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One hell of a send-off: Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 wraps a stylish board game series

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Welcome to Ars Cardboard, our weekend look at tabletop games! Check out our complete board gaming coverage at cardboard.arstechnica.com.

When Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 was released in 2015, it was met with a rave reaction from players. A campaign-based take on the original Pandemic, it dropped fans into the familiar role of medics battling to eradicate deadly viral strains before they spread around the globe and destroy humanity.

The game’s biggest draw was a storyline which unfolded over multiple play sessions, with diseases mutating and cities falling into chaos as a sinister conspiracy spread its tendrils across the world. Along the way, players put stickers on the board, destroyed cards, and opened sealed compartments to reveal hidden components, permanently changing the game in response to their own actions. A sequel, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2, took the action decades into the future, exploring a world wracked by the events of the first game. Now, there’s a third and final installment, taking players back to the dangerous days of 1962 and the height of simmering tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 revolves around CIA agents tasked with uncovering plans for a powerful new bio-weapon being developed by rogue elements of the Soviet intelligence services. Where the established Pandemic formula saw players zipping from city to city to get rid of plastic cubes representing diseases, here you and your companions aim to clear the board of miniature plastic spies. Let them spread too freely, and they’ll overthrow the capitalist system. More importantly, they will hand you an embarrassing loss.

It’s mostly a superficial change, but it’s far from the only way that Season 0 evokes its Cold War atmosphere. Different locations on its board come with different alignments: Allied, Soviet, and neutral. As enemy agents, you won’t be able to fly freely into Soviet territory, and getting around these restrictions requires setting up teams of local agents, represented by plastic miniatures that look like VW vans. You’ll be able to dispatch them to do your dirty work, assassinating Soviet spooks with ruthless efficiency.

Your objectives for each playthrough also feel suitably CIA-esque. You’ll need to find the locations of enemy assets and infiltrate secret Soviet facilities. Best of all, though, are the high-stakes manhunt missions which see a target such as a defector or double agent start in one city and frantically make their way towards Soviet strongholds while you try to cut off all of their possible escape routes. It makes for a thrilling chase with some genuinely gut-wrenching moments where your quarry slips through your fingers just as you close in to grab them.

What really makes the game shine, though, is what happens between missions. As with previous games in the series, you’ll run through a deck of cards introducing dramatic new plot elements. You’ll add stickers to the board representing ever-tightening Soviet surveillance, making certain cities more dangerous to visit. But what’s most interesting is the ability to upgrade your characters over time. Each comes with a passport booklet with pages for three different identities, all with their own abilities. Over time you’ll add new powers, letting you fine-tune each agent for tasks like hunting down enemies, sharing information with teammates, or recruiting local operatives.

You’ll be able to switch between identities as you play to adapt to the changing situation on the board, and in an inspired touch the game lets you customize your characters’ appearance using layers of stickers. It has no effect on gameplay, but the idea of slapping on a wig and a false mustache to sneak behind the Iron Curtain is undeniably fun.

As you delve deeper into the campaign, the game ramps up its difficulty, and while it’s impossible to go into detail without giving away some important surprises, you can expect to deal with ever-intensifying Soviet schemes and pencil-pushing superiors who seem intent on getting in your way. What begins as a moderately more complicated version of Pandemic morphs into something far meatier and more demanding.

The incremental process of change means you never feel overwhelmed. There are some occasions, though, where it becomes clear midway through a session that you aren’t going to win, and it’s here that Season 0 feels flat, with players aimlessly wandering around the board chasing unobtainable objectives. It feels like going into the second half of a soccer match with your team losing 8-0, although in our campaign it only happened once.

Even when you lose, you’ll progress through the plot. This might mean missing out on some vital intelligence, however, and obtaining and interpreting information can be just as important as what actually occurs on the board. There are smuggled documents, secret plans, eyewitness testimonies, and other clues which you’ll aim to piece together to form a complete picture of what your adversaries are up to.

What might be most impressive, though, is the way the game digs into the interior conflict of its protagonists. There are multiple points throughout the campaign where players’ opinions on different issues have a direct, mechanical effect on the game. And while the plot runs largely on rails, there are a handful of key decisions which lead to a selection of different endings.

If there’s one narrative shortfall, it’s that Season 0 never really addresses the deeper question of whether the ends of all this shady spycraft justify the means. It’s not that the game presents a simplistic good-vs-evil view of the Cold War; its depiction of the CIA is far from heroic, and there are some terrible people on both sides. But the idea of vans prowling Latin America to bump off leftists is distinctly uncomfortable given the real-world history of CIA involvement in the region, even if you manage to assume that the people you’re wiping off the map are in fact secret agents in the pay of Moscow.

Spy fiction of all forms exists on a spectrum. On one side is escapist fantasy like James Bond, on the other are deeper stories exploring a world of mistrust and duplicity, and what happens when we allow people to step outside of legality and accepted norms. Season 0 falls mostly into the former category, and I would have liked to have seen how its blend of narrative and mechanical wizardry handled some deeper, more reflective issues.

Is this enough to negate everything that Pandemic Legacy: Season 0 does well? No. The game is a fitting culmination to a series which has given players a succession of tough decisions, hard-won victories, and agonizingly close defeats. For newcomers, Season 1 is a better place to start in terms of complexity and storyline. But if you’ve been along for the ride from the start, this is one hell of a send-off.

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Twin Galaxies attacks Billy Mitchell as a fraud in new legal claims

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Enlarge / Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (left) with Billy Mitchell.

Twin Galaxies is going on the offensive in its long-running legal and public relations battle with Billy Mitchell. In a cross-complaint filed last month, the video game score-tracking organization accuses Mitchell and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day of a “decades-long pattern of abuse, impropriety, nepotism, and fraud” intended to falsely “manufacture a persona for Billy Mitchell as the greatest video game player of all time.”

They “knew that these score performances were fake”

The counterclaim, filed in response to Mitchell’s own claims of defamation against Twin Galaxies, goes much farther in attacking Mitchell than the organization’s previous statements. In the past, Twin Galaxies’ defense against defamation has narrowly focused on what it says was a good-faith analysis of the tapes Mitchell submitted for three alleged Donkey Kong high scores, which Twin Galaxies no longer recognizes as legitimate.

In the past, the organization was careful not to speak to Mitchell’s potential motives or any actions that may have led to the creation of those tapes. Instead, it focused on technical anomalies in the video itself that led to the determination that “we now believe that they are not from an original unmodified DK arcade PCB.”

In its new counterclaim, though, Twin Galaxies now directly says Mitchell “lacked the requisite natural skill or ability to be the greatest video game player of all time” and accuses Mitchell and Day (collectively referred to as “Old Twin Galaxies” because of their alleged intractable ties to the corporation) of planning to “return Billy Mitchell’s prestige with fraudulent scores.”

“Both Billy Mitchell and Walter Day knew that these score performances were fake,” Twin Galaxies writes in its complaint of the Donkey Kong score tapes. “But [it] still included the scores on the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of their need for self-aggrandization, their avarice, and their desire to create perceived value for the database so that they could one day sell Twin Galaxies and the Twin Galaxies Score Database and take the money for themselves.”

Questioning the first perfect Pac-Man

While much of Twin Galaxies’ complaint focuses on the heavily discussed issues surrounding Mitchell’s Donkey Kong tapes, the complaint goes farther in alleging that Mitchell and Day sought to suppress scores from other competitors and alter rules in order to secure Mitchell’s position atop the scoreboards.

That includes allegedly rejecting claims from other players who had achieved a “perfect” Pac-Man score of 3,333,360 prior to Mitchell’s 1999 record. That allegation, which has made the rounds in high-score circles for years, would undercut Mitchell’s claim to fame as the first to reach that lofty goal.

In other cases, Old Twin Galaxies allegedly suppressed Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr. scores to protect Mitchell’s position, including a number of scores that were central to the drama in the 2007 King of Kong documentary.

Legal and financial interests

Mitchell and Day’s alleged manipulation and lying about old scores has become a legal matter, the counterclaim states, in part because the pair “represented and warranted in the Purchase Agreement that the Twin Galaxies Score Database does not contain any untrue, or misleading statements of fact.”

The alleged lies led to “a loss of value of the assets purchased from Old Twin Galaxies, particularly a loss of value in the Twin Galaxies Score Database because of the association with fraudulent scores,” according to the complaint. That alleged fraud also “fomented distrust in many of these important communities toward Twin Galaxies, thereby diminishing its value” without the new owners’ knowledge, the complaint states.

Mitchell (left) and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (right) pose with a fan.
Enlarge / Mitchell (left) and Twin Galaxies founder Walter Day (right) pose with a fan.

Beyond the score adjudication allegations, the counterclaim accuses Mitchell and Day of mismanaging the funds of “Old Twin Galaxies” to “[treat] the assets of the corporation as their own by paying personal debts with the corporation’s funds.” According to the complaint, the pair co-mingled their own funds with those of the corporation, made promises of stock offerings that it never intended to keep, and stiffed creditors on multiple debts.

The alleged financial improprieties also extend to a previous 2008 sale of the Twin Galaxies assets to Peter Bouvier. That $200,000 sale was reversed, the counterclaim alleges, when Mitchell and Day “took control of the Twin Galaxies Score Database from Peter Bouvier by exercising undue influence over him while he was incapacitated with Alzheimer’s disease.”

Twin Galaxies says that this counterclaim wouldn’t have been necessary if the organization had won a dismissal in a recent anti-SLAPP motion against Mitchell’s defamation suit. But now that Mitchell’s suit is heading to trial, he has, “in a sense, forced [Twin Galaxies’] hand to pursue these claims” in order to fully defend itself, according to a statement from Twin Galaxies lawyer David Tashroudian.

Mitchell and his lawyers have not responded to a request from Ars for comment on the new allegations. A hearing on the cross-complaint is due to be argued in Los Angeles County Court on December 11.

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Meet the new generation of puzzle-makers bringing mystery to your door

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Enlarge / Luckily in 2020, there may be an at-home puzzle for everyone.

A few weeks ago, my husband and I broke into a museum.

Well, we didn’t break in, exactly. We had keys, so it was more like, you know, a little light trespassing. The keys came from some guy in a hooded cloak standing around outside, but they worked, and the cops never showed up. So, long story short: there’s an artifact sitting in our living room currently, and we’re trying to figure out what to do with it.

The artifact, alas, exists only digitally (for now, at least). And both the keys and the museum were made entirely of paper. My husband and I both wore cozy pajama pants for the break-in slightly unauthorized entry, which took place on our coffee table while I sipped a glass of red wine.

If all this sounds terribly confusing, know that we were playing a game made by the Curious Correspondence Club, a subscription box filled with mysteries instead of with snacks. It was one of a litany of at-home mystery boxes we’ve played through in the past two years, a stack of adventures each positioned somewhere between an escape room, a puzzle, and an alternate reality game. So it’s not unusual that our home remains full of ancient, furled maps and long-lost artifacts pointing the way to solve mysteries of the ages… none of which existed till, roughly speaking, last Thursday.

The birth of a genre

Escape room games have been available at your local board game (or big box) retailer for a few years now, but they’ve got a new cousin in town via a nascent field that sprang almost out of nowhere in the past three years. These experiences are not board games, nor are they tabletop games in the roleplay sense. Some are monthly or quarterly subscriptions; others are bespoke, painstaking designs. Some rely heavily on Internet interaction; others are entirely hand-crafted physical goods.

The entire genre is so new that no two fans or creators seem to agree on what to call it. Enthusiasts have tried “mystery boxes,” “puzzle boxes,” and “at-home escape room,” but no single name seems to have stuck.

“To me, I think the encompassing genre is ‘tabletop puzzle game,'” designer Rita Orlov tells Ars. “Sometimes those are more narrative. Sometimes they’re really just puzzles. Or sometimes it’s a narrative experience and not even really very puzzling. It seems like there are so many subgenres, even in this kind of very niche genre.”

Orlov personally calls her games narrative playable adventures. The Tale of Ord, which she launched in 2018 to near-universal acclaim, is arguably the growing field’s first blockbuster hit. In the two years since, Orlov herself has become as close to a legend as the growing mystery-puzzle-adventure-narrative scene has, earning respect from players and fellow creators alike. (Every single person I talked to for this story suggested, unprompted, that I should speak with Orlov, too.)

PostCurious, Orlov’s company, only ever made 500 copies of Tale of Ord; used editions have become a hot commodity among collectors. The game unfolds over the course of four separate packages and culminates in something of a final exam puzzle that requires you to put together everything you’ve learned over the first three installments in order to solve and unlock a literal, surprisingly sturdy, wooden box. Its popularity has made Tale of Ord a yardstick against which new experiences are often measured, particularly “found object” style games. But only two years later, the competition has indeed heated up.

20 years in the making…

Many of these new experiences weave their fictions tightly into the history and reality in which most of us live. Solutions to puzzles and hints for where to go next will lie in real historical cues or simply within answers you can find on Google. In short, these new concepts are drawing on a decades-old tradition in digital gaming: the ARG, or alternate reality game.

EA tried launching a paid ARG, Majestic, back in 2001. The game was at the time a new concept, blending real-world phone calls, emails, and Internet scavenger hunts with an X-Files-inspired conspiracy theme. As a commercial venture, it was a fairly spectacular flop. As an idea, however, it kicked off something of a trend.

Microsoft commissioned its own ARG, I Love Bees, a few years later as a marketing tool for Halo 2. According to 42 Entertainment, who developed the game, I Love Bees ultimately drew more than three million players into its “fractured narrative.” Video games, too, were also starting to play with the idea, such as French developer Lexis Numérique’s In Memoriam and Evidence: The Last Ritual. Mr. Robot famously partnered with Mozilla for an ARG that clumsily bled into your Web browser in recent years.

That humble thread—”what if…?”—weaving the real and the unreal is now a core part of a countless number of experiences. Some, like Tale of Ord, send you artifacts and ask you to unravel their mystery. Then there are experiences like Club Drosselmeyer, which draw heavily from interactive theater to create an interactive ambience. (More about that in a bit.)

Yacine Merzouk and Michelle Rundbaken between them are the minds behind the Society of Curiosities, which sells a series of loosely linked experiences in a monthly subscription box format, as well as a handful of online-only one-off games. Weaving their created reality into, well, real reality takes some doing, they explained, but the sense of discovery is worth the work.

“When you play, you have to question: is this real? Is this not real?” Rundbaken said. She drew a line to familiar tales that plant breadcrumbs from reality to fabulous findings: “We’re right there watching Indiana Jones and National Treasure and The Goonies, and that’s the feeling we want our players to have—an adventure.”

A sense of immersion is key to making that feeling of discovery really work, Merzouk said, which admittedly “can be a challenge” to create for players who are in their own homes. Society of Curiosities works to allow players to “feel like you’re part of the adventure in a way that doesn’t require you to create a whole new world in your own mind,” he added. “You’re in your own world, discovering things along with your ‘team’ on the ground. Which I think has been fun for our players.”

One of their stories, for example, takes players to an absolutely fictional coffee and tea shop that, frankly, looks delightful. (I expressed repeated frustration to my husband, when we played the game, that I could not in fact visit it.) But making a fake café show up just enough on the real Internet almost didn’t work.

“We had a moment of panic for the Moonbeam Society,” Merzouk admitted. “We were about to launch the game, and it was not ranking on Google yet. There were too many related keywords online, and it’s kind of out of your hands. If you want to build something immersive, and people can search the actual Web, you have to do this [SEO] dance with Google and make sure you get found.”

The trick is to smudge the lines between the game’s reality and the rest of reality just enough, but not too far. “I wanted to make something that was blurring the lines between fantasy and reality,” Orlov said, describing The Tale of Ord, as well as her upcoming game, The Emerald Flame. “I try to keep the game elements kind of obvious, because I had played a couple things before where I didn’t really know where the edge was, and it ended up being really frustrating.”

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Nvidia announces the $399 RTX 3060 Ti—and we’ve tested it

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New computer GPUs have launched at a furious pace the past few months, mostly in the $500-and-up sector. This week, we finally see a 2020 GPU arriving at a lower price than a brand-new gaming console: the Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti, priced at $399 and launching tomorrow, December 2.

But once again this year, Nvidia is leaving people in the dark about how many of these cards we can expect to reach stores. We know the company manufactured at least one of them, at any rate, because my review hardware arrived last week. The usual gamut of benchmarks confirms performance on par with last year’s RTX 2080 Super, at nearly half the cost.

Like other RTX-branded GPUs, the Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti features proprietary processing cores on its silicon—namely, its Tensor cores (for AI computation) and its RT cores (to manage all things ray tracing). To get to a $399 price, the 3060 Ti drops specs compared to its higher-ranked siblings in the usual categories, particularly CUDA cores, but it also severely drops its Tensor and RT core counts. Nvidia’s trick here is that those core types have been updated since last year’s model to do more work per core.

If this were a market where you could easily snap up a $499 RTX 3070, some of these RTX 3060 test results would be hard to swallow, considering the price-per-dollar comparison. But there’s no getting around this new card’s ability to match the RTX 2080 Super (original MSRP: $699) in every category that counts.

Like most Ars Technica GPU reviews, we limit our benchmarks to 4K tests, owing to the fact that lower-resolution benchmarks typically become CPU-limited and thus don’t tell the full story of how a GPU will turn out in your particular PC. (If you’re wondering, my testing rig sports an i7-8700K CPU, overclocked to 4.7GHz, plus 32GB DDR4-3000 RAM, an 850W PSU, and a PCI-e 3.0 SSD.)

Last month, we saw an exception to this testing standard thanks to the 128MB of L3 cache in AMD’s Radeon RX 6000 series, which drives improved 1440p performance. But AMD’s cheapest card as of press time, the $579 RX 6800, isn’t a fair comparison with the RTX 3060 Ti. (In other words: yes, its extra $180 delivers more power in 4K and 1440p modes.) Should AMD ever launch a lower-priced 6000-series card, we’ll be sure to go back and test 1440p modes accordingly.

Otherwise, there’s not a ton to say about RTX 3060 Ti that hasn’t been spelled out with its costlier siblings. DLSS still impresses as a proprietary upsampling and anti-aliasing system, and that, combined with solid ray-tracing tech, continues to make Nvidia cards a tantalizing option—especially when clock speeds and CUDA cores have been reduced to hit the $399 sweet spot while still otherwise looking quite performative.

Meanwhile, if your favorite games don’t tap into DLSS, you should expect to tinker with their settings to maximize their 1440p or 1080p performance levels—and I can’t help but imagine AMD has a response to this exact use case with any future lower-priced RX 6000-series GPUs. But nothing of the sort has been announced yet, so for the time being, Nvidia takes the lead at this price point.

Listing image by Nvidia

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