Thursday, June 14, 2018

A good offense

I am in a new season of my Agricola leagues and things are going well.  They should go well, since I had some issues last season with UI problems, and also with being an idiot, so I got punted down to the D league at the bottom of the pile.

The players here are noticeably weaker and I have been consistently surprised at how many good actions have been available on each turn.  I regularly get premium actions on my last action of the turn so I haven't been taking start player often because I don't seem to need to!

One thing I haven't been sure about is how aggressive to get about starving.  A lot of my non league games recently have been against a group of players who are a LOT better than me and they consistently delight in punishing me if I take any risks with regards to food.  I don't know that this is a great play for them generally because I come last anyway so punishing me likely isn't that relevant, but I suspect they can't stop themselves.  There is certainly something delightful in watching someone swing in the wind because they took some foolish risks.  These players are a solid 300 Elo points ahead of me so I get mashed every time.

In my league games against much weaker players though I am regularly taking all kinds of risks and it keeps paying off.  On multiple occasions I decided to take an aggressive action to get points knowing that if the other players just took food from the board I would be screwed when it came to feeding time, and in every case the food wheeled around to me and I got out of the situation unscathed.

I suspect this is an issue when it comes to training.  Playing against players who won't punish me for overextending certainly lets me rack up higher scores but when I end up against superior players again I will likely end up falling back into risky plays that end up with me begging for food.

On the other hand taking those risky plays is paying off, and makes it more likely that I will be able to win my games now and move further up the ladder to actually get to those games against the better players. 

One thing that is new this season is I am trying completely different strategies in all my games.  I don't have any occupations the same between my games so it is all different.  In previous season I managed to draft 3 copies of the same occupation so my games were either defined by trying to get to stone house really fast to drop Manservant or taking a lot of day labourer to maximize Seasonal Worker.  This time I just took whatever was the best and ended up with a mishmash, so each game is different.  I think I learn better when I have multiple games with the same profession because I can really dig into what makes it work or not, but I certainly don't get quite the breadth of experience that I am getting this time.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A filthy cheater

I am cheating on my gamer spouses.  Gloomhaven is a game that you gain real advantage from playing through multiple times because you learn what to expect in various encounters and can plan ahead.  As such people who play as a group have some reason to want their partners to remain faithful and not play with anyone else... but I am not going to do that.  Gloomhaven promiscuity, here I come.

I have been playing a second campaign on tabletop simulator with Oldhobo and it is being a blast.  Normally computer supported board games are a lot faster than the manual kind because everything is automated but that is not true in this case.  It is just as annoying to do many things, and there are a few outliers here and there each way.  Shuffling is easier, but searching for stuff is harder.

I wonder if Naked Man is worried that I will leave him for Oldhobo.  I am quite able to maintain multiple Gloomhaven relationships at a time, in the same way that I maintain romantic relationships at the same time, but Naked Man seems more jealous of exclusivity than Wendy is.

My last scenario with Oldhobo was quite the joke.  We killed everything in the entire place except for a single super slow golem that had a ton of health and was laconically making its way towards us after we dashed past it to the final room.  We got our combat goals, left only 2 coins in the whole dungeon, and were never in anything even resembling danger.

I think a lot of that ease was due to my combat abilities lining up particularly well against the dungeon.  I had a pair of abilities that did a single damage AOE, and this AOE ignores shields because you don't actually pull cards for it.  One of the major challenges of the dungeon was that there were a bunch of enemies with high shields and 2 health, so the ability to pop off my 1 damage AOEs and just instantly end them was devastating.

I can't quite tell yet how much of Gloomhaven success is based around having just the right class for a particular encounter.  I know in my main Gloomhaven game I absolutely butchered a group of Retaliating enemies by popping a big Retaliate and Shield on myself and standing in the middle of them - single cards are not usually supposed to deal 10 damage and prevent 10 damage to me!  Many other classes struggle facing those enemies but I just laughed at them and mowed them down.

I do like that the way you handle particular groups of enemies is still being fresh and exciting even after many encounters.  I haven't seen anywhere near all the stuff yet and even just simple combinations of things I have already done require lots of thinking and creativity.

However, the one thing I am appreciating more and more as time goes by is automatic damage.  Enemies with lots of shields and retaliate really make it clear that effects with low numbers that can ignore enemy mechanics are super powerful and you need some of them in your toolbox.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Dungeon crawls are hard. Sometimes there is fire.

In my last Gloomhaven game I made a critical error.  I tried to get too tricky and it cost my team dearly.  (Minor spoilers for a single Gloomhaven card ahead!) On our way to the dungeon we drew an encounter card and it talked about how we were walking through the woods when we noticed all kinds of forest animals running towards us rather than away from us.  Then we noticed the smell of burning.  Should we keep going, or run away like all the animals are doing?

I thought it was a trick.  Obviously this is *supposed* to be a forest fire.  But that is too easy a solution.  Surely it is something else instead, like a dragon.  We could go kill the dragon and get loot!

Thinking this I voted to just keep on going.  My group was extremely hesitant and some argued against me, but eventually the majority prevailed and we forged on into danger.

There was no trick.  It was a forest fire and we all burned.  If we had run we would have had a small disadvantage because of being tired, but going straight into the fire cost us a perk, 3 damage, and the wounded condition.

This is *horrible*.  Our group has a hit point total of 37, and the damage and wounded conditions all together cost us about 28 health.  Ouch!  Not only that, but the lost perk means that we are all slightly worse forever.  What a punch in the groin that was.

The dungeon was not particularly difficult and had we just walked in without any penalty, or if we had just run away from the fire, it would have been a straightforward smashing.  Instead we struggled throughout the dungeon trying to cope with our starting damage and desperately needing more healing than we had access to.  It was a rough finish, with two of our characters exhausting out and a third on the brink of falling over.  I had a fair number of cards left though so even if it had come down to me vs. the last monster I would have beaten it up handily.

Still, we haven't come that close to losing since our first outing where we really had no idea what we were doing and cheated in the monsters' favour a lot.

I guess I should really start respecting the encounter cards and take them at face value.  So far every one of them has rewarded reasonable decisions.  You usually get screwed both ways, but generally the cards have punished us in ways that made sense and were predictable.  Everything that happens is bad, but it can be less bad if you decide appropriately. 

I keep thinking they are trying to be tricky and I keep being wrong, so I suppose it is time to start making obvious, sensible decisions.


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.