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.



  1. Since no one else has commented, I'll chime in - hopefully this won't turn into an echo chamber!

    I'm largely in agreement with you on Siege of the Citadel, although I think I enjoyed it slightly more than you, it's very simple compared to what's available now. I'd like to get Blood Berets on the table, as the reviews I've read say that it adds a level of detail that makes the game more interesting.

    On Transamerica, I agree with you that the Vexation addition improves the game, but I disagree with you that it's bad in it's original form. It *is* trifle light, but I see nothing wrong with a game that has some minor decision making but is over in 10-15 minutes. I think Transamerica is just fine for the length that it is, and works very well as a light filler.

    As for coop games - I don't have a problem with the games being a group puzzle, and honestly I'm not sure I know what the distinction you are trying to make between "group puzzle" and "group game" really means. It's certainly true that playing Pandemic is a group activity, in that the players as a group are working against the system of the game - I think in my comments I said it was something like a well-run meeting. I think that a) that works very well for the particular theme of Pandemic, and b) that is probably something that is almost impossible to avoid in a coop game. Honestly, I *don't* have a problem with everyone working as team to solve the game (or puzzle, or whatever you want to call it) - that's the appeal of a coop game to me, in large part.

    That's not to say that I don't hope the state of the art in coop games doesn't advance - I certainly do hope it does, and that something different is in the offing sometime in the not too distant future. But it sounds to me like you're trying to make a distinction that I'm not entirely sure exists . . .

    Hope that makes sense!

    While I know we're not talking wargames, I'm curious if anyone else has any thoughts (or, for that matter, if anyone else is reading these accounts)!

  2. Re: TransAmerica...

    Fair enough. Many people like it better than me, and I think I gave it ample credit for being quick enough not to be a beating. And it's fun with the addition.

    Re: Coop...

    Less agreement, I suspect. I think there's a pretty clear distinction between a game where the players essentially all play one "seat" in the game versus a game like Bridge where cooperation is clearly taking place but where each player is playing their own, distinct, separate role with limited ability to collaborate and/or assist their teammate. Though it also has serious competition between players, I think Republic of Rome is another example of a game where players work together against the system but do not act as a sort of multi-headed creature like all the coop games we've discussed.

    So, I don't have a problem with everyone working as a team to solve the game, either...but I would prefer that it more closely resemble most interesting "team" or "cooperative" situations we see in life. In sports, the team clearly works together, but each must play his role. In a work situation, each team member must do their own job: the project manager is not a programmer, so she relies on the programmer's unique talents. If he sucks at his job, the team is less likely to meet its goals. If the project manager sucks at his jon, the team is less likely to meet its goals. If everyone on the team rocks at their jobs, the team will succeed. If both Bridge partners play well, the partnership succeeds. If one partner has a bad day, their chances are hurt. This dynamic is COMPLETELY absent, I'd argue, from games like Pandemic and Lord of the Rings.


    Re: echo chamber...

    Totally agree! :-)


  3. Wives?! This isn't what I signed up for...

  4. Hah - well, we're still finding our way, so it's not going to be all wargames, all the time I'm afraid. We're both eclectic gamers.

  5. On to Randy's comment - I think I focused too much on your comment about "it's not a game, it's a puzzle", and went from there. I think I understand where you are coming from - different, distinct roles that are really independant of one another. However, I'm pretty sure that, even were that accomplished, the game would STILL play like a puzzle - although a more complicated one, in that the players would have to figure out how their roles contributed to the whole.

    It wouldn't be a cooperative game if the players weren't working together in SOME sense - so, while I understand what you're saying (I think), I have a hard time imagining what a game that lived up to your vision would be like.

  6. Tim:

    Is my Bridge example not a good one? I totally get that the game of my coop or team-based dreams is hard to describe, but that's because I don't know that it's been designed yet.

    It occurs to me that D&D is a better coop game than any of these we've described, and it definitely does not feel like a group puzzle. Is that a useful example?


  7. I think I'm going to work up a response and post it as a POST rather than a comment - should be able to be up by Sunday.