Colt Express.

Colt Express won the 2015 Spiel des Jahres prize as the best moderate-level boardgame of the year, beating out Machi Koro (which I think should have won) and something called The Game, which was apparently named by designers who wanted to be sure no one could ever Google their product. Asmodee, the publisher of Colt Express and now owner of the boardgame and app publishing studio Days of Wonder, has just released an app versionof the game, and it’s a solid adaptation with a couple of major frustrations built into it.

Colt Express pits players against each other as bandits in an old-fashioned train robbery, with the twin goals of collecting as much loot as possible while also shooting as many of your opponents as possible; the final scoring rewards the gems and purses you collect, and gives a bonus to the ‘best shooter’ who’s discharged the most bullets. There’s a marshal on the train as well, and if you happen to run into him, you get shot and forced up on top of a train car.

All movement and action takes place via cards that are played to the table at the start of each round, most visible to all players but some hidden when the train passes into a tunnel, but not actually enacted until all cards for that round have been played – it’s a two-phase process, playing all cards, then going through the pile and letting players act on those cards. Cards allow for movement along the train, movement up to the top of a car or back down into one, punching an opponent (which forces him/her to drop one item), picking up an item from the floor, shooting at an opponent, or moving the marshal one car in either direction. If you’ve been shot, you also get a neutral, useless bullet card in your deck, which just reduces the options in your hand for your turn. You can also pass on a turn to draw three more cards from your deck if you’re looking for a specific card. A round can involve as few as two card plays or as many as five; sometimes the order reverses, sometimes you’ll get to play two in a row (very valuable for sneaking up on someone and poking him in the snoot). Some rounds end with a special rule, such as any character on top of the car that contains the marshal draws a neutral bullet card.

The entire strategy of Colt Express involves guessing what your opponents are likely to do and planning out your cards to anticipate those moves and/or give yourself flexibility to react on the fly, once the cards are played but before they’re used. When a player plays a card at the start of the round, that player doesn’t have to specify, say, how far they’re moving or in which direction, or who the target of a shooting or punching card would be, so you need to see what’s played and keep track of the tree of potential decisions from that. The only random aspect of the game is the card draw, but there’s a ton of luck involved in the guesswork – you can plan well and still whiff because another player did something unlikely or unanticipated.

The app version looks great, as all Asmodee and DoW apps have, with strong graphics and bright colors, and it ran smoothly on my iPad Pro. (I just upgraded from a five-year-old iPad 2, which couldn’t run a full game without crashing.) The app allows you to play in Classic mode with any number of the game’s pre-set characters – each of whom has some special ability; I think Cheyenne’s is the best – and has the potential for you to play with some variants, although those aren’t immediately available.

There are two real flaws with the app, one easy to fix, one less so. The app comes with a story mode that includes five short missions for each of the five characters, and completing all five missions for a character unlocks a variant for you to use in the base game, such as having the last car on the train detach at the end of a round. I have never liked this concept in app design, where certain aspects of the game are inaccessible unless you complete something else; Catan made this mistake and it is one of the main reasons I don’t recommend that particular app. If you pay for the product, you should get the whole product up front. I completed the stories for two of the characters, but the missions generally are more like puzzles than full games, because you’re often ignoring what the AI characters are doing; you’re completing one or two tasks, while the AI characters are playing the game normally. Just make the variants available from the start and use Achievements to reward players who complete the stories.

I’ve also found the AI players to be a little dumb, at least in terms of card choices. Obviously, you’re playing a little blind, not knowing what other players will play or do over the course of a round, but there are certain cards that you know you won’t be able to use, or are maybe 5% likely to be able to use – for example, punching another character when there won’t be anyone in your space, or picking up an item from the ground when the ground is empty. The AI players tend to do that a couple of times per game, in total, and there’s no excuse for it; AI players have the advantage of calculating every possible set of moves in a game this limited, and moves that are 5% (or less) likely to work should be discarded.

There’s one technical glitch that could also have been user error (meaning I may have screwed up). When you play a card to shoot or punch another character, you have to select the target, and sometimes you have more than one choice (e.g., you’re in a car with two other characters). Choosing the right target is occasionally tricky when you’ve got several characters bunched up together in a car. Twice I thought I clicked on one target but the game selected the other one, so either 1) it was not clear which selection button attached to which target or 2) I just did it wrong.

The app is $3.99 for iOS devices or $4.99 for Android; I have only played the iOS version. I think the game itself is enjoyable enough for a $4 price, but I think you’d get more out of it if you use the online multiplayer feature instead of facing off against AI opponents.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig app.

The app version of Castles of Mad King Ludwig is a very rich implementation of the game, with a lengthy tutorial and an involved, challenging solo campaign. The physical game is one of the top 100 games on Boardgamegeek, although after playing the app for several hours, I’m starting to think that I love the app more than I like the game itself.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig takes the very common mechanic of “build some stuff, collect some bonus cards, build stuff to max out the cards” that is in more games than I could even count and adds a layer of puzzle-completion on top of that. Players select room tiles from the display to build out the castles on their boards, but space is somewhat limited, and the points you get from placing a room depend on where you place it – specifically to what type of room or rooms you connect the new tile. Completing a room tile, which means connecting it successful through all doors (little spaces) on the tile’s edges, brings a different reward or bonus depending on the room type. There are seven room types plus stairs and hallways – you need stairs to build basement rooms, which can be as ridiculous as the mold room or the bottomless pit – but the biggest bonus comes from completing orange utility rooms, which have just one door (reducing future expansion options) and give you another bonus card for end-game scoring.

Part of my dislike for the game is aesthetic. You are filling out a puzzle without completing it: you will often block doorways, which means you don’t complete those tiles for bonuses, and also means the resulting castle is ungainly. And part is that the sheer variety of tile types, shapes, and sizes (size does matter, here, Donald) means that with just seven tiles on display for purchase at any time, you’re frequently left at the mercy of the market, like in Alhambra, which makes any kind of planning ahead difficult. The best strategies are to leave the maximum number of options open on your board, or to get really lucky.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig screenshot

The app, however, does a great job of implementing this game’s complexity. There are just so many rules to understand here around the different room types, and the app’s very detailed tutorial doesn’t just lay them out, but has you play through a series of mini-games with specific goals to teach you the game’s mechanics. The campaign is pretty difficult – you often have to win against one or more AI opponents and meet two other tough criteria, or to reach three criteria in a solo game – and thus serves as a further teaching tool as well as an enjoyable challenge. I do find some of the text in the rooms hard to read before I zoom in on my old iPad 2, and I wish the pass button were located away from the rotate and cancel buttons, but those are minor, especially the first point, which I assume is less of a problem on better screens. The AI players seem strong enough to me, a novice player, although there’s a certain amount of game-theory stuff (e.g., knowing I’m unlikely to take a certain tile) that no AI player in any app can do.

Returning to the mechanics of the game itself, one aspect that was novel (to me at least) was that in each round, the first player gets to rearrange the five to seven tiles on the market across the seven spaces, each of which has a price from one coin up to fifteen. Other players buy tiles by paying the first player, not the bank. That player then goes last in the purchasing phase, so s/he gets to take in a bunch of coins and can manipulate the market to try to make other players pay more for tiles they want, or to try to rid the market of tiles s/he doesn’t want. I think that would make playing the game in person against multiple opponents a very different experience from playing via an app or playing against a single opponent, because your decision set would include how to maneuver the tiles to best suit you and deal any disadvantages to other players.

Castles of Mad King Ludwig lists for $6.99 on the iTunes app storeand on the amazon Android store. I received a review copy from the publishers, but I’d say I’ve gotten well more than $7 worth of value from it given how many times I’ve played it just working through the solo campaign.

Forbidden Desert app.

The iPad app version of Forbidden Desert is absolutely stellar, one of the best adaptations of any physical boardgame i’ve seen to date, and I can verify that the game is highly addictive – in some ways even more so than the strong app version of Pandemic. Forbidden Desert just could use a little more fine-tuning to help it run more quickly, but the app is stable, the graphics are bright and clear, and the game – which I gave a fairly positive review when it first came out – showed itself to be more difficult than I’d realized after a couple of plays of the physical game.

Forbidden Desert is from Pandemic designer Matt Leacock, and the mechanics are similar to those of Pandemic and Forbidden Island. Two to four players, each with a specific role and power, play team members stranded in a desert that’s represented by a 5×5 grid of 24 tiles plus a central dust storm. On each turn, one player takes four actions, which can include moving to an adjacent tile, flipping a tile over to reveal what’s underneath, or clearing one sand token from atop the tile. You can only flip a tile once there’s no sand on top, and you can’t occupy a tile with more than one sand token on it; if you’re on a tile that ends up with two or more sand tokens on top of it, the tokens are also on top of you and you must clear all but one before you can move. After each player’s turn, the team draws two to six cards representing the progress of the storm, which may move the central storm and add sand tokens, increase the number of cards drawn each turn, or show the sun beating down on players, reducing their water supplies. The goal of the game is to find the four pieces of the escape vehicle and get all players to the launching pad before any of the various loss conditions occurs: one player dies of thirst, the supply of sand tokens is exhausted, or the storm level reaches the end of the track.

The app plays beautifully: Everything is clear, there’s a great undo function (although you can’t undo a tile flip or a storm card), and the app makes it immediately evident what you’re allowed to do. Cooperative apps are easier to develop than competitive ones because you don’t need to create AI opponents; the opponent here is the clock, so to speak, but the developers did hit just about everything else you’d want to see. I did have two minor complaints with the app. First is that some indicators end up covering others temporarily, such as the location of a vehicle piece covering up the indicator that a tile contains a tunnel, in which players can hide from the effects of the sun beating down. The second is that flipping a Storm Picks Up card causes a needless delay to show the board shaking, an effect that players should be allowed to turn off. They’re both pretty minor, really.

Indeed, any issues I have with the app are really issues with the game, like the need for a few more role choices to give more diverse options for replay. The game comes with six, and while I did beat the app without the Water Carrier, the challenge is more reasonable when you’ve got a Water Carrier (who can retrieve more water during the game than other players and can pass water to other players more easily) among your team. Even just adding a role similar to Pandemic’s Generalist, who has no special powers but gets a fifth action each turn, would help boost replay value. I probably played the app 40 times on the normal setting and only beat it four games, way below my typical rate on Pandemic, so I have to think this game is much more challenging than I originally thought.

Two other apps of note: Reiner Knizia’s The Confrontation originally had a Lord of the Rings theme in the physical version but has been rethemed (sort of like The Shinning) for the app version, which treats the two-player game to a hybrid board/videogame treatment. It’s an unbalanced two-player game where the victory conditions differ for the two players, and conflicts between pieces are resolved in a separate screen that adds animations to the battles. I thought it was well-done and the hard AI was appropriately hard but not unbeatable, but I own an iPad 2, which is below their recommended hardware levels, and the app does run too slowly on my device for me to play it often. When I eventually upgrade, I’ll likely play it a lot more, since I think I like the game and generally enjoy Knizia’s products.

Tsuro: The Game of the Path is a very simple boardgame for two to eight players where the goal is to build a path that keeps your token on the board the longest. On each turn, you place one of three tiles in your hand, mostly trying to keep yourself on the board, but also trying to limit your opponents’ options late in the game and occasionally even getting the chance to run an opponent’s token off the board or, most fun, making two opponents smash together, eliminating both at once. It’s a basic game and there is a lot of luck involved as well as a disadvantage for the first player – if everyone manages to stay on the board till the end, the first player to play will be the first eliminated.

Steam: Rails to Riches app.

Steam: Rails to Riches was itself a reimplementation of an earlier game, Age of Steam, both by designer Martin Wallace, the man behind the game Brass … which, like Steam, was also just adapted as a an app for tablets. The Steam: R2R iPad app (no Android version available) had an early bug issue to work out, so I played and reviewed Brass first and tried Steam last week. Like Brass, it’s a solid implementation if you already know the game, but the AI players could use some work and the tutorial isn’t very thorough. Unlike Brass, Steam still has a few glitches to work out, particularly if you change your mind while doing something on the screen.

Steam: Rails to Riches (just “Steam” from here on out) came out in 2009, shortly after the release of the third edition of Age of Steam, cleaning up some flaws in the first game’s mechanics and starting what appears to be a long debate over which version of the game is superior. Since Steam is the one we have in app form and I’ve never played or even seen Age of Steam, I’m going to pretend that debate doesn’t even exist and will focus on the app.

Steam is a train game, but rather than just connecting cities and building routes as in Ticket to Ride, Steam players have to raise funds, lay tracks, and then ship goods along the tracks they’ve laid (and sometimes tracks opponents have laid) to earn either recurring income or one-time victory point bonuses. The base game’s map covers the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, with various cities already placed on the map as stations with cubes representing the different types of goods in five colors.

For each round – the number of turns varies with the number of players – there’s an auction to determine the turn order, which also determines which special ability or benefit each player gets in that round, which can include the ability to turn a town (marked on the board) into a full-fledged station, to add goods to a city on the board, or to increase the player’s locomotive power, which determines how far that player can ship a goods cube. After the bidding ends, each player gets three actions: one to build tracks, and two to ship goods. Each player can use a shipping action to upgrade his/her locomotive power. Each stop on a track – a station or a non-upgraded town – counts as one segment, and a player can only ship a goods cube along a number of segments equal to or less than his locomotive power. The maximum locomotive power is six, so obviously getting to that mark and then shipping as many goods as you can along six-segment paths of your own tracks is the optimal strategy. You can ship a good along another player’s track segment, but that player gets the bonus point or boost to recurring income.


Once upon a time there was an engineer…

Of course, building those perfect routes is difficult with other players chasing the same goal and frequently blocking your path or stealin’ your goods. The AI players in the Steam app are good enough to teach you the game, as they all tend to build delivery loops – tracks that appear to be convoluted but provide 5- and 6-point plays for shipping cubes. (There’s no reward for efficiency here; if anything, inefficient delivery networks are key to racking up points.) But they’re often not aggressive enough in bidding for turn order, and they appear to struggle with creating enough options for big-point deliveries in the final round or two. I went from having never played the game to consistently beating the best AI options in 3- and 4-player matches – only by a few points each time, but never losing, even once in a game where I accidentally borrowed $0 in round 2 (which meant I could do almost nothing that entire round).

That’s the main issue with the app, but not the only one. The tutorial is too simple and probably wouldn’t suffice to teach anyone the game if s/he hasn’t played it before; I didn’t understand the rule around building through undeveloped towns (and how that could be beneficial – it adds a segment to a line between two cities). Turning a track tile to orient it properly is a little more finicky than it should be, and the app itself often “guesses” wrong with its initial orientation after you drag a tile on to the desired space. I also ran into frequent graphics glitches if I started to drag and drop a track hex from the array at the bottom of the screen to the map, but changed my mind and tried to return it – the image would remain in the middle of the screen unless I backed up to the main menu and resumed the game. The app also will let you take the City Growth action even if there are no more cubes to add to cities on the board, which makes it a wasted move. Tightening up the AI players should be the top priority, but I’d like to see these other hiccups addressed before fully recommending the app for solo play.

There’s a new, free, official Dominion app available today for iOS and Android tablets, but the early comments on Boardgamegeek’s post are overwhelmingly negative. It doesn’t seem to work well, and in-app purchases of expansion decks are $15 a pop. I love Dominion, but this sounds like a pass for now.

Boardgame app sales and Thanksgiving post mortem.

Eric Longenhagen and I have a too-early top 30 ranking for the 2016 MLB draft up for Insiders. Paste posted my review of the boardgame Cacao on Wednesday; it’s a big hit around here as the rules are pretty easy to pick up but there’s still some strategy involved. I posted my annual list of recommended cookbooks here on Monday.

Many of the best boardgame apps are on sale this weekend; I haven’t updated my rankings since last January but will do so around the holidays. In the meantime, here’s the ones that are on sale, starting with my favorite and working down in rough order:

1. Carcassonne: $6.99 for iOS, $2.49 for Android.

2. Agricola: $2.99 for iOS.

3. Caylus: $2.99 for iOS.

4. Galaxy Trucker: $2.99 for iOS or
Android.

5. Pandemic: $4.99 for iOS.

6. Elder Sign: $0.99 for iOS or Android.

7. Lost Cities: $2.99 for iOS.

8. Hey, That’s My Fish: $0.99 for iOS or Android

9. Steam: Rails to Riches: Brand new app, $2.99 for iOS. I’ve played it three times, and so far I’m enjoying it.

10. Lords of Waterdeep: $2.99 for iOS.

11. Kingdom Builder: $1.99 for iOS or Android. I haven’t played this one yet.

A little post mortem on yesterday’s Thanksgiving feast, which went pretty well overall.

Today's menu. Have a safe and highly caloric Thanksgiving, everyone.

A photo posted by Keith Law (@mrkeithlaw) on

With three guests who are gluten-free, I had to tweak the menu in a few ways, thickening the gravy with tapioca starch, for example, and making the cornbread with gluten-free flour. The chocolate tart was also gluten-free (recipe from Bon Appetit, includes a small amount of wheat flour which I swapped out), and was one of the two biggest hits of the day, along with the carrot soup, which came from Hugh Acheson’s must-have cookbook The Broad Fork. The beet dish gave me some trouble as roasting them for an hour still didn’t make them soft enough to smash as I’d intended.

Spatchcocking and salting (“dry brining”) the turkey was a huge success, and I’ll cook the bird that way for the foreseeable future. It definitely created crispier skin and juicier meat, and the whole 16.66-pound bird cooked in about 90 minutes. I pulled the bird when the breasts registered 152; the tenderloins were a touch less cooked than I’d have liked, but everything else was cooked perfectly. I now also have a backbone and neck to use to make stock, as well as the remains of the carcass, and a lot of leftovers.

As for the dish that must not be named, I used Alton Brown’s master recipe to make it 1) less gross and gloppy and 2) gluten-free, as condensed mushroom soup often has wheat flour as a thickener. I also fried the onions with rice flour, although I think I needed to crank up the oil’s temp to something higher than 350 to get them to brown faster and thus absorb less grease. (Sitting them overnight on paper towels took a lot of oil off them.) It was fine for a first attempt but that dish clearly needs work, since it’s demanded by several family members even though I think it’s a cruel thing to do to vegetables.

I hope all of you had a safe and happy Thanksgiving. I’ll be back Saturday with a links post and on regular duty again starting Monday, by which point I hope we’ll get some signings and/or larger trades to discuss.

Le Havre the Inland Port app.

The new app version of Le Havre: The Inland Port (for iOS) – itself a two-player adaptation of the highly complex strategy game Le Havre – is a beautiful port of a boring game. That’s probably enough to keep most of you from reading a long review, so here’s a short one instead. (And if you’re looking for a good new two-player game, try 7 Wonders Duel instead.)

The boardgame version of Le Havre The Inland Port takes the theme of the original game and creates a much simpler two-player experience, where a stream of buildings, advancing in cost and productivity/value, comes up for sale in the central market, and players must balance gaining resources from buildings that they’ve already built (you can use yours or an opponent’s, paying one coin for the latter) against buying new buildings to add victory points and go for two game-end bonuses. The buildings are the same in every game and even the order in which they appear for sale doesn’t vary much at all.

Resource production/acquisition is the strangest part of the game, a peculiar mechanic that seems to be peculiar for its own sake. You don’t just get, say, 2 wood or 1 bread, but you move your four resource tokens (wood, coal, bread, fish) on a numbered array, going up a row (plus 3), right one space (plus one), up and to the left diagonally (plus 2), and rarely up and to the right diagonally (plus 4). When you spend resources, you can spend in combinations of 1, 3, and 4, which means sometimes you have to pay an extra unit or two, for no reason other than that’s how the game was designed.

Most buildings bring you new resources, showing an arrow in one resource’s color, with the arrow telling you in which direction to move. When you buy a building, it goes in the zero column of the main board, and each “day” of the game that you don’t use it, it moves one column to the right, with the columns numbered 2, 3, 4, and 4+. The number tells you how many times you can invoke the building’s capability – for example, if the building with the brown arrow pointing to the right is on the 3 column, you can use it, moving your wood (brown) token three spaces to the right, then returning the building to column 0. The + symbol in the last column gives you one coin in addition to the building’s regular function, and if you don’t use that building before the end of the current day, it’s sold back to the bank for half the face value (which you get).

There are five special buildings that can award bonuses at game-end. There’s one “anchor” building for each resource that gives you one point per unit of that resource that you have on hand when the game is over. A fifth building, the dock, costs 7 coins to build (but no resources), and gives you ten points for each of those other four anchor buildings.

Because turn order is determined from the start, the player who goes second will get the first shot to buy the Dock when it appears on Day 12, the last Day of the game. So if s/he plans properly, s/he gets an automatic ten-point bonus – the dock plus one of the two anchor buildings that show up in day 12. (The other two appear in day 11.) That gives the game a deterministic feel, and I found after two or three plays I felt like this guy:

As for the app itself, it looks great, with bright colors, clear graphics, and a thorough tutorial. The AI has five levels of difficulty, but I beat the medium player the first time through, and took down the hard AI player (named Pascal … of course) after two or three tries. I hope the developers choose a better game to port next time out, because their work is good, but this title just wasn’t worth their efforts.

Brass app.

Many of you already have the Ticket to Ride app (for iOS devices or for Android), but if not, it’s been overhauled now, with better graphics, some more board-specific AI players, and an all-in-one in-app purchase that gets you all of the various maps beyond the core U.S. map – Europe, Asia, India, Switzerland – in one purchase. It was already a must-have but it’s even better now.

Brass is one of the highest-ranked games on Boardgamegeek (#17 overall right now) that I’ve never tried; it was out of print for a while (it’s in print now, $44 new on amazon) and lists a playing time of 2-3 hours, which, since I’m a parent of a fourth grader, isn’t terribly practical right now. (The need to review such games for Paste is why I’ve put out the call for folks in my general area willing to test out some of these longer games with me.) The game, perhaps the best-regarded of all “economic engine” games – where you’re building for immediate points and creating a network that will help you generate more points as the game unfolds – was ripe for an adaptation that speeds setup and does all of the calculations of costs and points for you. Over a year in development, the app finally hit the various online stores last week, and it’s extremely well done if you’re looking for an online experience, but the tutorial is too light and the AI players proved very easy for me, a total novice, to beat. This review covers the iOS version, but it’s also available for Android devices. (There’s an entry for the Android app on amazon, but it’s a fake.)

Players in Brass play 16 turns in two phases set in the Industrial Revolution in England, with the second phase coming after the advent of railroads. Players build four buildings that can produce income as well as points – ports, cotton mills, coal mines, iron works – and must “activate” them by connecting them to networks of canals or rail lines to begin generating revenues. A fifth building, the shipyard, only generates victory points. The exact income and points depend on the “level” you build; you must develop each building type individually over the course of the game to keep up with the times and your opponents. Money is scarce early in the game, but Brass allows players to take loans – as far as I can tell, you can’t get anywhere without it – of up to £30 if you pay 10% interest every turn for the remainder of the game.


In 19th century England, tiny hills were totally impassable.

On each turn, the player gets two actions, choosing from building, developing, taking a loan, shipping cotton (from your own mill to any player’s port), or building a canal/rail link. Players have hands of up to eight cards, with cards showing either one of the towns on the map where players can build or a specific building type; to build, you must discard a card that shows either the town where you want to place the building or that building type, then pay the cost – but in many cases you must also meet another requirement, like having a link to your network or being able to get coal to the building site. You then activate a building by using it – shipping cotton from the mill, shipping it out of a port, providing coal to the network all at once or one bit at a time as you build within the network, or sending a bunch of iron to the market. (Shipyards are activated automatically when built.) Each town allows specific building types; in phase one, you can only have one building in each location, but that’s lifted for phase two. At the end of phase one, all level-one (undeveloped) buildings and all canals disappear; in phase two, you can only build level-two or higher buildings, and can only build rail lines. The AI player always uses its first move of the game to develop ports to level two, so I have adopted the same plan, as it ensures that those ports provide a greater return and stay in place for the remainder of the game. Turn order changes each turn, going in reverse order of spending from the previous turn – if you spent nothing last turn, such as by taking loans with each action, you’ll go first next time around.

Games on the app take about 10-15 minutes, on par with other complex strategy games like Agricola and Caylus. The graphics are clear and bright, the map itself is attractive, and the animations (if you use them) are helpful while you’re learning the game. There are pop-up menus from the sides that can give you all the information you need once you understand what you’re looking for, and I only encountered very minor glitches, such as the app telling me I could ship cotton on some turns when I didn’t have an unactivated cotton mill from which to ship.

The tutorial was a little superficial and didn’t get into some of the details of interactions between buildings or point scoring, so I didn’t understand anything but the basic mechanics and had to learn a lot of the game’s restrictions on building via trial and error. I’ve also found that, once I understood the game, I could beat the AI players every time, even playing against three at once, primarily because they never build shipyards. A level two shipyard is worth 18 points, and there are only three spots on the board where you can build one; with winning scores typically around 100-110, if you build two shipyards, you’re going to win. I haven’t lost any game where I built even one shipyard, in fact. (It also seems to me that there should be at least one shipyard space per player.) I’ve swapped emails with the developers and there will be improved AI players in a later update.

The game itself is very elegant, with a small number of rules and options leading to complex strategic decisions, but has virtually no interaction between players. I found after a few plays that I could simply skip the animations of AI players’ moves and play my own game as if I were going solo. There are rare conflicts over building spaces on the board, and there’s a brief race each phase to ship cotton before the export market’s bottom falls out (which it does, quickly), but otherwise that’s it. The fact that AI players don’t build shipyards means I can wait till the last phase to do so, and even ignoring that, the AI players’ moves didn’t otherwise affect me. You can use anyone’s canals or rail lines, and even ship cotton from someone else’s ports. If you need coal to finish a building, you can take from someone else’s unactivated coal mine; the worst thing that happens is that you take its last piece and activate the mine for your opponent, but that was probably going to happen at some point anyway.

If the designers of Brass – who have had some great blog posts on the process, like explaining their improved method of displaying victory points – improve the AI players, this could be a must-buy for serious boardgamers along the lines of Caylus and Agricola, both of which have AI players that are at least tougher for the novice player. I’d also like to see a tutorial that explains more of the details of building and scoring, so that newbies wouldn’t have to fly so blind for their first few games. But it looks great and plays cleanly, two of the biggest hurdles for new apps that try to implement games of this size and complexity.

Saturday five, 9/5/15.

I had two Insider pieces this week, one on hypothetical postseason award ballots and one on notable September callups, and then someone else I didn’t expect to see came up after the latter was posted so why do I even do anything.

Klawchats at ESPN.com are indeed dead, as are all chats there, but I think I’ve found a solution that will let me resume the chats here after Labor Day. I’m looking for a little help with a script to clean up the transcripts so I can post them after the fact for everyone to read, so if you’re handy with perl, Python, or the like, please let me know. I’ll keep doing Periscopes, but they don’t work for everyone, including my deaf readers, so I want to make sure I use both media going forward.

My review of the second edition of the boardgame Evolution plus its Flight expansion is up at Paste. You can buy the game for $48 on amazon.

And now, the links…

  • How “Big Egg” has used underhanded and possibly illegal tactics, with the help of the USDA, to try to sabotage Hampton Creek’s vegan mayonnaise. It’s incredibly sleazy.
  • Andrew Zimmern talks about the future of food, from synthetic food replacements to insects as a sustainable protein source.
  • Scientists have discovered a naturally-occurring protein that would help slow the melting of ice cream. I see a problem with this, though: Ice cream tastes better when it’s at the brink of melting, because our taste buds don’t detect flavors in cold or frozen foods that well. That’s why ice cream has to be high in sugar – otherwise it wouldn’t taste sweet.
  • A Chinese writer talks about how the “gross” immigrant food of her upbringing has been culturally appropriated as “trendy.”
  • The programmer adapting the board game Brass into app form has started a blog about the process.
  • Chef Rick Bayless – yep, that’s Skip’s brother – writes about his dismay over the unbanning of GMO corn in Mexico, using culinary and cultural arguments rather than (un)scientific ones.
  • An experiment among Israeli schoolteachers found unconscious gender bias in math grading, bias that affected those kids’ choices as they advanced to higher grades. I know some of you get on me for discussing bias (racism, sexism, etc.) where it isn’t immediately evident, but these issues still exist, especially racism within the white-dominated baseball industry, even though it’s rarely explicit any more.
  • Alton Brown talks to the New York Times about his attitudes about our attitudes about food.
  • A paid anti-GMO shill for the organic agriculture industry was “severed” from Washington State University. Particularly notable are the undisclosed conflicts of interest, the same violation of which the anti-GMO side is accusing Kevin Folta.
  • Why is Missouri executing one death-row prisoner a month?
  • Vaccine denier Dr. Bob Sears – whose license to practice medicine still hasn’t been stripped, for reasons I can’t begin to fathom – is continuing to push his looney-toon, law-breaking agenda on gullible parents.

Coup.

My ranking of the top 100 prospects in this year’s draft class is up for Insiders. I’ll chat about it on Wednesday.

The interactive card game Coup is part of the Resistance universe of games, but unlike the game that heads up that family, it doesn’t require five or more players, playing very well with as few as three. (The game plays two, but I’ve found it isn’t a great experience.) In Coup, each player gets two cards randomly drawn from a deck of just fifteen, containing three apiece of five different types, and can take any of the actions prescribed by those card types … but players aren’t required to show their cards when they make moves, so they can flat-out lie about what they have. That introduces the challenge system: If you think someone else is lying, you challenge him/her; if you’re right, s/he loses a card, and if not, you lose a card. The last player with at least one card remaining in his/her hand wins.

The play system in Coup is simple, as there are only seven actions available, five of which are defined by the cards. A player may take one coin as Income, which requires no card and cannot be challenged. Any other move requires a card and is subject to challenge from another player. The Duke allows the player to draw three coins as Tax. The Captain allows the player to steal two coins from another player, or to block another steal attempt. The Ambassador allows the player to exchange one or both cards with two cards from the deck, or to block a steal attempt. The Assassin charges three coins to take out one card from another player. The Contessa can block an assassination attempt. The sixth move is the Coup: For seven coins, a player can force another player to reveal a card, with no block or challenge possible. When a player begins a turn with at least ten coins, s/he must make a Coup against another player.

(The physical game includes an eighth action, drawing “foreign aid,” where the player draws two coins of income rather than one, but can be blocked by the Duke. This isn’t in the app version, which I’ll discuss below.)


The challenge system is what makes the game run, however. If you think another player is trying to make a move using a card s/he doesn’t have, you challenge it. There’s significant risk, since you only have two cards, and if you’re wrong, you lose one of them (and if you’re already down a card, a failed challenge knocks you out of the game). Of course, you can employ a little math, because you know what two cards you have, what other cards have been revealed, and perhaps what cards you’ve put back into the deck via the Ambassador, but the odds are rarely fully in your favor. If another player tries to use the Assassin’s power against you, and you challenge him unsuccessfully, you will be knocked out of the game: you lose one card for the unsuccessful challenge and another to the Assassin. On the flip side, you have nothing to lose by challenging an assassination attempt when you’re already down to your last card. If you make a move, are challenged, but weren’t bluffing, you still lose the card in question, gaining a randomly drawn replacement from the deck.

I’m reviewing Coup now because there’s a free iOS app version available, one with some in-app purchases, fresh graphics, no AI players (that’s coming, I’m told, but I don’t think it’s necessary), and the options to play friends or to participate in ‘ranked’ matches that cost you ‘reputation’ points, with the chance to win points and increase your reputation if you win the match. Aside from some small server glitches such as push notifications not arriving on time or having to submit a move twice, I’ve had a very smooth gameplay experience with the app so far. The server usually responds quickly enough to keep games moving, with moves in ranked matches limited to two minutes, with players getting the boot if they don’t respond quickly enough. (This can screw one of the remaining players, however, if you’ve built a strategy around having that booted player around for a little longer.)

The Coup app impressed most in how seamless it makes the gameplay despite the high interactive component and necessity of having constant communication back and forth to the server. In timed games, each player has two minutes to submit a move, and if it can be challenged, the next player gets a two-minute timer to Challenge or Allow it. (Any other player can challenge before that next player hits either button.) If a player sends the Captain or Assassin after another player, the target gets two minutes to decide to challenge, allow, or respond by claiming to have a counter card in hand. The two-minute limits mean games move quickly, sometimes too quickly for me – a few times when my iPad screen timed out, I couldn’t get back into the game fast enough to submit a move.


I did not win this game.

There’s a limited chat feature that allows players to say some stock phrases, with four expansion chat packs available, two free as well as two for $0.99 each (including a set of taunts, which I don’t think is a particularly sharp idea). You can pay $2.99 to remove any ads from the game (although I’ve barely noticed any), $4.99 for a “spies expansion” that gives you detailed information on your opponents’ tactical patterns, and $3.99 if you want to use alternate graphics, including the images from the physical game. It’s certainly worth the $2.99 price to remove ads and support the development effort, but I’d have a hard time justifying paying for more reputation points – it’s a little too close to the days when I’d lose a whole roll of quarters playing Gauntlet. I’ve played Coup against random opponents in over 50 games so far, which speaks to how addictive it can be and how quickly you can rip through a few games in one sitting.

Galaxy Trucker iPad app.

I’ve got two posts up for Insiders, one on Boston signing Hanley Ramirez and an omnibus post covering four moves, two each by Oakland and the White Sox.

The Galaxy Trucker iPad app takes a well-reviewed boardgame (which I’ve never played) and turns it into something more on a tablet, with a “campaign mode” that plays like an adventure or role-playing game layered on the mechanics of the boardgame itself. It’s the most addictive game I’ve played all year, probably too much so – although I had a little spare time this weekend to try it out.

In Galaxy Trucker, you’re a long-haul space trucker who has to build a new ship for each run, preparing it to dodge meteors and stardust, battle space pirates and slavers, and pick up cargo from planets and abandoned ships for sale at your destination. Those various goals and obstacles require you to build a ship that has the right balance of cabins for crew, guns, engines, shields, batteries, and storage for goods … and that’s before you unlock the ability to carry certain aliens as extra crew too. Each component has connectors on one to four sides, so you have to make everything fit together on your ship while trying not to leave connectors exposed to stardust or vulnerable to meteor fire. And building those ships means competing in real-time against AI players to grab tiles from a central pile available to everyone; once the first player completes his/her ship, a timer starts and other players must finish as quickly as they can.

Out in space, the ships all appear on a track, starting in the order in which the players finished building. The journey to the next satellite or moon involves a set of eight to twenty “adventure cards,” overturned in order, each revealing a specific event. The easiest one is open space, where you can go as many spots forward as your engine allows, although position is only relative to the other ships rather than letting you speed to the destination – that is, you have to play all the cards before you dock.

Being first in line gives you first crack at any abandoned ships (where you can send crew members for money or cargo, at a cost of a couple of spaces on the track) or planets (so you can grab the most valuable cargo), but also puts you first in line to face pirates or slavers, who can damage your ship or steal your crew/cargo if you don’t have enough firepower. Meteors hit everyone in line, with smaller ones damaging tiles with exposed connectors but larger ones destroying whatever they hit if you can’t shoot them down. Combat is the one time you’re pitted against your rivals, because all ships are compared using three criteria – firepower, engine strength, and crew size – with the trucker scoring the lowest in each subject to attack, loss of crew, loss of cargo, or other penalties.

When building your ship, you do get to peek at some of the cards (I think 3/4 of them) if you don’t mind taking a brief break from the tile rush, so you can plan accordingly – such as adding weapons facing a specific side of the ship if you know you’ll face large meteors from that direction. That said, the variety of cards in all of the journey’s you’ll undertake means you’re always trying to balance the various components to survive the trip and make as much money as you can through salvage, rewards for finishing first or having the best-designed ship, or completing certain missions in the campaign.

That campaign is easily the best part of the app – it’s a little bit of a choose-your-own-adventure feel, except that you can’t die on page 63, you just go back to port and try again. The challenges increase in difficulty slowly at first, but near the end of the campaign there are two extremely tough ones (so far) that I’ve struggled to get past. The game also gives you a few broader goals to achieve outside of individual missions, and you get to keep expanding areas on your map to see more destinations and potentially earn more money from larger jobs. That “one more challenge” setup kept drawing me back to the game beyond the point when I might have been bored from crushing the AI after getting the hang of the game.

The one flaw in the implementation is the ease with which you can make an unintended move, which is irrevocable under the rules of the game. Dragging tiles down over your ship to reveal them, then dragging them back to the pile, all while trying to move as quickly as possible will result in some tiles accidentally dropped into place on your ship – and if you don’t notice that that happened and reach for another tile, you’ll be stuck with a piece you didn’t want and/or somewhere you didn’t want it.

The graphics are goofy but easy to understand, drawn from the board game for a cartoonish feel; the app itself ran smoothly over a dozen times. (Okay, maybe way over a dozen times.) The puzzle-solving aspect of Galaxy Trucker was the initial appeal, but the campaign mode is what makes it a must-purchase for boardgame fans. I’ve already gotten way more than $7.99 worth out of the game in, well, about five days of playing it.