Tuesday, December 29, 2015

What a game is

This Christmas my family got involved in a couple games during our annual Christmas party.  The first one was Camp Nightmare, and the second one is a game called CLR.  (Or LRC, or RCL, or any combination really.)  Camp Nightmare is a strategy game (which I am currently Kickstarting!) that requires a lot of thought and consideration to maximize your score.  CLR is a long, complicated way to randomly roll a die to see who wins.

I consider Camp Nightmare a game.  As, I imagine, anyone else would.  CLR though, is just a collection of rules for rolling dice to move tokens around.  It is competitive in the sense that you play it against a bunch of other people, but it is only a game in the sense that you sit around doing nothing productive and somebody wins.  There is no decision made at any point.  You never have an option, you never make a play.  You just roll dice a lot until there is a victor.

I don't get the appeal.

Sitting around chatting, this I get.  Maybe with the aid of snacks, or maybe not.  I totally understand the appeal of games like Cards Against Humanity, not least because you can actually be good at that game, though obviously there is a lot of random.

But the desire to sit around and engage in an long duration not-game boggles my mind.  If I sit down to chat and socialize, I want to be able to talk.  I also enjoy the ability to leave mid game without wrecking it for people.  For me a totally random game has neither of these advantages.  People spend their time yelling about nothing, and are chained to the table while the game winds its way down.

I get wanting to play a strategy game.  I get wanting to talk.  But wanting to talk exclusively about a game where no one ever makes a choice?  Insanity.

To be sure, I can sit back and logically construct reasons for this.  If you don't want to talk to people about anything important, such a not-game can provide a way to say nothing and avoid controversial topics.  I sure don't want to do that as I am happy to be super controversial!

A not-game can also be a way for people who can't think of anything to say to pass the time.  Again, lacking anything to say is rarely an issue for me.

I suppose this is all very predictable given my attitude towards small talk.  I generally find small talk to fit somewhere between ridiculous and insulting.  Either have a real conversation or just say nothing!  Non-games are a form of small talk, providing an endless source of things to comment on that no one can object to.

Thankfully people don't often try to convince me to play such games, and my daughter is old enough that we can play games with some skill involved.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

A world to believe in

Charles Stross just wrote about some of the shibboleths in fantasy that drive him crazy.  There are some things in a lot of fantasy writing that really break things for Stross, and he rightly attributes some of them to Dungeons and Dragons influence, but there are plenty of other reasons that fantasy writing ends up being bad.

I found it interesting to think about how some of the worldbuilding I did for Heroes By Trade looks in this regard.  Stross was bitter about how currencies in fantasy worlds are so often fixed, based on simple base 10 conversions, and which bear no resemblance to the chaotic mess that real world currencies have always been.  In the world of Heroes By Trade there are a lot of things that seem at first glance like they would be even worse than this in terms of violating immersion.  There is an international standard for units of measurement, and the base unit is the meter.  There are also languages strictly associated with fantasy races that are widely, nearly universally even, understood.

Both of those things I would consider unforgivable failures in worldbuilding if encountered on their own, but in the world I built they exist for a good reason.  Systems of measurement were literally handed down by the god of Learning when that god created the satyrs, a race devoted to acquiring, sharing, and maintaining knowledge.  Sure, a random upstart monarch could decide to start measuring things by their own units like feet or barrels or cubits but arbitrary measurements are hardly likely to take hold when a comprehensive system is already in place and the scholars of the world are all dedicated to maintaining it.

The prevalence of a Common language in DnD worlds has often frustrated me as it seemed so ridiculous.  Spain and France didn't have a common language, much less Spain and China!  And yet I am satisfied with having a Human language in my RPG.  The difference there is that again, the language was handed down to the first humans by the god of Growth when they were created, and that creation was not so long ago.  There is time for drift over the intervening couple of hundred years, but there are still going to be a lot of enough similarities that communication is possible.  Again this is assisted by the fact that the scholars of the world are far more thorough and dedicated than the scholars of Earth ever were - they were literally born to do just that.

Thing is, I recognize the utility of a common language.  It can be fun to have characters enter a new culture where they don't speak the native tongue, but sometimes it ends up being a real blockade to enjoyment.  If you have a dozen games sessions that span a few weeks of world time the characters still can't speak the new language reasonably but people are probably tired of months of pantomime and guesswork and would like to just *talk* to somebody please!  At some point roleplaying people who can't speak to each other gets boring and having a common language really cuts through that.

Personally I really like worlds that make sense.  I have often found that DnD based worlds were utterly ridiculous, so unbelievable that they ruined the experience.  I like magical worlds, but I want a world where there are some fundamentally different rules but then things make sense once you accept those different baselines.  Sure, people can hurl fireballs and jump over walls, fine.  But if so why is it that rulers still seem to think that fortifications and armies are useful when it is clear the only real threat is the super heroes running around who pretty much ignore such things?

I want to be able to list the impossible stuff about the world, then follow that where it leads.  Most fantasy worlds list the impossible stuff, then continually make up new impossible stuff to justify why the world doesn't make any damn sense when the first list of impossible stuff is fully thought through.

Makes me wonder if Stross would buy into my worldbuilding or if he would find it as ridiculous as all the other things he rages about.

*** Also in Kickstarter news, my game Camp Nightmare has nearly all of the big ticket items bought up, so if you want to get your name or your creative ideas into Camp Nightmare then get on that!  There are still tons of basic game buy ins left, certainly.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Big face, tiny butt

I saw a discussion about a Hearthstone card called Magma Rager on the Hearthpwn forums and got to thinking about it.  Right now Magma Rager is unbelievable garbage, which no one is debating, so the question that was asked was "How much attack would Magma Rager have to have for it to be good?"

There are lots of other 3 mana minions to compare it against, and usually the default for getting played is about 8 stat points.  There are a number of 3/4 and 2/4 minions, but none of them are played unless they have some other kind of benefit - and the 2/4 minions have some *big* benefits.  Given that, I think we can reasonably model a simple but strong 3 mana minion as having 8 stat points to work with.  I am sure that a 4/4 for 3 would be played regularly, but I don't think it would be considered overpowered by any means.

You have to combine that with the fact that attack and health effectively multiply each other in Hearthstone.  A 1/7 is garbage compared to a 3/5 because being tough doesn't matter unless you can deliver value and force people to deal with you.  Similarly Magma Rager baseline not only has only 6 stats, which is awful, it also has a wide split that means that it dies to anything and can rarely use its high attack for anything useful.

So how high would that attack have to be for this card to be good?  Let's go nuts for a minute, and assume 30 attack.  Enough to kill people from full health in a single shot.  The card becomes totally insane as everyone uses it in One Turn Kill combos by giving it charge.  Right, so we know that you *can* give it enough attack to make it broken - so how high is just enough?  We know that 3 mana minions that are strong have 8 stat points, so how about a 7/1?

Well, a 7/1 is a fair bit more dangerous, but I still think it wouldn't be good.  It will die to an AOE, or a single hit from any 1 or 2 drop, and even some hero powers.  To be fair, druid and rogue hero powers kill it but the player has to take 7 in the face, and that isn't nothing!  7/1 has enough stats to be playable, but the imbalance still makes it bad.  You just can't throw it down on turn 3 and expect it to do much of anything, and that isn't a good card.  3 drops either have to be super powerful situational cards or just solid tempo plays on turn 3 and a 7/1 is neither.

If we ramp it up a lot we can consider what it would look like as a 10/1.  I think this would be too much since it becomes a totally outrageous amount of damage if you give it charge and starts to become really nuts with things like Shadowflame (deal damage to all enemy minions equal to a minion's attack.)  It also just *feels* wrong for something so cheap to be such a beating machine.  Why is Magma Rager, a total dork, so much more powerful than Tirion Fordring or Onyxia?

My sense is that the card would see play at 8/1.  Aggro decks could use it as a threat that must be answered instantly, and which punches through any giant taunt wall.  Combos with Charge or Shadowflame would become possible.  You would clearly never see this new, terrifying Magma Rager in any midrange or control decks aside from as combo fodder, but I think people would end up using it for something.

It is all about the numbers.  There really isn't any card or effect out there you can ignore if you make the numbers right, and this is something we have seen in all kinds of different games.  The threat and scariness of an ability is in how much it makes you worry about dying, and at 8/1 I think Magma Rager suddenly becomes something you ought to be concerned about.

Also, my Kickstarter for Camp Nightmare is still going on.  There are a few big 'design a piece of the game' backer spots left, so if you want to have a hand in how the game is made, head on over!

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


So I finally hit the giant red button.

(Unlike certain other giant red buttons, there was no "Do not hit this button" warning.)

My Kickstarter project for Camp Nightmare is live.  You can give me money and then I will turn that money into a co-op camping game for you.

Heck, if you give me even more money then you can build a card for the game, or just have your name immortalized in a card title in the game.  (Arash Prakash's Excessively Sharp Knife, for example, where the current card is just Knife.)

Here it is:  Kickstarter for Camp Nightmare!

You can see the page on Camp Nightmare here on my blog here.  The full rules appear there, if you are curious.

Feel free to support the Kickstarter, and to recommend to others if you like the idea and think they will too.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Follow me

Naked Man and I have been discussing the issue of melee vs. ranged at great length.  He really dislikes how in Heroes By Trade it is challenging for a melee person to stick to a ranged target and prevent them from effectively attacking with their spells / bow.  He likes the idea that a melee character can stay on top of a caster and prevent them from accomplishing much unless the caster outright flees and doesn't do anything.  Right now most of the time if a melee person gets adjacent the ranged person will simply step back, use their attack normally, and accept that the melee person will run in again on their turn.  Everyone gets to attack, and the melee person delivers relatively little disruption unless they are fighting in a very confined space.

There have been lots of suggestions to change this.  The default one is the one that DnD has had for a long time, which is to award attacks of opportunity (AoO) to people if someone moves away from them.  In DnD I often found this to be a mess because some classes had great single attacks, like fighters wielding 2 handed swords.  Other classes like rogues would often have completely worthless AoOs so people could just away from or past them with relatively impunity... which seems bizarre because leaving yourself wide open to a special attack from the person who specializes in capitalizing on openings seems like it should be terrible, not trivial.  It also lead to a constant arms race of people finding ways to ignore AoOs and then other people trying to counter that.  The end result was usually either that people were immune, which kind of defeats the point, or that they could never afford to provoke an AoO and they were stuck next to anyone who got adjacent.  I don't like static combat where everyone is pinned in place so I never much liked these options.

The latest thing we have been kicking around in this regard is a way to let melee people maintain contact without getting to pin ranged down trivially.  The idea is that you can spend a Move to Follow someone instead of actually moving.  This would mean that if they move on their turn you can follow them, which of course is capped by your normal Speed.  So if you are rushing up to a foe you can't just pin them in place, but if you are swinging away at someone who is just standing there you can forgo your Move to make sure that you stick to them if they try to run.

This has the advantage that it isn't going to change the equation *that* much.  It would give melee another useful option but they are often going to be unable to use it.  Unfortunately it does involve taking actions on other people's turns which is always a worry - readied actions and delaying have always, always been a problem in any game I have seen and this feels like it is going to be more of the same.  It is hard to predict what kind of crazy shenanigans are going to come up when a bunch of people all Follow each other in a chain but you know there will be brokenness and bizarre rules conflicts in there someplace.

So while this isn't crazy from a balance perspective it is messy from a rules perspective.  Right now there are options for melee people to punish ranged, and they are usually things like knocking the ranged person Prone or Grabbing them to keep them from getting away.  If you are just some random dork with no powers you are limited to swinging away and you aren't going to pin down that wizard effectively... not without help, at any rate.  3 dorks, one with a weapon specialized for Grabbing like a net, would actually be very effective indeed.  People with real abilities though can just make sure that they have and use powers that keep ranged folks from getting away.

It is a tough nut to crack.  I want there to be tradeoffs for ranged to counterbalance their obvious advantages, but I don't want those tradeoffs to be too punishing.  Doing so leads to really one sided combats that are over as soon as they start and that really isn't so much my thing.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Finding the level

I have been doing some laddering in Hearthstone, aiming to hit Rank 5 to get my free stuff each month.  Hitting Rank 5 isn't particularly challenging, but actually pushing past that to Legend has so far eluded me.  Mostly it is just the time committment - getting to Rank 5 and then winning 25 more games than I lose is going to take a lot of time even if I play well and have the right deck.

And that is not to say I am playing perfectly!  I still only have 30 games or so logged with my current favourite deck (Reno Handlock) and it is clear that I have a lot to learn.  I have all the cards for it, so I can't blame my collection, but it is a really complicated deck and requires a lot of practice to use correctly.

My brain doesn't quite read this game right.  I know that there are some matchups that I am going to struggle with massively and some I should find easy, but somehow my brain keeps suggesting that since I can reach Rank 5 I should be just steamrolling everyone at Rank 13 without any losses.  After all, I am better than the Rank 13 players!

But it doesn't work that way.

If I face off against midrange Hunter all day then sure, I will crush it big time.  They can't deal with a deck with a lot of big threats and 30 points of healing in it.  Even face Hunter seems like a good matchup because all I have to do is find Reno, play him, and laugh all the way to the bank.

Unfortunately I get totally wrecked by the new Entomb control Priest that seems to be a huge force on the ladder.  Even if I am better than the Priest player I doubt very much I can pressure them into making serious errors.  Their play against me is extremely straightforward.  When I face them, I just accept that I have a 66% loss rate at least.

I need to rewire my brain somehow, to make my instincts get in line with reality.  Even when I am only middling on the ladder there are still terrible matchups and terrible luck that can easily hand me a bunch of losses in a row.  I shouldn't expect to win each game, only expect to win enough games that I will slowly push my way up the rankings.  Even though my instinct says I should win until I face people that are better than me, reality says otherwise.

Hearthstone is definitely a game of skill, though clearly luck plays a big role in individual games.  Strange how I can't seem to convince myself of that emotionally, even though I understand it intellectually.

Friday, December 4, 2015

How hard

I bought the latest Hearthstone adventure and have bashed all of the bosses of the first three wings with little difficulty.  I beat all or them with homebrew decks of my own, though I did get some ideas for Lord Slitherspear while trying to figure out his mechanics.  While I want to sort out my own answers I do like to know what the bosses actually do without having to just guess my way through.  (Slitherspear supposedly has a hero power to bash for +5 but he doesn't actually do that.  Not sure why there is so much misinformation everywhere, nor why his normal and heroic are so different.)

The thing I have noticed about The League of Explorers expansion is that the single player content is really easy compared to earlier adventures.  In most of my previous experience I needed multiple deck revisions and 4-10 tries to beat a heroic boss.  Sometimes I got lucky and won quickly, but a lot of them took an awful lot of head scratching to solve, and even with an optimal deck I had to try many times to get lucky enough to win.

This new adventure though feels like with an optimal deck I win half the time and with a mediocre deck with some incorrect choices I win a third of the time.  Rather than agonizing over specific choices and trying over and over I just put in a bunch of stuff that makes sense, make a couple mistakes, and win.

What I am pondering is if this is the right level of difficulty or not.  I definitely can't just use a default deck for these scenarios, and I have to think about what exactly I am trying to achieve.  Once I get that strong concept together and execute reasonably I just win.  On some of the older fights it seemed kinda silly because it was obvious that no deck could ever put together a reasonable win rate.  Against Nefarian the first I tried over and over and constantly died on turn five or six, and when I finally did win it was kind of ridiculous.  Nefarian got a Shadow Word:  Death from his special ability, which kills a minion of Attack 5 or higher.  He dropped a huge dude, cast SW:D, realized that his dude was the only 5 Attack minion, and blew up the dude he had just cast.  Turns out that the opponent using an entire turn to do nothing really helps you solidify your position!  (Also wow does the AI not understand some particular cards.)

Some part of me is bored that the Heroic bosses in the new expansion are so easy in comparison.  I don't want all my content to vanish in an hour!  However, I also think that when you build the right deck, play it expertly, and then just die over and over again until you get the perfect draw and/or the AI does something unbelievably stupid it isn't really accomplishing anything.  It isn't as though all of those games trying to squeeze out a win and getting stomped were teaching me a whole lot.

I find myself on the fence.  I like the idea that heroic bosses require a weird deck and odd strategies.  I like that they require thought and innovation.  But I can't seem to get a hold on whether or not I like them requiring tons and tons of reloading just to get the right RNG results to actually get a win.  That seems kind of pointless, and yet the increased difficulty really does make you savour that win when it finally comes.  Probably the best compromise is to have the majority of the bosses be beatable with only a couple tries with the right deck and strategy, but to have one final boss that is totally ridiculous.  That bridges the gap between people bashing their heads against the RNG wall for days while still giving something really unforgiving and brutal for the lunatics to try for.  If Blizzard agrees with me then next week I will have something extremely challenging to try as the last wing drops next Thursday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The endiest of endgames

There is a card coming out very soon in Hearthstone that has some big potential called Elise Starseeker.  She looks like this:
 So when she arrives, she shuffles the following card into your deck:
 Which then shuffles this card into your deck:
Which is crazy!  Filling your hand and deck with legendary minions is a nutty effect.  Initially I dismissed this card as fun but silly.  After all, the first minion you get is not at all good, you have to find 2 extra mana in the middle, and although the final minion is superb it is going to appear *really* late in the game.

But the benefit to Elise Starseeker is not that you play her in a random deck and try to sift through all of your cards twice.  No, she will appear in decks where you intend to go through the whole deck, don't mind having an extra card in the deck, and are just waiting till turn 20 to really get going.  She will be a card you plan your entire deck and strategy around, not a throw-in.

So how would you do this?  First off, you don't need any finishers in your deck at all when you are running Elise.  You also don't have to worry about getting access to a bunch of gigantic idiots in the endgame because your endgame will inevitably feature a pile of terrifying yet random legendaries.  When you arrive at that point not only will your deck be full of gas but any random card draw or filler you have left over in hand will instantly turn into monsters.  Given that you can just run a deck with a low curve and endless removal, taunt, and board clears.

For example, in a Control Warrior deck you typically run a couple of win conditions like Grommash Hellscream and Ysera.  However, you regularly have the issue that Grommash or Ysera is sitting in your opening hand restricting your choices in the early game.  You can also end up with cards like Acolyte of Pain that are great card draw engines in the early going but which are worthless once your deck is empty.  Converting that Acolyte of Pain into a Hogger is a big upgrade, because even though Hogger isn't great his swarm of gnolls requires a swift answer.  Cruel Taskmaster and Fiery War Axe are similar in this regard and although they might find a use in the endgame they would be much better off as random huge idiots instead.  Unlike Ysera or Grommash you can and should just throw down Elise on turn 4.  She isn't superb by any stretch, but having the option to slam her down is *way* better than having a 9 drop you simply can't use.  Most of the time you will have better things to do, but sometimes a random 3/5 that can fight a shredder and live is just fine.

That doesn't mean every control deck will run this of course.  Some decks like Freeze Mage rely on specific high cost legendaries and don't want to run to fatigue.  However, a deck that hopes to win by fatigue already can use Elise as a really strong win condition that isn't worthless in the midgame and which greatly strengthens the play against another control deck when both decks are almost out.  She isn't going to be seen much, but it looks to me like she will fill a very powerful niche role that no other card currently occupies.

Elise looks to shore up two specific things - one, deck consistency in the early game against midrange and aggro, and two making the endgame against another control / fatigue deck a much better proposition.  Knowing that your final few turns will feature an cavalcade of scary, unpredictable threats is a rough position for your opponent because they will have absolutely no idea what to keep to counter you.  They can't think "Well, I just have to deal with Ysera..." because while you *might* have Ysera, you might have King Krush, or Feugen, or Confessor Paletress.  Who knows!  And when your opponent is down to only a few cards remaining it is a tall order for them to be able to deal with all the random you are going to pour out.

Both of those advantages are real, and I think they will cement Elise a place in the metagame.  Plus control vs. control matches are going to have some absolutely stunning endgame situations that will make slogging through 20 minutes of trading minions totally worth it.  The craziness that will ensue in some games with Elise will make this one of the best cards Blizzard has ever printed even if she doesn't actually see a lot of playtime.  Low usage, big impact.