Saturday, December 2, 2017

How I learned to stop worrying and love Cities of Splendor

Introduction (or “The expansions were free. But they came with this $50 Start Player token.”)

PAX AUS 2017. Hundreds of gamers crowding around the generously-spaced TableTop area, and I’m number twenty in a queue at one of the game stall cashiers when I spot a copy of Cities of Splendor on a shelf. I pull it out and glimpse at the price. $50.

I’ve read the first impressions and reviews of Cities of Splendor on BGG, so I knew what I was in for. Four expansions and a whole lot of air in a box. Oh, and a Start Player token. I liked Splendor, and it still comes out on some game nights as a quick starter or wind-down game, which is a lot more than I can say for many other games in the collection. Out of these four expansions, I was really only interested in one - the Orient expansion which introduces those Cool Red cards with Awesome Effects.

“Honestly,” I reason to myself. “$50 means that this is a box containing expansions worth $12.50 each. If I saw the “Orient” expansion by itself priced at $12.50, I’d snap it up and be happy about it. And if I saw the other expansions alongside it, I *might* pick them up based on collector’s instinct and poor impulse control.” And so, twenty transactions later, I am the owner of one expansion that I really wanted, and three other expansions that sort of came along with it like socially-awkward in-laws you hope to only see on infrequent special occasions.

At home, I open the box and read the rules. First snag. It’s recommended that only one expansion should be played with the base game. What, I can’t mix them all in? Do they not play well together like my kids after chocolate cake? I decide to reserve my judgement until I’ve played through all the expansions.

The Orient Expansion (or the one with Cool Red Cards with Awesome Effects)

Need I say anything about this expansion that hasn’t already been said by other reviews? This expansion is awesome because its cards are awesome. Like, take a look at this one:

So you build this card, and claim another card. Two cards for the price of one! And if you plan it right, you can build a Level 3 Red card to claim a Level 2 Red card to claim a Level 1 card. THREE cards in a single turn! Incredible! It’s stupendous! It’s a Willy Wonka fizz-bang action-chaining special!

Or how about this one?

Build this card, and BAM! Reserve a Noble Tile. Like the one Fred across the table was working all game to get. Sorry, Fred, King Henry here might have been interested in some of your bling, but it looks like he’s been convinced to deal with us exclusively by Lovely Lola from our merchant guild’s Public (and Private) Relations Department.

I expected much from this expansion. And got that and more. Two solid thumbs up.

The Cities Expansion (or the one with Oversized Noble Tiles - Oh, They Flip to show Different Things on the Other Side. That’s Pretty Cool.)

With the Orient expansion being such a resounding success, it was with some trepidation that I tried out the expansion from which the entire set is named after. This expansion replaces the Noble Tiles with City Tiles, which are really just Noble Tiles with prejudice.

The game ends in the round when someone claims a City Tile. The winner is the player with the highest VPs who has a City Tile. So you’ve got 16 VPs and I have 14? But I have a City Tile, and you don’t? Tough luck - I win.

This expansion really brings out the race aspect of Splendor. But instead of everyone racing for the same 15 VP finish line, here it’s everyone racing towards three different finish lines. It’s like implementing a variant in the base game where you need to have 15 VPs and a Noble Tile to win.

This forces everyone off the “just build the cards with the VPs” track into the “must get those gem sets for one of those Tiles” track. Yes, it does remove a viable strategy from the base game (which I’ve employed a number of times myself), but it forces set collection and competition for those sets. And more competition is always fun. I enjoyed my plays with the Cities expansion more than I expected, which is a good thing.

The Trading Posts Expansion (or the one with the Needlessly Large Board with Static Powers)

So honestly, why the board? Why not just have cards or tiles? Or better yet, why not have more than 5 tiles with different powers, and randomly pick 5 to play with each game? Surely that’s better replayability?

Those were the sort of questions I had when I broke out this expansion. The powers themselves seemed to vary in usefulness. In particular, this power seemed OP-ed:

This means that once you build 3 Reds and 1 White, you can claim this power which allows you to take a gem chip after you build a card. Seems like a no-brainer to build. So in my first game with my wife, I strove towards getting this power. And got my butt handed to me.

Some after-game analysis revealed my oversight. I’d not noticed this particular combination which my wife gleefully exploited:

Having this fellow available means that you’re pretty much guaranteed 8 VPs once you start hoarding Greens, which is exactly what my wife did and ended the game before I could even get a decent engine up.

That was too quick, so we gave it another go. And BAM! It ended just as quickly, this time with my wife spreading Shield Tokens across the Trading Posts board and grabbing the “Gain 1 VP per Shield” power which gave her the extra VPs to end the game.

If the Cities expansion is like a round-the-track race, then the Trading Posts expansion is more like the 100m sprint. The winner tends to be the one who quickly builds up one of the Trading Post powers, and abuses it to win. And which Trading Post power is best depends on what cards or nobles are available. It’s so fast that my wife and I can play several games of this back-to-back, and do a “best of 3”. Pretty neat.

The Strongholds expansion (or the one with the plastic towers that look like bottles of sauce ketchup)

“So every time you build a card, you get to do a Stronghold action, like placing or removing one of these ketchup bottles on a card,” I demonstrated to another group of players.

“Tomato sauce,” replied one of the players in a bored, corrective tone, which initiated a string of ‘No-I’m-right-no-you’re-wrong’ statements, which ended with us agreeing to disagree. The yellow one was undoubtedly mustard though.

This wasn’t an expansion I was looking forward to trying out. In fact, the plastic bits stayed in the sealed bag for the longest time until someone finally insisted that we should give it a go. Part of my reluctance was that I couldn’t see how yet another “reserve-a-card” mechanic could improve the game. And I felt that some players were going to be doomed in an endless, repetitive cycle of ‘I-place-my-stronghold-you-remove-it-I-place-it-back’ actions.

We started the game. Most of us couldn’t work out what was valuable to each other, so the first few stronghold placements were pretty random.

And then this happened:

Much to the horror of the Green and Black players, they were suddenly limited to only purchasing Level 2 development cards which their engines weren’t ready for. They couldn’t build a cheap card without removing those strongholds, and they couldn’t remove those strongholds without a Stronghold action, and they couldn’t do a Stronghold action without building a card. The Yellow and Red players were sufficiently amused to leave their strongholds exactly where they were until they were nice and ready to claim the cards underneath.

And then there was the turn when several players collaborated to place their strongholds on cards to deny the player in the lead. Oh my, it was mayhem. Players were building cheap cards, just for the Stronghold actions. There was vindictiveness. There was indignation to a level I’ve not seen since the days when someone rolled a 7 and moved the Robber.

And I liked it.

I seemed to have gone with the ‘race’ theme to describe some of these expansions. Strongholds is the sort of race that involves chariots, spiked hub-caps and bloodied gladiators. It’s not for everyone, but it’s sure fun with a right crowd!

Final thoughts (or “Let me tell you what I really think about this game”)

Since purchasing Cities of Splendor, I can safely say that this game has hit the table a whole lot more, and I can see that this is going to be one of those games that we pack with us for holidays. This expansion surprised and delighted me, and that doesn’t happen very often.

So how do I rate it? I'll use the trusty “I Play Games with my Wife” Measuring Stick, which sorts games into two classes: “Wife never wants to play this” and “Wife requests for it”. With Cities of Splendor, the wife lost a few games and raged that she never wanted to play it again, and then requested for it the very next night.

So, I think that puts Cities of Splendor into a class of its own.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Cynthia Reviews: ...and then, we held hands.

With such a sweet title that appeals to couples like my hubby and me, we bought the abstract strategy card game recently when we went shopping for games. I was impressed by the backstory. Designed by David Chircop and Yannick Massa, this quirky card game was first created as a free ‘Print and Play’ game. It got so popular that it won the 2014 best ‘Print and Play’ winner as nominated by fans on BoardGameGeek.

After being picked up by a game publisher, Ludicreations, the card game is now available on all major game stores and online. We tore off the shrink-wrap and noticed that the artwork looked rather like ‘Dixit’. French illustrator Marie Cardouat beautifully depicted the cards which each represent an emotion; happy, sad, ambivalent, calm, angry, manic, cold, resigned, content, betrayed, carefree, euphoric, enraged, depressed.

"...and then, we held hands" is a co-operative two-player game about finding balance. To win, players must complete objectives and reach the centre of the board. Each player takes a turn to fulfil the common emotional objective by discarding emotive cards to move from node to node. Players can use their own cards or their partner’s to complete an emotional objective. But if either player cannot move, the players lose and the game ends immediately.

We ditched the no-talking rule and converse for fun to display our emotions. We avoided suggesting any moves to each other though. In reality, we rarely argue as a couple. In this game, we were two angry people always arguing. We tried to make each other happy, but we just end up arguing and giving each other the cold treatment. We played the ‘Arguments Variant’ where we needed to resolve an argument by ending on the same node together. That was difficult to do in the game. Just when we resolved one argument, another one pops up and we are once again trying to resolve it.

We managed to hang on as a couple and got quite close to being in the centre. I only needed two emotive cards to move to the centre. But my hubby had to go through a whole display of crazy emotions before he could get to the centre. It’s a bit of a brain burner to get to the centre. When we finally did, we were so happy, we held hands!

We definitely would recommend this game to couples. The game theme depicts that relationships are hard work but when you do find the balance and compromise, both are happy when there is reconciliation.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Evan Reviews: Colt Express

We played Colt Express today. It was super fun. Every time we finish a phase, we would take turns narrating the cards, making it sound like we were reading a story. The thing that I found annoying is that the sheriff is invincible and deployed $1000 one round.

It was really fun because I played it with 3 other players, because when you play with 2 players, it's not really the same. This game keeps you very engaged and determined, although you're relying on luck every move. It's the same thing every round - Bang, run, bang, steal, move sheriff, run upstairs and punch.

We gave our characters nick-names. I played Django "Fett", my mum played Doc, my dad played Ghost "Bear" and my sister was Tuco "Taco". Overall, I'll give it a 4.9/5 rating of fun game-play. Evan out.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

How we organised an Escape Room Party at home for our daughter’s 13th birthday

Yeah, it was a pretty wild idea, and I cannot imagine what was going through my wife’s mind when she blurted out, “Why not an Escape Room party!?” when we were brain-storming some weeks prior to our daughter Jojo’s 13th birthday.

However, after looking through some of the Escape Rooms around town, we could not find one that adequately fit Jojo's criteria of: No zombies, No murders, No viruses, No mad scientists, No jump-scares, No ghosts, No creepy music.

So the next wild idea came from me when I said, “Why don’t we just MAKE an Escape Room at home?” How hard can it be, right? So here’s a list of things that we found during this endeavour.

1. Look around for interesting items to use

My wife and I probably spent the next week or so walking around in a half-daze, looking for things around the house, or during grocery shopping, that could be used in our Escape Room. Once identified, we squirrelled them away in our bedroom. Obvious things like luggage bag locks, a lockable money box, small pad-locks were the first, but soon we also had a pair of binoculars, a terrarium, styrofoam cups, a ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ poster, and so on.

Most of the things we had were stuff from around the house. Some of these, like the terrarium, were sentimental because it was the first one that Jojo made, and we thought it would be fun to incorporate it somehow. My wife found a list of symbols-to-alphabet letters that my son had made as an alien language, which we decided was perfect for a decoder.

2. Ask a lot of people about what they loved about Escape Rooms 

Every time we met up with people who had been through Escape Rooms, we would ask them about what they liked about it. In the age of Googling up ideas and answers, sometimes asking people you know works best, and we had the best ideas from some of our friends. The binoculars, for example, was inspired by a friend who had been through an Escape Room where she needed to use one to read numbers outside a window.

3. Draft up a plan. And then revise it. 

My wife convinced me that my original idea of “Locking the kids in the garage, and then going for a coffee.” would not cut it, so we eventually found time one late afternoon to draft out a basic outline of what our Escape room in the garage (or, more accurately, Escape Garage) would entail.

So with the stuff we accumulated, we drafted out one plan, and revised it over and over again. I think the plan evolved backwards. We knew that the kids would eventually gain the key to exit the garage. We needed a way to secure the key that required a puzzle, or series of puzzles, to unlock. The final idea was this:

The kids would have to find the three numbers (symbolised by the ‘X’, ‘Square’ and ‘Triangle’) that would unlock the dial combination lock that would give them the key to exit the garage.

After that, it was just designing three different series of puzzles that would lead to each of the three numbers.

4. Be creative with the stuff you have 

It’s hard to tell yourself to be creative with just your mind. Sometimes, you need to have something before you can start being creative with it. This was the case with the terrarium. After several ideas, we ended up writing numbers on the sticky side of little stickers, and then sticking them on the glass just below surface-level. We hid the numbers behind some rocks, and left a large sticker with a clue on how to find the numbers on the little stickers. The numbers would open a 3-digit luggage lock on the Tool Box.

One tip: if you are planning to use 3-digit luggage locks in your puzzles, try setting them as the FIRST puzzle in the series. This is because there will always be one kid who would start industriously going through every number on the combination lock while the others puzzle out the correct numbers.

Ideally, the time taken to solve the puzzle should be less than the time to brute-force your way through all the 3-digit combinations on the luggage lock.

5. How many puzzles? How long should it take? 

Our plan was to have a group of 4-5 kids attempt the Escape Garage in 45-60 minutes. It’s hard to predict how many puzzles it would take to make it last that long, so we took the ‘more is better’ approach, and designed a large number of puzzles that were obvious to solve, but not too obvious. 

And then, we left an iPad on the desk, and Face-Timed the kids every 10 minutes to see how they were doing. If they were stuck, we would drop hints to move them along. That allowed us to pace the entire Escape Garage experience to just under 60 mins.

6. Video the whole thing. Big Brother style. 

We set up a video camera in the garage, and told the kids that it would be filming them throughout the experience. This turned out to be the best thing for the party, as the kids hollered and laughed at themselves when we played-back the footage later in the day during the party. Definitely a must-do!

7. Don’t worry about things screwing up. Just have fun and roll with it! 

Ultimately, this was a fun party thing we were trying to put on, so when we couldn’t come up with a ‘theme’ or ‘story’ for the Escape Garage, we just forgo-ed it, and told the kids that they were being split up into 2 groups of 4-5 kids each, and we were going to time each group to see how long they took, and how many hints they needed.

Regularly Face-Timing them helped, as the kids found things that could have been misleading (I accidentally left the receipt for the laptop in the work bag! The kids spent a few minutes puzzling over that one! :-p) which we told them to ignore when they showed us.

Also, never underestimate the deviousness of a bunch of 13-year-old girls put together. The first group who went in actually spent time hiding fake clues around the garage for the second group to find! Thankfully, we could sort it out via FaceTime with the second group, and I docked 10 minutes from the first group for their deception! ;-)

All in all, it was an awesome experience, and I think my wife and I have definitely earned a few ‘Cool Parents’ points from Jojo’s friends!

For those of you who want to know exact details on our Escape Garage, read on below.

Escape Garage Details: 
As mentioned, the aim was to find 3 numbers that would unlock the dial combination lock to release the key that the kids would use to escape the garage. There are 3 puzzle series that lead to each number.

One nice thing about having 3 separate puzzle series is that the kids could work on separate puzzles individually, keeping everyone engaged with something to do. So while one kid decodes a secret message, a few others are figuring out what another clue means, etc. It would have been nice to incorporate puzzles which require more than one kid to solve, like one kid reading out instructions on a wall to another kid who can't read the instructions herself, but we didn't have the proper room layout for that.

Puzzle Series#1: The Travel Bag 
The first puzzle series starts off with a little purple key hidden under the desk, which opens a purple money box also hidden in the desk. The money box contains some Australian coins, some Caribbean Pirate coins, and some beads, along with the note “Going on a holiday? Make sure you bring some travel money! Tour Australia. Then cruise the Caribbean. And then trade beads with the natives. Don’t forget your Travel Bag!” Counting the Australian coins, and then the Caribbean Pirate coins, and then the beads would give them a set of 3 numbers that is used to open the 3-digit combination lock on a luggage bag labelled ‘Travel Bag’ on the floor. The Travel Bag contains a pair of binoculars, along with a note (in code) with the ‘X’ symbol. The note (after being decoded) says, “Look far and admire the flower pots!” There is a small window facing the backyard, and someone looking out with the binoculars into the backyard should spot the number ‘23’ written in chalk on one of the flowerpots. This is the ‘X’ number to open the dial combination lock.

Puzzle Series#2: The Tool Box 
The next series starts with the kids noticing that the terrarium on the desk has a message and little stickers on the sides. The message says, “The numbers lie just below the surface. Open the Tool Box to proceed!” Closer inspection will show that the other stickers are just below the surface of the dirt in the terrarium, and digging just under the stickers will reveal three numbers written behind the stickers which show through the glass on the inside of the terrarium. The numbers open the 3-digit combination lock on the Tool Box, which contains an encoded message along with a ‘square’ symbol: “There's one other name you might know me by. Star Lord! (shoots)” Guardians of the Galaxy fans (like my daughter) will immediately recognise that this is a line from the movie, and that Star Lord refers to Peter Quill in the poster. If they follow the line of Peter Quill’s laser blasts, they will find the number ‘31’ written in chalk on the brick wall. The other numbers on the wall are just a distraction. This is the ‘square’ number to open the dial combination lock.

Puzzle Series #3: The Work Bag 
This series starts with the kids putting together a jigsaw puzzle which they are given at the start. The jigsaw contains a message: “Stack Jojo’s Birthday Wishes to open the Work Bag”. There are styrofoam cups placed around the garage. Closer inspection of the cups will show a number on one side, and the words ‘Happy’, and ‘Birthday’ and ‘Jojo’ on different cups. Stacking the cups in this order will give them the numbers to open the 3-digit combination lock on the bag labelled ‘Work Bag’ on the floor. The bag contains a coded message: “Find the Hidden Word in the Holy Word. Psalms Forty.” There is a bible on the desk, and a bookmark in the bible with two holes cut into it, one marked ‘Verse’ and the other marked ‘Hidden Word’. Placing the bookmark on the page of ‘Psalms 40’ with the ‘Verse’ hole over the ‘Psalms 40’ title will reveal the word ‘here’ in the ‘Hidden Word’ hole. The bookmark also has a message: “The Hidden Word will unchain your way forward!” This refers to the step-stool secured with a bicycle chain word lock next to the garage door. The word ‘HERE’ unlocks the bicycle chain word lock which frees the step-stool. Closer inspection of the step-stool will reveal that it has an arrow (along with the symbol ‘Triangle’ on it) pointing to one edge of the stool. The underside of the step-stool reveals ‘o’s and ‘x’s drawn in chalk on the feet. Placing the stool on the rectangular chalk numbers on the garage concrete floor with the ‘o’s and ‘x’s lined up will show that the arrow points to the number ‘11’. This is the ‘triangle’ number to open the final dial combination lock.

Emergency Kit
We also had an Emergency Kit with a bag of lollies in it. This was just for fun, and the kids really appreciated it!