Tag Archives: Pandemic

Unrealistic

Board games aren’t realistic. Monopoly doesn’t look like any metropolis and the geography in Settlers of Catan makes Giant’s Causeway look conventional. The diseases in Pandemic are translucent cubes instead of microscopic blobs.

This all makes sense, of course. Board games are an abstraction of reality, paring down big concepts into statistics. This can be super simple, like chess as a simulation of warfare tactics, or super complex, like H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, an early war game that used dice and probability to recreate battles. Even Little Wars, for all its realism, required a measure of imagination — these weren’t real cavalry and cannons.

Realism’s not the point, though. Games are meant to scratch a specific itch that hovers somewhere between problem solving and diplomacy, depending on the sort of game (Uno has both at high speeds). Many of them make an effort to simulate something found in the real world, and sometimes they succeed — Pandemic Legacy feels remarkably realistic in times of Covid, what with talking about quarantine zones and finding ways to contain the spread as best we can. The goal in designing the game probably wasn’t to create a one-to-one representation of what handling a pandemic would be like, but rather to take the elements that make that course of action unique and translate it into game mechanics. You have to cooperate with one another and balance finding cures with containment while keeping in mind that the same routes that you take to go from city to city are vectors for the virus. Do I think that being halfway decent at Pandemic gives me the skills to take on an actual real-life pandemic? Oh, heck no. But it’s certainly a fun abstraction of the real thing.

I saw someone, somewhere described Civilization VI as the ultimate board game despite it being, well, a computer game. It very much feels like a board game though, with its hexagonal playing field and turn-based gameplay. Where it differs is with its plethora of interlocking systems, ones that make the Game of Thrones board game seem simple. You have to manage various economies (Gold, Faith, Science, Culture, Food, and Production) while making sure to get Strategic Resources (and maybe Bonus and Luxury) ones too, all while competing with however many other players are in the game to win. There isn’t a simple ‘win’ condition either, you can achieve victory through Domination, Tourism, Religion, Diplomacy, Science, or just run out the clock and win with Score. There’s a lot going on.

Though Civilization does a lot to simulate ruling a civilization over 6000-odd years, there’s little attempt to make things look super realistic. The tiles of the game look like a high-definition Settlers of Catan and cities and developments are far, far from scale (that, or most people in this game are the size of buildings). There’s no clear sense of size, either, as a single hex is only big enough for one thing, be it a farm, the Eiffel Tower, a city square, or the Great Pyramids. Hexes don’t translate to kilometers at all, and there’s no expectation for them to match anything. It’s an abstraction (again, not unlike a board game) that’s part of the whole empire management aspect of the game. A more ‘realistic’  version, with civilizations a ‘proper’ distance apart and everything to scale would, arguably, be too complicated to be as accessible as it is.

I don’t think games like Civ or Pandemic are particularly realistic. I also don’t think they need to be realistic. The abstraction is why it’s fun; boiling reality down to mechanics is how the games are interesting. Spreading religion and culture doesn’t work in real life quite the same way, so gamifying it is what makes it work. All this to say, yeah, Civilization isn’t too realistic. But I still really enjoy it. And that’s okay.

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Quarantined

To stem the rising tide of a pandemic, the residents of New York are put under lockdown. Life in the city grinds to a halt; no one goes into work and restaurants and bars are limited to take-out only options. News chyrons speak of medication being shipped to cities and team games being banned.

Who would’ve seen March 2020 looking like some B-Movie from the 80s?

It’s a time that I’ve been filling with watching movies, playing video games, and playing board games with friends. And reading too, because it’s a good time to be curled up with a book and a cup of coffee (I’m reading Ken Liu’s The Hidden Girl and Other Stories, if you’re curious).

I’ve really taken a liking to Legacy-style board games. These are the ones that every game impacts the next one and rules develop as you go. You get to name characters and mechanics get added and changed. Pandemic Legacy has been a lot of fun, because Pandemic is a fun board game anyway and it’s a little topical now given the whole, y’know, worldwide pandemic. Given the opportunity to name the diseases, we naturally chose to name one Corona and, keeping with the theme, the other three Budweiser, Miller, and Guinness. Because theming.

A fun bonus of it is that it’s a cooperative board game, so rather than conspiring against each other (which believe me is one of my favorite things), you’re working together against whatever’s going wrong in the game. It makes for a fun tabletop experience because you’re united with a common goal. It also makes for a gaming experience that’s built more around puzzling and problem solving than usurpation, which is a fun part of the brain to exercise.

Tonight we’re gonna take a stab at the Legacy version of Betrayal At The House On The Hill, another game that lets you play together alongside each other until the Haunt begins at which point it becomes competitive. All the same, it makes for a fun time.

Of course, to play with people outside of my apartment is another affair, but we find a way. Like streaming Jackbox’s Quiplash through Twitch and setting up a Google Hangout for everyone to play together. Sure, the eight-or-so of us are all in different places, but there’s still that community of doing something together and laughing at the same jokes. Feels not too unlike everyone sitting on a couch together somewhere.

Another friend of mine is putting together some Dungeons and Dragons campaigns over Discord, which, again, though not the same as everyone sitting around a table with beers and chips, still makes for a cool simulacrum of the actual experience. We’re all still cracking jokes and riffing off each other, just not in person.

Community is such an odd thing; it’s something that you can’t really quantify but you know when it’s not there. I recognize its loss when I walk past shuttered stores and empty restaurants to grab pickup from a place I dearly hope is still open after all this blows over. It’s liable that things will look more than a little different when all the dust settles. Community will probably look a bit different, and I think we’ll really learn that we don’t have to actually be together to be together.

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