Last week I started my first look at Flashpoint; considering how it builds game arc and the nature of the puzzles it presents. This week I look at the critical role of theme in the game.
A thorough smelting of mechanics and theme
As I have previously written, the execution of theme is a sizeable element of Flashpoint’s appeal. Its everywhere in the game: not just in the specific business of the advance fire roll, or its representational rather than symbolic art style. Rather the theme is completely intertwined with the vast majority of the game’s mechanics.
The fire itself is one of the most perfectly thematic co-op opponents we could hope for. It expands exponentially and somewhat erratically, just like real fire. That we must try to halt its advance is so intuitively obvious the rulebook could omit it entirely and 99% of people would still know this is what they needed to do. No one needs to be told that left unchecked it will spread from space to space in the house or that letting it get out of control is a bad plan. Even specific mechanics like the way smoke turns to fire fulfils our expectations: smoke usually foretells an advance of flames. That explosions in the game occur where the fire is raging most also makes sense. As does the fact that such explosions destroy the building’s walls, damaging its structural integrity. Just as we might expect, once these walls are gone, our playing pieces can pass through the gaps they leave. And how do we win? Save people, of course! Just as real world firefighters (and, perhaps more importantly, the firefighters in fiction) must set out to save life above all else, so must we save victims from the house. The most anti-thematic element of the game is that we don’t have to keep going when we have achieved a so called ‘winning’ number of saved people.
The immediate user experience benefits are obvious. Because the game’s rules are closely aligned with the real-world and narrative expectations of its subject, we need to do a lot less hard work to learn or remember critical rules. Because what you imagine would happen, happens and what you expect you can do, you do even the reference cards are used very little. Compared to a title with a “pasted on” theme with a similarly complex ruleset, perceived game complexity is reduced. In this, Flash-point is a textbook example of an approach to theme which has a lot of value across competitive and co-operative games.
But its tight themeing has other benefits too; benefits which are more crucial to the co-op genre.
Co-ops and roleplay
As well as being a tool for understanding, adequate theme is a necessary condition of roleplay. You can’t pretend if there is nothing to pretend to be. Roleplaying Go, for instance, is essentially impossible because it is entirely abstract. You can’t build a story around it or participate in the game on that level.
For roleplay to work, you have to put games in a setting; an environment for story to develop and playful pretend to be possible. Games which focus on roleplay itself as a central pleasure – such as RPGS – are more theme than anything else for this reason. Though some, like D&D itself, have complex mechanics, it’s why they also have vast books of lore to support them. And it’s the reason that their real world use often involves a good deal of simplification; in the name of enhancing the focus on playacting and storytelling. Indeed, sharpening that focus has been a major design goal for systems as early as Shadowun (1989). Some modern RPG systems reject almost all but some very basic mechanics for this reason. The wonderfully simple Dread, for instance, uses only a tower of Jenga bricks to manage all of the games mechanical elements.
What people look to Pandemic-like co-ops for is not a million miles from what they look to D&D and its equivalents for. In a truly co-operative game, your role is fairly similar to the stereotypical party of adventurers: a team of people, out to save the day and have fun in the process. They are an opportunity to make a story together and experience new group dynamics in a fictional environment. Because playacting is fundamentally a collaborative art they are great, safe way to explore this for people who would otherwise never involve themselves in theatre or improvisation. After all we don’t play Flashpoint because we want to collaboratively decide on action point spend to control the algirothmic spread of tokens. We want, at the risk of being very obvious, to be firefighters saving people from a burning building!
Flipping it round the other way, they also need to fill the gap left by the human opponent with a different kind of fun. Without the dynamism, colour and drama of a human opponent, Pandemic-like’s must bring something else to the table or risk the enterprise being a drier puzzle. Even having well calibrated automated opponents is not the same.
Flashpoint, like many other Pandemic-like co-op games then, have a lot to gain by driving their theme very hard to facilitate this roleplaying element. This generally means being more than just picking good thematic representations of objects or even mechanics. Rather this means making the very nature of descisions the game presents us with thematic too. In a good game of Flashpoint, we are constantly making exactly the tough calls and bids at heroism the box promised: making difficult choices between one course of action and another and then giving us the feel of being on uncertain quest to complete the path we have chosen for ourselves. When we have to choose between grabbing the victim in the corner and allowing an entire room to be lost to fire – and the subsequent damage it will do to the building – we are making exactly the decision we fantasise about making in this scenario. And when we send our little friefighter figurine off to save someone, we are filled with the same trepidation we expect from that fantasy. Will we make it in time or will all hopes be dashed? The mechanics of the game naturally throw-up these “mini quests” because it usually make tactical sense for one person to pursue an objective that, crucially can rarely be achieved in a single player turn. Within the multiple turns it actually takes, the game can throw us a curveball and raise the challenge; much like the obligatory falling piece of burning timber that blocks the heroes original path in the movies.
This world building effect can be so strong as to pull us against what would be logically best for our win condition. When, for instance, it makes rational sense to temporarily leave a victim in a comparatively safe corner, I as a player don’t just feel like I’m making an optimisation decision; I feel bad for them, guilty even that I have to leave them in this terrifying situation while I deal with an even bigger threat. I feel even worse when this cardboard token subsequently perishes because the fire advanced far quicker than we expected. I am sure that – sometimes this feeling has made me make the wrong decision; as far as optimisation goes.
But this strength is also it’s weakness: its what makes Flaspoint’s inconsistent difficulty such a problem. If I have to take an action which is anti-thematic in a competitive game, it might not be as enjoyable an action as something better themed; but it is rarely something that makes me lose all interest in the experience. But if ever this game makes you wish for more fire, the suspension of disbelief required to lose oneself in the this roleplay is instantly lost. Good games of Flashpoint are close run thing and full of roleplay. Bad games are tensionless exercises in moving cardboard around. In my experience it is is this in the games dynamics that mean there are no in between games.
Theme vs Alpha gamers
Matt Thrower recently made the argument that the Alpha gamer problem – the tendency for a single person to end-up dominating a co-op and tell everyone else want to do because of superior knowledge or experience – is not just a player problem. Rather, it represents a genuine challenge the reliability of all co-op games that do not have asymmetric information or conflicting player objectives. The problem isn’t just that assholes will dominate the table if they’re given the chance, but that players who are otherwise pretty decent folk will slide naturally into these commanding roles because they are trying to help. As soon as other players begin deferring to better or more experienced players, the group dynamic is likely to appoint the veteran the boss; kicking off a vicious cycle where some people get less and less engaged.
This more subtle take on the alpha gamer problem makes sense to me. The jury is out if I am “decent folk”, but I know that because of my personality, I can’t help but start putting myself in the “chairpersons” role. Even if I see my role as making sure moves are discussed and group consensus reached, I still end up falling into a kind of power dynamic. When I’m with people less good than me at a given game, I normally have to stifle the urge to leap in with the better move. I am glad to say I usually succeed, but I am still actively managing myself to make sure that everyone has a good time. But ideally, I shouldn’t need to actively manage myself in this way at all: after all, to do so means I am having to work in some way against our victory condition. That’s a tension which is always unsatisfactory; it has a lot in common with throwing a game because you don’t want to hurt the losers feelings.
Flashpoint has no special, clever answer to this problem. But the game’s strong themeing does have some ameliorating properties. The strong roleplay element and choice of semi-realistic miniatures for the fire fighters gives one a good sense of identification with your own player piece. The language is nearly always “I’ll move over there”, “I will go and save this person” or “YOU put out the flames” and not so much “I will move this piece there”. Players don’t fear pieces being removed to the edge, but themselves being knocked down by flames and losing the power to save people. The game’s naturally emergent mini missions further enhance the sense of ownership of a specific quest, avoiding the sense that they are a resource in a team to be directed about. In the experienced game, the role cards further underline the idea of unique contribution.
Such aesthetic and emotional subtleties will be lost on completely on tone deaf alphas, but for others, create a sense of impropriety in interfering in someone else’s turn. Compared to games I have played without such elements to reinforce individuality, I can palpably feel my internal resistance to interfering with someone else’s fun is much more natural. After all, I wouldn’t tell another character what to do in an RPG and I feel much the same here because it feels like we really are individuals.
But while all of that is a positive contribution to the problem, it doesn’t come close to being an engineer’s fix. And for all that sterling work, it cannot save collaboration from someone who is not as bewitched by the game’s thematic properties
A straightforward game
Much of the rest of the design is easy to like. In the family game, the actions players can take are very simple, and because of theme, easy to understand. Downtime is limited because turns are so simple and upkeep is equally quick; even if it is, at times, easy to skip, thanks to some specific memory issues I have previously explored. The learning curve from family to experienced games is well engineered, even if, as discussed it is not as smoothly handled as it could be in the rulebook.
All in all, outside of what it does with theme or game arc, a lot of what is going in Flashpoint is just simple and straightforward game design. It is obvious, honest but well executed. It is workmanlike and logical rather than heroic or ingenious.
The final world
Flashpoint is a most worthy “co-op classic”. If it weren’t for Pandemic’s first mover advantage, perhaps it would be the dominant title of the genre instead. However, it’s unpredictable difficulty curve – a hard problem to solve at the core of the game’s fire mechanic – hold it back from attaining flawless greatness.