Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Dungeons done quick

On Sunday I played my first game of 5 Minute Dungeon.  It is a cooperative game themed around a bunch of adventurers beating through a dungeon full of monsters to try to crush the final boss.  Each player has a class and this gives them a basic power and a deck of cards.  The powers are pretty meh most of the time but the decks have enough different and interesting mechanics that the classes really do feel different.

The basic way it plays is you have a few cards in your hand, most of which will be resources like shields, swords, arrows, speed, or magic.  An encounter will flip over and will do something or require resources to beat - usually three of them.  For example, an encounter might require two shields and an arrow to defeat.  When people play those resources to beat the encounter they draw more cards to get back up to maximum hand size and the next encounter comes up.

So far, so boring. 

But, the game has a wrinkle that turns it from complete snoozefest with a massive alpha player problem into a fun, fast ride.  You only have 5 minutes to play it.  You cannot sit there and strategize over who will play the arrow because you have 30 - 60 encounters to do in 300 seconds.  Five seconds to see what an encounter has in store, check your hand, and slam down resources is tough.  When you play a resource it is lost forever, even if it is overkill, so you will inevitably play things at the same time as someone else and be wasteful.  It is especially tough because you don't know what your friends have.  Do they have a 'beat a monster' card?  If so, you really don't want to slam some resources down and waste them if the monster is getting beat automatically.  But if you hesitate, you fritter away precious seconds.

You all have to yell and slam cards and strategize and flip over new cards as fast as possible and it is tremendous fun.  No one can be the alpha player because you literally cannot read everyone's cards as fast as they draw them.  Every person must play their own game the best they can.

Having a game in 5 minute chunks is really great.  If someone new shows up they only have to wait 5 minutes at most for it to be over, and another 5 minutes to shuffle the cards up again.  You never have to worry about going too long, or leaving people out.  Want a bathroom break?  Just skip a round!

The game also has a variety of difficulty levels.  The Baby Barbarian is pretty easy, and the Dungeon Master (Final Form) is absolutely brutal.  But if you want to play with kids you absolutely can - just increase the timer, or decrease the number of encounters, or whatever.  It is a coop game with multiple dials to change the challenge so you can play it with any group at all.

5 Minute Dungeon can never inspire strategy discussions or lots of thinking.  However, it can and does offer an entertaining, engaging, and easy to learn coop experience, and it has all the great logistical benefits of being a quick game while retaining replay value.

The game is out, but the latest expansion is up on Kickstarter, and I think pretty much every gamer would be happy to have this game on their shelf.  As part of the KS you can get the base game included too.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A table that isn't there

Old Man got me to download a new game this week called Tabletop Simulator.  It isn't a game in itself though, more like a platform for games to happy upon.  It is a physics simulator that allows you to manipulate pieces around on it just as if it were a physical board.  If you want to play a particular game you need a mod that simulates that game... so I got the Gloomhaven mod and we played together.

It was super weird.

My brain kept expecting TS to actually play the game for me.  I struggled with the interface a lot because I was continually looking for it to actually make Gloomhaven happen and it was only once I really got into the idea that this is just a box with parts in it that everything came together.  I think I have trained myself that when you play a board game on a computer everything just happens automatically and you click your actions so it required a bit of rewiring to get used to how TS operates.

I literally had to click on the box of board pieces, lift the correct one out, then put it on the board.  Figuring out which piece I needed required flipping through the manual that is sitting on the board.  Learning how all the interface options work together took a bit of doing, and when I finally had it all worked out the funniest thing happened.

I thought "Hah, this game is silly.  I could just cheat and win!"

Which is true of, you know, every board game in history.  But my brain just kept on going back to thinking of it as a computer game and apparently that has totally different wiring.

I don't know how much other use I will get out of TS.  I don't actually want to click a piece, move it to the right spot, and drop it down.  I don't want to have to manually change the hit points on a target.  I *love* it that computer games handle all the shuffling and setup and other annoyances.

But I really do love Gloomhaven and being able to play with people at a distance, and being able to kibitz with Old Man while I was doing it, was fantastic.  I think this means that I will use TS to play Gloomhaven and probably not much else.  It does the thing it is trying to do quite well but I don't know that I actually want a physics engine to play board games - I would rather do it in person whenever possible.  Gloomhaven is expensive to buy, limited in uses, and hard to find players for.  It also isn't available as a automated game so far as I know.  So TS is the best place to play it.

I gotta give credit though.  TS has a button you can hit that flips the table and all the bits go flying everywhere.  That is almost as satisfying as doing it in real life and you don't actually have to clean up afterwards.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Stay low

Last night my group finished our fourth scenario in Gloomhaven.  We are having a blast delving into dungeons and bashing monsters and I am so far really impressed with the difficulty of the game.  The first scenario we had no idea how it worked and we barely scraped through but ever since we have beaten everything with some room to spare.  However, we have consistently felt like we were on the verge of failure and the smell of desperation was in the air.  That all the scenarios so far felt like we just barely scraped by tells me that the difficulty is right on.  About 2/3 of the way through this last scenario the whole group agreed that we were screwed and we were going to lose - something about opening two rooms at once and having the party split up, facing two stacks of monsters simultaneously has that effect.  But even though it looked grim and one of our characters dropped out of the dungeon 3 rounds before the end we prevailed.

In the adventure last night we had some choices about where to go.  Some of the choices would have required us to figure out which NPC we believed and pick sides, but we elected to go into a dungeon that we knew was full of undead.  Killing undead and the people that summon them *has* to be right!

I felt great emerging from the dungeon as I managed to vacuum up 8 loot tokens, get 19 XP (before story award), and also collect the big chest at the end.  I also got my checkmark for completing my battle challenge.  In fact 8 loot tokens and 19 XP are both records for my group.  Everything's coming up Milhouse.


The funny thing is that getting a ton of XP is actually a penalty.  The monsters scale with your level, and so as you level up things get harder.  That might sound like it doesn't matter what level you are but that isn't quite the case, because the monsters are more difficult at higher levels and that is normally offset by having more perks, gear, and upgrades.  If you want to be as effective as possible you want to get as little XP as possible and as many other improvements as you can because the difficulty of the game does not scale with gear, perks, or upgrades.

You can't avoid getting XP.  You get some just for completing adventures and your abilities inevitably generate more.  The thing is that you can play the game attempting to maximize your XP gain or you can avoid it.  In nearly all other games maximizing your XP is the way to go, but not in Gloomhaven.  I really should be doing everything I can to avoid XP so as to keep the monsters weak relative to my character power.

Obviously I am not doing that!  XP is a number and I can make that number bigger so I am damn well going to make that number as big as possible.  What else do we play RPGs for but to make numbers bigger?!?

It does feel weird though to know that I am actively pursuing something that will make encounters harder and my character less effective against my foes.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Half a game

Over the past little while I have been playing a lot of Castles of Burgundy and Castles of Mad King Ludwig with just 2 players.  I really like both games, though certainly Mad King is the better of the 2 castles games, but I am struggling to love the 2 player versions because the level of randomness is ratcheted up in ways I disapprove of.

This weekend I played 2p Mad King against Naked Man and came out victorious.  He had beaten me the past 8 times we played so this was good for my ego, though honestly when many of those victories came down to just a couple of points either way one should hesitate to draw significant conclusions from a streak.  When we play 4p we both consistently clobber the other players so I don't have to sit up at night worrying about being total rubbish.

The weird thing about both Castles games is that the tiles that appear in the 2p version are roughly half the ones that appear in the 4p version.  In the 4p game you can predict things.  You can assume that there will be basements in the game in Mad King, and you can expect the "Points for shipped good types" tile in Burgundy.  You can plan!

But when half the tiles are removed from the game randomly you have no idea what sort of stuff is coming up.  You can decide to go for sheep in Burgundy and then never see another sheep tile.  You can finish a blue room in Mad King and dig into a pile looking for more blue rooms and find none at all.  I had this come up in my last game because I was staring at 4 200 size tiles knowing that there might be 2 blue rooms in there, which would be great, or there might be none.  The mean and mode of the distribution is 1, but you just don't know what it is until you invest resources to find out.

This doesn't make them bad games, but it seriously changes the flavour of the game.  Memorizing all the tiles and planning around them is great and I enjoy it but you can't rely on your knowledge when you don't know what stuff is available at all, which forces you into either safe plays or big gambles.

The 2p version of Mad King also has greater randomness in the bonus card draws.  When all the tiles are in play you have a lot more control and you know with greater accuracy what stuff will come out so all bonus cards have potential.  But in 2p some cards that you select correctly will end up being rubbish with little you can do about it.

This effect doesn't make these games bad.  It just changes them in ways that feel like they break the feel of the game.  It isn't just a new set of strategies, it is a new game entirely in terms of the way randomness and preparation affect results.  It is odd particularly because most games that scale down to 2p seem to up the skill factor a lot, and while these two games do that, they also ratchet it back down again by randomly tossing out half the game without anyone knowing *which* half.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I've been working on the railroad

Railroading is one of the things people complain about a lot in roleplaying circles.  GMs that force players down a single unavoidable path are generally not good at their job, and most of the time the players feel it.  They aren't telling their own story, they are just reading a script.  Thing is though, railroading isn't an I/O kind of thing.  There are degrees of railroading, and you can easily do it too little as well as too much.

I think in my home campaign with Wendy and Pinkie Pie I have been railroading too little.  Pinkie Pie likes running around a fantasy world exploring and brawling and getting into trouble but she has trouble making good decisions when the consequences aren't clear. 

Case in point:  The characters beat up a notorious gangster and his gang.  Then they went to the gangster's house to find information they needed.  While they were robbing the house the town watch appeared nearby, and the characters noticed this from the window of the gangster's house.  I figured that the characters would immediately run but instead they sat around looting more thoroughly, taking their time.  Then the watch finally came to the front door of the house and arrested everyone.  It turned out that Pinkie Pie figured that since they killed the gangster they were entitled to his stuff...  these sorts of misunderstandings are rife in the game so far.

I try to give characters lots of rope to hang themselves, should they have a mind to.  I give them plots to pursue, but I am fine with them pursuing whichever of those plots they have a mind to, in whichever way they want.  This works for mature gamers but has some real issues with smaller folks who have less experience.  They just don't understand how all their adult level decisions will play out.

So they joined the army.

I didn't force them into the army, exactly.  I just had important people recognize their exploits and offer them a cushy job in the Empress' Swords, the unit of powerful people that handle most security in the realm.  (There are also people called the Empress' Daggers that are the spies and scouts, but the characters in the group are good at bashing, not deception and trickery.)  The characters were a little suspicious of the Empress and her motives but the villains in the story so far are dedicated to taking down the Empress so the characters ended up being willing to work for her since the enemy of my enemy and such.

Now they have a home base and missions to go on.  I am definitely going to keep their missions exciting and unpredictable so they aren't railroaded too hard but they seem to like the idea of actually knowing what to do instead of starting each session with "so... where are we going to go now?"  I probably should have done this in the first place, as having a bunch of organized, planned excursions is a good way to be introduced to a world and you can slowly give the characters more freedom from that point.

I led off with 25% railroading in my eagerness to avoid 100% railroading.  I think that my new strategy of 60% railroading will be more successful though, with this group at least.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A fine flock of sheep

Last night I played Castles of Burgundy in person for the first time.  I have been playing a bunch on the board game site boiteajeux but this was my first experience with the board and physical pieces.  I must say I really enjoy the functionality of having the computer handle all the randomization and point counting but I think I should really play games in person the first time.  It helps a lot in figuring out how all the mechanics work when I have to maintain board state myself.  I finished a couple of games of CoB online without even understanding how the turn order worked!

I won the game by about 30 points, roughly 256 to 226/215/205, which is a pretty large margin of victory for that game.  Funny thing is that I honestly can't pin down why I won by so much.  I had the least tiles on the board of anyone with 9 empty spaces at the end, and although I completed a full 5 field of sheep two of the other players completed 5 fields of cows and pigs respectively so they were keeping up.  I never got a mine, so you can't chalk up my victory to an early mine snowball.

P C C Y
P P C Y B
P P B Y B B
W W W C W W W
B B M B B P
B M Y B B
M Y Y B

This is the board I was on.  I filled everything except the lower yellow section, the lower left brown section, and the mines.

You might wonder if I only won because of miscounting points.  That is a reasonable suspicion, but I do not think it is right in this case.  Naked Man is good about maintaining board state and scoring correctly, and he was watching me like a hawk.

One thing that went really well is my boat usage.  I kept two boats ahead of the others for most of the game and this let me scoop up 2 resource tiles on 4 of my 6 boats.  I hadn't really considered how powerful it was to always be ahead and have the best selection on grabbing tiles like that, but it certainly came home.

I think the best way to attribute my win is simply to efficiency.  My 3 yellow tiles were worth 16 points (animal activations), 8 points (animal types), and 8 points (tower x 2).  That is a fantastic set of tiles, and exactly filled my size 3 yellow group.  I sold 13 resource tiles over the game, most of them in sets of 2 or 3.  That is an extremely high number for a 4 player game.

The early part of the game didn't look too exciting for me as I was just putting down boats and sheep.  Other people were doing the mining thing and getting yellow tiles that gave them workers and it seemed like they were building powerful engines.  I was just getting points.

But I think just getting points is how this game works.  Most brown buildings give zero points, but I had 2 watchtowers giving me a total of 8.  I got tons of points from selling stuff, maximized my completion bonuses, and had only a single tile that gave me workers because I was super tight with my workers all game.

I didn't try to build any sort of engine, I just rammed as much point generation into my board as is possible, and that led to a big margin of victory.  I honestly thought that the guy who got to 3 mines and had the mines -> workers yellow tile super early was going to walk away with it but he ended up coming third, though admittedly since it was his first game it was unlikely he would win.  He did manage to vacuum up 4 large bonus tiles and 1 small though, which is phenomenal for a first outing.

I guess the lesson in this game is that there is no engine.  The important thing is simply turning every resource into points as efficiently as possible.  It feels exciting to chain buildings with bonus actions on them into one another but that doesn't actually make you win.  In the end if you complete a size 5 group of brown buildings in only 5 actions you still only get ~20 points for them, and 4 points per action is weak.  That can be good enough if you can get a bunch of the same building and grab the associated yellow point tile, but otherwise isn't exciting.

This doesn't make me dislike the game though.  It just means I have to play it differently than I had thought and continue to iterate on my strategies.  It certainly does make me less inclined to take mines at the outset though if I have to expend a lot of resources to do so.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fighting women

I am running an ongoing campaign using my RPG system Heroes By Trade.  My players are Wendy and Pinkie Pie, and I am running an NPC to go along with them.  My character is a large furry troll who is really good at being tough, breaking things, and doesn't talk much.  A perfect NPC.  :)

One of the things I am making a point of is making the world have lots of women in positions of influence and importance.  Fantasy worlds are usually terrible at this and have men doing everything.  This is something I would think about a lot in any case but it is particularly important because I want Pinkie Pie to have the experience of adventuring in a world where women aren't relegated to support roles all the time.

I have actually found it pretty easy to do this with the important people.  There is an Empress, not a King, and keeping some kind of gender balance among the powerful and wealthy has been simple.  I even have one race in the game that has no sex or gender at all so non gendered people are a thing this society is used to and they appear here and there.

But I find it takes a lot more concentration to not default to male pronouns for random dorks.  When I am building people with motivations, names, distinguishing features, these people end up in some kind of good gender spectrum.  But when the characters get attacked by a bunch of random gangsters I find that I default to calling all of them 'him' as they get mowed down like chaff.

Isn't saying 'mowed down like chaff' kind of ridiculous?  I haven't ever mowed down chaff!  I have no idea how easy that is.  Maybe it is actually really difficult and I have been lied to by this saying all my life.  I wouldn't know if that was the case.  Now I need to head to wikipedia and look this up...

I don't think this is a huge problem, because I try to stay on top of and mitigate it, but it is interesting that this is the way my brain processes it.  I am probably inured to this norm by all the action movies I have watched, which certainly have a huge male bias for the main villains and heroes but a much larger bias among the henchmen.  Specifically, that they are henchmen, not henchwomen.

There are lots of reasons for that, and I am sure at least a part of it is that you can't sell a male hero who busts into places and then punches all the women he sees in the face until they are unconscious.  You can have a male hero do that to men no problem though and audiences won't freak out about it.

Pinkie Pie doesn't obviously react to people in the game based on gender.  I was a bit surprised by that because she is really focused on gender in real life, and being a girl rather than a boy is a huge part of her identity.  I am creating a world for her where violence solves most problems and societies need singular powerful people to save them from evil, and those aren't exactly things I want to impart even if they are fantasy staples.  But I can avoid making the world she romps through full of just men though, so I am going to do that, if nothing else.