Thursday, May 17, 2012

Symmetric Pandemic

Pandemic is a very popular board game around the office, but there are a couple things about it that bug me.
First, I'm pretty competitive so even though this co-op game can be a real challenge I really wanted to find a way to pit players against each other (other than using the bio-terrorist role). The other thing that has always bothered me a bit about pandemic is that one or two vocal (hopefully experienced) players can often drown out the other players. I've occasionally considered granting each player a certain amount of time per round/game and using timers to limit an individual's vocal contributions but this kind of takes away from one of the most fun parts of a good game of pandemic, the interaction and debate.

A colleague of mine, Mike McGraw, proposed an interesting twist on the game that seemed like it might solve both of the above issues. We had multiple copies of the game, what if we could sync up the decks so that we could have 2 teams simultaneously playing the same game? Because of the way that pandemic works it would be relatively easy to have both teams get the exact same player and virus cards in the same order. This means that the decisions made by the teams would be the sole difference in the results of the games. A nice even playing field. We decided that the winning team would be the team that cured the most viruses, if both teams won, then the team that won first (real time, not turns) would be the victor. This incentivised both teams to play at a quick pace, but not a reckless one.

A nice side effect of having both teams play on the same (large) table and use the same card order is that at least at the start of the game you don't want to talk too loudly or too much about the cards you draw or the good ideas you have because your opposing team can also hear them and use that information. While I don't think either team used this advantage to any great degree in our game it's an interesting dynamic.

Once we decided to give this variation a try we didn't want to have to require an extra person on hand to do the initial deck sync and make sure the post-infection shuffles also resulted in the same ordering. Fortunately I work in an office full of talented programmers, one of whom (Luke Dewitt @whatadewitt) spent a couple hours building a web-app that takes a seed and generates a shuffled deck of pandemic cards, has buttons for drawing from both the player and virus decks and manages the actions required for infection events. We had 2 computers load up this app and input the same seed and the resulting play through is symmetrical (in terms of cards drawn).

Luke's Pandemic Card-Sync-app

To make it a little easier to get the app running in the limited time we had before playing we decided to remove a couple special event cards that can affect card drawing which could potentially break the drawing symmetry. Since you only play with a subset of the special event cards anyway this shouldn't be a problem.

The game itself went really well, my team had to restart after a missed turn early in the game, but this was easily accomplished using the app and the same seed and we quickly caught back up to where we were before. The game ended with one team curing the last virus and winning by being the first to do so. I'm confident that both teams would have won the game (we were playing with 4 infection cards for this initial play test) so the real-time aspect of the variation made the difference.

The 2 Teams and Boards

We plan on playing another game like this sometime soon, if it turns out I'll record it and post it here. I think everyone enjoyed the game and the new angle that the 2-team variation brought. One thing we've considered for future iterations is finding a way to track (or perhaps record) which moves each team made so we could review it post-game and find the turning points.

In particular I like the idea of picking a seed at random, generating a unique game and playing it either with a group or solitaire (Pandemic is a great solitaire game) and then sending the seed to a friend to see how they did with the same card sequence.

Thanks to Luke, Mike, Shawn, TJ, and Jamie for the great game,



Luke has posted the source for the web-app on github and it's also available on his site:

I'd recommend playing (or at least starting) a solo game before trying a multi-team setup just to make sure you understand how the app works.


Anonymous said...

Is there anyway to put that app out for public use... In case any of us want to try it?

Steve said...

Call it "Duplicate Pandemic", in line with duplicate bridge etc.

I wonder if this mechanic would work for other co-op games like Space Alert. You'd have the same issue with syncing decks at the start of each game. Wouldn't be quite to easy to use an app to give everyone the same action cards.

Matt Leacock said...

Great idea! Love the concept, especially the notion of a seed that allows others to test their abilities against the same challenge.