Sunday, 28 April 2013


Plays: 2Px1.

Lancaster is a worker-placement, victory-point-scoring, Euro-style game. There are so many such games nowadays that this description is enough to turn me off, and I fully expected to dislike to game. To my surprise, I didn't. I didn't fall in love with it, but the experience was better that I expected. Having played the game and analysed it, I still think I should feel cold towards it. But I don't. I haven't quite figured out why I have such mixed feelings.

The Game

Let's talk about the game. It is 1413. The new king of England wants to unite the nobles in England and conquer France. You play one of the great noble families and support the king in his endeavour. You earn glory (victory points) for various deeds. At the end of 6 rounds, the game ends and whoever has the most VP's wins.

Your workers in this worker-placement game are knights. They can be placed at three types of locations. You can place them at cities in England to gain various benefits, e.g. gaining new knights, upgrading knights, gaining the support of the earl, and gaining castle upgrades. You can send your knights to fight in one of the four battles with France. Committing a knight to a battle gives you an immediate bonus (e.g. knight upgrade, coins, earl), and if the battle is won, you earn VP's. You can keep your knights at your own castle. When they man one of the sections of your castle, they generate resources or enable special abilities, e.g. gaining political influence, gaining squires, and turing squires into new knights.

The game board. Each city in England gives one of two possible benefits. One of them is to claim one of the two earl tokens that represent support of the earl. The other one varies from city to city. If you pay $3, you gain both benefits. It's always good to have some spare change. At the bottom left are the four battles with France - the large thick tiles. The six octagonal tiles in the English Channel are the bonuses for committing knights to battle. Two have been flipped over (i.e. claimed) because two knights have gone to battle.

One unusual aspect of the game is when a knight is placed at an English city, his position is not absolutely safe. He can be displaced by another more senior knight, or another knight of equal rank but supported by a squire. New knights start out at Level 1, and the highest possible rank is Level 4. This knight rank mechanism adds a twist to the worker placement in this game. Another interesting aspect is each city has a minimum requirement - only knights of a certain rank or above are admitted. So you need to worry about your lowly Level 1 knights and how limited their choices are.

My green Level 1 knight in Suffolk is being kicked away by the red Level 4 knight - Allen's ally.

There is a new law phase in every round. Three new laws are proposed, and players secretly vote for whether to introduce them. In the case of ties, the law will pass and come into effect. It will also obsolete the oldest law currently in effect. There are always exactly three laws in play. When you vote, you have to think of not only whether the new law is good or bad for you and your opponents, but also whether the old law that may become obsolete is good or bad for you and your opponents. Most laws are along the lines of if you meet a certain criteria, you gain some benefits or score some points. Political influence is a currency that comes into play when passing laws. You can use it to help vote in or discard a law. Political influence is mainly gained by controlling earls. They give you political influence every round.

The law board. The three tiles on the right are the current laws in effect, and the three on the left are those being proposed. Some examples: the law at the top right means for every Level 2 knight you own, you gain a squire. The law at the top left means for every three castle upgrades you own, you earn 5VP.

At game end, players compare castle upgrades and total knight strength, and score points according to their positions. They also score points based on number of earls under their control. Highest total score wins.

The Play

Allen and I did a two-player game. In two-player games, each player also controls an ally family, so we each controlled two colours. The ally families are required to keep the game balanced and to ensure the board doesn't become too empty. Ally families are limited in what they can do. They can gain new knights and upgrade knights, but they never earn VP's, money, earls or squires.

I focused on development. I sent most of my knights to English cities, and also aggressively upgraded my castle. It's good to upgrade your castle because upgraded sections automatically produce resources (or activate special abilities) without needing a knight's supervision. Allen, on the other hand, focused on the military campaign against France. Committing knights to battles meant he could gain benefits early. He also emphasised on upgrading his knights. By game end, he maxed out all his knights. There is a predetermined number of knights available at each rank and you can't have more than what the game components allow.

The player board. The long table at the top is where earls supporting you sit. You always gain one free political influence cube every round, and every earl supporting you gives an additional cube. Four of the six sections of my castle have been upgraded, giving me a total of $3, 3 squires and 2 political influence cubes every round. The small square boards on the left represent my ally's castle.

It was our first game and we played a little slowly, needing to digest how things fitted together. Also needing to manage both our knights and those belonging to our allies added a little complexity. I suspect the game is better with more players. There would be more competition, and also there would be no need for this ally mechanism. Turn order would also be more important, because coming last may mean all good spots would have been claimed by others by the time your turn comes.

The risk of knights getting displaced and also the minimum entrance requirement at the cities presented an interesting challenge when we did our worker placement (or knight placement). We also needed to take into account how the laws might change.

In the end I won the game, but only barely.

A battle allows up to three players to participate. If the total strength contributed by the players exceed the number on the tile, the English will beat the French. In this example (the tile on the right), red gains 5VP, green 3VP, yellow 1VP. However red and yellow in our game were allies, so only I (green) gained 3VP.

The inside of the player screen reminds you about the three end-game scoring criteria - total knight strength, castle upgrades, and earls. Squires, political influence cubes and money are hidden behind your screen. These coins here are from another game and don't come with the standard Lancaster game.

The Thoughts

Most aspects of Lancaster feel very typical of Eurogames. However I find that the various mechanisms generally mesh together well, and are also consistent with the background story. At least that's my best guess at why I don't dislike it as I thought (and still think) I should. Suddenly I feel much more open-minded about trying out other Matthias Cramer designs, when in the past I was only mildly interested. Lancaster is undoubtedly a VP-grabbing, multiple-paths-to-victory (a.k.a. balanced-to-the-point-of-feeling-staid), worker-placement, Euro-style game, but it's the little details that provide some uniqueness and freshness in this title.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

gaming with the children

23 Mar 2013. I recently taught Shee Yun (8) to play Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, and she liked it very much. The strategies are still slightly beyond her. To handicap myself, I ask her to randomly arrange my pieces before the game starts (but the identities are still hidden from her). It turns out that this handicap is not as big as I thought it would be. She has only beaten me once, when I played as the Light player. My Frodo was in a bad position and I couldn't get him out. I think the initial board positioning is more important for the Light player, because their character abilities are more specialised. Because of this game, Shee Yun kept asking me about the story of Lord of the Rings.

24 Mar 2013. Shee Yun requested to play Lord of the Rings the cooperative boardgame. This time even Chen Rui (6) wanted to join. This game is definitely beyond them, but since it is a cooperative game, I can still guide them along the way. It worked out well. They enjoyed themselves. Chen Rui didn't really understand the overall strategy, but she was happy enough. She knew she had to collect the sun, ring and heart tokens, and she understood it was bad to go near Sauron.

Such a game would intimidate many adults.

We played at the easiest level. We had some unlucky tile draws in the early game, but after that things went quite smoothly, and we eventually destroyed the One Ring quite comfortably. I tried not to dictate what the girls did, but sometimes they felt lost and asked me what they should do. I tried to present them their options and encourage them to decide for themselves. However I think the reminders and tips I gave probably influenced many of their decisions. Anyhow, all is good as long as they enjoyed themselves.

None of the hobbits were very near Sauron by game end.

This is the final scenario board - Mordor.

30 Mar 2013. We had another family outing to Meeples Cafe. This game is Sticky Stickz. Every turn, the active player rolls three dice, and everyone races to pick up the tiles which match what the dice describe, using sticks with suction cups at one end. The game ends when three stack of tiles run out.

In this photo, the dice specify that you need to pick up tiles with only a single yellow furball, and its expression must be one of shock. Some dice combinations give multiple criteria, e.g. either 1 or 2 furballs will do, or either green or blue furballs will do.

This is how you do it.

The components of Feed the Kitty are cute. You get a bowl, wooden mouse-shaped tokens, and two special dice.

On your turn you roll the dice and they tell you what to do. The bowl icon means you need to surrender a mouse to the bowl. The mouse icon means you take a mouse from the bowl. The arrow icon means you give your neighbour to your left a mouse. The sleeping cat icon means nothing happens. When all but one player run out of mice, this last player with mice wins. You don't immediately lose when you lose all your mice. You just don't get to roll dice temporarily. You may get a mouse from your neighbour, thus bringing you back into the race.

This game is like LCR. There is no decision-making at all. I guess it's OK for entertaining children. It's not something you want to play with adults, unless you're gambling, or you're drinking.

Chen Rui had two mice left.

What kind of expression is that...?

I explained Monster Chase to the children. This is a cooperative memory game. In this game a child's bed is being besieged by monsters, and the players need to work together to banish all the monsters to the cupboard. Every monster is afraid of a particular toy. These face-down tiles in this photo are the toys. To banish a monster, you need to flip over the specific toy tile that the monster is scared of. More and more monsters will appear, and the players need to keep them in check and not let them surround the bed on all four sides. If the child's bed is surrounded, the players lose. The players win by defeating all the monsters in the monsters card deck.

That's the child in his bed on the left, and a monster on the right. This monster is scared of books.

These three cards are a countdown timer. Whenever a player fails to find the right toy to banish a monster, one of these cards is flipped over. When all three are flipped, a new monster card needs to be drawn and placed on a vacant side of the bed.

The first thing that came to mind when I saw these cards was - "Draw me like one of your French girls".

We played Escape: The Curse of the Temple again, twice. This time we used a timer. We didn't use the CD, so our game was a little easier. With the CD, there would be some points during the game that everyone needs to return to the start tile. Anyone who doesn't loses a die. We used my watch as a timer. We also set a slightly longer time than 10 minutes. We still lost our first game, but we won the second one. This photo shows our first game. We were close. The remaining two adventurers were very near the exit when time ran out.

We also played Qwirkle. I had played it once before, and had found it not bad. It was Michelle's first time playing, and she immediately liked it. She asked me to buy a copy. When the lady boss says so, who am I to object? Never underestimate the charm of a Spiel des Jahres game!

This is the first game I bought in 2013. Almost a third of the year is gone and only one new game in my collection. Looks like I will likely meet my self-imposed quota of no more than 18 new games per year. Maybe I should try to go for 12 this year.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

boardgaming in photos

1 Mar 2013. Playing Fearsome Floors at OTK ( We did a full 7-player game, and there was a massive traffic jam at the entrance to the dungeon. In this game the players try to get their people to escape from the dungeon, starting from the entrance at one end of the dungeon, and leaving from the exit at the other end. There is a monster in the dungeon which will chase after the people and eat them if it catches them.

When the monster reached us, it was like a Christmas feast for it.

This is a simple game, but I badly mangled the rules when I taught the others the game. I have played it before, but it was quite a long time ago, and the reference sheet I had made many years ago was a bit too summarised for me to remember how to play properly. Eventually we had to restart the game. Sorry guys... Once we got the rules right, the game went very smoothly.

8 Mar 2013. It has been a while since I last played A Few Acres of Snow, a game I enjoy a lot (maybe because I actively avoid learning too much about the allegedly game-breaking Halifax Hammer strategy). This time I played the French and Allen the British. As is customary for me when I play the French, I started with a military focus. The French has an infantry in their starting deck, while the British don't. I quickly burnt Pemaquid (the red square at the centre of this photo with no game piece) to the ground.

The game pieces in this photo are a special upgrade done by Allen. He bought these village and town pieces separately. The pieces that come with the game are discs and cubes.

This game turned out to be quite a funny story. I had some initial military successes, while Allen focused on building new settlements. Later Allen's economic engine ran smoother and smoother, while mine struggled. He could afford to buy more infantry and other fighting units than me. We then brought the Red Indians in, using them to ambush each other's infantry. And then of course came the priests and Indian leaders which poached the Red Indians from each other. I knew my military campaign was doomed, and I wouldn't be able to defend against Allen's attacks if he put his mind to it. I hurriedly switched to work on settlements, hoping to catch up to Allen's progress and overtake him. Building settlements and upgrading them to towns are harder for the French, but the French locations tend to have higher VP values. In the late game, I counted and found that if Allen ended the game by building his last town, he would actually lose because I would have a higher VP total. I still had a few more towns to go if I wanted to end the game that way. It was a race against time. I needed to end the game before Allen's military crushed my hopes. Thankfully I was able to do so, and I won the game.

After the game, Allen told me that he actually had no infantry left in his deck when he decided to switch to an offensive strategy. I had been harping on how much stronger he was militarily that even he didn't realise he was not much better than me. I didn't realise my Indians had removed that many infantry units from his deck. It took him one full cycle of his deck to realise he didn't have any infantry left. Only then he started buying infantry again. And of course he kept very quiet about it, not wanting to reveal his weakness. We had a good laugh after the game. Noobs!!

15 Mar 2013. Playing Innovation with Han and Allen. Han returned to Kuala Lumpur from a one-year overseas work assignment, but was immediately posted to another out-of-town assignment, this time in Johor Bahru. Looks like the three of us won't be returning to those regular 3-players sessions just yet. Innovation is the only game that appears on all three of our top-10 lists (done early 2012).

I had a good start in this particular game, managing to score three consecutive achievements for Ages 1 to 3 (bottom right). Just the Innovation base game already provides a lot of variability and replayability. I still have not felt the urge to get the expansions yet. Maybe it's because I don't play Innovation as often as I would like to.

16 Mar 2013. This figure is some warlord character from the Lost Legion expansion of Mage Knight: the Boardgame. It looks good, but the wilting flagpole and sword need to be fixed. The expansion comes with a few new scenarios. The one that we played had this guy returning from exile (or something like that), bringing a horde of monsters, and trying to find and capture a hidden city. We had to prevent that from happening, and also defeat this warlord and his army before time ran out.

The actions of the warlord character are determined by card draws from a card deck especially prepared for him. He will move in a particular direction, recruit more monsters, or attack a nearby hero, depending on what card is drawn. The reference card at the lower left shows what he does depending on the card draw.

The expansion also comes with a new player character - a hot lady.

I had not played Mage Knight for quite some time and had forgotten some of the rules details, but once we got the game going, it felt very familiar, like an old friend. The expansion seems to maintain the flavour and feel of the game, just providing more variety in every aspect. Of course the new scenarios are a welcome addition too. Unfortunately we did not have enough time to complete the scenario we played. We only reached about halfway because we had spent quite some time remembering the rules and checking the rulebooks.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

God's Playground

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

God's Playground is a Martin Wallace game that requires precisely three players, just like After the Flood. Both these games never quite became very popular. I wonder whether it's because of this very specific restriction, or the limited production run. Probably both. God's Playground is a game about Poland, from 1400 to 1790. It is under constant threat of invasion from all directions. Players are Polish magnates who have holdings in Poland. They need to defend Poland while growing their holdings, sometimes needing to work together. Ultimately to win the game you need to be the more successful than your fellow countrymen, so sometimes you need to do things that would be bad for Poland, maybe even bad for yourself, just to make your colleagues suffer more than you do.

The game is played over four rounds, each representing an era in Polish history. At the start of every round you secretly assign your nobles to the 5 regions in Poland and also to the national army. The total number of nobles assigned to the national army determines how much of a boost it gets for the current round, on top of its basic strength. As for your nobles in the regions, you will need to use them for most of the actions in the game, e.g. claiming estates, raising armies, attacking enemies and recruiting land managers. Every round, five enemies will threaten to invade from five different directions. To preempt these attacks, you need to raise armies to attack the neighbouring countries, and you need to deal enough damage so that they call off their attack. One special action allows you to sign a treaty with an enemy, but there is a small chance that they will renege. If you can't discourage them from attacking, you will still get to defend your homeland when they invade. You can even mobilise the national army to try to beat them back. If any enemy cannot be fully repelled, they will start destroying estates, and may even spread to other neighbouring regions within Poland. The game primarily revolves around these external threats and how the players try to defend Poland, while investing in estates and trying to make enough money to raise armies.

The game board. Poland is divided into 5 regions, and each is threatened by an enemy.

Every player has 12 numbered blocks. You use them to secretly assign nobles to the 5 regions and the national army. In Round 1, you use any six of them, but in Round 2 you must use the remaining six. The same applies for Rounds 3 and 4. So you need to decide when to conserve your strength and when to go all out.

The four kings represent the four rounds in the game. The cavalry and infantry icons represent the basic strength of the national army. Augustus is a weak guy and has no military strength, so he will be fully dependent on the players to contribute strength to the national army.

This is the region of Prussia, and it has four spaces for estates. The estate value starts at $3, and may go up or down depending on whether there is any war or occupation by foreign powers. The black bordered box represent the enemy - the Teutonic Knights in Round 1, then Sweden in Rounds 2 and 3, and finally Prussia in Round 4. For simplicity's sake I just think of them as the Teutonic Knights. The numbers 5, 7, 4, 9 are the enemy strength values for the four rounds. 4VP is how much you earn if you are the highest contributor in campaigning against this enemy.

There are many other details to the game, many of which relate to the history of Poland. One of the enemies, the Habsburgs don't really attack Poland. They just send politicians to try to influence Polish politics. These politicians remove Polish nobles, which reduces what the players can do. In Round 3, the Ottomans attack the Habsburgs instead, and it is up to the players whether to help the Habsburgs. If they don't, the Ottomans will become very strong in Round 4, and will attack from two directions. If they do, the Habsburgs survive, and switch to a military approach to invade Poland in Round 4 (ungrateful scum!). It's a choice between two evils.

In the southeast there are two cossack cavalry units, which the players can recruit to help defend Poland. If they are not recruited, they will join the Tatars in attacking Poland. There is one special action which allows a player to dissolve the parliament, i.e. to remove all ministers from the parliament (called the Sejm). This is usually disastrous for the country, because ministers are few and crucial. You need them to activate the Polish national army, and you also need them to sign treaties. You probably want to do such a traitorous act only if you are sure your fellow countrymen will be even more screwed than you.

All these rules (there are quite a few others I have not mentioned) bring a lot of flavour to the game. They help to recreate Polish history. In some cases they also help to balance the game. There is no superfluous rule.

During the four rounds, players gain victory points (VP) mostly by launching military campaigns against the enemies of Poland. They can also gain VP's by building schools, and having unused ministers. At the end of the game, the most important source of VP's is the estates owned by the players which have not yet been burnt to the ground.

The two beige coloured cavalry tiles are the cossacks. You can recruit them to fight for Poland. If you don't, they will find for the invading Tatars.

The rectangle at the centre of the map is the parliament (called the Sejm), and the discs are the ministers of parliament.

The Play

At the start of the game, Han, Allen and I got to pick three estates each as our starting holdings. This phase already set the context for how we needed to cooperate (or otherwise). Allen was the only one having estates in Lithuania, and because of that, neither Han nor I bothered to help him defend Lithuania. Han and I had overlapping interests in the south - in both Ukraine and Little Poland (Lesser Poland is probably a better translation). I was quite the diplomat, signing treaties with the Tatars quite a few times. Every round there is only one opportunity to sign a treaty, so turn order is important if many want to take this path. Bribing (that's effectively what signing a treaty is) the Tatars meant Ukraine remained at peace for quite some time, and the estate value grew, which meant more income for the estate owners.

At the bottom left, Allen (blue) is the only player having estates in Ukraine.

Allen's (blue) valiant effort in attacking the Russians. I think this was Round 3. The Russian base strength was 6, their additional strength was 2 (indicated by the two green cubes), making a total of 8. Allen had dealt 9 points of damage to the Russians, which was sufficient to cancel their invasion.

Peace treaties sound like a good idea. However in hindsight, they can turn out to be a major disaster. There is a small probability that the enemy will renege, and when they do, you will not have done any preemptive strikes to reduce their strength, and you will most likely have no troops to defend the region. You can try to mobilise the national army to fight the invaders, but it may be too little, too late. We didn't have any such dishonourable acts in our game, but I can imagine such an event can really mess up the players' plans.

While the south remained generally peaceful, things didn't go so well in the west - Prussia and Greater Poland. At one point all three of us had estates in Prussia. So we should all be holding hands, singing kumbaya and fighting the enemies together right? Wrong! Our selfishness caused the destruction of the region. No one put much heart into defending it from the Teutonic Knights, because there was always the thought that the invaders would be burning someone else's estate first. Of course, by the time that this someone else's estate was burnt, he wouldn't be bothering to contribute anymore to defend the other remaining estates. There was a domino effect. The economy collapsed and the estate value dropped to rock bottom - $1.

When the Ottomans attacked the Habsburgs in Round 3, we decided not to help. We probably wouldn't have managed to do so even if we had wanted to. We had enough on our hands. In Round 4, the Ottomans became very strong and attacked Poland from two directions. At the time Han was the only player with estates in Greater Poland. Greater Poland was doomed because it not only had to face a huge Ottoman army, it also had to deal with the Teutonic Knights overflowing from neighbouring Prussia. Naturally, Allen and I watched with glee.

At the top right (Little Poland), the Ottomans (small orange cubes) have invaded, but the players (red, blue, white) collectively have more nobles than them, so only one estate will be burnt by them, and they will not expand further from Little Poland. At the lower right (Prussia), the enemy (black cubes) has invaded too, but here the Polish nobles will not be able to keep them in check. They will burn the last remaining estate and also spread to neighbouring regions.

The game was one round after another of crashing and burning. There were too many threats and it was quite impossible to deal with all of them. It was about how to minimise the damage, especially to your own holdings. The game was about survival, and trying to score as many points as you could while doing that. You do need to have some cooperation and coordination with the other players, but this is in no way a cooperative game. You help each other only because you need each other to survive. When the time is right, you will gladly sit aside and let your colleague face the music by himself.

At the end of the game, I won by a large margin. I had the most valuable estates, and during the game I managed to pull off a nationwide Jesuit school building project which gave me a big chunk of VP's. Jesuit schools cost money and nobles, which can otherwise be spent on armies and campaigns, so it's not always a simple decision to play education advocate. Poland was in tatters by game end. Every region had foreign powers, just that in some regions there were enough Polish nobles to tie them down and not let them run amok. Surprisingly Allen managed to defend Lithuania reasonably well, all by himself. He still had three estates remaining.

This was Round 4. The Habsburgs (purple box) had been conquered by the Ottomans (orange cubes), and the Ottomans were now attacking this region (Greater Poland). The remaining Polish nobles were mine (white), and were greatly outnumbered by the Ottomans. All the estates here, which were all Han's, were burnt to the ground. The estate value (black disk) had dropped to $1.

Game end. Every region had foreign powers present. In the northwest, the Teutonic Knights had completely destroyed Prussia and had spread to Lithuania in the northeast. In the west, the Ottomans had destroyed Greater Poland. In the southwest, the Ottomans present were barely contained by the Polish nobles. In the southeast, the Tatars had invaded too, but there were enough Polish nobles to prevent them from causing too much destruction.

The Thoughts

I quite enjoyed God's Playground. It's a game of crisis management. Things will go to hell, and you need to salvage as much as you can. You need to analyse and understand clearly the interdependencies between the players - where the opportunities to work together are, and where the threats to do something nasty to one another are. I would say most actions in the game do not cause direct harm to your opponents. More often it is your inaction that would cause trouble for them. However there are a few nasty moves you can pull too. E.g. the dissolve parliament action mentioned earlier. There is also a special action that allows you to take over an estate belonging to the leading player if you are the trailing player. Denying your opponent a special action can be crucial too. The build city action (triple the VP value of an estate) and the diplomacy action are limited.

There are quite many rules in this game, and it is definitely not a game for casual players. One round is a procedure of sixteen steps. The reference table on the game board is a necessity. This game is a high-investment game - there is much you need to cover before you can start to play. I don't think any rule is superfluous. No rule exists just for thematic reasons. Not every rule will be important in every game, but I feel that every rule has a purpose, e.g. for game balance, to create competition, to create different opportunities to score points. The many rules do steer the game along a path that more-or-less makes sense historically. This can make the game feel restrictive and scripted, despite giving the game historical flavour. I feel there is still enough manoeuvre space for the players, and there is still enough variability.

The table on the left is the procedure for one complete round. Sixteen steps! The table on the right are your options when you execute your special action. The small table at the top right corner shows the troop costs and strengths.

It may not feel so, but I think the game is mostly deterministic. This allows for better planning and strategising. Dice are used to determine the additional strengths of enemies, but their basic strengths are pre-determined. Dice also determine whether a treaty is honoured, but we know the likelihood of renegation is low. You know what you are signing up for when you spend money on a treaty. The simultaneous and secret assignment of nobles to regions is not random. It's a matter of guessing your opponents' intentions and priorities. Overall the game is quite strategic.

God's Playground is a flavourful game where you balance saving your country and serving your own interests. It has an interesting mix of cooperation and selfishness. Things will go downhill, and as long as your opponents are further downhill than you, you are good.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Stone & Relic

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Stone & Relic is a tableau card game by John Clowdus (Small Box Games), designer of Omen: A Reign of War. Every player builds his own kingdom by playing cards into his own play area. Cards played are province cards, and each has some special ability. They can be upgraded to cities, but when you do so they are flipped over and lose their special abilities. However cities are worth 3pt each and also has a resource value of 1. In addition to playing province cards and upgrading them, other actions you can do include playing cards to compete for the current trophy (I forget what it's called, but I think of it as a trophy), playing cards into your treasury, and casting magic spells.

At any one time there is always a trophy of a specific resource type revealed, and player can use an action to play a card (preferably of the matching resource type) face-down next to it. When the total number of cards played reaches eight, they are revealed, and the player who has committed the most resources of the matching type wins the trophy, which is worth points. After that a new trophy is revealed to be contested. The treasury competition works in a similar way, but resource type doesn't matter, and scoring is done only at game end. Casting a magic spell is just using the single-use special ability of a card and then discarding the card.

The game ends when a player reaches a certain kingdom size.

The number (or question mark) at the top left is the point value at game end, if the province card has not been flipped over by then to become a city. A city would be worth 3pts. The blue circles at the bottom are the resource value, which is used for competing for trophies and largest treasury size. The icon inside the circle in the middle indicates the resource type, which is applicable when competing for trophies. Text in italics are the single-use special powers.

Right at the top are the two awards which are given out only at game end - largest kingdom (5pts) and largest treasury (7pts) respectively. Just below that is the current trophy card - a green bar thing. There are already 8 cards next to it, which means it is time to see who wins this trophy. On the left and right of these are Allen and my treasuries, with face-down cards stacked together. In the lower half of the photo are our kingdoms.

The Play

The game reminds me more of Irondale than Omen: A Reign of War, which is probably not a good thing because I liked the latter but not the former. Stone & Relic is not as tedious in the checking symbols department as Irondale though. It also has the spatial element. Many province abilities are triggered by having a new province played next to it, or having an adjacent province upgraded to a city. So it's important to plan the development of your kingdom - i.e. the placement of your cards. Sometimes you can make a fancy chain reaction, e.g. playing one card which triggers the ability of an adjacent province which allows you to upgrade a province to a city which in turn triggers the ability of another province which gives you an extra magic spell action which you then use to steal a card from an opponent to add to your treasury.

Planning and timing when to upgrade provinces to cities is important. 3pts per city is significant, and the resource value of cities is counted towards competing for trophies and the treasury size.

One interesting twist is the player with the smallest kingdom gets to draw more cards. So you need to plan your expansion carefully and not let the "trailing" player gain too much from this catch. Some province cards (a type called terrains) count as size two. They are usually attractive, but they make you think twice because of the size consideration. There is also a consideration of when to upgrade them to a city to reduce your kingdom size by one. Or maybe you want to play some terrains near game end to boost your kingdom size because there is a big-is-better award at game end.

Creating synergy among your cards is desirable. You want to maximise the potential of every card. You pick some to build your kingdom, and use others for the trophy and treasury competition. You can also save some cards to be used as magic spells when the time is right.

My kingdom. I have two cities at this point.

The Thoughts

The game felt rather bland to me. It seems mechanically sound, but I get a nagging feeling of "what's the point?". The game feels mechanical. I don't get the feeling that I'm building a kingdom. I just feel like I'm maximising the card powers to score in various categories. I like tableau games, e.g. Race for the Galaxy, San Juan, Glory To Rome. Maybe the difference is in these games I see various long-term strategies that jive with the themes, whereas in Stone & Relic so far I see mainly short to medium term tactics that are just game mechanisms. I sound like I'm complaining about a pasted on theme, and it is arguable that those tableau games that I like have pasted on themes too. However I think it's more than that. It is also the less interesting user interaction, fewer challenging decisions and the depth of the strategies. If you are looking for a portable, medium weight tableau card game, you can give it a try.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Heroica: Nathuz (Lego game)

Plays: 3Px3, 2Px1.

Heroica: Nathuz is one of four games in Lego's Heroica series. Games in this series can be merged to create larger maps and scenarios. Heroica: Nathuz is a simple dungeon crawl game for children. Players play the roles of heroes, collecting items, buying weapons, overcoming obstacles and fighting monsters. The eventual goal is to defeat the boss monster or to capture the magic staff. On your turn you roll a die to move, and if you encounter a monster, you roll a die to attack. Every character has a special ability, which can be activated if you roll the shield side of the die.

I played with my children (8 and 6). I found that the rules were not clear, and I had to decide how to interpret them. I think this is a game that parents would play only to entertain their children. The game is very simple and doesn't have many interesting decisions. You don't get to use your character's special ability often, because you can only use it under certain situations (e.g. when fighting), and even then you only have a one sixth chance of activating it. It is also hard to save enough money to buy the fancy weapons. Maybe this aspect only works when you combine sets and create larger maps. The children enjoyed the game well enough. They were enthusiastic about creating their own map and making up their own stories and rules.

Evaluating it as a boardgame, I feel Heroica: Nathuz is designed by an amateur. As a toy though, it does entertain the kids and let their imagination run free. So, think of it as buying a tool set, not a boardgame.

The yellow figure is the barbarian, good at melee combat. The black figure is the thief, good at recovering money from monster corpses. The red figure is the wizard, good at ranged combat.

Bats are the weakest monsters. In the background you can see a rack with lots of fancy weapons. Too bad it's hard to afford one.

A map designed by my daughter. That passage on the lower left is basically a waste. Who would go all the way there to collect a lousy torch. Holding a torch lets you move an extra step.