Friday, January 23, 2009

Two "Dumbs" don't make a "Smart" (Zombie Fluxyx, Space Alert x3, In the Year of the Dragon)

Taste is a funny thing.

Obviously, everyone has their preferences. When it comes to games, I personally enjoy a pretty broad spectrum of types of games: Strategy, thematic, silly, wargames, party, light/ heavy...


cooperative/ competitive

With the exception of Lord of the Rings, the cooperative genre is relatively young. LOTR has been a polarizing game for us, as it has been in the larger gaming world. I love it, Kozure, Bharmer and Luch like it well enough (I think), and Shemp hates it. Now that cooperative and semi-cooperative games have become fashionable, it seems that we've had a chance to determine how the group *really* feels about the genre. Reactions have been mixed, but generally speaking I'd say it's not been terribly successful.

We've played LOTR, Shadows over Camelot, Pandemic, Battlestar Galactica and, this week, Space Alert (I've also played Red November, though not with WAGS). Of these, Pandemic has been the most successful at pleasing everybody. LOTR and Battlestar Galactica was well liked by approximately half the group, Shadows over Camelot I got rid of because after a few plays I lost all interest.

Shemp summed his feelings rather well when he mentioned that in most games he looks forward to the interaction of the various play styles of each player. The gameplay of cooperative games ultimately revolves around efficiently managing incoming crisis, which in turn largely defines the kind of reaction you can take. For this reason they are more about sharing a common experience, muting individual play style and eliminating a certain type of player interaction. It's worth noting that Shemp is also not a big fan of non-cooperative games that have little interaction, for much the same reason (Race for the Galaxy and Agricola have been two recent examples).

Still, because it's so peculiar, I had no idea how the group would react to Space Alert... it turns out the answer was "meh" from Shemp and Kozure (the jury is still out on Bharmer or Luch's reaction since they weren't around).

Me? I really liked it.

Space Alert

Space Alert is a cooperative game that places the players in the unfortunate role of a hapless crew tasked with the responsibility of defending a spaceship, the Sitting Duck, for 10 minutes while it maps an uncharted sector of space. It's worth mentioning that he setting is nicely integrated into the rule book, which is quite humorous and reminds me of old "Paranoia" material. To defend the ship, the players have a number of laser cannons, rockets, battlebots and shields. However, the guns and shields need power, and managing and distributing power is crucial to ensure that *heaven forbid* the shields run out and the guns fail to fire.

The "gimmick" is that the game literally lasts 10 minutes... players listen to a CD which informs players of the various threats that appear (and when). It also tells players when the different phases start and end, etc. During that time, players must program their character's actions RoboRally style (a combination of "move around the ship" and "push this button" instructions) in an attempt to counter the threats and prevent them from destroying the ship. The problem is that the time limit, the cards dealt, the logistics required to make things work and the inherently inefficient nature of oral communication makes this a rather chaotic and difficult endeavor. After the 10 minutes are up, the programmed cards are revealed one by one to see what really happened, and to discover if the crew succeeded... or if the ship has been destroyed.

Thankfully, the game is designed to ease players into the chaos through several introductory scenarios that gradually introduce the various functions of the ship, and the rules of the game. The first two we played were only 7 minutes long, asking us to program 7 actions in that time. In both cases, 3 threats appeared. Guns and shields are in play, but none of the other subsystems are. We did alright: We lived through the first scenario and narrowly failed he second.

Our last play was also an introductory one, but slightly more advanced. Rockets are introduced. We discover that the ship has a screen saver which needs to be toggled frequently to avoid interruptions to other important subsystems (like, umm, lasers). Advanced threats are now placed in the mix. Damage is no longer represented by generic cubes, instead replaced by chits that identify damage to specific components of the ship (which, of course, means that they will malfunction). Oh, and we now have 10 minutes to program 13 actions.

We got pasted.

Please keep in mind that because we were only 3 players, we had to control an "android" which is essentially a fourth player that we all share in programming (we named it "Luch"). Since we were not particularly skilled in programming our own actions, managing an extra player was difficult.

We screwed up many times. On one occasion, I screwed up twice and they ended up cancelling each other into a good move (though we still came to the conclusion that two dumbs don't make a smart). Other times, we weren't so lucky.

When I play the game, I find the planning period to be tremendously fun. I like attempting to coordinate a number of actions under the time pressure. I like that I never really have a sense that I know what's going on (for example, because I haven't had a chance to read the descriptions of the incoming threats). I like that I'm planning with other players to accomplish specific tasks, but that I'm not sure it will work out even if the plan itself is solid (this could happen either because a player miss-programmed their actions, because a part of the ship took damage and part of our plan becomes impossible due to malfunctioning equipment, etc). It follows that since I like the planning phase due in part to the unpredictability, I like witnessing how the actions play out (just as in RoboRally). I feel satisfaction when the plan (or dumb luck, or more likely a combination of both) comes together, and I find it funny when things screw up.

When it's over, whether we win or not I immediately want to play again and try to do better. It's very nice that the game ramps up the difficulty over time, because it keeps the game challenging and frantic.

Anyway, as I said Shemp and Kozure weren't wowed by it. They found that the programming cards too often limited your actions, that too often you just couldn't do anything coherent with what you had. I suppose their is nothing stopping us from introducing a variant where players get more cards every phase, or maybe that each player starts the game with a preconstructed deck of actions

Zombie Fluxx

I had never played a fluxx game before, but it sounded novel, silly, short and easy to play so I thought I'd take a chance on it. Fluxx games are all similar in that they start with just a few simple rules (draw a card then play a card) and no goal. Over the course of the game, as cards get played, new rules get added and goals are introduced. For example, you mighy play a card which says :"New rule: Draw 3 cards instead of 1". From then on, all players draw the new amount of cards. Similarly, if a Goal card is played a winning condition is added to the game... for example "The first player with 3 zombies wins". Only one goal card can be in play at a time, though, so the goal will change over the course of the game. The game therefore goes on until a combination of cards played lines up with the goal on the table.

I purchased the Zombie version because it seemed more fun to me, but now I wonder whether the theme might turn off the type of people I'd be likely to play this with. I think Shemp and Kozure thought it was... fine. Shemp's wife, Hilaria, doesn't often play games with us but did play a hand of this. Not sure what she thought of it (though I didn't get a sense she was a big fan). I thought it was decent, and can definitely see enjoying it over beer when looking to just kill time.

In the Year of the Dragon

We haven't played this in a while, and that's really a shame because I truly enjoy this game. It's definitely my favorite new pure euro that I've played in quite a long time. In the past I've done quite well at the game, but this time I struggled to keep up on the people track so the early lead I got in VPs was quickly eroded. Kozure, who managed to stay well in the lead on the person track throughout the game saw his strategy pay off about 3/4s of the way through the game... surpassing me and winning with a convincing lead.

Great game.


  1. I've been spending some time thinking about why I don't like Space Alert, but I do like co-operative games like BSG, and other "Random action" games like Robo Rally. I also like Combat Commander: Europe/Med less than other tactical wargames. I'll try to break it down here... it's a fairly complex issue.

    To me, one of the principle enjoyments of boardgames is making informed decisions and then seeing how well your decisions advance your status within the game context.

    For example, in chess, you choose to move a knight to take a pawn. The result is the pawn is removed, which reconfigures the tactical situation. The choice of what to move (the knight) is known. The choice of how to move (in an L-shape) is known. The choice and outcome of what happens when the knight occupies the pawn's space is known (pawn is removed). The opponent must then react to the new tactical situation.

    By way of comparison, in poker, your choice of hand is unknown (initially) is unknown, but becomes known after the deal. You bet based on your knowledge of the odds of your hand winning (known odds), but the strength of your hand relative to other players is unknown (and technically random). You have a choice as to what to bet (limited, in some cases by bet/raise limits) and what to discard (in the case of draw poker). You also know how many cards your opponent draws.

    So, there is some randomness to your initial strength of hand, known variables in interpreting your strength of hand relative to other players, and a random (but calculated) outcome to drawing new cards, and a choice with relation to betting and drawing.

    In Space Alert, the enemy force composition is random, the choice of actions is limited to your (random) card draw and the outcome of action is known (so long as your actions are not incorrectly carried out by incorrect card play or poor interaction with other players' actions).

    I'll try to break it down even more simply.

    Games with mechanics that appeal LESS:

    Space Alert

    Action Choice: Limited, Random
    Movement Choice: Limited by Random Card
    Action Outcome: Known, with some Variables introduced by actions of other players
    Valuation of Multiple-use "Action Card" in decision to play/keep: Yes
    Opponent Force Composition: Random
    Opponent Location: Random

    Combat Commander: Europe

    Action Choice: Limited, Random
    Movement Choice: Open, Limited by Random Card
    Action Outcome: Random with Odds
    Valuation of Multiple-use "Action Card" in decision to play/keep: Yes
    Opponent Force Composition: Known
    Opponent Location: Known (with occasional randomly placed units)



    Action Choice: Cards:Limited, Random allocation - Locations: Open
    Movement Choice: Open (with minor penalties for certain moves)
    Action Outcome: Hidden (skill checks) or Random with Odds (combat)
    Valuation of Multiple-use "Action Card" in decision to play/keep: Yes
    Opponent Force Composition: Random
    Opponent Location: Random

    Superficially, these look pretty similar. I'm still struggling with their differentiation.

    I guess the main thing is that in BSG and successful card-driven wargames like Wilderness War or Twilight Struggle, you almost always have the opportunity to perform exactly the action you want, BUT that action may or may not be optimal, and your status may change as a result - that is, you must adapt your play to the hand you are dealt but you are never prevented from doing a specific action. Conversely, in Space Alert or Combat Commander: Europe, you sometimes simply cannot do what you want, regardless of how you play the cards, and you must adapt your tactic/strategy to the dictat of your randomly distributed hand.

    I guess the thing I dislike is "railroading" in game play - in that, given that an action exists as a possibility, unless there's some good reason other than random distribution that you should or should not be able to do something, you should be able to do it.

    To me, it feels incorrect for a sentient crew to be unable to perform an action because it has not been "dealt". For robots, as in Robo Rally, it's fine - you can expect it.

    Similarly, I find it restrictive in Combat Commander to be dealt a hand of cards such that I cannot even fire or move, potentially for several turns.

    Now, defenders of these systems will often say "but why don't you work with what you have? Why covet action "A" when you can do something else like action "B"."

    I suppose I find the idea of free will in gaming the attraction, and that you succeed based on your evaluation of risk (for random possibility outcomes) or manoeuvre (for known outcomes, or possible outcomes with specific interactions).

    It's a little hard to write and express oneself in this "comment" format - I think it's best explained in person, but at a basic level, it's the idea of how one's choices affect your fate. If certain choices are removed altogether, one feels cheated out of gaming possibilities.

  2. That's a great comment.

    Again, though, it boils down to taste. There is absolutely nothing preventing us from trying a variant where all players chose from all the cards, giving everyone perfect control over what they want to do (or, instead, simply writing down our instructions). This would allow us to see how well we can perform at the game under ideal circumstances... and would likely be fun as well (the solo rules included with the game suggests this, in fact).

    However, the things that makes those rules good for solo play are the same that could make the game suffer with multiple players. If everyone has all the options available at all times, then planning a strategy would not require any communication about what they've got... and would also likely lead to one efficient player simply dictating the best plan to all the other players. The other good thing about the random cards is that you have to figure out how to counter the threats with an eye towards what you've been dealt, so dealing with the same threat on two different occasions might be substantially different.

    As I said, maybe it would be a good idea to try playing with more cards next time. Another way would be to look at all the cards dealt from the beginning? It would be nice if there was a balance between constrained choices and no choices.

  3. I agree it is a matter of taste. I do think, though, that Space Alert would suffer both conceptually and in game play if players were permitted all the actions all the time.

    Obviously that seems to contradict my earlier comment. Hmmm... I guess to avoid the "lead player" puppetting other players one would have to limit how and when players could communicate. That would involve a whole other mechanics layer.

    I think we should give the game another shot with a full compliment of four players and rules as written. I don't expect my evaluation of the game will change, but I will try to keep an open mind.

    I never addressed Zombie Fluxx.

    I gotta say, I really wanted to like this game. Zombies. Light. Gnomic rules. Fun!

    Unfortunately, it's another example of virtually random win conditions and card interaction.

    It suffers from kill-the-leader, the possibility of winning without anyone having the chance to affect your chance to win, complete reversal or destruction of strategies by single card plays, etc. etc.

    I'm afraid this sounds terribly game-snobby. I try to think I'm not game-snobby - there are perfectly good games out there which are simple, light and fun, as well as mechanically sound and have some degree of strategy which is not negated (though often affected) by random distribution: Ticket to Ride, Blokus, Carcassonne, Mamma Mia!, Battle Line, Heroscape, etc.

    I'm not averse to randomness, indeed, I find games without some random element to sometimes be quite dry.

    Playing Zombie Fluxx makes me feel as though there's the seed of an idea for a light, fun zombie game that didn't quite make it past the germination stage. Unfortunately, unlike Space Alert, I don't see a possibility of Zombie Fluxx improving with additional plays.

    Occasionally these days I head over to Fortress: Ameritrash to do a reality check and make sure that I'm not lost in the ether regions of Euro/Hobby game belly-gazing. While I often find myself disagreeing with their viewpoints, I also find that it's good to hear an alternative opinion. I like theme, I like chrome, I like some degree of story in my games. Zombie Fluxx just feels like random elements thrown out; but they're theme-y enough to want to have some bearing on game play, yet they don't.

    It makes me want to redesign the game with a slightly darker tone and revisit a lot of the concepts... make changing the goal cost something, have presence of zombies have some consistent effect... but then you wouldn't have a light quick game. Or would you? Could you make it work?

    I have so many game ideas swirling around in my head I'll just have to drop this one without much more thought.

    In the Year of the Dragon - this time I found the groove and managed to stay in it.

    I find that a lot of this game is either leading the pack or doing your damnedest to "keep up the Jones" (Wongs?) - another aspect, as has been pointed out before, is realizing you can't possibly "beat" every event - you have to pick and choose.

    Another thing I did this time that I hadn't done before is get a double privilege early as well as a carpenter, and actually manage to use him to build.

    I was happy with my gameplay and strategy this run through, and I felt like I was walking just the right line between success and disaster.

    I don't feel I'm becoming more or less enamoured with the game with additional plays, though I do feel more confident in my knowledge of its workings. It's a solid, quick and not terribly brain-burning game, which is a big plus in my book.

  4. Zombie Fluxx:

    Agreed. It does,t have much going on, and is completely random. I'm surprised by your comment regarding Kill the Leader, because I didn't really see much in my hand that would have allowed that... but maybe yours was different. I actually don't mind the game, however, because it's short. There are a lot of games that give the illusion of having more to them (munchkin, Chez Geek, Killer Bunnies, many Cheap Ass gamesetc) but in fact just take longer.

    Space Alert:

    I will definitely be choosing it again, sooner rather than later (while gameplay is still somewhat fresh). I don`t expect that your opinion will change, but then again you never know! It's pretty much a "take it for what it is" kind of game.