Thursday, August 25, 2016

A certain lack of celebration

The new adventure for Hearthstone called One Night in Karazhan has solo content just like all other adventures before it and so far I am not terribly impressed.  The design of the encounters is interesting and there are lots of new mechanics that work but the fights are just so easy it hardly feels like my choices matter.

In the old adventures Naxxramas and BRM I had to do everything several times.  It took a long while to build custom decks that could beat most of the heroic encounters and some encounters took dozens of tries to defeat.  I had to spend a lot of time learning all the cards I had to face and evolving my deck until it was just so.

In Karazhan I just slap together something vaguely appropriate and then win right away.  More than half the time I won on my first try, and many of those decks were deeply flawed because I didn't really know how the encounter worked or what I was facing.  But those flaws didn't even matter and I just powered on through.

The hardest fight so far took me four tries to beat, and even when I beat it my deck wasn't good - I just got a passable draw and beat the computer up.

These fights leave me feeling pretty uninspired.  I don't want to have to play for hours to get the perfect draw against a ridiculous fight, but I was hoping that I would at least have to put some modicum of effort into it.  Winning with a deck that completely failed to address the encounter's core challenge takes any satisfaction out of it.

It wouldn't take much to fix things.  The mechanics are quite good, and I especially like the chess encounter which was really interesting and new.  All of the fights could be good ones if the computer just had better cards or some other advantage.

As an example, Nightbane has a Hero Power that makes both the player and Nightbane start with 10 mana crystals.  This means that the best deck is basically just a bunch of extremely expensive legendary minions.  Nightbane's deck isn't really equipped to handle that at all though, and it rapidly runs out of steam and dies.  I didn't have to try at all, really, and any random pile of expensive trash would likely be enough.  What I don't understand is why this encounter is such a joke.  It should be that only Nightbane starts with 10 mana, but the player starts with 0 as normal.  Or if not, maybe that the player starts with 10, but Nightbane does something bonkers like deal 10 damage to the player every time a minion of theirs dies.  If the boss had a basically normal deck, and a Hero Power that equally helps both players, how is this a heroic encounter?  Hell, I could probably win with just a regular deck, and that is pretty sad.

I guess Blizzard wants everyone to be able to win even if they suck and have no cards, but I don't understand why that is.  Everyone should be able to beat the normal encounters and get their rewards, sure, but nobody *needs* to beat the heroic encounters.  They don't need to all be as absurd as Chromaggus was in BRM, but they should at least require people to build a decent deck and play enough to figure out what the enemy does.  I am quite sure that there are tons of cards and maybe even mechanics that I never saw in a lot of these heroic fights because I beat them so quickly and effortlessly.  There should be real challenges for those people that like such things, as I do, and when there is nothing on the line except challenge, then the challenge should be there.

I don't feel good about beating up these bosses.  It feels like beating up a six year old for lunch money.  I want to feel like I did something hard, and that only comes when Blizzard puts in enough effort balancing that there is some actual opposition there.  I hope the last wing of the adventure has some serious bosses in it because so far the cards are good but the solo content is a big disappointment.  Good lore, good creative ideas, but really weak implementation.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Complication

There are a bunch of really neat new cards in the latest Hearthstone expansion called One Night in Karazhan.  One of the most interesting is a card called Barnes.
Barnes is pretty cool.  He can certainly end up summoning a 1/1 with no relevant abilities, in which case he is distinctly below the line.  Not disastrous, certainly, but Barnes isn't good if all he manages is a 3/4 and a regular 1/1.  However, if you build your deck around him he can be absolutely nuts.  Consider him with Ragnaros, for example.
A 1/1 copy of Ragnaros still hits for 8, so it is a monstrous beating if Barnes happens to choose Rag out of your deck.

The computation of how good a given minion is if Barnes hits it is simple.  However, whether or not Barnes should be in your deck is actually quite a complicated affair.  You have to consider that the fewer minions you have, and the more specialized and expensive they are, the better Barnes is.  You can definitely build some degenerate combos with just Barnes and 1 other minion.  Problem is, your deck can only have one Barnes.  How many suboptimal minions can you afford to put into your deck to maximize the efficacy of Barnes?  How few minions can you run before your deck becomes total garbage when you *don't* happen to draw Barnes in the early going?

I have no idea!  It is too complicated, even if you narrow the case down a lot.  It ends up being one of those things where you simply have to play Barnes in a deck for 100 games and see what shakes out.

This is one of the things that I think people don't properly recognize about Hearthstone and other games of its ilk.  You can theorycraft all you like about what cards will be good, but even really talented players who play all the time are often horrifically, hilariously wrong about cards.  Barnes in particular is hard to figure out, but minions don't have to be that complicated to be tough to get a proper value on.  Trump, for example, who is a very strong player and well known, famously thought that Dr. Boom would be pretty much unplayed, and then Dr. Boom went on to be one of the most broken cards ever released, and the subject of constant 'please nerf boom' threads for literally years.  Dr. Boom isn't even complicated, and doesn't require special deck construction.

Despite that it is obvious that properly valuing cards requires you to play with them a lot, people still desperately cling to the opinions they develop long before ever trying to fit cards into particular decks in particular metagames.

I think it is fine and good to consider how cards might be used and to try to think of how their value might be maximized even before they are released.  But we should all take a deep breath and accept that we just can't get proper valuations on cards until we have good data to work with.  A healthy acceptance of the limits of our own knowledge and computational power is needed here.

Is Barnes going to see play?  I am confident he will.  Is he going to be nuts broken?  I kind of doubt it, because balancing your deck around a single card that wants to come out in the early game is sketchy.  I think one thing we can say for sure is that Barnes has sufficient randomness in his possible results that we are going to see a lot of blowouts on Youtube highlight reels featuring Barnes.  My guess is that he will be sort of like Yogg was; powerful, widely used, extremely random, but not broken.

But I could be wrong because I still lack sufficient information to be sure.  Important to note that.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Sticking to the plan

Hearthstone has a new adventure coming out shortly called One Night in Karazhan.  It is a bit of a silly adventure thematically, since rather than spooky old magic castle we have ridiculous disco party night in the magic castle.  Bizarre, but whatever, I care about the numbers.  The thing that interests me most about this adventure is three cards in particular that interact with Secrets.
The Avian Watcher isn't very good.  If it hits on a Secret it is slightly over budget, but if it misses it is garbage.  If you compare it to other good cards it gains 1 stat if it hits but is under by 3 stats if not.  I don't think it is worth it and I doubt it will see any play.
Now we are talking!  This card is only slightly under budget if you miss on the Secret condition, and it is way, way over budget if you hit.  You stand to lose 1 stat if you miss, and gain 5 stats if you hit.  Good enough to be a card that causes people to want to play Secrets.
This one is a lot harder to evaluate.  Its best case is ludicrous, but in order to use it properly you really need a lot of Secrets in your deck.  I don't think that this is the sort of thing that gets tossed in every Hunter deck, but I am confident that in a Hunter deck with lots of spells (especially Yogg Saron and Lock and Load) it would find a home and be really good.  I don't know yet if that deck is a real contender though.

The overall picture is more interesting to me than the specifics though.  These cards show that after the Mysterious Challenger and Mad Scientist debacles Blizzard is still interested in pushing Secrets, and they aren't going to make Secrets good on their own.  They intend to leave them as is, which is to say they are marginal and occasional in Mage and Hunter (Freeze Mage is the outlier) but basically unused in Paladin.  They only see significant play when there are Secret enablers that are powerful that let them do other interesting things.  Both of the good cards above fit that description - they aren't as powerful as Mad Scientist, but they both really encourage using Secrets, and my feeling is that people will use them in competitive decks in exactly that way.

Back when Blizzard was setting up Standard and modifying cards I was concerned that they might simply decide to abandon Secrets and leave them as generally underpowered and uninteresting cards.  Constantly putting out Secret synergy cards seemed like a thing they might not be interested in.  I thought there was also an outside shot that they would buff Secrets a lot and stop printing Secret synergy cards, basically accepting that the Wild format would be ridiculous in terms of Secrets.

Looking at these cards I feel like their strategy is a good one.  Secrets are going to be used sometimes, but not by everyone, and as the format rotates their usage will wax and wane.  This is probably a good spot to be in.  Wild will likely be absurd because Mad Scientist in particular is preposterous with Medivh's Valet, but that is pretty much what Blizzard promised.  Wild will be unbalanced and silly, which I am pretty okay with.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The numbers

I am back from WBC and I was curious to look at how my numbers shook out for the week.  I played a bunch of different games competitively, but it turns out my results don't look much like I would have thought.  Heck, I can't imagine anyone would have picked how it would go.  Mainly the strange thing is that the game I was best in I lost in the semis, and two games I only learned right before the heats I did very well in, one of which gave me a 2nd place plaque.

Games that I was really prepping for:

Puerto Rico
1st   1st   SemiFinal  3rd

Total
2 1st
1 3rd

Games I thought I was competent but not great at:

Vegas Showdown
1st   1st   SemiFinal 1st *Final 2nd*
Carcassone
1st 1st 2nd   (Skipped SemiFinal due to conflict)
Agricola
2nd 1st 2nd  (Missed SemiFinal due to tiebreakers)
7 Wonders
1st 1st SemiFinal 2nd
Lords of Waterdeep
1st  (Skipped SemiFinal due to conflict)

Total
9 1st
5 2nd

Games I didn't know the rules to, or barely so:
Ra
5th
Castles of Mad King Ludwig
1st 1st Semifinal 1st *Final 2nd*
Thurns and Taxis
1st 1st Semifinal 3rd
Innovation
1st
Galaxy Trucker
3rd

Total
6 1st
1 2nd
1 3rd
1 5th

Super Random Dice Games
Can't Stop
1st 4th
Ra Dice
1st 2nd 3rd  SemiFinal 3rd

Total
2 1st
1 2nd
2 3rd
1 4th

Grand Total:

19 1st
7 2nd
4 3rd
1 4th
1 5th

The pattern is consistent - I win a lot, but my wins have nothing at all to do with my preparation.  I did just as well in each category in the skill based games, winning the majority of my matches no matter whether I had logged hundreds of games, a few dozen games, or zero games before playing at WBC.  The super random dice games I was barely better than average, which really is about what you would expect.

I only missed advancing in two games, both of which I only played one match in.  Galaxy Trucker I legitimately suck at, and Ra I took a big risk trying to place well and it blew me out.  I am not *good* at that game, but I could totally win it.

If I really want to have a massive win percentage I think I would approach it by skipping all semifinal games and just focusing on playing as many heats in games I am competent in as possible.  Far better to be in a heat in a game I am okay at than a semifinal in a game I am excellent at, I think.

Not that I am trying to maximize my win percentage that way, but that is how I would do it if I was aiming for that.

I definitely need to learn some more games before next year though.  There were lots of gaps where I could have fit in more heats but I didn't know how to play the games at all.  Lots of games at WBC were absolutely boring to me, either because they were extremely random or because they took a really long time to play.  However, I am sure there are a bunch of games that fit in the 1 or 2 hour time slots that I would greatly enjoy so I need to get cracking so I have more options for next year.

I think it is happy circumstance that my best tactic for winning a lot of plaques happens to be the same as my best tactic for having a blast - learn to be pretty good at lots of games and play them all.  I am really good at Puerto Rico and I lost.  I think I was the strongest overall player at my semi final table, but I got beat.  I watched the finals and I think I am as good as any of those players, but I didn't make it.  Playing one game one hundred times makes you better... but I don't think it wins you nearly as many plaques as playing ten games ten times each, presuming you are good at games in general.  And like I said, I will have a blast playing ten games ten times each and going in feeling good about each of them, because I have a good chance to get to the final table at something, even if I don't know what that something is.  Also it means that I don't have to fuss about scheduling - I will just go to whatever heats I want and attend the semis of any game where I make the cut.  Nice and relaxed.

I have a plan.  It involves playing a lot of board games.  Do it!

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Vegas baby, Vegas

I got my first big result at World Boardgaming Championships!

Tonight I collected 2nd place in the Vegas Showdown finals, which has me walking on air.  It was a good game, and I feel great about the result.  It seems kind of ridiculous really since I think the only games of Vegas Showdown I have played in the last handful of years have been the 5 games I played here - 3 heats where I went 1st, 1st, 3rd, the semifinal I won, and the final.  Who needs practice?

The end of the game featured a spectacular finish where I was obviously aiming to buy and place the best building in the game for an absolute truckload of points.  No one could buy it out from under me, but my opponents tried hard to end the game prior to me buying it.  I was in last place at that point, but they were all worried that by placing that building I would win.  It was close - I dropped the Theatre down for 19 points, which is a pretty whopping portion of my 48 point total.  Even though the winner beat me by 4 points there were cards in the deck that could have given me the win on the last turn, but unfortunately they did not make an appearance.

The best part about it was that there were three cards drawn at the end to try to stop me, and one of the possibilities is a card called Pull Strings, which can't itself beat me but could set me up for a fall.  There are three copies of Pull Strings in the deck. The first draw was Pull Strings, which was terrible for me.  The second draw was Pull Strings again, which was even worse.  The last card was ... Pull Strings, and since it could set me up but not knock me down I got to get my Theatre and jump from 5th to 2nd.

I found it doubly hilarious that my semifinal game ended almost exactly the same way.  The game was on its last legs, I got lucky to keep it going, and I dropped down the Theatre at the last possible moment.  In that case of course I won, unlike the finals, but the games were pretty amusing in terms of their similarity.

Now I am in the Thurns and Taxis semi final, the Ra Dice semi final, and the Puerto Rico quarter final.  Will more plaques and showers of glory await?  Tune in next time to find out!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The wisdom of crowds

I have been playing in a bunch of different games here at the World Boardgaming Championships and it has given me a much clearer picture of how people play games and how good they are.  People told me ahead of time that the heats to qualify for finals games are really easy, but I didn't realize quite how much so.  There are of course people who show up for games who don't really know how to play, and that is certainly a source of easy wins, but there are a lot of people who just don't know how to win.

And that isn't to say they are terrible or dumb or anything, just that there are specific ways you go about training yourself to be excellent at games and most of those ways are to surround yourself with really great people who can push you to excel.  There aren't that many people who have a tremendous intuitive grasp of strategy games and as such it is really unlikely that a given person will have a group of those people around them to make them better.

I credit the Lounge in university for much of my education in this way.  I have the natural talent, but being in the company of people who see things quickly, who can find things I miss, made me better in ways that are impossible to achieve on your own.  That training isn't something you can pick up in a day or a week either, and if you end up at WBC without having people in your circle who are amazing then you aren't going to be the shark - your skills won't be honed enough.

It takes a certain attitude too.  You have to desperately want to be the best.  In fact you have to want to play against the best people who are happy to smash you to smithereens so you can learn how they do it.  The desire to learn needs to be much stronger than the desire to do well in a single game if you want to get better.

That isn't to say this is the right way to play - everyone should play and socialize however works for them.  For some intense pressure to learn and win and improve isn't their thing.  But if you want to win, that pressure from others who also have that desire is necessary.

That general game training lets you see things.  It lets you pick up games and win immediately, just because you can see how you have to be in order to win.  I have seen that so much - the people with the best group support just step into games and dominate, even if they don't know the rules well or miss important things.

Practice is good.  Study is good.  But the key to success here and elsewhere in games is to be surrounded by cutthroat competitors eager to improve, and to push them to be better so they can do the same for you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Being skilled

I am tinkering with Heroes By Trade again, trying to work out if skills are being the thing I want them to be.  Right now the basic mechanic is that you roll 1d8, add your Aspect bonus (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Willpower, Presence) and then can add an additional bonus if you are trained in the skill being used.

Examples:

I am untrained in Gadgetry and have 5 Dexterity.  I roll 1d8 + 5.

I am trained in Intimidation, and have 5 Presence.  I roll 1d8 + 10.

The system technically allows the GM to swap around what Aspect you use for each skill, but skills are presented with a default Aspect that you would expect to be the right one.  Athletics is Strength, Persuasion is Presence, etc.

Something is digging at my brain though, telling me this isn't quite right.

I am thinking that if the system is going to have flexibility in terms of assigning skills and Aspects to particular rolls, that ought to be front and centre.  You can use Strength + Animals to push a donkey across a bridge, but those two aren't going to pair together much normally, so Animals is paired with Presence and I think pairing them kind of locks people into using them that way.

Ideally I would love to present all skills independent of Aspects, so you would have the GM select an appropriate Skill for the situation, an appropriate Aspect, then you roll and add the two numbers to your roll.

However, this results in adding two different numbers to a roll and that somehow feels clunky.  Instead of the 1d8 + 10 above, it is 1d8 + 5 + 5.  Also sometimes if a different Aspect is chosen it might be 1d8 + 5 + 4, for example.  It feels right to make it a core part of the system that Aspects and skills are chosen independently to best represent the challenge, but it means that people will spend more time figuring out what their bonus is instead of knowing automatically that their favourite thing to do is associated with a fixed number.

It is hard for me to figure out how to value those things.  I like speedy play, so normally I go to great lengths to keep people's bonuses predictable.  I hate play grinding to a halt while players hunt for extra +1 bonuses to beat a challenge.

I have been thinking about ways that I could change the skill mechanics to keep bonuses easy to remember without mucking with them in other ways.  For example, instead of training adding +5 and mastery adding an additional +3, I considered training just adding 1d8 and mastery adding another 1d8.  This would mean that a character who is a master of a skill would be rolling 3d8 and adding their Aspect bonus.  This preserves the nice benefit of only adding one number, but increases randomness a lot.  A 3-24 spread on the 3d8 is enormous, and I have spent enough time complaining about the randomness of a 1-20 die that I am uncomfortable with that.

Then I thought about setting it up so that training granted a 1d8 as above, but mastery simply allowed you to reroll any die you wanted to.  This reduces the max spread, but the spread is still potentially 2-16 instead of 1-8, and that is a lot.  I like the skill system to have a fair bit of predictability so that characters have a sense of what they are likely to be able to accomplish, and so that people who actually stack a lot of bonuses can do amazing things that normal folks cannot.

I suppose I may end up just accepting that skill checks take more time to calculate and set up Training and Mastery as +5/+8 and Aspects separately so people usually need to add two numbers to their roll.  Skill checks are really fast compared to combat resolution anyway so perhaps adding a bit more to it isn't really a bad thing.

Sometimes you have to sacrifice elegance of execution for elegance of presentation in the name of improving the player experience, and this seems like one of those times.