Friday, February 13, 2009

TwoGG 2: Wives included!

First off, sorry for this taking so long to get posted. The latest gaming session at Tim's place was a bit unconventional (though how much "convention" can we really say we've established after just one TwoGG session?) so I've had a tough time figuring out how to present it. I think I've now decided that the whole reason for writing about it at all is to remind ourselves and our subscribers that this is something we're actually going to try to continue, so just getting anything posted should suffice. Enough meta-blogging, and on to the session report.

This past Saturday, Tim, his wife Carrie, my wife Marissa, and I got together over at Chez Isakson for some fun couples gaming. We had very little plan going into the afternoon – I'd packed Squad Leader and Up Front just in case it turned into a "boys in one room, girls in the other" situation – so we played it by ear. When it became apparent that it was social time, the four of us got around the table and started playing. First up was the old Pressman title, Siege of the Citadel, set in the quite cool Mutant Chronicles universe. Though it has little to do with the actual gameplay, I'll just let you know that this is our solar system several hundred years in the future. A handful of powerful megacorporations stand in for governments, and were happily squabbling amongst themselves when an object was detected near the orbit of Pluto. This turned out to be an alien artifact that a human expedition upset, opening a rift to a demonic other plane, releasing the Dark Legion upon humanity. These powers include fearsome combinations of demon and machine and are generally bad news.

In Siege of the Citadel, players take on the role of a pair of characters each from the megacorporations Mishima, Capitol, Bauhaus, Cybertronic, or Imperial, while one player controls the Dark Legion. In many ways the game is like Space Hulk in that there are floor tiles that can be rearranged to set up highly varied scenarios into which players send their characters. The locations of the bad guys are only vaguely known at first and the composition of their forces is up to a turn of the card. Tim had mentioned to watch out for the conflict resolution mechanic as the designer is Richard Borg, of Command & Colors: Ancients fame. I saw what he meant, as one rolls a number of dice for each attack, and each die has either a hit or a blank on it. Simply count the number of hits and see if you exceeded the target's armor. I won't go into too much detail other than that. The game played very quickly, and never bogged down even for a moment...well, we bogged down just a wee bit at the beginning trying to figure out our starting equipment, but never after. And the gameplay was fun enough, but I actually thought it was considerably lighter than it should have been. With so few rules and chrome, I could detect very little difference between my Imperial characters and Carrie's Cybertronic heroes. The only difference between my two characters was that one carried a gun and the other carried (unwisely, I thought) a sword. I could have stood another level of detail, with characters possessing their own stats and skills, a bit more variety in combat (situational modifiers, interesting terrain), and just more actual Mutant Chronicles flavor. I rated the game a 5 on BoardGameGeek and would much rather play Space Hulk or even Warzone, the Mutant Chronicles tabletop miniatures game in the future. (I wonder whether the new Mutant Chronicles miniatures game from Fantasy Flight is in the bargain bins yet, and whether it's worth playing...)

After that, the four of us got in a couple of games of Pandemic. Going into this session, I would have said that I was pretty lukewarm on this game. It's not that I think Pandemic is a bad game. In fact, I think it's among the better cooperative games I've seen. It's just that I think a really good cooperative game hasn't been released yet. In fact, rather than describe our two games of Pandemic (both VERY narrow losses!), I'll give you a little bit of my cooperative game rant. I think the first time I thought about cooperative boardgames was in 1999 or 2000 when Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings game came out. There was a ton of hype about the game, which included snapshots of the incredibly beautiful boards. I was such a sucker for the idea of the game and the art that I ordered a copy from overseas. Suffice it to say that I have enough German text in that box (which I still have!) to give me practice material for at least two or three semesters of college German! But I did eventually get to play the game in its English incarnation and it didn't take too many plays for me to stop and think, "Wait, I thought this was a cooperative game...but it's a puzzle!"

What had happened? Well, I'd noticed a pattern in how the games of Lord of the Rings went. The game poses challenges that the Fellowship must overcome as they seek to take the One Ring to Mount Doom for a quick lava bath. Each challenge requires the expenditure of cards of different types – combat cards, stealth cards, etc. – in certain combinations. These cards can come from any of the hobbits' hands. And this is where the problem lies. The question that's being asked is not, "It's Frodo's turn...does Frodo have three combat cards?" it's, "It's Frodo's turn, does the Fellowship have three combat cards?" Thus, it isn't Frodo's player who answers the game's question, it's all the players. So everyone talks a bit about what cards they have, hemming and hawing before everyone finally realizes, "Hey, we could just lay our hands face up and figure this out quicker!" And from that realization comes, "We're not really playing individual hands, we're sort of playing one big group hand," and from that, "This is really more a multi-player puzzle than a game." The problem is that we aren't playing a game where we make moves to try to set up each player to individually make plays toward a common goal, we're just communally making moves, and that's very unsatisfying to me, especially when I can envision a better way.

My vision involves players having their own resources and abilities pursuing a group victory. In the Lord of the Rings example, there might very well be combat or stealth cards, but each player would have to have the correct combination to play for themselves. If not, they fall short. The game then becomes how players can help and support one another while also making their own moves. Many of these games include some way of trading cards, for instance, which is great, but I'd like to see a little more skill to that. Perhaps members of the Fellowship would get an opportunity to pass a card to a friend whose board position suggests he'll be fighting you pass a sword. But you don't just say, "Whatcha need?" I'm thinking of the kind of decision one might make in a partnership card game, like the passing of animals between partners in Frank's Zoo.

Perhaps a different theme or style would lend itself more to my dream cooperative game. Both team sports and some wargame themes (man-level WWII infantry, WWI aerial dogfighting) suggest the idea of each team member bringing something unique to a situation, facing their own challenges, supporting teammates, and pursuing a common goal. Hopefully some talented game designer (rather than a hack game complainer) can look to advance the state of the cooperative game art soon.

As for Pandemic, I think it's fun, challenging, and generally among the best of the cooperative games out there. That said, it still has awkward moments where players do these verbal gymnastics like, "Well, I'm REALLY close to finding a cure to the red disease " instead of just saying, "Fine, give me one more red so I can go to Tehran on my next turn and cure red." Moves are made largely, if not completely, by committee and, for me at least, the whole thing is still more group puzzle than group game. This particular one has lots of theme and is pretty entertaining, so I rated it a 6.75 on BoardGameGeek, but it doesn't keep me from wishing for something better.

Finally, we did play a game of TransAmerica. This is so light it barely registers on my radar, and in the original version there were so few difficult or interesting decisions that I largely thought it wasn't worth the (admittedly very short) time it took to play. Playing with the expansion, which includes track segments in each player's color that only that player can use, improved the game somewhat and moved it squarely into "inoffensive" territory for me. That's a pretty big win for the game, which I usually had to grit my teeth to play. Now I'll be happy to spend that fifteen or twenty minutes, especially when I know that Carrie likes it so much! I rated TransAmerica a 4.5 on BoardGameGeek with the expansion, which is probably just a little low.

So, there it is. Family game night at the Isakson's! Keep watching this space, folks. Pretty soon Tim and I should be back at it with two-player games. My guess is that World War II squad- and company-level infantry will be back next, with the English Civil War perhaps lurking just over the horizon. As always, please leave feedback to remind me that someone other than me is reading this. Take care.


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Dateline: Atlanta


Atlanta, USA
CDC Prediction and Simulation Working Group
Outbreak Response Simulation Exercises

The CDC has been tracking the 2008-12-FLU outbreak since January, and has recently discovered some disturbing news - the prime strain of the disease has mutated, and four different strains are spreading throughout different regions of the world. 2009-1-BLK is primarily contained in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central and South Asia. 2009-1-BLU is primarily contained in North America and Western Europe. 2009-1-RED is primarily limited to the Far East, and 2009-1-YLW is contained in the tropics - Central and South Africa and South America. Note that these regional limitations are not expected to be maintained over the longer term - it is expected that each strain will spread along multiple vectors without geographic restrictions (other than those that influence traffic and population flows).

The decision was reached to run two simulations of potential responses to the pandemic, and the results are not encouraging - both simulations resulted in (simulated) widespread loss of life and major infrastructure breakdowns, seriously hampering our ability to deliver medical supplies, share information on the diseases and treatments discovered, and so on. If these simulations are accurate predictions of the outcome of this pandemic, major modifications in our approach are definitely in order.

The simulations randomized the initial outbreak locations, and also the spread and growth of each of the strains, and provided resources similar to those available to the CDC to address the spread of the diseases and the search for cures for each strain. In analysis of the simulation after the fact, it has been found that there was a data problem with the disease randomization function, such that it is possible that the outbreaks were more virulent than they might be expected to be in actuality - we hope that this is the case, as the outcome of these runs of the simulations were quite discouraging.

The one note of encouragement I can take from these two simulation exercises is that, both times, our team was very close to finding cures for each of the four stains and delivering them to the populations under threat. With some improvement to our approach to the disease outbreaks, I am confident that we will be able to use the experience from these simulations to improve our decision making and triage decisions in the real world. In both runs of the simulation, the team was very close to overcoming the mutating strains of the disease - with modifications to our approach, and a tweaking of the data model to more closely model the spread we are seeing in the real world, we expect to be able to continue to improve our response to the continuing pandemic.


Forgive me my chance to practice a little story-telling there, but Randy and I got together Saturday night for a gaming session - this time, our wives were included, so we played several multi-player games rather than two-player as is our normal intent. We got in one mission of Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel, two games of Pandemic, and a game of TransAmerica with the Vexation expansion included. This session report, as may be obvious from the lead-in, is going to focus on Pandemic only, as I don't know that we gave Siege of the Citadel enough of a chance, and TransAmerica, while quite enjoyable, is also quite light and there wouldn't be much to report.

We broke out Pandemic, as I was relatively confident that Carrie & Marissa (mine and Randy's wives, respectively) would enjoy the game - I think I was correct in my estimation, although I'll be interested to hear for certain what they thought. I'm not going to go into too much detail about how the game plays, but I will note that this is a cooperative game, meaning it's the players working together against the game system. As you might have gleaned from the flavor text above, we were not able to win in either of our outings - although both times we were probably within a single turn of pulling out the victory. I know for certain we were in the first game - if the outbreaks had come out in a different order, on the next player turn we would have had the fourth cure, and hence the win. The second game we lost due to time running out - when the player draw deck is drawn out, the game is lost. I think we were very close to a win there as well, but not close enough. Also, worth mentioning is that both our games were on the "easy" setting for the game - it scales up to "normal" and "hard" as well, although it may be awhile before we feel the need to do so!

The feel of Pandemic is quite interesting to me - it felt something like a well-run meeting, although one much more focused than most real meetings I've attended (and also more fun). While each player has a role in the game, and also some collection of information and resources that they control, it really is more of a group exercise in trying to solve the problem that the game system puts in front of you. I can see where in some groups this might be a problem - if a dominant personality were to monopolize play, for instance, making other players feel like they weren't so much playing as watching. Luckily, in our case, that didn't turn out to be a problem - we discussed our moves as a group, and generally followed through on consensus decisions, but didn't get into any arguments about who was driving the discussion, and it didn't feel (to me) as though any one of us was dominating the discussion more than anyone else.

Pandemic's feel is unique in the coop games I've played up to this point - which includes Scotland Yard, Lord of the Rings, Shadows over Camelot, Ghost Stories and now Pandemic. I have yet to play the newest, Battlestar Galactica, although I'd like to give it a shot. Pandemic really did have something of the feel of a steering committee, pouring over a map of the world with markers for resources and tracking disease outbreaks. In a movie, it would likely be a hologram or network operations center (NOC) or something of the sort.

On a tangential but related note, this past Thanksgiving, I took my copy of Pandemic with me to our family gathering, and taught a bunch of non-gamers how to play - and they all enjoyed it. One element there that was interesting was how fun it was to watch and kibitz, even though I wasn't playing. How many games can you describe the experience of NOT playing as almost as much fun as playing?

This outing of Pandemic was very enjoyable - and I felt like it was successful with the group we played it with. Those who require competition should probably stay far away (but then, they likely would do so when told this was a coop game to begin with), and I would also not suggest playing this game with a group that is prone to allowing one player to dominate the proceedings. One other limiting factor is that the game plays with a maximum of four players. I would expect it to scale to lower numbers fine, but it tops out at four. If none of these problems are an issue, then I can wholeheartedly recommend Pandemic, as I've enjoyed it every time I've played it.

Worth noting - in one of our games, we had the experience of having an Outbreak BEFORE the first player turn, due to there being a duplicate city card. Apparently, there was a collation issue with the cards, as there are only supposed to be one of each city in the deck. I've yet to contact Z-man, but I'm confident it will be made right - but this is the data anomaly that I mention in the "flavor text".

I think the next "session" for Randy and I is going to be an online attempt to play Squad Leader - we'll let you know how that works out in a couple of weeks.

So, with that, thanks for reading, and happy gaming!