Thursday, June 30, 2016

Its good to be lord

This weekend I played a game of Lords of Waterdeep for the first time and I am having trouble figuring out if I love it or hate it.  Lords is a board game that advertises itself as being of moderate length but ends up taking forever because of people trying to crawl inside each other's minds.  Individual strategy is simpler than Agricola, comparable to Puerto Rico, and is similar to Puerto Rico in that you can't decide anything of use without knowing exactly what everyone else will do.

I love Puerto Rico, so maybe I love Lords?  It has some mechanics in common, such as slow accumulation of bonuses on things that haven't been selected and essentially drafting job choices, and that seems good.  I definitely think the theme and fluff are fantastic - when I want to do a quest to save some injured soldiers I need to collect clerics to do it, then when I succeed I get a bunch of fighters to do work for me in a show of gratitude.  I am not a fan of the Realms from a roleplaying perspective, but the general DnD / fantasy theme is well done and I like it.

The general flow of the game was good, and felt polished.  I liked way the game was balanced too - quests were variable in quality, and although some quests being much better than others might strike others as imbalanced I thought it was excellent because then the actions that let you gain and/or manipulate quests became useful.  I enjoyed the game quite a lot for the first seven turns.

The eighth and final turn though... I dunno.  I was in the lead, just barely, but because some points are hidden and my hidden points were low I wasn't at all sure I was going to win.  I did have a pair of huge plays set up though, and it seemed that if I hit either of them I would win.  Unfortunately for me, everyone at the table decided to throw their turns away to prevent me from scoring either play.  All three other players failed to score a quest on the last turn of the game, which seems like it has to be extremely unusual, and I won via tiebreakers.

It didn't feel like a fun last turn though.  Even the player who had no chance to beat me tossed away her turns to stop my plays, and had she not done so she might well have been able to push her placing from fourth to third, while extending my lead from tiny to massive.  This was a result of a common dilemma - is the game simply winner take all, or does placing matter?  Being in first in a winner take all scenario is frustrating because people who can't beat you spend their time pounding you down instead of pushing their own placing, and it feels like scoring points and playing well in the early game might not even matter because it just means you get hammered in the late game.  If players were actually playing to maximize their own rank instead you end up with people getting in fights over 3rd/4th place, and that might just let the leader walk away with a victory while 2nd place stews that nobody focused on the leader.

In these sorts of situations I like to be playing for money with a points system to determine the payouts.  I remember encountering this sort of issue before when playing Settlers, and the system I ended up liking best was scoring people based on the difference between their own score and the average score of their opponents.  That means that endgame revolves mostly around maximizing one's own score, but punishing opponents is still useful.  I find that games are just more fun when each player is playing to push their own agenda, and taking a whack at opponents when they overextend or when a really juicy opportunity presents itself.  I don't mind being in first at having people put a target on my head so long as the entire game doesn't become "Beat Sky".

I wonder what it says about me that so often I want to 'solve' board games by introducing complex meta point systems and play for money.  Perhaps it means I take these things too seriously!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Ten to the what?

I have been playing some Clicker Heroes these past couple weeks.  I abandoned the game a long time ago, but the new additions to it brought me back to investigate.  Why it is I am brought back into a game that is fundamentally absurd I don't know, but I can't seem to stop myself.

The latest update is interesting because it changes progression in the game in a couple of fundamental ways.  It used to be that the game had severe diminishing returns on progress pretty much no matter how far along you were.  The first Ascension you would collect perhaps 7 Souls, the next one 10 Souls, etc.  I eventually got to the point where I was collecting 50,000 Souls per Ascension but it was clear that the next run would be 53,000, the next one 57,000, and so forth.  The numbers would always get bigger, but nothing new would happen and the progression eventually became glacial.  However, now the new formulas have made it so that each run gets bigger than the previous - by a lot.  My past Transcension (different from Ascension) I collected roughly 3.7 Billion Souls, and the one before it was on the order of 300 Million Souls.  A huge change!  Each Transcension you will be collecting 10 times the Souls of the previous, or somewhere in that neighborhood at least.  It turns out that setting the amount of stuff you get to 20*x^250 gets pretty big even when x is roughly 1.01, and x gets just a little bit bigger each time. (Also the 250 value increases too.)

Of course Clicker Heroes is still just a game where you click once and then wait 20 minutes to click again.  I giggle when I imagine explaining this game to someone:

So what did you do there?

I clicked a button to do a billion times as much damage.

A billion times?  That seems like a lot for one button click.  Hit that button a lot?

Oh, it is good, but I can't hit it very often.  Look here now, I am doing something new!  This accomplishment will make me do .3% more damage.

Wait, so you click "Multiply damage by 1 billion" all the time, but get excited by "Increase damage by .3%?"

Yes, that is exactly it.  You see, the .3% bonus applies for longer than the 1 billion times multiplier.

So the .3% applies forever?

Oh no, it goes away too.  Mostly it just helps me hit the 1 billion times multiplier slightly less often for a short time.

So how much damage do you do now?

Roughly 10^170.

So you do as much damage as the number of molecules in the universe, SQUARED?  That is the damage you do, per second?

Yes.  That is how this game works.  My damage per second is the number of molecules in the universe, squared.  You know a game is awesome when the developers have a serious problem in getting computers to record the numbers in the game because those numbers are so large.  Love it!

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

A new game

One of the cards I love the most in Hearthstone is Fel Reaver.  I haven't used it a lot but I love it because it changes the game in a big way when it lands, by offering the opponent a new way to win the game.  It isn't often that you play a card that says "Hey opponent!  Want a new win condition?  Here ya go, try and deck me!" and that makes it a card that generates a lot of interesting decisions.

The thing about Fel Reaver that makes it so powerful is that people who play against it in a draft situation lose their minds.  It is +2/+2 bigger than a minion of its cost has any right to be and that is hugely powerful, but people make all kinds of mistakes when it gets played that makes it even better than that.  Usually this involves them trying to deck the owner of Fel Reaver by playing tons of cheap cards and leaving Fel Reaver alive, hoping to make the decking option work.

Look at the numbers:  Most of the time a Hearthstone draft deck goes through 15 cards at most in a game.  Often less, rarely more.  Given that decks are 30 cards this means that the first 5 cards you play against a Fel Reaver do literally nothing.  Oh, they look impressive, burning away the opponent's options, but they don't offer any useful advantage.  At the end of the game if you are dead it does not matter at all if the opponent happens to have no deck left, and it takes a couple of turns after their deck is gone before they really run out of options and lose.

The trick to fighting against Fel Reaver is to pretend it has no text.  It is just an 8/8 for 5, nothing more.  Sure, if you happen to pop off a few cheap cards before blowing it up there is a 1% chance it will help you win an attrition match but you are better off ignoring that.  The most important thing is just focusing on winning the game right as it is.

The same sort of thinking has to apply to the other side too.  When you have a Fel Reaver don't worry about your deck - just try to win the game.  Remember that if the opponent tries to ignore Fel Reaver and deck you then you can always just run Fel Reaver into their minions and get good trades, and if they throw their minions and removal at it then all well and good, it did its job of being a gigantic body.

More than anything everyone involved has to remember that although you *can* deck someone using Fel Reaver it isn't a quick process, and Fel Reaver probably kills you in three swings.  Unless something weird happens you need to focus on winning the game normally, not on the new win condition that just appeared to taunt you from a great distance.

It reminds me of a team Magic tournament I participated in years ago where my team was playing W/U Millstone.  We slowly ground away our opponent's decks and won convincingly, and at the end of the game the opponents tried to get us to trade them some Millstones.

We tried to explain to them that they didn't lose because Millstone is powerful - they lost because our decks dominated them and they sat there doing nothing.  We could have won with any card, and in fact I used Serpent Generator to much the same effect in later times.

However, they remained fixated on the awful feeling of their deck being ground away.  There is something very powerful about watching your resources drain off, even when that resource drain has little to do with actual victory.  Seeing cards flip from the deck into the graveyard is an emotional event from both sides, far more so than its effect actually justifies.

Fel Reaver and Millstone are the same in this way.  The takeaway lesson is to focus not on the cards flipping off the deck, but on what actually makes you win or lose.  In both cases the thing to do is ignore the milling effect and focus on winning the game right now, because that is what matters in nearly every case.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Difficulty, and lack thereof

In my last DnD session my group faced a difficult challenge.  We were in a city under siege, trying to rescue civilians who were holed up in a temple.  The temple was being attacked, and the attackers were using a battering ram to smash down the front door.

The brute force approach would be to simply run in, murder every single enemy there, and end the attack on the temple that way.  The other option was to open the back door of the temple and let all the civilians out the back.  We ended up making some really bad tactical decisions because we tried to talk to the civilians at the same time as we attacked the enemies battering away with the ram and split our forces - a terrible blunder in DnD.

What really got me giggling though was the way that the back door worked.  Clearly the enemies knew about it, since they had people completely surrounding the temple and patrols circling it.  However, instead of just going in that way they went through the heavy barricaded front door instead.  They were, apparently, stymied by the fact that the back door was locked.

The DC to pick the lock was 10.  That is, any random dork in the enemy army had a 50/50 chance of picking the lock if they felt like trying it by rolling 1d20.  In any case, having wiped out the enemies, we easily picked the lock and went in.  That we were able to break in seems completely reasonable - after all, we had a couple of trained thieves using lockpicks.  However, because of the way 5th edition DnD is structured there is no way to effectively make a lock that makes sense.  If my group has a decent chance to pick the lock, any idiot with no training can too.  We, being experts, only have a +6 on our check, so if the GM makes the DC high enough that the lock isn't pickable by any random idiot, like say 25, then we have almost no chance to succeed.  There isn't a DC that allows experts to succeed and novices to fail.

That kind of ruined the immersion for me.  I mean, if the enemies are going to just ignore the second entrance to the temple for no reason then how can I plan around what the enemies should or might do?  I don't mind planning around magic, even magic I wasn't anticipating, but when doors are just impregnable to NPCs for no reason and trivial for PCs to open everything kind of falls apart in my head.

This is one of the things that bothers me about the bounded accuracy of 5th edition DnD.  (Where hit and Armour Class bonuses are very restricted so that you can't be unhittable or unable to miss.)  Bounded accuracy makes sense in combat where you don't want people to be unhittable, but it generates some ridiculous situations out of combat when any random dork has a good chance to beat the greatest expert in the world when they compete against each other at a task.  If you can only really get +10 on somebody then any task you can easily complete they can manage half the time, and that really isn't enough differentiation between the best and the worst.

It comes down to scaling.  Combat with bounded accuracy works because people do more damage, take more actions, and have more health.  Even if you can hit the dragon when you are level 1, you can't *win*.  But things like lockpicking and stealth don't have hit points or damage.  All you have is a single die, so when you are limited in your bonuses on that die you can't really get good at anything.  If noncombat actions had way more rules (which would be unwieldy, you can't have a subsystem for everything) then this would work, but given that noncombat actions are simple you need to let go of bounded accuracy.

This does lead to weird results when you let people get big bonuses though.  In my Heroes By Trade campaign my character can knock open a heavy fortress gate just by smashing into it.  She is immensely strong, can use a Ritual to increase her Might check, has a Vessel that boosts her Might, and is a Master in Might.  Basically she is a wrecking ball, and it has lead the GM to despair that he can't put a solid object in our way because she will just smash through.  Essentially he is dealing with superheroic powers.  This could never happen in DnD because you can't get good enough to do anything powerful like that - bonuses are too constrained.

I really like the superheroic skills though.  I think it is cool to have the ability to become so amazing at Balance that you can dance on the top of a flagpole, or have such power over Animals that you can tame a rabid wolverine with a few whispered words.  This is the sort of thing that magical people in a magical world can do!  You can't manage this stuff at the beginning, of course, as you need to devote a lot of resources to it, but high level people can do some amazing stuff.

In DnD 5th that amazing stuff is limited to magic users.  Spells do have some astounding powers, but skills don't.  They just let you slowly get slightly better at things you could already do.  That isn't interesting to me, and it makes fighter types feel a lot less interesting.  If all I can ever do is be good at bashing, and the casters get to break the rules of reality, then I am going to feel like a secondary character.  Doesn't mean combat balance is off, of course, but it does mean that some people get to be superheroic when there isn't a fight, and I would like that option to be available to everyone.

Friday, June 3, 2016

A slow descent

I mostly play Arena in Hearthstone these days.  Drafting decks is tremendous fun and I really feel like I am getting better at figuring out weightings for my picks.  I used to end up with decks that simply didn't have enough late game or were too slow and I am balancing that much better, finding a good mix of costs and draw.  One thing I am finding though is that Arena feels more random than it used to, and I think that trend is simply going to continue over time.

I watched a video by Kripparrian where he talked about his new strategy for avoiding board clears by opponents, which is to simply ignore board clears and go for it.  Overextend!  Spew out dudes!  Of course sometimes they do have the board clear and you get blown out, but most of the time they don't.  This is a big change from previous eras, but it all makes sense.  Blizzard has not been publishing many new board clears, or even new removal spells.  The ones that do make it are situational or downright bad most of the time.  The classic board clears only appear in a single set, and as the card pool grows they make up a smaller and smaller fraction of decks.  As time goes by Arena is going to contain a greater percentage of minions and weird cards and a lower percentage of premium removal and board clears.

This has two major effects.  Firstly it makes Arena much more tempo driven.  You can't rely on board clears to reset the game because you probably don't have any clears.  That means you need a bigger focus on cheap minions and early game board control.  Missing a 1 drop is going to become a bigger deal because that 1 drop won't just get cleared out at some point.  Losing control of the board because you missed a 2 drop will be much harder to reverse.  There is obviously still skill involved, but against any moderately skilled opponent who actually gets a 1,2,3,4 drop sequence it will be extremely difficult to come back if your draw is awkward or top heavy.  The emphasis on early game will only get bigger and the quality of the opening draw will become more important as time goes by.  This also means that board clears are even better because people won't be playing around them and so they will get maximum value a lot more often.

There is also a general reduction in the ability of a good player to anticipate what the opponent will do.  Baiting out hard removal with a big minion in order to protect an even better minion becomes foolish when the opponent probably doesn't even have a hard removal spell.  Playing around a board clear is pointless when there are hardly any around.  Even just thinking about which 4 drop the opponent will use can be silly when the pool of 4 drops is ever increasing - at some point you just accept that you know nothing about what will happen next.  Of course there is still skill in playing the board, and you can still think about generalities like "what will I do against a big taunt?" without knowing which exact big taunt it will be, but the amount of skill that can be applied definitely fades.

The fact that websites like HearthArena offer really good advice on picks and are updated very quickly and the fact that predictability in games is going down means that win rates are almost certain to flatten over time.  This is a slow process, obviously, but I suspect we will see a situation where the best players see their win rates drift downwards while the medium players, especially those that use outside assistance for drafting, see their win rates rise.

This is not to say the sky is falling.  After all, there is always some luck and some skill, and now the balance is shifting slightly in favour of luck.  I am not claiming that Hearthstone is currently at the perfect spot, so a shift is just a shift, not necessarily bad or good.  However, I do think that the shift is unavoidable.