I’m always looking for storytelling elements in the games that I play. Here are three games I have not written about before, and some more thoughts about a game I discussed at the beginning of the year.
Takenoko is one of those games for which the words “charming” and “delightful” could have been invented – it’s a game about a garden, the gardener who tends it, and the panda which has been let loose amongst the bamboo to eat its fill of the gardener’s work. Your goal as a player is to guide the panda, the gardener and the (unseen) architect of the garden to satisfy goal cards you draw which dictate bamboo colors to be eaten, bamboo formations to cultivate, and tile arrangements to lay out.
The game is played on a board constructed as you go from hexagonal tiles which come in one of three colors and with various improvements that affect how and whether the bamboo grows, as well as whether the panda can eat the delicious shoots. There’s a consistent aesthetic around the components: stylised Japanese artwork enhances the storyline presented in the game booklet, and the individualized player cards and turn counters make for a unified gaming experience. These components support the mechanics very effectively – it’s easy to follow the rules, because the components and the play card design remind you of them.
All this talk of consistency should make it clear that this is a game with a story: a slice of Japanese Imperial life which starts from the short comic strip in the game booklet and continues throughout the game.
Good for kids, too.
One of my favourite arcade games is Missile Command, not because I enjoy it – on the contrary, it makes me panicky and claustrophobic if I actually play – but because I love the way that its design engenders those emotions. It’s a pressure cooker: limited resources, increasingly dangerous attackers, and ever more hopeless odds.
Pandemic is like a board game version of Missile Command.
The players take on the roles of researchers and operational staff working for the Center for Disease Control, seeking to contain and ultimately cure a set of diseases that are plaguing the world population. It’s a cooperative game designed by the same talented designer who made Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert, and it shares some of the same mechanisms.
First, the infection deck. This is the part of the game that routinely makes things worse: it dictates where the next infection occurs.
Secondly, the player deck. This is place where the players collect the treasures they need to defeat the diseases, but also contains the escalation mechanic: there are a number of epidemic cards in the player deck which, when picked, increase the rate of infection and then resets the infection deck with the cards already played shuffled and put back on top. This is the same mechanic I adore in Forbidden Island, where bad things that have already happened are the same ones that are going to happen again.
The third mechanic in Pandemic which meshes with the first two is how diseases spread. When a city is drawn from the infection deck, you put a disease cube on it. You can do that up to three times per city per disease, but when it happens a fourth time then there is an outbreak where disease spreads to connected cities – a disease cubes goes to every connected city. This can trigger chain reactions, and when that happens…
Well, let’s just say that there is only one way to win at Pandemic, but lots of ways to lose.
Drunken communist gnomes on a sinking submarine: it’s not a situation you’d actually want to be in, but it’s a highly entertaining game.
Your goal as players is to survive on the failing sub Red November long enough for rescue to reach you. To that end, there is a time track which the character markers needs to traverse: once everyone’s gnome has consumed all his* time, then the whole crew is saved. You use time by doing things: moving from room to room, picking up items, wading through flooded rooms, fixing things. For repair jobs, your base chance to succeed is linked to how much time you spend with bonuses for having helpful items.
Where it all goes wrong is that as time passes, Things Happen. On the time track there are markers for drawing an event card, and when your gnome passes over one of these a fire will start, or a room will be flooded, or a hatch will block, or the missile countdown will start. Some of these just make a bad situation worse, but things like the missile countdown set a time limit so that if no gnome can fix it before the time is exhausted then the sub is lost.
And I think this is the brilliant storytelling mechanic in Red November: the goal is use up time, but if you use up too much time on one action then too many events will occur while you’re doing that – spend ten minutes fixing the engines, and the reactor could overheat or go critical in the meantime. More than that, the time track is traversed by every gnome, not the team as whole – three players get three sets of event triggers, four players get four. So many, many disasters await you.
Recommended, as long as you can handle the messaging around alcohol in the game. Drinking is not without consequence (a dead drunk gnome can easily end up dead) but the up-front effects of laying into a bottle of grog in the game are beneficial**.
Having written about Elder Sign at the beginning of the year, I have now played it a couple of times and I wanted to report back on how story-laden it is.
And it is: the locations are atmospheric, and it’s easy to get the feeling that one adventure or another is cursed as every investigator tries to resolve it but fails messily.
There are a couple of problems with the game, though, which prevent it from being quite the immersive experience that one would hope.
Firstly, the colour text on the adventure cards is unreadable. Even on the large format cards that the adventures are printed on, the text is tiny which makes the “atmospheric” font used almost impossible to decipher. All of the game relevant text is perfectly readable, but in neither game I played could I find someone who could actually read the adventure text comfortably.
Secondly, although the basic dice rolling mechanic is terrific at raising tension, the over-abundance of tokens rather gets in the way of play. As you play, you collect and spend stamina, sanity and clues. The clues never abound (you spend them on re-rolls pretty fast) but both stamina and sanity could have been better handled with some kind of counter rather than the tokens. One player said that he’d used d10s in lieu of these tokens in the past, and I think that’s something I will be doing too (although I will need more dice).
It’s still an excellent game despite these hiccups, as long as you understand that the box is simply lying about how long the game takes. It took us three hours to defeat Shub-Niggurath the other night, rather than the 1-2 hours claimed.
[*] this is not a diverse game.
[**] for example: a gnome can only fight a fire if he has a fire extinguisher, or if he drinks a bottle of grog.