Friday 28 May 2021

The formula for hobbyist board games and heavy metal songs

I sometimes have a nauseating feeling that I am playing the same game over and over and over. I have been a board game hobbyist since 2003, and I mostly play heavy Eurogames. Board games is enjoying a golden age now. There are many new games being released every year. I find that among the popular heavy Eurogames, there is a certain sameness,  and that sometimes bothers me. At first I thought I could liken these popular games to pop songs. I later realised they are probably more like heavy metal songs. 

Hobbyist games (and by that I mean wargames, role playing games and collectible card games as well, not just heavy Eurogames) are still a small niche in the grand scheme of things. Declaring them pop songs would be flattering ourselves. Normal people play Monopoly and Uno, and at most maybe some Ticket to Ride or Catan. These are the pop songs equivalent. Heavy metal songs are a niche, but a big enough one. There are many metalheads out there, enjoying the same type of music. There are enough fans to support an industry. As hobbyists we tend to think of ourselves as better than muggles, not unlike how rockers and metalheads frown upon people enjoying sappy pop songs. 

Monopoly, the all-time favourite pop song

We think we are so cool, but we (especially the heavy Eurogamers) are mostly just accountants. Many of the games we play are elaborately decorated spreadsheets. Or project management training exercises. Or high school probability test papers. We are not really warriors or generals or vampire slayers. A heavy metal band is just people playing music, not very different from a string quartet. We think rock bands are cool and string quartets are boring, but they are in principle the same. They are people playing music and delivering a message, a story, and emotions. They hone their skills to play the best music they can, in the style they like. It's just that the band is packaged in an attractive bad boy or rebel image, while we think of quartets as being staid. Becoming a good string quartet is probably harder than becoming a decent metal band.  

Axis and Allies is just high school probability, right?!

It's just sugar, salt and fat. Again and again. Why do people keep enjoying junk food? It is simply because our bodies have not evolved to adapt to the modern world. Our bodies are still the same as those of our ancestors on the African savannah. You see sweet fruits, you stuff yourself with them, because you don't know when you'll come across more. It's survival instinct. That's why unhealthy junk food businesses are able to keep us addicted. You may have heard of those four-chord progressions, and three-chord progressions in not just pop music, but also rock and metal music. Similar drum beats, similar guitar distortion effects, similar hoarse screaming. In hobbyist games, you have multiple paths to victory, collecting resources then converting them to victory points, building your city / empire / tableau, and combat resolution tables. These are things we are comfortable with. It's part of our psychology to enjoy progress. We devour the same stuff over and over because they make us feel good. Different name on the box, different artwork, different designer, different setting, but underneath all that, you often see the same soothing elements - victory points, accumulation of wealth, progress on tracks, filling up a map and so on. We are all subconsciously staying within our comfort zones, whether as board game hobbyists or as metalheads. It is natural to dislike and be suspicious of anything that goes against what we are familiar with. We build the echo chambers in which we trap ourselves, without realising it. 

Gugong - meet the emperor, and score victory points!

Miniatures. Oh the miniatures. That's consumerism. Games with miniatures do very well on Kickstarter, leading to more games with miniatures on Kickstarter. Not to say that they are all poor games. Beautifully sculpted miniatures certainly add to the gaming experience. The value of board games is the experiences they give us, and aesthetics is part of that experience. Miniatures are not always necessary, and sometimes they are used more as tools to help market a game than as tools which enrich the play experience, which is sad. Well, maybe I have never been a big miniatures person. They are not very important to me. Not every metal band needs to dress like KISS and have fireworks. I'm content as long as they don't go on stage in shorts and sandals. 

Rising Sun

What do game publishers actually sell to us? Yes, the most important one is the experience of playing a game. Then there's also the miniatures mentioned above. People like owning something pretty. Owning stuff is probably a compulsion that we inherited from our forefathers too. In periods of scarcity, mankind held on to what possessions it had to help it survive until the good times returned. 

One more way which board games make us feel good is they give us a learning curve. We love this learning curve. The process of learning a game and playing it competently is rewarding. Usually it takes a game or two to become familiar with a game. Sometimes after that's done, we feel we've seen all there is to it, and we move on to the next shiny new game. It doesn't matter that there is likely some further depth we have not explored. We've seen enough. There is no longer enough kick from further mastering the game. We need the next game to give us that kick. This is one way I explain why board game hobbyists keep churning through new games. This is like pop songs. People who listen to pop songs will always keep moving on.  

Imperial Struggle will certainly last you a little longer if you only plan to enjoy learning the rules, but it would be a shame not to explore this game beyond that. 

Some of the more recent games I enjoyed bring something new to the table. Not all of them are heavy Eurogames. I enjoyed the picture treasure hunt in MicroMacro: Crime City. I liked the different trick-taking experience in The Crew. I admire how Wolfgang Warsch came up with so many interesting new ideas - The Mind, Fuji and The Quacks of Quedlinburg. Even though Illusion was just so-so for me, I liked how different it was. I wonder whether it is because these games gave me more kick in the learning-something-new department. 

MicroMacro: Crime City

Hobbyist games are becoming a mature market. Like the movie industry, there are huge hits, and there are also large companies which cannot afford to fail. I imagine that's why many established companies go for safer designs. And miniatures. Business is business. These are real companies with real people and real livelihoods. Publishing games is no longer a small business or a side gig for them. Although it saddens me that many of the recent popular games don't thrill me, I am happy that there are still many other games and new ideas to be discovered. Go indie designers and new designers! 

Ultimately, there's nothing wrong with people enjoying the same stuff over and over. It's their money and their time, and they are not hurting anyone else. They are supporting the industry, and making it possible for game designers, game artists and game publishers to earn a decent living doing what they love, creating what we all love. 

So yes, rock on, Mr and Ms accountant! 

Tuesday 25 May 2021

Beyond the Sun

The Game

Beyond the Sun is a recent game from Rio Grande Games. When Eurogames were just starting to become popular in the English-speaking world, Rio Grande Games was one of just a handful of game publishers in the industry, releasing great games from Europe in English. Now there are many more publishers in the industry, and Rio Grande is no longer one of the the biggest names among publishers. I have bought many of their games, like Race for the Galaxy, Power Grid and Dominion. Beyond the Sun is the debut work of designer Dennis Chan. It has been well-received, and is already out of print! I am happy for Dennis and Rio Grande, since I have been a big fan of Rio Grande. Hopefully the reprint will come soon and more people will get to play this game. 

In Beyond the Sun, humankind has developed interstellar travel, and is expanding beyond the solar system and colonising other star systems. In the beginning you only know basic starfaring techs, but as the game progresses, you will discover and learn new techs. You will build spaceships and send them to control and to eventually colonise new planets. The game ends when a certain number of objectives are achieved by players collectively. Whoever scores the most points wins the game. You get points in many ways, including developing new techs, colonising planets and achieving objectives. 

What stands out most in the game is the tech tree, on the right side of this screenshot. There are five levels of tech. Along the left edge of the tech tree board you have basic starfaring techs, and at the start of the game you already know some of them. To their right you have techs from Levels 1 to 4. At game start, the Level 1 techs are revealed but no one has learned them yet. You need to perform the research action to learn them. The lines on the tech tree determine how you can progress in technology. To discover any Level 2 tech, you must have learned all of its prerequisite techs. Whenever you learn a tech, you place one population die next to it. 

The core game mechanism is worker placement, and everyone has just one worker, i.e. like Le Havre. You don't restrict your opponents a lot. Usually you'll only delay them for one round. When you take a spot they want, they just need to wait for you to vacate the spot next round. You can't stay put. Still, at critical moments, even one round of delay can be crucial.  

Actions you can perform include researching, building spaceships, upgrading spaceships, moving your spaceships about and colonising. Along the bottom of the screenshot above there are four objective cards. Two of them are fixed every game, the other two are randomly drawn. Objectives include colonising four star systems, researching a Level 4 tech, and owning a specific amount of population, ore (ore is money) and spaceships. 

On a player's turn, you do just two things. First you assign your worker to a new spot to perform an action. Then you choose to produce population, produce ore, or perform resource conversion. 

These are the player boards, and I am quite fascinated with how they work. First, let's talk about the two rows of discs at the bottom. Those with leaves are farms, and those with gears are mines. At game start, these two rows are filled except for the leftmost spots. This indicates that your population and ore production capacity are both 1. As you move discs away and uncover more spots, your production increases. You can move discs away by performing automation, which moves discs to the automation row at the top of your player board. You can also move discs away by controlling and colonising planets. You will place one disc on a controlled planet, and two on a colonised planet. 

The cubes on your player board look like dice but they are not used that way. When in their columns, they represent available supplies. When you produce population, you take these supplies from their columns and turn them into population. When you build spaceships, you take population and convert them to spaceships. Let's look at the green player board above. In the farm row, two spots indicating production capability are revealed. This means when the player decides to produce population, he will take one cube from the first column, and another from the second column, matching the spots which indicate population production capabilities. He can produce two population because there are cubes in both of the leftmost columns. Now let's look at the red player. His population production capacity is 1, but unfortunately his first cube column is empty. If he chooses to produce population, he will not produce any, because there are no cubes for him to take. He will need to remove one more farm disc, so that he can produce population from his second column of cubes. 

Ore production works in a simpler way and does not depend on the cube columns. You just produce as many ore as indicated by the mine row. 

You are going to be kept most busy at the small star map on the left. At the bottom you see Earth. There are four planets available for colonisation, and three shipyard planets which you can use as remote bases for building spaceships. When you build ships, you will send them moving about the star map. Ship strength varies from 1 to 4. Highest total ship strength at any location determines control. If you control shipyard planets, you'll be able to build ships there, sometimes saving much traveling time compared to building ships on Earth. When you take control of a planet, sometimes you gain a benefit. You will also have the right to colonise it, at least until someone else wrests control from you. When you colonise a planet, you claim the card and put it in front of you, and you gain a benefit unique to the planet. You then draw a new planet card to refill the star map. Ships spent on colonisation are consumed and returned to your player board. 

You can always build ships on Earth. Control of Earth and the shipyard planets give 1 victory point at game end. Not a lot, but still worth considering. 

Every time anyone discovers a Level 2 or 3 tech, an event will be triggered. Usually it affects everyone. Sometimes there are choices involved, and the player who triggered it gets to decide how to resolve the event. He will try to resolve it to his advantage, naturally. This screenshot shows an event which affects a planet. Traveling to the planet becomes more expensive. You need to spend ore upon arrival. Allen placed the event on a planet where he already had presence, to deter Han and I from coming to compete with him. 

Cubes placed on the left of a tech card indicate the players who have learned the tech. There are four categories of techs, e.g. red is military, yellow is commercial. Whenever you discover a new tech, its category must be the same as its prerequisite techs. You will draw tech cards until you have two viable options. You then get to pick one. 

Some techs give you an immediate benefit. Some give you one or more action spots. The higher level techs give you more powerful actions. In the screenshot above, the new action spot allows you to pay ore to discover a Level 3 tech. To do this you must have also learned the relevant Level 2 techs. 

The tech tree is where you will unlock more and also more powerful action spots, which will help you compete on the star map. You mostly do stuff on the star map, fighting for control of planets and then colonising them. The techs help you do these effectively. 

The Play

I played with Allen and Han on

I had originally intended to play a newbie game without using unique factions. However the default setting uses factions. I realised the faction powers are just small tweaks in setup and don't introduce any rule change. They are newbie friendly. 

Most of our activities were on the star map. We were always competing to control planets because we all wanted to place our discs. We needed to do that to increase our production. We couldn't attack one another directly. The worst we could do was wrest control and send our opponents' discs back to their player boards, and maybe disrupt their colonisation plans. The star map was all about area majority competition. We competed to have more ships and more powerful ships than one another. 

Whenever you colonise a planet, you will be sacrificing ships. That makes you suddenly much weaker on the star map. You need to build up your strength again by commissioning new ships. There is a cyclical nature and a tempo to the competition on the star map. Your job is to make the most of these and eke out a slight advantage over your opponents. 

Managing your population is important. You don't have that many cubes to play with. If you are low on population, you won't be able to build enough ships. You have to manage the cycle of cubes on your player board becoming population, then becoming ships, then being consumed and eventually returning to your player board. You need to have enough cubes in circulation. You will spend population on researching techs, so you are under pressure to increase population production. Discovering techs tie down your population cubes permanently. 

Although ore production is not as complicated as population production, you still need to make sure you don't fall behind. Many actions require ore. In the screenshot above, Han (blue) had maxed out his ore production. 

Allen was red. One of his events gave him a proprietary tech, now placed below his player board. Only he could use the action spot on this proprietary tech. 

At this point Han (blue) controlled four planets on the star map. This was good for him because it kept four discs off his player board. In our game the most distant shipyard planet was seldom contested, simply because it was far and it was a hassle. This was good for Han because it meant his disc stayed there safely for a long time. 

You have to be selective about the techs you learn. It is not a good idea to try to know everything, because learning techs requires population, and population is in limited supply. You should focus on what helps you the most. One important action in the game is colonisation. Initially only one tech allows colonisation. Later there will be more which allow colonisation, but the colonisation actions are not all equal. Some colonisation actions are more costly. Knowing more than one colonisation tech is usually good, because that means you have flexibility and there is less risk of getting blocked off from doing colonisation. 

Our game was in the final round now. Along the top you can see that together we had achieved three objectives, which triggered game end. Han (blue) and I (green) had both colonised four planets, and we had almost removed all our discs. Both of us did much automation and had many discs in our automation tracks along the top of our player boards. 

We played twice, but unfortunately did not manage to discover a Level 4 tech. 

The Thoughts

Beyond the Sun has a sci-fi theme, which is not very common. The tech tree is the star of the show, so the theme is appropriate. The core mechanism is worker placement. What the tech tree provides is more and better action spots for worker placement. Most of the real action happens on the star map. Most actions enabled by the tech tree are to help you compete on the star map. If you only look at the star map part of the game, it is quite simple, and it is rather abstract too. It's a symmetrical, perfect information board. It cannot stand on its own as a game, at least not a very interesting one. However, it gives context to the tech tree. The techs you learn greatly help you compete on the star map. The star map and the tech tree need each other. Together they make the game. 

I greatly admire the design of player board, especially how population production works (wait, that sounds dirty...). Removing discs from the player board is closely linked to the competition on the star map. You have to compete fiercely to remove discs so that you can improve your nation's productivity. I like how the cubes change form from supplies to population to spaceships, and eventually get recycled. It's clever and it creates a challenging problem for the players. 

This is a development game. It is satisfying to be able to perform more and more powerful actions, and to grow your production capabilities. It is fun to orchestrate your space colonisation efforts and claim those trophy planets! 

Sunday 23 May 2021

Voting closes soon for Dancing Queen


The voting period for the BoardGameGeek 9-card print-and-play contest is closing soon. If you are a BGG member from before Jan 2021, please check out my submission and vote for me if you like the game. Details here. Thanks! 

Friday 21 May 2021



The Game

Suburbia is a tableau game. Everyone is building is his own city, one hex tile at a time. The tiles have different characteristics and powers. Many of the powers depend on other adjacent tiles or other tiles elsewhere in the city. To build a good city, you must create good tile combos. Since the positioning of tiles affects their powers, there is a spatial element to the game. 

There are two currencies in the game, money and population. Population is victory points, so you can think of the game as having just one currency. Every player keeps track of two key rates - your income is how much money you make every turn, your reputation is how much your population grows every turn. Both these rates can drop into the negative range. The tile powers sometimes affect your income or your reputation. Sometimes they directly affect your money or your population level, i.e. a one-time impact. For example, the freeway increases your income by 1 for each commercial building next to it. The high school gives you 3 population for every residential tile in your whole city. 

I bought the digital version of the game, so all below are screenshots of the app. 

Every player starts the game with the same initial city, consisting of three tiles. Green is residential, grey is administrative and yellow is industrial. At the top left of this user interface you see three stacks of face-down tiles. The tile backs are lakes. These are your draw decks. There is a game-end tile in the third stack. When you draw it, the game enters the final leg. At the top right you can see three stacks of basic tiles. These are always available to all players, unless they are all purchased. They are not very good tiles so they don't often become exhausted. Then you have a row of seven normal face-up tiles available to be purchased. The rightmost two are available at their standard prices, as shown on the tiles themselves. The further left you go, there will be a higher and higher surcharge on top of the standard price. Whenever you buy a tile, all tiles to its left are shifted right to fill the gap. A new tile is drawn to be placed at the leftmost spot. 

What you do on your turn is simply buy a tile, and then add it to your city. You make money every turn, and your population grows too. Both your income and reputation are capped at 15. When your population grows beyond certain thresholds, marked by red bars, both your income and your reputation will decrease by 1. On the population track, these red bars are initially far apart, but as your population increases, they become closer and closer. It becomes harder and harder to maintain high income and reputation as your population grows. 

The tile price is shown on the left corner of the tile. At the top right, you can see the impact to income (circle), reputation (square) or population (meeple). On some tiles there is an icon on the right, which indicates a tile type. That tile at the bottom left is blue, which means commercial category. At its right corner there is a briefcase icon, which means this is an office type tile. The powers of a tile are indicated at the bottom. 

During game setup a number of public and private missions are drawn. A mission specifies a condition, and if anyone fulfils that condition better than everyone else at game end, he scores points. Public missions are open information. E.g. the first mission above is whoever with the most grey tiles scores 15pts. Every player has one private mission. Only you know what it is, but at game end when it is revealed, everyone competes for it. 

When you build a tile, you may decide to flip it over and build a lake instead. Normally you do this when you are dirt poor and cannot afford any tile. Lakes don't cost money and instead help you make money. 

Before you place a tile, you get to preview the impacts to your stats. These numbers above mean your money, income, population and reputation. Placing this lake would give you $6. Your income is $2 per turn. Thus the $8 increase in money expected. Your reputation is 2, thus the +2 increase in population. 

If you are going to construct this office building, you will have less money next round since it's an expensive building. However the boost to income is good for the long run. 

The bottom left bit of the user interface shows the four key stats of every player: money, income, population and reputation. When you tap it, a small table pops up showing the number of tiles of every category and type for every player. This is useful because all the missions need you to pay attention to these. 

The Play

The tutorial in the app is short and doesn't explain all details. I had to download the rule book to properly understand some of the detailed rules. If you just want to get on with it and start playing, the tutorial is sufficient. It is understandable that they try to make the tutorial as simple and quick as possible. Most players on a digital device don't have the patience to read long rules, including me. I certainly skimmed the tutorial impatiently and tried to start playing as soon as possible. This is unlike me when I play a physical board game. 

I stumbled about in the first few games, since I didn't fully know what I was doing. I was not familiar with the tiles in the game, so I only read them as they came up, as opposed to anticipating them and adjusting my play to maximise their powers. I looked at how the AI's played and tried to learn from them. The AI's are a little weird. Sometimes they seem to completely give up on the missions, which to me doesn't make sense. However they do seem to manage some areas well, e.g. they can maintain a strong income sometimes. Overall, I think the AI's are just so-so. Enough to pose some challenge, but not particularly smart. 

When I played, my attention was glued to the four stats: money, income, population and reputation. In the early game income is important, because you want to be able to afford the nice tiles when they come up. Reputation is less important, because in the early game you don't want to grow your population too quickly. A high population makes income growth and reputation growth difficult. You should probably only focus on population mid way through the game or even later. When to switch to scoring mode is  the golden question. This reminds me of Dominion

The missions give big boosts to population, so you have to always keep them in mind. You might not be able to win them all, but you should try to compete. There really is no excuse to not work towards the public missions and your own private mission. You can observe the other players to guess their private missions. It's a no-no to ignore missions. You should only concede missions in a strategic manner, when you have good reason to. 

You can do some long-term planning. In the screenshot above I intentionally left a gap for a lake. When I place a lake here I will earn $8, $2 per tile adjacent to the lake. 

This is an AI city. On the left you see a black 2x marker. Every player has three such markers. On your turn instead of placing a tile, you may place such a marker instead. By doing this you are laying an existing tile again, paying the same cost, and doubling the power of the tile. Usually you do this to tiles which are particularly lucrative. 

This is the end-game scoring interface. I lost to the AI by just one point! At game end, cash is converted to population (i.e. victory points) at a 5:1 ratio. 

One of the missions in this game was to have the most number of connected grey tiles. 

My office building was almost fully surrounded by other blue (commercial) tiles. Every adjacent blue tile increases the income level by one. 

One mission in this game was to have the fewest industrial (yellow) tiles. I insisted on not building any. The only yellow tile I had was my starting tile. 

This was an AI city. The AI is sometimes weird. It builds its city this way, extending a chain of tiles towards the top right. This is probably a depth first search algorithm AI. 

Another AI built its city in the same weird way. 

The Thoughts

Suburbia is a typical point-scoring Eurogame. You try to put together a combination of tiles which work well with one another. Player competition is in the form of grabbing the tiles most useful to you, hopefully denying your opponents what they want at the same time. There is no direct confrontation. It is satisfying to watch your city and your population grow. It's a development game. Suburbia is a popular game, so I decided to give it a go. No new surprises for me, but it's a solid design. 

Friday 14 May 2021

Traders of Osaka


The Game

Traders of Osaka is a 2006 game by Susumu Kawasaki. It was originally published as Traders of Carthage. Only in 2015 it was republished with a Japanese setting.  

This is mainly a card game, but it has a small board and four tiny wooden ships. There are six locations on the board, representing a sea trade route from Osaka to Edo (modern day Tokyo). The ships do not belong to any particular player. Each ship carries a different type of goods. The ships travel from Osaka to Edo, and whenever a ship reaches Edo, all players must sell all goods of the corresponding type, and score victory points. That ship then teleports back to Osaka. Okay, let's just imagine it travels very swiftly back because the hull is empty. When a ship reaches Edo, if there are other ships at either of the two great waves positions, they get damaged and must retreat back to Anori, the 3rd location. Goods of their corresponding types are lost, unless you can play cards to protect them. This affects all players holding those goods types. The only consolation is these ships start off from Anori, so they have an advantage over the ship which has just conducted trading in Edo and is now back in Osaka. 

Next to the board, you have to lay out two rows of cards. The first row is the farm, and the second row the market. On a player's turn, there are only 3 options. First, you may take one card from the market into your hand. When a card is in your hand, it is money. Second, you may buy all cards from the market, and put them in front of you. Cards on the table in front of you are goods. When you buy goods, you spend cards (i.e. money) from your hand. You also move ships of the corresponding goods. E.g. if you have bought 1 green card, you move the green ship 1 step. If you have bought 2 or more green cards, you move the green ship 2 steps. Now that the market is empty, you refill it by drawing 2 cards, and also moving the 3 cards from the farm down. That means by looking at the farm, you know what to expect in the next batch of cards available. 

The third option on your turn is to reserve a card. You have one reservation marker. You may place it on any card. No one else can then take or buy it. If your marker is on a card in the market, when you want to buy cards from the market, you must buy this card together with the rest. 

There are only 3 types of action. From reading the rules, I couldn't picture how the game worked. The critical moments in the game are when ships reach Edo. This happens when players perform the buy goods action. All goods in the colour matching the ship will be sold. The unit price depends on the highest valued card you have. Cards are either 2, 3 or 5. Even if you have just one 5 card, your whole batch of goods will be priced at $5. Total the value, round up to nearest 5, then divide by 5 to get your victory points. You retain one card for each victory point you score, and discard the rest of the cards. You also claim one achievement token of the corresponding colour. The next time you sell this type of goods, each achievement token adds $1 to the unit price. 

Having talked about how the ships reaching Edo work, let's now talk about what happens to those poor ships hit by the great waves. When these ships are hit, if you hold goods in the corresponding colours, you lose them all, unless you have the right cards in hand to insure them. In game terms this is called insuring your goods, but this is more miraculous than real-life insurance. You only pay insurance when disaster strikes, not before. Some cards have insurance icons, and each icon allows you to protect one goods card. You turn the goods card sideways (see photo above), and it will be protected from now on, never fearing any wave. If the ship gets hit again, it still retreats to Anori, but insured goods will not be lost. 

The game ends when any player claims his eighth achievement token. 

The Play

I asked Chen Rui to try this game out with me. I was surprised that it works very well with 2 players. I later found out that the consensus is that 2 is the best player count. 3 works well, but 4 is so-so. I had little idea how the game would work or feel from reading the rules. I understood the rules clearly, but couldn't piece them together to form an impression of what kind of game this would be. It was only after playing it that I could appreciate the intricacies and depth of this seemingly simple game. Every small detail is deliberately and skilfully crafted, with no waste and no fluff. 

The big picture view is you want to collect goods then send the right ship to Edo so that you can sell the goods and score points. The same ship may be carrying your opponents' goods, so you need to consider whether that ship arriving in Edo will help them more than you. To get a taste of how the game feels, I need to describe what goes through my mind when I perform some of the actions in the game. Let's start with the simple act of taking a card. 

This is the most straight-forward action. You take a card from the market into your hand, and it becomes your money. Your first thought will probably be this - if there is a $5 card, I should take it because it's worth the most. However, if you happen to be amassing goods in that particular colour, you would want to have at least one $5 card as one of the goods. You would need to leave that $5 card in the market so that you can buy it. Another consideration is when you take a $5 card, the total cost of the goods in the market will drop significantly, which means your opponents may now be able to afford buying them. If you have any intention of buying the current batch of goods, dropping the total cost like this is risky. It is always important to consider the cash you have on hand. When you are low on cash, you become unable to threaten your opponents. They know you probably can't afford to buy goods yet. 

Yet another consideration is insurance. $5 cards have no insurance icons. If you have goods which are at risk, it might be better to take the right $2 card which has two insurance icons. You need to keep in mind that if you don't take the $5 card, possibly your opponents will take it on their turns. 

That's not all. Deciding which colour to take affects ship movement. When you take a certain colour, chances of the ship of that colour advancing reduces. E.g. if you want to prevent the red ship from moving and there is only one red card in the market, take it, and that red ship will not move, at least until the next batch of market cards. However if you do want a particular ship to move, then you don't want to take cards in its colour. 

Now let's talk about reserving cards. If a card you want turns up in the farm, since you can't take it or buy it yet, reserving it is how you can ensure it will be yours eventually. That's the simplest situation. Reserving a card can be used in the market too. If you want to buy a card, but don't have enough money to buy all cards in the market yet, you can reserve the card you want. Reserving a card can help your opponents. Since they can't buy the card you have reserved, when they evaluate how much they need to pay to buy goods, it will be cheaper by that card you have reserved. At the same time, you are making things slightly harder for yourself, because when you evaluate how much you need to pay, it will be higher because you must count the card you have reserved. Reserving a $5 card can be bad, because the market will be $5 more expensive for you than your opponents. 

The whole game is about manipulating goods procurement and the movement of ships. You want to collect the right goods and advance the right ships to maximise your profits and minimise that of your opponents. You can look at this from two perspectives - quantity and quality. If you sell often, and at each sale you earn a little more than your opponents, these small wins will add up and secure your victory. You may also orchestrate a few big killings, which can cover the small losses in other deliveries. In my game with Chen Rui, she won via quality. For one of the mid game deliveries, she scored a whopping 10VP. Her goods were worth $6 each, and she had 8 cards. That came to $48, which was then rounded up to $50. Thus 10VP. 

At this point I had three green goods, and there were three in the market. If I could continue to buy more green goods, and also make sure one of them was a $5 card, I would make a lot from this batch of goods. At this point Chen Rui did not have any green goods, so the green ship arriving in Edo would not help her at all. 

The yellow ship had just visited Edo and was now back in Osaka. Now the green ship was the leading one, just two steps away from Edo. 

I like the art work. All $2 cards have two insurance icons (agents wearing hats in top right corner), and $3 cards have one. $5 cards have no insurance icons. 

This was a precarious situation. Although blue was just one step away from Edo, it could easily be overtaken by red or green. Among the three of them, if any one ship reached Edo first, the rest would be hit by waves and forced back to Anori. 

There were many blue cards on the table, so there was a high probability that the blue ship would move. To stop it from moving, you would need to take those blue cards into your hand to become cash. 

At this point I had many red and yellow goods, so I wanted to work towards getting these two ships to Edo. I had six achievement tokens. Two more and I would trigger game end, which meant I didn't have many more opportunities to score points. 

The Thoughts

Traders of Osaka is a very cleverly designed game. It is intricate, despite having few rules. There is much to think about behind every small decision. Rules-wise it's a light game, but gameplay-wise it's a mid-weight game. After my game with Chen Rui, she declared her brain juice exhausted for the day. This is a game with high player interaction. Before you make your move, you must think about the game situation you will leave for your opponents. 

This is an excellent 2-player game. I can understand why people like the 4-player count less. There will be less control. It's harder for you to plan, since the game situation can change significantly by the time your turn comes around again. 

Friday 7 May 2021

Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan

When Allen, Han and I last played Marco Polo on BoardGameArena, we all enjoyed it. We wanted to then try Marco Polo II: In the Service of the Khan, and we read the rules, only to then discover that it was a members-only game. I recently started subscribing to BoardGameArena, so the first game we went for was Marco Polo II

The Game & The Play

The basic structure and rules are the same as Marco Polo. I will not delve into them much. If the series interests you, I would suggest starting with the original. Marco Polo II is an independent game and not an expansion, but it is slightly more complex. It feels very similar to the original. The story in Marco Polo II happens after Marco Polo has arrived in Beijing. So you are no longer traveling from Venice to Beijing. Instead, you start in Beijing. You don't need to travel back to Italy. In fact Venice isn't even on the map. 

In this screenshot above, you can see all the pawns starting in Beijing at the top right corner. The red pawns are Allen's. Having two pawns is the special ability of his character. 

The game is played over 5 rounds. Every round you have 5 dice in your colour, and you use them for worker placement. Placing them at different spots allows you to perform different actions. A round ends when everyone runs out of workers (dice) to place. In broad strokes, you do two things in this game. Firstly, you collect resources then fulfil contracts to earn points and other rewards. Secondly, you travel the world to gain various benefits like the ability to claim new contracts, more types of actions and bonus resources at the start of every round. 

One new element in Marco Polo II is the shields at the cities and towns. There are many different shields on the board. At game end, you score points based on how many different shields your trading posts are present at. If your trading post network only covers a few shields, this bonus won't be much. However the more you cover, the higher the point values go. At the start of the game, you draw a secret mission card which tells you shields which will count double. These will be attractive. 

Off we go! Allen (red) was first to embark, and he headed south from Beijing. I (green) didn't want to overlap with him, because we would end up bitterly competing for the first-to-arrive bonuses. So I went south west. Han (blue) went a different direction too - west. 

Water routes (in light blue) show sail boats with guild seal icons on them. Guild seals are a new element. One of the actions you can perform is to claim seals. After claiming a seal, you also need to pay the required resources to activate it. An active seal lets you travel on corresponding water routes, and also gives you bonus resources at the start of every round. Some locations on the board provide bonuses based on the seals you own too. 

There is a new resource type - jade. Traveling some routes requires jade to be paid. Jade is a special resource which can stand in for cash or camels at any time. 

In Marco Polo II, the characters are still one of the most important aspects. They are what stands out the most to me. The characters are very powerful. You really must adjust your play to suit your character. Make the most of them. This above was Allen's character. I Googled and couldn't find out who they were. I wonder whether they are fictitious. Are they husband and wife? Brother and sister? No idea. What's most special about this character (or characters) is you have two pawns instead of one. When you travel, you can split up, which is very handy. Traveling is expensive. The missions usually require you visit cities which are far apart, and this is tough when you only have one pawn. The extra pawn helps immensely. This character also starts with an extra $3, and whenever gaining bonus resources at the start of a round, you pick one of the bonuses to be received twice. 

This was the character I picked. I was last in turn order, so I got to pick first. At the time I had no idea how to evaluate the characters, so I just went with my gut. This guy turned out to be crazy powerful. Jackpot! His ability was free travelling - no need to pay cash or camels. However any jade cost still needed to be paid, and seal requirements for traveling over water still needed to be met. He had some weaknesses too. He could only use the weakest traveling action space on the board, which only allowed traveling one step. If I wanted to travel far, I would need to depend on special traveling actions on contracts, special cards or cities, which were harder to come by. 

This was Han's character. His specialty was guild seals. Normally to claim a seal you need to place two dice. This character only needs to place one. Whenever a seal is activated (by spending resources), he gets a piece of jade. At game end, he adds one to the location shield count. 

At the bottom left there are two special action cards. These are similar to the ones placed at some cities, except they are refreshed every round. This is something new in Marco Polo II. You have a bit more randomness. Sometimes these cards present lucrative opportunities. These cards allow you to perform a transaction multiple times, as long as you place a high enough die value and you can afford the transaction fee.

At the bottom right you can see the spot for claiming contracts. Contracts specify resources you need to spend, and how many points and other benefits you'll get in exchange. To use this contract spot, you need to have set up trading posts at cities offering contracts. You can only take contracts from these cities. This works differently from Marco Polo

At this point I (green) have visited four locations (green trading posts). Allen (red) had also placed four trading posts. Han (blue) only had one. My character's special ability was related to traveling, so I maximised that. I tried to do traveling at least twice per round. I could only use the weakest action spot, which meant I had to perform the action once with my own green die and once with a purchased black die.  

Along the bottom of the board are action spots for collecting resources. This aspect is different from the original in that half the spots will vary from round to round. In the original these are fixed. You will get to preview the combination of goods available for next round, so that you can plan ahead. 

The screenshot above was taken in Round 3, about 60% through the game. My (green) pawn had reached the bottom left corner of the map, and I had placed 7 trading posts by this point. 

This was near the end of Round 4. My (green) pawn had travelled along the southern path from west back to east, placing three more trading posts. Your 9th to 11th trading posts will score points. My specialty was traveling, so naturally I went all out trying to build as many trading posts as possible. I eventually managed to place all of them. I almost managed to claim all location shields too. There was one city action card which allowed me to travel. This was different from the standard travel action where I was restricted to travel just one step at a time. Unfortunately in the final round Allen beat me to that action. I was just short of one shield - the rooster which could be found in two cities in the north. 

This was the end of Round 5, i.e. the end of the game. Han's strength was guild seals, and he had collected and activated all of them (brown squares at the bottom right). Allen's (red) strength was having two pawns. That helped him place 9 trading posts, which was no small feat. I was surprised I ended up being the guy with the most completed contracts. I had not been focusing on contracts, and mostly fulfilled them as a side quest. I concentrated mostly on traveling. I tried to pick the easy ones, and not those with high point values. That might have turned out to be what helped me complete more of them. Having many trading posts helped too, because it meant I had more contracts to choose from whenever I had the chance to take a new one. 

I found my character very powerful and felt a little guilty about it. After the game I checked and found that indeed most players rank Gantulga Od the top character.  

The Thoughts

Marco Polo II feels very similar to its predecessor. If you like the first one, you'll most likely enjoy this one too. It is more complex. Some systems have been linked together, creating more interdependencies. There is more you need to consider. There is more variability and randomness too. The special actions will change every round. The resource collection actions too. I would recommend the cleaner original if you are new to the game family.