Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Poor Man's Triumvirate

I read Chris Norwood's recent post on Triumvirate, and it intrigued me enough to learn about the game.  I'm always on the look-out for new two-player games to try out with my wife.  On boardgamegeek.com, I found Ender Wiggin's review, which was sufficiently descriptive that I was able to reproduce the game play with a modified deck of regular playing cards (in true cheapskate fashion).

The premise of Triumvirate is that the players are playing cards to represent political machinations to place Caesar, Pompey, or Crassus on the throne as Emperor of Rome.  When one of the three nobles becomes Emperor, the game ends, and the player who has secretly pledged greater support to that noble house wins the game.

To assemble a knock-off for Triumvirate, I removed all the clubs, all the tens, and the two jokers from a normal deck of playing cards.  The three remaining suits - spades, hearts, diamonds - represent the three Roman noble houses of Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.  The face cards in each suit are used to track the progress of each faction, so that when spades (or hearts or diamonds) wins a hand, the Jack of spades (or hearts or diamonds) is turned face up.  When spades wins a second hand, the Queen of spades is turned face up, and when spades wins a third hand, the King of spades is turned face up to indicate that the "leader of the house of spades" has won ascendancy as Emperor of Rome.

The Ace through nine of spades, hearts, and diamonds are used to win tricks on behalf of the three suits.  When three tricks are won in a single suit, that hand is over, that suit wins the hand, and that suit's next face card is turned face up to represent progress in that suit toward becoming Emperor.  The four, six, and eight of each suit are also eligible to use as "pledges" for the players each to secretly support one of the three factions.  At the end of the game, players reveal the cards they have pledged in each suit, and the player with the greater total in the "winning suit" wins the game.

The details of how to play each hand and how to win tricks are well described in Ender Wiggins review on boardgamegeek, so I won't belabor the mechanics here.

Kathy and I tried two games on Tuesday evening.  The first game was a learning game as we got familiar with the mechanics.  The second game gave us a little more appreciation for the tactics of vying for ascendancy and throwing support behind the faction you think will win while undermining your opponent's efforts to advance the faction to which you think he or she has pledged the most support.  In the end, we both agreed that it is an interesting game, but we didn't get as excited about it as we have about other games.  We'll probably try it again some time, but it won't be on our short list, at least not right away.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

SJW: Stuart's Raid (or, "I don't need you. I can lose all by myself.")

Monday my friend Paul R. and I got together for another session of Stonewall Jackson's Way at Game Parlor, Chantilly, VA.  We decided to try the micro-sized Scenario 3, "Stuart's Raid," dicing for side in the first game then switching sides and playing again.

General J.E.B. Stuart
Source:  www.sonofthesouth.net
From the game notes:  "This scenario simulates J.E.B. Stuart's 22 August cavalry raid against Pope's lifeline, the Orange and Alexandria Railroad.  This is a very simple scenario and should take only a few minutes to play.  Again, this is something of a hypothetical scenario as Stuart's raid actually encountered little opposition."  The three-day episode runs 22 - 24 August 1862 and occurs primarily in Fauquier County and northern Culpeper County, Virginia.  The Rappahannock River forms the boundary between the two counties.

In the first game, I had the Confederates, which consisted of F. Lee's cavalry brigade and J.E.B. Stuart, normally a corps commander but in this case simply an augmenting headquarters unit.  My Union opposition consisted of two cavalry regiments, 1st Maryland and 4th New York.  My objectives were to damage railroad stations at Catlett's Station and Warrenton Junction and to occupy Waterloo or White Sulphur Springs at the end of the three days.  Inflicting Union casualties also counted toward Confederate victory, whereas suffering Confederate casualties counted toward a Union victory.

The Confederate cavalry start the scenario on the north side of Wellford Ford on the Hazel River, about three miles west of its mouth on the Rappahannock.  Union cavalry start in White Sulphur Springs and Foxville, north along the Rappahannock on the far (east) shore.  Scenario restrictions prevent the Confederates from crossing the Rappahannock downstream of the Union position (unless it is at Kelly's Ford, a good seven miles south of the Hazel River, rather the long way around to the objective rail stations).  On the first day of the raid, scenario restrictions also prevent the Confederates from conducting an extended march and prevent the Union from moving at all.

My initial thought on reviewing the scenario was that if I had good dice rolls (for movement points) on the first day, I could swing north of the Union forces, cross the Rappahannock at Waterloo three miles north of White Sulphur Springs, then head for the Warrenton Branch Railroad and follow it east toward my two objective stations.  As it happened, my first roll was quite poor, and I feared that I would make insufficient progress on the first day.  Rather than leave the Union forces unmolested, I figured that F. Lee's brigade, which outnumbered the 4th New York three to one, could force its way through at White Sulphur Springs, bloody half the Union cavalry, and shorten the route to Warrenton Junction.

My thinking was seriously flawed.  My advantages of leadership and manpower were largely nullified by having to attack across the ford, and although I forced the enemy's retreat and occupied White Sulphur Springs, I ended up disorganizing my cavalry and exhausting my troops for the day.
On the second day, I gained the initiative but had to conducted an extended march by virtue of my troop's fatigue from the previous day's fighting.  As it happened, my die luck was poor, and I lost a third of my manpower from extended marching with a disorganized force.  Retaining the initiative, I elected to conduct a second extended march, seeking to regain lost ground toward my railroad objectives.  Again, poor die luck led to loss of another third of my original manpower on the extended march while disorganized, leaving me with but a third of my original manpower, and that completely exhausted.

And hereupon we realized the fatal error I had made.  In order to damage a rail station, I needed at least two combat factors (i.e. at least two-thirds of my original force size).  So here I was, having conducted a day of battle and a day of extended march, only to leave myself with a force too small to damage either of my objectives.  A quick analysis of the victory conditions led us to conclude that even if I wiped out the Union forces and occupied Waterloo or White Sulphur Springs at the end of the third day, the Union would win for having protected both railroad stations.

Thus I managed to lose the game without my opponent having to move a single piece.  If that's not an indictment of my cavalry operational skills, I don't know what is.

Next post:  We switch sides.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

She beat me again at Battle Line

Kathy and I broke out Battle Line again Sunday evening.  I had some pretty strong Tactics cards to work with, but on at least two occasions, I didn't use them early enough, and she managed to win flags that I was positioned to take if I'd used my Tactics cards more aggressively.  She ended up beating me pretty soundly, five flags to two.  I really, really haven't figured out how to win this game (at least not against my wife), but the great thing about it is, I love playing it.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Seven Wonders and Maori

Friday evening had two friends over for dinner and games.  Since it was Good Friday, Kathy made fettuccine with shrimp.  Jeff W. brought white wine; Rebecca E. brought strawberry chocolate mousse.  My ten-year-old serenaded us on the cello.  So how do you follow a meal like that?

With the seven wonders of the ancient world, of course.  Jeff had played 7 Wonders once before, but it was Rebecca's first time, so the first game was a learning opportunity (and a refresher for Jeff).  Rebecca had the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Jeff had the Pyramids at Giza, Kathy had the Statue of Zeus, and I had the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.  It was a great learning game, with very close final scores.  Kathy won the first game, in part by using the special ability of the Statue of Zeus to build the eight-point Temple for free.  Interestingly, no one played any significant number of green science cards in that game.

Lighthouse at Alexandria
Image courtesy of Repos Production
My experience with 7 Wonders is that once everybody has played the game one time through, all subsequent games go much quicker, and everybody seems to have a handle on what they're doing.  That was certainly true Friday night.  We randomized the wonders again for the second round, but Rebecca and Kathy ended up with Lighthouse and Zeus respectively again, and Jeff and I ended up trading Pyramids and Mausoleum.  Since everyone had neglected the green science buildings in the first game, I decided to try to capitalize on them in the second game and see how well I could do with them.  I ended up doing rather well in the sciences (two full sets of three for a total of 26 points) but grossly neglected my red military (minus six) and blue civics (one building for six points).  Rebecca, however, completely dominated the game, with strong showings in military, civics, and guilds (including the Strategist Guild, which earned her nine points - in no small part to my terrible military performance).  So, not bad for Rebecca her first time out.

(c) Rio Grande Games
Used by permission
We wrapped up the evening with Maori (designer Gunter Burkhardt, publisher Rio Grande), a game I learned in a pick-up session at Congress of Gamers a year and a half ago that has become a favorite in my family.  Each player places tiles (or "discovers islands") in his or her own array (rather like Alhambra), but with a unique tile selection mechanic.  Sixteen tiles are arranged in the center of the table, around which the players move a canoe to determine which tile to choose.  A particularly desirable tile that can't be reached for free can be obtained by spending shells (the currency of the Maori, presumably).  The objective is to obtain the most points by discovering islands with trees, huts, and completed leis, and having the most canoes and shells at the end the game.

The nice thing about Maori (pronounced MOW-ree, according to my 15-year-old Liam and dictionary.com -- not may-OH-ree, as we had thought) is that it is relatively easy to teach.  Strategy is pretty straightforward, from the standpoint of trying to commit one's tile placement in a way that maximizes the opportunity for points, while at the same time positioning the canoe that moves around the tiles in the center of the table so as to minimize the opponents' opportunity to gain the most valuable tiles.  Our game started with a lot of high-value tiles early on, with a dearth of point-scoring tiles toward the end.  It made for a rather challenging finish for all of us, and it looked as though Jeff had a very solid position to win the game, but it turned out that I outscored him by two points, primarily owing to have a completed lei (where he did not).

Most important, everyone had a great time, and we look forward to playing both these games (and others, I expect) again soon.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Incan Gold and Game Theory

We had a family session of Incan Gold (or, more precisely, my home-made knock-off) this afternoon.  An interesting development came up when my wife Kathy and I had bailed out of an expedition, and only my two sons Liam and Corey remained to explore the ruins.  One instance each of three different monsters had been turned up, which meant that there was a very real possibility that a second monster of one type would appear and scare the remainder of the party out of the ruins at any point.  But then an artifact showed up, and a very interesting stand-off ensued.  By the rules of the game, if there are two or more people in the expedition, neither gets the artifact, and it stays on the card.  In a subsequent turn, if exactly one of the remaining two people decides to return to his tent, he gets all treasure left on cards from previous turns - including the coveted artifact.  If both players turn back, neither gets the artifact, and the round is over.  If both continue on, both continue to share discovered treasure but risk encountering a monster and losing everything.

What followed was an almost comical staring contest between the two of them to try to figure out whether the other was going to stay or return, and therefore whether to return (in hopes that the other was staying, which would leave the artifact to the returning player) or stay (and keep any subsequent treasure for oneself).

The decision to turn back or to continue is simultaneous among remaining players, so the result is a fairly classic game theory problem, in which the outcome of a decision depends upon an opponent's simultaneous unknown decision.

Own decision  Opponent decides to stay  Opponent decides to go
Stay          Turn over another card    Opponent gets artifact
Go                  Get artifact          Nobody gets artifact

Since "Turn over another card" is mutually risky or mutually beneficial but in no case advantageous for one player over the other if both players stay, then game theory would conclude that the only logical decision would be to go.  But if both players decide to go, then neither gets the artifact.

The piece that's missing in my decision table above, however, is that if either player stays, another card will be turned over, to the risk or benefit of the player(s) staying.  So there might be an advantage to staying if a player perceives a potential treasure greater than getting the artifact.  But that's really unlikely, in fact, so the stand-off will typically end up in both players going back and neither getting the artifact. Having said that, however, the game actually plays unpredictably, and perceived risk and reward tend to rule over cold logic.

We've really come to like this risk management game.  I'm apparently way too conservative, however.  I came in last today, and Corey (10) beat us all.  (I seem to recall that he ended up with the artifact more than once, by the way.)

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Intrigued by Incan Gold?

I just learned that my son Liam - the teenager who couldn't stop and who lost all his loot to the monsters in every round of our first game of Incan Gold - taught the game to his little brother and his friend yesterday afternoon, and the three boys had a great time playing it.  So I guess that means he wasn't put off by the game after all.  Good sign!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Poor Man's Incan Gold

I read an entertaining review yesterday of Incan Gold (designers Bruno Faidutti and Alan Moon, publisher Fred Distribution's Gryphon Games).  I really like risk management games (also known as "push-your-luck games"), even though I'm pretty bad at them.  (I got eliminated early in the Can't Stop tournament at PrezCon, which my buddy Grant G. won.)  In the case of Incan Gold, players advance into an ancient ruin to find and share treasure but risk encountering monsters that can force them to drop their loot and run.  At any point, each player has an opportunity to take his share of the loot back to his tent, which guarantees that he keeps what he has but means that the players who continue get a bigger share of whatever additional treasure turns up.

I found the mechanics and components to be straightforward enough that I could recreate the gameplay (if not the artwork) with simple gaming components.  From a normal deck of playing cards, I assembled the two jokers, the twelve face cards, and one each of black ace, two, three, four, five, seven, and nine, and red ace, three, four, five, and seven.  Each player gets a different colored pawn, and a set of poker chips serves as gold treasure.

In my version of the game, the aces and number cards represent treasure.  Black cards are worth their face value in gold (with an ace representing a value of one).  Red cards are worth their face value plus ten (so that the red seven is worth 17).  Jokers represent single artifacts worth ten each.  Face cards represent monsters.

[What follows is a description of the rules of the game, but the review I read illustrated them nicely and with a touch of humor.]

The game consists of five rounds.  Each round starts with the deck being shuffled and a card being turned face up to start the journey into the ancient ruin.  If it is a treasure card, the players divide the loot equally.  Now, players have two piles of money over the course of the game.  One pile is their "loot bag," which is where they add found loot but is also what is at risk of being dropped if a monster scares them away.  The other pile is their tent, which is where they dump their loot bag when they decide to leave the ruin and keep what they've found.  Treasure in the tent can never be lost.

When treasure from a treasure card is divided evenly among the players, any remainder is left on the card.  Each player now has an opportunity to decide to go back to his tent and keep the money in his loot bag, or to keep going deeper into the ancient ruin in search for more treasure.  This decision is simultaneous among all the players.  The way it is executed is that all players take their pawns and put both hands under the table.  All players then place one closed hand on top of the table.  When everybody is ready, all players open their hands.  A hand with a pawn in it means that the player has decided to go back to his tent; an empty hand means that the player has decided to continue with the expedition.

If any players decide to go back to their tents, they divide evenly among themselves any treasure that had been left on any cards so far in the expedition.  Then they move all the treasure in their loot bags to their tents, and they are done for the round.  If any players decided to continue with the expedition, they place their pawns on the table next to the face up cards, and another card is drawn and placed face up alongside the last one.

If the card drawn is a face card and it is the first face card of that suit (spade, heart, diamond, or club), then nothing happens.  Players again decide whether to continue or to turn back.  If the card drawn is a face card and it is the second face card of that suit, then all players who are still in the expedition lose all the treasure they have accumulated in their loot bags, no one gets any of the treasure left on any cards, all the cards are shuffled into the deck, and the round is over.  (Players that had previously left the expedition and returned to their tents suffer no loss.)

The Jokers represent special artifacts.  When a Joker is turned up, poker chips representing ten gold are placed on the card.  An artifact can't be divided among players, so if more than one player is still in the expedition, the ten gold stay on the card.  Later, if exactly one player leaves the expedition and returns to his tent, he can retrieve the ten-gold artifact along with all the other treasure still on cards.  If two or more players leave the expedition simultaneously, none gets the artifact (because they squabble among themselves), and it stays on the card.

A round ends when all players have returned to their tents or when a second monster (face card) of a suit is turned up and scares everybody out.  After five rounds, the player with the most treasure in his tent wins.

My son Liam, my wife Kathy, and I tried out this home-made knock-off of Incan Gold yesterday evening, and Liam bolstered my working hypothesis on teenagers and risk assessment.  He was always still in the expedition when the second monster of a suit came up, so he ended up with no treasure after five rounds.  I ended up winning because I adopted a thumb rule of bailing out of the expedition when three different suits had turned up; in my mind, the risk of getting a second monster of any of those three suits was generally too high to justify hoping for more treasure.  Often, I was the only one to leave the expedition, so that meant I got all the leftover treasure on the cards at that point for myself as well.

As I looked at the card distribution, I noticed that most of the treasure cards are prime numbers or at most the product of two prime numbers.  I find that significant because the intent of the designer seems to have been to try to have some remainder to leave on the card after the treasure is divided among the players, at least more often than not.  (There is no six-, eight-, 12-, or 16-gold treasure card, which would frequently divide evenly among a typical number of expedition members.)  The interesting effect is that as the expedition progresses, the motivation to bail out becomes stronger; not only does turning back allow a player to keep what he has in his loot bag and avoid the risk of a monster, but it provides the added "carrot" of picking up some or all of the leftover loot on the previous cards.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Agony in Alexandros

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
My good friend Grant gave me Alexandros (designer Leo Colovini, publisher Rio Grande) for Christmas a few years ago.  Kathy and I had played several times, and I won perhaps every game we played, so it sat on a shelf for some time since then.  Now that she has been waxing me at Battle Line, she proposed we try Alexandros again.

I really like Alexandros.  It's not like any other game I know.  The map depicts the extent of the empire of Alexander the Great in Asia, divided into equilateral triangles, a little over half of which are blank and the remainder each having one of five icons reminiscent of Hellenistic Greece - an urn, a horse, a lyre, a soldier, or a temple.  Each player represents one of Alexander's generals, who seek to govern provinces in Alexander's empire and collect taxes.  The player to collect the most taxes wins.

The game includes a deck of 55 cards, each of which features one of the five icons that appear on the board.  Over the course of the game, Alexander will traverse and conquer his empire, and his path establishes boundaries of new provinces.  Alexander's movements are influenced by the players to the extent that the available cards allow, so there is some opportunity to control where the province boundaries are set.  Players each have four Macedonian guard pieces that can be used in combination with cards from their hands to conquer provinces once they are completely enclosed by boundaries.  Players can elect to levy taxes, but when any player does so, all players get points for their governed provinces simultaneously.  So it is important to try to govern the most profitable provinces (those containing the most blank triangles) before levying taxes.  Provinces can also be taken from other players by card play.  Guards can be removed from one province and, in a separate action, used to occupy another.

In our most recent game, I occupied a large province early on and started levying taxes to jump to an early lead.  I committed guards to other, smaller provinces, while Kathy accumulated cards because there was little else she could do in the early stages.  I continually levied taxes and increased my lead, and it looked for a while as though I was going to run away with the game.  But with a big hand of cards comes a lot of options, and Kathy soon established a much stronger position.  Around mid-game, she took one of my larger provinces and occupied a couple of others as well.  Then she was the one to start levying taxes.  The game end can be triggered when one player exceeds 100 points, and it was right around the 55-point mark that Kathy passed me and never looked back.  I had spent so many actions placing guards and levying taxes early on that I never accumulated cards for any kind of hand strength, so I was in no position to catch up to her.  She ended up beating me by over 20 points.

Alexandros provides a whole different game-playing challenge, and I can see that I still have a lot to learn in the way of tactics and nuance.  I also hope to have an opportunity to play in a three- or four-player format, where I'm sure gameplay can get even tighter.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Embattled in Battle Line

Image courtesy of
GMT Games
In the last two weeks my lovely wife has beaten me twice in hard-fought games of Battle Line (designer Reiner Knizia, publisher GMT), one of my acquisitions at PrezCon last February.  In fact, since I brought Battle Line home, my wife has won every game we've played.  My buddy Grant Greffey had introduced me to Battle Line years ago, and I was intrigued at the time, though I didn't buy it right away.  More recently, trolling boardgamegeek for ideas for games suitable for spouses, the name Battle Line came up more than once.  So at PrezCon, I saw that GMT was selling it for $15 and snapped it up (along with another game that I'll post about later).

The main deck consists of six suits of ten ranks of "Troop" cards representing various troop types from the Hellenistic Greek period.  The eponymous "battle line" consists of nine "flags" against each of which the two players each commit up to three cards in an effort to construct a superior "formation" and win the flag; three adjacent flags or five total win the game.  The superiority of one formation (three-card set) over another depends on their pattern; a "wedge" formation (three-card "straight flush") beats a "phalanx" (three-of-a-kind) for example.  Grant describes Battle Line as "nine hands of three-card poker," but I think that description sells the game short.  The real genius of the game is that the deck is never re-shuffled.  As a card is committed to one position in the line (i.e., one of the nine "flags"), that card becomes unavailable for any other position.  The real skill in this game seems to come in knowing where to commit and where to keep one's options open.  If I can prove that you can not come up with a better formation ("hand") than mine for a certain flag (based on cards that have already been played elsewhere on the table), then I win that flag immediately.

The game also has a ten-card deck of unique "Tactics" cards that can modify a position in the line to one's advantage.  A player can choose to play a Tactics card in lieu of a Troop card, sometimes to devastating effect.  Some Tactics cards are wild or semi-wild cards.  Some allow shifting cards on one's own or one's opponent's side of the battle line.  Some change the heirarchy of formations or conditions for winning a specific flag.  The only limitation on playing Tactics cards is that you can't play one if you've already played more Tactics cards than your opponent has.

The fascinating thing is that Battle Line has a very martial theme, so I really didn't expect it to appeal to Kathy.  She really didn't expect to get the hang of it, either, but was willing to try since she's such a good sport about trying new games.  Well, apparently she got the hang of it just fine.  All three of our sessions have been close (more or less), but her timing with Tactics cards is downright uncanny.  More than a few times did I think that I had a flag won only to have her snatch it from me in the nick of time.

Next post:  Another game with a Hellenistic theme - and another loss to my lovely wife.  (What is up with that?)