Monday, December 11, 2017

Greenery

I played Terraforming Mars for the first time a little while ago and I have been mulling over my feelings on the game.  It is a competitive board game with a vaguely cooperative theme in that everyone is trying to terraform Mars as quickly as possible and the ones who do that the best win the game.

The game combines a grid of hexes representing Mars upon which everyone makes cities, lakes, and forests with a system of drafting and playing cards.  The cards have a lot going on, in that they can cost temporary resources or reduce your income, and they can generate temporary resources or permanently increase income.  There are lots of kinds of resources and income too, and also the cards have lots of symbols on them that interact with other cards.  Thankfully the design of the cards is really well done and with minimal practice you can easily figure out what each card does.

The cards seem largely well built, both in graphic design and balance.  I am not anywhere good enough at the game to make proper evaluations but my first pass was a favourable one for sure.  You can play a balanced game looking for all the best deals at a given moment or you can really go all in on one strategy and hope to cash in on the cards that reward the particular thing you are doing.

One thing I found really odd was that the main way of getting points was linked to income.  If you get a point, you also get a buck every round.  This worried me initially because it seemed like anyone who did well at the beginning would just steamroll their way to victory but there are ways to score points that don't increase income and ways to raise or lower your income without getting points, so it didn't end up being a problem.  In most games you end up either building your engine or generating points and you have to figure out when it is time to stop creating infrastructure and just start making points as the game closes down, but in Terraforming Mars you often end up just doing both at the same time. 

The game does have other ways of generating tipping points though because there are three good ways to score points that have a fixed number of them that can be cashed in.  When there are ten temperature bumps left to go nobody cares much but when you get down to the last few suddenly everyone scrambles to get their temperature bumps in before the opportunity to score off of them vanishes.

The theme of the game is well done.  For example, as terraforming proceeds the oxygen % goes up, and that means that eventually you can build cities without domes.  However, once the oxygen gets high enough you can't build a city with a dome anymore because nobody wants to live in a domed city when the air outside is breathable.  The cards reflect these sorts of things effectively and the themes feel like they tie into the mechanics in immersive and enjoyable ways.

There is one thing about the game that I don't much like though, and that is the number of cards that punish a player of your choice when you play them.  Throughout the game people would draw cards that could do something bad and then they would have to pick which person to hurt.  I don't like that mechanic in Lords of Waterdeep and it isn't any better here.  I like mechanics where you can play against another person's strategy, but cards that simply say "Pick who gets screwed" are not fun for me.  This is pretty much the only catch up mechanism in the game so I imagine with excellent players it would usually mean that the player in the lead gets beat up, but that kind of mechanic usually means that the players in last place end up kingmaking (when people are good) or people end up punishing the person they don't like (when people are bad at the game).  Neither is fun.

Overall I think the designers of the game did a great job.  The game looks slick, the information is presented effectively, and the theme is well integrated into the mechanics.  I like the way new players can be handed a faction that gives them a simple starting situation that is balanced, and I the replayability looks good.  But that card mechanic of "Pick who gets screwed" .... I don't like it.  I will play the game more times for sure to figure out what I think of it, but overall I expect it is a game I will continue to enjoy despite that one significant drawback.

Friday, December 8, 2017

A shiny new 7

In the old days of hearthstone Dr. Boom reigned supreme in the 7 slot.  He dropped 9/9 worth of stats onto the board and his boom bots would randomly blow up enemies for 1-4 damage when they died, so he combined a massive pile of stats with extra effect.  Dr. 7 saw play in every kind of deck because he was a great finisher for an aggressive deck and a great stabilizer for a controlling deck.  In fact this was one of the real problems with Boom - everyone wanted to play him.


A neutral card with immense value and which was good in all kinds of decks - many people saw the good doctor as a real problem.  Fast foward to 2017, and there is a new doctor in town, with many similar issues.

Bonemare is a neutral 7 drop that puts 9/9 worth of stats on the board.  Those stats also have extra goodness because 4/4 of those stats can attack right away.  Very similar to Dr. Boom in many ways.  The thing that makes Bonemare just not as good as Dr. Boom is that it requires a minion in play to work.  That isn't a big ask, but it is something.  Dr. Boom can be slammed down in almost any situation and be good while Bonemare can be a weak draw if there is a clear boardstate.  Pretty much the only time you draw Dr. Boom and sigh is when you are going to be killed before your next turn.

I got a couple of Bonemares in a draft deck I was playing and it was an absurdity.  If I got to turn 7 with anything in play I just won by slamming Bonemare after Bonemare.  In talking to people about it there was a clear sentiment that Bonemare is a problem.  I think Bonemare's problem is different than Boom's, though, simply because of rarity.

In Constructed play both cards saw a lot of use, but Bonemare wasn't unfair, just really good.  It is actually a good thing to my mind to have a common that is a powerful late game card.  Beginners often feel shoehorned into aggressive decks because they simply don't have access to the expensive legendary minions required for a late game and Bonemare gives them an out.  Bonemare is common and provides a thing for people with limited collections to do in the late game, and I like that. 

When drafting Arena decks though Bonemare is a disaster.  Dr. Boom was absurd in Arena but at least you hardly ever saw him so it wasn't such an issue.  Having Bonemare in the common slot often means that you may have to face down multiples of them and there is often nothing you can do to play around that raw power.  They just make too much stuff too efficiently and leave no realistic counterplay.  When you have a deck with normal late game cards in it and you go up against one that has multiple Bonemares you simply have to win by turn 6 or accept that you are getting blown out.  I am not a fan of that as a common thing, and right now it is a common thing.

Well, up until this week it was a common thing.  Now that the new Kobolds and Catacombs expansion is out the extra appearance bonus for Bonemare is gone and it should go back to being something you see on occasion instead of something you see constantly.  That is better for Arena, certainly, as Bonemare is just too far above the power curve.  However, Bonemare is going to continue to let people with few resources have a power play in the late game in Constructed, which is a thing I like.

Overall I think Bonemare will be a positive contribution to the game.  It mucked up Arena drafting a lot for 4 months but it will be in Standard Constructed for 16 months and I like what it has done for deck building.  It surprised me honestly to see just how powerful Bonemare was, and I think it surprised a lot of other people too.  Now we know - 9/9 for 7 mana with extras is superb.  I should write that down somewhere.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Once again, here I am

This season of Blood Bowl ended very much like the previous season did.  I went up against Umbra's orcs with my dwarves in the semi final, and I lost.  In both cases my dwarf team was reasonably developed but the orcs had a far higher team value and could clearly beat my team up and down the field quite effortlessly.

I find bash on bash matchups like this where one team is vastly ahead not much fun honestly.  When you are a dodgy team you have a lot more options to try to make plays against a more powerful bash team but when the opponent has just as much Guard and Mighty Blow as you do but also has seven more Strength... it just feels absurd.

Still, I gave it a go.  I was feeling really off before the game, distracted mightily by things outside Blood Bowl.  It showed in my play and I didn't give Umbra the run for his money that I had hoped.

With my giant pile of inducement money I bought a chainsaw and a bombardier Star Player and also a wizard.  I hoped that I could chop his team down to size in the early going.  I did injure a dude with the bombardier but the enemy apothecary fixed him.  I must say, throwing bombs at the enemies each turn is a hell of a lot of fun, even if it isn't necessarily that good.

In any case I tried to leverage my start players to inflict some hurt but the orcs managed to score early and clear them both off of the field.  I had a plan to stop the TD but the loner dwarf I was forced to bring to the match rolled snake eyes and knocked himself down at a critical moment.  In fact this happened twice that the first roll I made on a turn was a 2 die block and my dude fell down - even if the teams had been even that would be enough to lose me the game.

I tried to answer with a touchdown of my own in the first half but couldn't make it happen.  That same loner dwarf who screwed up the defence also managed to fumble the ball and cost me my touchdown on the backswing - that guy is not getting hired by my team!

The second half went even worse than the first.  The orcs pounded my team to bits, and I made a desperate attempt to run around them to score but got stymied, my blocks amounting to nothing.  By turn 12 I had only four dwarves left on the field and three of those were down.  Frustrated, I conceded the match to get out of it without anyone else getting injured.

That concession was wrong.  With three dwarves down I should have just passed the turn, let Umbra foul me brutally, and hope that my dudes wouldn't accrue any lasting injuries.  I would only have to cope with 3 fouls and a knockdown, I think, and even though I could easily get dudes killed that way it would have been worth the risk to get the cash and experience from finishing off the match.

In any case Umbra bashed the hell out of my team and ended my playoff run.  Funnily enough I think I actually have a better shot at winning the finals than he does, because he goes on to face an elf team.  I have better ball carrying, way more Tackle, and a much lower team value than Umbra does.  The elves will get a wizard and all kinds of other goodies against him and I think he rates to lose in the finals.  I don't know that I am favoured to win by any means but I think I rate to do better.

Next season I am starting with a 10 dwarf roster and only 20k in the bank.  I need 70k just to get my full team, never mind needing to get a 12th player to have a bench.  Plus I have to fire and replace my blitzer who has a niggling injury once I accumulate enough cash to do that.  Next year will definitely be a rebuilding year.  Maybe I can reverse my fortunes - last season I kept setting fire to all my cash because the dwarves were so healthy and then hit a massive rash of injuries and deaths near the end that ruined me.  Perhaps the coming year can begin with money problems and an injured lineup and end with me flush and sporting a bunch of dwarves ready to rumble.

We can only hope that the dice will provide.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The old days are back

Blizzard announced a little while ago that they are bringing back classic World of Warcraft.  They are going to be launching servers that will be running vanilla WOW so everyone can experience the game that dominates the industry like it was when nobody knew anything.

Most of the interest in this is purely nostalgia, I think.  People have been calling for vanilla WOW servers forever and it looks to me like those calls are mostly people trying to recapture the magic of the good ole days.

I love those ole days.  I have such amazing memories of raiding back in the beginning, of exploration, of losing myself in an online world.  There are no end of friends that I felt so close to and then lost when we no longer had the game to keep us together.  But let's get real:  I can't have those days back.  Doesn't matter what WOW looks like, doesn't matter what version they are running.  I can't be childless, mid 20s, and seeing an MMO for the first time.  Nobody can give that back to me.

There are some things that Blizzard can do that would attract me to WOW classic though.  Some of the things I call for in the game are things that I remember from the early days.  For example, I love challenging monsters.  I remember having to carefully pull one mob at a time because if two came at me it was bad but if three came at once I would die.  I remember not having a quest system that highlighted my map, so practice and knowledge really came home.  These are things I would enjoy about classic WOW.

But man there are so many incredibly shitty things about it.  Whole specs and talent trees that were complete rubbish really bogged the game down.  You could be a feral druid, except that was worse than just being a regular druid who hit things with a staff and cast moonfire every 9 seconds.  One spell every 9 seconds!  Optimal damage rotation! 

But there is more.  How about boss enemies designed to be attacked by 40 players that could only have 8 debuffs on them at once, when one class was designated a debuff class that needed to cast lots of debuffs to be even remotely good?

How about parties being designed around having 1 tank, 1 healer, and 3 damage dealers, but only 1 class of the 8 classes in the game having the basic toolkit required to tank?  So basically the game is mostly sitting around waiting for a warrior to show up because no one else can do that thing that you absolutely need somebody to do?

I remember a long quest chain that took me a full day to do and cost a ton of money to finish.  I finally got to the end and the reward was a green shoulder piece with Spirit and Agility.  Nobody in the entire game wants Spirit and Agility, so I sold it for a few silver pieces and was offended.  I would have been okay with just finishing the quest chain for no reward, or okay with a good reward, but that piece of trash that is useless to absolutely everyone was just an insult.

If Blizzard actually made vanilla WOW servers that brought back the brutal open world content, slow levelling, higher difficulty level, and other things that I remember happily from vanilla WOW I would be interested.  But there is so much complete garbage tied up in there I can't see them actually producing something I want to play, or something most others want to play.

There are things Blizzard could do to convince me to play this vanilla WOW experiment, but I doubt very much that they will do those things.  They are catering to nostalgia, not trying to reinvent the wheel.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Shambling across the finish line

This past week I had my Blood Bowl quarterfinal match.  I went in with a full 12 player roster and 130k in the bank, which is a strong situation.  I am playing dwarves while my opponent was running Chaos dwarves.  The classic good vs. evil slugathon!

I knew going in that the best way to support the team long term was to save my cash, and be conservative with my use of the apothecary.  The opposing team had a dwarf with Claw/MightyBlow, and that is dangerous.  Best to play it safe.

I also knew that I wanted to win that damn trophy and that you don't win trophies by sitting back and taking it easy!

I decided to just go for it.  I blew my entire bankroll buying a wizard, which worked out because my opponent was 20 Team Value above me.

So going into this game you would definitely expect me to win because our teams were solidly matched but I had a wizard to swing fortune my way.  My opponent had better bashing though, so you would expect my team to get hurt more.

Those expectations would be right.

I received the ball and began the slow process of pushing the enemy team down the field.  I knocked an awful lot of enemy dwarves over but just couldn't land any injuries.  My opponent began to whittle my forces down, and early on I took a 'miss next game' injury.

Decision point.  If I apothecary this, I have a good chance to run a full team for my next game, and have a better second half.  But if I save the apothecary I can potentially mitigate a worse result later.

I went for broke and saved the injured dwarf.

This was a disaster as by the end of the game I had a good lineman at level 3 die, and my best dude at level 5 took a niggling injury.  Catastrophe!

But although my opponent had great luck in injuring my dudes he had much worse luck in actually playing football.  I managed to keep control of the game, despite my losses, and scored at the end of the first half.  I started the second half down several players and things looked grim, but then I dropped my wizard's fireball on four enemy players and all four lost their coin flip and fell down.  I went from thinking that we were a sure thing to go to overtime where I would continue to get murdered to me cruising to victory in a single moment.  I grabbed the ball and ran off to score again, going up 2-0, which in dwarf vs. dwarf matchups might as well be infinity-0.

After kicking again I ran my team away from the opponent and let him score at will.  Being dwarves he only managed a single touchdown and I won 2-1.

I got really lucky on the fireball.  I also got lucky that my opponent's minotaur knocked himself down as the first play of a turn, and failed to stand up for multiple turns in a row.  Basically I lucked out on winning the game, and my opponent lucked out on murdering my dudes.

So I advance to the semi finals against a team that is 440 TV ahead of me because of my injuries, and my last opponent gets to take his healthy team and wait for next season.

I even managed to roll a 1 for money at the end of the game so I can't replace my dead dwarves, and might not even be able to replace them after another game!  I went all in, and got my win, but I sure didn't end up looking like a contender for first place.

Still, even if the expected thing happens and I get butchered in the semi, at least I made the semi finals twice out of two seasons in the league.  That is a decent showing.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Bad Doctor

I had my last Blood Bowl game of the regular season this week.  I had a choice to make ahead of time: Concede, and squeak into the playoffs with a strong team, no injuries, and lots of cash, OR play the game out and hope to get experience and not get my dudes injured.

I chose to play, because the dwarfs want to snap some necks!

It was the wrong choice.

I was up against a Nurgle team that wasn't even fielding a full roster of players and which was 400 Team Value under me.  That should have made it an easy game, but things didn't work out that way.  My opponent used that money to get a Bribe, a Wizard, and a Star Player that has a chainsaw.  The chainsaw is really swingy and can easily kill itself or opposing players, but since my opponent was retiring the team after the game he didn't care - he just wanted to hurt me as bad as possible.

The basic problem I had was that the chainsaw smashed through my team.  I knocked that player down multiple times but he just kept on getting back up, and after the second knockdown he jumped up and killed my best Troll Slayer. 

No problem though, because my team has a doctor.  The doctor tried to help the injured dwarf but ended up breaking his neck instead so he was a loss in any case.  After 21 games with the team the doctor has tried 4 times to save a dwarf from death and in every single case has botched the job and the dwarf ended up getting terribly injured and then retired anyway.

Stupid doctors.

In the first half I received the ball and slowly pushed it upfield.  I lost a dwarf to the aforementioned death but then finally scored near the end of the half and made it to halftime up 1-0.  However, in the second half my opponent kept on removing dwarves and used his wizard effectively to fireball 4 dwarves and he managed to score on the second last turn.  I was fielding only 8 dwarves at this point and only had one runner so my chances to score in 2 turns were bleak, at best.  As expected I could not manage the score and ended up in a 1-1 draw.

Now I did replace my Troll Slayer with a fresh one but the old player had three levels and the new one has none.  Dwarves are pretty good right out of the box though so my new player isn't a huge liability but my team definitely took a significant hit.

I have to go up against Chaos Dwarves in the first stage of the playoffs and this will definitely be a grindy matchup.  We are going to get into a dwarf punch showdown, and unfortunately I just lost a copy of both Guard and Mighty Blow with my dude dying so my winningness is much lower than it would have been if I had just conceded.

The really scary thing is the orc team from last season that knocked me out is still there and they have levelled up a bunch, especially compared to me.  If I go up against them I doubt I will have much of a chance - they have too much strength for me to dominate the field and I can't move well enough to just zip around them.

I think my chances of advancing in this round are pretty good, but my chances of winning the playoffs seems remote.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Come level with me

Recently Blizzard announced the lastest WOW expansion and some of the details really tickled my fancy.  The basic concept of an expansion focused around Alliance / Horde conflict is kind of meh, as I don't much care, but admittedly it is pretty hard to top the previous expansion where heroes basically went and killed Satan himself.  Once you do that, you really might as well go to war with each other, right?

The thing that caught my attention though was the revamping of levelling throughout WOW.  The old world will be changed so that all zones now level up with the player, though each zone will have a minimum and maximum level.  Noob zones will be 1-10, the rest of the old world is 10-60, Burning Crusade and Northrend are 60-80, Pandaria and Cataclysm are 80-90, and I assume the rest is being left as it is.

Right now if you are levelling you will find that you constantly outlevel zones so by the time you finish all the storyline the monsters are trivial and everything is a bore.  Plus if you are in the middle of a zone and you do some dungeons you can't go back to the zone because nothing gives experience anymore.

Also heirloom items that you hand off to your low level characters wreck the game.  They give bonus experience so they exacerbate the problems I have described above.  Gaining more experience faster actually makes the game *worse*.

As a consequence the levelling game sucks.

But when the zones level up with you this problem goes away.  Suddenly you can take breaks from a zone and do other stuff or level professions or run dungeons and then get right back to it and the zone will be a challenge and give meaningful rewards.  You can do whatever zone strikes your fancy instead of having to travel halfway across the world to find an appropriate place to be a hero.  You can follow all the storylines if you want and they won't end up being worthless or trivial. 

I LOVE IT.

I haven't wanted to level a new character in a long time but these changes are making me think about doing it again.

I do have one request though:  Make it hard.  All of these changes will be good but the levelling game right now is so trivial that it is hard to be engaged with it.  Make the monsters tough!  Let us die if we screw up.  People who don't like levelling get a free max level bonus with every expansion anyway so it hardly even matters.... just let the people who truly enjoy levelling actually have a gaming experience instead of a time passing experience.

Heck, if making the game have any challenge is out of the question then give us a hardmode.  Put an NPC in major cities that we can talk to that will make all monsters in flexible levelling zones +3 levels on us and give 25% more experience or something.  The zones will suddenly feel hard and we will have to be careful and I will *totally* do that.  The noobs can still have their mindless grind and the people who want everything to be challenging all the time can do that too.

You are doing a good thing here Blizzard.  And I know, years ago I would have told you that this idea wrecks immersion and feels bad and blah blah blah.  I was wrong.  Zones scaling with the character is the right way to be.  So do it, but please make sure that crusty old veterans like me can have our old school challenge back.  I want to plan.  I want to think.  I want to worry.  And when I fail to do these things, I want to die.

Make it happen, and I will go back to the World of Warcraft.  In 2005 I levelled up and hunter called Bluecape with his trusty wolf friend Ahortes.  It was challenging, and fun, and glorious.  Give me that again, and I will once again entrust you with my addiction.