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Robinson Crusoe Review

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Mostly, I’m not a big fan of co-operative games. Games suffer terribly without the unpredictability and skill of human opposition, and the whole genre sometimes looks like a collection of semi-functional attempts to solve this big, blaring problem.

But there are a very few that make my grade. And I’ve noticed they tend to have certain things in common: they allow plenty of scope of individual player decision making in the face of the group, offer some sort of simple AI-like mechanics that make it look like the game is reacting to your decisions and have a deep well of variety to add to the narrative and keep things unpredictable.

But the most important quality of all is balancing the need for transparent mechanics that allow for strategic decisions with a strong wind of chance to make sure the game doesn’t become a mere logic puzzle. Lean too far in the former direction and you might as well be solving co-operative Su-doku with your friends. Too far in the latter and you might as well co-operatively shoot craps. It’s a hard, hard proportion to get right and none of the co-ops I’ve played so far, even my favourites, have quite got it right. Until I played Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe doesn’t so much nail that balance as drive it through the wall and into a water main. At heart it’s a worker placement game, albeit one with an unusually strong emergent theme for the genre, with all the heavy decision making that implies. Your picks from the bamboozling plethora of options you’re offered every turn will shape the game and nearly always determine your success or failure. Yet skimming across the top of these hard choices is a playful breeze of chance that can, if allowed, turn itself into a hurricane of destruction.

Each player has a specific character with a raft of special abilities and two placement pawns which, each turn, can be assigned to activities like exploration, hunting or gathering resources. Some activities require only a single pawn, others can have one, two or sometimes more and this affects the success rate. Shove enough pawns into the activity and you’re guaranteed success. Fall short and you’ll end up dicing for it, possibly failing or triggering a linked – and usually undesirable – event.

It’s a quite wonderful mechanic. At a stroke, it puts the amount of chaos the players are prepared to endure into their own hands while at the same time offering a series of meaty and difficult decision every round while also enriching the narrative. It also has an unexpected knock-on effect when it comes to group decision making: if there is disagreement, players can still get what they want done if they’re prepared to take a chance.

This injects some inter-player tension that might recur later in the game, and reduces the boss player problem that plagues co-ops as a genre. So does the imponderable random factors that dance around your decisions. These factors do not, however, eliminate the problem, and the possibility of an alpha-dog player arising to direct the game for the other participants remains a black mark against the title for me.

The whole thing is smug with other neat little rules flourishes, interlocking to provide a quirky, absorbing experience. Another favourite is the way events can come back to haunt the players. If, while exploring, you draw a card that tells you you’ve sustained a head injury, you take damage, mark your character’s head with a wound token and shuffle the card back into the main event deck. Draw it again and you suffer recurring headaches causing more problems.

The weight comes from a classic set-up of too much to do in too little time. Characters need food to survive from the off, but they’ll need other things too as the game progresses. Shelter from the weather, tools and inventions to make life easier. To do most of these, and to work toward victory, you’ll need to spend time gathering resources first. You can’t do it all, sacrifices will have to be made and characters will suffer through a simple but effective rule stating that any shortfall in resource requirements must be paid in wounds. If anyone accumulates enough to die, it’s game over.

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Winning is hard, and requires practice and skill, but is far impossible. The difficulty level, again, feels just about pitch perfect. Every game feels like a fresh take at a puzzle, but one in which the parameters change subtly, demanding fresh insight, granting a new narrative and keeping things from getting dry and stale.

The inventive mechanics tie up into a game that gives you not only a satisfying balance between strategy and chaos, but which tells a detailed narrative. You’ll pick a scenario at the start of each game, ranging from a standard rescue from a desert island to a bizarre quasi-horror quest to burn out cannibal villages on the isle. There are six in total, widely varied and each playing significantly differently from the others in a rules-light way by tying in different effects to icons on cards, tiles and chits.

But there are also five fat decks of cards, the main event deck, three lots of events for different activities and the wonderful mystery deck, which ensure that no two games are remotely similar. In one, you might be constantly threatened by wild beasts running amok into and through the camp, another might be filled with vicious booby traps left by mysterious previous residents. There’s unseasonable weather to deal with, flotsam from the shipwreck to discover, fires, cliffs, earthquakes and much, much more.

Of course, you pay for it in complexity. You can’t get all that strategy, all that detail, all that variety on a simple rules framework. But it’s not so bad as it might first appear after a trawl through the dreadful rulebook. A lot of the heavy lifting is farmed out to cards, tiles and a seemingly endless parade of tiny icons and with few examples, it takes a while to see how it all locks together. And there’s a lot of wood and card to shuffle about during setup and every turn. But once you’ve got it, games run surprisingly quickly: the two hour play time on the box is not only plausible, but occasionally generous.

Humble pie is rarely tasty, but sometimes you just have to eat a slice. On the basis of rules and reviews I got the impression with was a cumbersome game that did little to solve the inherent problems of the genre, merely one that communicated a convincing theme. The theme is certainly there, the game remains constrained by the inherent problems of the genre and play can be fiddly to administrate. But the poor rulebook hid a wealth of clever mechanics and careful balances that make this one of the few quality co-operative games I’ve enjoyed.

Pandemic Review

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Pandemic was the co-operative game that launched a thousand flabby imitators. The genre became fashionable and designers and publishers started churning out identikit games to satisfy the kind of uncritical, rabid demand that only glaze-eyed, obsessed nerds can muster. Most were awful, and the few co-op games that really satisfied did so by breaking the mold and doing something different. And in the morass, Pandemic went out of print and kind of sank out of sight.

But now its back in a spanking new edition. New art furnishes the board and cards, and the wooden disease cubes have been replaced by transparent plastic in suitably lurid colours. The gameplay, aside from a couple of new role cards, has hardly changed. And we’re here to see if we can remember just why playing Pandemic made the co-operative model so appealing in the first place.

Each player gets a random special role such as scientist or dispatcher, and the team must pool skills and resources to travel the world attempting to cure four lethal diseases that have somehow arisen simultaneously to plague humanity. How this happened is not explained. Neither is why the governments of the globe have seen fit to fund no more than four individuals to fight this crisis. But this is a European-style game after all, so we’ll forgive that and get down to business.

The meat of the game is that players travel from city to city, trying to accumulate a set of matching coloured cards to find a cure for the disease of the same hue, while firefighting outbreaks by curing groups of infected individuals in places they pass through. It’s full of the sorts of checks and balances you’ve seen a hundred times before: the tug between accumulating or spending cards, a limited action pool with tons to do, co-ordinating board positions to swap resources.

Where Pandemic really takes off is its chillingly realistic disease model. If too much infection accumulates in one place, it spreads, increasing the amount of disease in adjacent cities. Which may, in turn, trigger the malady in that city to burst and splatter over its neighbours and so on, in a repulsively virulent chain reaction.

That’s bad enough, but naturally the game goes to considerably length to make this as likely as possible. Normally, each turn, a few cities get extra disease by flipping cards off the top of the infection deck. But the other deck, the player deck, is loaded with horrible epidemic cards. Draw one of these and the discarded infection cards get put back into the main deck. But here’s the kicker: you don’t shuffle them back in, but shuffle them and put them on the top so all the cities already diseased are in line to get another dose all over again.

These linked mechanics are what really sets Pandemic apart from its many imitators. They all share the basic concept of a situation that gradually gets more and more out of control as the players struggle to contain it. But in Pandemic, the problem doesn’t simply rise at a relatively gradual rate, it can suddenly and unexpectedly explode. The situation can transform from one of relative stability to utter chaos in the space of a single turn. And that means every card draw carries with it the delightful aroma of seat-edge terror.

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You might imagine this would suck all the strategy out of the game, but it doesn’t. The fact that infections go back on top of the draw pile means card counting can make a big difference. As can doing your level best to ensure that cities don’t accumulate enough disease to cause an outbreak or, if that’s just not possible, at least make sure that adjacent spaces aren’t in a situation to kick each other off and spread like wildfire.

But then again, while player decisions do make a difference, it’s here that the game starts to fall foul of the problems that bedevil the genre. If the decks are loaded against you, you’re stuffed no matter how skillfully you co-ordinate your globetrotting mercy missions. Some people don’t mind this, but personally I find the idea that you might have lost before you’ve ever drawn a card rather off-putting.

Worse, the strategy isn’t really deep enough to avoid the dreaded alpha-dog syndrome in which the most experienced or skillful player just bosses the others around. And they agree to playing second fiddle because it’s in the groups shared interest to take the best option and thus the collective win. It’s an all too common situation in co-ops, and nothing is more guaranteed to suck all the fun and cleverly wrought tension of the game. Pandemic offers a feeble sop in the form of individual roles with their own powers, but it doesn’t really help.

Some of the more complex and varied co-operatives that came after managed to overcome these inherent problems basically by throwing in detail, variety and dice. When you’ve got a bigger number of interlinked decks, more decision points and the mechanics between them are mediated by un-stackable, random dice it gets harder both to see an unarguably “best” choice at any given point, or to believe that the starting situation is predestined for failure.

Pandemic, though, is a European style game through and through and that means it’s at pains to be as simple and quick as possible. And it is: it’s easy enough that my eight-year old could play it with me, and games play to conclusion in less than ninety minutes, sometimes much less once you’ve practiced with the administrative overhead of the game.

That is, of course, a sword that cuts both ways. While stripping back the mechanics means the game struggles to overcome the inertia inherent in the co-operative model, it does make it wonderfully accessible. And in happy coincidence, many of those people who might easily be turned off a board game due to perceived inaccessibility are also delighted by the idea of playing a non-competitive game.

And that’s Pandemic’s saving grace. It’s possibly the ultimate family game, easy to get into, difficult to beat and free from the acrimony that unfortunately creeps in to competitive gaming even in the most loving families. It’s even slightly educational, thanks to that clever chain infection mechanic and the geographically accurate board. If you’re gaming with gamers, and in it for the long haul, pick another co-operative game. For any other situation Pandemic is the original, and still the best.

Cracked LCD- Police Precinct in Review

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Amateurish graphic design and completely uninspired mechanics largely borrowed from other successful games ought to be enough to sink a new board game title- particularly when it’s yet another co-op at a time when that genre has become tiresome and repetitive beyond its absolute top examples like Battlestar Galactica. Common Man’s Police Precinct, designed by Ole Steiness, evidences all of the above. There isn’t anything on offer at a design level that you can’t do in another game. You’ll cooperate with fellow players to control spawning bad guys, roll dice at objective cards, and race against a timing mechanic to complete a common task. There may or may not be a player secretly working at cross purposes, who can interfere in subtle ways or reveal themselves.

So why would I wholeheartedly recommend a redundant and unoriginal game with ugly art? Because, put quite simply, Police Precinct is a charming fun-first design with a seldom-used modern law enforcement theme. It’s a game that has a sense of unpretentious fun coupled with an uncomplicated process that never gets in the way of the good stuff- player interaction, shared narrative generation, and lots of laughs.

Each player gets a cop rated for their ability to conduct investigations, arrest street punks, and handle emergencies along with two special abilities. Each officer is represented on the city map by a car, which can be either an unmarked car or a patrol car with full livery. There’s some simple detail- patrol cars can move faster, unmarked cars get a bonus during investigations. Over the course of the game, the cops can earn donuts that can be spent for bonuses or to purchase permanent upgrades to their abilities.

Event cards drawn every turn typically depict emergencies throughout the city ranging from domestic disputes to traffic accidents to axe-wielding maniacs menacing the donut shop. All have a target number that must be rolled among a player’s dice pool, but some have an Unknown Circumstances chit placed on them. So you may not know going in that the Internet Hacker you’re trying to bust has an angry dog. Or a bomb. Players can pitch in Police Cards with the emergency symbol to add dice to another player’s roll. Emergencies occur in colored suits, and when a second emergency of a given color appears the previous one is marked urgent. If the urgent situation isn’t handled by anyone, it can increase an overall City Crime marker that will eventually end the game in a loss for John Law.

Busting the street punks means pulling up in a bad hood and rolling dice with the target being greater than the number of hoodlums on the street. There is an overrun mechanic whereby four or more street punks form up into a game-altering gang. There is a finite supply of street punks, and as the supply exhausts that City Crime marker increases.

The third major player function is to investigate a murder. This is sort of the game’s overarching narrative and primary goal. In order to catch the killer, players need to find 11 evidence cards from four decks of representing forensic evidence, witness interrogation, crime scene evidence, and locating the murder weapon. When a player investigates, they draw cards equal to their skill plus any cards played from other players, placing evidence cards on a display. Toward the end of the game, the murderer makes a round trip of the board and leaves, ending the game unless the players have all of the evidence and successfully make the collar in a routine arrest attempt.

There’s a lot of fun to be had in delegating tasks and helping your fellow officers by playing cards and coordinating strategies. However, playing the game in its standard configuration is also too easy for seasoned co-op players that will grasp as early as the first game that piling resources into drawing from the evidence decks to mine out those cards as early as possible is the best way to win- provided that the emergencies and street punk population are kept in check. There’s also very little risk throughout most of the game as failed emergencies either have no effect other than staying on the board or possibly sending your officer to the hospital, losing a couple of Police Cards in the process. It’s hardly on the level of Ghost Stories in terms of challenge, although the difficulty can be adjusted by shifting a couple of setup parameters and rules. The relaxed difficulty, however, might make this game a good option for families playing with young children.

The better solution to the game’s sometimes oddly frictionless gameplay is to play the game with the optional dirty cop rules. Like in every other co-op with a traitor, players get dealt loyalty cards at the beginning indicating whether you’re corrupt or not. The dirty cops can use some of the game’s abilities, rewards, and card effects to secretly stash evidence cards at the bottom of investigation decks or manipulate emergency cards to increase the frequency of their expiration. And of course, there are ways to reveal the dirty cop or cops, and the traitor can also reveal themselves to wreak mayhem on the honest players by playing- get this- dirty donuts. I haven’t tried it, but I’m thinking a six player game with two dirty cops would be pretty awesome- and definitely more of a challenge.

You’ll likely hear a lot in the coming weeks from armchair reviewers, bloggers, and various sources that the game is “dripping with theme”. It really isn’t. The theming- although relatively unique in the marketplace right now- is almost entirely executive and the game could be about any kind of subject where characters overcome dice-based challenges, control spawns, and look for objectives to complete a larger goal. It could be a western, fantasy, or horror game with nothing more than a full palette swap. With that said, I absolutely love that the game has a modern police theme and that alone is why I contacted Common Man with an interest in reviewing the game. It’s a lightly applied theme, but it works with the mechanical content and it is hugely appealing. The hostile employee with an assault rifle may as well be a disgruntled Orc with a club, but I find the “real world” setting more appealing than bland fantasy.

There’s a lot to recommend Police Precinct, apart from its creepy, over-shaded artwork and so-what mechanics. I’ve had a lot fun playing the game both in solitaire and with a group and that is what separates a good game from a bad one. Mr. Steinness’ design doesn’t really run afoul of most of my “bad review” triggers, and I appreciate that his effort was chiefly focused on making a fun, accessible game with a cool theme. Gamers that are over the whole co-op thing may shrug the whole thing off while others might retreat to Shadows Over Camelot, Galactica, Arkham Horror or one of the other popular options. But Police Precinct is simpler to play than those, and there isn’t another game of its type where you get to hum the Hill Street Blues theme throughout your turn.

The Lego Games of 2012: Batman 2 and Lord of the Rings

One of the more notable surprises for me at E3 this year was just how incredibly good Lego Batman 2 looked – and not in a “for a Lego” game kind of way. This new trailer doesn’t offer much of a peak at the game, but it does show the new voice work and, as much as I liked the “Legoeese” of the previous games, it looks like it’ll add some dimensions those other games lacked. However, there’s a lot more to this one, and the upcoming Lord of the Rings game, than some solid voice work…

So, Lego Batman 2. It’s got a full range of DC Superheroes, but then you probably new, at least, about characters like Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Flash all making an appearance. Executive Producer Ames Kirshen, however, told me the game would have “dozens and dozens” more of DC’s both well and lesser known characters. When I started going through the list of Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Guy Gardner, etc. he merely smiled and said he wasn’t allowed to say more.

He was willing to tell me, however, that the game, despite all these characters being available, does still center around Batman, with the Bat Cave remaining the home base for all that you do. Taking a page from Arkham City, the game lets you travel, with relative freedom, throughout Gotham City, with numbers on the main map indicating progressive mission points you can tackle.

I didn’t see a lot of the game’s characters in action, but I did get a good long look at The Flash, and hot damn was that cool. The Flash is a tricky one. How do you make a character superfast without making him impossible for the player to control? They got it done. The Flash looks amazing on screen and has just enough precision control to make his speed powers effective. Likewise, flying around with Superman to the tune of the John Williams score playing in the background gave me a great big geek smile.

Make no mistake, this looks like a joyous DC superhero game, not just a Lego game with DC super heroes in it. It’s coming out in a week, so if I’m wrong, there’ll be plenty of chances for you to all call me stupid.

The other Lego game on display was the Lord of the Rings game. I didn’t get as good a look at this one as I’d of liked (no hands-on time), but per Publishing Producer David Abrams, this is another fully voiced game and the overriding goal is to pay homage to the films. (As a fan of the books, who thought only the first film truly nailed the spirit of the story, I was rather put off by this, but I recognize I’m in the minority there.)

What really stood out here, however, wasn’t the attention to detail brought to Lego-izing this iconic setting (though it’s considerable), but the number of RPG-lite wrinkles they’re adding to usual Lego model. Characters will have small inventories to manage, a fully explorable and unlockable “hub environment” for Middle Earth, upgradeable items and weapons, and quests to solve. One such example I was given included the need for the party to make a fire, something only Samwise Gamgee can do and something he can only do if he’s got a tinderbox in his possession.

There’s also some new twists to co-op play, including the ability for characters to go into completely separate, but concurrent, questlines when the story demands it. The example I saw took place in the mines of Moria where Gadalf battles the balrog in freefall on one side of the screen while the party escapes on the other. It looked well-implemented and these games have already come a long way with using the split-screen effect to make sure co-op players aren’t driving each other crazy moving in opposite directions. (There are times I dread it when Ana and Kyle boot up Star Wars or Indiana Jones.)

I asked Abrams if adding all these new wrinkles risked making it a little too hard for younger audience to get into, while not being enough to bring in more dedicated RPG players, and he said the team is working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen and the game remains just as accessible as the rest of the Lego game family.

Would I play these games if I didn’t have kids? Certainly, I wouldn’t see myself playing The Lord of the Rings solo if it weren’t for the fact that my progeny adore the games (and liked me reading The Hobbit), but Batman 2 looks cool in a way that makes me want to play it, not as a parent-child bonding experience, but as a gamer.

You Know What Dead Space Needs?

Dead Space 3, which was “officially” announced last week even though everyone to a man knew about it months before that, will have co-op multiplayer. I’m all for co-op and at least EA didn’t announce some ham-fisted deathmatch mode with Issac running around shooting people with the line gun.

The co-op mode does seem to have its limits, though, according to a report at IGN which was written by former GameShark staffer and friend of the podcast and all around cool guy Mitch Dyer. Love to see former staffers do good things.

Here’s some highlights:

*The co-op is drop in and drop out. (Good!)

*The co-op mirrors the single player campaign (ok, ok, I’m still in)

*In co-op you’ll be able to share ammo with and heal your teammate. (I’d hope so…)

*There is no revive system so if when your buddy dies…both players reload the last checkpoint. (What the hell?)

There’s more info in the article about enemies, storylines, etc. I’m all for co-op modes being part of a game, even a horror-ish game like Dead Space, but that no-revive thing is admittedly a worry. This means there’s no way I’m playing this with Brandon.