Game Night Verdicts #74 – Precognition

Julien Prothière has designed two demanding, yet approachable cooperative games with Kreus/Kreo and Roméo & Juliette. Both are unusual in their way and offer a challenge. But to the interested board game enthusiast, they also provide interesting and exciting experiences that are unique in the field of cooperative games.

Precognition appears to be his attempt at designing a competitive game, only not quite. Its core concept might be unusual, but its rough outline is easy enough to grasp. We pass cards to the left and right. Two cards will stay with us. We use those to improve our tableau, either in tandem or not. Our tableau is where we collect victory points (people, we’re trying to save). We also collect ressources (food for those people, and healers for the sick). We will need those to protect people from hunger and danger as we travel. Our tableau is rounded out by additional abilities, we can unlock over the course of the game. None of these concepts break the mold of what we’re used to seeing in board games. And yet Precognition is different in a way that’s not easy to put my finger on.

The rules are of course the most prominent way in which the game is different. Passing and receiving cards is tied to our individual deck of cards. I get two cards from the player to my left, one of which I will return by the end of the round. At the same time, I’ve passed two of my own cards to the player on my right. One of which I will also get back this turn. To make sure things aren’t too easily grasped, we also draw two cards from our own deck. At the end of the round, I will return one card to to the player to my left, receive a card from the player to my right and will have chosen a card for myself. This leads to a total of two cards that are active for me (one from the right, one I picked myself) and two inactive cards, I will pass to the right, setting up the next round.

Capt. Stubing predicts
some icy winds tonight

This sounds complicated, but ironically it isn’t this rule that turns out to be Precognition’s biggest hurdle. Sure, you will need a few tries to run through the cycle of card movement without making any mistakes. But with some practice, this back-and-forth is easily mastered.

Something else turns out to be much more difficult to wrap your head around, not least of all because it’s only implied. Precognition requires you to not only refine your own tableau, your hand of cards and your strategy, it also needs you to keep in mind the entire eco system of card movement to make optimal moves. Yet particularly during the regular, competitive mode, there’s not much need for it. As long as nobody else at the table dominates, there is no reason to play Precognition any differently from your generic resource optimization eurogame.

But the first hint, that Precognition asks you to do more than the same old same old, can be found in the rulebook itself. The turn structure could easily be broken down in a few succinct words, if you only focus on a single player: take cards, pick cards, pass cards. That’s short, simple and easily implemented. Instead the rules adopt a perspective that covers the entire group at the table. Whether there’s some didactic intent behind this, I could not say. But it does make sense, once you’ve played the game a few times and tried the (supposedly) optional cooperative mode.

Because here, it’s not just about considering your own cards and decisions: you also have to keep all the interactions and processes in mind. To that end, Precognition follows the same approach that made Kreus and Roméo & Juliette so exciting and challenging. If you want to be less susceptible to the random draw of your deck, you need a state of total awareness. Or “unagi” as Ross Geller would say.

You need to be willing to stretch your brain to mentally juggle a number of factors throughout every round. That is quite the challenge. To ease you into it, the game offers a competitive variant. It allows you to focus on your own tableau and your own deck of cards. The person to your left and right, just need to get bad cards and you can then focus solely on getting the most out of your card combos. Before long you can play the game quickly and fluidly. But it’s not particularly challenging this way. At most you’ll find yourself wondering if you moved things around in the right order, or if you’ve forgotten one thing or another.

Precognition in its competitive mode, plays like a tutorial. It’s like diving practice in the non-swimmer’s pool, before moving onto the cooperative variant that’s akin to high diving at a national level. If you’re playing against each other, you just need to get any number of victory points to the finish line (ideally more than anyone else at the table). But in the cooperative mode, there are multiple goals you need to reach along the way.

Goals that do not leave a lot of room for sub-optimal play, and demand a high level of concentration from all participants. Because as soon as even a single player fails to reach their goal, the game is over. This doesn’t make Precognition fundamentally different to many other cooperative games that have different conditions that spell a premature end of the game. But it feels differently here. There’s a lot of pressure on every one of us playing. It’s only through smart cooperation and conscientious planning ahead, that we will reach the regular end of the game. This makes Precognition a very demanding cooperative game.

What you see is the result
of a lot of planning and
brain crunch

As I am writing this, I realise just how strong Precognition’s design actually is and how many interesting and unusual decisions it offers. And that might be my harshest criticism of the game. These things should be apparent after reading the rulebook, or at the latest after playing the game myself. The game’s depth and exciting challenges should be noticable as soon as I start playing. That’s what will pull me in, and encourage me to play the game over and over again.

But it shouldn’t require sitting down and writing a careful review to make the pieces fit together. As a critic, I am of course grateful to have a game I can claim to have “discovered” in order to tell others about it. But at the end of the day, I can only say that if you’re willing to put in the effort of understanding the flow of the game and its the mechanical interactions, you can then graduate to the cooperative and “full” mode. Only then does Precognition unfold itself in all its brain-twisting glory, and only then can you tell if you’re having fun with it or not. But the path to get there isn’t well lit.

There might be players who love putting in the time and effort to master and celebrate a game on this high a level. Maybe some of them will consider Precognition a delicacy that is only appreciated by players with the right level of skill and experience. But the game’s biggest hurdle isn’t its rules, or the high difficulty of the game. It’s the fact, that it takes multiple runs with up to three more players, to even get to what the game is actually about. It’s difficult to ask for this kind of commitment from players, when you can’t tell for certain it will be worth it to them.

There are interesting decisions and meaty challenges here. It’s very satisfying when the synergies between players end up happening on purpose and not by accident. When planning and thinking ahead helps you tackle whatever difficulties the game throws at you, it feels great. But it’s much harder to get to that level, in comparison to what you’re used to from many other cooperative games. Precognition is a demanding, cooperative game that makes use of familiar tropes in an unusual manner. But since it doesn’t reveal its strengths until you’ve put in the effort, it may very well remain unappreciated at many a game table.

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