Ben McJunkin: Review of CO2

Designer: Vital Lacerda
Publisher: / Stronghold
Players: 1-5 | Ages: 12+ | Time: 120 mins.

CO2 is Vital Lacerda’s controversial new release from this year’s Spiel fair in Essen. The game is controversial not only because of its theme — players are CEOs of energy companies who work to construct “green” power plants around the world to stem the tide of global warming — but also because its highly interactive mechanics make for a non-traditional Eurogame and a group-dependent play experience. Consequently, CO2 has proven to be a love-it-or-hate-it game; few players I’ve introduced to it have walked away from the table indifferent. Given that I took the time to write this review, you can likely guess on which side of that divide I fall. Though the game is not without its flaws, CO2 has proven to be a remarkably fresh foray into the “collect resources and build stuff” Eurogame genre. Marrying a streamlined turn structure with the sort of incentive-driven play traditionally only seen in shareholding games, CO2 at times borders on elegant (a welcome surprise from the designer of the detail-rich Vinhos). I heartily recommend it for players who, like me, care less about controlling their own destiny than about having the opportunity to shape that of their opponents.

I.  Overview

In CO2 , players work to meet the energy demands of six world regions across a number of decades, generally running from the 1970s to the 2010s. Players meet regional energy needs by constructing power plants employing “green” technologies: recycling, biofuel, cold fission, solar power, and forestation. (Although forestation, the planting of trees to convert carbon-dioxide to oxygen, is not technically an energy source, the game treats it as one — indeed the most valuable one — to remind players of its important role in responding to the threat of global warming.) If players collectively fail to supply sufficient energy, regions will resort to traditional fossil fuels that contribute to world’s pollution and that can potentially cause all players to lose.

(A little taste of the CO2 flavor.)

II.  When Simple Is Not Simplistic

The core of CO2’s gameplay is a simple three-stage process for building green power plant. Before a plant can be constructed, players must propose an energy project, effectively convincing a region to consider investing in a particular energy technology, and subsequently install that project, developing the basic infrastructure necessary for utilizing the coming power plant (imagine, for example, running power lines across the region). Each region has room for exactly three projects at any given time and is willing to invest in only certain energy technologies each game. Meanwhile, any given player turn comprises only one stage in the process.

(Mandatory actions on top; optional actions on bottom.)

The three stages of building map the familiar resource-conversion archetypes popularized by so many modern game designs: Proposing a project costs nothing; it is fundamentally resource collection — players are rewarded with small quantities of one of the game’s several currencies: either a small amount of cash, some technology resources (cubes), or a scientist (about which more later). Installation, by contrast, can be seen as a form of intermediate resource conversion. Because, thematically, it leaves quite the carbon footprint, the installation action requires players to expend a Carbon Emission Permit (CEP) — a fourth currency, for those counting — but results in more generous payouts. Lastly, power plant construction allows players to exchange money and technology resources for victory points and a foothold in the region.

That last concept is particularly noteworthy. By constructing power plants, players have the ability to take control of regions (in something akin to an area-influence contest). The player controlling a region may use the region’s supply of CEPs as if it were her own. At the end of the game, the player controlling each region can “cash out” the region’s remaining stock of permits for a late influx of points that can often be decisive.

While the model is outwardly simple, it presents a sophisticated simplicity by eschewing traditional notions of private ownership at all stages prior to power plant construction. Projects belong to regions, not players, meaning your contribution to a power plant’s construction advances the ball for your opponents as well: the project you propose can be installed by any subsequent player, and the corresponding plant might be constructed by a third player before you even take another turn. As a result, CO2 contains a level of player interaction and interdepency not commonly seen outside of spatial abstracts and certain genres of economic games, permitting a wide, open-textured decision space in implementing seemingly straightforward tasks.

III.  On Social Construction

There is no question that some gamers, perhaps many, will be frustrated by CO2’s lack of private ownership of energy projects. Most frequently those complaints manifest as lamentations about the “lack of control” given to players. As Larry Levy notes below, “it seems very difficult to arrange to build the specific plant you want to.” While I sympathize with the control freaks, I also disagree with them. Perhaps more accurately, I think the frustration is not a product of the game, but of the expectations and thought processes that players bring to the table.

To begin with, building power plants is not about building power plants. (No, don’t leave yet! This is going somewhere, I promise.) Because any building action you take redounds to the benefit of the players who follow you (it is generally assumed that the later building stages are more profitable, though the differences are less stark and more situational than they may first appear), your decision-making should frequently be guided by traditionally ancillary, opponent-driven considerations.

(The three stages of a forestation plant.)

Proposing projects allows players to dictate the type and location of plants available for other players to install or construct (it can also function to temporarily block a region from accepting additional project proposals). This in turn affects the likelihood of regions changing control (and thus the general desirability of that region for end-game scoring). Through installation, players dictate which plants are available for others to construct. Used tactically, installation can draw players’ attention to new regions, decide a regional control battle between your opponents, or entice another player to expend his resources at a disadvantageous time. On the flipside, constructing power plants comes at a cost. By diminishing your available resources, construction opens a window for opponents who no longer have to respect the threat of your seizing for yourself the opportunities they create.

All of the above is “control,” in a very real sense. But it is control through the slow strangulation of other player’s options and opportunities. It is control that requires a careful attention to timing, to opponent incentives and capabilities. It is control that frequently requires relinquishing our claim of entitlement to self-made goals. It is a form of control that sometimes makes “you can’t” a sufficient answer to Larry’s “how do I build the specific plant I want?”

IV.  And The World Burns

Setting aside for the moment the intricacies of self-interested player decision-making with respect to plant construction, CO2 further muddies the decisional waters with (for lack of a better term) a semi-cooperative goal tied to the Global CO2 Pollution Level. As noted at the outset, if players collective fail to meet the world’s energy needs, regions will resort to pollutive fossil fuel plants. Global CO2 Pollution Level rises above 500 ppm, the game ends immediately in a shared loss.

(Fossil fuel plants are purportedly your enemy.)

While I enjoy the thematic element that this mechanic contributes — the general sense of tension and panic as we teeter on the edge of destruction — I don’t see the game’s incentive structure benefitting from the threat. Players are already heavily incentivized to construct power plants, and keeping the Global CO2 Pollution Level below the game-ending mark only requires players to contribute an average of two green plants per decade (across six regions) Moreover, players can actually decrease the Global CO2 Pollution Level by building frequently in heavily contested regions. At the margins, the mechanic may help discourage degenerate hoarding strategies — by ensuring players follow through with construction, it keeps the game on the rails — but even with my generally obstructionist play tendencies, I find I have to beef up the starting pollution levels just to give my games a little juice.

That said, it is possible to collectively lose the game, particularly if players try to push too much of the responsibility onto a single player. Interestingly, CO2 is one of at least two new games released this year to contain a share-loss game-end trigger (Archipelago being the other notable example). Despite the fact that I actually find CO2’s implementation of the mechanic far less functional, it has thusfar managed to escape the level of controversy that has attended the mechanic elsewhere. I leave it to your group to decide how you feel about cooperative elements in an otherwise competitive game.

Fortunately, the Global CO2 Pollution Level informs more than a single mechanic. Once the pollution level rises above a modest 350ppm, energy crises will begin to afflict semi-random regions. Any player who has not constructed a power plant in that region at the time of the crisis must contribute a technology resource cube to the region which then discounts the cost of future construction there. Additionally, if the pollution level ever drop back below 350ppm, the game ends at the end of the round.

(In the designer’s words, “Just be there or send one of your

precious resources – easy.”)

Frankly, the regional crises is an element I would be happy to do without in its current incarnation. Abstractly, I love the idea provided they were sufficiently costly to provide players with tactical penalties that cut across their long-range strategic goal. However, a single resource cube appears to be too minor to alter player behavior except in marginal cases. On the other hand, the variable game-ending trigger does seem to offer genuine strategic options, as players will need to decide between setting up for the long haul or rushing the game end while holding an advantage. As a practical matter, this option is only really available in the fourth decade, so, in general, the difference is just a single round of play

Despite the fact that these mechanics all seem to be disproportionately insignificant relative to the meat of the game, hanging a handful of related mechanics on a pollution level counter that is directly influenced by the players’ power plant construction adds a surprising layer of immersion to an otherwise dry title. Note that I am intentionally avoiding the use of the word “theme” here: the immersion in CO2 does not come from a thematic narrative, artsy illustrations, or flavor text. Rather, I find that simply the sensible interrelationship between certain core mechanics makes me identify more with my choices and their consequences, makes me more invested in my position, and makes my play more purposeful.

V.  Miscellany (Also, Points)

In addition to one — and only one — mandatory building action each turn, CO2 permits players to perform three distinct “free” actions once each. While these actions skirt the periphery of the player turn, and hence weren’t mentioned above, they are each tied to subsystems provide crucial sources of victory points. Though I think CO2 could have been a Knizian-esque classic without these additional elements, they add (for better or worse) the fullness and depth-of-character so often sought by today’s “gamer game” gamers (you know who you are). Not to mention Vital Lacerda is not likely to soon be confused for the good Doctor. (No, Dale, you’re the BAD Doctor.)

A.  Card Play

CO2 contains three types of cards, only one of which may be played on any given player turn:

Lobby Cards are one-time-use cards secretly dealt to (or optionally drafted by) each player at the beginning of the game. Each card provides small boosts to players performing certain actiosn (or a smaller boost — a “minor lobby) that can taken at any time. These are minor randomization elements; players looking for strategy-defining card combos akin to Agricola’s occupations should look elsewhere.

Corporate Goal Cards provide each player a hidden objective for game’s end. In most cases, these objectives overlap so considerably with players’ other interests — for example, build lots of plants — that the particular card you receive is fairly irrelevant. I have personally found some cards harder to accomplish than others, though my sample size remains limited.

(An example of corporate goals.)

UN Goal Cards are the most important. Randomly drawn and face-up at the beginning of the game, these cards provide victory points to the first player who constructed plants of particular energy types (and who of course claimed the card using a “free action). In contrast to the Lobby Cards, the UN Goal Cards are a driving force behind the game; they provide ridiculous levels of points for a pittance, don’t require an action to acquire, and are first-come, first-served. It is quite common for the player with the most UN Goal Cards to win the game.

As you likely guessed from my introduction, I find card play to be one of the game’s weak spots. No, I am not a special power combo-builder. I don’t want synergies or deckbuilding or anything of the sort. I simply find the Lobby Cards and Corporate Goal Cards a superfluous distraction. I don’t think the randomization is necessary to vary the game, and I would rather spend more time wading through the squishy ambiguities associated with tracking and manipulating player incentives during the building actions. Quick turns and high interaction, Kemosabe, do you speak it?

Notwithstanding some mild concern about their relative strength, I do believe the UN Goal Cards serve a key role in driving up interplayer competition. As I explained in response to Tom Rosen’s recent article:

“Some games permit you to do whatever you set your mind to, but makes the value of things very opaque. The challenge lies in figuring out what tasks are worth doing.

Some games (like CO2) make the value of things very obvious, but make it very hard to accomplishing high-value things. There is no question where we want to go, the challenge is in figuring out how to get there from here.

. . .

That is why starting your thought process from “I want to build plant X” feels so foreign to me. We all want to build plant X. For precisely that reason, no one should be allowed to build plant X. So the question “what do I want to do?” is much less relevant to the question “what should I do on my turn?” than you seem willing to accept. But that relationship (or lack thereof) is precisely why I play games like CO2.”

(UN Goal Cards.  Too important?)

B.  The CEP Market

As I mentioned above, CEPs are a key currency in the game because they are required for project installation. They are also the only currency with a market — they can be bought or sold as a free action. CEPs thus give players a unique level of flexibility that does not exist with other resources.

In one of the more inspired design elements, the player controlling each region at the end of the game may “cash out” that region’s remaining supply of CEPs at market price. This leads to some occasionally delicious decision-making as players must choose between burning through a region’s CEPs to advance their personal position or bolstering a region’s CEP supply while trying to drive the endgame market price through the roof. In this respect, the game evokes(however feeble) shadows of shareholding games, including the 18xx line: Do you stand to gain more by working on behalf of the region you control (for now) or by exploiting it (at the cost of devaluing your asset)?

Unfortunately, the CEP market is not as robust and engaging as I would have liked. (Give me any game with a market, however minor, and I’ll spend the first five games trying to exploit the margins, often at the expense of, you know, victory.) Sales drop the market price of CEPs pretty radically while construction actions slowly raise the price over time. Because of the scarcity of money, the superfluity of CEPs once you control a region or two, and the benefit that a high market price conveys to the player controlling the most regions at the end of the game (who is likely already doing well for herself), most of my sessions have seen players depress the price at every available opportunity. The CEP market is not without its decision-points, but “buy low, sell high” is sadly far from the norm.

C.  Scientists

See? I told you we would get here eventually. (Admit it: you didn’t believe me, did you?)

Scientists are represented by pawns of a player’s colors. Thematically, they hop from project to project, learning about green energy, with occasional pit stops in Paris or Rome to attend summits and develop their expertise. Functionally, scientists provide one of the more interesting game elements, offering players rather subtle opportunities for incentive manipulation.

With a single free move, a player may move a scientist onto an unoccupied project. When a scientist is present on a project, it has the potential to earn expertise for its owner (a fifth type of currency, for those counting at home). Scientists also increase the costs for one’s opponents to install or construct the project where they are present. Hence, the presence of scientists can be a key blocking tool while their tactical absence can help incentivize opponent behavior in desirable ways.

(CEP market surrounded by summits.)

Alternatively, players can use their free move to send a scientist from a project to attend summits. Scientists at summits provide no benefit to their owner until one scientist commits to each of the topics on that summit. Once a summit is complete, however, those scientists will provide players with a generous expertise boost (as well as the opportunity to gain expertise in energy types not readily available to them). Like Lobby Cards, I find the summits a needless distraction and would much rather just play the scientist blocking dance every turn. The designer, however, considers summits to be one of the game’s most valuable point sources. Which reminds me…

So what good is expertise, anyway? In many respects expertise is the lifeblood of the game. Each of the game’s energy sources has an associated expertise track, and before players can construct a power plant of a given type, they need to possess a minimum amount of expertise in that type of energy. Additionally, at the beginning of every decade, players who are ahead on each expertise track will earn income (either as money or points, at the player’s option). These points add up over the course of the game, so finding alternative sources of cash is recommended. For the traditional Eurogamers out there, expertise is the closest thing to a production engine you will find in CO2.

VI.  Closing Thoughts

You didn’t just skip down here did you? Seriously? Look, all the good stuff is above. It’s not just rules regurgitation, I promise. This down here…this is my time, down here.

oh really (Yes, an 8-year old meme applied to a 28-year old movie. 
My next-best  option was a Jerry Springer reference; be grateful.)  

Why don’t I do this part down here while you go back and skim what you missed?

2012 has been an unusual gaming year for me. On the one hand, it has turned out one of the most abundant crops of deeply enjoyable games in recent memory (a very welcome relief from 2011’s pitiful showing). On the other hand, the games I find myself loving have tended to be games like CO2 — odd, occasionally unwieldy amalgamations of elements that attempt to defy traditional conventions in games and gaming.

There is little question, based on my six plays so far, that CO2 is one of those games I must grudgingly admit to loving. Nearly every session has proven to be a tense, enjoyable experience full of elements I savor. And yet, in attempting to articulate what I enjoy so much about it, I begin to second-guess myself. I dance around the question of whether it is even a good design, let alone the exceptional game I experienced.

I am uncertain because it is a mass of contradictions. In some respects, it is a surprisingly streamlined game: the core building actions are clean, and the decision space that extends from them delectable. Yet a number of minor, seemingly needless rules and mechanics weigh down the game in order to protect the players from themselves; training wheels on a pocket rocket. In many respects, CO2 is a conventional economic Eurogame: money is a point source, non-monetary currencies have an easily understandable cash value, the resource conversion archetype is preserved. Yet the high levels of player interaction and the abandonment of traditional notions of ownership leave many traditional Eurogamers alienated. Thematic, yet abstract; immersive, yet dry; refreshingly unconventional, though very nearly more-of-the-same. Even time bends to its contradictions: the two-hour box time is very optimistic, yet it is the only three-hour game that my wife insists only takes an hour (“It certainly doesn’t feel like three hours,” she says).

So I am at a loss. CO2 seems to be a game to be played, not dissected (at least, certainly not dissected by the likes of me). Perhaps it is best to just shrug my shoulders, throw up my hands, and dust off a line from my review of the under-appreciated Seeland:

“This game is better than it has any right to be.
We start from there.”

And we end there, too.

Comments from Other Opinionated Gamers

Greg Schloesser: I am not sure why the theme would be controversial, as there should be nothing objectionable about attempting to replace pollution-producing plants with ones that are more ecologically friendly.

My one playing so far has left me rather ambivalent. I found nothing exciting about the game, but nothing terribly wrong either. It is, as you say, very dry and not very inspiring. I did not care for the “chicken” mechanism wherein a person could develop a project, only to have an opponent construct it and reap most of the benefits. It is that lack of “ownership” issue that you discuss, and it does bother me. I don’t like doing most of the work, only to have an opponent swoop in and get most of the glory.

I do like the creativity of the designer, as there are some unusual and new mechanisms. Future playings will tell the tale as to whether these can help make the game exciting to play.

Larry: The game isn’t without interest and the way the various elements are interconnected shows a deft hand on Lacerda’s part (although his earlier Vinhos is even more complex and much more appealing). But I have a real problem with the lack of control in CO2, as it seems very difficult to arrange to build the specific plant you want to. Others have said that there are ways of incentivizing your opponents in order to do so and they’re probably right. But not only don’t I see it, but playing those kind of mind games (which, at best, seem to result in a fragile game in my experience) has no appeal for me. So a decent game for me and possibly a very good one for those who can penetrate its subtleties. But the control issue is sufficiently annoying that I won’t seek this out.

Lorna: I had very high expectations for this game and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. I am normally highly annoyed by games where other people can use your stuff but I have to say I don’t mind it in this game as much and the challenge is to use it to my advantage. Part of the fun is trying to prevent the world from burning up which has happened once in my playings.

Dale: I have only played the solo game as I thought it would be an interesting way to learn how to teach the game to the rest of my group.  Of course, without having any opponents in the game, you don’t have to worry so much about others coming in to swoop your projects.  In the solo game, you simply play until the world burns up (when pollution exceeds 500 ppm).  It remains to be seen whether or not the player interaction will be tolerable for me — for like Larry, I tend to prefer more control over longer games.  And, that’s not to say that CO2 is faulty, that’s more a personal preference in gaming on my part.  But, until I play a full multi-player game, I really can’t give a rating yet.

Mitchell: I’m heavily biased to like this game as I work as a consultant on climate action planning and sustainability for colleges and universities, and I’m writing a book on the topic. I played it last evening for the first time. Even as a very experienced Eurogamer it took me quite a while to learn how to play on my own. There’s nothing wrong per se with the rules, they are complete, but it took several on-line videos and reviews before I had a basic understanding of how to play. Our first experience was  a “learning game” (two players) and we mainly got it right except we made some important mistakes with the market mechanism. I found the game somewhat dry and a bit mechanical, yet I’m very intrigued to play it again. I liked it enough to try it several more times (and I will), and I think there is quite a bit of depth and interest. I’m wondering whether it has enough sustained dynamism and excitement (especially two player). For now, I like it, but the rating will go up or down with more experience.

Tom Rosen: I think CO2 is very much “not for me.”  I have only played it once with four players though so I can’t say for sure, and I would be willing to give it another shot, especially with fewer players.  As has been discussed, there is a lack of control in CO2 that is disconcerting (or as Ben says above, alienating) to many people, including myself.  I’m told that this is me failing to play the game in front me and wishing the game was something that it’s not.  Perhaps that’s true, or perhaps there’s an underlying issue with the game.  If what folks are saying is true and you’re not supposed to have control over whether or not you ever get to build a particular type of power plant in any given game, then I cannot fathom why the game provides a major source of points to the first player to build particular sets of power plant types.  The incentives that the game sets forth just don’t seem to gel with the framework that the game makes players operate within.  The mechanisms in the game make it a frustrating and seemingly futile experience in which you are encouraged to accomplish something that you have little to no say over whether you can in fact accomplish.

Ratings from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it!  Ben McJunkin, Craig Massey, Lorna
I like it:  Mitchell Thomashow
Neutral:  Greg Schloesser, Jennifer Geske, Larry
Not for me:  Tom Rosen

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2 Responses to Ben McJunkin: Review of CO2

  1. Andrew Bond says:

    Did you really mean ” It is quite common for the player with the most Lobby Cards to win the game”? I presume you meant UN Goal cards.

    I’ve played this twice now and enjoy the fact that the game *is* different to other Euros. There is certainly an element of chicken with regards to installing projects, but if you are clever you try to install projects that can only benefit yourself if built. For example, if Player A already has a recycling plantin the region, you can afford to propose and install a recycling plant, since it won’t benefit Player A if he/she builds it. Several nice decision come out of that dynamic.

    • Ben (chally) says:

      Good catch, Andrew. I edited the post to clarify.

      I completely agree with your description of the construction dynamics as akin to a game of “chicken.” I’ve said elsewhere that I often love those moments in games, and many of my favorite games are likely favorites precisely because they contain such moments (off the top of my head, Brass occasionally has chicken moments with respect to building connections; Tigris & Euphrates and Seeland have such moments rather frequently, though being spatial abstracts the element is unsurprising there). I’m sure that is why I enjoy CO2 as much as I do, and why my one contemplated variant would make the game even more like a spatial abstract.

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