Sunday, 17 September 2017

Fold-It

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Fold-It is certainly unique. Your main game component is a colourful piece of cloth. It consists of a 4x4 grid, and each space in the grid contains a dish, e.g. spaghetti, sushi, pizza, chicken chop, ramen, big breakfast. The cloth is double-sided. At each position on it, the dish is the same one on both front and back. The game is a real-time game. Everyone starts with 3 life points. At the beginning of each round, a card is revealed, and it depicts a number of dishes. You must then fold your own piece of cloth in such a way that those exact dishes are visible. Whoever is last to achieve this is penalised and loses one life point. Gradually the players are disqualified, and the last person standing wins the game.

When you fold your piece of cloth, you may only fold along the straight lines forming the grid. You can't fold diagonally and you can't fold along the middle of a square. You may use either or both sides of your cloth. This card shows three dishes, and the cloth has been folded to show these exact three, no more and no fewer.

Cards come in two categories - easy and hard. The active player of the round decides which type to draw. Of these four cards in this photo, certainly the leftmost one is from the easy category. It shows only one dish. It's a matter of folding your cloth quickly, and not a matter of working out how to do it.

Those round counters with stars are the life points. When you fold your cloth, the dishes being made visible need not be in the precise positions as depicted by the card.

It's OK to be a little messy, as long as it is clear you have done your folding right. This being a speed game means often you can't be bothered with form.

The Play

The folding mechanism is certainly fresh and novel. When I first played, there were some puzzles which I got stuck with for a long time. It took a while for me to get used to the very unique spatial element of this game. When Wai Yan taught Chen Rui (10) and I to play, we didn't play by the rules. We just revealed card after card and tried to solve the puzzles. We probably spent more time learning how to solve puzzles than actually playing a proper game. Eventually we only did one proper game.

Fold-It reminds me of Ubongo. When you get stuck with a puzzle, it really bugs you and you can't let it go until you manage to solve it. It doesn't matter if you are already the last player or if time has run out. You need to solve this puzzle! After you get a better grasp of the techniques, the game doesn't become pointless. It just changes in nature. Now it is not a matter of who can and who cannot solve the puzzle. It becomes a contest of who can solve it more quickly.

The Thoughts

Fold-It is a party game, a family game, a casual game, a filler. It is a light game. This is not the type I chase after, but it has its occasions and it serves a few purposes. I am happy to have satisfied my curiosity and to have experienced its unusual mechanism.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Dice Forge

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

The main selling point of Dice Forge is the fact that you get to modify your dice as you play. Everyone has two dice, and at the start of the game they are all the same. During play, you may spend gold to upgrade your die faces to better versions. Players' dice will gradually diverge. This is a little like deck-building games. Players start on equal footing but gradually augment their individual abilities.

This is the player board. You use it for recording your resource levels. The yellow row is for gold, the red row for sun shards and the blue row for moon shards. Your storage space is limited for each resource type. If it is full you can't collect more. You may expand your storage during the game. The green rows are for score keeping. Highest scorer after the last round wins the game.

The game is played over a fixed number of rounds, depending on the number of players. At the start of each player's turn, everyone including the active player rolls his dice and collects resources accordingly. The die faces mostly depict various resources in different quantities. Some die faces let you pick from two or more resource types. Some die faces grant special abilities, e.g. tripling the production of the other die.

The main board consists of seven islands floating in the sky. Each island has 2 or 3 small piles of cards. On your turn, one of your two options is to visit an island to buy a card (in the game this is called performing a heroic feat), paying sun shards or moon shards. Some cards give you special abilities, some give you points, and some give both. The number of cards available depends on the number of players. Sometimes you need to compete if others want the same cards. If you visit an island which is currently occupied, you bump the incumbent away. This costs you nothing, but the player being bumped gets a free die roll, i.e. he will gain some resources.

The other option on your turn is to visit the temple to make an offering to the gods, i.e. to upgrade your dice. You pay gold to make one or more upgrades to your die faces. The quantities of upgrades are limited, so sometimes you will need to compete too.

The game is beautifully illustrated and the production value is top notch.

The costs of cards are listed on the cards themselves as well as on the board. The game comes with variants. You can mix and match the cards available as well as the die upgrades available.

Some card powers are single-use while others are permanent. These here are all single-use. The card on the left gives me two extra rolls. The card in the middle lets me change one die face to "x3". The card on the right expands my resource storage capacity.

The Play

The gameplay is simple and smooth. You roll dice, collect resources, upgrade your dice, and ultimately your goal is to score points. The early game is mostly about upgrading your dice, and the late game is all about scoring as many points as you can before time runs out. The tricky part is balancing the transition from improving your scoring ability to using that ability to actually score points. If you only think of upgrading your dice, you will miss out on actual scoring, which is what matters in the end. If you start focusing on scoring too early, you will likely be doing it less efficiently because you have not built up your strength.

The die upgrades and the cards do have some synergy. There are combos you can make, which can help you create something which is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sun and moon shards behave a little differently - the kind of cards they let you buy are different in nature. You may spend two sun shards to take an extra action. This can be valuable in the early game. The earlier you improve your abilities, the more you will get to utilise them throughout the game.

The Thoughts

Dice Forge didn't work for me. It felt soulless. I only see the unique selling point - that you get to change your die faces. The rest of the game are common mechanisms pieced together to flesh out the game which is built around this single selling point. I can't say there is any major flaw or imbalance. I have only played one game. I do see there is some strategy in picking die upgrades and cards, and in finding synergies. I can't feel the story and the emotions. I only see an exercise in making upgrades and scoring points efficiently.

Player interaction exists but is limited. Die upgrades and cards are limited, so you may need to rush before some of them run out. If you can anticipate where your opponents want to go, getting there just before they do will give you a bonus because you force them to bump you off. Most of the time you are focused on upgrading your own dice efficiently, and then using them efficiently to score points.

One possible problem is your die upgrades may not always give you good returns. Even if you upgrade a die face to an exceptionally good one, there is only a 1 in 6 chance of activating that face. If you are unlucky, you never activate it, thus wasting your gold and your effort. Bad luck is very real. The fact that you get to roll dice on everyone's turn somewhat mitigates this. Since you do roll dice a lot, luck somewhat evens out.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Sanssouci

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

The Sanssouci Palace is in Germany, and some call it the equivalent of the Palace of Versailles. The name is French and means "free of worry". It is meant to be more a rest and relax place than a seat of power. The Sanssouci boardgame is designed by Michael Kiesling. In this game you build the garden of the palace, and try to impress visiting noblemen.

Everyone has a player board like this. It is double sided and the two sides have different starting setups. The player board is the garden of the palace. There are 6 rows and 9 columns. The first row is fully built up. A few other spaces are built. At the top, right along the palace building itself, is a row of noblemen. These are the people you are trying to impress, one nobleman per column. Every turn you must escort one nobleman to a new location. The new location must be in the same column, but further down.

Everyone has a same deck of cards. At the start of the game, you shuffle your own deck and draw two. Every turn you play a card then draw a replacement. The game ends after you have played every card. Every card will be used exactly once. You use a card to claim a tile from the main board to place on your player board. The tiles are various types of decorative structures you can build in your garden. In this photo, the card on the left lets you claim a tile from the orange or blue rows of the main board. You must place the tile on a corresponding orange or blue space on your player board. The card on the right lets you claim a spiral structure. Sometimes if a specific structure type is not available on the main board, your card becomes a joker and you get to pick anything. These are usually golden opportunities. You are much less restricted.

This is the main board. In the centre there are five rows with two tiles each. You claim tiles from here. Whenever a tile is claimed, another is randomly drawn to take its place.

There are strict rules about placing tiles. When you take a tile from the main board, it comes from a specific coloured row. You must place this tile in the matching coloured row on your board. Also the tile is of a specific structure type. You must place it in the column of that type on your board. In essence, there is only one legal placement for any tile you claim. After placing a tile, the second action you take to complete your turn is to move a nobleman. He must move to a new spot which is further down in the same column, but he doesn't have to move in a straight line. He can take a roundabout way as long as there is an uninterrupted path to his destination. The nobleman scores points depending on which row he stops at. The further down he stops, the more points he scores. In this photo, two of the nobles on the right have started moving.

In this photo you can see a nobleman who has taken a roundabout way to reach his final destination. The third nobleman from the right has reached the bottom, and you can see his column is not yet completed. To get to his current location, he has taken a detour down the spiral structure column (second column from the right).

Now if you look at the tile above him, you will notice that instead of a garden structure, there is a portrait of a gardener. Gardeners are on the backs of every tile. When you take a tile from the main board, and the location on your player board where it is meant to be placed is already occupied, you get to flip the tile (to become a gardener) and place it at any location in the same row or column as the original intended location. This can be very handy, e.g. when you desperately need to fill a location for which you don't have the right card. However, there is also a drawback. Noblemen do not stop where a gardener is at work, i.e. you won't be able to use that location to score points.

When you place tiles, they need not connected to the palace, e.g. those two at the bottom right are currently isolated. Eventually you will want to connect all of them, to allow noblemen to visit the high value locations.

This was near game end. That nobleman in the middle had only taken one step, but I had great plans for him. I would make sure before the game ended he would walk all the way to the 6VP location at the bottom of his column. He would go left to take a long route, but he would get there. During the game I played, I focused much energy on filling the 6th row and building connections for the noblemen to get there. It was only halfway through that I realised I should have put some effort on the 5th row as well. Ideally I could get a nobleman to score both the 5VP and 6VP locations of his column. 5VP was significant.

After the game ends, each completed row and column are also worth points. That's another thing you can aim for.

The Play

Sanssouci feels like a solitaire game. You are all building your own gardens, creating your own paths, and attending to your own noble visitors. However there is some subtle player interaction. You want to watch what tiles your opponents need from the main board in addition to knowing what you need. If there is something an opponent desperately wants which is somewhat useful to you, you probably want to snatch it. If there are multiple tiles useful to you, you can prioritise which to get first by evaluating how sought after they are by your opponents. You can play without thinking about these and just worry about your own player board. The game still works. This is one reason Sanssouci works well as a family game. You can play it casually.

You get a soothing satisfaction from seeing your garden take shape and the paths link up. You will have a rough blueprint in mind. Every round, you take a small step in turning your blueprint into reality. Sometimes you are forced to change your plan, because you don't draw the cards you need or the tiles you need are not available. Sometimes you change plans because an easier path presents itself, or you just want to mess with someone else's plans. Every round you get closer to what you envision.

You don't have that many cards for the whole game, and each card can only be used once. You know you won't fill up the board. It's a question of how well you work within the limitations and how you make the best of what you draw. It is an interesting challenge. Since the deck is a fixed deck, you can somewhat plan ahead. You know the cards you want will come sooner or later. You can hold on to a card for the best moment to play it. You can plan your garden building taking into account cards you know you will eventually draw.

The Thoughts

Sanssouci is a mid-weight family game. It is a peaceful game. Planning the garden you want to build and then executing your plan step by step are satisfying. Throughout the game you score points every round, so your scoring marker races around the score track against those of your opponents. There will be pressure to keep up. You need to plan your moves a few turns ahead to maintain a steady progress. Two secret objective cards given at the start of the game also create different incentives to players, resulting in variety.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Power Grid: The Card Game

Plays: 6Px1.

The Game

I like Power Grid and have collected quite a few expansions. In 2011 there was a version released called Power Grid: The First Sparks, using the stone age as its setting. It was a simplified version of Power Grid. I didn't like it because I didn't feel Power Grid needed simplifying. And then last year (2016) we had Power Grid: The Card Game. This version took a different approach. Instead of streamlining all mechanisms and the overall gameplay, the map (i.e. spatial) element was entirely carved out.

This is how the game is set up. At the top you see two rows of four cards each. These are the power plants you can buy through auctions. In the middle there are four columns of cards. This is the resource market. The columns are numbered 1 to 4, referring to the price when you buy a resource card from the corresponding column. The $1 column starts empty. Resource cards are added here only under specific situations. Normal resource cards cost at least $2. After the resource buying phase each round, there will be holes in the $2 to $4 columns. Leftover resources are shifted left, i.e. they become cheaper. The columns are then filled up using cards drawn from the resource deck.

The overall structure of a round is simple - you may buy a power plant, you may buy resources, and finally you may expend resources to generate electricity and make money. There are many types of power plants. Some require a specific resource type (e.g. uranium, coal), some can use multiple resource types (e.g. oil or gas), some don't require resources at all (e.g. hydro plants and wind farms). You spend money on plants and resources to make more money, and then spend that money on buying bigger and better plants to make even more money. You prepare for a final round after the power plant deck runs out for the first time. In this final round, the money your plants earn is directly converted to points. If you have money left over from earlier rounds, it is converted to points at a 10:1 ratio. Whoever has the most points at game end wins.

Like the original Power Grid, turn order is very important. It is something you need to be aware of at all times, and you need to manipulate it to your advantage. Turn order is determined by how much you have earned in the previous round, and ties are broken by how big your best power plant is. When auctioning off new power plants, you go in turn order. This is slightly disadvantageous to players who are leading. They must decide first which plants to bid for. They cannot wait and see. When buying resources, you go in reverse turn order. Again the leading players are at a disadvantage. They will likely lose out on the cheaper resources.

The value in the top corners is the minimum price of a power plant. If you want to buy a plant, that's the minimum bid. At the bottom left corner you see the resources required to power up the plant. At the bottom right you see how much you earn when the plant generates electricity.

Normally you only get to bid for plants in the top row. The bottom row is just a preview of what may soon become available. These two rows of cards are always arranged in ascending order. When a plant is bought, a new one is drawn to take its place. The two rows may need to be rearranged depending on the minimum price of the newly drawn plant.

I now have two power plants. The limit is three. The resources are placed below the corresponding plants. The storage capacity of a plant is double the resource amount required to power up the plant. That means you may at most buy an amount of resources needed to power the plant for the current round and the next. The numbers along the edges of the resource cards indicate the quantity. Each time you consume a resource, you turn the card 90 degrees clockwise. When you reach 0, discard the card.

The Play

The game has plenty of tactical bouts. You fight at the plant auctions and at the resource market. You fight to maintain a healthy growth. You need to keep making money and upgrading your plants, and you don't want to fall behind. You are constantly manipulating the turn order. The long-term strategy is always to get to a strong set of power plants by the last round, and to be able to power them all. The journey is full of pitfalls and unexpected twists. The order of power plants appearing is random, and this is a tricky uncertainty to manage. It affects the scarcity and the prices of resources, and your decisions on which power plant types to compete in. The order of resource cards appearing is also random.

Jostling for position at the turn order track is crucial. It is disadvantageous to be in the lead, but it doesn't make sense to stay behind all the time just to avoid this disadvantage. You do need to progress, and you can't afford to stunt your growth.

The most important player interaction is in the power plant bidding. It affects who you will compete with for resources. If affects your income and turn order too. It is important to consider your power plant upgrade path. This is the crux of the game, and it is not something you can really plan beforehand. You need to be nimble and be keenly aware of the situation. Ideally you want to save money and not change power plants too many times, but sometimes you need to get a middling plant as a stepping stone to help you earn enough money for the better plant that will come later.

I have 3 power plants now. The next time I buy a new one, I will have to decommission one of them.

We did a 6-player game, and we barely had enough space at the table.

The Thoughts

I didn't have high hopes for Power Grid: The Card Game, but it proved me wrong. I didn't like Power Grid: The First Sparks because I felt it was an unnecessarily diluted version. In Power Grid: The Card Game, a huge chunk was cut out, but surprisingly it retained much of what makes Power Grid interesting. There is still enough depth. There are still interesting interactions in fighting for power plants, in buying resources, and in managing turn order. Jaime Lannister with one hand less is still a very interesting character.

What purpose does this card version serve? It is a shorter game if you don't mind skipping the map element. It doesn't feel incomplete or dumbed down. If you specifically like the spatial element in Power Grid though, then the card game is probably not for you.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Medici: The Card Game

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Medici is a classic Reiner Knizia design, part of his auction trilogy including Ra and Modern Art. I find it funny that there is now a card game version of Medici. To me Medici is a card game. So I feel this version is a variant, and not really a simplified, boardgame-converted-to-card-game version of the original. The core mechanism has changed, but the scoring system is almost identical, so the game feels like an old friend with a new haircut. Same, but different, but still the same.

The game is played over three rounds. You collect 5 cards each round, and score points at the end of the round. Whoever scores the most at the end of three rounds wins. All this sounds familiar. For the details, let me start with the scoring mechanism.

A card has two pieces of important information - (1) card value, (2) merchandise type. Total card value is compared at the end of every round. Players score points based on their relative positions. Whoever has the highest total scores 30pts, and whoever has the lowest scores nothing. The rest scores somewhere in between. Once this is done, the card values are ignored for future rounds. There are five merchandise types. When you collect a merchandise, you keep it till the end of the game. At the end of each round, for each of the merchandise types, you compare who has the most and second most. You count cards collect in the current round as well as in all previous rounds. The players with the most goods in each merchandise type get to score points. In addition, if you have 5 goods of the same type, you score 10pts. This is a bonus you receive regardless of whether you have more or fewer than your opponents.

Now let's look at how you collect cards. Throughout the game, players draw cards from a common draw deck to form a line. You must take at least one card on your turn, and it must be the last card in the line. When you start your turn, you may draw one to three cards from the deck to add to the line. You draw them one by one, and may decide to stop at any time. If there are already cards in the line, you may even decide not to draw at all. When you decide to stop drawing and to claim a card (which must the the last one), you may also take a second and even a third card. The condition is they must be picked from the second and third last cards in the line. That means you can take at most three cards on your turn.

Each time you draw a card, you need to be mentally prepared that you may need to claim it, because it will become the last card in the line. If it is your first draw, you still have a second chance if that card sucks. If it is your second draw, then things get a little sticky. If the card is so-so, do you gamble on the third draw, which may give you a worse card? Or do you claim it, even if it is not particularly good, cutting your losses. This happens all the time in the game.

Once you claim your fifth card in a round, you sit out until everyone gets his fifth card. Then you score. In this photo above you see two cards with green backgrounds. These are special cards which do not count towards the five card limit. Having claimed these cards above, I am considered to be exactly at my limit of five cards. You can see that I am focusing on dye (blue) and cloth (purple). My total card value of 13 is rather poor. However I have collected 5 pieces of cloth. This is Round 1, so having reached 5 pieces of cloth means I am well in the lead and it will be hard for others to compete. Having 5 pieces also means I can safely claim the 10pt bonus every round from now on.

This is the situation at Round 3. The cards at the top are what I have collected this round. I started with that black 7, which is good when you want to compete for highest total card value. However, later on I had the opportunity to collect many furs, and I took it, abandoning my plan to compete in total card value. I ended up collecting 5 furs this round, which is good, but that first card was a waste.

The Play

When playing Medici: The Card Game you feel you are always pushing your luck. You are always thinking should I draw another card? When you draw an excellent card or an atrocious one, the decision is usually easy. Excellent card? Stop and claim it. No point in being greedy and hoping the next card will be a good one too. There is always next round. Atrocious card? Just draw the next one. It can't be much worse. Most of the time though, the card you draw is somewhat good or somewhat bad. This is when things get interesting. It is not always clear whether it is better to draw another one. You face such decisions all the time. Every draw can be a blessing or a curse. This is what makes the game thrilling. Life is like a box of chocolates.

You must pay attention to what your opponents are collecting. You don't directly hurt your opponents, but competition is everywhere and comes from all angles. You need to worry about card values, you need to worry about the number of goods. You find yourself repeatedly counting your opponents' cards. Just one point of difference can mean earning something, or earning nothing. When you choose to claim a card, it can immediately translate to an opponent (or more) losing out on points. This can be a mean game. Sometimes you can make a move which causes others to lose points without yourself gaining anything.

There is a dose of luck. You need to adapt. You need to assess risks and returns. You need to decide how to compete given what you are dealt. You do have plenty of choices to make. You are not at the mercy of lady luck.

Compared to the original Medici, the key mechanism which has been replaced is the auction mechanism. Without auctions, player interaction is reduced. You can't force an opponent to pay an arm and a leg for a set of cards he is dying to buy. If an opponent gets very lucky with his card draw, there is little you can do. You can still gang up on a leading player to prevent him from scoring high in too many areas. There are still ways the players' actions will balance out the luck. The original Medici has similarities to Coloretto and Zooloretto. When a set of cards consists of good and bad ones, it becomes tricky to assess its value. You are torn between wanting and avoiding it. Also different players want different things, so the same set of cards is worth different values to different players. These are not present in Medici: The Card Game. The new core mechanism is simpler, quicker, and is centred around the gambler's push-your-luck mindset. Both old and new mechanisms have their merits.

This is how a 5-player game in progress looks like.

The Thoughts

Medici: The Card Game has Reiner Knizia's signature. It is a light-to-medium weight game. Simple but by no means simplistic. You are constantly watching the playing field and you keep assessing what each card is worth to different players. It was fun to experience this new incarnation of the old classic. Compared to the original it is slightly simpler and quicker, but I see it as a variant and not a card game version, or a simplified version. Whether you have played the original or not, this is worth a try.

Friday, 25 August 2017

boardgaming in photos: boardgame retreat, Acquire

Boardgamecafe.net organised a boardgame retreat on the weekend of 12-13 Aug 2017, these were some of the participants. They have done this many times, but this was the first time I participated. In the past, the format of the retreat was a full-day schedule of game sessions, with score-keeping and prizes for the top scorers. This time the format was free-and-easy, making it more family-friendly. That was why I signed up and brought the family along. I played many games, the children played some and also made use of other facilities at the retreat venue, my wife enjoyed her reading.

The retreat was done at Broga Bliss, about an hour's drive from Kuala Lumpur. It is near Broga Hills, which is a popular hiking location. We started Saturday afternoon and ended Sunday noon. It was refreshing for us city-dwellers to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and get some fresh air. The mobile network was poor and the WiFi slow, so we were happily disconnected. It was liberating.

I woke early on Sunday morning, and took a walk with Chen Rui who was also up early. The hills were misty. The surroundings were not quiet at all. We heard crickets, cicadas, frogs, and probably many other creatures we couldn't name. This was a lively choir compared to the lifeless silence of Sunday mornings at home in KL.

Right next to Broga Bliss was a rubber plantation. It was still in use.

7 Jul 2017. We played Acquire more than a month ago at Boardgamecafe.net. This is one of Allen's favourite games. That day we had played Five Tribes, and after we were done, we wanted to do a shorter game. So we picked this, since most of us had played it, and it was quick to teach to Dennis who had not done it before. There are many versions of Acquire, and this is the best one. It has reached grail status. It is not easy to find, and if you are lucky enough to see a copy on eBay, it'll cost an arm and a leg. It is saddening that there has been quite a few editions after this one, but none measured up.

We did a four player game - Allen, Dennis, Heng and I. I knew Allen was the expert, so I mostly copied his strategy when I played. I still remembered that it was important to get yourself involved in the early acquisitions, so that you would earn money and would have a healthy cash flow to continue buying shares and making money from more acquisitions. I ended up having a portfolio quite similar to Allen's.

There are seven companies (hotel chains) in the game. These cards are the shares.

Allen and I played almost like we were playing a cooperative game. We managed to position ourselves as highest and second highest shareholders in many of the companies which were acquired in the early game. I felt a little bad - it was as if we were colluding against Dennis and Heng. We did have pretty lucky tile draws that allowed us to manipulate many early acquisitions. Heng joked that the foremost strategy in Acquire was - draw the right tiles! Indeed having the right tiles at the right moment is immensely powerful. Sometimes you hold on to a tile waiting for it to become crucial. Making wise investments is also very important. It is something you have control of. You need to read your opponents and read the board situation.

In this photo, Red was on the verge of being gobbled up by Yellow. If anyone had tile 3B or 4C, he could trigger the acquisition. Purple and Light Blue were of the same size. This is interesting because if a player triggers an acquisition, he can choose which company to buy the other out.

Now Purple was larger than Light Blue, so if a merger took place now, it would be Purple gobbling up Light Blue.

I knew Allen was good at Acquire, so from the beginning I never expected to win. I just played with a happy-go-lucky mindset. Only towards late game I realised I was doing well, and I should have aimed for victory. I neglected the fact that towards late game, investing in the large companies became more important. Although they were safe from acquisition and wouldn't give any acquisition payout, the shares themselves would have a high value, and these companies would give a large game-end payout. I stuck to the buy-into-small-companies tactic longer than I should have. It was important in the early game, but less so later. Eventually Allen did win, as expected. I was close behind. Had I been more ambitious, it could have been me. Lesson learnt - never belittle yourself. Heng and Dennis were both not that far behind either. They had many shares in the large companies. Although they missed out on the small companies which were acquired by others, they did become shareholders of the large companies earlier. They earned good payouts at game end. Cash flow was the crucial factor that gave Allen and I an edge. There were a few times Heng and Dennis had to forgo the opportunity to invest because cash was tight.

It still amazes me that a design like Acquire was published in 1964. It was certainly ahead of its time, and it still does not feel outdated.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Urbania

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Urbania is about renewing old buildings in the city. You are urban planners responsible for redeveloping the city. You're going to make this city happening all over again!

During game setup, you randomly fill the board with building tiles. These tiles are double-sided, a run-down side and a renewed side. Most tiles are to show the run-down side. Only the five tiles at the city centre (the fat cross shape enclosed by monorail tracks) show the renewed side. The run-down side of a tile shows some information. The number underneath the safety helmet indicates the cost to renew the building. The number at the top right corner is the victory points you get when you renew the building. Buildings come in seven colours, each representing a different building type. To renew a building, you need to spend helmets in the same colour as the building. However for the blue buildings, their helmet icons are multicoloured, which means you can use any one helmet colour to renew a building.

On your turn you have four options. The most common action is to draw cards. Resource cards are laid out for you to pick. Five are turned face-up. You may also blind draw from the deck. This is like Ticket To Ride. The cards in this photo are the resource cards. There are helmets and coins on resource cards. Helmets are for renewing buildings, and coins for recruiting specialists. Similar to renewing buildings, when you want to recruit a specialist, you need to use coins in the same colour as the specialist. On the rightmost card you can see a multicoloured coin. That's a joker. You can treat it as any colour.

Most of the gameboard is the 7x7 grid representing the city. Outside of the city centre, the city is divided into four quadrants (districts) by highways. The highways are a little hard to see from this photo though. Districts play a role. Some project cards (secret objective cards) are based on renewing a specific district as much as possible. Also, when a district has two or fewer run-down buildings remaining, the game ends.

The track around this section is the score track. The spaces in the middle numbered 0 to 8 serve two purposes. The cubes track how many buildings of each type (i.e. colour) have been renewed. These numbers determine how many victory points the corresponding specialists earn every turn, if they are in your employ. The discs track how much it costs (in coins) to employ each specialist. The price always starts at $1. Each time a specialist is employed by any player, the cost goes up by $1. It is important to compete for specialists, since they give you VP every turn. Also, the recruitment costs of specialists is a trigger for game end. When 3 or more specialists cost $5 or more, the game ends. If you want the game to end quickly, you can try to recruit specialists to push up their recruitment costs.

Three of the six specialists. When many buildings of a particular colour are renewed, the value of the corresponding specialist will increase, making him or her more attractive to players. However the recruitment cost is not always in sync with the VP-earning power of a specialist. Sometimes there may be little competition for a high-value specialist. Sometimes there may be much competition for a low-value specialist.

These are project cards. When you take the draw card action, instead of resource cards, you may draw project cards. These are secret objective cards, and they score points at game end. You may draw as many of them as you want, but you can only make use of three of them. During the game you need to take the Submit action to commit to a project card. In this photo, the card on the left will score based on the recruitment cost of this specialist. You score recruitment cost multiplied by 5. The card on the right will score 6VP per garden renewed. Gardens are L shaped buildings as depicted on the card.

When you Submit a project, you need to pay 10% of your VP's at the time of submission. Naturally you want to Submit early, when your VP is still low. However in the early stage of a game you are likely unsure how well you can fulfill the requirement of the project card. It is an interesting dilemma - when to commit to a project.

The card on the left is a reference card, listing the four possible actions on your turn: draw cards, renew building, recruit specialist, submit project. The card in the middle is a specialist currently in my employ. The card on the right is a resource card which I have spent. When you spend the helmet value of a resource card, the card is played before you and not to the discard pile. When played before you, the coin value of the card is not yet expended. In future, you may still spend the coins. Only then you place the card in the discard pile. You may directly spend the coin value of cards in your hand, but if you do so, the card goes immediately to the discard pile, i.e. you lose the helmet value.

The Play

I played with Kareem and Jeff. The basics of the game are straightforward. There are only four actions to choose from on your turn. You are collecting resources on one side, and then spending them on things to help you score points on the other side. Renewing a building gives you points immediately. Recruiting a specialist gives you points every turn. Submitting a project is a long-term investment and commitment, and gives you points at game end. Urbania looks very different from Ticket To Ride, but feels similar, because of this collect-collect-collect-spend tempo. Furthermore, resources come in different colours, just like the train cards in Ticket To Ride. The collect-collect-collect-spend tempo is oddly satisfying. It is like you are saving some coins every day, and then at the end of the week, you can afford to splurge on a nice meal.

You need to pay attention to what colours your opponents are collecting, so that you get a sense of which buildings types and specialists they are competing in. Hotly contested types will require more effort, but the VP gain may be worth the effort. Neglected types are not necessary bad. They can be low hanging fruits. You can gain some benefits with minimal effort.

There are some tactics when competing for specialists. If you can afford a specialist, you may not want to immediately recruit him. It may be better to let someone else recruit him, and then you recruit the specialist from your opponent. You will be spending $1 more, but it may be much easier for you to retain the specialist for longer, because to take him away from you your opponent would need to pay even more. The turn-by-turn VP gain from specialists can be very lucrative. You must not let any player get away with hoarding many specialists.

It is important to guess your opponents' project cards. You can do so by watching what they do. If you can work out their project cards, you can avoid helping them through your actions. Knowing your opponents' intentions can also help you decide on your own project cards. For example if you know an opponent is working on a specific district, and that district happens to have many hospitals, and you have a hospital-related project card, then it is probably a good idea to submit that hospital project card, because you know your opponent is going to help you a lot. You want to leech!

At this point I had drawn three project cards. Eventually these were the three I committed to. I didn't draw more. I was happy enough with the first three I drew, and didn't want to spend any more actions drawing project cards.

I have two specialists at this point, and I have submitted two projects. The projects are face-down. They are kept secret from your opponents. I have been renewing red and green buildings, thus these resource cards in front of me.

When you do renewal, you must spread out from the city centre. You may only renew buildings which are orthogonally adjacent to an already renewed building. This means buildings in the corners tend to be harder to reach.

The game is coming to an end. There are already four specialists with a recruitment cost of $5 (see the discs). The human shaped pawns are the players' score markers.

When we played, we kept complaining about the poor art direction. Not that the drawings are ugly. They are by Franz Vohwinkel, the master level boardgame artist. The artwork is simply not pragmatic. It is a pain to read the board situation. We all blamed the publisher Mayfair for not doing a proper editing job. The artwork is too colourful and confusing. After a building is renewed, its type is no longer important, so the renewed side of the building tile need not be so flamboyant. The tiles can be just simple square tiles instead of being all sorts of weird and unwieldy shapes.

In this photo you can see more clearly the highway which divides the city into districts. It's the road with a traffic jam.

The Thoughts

Urbania is a middle-weight game that feels like a light-weight game. Despite the simple rules, if you think a little deeper about the strategies, you will discover some interesting tactics. You can play with a simple mindset - collecting stuff and spending them to score points and to fulfill your own project cards. However, if you are playing with competitive players, this won't be enough to win. There is some subtle player interaction and there is an element of reading your opponents. You want to let your opponents work for you, and you want to avoid helping them.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Not Alone

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Not Alone is a one-vs-many game. The many is a team of space explorers stranded on the mysterious planet Artemia, waiting for rescue. The one is a powerful and malicious alien creature which controls all life-forms on Artemia, and which now wants to assimilate these unexpected visitors into the local hive-mind ecosystem. Can the explorers stay sane and away from the creature long enough for their rescuers to arrive?

This is the countdown track. The pawn on the left is the rescue counter. It marks how much longer the humans need to wait before the rescue ship arrives. The pawn on the right is the assimilation counter. It marks how close the creature is in assimilating the humans. This is effectively a race game, whoever manages to get his pawn to the star position first wins.

The three discs at the top belong to the creature. They are the Hunt tokens used for hunting the humans. The disc in the middle is the creature token which represents the physical presence of the creature itself. This token is always in use every round. The other two tokens are available to the creature under specific conditions, e.g. the play of a Hunt card. When playing, we joked that the token with an A looked like an Avengers token, and thus must be super powerful. The A actually stands for Artemia, the name of the planet.

The cards with the green back are the Hunt cards. The creature always has a hand size of three, and normally gets to play one Hunt card per round.

This is how the game is set up. The 10 cards arranged neatly at the bottom form the game board and represent the 10 locations on Artemia, each with a different ability which the humans get to use. At the start of the game, each human player has one each of cards numbered 1 to 5, which means he can only access the first five locations. At the top of the photo you can see a pool of cards numbered 6 to 10. During the course of the game the human players may claim these cards to increase their options.

At the start of a round, each human plays a location card from his hand face-down, committing where he will be for the round. The humans may discuss how they want to play, but the creature is listening, so they can't be too explicit. The humans have to hope that their teammates know what they are thinking and will play in a cohesive manner. After the humans are committed, it is the creature's turn to decide where to hunt. This is done by placing the Hunt tokens on the location cards where it thinks the humans are. Then you check whether any humans are caught. They will suffer penalties. Depending on the Hunt token, they may lose Will counters, they may lose cards, they may be denied the ability of the location, the assimilation counter may advance, etc.

The most crucial part of the game is advancing your counter on the countdown track. The rescue counter automatically advances at the end of every round. The humans can perform certain actions, e.g. using location abilities, to make additional advancements. The assimilation counter advances when the creature catches a human using the creature token, and also when a human loses his last Will counter. Every human starts with three Will counters. Will counters can be spent to return played location cards into your hand, but it is a risky thing to do, because you will get closer to losing them all. When you lose them all, the creature's assimilation counter advances, and you reset your character by taking back all your location cards and your three Will counters. You can use location abilities to return location cards to your hand, thus delaying the usage of Will counters, but in the long run it is a matter of stalling, not completely avoiding.

The locations on Artemia help the humans in different ways. They can speed up the rescue ship. They help you reclaim played location cards. They give you new location cards. They give you Survival cards. Survival cards are usually powerful, similar to the creature's Hunt cards. Each human may play at most one Survival card per round. One key difference between Survival cards and Hunt cards is the humans need to perform an action at a location to draw a Survival card, while the creature automatically draws back to three Hunt cards every round.

These are some of the creature's Hunt cards. Those target icons on two of them mean when you play these cards, you get to use the target Hunt token for the round.

The Play

Ivan taught us to play. He had played before, as the creature, so this time he wanted to try being human. He asked me to take the role of the creature. So I was public enemy in our game. There were five of us in total, thus four human players. At the start of the game, having four human players seemed very beneficial to the creature player. They only had five locations to pick from, and I felt I would have to be very unlucky to miss all four of them. Also one of the five locations, #5, was particularly attractive - it allowed the human player to gain a new location card. This was very useful. It was best to get such additional cards early, so that for the rest of the game you'd have more options. It was natural that the human players would be very tempted to make use of this location in the early game. I missed one consideration though. Location #1 was the creature's lair, and if a human made use of it, it could trigger the location ability of the location of the creature. So if I hunted at location #5, the humans could just go to location #1 and still trigger the ability of location #5.

Playing the creature was all about guessing where the humans were. I could see what location cards they had played to determine what options they had remaining. I had to remember which new location cards they managed to claim. I looked at how many Will counters they had to guess what they would try to do. For me the tension came from the ever ticking countdown clock - the rescue team was on the way. I had to assimilate the humans before time ran out, and the ticking clock often jumped ahead by one or even two extra steps. It was nice being omnipresent and powerful, but that didn't mean assimilating the humans was easy. I had a deadline to meet. The humans were stressed out as well, like mice being stalked by a monstrous cat, occasionally supported by devilish kittens (the extra Hunt tokens). Every round they played location cards, leaving fewer and fewer in hand. They could take cards back but that usually meant spending Will counters. Doom approached from both directions, or in Manglish (Malaysianised English) - turn left die, turn right also die. They struggled to survive and were often torn between lying low and waiting patiently, and being bold and helping the rescue team arrive sooner.

Both the creature's Hunt cards and the humans' Survival cards are powerful cards. They create drama and twists. Without them, I believe the game would be a little staid, because all other information is open - the location cards that have been played, the number of Will counters remaining, the available options of each human. Hunt cards and Survival cards create opportunities and help make impossible saves. I would say they help address a weakness in the core mechanism. They make the overall package better. They are powerful but not so much that you feel you win or lose by the luck of the draw. These cards are a supporting element, not the core.

Despite the difficulty in coordinating their actions due to the ever listening creature, the humans still have many ways to collaborate and help one another. They can choose to apply the ability of a location card or a Survival card on a fellow player who needs it more than themselves. Often a human can take one for the team, suffering injury to protect a teammate. The humans do feel like a team playing a cooperative game.

In this particular round, as the creature, I could use two Hunt tokens. Location #4 comes with a yellow marker. This marker starts the game off-card. When a human player triggers location #4, he may move the marker on- or off-card. Moving it on-card means charging up a beacon, and moving it off-card means activating the beacon, which causes the rescue counter to advance by one step. So it takes two human actions at location #4 to speed up the arrival of the rescue team by one step. It is possible to achieve this within one round if two humans come here (and are not caught by the creature).

The human player on the left had played location cards 1, 2, 3, 5 and 9, which meant it was much easier for me to guess where he was going. But beware the Survival card. There just might be one which could save this player from such a sticky situation.

This was near end game, and it was going to be a close finish. On the rescue team track, some spots have an A. If the rescue counter stops at these spots, in the next round the creature gets to use the Artemis Hunt token. The human players will try to avoid these spots. Most of the time it is ideal to move two steps per round, to completely avoid the A spots. That means moving one extra step on top of the one free step every round. However sometimes it is worthwhile to move three steps, even if it means landing on an A. In fact sometimes it is necessary. This is a race game after all.

Our game was close. The tension built towards a climax, and I think this is how most games will be. As the creature I tried to focus on humans who were already low on Will counters. Every step towards assimilation was precious. In the late game, when the rescue ship was about two rounds away from arriving, we came to a situation where one of the humans had only one Will counter remaining, and also only two location cards in hand. Big Red Target, in my eyes. My assimilation counter was two steps away from victory. If I could catch him in person (i.e. using my creature Hunt token), my assimilation counter would move one step for catching him in person, and another for reducing his Will counters to zero. That meant victory for me. Since he had only two cards left, I had a 50% chance of winning this round, assuming no Survival card upset my plan. Of his two locations, one was very enticing, because it would let the rescue counter advance an extra step. The other one was meh. I could decide to prowl the yummy location, since it was obviously the better location. However the human would know I was thinking this way, and might thus choose the meh location just to stay away from danger. So maybe I should pick the meh location so that I would catch him. He would deduce that I would think this way too, so the most dangerous location might actually be the safest one. Then why not just go for it? This is the kind of double guessing which happens all the time in this game. Eventually I decided the human must be having a do or die mindset by this stage. So I placed my creature Hunt token on the yummy location. I was right! Game over for the humans. Welcome to the warm embrace of Artemia.

The Thoughts

Not Alone is a light-to-medium weight game. It takes 30-45 minutes to play. What makes it attractive is the cat-and-mouse mechanism and how the creature and the humans need to guess one another's intentions. Even among the human players they need to guess what their teammates are thinking. The humans are under constant pressure. Their location cards dwindle, their Will counters dry up, they slowly slide towards the hive mind. They fight to survive till help arrives. The creature is mighty, but also has a heart-pounding urgency to assimilate the humans before they escape its grasp. This game has great atmosphere!