Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pushing Your Luck In Pandemic

Several weeks ago, Tom and Sam at The Dice Tower talked about their favorite push your luck games. Sam included several cooperative games on his list, and insisted that the very nature of coop games required pushing one's luck. I remember Tom didn't particularly agree, and I thought it was a bit of a stretch. However, while playing Pandemic online with Tom and the Mrs. Tuesday night, it occurred to me that the concept of pushing your luck in Pandemic is crucial to understanding the game.

The Concept

Pushing your luck involves making a series of decisions intended to improve your position in the game, all the while taking your chances that very bad things don't happen. I believe the example mentioned in the above episode to illustrate this concept is a simple dice game where each player takes turns rolling a die. On rolling a 2-6 you get one point and have the option of rolling again, on rolling a 1 your score is reduced to 0 and your turn ends. The first player to a predetermined number of points wins. In this case, each time you roll the die you will probably move one step closer to winning, but if you push your luck too far you might be wiped out and give your opponent a chance at victory.

Push Your Luck In Pandemic

So how does this apply to Pandemic? Strategy in the game centers on efficient use of role abilities, shrewd hand management, and perhaps most importantly striking a balance between board control (through treating disease) and cure research (especially through the share knowledge action). Since the goal of the game is to find cures to all four diseases, oftentimes it is tempting to concentrate on sharing knowledge and building up the card sets needed to cure diseases. Whenever players let even slightly dangerous cities on the board go untreated they are pushing their luck by betting that those cities will not be drawn from the infection deck and, more importantly, that an epidemic will not be drawn and plunge the world into catastrophe. The more I play the more I feel that it is better to be conservative and when the choice is a toss-up, to concentrate on board control first. Too many times we've thought "if we can just both get to Cairo and trade that card we can have the last disease cured in two turns!" All too often this results in an epidemic and complete disaster after one turn, and the game ends in defeat.

An Explosive Example

Imagine this scenario: you are part of a special forces unit making your way to a small village. You are presented with two problems: 1. terrorists have planted a bomb in the village set to detonate within the hour, and 2. a deadly mine field lies between you and your goal. Your only chance to save the village is navigate the mine field and disarm the bomb. Certainly you must balance how much time you invest in carefully avoiding mines with moving quickly enough to prevent the village from being blown to smithereens.

(In case anyone reading doesn't have sufficient experience playing army as a child, being blown to smithereens is what happens to you when you step on a mine, almost get hit by a grenade, are unfortunate enough to be in the blast radius of an atomic bomb, or any number of other deadly scenarios present in playing army.)

Though it may be tempting to just rush through the mine field to give your team the best opportunity to complete your ultimate goal, this will most likely end in death before even reaching the village.

Back to the Game

It seems to me that Pandemic's mechanics skew this balance to the damage prevention side. Collecting cards to cure diseases moves forward at a known rate: the players simply must find all the cures before time runs out (the player deck is exhausted), thus there is no imminent threat of defeat until the cards are almost gone. Disease spreading around the world does not unfold linearly like the timeline for cures, but rather in an exponential fashion. After an epidemic and a couple of unfortunate infection cards, a minor problem can turn into an outbreak chain reaction that ends the game. What makes individual problematic cities into major disaster areas is that tendency for the game to top deck those exact cards that are most dangerous over and over again. Often the worst possible cities are drawn during the infector phase, and while it is easy to attribute this to bad luck, it is actually the exact result the epidemic mechanic is intended to create! Sure, sometimes when you push your luck by emphasizing finding cures over treating disease it works out great, but more often then not outbreaks run rampant and the game ends in spectacular defeat.

Time to test this theory a little in my next few games.


Tom (the brother in-law) said...

Dead on, however luck plays a larger role than you mentioned. luck starts with the roles given at the beginning of the game, placement of diseases in cities, and acquiring city cards. For example: I spend my turn moving to London to gain the London card so i may find an antidote next turn. At the end of my turn, I collect the France card, making my trip to London a waste for both myself and the person that gave me the card, wasting time that could have been used to cure disease in Moscow. Luck seems to have the upper hand in Pandemic because a group can play a flawless game, make all the right moves and still lose because of an unlucky outbreak, however, Luck can spurn a group right from the start and even the most skilled player would have no chance of victory.

Nathaniel Todd said...

It is true that all the aspects you mention involve some randomness in the game, however, it is how to handle the situations that come up during play that usually determine if you win or lose. Sure, sometimes the game will just be brutal and you'll have no chance at victory, but these are fairly rare situations, I believe. Proper planning and expecting the worst case scenario to occur are the keys to winning consistently despite a little bad luck getting in the way.