Saturday, 27 September 2008

Ra discovery

My copy of Ra was the original German version published by Alea. It was a surprise gift from my Taiwanese friends. They had bought it from the German eBay, back in 2004, when it was an out-of-print game. Recently my elder daughter Shee Yun (3.5 years old) has been requesting to play with it. I have some player aids / mats where you can place your tiles. She likes matching the tiles to the pictures on the player aids. One night she whispered secretively in my ear, "Waaa" (哗), and I wondered what made her say "Wow". Only when she pointed outside (my boardgame shelf is just outside my bedroom) I realised she was actually saying "Raaa" in a "My Presscioussss" way.

And while playing the tile matching game with her using Ra, I realised something for the first time after having owned this game for 4 years. I actually have a lot of extra tiles in the box! It had never occurred to me to count the tiles. So I have played quite a number of games of Ra where the tile draws have been skewed by the incorrect mix of tiles. So now I have an excuse for losing so frequently.

The game did come with many tiles that were not printed correctly. The position of the picture is off, the worst case being the picture for the next tile being visible too at the edge. However the game is still playable with these misprints, because you can still tell what tile it is. I suspect the original owner had requested for replacement tiles from the publisher, and when he/she sold the game on eBay, he/she had put all tiles into the box.

These are all extra tiles

Friday, 26 September 2008

Babel and Goa

On Sun 21 Sep 2008, I was finally able to convince Michelle to try Babel, a nasty little 2-player card game about building temples and destroying your opponent's temples. I have played this before, and have always been keen to introduce it to Michelle, because this type of short games is something we can play often (like Race for the Galaxy, Mystery Rummy series). They are quick and not too taxing for the brain, yet provide enough interesting challenge, and being short means we can bring them out any time without needing to set aside some time beforehand (like Through the Ages).

I reminded myself not to be too nasty to her in her first games, lest it leaves a bitter taste for her. Thankfully I didn't get much chance to play nastily anyway, so I didn't have to play "artificially" for the sake of not being too nasty. In fact, she was the one to pull a nasty move on me. It was my oversight for not seeing it coming. On my turn I reached 15pts, while she was on 12pts. If I had reached 15pts when she had less than 10pts, then it would be an instant win for me. Else, the game would enter the game end phase, i.e. whoever reaches 20pts first wins, or whoever drops below 10pts first loses. On Michelle's turn she made a combination of moves which completely destroyed one of my Level 6 temples, bringing me down to 9pts. Game over.

After the game she told me this game is too nasty - "很毒". Although she won both of the games we played, I wonder whether I will be able to convince her to play again. Maybe, like Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, the tension and nastiness is too much for her. She likes the LOTR movies and you can't blame her for not liking to see the fellowship die out one by one. Only Boromir was supposed to die.

Having played Babel again, I feel impressed by the possible combinations of clever moves with just 5 types of cards in the game. The game seems so minimalistic, and yet there can be so much variation and so many opportunities for clever play.

We also played Goa, which we have not played for a long time. This copy of the game was a gift from Yoyo, the German guy who runs the boardgame cafe Witch House in Taipei. It is a German version, so I had to download and print some English reference sheets. I remember Goa used to be called the new Princes of Florence, because of its structure of auctions then actions every round. But I find them very different. I like Princes of Florence better, but Goa is not bad too.

Goa, Round 6 (of 8). I use the yellow tokens on the left to mark the number of actions that have been taken for a round.

One aspect that I think Michelle and I did badly on is the auctions. Every round you can select what tile you want to auction. If someone else buys a tile that you selected, he/she pays you (and the money "stays in the game"). If you buy the tile that you yourself selected, you pay to the bank (i.e. money "goes out of the game"). Usually it's bad to buy your own thing, because you get much poorer than your opponents. When money becomes scarce, shortage of money is painful. Both Michelle and I tended to select tiles that we want for ourselves, and thus we kept buying our own stuff. Maybe the end effect was not too bad, since we both played like that. I imagine if we had played with stronger players we would have been in deep trouble.

Money in this game is on cards. There are $1, $2, $5 and $10 cards. The value is only on one side of the cards, so you keep your money secret. At one point I discovered that Michelle's hand was full of $1 cards. She had been changing her money into $1 notes so that she appeared rich with more cards in her hand. It did work. I had thought she had a lot of money and bid too high on some of the tiles.

I was quite lucky with the expedition cards (obtained from reaching level 4 and 5 of some of the development tracks first, and from the auctions), and had two which allowed me to upgrade with ships only (i.e. without spices). This allowed me to do two level 4 to level 5 upgrades without spices. Saving 8 spices probably translates to 4 actions. I won the game narrowly at 50 to 47. I had an expedition card that allowed me to sell my spices for $3 a piece, which made me the richest and that gave me 3pts and the win.

Thursday, 25 September 2008


I have played 3 games of Tribune now, one 4-player game and two 2-player games. The 2-player game wasn't as poor as I have been led to believe from reading reviews of the game. I enjoyed them. So, what made me buy this yet-another-worker-placement-game in the first place? Well, this being designed by Die Macher designer Karl-Heinz Schmiel did play a part in getting my attention. The worker placement mechanism in itself doesn't excite me. From reading game overviews and getting a rough idea of how the game plays, the game did not seem anything particularly outstanding or unusual. The remark that made me decide to buy was that it is a very well crafted game. Nothing very gimmicky. Nothing ground-breaking. Just old-fashioned hard work producing a quality game. And after having played the game, indeed that is what I think of the game.

When you play Tribune, you decide up front the set of victory conditions you want to use. There are various combinations that come with the game. E.g. needing to fulfill 4 out of 6 victory conditions, and the victory conditions being having a tribune marker, having a favour of the gods marker, having X amount of money, having Y number of legions, having Z number of laurel tokens. You don't always need to fulfill all victory conditions. You can pick and choose. In some scenarios there are obligatory victory conditions though.

To help you achieve the victory conditions, you need to gain control of the factions in Rome (there are 7). When you gain control or take over control of a faction, you gain some benefits, and thereafter every round that you maintain control of a faction, you gain some other benefits too. And to fight for control over the factions, you need cards. Every round many cards are placed on the board, and the players place their pawns on the board to compete for cards. Each area of the board has a different way of competing for cards (or for other resources). Some are direct buys. Some involve auctions. Some cards are face-down and there is a gambling element on whether they are cards that you need.

A very crude summary of the game would be: get cards - control factions - fulfill victory conditions. That doesn't sound like much fun. However as I played the game, I found that there is a lot of planning involved - prioritising which factions you want to fight for, which victory conditions to strive for. Sometimes your decisions can be quite tactical, depending on what cards are available at the start of each round. You also need to watch your opponents, what victory conditions they are likely going to go for, what cards they have been collecting, what factions they are aiming for. There is a chariot in the game which is auctioned by blind bidding at the end of every round. The winner can use this to block a faction from take-over in the next round, or set it aside so that no faction is safe from take-over. This can be a very lethal tool. I find this analysis fascinating, and the competition very interesting. You have flexibility, and there are many options, but as the game progresses and more and more victory conditions have been met, your choices start to narrow down and you are forced to focus on your remaining victory conditions and forced to compete fiercely to be the first to fulfill them. There is a sense of build-up.

The game emphasises on take-overs a lot over maintaining control over factions you are already in control of. The take-over bonuses do not sound like a lot, but they are actually a big help towards fulfilling victory conditions. Also there are leader cards which give you a leader bonus when they are involved in a take-over. You cannot strengthen your hold on factions that you are already in control of, but others can weaken your hold by assassinating your cards. The only strong defensive move you can make to stay in control of a faction is the chariot. Of course you can also try to deny the cards of that faction from your opponents, but it doesn't seem to be a very worthwhile exercise. The game encourages you to scheme to do more take-overs. This creates quite a dynamic and aggressive play. There aren't that many means for defensive play anyway.

In all 3 games that I have played, the game ended after 4 rounds. I guess this is quite normal. The quick end surprised Sui Jye. I should have warned them of this better. I did know that the games usually end at 3 to 5 rounds from reading the reviews. After my first two games I thought that getting a Tribune is the hardest. You need to get a scroll first, and then you have to be in control one of two specific pairs of factions at the same time. This can be quite tricky because by the time you take over the second required faction, the first faction may have already been taken away from you. In my third game I realised that getting the favour of the gods is also not easy. You need to have had control of the vestal virgin faction first, and in that game Michelle made a strong move of denying me this control by using the chariot. This won her the game very decisively. And I was the one who taught her to do that. I complained that that was a nasty move, and she teased me for being so bitter.

I still look forward to play Tribune. Maybe this weekend.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Blokus 3D

I bought Blokus 3D (originally published as Rumis) in Melbourne recently. I quite like Blokus and I think I like Blokus Duo (which I play using my Blokus set) even more. I have played Blokus Trigon (pieces made up of triangles), but found it just OK. I have not tried Gemblo (pieces made up of hexagons) though. The 3D aspect of Blokus 3D intrigued me, and I have been considering buying it for some time. And when I stepped into Mind Games in Melbourne, I could not resist getting a game (or two - I visited them again two days later and bought Tribune). Mind Games has an excellent product range. Unfortunately game prices in Australia are high.

In Blokus 3D you get 11 3D pieces, as opposed to 21 pieces in Blokus. Your objectives are to place your pieces in such a way so that at game end as many "squares" of your colour as possible are visible from above; and you have as few pieces remaining as possible. The play area is, of course, in 3D now. There are 4 templates for play, unlike in Blokus where you have a fixed board. A template defines the base for the play area, and also height limitations, e.g. in one template you have to build a pyramid shape, i.e. the sides have the lowest height limitation, and the centre has the highest. Another difference compared to Blokus is that instead of having to touch your own pieces at the edges when playing a new piece, the restriction is you must touch at least one face of an existing piece.

Having played a few games, I find Blokus 3D to be quite interesting. Similar to Blokus, it can be played quickly in a relaxed manner, and can also be played in a thoughtful way. The feel is quite different though, in that now the focus is on visibility and not setting up your opponents to easily reach the top positions. However blocking is still very important, which I found out the hard way. In a 4-player game with Han, Sui Jye and Jing Yi, I was doomed after the first round because I had been blocked off complete by Han and Sui Jye. We were playing the pyramid template and I had been careless with my initial placement. Blocking is much more vicious with more players. With 2 players it seems to be not as easy to block your opponent.

The game in which I was blocked off after the first round. I had 8 pieces (out of 11) remaining. My score was -1.

I saw in the brochure that came with the game that Blokus has won so many awards. There are probably about 15 to 20 different awards. I wonder whether the publisher has been actively submitting the game for game award panels' consideration. Certainly winning so many awards is good for sales, and not that it's not a good game. It's just... so many...

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

evening game session, introducing newbies

Han was back in KL on a short working trip, and we took the opportunity to organise a gaming session on Sat 20 Sep 2008 evening. I rarely have game sessions in the evening, but since Han had to work during the day, evening or not, we were not going to miss the opportunity to play. We also invited Sui Jye and Jing Yi.

We played R-Eco, Pickomino, Blokus 3D, Tribune, Lord of the Rings, Diamant, and Category 5. So, very much a focus on simpler and newbie-friendly games, with two "main courses", Tribune and Lord of the Rings, in the middle. My approach was let the new friends try different types of games, and then have them tell us what type of games they liked. Sui Jye liked Ticket to Ride and Pandemic from last time, thus Lord of the Rings this time. Jing Yi liked Risk Express from last time because she "doesn't need to think too much", thus Pickomino this time. Tribune came out mainly because of my own eagerness to play it. It was a new purchase from my recent trip to Melbourne which I had not had the opportunity to play yet. In hindsight, I probably should not have gambled and foisted this on newbies. They were a bit lost because there were too many options in the game. In contrast, they liked Lord of the Rings and felt it to be simpler, because each turn there are limited number of things to do. You must draw an event tile, and then you can (a) play cards, (b) draw cards, or (c) heal yourself one step. I think Lord of the Rings is a difficult game to learn by yourself, but in our situation there was me, an experienced player, to take care of the nitty gritty details and remind the newbies of rules. Also it is a cooperative game, i.e. open discussions, which means it is much less daunting in terms of learning to play.

Han, Sui Jye and Jing Yi playing Blokus 3D. This template was the Wall template, an L-shaped template.

Han, Sui Jye and Jing Yi playing Tribune. This was a first game for everyone.

I hope both Sui Jye and Jing Yi will become gamers and regular kaki's (players). Good thing that they live quite nearby. Thus far, having had 2 game sessions with them, they seem to be interested. Now that I am introducing some new players to the hobby, I started thinking about it, about how to entice people to get into the hobby, and what are the best ways of doing so, what are the best gateway games. Then I read this excellent article on Boardgamenews by Matt Thrower, and I found it to be very true. Two important things that I learned (or realised) from reading the article:

1. Some people just aren't going to be gamers, and some just aren't going to like playing the games you like to play. When I started getting into the boardgaming hobby in 2003 in Taiwan, I was very successful in creating interest among my colleagues, and we played very often, even over lunch time at work. After I came back to Malaysia, I have so far been unsuccessful in creating a regular gaming group like I had in Taiwan. Han was already a gamer when I knew him. Jeanne is interested but has now moved to Australia. There have been a number of other friends who have played with me, but very few were keen enough to be playing regularly. So, I now realise that although I should try to introduce people to the hobby, if the interest is just not there after the first session, then there's no point in keeping on trying to convert the same friend. Better chance at trying other friends who have never had the exposure before.

2. There is no such thing as a gateway game that will make a person who won't like playing boardgames otherwise like it. This is not to say that lower complexity games are no good / not useful in introducing newbies to the hobby. They are still suitable to bring out to show newbies what these games are like, to give them a taste. However I think one need not keep playing only "gateway games" with newbies for the first few gaming sessions. In fact it may be a bad thing, lest they think that these are the best that the hobby has to offer. I almost did not get into the German game thingy after I played Carcassonne for the first time. It was very different from the Ameritrash games that I was familiar with at that time. But of course now I'm very much into German / Euro games, and Carcassonne has later become one of my favourites after I started appreciating it.

I think it is OK to introduce medium complexity games to newbies. Lord of the Rings worked out well enough. I have introduced Amun-Re to relatively new players, and that worked out OK. I think Puerto Rico worked out OK too. If the newbie is keen to play, he/she will be able to handle this kind of complexity. Of course, I wouldn't go so far as to bring out Die Macher. If a newbie is not keen to play, then even Carcassonne will be a challenge for him/her to enjoy. In that case, you might as well not play games and do something else that everyone can enjoy.

In introducing new players to the hobby, I think it is more important to select the type of games that you think they will enjoy. Complexity level should be a secondary consideration. Don't underestimate your friends. No point in selecting a game that they can play. Select a game they can enjoy playing.

Friday, 5 September 2008

new friends and Hoity Toity

Mon 1 Sep 2008 was a public holiday. Chee Seng was back in KL from Singapore, so we had planned a gaming session beforehand. He brought along two friends, Sui Jye and Jing Yi (a couple), who were new to boardgames. It has been a while since I had the chance to introduce boardgames to new players, and also I rarely get the chance to play with four or more players. In picking games, I decided to focus more on newbie-friendly ones, but I also took the opportunity to bring out Hoity Toity, which I played once 4 years ago in Taiwan. I have traded for this (my first and only game trade ever) some time ago but never had the right opportunity to bring it out because this needs more people to be fun. Four players is probably the minimal for this to be fun. I imagine it would be even better with 5. It supports 6, but I'm not sure how that would be.

We played (in this order, if I am not mistaken) Risk Express, Mamma Mia, Hoity Toity, Pandemic (twice), Coloretto, Ticket To Ride. I think the new friends enjoyed themselves. Sui Jye seemed to like Ticket To Ride and the train theme. He told me he has played Diplomacy before, and some games ended with friends not willing to speak to one another. I wonder what he thinks of these German games. He seemed to like Pandemic too, and it was funny to see how concentrated and serious he was when thinking what to do on his turn. Chee Seng seemed to like Pandemic a lot. After losing our first game at easy level, he was first to request for another game. Pandemic is indeed a charming game. Quite easy to learn and intuitive. If we play this again I'm going to get them to play the normal difficulty level, now that they have beaten the easy level game on their second attempt.

Chee Seng was the biggest winner of the day, winning Mamma Mia and Hoity Toity, both by big margins. Sui Jye didn't win any game (I don't count Pandemic since it's a cooperative game). Jing Yi won Risk Express, which came down to the very last territory - Australia, when everyone's territories were safe, so it whoever conquers Australia would end the game and win the game. In a twisted way that kind of reflects the regular Risk where many people say that whoever controls Australia and turtles there will eventually win the game. I won Coloretto. Michelle (who only joined us for the last game) won Ticket To Ride. We have not played Ticket To Ride with 5 players for a long time, and it was quite tense because of the congestion.

Sui Jye, Jing Yi, Chee Seng and Michelle playing Ticket To Ride.

The east coast (which is the left side, since I'm taking the photo from Canada's direction) was very congested, with many players making disjointed paths, especially Chee Seng's black ones, which thankfully were eventually linked up. If we had been playing with a cutthroat group, there would have been plenty of vicious blocking. It was only in the later part of the game that some of us branched out towards the west.

Let's talk about Hoity Toity (unfortunately I didn't take a photo), aka Adel Verpflichtet (I think this was the original name, and this was what won the SdJ), By Hook or Crook and Fair Means or Foul. It is not new to me, but it's been so long since I played this (and I only played once) that it's like playing it for the first time. I (and Michelle) had a bad experience with this when we played it last time. We were at Witch House in Taiwan, and we played it with 2 other customers who have played it before. They taught us how to play (if I remember correctly), and then proceeded to slaughter us in the game. We didn't have much idea what we were doing or how to strategise. We were quite lost. That game left a bitter taste. Later at a local gaming event I traded away Domaine for this. I wanted to give it another chance, because I believed it was the players that spoiled the experience for us, and not the game. And thankfully I did so, because I now find that indeed this is a fun game.

In Hoity Toity, you play a snobbish artifact collector who likes to show off his/her collection to his/her friends. You can buy artifacts, you can steal them from your "friends", you can even steal money from them, and you can also get a detective to catch your friends' thieving accomplices. But, the main way to win the game is to show off your stuff. Every turn, players first simultaneously and secretly decide whether they want to go to the auction house or the castle, and then similarly they decide what they want to do at these locations. At the auction house you can try to be the highest bidder so that you can buy the artifact on sale, or you can try to steal the money paid by the buyer (if there is one). At the castle, you can show off your goods, or send a thief to steal the artifacts on display, or send a detective to arrest the thieves. Some call this game a glorified version of rock-paper-scissors, but I think that's not very fair. Indeed there is the guessing of what your opponents will do, but I don't associate rock-paper-scissors with that much fun.

Playing guessing (i.e. rock-paper-scissors) twice every round sounds rather repetitive, but I find that there are a few things which keep the game interesting. The victory points awarded for showing off your artifacts differs from time to time, depending on the position of the leading player. When the reward is higher, players will be more tempted to go to the castle to display their artifacts. The artifact available for sale also changes, and sometimes when a good one turns up then players will be more tempted to go to the auction house. Players start with a limited amount of money, and they are fixed amounts on a few cards. This pool of money cards in the game will gradually increase, and money will become more and more scarce. The only way for a player to earn money is to steal it from the auction house when another player buys an artifact. Every time there is a purchase and no successful theft, the money pool in the game dwindles. So there is a pressure on the players as the game progresses. However you also need to remember money means nothing at game end. They are just the means to an end. Winning is all about showing off your impressive collection.

The game we played was quite fun, with taunting and teasing and trash talking. There were groans and cheers when the wrong / right guesses were made. Chee Seng really ran away with the game. From about mid point onwards, he sprinted ahead and never looked back. I think I did rather badly, because I often got outguessed, which means I didn't benefit much or at all from my chosen action. I think I'm quite bad at double guessing. I still remember two games of Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation against Ricky at Port Dickson when he guessed my every card play. I wonder whether it's other people seeing through me too easily, or I'm bad at reading my opponents.

So, I'm happy with having gotten Hoity Toity in the trade. This is a family game I can probably play with my children sooner that the usual heavy Eurogames that I like. And next time I should try to play with 5 or 6 to see whether it gets even better.