Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Programmed Board Games

I was playing Pandemic, by Z-Man Games, yesterday at board game night and it occurred to me that my favorite board games have similar mechanics. They have pre-programmed events that occur that move the "narrative" of the game forward. Tikal has volcano tiles that occur several times throughout the game. Power Grid has an economy that gets tweaked several times as the game progresses. Pandemic has epidemic cards that work in the same way. The same mechanic in Caylus kind of bugs me, since it tweaks the rules when it occurs, but I've only played that once, so maybe I need to try again.

This pre-programmed mechanic adds to the tension of the game, and with Pandemic, a cooperative game, it's your major adversary. In Tikal it marks your scoring round. In Power Grid it marks an economic transition that you should be planning for. Most importantly, it helps tell a story and gives a game definition, like a topography of sorts. For me, it makes other board games feel flat and lifeless. I'm sure board game gurus have a better term for this mechanic and I'm now probably considered a particular type of board gamer: the narrative gamer,the program gamer, or something, but it's kind of a nice discovery to know what you like. Now I can look for more of them.

Pandemic, by the way, is a lot of fun. It's the kind of game that makes you think about it long after you're done playing. It turns out to have a very tight timeline as other players have also reported losing on their last turn, like we did. I can't help comparing it to Arkham Horror. They're both cooperative and they both require you to keep something very bad from happening. Arkham is a lot longer, a lot slower, and a lot less predictable. Perhaps it's an American style version of the euro style Pandemic? I would love to see the Pandemic mechanics applied to something else, even closing the gates before Cthulhu and his cousins take over the world.


  1. There are lots of games with some sort of mechanic like this. The differences are in the way the changes are triggered and how big the changes are.

    The card driven games Paths of Glory and Twilight Struggle both use the kind of variable change mechanic you're describing by shuffling new cards into the deck as certain events happen in the game.

    1960: Making of a President uses a different sort of change mechanic that isn't variable, but based simply on the turn you are on (it's also a much smaller change when it does happen).

    Come to think of it, I can't remember now if Twilight Struggle adds cards due to events or on fixed turns during the game, and I'm too lazy to look it up now.

    Runebound uses another sort of change mechanic, where the effects of the change are limited to the player who triggers them. Like 1960, the change is more subtle, but if you are looking for narrative then Runebound has a lot of it. Of course, it also is a bit of a D&D substitute, so you may rather just play D&D :P

    For you personally, I think Paths of Glory is probably too long and complex for your tastes, but the others may be worth checking out. If I think of other games that have similar mechanics I'll let you know.

  2. And on the simpler end is DOW's Shadows Over Camelot where the players have to cooperate to win. We play without the traitor so everyone is playing together.