Sunday, 18 March 2018

boardgaming in photos: Machi Koro, Roll for the Galaxy

7 Jan 2018. Photos of Machi Koro have appeared so many times in this blog that it reminds me of how I used to post many photos of Race for the Galaxy, Through the Ages and Agricola. For the latter games, by studying the player area at game end, you can read the story of how the player has played, the paths taken, the strategies executed. My photos of these games were mostly of this nature - records of how gameplay developed. In Machi Koro, the game end player areas can be studied this way too. You can see which buildings synergise. You can see which early game buildings were chosen, and which late game buildings. However when I take photos of Machi Koro, most aren't for this purpose. It hasn't really occurred to me to take photos for this purpose. Machi Koro is not as strategically deep as the other games, and has less variability. I'm mainly taking photos about spending time with the kids.

The kids are not growing to become boardgame enthusiasts. They rarely suggest to play a game. When I do, younger daughter Chen Rui is more likely to say yes. Elder daughter Shee Yun is older now (officially a teenager) and has her own hobbies and interests. If we are to play Machi Koro, Chen Rui prefers to play together with Shee Yun, because she wants to join forces with her big sister to defeat me (not that it always works). So when Shee Yun declines to play, we often end up not playing at all.

What's good about Machi Koro is all three of us are very familiar with it. We play briskly and can fully enjoy the game.

27 Jan 2018. It had been a long time since I played Roll for the Galaxy, so when I brought it out, I had to relearn most of the rules. Michelle had basically forgotten all of it, and I had to teach her from scratch. She fumbled through her first game (after the hiatus) rather cluelessly and only started to grasp the tactics by the second game.

Many elements look and feel similar to Race for the Galaxy, but the core feeling when playing Roll for the Galaxy is different. The dice are your citizens. You expend a die to perform an action. The expended die returns to the Citizenry, i.e. the employment office, and you need to pay $1 to employ him again for the next task. Yeah, these buggers are all daily wage labourers. Having a more or less steady income to be able to regularly employ citizens is the underlying pulse of the game. If it gets disrupted, you will likely fall behind in tempo. The citizens (dice) do have different abilities (different probabilities of performing the various actions). Sometimes an action can be very effective, and sometimes not so much. While these are important too, you must never neglect the underlying blood circulation of generating enough income to reemploy your citizens over and over.

In this particular game, my space empire tried to emphasise two areas. The first was income. In this photo I had two tiles which would give me income, when I developed and when I shipped. On my player board there was a new technology yet to be completed which would also give me income when I shipped. So naturally my other emphasis was shipping. After I completed that 6-cost tech, I would have two tiles giving me income when I shipped. I had a purple die, which had a higher chance of rolling the shipping action. I had many blue dice, which had higher chances of rolling the production action. You need products to ship if you want to do shipping. I had three production planets, one each in green, blue and brown.

Roll for the Galaxy is not an easy game to teach or to learn, so it is not suitable for new gamers. The mechanisms are unusual and unintuitive, event a little convoluted. They do work, but I find it difficult to associate them with reality. They feel unnatural to me, and difficult to explain, and to digest. I find it harder than Race for the Galaxy to teach, assuming the new player knows neither game. It is a little easier if you know Race for the Galaxy, but the game mechanisms are overall quite different.

In this photo, I placed my dice this way to guarantee the shipping action (5th column). After all available dice were rolled, they were all placed in their respective columns first. The asterisk icons are wild cards, and I had chosen to place those dice in the shipping column. The cylinder icon means production. I had decided to forgo production, so I moved that production die to the shipping icon on the mini board. The production die became a shipping action. The development die (diamond shaped) stayed where it was.

31 Jan 2018. This was another game. This time I emphasised settling and production. My starting tiles gave me 2 red dice, which meant higher probabilities in rolling the settle action. I later gained two more from new tiles placed. I had 4 production planets by this point, two blue and two brown, and more to come. On the player board I had set up a stack of planets to be settled. The next one would be a high cost green planet, and I already had two dice committed. The challenge in settling high cost planets (and also in developing high cost techs) is that you will have many dice tied up until the project is completed. For this green planet I would need to place three more dice to settle the planet before all five dice could be released back to the Citizenry (the employment office).

It felt great to play Roll for the Galaxy again. I don't game as often as I used to, and because of that it feels hard to justify buying new games. I still have so many good games in my collection that I can play. Since I am rusty with most of them, playing them would be like playing a new game. I have to relearn the rules and rediscover the strategies.

If I am to buy a new game, it'll likely be because it has some hook that makes we want to try it, and I don't have easy access to a friend's copy to be able to try it. I am interested to try The Quest for El Dorado by Reiner Knizia. I used to be a big fanboy. This deckbuilding race game sounds fun and I'm curious to experience it. Another game I'm interested to try is Kingdomino, the Spiel des Jahres winner. Both of these are light to medium weight games. I think both are available in my circle of friends. Lucky!

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Sidereal Confluence

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

Sidereal Confluence is a complex negotiation game with a sci-fi setting. You are all alien races which have just met one another. You are colonising new planets, developing new technologies. Having met one another, you are now able to trade, and also learn from one another. This game is not about wars and aggressions. It is about interstellar cooperation and shared prosperity. You compete to contribute most to these, and your success is measured by victory points. VP's come from various actions, the most important of which is developing new technologies and sharing them with your friends.

The game is played over 6 rounds. Every interstellar civilisation starts with some planets, some resources and some technologies. Every alien race is very different. There are nine races to choose from, and they play very differently. This is one of the game's strengths. There is a big incentive to trade, because you don't produce enough of what you want, and you produce stuff you don't want which others do. You do get to develop your production and cube conversion abilities, but they likely won't be enough to meet your needs even by game end. Big research projects require a lot of resources of the same type. You need to trade a lot, and hope by cutting good deals you ultimately position yourself to be greatest contributor to intergalactic cooperation.

This is a technology card. Most technologies are conversion powers, converting resources on the left side of the arrow to those on the right side. Input and output. The tiny 5-17 means you are converting resources of roughly 5 value points to resources of 17 value points. The value point system is just a rough guide for players, based on the rarity of resources. The various resources will have different values to different players, under different situations.

This is one of the race cards. It's huge, about A4 size. It describes the race's unique abilities, and even comes with strategy tips. Before a game starts, it is best that everyone gives a short introduction of his race. The race I played was a plant based race. Planets I colonised produced double the resources, but to colonise I needed to spend double the spaceships normally needed.

Top left: Start card of a race, specifying starting resources, techs and planets. Bottom left: Reference card outlining the 3 phases of a round. The right half of the card is a donation area. Sometimes you produce goods which must be given away and cannot be used by yourself. You either trade them away, or if you fail to do so, you donate them. Top right: This is your personal deck of tech cards. Some are start techs. The rest can be developed, or learned from other races. Mostly the latter.

My four start techs. Techs are double-sided, a basic side and an advanced side. These are all on the basic side. At the bottom of each card you can see two ways to flip it to the advanced side. For my particular race, option 1 is to destroy a jungle planet and some resources, turning them into one victory point and another resource. Option 2 (which is the more common way) is to sacrifice another specific tech card. Flipping to the advanced side always gives you a better conversion power, but you need to consider whether the cost is justified.

The common area looks like this. The setup depends on the number of players. The top row consists of planets, and the bottom row the research teams. Every round you bid for these using spaceships, essentially just another currency. When you win (i.e. colonise) a planet, it produces resources for you every round. When you win (i.e. employ) a research team, you earn the exclusive right to develop a new technology. You don't immediately develop the new tech. You still need to give the research team the resources they require before you get the new tech and score.

One important concept in the bidding mechanism is the minimum bid. Each item has a minimum bid, and some are higher than others. If you bid low, there is a risk that the higher bidders (who get to pick earlier) claim items with low minimum bids, leaving behind only items with high minimum bids which you don't qualify for. You not only have to consider bidding high enough so that you get to pick what you really like, you also have to bid high enough so that you reduce the risk of leaving empty handed.

That's my planet on the left. It has a x2 marker, which is unique for my race. This planet produces double the resources.

A round consists of three phases. The first is the trading phase, where everyone engages in trading simultaneously. It is a free-for-all. You can trade resources, spaceships, planets, even promises. Promises are binding in this game. Some special actions are allowed in the trading phase, e.g. upgrading techs, upgrading planets, developing techs. When you do these, the upgraded versions become available to you in the current round, starting from the next phase, which is the economy phase. The economy phase is all about production and conversion. You produce resources to be used in future rounds. The third phase is the confluence phase, in which everyone learns new techs developed by any race in Phase 1. This is also when you bid for planets and research teams. The round structure is pretty straightforward, but execution can be time-consuming because there is a lot to digest, many deals to consider, pros and cons to weigh, and upgrades to plan. Haggling can take time, sometimes going back and forth between potential trade partners, trying to iron out a deal.

The Play

Most victory points come from developing techs. There are two parts to this. You get VP for discovering the tech itself. Simple techs in the early game are worth little, but complex ones later on can be worth a lot. The other part is the VP for sharing a tech. This depends on which round you develop the tech in. The sharing VP is high in the earlier rounds, because it is not easy to have developed techs so early. When you plan your research, you should consider both types of VP's.

Developing techs require a lot of resources, so you must develop your little empire. The hunger for resources keeps increasing and your empire must keep up. You have to decide which planets and techs to upgrade, and which techs you can afford to sacrifice. You will likely have to decide some resource types to specialise in, i.e. to be able to produce or manufacture a large amount of. You try to be self sufficient, producing the raw materials for your factories which will eventually manufacture the end products you want.

The research teams come up mostly randomly. They need different types of resources. You need to adapt to the situation. You must watch what your opponents are specialising in, whether they already have research teams they are committed to, whether they will compete with you for specific resources, planets or new research teams.

Increasing your production and manufacturing capacity, supplementing and supporting them through trading, and eventually completing massive research projects - these are the core of the game.

My race was a vegetable race, and colonisation was particularly challenging. The race card had explicitly advised that I needed to trade for spaceships early to stay in the colonisation race, but somehow I managed to fail doing so. I never had many planets. One unique ability I had was to destroy jungle planets to advance my starting techs. I traded with Allen for jungle planets. He could colonise them easily from a private deck of planets. That was his unique ability. Advancing my starting techs was nice. I earned 1VP each time I did it. However later on I wasn't sure whether it was worthwhile. I had destroyed planets for it, and 1VP seemed measly compared to VP from developing techs. I decided to switch my focus to research projects.

Tim played an unusual race, a nasty one, essentially a blackmailing syndicate. It could spend resources to steal resources from another race. Such powers were best used as threats, to convince others to cut him better deals, sometimes downright extorting them. Whoever had traded with him was immune from his stealing powers for the round, so trading with him was akin to paying a protection fee. His was a scary power. If everyone gave in to him, he would grow very powerful. So I tried to convince everyone that we should not give in to terrorism. It was easier said than done. Sometimes I too gave in, especially when I was just a small step away from completing a major project, and didn't want to risk it being delayed another round.

Another one of Tim's abilities was a poisoned gift. He could produce a set of goods, which must be given away together with a spy. Once he had planted enough spies in an empire, his stealing actions would become more damaging. This meant he had to focus on just a few empires to send spies to, so that he could sufficiently build up. Allen was the main victim of this. However he happily accepted the goods up front, spending them on his infrastructure. Ironically these resources helped Allen greatly towards self sufficiency. He built a strong production engine, and became the eventual winner. He turned to be more beneficiary than victim.

Of my four start techs, I had upgraded two of them, bottom left and top right. The advanced sides no longer showed the upgrade criteria. The tech at the top right had no resources to the left of the arrow, which meant it was a pure production tech needing no input. It was like a planet.

The game takes up a lot of space. The common area does not take up much, but each player needs much space. Every time someone researches a new tech, everyone else will benefit from it and will need to play that tech card into his area. This table we played at was not big enough. Sinbad had to place some of his cards on the low table on the left. We put some common game components there too.

During the trade phase, I prepared for the economy phase by placing resources I needed onto the tech cards where I would be using them as input. This helped me reserve resources I needed for myself. Also I could easily see which techs did not have the required raw materials yet, which I might want to trade for. The conversions (or manufacturing) during the economy phase are simultaneous. You cannot take the output from one tech card and feed it as input to another tech card. Outputs can only be used as input in the next round. So you don't get to chain your tech cards like a factory line.

This is a research team. Their name is at the top, the tech they are working on is at the bottom. This particular team needs either 18 green resources or 18 white resources. The conversion in the white box is what the new tech does.

This is one of my start techs. It has a star icon at the top left.

The Thoughts

Sidereal Confluence is a trading and negotiation game, but it is also more than that. The trading is a basic building block, a means to an end. The end is, of course, victory points. To get there, you need to work on profitable research projects. To complete many research projects, you need resources. To have many resources you need to keep developing your empire. So to me this is also very much a development game, just that trading is one of your basic tools when developing your empire and completing your research projects.

There is a lot of cube conversion. I never really got into calling the coloured cubes what they were meant to be. I just called them small green cubes, or big yellow cubes, and so on. This sounds bad because it means the theme doesn't come through, but after a while it doesn't really matter. The game is enjoyable even if I call the cubes just cubes.

It is a complex game. With 6 of us, it took about 3 hours. I'm not sure whether we were just slow. I think the game needs at least 5 or 6 to be fun. With more players, there will be more possibilities. There will be more options in the common area too - the planets and the research teams.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Pit Crew

Plays: 7Px1.

The Game

Pit Crew is a simple team-based real-time game. You are pit crews of 2 or 3 racing teams, and you compete to complete the pit stops in the shortest time possible, allowing your team's race cars to speed off as early as possible.

The game supports up to 9 players. You play in 2 or 3 teams. Each team has between 1 to 3 members. The game is played over 3 rounds. When a round starts, all teams repair their respective cars simultaneously. Once you complete your repairs, your car drives off and tries to go as far as possible. When the slowest team finally completes repairs, their car doesn't get to drive off. Instead they cry halt, and all cars already on the race track stop. The distances they have traveled are their scores. Now you do the end-of-round scoring. All cars are inspected for errors and imperfections. Penalties are applied. When you are penalised, all your opponents get to move their cars forward.

In Rounds 2 and 3, you use different cars, and your team also gains special abilities. After the third round, whoever's car has traveled the furthest wins.

Everyone uses the #27 car in Round 1. The 27 means something. I'll come to that. In Round 1, you need to replace all four tyres, and you need to refuel. Every team has its own deck of cards. Cards are numbered from 1 to 10. The total hand size of a team is 6. In a team of three, everyone holds 2 cards. In a team of two, everyone holds 3 cards. In a team of one, you hold all 6 cards. You perform repairs by playing cards. To replace a tyre, you need to play four cards next to the tyre, one after another. Each card you play must be numbered one higher or lower than the previous number. In the photo above, if you want to replace the tyre at the lower right, you start by playing a 1 or a 3. Let's say you have played a 3. The next card you play must be a 2 or a 4. The big 27 on the roof means the fuel tank capacity. To refuel, you play cards to the rear of the car. There is no restriction when playing cards, but at the end of the round, if the sum of the card values differs from 27, you are penalised. The bigger the difference, the larger the penalty.

The board is not your main playing area. It is mostly a scoring track. You do not race to complete five laps. Instead you try to move as far as possible within the three rounds. You are just trying to score as high as possible.

You use these 6 cap cards to mark sections which are fully repaired. There is one cap card for the engine, one for the fuel tank, and four for the tyres. The engine card is used in Rounds 2 and 3 only. Whenever you complete the repairs for one part of the car, you must place the corresponding cap card there. Once the cap card is placed, you cannot change the cards already played to that part of the car.

Take a closer look, and you will notice that some numbers are white, and some are black. If all cards played to a section have the same colour, you gain a turbo bonus. Your car moves two additional steps. It's not easy to do though. When you are scrambling to find the right numbers, sometimes you don't have the luxury to get the exact colour you need. In this photo you can see we have failed to assemble consistent colours in all six sections.

Car #31 is for Round 3. The XX YY at the engine means you need to play two pairs of cards to repair the engine. We have played a pair of 3's and a pair of 9's. All of them are black, so we are getting the turbo bonus.

When you don't have any cards you can play in hand, you may discard and draw. In fact, you must. However for every two cards in your discard pile at the end of the round, you suffer one penalty point, i.e. your opponents get to move one step forward.

These special ability cards (called Monkey Wrench cards) are gained at the end of Rounds 1 and 2. A number of cards are drawn according to the number of teams in the game. Each team picks one card, starting with the one furthest behind. So this is for balancing in addition to spicing up the game. That card on the left can be used as a 4 or a 5 during a round. The card on the right increases the hand sizes of two team members.

You "drive" your race car by rolling a die. When your team is done with repairs (and you are not the last to do so), one of you becomes the driver, and you keep rolling the die to move your car. You move one step ahead each time you roll a 6. This can be nerve-wracking if you keep failing to roll a 6. If there are three teams, the second team gets to move their car too in the same way. Once the last team is done with repairs, they declare the end of movement. You then do the round-end scoring.

The Play

We did a 7-player game. I was on the same team as Abraham and Allen. The other two teams had two players each. Having three players is probably more challenging, and I'm not saying that just because we lost horribly. Really. With three players, there is a higher need for coordination and communication. Playing Pit Crew is a tense experience. There are multiple parts of the car you need to worry about. You need to coordinate your card plays to avoid getting stuck with no card to play. Finding a valid move doesn't mean it will be a good move. You shouldn't blindly play any card which is technically valid. You need to consider the other cards your team has in hand, and whether your next move can help getting those cards played, and will keep your options open. Then there is also the colour to think about. None of these are particularly complex, but when you are under time pressure, it becomes very hard to keep your cool and to stay rational.

If you find that you really are stuck, waste no time in finding impossible moves. Just discard and draw. Time is precious.

The most stressful part of the game turns out to be also the most brainless part - when you are driving. It's just rolling a die over and over hoping to roll a 6 as many times as you can. There is no skill and no strategy (unless you are trying to cheat). It's all luck. Yet this is when you and your teammates will be holding your breaths, or cheering, or groaning.

My team had a poor start. We were last to complete our repairs in Round 1, and we also had a huge discard pile. Our opponents sped far far ahead of us. In Round 2, we managed to not be last. I took the driver's seat, and hard as I tried, I could not roll a single 6! By the time the bell sounded, I was still in the pit. What a waste! Needless to say, despite having first picks of the Monkey Wrench cards in both Rounds 1 and 2, we still came last. By far.

The Thoughts

Pit Crew is a party game. I think it will be best with 9, i.e. the full complement. The more chaotic the better. The rules are simple so you can easily get casual gamers and non-gamers to play. It will work as a children's game too. It is not a particularly deep game. You shouldn't be looking for depth here. It's a face-paced, heart-pumping fun kind of game. There is also a sense of satisfaction when your team manages to work well together.

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Happy Lunar New Year

Here's wishing everyone great health and plenty of laughter in the coming year! Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Hanafuda (Japanese traditional game) - Koi Koi

Plays: 2Px6.

I bought my cheap set of Hanafuda cards more than two years ago, and only used it to play a game for the first time recently. One difficulty was not understanding the Japanese rulebook that came with the game. I searched the internet for rulebooks, and none among those I found are exactly the same. I wonder whether there simply are multiple ways to play, and people just mix and match a set of rules they like. Overall I think I got the core mechanisms right. I don't think I've done anything that unbalances the game.

The Game

Hanafuda refers to the set of cards, i.e. the game components, as opposed to an actual game and its rules. Hanafuda cards can be used to play many different games, and Koi Koi is one of the most commonly played. It is a two-player-only game, played over 6 or 12 rounds. Each round only one player scores. After the last round, you sum up your scores to determine who wins. Let's start with introducing the cards themselves in a Hanafuda set.

There are 48 cards in total, 4 for each of the 12 months. There is a plant associated to each month, and this is equivalent to the suit concept in poker cards. So Hanafuda has 12 suits. If you look at the photo above, you will notice that within each set of four there are repeated plants or flowers. In addition to the suit concept, there is also a concept of rarity. There are four rarities: commons, ribbons, animals and brights. Most months (suits) have two commons and two specials (ribbons / animals / brights). E.g. the card with just plum blossoms is a common card; the card with plum blossoms and a bird is a special card, an animal card.

This is the peony set. Peony is the flower for the 6th month. The first card is a ribbon card, in this case a blue one. The third card is an animal card, featuring butterflies. The others are common cards.

At the start of a round, each player is dealt 8 cards, and 8 cards are placed face-up in a common pool at the centre of the table. This uses half the cards. The remaining half becomes the draw deck. On your turn you perform two actions. First you play a card from your hand. If it matches the suit of any card in the common pool, you get to claim both cards and move them to your scoring pile. It there is no match, the card played becomes part of the pool. Your second action is to reveal a card from the draw deck. Similarly, if it matches the suit of any card in the pool, you get to claim both of them. Otherwise, it goes to the pool. After completing both actions, you check your scoring pile. If the cards you own form any scoring combination, you may decide to score and thus end the round. If you can score but decide not to, you declare "Koi Koi" (which roughly translates to "Bring It On!") and continue playing. Usually this means you want to go for a higher point value combination. There is a risk though. If your opponent scores after you declare "Koi Koi", he scores double.

There are many scoring combinations in Koi Koi. The simplest one is 10 common cards, which is worth 1pt. There are others like 5 brights, 3 brights, 5 ribbons, 3 blue ribbons, 3 poetry ribbons. Every round of play corresponds to a month, e.g. Round 1 is Month 1. All 4 cards of the current month is also a scoring combination, worth 4pt.

One unusual scoring combination is Boar-Deer-Butterfly. It requires three specific cards with these animals. In this photo I already have Boar and Deer in my scoring pile, and I have Butterfly in hand. Chances are good that I can make the combo. The Butterfly card is a peony card. I have another peony card in hand - the ribbon peony card. There is currently no peony card in the pool. I can play the ribbon peony card, and then on my next turn play the butterfly peony card to claim both peony cards and complete my Boar-Deer-Butterfly combo. However there is a risk that my opponent has a peony card too. After I play the ribbon peony card, he may quickly play his own peony card to prevent me from claiming peony cards. Even if he doesn't have a peony card, he may draw one from the deck, which will result in him claiming both peony cards too. There is always a risk. When I play the ribbon peony card, I myself may draw a peony card from the deck, forcing me to immediately take both peony cards. Then the butterfly peony card in my hand will be left with no match for the moment. If the last peony card is among the bottom 8 cards of the deck, it will never enter play and I will never be able to complete the Boar-Deer-Butterfly. All of the above are what go through your mind when playing Koi Koi.

There is one special situation when you play a card which matches another in the pool, and then when you draw from the deck, it is of the same suit too. Under this situation, you do not claim any card. All three remain in the pool. Whoever plays or draws the last card in this suit gets to claim all four cards. Not all the rulebooks I found contain this rule, but I have decided to use it when I play.

You play 6 or 12 rounds, and every round only one player scores. This creates a meta layer. If you are leading comfortably, and you are in the final few rounds, you will want to aim for easy combos that allow you to score quickly and thus minimise the chances of your opponent catching up. If you are far behind, you will need to gamble and aim big. Else you will never catch up.

The Play

Shee Yun and I learned to play Koi Koi together. There are so many different cards in a Hanafuda deck that in the beginning it was daunting. It wasn't easy to remember which were brights and which were animals. At first I thought brights would be cards with the sun or the moon, but of the five bright cards, only two actually have sun or moon. I had thought animal cards would be easy, but there is a card with a crane which is a bright card and not an animal card. There is a phoenix card which is also a bright and not an animal. And then there is a bridge card which is an animal. Wha...?! There is one storm card which is a common willow card, but it shows no willow, and it certainly looks anything but common. Shee Yun was much better than I was in remembering all these details. A fresh young mind is more absorbent. For now we still play with the rulebook nearby, for easy reference. We still need that.

In our first two games we made a big mistake which severely unbalanced the game. We had thought any complete set of the same month (suit) is a scoring combination (as opposed to only the current month). That made the game exciting but rather random. Scoring was almost always done via a month combo. It became a matter of who got lucky with collecting cards of the same month. It was hard to stop. I realised the mistake only after I tried a digital version of Koi Koi. After correcting this mistake, our games became much more interesting. Month combo scoring became rare, but it was still something to watch out for. Scoring anything more than 1pt was not easy. There was an interesting balance between going for quality and going for quantity. Focusing on special cards can bring great rewards, but if the game drags on and the high hopes bear no fruit, you will be at a disadvantage trying to scrape together common cards to make cheap combos. There is always a struggle between speed and high point values. Yet another consideration is that the dealer wins if a round ends with no scoring combo from either side. This doesn't often happen, but this rule puts the onus on the non-dealer to score before time runs out.

It is important to watch your opponent and try to guess what he is thinking. There are always clues - from the cards he collects, from the cards he plays into the pool. Sometimes you want to make preemptive strikes to break some combo he might be working towards.

When you look at your hand of cards, you will automatically categorise them in different ways. Some cards are risky to play, e.g. those which may help your opponent claim cards he wants. Some cards are quite safe to play. E.g. two cards of the same suit have already been claimed, and both the remaining two are in your hand. Some cards are labelled non-urgent. Usually they are no longer useful to anyone. You want to use them to bide time, waiting for a better opportunity to play other useful-to-you cards, or waiting for a less risky situation to play other useful-to-your-opponent cards. Some cards you may want to save for later, because they will help you, just that you need to wait for the right time. You need to be prepared for the possibility that all cards will need to be played. If the game drags on, those unsafe cards will eventually need to be played. Maybe you can tempt your opponent to score a lower valued combo before you play those unsafe cards. You never replenish your hand. Your 8 starting cards are all you will ever have in your hand. Hand management - planning how to play out your hand - is core to the game.

By the time the cards are dealt, and you can see the common pool, some situations may already be obvious. If many brights are already in the pool, you can bet your opponent will try to grab them as quickly as possible. By looking at your hand and the pool, you need to assess which combos you will have better chances with. You then plan your card play accordingly. Throughout the course of a round, cards being drawn from the draw deck will change the strategic landscape. You need to adapt to it.

All this sounds strategy-heavy, but ultimately Koi Koi is largely a game of chance. We are mostly talking about probabilities. Yes there are many tactics you can employ, but this is no deterministic strategy game. It is a gambling game. You do your best to improve your chances. The game always gives you hope that you can score big. However you always need a little luck. The 8 cards at the bottom of the deck will never see play. You never know what's in there and what scoring combinations are possible or impossible for the round. That uncertainty is part of the excitement.

I kind of conscripted Shee Yun to play with me, but after she had a taste, she found it interesting and afterwards asked me to play again with her. That's a good sign.

That row in front are the common pool. Currently there are cards from 6 different months, which is considered plenty. The cards at the top right are Shee Yun's scoring pile. This photo was taken when we played wrong. We grouped cards by month (suit) because we almost always scored by completed months. After correcting our mistake, we grouped cards in our scoring piles by rarity.

I did the Boar-Deer-Butterfly!

Shee Yun made this blue ribbon combo.

The Thoughts

Playing Koi Koi was more a cultural experience than trying another boardgame. It's a traditional gambling game, which means more luck and less strategy than the average hobbyist game. That doesn't mean it is low on skill or brainless. It's just a different balance from what we boardgamers usually play. Once you get familiar with the cards and the combos, it is a fast-paced game which you play like eating Pringles - sometimes you can't stop and you keep playing, always hoping that the next round you can score something bigger. What I enjoy about Koi Koi is being greedy, and then due to that greed, succeeding in making huge combos. That is exhilarating. I also like the psychology bit - reading your opponent and trying to guess what he's aiming for. You also need to disguise your own intentions as best you can, so that you don't put him on guard. There is decent player interaction in Koi Koi.

I don't mind the luck element. Some rounds you will be unstoppable because the stars are aligned in your favour. Luck is somewhat evened out because you do play multiple rounds. Tactics will help and are not pointless. Also, it is the luck which gives the game the gambling type of excitement. It feeds you hope that maybe you can finally make that big combo, that maybe you can do even better than the current combo you already have.

I feel the game needs to be played in the 12 month format, for it to feel complete. A single round only takes a few minutes, but playing 12 months will mean 30 - 45 minutes. So maybe if to play it as a filler, do 6 months, and to play it as a proper game, 12 months.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Pandemic: Iberia

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Pandemic: Iberia is a variant of Pandemic, designed by Jesus Torres Castro together with original designer Matt Leacock. The setting is different. We are now on the Iberian Peninsula in the mid 19th century. The game is 70% Pandemic, so those who are familiar with the original will feel right at home. The remaining 30% creates a different flavour, a new experience.

In the original, your goal is to find cures to the four deadly diseases. In Iberia, you won't be able to find cures. You can only perform researches. These microscopes are used to mark whether you have researched a particular disease. In the original, once you have the cure, you can treat all patients at one location using just one action. You no longer have this ability in Iberia. Treating patients is still painstakingly slow. You get a different benefit instead - a bit more flexibility when purifying water - this is a new action type which I'll explain shortly.

This is the game board. The four diseases are roughly distributed to north, south, east and west. The two tracks at the top right and along the right edge will be immediately familiar to Pandemic players. The one at the top right is the infection track. As the infection level increases, you draw more infection cards at the end of every turn and the cities on the board get infected more quickly. The track along the right edge is the outbreak track. Each time an outbreak happens, i.e. when heavy infection in a city cannot be contained in time and spreads to adjacent cities, the count is increased. Reach 8 outbreaks, and you lose the game.

This is the 19th century, so you have no aeroplanes. You can't fly from one city to another by playing city cards, at least not for every city. You can still travel directly but only between port cities. Traveling between inland cities is more difficult.

The leftmost card is a character card. The others are player cards. Here there are only city cards, the main type of player card. The other type is event cards. At the start of the game, players all start at different cities, and not a fixed HQ like in the original Pandemic which has Atlanta as your start city. You pick your start city based on your starting cards. Every city card shows a founding date. The player starting in the oldest city is the start player. This is mostly just flavour, but it's a nice touch. A bit of flexibility in choosing start city is good too. There is some variability.

Building train tracks is a new mechanism. Building a track from your current city to an adjacent city requires one action. Moving from one city to another which is connected by railroads only takes one action. When you have built an extensive railroad network, traveling between inland cities become much more efficient. Spending actions to build tracks is a necessary investment in the early game.

Another important new mechanism is water purification. In Pandemic, it costs one action to treat a disease cube in a city, removing it from the board. This still exists in Iberia. This action is remedial in nature. The new action - water purification - is preventive in nature. To do this, you spend a card of the appropriate colour, and place two water tokens in an adjacent region. A region is an area enclosed by a group of cities. Water tokens protect adjacent cities by preventing infection. Whenever a city is about to get a new disease cube, if any of the adjacent regions has any water token, one such water token must be consumed to cancel the infection. Purifying water is generally more powerful that simply treating a disease, because water tokens protect all adjacent cities. However it is more costly because you do need to spend a card. Also you have less control over it. You cannot specify which city to save the water tokens for. A region may be adjacent to some heavily infected cities and some lightly infected cities. Normally you would prefer to have the tokens be used on the heavily infected ones. However if the next infection happens at a lightly infected city, you don't have a choice to not negate the infection, saving your precious water tokens for the heavily infected cities.

In this photo there are two heavily infected cities (those with 3 cubes), and two lightly infected cities (1 cube) adjacent to the region with water tokens.

One more difference is hospitals vs research centres. You no longer have research centres. Instead you may build one specialised hospital per disease. Your research for a particular disease must be done at the corresponding hospital. Also, since there is only one hospital piece per colour, you won't be able to ever build a second hospital for the same disease. You can at most move the hospital to a new location.

The ways to lose are the same as the original. If the player card deck runs out, you lose. If the 8th outbreak happens, you lose. If you run out of disease cubes because one of the diseases has spread too much on the board, you lose. There is only one way to win - research all four diseases. Iberia retains the same tension between long-term objective and short-term needs. You must remember to plan ahead to research all four diseases, and at the same time you have to be firefighting to make sure the diseases are kept under control and don't cause you to lose the game before you manage to complete your research work.

The Play

I played with my two daughters. It was the first time for all of us playing this version of Pandemic. It was easy to get into, since most of the rules are similar to the original. Although the goal is no longer finding cures, mechanism-wise, we are still doing the same thing - we need to collect sets of cards of the same colour. The main difference is in the benefit gained after completing the set. We experience the same angst between strategic planning and tactical needs. You need the strategic view to get to your winning condition. At the same time you must not neglect the pressing need of containing the diseases. It is often difficult to prioritise, and this is what makes the game interesting. You need to discipline yourself to work towards your goal. In this aspect you need to take initiative and consciously stay on course. The disease containment aspect is more reactive in nature. Depending on where the brown stuff hits the fan, you need to respond accordingly, and as efficiently as possible. You need to stay on your toes and keenly assess the risks. Can you afford to delay treating some cities while you invest some effort on your research? This is a question you ask all the time.

In Iberia, building train tracks is generally part of your long-term plan, while purifying water is generally part of your short-term firefighting and disease containment.

In the game we played, Shee Yun's character ability was crucial. She was the politician (yellow), and one of her abilities was to swap a card with another from the discard pile. When we struggled to collect enough cards of the right colour, this ability was very handy. Our game went down to the wire. Towards late game, we went up to 7 outbreaks and would lose any time. The player deck was almost exhausted, and we were still one card short of researching the last disease, the yellow one. We counted, and knew there was only one yellow card remaining in the deck. We even had to check all yellow cards in the discard pile to determine which specific yellow card it was that remained to be drawn. We couldn't know who would draw it. If it was not the player collecting yellow cards to draw it, we would need to find a way for the card to be passed to him as soon as possible. We did not have much time left. By knowing which city card it was, we could assemble at the city beforehand, so that once we drew the card, if necessary, it could be passed to the right person with minimal delay. Just like in the original Pandemic, when passing a card from one player to another, both players must be in the city depicted on the card. We had to plan our actions in detail, not wasting any of them, in order to eventually complete the last research before time ran out. We won!

Playing with Shee Yun and Chen Rui. Cooperative games work well as family games. You are all on the same team. You discuss and plan together.

Family meeting at Albacete. All three of us happened to be there.

Yellow was the final disease to be researched.

The Thoughts

Pandemic: Iberia is a cool variant. It's 70% similar to the original Pandemic, so if you like the original, you will like this. If you don't, don't bother. I've always enjoyed the Pandemic series, so this works for me. I like it more than Pandemic: The Cure (the dice game version), but I like Pandemic: Legacy Season 1 more. It is more different than the variants in Pandemic: On the Brink, except for the Bioterrorist variant. One nice thing is Iberia comes with two variants, both based on historical events and diseases. They will make the game more challenging.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Odin's Ravens (2nd edition)

Plays: 2Px1.

I remember seeing the first edition of Odin's Ravens at Witch House, Taipei when I was there in 2003. I don't remember whether I have played it. I hadn't started keeping records then. The second edition is slightly different, but I know only from reading others' comments, not from what I recall.

The Game

Odin is the Nordic boss god. Every morning he sends his two pet ravens out to survey his realm. They fly off in opposite directions to see how things are going in the world, and return to report to him. In this two-player game, players are these dutiful ravens, and they compete to be first to return from their journeys.

These are the flight cards, the main card type in the game. To advance your pawn to a new land card, you must play a flight card showing the same terrain.

When setting up the game, you lay out all land cards in a long line. They form your flight path. Each land card has two terrain spaces. They form two long rows. One raven will fly off from the left side, go all the way to the end, make a U-turn and then fly back from the right side. The other raven flies in the opposite direction, taking off on the right, and returning on the left.

Each player has two draw decks, a flight card deck and a Loki card deck. Flight cards are used for movement. Loki cards have various special abilities. You may play any number of cards on your turn. At the end of your turn, you always draw 3 cards, in any combination you like. Your hand limit is 7. If you exceed that, you must discard the excess. Two matching flight cards can be played as a joker. Loki cards are removed from the game once played, but not the flight cards. When the flight card deck is exhausted, you reshuffle the discard pile to form a new draw deck.

This is a Loki card. There are always two abilities, and you pick one to use. On this particular card, the first ability lets you swap two land cards. The second ability lets you shift a land card slightly, so that one flight path is shortened by one space, and one space of the other flight path changes terrain.

The Play

Odin's Ravens is a simple game. It's all about hand management. You try to make the most of your hand. You want to move as far as possible and as efficiently as possible. Both Allen and I tried to maximise our travel distance every turn. Sometimes it is not possible to go far, and we bank on the next turn, hoping the 3 cards drawn at the end of the turn will help. Pairing two similar cards to become a joker sounds powerful, but it is actually a last resort. We try not to have to discard cards, because that means wasting cards. Loki cards are all about waiting for the right moment, or creating the right moment. You want to play it for maximum effect. There was one particular card which Allen drew early. He played it to create a longer path in front of me, stalling me. The game was new to both of us and we learned as we went. At the time he hadn't considered that although he was stalling me, later on his raven would be passing that same location, so he was also stalling himself, just that it would happen later. I drew that Loki card later, and with this lesson learnt, I played it at a location which I had already passed, but he hadn't.

The Loki cards are handy, and it's best to plan to make use of all of them throughout the game. It's not a good idea to keep too many in hand though. With a hand limit of 7, too many Loki cards will mean not enough slots for flight cards. You may end up frequently discarding flight cards, or pairing them to become jokers.

Player pawns are wooden ravens, one light and one dark.

At the top right corner, the flight path has been modified by Loki cards, creating a detour.

It was only after the game that I realised I had played one rule wrong. If a few spaces in a row in front of you are of the same terrain, you only need to play one flight card to move through the series until you reach the final space before the next different terrain. I had thought it must be one card per step. This consecutive terrain rule will make the game more interesting. It will be an important consideration when playing Loki cards.

The Thoughts

Odin's Ravens is a game from a different era. The first edition was released in 2002, and it was part of the highly acclaimed Kosmos 2-player series. When playing this second edition, I felt transported to a different era, a simpler time. It is not a poorer game, nor does it feel outdated, because of this. It is simply of a different style. I guess it's a bit like watching a black-and-white movie, or listening to a song from the 1980's. Old timers may enjoy such a trip down memory lane, if you have never played this game before. Newer boardgamers may enjoy tasting something from an earlier era. Like others is the Kosmos 2-player series, Odin's Ravens is a decent spouse game. Little aggression, and quick-paced.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

my 2017

Boardgaming-wise, 2017 was more or less the same as 2016, so there is not a lot to write about. I still join Friday night gaming at, but not as regularly as before. This year I managed to join one of their boardgame retreats though, which I had never tried before. I played 335 times in 2017. I played 70 distinct games, of which 38 were new to me. These were near the 2016 numbers. My wife Michelle and elder daughter Shee Yun played even less in 2017, but younger daughter Chen Rui played a bit more. We played some Santorini and Lost Cities.

2017 was my 10th year of blogging about this boardgaming hobby. It was fun for me, therapeutic even.

My most played games were Star Realms (89), Ascension (53) and Race for the Galaxy (49). The first two are my evergreen games against Han on my phone. We have been doing this for years. Race for the Galaxy had a revival because it was released on the iPad. I joined the Beta testing and played a lot. I bought it after it was released and played some, but so far still fewer times than when it was in Beta. I only played against the AI's, and it was fun and challenging.

I played Escape: The Curse of the Temple 17 times, mostly after having taught it to a group of friends at work. We certainly had many hilarious moments with it. I had 14 plays of Onirim, an unconventional solo card game which was free on the iPad; and 10 plays of Love Letter, which is always a delight.

My most memorable moment was in a game of Hit Z Road. It was a story of incredible odds. Never give up hope, and always do your best.

The most pleasant surprise was Magic Maze. What an ingenious idea, and so much chaotic fun!

Technically I had more new games in 2017 than in 2016, 15 vs 8. However 9 of my game purchases were expansion packs of Android: Netrunner, which were on sale at Meeples Cafe. I'm not exactly sure I should have bought them. I don't really play Netrunner. I know it's a great game, but I never manage to be committed enough to get into it. I bought the expansions on the wish that I would get into it some day. I have not played with any of these expansion packs, unless you count sleeving and reading cards as playing.

I bought three games in the Exit: The Game series. These were play-once games. I bought two games from the Pandemic family - Pandemic: Iberia and Pandemic Legacy Season 2, the latter being earnestly anticipated. Pandemic Legacy Season 1 was my game of the year in 2016. The final new game of 2017 was The Impregnable Fortress, a review copy from a Singaporean designer.

These are the games new to me in 2017, in alphabetical order:

  1. Arena: Roma II
  2. Century: Spice Road
  3. Cottage Garden
  4. Custom Heroes
  5. Dice Forge
  6. Empires: Age of Discovery - I'm not sure whether this should count, since I have played Age of Empires III before. Empires is just a new version.
  7. Exit: The Game - The Abandoned Cabin. I played in this order: Secret Lab, Abandoned Cabin, Pharaoh's Tomb. Secret Lab felt a little easy, Abandoned Cabin a little hard, and Pharaoh's Tomb somewhere in between. Pharaoh's Tomb was supposed to be the hardest of this first trio of Exit games, but I had learned a spoiler before playing it, which made it slightly easier. I heard of a particular mechanism being used in the series. It didn't appear in Secret Lab or Abandoned Cabin when I played them, so I knew it was coming sooner or later in the Pharaoh's Tomb. I wish I hadn't known it.
  8. Exit: The Game - The Pharaoh's Tomb
  9. Exit: The Game - The Secret Lab
  10. Fabled Fruit
  11. Five Tribes - I like this. It is satisfying when you find clever plays.
  12. Fold-It
  13. Great Western Trail
  14. Hit Z Road - From reading the rules, it seems like a very Euro auction game, but the story comes through when you sit down to play. The game is more thematic than I expected.
  15. Igloo Pop
  16. Knit Wit
  17. Kolejka
  18. Magic Maze
  19. Medici: The Card Game
  20. Not Alone
  21. Odin's Ravens (2nd ed)
  22. Onirim
  23. Pandemic Iberia - Pretty decent. Get it if you are a big fan of Pandemic. If you are lukewarm on Pandemic, it won't change your mind. It's about 70% similar. There are some unique twists which fans will enjoy.
  24. Pandemic Legacy Season 2 - I have started playing this, but it will be a while before I write about it. I intend to complete the campaign before doing so.
  25. Pax Porfiriana - Rich and flavourful, but challenging to learn.
  26. Pax Renaissance - Ditto.
  27. Ponzi Scheme - The cover is boring and the theme is boring, but the game is more fun than I had expected. It is a game of daring and brinkmanship. Just don't screw yourself by making silly calculation mistakes like I did.
  28. Power Grid: The Card Game - The map / spatial element is removed, but this is still a pretty full experience, not a watered down card game version.
  29. Project: ELITE
  30. Sanssouci - A pleasant solitairish game from Michael Kiesling.
  31. Santorini - It's an abstract 2-player game, despite how cute it looks. I don't think it would have been half as successful if it were marketed as a serious, thinky abstract game. Good marketing and good art are important!
  32. Secret Hitler - A slightly more thinky social deduction game. It works well. The title plates are solid and impressive. You can seriously injure someone with one of them.
  33. The Impregnable Fortress
  34. Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania
  35. Unlock! - The Formula. The other escape room game I've tried. This is pretty good too. I enjoy the clever riddles.
  36. Urbania
  37. West of Africa - Brutal version of Race for the Galaxy in boardgame format, which looks completely different from Race for the Galaxy.
  38. World's Fair 1893 - This was a pleasant surprise. Simple rules, scarce actions, difficult decisions, decent strategic depth. It reminded me of the simple-yet-deep era of Eurogames.