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.