Friday 29 July 2022

Yes! Ginseng

The Game

Yes! Ginseng from Taiwan is a light game about the many delicacies found at a typical Taiwanese night market. The game comes with a pair of chopsticks! They are not used as a game component. They just add to the theme. It looks like you are buying a pack of takeaway food. 

During play, three order cards are made available at the centre of the table. These are what you compete to fulfil. Each order specifies the ingredients needed to complete it. On your turn, when you have the right ingredients, you may turn them in to claim the order card. Whenever an order is claimed, draw a new one to replace it. When the order draw deck is exhausted, the game ends. Whoever has completed the most orders wins the game. 

You earn money when you complete an order. You can spend $2 to buy a special card. These cards have a wide variety of powers, some offensive, some defensive and some supportive. 

The cards are large and pretty. Those with coloured backgrounds are the ingredients. Those with white backgrounds are special cards. The hand limit is 8 cards. You have to discard at the end of your turn if you exceed that. 

The five types of ingredients are grain, meat, seafood, vegetables and soup. 

The special cards drawn in red are the offense cards. The Cockroach prevents an opponent from fulfilling orders for one turn. 

Among the ingredient cards are some which have spoilt. They are useless cards. You can't discard them until you have more than 8 cards. The card backs are the same. If an opponent tries to steal ingredients from you and he picks a spoilt ingredient, you can laugh at him. So I guess they serve a purpose. 

The order cards are pretty. The semi circle on the left tells you what ingredients are needed. The more ingredients an order requires, the more cash you'll earn. 

I like the name of this card. This is a support card. On the turn you play this card, you may substitute meat and seafood with vegetables and grains. 

The Play

Yes! Ginseng is a simple game. On your turn you draw 3 ingredients, and then try to fulfil as many orders as you can. If you have money, normally you just spend them to buy as many special cards as possible. When a good opportunity arises to play a special card, you do it. It's a light game and there is not a lot to think about. Sometimes you think about who to attack. 

Victory is determined by the number of order cards. So normally you will prioritise completing the orders requiring fewer ingredients. That's a more efficient way of using ingredients. The harder to complete orders do give you more money, and you can spend money on special cards. If you like attacking others, you can decide to go for money. Yes, in this game the rich bullies the poor. Capitalist pigs! 

There certainly is luck. If you are unlucky you keep drawing spoilt ingredients. Player interaction is one way the game naturally creates balance and neutralises luck. Any player who gets lucky and stands out will be ganged up on by the rest. Your completed orders is open information. Everyone knows who is in the lead. 

3-player game in progress

The ginseng card is equivalent to two jokers

I managed to complete 8 orders

The game comes with a booklet which introduces the various local foods in Taiwan

The Thoughts

We should have a category of games called travel souvenir games. In Malaysia, Kaki Lima would be such a game. Yes! Ginseng is this kind of game. It contains cultural elements of Taiwan. A gamer visiting Taiwan would be happy to bring a copy home. This is applicable for non-gamers as well. 

From the game mechanism perspective, the game is simplistic. There is not a lot of depth. There is not a lot of strategy to think about. You play almost on auto-pilot. You'll always try to complete as many orders as possible, and buy as many special cards as possible. Money doesn't have any other use, except for being the tiebreaker at game end. You may decide to keep some money when you are near game end, if you think there's going to be a tie. Normally you just spend it all. There's a special card which robs you if you have $2 or more. Old timers like me are not the target audience of Yes! Ginseng, unless I'm visiting Taiwan. However the game mechanism being so simple means this is a game that can be easily learned by non-gamers. 

If I assess the game as a product and not just based on the game mechanisms, this is a solid product. It is pretty, accessible and well-produced. It's the kind of product you like at first sight. 

Friday 22 July 2022


The Game

ROVE is a game with only 18 cards. It is a solo game. Rove is an exploration robot which has just crash landed on an unknown planet. Your job is to help it get to safety to await rescue.   

This is how a game is set up. The 6 cards in the centre represent the 6 modules of our robot. You have 5 action cards in hand. Your mission is at the top left. Action cards and mission cards come from the same deck, at the bottom left. One side of the cards is the action card side, and the other side is the mission card side. 

To complete a mission, you need to rearrange the 6 modules into the formation as specified by the mission card. The position of one particular module will be specified, and the other 5 modules must be arranged in a certain pattern around it. To win the game, you must complete 7 missions before running out of actions. Every module has its own movement capabilities. They can move in specific directions, some orthogonally, some diagonally, some both. One module must jump over another when moving. One module pushes other modules when moving. 

Whenever you complete a mission, you get a new one from the draw deck. If you have fewer than 5 cards, you draw a card before continuing. 

The number at the top left of the action card tells you how many actions you get when playing the card. You spend actions activating modules to move. The pattern at the centre is a bonus criteria. If the modules specified by the criteria are arranged in the configuration shown, you get more actions when you play the card - that number at the bottom right. Thus you are not only trying to arrange the modules according to the mission cards, you are also constantly evaluating whether you should make these patterns on the action cards. 

Every module has a single-use power, which is quite strong, e.g. swapping two modules. Once you use a power, you flip the card over. 

The configuration shown at the top right of the mission card is what you need to achieve.

The Play

This is a challenging game. Your cards are your resources, and your job is to complete 7 missions before you run out of resources. You are under pressure to conserve resources and use them wisely. This is a logic puzzle. Information is mostly open. You need to work out a most efficient way of using your cards. The only unknown is future missions. The next mission is known and you can plan for it, but if there are more after the next, they are still in the draw deck and you don't know yet what they will be. There are many factors to consider and it's tricky to find an optimal move. Since there is some uncertainly you can't work out the perfect sequence of actions. You want to make use of the higher action values, but it is not always feasible. Sometimes you need to sacrifice the opportunity. 

There is no time limit, so you can think for as long as you like. There is no opponent impatiently telling you to hurry up. When I played I didn't try to be exhaustive. I played in a relaxed manner. I did take my time to find a good move, but I did not calculate every possible path. I barely managed to complete the 7th mission. I suspect I might have made some mistakes which gave me an advantage. I might have drawn more cards than I was supposed to. Oops.

Game in progress. I place used cards on the right. 

Once the single-use power of a module is used, the card is flipped over and the power is now in red. 

When you line up all the completed missions, they form a nice story. 

The Thoughts

ROVE is a lovely little puzzle. It is small and convenient, and thus a good travel game. Also good for  when you are waiting for your date. 

Sunday 17 July 2022

in the media: Bernama


I went to a boardgame event at Storyeum, Petaling Street on Thu 14 Jul 2022, and was interviewed by a reporter from Bernama. I only appeared for a short while in the news clip they released, starting at 3:41. Here's the link to the video clip. It's in Mandarin Chinese though. The boardgame business mentioned is referring to, where my partners and I are collaborating with HABA from Germany to introduce a children's learning programme in Malaysia. 

Monday 11 July 2022

boardgaming in photos: Dancing Queen concept art

18 Jun 2022. I participated in MyStartr's quarterly retreat, when the whole company stayed at a holiday house for 3D2N and had almost three full days of activities. In the evening during free-and-easy time I brought out my prototype Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It isn't easy finding opportunities to playtest this with a group of 10+. I grabbed the chance to do it. The game was quite challenging with this many people. Some of the players took out notebooks and phones to take notes. This is a deduction game. The more players there are, the more information there will be to be digested and cross-referred. Everyone contributes a little bit of information, and everyone tries to link up all the clues. 

This is my current prototype. All the artwork is found on the internet. I didn't do any of them. Snow White, Prince Charming, the dwarfs and the queen are all by different artists. I really like the dwarfs. If the game ever gets to the publishing stage, I should seriously look up the artist and commission his or her work. 

Prior to this I had only playtested the vanilla game with just Snow White and the dwarfs. Now that I had more players, I could test the Prince Charming variant. There are two Prince Charming variants. The first one is simple. Prince Charming is just one more player on Snow White's team. The whole reason I came up with Prince Charming was I felt Snow White was too lonely. This is a one-vs-many game, and for one player to go against a whole team of brains seems a little cruel. So in the basic Prince Charming variant, the prince is just a teammate to help Snow White. We didn't play this. I skipped directly to the advanced Prince Charming variant. 

In the advanced variant, Prince Charming starts undercover. He pretends to be one of the dwarfs and he'll get to see another dwarf's card. That means the Snow White team gets a little more information. If any dwarf chooses to look at Prince Charming's card, the prince's identity is exposed and he loses the ability to peek at a dwarf's card. There's about a 50% chance that Prince Charming will get to use his ability before being discovered. 

One thing that surprised me was this variant created a new objective for the dwarfs. Finding the prince felt like an achievement, a mission being completed. It might not actually matter a lot to winning or losing, but the experience and emotions created were real. The existence of a Prince Charming also became a source of jokes and teasing. I was reminded that the game experience is not limited to just game mechanisms or winning and losing. The art, the setting, even the names used all contribute to the play experience. 

I came up with the Evil Queen variant later on. I still have not yet playtested it. This variant turns the 2-faction game into a 3-faction game. It requires a bigger group too. I wonder whether this will make things a little too complicated. I am eager to try it out. 

I taught everyone to play Category 5 / Take 6. This might be the first time I saw this played by 10 players, which is the maximum number of players. This was quite exciting, because almost every turn someone would get burnt. This is a classic card game from Wolfgang Kramer. It is more than 20 years old now and has been published in many different incarnations. I am focusing on designing card games, so I should learn from these successful card games. 

Catch Me is a children's game from HABA I taught recently. This is a speed / dexterity game. Every player controls a mouse. The mice are placed at the centre of the table, with their tails extending outwards. The players hold on to the beads at the end of the tails. One player plays the cat and holds on to the wooden bowl. The cat player rolls the die, and depending on the colour rolled, he must try to catch the mouse of that colour using the bowl. The mouse tries to escape. The mouse player tries to pull his mouse away before it gets caught under the bowl. If the mouse gets caught, the mouse player becomes the cat player next round, and the cat player gets to become a mouse player. If the mouse escapes successfully, the cat player continues to be it next round. One important rule is if a mouse player makes any mistake, the penalty is becoming the cat player next round. E.g. red is rolled but the yellow mouse gets too excited and runs away. The yellow mouse player will become the cat next round. 

My work on Dancing Queen continues. My artist has come up with three pieces of concept art. I went to different groups of people to ask for input. I have my own preference, but what is more important is the preference of my target audience. I gather data to help me decide. 

This is the minimalistic style

This is the 80's-90's Japanese comic (manga) style

This is the modern animation style

The people I surveyed can be divided into three main categories. The first category is my friends and family, i.e. mostly Malaysians. They are a mix of boardgamers and normal people (ahem). The second category is a community of Malaysian game designers, so they are all boardgamers. The third category is a community of international game designers. The three groups have slightly different preferences. Overall the Japanese manga style won hands down. So this is the direction I'm heading in. One interesting thing I find is the international group has a strong preference for the minimalistic style. I had thought the modern animation style would win more votes. It did have many supporters, but at the final tally, it did about the same as the minimalistic style. 

I am very excited to see my game take shape bit by bit.  Hopefully all go according to plan and I can get the game released in Nov 2022. 

Gila Bola is what Haireey is designing and developing now. It is a game about the Malaysian football league, and this is his work-in-progress box art. He asked whether anyone wanted to be a cameo, and I jumped at the opportunity. For my jersey, naturally I picked the Sabah team, because I'm Sabahan. Getting myself onto the cover of a boardgame is more exciting than appearing in a newspaper! 

This is me - cartoon version

This is the live-action version

Sunday 3 July 2022

Seasons of Rice

The Game

Seasons of Rice from Button Shy Games is a game with only 18 cards. It is a 2-player-only game. You build your own territory using cards, and score points based on the features in your territory. 

One side of a card is a character, and the other side is land. During setup, you draw two cards and pick one as your character. The other card becomes your starting land. Your character gives you a unique ability, usually related to scoring. Basic scoring (which both players enjoy) is based on fields you complete, i.e. areas enclosed by paths. The bigger the field, the more points you score. If a field contains a house, it is considered one level larger. Farmers and water buffalos in completed fields also score points. Buffalos score a flat 2pt each, but if you have buffalos outside of completed fields, you lose points. Farmers don't score many points if you only have a few, but if you have more, they are worth more than buffalos. 

Land cards can be placed vertically or horizontally. The key is not to leave any holes when you form your territory. Enclosed fields with holes in them are considered incomplete. 

The game is played over two halves, called seasons. When the first season starts, all 14 cards in the deck are dealt to both players. You pick one card to add to your territory, and set one aside for the second season. You then pass your hand of cards to your opponent. Repeat this two more times, then play the last card in your hand, and the first season ends. You will have 5 cards in your territory. There will be 6 cards set aside for the second season. The trailing player starts the second season, picking a card to play. You take turns playing a card until all are used. That ends the game. 

There are 5 completed fields in this photo. Can you count them? The small single square fields are completed fields too, just that they don't score much. Naturally you want your fields to be as big as possible, but there's a risk in being greedy. You might not complete the field by game end. If so, you get nothing for it. 

The Play

This little game has plenty of player interaction. You are constantly struggling between what you want and what your opponent wants. You must be keenly aware of your opponent's character power, so that you avoid helping him as far as possible. You are often torn between picking a card you want and picking one your opponent wants, for the sake of denying him. Sometimes it is not easy achieving the scoring criteria of your character. Completing a field can be challenging, especially when you are going big. This is very much a spatial game, so it feels more like a boardgame than a card game. 

You need to supply your own coins to keep score. Allen and I used components from another game.

The Thoughts

Seasons of Rice is swift and simple, but it gives your brain a good workout. There is a fair bit of luck, but it makes you feel you have much control, because there are many factors you can consider. You do have much information on which you base your decisions. This is a good thing. When you win, you feel clever and that you deserve it. When you lose, it's just luck. Seasons of Rice is a pleasant and relaxing little gem.