When it comes to gaming the spread of infectious disease, everyone loves Matt Leacock’s Pandemic. Not me. I think it does a terrible job of modeling the outbreak, spread, and containment of an epidemic. It’s all gamey abstraction loosely held together by a strained disease motif that makes no sense. It’s not even a very good design. It speaks volumes about Pandemic that for all its iterations — diseases, dikes, empires, cultists — the best version of Leacock’s design is about puppets and plastic models.
But then there’s Raxxon.
Raxxon, a game about the spread of infectious disease, has its share of gamey abstraction. Thirty cards represent healthy people. Another thirty cards represent infected people. Shuffle them all together and then lay out a grid of face-down cards. Your task is to reveal and manage the cards, sorting the healthy from the infected. Your tools are actions that represent quarantines, evacuations, air strikes, and crowd control. The more turns you spend working the grid, extracting the healthy cards, the more unpredictable and unwieldy the crowd gets. Eventually, you have to call it a day. Shuffle the remaining cards back into the deck and try again. But now the balance of healthy and infected cards has shifted. A greater portion of the deck is infected. It’s harder to find the healthy cards. The disease is spreading.
Raxxon, published by Plaid Hat as part of their Dead of Winter line, apparently wasn’t very successful. It’s got a low rating on Board Games Geek. It routinely appears in clearance sales. It was a $40 release, but you can find it for half that on Amazon right now (there’s a link at the bottom of this review). It’s not for me to say why people didn’t buy it, much less why many of the people who did buy it didn’t like it. But I can say it’s a design that obscures some important elements.
The first is the basic gameplay. It’s billed as a cooperative game, but it’s one of those cooperative games that fares better as a solitaire game. You play with two to four characters, and each character’s action is quick and simple. Flip a card over. Swap the position of two cards. Remove two cards. That sort of thing. The turns get more complex as each day progresses, but it’s hardly enough to justify a round-robin around the table. There’s a reason each character in Pandemic gets three actions. If I’m going to have to wait for Billy, Suzy, and Earl to take their turns before I can do anything, I dang well better get to do more than move from Karachi to Delhi.
But Raxxon consists of successive characters taking minor actions that build on each other. Characters set up tasks for other characters. It’s the interaction of small adjustments, and it’s a precarious interaction. A carefully planned evacuation can collapse. A healthy card can get caught in an airstrike. Quarantines fall apart. Perhaps worst of all, the day can abruptly end. Now all the cards you were working get shuffled back into the deck. More than most cooperative games, Raxxon relies on Billy, Suzy, Earl, and me having our heads in the game and working off each other’s actions. Quick, simple, extremely interactive actions. In fact, why don’t I just take their turns for them? It’s the kind of cooperative game ideal for solitaire.
You might not know by reading the rules for Raxxon, but there’s a ton of asymmetry at work in the design. At first, you might think it’s like Pandemic, where each character does the same stuff, but also has one unique ability: the firefighter’s roadblock, the lieutenant’s curfew, the doctor’s experimental treatment, the CDC director’s funding, the mayor’s campaigning, and the journalist’s interviews. But each character also has unique twists on how they perform common actions. The firefighter has his own special evacuation option, just as the army lieutenant can precisely target his airstrikes. The doctor and CDC director have more powerful quarantines. The mayor and journalist get special charisma perks to crowd control. But this isn’t obvious because the character boards aren’t laid out consistently. The layout — the interface, if you will — actively obscures the design. I can’t imagine who looked at these boards and decided, “Yep, let’s send this off to the printing press!”
Another hidden part of the design is that all the elements of the design — the characters, the actions they perform, the cards in the crowd — have unique gameplay mechanics you might never see. Sometimes you draw from an event deck. The cards in this deck are like the Crossroads cards in Dead of Winter, with italicized text at the top detailing the prerequisite for triggering the card. If the text doesn’t apply, discard the card without effect. Which is what usually happens in Raxxon. The event deck is more like a non-event deck.
But what’s not immediately apparent is that this event deck applies consistent and thematic rules to other parts of the game. For instance, there are three types of unhealthy cards. Carriers, volatiles, and chaotics. Each has an effect, listed on the card. When you flip it face up, you apply the effect. Play a few games of Raxxon and you’ll be familiar with the differences among a carrier, a volatile, and a chaotic. Or will you? Each of them also has a unique gameplay mechanic that only triggers if you draw the event card at the right time. For instance, whenever there’s a chaotic face up in the crowd, their incessant screaming can trigger bouts of violence that kill all adjacent cards. It’s a constant threat/opportunity, but you won’t see it happen in any given game unless you draw the event card. You could theoretically play a Raxxon a dozen times and have no inkling chaotics do this.
This is true of every other type of card in the crowd. All three types of infected, and all six types of healthy cards have unique gameplay mechanics that will only trigger if you draw the right event card at the right moment. This is also true of the characters. And the actions. There are gameplay dynamics lurking in the event deck. There are also story beats and chained choice-and-consequence events. But unlike the Crossroads deck in Dead of Winter, it’s not just an enormous heap of cards swallowing the relevance of any single card. Instead, it’s a compact system, comprised of 40 cards, designed to cycle and compress as the game goes on.
In fact, it’s a game clock. Raxxon is called Raxxon because that’s the name of the evil company that causes the zombie apocalypse in Dead of Winter. This event deck is called the Raxxon deck because it also pushes a marker along a track representing Raxxon’s progress toward triggering the apocalypse. If you don’t evacuate all the healthy cards before the marker reaches the end of the track, you lose. You have failed to evacuate the people who would go on to become the survivors in Dead of Winter. In Raxxon, the zombie apocalypse is inevitable. You can’t stop what’s coming. You can only get set up for the next game in the series.
Ultimately, this deck of 40 cards is what won me over. The crowd management puzzle is a solid piece of design, with enough decisions and interlocking actions to make it more gratifying as you learn it. But the event deck keeps it from being fully solvable. The event deck lends it new character and a “knowable” unpredictability. It’s not just the tyranny of another shuffle. It’s a system that culls itself and looms larger and larger as you play. It’s full of decisions that loop back on the deck itself, that affect later decisions. Like the crowd you’re managing, it gets more dangerous. It distills its menace. It marinates.
It’s not as sophisticated as Twilight Struggle, but it’s a similar concept. A lot of Twilight Struggle’s historical beats are tucked into its deck of cards, where they’re not immediately apparent. To play Twilight Struggle well, you have to know the cards. This is the model for a lot of historical games. Script history with cards, but let the shuffle introduce a little chaos and uncertainty. You don’t have to put all the rules on the board, or even in the rules book. Let a deck of cards do some of the lifting.
It reminds me of a couple of Martin Wallace’s recent designs. One of his latest games is called Auztralia. Note the Z. It’s because of zombies. Auztralia is part of a genre so esoteric it’s not even a genre: colonial horror. As the British colonize Australia and push inland (this came to mind recently when I was writing about another game with an Australian setting), they discover — gasp! — Lovecraftian horrors. With some zombies thrown in to justify the title.
But Auztralia doesn’t present much information about the horrors because it’s baked into a deck of cards. So there’s no immediately obvious way to tell that zombies are slow, mi-gos can fly, and shoggoths are sanity-blasting. You just flip up cards and resolve a bunch of icons to see what the monsters do. Many of the rules for Auztralia are hiding in the distribution of icons. Zombies are slow and mi-gos are fast, so there are fewer cards with a “move zombies” result and more cards with a “move mi-gos” result. This applies to combat as well. Every round of combat, you draw a card to see what damages what. Shoggoths are more likely to cause sanity damage, artillery is good against temples, mi-go are most likely to damage zeppelins, and infantry are all but useless against Cthulhu.
While this works just fine mechanically, it’s a terrible way to convey information. Auztralia gives you a chart of what’s good against what, but you won’t know the specifics unless you go through the cards and pore over the icons. This is the only way to glean specific information about how fast something moves across the map or how likely it is to do sanity damage. Martin Wallace uses the same concept in Wildlands, his game about tactical battles between asymmetric teams. But it’s the entire basis for Wildlands, whereas it’s just one of several systems in Auztralia.
But in Raxxon, the event deck is a supplement to the rules you already know. The event deck is about scripted rules that aren’t inevitable. A chaotic infected does what a chaotic infected is always going to do. But sometimes — you can never be sure when or even if! — it’s going to do more. Sometimes, it’s going to cause an outbreak of violence that kills adjacent cards, for better or worse.
This same exceptional possibility space applies to each character. Lieutenant Thomas Hart is always going to have his unique curfew ability. He’s also always going to be able to do uniquely targeted air strikes and uniquely aggressive crowd control. Those are the rules for Thomas Heart and they’re right there in front of you. But sometimes — you can never be sure when or even if! — his superiors are going to call in a massive air strike to nuke the entire crowd for the day. Does he accept these orders? Or disobey and face the consequences? Sometimes terrorists will try to recruit the journalist. Sometimes the mayor will have to run for re-election. You can never be sure when or even if.
But these are innate parts of the game design, along with a few story beats about Raxxon’s equipment and procedures. It’s easy enough to read the rules and play the game a few times. It’s also easy enough to wrap your head around the cards, characters, and actions. Raxxon is a relatively simple game. But you’re not fully playing Raxxon until you know what’s lurking in that deck of cards.