Wednesday, March 14, 2018


A few new cards from the latest Hearthstone expansion have come out, and one in particular really caught my attention:  Azalina Soulthief.

Whether or not the card is good I will definitely say it is cool.

But is it good?

I think the answer is that it can be, but only in really narrow circumstances.

The stats on it are so low that it can only be useful if it is generating a ton of cards for you.  That is only going to happen if you empty your hand and then get a bunch of cards from your opponent, who presumably is hoarding cards.  So the only possible use is in a deck that wants to empty its hand and then use whatever the opponent has against them.

The trouble is that the cards you get are going to be completely worthless much of the time.  If your opponent is running a combo deck you rate to get some of their combo but not all of it, and since you won't have the cards to complete the combo this will be mostly garbage.  If you get cards that have a lot of synergy with their deck those cards with also be extra weak because you lack that synergy.  If the metagame is full of high synergy or combo decks Azalina is just going to be trash.

However, if the metagame is full of decks that are just running a bunch of good cards and lean towards midrange or control strategies then Azalina could be really good.  You would want to play it in a deck that runs cheap cards, aims for aggression, but can close out the game with a variety of tools.   Some classes work well in this way, and others do not.

For example, Paladin aggro decks close out the game with minion attacks.  If you get a bunch of defensive minions, board clears, and healing from your opponent's cards it will do you little good.  However, if you are playing Hunter then you have a hero power that will slowly end the game for you and you don't have to necessarily push minion damage so stalling the game out may work out just fine.

Another consideration is that this is a legendary, so if your deck relies on drawing it then you are in a bad way.  You can't build an aggressive deck around the assumption that you will always draw the single card you need to finish opponents off, because you either build it to run out of stuff on turn seven in which case you are dead if you don't draw Azalina, or you build it to have lots of stuff to do after turn seven, in which case Azalina is bad.  The way to solve this is to find another card that fills a similar niche and gives your otherwise aggressive deck a way to find a lot of value in the endgame.  Again hunter seems like the ideal solution because you can use DK Rexxar, a card that has dramatically different mechanics but fills the same role.

In most classes Azalina simply isn't any good.  It will be used for fun meme decks but won't make a dent in serious play.  In an aggressive Hunter deck though I think it has real potential as the second refill / value card after DK Rexxar.

Even then I think it is only good in an environment with lots of midrange and controlly decks.  It is bad vs. combo, bad vs. aggro, and bad vs. intense synergy. 

There exists a metagame where Azalina is good.  I would bet against it, but I wouldn't bet the farm because there are definitely ways for it to shine, even if the odds are against.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

One less axis of incompetence

Hearthstone is doing something really neat with its draft format called Arena.  In Arena right now the player is shown a set of 3 cards, chooses 1, and then does that 29 more times to make a 30 card deck.  The sets of 3 are all of the same rarity - common, rare, epic, and legendary.  That sameness of rarity does basically nothing though because rarity in Hearthstone has little effect on card quality or type.

When choosing cards you have to account for two things - first, how good is the card in a vacuum, and second, how good is the card in the deck that you have.  Bonemare is really powerful, but since it costs 8 mana you simply can't load up with 6 of them because you will lack early plays.

Hearthstone just announced an intriguing change to the system.  Instead of grouping card picks by rarity they are grouping them by power level.  Blizzard is going to figure out how good cards are in Arena and then offer 3 cards that are all similarly powerful.  You will still have to figure out how well the card matches your deck, but you will not have to worry about raw power.

Right at the outset this will clearly reduce the skill in deckbuilding substantially.  You will still have to manage your mana curve and make sure your deck has the cards it needs but people are not going to pass up high powered cards by accident anymore.  In particular someone who only dabbles in Arena will have a massive advantage because they are likely to be aware that they need a good curve and should have some specific bases covered like AOE, big removal, etc but they will often not be sure which specific cards are of the most use in Arena.  The system will now take care of that for them.

I would expect to see win rates for the top players to go down when this system arrives.  Obviously poor players can still find lots of ways to lose games but one axis of incompetence will be removed and that will matter a great deal.

That isn't a criticism.  Just a fact.  I don't mind the system being changed this way, and I expect the rubes will like it a lot.

A couple of obvious notes need to be made.  Clearly in a system where card quality varies a lot from card to card an average pick will be much better than an average card.  If all cards are rated from 1-100 then your average pick will be ~70 or something like that because you get the best of 3.  However, in the new system cards will all be the same tier so Blizzard will need to substantially reduce the occurrence rate of really trash tier cards or we will regularly be picking between cards that are nearly worthless.  They say they are going to do this but no numbers have been supplied so we can't yet know if overall deck quality is going up or down.

Blizzard also hasn't said if they are going to control for overall deck quality.  Is it going to be possible to be offered 30 sets of absolutely awesome cards, or 30 sets of trash?  If not, how tight is the system going to be?  They could easily make it so that every player gets offered a specific number of picks in each tier of cards to make sure that each deck has similar potential, like so if all cards are ranked 1 to 100:

90+  2 picks
80+  4 picks
70+  5 picks
60+  6 picks
50+  5 picks
40+  3 picks
30+  2 picks
20+  1 pick
10+  1 pick
0+    1 pick

This arrangement gives you a deck that is similarly powerful to current ones, but makes sure that every deck gets a few bombs and a few duds.  There will still be substantial variance in deck effectiveness because of mana curves and specific utility but it will cut the variance in the system hugely from the current situation.

One other interesting question is how they will handle the dramatic differences in class power.  If a warrior has few powerful cards then potentially they just get bad decks - this is the current system.  However, in the system I outlined above it would simply give warriors lots of neutral bombs to make up for the lack of powerful class cards they have.  I don't advocate for all classes to be the same by any means, but I do like the idea of closing the gap that currently exists between the power level of classes in Arena.

Hopefully they will announce more details on this shortly so we can see where they are headed.  In any case I think these are fine changes, but without more details I can't be sure if I love the new direction or merely tolerate it.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Enter mine, fight

I am continuing to do regular family RPG nights.  Pinkie Pie is always excited to play, but playing with her often has me scrambling to figure out what to do.  She seizes on things and insists on following them to the end at times that I simply do not expect.  For example, in the last session the party decided to go explore a mine that I had put on a map in an earlier adventure.  The mine wasn't important at all, and the only information they had was that the mine was long abandoned and no longer profitable.

But at some point in the past Pinkie Pie had asked what was in the mine and I made a joke about it being infested with bearsharks.  That is, a monster with the body of a bear and the head of a shark.  It was out of character, obviously silly, and not intended to be taken seriously.

Pinkie Pie was determined to go to that mine and see if there were bearsharks in it.

So off they went.  They didn't find any bearsharks but they did find some dwarves who had enslaved other dwarves and were working the mine.  The characters had some hilarious discussions with the dwarves and then eventually decided to insist on the slaves being freed and violence ensued, as it so often does in fantasy stories.

When designing adventures I like to throw in lots of side stuff.  People that aren't necessarily important, places that the characters don't need to visit.  I think the game is a lot more fun if things that aren't plot critical still get fleshed out.  I hadn't intended that the mine be a thing the characters did, though I had the basic premise sketched out of what would happen if they did go there.

This is one of the things that gets a lot better with time.  Eventually a GM can get a lot better at figuring out what random stuff their group will seize upon and follow up so the preparation can be more efficient.

Pinkie Pie has a powerful magic item that she wants to activate so I assume she would be all about chasing down that storyline.  Instead she was all about going into an empty hole in the ground.

I have some things to learn yet, it would seem.

Friday, March 2, 2018

A spot of fame

This week I was contacted by a person I have never met before by the name of Jonathan Nadeau to do an interview on his podcast.  Apparently he found me on where my game Camp Nightmare is available to buy and decided that he wanted to chat with me about the game and share it with the world.

What a strange and wonderful world we live in that things like this just happen!  The internet!

Today we did the interview.  That itself was pretty much what you would expect as we spent half an hour talking about the way the game plays, how the theme works, and what is cool or unique about it.

The podcast can be found here:

The podcast featuring me isn't there yet, but it will be sometime in the next week or so.  If you like the idea of podcasts about indie games feel free to browse - I can't say much about it as I haven't listened to much of it but learning about all kinds of new games seems entertaining.

The sorts of questions the host asked were definitely familiar to me.  I have talked about the game to all kinds of people so it was easy to do that again in a slightly different setting.  I enjoyed the chat as I like talking about how the game plays and why I made it that way.

It turns out that Jonathan is also working on launching a new website that aims to bring together a community of people interested in new games.  The idea would be that they would feature a new game every day, help the author promote it, and take a cut of the gross orders.

This is one of those ideas that I think is cool and a lot of people I know might be interested in it.  Unfortunately I don't think the financials make any sense for me.  If I took part I would still have to order my copies from, take delivery, then ship them out again to all the people who order.  At $35 a pop for the game, plus $10 to deliver, plus the cut for the website, I would need to sell them at $50 each just to break even.  The game doesn't have that much in it so I would be surprised if I could get significant orders at that value, and even then I am taking risks and making zero profit for a considerable amount of work.

Lots of work for no pay seems like a poor deal.

If I sold them for $60 a pop I could make money, but only if nothing goes wrong, and $60 for a small game like that is a real stretch, especially when you can just order it directly from for cheaper than you order it from me.

It seems to me that if I really wanted to do a ton of work I could use this opportunity to possibly get my game into the hands of a few more people - perhaps dozens, perhaps hundreds.  But that just isn't so appealing to me.  I am happy that the game exists, and increasing the copies in existence from 100 to 200 doesn't change my life or happiness in any way.  If I could change that 100 value to 100,000 then we would be talking!  Even ignoring the money that would have a real impact.

So while I like the idea of the website I don't think it is a good idea for me to get involved in it, except possibly as a customer.

Monday, February 26, 2018

So little money

The DnD campaign I am involved in right now has the characters in a big city where we can finally spend all that sweet, sweet gold that we acquired while pillaging dungeons.  However, now that we are in that city trying to spend all of our gold a bunch of weirdness surrounding money has come to the fore.  For example, when we walked up to the town gate the guard became convinced that we were adventurers and that we thus had gobs of cash.  He demanded a 5 gold piece bribe to let us into the city.  To be clear, this is probably a week's wages for him.  I am trying to imagine a guard demanding a thousand dollar bribe just to let someone into a city in today's money and it is blowing my mind. 

It is especially funny to imagine that somehow he knows that we have lots of money since our characters don't dress the part.  One of us looks like a cleric in armour, another looks like a merchant, and the last two look like scruffy travellers, perhaps low end bodyguards.  However, in this world there are lots of people who professionally wander into caves and emerge with sacks gold under their arms, and for some reason the caves never run out of gold.  An economy of immensely rich murderhobos who never run out of caves to loot makes no sense whatsoever, but in that context anyone who can detect the outrageous wealth of said murderhobos is going to do very well indeed.

I do remember a passage in the old 2nd edition DnD manuals that talked about how adventurers who wander into a town with huge piles of gold are likely to upset the local economy and cause massive inflation, so this concept has been top of mind for DnD designers for decades.  Despite having all that time to come up with something else they still seem determined that every underground area should have enough money in it to completely warp whole cities, no matter how little sense that makes.

Naked Man decided at the start of this campaign to prevent such world warping by reducing the money we get by 90%.  We are going through a variety of published adventures and he has been giving us only 10% of the money that we are supposed to have acquired when the game listed a cash reward. This certainly has kept us from absurdities as I would have hired myself a substantial mercenary army and gone off to war if I had the amount of cash I am supposed to.  As it is I can't possibly afford to do anything meaningful in terms of mercenary hiring so I have to wait until we are higher level and the cash rewards get much larger.

One side effect of this cash shortage is the fact that the costs baked into being a Wizard class make me poor compared to my compatriots.  If you have 20,000 gold at level 6 then the 1,000 gold you spend on spellbooks isn't a huge problem.  If you have 2,000 gold though that 1,000 gold in unavoidable class costs is punitive!

I can't decide if a campaign this gold poor is better or worse than the standard version.  Both are ridiculous and money ceases to make any sense shortly into the game.  The amounts of cash we have on hand compared to the cost of living makes all normal expenses irrelevant and unless there is a return to the magic shops of old there is simply nothing to buy aside from land and titles.  In town we bought a couple of magic items, spending most of our cash, but I have no idea if the cost of magic items has been scaled down to match our lower income.  If it has, then there is no point in lowering income since we just buy the same stuff anyway, and if it hasn't then characters in normal campaigns must buy every item in the book by level 8.

The game itself is fun, and I like the players, but the money situation in DnD games is a joke.  The more I play it the more I like the abstract system in Heroes By Trade that both forgoes the bean counting and also ditches the idea that there is a professional class of 'adventurers'.  Characters going into dungeons and finding riches is a fine thing for fantasy gaming to be about, but a world built around lots of these folks living off of this as a normal thing makes the world feel absurd, and more importantly it really puts a damper on immersion.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Delve that dungeon

Last night I played the board game Above and Below for the first time.  At first glance the theme and mechanics looked perfect for me, as it is a worker placement game where you are playing a group of villagers who are trying to build a town while also exploring a dungeon beneath the town.  There are simple and predictable options like constructing buildings and recruiting new villagers and more random and complex options like going into the dungeon to see what you can find.

The art of the game is pretty and the icons are well made.  It is easy to figure out what cards do once you know the basics, so the production value is good.  Going into the dungeon involves randomly picking an encounter from over 100 choices, and then reading out the encounter just like a dungeon master might do in a DnD type game.  The flavour and variety of the encounters is good, so if you like that sort of thing you will enjoy the game.

Above and Below has some real problems though.  The first thing that struck me was how few women there were in the game.  Possibly there are lots of women in all the encounters I didn't run into, but it sure seemed like somebody forgot that the world has women in it when writing the game.  Poor form, that, to say the least, and sad because it is so bloody common in fantasy games of the past.

The second thing is that the dungeon delving part of the game is really random and that can be frustrating.  Sometimes people went into the dungeon and came out with great hauls, and sometimes they got absolutely screwed.  In a game that otherwise is about careful planning and worker placement it feels really strange to have this one section be so random.  I could easily understand if failing to win in the dungeon encounter was disastrous because then there is an element of risk management.  Send a powerful group into the dungeon, get good stuff, or split them into two weaker groups and hope you roll well - that is a choice.  But one time I went into the dungeon, passed the challenge, and got punished with a net loss anyway!

I suspect that for many people this would be a plus.  You read the silly encounters, make choices, roll your dice, and stuff happens.  Definitely for kids this is a fine game, and people who like Betrayal on the House on the Hill or games like that will probably enjoy it.  I just don't like that part of the game much, and honestly I don't know that it mixes well with the worker placement strategy portion of the game.  It feels like a mix of genres that doesn't quite work for me.

The final issue I had with the game is that the balance is way off.  I built a powerful engine that recruited all kinds of mighty heroes that went into the dungeon to fight.  I was easily able to overcome even the most powerful foes, and yet that didn't matter - the winner was someone who built an orchard and then sat there picking apples all game.  It turns out that apples are worth a lot more points than crushing monsters.  She didn't even enjoy the win because other people's turns were exciting adventures with at least some choice involved, while her turns were "I pick my apples.  Done."  Her strategy was powerful, but boring.  I don't much like games where the best strategy is really boring to play.

Also the designer obviously didn't think hard enough about how the cards work.  For example, you can recruit new villagers to do stuff for you but you need a bed for each one.  I bought a building with two beds and two new villagers to fill them by the end of turn 3, which is the fastest you could possibly do it.  The game is 7 turns long, so I got 4 turns of 2 actions each from my new people.  Gross benefit:  8 actions.  However, it took me 3 actions to set this up, and cost me 15 gold.  Net benefit:  5 actions, at the cost of 15 gold.  That is *terrible*.  I would have been ecstatic to be able to get 3 gold for an action, and here I was making that trade in reverse. 

The cards in the game that set up an engine are just trash.  What you want to do is just buy points.  I should have simply bought the expensive building that the winner eventually purchased to solidify her game and even though it wasn't that good for me I would have done much better had I done that instead.  I am completely okay with cards being situational and rarely used but I can't see any reason to buy the engine type cards ever, and that is a sad state.

The funny thing was that my strategy had the two experienced players at the table terrified.  They seemed convinced that I had so many villagers and so much stuff going on that I must be winning.  Problem was, I had bought a powerful engine, not points.  My cards *looked* exciting but didn't actually do anything, in fact they were terrible.

Above and Below is pretty, and graphically speaking well designed.  Unfortunately the game has massive balance problems, more randomness than I want, and the ideal strategy ignores most of the game and just buys points as fast as possible.  Not a game I will be returning to, I think, even though there is definitely a market for it.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018


Hearthstone has a troubled history with silence effects.  In the game silence removes all buffs, debuffs, and abilities of any kind, reducing the minion it targets to its base stats.  This is a difficult mechanic to balance correctly because it varies so wildly in power.  Right now silence effects are being run in a huge number of decks because there are a variety of really powerful cards that are absolutely ruined by silence.  While any kind of play needs some sort of counterplay I feel at the moment that silence effects are too good and are making the game worse.

One of the really fun things in Hearthstone is to try to make enormous minions with crazy abilities.  People really like trying to pull off their crazy thing but when they do it is regularly met with a silence effect that ends all the fun.  As an example, consider Carnivorous Cube:

This card is hilarious thematically, and really powerful.  You can bash your minion into an enemy, leaving it at 1 health, then eat it with the cube.  When the two new copies pop out, they are at full health!  That is a huge swing.  The problem is that when you try to do this the fun police show up and silence your cube, preventing the minion you killed from being spawned.  This massive loss of tempo is often game losing, so nobody uses the cube.

Except warlocks.  They use the cube.  Do you know why?
Warlocks use the cube in a deck called CubeLock, and the reason they do is because they can kill their own minions efficiently.  Playing the cube and then immediately killing it without giving the opponent a chance to silence it is a key part of this deck.  This is a ridiculous statement of the way the game works at the moment; a class can have a format defining minion that is only good because they can kill it *themselves* better than any other class can.

Two years ago we had a similar situation going on.  People were running Ironbeak Owl in way too many decks because it was a cheap 2/1 minion for 2 mana that silenced an enemy minion.  Blizzard didn't like how prevalent it was and how much it suppressed the fun and wacky stuff people wanted to do.  They nerfed Ironbeak Owl to cost 3 mana instead, and it hasn't been seen since.  At the time it was clear what the natural successor to Ironbeak Owl was - Spellbreaker.

Spellbreaker is 1 more mana for +2/+2 in stats, and is the new standard for silencing things.  In fact we see two copies of Spellbreaker in all kinds of decks, ready to be the fun police for anyone trying anything too entertaining.  Spellbreaker needs a nerf.  Not because it is especially overpowered, but because the fact that it gets run a lot just eliminates all kinds of fun and interesting stuff from the metagame.  You can't play a Lynessa Sunsorrow deck in any environment where there is a lot of silence, and I want Lynessa Sunsorrow to be good, dammit!

Lynessa isn't overpowered.  If you let people run all kinds of buff spells then she becomes a really powerful but vulnerable finisher.  She can still be killed by all kinds of single target removal, but at least that means people are running single target removal to stop big threats like her.  When she just gets demolished as a side effect of people running Spellbreaker for other reasons entirely that is a sad state of affairs.

Hearthstone is more fun when people get to try their big exciting things and get paid off.  If you want to avoid getting demolished by gigantic scary stuff then run cards like Assassinate or Deadly Shot.  I don't mind the silence cards that belong to classes like Hex, Polymorph, and Silence - at least those are deliberate choices that only some decks can use.  What I don't like is masses of silence effects out there raining on the parades of people wanting to play minions that aren't just big piles of stats.

I say this even though right now I am running Spell Hunter and silence effects are pretty much worthless against me.  Hell, I want every opponent to be running as much of it as possible so I can laugh at them.  But I do want a metagame where I can run Carnivorous Cube or Lynessa and have them be effective without me having to kill my own stuff right away.  I think Blizzard is going to come to the same conclusion and nerf Spellbreaker, most likely by increasing its mana cost to 5.  Good riddance.

(Yeah, yeah, aggro decks need Spellbreaker to cope with turn 6 Void Lord.  The problem in that scenario is Void Lord, so that may need to get addressed on its own.)