In my second adventure into forging designer-focused reviews, I start my look at the well-loved co-op Flashpoint: Fire Rescue and go for the world record number of colons in a blog post title.
If you haven’t played this game, please read the BGG link for a description. While this review will cover a broad outline of some game mechanisms, it will assume some prior knowledge.
Player activity summary
Flashpoint is a co-operative game very much in the ‘traditional’ mode popularised chiefly by Pandemic: players are pitted against a random jeopardy creation mechanic which – if left unchecked – will result in them being overwhelmed; in this case, by fire in a house. They attain victory by reaching a given score before this mechanic triggers a loss condition on its own; here, the collapse of the building or the death of its inhabitants. Turn to turn, players are mainly using a limited number of actions to choose where to halt the mechanic’s random progression to best buy themselves time to achieve their own victory condition. Play is primarily about collectively agreeing how these actions will be used to greatest effect given the relative location of the players firefighters, the fire, and the people they must save from it.
The classic co-op arc at work
As in all such ‘Pandemic-like’ co-op games, the emotional arc of the game is created by a gradual ‘ramping-up’ of difficulty for the players throughout. The stakes of individual actions build up to – when the game works – a “photo finish” in which if the players have played well they are only just victorious. Here, this means saving the last required victim, when this poor soul is either perilously close to being consumed by fire or the building itself is only a few points away from collapse.
This inbuilt tendency for the result to be very close, turns out to be particularly critical to success in such titles. It is the most effective method co-op games have to create tension and drama in the absence of a human opponent. An opposing human being could have hidden machinations, plans, or exploits that might mean they could still win, even when they appear to be losing by a good margin: Tension is present as long as it is not yet known if it is technically impossible for them to win. But if players ever feel they are comfortably ahead in a co-op game, its very ‘mindlessness’ means that all tension – and with it nearly all enjoyment beyond the fulfilment of mild puzzling elements – is instantly lost. The game can’t suddenly catch-up through clever play or a long held secret plan, so instead it must, each play, constantly convince us that it can beat us.
How the photo finish is achieved is also mechanically similar in most games of this genre. Generally speaking, these games begin easy, creating a sense of the stakes being relatively low and the immediate challenges easily conquered. But they have some mechanic to ensure that, while the players continue to enjoy a similar power level throughout, the threat posed by the game has a tendency to increase exponentially and inevitably. Eventually, the players’ overall capacity to beat the game – with human ingenuity – just about meets the blunt force power of the game itself by the end. If the game’s strength crests just above the players, they lose. If the players can remain above it through skill (and some luck), they win.
In Pandemic itself, this is achieved by how diseases spread. The more cubes there are, the more quickly more cubes will be added to adjacent cities in the future and more cities will be lost. In Flashpoint, a very similar spatial approach to this problem is taken: the more fire spreads, the more likely fire will spread thanks to the effect of explosions – and in the experienced game – hotspots. In both cases, while where exactly the “spread” takes place is random, where it can remains, crucially, mostly foreseeable: Large clumps of cubes will spread more quickly and large fire-filled rooms are more likely to explode and cause damage to the building. These risks are highly visual, presenting something for the players to clearly assess, even if the game tends to go in the direction of making more and more such risks over time. In themselves, they also create numerous small spatial puzzles.
This predictability is critical to the arc, because it prevents the opposite problem the ‘mindlessness’ of the game as an opponent also presents. If the players could suddenly lose from a completely random opposing mechanic – even though they were ahead – it’s as disengaging an experience: Now victory isn’t dependent on careful play but just luck.
Puzzles and non-puzzles
Flashpoint is not short of interesting puzzles. Broadly, careful balancing means the random jeopardy mechanic is constantly presenting multiple options to players that are all sub-optimal. Other than the “family mode” that the game uses primarily as a tutorial (as well as a tool for gamers to slip the title into a situation where even Pandemic would not be enough of a gateway), there is rarely an obvious, strictly better path of actions for players to follow. Rather, the options tend to be mostly better or worse. In the most interesting cases they are very close calls.
It is the spatial properties and how the threat mechanic linearly scales with player count that creates these options. For example, it is generally impossible to extinguish all of the fire in the house because of the placement of the players and the speed at which the fire is added. Players will have to choose a course of action that will likely take multiple turns to achieve: extinguish one conflagration over another; weighing-up action points spent to reach it with the relative risk it poses of growing. The longer a player takes to reach a fire, the more chances the game will have to further ignite, thanks to the equal number of advance fire rolls and player turns. Similarly, moving to save the nearest victim inherently puts victims further away at greater risk of being swallowed up by fire by the time they could be rescued.
Of course, even these courses of action are subject to completely transparent probabilities. These factors alone could be mathematically weighed if the players so desired to come up with a ‘correct’ answer each time. That is not necessarily a fatal problem for games in general, as there is some pleasure in just discovering a solution; that’s the the central pleasure of all conventional puzzles after all and the truest meaning of the term ‘puzzle.’ But it is a bigger issue for co-op games, because such true puzzles are largely free of drama and. as we have already established, co-ops already lack a human opponent’s intentions or potential for unpredictable behaviour.
In my experience of this title, it is, however, pleasingly difficult to play in this actuarial style. There are other confounding factors that make such logically deducible bets impossible. The rate at which the building is being damaged is not solely a property of fire spreading but which fires are more or less likely to cause damage and the fact that the players can also choose to damage the house to move more efficiently. Once all of this is combined with a few, more context dependent variables – how close the players are to victory (rescuing 7 victims), the difficulty of moving hazardous materials, the possibilities of changing crew type or the placement of vehicles – it becomes very arduous to determine an exact ‘solution’. This will, for most groups (provided the difficulty has been set correctly), prevent them from trying to precisely “game-out” the right option, instead pushing them into making calls on a player action that they don’t entirely like. These moments, at least, should generally prevent them either: a) getting bogged-down in AP (analysis paralysis) because the prediction horizon is too limited or b) disengaged from not actually having a choice to make: strictly better choices aren’t really choices after all.
That’s not to say there aren’t many strictly better choices in Flashpoint. Once an objective has been selected – “save that person”, “put out that fire” – the strictly best route to it is often knowable by counting spaces and available action points; meaning a high quantity of the turn-to-turn gameplay involves spotting these and executing them. Meanwhile, the lesser quantity of meaningful choices tend to be the memorable punctuation marks of the whole game.
Your pleasure at risk
While this is a flaw shared by the ‘Pandemic-likes’, it means that the whole game risks becoming devoid of all meaningful choice if, by random chance, it doesn’t happen to be creating meaningful choices between objectives. Such as when there aren’t multiple conflagrations or victims are all in easy reach of the players. For this reason, when the game’s difficulty is off, it tends to fall flat on its face fairly completely and the whole game rapidly descends into a very dead feeling fulfilment exercise, compounded by the fact that the turn-to-turn optimization puzzles are both pretty simple and have a correct answer.
Unfortunately, because the possibility of this happening is far from remote, this is a deep seated problem in Flashpoint’s design.
The advance fire rolls are, unlike Pandemic’s infection cards, truly unpredictable because the odds of any space being hit do not change; you cannot know which areas are safe from calamity based on what has been hit so far. On the one hand is a definite strength: the tension is escalated higher because of this sheer unpredictability. We can’t game out this fire; which also makes complete thematic sense because fire is supposed to be unpredictable and pitiless. It really is the fearsome, mindless monster we want to fight when we open the box. But it also means that things can simply pan out in a way in which there is very little threat at all. All the fire can come up in easy reach of where the players are, as can the victims. In such cases, because the game relies on exponential fire growth to up its stakes and build its arc, players can easily check its advance and kill their own game excitement. At higher player counts this is particularly problematic as it is already the case, thanks to simple probability, that all of the fire and victim markers are already closer to player pieces.
The base game offers no entirely effective remedy for solving this challenge. The hot spots go some way for creating more fires even if the players are close to having them all under control. But again, this is just throwing (a bit) more probability at the problem. It’s still very possible that no such hotspots will be sufficiently hit. The main exponential growth still comes, necessarily, from unchecked fire spread into smoke and explosions. The only real way the players have to insure themselves against a game literally fizzling out is by carefully calibrating the difficulty level.
This is not as straightforward as it should be, however. Which side of the board players use will greatly change this (though this is not clear enough in the rules) thanks to the very different internal obstacles the house presents and the number of external doors it has. Then there’s the number of hazmats, initial explosions, or hotspots dictated by stated difficulty levels (“recruit, veteran, and heroic”), the particular choice of starting firefighter roles (they absolutely do not combo equally at all player counts), or of course the very difference between the “family” and “experienced” games themselves. This is all a bit difficult to navigate in the rules as written and could have done with being modularised, as was, for example, real-time co-op Escape: The Cursed Temple. All of that means it’s a little too easy for players to create a game which fails to ignite and has the players doing something dangerously anti- thematic: wishing for more fire!
And, as we’ll explore next time, anti-thematic feelings are death to the fun of Flashpoint…