Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Message from Trixi

Introductory Level Pandemic

I recently received Pandemic for my birthday, even though it's not my birthday yet. I need to do a proper birthday post, but that can come later. Anyway, for the last week my project has been to explore Pandemic in a slightly rigorous way. I played the solitaire game on introductory level with all 10 different character combinations.

Yes, I know introductory level is for babies and sissies... but at the moment I'm more interested in seeing how the game works than plonking hundreds of cubes on the board. Anyway, out of 10 plays I had 9 wins. Here's a brief summary:

1. Researcher and Medic - WIN - 1 outbreak - 3 epidemics - 1 eradication
2. Researcher and Dispatcher - WIN - 4 outbreaks - 3 epidemics
3. Ops Expert and Dispatcher - WIN - 0 outbreaks - 3 epidemics
4. Ops Expert and Researcher - WIN - 3 outbreaks - 3 epidemics
5. Scientist and Researcher - WIN - 0 outbreaks - 1 epidemic
6. Ops Expert and Medic - LOSE - 8 outbreaks - 4 epidemics
7. Scientist and Dispatcher - WIN - 6 outbreaks - 3 epidemics
8. Scientist and Ops Expert - WIN - 0 outbreaks - 2 epidemics
9. Dispatcher and Medic - WIN - 6 outbreaks - 3 epidemics - 1 eradication
10. Scientist and Medic - WIN - 0 outbreaks - 3 epidemics

In the game that I lost the character whose turn was next had a cure ready and was at a research station, so I lost it by one action! I think I'd been a little negligent looking after the yellow disease in South America, but there's a reason for that. Anyway, the first point I'd like to address is:


There are essentially 3 skills in the game: finding cures, moving, and curing the population. The important thing to realise about that game is that although curing the population is in your face as the obvious and most urgent thing to do, it's actually the least important with regards to winning the game. Not doing it will lose you the game, but doing it won't win for you. Finding cures is most important. Moving is a secondary function which assists you in doing the other two things. I tend to categorise curing the population as a tertiary action which is only there as a minor concern to stop the game ending before you win. With that in mind, the roles of the characters are:

DISPATCHER - helps movement.
OPS EXPERT - helps movement.
MEDIC - helps cure the population.
RESEARCHER - helps find cures.
SCIENTIST - helps find cures.

Yes, the Ops Expert is all about movement! By establishing research centres he lets the other character move around the board freely. In particular, if the other character needs the Beijing card to find a cure and the Ops Expert can get to Beijing, he can establish the research centre and still have the Beijing card when the other character gets there. That's much more difficult for other characters. Not having to go to a research centre can save each character a couple of movement steps, which can possibly add up to a complete turn of actions over the course of one card transfer.

The Dispatcher is obviously about movement, and I think he's more powerful than the Ops Expert. He just needs to get to Beijing and he can drag the other character straight to him. He can then send the other character away again, in many cases. I've realised the Dispatcher can be lots of fun, but more on that below.

The Researcher is a brilliant character because of her ability to transfer cards. Other characters go to such a lot of effort to transfer cards and it's often the rigmarole involved in that which loses them the game. The Scientist is similarly excellent because she just needs to get fewer cards. It's much more often the case that the Scientist will draw a cure from the deck and not require any card transfers at all.

That leaves the Medic as my least favourite character, because he performs only the tertiary function. He's hard to move, he's not much use in finding a cure. While he's doing nothing the diseases keep spreading, and THEN he acts like a hero cleaning them all up. Well, it might be too late! If he'd been more useful earlier in the game ten million people wouldn't have died in Calcutta!

I suppose the strongest character would be the Researcher, though the Scientist is very close. However my favourite for making cunning plans is the Dispatcher, and particularly his ability to move another character as if he was moving himself.


The game I lost was with the Operations Expert and the Medic. As I've mentioned, the Medic is the worst character for finding a cure, and the Ops Expert is not much more help, so this is probably the worst possible combo. That game was also the one where an epidemic came out earliest, so the diseases were hitting us before we'd found any cures. Now here's something I learned from Critical Mass: if you haven't had an outbreak, adding 3 cubes in an epidemic won't cause the first one. Because if you haven't had an outbreak then the cards for all of the cities with cubes on them are on the top of the deck, not on the bottom. However in this game I had an early outbreak and I think the second epidemic caused a further outbreak... and it was all downhill from there. I was amazed we got to 3 cures before the game ended in a couple of nasty chain reactions. It also seemed that we just didn't have the cards we needed to get to anywhere useful, and whatever colour cards I decided to discard would be the ones I drew next. I will play that scenario again a few times to see what my success rate will be like.


I was completely stunned in one game when the Scientist and the Researcher pulled off a win after only 1 epidemic. However these are the two characters best suited to finding cures, and they just hung around each other near the research stations, and kept transferring cards and finding cures. I had the extra bonus of being dealt the Atlanta card to start with, so I could fly directly to the most dangerous spot to treat the disease. This game took just 8 turns.


As you need to find cures to win the game, I only try to manage the disease cubes, not remove them, and focus on finding cures instead. Yes, it's vital to remove a third cube (leaving 2) from any city, but it's more important to transfer cards than to remove the the second cube (leaving 1).

If you need to remove cubes or transfer cards (other than with the researcher) then you'll need a good transport network to move around in, so establish some research stations as early as you can. I like to start the game, if possible, by flying somewhere, driving to the next city, and establishing a research station there. Often I just don't have appropriate cards and that makes the game difficult. It's ALWAYS worth the effort to use a card to establish a research centre on a city of each colour, because if you need to transfer cards you can use the research station to get to the vicinity quickly.

Transferring cards is *so* difficult without the Researcher that I tend to wait for almost enough cards for a cure to accumulate in one hand before making plans to transfer. When we do get on the trail of a cure I try to get the characters to cooperate to get all of the cards and a research centre in the same place.


Lots of things. The powers in this game work together pretty sweetly sometimes, and there's scope for clever moves.

1. I tend to not notice when I hold cards for nearby cities and hence could use the "fly anywhere" ability. I need to keep more of an eye on that.

2. It's a very strong position to be holding a card for a city already containing a research centre. This can only happen with the Ops Expert or with a government grant. It allows you to move to any research centre, then to the one you hold the card for, then to anywhere. Maybe the Ops Expert should be looking to set up that sort of move.

3. The Ops Expert is effective as a trailblazer who goes into an area and establishes a research centre so other characters can get in there fast.

4. The Dispatcher can move another character on his own turn. It wasn't until game 9 that I realised that that includes driving. That's so cool! I had found a cure for a disease and desperately needed to remove some of its cubes from the board before it outbroke. So the Dispatcher drove the Medic through that area, and the Medic removed 8 cubes on the Dispatcher's turn - the Medic's presence removes cured diseases. I look forward to figuring out more fun ways to use the Dispatcher now that I've realised that.


I have unfinished business with the Medic and the Ops Expert. I want to see whether I got unlucky, or whether they really are hard to win with. After that, I think I will repeat this experiment on normal level. That'll keep me quiet for a while.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Meeple of the Moment

Holy dooley. We went to lunch with Scrabblette's cousin today and it turned out to be a surprise birthday party for me. Lots of work friends, family, and gamer buddies. No time to report now as the gamer buddies are arriving at my place soon for more gaming. I got a boatload of presents (see above).

Cooperative Tile Laying Games

As I was reading the rules of Hacienda the other evening I realised that the rules of the game would influence how the players laid out the tiles. "Realised" is too strong a word, maybe I just began thinking about that. This idea has been floating around my head since learning Key Harvest, and it's inspired by Key Harvest's rule that your largest group scores one point per tile and your second largest group scores 2 points per tile. That simple rule encourages you to make your groups of tiles the same size. And as the rules point out, that's what Keywood, the ruler of Keydom, is trying to encourage. Keywood understands that the rules are a mechanism by which the players can be coerced to form a pattern of the designer's understanding. In that sense, by competing, the players cooperate to form a pattern of the style intended by the designer.

In Hacienda the goal pattern is long chains of land tiles with herds attached. However large herds don't score much, whereas connecting to markets does, so the herds tend to be small. Well, it depends on the map I suppose, but there are certainly times when it's much better to make more small herds. The rule that land groups only score if they contain 3 or more tiles prevents players from laying a single land tile near a market and attaching a herd to it - players tend to have only a few land groups.

Consider what would happen if we changed the rules of Carcassonne so that everybody who has a meeple in a city scored it. Joining into a city would about as good as before, but everybody in the city would be trying to complete it, compared to just those players who are currently leading in the city. This slight change in motivation would probably lead to more completed structures and fewer ugly gaps in the map.

Other tile laying games where the players cooperate to form a pattern include:
  • Architekton - except, as mentioned in my previous post, there is motivation to make the pattern ugly.
  • Attika - you're encouraged to play your group together and not build many settlements. If only that would work for me!
  • Ingenious - players generally form clumps of one colour, until the blocking starts. Ending the scoring track at 20 rather than 18 would cause slightly larger groups of each colour.
  • Java / Mexica / Torres - in these games the rules are more complicated because there are more types of tiles and Mr Kramer has more complicated intentions for you. I just realised Hacienda is very much like those games, though a bit simpler.
  • Santorini - does a good job of encouraging the players to form that lovely Greek island landscape with very simple rules.
  • Go - OK, so nobody explicitly designed Go as far as we know, but the rules create some beautiful structures. Sometimes it's really messy, too.
  • Taluva - the desire to place your towers and temples causes settlements in the mountains. Quite simple rules generate gorgeous mountain villages. I don't understand what there's not to love about this game.
  • Gheos - This is an example of a game where the rules completely fail to generate a nice map. A player builds a continent with a civilisation and the next player tears it down. It's like building sandcastles with your 3 year old son - nothing remains for very long. This is probably the major reason the game didn't work for me. I *like* the cooperative nature of tile-laying games, and Gheos is all about breaking things.

New Games Played

Wow, I've been fairly slack at this blogging thing. I suspect I've been using all of my creative energies actually writing new code at work. Also, I ran out of ideas for a while. Now I have ideas but am not sufficiently lacking in alternative entertainment to make writing them down the best option. Anyway, I've been playing the games received in the math trade so I'll share my opinions with you. Because I know my opinions are important to you.

Architekton is a semi-abstract tile laying game. By "semi-abstract" I mean a game where the theme is pasted on - other examples would be Through the Desert and Alexandros. Michael Schacht and Leo Colovini do semi-abstracts almost exclusively. Scrabblette and I like them a lot, but I think I liked this one more than Scrabblette did. Scrabblette was happily matching tile edges together when I went and deliberately played one that didn't match against one of her buildings. That was when she realised that I actually was an opponent, but I think the thought of deliberately not matching a tile edge disturbed her. I liked the game, but I think it would be very different played more viciously.

I received Attribute with the intention of giving it to my sister, but my kid liked it so he complained that "they already have Apples to Apples, why can't we keep this one?" Well, OK. We played it with my sister's family as well and they seemed to like Apples to Apples a little better as the scoring is easier. My nephew's comment was "this game would be better if I could read". Attribute is a fun game if you've got a group of friends who can pay out on each other, which I deliberately emphasized by choosing topics such as "my belly". And the rule in our house now is that bananas are elegant. Don't talk to me, talk to the green sheep.

Terrace and Blackbeard I've already discussed elsewhere. Blackbeard will get another go, but it's not a great game.

The kid and Jane and I played Warhamster Rally. This game was surprisingly like Roborally or Flying Carpet, and it took a few minutes of play to figure that out. The Dork Tower theme is confusing to people who know nothing about Dork Tower, and the kid found that the game was harder than he'd expected. Once I realised what was going on I totally ruled and easily won the race. We didn't have any deliberate screwage in our game, and although that's against the designer's intent I prefer it that way. Games where I invent a great plan and get it screwed over by malicious opponents (damn them, why must they oppose maliciously?) don't engage me. Warhamster Rally is cute and a decent game, but I don't think the kids will play it with me :-(.

BTW, after we played Warhamster Rally the kid pulled out Frank Branham's other game, Nodwick, and we played two rounds of that. That's a game where the silly play matches the silly theme, and even Scrabblette the abstract girl joined us to play that. It's a bit like Bohnanza without rules, or Pit with the handbrake on.

Scrabblette and I also played Cabale. Whenever I try a new abstract game, particularly one with nice bits, I wonder whether it's going to be a decent game or just something someone dreamed up and decided to sell, trusting that difficult rules would confuse people into buying it. There was no need to worry about Cabale, it is an interesting game. It's played on a hex-hex board, and there's a rather confusing rule where you need to move your runner in an elbow move, i.e. along a straight line, around a corner, along another straight line. Eventually we figured out that it was easier to barricade the other runner than try to defend your own scoring markers, so we got into a battle where the first priority was blocking and scoring was secondary. As I'd noticed this a little earlier than Scrabblette, I was able to build a wall preventing her from getting near the high-scoring spaces. She did the same, but the area I was locked into was better than the area she was locked into, and I rushed to finish the game before anything bad happened. The rules take a bit of understanding, but a very decent game emerges.

That's all we've played so far. Having read the Stonehenge rules I can't help but agree that it's a project designed to make a number of mediocre games, but I would definitely like to try the one designed by Bruno Faidutti. I have some ideas for games of my own as well, but I'm not very motivated to design a game when I have so many others to play anyway.