Tag Archives: Go

5th February 2019

Far from being over-run by new people flocking to games night in response to our advert in the Parish Newsletter, it was one of the quietest weeks for ages.  With Ivory still on “sabbatical”, Mulberry in the States, and Pine, Pink and Red all having something better to do, for the first time in ages, we were down to just five and a single game.  Burgundy was just finishing eating and Blue was waiting for the imminent arrival of her pizza, so the group decided to play something short that could be played while feeding.  After a brief discussion the group began a game of Walk the Plank!, and inevitably, Blue’s pizza arrived just as it started.

Walk the Plank!
– Image by boardGOATS

Walk the Plank! is an old favourite that has been somewhat neglected by the group of late.  It is a very silly programming game where players control pirate meeples who try to push each other off the ship and, when plans go wrong, occasionally jump overboard.  The idea is that each player begins with a hand of action cards and simultaneously everyone chooses three cards to play and the order they are going to play them in, placing them in a stack with the first card on top.   Once everyone has chosen their cards, the players take it in turns to take the top card off their pile and carry out the action using one of their three “pirate-eeples”.  Actions include shoving other players meeples closer to the end of the plank (or into the sea); running towards the ship; retracting or extending the plank, and even changing along the plank pushing another player closer to the sea.  As we were playing with the Limited Edition which comes with some extra cards, so for a bit of variety, we added the Dynamite and Ghost Pirate cards.

Walk the Plank!
– Image by boardGOATS

The first of the extra cards, “Dynamite”, pushes everyone on a given piece of plank one space closer to the sea. The other, the “Ghost Pirate”, scares everyone on a a piece of plank so much that they run away, half towards the sea and half towards the ship.  The newly bespectacled Green was of the opinion that the extra cards were generally a little over-powered, so we house-ruled it so that they could only be played once each.  When we play this game we include a couple of other house rules too:  according to the rules as written, the last piece of the three piece plank should not be removed when shortening the plank and the game is supposed finish when there are two meeples left.  While we understand why these rules exist, we find that sharing victory means the game feels a little unresolved so we play through to the bitter end.  Similarly, we quite like the madness removing the last plank adds, and in such a short game, crazy chaos seems entirely appropriate.

Walk the Plank!
– Image by boardGOATS

And chaos there was aplenty this time round too:  Burgundy was quickly out of the game when the third and final of his meeples was banished to the deep.  As the first person to be eliminated, Burgundy was given the slightly dubious honour of returning as a Ghost.  In this mini-expansion, the player returns as a white pirate-eeple doomed to haunt the ship and generally cause mayhem for everyone else by playing one shove card per round.  When the last of Black’s pirates joined Burgundy’s there was some discussion about a second ghost, but we decided it would just prolong the game.  It wasn’t long before he had company on the sidelines though, leaving just Blue and Purple.  With both of them perched precariously on the end of what was left of the plank and Blue set to go first the game was her to take.  However, she decided she couldn’t take advantage of the position and instead retracted the plank unceremoniously pitching both of them into the drink.

Walk the Plank!
– Image by boardGOATS

With Blue finished with her pizza, and it clear that nobody else was coming, the group decided to move on to the “Feature Game” which was to be Through the Desert.  This is an old game, but one that is very simple to play, though difficult to play well.  It is an area control game with pastel camels that many feel is reminiscent of the classic game, Go.  The game begins with players placing one camel in each colour on the board.  Each of these has a rider (Leader) in their own colour, so these camels are the start of the player’s camel trains or Caravans.  After the initial placements, on their turn, players take any two camels from the general supply and add them to the board.  There are a few rules about placement – each one must be placed next to camels of the same colour to become part of one of that player’s caravans, and must not be placed next to a caravan of the same colour belonging to another player (as this would cause them to join).

Through the Desert
– Image by boardGOATS

The aim of the game is to gain points through via the four sources.  Firstly, there are several oases marked with green plastic palm trees; players who connect a caravan to an oasis get five points.  There are also watering hole tokens—players who place a camel on these spaces can claim these tokens which are worth up to three points.  Players who finish with the longest Caravans in each of the colours are also rewarded with points at the end of the game.  The most lucrative source of points, but also the most risky is enclosing areas.  It is in this way that it is most like Go.  Go is a very ancient game played on square grid with black and white stones.  People often try to compare it to Chess, though in truth, beyond the facts one play plays black, the other white and the game is played on a rectilinear grid and both are very old, the two games have almost nothing in common.

Chess
– Image by Unsplash contributor sk

Chess is a game with a very rigid structure where players control armies that are lined up to face each other.  Each piece has a clearly defined role and movement pattern and games develop in a very particular way.  The highly structured nature of the game means strategies are developed by analysing all the possible or likely moves which makes it highly programmable.  In contrast, Go is all about territory and pattern analysis, which has traditionally made it much more challenging for computer programmers and it is only recently that software engineers have been able to use machine learning algorithms that have the ability to beat Go champions.  In Go, players place their stones on the intersections of a rectilinear grid with the aim of marking out territory.  There is a lot of psychology in the early moves with players declaring their space; if a player is too aggressive at the start, they won’t be able to defend their position, if they are too timid with their opening they will have lost before they’ve begun.

Go
– Original image by Tomasz_Mikolajczyk on pixabay.com

Ultimately however, Go is a complex game of strategy where players are trying to capture their opponent’s stones and with i,t territory.  A single empty space inside a group is called an eye; for a group to remain alive it must contain at least two eyes.  Creating eye spaces in a player’s groups and trying to prevent their opponent from making eyes is one of the key aspects of Go.  It is in regard to building territory that Through the Desert is similar to Go, however, there are two significant differences.  Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, the game is played on a hexagonal rather than a square grid.  The main difference is in the game-play though:  in Through the Desert pieces must be added to an existing caravan and surrounded pieces are not removed from the board.  Nevertheless, despite the differences it is unquestionably true that the Through the Desert is reminiscent of Go and was likely inspired by it.

Go
– Original image by Przemek Pietrak on flickr.com

With five players, everyone starts the game with Leaders mounted on four of the five different colours of camel.  Starting placement was quite difficult because nobody really knew constituted a good starting position, though some claimed to know what a bad one was.  Maybe there was an advantage in going last, or perhaps Black had a better idea than everyone else, but it quickly became apparent that that he had a large corner of the board all to himself.  This put Burgundy in a very difficult position as he was the only one who could do anything at all about it, but he had other plans.  In the end, Burgundy decided to do his own thing because the damage he could do to Black was minimal and it would be a significant expense to himself.

Through the Desert
– Image by boardGOATS

Elsewhere, Burgundy was in a four-way tussle with Purple, Green and Black for access to an oasis and Green and Burgundy combined to prevent Blue from connecting two of the oases.  Meanwhile, Purple collected a pile of watering-hole tokens, and Burgundy was attempting to enclose an enormous space in the middle, while Green and and Blue were hoping to fly under the radar and get away with discretely annexing small areas at the edge of the board.  It wasn’t long before the number of pale blue camels was dwindling and Black was left trying to decide whether it was in his interest to bring the game to an end.

Through the Desert
– Image by boardGOATS

When Blue reduced the handful to one lonely looking camel, Black could resist no longer leaving Burgundy’s audacious attempt to claim on the large central area incomplete and looking temerarious as a consequence.  Everyone had thought Black was so far in front that they were playing for second place, however, it turned out that the game was much closer than expected.  Green had scored slightly more for his oases and the length of his Caravans than Black and Black’s large corner hadn’t given him quite as much territory as it had first appeared.  It was very close, but Green took it by just two points.  As the group packed away, feelings were generally positive, but everyone was agreed that they’d play it differently next time, so we’ll have to give it another Go sometime soon.

Through the Desert
– Image by boardGOATS

With five players, the options were limited – we generally try to avoid two-player games and we were a bit short on good five-player ones.  In the end, it was either yet another game of Bohnanaza, or the 2016 Kennerspiel des Jahres winner, Isle of Skye, and Isle of Skye won easily.  Although this is a game we’ve played quite a bit and know reasonably well, we decided not to add the new Druids expansion as it is a while since we last played the base game and we felt we could do with a reminder.  The game is a sort of upgraded tile laying game with a lot in common with Carcassonne, but with an auction at the start of each round and scoring at the end of each round.  The scoring is one of the interesting parts of this game as the four scoring criteria change from game to game and, and each one scores three times during the course of the game.  Choosing how to prioritise these to drive a strategy is one of the keys to playing well.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King
– Image by boardGOATS

This time, points were available for cows in the largest field; brochs; completed areas, and lighthouse-longboat combos.  The game proceeded along its usual course:  Burgundy had stacks of money but no tiles because everyone kept buying them while Blue and Black had plenty of tiles, but no money.  Black with a very linear kingdom was reminded by Purple that the goal for that shape wasn’t in use this time.  It didn’t seem to matte as he stormed off into the lead with a large field full of cattle, but it wasn’t long before others gave chase.  The winner in this game often comes from the back, because there is a “catch-up mechanism” where players get money in the later rounds, with those at the back getting more.  So, when Green and Blue eventually caught up with Black, the positions were important and Green looked ideally placed one point behind Black who was one point behind Blue.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King
– Image by boardGOATS

Although the points awarded at the end of the rounds are valuable, it is usually the end game scoring through the scrolls that is critical.  These provide personal targets for each player, and score twice where terrain is “completed” (i.e. completely enclosed).  So towards the end of the game everyone scrabbled to maximise their points.  Green took a tile Blue wanted to keep, so Blue took one that Burgundy had priced very highly giving him even more money, but not the one tile that was really crucial to his plans.  Black added a couple more farms, while Green went for ships Purple went for light-houses and Blue tried to get both.  Burgundy and Blue were also working on the communal, end of round scoring for the brochs (prehistoric circular stone towers found in the highlands and islands of Scotland).  In the case of scoring for brochs though, one would give one point, two would give three and three six points.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King
– Image by boardGOATS

With two players fighting for them brochs were scarce, but by the final round both Blue and Burgundy had managed to get their quota of six.  They were less than impressed when Black pointed out that the brochs only scored if they were in the same mountain region.  Although Black had read the scoring in full, somehow it had failed to make it to the end of the table as both Blue and Burgundy had missed it.  Green pointed out that anyone affected should be called out for cheating, but Burgundy was in such dire need of points nobody was going to contest him claiming them.  The scoring at the front was a bit closer though.  As the points were calculated though it was clear that Green needn’t have worried.  Although he was only one point behind Black, Blue’s fleet of ships meant she was twelve points clear, and it was obvious that even allowing for the extra points, she would still have won.

Isle of Skye: From Chieftain to King
– Image by boardGOATS

Learning Outcome:  If the rules are that important to your game-plan, clarify them first.

Next Meeting – 5th February 2019

Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 5th February, at the Horse and Jockey pub in Stanford-in-the-Vale.  As usual, we will be playing shorter games from 7.30pm as people arrive, until 8pm when we will start something a little longer.

This week the “Feature Game” will be Through the Desert, an area control game with pastel camels that many feel is reminiscent of the classic, Go.  During the game, players try to score the most points by snaking caravans of camels through the dunes, trying to reach oases and blocking off sections of the desert.

Through The Desert
– Image by BGG contributor haslo

And speaking of camels…

Jeff was working for the army in a remote part of Iraq. When he arrived, he was given a tour of the site and towards the end, he noticed a particularly mangy old camel tied up behind the barracks, so he asked his guide what it was for.

The young soldier looked extremely embarrassed, but eventually said, “Well sir, there are over two hundred men here far and no women. Sometimes the men get… urges.”

“Oh right,” replied Jeff, now equally embarrassed, “I see.”

Six weeks later, Jeff was coming to the end of his stay in Iraq. He’d spent almost all of the time in camp and was starting to feel very… frustrated. Lying in bed early one morning, he suddenly remembered the camel and no matter what he did he couldn’t get the idea out of his mind.  So after an hour, he got out of bed and sneaked out of the building to the back of the barracks where the camel was quietly minding it’s own business.

Jeff, who by this time had only one thing on his mind, dropped his trousers, grabbed a conveniently nearby stool, clambered up, and proceeded to vent his frustration by giving the poor unfortunate camel the ride of its life. He was so engrossed, he didn’t see the soldier who had given him the tour and was on his way to guard duty. The young man stopped and stared; as Jeff finished and dressed, he suddenly realised he had an audience.

Jeff felt he had to break the oppressive silence. He pointed at the stool, “Is that how the others do it?” he asked.

“Well, no sir,” replied the soldier slightly awkwardly, “They normally just use the camel to ride to the nearest brothel…”

Boardgames in the News: AlphaGo Goes Again

Last year, Google announced that it’s AlphaGo software (part of their DeepMind project) had beaten the reigning three-time European Go champion Fan Hui winning five consecutive games – the work was published in the scientific journal Nature.1 The original tree search in AlphaGo evaluated positions and selected moves using neural networks. These neural networks were trained by supervised learning from human expert moves, and by reinforcement learning from self-play.  Today the team reported2 a new version of AlphaGo, “AlphaGo Zero“, that was developed without any input human data beyond game rules. Previous versions of AlphaGo were initially trained on thousands of human amateur and professional games to learn how to play Go.  AlphaGo Zero skipped this step and learnt to play simply by playing games against itself, starting from completely random positions.  AlphaGo Zero thus became its own teacher and after three days beat the previously published, champion-defeating version of AlphaGo by one hundred games to nil.  After playing thirty million games over a period of forty days AlphaGo Zero became even stronger, outperforming the version of AlphaGo known as “Master”, which has defeated some of the world’s best players including the current world number one Ke Jie.

Go
– Image from deepmind.com

1 Silver et al., Nat. (2016), 529, 489; doi:10.1038/nature16961.
2 Silver et al., Nat. (2017), 550, 354; doi:10.1038/nature24270.

Boardgames in the News: Google plays Go

Go is an ancient Chinese two player game played with black and white stones on a nineteen by nineteen grid.  The game is one of territory where the aim is to surround the most intersections.  Although the game itself is very simple with players taking turn to place stones on the points of the grid, There is significant strategy involved in the game, and the number of possible games is vast (10761 compared, for example, to the estimated 10120 possible in Chess).

Go
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor ManCorte

In addition to the huge number of possible moves, Go has also always been considered to be particularly challenging for an Artificial Intelligence to play well as strategy involves patterns rather than specific moves with a finite solution tree – something that humans generally do better than computers.  Thus, for twenty years, devotees Go, have smugly pointed out that while Deep Blue first beat the then World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov in February 1996,1 a computer has never beaten a Go Champion.  Yesterday, however, Google announced that it’s AlphaGo software (part of their DeepMind project) had beaten the reigning three-time European Go champion Fan Hui winning five consecutive games.  The work has been published in the scientific journal Nature,2 which seems to have been making a bit of a habit of publishing boardgaming articles recently…

Go
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor ManCorte

1 Campbell, et al., Artif. Intell. (2002), 134, 57; doi:10.1016/S0004-3702(01)00129-1.
2 Silver et al., Nat. (2016), 529, 489; doi:10.1038/nature16961.

Boardgames in the News: So, What Are Euro-Games?

A couple of months ago at our game night, one of the gamers commented that there were a lot of good games from Europe.  This prompted a discussion about “traditional games”, “Euro-games”, “American games” and their relative merits.  Most people know all about traditional games even if they don’t know what gamers mean when they use the term:  traditional games are the games we all used to play as a child including Scrabble, Cluedo and love it or loath it, the dreaded Monopoly.  Some people also include in this list games like Chess, Go and Backgammon as well as traditional card games like Whist, Hearts and Rummy.

Go
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor ManCorte

But the front page of the boardGOATS website says, “We generally prefer to play “Euro” style games,” so, what do gamers mean by “Euro-games” or “Euro style games”?  Well, most of the traditional games we used to play as children were produced by publishers in the United States of America, companies like Milton Bradley (who made Scrabble) and Parker Brothers (who made Cluedo and Monopoly).  Incidentally, both these companies are now part of Hasbro, but the aggregation of smaller companies to form a larger one is a topic that’s been covered elsewhere.  While the “English” market was dominated by big players that concentrated on producing a few top sellers, in Germany there was no such dominance.  The effect this had was that the market consisted of a large number of small manufacturers producing more varied products.

Scrabble
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Susie_Cat

This coupled with the traditionally strong German toy industry encouraged the growth of a culture of families playing games together on a Sunday afternoon. It was in this environment that the annual German Game of the Year, or Spiel des Jahres Award, highlighted a range of games from Rummikub in 1980, Torres in 2000 and Camel Up last year.  Over the years, the red pawn of the Spiel des Jahres logo, has become a mark of boardgaming quality, and for many German families, buying the game of the year is something they do every Christmas.  Therefore, the qualities espoused by these awards heavily influence the concept of the “Euro-game”.

Rummykub
– Image by BGG contributor OldestManOnMySpace

But what are these qualities that make a game “European”?  Well, that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, describes them as characterised by “simple rules, short to medium playing times, indirect player interaction and abstract physical components”.   It goes on to say, “Such games emphasize strategy, downplay luck and conflict, lean towards economic rather than military themes, and usually keep all the players in the game until it ends.”  On the whole this is not a bad summary, except that it is not very specific:  how simple are “simple rules” and how long are “short to medium playing times”?  Clearly these features are more about contrast, and although there are lots of different types of games including party games and war games, this comparison is usually between European style ames and American-style Games, aka “Ameri-Trash”.

Last Night on Earth
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Bilben04

Although common, use of the term Ameri-Trash (or Ameritrash) is controversial as some see it as unnecessarily negative, however, although other terms have been suggested none have proved as popular or as persistent.  The term itself is over fifteen years old and was probably originally used disparagingly and applied to genuinely bad American games as a comparison with the much higher professional standards of games in Germany at the time.  Since then, the scope has been expanded and many fans of those American games have adopted the term as a badge of honour.

Merchant of Venus
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor kilroy_locke

American-style games tend to be long, usually over two hours, and classically involve a lot of luck and often feature dice rolling.  They are often considered to be a lot less “cerebral” or “puzzle-like” and, as a result, are sometimes described as “more fun”.  The reference to “trash” may in part reflect the style of the pieces which tend to include a lot of plastic pieces to go with the dice.  There is also often a lot of direct conflict in American-style games, where European games tend to be much more family friendly with indirect player interaction.  Classic Ameri-Trash games include:  Arkham Horror, Merchant of Venus, Cosmic Encounter and Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game.  Sometimes there is also a book or film tie-in leading to games like Battlestar Galactica and Dune.  Even just comparing the titles with those of classic Euro-games like Puerto Rico, El Grande, Tikal and Agricola, the difference can clearly be felt.

Arkham Horror
– Image by BGG contributor igorigorevich

The most essential part of American-style games is the theme, however, which is often integral to the game mechanisms.  This encourages people fantasize they are part of the action when playing the game.  The miniatures, the long playing times, the complex interwoven rule-set and the interaction (often culminating in players being eliminated) all combine to draw players into the drama of the game.  In contrast, for Euro-games, the mechanisms are the focus, and the games can often be re-themed without much effort.  The theme is therefore used more as an introduction to the more abstract European strategy games, making them more accessible, rather than being an essential part of the emotional investment.

Relic Runners
– Image by BGG contributor cnidius

But things are not as simple as that.  The nature of modern boardgaming encourages cross-fertilisation.  There are more highly-themed, strategy-games available now and more long, strategic games with miniatures – these are sometimes referred to as “hybrid games”.  For example, games produced by the Days of Wonder (based in the USA), like Ticket to Ride and Relic Runners have a lot of plastic pieces, though the games themselves are quite strategic and generally run for no more than an hour.  Similarly, games like Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Space Alert use real-time and a sound-track to draw the players in, yet they are both short (Escape takes just ten minutes to play) and have no player elimination.  Vlaada Chvátil’s Dungeon Lords series of games, also have a lot of theme, but are also playable in a manageable time-frame, have a lot of strategy and a reasonably streamlined set of rules.

Dungeon Lords
– Image used with permission of BGG
contributor PaulGrogan

Confusingly however, “hybrid” has more recently also come to mean games that include some sort of mobile device application (and thus require a smart phone, tablet or similar).  Now, lots of games have Apps that help them a long a little (e.g. One Night Ultimate Werewolf), but games like Alchemists and XCOM: The Board Game don’t really function properly without them.  The question is, are these still boardgames?  In truth, they are a sort of hybrid computer-boardgame, but the point is, however appropriate the name, it is all about the game and the other people playing:  the bottom line is, if you enjoy playing it, it doesn’t matter what it is called.

Alchemists
– Image used with permission of BGG contributor Mouseketeer