Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Sentinels of the Multiverse

It is rare that I play a cooperative game and like it a lot.  Most of them either feature extreme luck and randomness or have the '1 player problem' where the best player plays everybody's turns for them.  I can certainly see how either sort of game would be fine for a group that isn't especially competitive - just do whatever you want and win or lose.  I find the trick is figuring out a cooperative game where there exists a lot of strategy and challenge while preventing 1 player from running the whole show; information needs to be kept hidden to a substantial extent.

Pandemic is an example of a game that doesn't manage this very well.  As written 1 player can know everything and make all the decisions so each person often feels like they have nothing to contribute.  It is easy to change that by keeping all cards held secret but the game ends up feeling less fun when players cannot talk about strategy at all.  A big part of the appeal of a coop game is discussing strategy and trying to convince the other players to run with my crazy plan!

I have recently been playing a lot of Sentinels of the Multiverse and it seems to me to be the best designed coop game I have found.  Thematically it is a battle between the players, each of whom represents one of the ten possible superheroes, against one of the four possible supervillains.  To keep things more unique there are four environments in which the battle can be fought like Megalopolis, Wagner Mars Base, Atlantis, and a dinosaur island.  The thing that makes this excellent mechanically is that each hero has cards that can be played and Powers that can be used; one card per turn and one Power per turn.  Because of this players can discuss use of their Powers and general strategy while keeping their cards secret.  It gives a nice mix of strategy "I will blast the dorks, you deal with the erupting volcano" but with significant information being secret one player cannot reasonably play the whole table.

One very valid criticism of SotM is that the balance of many things is way off.  You can see four heroes in the image above, two of which are excellent and two of which are rubbish.  While Tachyon and Legacy (in white) aren't twice as good as Absolute Zero and Bunker they are at least 50% better and that makes something of a mockery of balance.  On the other hand the game can be played with 2-6 players and the villains scale very poorly with the number of players so you can always just play with crappy heroes if you have a lot of players and good heroes if you are shorthanded.  The villains and environments themselves are also pretty variable in terms of power so it is possible to arrange anything from a trivial victory (6 players vs. Omnitron using best heroes on dinosaur island) to a nearly impossible situation (Bunker and Absolute Zero vs. Citizen Dawn on Wagner Mars Base).

One thing I wish they had done is include a sensible power rating for the various heroes and environments.  The villains have reasonable difficulty ratings but it would have been nice to not have to play the game a lot to figure out which challenges were going to be impossible and which would be trivial.  Either way though the game is a hell of a lot of fun and I recommend it highly.  Elli has been enjoying playing with us at age 6 although she needs a lot of help but there are often really interesting strategy decisions for advanced players. The game has a great combination of fun and variable challenge that I approve of heartily.

picture from:  http://sentinelsofthemultiverse.com/


  1. I'm confused.

    I agree that Pandemic is really a 1-player game, and after I learned it, everyone else went to bed and I spent way too playing solo.

    I don't understand how Sentinels fixes the problem. Isn't the optimal strategy for everyone to show their cards and the best player to lead? Or are you saying that because there's two bits of information, you can share just one of them so it feels cooperative while not sharing the other to give everyone a chance to contribute?

    I'd really like to understand because I'd love to find a cooperative game where we really need to work together.

  2. Maybe part of it is needing to shuffle and maintain 6 decks of cards instead of 2? I donno, I didn't much like the game.

    I guess since there are 6 decks of different cards there's more information to juggle?

  3. The rules do not specifically state that you can't look at each other's cards in Sentinels. However, if you use that as a rule the game is a lot of fun and has both group strategy and hidden information. Pandemic is ass with that rule because you can't talk about the game while playing the game.

    So yes, Sentinels as written is about the same as pandemic but it has a super easy and awesome house rule where you don't know each other's hands.

  4. While it may not have been the focus of this post, I'm interested in your comment that Elie played this game.

    Do you have a list somewhere of the games that she is able to mechanically play and enjoy? I've been trying to figure out some more games that I can play with my kids that don't drive me crazy.

    I've recently stumbled on Tally Ho which is great, but I'm curious which others you have tried and succeeded with.

  5. Elli learned chess at school and enjoyed playing it, though she was terrible at it. Other than that I haven't really had success with any games with her. It is a challenge.

  6. Two good co-op games that are not 1 player:
    Space alert - this game has a 10 minute real time soundtrack. So time pressure, combined with a hidden hand of cards, means every player must play. The game difficulty can be scaled as much as you'd like (three difficulties of threats, you can play with different numbers of threat points), and is infinitely replay able (randomly generated soundtracks with large threat decks and the board makes threats act differently and your hand of cards is different). I have seriously played this he for 8 hours.straight, and each mission takes less then 20 minutes.

    Hanabi - the best cooperative deduction game around. Each player holds a hand of cards.. That everyone but them can see. So it cannot be one player. Players are trying to play the numbers 1 to 5 in 5 or 6 suits in order on the table, by giving limited clues to their partners, before the deck runs out. Surprisingly fun.

  7. Robb is a scholar and a gentleman. Which is to say, I like the games he mentioned.