Board Game Review - A Polluted Evening with CO2

November 15, 2013

Table flippingCO2 I've had an inkling to play CO2 for over a year now, ever since an environmentalist friend of mine got all excited about it, as it was a crossing of two of his passions. Not like, wanted wanted to play it, but if the opportunity arose, I would most definitely check it out. Who can say "No" to a new worker placement game? Well, probably a lot of people, but I can't. It took a year, but the opportunity finally arose. So I got to sit down and play CO2 with 4 others and it did not disappoint. Or rather, it did at first, but then it got better. You see, everybody plays as different corporations trying to trying to stave off the environmental death of the world by building environmentally friendly power plants. The person with the most points at the end wins, but if you collectively don't build the green plants fast enough, then polluting plants get built instead to accommodate a growing population, and if enough polluting plants get built, carbon emissions rise to high, and the game ends with no winner. I have mixed feeling about this semi-cooperative "everybody loses" mechanic, but, for the most part, they are negative feelings. CO2 is a pretty heavy and tactical Euro game. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of planning to be done. When you're in the thick of it, proposing and building power plants, doing your part to cut down on carbon emissions and getting as many points as you can in the process, you don't want some big, fat FAIL sign to suddenly drop on the board and end the game, totally negating all the thinking and plotting you had done up to that point. And all because some other people weren't doing their job and getting their plants up and running. Here are all the reasons it doesn't work:
  • It is largely out of your control. You can be, like, "Hey, guys, we should really build more plants this turn, yeah?" but that's about it. If other people aren't doing it, then that is that.
  • It is also very random and outside of anyone's control. Pollution plants can range from 20 to 40 in emissions, so if you get a bunch of 40s coming out, well, that is that. You lose. You thought you were playing a Euro worker placement game, but you were really playing a game of dice and didn't know it. Ha ha, sucks to be you. I mean, there's no way to plan for it. You can't skirt the edge of danger in an attempt to eek out more points because you have no idea where the edge is.
  • The mechanic doesn't even persist in a consistent way. Your trouble round is going to be round 3. If you make it past round 3, then you're probably good and can continue to play like the mechanic doesn't even exist.
So essential the "everybody loses" mechanic can be likened to some crazy man running up to the table halfway through with a pair of dice, and he says that if he rolls higher than an 8 with his two dice, then he'll kick over your table and ruin the game. Is that really a mechanic you want? tableflip I firmly believe, if the mechanic is not just a very poorly implemented gimmick (cooperative worker placement, guys!), that it was introduced for one of two reasons:
  1. Building power plants is actually not the most efficient point-producing action in the game. You spend a lot of resources, which are worth points at the end of the game, to get some points back. It's a net positive, but not that much in some cases. Proposing and installing plants are more point-efficient actions. Perhaps the designer felt the need to encourage players actually build plants? Maybe he should have made the plants worth more points instead?
  2. Perhaps the designer wants players to lose halfway through the first time they play the game? You know, give 'em a sort of dry run of the experience and then play for real. No, that would be pretty sadistic wouldn't it? It's probably just a poorly implemented gimmick...
All right, well, failing is indeed what happened the first time we played the game. Nobody was sure what to do, and it turns out trying to build a bunch of "forest"-type power plants at the beginning isn't a super-great idea because it takes a lot of expertise and resources, and you don't actually get any usable resources for implementing them. And maybe that sentence didn't make sense, but the point is that losing just totally turned me off the whole experience. This isn't a cooperative game. It's not like we lost at Pandemic and everybody gets inspired to play the game again and do it right. It inspired me to go play something else that doesn't randomly end in the middle. But it did inspire my friend to want to play it again, so we reset the game and gave it another chance. After all, if the review ended here, well, it wouldn't be very accurate. Because once we got past the whole crazy man mechanic, there was actually an interesting game going on. And playing half of it first did give me a better idea of how to enact my plans the second time around. So the deal is that to build a power plant, 3 things have to happen, first you have to propose the project, then implement it, then finally build it. The first two steps get you resources (the first step depending on where it is proposed, the second depending on what type of plant it is) and in the third you spend resources to get points. But the trick is that even if you propose a project, you don't really own it. You can propose a project and get some resources, a second guy can spend his turn implementing it to get more resources, and then a third guy can come along and actually build it to get the points. You can half-claim it by putting one of your scientists on it, but other players can still interact with the project by paying you a dollar to kick your scientist off. The scientists are kind of the workers of the game, but, like I said, they don't really prevent others from doing stuff, just make it a little harder. But having scientists out on the board is what gets you expertise in the 5 different types of green power. And despite what the little numbers on the power plants say, expertise is how you really get points in the game. You think that the game is about building power plants (and, of course, you have to do that or the crazy man kicks over your table), but the game is really about advancing your expertise tracks as much as possible. And you do that by having a lot of scientists out and about on projects or attending summits. Look, the mechanics are unique, and, aside from the crazy man, I like them. Moving scientists around and the 3-stage building process of power plants is very cool. The CEP market in the center of the board (you need CEPs to install projects) seemed pretty tacked on, but having a hand of cards to play to get bonus resources added a nice dynamic to the game. I enjoyed playing the second game and am ultimately happy that we didn't just put it away after the first failed attempt. I think there is a depth of strategy to the game that I didn't fully explore after one complete game, but at the same time, I'm not really eager to pick it up and play it again. It was a little overly complicated for what it was, and there are just better, more striking games that I would rather play. Also, can we talk about the absolutely terrible iconography of the game? Okay, look, the graphic design of the game is beautiful. Everything is a joy to look at until you actually try to glean any sort of information from the stuff you're looking at. Symbols on the cards are so cryptic and there is no text to accompany them, you have no choice but to look in the manual to figure out what it means. You've got so much real estate on the faces of these cards, if you can't convey the proper amount of information with them, you are absolutely failing at design. Not to mention how some of the symbols (agriculture in particular) tend to fade in with the background of the board and some of the cards. And the little project tokens - you don't get to see what resources you get for implementing it until after you flip it over to implement it. What is up with that? And the icon for the CEPs is a skull when they are just purple disks? All right, all right, enough harping. If you're a fan of heavy Euros, I would recommend checking CO2 out. There is a lot of neat stuff going on in this game (along with a bit of not-neat stuff), and it very well could tickle your fancy.

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