For the 2023 Chinese New Year (to be more inclusive I should call this the Lunar New Year, it’s just that in Malaysia this is what it’s commonly known as), I went back to my hometown Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. It had been three years since I was last back for CNY, i.e. before the pandemic hit Malaysia. Every time I do packing to go back to Sabah, my checklist includes a reminder to bring some games. This time I only brought two standard sized box games – Attika and Res Arcana. The rest were small box games, card games, and some prototypes of my own game designs.
I asked younger daughter Chen Rui to play Res Arcana with me. I had played it a few times and I like it. It was the first time for Chen Rui. Originally I planned to bring Race for the Galaxy. Chen Rui had seen me play it on the iPad, and she was interested. Unfortunately I had forgotten that I had lent my copy to Julian. By the time I realised it it was too late. We were so busy preparing to travel that I didn’t have time to arrange to get the game. So I brought Tom Lehmann’s other game.
Res Arcana is not similar to Race for the Galaxy, but it does have the element of creating combos. In Res Arcana you know exactly what cards you have in your deck. You only have 8 cards in it. Your challenge is to devise the most effective strategy to get yourself to 10 victory points given the limited strategy space.
I complain all the time how contemporary Eurogames are just exercises in resource conversion. Yet Res Arcana is exactly a game which does resource collection and resource conversion. I struggle to come up with a justification for liking it but not other more popular resource conversion games.
Perhaps I should call it a hand management game. You know exactly what cards you will have access to, just that you can’t be certain when you will draw which card. Your task from the get go is to figure out how to make the most of the cards fate deals you. Yes, you do use your cards to produce and convert resources as efficiently as possible. It’s just that you do that by cleverly managing your hand and creating good combos. I think I can convince myself.
Chen Rui had fun with Res Arcana. At first she was flustered that her resource production sucked. The problem was more due to my character and starting cards being good at producing resources. Thus the contrast. Eventually I won, but she learned how the game worked and caught up, and was within range of the finish line.
You see gambling games everywhere during Chinese New Year. My parents’ home back in Sabah is no exception. We played mahjong rummy. The mahjong rummy entry on BoardGameGeek was submitted by me, many years ago. Till now the representative remains the same one. I photographed it in Sabah too.
Normally on Day 1 of CNY my parents would plan CNY visits (拜年) to the homes of some friends and relatives, bringing all three generations – themselves, my generation and my children’s generation. This year they didn’t plan any visit, so we played mahjong rummy at home almost the whole day – my mum, my wife Michelle, Chen Rui and I.
Mahjong rummy is a traditional gambling game. Most gamers probably frown upon it. With so many better games out there, why play this type of luck-heavy and dull game? I think playing games is more about the playing than the games. It is more important to be able to sit together around a table and have fun. What game it is on the table is secondary.
If I were to nitpick the problems with mahjong rummy, my biggest gripe would be the jokers. You win or lose money simply based on the number of jokers you draw. Now I don’t gamble big at home. It’s only 20sen per joker. Let’s say for a particular game I have 1 joker. The other players have 3, 1 and none respectively. When a game ends, I need to compare the number of jokers with each of my opponents. Between each pairing, whoever has fewer jokers must pay the other player. I will pay 40sen to the player with 3 jokers. I don’t need to pay the player with one joker because we are tied. I will collect 20sen from the player with no joker. This is all luck! There is no skill in this at all. In boardgame hobbyist circles, if a game designer does this he or she will certainly be condemned. In fact, a game designer will probably make the players with more jokers pay those with fewer. That’s called game balance.
So this is what happens when you get a boardgame hobbyist to talk about traditional gambling games.
Mahjong rummy is indeed a luck-heavy game. There are many tactics, which make you feel you have more control than you actually do. In my opinion, that’s genius. I think it’s one reason it has longevity.
Over a few days of mahjong rummy, newbie Chen Rui was one of the net winners. Both Michelle and I lost money. My mum is a veteran. She plays regularly with friends. She made money.
My wife Michelle share a tradition with a group of old friends from secondary school days. They meet up on Day 3 of CNY every year. Some of them do not live in Kota Kinabalu (e.g. us) but during the CNY period most will be back in KK. It’s not easy for a group of friends to maintain such a tradition for so many years. They have been doing this since before their children were born, and by now the older children are going to university.
Now for the husbands and the children, the gathering can be a little awkward. Most of us are not particularly close friends with one another. This year, I brought some of my game prototypes to be played in the husbands and children group, while the ladies have their extended catch-up session. This gave us something to do together, and I could playtest my games. Certainly a win for me.
I brought Snow White and the Ten Dwarfs. Well it can be ten, seven, twelve, or some other number. It just depends on how many players we have. This is a one-vs-many game. You need to carefully think about how to publicly share information, and you have to piece together many small fragments of information to do deduction. The youngsters were very absorbed in the game. When a young man’s mum came to ask what he was playing, he anxiously said, “Mum not now please I need to focus”. It’s gratifying to see others enjoy my game.
Chen Rui participated.
In Snow White every dwarf is a number. At the centre of the table there will be one face-down dwarf, and the rest of the dwarf players need to work out what number that dwarf is. A dwarf player knows his own number, and may look at the card of only one other dwarf. The dwarfs must share information to work out the missing dwarf. The tricky part is Snow White is always listening. Snow White wants to find out who the #1 dwarf is. It is a race between her and the dwarfs to see who works out the right answer first. This is a naturally absorbing game because you need to listen and think carefully to give the right clues and determine the correct answer. It is tense because it is a race.
From my playtesting so far, this game needs at least 7 players. It can handle up to 12. I still want to test with more. I want to see at which point it stops working well. The more players there are, the more complicated the deduction will become. After a certain threshold, higher complexity will probably be less fun.
Chen Rui and Adrian, my brother-in-law, played mahjong rummy with my nephew Oswald and my niece Lauren. I wouldn’t call this cultivating the gambling habit since young. Let’s call this upholding Chinese tradition.
Categories: Random Thoughts, Uncategorized
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