Sunday, November 4, 2018

What to pitch

My last post talked about Gloomhaven and how to compare various potion effects.  Ferris commented that he hugely valued the extra turn a stamina potion can give, and he felt like just that effect alone was more effective than a healing potion for 3 health.  This made me think a lot about card efficiency so I am going to ramble a bunch about that.  The potions I was referencing look like this:

For this post I am going to just talk about low level content with the starting classes and equipment; the conclusions change dramatically at higher level.

There are multiple ways to get extra tempo in GH by losing cards.  The simplest is just pitching a card to avoid damage.  In the early going this is probably saving you about 4 damage.  It is fantastic for tempo as it does not require you to spend an action to do it, and that tempo is worth a full top action.  It also usually costs you about 3.5 turns of longevity.  It *could* cost you five turns if you do it at the outset of the game or as little as 1 turn at the end, but I am going to average to 3 here, assuming that you pitch that card when your next hand size would be 6 or 7.  That extra .5 of a turn is the penalty of losing an extra card from your hand, which shrinks your current number of turns by 0 or 1.

A lost card gives a bigger effect than a card pitch.  For example, the Brute has a solid Level 1 loss that saves 6 damage.  However, you have to actually play the card, so while it is better than a card pitch in power it loses you the ability to play another action.  This, if you accept the model above, is a loss of 3 turns in longevity for an effect that is about twice as good as a normal play.  Loss cards that grant attacks can't be as easily compared to pitching a card, but there is a model of card efficiency that can help us.  Lost cards are usually twice as good as used cards, whether they are defensive or offensive. 

Keep in mind that AOE damage isn't as good as single target.  Sure, the Spellweaver can Fire Orbs to hit 3 targets for 3, but that isn't three times as good as a default Attack 3 Range 3 effect.  If it were 3 sequential Attack 3 Range 3 effects it would be, but it isn't, so it actually fits the model of being twice as good pretty well.

Lost effects and pitching cards gets us the effectiveness of an extra action right now, but costs us 3-3.5 turns at the end of the game.  Clearly you do this when you have to, but you pay a high total output price to gain that spike of power.

Now I can use these standards to compare potions again.  If you are in a scenario where you never need to use lost effects or pitch cards to reduce damage then the scenario is trivial and nothing matters.  Keep in mind for this assumption, we are talking about low level here.  Sure, your level 9 party can lock down all the enemies so none of them get to swing and pitching cards won't matter, but at low levels you simply cannot do that and getting beat to death is a constant risk presuming you are playing at a difficulty that is a challenge for you. 

Assuming that you need to use lost/pitch effects to survive, a stamina potion grants you 1 extra turn.  If you can use a healing potion to avoid pitching or losing a single card, you save yourself 3-3.5 turns.  A healing potion adds roughly the same level of tempo that a lost card or a pitched card does, so this is a reasonable comparison at low level.  You can sometimes do better than that if you happen to pitch to avoid a big 6 damage critical hit, but even then the healing potion is far superior than the stamina potion in terms of efficiency - on average, at least.  At the beginning of the game a healing potion is even better because it can give you more than 3 turns, at right at the end of the game you are on your way out anyway so a healing potion can be as little as a single turn.

Of course the stamina potion lets you reuse specific cards, and gives you flexibility in rest timing.  Those things are real.  Still, I think if you want pure longevity you are actually better off with a healing potion to get you through rough patches rather than a stamina potion because you can avoid losing or pitching cards with that healing for backup.  Certainly a Cragheart or Brute, who has a large health pool, can make better use of a healing potion.  They also have weak combo potential, so the stamina potion is not that exciting at the outset.  A flimsy character like the Mindthief though struggles with a health pool of size 6, so they often can't even use the whole healing potion but still are worried about dying. 

Some of this holds true as you level up.  High level loss cards and card pitches scale up in power but have the same cost in longevity.  Low level loss cards become worthless though as the effect is not worth the cost in time.  There is no point in losing a card to heal for 6 when a normal monster swings for 6!

However, stamina potions scale effectively while healing potions do not.  At higher levels stamina potions let you reuse powerful high level effects giving you a huge tempo boost as well as improving flexibility, rest timing, and longevity.  Healing potions, on the other hand, fade into obscurity.  Better than nothing, sure... but vastly inferior to stamina.  At the beginning there is a real argument to be made for each of the starting potions depending on your class.  At the end though, the conclusion is simple - stamina > all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Running it back

This is another Gloomhaven post, but there will be no spoilers, for those of you who want to remain pure.

When I first started playing Gloomhaven I thought healing potions were the best.  Don't die and you will eventually win, thought I.  I wasn't particularly impressed with stamina potions because it didn't seem that exciting to get to replay particular cards; the healing potion gives you 3 health without having to play anything, so how often is a stamina potion going to give you that much benefit?  If you want damage, isn't a power potion going to be better?  People online were all going on about how good stamina potions were and I didn't get it.  They add flexibility, sure, but what I want is raw throughput, not options.

I have reversed my opinion on this.  As I have levelled up in my new class I have been using a stamina potion and finding it to be extremely powerful, far more so than my other two options.  The thing that I wasn't aware of at the beginning was just how much more powerful a level 9 card could be than a level 1, and I also didn't realize how much cards would ramp up in effectiveness when properly enhanced.  Part of this was learning that while Gloomhaven is pretty reasonably balanced there are specific cards that are totally nuts and getting to play those repeatedly is devastating.

I have one particular card at level 4 that is totally off the charts powerful.  It is baseline about twice as good as a level 1 card and it is enhanced to be about 3 times as powerful.  Now given that I am level 9 my baseline turn is better than a level 1 card... but I still use level 1 cards, and many of my actions are only marginally better than that.  My level 4 card is definitely twice as good as my default turn.  My level 9 card is similar; if I squint at it and take off half of its stuff it is still totally playable, and in fact it is quite similar to other cards I put in my deck quite happily.

Using a stamina potion on cards that are as powerful as that is game changing.  It is effectively granting me a turn at twice my normal effectiveness, easily averaging out to dealing 18 damage and gaining 6 health.  The stamina potion is responsible for half of that, clocking in at something like 9 damage dealt and 3 damage healed.  At this point it is *four times* as powerful as one of my other potion choices.

The best part of all this is that as I find more money and get more items I can multiply these sorts of effects together even more effectively than now.  Enhancing cards multiple times is ruinously expensive but eventually I will get there and these cards that are already extremely powerful will get even better.  Every additional item that can recover cards makes buffing my best cards more powerful, and those buffs make recovery effects better.

I do like the gradual complexity increase of the game.  At the start the rules were big and complicated enough that a healing potion was just my speed.  All you do is wait until you are badly hurt, then drink up.  But now that I have played more I am thrilled with the greater amount of choice available to me.  I can arrange combos across multiple turns easily and plan huge swings that make me grin.

That last thing is the key to the bit:  Stamina potions let you do all kinds of nutty things.  I love watching other people gape at my big turns and trying to figure out if I can top the last savage combo I pulled off.  Even if the raw power of stamina potions wasn't as big as it is, the fun factor at high levels is certainly there.

Monday, October 22, 2018

Broke dragons

Money in DnD makes no damn sense.  If you go by the rules as published characters have absurd amounts of gold and carry around bandoliers of healing potions, laugh at the cost of spells and ingredients, and upturn economies just by wandering into town.

Naked Man has tried to fix that in our current campaign, and I can see why.  Gold scaling gets rapidly out of control, and players who are poor have more interesting decisions to make much of the time.  Unfortunately there are some issues with scaling back money that are hard to deal with.

For example, in our latest adventure at level 4 we encountered hobgoblins.  They have about 150g worth of stuff on them in the form of armour and weapons.  One would imagine that if they could afford that much stuff that they would have lots of cash, but mostly they had in the neighborhood of a 1g.  That makes little sense, but the legions of hobgoblins we have slaughtered would have left us stupidly rich if they had appropriate cash on hand considering their obvious wealth, so we take our tiny amounts of gold and just accept that all the weapons and armour are 'monster weapons and armour' which means they are nearly worthless.

Just recently we attacked a dragon and managed to drive it off, though not kill it.  We got about 200g worth of cash from it.  The adventure certainly had it listed as having far greater sums, probably multiple thousands of gold pieces, but Naked Man did his usual thing of chopping the cash rewards to a tiny fraction of their normal value.  That makes sense - thousands of gold pieces from this hoard would warp the campaign to bits.

The problem is that in the lore of the world that dragon is supposed to have a treasure hoard.  It doesn't even have enough money to buy a decent suit of armour!  That 'hoard' we found isn't enough cash to buy splint armour, a shield, and a sword for a random city guard.  Sorry dragon, you are pathetic.

Thousands of gold pieces would have been a problem.  Hundreds of gold pieces seems absurd.  How can random guards and starting adventurers have more money than a powerful dragon?

But I won't blame Naked Man for this.  The game *requires* absurdity one way or another.  Here is the logic:

The players must kill huge numbers of enemies to gain levels.
The players will take all the accumulated wealth from the enemies they kill.
Those enemies have enough money to buy good equipment.

Therefore, no matter how you slice it, the players should have the accumulated wealth of huge numbers of appropriately geared soldiers.  They players then use this wealth and their newly found levels to fight more powerful things, which should have commensurately more cash, increasing the player's money holdings.

You have to break that chain somewhere or the players end up with absurd amounts of money from consolidating the total cash reserves of huge numbers of enemies.  No way around it.  You can do what I do, which is have fights be much more rare and levels be based on accomplishing goals rather than vanquishing foes.  That goes against the basic plan of DnD though.  You can insist that somehow when enemies die the characters don't gain much money, which is what Naked Man is doing, but of course that makes the world make no sense.  You could just only pit the characters against zombies and slimes and bugbears so that they never find any money because their opponents don't have any, but that isn't how adventures are normally written.  No matter which link in the chain you break, you have big problems.

I don't have a good solution.  Naked Man's solution, given that we are doing DnD with normal experience rules and running through published scenarios, is pretty much his only option aside from just throwing up his hands in despair and accepting that we will be stupid rich.  If you are going to slaughter tons of people who are wealthy enough to have expensive equipment and take all their stuff, something has to break sometime.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Castles in the sky

In my DnD game last night my group is about to assault a flying castle.  We were in the middle of an encounter where we learned the location of the castle and the time at which it would leave, carrying away its enormous hoard of treasure.  We were told that the castle was going to leave in a couple of hours, and it is a few miles away.

(Faugh, miles.  Real roleplaying systems use kilometers!)

The group looked at each other and quickly concluded that we weren't going to the castle.  We were all badly beaten and nearly out of spells and going into a difficult fight was suicide.  With no time to rest there was no hope - it was time to collect the spoils from our previous encounters and go home.  The castle would fly off and we would have to hope that someday it would come back.

Naked Man, the DM, looked at us with panic in his eyes.  He hadn't realized that we were so beat up, that our spells were so low, and that his timeline had left us no time at all to rest.  We were completely correct to run away, no doubt about it.

So he changed things.  He told us the castle was further away than that, and that it would be leaving in a day or so.  That would give us enough time to rest and replenish our strength before invading the castle in our endless search for more money.

This is a challenging decision, from the DM's chair.  It is hard when you build a campaign and have a bunch of important stuff to have the players simply walk away from it.  That is especially true when they are walking away because you gave them a relatively arbitrary answer to a question and only afterwards do you realize that arbitrary answer totally derailed your plans.

It isn't the decision I would have made though; I would just have accepted them walking away and moved on.  If I really wanted to have the characters invade that flying castle I would have brought it back later.  It flies around, so it could easily end up in our path at a later time.  I think that people realizing they can't do something and retreating is a powerful part of a story!  It establishes player agency, and allows them to feel like they can control what they do and that the world will change based on their decisions.

In the past I have let characters really mess things up a lot.  Sometimes they invade buildings by setting those buildings on fire and then the fire spreads to other buildings and then they have to cope with having started a major catastrophe.  Sometimes they have killed important people that I did not think would die, and the plot shifted dramatically because of it.  I really like that sense that I set it up, but the players choose how and when to knock it down, and then we all examine the pieces and figure out where to go from there.

However, I am not working from a written adventure.  I make everything up from scratch so if the characters choose not to go into a particular castle that isn't a huge problem - it isn't as though that is the only castle to go into.  When you are working from a written adventure though there are lots of places the characters *must* go, or nothing happens.  The world has some interesting places and the rest of it is blank.

In one of my previous games I set up a realm that was going through a revolution and the characters had to choose if they wanted to support the revolution, or defend the current order.  (They could have wandered off and ignored the revolution too, I would have rolled with that, but I expected them to pick a side, and they did.)  This changed everything - who was in charge, how the government worked, their command structure, and more.  You sure can't do that in a published adventure.

Naked Man is constrained.  He can't just let us make that big a mess.  But when I am in the command chair I LOVE messes.  I get a gleam in my eyes and cackle wildly when the characters do something destructive and they groan, knowing that their lives are about to get complicated.  I remember in the 2nd edition rules there was a section talking about giving monarchs more hit points so that some crazed player character doesn't overthrow your fantasy kingdom with a single swipe of their sword.... but overthrowing the kingdom with a single swipe of a sword sounds like a ton of fun, from both sides!  There are going to be consequences, often including the death of the character in question, but if you are allowed to do that you tend to think carefully about your choices, and I like that.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Charging off

Escort quests are a pain in the ass.  I remember many of them during my years playing WOW, and the old ones were always the worst.  The NPC you have to escort would always charge off into the middle of packs of enemies, regularly getting itself or you killed.  When the AI wasn't the problem, buggy behaviour would often step in and wreck your day instead, as the NPC would sometimes flat out ignore the fight that was currently going on and go back to walking along its path to find some new stuff to engage.

It turns out escort quests in Gloomhaven are just as bad.  Maybe worse.

(Spoilers for scenario 19 and two mini class ahead.)

My Gloomhaven group took its first legit loss last week as we did as escort quest where, Hail, the idiot NPC, walks towards the end of the dungeon, 2 hexes per turn.  At least in WOW the NPCs usually stop and punch the enemies as you engage them, but Hail doesn't even do that.  She rushes to the end of the dungeon as fast as possible, ignoring all threats to her health and well being.  She opens doors and walks into traps and is all kinds of stupid.

We had things seemingly under control in the third room when Hail walked into the doorway to room four.  All the monsters in the room activated and took their turns, instantly smashing Hail from full to dead, ending the scenario.

I had completed this scenario with my other Gloomhaven group previously so I knew how bad it would be, but I didn't want to give too many spoilers to the folks doing it for the first time.  I did tell them that this is by far the most difficult scenario I had found to date and that we would most likely lose, but Naked Man was convinced that I was simply lacking confidence.  The reason I won with my first group is that I am playing the Beast Tyrant class and thus have a card that swaps the location of any two figures on the board.  This allowed me to swap Hail back to the start of the dungeon once she was halfway through, and the extra five turns it took her to get back on track was key to surviving.  Without that card, we would have lost *hard*.

Even now that we know how the escort quest works and where the enemies will appear it isn't clear to me that we would win on our next try.  The internet has lots of stories of people who find this scenario to be heinously difficult, and I quite agree with that assessment.  Certainly this escort is drastically more difficult with 2 players because you can't block Hail from walking about as easily.  With 4 players you can devote a much greater amount of time to slowing Hail down just by taking up space, and that is an important advantage.  In WOW you can't do this sort of thing of course because NPCs will just walk through you, but in Gloomhaven you can keep Hail pinned in fairly easily, if you devote the resources to it.

Now the burning question is:  What do we do about this loss?  Naked Man thinks that we should roleplay it properly, which means never attempting the scenario again, because we lost it.  I don't get that, because if we roleplay it properly it means that Hail died, so we can't use her services as an enchanter again, nor can we do any scenario that references her.  That is ridiculous, and would break a lot of the game, so I can't get behind it. 

I figure we should just git gud and beat the damn scenario on our next playthrough.  We made all kinds of terrible mistakes and I think we can do it just fine so long as we learn from our problems and keep it tight.  However, the rest of the group seems to be in Naked Man's court here, figuring that once we lose a scenario we should abandon it.  Gloomhaven does have a lot of content, so we can probably do that for quite a while before it stonewalls us.

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Many good options

I just finished my first game of Agricola with the newest expansion.  It has two key changes that both really improve the game - first, it adds a space that can be used as a sheep/pig/cow space at any point, or as a Family Growth from round 5 onward.  I love the extra FG in the game, particularly for the four player version.  I am not a fan of the way that the FG queue works in the old version and I dislike how important it is to gamble on start player into FG.  Having a guaranteed FG on round 5 makes sure that people can plan around growing, there is much less gambling on the timing of the regular FG tile flipping, and it also makes building extra rooms a lot more appealing.  There is so much more FG available that going up to four or five rooms becomes a lot more appealing, and I like that.

The second big change is the way the cards are designed.  One thing about the old Agricola game is that the best occupations and improvements are often the most boring and generic ones.  There are a bunch of improvements that require a number of occupations in play and give points and food.  For example, Swan Lake.

This is a good card.  It rewards you for doing something you probably want to do anyway, and is good with nearly any strategy.  Everyone wants points, everyone wants food.

But while it is a good card, it is not a good card for the game.  Everyone wants to grab Swan Lake and it works with everything.  Static value like this is boring.  What makes a game a lot more interesting is cards that are situational.  You want them to be good, but you want to make sure that they are good for specific strategies, and they should require you to have to alter your plans to best use them.

Clay Supports is a strong card and I like having it, but sometimes you don't want to use it.  You have to consider if you are going to want to build up to 5 rooms (or more aggressively, renovate to clay and build to 4 rooms).  This is an example of how cards should be made - high power level, but requiring you to think about how and when to use them.

The newer version of Agricola is full of cards like Clay Supports, both in terms of improvements and occupations.  There are all kinds of powerful things you can do, but they aren't just generic buffs.  They consistently need you to set up to make them powerful, or alter your game style substantially.  They really got away from the 'have a bunch of stuff'' cards, and that is a great thing.  In part this is great because it encourages finding interesting combos.  You really want to find cards that work together, that let you pursue narrow strategies.  With boring cards like Swan Lake there is no combo - they work with anything.  These new cards though you can't just make a tier list and draft from it - you have to carefully consider what you have and what sorts of things your cards are going to be good at.

The other thing that the new cards do is to shore up strategies that are generally quite weak.  One thing I found in Agricola classic is that grain and baking grain is not good.  The major improvements suggest that baking was designed to be a normal way to feed your family but realistically it is pretty garbage unless you have a lot of support for it.  The fundamental problem is that getting a single grain for an action is trash.  Baking is risky, and you can get blocked, so it needs to be powerful to make up for it.  In the new version there are a ton more ways to get grain and baking has a much better overall support base.  Simply put, the strategies people use to feed themselves are much more varied than they are in the base game, and I really appreciate that.

That isn't the only example though.  I got an improvement that gave me 3 food every time I took a grain, but only if the Plow space was already occupied.  3 food bonus on a space is huge, and is a good way to make a grain food plan work.  However, you have to use the grain space at specific times and you can get blocked, so you have to plan carefully around it.  This is a great card because it only works in certain circumstances, it supports some strategies but not others, but when it does work it is fantastic.

It does seem that the combination of better cards and faster FG really powers up the game.  In the game I played I tied for first in a 50/50/50/45 game.  The players were really top drawer, so high scores aren't surprising, but this is still huge even given that.  We had one player run a occupation strategy, one got 11 bonus points from a grain based improvement, and I did a fast reno to stone and played Manservant and Plow Driver to get my big game.  It felt to me like Umbra, who scored 45, didn't really have a particular *thing* that he was doing, and maybe that was why his score was lower.  (He also only needed a single plow action to get to 50, to be fair.)

(I admit, it is kind of funny that I got my big score in the new game with some cards that are in the classic game, but these are well designed cards from the classic game.)

I like a game where you put together a bunch of pieces to do big, cool stuff.  The new agricola seems like it does that, and I certainly hope to play it as often as possible over the old one.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Just me

Isaac Childres, the dude who created Gloomhaven is a pretty generous sort.  After the game did well he went to work and created a whole set of special solo scenarios for all the classes, and then he just released them for free on the internet.  I would totally have paid 20 bucks for those extra scenarios, and I suspect most other people would too.  But I gotta hand it to Isaac - he just gave it all away because he loves the damn game.  Mad props for that. 

I particularly enjoy the idea of a solo scenario because it allows the designer to make the game hard.  Mostly scenarios have a lot of give to them because the writer doesn't know who will be walking through that dungeon door, and the groups can even be of different sizes.  You can't make it too tight at that point, or some groups will just fall apart.

But when you have just one character of a known class, you can be a jerk about it!  You know exactly what abilities they have so you can set up a scenario that is really tough to beat the first time through, and which will tax their resources to the limit.  There is always some randomness in the game of course but knowing so clearly what the character can bring to bear is critical to keeping it tight, and making sure that all the challenges are winnable but that the character will be harshly taxed.

Going to talk about unlockable content here, FYI.

I won on my first shot with the two mini Beast Tyrant class, but it was down to my second last turn when I finally ended it.  I think I have a pretty much ideal build for the scenario but I drew kind of badly so overall it seemed right.  Extra special content should be rough, to let the hardcore folks have their fun!

I can easily see how the particular scenario I did would be super difficult for another build to handle.  The two minis are separated into two dungeon tracks, and anyone who was used to just letting the Bear kill everything now actually has to kill stuff with the Tyrant himself.  It is easy to imagine a normal build that doesn't even bother to include an attack for the Tyrant, and I think if you selected pure Bear build cards you could be effectively unable to complete the scenario.

I was mostly a Bear build so I had to really get used to actually killing stuff myself.  It took a lot of adjustment for sure.  I needed to get used the flow of cards and really balance whether I focused on Bear or Tyrant damage.

When I finally won, having ground through the game with a single loss card right to the end, I was extremely happy with the reward the dungeon gave me.  It felt appropriate - super useful, but not broken.  It makes me optimistic that the other solo scenarios will be really fun and thematic, even though they can't possibly do what I did in the Beast Tyrant scenario.

I like solo Gloomhaven.  It makes me wonder if there will be more work done on this sort of thing along the road.