Sunday, January 17, 2010

An embarrassment of riches #2: Hidden depths unplumbed?

After Tuesday's whistle-stop tour of my festive fun, it's time to go into a bit more detail about some of highlights. First off, the boardgaming.

Pandemic: just another buggy solitaire?
Regular readers should remember how the BSG boardgame wavered in my affections last year because I feared its initial appeal was going to be gainsaid by another solitaire engine at the heart of the gameplay. During Martin's xmas visit 3 plays of Z-Man Games' 2008 cooperative boardgame Pandemic (which I first saw just after its release, being played at DiceConWest 2008) complete with the On the Brink expansion served to remind me that the secret of BSG's success is as much down to the card-driven system as it is to the Cylon-human antagonism I enjoyed so much.

Excellence exemplified
Before I comment further on why I suspect the card-driven solitaire engine might be Pandemic's saving grace to this gamer, I have to say a word or two about its graphic design and production. In a word, these are brilliant; so much so in fact that mere words can't do them justice.

Pandemic: truly a delight to behold!

Look at those parts! They exemplify 3 key features of graphic design carried off to a very high standard:
  • Function.
  • Form.
  • Decoration.
In Pandemic form follows function so that each element tells you exactly what it's for without extraneous details getting in the way. The clinical sensibility implicit in this minimalist design aesthetic is entirely apt to its subject, so that the functional elements score as highly for thematic expression as they do for practicality. The decorative flourishes- eg. the logo or the cards, are similarly excellent; all the more so since they don't obtrude on the carefully worked minimalism.

The production standards too are very high on top of all that attention to the graphic design. A tad less lavish than we've come to expect from FFG for sure, they're still leading edge, making Pandemic a game which can endure many, many plays. Lovely!

"Very pretty, General. Very pretty. But, can they fight?"
Graphic design and production excellence are all very well; what really counts is why after a mere 3 plays I suspect that Paramedic might've overcome the problems- of a limited gamespace promoting stereotyped play and therefore boredom, which were at the heart of the poor impression Arkham Horror made some 3½ years ago. In a nutshell the answer is complexity in simplicity, a feature of the gameplay enabled by the card-driven solitaire engine.

The simplicity in this formula is drawing cards and doing what they say, one of the slickest of games mechanics because by putting everything right in your face it minimises the memory burden of the system. The complexity is twofold:
  • The content of the cards enables a rich range of effects without the table lookup which would be the rules burden required to generate the same array of results using dice rolls.
  • Simple rules of cardplay- eg. reshuffling the deck, can be used to generate subtle rythyms in the solitaire engine's dynamics which I believe are simply beyond other mechanics.
And that's it really. I'm not 100% sold on the game yet (that Arkham horror still looms large!) but if another few plays strengthens these first impressions, then Pandemic will be for me. :0)

An embarrassment of riches:
- #1: Boxes of tricks
- #3: Trick or treat?

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