Sunday, August 23, 2015

A single coconut tree

There are two things I think of when I think of surviving stranded on an island.  The first is a tiny hunk of desert with a single coconut tree on it, as is the standard for any number of cartoon jokes.  The other is Robinson Crusoe, which I read a bunch of times as a kid.

This past week while on vacation I played a bunch of a new cooperative game called Robinson Crusoe and I have lots of thoughts about it, particularly in light of the fact that I am building a cooperative survival game myself!  RC is complicated.  We watched an instructional video online before trying anything and spent a couple hours setting up the board and reading the manual.  There was an awful lot that we had no idea how to handle at that point but we muddled through our first game fairly reasonably, breaking the rules only maybe half a dozen times.  The game intrigued us for sure, and since I did play RC through four times I can't be too critical, but the game has some real issues.

The big problem with RC is simply the complexity.  I don't mind complexity of decision making... on the contrary, I love it!  However, RC has a lot of resolution complexity where figuring out what happens when you do a thing requires a bunch of rulebook lookups and experience.  We had three hardcore, experienced gamers who had put hours into trying to figure out the game and it was still a mess, though later playthroughs went fairly smoothly.  Even then though, the game is so big and cards do so many strange things that we ran into rules ambiguities quite regularly, enough so that you would need a huge collection of house rules to deal with all of it unless you are willing to hit up the internet multiple times per game.

Balance was also clearly not the designer's strong suit.  Each player has a class that can spend Determination tokens in unique ways and build a unique item.  The soldier is the absolute standout in this regard because the soldier can build weapons and palisades for only 2 Determination.  You can get 2 Determination from a single action, and in fact you can usually get more from that action in addition.  Any other class trying to build weapons needs roughly 3 actions to get it done, and palisades would take more like 5 actions.  It pretty much means that without the soldier you can't take those actions at all which basically rules out hunting as a viable strategy in the game.  Given that hunting is a fairly large component of the game I was disappointed to see that it was locked behind using a particular class.

The soldier's ability to build stuff with 2 Determination was so strong that all three of their other abilities were pretty much a joke - I could only imagine using them if somehow I were so flooded with Determination that I couldn't spend it all even spamming my build ability every turn.

While the game certainly put pressure on us we did win every time we played.  A lot of the time it was really close though, and I found that pressure to be quite reasonable.  However, the game includes a couple of ways to make it drastically easier.  You can bring along a dog which helps you take Explore or Hunting actions or bring Friday who is a native islander who will do whatever you want each turn, taking one action for you.  Using one of these extras will definitely help you, and if you are feeling especially cowardly you can use both.  That allows groups to really alter the difficulty level of their encounters, which means that the designers don't have to worry much about how hard each scenario is.  If they get it wrong, people will just drastically buff or nerf themselves to compensate.

I can't deny that the flavour and theme of the game was mostly very well done.  We certainly felt like we were desperately fighting off starvation and deprivation at all times, and the near death feeling persisted throughout.  The scenarios were generally fun, the cards had lots of neat stuff going on, and many of the mechanics told a story.  For example, some cards did things right away and then got shuffled into the Event deck to show up later as a consequence.  You could get a cold, then later have to deal with the fact that you made the entire group sick.  I liked that, and it was well done.

One thing that did rub me the wrong way is that all of the characters are white (adventurers or other thrill seekers from England, thematically) and that Friday was a black person who comes along as a servant.  That is obviously true to the RC source material, but still the white people having an adventure being helped by the black guy who the white folks don't even feed or allow to sleep in their shelter is very sketchy for obvious reasons.

So RC was fun, but I am not sure the longterm replay value is there to make up for the brutal learning curve.  It definitely feels like a game that will have pretty obvious plays after a couple times through and not a whole lot of variation on what you try to do.  Get a shelter, set up wood/food engines, then do your win condition.  This is something I feel is very important - games that have a huge amount of learning to play at all should have deep gameplay to reward the player for sorting it all out.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

How to save the world

So here is the question:  How do you want to go about saving the world?  I have written before about Sentinels of the Multiverse, a cooperative superhero themed game, and just this week I got to try Legendary, a quite different cooperative superhero themed game.  Stacking them up against one another is an interesting exercise as they have some obvious similarities in theme but the mechanics are totally different.

Lorewise there is no comparison.  Sentinels is the clear winner because when you play in Sentinels you are a specific hero and have all of their specific cards and abilities.  Your deck plays very differently depending on who you are playing and your cards have a lot of great thematic elements, quotes, and good mechanical support for the theme.  In Legendary it isn't even clear what you are because you draft hero powers and SHIELD recruiters, and add them to your basic SHIELD dorks to make a deck.  While some heroes have themes they aren't nearly so differentiated as they could be and it feels weird to be some kind of a SHIELD / Storm / Spiderman / Hulk hybrid.  I don't even know what I am meant to be, and that seems like a baseline you want to hit!

Legendary feels more balanced than Sentinels but that balance comes at the cost of differentiation.  The super villains have almost nothing making them feel different and because the heroes get all mixed up in your deck the game is very similar no matter what you pick.  The heroes are better balanced, the villains are better balanced, and I don't really care that much that they are because the game just isn't as much fun.

Normally I am the person desperately hunting for razor's edge balance in games and tweaking my games until they have it.  In Sentinels I spent a ton of time trying to figure out ways to balance the heroes and make the rubbish ones more competitive but I don't care that much about doing that in Legendary because it feels like it lacks replay value and engagement.  I know I could improve the game but just don't care to.

This is another great example of how balance is a good thing (Sentinels would be better if the balance of the heroes wasn't so completely out of whack) but it is far more important that the game grab you and feel fun that it is to get the numbers right.  You can do both though, and you should!

I think Legendary is trying to ride on the fact that it has the actual IP behind it instead of the made up superheroes of Sentinels and that pushed out a game that was just not up to snuff.  Unfortunate, but definitely unsurprising.  Games with IP behind them go that way most of the time I find.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Creeping up

Today the entirety of the new Hearthstone set was revealed, and it had two particularly standout entries:  Ice Rager and Evil Heckler.

Neither of these cards is super interesting in and of itself.  Both are common, basic bodies that will surely see play in draft decks but won't matter to the constructed metagame.  The really interesting part about them is that both are strict improvements to cards that already exist:  Magma Rager and Booty Bay Bodyguard. It doesn't take long to check out the Heckler and the Bodyguard and wonder why exactly the new card is just straight up better.

The Heckler just costs 1 less than Booty Bay, while the new Rager simply has one extra health.

A lot of people are complaining about this, yelling about power creep and laziness and greed.  Blizzard has been pretty careful about this though, as I am sure they don't want to really tick players off.  Both of the cards that were completely obsoleted were terrible cards that nobody played and both were free cards that came with the game.  You couldn't have wasted your money or gold or dust or anything to buy Magma Rager or Booty Bay Bodyguard, so that limits the outrage to some extent.

So these new cards aren't ruining anyone's investment, and they aren't changing the metagame in any way that matters because the replaced cards weren't *in* the metagame in any meaningful way.  Heck, the new cards aren't even especially good - Heckler might see some play, but I am not especially impressed, and Ice Rager is still terrible.  (Which shows how bad Magma Rager was!)

Given this, the charges of power creep are completely unfounded.  There are plenty of new, powerful cards in the new set but these ones aren't the ones pushing the limits.

But should Blizzard really be printing strict upgrades like this?  There is one other absolutely strict upgrade that I can think of, which is War Golem and Dr. Boom.  Dr. Boom is legendary so you can only have one of him in a deck but I don't count that as a relevant disadvantage.  War Golem is a absolute trash card and Dr. Boom is one of the best cards ever printed so it is rare to see them talked about in the same sentence, but technically it is an example of existing strict upgrades.

I don't think there is any compelling reason to complain about power creep here.  Blizzard is realizing that minions with low health aren't good, especially ones that are designed to be defenders like the ones pictured above, and that means they need to adjust their formulas.  This isn't a matter of power creep, it is a matter of using the whole design space and not feeling limited by old cards that turned out to be complete rubbish.

From an aesthetic standpoint though, I wish they would do something to change the old cards.

Blizzard could simply add one attack power to all three of the strictly worse cards and it wouldn't change the amount they got played but it would mean that they don't look quite so sad.  None of the three would end up in constructed decks, all three would be better picks in draft, and nobody would be able to complain about new cards being strictly better than old ones.

I think Blizzard has taken the tack that they aren't going to buff old cards though.  They want things to stay the way they are and will just print their way to a better set of cards for the format.  I can respect that decision - interfering with cards already printed does irritate people, so it should be done as sparingly as possible.


Thursday, August 13, 2015

Construction

I really enjoy upping the quality of my game prototypes.  It is silly, almost, in that they aren't finished products so maybe I shouldn't be pouring time into them like this, but I get a real satisfaction from improving the way they look.  As as example, the game Dot that I built a few years ago was played on a random printed out sheet of paper for quite a while.  Months ago I built a better model where I glued the paper sheet to a hunk of foam board, but the result was still very inelegant.  The paper was lumpy from the glue, the foam board was not smoothly cut, and it certainly didn't look like much.


 The new version is laminated, feels strong and solid, and actually looks decent.  I so often forget that a little bit of colour and some effort at proper layout makes a huge different in how a game presents to people.  The new version has a scoring track that is actually big enough and the two pieces can fit in a pretty tiny space.  I also built a similar version by attaching the same pictures to standard game board chunks that I stole from an old Risk board I had sitting around.  That particular Risk world now has some big holes in it, but I have another cool board option for Dot.


The tiles that you place on the board have been improved too.  They have gone from paper bits glued on to cardboard to paper glued with cruddy glue to shoddy foam to laminated paper glued with good glue to nicely cut foam board.  The difference in the hand feel and appearance is pretty substantial.


Plus the new version is actually water resistant so people don't have to worry so much about ruining it... and I don't have to cringe every time someone waves a drink around near the game, threatening hours of work.

Arts and crafts basic lessons, being slowly learned somewhat later in life than usual.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Turning point

I have been playing a ton of Hearthstone this past week.  I always loved Magic and only stopped playing that game because of the logistical and financial commitments so it makes sense that I get involved with a game very much like it that lacks those issues.  Hearthstone has much of the same appeal that Magic does with discussing decklists online, finding interesting combos, and figuring out metagames.  However I don't have to give up entire weekends to play competitively nor drop thousands of dollars to get into the game.  I can just squeeze it in whenever I have time and instantly play against people of my own skill level.

The thing that stopped me from liking Hearthstone the first few times I played it was that I had no interesting cards or decks.  I got the starter stuff but that contained very few decent cards and I pretty much ended up playing every game the same.  I only had a couple playable cards for each class so even swapping around to different classes didn't change the feel much - I was just playing out the same ogres and yetis as before.

I did okay considering how terrible the starting cards are but it was always sad to watch people throw down cards that were so superior to mine and getting blown out.  I would drop my 6/7 critter for 6 mana and then watch them drop a 5/5 for 6 mana that steals an enemy minion in addition and then I would be very sad about my chances.  Even more extreme would be my 2/1 for 1 and their 2/1 for 1 that also draws a card!

But Mogor saved me.



Mogor the ogre is a mediocre card that sees no play anywhere as far as I can tell.  I got a sparkly foil Mogor and it made me sad to see that the rare card I got was such a waste.

Thing is though, Hearthstone lets you melt cards down to dust and buy other cards with the it, and Mogor is both rare and sparkly so he is worth 1600 dust.  Random commons only cost 40 dust to make so suddenly I was loaded.  (Loaded for a newbie, obviously.)  I bought a big stack of good common critters, mostly a bunch of Mechs that all synergize nicely, and now all of a sudden I can build decks.  I don't have to be sad every time I look at my cards, and if there is something I want for my Hunter deck, I have enough dust to just buy it.

I certainly don't have all the things.  Most if not all decks have a few legendary minions in them that do crazy things and I don't have those minions.  However, that doesn't bother me overly much as I can just substitute something reasonable and be competitive anyway.  What I wanted was some options and to have a collection of the cheap and simple staples that decks all rely on and now I have them.  My current plan is to use my gold to buy Naxx wings as I get enough and slowly work my way through the solo content to get all the cards you get from clearing Naxx out.

I might have a new addiction on my hands.  Hearthstone is great fun with a mix of hilarious random blowouts and careful strategy that really works for me.  I love that I can do it with a minimal life commitment and without pouring money down the drain endlessly.

And it is all thanks to Mogor the Ogre.  Cheers Mogor!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The spiral continues

WOW just announced that it has gone down to 5.6 million subs.  This is a far cry from its peak at 12.5 million, but it certainly isn't unexpected.  WOW subs have been on a relatively smooth curve throughout WOW's life just as nearly all MMOs are and it is slowly losing subs with time in a predictable way.  There are spikes of course, at the beginning of new expansions, but nothing seems to be able to budge the basic curve that continues to emerge.

People have this remarkable tendency to assume that whatever things irritates them most at the moment is responsible for this loss - whether it be pvp imbalance, their favourite class sucking, too much homogenization, whatever.  I just read a big chunk of a thread about how the latest structure for raiding is killing WOW, specifically that restricting the highest difficulty of raiding (Mythic) to 20 person groups is a problem.  That theory is silly of course because while there are a few 10 person guilds out there who actively disbanded because they want to do mythic difficulty and can't recruit up, most of those guilds were headed out anyway.  Those people could have just done heroic mode, or joined another guild wanting to do mythic, but neither would suffice.  Pretty clearly they just didn't have enough people that really wanted to play.

My old guild, OGT, was like that.  We got a lot of stuff done back in the old days of WOW's maximum popularity but eventually things fell apart when people just didn't want to play enough.  In Burning Crusade we put up with the hassles of recruiting and dealing with buffoons and got our guild up to 25 person strength despite starting with 10.  We could have done the same again had their been the will to do it, but the will was not there.  We didn't want to play WOW badly enough to make it work.  That doesn't mean WOW sucked when we stopped raiding, nor that it sucks now, it just means that running a high performance group with a lot of people is a lot of work and weren't willing to do that anymore.

WOW is still a lot of fun.  By all accounts the last two raids are among the best raids ever in terms of top end challenge for the best players.  There are a bajillion things to do that weren't there in the beginning like the brawler's guild, pet battles, and toy collection.  No matter what Blizzard does the same curve is going to apply and subs will continue to slide, slowly trending towards zero.

There are a lot of years before it finally dies though, pet theories about what will be 'the WOW killer' notwithstanding.

And hey, they are about to announce the next expansion.  More things to kill!  More stuff to collect!

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Gone Fishin'

It has been a month now that people in WOW have had access to the latest content so I figured I should review it.  My guild is 9/13 normal mode in Hellfire Citadel and so far I think it is well done.  There is a distinct progression ramp up throughout the zone both in loot quality and difficulty and that feels smooth and polished.  Most of the folks in my guild haven't got a lot of stuff they still need from normal mode except for tier pieces and trinkets.  There are a couple slots where people will get 5 more ilvls but it isn't much of a thing.  The fights are varied and interesting though and I am enjoying that.

The shipyard, the new addition to the garrison, on the other hand, isn't so great.  Blizzard succeeded in making it quite different from followers but much of that difference boils down to the shipyard being terrible.  Once you get the mandatory bits done to get your legendary ring it mostly becomes a huge time and resource hog, allowing you to spend huge amounts of resources to gain modest amounts of gold.  Unlike followers ships rarely have anything interesting to do and the great majority of missions are actually worse than nothing because your ships will often be destroyed if you fail.  While there is nothing inherently wrong with ships dying on missions in theory, this ends up meaning that after a disastrous failure you have to spend a lot of time rebuilding and training up new ships (and often they will end up sinking again before you get them trained fully up!) rather than doing something interesting.

The solution I have come up with is to mostly abandon combat.  My navy isn't about fighting enemy ships!  Instead of being all about war on the high seas I just outfitted the fleet with fishing nets and I send them on trivial training missions to gather fish instead.  There are missions that award lots of experience but those are dangerous, especially for ships set up to catch fish... instead I do the missions that are safe, have almost no reward, but allow my ships to trawl the seas for a flopping, slimy haul.

Somehow having all these sparkly missions with rewards that aren't worth getting feels wrong.  Something isn't entirely working here, and although normally I have suggestions for fixing the problems I really don't know what to say here.  Ships aren't especially fun, the stuff that is supposed to be exciting isn't worth doing, and all I do is send my ships out to train on target dummies.

It just isn't heroic.

Followers ended up being a real balance issue because they so trivially brought in huge sums of gold.  The game is going to need to get fixed in a big way when the next xpac launches to make sure that followers don't remain the main source of gold forever.  However, while they were around followers were fun and optimizing my army was a source of great entertainment.  For some reason followers going out and earning gold and gear is fun and ships going out fishing isn't.  Theme matters, it turns out.