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The House Selling Game

Real life is full of games such as contract bidding, gift exchanging, and national voting — a topic that I’ve previously touched upon in a few different posts about “real-life mechanics”. These real-life games are no less competitive than the board games that we play around tables, and in fact might be much more important. As I wrote in my “Burning Freeways” article on blind bidding, the winning bidder earned $800,000 more than Cal Trans expected and could have made as much as $3.5 million over costs.

In that article I also briefly touched upon how the blind bidding of house sales can be affected by just the teeniest bit of external information from a realtor. At the time I hadn’t sold a house. Now I have, and I’ve learned a lot more about the various parts of house-selling, and as usual they offer up new possibilities for the designs of These Games of Ours.

Preparing for Sale

The house-selling game actually begins months or years before you put your house on the market. That’s when you start cataloging all of the problems with your house that you might fix. That crack in the ceiling that you never cared about, that heating system that mysteriously shut off one or two times a year, that heavily weathered back door that you ignored for two decades: none of them impacted your love for your house, but they can make a big deal in a sale. And, it turns out that completely painting the outside and (especially) the inside of your house is largely expected if you’re going to make a strong case for selling it!

The reason for doing all of this fix-up work is largely emotional: when you’re talking about a sale as big as a house, the majority of potential buyers are going to make an emotional decision, with only banks and potential landlords making a fiscally focused one. So, on the one hand, you want to help everyone who walks through your house to imagine living in it — and you can do that by presenting a house that’s ready to go, offering no obstacles or problems. You offer those potential buyers hope and dreams. And, on the other hand, you want to make sure that there’s nothing about the house that will scare them — and since you have to list any defects in the property that you know about in your disclosures, that means that you really need to resolve any problematic ones, whether they’re obvious on a house tour or not. You offer these potential buyers freedom from fear.

Now here’s what I find most interesting about this for game design: though I personally play from the gut whenever I can, there’s enough foundational mathematics in eurogames that you can often carefully calculate cost and value. In fact, there are games when I’ve been forced to do so. (I don’t tend to like those games!) So one question that the house-selling game offers us for tabletop game design may simply be: how can we get players to make emotional decisions rather than rational fiscal one? Hiding valuations seems to be a good answer, and there’s an obvious way to do so: you offer hope instead. When a purchase is worth $5 to you, it’s easy to calculate that you should pay $4, but not $6. But when a purchase is worth $5, but could be worth $10 or $20 or $100 … that’s a house of a different color. Uncertain random results and set collection both offer ways to do this (and in fact Modern Art: The Card Game offers a great example, because it’s all about set collection in circumstances of uncertain value). But there are probably other answers for substituting emotions for calculation in eurogames.

The second thing that I found interesting about the house-prep game was the need for disclosures. If anything, tabletop games go the opposite direction, where players are trying to convince their opponents to buy what’s behind door #2, even when they know full well that it’s a donkey. But you’re not allowed to sell donkeys when you offer a house, unless you’re clear that you’re doing so. Would changing that add anything to a game design? Or would it just take away a fun little aspect of treachery in tabletop game design?

And finally, I find it interesting that the house-prep game has two goals. Obviously, you’re trying to increase the valuation of your house, and as with any sales-oriented game, putting money in usually results in getting more money back. But, you’re also implicitly increasing the number of people who will bid on your house by making it more valuable (and emotionally, more attractive), and that in turn causes the house to get bid up more. A resource-management game that marks the increase in valuation of a property in multiple ways, like this, might be quite interesting.

Determining Your Time

Houses can sell for different amounts at different times. Putting your house on the market in late November or December, for example, is a horrible idea, because everyone is too wrapped up in the holidays. In fact, in the California Bay Area, sales continue somewhat weak until you get to houses that are closing in March, which probably went on the market in late January or early February. Prices (and in particular bids over asking price) then pick up. And even though there aren’t as many buyers around at the start of the year, what’s on the market is pretty limited too — so it might be as good of a time to sell as summer, when sales are at their height.

Obviously, this all makes for an interesting game design element because there are other factors at play. Is there a reason that you need the money from a sale immediately? (Usually!) Are there other factors that make you want to sell immediately? Are there random factors that may or may not come into effect (like the possibility of an economic downturn or the extremely unlikely possibility of a catastrophic earthquake)?

It’s in those other factors that you could potentially find good design, because the best game choices are the ones where there’s no “right” answer.

Selling Your House

An old saying states that anyone who represents themselves in court has a fool for a client. I think the same is largely true in real estate. Real estate agents have an enormous store of wisdom not just about the specific (and very complex) rules and regulations involved in selling a house, but perhaps more notably about what works to maximize a selling price (or, if you’re a buyer, what works to minimize it).

Obviously, in board games, everyone is their own agent. We don’t have extras sitting around, ready to step in and help us out during situations where our own expertise is limited. But it’s certainly plausible to imagine a system where you could go to your opponents and have them help out on things that you’re not great at. This tends to show up in negotiation games a bit, as a possible element of deals, but one could imagine any sort of game where each player might have their own expertise, and other players could draw upon it: perhaps even without the agreement of the “helpful” player, but still giving them some return for their support. So if one player is a warmonger, others might get him to build machines of war; and if one player is an expert trader, others might get him to do their trading for him. (And the latter is an example of how I’ve seen this come up in existing games: in Catan the people with great ports sometimes end up doing trades for others, but it’s a very limited circumstance, and there could be more to this.)

Choosing Among Offers

Auctions in board games tend to be pretty monotonic. Except for in an excellent game like Res Publica — which is actually more negotiation and trading than auctioning — you don’t have much choice in auctions. You take the $6, not the $4.

When selling a house, there are many more factors: how much does the buyer offer; what contingencies does he place on the sale (e.g., loan, inspection, etc.); what escrow period does he offer; is his offer all-cash; does he present a heart-warming video about why he wants your house; and can you discern anything else about whether he’s likely to close that deal (and perhaps, if you care, about whether he’s likely to be a boon to the neighborhood you’re leaving).

Now it’s possible that all, or most all of those factors will line up to present the obviously best offer. But, if not: well you’ve got a ball game. Because, much as with the question of when you decide to sell your house, there isn’t a right answer. Different sellers (or game players when we abstract this out to game design) might have different priorities. You might think that money is the most important element, but most of those other options can determine whether you actually get your money or not — and a heartwarming letter could easily make a difference when looking at two like offers, perhaps even if they’re separated by 1% or 2% in value.

Waiting for Escrow

Here’s one last element that’s pretty unusual in house sales: the escrow. Even after someone has agreed to buy a house, there’s a 30-to-60 day waiting period before the sale concludes. This is in large part to give the buyers a chance to get a loan, since houses are high-priced items. But it also offers a point of failure, where a deal has been made but then falls apart, perhaps because of the failure of that loan (or because of disagreement over an inspection) but also because of totally unexpected situations.

It’s a rare game that puts a delay into any of its supply chains, though Macao offers a great example of how you can build a whole game around the concept. Knowing that you’re going to have resources, not now, but in the future, offers for some interesting planning. The ability for a deal to fall through might also be interesting … particularly if duplicitous opponents can help.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Finally, house selling can also be interesting for how it displays the sunk-cost fallacy. This is where someone spends good money to try and get back money that’s already been lost. And, unlike most of the interesting design elements in the house-selling game, this one already shows up very naturally in game designs, just because of the psyche of the human mind. Whenever a a Poker player puts more money into the pot not because of the strength of his hand, but because of what he’s already invested, that’s sunk cost.

In a house sale, it might show up as a result of the sale preparation (“I spent money preparing my house, so I’m only going to accept an offer that’s better than average”), but it might have the most interesting effect during an escrow period.

If you think the deposit someone makes on a house sale is a sunk cost, you should toss that idea out. Deposits usually go straight back to the buyer if a sale fails. (However, you could certainly make a game where a deposit is a genuine sunk cost, and then let players decide whether to abandon a purchase when it might become advantageous to do so.) However, buyers might also have genuine sunk costs if they pay for inspections, or if they do work on a house they’re buying as requirement on a bank loan. Now a cost of a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars isn’t a lot when you’re talking about sales that are usually a few hundred thousand or even a million dollars. But, psychologically, they can make a big difference.

And like everything else here, that’s hopefully another great idea for game designs.


Here’s one thing I didn’t write about escrows: the anxiety of waiting for it to close. Ours went almost a month over in accordance with a few addenda we signed, one of them for slow-downs caused by COVID-19(!).Thankfully, it finally closed about a week and a half ago, but in reference to that, here’s one last game design element I offer up: anxiety-inducing mechanics. Because some of the best games I’ve ever played, with Ticket to Ride being a prime example, had levels of tension in them that bordered on anxiety.

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New to Me: Winter 2020 — Life on an Island

So on January 1st, I moved to an island: Kauai, the least populated of the four major Hawaiian islands. It’s got a population of just over 70,000 according to the last count, which makes it a fair amount smaller than the city of Berkeley where I used to live — let alone the whole California Bay Area. So the question was always how hard or easy would it be to find gaming. Fortunately, a nice little game store called 8 Moves Ahead appeared on the island a bit more than a year ago, and even more fortunately they’re heavily focused on play.

But the downside so far has been that that play has mostly been more American games, with Magic: The Gathering taking up most of the oxygen in the store from what I can tell. I’ve had some good sports willing to play my euros, and there are some limited euros available in the store, but as of this moment I don’t feel like I have a strong euro-interested game group. Room to grow, I suppose.

In the meantime, this first New to Me for the year is more Americanized than usual, and also obviously a lot shorter. I only made it to either three or four sessions at the store. That’s because in January I was coming up to speed on my new life here (including learning how to drive again after a multi-decade hiatus) and then in March, COVID struck hard.

But here’s what’s New to Me, and what I think about it, as a somewhat less American game player, more focused on medium-weight euros.

The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

On the Underground: London (2019). On the Underground has long been one of my favorites, as I love its very tactical play: how you can play tracks to grab instantaneous bonuses, and how you’re always reacting to what the passenger might want to do. I also think the way that you can build together multiple lines is quite clever. So, when I saw this new edition “London / Berlin”, I was very interested in getting it, mostly because it had a new map of Berlin.

As it happens I haven’t actually played the new map yet, but I did play the old London map in the new edition, and I thought it was a perfectly good new edition. The graphic design itself I thought was a wash. The new edition by LudiCreations is one of these “artsy” designs, and though the artwork is definitely more attractive, it was also harder to see the lines in the places along the center where there are 3-5 different spaces available. However, where the new edition really improved on the original is the fact the map is now laid out on a large-scale grid, and so you can see where stations are based on a letter and number (e.g., C-4). That’s probably going to be helpful to any non-Londoner.

And I’m looking forward to trying out Berlin. Someday, when I can go to a game store again.

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Disney Villainous (2018). I’m not a big fan of things Disney, but I was intrigued when I heard about this game because of the possibility of great theming, and that’s exactly what I got.

Villainous is a card-play and management game, where each player is working from his own unique, themed deck to try and reach his own unique, themed goal. There are a lot of commonalities between the different characters. You play allies and items, you fight against heroes (drawn from a co-op like unique, themed challenge deck), and you respond to the play of other players with conditions. It’s not deep, but there’s just enough resource management and thoughtful card play to keep you interested. And then you get to play that game in a half-dozen different ways because of the characters, which is what makes it most amazing.

Even moreso than most Euros, this one is a bit solitaire-feeling, because each player gets pretty focused on their own unique play and doesn’t really understand the play of their fellows. But you’re forced to think about someone else when you get the opportunity to play cards from their challenge deck, so that’s offset a bit.

Coup (2012). This one is a real classic that I hadn’t played previously. It’s primarily a bluffing game: you have two hidden cards in your hand, each of which will give you specific powers. On your turn, you use either standard powers, or powers from cards in your hand — or rather, powers from cards that you say you have in your hand, because you can lie about them, which is the big twist in the game. Of course, people can also call you out on your lies, and if they do, one of you gets dinged (depending on whether you were lying or not).

Overall, this is a light game with enough depth to be fun. Also, like many bluffing/lying games, it exhausts me, but it’s short and simple enough, that I can see why folks enjoy it (and can enjoy it myself).

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Pandemic: Fall of Rome (2018). The third “Survival” version of Pandemic turns in its diseases for invading armies. These Survival games have been slowly moving further away from the original game, while still remaining recognizable, and I think that’s to their benefit — and it’s true again here. That comes across in little ways, like the fact that you can either ally or eliminate tribes to win, but also some pretty big ones.

First up, there’s a somewhat random combat system that forces you to throw legionnaires against the invaders. If anything, it feels like it might be a little easier to eliminate the cubes, but the uncertainty really can throw a wrench into your plan. There’s also a very clever methodology that ensures that the invaders emerge from their homeland and move toward Rome (sort of: it’s abstract).

Overall, this is another fine variation for Pandemic fans that nonetheless keeps things different enough to be interesting.

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

Zombicide: Black Plague (2015). I played the original Zombicide (2012) in Fall 2012, not long after it came out, and I thought it was a decently good co-op with plenty of tension and lots of good zombie killing. Black Plague is a variant of the original that’s set back in Medieval times, and thus has a party of adventurers slaying necromancers and zombies.

I like the new theming, and it’s otherwise pretty much the same game, with one critical rules change regarding “friendly fire” and much better components for keeping the game organized. But, at the same time, my tolerance of an overly long Americanized game like this has dropped in the last decade, so I rate it closer to OK than Good nowadays.

Nonetheless, it’s a great variant for Zombicide fans; but given that it came out five years ago, they probably already know that.

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Co-op Case Study: The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game

Recently I’ve been writing about Eric Vogel’s Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game. I wrote about how it encourages players to even out resources here, then I wrote over on the Meeples Together blog about how its solo play differs from true cooperative play. When my co-author and I at Meeples Together realized that we hadn’t yet published the Meeples Together case study on the game, which is actually one of the oldest in our archive of bonus case studies, we decided we’d better do so. Here it is!

This article was originally published on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Evil Hat Productions (2017)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Adventure(ish), Card Management, Resource Management

Overview

The players take on the roles of Chicago wizard Harry Dresden and his friends. Players each hold a very limited hand of cards that they must play to jointly kill as many Foes and solve as many Cases as they can — but they also have to manage their Fate pool, which decreases with the play of every card.

Challenge System

The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (DFCO) focuses on a type of challenge system that’s relatively rare among cooperatives: it presents an abstract tableau of problems that the players must jointly solve. This abstract style of play is similar to that of classic The Lord of The Rings (2000) or the more recent Freedom: The Underground Railroad (2013), both of which tend to take a step-away from the adventure-style play of many co-ops. In the DFCO tableau, four types of cards are laid out: players may take Advantages that help them as a group, remove Obstacles that disadvantage everyone, or add clues to Cases or hits to Foes.

One of the most interesting aspects of the challenge system is that it lays out its “problem” cards in ranges: closer cards are easier to resolve, while further cards are often impossible to get to. This means that players must figure out how to resolve problems in an order that might not be optimal. They must also decide when to expend additional resources to reach a problem that’s “further away”, (literally) adding another dimension to the play.

Remarkably, all of the challenge cards are visible from the start — and players also receive a hand that contains almost all the cards they’ll play. This means that there isn’t any sort of random trigger, as is usually seen in cooperative games — or rather the randomness is baked in from the start of each game. During the actual play of the game, the uncertainty and indecision instead result from not knowing the contents of other players’ hands and how everyones’ plays will interact. Vogel calls it a “a get-the-task-done-before-the-resources-run-out system” as opposed to an “oppositional system”[1].

The other interesting element in DFCO’s challenge system is its “showdown”. The challenge system is designed so that players rarely can score an absolute victory before the end of the game. But at the game ends, they get to convert their remaining resources (Fate points) into die rolls, which can be used to finish off foes and solve cases. This isn’t as random as it sounds: players will usually know if they have enough Fate points to allow a roll that will solve a problem. Nonetheless, the die roll maintains tension up to the last second of the game, because players will feel like they could lose up to that final roll, because of the uncertainty implicit in the dice.

Challenge System Elements: Timer; (One-Time) Arbitrary Trigger; End-game Activation; End-game Goal; Environmental Consequences; Combat and Task Threats.

Cooperative System

Most obviously, players can cooperate through the play of cards. Each player has their own resources that they can use to solve the collective puzzle on the board. As is typical for cooperative games, this play might become too easy if the players knew precisely what resources everyone else held. There’s thus a very common limited-talking mandate: players can’t show their cards nor state specifics about their numbers.

However, card play is just part of the cooperative equation. Players are also jointly working with a community pool of Fate points. Each player can either add to the pool by discarding a card or subtract from the pool by playing a card. This often requires careful coordination so that the right people can play the right cards and it also creates a real need to frequently sacrifice, something that’s a bit rare in cooperative gaming.

Vogel says this approach allows “working together not just to take actions, but also formulating a strategy”[2]. It creates more of a “collective decision-making process” as opposed to simple collective play.

Adventure System

DFCO gives each player the role of a single character, who has unique cards that thematically match the abilities of that character from the novels. So it’s an adventure game, right? In actuality, the details are a façade over a fairly abstract game. It’s one of those games where players can really dive into the theming or not, depending on their preferences.

The lack of major adventure game tropes continues through the fact that there’s no way to improve characters (unless you count drawing additional cards), there’s no physical locale, and fundamentally there are none of the roleplaying-like activities that you find in typical adventure games.

However, the theming is definitely there — and includes not just the characters, but also the whole setup of the game: each play is a scenario based on a single book from the Dresden Files series, and the details of the individual scenarios strongly call back to the novels they’re based upon.

Final Thoughts

At its heart, DFCO is a nicely innovative cooperative game that changes the core gameplay of a cooperative to be more cooperative and more puzzle-oriented. It’s a big step away from the board-oriented adventure games that dominate the category. It’s also a surprisingly quick play, while still allowing for continued campaigning through multiple books, which is a lesson many co-ops could learn.

Eric B. Vogel

Vogel is an associate professor in clinical psychology whose first published work was a Land of Psymon: A Cognitive Psychotherapy Game (2004). He’s since published numerous games for the board game field, scattered across a wide variety of genres. The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game was his first co-op design, and is also his most successful game to date, as seen by its very strong Kickstarter. Like several of Vogel’s works at the time, it was produced by Evil Hat Productions.


[1] Appelcline, Shannon. 2016. “Co-op Interviews: Eric B. Vogel & The Dresden Files Co-op Card Game”. Mechanics & Meeples. http://www.mechanics-and-meeples.com/2016/05/09/co-op-interviews-eric-b-vogel-the-dresden-files-co-op-card-game/.

[2] Ibid.

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Co-op Case Study: Pandemic Legacy — Season Two

Pandemic Legacy was innovative enough that it’s worth talking about twice, so here’s a look at the second entry in the trilogy. And, whereas we played just a few games of Season 1, we played through the entire Season 2 campaign, with a win-loss pattern that resulted in 21 total games(!). Definitely a top co-op (and we’re looking forward to Season 3).

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: Z-Man Games (2017)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Exploration, Legacy, Set Collection

Overview

The players take on the role of various specialists who are trying to salvage a post-apocalyptic world that ended 71 years ago. As in Pandemic (2008), they’re fighting disease, and as in Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 (2015), that’s part of an ongoing campaign, but there’s also a lot more story and a lot more hard choices in this sequel.

Challenge System

Matt Leacock looks at games very analytically. So, when he designed Pandemic’s close cousins, the “Forbidden” trilogy, he created one game that was about tiles being removed, one that was about tiles being moved, and one that was about tiles being added. He similarly turns Pandemic Legacy Season 1’s core mechanics on their head in Season 2: where Pandemic was previously about removing disease cubes created by the challenge system, it’s now about placing supply cubes destroyed by the challenge system (and its plague).

Season 2 again uses objective cards to lay out each session’s goals, just like Season 1. But with the game system changes, the goal can’t be about curing diseases anymore; instead the starting objective of Season 2 is to build supply centers. These are sort of the same as Pandemic’s research centers, except they’re much more expensive to build, requiring a set of five color-matched cards (which makes them an equivalent cost and an equivalent challenge to curing the diseases in the previous games).Despite this inversion, the gameplay of Season 2 still feels very similar to the original. Traveling to cities to add supply cubes is a similar logistical puzzle to traveling there to remove disease cubes, with just a few twists. First, the cubes have to be created before they can be placed, adding another step to the players’ cooperative challenge response, and second the objectives of the game have been adjusted, to accommodate the new rules.

Obviously, the objectives will again grow and change over the course of Season 2, creating variable and adaptive play, albeit play that remains focused on Pandemic’s core gameplay: collecting specific sets of cards. The most interesting objective, visible from the moment that you open the box, is the ability to “recon” new areas. Because of the post-apocalyptic setting of Season 2, players only get to see a little bit of the board at the start of the game; they then reveal more through “recons”, connect up cities that have been found, and also discover smaller secrets through “searches”. This turns the classic play of Pandemic into a new sort of exploration-focused gameplay (with the possibility of exploration activations, as you never know what you’re going to get).

Pandemic has always been one of the strongest examples of bipartite, orthogonal goal design. Traditionally, players decided between collecting sets to cure diseases (achieving long-term victory) or removing disease cubes (staving off short-term loss). Similarly, in Season 2, players must decide between collecting sets to build supply centers (achieving long-term victory) or replacing supply cubes (staving off short-term loss). As in Season 1, that’s made more complex by the question of supporting Legacy goals that will create advantages in future games, such as maintaining the populations of cities (achieving campaign-term victory). The exploration element of Season 2 adds a fourth possible goal (which is sometimes required for long-term victory and sometimes for campaign-term advantages). Somehow this isn’t overwhelming — or if it is, it’s the wonderful sort of overwhelming, where the players have so many different objectives presented to them by the challenge system that they have considerable agency to play as they see fit.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Exploration Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Campaign; and Replicating Task Threats.

Cooperative System

The cooperative system of Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 works much the same as that in Season 1. Players make cooperative decisions before the game about what characters to play, within the game about both the game’s objectives and the movement toward Legacy advantages, and after the game about how to advance their characters (and the general game world).

Adventure System

As in Season 1, there are a lot of adventure system elements in Season 2, from the ever-growing characters and the ever-changing board to the ever-evolving plotline.  However, the exploration elements of Season 2 add another traditional adventure game system to Pandemic.

Expansions & Variants

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 kicked off the storyline that continues in Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, while Pandemic Legacy: Season 3 is reportedly in process.

Final Thoughts

Pandemic and Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 were both foundational releases that, respectively, showed how to create a tight, abstract co-op and a Legacy co-op. Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 isn’t foundational in the same way, because it’s much more an incremental evolution. Nonetheless, it adapts all of the great gameplay elements of the previous games, twists them just enough to make them fresh and interesting, then introduces a totally new and evocative game system with its exploratory gameplay.

“The challenge we set out for ourselves was to make it fresh and exciting while still letting players jump right in. It’s important to me that each variant and expansion brings something original to the table and not simply be a rehash of older ideas.”
—Matt Leacock, October 2017, “Interview with Matt Leacock Designer of Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 from Z-Man Games”, The Players’ Aid, https://theplayersaid.com/2017/10/05/interview-with-matt-leacock-designer-of-pandemic-legacy-season-2-from-z-man-games/

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Co-op Case Study: Pandemic Legacy — Season One

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was an amazing innovation when it was released in 2015, and it continues to be one of the newest foundational games in the co-op hobby. What made it so great? It’s not just that it broke new ground with its Legacy-campaign play, but also that it integrated that fully into its existing simulation.

This article originally appeared on Meeples Together.


Publisher: Z-Man Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Legacy, Set Collection

Overview

The players take on the role of various specialists who are trying to cure four pandemic diseases that are ravaging the world. As in Pandemic (2008) they must balance removing disease cubes (to avoid losing the game) and collecting sets of cards (to win the game). However, there’s a twist: the game repeats over 12-24 sessions, with characters, the gameboard, and the rules all evolving over time.

Challenge System

Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 is built on the challenge system from Pandemic with one big change: the game evolves and changes from one session to another. Much of this comes about from careful changes to Pandemic’s simulation, linking its core model of disease to Legacy changes. For example:

  • If a disease outbreak occurs in a city, then unrest begins to rise there, leading to: instability, rioting, collapse, and eventually the fall of the city. This makes the city harder and harder to access in future games.
  • If a disease outbreaks occurs in a city with a character, then the character is “scarred”, receiving some disadvantage in future games.
  • If a disease is cured and eradicated in a game, then the players can make the disease easier to deal with in future games through an “upgrade”.

These extensions effectively expand the gears of Season 1’s simulation from something that affects a single game to something that has repercussions in future games — which is just as innovative as Pandemic’s simulation system was when it first appeared.

There’s one other major change to the challenges in Season 1: the end-game goals are laid out by objective cards rather than a simple rule, which allows them to change over the course of the campaign, creating more variable gameplay. Though the first objective is to cure four diseases, just like in the original Pandemic, by the end of the campaign, the gameplay will be very different.

Whether the players accomplish their goals can also affect the simulation: if the players win a game, then they have fewer resources for the next game, while if they lose a game, they’ll get more resources next time. Maintaining the difficulty of a game over time has been a real issue with campaign games, with one of the main complaints with the very innovative Descent: Road to Legend (2008) campaign being that it got too easy for one side over time. Season 1 demonstrates how to use a simple but very effect method to dynamically adjust a game’s long-term difficulty based on the players’ success.

Though each game of Season 1 will evolve very differently because of its simulation-linked Legacy changes, the game also pushes its plot (and the changes to its challenge system) in a set way: between games players draw cards describing changes in the world, some of which will cause set changes to the challenge system. A disease might become incurable, epidemics might occur faster, or something totally wacky might happen. This obviously creates variability from game to game, and also keeps players on their toes.

Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Arbitrary Trigger; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Campaign; and Replicating Task Threats. 

Cooperative System

The cooperative elements of Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 are largely unchanged from Pandemic, but that cooperation is now expanded to span an entire campaign, not just an individual session. To start with, there’s cooperative metagaming at the beginning of each session, when players decide which characters to use from a pool, focusing on how their special abilities will likely impact the coming challenges. There’s similarly metagaming within each session, because players must make decisions (about sunsetting a disease or letting a city outbreak) based on repercussions in future games. Finally, the players make cooperative choices between games, when they purchase upgrades for cards, characters, diseases, or the board, using a group pool of points.

Adventure System

Season 1’s Legacy rules notably expand the adventure system of Pandemic. Part of this comes through the aforementioned upgrades. At the end of each game, players can choose to make cards better, characters better, cities better, or diseases worse. The character upgrades in particular feel like “experience”, an important element of the roleplaying games from which adventure games derive. There are “downgrades” too: players can be scarred … or die! This ups the ante of the adventure-style play.

Season 1 also contains a lot of “story”. The set cards revealed after each session describe the plot of outbreaking and changing diseases. This explicit plot combines with the implicit story of simulation changes and various upgrades to add color and change to the game; players come back because they want to see what happens next!

Finally, Season 1 also revisits the concept of a campaign co-op popularized by Road to Legend and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) and central to true “roleplaying” play, but it uses a very different model. Where Road to Legend was just a big 40-hour game broken into bite sized bits, and where Pathfinder ACG focused its campaign around selective character changes in the face of set systemic changes, Legacy instead makes systemic changes its entire game over time.

Expansions & Variants

Pandemic Legacy Season 2 (2017) followed a few years later and Pandemic Legacy Season 3 looks likely to be a 2020 release.

Final Thoughts

Pandemic was a foundational game for the co-op industry thanks to its implementation of tight, quick, abstract play. Season 1 innovates things again by introducing clever methods to expand Pandemic’s simulations to a long-term campaign.

Matt Leacock & Rob Daviau

Leacock is the creator of the original Pandemic. Daviau’s claim to fame is “Legacy” style games, the first of which was Risk Legacy (2011). They’re built around the idea that the game will change from one session to another, with players permanently marking and changing their game components (and presumably throwing out the game when it’s all played out). Pandemic Legacy was Daviau’s second Legacy game, followed later by the competitive SeaFall (2016) and the cooperative Betrayal Legacy (2018).

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What’s for Dinner: Food-based Game Design

Food.

It seems a far stretch from game design, but it turns out to have puzzles and challenges of its own, and some of them could be great designs for board games too. So, this week, I wanted to talk about a few food-related design problems that have shown up in games (and one that perhaps hasn’t), because they could all be expanded and used more.

I feel like it’s a space that’s just ripe for plucking new ideas.

I Cut, You Choose. This is a classic problem that’s already been put to good use in the game space. It answers the problem of how you divide up a resource (like a slice of cake) between two different people, with the answer being that one person cuts and then the other person chooses his portion. Easy, peasy. The goal here is to force the cutter to equally apportion the parts, else he’ll get the lesser selection.

But that’s not how games approach this problem at all. Instead, games tend to twist the classic food problem by instead encouraging the divider to divvy up the resource so that the other participant will be forced to take the lesser portion because it’s more valuable to him personally, even if it leaves the divider with a bigger piece.

I feel like there are two classic games in this design space. San Marco (2001) divides up cards that players will then play for actions, while Piece o’ Cake (2008) divvies up a more literal pie, with pieces going toward majorities of each type.

Dividing up an actual cake. Picture courtesy of binraix on BGG.

Besides encouraging unequal selections, these games also change the traditional two-player problem into a n-person mechanic, with the divider always getting the selection that no one else wanted.

These two twists show how you can change a traditional food problem into a great game mechanic (and with it being more than a decade since the release of Piece o’ Cake, it’s clearly time for the next foundational I-Cut-You-Choose game).

Making the Hot Dogs and Buns Come Out Right. A lot of food problems are about resource allocation, which is why they work great for game design too. Take the hot-dog-and-bun problem. It’s built around the fact that hot dogs and hot dog buns come in different packages, often with different quantities: say, four frankfurters and six buns per package. So you have to work to use all of your resources correctly without wasting any

In a game design, this problem becomes a question of efficiency, which is the margin of victory in many eurogame designs. If one player can make the dogs and buns come out right, he’ll win, because he doesn’t have unused (and thus wasted) resources, like his fellows.

To a certain extent, the hot-dog-and-bun problem appears in every resource-management game which is about turning one resource (or set of resources) into another — and ultimately into victory points. Take Catan (1995) as an example. If a player loses the game while holding a brick, a wood, a wheat, and a stone, he didn’t make the dogs and buns come out right, because that’s not quite the formula for producing any victory-point structure. Conversely, if he’d ended the game with a sheep instead of a stone, then he would have been able to create an additional settlement (and perhaps win).

However, the best game I’ve seen to utilize the dog and bun problem is The Dresden Files Cooperative Card Game (2017), by my friend Eric Vogel (and by my Designers & Dragons publisher, Evil Hat). I think it uses it well because it’s so specific and explicit in its usage.

Basically, you have two types of hot dogs: clues and hits. They’re put on two types of buns: cases and foes. Hexenwolves  (a foe) might take 8 hits to kill, while figuring out Which Wolf is Which (a case) might take 7 clues. You want to make the dogs and buns come out precisely right because any excess clues and hits placed on a case or foe are wasted … and it’s a very tight co-op, so every wasted token puts you that much closer to loss.

A bunch of buns waiting to be filled. (This picture is taken from the Dresden Files computer adaptation, because somehow I don’t have good pictures of the tabletop game despite 26 plays to date.)

A few characters’ special powers build on this foundation by allowing more precision in hot dog allocation. Where cards might dump 2-5 tokens  on a bun at a time, a player’s special power might allow the more delicate placement of a single token of a specific type.

So if you were going to ask how game have varied this food problem, you might say that they’ve given more variance of package size (like in Dresden) or that they’ve created more complex formulas for what all needs to go on a bun (like Catan)

Eating the Food Before it Goes Bad. My wife is a prime player of the eat-the-food-before-it-goes-bad game, where you have to constantly figure out what’s about to go bad in your fridge, so that you can eat it — irrespective of whether you really want it at the time or not. We played it more when we lived in Berkeley — which was a more urban locale than our new home on Kauai, and so we were more likely to have restaurant takeout in the fridge.

This is of course another problem of resource allocation: you’re trying to not waste resources (much as in the dogs and buns problems), this time by using them before they go away. I’m not sure I’ve seen any game directly use the problem (though I’m surely missing some), but I’ve seen some close approximations, mostly in supply-chain games.

Macao (2009) is one of the most interesting games of this sort, mainly because it’s built around very abstract supply chains. In Macao, you’re setting up resources that you’ll receive on a certain future turn, but then you can only use them on that turn, so you have to make sure the resources received on that turn all fit together and can be used immediately. It’s the ultimate in resource rotting, where you must use it immediately or lose it.

Setting up the supply chain in Macao.

I think there may be a lot of mileage for this sort of mechanic in resource-management games, though the problem with resources rotting is that it can become fiddly and bureaucratic, so it needs to be a really simple and natural part of the game (as is the case with Macao).

The Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. I wanted to end with one food-based design problem that’s recognized in game theory, but which I’m not aware of being used in any game design: the Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. Wikipedia says that it’s an n-player Prisoner’s Dilemma, another game theory problem that hasn’t been well adopted to game designs. It goes like this:

A large number of people are all eating out together and have decided to split the bill equally. When ordering, they could either get a cheap dish that’s good, or an expensive dish that’s great, but whose greatness isn’t worth the extra cost. On their own, they’d get the cheap dish, but since the bill is being split equally, getting the expensive dish has a much lower cost for each individual. (For example, if a diner is getting an expensive dish that’s $20 more expensive, and there are 20 total diners, he’d only pay $1 extra, instead of the full $20 of the dish.) So, each individual is encouraged to get the great dish that they like better. Unfortunately, the fact that each individual is encouraged to get the more expensive dish means that the group as a whole is encouraged to do so, which means that most or all of the will do so, thus each person ends up paying the much higher cost that they didn’t find worthwhile!

Like any Tragedy of the Commons, the Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma ultimately comes down to individuals making selfish decisions about resources that spoil things for the group as a whole. It’s a unique combination of competitive self-interest with cooperative group dynamics — which is probably why you don’t find game theory problems like this in many game designs.

Could it be part of a semi-cooperative game, where players are playing for their competitive good, while still trying to stave off the game-ending effects of not cooperating enough? Maybe — though a similarly Tragic design in Bruno Faidutti’s Terra (2003) showed off the Free-rider Problem, but let free riders win.

Could it be part of a more completely cooperative game? Maybe, though here you’d have to figure out how to maximize self-interest and minimize communication about it without spoiling the cooperation itself. (And we wrote about this class of problems a bit in Meeples Together exactly because I think they’re apt for exploitation in cooperative game designs.)


So that’s my first four thoughts on food-based game design. If you have any food-based problems or challenges that you think would fit well in the realm of game design, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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Co-op Case Study: The Resistance

Publisher: Indie Boards & Games (2010)
Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams
Play Style: Voting

Overview

In The Resistance players are secretly divided into one team of rebels and one team of spies. Though the spies know which team everyone is on, the rebels do not.

Gameplay centers on missions that are assigned by a rotating leader. Each leader chooses a fraction of the players around the table to join the mission. The players then openly vote whether to OK the members for the mission. Once a mission has been OKed, its members secretly vote to determine whether the mission succeeds or fails — and a single act of sabotage causes the mission to fail!

The rebels are trying to succeed at three missions before the spies cause three missions to fail.

Cooperative System

Most hidden teams games divide their play into two parts: deduction gameplay where players figure out who their teammates are and action gameplay where the teammates then try to work together. The Resistance offers an interesting change: each of the two teams tend to focus on just one side of this equation.

For rebels, The Resistance is all about figuring out who your teammates are. The rebels do this via deduction — based upon who voted for each mission and which missions (mysteriously) failed.

Because it’s so simple, The Resistance does a great job of showing how much information can be acquired from such a minimal source: the players have a maximum of four missions to figure out what’s going on. This minimalism nicely spotlights the deductive side of hidden-teams play.

(Why don’t spies deduce? Because just like the werewolves in Werewolf, they get to open up their eyes at the start of the game and see their team.)

For spies, The Resistance is all about sabotaging missions without appearing suspicious. This means that spies have to put other spies on missions for what seem like good reasons, and they have to figure out when to play failure cards in such a way that they (and their fellow spies) don’t look too guilty. There are so few choices that each one is quite important.

All of the votes for the success of a mission are randomized, but rebels can slowly start to deduce who might have played which cards as different subsets of players take part in different missions — which is what requires spies to play carefully together. This is the same successful design used in Battlestar Galactica (2008) — but massively simplified as is appropriate for a smaller, tighter game.

(Why don’t rebels work together? Well, they do, but they have an obvious choice if they can manage the deduction: choose fellow rebels for missions and support the missions. As in Saboteur, the teams are unbalanced, with fewer saboteur/spies, so there are always enough rebels to win … if they choose correctly.)

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Expansions & Variants

The Resistance has an almost identical variant game called The Resistance: Avalon (2012), which moves everything to King Arthur’s court.

Meanwhile, if there’s an alternative way to manage hidden teams, it probably appears in one of the Resistance expansions: Hidden Agenda (2014), Hostile Intent (2014), or The Plot Thickens (2016).

Giving individual players special powers is a popular mechanism that first appeared with characters like the Seer in Werewolf (1986). Thus, The Resistance has some traditional characters-with-powers, such as Hostile Intent’s Inquisitor and Hidden Agenda’s Commander, each of which has informational advantages, and Hostile Intent’s Reverser, who has an action-based power.

However, The Resistance offers an interesting twist on character powers in The Plot Thickens, which includes cards that a leader must give to another player to activate special powers. This implicitly introduces trust into the game, as the leader must now decide which players he really trusts, to enact certain powerful effects. It’s a great idea for hidden team games, and would work well in traitor games as well.

The other popular way to expand a hidden team game is to introduce special characters or special teams that have new or different goals than the standard two. Thus, there are Rogues in a promo set who can win on their own and Hunters and Assassins in Hostile Intent and Hidden Agenda who can help their team win by identifying opposition leaders.

Final Thoughts

The Resistance clearly comes from the Werewolf school of design, but it offers a eurogame take on the older game. The result is a cleaner game with just a little more in the way of mechanics; it also eliminates troubling elements from the original like player elimination.

From the cooperative point of view, The Resistance introduces interesting ideas that could be used in traitor-focused cooperative games — prime among them minimalism, voting, and the idea of introducing trust through the transfer of special powers.

Don Eskridge

Don Eskridge’s first designs were The Resistance (2009) and The Resistance: Avalon (2012) — plus the various expansions and supplements. After working on that for several years, he created Orange Machine Games, which has allowed him to create new negotiation and teamwork games like Abandon Planet (2017) and Black Hole Council (2018)

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Co-op Case Study: Saboteur

In October we discussed a few hidden-teams game. We’re back this month with two of the best known ones, starting with Saboteur, which followed in the footsteps of Bang! (2003) and is another of the foundational games of the hidden-teams genre.

Saboteur actually gets some attention in Meeples Together, where we talk about its relations to both partnership games and co-op traitor games, but here’s a full case study.

This article originally appeared on the Meeples Together blog.


Publisher: AMIGO Games (2004)
Cooperative Style: Competitive, Hidden Teams
Play Style: Card Management, Pipe Laying

Overview

Miners play tunnel cards to advance the mine toward gold nuggets, but saboteurs are simultaneously trying to ensure that the gold is never found! And no one knows who’s who!

Cooperative System

Like most hidden teams game, Saboteur is about discovering who your teammates are and (secretly) working with them. Since some players are purposefully sabotaging the others, the play style is quite close to the traitorous co-op genre.

The problem with Saboteur’s traitorous play is that there’s almost no mechanical support for playing the role of the saboteur. You can do two bad things: break other miners’ tools and point tunnels in the wrong direction. Unfortunately, both actions are pretty obviously saboteur-ish. Unless you can convince the other players that an honest miner is really a saboteur, you don’t have a lot of options. This lack of support for mechanical treachery tended to be a downfall of a lot of the games in the first generation of traitor and hidden-team play — which certainly includes Saboteur, which was right at the forefront.

Saboteur is also an unbalanced teams game, where there are more honest miners than saboteurs. That means that it’s important to pretend that you’re not a saboteur, so that the more plentiful “honest” players don’t mob you. This makes the limitations on traitorous play even more notable.

Though there’s a lot of potential cooperation for the secret teams of Saboteur through collaborative card play, it’s not ultimately a cooperative game. That’s because its cooperation is entirely transient. Players are on the same team for a single round of play, and then they draw new teams for the next round. This creates a game that’s fully cooperative (within the teams, within a round of play), but also fully competitive (between players, outside of a round of play). In other words, it’s a dynamic partnership game. Unfortunately, Saboteur can fall prey to a typical problem of dynamic partnerships: if you end up teamed up with a strong competitor for the last round of play, you might not be able to win.

No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.

Expansions & Variants

The original Saboteur (2004) was expanded by Saboteur 2 (2011), which introduced new rules and also offered support for full team-based play. A few foreign-language editions combine the two sets, but more recently they’ve been re-released in the US in two different boxes by Mayfair Games (2015).

Moyersoen has also returned to the idea of digging for gold with Saboteur Duel (2014), but that’s for just 1-2 players, so obviously it does away with the hidden teams core of the game.

Final Thoughts

Saboteur is the classic-co-op game that’s not really a co-op game. Nonetheless, its hidden-team play offers interesting insights into traitorous co-ops, particularly the earliest traitor designs. However, the hidden players get so little mechanical support that you can’t really compare Saboteur’s mechanics to those of a more modern traitor games.

Though its mechanics are pretty simplistic, Saboteur still works and is fun.

Fréderic Moyersoen is a French game designer best-known for the classic hidden-teams game, Saboteur (2004). He’s published quite a few games that aren’t cooperative, but which nonetheless touch upon cooperative issues. Nuns on the Run (2010) and Bedpans and Broomsticks (2014) are both reverse-hunter games with a few hunters and many escapees. Whitewater (2012) is a game built on partial partnerships. Even Saboteur isn’t quite a cooperative game, since the dynamic partnerships result in a single winner.


We haven’t played this game in a decade, so we didn’t have a picture of it! Thanks to imake, who released their picture for use through BGG.

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New to Me: Autumn 2019 — Farewell to California

2019 was a bit of a changing of the guard for me. After 30 years living in Berkeley, across the Bay from San Francisco, and after more than 15 years of gaming with friends at Endgame (and later Secret) on Wednesdays and at my house on Thursdays, I’ve moved to the Hawaiian island of Kauai. I’ve been here almost two weeks now, and I haven’t had time yet to search out my next board game opponents, but they’ll certainly be different from the friends I had out in the Bay Area. So here’s my last look at new games played on the west coast of the United States.

As usual, these are games that were new to me (whether they were quite new or quite old) and I’m listing my ratings of the games as a mid-complexity eurogamer. Your mileage may vary.


The Great (“I Would Buy This”)

Wingspan (2019). The hotness lives up to its hype. I’ve already written extensively about this game, but in short it’s a tableau building game where you improve the power of your actions, both by making them stronger and by giving them variety. And then you try and accomplish goals, some short-term, some long-term. This is all done through bird cards: you gather food, you lay eggs, you collect the bird cards and then you play them. The cards in turn can hold eggs, can generate actions, and can earn victory points. It’s a well-themed, variable, and enjoyable game that’s not quite like anything else on the market.

(And I can buy myself a copy now that I’ve landed in Hawaii and won’t have to ship it over in a container. I mean, if I can find one in-print.)

The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)

Glen More II: Chronicles (2019). Almost a decade on, Glen More returns in a massive new edition funded by a Kickstarter. And, it’s more than just a new edition because it’s been expanded and numerous variants have been added.

The original game had an innovative tile-selection mechanism (where you could select “better” tiles at the cost of actions), an innovative tile-laying mechanism (where meeples control where you can place tiles), and an innovative action system (where powers come from those tiles near your newly placed one). That’s all in the new Glen More, plus there’s a new orthogonal sort of play in a “clan” board and there’s a bit of polish here and there. It’s definitely a worthwhile update.

Then, there’s the “chronicles” system, which is basically eight extensive variants for the game, starting with a boat race and a mountain where “there can be only one”. I haven’t played any of these yet, but they look like they add good variability to the game, which I feel was needed, and they’re packaged very well, in little boxes, so it’s easy to grab just the components for any one variant.

Finally, it’s worth commenting on the production. Newcomer Funtails used a Kickstarter to fund a really sumptuous production. That’s resulted in beautifully painted tiles and great shaped wooden resources, both of which are huge upgrades from the original Alea edition of the game, which was somewhat held back by its very plain production. But the overall box is ridiculously big, which isn’t going to do it any favors getting it to tables. (The original Glen More was a big game in a medium box; this one is a big game in a gargantuan box.) There are also a few production missteps of the sort that you’d expect from a first-time publisher (like clan alliance tokens which look like the little cardboard bits you’d throw out in many games, and a rulebook which leaves out a few crucial things). Despite the complaints, this is a very nice production of a still-innovative and interesting game.

Walking in Burano (2018). A clever little card-drafting game, where players are drafting cards from rows of cards, then using them to build a street of houses, which like the houses in Burano, Italy must each be a single color, and not be the same color as adjacent houses.

The cleverness of this game comes from the fact that the houses are full of well incorporated bits of iconic art for cats, flowers, plants, awnings, chimneys, and lightnings, which can score you bonus points if you have the right inhabitants and/or tourists. Not only are their beautifully detailed, but this is what makes the game, because it allows scoring in a few orthogonal directions, so that even if you’re stymied in one sort of scoring, you can go for another.

This seems to be advertised as a family game, but it’s got some nice depth to it because of its intricacies of scoring and the unforgivingness of its draft.

My only complaint is the way that the drafting, building, and finances together create a timer that’s not entirely intuitive, but nonetheless can result in a player not being able to complete his town.

Draftosaurus (2019). We’re not sure why it took four designers to produce this relatively simple game, but there are definitely four names on the box. This is another drafting game, this one focused on dinosaurs: you grab a hand of six dinosaurs, and you place them one at a time, drafting the rest, and then you do the whole draft again, and then you score points.

Obviously, the gameplay is in the placement. Dinosaurs score based on whether they’re the same or different or whether you have a majority or whether you have no other dinosaurs in that type, depending on where exactly they go. And not only are you limited by the dinosaurs you’re given, but you also can only place in certain places each turn, based on the roll of a die.

There’s a bit too much unbalanced randomness in this game (like the fact that a final dinosaur can be deadly or that a random location restriction can really hurt you), but I suppose that’s OK in a game that’s just 15 minutes long or so.

The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)

Res Arcana (2019). Another of the hottest games of 2019? Res Arcana is the definition of a cube pusher, except this being 2019, the cubes are now wooden bits sorta in the shape of abstract resources like life, death, fire, water, and gold. Resources go in, resources go out, and eventually resources convert to victory points. Tada! It’s a euro!

The game is held together by a solid, relatively thematic spine of tableau building. Each player gets a micro-deck of eight cards or so, which they’ll build using resources over the course of the game; they’ll then use the cards to generate more resources. These cards tend to have conversion and generation powers as well as a few attacks to make things interesting. Finally, there are some extra-expensive monuments to be built.

You can obviously see this game is built by the same designer as To Court the King (2006) and the Race for the Galaxy (2007) family. It’s simpler than most of the others and it accelerates so fast that it’s over before you even realize that’s a possibility — much as is the case with Jump Drive (2017). And it’s an enjoyable play, but not one that does enough new that I feel like I have to have a copy. I’d currently rather play Roll for the Galaxy (2014) or New Frontiers (2018), two of the later incarnations of Race.

Las Vegas: The Card Game (2016). Take Rüdiger Dorn’s excellent dice-rolling game of majority control and brinkmanship and replace the dice with cards. I didn’t have high hope for this game, because you lose the excitement of dice rolling, which was pretty much what the original game was about, but the result really isn’t that bad. You have some increased tactics in choosing which cards to play from what you draw and some increased strategy from knowing what cards you might draw (the latter being a typical benefit of changing out dice for cards). Still, it’s not as viscerally evocative, and it feels like the gameplay can stagnate based on which cards people have left and what’s already been played.

Is it as good of a game as the original Las Vegas? No. Is it worth having in a collection with Las Vegas? Maybe. If you want to have a game that does play faster or is much smaller.

Carpe Diem (2018). It’s a bit hard to rate the final game in the original Alea series, because it’s perhaps an interesting design, and it was held back in its first printing by terrible, terrible production.

This is a tile-laying game with a slightly interesting tile-selection mechanism (you take them from a sort of roundel) and a definitely interesting goal-selection mechanism (you have to take a pair of adjacently placed goals and can be blocked by other players). Throughout all of that you’re building a little city area, which means the game has the typical joy you find in creative games.

The problem is that Alea totally blew the color production of the game. A bunch of different terrains look too similar to each other, some because the colors ended up too similar, and some because they weren’t color-differentiated in meaningful ways. Then this is made even worse when some of those terrains are iconically represented on tile frames where the icons just aren’t clear representations of the terrains, and even worse by the fact that the hard-to-separate colors look slightly different on cards.

Alea has fixed some or all of this in a second printing, but it’s just humiliating for the company that used to do the best development in the business to have put out a game that was this horribly flawed in its first printing. And it’s cold comfort for those of us stuck with a nearly unplayable first printing to know there are better copies out there.

(And I say this was hard to rate because I don’t know entirely how good the game is or not when you’re not fighting with color and pattern matching the whole time.)

The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)

Sheriff of Nottingham (2014). A game of bluffing and negotiation. Every round, you bring goods into Nottingham: perhaps following the strict rules of what you can bring in (just one sort of good, with no contraband) and perhaps not. Then you might need to bribe the Sheriff not to inspect your goods: if he chooses to inspect your legal goods, he pays you a fine, but if he manages to inspect your illegal goods, you do instead.

It’s an exhausting hour or more of lies, deceit, and interpersonal negotiation. If you like that sort of thing, Sheriff of Nottingham offers an OK, albeit simple, framework, and if you don’t, it’ll probably be … a lot. (The rating reflects the fact that this isn’t really my sort of game. I’d probably mark it as at least “Good” otherwise. And hey, I won something like 247 to a next highest score of 199, despite this not being my sort of game, mostly by subtly convincing people that I was smuggling goods when I wasn’t. And by drawing sets of cards.)

The Meh (“I Would Prefer Not to Play This”)

Shadows of Malice (2014). A co-op adventure game where players have to wander around hex maps, murdering monsters for their “soulshards” and loot. When they’ve collected enough loot, the players should be powerful enough to kill the guardians of the gate, and if they manage to open all the light gates, they win (but if the bad guys open a light gate first, then instead everyone goes to the Big Bad fight).

Ultimately, the whole adventure game genre is derived from the roleplaying industry: they’re attempts to model roleplaying’s more superficial aspects (e.g., exploration and looting) with board game mechanics. But this game feels closer to the roleplaying field than most. In fact, it feels like an attempt to convert an archetypical ’80s roleplaying game into adventure game form. That isn’t a good thing, because the trends of the ’80s had roleplaying games becoming more and more complex. When you fumble through all the “LRs” and “CRs” in this game, when you add and subtract huge batches of dice and bonuses, you’ll see why.

But the biggest problem with Shadows of Malice is that it’s tedious. You wear monsters down one slow hit at a time, and it’s pretty hard to hit them at all. The combats just drag and drag and there’s not enough interesting tactical choice (like there is in a game such as Descent) to keep that interesting.

Which is a shame, because there’s a lot here that’s quite evocative. The hex maps that the game is played on really feel like they depict a world. The randomly generated monsters can help you to tell stories. Even the various treasures, potions, and specialized power feel pretty neat.

But that’s matched with a slow game system of a sort  that went out of style decades ago.

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Co-op Case Study: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Publisher: Minion Games (2015)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op
Play Style: Action Point, Adventure

Overview

Dead Men Tell No Tales puts the players in the roles of pirates looting a ghost ship. Their goal is to recover sufficient treasures before the boat goes up in flames or the defending deckhands overcome the piratical forces.

Challenge System

The challenge system in Dead Men Tell No Tales centers on a rather unusual two-phase challenge system. At the start of each player’s turn, he reveals more of the pirate ship by randomly drawing and placing a tile, then placing a challenge token on that tile. This supports tile-laying play, but replaces the player-directed exploration found in games like Betrayal at House on the Hill (2004) and Sub Terra (2017) with a more methodical reveal of the map that ensures that the entirety of the ship appears over just twenty turns of play. The challenge tokens that are placed during the map creation don’t immediately activate, which is the other innovative part of Dead Men’s challenge system. Instead, these tokens reveal either set challenges or else pending dangers that might be activated in the challenge system’s second phase.

The set challenges revealed by the token placement are actually the victory conditions that players are working toward: six of the tokens are guards, protecting the treasure that players are trying to get off of the ship. If a player can reach a guard he activates it through his movement. He must then succeed at a skill test to defeat the guard. If he does he can grab the treasure; once four to six treasures are taken off the ship, the players win!

Meanwhile, the more active element of the challenge system occurs at the end of a round, when a “Revenge” card is drawn that can activate threats already present on the map. Most importantly, it can: increase fires; add deckhands; and move skeletons.

The fires are an ever-present force on the ghost ship. They work something like the fires in Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011). Each new tile starts off with a fire, with its strength represented with a die marked from 0 to 5. Then each Revenge card causes all of the fires of a certain value and color to increase by one. Disasters can occur in two ways: any time a fire reaches a “6”, the room explodes, destroying it and increasing the fire of all adjacent rooms. In addition, some rooms have gunpowder barrels that can explode at lower numbers, also increasing the fire in one adjacent room. Overall, the fire system is somewhat simplistic. Because of that, there’s not a lot of chance for confusing interaction: it’s pretty easy to see if a fire is going to blow up, and it’s pretty easy to see the resulting effects.

The deckhands can appear in two different ways: they either appear at rooms with trap doors, or they spread out from the trapdoors that they’re at. This system feels like the diseases of Pandemic (2007), though it’s mostly simplified. The exception is the mechanic for deckhands spreading out, where their expansion has several limitations: they can only spread through doors, to rooms without trapdoors, and that have fewer deckhands than the originating room. There is the opportunity for confusing interaction here, but it’s not necessarily beneficial to the game. It’s not just that you can’t predict where the deckhands will go; it also takes a lot of concentration to place them at all!

The skeletons are a pretty minor element in the game. They’re effectively monsters that move toward the nearest player if they’re activated … but they’re also loot, because defeating them reveals valuable prizes. The biggest issue with the skeletons is that they don’t move enough to be an actual threat. Of the 19 Revenge cards, just four move skeletons. Since they just move one space each time, they don’t surprise players very often, which means that they don’t introduce enough dread to really pull their weight.

None of the individual threat systems of Dead Men is particularly innovative. They’re all pretty obvious matches for what had previously appeared in other games. Though Dead Men contains a lot of these systems, that’s not necessarily a good thing. Paired threats often work well (such as fires vs. deckhands), but Dead Men may have spread out its focus too much with its five different threats (fires, destroyed rooms, deckhands, guards, and skeletons).

With that said, Dead Men’s challenge activation system offers some interesting innovation. By splitting up its challenges into two parts — a tile-laying phase where threats are announced and a card-drawing phase where threats are advanced — it’s created a new model for how challenge systems can work in a cooperative game. (In fact, Sub Terra later used the same model, perhaps to better effect because of a more focused challenge system.)

Challenge System Elements: Turn and Movement Activations; Arbitrary (Card and Tile) Triggers; Simulation; Exponential Cascade; Decay; Removal Consequences; and Combat and Replication Task Threats.

Cooperative System

As with many cooperative games, the core of Dead Men focuses on strategic cooperation. Players each work on different problems at different locations, guided in large part by their character’s abilities. With everyone working together, all of the problems are (hopefully) resolved. However, Dead Men also contains a few innovative systems that create interesting tactical cooperation.

Its first cooperative innovation lies in its action point system. Like Flash Point, Pandemic, and other games in this co-op family, players in Dead Men expend action points on their turns to do a number of different things — including moving, fighting fires, and removing deckhands. However Dead Men varies from its predecessors by offering the ability to pass a limited number of action points to the next player. This creates considerable tactical opportunities and also gives players the ability to work together even when they’re far apart (by deciding who needs more or less actions at any time).

Its second cooperative innovation lies in its item system. Each player starts the game out with an item that provides a minor special power, while a few other are left on the table. As an action, a player may take any item — from the table or from another player. This gives players the ability to tactically decide which of them need which powers at any time, which is a real rarity in the field.

Adventure System

Each player initially gets a character and an item — providing them with lots of varied setups, chosen from 49 different possibilities (7 characters * 7 items) —which is much more variability than in most co-op games. Each of these 49 possibilities introduce some evocative adventure-game elements into the game.

The other innovation in Dead Men’s adventure system comes from its “fatigue” system. These are essentially life points, which decrease as a character enters hot rooms or is damaged in combat. The innovative element is that players accrue disadvantages as their fatigue increases by losing the ability to enter certain rooms. There are a few other games with similar decay-related disadvantages, but it’s still a ripe area for exploration.

Final Thoughts

To a certain extent, Dead Men Tell No Tales feels like a hodge-podge, adopting many of the general ideas from a handful of successful co-op games, particularly those in the Pandemic family of design. This comes across the most in its challenge system, which might have mashed together too many possibilities.

With that said, it’s also got quite a few innovative (or sometimes: rarely used) ideas that would be of value to the rest of the cooperative field, including: a two-phase challenge system, a two-part character system, redistributable action points, and easily redistributable power items.

Kane Klenko

Wisconsin game designer Kane Klenko appeared on the scene in 2014 and initially focused on real-time designs like Mad City (2014), Pressure Cooker (2015), and Proving Grounds (2019). The turn-based co-op Dead Men Tell No Tales (2015) was a bit of a departure, but Klenko then combined his interests in the real-time co-ops FUSE (2015), Flatline (2017), and most notably Pandemic: Rapid Response (2019).

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The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples