Monday, June 2, 2014

Dominion (2-4 players) (4 stars)

Dominion is an elegant 2-4 person card game that takes 20-45 minutes. There are Action cards which modify the flow of the game, Treasure cards needed to buy any of the three types of cards, and finally Victory cards, the aim being maximizing victory points.

The turn order does not change throughout the game. During their turn, players take (A)ctions as allowed by cards, (B)uy new cards, (C)lean-up the unused cards in their hands, and (D)raw five new cards.

Some randomness is necessary in each game. But it should be such that the players should feel capable of reducing it. Here it comes about because of the cards you draw at each turn. You need to have a right mix of cards to consistently draw useful ones. And which cards you have is determined by which cards you buy, and when you buy them. If there are too many (or even few) victory points, they are of no use. Even if you have many treasure cards, you can buy only one item. Action cards are the real modifiers. If there are too many stand-alone (or terminal)  actions, you can use only one of them. Some action cards like village and market allow you to take additional actions as well as draw more cards. The market and militia provides you additional virtual money etc. One can buy multiple copies of the same card. Ten different action cards are available and deciding a strategy around a few of them is useful. There is generally not much point in trying to buy one or a few of each.

Most cards do not interact with other players ('Attack'), and so the game goes on independently in some sense. The players are not even (generally) competing for resources. But then there are cards like militia which affect the number of cards that other players hold. Or an action like thief can steal money from others. A single card, moat, repeals the attacks but then one may need to have several copies of it.

Pacing of the game is important and that is what you need to be able to control despite the random draw of five cards from your deck. If you could get most of your cards in your hand everytime, then you are guaranteed to win. So that should be one possible aim. It is the choice of  the right action cards to buy at the right time that can make or break your game. Another thing to remember is that initially victory cards are a hindrance, but you need them to win. So, as the game progresses, you need to start collecting them. Especially the higher valued ones. This is also linked to the game end condition. The game ends when the stack of the highest valued victory points is over or any three stacks are over. This end condition of finishing 3 stacks can be hastened and one has to watch out for that. Thus there are interesting parallels from Puerto Rico (Money/Actions first, then Victory points or ending the game by building on the 12 available building spots) as well as Power Grid (Hold back initially so that you can go full speed later).

But there is more once you get accustomed to the standard set of 10 action cards (also called ‘kingdoms’). You can choose any set of 10 action cards out of a possible 25 sets, thus making available a large number of variations. There is a set, for instance, which ensures that there can be a lot of money in circulation. Or another involving several different attacks.

It takes some time for one to realize one slightly odd point of the game: all cards in your "hand" get discarded at each turn (clean-up). Now that I have told that up front, you should be able to get into the game better. The cards get shuffled into your hand when all cards have been used.
Once the mechanism is understood a game can get over in about 20 minutes making it a quick game (especially for the 2-person version). Some cards are clearly more versatile than others, but the remaining 9 action cards do ensure that a single card can not be a runaway winner. The action modifiers have to be judiciously used, and victory points need to be accumulated at the correct times. Because of the balancing, just as you start getting into the groove, the game is almost over.

Bottomline: I like it because of the variations possible, the need to hold back and the feeling that one is in control.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ticket To Ride (5 stars)

The basic version of TTR has been one of the more frequently played games of late for the following reasons:
(1) quick set-up (2 minutes)
(2) clean, simple design (only 3 types of parts)
(3) limited rules and as a result easy to learn (15 minutes)
(4) relatively fast game (30-60 minutes)
(5) varied strategies
(6) multi player (2-5)

The game includes a map with a set of cities connected by routes. Different segments of the routes are made of different colors, and some adjacent segments are connected with two colors. You start by picking some destination cards that you are to fulfill without revealing them to your opponents. You use partly randomly drawn train cards to complete different segments. Partly randomly because you can choose from 5 open cards, or blindly from the face down ones. The advantage to the blind ones is that they could contain jokers that can be universally used. The destinations may be far apart of nearby, and the points you get depend on that. In addition, some other may be competing for some parts of your route, and there are only so many cards of each color. The routes do not have to be direct or shortest, so there is a wide latitude in choosing your configuration. For each segment you get points increasing somewhat like Fibonacci sequence. If you finish your destinations (or even otherwise) you can draw more (and you have to keep at least one during each turn). You lose points for each destination card that is not complete. The aim is to maximize your points.

Sum of destinations can typically range from 20-50, routes from 40-80. There are 10,15 points for max cards done, and longest route. Its difficult to go negative, and competitive totals are typically between 110 and 140. I have crossed 170 twice in 5-player games, highest being 185. Theoretically it is possible to get 290 in a 2-person game. Thus there is a wide range possible depending on the draw as well as your opponents.

It is not as chanceless a game as Puerto Rico is, nor are the chances based on probabilities as in the case of Settlers of Catan. But one can try to optimize despite the draw of cards. What does affect ones performance somewhat is the order of players. If you come after an aggressive player, life can be a bit difficult. On the other hand if the player before you is fully self-engrossed, you have to worry less.

A completed TTR board
Some possible strategies include:
(1) keep the most related cards and try to do them together.
(2) keep the least valued cards, do them quickly, or even ignore them, and go for longer routes and draw more cards.
(3) Keep taking top cards up to an extent and then play your cards
(4) Block some of the short key routes early.
(5) Finish the game early by putting as many as possible if your do not have specific targets to complete.

With 2 and 3 players you can not use the parallel routes. The game is thus most competitive (and fun) with 3 or 5 players. There are extensions but I am not a big fan of those. Also, some of them need the original set also, so be aware before buying.  If you are not in to boardgames yet, this may be a good first game.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Power Grid (2-6 players) (5 stars)

After a couple of early attempts we had temporarily given up on power grid as it seemed too linear and run-away game with first person to take lead staying there. But I had read about its non-linearity and wanted to persist with exploring it a bit. And that does pay off. Holding off at the right moments is indeed important in this game and the pressing on of one's advantage has more dimensions than do games like Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico etc.

The aim of the game is to connect cities on a map, and power them using power plants that you but through auctions. The power plants can run on 5 different types of resources including green energy. What makes the game exciting is that the order of players can change at each round depending on the number of cities and the highest power plant, and in two phases the order reverses making it crucial to maintain one's position carefully in different parts as the game progresses.

The resources for the plants are bought from a finite supply and you get to buy them for cheap if you have less cities and/or less expensive power plants, a mechanism that helps balance the game. An important thing to remember is not to buy too mean cheap plants since each player can hold only so many at one time (4 in the 2-player version, 3 otherwise)

As you power more cities, you get more money (Electro), but the increment per city gets smaller and sometimes it is worth asking if the extra resources will pay off for themselves. All in all, a more dynamic game with not too many variables.

Familiarity with a game goes a long way in befriending it. Initially the mechanisms, the role-play seem alien, but play it 3-4 times and you start understanding the finer aspects of it and appreciating the nuances. Another well designed game.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Pandemic (1-4 players) (5 stars)

The stage for this game is a world map with 48 locations where four diseases spread. The players, using roles dawned for the game, try to contain the diseases. There are five roles possible: a researcher collecting and passing on information, an operations expert setting up research stations, a dispatcher shuttling people around, a scientist discovering cures, and a medic curing diseases. The nature of the game is different from a usual board-game in that the players play against the game in a cooperative way and either they all win, or they all lose. The official version is for 2-4 players, and it can be fun with players trying to come up with steps in the strategies to arrest the spread of the epidemics. At this moment, however, it is my favorite solo game where I take on the role of 2, 3, or 4 players (whatever version I have set up the game for - but I like the one with 4 roles best). The game has a small number of attractive pieces and is easy to set-up. The roles, a few special cards that can delay the epidemics, an element of randomness and the continuous race against the outbreaks make the play tight and exciting.

The element of randomness in the location where the disease starts off, or accelerates, is balanced very well by the number and type of tools available to the team-members with the final result (win or loss) almost never completely clear. Corresponding to the 48 locations where diseases can spread, team members have the same set of locations available for movement using different mechanisms and understanding these mechanisms is important. Since the game is for a maximum 4 players, at least one of the five specialist roles always gets left out.

Each player takes 4 actions, followed by new locations being available, and spreading the disease (an unavoidable side effect). Mixed with the location cards arethe epidemic cards. As a result, instead of getting access to a new location, one can accidentally cause an epidemic adding to the tension. Once such an epidemic does happen, the rate at which infection spreads increases, and this can cause outbreaks that spread to more regions. The cities that were already affected are now at a greater risk. You could also get some special cards (only one each of five different types) that give you one special free action. To discover a cure one needs five cards of one color in the hand. The usual capitalistic limit of not being able to hold more than 7 cards at a time makes this non-trivial.

The game ends in victory when all four cures are discovered or in a loss when no more cards can be drawn, or there are no more disease markers for a color, or there have been eight outbreaks. Four, five, or six epidemic cards can be roughly equally spread in the draw pile and that is what makes this an easy, normal, or heroic game. Don't mistake the 'easy' to be so. First few times, until you master the speacial roles, that is what you should play. Gradually you start understanding how to use the order of the roles effectively and are
ready to try to be more heroic. In a given game the roles come in a particular random order as decided at the start. Since the different roles complement each other in different ways, it is important to have a plan and to work towards it. One has to also keep an eye on evolving situations that could torpado the entire world. The importance of the role order can be illustrated with a couple of examples: if a dispatcher comes before the medic, it is a good idea to get him to move the medic to where the worst infection is. If the
dispatcher comes before the researcher and the scientist, it is important to move them together in case the scientist can be given cards that contribute to a cure. If operations expert comes before medic, he should set up stations that will aid the movement of the medic to hotspots. And so on. The variations possible are large. For 4 player games, any one of the 5 roles gets left out (5C4 = 5C1 = 5). For the four players, the order can be one of 24 distinct one (4P4 = 4! = 24). Because of the cyclic nature of the roles this reduces by a factor of 4. Still the total possibilities is 5*6 = 30. Add to that the four diseases, and the 12 cities (and their connections) within the main areas of each disease making each game unique.

The official version is sleek, attractive, and beautiful, but the dynamics of the game itself can be set-up using a couple of standard decks with different designs and a bunch of lego pieces. Remove the Kings (or Aces) from the decks and treat those as the 48 cities belonging to 4 disease areas (each suite representing one disease). The connections between the colors can be decided as follows: order of suites: Clubs (C), Diamonds (D), Hearts (H), Spades (S). S5 connected to H2 and H3, S11 to H3 and H8; H5 to D2 and D3, H11 to D3 and D8; D5 to C2 and C3, D11 to C3 and C8; C5 to S2 and S3, C11 to S3 and S8. The kings (not used as the 48 cities) become the epidemic cards (along with 2 jokers). I would have suggested Jacks instead of Kings, but did not want to break the sequence. For the special cards, 5 cards with backs identical to the 48 location and 6 epidemic cards will have to be used. Lego pieces can be used for markers of role (5), epidemic (1), outbreak (1), cure (4) and research station (6). And then there is the board. While this can be done, it is much better to buy the game itself. You will enjoy that far more.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Puerto Rico (5 stars)

Of late Puerto Rico (PR) is our favorite game and has somewhat overtaken Settlers of Catan in that respect. The reason? It has less of a chance element compared to Settlers. The downside? It takes a wee bit longer to arrange if the max i.e. 5 players are not playing, and the game itself takes longer - about 90 minutes. Even if it takes longer, most people seem to like the elegance of the game, the strange bit of tension that exists in trying to procure resources that are just about right and in general tight. And it is not at all as complex as it may first seem. Its a simple but wonderful role playing game where you are trying to get victory points and when the game ends, whoever has most victory points, wins.

The role selection is a little bit like Citadels, but differs in two major aspects. One chooses roles openly, and that role can be done by everybody (although there is an extra benefit for the one who chooses the role). Rules dictate when choosing which rule is good and there are decisions to be made at each stage since you can see what resources other people hold as well.

Of course all rules have exceptions and there are ways of getting around the rules and that is what makes the game exciting. You break the rules by certain actions, but there are only so many who can take those actions. So, initially its worth reading about the different buildings you can buy.

There are also 5 special buildings that come into play close to the end of the game. And knowing when the game ends is important as you have to plan for it. It ends in one of 3 ways: There are no more colonists (people), or there are no more victory points, or any of the player fills up the 12 building spots. So one has to keep an eye on all possibilities, and also on people who may want to end the game sooner because they are ahead.

There are a few not-so-hidden points to keep in mind that make the game even more fun. One of them is the Craftsman angst. It feels great to be the craftsman and produce lots of good. But then the danger is that the next person becomes captain and before its your turn all the ships are full and your goods are spoilt.

A few tips for novices: (1) money is more useful initially, (2) at least a quarry or two is good to have so that you need to pay less money, (3) the games typically last between 15 and 20 rounds, (4) keep an eye on the large buildings.

PR can also be played as a two-person game, and unlike most multi-person good games it does not lose any of its charm in the two-person version. Definitely recommended. There is also an online version that you can play at (for the two-person game play only 5 roles per round rather than 6). You can also play it against 4 computer opponents. Though these are okay, they are not as good as people who have played the game even a couple of times.

Here are some more details about the roles and the mechanisms.

How do you get victory points?
By shipping goods during the Captain's phase! Every barrel gets you one point.

What goods?
Oh, the usual: Corn, Indigo, Sugar, Tobacco, Coffee.

And where do you get these?
You produce them! (During the Craftsman phase). All you need are appropriate plants (with people to work with them) and factories to process them (with people to work these too).

Where do you get the plants?
During the Settler phase.

And the factories?
You get those (and some other buildings) by paying for them during the Builder phase.

Where do the people come from?
The Mayor brings them during his phase.

Where does the money to buy the buildings come from?

You get the Dubloons (PR currency) when you sell goods during the Trader phase.

Do all crops fetch the same value?
Of course not! Corn fetches nothing (but you don't need any factory to process it), and Coffee pays most (and coffee processing is most expensive).

Hope you give PR a try - you will not regret it.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ricochet Robots (4 stars)

This is a fast paced game that any number of people can play. You could even play it as solitaire. If there are more than 10 people it could get a bit crowded. Unlike other games that are this flexible, it is a game of strategy. But you do not have to consider too many distinct factors. Things do have to be worked out in the head, and that is what makes this fun.

The board is a simple 16x16 squares. This is the playground of the 4 robots - each with a different color. These robots, when activated go along a straight line until stopped by other robots or by a wall. The board is surrounded by a wall, the central four squares are walled off as well. Other than that there are small angled walls on two adjacent sides of several squares. In these squares are targets that the robots seek - 4 distinct ones per color, and one universal. Each of these 17 have a matching token.

This is how you play: One person pulls out one of the 17 tokens at random. The appropriate colored robot is supposed to reach the corresponding location on the board by ricocheting off walls and others robots. Each linear move by any robot counts towards the number of moves. This is where the strategy comes in. In your head you figure out the minimum number of moves needed to reach the target. You then announce it. Whoever announces a number, a one-minute countdown starts (hourglass or stopwatch). If someone can better that count within a minute, that is allowed. Otherwise at the end of the minute the move is demonstrated and the token goes to the winner. The robots are left where they were at the end of the first set of moves. Now the next token is drawn and the moves contemplated.

Online versions are available, but these seem buggy. It will be fun to program for the best moves. One can print the board and play with lego pieces as robots - a poor mans way. The original board is of course much better to play with.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Scotland Yard (4 stars)

This is an intriguing game for 2-6 people. There is  1 Mr. X and the others are detectives.Mr. X goes around London using Buses, taxis, subway, ferry and resurfacing every so often while the detectives try to form a team and catch or block Mr. X with the limited number of transport tokens at their disposal.. What works in favor of Mr. X is that every time a detective uses a mode of transport Mr. X gains that token. Mr. X is often on the edge not knowing when the detectives will be eliminate many of the locations and come close. There are two double jumps to help Mr. X in particularly dire situations. The detectives on the other hand can, in general, never be sure which small taxi route could have helped Mr. X escape.

Unlike many games, here different players do not have symmetric roles. . As a result, it is best to play this as return games, taking turns at becoming Mr. X. A single game can easily take an hour or more, making a full round rather long (if that is how you are playing it). That is one big drawback. But the game is addictive and you can find yourself playing late.

Coordinating between the detectives is a big issue. If not done well they quickly run out of viable alternatives to move and can get stuck giving Mr. X practically a free ride. Deciding where Mr. X may be based on where he had surfaced 3 steps ago can be tough. To cheat a bit in figuring that out I have written a perl program (gradually improving; uses mysql db as backend; available on request).

A Java program is available that allows you to practise this as solitaire. Mr. X makes his moves and you act for all detectives. One person manipulating all detectives (they nevertheless have to move in order) is perhaps best lading to least conflicts. All in all, a fun game to try. You can also try to modify it to your own city. Alas, us Angelinos don't have any public transport to write home about, leave alone making a board game. I did try possibly the next best thing though. Modeled a story (in Marathi) after it.