Saturday 28 August 2021

Dancing Queen tournament


Centlus Boardgame Cafe is organising a Dancing Queen tournament on 30 Aug 2021 (Malaysian time 8pm - 11pm, GMT+8). They are promoting Malaysian designed games, and this tournament is part of a series. It's Merdeka Eve. The next day is a public holiday. Come try this out. Information about my game is available here, including a links to rules and a 5-minute rules video. Dancing Queen is a short but tricky 2-player game using only 9 cards, that plays in 15 minutes. 

Friday 27 August 2021

How to win your girlfriend's father's approval if he's a boardgamer

There's this joke on the internet that if you want to date a girl from South Korea, the best way to impress her father is to defeat him in Starcraft. What if the girl's father is a boardgamer? How are you going to impress him? I'm a father of two teenage daughters. They have not started dating yet, but it will come. My version of the Starcraft test will obviously be boardgames. What will be my evaluation criteria? 

Does he lose with grace? Or does he sulk? Become bitter? Heaven forbid does he lose his temper over losing a game? A person overly fixated over winning and losing is an unhappy person. When playing games you will win and you will lose. Get over it. If you keep getting robbed in The Settlers of Catan, or you never roll the number you need, just laugh about it. 

Does he take games seriously? Okay, he's sitting down to play a game with the girl he wants to charm or the girl's father whom he wants to impress, but is he doing it just to please them? Does he feel like it's an obligation? If he's sitting down to play, he'd better do it properly and take it seriously. If he's just humouring me, it'll be obvious from a mile away. It's no fun for anyone. But if he plays a game giving it his full concentration and putting in his best effort, then it is a sign of respect for the opponents at the table and also for himself. I want to see him learn the rules patiently, and try his hardest to win. A person who takes whatever he does seriously is a trustworthy and reliable person. If he plays Agricola and avoid that wood space just because I'm desperate for wood, I'm not going to be happy. That's an insult - going easy on me.  

Does he let go? When the game is over, it's over. Doesn't matter whether you've won or you've lost. Don't gloat. Don't complain about rules played wrong or how bad your luck was. What's important is you've had fun with fellow players. Twilight Struggle is a heavy strategy game, and takes much effort and energy to play, but it does have some luck because of the die rolls and the card draws. Sometimes there are poor luck swings. That's life. It happens. 

Does he have a sense of humour? Playing games is about having fun. A healthy sense of humour makes playing boardgames much more enjoyable and memorable. People with good humour are generous, easy-going, cheerful, witty, and know how to appreciate life. They can turn chess into a party game. 

How sharp is he? How well does he hone his mind? By observing how he learns and plays, I can tell how he thinks and how smart he is. I take notice the kinds of questions he asks. I watch the strategies he experiments with. When I explain Ticket to Ride and locomotives, does he ask whether the locomotive counts as one or two cards if he draws it from the draw deck? A smart guy may not necessarily be a nice guy. As a father, I always want the best for my daughters. Why not a smart and nice guy? 

Is he kind? You learn a lot about a person by watching how he behaves during a game. A game is real life miniaturised, transferred onto a safe platform. It is where you show your true colours with no fear of retribution. Within the game world, you can be the ruthless competitor, but never forget to be kind. If the boy's opponent makes a careless mistake which is easily undone, does he point it out and let the opponent undo? When he plays does he care that everyone is having an equally good time? This is not a role that we only ask the host to play. Everyone at the table should be responsible for making the session an enjoyable one for everyone else. 

Does he pay attention? One thing I cannot stand is people talking on the phone for a long time in the middle of a game. Or scrolling through social media while playing. Even if the active player is taking a little long to complete his turn, and there is little you can do to plan for your next turn, why not chat with the other players or discuss strategy? Playing a boardgame is communicating, socialising and building relationships. Giving people your undivided attention is basic etiquette. 

It seems I'm writing a cheat sheet for my daughters' future suitors. If you reading this article are one, that means you have put in some research effort. Then you deserve to find this cheat sheet. Well done and good luck. Just remember I won't go easy on you. You have to beat me at Sekigahara. Start reading the rules now! 

Perhaps next time I'll write about using boardgames to assess girlfriends for sons. 

Friday 20 August 2021

The White Box - game design toolkit

The White Box is not a game, but it can potentially be turned into many games. It is a box of components that can be used by game designers to work on their ideas. It also contains a book - a collection of articles about game design and game publishing.  

Upon opening the box you will find three punch boards, two of which are printed with different colours and icons, and the last one being blank. There are round, square and hexagonal counters. The coloured tokens are in 5 of the 6 player colours. Most other components come in 6 colours. I guess if you need tokens for the white player, you can use round tokens from the blank punch board. 

Inside the box you have big and small wooden cubes, plastic dice, wooden Carcassonne-style meeples, and plastic coins. Some additional zip-lock bags are provided too. 

I prefer game components to be grouped by player colour, so I eventually arranged the content of the box this way. I kept the big cubes separate from the others, because they are too big and unwieldy. The coins come in eight different colours. Six of the colours are the player colours, the other two are gold and silver. I guess the gold and silver coins are meant to be used as currency, while the other coins are to be player owned components. 

The book has about 200 pages. The articles cover many topics related to boardgame design and boardgame publishing. Most are written by Jeremy Holcomb, some are by other contributors. My initial thought was this book was probably the most valuable part of the whole package. If you are a game designer and need components to put together a prototype, you can always borrow from your other games, or buy materials from bookstores or handicraft stores. So I felt the knowledge was probably more valuable. I have not read many books and articles on boardgame design, nor have I listened to many podcasts and webinars, but even by now they already sound mostly similar. They seem to talk about the same things, and I don't often hear new thinking or different approaches. I have finished reading the book in The White Box. Most of the content is already familiar to me. I have read them elsewhere. The articles don't go as deep as some other books I have read. For a new designer, they will still be useful. The articles cover a wide range of topics. Those related to game publishing are more useful to me, because I have not read much on this topic. So I did get some value out of the book. 

Component list

These are most of the components in the box. The blue is quite dark, and under low light it is hard to tell apart from the black. The meeples are rather small, much smaller than those in Carcassonne

The green components

I now occasionally dabble in game design. I have a few small game design projects running concurrently. I work on them when I have free time and when I feel like it. I don't set any deadline for myself. I don't have expectations that I will finish every project, nor do I expect they will all get published eventually. I just enjoy the process of trying out my ideas, and seeing whether I can make decent games out of them. It is mostly self-entertainment, which in Malaysia is sometimes called "syok sendiri", roughly translated as self-pleasing. 

One such game design project I am working on is Rebels. The backstory is earth has been conquered by aliens, and now mankind is organising a resistance. At major cities around the world, human teams assemble to search for and destroy the alien hive in the city. My game board is a map of Kuala Lumpur. The humans try to find the alien hive. The alien overlords have two drones and two ground squads. Their objective is to hunt down and exterminate all the human teams. 

For my prototype I drew on a piece of manila card, and used small paper cups as buildings. For the rest of the components I borrowed game pieces from Age of Steam. You can see them in the photo above - all those components in the left half. The cubes are the human teams. The black disc is the alien hive. Yellow discs are drones, red discs are ground squads. Now that I have The White Box to play with, I can return all my Age of Steam components, and need not worry about losing them. The blue and black cubes are too similar, so I will need to change one of the colours. The White Box doesn't have purple, so I substitute that with green. 

I have thought about using meeples to represent the human teams, but eventually decided against it. If I use meeples, I will not be able to resist the urge to position all of them as standing upright. I will create unnecessary work for myself. So cubes they shall remain. Cubes are always upright no matter how I knock them over. 

Later I decided not to use the black disc as the alien hive. I used this token with crosshairs. I think this adds to the theme. In this game the hive and the human teams are hidden within the buildings, i.e. under the paper cups. The alien drones and alien ground squads are always visible as they move across the tops of the buildings. This is a 2-player-only game. When the human player moves, the alien player turns around so that he cannot see where the human teams are. He needs to use his drones and ground squads to hunt down the human teams. In this photo above, the green human team has found the alien hive, so the human player wins. 

One problem with this design is it is a lot of hassle. It's hard for the human player to keep track of all his teams. Also the alien player becomes rather bored waiting for the human player to take his turn. A lot of finger twiddling. I still need to solve these problems. Perhaps this game works better as a computer game or mobile game. 

When a human team moves, you pick up one of the cubes, then move it to a location which also has a cube of the same colour, or to a location adjacent to one of the cubes. A human team may not be broken up. The cubes must stay together or adjacent to one another. Let's take the white team as an example. Its starting location was Low Yat, and one team member has moved to Jalan Alor. If the target destination is Maybank, your next move will be to move one of the cubes at Low Yat to KL Tower. In the subsequent turn, you move the last remaining cube from Low Yat to Maybank. Throughout this process, the team has never been broken up. 

Tuesday 10 August 2021



The Game

Nidavellir is a simple game about collecting cards. The backstory is that you are dwarf chieftains putting together armies and hoping to be picked by the dwarf king to become the dragon-slaying expedition force. To get picked for this prestigious mission, you must assemble the strongest army. Most cards in the game are dwarfs in 5 different professions. Their strengths are calculated in different ways. You play 8 rounds, and normally you will recruit 3 dwarfs every round. 

There are three taverns in the game, and you recruit dwarfs here. When a round starts, cards are drawn and the taverns are filled. Every player secretly places a bid at each of the taverns. Taverns are resolved one after another. Whoever has bid the highest coin gets to pick a card from the tavern first. The player with the lowest coin will have no choice and can only take what is left. 

The players' armies are initially empty. You build from scratch. The dwarfs come in five different professions - warriors, hunters, explorers, miners and blacksmiths. The total strengths of each of the professions are calculated in different ways. E.g. the hunters' total strength is based on the square of the number of hunter icons. If you have 5 hunter icons, your hunter total strength is 25. 

Every player has the same set of five starting coins: 0, 2, 3, 4 and 5. $0 is the weakest, but it comes with a special power. You get to upgrade one of the coins you don't use that round. The higher among your two unused coins will be upgraded by the value of the lower unused coin. E.g. if your two unused coins are $5 and $9, your $9 will be upgraded to $14. This is an important aspect of the game. 

This royal treasury shows all the available coins to be upgraded to. Quantities are limited. There is only one each of coins $15 and above. In case the coin you are supposed to upgrade to is not available, you get to take the next higher coin. Sweet! 

Normally when you focus on getting many dwarfs of the same profession, you get much better returns on the total strength. Going deep is good. However, the game also encourages you to go wide, because whenever you have a set of five different coloured icons, you get to immediately recruit a hero for free. Heroes are dwarfs with special powers, and most of them are very handy. 

The special ability of this hero is you may transform her to be of any of the five professions at the end of every round. If you are only short of one colour to make your next set of 5 icons, she will be useful. 

This was Han's hero. With this hero, he could wait until Allen and I revealed our coins used in bidding before he decided which coin of his to use. This was very useful. He could save his strength and optimise the use of his coins. However he still needed to spend effort to upgrade his coins. If he didn't have powerful coins, knowing what coins we had wouldn't be helpful to him. He wouldn't be able to outbid us anyway. 

When you complete the first half of the game, there will be an inspection done by the dwarf king. For each of the five professions, if any player has more icons than everyone else, he gets a special bonus which he can use for the rest of the game. This inspection event is quite important. The first half of the game is like a preliminary round, and the second half is where things truly get interesting. 

At the end of the game, in addition to your dwarfs in the five professions, some non-profession-specific heroes contribute strength, and your total coin value also contributes strength. The player with the highest total strength wins. 

The Play

Nidavellir is a set collection game. You collect stuff throughout the game, which contribute to your strength in different ways, and victory is determined only at the end based on total strength. There is no point scoring during the game itself. The king's inspection at mid-game is a form of reckoning, and it is important, but your strength only matters at game end. 

Since everyone gets roughly the same number of dwarfs in the game, the key to getting on top is how to create effective combos with your dwarfs. You need to balance between depth and width. Depth is good because the more dwarfs you collect of a certain profession, the more strength each additional dwarf will be worth. However width is also important because every set of five different professions gets you a free hero, and heroes are powerful! It seems to me width is more important in the early game, because you want to grab heroes to help you. You only prioritise going deep later on after analysing the situation and your opponents, and deciding which professions you want to go deep with. 

There is plenty of player interaction. You are not only collecting dwarfs based on your own needs, you must also pay attention to what others want, and try to deny them. Your highest coin is usually reserved to compete at the tavern you are most desperate to win. Upgrading coins is important, not only to help you compete, but also for the game-end strength. Money is power. If you have the highest coin in the game, you are guaranteed at least one dwarf that you want every round. 

There are many heroes and many different special powers. On the first play this is overwhelming. The heroes are the fun part of the game, spicing things up greatly. 

At this point my (green) highest coins were 9 and 19. There was no particular tavern I needed to win, so I used neither of these coins. I set them aside so that I could upgrade my 19 to a 25, the highest coin in the game. 19+9=28, but 25 was the highest I could go. 

I (green player) wanted to focus on the blacksmiths (purple dwarfs). One of the heroes I took came with two purple icons. 

Miners (orange dwarfs) give strength based on the sum of their card values multiplied by the total number of orange icons. Allen (blue player) had six orange icons, but most of his card values were 0. He only had two 1's. So his miners were only worth 12. In contrast, Han (red player) had more non-zero miners, and he currently had a strength of 77 from his miners. 

The Thoughts

Nidavellir is a simple game. There are many heroes, and you calculate the dwarf strengths in different ways. These make the game sound more complicated than it actually is. At the core it is pretty straight-forward. I enjoy the heroes the most. The basic dwarfs don't really do much other than creating the set of five colours collection aspect. It seems to me the general strategy is to go wide first, and then switch to going deep in the second half. 

The game is easy to teach and highly interactive. It will work with families and non-gamers. Only one thing rubs me the wrong way - in order to be more immersive the rulebook uses some special terms. It reminds me of the Lord of the Rings books. Yes, I get that it's nice to have a rich world with its own language and terminology, but in this case I find these thematic elements get in the way of new players learning the game. 

Tuesday 3 August 2021

Kickstarter: A Kindly World


This looks cute. It's already funded on Kickstarter. It is a simple card game from Japan. I like the artwork and the packaging design.  

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, 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.