Wednesday, 31 August 2011


Plays: 3Px1, 5Px1

The Game

Nightfall is only the third deck-building game I've played, after Dominion and Resident Evil. There are many deck-building games nowadays, but I've never been particularly keen to try new ones, being contented enough with what Dominion is offering. It was a pleasant surprise when I found Nightfall to feel quite different from Dominion.

Quick overview of deck-building games: Each player usually starts with identical card decks. During the game you select cards from a pool to add to your deck, customising it to your liking. Often the cards available in each game differ, so there is much variability depending on what kind of card combinations come up. You use your customised card deck to achieve the victory condition, e.g. most victory points, most zombies killed etc.

In Nightfall, your cards are either minions or orders. Minions are put in play in your playing area. They can protect you from attacks, and at the start of your next turn, they attack once and then go to your discard pile, waiting to be reshuffled and used again. Orders have various effects and once executed they go straight to your discard deck. They don't stay around to protect you.

The top three cards are minions. The card names (in the middle) are in red font with a black background. The bottom five are order cards, card names in red font with a grey background.

At game start everyone has a same deck of 12 relatively weak minions who are exiled (permanently leave the game as opposed to going to your discard deck) after being used. This means the players' decks will gradually lose the common traits and become what their owners want them to be. Also at game start there is a drafting procedure for each player to pick two private card decks (called personal archives) from which only he can buy cards. The 8 decks in the common pool are also partially determined by players.

A player's turn consists of minions attacking (those already in play before the current turn and not yet defeated by others), chaining cards (i.e. playing cards) and claiming cards (i.e. buying cards). At turn end you don't have to discard hand cards (you can if you want to). You draw back up to five.

Chaining cards is a unique mechanism. If you want to play more than one card, the subsequent cards must fulfill the colour chaining criteria. Each card has its own colour (one of six possible colours) and two chain colours, which means other cards in these colours can be chained to this card. So when you build your deck, you need to plan for chaining, so that you can play many cards. You also need to see what kinds of cards others are buying, because non-active players can add cards to the active player's chain. This means you can play cards before your turn comes, which can be very useful.

This is how you chain. The first card is a purple card, with blue and white as chain colours. That's why the second card, a white card, can be played. The red number on the top right is the attack value. The yellow number in the middle right is the card cost.

When claiming cards, by default you have two influence (i.e. money), and you can discard cards to gain one influence per card. Similar to Dominion, claimed cards go to your discard deck, so you must wait for the next reshuffle before they can be drawn.

Attacks are simple. Each minion has an attack value, and you send him to attack whoever you fancy. Each minion also has health stripes along its edges. You send them to fend off attackers. You rotate them to reduce their health stripes as they take injury on your behalf. When they run out of health they are defeated and go to your discard pile, and you'll have to take wound cards.

Bad Smoke at the bottom is my minion in play. The stripes on the edges represent its health level. It's down to 1 health point now. Bad Smoke is a starting minion, and its card colour and chain colour are the same.

The game ends when a certain number of wound cards have been taken collectively by all players. The least wounded player wins.

The Play

Han, Allen and I played a 3-player game. The game is all about attacking. You put minions in play hoping they'll last until the start of your next turn, so that you can then use them to attack. They go away once they've attacked, so you need to make sure you always have some minion cards to play every round to protect yourself. Order cards can be powerful, but they don't stay around to protect you.

Han and Allen contemplating the card powers. We played at Allen's home, and I brought along this table cloth. When playing card games I prefer to have a table cloth because it's easier to pick cards up.

When we played, we found that it was more attractive to attack the player who was weaker (less protected) at the time, because that meant we could inflict damage. However there was also another consideration of needing to inflict damage evenly to your opponents. There is little incentive to injure someone worse off than you. You want to injure someone who is less injured than you. Things become more interesting with 3 or more players because trailing players can gang up on the leader, and negotiation and manipulation come into play. You definitely want to appear weak to encourage the active player to attack someone else.

In the starting deck there are two minions very strong in defense who stick around until defeated. This gives some buffer to players who are less lucky in the early game. These are temporary buffers only, because once defeated, they are exiled (leave the game permanently).

In the games that we played, attacks either caused no damage, or caused a lot of damage, which was quite exciting. We liked to pick on the weak. However sometimes we also had to consider the consequences of not defeating some strong attackers. If they lasted until their owner's turn, they could wreak havoc.

The possibility of playing cards on others' turns reduces luck (in case your hand cards chain poorly), and it also means you need to pay attention to the colours of the cards your opponents are buying. The option of keeping unplayed cards gives flexibility and allow longer term planning. This is one big difference from Dominion. I can't say whether it's definitely better. Some may prefer the Dominion approach which is more challenging.

In our first game, Han took the approach of discarding many start cards in the early game to buy powerful cards, however that also meant these weaker start cards remained in his deck for longer. I tried to use them up quickly, and was lucky that I was able to chain them and thus get them played quickly. When claiming cards I tried to stick to a few colours that could chain one another. I didn't really pay attention to what others were doing. I won by a comfortable margin, while Han and Allen's scores were close. I'm not sure what I did right though. There's still a lot to explore.

The second game that we played was a 5-player game, this time with Alvin and Michael as well. Diplomacy and persuasion became even more important. Since I taught the game, I was perceived as the guru, so I took wounds earliest. Afterwards the focus shifted away since I appeared to be the most pitiful. Attention shifted to those who had strong offensive minions in play, and also to those who had not taken significant damage. We were all trying to divert attention from ourselves. I had some big attackers in play, and dealt significant damage to Han and Michael, whom I think were the least wounded at the time. Later on Michael took his sweet revenge, dealing me 11 wounds (I had no defenders at that time). I previously sent attackers of value 10 and dealt him 4 wounds after defeating all his defenders. In hindsight, he probably should have spread around some of the attacks, because he eventually lost by tiebreaker. Had he also attacked Alvin (who won), even 1 more wound to Alvin would have meant his victory. But of course none of us were tracking the wounds accurately enough to know this during the game.

The Thoughts

I quite like how different Nightfall is from Dominion. I only know very little about Magic: The Gathering, but Nightfall reminds me of it. You keep playing minions to protect yourself and to attack others. Compared to Dominion, it seems Nightfall's decks would be much slimmer, because you don't have treasure cards or victory points cards swelling your deck. You do have wound cards which are basically negative victory points (like Curse in Dominion), but you can use them to draw more cards for your next turn, i.e. a catch-up mechanism.

When claiming cards you have to consider both card power and card colour. Card powers help you win, and card colours help you get more cards in play. Player interaction is very direct. Afterall it's someone sending a vampire or werewolf to attack you! The player manipulation aspect is a bigger part of the game with more players, and may overshadow the deck-building aspect of the game.

So far I don't know yet how interesting the card combos are. In Dominion I find that you tend to play at a macro level - decisions being focused on how to customise your deck via buying cards. Executing actions and playing cards require less decision making, but the macro level strategy is interesting, depending on what cards are in the game and how they can form powerful combos. In Nightfall there is more decision-making in other parts of the game, but I'll need to play more to see how interesting the macro level strategy is. One worry is the need to consider card colours do restrict the freedom of buying cards based on their powers. This may restrict the players' strategies.

One word of warning. Just because your wife or girlfriend likes the Twilight series does not guarantee they'll like Nightfall. No vampire Romeos or werewolf hunks here, sorry.

Friday, 26 August 2011

51st State

Plays: 3Px1, 2Px3.

51st State came out last year and caught my interest as something with similarities to Race for the Galaxy, my favourite card game. Throughout the past year I have been occupied enough with many new games to play, so I gradually forgot about it. Now that Han has bought a copy, I had the chance to try it.

The Game

51st State is a card game where you play cards into your tableau (or personal playing area). You use your card powers to gain various resources, and eventually victory points. The story behind the game is set in a post-apocalyptic USA, where the 50 states are no more, and players are new powers rising up from the ashes trying to establish and to lead a new USA - thus the 51st state.

The game comes with a lot of air.

Most cards in the game represent locations. One unique aspect of 51st State is how there are 3 ways to use a location card. (1) You can incorporate it to make it part of your nation, which means you play it as a new card in your tableau. (2) You can negotiate a deal with it, which means you tuck it (showing the blue edge) under your base card, and every round from the next round onwards you'll gain something. (3) You can attack and conquer it, which means you tuck it (showing the red edge) under your base card, and in a future round you can discard the card to gain a windfall of something. By default every player is able to do one of each type of interaction every round, but depending on the faction that you play, the costs and effectiveness differ. Also some cards let you do more interactions.

Incorporating new locations to your nation is probably the most desirable. Usually the benefits are better. However negotiations and conquests have their advantages too. Since by default you can only incorporate one location per round, negotiations and conquests let you maintain your momentum of expansion. There is a default limit of only 3 deals and/or spoils of conquest though, so you also need to think carefully how to use your cards.

One of the factions in the game is the Merchants Guild. The base card generates 3 workers and 1 fuel every round. The three cards on the left are the three basic contact cards, which differ in cost and effectiveness depending on the faction you play. E.g. the blue card means you can pay one fuel resource to establish a deal with a location which is up to distance 3 away. Location distances vary from 1 to 3.

There are various resources in the game. Resources are usually needed to play cards. They are also needed to generate victory points. One tricky thing is resources that you can't use get discarded at the end of a round, so it is important to try to have cards that generate resources and at the same time cards that use such resources. What's agonising is often the same card can do both, but you can only pick one way to use the card. Another tricky problem is cards that generate victory points can only store three victory point tokens, which means they become useless after their capacities are reached. You will often find that you are now producing resources which can no longer be consumed for points. You'll need to find another card to use these resources, or you can build over the fully-utilised card.

There are leaders in the game, who usually bring some resources with them, and provide a way of earning victory points. They have a higher limit of storing 5 VP tokens, and once their usefulness expires, you can "retire" them by playing a weapon resource, and then play a new leader.

The way you gain cards is by a simple drafting mechanism. A number of cards are revealed at the start of each round, and players take turns picking cards from the pool. Two cards are drafted this way, and a third one by blind draw. Some cards let you draw more cards when in play, but usually you only gain 3 cards every round - just nice for you to incorporate one, make a deal with another one, and conquer the last one, that is, if you have enough resources to do all these.

The game ends when a player reaches 30VP, from victory point chips, and from locations and leaders which count as 1VP each.

The Play

I have played a few games now. The first game was a bit of a struggle because of the need to look up what the various icons mean many times. The cards don't have text describing their powers. The other thing I felt was the game was quite solitairish. We were all busy trying to work on our own tableaus, and we didn't really watch what others were doing. Maybe it's something we'll only start to do when we get more familiar with the game. There is player interaction in the card drafting. You may want to take cards that others find attractive, but it seems it is usually more important to take what is useful to you. I'm not sure it's worthwhile to forgo a card that's good for you to deny an opponent a card that's good for him but useless to you. The other main player interaction is paying attention to whether your opponents have open-to-public locations that you can visit to buy goods.

In the first game that I played with Han and Allen, Allen lagged behind in incorporating new locations to his nation, which slowed him down. However by game end he had caught up and although still came last, was only a few points behind. I had a good start and lead most of the way, eventually winning, but I had misplayed one rule about the ability to tuck additional cards, and that little difference may have meant a loss for me, considering how close our scores were.

The mistake that I made in the first game is that blue edge card tucked under the Watchtower on the top right. I should not have been able to tuck that card in the first place. I can tuck it under my base card if it still has an open slot (which it doesn't now).

This is how a 3-player game in progress looks like.

In the next few games that I played against Michelle, the final scores were far apart. She won two games and I won one. In two of the games one side had a very lucky start, allowing a very quick build-up of a resource-rich nation. That side took the lead and never looked back. The lagging side could not do much to stop the leader, and could only work on trying to catch up.

Another game with a different faction - the Appalachian Federation. I made the same mistake with the extra-tuck-slots card. I should not have been able to tuck that 4th card under my base card. I should have removed one of the first three blue edge cards before I tucked it.

This was the game I won by a big margin, because early in the game I struck a deal that gave me 2 fuel resources every round, which I could then use on my blue contact card that needed 2 fuel resources.

Borgo the Almighty is a leader. He comes with one red contact token of value 1. Every time you conquer a location (i.e. tuck a red card), you gain 1VP.

The Thoughts

I quite like 51st State. Although it's a play-cards-to-tableau game, it feels very different from Race for the Galaxy. I'm not exactly sure why I like it that much, given that it is in a way a convert-resources-to-victory-points game, which is what I didn't like about Troyes (which I wrote about recently). Maybe it's the theme. Maybe there's always the feeling of seeing what cards you get this round and trying to make the most of them. Player interaction is quite low, definitely much lower than in Troyes. It's only in the card drafting, and in those open-to-public locations. These open-to-public locations allow other players to visit to gain something by paying you 1 worker. You can only deny entry by passing (i.e. not taking any more actions for the round). I guess I like the feeling of how you are gradually building up your nation, increasing your resource production and finding cards that convert your resources to VP's. Because of the 3 VP tokens limit, you need to plan for when some locations cease being useful, and you need to evolve your tableau to continue to be effective in generating VP's.

Learning the game is a little daunting because of the many icons. Be prepared to refer to the reference page in the rules a lot in the first few games. The low player interaction doesn't bother me much so far, maybe because I have been busy enough trying to optimise my own tableau. The upcoming expansion The New Era, which can also be played as a stand-alone game, is supposed to address this.

If 51st State stands up to more plays, I will likely get a copy myself. This was what happened with Race for the Galaxy. Han was the one who bought a copy first, and after I tried it, I wanted one myself.

Monday, 22 August 2011

boardgaming in photos

30 Jul 2011. Through the Ages. This was the first time ever that I took Churchill as my leader. Nowadays I only play Through the Ages with my wife Michelle, and since she doesn't like direct confrontation, we tend to have an unspoken rule of "playing nice", i.e. despite having Aggression cards and War cards in the decks, we very rarely use them. In this particular game, Michelle kept upgrading her military. It did help her with some of the events that depended on military strength, and she also gained more colonies because of her military, but the way that she built up her armies was much more than what she needed for the events and the colonies. I realised that she was threatening me. If I let her start a war while she was so much stronger than me, the results of the war would be devastating. I was forced to catch up, to spend my actions and resources on military, even though it wouldn't do me any good (other than minimising damage / risk). Churchill was a good defensive leader who could help me if I were attacked. In the end, Michelle didn't attack me. She was happy enough to have threatened me and forced me to waste my resources.

Part of Michelle's civilisation. She had 2 warriors and 5 cavalrymen. That meant she had fulfilled the Classic Army tactics card on the right. Her Trancontinental Railroad wonder and Military Theory technology also gave her additional military strength. She even naughtily asked me repeatedly how Napoleon's special ability worked when he appeared on the card row (he doubled the strength of an army). I think she was more interested in posing the veiled threat than actually understanding how Napoleon worked. She didn't take Napeloen eventually.

14 Aug 2011. Ticket to Ride Switzerland. It's usually hard to avoid needing to get to Zurich, so it's important to make sure you don't get cut off. This is still my favourite version of the Ticket to Ride series, partly because I usually do 2-player games and it works very well with two. And drawing many tickets is just fun, especially when you're lucky and keep drawing tickets that are already completed or are easy to complete. It's the exitement of gambling.

Michelle and I tend to play very peaceful games, i.e. we don't claim routes for the sake of blocking. So our games tend to be less vicious. However we still do sometimes get in each other's way because we both need to reach the same cities.

Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries. Similar to TTR Switzerland this is a 2 or 3 player game. It feels a little like playing the USA map with the Big Cities expansion, because many tickets have one of those few big cities, like Copenhagen, Oslo, Helsinki and Stockholm, which are mostly in the south. Look at Michelle's (purple) long coastal route. Later her route extended even further north from Tromso.

Factory Manager. I rarely talk about artwork when I write about games, and artwork rarely affects whether I like a game. But for Factory Manager, I like the artwork (by Lars-Arne "Maura" Kalusky) so much that I'm sure I'm biased because of it. And the thing is the artwork isn't anything very stunning or beautiful. It won't win any awards. I have seen Maura's artwork in other Friedemann Friese games, and they are alright but they don't charm me like the artwork in Factory Manager and Power Grid. In Power Grid there is not much opportunity for Maura to draw much, but in Factory Manager there are plenty of machines to draw. I can't explain it. Somehow I really love Maura's artwork in the context of an industrial environment.

The tiles in this photo are the machines available in a 2-player game.

Factory Manager is about managing and upgrading your factory, to produce goods and earn money. After 5 rounds, the richest wins. This above is my factory. Somehow when I played, I kept wanting to install fancy machines and upgrade my factory. I was like a yuppie buying gadgets. In contrast, Michelle focused on the bottom line and remembered that the end goal was to make money. I guess that's the difference between a person with an IT background and a person with an accounting background. The IT department wants to install all sorts of nifty technology, but the finance department counts every sen.

Eventually Michelle won by a comfortable margin. She didn't even bother to buy machines in the final round. She had also been saving money by taking the later turn order tiles (which gave discounts for buying machines and hiring temp staff). I was the big kid always going for earlier turn order so that I wouldn't miss out on buying the shiny new toys.

My factory at game end. I had spend more effort on reducing the number of workers I needed. By freeing up workers, I had more opportunities to buy more machines, to bid for turn order, etc. I didn't do so well with saving electricity though, and paid quite a lot. Only near game end I reduced my electricity consumption a little.

Michelle's factory. She had been spending more effort in reducing electricity consumption, which saved her money, because the electricity cost went up quite quickly in our game. Her factory's output was not as good as mine by game end, but that didn't matter. She was richer than me, so she won.

Some complain that sometimes the best course of action in Round 5 is to not buy anything. I don't see that as a problem. To me, that just means the game has been decided in Round 4 (at least for that player), so Round 5 is just an execution round or a scoring round. It just means that the player has played well to get to an optimal factory by Round 4. There will be times that a player will need to buy something in Round 5 to maximise his factory performance. He may need this Round 5 in order to do better than the player who does not need to buy anything in Round 5. It's all about how you plan your factory upgrades. You have 5 rounds, you try to do as much as you can within the limitation.

I'm keen to play Factory Manager again. I certainly have room for improvement.

Power Grid on the USA map, using Variant 3 of the new power plant deck expansion. This variant uses most of the basic power plant deck, but adds 6 big power plants. Also the numbers of cities to trigger Stage 2 and game end are increased. I quite like this variant, since I mostly play Power Grid as a 2-player game. More cities mean more opportunities for manoeuvring. In this photo, the power plants with green edges are from the expansion.

We played 24 cities in the eastern half of USA - brown, green and red regions, plus 3 more cities in the yellow region. The variant that we used needed exactly 24 cities in play. We used yellow houses to mark inaccessible cities. I was green, Michelle was red. I started in the northern half of the play area (this photo was taken from the north, the direction of Canada) and Michelle started in the southern half.

We had more or less established our front line by now, and mostly expanded in the safe areas away from the front line.

Stage 2 came at 12 cities connected (which was higher than the standard rules). I lost the game due to over-relying on oil, and under-estimating how much cash flow Michelle had. She managed to connect to 24 cities to end the game in the very round that the oil market was exhausted. Her plants' total capacity was lower than mine, but she could power all of them that round (supplying 20 cities). I couldn't power all my plants that round, only managing 17 because I couldn't power one of my oil power plants. If I had another round, I would have replaced one of my three oil power plants to get out of this oil-dependency hole. Well, I guess I can only blame myself for digging this hole in the first place. Coal was popular in the early game and both of us switched away from coal plants, and by game end, only I had one coal plant, and coal was dirt cheap.

Power Grid should be much better with more than 2 players, but I still quite enjoy the 2-player game. And I do enjoy getting beaten by my wife. I want a rematch!

At the Gates of Loyang is a game that I'm lukewarm towards, but both Michelle and Shee Yun (my 6-year-old daughter) like it. Must be those colourful vegetables. In my opinion it is rather solitairish and it's more a puzzle about coordinating supply and demand. But I guess some people do like this sort of exercise.

Sunday, 21 August 2011


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Troyes (pronounced as "Trwaaa" or "Tooh-waa") is a highly regarded game released in 2010. It is known as a game with creative use of dice. It is also called a worker placement game. The theme of the game is protecting the medieval city of Troyes (in France) from invaders and building its cathedral. Various actions in the game grant victory points. After a fixed number of rounds (depending on the number of players), the game ends and whoever has the most VP's wins.

Every player starts the game with a number of followers, and assigns them to three types of industries in the city - religious, military or civic. There are always 6 jobs in each industry. Most jobs are taken by players' followers, while the rest are taken by neutral followers. Each working follower translates to one die of the appropriate colour to be rolled (religious white, military red, civic yellow). Dice for neutral workers are rolled too. After dice are rolled, players take turns using one to three dice for various actions. Using your own dice is free but you need to pay to use others' dice, which is cheap if you buy and use a single die, but can get very expensive if you buy to use in a pair or a triplet.

You can use dice to build the cathedral. You can fight invaders and external threats. Doing these earn you some rewards, in influence, money and victory points. You can take over someone's job, which means you'll have more dice next round. A subset of privilege cards are used in each game and they enter the game in a random order. Dice can be used to gain rights to use privileges, and afterwards to exercise them. Privileges have various abilities, e.g. changing dice colours, changing dice values, gaining victory points, earning money.

The gameboard. Three quarters of the board are the city of Troyes. The open space at the centre is the city square, where dice are placed. There are five segments, four for up to four players plus one neutral dice segment. The black rectangles around the city square are the three industries (religious, military and civic) with 6 jobs each. Each industry has 3 privilege cards with the matching colours on the card backs. Only one card from each industry is revealed in the first round, so only by round 3 will all be revealed. The black rectangle on the top right corner of the city is for cathedral building. The bottom part of the gameboard, i.e. outside of the city of Troyes, is for placing external threats.

The privilege cards. The middle row tells you the cost of purchasing rights to a privelege card. The number on the blue shield is victory points to be gained by owning the rights. The bottom section tells you that dice that can be used to execute the privilege (all yellow in this example), and also the effects of the privilege. The card on the left lets you earn money for each follower in the religious sector or the military sector. The card on the right lets you increase the value of red dice by 5.

Other than cash, influence is another currency you have to manage. You need influence to bring more followers into play. You also use it to reroll dice or change their values.

There are many ways to earn VP's. Rights to privileges are worth VP's. Defeating threats too, and many privilege abilities. There is a VP penalty for not contributing enough to cathedral building. At game end, each player reveals a secret objective card dealt at the start of the game and everyone scores according to every card. Naturally you can prepare to score well for the card you are dealt, but you'll need to try to guess what the other cards held by other players are by watching how they play.

The Play

I played a 2-player game against Allen at Old Town Kopitiam Cheras, with Jeff teaching us. The 2-player game worked quite well.

I was a little cheap and didn't bother to keep many followers employed in the military. It was expensive to pay their salaries. I tried to get more followers in the civic field, because they are free. I had the secret objective card of having as many working followers as possible, so I tried to keep as many of them employed as I could.

I used my influence freely, first to bring in followers and later to fiddle with my dice. Allen accumulated much influence, and it didn't occur to me that he was working towards the secret objective card he was holding. In hindsight it was very obvious. I should have at least saved some influence to score some points. I didn't score any.

Early in the game I gained rights to a privilege that let me convert one white dice to three yellow dice. Later in the game a privilege card came up that converted yellow dice to VP's. It was a wonderful combination. I planned to use this combination repeatedly to score tons of points. Unfortunately Allen foiled my plans by using my dice. Using up others' dice is a very valid and important strategy. It's dangerous to have the mentality of "my dice are mine".

The city square. On the left you can see one of my green follower lying down. He has just been fired from his job and is now sulking. I can use him for something else, or I can leave him there to continue to sulk. If he stays there, my other followers in the military are protected from being fired.

Look at my (green) segment. I have so many clerics (white) and carpenters (yellow).

The Thoughts

I must admit I was a little prejudiced even before I played Troyes. It seemed to be a very typical cube-converting Eurogame, with the same old boring medieval city setting. Having now played the game, I'd say I was more or less right.

I do think the dice mechanism is interesting. The overall package works. There is tension and there are interesting decisions. There are different ways of gaining VP's. You need to try to work out effective ways of using the combination of privilege cards and threat cards that come up. You need to watch what others are doing and try to hinder them too. Interaction is high. You get your opponents' followers fired from their jobs, you use up "their" dice, you fight over limited slots to contribute to building the cathedral and fighting enemies. There is competition all over the place.

I'm not sure why I don't particularly fancy the game. It's well crafted, but somehow lacks a spark for me. It reminds me of how I felt about Macao, which is also a fine game and well-liked, but I think I like Troyes more. I also like it more than Kingsburg, another clever-use-of-dice game.

Maybe I have Euro burnout.

I actually quite like the artwork in this game. I think they are tasteful, despite the boring and over-used medieval theme.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Earth Reborn

Plays: 2Px3.

The Game

Earth Reborn is a scenario-based tactical level combat game. The background is a post-apocalyptic Earth. Each player controls a number of characters and compete to achieve their (usually different) objectives of the scenario being played. The game has a very rich backstory. Many pages of the rule book and scenario book are dedicated to telling the backstory. The two factions in the game are survivors of a nuclear holocaust that has destroyed Earth, emerging from their underground cities after 500 years of hiding. The NORAD has a militaristic and scientifically advanced society. The Salemites have been tinkering with technology to re-animate the dead, so they have zombies. The 9 scenarios that come with the game are clashes between these two factions.

This is one game that I think is better served from describing the game sessions than from describing the game mechanisms, so I'll keep this game overview part simple. Your characters can do all sorts of things just like in real life. They walk (or run), they fight, they shoot, they open and close doors, they search for good stuff, they use all sorts of equipment. Managing all these is an original order system. At the start of every round, you get a certain number of command points (CP) and draw 5 order tiles. Order tiles determine what kinds of actions characters can do. They are assigned to characters, and then CP's are spent to trigger the actions on the order tiles. A round of play usually consists of players taking turns assigning order tiles to their characters and spending CP's to make the characters take actions, until both sides run out of CP's. This order and CP system restricts the players a little. You need to work out the best way to distribute the order tiles and the CP's, to carry out what you want your characters to do.

Some icons on some order tiles allow you the opportunity to take actions on your opponent's turn, but under specific conditions, e.g. when an enemy character enters your line-of-sight, or when an enemy character walks up next to you. This allows you to react more quickly to your opponent's actions, and also allows you to plan ahead to do so. Positioning the location and also facing of your characters is very important - for blocking your opponents, for having line-of-sight, and also for fighting / shooting effectiveness.

The cards in the first row are the characters. Heart tokens on them mean they have suffered injury. The two characters on the left are carrying weapons, hence the equipment cards below them. The square tiles with blue backgrounds are the order tiles. The small half-pink-and-half-green round tokens are the Control Point (CP) tokens that have been spent on the specific quadrants of the order tiles.

Special dice are used for battle resolution.

Characters have many different statistics and abilities - how good they are at close combat and at shooting, how strong their armour is, how much punishment they can take before they die, how much equipment they can carry. The bases of the characters indicate how good they are in close combat and in shooting in specific directions, and their Line-of-Sight (LOS) angle.

There are rules for usage of all sorts of weapons, equipment and tools. There are rules for interacting with specific rooms. There are even rules for torturing captives. There is a lot of detail in the game. However they are introduced to the players bit by bit through the first 6 scenarios, so that the players are not overwhelmed.

Every scenario comes with a background story setting the stage for the game, making every scenario unique. In the earlier scenarios victory is based on fulfilling a simple condition. In the later scenarios there are multiple objectives for both sides each being worth a different number of victory points.

The Play

Allen and I played 3 games back-to-back, covering the first 3 scenarios that come with the game.

In the first scenario, one of the NORAD ladies Vasquez had been captured by the Salemite forces and was locked up in one of three rooms, the exact location only known to the Salemite player. One of the Salemite soldiers, Frank Einstein, who was a very clever zombie (yes, zombies in this game can be smart due to implanted artificial intelligence), had fallen in love with Vasquez, and decided to betray the Salemites and free her. The NORAD (Frank was considered to be on the NORAD side now) would win if Vasquez lived and escaped from the far side of the game board (away from the house). The Salemite player would win if Vasquez was killed.

We randomly decided who to play which side. Allen played NORAD and I played the Salemites. The three prisoner's rooms were locked with a magnetic card, and only the Salemite commander Jeff Deeler had the mag card. He was in the toilet when he heard a loud boom, which was Frank blowing open his bedroom door and coming out to rescue Vasquez. Jack Saw (a strong zombie with a powerful saw for a left hand) and two zombies were outside the house and rushed towards the house upon hearing the noise. Their movements were slow though (nope, zombies are never nimble).

The first thing Frank did was run to the toilet to confront Jeff. Jeff was fumbling with toilet paper and was caught with his pants down. I'm pretty sure that was a women's toilet. See the pink toilet seat.

Jeff was not exactly a strong fighter, so things didn't look good. In the mean time, the three zombies outside the house ran as fast as they could towards the house. Jack Saw, the strongest fighter, ran in first, with one zombie following not far behind, and the other coming in from the other door on the lower left.

Jeff was soon, ahem, terminated by Frank, who promptly relieved him of the mag card. Jack cornered Jeff in the refectory just outside the toilet. The refectory had a narrow corridor and there wasn't much space for manoeuvre. However clever Frank simply smashed up the table to make space, and ran past Jack. See that round "Destroyed" token on that table in the corner of the refectory.

Frank ran out to try the first room closest to the refectory. To his delight, Vasquez was there! However, by now, Jack and one other zombie were upon them. In that room where they all met, there were three doors, one leading to the refectory (eventually to a dead end), one leading to the front of the house, and one being the backdoor opening out to the back of the house. The room was small and had some goods piled up at the centre, hindering movement. Frank destroyed one of the stacks to clear up some space for movement. I had one zombie blocking the backdoor, and Jack near the other door leading to the front of the house. The door leading to the refectory did not need to be guarded, since it was leading to a dead end. How was Vasquez going to escape?

The answer: via my stupidity. Somehow I kept thinking Allen was going to get Vasquez to run towards the front of the house. Maybe he did some Jedi mind trick on me. I moved my zombie who was blocking the backdoor away, to try to block Vasquez's path to the doorway leading to the front of the house. After that Vasquez simply waltzed past Frank, gave him a passionate kiss, said thank you for saving her life, took the mag card, opened the back door, exited the house and sprinted all the way across the game board. You can see her near the top left corner.

Jack Saw (left) and Zombie 2 (lower right) stood around stupidly. Frank Einstein (right) was wearing a stupid smile and feeling like a hero now that he had saved his girl.

Scenario 1, NORAD (Allen) won.

Scenario 2: A small NORAD team visited a priest in a small town, who had discovered some concoction that could ward off zombies. They wanted to persuade the priest to come with them to the NORAD base, but the priest didn't want to leave his town. That evening, while the NORAD soldiers were sleeping in their guest rooms, Salemite soldiers who had learnt about this visit attacked the priest's home. The priest was the first casualty, killed when he went down to the basement to check mysterious sounds, which of course turned out to be a Salemite zombie.

In this scenario, the NORAD team needed to get 2 of their 3 soldiers into the chapel at the centre of the house, which had a special blessing that prevented zombies from entering (but not all Salemite soldiers were zombies). The Salemites just needed to kill one NORAD soldier. The NORAD soldiers started in three different bedrooms, on the west, southwest and south part of the house. The chapel was in the north. It was secured by heavy doors which could only be opened by a mag card, and the mag card was in the priest's room, which was also in the north part of the house. The first thing that Allen (who played NORAD again) did was to get his officer Nick Bolter to the priest's room to pick up the mag card. I (Salemites) had one zombie Jack Saw emerging from the basement staircase, which was at the centre of the house. One other zombie entered from the east side of the house to guard one of the three entrances to the chapel.

The priest's room quickly became very crowded. Another NORAD soldier ran inside, and I too sent two of my Salemite soldiers in. My two soldiers blocked both the doors, one leading to the chapel and one leading to the corridor. Allen's NORAD soldiers were stuck. My Salemite soldiers were better in hand-to-hand combat, so it was only a matter of time before I would kill one of his soldiers. Also it was more likely that I would kill one of his before he could kill my soldier who was blocking the door to the chapel. In theory he could destroy a wall section and walk right into the chapel which was next door, but unfortunately his soldiers were not physically strong enough to destroy a wall empty-handed, and he did not have any bombs in this scenario.

So eventually Allen conceded. One victory for the Salemites. He should have let one soldier guard the entrance to the priest's room, which would prevent my soldiers from entering but not stop his own soldiers from doing so. In Earth Reborn you can move through spaces occupied by friendly characters.

Scenario 2, the Salemites (me) won.

Scenario 3: Again I played the Salemites. The Salemite team was on a mission to bring Professor Kendall to a lab. The professor was carrying a vial containing a deadly virus. The NORAD team's mission was to grab this vial. What the soldiers (both NORAD and Salemite) didn't know was the professor had an antidote in his lab, and in order to save himself, he was planning to inject himself with the antidote and then release the virus, which would kill off all the soldiers, including his bodyguards.

This was the first scenario with guns. The game board had a small house in the west, and otherwise was all outdoor tiles. However there were many trees and other objects blocking line-of-sight. So it wasn't exactly easy for the NORAD soldiers to find a good shooting angle. The professor started in the south east corner with two zombie bodyguards. The Salemite commander was Jessica Hollister, who was already at the south end of the house. The NORAD soldiers were approaching from the north end of the house.

The NORAD soldiers could run much faster than Professor Kendall and the zombies protecting him. They ran towards the Salemites' intended path to cut them off. Jessica stayed behind one corner of the house waiting for Vasquez (on the far side of the photo below) to appear. I was preparing to have Jessica interrupt Vasquez's movement and shoot her once she turned the corner. Although the other two NORAD soldiers approached Professor Kendall and the zombies, many trees were blocking their line-of-sight and they could not shoot yet.

My Salemites could not run very fast. Zombies were of course slow, and the professor was not exactly the athletic type. Soon the two NORAD soldiers were upon them and shooting. Jack Saw had to use himself as a human shield to protect the professor. The other zombie was too far behind and I decided to ignore him, preferring to spend my order tiles and CP's on my other characters. I didn't use Jack Saw to attack much, although he was good at hand-to-hand combat. I wanted to save CP's for Professor Kendall to run. One important rule in the game that prevents players from activating the same character turn after turn is that within a round, all characters must be activated at least once before any character can be activated again. So I couldn't just activate the professor turn after turn and get him to sprint all the way to the lab.

The professor ran as fast as he could. He was injured, but he managed to run all the way into the house. He was just one step short of getting into the lab. Jack Saw positioned himself to try to block the firing line-of-sight of the two NORAD soldiers who had been attacking the professor. Vasquez had turned the corner, but in order to save my CP's, I didn't use Jessica to fire at her. I knowingly let Vasquez shoot at Jessica. Fortunately for me Vasquez somehow missed, even though it was at point blank range. Yes, it is possible to miss even at this range. Well, strictly speaking it was not a miss. It was a hit, but there was no damage dealt because Jessica's armour was able to withstand the bullets.

I had activated Professor Kendall, which meant I must activate all other characters before I could activate him again and get him to enter the lab. I got Jessica to stand right in front of the professor to act as a human shield.

Both Vasquez and another NORAD soldier tried to kill Jessica in order to get to the professor, even using a grenade launcher, which also hurt the professor who was standing just behind Jessica. However Jessica lasted long enough for my character activation to cycle back to Professor Kendall. He entered the lab, took the antidote, and released the virus. Game over.

Scenario 3, the Salemites won.

The Thoughts

I have only played 3 scenarios, and that only covers about half the rules of the game. I would need to play 3 more scenarios to learn all the rules. So my impressions of the game are based on partial knowledge. Moreover I have not tried scenario building, so I am unable to comment on that aspect at all.

Based on what I have experienced so far, the game has been quite enjoyable. The many rules, components and details may appear intimidating at first, but if you follow the "tutorial" provided by the game (i.e. you should be reading just a small part of the rules, play the first scenario, then read a bit more of the rules, then play the second scenario, and so on until Scenario 6), the game is not hard to learn. I enjoy the variety and backstories of the scenarios, and also like the level of detail of the game. I haven't read all the backstory sections, but I like how unique the characters are, how different the two factions are, and how the abilities of the characters tie back to the backstory. When I played the scenarios, I felt I was witnessing part of a grand story unfold.

One worry that I have is replayability. The scenarios that I have played so far are all good, but I'm not keen to replay them. I may play once or twice more, to play the other side, and maybe to see how things may turn out differently if certain mistakes had not been made, or certain different strategies had been pursued. I have a feeling that once you know a certain scenario well, there will be optimal ways to play both the factions. Naturally you are still limited by the order tiles that you draw, but I think in most cases as a player you do have much freedom to pursue a general strategy that you choose. Sometimes things can happen during the game that make you reconsider your strategy. You do need to try to adapt to changing situations. I have only played 3 very basic scenarios, and it seems that at least in these scenarios the situation can only go in a few possible directions. In the more advanced scenarios there may be more possibilities and thus more replayability. And I haven't even tried the scenario-building aspects of the game.

The fact that this game models squad level combat has its characteristics and pros and cons. Some people may like or dislike it simply due to what it is trying to model. One worry that I have is given the small number of characters you control, there may not be many options in what you can do with them. There may not be many creative ways to use them given any scenario, even though with the scenario building rules you can create many different scenarios. One good thing about playing individual characters (as opposed to a faceless, generic squad or group or unit) is you do get attached to them and feel more for them. It was painful for me to use some of my characters as human shields for the greater good - the completion of my mission.

There is still much more for me to explore in Earth Reborn. Hopefully I'll get to play more scenarios soon, so that I can write more about it.

This is a NORAD robot. I quite like the figures in the game.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Risk (revised edition) on the iPhone

Plays: 4Px9 (against AI's)

The Game

A review of Risk? Is that necessary? Risk is a mass market game that many game hobbyists frown upon as something they have grown beyond a long time ago. In 2008 there was a revised edition released, and this is my experience with this revised edition. Well, actually my experience is based on an iPhone application called Dominion (not to be cofused with the deck-building game). It is supposedly very similar to Risk (Revised). I have not played the physical game, so I'm not 100% sure.

Most of the elements in old Risk are still in new Risk. On your turn you gain troops, place them, then attack. The dice rolling combat resolution remains the same. You also do one reinforcement at the end of your turn (move some soldiers from one territory to another connected territory).

Let's talk about some of the new stuff. The new winning condition makes a big difference. You need to achieve 3 objectives while holding your capitol. You pick your own capitol territory at the start of the game. A number of objectives are also randomly selected at the start. Objectives are in the nature of being first to achieve a certain condition, e.g. conquering 6 cities in one turn, controlling 20 territories, controlling a certain continent, and controlling two enemy capitols. Claiming an objective also gives some bonus, e.g. extra dice in battles, defense bonus. However on your turn you can at most claim one objective, and you will have to forfeit claiming the successful conquest token (which is accumulated to be exchanged for extra soldiers).

There are cities now, which give additional soldiers. The iPhone application also comes with multiple maps like Europe, Australia, even the Arctic circle.

The map of Europe. The icons on the left are the objectives and also the corresponding rewards.

This is the South East Asia map, but it actually covers most of Asia, including as far west as India and Pakistan, and as far north as Mongolia and Japan. I (green) have achieved three objectives, but have not won yet because my capitol (at the northern edge of the map) is being occupied by Blue.

This screen lets you easily see various useful information, like the number of territories controlled by each player, the number of cities, the number of soldiers, etc.

The Play

So far I've played a few games each on the classic world map, Europe map and South-East Asia map. Games are very quick. The interface is well done. I hide the die rolls to further speed things up. The AI's are so-so though. They come in different difficulty levels, but even at the hardest level they are not hard to beat. All my games have been 4-player games. One thing I'm thankful about is they didn't make the AI's harder by giving them bonuses or by handicapping the human player.

The objectives make a big change to the game. They give direction to the players. You need to think about which ones to go for and you need to plan. You also need to watch out for what your opponents may be trying to achieve, and try to stop them. The objectives let the game end when it is still interesting. The game does not drag on and on when things start to get tedious and it is less likely for players to get stuck in long boring stalemates.

The Thoughts

I think the revised version of Risk (assuming this iPhone app is a good representation) is a big improvement. It is still not a very deep game, so don't expect one and you won't be disappointed. It's not exactly simple, but simple enough for non-gamers and casual gamers to easily learn. It provides a decent multiplayer war game platform which allow for diplomacy, negotiations, alliances, backstabbing etc.

I like the objectives because they help to keep the game length reasonable and they give many interesting short-term goals to the players.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

revisiting Samurai Swords

I bought Samurai Swords in 1998 I think, and I have a lot of fond memories of it. That was before I got into the boardgaming hobby in a big way. I only played the game at most a handful of times a year, and every time I wanted to play it, I had to make arrangements early with a group of friends and allocate a full day for it. I have not played it since getting into the hobby in 2003. I simply never got around to revisiting it. When I learned that a new version, renamed Ikusa, was coming out (and it already has by now), I told myself I must find time to revisit this game. So on 31 Jul 2011, I finally did.

It was a full 5-player game (the ideal way to play), with Allen, Han, Azrul and Soraya, and here's how it went.

  • Red - Soraya
  • Orange - Azrul
  • Purple - Han
  • Blue - Allen
  • Green - me

Note: In real life, north is more or less in the direction of the upper right corner of the gameboard, but for ease of reading I'll treat the upward direction of the gameboard as north, right is east, left is west, down is south.

This was the start of the game. Provinces were randomly distributed, but players could decide which six provinces to reinforce with local garrisons and where to put their three armies, i.e. they could decide which area to use as their power bases. My (green) provinces were scattered everywhere. I decided to try to concentrate on Kyushu (medium sized island in the west) and Shikoku (the other medium sized island next to Kyushu), placing one army on each. I later placed my third army at the eastern tip of Honshu (main island), because no one seemed to be interested in that area and it might be easy pickings.

Han (purple) had a good cluster in eastern Honshu. He reinforced those, but for army placement (if my memory and eyesight don't fail me) he placed two in western Honshu and one in eastern Honshu.

Allen (blue) and Soraya (red) had scattered provinces like me. Allen had one army near the western end of Honshu, one on Shikoku, and one in the north eastern part of Honshu. Soraya had one on Kyushu (to my dismay), one in central Honshu and one in eastern Honshu.

Azrul (orange) had a moderately good concentration in the central south part of Honshu and Shikoku. He placed two armies in this area, and the third one in the western part of Honshu, which was not far away.

First round. Only Azrul and Soraya built castles, Azrul in north western Honshu to protect his army, and Soraya in central Honshu to protect hers. In the first round no one was allowed to attack armies, which gave an opportunity for daimyos (feudal lords who are also generals leading their respective armies) to gain experience and to establish their areas of power. Not a lot happening yet this round.

Round 2. Right off the bat, Han (purple) attacked and destroyed 2 of Allen's (blue) 3 armies, utilising ronin. Ronin are mercenaries, which can be very useful. When you levy regular soldiers, you can only add one soldier per province, but when hiring ronin, there is no such restriction. The downside is they will leave your service at the end of the current round; but still, using them at the right time can be very decisive.

Killing off the 2nd army of a player can be a risky move. When the 3rd army of a player is destroyed, that player is eliminated, and whoever kills the 3rd army gains all his lands and all his remaining soldiers. The winning condition of the game is to own 35 provinces at any point in the game, so you must be careful not to let any opponent easily gain a bunch of provinces.

Han built a castle at the western tip of Honshu to protect his army. Allen's army on Shikoku left the island and came to the central south area of Honshu. He destroyed one of Azrul's (orange) armies, and now had a castle. Shikoku was now fully taken over by Azrul. I (green) was on my way to monopolise Kyushu. Soraya (red) was creating a more consolidated presence in central and south eastern Honshu.

Although Allen (blue) had lost 2 armies, he still had many provinces, and since he only had one army to spend his money on, it became one monster of an army. Still, with only one army, and his provinces being mostly quite far from this army, these provinces were gradually eaten up by others. I (green) sort of managed to achieve my initial goal of owning the north eastern tip of Honshu. I had lost all my other holdings on Honshu. I now had two armies in Kyushu (western-most medium island), and had destroyed Soraya's army, so it was a matter of time for me to completely take over Kyushu.

Final round that we played. We only had 4 hours, and decided to end the game after this round. See that fortress (i.e. upgraded castle) at the centre. That was built by Soraya (red) to protect her last remaining (and weakened) army, but the army had now been destroyed by Han (purple) and the fortress taken. In this round Han had spent money to bid for turn order, so that he could be first to go and could attack Soraya's army before anyone else did so and also before it moved out of reach. When Han gained Soraya's provinces, he had a total of 31, only 4 short of the required 35 to win. Azrul (orange) did small and distributed attacks, and by game end he owned the second most number of provinces. I (green) preserved all three of my armies for quite long, but I made some rash attacks and lost many men, and eventually one of my armies too. Han was the only one to still have all 3 armies (although weakened). Azrul and Allen both had one army at game end.

Although we didn't have an official winner, Han was the obvious leader and MVP at this point. So all hail the daimyo killer!

At the start of the game, there were three armies in this four province island of Shikoku! There must be gold or something.

In a 5-player game, there would be some vacant provinces during game setup. Coincidentally two of them were right next to each other. See how this attracted the greedy people. Four armies in this area!

There were many armies in this area.

One of my armies. The flagbearer piece is used to mark the experience level of the daimyo. The flag also matches the army piece on the gameboard. An army can hold at most 15 soldiers, including the daimyo himself. In this particular army I have (top to bottom, left to right) 1 daimyo, 1 bowman, 2 swordsmen, 2 gunners and 2 spearmen.

This was the first big army-to-army battle when Han (purple) attacked Allen (blue).

Allen's last remaining army. At one point it was fully fleshed out with 15 soldiers. The lazy grey guys lying around in the background were his ronin.

Our lonesome ninja was never hired throughout the whole game. A ninja could be used to attempt to assassinate a daimyo. If successful, the army is immobilised for that round, and another soldier in the army will be promoted to the position of daimyo. If the assassination attempt fails, the ninja can be used by the intended victim against the original master. The ninja can also be used to spy on one opponent's spending plans in the following round (if not used for assassination).

The last battle of Soraya's (red) last army. Han (purple) spent money on securing first in turn order, and planned his attack path this way (strictly speaking you only need to declare the first attack, but of course everyone knew he was aiming for the red army). Only experienced daimyos can attack more than once per round. The most experienced daimyos could attack four times!

This particular game that we have played had much action in the early game, but kind of sputtered out later. We fought much and lost many men, causing us to be short on soldiers, and armies became weak too. A little anti-climatic. We rarely bid for turn order, and no one wanted the poor ninja (maybe he didn't do enough advertising). We did make good use of ronin. There were some castles built, but not many.

The first thing I thought after the game was it is not really all that great afterall, now that I have been exposed to many other games. Not that it's a poor game, just that it is not as awesome as I used to think it was. I'm still happy to play it if I get the chance, but it is now mostly a nostalgia game for me, an old friend whom it is good to catch up with once in a while.