Friday 31 March 2023

Giant Pandemic

Due to my work, I created a giant version of Pandemic. I made this for a team-building event. I asked younger daughter Chen Rui to draw a giant map based on the standard map. Most of the details were the same, but I needed it to be 6 feet by 4 feet. Looking at this photo you can't really tell how big the map is. You'll need to look at the map when placed in my sitting room next to the furniture. 

I needed the map to be big because I planned to have this activity accommodate 20 to 40 participants. The map needed to be big enough so that most participants could easily see the various details on the map. I did not change the game rules. The changes I made were in how this activity was to be executed by four teams as opposed to this being a game played by four players. Within each team there would be members assigned to different tasks. There would be some communication challenges thrown in. Pandemic when used well is a great team-building and training activity. 

I bought most of the activity props. I needed to get a copy of Pandemic too, because I used the cards from the actual game. For the rest, I had to hunt everywhere to find equivalent large sized components. I arranged to playtest this giant version of Pandemic. Not for gameplay, since I didn't change that, but for making sure the components worked well. My dining table was not big enough for the map. I needed to add one more table and a white board (see bottom right) to create enough flat surface for the whole map. 

I used toy cars as player pawns. The white cube is a die for prototype-making. I used it as a research centre. I used square wooden blocks as diseases. I bought them at Daiso and spray painted them. One problem with the toy cars was players could not resist playing with them. This is the kind which you can pull back and then release to have it dart forward. Chen Rui kept playing with her car, knocking over game components on the map. 

I prepared four spare cars in the same four colours as those on the map, and placed them in front of the four players as reminders to tell which one on the map was their car. Here we have one flaw. In the original game, the player pawn colours match the player character colours. I couldn't find large player pawns to match all the character cards, so I went with toy cars. 

I put the character cards into identity card holders and attached lanyards. In each team there would be one member wearing this, and his or her job was to remind the whole team they needed to fully utilise the character ability. 

I changed this part of the game board. In the original there are only four circles. When you manage to cure a disease, you put a marker into the circle. If you manage to eradicate the disease, you flip the marker to the other side, which shows a different symbol. In the giant version, I wanted something which looked like a table, each row being a different status. The four little bottles are markers you can advance downwards. 

Game in progress

For the outbreak marker and the infection rate marker, I used this type of whiteboard magnet which can be found at stationery shops. 

I found large transparent plastic cans for the four diseases. 

These four small bottles are status markers for the four diseases. Originally I thought about half filling the bottles with liquid in the four disease colours. I later changed my mind because I was worried the liquid might leak and damage the other components. 

I feel bad for having moved Jakarta into the Indian Ocean. The city locations are not meant to be accurate. 

We played the giant version with just the four of us. The team-building would have 20+. It's a little too big for four players, but a trial run was good to help iron out any issues. 

We won rather easily. That was not surprising since my daughters and I had played Pandemic and its variants many times. Vanilla Pandemic was easy for us. We did have a newbie Joti, but he picked up quickly under our guidance. One thing I learned from this playtesting was when I conducted the team-building activity, I should refrain from giving too much guidance. I should only teach the rules and not give any tips. If I were to guide the participants on how to play, it would effectively be me playing and not them learning. 

The activity during the team-building workshop took about 2.5 hours. I told the attendees that had a very difficult mission, because they had to manage not just COVID-19, but also COVID-20, COVID-21 and COVID-22. 

Learning the rules was challenging for them. After all they were not regular gamers. However they were sporting and participative. There was plenty of discussion and debating. 

I created many player roles and assigned them to more than half the participants. I don't mean the roles in the game like medic, scientist and operations expert. I mean player roles I created when I turned the game into a team activity involving four teams. Naturally there was a team leader for each team. I had four disease controllers whose jobs were to handle the disease cubes. No one else was allowed to touch the disease cubes but them four. I had card holders who were responsible for drawing and handling player cards. No one else were allowed to touch the player cards. One player role which turned out to be quite fun (but also busy for the guy assigned) was the infection officer. His job was to draw and announce the two infection cards at the end of every turn. Basically he was the bringer of bad news. That stage of a game turn was called Breaking News. 

I did not manipulate the game setup or the two card decks to make it easier or harder for them to win. I just let randomness run its course. Pandemic is well balanced and a random setup normally won't create too extreme a situation. Also the point of the exercise was not to intentionally let them win so that they would feel good, or to make them lose so that they would learn from failure. It was an exercise to challenge their teamwork, communication, collaboration, strategic awareness and strategic planning. 

Adrian was the card holder for Team 3 (red team) and his job included drawing player cards. He happened to be the only person to ever draw Epidemic cards. Everyone blamed him for having unlucky hands. It really wasn't his fault. He just happened to be assigned the job. Look at his nervousness as it was time to draw player cards again. At this point he had already drawn two Epidemic cards. 

In the end, they only managed to cure two diseases before they were hit by the 8th outbreak and lost. They were close. They were only three turns away from curing the remaining two diseases. One team already had enough cards to treat the third disease. The next team had enough cards to pass to the following team, which would then have enough to cure the fourth disease. 

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Dancing Queen on Malay Mail and 8TV

When Vivae Board Game Cafe (Ampang branch) did their official launch, there were reporters doing interviews, and the short video from Malay Mail is now on Youtube. My design Dancing Queen, released at the end of 2022, was featured in the video. They covered that Dancing Queen won the 2021 9-card game design contest on BoardGameGeek. It's great to get some limelight! 

Can you find Dancing Queen?

Lim Jia Xian organised a boardgame event in Bukit Mertajam and it was featured on the Astro 8TV TV channel. I didn't attend the event, but Dancing Queen made an appearance in the video alongside other local designs. Evan Cheah, the other guy being interviewed in the video, is from the local game designer circle and has played Dancing Queen before too. 

Get a copy of Dancing Queen here:

Friday 24 March 2023

boardgaming in photos: friends and celebrities

During Chinese New Year this year I brought Attika back to Sabah, but didn't manage to get it played. I decided to put my foot down and brought it to the table. I (green) was sloppy and let younger daughter Chen Rui (blue) score a sudden death victory. She used her buildings to connect the two temples. She had planned this patiently. She amassed cards. She played the new land tile at the bottom right. She then quickly constructed two more buildings to complete the connection. I should have been more alert and stockpiled some resources. Then I might have been able to stop her. Or perhaps I needed to place the tile myself and block her path. Attika is a wonderful game. 

We played a second game, since the first one ended so quickly. This time Chen Rui (blue) got stuck in a bad position. Her starting buildings were those two at the top left, and they were quickly surrounded by my (green) buildings. She lacked resources to help her build, and also space. 

I (green) dominated the centre, forcing Chen Rui (blue) into two groups of buildings. She had to start a new group to be able to expand. 

4 Mar 2023. I met up with Edwin, Ruby, Xiao Zhu and Benz. They are my Pandemic team. We completed Pandemic Legacy Seasons 1 and 2 together. We are ex-colleagues and used to all work at a mobile game company. Since it was a game company, we had the perfect excuse to play games at the office. It's aah... training.  

We met up at Starbucks in Technology Park Malaysia. It was a quite place and we could stay and play the whole afternoon without being chased away. There was only a handful of other customers. We played Ticket to Ride: Japan. We had wanted to play it for a long time, but never got around to arrange a time. I also taught them Carcassonne

When playing Ticket to Ride: Japan, I replaced some of the shinkansen (bullet train) pieces with these souvenirs I bought in Japan. The game came with 16 shinkansen pieces but I only had 6 mini train souvenirs, so for the other 10 pieces I still had to use the standard trains that came with the game. Using these pretty pimp-up pieces distorted our game somewhat. We all raced to build shinkansen tracks because we wanted to use those pretty pieces. Once the 6th piece was used, the motivation to do shinkansen tracks suddenly plummeted. 

10 Mar 2023. I did a gathering with my BNI friends Jessyca, Nicole, Preston and Susie. We played the original Ticket to Ride

I brought out Through the Desert, which I had not played for a very long time. This was one of the earliest games I bought, about 20 years ago, when I got into the boardgame hobby. 

This is an eye-catching game. 

Taluva isn't a huge hit, but by now it is on its third edition. For a hobbyist game that's very successful. I like the game and am happy it is doing well. I'm always a little torn when I teach this game to new players. It is an open information strategy game, where experienced players tend to have an advantage over new players. I feel bad about beating the newbies too soundly. It would be like bullying them. I feel lousy and they don't enjoy the experience either. This time, things went the opposite direction. I not only didn't win, I made a mistake which gave the eventual winner Jessyca the victory. Gosh I need to do some self-reflection on why I did so poorly. 

10 Mar 2023 was the official launch of the Vivae Board Game Cafe Ampang branch. I was invited to showcase my game Dancing Queen. I also brought other prototypes to be playtested. There were a few other local game designers at the event. 

I had a chat with one of the customers who tried Dancing Queen, and found out that he was a reader of my blog! He once bought a game and couldn't figure out how to do the setup. He Googled and my blog was the first entry to show up. He commented on my blog post to ask about the game setup. I have been blogging since 2007, but I don't often run into readers. When it happens I can't help feeling that little bit of narcissistic pride. Sorry, I'm but human. 

Dancing Queen is now released, but whenever I get a chance to demo it, I still carefully self-inspect to see how I can further improve the way I introduce and teach the game. How do I make it easier for the players to understand the game, to see the hook and to enjoy themselves? I find this is a very important skill for game designers to learn. I still keep fine-tuning how I teach the game. Sometimes I omit a rule when teaching, and only explain it when the relevant situation arises during play. 

The guest of honour that day was Tian Chua. I don't meet celebrities often so by the next day I was already showing off on social media. This photo was taken when I explained to him how Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs worked. I look like a conspiracy theorist foisting his postulations on an innocent bystander. Tian Chua listened intently. When I later explained Dancing Queen to him, he asked intelligent questions. He wasn't just humouring me. That is something I respect. The way he asked for clarifications made him sound more like a gamer than a muggle. A closet gamer? 

Friday 17 March 2023

Secret Moon

The Game

Secret Moon from Seiji Kanai is the sequel of Love Letter, one of my favourite games. It is also a card game and a microgame, but it is a very different game from its predecessor. The story is a continuation. In Love Letter players are trying to deliver letters to the princess. In Secret Moon, some of the letters from a wanderer has reached the princess, and they are going have a penpal meetup, in the garden under the moonlight. Very romantic. The minister thinks this is totally inappropriate and wants to stop the princess. He is bringing his guards to search the garden and bring the princess back to the palace. So this game has two competing factions. The princess faction wants to have the princess meet the wanderer, and the minister faction tries to prevent that. 

These are the characters in the game. The player count supported is unusual - 5 to 8 players. The recommended player counts are 6 and 7. In the princess faction you have the princess herself, the wanderer and the priestess. The priestess appears to be in the minister faction but she actually wants to help the princess. The minister faction includes the minister himself and four guards. Regardless of the number of players, all characters are to be in play, just that some of them will be randomly placed face-down at the centre of the table and these become non-player characters. 

The numbered cards are the player order cards. In each of the three rounds, they are shuffled and dealt out to every player. That means turn order is random every round. The player order cards list the actions you may perform, so they also serve as reference cards. 

The markers at the top right can be used to remind you who has seen which card, and who have been confirmed to be in which faction. When we played, we found them a little tedious, so we soon gave up on using them. 

The two factions win in different ways. The princess faction can win by capturing the minister, and the minister faction can win by capturing the princess. In addition, the princess faction also wins by simply lasting until the end of the game. That means the time pressure is on the minister faction. The minister faction can also win by revealing the character cards of both the princess and the wanderer. 

Every round, each player may only perform one action. One important rule in this game is you are not allowed to discuss or openly share information. This is very different from typical secret identity games. Normally such games encourage discussion and communication. You are encouraged to lie and misdirect. The designer Seiji Kanai considers himself a shy person, so he wanted to design a secret identity game that works for shy players. 

There are many types of actions available to you. The simplest one is to simply look at the character card of another player. You will know the character of that player, but you cannot tell anyone directly who it is. So this may not be as powerful an action as it seems. It is not exactly an efficient way to distribute information. Another action is to question another player - who are you? Depending on how that player responds, everyone else at the table will gain some information. If the princess or the wanderer gets questioned, they must remain silent. So you will know they are definitely in the princess faction. If the minister gets questioned, he must angrily reply "you idiot, it's me!" (because his identity is exposed now). If the priestess or a guard is questioned, they say "it's just me". It's not easy to find out who the priestess is. 

You can accuse another player by declaring his character. If you are right, he must reveal his character card. Otherwise, you must reveal yours. Another action you can take is to capture a character. You can only do this to revealed characters. So to capture the minister or the princess, you need at least two actions, accusing to reveal the card and then the actual capturing. 

Guards are vulnerable fodder. Once they are revealed, they are automatically captured, i.e. they are out of the game. So they are usually sacrificial pieces. However being out of the game doesn't mean you lose. As long as your faction wins, you are a winner too. 

There are two other actions. You can protect another player from attacks for the rest of the round. However you cannot protect in the third round. You can also sacrifice yourself to prevent one player from taking an action. 

This is a tiny game, but it does have a fair bit of rules. This is not exactly a simple game. 

The Play

I did a 5-player game, and there are some additional rules. During game setup, the priestess and the guards are shuffled and one is randomly removed from the game. You won't know who is missing from the game. 

The card on the left is a player order card, and you get dealt a new one every round. The card on the right is a character card. You are assigned a character at the start of the game. 

When I started playing, I was rather clueless what I was supposed to do. Three rounds went by quickly, because everyone only had one action per round. I soon realised that every action was precious. You really have to think carefully how to make every action count. There are 6 types of actions. When you are still new to the game, this is a little overwhelming. It takes a little while for things to click. 

There is challenge in identifying your teammates, due to the restrictions on communications. You have to think one or two steps deeper why a player has chosen a particular action, and why target this particular other player. These small pieces of information can mean something. There is a warm feeling when you cultivate mutual understanding despite the lack of direct conversation. Most secret identity games achieve understanding through a lot of talking. They are extrovert games. Secret Moon is an introvert game. You are not allowed to openly exchange information. When you succeed in working out the same ideas through subtle hinting and quiet actions, it's like falling in love - the kind where you can sense that the other person also quietly likes you, without neither loudly proclaiming their interest. When you play, you can chat about other things. The table doesn't have to be like a graveyard. It's just game information that you can't openly discuss. It can only be conveyed through the game mechanisms. 

The rulebook comes with strategy tips for every character! I avoided reading it because I wanted to discover the strategies myself. That's a big part of the fun. The fact that there is a strategy guide section in the rulebook means that this is not a simplistic game, despite being short and having very few components. You need to put some thought into it. If a player boldly asks "who are you?", does that mean he's definitely not a guard? Because guards would be afraid of accidentally exposing the minister. Would this player then be on the princess team? Or maybe he's the minister? But if he's the minister wouldn't such a bold move be too risky? It would hint at his identity. Behind every small decision in the game, there can be such deeper considerations. 

There certainly is some luck in the game. The turn order every round is random, and sometimes when you get to the third round, you know turn order will determine who wins. Turn order affects how players make decisions. If you are late in the round, you likely won't be using the protect action, since there are not many actions left to protect your teammate or yourself from. The luck element is acceptable, since this is a short game. Luck injects some unpredictability and excitement. 

The markers are pretty, but we ended up not using them. 

This round the minister is third in turn order. 

The impatient, the tickled, the thoughtful and the laughing. 

The Thoughts

Secret Moon is a game designed for shy players, the quite people, the introverts. It is not exactly a simple game. It's short, and you only have at most three actions the whole game, but underneath this microgame you see some tricky decision-making. It feels more like a medium-weight strategy game. It takes a little time to learn and appreciate. If you want to get casual games to enjoy it, you need to teach the game with care. If you play Secret Moon like a mindless and random game, you probably won't enjoy it. It is a thoughtful game. 

I like this kind of compact game. Short yet rich. It's a good filler for seasoned gamers. 

Tuesday 14 March 2023

TTGDMY Playtesting

TTGDMY (Tabletop Game Designers of Malaysia) is the largest game designer community in Malaysia. One recent playtesting meet-up was on 25 Feb 2023, at Game Over Here, a boardgame cafe in Sunway. I'm not really a regular, but I do try to go as often as I can. Playtesting is key in designing games and I also want to help other local designers playtest their games. 

We started around 3pm and finished after 7pm. This session was good. I managed to test three of my games. Also all the games by other designers I played that day were interesting to me. They felt fresh. My past playtesting experiences were spotty. Sometimes I see many games which don't feel original or bring nothing new to the table. 

This one above is a game about playing pool (as in pocket billiards). You race against your opponent to  hit all your balls into pockets. The balls are represented by cards. Whenever you pocket a ball, you trigger a special power, which you will usually try to use to position yourself for pocketing the next ball. If you use the powers and position your cue well, you can pocket many balls within the same turn. You feel very much like a pro pool player. Good pool players don't exchange turns much. They play well, plan well and make long streaks. It is a matter of not making mistakes. If you really can't pocket the next ball, you must try to position the balls on the table to make it hard for your opponent to make consecutive shots. This game feels highly thematic, and it's a short 18-card game! 

This is yet another 18-card game about a king vs the peasantry. It is an asymmetrical 2-player microgame. When the king plays a card, it is always face-up and it becomes a guard. When the peasantry plays a card, it is always face-down. One of the cards in the game is an assassin, and the peasantry tries to use the assassin to kill the king. This only works when the king runs out of guards. Meanwhile, the king tries to hunt down the assassin. The general rule is whenever you use the power of a card, it is moved to the discard pile. That means if the king uses the power on a guard, he loses that guard and weakens his position. Players manipulate the deck because they need to know where the assassin is in order to be able to use it or to capture it. 

This is one of my prototypes Romeo and Juliet. It is a secret identity team game. There are two factions in the game, Team Romance and Team Duty. Team Romance wants to Romeo and Juliet to be together, while Team Duty is against that. The former wins by bringing together three cards - Romeo, Juliet and Secret Ceremony. The latter wins by bringing together these three cards - Juliet, Wednesday (no, not this one) and Wedding. All this sounds rather abstract. The actual mechanism is simple. Players will be passing cards around the table and those on the same team try to first identify their teammates and then work together to assemble the winning combination. 

This is a roll and write game about capturing monsters. It has a push-your-luck mechanism. The player board is constructed randomly using 9 tiles. Every player uses the same configuration. Every round you roll dice to determine how many and what types of fences you get to draw on your player board to surround and capture monsters. Monsters score points in different ways. Dice are rolled one by one and after each roll you can decide whether to pass and use the number of fences made available so far, or to hold on for another roll. There are two reasons to pass. If the total exceeds a threshold, you will end up building fewer fences. Also if you exit at a good time, you may get some bonus fences. Players need to decide simultaneously whether to pass or to press on. How many people pass at the same time affects the bonus fences you get. So there is some double guessing and greed assessment of your opponents. 

This is a game about stealing snacks from the fridge. Dad fell asleep on the coach while watching TV. Are you able to sneak past him to get some midnight snack from the kitchen? I didn't get to play this. I was at the other table. 

This is my prototype Catch 22. At the start of a round, every player draws three cards, looks at them, and arranges them face-down from smallest to largest. On your turn, you must reveal one card in front of another player, or from the top of the deck. As long as the sum of the revealed card values do not exceed 22, you gain a reward. The more face-up cards there are, the bigger the reward. If you go bust, i.e. reveal a card which pushes the total beyond 22, you are penalised instead. 

This is Roadkill, a game with some dark humour. You play animal families trying to cross the highway. If you are not fast enough, you get run over by a car. Or a truck. But becoming roadkill is okay. In this game your specie has generational memory. When one family member dies, the others learn from it. You gain experience (the only currency in the game) which can then be used by the next family member attempting to cross the highway. In game terms, you try to cross all 6 lanes of the highway to get to the other side. On your turn you can either try to dash cross one lane, or do other things that help you on your next dash. If you die at any attempt, your pawn goes all the way back to the start. Your animal has just become roadkill so you now play the next family member trying to cross the road. This is quite exciting. It is frustrating and hilarious if you fail at your final attempt. You are going to have to start all over again. 

In the past I rarely wrote about game prototypes. Prototypes are not released yet and no matter how good they are, you won't be able to buy them. Now that I'm doing game design myself, I want to share my journey and my experiences in the local game designer circle. 

Friday 10 March 2023

Long Long Animal

The Game

Long Long Animal is a small card game sold in the Daiso 100-yen shops in Japan. Based on the packaging this is a children's game, or at least a family game. The rules are very simple. During my holidays I bought quite a few games like this. Not that I am specifically fond of this type of game. I want to study this game genre. I am working on designing such games. I want to understand the design thinking behind these games. Long Long Animal looks simplistic, but when I played it, I was pleasantly surprised. 

There is no rulebook in the box. Three of the cards form the rules and also act as reference sheets. I don't know Japanese, so I relied on the camera function of Google Translate to understand how to play. 

The cards are all sorts of animals. To form a complete animal usually you need two cards. There is one type of cat - the long cat - which is made of three cards. 

At the start of the game all cards are dealt out to players as evenly as possible. Whenever you have cards which form a complete animal, you immediately play them on the table to score points. This applies at all times. Every complete animal is worth 1 point. There are two special situations. The long cat consists of three cards and is worth 3 points instead. There are four types of regular cats. If you happen to have all four types, you get a 4 point bonus. At first I didn't think much about these two exceptions, but I later realised they were the crux of the game, not just fun exceptions. 

Every round there will be a start player who decides how many cards to pass. Once decided, she picks that number of cards from her hand to pass to the next player. After receiving the cards, this player must play any completed animals first. She then picks the same number of cards from her hand to pass to the subsequent player. This continues until you go full circle and the start player receives cards from the last player. This is one complete round of play. 

When you need to pass cards but you don't have enough, or you would pass all that you have, you pass them all and exit the game. You wait until the game ends to see who wins. 

As a game progresses there will be more and more animals played on the table. You have not only long animals but also tall animals. Eventually all the cards will be matched and played. This is when the game ends and you do scoring. 

The Play

The rules are simple. This sounds like a random game of luck. There seems to be little basis on which to decide how many cards to pass and which cards to pass. You don't know what cards your opponents have, unless your group communicates that explicitly. Or you try to remember what you have given to the next player. Long Long Animal feels like a simplistic brainless game for passing time. Not much strategy, no need to think a lot. Just enjoy creating cute animals. 

I think this is what most people will see in the game, and will be perfectly happy with it. If you are a casual gamer and you buy a small 100-yen game from Daiso, this is likely the kind of game you expect to play. Something light and easy. Being a hobby gamer, I can't resist dissecting the game, even when it is obviously a children's game. I found that the long cats are often the key to victory. All those 1pt matches don't really matter. Everyone will eventually get roughly the same number of 1pt matches. To secure a win, you need those long cats. There are only two long cats, and so far it seems to me it is impossible to win without them. 

Collecting a set of four types of normal cats is something we try to do, but it is very difficult. This is shooting for the moon. It feels almost impossible, but that hope of winning a lottery keeps players engaged. Of the four cat types, one of them only appears once in the deck. To be able to collect all four types, you must have this particular cat. 

I discovered that there are tactics to picking the number of cards to pass. You actually want to help your opponents make those 1pt matches and then kick them out of the game by exhausting their hands. Force them to score the low valued cards and so that they have no choice but to pass you the high valued ones. 

No matter how you see it, this is a simple game. Yet I find that I have not fully grasped it. I can sit through a 2-hour heavy Eurogame and feel I've seen all there is to it. Yet I have played a few games of this 10-minute Long Long Animal and I still have a nagging feeling I don't really understand it yet. I don't know how best to decide the number of cards to pass, or which cards to pass. Am I going nuts? Why am I over-analysing this children's game? 

The Thoughts

Long Long Animal is a small and convenient card game. It is short and cute, and works for casual gamers and children. I found a mystery in it that I still haven't solved. If you are as crazy as I am, go get a copy and let's exchange notes.