Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review: Pandemic

Playing a Doctor from WHO.

Please excuse the mixed pun from the World Health Organization in my title. Thank you.

Here is a quick rundown of my biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind digging deeply into bit and chits for some of my favorite AT games, but I do enjoy a number of non-confrontational Euro games as well. While most of my favorite games are meaty, long games, I also find that a good, fun and lighter game that plays with 2 players well is perfect for an evening alone with my wife. Also, while I have no major issues with doctors or the healthcare industry, I do get a little squeamish if I watch them draw blood from me.

The Overview:

Basically you and the other players take on roles of highly developed members of an unnamed organization (akin to the CDC or WHO) who travel the globe trying to combat, treat, cure and eradicate four major deadly diseases which are spreading across the world. The players need to research the cures while trying to treat and keep the diseases from spreading too far and causing world-wide outbreaks.

This is a truly cooperative game. Now, by truly cooperative I mean that it takes it several steps beyond other cooperative games like Arkham Horror, in which you can trade items with the other characters and you all have the same goal, but really interaction is limited and everyone can do their own thing and you can still win the game. With Pandemic, you interact more directly with the other players. In fact, you need to. If you do not, then you will soon see the world overtaken in little colored cubes that represent horrible diseases and that means you will have more bits to clean up and put away when you quickly lose the game.

The game turn is simple and effective, making it an elegant little thing. When it is a player's turn they take 4 actions (the actions available are movement, building a research station (if the conditions are met), discovering a cure (if the conditions are met), treating a disease in an area that they are in or sharing knowledge (which is trading cards with another player, if the conditions to do so are met)). A player can take any 4 actions that they wish, or may pass on any number of their actions. After that, they draw 2 cards to their play hand. Then they draw the number of Infection Draw cards equal to the current infection rate and place the new disease cubes as indicated on the cards drawn. That's it. Simple and easy to learn and pick up on.

The players will when all 4 diseases are cured (though the diseases can be still running rampant across the board... to win the cure is important, not the treatment). However, players lose when the 8th Outbreak of a disease occurs, when the players run out of Player Draw cards in the draw deck or a player needs to add another disease cube to the board, but there are none left (so treatment is important so you do not lose, but it is not a condition needed to win).

The role that you play in the game changes how you play if you want to take advantage of each role's specific advantages.

Each player draws at random a role to play for the game. While each player has the same basic actions available to them, your role dictates which special abilities you have. This is where gameplay and tactics vary heavily based upon what role you draw.

The Dispatcher is able to move the other players' pawns on the board on his turn as part of his action. He can move them with normal movement options as if it were his pawn, or he can move any pawn immediately to a city that contains another pawn in it.

The Operations Expert can build a research station in any city that he is in without having the required city card in his hand to build it. Research stations are required to cure diseases in, but also aid in quick travel across the globe as a player can move from station to station as an action.

The Scientist only needs 4 cards of a color to cure the corresponding disease instead of the usual 5, giving a strong edge in getting a quick cure to diseases.

The Medic has a big advantage when it comes to treating diseases in cities. He can remove all of the cubes of a single disease color in a city with an action instead of only 1. If the disease is cured, then all of the cubes in a city he is in are removed without him having to expend an action.

The Researcher can trade cards with any player he is in a city with without having to meet the requirements for trading cards. Typically, if you wanted to give the Atlanta card to another player, for example, you would have to be in Atlanta with the other player to do so. The Researcher can trade cards regardless of what city they are in.

Playing each of these roles changes the game dramatically. Your strategy needs to be dependent upon which role you are and which roles the other players have. Because of this, players also need to interact and discuss strategy and plans together as the game progresses.

As you can see, the yellow disease is overtaking Africa, while the black disease is making a presence in the Middle East and Kennedy is leading in state support in Europe.

Diseases are represented by four different colored cubes and are placed on the board by means of card draw. Each city can only have up to 3 cubes of each color in them. If ever a disease cube needs to be added to a city with 3 cubes in it, it instead causes an Outbreak and each connecting city gets a disease cube of that color placed in it. This also increases the Outbreak counter by 1 (and 8 Outbreaks loses the game for the players). This makes treating diseases a very important part of play.

Drawing this is never a good sign.

A number of Epidemic cards are mixed evenly throughout the deck. When one is drawn by the players, things usually start to get bad. While drawing an Epidemic card means the infection rate (which dictates how many Infection card locations are drawn) goes up and three disease cubes are placed on a location, what really makes things get nasty is that the discarded cards from the Infection deck are shuffled and placed at the top of the deck. This means that the locations already with cubes on the board are more likely to be drawn again and cause Outbreaks.

It looks like someone is about to kick some nasty blue disease ass.

Diseases are cured when 5 cards of the same color are played when the holding player is in a city with a research station. This is not as easy as it sounds, especially because of the restrictions that most players have with trading cards. Anyhow, once this is done for each colored disease, the players win.

There are also a 5 special action cards that can be drawn from the Player Draw deck and placed into the player's hand to be used later. Each of these cards is useful in its own way and can really help a group when time is essential to stop an outbreak or to race for a cure.

Finally, diseases that are cured can still appear on the board. In fact, I've played a game where we ignored a cured disease to focus on the other diseases and we eventually lost because we placed the last of our red cubes out during a chain-reaction outbreak and could not place any more that we needed. So, cured diseases can still affect you and hurt you. However, if a disease is cured and you treat all of the cities with that disease in it so that there are no cities with that color disease on the globe, then the disease is eradicated. This means any time you draw a card that would have you place that disease on the board, you ignore it. This can be important to give you a bit of breathing room during the Infection card draw.

The Theme:

While there is a strong sense of theme in the game's concept and well-defined and diverse roles to play, a bit is taken away by the generic nature of the diseases. They are never identified as anything other than the blue disease, the red disease, the yellow disease and the black disease. I understand why this is though. By bringing in real diseases, you touch on and focus on what really is the dark nature of the game. Things are kept light and fun when you are removing red and blue cubes from the board. However, some people might shift uncomfortably if you were instead constantly talking about treating HIV, SARs or H5N1. By doing that, you bring in a sense of people are dying and some people might feel a little awkward, especially if they know of someone who has suffered from anything that you are supposed pretend curing. So, despite the fact that the color diseases take away from theme and realism, I think that ultimately it adds to the fun and enjoyment of the game. Ultimately, I think that is more important anyhow.

Also, part of the game theme is that it is cooperative in nature. This is very true in every respect. Players interact and discuss strategy throughout the game because you can assist one another throughout play and you need to work together to beat the game. This also means that while the other players take their turns (which are rather quick moving), there is not really a feeling of downtime, since a good group is working together and planning throughout.

Learning the Game:

This is a quick, easy game to learn. The manual is only 8 pages, but minus examples of play, set up and components lists, the actual instructions are only 4 pages long. It is also a very intuitive play that is quite easy to pick up on. By my second turn I was not referring to the rules. The only bit to learn is how to make each role most effective. But that is where the fun of replay comes into it.

The games are quick as well. Gameplay is listed at 45 minutes and I do not think that we've had a single game that has run over that amount of time. When my wife and I first played it, we played 4 games back to back, exploring the different roles and seeing how each game played different with the role combinations.

The Components:

Everything that comes in a very sturdy box.

The bits are very simple. There are 6 cardboard markers, 6 wooden research stations, 5 wooden pawns, 59 player cards, 48 infection cards, 5 role cards, 4 reference cards, 96 wooden disease cubes (24 of each color), an 8-page instruction book and one gameplay board. Every piece is necessary and nothing is really superfluous. Everything is nice quality as well. The board might be a little lackluster, but it is efficient and effective. The cards are printed on a good stock and everything is polished pretty well. A few of the disease cubes are not exactly cubes and are skewed on a corner, but despite all of my gaming OCD, that did not bother me one bit.

One other thing worth commenting on is that Pandemic comes in one of the thickest and sturdiest boxes that I have seen in a while. While it does not affect gameplay at all, I do appreciate the sturdy box as I live with a toddler who loves to stand on Daddy's game boxes for no reason and two cats who try to make anything cardboard with 4 walls into an impromptu bed.

The Pros:

*A quick, easy to learn game that does not insult intelligence or sacrifice gameplay to be quick and easy to learn
*A very cooperative game that has players focused on working together and interacting to plan, making the brief downtime in the game still active and eventful in strategy discussion for the players
*A game that plays well with just 2 players for evenings with the wife
*Good components in a strong toddler and cat resistant box
*Different roles make individual strategies based on not just what role you've drawn, but also the roles the other players have as well

The Cons:

*Some might think that the nameless diseases take from the feel of the game
*It is a card driven game, so some may be turned off by the randomness and luck (but in a players vs. the game setting, you need to have this type of element for replay-ability)
*Winning is actually rather anti-climatic; laying down the final cure is simply one player playing cards and the players win, regardless of how many nasty disease-filled cubes are covering the globe


Pandemic is an excellent game that really is a quick, fun play. The learning curve is minimal and the play is very intuitive. The game draws in game-related conversation during the play as players devise the best routes and strategies to take, so you always feel involved in the game. While winning the game is rather anti-climatic, there is a lot of suspense whenever an Epidemic card is drawn and every time an Outbreak occurs. The game really plays well with 2 players as well as 4 players. The more players make it a bit more challenging, but the 2 player game is not lacking in challenge as well. It's not a game I would pull out all the time when sitting with heavy-play craving wargamers, but it's still one that most would appreciate for a quick, light game.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Review: The King in Yellow

A quick run-down on my biases: I'm definitely a Lovecraft fan and Arkham Horror is one of my favorite games. I'm not such an Arkham Horror fanboy that I don't see some of flaws of some of the game's mechanics, but I am enough of a fanboy to still let the theme and mood of the game outweigh all of that and I won't turn down a chance to play this game.

The Overview:

I am assuming that you are familiar with Arkham Horror at this point, so I'll just do an overview of what the expansion brings to the game. The King in Yellow is a small expansion based around an insane play of the same name that has come to the city of Arkham. There are two variants of play. Either you can use the expansion as a touring production and set up to for the cards from the expansion set to be used first, focusing the theme of the game around the horrors and insanity that comes with the play, or you can have the play be a permanent fixture in Arkham and mix all of the new cards and encounters in with all of the existing sets fully, letting them come up at more random intervals.

The Theme:

Arkham Horror is already steeped in theme and this expansion only adds to it. I am a big fan of all of the references to the King in Yellow play (stemming from my experiences from playing the Cthulhu RPG) and I always enjoy the opportunity to read out "Have you seen the Yellow Sign?"

To be technical, however, adding the King in Yellow isn't a pure Lovecraft theme addition. The original references to the King in Yellow were written by Robert Chambers. Lovecraft took some of his references and alluded to them in his stories, but they were not his originally, merely incorporated into his mythos. However, it has become a well accepted portion of the Mythos universe and it fits the theme and mood of the game and setting perfectly.

The Components:

The additions for the expansion include: 4 new encounter cards are included for each neighborhood in Arkham (for a total of 36 new location cards), 24 new Gate cards, 27 Mythos cards, 19 item cards, 22 unique item cards, and 15 spell cards. All of these add to the existing decks to further the theme of the performance of the King in Yellow in the city. The expansion also adds a few new things to the set:

The Herald Sheet (The King in Yellow): The Herald is a powerful being and force that is preparing the path for the arrival of the Ancient One in the game (and it is most fitting if you have the Ancient One you are facing be Hastur). The Herald adds to the difficulty and challenge of the game (and, in my opinion, fun of the game). With the Herald comes 10 yellow sign tokens that are used whenever the terror level increases. The King in Yellow Herald forces the investigator to make a choice whenever the terror level rises. Either they can place a one of the yellow sign tokens onto the doom track of the Ancient One, bringing his arrival all that much closer, or they can choose to place the token on the just vacated spot on the terror track as it rises, which then forces the group to draw another new facet of the expansion, the Blight Card.

Blight Cards represent prominent people in Arkham who are slowly being driven insane by the performances of the play. Each Blight card that comes into play has two effects: First, each card describes an event or occurence that changes gameplay never in the favor of the investigators, such as item prices rising throughout the city, or blessings be much more difficult to maintain during upkeep. In addition to these dread occurences, the character listed on the Blight card is now insane. Now, whenever you see that character mentioned in an Encounter card at any location, you ignore the encounter and instead lose 1 Stamina or 1 Sanity.

Act Cards are also included in the expansion. There are 3 Act Cards included. The cards are turned over in order and the first two Act cards do nothing to hinder or aid the investigators, but they put you closer to drawing the third Act. If the Third Act is reached, a huge charity performance of the King in Yellow takes place in the Arkham, driving everyone mad and destroying the city. These Acts are progressed by drawing one of the 6 "The Next Act Begins" cards in the Mythos deck. Each Act can by stalled instead of turning over the card, but the price is progressively steeper.

Playing the Game:

I have not tried playing the game as the Touring Performance variant, and so I cannot reveiw that. I eagerly shuffled all of the cards into my decks and played the Permanent Performance variant. I imagine that, other than the first time someone would play and was eager to see the new cards in action, this is the way it would be played most of the time.

The other thing that I need to mention is that this is the first expansion that I added to my base game. It makes a big enough difference to note that because of the 6 "The Next Act Begins" cards that are shuffled into the Mythos deck. The first time we tried the game with the expansion added, we had some tough choices to make as the Act cards kept threatening to advance if we did not stave them off. This was even as a Permanent Performance variant. The threat of the Acts advancing loomed in our games. In games since adding the other additions, those cards have rarely popped up because they are so diluted in the deck now. For instance:

Playing with just this expansion and the base set in a Permanent Performance means that there are 94 Mythos cards. With 6 of them being Act progression cards, that means there is roughly a 6.4% chance of advancing the Act on any Mythos draw.

By adding the Curse of the Dark Pharoh expansion into the set and including the 18 Mythos Cards in that set, you increase the card count to 112 Mythos cards, dropping your chances of drawing a card to about 5.35%

And if you also include the Dunwich Horror expansion (without Curse), you are adding another 36 Mythos cards. Which brings the Mythos card total up to 130, giving you a roughly 4.6% chance of advancing an Act.

And, if you include all of the current expansions (and when Kingsport comes out, it will dilute it further), you have reduced the threat of drawing a card to advance the Act to just a 4% chance. That is a 2.4% drop from my first games with the expansions and my anecdotal evidence has been that later games have not shown much of a threat of the game ending by means of the Acts advancing too quickly on us.

That said, even with the diluted Mythos deck, the expansion still comes into play with a full set of expansions in play. We've played games where the Terror Level has gone up like crazy and we've had 9 Blights out. That does not make Arkham a happy place to be.

I think that every time we've had the option, our group has drawn a Blight card rather than add a token to the doom track. The last thing you ever want to do is advance the Doom Track in the game. So, while the cards can be nasty, we've always seen it as a no-brainer in choosing them over adding to the Doom Track.

The Pros:

*More theme to a good thematic game (I like the gradual insanity of the townsfolk represented by the Blight cards)
*More location encounter cards, making them more variable
*The Herald idea is an excellent and fun mechanic (plus, Fantasy Flight has since included two more Heralds that are downloadable from their website)
*Blight cards are an interesting addition to the game
*A nice mix of new equipment cards and spells, most of which are relatively useful
*The threat of the game ending by the Acts advancing adds another component of challenge and threat to the game, making the investigator's plight all the more desperate

The Cons:

*The threat of the Acts advancing is by random draw and is diluted the more you expand to the game
*Location encounter cards are only for the base game, so there are no new Location encounter cards for the Dunwich Location (another universal flaw I see to the expansion mechanic of the game when new boards are introduced)
*The Other World enounter cards are pretty much as unthematic as the ones in the base set are, but that is a problem I see with the game overall, not just specifically with this expansion

Overall: The King in Yellow is a must have expansion for a great game. While not an overall earth-shattering expansion in how its new additions change the game, it does introduce the Herald which does have profound effect. The theme and style of the expansion fit nicely in the existing system. I would say that if you are a fan of Arkham Horror, adding this to your base game or existing expansions will only make your enjoyment of the game that much better (even if the math geek in me wanted to show how the percentage of some of the events will decrease with more expansions). However, if you are not a fan of Arkham Horror, this expansion will in no way change your mind about it. I easily give this expansion a 9/10.