Exploring the wreck of the Pandora

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I start the game by distributing the crew around the ship. Captain Neema Strof starts on “C” Deck in Pod 3 near the risor. Science Officer L.J. Gepidus is on “B” Deck, as is Maintenance Officer Najeb Kelly, although he’s all the way down the hall at the other end. Ground Survey Officer Blnt Skraaling and Biology Officer Hesiod Charybdis (I am not making any of these names up) start together up on “A” Deck, in the same pod no less.

After the jump, the adventures of Blnt and Hesiod

Captain Strof starts the game by rolling for discovery. She is already in a pod, so there’s that (all 21 pods are set up at the beginning of the game face-down, one per pod space) but a die roll says something else is in the pod! Strof wakes up to find … the Reconbot. It’s in condition yellow (determined by a roll, like everything else in the game) which means it is functioning, but can break if you use it. The pod located here turns out to be the Survey Pod, which controls the Specibot, the Ambot, and … the Reconbot.

This is part of the point of the game: you find pods that control robots so they can do your dirty work while you stay locked in the bathroom. Strof declines to look under the stall door to see what is outside, and instead spends her movement phase trying to fix the bot. I check her Repair skill on the character sheet. It is “3.” I need a 4+ to restore the Reconbot to condition green. Strof rolls a 2 and fails. She sits back down in the bathroom.

Science Officer Gepidus is in Pod #6 one deck above. He rolls and finds nothing next to him when he wakes up. Examining the pod, he finds it is the DconPod. Looking on the back of the rules, I find that the DconPod is another remote control pod! It controls EVAbot, Imrebot (the Hungarian robot) and Ubot. It is in condition yellow. Gepidus peers through the viewport. Something is outside! I draw a chit from an opaque mug that has “World Boardgaming Championships” written on the side. Out comes a WepKit in condition green! Gepidus steps out and retrieves it. And now I have to check his Port. No really, I do.

The most curious design choice in the whole game, in my opinion, is the weight/port mechanic. Instead of putting simple limit on the items a crew member can carry, like a weapon and a kit, or two kits, or nothing when controlling a bot, Wreck of the Pandora gives each crewmember a Port ability (different each game, like all attributes) and then makes you compare it to the Weight of each individual item the crewmember is carrying. It’s almost like Dunnigan and the wargamers at SPI were afraid to have crew members carry an unrealistic amount of gear, so they did what any wargamer would do, which is to look up how much something weighed in real life, give it a number, and call that realism. But every time I want to see how much a character can carry realistically in space,
I have to check her character record sheet.

But that might be due to the role-playing element to Wreck of the Pandora, which isn’t so much role-playing as attribute-rolling, and that is that every time you play, you “roll up” your crew, as well as the specimens/monsters when you encounter them. My guess is that this is what a wargaming perspective on a science fiction game was. “You have to roll up a character in these games, right?” “I guess so. It’s not like tanks where you can just look it up.” “Yeah, maybe we should have tanks?”

attributes

Anyway.

Check out those names of the “specimens” there: “Mother” and “Grendel?” It looks like the BSM Pandora made a stop on the Danish Saga Planet. Whatever. Rolling attributes each time gives the game some replayability because you can say, “Remember the time Captain Strof had only two hit points?” Oh wait, turns out that’s this game. Hit points (sorry, “stamina” in the game) are recorded on a separate track with a chit.

Pandora_crew_status

So back to the game. The WepKit (that’s military talk for Weapons Kit, by the way) has a weight of 3. Gepidus has a Port of 5. That means he can carry two more ziemen of kits. Right now he can’t do anything, though, because crew only move one space per turn.

Maintenance Office Kelly is down the hallway in Pod #4. He also doesn’t have anyone in the pod with him. But this pod is not a pod per se. Rather, it’s an Exlok.

Exlok is an exterior lock, granting access to the outside of the ship. There are various ways to move around outside, including the EVAbot as well as some spacesuits with funny names. Going outside the ship allows you to move from level to level without using the risors. I think you’re supposed to imagine the crew fixing hull breaches like V.I.N.C.E.N.T. in The Black Hole. But it also gives you a shortcut getting from deck A to deck C, for example. And from the game design perspective, it’s a clever way of giving the crew mobility, because remember, you’re racing against time.

Lastly, Charybdis and Skraaling are in the same stall on Deck “A” when they come to and realize the ship is sinking. Despite the rules’ all-encompassing wargamey comprehensiveness, nothing directly addresses the situation in which two crewmembers share the same location during the initial discovery phase. Using the wargamey guiding principle of realism, I decide to only roll once. They discover two things! A BotKit (good for fixing bots!) and a Stunbomb. Both are in condition green. The pod is a BotPod, also good for fixing bots. Carefully, Charybdis looks out from under the stall door. Nothing in the hallway. Skraaling steps out. He would have taken the Stunbomb with him, but movement comes before the acquisition phase.

wreck

Can you tell what is happening? Because I sure can’t. I also can’t tell the difference between an Enviorig and an EVAbot, except that one has more capitals and was in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s difficult to tell at a glance which counters are the crew and which counters are pods. That’s a problem.

These problems seem worse because underneath is a neat idea and a basically solid game. Make order out of chaos in a stricken ship before the power runs out. But is the power really in danger of running out? Maybe not.

Captain Strof looked through the viewport and saw “Typhoo,” which is a specimen they found on some planet but the details are a mystery since the specimens don’t get bios like the crew does. Specimens get rolled up as well but have modifiers to their rolls. Typhoo is fairly tough, but dumb, with a “1” modifier to his intelligence but “2” to his aggression and impair, which is a more 1970s word for attack. (The modifiers only run from 0-3.) To figure out what a specimen does, you cross-reference the intelligence with the aggression and roll a die and then consult a giant chart. The dumber a specimen is and the more aggressive it is, the more likely it is to attack. Typhoo attacks Neema Strof and nearly kills her with one attack.

I hate it when people make up academic-sounding names for game mechanics or design effects, so feel free to hate me for describing Pandora’s design as one of “chance narrative.” By chance, you just might have a situation where a character can make a breach in the hull and travel quickly along the outside of the ship to aid a crewmate. There is a special suit you can find to help you do this. Or someone might find the EVAbot to do the same thing. Or the ship’s crucial systems can be on the verge of shutdown when they’re found, and the crew can make heroic efforts to restart the systems and save the ship. It can happen. But the thing about a chance narrative game is that none of those things can happen, too.

Modern games have figured out how to use probability to generate tension, but arrange it so that at any given time you are more rather than less likely to do interesting things. There is plenty of chance in Hermann Luttmann’s In Magnificent Style, a game about Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. In fact, it depends on it for variation. But the game is balanced in such a way that the variation itself almost ensures an interesting game: you’ll have some brigades break early while others push to the very end and assault the Union lines. But another difference is that it’s the player’s decision that determine the die rolls, not the other way around. In fact, this co-opting of the outlying ends of a Poisson distribution against each other is the difference between a game that needs extraordinary luck to be interesting, and one that requires extraordinary luck not to.

Because the more likely scenario in chance narrative is that things won’t add up right, or they’ll add up just wrong enough to be annoying. The flipped-over pods might be distributed right, but are probably all over the ship in locations that require tedious space-by-space searches. And when it comes down to the critical ship systems, they may be found right as you’re fighting the monsters, and be in cold shutdown, and trigger a race to restart the ship before all is lost. But it’s also possible that they will be found early, and still be pretty much in working order.

Which is what happens to me. Capt. Strof dies at the hands of Typhoo, who was able to deprive her of her measly two hit points. But while the captain was making this valiant sacrifice, Scylla and Charybdis found the controls for the Power in Pod A2. A die roll determines that they are in Condition 9. That’s pretty much intact. Skraaling finds the Envio on the same deck, albeit all the way down the hall. It is in Condition 8. There are three other systems (Comp, Nav, and Con), which are eventually found, albeit without any time pressure, allowing me to carefully search each space to limit my risk. No other crew members die. Reboot attempts from the Comp pod get a +2 bonus, so once I’ve found that, it’s just a matter of repairing systems until my reboot chance is good. And I can still afford to fail a few times because the crucial systems (Power and En-VIR-o) are in good shape.

Wreck of the Pandora gives me some additional tools to fix certain systems, like the CompKit which can repair the Comp pod. If it needs to be repaired. Which, thanks to the chance strategy design, it doesn’t. I find the Scanner, which allows me to scan adjacent spaces. But I don’t need it. And so on.

And so the game ends, many moves later, checking weight against port and impair against shield, and then stamina. Eventually, we find all the systems needed to reboot. We subdue all the monsters. And that is the end of the game. I didn’t include the details because I didn’t want to lose you less than halfway through the series. But trust me when I tell you that you didn’t miss much. This time. Some other time, it might have been quite compelling. And maybe it will be in the future. Just not now.

***

Thanks for reading during Starship Week. In case you’re sad that Starship Week is over, I can cheer you up by telling you that there is another whole week of articles about this and that starship. Along with everyone’s favorite, a surprise ending. That’s five more articles, posted one each day, next Monday through Friday.

But here’s the thing: these ten articles took a long time to write (they have been in the works since early spring) and I’m very curious how much interest there is in series like this. So I’ve devised a little experiment. I’ve collected all the Starship Week pieces I wrote into an e-book and made it available for $2.99* on Amazon, through their Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) program. That includes this week’s content and all five pieces scheduled for next week, as well as a little intro to the whole thing that I decided not to post because there was no good way to do it without messing up the schedule. And an exclusive glimpse into the past on Day 9, available only in book format. So for $2.99 you can download a digital book version of the whole thing along with a bit extra, and it’s available right now for those who just can’t wait to see how all this turns out.

There’s no obligation to buy, obviously: the remainder of the series is going to be posted on Quarter to Three over the next week, for free. But it’s hard to gauge interest solely from comments. I figured a better way to do so would be to see if people think it’s actually worth paying for. If you think ten days of articles (over 20,000 words) is worth three bucks, let me know. Alternately, if you’re not convinced now, but you read next week’s pieces and feel that the whole two weeks of articles gave you $2.99 worth of enjoyment, consider coming back here and buying a copy. If it works out, there will be more.

On Monday, we’ll talk about another iconic spaceship game from 1980 which approaches things very, very differently.

*Why $2.99? It’s the cheapest price I can charge via KDP based on the particular royalty structure.
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