Sunday, 21 August 2016

Via Nebula

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

In terms of graphics and components design, Via Nebula is the cutest Martin Wallace game that I have ever seen. If I hadn't known beforehand that this was his design, I would never have guessed it based on the art style. I played the game not because of the art though. It was because of the pedigree. What's important is still the gameplay.

Players are builders rebuilding the Nebula Valley, which used to be a thriving civilisation. Many ruins were left behind during its decline, and it is over these ruins that players will construct new buildings. The old kingdom has also left behind resources. By sending out explorers, you locate these resources and make them available to everyone. Most of the valley is covered by mist, making the land untraversable. You need to spend effort mapping these mist covered spaces to make them accessible. When a construction site is connected to a resource location via an uninterrupted chain of glassland, the resources can be transported to the site to be used as building material. A building must be constructed according to specs, which means it must use the exact combination of materials as specified by a contract. Players start with some contract cards in hand, and there are always four open-to-all contracts on the board. When you complete a public contract by constructing the building required, you claim the contract card for points, and also get to enjoy a one-time benefit as specified on the contract. If another player happens to be collecting resources hoping to complete that same contract, this is bad news for him. The materials he has collected may not be useful anymore. He can't return them. He can try to use them for another building, but if there is any surplus, he will be penalised. There are plenty of ways to get penalised, and they are all related to wastage. If you explore a resource location and make resources available, and if not all of them are used up by game end, you will be penalised for wasting natural resources. If you stockpile resources at your building site and fail to complete the building in time, you will be penalised for wasting too. There's an environmental conservation message here.

The game ends after a player completes his fifth building. Everyone else gets one more turn. You score points for the building contracts, for resource locations you have explored, and for mist covered areas you have mapped.

Players' buildings are not only different in colour, they are also of completely different shapes, which is nice. Unnecessary, but very nice. Space Cowboys, the publisher, knows what they are doing.

You can see that some spaces are covered with plain green grassland tiles. These are previously mist covered spaces which have now been mapped. The grassland tiles represent a transport network.

This is a player board. Again, very nicely done. The central area with a white background lists all action types you can perform. You have 2 action points per turn. Most actions require 1 action point. Only mapping misty forests requires 2 action points.

This is how your player board should be set up at the start of a game. This is for a 4-player game. You have 4 stacks of 3 grassland tiles each. Every time you map a misty space, you place one of your grassland tiles onto the board. You earn 2VP for every stack you deplete. You only have two explorers whom you can send out to explore resource locations. When you send one out, he stays on the board until all resources at that location are collected. Those half-hex tiles are your construction sites. You use such a tile to claim half a ruin space for construction. Those five on the right are your buildings, waiting to be constructed.

When setting up the board, the round resource tokens are randomly placed. They determine what resources are available where. These round tokens need to be explored by an explorer before the actual resources are placed on the board and made available. The game does start with some resources already available. Their locations are randomly determined too. The black pools and the spaces with monsters are permanently inaccessible. They serve no other purpose than getting in the way. Well, that plus making you happy because the monsters are lovely. The spaces showing scattered wooden planks are the ruins. These are where you build.

On the right the brown player has sent an explorer to explore a resource token, and as a result these stones were placed here, available to all players. To claim a stone, you simply move it from this resource location, through empty grassland spaces, to your own construction site. The delivery path is blocked by other resource locations not yet exhausted, construction sites, buildings, still mist-covered spaces, and monster spaces.

In a 4-player game, one space allows up to two buildings. The black and brown players are currently sharing a space, each having a construction site on one half of that space.

Construction sites need to be connected to resource locations by empty grassland, so that you can deliver resources to your sites for building. Grassland is your delivery network. In this photo, some buildings are already completed, while some construction sites are still stockpiling resources. At this stage the networks of grassland are still fragmented.

The Play

We did a four-player game - Ivan, Boon Han, Kareem and I. This was the highest player count. Prior to playing I read some comments saying that this was a light Martin Wallace game. Now that I have played it, I disagree. I think people feel it is light because of the artwork. This is by no means a simple game. It is not heavy in rules, but that doesn't mean it is light in strategy. I find there is a delicate balance between cooperation and competition. To be more precise, you are not cooperating; you are using one another. You need to fight for good ruin locations, but if you greedily plonk down many construction sites in an area, denying others, you will find that you are discouraging them from doing any exploration in the area, be it to unlock resources or to clear mist away. You'll end up having to do all the work by yourself. The key in this game is to create win-win situations. You want to create mutually beneficial relationships - offers others can't refuse. When you explore a resource location, sometimes it's because you need that resource type yourself. Sometimes it's because you predict others will need it and will exhaust it quickly. In Via Nebula the players collectively create and evolve the supply-and-demand ecology. When demand is higher than supply, you are fighting to grab resources before they run out and someone needs to unlock more. When supply is higher than demand, the players sitting on unwanted resources need to find ways to increase demand. Else their explorers will be stuck for a long time, maybe even till game end.

This is a very spatial game, since it is very much about building a transport network. As we played, we joked that this game was a cute version of Age of Steam. Most of the time you get to perform two actions on your turn. This is a mechanism often seen in Martin Wallace's games, and here it is again used most cleverly. Quite often players get into a blink-and-you-lose situation. E.g. two players need a mist space explored, so that they can gain access to a resource location, in order to collect a resource and then complete a building. However neither is willing to spend that one action to explore the mist space. If A does it, he will have only one more action, which he can only use to collect a resource. When B's turn comes, he can first collect a resource and then complete the building, ahead of A. You need to watch your opponents!

In the early game, when the transportation network is fragmented, construction sites can only rely on nearby resource locations. As the game progresses, more and more mist spaces will be cleared, and the initially fragmented networks will join to become larger and larger networks. Construction sites will have more and more options. There is a feeling of escalation and acceleration. I can easily imagine this game having a much more serious setting. This is a game of economy and logistics.

Our scores were close. Most points were from completing buildings. Some were from exploring resource locations, some from exploring mist spaces. As long as no one makes any major blunder, the scores will be close. Building VP's don't vary greatly. Players don't have very different overarching strategies. Some may emphasise certains areas slightly more than others, but generally you just try to make good tactical moves and build efficiently. Sometimes you need to score small tactical victories when you find opportunities to screw an opponent. This was what Kareem did to me. He fulfilled a contract which I was working on. At the time I thought he was working towards another contract, and had no urgency in completing the building I was working on. I was forced to switch to another contract, and I had to waste a resource which the new contract didn't need. At game end, I lost to him because of this. Aaarrggh! Don't trust the cute graphics. This game can be nasty!

I had initially expected the game would end with many penalties being dished out, due to resources still left standing at resource locations, and resources still left at unfinished buildings. However it turned out that most of us managed to complete all our buildings, and all the resource locations were exhausted. I guess we were all pretty decent planners. After a player completes his last building, everyone else still has one more turn, which consists of two actions. As long as you are not too far behind, you will be able to finish all your buildings, or at least plan to not have any unused materials at a construction site.

The white and green construction sites in the foreground each have one resource, wood and pig respectively. At this moment these sites are only connected to one resource location, the wood resource location just behind them, owned by the white player. Normally, the green player should not have been able to deliver a pig to his construction site. In this case, it is because the green player has delivered a wood to his site, and then used the power from another building to transform that wood to a pig.

There are two empty spaces on the right with no grassland tile. They used to be resource locations, but the resources have been depleted. So they are now considered empty grassland too, and they form part of the transport network. There is no need to place grassland tiles.

This is near game end. If you look carefully, you will see that the construction sites at the bottom right are connected all the way to the pig resource location at the top left. The transport network covers almost the whole board now.

The Thoughts

Via Nebula is a mid-weight strategy game. It's an economic game. It's a train game with no trains. Seeing a Martin Wallace game presented this way is refreshing. If this helps introduce new players to his designs and his style of games, it can only be a good thing. If I compare Via Nebula with his other games, it isn't really of the same category as strategy games like Brass, A Few Acres of Snow or Automobile. Via Nebula is less complex, but it still has decent strategy. It fills a different need compared to these heavyweights. It still gives you mental sparring with your opponents. It requires careful calculation and clever tactical manoeuvres. You have to be cunning and ruthless. You need to create incentives to lure opponents into doing what you want them to do. Often they will do the same, and you will take the offer because you know ultimately it's good for you too. The cute artwork is an anesthetic. It makes you think the game is light when it is not. Even after playing it, you still feel it is light. But it's not. That's the power of good artwork.

Saturday, 20 August 2016

concise reference sheets updated

It has been a long time since I last uploaded any new concise reference sheet. Here are the games that I have made reference sheets for since the previous version.

  1. 51st State (updated)
  2. 7 Wonders: Duel
  3. A Few Acres of Snow (updated)
  4. Alchemists
  5. Ark
  6. Camel Up
  7. Cheaty Mages
  8. Coconuts
  9. Epic: The Card Game
  10. Giants (corrected)
  11. Glory to Rome
  12. Hoity Toity / Adel Verpflichtet
  13. Meuterer
  14. Poo: The Card Game
  15. Russian Railroads
  16. Saint Petersburg
  17. Ships
  18. Zombie Tower 3D

Download the reference sheets here.

The full list of games can be viewed here. I have 291 games in my collection of concise reference sheets now.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Android: Mainframe

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Android: Mainframe is a game based on the Android universe. It is originally an abstract game published in Germany, called Bauhaus. Players try to form regions on the board by placing walls. When a region is walled up, and it contains the marker or markers of only one player, it is locked and will score points for this player. There is a deck of program cards. A pool of four face-up program cards are maintained throughout the game. On your turn, what you usually do is execute one of these program cards to perform an action, e.g. placing walls, moving a wall, or moving a marker. The game ends when the deck of program cards run out.

Each player plays a different character. Every character has 5 unique program cards, and 3 are randomly drawn for each game. These are powerful, single-use cards which you can execute as your action on your turn. The third and last thing you can choose to do on your turn is to simply place one of your markers on the board. Placing a marker requires wasting the top card of the general draw deck, so the countdown doesn't slow down when you do this.

The square tokens are the player markers. They are two sided. The side showing the face is the default state. The side showing player logo is the locked state. When a region is secured by a player, he turns all his markers inside the region to the locked state. A secured region cannot be altered in any way - markers cannot be moved in or out, walls cannot be touched. In this photo there is already one secured region - the 2x1 region with a purple marker. It is only worth 2 points - the region size of 2 multiplied by the number of tokens, which is 1.

This is the card back of a character-specific program card. Each character in the game has his own set of unique program cards. At the bottom left you can see the default (face) side of the player marker, and on the bottom right the locked side showing the character logo.

These are the generic program cards displayed at the centre of the table. The upper left and lower right cards let a player place walls onto the board in these exact configurations. The upper right card lets a player move one wall. The lower left card lets a player move a player marker, whether his own or an opponent's.

The game shares the same artwork from Android: Netrunner.

The Play

I did a four-player game, which is the higher number of players supported. All four of us were new to the game.

On the right, a large region was about to be created, and everyone wanted to get in. It is not easy to create and monopolise a large region, because it is very easy for others to put down a stake.

Ivan (purple) had completed and claimed the zigzag shaped region, which was a lucrative one. 5 spaces x 2 markers meant 10 points for him. At this point all other secured regions were low valued. Most were forcibly secured by opponents. This is defensive play - by "helping" an opponent secure a region, you are wasting his marker and neutralising a threat at the same time. Would you be better off spending your turn building your own region? Possibly. It depends.

I was red, and was trying to build the region on the left. It didn't take long for others to start barging in.

Later Boon Han (green) swapped one of his markers with mine (red), and the yellow player played one of his unique cards to cut the potentially large region into multiple small regions. I ended up scoring one (1) glorious point for all my efforts.

Ivan (purple) continued to stay in the lead, because of the 10pts he had scored in the early game. He just needed to play conservatively to maintain his lead, scoring small points here and there and preventing others from creating any large region. At this point there were two potentially large regions. I was the only one working on the region on the left. The other large one near the top had all four players fighting.

The large region was later completed. Initially it was not secured due to the presence of markers from multiple players. Boon Han (green) played one of his unique program cards and managed to move the markers of all his competitors out of the region. This allowed him to secure the region with three markers present. 7 spaces x 3 markers meant a whopping 21pts! What a twist! He overtook Ivan and went on to win the game.

The Thoughts

Android: Mainframe didn't give me a good first impression. It is difficult to do long-term planning. You are limited to what program cards are available when your turn comes around again. The card pool can change dramatically, especially in a four-player game. The board situation can also change dramatically. You may have a perfect plan in mind, but more often than not the moment you start executing Step 1, your opponents' actions will already completely mess up your plan. So the game becomes a very tactical one of trying to spot opportunities that come up at the start of your turn. There is little incentive to plan far ahead, because the game situation is so volatile. In this game it is very easy to attack and to interfere with your opponents, and hard to defend your own positions. I felt helpless when playing. It was frustrating. It is difficult to make large regions, because your opponents will gang up on you if they know what they're doing. Most of the time you can only hope to score small victories, and hope they will be enough as they add up.

The card deck is the countdown timer. Players feel time pressure as it dwindles. You need to watch the deck closely. If time runs out before you can complete your perfect, huge region, all your hard work will be in vain.

It helps if you are familiar with the cards in the deck. If a certain type has appeared many times, you know you won't get many or even any from then on. If a certain type hasn't appeared, you can expect many more to come.

The big twist near the end of our game changed my mind about Android: Mainframe somewhat. I appreciated better the importance of the 3 unique program cards. You draw these at the start of the game, and they are your long-term strategy, in this sea of short-term considerations and tactical moves. These cards are powerful, and you should try to position yourself to be able to make use of them. This is easier said than done. Of my own three unique cards, I never managed to use two of them, and the one I did use was not all that effective. However if you manage to pull off a great move, it is exhilarating. You need to know your character and your opponents' characters. This helps you plan your killer move, and prevent others from pulling theirs off. It's like football (soccer) - you may not score all that often, but when you do, it feels wonderful. It's also like fishing. You have a long boring wait where you don't feel like you're making any progress, but when (or if, to be more precise) you get a nice catch, it's a joyous moment.

Overall, Android: Mainframe is not a game I'm eager to play, because I feel I have little control. I'm mostly waiting for my turn to come again, and hoping at that point a good opportunity will come up. I don't bother to analyse the board situation and the available program cards on others' turns, because by the time my turn comes, any analysis I have done might be useless. I think the game is best played briskly and lightly. Our game went slowly, and that contributed to my negative impression. The player count may be a factor too. It will be less chaotic with fewer players, and I might have enjoyed it better that way.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

boardgaming in photos: Take 6, Loopin' Louie

22 Jul 2016. These photos were taken at a work event which I organised. They were not taken by me. They were taken by a few colleagues with much better photography and photo-editing skills. Thus the games are more photogenic that in my usual photos. This card is from Take 6, a.k.a. 6 Nimmt. There are many versions of this classic card game. My copy is Category 5, an older English edition published in the US which is now out-of-print. It doesn't have the bull heads like in the original German edition. The penalty points are depicted as boring black squares, which mean something related to hurricanes.

The work event was run as a full-day team competition, with everyone divided into four teams. I took the opportunity to inject some games. When I did Category 5, I further split the teams into halves, so we had eight sub-teams playing the game like an 8-player game.

In each round in Category 5, the players simultaneously pick a card from their hands to play (they start the game with 10 cards). Once everyone has decided, the selected cards are revealed at the same time.

The revealed cards are then added to the four rows at the centre of the table, following specific rules. When a 6th card is about to be added to a row, instead of placing it at the 6th position, the person who played that card must instead claim the first five cards, which come with penalty points. The card being added becomes the new first card for that row. The objective of the game is to gain as few penalty points as possible.

Right from the beginning when you have 10 cards, you need to start planning how to play your hand. You need to consider not only the rows on the table. You must also consider the choices you will have remaining in your hand. As the game progresses, you will have fewer and fewer options, so you need to plan for flexibility in the late game.

Loopin' Louie is a real-time game. The battery-powered Louie rides a plane in circles and tries to knock your hens (the round discs) off the roof of your barn. You have a lever right next to your barn, which you use to deflect Louie's flight path, not just to protect your hens, but also to try to redirect him to attack your opponents, preferably at angles which are difficult if not impossible to defend against.

For Loopin' Louie I arranged 4 preliminary matches and 1 final match. The four teams each sent a representative for each of the four preliminary matches. Only the winners of the preliminary matches get to advance to the final match. I introduced some variant rules. The first preliminary match was played normally. From the second game onwards, everyone started with 2 hens instead of 3. I didn't want the activity to drag, so this helped. For the second game, contestants must use their left hands. I think we happened to have a left-handed contestant (boos from the other teams), but I don't remember whether he won that match. For the third match, each contestant needed an assistant. The contestant himself must close his eyes. The assistant was responsible for telling him when to press the lever. The fourth match was also played with eyes closed, but this time the assistant couldn't even speak. He must instead tap the back of the contestant to signal to him to strike.

For the final match I returned to the normal rules. Not all teams had reps at the final match, since some had lost all reps in the prelim round. By the time we were down to two contestants, they happened to be from the same team. They kept going on and on, until someone teased them - Why are you fighting so hard? You are bros from the same team anyway! As the room erupted in laughter, one of them got distracted and quickly lost.

Loopin' Louie is a children's game which adults can get very absorbed in.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Power Grid: Australia

Plays: 6Px1.

I own many expansion maps of Power Grid, but in recent years I have stopped buying because I don't play Power Grid often. I don't own the Australia / India expansion, but I had a chance to try it when Ivan brought it to Boardgamecafe.net. The cities on the Australian map look like this.

One cheeky thing about this map is the cities are drawn upside down, because Australia is "Down Under". The map has a few variant rules. One of them is that when you expand your network, you can spend $20 to establish presence in any city on the board. This is why those two isolated networks in the red area can exist.

Another rule change is related to nuclear plants. Nuclear plants are not allowed in Australia. However uranium is mined in Australia and exported. When you play this map, the nuclear plants represent uranium mines instead. During the bureaucracy stage, instead of powering cities for you, they earn you cash directly based on the uranium price at the time. Every time a player sells uranium, the price drops. At the end of every round, the price recovers, based on the resource replenishment table - that row in pink.

The third main rule change is in Stage 3 of the game. Resource prices jump up due to a new tax. In this photo you can see the resource market being split into two sections, the shorter section currently being empty. This section is only used in Stage 3 when resources become more expensive.

This photo was taken in the early game. We had six players, and five were crowded in eastern and south eastern Australia. I (green) started in Brisbane and Gold Coast. The two main cities Sydney and Melbourne each have two halves, each half being treated as an individual city, with no connection cost between them. This is attractive to players.

Sinbad was blue. He started in Perth. There were only 5 cities in this area, so once a player started here, nobody else wanted to come because it would be suicide to crowd into such a small area in the early game.

Ivan (I think) was yellow and started in Sydney, and got surrounded by Allen (red). He had to spend the $20 to jump to South Australia. I (green) expanded peacefully in Queensland.

Jeff (black) wouldn't leave me alone and jumped to Queensland to mess with my expansion. He needed to escape the south eastern corner anyhow because it was crowded. It was just a question of where to jump to. Purple had jumped to the Northern Territory. Sinbad (blue) had filled up Western Australia, and had now jumped to Tasmania.

Despite the few rule changes, Power Grid is still Power Grid. The basic principles and strategies still apply. This is a game won and lost on dollars and cents. Every Elektro (the currency in the game) counts. I was a little sloppy and by late game could not catch up with the rest. I was a little wasteful. I probably spent more than I should have when bidding for power plants. I wasn't meticulous enough in my planning. One thing I like about Power Grid is how every time I lose, I can look back and see exactly why I lost. This shows how strategic the game is, and how much my decisions matter. Players who like Power Grid will like this map. When we played, we used the expansion power plants (they have green borders). Ivan and Jeff said this power plant deck is better balanced. I'm not yet at the skill level to be able to appreciate this balance myself.

This photo was taken when we entered the 3rd Stage. The moment Stage 3 began, we had to move the 6 cheapest resources of each type to the $9 and $10 spots, i.e. the smaller section of the resource market. From that point on, resources would cost at least $3. The $1 and $2 spots were no longer in use. Our eventual winner was Ivan. He powered the exact number of cities required to win. No others could reach that in the same round as him, so there was no need for a tiebreaker. In Power Grid, players often tie in the number of cities powered, so money often comes into play as the tiebreaker. Uranium mines (nuclear plants) play an important role in Australia because in the last round, they still generate income, and that additional money can often mean win or lose.

Monday, 25 July 2016

boardgaming in photos: Lost Cities

6 Jul 2016. I played Machi Koro with the children. This is one of their favourite games. Chen Rui (9) doesn't have a strategic mind yet, and makes decisions on a whim, mostly depending on which buildings she finds interesting. She plays the way which makes her happy, not the way which makes her win. Maybe there's something to learn from this. Shee Yun (11) understands the strategy and makes her decisions which lead her to a final goal. She identifies synergies between cards. It pleases me to see her think strategically.

Chen Rui made a mini pyramid out of the Renovation markers.

The kids still try to gang up on me. However we play the advanced rules using the ever-changing market system, so it's hard to collaborate against another player. The cards don't always come up the way you hope they will. I won again this time.

We still mix together all the cards from the base game, the Harbour expansion and the Millionaire's Row expansion. It's not a good way to play, because the cards are too diluted. It's hard to focus on any specific strategy. We really should spend some time creating a smaller set to play with.

This time I constructed many blue buildings, which allowed me to earn money on any player's turn.

7 Jul 2016. Lost Cities is an oldie. Back in the day (well, about 10 - 12 years ago) this was the spouse game. Nowadays I don't hear it being mentioned much. I suspect many gamers new to the hobby haven't even heard about it, which is a shame. It is still as delicious as I remember it. Michelle and I played briskly. Play-and-draw, discard-and-draw, play-and-pick-up. It was like synchronised sparring. Yet there are quite a few tricky decisions to be made along the way, and gambles to make. Sometimes the game takes an unexpected turn.

I fared horribly in this particular game. I had drawn all three of the yellow handshake cards early in the game, but not other yellow numbered cards. Michelle discarded a yellow card early in the game, so I thought she must have few such cards to be able to decide so early that she was giving up on yellow. I decided I should go for yellow and make a killing. I played the three handshake cards, and waited to draw more yellow cards. To my dismay, Michelle picked up the yellow card she had discarded, and proceeded to start her own yellow expedition. That was not a good sign. She drew more and more yellow cards, and I drew pitifully few. It was a disaster. I had started the red, green and blue expeditions, but they were just for buying time hoping to draw yellow cards. Most of these side quests just broke even. Instead of yellow cards, I drew lots of white cards. Now (at the time of this photo), the draw deck was running out, and I was stuck in an unenviable position of having not enough yellow cards to play, and too many white cards and not quite enough time to play them.

I played Ticket To Ride: The Card Game with the family. I bought this when Michelle and I were still very much into the Ticket To Ride series. However I didn't really fancy it, and seldom played. I brought this out because the children hadn't tried it. They are familiar with the Ticket To Ride series, but this was new to them. They liked it, and they did much better than us. I wonder whether they liked it because they beat us.

There is some aggression in this game. You need to collect train cards. To do that, you need to first play them onto the table, and then on later turns move them to your safe storage pile. While the train cards are still on the table, they are vulnerable. If other players play cards of the same colour as yours, your cards will be discarded. Thus the aggression. A few elements look familiar, but this is quite a different game from Ticket To Ride.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Twilight Struggle on iOS

When I first heard that GMT and Playdek were going to make an iOS version of Twilight Struggle, I was quite excited. I supported the Kickstarter campaign with no hesitation. Playdek had always delivered good products (Ascension, Summoner Wars and Agricola on iOS), so I had high confidence. I only pledged for the iOS version and not other items like the PC version or the physical items for the boardgame. The iOS version was originally scheduled to release in Mar 2015, 9 months after successful funding. It was eventually released in Jun 2016, much later than expected. Thankfully I wasn't actively waiting for it. It was a fire-and-forget decision for me. Otherwise I would have been frustrated by the long wait. Now that it's here and I've played a few games, I'm happy with it, and glad to have supported making it a success.

It is not easy to transfer such a complex boardgame onto the small iPad screen. I must admit I took some malignant pleasure in thinking about how Playdek was going to do it. Now that they have done it, I must say they did a pretty good job. The user interface is intuitive. I can easily see information that I need, or if it is not immediately visible, I can easily find it. When fully zoomed out, I can see 90% of the world map, which is nice. I can zoom in to specific regions. At the lower left and lower right corners (see screenshot above), the square buttons let you do this. CA means zooming in to Central America, SA means South America, and so on. Near the top left and top right corners, the symbols in squares are events which are in effect. If you press one of the symbols, the relevant card comes up.

Each region has a little meter to let you know how well you and your opponent are doing. The Europe meter is near the left edge of this screenshot. The left half being filled with blue means USA has achieved Domination in Europe. A quarter on the right being filled with red means USSR has Presence. If you tap the meter, you'll be shown a detailed breakdown of how the region will score. See next screenshot below.

This is the scoring details screen for Asia. How many points each side will score are shown in the two columns on both sides. The big red 05 in the middle means USSR will net gain 5VP if the Asia scoring card is played. The Twilight Struggle scoring is a zero sum game where only one side will have points. If the other side scores, the former needs to lose points first, until it reaches zero, before the latter starts gaining points. The 06 in the red box at the top means USSR is currently in the lead by 6VP.

This is the space race. USA (blue frame) is at Step 2 and USSR (red frame) is still at Step 0.

This is Central America. In this screenshot I have opened up the game log details. These allow you to see what has happened throughout the game. Other than the game log, you can also easily check which cards are in the discard pile (it is especially important to know which scoring cards have been played and which are still to come) and which cards have been permanently removed from the game.

The Help button on the left (the green circle with a question mark) is very useful. It is context-sensitive. When I press it, it shows me the rules relevant to the action or screen I am executing or viewing. This saves me much trouble in searching through the rule book. One thing I don't like though is the tutorial. Twilight Struggle is a complex game and it is not easy to make a rulebook-for-dummies. I tried reading through the tutorial and I didn't have patience to complete it in one sitting. Later when I came back, I found that I had to start from scratch and I could not continue from where I left off. Eventually I decided to skip the tutorial and just went ahead to play. Since I had played the physical boardgame before I still had a general idea of what I was supposed to do.

This is the overview screen. It tells you which Turn you are in, how many Action Rounds there are in the current Turn, and which cards have been played in previous Action Rounds.

So far I have played against the AI four times, and I'm now in my 3rd game against Han. I found that I am lousy at managing the DEFCON level. The DEFCON concept in Twilight Struggle determines how close the world is to nuclear war. The DEFCON level starts at 5, which is the best and safest level. Each time a player initiates a military coup, the DEFCON level drops. Some card plays also affect DEFCON. If DEFCON hits 1, nuclear war breaks out and the world is destroyed. The game ends, and the player whose turn it is is the loser. In my first three games against the AI, I lost all three because of DEFCON (screenshot above). In one game, I played a card which required both sides to roll a die to determine who gained points. The card also allowed the victor to adjust the DEFCON level. I had misunderstood and thought the active player was to decide how to adjust the DEFCON. The AI won the die roll, and since it was the victor, it decided to lower the DEFCON, which was already at Level 2 when I played the card. Nuclear war broke out, and I was blamed because I was the active player at the time. In another game, I played a card which gave the AI 1 operation point when DEFCON was at Level 2. I had neglected that the AI could use this paltry 1 ops point to start a coup, which it did. DEFCON went to 1, and I was blamed again for destroying the world. I was schooled by the AI! I now appreciate much better the intricacies in managing DEFCON.

Now finally, one game that I did win against the AI. I played USA and I managed to reach 20VP for an instant victory. In my 4 games against the AI so far, it seems the AI doesn't put much emphasis on the space race. In this screenshot you can see my USA is already at Step 5 of the space race, but the AI's USSR is still at Step 1.

Before the iOS version was released, I hadn't played Twilight Struggle for quite some time, despite owning a physical copy of the game. It is good that the iOS version got me playing this great game again. I enjoyed my plays. It felt good getting to know the game again, appreciating the beauty in its design and the tactics required to win. In the past, I had never got to learn this game well because usually there was a long gap between each play. By the time I played again, I had already forgotten the tricks I learned from my previous game. The iOS version helped me learn and enjoy the game much better.

As with all digital implementations of boardgames, there is a risk of burnout due to playing too much within too short a time. I feel this a little with Twilight Struggle. With a physical boardgame, you can't avoid the "work" required in managing the components and in doing calculations in your head. Despite calling these "work", they are part of the fun too. Digital implementations remove these. It is good in that you save time and you get straight to the crux of the game. However it can also be bad in that the experience is too blunt, too condensed and too naked. Suddenly you feel you have seen all there is to it, because the trappings of playing a physical boardgame have disappeared. I find that I am now intentionally not playing Twilight Struggle too much so that I don't burn out on it.

One thing I like about the digital implementation is before you roll the die for an important move, your odds of success are shown. So you can always change your mind before you commit to your move. With this, I don't need to memorise the rules related to calculating odds. I just need to have a rough idea of the factors which affect my odds. This is very convenient.

One thing I notice is I rarely get to the Late War stage. It might be because I keep losing by DEFCON heh heh... This is a pity because I don't get to experience what the Late War is like. There is a Late War variant scenario which comes with the iOS version, which I think is meant to address this problem. It starts the game in Turn 8 (of 10). Han and I are trying this now. It seems to be very tough for USSR though.

Update 17 Jul 2016: I just realised I had misunderstood the rules for the Late War scenario. I had played two complete games assuming the victory condition was the same as the standard game. I lost the first game due to DEFCON and never got to the end of Turn 10. In the second game, I did get to the end of Turn 10 and the final scoring. Han played USA and he had around 5VP after the final scoring. However the app said I won. I was puzzled. I had to look up the rules before realising that the victory condition was based on USA having 20VP. USA needed to have more than 20VP after the final scoring to win the game. Victory was no longer based on 0VP. No wonder when I played USSR it felt so impossible. I didn't realise I was actually doing well keeping USA from reaching 20VP. I had thought I really sucked at this game. Embarrassing...

The AI that comes with the digital version is decent enough, but it is not as interesting as a human opponent. It is sufficient if you want to learn the game or if you want to play a relaxed and casual game. Once you know the game well, it probably won't be much of a challenge. Despite my blunders with the DEFCON level when I played against the AI, I generally managed to outscore it because I played more efficiently. If I had lasted long enough, I'm sure I would have won eventually.

If Twilight Struggle is a game that interests you, the iOS (or PC) implementation is a good way to get into it.

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