Saturday, 27 May 2017

Ticket To Ride: Pennsylvania

Plays: 2Px6.

I hadn't planned to play Ticket to Ride: Pennsylvania. One fine weekend I felt like playing basic Ticket to Ride with the family on iOS (because it's quick). I found that the app had been removed from the Appstore, replaced by a new version. If you have bought the old version before, you get the new version for free, plus the Pennsylvania map. I dove into this new map without even reading the rules. Bad idea. I didn't know what I was doing. The interface is good, but not miraculous enough to teach you the new rules. Eventually I had to read the in-game rules to understand how things work.

The physical boardgame expansion contains two maps, Pennsylvania and United Kingdom. At the moment the UK map is not yet implemented in the app.

The Game

There are many long routes along the outer edges of the map. At the top left, there are ferry routes to Canada. This route type specifically requires jokers (locomotive cards).

The Pennsylvania map introduces the shareholding mechanism, albeit a simple one. Next to most routes you see logos of railroad companies. Whenever you complete a route, you get to claim one share of one of these companies. In this photo there are three logos on the route between Scranton and New York. There are four between Scranton and Allentown. Shares are scored at game end. Each company gives out points to the largest two or three shareholders. The bigger the company, i.e. the more shares that can be claimed, the higher the payout.

When you check the status of shares, this is what you see. The panel on the right shows all currently available shares. There are two numbers on each share. The first number is the sequence number of the currently available share. The second number is the total number of shares. At the top, the company JCL has three shares in total. One has been claimed, so the one currently available is the second share.

The panel at the bottom shows what I own. The large white numbers are the number of shares. Of the two smaller numbers, the first one refers to the lowest share sequence number that I have for that particularly company. The second number is the total number of shares of the company. The sequence number is important because it is a tiebreaker. When the game ends, if two shareholders have the same number of shares, the tie is broken by whoever has invested in the company earlier. You check the lowest sequence number you have. Let's take the company WM as an example. 1/4 means I was the first to have claimed a share from this company. The big 2 means I hold two shares. This means I will definitely score 1st position for WM. Even if another player also has two shares, I will win by tiebreaker because I was first to invest in this company.

This is when shares scoring is done. For this company, Michelle (FYV) has three shares and scores 10pts. Both the dummy player and I (HCS) have one share each. However since the dummy player has claimed a share earlier, it gets the 6pts for being in 2nd place. I only get 3pts for being in 3rd place.

The Play

When I started playing the Pennsylvania map, the shareholding aspect felt disjointed. It was partly because I jumped in without reading the rules. It felt like the game had veered away from the original simplicity. It took me a few plays to get comfortable. I eventually realised that the addition isn't all that complicated. However it is still an additional layer to think about, with new tactical considerations, more things to remember, more things to calculate in your mind. If you prefer Ticket to Ride to stay simple, you may not like this.

When the game starts, you must keep at least three tickets. Most of the time you do want to complete all three, because otherwise the penalty can be painful. As you work on the three tickets, you will collect shares,and you will compete with other players in shareholding. You can plan your routes based on the shares you want to collect. I don't do that myself because I find that too tiresome. I plan routes based on the usual considerations in basic Ticket to Ride - e.g. shortest path, availability of the colours I need. Shares are nice-to-have bonuses, at least when I'm still trying to complete my tickets. I do take note of what my opponents are collecting, and when given an opportunity to thwart them, I would. I just don't go out of the way to perfectly align my share collecting with my route building. When I complete my tickets, there are two general directions I can go in. I either get more tickets and continue to focus on completing them, or I forget about tickets and switch to compete in shares. In the latter case, I may build routes outside of my network, just because they give me the shares I want. This is something different from basic Ticket to Ride. In the basic game, you build isolated routes mostly to mess with an opponent (you evil person!) or to score a long route.

The shareholding mechanism affects timing. Sometimes you are tempted to claim routes early because of the first investor advantage.

Michelle and I played 2-player games, which come with additional rules related to a dummy player. When completing a route, you first claim a share for yourself, and then you claim one for the dummy player. So when the game ends, the dummy player has as many shares as both players added up. Half the dummy player's shares are randomly discarded before shares scoring is done. You can use the dummy player to help yourself or hinder your opponent, e.g. exhausting the shares of a company to deny your opponent. Due to the dummy player rules, the 2-player version is more complicated. I have not tried playing with 3 or more, so I can't say how different it is.

The Thoughts

What Pennsylvania introduces is the shareholding mechanism. It's not very complex, but it is an additional layer on top of the basic gameplay. Some may not like it because it deviates from the original straightforward nature of the game. It is something different. Some who have played many versions of Ticket to Ride may welcome the new twist.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

boardgame locations in Malaysia

I recently discovered this list of locations related to boardgames. This includes boardgame and hobby shops, boardgame cafes. This may be handy if you are in Malaysia. https://foursquare.com/grayle/list/tabletop-gaming-stores--venues-in-malaysia

Monday, 1 May 2017

Alchemists: The King's Golem

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Alchemists is a 2014 game. It is a deduction game with an unusual setting. I played it once a few years ago, and at the time was tempted to buy a copy. I didn't, and after that first play, never revisited it until recently when Ivan brought the expansion to Boardgamecafe.net. The expansion is called The King's Golem and it contains a few modules. We played with all modules added.

This is the king's golem. Players now have a new type of action - working on the golem. You can experiment with the golem, to see which ingredients trigger what responses from the golem. An ingredient may cause the golem's ears to smoke or its heart to warm, or both, or neither. Ultimately you want to discover which specific combination of two ingredients animates the golem. As you experiment with the golem and learn more about it, you may submit progress reports to the king, which gives you some benefits. When you feel confident that you can animate the golem, the king will grant you access to it. If you succeed you will be handsomely rewarded. If you fail you will be ridiculed. You need to use the mobile phone app when you attempt to animate the golem. This screen above is shown when you successfully animate the golem.

You need to use a new deduction sheet. Notice the sun and moon icons along the two sides. Now every ingredient has a new property - day or night. As one of your actions, you may spend a king's favour (a new resource) to visit the royal library. At the library you may study one specific ingredient and learn whether it is a day or night ingredient. This eliminates four of the eight possible alchemical component combinations.

At the bottom there are three new sections, all related to the king's golem. The first section is for recording your experiments on the golem. You record whether an ingredient causes the golem to smoke or warm. It is the component of a specific colour and size which causes the golem to smoke, and another component which causes it to warm. So the next new section is for deducting which specific components do these. Once you know the two specific components, you can work out which two ingredients animates the golem, because only two of the eight ingredients in the game contain those two specific components.

This new board is for golem studies. At the start of the game you place your player marker at the bottom left. Each time you perform an experiment on the golem, you advance to the next level. At the second level you qualify to submit progress reports to the king. To advance to the third level, you need to successfully animate the golem. When you submit a progress report, you have three options, as specified at the bottom right. Let's look at the next photo to explain these.

The first type of progress report is when you state two possible components which make the golem smoke or warm. In this photo the blue player has submitted such a report. The two face-down tiles belonging to the blue player specify two components which may make the golem warm. The second type of progress report is when you are absolutely sure which component makes the golem smoke or warm. In this photo all three players feel confident about which component makes the golem smoke. The third type of progress reporting is when you amend a previously submitted report which contains two components. You remove one of the components, i.e. you are now sure which of the two actually triggers the response from the golem.

At the end of the game, all reports are scored. Single component reports get the most points, but also get the highest penalty if you are wrong. Dual component reports get fewer points, and the penalty for being wrong is also smaller. Since you can't see what your opponents have submitted, watching what they do on this board usually doesn't help you deduct.

This is another expansion game board. These are a new type of theory you may publish. In the base game, publishing theories is done based on ingredients. In the expansion, you may publish theories based on components. If you feel confident about a component of a specific colour, you may publish a theory claiming which ingredients contain a positive or negative signed component of this colour. One big difference is to publish a theory based on components, you need to spend a king's favour. Normal publications require cash. Otherwise, publishing works the same way. You gain reputation (points). You lose reputation if your theory is debunked or it is found to be wrong at game end. You get a grant when you publish enough theories.

This is an extension of the main game board. There are two new groups of actions, at the top and at the bottom. The top section is related to visiting the royal library, as mentioned above. The bottom section is related to working on the golem. The purple icons are the new resource - the king's favour. The middle section is the merchant, which already exists in the base game. However there is a small change. Instead of three artifacts on offer per stage, you now have four. The fourth one requires the king's favour as part of the payment.

These are the starting resource cards. They are a new module. In the base game everyone starts with the same resources. If you use this module, you draw four cards and select two to determine your starting resources. It's a small change, but I like it because it creates variation among players.

This is yet another expansion module. This is the player order table. At the start of a round, you take turns claiming a spot on the table. The spot you claim determines the goodies you get. Some spots require a payment. Once all pawns are placed, the turn order is determined by their positions. When you use the expansion module, every round a different player order table is used, giving different types of goodies. This is also a simple change. It injects some uncertainty and variability.

The Play

It had been a long while since my previous play, and I had forgotten most of the strategies, so I decided to play with a simple mindset. I just wanted to enjoy the deduction process. I neglected the money game, which meant ignoring the artifacts. This is where I need to inject a warning along the lines of "kids, do not try this at home". Ignoring artifacts is certainly not a winning strategy. Artifacts are very powerful when used right. Neither Jeff nor Ivan missed out on them.

I was happy with my deductive work. Towards game end I found that I was fairly certain of the components of all eight ingredients. This sounds nice, but it is actually wasteful. I didn't have that much time to publish so many theories. Spending so much effort to learn more than I could score points from was bad. I could only console myself that I did it for science, not for glory. To play effectively, one needs to make efficient use of his resources and time.

I spent much effort on the golem too. It was the new and shiny thing so I wanted to experience and understand it. It is quite a complex expansion module and it gives players more depth to explore. What I find amazing is how this module integrates seamlessly into the base game. The experimentation you do on the golem can help you in finding out the components of the eight ingredients, and the experimentation you do on the ingredients themselves too can help you figure out what animates the golem. The overall deduction space becomes richer. The golem module feels like part of the family and not an awkward son-in-law.

I feel the new type of publication makes the game a little less competitive. I imagine it would be worse with only two players. It might be fine with four. In our game, Jeff only published theories based on components. Ivan and I fought over conventional publishing, but the competition was mild.

The deduction in the game continues to be satisfying. It's the same kind of pleasure as uncovering a mystery, or solving a difficult math problem. There is more to think about compared to the base game, but if you enjoy the base game, you are probably fine with this kind of quiet and intense calculation. In our game I decided to just enjoy the deduction and not worry too much about winning. Yes, that's my excuse for doing so poorly in the scoring department. I made two critical mistakes in my calculations. The first one was related to the components of an ingredient. Afterwards when I rechecked my calculation steps, I managed to find where I missed a step. That impacted all calculations beyond that point, ultimately resulting in a wrong theory being published. I lost points after my theory was debunked by Ivan. The other mistake I made was related to the golem. I was first to enthusiastically tell the king I could animate the golem, and I actually succeeded in getting the two ingredients right. However at the end of the game, I found that I had reversed the two components which caused the golem to smoke and to warm. Despite being able to animate the golem, the king was rather upset at my two incorrect progress reports, and I lost much face at court. Only one word described my final score - horrible. When I rechecked my notes on the golem, I found that I had recorded one of my experiment results incorrectly. An ingredient which caused the golem to warm was recorded as having caused it to smoke. No wonder my progress report was wrong. This is a game where you need to be meticulous and careful at every step, because many deductions depend on the previous steps being right. One misstep and your whole theory unravels.

I was quite confident and my deduction sheet was almost full. Unfortunately being confident didn't necessary mean being right.

The Thoughts

The King's Golem is meant for those who have already played much of the base game and want to extend the replayability or want some variability. If you have not played the base game, do not add this expansion. The base game itself is already quite rich. Some of the small additions in the expansion are, strictly speaking, non-essential. However for long-time players, the variability will be welcome. The golem module is quite a big and complex addition, and is not recommended for new players. Once you are familiar with the base game, you will appreciate how seamlessly this module combines with the original mechanisms. I am certainly impressed.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Escape stories

Story 1

Benz's group has progressed to play Escape with both the expansion modules contained in the base game - the curses and the treasures. I asked them to add both. The curses hinder the players, while the treasures may help them. They can already win the basic game comfortably, so it doesn't make sense to add only the treasures. Adding only the curses might be a little brutal. So I decided to add both for them. The additional rules are manageable. They have attempted this three times, but unfortunately have not yet been successful. I joined them on the third attempt, but it didn't help.

One of the curses removes any die from the game if it falls to the ground. When I taught the game, I said this was one curse which they didn't need to worry about. I said just take care when rolling your dice and you'll never have to concern yourself with this curse. However, in one of the games, Xiao Zhu actually did drop a die on his lap when under that curse. He hurriedly picked it up and threw me a sheepish look, "You said dropped to the ground right? So this doesn't count." I later checked the rulebook, and found that I had taught that rule wrong. A die is lost as long as it falls off the table. Doesn't matter if it lands on the ground, on a lap or on a chair.

Later Xiao Zhu did lose a die to the ground. There was no dispute this time. We were so sure this was a harmless curse, but I guess the game designer knew what he was doing. Losing that die was fatal for Xiao Zhu. He had another curse that prevented him from moving, and he needed three dice to break that curse. The die he lost was his third die. With only two dice left, he was doomed to be stuck in the temple. The game was lost since everyone must escape in order to win.

In the game when I joined them to play, they expected I would play a leadership role and lead them to victory. Unfortunately I was struck by the curse of silence very early on, and remained mute for the rest of the game. I was quite bold in discovering new rooms, which lead to me getting heavily cursed. I also got the one-hand-on-head curse very early. I never realised keeping one hand on your head for 9 minutes could be so tiring. Anyhow, I don't think having me on the team would have made too big a difference. They were already playing quite well. They worked together well.

~~~~~~~

Story 2

In the subsequent session, I joined them to play all the way through. We had five players, and it was quite chaotic. I realised that previously I had made a mistake. When there were only four of them, I had asked them to use 16 gems. That was wrong. They should have used 14 instead. Using 16 gems made it harder than normal. Oops. Still, it took us many tries to beat the game with treasures and curses added. We only succeeded on our fifth attempt this session. That's a total of eight attempts, counting the three failed (albeit unfair) attempts from the previous session.

There were twice when time ran out while we were already at the exit. We couldn't get everyone to roll enough keys to leave the temple. Once we were so very close that we only had one player lacking keys. We had an agreement that once we reached the door, we would wait till everyone had enough keys before stepping through the exit together. After all, we would only win if everyone made it out. However this was not just a matter of team spirit. There was a practical purpose. Those who already had enough keys would still keep rolling their dice, hoping to get the yellow unlock icons. These could be used to help others in case their dice got locked. It was usually good to stick together.

There were twice we forgot to make use of one of the treasures - the one which let us remove a gem from the gem pool. Had we not forgotten, we might have won. Just one gem fewer could be a matter of life and death. Normally treasures were kept aside and used only when an opportune moment came. For this specific type, we should have remembered to apply the effect immediately and not set it aside.

In the previous session, I made fun of Xiao Zhu for dropping his dice. This time, karma struck. I got the don't-drop curse, and I lost not one, but two dice in that very game. I caused my team to fail because I had the don't-move curse too. By losing two dice, I no longer had enough dice to break the don't-move curse.

Space can be a problem when playing with five, since the game is real-time and everyone is moving pieces, drawing tiles and reaching across the table all at the same time. In one particular game, the map kept expanding in the direction furthest away from me, and I struggled to reach the room my pawn was in. I stood up abruptly, saying "I gotta go", and prepared to move and sit at the other end of the table so that I could continue to play. Ruby thought I meant I needed to go to the toilet smack in the middle of our game.

When we finally beat the game, it was very satisfying.

~~~~~~~

Story 3

In the next session, I added missions. Normally how this works is one of the six missions are shuffled into the tile stack, and you don't know which one it is until you draw it. When I taught the group to play, I taught the missions one by one, explaining specifically how one mission worked and then shuffling it into the deck. This way the group didn't have to remember all six missions.

The first mission I taught was the holy grail. Once you find the room with the grail, you need to bring the grail along with you all the way to the exit. As part of moving to another room, in addition to the two icons required, you also need to roll a fire icon to carry the grail with you to the next room. So you need at least three dice to be able to carry the grail.

The second mission I taught was the restless ghost. Once you find the coffin room, the ghost appears at the start tile. You need to go all the way back to find the ghost, then guide it to its coffin, before you can exit the temple. To persuade the ghost to move to an adjacent room, you need to be in the same room, and you need to roll two fire icons. You need not move together with it. The two fire icons "push" it to the next room.

In our game, when we found the coffin, it was four or five rooms away from the starting tile. We decided that two of us would go back to fetch the ghost, while the rest continued to explore the temple and place gems. However, without intentionally planning it, we formed a bucket brigade. We created a path with one person per room, all in an uninterrupted chain. Each of us rolled two fires, and we managed to transport the ghost very swiftly to its resting place. I must say that was quite cool and satisfying.

The ghost (old photo).

The third mission was the old tree. The game started with three additional gems. Once the room with the tree was discovered, we could move these additional gems to the room by discovering rooms on the other sides of the three walls of the tree room. In our game, the placement of the tree room was poor. In order to discover the other rooms surrounding it, we had to turn back and take a roundabout way. Whether we went left or right, it was going to be a longish path, which meant that if one direction turned out to be a dead end, it would take us much time to turn back and try the other direction. In hindsight, it might have been a good idea to split up so that we could explore both directions at the same time. We hadn't thought of that then. Thankfully, the exploration went well, and we found a nice path that wound around the tree room, allowing us to place all three of the extra gems.

The tree (old photo).

In one particular game, Ruby and Xiao Zhu almost started a fight. We were all in a room trying to roll fire icons to place gems. Xiao Zhu had rolled three, and his other two dice were locked. He couldn't do anything except wait for others to unlock his locked dice, or for the gems to be placed so that he could reroll his three dice showing fire. Ruby rolled the yellow unlock icon, and wanted to help Xiao Zhu unlock his dice. Xiao Zhu said no and asked her to unlock her own locked dice. Ruby insisted on helping him. They both tried to convince the other, to no avail. The clock was ticking and both failed to explain his / her rationale. Benz and I were alarmed and stepped in to break the fight. At the time we managed to get to 10 fire icons, which meant we could now place the gems, and all the dice showing fire could be rerolled. We asked both of them to stop debating and move on. Thankfully we won that game eventually. After the game we did come back to discuss what had happened. Actually they both had their points, just that when under immense time pressure, they couldn't get those points across clearly. The real-time nature of Escape can trigger all sorts of emotions.

In all three games with missions, we managed to complete the missions and exit the temple before the final countdown. This session Edwin didn't play because he had some work to wrap up. CK joined us since he had some spare time. CK had only played the basic game previously. It was his first time playing treasures, curses and missions. After winning all three games, we joked that it must be due to having CK join us that we were so successful. Or maybe it was due to having gotten rid of Edwin. I hope he didn't hear that! :-P

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Race for the Galaxy on mobile platform (Beta)

Race for the Galaxy used to be my most played game, in particular the advanced 2-player version, which was a staple for my wife and I. The mobile version is in development now, I recently found out. It is at the Beta testing stage, and it is available for both iOS and Android platforms. I'm not sure how much longer the Beta will last. If you are interested, go sign up for Beta testing asap. Link here. The official launch date is early May.

I seldom play Race for the Galaxy nowadays. Now that I have my hands on the Beta version, I find myself playing it heavily. The AI used is the same one developed by Keldon. Keldon is a fan of the game, and developed a very good AI for it quite some time ago, in a PC implementation. I have played that. He has done such a good job that the official developer of the mobile version decided to work with him and use his AI.

Main menu. You can play against the AI or against other players. So far I have only played against the AI. I tried the multiplayer feature once, but was not able to get matched with any opponent. It might be because there aren't many Beta testers, or they are mostly in timezones different from mine.

It is a little difficult to play on a phone. Race is a game with many details, and in order to show that much information, it has to be shown in small sizes. It can be tiring to the eyes, even shortsightedness-inducing. Or perhaps the problem is with me - I'm getting too old for this size, or my phone - screen not big enough. When I tried it on the iPad, it was much better.

To view the details of a card, you can double tap or tap and hold. Details will be displayed like in the screenshot above. I tend to be too impatient to do this. I'd rather squint at the screen and get on with the game. Once you are familiar with the game, by looking at the picture and the rough positions of the icons on the card, you can generally guess correctly the functions of the card. Veterans will have no problems. Newbies may find this challenging. Race is not a mainstream game. Hobby games is not yet a mainstream hobby. So Race is a niche within a niche. That said, it is one of the better selling games. I hope the mobile version finds a large enough and profitable enough market, and introduces the game to many more players. It is a great game.

Normally you only see a summary of the AI's tableau of cards. You only see an icon for each card. The icon is similar to that on the physical card. It tells you whether the card is a world or a development, what goods it produces, whether it is a production or a windfall world, whether it is a civilian or military world, and the cost. The icon also tells you whether there are currently goods on the card. To see details of the AI's cards, you need to tap the AI area. The details will be displayed as in the screenshot above.

If you use the objectives module, the objectives will be displayed on the right side of the screen as icons. When you double tap to see details, this is what you see.

A summary of the AI's cards is at the top left. The cards in the centre are my tableau. My hand cards are at the bottom. I like how the user interface is designed. It is functional and easy to use. I did go through the tutorial. I already knew the game, so the main purpose for me was to learn the interface. Race is not an easy game to teach. The tutorial contains 3 lessons, and the rules are introduced bit by bit. The first two lessons use incomplete versions of the game. Only the third lesson uses a complete game. I think this should make things easier for newbies.

I defeated the AI. Usually I lose to it, and I am not enthusiastic about sharing those screenshots... I play with AI set to hard. It really is quite good and sometimes I learn some tactics from it.

Friday, 7 April 2017

teaching friends to Escape

By now I have taught three different batches of colleagues to play Escape: The Curse of the Temple. The first time was at home, when I invited them over for an afternoon of boardgaming. They didn't manage to beat the game after three attempts. I joined them on the third attempt. We were close, but still couldn't escape the temple in time. That was last year. Recently I taught two different groups to play at the office. Escape is a game which easily catches the attention of non gamers and casual gamers. It is addictive. Since one game only lasts 10 minutes, when you fail your first attempt, you are eager to go again, because you feel you can surely do better, and hey, it's just 10 minutes. The game being a real-time game makes it exciting for new players.

Zhi Nin, Zharif, Zee Zun, CK and Eva.

I didn't join them to play this time. I just played referee and teacher. I helped remind them of the mid-point earthquakes, when they needed to return to the starting chamber (or lose a die). Amidst the chaos, it is easy for new players to miss the change in music. I also watched out for illegal moves. Quite often when one of them tried to help another unlock frozen dice, I had to remind them that they were in different rooms, so they could not help each other.

Eva's group did not manage to beat the game. The funniest thing in the games they played was how in one of the games the group abandoned Zharif. At the time the countdown for a mid-point earthquake had started, and most of them prepared to head back to the start chamber. Zharif was still doing exploration, and discovered a lucrative room where they could place up to 3 gems. Unfortunately the rest were all running off, so Zharif could not do much all by himself. After that earthquake, the group decided not to bother with the room Zharif found, because it was very away. They headed off in the opposite direction. Zharif had no choice but to run as fast as he could to rejoin the group. Later in the game, they found that they still had too many gems in the storage, which made exiting the temple very difficult. If they had placed 3 gems in the room Zharif found, it would have made a big difference. So coordinating moves and deciding when and where to discover rooms are crucial and can make or break a game. They had a 5-player group, which meant many gems to get rid of. Almost every room with gem spaces needed to be fully utilised.

At first I expected them to play just one quick game, because Zhi Nin and Zee Zun had a online game event to run soon. However it was Zhi Nin who suggested to go again. She said it wasn't necessary for her to be online throughout the duration of the event. No one objected. And after they played the second game, they went for a third! This is how addictive Escape can be.

The third group, Benz's group, fared better and managed to beat the game. They often work closely in their day-to-day work, so they already have good teamwork. They are close friends. When they lost the first game, they started discussing what to do in the second. Whether they won the second game is a point of contention. When the music approached the third and last countdown, I made a mistake and announced the game end to them before the actual end time. They were very close to winning when they stopped. Then in the next few seconds I realised my mistake, and quickly exclaimed, "Go!" They were quick to respond and immediately resumed. By the time the last of them exited the temple, the music had stopped. However if taking into account the short delay caused by my mistake, they might have made it before time ran out.

They won the third game quite comfortably, at around the 8 minute mark. They had a good grasp of the tactics by then. The third game went very smoothly for them too - rolling what they wanted, drawing the right tiles at the right time, etc. They managed to remove every single gem from the gem storage. When they found the exit, it was a piece of cake to go outside.

They never bothered with the earthquakes. Not that they didn't care. Sometimes they were too far away. Sometimes they were too disorganised. Sometimes they were too busy trying to move gems to a room. So they always lost dice at the earthquakes. However ignoring earthquakes didn't seem to be too disastrous. They did save time, and they did manage to win.

Ruby, Benz, Edwin and Xiao Zhu.

The next step for them will be the expansion modules in the base game, followed by the modules in the two expansions. Now I've brought both Expansions 1 & 2 to the office.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Empires: Age of Discovery

Plays: 6Px1.

Empires: Age of Discovery (2015) is the second edition of Age of Empires III (2007), which contains both the base game and the Builders expansion. I have the original Age of Empires III, but I had not tried Builders before. The name has changed in this new edition of the game, due to the high licensing cost of using the AOE3 name, but the core game is the same.

The Game

Age of Empires III is not new to me, so I will just explain Empires: Age of Discovery briefly. This is a worker placement game. In the first half of a round, you take turns placing workers on spaces on the right half of the board. In the second half, these workers perform actions in a specific order. You conquer new land (the game calls this "discovery" *cough*), you send colonists to settle the new world, you collect trade goods, you construct buildings, you fight wars etc. Buildings are an important part of the game. They give you strong powers and augment your abilities, e.g. giving you an extra worker every round. One special feature of the game is you have different types of workers. The common worker is a colonist, but you can have specialist workers like soldiers, merchants, and builders. Soldiers are the only type which may kill enemy workers. Missionaries bring along an extra colonist when they migrate to the new world. Some workers have multiple uses, making them more flexible. E.g. the captain counts as two workers when competing for the merchant ship or when launching an expedition. Specialists can be used as normal colonists, just that you will be wasting their talent.

Scoring is done in several ways, the first being area majority in the colonies. At each colony, whoever has most workers gains 6 victory points, and whoever has second most gets 2VP. In case of a tie for first, the winners only get 2VP each. So there is strong incentive to be sole winner. Some buildings give VP at game end. Trade goods and merchant ships generate income every round. At game end, this earning power scores VP.

Here are five different workers. From left to right - colonist, missionary, builder, captain, soldier. I forgot the merchant. He was left out of the group photo. On the right we have a merchant ship.

The coins in the second edition are gorgeous.

The artwork of the game board is different. The colours are lighter, the design a little cleaner. I like the newer version better.

South America is divided into only 3 regions. Each undiscovered (i.e. unconquered) region has a face-down discovery tile, which specifies the strength of the natives and how much money you earn when, ahem, "discovering" the region. Discoveries are not automatically successful. Your expeditionary force needs to at least match the strength of the natives. So there is risk. The larger the force you send, the lower the risk.

These are some of the spaces you can place your workers. The green tiles on the right are the buildings. We did the full six player game. Every round only five buildings were made available, so at least one player wouldn't get a new building. Every round only one merchant ship was available. With six players, it was not easy to fight for it. In case of a tie when fighting for the merchant ship, the winner is determined using the turn order. The tricky thing is turn order changes during action execution. The turn order at the start of the round may have already changed by the time you resolve the merchant ship space.

Here is another difference between first and second edition. In the second edition, the turn order box is here on the far right. The box for competing for turn order is at the other end of the board, near the top. In the first edition, both boxes are next to each other near the top of the board. I don't quite understand the change. Maybe it is to reduce confusion? Or is there a rule change I missed?

The Play

In Round 1 of the game, I had first pick at buildings. I was second in player order and had not expected I would have first pick. However, Sinbad who was first in player order chose to place his first worker in the trade goods box. I placed mine in the buildings box without hesitation. Initially, expecting to have second pick, I had planned to get the building which gave me one extra colonist every round. When I won the right for first pick unexpectedly, it threw me off balance. I couldn't resist buying the New World Cartography building. The building itself was 4VP. The free discovery it gave me (next to it) was worth 5VP. It also saved me the manpower I would otherwise have spent on an expedition. This all sounded good. However, my decision crippled me for many rounds. The benefits from New World Cartography were all immediate benefits, and didn't help build my long-term capabilities. I had spent my initial capital, and it would take me many rounds before I earned enough money to buy another building. In hindsight, I should have picked the free colonist building.

In this game we played, Jeff and Ivan did best. Both invested well in building the capabilities of their nations. The merchant ship was won by one of them most rounds. Jeff was by far the richest player. In a way, it was good for me that they did so well. They were the obvious leaders, so the other four players collaborated to hinder them. When there was a choice on who to hurt, the preference was usually one of them. I, having screwed myself so effectively at the beginning, had to play the pauper and hope for mercy. Jeff and Ivan had difficulties with colonisation, because Sim and Dith were constant threats with their soldiers. Jeff and Ivan had to think twice where and when to send their colonists. I was the indirect beneficiary from all this. I couldn't compete in making money, launching expeditions, or getting the merchant ship. So I tried to focus on simple colonisation. That resulted in me doing better than most others in colonisation.

Sim was the warmonger. He had buildings which gave free soldiers, and he trained the most soldiers and initiated the most battles. Dith invested in warfare too. However the two of them did not have many conflicts. They coordinated their efforts to attack Jeff and Ivan. Sinbad and I did worst, and declared ourselves Belgium and Luxemburg. We were no match for the big boys - France, England, Spain and Holland.

At this point everyone wanted to colonise. The queue was almost filled up, and every player had a foot in - all six colours were represented. Most workers here were colonists. I (green) had a missionary. Sim (orange) and Dith (red) had soldiers.

At the start of the game, the Caribbean was the only region open for colonisation. Most players were not really interested in colonisation in the early game, so I (green) ended up dominating the Caribbean. Being weak meant I had to go where no one else wanted to go. I intentionally sent more workers than was necessary, as a deterrence. Others could have fought me for the Caribbean, and won, so I needed to make it costly and thus unattractive. Sim (orange) could have killed my colonists with his soldier, but it would take many turns and rounds, so he couldn't be bothered to waste his actions this way.

Sinbad (yellow) was leading in Peru. Sim (orange) had the guns. Jeff (blue) had a merchant. Sim could choose to kill Sinbad's colonist, but it would be pointless. If no player had 3 colonists in a region, the region would not score at all. Sim would need to kill Jeff's merchant so that he could be the sole second place player. If he tied with Jeff in second place, neither would score. This is a situation where you probably don't want to target the leader.

This was the end of the first of three eras. Many regions were not yet discovered.

This was the middle of the second era. All regions were discovered by now.

Near the end of the second era, Sim (orange) had majority in two South American regions. He had exactly three workers, which was required for a region to score. Unfortunately, one of the buildings purchased this round was an epidemic. All players who had three or more workers in a region had to lose one of these workers. This completely messed up his plans. He lost his third workers in both these regions, and the era ended with neither region scoring. That's 12VP lost!

These were the scores at the end of Era 2. I was leading in scores because of my colonists. I knew this would be short lived, but at least I had my moment of glory. Discoveries and buildings were scored only at game end, and I knew I was going to do poorly in these aspects.

This was near game end. See those stacks of gold coins at the top right? Those were all Jeff's. He was swimming in gold.

Final scoring. We knew it would likely be Jeff (blue) or Ivan (purple). Going into the final reckoning, I thought Jeff would emerge victorious, because he was so ridiculously rich. Also, near game end, Ivan was denied a building he wanted. He was forced to buy another building. It should still score him points, but there was a big element of uncertainty. To his pleasant surprise, this last building scored very well, and allowed him to defeat Jeff narrowly, by just 2VP!

The Thoughts

The builders are a nice addition to Age of Empires III. Handy but not overpowered. They feel like they have always been around, and not an awkward addition or patch. One ability of builders which we never used in our game was their ability to increase the VP value of regions. We only used the builders to get discounts for buildings. It is good that buildings become cheaper. The buildings drive diversity and specialisation among players, and make the game colourful. This was my first time playing a 6-player game, and I think the more the merrier. There is much more competition, which makes the game intense and dynamic. So many opponents to watch!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Santorini

Plays: 2Px8.

The Game

Santorini is a good-looking game. It is the hotness now due to how lovely the components and artwork are. Strictly speaking it is not a new game. It was first published in 2004 as an abstract game. The latest version comes with a Greek mythology setting.

The game can be played with 2, 3 or 4 players, but I believe it started as a 2-player game. 3P and 4P are variants. When playing with four, you play in teams of two. So far I have only played the 2-player game.

You have two pawns (workers). On your turn, you must move a worker and then use him to build. The houses all have the same design - three floors and a blue dome roof. See rightmost house in the photo - that's a completed house. The play area is a 5x5 grid. When you move, your worker moves one step orthogonally or diagonally. Your current location and your destination can be of different heights. There is no restriction when moving horizontally or to a lower elevation. However if you are moving up, you may move at most one floor up. So you may move from the ground onto a one-storey house, but not from the ground onto a two-storey house.

When you build, you also build in any of the eight spaces orthogonally or diagonally adjacent to your worker. You build exactly one floor (or a roof), and you must follow the blueprint. E.g. you can't build a roof on top of a single-storey house. When a house is completed, you can't perform the build action on that space anymore. That space also becomes inaccessible to workers.

There are four completed houses in this photo. They are effectively obstacles now.

There are two ways to win. The first one is to get a worker onto a three-storey house, i.e. what the white worker has achieved in the photo above. This is not as easy as it sounds, because when you build the third storey of a house, it is often easy for your opponent to quickly build the roof, thus preventing you from using that house to win. Also you need to watch out not to create a winning opportunity for your opponent when you build the third storey.

The second way to win is to force your opponent to be unable to move and build on his turn. If he can't pick one of his workers to move then build, he loses immediately.

The play area is small. Even though your worker only moves one step, he can cover a big area. Most of the time a worker is able to build on a space two steps away from where he is, because he moves first then builds. The positioning of your workers is important. You need to block your opponent's workers. In this photo, the white workers use the completed houses and themselves to block the blue workers. The white player has built a third storey at the bottom left, and the blue player is unable to stop the white player from winning because his workers are blocked off.

What I have described above is the basic game. Once you are familiar with it, you can add the gods and heroes. The game comes with many such god and hero cards. Before a game starts, one player picks a number of cards equal to the player count, then the other players each select a card, leaving the last one for him. These cards give you special abilities, some of which break the basic rules. The difference between god and hero is god powers are permanent while hero powers are single-use. The designer recommends that when an experienced player plays with a newbie, or when an adult plays with a child, the former uses a hero while the latter uses a god, to level the playing field. When I played with Chen Rui (10), we took this approach.

Prometheus on the left is a god. He lets you build both before and after moving, but when you use this power, your worker may not move upwards. Odysseus on the right is a hero, so his power can only be used once. You may banish opponent workers next to your workers to the corners of the play area.

In this game I made good use of Odysseus' power. I was blue. I had built a third storey at the left corner. When I did that, I triggered Odysseus to send Chen Rui's workers to the right corner and the bottom corner. Having banished them far away from the three-storey building, they could not stop my worker from climbing to the top of the building to win the game.

The Siren on the left is a god. Before the game starts, you set a direction for the siren song. During play, you may forfeit a turn to move all opponent workers in the direction of the siren song. This can be very disruptive to your opponent. Theseus on the right is a hero. You can use him to kill an opponent worker. If your worker is next to an opponent worker, and he is exactly two levels lower, you may trigger Theseus to kill the opponent worker.

The basic rules are very simple and are easy to teach. There are many gods and heroes so it's hard to remember them all, even though most powers are straightforward. You will need to refer to the rules. Gods and heroes can greatly affect your strategy, both offensively and defensively. Different combinations will create different situations and tactics. Some combinations are discouraged because they unbalance the game. Some gods and heroes are even disallowed for three and/or four players. The basic game can stand on its own. However it may start to feel repetitive after 4 or 5 matches. This is a short 15-minute game. You can certainly play 4 matches in an hour. The gods and heroes add much variety and colour to the game.

The Play

Allen lent me Santorini, suggesting that it may be fun to play with my children. When Chen Rui saw it, she immediately fell for the cute artwork and beautiful components. The game even comes with a fully illustrated story book. In this photo you can see that the green play area is elevated by a plastic piece above a board which rests on the table. The board is the sea, the plastic piece the cliffs, and the play area the grassland above the cliffs. These are all aesthetics and don't affect gameplay in any way. They are just marketing, but how beautiful they are!

Santorini is an open information abstract game, which means adults will tend to have an advantage over children. There is little luck. Only when playing with some of the gods and heroes there is some hidden information, which lead to some luck due to players having to make guesses sometimes. I won most of the matches against Chen Rui, since I was able to look ahead and plan for the many possibilities better than her.

This was one of our games. On the left, White looks like it's about to win, but it is actually not the case. Blue can easily build a roof to stop him. On the right, Blue is building the Great Wall of China. In Santorini, you can move up at most by one floor, so to a worker on the ground, a two-storey house is effectively a wall blocking movement. He would need to build a one-storey house and then use it as a stepping stone to make his way up to the two-storey house.

Artemis' god power is simple but strong - you may move your worker two steps. Adonis' hero power let you charm an opponent worker. On your opponent's turn, he must ensure the charmed worker ends the turn next to one of your workers. Chen Rui and I played 8 games, and this was the combination we used in the one game where she defeated me. Artemis' power was straightforward and very handy. I struggled to make good use of Adonis' power. I couldn't quite figure out how to create a situation where it would be useful.

When playing with Chen Rui, I did not try to let her win. I did not play in a vicious manner, but I did do my best to win. Chen Rui was a little dejected when she lost game after game. When she finally won a game fair and square, she was overjoyed. I made a mistake and she made good use of the opening I left for her.

Chen Rui played white and I played blue. On the left, I had isolated one of her workers, almost completely locking him down. She had Artemis, which meant she had much higher mobility. My plan was to create more completed buildings, forming obstacles to neutralise her mobility. A few turns before this photo was taken, I built the third storey at the rightmost building. My worker was at Level 1 and would not be able to directly step up to the third storey, but my intention was to complete the building. I was not trying to win immediately. At the time Chen Rui's worker was quite far away, and I knew I would be able to build the roof before she could reach the building. There would be no risk. I was wrong. She moved toward the building, and then built a third storey at another building right next to it. I hadn't considered that. My workers were all at Level 1 and could not step up to Level 3. I had only one turn and could not build roofs at both the three-storied buildings to stop her. I only managed to build one, and she went on to win the game.

In all eight games we played, we did not encounter the other winning condition - forcing your opponent to be unable to move and build. I suspect this winning condition will happen mostly to players who know the game well and are also evenly matched. They would be good at preventing each other from grabbing a three storied house, and eventually the board would fill up. It becomes a matter of who is able to survive longer.

The Thoughts

Playing Santorini is like playing any other open-information, luck-free, abstract game, e.g. Ingenious, chess, checkers, Nine Men's Morris. Since all information is open, when you play, you tend to think a few steps ahead, simply because you can. You will think: if I do this, he will do that, and then I will respond by doing this, and so on. This game can be played in quite a serious manner, since all possibilities can be calculated, and it is only a question of how far ahead you want to look. Sometimes you can play by instinct, but when it comes to crunch time, you will pause and carefully think through your options and their repercussions. There is very little randomness, luck or hidden information, the exception being some god and hero powers. Due to the thinky nature of abstract games, some may find this game tiring. However, it's a 15-minute game, so there is no pressure of sitting down for a long, exhausting battle of wits like in playing chess. The gods and heroes certainly help to make the game feel less serious. They create much variability, because some of them change fundamental parts of the game. At its core it is still an open information abstract game, but it's closer to checkers than to chess.