Pandemic Legacy and the Pains of Random

In my gaming group we like themes. So what’s better than playing Pandemic on lockdown?!

Technically we started playing it at the end of the lockdown, during which we played games that we all owned (and whose physical boards we could replicate) like The 7th Continent, Chronicles of Crime and Mansions of Madness. 

If you like Pandemic, as I do, the game is great. The legacy element is smart and enjoyable. We soared through the first four months like pros. Then we got a very grim May and lost two in a row. Now we are back on track but the sting of disappointment made me log back on BBG and change my rating of the game more than once. I’d complain that “The game is too random”, “if the decks get shuffled the wrong way you can’t win” and similar platitudes… yeah, because they are commonplaces. 

Obviously it doesn’t take much to realise that every game has a random element which will influence its outcome. That’s how you manage replay value, how you generate different situations in a game. Granted, some games are more random-based than others, and balancing the prevalence of random is a very important step in game design, but Pandemic Legacy is not one of those. So why was I so angry at the game?

That’s probably because of the legacy aspect. When you play games you invariably have to accept and come to terms with the presence of randomness. You play Eldritch Horror and you end up with a very tough and/or poorly sorted Mythos Deck (you know, that tentacled Rumor card after the very first turn…)? You can come to terms with that. Yes, you will probably lose the game but next time it’s going to be better. 

But in a LEGACY game there might NOT be a next time! And if there is, it might be a very different “time” than the one you would have had if randomness hadn’t messed with you otherwise perfectly and skillfully played session! Or that’s at least what I’ve probably been feeling. When you play legacy (or heavily campaigned games) there is this tension coming from the fact that you might miss something good because of the twists and turns that the story takes. And if you ARE going to miss something then you should at least feel like it’s YOUR fault and not chance’s. 

So I guess for me Random is OK, unless you are in a situation where you feel that a streak of bad luck might irreparably change and influence a lot more than the outcome of a single night of gaming. 

Camilo Séptimo – Navegantes

“Duele aceptar
que en realidad
somos fantasmas

Summer, the heat, the sand, moments that get burnt into your memory. That’s the essence of music to me. Camilo Séptimo’s Navegantes.

This came out in 2019 but I feel the need to go back and wallow in those moments because I don’t know they are coming back any time soon. 

Navegantes… navigating through love, pain, life – which is what the lyrics are mostly about.  But they are full of feeling, so very evocative as only (mexican) spanish can be in its sounds.  They have such a rich taste when you sing along.

The music is exquisite. 80s textures mixed with synthwave vibes (which, thinking about it, actually might come from a very similar place!), smooth production and high fidelity recording. Great musicianship, the lines of guitarist Erik Vazquez are oh so tastefully understated yet filling a lot of space. The writing is very consistent and, compared to previous outings, the band has managed to dial down the latino sugar in the melodies to a level of more universal appeal. 

My go-to soundtrack for chakras realignment. Peace & B Wild.

Painting experiments: Cthulhu Death May Die

I have recently finished painting the miniatures that come with the Cthulhu: Death May Die game we’ve been playing. They are not the greatest of achievements but… they probably look better now than they used to in plastic grey! And I don’t know why but  playing with painted minis is more fun!

Christmas Eve Dinner

Christmas Eve chez Chris is a at this point a tradition of my clan. As the host I have to make things comfortable and unexpected at the same time. So, as far as the menù goes, I try to strike a balance between classics and new entries. This is what I served this year:

Sauces and marinades I made myself. I made pesto last summer with fresh basil from my vegetable garden then froze it. The Barbecue Sauce recipe I got from my friend Albano (I tweaked it here and there but it’s basically his). 

Series… enjoying wasting time, again.

I am a big fan of series. I’ve always liked the possibilities that the situation offered. Ever watched a movie and thought that it might have benefited from having a bit more time, to develop a character, to expand a narrative thread? It’s not like every story needs to be long in order to be realised, but some do and the series format can give them that.

You have space, you have time and nowadays, series being the latest gravy train, you also have budgets. And that’s where some of the fun stopped for me. Too many series, too much… fluff. And even the good stuff inevitably gets diluted by the need to monetise anything that moves (Stranger Things season 2/3 comes to mind). Stories are good when they have a reason for existing. Instead with some series it feels like they just want to “fill the space”; it’s like they decided that they had to do X episodes, Y seasons and then made up stuff as they went along just because they had to put it out there. But who am I to argue? If I don’t like series all I have to do is not watch them.

And then some happen along that still make me happy and genuinely excited. I have found The Witcher and The Mandalorian to be as good as they come. Loved the writing, the pacing, the acting and the amount of heart that those involved put into making them. You can feel that everyone loved what they were doing and it comes through. And as annoying as the wait for a season can be, you are left with something you can fondly think back to, maybe even watch again. 

T.I.M.E. Stories: the White Cycle

“La boîte de base est nécessaire pour jouer chacun de ces scénarios, qui peuvent être joués dans l’ordre que vous souhaitez”. This is straight from Space Cowboys’s website. Thank you SC… if only you had made it clear that the game actually contained an evolving mythology we would have enjoyed it more.

We started playing the Italian version of T.I.M.E. Stories in late 2017. The choice of modules was more limited but wide enough for us to play the scenarios in order of publication… if only we had done that!  At the time I guess that the White Cycle wasn’t really a cycle yet or at least its existence wasn’t apparent. 

Asylum was the first, but that’s a given. Then we played The Marcy Case… and I hated it! (zombies as a narrative device are really not my cup of tea and this might have influenced my enjoyment of the scenario). As a consequence, and I have to admit at my insistence, we lined up the subsequent scenarios based on appeal, rather than order of publication.

*** spoiler alert ***

*** HEAVY spoiler alert ***

So we skipped A prophecy of dragons and dove into Under the Mask (because the fantasy hook sounded out of place and I really like Egyptian stuff)… and right away we felt like something was amiss: that (“double”) agent stuck in time, the things he/they say, we clearly didn’t know who the Syaans were! Guess what?! They were introduced in Prophecy,  along with all the other major players in the story: Elois and the Consortium. Not having played that, we brainstormed a little bit coming up with a few theories and marched on… and skipped Expedition Endurance to play Lumen Fidei… Because, hey, I LOVE the crusades!

Let’s just say that playing Lumen having missed all the previous stuff was a little puzzling. Here all the clues left in the previous scenarios really start to come into play and the ending of the story is all about choosing a side and, as a consequence, your take on future stories. The various NPCs (and vessels that you can inhabit) represent the three factions: Michel D’Ailly is The Agency (created and controlled by The Consortium), Yasmina Wa Khalaqa is Saayan and Saul Kalhula is Elois

As a side note, I think that the online expansions (the logs, the debriefings) are a really cool was to complement a physical tabletop game with digital elements (and the leaflet under the lining of the box is genius!). 

At this point we realised we had to go back and fill in the blanks. We played Prophecy which, as I thought, was bad (4th ed. D&D anyone?!), extremely mechanical, inevitably grindy and repetitive. But it integrated Lumen and helped paint a clearer picture of the ethical construct of the story: the Elois seem to be the real bad guys (they are the ones who stole the time-traveling technology from the Syaans) and they are trying to change reality (or returning it to its natural state of chaos) by manipulating the various timelines. The Syaans are some kind of benevolent but highly enigmatic force, trying to do the same thing we are but for different reasons. They have this “grand plan started well before the Consortium’s” and have a machiavellian approach to it (the scenario Under the Mask pits us right against them). The Consortium seems to be in the middle of this, neither inherently bad (they created the Agency to guard the timelines, didn’t they?!) nor entirely wholesome (very early in the saga we understand that, through us agents, they are “extracting” stuff from the space-time continuum, the cubes, the stones and even people  – Marcy!). The question is… why? I think that a particular word, used by Saul at the end of Lumen, might be revealing: according to him we (the Consortium/Agency) are “post-humans”. And what could the needs of post-humans dictate? 

With all this in mind we played Expedition Endurance… which didn’t really add anything to the mythos. Well, there was an encounter (location 666) which contained some references to future scenarios (Lumen Fidei), to conditions that should be met in the future (“collect 9 cubes“) and, more interestingly, to the very nature of us time-agents (“You don’t live… only the Syaans can release you”)… are we really humans?! Are we really alive?!

And then came Estrella Drive. I had BIG expectations: the 1980s, Hollywood, cinema. Unfortunately it was disappointing. Obviously inspired by real-life events (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… Ah, the synchronicities!) but without any “commentary” on it, not much trace of the 1980s, somewhat unnecessarily gruesome. Not much in the way of connections with the mythology apart from a couple of in-passing references to established lore. The structure wasn’t bad but the characters felt flat and neglected. Furthermore the story lacked in role-play hooks… or did it?! To be completely honest, at this point I felt like our approach to the game had changed. When the stories worked (like with Asylum) role-playing came naturally but when they faltered we would fall back on this “optimisation mode” where everything would be reduced to strategising about routes, objects to take, encounters to tap and numbers to roll. Very drab. And it invariably felt like wasted potential.

One final cause of disappointment was visiting the website (www.thetimeagency.net) and finding out that the section relative to Estrella contained nothing (the section was probably planned, there is an icon for it, but no related pages). Shame.

But with Brotherhood of the Coast came a much needed advancement of the overarching plot (I understand, it’s like a tv series… standalone, mythology, standalone…). A very long scenario (it took two sessions and four jumps to finish it), well written and entertaining, it dwelt deep into the lore and finally gave us some answers regarding the relationship between us, the Agency, the Syaans and the Elois; although the revelations only come if you do specific things or rather if you follow a specific… creed! And that’s where I found  the real strength of the scenario. Finally a story where what has happened, or may have happened, in the previous stories totally affects the scenario and, most of all, the way you play it. The choice you made in Lumen influences what you do here. Obviously it totally depends on the player’s sensibility. You might choose to ignore what has gone before and play it “like you should” or consciously follow that diverging thread and stick to your new found ethos. And the scenario rewards you for it. There are two types of successes, “mission complete” and “critical mission complete”, and it’s in the latter that the revelations start coming (mostly in the form of extra dialogue and a secret archive entry at www.thetimeagency.net). Obviously you might just decide to “diverge” here and/or you might not have played Lumen but if you have and you chose to do it then there is a nice feeling of narrative continuity and accomplishment that you get at the end. it’s not just the extra tokens, it’s really a good story.

Needless to say the hopes for Madame where pretty high… and it was pretty of  disappointing. The scenario itself was really long, tedious at times and somewhat frustrating. But the way they had planned it, that was kind of inevitable. How can you tell the story of what is happening in the  “present” unless you force the player to fail again and again? Collecting characters was fun… unless you end up like us and collect the one that will unlock the end of the story for last! I think we went in something like 26 times, and we even had time bonuses. 
But the end of the story and the cycle were the real problem. Obviously a big cliffhanger, coherent but maybe too light on its feet (it felt like the end of Back to the Future part 2!). But I loved the way they made Bob the sacrificial lamb of the Revolution. The war is on and Bob is the first victim. The agency, and the “order” it represents, kind of dies with him. And to us is left the quest of honoring that and, in the case of us Saayans sympathizers, to go beyond that.