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Subject: First Plays and VASSAL Review rss

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Jim Nave
United States
Canby
Oregon
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I bought this game at gamesurplus.com for $20(!!), but have not been able to play it as I opted to pick it up at their game drop, instead of pay for shipping. The flip side is that I will not get the game for a couple of months as I have to wait for friends to bring it to me.

HAVING SAID THIS, I just recently found a forum post which introduced me to the VASSAL mod for this game. It’s downloadable at www.VASSAL.com and is approximately 4mb. The game manual (available at a separate link), is also 4mb. With high-speed this is no problem, but with my dial-up connection, it took a good hour.

This review will cover my impressions of the game as a VASSAL mod. I want to completely admit that the critiques in this review will have to do with the fact that I’m playing it on a computer. Anything I have to say about the Pandemic itself will have to do with the actual playing/ideology of the game.

The VASSAL Mod
First off, I got a message saying:

Quote:
“This module was created using version 3.0.17 of the VASSAL engine.
You are using version 3.0.15
It’s recommended you upgrade to the latest version of the VASSAL engine”


I thought that I was in trouble, but upon clicking the okay button, the game started with no problem.

Once the game started I was impressed with the nice scan of the board. Upon closer inspection, you can notice the fold of the board, and shade difference in each quadrant, but in reality, who cares? The author has done a good job of recreating the different elements of the game. The only problem I have is that the names of the cities are very small and hard to read. This is due to the necessity of scaling the board to your computer screen. While trying to zoom in, you lose 2/3’s of the board, making the zoom a not really viable solution. Fortunately, since each city is color-coded, you can figure out where you need to place blocks. For experienced geographers/Pandemic players, this wont be a problem at all.

Per the picture below, you will notice that the toolbar hosts:
1) a “Start Here” button (more on this later)
2) a Meeple – this is used to pick a random to play.
3) Player 1 – 4 buttons – this brings up a window in which each player can store their cards during the game. To play a complete game by yourself (or with you friend/spouse) on only one computer you must choose “Solitaire” when choosing “which side” you will play as. If you do not do this you will not be able to drag cards to all the different player windows.
4) the Cured Disease symbols – brings up a window where you can drag each of the symbols onto the game board, as well as having the rising sun symbols for the eradication of a disease.
5) Player Action Key – which describes your basic and special actions.



The buttons which you will be using the most are the player 1- 4 buttons. As VASSAL mods go, the windows they bring up work fine and you will just need to arrange your cards; this is the thing with VASSAL mods, the card windows block the screen. If you have a big enough monitor, you might be able to keep both your card window open and your game board – however, with a normal monitor you’ll have to pop the window open and closed repeatedly. But I digress, this IS VASSAL after all.

Upon loading up the game, you will also notice a box that (I assume) is not on the original board – the “Bottom of Infection Deck” Box, on the top left. This is the authors way of (duh) handling the drawing of a card from the bottom of the deck during the “Epidemic” phase.

I was impressed with how well the author incorporated the “snapping” of different cards and pieces to their respective places. I’ve played games before where the “snapping” mechanism was pretty bad, and you had to be exact. While there is not a huge margin of error, it is good enough that at times I thought perhaps it hadn’t taken a card I’d placed.

The Start Here button

This is the crux of setting up the game, and is a pretty smart little page. You just drag each card to the proper pile, adding an epidemic card for each pile, shuffle the cards (by right clicking on them), and then send them to the game board (also by right clicking). The only complaint about this page (I’ve also read others on the forums mention it) is that it is all by hand. I’ve made the mistake a few times of not putting cards in the players hand before making the piles, and had to restart. It’s not that big of a deal to manually drag the cards to the proper piles, but an automated process would have been nice. All in all though, follow the 1 – 7 instructions, and you will be ready to play.

How does it play?
The disclaimer

Let me say that I don’t really dig playing VASSAL mods and certainly cannot get my wife to ever play them with me – the whole idea of sitting at the computer playing a board game just doesn’t generally compute (pardon the pun) with her. As for me, the fidgetiness of moving pieces around is generally a drawback. HOWEVER, the strength of the theme and the game play (I’m talking Pandemic itself, not the mod) is strong enough to pull us in. More importantly, the ease of playing this mod has kept us coming back to play again and again.

Playing Player CardsNote: All cards start in a “face-down” mode. When pulling them off the deck you will only see part of the card. To see the entire card, you must right click and choose “Flip”.
As I mentioned earlier in the review, bringing up the players cards obscures the board. This isn’t a big deal, but can cause a bit of needing to open and close the card window several times during a turn, to get a look at both your cards and the board. This can get obnoxious but it’s not a big deal.
The other obvious thing about playing the mod, is that there’s no real way to keep your cards hidden from whoever you’re playing with (that is unless, they turn their head). But again, it doesn’t really matter. Upon getting an event cards, the body text will most likely be too small to read, although the card title is large enough. The small lettering can be remedied by just zooming in and then zooming back out so as to see your whole hand again. Of course, once you know what the cards do, this is a non-issue.

Infection Cards - Note: You must shuffle the deck at the beginning of the game or you will always have the same game.
While the drawing of a card is a very simple thing, the actualization has issues having to do with the cards being “face-down”. You will need to decide on how to handle this. Let me point out that while still in the draw deck, all cards, even ones “face-up” are hidden – until you remove them from the deck. Thus the crux of the decision you need to make.

1) Once pulling a card off the epidemic draw deck, if it is face-down, you will see only part of the card. This is only really a problem if you are new to the game and aren’t sure of all the cities. Let me point out that you must pull the card to the game board (not the discard pile) to even see the partial card. The plus side to keeping the cards down, is that once you put them on the discard pile, they automatically are hidden again. This of course is good for when you have to reshuffle the deck and place them on top of the infection pile.


2) On the other hand (is a thumb and four fingers), you can flip the cards, by right clicking on any cards in the discard pile. By doing this, you can drag directly to the discard pile and still see your card (effectively cutting down the number of times you’re having to drag cards around). The down side to this is that when you shuffle the cards to place them back on top of the infection deck, you will see the position of one of the cards. This can be remedied however, by just flipping the deck again and then shuffling.

This is all small stuff, but fidgety enough that it’s a bit of a distraction. When we play, we use solution #1. In my perfect world, I would have asked for some logic statement in the code that checked to see if the card is on the discard pile or the board, and displayed the appropriate side.

Placing Items
The cubes and research stations are placed on the board so as to be easy to grab. Is as simple as dragging them off the pile and onto the board (and vice versa). The mod keeps track of the number of infection cubes, minusing 1 for each cube taken, and adding 1 for each replaced. Nice touch. There is however a small glitch with the black and yellow cubes however whereas there is a dead spot on the top half of the black and yellow cube pile. In short, if you click on that area you will not grab the cube. This isn’t a big deal, but with the scaling issues of the game board, it can be minor issue as the cubes appear small and a quick cursor movement to pick up a cube might miss it on the first go. However, as I mentioned above, the strength of the game carries these minor issues well. adding 1 for each replaced.

I hate to mention it because I think it’s a VASSAL issue and not a mod issue (the same thing happened when playing Carcassonne), but sometimes when moving your player pieces, they will “stick” to different items. This means that when you move one piece, the other piece moves as well. This happened one game, forever bonding my player piece with a research station (my solution was to use a different player piece and from then on try to keep it at more of a distance from other pieces). This has also happened where the player piece gets stuck to all the cubes on the board. This has always remedied itself if I go to another pager and then come back. While not a big deal, this game behavior can sort of stop your heart as you think you might lose your game (we’ve never lost a game while in play).

Playing With Another Person
I’ve heard people caution about the possibility of one person controlling the game. Being a big fan or Knizia’s LOTR, we’ve had to deal with this, and have come to a good understanding in our little game club of how to avoid this. I have to say though that when playing Pandemic on the computer, it is a bit easy for the person controlling the mouse to fall into “control mode”, since they’re doing everything anyways. My solution has been to literally sit back in my chair and not say a word unless asked.

The Covering of my Butt
Before anyone replies with a snide comment about being ungrateful or something like, “go ahead and make your own module”, let me state that I appreciate this mod greatly and think it’s very well done. This is a matter of fact review of the functioning of the mod and the impressions that it made upon me. Glitches will probably get handled in version 1.2 (if there is a v1.2) making this a even more solid mod. Please read our summary below.

Our Opinion in Summary:
The tension of Pandemic, the simplicity of play, and the drawing in of the theme are fantastic; after playing this mod, I’m really excited about getting my actual game board. In the meanwhile, my wife and I will be huddled up to the computer for several nights playing the VASSAL version. For a mod to create this kind of excitement for a game I’ve never actually physically played, I think is a testament to the strength of the build. Thank you for making this! Excellent Job!
8 out of 10
 
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