Game Review – Pandemic

Pandemic is a co-operative game, where you work together (see, co-operative) to try and cure all diseases in the world.

I’d first heard about Pandemic on the YouTube show TableTop, but finally got the chance to play about 18 months ago. In my first game, I found it difficult to get my head around the ‘co-operative’ aspect. I was given some cards, and held them as I would in any competitive game – secretly. Then I saw everyone else had theirs on the table… Knowing that I would be playing with another group of friends a few weeks later, I came away from the game saying “Now I have some experience, I can pretend I’m new… no wait, that makes no sense at all…”

It was a big shift for me, having played mostly competitive games and occasionally team competitive games. In this game, everyone is working together, you win or lose together, there’s no degrees of winning and there’s no possible blame. You can’t lose the game because one person screwed up as it is entirely strategy based and the strategy is discussed heavily by all players. In some ways, the distinction of each player’s turn is blurred since everyone’s turn will be planned by the whole team. Sometimes, you can feel like your turn is not your own because you didn’t have any input, or the other players came up with a better idea for your turn. But on the other hand, the other players will be getting the same from you.

The introduction that I had to the game was “this is the board. These are all the ways that you lose.” Basically, if the epidemic tracker gets to 8, you lose. If the escalation track gets to the end, you lose. If you run out of disease counters and you need more, you lose. And there’s a time limit too, if you run out of player cards you lose. Each player draws two cards every turn, so there’s a limit to how long you can go for.

Every player gets a different role, which gives special abilities to the team. Things like making card trades easier (you can usually only trade a city card if both players are in the same place, and that place matches the city). I think all roles have some utility, although in the case of the Contingency Planner, some games may not see their ability being used.

Depending on the mix of roles a game could go very quickly. One four-player game I was in cured a disease in the first turn. In another game, the placement of diseases made the epidemic tracker advance much too quickly and we lost very fast. Even without that, the time limit does keep the playing time down and it’s a good one to bring out at a games night. Sometimes, you can win by the skin of your teeth, or get really tense moments when you have to drop your plan to be able to keep the team from losing, because someone drew an unfortunately timed Epidemic card.

It’s a great game, and after two rounds you can easily turn into an expert (that is, I turned into an ‘expert’), expounding the virtues of one role over another. It’s quite a complex game made of little, simple bits that interact in a great way. I’ve more than once been in the position of a team working out the next few moves for everyone, and have the discussion of several alternative plans become so in-depth that we forget whose turn it is right now. Being able to discuss strategy around the table is a great change to the games I normally play – I am used to making moves in DreadBall that I hope my opponent either doesn’t think about or doesn’t understand, and trying to analyse my opponent’s moves in the privacy of my own head to work out what their plan may be. In Pandemic, you need to talk to everyone to be able to win at all. It’s wonderfully refreshing to get people to solve a problem together and come up with a plan. It’s even better when that plan comes to fruition – all three or four players analysing, discussing, deliberating and then executing a successful battle plan. I really like the feeling you get when, as a team, you can cure off a disease and get a bit closer to winning.

The biggest problem I can find with the game is that of the “alpha-gamer” problem. I have been lucky enough to play with gamers and smart people, so everyone had a part to play in the game. But as I already said, sometimes you can feel like your turn has been played for you and for people who are not as strategically minded as most gamers are you might end up a spectator and just be doing what you are told. The other is that the game is for a maximum of four players. There is a five-player expansion somewhere, but we haven’t been able to play that version. I don’t think it will scale well to more than five players, since each additional player means that as a team, you have more special abilities – some of which are incredibly powerful – and more cards in your collective hands (maximum of seven per player). The Researcher and Scientist combination is brilliant, since the Researcher can trade cards so easily and the Scientist doesn’t need so many cards to cure a disease. Having more cards is better, because with two players you need to focus on a single disease at a time, and might have to run around to treat diseases before getting back to curing. With three or four, it’s possible for each player to collect cards for different diseases, or leave one player to mop up diseases and prevent epidemics while the others cure them. The co-operative nature of the game, and working as a well-oiled team (even the occasional Aquaman), really appealed to me and I’ll definitely try to bring this to a games night in the future (with two friends owning it, I can probably get away without buying it myself). I’ll be on the lookout for more co-operative games to try out in the future, as it’s a very nice feeling that everyone wins or everyone loses together.

Game Review – Kill Doctor Lucky!

Kill Doctor Lucky is a board game, the spiritual prequel to Cluedo. Instead of stalking around a mansion trying to work out who did it, you’re stalking around the mansion trying to do it.


The way to win the game is relatively simple – get yourself in the same room as Dr Lucky, make sure no-one can see you, and try to do him in with whatever weapons you may have picked up (or your bare hands). Other players then take it in turns to play failure cards to try and thwart your attempt. If you succeed, you win! If you fail, you get a spite token – which, for as long as you hold it, increases your chances of success.

The rules themselves are easy to pick up, and the game has become a staple in our games nights for being quick to learn, quick to play, ruthlessly mercenary and with a splash of gambling too. “Should I play this failure card to stop Ann, or should I refuse and make Carl use his cards… ensuring that my own murder attempt will be more likely to succeed!” This does, of course, backfire occasionally – we’ve had more than one game end early due to over-ambitious would-be-killers.

The game has nice, black humour and each failure card includes a reason for the failure – “The doctor spins around and waxes lyrical on his recent polar adventure.” The weapons in the game are also good – a monkey hand (bonus in the lobby), ‘loud noise’ (bonus in the carriage house, picture of a French horn) and killing joke are all in there, as well as simpler ones (revolver, knife, etc). Besides, competing to murder someone is a fairly funny thing to do when you’ve got a bunch of friends, a glass of wine and some takeaway pizza.

We picked up the reprint of the game in full technicolour glory, nice wooden playing pieces and big box. Originally, it was released by Cheapass Games in much less glamorous style. Cheapass Games are a frugal gamer’s friend – they believe that all you need to play a game is the rules and any unique components (such as cards). Everyone has dice, false money, pawns and counters so there’s no need to pack all that stuff in a big box and hike the price up. They argue that the quality of those components is generally poor anyway, so it’s better to leave them out, keep the cost down, and allow people to invest in one really good set of gaming accessories to use for all their games. Of course, since the big games companies are unlikely to follow this pattern, the only games you’ll really get good use out of this philosophy are other Cheapass Games. The big box version is good quality, but possibly a little over-priced looking at the content alone, and I believe that the Cheapass printing is no longer available.

There are also expansions to the game that introduce the Doctor’s dog, and a prequel game still sold by Cheapass Games called Save Doctor Lucky – wherein you must stop the Doctor drowning on the Titanic (making sure people do see you save him!) The game is slightly harder, since the Titanic is sinking while you play, and there is the potential for nobody to win!

Overall, I would heavily recommend this game – even the more expensive big box version – because it is quick to learn, doesn’t seem to get old, provides a lot of potential strategy or luck, and appeals to a wide range of people. I have even had to consider banning it, because about half the time in any games night we hold is spent playing Kill Doctor Lucky – and it usually comes out again for rematches the following day too!

Card Sharp

Originally posted on A Year of Frugal Gaming.

I’ve recently been cataloguing my old Star Trek CCG cards ready to sell, and had some thoughts on the subject to share. It turns out I had a lot of thoughts, and a game review, so I hope that you’re sitting comfortably…

Back in the day, when I was a fledgling gamer, I picked up a box of Star Trek: The Next Generation Customisable Card Game. This was dangerous. I’d never heard of Magic: The Gathering, or any other CCG, at this time, and I thought it would be a fun game to play with my cousins.

st2ebSome years later, and many more expansion packs down the line, we’d still not completed a single set.

For those who are not in ‘the know’ – a CCG is a Collectable or Customisable Card Game. You buy packs of cards with a random contents, and use these to construct a deck. Your opponent will choose his own cards. In theory, this is a gaming heaven – it allows for endless variation in games, as you each have different cards to choose from, and can combine useful cards together to make powerful strategies.

Unfortunately, not all cards are created equally. Some cards, you will have a dozen copies of. Others, you may never ever see. The only ‘complete’ sets I ever managed to get were ones I bought on eBay, ready-collected.

This randomness can also cause problems in tournaments. Star Trek CCG remains the only game that I have played in a tournament – a monthly affair run by a Friendly Local Game Store that may not even exist now. It certainly hasn’t run ST:CCG tournaments in a long time. Because you need lots of money to ensure you get more different cards (and piles of duplicates stacked up beside it), you’ll be in a better position than someone who has a limited disposable income. For this reason, I would name any CCG with the standard randomisation model as an enemy of the Frugal Gamer.

On the other hand, there is a variation on the CCG that seems to bring all the benefits, but designed for a Frugal Gamer. It is the Living Card Game, as developed by Fantasy Flight Games, and works differently. When you buy an expansion for an LCG, you get all the cards in that expansion. They come in different quantities, but these are set and not random. If you buy one of every pack, you’ll have one of every card in the game. The plus-point of the basic CCG – the Customisable point – is still present, in that you tailor a deck out of the cards you have available. There’s no scrounging around for that one rare card that might or might not be in the pack you’ve just bought, you can guarantee that the box you buy has the card you want.

Personally, I’ve been experimenting with Warhammer Invasion: The Card Game from FFG.

warhammerinvasionI would definitely recommend the core game, although it obviously has extra appeal to those familiar with the Warhammer world. It can be played in about an hour, but the draft format rules can easily take as much time as the rest of the game (if you’re an indecisive person, especially). These are not necessary to the game itself, only if you want to introduce a semi-random deck construction into your games. There is a balance involved in defending each of your zones, generating resources and drawing cards, and attacking your opponent. Getting that balance while being attacked yourself is a fun part of the game.

The basic setup of the game allows for lots of variation – even using the same decks over and over, I’ve found very different tactics for each side depending on which cards are drawn. Each different faction has it’s own flavour, and can be mixed along the broad ideological lines of the Warhammer world (Order vs. Destruction) to open up the options even further.

The rules are quite simple, and can be taught to new players fairly quickly. Working out how to best use their cards may take a while longer, but that’s a matter of practice with any new game. I have found that some of the rules didn’t quite fit at first, compared to games I am used to. The method of assigning damage, then taking actions, and finally applying the damage can open up a range of new, devious tactics but it also takes some getting used to. In the same vein, I have made assumptions about how some cards work and been quite wrong. The best example is that if something says ‘Destroy all units’ it means to destroy all units, for all players.

As far as memorable moments go, a few nights ago my wife was ready to destroy me with two Great Unclean Ones when I decided it was the perfect time for a ‘Destroy all units’ card – the board was effectively reset, and I just had to deal out damage before she finished me off. That one card saved me, and gave me a victory! Before that, I’d never been sure about cards that wipe out your own forces.

The quality of the components is very high – it might seem slightly pedantic to notice this, but even the damage/resource markers are sturdy, thick pieces that look like they’ll last a while. The cards themselves are printed right out to the edges, with no borders, and this looks much better than other systems with a border – in the case of my first CCG, Star Trek, sometimes the borders were of different colours for collector’s sakes!

My gripe would be, however, that the core game doesn’t offer enough in the way of effective themes beyond the main factions. There’s no real purpose to adding Chaos cards to an Orc deck, they would only interfere with each other’s themes. Dwarfs and High Elves will go together slightly better, with one healing units and the other healing your zones, but it’s a fairly weak mix (there are few Elf cards in the core game, let alone those on the theme).

The expansions add to the mix, expand the themes, and offer more options but the rub there is that although the first themed expansion set (‘The Corruption Cycle’) adds the Skaven as a sub-faction, it does so spread across all six expansions in the set. As each expansion costs between £5 and £8 (depending on where you find them), to get a full range of Skaven cards – each of which assists the others with thematic synergy – will set you back a fair bit of money. For serious tournament players, you may need to triple the cost to get the maximum number of cards, but I think of serious tournament players as being less than frugal in games of this sort. The best bet for regular gamers who want to compete at that level is to share with your friends and enter with two different decks. Quick note: Fantasy Flight Games are revising their expansion format, so they cost a little more and contain three copies of each card – which eliminates the need for multiple purchases, and works out at the same or less per card. This won’t take effect till later this year, and won’t be back-dated to the packs already released.

Overall, I think the Living Card Game format is a very welcome successor to the original CCG format and although I’ve griped about the overall cost of a linked expansion set, you still get significantly more cards for the same money as a CCG set – and with less risk in the purchase, too. In this particular case, the game is quick, fun, easy to learn and has enough variety in the core box to keep you playing for a while. Also, while it describes itself as a two-player game and has no specific rules for multiplayer variants, several cards say ‘one target opponent’ and ‘each opponent’ so I believe it wouldn’t be hard to play a multiplayer game and move the options out even further. Since you can choose your level of involvement as it comes to expansion packs, I’d call this a good game and a frugal pick!