Sinister Soups Serving Musings On Game Development and Play

1Mar/101

Boarding Party: Part 1 of 2

Complex European-style board games have become more common and more mainstream lately, with the best-known examples probably being Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride. Ironically, I haven't played either of these in person, although I do own the Xbox Live Arcade version of Catan, and have had quite a bit of fun with it.

A while back, Soren Johnson wrote a post rating some prominent games, and after reading it, I became curious to play some of them. Incidentally, a friend of mine also started showing an interest in board games, and so it happened that we picked up several different games last week, and having now tried them out I'd like to offer you my impressions.

In order to do all the games justice without making this too long to be enjoyable, I'm splitting this into two posts, the second of which will be up on Thursday.

Pandemic

Pandemic is a cooperative game where up to four players must work together to find the cure for four deadly viruses before they overwhelm the world. A cooperative game meshes well with my reasons for playing games, and the setup is certainly an intriguing one, so Pandemic was a game I was eager to try.

As Soren notes in his appraisal of the game, the theme fits very nicely with the mechanics, as you feel constantly overwhelmed and pressed for time to cure all the diseases before one of the many losing conditions is reached. Furthermore, I found the cooperative aspect very satisfying, discussing our options on each player's turn, and planning actions for the upcoming turns to be able to trade cards needed to cure a disease or to fly to a particularly overrun part of the world quickly.

Because outbreaks of the virus happen as a result of cards drawn from an infection deck, and all the cards drawn so far are reshuffled and placed on top of the infection deck periodically, you can predict where the virus will strike next, and try to plan your actions with the other players to minimize the damage. Planning correctly, and preventing a major outbreak is very satisfying, while a careless decision, or just plain bad luck can lead to a chain of outbreaks that quickly spirals out of control.

I would recommend Pandemic to anyone interested in a strong cooperative experience where working together brings rich rewards and failing to do so leads to the end of human civilization.

By the way, if you end up playing it, keep in mind that you don't need to actually wipe out the infections from all cities to win, and can instead just find all four cures while leaving some cities infected. When we started out we thought you had to wipe out all traces of the virus, and consequently spent too much time eradicating every trace of it to be able to win.

Chrononauts

Chrononauts is a time traveling card game, easy to set up and easier still to play. Each player is given an identity from an alternate universe (for instance, one where JFK was never assassinated and the Titanic never sank), as well a mission to collect three specific artifacts.

To win, a player must either have 10 cards in his hand, obtain and play all three artifacts from their mission card, or modify the timeline in such a way that it matches the alternate universe from his ID card. Players draw a card from the deck each turn, and can then play a card from their hand to either modify the timeline, patch prior changes to it, or do all sort of crazy things like swapping hands with another player, or looking ahead in time (searching the deck for a specific card to put into their hand).

The game is interesting primarily because of the many different time-travel themed abilities that you can perform with the various cards, but it doesn't hold up very well with just two people, like we were playing it, because any time a player changes the timeline or does something else sneaky, you immediately know that he is doing something towards one of his winning conditions, and so the game becomes a fairly simple back-and-forth.

I think that with three or four players, Chrononauts would get to be a pretty crazy game of constantly-shifting history, and I believe the game supports up to seven, so if you have a decently-sized group of people to play with I recommend giving it a go.

Dominion

I am very impressed with Dominion's core mechanic, it takes a card game like Magic: The Gathering, and makes the deck-building aspect a part of the game, rather than something you do as part of the setup. Each player starts with the same deck of 10 cards, draws five of them each turn, and can then spend treasure cards from his hand, which are worth different values of coins, to buy other cards to put in his deck.

Treasure that is spent buying cards doesn't go away though, it just goes back into the deck, which is shuffled every time it gets too small to draw the next turn's hand of five cards. This means that you are buying more valuable treasure cards to in turn buy more expensive action cards, which you can play before the buy phase of your turn for all manner of interesting effects. As your deck gets bigger and bigger, your ability to anticipate what hand you will be dealt decreases, since you still only draw five cards each turn (unless you play action cards that let you draw more).

The entire game is based on the idea of building your deck, and it follows the competitive solitaire model where each player is playing for himself, not directly affecting the other players most of the time (though there are action cards that hinder your foe's ability to play out his turn how he might like, or make him throw cards out of his deck). To win, players must buy land cards like Provinces which give Victory Points that are added up at the end of the game, but each land card is a tradeoff, since it's an essentially useless card in your deck and the good ones cost a lot of coins to buy.

The final piece of Dominion that makes it so interesting is that the action cards available for sale differ from game to game. There are 20-something different types of action cards, and only 10 are used in any single game of Dominion, which means that no two games will play out exactly the same way, and not all games support the same strategies. For instance, it's entirely possible that the available action cards will not include any that let you draw extra cards in a turn, which would greatly change the whole dynamic of the game.

I would recommend Dominion to pretty much anyone. It's not particularly difficult to learn, it's easy to play, and it has some really cool mechanics that will tickle your brain as you try to come up with the best strategies suited to the circumstances of that game session.

Come back Thursday for Part 2 of this post, where I will discuss Race for the Galaxy and Arkham Horror.

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  1. Take a look at the “recent comments”. I think your blog has been overrun by prescription drug companies.


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