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.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Boss fight

I played my second game of Gloomhaven last night.  The first game I played a few weeks ago we eked out a victory over the forces of evil by the tiniest of margins - it all came down to a 10% chance of victory on the final roll.  Last night was the opposite experience.  We smashed the dungeon easily and wasted lots of resources at the end trying to vacuum up loot while disrespecting the last couple of enemies. 

This scenario introduced us to boss mechanics and overall I quite like them.  At first reading the rules seemed to suggest that the boss would attack us and use both of his special abilities every round.  We couldn't see any possible way to win against that setup because one of the boss' abilities was to summon about 10 health of creatures, the other was to attack us with 20-30 health of creatures, and then he still had his attack.  We can't possibly beat that much health since we only usually output about 15 damage a round.

But after looking at the cards we hadn't flipped over yet we realized that the boss does only one of those things each round.  This is still a really scary enemy, but only facing one attack or ability every round made the fight seem possible instead of ludicrous.

It turned out to be far easier than that.  We cleaned up the dangerous monsters quickly and then blew the boss up.  Massacreing all the remaining enemies turned out to be a trivial affair and then the only trick was trying to collect every treasure in the game before somebody killed the last enemy for experience and we ended up leaving only a single treasure token in the dungeon.  Much profit!

This left me wondering why this scenario was so much easier than the last one.  There are a few reasons for sure, and one of the biggest is that in our first outing we cheated a lot... in favour of the monsters.  When we flipped over their action cards we had them always attack and move in addition to whatever the card said, but they aren't supposed to do that.  When the monsters get extra moves and attacks for no reason the scenarios suddenly seem a lot rougher!

In our defence Gloomhaven has a *lot* of rules.

We also played a lot better.  We used our elemental bonuses effectively and combined our attacks in powerful ways.  We also stopped wasting our cards on Lost abilities early and took it easy, which really helped us have the time we needed at the end of the game.  Funnily enough I was actually playing too cautiously because I had a battle goal to only have 3 cards left in my deck by the end of the game and I nearly missed it.  I had to throw away multiple cards for no benefit at all in order to get my hand size down enough on the final turn.

I wonder now how the first scenario would have gone if we went back and redid it with our newfound expertise and understanding of the rules.  Would it still be hard, or would we just clean the place out easily?  I suspect the second, but I don't know for sure.

One thing that I found interesting was that even when we were absolutely certain of victory there was still lots of tension in our choices.  Everyone was trying to maximize their experience and gold gain so even when the only enemy left was a slow melee enemy that was ineffectually wandering towards us we still were thinking hard.  I do like that about the game.  It would be easy to make this sort of game work like DnD does, which is that when a fight goes well in the early going the last half of the fight is a boring slog towards inevitable victory.  You know you will win, you just have to beat through all of the hitpoints the enemies have remaining.

Gloomhaven doesn't allow that, long, irrelevant grind to occur.  You are going to run out of cards, and as the fight comes to a close everyone is in a mad scramble to use all of their high experience cards and grab loot, which often means that you are playing badly and risking losing it all.  Having multiple dimensions of success (victory, loot, XP, battle goals) means that no matter how well the run is going you still really want to think about how you will play and the choices matter.  I like that a lot.  This means that Gloomhaven is still a blast whether or not you are getting your asses kicked, having a tight encounter, or just steamrolling on through.

The game is ridiculous in many ways.  The amount of stuff you keep track of is hilarious.  But the core mechanics are really excellent and the game is delivering on tactical fun in a way that is rare. Games with this much fluff rarely have such satisfying crunch.  I approve.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The big choke

I did well in my Thurn and Taxis and Agricola leagues last time.  In both I was promoted and I was feeling good about my chances this time around and hoping to put in a good showing, if not get promoted again.  My feelings of confidence were unwarranted as I look likely to be bumped down a rank in both leagues. 

In Thurn and Taxis my problem is kind of ridiculous.  One of the players in one of my games never accepted the invitation, and then we remade it and it still didn't get accepted, and then all of the other games were done and this one game was still not complete.  The game being incomplete is partly my fault as I should have gone to the moderators about it instead of just shrugging and waiting.  I don't quite know how to apportion blame here because the person who simply ignored the invites and refused to acknowledge the emails is at fault, but I have some degree of fault for not getting on it and pushing it harder.

Now I may get relegated to a lower league simply because our game is never going to get done in time and so the people being bumped down will end up being selected from that group of players.  I don't envy the moderators that have to sort out this crap because there are no good solutions.  It sucks extra hard to get bumped down based on this kind of thing rather than just plain ole' getting beat but there aren't exactly a lot of other options available to the mods, so no blame there.

Definitely not the triumphant romp I had hoped for.

Agricola is going badly for entirely different reasons, mostly to do with the interface and me screwing it up.  One game I came third 47-42-39-38 on the back of a disastrous play where I Renovated before growing with Farm Steward in play, turning the Steward from a strong power play into a total waste.   Throwing away a high draft pick, an action, and a food is terrible, especially considering Church Warden was in the game so doing this cost me an extra 3 points just for fun.  I would have easily gotten second place without that terrible blunder and could have threatened for first.

In another game I had a plow down that lets me plow three times when I take the plow action, and I could do this twice a game.  After I plowed the second time I realized that I had only five fields - which shouldn't be possible when I get to plow three fields two times!  Somehow I had managed to only click twice to plow fields so I just missed out on an absolutely free point.  And of course that single point mattered in the end, and it may get me relegated.

Both of these errors are things I could have easily fixed in a live game.  I realized my disastrous mistake with the renovate just seconds after hitting Confirm, but in a game in person I would simply have taken the renovate back and done it properly.  Same with the fields, I would just have put the extra field on.  But you can't do that online, once you hit that Confirm button it is all over.

That isn't to say I have played perfectly otherwise!  Far from it, I am still learning.  But it seems like I may get bumped down in both leagues and in both cases meta issues really influenced the outcome.  I guess that is the struggle with a game run by the computer.  You get all kinds of benefits but the rules are enforced in the strictest possible way, so you have to play right.

All my fault, no doubt.  But these sorts of errors are the most annoying kind!

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Thieve and keep thieving

Last night I played my second 2 player game of Terraforming Mars against Naked Man.  I won, and it was an absolute rout - the score was 104 to 64, partly on the back of me getting 3 milestones and the first 2 awards, leaving only the last and most expensive award for Naked Man to collect.  We both felt throughout the game that I was ahead but I honestly had no concept of just how big the lead was until the final score landed.

We were both musing on how exactly I won by so much.  There were two things that really stood out, one of which was Naked Man focusing too hard on a single strategy, the other of which was just me getting a ton of punish cards.  Naked Man went for a heavy space strategy, starting with titanium income from his corporation and adding on a ton of additional titanium income throughout the game.  He ended up at 6 titanium per turn, and that is way too much.  Most of the time you can just count titanium as being worth 3 bucks each, and as long as you find enough space cards to spend it on that is accurate.  Unfortunately for him we got fewer space cards than we rated to and so he had 30 titanium sitting in front of him by game end.  It was pretending to be worth 90 bucks but nobody was buying the act.

This is an important lesson.  There isn't really much of a 'space/titanium strategy' exactly.  If you go all in on titanium you will likely end up with far too much and it will be thoroughly wasted.  The first chunks of titanium are pretty good, and can reasonably be thought of as being worth 3 bucks.  However, as you stack more of it the chances that you will have to sink it into a weak card just to use it up rises, as does the smaller chance that it will be wasted completely.

The punish cards in Terraforming Mars can make dabbling in lots of things a risky business.  When you do that you are basically opening yourself up to every punish card out there.  However, going all in on titanium or steel is a different sort of problem because you risk having a stack of resources you can't profitably use.  I think in 2 player dabbling is probably best because you will get to snag half of the punish cards if you want to, and you only get through half the deck anyway so many punish cards won't even appear.  Going all in on a resource just means your opponent has a huge incentive to hate draft your payoff cards, no matter what sort those might be.

I got lucky getting some of the punish cards like Hackers to steal his income, but a couple of them got passed to me.  I think I dropped seven total punish cards, and all of them got full value.  It doesn't seem that exciting to take a card that costs you a net 0 but takes 4 bucks from your opponent but long run that squeeze on their output is brutal.  Terraforming Mars, like many games, has lots of big plays that are exciting and swingy, but it seems even more effective to take a continuous stream of small plays that are strict benefits to your situation.

So in short, you definitely need to avoid going too hard into a single resource when you can't guarantee a good use for it, and in the 2p game the punish cards are just amazing and you have to draft them highly.

One thing I found really funny is that because I had never read the rulebook I didn't know what the default game was actually like.  In the base game everyone starts with one production of every resource, and in the game I was playing that rule is taken out.  My impression right now is that this makes the game worse, largely because of punish cards.  If everyone has a bit of everything you can actually aim your punish cards at the people you think are winning instead of just hitting the only person who happens to have the thing you are punishing.  Plant strategies become more tenable because everybody is going to have some plants so meteors that blow up plants will often get aimed at people who aren't focusing hard on plants instead of always hitting the plant person. 

Keeping that extra production in the game will certainly speed the game up but I have no issue with that, and I would really like to try it out and see if my thinking on punish cards works out the way I want it to.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Such exhaustion

I played Gloomhaven for the first time last night.  This game is kind of absurd - any board game that clocks in at 2500 pieces obviously is going for it, and Gloomhaven doesn't hold back.  It is a Legacy game where you mark up the board and pieces as you play, which honestly makes the game so much better.  Tracking things without worrying about mucking up the game is so easy!

The theme of the game is right up my alley too.  Adventurers wander into dungeons and have a tough tactical battle against a variety of monsters.  I like that we are playing what feels like a dungeon crawl DnD game but it doesn't require a GM.  Also because it isn't actually roleplaying I can feel free to just twink out as hard as possible.

Our first run through was rough.  Not a surprise there, because a game with 2500 pieces also has a truckload of rules.  Thankfully the group was prepared and composed entirely of gamers that are quick to master complex rulesets so it was smooth, though not exactly swift.

The idea behind the game is that it is tight on time.  You start off with a hand of cards that represent combat moves and you must play 2 per turn.  When you run out of cards you remove one from the game and reload with the rest.  When you only have 1 card left in your deck, you are out of the scenario.  The decisions to make with regards to managing your deck get complicated quick because you can toss cards out of the game for other reasons, like activating a really powerful move or preventing a nasty hit.  There is no stopping - every round you must play 2 cards and this pushes you inevitably closer to the point where you run out of cards and lose - so you must keep pushing on recklessly each round.  Standing around searching rooms or resting is not an option.

Our first run looked like it was going well at the beginning but when we opened the door to the final room things went disastrously.  I was the tank and was full on health with a total pool of 12.  The monsters took a turn and they knocked me down to 1 health and even then I had to pitch a card to prevent the killing blow.  I had no reasonable way to heal up so I just burned all of my remaining cards for powerful attacks, killed one enemy, wounded another two, and then was shot full of arrows and died.

Through a series of lucky rolls my companions managed to defeat the remaining monsters, but the final blow was dealt on the last turn of the game before the last player was about to run out of cards and lose.  It was *tight*.

That makes it seem like the game is difficult and dicey, hard to win.  I don't think that is actually the case.  We were wasteful at the beginning of the scenario, burning many of our best cards for power moves in the early going.  That led to disaster at the end when we realized we had no time for tactics or positioning because we were all about to die from losing our decks.   (Well, *I* wasn't about to die, I had lots of deck left, but my companions were all tapped out so me having a deck left wasn't much good to anyone.)  If we had played better at the beginning and just used a few less effects that toss away cards we would have had an extra four rounds at the end and that would have made the final battle no problem.  We played well for first timers, but practice and knowledge of each other's abilities really matters.

One strange thing about the gameplay is that treasure falls out of monsters as they die and you have to grab it as you go.  When the final player dies or the final monster dies the scenario ends and any treasure still on the ground vanishes.  This creates some really weird pressure where players try to go out of their way to scoop up treasure with the limited actions they have.  If we had finished the game more efficiently and had a couple turns we could have left one dork alive and vacuumed up all the treasure while healing through its attacks.  Instead we watched as the game ended and half the loot still sat there on the floor.

I was concerned about this treasure system when I first looked at it but it was fun.  There are a huge number of competing priorities in Gloomhaven and figuring out how important each one is ends up being most of the game.  How many cards do you need?  How many turns do you have?  Can you grab that treasure or not?  Since you gain XP through card usage, do you use cards for XP or for maximum effectiveness?  And in addition to this you have to manage all the normal fantasy battle considerations like positioning, hit points, healing, debuffs, line of sight, etc.

I don't know what I will think of the game after I have played it a lot.  I can say though I really enjoyed it from the outset and I am looking forward to playing it many more times as our characters grow stronger and try new things.  I want to figure out how all the cool new stuff works and see all the scenarios and buy all the items!

I don't know that Gloomhaven is a 'balanced' game.  There were certainly some things in the game that made me cock an eyebrow and wonder aloud if anyone making the game had access to a calculator.  But coop games don't have to be perfectly balanced, and since we nearly lost I can certainly say that our ability to min/max is going to be challenged.

If you are a casual gamer who likes to dabble, don't even look at Gloomhaven.  It is a monster of a game in terms of cost, storage, rules, and committment.  However, if you are a hardcore gamer who wants to devote 100 hours to a single board game and you like the dungeon crawl thing, Gloomhaven seems like an absolute blast so far.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Toss those books

Sometimes you have to give up on your dreams.  This is especially true when the dreams involve lots of bookkeeping for little gain.

For the past few weeks I have been obsessing over a detail of mechanics in Heroes By Trade.  The way the game used to work is each character had a Vigour score that described how powerful their abilities would be.  If you tried to use an ability of higher rank than your Vigour, you would take damage equal to the difference.  If you have a Vigour of 5 and use an ability of Rank 7, you take 2 damage.

This system is balanced.  It even feels right - characters can desperately strive to do something challenging but it hurts to push beyond your limits.

The trouble is that it ends up being a lot of bookkeeping.  People were constantly using abilities and forgetting to take 1 or 2 damage when doing so.  When they used a really high rank ability they tended to remember, but it was a regular problem.  Not only was it an issue that combats weren't going the way they should, but also players hated it.  Some people just didn't like the idea of taking damage at all, but everyone hated the constant recording of tiny amounts of damage to do normal things.

It needed to change.  This system would be fine in a computer game where the bookkeeping was taken care of automatically but in a tabletop game it is important to keep things moving.

My new design is to have Vigour be a hard cap on what abilities you can use.  If your Vigour is 5 then you can only use abilities of Rank 5 or less.  Simple.  However, I really liked the idea of people being able to occasionally do something spectacular so I added something else in to replace the old system called Surges.

The mechanic behind this is simple:  Once an encounter you can Surge, which adds your Constitution to your Vigour.  Generally this means that on the turn you choose to do this you can do something spectacular, either using an advanced version of an ability you normally use, or using an ability you generally cannot access. 

This still means you have to remember if you have used your Surge or not.  It reduces bookkeeping a little, but does not eliminate it entirely.  However, I think that it is far less likely to be forgotten, which is a plus, and it also feels better.  Instead of constantly recording the 1 or 2 damage you take you just have to remember that you used your Surge, or didn't.

It is funny how many knock on effects this sort of change creates.  It makes Constitution slightly more powerful, which is actually something I think is good.  Constitution was extremely weak in combat up to this point, so a buff is a positive.  It also means that character power is reduced because of lesser flexibility, and this sort of power reduction is quite challenging to quantify.  The other tricky thing is that ability ranks started at 5 and went up to 13, but starting character Vigour could be as low as 2.  I don't want people to have no abilities they can use at all, so I am going to need to lower the ranks of all abilities by 2 to make sure that nearly everyone has some cool stuff to do, but doing that inflates character power overall....

It is a tricky thing, sorting out all these changes and figuring out what tweaking one thing will do to a huge system.  I think though that my current change package is a real positive as it should keep character choices just as varied but reduce the complexity of implementing those choices.  That is a big thing for me - make sure you have to think a lot about what is best, but once you choose it should be easy to resolve.  Kind of the opposite of how I feel when playing DnD a lot of the time, where I spend too much time keeping track of all my shit but when I have to make a choice the answer is always Fireball.

I mean, it isn't *always* Fireball.  Sometimes our characters talk to people too, rather than just murdering them.

But when murder is afoot, Fireball is always the choice, and then we spend a long time rolling dice and adding up damage, and that is not the system I want.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

I am legend

Yesterday I made Legend rank in Hearthstone for the first time.  I talk about the game a lot but mostly I spent my time drafting Arena decks instead of playing ranked constructed games.  One of the reasons that I never much bothered with playing ranked games on the ladder is that I always assumed it would take an incredible amount of time to get to Legend rank.  Hearthstone has some real randomness to it and there are plenty of good players out there so I figured I couldn't realistically expect to have a win rate higher than 55% or so, and at that rate it takes 300 games to get from Rank 6 to Legend - that is a *lot* of games!

It turns out I underestimated myself.

Or maybe I overestimated the skill of other people on the ladder?  Hard to say.

In any case this month so far I have played 64 games on ladder.  If I was only able to maintain a win rate of 55%, as I had assumed, I would only have advanced a fifth of the way.  However, I actually went 47-17 for a win rate of 73%.  Now that I look at it that seems completely nuts.  Are there really enough decisions in games that I can beat people at to maintain that kind of win rate?  Apparently yes, even though I constantly make mistakes and throw games away with foolish choices.  Other people must be absolutely rubbish at Hearthstone!

My perceptions of the game do not generally reflect reality I have found.  For example, one day I played for a few hours and felt like I was really getting nowhere.  I was losing more than felt right and I thought perhaps I should just give up on my deck and try something new.  Then I checked my status... and realized I had advanced from rank 3 to rank 1, with a net gain of 9 wins.  I had gone 15-6, a 71% win rate, and made it most of the way to Legend, and yet it still felt like I was playing badly and losing too much.

Clearly my emotional brain expects to win every game.  Wins come as a thing I expect, just the status quo, but every loss is etched in there and I can't look away.  I remember that my opponent Barnes/Y'shaarjed me on turn 3 and then I died, and I remember playing my Mistress of Mixtures on turn 1, delaying my Mountain Giant by a turn, and then losing the game based on that tempo loss.  In the first case I simply got blown out by luck, and in the second case I lost because of a chain of events that most players would never have linked together.  But I see the link, and I know that I shouldn't have done the thing I did.  I lost because of garbage play, not RNG.

Now I suppose I need to start grinding away at Legend rank players and see how I stack up against them.  I know I can beat them more than 50% because I played against lots of them when I was at rank 1 trying to get that final victory to tip me over into Legend.  I don't expect I can maintain a 73% win rate in Legend, but I am certainly going to give it a try.

For reference, here is the deck I am running.  It is Cubelock teched against aggro.  I dropped out some of the slower cards that are great in the warlock mirror match and added in Tar Creepers and it makes a huge difference in beating aggressive decks like Secret Mage, Spell Hunter, and Aggro Paladin, and interestingly it actually works well against Priest too because it is a minion that can kill  a Northshire Cleric without allowing a heal.  (Plus having a cheap taunt to avoid OTK combos is good.)

This is the core of Cubelock, which pretty much everyone uses:

2 Mortal Coil
2 Dark Pact
2 Mistress of Mixtures
2 Kobold Librarian
2 Defile
2 Hellfire
2 Amethyst Spellstone
2 Possessed Lackey
2 Doomguard
2 Carnivorous Cube
1 Skull of the Man'ari
2 Void Lord
1 Bloodreaver Gul'Dan

The rest is mostly tech cards, tailored to your tastes.  Some people go full combo with 2 Faceless, Prince Taldaram, Spiritsinger Umbra, and 2 Mountain Giant.  That sure does blow people up sometimes, but it gets absolutely rolled by aggro.  My list is a bit more flexible, using N'Zoth to win late game wars, Tar Creeper to stall aggro, and a grab bag of midrange tech cards.  I am quite pleased with the list right now, but these choices absolutely are based on the metagame I faced, and shift based on what you see on the ladder.

2 Tar Creeper
1 Spellbreaker
1 Faceless Manipulator
1 Mountain Giant
1 N'Zoth