504 vs Pandemic Legacy

Chad DeShon

We love talking about tables, but every once in a while we also like to talk about the games that are played on tables.

We talk about games being heavy vs. light or short vs. long. Today, there is one more axis I want to explore. A variable that is causing a lot of hype and controversy. Replayability vs Scenario.

In one corner we have games like Catan, 504, Kingdom Builder, and Dominion. These games change their base setup every time you play them. For this reason, you can play them countless times and every game will be different. Different locations or resources will be more valuable. Different strategies will be necessary. In fact, a large portion of being successful in these games is reading the initial game state and seeing what will be important this time. The downside is that some setups can be more interesting than others. You never really know what you're going to get. It can also lead to complexity as different combinations can lead to more rules to learn.

Other games (especially some recent releases) take the opposite approach. Games like Pandemic Legacy, T.I.M.E Stories, and Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective. These have a very specific story they want you to explore. Certain things are scripted to happen and you are forced to react. The map and game can be crafted to ensure optimal game play, excitement, and challenge. However, the cost of this tailored experience is that the game can start to feel the same every time you play. In fact, some of these games are designed with scenarios that are each intended to be played only one time.

At the far end of the spectrum, there has been some debate on whether or not these can really be called board games. Is Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective more of a novel than a game? Is 504 a game or is it an art project? Should people be spending their hard earned money to support games that can't be played more than once?

Some people seem down right offended by some of these games. "504 just shows the sad state of game design. Just mashing mechanics together with no thought of crafting a worthwhile experience." "You can only play a T.I.M.E Stories scenario one time and then it is done forever. That's not even a board game."

Such criticism is needlessly absolute. There have always been those who hate long games, or who hate light games. Fine. Now there can also be people who hate super replayable games or scenario games. Personally, I hate co-ops. Hope I never play another one in my life. But let's not crusade against something that is clearly fun for so many others.

Instead, I hope designers can push the boundaries even further. Pandemic was not the first cooperative game, but it gave new breath to the genre, explored a known idea more deeply and started a land rush. Now groups that want to explore the co-op play-space have dozens of titles to play instead of just a few. This is a good thing.

Likewise, the tension between replayability vs scenarios has always been there. You can see the trade-offs in older train games like Age of Steam and Chicago Express. Age of Steam starts with a random cube distribution. The best opening move is different each game. Sometimes tense. Sometimes more open. Chicago Express defines start city for each rail company. Repeated plays allows players to explore the strengths and weaknesses of each line, but the raw initial potential is the same from game to game. Games like 504 and Pandemic Legacy have pushed these trade-offs to a new extreme, and given us completely new experiences in the process.

I think these games represent an avant-garde that board gaming needs more of. More new ideas to give us completely new experiences. The cube tower in Wallenstein, the use of sound in Mord im Arosa, the combination of dexterity and strategy in Safranito. Let's push the envelope further. Let's find whole new envelopes.

So what's next? Can the legacy idea be pushed even further? Are the other existing axis ripe to be stretched? Are still others waiting to be created? Let's see more games that launch new genres, Let's relaunch the debate of what a game really is.

What do you think? What is your hair-brained idea? What could be the next idea that turns board gaming upside down?

Happy gaming,

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