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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Friday, September 17, 2010

Pandemic and the Importance of Props

Well, I played this game a while back. It's called Pandemic, and it's awesome. There's a number of things about the game which I liked, but one that stood out as particularly strong was its use of physical props. Pandemic eschews heavy use of numbers, instead preferring to use physical limits.

The Premise
Pandemic is a cooperative game which pits the players against four deadly diseases. Each player takes on a role (character with a special ability) in a disease control team from the Centers for Disease Control, trying to thwart four dangerous diseases before they wipe out all of humanity. The spread of disease is marked by placing wooden cubes on major cities in the world, and the players' pawns travel around the world, treating disease and progressing towards the cure for each disease.

Cubes and Cards
Most of the game consists of players moving around the map, taking actions to keep disease in check, while stockpiling resources to eventually cure the disease. All the while, new cities become infected by disease, and once in a while a massive epidemic will break out. The best part of all of this? The gameplay never uses dice, just simple-to-understand randomizers like a deck of cards. The cards avoid the need for complicated tables, and also streamline several gameplay features into one.

For instance, players' cards, which depict cities in the world, are used to travel, but also can be cashed in to develop a cure for a disease. Instead of handling these as separate mechanics, the game puts them into one, in a very elegant manner.

I like the infection mechanic even more. The game has a deck of cards which depict various cities. At the end of each player's turn, they flip over a certain number of cards from the top of the deck, and add infection cubes to those cities. Simple enough. Then, when an epidemic (special event drawn by the players) hits, you take all of the cards in the infection deck's discard pile (i.e., the cities which have already been infected), shuffle them, and then put them back on top of the infection deck. In other words, through a simple physical mechanic, the game ensures that cities will be re-infected.

That's probably my favorite part of the game: it uses the natural laws of the gameworld to enforce realistic behavior, instead of simulating it. It doesn't have a table to consult for "re-infection chance"; that would make it incredibly complicated. Instead, it's simple but effective.

Visual Cues
The other nice bit of the game is how it uses visual cues on everything. From the city pictures on cards to those little infection cubes, it's laid out to work without a lot of text. The advantage here? You can easily scan your cards and the board to get a survey of the situation. The disease cubes pile up on cities, eventually spilling over into nearby cities, and this creates a natural tension and suspense.

You can watch the disease building up, literally. As each event stacks more cubes, you can see the disease spread, making the job harder for you, and bringing the world one step closer to annihilation.

RPG Lessons
So what was the point of this entire post? Well, it sets a good model to follow for GMs and their games. Humans like intuitive mechanics, and they like visual mechanics. When games use visual cues, players follow them easier. (Settlers of Catan is another prime example of this) When games don't over-use dice as a means of enforcing interesting and varied outcomes (cards are a great randomizer in many ways), the players can play them without having to worry about a bunch of numbers in their head.

On the flip side, the more hardware you add, the harder the game becomes to tote around, and there enters a potential for reduced creativity. This isn't necessarily always as bad as it might seem, though. I've heard that Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, even though it uses extensive physical hardware, is still a strong roleplaying game.

Oh, and Pandemic rocks.

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