Friday 31 December 2021

my 2021

The most important milestone for me in 2021 is Dancing Queen winning the Best Overall Game at the 9-card Nanogame Design Contest. This was a great encouragement for me to continue working on game design. I became a boardgame hobbyist in 2003. Throughout the years I have mostly been a consumer and not a creator. I did dabble a little in game design a few times, but I never took it seriously until recent years. The first game I spent a lot of time and energy on was F My Life, a game about questionable life decisions which has some dark humour. I made a prototype and played it quite a few times with different people. However I was not able to get it to a stage I was satisfied with. Eventually I set it aside. I still like the premise. Hopefully I can think of some other way to make it work. Then I'll return to it. 

The whole idea behind Dancing Queen was inspired by the contest. The rules required that contestants use at most 9 cards to design a game. I found this an interesting challenge because I've always admired Love Letter. It only has 18 cards but it is a clever and compact design. I wanted to do something like that - create a fun game with minimal components. Dancing Queen went through many cycles of designing, playtesting and fine-tuning. It was a rewarding experience with many happy discoveries. 

In November I participated in the Game On Lah event. This was the first time I showcased my game design at a public event. It was a valuable experience. 

I have quite a few work-in-progress game designs. Some of them are portable 2-player games just like Dancing Queen. I toyed with the idea of making a 10-card game and an 11-card game as follow ups to Dancing Queen. These games are easier to work on because younger daughter Chen Rui is usually willing to playtest with me. She was my #1 playtester for Dancing Queen and even developed a strategy I hadn't seen myself. However I later shifted to work on games for bigger groups. 2-player games may be too niche. If I am aiming at the global market, the 2P target audience is big enough. However if I'm going to start with Malaysia, then a safer and easier bet is probably casual games for 4 to 6 players which can be played at boardgame cafes and at non-gaming-specific gatherings. Now I have some prototypes which are for this player range. Some game ideas started with using just a standard deck of cards. This makes creating prototypes easier, because I don't need to create a prototype. 

Jeff, Kareem and I are working on establishing a games studio to design, develop, publish and market Malaysian games. We are all busy with our other primary jobs so this is moving slowly, but we hope to make steady progress.

Work-wise, this year I joined a partnership with three other friends to work on an education business targeting young children aged 4 to 7 - Play with Purpose. We are now one of the distributors of HABA, the 80-year-old German company specialising in children's games, toys and other products. We will be bringing the HABA Learning Program to children in Malaysia. It's a blessing to work on something you are passionate about. As the saying goes - when you find a job you love, you never have to work another day in your life. You are doing what you enjoy, so it doesn't feel like "work" anymore. In 2015 when I joined a mobile game company, it was a most exciting time in my work life.  

The pandemic situation in Malaysia was much worse in 2021 compared to 2020. I attended even fewer boardgame meet-ups than last year. This year I have slightly more than 30 new-to-me games. One which stands out is MicroMacro: Crime City. It is certainly something very different from the typical boardgame. It is essentially a solo detective game. It's the kind of game you can only solve once, just like reading a detective story. 

MicroMacro: Crime City

This year I played quite a few new-to-me games on They were all played with Han and Allen. We play with a Zoom conference call on at the same time, so that we can chat. The experience feels much closer to playing face-to-face. The three of us used to game regularly some years ago. We all like to play fast, often starting our turns when the previous player is still wrapping up his moves. Our tastes in games overlap well enough. We clicked well as a small gaming group. Now Han lives in Johor Bahru, about 4 hours drive away, so we don't get to meet up often. Due to the pandemic we actually met up and played, albeit virtually, more than in recent years. Among the games played online this year, I liked Carnegie the most. I can't really justify why I like it better than other similar games. It's a strategic Eurogame. It is a development game in which you improve your abilities and get more and more powerful. You get a sense of achievement as you see your efforts pay off. You get to set long-term goals, and when you are able to achieve them, you get much satisfaction. Yet many heavy Eurogames have these too. 


I bought a used copy of Baseball Highlights 2045. I rarely play sports-themed games and generally don't find them interesting. I am not familiar with baseball. However I quite enjoyed this game. It's a tactical 2-player game with some deck-building. You gradually trade mediocre players for better and better ones, augmenting your team. You will leverage the abilities of your players. At the same time you watch what kind of players your opponent is buying, so that you know how to play against them, maybe even recruit new players who are good at defending against or even neutralising your opponent's strengths. 

Baseball Highlights 2045

I bought a copy of Imperial Struggle, designed by the makers of Twilight Struggle. It looks more intimidating than Twilight Struggle, but once you get into it, it is not that scary. I enjoyed this sweep of history game. 

Imperial Struggle

Traders of Osaka has the Japanese game signature - small box, few components, simple rules, but everything is intricately crafted and comes together as a clever and tightly-woven game. Often when I read the rules of these Japanese games, I cannot fathom what makes them fun. Only upon experiencing them first hand I am able to appreciate their brilliance. 

Traders of Osaka

In 2021 I have bought only six games. If declaring oneself a boardgamer requires a license, mine would have been revoked. I bought MicroMacro: Crime City, Imperial Struggle, A Kindly World and Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 because they promised a certain experience I was keen about. I have owned Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 for almost a year now, and still have not started playing the campaign, because of the actual pandemic happening around us. Hopefully next year I will at least get the campaign kicked off with the same team who accompanied me through seasons 1 and 2. 

I bought Priests of Ra because I was curious to see how it worked. Ra is a game full of happy memories for me. Priests of Ra is not new. In fact it is probably out of print in most places. I bought it mostly because of nostalgia for its predecessor. Strictly speaking it was my wife Michelle who bought JOME. For now I count all game purchases in the household as mine. Michelle bought JOME to support a local game designer. 

My most played games in 2021 were all played on digital platforms - Race for the Galaxy (played against AI's), Star Realms and Ascension. I played more than 400 games of Race for the Galaxy, and more than 100 games of both Star Realms and Ascension. Other games played more than 5 times include MicroMacro: Crime City (I solved all the crimes in the base game), Betrayal Legacy (my family and I continued the campaign late last year and completed it early this year), and Sky Towers. I have certainly played many games of Dancing Queen too, just that I didn't record them when I was still in the designing and playtesting stage. Because of that I didn't develop the habit of recording plays for it even after the game was done (as in submitted for the contest). Maybe I feel the game is never quite done because it is my own design. I can always decide to change it and improve it further. 

Race for the Galaxy

I was interviewed by Sinchew Daily again. The last time was 2017 and it was a different reporter then. This time round a few others in local boardgame circles were also interviewed. The reporter wrote a series of articles and they took up quite a lot of space. This was good exposure for boardgames. 

Here are my hopes for next year. I hope the pandemic situation gets better, and I can have more face-to-face gaming sessions. I hope to make more progress in game design and game publishing. I hope to introduce the boardgame education programme (HABA Learning Program) to more children, parents and educators. Here's wishing a happy new year to everyone! 

Tuesday 28 December 2021

Dancing Queen in Italy


I blogger in Italy wrote a short review for Dancing Queen and contacted me to let me know. Go check it out if you know Italian. It's a great feeling to know that someone from the other side of the world, from a country I have never been to, spent the effort to download, print and craft a copy of my game to play it. It is very encouraging. 

Click for more information on Dancing Queen.

Friday 24 December 2021

Brazil Imperial

The Game

Brazil Imperial is a game of colonisation and nation building set in the age of exploration. It is a 4X game and a civilisation game in which you start with a humble capital and grow into an empire, competing with other players for territory and resources. You construct buildings and cities. You produce resources and use them to expand your empire. You discover unknown secrets of the land. You raise troops and conduct battle to seize opponent cities, buildings and resources. The game is played over three eras. Every player gets one mission card per era. An era progresses to the next the first time anyone completes a mission of that era. Once anyone completes a mission of the third era, the game ends. Many things you do in the game give you points. The highest scorer at the end of the game wins. 

The game comes with many different setups. This above is one of the 2-player setups. The starting locations of the two capitals are fixed. The fog tiles are secrets you get to explore. They are usually good and the benefits are claimed on a first come first served basis. The map has different terrain types - plains, forests, gold deposits and lakes. Different terrain types allow different buildings. 

Everyone gets a player board like this. The large tile on the left is a monarch tile. You have a few options and every monarch gives a different bonus. The player board is mostly identical between players. The only differences are the army composition and costs. Each different coloured player board comes with a set of monarchs. 

The green player has two archers, a monarch, a cavalry and a cannon. The icons below the units are the costs to raise these troops. The units have different combat strengths and are also worth victory points the moment you create them. They never die. If they lose a battle, they just go to a waiting area. The next time you perform the deploy action, you may deploy them to your city or capital for free. 

The monarch unit is the only unit type which can establish a new city. The cavalry unit brings along any number of other units when it moves, which is very handy. The cannon can initiate a battle from an adjacent space. Normally you need to enter a space occupied by an opponent to initiate battle. 

A player turn is short and simple. You pick one action, and you march once or twice. You can always march a unit once. Whether you get a second march depends on the action you pick and what kind of extra march it gives. E.g. the buy painting action gives an extra march if a unit is going to march into an adjacent forest. So it's situational. 

The 7 action options are shown in arches on the player board (see above). You can deploy troops, buy paintings, construct buildings and cities, collect resources and convert resources. Paintings give you special abilities and are worth points. They augment your abilities and are good investments. There's one action called manufacturing. You spend resources to move a cube, a pentagon or an octagon (see above) to one of the action arches. This enhances the action designated by the arch, e.g. waiving the payment for producing goods. This is also good investment especially when you enhance an action you plan to perform many times. 

There are three types of paintings and two of each type will be made available at all times. The rightmost two are free, the others require payment. The leftmost two are the most expensive because you need to pay science. The blue resources are science, the most precious resource in the game. 

These are mission cards. They are what drive the core progression of the game. Think of them as a countdown mechanism. Whenever a mission of a particular era is completed and announced, everyone progresses to the next era. You must work on your missions so that you don't miss out on the point value and also the reward of building a palace. There are 6 types of palaces in the game. The first one is free and is used to mark your capital. The rest can be built only when you complete missions. They give various bonuses, and often these come in the form of extra victory points based on specific criteria being met at game end. Your choice of palace determines how you play. 

These are the palaces you get to build during play.

When you construct a building, it immediately produces resources. You place the resources on the building itself and you can use them any time. Once you exhaust them, you can make the building produce again by picking the renovate action. It's called renovate and not produce because before you produce, you may flip the building to the other side, transforming it into another building type which produces a different resource type. 

This little side board is for organising some of the components. At the top left you have the combat cards. You draw a combat card when you deploy a unit. Combat cards give you extra combat strength. During combat, the strength of units, buildings and cities are open information. The strength of combat cards is hidden information. Both combatants commit combat cards face-down. They are revealed when combat resolution is done. 

At the top right you have the gold cards. They have various abilities. Some may score you points at game end based on certain conditions being met. Some give one-time powers. If a gold card is not useful to you, you can simply spend it as a gold coin. 

The two stacks at the bottom are city tiles. When you build a city, you must pick from the top of one of these stacks. Cities are worth 5VP each, which is a lot. They are also expensive to build. 

Brazil Imperial is a game where you race to grow your nation, producing more resources which you then spend to construct more buildings and cities. Almost every other thing you do in the game scores you points - buildings, cities, military units, paintings and so on. Whoever does the best overall job of building his empire will be the ultimate winner. 

The Play

I did a 2-player game with Allen, so our map was small. We were both new to the game. 

Allen (light blue) picked the capital location at the bottom right, so I took the other one at the top left. One thing unique about the light blue empire is most military units are built with gold coins, so Allen focused on constructing buildings which produced gold coins. A new building can only be constructed next to a capital, a city or another building. Only new cities can be constructed without being adjacent to your territory. 

The mission of the first era was not very difficult and I completed it quickly. I had a strict focus and minimised the number of steps needed to complete the mission. The speed surprised Allen a little. However for both Eras 2 and 3 he beat me to the missions. 

This piece in the middle is Allen's monarch. The monarch is a military unit and has combat strength. Its most important function is to build new cities. 

My (green) monarch was now deployed too and sailed towards the group of unexplored territories (fog tiles). Allen and I competed to uncover the secrets of these unexplored territories. He was faster than me in building construction. By now he had five buildings while I had only three. 

When you perform an action, you place your action marker inside the corresponding arch. This reminds you not to perform the same action next turn. You use a different action marker every era. When an era ends, you flip over the expired action marker and place it below one of your action arches. This boosts the action from then on. In the photo above you can tell this is the third era, because two action arches now have been boosted, with old action markers placed below them. 

My monarch tile (on the left of the player board) gave me resources when I purchased paintings. I picked this particular monarch because one of my missions required collecting many paintings. I wanted to create synergy.

At the top right Allen and I were now in a stalemate situation. We had both built cities, and now we both had armies stationed in our cities. No one dared to attack, because whoever attacked would be at a disadvantage. The defender could rely on the combat strength of his city. Fighting never broke out between these two cities until the end of the game. 

The map doesn't take up much space, but the rest of the game does. 

One of my (green) palaces scored points based on the number of cotton farms I had, so I build as many cotton farms as I could, and also renovated foundries to become cotton farms. The white resources on the map are cotton. 

When we did the final scoring, Allen and I both scored 76! I fell behind Allen in expanding my empire so I was not optimistic. I was the one who read the rules and I was more familiar with some of the intricacies. That gave me some advantage in some detailed execution aspects. The tiebreaker was science (blue resource) on the map. Allen had two and I had none, so he was the victor. I wasn't able to start constructing Era 3 buildings, and he already had two. 

The Thoughts

A turn in Brazil Imperial is very simple, and it makes the game feel accessible. You only perform one action and you may march up to twice. Down time between player turns is minimal. You always feel engaged. Actions are simple, and you usually have to plan a few steps ahead to complete a certain objective, e.g. renovate a certain building to produce resources, then spend those resources on manufacturing a product to enhance the deploy action, and then perform the deploy action to be able to deploy two units at once. 

You are always in a cycle of producing resources then spending them to expand your empire, be it in enhancing your abilities or building more and more stuff - buildings, military units and cities. You are always hungry and growing. That said, being big does not guarantee victory. You may have more space to construct cities and buildings, but smaller empires which are efficient in utilising their buildings can still do well in scoring points. 

There is a delicious tension between upgrading your abilities and racing to complete missions. On one hand it seems a no-brainer to upgrade your abilities in the early game, so that you get to enjoy the advantages for the rest of the game. But how far should you go? There is time pressure in completing the missions. If you spend too much time on upgrading many different abilities, you may not be utilising all of them enough. You may fall behind your opponents. Yet if you only focus on the race without developing a competitive edge, you will likely be outpaced by your opponents. There is pressure to grab land and to explore the unknown territories too. Finders keepers (usually)! 

Brazil Imperial is the type of game with many different ways to score points. Sometimes when playing such games I feel my strategic planning doesn't matter much. No matter what you do, you will score points. It's just a matter of being efficient and being clever with tactical execution. As long as you are efficient, you will end up scoring more points than your opponents. You try to be lazy. You want maximum gains with minimum effort. It comes down to an efficiency game. This is something that nags at me when I play. 

I like that the game makes me feel that there are many things I want to do, and I have a tough time deciding which I should do first, and which I may have to give up. You can't take your sweet time and do everything you like. There's a race going on. You need to pick a few areas and make sure your actions synergise well. Brazil Imperial is a development game. It is fulfilling to see your empire grow. You progress to construct better and better buildings. You accumulate wealth. You push your borders outwards. There is some combat but it won't be your primary focus. Raising troops gets you victory points, but killing opponents' soldiers doesn't. It takes much effort to capture your opponents' cities and buildings. It may not be worthwhile. The military aspect is an arms race. You can't afford to fall behind too far because your opponents are still threatening to steal your resources and points. You may not want to spend too much effort on planning an offensive because you may not get much out of it. It's not too hard to play defense and to match an aggressive neighbour in strength. 

The production of the game is top-notch, from the art to the game components. Allen said he decided to buy it because of how pretty it was, and that was before he even read the rules. 

I like how Brazil Imperial maintains a sense of urgency. You don't know your opponents' missions and how close they are to completing them. The clock is ticking and you always worry about falling behind and being unable to complete your own missions. Era 3 missions are broad and thus not easy to fulfil. You are often torn between focusing only on the main missions and going off on lucrative side quests. You want to do everything, and you are constantly worried you won't have enough time. 

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! 

The theme for 2021 is mecha deities and this character is Dionysus from Greek mythology. 

Friday 17 December 2021

A Kindly World

I rarely support games on Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms. Over the years that crowdfunding boardgames has been popular, I've supported fewer than ten games. This year I supported A Kindly World from Japan partly because I like the art style. I like that it is a little quirky and has something a little different to offer. I have never played other games by the designer. I read the rules before deciding to pledge. 

I was a little worried whether my package was lost in transit. Some supporters in USA had received their copies when I was still waiting for mine. It was a relief when the game arrived. I rarely receive mail from Japan so I couldn't help feeling a little excited about it. The box was slightly larger than A4, more or less the size of a a standard board game. 

The actual game is quite small, as you can see above. It was well protected by the mailing box. The mailing box was big enough for the game rules and the clear holder. 

The rules were not stapled into a booklet form. They are in loose sheets. The rules don't fit into the game box. I later created my own rules summary and made it small enough to fit inside the game box. 

The rules came in three sheets of paper. 

The last page is the card manifest. 

The English version is actually just the Japanese version with an English obi, i.e. the black paper belt above with English text, and rules in English. There is only one version of the actual game and it is in Japanese. The cards do have Japanese text, but the game is very much playable even if you don't know Japanese. 

The back of the box (and obi).

The game is pretty small, and the cards too. 

The rules summary I made can fit inside the game box.

The Game

A Kindly World is a push-your-luck set collection game. You collect cards during the game, and you win by collecting 7 different types of item cards. Every player gets a role card. You can also win by completing the mission on your role card. 

The first row are the roles, the second row the items. The items have patterns along the edges, and this is how you differentiate them by type. In addition to the patterns, you can also tell them apart by the number at the top left corner. The number specifies how many cards there are of that particular type. The number of cards of the various types range from 5 to 9. Two types have 8 cards. In this case one type has the 8 written in a solid font, and the other has 8 written in an outline font. So you can still tell them apart using the number. 

On your turn, you must create a row of cards, and you try to claim these cards before any clash happens. Once there is any clash, you must end your turn and without claiming any card. All cards in the row are discarded. 

A player's turn starts like this. The top card of the draw deck is face-up. The rest still remain face-down. When I first read the rulebook I didn't understand why this was necessary. Only upon playing the game I appreciated why this was practical. The active player must move the top card of the deck to the right at least once. Cards on the right of the deck form a row, and these are what you try to claim before your turn ends. 

The card which was on top of the deck has been moved to the right, and the top card of the deck is now turned face-up. If you compare the patterns on the edges of the cards, they are different, which means there is no clash yet. They are cards of different types. At this point you may decide to claim the card on the right and end your turn. Or you may decide to be greedy and move the top card of the deck to the right again. 

Now the new top card of the deck is again a new type and does not clash with any of the cards on the right. Now you may take both the cards on the right, or you may gamble again and move the top card to the right. What all this means is if you want the top card of the deck, you will need to gamble and hope the next card doesn't cause any clash. This is tantalising. The exact card you want may be dangling right in front of you, tempting you. If the top card of the deck is not what you want, and the cards on the right include some which you do want, it may be a good time to stop and claim them while you can. 

If you continue to move cards to the right, you may end up with a situation like this. Now the top card of the deck clashes with the card immediately next to it. That means you have failed and will leave empty handed. All three cards on the right must be discarded. 

This is how you collect cards. Once you have all 7 item types, you win. 

The other way to win is to complete the mission on your role card. Everyone is dealt one role card at the start of the game. This is initially kept secret. The missions are related to collecting cards too, but the requirements vary. The child wants to collect three cards with toy cars. Mr Pumpkin needs 2 cards in one type, 2 in another type, and 3 in yet another type. You have two goals to work towards. 

These are the trees of light. There are 4 such cards in the game. The rightmost card is the final tree of light, and it is shuffled into the bottom 10 cards of the deck. The rest are shuffled into the rest of the deck. When the first tree of light appears, role cards which are unused are revealed. This helps you narrow down the possibilities of your opponents' roles. You know which roles are in play, but you may not know yet who's having which role. When the second tree of light appears, everyone reveals his role. Now everyone knows for certain what everyone else is trying to do. The trees of light are relevant to some of the roles, e.g. the city person needs to collect two trees of light.  

These above are all the cards with a solid 8. They all share the same border pattern. The drawings are all different. I like this and think it is lovely, even though it is not exactly practical. Three of the cards of this type have the toy car icon at the bottom right. In the whole game there are 8 cards with toy cars. 

These are the cards in the outline 7 series, and they are all related to music. 

If no one has won by the time the last tree of light appears, you follow a tiebreaker procedure to see who wins. You check for fewest trees of light, then the most toy cars, and finally the most cards. 

The Play

My first game of A Kindly World was a 2-player game with Chen Rui. The 2-player game is a variant and is a little more complicated. The game is primarily designed for 3 or 4, and having played both 2- and 3-player games, I would recommend first timers to start with 3- or 4-player games. In the 2-player game, the role cards are shuffled into the main deck instead of every player being dealt one before the game starts. You collect role cards in the same way you collect item cards. You can win be fulfilling the mission of any one of the role cards you have collected. The 2-player game may be slightly more strategic than the standard 3- and 4-player game, but I think A Kindly World is meant to be a light game. I prefer to play with the simpler standard rules. 

2-player game in progress.

The game plays briskly. This feels like a five-minute game. Both times I played, once with two players and the other with three, we played three games back-to-back. Otherwise it doesn't feel like we've sit down long enough to have played a game. Many games take longer to set up than this game takes to play!

Despite being a simple game, there are some clever bits to discover. It is useful to try to guess your opponents' roles. If you know what the next player is trying to collect, you will avoid leaving cards that will help him. Whether to move another card to the right seems like a brainless decision, but there are actually a few factors to consider. It is not just a linear decision of few cards meaning low risk and many cards meaning high risk. Sometimes you keep revealing cards and risk failing because you don't want to leave a good card for the next player. Sometimes you are happy to collect just one card. Sometimes you bet against the odds even when the odds are horrible. 

That pile at the top is the discard pile. Now three cards have been moved to the right and there is still no clash among all four visible cards. This is rare. 

My character was Mr Pumpkin. I was still far from completing my mission. 

In a 2-player game, role cards (rightmost in this photo) are shuffled into the draw deck. When you see such a card, you don't turn it face-up (unless the second tree of light has appeared). 

This many cards revealed and still no clash! This is a minor miracle. 

The role card is still kept secret since the second tree of light has not appeared. 

The village elder can substitute one tree of light as the 7th card type. I have 6 types now, but unfortunately no tree of light yet. I need a tree or the 7th card type to win.

Chen Rui was curious whether all the different drawings within one type of card can be linked together to form a story. She grouped the cards by type and tried to sequence them into stories. Kickstarter supporters will be getting a digital comic book. It is expected to be released in Feb 2022. 

This is a 3-player game. Everyone gets one role. 

The Thoughts

A Kindly World is novel. Despite being simple and light, it has some endearing quirks. Sometimes I feel I get more fresh ideas and experiences from playing these clever little games than those typical 2-hour point salad Eurogames. There is a market for such heavy Eurogames, so many companies continue to make samey stuff and they continue to sell well. 

One reason I like A Kindly World is this is the kind of game I am learning to create. Something that works for non-gamers and casual gamers. Something that works at boardgame cafes and non-boardgame gatherings. But it must also have something new and interesting to offer. There has to be a certain catch. A Kindly World feels super simple, but it is not as innocent as it looks. It is no deep strategic game, but it does have a little spark of genius.