Fixing Nigel – Pandemic On The Brink

Previously on Pandemic.

“Without wishing to be rude, what actually happened was that the elite gamer of the group basically played all four roles and the rest of us pushed things around as we were told…

“(a ball gag and lockable mittens can be very helpful in this respect)…

“There’s a lot of choice and as the game is cooperative, the table is free to discuss the best strategy (except Nigel, he’s wearing his gag because he knows what he’s done)…

“Pandemic is very well regarded, and rightly so, it’s a lot of fun and with the adjustable difficulty, can have a lot of replayability, but it is a puzzle, which can be solved. This is why players like Nigel (who’s been moved to a cage in the corner, for good behaviour) can get a bit overbearing with a group of new players. They get less “here’s what I think we might need to be doing between us” and more “you go here, via here, cure this and on your next turn do that. You, meet them there, give them that and then fly over here” (but for a fee, such players can be retrained).”

And now, the conclusion…

*roll titles*

I mentioned a fee for dealing with your overbearing players. I propose that fee could either be a talented Domme, or simply a copy of the first Pandemic expansion: On The Brink.

On The Brink adds extra epidemic cards, so you can play the standard game on an even harder mode, a virulent strain challenge (replace all the epidemic cards with much nastier ones), a mutation challenge (which adds a whole extra disease to conquer), and a bio-terrorist challenge (ripping one player away from the co-op fun to take on a hidden role game, spreading a fifth disease across the globe). The box also includes petri dish containers for all five colours of cubes, new roles, new events, extra pawns for the new characters and a pad of pages for the bio-terrorist. There’s also blank role and event cards, so if you want to homebrew a new card, now’s your chance to get creative.

The petri dishes are a really nice touch, that were an unexpected, but most welcome addition (I ended up borrowing them when we played Pandemic Legacy as they’re a nice bit of extra immersion). The new characters bring with them new skills, none of which feel unbalanced compared to the original game. There’s also the option of a sticker to go on the board to indicate the new disease type, or a card that does the same job. It’s up to you whether you’re willing to put a sticker on your original board.

All of the cards in this expansion feature a small symbol so you can separate them back out if you choose. Honestly though. I moved the new insert over to the base game box, tossed the original, and now house all of the components in a single box (shelf space is limited these days so it’s nice if I can get more on without adding an extra box).

On The Brink solves the issue of power players controlling the game in several ways, firstly, they won’t know all the new issues that may arise. So while they have some transferrable skills, they should find themselves much more uncertain. If that still doesn’t stop them, you can take the manual’s advice and just make them play as the bio-terrorist (or, as I said, a Domme with reasonable prices), that should keep them from “helping you out” (playing for you).

The virulent strain challenge makes one of the diseases particularly nasty. A new set of epidemic cards replace the originals (there’s up to eight, so you can play on legendary difficulty with this one too). These new cards add additional negative effects to each epidemic drawn, making the heart drop moment of an epidemic all the more intense.

In the mutation challenge, you start with two cards sitting in the infection discard pile and three related event cards mixed into the player deck. While the danger of these new events can be a bit hit and miss (one only has an effect if there’s already two mutant strain cubes on a city), the cards in the infection pile bring an unparalleled level of chaos to the board.

Normally you can get a grip on what is likely to come back around in the infection deck. However, once these mutation cards start coming out, you’ll be pulling cards from the bottom of the deck to add a cube of the new strain to. Suddenly there’s a lot more variables and things can quickly go wrong. This is all the more concerning since there are less purple mutant cubes than the four classic disease flavours. Now you’re rushing all over the world as the extra cities join the Wheel! Of! Disease!

The purple strain can be treated as per normal treatment rules, and is cured by handing in any 5 city cards at a research station. While this can sound easy, you’ll want to avoid using up or discarding too many cards of each colour as you could find yourself unable to cure one of the original diseases.

Finally we get to the bio-terrorist challenge. They get a secret sheet to work on and hatch their nefarious plans. Their moves are hidden from the other players (think Scotland Yard) and they only declare their location if they happen to be in the same city as another player or if they take a flight action. The bio-terrorist can place down purple disease cubes in cities as they pass or spend cards from their hand to infect remotely. While this player can be captured, there are mechanics for them to escape, so it’s not a complete game over.

While it’s theoretically possible to mix and match some of the new modes, I really don’t recommend it unless you’re an absolute sadist.

Pandemic – On The Brink pumps a huge amount of extra gameplay into the base game while providing you enough space to pack everything into a single box. If you’ve played Pandemic to death, this is your chance to resurrect it.

Pros:

  • New play modes add tons of replayability and variety.
  • New characters are well balanced.
  • The new insert allows this and the base game to fit tidily into a single box.

Cons:

  • Not every single role needs their own coloured pawn. It makes more sense for each player to just remember what colour they’re playing.

Final Score: 10/10

A Sense of Control – Pandemic

Why review Pandemic?! It’s been out years and everyone who’s played a modern boardgame either has it or has played it. It’s like the modern Monopoly, kind or essential. The reason: I like boardgames, I like writing reviews, I’m trying to get better at writing reviews. So strap in it’s time for an outbreak.

I first played Matt Leacock’s Pandemic with some local boardgame friends who’d borrowed it from a family member. They’d been playing it an awful lot (if the record sheet of wins to losses they were storing in the box was anything to go by) so understandably, they were very good at directing people on the best moves to make.

Without wishing to be rude, what actually happened was that the elite gamer of the group basically played all four roles and the rest of us pushed things around as we were told. Victory, hooray (/s). Even so, I could see where the fun was in the game and wanted to give it another try some time.

One person power playing is a known problem with the game and something you’ll just have to negotiate with your gaming group (a ball gag and lockable mittens can be very helpful in this respect).

Pandemic sees you take on one of several roles as you work together to fight four diseases which are breaking out across the globe. Each role has their own, unique abilities such as needing less cards to find a cure for the disease or being better equipped to treat affected areas.

The main board shows a map of the world, with cities linked, mostly to their nearest neighbour. Areas of the world are divided into four colours, representing the four diseases that will appear. Players start at a research station in Atlanta with a hand of cards, each showing either one of the major cities, or an event which grants them a single use ability which can be used at any time.

During setup three cities are drawn from the infection deck to receive three disease cubes, three more to receive two cubes, and a final three to receive a single, lonely cube (all alone in the world, just wishing for friends. Is that so wrong?). These nine infection cards are put into the discard pile and wait patiently for their chance to come again (and again).

On your turn you may take four actions. These include things like travelling along one of the connecting lines to a neighbouring city, discarding a city card to travel to that location, fast travel between research stations, build a new research station, treating the disease in your current city, etc. There’s a lot of choice and as the game is cooperative, the table is free to discuss the best strategy (except Nigel, he’s wearing his gag because he knows what he’s done).

At the end of each player’s turn, they draw two new cards from the player deck and a number of infection cards based on the current infection level. Those cities are infected with a single cube of their colour.

Scattered throughout the player deck are a number of epidemic cards (boo! hiss!) depending on the difficulty level agreed upon during setup there could be up to seven epidemics. When an epidemic comes out the infection rate goes up, and a city is drawn from the bottom of the infection deck which will receive a maximum three disease cubes. This is added to the infection discard pile which is shuffled and put back on top of the infection deck and only the infection phase happens. If your luck is particularly bad, you may find that city you just filled to the brim with disease coming straight back up and causing an outbreak (instead of adding a fourth cube, add one cube of that colour to each adjoining city).

It’s important to get as much board coverage as possible, to treat diseases that are getting out of hand and prevent a possible outbreak (you can only afford so many of these). That said, because of the way the infection cards cycle around, you can get a good idea of which cities are most at risk and which can be left a little longer.

If a player has five cards of a matching colour and happens to be chilling out at a research station, they can trade these in for a cure. Once you’ve cured all four diseases, you win the game (hooray! (not sarcastically this time)). Winning though, anyone can manage that (except me, the first few times I played solo). Let’s talk about losing: If the player deck runs out, you lose! If you get too many outbreaks, you lose! If you need to add a disease cube of a certain colour and there’s none left in the stockpile, you lose! If you look at the game funny, you lose! (at least I think that’s my issue).

Pandemic is very well regarded, and rightly so, it’s a lot of fun and with the adjustable difficulty, can have a lot of replayability, but it is a puzzle, which can be solved. This is why players like Nigel (who’s been moved to a cage in the corner, for good behaviour) can get a bit overbearing with a group of new players. They get less “I’ve noticed these areas are in peril, perhaps we should think about that” and more “you go here, via here, cure this and on your next turn do that. You, meet them there, give them that and then fly over here” (but for a fee, such players can be retrained).

Pros:

  • Simple design.
  • Easy teach.
  • Can be very addictive.

Cons:

  • Can be “solved”.
  • Can bring out the worst in some players.
  • Some of the events feel considerably weaker than others.

Final Score: 9/10

Come back next time for some thoughts on the first expansion: On The Brink

Pretty Wrong – Stuffed

Stuffed first caught my attention on Kickstarter, and like most boardgames I’ve kickstarted, it actually arrived (woo!). The biggest pull is the amazing artwork, which admittedly isn’t the best thing to base a purchase on (no shit Janey!).

The component quality is amazing. The custom dice have nice art and a really nice weight. The card art is incredible, the box opens like a story book which is held shut with a magnetic clasp, there’s enough space to have sleeved cards in there, and the vacform tray is very nicely designed to show everything off.

The plot of Stuffed is… *makes slightly embarrassed noises*. Luckily, it’s not well conveyed in the game itself, which is probably for the best because it’s a massive yikes once you put in the context of some of the cards. Those who were destined for great things, but fight their destiny, waste their talents and let time slip away, fail at their purpose. Their vice leads to the penalty that they become adorable, but troubled stuffed animals.

This is the only time ‘vice’ is brought up, usually the game talks of burdens (or rather, birdens). So what does the game consider a vice or a personal failing that sees you damned to the plush realms? Hatred – sure, addiction – makes sense I guess (if you completely ignore the underlying issues of addiction), self pity – I… suppose, regret – shaky ground, fear – what?!, broken – huh?, depression – oh do fuck off.

See at this point I just want to shake the designers and ask how they didn’t see the problems here. These ‘vices’ are mostly just mental health problems. You made a game where if you had mental health problems from anxiety, to depression, to trauma, to anger issues, and so on, you’re doomed to be punished for that in the next life. You done goofed. You’ve done a bad job, game designers *baps on nose with a newspaper*.

Why didn’t I notice this in the Kickstarter? Because the plot and the birdens (get it? They have birds on) weren’t shown together. Indeed, the use of the birden cards is considered an alternative play style (more on that later).

I genuinely think that if Certifiable Studios had framed it as: those who had, through their own failings or lack of bravery, failed to do the things that really mattered to meet their destiny, and then changed the titles of each birden, that this all could have been avoided.

Stuffed sees you trying to complete a mission by putting a dedicated team together and gathering the necessary supplies to complete it. That’s it, no need to blame people who have mental health problems. Just adorable stuffed animals (some of whom happen to be mercenaries) going on a quest together. Even with the birden cards in play, you can read it as “we came together as a team, and overcame those birdens”. They simply had to avoid framing them as vices or personal failings.

Ok, major glaring issues addressed, time to talk about gameplay.

Players take turns rolling 8 custom dice to earn money, gain advantage cards, gain loyal companions and specialists, or hire mercenaries. Each ally (and the player’s avatar) allows you to spend a die with a matching symbol to manipulate one or more dice. The avatars always allow you to spend one paw symbol die to re-roll any number of other dice. Others may ask you to spend a leaf to modify one of the dice to your favour. It’s this ability to re-roll and modify dice that takes a lot of the frustrating randomness out of the game (which is always a risk with dice rollers).

Loyal allies only require you to spend the correct symbols from dice in order to join your team, but specialists will also want you to spend gold to recruit them. Whereas mercenaries may even want you to part with your advantages as part of their cost. Luckily you can trade in three matching symbols for a coin or four for an advantage card (unless you rolled birds, those pesky birdens ruin everything). Advantages can be played for various benefits such as a free re-roll, an additional resource, to modify a die, etc. Some may even be played as allies in their own right.

As you progress through the game someone will eventually hire a mercenary. Once the first one is hired a new, pink die goes into the mix. This is rolled with the other dice on each player’s turn and should it land on a symbol matching a merc in play, their current employer gets a benefit. That could be extra gold, to steal gold from another player, to manipulate one of the current player’s dice, remove dice from the current player, etc. However, they wouldn’t be truly mercenary unless you could do the most devious thing, and just hire them straight from whoever hired them last, instead of from the pool of available companions.

Basically that’s the base game. The mission will have a description like “Break the curse and wake up the sleeping town of Totta”, but what it requires is (with a single exception) the same thing: have 2-4 teammates, 1-2 must be a mercenary, then spend 5-6 resources (dice of the correct type and possibly some coins or an advantage card). Once that’s done, that’s it, quest complete, game over.

That said, there is a rules variant which tries to bring in some of the plot, but even then only loosely. At the start of the game, each player can be dealt two birden cards (*angry hisses at birden cards*) depending on the card they will have different requirements in order to overcome them – such as spending 4 coins to rid yourself of anxiety, or dealing with your personal issues by hiring two mercenaries (sounds serious), or dismissing a teammate (who is not a mercenary) to rid yourself of depression (as someone with clinical depression, I can assure the designer that pushing your friends away is not how you deal with it). Once both your birdens are removed, you can complete the mission. It’s pretty flimsy but stops people rushing to the end game. Even so, you’ll probably be done in 20-30 minutes.

Stuffed has such beautiful art (even when it’s being kinda dark), but the story and the flavour of some of the mechanics really let it down. It feels like they had someone with incredible talent design the cards and then they just spitballed the plot while drunk and high. A real shame, and the reason I’m not that interested in Certifiable Studio’s next Kickstarter project. My advise is, if you’re going to play it with friends, let them know the rules and then put the manual away.

Pros:

  • Amazing art.
  • Custom dice have nice art and a lovely weight.
  • The box opens like a story book.

Cons:

  • The game treats mental health problems like personal failings.
  • Doesn’t really tie all it’s concepts together very well.

Final Score: 6.5/10

Seeing Red – Flamme Rouge

To look at Flamme Rouge, you’d think it was a child’s puzzle with some little toy bicycles on it. It’s a few Hot Wheels, a Care Bear and a tin of home dried mint leaves (don’t ask) away from looking like something I’d have loved as a kid. That said, the front of the box shows enough awards to make it worth a deeper look.

Flamme Rouge is a race game for 2-4 players (you can add 2 more with the expansion). The game board is double sided and modular, meaning that you can get a lot of different layouts from these parts. The pieces of the board (and the player boards) are made of super thick and weighty cardboard and popping these out was one of the most satisfying punchcard experiences I’ve had in a while.

Setup is pretty simple, the game comes with 5 route cards which show you how to lay out the pieces and which way up. Players then take turns to put their bikes in the starting area. The inside lane of each square counting as being in the lead.

Each player gets two cyclists – a sprinteur (slow, with occasional bursts of speed) and a rouleur (who keeps a more steady pace) – as well as two decks of cards – one for each of their grumpy bike boys (seriously, all the cards make them look really miserable).

Players will draw 4 cards from one of their two decks, pick one to play, and then lay it face down next to their player board. The other cards get put face-up on the bottom of their deck. Then they move on to the other deck and repeat the action. It’s this incomplete knowledge of what the other cyclist’s cards are going to be that can really ramp up the tension, and make or break your strategy.

Once everyone has picked their cards, players go in sequence from the race leader, turning over their cards and move the number of spaces shown. The played cards are removed from the game, never to be seen again (I think they get taken out and shot, or something).

Next comes the slipstream section. Starting from the last racer, players check the number of empty spaces between them and the cyclist in front. If it’s only one space the racer(s) move up and fill the gap. This then forms a block and the process starts again. If there’s only one space between that block and the rider in front, the whole block move up to fill the gap. And so on until everyone is either bunched up in a pack, or too far apart to benefit. Any riders who find themselves with an empty space in front of them after this process takes an exhaustion card (only 2 movement) and add it to their deck.

Because of this, it’s not advisable to get too close to the front of the pack as you risk exhaustion, but if you don’t, it’s very hard to try and pull ahead. As such, you can find yourself sticking in the pack for most of the race, only daring to sprint at the last minute. That said, if you’re saving all your high value cards for the end of the game, you could end up with one rider drawing a hand of just these cards, long before you’re ready. Meaning they’re forced to go flying by, flicking the v’s at opponents as they speed past. Sure, they’re way in front now, but they’ll be picking up exhaustion and looking pretty silly if the others finally catch or overtake.

As you move through your deck, it’s easy to get a grasp of roughly what’s in there, so you can plan ahead to some degree. Once the face up cards you’ve been recycling hit the top of your deck, it’s time to shuffle and move on. Suddenly those exhaustion cards you picked up are in the mix and you’re at risk of having a handful of low value cards when the pack pulls away.

In addition to these basic rules, some of the track layouts include hills. While entering or going up an incline, you can’t move more than 5 squares. So if you’re 6 blocks from the bottom of a hill you can’t move onto it with a card showing 7, you’ll have to finish your turn early, before you start the climb. If you played that 7 on the way up, you’d only get to move 5 spaces.

Furthermore, as you fight your screaming muscles to push on up, you get no slipstream benefits and as before, if there’s a gap ahead of you at the end of the round, you’re getting exhausted.

Conversely, if you start your turn on a downward slope, all cards are treated as a minimum of 5. Meaning you may be able to spend away your exhaustion cards for far more than they’re worth.

Because the decks are so small, you’ll find yourself moving through them very quickly, especially late game (if you’ve managed to avoid too much exhaustion). This limits your options in really fun and interesting ways. There’s a reason one of the awards on the box is from Mensa.

While a game of Flamme Rouge isn’t exactly long (30-45 mins at most) it’s a lot of fun and there’s every chance your table will be up for setting up a new track and going the extra kilometer.

Pros:

  • A well paced race game.
  • Deep enough that even seasoned gamers will enjoy.
  • Modular board means there’s plenty of replayability.

Cons:

  • The game comes without anywhere to store cards, so they just rattle around the box.
  • Could do with some more course cards as 5 single sided cards seems a bit of a waste.

Final Score: 8/10

Warm, Wet, and Breathable – Terraforming Mars

Lately I’ve been craving some more heavy weight boardgames. Much as I love a game we can knock out in 30-60 minutes, I’ve been wanting something more in depth. Having looked around for recommendations, I’ve been pointed in the direction of Terraforming Mars by Jacob Fryxelius.

Huge corporations are sending people off to Mars, in the hope of bringing warmth, water, and a breathable atmosphere. So this is your chance to get in on the dusty, red, ground floor.

The first thing you’ll probably notice about Terraforming Mars, is the sheer number of cubes. There’s 5 bags of cubes in each player colour, some chonky white cubes, and then bags of gold, silver, and bronze cubes to use as money. Next up is the massive number of cards and the art thereupon.

The card art for this game is an amazing and alarming mix. It’s like someone just used google images and hoped for the best. It’s mix of what looks like stock photographs and… interesting art. Ultimately it does the job, but there’s no real consistency through the deck. Additionally, the print on the cards is a little fuzzy and the card stock is flimsy. This is another game that feels like it needs to be immediately sleeved or risk it melting on a particularly humid day. As so much focus goes on the cards throughout the game it really feels like a poor choice to have put so little care into the finished product.

You’ll start your martian adventure by dealing out two corporations to each player, they then pick one and this will determine their starting funds and any ongoing bonus they may get throughout the game. Alternatively, new players can pick a beginner corporation which gets a set starting amount, but has no other bonuses during the game. These basic corps can be played with the standard ones, so no worries if you’re introducing a new player to a group of veterans.

Next up you’ll be getting some of those cards I mentioned earlier, beginners get 10 cards for free, normal corporations will get 10 to choose from, but will have to pay 3 credits (they’re called mega Euros, but that’s a bit wordy) for each card they wish to keep. Once everyone’s made their decisions about their starting hand, play can begin.

Each player huddles over their own resource board, here they carefully monitor their income and supplies of various commodities such as money, steel, titanium, plants, energy, and heat. These boards take up a lot of focus, but once again, the quality of the components really let things down. They’re shiny rectangles of cardboard, which you constantly place and remove various cubes on throughout play. Keeping the income tracking in place is vital, but one sharp knock on the table and it could all get shifted around. Unless everyone has a good memory, you could be looking at basically calling game over.

If you look online, people have made various solutions, from phone apps, to perspex overlays, but none of these are really satisfactory. What’s needed is a little bit more love on the components, to give us something more akin to the Scythe player boards, those little divots are perfect, and stop things going completely tits up if, 2 hours in your friend accidently kicks the table while getting up to answer the door to destiny (bloody destiny, always calling at inappropriate moments).

Players may take one or two actions, be that playing cards from their hands, paying for various actions shown on the main board itself, using special actions on already played cards, using their unique corporation actions, etc. As you can see, there’s a lot to do on your turn, lots to think about. Is now the time to start building cities, or do you want to focus on raising your titanium income, so you can afford more space projects? What if you wanted to start cranking out power, which you can turn into heat and ultimately start raising your terraforming rating by warming the planet?

Ultimately, your goal as a group is to raise the temperature of the planet to a balmy 8 degrees, increase the level of oxygen in the atmosphere, and to create 9 glorious tiles of ocean. Once these challenges are completed, the game ends.

On an individual level though, you’ll want to make sure that you’re raising your own base score (in the form of a terraforming rating, usually raised by building oceans and forests) and to lock in victory points, which are calculated at the end of the game. Victory points are mostly found on the cards you play, but there’s also the opportunity to claim awards (Do you have a bunch of cards in your hand? Have you completed enough building projects? Have you build 3 cities?). While there are 6 different awards that can be funded (for the knock down price of just 8 credits), players can only fund 3 of these during the game. Once they’re gone, they’re gone and with them a further 5 victory points in the end game, so get them while they’re here (FOMO! FOMO! FOMO! Bend yourself to capitalism! Do iiiiiiit!)

Gameplay can last up to about 3 and a half hours for a couple of first timers, but settles down to 90-120 thereafter. Terraforming Mars is deep enough and thoughtful enough to keep you engaged during that time, without risking boredom and gameplay moves fairly swiftly (as long as everyone is paying attention). While I absolutely love the gameplay and just want to keep diving back in (and maybe investing in some expansions), I really wish the components (particularly the player boards (flimsy and potentially a game ending risk), the cards (flimsy) and cubes (which aren’t well finished)) had enjoyed been better made. It’s natural to wonder where your £50-£60 is going when you look in the box, my only conclusion is that it’s licencing for the art, but still, that poor quality has lowered my final score. If you see it on sale, definitely grab yourself a copy.

Pros:

  • Good, weight to gameplay.
  • Very replayable.
  • Fun.

Cons:

  • Lack of consistency in the art.
  • Flimsy and badly finished components.
  • Very expensive to feel this cheap.

Final Score: 7/10