Sunday, 1 August 2021

City of the Big Shoulders


The Game

City of the Big Shoulders tells the story of Chicago, from the late 19th century to the early 20th century. This was a golden age for the city. You are capitalists who invest in and operate companies. You manipulate share prices to increase your wealth. To win, you must become the richest individual. The value of the shares you hold will contribute the most to your net worth. It is not about the success of the companies you have invested in. They are but tools to create wealth for you. Your cash in hand also contributes to your wealth. If you fulfil some of the public objectives, you will score some spare cash too. 


The game is played over 5 rounds, each representing a decade. You start with a little money, enough to start one small company. At game start there are 10 different companies to pick from, and they are all slightly different. They produce different products. They can run a different number of factories. They need different raw materials and different numbers of factory workers. They also produce different quantities of finished goods. 


This is the main board. The left third with the 12 cards is the demand area. The dark dots represent demand. When a company sells goods, they are placed on these dots. In the right half of the board, the section at the top is the raw materials markets. The middle area are spots for worker placement and buildings. The bottom area is the market for capital assets (machines). 

City of the Big Shoulders features share holding, worker placement and resource conversion. Yes, that does indeed sound a little greedy, but all these mechanisms hang together pretty well. When you are the majority shareholder of a company, you become the CEO and you make all decisions for the company, including sinister ones if that's your thing. A company may issue up to 10 shares, and whenever you buy one, the money you pay goes to company coffers. The company needs this money to operate. What you as a shareholder hope is that the share price will go up, because this increases your net worth. When the company makes a profit, it may issue dividends. That's another way you increase your wealth. Share price goes up too when the company issues a large enough dividend. On the flip side, share price falls if the company does not issue a dividend. The share price also falls if someone sells a share. This is one way to sabotage the share value of a company. 

In the worker placement aspect of the game, everyone starts with two partners. In this game the partners are your workers. Many actions can only be performed by partners. Your partners may perform actions for any of the companies under your control. As the game progresses, you may gain up to three more partners. One of them is awarded automatically by Round 3, but the other two require conscious effort to fulfil specific conditions. Having many companies is not necessarily good, especially when you don't have enough partners to help these companies perform tasks. 

Every round you will get to pick one building from three to add to the board. Buildings are new worker placement locations where anyone may send partners to. You may pick buildings which are helpful to you, so that they assist you in your chosen strategy. You may also pick buildings which are useful to everyone, because when other players use your buildings, you usually earn cash. 


The resource conversion part of the game is all in company operations. Every round there is one phase when companies take turns to operate. One company does all its operations before you move on to the next. The turn order is determined by the appeal level of the companies. Every company has two or three factories. Each factory requires a certain number of workers and a specific combination of raw materials to operate. It also produces a specific number of goods. If you employ a manager for the factory, you gain some extra benefit whenever the factory produces goods. You compete for workers and raw materials at the main board. Factories can be automated. You move those black columns to replace workers, and workers can be reassigned to other positions or dismissed. Fully automated factories produce more goods. 

If you employ salesmen, you increase the price of your goods (leftmost column at each company). 

One crucial rule is player money and company money must be kept separate. Victory is based on player money, not company money. You only own shares of a company. You don't own the whole company. Company money is not your money. Only the value of your shares count towards your wealth. The company can only give you money by issuing dividends. 


During game setup five objectives are randomly drawn. If you fulfil an objective, you will earn extra money at game end. In this particular example, if companies you control have the most capital assets, you earn $200. 

In a nutshell, you invest in companies, and you run companies. In both cases your ultimate goal is to grow your wealth. Companies will compete, especially when they produce the same product type. Company turn order is often crucial because whichever company gets to sell first earns much more money. Players can manipulate share prices. What is most important to players is the growth potential of the companies. A small company with potential for growth is better than a large company with a stagnant share price. 

The Play

Share holding games is not really my thing. I'm always a little uncomfortable with them because I'm not good at them. I can't quite get out of the mindset of "this is my company". That's why despite having tried 18XX games and being able to appreciate how clever they are, I rarely seek them out. When Han, Allen and I played City of the Big Shoulders on BoardGameArena.com, we were mostly conservative and we played with the "my company" mindset. We did not explore far the stock manipulation aspect of the game. We did use the advanced rules which allow hostile takeovers, but in practice this didn't happen in either of the games we played. We didn't consider sabotaging our own companies. We stuck to doing an honest day's work operating our own companies. We did invest in others' companies, to leech off their efforts and opportunities. One tactic I applied was to invest in others' companies early, only to dump their shares in the final round. By doing this, I benefited from the share price growth throughout the game. Then by the final round, I cashed out while forcing the share price to drop, which would hurt the majority shareholder (i.e. my opponent) the most. This seems to be a mandatory tactic. I can't think of a reason not to do it. 

The company operations part of the game is nothing particularly new, but it is fun and satisfying. There are many ways to improve your companies, but you can't do everything. You must prioritise, and that's what makes the decisions interesting. You have a limited number of partners, and a limited number of turns. 

Companies can run low on cash, and you will probably need to inject more cash by buying more shares. Normally you want "your" companies to make profit and pay dividends every round, so that the share price keeps going up. Companies are under pressure to not miss a beat at any time. 


The competition among companies for appeal is fierce. The biggest reason is turn order. The company which gets to sell first may make all the lucrative sales, leaving crumbs for the rest. Climbing the appeal ladder also gives companies many benefits, as indicated in the image above. E.g. you need to hit Appeal 9 to get an extra partner. At Appeal 13, your share price goes up one notch. 


Near game end, the demand cards will likely run out, exposing those low demand boxes in the leftmost column. You may sell any number of goods here, but only at half price. This is why it is important for companies to go early in turn order. You want to sell to the full price spots. 

In both the games we played, I had conflicts with Allen because we produced the same goods. In one particular round, we had to spend three partners to take actions related to improving appeal, all for the sake of the turn order of our competing companies. That was intense! 


These four rows in the centre are the players' buildings. Every player gets one row so you can easily tell which building belongs to who. We were in Round 5 now, so everyone had 5 buildings. Han was red, and his buildings were most popular. He himself and Allen (blue) used his buildings. I was green and I used my own buildings and Allen's. 


You may only buy raw materials from the rightmost three boxes in the raw materials  market, and they are priced at $30, $20 and $10. Raw materials are purchased by companies, not partners. After a company completes its turn, if any of the boxes are emptied, raw materials in the box to its left will be shifted over. This is how refilling works. Raw materials will drop in price as they get shifted right. If you want to hurt the next company (assuming your company can afford it), you can leave just one raw material in each box. This makes raw materials scarce.  You can also just buy up just the specific raw materials the next company needs. 


These are the available capital assets. I think of them as machines. This market for capital assets works in a similar way as the raw materials. Not all companies may purchase capital assets. Those which can can only purchase one. 

Both the game I played were mostly played like development games. We mostly just took care of our own companies. We were not very adventurous with the stock manipulation. When the games started, we avoided competition by picking companies making different products. There are four product types, so even in a full 4-player game, everyone can pick a different product at game start. Only when the second companies started, the competition became more intense, because we now had directly competing companies. 

In our first game, due to being unfamiliar with the user interface, Han missed selling goods in one early round. This was painful because it meant his share price dropped instead of going up. This meant a 2 or 3 step difference in share price. By game end, a 3 step difference can mean about $400 in player wealth. Our differences between winning and losing were around $100 to $300, so $400 was a huge deal! 


This on the left is the share price track. At the lower end, one notch is just $5, but at the higher end, it is $50! The dark region is the share price range allowed when launching a company. 


You are limited to holding at most 12 share certificates. However some certs are worth 3 or 2 shares. This is the only way to better utilise your share slots. Another restriction is you may own at most 60% of any one company. 

In our second game, I had the most cash by the final round, and had much more freedom to manipulate the stock market. Allen and Han had used up their cash to buy shares and couldn't do much any more, unless they were willing to sell some shares for cash and then buy. At that point I knew I had to sell shares in "their" companies, to deflate their share prices. They held more shares in those companies so doing this would hurt them more. However I made a mistake of not selling all of the shares of Han's company. At the time I was focused on one of the objectives of holding the most single-share certs. I was busy selling my double-share certs to free up space to buy single-share certs. When I finally became the single player with the most single-share certs, I happily passed to move on to the next phase of the round. I forgot that I should have continued to dump the shares of Han's company. Sloppy! When the game ended, Han beat me by less than $100! Head-against-wall moment. 

The Thoughts

City of the Big Shoulders is all about growth. You want to commit your cash to where you expect to see the most growth. This is a very capitalist game. Companies are just tools. I was a little apprehensive before we played, but I found myself enjoying the game during play, probably because we played it very much like a regular development game. I am not sure whether there can be a lot more of stock manipulation than what we have experienced. Since the company founder holds 30% of shares, it is actually not easy to do hostile takeovers. I did have one chance to takeover Han's company, but I missed it (sloppy again). Han told me about it afterwards. Even if I did notice it, I might not have wanted to do so, because if I controlled too many companies, my partners would have been spread too thin. I would not be able to manage my companies efficiently. 

When we were the major shareholders of our companies, it was in our best interest to run them well. We would benefit the most from the dividends and the increase in share price. It seems counterintuitive to want to sabotage my own company. At this moment I am not 100% sure how much variability there is in the stock manipulation aspect of the game. It is possible that I haven't seen fully what the game can do because we have not explored this aspect aggressively enough. 

The development game aspect is satisfying. I must admit I tend to like development games. That sense of progress is always pleasant. There is plenty of player interaction. Appeal is one aspect. The worker placement bit also creates significant tension. When someone takes a slot you want, and it is painful, the game is doing something right. In the early rounds, you only have a net worth of $200 - $300. Cash flow can be tight for both yourself and your companies. Companies struggle to afford workers and raw materials. You also worry about scraping together enough money to invest in more shares. By game end you will be worth about $4000. That acceleration throughout the game is exhilarating. 

There is a clear story arc in the game. You can't really break out of this structure. In a way it feels scripted, but perhaps a more positive way to look at it is the game is trying to tell the story of Chicago in that particular period in history. The game starts relatively peacefully when all the young startups have good opportunities for growth. Things heat up mid game as competition appears. The stock manipulation escalates towards late game. Eventually recession hits and all companies brace for impact. Some may continue to prosper. The general plot is set. You flex and compete within this context. 

I suspect playing the physical game will take much longer. There is a lot of calculation to do, especially when you need to issue dividends. Playing on the computer saves a lot of time and brain power. 

Friday, 23 July 2021

online Innovation

 

In 2012 Allen, Han and I wrote a blog post together and listed our top ten games at the time. Only one game appeared on all three of our lists - Carl Chudyk's Innovation. The pandemic situation in Malaysia is pretty horrible now. Lately the three of us have been playing more or less regularly on BoardGameArena.com. One of the games we played recently was Innovation

The one word that comes to mind when I try to describe Innovation is "crazy". This is a game about human civilisation and human inventions. There are 105 cards in the game, and every single card has a different power. To win the game, you need to claim a certain number of achievement cards. One way to do this is to score points. The other way is to fulfil some very specific conditions with your nation. Cards in the game are divides into 10 eras. As your progress through the eras, their abilities become more and more powerful. Some of the Era 10 cards can outright win the game for you. 

None of us were newbies at Innovation, but we all struggled when we played online. It wasn't because we were rusty. It was because online play was too quick. Most of the card abilities were executed by the computer automatically. Cards flew across the screen. We could not keep up. Our actions were presented conveniently as buttons or cards to click. We instinctively followed the visual cues to click, and didn't spend enough time to study our cards or the game situation. We became overwhelmed. There can be such a thing as being so good that it ends up being bad. This was not the fault of the system. It was entirely our fault. In our second game, we deliberately slowed down to ponder our cards and our opponents' cards. Only then we managed to catch our breath and think clearly. We shouldn't have let convenience lead us into hurried and sloppy play. 

In the screenshot above, I had 6 cards in hand (green area), and it took time to study each card and consider its utility. 


At the top right, you can see the strengths of every player in the 6 areas. This is convenient. When playing the physical game, you often need to count the number of icons of every player, which can be tedious. There are 6 types of icons in the game. 

Actions available to you on your turn are highlighted in blue. If you want to use the power of a card  in your play area (i.e. its dogma), just click the card. If you want to play a card from your hand (i.e. green box), just click the card. Other actions like drawing a card or claiming an achievement card are shown on the white bar at the top whenever they are available. 

This screenshot above only shows my nation and my hand. To see the nations of other players I need to scroll down. At the bottom right there is a reference card. A zoomed-in view is available. To the left of the reference card you can see all the cards in your score pile. To the right you can see achievement cards you have claimed. 


You can enlarge any card to read the details like this Combustion card above. In this screenshot, the blue, green and yellow cards in my play area are already stacked (i.e. have more than one card played) and they are also splayed (i.e. spread out to reveal some of the icons of the cards beneath). You can view those non-top cards. Sometimes you need to, but not frequently. Yes, this game is quite daunting for new players because of so many cards to read. Stick with it. It's a crazy fun game! 


BoardGameArena only has the basic game available and none of the expansions. I think Innovation is already a splendid game even without the expansions. The expansions are nice-to-have. 

Thursday, 22 July 2021

Friday, 16 July 2021

Priests of Ra


The Game

Priests of Ra is essentially a variant of the Reiner Knizia classic auction game Ra. Not really a version 2.0 or improved version. The core auction mechanism is exactly the same, but the tiles you collect and how they score are all different from Ra. It also introduces a twist - double-sided tiles. 


The game is played over three epochs. Within each epoch every player has 3 or 4 suns which can be used to win sets of tiles via auction. Tiles gradually accumulate on the board. You want to collect them and they score points in different ways. Auctions can be triggered voluntarily by players. They are also triggered if anyone draws a Ra tile from the bag. During auction, you bid and pay with one of your suns. If you win, you claim all the tiles on the board, and your payment (the sun used) goes to the board. The next auction winner will take your sun. You will have also claimed a previous sun from the board. This is turned face-down to remind you that you can only use it in the next epoch. You flip it face-up only at the start of the next epoch. 

On your turn, you only have 2 options - draw a tile from the bag, or invoke Ra (i.e. trigger an auction). If you draw a tile, you are usually adding to the pool of tiles on the board, making it more valuable. However if you draw a Ra tile, an auction will be triggered. There is a Ra track on the board which will gradually get filled up by these Ra tiles. When it is full, the epoch ends immediately. This is a countdown timer which creates urgency for the players. If you still have unused suns by then, it is your loss. Normally you would want to make use of all your suns to win some tiles before the epoch ends. 

When an auction is triggered, the player triggering it will be the last to bid in a single-round auction. Bidding starts with the player to his left. The sun values in the game are all different, so there will be no ties in an auction. 


The tiles you win need to be arranged neatly in front of you. Scoring is done at the end of every epoch. Some tiles are scored every epoch, some only in the last epoch. Some tiles are discarded after being scored, while others are kept until the end of the game. 

The game structure is very simple. Play three epochs, in which you collect tiles and score points with them. 


These are all the tile types in the game. The twelve at the bottom are double sided tiles. Yellow is always on the back of blue, and red is always on the back of green. Whenever you draw such a tile, you immediately decide which side to use. This can greatly effect scoring. One side may be much more valuable to a player than the other side. Let's take a citizen tile as an example. The green citizen is a farmer. When an epoch ends, whoever has the most farmers scores 5pts. If someone is competing for the most farmers, choosing the farmer side makes the set of tiles attractive to him. However if he is not competing for soldiers (the red side), then choosing the soldier side makes this tile worthless to him. Often you will choose the side which is helpful to you, but it is not always a straight-forward decision. If there is someone else wanting that side too, and he has a higher sun than you do, you may want to choose the bad side. Basically "if I can't have it, no one else can have it". 

The purple citizens are the priests, and they are a special class. When you claim a priest, you can use him to flip a tile in your play area. This ability can be very powerful. In addition to that, if you have three of more priests at the end of an epoch, you can even remove a plague tile. Plagues are the only tiles which deduct points. The first one deducts 1pt, the second one 2pts, and so on. The max is a 20pt penalty, when you have 6 or more plague tiles. 

Citizens, buildings and pyramids are the three main categories of the tiles you collect. Citizens are discarded at the end of every epoch after scoring is done. Buildings are scored every epoch, but are not discarded. Pyramids are kept and are scored only after the third epoch. Some pyramids have coloured chambers. If you have three or four in the same colour, you score extra. 


These are your suns, used for bidding. During game setup, they are organised into predetermined sets, and everyone randomly takes a set. Once the game starts, it will be a free-for-all for the suns. Who gets which sun by the second and third epoch is entirely up to the players. During auctions, you must consider the value of the sun at the centre of the table. Sometimes it's worth spending your low #1 sun to get the #16 sun even when there are no tiles to be claimed. Even by the third epoch you need to consider the value of the suns you will win, because at game end you will score based on total sun values. The player with the highest total gains 5pts, and whoever is lowest loses 5pts. 

The Play

It is a little difficult for me to discuss Priests of Ra. I have known and played Ra for so long that it is hard to approach Priests of Ra like I'm a new player. I'll just highlight some interesting moments in the game. 

Watching the pool of tiles grow on the board is like watching a stock market bubble. The value keeps going up, unless someone draws a plague. What's interesting is these tiles will often be valued differently by different players. As players collect different combinations of tiles, they will have different directions and needs. When you see that no one else really wants those tiles on the board except for you, it is probably okay to let the pool grow a little bit more before initiating an auction. However, it is also possible that a tile extremely important to someone else is added, suddenly making the tile set very valuable to him. You will then need to compete with this other player. 

When your suns are low and others have higher suns, you would want to trigger auctions more frequently, while there aren't many tiles on the board yet. When there are many tiles on the board, the player with highest sun will have an advantage because he can decide whether he wants them. So you need to force his hand. If the tile set value is neither here nor there, this will be a dilemma for the high sun players. Maybe there's one important tile they really want, but they'd prefer to wait until there are more tiles so that they can get more at one go. If you trigger an auction, you will force them to spend their high suns. Even if they don't take the bait, there is no big loss for you since you are spending small suns only. 

The tail end of an epoch is often an exciting time. When there is only one player with any sun left, he goes into solo mode. Ideally he wants to completely fill the board (i.e. 8 tiles) before using his sun to claim them all. However, if there is only one space left on the Ra track, the epoch may end at any time. If he tries his luck, he may end the epoch and lose all those tiles on the board so far. At such moments, greed can kill, and cowardice can also lead to lost opportunities. 

This set of tiles is a little tricky to evaluate, because there's a plague. There are citizens in three different colours, which is a good thing. In each epoch when you have citizens in 3 or 4 different colours, you will gain ankhs. Ankhs are scored at game end. 


When competing for citizens, whoever has the most in a colour scores 5pts. However you must have at least two citizens of that colour. Every pair of buildings scores 2pts. If you have pairs in 3 or 4 colours, you will score a bonus. Pyramid tiles need to be stacked like a pyramid. You will score points for your pyramid if it has at least two levels (i.e. 3 pyramid tiles). 


When there are 8 tiles on the board, i.e. the spaces are completely filled, the player with the highest sun will be the happiest person in the room. 


I searched for player boards on BoardGameGeek.com. I found some but were not entirely satisfied, so I made my own. A player board like this helps tremendously in teaching the game, an addition to making gameplay smoother. It is a reference sheet at the same time. 

The game board does list how the different tiles score, but the font is tiny and hard to read. 

This was Chen Rui's player board. She completely slaughtered Michelle and I, scoring 140+. 

These are the tiles discarded after every epoch - Ra and citizens. 

The Thoughts

What surprised me about Priests of Ra was it holds up well in comparison to Ra. From reading the rules, I had expected an inferior game, because it is missing some elements from Ra which I think are very thematic. E.g. the pharaohs, the river Nile and the various disasters. It's a game about Egypt after all. The new tiles in Priests of Ra seemed to be less thematic and more mechanical and abstract. After actually playing the game, I found that it still gives much to chew on and does not feel lacking. It's  different, but not simplified or dumbed down. Ra is nostalgia for me, and Priests of Ra won't be able to replace it. Priests of Ra is a fun variant when I feel like playing something which is the same yet different. 

Playing Priests of Ra made me appreciate the clever auction mechanism in Ra all over again. It is genius and I preach it. 

The double-sided tiles and the priests flipping tiles are the most striking change in Priests of Ra. This affects all three major scoring methods - citizens, buildings and pyramids. In this sense, there is some connectedness among the three areas. The game still has that tricky balance between short-term and long-term goals. Even within the citizens aspect there are both short- and long-term considerations. Going deep is short-term for winning in the current epoch. Going wide is long-term because of the ankhs which will only be scored at game end. 

Friday, 9 July 2021

Carnegie


The Game

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was an American steel magnate and philanthropist. He was one of the richest businessmen in American history, and in the last 18 years of his life, gave away almost 90% of his wealth to charity. The game Carnegie uses the early industrial era in the US as its backdrop. You play business moguls and industrialists who develop new technology, improve the transportation network and complete large construction projects around the country. Every player runs his own company. You recruit employees, establish new departments, train your employees, and send them all over the country to do outstation work. There are many ways to score points, and one of them is to do charity projects. You spend hard-earned money and you gain fame. 


The board is divided into four region - East, South, Mid-West and West. No, there is no North. That would be Canada. There are cities and towns of different sizes, with between one to five circular slots for projects. The slots in the medium and large cities specify what project type they allow. The slots in the small towns can be used for any project type. Some cities show a blue heptagon (7-sided polygon). Projects built at these cities score victory points (VP) as indicated in the heptagons. 


This is a player board, representing company HQ. At setup, you have five departments and one lobby. New recruits and old employees returning from outstation work both assemble at the lobby. You need to use the ability of your Human Resources (HR) department to assign them to a department. There are four types of departments, corresponding to the four types of action you get to perform in the game. Every round, the start player picks an action type, and that round everyone gets to activate his departments of that type. You can set up new departments, and usually their abilities are more powerful than the initial ones. Creating new departments also gives you points. 


On the left you have the timeline board. This is randomly set up for each game, so there will be some variability. The timeline board is the core engine which drives the game. On the right you have 16 different new departments. There are two units in each type. During game setup, some will be randomly removed, depending on the number of players. The departments available and the number available will vary from game to game. 


This is the timeline board. At game start, the four hexagonal action markers are at the leftmost positions. The four action types in the game are HR, management, construction and R&D (research and development). At the start of a round, the start player picks an action marker to advance, and places the gear marker on the spot it will advance to. That round, everyone will get to perform that particular action type. What this means is they may activate all of their departments of that type. The spot the gear marker is placed on indicates the event that will occur. There are only two types of events. The first one is the donation event, and it allows players to spend money on charity projects. Donations are an important way to earn points. The second event is the income event. It means you get to return all workers from a specific region on the board. This is the main way you earn money and other resources. 

In total the four action markers will move 20 steps, after which the game ends. When a marker reaches the end of its row, it doesn't mean you can't take that action type anymore. You can still pick that action type, just that you will have to move the next available action marker, so the event that takes effect will be the one in front of this available marker. 


Chicago and New York are two of the major cities on the board. They have the link icon. There are four major cities in total. If you link two or more of them up, you will score points depending on your transportation level. 


This is the scoring table for your transportation network. Let's use an example to explain this. If you are able to connect Chicago (Mid West), New York (East) and New Orleans (South), your total link value will be 3. If your lowest transportation level in these three regions is the second level (yellow), you will score 12 points. 


Each of the four regions on the board has a transportation track like this. This records your transportation level. It is also where you send your workers on outstation work. To advance your marker on this track, you need to do R&D. Your position on the track indicates the reward each of your workers get when they return to HQ. On this track you can see that initially each returning worker only earns $1. If you advance to step 4, each of them will earn $7! At the 5th step, they will earn 2VP instead of money. 


There are 20 different charity projects. Each can be claimed by only one player. In a 3-player game, three of these projects will be blocked off using a neutral colour (black). Charity projects are scored at game end based on specific criteria, and each project may score at most 12VP. Examples of charity projects: 1VP per department in your company, 3VP per industrial project on the board, 2VP for every $5 left. 


Actions you get to perform are all related to the four types of departments you have. HR type departments move workers about, assigning them to departments. New workers and workers returning from outstation work assemble at the lobby. You need to use your HR ability to move them to specific departments so that they can do work again. For some departments, you must also spend money to train your workers before they can start working. At some departments, activating a worker will send him to the board, i.e. he's taking an outstation assignment. Such a worker may later return to HQ, and make some profit for the company when he does so. Once he's back, he'll be sitting in the lobby waiting to be assigned again. He may need to be trained again, even if he is assigned to a department he has worked in before. 

Management type departments usually help you earn some cash or resources. You also need them to set up new departments. 

R&D type departments generate study points, and study points can be spent on two things. There are four project strips tucked below the right edge of your player board. You can spent study points to pull these strips out segment by segment. When you expose a segment with a circle, you get to place one of your discs on it. These discs are projects available to be built. When you build a project, i.e. move the disc onto the main game board, you will uncover a reward. From then on, you claim this reward every time any worker returns to your HQ. Building projects increases the profitability of your company. Rewards can be in the form of money, resources and victory points. 

The other thing you spend study points on is the transportation tracks on the main board. Doing this also increases the reward you get when a worker returns to HQ. 

Finally, construction type departments let you build projects on the board. To build a project, you need to have discs available, resources available, and also the construction department must be staffed. Having all these requires a fair bit of planning and coordination. When you build, your worker will usually go onto the board, vacating their positions in the construction department. To build again, you will need to refill those positions. 

The game is played over exactly 20 rounds. Once all action markers reach the final positions on the timeline board, the game ends. Most of the scoring is only done at game end. 

The Play

I played with Han and Allen and BoardGameArena.com. I quite like the graphic design of the game, and I must admit it was this which aroused my curiosity to try the game. All three of us were new to the game. After reading the rules, I felt I understood them all, but once I started to actually play, I found myself rather lost. I couldn't quite piece together what I was supposed to be doing. There were many new departments to pick from, and also many charity projects. These choices were overwhelming. I didn't quite know what was powerful and what wasn't, or what they were good for. It took some fumbling about before I worked out a more coherent direction. 

I managed to eventually get some clarity by focusing on the major city scoring. If I wanted to link up some of the major cities, I would need to build enough projects in a chain of cities linking up those major cities. Building projects required discs, resources and workers at construction departments. To make discs available, I needed to do R&D. By working backwards step by step, I managed to identify my immediate tasks at hand. 

Money and resources are not easy to come by, especially in the early game. I was a little slow in realising the importance of sending workers out to the board and then bringing them back to make money. This cycling of workers is basically the cashflow of your company. It needs to be planned for and executed competently. When you look at the timeline board, you have a rough idea which regions may be activated next, allowing workers to return. Planning happens at the stage of sending your workers out. You want to send them out to regions which you know they can come back from soon. You also need to watch where your opponents are sending their workers. They will likely try to pick actions to bring their workers back, so it's usually a good idea to send some of your workers to those regions.  

Charity projects will determine your strategy. Competition is fierce. If two players have built many housing projects, both will try to win the charity project related to housing. Often you already spend money to claim a charity project before you have fulfilled the condition to score the full 12VP. You don't want to wait too long because your opponent may beat you to it. You must watch your opponents. By observing their charity projects, you can somewhat predict their next steps. 


This was Han's company. He had sent a worker to the 4th floor, in preparation to set up a new department. 


This was early in our game. We did a 3-player game, and black was the neutral player colour. Black discs blocked a spot in San Francisco and a route from San Francisco to Denver. They also blocked some spots in the East region. Han was yellow and started in Chicago in the Mid West. Allen was blue, and started in the South. I was white, and picked Denver in the West as my first location. I planned to connect to only three major cities - San Francisco, Chicago and New Orleans. I didn't dare to be too ambitious and aim for all four. 


This was my company. I built projects swiftly in the early game. The third and fourth project strips already had 5 spots cleared, which meant I already had 5 projects on the main board. The money icons uncovered meant I was going to earn a decent sum of cash every time a worker returned to HQ. 


I (white) had now linked to Chicago in the Mid West and New Orleans in the South. My next objective was San Francisco in the West. 


The South region transportation track at the bottom right was flooded with workers. We all knew this region would get triggered soon so we dumped many workers there. 


At this point I had used up all the discs on my project strips. This was bad. No discs meant I would not be able to build any project if anyone picked the construction action. I needed to do R&D to pull my project strips out further in order to make more discs available. 


Competition for charity projects was fierce. At this point all of us had donated four times (blue, yellow, white). Your first project costs $5. The second costs $10, the third $15, and so on. 


This was Han's company. He had created quite a number of new departments. Every new department would score 2 or 3VP. 


This was Allen's company. He had an additional lobby at the 3rd level. New recruits and returning workers could go there directly. This saved his HR people some moves when assigning these workers to departments on levels 3 and 4. 

In this game we played, I gave up on creating new departments quite early in the game. At game setup, I had picked a construction department, without examining it closely. It was only later I realised that it worked in the exact same way as the initial construction department. It would only help if I needed to build more than three projects at once. That never happened, so picking this department was a waste. I did focus on construction, and I built projects more quickly than others. However as I ran out of discs, Allen and Han eventually caught up. In hindsight, giving up on new departments was a bad idea. New departments make your actions more powerful and make you stronger for the rest of the game. They are a good early investment which will make you more efficient. 

The Thoughts

I greatly enjoyed Carnegie. It is a development game. You start with limited funds and resources, and only basic abilities. Throughout the game you keep improving the abilities of your company. You will achieve a snowball effect if you manage your company well. You have pressure to grow because donations become more and more expensive. You need constant and fast growth to keep up. 

I also call this a planning game. With the timeline board you basically get to predict the future. Imagine going back in time with your knowledge of the major events and trends for the next 50 years. You can't predict the exact sequence of events in the game, but you do have a pretty good idea. That allows you to think ahead and plan. Events are player driven, which means you do have a hand in deciding what happens next, just that you also have to consider your opponents' intentions and needs. This kind of game is heaven for heavy Eurogamers - complex, open-information with plenty of planning. 

The charity projects are an important aspect of the competition among players. Sometimes you trigger a donation event when you know your opponents can't afford any donation but you can. You race to claim the charity projects which fit your play best. It is not all about racing though. You also need to consider the cash flow of your company. If you spend more than you can afford at a certain stage of the game, you may doom your company due to a lack of funds, severely setting yourself back. You must maintain liquidity for company operations. 

Charity projects will drive players in different directions, and they are an element which makes this a planning game. When you claim a charity project, you likely have not fully fulfilled its criteria. That means you will need to commit some effort to it. It ties you down somewhat. You would want to fully utilise the charity project if possible. At the start of the game, the main board and the player boards all have plenty of space for development. You have many options. As the players gradually commit to different charity projects and strategic directions, some options will be more valuable to you than others. You want to maximise actions which help you the most, and whenever possible hinder your opponents from doing what would help them the most. The difference in value of the various development aspects in the game is not driven by some random card draw. They are driven by the collective decisions of the players. 

I like that Carnegie does not rely on many different resource types, i.e. cubes in four different colours. There is only one cube type in the game and they are simply called "resources". Your currency in the game are just resources and money. Well, and workers too I guess. 

Carnegie is a complex Eurogame with high player interaction. It is a heavy gamers' game. I highly recommend it. Just be prepared for some learning curve in your first game. 

Friday, 2 July 2021

Unboxing: Priests of Ra vs Ra

 

That's Priests of Ra (published 2009) on the left and the first version of Ra (1999) on the right. Ra is a game with special meaning to me. It is one of the games I played when I first got into the hobby. At the time it was out of print. I read about it, read the rules, and was so intrigued that I hand-made a copy. Now that I think back about it, it was a crazy undertaking. So many tiles to cut one by one. I no longer have the stomach to do something like this now. My Taiwanese friends and I loved Ra and we played it many times using my ugly home-manufactured copy. They later secretly found a second hand copy on eBay Germany, and bought it for me as a birthday present. That day when we played Ra, they insisted that I be start player. I didn't suspect anything then. When I drew the first tile from the bag, I was stunned. Why is there colour on this tile? We were playing a real copy of the game! They had borrowed the game from me about a week earlier, and secretly swapped the tiles to surprise me. That's why Ra would be high on the to-save list if my house ever catches fire. 

Priests of Ra is also designed by Reiner Knizia. The bidding mechanism is exactly the same as Ra. However the tiles you win and how they score are very different. Since my copy of Ra is a second hand copy, I never saw the tiles fresh in their sprues. My copy of Priests of Ra is new. I was thrilled to see the fresh tiles, even though I've seen fresh tiles hundreds of times before. I don't usually do unboxing posts. This time I can't resist. 

I think the prettiest tile of all is the Ra tile (top). 

These are the citizen tiles. They are double-sided. I've only taken photos of one side. 

The purple tiles are the priests. They have special abilities and work differently from regular citizens. 

These are ankhs. You may collect up to four of them, and they score points. 


This is the Priests of Ra board. Compared to Ra (below), it is more colourful. It lists all the scoring methods too. The text is rather small though, and not easy to read. The background is a papyrus pattern, and that makes the small text harder to read. Although at first sight this newer board looks more attractive, after a while I feel it looks busy. Maybe I'm being a stubborn old-timer who can't let go of old stuff. 

The Ra track is colourful. At first I thought that is bad. In the older board below, it is not coloured. When you place the Ra tiles (which are coloured) on the track, the visual experience is pleasant because you can easily see the progress. Also there is this feeling of filling up a colouring book. However the Ra track in the newer board has a green background, while the Ra tiles have an orange background. So it will still be easy to see the progress. 

In contrast, the Ra board looks a little plain. 


I found the bag that comes with Priests of Ra rather small. After putting all the tiles in, it is about two thirds full. It is hard to shuffle the tiles. So I found a bigger bag. 


I got this blue bag at a friends gathering three years ago. I think this was the bag for a whiskey bottle. We drank the whiskey and nobody cared about the bag. So I kept it, knowing sooner or later it would be of use with some board game. So here we are three years later. 


These are all the tile types in Priests of Ra. The tablets at the top are the victory points. The tiles in the first row are single-sided, or to be more accurate, both sides are the same. The rest of the tiles are all double-sided. Yellow is always on the other side of blue, red always on the other side of green. Whenever you draw a double-sided tile, you immediately decide which side to use. Whenever you claim a priest tile, you may use it to flip one tile in your play area. The double-sided tiles is a new mechanism introduced in Priests of Ra


The game components on the left are from Priests of Ra, while those on the right are from Ra. At a glance, the Priests of Ra components do look more colourful and attractive. The Ra tiles in both versions (falcon head with a sun on top) work the same way. The priests (purple tiles) in Priests of Ra is roughly equivalent to the gods (yellow tiles) in Ra. They both have special powers. The priests can be used to flip double-sided tiles and also to remove plagues. Gods are used to directly claim a tile on the board without initiating any auction. 

The plague tile in Priests of Ra looks similar to the funeral tile in Ra, but they work differently. Plagues simply deduct points. Every additional plague tile costs you more points. Funeral tiles only target your pharaohs. You lose two pharaohs that you have collected. 

The citizen tiles in Priests of Ra give you points if you have more of them than other players, but you need at least two. All four types of citizens work the same way. In Ra, there are five types of civilisation tiles. If you have none, you lose points. If you have three or more types, you gain points. You don't need to compare with others though. The one thing that's common between citizen tiles and civilisation tiles is they are discarded after being scored at the end of an epoch. Next epoch you start collecting all over again. 


In Priests of Ra you have buildings and you also get to build a stepped pyramid. These are not lost at the end of each epoch like the citizens. The rough equivalent in Ra is the monuments, which are only scored at the end of the game. In Ra there are a few other tile types which cannot be found in Priests of Ra - coins, pharaohs, the River Nile and disasters. Disasters in Ra all target specific tile types you have collected. You are forced to discard them. The only disaster type in Priests of Ra is the plague. 

The numbered suns (used for bidding) and the Ra token in Priests of Ra are the same as the first edition of Ra. That's great news. They look good. In later editions of Ra, these components were not as good as the first edition.