This month’s case study, on Abandon Planet, covers a team game with some interesting twists.
Abandon Planet by Don Eskridge
Publisher: Orange Machine Games (2017)
Cooperative Style: Survival-Focused Partial Partnership
Play Style: Resource Management, Simultaneous Selection
It’s the meteor apocalypse! Players must try to escape the Earth before it’s destroyed by collecting the resources needed to build a rocket. To do so, they simultaneously select locations each turn, but selecting the same location as another player can result in theft — and selecting the wrong location can lead to getting hit by a meteor! In the end, a player will rocket off of Earth with exactly one ally, where they together have all the resources they need.
Abandon Planet is a rare partnership game that also contains a challenge system. It takes the form of meteors constantly smashing into the planet. However, that challenge system is shockingly limited: each round, the rocks can hit one of six different “paths” leading to the Earth. A card is drawn from a very small deck to determine which path is the victim. That’s it! 1 in 6! Despite this minimalism, the location of the meteor strikes is a big deal that players are always thinking about; if they’re hit by meteors, they can lose the resources they just gathered, and they can even lose the opportunity to win the game.
There’s also a bit of decay in this simple system. After a “path” has been hit three times, it’s destroyed. That means that there will be fewer paths as the game goes on, which makes it more likely that a player will be at a locale threatened by a meteor (or by a player who may steal their resources).
Technically, the destruction of paths introduces an opportunity for all the players to lose: this occurs if all but one path is destroyed. However, the concern for survival in the system isn’t tuned very high. Players would probably have to be very competitive, and the challenge system would have to very lucky, for a survival-loss to occur. So, the game is “survival-focused” in name only.
Abandon Planet also contains the rare ability for players to preview the challenge trigger. The leader of each turn gets to look at the path card that’s going to be selected in advance. He can then choose to share knowledge as he sees fits, but not the card itself! This creates a robust system of bluffing, trust management, and possibly reciprocity.
As is usually the case when a challenge system is introduced into a competitive game, Abandon Planet is more tense, uncertain, and unexciting than it might otherwise have been.
Challenge System Elements: Round Activation, Arbitrary Trigger (with Preview), Decay, Environmental & Removal Consequences. Partial Partnerships.
The cooperation of Abandon Planet is partial partnership: each player has a potential partnership with at least two other players, but will win the game with only one of them. Whitewater (2012), where players move canoes together, and Between Two Cities (2015), where they build cities together, are other examples of this relatively rare sort of partnership. Unlike those other games, a player in Abandon Planet will entirely share the win with his partner — if their merged resources are sufficient to leave the planet and if they both choose to leave the planet at that crucial point.
Besides have at least two potential partners, each player also has some “forbidden” players who they can never partner with. This creates interesting dynamics. A player usually won’t want to steal resources from any of his potential partners, because doing so just shifts those resources around within the partnership, without generating anything new. However, he’d love to steal resources from his partners’ other potential partner(s), which is to say the people that he’s forbidden from working with. By doing so, he makes it more likely that his partner will work with him, not those other people!
The open communication of the game also makes its teamwork tricky, because players have to decide what they’re willing to say openly around opponents who don’t have their best interests at heart. The slightly alleviate this, Abandon Planet allows players to secretly show number cards, which can be used to suggest to partners where they should or shouldn’t go on a certain turn. It turns out that’s just enough secret information to get players in trouble, because when a player tries to justify the information shown on a card, they might reveal information to their opponents.
A traditional problem in partial partnership game is that a player might abandon one or more of his partners partway through the game, leaving those players at a major competitive disadvantage (and having less fun). Abandon Planet takes a fairly middle-of-the-road approach: since a player doesn’t actually commit anything to a partner until the end of the game, he’ll probably keep trying to please all of them until that point. He is only likely to lock down an alliance with a single player by collecting the precise resources needed for that pairing when the end of the game draws near. (In contrast, Whitewater could allow much earlier abandonment, while Between Two Cities avoids abandonment entirely because scoring is defined such that players will always want both cities to be great.)
Despite the science-fiction theming, there are essentially no adventure mechanics in Abandon Planet.
Abandon Planet is primarily interesting for its use of the rare partial partnership mechanic. Unlike most of the other games in this category, partial partners will achieve a total victory together, but this just makes deciding who your partial partner is all the more difficult. Other innovations in this game, such as making open communication hazardous and applying a challenge system to a partnership game, demonstrate how to expand the boundaries of team (and cooperative) play.
Don Eskridge is also the designer of The Resistance.
“When I enter game design … I’m all about the human moments, the interactions that it creates. So, I go out of my way to think how can I create a moment where you have to betray someone you love.”
—Don Eskridge, December 2016, “Episode 41 — Abandon Planet”, Your Table’s on Fire, http://yourtablesonfire.com/2016/12/12/episode-41-abandon-planet/