Thursday, 28 June 2012


Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Triumvirate is a 2-player-only trick-taking game. That sounds weird. At least I have not heard of "2-player-only" and "trick-taking" linked together before this. Surprisingly it works quite well. There's no simple way to give a brief overview of gameplay. I will forge ahead and describe the whole thing.

The deck has 27 cards in 3 suits (colours), numbered 0 to 8. At the start of the game all but five cards are dealt out. Like most trick-taking games, the leading player plays a card, and the other player must follow suit if possible. When you win a trick, you don't claim the cards. You just become the next leading player. The trick played remains at the centre of the table, to keep count of how many tricks of each colour has been played. The winning card determines the winning colour. When a colour reaches three tricks at the centre of the table, a hand ends. A disc of the winning colour is placed onto the gameboard. Each player secretly sets aside a card for potential scoring. Cards numbered 3, 5, and 7 are scoring cards. They are worth points if at game end the winning colour (the one with 3 discs placed onto the board) matches them.

So the game is played over a few hands. At the conclusion of each hand, a disc will be added to the gameboard, and two cards will be secretly removed from the game by the players. Players keep their hand of cards. Other cards, including those previously not dealt, are reshuffled and dealt out again, leaving three undealt (as opposed to five in the first hand). This means players can quite easily count cards. They can see all the cards that have been played in the previous hand. There is some uncertainty in those three undealt cards, so you can't be 100% sure of what cards your opponent may be holding. The cards that have been set aside by your opponent are an uncertainty too, but you can try to guess what colour your opponent is going for by his card play. Cards set aside need not be scoring cards. Non scoring cards can be set aside too, just that they won't be worth points, but they can help in manipulating the card pool, and maybe even in confusing your opponent.

The gameboard serves only one purpose - to track how many of the yellow, red and black discs are on it. The game ends when the 3rd disc of one of these colours are on the board. The green disc is for tracking the leading player. Allen and I scoffed at it. There are only two players. How hard is it to remember who the leading player is? However we soon realised that it was a good idea afterall. We kept forgetting who won the previous trick, especially at the end of a hand. We learned humility. The purple discs are to track wins. The game is short, so it is recommended to play 3 games consecutively.

Normal cards have their numbers in circles, scoring cards have theirs in squares. Zeroes are in hexagons and they are special trump cards.

When one colour has its third disc placed onto the board, the game ends. Both players reveal their secret cards, and only scoring cards in the winning colour count. Whoever has more points wins.

One special case is the 0 cards. Although they are smallest in their own colours, they trump over all cards of other colours. You can use a red 0 to trump a black 6, even if you have other black cards in hand. This is an important consideration during the game.

The Play

The rules are mostly simple, but the implications of your actions are not immediately apparent. The deck size is small so cards are easy to count, if you are willing to put in the effort. The two cards that are set aside at the end of every hand has a big impact to the card pool. It is tempting to set aside many scoring cards of the colour (or colours) you hope will win, but that will weaken the colour. Every round, by watching what cards come out, you can get a good feel of what cards are still in circulation and what cards your opponent have probably set aside for scoring. At least that was the case in my first game. I think at higher skill levels, players can better conceal their scoring cards and also confuse their opponents.

When I played, my approach was mostly quite tactical and short-sighted. I tried to save a scoring card to be set aside every round, and as the game end approached, I tried to push for the colour in which I had the most scoring cards. As I played, I realised that the card pool was greatly impacted by the cards that were set aside, but I never got around to experimenting with manipulating the card pool. I felt I have just scratched the surface of the strategies of this game. I felt there should be tactics in deciding how quickly to let a hand end, so that few cards are revealed. There should be tactics in holding certain cards from hand to hand. There should be tactics in setting aside cards which are not scoring cards. There should also be techniques in guessing what your opponent is trying to do.

The Thoughts

I would group Triumvirate with classic games such as Bridge. Rules are minimalistic, but there are many techniques and tactics involved. One thing that turns me off from these games is the effort required to play well. I always feel (but I may be wrong) that these games take significant effort to learn to play well and to better appreciate them. Something like Go, Chess. Triumvirate has luck, like Bridge, but there is much skill involved too. My gut feel is this is a kind of game that can be played competitively, and there are different skill levels that players can achieve. I feel nervous with these games because I always feel I'm not good enough, and I'm too lazy to put in enough effort so that I can get to a "good enough" skill level. It's quite chicken and egg. Compare this to Eurogames, even complex ones, or conflict games. Sure, these boardgames have many more rules, and they have strategy too, but they don't give me this bare, spartan, merciless feeling, like l'm a gladiator facing another gladiator both wearing only loincloths, and armed with short swords and no shields. Hmmm... how did such imagery come out of a little harmless looking card game...

Triumvirate is very different from games like Lost Cities and Jaipur. In these other games, there are tough decisions to make, there is some strategy, but I'd argue that luck is more significant, and the skills involved are not as deep as Triumvirate. These games can be played in a rather relaxed manner, and still be enjoyed. I find that Triumvirate needs to be played in more intense manner to be able to fully appreciate it. It is suitable to be played with a regular opponent, so that both can explore the depth of the game together and play competitively.

Monday, 25 June 2012

boardgaming in photos

23 May 2012. Playing Troyes against Allen at BoardGameArena (BGA). It had been some time since I last played (I played a physical copy then), so I was rusty not only rules-wise but also tactics-wise. Needless to say I lost by quite a big margin. The BGA implementation of Troyes doesn't work quite correctly for my PC. You can see that some of the meeples are not positioned correctly. They should be on the shields on the cards, but are instead offset to the lower left. Has anyone experienced something similar at BGA or know what I can do to fix this?

24 May 2012. Gosu at BGA. I have a similar problem with Gosu. Notice that the round activation token should be on the second card of the bottom row, but is instead placed outside of my tableau area. In Gosu it's much less confusing though, since you don't have that many activation tokens to track.

2 Jun 2012. Dragonheart at BGA. With a hand of three Legolas (archers) and two ships, I didn't have much choice did I? Playing the archers would not get me much because there weren't many flying dragons to be captured. Playing those two ships would probably be worse, because that would set up my opponent to play the third ship and thus claim the stack of archers and knights.

A physical copy of Dungeon Petz, which I refer to as the pet shop game when I try to convince my wife to play it. This buffalo / snail creature had not been eating much but had been pooping all over the place. It had dumped twice in the other cage (the one above its current cage), and now it dumped twice again.

At the moment I still play with the basic rules and have not ventured to the advanced rules of using the double icons (e.g. the feeding and pooping icons on the green card). I still don't have many plays under my belt yet, and my plays tend to be quite far apart. In this most recent game, I found that setting up for a good sale can be a game winner. It's important to plan ahead and target a particular pet for a particular buyer. I received 27pts (about half my final score) for one particular sale in the last round. That was very satisfying. It had involved painstakingly growing and caring for a suitable pet for a few rounds, saving up the appropriate needs cards, and also very importantly having an imp book a slot on the stage (which can boost the points from a sale by 50%).

20 Jun 2012. Puerto Rico on BGA. It had been a very long time since I last played Puerto Rico. I still remembered most of the rules, but I was a little rusty on strategy. BGA has the 2-player variant, which is nice.

My island at game end. During the game I got myself many quarries, which let me construct buildings more cheaply. I initially went for a shipping strategy, since I started with a corn plantation and could produce corn without needing a production building. However I was distracted and never properly developed my production capacity. I produced a little corn (yellow), a little sugar (white), and a little indigo (blue). I constructed both the buildings that let me take a new colonist with a new plantation and a new building, which was handy. I needed to do this also partly because my opponent Allen kept taking the Mayor role. The game ended after I filled up my building slots. I had two big purple buildings, which gave me 15pts, and thus the win.

Allen's island. In the early game he constructed a building which let him take an extra random plantation during the Settler phase, so he was able to fill up his plantation slots quite quickly. I think in the early game he also didn't have a very clear direction. Eventually he was the one who went for heavy shipping. He produced much indigo (blue) and tobacco (light brown), and also a little corn (yellow). Unfortunately his cash flow was not as good as me (I had built both small and big markets, giving me $3 more per trade), and he was unable to construct any big purple building before I ended the game.

22 Jun 2012. Allen and I played Sekigahara again, this time switching sides - he played Tokugawa (black) and I played Ishida (yellow). This was relatively early in the game, on the western side of the map, near Kyoto. I had more blocks in this area, and was able to defeat his armies and push them back. In the lower right, I had captured one of his castles.

Mid game (Round 4 of 7). I sat at the northern side of the map, so the map is upside down. On the left side of the map, Allen's armies had previously captured both my yellow castles. However his armies vacated the leftmost castle in order to capture the resource location at the lower left, so the castle reverted to my control since that's the default allegiance. I quickly mustered one block to defend it. In the lower centre section, my army led by Ishida himself was besieging one of Allen's castles. On the right side, my forces dominated. The two boxes on the lower left are my recruitment boxes. I had 6 blocks waiting to be deployed in the normal recruitment box (left). The Mori recruitment box (right) is a special case and starts with these five predetermined blocks, as opposed to randomly drawn blocks. Mustering from here is much more costly than normal, each block costing one card. However if Osaka is attacked by Tokugawa, these blocks automatically muster to Osaka at no cost. Since things looked optimistic on the right side of the map (the Kyoto and Osaka area), I didn't expect to need to pay cards to muster these Mori blocks. I wanted to save cards.

This was probably the most memorable moment of the game. My 6-block army attacked Allen's 5-block army, which was a newly formed army consisting of some blocks hurriedly marched in from the left side of the map along the coastal highway, and some newly mustered blocks. Allen had another army nearby, and I didn't want to let his two armies merge and become much stronger. Little did I know that he had been meticulously planning for this battle. This was the first time I engaged this particular army, and I was surprised that it was a mostly cavalry army. Allen had been saving up on special attack cards, which meant he made full use of the cavalry charges. Every cavalry icon gave +2 strength and also enjoyed a +2 strength bonus for every previously played cavalry icon. This meant the cavalry icons themselves contributed (2 + 4 + 6 + 8 =) 20 strength! My army was soundly defeated and only one block survived and hastily retreated.

After dealing me a crushing defeat, Allen marched more troops towards my turf. I decided I could not let those Mori blocks wait idly in Osaka. I spent four cards mustering four 3-mon Mori blocks to Osaka, and then had them advance to Kyoto together with other blocks. Needless to say, hotels and inns were all fully occupied that evening. At this point, Allen had captured many resource locations and castles, and if he could hold on to them, he would win by the end of Round 7 by having more points than me. So I must take the initiative to bring the war to him and to wrest control of some resource locations and castles from him.

One other way I could win was by killing Tokugawa in battle. That would give me an instant win without needing to count points. My 8-block army caught Allen's 5-block army led by Tokugawa himself in Kiyosu. I came extremely close to killing Tokugawa. I defeated his army, but unfortunately was just one strength point short of being able to kill all five blocks. The lone Tokugawa block survived, and after that ran away towards Edo (his capital) with his tail between his legs. Since this was the last round and I only had one more movement phase, I would not be able to catch him.

The great Tokugawa Ieyasu narrowly escaped death and took a break at Hakone castle.

We came to the last movement phase of the whole game, and it was my movement phase. We counted our point values. Allen had 18pts, I had 9pts. I would need to take 5pts from him to win the game. His forces on the right side of the map were diminished, but mine would be stretched too to try to capture so many locations. I could capture a castle (2pts) and a resource location (1pt) which were undefended. I used whatever else I could spare to attack two resource locations held by Allen's troops. I managed to defeat his army in Kuwana (upper left). So now it was all down to this last battle in Kyoto, my 5-block army against his 4-block army. Just... one... more... point!

Allen had some Loyalty Challenge cards up his sleeve, but thankfully whenever he played one, I had the right cards to prevent my blocks from defecting. In fact in this whole game we didn't have a single defection. As this final tense battle drew on, I totalled my strength points, and it came to exactly the same as Allen's! Since he was the defender, he won ties. I could not kick his army out of Kyoto. This was the aftermath of the battle. We both lost troops, but he held on to Kyoto, and won the game 14:13.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

designer diaries

Do you enjoy reading designer diaries? These are often long essays, sometimes even series of essays, that are usually written by new (or relatively new) game designers, describing their labour of love from initial idea to publication (or attempted publication in the case of Kickstarter projects). Designer diaries seem to be a new thing that many people are doing, a trendy thing, much like Kickstarter projects. I find that most of the time I have very little interest in them (TL;DR, heh heh...). In fact I'm getting tired of seeing so many such designer diaries being released. Sorry that this sounds negative. This is probably due to my overall jaded-ness with the quantity of new boardgames. The designer diaries that I'd be interested to read would be those by designers whom I already know and like. Also I would probably be more interested in the designer diary of a game that I have played and enjoyed, because I'd be interested to find out the thought processes behind the design, and the story of how the game came about. I remember Agricola had a designer diary. At that time there weren't many such designer diaries. I didn't spend much time reading the Agricola designer diary, and only went back to read it after finding that I liked the game a lot.

I wonder whether people write designer diaries mainly because they feel these will help promote their games, or because they enjoy writing their own stories. Everyone (more or less) likes to tell his own story right? I'm a blogger. I know. :-) To me, there are other better ways of promoting a game. Now I know many marketing snippets can't satisfy hardcore gamers. These are often just flavour text, or marketing-speak. What I would consider more informative and interesting are photos of game components and brief descriptions, and also a round overview. The gameboard and some key game components can tell much. They set the tone of the game. Highlighting a few key aspects can give a good feel of how the game works. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Something like this. The game is co-designed by Tom Lehmann, designer of Race for the Galaxy. Eventually I decided I probably won't be buying Starship Merchants, but hey, at least I read the whole article.

Sat 23 Jun 2012: A few fellow gamers shared their views and suggestions at BGG.

Friday, 15 June 2012

Ticket To Ride: Asia

I own most of the Ticket To Ride expansions and spin-offs, and when I heard about this Asia expansion map I was quite excited, because I live in Asia. However I was disappointed to find out that of the two Asian maps, one requires at least four players because it's a team-based game. I usually only play Ticket To Ride games against my wife, so there's little chance of the team game getting played. So, as often is the case, my justification for buying it is when my two kids grow up we will be able to play the team game as a family.

That means for now I've only played the Legendary Asia map, and cannot write about the Team Asia map yet. The Legendary Asia map is mostly just Ticket To Ride on a different map. There is an element of TTR Europe - one of your start destination tickets is a long route (you can choose whether to keep it). I don't like this element because there are only a handful of such long routes and you'll soon know all of them. I think if you play a competitive game, this aspect is good because you need to prevent your opponents from guessing your card and blocking you. You also want to guess your opponents' cards. However I prefer a more relaxed play style with TTR, so I'd rather have more variability.

The bottom destination card, Ankara - Colombo, is one of the long routes. As usual, the Days of Wonder graphics design is top-notch. The game comes with card racks, but they are mainly meant for the team game, not for helping you hold cards.

Mountain spaces are a new concept. When claiming a route with such spaces you must pay extra trains. These extra trains earn 2VP each. Using them depletes your train supply more quickly. You need to be careful not to run short of trains to complete all your destination tickets. However using mountain routes can also help you force a quicker end while your opponent is unprepared.

I have only played a few 2-player games, so I don't have a good feel of how different this map is from other maps. At the moment it feels about the same. TTR Switzerland is still my favourite TTR map, but that's because I mostly play with two.

I may need to wait a few years before I can experience the Team Asia map. I'm looking forward to that, because the team rules look quite interesting. Maybe I should already start the kids on basic TTR (USA map).

This is the Legendary Asia side of the board. The bottom right corner is for placing trains that have been spent to claim mountain routes.

The biggest flaw of the game is --- there is no Kuala Lumpur! Surely it makes much more sense to add Kuala Lumpur and remove Singapore (cue cheers from Malaysians and jeers from Singaporeans).

Friday, 8 June 2012


Plays: 2Px3.

I'm well on my way to sample most of the games at BoardGameArena (BGA). Gosu is yet another game I've played for the first time at BGA. Since Race for the Galaxy is one of my favourite games, Gosu caught my attention when it first came out, being a card game with a tableau concept. Also the designer is a Magic: The Gathering champion. I never got around to try it, but now that it's conveniently on BGA, I must not miss it.

The Game

In Gosu, players build up armies of goblins, taking turns adding goblins, using their special abilities, mutating them, and drawing new goblin cards. In each round, players take turns until everyone passes, then a great battle takes place, which is basically a simple comparison of army strength. Whoever is strongest gains one point. After that a new round starts. Whoever reaches three points first wins the game.

You get a hand of cards at the start of the game, but after that there are no more free card draws. You get two activation tokens every round, which can be used to draw cards. Some goblins' special abilities allow card draws. However these are usually quite limited, so you need to play efficiently and squeeze the most out of your limited resources.

Goblins come from five different clans, and consist of three levels - soldiers, leaders and heroes (with strengths of 2, 3 and 5 respectively). Playing your first soldier is free, and so is playing any soldier of a clan you already have in play. Playing a leader requires it to be matched by one soldier of the same clan, and similarly a hero must be matched by a leader of the same clan. However playing a soldier of a new clan costs two cards, which is a lot. So it is expensive to have many clans in play, yet often, depending on your initial hand, it may not be easy or desirable to stick to one clan. Each player has a 5x3 grid to play goblins, i.e. at most five per level.

Every goblin has some special power, some taking effect when they come into play, some when an activation token is spent on them, some when they mutate, and other situations. Some effects kill opponent goblins, some neutralise them for the current round, some let the player draw cards. Players must make good use of these powers to gain an advantage over their opponents. Some powers get boosted if your points are behind at least one other player. This is a handy catch-up mechanism.

The mutation concept is spending cards to replace an existing goblin. This is usually costly, but can be useful when your slots are full, or you want to make use of an ability that triggers only upon mutation.

The Gosu interface on BGA is simple and clean. Flipped over cards are temporarily disabled for the current round. Their strenghs do not count, their clans and levels are ignored. A card with no other cards above it or to its right are vulnerable and can be killed by a goblin with the kill ability. So at the moment I (left tableau) have three such vulnerable cards, and Han (right tableau) has two - the rightmost card of each row.

Of course it's quite impossible to read the tiny text on the cards, so you need to hover your mouse over a card and a pop-up will appear. The discard pile at the bottom is open information. I wish there were a way to sort the discard pile, e.g. by clan or level. That would make it slightly easier to browse.

The Play

The one thing I remember most about playing Gosu is how limited your resources are after the first round. A lot is at stake in the first round. The composition of your army is largely determined in the first round. You have to decide which clans and which goblins to use. You need to consider flexibility in future rounds, not just winning the first round.

From Round 2 onwards, you will have limited actions. You only get two new activation tokens every round, and often you don't carry over many cards from the previous round. However despite the few actions, if you play well, they can be very effective.

The discard pile is open information, which is handy if a goblin ability lets you pick a card from there. Hero goblins, although strong, have powers that may help all players, so sometimes you need to think twice in case they end up helping your opponent more. I had one particular game where I was in very very bad shape, but I came back from a 0:2 deficit with very few cards in hand, to compete in a 2:2 final showdown. It was because my opponent Han had played a hero goblin that let me draw some cards, which turned out to be a life-saver for me. In the end I lost the final great battle, but it was a dramatic turn of events from a rather hopeless situation.

Hanging back from an early lead seems to be a viable strategy, because of how some special abilities become stronger if there is another player having more points than you do. I have not played enough games to fully appreciate this strategy, but I think it is quite viable.

I'm not sure how I managed to afford four different clans in this game. Each clan has a different card border.

In this game we were mostly focused on one clan. I mainly played the black clan and Han the white.

The Thoughts

Gosu definitely has that feel of "how to make the most out of what you are dealt", similar to Race for the Galaxy. So far from the few games that I have played, I have not seen particularly powerful combos, but I have seen how some individual powers can be very effective if used well. Often it is interesting to pick a few special abilities among many to use. You must choose which clans to go for. Once you play the soldier of a clan, you are committed to this clan to a certain extent.

Compared to Race for the Galaxy, Gosu is minimalistic. Other than the cards, you only have the (shared) advantage token and your own two activation tokens to fiddle with. There is a lot of text to read the first few times you play, but once you get past that and get familiar with the goblin special abilities, the game is brisk and tight. I'd say this is a gamer's game, not something a casual player would have the patience to learn. However I don't think it is particularly deep either. The scope isn't wide. Goblin powers mostly centre around killing goblins, neutralising them, drawing cards, and playing around with the advantage or activation tokens. However the powers are interesting to wield and there are plenty of interesting decisions to make in the game. So I think Gosu is a wonderful short game (I wouldn't call it a filler) for experienced players. In that way it serves a similar purpose as Race for the Galaxy. Gosu plays faster and is more tactical (vs strategic).