Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Battle with a door

In my last DnD session we had quite the kerfuffle with initiative.  The problem was that we kept swapping in and out of combat time and then had to keep figuring out what initiative was again.  This is a real issue with turn based combat, though normally you just navigate a single switch from simultaneous to turn based time and then you are good to go.

The situation was our party had opened a door into a room with several hidden enemies in it.  We made our Perception roll to notice the hidden enemies and so combat began.  Normally this would be fine - we fight, and either we die or they die.

But not this time!  This time we cast Darkness, and our singular party member who can see through the darkness began shooting arrows at the enemies.  The rest of us just hid as rushing out past the darkness into unknown foes seemed foolish.  The enemies, not wanting to run into the darkness against unknown foes, just sat there.  After a couple rounds of getting peppered with arrows one of the enemies had the bright idea of running up to the door that my group had opened and closing it.

So now combat isn't happening anymore.  The two groups are back on either side of the door.  The enemies wanted to ready actions to shoot us if they could see us, and we wanted to do the same.  But both sides sitting there for extended periods readying actions doesn't work at all well.  It makes for a very silly situation when finally somebody breaks the stalemate, that is for certain, and once you have had multiple rounds of everybody reading actions and nothing happening it feels like you have to break combat time.

But then what do you do to get back into combat time?  Cancel all readied actions, for sure, then reroll initiative, I guess?  But who goes first is a total mess, because nobody can do anything until somebody opens that door.  And the person we wanted to open the door... do we just start at their initiative?  Roll after the door opens?  It is all a mess.

What ended up happening is quite beyond the basic rules.  One of us opened the door, the other moved into their space simultaneous with the door opener moving back.  Then the person moving forward grabbed an enemy and dragged them into the water in the room ahead of us.  Our third person rushed into the room, I used my readied action to turn them into a giant crocodile, and the crocodile ate a dark elf.  We broke at least three rules in that single turn.

And then we spent awhile rolling dice while a crocodile got stunned by a mind flayer but still kept that pesky dark elf in its jaws.  And our monk had fun drowning a dark elf and then swimming away from a giant octopus.  It was funny though - we spent half of our time in that fight passing turns, reading actions we knew wouldn't go off, and the other half actually doing fun stuff.  It feels like we should police ourselves, somehow, and insist that nobody take powerful actions that lead us into stupid rules situations.

Normally I would yell about my solutions to this mess of swapping back and forth to combat time.  But I just don't have one - it is an ugly consequence of turn based combat and I don't see a way out.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Hating those postal workers

I am partway done my Thurn and Taxis league games and all is well so far.  Last season I won my way up to league 2, and I was concerned that this would prove an extremely difficult test.  I am sure I have played less T&T than most of my opponents, as I have only played in the online leagues and the heats and semis at the world boardgaming championships.

But my worries were unfounded, or so the evidence suggests.  I won 2 games so far, one of them an absolutely brutal smashing 31 - 18 - 12 - 6.  I rewound through the game to see if I constantly just mized into the best cards for me and it didn't seem outrageous.  I suspect that the reason for my domination was that I got a bunch of perfectly solid routes and did all the things, and some of the stuff my opponents had to do to not trash their routes were really bad.  I definitely threw some plays in the trash, with a bit of meandering about the board, but it was at worst a solid play with a bit of waste.  I never had a 7 route that only put 3 houses on or anything like that.

T&T is one of those games where I can't quite figure out how to play properly.  I know that really good players win very consistently and yet it so often feels like I win or lose based on the exact card I need flipping up at the start of my turn.  Clearly skill mitigates much of that randomness, but how precisely you do that isn't something I can articulate.  I am doing well in a competitive league though so clearly something in my brain knows how to play T&T.  I just can't tell you what it is I do!

One thing I have noticed this season is defensive plays that I would not have expected.  In particular I have seen people scooping up a second copy of Pilsen that they have no intention of playing just to jam the other players from completing their rainbow.  It also prevents red/orange completion to of course but that is less common and so far less important.

You can see this on the board above - if you take all the copies of Pilsen then nobody can get to Lodz and thus cannot get the brown component of the rainbow.  That is good an all, but the question is does it actually make you win?  Tossing away an action is worth roughly 1 point as games mostly give players about 16 turns, which is 24 actions, and the winner gains about 45 points.  So the question becomes:  Is losing 1 point worth it when you cost other people points? 

Mostly what you will cost other people is 4-5 points for completing their rainbow, but the trick is that they can mitigate this.  Instead of focusing on the rainbow they can aim to complete other colours instead.  Swapping to a plan of completing beige when Lodz is blocked is a fine way to gain points, particularly since most of the beige towns are low priority.  Considering this you will have to assume that the real effect of your action is far below the 4-5 points they technically lose.

The other problem is that you might not succeed in your block.  If you have to place Pilsen as part of a route (and you bloody well need to, if you have two copies of it in your hand!) then the second time through the deck people will end up with another shot at it.  The only way to crush people really thoroughly is to keep those copies of Pilsen in your hand until the deck reshuffles and that is going to destroy your game to a far greater extent than a single point.  If you lose your point randomly stealing a card from other people but they manage to get their points later in the game anyway you are losing.

I think the best way to think about this is that a Pilsen block costs somebody about 3 points.  You aren't even necessarily sure which somebody, and you also usually don't know for sure that it costs them 3 points.  That is a pretty rubbish play, in my mind.  You don't win 4 player games by losing 1 point to randomly punish another player for 3 points, particularly when the punish isn't certain.  Somebody else is going to play greedy, dodge your punish, and beat you.

However, I do think that there are places where you can maximize your investment.  For example, if somebody grabs Lodz early in the game on spec you can snatch the last Pilsen and put them in a bind.  Either Lodz clogs their hand until the deck reshuffle, which is awful, or they chuck it and waste their own turn.  This is a much bigger punish and you can target it at the person who you think is the biggest threat.  Of course I don't think strong players will usually let themselves get stuck in a position where this sort of block is viable.

Generally I see the option to flush the up cards and generate a new pile to draw from as a much more powerful option if you want to hate people.  It is often possible to ditch multiple key cards at once, and if you do it right you can hit several people at once.  You don't keep the cards hidden safely in your hand of course but you can get more of them, and it might be just the move you want to do anyway.

Thinking about this I have decided that I shouldn't bother trying to punish people unless the punish is responding to specific board state and targetted.  Randomly snagging copies of Pilsen (or Lodz, or Sigmaringen, or whatever) just isn't worth it unless you are going to get good use out of that second copy yourself.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018


My Agricola league is winding down, and I have a bone to pick with the game.  In my best game of the round so far I won 57-43-35-34.  A big win, for sure, and my highest Agricola score to date.  Naturally, it included the Braggart.

Braggart is one of those cards that wrecks games.  In the game I linked I had 8 improvements out, and while one of them was pointless that only cost me a single action for 2 points.  The rest were all fine on their own.  At the end of the game the Braggart got me 7 points, and if you subtract the 2 points I lost by putting down additional improvements the Braggart is still worth 5.  That is just too much, especially for a profession that I was able to slap down on the last turn of the game and that my opponents could not play around or predict.

I didn't even manage to maximize the Braggart, only because on the last turn of the game I wasn't able to get down my 9th improvement, the Herb Garden.  It just isn't appropriate to have one card generate that many points just because I did the thing I wanted to do anyway:  Build lots of stuff.

In this game the Braggart didn't really matter.  If I hadn't had it I would have ended with a score of 53, still a full 10 points above the next person.  Still, if it had been close it would have been crushing for people to watch me suddenly rocket to victory with a card you can't stop.

In my other game which is still ongoing (so no advice please), my opponent just dropped the Braggart for 7.  They might even ratchet it up to the full 9 points.  I was absolutely certain of victory before that happened, and now I am worried.  I was ahead by 21, and now the number is 14.  My opponent having a ton of wood to do a massive fence action means that 14 is not nearly big enough a cushion for my liking.  I went from a crushing victory to counting which cards they could have that beat me.  It just isn't right that I keep looking at games, analyzing who is winning, making plays to keep the people on my tail away from victory, all the while knowing that if somebody happens to have the Braggart all my calculations are out the window.

Even if I lose the game where my opponent dropped Braggart I am still guaranteed to advance this time.  I have three wins in, including the one linked at the top, and also this one where I managed to hold onto a 38 - 35 - 34 - 31 victory.  That game I feel like I just didn't play well, as my food plan didn't come together.  I had to take 2, 2, and 3 food even though I played two food based professions.  I am not sure what I should have done, but obviously it wasn't what I did.  Nobody dropped the Braggart though, so my plans got me a reasonable close victory.  (If you do have criticisms of my choices in the game, do let me know, I am curious.)

My final victory came in this 47 - 36 - 32 - 29 win.  I played Stonecutter and then dropped all the stone things.  One opponent played the Braggart for 9 points, but my lead was so big that I won anyway.  Of course if they don't have the Braggart they probably finish at about 32 instead of 36, and if I have the Braggart I could easily get to 54.  So them having the Braggart instead of me was likely worth me winning by 22 instead of me winning by 11. 

I understand that a group of Agricola experts I know uses the rule that Braggart must be your first profession if you draft it.  Once you have played another profession you can't Braggart.  I like that idea because dropping it early means people can try to take improvements away from you and your early play doesn't help you get resources or compete for rooms and people.  It is a massive tempo loss.  Also people know how many points you will have and can make plays with that in mind.  Still often worth it, based on your cards, but at least it doesn't completely upend games on the final turn. 

The Braggart is such a mess.  Sure, I beat it twice, but in both cases it was an absurd card and totally flipped the board when it landed.  That is reasonable for a card you have to play early and which doesn't generate tempo, but ridiculous for something that lands at game end.  Plus even if it didn't let the players who dropped it win, it still made the person dropping it come a clean second instead of fighting for 2nd/3rd/4th.  I wish boiteajeux didn't include it in the set, no doubt about that.

Friday, June 29, 2018

A family affair

I bought my own copy of Gloomhaven.  Naked Man continually accuses me of cheating on his Gloomhaven group, and now it isn't just limited to cyber cheating - I am cheating in person.  Sweat, groans, hours of grinding and all.

Pinkie Pie was intrigued by the gigantic size of Gloomhaven and wanted to play, so we began a game with just the two of us.  I had intended to give her the Scoundrel as a starting class because it has a pretty easy path to competence.  There are many things you can do to be superb, but if all the Scoundrel player does is move next to an enemy and do a stabby thing each turn they will be pretty good, and I can pick up the slack.

Of course that didn't work.  Pinkie Pie saw the Spellweaver and wanted to blast things with magic!  Pew Pew!  Unfortunately the Spellweaver has a complicated base set of cards that requires you to really understand the cycle of resting, and the penalty for screwing it up is severe.  This is fine if you are a gaming veteran who can pick things up on the fly but I was concerned that Pinkie Pie would flub it big time.

It went fine!

We played on Easy difficulty to start as Pinkie Pie hasn't played before and I know how she is - she will want to pick up every piece of treasure and will wander around randomly instead of maximizing her beatdown.  She doesn't have that deep seated desperation to get her numbers as high as humanly possible like I do.  This may be a good thing for her, now that I think about it.

At any rate Easy difficulty was no problem for us.  She had the Battle Goal of gaining 7 or less experience and she made that no problem - she only got 2.  Of course I would have rather liked it if she had used her powerful nukes more often and gotten more experience, but honestly I can't complain about the result.  We were super efficient about gathering up the loot too, so we were both very happy with what we got out of the dungeon.  I had to work pretty hard to deal enough damage to complete the scenario but in the end it was enough.  We did have an issue that she ran into a room by herself, ran into melee with the enemies, and then blocked the only spot which I could attack from.  This is, obviously, not an ideal situation for a squishy caster to be in.  It will take some time for her to figure out the strategy, that is sure.

It looks like this may be an ongoing thing for us.  Pinkie Pie loves the idea of family game nights and I think I prefer doing Gloomhaven over running RPGs, at least with this group.  Part of the thing I really like when GMing RPGs is sitting back and letting the players roleplay amongst one another and talk things out, but with only Wendy and Pinkie Pie, I am pretty much on for the entire night and that is tiring.

Education can take many forms, and I think in my household it will take the form of a lot of strategy gaming.  Not much good for reciting facts certainly, but I think it is quite a solid way to keep her brain engaged and thinking and that has its own use.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Dead is still the best status condition

In my last Gloomhaven scenario I was not particularly effective.  I am playing the Brute and my intention when I selected the Brute was to tank, but in this scenario I wasn't able to do that because the enemies were largely ranged and so my attempts to use Retaliate and Shield effects didn't work.  (I can only Retaliate against melee attacks.)

When I first picked up the game I figured that I could build a tank much like you can in other fantasy adventure games.  I was not impressed with the Brute's tanking options however because I simply didn't see enough damage mitigation.  Sure, I can put up a Shield ability, but it usually will only save me 2-3 damage, and sometimes not even that.  This isn't much good because healing effects are just as strong as that and they require less in the way of setup and positioning to work.  What I was hunting for was some way to mitigate a LOT of damage so I could just stand there and take it, and Gloomhaven simply doesn't offer that as an option.

I went online to see if other people had the same experience and the experts all said that tanking is just a bad idea in Gloomhaven.  If you are in a 2 or 3 person group it is just wretched, and if you are in a 4 person group it is merely suboptimal.  The Brute is still a fine class, you just have to build it to beat down, not to tank.

The class is still good at taking hits though.  I still have the highest health, and putting on heavy armour and using the perk that negates armour penalties is fantastic.  Doing that means I am far tougher than anyone else and it doesn't cost me much at all in terms of offence.  The thing I have to avoid is thinking that my job is to Shield damage and Retaliate against enemies.  It just isn't that good on average.  Retaliating *can* be really powerful at times.  There are some melee enemies that take many weak swings at you and in those cases Retaliating for 2 damage on each swing is ludicrous.  The problem is that much of the time Retaliating is total rubbish.  Maybe the enemies are ranged, maybe they heal this turn instead of attacking, or maybe they attack somebody else.  Retaliate is simply unreliable, and Shield is the much the same (though Shield applies to ranged attacks.)

What is far better is consistent beatdown.  I just need to apply a lot of regular damage as fast as possible.  This is something that I often struggled to get across to people when building strategies in WOW - when the group dies, many people call for more healers or more tanking, when what they actually need to do is kill the damn enemies quicker so that nobody will need any healing.  Retaliate certainly is good for highlight reels but packing your deck with cards that assume that you are going to get hit a ton is just not as good as packing it full of cards that murder the enemies first.

I really like this conclusion.  One of the problems with many fantasy RPGs is that somebody has to tank and somebody has to heal.  Many times people don't want to do that, they want to bash and have fun!  In Gloomhaven you can set yourself up to be tough, which is good, but dedicated tanks that don't do anything aren't actually the best path.  The ideal strategy is to pack enough defence that you can survive the hits you can't avoid taking, and kill the enemies fast enough that those are the only hits you take.  Maybe you survive those hits by going Invisible, maybe you survive by dodging away, or maybe you have a lot of armour and health like the Brute.

I really enjoy a system that has a lot of customization like Gloomhaven does but which avoids hard roles.  You can spec for certain styles or combos but nobody is forced into a pure role where you only have one function.  You all have to deal damage, avoid damage, and assist your teammates in some way or other.

Now I just have to cope with the fact that my item selections were based on the assumption of being super tanky.  Time to vendor some stuff and buy new gear for smashery, I think.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Big jumps

My DnD group just levelled up to level 2.  My character gained 67% more HP, 100% more healing, and about 80% increased damage.  Funny thing is that while I got a lot better, my increase in power over level 1 wasn't even close to the power increase our druid got.  My healing, for example, went from 5 to 10, but hers went from 17 to ~84.  She also has a shapeshift form that increases her damage by 300%, just for fun.  She went from a weak melee attacker with healing spells to being by far the toughest character we have and she dishes out far more damage than anyone else.  I know that druids with this ability are supremely broken at level 2 and it smooths out from there on out, but at this point it is kind of absurd.

This feels like way too much of an increase to me.  Specifically the trouble is that the GM absolutely must control who the party fights ruthlessly if the game is to work.  If a level 1 party goes off the beaten path and runs into a level 2 encounter they will likely get mulched.  A level 1 encounter for a level 2 party is going to be a cakewalk.  The difference in power is just so enormous that if you set up encounters to be challenging you absolutely cannot allow groups to run into the wrong encounter.

That to me feels like a real design flaw.  I get that level 1 is supposed to be a training level, and it isn't supposed to last very long.  It isn't meant to be a place you hang around.  Still, I wish that you didn't have to control them so hard, and after they level up once or twice, throw out all the encounters that worked for level 1 because they aren't worth running at higher levels.

A big part of this problem in my particular group is the issue of transforming into stuff.  I have consistently found that things that polymorph people are an endless source of fun and an equally endless source of balance problems.  It is a great time to turn into a bear and maul people but it always seems to turn out that the monster manual contains a bear, or dire wolf, or stone giant, etc. that has stats that are a huge problem.  Somebody inevitably finds something that breaks the system, as our druid did, and then the rest of the group stands around wondering why they are even along.

I have a similar issue in my other campaign where I am a level 7 wizard with polymorph.  What can I turn into?  This is an important question.  If I can be a beast with a ranged attack that is extremely powerful.  If I can pick that beast that happens to have way more AC or damage than is appropriate then I can do ridiculous things that are wildly unfair.

Naked Man has ruled that I can't turn into something I haven't seen.  But which beasts have I seen?  His first response was that I can turn into what I have seen during the campaign, but that list is nearly empty.  It has only been a couple months from level 1 to level 7!  Plus I am playing an elf that is hundreds of years old and has wandered the world as a smuggler for most of that duration, prior to becoming an adventurer.  Wouldn't I have seen all kinds of crazy stuff?  And if so, I need a list telling me every single thing I could turn into, because otherwise we have to have an argument each time I go to use the spell.

The system DnD uses for this is just begging for abuse.  The monster manual providing character power is a problem, and they should have avoided it.  In the case of a druid they could have done something like giving the druid bonuses to physical stats based on the type of animal they turn into - more strength from a bear, more dexterity from a ferret, etc, but keep their base stats.  Or they could have supplied stat blocks for various forms separate from animals in the monster manual.  But the current thing is a total mess.

People like turning into animals and polymorphing stuff.  I get that.  I just think that if you are going to let people do that you should find some reasonable way to control it so it doesn't go off the rails, and DnD has failed at that.  Again.  Because they always do.  (Except in 4th edition.  Props for that.  Slops for going back to this foolishness again for 5th edition.)

People also like power increases.  But do we really need to increase power quite so much in a single level?  I feel like there has to be a way to tone it down some to avoid this thing where once you level up all the previous challenges just fade away into irrelevance.

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.