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.  

Death wasn't even a setback

InTheHat recently lent me a new fantasy RPG called Phoenix:  Dawn Command.  It has a really tight setting where the characters are part of a specific organization of special people with amazing powers who are fighting against encroaching evil.  The most original thing in the system is that there is no advancement system in the normal sense of the word.  Your character cannot acquire new abilities or skills or even get new or better equipment until death claims you.

But death, it turns out, isn't that bad.

The Phoenix in the name gives it away.  You die, you live again, and when you live again you get a bunch of training and come back more powerful.  Everyone gets to Obi Wan and become more powerful as the enemy strikes you down!

I love the idea.  It lets people feel okay about losing, and if everything goes badly and the whole party dies, you just rez up and go kick their asses with your newfound power and abilities!

There are limits, of course, because you only come back seven times and then you are gone forever.  Unlike most levelling systems this also corrects for people who get really unlucky.  Normally getting killed means you are behind everyone else, and often more likely to get killed again.  Not in P:DC though!  You die, you are now the big badass on the team.  Play super cautious and tight?  You are the wimp while your powerful friends smash faces!

The system also uses a randomizer style that revolves around cards in hand rather than dice.  That works fine as far as I am concerned, but it would take some getting used to.  I don't think I would want to play the game over and over though because the classes and abilities don't allow for much in the way of customization.   Of course with any roleplaying game you can make of it what you will, but the highly specific setting and the simply mechanics and limited choices mean the game is almost certainly destined for only a limited play time for me, at least.

But man, dying and coming back, more powerful than before?  That sounds like supervillain level powers to me!  I love that, and I would be happy to give the game a spin just to test that experience out for awhile and see how it works.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Yelling at a bear

I finally retired my Gloomhaven character.  (Spoilers ahead, for a specific unlocked class).  My quest was straightforward and its end happened to coincide with Wendy's quest ending so we unlocked two new classes simultaneously.  We unlocked two pet classes at the same time, the Beast Tyrant and the Summoner.  She chose to swap from Mindthief to Cragheart, which is good since our party had basically no healing, and I decided to drive a bear.  The Beast Tyrant is special because it has two miniatures, one for the tiny Tyrant and one for the Bear that the tyrant commands.

Go Bear!  Slay the enemies!

Most time in games pet classes are a huge problem.  There are all kinds of ways they can be a problem but the most common issue is that pets open you up to AOE effects, and so either the pet class is terrible because the pet dies, or they are too good because the pet always lives.  They often waffle back and forth between those extremes depending on how much AOE there is.

The Beast Tyrant is surprisingly solid in this way.  Bear is designed to live the entire time, and while you have to heal it through AOE effects it does output a small amount of damage by itself so it is certainly worth it.  Bear has lots of hit points so it won't die to a single screwup, and it has the basic monster AI so it won't kill itself on traps or anything. 

The numbers seem fine.  I do a ton of damage telling Bear to attack people, but I have extremely limited utility.  In fact the Tyrant just sits in the starting room of the dungeon while Bear follows the rest of the group through the dungeon smashing things.  How exactly I command Bear from so far away is unclear - can Bear even hear me from four rooms away? 

But one of the problems of pet classes does rear its ugly head - control.  When there are enemies Bear always runs towards them to eat them, which is usually fine.  But when there are no enemies Bear just stands there like an idiot.  It feels incredibly awkward to watch my party members run towards the next room while Bear just sits immobile, waiting for a new monster to be revealed so Bear can run and eat them in the face.  There are also real problems with specific objectives.  We had one dungeon where we had to collect 5 objects using loot actions, and getting Bear to an object and using Bear's loot action is *extremely* annoying.  If there are enemies nearby I can't do it because Bear runs away after the enemies.  If there aren't enemies moving Bear is a pain in the ass.

There are certainly dungeons where Bear is superb.  Any time there is a single room or otherwise limited movement required Bear is a damage machine.  Bear just keeps on eating people and its limited AI isn't an issue since it rushes to eat enemies each turn which is exactly what I want.  But when there are doors to open or tricky things to do Bear is terrible.

The Summoner class is even more extreme because their control over their many summoned creatures is worse, the summons are often nearly immobile, and those summoned creatures are more fragile so even a small screwup means they die.  They are even better in those single room scenarios, and even worse on large maps.

Pet classes are always a problem.  I will give Gloomhaven a ton of credit though; even if there are issues with the pet classes they do a great job implementing them.  The issues with pets are hard to get around and Gloomhaven minimized them.

Plus it is amazing fun to tell Bear to go eat the enemies.  I spend a lot of time yelling "Bear is driving car!" and mauling enemies to death and laughing about how my dude can't even see where Bear is but somehow I can command it to move and attack very precisely.  It is so much fun to tell my minions to slay my enemies while I chill out at the back like a boss.

So far I think the Brute is still my favourite class, but it is definitely fun to tell Bear to chomp people for the moment.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Get dead

We have had a spate of deaths in my DnD campaigns as of late.  In the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure we had 3 people die in a single session fighting in Cragmaw Castle.  Now we have a 4 person party containing 1 original character and 3 new ones that just wandered in to take the place of the dead folks.  It feels weird to celebrate rescuing a kidnapped person from a dangerous castle when we had 3 people die just to accomplish the deed...

Other people don't seem to be complaining about the fights that wiped us out, so I am wondering what is is that went wrong for us.  One major issue we had is that the dungeon has a bunch of enemies that seem like they are supposed to be easy (because they come in large groups) but which are insanely dangerous and lethal - hobgoblins.

These hobgoblins hit for 12.5 damage per swing, which is about half of the health of one of our characters.  They have a really high AC at 18, so we only hit about 40% of the time.  We had one room containing 4 of them that we walked into and we missed all of our attacks, so they replied by taking down our two toughest characters, thankfully only killing one character.  That isn't the expected result of course but when you have 4 monsters that hit for 50% of a character's health in damage, the encounter is going to be extremely lethal a lot of the time!

I wonder if any of the problems we are having are simply to do with the way the game is adjudicated.  Our characters are pretty well built and we have a broken Moon Druid in our group at level 3 so our strategy and numbers are solid.  However, the way that the GM decides what the enemies will do can have a huge effect on outcomes.  If monsters run away early to grab whole rooms full of allies fights can go from reasonable to impossible in a hurry.  If they focus fire squishy targets they can tear down the party in no time, while if they stupidly beat on the bear druid things go really well.

I honestly don't know if Naked Man is playing the game hard or easy or somewhere in between.  It is clear to me that sometimes the monsters make poor strategic choices for roleplaying purposes, and in fact I suspect we would have been TPKed several times now if they had played it smart on every occasion.  On the other hand I have had ideas to cheat out victories on a couple of occasions that got stymied and it seemed like a easygoing GM might have let me inflict ruin on the enemies if I got my way.  Maybe that means he is running down the middle?

I guess this is the trouble with having challenging encounters.  First level is a total mess of instant death attacks, but even at third level we regularly see our tough characters one shotted, and being taken down in 2 hits is a normal occurrence.  I don't see how you build tough but winnable fights with those kinds of swings.  Any time the monsters roll well for a round half the party is unconscious and bleeding, but if we roll well the entire enemy group just explodes.  This leads to exciting combat certainly but it also leads to expendable, faceless characters who know that death is just around the corner.

If instead the designers just make sure the party is not at significant risk then most fights are completely trivial.  We really need some kind of middle ground where monsters don't regularly kill half the party in a round but also present some kind of threat.  The solution, I think, is to have more hitpoints and higher chances to hit so that fights aren't so swingy.

On the other side of the game we have had some incredibly long fights in the higher level group that have taken multiple hours to complete.  I don't know most people have the same experiences I do with the game, but at the moment I am finding low level combat to be hilariously swingy and lethal, and high level combat to involve long, grindy fights.

I am enjoying building characters and figuring out strategy but I can't help but feel that there has to be a better way to design these things.  I like situations where things go badly and we have to respond to a serious threat, but when that threat is a character going from full to dead in a single turn there isn't much to react to and it doesn't feel like you have any control over the outcome.

When I designed Heroes By Trade I made it an explicit design goal to have fights last 5 rounds.  That gives enough time to respond to problems and threats, but it won't feel like any round is irrelevant or that the fight is interminable in length.  I tried to stay away from monsters that hit super hard but die to nearly anything - if it can kill itself in a single attack, that is a problem.  (Hobgoblins, which caused us so much trouble, hit for 12.5 damage and have 11 health.)

On the other hand having lots of deaths does give me opportunities to try out new classes, and it turns out warlocks can do some really fun stuff... so I guess one dead paladin isn't much of a price to pay!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Greedy backstabbing mercenaries

Last time I played Gloomhaven with my four person group we got beat.  It was our first loss, though I have seen three other occasions where we won the game on our last action, so we have had our fair share of tight victories.  I couldn't quite figure out how we were supposed to win as there were 15 enemies on the map at the start and while we managed to defeat them all we were absolutely ruined by the end of it.  Two of us staggered across the line into the final room and immediately exhausted and the third had only one action before keeling over.  Needless to say the single remaining person (who had lots of cards left because he never took a turn getting pummelled) was unable to defeat the last room solo.

But it turns out we screwed up.  There was a tile in the middle of the two rooms that was supposed to act as a doorway but we treated it as a pillar instead.  We should have had a room with 5 strong enemies and then another room with 10 weaker enemies in it, and given that we survived fighting all of them at once I am sure we would have defeated the scenario handily if we weren't cheating terribly in the monsters' favour.

This has gotten me thinking a lot about the difficulty level of the game.  We are currently playing on normal difficulty and it seems far too easy.  While there have been some close shaves they have been close mostly because we have been playing like garbage much of the time.  We are often taking terrible actions just to farm experience or fighting one another over loot.  Instead of really pushing ourselves to fight optimally we fuss over battle goal and life goal progress.  This is what has led to us having several extremely close wins when we clearly could have clobbered the zone if we just worked together.

The contrast to my 2 player games is stark.  When I have been playing Gloomhaven with OldHobo or Wendy we absolutely smash the monsters.  It feels like a seamless team effort where we grab money and experience when it makes sense to do so but we focus on winning as cleanly as possible.  A part of this is just that we are happy to watch anyone advance so if one of us vacuums up all the cash in a scenario that isn't a problem - we know that someone else will do it next time.  Nobody is wasting actions trying to grab a coin from somebody else.  Why would we do that, when a coin in my friend's hand is one that will buy them better gear to fight the monsters with?!?

The end of the two player games is almost comical.  We always end up with one monster left alive haplessly chasing us around the dungeon while we wander around picking up every piece of loot and farming experience with move actions.  One of my characters even has the goal of watching 15 exhaustions, which would take a lot of time in a 2 player game, except that we just let the last monster beat my friend into exhaustion while we pick up the loot and I kill it at the end.

Gloomhaven is so well balanced that I don't think this is just 2 player mode being super easy.  I think it really is about cooperation being stronger than competition.  There is also an argument to be made for experience, because Wendy, Oldhobo, and I have all played a lot more Gloomhaven than the other 3 players in my 4 player group.  But the key to my mind is that when people are focused on their own advancement and keeping themselves safe rather than trying to maximize the group's effectiveness the group suffers greatly.  When everyone plays together the increase in group power is incredible.

The question is, what is the goal?  If we are all trying to roleplay greedy, morally questionable mercenaries with a specific life goal that takes precedence over all other things, then we should be competitive.  That description really does fit with the way the characters are portrayed in the intro to the game, so it seems quite reasonable.  But it is certain that playing this way makes us vastly less effective and honestly isn't as much fun. 

I really like it when we play a cooperative game rather than a cooperative/competitive game.  I have found that true with many other games that are mostly cooperative but involve competition at the end where it ends up feeling crappy.  I don't mind pure competition, or pure cooperation, but when we cooperate until defection I don't much like it.  There are some examples that are fine, like Diplomacy, because that game is a pure competitive game where cooperation is allowed, but mostly I want my games to be neatly divided between coop and competitive.

In any case I may need to ratchet my 2 player games up to a higher difficulty level.  It is fun to smash things but at some point I crave a properly challenging opponent.  On the other hand our 4 player group of greedy backstabbing mercenaries certainly can't handle more difficult opponents as we spend too much of our time fighting amongst ourselves!

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.)