Saturday, 3 December 2016

Islebound

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Islebound is a Ryan Laukat game. He has quite a few popular designs, e.g. City of Iron, Above and Below, but the only other game of his I have tried is Eight-Minute Empires: Legends. One thing unusual about this designer is he does his own artwork. So not only the game mechanisms feel familiar, the artwork feels familiar too.

In Islebound you are captain of a ship, and you sail about an archipelago gathering strength and capturing islands. You start from your own little island in a corner. Every island you visit allows you to do something. You collect goods, you recruit pirates and sea serpents, you increase your influence and so on. When you have enough influence or military power, you can attempt to capture an island. If successful, you earn a lump sum of money, and thereafter you get to use the island's ability for free, while any visitor must pay you the landing fee required to use the island ability. During the game you may construct or buy buildings, which give long-term special abilities. Once a player owns 6 buildings, the game ends. You score points to determine who wins.

The main board is assembled from 8 double-sided pieces. Many combinations are possible, creating variability. Islands with a red banner can be captured by military means, while those with a blue banner can only be captured by political means, i.e. by spending influence. Regardless of the means used, upon conquest you earn a lump sum of money, and you get to use the island ability once, as if you are visiting the island normally. Money is directly converted to victory points (1:1) at game end.

Your player board is your ship. At this point I have a crew of three. Sailors on deck are active, while those below are exhausted. Some actions in the game require sailors of specific skills, and once these sailors are used, they become exhausted. They go below decks until you perform a Rest action to revive them. Other than helping you with some specific actions, sailors can help speed up your ship and also contribute to military conquests. Your ship speed is indicated at the top right corner. That's how many steps you can move on your turn. The cargo hold is at the bottom right. There are only two resource types in the game, fish and wood. Your cargo hold has space for 10 units.

These are the buildings you can construct or purchase directly. There will always be five to choose from. There are book icons above the three on the left. This means they are available to you only if you have the required number of books. Study hard, boy! To construct a building, you pay the resources indicated at the bottom of the card. To purchase a building, you pay the price at the top left of the card. The price is also the victory point value of the card. So you are basically converting your money (money = VP) to permanent asset form. This is normally a good move, unless you have a liquidity problem. You do need some cash in hand for daily operations (visiting islands).

This is the side board, for various administrative purposes. The spaces at the top are a simple score track. Each time you reach 7 victory points, you collect a 7VP tile which give you a small bonus immediately. You keep the tile for records purposes, and reset your position on the score track. The two cards on the left are influence cards. They specify what you need to do and where you need to do them to earn influence. Once any player makes use of one such card, it is discarded and a new one replaces it. The two cards on the right are boasting cards. There is a boasting island on the main board. You visit it to utilise one of these boasting cards. When you boast, you earn VP based on the criteria on the card. Similar to the influence cards, once a boasting card is used, it is replaced.

The three characters are sailors available to be recruited. The two on the left cost $1 each. The third guy works for free. That pool of money is the collection box for whenever anyone visits a still-neutral island. The landing fee is collected here. On your turn you may forfeit your normal action to claim the money accumulated here. The $4 in this photo means it is starting to look attractive. The row of spaces at the bottom are the influence spaces. When you gain influence, you place one cube on the leftmost free space, and the number on that space indicates how much influence you gain. Naturally, you want to time your influence gain such that you get to place cubes on the higher valued spaces.

Some islands already have player cubes now, which mean they have been captured.

The Play

I did a full four-player game with Ivan, Boon Khim and Allen, and this is probably the best player count. I was rather clueless at the start of the game. The islands offer a plethora of options, and I wasn't sure what combination of actions would be effective. A player turn was simple - sail then take one action. The question was how to choose a succession of actions that was meaningful. At first I felt it was rather pointless to capture islands. It took much effort, but the benefit seemed small. I got to be toll collector and a free visit pass? That was it? I later realised I had neglected the one-time lump sum earned at the time of conquest. Money was VP, so the effort spent was worthwhile. Also the small benefits post-conquest would add up.

Allen started focusing on buildings early. Buildings = VP, and it was buildings which triggered game end, so his was a direct approach. The building abilities varies. The buildings you buy will affect your strategy, because you do want to make the most of them. You will tend to take actions which trigger your building powers.

These were some of my buildings. The one at the top left let me score 2VP every time I captured an island by political means. It was good to get this out early, and then focus my energy on politics. This gave me synergy.

The general feeling when playing Islebound is I am constantly assessing the tactical situation to find the optimal move. I watch out for opportunities, and I try not to create them for my rivals. I watch my opponents to see if they are racing with me towards a certain objective. If this happens, I must either speed up and make sure I beat them to it, or I switch tack to go for something else so as not to waste my effort. There are always many options on the board, and different options will have different values to different players at different times. You need to observe your opponents' strategies to understand how they will value the options available. You are like children in a candy shop all trying to grab candies at the same time. You can't have everything. You need to identify your favourites and focus on them.

You can play warmonger, or ruthless politician, and capture islands belonging to other players. However, this really is not a game about fighting for control. Losing an island is not really all that painful. You lose the long-term perks, but you don't need to refund the one-time lump sum. The other thing is you can't really defend against such attacks. There is little point in holding a grudge and capturing the island back. The player interaction in this game is very much the Euro type - grabbing the good stuff before your opponents do, and blocking them.

There is a little development game feel. The sailors you recruit, the buildings you buy and the islands you capture make up your engine. They create differentiation between players, resulting in players valuing available actions differently. However I feel this aspect is not particularly strong. Mostly you are still grabbing tactical opportunities and trying to play efficiently. Players don't become significantly different.

You start the game with three sailors. By now I have five.

Many islands have been captured by now. There are player cubes on them.

I like the characters in the game.

The Thoughts

Islebound is a middle-weight strategy game. It's a gamers' game. At any time it presents many options, which I think will be overwhelming to casual gamers and non gamers. I find it mostly a tactical optimisation game. There is some long-term strategy arc, but it doesn't come across strongly. I am constantly evaluating the possibilities on the ever-changing board, grabbing opportunities that come up, while making sure I don't leave juicy exploits for my opponents.

Friday, 18 November 2016

boardgaming in photos: Maori, 7 Wonders: Duel, Patchwork on iOS

30 Oct 2016. I taught the children Maori, a light strategy game that works very well as a family game. You compete to grab tiles from the 4x4 tile display at the centre of the table to place onto your personal board. Tiles have various functions, and most of the time they help you score points. The game ends after one player fills up his board.

Shee Yun (11) plays with a strategic mind. She fights for huts, because huts double the value of trees. Chen Rui (9) is obsessed with the flower circles. Some tiles have semicircles of flowers. If you can grab a pair and arrange them to form a complete flower circle, you score 10pts. That's a lot, but it's not easy to do.

On your turn you must move the boat, which travels around the perimeter of the 4x4 display. Your choice of tiles is limited to those in the column where the boat rests.

I have a complete flower circle at the top left corner.

When you place tiles on your board, trees must be aligned such that they are upright. So this is different from Carcassonne. You can't orient the tiles any way you want. Some tiles do not have trees. These give you more flexibility.

The game comes with three variants, and some of them can be mixed and matched. Adults can use the variant rules, which make the game more challenging, when playing with children. It's a good way to handicap the adults and also make the game more interesting for them.

I played 7 Wonders: Duel with Michelle again, and lost again, this time rather spectacularly. This time I experienced first hand the power of the extra turn. I had read about this in game reviews, but had not seen it in person. In this game I didn't place close attention to the wonder powers, and during the wonder selection phase, Michelle collected three wonders which had the extra turn bonus, while I collected just one. On one of her turns, she managed to complete three wonders one after another due to the extra turn bonuses. I could only stare in disbelief. This photo shows her empire. She had completed all four wonders. She won a science victory. She had collected all six types of science icons. I think even if she hadn't won a science victory, she would have outscored me. I was completely owned.

This was my kingdom. I only managed to complete one wonder, the Statue of Zeus at the top left.

The game ended in early Age III (purple card backs).

This is the iOS version of Patchwork. Quite decent.

Michelle beat me the first time I taught her to play. Playing the digital version saves much time because income calculation and score calculation are all automated.

Michelle's quilt is on the left. Mine on the right.

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Catch2

I rarely mention my work at this blog. I currently work at a game company. We don't make boardgames though. We make mobile games. I do play mobile games, but the variety that I play for leisure is much less than the variety of boardgames I play. One of the mobile games I have been working on has just been released. It is a variant of Big 2 or Cho Dai Dee. The name of the game is Catch2, and it is now available only for Android devices. If you have an Android device, do try it out, and I'd greatly appreciate any feedback.

Terraforming Mars

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Terraforming Mars was one of the hottest games at the 2016 Essen game fair. I am lucky to have had the opportunity to play it soon after the fair. In this game every player is a company tasked to terraform Mars. Each company has different strengths and you should play to your strengths. The terraforming exercise consists of three main aspects - increasing the surface temperature, increasing the oxygen level of the atmosphere, and creating oceans. The progress of all three are all tracked on the game board. Once all three aspects reach their respective targets, the game ends. You count scores to determine who wins.

The temperature track is on the left. The curved track at the bottom is the oxygen track. That stack of blue tiles at the lower left is the oceans. When all of them are placed on Mars, the ocean project completes. The track around the edges is both the income track and the score track. When you contribute towards one of the three main projects, you increase both your income (for each round) and your score (at game end).

This is one of the companies. The company card specifies its starting capital and unique strengths. This particular company starts the game producing more plants (two green squares inside the brown rectangle) and also starts with three extra plants in stock (three green squares). Also it needs seven instead of eight plants to create a forest.

The most important element of the game is the cards. 200+ unique cards. Playing cards let you perform all sorts of actions. Some cards are single-use, some have permanent effects, some are a mix. It costs money to play a card, so you can't play them nilly-willy. Also some have prerequisites, e.g. the temperature must be at most X, or the oxygen level must be at least Y. So some cards can't be played too early, and some must be played before it is too late. You start the game by drawing 10 cards. You need to decide which ones to buy using your starting capital and which to discard. After that, you draw 4 cards every round, and in a similar manner you need to decide which to buy. You can't afford to buy everything, because if you do that you won't have enough money to actually play them, or you will have to wait too long to save enough money to play them. The key is to select a good combination of cards to use, cards that have synergy and match your long-term strategy. Sometimes you will find there are too many cards you like. You may feel like deciding which child to shoot because you know you can't have them all.

The cost and prerequisites are at the top left. On the top right are icons indicating card type. Some of these icons allow you to pay for the card using resources, some affect other cards you have played or will play in future. Cards with a green title banner are single-use, while those with blue banners have permanent effects. The Arctic Algae card lets you gain two plants every time anyone creates an ocean (icons in upper section). This is a permanent effect. You also gain one plant when you play the card (icon in lower section). This is the one-time effect. Once you get familiar with the iconography, you'll be able to tell what a card does at a glance. Before that happens, there is text which describes the card powers. The cards are quite functional.

This is the player board which keeps track of your production capacity and resources on hand. The six resource types, starting from the top left, are money, steel, titanium, plants, energy and heat. The section with the brown background indicates your production capacity, i.e. how much you produce every round. The gold, silver and bronze cubes indicate how much of each resource you have. Gold means ten, silver five and bronze one. So at this moment I have $15 and 4 plants. When playing a card related to steel or titanium, you can pay in steel or titanium respectively, each unit being equivalent to $2 or $3. Every 8 plants can be used to create a forest. Every 8 units of heat can increase the surface temperature once. Any unused energy is converted to heat at the end of a round.

I find the player board rather ugly, albeit functional enough, but I am fond of these metallic coloured cubes.

One round consists of players taking turns to perform up to two actions, until everyone passes. Once you pass, you take no more actions in that round. Other than playing a card, creating a forest and increasing the temperature as mentioned above, one more important action you can do is to activate an end-game bonus. There are many such bonuses, but there is a limited number than can be activated. Activating one costs money, and the cost increases if you do it late. Bonuses victory points come from fulfilling a certain criteria (e.g. having created a certain number of forests), or having the most of something (e.g. having the most steel and titanium). So it is not just a matter of activating a bonus, you also need to work towards the criteria.

Some actions let you place tiles on Mars. These tiles are your properties and are marked with cubes of your colour. The green tiles are forests, grey tiles are cities, brown tiles are special buildings. Spaces on Mars with blue borders are reserved for oceans. There is one capital city space which is reserved specifically for placing the capital city. Other spaces can be used for cities, forests and special buildings. Many spaces have small icons. These are rewards you get when covering the space with a tile. Rewards include plants, steel and cards.

The Play

I did a full 5-player game with Kareem, Jeff, Ainul and Dith. I always prefer playing with green. One of my two starting company options happened to be a forestation company. I gladly selected that. Among the other ten cards I drew, there were some which fit well with the forestation company, even though they were not immediately usable. I feel that the companies are all quite different, and thus don't have very direct competition. Naturally you want to play to your strengths, so companies will generally improve themselves (i.e. "build their engines") in different ways, and will have different strategic directions. In our game, I was the only forestation guy. However, there are still quite a few smaller ways that companies compete in. Tile placement is a source of competition. Sometimes you race to claim the best spots. You want to avoid helping others when you place tiles, and at the same time you try to benefit from tiles others have placed or will place. E.g. you earn money for placing tiles next to oceans, your cities earn 1VP per adjacent forest. The end-game bonuses are also a source of competition, the nature being similar to multiple races which force you to prioritise. There are not many ways you can directly hurt your opponents, but uncharacteristically the one way in which you can do so has no way to defend against. Some cards let you force an opponent to discard a certain amount of one resource type. There is no defense, other than not having said resource in a large amount. I can imagine players disliking such cards. I myself was a victim to them in our game. However overall I think they are fine. I see them as a balancing tool. If players play rationally, these cards will be used to rein in a leading player. When Kareem taught us the game, he explicitly warned us not to stockpile any resource too much, lest we become victims to such cards. Playing such cards is not free. The one doing the hurting has to pay cash to play the card.

The joy I get from Terraforming Mars is similar to that of Race for the Galaxy. It is about creating a combination of cards that work well together. In our game, some of the cards I chose at the start of the game laid the foundation for a big move near the end of the game. With the starting cards I already needed to lay out my strategic plan, and every round as I drew more cards, I needed to see which would fit into my master plan, and whether I needed to make adjustments to my plan. It was very satisfying to see everything fall into place - cards that worked well in the early game, mid game and end game, all being played at the right times. I needed to manage my cash flow to make sure I could play the right cards at the right time. I needed to make difficult decisions when I drew more good cards than I could afford to play in a reasonable amount of time.

I find the game immersive, because the flavour text, the setting and the in-game actions jive. E.g. one card allows me to create two oceans at one go, but the prerequisite is the temperature must not be below zero Celcius. That feels logical and adds a lot to the experience.

Ultimately you want to help progress the three terraforming projects - temperature, oxygen and oceans. Many actions let you augment the ability of your company, but your end goal is still contributing to the terraforming effort. It is not just about VP at game end, it is also your regular income from round to round. You need more money to do more things.

I arrange my hand according to prerequisites, which are at the top left corners. The first card requires three oceans to be on the map. The next three require the surface temperature to be beyond specific levels. The last two require oxygen to be beyond specific levels.

In our game only three players spent more effort on placing tiles on the board - Kareem (red), Jeff (yellow) and I (green). There are benefits in placing tiles. Forests are worth 1VP each. Cities score 1VP per adjacent forest. Owning tiles may help you score bonus points at game end.

This was near game end. All ocean tiles had been placed. The temperature was three steps away from the target. Oxygen was only one step away. Once a terraforming target is achieved, you won't earn VP's or increase your income for performing the corresponding terraforming action anymore. In one particular round, there were only three ocean tiles left to be played, and I had two cards in hand that would let me place three tiles in total. I was worried someone else might beat me to the ocean tiles, and I hurriedly played them. In fact at the time no one else had ocean-making cards. These cards are uncommon. I shouldn't have rushed. At the time there were other players with enough plants to create forests, so I should have been focusing on creating forests. Plants are open information. I should have paid attention to that. It was a confirmed threat, when oceans was an unknown. So others beat me to planting forests, which maxed out the oxygen level, and by the time I planted my forests, I missed out on the VP's and the income increase I could have had.

This was game end. Both oxygen and temperature were at the target levels now. On the right, I (green) had created a bend when I planted my forests, which proved to be poor play. I created a lucrative location for a city, and Kareem (red) grabbed the opportunity to place his city. My forest placement had given him 1VP more, and when the game ended, he won the game, beating me by precisely 1VP. Aaaarrgghh!

The Thoughts

Terraforming Mars is currently very popular. I tend to have reservations when playing popular games, because lately I find that games popular among gamers don't click as well for me, e.g. Mombasa. Terraforming Mars turned out to be a pleasant surprise. I quite enjoyed it. I like the details on the cards. The many actions all feel like they are indeed about terraforming. A lot of this is just flavour text and pictures, but they convince me. This game does not feel like just another Eurogame. I feel I'm playing something unique.

Ivan and Jason had already played quite a few times, and didn't join our game. They were a little overdosed and needed to play something else. One thing they said about the game was it felt like a multiplayer solitaire game. Indeed throughout most of the game you are developing your own company and you rarely directly damage your opponents. There is some competition and manoeuvring in the tile placement, and also in the various races for the bonus points, but there is little direct confrontation. Everyone works on assembling and executing his own combo of cards. This is a development game. It accelerates towards the end because companies will get stronger over time and will be able to do more and more. I like the sense of achievement in eventually completing the terraforming of Mars. It is satisfying to put together all the pieces and time when to play which card to eventually form an effective whole. This is not a game of individually developing your own little kingdom. The capability you build for your company is used for jointly transforming the red planet, together with your competitors.

I think the game will have decent replayability, because there is much variety in the companies and also the cards. Even if playing the same company, your fate and strategy will be different depending on what cards your draw, and when you draw which ones. The map is static, but I think that's a good thing, because that makes the game feel authentic and not generic. Other than the strategic view you need in developing your company and focusing on specific areas to score points, there are also many tactical decisions along the way. The competition on the map is mostly tactical in nature. You should also watch out for opportunities and risks that come up during play. I find Terraforming Mars an immersive and rich game.

Friday, 4 November 2016

Don't Mess With Cthulhu / Time Bomb

Plays: 6Px11.

The Game

Don't Mess With Cthulhu is a secret identity team game, in the same vein as BANG, The Resistance and The Message: Emissary Crisis. It is a social deduction game, in which you need to deceive and outguess your opponents. The game supports 4 to 6 players. I've only played the 6-player game, so I will describe how it works based on the 6-player game.

There are 4 investigators and 2 cultists. Their identities are kept secret until the end of the game. The aim of the investigators is to prevent Cthulhu from coming to the world by finding all six elder signs to seal off the portal. They need to do this within four rounds. The cultists win by making sure the investigators fail, or by directly summoning Cthulhu to this world.

Investigator on the left, cultist on the right.

You have a deck of 30 cards, most of which are useless rocks. Six of them are rocks with elder signs, and one single card is Cthulhu itself. If the Cthulhu card is revealed at any time during the game, Cthulhu comes and the investigators immediately lose. At the start of a round, all unrevealed cards are shuffled and dealt out evenly to every player. You look at your cards, then shuffle them and lay them out before you. So you know how many cards of each type you have, but you don't know exactly which is which. The start player picks another player and reveals one of his cards. This player then becomes the active player and must reveal one card of another player (which may be the first player). This continues until six cards are revealed. If the game has not ended, all unrevealed cards are retrieved and reshuffled, and they will be used for the next round. This continues until the end of Round 4. If the investigators have not found all six elder signs by then, they lose and the cultists win.

The two cards on the left are the elder signs. The third card is a rock. The Cthulhu tokens on the right are used in the variant game. If you feel a single game is too short, you can play the campaign mode. Every time a game ends, the losers take one Cthulhu token each. Once a player collects three tokens, the campaign ends, and the player(s) with the fewest tokens win.

The Play

The rules are very simple, but when we started the game, we weren't sure what to say to one another. We made rather vague statements, which were not very helpful. Eventually we settled into the practice of declaring how many elder signs we had, one after another. I wonder whether this is normal and what other norms other game groups settle into. Declaring the number of elder signs gave the investigators some leverage to work out who the cultists were. It also gave the cultists an opportunity to lie and mislead. It is best for the cultists if they can remain unrecognised. If the investigators know who the good guys are, it is much easier for them to find the elder signs. They know who they can trust and who not to trust. In this game you can't reveal your own cards, so you are forced to listen to information provided by others and you must make your own judgement on who is trustworthy.

One stroke of genius is you only know your own card distribution but not their exact position. I can tell everyone four of my five cards are elder signs, but if the person who reveals one of my cards finds a stone, my credibility will go down the drain. A cultist can make use of this game element. If he doesn't have any elder sign, he can still claim that he does, hoping to waste the investigators' actions. When the investigators reveal a stone, he can simply say it is bad luck. In fact he should convince them to try again because the odds of finding the real elder sign have increased.

The Cthulhu card is another very clever element. It's a time bomb that can go off anytime. The original Japanese version of the game was actually called Time Bomb, and the time bomb setting fits the game mechanisms much better. Due to this instant lose condition, investigators will always have some doubt before revealing a card. What if that player is lying and I'm about to reveal Cthulhu itself? Fear leads to doubt and distrust. No matter how many elder signs have been collected, as long as the last one is not yet found, the investigators can suffer a sudden loss. The investigators can't help being at least a little paranoid.

The game naturally escalates towards a climax. As more and more cards are revealed, the likelihood of finding Cthulhu increases. The difficulty of finding elder signs also increases. The number of rounds is a countdown timer. For the investigators, it is a race against time to seal the portal. They lose if they fail. So there is a mounting sense of doom that they may not make it in time.

If you are a cultist, you don't need to lie all the time. It is better to stay low key, and only lie at the crucial moment. Go for the long haul. There was one game in which I was completely fooled by Ivan. He played investigator very convincingly for most of the game, and I was absolutely sure both he and Jason were real investigators. I was one myself. I measured the statements made by others against those made by Ivan and Jason. Any inconsistencies made me suspicious. I was very surprised when the cultists won and Ivan was one of them.

In another game, Jason announced very early that he had Cthulhu among his cards. I was an investigator, and I had Cthulhu among my cards. So he was clearly lying and he must be a cultist. I quickly called him out and asked everyone to be wary of him. The investigator team eventually won that game. After the game, Jason explained that he had lied so blatantly because he wanted to lure the real investigator with the Cthulhu card, and then accuse him of lying. Unfortunately for him his acting was not convincing enough and he ended up exposing himself. I guess such a strategy is too risky.

In Don't Mess With Cthulhu you do need to act and to lie well, but I think it is easier than in Templar Intrigue. In Templar Intrigue, if you happen to be a regular Templar Knight, you need to be proactive and claim that you are the Traitor, and that you know who the real Templar Grandmaster is. You need to think fast and collaborate with your fellow teammates in order to confuse the King. In Don't Mess With Cthulhu, playing cultist is not as difficult. Sometimes you can be honest to buy trust. It's an investment. After all, the time pressure is on the investigators. They need to find all elder signs before time runs out. Also, as long as they have not found all, there is always the fear of sudden death hanging over them - the moment Cthulhu is revealed, you win.

One thing I like about Don't Mess With Cthulhu is how unrevealed cards are reshuffled and dealt out all over again at the start of every round. The situation changes from round to round, creating both opportunities and risks, and allowing interesting situations to arise. You get different cards every round, and you can be making different statements every round.

The first time I played, I did three games back-to-back. I experienced playing both investigator and cultist, and both factions have won. Playing investigator is more straightforward. There is less need to lie. Playing cultist is trickier. You need to pick the right time and the right lies.

Ainul, Ivan, Jason, Dith. You get all sorts of expressions in this game.

We organised our cards this way. The upper row are cards revealed in the current round. The lower row are cards revealed in all previous rounds. The elder signs need to be arranged neatly so that we can keep count. The rocks from previous rounds are all dumped in a pile since there is no need to keep count of them anymore.

I found the game very interesting and decided to make a copy using the original theme (time bomb) to teach my colleagues. The game has only 37 cards so it's quick. When playing with my colleagues, quite a few funny situations came up. In one game, Edwin was a cultist and he had declared that he had no elder signs. I was an investigator, and when my turn came, there was no remaining clue that helped me pick a player to reveal his card. I was a little suspicious of Edwin at the time, and since I had nothing better to do, I decided to test whether he was honest. The very card I revealed was an elder sign! He still had five cards unrevealed, and he only had one elder sign among them. He turned red with embarrassment at being caught red handed. In another game, both Xiaozhu and Ruby claimed that they had elder signs, so they spent the round revealing each other's cards, going back and forth between them. Xiaozhu claimed that he had two elder signs, but as Ruby revealed card after card, they all turned out to be rocks. Things became very awkward when even the third card was a rock. Xiaozhu had only two cards remaining, and it was not easy for him to convince us that those two were elder signs. We all laughed. He looked desperate and helpless. The round was ending, and we had no more turns to prove whether he had been truthful. Eventually he turned out to be a genuine investigator. It was Ruby who turned out to be a cultist. She was very lucky (from a cultist perspective) to have not picked any of his elder signs.

My colleagues enjoyed playing cultist more. They were mostly hoping to get the cultist identity card. Playing cultist is more thrilling and challenging, and also more satisfying if you win.

The Thoughts

Don't Mess With Cthulhu is a party game. It's easy to teach and it works well with non-gamers. The rules themselves are simple, much more so than BANG or The Message: Emissary Crisis, but the tactics and psychology are not simplistic by any means. There is some meat to this little game. There is paranoia, suspense and deceit. You do need to think a little about how to lie, and how to identify your enemies. The game design is compact and clever. The game can work as a filler for regular gamers, be it entree or dessert. A game can be completed in 15 minutes.

Friday, 28 October 2016

revisiting Tragedy Looper

After trying the Bio-Terrorist Challenge in Pandemic: On The Brink with my colleagues, I thought it would be interesting to teach them Tragedy Looper, which is also a one-vs-many game.

Protagonist players: Benz, Xiao Zhu, Edwin. Observers: Jeixel, Tyle. We started with the first scenario. I was, of course, the evil mastermind. We decided to play 3 loops, which was easier for the protagonists. I had forgotten many details, and more importantly I had forgotten the techniques and tactics. I had to recall and reconstruct them while I played. Since I was rusty, I had to rely on the mastermind strategy guide in the mastermind handbook. One thing that I did remember, and felt again, was the tension of being the mastermind. It was nerve-racking. After playing Tragedy Looper, I felt drained - that kind of feeling when you are suddenly released from a long period of being tensed up. As mastermind, I needed to fully utilise every piece of informational advantage I had over the protagonists. Most of these advantages can only be used once, because once the protagonists learn of your weapon, they will also learn to disarm you. I needed to be prudent with how I used my weapons. I needed to avoid revealing too much, while still making sure I could trigger the tragedy before the current loop ends. Otherwise I would run out of reliable weapons. I had to plan ahead too. Many incidents and character actions could only be triggered if the relevant characters had enough paranoia or intrigue tokens placed on them. I needed to make sure I had enough turns to place the required numbers of tokens.

The strongest masterminds will be able to make good use of not just the main plots, subplots and incidents in a scenario. They will make use of even the main plots and subplots not in the scenario. The protagonists do not know which plots are in, so they need to consider all possibilities. If the mastermind can use this to throw red herrings, he can keep the protagonists off the right trail for longer. I am nowhere near that level yet. I already struggle with juggling in my head the main plot, subplot and incidents that are in the scenario. I need to keep finding ways to trigger the tragedy without getting disrupted by the protagonists. It feels like being hunted. As the protagonists uncover clue after clue, I see my options dwindling and I feel the net closing up.

A funny situation occurred in Scenario 1. In one of the loops, I had carefully planned a series of events that would trigger the tragedy. The protagonists didn't know yet how I was going to do it, but the actions they took got people killed (which was not what I had in mind), and ultimately ruined my plan. I needed the right people at the right place at the right time, so when some of them got killed at inopportune moments, my plans were foiled. I had to scramble to find another way to trigger the tragedy. Bad things happening can actually be good for the protagonists. Also, the best laid plans can be spoilt by the protagonists unintentionally.

Eventually it came down to the last day of the last loop. I had only one last chance to trigger the tragedy. There was only one method remaining to kill the character I needed dead, but in order to do that, I needed two specific characters to meet up. In Tragedy Looper, the mastermind plays his cards first, so the protagonists can always react. Also if both the mastermind and a protagonist have played movement cards on a character, the character often ends up moving in a direction neither party intended. I gambled on the second point, intentionally trying to send one of the key characters in a wrong direction. To my pleasant surprise, the protagonist did indeed play a movement card on him too, and the result was he moved in the true direction I wanted him to go in. I managed to trigger the tragedy once again, and won the game.

Protagonist players: Benz, Jeixel, Tyle. Observer: Eva. After the first game, Xiao Zhu and Edwin didn't seem too keen. Deduction games may not be their thing. However Jeixel and Tyle who had been watching us play looked interested. So Benz suggested they join the table to play the next scenario. The second scenario was a bit more complex. It had 5 days per loop, and we played 4 loops (easier for protagonists). Despite it being longer, we were able to play more quickly because we had a better grasp of the game mechanism.

This time victory was again decided on the final day of the final loop. By then I (mastermind) had almost run out of options. The protagonists knew most of my tricks and how to neutralise them. On that fateful final day, I could only pin my hopes on one particular character, who had the ability to place an intrigue token on another character. Each round (i.e. each day) I only had 3 action cards to play, and the three protagonists also had one each to play. Since I had to play my cards first, they could see where I played them and then play their cards on the same characters to try to foil my plan. Having that particular character was akin to having a fourth action card. The protagonists needed to decide which three among my three action cards and this character's ability to try to neutralise. Eventually they decided the character was too risky to leave be, so they moved him, and negated two of my three action cards. Thankfully, the most critical action I needed to execute was precisely the one they ignored. The game character was but a feint. The protagonists failed to save the day.

Both Scenarios 1 and 2 are introductory scenarios, so the number of characters in play is low. In standard scenarios there are more characters and more plots. I wonder when I'll get to Scenario 10. The base game has 10 scenarios. I think I've only played up to Scenario 3. I don't remember whether I've read the solution to Scenario 4 (which is a good thing - that means I can play it). I have already ordered the expansion. I hope I will eventually get to that. I still have not yet taught my children this game. I hope they will like it. Shee Yun (11) should be able to play it, but I think not Chen Rui (9).

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

boardgaming in photos: Aquaretto, Android: Netrunner

18 Sep 2016. Aquaretto. It's been a while. It occurred to me to bring this out to play with the family because not long ago I introduced Coloretto to my colleagues, and they enjoyed it immensely. Coloretto is an old game. When its core idea was later implemented as a boardgame (Zooloretto), it won the prestigious Spiel des Jahres. Aquaretto is the sister game of Zooloretto. It shares the same core mechanism, but the other supporting mechanisms are different. The setting is a marine park instead of a zoo. There are no fixed-size animal pens. The animal zones can grow in a flexible way, as long as they don't merge.

Family time.

In the foreground, the red marker is placed on top of a stack of 15 animal tiles. This is the game end trigger. When the tile bag runs out, and you start using tiles from this stack, the game enters the final stage.

I have done an expansion at my marine park (lower right direction), adding more space and also allowing a fourth animal specie. Penguins are my fourth specie, but now I have the most of them, more than the other species.

The smaller versions of the animals with halos around them are the babies. Whenever you collect a pair of male and female animals of breeding age (with male and female signs on them), you get a free baby animal.

This is Michelle's marine park. Look at that huge stack of animal tiles which she could not place. At game end she suffered a heavy penalty due to this stack. I was surprised when I found out I won. I didn't have as many animals as Michelle or Shee Yun. The only thing I did better was avoiding penalties.

I wonder whether my colleagues will like Aquaretto too. I should try it with them.

9 Oct 2016. I convinced Shee Yun (11) to try Android: Netrunner with me. She likes Hearthstone, so I said it was something similar, but more complex. I was rusty. I never learned to play it well in the first place. So teaching the game took a bit longer than I expected. I only taught her to play runner (hacker), which I think is more fun and easier for beginners. I played the megacorp. To my surprise, Shee Yun beat me 8:0! I must say I was rather unlucky (or she was lucky), but if my skills were half decent, I wouldn't have lost so badly. In the early game I had no agenda cards. I kept drawing ICE (firewalls) and assets which helped me make money. I worked hard for the money, building a healthy war chest. Money is power. Most strong ICE are costly. Shee Yun was proactive in making runs (hacking into my systems), but there was nothing for her to steal in the early game. Then on one of her turns she played a card which allowed her to view three cards instead of one if she made a successful run against my R&D (draw deck). I had ICE protecting my R&D, but she had the right programs and enough money to get through. Of the three cards she got to view, two of them were agendas! I was down 5:0 just like that.

Later on I finally drew my first agenda card. I had already set up a well-protected and unoccupied remote server by then, ready to carry out my agenda. Before I could do anything, Shee Yun made a run against my HQ (my hand of cards). Again, I did have ICE protecting my HQ, and again, she had the right programs and enough money to get through. I had 5 cards in my hand, which was the hand limit. The very card she picked was my precious agenda. My megacorp went down in flames. It was not my day.

I had thought that having had a taste of Netrunner, Shee Yun would be interested to play again. However the next few times I suggested to play she was not interested. I will try again. Netrunner is a game worth getting into.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Pandemic: On The Brink - Bio-Terrorist Challenge

Pandemic: On The Brink is an expansion set released in 2009. It comes with many modules and components, but the main elements are three new ways to play Pandemic - the Virulent Strain Challenge, the Mutation Challenge, and the Bio-Terrorist Challenge. I played the first two soon after buying this expansion, but never got around to playing the third until recently. Among the three, the Bio-Terrorist Challenge is the most complex and most different. The bio-terrorist is a bad guy (of course) and plays against the rest of the players. This is no longer a cooperative game. Earlier this year I completed Pandemic: Legacy with a group of colleagues. It was great fun and when the campaign ended, we all felt a sense of loss. Later I remembered that I still had not taught them the Pandemic expansion modules. So we arranged to try them out.

23 Sep 2016. Edwin, Benz, Ruby and Xiao Zhu (camera-shy). I started with the Mutation Challenge. In this mode there is a fifth disease - the purple disease.

One thing the expansion does is allow a fifth player. So now Benz didn't have to play cheerleader / coach. He could join us and participate as a player.

Returning to the Pandemic universe was a wonderful feeling. We immediately thought of the characters we had played in Pandemic: Legacy. My friends did initially pick the equivalent characters from Pandemic and Pandemic: On The Brink, but now they were less insistent. They switched around, exploring other roles. Edwin had a new love - the Field Operative. She could collect disease cubes from the board and then use them for discovering cures.

I love these mock petri dishes. I think they add a lot to the atmosphere.

We were all quite comfortable with the Pandemic game mechanisms by now. We could discuss strategy and how to coordinate our actions to create great combo moves. One problem was we all wanted our own characters to be the heroes who saved the day, so we would instruction one another to do this this this and then that, so that our characters could eventually sweep in and pull off one great dramatic sequence of actions. After this happened a few times, we started joking and teasing that we were all like ultra competitive colleagues fighting to show off. I think this is a wonderful thing - a group of friends getting to know a game system well enough to transcend the rules and enter the realm of strategy and living the story.

We played two games of the Mutation Challenge. We were rusty in the first game, since it had been a while since we played our last game of Pandemic: Legacy. We were fire-fighting and didn't focus nor plan well on discovering cures. We lost rather badly. The second game was much better. It was partly because we were lucky with the card draws and the distribution of diseases in the early game. We made good progress towards discovering all cures. However when things started turning bad, they did so with alarming suddenness and speed. This kind of escalation in the Pandemic family of games still amazes me sometimes. At one point we had cured all four normal diseases, and were down to either curing the fifth disease or treating all patients to win the game. We wanted to end the game quickly by treating all patients, but every time we got down to the last few, the disease flared up again. Eventually we switched tact and barely managed to find a cure before time ran out.

This was the point when the four normal diseases had cures, and we were down to having to handle the fifth disease. We had 7 outbreaks (see bottom left), so one more would cause us to lose the game.

30 Sep 2016. This was the Bio-Terrorist Challenge. I was game teacher, so naturally I played the bio-terrorist. For the good guys to win, they need to have cured all four normal diseases, and also either cure the fifth disease (purple), or treat every patient of that disease, i.e. removing all cubes of that disease from the board. For the bio-terrorist to win, firstly, the good guys must lose. Secondly, there must be at least one purple disease cube still on the board. It is possible that nobody wins - the good guys fail due to any one of the lose conditions, and there happens to be no more purple cubes on the board.

The bio-terrorist's pawn is black. He has a different set of actions from the good players. Good and evil take turns. After a good player completes his turn, the bio-terrorist takes a turn. The bio-terrorist is quite the busy person. Every round, he has as many turns as there are good players.

The bio-terrorist pawn is normally not placed on the board. It is placed only when the bio-terrorist is in the same city as another player, i.e. he is sighted by that player. When the bio-terrorist later leaves the city, the pawn is taken off the board. The bio-terrorist records his movements and actions on this piece of paper.

All these purple disease cubes in Asia were spread by me. The orange pawn was the medic, played by Xiao Zhu. The medic is the natural nemesis of the bio-terrorist, because he treats patients very efficiently. As I did my evil work in Asia, I had to be careful not to get caught by Xiao Zhu, who was busy treating patients. A good player may spend an action to capture the bio-terrorist if he finds him. The bio-terrorist discards all his cards. For his next action, he must draw a card, because he needs a card to escape. It is quite easy for the bio-terrorist to escape. The good players cannot keep him locked up for long. However getting caught in itself is costly because the bio-terrorist loses all cards, and it also breaks his tempo.

We can never forget Lagos. This was where Kawasaki died in our game of Pandemic: Legacy.

Playing bio-terrorist is a little unusual. I can't control the four normal diseases much. The most I can do is decide when to draw or play infection cards to meddle with the infection deck. At least for now I don't think this affects the good players all that much. The actions with more direct impact are related to the purple disease. This disease has only 12 cubes, so if I can get them all out onto the board, I would win. Also if I can trigger an outbreak, it counts against the good players' total outbreak count. Overall, I feel the role of the bio-terrorist is to distract. Although he can create direct threats, I think what is most important is slowing down the progress in finding cures for the four normal diseases.

We played two games of the Bio-Terrorist Challenge, and I was the bad guy in both games. So I can only guess at what it feels like playing against the terrorist. My guess is the purple disease will become quite scary, because it has a life of its own now. There is a mastermind behind it. You can't afford to spend too much time and energy on it, lest you neglect the other four diseases, yet you can't ignore it completely. There are a few dilemmas thrown at you. Do you try to eradicate the purple disease early so that you can then work on the normal diseases without any more distractions? Do you choose to find a cure to the purple disease, or do you try to treat all patients?

Edwin, Xiao Zhu and Ruby mulling over the game board.

I came across this photo recently - the box covers of Pandemic: Legacy Season 2! It is expected to be out by mid 2017, and I am very much looking forward to it.