Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A wondering about identity

When I was at WBC playing Spirit Island I had to choose a spirit to play.  I immediately gravitated to a lightning spirit, one that obviously spent its time blowing up the enemies.  My cards all smashed and I had powerful AOE so it was clear my job was to PEW PEW.

I wasn't trying to build up.  I wasn't trying to do a combo.  I was purely going to beat down as hard as possible as fast as possible.

Thief said that he was not at all surprised at my choice, and seemed to think this is exactly the sort of thing I do.

Which is strange to me, because I see myself as a control player, not a beatdown player.  When I was playing Magic I constantly gravitated towards control decks, and in fact I was well known in my hometown as being *that guy* who just counterspelled everything you tried to do until my Serpent Generator snake tokens would eventually poison you to death.  I didn't take a controlling spirit type in the game of Spirit Island because I figured I would have to know how the games works to do that properly, but any fool can point lightning bolts at an enemy and watch them burn.

Today I was playing Hearthstone for the first time in awhile and I immediately built a control warlock deck.  Mostly people just conceded to me once I built a sufficiently large wall of taunts, but my final game tonight involved me killing everything.  I was up against an elemental mage who dropped Jaina early on and manufactured endless water elementals.  But finally in the end they played their last minion and I killed it and watched them die to fatigue.  There is nothing quite so satisfying as killing every last thing an opponent has and watching them just fade away to black.  YOU HAVE NOTHING.  I KILLED EVERYTHING!

Beatdown is never, ever as satisfying to me as that feeling of weathering every storm and watching an opponent crumble, flailing, with nothing left.

So I don't think I am a beatdown player.  And yet people who know me pretty well seem to think I gravitate towards beatdown styles.  I wonder if it is just Thief who thinks this, or if other people agree.

If anyone has an opinion on this, I am curious to hear it.  I think of myself as a total control style player, in virtually all games... but maybe I am not seeing myself objectively.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Burn the townspeople!

At WBC this year I was introduced to the game Spirit Island.  It is a coop game for 1 to 4 players that is not for beginners or casuals - this is a hardcore gamer's coop game.

I like it a lot.

There are a couple different axes upon which a game can succeed or fail and Spirit Island wins on all of them.  Firstly I look at theme.  Spirit Island is a game where players represent a variety of powerful nature spirits defending an island from invaders.  There are natives on the island who are the allies of the spirits, and the spirits need to protect the natives and keep the land from being blighted by the colonizers.  It all feels great.  The colonizers start off pushing further and further, but the spirits have just awakened and over time they get more and more powerful.  The game becomes a rush to see if the colonizers can take over and blight the land before the spirits become so powerful they wipe the colonies out.

The spirits have wildly varying mechanics and powers.  Some of them come out of the gate great, and don't have much ramp up, while others are slow to develop but go nuts when they hit their stride.  I only played once but it is clear you could play the game over and over with different spirits combinations and have all kinds of different play experiences.  The feel of the game absolutely hits the theme they are going for and it works.

Mechanically the game is complicated enough that I didn't even completely understand it after our first playthrough, which we won.  I picked a simple spirit to start off and figured out that my job was to blow stuff up.  I was a lightning spirit and it was clear that what I needed to do was blow up the towns put up by the colonists to keep them in check and hope that the other players would set up a long term plan and do something busted.  This is exactly how it played out - I fried people and houses with lightning, barely keeping a lid on things, and then eventually another player did something totally absurd and we won.  I don't know what he did really, but I am sure I would figure it out on my next couple plays.

The choices are well executed.  Figuring out what an ability does is easy.  Figuring out which is the best ability to use is HARD.  I can't speak to balance because I have played so little, but since the game comes with a ton of different difficulty settings I don't think it matters that much.  If you want to play busted spirits, then ratchet up the difficulty. 

I also love the game from a political standpoint.  So many games are themed around the idea of colonizing new lands.  Sometimes you have to murder the natives to do so, and other times you are just moving into 'empty' territory.  Of course 'empty' territory is a fantasy created by either pretending other people don't count, or conveniently forgetting genocides.  A game that explicitly flips the narrative and puts the players in charge of pushing back against colonial invaders is a thing we need more of.

I like the politics of anti colonialism.  I like the theme of magical spirits and I enjoyed the obvious flavour differences reflected in mechanics.  The simplicity of effects which still led to complex choices was well done.  The game is hard, and not for casual gamers, but this isn't a criticism, just a note, because I like coop games that require serious thinking.

Spirit Island gets a huge thumbs up from me, and I will be playing it again.

(Also I really liked the way I was taught the game.  I was given a simple spirit, a bare overview of the rules, and then we started playing.  I figured out how the game works as I went.  Much better than an hour of rules slog that I can barely remember.)

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Always a bridesmaid, never a bride

This past week I was at the world boardgaming championships.  Just like the last 2 years I met new people, had great social experiences, and played a lot of games.  Unlike the last 2 years I have no new plaques to bring home and put on a shelf to collect dust.

My performance this year was characterized by incredible consistency.  I made the semi finals in every single game I wanted to.  Then I played in those semi finals and got 2nd.  It is clear that I am pretty good, but apparently not great, at everything.

As is often the case in 4 player euro games the semi finals consistently had 3 strong players and 1 weaker player and the weaker player threw the game to one of the strong players - usually the one to their left.  This was the case in 4 of my 6 semi final games.  In the fifth game I just got beat straight up, and in the sixth I had a win locked up except a normally really tight player had a brain fart and tossed the game to someone else.

I feel okay about this.  I really would have liked to make some final tables but I feel like my play over the course of the week was consistently strong and my results show that I am good at many things.  I will get those event 1st place wins eventually, considering how often I end up having reasonable shots at them.

One thing I am extremely pleased about is my finish in Agricola.  That game is absolutely chock full of sharks and I smashed two of them in my heats.  I won so handily that I didn't even have to play the third heat.  In my semi final I built a crazy vegetable engine with Gardener, Schnapps Distiller, Schnapps Distillery, and Wine Closet to get me an early vegetable.  My people don't need food, they can survive just on alcohol alone!  Ferris beat me by 2, but I clobbered the other players real good.  That landed me with a fifth place overall and I can't complain about that.  I was close to final tabling and I feel good about my play.  There was just one critical point where I didn't build my room but took 2 reed instead, and this meant that I didn't grow on 7, but instead managed to grow on 8 and 9.  I don't know for sure that I did the wrong thing, but at the time I thought I probably should have grown on 7, if only to block Ferris from doing the same thing.

Puerto Rico has been consistent for me for the past 3 years.  In each year I did great in the heats, got into the semi, and came in 2nd.  At least this year it wasn't my team game so I didn't feel like I let everyone down by failing to win.  And this time I absolutely had the game if my cross position opponent took builder, which was his best play both selfishly and also from a position of wanting the guy who eventually won to not win.  It would have been better to lose to me by 1 than to lose to the eventually winner by 8!

I want to have a better plan to get points for my team next year.  The games I have been playing so far have a ton of positioning and random player variance and nobody is going to be good enough to just make the finals each year.  There are lots of good players and although skill matters, I would rather be the person to the left of the noob than be the best player at the table.  I am considering playing a few hundred games of Seven Wonders Duel to get good at that and to try to grab a trophy there.  I like the game and it would be nice to play something where if I lose I have only myself to blame.

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

Bragging

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.