Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Isle Of Dr. FlawedMath

A couple weeks ago my wife and I picked up a cooperative card game called "The Isle of Dr. Necreaux". The concept behind the game is a good one - it simulates a team of spies infiltrating an evil scientist's island lair, and escaping before the bomb goes off. But the more I play it, the more I feel like there's a mathematical flaw at the core of the game.

What it comes down to is this: You'll like the game if you're not particularly fond of, nor frightened by, math, and you're okay with games with really wordy text-dense cards.

If you really like math, you're going to enjoy your first several plays of the game, and then tire of the fact that what is presented as multiple strategic paths is actually just one solution and an array of sub-optimal choices that deceptively look mildly appealing at first blush. The more you analyze the game, the less it holds up to the scrutiny.

It's not a bad game. It's actually a fun game, but it's got elements that are sloppy and annoying. You look at it, and think "this could have been so good, if they'd just spent another month in blind playtesting followed by a month in development followed by one more thorough editing pass." Gaming companies function on small margins, though, so I understand why that didn't happen. But it makes me sad.

My main gripe has to do with the Speed mechanic which lies pretty close to the core of the game.

The vast majority of the cards in the game assume you'll be traveling with a Speed rating somewhere in the range of 2 to 7. There's several traps that are triggered if you roll less than your speed rating on a d6, and others that trigger if you roll more than your speed on a d6. There's a few character cards that let you roll two dice for these sorts of things and use the better die, or let you add or subtract +/-1 to/from your effective speed for such things. Throughout the game is the implication that every turn you should be adjusting your speed a little bit to take into account these various cards. It implies you should move slower when the party is injured or low on resources, and make a bigger run when you're relatively unhurt. At least half the cards in the deck provide some sort of interesting tactical decision if your speed could only be between, say, 1 and 8, with an average of 5 or 6 being ideal.

Problem is, the game expressly states that there is no upper limit to how fast you can move. It's extremely clear about this - you can set a speed of 20 (or 5,000) if you'd like. Your speed determines how many bad cards you flip over in a turn, so at first blush it seems like a large number is suicidal. After playing about 4 or 5 games without a single win, my wife and I just on a lark tried a turn at speed 20. It went off without a hitch. So we did it again. We've played another half-dozen games since then, and found that as long as we move at speed 20 or higher as often as possible, we always win.

We either sit at speed zero for the rest bonuses, or jump ahead at a breakneck speed of 20 or more. It's come down to essentially a binary decision, rest or run as fast as we can. Which means those cards that care about your speed rating don't have any decision-making weight or randomness they initially seemed to have. All the cards that involve "if you roll less than your Speed rating, bla bla bla..." trigger automatically, and the ones that say "if you roll greater than your Speed" never trigger at all. There's no reason to ever want to move at a speed low enough that you'd ever agonize over, be surprised by, or even contemplate such cards. They just happen, beyond your control, and you can mostly laugh off the results.

The game has several cards that hose you if you move to fast - but they hose you equally if you're traveling at speed 8 or speed 80. Having a higher speed means you're more likely to draw these cards, and more of them in a turn, so it can get a little dangerous. In general, though, you can always survive any one card, and the retreat rules make it relatively simple to back off if a turn starts to go against you. In the default 2-player game you're trying to get through 65 cards in 11 turns, so Speed 6 sounds good. But you'll want to rest a few times, so you go speed 0 one turn and speed 12 the next. That just opens the doors to speed 20, or 30, or 50, any of which is vastly superior to a bunch of turns at speed 6. The benefits of setting an arbitrarily large Speed number significantly outweigh any minor benefit of potentially missing a trap or two by going much slower on some turns. It seems like such an inescapable conclusion, I've hunted through the rulebook and BoardGameGeek forums trying to find something we could possibly be doing wrong. Everything I've read in the rules or forums supports my conclusions.

Which would all be just fine, except for the fact that some of the character cards seem predicated on helping you only if you move in tiny little baby steps. The Security Expert, the Infiltrator, the Rocketeer, the Rogue, etc, all give boosts that would only be helpful if speeds 2 to 7 were viable, and those speeds just aren't.

Worse yet, the game presents this Speed-based risk management as one of it's core concepts. In theory, it should really resonate with people who like to number-crunch and analyze, or at least play the odds intelligently. But speaking as one of those people, I find I'm taunted by the fact that there's a better game with more meaningful decisions lurking beneath the surface if only there were some sort of speed limit and/or a smaller deck to go through. As it is, going infinitely fast is the way to win, and the deck is big enough you can't really hope to win if you don't do that on at least one turn. It just feels like they missed an opportunity in game design here. It's like they're aware of what makes the game fun, but didn't realize that the dominant strategy specifically downplays the fun aspects.

Anyhow, the game has a couple other flaws. It's fun, but the whole time you feel like something's amiss:
  • The pulpy retro-futuristic vaguely Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon theme is kinda neat, but if you went by the description on-line or on the back of the box you probably thought you were buying more of a vaguely James Bond themed product. It's grown on me, but it was a big shock when I opened the box.
  • The cards are insufferably wordy. Look back up at this post (and most of my other posts on this blog). You'll see that I'm a man who likes words, and I'm not the least bit terse or laconic. I'm certainly not phobic about words. I don't find text distasteful as a general rule. But these cards are too damn wordy for me. They need to implement a few more keywords. Example: There's 4 cards called "Brain Spiker", "Entropocyte", "Psychic Leech" and "Tangler". Each has 9 lines of text in tiny little print. Of those 9 lines, 8 lines are identical on all four cards (except for the repeated instances of the name of the card you're looking at). The one line that's different can be found in the middle of the text, making it hard to locate or parse. That's a huge pain in the visual cortex.
  • The rules are sloppy and contradictory. Example: You win by ending your turn with the "Escape Shuttle" card in play. The rules twice mention that the turn must be completed in order for you to win. But the card can (and indeed must) be put into play as soon as it's drawn, and the card says "You may end the game at any time". So you really don't have to end the turn, you can just end the game as soon as you play it. I think. There's a few other places where the cards disagree with the rules, and not in a fun "M:tG" way. Instead, it just seems like sloppy editing. There's no timing rules, and several instances where they'd be very helpful in clearing things up.
  • In this game, ninja's operate better on a team then alone. Everyone knows the opposite is true. If you're watching a movie and there's one Ninja after the main character, he's a badass. If there's a dozen ninja standing in the main character's way, they're just mooks and it will take 3 seconds to drop the whole bunch. In this game, however, a ninja on his own is ineffectual, and a ninja on a team is a powerhouse.
  • The sliding wall that splits up the party is actually good for you. If you are not willing (for whatever reason) to take turns at Speed 20, then your only hope to win is for the party to be split up into separate groups by the sliding wall. If you think you can handle 20 cards together, you can handle twice that easily if you split up. The sliding wall is the single-most beneficial card to the party, yet it's labeled a "trap" in big letters. Makes me scratch my head.
So, lots of little things to complain about, but overall it's still fun if you can manage to look past those flaws. Fun can make up for inelegant design, but only for so long. It's a game in desperate need of a revised edition.

1 comment:

Peter Darley said...

Rolfe, I'm trying to invite you and Sara to a gamer dinner, but I don't have either of your email addresses... Could you drop me a line at

Sorry to hijack your comments. :)