Sunday, February 28, 2016

Testing, testing

I have all the art for Camp Nightmare ready to go and uploaded to  Last night I was sitting at my computer, work completed, staring at the Confirm Order button.  All I have to do to get 100 copies of the game to launch towards my place is hit the button, pay ~$3200, and wait.  It is a nerve wracking sort of situation.

Thing is, there are two real options.  Option one is to just hit the button and hope.  I *think* I have everything done correctly, uploaded the way it should be, and all the stuff should fit.  But if 100 copies arrive and I made some silly error in the UI I could have 100 copies of junk.  I have a lot of confidence in my abilities, but there are so many things that could go wrong.  The first box I wanted to order would never have worked because it has a divided in it that makes adding in instructions infeasible.  Only way to find that out is to get screwed by it, or randomly get advice to that effect.  I dodged that bullet... but what other bullets are speeding towards me that I don't know about?

The other option is to just order a single copy and if it arrives and all is well then I can order the whole shebang.  This is the sensible choice, but it means that I won't be able to get all the copies in time for Back To The Lounge #15 which is happening in about four weeks.  I don't have to have the copies for then, I suppose, but I have been slugging away at this for so long it would feel absurd to show up at my annual gaming extravaganza without my game in tow.  Somehow it feels like defeat to have a single copy show up, examine it to see it is all well, and then go back and do the thing I should have done in the first place.

Suprisingly my money demon wasn't even able to convince me to take option 2 and be safe.  I want it done, I want the stuff here, and I sat on the fence, torn between confidence and doubt, money and desire.

Wendy, on the other hand, thought ordering all of the games at once and just hoping that all was well was a silly proposition.  There will be more years, time isn't running out, and throwing away that kind of money on a mistake is foolish, or so she says.

She is right, most certainly.

Then I found out that TheGameCrafter will only send you one test copy for your first order anyway.  They (quite sensibly!) don't want people ordering huge stacks of games and then freaking out and trying to cancel their credit card payments when a tiny error in uploading means the game is completely ruined.

So my dilemma solved itself.  No copies of Camp Nightmare to sell at Back To The Lounge... but when I do get them they will be done right.

Also if you want to play games all day with a bunch of middle aged former mathies in Waterloo this Easter Friday, then hit up that Back To The Lounge thing.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

In my sights

Big Game Hunter is a big deal.  Hearthstone is powerfully shaped by its very existence, and in fact there are plenty of cards whose lack of inclusion in decks can be traced to BGH's influence.  That doesn't mean that BGH is in every deck of course, but it is in enough decks that many legendaries that have 7-8 Attack would actually be better off with 6 Attack because then they would not be a BGH target.

There is a delicate balance in Hearthstone where just enough 7+ Attack minions are played to justify some BGH inclusion, but should the metagame ever evolve to contain many more 7+ Attack minions BGH usage would jump up and then those big minions would suddenly become terrible again.  Letting your opponent blow up your 8 mana card for just 3 mana and then get a 4/2 body on top of it is often too much of a tempo swing to survive.  The only thing really keeping big dudes in the game is Dr. Boom because he is so overpowered that even with BGH out there Dr. Boom is worth playing.  There is basically a BGH equilibrium, whether we like it or not.

I think this is a sorry state of affairs.  It is definitely good that people have to consider how many expensive spells to play, as you don't want every deck to just load up on 8 cost monsters, but there are plenty of aggressive decks that will punish anyone so foolish as to attempt this.  The nice thing about aggressive deck is that punishment is very granular and you can carefully work on your deck's mana curve to make sure you aren't getting too greedy.  BGH, on the other hand, basically just guarantees that it is specifically the 7 Attack minions that are bad.  9 cost dragons that are 4/12 are just fine because although they are slow you can't get blown out by BGH like you can with an 8/8.  BGH really warps the high cost minion market in a way that I feel is bad for the game.  Nothing else in the game suggests that having a huge Attack number is bad, but BGH really enforces that.

Given that BGH is in the Classic set he is destined to be around in Hearthstone forever.  It is fine to have tech cards in the basic set, in fact it is ideal, but I question whether a tech card that is this powerful is a good idea.  If for example people really only used BGH to fight against Handlock decks then it would be totally fine because it would be a rare choice used by a few decks that have rough Handlock matchups.  Unfortunately it is used against everyone, and that is not a restriction I would like to see in the game forevermore.

So what can we do about it?  I wouldn't want BGH to be nerfed to uselessness, so one simple option is to make it a better baseline minion and reduce its Battlecry in efficacy.  For example, if it did 4 damage instead of outright destroying the minion but had its base stats upgraded to 4/3 I think it would be a great card but much less swingy.  Far better to play on turn 3 if you have to, and far less brutal on turn 9 to kill a giant monster.

Unfortunately that solution still leaves BGH in a spot where it makes 7+ Attack minions much worse than those with 6 Attack.  I don't much like that breakpoint, so I came up with a few options that get away from it.  The first is mathematically pleasing but clunky to implement:  BGH does 1 damage to a minion for each Attack it has over 4.  So a 5 Attack minion takes 1, 6 Attack takes 2, etc.  This is similar to the previous example but isn't simple to explain on a card, so it probably isn't going to fly.

The other option I considered is to have BGH reduce an enemy minion's health to 4.  This is pretty worthless in the early game, but is really good at doing a number on big health minions in the late game.  There is no breakpoint where big minions become bad though which I like a lot.  It retains the general flavour of hunting big monsters, reduces BGH's overall swinginess, and gets rid of the 7+ breakpoint that irritates me so.

I don't know that BGH is on Blizzard's radar, but I really hope it is.  There are a lot of really fun 7+ Attack Legendaries out there and I want them to see the light of day.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The correct nerf

Blizzard has announced that they are going to be making some adjustments to core cards in Hearthstone, probably coming both from basic cards that everyone has and the Classic set that is going to stay in their new Standard format forever.  There are a few things people are suggesting that they deal with but the really standout issue that Blizzard has to resolve is druid combo, which is based on these two cards:

Force of Nature / Savage Roar can smack your opponent for 14 in the face from an empty board.  (Roar makes each tree do 4, and then you personally do 2.)  People absolutely hate that when playing against a druid you cannot let yourself go below 15 health or you just die next turn.  It gets even worse when you let the druid have even a single extra minion in play, because then you might not be able to safely be below 20 health.

The combo is incredibly effective, so much so that nearly every druid deck runs it.  It is so prevalent that the designers rightly see it as a huge design constraint - how do you make other cards good enough that people won't want to run the combo?  As such, there is definitely real consideration that the combo should be nerfed.  But how should they go about doing this?

Consider Fireball.  It costs 4 and does 6 damage.  Force of Nature on its own costs 6 and does 6 damage.  It is basically a giant pile of junk, and would never see play again if Savage Roar was gone.  Savage Roar on the other hand is a solid card and appears in lots of decks with or without Force of Nature.  So clearly nerfing Force of Nature is just going to relegate the card to the dustbin, while nerfing Savage Roar might leave it still useful.  There is a third option though, which is to buff Force of Nature while nerfing its interaction with Savage Roar specifically.

A simple option is to raise the cost of Savage Roar to 4.  That pushes the combo back to turn 10 instead of turn 9, and generally weakens the combo deck by destroying the possibility of comboing with 2 Roars at once.  The trouble with this nerf is that it probably leaves these two cards as only useful when comboed together and otherwise as bad options.  I don't much like the idea of designing cards so that the only way they can be used is in degenerate combos that blow people up from hand without any lead up or counter.  You could still see Roar used in druid decks that flood the board, but this nerf would indirectly punish them a lot because they already have a ton of 4 cost cards that benefit from a big board.  (Cult Master, Soul of the Forest)

If instead you focus on nerfing the interaction between the cards you could make Force of Nature a single 8/8 with Charge that died at the end of the turn and this would make things a lot less ridiculous.  It would be more effective on its own without Roar and would likely see some play as a powerful finisher.  However, the combo would only generate 12 damage instead of 14, and if you did manage to cast a second Savage Roar you would only up the damage to 16 instead of pushing it to 22.  A 12 mana combo that does 16 damage is still a threat, but it feels a lot more appropriate in terms of resources to reward ratio.  The trouble with this change is that it does alter the flavour of Force of Nature in that it summons a single tree instead of a horde of them.

Fundamentally I think you have to approach this from the perspective of trying to keep the cards viable individually.  They are so powerful together that if you nerf them randomly until the combo is bad, then the individual cards are almost certainly garbage.  That seems like a waste and certainly would be sad for the druid class in general.  However, from the way that Blizzard has nerfed things in the past I would not be surprised if Savage Roar suffered some absolutely brutal nerf like reducing its effect to +1 instead of +2 or raising its cost to 5.  Either of those would completely destroy the card's viability and render both combo pieces worthless junk.  This has been the fate of virtually every card Blizzard nerfed in the past, and while I disagree with that approach I would not be in the least surprised if that is what happened here.

Still, Blizzard is trying to build a permanent set of cards for a small format this time so they have distinctly more incentive to try to make something balanced instead of just nerf cards into oblivion like they have in the past.  Hopefully they use something like my suggestion so that both Force of Nature and Savage Roar can have a place that isn't quite so frustrating for those playing against them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

More swings

Naked Man and I are having some interesting discussions right now about critical hits and fumbles in DnD.  He favours fumbles existing, and the option of open ended critical hits.  I don't prefer either of those, largely because I like difficult fights.  To my mind really swingy abilities and mechanics tend to make fights really boring because they need to default to really easy or you wipe out the party regularly.

Think of it like this:  Imagine a fight between a hero and a villain who each do 1 or 2 damage every round.  If the hero has 10 HP, the villain definitely can't have 9+ HP because the hero is going to die a lot.  However, if the villain has 5 HP, they die pretty trivially.  However, you can give the villain 6-7 HP and make sure the hero feels threatened but stands a very small chance of being killed.  The result of the fight is predictable, but the hero feels like they were in a dangerous situation.

Now imagine instead that the fighters sometimes roll badly and fumble, losing not only that action but also their next action.  Also imagine that they score critical hits, enabling them to do a lot of damage sometimes.  I model this with damage totals randomly chosen from between -1 and 4.  If the hero has that same HP of 10, the villain can easily kill them in 3 hits.  Not most of the time, mind you, but it is a real threat, and 4 hits is no problem.  Because of this if you want the hero to win you have to give the villain a really low amount of health, say 3 or 4, to make sure that the hero comes out on top.  Problem is, that means that the hero is often going to kill the enemy on the first or second turn and will rarely feel threatened.

In DnD fumbles don't occur on every fourth swing of course, and neither do crits.  However, the presence of extreme swings in combat really forces the GM to scale back the power of enemies if they want their campaign to have a lot of longevity.  This is exactly how most hardcore dungeon crawls worked in the old days - players were constantly encountering a handful of orcs, butchering them instantly, and moving on.  There isn't anything necessarily wrong with fights being really easy, but it does mean that players are going to experience an awful lot of seemingly trivial encounters before something really bad happens and they are seriously worried about dying.

That situation of general easiness is especially difficult with big serious encounters against bosses and such.  With really swingy combat you have to accept that the players are going to die a lot, or that they risk blowing up the boss on the first round and being really disappointed.  It is much harder to achieve an epic feel when blowouts like that occur.

I think some people really don't mind that style.  They feel okay if they end most fights having taken no damage and having just mashed their opponents.  Some people really do like just waiting until the dice break against them to find their excitement.

Heck, some people enjoy every encounter being a near death experience and constant player deaths and party wipes.

Neither is really my thing.  I like battles where the key turning points are decisions moreso than luck.  I would prefer that the outcome is far more dependent on which abilities I use and which the enemies use than which of us rolls 20 on two d20s and explodes someone in a shower of gore.  I like fights that use my resources and make me feel like I had to work for it.  That doesn't mean every fight has to be 'balanced' but it does mean that the ones that feel tight and challenging really get me going.

I just don't get much value out of boring decisions creating huge effects based on the dice breaking weirdly.  For me, that means that critical hits and fumbles are mostly a negative experience because they either wipe out the party, make potentially interesting fights into trivial affairs, or mean that the GM only serves up easy stuff and I feel more like a exterminator than a hero.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Unnecessary breakage

Yesterday I was watching a bunch of my friends play a word association party game.  The basic idea is that you have two teams, and on each team one person is the caller.  There are twenty five cards with random words on them laid out on the table, and the caller has to try to give clues to get their teammates to guess their own cards without guessing the opponent's.  Teams alternate giving clues until one team discovers all of their own cards.  Each clue has to be a word and a number, and the obvious thing the numbers are supposed to mean is 'how many cards match this clue'.

So if the cards were


I might say "Animal, 2" to get my partner to guess Dog and Cat.

I started immediately thinking about how to optimize the clue giving to improve my odds.  The people playing were all just playing like the rulebook suggests, getting 1-2 cards each turn.  Fairly quickly I realized the optimal solution to this problem is to simply use an 18 digit number after the word to describe exactly which cards were the ones to pick.  Each set of 2 digits describes a particular card in the group, so the word itself doesn't even matter, the 18 digit number tells your partner all 9 cards they need to pick to win the game.

The rulebook does not suggest that this strategy would be against the rules.  They apparently hadn't counted on me trying to ruin a perfectly fine party game by applying thinking to the problem.

However, my solution doesn't simply provide a really good strategy - it outright ruins the game.  Given this, I decided to try to think of some more cool strategies that were powerful but which didn't render the game a coinflip nor completely remove the whole word association aspect.  One thing I decided is that the number you give definitely has to be a single digit integer.  Allowing people to go up to 9 to establish signals should definitely give me some cool design space, but hopefully will allow the players to still play the game.

What I was thinking with this is just leading with the assumption that any number you give above 0 is a signal as to card placement.  So if I said "Animal, 5" my team should assume that they should find precisely 2 cards associated with Animal and then pick the fifth unknown card in order.  This loses out if you can actually clue 4 cards at once with a single category, but lets you get 3 cards on the great majority of your clues, and I suspect that is good enough.  You could use 0 as a signal to just pick the single card associated with the word you state, which seems like a thing you want to have in your arsenal but which is pretty bad.

By my way of thinking, the power to nearly always get 3 is the ticket to winning.  If you screw it up, fine, but aggressively going after good turns is going to be the way to win the majority of the games.

In my head this kind of thinking means that people who make party games should totally hire me to review their rule sections to write things to prevent shenanigans like this.  I suspect what it really means is that I don't get how people play party games at all.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Here kitty kitty

Sthenno linked me to a new kind of idle game that is a cross between cookie clicker and civilization.  It is a lot more interesting than most idle games because you actually have a lot of control over how you design your economy and there are so many kinds of resources and ways to convert them that figuring out the best use for all of your stuff is really pretty complicated.  The title of the game is Kittens Game, and it seems like somebody had a ridiculous idea for kittens and catnip and clicking and then spent months bolting on a complete civ style economy simulator on top of it.

However ridiculous that sounds, it is a pretty cool game.  One of the things I like a lot about it is that there are so many requirements for making new stuff that you really have to think a lot.  The obvious one is that new technologies require a certain amount of science to acquire.  That sounds easy enough, but you have both an amount of science in reserve and a science cap.  So if Theology costs 20K science, you have to not only accumulate 20K science but you have to build up to the cap so that you can actually store that much.

Because you have to pay attention to both your rate of acquisition and your cap it makes saving up for things a lot trickier.  You can't just decide to get Theology and wait till that happens - you have to figure out how much wood and minerals you are going to want to build all of the Libraries and Academies you will need to get your science cap up.  Then you have to consider how much iron you want to be making, because the iron you make costs wood and minerals.  Your wood and minerals come mostly from assigning your workers to chop trees or work in mines, but you can also get wood by farming it.  That is just the very tip of the iceberg too, there are so many options to think about.

And I am just learning about Theology!  There is so much game left, because apparently this game goes all the way through modern tech.  I can hardly imagine what kind of mess it is going to be once I have to manage another two dozen resource types.  But it is the loveliest kind of mess, one that consumes my brain as I desperately try to figure out how to make it beautiful.

Like most idle games, and unlike civ, Kittens Game is not one you can lose.  Your kittens keep on getting stuff, and once you have new techs and buildings they stay there.  It is purely an optimization game, one where all you do is try to more efficiently do the things you were already doing, and find new things to optimize.  There isn't a goal, as far as I can tell, just a constant stream of stuff to do.

Make numbers bigger.  Find new things to count.  Then make *those* numbers bigger.  Wheee!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Follow the leader

Hearthstone is officially following in Magic's footsteps.  In Hearthstone there will be a new format called Standard consisting of just the most recent sets and the basic and Classic sets, and all old adventure and expansion cards will rotate out.  There will still be a format where anything goes called Wild, but competitive play will be focused around the new Standard format which will end up being reasonably doable for new players.

I said awhile ago that they would have to do this but of course I wasn't alone.  Everyone could see that the game would become impossible for a new player to get involved in unless they did something just like this.  It is a good change, I think, and will definitely set things up so that newer players have a chance to play without dropping a grand on their first day.  Honestly there isn't a lot of controversy over what I have said so far and people pretty much agree that the new format is at least necessary, if not particularly something they want.

The thing that has them all wrapped up in a bunch though is that the old adventures and expansions will no longer be purchasable from the store when they rotate out.  You will now be able to craft those cards though, and disenchant them, so you can still get the cards if you really desperately want to.  However, new players will never be able to play through the Naxxramas adventure because it will be gone forever, nor buy GvG packs hoping to get a Dr. Boom.  This has a lot of people pissed off.

Here is how the math on this works out:  If you are a new player and you wanted to get GvG cards it will cost you a lot more money to buy all kinds of new cards and disenchant them to get dust than it would if you could buy the GvG packs outright.  When GvG rotates out, the cost of completing the set will skyrocket.  What this will mean is that a new player who really wants to play with all the cards is going to have a hell of a time trying to establish a complete collection.  So is this just a money grab by Blizzard?

I don't think so.  The number of new players who walk in looking for a ton of old cards is going to be small.  Those people are going to play Standard, barring a few exceptions.  Blizzard isn't going to make more money by denying people the chance to pay for stuff, not directly, but what they will do is improve the new player experience for the average person.

This is pretty much exactly the sort of decision Blizzard made with Diablo 3.  They barred people from playing offline because they didn't want to deal with the issues of mixing offline characters that are constantly hacked and online characters that are legit.  In D2 it was a constant problem that people would play offline, then go online to play with their friends, and discover that they either had to play with all the hacked characters or start again from scratch.  D3 forced people to play online so that everyone had a single experience and anyone that played with a friend could just use their regular character to do so.  It made the overall experience better even though it reduced people's options.  Some people who can't get online were pissed, no doubt, but I think they were greatly outnumbered by the people who didn't have to deal with the hassle of not being able to mix offline and online characters.

Same deal here.  Not being able to buy old packs and adventures is going to irritate a few people who walk in and want to compete in an old format with boatloads of cards they don't own... but those will be very few.  The newbies who wander in and buy random packs and adventures and are *forced* into playing the Standard format this way will be a lot better off because they won't end up making the mistake of trying to collect the entire game.  By pushing new players into Standard where they will be much better able to compete and by making sure their cards are Standard compatible Blizzard will push new players into the spot that is best for them.

People hate being pushed like this.  They yell loudly and fiercely that they want freedom to make their own mistakes and let the noobs suffer for their ineptitude.  However, the veterans that yell about this won't actually be significantly affected by it for the most part and I think it will be a better experience for new players overall.  In this move Blizzard is catering to the masses of casual players and people that join up without doing a bunch of research at the expense of the hardcore old timers.  While that is bad for me personally I think it is good for the health of the game going forward.  Bringing in new people and giving them the best possible experience in the early going is key, and this new structure seems likely to accomplish that.