Sunday, 6 August 2017

Not Alone

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Not Alone is a one-vs-many game. The many is a team of space explorers stranded on the mysterious planet Artemia, waiting for rescue. The one is a powerful and malicious alien creature which controls all life-forms on Artemia, and which now wants to assimilate these unexpected visitors into the local hive-mind ecosystem. Can the explorers stay sane and away from the creature long enough for their rescuers to arrive?

This is the countdown track. The pawn on the left is the rescue counter. It marks how much longer the humans need to wait before the rescue ship arrives. The pawn on the right is the assimilation counter. It marks how close the creature is in assimilating the humans. This is effectively a race game, whoever manages to get his pawn to the star position first wins.

The three discs at the top belong to the creature. They are the Hunt tokens used for hunting the humans. The disc in the middle is the creature token which represents the physical presence of the creature itself. This token is always in use every round. The other two tokens are available to the creature under specific conditions, e.g. the play of a Hunt card. When playing, we joked that the token with an A looked like an Avengers token, and thus must be super powerful. The A actually stands for Artemia, the name of the planet.

The cards with the green back are the Hunt cards. The creature always has a hand size of three, and normally gets to play one Hunt card per round.

This is how the game is set up. The 10 cards arranged neatly at the bottom form the game board and represent the 10 locations on Artemia, each with a different ability which the humans get to use. At the start of the game, each human player has one each of cards numbered 1 to 5, which means he can only access the first five locations. At the top of the photo you can see a pool of cards numbered 6 to 10. During the course of the game the human players may claim these cards to increase their options.

At the start of a round, each human plays a location card from his hand face-down, committing where he will be for the round. The humans may discuss how they want to play, but the creature is listening, so they can't be too explicit. The humans have to hope that their teammates know what they are thinking and will play in a cohesive manner. After the humans are committed, it is the creature's turn to decide where to hunt. This is done by placing the Hunt tokens on the location cards where it thinks the humans are. Then you check whether any humans are caught. They will suffer penalties. Depending on the Hunt token, they may lose Will counters, they may lose cards, they may be denied the ability of the location, the assimilation counter may advance, etc.

The most crucial part of the game is advancing your counter on the countdown track. The rescue counter automatically advances at the end of every round. The humans can perform certain actions, e.g. using location abilities, to make additional advancements. The assimilation counter advances when the creature catches a human using the creature token, and also when a human loses his last Will counter. Every human starts with three Will counters. Will counters can be spent to return played location cards into your hand, but it is a risky thing to do, because you will get closer to losing them all. When you lose them all, the creature's assimilation counter advances, and you reset your character by taking back all your location cards and your three Will counters. You can use location abilities to return location cards to your hand, thus delaying the usage of Will counters, but in the long run it is a matter of stalling, not completely avoiding.

The locations on Artemia help the humans in different ways. They can speed up the rescue ship. They help you reclaim played location cards. They give you new location cards. They give you Survival cards. Survival cards are usually powerful, similar to the creature's Hunt cards. Each human may play at most one Survival card per round. One key difference between Survival cards and Hunt cards is the humans need to perform an action at a location to draw a Survival card, while the creature automatically draws back to three Hunt cards every round.

These are some of the creature's Hunt cards. Those target icons on two of them mean when you play these cards, you get to use the target Hunt token for the round.

The Play

Ivan taught us to play. He had played before, as the creature, so this time he wanted to try being human. He asked me to take the role of the creature. So I was public enemy in our game. There were five of us in total, thus four human players. At the start of the game, having four human players seemed very beneficial to the creature player. They only had five locations to pick from, and I felt I would have to be very unlucky to miss all four of them. Also one of the five locations, #5, was particularly attractive - it allowed the human player to gain a new location card. This was very useful. It was best to get such additional cards early, so that for the rest of the game you'd have more options. It was natural that the human players would be very tempted to make use of this location in the early game. I missed one consideration though. Location #1 was the creature's lair, and if a human made use of it, it could trigger the location ability of the location of the creature. So if I hunted at location #5, the humans could just go to location #1 and still trigger the ability of location #5.

Playing the creature was all about guessing where the humans were. I could see what location cards they had played to determine what options they had remaining. I had to remember which new location cards they managed to claim. I looked at how many Will counters they had to guess what they would try to do. For me the tension came from the ever ticking countdown clock - the rescue team was on the way. I had to assimilate the humans before time ran out, and the ticking clock often jumped ahead by one or even two extra steps. It was nice being omnipresent and powerful, but that didn't mean assimilating the humans was easy. I had a deadline to meet. The humans were stressed out as well, like mice being stalked by a monstrous cat, occasionally supported by devilish kittens (the extra Hunt tokens). Every round they played location cards, leaving fewer and fewer in hand. They could take cards back but that usually meant spending Will counters. Doom approached from both directions, or in Manglish (Malaysianised English) - turn left die, turn right also die. They struggled to survive and were often torn between lying low and waiting patiently, and being bold and helping the rescue team arrive sooner.

Both the creature's Hunt cards and the humans' Survival cards are powerful cards. They create drama and twists. Without them, I believe the game would be a little staid, because all other information is open - the location cards that have been played, the number of Will counters remaining, the available options of each human. Hunt cards and Survival cards create opportunities and help make impossible saves. I would say they help address a weakness in the core mechanism. They make the overall package better. They are powerful but not so much that you feel you win or lose by the luck of the draw. These cards are a supporting element, not the core.

Despite the difficulty in coordinating their actions due to the ever listening creature, the humans still have many ways to collaborate and help one another. They can choose to apply the ability of a location card or a Survival card on a fellow player who needs it more than themselves. Often a human can take one for the team, suffering injury to protect a teammate. The humans do feel like a team playing a cooperative game.

In this particular round, as the creature, I could use two Hunt tokens. Location #4 comes with a yellow marker. This marker starts the game off-card. When a human player triggers location #4, he may move the marker on- or off-card. Moving it on-card means charging up a beacon, and moving it off-card means activating the beacon, which causes the rescue counter to advance by one step. So it takes two human actions at location #4 to speed up the arrival of the rescue team by one step. It is possible to achieve this within one round if two humans come here (and are not caught by the creature).

The human player on the left had played location cards 1, 2, 3, 5 and 9, which meant it was much easier for me to guess where he was going. But beware the Survival card. There just might be one which could save this player from such a sticky situation.

This was near end game, and it was going to be a close finish. On the rescue team track, some spots have an A. If the rescue counter stops at these spots, in the next round the creature gets to use the Artemis Hunt token. The human players will try to avoid these spots. Most of the time it is ideal to move two steps per round, to completely avoid the A spots. That means moving one extra step on top of the one free step every round. However sometimes it is worthwhile to move three steps, even if it means landing on an A. In fact sometimes it is necessary. This is a race game after all.

Our game was close. The tension built towards a climax, and I think this is how most games will be. As the creature I tried to focus on humans who were already low on Will counters. Every step towards assimilation was precious. In the late game, when the rescue ship was about two rounds away from arriving, we came to a situation where one of the humans had only one Will counter remaining, and also only two location cards in hand. Big Red Target, in my eyes. My assimilation counter was two steps away from victory. If I could catch him in person (i.e. using my creature Hunt token), my assimilation counter would move one step for catching him in person, and another for reducing his Will counters to zero. That meant victory for me. Since he had only two cards left, I had a 50% chance of winning this round, assuming no Survival card upset my plan. Of his two locations, one was very enticing, because it would let the rescue counter advance an extra step. The other one was meh. I could decide to prowl the yummy location, since it was obviously the better location. However the human would know I was thinking this way, and might thus choose the meh location just to stay away from danger. So maybe I should pick the meh location so that I would catch him. He would deduce that I would think this way too, so the most dangerous location might actually be the safest one. Then why not just go for it? This is the kind of double guessing which happens all the time in this game. Eventually I decided the human must be having a do or die mindset by this stage. So I placed my creature Hunt token on the yummy location. I was right! Game over for the humans. Welcome to the warm embrace of Artemia.

The Thoughts

Not Alone is a light-to-medium weight game. It takes 30-45 minutes to play. What makes it attractive is the cat-and-mouse mechanism and how the creature and the humans need to guess one another's intentions. Even among the human players they need to guess what their teammates are thinking. The humans are under constant pressure. Their location cards dwindle, their Will counters dry up, they slowly slide towards the hive mind. They fight to survive till help arrives. The creature is mighty, but also has a heart-pounding urgency to assimilate the humans before they escape its grasp. This game has great atmosphere!

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Five Tribes

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Five Tribes from Days of Wonder is recent enough, but not exactly new. I missed trying it when it first came out. On a recent outing to when we were deciding what to play, I grabbed it off the shelf and asked whether anyone could teach it. Happily we had both Jeff and Ivan who could.

Five Tribes is best known for the congkak / mancala-like mechanism. On your turn, you must move meeples (people). You pick up all meeples from a tile, then distribute them all. You drop one on a tile orthogonally adjacent to the original tile, then another one on a tile adjacent to the second one, and so on, until the last meeple is dropped at your destination tile. As you travel from tile to tile, you must not immediately backtrack. If you want to return to a previous tile, you will have to make a big circuit, and that's assuming you have enough meeples to let you travel that big a circuit. One important rule is the last meeple you drop must be of the same colour as at least one meeple already on the destination tile. This also indirectly means your destination must not be vacant. If we look at the photo above, slightly to the left of centre there is a tile with one yellow and one white meeple. If you pick this tile as your starting point and you pick these two meeples up, you can travel right, drop the white meeple, and then travel right again, and drop the yellow meeple. Your destination has a yellow meeple, so this move is valid.

This is how game setup looks like. You have a 6 x 5 grid of tiles, each randomly seeded with three meeples. That row of 9 small cards on the left are resource cards you can collect. The row of 3 large cards are the djinns you may summon to help you. Meeples come in five colours. They are the five tribes, and they have different abilities. When you move people, the last meeple you drop triggers the tribe ability. You remove all meeples of that colour from the destination tile. The number of meeples removed determines how strong the ability is. If you trigger the white or yellow tribe, you collect these meeples and put them before you. They are worth points at game end. For the yellow tribe, when the game ends you compare your tribesmen with every other player, and score 10VP per opponent if you have more than him. Meeples of the white tribe can be spent to claim a djinn and also to invoke the djinn's power. The blue tribe makes money. The green tribe collects resources, of which there are two categories - merchandise and slaves. Merchandise cards are worth points, depending on how many different types you manage to collect. Slaves are jokers which can be used to summon djinns, to support the blue tribe in earning more money, and to support the red tribe in assassinating more distant targets. Finally, the red tribe are the assassins. They can kill meeples on the board and also meeples belonging to players. If you kill the last meeple on a tile, you get to claim that tile, which is worth points. If you empty a tile due to your Move Meeple action, you also get to claim the tile.

That orange camel is a player marker. This tile belongs to the orange player now. It is worth 5VP (the number with the blue background). This tile has a palace icon. Each time it becomes the destination of a Move Meeple action, a palace must be built, regardless of whether the tile already belongs to a player. Palaces are worth 5VP each. Whenever a tile is the destination of a Move Meeple action, there is an associated power. Some are mandatory, like palace construction. Some are optional, like summoning a djinn (see the tile to the left of the palace tile).

You start the game with $50. Money is victory points. At first I thought $50 seemed a lot. You only use money for bidding for turn order, and sometimes you can spend money to buy resource cards. Only after playing I realised the turn order bidding can be quite competitive and costly.

In a four-player game, everyone has 8 camels. Once any player uses up his, i.e. he has claimed 8 tiles, the game ends. The game also ends if there are no more legal moves on the board.

You use the minaret-shaped player marker pieces and the small board on the right for turn order bidding. The spaces on the turn order track have different prices, ranging from 0 to 18. At the start of a round, you take turns claiming a spot and paying the price. Naturally, the more you are willing to spend, the higher the chance of going earlier. There are three spots for $0. If you bid $0, you take the lowest spot, but it is a risky one. If a player who bids after you also bids $0, he pushes your backwards. He will take his turn before you.

Some of the point values of the tiles have a blue background, and some a red background. There is meaning behind this. The blue background tiles affect how blue meeples earn money. When you trigger the blue tribe, the money you earn is based on the number of blue meeples removed multiplied by the number of blue background tiles in the vicinity - the definition of vicinity being the destination tile itself and the 8 tiles surrounding it, both orthogonally and diagonally. The tile in the centre with the orange camel has one blue meeple and one white meeple. If you start the Move Meeple action here, you can drop the white meeple on the tile to the right, and then the blue meeple on the rightmost tile, which already has a blue meeple. You will earn $6 - 2 blue meeples multiplied by 3 blue background tiles in the vicinity (5, 5 and 10).

These are the various resource cards. The rightmost is a slave. The others are merchandise. The slave only exists in the first edition of the game. In subsequent editions the slaves were replaced with fakirs (clergymen), because some players were offended by the existence of slaves. I personally don't mind the slaves. Slaves are a historical fact.

The Play

I played with Heng, Allen and Dennis. All four of us were new to the game. When Ivan and Jeff taught us the game, they said this was an AP (Analysis Paralysis) game for new players. We said AP was a player problem and not a game problem. However AP turned out to be true. There are indeed many possibilities on the game board, especially in the early game. You need to peruse the board to find the most lucrative opportunities, and at the same time plan your move such that you don't create good opportunities for the next player. If you want to be exhaustive in working out all possibilities and their consequences, it will take a long time.

Allen was first to settle into a clear strategy - the landlord strategy supported by djinns. He summoned a djinn early, which let him directly claim vacant tiles. He also made use of the red tribe to assassinate the last meeples on tiles to empty them and then claim them. In a four player game everyone has only 8 camels, so the rest of us were under tremendous pressure of the game ending soon, once Allen placed his 8th camel. The rest of us should have worked together better to slow him down, e.g. coordinating our moves to minimise leaving empty tiles, or tiles with one meeple left, especially when they are high valued tiles. It was our first time playing so we didn't think that deeply. Dennis went the merchant route, actively collecting resource cards. Heng focused on collecting yellow meeples, and later diversified into white meeples too. I mainly worked on the blue meeples, which helped earn cash. On one of my turns I spent 4 slaves to boost the income I gained from a blue tribe move. I invested in collecting resource cards too, but not as heavily as Dennis.

The board situation constantly changes, so it is difficult to make long-term plans. If you plan early, by the time your turn comes, you may no longer be able to do what you had wanted to do. You would have to analyse anew. For players who are adamant in working out all options in detail, this game can grind to a halt. I prefer to play this way: On others' turns, I analyse the board to get a rough feel of the opportunities. When my turn comes, if what I want to do is still available, I can quickly make my move. If things have changed, I will analyse the recently changed areas to see if there are new opportunities. I try to find a decent move without over-analysing, and when I make my move, I keep in mind that I should not create a windfall for the next player.

Most strategies in this game need persistence, and this somewhat conflicts with the tactical nature of the game. The everchanging board makes longer term planning difficult. However the value in the long term strategies is that they create different priorities for the players. Different players will value the same item differently. If you are pursuing a yellow meeple strategy, they will be more important to you than to the other guy who is pursuing a djinn strategy. You need to consider not only what is helpful to you, but also what others value. If you are the only player collecting white meeples, and there is a good opportunity on the board, you may get away with a low bid for turn order because the others will probably choose to do something else. Of course, someone may still decide to grab that pile of white meeples simply to deny you. When you decide on a strategy, it doesn't mean you can execute that strategy every round. Sometimes the opportunities simply don't come up. However you should always keep an eye out, and you should try to create those opportunities yourself.

Halfway through the game, an idea came to us that on average we should try to earn about 10VP per round. 10VP = $10. By using this guideline, we could better decide how much to bid for turn order. If a good move would give me 18VP, I could afford to bid $8 for it. The 10VP guide was just based on gut feel. We were not sure whether this was a fair benchmark. Going last is not necessarily bad. Although going first guarantees no one will block a move you want to make, if you go late, there may be new opportunities opening up.

Our game was played with Allen constantly exerting pressure to end the game early. I was surprised he was not the eventual winner. Heng won the game. His focus was the yellow meeples. Near game end I managed to catch up to him, and both of us earned 25VP from the yellow meeples. Heng's biggest scoring category was cash. He did not spend much on turn order bidding, and whatever he saved meant more points for him. He also scored in most other categories; not many points in each of them, but they did add up. I scored much in cash too. Thriftiness was a valid strategy!

The Thoughts

Playing Five Tribes is a pleasant experience. For a family game, it is slightly more complex than average, and it is a little thinky (or a lot if you are AP-prone). It is not the Ticket To Ride type of family game. I enjoy the feeling of trying to find gems amidst chaos. It is like those puzzles where you need to find hidden items in a large and busy drawing. In Five Tribes, that large drawing is constantly changing, and new hidden items will appear. In fact, you get to create your own hidden items. Normally I dislike games with "multiple ways of scoring", because they feel like a jumble of mechanisms forcefully tied together. Five Tribes does have "multiple ways of scoring", but I find that the spatial aspect binds them together well. When you do traveling, which pile of meeples to pick, which coloured meeple to drop at every step, and where to stop are all part of the spatial element of the game. Some tiles are worth more VP than others. Some tiles will grow palaces, and some will grow oases. There is a very real landscape to consider. The diverse parts of the game feel concrete to me. They are no longer a bunch of mathematical formulas to be manipulated.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

boardgaming in photos: Lost Cities, Ra, Splendor

24 Jun 2017. Lost Cities is a classic from Reiner Knizia which I had not played for quite some time. I had to double check the rulebook when I taught Chen Rui (10), despite having played it many times before. I suggested this to Chen Rui one evening when both of us were bored, and she was just waiting for bedtime. A short filler was perfect for the occasion. She enjoyed it well enough, and we played again afterwards. She managed to win too, even though she always thinks she is not as good as me or her elder sister at boardgames. She has an inferiority complex, always feeling that she is not as capable as her elder sister or me. She is the youngest in the family, so it is normal that her sister is more advanced in many areas. That does not mean she is a poor performer. She calls me the boardgame god. I tell her I am but mortal. It's just that I have played more games than her. On the positive side, she has no pressure when playing and is never overly competitive. She just enjoys the moment with a carefree mind.

26 Jun 2017. Over the Raya holidays some colleagues came over to play. Some had come before, some were here for the first time. Some had tried boardgames before, but all were casual players and not hobbyists. Blokus is a game suitable for casual players and players new to boardgames. Zee Zun, Winter, Eva and Yong Le were first to arrive, so I started them off with Blokus. They quickly understood the importance of not getting blocked and planning how to extend their reach.

After Edwind arrived, I got them to play Kobayakawa, also a short game ideal for when you need to wait for others to arrive.

Confetti is a filler too. It's a real time game, so I told them it was better to play this standing up.

Once everyone was here, I joined them to play. We played The Message and Hoity Toity. The Message was not easy to teach. In particular the character powers were a little overwhelming. It was not easy to remember everybody's powers. The basic gameplay was actually not that complex. I wonder whether it would be feasible to play the first few games without character powers, or with a much simpler set of characters. It took one full game for the new players to better grasp how the game worked and to appreciate some of the tactics. After we finished our game, they suggested we go again, since they had spent the effort to learn the game. So we did a second game right afterwards.

In the second game I was on the red team. We were close to victory when I made a mistake which costed us the game. CK was my teammate and already had two red messages. I had a red message that I could send directly to him to allow us to win. What I hadn't expect was he would reject the message, because he was not yet sure I was a teammate. He only realised so when we flipped over the card to reveal the red message. In hindsight I should have revealed my identity before sending him the message. My character ability allowed me to expose my identity to delete a message in front of any other player. I should have done this to tell CK openly that I was his teammate. What a shame. We were so close!

Hoity Toity was fun. It was a highly interactive psychological game because everyone had to guess what everyone else was trying to do. I was rather greedy, hoping to steal money and artifacts from others early in the game. Both my thieves were caught very quickly, and I suffered a long time being laughed at - "don't worry about him, all his thieves are in jail". We were generally rather conservative, often not daring to put up exhibitions for fear of theft. Artifact thefts were rare. However when they did occur, it was painful for the victims. One funny incident was when we had four players deciding to visit the castle. One decided to try his luck by sending a thief. If any of the others put up an exhibition, he would have something to gain, even if it meant his thief getting caught by any detectives who might be present. Unfortunately all other players decided to send detectives. So the poor fellow was mobbed by detectives, and had nothing to gain but a jail sentence.

Another surprising incident was when five of us decided to visit the auction house. With so many players coming, sending a thief was risky, because whenever there was more than one thief, none of the thieves would be able to steal the money spent at the auction. To our surprise, Zee Zun made the gamble, and became the only person to have sent a thief. He managed to steal the money paid by the highest bidder.

Ra reminds me of the time I spent in Taiwan. I introduced it to my friends there, and all of us played it many times.

When I tried it with this group, it worked out well too.

They understood that when their sun tiles were weak, they needed to invoke Ra frequently to prevent those players with strong sun tiles from getting too many good tiles.

My copy of Ra is an old German version. When I first learned of this game, it was out of print. I decided to hand-make a copy. Looking back at the effort required, I feel amazed at myself. When I introduced the game to my Taiwanese friends, we played my black-and-white homemade copy endlessly. We were all fond of the game. They found a second-hand copy on eBay Germany, and secretly bought it as a birthday present for me. We had a boardgame session that day, and they insisted that I be start player. For my first turn, I naturally drew a tile from the bag. I was stunned to see a beautiful, colourful tile in my hand. It took me a while to process the information. I realised this surprise present was why they insisted I be start player. This was one very touching moment I would never forget.

27 Jun 2017. Splendor was on sale at the iOS Appstore, and I couldn't resist buying it. I have played the physical version, and I think it's a wonderful game. I did not buy a physical copy because I felt I might not have many opportunities to play it at home. Also, if I wanted to play, I could easily find friends who owned a copy. When I saw it on sale, I decided why not support the game makers. I also hoped that I would get to play the digital version sooner on later. I did get to play it soon after buying it. I enlisted the children to play with me during the Raya break. At first I thought we could play using individual devices, but it seemed quite a hassle so eventually we just played using the pass-and-play mode on one device. The game was mostly open information, so it was fine playing this way. The children liked the game. They spent the first game exploring the strategies. By the time we played the second game, Shee Yun (12) was able to plan ahead which nobles to fight for, and managed to win the game. I was certainly glad to see her apply strategic thinking and achieve victory by doing so.

One pleasant surprise I found in the electronic version of Splendor was the Challenges - single player puzzles. A Challenge consists of a set of special rules and an objective. E.g. you need to reach 18pts within 18 turns, there are only two gems per type on the board, and they are exhausted once used. In some Challenges the starting cards and the draw deck are preset. In some others only the starting cards are preset while the draw deck is randomised. In this screenshot above there are many locations shown. Each location has 10 different Challenges. There is a lot of content!

Each Challenge comes with a short historical note. This is just flavour text, but it is a nice touch.

The objective and the special rules are listed this way. So far I have attempted only a few Challenges. They are not easy at all. I have only managed to solve one. There was one I failed to solve after many attempts. I realise there is much more to Splendor than I expected. I still have much to learn. Interesting!

Saturday, 8 July 2017


Plays: 1Px12.

The Game

Onirim is a solitaire card game with an unusual setting and unusual mechanisms. You are trapped in a nightmare, and you need to unlock eight doors to escape. You must do this before daybreak. Else you will be forever trapped inside the nightmare. This sounds a little disturbing.

The card deck has 76 cards. Most cards are in one of the four suits - blue, red, green and beige. 10 of the cards are Nightmares. Your hand size is five. You always draw back to five at the end of a turn. The draw deck is your countdown. If you exhaust it before unlocking all eight doors, you lose. In the screenshot above there are two numbers to take note of. The red 10 means there are still 10 Nightmares in the deck. The white 71 means there are 71 cards in the draw deck. This number is your timer.

There are four types of normal cards - sun, moon, key and door. Sun cards are the most common, followed by moon cards. Keys are rare and are the most precious.

At the start of a turn, you have two simple choices - play a card or discard a card. If you decide to play a card, it is played in the play area at the top of the screen. You may play a sun card, a moon card or a key card. The only rule here is the symbol on the card being played must differ from that of the previous card. There is no restriction in colour. If you manage to play three cards in a row of the same colour, you unlock a door in this colour. You find the door card from the deck and set it aside, then reshuffle the deck. In this screenshot above you can see that one of the green doors was unlocked by having three consecutive green cards.

The second way to unlock a door is to have the matching key card in hand when drawing the door card. In the screenshot above, I had the red key card in hand when I drew the red door. The rules say that in this situation you may choose not to unlock the door, but so far I have never done such a thing. I think you would do this only when you are doing well in a particular colour and you feel you have surplus keys. Not unlocking the door means you can save the key for a different purpose. Key cards do have a powerful ability. If you discard a key card, you trigger a Prophecy. You draw five cards from the deck, discard one, then return the other four to the top of the deck in any order you wish. You can use this ability to discard a Nightmare card. Rearranging the other four cards can be very helpful too.

When you draw a Nightmare card, this is what you see. You have four options, and usually none are appetising. (1) Discard all hand cards, (2) Discard five cards from the top of the draw deck, (3) Discard a key card from your hand, (4) Return an unlocked door.

You may examine the discard pile at any time. This helps you assess probabilities and make decisions.

The last card in the play area is a beige moon card. So the next card to be played can't be a moon card. It has to be a sun card or a key card.

The Play

Onirim is a little weird, both in the backstory and in the mechanisms. I have not seen anything quite like it. It is certainly refreshing. At first I kept winning, and I thought it was rather easy. Only after a few more plays I realised at times it can be quite challenging. There are little tactics to learn here and there. The game regularly forces you to make tough decisions. Sometimes you can roughly gauge the probabilities to make a logical decision, but probabilities are just that, unexpected things can and do occur. Sometimes you don't have enough information to make a sound decision, you just have to gamble. The 10 Nightmare cards are like bombs buried in the deck. You never know when the next one will come. This makes the game tense. There is always a sense of urgency. The times you draw a Nightmare card are often when you need to make the most difficult judgement calls. Sometimes you hesitate to discard your hand cards because they are good, but then you also worry if you discard the top five cards from the draw deck they may turn out to be good cards too. This is a clever little game that gives you a decent challenge.

One blue door away from victory.

The winning screen.

The Thoughts

Onirim is a solo card game that takes only a few minutes to play. It is a filler. It is unconventional and an interesting diversion. Don't expect it to be a game you can spend an afternoon on. At the moment it is still free on Playstore and Appstore, so if you have not tried it, I encourage you to give it a go. I say this with a tourist mindset. Onirim is an exotic local delicacy you should taste, even if it's not something that will become a staple. I believe you will be happy to have experienced it.

Saturday, 1 July 2017

Cottage Garden

Plays: 3Px1, 2Px1.

The Game

Cottage Garden is a light game from Uwe Rosenberg (Agricola, Le Havre). It has the Tetris-like puzzle element, similar to Patchwork and A Feast for Odin.

Every player has two 5x5 player boards. These are your flowerbeds. Your job is to fill them up with the Tetris-like pieces, which are mostly flowers (some are other garden decorations or equipment). Each time you fill up a flowerbed, you score points, and then get a new flowerbed to start over. There are flower pots and plant covers on the flowerbeds. You want to keep them exposed as much as possible, because they are what score points for you. The L-shaped piece on the left is your score board. When you score flower pots, you may advance any one of the orange scoring markers. When you score plant covers, you advance a blue marker. Notice that each step a flower pot marker advances gives you 1pt, while a plant cover marker gives you 2pt per step. Also, between 14pt / 15pt and 20pt, there is only one step, so it is a steal if you manage to get there.

The cat pieces are 1x1 pieces which help you fill up your flowerbeds. They don't score points, but they are convenient and they can be used at any time.

This is the main board, called the nursery. During game setup, it is filled with flowers tiles. Players claim flowers from this board to add to their individual flowerbeds. The die is a countdown mechanism. At the end of every player's turn, it is moved one step clockwise. When it completes a full circuit around the board, its value is increased by one. When the value reaches 6, the game enters the final stage. Upon entering the final stage, flowerbeds with too few flowers are immediately discarded. The game ends after the remaining flowerbeds are filled up by their respective owners. The twist is from this point onwards there is a penalty at the start of every turn you take. So you want to finish up your flowerbeds as quickly as possible. Otherwise whatever you score from them may not be sufficient to cover the penalties.

The die also determines which flowers are available to the active player. On your turn you may only choose from the flowers in the same row (or column) as the die. The active row sometimes needs to be refilled. If there is only one flower tile remaining, the row is refilled before you take your turn. Alternatively, you may spend one cat to refill it, giving yourself more choices.

Notice the tile at the top left corner of the flowerbed on the right. There is a flower pot on it. These flower pots score points too, not only those printed directly on the flowerbed.

When I read the rules, I thought the rule for the parasol was rather silly. If you need to borrow a flower tile from the main board to see whether it fits well on your flowerbed, you are supposed to place the parasol on the spot from which you borrowed the tile, so that you won't forget where you need to return the tile to. I thought that was unnecessarily cumbersome. However when I actually sat down to play, I realised it was indeed easy to forget where I took the borrowed tile from. I was humbled. The gamemakers knew what they were doing.

Flower tiles not yet in use are to be arranged in a queue beside the nursery (main board), so that players know what is coming next. The hand cart points to the head of the queue.

This is a completed flowerbed. Look closely and you will see that two of the flower pots are actually round tokens and are not printed on the flowerbed. On your turn, in lieu of taking a flower tile from the nursery, you may take one of these flower pot tokens. This sounds like a good deal, since each flower pot is worth 1pt. However flower tiles are much larger and help you complete a flowerbed more quickly. So usually these flower pot tokens are used to fill up those odd spaces on your flowerbeds which are hard to find flower tiles for. When scoring this completed flowerbed above, you move one orange marker 6 steps (for the flower pots) and one blue marker 2 steps (for the plant covers).

The nursery is double sided. Depending on the number of players, the rules are slightly adjusted and you need to use the appropriate side.

That red line at the elbow of the L-shaped board means something. Whenever a score marker crosses the line, you gain a cat. The scoring mechanism in Cottage Garden pulls you in two different directions - quality vs quantity. If you focus on advancing a single orange marker and a single blue marker, they will most likely exceed the 14pt and 15pt spots on the score track, and give you bonuses by jumping straight to 20pt. Being first to reach 20pt also gives you a bonus. This is the quality angle. The quantity angle presents two incentives too. If you advance your markers evenly, more of them will cross the red line, giving you more cats, which in turn help you complete more flowerbeds. Also, each time your third marker of a colour leaves the starting space, you gain a free flower pot. This again helps you fill up your flowerbeds.

The Play

Playing with the children.

When I explained the rules to the children, they sounded a little complicated, because there were quite a few situations I had to describe and explain what needed to be done when they came up. However, the actual playing of the game was very simple most of the time. The various situations I had to explain did come up, but not frequently. Most of the time you are just picking a flower tile and placing it on one of your flowerbeds. This is a casual and relaxing game.

There are some tactics in picking the flower tiles. You can see which tiles fit your flowerbeds well, and you can calculate whether you will have a chance to claim them. You can also check whether a tile you want is useful to your opponents. If it is, you probably want to take it before someone else does. Otherwise you can probably risk the wait. You can also look ahead at the tiles which will be soon entering the nursery. Sometimes it is worth spending a cat to bring them in early, so that you can get your hands on a particularly nice-fitting flower tile. There are plenty of little tricks to apply, but nothing too taxing.

Tempo is something to consider too. You want to time your planting such that when the game enters the final phase, your flowerbeds are either almost complete, or barely started. A mostly empty flowerbed means you can discard it without taking penalty, and an almost completed flowerbed means you will take minimal penalty before finishing up and scoring points.

I have listed quite a number of tactical considerations, but I am probably making it sound more complex than it actually is. This is a light game. Perhaps I am being influenced by the artwork. I cannot picture this being anything other than a leisurely pastime, like some quiet gardening work.

A 2-player game in progress.

Chen Rui suggested we put the flower pots in the cart, which I thought was a brilliant idea!

The Thoughts

Cottage Garden is a light family game, a casual game. There is some strategy, but it is generally relaxing and non-confrontational. The main selling point is the Tetris-like spatial puzzle element. How much you like the game depends on how much you like this core mechanism. The rest of the game are supporting mechanisms. Comparing Cottage Garden and Patchwork, in Patchwork you won't be able to fill up your player board, but in Cottage Garden you will fill it up again and again. There are many tools to help you do this. It is as if Uwe Rosenberg felt bad for teasing you in Patchwork, and now wanted to give you the satisfaction of getting the job done. Cottage Garden has more rules and more components, and thus should be more complex. Strangely, it doesn't feel so to me. In fact there is one aspect in Patchwork which makes me feel it is the deeper game. In Patchwork you need to consider the economic ramifications when you choose a tile. You need to plan for the future, you need to stay solvent (even if your currency is buttons). Cottage Garden is more pure in driving you towards completing your flowerbeds. It is a straightforward, pleasant game.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

little stories: Escape, Machi Koro

Recently Benz, Ruby, Edwin, Xiaozhu and I resumed our Escape quest - we wanted to try out all the expansions that I own. We got stuck with one particular mission - the one which required sacrificing two dice. It sounded simple enough, but again and again we failed. We had managed to complete all other missions, but the victory over this one proved elusive. It was as if we were cursed. The bright side of it was we certainly had many entertaining failures.

In one particularly game, Benz and I were separated from the other three. We had expected that the two of us would cover each other if we needed help. That was what partnership was about. However it turned out that both of us got all our dice locked! We were quite far from the rest. They were forced to launch a rescue mission to get us. It took much time and effort, and needless to say, we were nowhere near escaping the temple when time ran out.

In another game, I was down to four dice when I got completely paralysed. All dice were locked. I couldn't do anything except wait for rescue. We were quite conservative about adding the extra gem to unlock all dice. Then one of my teammates managed to reach me and unlocked all four of my dice at one go. I picked them up excitedly and rolled, only to get four black masks and immediately locked them all again. What were the chances? 1 in 1296. Whoever saved me must be thinking what a waste of oxygen I was.

We played with the curses expansion. One curse which I found particularly nasty was the one which weakened the yellow masks. Normally a yellow mask unlocks two locked dice. If the curse is in effect, your yellow masks only unlock one locked die each. This doesn't sound like much, but from experience, it easily leads to too many dice locked and it heavily hinders progress. It is definitely one of the curses you want to break sooner rather than later, if at all possible.

When we finally managed to beat the two-dice-sacrifice mission, it happened within the last 10 seconds of the countdown. All five of us managed to assemble in the same room - the one next to the exit room - with 20 seconds or so remaining. All of us had lost dice, we each had 2 or 3 left, which was a precarious situation. We needed to move one step to the exit room, and then move again to exit the temple. With few dice left, we were nervous about dice getting locked. We stayed close together, so that in case anyone's die was locked, someone else could try to help him unlock. We all frantically tried to roll the icons we needed to move. Those who did not have the right icons to move tried to get the right icons. Those who had the right icons and had a surplus die tried to roll the golden mask, so that they could immediately help anyone who had dice locked. Those who had no dice to roll watched nervously, waiting for when everyone had the right icons to move. Once everyone could move, we must move immediately. Time was running out. When we got to the temple exit, I was the first to see that everyone had enough icons to exit. I was under the silent curse so I couldn't speak. I waved my hands desperately in a shoo-shoo manner to tell everyone to run. The soundtrack was playing the last stretch of crescendo when we stepped outside into glorious sunlight. It was such a tense moment I almost screamed.

We all felt drained after this session. We had made four attempts and only succeeded upon the last. We had tried this two-dice-sacrifice mission before quite a few times in previous game sessions. I have lost count of how many times we failed.

The missions expansion of Escape comes with three difficulty levels. You play with one, two or three missions. So far with Benz's group we've only played with one mission. Given how challenging it can be with even one mission, it is unimaginable how we can survive three missions. I don't remember whether I have done two or three missions when I played 2-player games of Escape with Shee Yun, or whether I used the curses and treasures expansions. It may be more manageable without curses.

I played Machi Koro with the children again, this time swapping out the Harbour expansion and swapping in the Millionaire's Row expansion. I now firmly believe it is better to play with one or the other, not both, because the card pool becomes too diluted when both are added.

Millionaire's Row has more destructive elements. You can force your opponents' buildings to go into renovation. You can force the dreaded loan office onto your opponents. Games can drag a little longer. In our game I managed to get a good furniture factory combo going. If I rolled an 8, I would earn a huge sum which would allow me to build a landmark. Unfortunately for me, Chen Rui made use of her renovation company to force my furniture factories into renovation precisely the turn before I rolled an 8. So my 8 merely helped me cancel the renovation status. I had to wait for my next 8 to earn my windfall. This sounds a little frustrating, but if you enjoy Machi Koro and play it often, an occasional change in scenery is refreshing. This expansion is not bad, just a little different.

The star in our recent game was the Tech Startup built by Chen Rui (10), i.e. the photo above. At the end of each of your turns, you may put $1 from your own pocket onto the Tech Startup. If you manage to activate it, you collect an amount from every opponent equal to what you have amassed on it. You need to roll a 10 to activate it. When Chen Rui declared she wanted to build it, I told her it was a bad idea. At the time she only had a handful of buildings in her town. She didn't even have the train station yet so she could not roll two dice, which meant she wouldn't be able to activate the Tech Startup yet. I advised her that she should work on some smaller buildings which could be activated with a single die, and not rush into the more advanced buildings. This was what Shee Yun (12) and I were doing. Chen Rui insisted on building the startup, saying she was planning for the future. I shrugged and let her decide for herself. I suspect she decided to do it because it was cheap anyway. To my surprise, she soon built her train station, and after that she kept rolling 10's, robbing Shee Yun and I each time. Tech Startup was super effective! I joked that she had built Google. In the photo above she had invested a total of $11. Eventually she increased that to $13. Every time her turn came, Shee Yun and I winced and prayed she would not roll a 10.

I made a rather clumsy blunder. Towards late game, I commanded a strong lead. I had built the airport, so every turn that I didn't construct a building, I would earn $10. This let me steadily amass money for my next landmark. Eventually it was down to one last landmark. When my turn came again, I happily declared that I would not build anything. I greedily clawed $10 more from the bank to add to my stash. The girls burst into laughter. I didn't understand why. I was going to win and they laughed? They debated whether to tell me. I had no clue. Eventually they explained to me that I already had enough money to build my last landmark. I had $24. My last landmark costed $22. Somehow I kept thinking I needed $30 for that last landmark. I had been focusing too much on the airport, which costed $30. I had already built it and I had been using its power. Thankfully I managed to last one full round without my money being robbed by either of them, so I still managed to win, albeit one round later than I should have. The children would have had an even bigger laugh had I lost because of this silly mistake.

The children and I have many fond memories of Machi Koro. This is one game they will surely remember when they grow up.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Great Western Trail

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Great Western Trail is one of the more popular games within the past year. It is designed by Alexander Pfister, also a hot designer in recent years. I have tried his other popular games Mombasa and Isle of Skye, but I didn't like them. They gave me the feeling of a mesh of scoring mechanisms bound together. Isle of Skye does have an interesting auction system, but although I find it novel and clever, the rest of the game doesn't grab me. Mombasa has some clever mechanisms, but it also feels like just multiple systems for scoring existing for the sake of scoring. I can't feel the story. There is decent logic, but no emotion. Still, Great Western Trail has been getting high praise, so I didn't mind giving it a go. This time I found something I liked.

The game board has many one-directional routes and many nodes where the routes diverge and converge. The routes start from the bottom left corner, and they all eventually lead to Kansas City at the top right. At the start of the game, the board is already seeded with some neutral buildings (those square tiles with grey edges). What you do repeatedly during the game is travel from the starting point to Kansas City, each time bringing in a herd of cattle to sell. A turn consists of moving your pawn from one location to another, and then performing the actions allowed at your destination. You may use up to three movement points. Moving from one location to the next requires expending one movement point, regardless of the physical distance between the locations. At the beginning, locations are few and far apart, and you can travel long distances every turn if you choose too. As the game progresses, new locations are added to the board, and you will find yourself traveling shorter physical distances due to the more and more locations created on the board. You may need to increase your mobility. All this sounds illogical. I explain it by thinking of the locations as distractions. Each time you pass by a town, you are tempted to take a break. So improving mobility is actually improving your will power to forge ahead resisting the temptations along the way.

It is not always necessary to travel as far as possible all the time. Often you do want to take your time stopping at many useful locations to perform the actions they offer. Let's talk about the cattle herd mechanism. Every player starts the game with his own deck of cards, and a hand size of five. Your hand of cards represents the herd you are handling and bringing to Kansas City. How much they are worth depends on the card values. When you get to Kansas City, you may only count one card per colour. So what you want to do before you get there is modify your hand so that you have cards in as many different colours as possible, and preferably cards with higher values too. This is why you need to perform various actions during your journey. Other than modifying your hand, the locations have many other types of actions.

This is the player board. It keeps track of your abilities. Those white discs currently cover many abilities and actions which are not yet available. Once you move them away, you gain new abilities. Along the top, the three sections A, B and C summarises what you do on your turn. A is for moving your pawn. B is for executing actions. If you stop at a neutral location or a location you own, you may execute the action at the location, or a basic action. Basic actions are listed on the left. If you stop at any other location type, you may only execute a basic action. Section C is for replenishing your hand to the hand limit. The hand limit can be increased.

The central section is for placing your employees. You start the game with one each of cowboy, craftsman and engineer. Cowboys help you buy cattle cards. Craftsmen help you construct buildings. Engineers help you upgrade your train. Sometimes when you recruit a new employee, you gain a one-time benefit.

Everyone gets this same set of buildings. When you perform the construct action, you may directly construct one of these buildings, or upgrade an existing building to a new one. The number of craftsmen needed depends on which building you want to construct, and whether you are upgrading. Buildings have point values, as indicated in the shield icons. The black and green hands on buildings mean you get to charge a fee whenever anyone stops ar passes by. Placing your buildings at strategic locations can earn you some side income.

Everyone has a train pawn for marking his train technology level. Some buildings and actions let you increase your train level. Along the edge of the board, you can see the various cities your herd of cattle is delivered to after you sell it in Kansas City. How far you can sell depends on your herd value. You want to sell as far as possible, because that is more profitable. However in order to deliver the herd, your train needs to be sufficiently levelled up. Otherwise you will need to pay a fee to have your herd delivered. This effectively means you are earning less from the transaction.

Each city can be delivered to only once per player. This creates pressure to keep improving your herd value. If you can't sell to the next further city, you will be forced to sell to a nearer city, and usually there is a point penalty for selling to nearby cities. Due to the pressure to sell to cities further and further away, there is pressure to upgrade your train.

If you look closely at the train track, there are small detours leading to train stations. When upgrading your train, you may decide to take these detours to visit the train stations in order to upgrade them. What you do is move one disc from your player board to the station, thus improving your ability. Each train station allows one disc per player. If you are the first to upgrade a train station, you get a station master privilege. This is a permanent ability for the rest of the game. In this photo we have not started upgrading our trains, so you can still see the small rectangular station master privilege tiles next to the train stations.

Each player can deliver to the same city or upgrade the same train station at most once, so you will notice that the disc colours at each location do not repeat.

The large square tiles with red and blue borders are player buildings. When you visit your own building, you may perform the action allowed by the building. When you visit another player's building, you may only perform a basic action. The tepees represent Red Indian villages. They always charge a fee when you pass by or stop (see the green and black hands). One building type lets you claim tepees from the map. You can make money from such an action (representing trade with the Red Indians). Tepees may also help you complete missions to earn points.

There is a deck-building aspect worth mentioning. Everyone starts with the same deck of cards, and all of them are low valued. During the game you may purchase better cards to add to your deck. When purchasing a card, it is put in your discard pile. So it only goes to your draw deck the next time you need to reshuffle your discard pile. Everyone will need to buy better cards at some point. This is an area nobody can neglect.

The game has a countdown mechanism driven by the frequency of players making deliveries to Kansas City. Each time you arrive, one of the things you need to do is to update the game board. You have options to choose from, and depending on what you pick, you may add tepees to the board, or add hazardous locations to the board, or add workers to the worker pool. The worker pool acts as the countdown timer. As workers are added, a marker advances, and when that marker reaches a certain spot, the game enters the final round. How swiftly players travel, how frequently they arrive in Kansas City, and also their choices in augmenting the board game all affect how soon the game ends. You try to manipulate this pace to your benefit.

The Play

The number of different things you can do in this game is a little overwhelming, but what you actually do in one turn can be described simply. You move your pawn, then execute an action at your destination, and finally, if necessary, you draw cards up to your hand limit. The game is very much about thinking the big picture, and then making sure your tactical decisions consistently help you in your chosen strategy.

The underlying core mechanism is repeatedly herding cattle to Kansas City. That is your basic rhythm. Everything hangs off it. In itself it is not a strategy. It is your platform. In broad brushes, the strategic areas you need to consider are upgrading your cattle cards, upgrading your train, constructing buildings, and completing missions. You do need to upgrade your abilities and employ workers, but the purpose of these is mostly to help you with one of the four areas. Upgrading your cattle cards and train are two areas you must not ignore, since there is a constant pressure to improve your herd value and to deliver to cities further and further away. You have more freedom in deciding whether buildings and missions fit in your strategy. Buildings not only augment the actions you can perform, they also modify the map, making it more difficult for your opponents and also helping you earn some toll fees. Missions can give you some extra points, but if you fail to complete any you commit to, there is a penalty.

At the start of our game, I arbitrarity decided to focus on upgrading my cattle cards. I didn't know what would be important, so I made up my mind on a whim, mainly because I was interested to see how the deck-building worked here. One big mistake I made was neglecting my train upgrades. Each time a delivery was made to Kansas City, the train level was checked to see whether I needed to pay some fee to have my herd forwarded to its eventual destination. When I fell behind in train level, my profit was affected every time I made a delivery. The effect compounded and stunted my growth. Money was needed to purchase cattle cards and to recruit workers. Also I failed to make use of Han and Allen's progress. When upgrading your train (i.e. moving your train pawn along the train track), if there happens to be someone else's train on a spot before you, you get to skip that spot for free. E.g. if I am supposed to advance two steps, but there are two other train pawns right in front of mine, then I actually get to advance four steps in total. It is important to make use of this leapfrog mechanism. When I fell behind, Han and Allen's pawns become too far ahead for me to do leapfrogging. Han focused on train upgrades in the early game. This allowed him to be first to upgrade many of the train stations, getting him the station master privileges. Great Western Trail is a development game. Each time you improve your abilities, they help you to further improve, so there is a snowball effect. The station master privileges were quite handy, and with an overall more efficient play, Han eventually left Allen and I in the dust.

There is a fair bit of forward planning you need to do. The paths on the board are one-way streets. Once you miss or pass by a building, you won't be able to visit it again until the next cycle. You need to think ahead which buildings you want to use for your trip. You also need to think about how urgently you need to complete your current delivery.

Points come from many sources - delivering cattle to the more distant cities, completing missions, cattle cards, buildings, some upgrades on your player board, upgrading train stations. This is very much a point salad game. The two scoring aspects most closely related to your core activities are your cattle cards and delivering to cities. You must not neglect these; and as long as you don't, you will score reasonable points from them. It is a matter of whether you score more or less compared to others. In other aspects of scoring, you have more freedom to decide how to invest your energy. You want to play to your strengths, and be efficient - minimal effort, maximum gain.

The Thoughts

Great Western Trail is a development game. You are constantly under pressure to improve your abilities. It feels good to see how you are steadily building up your little engine. It reminds me a little of Goa. It also reminds me to Russian Railroad, but I wonder whether it's just because it has a railroad track. In Russian Railroad there are a few different general strategies you can pursue. You shouldn't try to do everything, because you will end up being a master of none. You need to be selective. In Great Western Trail, there are some areas you must work on. It is only a matter of sooner or later, and how high you want to go. In other areas, you have some freedom to decide how much effort to spend. Scoring is generally wide, unlike games like Navegador and Goa. In these games, you have to focus on a few areas in order to score high in them, i.e. you need enough depth. Great Western Trail is more about breadth. It is about how efficiently you are upgrading your abilities, and how efficiently you score points from the various sources.

Compared to Mombasa and Isle of Skye, I like Great Western Trail better because I like the central mechanism of repeatedly driving your herd through the map. It has a tempo and it creates a relentless pressure to upgrade yourself. The map evolves and each cycle through the map there will be differences. The players are collectively modifying the playing field. Navigating the map and deciding which path to take are an interesting problem to solve.

Player interaction is indirect. You grab stuff before others do, e.g. being first to upgrade a train station, being first to claim a spot with your building, buying the last cheap worker available. You place buildings to hinder your opponents and force them to pay you toll fees. Generally you can plan a few moves ahead without needing to worry that someone will spoil your plans. Still, you need to pay attention to what others are doing, especially when nearing the end of the game. You don't want to miss out on one final delivery which can be the difference between winning and losing.

Great Western Trail has many rules and details. It is not suitable for players new to boardgames. There is a similar feel to Mombasa and Isle of Skye, in the point salad nature. What sets it apart for me is that central cyclical mechanism. It gives the game character. All the other aspects of the game support and supplement this mechanism. The cycles may feel similar, but they are gradually evolving and you need to adapt.