Space…The New Frontier

I just finished a fairly epic Sunday evening of board games. We played fair bit of Dominion, Resistance: Avalon, and the my new Space Alert expansion: The New Frontier.

Also, one of the new additions to the group brought along Cards Against Humanity which I think deserves its own post.

You may remember I referred to Space Alert as the greatest co-op game ever, because it avoids Game By Committee.

This was the first time we’d cracked out the Space Alert expansion. I’ve been sitting on it for a while, and one of the reasons for that is that a lot of the expansion seems to include ways of making the game harder. This is pretty common for co-op games. I find it is also pretty common for us to not require any further difficulty! We were only succeeding at about 50% of our games anyway. If we played a couple sessions back-to-back we might get smooth enough to mix in a couple “yellow-difficulty” cards, but a whole new “red” difficulty? Are you crazy?

The expansion also includes an entire new deck of action cards. So-called “double-action” cards they allow for, theoretically, twice as many actions but the way they are designed it would be quite challenging to use them efficiently. To compensate for (theoretically!) twice as many actions the expansion includes a slew of harder mission tracks. Red difficulty. Harder sound tracks. I’m really not convinced we’ll ever use them.

So there’s a couple things added to the expansion I’m sure say, a dorm-full of college students, will use but not really our group. Fortunately for us, though, there is some quite fun additions that both the uni-bums and hard-working-average Joe can utilise.

Previously there was a mission log which you could scribble in if you wanted to. We did – mostly to track our best score. We’d also go to the effort of writing down the crew. If we got the same crew together, we’d try and dig up their log and add to it. If we got the same crew together. That never happened as far as I know.

The expansion fixes this all quite nicely. Now everyone gets a character sheet, and they can track their individual missions on that sheet. But it’s more than just a score-card, with the expansion this is a whole new experience system including a class-like specialisations.

So you and your crew successfully complete a mission (yay!) Then you add up the points, convert that to experience, and voilà, after a success or two you level up. When you level up you get to pick the first rank of a specialisation. There are 10 specialisations to choose from each with three ranks (novice, advanced, expert.) So you can, eventually, get several expert specialisations under your belt. This system replaced the heroic action cards which were, by comparison, pretty bland. You pick one of the specialisations you have ranks in at the start of the game and take a card corresponding with that specialisation (for example, the data analyst gets a card that lets them use the main computer from any room on the ship.) As mentioned, this card replaces the heroic action card from the base. Before you get any ranks, you’re unarguably going to be weaker than with the base game. However with a rank in a specialisation you should be about the same strength, and when you get to advanced and expert levels (with which you can choose better cards) you become more effective.

Combined with this whole system is a massive achievement system. This is exactly what it sounds like and clearly borrowed from computer games. Basically after you finish a mission you refer to the achievement sheet and see if you completed any – typically you’ll complete at least one, and the bonus experience this grants gets you across level. (Well, at least at first. The levels get harder to reach the high you go.) The fun thing about these achievements are that Rio Grande have included quite a few that a computer could never cover. For example, an achievement wherein three or your crew members agree you used your specialisation in a particularly great way (open to abuse, maybe, but you’re only cheating yourself!)

Over the Christmas break I’ll be camping out with a couple friends. I expect to give this expansion a thorough workout.

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Some Many Games, So Little Time

I picked up 4 games this weekend. Well – ordered – most haven’t arrived yet.

Space Alert: The Final Frontier. I already really like Space Alert, and I couldn’t really imagine an expansion being worth the money… but I’d heard SO MANY GOOD THINGS. Too many good things. It was sold out ages ago. So imagine my surprise, when stumbling around the boardgamegeek boards I saw a reference to a little Australia store that happened to have 1 in stock! Well, I wasn’t about to take any chances, so I ordered it.

Battlestar Galactica: Daybreak. I have talked about BSG and it’s expansions quite a bit. It would have doubled the cost for me to order this box from the US (due to shipping costs) so I waited until one of our Australian stores got it in. I was fairly impressed – I was expecting a longer turn around, or higher price, but those guys get it in in bulk, I guess, and mitigate the shipping costs. If you want the game the moment it is released, it’s still a tough wait, but a few weeks to get it in store isn’t too bad. I can’t wait until it arrives.

Spartacus: Thanks to the ever-popular Dice Tower, I watched this review and immediately went hunting for a copy. The game itself was easy to find, but the expansion seems to be completely sold out. I guess that’s probably a good thing until I know for sure I love it. Also… I’ve never watched the show, and now want to. I may or may not have gone and grabbed the first series…

Fury of Dracula: I’m a huge fan of Fantasy Flight Games, of course, and this game looks to simply ooze awesome theme. Unfortunately, it looks like basically a co-op game – which I’ve talked about before except instead of being against the board mechanics, the four hunters are against another player – Dracula. So the hunters are going to play by committee – but in this case I think it is at least a little mitigated by needing to out-think Dracula.

The thing about Fury of Dracula is that it has been out of print since 2009 (I think?) and for those who like it… well, they already have it. And those that don’t like it, traded it away long ago.

If you dig you can find a few copies floating around, but nothing I could get here in Australia… until, this weekend, while at a Fete, I wandered past a little comic store. I decided to pop in. They had a small selection of board games and lo! Behold! Fury of Dracula. Due to it’s dubious co-op mechanics, and the fact it was basically impossible to get I had given up on it. I didn’t let the opportunity pass,though, and picked it up. I just need to get my mates around for a game, now.

What do you all think of these games? I haven’t really had a chance to play any of them. Are they all as good as I’ve heard?

Why Co-Op Board Games Are The Devil

I have been having a discussion on Google+ today about why “Paul” doesn’t like co-op board games. I think one of his points is totally off-base, and his second point is totally understated.

Let’s start with the positives first.

Co-op board games are generally ingenious. Their mechanics are tight, and the balance (usually automatically scaling to the number of players) spot on. They’re the sort of cleverness I never would have imagined in the board game arena just 3 or 4 years ago. Now they’re everywhere.

For those of you that haven’t really played a serious co-op board game before let me briefly outline them for you:
You and a group of friends will be working together to beat the game itself. Maybe you’re trying to wipe out a virus that is teetering on the edge of a pandemic and is threatening to wipe out humanity.

Basically a turn goes like this: You move your guy. You do an action to try and help the team a little. Then you draw a card from a deck that is nearly always terrible for you and your ilk.
The whole point of the experience is to overcome these challenges. You must prepare for, and mitigate, the bad stuff that you will inevitably draw from the deck of terrors. It’s strategy at its core, and is usually so finely balanced that no matter the number of players you have to do everything just right or humanity is doomed. They often end in nail-biting finishers where this one move will determine the fate of the game.

Sounds great, right? Well, yes, they’re clever and can be fun. But they suffer a fatal flaw.

The flaw comes in two flavours: Play By Committee and Field Commander.

They’re two sides to the same coin, however. If you’ve not played a co-op game you probably just won’t really understand the problem. It goes something like this:

There is no room for error. So everyone discusses each facet – starting with the character selection. Something like: “Well, you go this guy, and I’ll go that guy and then we’ll also need another guy and for our first turn you do this, I’ll do that…”  It’s not that bad on the face of it. Everyone is typically involved, and options are discussed and strategies developed. The problem is — why am this guy? I don’t really control him, except to move him and to declare that,  yes, I will do the action we all agreed on a few minutes ago. Really – other than a bit of brainstorming – there is absolutely no reason it couldn’t just be one person playing with 6 characters, rather than 6 persons playing with one character each.

This leads me to the Field Commander. You see, it’s even worse when it’s not even a committee. One player – one who has a lot of experience, or looked up strategies, or what have-you – directs everyone on what they should do. Strategically, it actually makes a lot of sense. Everyone is on the same page as “we” all “work together” towards a common goal. So, in many ways, it’s the best way to win… but why I am even playing? Why not just let the Field Commander play with 6 characters? In these sorts of games you could literally get up and walk away, and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference.

The one saving grace of a co-op board game is that they can be pretty fun the first couple times you play. These problems really only rear their head after you start to learn the mechanics. Once you start to learn the odds of drawing cards, or work out some optimal strategies for various situations. Once you start getting to that point (in my experience after about 3 games) then everyone starts to agree on tactics and strategies and then the committee quickly and naturally forms. (Or if one person is perhaps more strategically-minded than the other players, the field commander comes out.) Prior to this point people tend to do their own thing a bit. No-one knows the game well enough to make suggestions and most of the time all anyone can recall is their own character’s abilities. So it’s up to each individual to step up and help out. It really doesn’t take long to get past this point though.

So I can be talked into playing a new co-op game a few times (especially if no-one is experienced with it) but I won’t be buying any more.

The one exception to this rule (that I have so-far found) is Space Alert. I’ll cover why in a later post.