Thursday 31 August 2023


The Game

Challengers! is the 2023 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner, i.e. the German Game of the Year in the Expert category. I had already noticed it when it was first released. I thought the premise was interesting and I wanted to give it a go. After it won the award, I thought I shouldn't wait any longer. So I asked Allen and Han to try it out with me on www.boardgamearena.comChallengers! is a premium game, which meant I had to restart my subscription to be able to play it. The monthly subscription is MYR 24 (~USD 6), which is a good deal. If I only spend MYR 24 for a gathering with friends, I'm happy. Since I had subscribed and the minimum was one month, after our online meet-up I went online by myself to play more with strangers. 

Challengers! supports up to 8 players. It is a deck-building game. The game is run in the format of a tournament. Every player controls one team. You will play a series of 7 matches, and earn fans (score points) from the matches. Once everyone has played 7 matches, the two teams with the most fans enter the grand final. Whoever wins the final wins the game.  

With four players, each will match up with a different opponent from game to game. You match the same team 2 or 3 times. When the number of players is an odd number, every round one team will be matched with a robot team. No one is left idle. 

Everyone starts with the same card deck of 6 cards. Before every season match, you have a chance to do deck-building and alter your deck. By the time you get to the 7th match, your team may already be completely different. The deck-building mechanism is very simple. You get to draw 5 cards from a specific deck, and from there you get to pick 1 or 2 cards, depending on which round you are in. While picking cards, you have one chance to discard all your options and redraw the same number of cards. After making your selections, you may also discard any number of cards from your deck. This is so unbelievably simple that I had to read twice to make sure I didn't misunderstand. 

There are six families of cards in the game, and every time you play, you will use five families. Cards are divided into Levels A, B and C. The higher level cards are more powerful. In addition to the card value, some cards have special abilities.  

To appreciate how to deck-build, you need to understand how a match works. Let's talk about that. At the start of a match, both teams shuffle their decks, and the starting team draws a card. A flag token is placed on this first card drawn, representing that the starting team has control of the flag. The other team plays the attack role, and tries to claim the flag. The attacking player reveals cards from his deck one by one, until the total value matches or exceeds the card holding the flag. Once this happens, the flag changes hands, and the attack and defense roles change. 

One important rule is if two or more cards are used to capture the flag, these cards don't remain splayed. Instead they are stacked together so that only the most recent card is on top and visible. Only this card is holding the flag, i.e. defending the flag. The values of the other cards are ignored. 

When a card or a stack of cards is defeated, all the cards must be placed at the bench. Each team has a bench with 6 slots. Every slot can fit one specific card type (i.e. exact same name). If you have multiple copies of the same card in your deck, when defeated they go to the same slot. The bench size is an important element of the game. You lose if you need to place defeated cards at your bench, but you are out of space. What this means is you tend to want to keep your deck to just 6 types of cards. 

The other way you win is by controlling the flag when your opponent is no longer able to attack. That means he has run out of cards. 

You realise that during a match, there is actually very little control or decision-making. You are mostly flipping cards. Victory is determined by what cards you have and the order they turn up. The most important decisions in the game are made when you pick cards to add to your deck. Cards from different families have different characteristics. Some cards jive well together. Usually it is good to have many cards from the same family. 

When you win a match, you earn a trophy, and each trophy is worth some points. As the game progresses, the trophies are worth more and more points. There is escalation. Even if you lose a few early games, you still have a chance to catch up. Some cards let you score points directly. Trophies are not the only way. After 7 matches, you total your points, and the two highest scorers get to play in the final. You don't get new cards for the final, but you still have one chance to remove cards. At the final, you don't bother about scores anymore. Whoever wins the final wins the game. 

The Play

Challengers! is a quick game. Well, I say so because I play online, and the computer takes care of all the tedious bits. Not that it is very tedious. There will be multiple matches running concurrently. You will be occupied with the match you are in, and you won't be able to spend too much time watching other matches. However it will be somewhat helpful to take a glance and have a rough idea who is having what kind of deck. It may affect your decision when your build yours. You may want to know who you will be matching up next, and adjust your card picking decisions based on that. Let's say you expect to face a team with many high cards. If you have a card which discards the top card of your opponent's deck, that can be quite a blow to them. 

Picking cards is interesting. The mechanism is simple, but it often presents difficult choices. The option to refresh your card choices is genius. Sometimes the cards you draw look mediocre, and you decide to refresh, only to get an even worse set of choices. Yet sometimes when you decide to refresh, you get cards which are perfect for your current deck. When picking cards you will consider how they can help one another. You want to make combos. However the order cards are drawn is random. You can only hope they appear in a good sequence and at the right time. If your opponent's flag holder is a measly 1, it would be bad news if you draw your mighty 5 to defeat it. It is also bad news if your opponent has a 5, and you draw 2, 2, 5 to defeat it, because you are spending three cards to beat his one card. 

This was when I played against the bot player. There are bots of different strengths - their decks vary slightly. Experienced players can choose to play against stronger bots. One bot card has a strength based on the round number, which means it gets stronger and stronger. By Round 7 it is strength 7, which is pretty strong. 

In this particular game I had 9 types of cards in my deck. I kept this many because I had a card which could remove cards from my bench to a discard pile. This reduces my risk of losing due to my bench being full. However it still depends on the timing of the card draw. If I draw that card too early (no other cards are on my bench) or too late (the bench has already gone bust), it wouldn't help me. 

At the final, only two teams will play. The others can only spectate.

By Round 7, my starting deck had been completely replaced. I picked many cards from the movies family (green). 

Some cards let you remove cards from your bench to a discard pile. That greyed out stack of cards near the top right is the discard pile. By default it is not used. Only specific card powers let you use it. 

The Thoughts

The biggest difference between Challengers! and other deck-building games is the lack of control. That sounds like a bad thing, but it is not. Instead this is what makes it refreshing and unique. The luck of the draw is what you have to contend with. This is the premise which makes the game interesting. When you pick cards, you have to think with a very different mindset. You won't get to choose when to play any specific card. You are at the mercy of the draw, and you have to manage that. 

Many of the card powers are linked to the fact that cards turn up at random. Other deck-building games don't have most of these powers. Some powers let you look at some of your cards and rearrange them in an order you like. Some cards give you a bonus if they happen to be at the bottom of your deck. 

Challengers! won the Kennerspiel des Jahres, which is the expert gamer category, but to veteran gamers this is just a mid-weight strategy game. There is a healthy dose of strategy, but this is a game which gamers can play in a relaxed, light-hearted manner. There is a significant luck element. You don't need to overthink it. 

Challengers! is a pleasant surprise. Definitely worth giving it a go. It did not disappoint. 

Wednesday 23 August 2023

Singapore Boardgame Design interview

I was recently interviewed by Singapore Boardgame Design. I shared a little about Dancing Queen and my design process. 

Tuesday 15 August 2023

2023 Any Games Convention

29 - 30 Jul 2023 was the Any Games Convention. This year it was held at Jaya Shopping Centre in PJ. I participated in the convention last year (Dec 2022). That was just after Dancing Queen was released. I signed up again this year, booking a small booth as a local game designer. In preparation for the convention, I asked Julian to design a stand-up bunting for me, using artwork from Dancing Queen

At the convention, space was limited, so I could only place the bunting behind my booth. Positioned this way, we can't see the bottom third of the bunting. Thankfully we had put the pretty girl in the top third. Sorry to the pretty boy. 

Quite a few friends came to support me over the two days, which was nice. Jeixel is my ex-colleague. He designs mobile games. So we can exchange game design ideas. 

David is also an ex-colleague from a different company. He brought both his kids. 

I knew Afif since the early days of my boardgaming, well before either of us had kids. He has not been playing much in recent years. Busy with business. Yet he still came all the way to support me. I taught him and his sons how to play Dancing Queen

Allen is my long-time kaki (gaming buddy). We don't play as frequently as we used to, but we are still each other's default gaming partner. He brought the whole family. I taught them Liar's Deck, a prototype still in development. 

I arrived early both days, and set up my stall well before the event was open to public. I only had one published game - Dancing Queen. That was the only game I could sell. The others I brought were prototypes at different stages of development. I brought four prototypes to playtest. My objective was not to sell many copies of Dancing Queen. It was to put my brand Cili Padi Games out there, and also to playtest my prototypes with the public. 

My games were all card games, so I could squeeze many onto just half a table. 

Compared to last year, the crowd this year was bigger. After lunch till around dinner time was super busy. Over the two days I was almost non-stop teaching games at my booth. It was tiring, and it was great being able to get so many people to try my games. This was why I participated in the event. I wanted to get new people, and different people, to play my games. I wanted to observe how they played. Watching people play gives me ideas and feedback so that I can further refine my games. During the convention I also managed to speak to people in the industry, like Edwin the game distributor and Geoffrey the game designer and publisher from Singapore. That gave me new insights and perspectives which are valuable. 

The next game I plan to publish (by end of 2023) is Snow White and the Eleven Dwarfs. The minimum player count is 7, which makes it a challenge to playtest. Thankfully I managed to playtest it several times throughout the two days. This photo above is a 11-player game in progress. The players were not distracted and scrolling social media on their phones. They were using their phones to take notes while playing. I had told them it would help to take notes, and they all did so diligently. With 11 players, it is not easy for the dwarf players to find the missing dwarf. Even more so when the players are new to the game. However this particular group managed to guess the missing dwarf successfully. They did it even before I, the facilitator, managed to figure out the missing number. Bravo! 

A group of four girls stayed for a long time and played many of my games. They tried them one by one until they exhausted all that I had brought. I felt a little guilty for not having brought more for them to try. They started with Romeo and Juliet. After playing it they went off to explore other booths. They later came back to try my other games. It was exhilarating to see people enjoy my games. 

Having done more playtesting for my three yet-to-be-scheduled-for-publishing games over the two days, I am rather tempted to pick the next game after Snow White. I might be getting ahead of myself a little. Snow White is only expected to be released end of the year, and the next game is supposed to be end of next year. The game I am most confident about now is Catch 22. I started work on it in June 2022. So it has been in development for more than a year. When I made the prototype for it, I couldn't think of an appropriate theme. I slapped on a random theme - Studio Ghibli movie characters. It has nothing to do with the gameplay. I was just looking for an excuse to use nice drawings. I have been struggling to come up with a theme for a long time. One difficulty is the game has a gambling element, like Black Jack. However instead of not going over 21, you have to work hard to not go over 22. Thus the name Catch 22. However I didn't want to use a theme related to gambling. 

The various discussions I had during the convention gave me new, useful perspectives. When we seasoned gamers go into game design, we tend to focus on the game mechanisms. We prefer to make the kind of games we ourselves like. Because of these, we easily neglect many other important aspects of professional game design and game publishing. During the convention, the booth next to mine was Faculty of Fun and their game was Nasi Lemak: The Game. It is a simple game. The theme is something all Malaysians are familiar with and can relate to. The price is a mass market game price, i.e. lower than the typical hobby game. They sold well. They did many things right. Being an old-timer gamer, Nasi Lemak: The Game is not the type I play. It does not have me as a target audience. It is targeting the average consumer, which is a much larger audience than game hobbyists. For a game to be commercially viable (and I'm not even talking about successful yet), we have to consider what the market wants. If we only design what we want, that's game design as a hobby, not game design as a profession. Not that there's anything wrong with doing game design as a hobby. We just have to be clear what we are aiming for, and make decisions accordingly. 

One particular statement heard at the convention resonated strongly with me. As long as the box is attractive enough, and it is placed at the right kind of shop, the game will sell. You don't even have to worry about gameplay or game design. This sounds insulting to game designers around the world, but there is some truth to it. If we want to be professional or semi-professional, the games we make need to be sellable. 

My prototype Romeo & Juliet, if given pretty art and packaging, and placed at high-end bookstores, will probably sell well. Now for Catch 22 I plan to switch the theme to Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. In this game you win by accumulating wealth. In the Ali Baba story, he gets rich by stealing from the thieves. What do you think? Do you think this will sell? 

One visitor told me she had bought Dancing Queen but still had not played it. She asked me to teach her to play. I said yes of course. Hopefully she will now be able to teach her friends and family how to play, and they will enjoy the game. During the convention some visitors came to specifically ask to play Dancing Queen. That makes me happy. I'm not sure how they found out about my game, but this little bit of recognition is a big encouragement. 

The next major boardgame event in Malaysia will be BOXCON, on 26 - 27 Aug 2023. If you are in the Kuala Lumpur area, come visit me and try my games! 

Friday 11 August 2023

boardgaming in photos: Deluxe Catan, Regicide, Android: Netrunner

When Jeff had the Klaus Teuber commemoration gaming day, he brought out quite a few versions of The Settlers of Catan to be displayed, and this 3D version was the grandest of them all. 

The three stooges at the centre are the robbers. 

Here you can see a city and a harbour. 

The tile which looks the most 3D is naturally the mountain. 

This wooden box is not for the 3D version but for another deluxe edition. 

I have the Android: Netrunner base game and quite a number of expansions. However I have only played it a handful of times, and I never learned to play it in depth. By now I have forgotten most of the rules. Recently Meeples Cafe did a clearance sale. I went to take a look, and found some Android: Netrunner expansions at 80% off. How could I resist? And I still don't know when I'm going to go back to learn the game properly. 

These two above strictly speaking are not expansions. I can't find them as game entries on They are preconstructed decks used by the 2016 world champions. One deck for the runner and the other for the corporation. 

These are expansions. I didn't look up the reviews when I bought them. They were cheap. Buy now, think later. 

After many attempts at solo mode Regicide, I finally managed to win. From these attempts I certainly learned some tactics. Afterwards I taught younger daughter Chen Rui the game. On our first attempt, we won! It felt almost too easy. I have tried 2- and 3-player games before, and they were tough. I am a little frustrated that my game with Chen Rui felt easy. I had promised her a challenging game. Was she super smart or did my experience with the game help? Maybe a bit of both. 

I was so happy with my first ever victory at Regicide that I had to take a photo. The final boss was the king of hearts. Regicide is a great game! If you haven't tried it, go support it! 

Sunday 6 August 2023

Isle of Trains (2014)

The Game

Isle of Trains: All Aboard won the best card game (strategic) at the 2023 UK Games Expo. When I saw the news, I thought the name of the game sounded familiar. I thought I had the game in my collection, but the box cover looked different. I dug up my copy, and realised it was an earlier version from 2014, named Isle of Trains. It was designed by the same design team - Seth Jaffee and Dan Keltner. The newer version introduces a new element - passengers. Allen gave me Isle of Trains quite some time ago, and I still hadn't brought it to the table. Now that the new edition had just won an award, I had a good justification to bring it out and see what it's about. 

Isle of Trains is a pure card game. Players manage their own trains, using the trains to deliver goods and fulfil contracts. You need to upgrade your train in order to be able to carry and deliver more goods. Contracts are the main way you score points. When the game ends, your train itself will score points. So do the goods you still carry on your train. The most points will likely be from your completed contracts. Highest scorer wins. 

During setup, you use six of the cards to form this island. These six are contract cards. They specify what goods you need to supply to claim them, and they are worth points. The island is just an aesthetic element and has no gameplay purpose. Every player starts the game with one basic engine which can pull carriages with a total weight of 4. If you want to be able to pull more, you need to upgrade your engine. 

On the back of these six contract cards, there are two more advanced contracts you can fulfil. They are worth more points but they also require more goods. When you fulfil a basic contract, you claim it and put it in front of you. You must proceed to fulfil one of the two advanced contracts before you can claim another basic contract from the island. The basic contracts are free for all so they are first come first served. Once you claim a basic contract, the two associated advanced contracts are yours and they are protected. However you are committed to them too. 

A card can be used in three different ways. If you build it, it becomes your engine, carriage or building. You can only have one train. Your train may only have one engine. It can have many carriages, as long as your engine is powerful enough to pull all of them. The most common function of carriages is to carry a specific goods type. Carriages have other functions too. You can only have one building. Buildings help you score bonus points at game end. 

In order to build a card (engine, carriage or building), you need money, and the second way you use cards is as money. If a card costs $4 to build, you have to actually pay 4 cards. To build a $4 carriage, you need to have 5 cards in hand, the carriage card itself, and 4 more cards which will be your payment. 

The third way you use a card is as goods. A card tells you what kind of goods it can become. Normally it's either coal, oil or boxes. Some cards are jokers and can be any type. when you load goods, you place cards onto carriages. 

On your turn you may perform two actions. You options include drawing a card, building, loading one goods card, and delivering any number of goods. When you do loading, you don't necessarily load goods onto your own train. You can load onto an opponent's train, and that's an important part of gameplay. When you load for an opponent, you gain benefits as specified on their carriage. Sometimes you get to draw more cards, sometimes you get to load or deliver more goods. Loading goods for others is often an attractive option, so much so that when you build carriages yourself you will worry about others taking advantage of the bonuses on your carriage. You will have an urge to fill up your own carriages quickly so as not to benefit your opponents. 

Sometimes you need both your actions to do something difficult. Your hand size is 5. If you exceed that at the end of your turn, you are forced to discard down to 5 cards. If you want to build something large, of cost 5 or more, it will be difficult. You will need to spend the first action on your turn to draw more cards (by loading goods for an opponent). Only then by your second action you will have enough cards to pay for expensive cards you want to build. 

This is a building. It helps you score more points at game end. 

The last action type you have is to deliver goods. With one action you get to deliver as many goods on your train as you want. What this means is you can discard goods to draw 2 cards per goods discarded, and you can also discard goods to fulfil contracts.  

Once a certain number of contracts forming the island has been claimed (which depends on player count), the game ends, and the highest scorer wins. 

The Play

I played with younger daughter Chen Rui. We were both new to the game. Isle of Trains is an engine building game. Your engine is literally that small train engine everyone starts with. It won't get you far. You build your train by upgrading that train engine and by adding carriages to it. You may also construct a building to help score more points. All these are part of the game's engine-building. As in most engine-building games, the tricky part is deciding when and how to transition from engine-building to point-scoring. Your engine is your means, but your objective is the points, not the engine. Your engine doesn't have to be perfect or to be the strongest. It is more important to utilise it as much as you can before the game ends to score the most points. If you focus too much on building the engine, you may not be doing enough of point scoring. If you start scoring points too early, your engine may not be strong enough and you will be inefficient. 

In Isle of Trains, your train itself, i.e. your game engine, does score points. The train engine and the carriages have point values. The contracts are the most effective way to score points, but they do nothing to help build your engine. Although it may seem inefficient to start scoring points too early, there is a counter point to that. Contracts on the island are first come first served. So there is an element of racing to get to the one you want before it gets snatched away by your opponents. 

In our game I concentrated on building my game engine, because that's what I enjoy doing. I focused so much on that that I didn't realise the contract I was working towards could be fulfilled by Chen Rui. When she took that contract from the island, she knocked my pacing off. I had to switch to work towards a different contract which needed a different combination of goods. I had to further develop my train before I could claim the other contract. My tempo never quite caught up with Chen Rui's. By the time she completed two advanced contracts, I only had one basic contract done. It was too late for me. When she took the next contract from the island, she would trigger the end of the game. By the time our game ended, I barely managed to complete my advanced contract. The contract I had was a higher-scoring contract, but it was not enough to compete against the quantity Chen Rui had. She had claimed three contracts from the island I had only one. She fulfilled five contracts to my two. My train did score more points than hers, because I did more upgrades, but the point difference in contracts was bigger. 

The half circles at the bottom right corners of the cards mean capacity (yellow) or weight (red). The train engine has capacity to pull weight, and the weight of all the carriages added up must not exceed this capacity. Carriages have different capacities for carrying goods, and usually a carriage can only carry one specific goods type. 

I upgraded my train engine to the highest level. I could pull a weight of 8. 

The Thoughts

I read the rules to Isle of Trains a few months ago, together with the rules of a few other Dice Hate Me card games which Allen gave me. At the time it didn't get me very excited, because it seemed like just another resource collection and contract fulfilment game. Now that I have played it, I would say indeed it doesn't break much new ground, but one thing I do enjoy is that element of how you want to help your opponents load goods. Those are golden opportunities which will likely help you even more. The engine-building aspect of the game is done well and enjoyable. 

Isle of Trains is a mid-weight strategy game, despite being a pure card game. There is some depth to it. The various carriages, buildings and goods are designed to have some character, so the game feels flavourful and not generic.