Sunday, February 14, 2010

[Boardgame Corner] Great Game: Plague & Pestilence

One of the things keeping us busy during our run-up to the Big Move is visiting with various friends for farewell luncheons, dinner-movie nights, and other such little get-togethers. Last week, we headed over to a good friend's house for fried chicken sandwiches and some board gaming action.

Now, I'm not a huge board gamer most of the time. (If anything, I'm more of a wanna-be wargamer.) I've got a few "non-traditional" boardgames in the closet (i.e. the kind you can generally only find in specialty game stores), but I still haven't gotten around to busting out my copy of Arkham Horror and it was only in the last year or so that I finally played Settlers of Catan (and loved it, of course). But our friend is pretty much a board gamer exclusively insofar as he's a gamer at all. He plays Munchkin, Chez Geek, Lunch Money, Spank the Monkey, etc., etc. I turned him on to Zombies!! the last time we got together and he loved it, so this time I decided to bring along another of my old favorites, a little small-press affair called Plague & Pestilence.

I picked up my copy of P&P about 10 years ago as a little impulse purchase at what was then my Not-So-Friendly Local Game Store. I played the heck out of it with my girlfriend at the time for about a year or two, then it went up on the shelf. I recently dusted it off to play a game with Des and was reminded of what fun it is.

For one thing, I love the look of the game. It's all black and white, with art reminiscent of 15th-century woodcuts. As for game play, if you've played the classic Nuclear War game, you know how P&P works. Basically, each player represents a medieval polity of some sort. Everyone starts out in a time of prosperity, and everyone starts with the same number of Population Points. Play moves around the table as each player takes turns rolling dice to see how much their population grows that turn and then playing a card from their hand.

The cards you play can either boost your own population (examples include "Bumper Harvest" or "Trade Center Established"), reduce or even steal your opponents' population (stuff like "Famine" or "Pied Piper"), or build improvements to give you benefits (for example, "City Walls" reduce your losses from the "War" and "Mongol Raid" cards). Play proceeds in this fashion until a player turns up the dreaded "Death Ship" card--and then things really get fun!

Now instead of rolling dice each turn to see how much your population increases, you roll to see how many Population Points you lose to the Black Death. Hooray! Certain improvement cards can help mitigate this loss, but it's a rare turn that you escape the reaper's scythe altogether. Meanwhile, you're still furiously playing cards from your hand, either trying desperately to bolster your flagging population or accelerate one of your opponents' death spirals. In the end, the winner is the last player holding Population Points.

The game we played with our friend last week was the first time I'd played P&P in a multiplayer setting, and naturally this added a whole new layer to the game's proceedings. But the highlight of the game was at about the mid-point, when Des and I unintentionally reenacted the Hundred Years War. Here's how it played out.

At the start of the game I'd drawn the "Major War" card and two "Technological Innovations": "Pikes" and "Gunpowder Weapons". I held on to these three cards, keeping an eagle eye out for a chance to use them. One thing I was concerned about was the "Negotiated Peace" card, which can cancel any "War" card and can be played by any player, not just the ones going to war. So I let my two opponents blow their "Peace" cards canceling a couple "Minor War" cards, then I sprung my offensive.

"Major War sucka! And two Technological Innovations! Take that!"

But Des proved to be every bit as cagey as your esteemed correspondant.

"Alright," she said with a maddeningly cool inflection to her voice. "I'll play two Innovations too: Long Bows and Crossbows."

Blast! Foiled! Our mutual innovation cards canceled each other out, which meant the war would come down to a single dice roll. The way things work when War is declared is that both players roll a die. Each Innovation adds +1 to the roll and the higher roll wins the war. Each "War" card lists losses for the Winner and the Loser. A "Major War" inflicts losses of 10 PPs on the Winner and 20 PPs on the Loser--ouch! However, I had City Walls (and Des didn't), which reduce war losses by 5 PPs. So I stood to lose a mere 5 PPs to Des's potential 20 PP loss. A fair gamble, I thought. Of course, now my edge had been nullified, so it came down to a dice roll.

Imagine my joy when my roll came up a "6"--ha! Des then proceeded to nonchalantly roll a "6" of her own. Curses! Consulting the rules, we found that in the event of a tie roll, both players suffer the Winner's losses and roll again, continuing to do so until someone produces a winning roll. Thanks to my City Walls, I only lost 5 PPs to Des's 10, but the numbers game was already soured a bit. Better win on the next roll!

We rolled another tie.

Then another.

Then another.

Time and again, our dice rolls (rolled with two separate dice, mind you) came up on the same number, whatever that number happened to be. Our friend had been watching in stunned disbelief and by the fourth or fifth tie was laughing so hard his face was red.

It was either on the fifth or sixth roll that a winner finally emerged--and it was Des. In the end, my City Walls meant she lost 10 PPs and I lost 15, but that wasn't counting all the lost population from those tied rolls. Despite being on the ropes and losing more population than me, Des emerged triumphant; clearly she was France and I was England.

In the end, we both lost to our friend. Des never recovered from the losses suffered in our Major War (she was also the one who drew the Death Ship, and suffered an immediate loss of 10 PPs for doing so), and she was the first to run out of Population. Things were pretty close in the last few rounds, but in the end our friend won when he ignominiously finished me off with a Pestilence card, wiping out my last 5 Population Points.

The makers of Plague & Pestilence, Hillary's Toy Box, have gone the way of the Black Death, but apparently Chessex has plans to do a reprint of the game at some point in the near future. Until then, copies do come up for sale on eBay occasionally, but I understand it's one of those deals where collectors can be relied upon to bid the auction up to exorbitant levels. Nevertheless, if you can find a copy at a reasonable price, I highly recommend Plague & Pestilence as a great bear-n-pretzels (or, in our case, sandwich-n-cupcakes) game.
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