Friday 24 February 2023

Langfinger / Sticky Fingers

The Game

Langfinger / Sticky Fingers is a 2009 game. It is an entry-level worker placement game. You are thieves breaking into homes, stealing valuables and selling them to collectors. Whoever is first to earn $20 wins the game.  

The cubes are your workers, and the pawns are your score markers. Along the edges of the game board there are five regions. These are where you get to place your workers. Everybody takes turns placing one worker at a time. The earlier you place a worker in a region, the more advantage you will have, in the form of having more options or better options. 

Once everyone has placed all workers, you start the second half of a round, which is to perform actions. You resolve actions region by region, from Region 1 to Region 5. 

You start the game with a random character. Your character gives you a free tool. You get to use this tool once per round. 

When setting up a round, you place cards along the edges of the game board. Region 1 is at the bottom. Here you have tools and whoever comes here gets to collect two tool cards. The earlier you come, the more options you have. Region 2 is on the left. Here you have treasures to steal. You need specific combinations of tools to steal specific treasures. When you steal, you consume the tools, i.e. you discard the tool cards. Naturally the earlier you attempt to steal the better it is, but being late does not necessarily mean failure. If all the players before you intend to steal a treasure which is different from the one you are eyeing, the first among them will get it, while the others may not have the right tools to steal the treasure you want. In this case you will be able to steal what you want. 

Region 3 is at the top left. You get to swap tool cards here. You discard some cards you don't want to hopefully draw cards you want. The exchange rate varies depending on which specific worker placement spot you manage to claim, e.g. 1 for 2, 2 for 3, 2 for 2. Naturally if you come early you get to claim the better spots. Region 4 is at the top right. This is similar to Region 2 in that you get to spend tools to steal treasures. One important difference is when you aim for a treasure here, you may not have all the tools you need yet. You can try to swap tools in Region 3, gambling that you'll get the tool you need.  

Region 5 is on the right. This is where you get to sell treasures to collectors. Of the many treasure types, only one converts to cash directly. For the rest, you need to find a willing buyer. 

This particular collector will buy either a gold bar, a statue or antique coins. If you sell her a gold bar, she pays $2 more. Some collectors have special demands, e.g. insisting on buying two paintings at the same time. These collectors are harder to satisfy, but if you manage to provide what they want, you save an action. You are killing two birds with one stone. 

The Play

Langfinger has high player interaction. Everyone wants to do the actions in the five regions almost all the time. You want to be everywhere but you must always pick just one spot to place your worker. The rules are straight-forward, but you are constantly presented with tough decisions. Sometimes you know you are trying your luck when you place a worker. You hope that other person doesn't take the tool you need, or doesn't steal the treasure you're eyeing, or doesn't meet the collector you plan to sell to. Many worker placement games are deterministic, but here we have a thrilling, chancy element. 

The game is a race to $20. Your progress will be irregular. A complete cycle of collecting the right tools, stealing a treasure and eventually selling it may take a few rounds to complete, and you may be working on multiple projects at the same time. The treasure you want may be taken by someone else before you manage to do it, forcing you to repurpose your tools for something else that comes along later. You have to watch your opponents closely to see whether you are aiming for the same tools, treasures or collectors. In our game the leading player was often targeted. Others tried to grab the collectors he was going for to attempt to delay him. You can see what types of treasures others have on hand, and you can use this information to deny them collectors they want. 

I was a little slow, but that ultimately helped because I wasn't perceived as a threat. In the final round, another player would likely have exceeded $20, but he was stopped - the collector he wanted to meet was whisked away by someone else. I had two paintings on hand, and I was fortunate to have a collector who wanted to buy two paintings. The money I earned from this transaction was enough to push me past $20. So I came from behind to win the game, benefiting from the brutal competition among the leading players. 

Tool cards

The game board also serves as a reference sheet. The number of cards to be set up in each region depending on the number of players is shown on the board. No need to flip through the rule book or look up a separate reference card. 

On the right there are only three treasures available but four players have placed workers (cubes). This means the yellow player placing the 4th cube is hoping that one of the earlier players will fail, leaving a treasure for him. 

These were the two paintings which brought me victory. 

Competition for collectors was fierce. All four players were here. 

The Thoughts

I classify Langfinger as a family game. The game mechanisms are straight-forward and easy to pick up, so this game will work for casual gamers. It is a light strategy game with a quick tempo. Not many rules, but plenty of meaningful decision points. It's a clean design. 

Saturday 18 February 2023

boardgaming in photos: Chinese New Year edition

For the 2023 Chinese New Year (to be more inclusive I should call this the Lunar New Year, it's just that in Malaysia this is what it's commonly known as), I went back to my hometown Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. It had been three years since I was last back for CNY, i.e. before the pandemic hit Malaysia. Every time I do packing to go back to Sabah, my checklist includes a reminder to bring some games. This time I only brought two standard sized box games - Attika and Res Arcana. The rest were small box games, card games, and some prototypes of my own game designs. 

I asked younger daughter Chen Rui to play Res Arcana with me. I had played it a few times and I like it. It was the first time for Chen Rui. Originally I planned to bring Race for the Galaxy. Chen Rui had seen me play it on the iPad, and she was interested. Unfortunately I had forgotten that I had lent my copy to Julian. By the time I realised it it was too late. We were so busy preparing to travel that I didn't have time to arrange to get the game. So I brought Tom Lehmann's other game. 

Res Arcana is not similar to Race for the Galaxy, but it does have the element of creating combos. In Res Arcana you know exactly what cards you have in your deck. You only have 8 cards in it. Your challenge is to devise the most effective strategy to get yourself to 10 victory points given the limited strategy space. 

I complain all the time how contemporary Eurogames are just exercises in resource conversion. Yet Res Arcana is exactly a game which does resource collection and resource conversion. I struggle to come up with a justification for liking it but not other more popular resource conversion games. 

Perhaps I should call it a hand management game. You know exactly what cards you will have access to, just that you can't be certain when you will draw which card. Your task from the get go is to figure out how to make the most of the cards fate deals you. Yes, you do use your cards to produce and convert resources as efficiently as possible. It's just that you do that by cleverly managing your hand and creating good combos. I think I can convince myself. 

Chen Rui had fun with Res Arcana. At first she was flustered that her resource production sucked. The problem was more due to my character and starting cards being good at producing resources. Thus the contrast. Eventually I won, but she learned how the game worked and caught up, and was within range of the finish line. 

You see gambling games everywhere during Chinese New Year. My parents' home back in Sabah is no exception. We played mahjong rummy. The mahjong rummy entry on BoardGameGeek was submitted by me, many years ago. Till now the representative remains the same one. I photographed it in Sabah too.  

Normally on Day 1 of CNY my parents would plan CNY visits (拜年) to the homes of some friends and relatives, bringing all three generations - themselves, my generation and my children's generation. This year they didn't plan any visit, so we played mahjong rummy at home almost the whole day - my mum, my wife Michelle, Chen Rui and I. 

Mahjong rummy is a traditional gambling game. Most gamers probably frown upon it. With so many better games out there, why play this type of luck-heavy and dull game? I think playing games is more about the playing than the games. It is more important to be able to sit together around a table and have fun. What game it is on the table is secondary. 

If I were to nitpick the problems with mahjong rummy, my biggest gripe would be the jokers. You win or lose money simply based on the number of jokers you draw. Now I don't gamble big at home. It's only 20sen per joker. Let's say for a particular game I have 1 joker. The other players have 3, 1 and none respectively. When a game ends, I need to compare the number of jokers with each of my opponents. Between each pairing, whoever has fewer jokers must pay the other player. I will pay 40sen to the player with 3 jokers. I don't need to pay the player with one joker because we are tied. I will collect 20sen from the player with no joker. This is all luck! There is no skill in this at all. In boardgame hobbyist circles, if a game designer does this he or she will certainly be condemned. In fact, a game designer will probably make the players with more jokers pay those with fewer. That's called game balance. 

So this is what happens when you get a boardgame hobbyist to talk about traditional gambling games. 

Mahjong rummy is indeed a luck-heavy game. There are many tactics, which make you feel you have more control than you actually do. In my opinion, that's genius. I think it's one reason it has longevity. 

Over a few days of mahjong rummy, newbie Chen Rui was one of the net winners. Both Michelle and I lost money. My mum is a veteran. She plays regularly with friends. She made money. 

My wife Michelle share a tradition with a group of old friends from secondary school days. They meet up on Day 3 of CNY every year. Some of them do not live in Kota Kinabalu (e.g. us) but during the CNY period most will be back in KK. It's not easy for a group of friends to maintain such a tradition for so many years. They have been doing this since before their children were born, and by now the older children are going to university. 

Now for the husbands and the children, the gathering can be a little awkward. Most of us are not particularly close friends with one another. This year, I brought some of my game prototypes to be played in the husbands and children group, while the ladies have their extended catch-up session. This gave us something to do together, and I could playtest my games. Certainly a win for me. 

I brought Snow White and the Ten Dwarfs. Well it can be ten, seven, twelve, or some other number. It just depends on how many players we have. This is a one-vs-many game. You need to carefully think about how to publicly share information, and you have to piece together many small fragments of information to do deduction. The youngsters were very absorbed in the game. When a young man's mum came to ask what he was playing, he anxiously said, "Mum not now please I need to focus". It's gratifying to see others enjoy my game. 

Chen Rui participated. 

In Snow White every dwarf is a number. At the centre of the table there will be one face-down dwarf, and the rest of the dwarf players need to work out what number that dwarf is. A dwarf player knows his own number, and may look at the card of only one other dwarf. The dwarfs must share information to work out the missing dwarf. The tricky part is Snow White is always listening. Snow White wants to find out who the #1 dwarf is. It is a race between her and the dwarfs to see who works out the right answer first. This is a naturally absorbing game because you need to listen and think carefully to give the right clues and determine the correct answer. It is tense because it is a race. 

From my playtesting so far, this game needs at least 7 players. It can handle up to 12. I still want to test with more. I want to see at which point it stops working well. The more players there are, the more complicated the deduction will become. After a certain threshold, higher complexity will probably be less fun. 

Chen Rui and Adrian, my brother-in-law, played mahjong rummy with my nephew Oswald and my niece Lauren. I wouldn't call this cultivating the gambling habit since young. Let's call this upholding Chinese tradition. 

Friday 3 February 2023

Weather Machine

The Game

Weather Machine is a 2022 game from Vital Lacerda, who brought us Vinhos, CO2Lisboa and Kanban. It is a heavy Eurogame. You play scientists working together with Professor Lativ to develop a weather machine to save the world from extreme weather. Professor Lativ is a genius and his machine works, but it is still unstable. Fixing the weather in one place messes up weather some place else. So in addition to studying weather technology and improving the weather machine, you also need to fix crazy weather around the globe. 

The game board is huge and looks intimidating, but essentially you break it down to 5 regions. This is a worker placement game. You only have one worker - yourself. You can go to work at one of the four regions. Each region has 3 slots where you can place your worker. The fifth region is mainly there to remind you what needs done at the end of a round and at the end of the game. It's mostly a reference sheet. Described this way, this doesn't sound too complicated, but, sorry, it is a complicated game. Not gonna lie. 

The player board at game setup. 

The player components are pretty. Your worker (i.e. you) is that piece in the centre wearing the lab coat. Those on the left are robots. 

These five types of machine parts are one of the resource types in the game. 

That guy in grey on the left is Professor Lativ. The rest are the players. Professor Lativ will occupy one worker placement slot during the game. He is not there for the sake of blocking you. He is actually there to give you a bonus. Sometimes when you visit the region he is in, you gain bonus resources. He's a shy guy. When you go to the same region as him, he smiles politely then leaves, going to the next region. As he moves from region to region, eventually he will get to Region 5, which is his private office. This is the region that is not accessible to players. Whenever he is back at his office, at the end of that round, he gives out bonuses to all players. Sometimes you want to manipulate how quickly he cycles back to his private office to get those bonuses. 

Those nine at the bottom are mission tiles. Every player gets a different set. You need to spend resources and actions to activate missions. You then need to fulfil the condition stated on them by the time the game ends to score 5 points per successful mission. You have 9 missions to choose from. They are all optional. You can activate at most 2 per colour. 

This is one of the four worker placement regions. This one is the government department. When you visit this region, there are two things you can potentially do. You may do one or both, depending on the slot you place your worker and the resources you are willing to pay. Mostly you come here to place a robot and a machine part to obtain a subsidy tile. Subsidy tiles are single-use powers you can activate on a future turn. 

Those books along the bottom are research tokens, representing that you've studied a particular weather type. I'm going to just call them books. There are five weather types - rain, wind, sun, fog and snow. Three of the worker placement regions give you books. You want to collect books of the same weather from all three regions in order to publish your scientific paper on that particular weather type. Doing this is one of the main ways you score points. 

These three regions each have an investment track. How far you advance your marker on these tracks also determines how many points you score at game end. 

Steampunk style art.

This is the second worker placement region, Professor Lativ's lab. If you come here, you have to place a robot and a chemical. This is the countdown mechanism of the game. Every round Professor Lativ's assistant (an advanced robot) attempts to turn on the weather machine, based on the weather column it is in. If that column is filled, and along the top one of the experiment tiles matches the column, the weather machine will run. When the experiment tiles in this region runs out, the game ends. 

Whenever the weather machine runs successfully, any player who has contributed robots to the appropriate weather column earns a book. The robots in the column are returned to the players and become available for reuse. This is different from other regions where robots placed are permanently locked. 

This region creates time pressure for the players. It also helps players plan. Professor Lativ's assistant moves in a fixed path so you know which weather type it will try to create next. 

These are 5 types of chemicals in the game. They are a type of resource you need to get things done. This marketplace where the chemicals are placed is in a region called the supply region. You come here to buy all sorts of stuff like chemicals, storehouses and robots. The chemicals marketplace simulates a natural supply and demand ecosystem. Sometimes when you spend a chemical, it is returned to the marketplace, potentially lowering the price. Sometimes the chemical is permanently locked at another region and never returned here. In the long run, chemicals will become more and more expensive. 

This is the third worker placement region, called the R&D region. You pay robots and chemicals here to obtain some benefit plus a book. Along the top you see the weather conditions in different parts of the world. When Professor Lativ's weather machine runs, these can worsen and you place new tiles on top. In this region one thing you can do is to create prototypes to improve weather conditions. You are patching up bad weather. 

These 5 tracks on the player board are important. They track 5 currencies you frequently use and need to manage. They are called vouchers. Whenever you visit any of the regions on the board, you have to pay one kind of voucher. You will also earn a different kind of voucher. This is how the game forces you to be somewhat balanced in visiting the different regions. If you are low on a certain voucher type, you may not want to or you may not be able to visit the related region. 

The rightmost voucher type is a joker. It gives you some flexibility. Some bonus actions require that you spend joker vouchers. It is important to make sure you keep some jokers handy so that you can afford these bonus actions when the opportunities arise. There is a max capacity for each of these voucher types. There is no point collecting more than you can keep. This is a mini puzzle in the game you will constantly fiddle with. 

Chemicals in the leftmost two columns cost 1 voucher each. If you sell back to the marketplace, you also earn 1 voucher for each sold. As chemicals become scarce, which can be due to players stockpiling or them having been consumed permanently, their costs goes up. A chemical can cost up to 3 vouchers. When a chemical from the rightmost column is taken, it becomes out of stock. You can't buy it even if you have the vouchers. 

Every player has 12 robots on his player board. Normally you must perform a particular action to buy robots, releasing them from your player board. When you do so, you gain some benefit as indicated next to the robot. This is one fun element of Weather Machine. The resource you gain from performing an action may allow you to immediately do something else, which then gets you some other resource, that can you immediately use again for yet another action. It is satisfying to trigger such chain reactions to get a lot done within the same turn. 

When you collect books, it is best to place books on the same weather type in the same row on your player board. The books in the same row must be in three different colours, which means they must be obtained from the three different regions on the main board. When you complete a row, you will be able to publish your paper. This is one of the main ways of scoring points. Those black cylinders on the right are used to indicate whether you have published a paper. When you publish, you shift the cylinder to the right to claim a specific benefit. 

The square tiles on the right side of the player board are storehouses. They can be purchased. You can place robots and machine parts in the storehouses. You start the game being able to store one robot, one machine part and one chemical. To be able to store more, you need more storehouses. The purchased storehouses have coloured semicircles. These must match up when you add storehouses. A completed circle can store one chemical in the specified colour. 

This is the government department region. In that area where you place your worker, you see many icons reminding you what actions you can take. This will be intimidating to people who don't know the game yet. Once you learn the game, this bunch of icons will mean something and they will be a helpful reference. 

By now three of the book stacks have been depleted. If you perform an action which is supposed to get you a book, but they have run out, you still get a consolation. 

The game board is huge and scary. This is undoubtedly a complex Eurogame. Going through the rules took an hour. Our game took three hours. We had four players (highest count). Julian had played before, four times. The rest of us were new. 

The three icons on the right indicate how you score points at game end. The game is complex, but the end game scoring is quick. You score points for your progress on the investment tracks. You score points for completed missions. You also score points if you have won a Nobel prize. To win a Nobel you need to have done weather improvement three times. 

The Nobel being awarded is one of the end game triggers. The other three ways the game ends are related to the three main worker placement regions. If the spaces at the government department or at R&D are fully utilised, the game ends. If the experiment tiles at Professor Lativ's lab run out, the game also ends. Professor Lativ's lab is the natural countdown timer, while players' actions may result in any of the other three conditions triggering earlier. 

The Play

Weather Machine is a complex game. The core mechanism is worker place, but you only have one worker - yourself, so it doesn't feel like a typical worker placement game. I categorise it as a resource conversion game. It is very much a Vital Lacerda style game. There are many resource types and currencies you have to manage. Your job is to collect resources efficiently, convert them into other types of resources, and eventually use them to score points. There are only a handful of ways to score points. Publishing papers and fixing weather are two types of major projects you undertake in the game to score points. Both require patient planning and disciplined execution to complete. When you finally finish a project, you really do feel like bringing out the champagne. Some Euro point salad games present you many different ways to score points. Almost everything you do give you some points. Weather Machine is not that type of game. It does have a few different ways to score points, but not that many. 

Fighting for books is one of the sources of conflict. It is not easy to collect books in all three colours. If you invest much effort only to fail, it is painful. Choosing where to fight is a decision not to be taken lightly. The missions are another source of player interaction. To complete a mission, you have to be best or tied for best in a certain category, so you have to watch your opponents and how they play. 

Weather Machine takes much effort to learn. Once you get the hang of it and are able to operate the machine confidently, you feel pretty good and proud of yourself. 

The Nobel prize token is a huge metal piece. On the back you can find the signatures of the game designer and the game artist. 

By late game, I had completed three rows of books, with some books to spare. I was the most studious scientist. 

There were only three spots left at the government department. We were not far from the end game trigger related to the government department. 

There was one thing we forgot to do a couple of times. Whenever Professor Lativ's weather machine ran successfully, we were supposed to worsen the weather somewhere else around the world. We missed this a few times. This was the fifth time Julian played and we still didn't get the rules 100%. This is quite a complex game. 

The Thoughts

I don't think many would dispute that the most popular genre among seasoned Eurogamers is exactly this. Vital Lacerda is a master in this style. These Eurogames are heavy, challenging, require strategic thinking and are thus rewarding. There are many levers to fiddle with and many ways to score points. 

For me personally Weather Machine did not bring anything new. It is a game of resource collection and conversion. The setting is unusual and the art is great. The components too. The game mechanisms are very much in the mold of what's most popular now. So there was no element of surprise or discovery for me. There are many rules. I find the game a little overcomplicated and thus tiring. I mean overcomplicated in relation to how much fun I get out of it. I can handle even more complicated games, but in Weather Machine the complexity is higher than is worthwhile for me. That said, I can imagine there will be gamers who enjoy exactly this kind of complexity. The pleasure in exploring Weather Machine is in figuring out how this sophisticated beast works, and then devising an efficient plan to squeeze the most points out of it. When I played the game, I see myself collecting and converting resources, and not really tinkering with the weather. 

In short, not really my thing, but if you're into heavy Eurogames, chances are it'll be yours.