temptation to go on the offensive when the time was right. No I'm not joking, I am a peacenik!

At the top left you see two star system cards instead of one. This was due to a special event giving us an extra star system, which was considered one jump away from the normal star system next to it. This extra star system works the same way as regular star systems. You can control it, place your farm or mine on it, and colonise it. However once colonised, you don't draw another star system card as a replacement. You will return to just having four star systems on the map. 

This was the Level 4 tech which Han eventually developed - Parallel Universe Generator. It is not easy to get to Level 4. In this game if you want to develop a Level 2 tech, you need to have first developed a tech to open a worker placement spot to do that. Same thing for a Level 3 tech and a Level 4 tech. Quite a few stars (figuratively) have to be deliberately aligned. Also, in order to aim for a Level 4 tech in a specific position of the tech tree, you need to make sure you research all the prerequisite techs. Often not all of them align with your strategy, so you will be picking suboptimal research options for the sake of building your research pyramid to reach that Level 4 tech. It takes focus and discipline to get to Level 4. If you research too broadly, you won't be able to build up the pyramid in time before the game ends. 

Level 4 techs give a big boost to your score. The one that was picked in our particular game gave a one-time special ability, which helped greatly in scoring. Having learned this tech also gave an additional scoring criteria at the end of the game. This basically meant two new ways of scoring from a single tech. Being able to research a Level 4 tech in itself is an achievement, and achievements are worth points too. Going for a Level 4 tech is a "do or do not, there is no try" thing. If you want to do it, you have to be committed and not stray from the path. Otherwise you might waste much effort only to fail due to the lack of focus. 

Sunday, 26 September 2021

revisiting Le Havre

 

I had not played Le Havre for quite a while when I booted up the iOS version recently. This is a 2008 game from Uwe Rosenberg, previously famous for the Bohnanza series, and now famous for Agricola. Le Havre was his second heavy boardgame after Agricola. Agricola was an important milestone in his game design career. Prior to that he mainly designed light card games, so Agricola was a very different beast from what he had been well known for up to that point. Post-Agricola he had many more heavy boardgames, and many told stories about farming. Later he made many games with polyominoes, like A Feast for Odin and Patchwork

I have always enjoyed the story told by Le Havre. There is a more or less fixed set of buildings in the game, and they will generally get constructed in a particular order, reflecting how this port city developed through the years. On the other hand, this can make the game feel a little scripted. Every game a small number of buildings are randomly determined. That can change things up a little, but there are only a handful of such buildings, and they don't always have a big impact on the game. Despite the general trend in the game, players do make many tactical decisions that create variations in how each game unfolds. Depending on the strategies you pursue, the buildings you construct will differ. You will find many tactical decisions to be made, and sometimes these lead you to pursue certain mid and long term strategies. An abundance of fish due to being ignored by other players may tempt me to grab them all, and once I have so much fish, I may decide to construct the fishing related buildings, and eventually focus on the fishing industry in the early game. 

The accumulation of resources on the offer spaces is similar to Agricola. When resources pile up, it becomes harder and harder to resist the temptation. Also as the number of buildings increases, the options for players also increase. Some early game buildings will become less useful. Towards game end there will still be competition for the more powerful buildings that are needed by most players in the late game. 


I was a little nervous when I booted the game up on my iPad to play it again after some time away from it. I remembered the AI's weren't particularly strong. However I knew I was rusty too. I was afraid of the ego hit if I lost to the AI's. I played carefully and seriously, paying close attention to what the AI's did and meticulously planning my own actions. I avoided loans as much as I could. I did remember that loans weren't that bad. The interest wasn't high. It was out of instinct that I tried to minimise taking loans. I probably should have trusted my memory more than my instinct. Due to not having loans for most of the game, I missed out the cash flow benefit that comes with owing money. In Le Havre, sometimes when you visit other players' buildings, you have to pay an entry fee. You can't borrow money for this purpose. The banks won't approve your loan application if you state this as your reason. However if you happen to be in debt and fail to pay interest, they automatically give you another loan. You can use the money to pay interest, and then have some spare cash for your cash flow. I missed out on this cash flow side benefit because I wasn't in debt most of the time. As a result there were quite a few times I wanted to use an AI's building but could not. 

The screenshot above shows the buildings I managed to construct. I didn't construct the harbour or any of the wharves. Not that I didn't want to. The AI's beat me to them. I had to pay them to use their harbour and wharves. In Le Havre, every player has only one worker. It may seem bizarre how this could work as a worker placement game. The more recent Beyond the Sun also has a worker placement element where players each have only one worker. In Le Havre, despite the low worker count, you often get blocked from the buildings you want to visit. The other players' workers can squat at a building for a very long time. If on their turns they decide to claim resources instead of using their workers, their workers will stay where they are, and you have to hope for the next turn. Sometimes the squatter moves away, only for the building to be used by another player before your turn comes around. 

You are not even guaranteed the use of your own building. Sometimes you patiently stockpile the resources required to construct a building which you intend to use frequently, only to have another player send his worker immediately after you construct it. As the owner, if you are desperate enough, you can sell the building to the city council. This removes the squatter and allows you to send your own worker. The painful part is you will be selling your building for half its value. Also once the building is no longer yours, you will have to pay an entry fee to use it. 

Thankfully I managed to beat the AI's. It was a tiny margin, only 5pts, but a win is a win. 

Friday, 17 September 2021

Kaki Lima


The Game

Kaki Lima is a Malaysian design, and is set in Georgetown, Penang (Pulau Pinang).  The term kaki lima refers to the five-foot way or walkway in front of the old shops in Penang. These are covered walkways. If you get caught in the rain you can take shelter here. Some hawkers set up stalls here too. 


I was fortunate to be taught the game by Choon Ean the designer herself. We played on Tabletopia.com. The components are slightly different. We have discs for characters and not standees. When setting up the game, you lay all location cards out in a 10x5 grid, leaving four empty impassable spots on rows 2 and 4. Everyone is dealt a mission card, which lists the locations you need to visit and how many points you will score for visiting each of them. You can decide the starting location of your pawn after looking at your mission card. 

On your turn you play cards to move your pawn. Cards have various values and special abilities, e.g. some cards allow you to combine their values with those of another card. When you play your card, you must move the number of steps specified, no more and no fewer. You may not retrace your steps either. By moving about Georgetown, you will fulfil the missions on your mission card, and also do various other things which score points. Once any player completes all missions on his mission card, the game enters the final stage. Everyone takes one more turn, and then the game ends. 


That in the middle is a mission card. The point values vary from 2 to 6 points. The high valued missions usually require you to be at a location together with another player. This at first seems strange. Why would anyone else want to help you complete your mission? One mechanism in the game allows both players to score points when they meet at a meeting point. There is also a mechanism for you to offer a ride to another player when you are en route to a meeting point. The other player being offered a ride may decline, but if there are points to be earned, he may be happy to come along. It can be win-win. 


Location cards with yellow borders are destinations. They grant various bonuses when you visit, e.g. taking an extra turn and clearing a blocked path. Green bordered cards are regular pathways, while red ones are blocked pathways, i.e. impassable. If you clear blocked paths, you will score points at game end. Depending on how many have been cleared by everyone collectively, you will score a bonus. This creates an interesting dynamic among players. If nobody bothers with clearing blocked paths, the points for doing so is not particularly attractive. However if many people do it, the bonus can become lucrative. 

The locations are all real places in Georgetown. Not all are tourist attractions. Many are just everyday places people go to, like the wet market, the local branch of a bank and food stalls. 


These are objective cards, and most specify a list of locations you need to have visited in order to claim them. They are given out on a first come first served basis, so you need to compete with your opponents. 

The score board is pretty.

The Play

The first thing I paid attention to when playing was the locations on my mission card. If they happened to be nearby it would make my life much easier. I needed to have a rough plan how I was going to fulfil them all. I started drawing out an itinerary in my mind. Not set in stone, mind you, just a rough guideline. Having some destinations being far apart is not necessarily a disaster. Some card combinations let you move far, e.g. there's a card which doubles your steps. 

The second thing I paid attention to was the objective cards. I needed to find those which overlapped somewhat with my mission card, so that I could focus on them. These would be low-hanging fruits. The mission cards are a form of countdown controller. You trigger game end when you complete your mission card, so the players have some control over how quickly the game ends. If you command a strong lead, you probably want to rush and complete your mission card as soon as possible, catching your opponents when they are unprepared. If you are falling behind though, you will need to find other ways to catch up before they do the same to you. 

One important way of scoring points I had grossly underestimated was the meeting points. Some location cards are categorised as meeting points. If two or more players meet there, they all score points based on the number of steps they have taken to get there. When you see someone from across the board landing on a meeting point, if you happen to have the right cards to bring you all the way there to meet him, you are going to score many points for that long trip you make. Yes, you will help him score points too, but if he has just taken two steps to get there, you will be more than happy to give him those 2 points. You have to be watchful not to give others such scoring opportunities too. 

Meeting up is sometimes win-win. You probably want to make use of it to create collaborations. By having the hitchhiking mechanism, the game encourages you to create meet-ups with other players. If you can do many meet-ups with many different players, while the others don't do this much, you will gain an advantage. This is very much like trading beans with many people in Bohnanza. Players who isolate themselves from such collaboration will lose out. 

The character designs are flavourful. There are no unique character abilities. It's just different artwork and backstory. 

The photos on the cards are all real places in Penang. This is great as a souvenir for visitors to Penang. 

Player cards all have special powers.

The hand limit is 5. You always draw 1 card at the end of your turn. Some locations let you draw an extra card. 

When we cleared blocked paths, we flipped the card over and placed a green token on it. 

The Thoughts

Prior to playing the game I had expected a very light game. Kaki Lima turned out to be a little meatier than I thought. I'd categorise it as a medium-weight game. It's not that complex. Every turn you are just playing cards to move your pawn. However there are quite a few different aspects you need to keep in mind in order to score points efficiently. You need to remember the missions on your mission card and the locations on the objective cards. You need to watch out for meet-ups. You need to consider whether to clear many blocked paths for the points. The location cards all have powers. There are only a few types of such powers, but it's still something you should consider when you plan your move. For an innocent tourist who has not played modern boardgames, these can take some effort to digest. There are many unique location cards, and it takes some effort to map out this randomly generated Penang before you start your game. 

Kaki Lima is a game with plenty of local flavour. I like the artwork and graphic design and they certainly remind me of my trips to Penang. If you have friends who have visited and like Penang, this is certainly a game you can recommend to them. 

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

boardgaming in photos: Terra Mystica, Ascension, Race for the Galaxy, Res Arcana

 

6 Aug 2021. I played Terra Mystica online. The previous time I played it was a physical copy. My impression of the game then was it wasn't anything particularly outstanding. I could more or less appreciate why it was popular, just that it didn't wow me. It reminded me of The Settlers of Catan, which I thought achieved something similar, perhaps more, with less complexity. You collect resources to construct buildings, which help you generate more resources, so that you can construct even more buildings. You need to compete for space and block your opponents. This time we did a 3-player game, so the space competition was less intense. 

This is a multiple-ways-to-score-points game. You focus a lot on what action scores extra points each round, and you plan your development around them, holding back certain actions until the "right" round to do them, and doing as much of it as possible within that round. It's a little artificial. You do it because the scoring tiles tell you to, not because it fits into your overall strategic plan. I guess you can say your overall strategic plan is to follow what the scoring tiles tell you to do as efficiently as possible.  


The races we played were the Engineers, the Mermaids and the Nomads. I made one big mistake with my power tokens. I sacrificed too many of them, and had only 5 left. In Terra Mystica you can sacrifice power tokens permanently to get a boost in magic power. Sacrificing some tokens can be a good thing, because it will result in you being able to charge up your power more quickly. However when I had only 5 tokens left, it meant I could at most charge up to 5 power. On the board there is one power action which requires 6 power. Without at least 6 tokens, I could no longer perform this action. There were a few times I really needed that action (double spades). Aarrgh!


One important source of victory points at game end is the size of your largest territory. Throughout the game you will be planning for that and working towards it. In this game I was grey, Han yellow and Allen blue. The Mermaids (blue) are a powerful race, due to how they can use rivers. They are able to expand swiftly and easily, and create a large territory. However Han (the Nomads) was able to match Allen in largest territory size. Eventually Han won the game. 

Playing Terra Mystica again solidified what I thought of the game. I reread what I wrote about it last time, and this time I felt exactly the same. 


When you get into such a situation in Ascension, you know you'll be stuck for a while. All the cards in the card row are monsters, and they are all large monsters of at least strength 6. This was a tense moment. We knew whoever was first to defeat one of these monsters would likely get a big advantage that might ultimately determine victory. Large monsters give good rewards. 

I now play a lot of Race for the Galaxy against AI's. This particular game told a funny story of how I started off as a rebel, but later turned traitor and served the Imperium. My 1st, 3rd and 8th cards all had the red Rebel keyword. I betrayed my comrades at the 9th card, where the purple Imperium keyword first appeared. My starting planet was the Rebel Freedom Fighters. I was supposed to be the chosen one. As the Rebel Freedom Fighters if I played any Imperium card I would lose 2 strength. Although I developed the Imperium Planet Buster as my 9th card, and it normally gave +3 strength, I only gained a net +1 strength. It was my 10th card, the Imperium Invasion Fleet, which made me much stronger eventually. 

I didn't score very high this game, but I did win. So the end justifies the means. Not apologising to my dead comrades. Ex-comrades, I mean. 

Sorry bro...


This was another game. This time I decided to side with the Imperium from the get go. My 2nd card already had the Imperium keyword. This was from my starting hand. By the time the game ended, I had three 6-cost developments with the Imperium keyword - Imperium Seat, Imperium Lords and Galactic Imperium. They scored between 12 to 16 points each! I also conquered four Rebel planets. 


27 Aug 2021. I played Res Arcana with Han and Allen. We had all played this before. Both Han and I own physical copies of the game. This is by Tom Lehmann, creator of Race for the Galaxy. At BoardGameArena.com, the game setup is done using a variant. I remember when I played the physical game, I could look at my deck of cards, but when the game started, I had to shuffle my deck and then draw three cards. In the online version, I can already see my starting hand before I pick my mage. This makes picking my mage easier and planning ahead easier at the start of the game. I like it this way. 


These are the cards at the centre of the table. The first row is the magic items. Every round you'll pick one to use. Those on the left in the second row are the monuments. They are worth victory points and most have special abilities. You pay gold for them. Those on the right are the places of power. These are the most expensive cards, and they are usually the most important way you score points. They normally require some effort in order to score points. You need to spend resources. 

When you hover the mouse over a card, details pop up. 


These were Han's and Allen's resources and cards. Han was first to buy a place of power. His mage generated fire (red resource). Both his artefacts generated fire too. Thankfully his place of power didn't score points based on fire, otherwise it would be a bloodbath. Now that I look back at this particular game, he probably should have bought a different place of power - the Dwarven Mines - which scored using fire. It would probably have worked out better for him. He raced to buy the Alchemist's Tower because it was relatively cheap and could be afforded earlier in the game. It cost 3 gold. However the Alchemist's Tower needed a set of four different resources to score 1pt, which was tedious. 


My cards gave me many resources at the start of every round. Just the Elemental Spring gave me three every round! The place of power I managed to buy was Sunken Reef. It required water and life (blue and green resources) to score points, and I produced both of these. In hand I had the Horn of Plenty. Once I got that played, it would give me three resources of any type every round. That would make one set I could convert to 1pt using the Sunken Reef. 


My Hawk helped me a lot. I could use it to peek at and arrange the top three cards of my own deck or the monument deck. When I peeked at the monument deck, I found the pyramids among the top three. I positioned it to allow me to buy it. The pyramids is the highest valued monument at 3pts. The rest are all worth 1pt or 2pts. It takes 10pts to win a game of Res Arcana, so 3pts is significant. The drawback of the pyramids is it doesn't have any special ability. 

At this point I had 5pts on my Sunken Reef. The pyramids gave me 3pts. This would be the final round. I would hit 10pts and end the game. 


This was another game. I had the artefact Windup Man in my starting hand, and decided to try it out. When you place resources on the Windup Man, and leave them there at the start of a round, the card generates 2 of each resource type on the card. If you have resources in all five colours, that means generating 10 resources per round! However this is a long-term investment. You need to store your resources there for a few rounds so that they generate good returns for you. It's like a fixed deposit. Later in the game when you claim all those resources at one go, you will be able to do a lot with them. It is best to combo the Windup Man with a card which lets you reset it. If you can reset it even just once per round, you will be able to place two types of resources within the same round, and next round you will be generating 4 more resources. 

Res Arcana is a tight game. At game setup you already need to analyse your cards and set a general direction. You need to make an effective combo of your mage, your artefacts, magic items you will pick, and places of power and monuments you will buy. You want cards which help one another. You will compete for the places of power and the monuments. Things don't always go according to plan. This is a game of high decision density. There are not many decisions, but they tend to be challenging decisions requiring some thought of the consequences. The game feels short and intense. There's a little feeling of not enough wriggling room. You need to build an efficient combo quickly. If I compare this with Race for the Galaxy, the outcomes of Race for the Galaxy can vary greatly, with some players obviously leading from mid game onwards. In Res Arcana scores tend to be closer. However the story arc is shorter in Res Arcana, and I prefer the longer arc in Race for the Galaxy

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Sin Chew Daily interview

The Malaysian Chinese newspaper Sin Chew Daily has a Sunday Special today (12 Sep 2021) featuring boardgames. I was one of the people interviewed for this article. My interview was mostly about the design process of Dancing Queen and how it won the 2021 BGG 9-card game design competition. We also talked about boardgames in general. I don't usually buy print newspaper, and this morning when I went out to look for newspapers I had to visit three shops before I found one which sold them. 

The cover of the Sunday Special features art related to boardgames. 

The first article is an introduction to boardgames, thus the mention of Monopoly and Senet

Mahjong is a boardgame too! 

Xiu Hong from Centlus Boardgame Cafe was the liaison person for this series of interviews. He introduced me to the Sin Chew Daily reporter. He was interviewed too. Pasaraya, a Malaysian designed game is featured here. It is a deck-builder about managing a supermarket. 

My interview was covered on this page and the next. That's my left hand at the bottom left, holding a Machi Koro card. 

I have not physically published Dancing Queen yet. It is exciting to see it in the papers despite so. I got to tell Allen that his graphic design work is in the papers. Choon Ean is the designer of Kaki Lima. She is another person being interviewed. She shared her journey in designing and publishing Kaki Lima. 

One thing I notice is the article uses a mix of Traditional Chinese and Simplified Chinese. Traditional Chinese for the titles, and Simplified Chinese for the content. This may be something you only see in Malaysia. 

Friday, 10 September 2021

Railroad Ink


The Game

Railroad Ink is a roll-and-write game in which you develop a network of highways and railways. It is essentially a solo game, since there is no player interaction. You are literally playing multiplayer solitaire. Players use the same set of dice, and draw the patterns depicted on the dice onto their individual boards. Despite the same die results, they will end up creating very different transportation networks. When the game ends, you score your network based on a few different criteria, and the highest scorer wins. 


The basic game is played over 7 rounds. You use four dice. Three of them are the same, with half the faces showing highways and the other half showing railways. The fourth die is a little different and shows more complex patterns. Some of the faces have a station (black square) which links together highways and railways. When you draw a pattern on your board, you must start at one of the exits along the edges of your board, or extend an in-progress route. 

The third row of icons in the screenshot above shows the scoring criteria. Since we played on BoardGameArena.com, the scoring was all done automatically for us. This game is a puzzle-solving exercise. The die rolls yield a wide variety of results, and your challenge is to make the best of what fate deals you. You work under high uncertainty and do your best to plan ahead. Let's look at the scoring criteria. This is the best way to understand how the game works. 

The first criteria (arrow icon) looks at how many exits you connect. There are three exits on each side of your play area, making a total of twelve. The arrangement alternates between railways and highways, so it's challenging to link them up. You need stations. When you connect exits into networks, you score these networks based on how many exits they connect. The small table on the player board shows how many points you score. 

The second and third scoring criteria are for your longest highway path and longest railway path respectively. At this moment my longest highway runs through three squares, so that's 3pts. The fourth criteria refers to the 9 squares at the centre of your board. For each square filled, you earn 1pt. The fifth criteria is actually a penalty. For each unfinished, i.e. open-ended, highway or railway, you lose 1pt. You are not penalised for the original exits, or for highways or railways which reach a non-exit edge of your board. The star criteria is for expansions and is not used in the base game. 


This was Round 3 of the same game as above. Along the top of the board there are 6 special patterns. These are available to you at any time. However out of the 7 rounds, you can only use them in 3 rounds, and only once per round. Those which have been used are to be crossed out and may not be used again. These are very useful and must be fully utilised, and utilised wisely. 

At the bottom right you can see an overpass, where a highway crosses a railway. The highway and railway are still separate networks and are not connected. So at this moment my connected network has 4 exits only. The railway exit at the lower right is not yet connected to it. 


This was Round 7. If you compare this to the previous two screenshots you can see how much the transportation network has grown. Now My network has 10 exits connected, thus scoring 36pts. 


I played with Allen and Han, and these were their boards. You can see how different our drawings are, despite being based on the exact same die results. 

There are four versions of Railroad Ink: blue, red, green and yellow. So far I have only tried blue and red. Their base games are the same, but they each have two different expansions. The green and yellow versions add a little player interaction. Players need to race to fulfil some conditions. The expansions in the blue and red versions are mutually exclusive. You can't mix and match them. You can only play with one expansion at a time. Each expansion comes with its own dice and addition rules for scoring. 

Let's take a look at the river expansion. 


The river expansion adds two river dice. Drawing rivers is optional. This is different from the base game. The game is only played over 6 rounds now. When the game ends, you pick one river to score. It will score 1pt per square, and 3pt more if both ends of the river reach the edges of the play area. Most river faces are bends, i.e. L shapes. Very few are straight or bridges (river under railway or highway). Drawing a complete river is challenging. 


The other expansion in the blue version is the lake. Drawing the lake faces is also optional. At game-end scoring, your smallest lake scores 1pt per square. Black squares on lake shores are jetties. They connect the lake to railways and highways. All railways and highways connected to the same lake are considered part of the same network. So this lake expansion can make creating a large network easier. In this screenshot above, all my exits are connected to the same network except for those two at the top right. The lake helped tremendously. 

The Play

Despite being a literal multiplayer solitaire game, I quite enjoyed Railroad Ink. It is an interesting puzzle to solve. We are all sitting down together to work on a same challenging problem. There are plenty of painful and difficult moments. We can't cheat by looking at how others have drawn their routes before we are done with out own. It is interesting how different the networks of different players turn out to be. The game often throws you tough situations - patterns which are unwieldy, patterns which spoil your plans, and also those patterns you need not turning up round after round. Despite the luck element, it is possible to do some planning ahead. You do have some idea of the probabilities of each type of pattern appearing, so you can plan ahead somewhat expecting some to turn up eventually. There is no guarantee, but if you plan sensibly, odds are some of your plans will pan out. If you need a certain pattern to complete an important network, and that pattern is a common one, and there are still a few more rounds to go, it is probably safe to bet on getting that pattern before the game ends. There are always risks of things not going your way. You have to be flexible. You need to be ready to change plans. Sometimes you have to let go of certain plans which are unlikely to work out. There is much risk management thinking in this simple game. 

The special patterns are crucial and they are often key junctions which link up multiple separate networks. Since you can pick any one of them at any time, they give you some control and they make planning easier. 

The feeling when playing Railroad Ink is planning amidst uncertainty. You need to have backup plans. You hope for the best and also prepare for the worst. The uncertainty makes the game exciting. It is satisfying to see your network grow and gradually link up many exits. Seeing things go according to plan is exhilarating. Seeing things go to the dogs is funny too. 


This is the lava expansion in the red version of Railroad Ink. You start with a volcano right at the centre. Every round you roll two lava dice, and you must use at least one of them. This aspect is different from other expansions. Lava will flow every round, and it can destroy highways and railways. If you manage to close off a lava lake, next round you must place a new volcano. You will still need to use at least one lava die next round. 

When the game ends, every completed lava lake scores 5pts. The largest lava lake scores 1pt per square. In the screenshot above I had completed my first lava lake, so I had to place a second volcano. 

These were Allen and Han's boards. 


This is the meteor expansion. Every round the meteor dice determines where a meteor will strike and create a crater. The meteor may destroy your highway or railway. You may decide to prevent the meteor strike by sacrificing a special pattern on your board. This is a high price to pay, but sometimes it's worthwhile. You can build over a crater, but it's probably not a good idea. Instead you want to build highways and railways which lead to these craters. Each highway or railway that ends at a crater scores 2pts. I have many of these in the screenshot above. 

The Thoughts

I am not specifically fond of roll-and-write games. I tried Railroad Ink just out of curiosity. It turned out to be more enjoyable than I had expected. It felt fresh to me. It is light. It can be a filler. There is no player interaction, but it is fun enough to play together with others. You will only be focusing on your own board. I like how the planning element and the uncertainty factor conflict and create a fun challenge for the player. Since there is no player aggression, this will work as a family game and as a gateway game. 

Friday, 3 September 2021

LLAMA

 

The Game

LLAMA (technically L.L.A.M.A. but that's a pain to type) is a simple card game from Reiner Knizia which was nominated for the Spiel des Jahres in 2019. This was yet another game I managed to try on BoardGameArena.com. It is light and quick, with a dollop of luck. It looks like a brainless casual game, but there are some subtle and clever twists to it. 


A game is typically played over several rounds. Your goal in each round is to minimise collecting points. Points are bad. In this game you don't want points. The game ends when someone reaches 40pts. At that time whoever has the fewest points wins. 

The cards in the game are numbered 1 to 6, and there are also llama cards which are worth 10pts. At the start of a round everyone is dealt 6 cards. When a round ends, you gain points based on cards left in hand. Each card value scores just once, e.g. if you have three 5's, you will score 5pts, not 15pts. If you are able to play all your cards, i.e. go out, that's the best. You end the round immediately. You may return one token you have scored in a previous round. White tokens are worth 1pt each, and black tokens 10pts. If you have a black token, naturally you will pick that to return. 

It's not necessarily bad if you can't play all your cards. On your turn you can decide to exit the round voluntarily, scoring points for cards remaining in hand. If you are not going to score many points, this may be a sensible thing to do. 

On your turn you have three options, and you may only pick one of them. The first option is to simply play a card. You may play a card which matches the top of the discard pile, or a card which is one rank higher. If the discard pile shows a 6, you may play a 6 or a llama. Llamas are one rank higher than 6's. If the discard pile shows a llama, you may play a llama or a 1. The numbers wrap around. The second option is to draw a card. If you don't have any playable card, you may be forced to draw a card. That is unless you want to take the third option - exiting the round. When all but one have exited, the last player may no longer draw cards. He can still try to play as many cards as possible. When he is unable to play any more, he will be forced to exit the round too, thus ending the round. 

That's all there is to the rules. It sounds so shockingly simple that it doesn't feel like much of a game. Everyone is just taking turns to play a card, and if you can't, you draw a card. It sounds pretty brainless, but I assure you it's not. 

The Play

To be absolutely honest, you can play LLAMA in a brainless way. You can play it like a luck-heavy casual game and still have fun with it. Being the nerdy gamer, I cannot help but dig into the subtleties of this innocent-looking game. When you play, everyone is getting rid of bigger and bigger cards, and in theory, by the time you cycle through all the numbers, someone can finish playing all his cards. For example the discard pile starts with a 4. Starting with 4's you start shedding cards, working your way up to llamas, then down to 1's, and eventually going up to 3's. If things go well, someone will be able to go out by this time or earlier. I think when the player count is low, this feeling is even more prominent. In practice, this doesn't regularly happen. Sometimes the numbers go up faster than you'd like, or you have too many cards of the same number than you are able to play before someone else plays the next number. When an opportunity passes, it is painful because you know you will need to wait a full cycle before you'll have a chance to play that number again. 

On your turn, there are at most two numbers you can play. Since ideally you want to play all your cards, playing the smaller card seems to be an automatic choice, if you happen to have both numbers in hand. However things are not that straight-forward. Let's say I have three 6's and a llama in hand. The previous player has just played a 6 on top of a 5. Should I play a 6 or a llama? Since I have three 6's, it's unlikely I can play them all before someone moves on to llamas. I'm going to score 6 points regardless of whether I have one, two or three 6's in hand. Then I might as well push past 6 and play my llama. That way I can hopefully burn the next guy (or guys) who is hoping to play his single 6. If I'm going down, you're going down with me, right? Speeding through the numbers is an effective tactic to hurt your opponents. 

The choice between drawing a card and exiting is not always easy to make. When you are unable to play any card, if your hand won't be scoring many points, it's probably a good idea to exit. Drawing another card is risky. When others still have many cards, you exiting can create tremendous pressure on them. If some poor fellow is holding many cards, and everyone else exits one after another, he's probably going to crash and burn. The most damning situation is having a hand which is neither too big nor too small when you can't play any card. It's rather painful to exit, but if you draw a wrong card, it can be even more painful. Juicy decisions! 

It is not always bad to have a huge hand of cards. If you can form a tidy sequence with your cards, when everyone exits together to try to push you off a cliff, you can smugly play out your hand in one fell swoop, and gloat! OK, don't gloat. That's unbecoming. Sometimes you are really tempted to just draw one more card hoping to complete your beautiful sequence. It's exciting and horrifying at the same time. 

The player count will make the experience quite different. I have only played with three players. I think the game will be more fun with more players. It supports 2 to 6 players. With more players, the numbers will progress more quickly, more people will miss out on certain numbers. It's going to be more painful all around, and that's great! Frustration is good! 

When the top card in the discard pile is a 3, I can play a 3 or a 4. 

I have exited the round, so my cards are semi-transparent. I only have two 1's, so I will only score 1pt.  

Han (on the left) has already scored three black tokens, so he has more than 30pts now. If he hits 40pts, the game will end. 

The Thoughts

It's a little ridiculous that I spew so much strategy about such a simple and light game. I'm a Knizia fanboy all over again. LLAMA is highly suitable for casual players. You don't really need to think so hard or so much. It can be played in a relaxed manner. It's more a party game than a strategic card game. For gamers, it's a clever filler. It can be a good gateway game. It's certainly a gentle way to introduce people to modern games, even though it's slightly devilish. A big part of the fun in LLAMA is watching others crash and burn harder than you do. The game should not be about minimising your losses. Trying to maximise others' losses is probably a more effective strategy. Go catch your opponents with their pants down (i.e. with llama in hand).