Saturday, 18 November 2017

Unlock!

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

I have just written about the escape room game series Exit. Now it is the turn for Unlock. Unlock is an award winner too - the French Golden Ace award (As d'Or Jeu de l'Année), for 2017. I have only played one game in the series - The Formula.

Playing Unlock requires using a smartphone app. It acts as a countdown timer. Sometimes you are required to enter a passcode and it tells you whether it is correct. You can ask for hints. When you make mistakes, you may be penalised. You apply the penalty using the app - it reduces the time you have to escape the room.

Other than this app, what you use is just a deck of cards. There are different numbers and alphabets on the card backs. You start the game with just one scenario card. You read the scenario description aloud, start the timer, and flip the card over to see the room you are in.

This is the room. Those numbers and alphabets you can see mean you get to draw and reveal the cards from the deck with these numbers and alphabets. They are the objects you see in the room. The information on the cards are further details of the objects.

Your end goal is to escape the room in which you are locked. To do that you need to enter the right passcode into the app. To get to this final passcode, you need to solve a series of puzzles and riddles. You need to picture yourself in the room as depicted on the scenario card. There are many objects in the room. All of them will help you escape. Your task is to decipher the clues, and to make use of the objects to get more clues and more objects, until you eventually find the final passcode. Some objects combine to give you another object. Most objects are associated with a number, e.g. a lock is #10, and a key is #11. You may try to unlock this lock with this key. You do it by adding up the two numbers. The total is 21. You look through the deck for card #21. If the #11 key is indeed the right key for the #10 lock, the card #21 will tell you so, and give you a new clue, or a new riddle. If it is not the right key, the card #21 will tell you too, and you will be penalised. Usually you are asked to press the penalty button at the app, which shortens your remaining time. Because of this penalty, you must not randomly combine objects by summing up their numbers, hoping to eventually get a right answer. When you try to combine two objects, it has to make sense. You should only do it if you are confident and you have a logical explanation why the two objects should be combined. Sometimes the sum for two objects don't exist in the deck. Then you know for sure these two objects do not combine. Don't waste your breath.

You need to look closely at the cards. Sometimes there are hidden numbers or alphabets. Some cards require you to enter a passcode. This can happen in the middle of the game and not only at the end. Some cards require you to solve a puzzle where the answer is a number, and this number can be added to the number of another object. Some riddles can only be solved when you have all the necessary data, and the data is spread across many cards. Before you reveal them all, the partial information is not enough. There can be multiple riddles and puzzles at the same time. You can't be sure whether you already have all the necessary information. You need to work smart. If one path looks blocked for the moment, try something else and revisit this path later when you have more information.

You will not know which piece of information is for which riddle. In fact sometimes you may not even know whether a piece of information is a riddle or a clue for a riddle. You need to sort these out yourself. You always have a pool of information, and you need to keep breaking through to learn more, to get more riddles and to solve them too, and eventually get to the final passcode. Sometimes some cards will tell you you can discard specific cards, because the information on them is no longer needed. This helps keep you sane. If you feel stuck and need help, you can ask the app for hints. Naturally, it is most satisfying if you can solve everything without using any hints.

This is what the app looks like.

The Play

I played The Formula with just Allen. Han taught us the game. He had played before and couldn't join us. Allen and I managed to beat the game quite quickly, well under the 1 hour mark. We didn't use a single hint. That was satisfying. Han did help us along the way. He didn't directly give hints, but he did remind us to look at the cards closely, and also sometimes when he saw us spend much time checking things which he knew would yield no result, he told us flatly not to bother. So he did save us some time. Afterwards my children tried the game, and a group of friends too. I didn't give them any hints, only minor nudges, and it took them much longer to beat the game, about one and a half hours. What I find interesting is different people get stuck at different riddles. There are some which I found difficult and took long to solve, but others managed to solve quickly. Some which I found easy took others a long time to solve. Most riddles are logical in nature, as opposed to needing general or specific knowledge. In the cases of those which do require general knowledge, it is common knowledge that almost everyone should know. This is a good thing. There is little cultural barrier.

10 Sep 2017. The children struggled with the game, because it was just the two of them playing. I couldn't join them because I had already played it.

Halfway through the game Chen Rui gave up and left the table. They were stuck at the same riddles for a long time so Chen Rui was fed up and decided to go do something else. Shee Yun was determined to solve the riddles, and eventually did manage to beat the game.

There is time pressure when playing Unlock. You do need to use the app quite often, so you can't help noticing the timer. Each time you make a mistake and are penalised, you are reminded that time is running out. Exit has the same one-hour time limit, but in Exit you don't bother with the stopwatch until you are done with the game. You only check it after you are done to see how long you took. In Unlock there is no buzzing when time is up. You play on until you finally solve the final riddle, just that the app will tell you afterwards that you have done poorly.

The pleasure in Unlock is in analysing the wealth of data before you and sorting out which are the riddles, which are the clues, and which clues are for which riddles. You need to work out how to piece together the clues to solve the riddles. Step by step you solve the riddles and get more information, until you manage to reach the final passcode. There is always discussion at the table, throwing out ideas and bouncing hypotheses off one another. Due to the time penalty, before you reveal a new card you often need to think twice whether it might be a mistake.

The Thoughts

If you like riddles and IQ tests, I think you will like Unlock. In fact, to me, it feels more like an elaborate set of interdependent riddles than a boardgame. It is very different from what you'd expect a boardgame to be. When you work together with a group of friends to solve a difficult puzzle, you get a strong sense of comradeship.

If you ask me to compare Unlock and Exit, Unlock feels more thematic because it tries to make you imagine you are in that room, and the cards are actual objects you find there. The puzzles in Exit are more creative. Some of them downright amazed me. In Exit you may need to write, tear, fold, destroy and irreversibly change game components, so there is more freedom in coming up with puzzles. Unlock does make use of the app, so it has some elements which Exit is not able to support. If forced to pick which is better, I favour Exit slightly over Unlock. That said, I find these two series similar in the kind of experience and fulfilment they give you. If you like one, I'm confident you'll like the other.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Exit: The Game

Plays: 4Px2.

The Game

Escape room games are a new trend. So far I have tried two games from the series Exit: The Game, and one game from the series Unlock!. The basic premise of these games is you find yourself locked up in a room, and in the limited time given to you, you need to find a way to escape. These are cooperative games with many puzzles to solve.

The games in the Exit series which I have played are The Abandoned Cabin and The Secret Lab. A game is essentially a set of 10 riddles. You start off with some information and one riddle. Each time you solve a riddle, you get more information and more riddles. Sometimes you have a few riddles on the table at the same time. You may not have enough information to solve all of them, but you will have enough information to solve at least one of them. As you uncover more information and more riddles, you will eventually work your way to the final riddle which lets you escape the room. When there are multiple pieces of information on the table, you won't know which riddle or riddles they are for. You need to work it out yourself.

This is how a game is set up. The red cards are the riddle cards. You reveal them only when explicitly instructed to do so. The blue cards are the answer cards. They don't actually tell you the answer. They are just part of a system to help you check whether your answer is correct. The green cards are help cards. The icons on them represent specific riddles in the game. If you get stuck with a particular riddle, you may use these help cards. Most riddles have 3 help cards. The first one gives you a little help, the second one gives more, and the third one tells you the solution.

At the start of the game you get this disc with three rotatable inner layers, and a booklet. Along the edge of the disc you can see the icons representing the riddles. The solution to a riddle is a combination of three chemicals. To test whether your answer to a riddle is correct, you rotate the inner layers of the disc so that the three desired chemicals are aligned below the riddle icon. A number will appear in the small window, and that's the answer card you need to check to see whether your answer is correct. The booklet contains a lot of information, but in the beginning most of it will not be meaningful. There is no explanation on how to use the information. You need to work it out yourself. Most information will only be useful when you reveal the relevant riddle card.

The Exit games are once-only affairs. This is true on two levels. It is once-only because if you already know the solutions to the riddles, you can't unknow them. It is also once-only because during play you will damage, alter or destroy components irreversibly. You will write on them, or draw on them, or fold them, or tear them, or cut them. I shall not be specific. Once you are done with your copy of the game, you won't be able to lend it to a friend to play.

The Play

It's a challenge trying to describe Exit. I can't be telling you too many details. It would spoil the game for you. I can't share too many photos either. Both my plays were with my wife and children (10 & 12). The riddles are mostly logic puzzles. There is sound reasoning behind the solution of every riddle. Technically you can try all combinations for a riddle until you eventually get the right one, but that is against the spirit of the game. It defeats the purpose.

Many of the riddles require piecing together a few clues. Some feel like mathematical questions. Some require you to associate separate elements. Some of them are quite creative. They surprised me.

The first time we played, we managed to beat the game comfortably within the hour. We only used one help card. I thought the game was easy. Not challenging enough. Our second game took 1 hour 18 minutes, and we had to use three help cards. They were all for the same riddle which we got stuck at. We eventually gave up and had to look at the solution. It was a good one. I was impressed.

The game is easier with more people. More people means more ideas. When facing a difficult challenge, there is a better chance that one of the players can think of something to try which will work. It is possible to play solo, but I think it will be less fun. Even with just two players, at least you can discuss and brainstorm. That's part of the fun - working together to achieve something.

The back of the rulebook is for recording your play - who you played with, how long you took, which riddle was most interesting etc.

The Thoughts

Exit does not feel like a boardgame to me. It is an experience. An event. It is a process of solving a series of clever riddles. If you like solving puzzles and riddles, you will probably like it. You certainly have to put on your thinking hat. The riddles are mostly logical in nature. Few have cultural elements, or are language specific, or need specific knowledge or familiarity with current events. You just need logical thinking, mostly. So the game translates well from the original German version to other languages. Logic is language independent. One thing that I find lacking is I don't really feel I'm locked inside a room trying to escape. Many of the riddles feel like they are independent. I can't imagine myself in a room searching for equipment to help me break out. The riddles themselves are clever and interesting. There is some background story you need to read aloud to get you into the mood. Just enjoy the puzzles and don't worry too much about the story. The story is not the selling point.

As a shared experience, this is a good family activity. I imagine it will work equally well with a group of friends. It's something you do together to enjoy the companionship and comradeship. You face a challenge together and achieve something together. I don't have a problem spending money to buy a game which can be used exactly once. I'm buying the journey, not the components. I have already ordered Exit: The Pharoah's Curse, which I hear is the toughest among the first three games released. I'm very much looking forward to the challenge.

Friday, 3 November 2017

The Impregnable Fortress

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

The Impregnable Fortress is a game about the Japanese invasion of Singapore during World War 2, designed by a Singaporean. It is a 2-player game, with one side playing the Japanese and the other the British. Singapore was under British rule then. The core game mechanism is modeled on Stratego. It is an abstract wargame. The identities of the game pieces are initially hidden from your opponent. They are revealed only during battle. To win the game you must find and capture your opponent's HQ.

You can see the British HQ at the lower left. During game setup, you arrange your 30 pieces in your deploy zone in any way you like. The strengths of your pieces vary from 1 to 9. During a fight, the weaker piece is eliminated. If the strengths are the same, both pieces are eliminated. During the game, the two sides take turn making moves, like in Chess. All pieces may move one step in any direction, except for the HQ's and the mines which may not move.

The game board shows Singapore and part of Johor, the southernmost state of peninsular Malaysia. The Japanese army starts in the north, and the Commonwealth army in the south. The hexes marked with crosses are impassable. The game setup is not historical. You can set up your army any way you like as long as you stay within your deploy zone. The army composition is certainly not historical. I am quite sure the Japanese army did not plant mine fields in Johor.

There are many details on the board. Some do affect game play. If you use the advanced rules, the Jurong Line hexes can increase the strength of Commonwealth units. The major road - Woodlands Road - allows units to move two steps instead of one. It is easier to reinforce units in this area, but it is also easier for your opponent to advance to attacking positions.

The front and back covers of the rulebook list the army composition of both armies. The two sides are the same. This list is quite important. During a game you need to keep track of which enemy units have been killed, and which still remain on the board. Some units are vulnerable to specific units, so it is important to know the current composition of your opponent's army.

The two maps show suggested setups. HQ's are tucked away in corners, and protected by mines. Mines are also set up elsewhere as diversions.

Many units have special interactions. Some are in the basic rules, some only apply if you use the advanced rules. When I played, I used all the advanced interaction rules. Let's look at the group at the top left. The mine (X) kills anything that attacks it. The only exception is the combat engineer (3) which can eliminate the mine. The conscript platoon (6) can be used to clear a mine, but it dies together with the mine.

At the top right, the recon troopers (4) can force all adjacent enemy units to reveal themselves.

At the bottom left, the bomber (2) may attempt to bomb any unit on the board. If the target unit has a strength of 4 or less, it may be destroyed. You play a mini-game with those square tokens to determine whether it is destroyed. Other units won't be destroyed, but they will be exposed. The bomber is effectively also a recon plane. The anti-air gun (5) may shoot down a bomber after its bombing run.

At the bottom right, the tank troop (9) is the strongest unit in the game. However it loses to the humble anti-tank team (1). The elephant fears the mouse.

Notice that some of the units are in a darker shade. These units are only used if you play the advanced rule which allows customisation of your army. You add 10 dark units to your pool of 30 units, and from this pool of 40 you select 30 to be your army. I didn't play with this because it was my first game and I had no idea how to do customisation.

The cards are an advanced variant too. Each side has its own deck of cards. Whenever you attack, you earn a political point (the star token), regardless of whether you win that battle. You may spend two political points to draw a card. You may spend political points to play a card. The cost is specified on the card. These two cards came into play during my game. The Water Shortages card was devastating to me (the Commonwealth). Heng played it when I had 7 political points. I lost all of them and had to painstakingly collect political points all over again. The British Tanks card allowed me to resurrect my tank troop, the mightiest unit in the game. This is a very powerful card, thus the high cost.

The Play

I taught Heng to play. He played the Japanese and I played the Commonwealth. We were both new to the game. I had heard of Stratego and the general idea behind it, but had not actually played it. The setup took a while. You can think of it as part of playing the game. I protected my HQ with mines, and put it at the back, as far from danger as possible. Units with situational uses were placed away from the front too. E.g. combat engineers had better stayed away from danger until I found the mines, the weak anti-tank teams were kept safe until the enemy tank troop was revealed. I put my own tank troop at the back too, worried that it might be caught by enemy anti-tank teams easily if I used it too early. As a result, my front liners were mostly the tier 2 units, the 6's to 8's. This was my thinking when I deployed my units.

The Impregnable Fortress is a game of attrition. Initially the board looks crowded, but very soon the crowd thins. When one unit defeats another, it becomes vulnerable too because its identity is now known. Your opponent will try to kill it with a stronger unit or a unit which specialises in killing it. This reminds me of Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, which also has a Stratego-like mechanism. As the units dwindle, there are fewer and fewer pieces to protect your HQ. It is a race to find and destroy the enemy HQ. No matter how bleak things look overall, if you manage to capture the enemy HQ, you win immediately. Normally you still need to take care of the big picture. You want to maintain a front. You want to score more kills than your opponent. Both qualitative and quantitative advantages will help you in the end game of hunting down the opponent HQ.

Heng was the Japanese. In the southwest corner he had one commando which managed to break through my flank and wreaked havoc behind my front lines. It was a 6, which was one of the stronger units. I had nothing in the area which could stop it. It also cleverly avoided two mines. Thankfully my HQ was protected by a mine. This brave Japanese unit eventually died on a minefield.

There was much fighting at the centre of the board. The major road was very useful in both offense and defense. You can use the road to attack an enemy two steps away. On defense, you can also use it to stay out of range of enemy units. Every time you attack, you get a political point, so players are encouraged to be aggressive. This is good design.

My artillery battery (2) helped me tremendously. It supported friendly units within two spaces, increasing their strengths by up to 2. My infantry company (7) was almost invincible with the support of the artillery battery.

The strong units are the stars. In the basic game, you have one 9, one 8 and two 7's. These strong units can go on a rampage. It is important to keep track of which units have been killed and which are still on the board. During my game I kept tabs on Heng's strong units. I knew if his 9 was dead, my 8 would be close to invincible. I only needed to be careful of artillery support and mines. Heng managed to break through my left flank. I pushed through on the right flank. I had more units advancing, so the progress was slow. Moreover I was wary of mines and advanced cautiously, using my recon unit as much as possible.

I gained an upper hand in the centre, managing to kill all his strong units eventually. After both our #9's (tank troop) died, I revived mine by card play. I knew then the centre would be mine. Heng could not stop my advancement in the east, because I had a #8 supporting that offensive. Eventually my eastern expedition force found and captured the Japanese HQ, saving Singapore and rewriting history.

The Thoughts

When I first read the rules of The Impregnable Fortress, I was a little disappointed, because I realised this isn't a historical wargame. It is an abstract wargame which uses the Battle for Singapore as a backdrop. It doesn't try to model the actual war. Some historical details are added, giving the game flavour. The cards contain many historical details, and I like that. This is certainly not a hex and counter wargame. It is at the other end of the wargame spectrum. This is a light strategy game. You do have to put some thought into the tactics. This is closer to a mass market game than a niche market game. Non-gamers can certainly handle the basic rules. Seasoned gamers will want to start using the advanced rules straight-away. The game is supported by the Singapore National Heritage Board. I imagine it being sold at museums and tourist centres.

Singapore is an immediate neighbour of Malaysia. We share many similarities, and we used to be one country for about two years. A game about the Battle for Singapore has special meaning to me, because the historical event was close to where I live.

Here the link to The Impregnable Fortress on Boardgamegeek: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/237289/impregnable-fortress.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Magic Maze

Plays: 5Px5.

The Game

Magic Maze was nominated for the 2017 Spiel des Jahres. Recently it won the most innovative game award at the Essen game fair. I had not heard much about it before, and even if I had seen the box cover, I would have dismissed it as a game I wouldn't like. It was in a cartoonish style, and it had the typical fantasy RPG characters. And I would have missed playing a wonderful game. Ivan brought the game to Friday game night at Boardgamecafe.net, and that was how I got to try it.

The premise is silly. A team of mage, warrior, elf and dwarf has lost all its weapons, and decides to raid a shopping mall to steal what is needed. These jokers are not familiar with the mall so they need to explore it to find the right shops. Naturally, each adventurer's favourite weapon is sold at a different shop. They only have a limited amount of time to pull of this heist, before they are caught up by mall security.

Magic Maze is a real-time, cooperative game. The players don't play any specific character. Instead everyone controls all four of the characters. Every player has one action tile which specifies the action or actions he can make a character perform. Actions include moving north, south, east and west, taking an escalator, teleporting, and exploring.

This is how a game is set up. The adventurers arrive at the central court of the shopping mall. They are unfamiliar with their surroundings and need to explore to find the weapon shops. They explore by going to the edge of the tile and then drawing a new tile to place next to the current tile. The spaces which allow exploration are colour-specific. The colour code refers to a specific character. Only that character may perform exploration in that space. In this photo, the space at the right edge only allows the orange character, the barbarian, to do exploration.

The round icons are portals. You can do teleportation here, i.e. move immediately to another portal of the same colour on another tile. Again, these are colour-specific - restricted to specific characters.

This is one of the action tiles. The portal icon means I can make a character teleport. The left arrow means I can make a character move westwards.

You need to explore the mall, you need to find the right shops, you need to get each character to their respective exits, and you need to do all these in a collaborative manner where each player can only do a few very specific actions. This sounds messy, but not exactly hard. The twist is this - you can't communicate with your fellow players! You can't talk. You can't point. You can't hint with gestures or winks. You can't give any directions. Everyone needs to stay observant and think on his own. You need to be alert of where each character is and what they should be doing next. When they need to do something which requires your action, you must do it quickly. The communication restriction makes collaborating difficult. It is not easy to keep up with all four characters on the board, since everybody is moving them about all the time. It's like trying to keep track of four hyperactive toddlers at a nursery. One difficulty is sometimes when you have a certain plan for a character, your fellow players do not understand your intention. If they don't know what you are thinking, they can't help you. They don't know how to. It can be even worse. Sometimes players have different opinions about what a character should be doing. You end up angrily pushing the poor old mage back and forth, insisting yours is the right way, clenching your teeth because you can't explain what you're trying to do to your slow friend across the table.

The rulebook says there are two ways you can communicate with your fellow player. #1 is to stare at him intently (I'm serious). #2 is this big red pawn in the photo above. You can place the pawn in front of your friend to indicate to him that there is something you want him to do. Hopefully he can soon see what it is you mean. Else you can try to stare at him more intently.

The timer is an hourglass, as you can see in the photo above. It's an approximately 3 minute hourglass. A game will last longer than that, unless you are horrible at it. There are some locations on the board which let you flip the hourglass over, giving you more time. Naturally, it is best to flip right at the last moment before the sand runs out, so that you will have more time. In the photo above, you can see a red hourglass icon at the top right corner of the start tile. Every such icon can be used only once. The hourglass icon appears again on other tiles. You need to find them before you can use them.

Hourglass icons have another important use. They give you a special break time in which you are allowed to talk. This is the only exception in the whole game. After you flip the hourglass and before you take any action with any of the characters, you can talk. You can discuss, you can plan, you can agree on what to do next. You can also scream at your teammates for being dumb, but while you are doing all these, the timer is running. Say what you want to say quickly, and resume playing. Once anyone executes the next action with any of the characters, break time is over and you return to being mute. You get to talk again the next time you use an hourglass icon.

As the game progresses, you will gradually scout out the terrain (i.e. the shopping mall). The game is divided into two phases. In the first phase you find the four shops and steal the four weapons. In the second phase you escape the mall through specific exits. The key difference is in the second phase you are not allowed to use portals anymore. The moment all four characters steal their respective weapons, portals go out of order. The characters need to run to their respective exits without relying on portals. You flip that large tile at the top left of this photo to remind yourselves that portals are no longer functioning.

The Play

When Ivan explained the game, I was puzzled. The mechanisms were unusual. They felt tedious for no reason. There was no game here. Only later I realised that Ivan had saved the best for last. He only told us that we could not communicate at the end of the rules explanation. Everything clicked then. There were five of us, and we played game after game after game. I am actually unsure how many times we played. It might have been more than five.

We played the scenarios in the rulebook one by one, progressing to the next one only after winning the current one. Some rules were added in each new scenario. Sometimes tiles were added too, with new features. We were introduced to more advanced rules bit by bit. The difficulty and complexity increased gradually. It was a smooth learning experience. We never felt overwhelmed. I peeked ahead at other advanced rules we hadn't reached. Even after learning all the advanced rules, there were variant rules we could play. If we had played scenario by scenario until we tried all the variant rules, we would have had many plays of this game - good value for money! A scenario does not have a fixed map like most games with scenarios. A scenario is just a set of rules and a set of tiles. You pick a scenario based on what difficulty and complexity you want to play at. The map you build during play will be different because the deck of tiles is shuffled every time.

Magic Maze is a stressful game. It is not just the time pressure. There is also the pressure of not wanting to let your team down. You need to keep up with the board situation, and you need to keep up with what your friends are strategising in their heads. You don't want to be the weakest link. When the big red pawn is slammed down in front of you, and all your mates are glaring at you with wide eyes, it can be downright nerve wracking. What am I not seeing?! On the other hand, when your team works together seamlessly, it is extremely satisfying. Your hands flit from character to character, and you watch the characters move about purposefully and without hesitation. You feel like a master level mochi team working in perfect unison.

Source: giphy.com

We established one constant strategy when we played. We always explored the whole shopping mall before we stole the weapons, i.e. we found the exits for all four characters before doing the stealing. The reason was once we stole the weapons, the portals would be disabled, and we would lose much mobility. It was better to complete our exploration before that. The rules didn't require completing the exploration before phase 2. It was our own unwritten rule.

We all played standing up. It was simply too exciting a game to play sitting down civilly. It was a quiet rowdy game, if that makes any sense at all. We had to pay attention to all four characters all the time. We had to pay attention to where they were needed to further explore. All this while we had to remember to watch the hourglass and prepare to flip it. In one game we neglected that. We concerned ourselves with the more complex rules and tactics, and forgot about the basics. We lost that game very quickly.

The Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by Magic Maze. In the past few months I have had a long backlog of games to write about. I normally write about games in the order that I play them, so Magic Maze had to take a number like every other game. I have been looking forward to write about it. It was an absolute joy to play. Unfortunately it was close to impossible to take photos during play, so I do not have many photos to show.

Magic Maze will work with casual gamers, non gamers and families. It has a gentle learning curve, and the immersiveness makes it an attractive game. It has a hook. It gave me a new experience. I have never felt anything like it before. What comes close is Escape: The Curse of the Temple, specifically when suffering from the silent curse. Magic Maze requires an even higher level of collaboration than Escape. You are not moving your own pawn doing your own thing. Everyone needs to move every pawn on the board.

Magic Maze is a game of suppression and elation. For most of the game you are suppressing your eagerness to communicate. Then at the breaks you get temporary relief. You quickly catch up on the crucial coordination work, and then you switch back to suppression mode. Only when the game ends that you feel the final elation. This is a game that makes you want to laugh.

Crowdfunding: Fightlings

John Peck from Germany got in touch with me about his game currently on a Kickstarter campaign - Fightlings. It's a 1v1 card game with a Memory element - you try to find matches from a pool of face-down cards. It's a short game. Your fighting deck consists of 17 cards only. There is deckbuilding - you can customise your deck. The artwork is beautiful (see above). I was intrigued to find that this card game is based on (but is not a direct port of) a successful mobile game, also called Fightlings. I am curious to try the mobile version, but unfortunately it is not yet available in the Malaysian Appstore. Check out the card game Kickstarter campaign!

Friday, 20 October 2017

Century: Spice Road

Plays: 5Px1.

The Game

Many people proclaimed that Century: Spice Road would replace Splendor. This was what piqued my interest in the game. Splendor had fascinated me. The rules are simple. The game is easy to teach. Yet there are subtle strategies and a hidden depth not apparent at first (or second) sight.

Century: Spice Road is a card game and a resource conversion game. You collect spices (cubes), upgrade them, then put together specific combinations to buy contract cards, which have point values. The game ends when a player reaches a certain number of contract cards. You add up points to determine who wins. To do all these, you use merchant cards like the ones above. Those two on the left with blue borders are starting cards. Everyone gets the same two cards. The first card lets you collect two yellow spices. The second lets you do spice upgrade twice. The two merchant cards on the right let you convert specific spices to another set of specific spices.

This is how the game is set up. The row of five cards are the contract cards. Each card specifies the spice combination required to purchase it. Above the first two cards there are gold and silver coins, which are worth 3pt and 1pt respectively. If you buy a contract card at either of these positions, you claim a corresponding coin. Whenever a contract card is bought, cards to its right are shifted leftwards to fill the blank, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position, i.e. Through the Ages style.

The row of six cards are the merchant cards. One of the actions you can take on your turn is to claim a merchant card from this row. If you take the leftmost card, it's free. If you take any other card, you need to place a spice on each card to its left. This means the rightmost card is the most expensive. If you take a card with spices on it, you take the spices as well. Similarly, whenever a card is taken, cards to its right are shifted leftwards, and a new card is drawn for the rightmost position.

Every player has a warehouse card. You can store at most 10 spices.

These are the contract cards. They specify point values, and the spice combinations required to purchase them.

On your turn you have only 4 options: take a merchant card, play a merchant card, reclaim all merchant cards or buy a contract card. When you take a merchant card, you are deciding what ability you will have from then on. You take the card into your hand. To use it, you simply play it in front of you (on a future turn, of course). The more cards you play, the fewer you will have remaining in your hand. To be able to use those played cards again, you need to do a reset, which is spending a turn to claim all played cards back into your hand. This cycle of taking merchant cards, playing them and reclaiming them is something you will do many times. Ultimately your goal is to buy contract cards, which is the fourth option. That's the whole process. Pretty straightforward.

In this photo some of the merchant cards have spices on them. That's because someone had previously taken a merchant card which was not the leftmost one. Sometimes it is worth spending spices to take good merchant cards.

The Play

Century: Spice Road is a simple game to explain. There is little information to go through, and actions are straightforward. It is hard to imagine how the game feels by just understanding the rules. Your goal is the contract cards. You need to collect the right combination of spices to buy contract cards. So the whole game is about using your merchant cards efficiently to collect and upgrade spices. This is a deck-building game, just that your deck is your hand and you have full control over when to play which card. Everyone starts with the same two merchant cards, but as the game progresses, your hands will diverge. Some players may be collecting many cheap spices and then converting them to better spices. Some may be collecting fewer but better spices. Some may even be collecting small amounts of expensive spices then downgrading them to larger amount of cheaper ones. Some players will be better at producing a certain grade of spices than others. The deck-building is the most important aspect of the game. You want to put together a set of cards which chain together to make an efficient supply chain, like a factory production line. If you are collecting many yellow spices, you want other cards which will then convert these yellow spices to other spices that you need. It feels good to have a hand which is like a straight flush - you know exactly in what order you will play them to produce spices at the highest capacity. Once the last card is played, you reset and do it all over again, smooth as silk.

That's the general idea. In practice, there will be adjustments here and there. The spices required by the contract cards are different. So it's not as simple as repeating the same recipe over and over. There are many tactical plays to be made throughout the game. You need to grab opportunities and respond to threats. You need to pay attention to what spices your opponents are collecting, so that you know which contract cards they are going for, and whether anyone will beat you to the one you are going for. If you know you will lose the race, you should switch to something else. Even if you are ahead, you need to make sure you are not overtaken.

The contract cards row and the merchant cards row keep changing. The game system gives you time to prepare. Players tend to take the leftmost cards, so these two card rows behave like sushi belts. If an attractive card comes up at the rightmost spot, you usually have some time to prepare to fight for it. There is some planning you can do.

There are little tactical advantages you want to exploit. Let's say you have enough spices to claim the second contract card, and you see that another player will soon have the spices to claim the first one. You want to politely let him claim the first card, so that the one you want will shift to first position, and you can then claim it together with the bonus gold coin.

The long-term strategy is in how you build your hand of cards. Your hand evolves throughout the game. You need to pay attention to both improving your hand and scoring points. At the same time you watch out for tactical advantages. The game has good player interaction. It's the passive aggressive type, but it can be frustrating. Imagine spending a lot of effort collecting the spices for a high valued contract card, only to have it stolen from you at the last minute. Now you have a set of spices which you can't quite use for the other contract cards, and you need to spend more turns converting some spices to other types in order to fulfill a different contract card.

This was my hand around mid way through the game. The two rightmost cards let me collect many yellow spices. The 2nd and 4th cards require many yellow spices to produce other higher grade spices. This is synergy. As you put together your hand of cards, you will know which grades of spice you can produce efficiently. That will guide you in deciding which contract cards to compete for.

The Thoughts

Century: Spice Road is an engine-building game and a race game. OK, I'm probably losing all credibility now since I have also called it a card game, a deck-building game and a resource-conversion game. Your engine is your hand of cards. That is the core of the game. Your hand of cards determines what you can do. Putting together a set of coherent cards is satisfying. If you have done your engine-building well, playing cards requires little thought. You already have an obvious, efficient sequence in your hand. You do have to make adjustments frequently, to meet the many tactical challenges that come up. The cycle of playing cards to collect and upgrade spices, reclaiming cards to do these again and again, and eventually spending the spices to buy contract cards, defines the tempo of the game. Players will have different tempos and will not be in sync. Some players will have more cards, some few. Sometimes some will have many spices and will be on the verge of claiming a contract card, while others have barely started collecting spices for the next contract card. These are all things you need to observe and make use of.

You need to consider how many merchant cards you want to have. More is not always better. If a card doesn't really help you, you might as well spend the turn doing something else. More cards do generally mean you have more flexibility and you get more done between resets. Too few cards is a no-no.

Coming back to the question of whether Century: Spice Road replaces Splendor, I say no it doesn't. There are similarities. They have simple rules, are easy to teach non-gamers, and have more depth than is apparent. If you are buying a game with the purpose of playing it with non-gamers, then yes, either one will do. However these two games have different souls. In Splendor you need to consider the nobles and high level cards right from the beginning, and plan what capabilities you want to develop to help you eventually score some of these nobles and high value cards. In Century: Spice Road, you are building an efficient hand of cards to help you produce spices to fulfill contracts. Splendor doesn't have the kind of card synergy in Century: Spice Road. Century: Spice Road doesn't have the start-with-the-end-in-mind strategy in Splendor. You get different things from these two games.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

10 years of blogging

I have been doing this for 10 years, since July 2007. In the early days of getting into the boardgame hobby, I hungrily devoured all sorts of boardgame-related content I could find on the internet. I regularly read blogs maintained by others, like Mikko Saari, Bruno Faidutti. I enjoyed The Games Journal, and I fondly remember that Greg Aleknevicus wrote great articles. My motivation for starting a boardgame blog myself was boring. Put simply, it was just for record-keeping. I wanted a place where I could organise my boardgame experiences - the photos I took, the stories I lived, the friends I played with, what I thought about the games. Till now this hasn't changed. I enjoy record-keeping. This blog is still very much a personal journey. Nothing ambitious or profound.

Blogging is, in my opinion, out of style. My blog readership is declining. Boardgame hobbyists prefer to consume content in the form of videos. Some bloggers successfully switched to become vloggers. There are vloggers who never were bloggers. Some people do a mix of video and text content, e.g. the folks at Shut Up & Sit Down. I have never considered vlogging. Too much work. Blogging is something I can do at a leisurely pace. I write using Google Docs. I write when I have free time and when I feel like it. I don't need any elaborate preparation. There is some work in taking photos, transferring them to my laptop, editing them, organising them, uploading them. However I enjoy taking photos anyway (again, also because of how I like record-keeping), so I don't mind the effort. The other reason I never considered vlogging is I don't like the format myself. I don't watch many vlogs. I prefer reading text because I can skim text quickly. I can jump to sections which interest me. With videos, the vlogger dictates the pace.

Sometimes it feels like blogging about boardgames is a bigger pastime for me than playing boardgames is. Sometimes I spend more time blogging than playing. I play less in recent years. I still have ongoing Ascension and Star Realms games on my phone, but sometimes it can be weeks between joining boardgame sessions at Boardgamecafe.net. Recently when I had a long list of boardgames to blog about, I felt there was no hurry to play more new games because of that glut of content. The five-years-ago me would be alarmed at such blasphemy. Something is not right! Boardgames is supposed to be about playing, and not about writing. Sometimes when I almost run out of new boardgames to write about, I feel a higher sense of urgency to join the next game session, so that I will have new content. This is so upside down. This is actually what made me think of writing this article; not the fact that it has been 10 years.

Eventually I conclude that this is not wrong. It is my pastime. I am free to decide how to spend my leisure time as long as I am not hurting anyone.

I have once tried to make money from this blog. I signed up for the referral program at Noble Knight Games. If I successfully referred a customer who then made a purchase within one week, I would get a small fee. I did make some referrals which led to sales. OK, maybe not "some". It might have been just one. The total fee never reached a threshold which would justify the trouble and cost of sending it to me. After a while I stopped inserting links and ads. I tried setting up Google Ads, but Google's bots automatically rejected my application, likely because I had too many links at my blog (I create a label for every game I play). So, my blog went back to serving just my original purpose - a scrapbook of my fond memories.

I started a boardgame blog in Chinese in 2010. My mother tongue is Mandarin. There are some expressions in Chinese which I can't find equivalents of in English. I decided to write in Chinese too because I enjoy expressing myself in my native language. It meant double work. My content is mostly the same between the two blogs. Now my process is I write in Chinese, and then I write in English while referring to the structure and the content already written in Chinese, and finally I publish both posts simultaneously. I don't read blogs in Chinese nor do I follow any boardgame websites in Chinese. I am too used to reading boardgame content in English. I make up my own Chinese words for concepts and terms which are originally in English. The Chinese language boardgame community probably has different terms. Avid readers of Chinese boardgame content will find my Chinese blog queer.

I can probably proclaim myself the #1 boardgame blogger in Malaysia, but only because people don't really blog anymore nowadays. My boardgame kakis Jeff and Heng used to blog, but are not very active now. One interesting side effect of having this blog is this - occasionally newspaper journalists contact me to interview me. I think it's simply because when they google for boardgame experts or authorities in Malaysia, there is little to find other than my little blog. This sounds sad, but I think boardgames is growing in Malaysia. Else there wouldn't be journalists bothering to write about it. There are more boardgame cafes now. Boardgames is not mainstream, but it is not as niche as before. It's just that people just play and don't worry about writing about it.

Auto-posting to Facebook is important, I feel. I use dlvr.it. My volume is small, so it's free. I just need to set it up once, and after that it's worry-free. Sometimes I get questions from Facebook. I think I get more there than on Blogspot, where the blog actually resides.

One thing that still annoys me is spam posts. Blogspot does try to help, but some still get through. Once in a while a legitimate post gets held up. I don't monitor comments held up as possible spam. Because of this, there was once I approved a legitimate comment more than a year after the poor guy posted it. Sorry. I do receive notifications for posted comments, and when I see a spam post being auto-approved by the bots, I cannot resist coming personally to exterminate the spam post.

What's next for this blog? I expect it will be more of the same.

What do you like or not like about my blog? Do you find it useful? Informative? Entertaining?

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Hit Z Road

Plays: 3Px1.

The Game

Hit Z Road is a zombie game from Martin Wallace. Now that's not something you hear often. What I noticed most about the game before getting to play it was the art direction. The components and artwork were designed to make it look like a game hand-made by a child, reusing parts from other games, using unwanted rubbish like bottle caps, pasting stickers onto the components and even directly writing on them. The child made this game based on his experience during an arduous journey through USA. The world had fallen apart and devolved into an apocalyptic zombie wasteland. The child was part of a group traveling from Chicago to California. They had decided to make the trip because California was a safe haven. They succeeded and the child lived to tell the tale, through this boardgame.

Hit Z Road is an auction game. After listening to the rules explanation, I expected it to be a very Euro, light-to-medium weight game. What surprised me was it turned out to be more visceral. It had more story and it was more immersive than I had expected. I was pleasantly surprised.

You start the game with a group of 5 survivors. You are the leader and your pawn is in the player colour (green in my case). The other survivors are white in colour. The bottle caps are the three types of resources you have in the game. The red ones are fuel, the blue ones bullets, the yellow ones adrenaline. Your first goal is to survive. As long as at least one person in your group reaches California, you succeed. Only among the surviving players you then determine who is most successful by comparing score. Throughout the game you may collect cards with point values. If you have the most fuel, bullets, adrenaline or survivors at game end, you also score points.

This burger joint customer loyalty card is used as a player order marker.

There are even stamps on the back.

A three player game is set up this way. The deck of cards on the right is set up depending on the number of players. It is divided into three stages, the first stage having the easiest cards and the third having the hardest. At the start of a round, you draw three sets of two cards each. The players bid for turn order to pick sets. Everyone must pick a set. The small board at the bottom is what you use for this bidding process. During the bidding rounds, you may bid a higher amount or pass. You pay your bid using any combination of the three types of resources. When you take a set of cards, you execute whatever is specified on them.

At the top you can see various round tokens. These are miscellaneous items you may collect during your journey. Some cards tell you to take a specific token, and then later on some other cards tell you what happens or doesn't happen if you have or don't have a particular token. E.g. if you pick up a teenager, you may later find that he helps your group with a task that nobody else can do, or you may find that he steals your resources and vanishes. The items augment the values of the card sets. A card set becomes more attractive to the player who has a certain token which he can make use of. A card set can also be shunned by everyone except for a single player who has the right token to prevent a disaster on one of the cards. These affect how players value card sets and how they bid for turn order.

The black pawns are the zombies. The dice are used for combat. The black dice are regular dice, the red ones are the tougher ones. Combat consists of two stages. The first stage is ranged attack. You may spend bullets to shoot at the approaching zombies. You have one chance to decide how many bullets to spend. You then roll the dice. Each crosshair icon rolled kills a zombie. If there are zombies left, you now have to decide flee or fight. You may spend two fuel resources to speed away. If you don't have enough fuel, or don't want to spend it, you enter melee combat. This is a fight to the death. One side must be completely wiped out. You kill zombies by rolling the crosshair icon. If you roll a lightning bolt, you may spend an adrenaline resource to kill a zombie. If you roll crosshair + lightning bolt, you either kill one zombie, or spend an adrenaline resource to kill two. If you roll the skull icon, one of your survivors dies. If you roll skull + lightning bolt, you may spend an adrenaline to save the survivor. Skulls on the black dice always come with lightning bolts, but the red dice have skull-only faces. That's why they are tougher.

I find it interesting that the number of dice you roll during combat depends on the number of human survivors and not the number of zombies. When there are many humans and few zombies, more dice means more opportunities to kill zombies, which makes sense. However it also means more chances of getting bitten by a zombie. I try to explain it this way - since there are so many humans, there is a higher chance that someone becomes careless and gets bitten.

When there are few humans and many zombies, the smaller chances of scoring a hit against zombies makes sense. Fewer humans means less killing power. However it is also harder for zombies to kill humans. This is easier to explain - when there are more zombies than humans, not every zombie can get close to a human. The zombies will get into one another's way.

These are the bonus cards to be claimed at game end. You claim the corresponding card if you have the most fuel, bullets, adrenaline or survivors.

The Play

In our game, this was the situation after 2 rounds. Strictly speaking, any cards you claim should be added to a face-down stack and not laid out this way. I like it this way because the cards become my picture book telling my story. On the cards, the star icons at the top right mean point values. They are only meaningful if you make it to California. The icons at the top left mean resources you get to collect. The numbers at the bottom right are the zombies you need to fight. You claim the resources before deciding whether to fight the zombies. You may claim resources then flee by paying two fuel resources. You don't need to return the resources you have just claimed. However you also won't keep the card (or its point value). Some cards have additional instructions you must follow.

That card with a big #2 is another player order card. Every time you complete a bidding round, you take the corresponding player order card. You follow this player order not only when taking card sets. You also follow this player order for the bidding next round.

With these three sets of cards, naturally the top set is least desirable, since you have to fight zombies twice. Cards being grouped into pairs creates interesting combinations and variability.

I did a three-player game with Ivan and Allen. Ivan taught Allen and I to play. The early game felt mild. I could collect resources in a leisurely manner. I could spend resources to claim cards with points. The zombies were not that scary, and sometimes we gained new group members. It was only later that I realised the early game was just the calm before the storm. It was the chance to brace ourselves for what was to come. I should have been more thrifty with my resources in the early game. I had underestimated how many resources I needed for the rest of the game. Ivan was better prepared. In the early game he often forwent opportunities to score points in order to preserve even just a little bit of resources. It turned out this was prudent indeed. Cards worth points are normally cards with zombies, i.e. you often need to spend bullets and adrenaline to kill the zombies before you can claim the card. Sometimes it is better to only spend fuel to flee and forgo the card, preserving bullets and adrenaline.

Among the three of us, I was most resource-poor and ended up last. No surprise there. Both Allen and Ivan managed their resources better, but even so by game end they more or less ran out of resources too. Ivan had a little bit more, and managed to claim some of the bonus cards at game end. He won the game. Despite coming last, I had a blast with the game. This was what happened.

As things went from bad to worse, I found myself down to three survivors, and no resources. We were surrounded by six zombies, and they were a horde. We had to use at least two red dice when fighting them. Running out of resources was horrible. It meant every round I was the one forced to take the worst card set. I had no resources to bid any higher than 0. It was hard mode all the way for me.

I had thought being outnumbered 6 to 3 surely meant game over, but to my surprise I managed to survive with one last person. It was like I had plot protection and I was destined for greater things.

Unfortunately the so-called greater things turned out to be another zombie horde. This time it was 1 vs 6, and I had to fight with a red die again.

Ivan and Allen grabbed their popcorns and sat down to watch how I was going to deal with 6 zombies. Just the previous night at the airport I had killed three zombies single-handedly. That was already a minor miracle. Facing off six of them now, I muttered under my breath - you've got to be (insert-strong-emphasis) kidding me. To my surprise, and to the laughter of Ivan and Allen, I survived. The zombies fell one after another. I kept rolling, and rolling, and rolling, and the dreaded skull icon never came. I had run out of adrenaline. If I rolled a skull with a lightning bolt, I would have to die because I had no adrenaline to pay. Yet I rolled no skull plus lightning bolt, and no skull. It was an absolutely terrifying experience. Every time I killed a zombie, it was exhilarating, but I could not celebrate because I knew upon the next die roll it could well be my turn to die. I almost collapsed with relief when the last zombie fell. In total, my brave little survivor character killed 9 zombies consecutively.

For the past two months I have been writing about the many games played at the Broga Bliss boardgame retreat organised by Boardgamecafe.net. I played a good variety of games. I had not expected that the most unforgettable moment would be from Hit Z Road.

The next card I had to deal with was also the final card of the whole game I had to deal with. I needed to pay one fuel resource, or lose one survivor. I had no resource left, and I had only one survivor left - me. So I died. Poof! Most anti-climatic ending to my zombie story. I slayed 9 zombies only to die of... sorry sir, gas no stock. I guess the story was supposed to be me getting badly injured after the fight and eventually dying of my wounds. I met another survivor group which had medication, but they would only trade. They wanted fuel. I had none. They left me to die. Pricks!

I arranged all the cards I had claimed, and made this fancy storyboard. I had claimed a total of 15 cards. We played 8 rounds, and if I had claimed all cards, there would be 16. The one card short was because I had fled the zombies once.

The core game mechanism is a very Euro style auction mechanism. Cards you take are mostly independent cards, each card telling an unrelated little story or describing a scenario. However if you let your imagination take flight, you can easily link them all up into a convincing story. The items element helps. They can establish cause-and-effect relationships between some cards. The whole chain tells a consistent tale of desperate survivors scavenging, rationing resources and fighting for survival. I am sold that this is indeed a zombie game, even if my left brain teases me that this is a Euro auction game.

The Thoughts

If you remove the setting, the theme and the zombies, Hit Z Road is a game of resource management and risk management. It is an auction game. You need to spend your resources wisely. You gather resources in the early game, and you try to make them last till the end. This being an auction game means you need to be good at assessing the value of things. Is this risk worth taking? Is that victory point card worth this many resources? If you analyse with your brain that's the conclusion you will come to. If you play with your heart, it can be a rather different matter. When I played, I was immersed in the story. I built the story from the disjointed events depicted on the cards. I had to manage crisis after crisis. I had to make tough choices. I had to make sacrifices. Every bullet spent and every gallon of gas used felt painful. "Was it worth it?", I often asked. Many times I had to choose between taking a risk or not. Avoiding risk is not free. You can't afford to flee forever. You will eventually run out of fuel. Do you flee now or save the fuel so that you have the option to flee in future when you get into a worse situation than now? Every fight with the zombies is a death fight. You can never be sure which day will be your last.

The game is of low to medium complexity. Non-gamers and casual gamers can manage, so I think it will work as a gateway game. The zombie theme is a plus.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Project: ELITE

Plays: 4Px1.

The Game

Here's the scenario. Earth has been invaded and overrun by aliens, and only small pockets of humans continue to resist the invaders. The human resistance forms an elite team, and sends them on critical missions in the fight against the aliens. You are part of this elite team.

Project: ELITE is a cooperative game and a real-time game. Each game is a mission. You have a fixed number of rounds, and you need to complete your mission before the final round ends. Sometimes you need to kill specific enemies, sometimes you need to retrieve some artifacts, sometimes you need to sabotage some facilities. The game is partially real-time, and this is what makes the game different. At the start of a round, new aliens appear on the game board. Then you, members of the elite team, get to perform actions. Finally the aliens perform actions. The human action phase is the part which is done in real-time. You only have two minutes. Everyone has a set of four dice. You roll your own dice, and use the icons you roll to perform actions. After you use an icon, you may reroll the die and use it again. If you don't like what you roll, you can simply pick up the die and reroll. It seems that the faster you roll, the more you will get to do, but there is a catch! If you roll the alien icon, you must move an alien. This can result in the alien attacking you or your teammate. So rolling dice comes with risks.

The white dice are the player's action dice. The red icon is the alien icon, which is bad news. The other icons let you do various different actions. The green dice are the attack dice. You roll them when you attack. Each weapon has an attack value - you need to roll a certain number on the attack dice for them to count as hits. The card on the right is a character card. Each character has a special ability. The three circles at the bottom are spaces for life tokens. You remove a token each time an alien hits you. When you lose all three, you lose one die and then refill the tokens. You start the game with four dice. If you lose your last die, your character dies and everyone loses the game.

Before the game starts, you draw two cards per player. This can be any combination of equipment cards and weapon cards. You lay them all out, and then as a group you decide who takes what. The icons on the cards specify what die icons are needed to activate the card. The two cards on the left have icons with red backgrounds. This means when you activate the card with a die, that die is locked. You only take the die back next round. This means the card can only be used once per round. Also once you use it, you will have one die less for the rest of the round. Normally a weapon has three properties - range, the number of attack dice you may roll, and the minimum die value required to score hits.

My special ability is if I kill an enemy in melee combat, I may move into its space for free. This is why I have chosen the duel blades as my weapon. They are melee weapons so they synergise with my ability.

This is the game board. It is two sided and the two sides are different. On this side, the players' base is at the bottom left. This is where you start out, and this is also where you must return to after completing your mission in order to win the game. At the three other corners, there are spawn points for the aliens. All over the board you can see small arrows. These indicate how aliens move. The arrows all flow from the spawn points to the player base. You must not let any alien enter your base. If this happens you lose. On the board there are structures which block movement and line of sight. At the top left there is a schedule, which needs to be set up based on the scenario you are playing. In specific rounds there will be events (usually bad), and in some others there will be alien bosses appearing (also bad news).

These grey aliens are the foot soldiers. Each soldier type has its own set of characteristics, e.g. how fast they move, how strong their attacks are.

Player characters are beige in colour. This kind of situation is very common - you are often swarmed by aliens. There is wave after wave of aliens. While trying to stay alive by mowing them down before they overwhelm you, you also need to remember to complete your mission objective.

In the game we played, our mission was to retrieve four artifacts - those large tiles with red backgrounds and yellow hand icons. They were scattered around the board and we had to go out to them and bring them back. To move an artifact by one step required committing a die with the hand icon for the rest of the round. The number of hand icons on an artifact is also the limit on how many moves it can make per round. At the time of this photo three artifacts had been retrieved, but the fourth one was still some ways away.

Green coloured aliens are the lieutenants. They are stronger than the foot soldiers. In the background you can see a blurry red patch. That's a boss-level alien. They are tough nuts to crack and often come with very annoying powers.

Standing in the path of an alien is dangerous. If the alien moves, it will push you back and also injure you. Alien movement is performed by the players. You decide the order in executing their movement, and sometimes you have options where they move to. Naturally you want to execute all these while minimising damage. However there are often too many aliens on the board and it is not easy to completely avoid damage.

The Play

Project: ELITE is a dungeon crawl style game, in a sci-fi setting. You have special abilities, you carry weapons, and you kill monsters while trying to complete a quest. What makes the game different is the real-time execution of player actions. The real-time segments come in short bursts, unlike in Escape: The Curse of the Temple where it is all in a single 10-minute take. Still, the game does deliver adrenaline-pumping excitement. It is certainly more complex than Escape. There is more admin work, like handling alien movement and attacks, so it may not be possible or desirable to make the whole thing real-time. I think the experience would be even better if it could be done.

The break time between the real-time segments is useful. You want to catch your breath, discuss tactics, assign responsibilities and decide what to do next round.

We won the game, but it was not easy. Early on we decided to split into two teams of two, each team going in a different direction to retrieve different artifacts. Ivan's team did their part quickly, but my team struggled. We were swamped by aliens and could barely keep them at bay. Our progress was slow. There were three spawn points for aliens, and we couldn't predict where and how many would enter the board. It depended on the cards we drew.

Sometimes we had to make personal sacrifices. In one situation we had options in moving the aliens, but both options would result in some of us to getting injured. It was not just a matter of seeing which option would result in less injury, or which option would prevent already injured players from getting further injured. We also had to consider who were in more useful locations and would be able to contribute more towards the objective. Ultimately, the objective was most important. Well, unless someone was going to get killed, because then everyone would lose.

The Thoughts

The real-time gameplay is exciting. I rarely see such being implemented in dungeon crawl type games. I can only think of Space Hulk. The dungeon crawl aspect of the game is common, nothing that strikes me as outstanding. It works well enough. It is the real-time mechanism and the dice mechanism which gives the game its novelty factor.