The hidden team games are an interesting adjacent space for co-op design, both for the cooperative mechanics of their team-based play and for the introduction of deduction, something that any traitors game could learn from. So over the rest of October we’ll be looking at a pair of hidden teams games.
Publisher: Santa Ragione (2010, 2016) Cooperative Style: Hidden Teams Play Style: Hidden Movement
The humans are trying to escape! The aliens are trying to kill them! And you are secretly either a human or an alien. Your moves are secret too, though you’ll sometimes reveal your true location and sometimes a false location, based on which cards you draw when exploring. Humans win individually if they escape, and aliens win collectively if they eat up all the tasty human morsels.
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space is obviously reminiscent of Bang! (2003), the first hidden teams game of the modern era, and before it Werewolf (1986, 1997). They’re all about figuring out which team everyone is on, and then killing off your adversaries. However, Escape focuses a lot more on its deduction— though it’s deduction that’s somewhat tangential to the teams themselves.
Deduction tends to be the first cooperative design element of hidden teams games: it traditionally focuses on whether players can mechanically determine which team another character is on. In Escape, a few of the core actions (playing an item and making an attack) largely reveal which team a player is on. Unlucky draws of movement cards can also do so. It’s all quite rote (and very black and white).
So, the role deduction in Escape is somewhat limited on its own, but fortunately there’s another super-star deduction mechanic: Escape’s hidden movement system. The fact that a player can either reveal a real or a fake location, depending on the draw of a card, allows for both bluffing and deduction regarding where a player actually is. This dovetail nicely dovetails with the hidden teams, allowing for some more thoughtful role deduction as a result: a locations might reveal which team a player is on or it might obscure it (depending on how good a job the player is doing with the hidden movement). It’s a combination that’s rarely been used, but fits together well.
The second cooperative design element of a hidden teams game tends to be whether players can work together. Unfortunately, this isn’t as strong as Escape’s two-tier deduction system. As it turns out, the humans have almost no incentive to work together because they win individually. Meanwhile, the aliens can work together once they verify who’s on their team, but the rules are silent on what they’re allowed to say. If the aliens just generally talk about which areas they’re moving to and what they’re going to do, all is well. But, if they’re allowed to state the exact sectors they’re moving to, then the game loses one of its vital balances: the ability for aliens to accidentally kill each other. Escape very much needs a detail limitation in its communication rules, but doesn’t have one.
There’s one last weird quirk to Escape’s cooperative play: a winning condition unlike almost anything in the cooperative world — at least when using its classic “Infection” rules or its standard rules set in the Ultimate Edition (2016). The aliens all win if they kill all the humans … but any humans killed become aliens. That suggests that either everyone wins during any game in which the aliens win, or at worst only the last human loses. Fans of the game have tried to come up with alternatives, like transformed aliens being “lesser winners”, but none of this is supported by the rules. This winning condition is an example both of how victory rules can undercut cooperative gameplay and how victory conditions need to be carefully defined.
No Challenge System Elements. Hidden Teams.
The aliens and humans each have a role that gives them a slight advantage. Unfortunately, these roles aren’t very evocative during the play of the overall game (and thus don’t really constitute an element of an adventure system). That’s in part because they tend to be secret, meaning that most of the table doesn’t see the results, and in part because they’re often one-use, meaning that they don’t have any ongoing effect.
The roles are also unbalanced: some have one-use effects that might never be used, while others have continuous effects that can offer minor but ongoing benefits. This type of unbalance is usually a poor choice in an adventure game, unless it’s a purposeful design element — perhaps one that encourages or molds cooperation in some way. (Escape’s roles don’t.)
Escape is a pretty terrific hidden movement game, but unfortunately that’s where its focus tends to be, not on the hidden teams / cooperative play. A hidden teams and movement game could be a great combo, and in fact Escape’s hidden moves give a little depth to its role deduction, but beyond that Escape’s cooperative elements are relatively weak.
Pietro Righi Riva is the studio director of Santa Ragione, a “micro game design studio” in Italy, while Nicolò Tedeschi is its director. The studio has mostly put out computer games, with Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space being their one tabletop release.
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Obviously, Wingspan is both one of the most controversial and hottest games of 2019. I wrote about the controversy some months ago, discussing how its production decisions were pretty typical, despite the conspiracy theories that some people were spinning. But, because of the game’s scarcity, I wasn’t able to actually give it a try until this week, which now allows me to talk about its hotness.
Your birds are ready for watching.
I should say that I’m usually somewhat biased against a game when it achieves HOTNESS, because I find it increasingly likely that the emperor has no clothes. And even if the emperor has attractive lavender threads, I figure they won’t be as beautiful as what I’ve imagined in my head. Sometimes the hotness does turn out to be a terrific game like Terraforming Mars, but it’s equally possible that it’ll be a deeply flawed release like Caylus (and I’ll talk more about why I think that in a future column).
But in the case of Wingspan, I’m thrilled to say that it holds up to the hype. Here’s how I think it ended up a terrific game.
Honestly, I was unthrilled by the bird theming of Wingspan when I first heard about it. I mean, how can playing birds in their habitats compete with venturing into dungeons, fighting killer diseases, and turning cubes into cards? And, I was wrong, because it turns out that bird theming is one of the best parts of the game.
That’s in part because the components are great. There are 170 different bird cards, and every single one of them has beautiful, unique artwork. There’s a reason that bird-watching is popular: it lets you view some of the most beautiful creatures in the world. And Wingspan translates that existing joy into the world of board games.
Oh, and Wingspan has cool pastel eggs too. (And a nice dice tower, and great quality dice, and is overall a high quality production.)
A bird-feeder dice tower; and a pretty utilitarian goal sheet.
But Wingspan’s theming also excels because of designer Elizabeth Hargrave’s superb adaptation of the theme to her game. We’re well, well past the point where it’s acceptable to release a eurogame where you push red, green, black, and blue bits around a board, but Wingspan goes even beyond the present day’s medium-level euro-theming. As part of its strong theming, WIngspan’s birds feel like they have appropriate powers. There are scavenger birds and predatory birds and migratory birds and cuckoos and many others, and they all do things that feel right.
(And I should note that the bird theme, less exciting to me than the fantasy, science fiction, and history that I tend to play, might have made the game more approachable to the masses, and thus more popular for that reason alone, when I personally thought it made it less sellable.)
On its face, Wingspan is a fairly typical resource-management game. You have three resources: bird cards, eggs, and food. One action generates each of the three resources, then a fourth action allows the play of bird cards, at the cost of food and (sometimes) egg cards. That’s a very simplistic formula, albeit one with a lot of variability (and thus replayability) because of the vast array of different birds. But, the game manages to be a lot more than that, through a tight design and a lot of nuances.
Generally, I find that eurogames (and especially resource-management eurogames) come in one of two sorts. In the first sort, you line yourself up with a very long strategic plan, and every turn you engage in the next small step of the plan, moving ever onward. In the second sort, you have a lot of things that you could do simultaneously, and you have to constantly decide which to do next. In many ways, it’s the question of strategy vs. tactics.
Wingspan manages to end up over on the tactical side of the equation in part because players are constantly choosing between multiple good choices and in part because some of your decisions are time-sensitive. Both of these designs are accomplished in large part through goals: players have to decide between earning points from those goals and building their bird engine, and they also have to decide if it’s worth meeting goals before their deadlines expire. So that’s the tight design: any game where you want to do everything at once and are angsting over the things you can’t do tends to be a good one.
The nuances of the game tend to focus on the action system. It’s a clever system where you place your birds onto your action tracks, and by doing so improve those action tracks in two different ways. First, the action gets stronger the more birds you have on that track (a “habitat”). Second, some of those birds also contribute their own special powers every time you take the associated action. The ability to juice an action over time is a fairly standard strategic element of action-selection games, but the ability to also add in unique abilities by linking the game’s action selection with its tableau building is much more unique. I always applaud the option for player creativity in games, and think that allowing players to creatively build out their own action sets in this way is likely another element that makes WIngspan just plain fun to play.
Constructing my second-place tableau.
Finally, this all dovetails into Wingspan’s well considered game flow. The game plays very quickly at the start, as players engage in lots of simple actions. But, over the course of the game, players pay out their action tokens to accomplish end-round goals. That means that at the end of the game they’re engaging in fewer but more complex actions. There’s many a game where turns just get longer and more convoluted over the course of the game: consider the short and simple early turns of Terraforming Mars and its long and complex late turns. The fact that Wingspan figured out an elegant and organic way to manage the balance of its turns, resulting in a game flow that leaves you wanting more at the end rather than being exhausted and done, is a crucial design accomplishment.
The production of WIngspan also deserves a bit of note, not necessarily because it’s great, but because it’s at least a cut above the already strong production of most eurogames.
That starts with the cards, which do a great job of making a lot of different information easily available, using a combination of words and icons. Some nuances like the color-coding of the different types of card actions (for effects that happen immediately, on other players’ turns, or when activated) are quiet triumphs that improve the play of the game. The most unique design element is probably one found on the bonus cards: each one clearly tells the player which percentage of cards will accomplish the goal, taking guessing (and “rules mastery”) out of the goal selection process.
Another good, but quiet production element is Wingspan’s use of cubes to designate actions. They ensure that each player remembers to take their actions and can be used to later walk back and see what the did. But the use of the cubes on the action spaces is particularly powerful: a player places his cube on the leftmost empty space on his action row, then walks it from right to left along all of his birds, ensuring that he never forgets an action, even when he has a large list of them, late in the game.
Though each of these production elements is a small one, they’re also the sort of things that most developers don’t think of when releasing a game, yet they definitely make Wingspan better, by removing the frustration of things like misunderstood goals and forgotten actions.
All that goes to say that Wingspan is a good game. A very good game, really. And Stonemaier has some great infrastructure for publishing and releasing games. But even if you’ve got a great game, there’s always some luck involved in its success too: it’s got to catch peoples’ eyes and attention and it’s got to have just the right content for the gaming gestalt at that time.
Wingspan somehow attracted that attention, which transforms a very good game into a great release. And though I’m sure that the game’s accidental scarcity hurt sales, it certainly kept it in the public eye as well.
This all goes to say that not every great game actually ends up one of the hottest releases of the year: Wingspan was not just good, but lucky too.
No game is perfect, and I think Wingspan has a few minor flaws.
Even with its careful attention to production details, it’s still quite possible for players to miss actions: primarily those bonus, bird-fueled actions on the habitat spaces. (But I’m not sure what else could have been done: the use of the action cubes to guide this is excellent.)
And, I feel like the game gets a little math-y in the last turn or two, when you have to calculate the precise returns of your various actions, because the longer turn proposition of building a tableau engine is now gone.
So in 50 words or less, what makes Wingspan a great game?
In my opinion, it’s the combination of: an approachable theme that’s tightly integrated into the gameplay; variable play that makes every game (and even every player’s game) feel different; and an innovative action structure that lets the game play quickly early on, but which ensures it doesn’t bog down as complexity increases.
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Forbidden Sky was the game that we really wanted to include in Meeples Together, but it came out too late in the year for it to meet our schedule. So, consider this a true addendum to Chapter 4, where we offered case studies of Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert.
Publisher: Gamewright (2018) Cooperative Style: True Co-Op Play Style: Action Point, Tile Laying
The players take on the roles of space archaeologists exploring a secret power platform. They must build an electrical circuit to power a rocket ship. But, a storm has overtaken the platform, and it may electrocute the explorers or blow them off the platform, sending them plunging to their death.
The basics of the Forbidden Sky challenge system look very familiar. At the end of each player’s turn, there’s an arbitrary (card) trigger of the challenge system, causing bad things to happen, with the number of cards drawn increasing over time. However, Leacock has built a very different set of challenges upon this familiar chassis.
Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert were both about the decay of the game board, as tiles disappeared or as sand piled up. Forbidden Sky is instead about the decay of the characters, as their health weakens due to lightning strikes and as their ropes fray due to wind-driven falls. In other words, players largely face death-tally threats in Forbidden Sky, something that was touched upon in Forbidden Desert with its water system, but which is otherwise largely absent from both the Forbidden and Pandemic games.
However, there’s a bit more depth to Forbidden Sky’s two sorts of death-tally threats:
First, both threats are highly manageable. The lightning threat strikes lightning rods on the platform, then travels along wires, hitting everyone on those tiles. This means that players can not only avoid the tiles which are threatened by lightning, but they can also cooperatively expand the platform in such a way as to minimize the lightning strikes. Similarly, the wind threat only endangers players who are standing at the edges of the platform.
Second, the wind threat also has a secondary effect: it introduces chaotic uncertainty to the game. Though players can somewhat assess where they’re likely to be blown by wind, they never know when wind will strike, and it also has the possibility of changing directions. Where most challenge systems offer results that are absolutely bad for the characters, Forbidden Sky’s wind threat is a refreshing change: if the players are very careful, they can actually harness the wind threat for good, by having it help them along the way.
As in Forbidden Desert, the randomness of the challenge cards is carefully controlled: there’s a specific number of each sort of card in the deck, which the players can easily count, thus knowing what dangers lie ahead. The card that causes the players to shuffle the deck also stops the challenge system for the turn, ensuring that card counters aren’t put back on their heels. But, later in the game, when two or more cards are drawn at a time, there’s still the possibility of surprise from the arbitrariness of the cards: most notably, the wind can suddenly change directions, then blow characters off the platform when they thought they were safe!
Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Simulation; Decay; Environmental Consequences; and Tally Threats.
Forbidden Sky is another of the rare tile-laying genre of co-ops, where drawing and placing tiles on the board to form the map is the core gameplay: Sub Terra (2017) was another recent example.
Leacock takes full advantage of the tile laying system by very cleverly having tiles possess only portions of the components that the players need to form an electrical circuit and win the game. So, an individual tile might possess half of a small capacitor or a quarter of a large capacitor or launch pad. Players then need to strategically work together to place tiles in such a way that complete components are created. Additionally, they work strategically to wire together those components into a complete circuit. There’s almost no possibility for tile trading, so this turns the game into a strategic puzzle, with each player holding only some of the pieces.
It’s a pretty good representation of a core theory of co-op design, which Meeples Together describes as: “Spread the pieces out among the players, then give them the opportunity to bring those puzzle pieces together.” Of course, the book was speaking more theoretically then this wonderfully physical and concrete design.
The tile laying of Forbidden Sky can also be entirely pitiless: if the players don’t lay down their tiles well, leaving gaps in their circuitry where things didn’t connect up, they can create a platform that’s fundamentally impossible to wire together (or at least impractical). Without careful play, players can find they’ve lost before the game is over, which isn’t a lot of fun.
Beyond the tile laying, Forbidden Sky’s core cooperative elements are as familiar as its challenge chassis: players use action points to move and to take crucial actions. But again, the result is very different: it’s strategic in a different way, focusing on connecting up tiles rather than dealing with distant threats.
Like its predecessors, Forbidden Sky has specialized characters, an evocative setting, and a gaming plot that supports rising action (once more: everyone must return to the ship at the end). It also contains an entirely unique element: an electric rocket ship that actually makes noises if you connect up your circuit correctly. Well, theoretically: as long as the wires are all placed carefully and the battery is set in correctly.
Matt Leacock is a star co-op designer, and Forbidden Sky shows how he can use his cooperative infrastructure to create totally different sorts of play. The challenge system is interesting for its focus on a death tally and on chaotic interference while the cooperative system is intriguing for its use of tiles as literal puzzle pieces. As with most Leacock designs, Forbidden Sky offers a master’s class in co-op design.
These lists have always been a quarterly summary of the new games that I played and what I thought of them, as a medium-weight eurogame-focused player. That don’t necessarily represent if these games are good or bad, just if I like them. And that fact felt like it was on particular display this summer, when I played a number of games that were very good in the abstract, but less enjoyable for me specifically.
But I’m going to start off with the one game that may have be the opposite case …
The Very Good (“I Would Keep This”)
Blood Bound (2013). This is a pretty light and simple game that’s more about experience than strategy, and that’s not a category I usually love, but this one was pretty good. It was sort of the deduction of Love Letter meets the gameplay of Bang! There are two teams of players, and each team is trying to capture the leader of the opposite team: but you only know the probable identity of one other player — and nothing about whether they’re a leader.
The cleverness of the hidden teams part of this game is that its deduction comes in two parts: you have to guess both the affiliation of each player, and their rank within the team — and the second part can be quite dicey since there are nine potential ranks in each team, and many of them will be out of play, so the level “7” character will usually not be the leader, but could be.
The Love Letter aspect of this game comes from the fact that each player has a special power that they can use once. These can be cleverly played to help fellows and hurt opponents … if you can guess who’s who.
For a game that’s over in 15-30 minutes, this one has a surprising level of depth, and its two levels of deduction make it more interesting than many in the hidden teams category.
The Good (“I Would Enjoy Playing Your Copy of This”)
Gentes (2017, 2018).Stefan Risthaus offers up a nicely dense game mixing resource management, variable action points, and limited action selections. It doesn’t quite match any of the action-selection methods I wrote about last year, which makes it new and unique.
So, taking it one element at a time:
The action-selection methodology allows players to take tiles which have costs in money and time, and which provide various resources. The time versus money balance is one of the interesting tradeoffs in the game, because you’re basically deciding whether it’s worth losing some of your actions in order to not spend the cash. The action tiles are also limited, creating a constant tension in the game as players ahead of you take what you want to do.
Money and time are effectively resources, So are cards. But the biggest resource in the game is your citizens, which run the gamut from sages to nobles. These citizens can be advanced (“trained” or “educated”) and doing allows you to accomplish the goals of the cards. Unlike most resources, these (mostly) don’t go away when used; in addition, every pair of them are in opposition: you can only advance a certain amount in the two citizen types combined.
You meld together all of these elements and you have a fairly complex game. In fact, the reason it’s down in my “Good” category instead of up in “Very Good”, where some of my fellows place it, is that it’s too complex at times. I like to play from the gut, and that’s not quite good enough for this game. You need to carefully assess your citizen levels versus card goals, you need to constantly measure out how much time you have left and what actions you might take, and you need to carefully plan out your end game. There are certainly many euros that share these requirements, but for me personally it can get a bit much.
Horizons (2018). This 3X game (apparently with some eXterimination with one of the variants or expansions) follows some pretty typical patterns. You take actions, and ultimately build things to collect resources, and then you use those resources to build more things. There are goals (“missions”) to help direct your play and there’s some majority control at the end to give another objective in your Xing. So: consider it a 3X-euro hybrid.
It does have a few more unique elements.
First, each player can play a different alien race, and there’s pretty huge variety among the races, with each having a few unique actions and specific build costs. This is one of the game’s best elements — other than the fact that the races aren’t necessarily balanced.
Second, players can purchase bonus actions as special cards, which can be used to give extra powers up to two times when a player takes the associated action. This is a really nice design element that allows for some great tactics and even a bit of solid strategic play.
The simplicity of the resource management and the problems with game balance keep me from rating this game more highly, but it’s still one I’m happy to play a few times more.
Forbidden Sky (2018). Matt Leacock;s newest “Forbidden” co-op offers a whole new challenge: players are trying to arrange tiles in very specific arrangements to create capacitors and enable the creation of an actual physical circuit that will light up a rocket and send it into space. Of course, there are dangers: the circuitry can cause lightning strikes to fry the player’s characters and wind can blow them right off the platforms!
Each “Forbidden” game has been more difficult than the one which preceded it, and this continues the trend. It’s a very think-y game, focused on spatial reasoning. Also, unlike any other Leacock co-op, you can utterly and obviously destroy your position: if you don’t create enough capacitors then you can create an unbridgeable board that simply can’t be wired together.
Each player has their own red-line where a game gets too think-y to be fun, and this one was right on my border (which is why, like Gentes, I only ranked it “Good” despite an innovative and well-polished game design). Obviously, your mileage may vary, and if this is within the boundaries of your fun zone it’s a pretty great design that makes extremely good use of tile laying thanks to the need, but not requirement, to connect up certain types of tiiles (which is the superior design that might make you might rank it “Very Good” or “Great”). My only actual complaints about the games are physical: the tiles can easily be bumped and that will send capacitors and wires bouncing around. In addition, our rocket only lit up after we opened it up, reset the batteries, and put it down, and even then it was inconsistent.
Tiny Towns (2019). This is a curiously abstract game of town building. You lay out resources into patterns on your grid, then when you’ve formed a pattern right, you can turn it into a building. The catch is that the resources and the buildings take up space, so you have to be very careful to leave the right spaces open on your board to allow the construction of additional buildings. Though this type of geometric abstraction can sometimes lead to AP, that’s minimized in Tiny Towns because the play is all simultaneous: one resource is generated and everyone places it.
The game’s depth comes from the fact that each of the buildings has special powers and/or special scoring opportunities. Further variability comes from the fact that those buildings can change from game to game, meaning that it’s always somewhat fresh.
I suspect the simplicity of Tiny Town’s play is going to ultimately limit its replayability, but as a flash-in-the-pan filler it’s likely to rack up a half-dozen or more plays before you’re ready to move onto the next release. (I played it three times this quarter, and wouldn’t be surprised if I’m done at this point.)
Castles of Burgundy: The Dice Game (2017). Alea’s third iteration of the Castles of Burgundy is a dice game … just like the original. I guess the difference is that it’s a simple dice game, not a complex dice game, but Alea didn’t think that Castles of Burgundy: The Simpler Dice Game sounded good as a title
The Dice Game uses the same one-person-rolls-everyone-builds trope as is found in Tiny Towns. Whereas Tiny Towns encouraged each player to develop differently based on the raw complexity of what you could do with spatial variations, The Dice Game instead does so by offering options in the random roll: you can take one of two color-spot dice and one of two pipped dice, and when you combine those results you (hopefully) get what you need to build a specific type of building that’s adjacent to what you’ve built to date.
The game does an impressive job of adapting Castles of Burgundy’s core ideas to a simpler dice paradigm: it reuses the major tropes, but still creates something that’s more suited for its simpler play. On the downside, I think it still ends up too complex for its components. There’s a lot of opportunities for mistakes, which is always a problem in a simultaneous-play game.Still, given its extremely small footprint and relatively short gameplay, this is probably a game that most Burgundy fans will want to keep in their collection as a start-of-the-night filler (but not necessarily an end-of-the-night closer, when everyone is tired and bleary-eyed).
The OK (“I Am Willing to Play This if You Ask”)
Escape from the Aliens in Outer Space (2010, 2016).This game mixes the hidden roles of games like Bang! (2002) with the hidden movement of games like Fury of Dracula (1987, 2005, 2017). You’re either an alien or a human. If you’re a human, you’re plotting slow movement on a hexagonal grid to get to an escape pod; and if you’re an alien, you’re plotting fast movement on a hexagonal grid to kill humans. All humans who get to escape pods win individually, else all the aliens win jointly.
The big catch in the game is that your movement may or may not be totally hidden. You can choose to enter “silent” spaces, but also can enter “dangerous” spaces, where you’ll either reveal your location with noise or get to make a noise at a totally different location, creating a false trail. This means that your play is largely dependent on the luck of the draw, but if you draw luckily, there’s also a huge opportunity for bluffing and engaging in very clever play. Meanwhile, you’re also forced to decide when to press your luck and run across open, dangerous fields.
The game has a lot more strategy than you’d expect given its level of luck, and also drips tension. It’s certainly toward the light or party side of things (though I think the complexity of hex-based movement and the fiddliness of the rules are somewhat at odds with the simplicity and randomness of the gameplay), but if that’s what you’re looking for, this is a strong game.
Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection (2019).This Reiner Knizia release from Chaosium is a push-your-luck game. Ironically, I think it’s a casual game more about experience than strategy, just like Blood Bound, at the top of the list, but I had a more typical assessment of this one: that it was OK.
The object is to keep drawing cards for as many turns as you can each round, but the catch is that you’re drawing the wrong cards will forcibly knock you out of play (and cost you points), if you duplicate them. To keep this from being entirely an exercise in randomness, there are defense cards that you can use to offset bad draws, either before or after you draw.
But it’s still mostly an exercise in randomness.
Perfectly good for casual or party play, especially given its great-quality components, but there’s not much game besides that.
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By this point, there have been a shocking number of Pandemic games. Some slightly vary the original formula, while others move increasingly far away. We expect to look at most of them over time, because variations to an an existing system are one of the most intriguing ways to examine the evolution of a game design.
Publisher: Z-Man Games (2016) Cooperative Style: True Co-Op Play Style: Action Point, Card Management, Set Collection
The players take on the role of various investigators who are trying to close four gates that are destroying the world. As in Pandemic (2008) they must balance removing cultists and shoggoths (to avoid losing the game) and collecting sets of cards (to ensure winning the game). However, this is more than just a retheme, as Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu features a few new threats, such as Old Ones and a sanity die.
Reign of Cthulhu is built on the challenge system from Pandemic with a number of tweaks. Most obviously, there’s just one type of cultist, not four, and they don’t actually overflow when they replicate. Instead, a fourth cultist in a location generates an awakening ritual, which results in the appearance of an Old One.
Old Ones are a major new threat that introduce both environmental effects and a countdown to DOOM. As such, they’re a nice addition to Pandemic, because the varied environmental effects introduce interesting uncertainty and variability to the game.
And what’s that shoggoth do? It creates an obstacle on the board that will move toward one of the gates … where it will summon yet another Old One into the game.The “epidemic” cards of Pandemic have become “evil stirs” cards, and they’re also slightly different. Besides resetting the draw deck for where cultists appear (and adding cultists to a new location) they also advance the Old One count and add a shoggoth to the board.
The repeated use of Old Ones in the gameplay shows how to take a new mechanic and thoroughly integrate it into the game. In Reign of Cthulhu these Old Ones have practically become the main threat, because they can appear in so many different ways — though you can still lose the game by running out of cultists, shoggoths, or cards.
The cooperative systems of Reign of Cthulhu are almost identical to Pandemic with one major difference: the clue cards that you need to close the gates are now tied to general areas rather than to specific locations. This makes card trading much easier, and thus a more important part of the game.
The reason for this change may have been partially to simplify the game, but it also seems pretty important for balancing the increased difficulty introduced by the shoggoths and Old Ones.
Cthulhu games generally have great theming, and Reign of Cthulhu is no exception. In fact, it’s a great example of how to add strong theming to an otherwise abstract game. The Old Ones are the most thematic element, with strong art working together with special powers that reflect the monsters. However, the game’s relic cards and its investigators also show how to integrate strong theming with adventure game elements — primarily through colorful descriptions and evocative powers that match those elements.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a mild revamp of Pandemic that shows how to link new mechanics to an existing system, how to balance difficulty, and how to introduce evocative adventure game elements. Though there’s nothing particularly innovative, it’s a good design.
Chuck D. Yager
Chuck Yager is a video game producer who also designs board games for fun. He’s obviously a Lovecraftian fan, as he previously produced Rise of Cthulhu (2015), a small press two-player Cthulhu card game. However, Reign of Cthulhu is his most popular game to date by far.
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Publisher: Z-Man Games (2010, 2014) Cooperative Style: True Co-op Play Style: Card Management, Set Collection
Players wander the dream realms trying to find the oneiric doors and escape.
Actually, this is a pretty abstract card-management game with nice artwork. Each turn a player plays or discards a labyrinth card, then draws a new card. If a player plays three sequential cards of the same color or draws a door card while holding a key card of the same color, then he can take the door. The object is for each of the two partners playing the game to collect one door in each of the four colors.
However, the players are also bedeviled by nightmares, which are cards that each cause the loss of 1-5 cards. If the players can’t discover their eight doors before the deck of cards runs out, they’re lost forever in the dream realms.
The most important element of Onirim’s challenge system is the timer: when the deck runs out, the game is over. This acts very similarly to timed decks of cards in Hanabi (2010) and (to a lesser extent) Pandemic (2008). In each case, the limitations of the deck of cards force the players into super-efficient play … and if they’re not efficient enough, they lose.
The other element of Onirim’s challenge system is its threat: the ten Nightmare cards that players can draw. Nightmares come from the same deck that contains the labyrinth cards, so players never know if they’re going to get something good or bad. This is a rarity in cooperative game design: it randomizes the activation of threats at a pretty low level. Nonetheless, it can also be found in Terra (2003) and (to a lesser extent) Lord of the Rings (2000).
The way in which these threats work may be the most interesting element of Onirim’s challenge system. When a Nightmare appears, the active player must choose to do one of four bad things: discard a (rare) key card; discard a door that’s already been collected; discard his entire hand; or discard up to five unseen cards from the draw pile.
Because players have to make a hard decision every time a threat comes out, those threats feel very important. The result is pretty terrific for the dread (and agonizing decisions!) that it introduces into the game and for the gameplay it allows.
These choices also create a real feeling of sacrifice; sometimes a player might have to give up something notable (like an otherwise unmatched key) in order to prevent his partner from giving up something horrific (like a valued card in the cooperative pool). Though other cooperative games have tried to create hard choices between a player keeping something for himself or giving something better to the rest of his team, Onirim is one of the few to make that decision a nonobvious one.
Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Decay; Timer; and Removal Consequences (with choice).
Onirim can be played as a solo game or as a two-player game. The two-player game introduces the game’s only cooperative system: the shared resource pool. Rather than a single player having a hand of five cards (as in the solo game), each of the two players has a hand of three cards, plus there are two more cards in the middle of the table, which are called the “shared resource”. Either player can play or discard those cards, just as if they were a part of his own hand.
Obviously the players need to jointly manage this cooperative card pool, so that the cards in the pool always go the player who needs them most. This results in a surprising amount of thoughtful gameplay. A player can purposefully decide to discard his hand (and thus the pool) if he thinks that his partner could really use two new cards to look at. He could similarly play or discard a single card from the pool to try and help out his partner.
Meanwhile, there’s a lot of solo play going on, as each player has to make a sequence of cards (and thus acquire doors) on his own. This creates a nice balance that helps to prevent a controlling player from taking over the game. Though there are clear group decisions to be made, the success of the group ultimately depends on each player’s individual play of cards.
Finally, Onirim is notable for the fact that it’s perhaps the only mass-market cooperative game that maxes out as two players. This allows it to focus on a very different sort of design. For example, the cooperative card pool probably wouldn’t work nearly as well with four (or eight!) players, because so many people adjusting the pool would make it much too chaotic. Conversely, it can work great when just two partners are working together.
Expansions & Variants
Onirim contains three different expansions in its box, each of them adding several cards and some new rules to the game. Having all of these rules laid out together is interesting, because they jointly show how expansions need to include both good stuff and bad stuff, so as not to upset the balance of the cooperative game (unless it was previously unbalanced).
However, the particular dilemmas introduced by the various expansions are also interesting, because they show how challenge systems can go beyond simple threats. Thus, the first expansion introduces “goal” cards, which are limitations on how cards can be played; while the second expansions introduces new requirements in the form of “tower” cards — which must also be played to win. Finally, the last expansion includes a more typical threat: “dark premonition” cards that make bad things happen when certain conditions are met.
A second edition (2014) of Onirim introduced four more of these “modules”.
Onirim is an interesting cooperative design. That’s in part because it’s so minimalistic: with just 78 cards it manages to create compelling and tough cooperative play. Hanabi and The Game (2015) are among the few co-ops in the same ball park.
Beyond that Onirim has an interesting challenge system (because it requires hard choices) and an interesting cooperative system (because it keeps the players both separated and working together). Finally, it may be the only notable cooperative game specifically designed for two players — which probably contributes to its unique design.
German-born Lebanese singer Shadi Torbey has performed in operas throughout Belgium and France. He’s also designing a series of card games that can be played solo or in cooperative partnerships. Onirim (2010, 2014) was the first, followed by Urbion (2012), Sylvion (2015), Castellion (2015), Nautilion (2016), and Aerion (2019). They’re all set in the same dream-like universe of Onirim.
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The eleventh Ascension set turned out to be a very traditional one, repeating and innovating old mechanics. As such, it turns out to be a set that can be combined with almost anything, which is nice given Ascension’s move away from the block structure.
New Mechanics — Empower & Infest. OK, Gift of the Elements does actually have some totally new mechanics, but they’re pretty minor. Empower is a keyword on cards that lets you banish a card you play when you acquire the Empower card. Infest is a keyword on monsters that lets you place them in someone else’s deck, where they take up space like a traditional Curse in Dominion.
How It Works — Infest.Ascension has always had a minor element of PvP combat, mostly focused on rewards when monsters are killed. Gift of the Elements nicely complements that with its Infest. It’s monster oriented like the PvP in previous sets, but it goes to the core of deckbuilding, because you’re trying to wreck someone else’s deck by filling it with dross.
This type of “Curse” mechanic can be quite frustrating in some deckbuilders, but it’s sufficiently bounded in Gift of the Elements that this doesn’t tend to be the case. You can only “Curse” if a specific Infesting monster comes out (of which there are 13, four of which continue moving around afterward), so you’re more likely to slightly water down someone’s plays rather than create entirely useless turns.
How It Works — Empower. And Empower can actually offset that, by giving players another option to banish cards. But it goes beyond that: it makes deck filtering somewhat easier, allowing players to focus more on the strategy of deckbuilding than the tactics of individual turns. Finally, Empower manages the trick of encouraging players to take fairly mediocre 1-cost cards. Because they tend to have the Empower keyword, they’re usually replacing an Apprentice or a Militia, so it’s still a step up.
There’s one other pseudo-new-mechanic that goes hand in hand with Empower: a few cards give additional bonuses if banished “from anywhere”. That gives players more tactical possibilities for their Empower acquisitions, and shows how nicely a design can link together a lot of minor mechanics into something that changes the overall strategy of a game.
Revamped Mechanics — Events & Transformation. Along with those pretty minor additions, Gift of the Elements also brings back two classic mechanics. Events appeared back in Block One (2010-2011), while Transformations were originally keyed off energy in Block Three (2013), then returned to be keyed off factions and honor gains in Set Seven, Realms Unravelled (2014). Gift of the Elements cleverly combines the mechanics by introducing events that also can be transformed into a card if a player pays a big sum (8 runes or 8 power) for them!
How It Works — Transformation Events. The events in Gift of the Elements have notable effects, giving free card draws, free Runes, and free Power. That’s the sort of thing you want for an adjacent game element like the events, because they’re big enough that people won’t forget them.
Beyond that, I adore the fact that Ascension figured out a third, very different way to do Transformations … but I’m not convinced it’s successful. First, the transformations are easy to forget since players are excited about buying things in the Center Row, and second … they’re really powerful. It’s great giving rewards for the tough task of getting 8 Runes or Power in a single turn, but some of these transformed cards can end the game, particularly the transformed Cetra, Celestial Body, which gives Honor for all the Honor values in the center row, something that I’ve seen score over 20 points from a single play(!). Nothing else is quite that powerful, but acquiring all the Constructs (Forgemaster Reysa) or taking 2 Honor from each player (Emri, Born of Battle), which is an 8-point swing against everyone in a four-player game, can also be pretty game changing.
Overall, Gift of the Elements is a nicely designed set that’s also quite traditional and so could easily be a great third box for new players after Chronicle of the Godslayer and Return of the Fallen. That’s a nice return to simple form for an eleventh set.
Set Twelve: Valley of the Ancients
The twelfth Ascension set returns to introducing notable New Mechanics — here new resources, new victory-point cards, and new keywords. Whew! None of them are particularly connected.
New Mechanics — Keystones & Temples. The new resource is the keystone. It is earned via certain cards, and like almost every other resource in Ascension is ephemeral. The first time a player gets a Death keystone, they can turn it in for the Temple of Death, which originally comes from the supply and later is taken from the current holder. Additional Death keystones while a player is already holding the Temple allow them to banish a card and take the Temple of Immortality. Similarly, the first Life keystone gives a player the Temple of Life and additional ones give them 2 Runes and the Temple of Immortality.
And the Temple of Immortality? If a player is holding it, he can Rally one Faction each turn: if they acquire a card of that faction and that same faction refills in the Center Row, they take the new card too. Ad Infinitum. (Curiously, the Temple of Immortality doesn’t use the Rally keyword.)
Oh, and all the Temples are worth Victory Points: 5 for the lesser temples and 10 for the Temple of Immortality.
How It Works — Keystones & Temples. The Temples feel like a great mechanic that just doesn’t work out. That’s in large part due to randomness. First, only about a quarter of the cards grant keystones, and they’re usually tied to a secondary requirement (like one of the new keywords or a more traditional requirement, such as killing monsters or uniting). That means that a player might find himself in a situation where he can’t practically earn one or other keystone, which is a big disadvantage.
Beyond that, the Temples create a huge, chaotic swing. There’s no way to stop another player from grabbing a temple from you, and if they do, it creates a 10-point swing for the lesser temples and a 20-point swing for the Temple of Immortality. Games are sometimes won simply on who gets to go last.
Presumably, the goal here was to create more player interaction, just like the Infest in Garden of the Elements. And, there was probably another goal of creating an orthogonal way to deckbuild, as players could now collect cards that granted one keystone or the other. But with the randomness underlying both that collection and that interaction, the result wasn’t necessarily fun.
New Mechanics — Echo. The Echo keyword grants additional special abilities on a card if there’s a card of the same faction in the discard pile.
New Mechanics — Serenity. The Serenity keywords grants additional special abilities on a card if there are no cards in the discard pile.
How It Works Echo & Serenity. These new keywords feel like they’re quite similar because they both force players to focus on their discard piles. But, they really couldn’t be more different. The Echo mechanic is both strategic and tactical. It encourages players to focus on factions (strategically), but it can also be used tactically if a player purchases a card of the faction just before playing the Echo. On the other hand, Serenity is almost pure luck. Oh, there are a very small minority of cards that can be used to empty discards, and maybe a player might occasionally need to think about when they purchase a card and when they force a reshuffle, but those are rare enough that the Serenity mechanic mainly feels luck-based (and when it’s not, it’s usually just an arbitrary set of actions to set up the discard pile correctly).
Overall, the Temples and the Keystones make this supplement feel unwieldy and awkward, let alone the huge swinginess of Temple control. They make it one of the less desirable supplements, in my opinion, which is a pity given the interesting new Keywords.
In retrospect, I think Sets 9-12 represented Ascension getting its feet under it as it figured out how to produce singular sets of cards. As I noted when I wrote about sets 9 and 10, they each had a big concept (even if one of those big concepts was returning to great classic mechanics) and some of those big concepts worked better than the others: Dreamscape (#9) continues to be well-loved, but War of the Shadows (#10) is usually too finicky to play in person; Gift of the Elements (#11) was a strong return to form, while Valley of the Ancient (#12) introduced new mechanics that seemed like more trouble than they were worth. I saluted the innovation when I wrote about the previous sets, but now I’m a little tired of a 50% hit-to-miss ratio.
But Ascension was also at a turning point, where they were about to return to more classic mechanics in totally new ways and then more massively renovate the game than ever before. Perhaps those next sets managed to figure out the success of the innovative Dreamscape and the classic Gift of the Elements, because they seem to be more consistently enjoyed than the series of sets from 9 to 12.
But that’s the topic for the next article.
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The Captain is Dead, which we studied two weeks ago, has a sequel, “Lockdown”, a standalone game that uses the same core system. However, whereas we thought the design of The Captain is Dead was wildly successfully (in large part due to its great theming), we found Lockdown lacking (in large part due to its difficulty).
Publisher: AEG (2018) Cooperative Style: True Co-Op Play Style: Action Point, Adventure Game, Card Management
This sequel to The Captain is Dead (2017) reuses many of its game systems but in a new environment with new challenges. Now, the characters are being held prisoner in an alien prison, and they must steal a ship and escape before the aliens take notice of them and kill them all.
The Captain is Dead: Lockdown reuses the core mechanics of the original game system. After each player-turn, a new alert card causes something bad to happen. These alerts are previewable (if the Surveillance system is online) and they’re overridable (if certain resources are spent). They’re also stacked to create decay — which is to say, Lockdown contains all of the more interesting challenge elements of the original game.
There are also two major additions to the challenge system.
First, the game is full of aliens. In fact, almost every alert adds aliens to the game. This actually tends to make the alerts much less interesting, because they’re so repetitive. There is some variety, with five different sorts of aliens, but they tend to broadly have the same effects. (For a little more variety, one of the alien types also “patrols”, moving around the board in a simple circuit.)
Second, there’s a major new tally threat: concealment. A multitude of actions (but especially killing aliens, getting caught by aliens, and hacking systems to bring them online) cause the concealment to decrease, and if it drops to zero, the aliens start shooting to kill.
Together, the aliens and the concealment effectively expand the original Captain is Dead challenge system into a full simulation, since it now has effects that are removed from the card input by one or two levels of indirection. For example, an alert may summon a patroller alien, which may then move into a room where a character is hiding, causing the concealment level to drop, and this may cause the aliens to go into berserk end-game mode. It’s a nice lesson in how to develop simple card draws into a more complete simulation by a layering of rules.
With that said, the Lockdown variant of the Captain is Dead challenge system also has some issues.
First, it’s quite fiddly. Developing a challenge system always creates potential problems because it’s players who have to play out the simulation. Pandemic (2008) and Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011) demonstrate how to make simulations easy and playable, in large part because their simulations flow out from obvious starting points. Pandemic: Rising Tide (2017), which has the potential for water suddenly overflowing everywhere at any time, is more challenging. Lockdown is unfortunately in the latter category — not because the simulation is particularly complex, but instead because it’s poorly supported by the components. The board can be filled with aliens of all different sorts, and they mostly look pretty similar, which makes it hard to pick out the patrollers; their patrol path is also not as obvious as it should be.
Second, Lockdown is a much more difficult game than The Captain is Dead, in large parts because of the limitations that it places on actions. Though there are certainly very difficult co-ops games that can be fun, with Orléans: Invasion (2015) being a prime example, Lockdown’s style of difficulty, which not only focuses on limitations, but also makes the impending loss very obvious, isn’t necessarily one of those.
Third, the game is designed so that the difficulty can in part be overcome by relatively simple actions, and this creates preset strategies. For example, the players must immediately do something to halt the decreases of the Concealment track, or they’re doomed. In fact, the randomness of the card draws in Lockdown doesn’t feel that important in balance to the preset strategies that must be conducted, and since unpredictability and uncertainty are two primary requirements of cooperative design, this leaves the game somewhat lacking.
Limitations often make cooperative systems great: they can keep the gameplay from being too easy and they can help to give each player autonomy. Unfortunately, limitations can also be used excessively, as happens in Lockdown, and this can damage a game rather than improve it.
The biggest limitations in Lockdown are the aliens: they leap upon characters who are not in their starting location. The dramatically restricts the strategic play of Lockdown because players now tend to primarily do the things that they can do in their starting locations — a trend that is often amplified by the strong specialization of the characters. The result is that the players have a lot less choice: an admiral might stay in the Mess Hall to draw improvised plans, a Science Officer might stay in the Maintenance Room to research, etc. (This was certainly somewhat the case in The Captain is Dead, bit it’s even moreso in Lockdown.) The excess of aliens also means that players either have to kill aliens or teleport away to do anything at all, another major limitation!
The other big limitation in Lockdown centers on that Concealment system. It penalizes many of the strategic actions that players might want to take, such as killing aliens and hacking systems (and, as noted, moving away from a character’s starting area). If the Concealment level gets too low, then players might no longer feel empowered to take these actions that destroy what’s essentially a cooperative resource.
Overall, the limitations in Lockdown drive players to narrowly defined choices, which are weighted even more heavily due to character specializations, and in the worst cases make players feel like they can do nothing at all. Though limitations are certainly a vital element of cooperative design, when they go too far, they can start negatively impacting both agency and fun, and Lockdown trends quite far in that directions (though different players will likely have different reactions to the tight constraints).
Much like The Captain is Dead, Lockdown has a great adventure system, focused on evocative characters, appropriate system-actions, and a fun story. However, whereas The Captain is Dead was in danger of constraining player actions with character roles, Lockdown makes that possibility much stronger, primarily through its other limitations.
Expansions & Variants
Lockdown is the sequel to The Captain is Dead. It was released in an earlier edition by The Game Crafter (2017) before its publication by AEG.
Quite simply, Lockdown feels like it took a well-balanced system and made it too complex. The new challenge elements are intriguing additions that made the game less manageable, but the new limitations constrain the game so tightly that they remove agency.
“[The Captain is Dead] does not have the random exponential escalation effect. Instead, each card in the alert deck has a specific bad thing that happens, and there are a specific number of yellow cards, a specific number of orange cards, and a specific number of red cards. That means that the game will always escalate in a more controlled manner. In Pandemic if you happen to get unlucky with your draw, you can get really bad outbreaks really early in the game.”
When we started playing Betrayal Legacy last year, I decided to chronicle the entire adventure, to detail how the game has changed over time, and how its co-op and Legacy elements worked. The Betrayal Legacy Chronicles, Part One discussed the first four adventures, while this continues this series with Chapters Four through Six. And this is going to be it, because we’ve decided that seven sessions is enough, for reasons that I’ll talk about toward the end.
Obviously, there are spoilers here for Betrayal Legacy, but each entry should only talk about the surprises up to that date.
Chapter Four: 1797 — The Haunted Furniture
The ghosts increasingly haunting the house possess the furniture this session, and we have to burn it in a fire before it kills us. We do.
In fact when we’re down to our last piece of furniture, it’s increasingly obvious we’re going to win, which is never a great thing a round out in a co-op game. Overall, we have a good time early in this game, again because of the increased length of the early game, but the fight-focused Haunt feels a bit rudimentary.
Figure 4-1: Our biggest house ever?
Co-op: We do something we haven’t before: we actually cooperate a bit before the Haunt, primarily using a special skill that allows us to somewhat select the house tiles coming up. So, we select for items and against omens, under the theory that it’s 80% likely to benefit each of us. And then we get to the haunt … and there’s no “traitor”. We all win or lose as a group. So, go us.
Mind you, the Haunt feels a bit more rudimentary than the last two, because it’s all tactical combat. However, there is a bit of depth: we can stun the furniture while fighting, then drag it to the fire, and we can also INVOKE to move it on its own. This allows some strategic work, as some players are fighting, some are dragging, and some are magically moving. But it still feels a lot more one dimensional.
Figure 4-2: We always remember the previous Omen cards, but the rest of the decks have almost no Legacy meaning to us.
Legacy: We’re back to the core Legacy play being relatively shallow, though our cooperative play helps a few of the Legacy items get to the right people. But even when we pull up events that I am pretty sure came from the results of other games, I’m not sure what they’re evoking.
Our only big surprise is finding out more about the helm, as we learn it can be used to select a player, which means that players that use its power more are more likely to be selected. That’s a pretty cool Legacy element, because it ensures those past choices have future results, which is what you really want in Legacy.
Chapter Five: 1830 — The Mirror Invasion
This time, one of our number is possessed by their mirror copy from another dimension, who then tries to assimilate the rest of the characters (or else kill them).
To a certain extent, Betrayal Legacy is starting to drag for us. The pre-Haunt play rarely feels long enough to be fulfilling, and then we descend into yet another variant of combat, and that’s what happens once again. Oh, it’s slightly different combat, as you SMASH mirror creatures to make it easier to close the portal to the mirror dimension, but it’s just variants of the same themes.
Figure 5-1: The Basement got plenty of attention this time.
Co-op: We actually spend most of our time roleplaying rather than cooperating in the early part of the game, which is a fine alternative. When we get to the Haunt it’s again tactical combat. Sadly, it’s again pretty rudimentary cooperation. There is a pair of linked actions: PREPARE, then SMASH, which you can use together to gather a bunch of mirror monsters together before destroying them … but one player can do it all, eliminating the possibility of strategic cooperation between the players. There is still some strategic play, with several players running around and smashing so that a final player can INVOKE to close the portal, but it’s still a big step down from Chapters Two and Three, which had multi-stage strategic cooperation that we thought would be the new normal for the game, but which has largely disappeared in the games since.
Figure 5-2: The Deed to the House is an example of the very weak Legacy elements in this game.
Legacy: Yes, we continue to recognize cards and tiles. We’ll probably find the new additions from this game even more memorable, because there are a few mirror-related events as well as a tile that actually gets stickered over(!). But, as noted before, it’s minor.
The major bit of Legacy in this Chapter is that we get a whole new major mechanic. That stickered-over tile, The Chasm, is an entrance to the Otherworlds, which appear as 28 new cards that we add to our box. No, we still don’t know what this means, but we’re told the next Chapter will be Part II of the game. Rules additions are a major element of Legacy games, and they can add a lot … so we’ll see what the next game brings.
Chapter Six: 1849 — The Disease
We come under attack from a disease, which sends us search the Otherworlds, because that’s the new mechanic. We maximize our health tactically, and that lets us find the cure in the nick of time.
We had decided that this would be our last play of Betrayal Legacy unless the Otherworlds was sufficiently innovative to revamp a gameplay that had gotten stale and never lived up to its Legacy potential. (Spoiler: it wasn’t.)
Figure 6-1: One last house.
Co-op: The cooperative play of this Chapter is back to the multi-stage strategy that we’ve been missing. First, players must recover reagents in the form of curses and items from the Otherworlds; then they must STUDY them; then they must PREPARE an antidote. The problem is that there’s not much cooperation other than the group’s accumulation of resources toward success. That’s because there’s no way to provide help in the Otherworlds, and once the resources are recovered, they’re mostly in the form of curses that can’t be traded away. So, players are strategically cooperating, but there’s very little of the more interesting tactics which occasionally appeared on the peripheries of previous adventures.
Figure 6-2: Our last rules addition, the Otherworlds, were disappointing (and frustrating).
Legacy:The big Legacy element of this Chapter was the introduction of the Otherworlds, and to be honest, they were overwhelming. Certainly, the addition of any new rules system is to a Legacy game’s benefit and the addition of new places to explore even moreso. So, the Otherworlds could have been the best of the best.
The problem is that they’re very punishing, often causing damage, often pushing the players ever onward, hoping to avoid the worst. Certainly there’s some good tension here, which is what you need for a horror game to work, but it’s not enough to offset the pure unfunness of being punished from every exploration.
In other words, we’d wanted to see if the Otherworlds were interesting enough to get us to continue play, and if anything, they moved the game in the opposite direction.
Here’s an admission: none of us were fans of Betrayal at House on the Hill going into our Betrayal Legacy campaign. We often found the original game too random, and we felt like the long turns and variable length games often resulted in some or all players never getting off their feet, and so not getting to really experience the adventurous elements of the game. And Betrayal Legacy was just more of the same.
But we’d thought that the Legacy elements of the game would help it to rise above those elements, with a long-term campaign offering the opportunity to both offset randomness and to create the longer stories that we sometimes felt denied in the original Betrayal. But Betrayal Legacy didn’t. Instead, most of the Legacy elements were confined to cards and tiles, which might or might not come up in future games, and which would likely be forgotten by the time they did. The Bloodied Room was a rarity that we really remembered every time it returned, but most of the ghosts and scares just faded away into a deck of ghosts and scares, thus denying us their Legacy.
Another problem was a lack of player agency, not just in the game itself (always a problem in Betrayal), but in the campaign. In most Legacy games, like Pandemic and SeaFall, players are driving the explorations and many of the other changes to the game. Certainly, there’s a plotted story that they’re interacting with, but they can still look at the game and the board and see the changes they chose to make. Even in Charterstone, which has some problems with simple play enforcing player tactics, players can at least see the buildings they constructed. But in Betrayal Legacy, all players can do is choose whether to mark Legacy items (which they do if they can) and whether to win or lose (but that’s scarcely a choice).
In summary: fans of the original Betrayal will like the Legacy version. The cooperative and storytelling elements are as good as they were before. But we didin’t feel like the Legacy added much to the original game, and if anything, it really underplayed and underused its Legacy elements.
So our Betrayal Legacy play ends here, alas.
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One of the more notable traditional co-ops of recent years was The Captain is Dead, a bright and evocative science-fiction game that followed in traditional design patterns. It’s since been followed by Lockdown (2018), which will be the topic of the next case study.
Publisher: AEG (2017) Cooperative Style: True Co-Op Play Style: Action Point, Adventure Game, Card Management
In The Captain is Dead, aliens are attacking. They’ve killed the captain and knocked the Jump Drive offline. Players take the roles of the surviving crew members. They must repair the Jump Drive so that they can make their escape before the constant waves of alien threats destroys them.
The challenge system of The Captain is Dead is very traditional: each turn the active player turns up a card from the alert deck. If she can’t override the alert, then something bad happens: usually characters are hurt and/or ship systems are damaged. The losing conditions are also the sort of mélange common in co-op games: if the shields are destroyed, the alert deck is expended, or the aliens are all placed on the ship, then the players lose.
With that said, there are several unique features in how The Captain is Dead manages its challenges.
The alert deck is stacked into yellow, orange, and red alerts. This creates a very simple system of decay: not only are systems breaking down, but they break down worse as the game goes on.
The ability to override cards from the alert deck creates real resource dilemmas, as players must constantly decide whether it’s worth scrambling for the right cards to override, or if it’s better to let systems break, planning to fix with them later.
The players can preview alert cards (and thus the challenge system). As long as the external sensors are running, the players get to see the next two alerts, which increases their ability to strategically plan.
These abilities — to decay, cancel, and preview challenge events — could all be easily incorporated into other co-op designs, particularly those built around a card trigger. They’re great examples of how traditional challenge system mechanics could be expanded to improve player agency.
Challenge System Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger (with Preview); Decay; Environmental & Removal Consequences; and Combat & Skill Threats.
The cooperative system of The Captain is Dead is almost entirely strategic. This is based on the layout of the board: players can take different actions in different places. This means that players in different locations must work together to maximize their efficiency: though one player could move around to do different sorts of things, that costs valuable actions.
This is an interesting design because it creates tactical specialization: though certain characters are encouraged to stay in certain spaces (more on which, momentarily), players can dynamically move to different locations and accrue the specialization of that location. This is very different from a standard specialization design, where specializations are inherent to the characters, and so can’t be dynamically swapped.
The Captain is Dead also contains some tactical ability to dynamically exchange skills (in the form of cards). Thanks to the Comm System, players can do this anywhere in the ship, which keeps anyone from feeling isolated even while they’re working strategically — an important element for cooperative play. Further, some player ability may improve tactical interactivity, such as the Telepath, who can borrow skills from other players at his location.
The best element of The Captain is Dead is almost certainly its adventure system: there are 18 different character roles and the designers did a great job of giving each one special abilities that simultaneously fit into the framework of the game’s play and still feel appropriate and evocative for the character. These abilities will often drive play and help determine where each character goes and what they do (though the abilities sometimes walk the line of giving a player too much guidance in what she should do, and thus predetermining her gameplay).
Similarly, all of the ship systems have been carefully developed so that their mechanics reflect their theming. These action-based ship systems are another of the major innovations of the game. They’re particularly strong for how they reflect the science fiction theming of the game.
There’s nothing magical or innovative in the adventure design of The Captain is Dead, but it nonetheless offers an excellent example of how to create evocative adventure systems just by carefully linking object names and object powers so that they feel “real”.
Expansions & Variants
The Captain is Dead was previously available as a self-published game through The Game Crafter (2014), alongside a few expansions. The AEG version (2017) was the first professional publication. It’s since been followed by a standalone second game, The Captain is Dead: Lockdown (2018), which was originally “episode three” on The Game Crafter.
Design-wise, The Captain is Dead feels like another member of the Pandemic (2008) family. Characters with unique specializations use action points to fight against a constant onslaught of problems. With that said, it adds depth to the classic play structure through considerable complexity in its actions while simultaneously adding color with well-themed actions and characters.
JT Smith & Joe Price
JT Smith is the co-founder of The Game Crafter, an online web site that allows designers to create prototypes or amateur productions of their games. He has released a number of small-press games through his service. This is the first professional design for both Smith and his co-designer, Joe Price.
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