Preventing a Pandemic, or, Why the Dispatcher Really is a Great Role

For many people, the competitive nature of our favorite games can make it difficult to get our families interested. (This is especially the case when we tend to win a lot!) One solution to the problem is cooperative games, in which the players work together to reach a common goal. I cannot think of a better example of such games than Pandemic, in which players cooperate to find cures for four deadly diseases before they can wipe out humanity.

The game rules are simple enough: you have a board representing the major cities of the world, with links between them, and a number of colored cubes representing the diseases. Each player gets a pawn, which begins at CDC headquarters in Atlanta.  On your turn, you get four actions, each of which may be used to move to an adjacent city, play a card to move to the city it shows (or fly anywhere, if you’re already in that city), give a card to (or take one from) another player if you’re together in the matching city, treat (remove) one disease cube from your current city, build a research station, or cure a disease. Curing something simply requires that you be at a research station and discard five cards of the color you want to cure, which can be harder than it sounds given the seven card hand limit.

Of course, at the end of each turn, more cubes hit the board. Early on, they’re not too much trouble, but if too many cubes of one color build up in a city, they outbreak and spread to the surrounding cities. If you have to place more cubes of a color than are available, if you have too many outbreaks, or if you run out of cards…time’s up! You have failed to contain the disease, and the entire population of the Earth is wiped out. Thanks a lot, guys!

Each player also has a special power, given by a randomly-drawn role at the start of the game. The Medic, for example, can wipe out all the cubes of a single color in the city he’s in with one action, while the Dispatcher can move other player’s pawns around, making travel much easier. (Incidentally, while these are only two out of a number of roles, they’re some of the most useful, and the game is much easier if you have at least one of them). Other than the role combinations, players can set the difficulty by choosing how many Epidemics to include in the deck; when one is drawn, three cubes hit the board and the discard pile for new disease cubes is reshuffled and placed back on top of the deck, meaning that cities which already got hit recently are likely to soon be hit again..

The expansion, On the Brink, introduces a few elements that make the game more difficult – the Virulent Strain and the Mutation – as well as new player powers and the ability for one player to take on the role of the bio-terrorist, playing against everyone else with hidden movement. Most players seem to prefer keeping Pandemic a purely cooperative game, though, and find the cards themselves provide enough problems without adding in the terrorist. More roles are introduced as well, helping to keep the game fresh, including the previously released mini-expansion “De Generalist”.

This isn’t a particularly complicated game; it clocks in at under an hour, and is simple enough for non-gamers while still being interesting for gamers. At this is a coop, players need to coordinate their actions to keep things under control; hands are generally kept secret to keep the more experienced players from taking total control of the game. While the subject matter may be dark, the game is simple fun and often gets several players in a row, as a game can easily be finished in half an hour once everyone has played a few times.

The main problem with Pandemic, as stated, is that there’s a definite risk of the more experienced player or players running the entire game, while everyone else watches. There tends to be a lot of discussion as to what the best moves are, and it’s easy for the stronger players to end up making all the decisions. Of course, when you can avoid that situation, the discussion also keeps everyone involved in the game, avoiding downtime. What I like about the game, I think, is the way the pieces fit together: you end up with a different combination of roles each time, and you have to figure out how to make the available powers work together to cure all of the diseases. In that, it’s really as much of a puzzle as it is a game: how can you make the most efficient use of your powers and actions in order to save humanity?

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Arimaa: Chess for Humans

In the field of artificial intelligence, the most difficult problems for computers to solve are those that involve pattern recognition. Humans are very, very good at recognizing patterns (and will even see them where they don’t really exist). Computers? Not so much. In chess, for example, a human will apply pattern recognition to ignore all possible moves except those most likely to be good; in one study, chess grandmasters who were shown a game in progress could later recreate it completely, but when shown a board that was set up randomly, could no longer do so. Computers, on the other hand, generally win by checking every possible move extremely quickly and calculating the estimated value of each.

Enter Arimaa, the first game designed specifically to be hard for computers to play. While it uses a standard chess set (yes, this is a two player only game), each
piece can move forward, backwards, left, and right (except for the pawn, now called a rabbit, which cannot move backwards). Additionally, pieces can be pushed or pulled, and a turn consists of up to four moves. As a result, the decision tree for Arimaa rapidly grows out of control, which is why the top human players have no difficulty beating the top computer players (and not from lack of effort on the programmer’s part – the prize for creating a program which can defeat the top human players started at $10,000 and has grown from there).

So how does the game work? Take a standard chess set (you can also buy specialized Arimaa sets fairly cheaply) and let each player arrange his pieces any way he wants on the first two rows on his side of the board. On each turn, make up to four moves, where a move is picking up any of your pieces and moving it one space in any orthogonal direction (except, again, that rabbits cannot move backwards) More powerful pieces can push or pull less powerful ones, and a piece that is next to a more powerful enemy piece cannot move unless it is also adjacent to a friendly piece. Relative powers are determined by height: taller pieces are more powerful (so the king, for example, cannot be pushed around by anyone, and the queen can only be pushed or pulled – or immobilized – by the king). There are also four pits placed on the board; any piece standing on a pit that is not adjacent to a friendly piece falls in and is removed from the game. Indeed, there is no capturing in Arimaa; shoving enemy pieces into the pit is the only way to get rid of them.

The game ends when either one player loses all of his rabbits, or one of them makes it to the 8th rank (when it would promote, in chess). Each of the games I’ve played ended when one player made a mistake that allowed the other player to finish advancing one of his rabbits. After playing several times, I still don’t feel as if I really have much of an understanding as to the strategy of the game, aside from “watch out for the big pieces” and “make sure your pieces near the pits have backup”, but it’s an interesting challenge. Now if I could just play well enough to beat the computer..

In addition to the game itself, Amazon has a book on Arimaa strategy; additionally, you can play for free (or just check out the rules) at the Arimaa website.

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Antiquity: the Game That Tries to Kill You

Splotter Spellen is a Dutch game club known primarily for their “big three” games: Antiquity, Indonesia, and Roads & Boats. Roads and Boats, which is all about logistics, was their first big hit back in 1999; in 2004, Antiquity brought even more bits and cemented their reputation. Once I’d played Indonesia, which was released in 2005, I imported the three from Germany without even having played the first two. All three games are fiddly brain-burners, with Antiquity being the worst (in terms of fiddliness) of the lot. Antiquity and Roads & Boats also tend to be hard to find, and command fairly high prices. Interestingly enough, the same is actually set in the middle ages…apparently the designers considered that fairly ancient!

Starting setup is pretty simple: the map is made up of two land tiles per player, and you put your first city anywhere on your starting tile. You receive four houses to place anywhere in your city; each house gives you one worker. You also get six wood.

At the start of each turn, you pick up all of your workers from your city (you may also have other workers out in the fields, who will stay there until they’re finished) and redeploy them as you like. You may also build any buildings you want from your supply, provided you have both the materials and the space. Space tends to be the larger issue; more powerful buildings are often larger and come in inconvenient shapes, so they’re hard to fit in, and once you’ve placed a building you can’t move it. Additionally, even if you place perfectly there simply isn’t enough room for everything you need in one city, so you’ll have to build at least one additional one; in fact, building every building requires at least three cities.

The buildings let you do a variety of things; cart shops send people out to cut wood or fish, explorers can find food or luxury goods, a dump will reduce your pollution (very important!) and a cathedral is required to win the game: it lets you choose a patron saint. Your saint determines your win conditions: depending on who you choose, you get a special ability and win by either building all 20 of your houses, surrounding another player, building all of the buildings, or just getting rich (having three each of everything in storage). There’s also Santa Maria, who gives you the bonuses of all of the other saints, but you have to meet two victory conditions to win the game.

Once everyone has placed their buildings for the turn (which happens simultaneously), you discard any goods you didn’t use, unless you’ve built a storage; the storage costs only one wood and can be as large as you want (provided it’s in the shape of a rectangle), but it takes up space and you need a man on it to use it. Next you determine the turn order and then actually send your people out to Do Stuff around your city. Your area of control extends for two spaces from the city unless you have buildings that increase that, so you run out of room pretty fast. Once everyone has played, you get to harvest your stuff (wood, fish, pearls, sheep, etc – each farmer, fisherman, etc brings in one thing per turn until his fields are used up) and then…the famine hits.

That’s right…famine. Antiquity is a race against time: you need to achieve your victory conditions (whatever they may be) before the game manages to kill you. One way it does that it through the famine. At first glance, this may seem easy enough to handle, because you don’t actually have to feed your people; all you have to do is have the food on hand. If the famine level is at five and you have a granary (which reduces it by 3 for you) and two food on hand, nothing happens. Simple!

Simple..except that the famine level goes up by one every turn, plus another one any time someone goes exploring and discovers food. (Why someone halfway across the world finding some food would mean you need more to feed your people, I have no idea; apparently it’s more in the way of food demand, and someone discovering new food sources makes your people demand more). Pretty soon the famine level is up at eight or ten, and since you don’t have enough storage space to hold that much food (and you’ll be using it for building anyway), you start taking graves, which take up space in your cities that would otherwise go to building. Not enough space left in your cities? The graves go on top of the buildings, taking them out of play. At least, until you can build a hospital and use it to bring people back from the dead..

The famine isn’t the worst of it, though. Using the land causes pollution (except for cutting down forests, which leaves behind plains), plus each city generates another six pollution every turn, which has to be placed within your zone of control; a hex with pollution on it is unusable for most purposes. Don’t have enough free space to place all the pollution your cities are generating? For each one you can’t place, that’s another grave..

At the end of the turn, you check to see if anyone met his victory condition; if not, the game goes another turn. Although I haven’t seen it happen yet, if you don’t keep making process towards your goal, you may eventually run out of room to expand and have your cities fill up with graves; at which point it’s quite possible that nobody wins as the game manages to kill you all..

Antiquity isn’t one of my favorite games, and I don’t think it ever will be (plus it can be hard to get to the table) but I’ve turned down several $200+ offers for my copy. (For reference, when it was last in print, I paid $103 new). This is largely a puzzle game; until players start overlapping each other, it’s mostly solitaire, although you do need to keep an eye on what other people are doing so you can anticipate how it will affect the famine level or a few other areas. To me, the largest benefit of this game (aside from it being a brain burner, which I enjoy) is that it’s unique; I’ve never played anything like it.

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Dominant Species

What do you get if you take all of your favorite game elements – area control, worker placement, variable player powers – and cram them into one game? If you’re designer Chad Jensen, you end up with Dominant Species: an area control game where each player controls one of the major animal classes (mammal, reptile, bird, amphibian, arachnid, or insect) and attempts to have that class grow and thrive, adapting to the available food sources and spinning out more species, while the threat of the oncoming ice age looms ever larger..

The game takes two to six players, although I’ve only played it with four or higher (and in fact, I suspect that four players is the sweet spot). At the start of the game, there are a half dozen hexes on the board, with various food sources spread out between them, and each animal has a handful of species in play. This is an area control game, but there are two types of area control. The first one is simple: if you have more species in a hex than anyone else, you’ll get the most points when that hex is scored. Animals higher up in the food chain win ties, so the mammals win all ties, the insects lose all ties, etc. (Turn order starts out in the reverse of the food chain order, so inserts move faster than everyone else…and they’d better, to not get eaten!) The second type of area control is dominance: each animal has a number of food markers (“elements”) on its display, and if you have at least one species in a hex and match more markers than anyone else, you’re dominant over that hex. For example, if you have two meat and one grass on your display, while the hex has two meat, a grass, and a water, your total dominance score is 2×2 (meat) plus 1×1 (water), so you beat anyone with less than five dominance. There’s no tiebreaker here, however; if there’s a tie for first, then nobody is dominant on this hex.

Why do you want to be dominant? One of the actions (remember, this is a worker placement game) that you can take is to score a hex; when this happens, points are awarded based on the number of species in the tile, then whoever has dominance gets to take one of the five cards that are available each turn. These cards can do all kinds of things, from awarding extra action pawns to killing everything in a hex, and fighting over them tends to be fierce!

So what are the other actions? You can gain initiative, which moves you up in the turn order. You can adapt, which adds another element to your display (to a maximum of six), making it easier for you to survive. You can add more elements to the board, and more hexes. You can add another glacier to the board, forcing species to flee the oncoming ice. You can add more species to the board, or move the ones that are already there. You can also kill off some of your opponent’s species, of course. Finally, there will be upcoming events that may be unpleasant for you (removing elements from your display or from the board) and you can use actions to prevent that.

As with all good worker placement games, there are always more places that you feel like you need to go than you have action pawns to actually play, and with a limited number of each action available, you never know if it’ll still be there when play comes back to you. Further, each species has a special power, so different actions tend to have different values; I find this to be one of the best features of the game. The mammals, for example, can keep one species from going extinct each turn (this normally happens if a species ends up in a hex with nothing it can eat), while the arachnids always compete (allowing them to kill other species without using an action pawn) and the birds can migrate several hexes rather than just one. The amphibians, which I had in my last game, have no special power…but they do start the game with more elements on their display than anyone else, allowing them to dominate more hexes early on.

This is definitely not a quick game, or a cheap one; it tends to run around four hours, and retails for $79. However, if you have a group where you can get it out, it’s totally worth it; especially with four players, you’re usually pretty involved so there’s not too much downtime. In the wrong group, however, I could easily see this getting very political (“I’ll leave you alone on that hex if you attack the spiders on this other hex”); fortunately, that’s not really how my group plays (and it could be that you enjoy that style of play, I just don’t care for negotiation games). Still, I was impressed enough after one play of this game to preorder the second printing (the first sold out very quickly); I don’t think it’s going to be my favorite game, but so far I’m really enjoying it. What I like about this game is that it feels really “meaty”; there’s a lot going on, with more actions you feel like you need to take than action points available to take them, and every decision has a direct impact on the game. Additionally, I enjoy the assymetric play, with each person needing to choose a different strategy based on his special ability and the other species on the board.

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Tichu Strategy, Part II: Using the Mah-Jong

Not too long ago, I was playing a hand where the opponent after me had called Grand Tichu. I passed him a 3, then played the Mah-Jong and wished it out of his hand. Why was this a bad move?

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the pass; that’s standard according to the usual passing convention. Wishing for what you passed is standard as well; the reasoning is that the card you passed might have improved your opponent’s hand by making a pair (or worse, a straight) and you avoid possible disaster by making him play it as a single; additionally, since you know that he has that card in his hand, you avoid the risk of forcing your partner to play it.

All of that is true..but there’s one more factor at work here. Your opponent called Grand Tichu!

Different people have different rules about when they feel a Grand Tichu call is justified, but it’s generally safe to assume – particularly after the pass – that his hand contains as least one ace. In this case, he’s likely to play the low card you passed, then end up winning the trick with the ace (and that is, in fact, what happened).

On the other hand, suppose you wish for the ace! It was going to get played anyway, but this time he doesn’t get a chance to play the low card, and again you don’t have to worry about hitting your partner (since it’s very unlikely that your opponent would have called Grand Tichu without an ace in his hand, and his partner will be passing his best card as well). There’s also the possibility that he has all of the aces and will do something dumb like playing an ace bomb…which is exactly what happened the last time this situation occurred, when I did wish for an ace!

Now, suppose we’re in the more usual situation where nobody has called Tichu or Grand Tichu before the Mah-Jong is played. In this case, you usually do want to wish for what you passed, with a couple of exceptions. If this isn’t the first hand and your opponent already played what you passed him, you may want to refrain from making a wish to avoid the possibility of hitting your partner. More importantly, if you’ve called Tichu and then used the Mah-Jong in a straight, you should never make a wish. Why? It’s likely that you’re not the only person to have a straight, and your opponents will be playing over yours if they can anyway, but by making a wish you can force a straight out of your partner’s hand…and it really sucks to force your partner to screw up your Tichu call! If nobody has called Tichu (or better yet, if your opponent has) you can make the wish, but recognize that you do risk messing up your partner’s hand. Of course, the nice thing is when you suspect your opponent has a long straight, and you force him to play a smaller straight, leaving him with a bunch of singles…very useful!

The Mah-Jong can be a bit of a pain if you get stuck with it – the only way to get rid of it is to lead it, as either a single or part of a straight – but it played correctly, it can really mess up your opponent’s plans. Tichu!

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Notre Dame….Rats!

Leaving aside the fun of going around yelling “rats!”, Notre Dame is a fun strategy game that doesn’t get enough attention. Set in Paris at the end of the 14th century, each player controls one family attempting to gain prestige. There are many paths to power, but beware…the black death is an ever-present threat! If you don’t take the effort to keep the rat population down, you may find your people dying of the plague..

Notre Dame is the 11th game in the Alea big box series, and was a 2007 Spiel des Jahres recommend.

Constructing the board takes only seconds; each player takes an identical mini-board representing his borough, each of which is placed adjacent to a center piece representing Notre Dame. There are three, four, and five sided cathedral pieces, making everything line up nicely; with two players, a modified four-player setup is used.

Each player has a deck of nine cards, which represent the actions he can take in the game; each one allows him to move one of his workers. He also starts with four workers, three coins, and his trusted friend. Each card sends a worker to a particular area, which allows you to take more workers, coins, or points, kill rats, or move your carriage around the board collecting messages (which are worth points and allow you to take workers, take coins, and kill rats). Finally, one card sends a person to donate to the cathedral (which scores you points based on how many coins you donate), and the trusted friend card lets you move him anywhere except to the cathedral.

The game is divided into three rounds; each round consists of three turns. Each turn, you draw three cards from your deck, choose one, and pass the other two to your left; you then keep one of the two cards you receive from the person on your right, and so on. Starting from the first player (marked with a hunchback figure), everyone plays one card; this happens twice. Thus, you’ll play two of the three cards you ended up with, discarding the third.

At the end of the turn, you have the opportunity to hire one of three people who can help you out. There are 15 person cards in the game; six come up in each of the three rounds, two per turn, while the other nine come up one time each. The Alea Treasure Chest expands this with another nine people who can be mixed up with the first nine. These people are always very helpful, and always worth hiring…but you do have to have one coin to hire someone, else you lose the be careful with your money!

After hiring, look to the bottom of the person cards and you’ll see between zero and four rats on each; you’ll need to move your rat marker up one spot for each rat. This rat marker keeps track of how many plague-infested rats inhabit your district; if it goes past 9, you suffer the black death (which in this case means you lose two points and a worker). Fortunately, for every worker you have in the hospital at the end of the turn, your rat marker goes down by one; this happens at the same time as you would take rats.

After the third turn, the cathedral is scored; it is worth some number of points (depending on the number of players), and that number is divided by the number of workers present, who each score accordingly before returning to your supply. The cards are then returned to their owners and reshuffled for the next round.

The nice thing about the game is that there are different ways to win. You can try to send lots of people to the residence, which gives you a point for every worker there whenever someone moves there, or you can go with the park, which for every two workers there gives you an extra point whenever you score points. Because the player on your right will see many of your available options before you do, which path you take will depend largely on what he does; should he choose a particular strategy, you should strongly consider a different one!

Overall, Notre Dame is an excellent game and is well worth picking up.

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Ticket to Ride: An Excellent Gateway Game

Ticket to Ride is probably one of the most popular gateway games, and for good reason; in fact, it was one of the first eurogames that I played. The same is simple, easy to learn, plays in around 45 minutes, and is fun for both gaming newbies and experienced gamers. It’s also one of my wife’s favorites, which is one of the main reasons I play it :=).

The eponymous first game in the Ticket to Ride series was first published in 2004, and won that year’s Spiel des Johres award. The game consists of a map of the United States with a number of cities (and the routes between them) marked, train tickets, route tickets, wood scoring markers, and a number of plastic trains. One thing I like about Days of Wonder is that they give you extra pieces in case you lose any; each player (the game takes two to five) needs exactly 45 trains, and there are two extras in each color.

Players start by taking their trains and randomly drawing some ticket cards, of which they must keep several. Each ticket shows two cities (fortunately, it shows where on the map they are as well as the names) and the point score for connecting them. As long as you can trace a path from one city to the other over your trains at the end of the game, you’ll score the points…but if you cannot, you’ll lose the same number of points! You also get several train cards, each of which shows one color of train car (or a locomotive, which is a wild card).

On each turn, you do one of three things: draw two more train cards, either randomly or from a set of face up cards (1 card if you choose a face up locomotive), draw another three tickets (and keep at least one of them), or claim a route. To claim a route, you choose a route between two cities, which will take between one and six cards of the same color (again, with locomotives being wild), play the cards required, and place your trains in that spot. Grey routes can be claimed with any color, but all of the cards still have to be the same color. If you don’t have enough trains to cover a route, you cannot claim it. Routes score based on their length, with one- and two- length routes being worth only one and two points, respectively, but a six length route being worth a whopping 15 points.

The game goes on until someone ends up with two or fewer trains left, at which point everyone (including that player) gets one more turn and the game ends. Everyone scores points for their tickets, and whoever has the longest continuous line of track scores additional points for the Longest Route card. Most points wins!

My main problem with the original game is that the train cards sucked; they were small and difficult to hold (and you accumulate a lot of them at some points in the game!) In 2006, Days of Wonder solved this problem with the Ticket to Ride 1910 expansion, which includes 35 new 1910 tickets, a bonus card for completing the most tickets, 4 tickets that originally appeared in the limited edition Mystery Train expansion, and a complete set of replacement cards that are a lot easier to handle. This is a fairly inexpensive (under $20) expansion that I consider a must-have; most of my games in the series are of the base game with the 1910 expansion.

It seems as if nearly every successful game begets a number of expansions, and TtR is no different. The first, in 2005, was Ticket to Ride: Europe; this is a complete game that features a European map and some new gameplay elements. Tunnels add a bit of risk, as you never know exactly how many cards will be required to complete a route until you try it, while water routes require locomotives to act as ferries (don’t ask me what the logic is, that’s just how it works!) It’s a lot easier to get blocked from cities you need to get to in this version, but there’s a way around that; each player gets three train stations, which can be played to let you use someone else’s route towards completing your tickets at the end of the game. Each one that you don’t play, however, gets you four bonus points.

In 2006, that was followed by Ticket to Ride: Marklin. Taking place in Germany, this set has a non-gameplay twist: each of the cards depicts a model train made by the Marklin model train company. Aside from completing tickets as in the other games, players also attempt to move passengers around, and collect more points for moving them on longer routes and being the first to move passengers to or through each city.

In 2007, we got two new versions, each made for 2-3 players (whereas each of the others could take up to five). Ticket to Ride: Switzerland comes with a board and tickets but requires the train pieces and cards from either Ticket to Ride or TtR: Europe (Marklin has a different card distribution) to play. In this game, locomotives can only be used for tunnels, and some tickets allow you to end your route in any of several countries. Nordic Countries is similar, covering Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland; however, it was a limited edition that was initially available only in the Nordic Countries, and then had a limited worldwide release in 2008. I found Switzerland to be too easy for my taste – a friend and I actually ran out of ticket cards, and completed all of the ones we drew! – but Nordic Countries is the hardest of the batch, and it’s very easy to get locked out. With experienced players, it’s probably my favorite of the set.

There are also some more expansions that don’t include boards. Europa 1912 is an expansion for Europe that adds new tickets, much as 1910 did for the original game, as well as a few new rules. Meanwhile, Alvin and Dexter makes the game a bit more surreal, adding a monster and an alien to foil player’s plans.

Another new set, TtR: The Dice Expansion, lets players roll dice rather than collect train cards, while still using the trains, tickets, and map from any of the other games. Finally, there is something called Ticket to Ride: the Card Game, which is actually a not very good memory game that doesn’t have much in common with the rest of the series.

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Clans and That’s My Fish: Two Light Area Control Games

When I first got into Eurogames about six years ago, Clans and Hey, That’s My Fish! were two of the first games I learned. Both are simple area control games where all of the randomness takes place before the game begins.

In clans, five different tribes are equally spaced around the board, which contains four types of land (as well as assorted lakes). The board is broken up into sections of five areas each, but these sections are used only for setup: each section gets one hut of each color. Each player also takes a tile which shows his hut color, which he keeps a secret.

Gameplay is very simple: on your turn, you move all huts on a space into an adjacent space, where the space you’re moving to must also have huts in it. A group with seven or more huts cannot be moved, except into a larger group.

If your move causes a group to become isolated (meaning every adjacent area is empty), that forms a village. You take a scoring token from the side of the board and score the space. Here’s the interesting part: you may not know until the end of the game exactly who benefits from the scoring, because you score the colors and you don’t know what colors your opponents are! To score, you add up all of the huts and each tribe involved scores that many points. For example, if there are three blue huts and one yellow hut, yellow and blue get four points each.

However, there are two exceptions. First, the scoring tokens (which also act as the game timer) modify how much a village is worth. When you take a token, the land type pictured to the left of the token shows that you get a bonus for villages on that land type, while villages on the land type to the right of the token score no points. In the picture below, for example, taking the topmost token would add three points to a village in grasslands, but a village in forest would score nothing. The last village of the game is worth a bonus five points no matter where it is.

The second exception has to do with the number of different tribes living in the village. One, two, three, or even four tribes can live together in harmony, but if you get all five tribes together when the village is scored, they start fighting! At that point, anybody who has only one hut in the village gets kicked out. For example, if green and red had two huts each in a new village, blue had three, and yellow and black each had one, then yellow and black would be kicked out and green, red, and blue would score seven points each (plus any bonuses).

When the game ends, you reveal your color and add a point for each scoring token you took during the game; high score wins. The trick, of course, is to arrange things such that your huts end up scoring a lot of points, while wasting your opponents’ huts – preferably by putting a bunch of them in an area where they’ll score no points!

Clans takes two to four players, although a new player can give an advantage to the person playing after him by failing to see where he can make a village, thus allowing the next person to get extra points.

In Hey, That’s My Fish!, you control between two and four penguins (depending on the number of players), who are trying to eat as many fish as possible. The board is made up of a number of hexagonal tiles, each of which contains one, two, or three fish. At the start of the game, each penguin is placed on a one-fish tile.

A move consists of picking up any of your penguins and moving him as far as you like in any direction, subject to two restrictions: you can’t enter a tile that another penguin is already on, and you can’t jump over a hole. After moving, you pick up the tile you just moved off of and add it to your stack.

As the game goes on, the board will get smaller and smaller. While some players will attempt to grab bunches of three-fish tiles, more experienced players will concentrate on sectioning off the board, leaving large areas with only their penguins while cutting off their opponents’ penguins on small pieces of ice. Once you can no longer move, you pick up your penguins (along with the tiles they’re standing on) and count up your stack. Most fish wins!

Hey, That’s My Fish also takes two to four players; I find it to be quite good with two but a bit chaotic with four. Although the colorful penguins and simple rules may make it an attractive game for children, it has enough tactical depth to also be quite enjoyable for adults.

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Tichu Strategy, Part I: Using the Dog

You could say I’m a fan of Tichu; after all, I have it listed as one of the best medium strategy games, I have over 50 face to face plays recorded on boardgamegeek, and I’ve played way to many games against the computer on my ipod. As with many games, however (and this is my biggest complaint when playing with the computer), it’s a lot more fun when everyone plays well! While there are certainly different styles of play (indeed, teams often work well with one more aggressive player and a second supporting player), I’d like to offer my thoughts on the best Tichu strategy. In this article, I’ll talk about using the Dog, from the perspectives of both a new player (what does it mean when I get it?) and the experienced player (what’s the optimum time to play it?).

Let’s start with the very basic, something that should be drilled into every new player’s head before he’s allowed to pick up the cards: you don’t take the lead away from your partner! Now, don’t take that too far: throwing out low singles and pairs is usually a good thing, and of course if you’ve called Tichu, you going out first trumps all other considerations.  But let’s take a look at a scenario I’ve seen way too many times:

Player A has called Tichu and is well on the way to emptying his hand. He plays a pair of jacks, first opponent passes…partner B plays a pair of aces to win the trick, then passes back the lead with the dog. A proceeds to play all but one of his cards, loses the lead and is never able to get it back, and loses 100 points.

What’s wrong with that scenario? First off, it was a total waste of the dog! If I’m trying to go out, the purpose of you having the dog is so that you can give the lead back to me if I lose it. In the scenario above, if B had stayed out of it and A had won the trick, then after he lost the lead later B could have won a trick and given it back so he could go out. Instead, B not only wasted the dog, he also wasted the pair of aces that he could have used to regain control of the trick, effectively flushing three of his most useful cards down the toilet.

Of course, generally both partners want to get rid of all of their cards – a successful 1-2 is a great thing. But in order to make that 1-2 successful, you need to be getting rid of your low cards, while using your high cards to take the lead away from your opponents, not wasting them stealing the lead from your partner!

Passing convention for the dog is pretty simple: if your partner passes you the dog, that means he has a good hand and is thinking about calling Tichu. If he does, it’s your job to support him. Of course, passing the dog to your partner can also mess up what could otherwise be a good Tichu hand (something I’ve been guilty of more than once) so you don’t want to do it unless you really are planning to call Tichu. If one of your opponents calls Tichu or Grand Tichu before the pass, of course, you want to hand it off to him so he’s forced to give up the lead.

Now for the big question: what’s the best time to play the dog? Many players (and the computer players in the ipod app) believe that you should play the dog as soon as possible when your partner has called Tichu; I disagree. Here’s my reasoning: as the game gets on, your hand generally gets weaker. You’re playing your high cards to take the lead so that you can get rid of your low cards. A smart opponent knows this; if he’s holding a bomb, rather than bomb me early on he’ll often wait (and hope I don’t have a long straight) until my hand is mostly empty, then take control and start playing only hands that require more cards than I have, shutting me out. By waiting while I attempt to run the board, you give me the security of being able to get down to my last card, pair, or baby set, knowing that if I get cut off at the end you can hand the lead back to me. On the other hand, if you use the dog early, I have to be more careful about preserving my high cards until I can get rid of my low cards, which gives our opponents a better chance of sneaking in and going out.

Of course, this depends partially on the strength of your hand: if your hand is sufficiently weak that you’re unlikely to be able to get the lead back, you might as well go ahead and play the dog now so you can help your partner; however, if you have a fairly strong hand (and especially if you have a bomb) I do believe it’s better to hold the dog for later.

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The Best Auction Game: Modern Art

Sometimes I think that Modern Art could have been called the Ebay game. Not really, but just like Ebay, the bidding can sometimes get a bit….odd. My brother and I, for example, like to start bidding prime numbers or the Fibonacci sequence..

There’s a lot of variety in auction games out there; the boardgamegeek database has about 2000 games tagged as auction/bidding, and I’ve played quite a few of them. In my opinion,Modern Art is the best of the lot (although many people prefer Knizia’s other big auction game, Ra). The game is based on the simple premise that art is worth whatever you can convince someone to pay for it. Over the course of four rounds, you’ll buy and sell paintings by five not very talented artists; if you’re lucky, you’ll strike it rich by investing in artists right before they become popular..

You start the game with a handful of paintings, and get more in the second and third rounds (the fourth round you just use whatever’s left over from the previous rounds); each one has a color denoting the artist and a symbol denoting the type of auction. There are four types, none of which are particularly esoteric. First off is the standard open auction: people keep bidding until all but one person drops you. There’s the sealed auction: everyone hides some auction chips in his hand and the high big wins. (Ties are broken from the seller’s left). In a once around, everyone starting from the seller’s left (and ending with the seller) gets one chance to bid. In a fixed price auction, the seller sets the price he wants…but if nobody takes it, he has to buy it! Finally, a double auction lets you auction off two paintings by the same artist, with the second painting determining the auction type. You can also put the double auction painting down by itself and let somebody else put down the second one, in which case you’ll split the profits; if nobody puts down a second, you just keep the double painting for free!

If you buy somebody else’s painting, you pay them; if you buy your own painting, you pay the bank (so you usually prefer not to buy your own paintings, as auctioning off a painting is the main way to get money). Paintings that you win at auction are placed in front of you until the end of the round, which happens when the 5th painting by the same artist is placed up for auction. That painting is discarded without being auctioned; every remaining painting by that artist is worth a whopping 30 grand. Whichever artist has the second most paintings out is worth $20k apiece, third most is $10k, and the others are not popular this season and are worth nothing. In future rounds, an artist that comes in fourth or fifth is still worth nothing, but if he places in the top three, you get to add up the sales prices…so if a painting comes in 2nd the first round, then doesn’t place in the 2nd, it’ll be worth nothing the second round…but if it comes in first in the third, each of those paintings will now be worth $50k! You sell off all of your paintings (tossing the worthless ones in the trash) and start the next round with no paintings in front of you.

After four rounds, whoever has the most money wins. Modern Art takes 3-5 players and retails for around $30.

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