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. 

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!

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. 

Stories Untold

The other day I spent a couple of hours playing this little game called Stories Untold. It wasn’t half bad.

S.U. is one of those games that leans heavily on the nostalgia factor. Look at the poster (designed by Stranger things artist Kyle Lambert… no one would have EVER guessed that!), it’s pure 1980s modern antiques. And I don’t mean this in a negative way. Obviously it’s a dish best served to those who have actually tasted the original thing. I actually had a tv like that and a computer like that and played textual adventures like the one at the core of the tale. It’s the 30-year cycle (some say it’s 20 or 40 but hey, let’s not argue sociology here)… I’ve always liked that period of my life but now you get the feeling that, finally, everyone is getting it; now we are all big on the 1980s, shoulder pads and all! 

The game consists of four chapters, the first three apparently isolated but ending up connected through the fourth. The story isn’t actually as clever as it wants to be, albeit clever enough for younger people who probably haven’t played/read/watched as many stories as someone my age has. Nevertheless the execution does have exceptional charms. The aesthetics, the sounds, the music are a labour of love. And most importantly the gaming itself. The four chapters are four distinct gameplay experiences, you get to do different things in each of them. It’s a mix of text-based adventure, practical simulation (the second chapter reminded me of oldies like Life or Death), walking simulator, and more. 

It’s cheap, short and sweetly creepy, definitely time well spent.

Mansions of Madness: Astral Alchemy

Yesterday night we played the scenario Astral Alchemy from the Streets of Arkham expansion for the first time and nailed it right away. We did play with a good (average?!) team (Finn Edwards, Ashcan Pete, Tommy Muldoon and Agnes Baker) and we did have good rolls but I didn’t expect it to go so smoothly. That made me wonder about the MoM difficulty rating system a bit… I don’t know, there have been 3-stars that we failed, more or less, spectacularly (like Behind Closed Doors or Murder on the Stargazer Majestic) and 5-stars that were relatively painless. I know that it might all just boil down to luck but I think that sometimes it’s the internal logic, the writers’ assumptions about what you should take away from each clue or encounter, that makes things difficult.

*** Spoiler alert ***

I remember that in MotSM we couldn’t really grab the meaning of the clues. Some were vague, some were ambiguous, some even conflicting. That might be the whole point of the story but I think you do need some thread that, after exploring everything, helps you paint a clear picture. Instead we failed, or rather I remember I failed, the “final question” quite hard.

On the other hand, AA was quite straightforward: list of things to grab. Once you got them you’d know. Deliver. The end. Lots of monsters since the very beginning (that’s where the luck factor kicks in) but you felt like you knew what you were doing. Probably too straightforward?!

I guess my point is either some scenarios are rated too harshly (like AA) or some are rated too lightly (like MotSM). So, don’t trust those 5-point stars!

End-of-game board

Here comes… The Prince!

I’ve finally completed my gaming table! Almost three months of hard work but… here it is in all its home-made glory.

I had the idea  when  some friends from my gaming group, “The Starjammers”, told me I should have a proper table. So, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of our merry band, I decided to buy one… or not. I couldn’t afford it. So I built one.

I took inspiration from observing real gaming tables, from GeekChic, Rathskellers, Ultimate gaming and many more. I wanted it to be as geeky as possible so cup holders, dice holders, lights, sounds, the works. Obviously, as I am no carpenter, I thought I’d use common wood, not the expensive polished ones, and then line it with (fake) leather.

At first, I hadn’t planned to add the built-in monitor (more expensive, big hassle to cut, line, set up, etc.) but then, while I was working in secret, one of the guys sent me a picture,  innocently stating – “look at this table with the built-in monitor! It would be great to have that!”… Obviously I had to back go and… cut some more!

What I decided to do differently from other tables was adding that vertical structure on one side. We mainly play RPGs so I want a natural DM’s screen. Furthermore the screen  could house the speakers and function as a bottle holder and bookcase. 

Everyone was excited by the table… As well they should be! It’s either that or lose a ton of levels!