ToEE: Tentative CRPG/Board Game Comparison

Although it took me a while to figure out how to activate the level-up interface, my party is level 2 now. I’ve also found a second exit to the complex underneath the moat house, though a pentagonal room with a large pentagram built into the floor. I’m starting to think that the moat house is the Temple of Elemental Evil, or at least that the moat house is a disguise built over one of its entrances, like the innocent-looking phone booths that conceal the entrances to CONTROL and the Ministry of Magic. Maybe the mission to clear out the moat house will take the entire rest of the adventure, like finding the map in Curses. I could be wrong — there’s still nothing particularly elemental about the place, so it could just be one of those random dungeons that litters the world of Greyhawk, devoid of context or history. But either way, those bandits were taking their lives in their hands by using it as their hideout. It was only a matter time before the ogre or the gnolls living below their feet decided to go hunting, and found some prey very close at hand.

I started playing this game to compare it to my experiences with the Temple of Elemental Evil Adventure System board game, and for the most part, the two games haven’t had any similarity at all. I mean, they’re not even in the same campaign setting. The board game version is set in the Forgotten Realms instead of Greyhawk, and substitutes the town of Red Larch for the village of Hommlet. Presumably someone involved in the board game’s creation felt it would be better to stick with the setting that’s more familiar to most players. The final boss of the original seems to be a demon — at least, a demon has been mentioned as part of the backstory — while in the board game, it was a dragon. Perhaps this change was made to placate anxious parents, D&D having a rocky history with satanic panics. Or perhaps it was just an excuse to ship the game with a dragon mini in the box. Who knows?

And, of course, the board game gave us elemental stuff from the get-go. The CRPG has been remarkably reluctant to fulfill the promise of its title. The idea of an adventure themed around elemental magic was the main appeal of the game to me, when I picked it up back in the day, but so far it’s just been Undistinguished Fantasy Village Adventure. Of course, the mechanics of the board game kind of forced things in that regard. There, monsters are drawn from a deck of cards, and apart from some gradual modification by adding adding tougher monsters over the course of the campaign, it’s the same deck no matter what dungeon you’re exploring. The result is that you don’t get thematically-appropriate monsters like giant frogs in the swampy areas and skeletons on the old battlefield. You get a mix of cultists, gnolls, hobgoblins, doppelgangers, and firebats no matter where you are.

And the deeper reaches of the moat house are starting to remind me of that, as things start to turn into the mischmasch dungeon that formed almost the entirety of the board game. Particularly when I run into a familiar monster, like the Gnoll Archers that caused us so much trouble before.

While I’m talking about the board game, there’s one other semi-coincidence I’d like to note. The CRPG allows you to bring a maximum of five characters in your initial party. (Three additional slots are reserved for any NPCs you pick up.) For simplicity’s sake, I initially created a party of the four basic D&D character types: fighter, wizard, cleric, thief. After my initial failures, I decided to fill the fifth slot with another fighter-type, but for variety’s sake, I made this one a Ranger. It took me a matter of days to realize that I had recreated the board game’s party roster.

Temple of Elemental Evil (Board Game)

Now, after we finished Pandemic Legacy, my team decided that we liked getting together for board games every Tuesday enough to keep on doing it. But what to play? You can’t really do Pandemic Legacy twice; even if you started with a fresh board, the experience would be completely different when you know what to expect. And, despite “Legacy” being a hot buzzword in the board game world, there aren’t a lot of good substitutes. I feel like co-op is a must for this group — we tried some competitive games, and it altered the vibe in the room for the worse. And we wanted a campaign mode that lasts for multiple sessions if possible. I asked around, and none other than veteran board game designer Kevin Wilson (an online acquaintance via IF) suggested Temple of Elemental Evil, a board game adaptation of the classic D&D module, fourth in the “D&D Adventure System” line. I have since learned that Kevin is the designer of the soon-to-be-released fifth Adventure System game, Tomb of Annihilation, which makes his recommendation seem a little bit self-serving, but what could he do? ToA hadn’t been announced yet at the time, so he wasn’t at liberty to say why ToEE sprang to mind.

Before describing the game, I have to admit a twofold ignorance of where it’s coming from: I’ve never played the original Temple of Elemental Evil adventure, nor any of the previous D&D Adventure System board games. I’d played the very beginning of the 2003 CRPG adaptation of ToEE, but really no more than the introductory UI tutorial. So I was basically unfamiliar with the whole thing going in, except to the extent that I know D&D.

So, the basics: This is essentially a roguelike done by hand. It comes in an impressively large box, which is mainly filled with well-made plastic miniatures, including one dragon. The game’s campaign mode consists of a sequence of 13 scenarios. In most scenarios, your goal involves finding and killing a “Villain”, which is to say, a boss monster that appears after you’ve explored enough. Even if there’s another goal, like rescuing captives or retrieving a powerful artifact, there tends to be a Villain trying to stop you. Three of the adventures, to provide a bit of variety, are set in the town of Red Larch. The other ten, regardless of where the story says they take place, are set in a randomized dungeon, constructed on the fly from a deck of tiles. On every turn, after you take your actions (moving, attacking monsters, disabling traps), if you’re at an unexplored edge of a tile, you draw the top tile from the deck and place it at that edge. Usually the tile has from one to three spots to place monsters, which are also randomized, using a deck of monster cards. Note that, because this happens after you’re done with your actions, the monsters always get to attack you before you can attack them — an advantage that they sorely need, because so many of them can be killed with a single blow.

If you don’t explore a new tile on your turn — and sometimes even if you do — you instead draw a card from the “Encounter” deck. “Encounter” sounds innocuous, but most of the cards are things like “Roll to attack yourself at +8, take 2 damage on hit, 1 on miss” or “Either discard a Treasure card or take 1 damage for every Treasure card you have” or “Place a Rage of Imix token on your current tile, then do 2 damage to everyone on a tile with a Rage of Imix token”. There are a few beneficial encounters, but they always have a “Draw another encounter card” clause at the end to make sure you keep getting hurt. It turns out that it’s these Encounters, not the monsters, that are the primary threat in the game, slowly whittling down your hit points while you wait for the Villain to show up. In a normal dungeon crawl, you’d take care to kill every monster before exploring further, lest you find yourself overwhelmed. Here, that approach just means death by a thousand cuts from the Encounter cards. Avoiding Encounters by charging ahead and revealing a new tile every single turn is still usually unwise, mind you. There’s a balance to be found.

One other thing tilts this balance: when you get an encounter that you really don’t want, you can skip it by paying five experience points. That’s a good reason to favor exploring and getting more monsters over not exploring and getting more encounters, because slain monsters are the source of experience points. Mind you, that’s the only thing they have in common with experience points in regular D&D. XP here is a shared resource, doesn’t persist across adventures, and isn’t used for character advancement. Skipping encounters is the only use for XP. Character upgrades are purchased with gold — which is kind of a throwback to the original D&D, where gold and XP were more or less equivalent. This is but one example of the game’s unfortunate tendency to use D&D terminology with completely different meanings, often unintuitive ones. “Encounter” is another.

The most Legacy-ish part of the game is that at the end of each adventure, you make scenario-specific alterations to the monster, treasure, and/or encounter decks, shuffling in more powerful monsters and worse encounters as you advance through the campaign, replacing the Fire Cutists with Empowered Fire Cultists that use the same miniatures and so forth. If you complete an adventure without using any healing surges — which work completely differently than in D&D — then the system assumes that things are too easy for you and the difficult stuff needs to be added sooner.

Monsters are controlled by behavior algorithms printed on their card, organized as a list of cases, like a Lisp “cond” statement, with the conditions boldfaced: “If this monster is within 1 tile of a hero, it moves adjacent to the closest hero and attacks that hero with a wicked slam. Otherwise, this monster moves 1 tile towards the closest hero.” The most complex algorithms belong to the Villains, which tend to have multiple conditionally-executed attack routines, like a boss in a shooter. For example, the Air Elemental villain has both a ranged “Blast of Wind” attack and a short-range area-of-effect “Whirlwind” attack that pushes you away when you get too close.

Unfortunately, these elaborate routines are kind of wasted. In our group, at least, we tended to dogpile on the Villains the moment they appeared, with the result that they seldom lived long enough to use the full range of their abilities, especially as the campaign went on and the heroes grew in power. There’s a Salamander weaponsmith Villain whose big threat is that he can activate other monsters out of turn, giving them more attacks; when we fought him, he never had the opportunity to do this. There’s an adventure where you have to keep a bunch of freed prisoners safe from an Elemental boss while they make for the exit; the Elemental never got close enough to the prisoners to be a threat. The height of this trend was Adventure 11, when you first encounter the dragon. This is one of the three town adventures, the idea being that the dragon is attacking Red Larch and has to be driven back into its lair. (This basically means killing it; it just escapes in a cutscene so it can come back later). The town map has villagers scattered around, and the scenario adds a special “Rescue Villager” action that removes them from the board so the dragon can’t hurt them, so I suppose the intention here is that you’d spend most of your time running around rescuing people while the dragon wreaks havoc. My team didn’t bother with this. It was obvious to us that the best way to keep the villagers from harm was to just kill the dragon as quickly as possible. We managed it in three turns. One of our players was out sick that day, and it’s just as well, because if we’d had four players, someone wouldn’t have gotten to play at all. I compared it at the time to one of those high-powered prizefights where people pay thousands of dollars for a ringside seat, only for the fight to be over in three minutes. Putting a dragon mini in the box creates a sense of anticipation that heightens the anticlimax. The second dragon encounter, in Adventure 13, was much more satisfying, because we had to go through a dungeon and get softened up by Encounters and Empowered Cultists first.

Unlike Pandemic Legacy, it’s easy to reset the game to its initial state and go through the campaign again. I won’t be doing that, satisfying though it was to go through once. One member of the team has already cannibalized the minis for use in real D&D. I’m told that this is a big part of the appeal of the Adventure System games, and that some people just buy the sets for the minis and the tiles rather than for the game. Supposedly ToEE is particularly valuable for this, because you can never have too many distinct types of human figure, and ToEE gives you four different types of cultists in addition to the heroes. Villagers and prisoners, on the other hand, are represented by circular cardboard tokens rather than minis, which seems a little strange when I think about it. Why this distinction? They all have stats and a position on the board, just like the monsters and heroes.

Pandemic Legacy: Campaign Report

Last November, I mentioned a Pandemic Legacy campaign I was participating in. We finished back in January. I want to say a few more words about how that went before the release of Pandemic Legacy Season 2, expected sometime soon. There will be spoilers. If you don’t want spoilers, just take my word for it that it’s an amazing game and well worth playing.

One of the first things you do in Pandemic Legacy is give names to your characters. Vanilla Pandemic doesn’t have this step; it doesn’t have characters, really, just jobs, each with their own special power: the Medic’s efficiency at treating infections, the Dispatcher’s ability to move other player’s pawns, and so on. If you play two games of Pandemic using the Researcher role, there’s no particular reason, apart perhaps from the art on the card, to think of the Researcher as the same person in both games. Whereas Pandemic Legacy demands it. This is an ongoing story that persists from session to session, with continuity at the mechanical level, and your team of disease-fighters are the characters in that story. But it’s with the act of naming the characters that the game communicates: This is your story.

And that was enough to get us to spontaneously invent extraneous details. The Dispatcher’s portrait, declares one player, makes him look like a K-pop idol — and so that’s what he was, before he gave up his career to fight diseases. His stage name is LUSH, and that’s the only name we know him by. It’s easy to imagine the scene: conservatively-dressed WHO officers waiting for him backstage at a concert. “The world needs you,” they tell him. “You have this incredible ability to get people moving.” In addition, he’s secret boyfriends with the medic, Lt. Jeremy. In February — recall that the campaign is divided into months — the game introduces a “relationship” mechanic, which is no surprise, as the character cards have a space specifically reserved for relationship stickers. LUSH and Jeremy don’t get a relationship that’s acknowledged in this sense, but our story is flexible enough to accommodate that: clearly it’s because it’s a secret relationship.

Still, the game has its own story, too, told through the Legacy deck, which has some variability through player decisions or random factors, but which is pre-established in all but the particulars, and told mainly through rule changes. Halfway through the very first session, one of the diseases mutates and becomes incurable. This disease is named “COdA”. (The other diseases, you get to name yourself. This provided some amusement, but didn’t inspire as much fabulation as the character names.) In a way, having an uncurable disease makes things easier, because if you can’t cure it, you don’t have to. You have three diseases to cure instead of four. However, COdA gets more troublesome and dangerous as the game advances, and the problems of managing it and limiting its spread become the focus of your efforts.

Probably the single moment that has the most effect on a campaign is the determination of which disease mutates into COdA. This is semi-randomized: COdA is whatever disease has the greatest presence on the board when the mutation occurs. In our campaign, it was the blue disease, which is native to North America and Western Europe. Your default starting location is Atlanta, home of the CDC, right in the heart of blue territory. Fortunately, once you’ve established a permanent research station somewhere else (where “permanent” means “persisting between sessions”), you can start there instead. Karachi was our home base for most of the campaign, and the First World was largely left to rot once we managed to wall it off with permanent roadblocks, including a dense wall down the middle of Europe that we nicknamed the “iron curtain”. By the end, New York and Chicago had been completely destroyed. Miami, which is far enough south to be yellow rather than blue, stayed miraculously untouched for most of the campaign, even though COdA spread to South America early on. It became a point of pride for us to keep Miami pristine, a shining beacon of hope in a ravaged landscape. That it did finally receive some damage toward the very end of the campaign was a source of some frustration for us.

It’s perhaps inevitable that the evolution of COdA ends up where it does, but I found it disappointing nonetheless. I refer to its ultimate mutation into the zombie virus. Oh, sure, they’re not zombie zombies. The “Faded”, as they’re called, are living people with a disease, and the in-game text describes them as developing transparent skin and musculature, like a living anatomical model. That’s clever and thematic, at least, but it’s not fooling anyone. They’re obviously zombies, and Faded presence in a city is represented by little plastic zombie figurines instead of the abstract colored cubes of other infections. Partly I find this disappointing because it’s an unwelcome intrusion of gaming cliché into a hitherto fairly original milieu. Partly because it adds an element of violence to what had previously been entirely about cooperating to save lives. And that’s violence in both directions. Faded attack you if you stay in a city with them. And since the Faded figurines aren’t infection cubes, you can’t remove them with the “treat infection” action, but instead, shortly after the Faded are introduced, you get a new character, the Colonel, who has the power to remove Faded figures. The one thing I like about this is that it doesn’t go into detail about how he does this. It doesn’t need to. This is storytelling through game mechanics. It’s probably worth mentioning that the player on my team who was most eager to play the Colonel was the one who had previously mostly played the Medic. Opposites, yes, but both geared towards clearing things off the board.

Once you’ve got a zombie plague in a game, the obvious place for the plot to go next is the revelation that it was deliberately engineered. In fact, this is such an obvious development that we had already worked it into our personal side-storytelling before the zombies even appeared. In our first session, we used the Scientist character, Dr. Pang, whose special power is that she uses one fewer card than normal to find cures. We didn’t use her for several sessions after that, though — you get to choose whatever characters you want at the start of each session, and we had more pressing needs. Our joke explanation for her absence that she was secretly an agent of the organization that engineered COdA. She had infiltrated our group in order to oversee its successful deployment, and once that was done, she had no reason to stick around. We started using her again about halfway through the year, because we had given one of the four diseases enough beneficial mutations that it could be cured with four cards instead of five — which meant that Dr. Pang could cure it with a mere three, a very significant improvement. Since this coincided with the Faded appearing, our in-fiction explanation was that she only then understood the extent of what her secret masters had been planning, and came back to us to atone for her crimes.

At any rate, the upshot is that when we got to the point in the game’s story where the truth comes out about COdA’s origins, it wasn’t as impressive as it was probably supposed to be. Some of my teammates were amazed that our prediction had come true, but like I said, I thought it was a fairly obvious direction for the story to go. There’s something of a text dump on the cards that reveal it all. The villains are apparently a secretive group within the military called “Zodiac”, with members taking on various zodiac signs as aliases. But these details are so inconsequential to the game that by the time we reached the second mention of Zodiac, several sessions later, I had forgotten who they were. If you want me to remember something, make a rule about it! The one mechanical effect of the Zodiac revelation was that one of your characters is suddenly killed, and can’t be used in future sessions. In our case, it was Dr. Nikki, the Quarantine Specialist. Not the best person to lose, but it could have been worse.

Much of the second half of the campaign revolves around a “search” mechanic. Basically, once you’ve got zombies, COdA stops getting worse, but the players still keep getting upgrades and other incremental benefits. So they throw in searches as a new way to keep you distracted and short on resources. And here, an interesting thing happened: the Soldier, who we had originally ignored as useless, gradually became our MVP. The Soldier has two powers: he can’t be hurt by zombies, and he can pick up Equipment cards from the discard pile as an action. He also has one significant disadvantage: he can’t discover a cure. This is a pretty big disadvantage — you mainly cure diseases with whoever’s lucky enough to draw the right cards, so playing with the Soldier means losing about 1/4 of your cure opportunities. The thing is, Equipment cards are just cards that have had an Equipment sticker stuck on them over the course of the campaign. Usually this is done as an action; when you’re at a Research Center or Military Base, and have an action to spare, you can “equip” an unused equipment sticker by attaching it permanently to a card in your hand, which then counts as both a piece of equipment and as what it was before. When the Soldier first becomes available for use, there simply isn’t a whole lot of equipment in the deck yet. By the end of the campaign, though, there’s a lot. And that means there tends to be a lot of whatever cards are needed to conduct a search sitting in the discard pile with equipment stickers on them.

The game ends very pleasingly: after spending so many sessions struggling to contain COdA, you finally get the means to eradicate it. It’s a more involved process than finding cures for the other diseases, involving picking up limited quantities of vaccine from vaccine factories, but once you’ve vaccinated a city, COdA is gone from there for good. That’s more than you can do for the other diseases; even if you eradicate a non-CoDA disease in one session, it comes back in the next. Being able to make permanent improvements for the better is no small thing in a game that’s generally about things getting worse and worse.

Pandemic Legacy

Before I go back to posting about videogames, I’d like to talk a little about a board game I’ve been playing that has relevance to this blog, because it draws so much from videogame design. I’ll be avoiding spoilers here.

First, the basics: Pandemic is a cooperative board game about disease control. Four diseases have cropped up in different parts of the world, and the players, a team of specialists with different abilities, jet around the globe trying to limit the damage and ultimately find cures. Finding cures is how you win the game, but failing to limit the damage is how you lose it, so the greater part of the strategy is in finding the right balance between these two things. Pandemic Legacy takes Pandemic as its basis, but adds an ongoing campaign mode, where each session has lasting consequences for future sessions. For example, Legacy adds rules about “unrest”: neglecting a problem city can lead to riots, which impede travel. The level of unrest in a city is indicated by a sticker permanently affixed to the board. A player character who’s in a city during an Outbreak can receive “scars” — permanent disabilities that last from game to game — or even be killed, in which case you rip up the character sheet.

The very existence of a campaign mode is something of a videogamism, although it has precedent in tabletop wargames as well. But that’s not all there is to it. There’s this whole very videogamey system of upgrades: after every session, win or lose, you get your choice of two, which can give minor enhancements to a character’s abilities, make a specific disease easier to cure, make a research station you built during that session permanent, or various other effects. Now, the overall structure of the campaign is that it proceeds in a sequence of months, the full campaign representing a year of game-time. If you win a game, you go on to the next month. If you lose, you get one do-over: your next game is the same month, but after that, you go on to the next month regardless of the outcome. Consequently, the more you lose, the more upgrades you get. This is a sort of self-balancing of difficulty that I mostly associate with single-player videogames; it resembles the way that the Ratchet & Clank games, for example, let you keep all the money that you accumulate over repeated failed attempts at a mission. There’s an even more obvious self-balancing in the “funding level”, which determines the number of helpful Event Cards you shuffle into the deck: it increases every time you lose, and decreases every time you win.

The game’s biggest novelty, though, is something that’s fundamental to videogame campaigns, but virtually unseen in board games: it continually introduces new elements that you have no way of anticipating and have to adjust to on the fly. New rules, new characters, new objectives, new actions you can perform. Some make the game easier, some make it harder, but all make it more complex. Their introduction is managed through a special deck of cards, the “Legacy Deck”, which you work your way through over the course of the campaign, each Legacy card stating on its back the conditions under which you draw it. The instructions on the face of the Legacy cards frequently involve opening sealed boxes containing new game tokens, or punching concealed stickers out of a special sheet and pasting them into the rulebook. There’s generally a Legacy card for the beginning of each month, so that you never quite know what the next month is going to bring. Greg Costikyan has written an entire book about uncertainty in games, titled Uncertainty in Games, arguing that it’s an essential feature of games and analyzing the various forms it takes: randomness, analytical complexity, unpredictability of your opponent’s decisions, etc. The Legacy Deck brings uncertainty through hidden information into a portion of the game were it’s usually absent, and even bleeds it into the negative space between the games. For me, at least, the revelation of the next month’s Legacy card is the part that I find myself most anticipating between sessions.

Since this game draws so much from videogame sensibilities, would a videogame adaptation be a good thing? I’ll say this: It does fit my critera for a good asynchronous online multiplayer game pretty well. The turns are longish and self-sufficient, and you don’t get to do a lot of forward planning because it’s hard to predict where the next emergency will be. It even puts the “draw cards” step at the end of your turn rather than the beginning, so that you have something to stew on between your turns. However, being cooperative, it involves coordination between players in a way that works against asynchronous play. Players may need to arrange to meet in a particular city in order to exchange cards, for example. And when they meet, the rules require both players to agree to the exchange, which means out-of-turn confirmations.

Moreover, there’s a charm to the board-game-ness that I think would be lost in any electronic adaptation. As I said about the Solitaire Hangman puzzles in Games Interactive, part of the enjoyment of the game is in the analog component, the exercise of hidden information via player participation in punching out stickers and unpacking boxes. Hidden information in a videogame is facile by comparison, and leaves the player out of the process. Even when you have to click or drag or swipe to reveal something, it doesn’t feel the same.

Asynchronous online multiplayer

Lately I’ve been playing a couple of games with a friend back east via iPhone apps. First we played a few rounds of Ascension, then a few rounds of Ticket to Ride. These are both adaptations of games designed for non-electronic play: Ascension is a card game, Ticket to Ride a board game. In their original forms, they would be played face-to-face in a single session, which is to say, in a period of time set aside just for play. As mobile games, no set-aside time is required. You can take your turn at any idle moment of your day. It’s no surprise that this transforms the experience of the game. It’s a little less obvious that it transforms it in very different ways depending on the rules of the game.

Ascension isn’t a CCG, but its design is informed by them. As in Magic: the Gathering, most cards are in some way exceptional, with special-case rules printed directly on the cards themselves. And if the central act of gameplay in a CCG is deck construction, Ascension manages to approximate it within the body of the game: the players start with small identical decks, and vie to acquire cards from a central pool, to add them to their decks and use them later in the game, most often for acquiring more cards. On every turn, you’re dealt a fresh hand of five cards from your deck, and your turn doesn’t end until you’ve played them all and your hand is empty. Importantly for the mobile adaptation, you’re dealt next turn’s hand immediately on the end of your turn, so you can contemplate what you’re going to do with it while your opponents are going.

Ticket to Ride is about trains. The board is a map of a rail network. Players compete to claim the tracks between cities and complete connections between particular distant pairs of cities assigned to them in secret. Each track can be owned by only one player, so some of the strategy is in dealing with, and exploiting, congestion: trying to foil your opponents by claiming the tracks they need while trying to plan for alternate routes in case your own efforts become blocked. Buying a track costs varying types and numbers of resources in the form of cards, which build up in your hand over the course of play. On any given turn, you can either draw two cards, or buy one track, or get additional contracts to connect cities (which is risky, because any contracts left uncompleted at the end of the game count against you).

Now, the big difference between these two games is in the length of the turns. Ticket to Ride turns are short. You do one thing, and that’s it — and if all you did was draw a couple of cards that you didn’t really need, it hardly feels like doing anything at all. Ascension turns are long, and get longer as the game advances and your deck becomes more powerful, enabling you to do more stuff. Moreover, Ticket to Ride separates the act of acquiring resources from the act of using them, and the result can be fairly excruciating: you finally get the fifth green card that you need to buy the St. Louis to Pittsburgh line and complete the connection you’re aiming for, but then you have to wait hours for your next turn before you can complete the transaction. In Ascension, your purchasing power is also tied to the cards in your hand, but it’s transient, not something that builds up from turn to turn, and so you use it the moment you get it. It’s a little strange to say this about a game that’s all about collecting things for future use, but turns in Ascension feel pretty self-contained, or at least self-sufficient. They’re like full sentences, where Ticket to Ride turns are sentence fragments, only meaningful in groups.

Another thing: Both of these games involve a struggle to get stuff before your opponents, and the possibility that a thing you really want will be taken away before you can get it. But the degree of consequence is very different. In Ascension, if I don’t get the sweet card I wanted, well, it’s just a card. There will be others. But in Ticket to Ride, if someone nabs the track I wanted, I’m devastated, and have to rework my plans. This again relates to the relative unimportance of forward plans in Ascension, which is more about seizing whatever the circumstances offer.

The end result: Ascension works more or less the way I want asynchronous multiplayer to work, with turns as satisfying nuggets of gameplay that I can take care of whenever it’s convenient. With only two players, there came times when we shuttled several turns back and forth in a short period of time, but this wasn’t a necessary part of the experience. Whereas in Ticket to Ride, the times when we made multiple moves in rapid succession were the only times that the game really felt like it was going anywhere. After submitting a move, I’d keep impatiently checking my phone for an opportunity to finish what I started. In other words, despite the asynchrony, I wanted to treat it like I was in a dedicated game session. Whereas Ascension is so well-suited to the format that I feel like it would be weird to play it face-to-face.

So, I’m speculating that this is generally applicable. Games that are well-suited to asynchronous multiplayer play will be those with long, self-sufficient turns, and without a great deal of forward planning. What does this predict for other games?

Chess and Go are big losers in this model, having both short turns and heavily planning-based gameplay. Scrabble, I suggest, is a winner — sure, you only get to do one thing per turn, but my experience is that it the turns tend to take an uncomfortably long time for face-to-face play anyway. And indeed asynchronous Scrabble-oids such as Words for Friends have been immensely popular. Settlers of Catan? Ignoring the problem of how to handle trading, it seems a pretty good candidate to me, despite sharing Ticket to Ride‘s congestion and resource-accumulation aspects: the congestion is never as individually crucial as in Ticket to Ride‘s routes, and resources can be spent as soon at they’re acquired. Magic: the Gathering might seem promising at first glance, what with its long turns, but it involves a degree of out-of-turn interactivity that’s unwieldy even for synchronous online play, let alone asynchronous. Diplomacy more or less fits the bill, and is also one of the few board games that I know to be more satisfying played via email than in its original form, but it’s also such an oddball with its all-players-move-simultaneously thing that I’m not sure it really fits into the same model as these other games at all.