I came out of my previous encounters with Defenders of the Realm, a cooperative board game, with one big question: is it possible for the players to win? Others in our gaming group shared this question, so this weekend four of us assembled to test the hypothesis. We theorized that having the cleric in the game is a huge factor, so we played two games with and two without. There are eight characters total, so we chose the cleric and three random ones, played two games, and then played with the remaining four. Exhaustive trials would have taken longer; the experiment doesn't have to be completed in one day.
The first game was a disaster. The starting board was not good, but we plowed ahead, attacking problem spots across the board. Then, on player turn ten (meaning halfway through round three -- I only got to play two turns!) we lost by having too many monsters in the central city. They appeared quickly; we got four from that "place one of each type that's adjacent" and then the next card involved an outbreak from an adjacent space, which contributed the fifth. Five monsters in the city is a loss.
We won the second game with one character death. If I recall correctly, we started with the cleric, sorcerer, wizard, and dwarf. The wizard died fighting one of the generals and was replaced with the eagle-rider. The cleric's job was supposed to be to just run around the board removing taint markers (since that's what he's good at), but he kept ending up in fights with generals too. It's hard to ignore someone having the cards that will help in a fight, after all.
We lost the other two games, one by running out of taint markers and one by having a general reach the city. So we were very diverse in our losses; the only loss condition we didn't trigger was running out of a type of monster, and we came close on that at times.
We had intended to ignore quests unless they were really good, but some people went after minor ones anyway. I think we need to be more rigorous about that; "because I'm nearby" can still mean a mostly-wasted turn in a game that doesn't support a lot of waste. We did not spend a lot of time in inns trying to pick up more cards; even the rogue (who's good at that) only did it a couple times in two games.
I found myself willing to spend cards quite freely for travel except for whatever color we were currently working toward. As a non-cleric I never went after taint; you have to have the right location card (out of a couple dozen) and spend it for a chance to remove the marker, and I was finding it too hard to keep track of where taint markers were to compare to cards. (The markers are very hard for me to see. Actually, many things about the board are hard for me to see; this is another game that suffers from the triumph of art over function.)
We didn't think to time individual games, but we played for a bit over six hours total and that first game was very short, so I think of it as a two-hour game. For me, that tips the cost-benefit balance away from this game; if it were a one-hour game its added complexity and challenge, as compared to Pandemic, would be an interesting change. At two hours, more complex, gratuitously complex (in places), and hard, I don't get as much enjoyment as I would from the three to four games of Pandemic we could play in the same time.
So to finish off the evening, after dinner we played Pandemic and won on the penultimate turn (five epidemics). Ah, much better. (Dani and I have lately been playing two-player games with six epidemics and winning about half the time; we haven't tried with four players yet.)