I'm not a big fan of cooperative games: my experiences with Shadows over Camelot, A Touch of Evil, Lord of the Rings, and Battlestar Galactica were lukewarm. However, I really enjoyed playing Pandemic with Michael some months ago. The explanation I came up with at the time was that with just two players the engagement was higher. I really felt I was co-responsible for the defeat or victory, whereas with four or more players in the other games I always had the feeling I wasn't contributing that much to the team, especially with the more experienced players advising the others what to do. I was therefore curious how this week's game of Pandemic with Damen, Steve and Paul B. would go. Would it be another great experience or a disappointment?
Damen and Steve had never played before and I had forgotten the rules, so Paul went through them and was the lead adviser in the first game, which we lost because we let the black virus cubes run out, a condition Paul had forgotten to explain. He therefore made a rather pathetic attempt to amend things by backtracking the last turn, but Damen (of all people) asked repeatedly in the most meek tone: 'But isn't that cheating?' Paul finally saw it was pointless to undo one or even two turns and we started a new game.
We learned from our mistakes, and we started to be more confident in our discussions, proposing actions and tactics ourselves instead of mostly agreeing with Paul. Also, contrary to the first game, we now had a medic in the team. We became more efficient, using better our roles' abilities. For example, we often passed cards to the scientist (Paul), so that he could find cures quickly for the medic (me) to then just go through the cities and treat the infected populations without consuming precious actions. Nevertheless, the game was no walk in the park and we won just before the black cubes were going to run out again.
My games with Michael had been similar: we lost the first game and won the second one in the nick of time, in the last round before using up the deck of cards. So why do I get much more pleasure from Pandemic than the other cooperative games?
Pandemic is about our planet, not some sci-fi (Battlestar Galactica) or fantasy world (Lord of the Rings). It's in the present, not some mythological past (Shadows over Camelot). As the population information on the city cards reminds us, we're saving millions of people in the great and beautiful cities of the world (Paris, London, NY, etc.), not a handful of villagers I couldn't care less about (A Touch of Evil). We're even saving Essen and thereby the whole gaming world from extinction, for crying out loud! Last but not least, we take the roles of real people, not of small creatures with furry feet (LotR). Pandemic is full of theme and it all adds to the engagement with the game.
Damen's first question to Paul was predictably: 'Are there traitors in this game?' No there aren't, it's a purely cooperative game, which means you don't have any second thoughts on whether an action will benefit more the traitor than the rest of the team. It's all for one, and one for all, which further adds to the engagement of each player in the outcome.
Tension builds up fast and remains throughout the game. After just a few turns (never mind rounds!) those virus cubes are multiplying like rabbits on the board, especially due to the domino-like epidemics, and you have to be constantly on the watch. A couple of distractions or wasteful and non-cooperative actions, and game over. In the other cooperative games I tried, it takes much longer for you to be in the thick of it.
Rules are simple and play is fast, making for short games and a high replaying factor.
To sum up, Pandemic is definitely going to stay on my 'want to play' list for a while. However, I understand it's not to everyone's taste and Damen said so after our second game.
We thus proceeded to more traditional fare. I missed last week's gaming night because I was at a conference in Porto, Portugal, so it seemed fit to bring along El Capitán and its Porto expansion. Damen and Steve had played with me long time ago, Paul never, so I went through the rules. Adding to this the usual length of the game (ca. 1h30), it was clear we wouldn't have enough time after two games of Pandemic: we managed to play only two of El Capitán's three phases. It's always unsatisfying to not finish a game, especially when it's a well constructed majority control game by Wolfgang Kramer with an increasingly tense narrative arc.
As such, the many changes of warehouse majorities in the last phase did not occur. Still, we had some fights for majority control in the various cities, the most disputed one being Marseille, which brings in many florins for the majority owner. Paul cleverly built there a fortress (to gain the same amount of money as the warehouse majority winner) and left the rest of us spending precious turns in building warehouses there. We fought bitterly for majority, but Kramer's game is full of counter-balancing mechanisms: the more warehouses in a city, the less the majority is worth. Hence, Marseille brought in only a fraction of the florins it could. Fortunately, I had a backup plan and started in the first phase an expansion strategy, because the more cities you have warehouses in, the more money you get at the end of a phase, but (again the negative feedback loop) by spreading thin you hardly will have the majority in any city. I completed this strategy in the second phase and was able to collect the 15 florin bonus for being the first (and only one) to have warehouses in 9 cities. Moreover, I took only one loan in the second phase while everyone else took two, which meant more net profit for me, enough to beat Paul.
The game ended with Steve having 46 florins, Damen 56, Paul 95 and me 111. However, that included the 15 end-of-game bonus that I would not have available as cash for the third phase. I thus wonder how the game would end if we had completed it... El Capitán remains a favourite of mine due to its finely balanced mechanics, gorgeous artwork, and twist-and-turn tension until the final moments.