Game of Thrones, the Board Game, review

A classic, for good reason. It’s the area control game that gave backstabbing a good name. Often imitated, never duplicated.

Game of Thrones, I own the blade and the Raven. Good signs.
Game of Thrones, I own the blade, the Raven, and have ships over the east coast. Good signs.

Ameri-gaming done right: start by taking an interesting property, put a slim game on top of it, then make sure that the game ‘feels’ like the property. And that’s the secret of it’s success: GoT:tBG feels right. The backstabbing (sometimes proper invasion, more often in the form of denying support that was promised) is woven integrally into the game. The combat is deterministic which makes the backstabs sting even more as you went through and counted all the math and you have had enough if not for those awful Tyrrels.

The game’s victory condition is holding enough castles. The temporary nature of this means the game is a constant dynamic rotation of who everyone else is ganging up on. The dream is to be 3 castles behind as everyone else fights each other, then to leap across the map on a chain of boats and grabbing 3 in one turn.

Ah, the boats.

Top down GoT
Top down GoT, my boats on right won me the game

The boats allow armies to teleport across the map. They prevent the game from becoming a slow bottleneck of fighting over choke points and allow for grand master moves like distributing 3 armies across 3 different landing zones. Don’t underestimate them or you’ll find yourself with foreigners at your shores sieging your muster spots.

The game’s narrative is driven by power tokens. Instead of using a region militarily, it can be harvested for that abstract currency. That’s then used to help fight against the periodic Wildling attacks and to bid on the 3 tracks which functionally represent turn order, military power, and flexibility with orders respectively. Winning the top tracks gives added benefits: the Throne breaks ties in the other appointments and decides how some event cards play out, the Valarian Steel gives +1 to a combat, and the Raven swaps two orders in response to them displaying, letting the owner respond to someone doing something unexpected.

End of game. Baratheon rode from King's Landing to outside Winterfell
End of game. Baratheon rode from King’s Landing to outside Winterfell

It’s a great game with a caveat: it’s kinda off-balance at 4 and 5 players. Highly recommended at 3 and 6 players though.

Really, my only ‘complaint’ of any sort is that the characters don’t look enough like their TV show versions that I’ve gotten used to. Makes since the game predates it by quite a bit, and to be honest the hand painted art is much nicer than any film stills could be.

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege of Columbia review

Tomo picked this up on one of those online sales so I finally got to play what I passed on to get Evolution instead.

Bioshock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia
Bioshock Infinite: The Siege Of Columbia

This is pretty much the quintessence of a Ameri-game. Miniatures for area control. Combat with custom dice. Completely theme based. Simple rules that involve a lot of weight up front. If you like the genre, you’ll like this.

For those unfamiliar, the board game is based on a video game of same name. In it you try and rescue a girl from a floating city while factions fight for domination. In the board game you represent one of two of those factions, while similarly to Lord Of The Ice Garden, the protagonist of the original story wanders about the map causing massive destruction.

The game was introduced to me as “basically Nexus Ops with a Bioshock skin”, and that’s a very good starting point to understanding it. The game is won by placing your 10th victory point, and they’re placed by either succeeding in a VP objective, or by holding an area of the board. The first are yours forever, the second only until you lose the area.

The main driver of the game are cards. They are dealt to players each turn and represent the units available to the faction. They can be spent to gain money (allowing purchases of units, buildings, and upgrades), to give bonuses and special effects in combat à la Game of Thrones, or to win votes to pass new laws that change the rules slightly each turn.

On top of that there’s the aforementioned protagonists. They run around the board willy nilly, sometimes knocking out entire districts, sometimes killing all units, sometimes helping whoever they share the sector with.

Top down view of Bioshock Infinite
Top down view of Bioshock Infinite

If the game sounds kind of random, it rather is. There’s the combat dice, the card draws, Booker’s movement, Elizabeth’s effects, the laws you vote for, and the victory point conditions. None of these do you have any real control over. On top of that, 1 card in either deck is game-changingly powerful: the Songbird / Airship ones. They add a giant amount of points to the fight, on top of letting the unit teleport in and bring its die with it. It means that you basically get a free win each time you draw it. I used that to win the game but taking over a needed final point, despite my opponents best efforts all game to prevent that.

I mean, it’s not a bad game. The theme is done well and it looks great. But it definitely feels a bit like everything they could think of from every FFG game they liked was picked up and throwing into a pot. Check it out if you’re a hardcore Bioshock fan, but you’re probably not and you’re probably ok sitting this one out.

The minis are ok
The minis are ok, the cardboard buildings are nicer

 

TI3

Managed to get my first win in a Twilight Imperium (3rd ed) game. Won as the Xxcha by concentrating on technology and managing to hold Mecatol Rex for a good 4 turns.

I was the green faction
I was the green faction

Pax Porfiriana (solo) mini-review

This one took a while to hit table despite my best efforts since the rules are a bit long, so I finally did the optional solo variant by myself.

IMG_3319
Pax Porfiriana, solo, in progress. Diaz on right.

I realize this really is a very mini review even by my standards but I just want to say how fantastic the game really is. It’s a card builder-style game with lots of details and intricacies that all come together to provide a consistent whole (vs feeling like distractions). I say card builder-style game cause unlike with most builders your cards tend to get killed quite often. You’re perpetually building, fixing, defending, and rebuilding, while also destroying everyone else’s cards.

This on top of a very interesting and original theme, researched with a satisfying amount of detail. While playing you learn a little bit not only about the history of the time, but also about how difficult it must have been to live at the time.

And yes, this is an Ecklund game. The manual comes with an extended political/economic treatise by the author of slightly sophomoric quality, and the cards are intimidating at first with symbols all over the cards, some upside down, some back to front. They become very second nature very quickly though, thankfully.

The solo game isn’t perfect as the bot player, Diaz, doesn’t require money and as so never builds an engine that you can attack. This makes a few of the cards not particularly useful to the player other than as self-attacks to build Outrage and liberate slaves (building Revolt points).

My only modification to the solo game rules is to change the way Diaz picks his cards away from the d6/d6 method cause there’s too much money to be made in speculating on the 16s. I have a D16 from Dungeon Crawl Classic so maybe give that a shot. Something like 1-5 buys from column 1, 6-9 from 2, 10-11 from 3, 12-13 from 4, 14-15 from 5, and 16 from 6. We’ll see.

Incidentally, I (barely) won with a Revolution victory.

IMG_3320
Viva La Revolution

So yes, this was a mini-review. Proper review after we get a multi-person game of this going.

Dice City, review

David brought Dice City to game night so I got to check it out.

Dice City player board. The dice land on intersection of number and color
Dice City player board. The dice land on intersection of number and color

The game is the exact middle ground of Machi Koro and Imperial Settlers. It takes the dice from Machi Koro and combines it with the resource management of Imperial Settlers.

You start with a large board in front of you filled with useful but unexciting builds. You roll all your dice and place them in their correct spot (where the color of dice and number rolled meet), and then activate that building. Sometimes you get a resource, sometimes you get an attack point, sometimes a weird power up goes off. You then use those resources and attacks to get new cards and VPs, perhaps attacking and disabling your opponent’s buildings.

That’s pretty much the entirety of the game mechanically, actually. Get resources, spend resources, hope that the numbers you need roll. This isn’t a criticism, simple mechanics for card building combined with interesting cards is all you need. So let’s talk about the cards.

Full setup of Dice City
Full setup of Dice City

The cards are definitely more Machi Koro than Imperial Settlers. There’s more of simple combos such as “Activate every harvest card in your row”, and very little of the more complex meta-cards of Imperial Settlers, which makes sense as those complicated Settlers engines require colossal hand draw and complete control of what plays when, which is quite literally impossible to set up in Dice City.

I think Dice City never quite jelled for me because I already played and got familiar with the games at the two extremes of it’s gameplay. It’s a perfectly good game in it’s own right, but for light card building and dice rolling I’d prefer Machi Koro, while for deep card building Imperial Settlers is much more stimulating. I’d recommend this if you have neither of the two above but are interested in the genre, or if you feel that Machi is too light while IS is too heavy, but me personally I feel like the two games on either side are better experiences overall.

Xenon Profiteer, review

Grabbed it on sale from Eagle Griffin cause we like clever deck builders here. This one is even more clever, to the point it plays more like a card builder (like Mottainai) than a proper Deck Builder.

Xenon at work
Xenon at work

The premise of the game is you want to ‘isolate’ xenon in your hand by removing all other cards, then use it gain victory points. This is done primarily by a once a turn ‘distilling’ step where you remove from your deck all the cards of the most common gas in your hand (so all nitrogens if you have nitrogen, all oxygens if you have no nitrogen, etc). The catch of the game is that to get xenon cards into your deck you also must take a nitrogen, oxygen, and krypton, then you spend all your effort on removing those cards.

The non-gas cards are divided into 3 types: power ups, pipelines that increase your hand size, and contracts that convert xenon to points. Power ups can be used like in a deck builder (once per shuffle), or can be installed at a cost to go off every round. This means that it’s possible to play and win this deck-builder without ever buying a card to your deck. You would still need to take air in, but that’s done as a separate action from buying.

So the one half of the game is the above, a multiplayer solitaire to get the most points possible out of the objects you buy, about when to switch to ‘overtime production’ which allows you to distill twice, at the cost of not getting any new cards, and when to buy what. The player to player interaction comes through the process of bidding.

Xenon Profiteer to go
Xenon Profiteer to go, at Tea N More

Bidding is placing your player token on a card available for purchase. It lowers the price of the card for you buy 1 (including going into negatives, meaning the card can pay you to purchase it), but perhaps more importantly it means that whoever buys that card will also have to pay you on top of the normal price.

This leads to the primary interaction with other players: trying to block their purchases and convert what they need into a slowdown for them and acceleration for you.

A playthrough is about I’d say 20m per player, and has a similarity to Mottainai in that the two main strategies are either to go slow and get as many points as possible, or to go as fast as you can in order to get the game to end quickly before the slower decks manage to ramp up their engines. In our experience this can go either way.

It’s a great game for us, not very heavy but interesting in a puzzle solve-y way, while still including a bit of player interaction without making it too aggressive. Recommended if those things sound appealing to you. The unique play style and theme also helps. Wish it was just a hair quicker cause it’s just barely too long for work lunches with our usual 3-4 people.

TIS-100, ranty review

I just ‘finished’ the puzzle game TIS-100, meaning I wrote a code that solves the final task of the game and saw all of the plot (other than the hidden puzzle. I’m not ready to tackle that mentally), so please listen to me rant why this is probably my favorite puzzle game of the 2010s, if not of all time.

First of all: what is it? It’s a game that tells you that you inherited a weird old time-y computer from your missing uncle and are trying to run some debuggers on it to figure out what it is. It comes with an ancient looking manual and very little else. If it sounds like a mystery game, it’s cause it is.

(Throughout this post, feel free to click to embiggen the images)

Blank TIS-100 screen
Blank TIS-100 screen

The game is really about designing algorithms in the mathematical sense: converting inputs into outputs. To do so you’re given a pretty simple assembly language architecture with one feature, and one huge caveat. The feature is that you have access to multiple chips that all run in parallel and can talk to each other. The caveat is that each only has a single register that can do storage, math, and logic, and a second register that can only be used as long term storage.

Got it? Ok, so let’s go over a solution to a puzzle, or more precisely my thought process of solving one. Spoiler warning obviously, if you want to solve each one yourself, don’t read this.

The TIS-100 in later levels includes a ‘graphics’ module that allows you to display pixel data that is being sent to the output. The format is a string of integers formed as

( Starting X coordinate, Starting Y coordinate, <series of integers representing colors to draw 1 square of>, -1 )

In this task we are given a length of a line, then a color to use for it. We have to figure out how to wrap at the edge of the screen if the line is longer than the screen width. Here’s what the tasks look like, along with my initial solution:

Parts of the screen
Parts of the screen

So how does a guy who loves nothing more than clean logical order and Object Orientation handle this? Simple, by creating treating each node as a make-shift object. Let me walk you through the code above.

First, we got to keep track of where we are on the screen:

screen2
The column and row trackers

The upper circled node iterates from 0 to 30 (screen width), then sends that data to the right. It also sends either 0 or -1 down to the node that keeps track of rows. The row tracking node (circled below) returns it’s stored value, and whenever it receives a -1 it increments the stored value. So now we got a steady generator that spits out

(0,0), (0,1), (0,2) ... (29,0), (30,0), (0,1), (1,1) ...

etc etc.

Now we have to keep track of what color we’re on. We got a third node for that:

screen3
The color tracker

This one stores the length of a color and the value of the color, then by swapping those in and out of the long term register it decrements the length and constructs a little quad packet like (0, 0, 2, -1). That particular packet would draw a grey square in top left for instance. The node then passes this packet down into the chain of helper passing nodes and off they go to the output off the bottom row.

I make this sound trivial, but in reality it took the better part of an hour to come up with this solution, and then a better part of a second hour debugging a bunch of silly deadlocks and memory corruption mistakes (having two nodes get out of sync and wait for input from each other so that they hang indefinitely, forgetting to swap memory contents before displaying, stuff like that).

So what kind of performance do we get on that? Well, this:

speed1
Initial score

Not great compared to the average other user. So now we get to the second part of TIS-100. Optimizing to compete with the ‘others’ of the internet. So how can we optimize this?

Well, first thing that jumps out at me is that the bottom right node seems to be sending stuff pointlessly far. Look:

A regular Marco Polo this guy
A regular Marco Polo this guy

It really doesn’t have to go that far. What if instead of going all the way around, it just goes right? Now the top right packet constructor will only do 3 of the numbers, and the node below him will just plug in the row number from the left as we go. That should skim off a cycle or two, no? And skim them off the innermost loops too. Always good.

More to the point, this route
More to the point, this route

So now we’re just going straight right, though we needed to add a tiny bit of logic to the right to build the packet. 3 cycles less per each loop. Nice.

We can do better though, can’t we. I mean, what if we reärrange the nodes so that instead of the top right node acting as a packet constructor the packet gets constructed “as needed” and only in the last moment. A Just-In-Time packet, if you forgive the borderline archaic term. It would require moving the two “storage” nodes to below the input and then setting up an assembly line to the right of them. And oh look, the output is already set up exactly in the perfect spot for it. Hm. It’s like the designers knew this.

It's so beautiful
It’s so beautiful

So at time A the packet is (?, ?, Color, ?).

At B we get (X, ?, Color, ?)

And only at C do we get (X, Y, Color, -1)

Now, how much of an improvement do we get?

A whole freaking lot it turns out
Quite a bit, it turns out

Down from 7684 to 4898, so 36%. Not too shabby considering all we did was move some nodes around. Now, if we really wanted to make this mother fly, we would use that feature that lets us create longer packets. I mean, why send

(0,0,1,-1), (1,0,1,-1), (2,0,1,-1), (3,0,1,-1), ...

When we can send

(0,0,1,1,1,1 ... 1,1,-1)

I mean, it can’t be that difficult can it?

And before you know it, you’ve sunk another few hours into TIS.

 

Stone Garden, review

So before we start, this is about the Japanese only version of the game, technically named ??? or Karesansui, and called Stone Garden on Board Game Geek. This is not the American game Zen Garden and/or Karesansui from Eagle-Gryphon. All clear on this point? Ok.

Stone Garden midway. Player boards on outskirts, rock store in middle, cheat sheet between
Stone Garden midway. Player boards on outskirts, rock store in middle, translation cheat sheet between

Got to play this thanks to Tomo who ordered it from Japan for our work lunchtime plays (thank you Tomo). The game is conceptually a strange Carcassonne with more player interaction, more complicated scoring, and amazing quality pieces. Each turn you pick up a tile, decide whether you’ll play it (possibly having it stolen), gift it, store it, or discard it. Gifting earns you virtue, discarding loses it, and stealing loses even more. You then can move your assistant (the little pawn), have him buy and place a stone, or have him meditate to gain virtue.

The first level of complexity lies in the virtue management and the associated risk balancing. You might hold off on placing a critical tile until your opponents don’t have enough virtue to steal it, but then you give up your only storage spot, possibly wasting a great tile later. Buying stones moves your virtue to zero, which means that for one turn you can’t discard. Drawing a terrible tile then can mess up a whole arrangement.

The second level complexity of the game lies in the scoring and choosing between going slower for maximum points, or rushing with sub-optimal tiles, but hopefully finishing first and forcing your opponents into suboptimal gardens (the game speeds up once the first garden is finished). You get positive points for pleasing patterns of sand and moss, negative points for unmatched edges, big bonus points for your hidden objective, and then you get to the rock rules. Various rock patterns count for points, while other rocks simply score points by being present in the right place.

What’s nice is the game is genuinely rooted in the art of stone garden design, so you do learn a tiny bit from gameplay. You won’t be an expert by any means, but you’ll learn why certain rocks are placed where they are, and what they are symbolically meant to signify (famous islands, ships, etc).

Stone Garden box
Stone Garden box. Each rock in a custom spot.

What made the game a such a word of mouth hit is the quality of the pieces though. Cause of how good the rocks look, while working on your fake stone garden you genuinely create what looks like a really pretty little stone garden. There’s a genuinely joy in seeing everything come together as the game runs, which then leads to people tweeting photos of their gardens, and the game then spreads from there.

Like this: a game winning garden in the making (3 more stones coming)
Like this: a nice, though game losing garden (poor stone placement). Symmetry in middle row though.

The high quality also leads to a scarcity: the publisher simply can’t make the games very fast, so the game is difficult to find most places. And even once acquired you still probably need to get a good translation sheet for the rules, gardeners, and scoring patterns.

Having said that, I definitely think it’s worth it. The gameplay is genuinely interesting, and the components are just incredible. I genuinely hope it manages to come to the US without loss of quality because it’s a fantastic and unique take on euro-gaming, with a beautiful theme on top.