One of the interesting results of the success of Pandemic (2008) was that a subset of co-op games came out that used Pandemic’s design as a starting place. Some were very obviously influenced, such as Richard Launius’ Defenders of the Realm (2010), but others went further afield, but still maintained a similar foundation of modern drama combined with highly tactical turns and multi-faceted problems. You could almost put together a trilogy of such games: the disease-fighting of Pandemic, the fire-fighting of Flash Point: Fire Rescue (2011), and the crime-fighting of Police Precinct (2013) … though this last one is probably the furthest from Pandemic’s core gameplay.
Police Precinct by Ole Steiness
Publisher: Common Man (2013)
Cooperative Style: True Co-Op / Traitor
Play Style: Adventure Game, Dice, Investigative
In Police Precinct, players are trying to solve a murder. Unfortunately, emergencies and street punks also require police attention, and if too much time is spent on these problems, the murderer could get away!
The challenge system in Police Precinct centers on a simple Event card draw that activates each turn to reveal either an emergency or an event. The emergencies typically take one game turn to resolve, which means that as long as emergencies are drawn, players can just barely keep up with the challenge system. There are only two ways to get ahead: when an event is drawn; or when the players decide to allow an urgent emergency to fail. This dilemma creates a considerable tension in the game because players can’t spend all their time resolving emergencies: they need to work on investigating the murder too, to win the game!
Police Precinct’s emergencies have an interesting cascade: each one has a colored header. If an additional emergency of the same color is drawn, then the previous one becomes urgent. If the urgent marker were already on the board, then the previously urgent emergency fails, increasing the city crime track by one. This mechanic focuses heavily on risk and reward: players can figure out the odds for whether a new urgent event will appear, but they can never know for sure whether the next card draw will bring disaster — which is exactly the sort of uncertainty that you want in a cooperative game.
The crime track is a tally threat that aggregates several challenge inputs. It mostly increases when an urgent emergency fails, but it also goes up in response to a variety of other problems: when too many gang members appear; when too many street gangs appear; or when the Event deck is reshuffled. Having a wide variety of failure conditions can keep players on their toes, but it can sometimes be too much to remember. Police Precinct elegantly resolves this problem by funneling all the failures into a single attribute.
Though Police Precinct defaults to true co-op play, there’s also an option for a traitor in some variants of the game. Games offering multiple styles of play like this often don’t work that well, but Police Precinct is the exception. That’s because traitor support has been built into the game from the start: players are constantly picking between multiple cards that only they can see. This doesn’t matter a lot in the true co-op game, but it becomes a cornerstone of traitor gameplay.
Challenge Elements: Turn Activation; Card Trigger; Sequential Cascade; Simulation; Decay; Combat, Task & Tally Threats
The main cooperation of Police Precinct occurs through asymmetrical strategic coordination, where players take care of different sorts of big-picture problems, based on their individual specializations. The gameplay demonstrates the “Power of Two” game-design pattern: there’s a proactive thing that players can do to try to win (investigating the murder); and there’s a defensive thing that you can do to try to avoid losing (resolving emergencies and breaking up gangs).
Police Precinct also pushes tactical cooperation in two different ways, one of them quite unique.
First, it gives players bonuses for dealing with problems when their fellows are nearby. This is a nice add-on to most cooperative skill test systems, as it forces players to think about coming together. It’s been done previously in Star Trek: Expeditions (2011) and elsewhere.
Second, Police Precinct rather uniquely breaks its police cards into two parts: each card has a special action that a player can use on his own turn and a small bonus that he can apply only to another player’s skill test. Resources that can only be used for cooperation turn up from time-to-time in co-ops; for example, some of the supplements for The Resistance (2009) give a player special powers that he must give away. However, no cooperative game prior to Police Precinct had ingrained the idea so deeply into the structure of its play. It works well here, keeping everyone involved and interested on every single turn.
Overall, Police Precinct offers up a hodge-podge of cooperative mechanics; together, they ensure that there’s a large amount of cooperation in the game, which is exactly what’s desired.
Police Precinct has surprisingly strong adventure game mechanics for something that doesn’t touch upon the fantasy, science-fiction, or horror genres. Characters are specialized through both skills and special abilities, which are in turn used for skill tests required by the emergency cards. In addition, the events and emergencies are quite evocative, and the investigation feels like it’s uncovering a story.
Police Precinct’s biggest flaw as an adventure game is that there’s no variation in the investigation from game to game: there’s just one set of clues to find, and players will find them each time. This can be a real drag on the “story” of the game.
Police Precinct has good mechanics for its challenge system and a good combination of cooperative mechanics. Nothing is hugely innovative; in fact, Police Precinct is one of those games that feels like it leans most heavily on Pandemic’s game design patterns rather than breaking new ground. However, there’s a lot that’s done right, and that’s crucial.
The biggest problem with Police Precinct is poor editing. The rulebook is the worst, because it leaves out a few important rules, but there are a lot of elements in the game where an editor and proofreader could have made everything a lot more professional; the result is unfortunately an obvious first-time product — but that doesn’t affect the gameplay much once you’ve actually figured out the rules.
Video game designer Ole Steiness made his co-op tabletop debut when some of his ideas were incorporated into the Pandemic On the Brink (2009) expansion. His Into the Fire (2012) co-op was then web published before Police Precinct (2013) was produced by Common Man Games. He’s since been largely focused on his popular Champions of Midgard (2015), a non-cooperative worker-placement game.