Thursday, July 20, 2017

Squish the elves, again

I finished the second week of my new Blood Bowl league and it was shockingly similar to the first.  I played against a Dark Elf team for the second week in a row, won 2-1 for the second week in a row, and injured three elves for the second week in a row.  The injuries this week were less punitive because none of the elves died or took permanent penalties but all three are skipping next week's game to recover, same as last week.

I have had an easy ride of it so far.  Dark Elves are a good match for me, especially in the early going.  They rely on their Dodge ability heavily, and since Dwarves get to cancel Dodge at low cost the elves have a rough time of it.  This opponent in particular had a ton of Dodge on his team and it was not particularly helpful.  My next few matches are going to be rougher, I am sure of that.

One thing I have that nobody else in the league has (that I know of) is an upgraded stadium and an enhancement.  There are lots of enhancements available, though each team can only get one of them.  They are symmetrical in theory, but that doesn't quite work out in practice.  For example you can get soft turf that makes people less likely to get hurt if they fall down by running too far, or both sides can get a wizard.

The two enhancements that were most interesting to me were the ones that grant both sides a Bribe during the match and the one that reduces the cost of Star Players by 50,000.  Note that you have to be playing in your home stadium for the enhancement to matter so you only get the benefit half the time; this will be important.

Dwarves have a really powerful unit called a Deathroller.  It is the strongest unit in the game and is a total wrecking ball when it is on the field, but it gets sent off by the ref after the drive when it is on the field.  You can use a Bribe to try to get the ref to ignore the Deathroller once, but the Bribe only works 83% of the time.  A lot of people seemed to think that the Bribe enhancement combined with a Deathroller on the team would be really good but I don't think it works out that way.  The problem is that the combination of only playing in your stadium half the time and the 17% failure rate means that the Deathroller gets sent off 58% of the time anyway.

Also in many cases you field the Deathroller and use the Bribe, but the opponent has one turn left before halftime and the Deathroller ends up on the field and gets kicked out again immediately.  You can fix this by having lots of dwarves on the bench so you make sure the Deathroller doesn't *have* to be put on the field, but then you have a ton of Team Value devoted to dwarves on the bench, which sucks.  I think the consensus is that the Deathroller costs too much and you would be better off with more skills on your other dwarves than an unreliable trick like the Deathroller.

Dwarves are also in a uniquely good position to use the Star Player cost reduction.  Most Star Players cost 300,000 or more gold to hire, and they are generally badly statted and overcosted.  Reducing their cost by 50,000 is irrelevant; nobody wants them anyway.  However, dwarves have a Star Player called Berik Farblast who only costs 60,000.  He is good at picking up and throwing the ball, but this isn't especially useful as I don't want him to get the touchdowns because he will leave the team at the end of the game and the experience will be wasted.  Berik's abilities really are generally bad and I would never pay 60,000 for him, especially because he has a secret weapon and gets sent off at the end of a drive just like the Deathroller.

But I would pay 10,000 for him!  At 10,000 Berik is a steal.  Not because you use him to play the ball, but because he can foul.  The problem with fouling normally is that you often lose the player you are fouling with to the ref.  Berik is getting sent off anyway and cost almost nothing to hire so I lose very little when he exits the game.  I can run him around and foul like crazy and I don't care if he gets sent off.  He is also useful as a speed bump.  Dwarves are tough but I still don't want them to die.  If there is someone really scary then Berik can just stand next to them and get punched.  If he dies, I don't care.  If he lives to get punched again, then my 10,000 value loser is tying up 100,000+ worth of enemy.

Really, the point of Berik is not his unique abilities but just that he is a dude.  A dude that can stand places and step on necks.  It turns out that a dude like that is really useful if they are cheap enough.

And to give Berik credit, he does have some cool stuff.  If I desperately need a long pass gambit he is actually really good at that.  If I need to throw the ball to the other end of the pitch to keep my opponents from scoring, Berik has the Hail Mary Pass ability, which I would never actually select, but which could come up.

I will only buy Berik when I am playing at home and have the 50,000 cost reduction so half of the time I will just be a normal dwarf team.  The other half of the time I will have a cute little benefit that makes my team just a little better.  The best part about this plan is that I can play completely normally if I want to - I don't really commit anything, and it will never help my opponent.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Eternal destruction

While playing against people is a much better contest of skill I still really enjoy playing against AIs in Blood Bowl.  AIs don't mind if I pause the game for half an hour.  They will start the game whenever I want, and they never take time to figure stuff out while I sit there - it is Go, Go, Go!  I like those things.

The thing is though after you play a team for awhile your Team Value gets enormous and you begin to have issues with having no money.  Also if you are good at keeping your players alive you eventually face down the day when they will all get too old and retire en masse.  It is possible to end up in a situation where a bunch of players retire and you struggle to even field a team because you can't make money because your team has such high value even though you don't have eleven players to put on the field.

I have played a little over 80 games with my Chaos team against a variety of AIs and I am approaching the point where player retirement is a real problem for me.  I had five players who were all originals and who were marching towards retirement together so I had to put together a long term plan.  The real problem with my team was that I had a player on the team who was specced to be good at picking up and carrying the ball.  He had +1 Agility, Dodge, and Sure hands, which is the basic package you need to be a strong ball carrier.  However, every time a player died and I had to replace them Mr. Ball Carrier ended up either riding the bench or trying to punch people badly because I needed the new replacement player to get all my touchdowns to earn experience.  There is no point in having ball carrying skills if you aren't the one carrying the ball, so Mr. Ball Carrier got fired.

Firing a player with 170 XP who is almost going to collect his last skill is a strange thing.  It is especially strange when the team consists of ten murder monsters and one ball carrier and you fire the ball carrier anyway.

Thing is, I can win games without a good ball carrier.  I win by injuring the great majority of the enemy team and casually walking the ball into the end zone.  Picking up the ball reliably and being hard to knock over simply doesn't help with my plan.  Plus every additional knockdown or injury I inflict really helps both forward my plan and also keep my dudes safe.  Opponents find it hard to hurt me when their team is all sitting in the injured box or facedown on the turf.

In this case the best defence is a good offence, and murdering my enemies is by far the easiest way to both score touchdowns and protect myself.

So my new team has only four of the original eleven monsters playing.  It has 11 copies of Block, 11 copies of Mighty Blow, 11 copies of Claw.  The basic murder package on every single player.  8 players have Guard to make it nearly impossible for the opponent to get decent blocks and 3 players have Piling On to pile up the injuries on key targets.

It is a silly game, this one.  But I am enjoying it a great deal and thinking hard all the time about how to optimize my play so it is hard to criticize - what more is there to life than thinking about interesting puzzles and having a blast doing it?

(I know I know, Conan would say that there is "Crushing your enemies, driving them before you, and hearing the lamentations of the women."  I do the first two things, but they didn't implement the cheerleaders weeping when the players on their team die, so lamentations will have to wait.)

A foul move

Last night my new Blood Bowl league got started.  It was a bit rocky because several people ditched at the last minute so it seems that we have one dummy team that will just concede to everyone who plays against it.  That is something of an advantage for the teams in that half of the league as they will get some extra cash and rest, but long run it isn't a big deal, and I am glad to have someone running the league who will just step up and make it work rather than engaging in a pointless pursuit of perfection.

I got a started off with what I think is a good matchup for my dwarves - Dark Elves.  We are early on in development so most teams only have a half dozen skillups and I have Block on my entire team as well as 3 copies of Guard and 2 of Mighty Blow.  That makes it basically impossible for the elves to fight my dwarves because if they stand toe to toe I will destroy them, and if they try to dodge everywhere I have just enough Tackle to counter their Dodge.  Dark Elves don't have enough speed to be able to dance circles around me, and their dodging isn't reliable, so they are really stuck.

My opponent also only had 10 dudes on his team so he had a journeyman join him.  On my first turn I killed the journeyman, so his 30 seconds of fame really was about 30 seconds.  "Hey Mom, guess what?  I am going to play for a real football team!  Watch me go!"

Crunch, splat, dead.  One can only imagine the Dark Elf parents weeping over their child's mutilated body.  Of course the 70,000 gold he got paid to play for 30 seconds will probably console them because if I recall the Warhammer universe correctly that would be enough for them to live in opulence for their entire lives.

I logged a pair of other career ending injuries on actual team members and won the game handily, 2-1.  What basically happened is that my opponent tried to block me but burned through rerolls when he rolled 2s.  When my opponent tried to dodge away he burned rerolls when he rolled 1s.  This was fine for a couple turns, then he ran out of rerolls and his elves spent a lot of time on the ground with angry dwarves standing over them, taunting them to get back up.  This is the standard dwarf plan against elves, I think, and it worked well.

My opponent managed to buy a new player at the end of the game but still has two other players missing their next game to heal up so he will only be fielding nine players next game.  That is a rough spot to be in.  His next opponent is pleased that I left him so beat up, but I had an option to make it even worse and I declined it and I am not sure what the right choice is.

In the closing rounds of the game I was passing the ball from one dwarf to the other trying to earn experience and bashing whatever elves I could catch to get experience from hurting them.  Obviously I should try to get as much experience as possible, no one doubts that.  However, once I was assured of the victory I could have fouled an elf or two on the ground to try to inflict some extra pain on my opponent.  It wouldn't change my victory and it wouldn't get me more experience but it might make opponent's team worse if I could inflict extra injuries.

So do I want to kick an opponent when they are down?

If I end up playing off against this opponent in the semifinals the answer is yes, I should hurt them.  However, a team that isn't even fielding a full roster and has one of their best players with serious injuries on them isn't looking like a big threat.  If I bash them even more I am probably just making it easier for the next few teams to beat them up, and I want all the games that I am not involved in to be tight slugfests where lots of injuries are handed out.  I certainly can't play them again for a long time, so any injuries I inflict now are unlikely to be helpful by the time we face each other again.

However, all of that assumes a lot.  Maybe my opponent will go on a tear through the league and I should do all the damage I can whenever I can.  I know that if I could hand out random injuries to teams throughout the league I would do that... heck, I would even do that if my team was included because I have tons of money and healthy dwarves so I can buy new ones if I need to.  Other people can't because they are squishy and broke.

The last thing to consider is the social factor.  Maybe me not stomping on my opponent's elves at the end of the game will convince him to do the same later.  It won't buy me any other form of mercy, certainly, but maybe avoiding a mutual destruction pact surrounding last turn fouls is a worthwhile thing.  If the league is full of murderous bastards then I may have wasted my chance, but if people mostly play nice then I don't want to be the one person everybody guns for.  I am actually pretty happy to be in a foul heavy league though because of my current situation of having money and healthy dudes... and of course dwarves are tough and generally don't break even when you step on them.

In any case I wasn't sure if I should foul on the last turn so I just didn't and pressed End Turn.  The game was great for me as I suffered no losses, got 17 experience, and won the game.  No need to push it, was my thinking in the moment.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

More blood, and more bowling

I finished my 7 games on the open ladder to get ready for my new Blood Bowl league.  I previously wrote about my first 3 games in which I was conceded to twice and then tied with an unpleasant jackass who spent the last three turns of the game whining at and insulting me.  The open ladder seemed pretty bleak.

I logged 4 more games since then and things picked up considerably.  I got another 1-1 draw against a Chaos team and was pretty happy with that result.  Then I played a game against a Human team that I beat 2-0, and won a super tight game against a Chaos Dwarf team 1-0.  All three of those teams were 200-300 Team Value ahead of me, which made me feel really good about my skill.  Being able to collect a number of wins and a couple of draws against teams consistently much more powerful than myself says I know what I am doing.

Just as importantly all of these opponents were pleasant.  At worst they said hi at the beginning and gg at the end, and nobody fussed about anything with more than a /sigh.  A great change from my earlier rounds, for sure.  I don't mind being sociable or being silent, either is fine, but it is irritating to put up with abuse and complaining.

My last game was in the middle between my toxic first 3 games and my happy next 3 games.  I was playing my Dwarves vs. Undead and got lucky off the bat by injuring my opponent's Mummy, their best unit.  I quickly took control of the game, injuring another one of their players and setting up my touchdown.  My opponent grumbled about the unfairness of the dice and I can't argue that; I got luckier.  However, my opponent definitely tilted some after losing their Mummy and made some poor plays that set me up to continue my dominance.  I injured another player of theirs, got a TD, and they conceded.  It was a perfectly reasonable concession - they were only fielding 8 players to my 10, and I was up 1-0.  Their chances were not good.

Part of Blood Bowl, like many dice games, is keeping yourself regulated when things go badly.  My opponent in the last game basically gave up after having their best player taken out and while they were certainly not favoured to win it doesn't make sense to pack it in that early.  In my game prior to that I led off by rolling 1,1,1,1 and my attacker fell down.  Then my opponent immediately injured my best player.  It was a disastrous start but I held it together, got lucky on two specific attempts by my opponent to knock over my ball carrier, and won 1-0.

The lesson is that you lose all the games you give up on, and only most of the games where you are at a disadvantage.

Much like the rest of humanity the open ladder has some people who are impulsive and rude as well as some people that are perfectly pleasant.  It also is largely comprised of people that aren't that great at board games.

I am ready to fight some people who are really good at board games though, and also people who hopefully won't pack it in when they seem at a disadvantage.  Dwarf smash!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Anger Management

Last time I wrote about getting conceded to on the Blood Bowl ladder.  It happened twice in a row and I was wondering what was going on.  It turns out I was in the casual league where there are a LOT of concessions.  I built a new team for the real league where concessions are limited and started again.  This time I will get some real games!

In my first outing I was in some dwarf on dwarf action.  Normally dwarf games involve a seething mass of hairy balls rolling around in the middle of the field, and this was no exception.  My opponent took a bunch of really risky, aggressive plays and they paid off by taking out 3 of my dwarves.  Then they walked the ball right to my goal line and sat around beating up my team until the end of the half.  On my opponent's last turn, on their last opportunity to score with their dominant position, they decided to take some time first to bash my dudes.  Each bash had a 2.8% chance of ending their turn and costing them the touchdown they had worked so hard for.  On the fifth bash they rolled badly, fell down, and ended their turn.

Before I could click anything my opponent had conceded in a fit of rage.  It was kind of hilarious because they were still in a dominant position with me down multiple players but they were apparently so angry they couldn't stay to beat me up for awhile and win the game.

I queued up again and ran into a Chaos team so I was due for another round of bashing.  This time luck swung my way and I KOd some Beastmen and scored a touchdown, so we started the second half with me winning 1-0 and up 3 players.

And my opponent immediately conceded.

I am finding this a bit ridiculous.  So far my team hasn't even managed to injure an opponent, I have scored 1 touchdown, and I have 2 victories to my name.

I queued up a third time and got another slow bashy opponent - Nurgle.  We bashed each other around a lot and ended up in a 1-1 draw.  When I stopped my opponent's final drive they decided to spend 3 turns telling me how horrible I was and bemoaning how all of their opponents get so lucky.  They told me that people like me should be banned from the competitive ladder.  They also said that they were going to immediately delete and restart their team after the game because starting off with a tie is completely unacceptable, and then complained about me wasting both of our time.

I tried to explain that my team got some experience and I had fun, but they told me that the point of the competitive ladder is not for fun and I should go away and play in the fun ladder.  I guess the point of the competitive ladder is suffering and whinging?  Also restarting teams over and over until you get a bunch of wins in a row.

Blargh.

I am glad I will be done with all of these sore losers soon.  After my 7 starting games here I can join my friends in a private league and play against people who won't spend all their time quitting and complaining.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Run away, the dwarves are coming!

I am getting ready for a new season of Blood Bowl.  I decided that I should play dwarves because I apparently love the idea of being incredibly slow and bad at football.  My league allows us 7 preseason games on the open ladder to get levelled up a bit, so I started up a new team and queued up for a game.  My first game was against Chaos, a team that is slightly faster than my dwarves and about equally terrible at actually doing anything with the ball.  Bashy team vs. bashy team.  Bash!

Both teams are pretty heavily armoured so we spent the entire first half bashing into each other accomplishing very little.  Beastman knocks dwarf down, dwarf stands back up.  Dwarf knocks beastman down, beastman stands back up.  However, I managed to control the left side of the board and with a little luck I injured one enemy and ran my ball carrier to one space shy of the enemy goal line.  My opponent made a desperate play requiring 3 rolls of a 6 sided die where each roll needed to be 2 or above, and made a block hoping to knock one of my dwarves down.

On the second 'please please not a 1' roll my opponent rolled a 1 and his player fell over, ending his turn and guaranteeing me a touchdown just before halftime.  I was in a good position at this point with one enemy player out and me being up 1-0, but my opponent was going to receive and certainly had chances.  I went to move the ball into the zone and score... and I couldn't enter the command.

Then I noticed that my opponent had disconnected, which prevents me from taking any actions.  I had to sit for 5 minutes waiting for them to come back, and I couldn't just do something else because if the opponent did return I would need to be there to play the rest of the match.  For the entire 5 minutes I looked at my ball carrier who had been told to score the TD but who was eternally stuck, waiting for an opponent that I did not need.  Finally the clock wound down and I got the victory, and all of my opponent's bonus cash and experience that comes at game end.

Now it is possible that my opponent just randomly disconnected, but that seems extremely unlikely.  Having just tried a desperate gambit to prevent me scoring and having failed it seems that my opponent not only wanted to concede the match but also wanted to annoy me by having me wait around for 5 minutes too.  Either that or they just ragequit without any thought, hard to say.

I was credited with a 2-0 win but I didn't get the experience for scoring those 2 touchdowns.  I did get 5 extra experience because my opponent conceded, but I would have gotten 3 experience instantly as soon as my dwarf scored the TD, so 5 isn't much of a reward.  I got all of my opponent's winnings though, and at the outset like this a big chunk of cash is actually quite useful.

I netted 12 experience and 80,000 gold.  That isn't amazing, but I didn't collect any injuries and I got a fairly normal amount of experience and a windfall of gold, so I shouldn't complain... but I am going to complain anyway.  It sucks to have an opponent ditch on the game.  I wanted to play!  I fought for an advantageous position and I wanted to see if I could maintain it.

What really got me is that if I had realized my opponent was likely to quit I would have clicked really fast to get that TD first.  I could have grabbed the points for the TD and then got all the bonuses for a concession too.  Next time I am in that position I will make sure to be faster to avoid getting screwed.

In any case it was time to queue up for game 2.  This time I was matched against orks, so it was bashy team vs. bashy team again.  Round 2, bash!  This game was a morass of orks and dwarves bashing each other in the middle of the field, and by the time the first half was over the enemy troll had injured itself trying to push over a dwarf and the fans had knocked one of the orks out cold.  The ball never moved more than 1 space from where it landed on turn 1, so it was still 0-0.  Lots of game left here, I thought!

Then the victory screen popped up as my opponent had conceded.  At least this time they actually conceded instead of just disconnecting so I didn't have to wait for 5 minutes, and I wasn't about to score so I didn't miss out on much, but it was still frustrating.  Again I had played well and gotten myself into a strong position and I wasn't able to have fun leveraging the advantage generated.

Don't get me wrong, having people concede to me on my first 2 games has been pretty good.  I have no injuries, I have lots of money, and I have a reasonable amount of experience for being 2 games in.  But it sucks to play chunks of games like this, and it makes me wonder if this is just a feature of playing on the open ladder.  I would totally get it if a team was getting butchered and they wanted to get away from the bashing they were taking but both concessions had only one injured opposing player and they had real chances at winning the game.

My victories also just don't feel REAL.  Sure I logged 2-0 both times, but I feel like I didn't actually win.

I was trying to figure out if conceding made sense when you were losing the game at halftime.  You get nothing from the concession but you do get to queue up again right away and hope for better luck or weaker opposition.  If you play another half game you get 35,000 gold and roughly 7 experience, 5 from the automatic experience and 2 from random stuff you accomplish.  That also assumes you lose the game, and you could win and do better than that.  If you quit and requeue you get 40,000 gold and 11 experience over a whole game.  That requeue option takes twice as long and doesn't get you anywhere near twice as much stuff, so at first glance it seems terrible in terms of reward per unit time.

But!

Requeuing could make sense if you are in a league where lots of people concede.  If you think you have a reasonable shot of being clearly in the lead at halftime then you stand a chance of your opponent conceding and giving you all the money and stuff in only half a game.  In a heavy concede based metagame you are really incentivized to duck out of a losing game to try to get into a game where you do well early and get conceded to.

Conceding also helps you get out of games where you are being dominated, and that probably means lower injury rates for your dudes.  Not a guarantee, but it helps.

In any case I hope that this conceding thing isn't a widespread thing.  I want to play!  I know that there is some restriction on conceding, something like 5 concedes per season, but I don't know what happens if you violate that limit.  Are you kicked out of the league?  Just can't hit the concede button but can still disconnect?  I don't know.  I definitely won't concede myself unless things are truly absurd.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A little bit of thievery

Lately I have been thinking about what I could do if I had a normal Blood Bowl team that could steal just one type of unit from any other team.  This includes the number of those units, so normal Skaven can field 4 Gutter Runners, and any team that steals Gutter Runners can similarly have 4 of them on the roster.  What is the best or most interesting thing you could do using this?

The obvious place to start is to pick a team that has glaring, nasty flaws and see if you can prop them up some.  Blood Bowl restricts team to having either players with 4 Agility or 4+ Strength, but you don't get both.  (Barring a single Big Guy).  Adding high Strength players to an already high Strength team probably won't help much because you won't be able to afford them all and by the time you can your team value will be enormous and you will lack Block.  You can surely make a better team this way, but not much better.

The real trick is taking a slow team that is awful at football and making it suddenly a terrifying threat for scoring.  Gutter Runners are certainly the first unit I thought of stealing because they are maximally fast, have 4 Agility, and you get 4 of them.  Dwarves are normally tough and slow but have no quick scoring threats and are unreliable at playing football.  A dwarf team with 13 players including 4 Gutter Runners on it can still field 9 brawling type dwarves on defence and bench 2 Gutters and have plenty of punching power if they want, or switch it up and field all 4 Gutters to create some crazy passing plays if they don't have much time to score.  That team would be terrifying, because they still have the normal slow cage progression tactic available but you have to break that cage FAST or a Gutter will dash in for a touchdown.

On the other side you have teams like the elves or skaven who are great at scoring and have lots of potential for big plays but they have huge problems with getting pushed around.  They also have the struggle that their linemen are fragile and all units need constant replacement.  There are a couple ways you could go there - you could grab Chaos Warriors to have 4 copies of 4 Strength and 9 Armour which would solidify their line immensely, or you could use 6 Saurus instead, which provides absurd amounts of Strength, though it is hard to develop all those Saurus due to them being clumsy.

If you want to go totally nuts you could recruit Ogres and get 6 hitters with Strength 5.  That is the absolute pinnacle of beatdown but does have the huge issue of cost.  At 140k you will only be able to add in 1 Ogre at most to a normal team so it would take a really long time to purchase them all.

When I try to figure out how I would add units to a midrange team like humans I come up short.  They would like both Gutter Runners or Sauruses, as they could develop into a real scoring or bashing team depending on the pick, but no configuration is particularly scary.  To do something awesome with this setup you really want a team that already has one thing they do really well, not a team that is mediocre at everything.

There are actually some teams out there that would make me consider taking linemen on as my choice.  Ogres, for example, are super expensive and you can normally only afford them because they are accompanied by worthless Snotlings.  However, if you grabbed Ork Linemen instead of Snotlings your money problems are worse (they cost 50k instead of 20k) but they actually have 3 Strength so the opponents can't just massacre them effortlessly and they still have 3 Agility so they are capable of playing the ball.  They can't play the ball *well*, mind, but they can play as well as a Snotling and instead of being made of paper they are tough as nails.

On a team like Lizardmen I would be tempted to grab Dark Elf Linemen as my pick.  They are good at playing the ball and have midrange armour so you could play a really serious bashing game with your Sauruses without worrying that every turn one of your squishies is going to die.  You might use a pair of Skinks as dirty players or scoring threats potentially (because your elves can throw the ball) but mostly the team would be just Saurus beatdown and elf football.

In any of these configurations the trick is to make sure you don't commit to more cost than you can afford.  Dwarves are expensive, for example, so swapping some of them out for Gutter Runners or even Elf Linemen is no problem.  You can't just swap out cheap units for expensive ones though, so fixing up teams like Nurgle or Ogres takes more care.

Off all these options I think the dwarves with Gutter Runners scares me the most.  They slot in easily because you can just skip out on buying Dwarven Runners at identical cost, and if you want 4 Gutters to start you just drop 1 Troll Slayer and 1 Lineman to start and you are good to go.  You have a tremendous beatdown game and a sturdy core of players so when your Gutters die you should have spare cash around to buy new ones.  You have a legit quick scoring threat, great caging ability, and a rock solid financial plan.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The stair gambit

When talking about Castles of Mad King Ludwig recently I opined that the Utility Card that gives bonus points for Stairs wasn't so great.  It has substantial potential if you can effectively corner the market on Stairs, but otherwise it isn't exciting.  A game of Castles recently saw me go turbo Stairs to test this theory, and it worked out superbly well giving me a 136 point finish with a wide margin of victory, largely on the back of getting 5 Stairs.


We had Kings Favours for both square footage and number of corridor rooms so the game was ripe for a hardcore Stairs opening.  I started off with the Utility cards that benefit Utility rooms and 200 rooms, and after building 4 sets of stairs I scooped up the Stairs Utility Card!  I would have built more Hallways than I did but one opponent went nuts and scooped up 3 Hallways in a single turn leaving my last Stairs looking lonely and sad.

My board doesn't look that super at first glance but my Utility cards are strong coming in at 10, 8, 6, 6, and 3 points.  I also have 14 points from Stairs and Hallways, and the 200 stack emptied so the fact that I was collecting those was fantastic for me too.  The last two King's Favours were doorways (where I scored 1) and purple rooms (where I scored 0).  However, I cleaned up the two Favours for Corridors and Corridor square footage so I got a solid 17 points from Favours.

One thing that I was wondering was how good Basement rooms are in general.  Clearly if you already have Stairs you might as well build Basement rooms if they look tasty, but are they really worth it?  Do you give up much by simply not having any Stairs at all?  The interconnectedness of the points of various rooms makes this calculation quite challenging, but I am going to have a stab at it on this board.  It won't be easy to generalize it to all games, obviously, so take this as a data point, not a thesis.

I will assign points from cards to the Utility Rooms that generate the cards, not the rooms.  The points from my starting cards will be assigned to the rooms.  I will ignore the 350 Corridor I bought because it was obviously purchased only for King's Favours and isn't representative.

Utility Rooms:  12, 9, 5
Green Room:  5 + 10 coins
Blue Room:  4 + (empty 200 stack = 8 - 3.33 = 4.66)  = 8.66
Yellow Rooms:  4, 4 + (2?) bonus turn(s)
Basement Rooms:  11, 7, 6, 5, 1 + 5 points + bonus turn

My upper rooms generated 6 points + 1.25 coins + .25 bonus turns.
My basement rooms generated 7 points + .2 bonus turns.

The difference between the two set is quite small.  The basement rooms come out on top if you count the kitchen as not completing, but if you treat it as though it completed they are very much on par.

Looking at this board it appears as though my basement and upstairs were similar in scoring on a per room basis.  In that case it appears as though Stairs were a fine investment even aside from the massive stack of bonus points they got me as I did well on basement rooms and having the flexibility to buy them was excellent.  I am not yet convinced that being the third person into Stairs is strong in a game unless the Favours or Utility cards benefit Stairs, but I am eager to see what data other people have in this regard.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cultural Divide

Recently I watched a video by Brian Kibler about the differences in culture between Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone.  He correctly notes that Hearthstone has a culture focused around the idea that the game is all luck and skill doesn't matter, while MTG has a culture that supports the idea of skill being paramount.

These aren't all or nothing ideas!  Obviously there are plenty of MTG players who whine about getting mana screwed and Hearthstone players who correctly acknowledge that the game has a pretty large skill ceiling.  That said, the trend of Hearthstone players talking about RNG and MTG players talking about skill is real.

Kibler thinks that this is in part because of explicit randomness in a lot of good Hearthstone cards - cards that summon a random minion or make a random spell, for example.  MTG has less of that.  Also the average MTG player plays in tournaments, whether they be small scale Friday Night Magic kind of tournaments or Pro Tour Qualifiers.  Hearthstone players play on ladder and only a tiny percentage take part in tournaments of any sort.

He also thinks that MTG content creators tend to write serious strategy articles while Hearthstone creators make silly decks to play on twitch and youtube and this changes how they are perceived.  While Firebat may bring really tight decks to tournaments he still makes stupid Blood Bloom / Doom decks to play on his stream because those bring more viewers in, so people see top Hearthstone players doing stupid crap all the time and don't see the skill that goes into perfecting and practising a deck.


Kibler's points are right on, but there is more to it, I think.

I remember when I was playing MTG a lot back in Thunder Bay when I was a teenager and it was easy to see that skill was a defining factor.  I won about 25% of the tournaments I entered, and one of my close friends won another 25%.  Mostly anyone else who won was also somebody I knew because generally we were all in the top 8 in nearly every tournament.  When much of your life in a hobby involves tournaments and you see the same people winning every time you really get the impression that skill is the dominant factor.

When I played against good players in top 8 situations I played tight and quiet but it was entirely different in the early rounds against newbies.  If I rolled over someone whose deck really needed some tuning I would often sit after the match and go over their deck to give them pointers.  We would talk about cards they needed, land ratios, what decks other people were playing, etc.  Usually those people would leave some new ideas and also with the definitive impression that I beat them because I was better, not because I got lucky.

In Hearthstone you never get that experience.  When you get beat you just lose and queue up again.  Nobody who crushes you on their way up the ladder sits down with you to say "Hey, you know, your deck could probably use a couple more 1 drops and cut a few expensive dragons."  You don't get people saying "You would have beaten me if you had just Fireballed me in the face on your second last turn."  Lacking those cues it is easy for the player to just rail about getting unlucky and move on.

Hearthstone players also consistently play people of a similar skill level.  The ladder pairs you against people who have won about as much as you, and tournaments are full of top tier players.  You just don't have the newest scrub going into a big tournament, meeting a pro, and getting beat because the pro plays better, at least not nearly as often as it happens in MTG.

When you play against people who are equally skilled, *of course* the victory comes down to RNG.  There is room for individual skillful plays, but on average against a similarly skilled player you would expect somebody's luck to break better and take the victory on that basis.

So while there is an advantage to pitting all the noobs against one another, it does make them think that the game is just RNG based, and the pros end up in the same boat.  Hearthstone pros don't have as much experience at grinding through noobs as the MTG people do, so their games often come down to a single instance of good or bad luck because skill is already controlled for.

This isn't something that needs fixing.  It is just an emergent, accidental property of the way the games are played, marketed, sold, and viewed.  Both companies are doing it right, considering those considerations, but those choices really do affect the way players think about the games they play.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Two states

Being 'in combat' is a bizarre and ridiculous thing.  When playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons there is usually a sense of combat time in which characters take turns doing things on a short time scale.  People act sequentially, which is ridiculous from a realism standpoint, but is the only practical way to have tactical combat in this sort of scenario.  It leads to all kinds of weird things - for example, two characters can't walk down a hallway together.  One has to go first, then the other when it is their turn.

Outside this silly (but necessary for our purposes) framework things flow much more naturally in a state I call narrative time.  People can do things simultaneously and even perform activities that don't fit into discrete six second chunks.  You could, for example, give a speech without having to check if every person in the room passes their turn!

The other day Naked Man asked me a rules question that touches on this strange construction.  He wanted to know how to rule it if a player was readying a spell over multiple turns.  If they say "I shoot a Magic Missile at any enemy that walks around that corner" and nobody walks around the corner by their next turn is the spell lost?  Can they just choose to continue readying it?  Can they keep the spell and do something else?  Finally, if they can do all these things, can the players just wander through the dungeon constantly declaring that they are readying spells to attack at all times so the instant they see an enemy they unleash a barrage of magic?

I know what my GMs in highschool games would have done to anyone who tried to ready spells for extended periods like that.  They would have said "oh, rocks fall, you die" and then waited for the player to stop being an ass.  Or they might have had low level spellcasters cast illusions of monsters that walked around corners so the players unleashed fusillades of spells at an illusory beholder.

However, if I want to answer the question of how to handle this in general for a wide swath of players I think I would like to be a bit more thorough and within the rules.

I would definitely allow players to continue to ready a spell against a particular circumstance should it not arise.  If you ready a Magic Missile against an enemy coming around a corner and nobody does, I would say you can just abandon that and do something else next round without losing the spell.

But as soon as anybody says they are readying a Magic Missile during their entire walk through the dungeon, well now that is a different thing.  Readying a spell is a combat action.  It makes no fucking sense outside of the combat time construct, so any time the players are operating in narrative time rather than combat time I would forbid combat actions completely.

If a player said "I am keeping a special watch on that well in the corner in case anything crawls out of it to attack us" I would absolutely take that into consideration and perhaps give them a bonus on a surprise roll or a roll to notice the monster leaping out of the well.  Could even just decide that if a monster does come out they are definitely not surprised.  What I definitely wouldn't do is let them ready a Magic Missile against that eventuality, because they are in narrative time until combat starts.

And since I am the GM in this case, *I* decide when we are in combat time vs. narrative time.

That is kind of a ridiculous solution, but I think it is the only one consistent with the rules of the game.  Combat time is silly but it is an intrinsic part of DnD and you should make use of it when it is helpful, and keeping players from doing silly things with combat actions all the time is exactly the sort of place where you want to enforce the strict duality of game state.

My solution has the nice benefit of feeling elegant (once you accept the combat time construct) and also keeping people from doing abusive things.  Readying spells and then not using them in combat isn't powerful, so there is no need to try to quash it.  After all, you missed an entire turn and did nothing!  All we need to do is prevent players from doing dumb stuff like trying to ready actions for hours on end, and combat vs. narrative time solves that neatly.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Final Death

In playing Blood Bowl against the computer one of my goals has been to injure their entire team so that they cannot field a single player.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Partly there is the issue of getting all of their players off of the field at all, which is quite a challenge, but even if you achieve that many of their players will be knocked out rather than injured.  They aren't playing right now but they can wake up and come back on!

I played a lot of Blood Bowl 1 and I don't think I ever achieved my goal.  I remember getting a goblin team down to a single player left with fifteen players injured but that last player was stubborn and would only get KOd instead of injured.

I haven't played nearly as much BB2, but today I managed to completely clear the enemy team off the field permanently.  I was playing in my small experimental league with only four teams, trying to find out what would happen if I built a team purely to kill as many opponents as possible.  Would the computer be able to survive in the long run with me in the league?

 There we are.  Eight opponents injured and out of the game, and five more dead, only able to play on as skeletons or zombies.  The opponent was unable to field another player for the rest of the game, and it was only on turn 12 of a 16 turn game!  What a slaughter.  After I scored a touchdown on turn 13 I expected to be able to continue to play, but the game brought up an error message that went like this:

You are unable to field any players.  Both players lose two turns and the opponent scores one touchdown.

What?  It is the enemies that cannot field any players, not me!  Thankfully what happened was the game instantly ended, I was awarded two touchdowns to win 5-0, and things continued on.  I guess they didn't often get to test the error messages that happen when a team is completely injured out of the game so they let this slightly erroneous one slip through.  I was curious what kind of team they would have left after this debacle, and here is what they were going to field for the next game.

They have two players.  Three more are still on the roster but can't play the next game due to injuries, so this team is going up against a 2000 ranked team with only two players.  Naturally they will get tons of inducement money to try to even the score, but even then this is a ludicrous situation.

Also notice the Saurus with 4 Movement Allowance.  He also has a niggling injury, courtesy of yours truly.  The Skink with a penalty to Agility and Armour Value has a niggling injury too!

I checked later on to see what happened in that game, and the Scale of the Sun, despite having only two players, won the game 1-0.  The computer does not take into account team composition when figuring out who wins games between the AIs, it would seem.

So now I know what happens when you play a team of brutal killers in a four team league.  Eventually you absolutely destroy a team and leave them with a collection of horrifically injured players and not nearly enough of those to field a legal team.

For some reason accomplishing this makes me feel good about my life choices.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Just pass

When I started playing Castles of Mad King Ludwig I thought that passing a turn was a pretty crappy thing to do.  Normally on each turn you spend some cash to buy a room to add to your castle, but if you want you can skip buying to collect 5 coins.  My thought in my first few games was that this was a rubbish choice, one only made by people who mismanaged their money and ended up broke.  I am still convinced that mostly it is taken by people who screw up their money management, but I think it deserved a closer look to figure out if it is a good thing or not.

The key to managing your cash is to realize that if you get really low on funds your opponents can use it to really jam you up.  They can put powerful rooms just barely above the amount you can pay and scoop them up for far less than they should.  They can use basement rooms to put you in a position where you can't buy anything at all and are forced to pass and take 5 coins.  You always want the option to buy things up to 8 cost because then if somebody makes a terrible mistake you can capitalize and nobody can really punish you for being low on cash.  You might want to buy the room at cost 10 or 15 but it is not often going to be such a deal that you get blown out by missing it.

However, if you keep too much money on hand you find out that it is nearly worthless at the end of the game and you might miss out on great upgrades in the interim where you could have bled off excess cash to get more points.

The key is figuring out a ratio of cash to points so you can know when to buy the awesome room at 8 instead of the pretty good room at 2.  How many points more do you need to get for that 6 bucks to be a good choice, given that you have a decent bankroll and aren't worried about going broke?

Some things to think about.  44 room cards are in the deck, generally you go over by 2, and generally 2.5 blue rooms finish, so that leaves about 51 room cards in play.  Mostly 3 of them are left at the end, so that leaves us with 12 rooms per player on average.  Assuming an average score of 110 for good players I think we should model an average purchase giving 9 points.  On each turn where you buy a room you spend 4 coins (I can't defend this mathematically or anything, but a did some figuring and it seems about right for the groups I have played with) and you also give up the option to take 5 coins by passing.  That means that a pretty normal turn where you purchase a room costs you 9 coins and gains you 9 points.

Keep in mind those 9 points are often coming from King's Favour pucks, empty stack bonuses, utility cards, and room completions so the points on the room itself will clearly be far less than 9.

This 1:1 ratio isn't the be all and end all, but it gives us a useful point of comparison.  If you can spend 6 additional coins and get 9 points, it is probably a good exchange.  Next time you are third chair you can skip what is likely a mediocre purchase, take your 5 coins, and you are probably ahead of the game.  If you manage to get more points than the coins you spend you will almost certainly be able to get that money back and be ahead on points in a later turn when your choices happen to be poor.  That is a good rule of thumb!

It also means that if you are staring at a board where you can spend 6 coins to get 3 points it is likely a poor proposition.  Of course if game end is imminent you take the points, but when money still matters you probably don't want to take deals like that because keeping your opponents poor and you rich is important leverage.

One thing all of this analysis ignores is the effect on your opponents.  When you spend money one of your opponents gains money (except when you are master builder, of course) and that matters.  Buying an expensive room because it happens to match your utility cards is good, but if it ships a cheaper room down the line to your opponent that could be a poor choice.  Those are complicated to fit into the basic formulas though, so I have ignored them for now.  I suspect that neither of these things changes the conclusion overmuch.

The real takeaway I have from this is that I really need to consider the cost of skipping 5 coins when buying something.  Buying a garbage room for 1 coin is deceptive as I am actually losing 6 coins to take it.  Usually you will be able to get 1:1 on something on the board but when you don't have a ton of cash you should really think about whether or not to take the money instead.  Paying 4 coins instead of 2 isn't double the price, it is 9 instead of 7.  The absolute differences are the important thing, not the ratio of costs.

I also really need to mind that rooms have a lot of random points attached to them.  Between utility cards, Favour bonuses and empty pile bonuses people accrue roughly 40 points in a game.  That only leaves 70 points for room completions and the actual points on rooms themselves, so when I look at a room and see it is worth 5 points I should really tack on an extra point to account for all the bonuses it might give that I don't know about yet.

So for those looking for a simple set of instructions to figure out how to spend money:  Make sure you don't go so broke that people can take advantage of your poverty, but otherwise just look for deals where you can gain more than 1 point for each additional coin you spend.  1:1 extra purchases are meh, and lower than that is bad unless money doesn't matter anymore.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Starting utility

At the start of a game of Castles of Mad King Ludwig every player gets 3 utility cards and must choose 2 of them to keep.  These cards give bonus points at the end of the game based on the castle you have built.  There is a pretty fair range in the quality of the cards, and some are clearly more powerful than others.  There are two questions to answer.  First, which cards are better in general, and how does the existence of the King's Favour change the value of the cards?

Among the utility cards that give you bonus points based on room size there is serious equality:  All of them either give 3 points per room with 6 copies of each room in the game, or they give 2 points per room with 9 copies of the room in the game.  In either case you have 18 points available in the game.  Taking a bunch of copies of a single size does make it easier to get a bunch of points if you empty out that stack, so these are a little better than the 18 points would indicate.

However, the cards that award points based on room colours are much more imbalanced.  When you multiply the card point value by the number of those rooms in the game you get the following amounts:

Purple:  28
Yellow:  27
Blue:  24
Brown:  24
Green:  22
Grey:  20
Orange:  18

This means that colour based utility cards are generally about the same quality as size based cards when you account for the 2 points per depleted stack benefit for stacking size, but the purple and yellow cards seem like clearly the top of the heap.  

There are also cards for round rooms and square rooms, and they both have a value of 15 which makes them quite weak because they are harder to focus on to generate big numbers.  You could potentially combine them with size cards to get a lot of points for each purchase but generally I think they are not good.

The cards that give you points for completed rooms and open entrances seem to cluster really tightly around 4 points per game.  You can get higher, but I don't think I have ever seen them go above 6 points.  They are extremely reliable, require no investment to pay off, and are a fine fallback.

The three utility cards that give points for various corridor cards are really different from each other.  The one that boosts hallways is garbage.  It is extremely difficult to get more than 3 points out of it, and mostly you will get 1.  The one that gives 1 point for every corridor is okay, almost never exciting, and strictly better than the hallway one for some reason...?  The third one that gives 2 points per stairs is tricky.  In the late game it is trash.  On most normal boards it is trash.  But it is possible but quite involved to build tons of stairs and basement rooms completing each other and do really well.  If you empty the stairs stack you rack up 4 points for each of them which is decent.  However, it is a big investment for a not spectacular return so the card overall isn't great.

One card gives you points for every 5 coins you have left at game end.  It isn't great and getting a big score off of it requires you to waste a huge amount of currency.  Mediocre at baseline.

The last two cards give you 8 points for having all 10 room sizes or 7 points for having all 8 room types.  I don't think either of them is great, but I like the 7 point one for all room types much better.  There are at least 9 of every room type and only 6 of each room size for some sizes, so the room type is a much easier condition, plus I find it is actually useful to have all of the room types in your castle whereas having all room sizes has no obvious utility.  Both of those cards suffer from the fact that you can't reliably plan around them in the early game because you don't know what you will lack in the endgame.  They often revolve around desperately hoping you get to buy a room you don't much want on the last turn and often the people aiming for them fail.  I really don't like the idea of a bonus card that you spend resources trying to fulfill and end up scoring 0 points for.  Perhaps the best argument against these all or nothing cards is that they combine terribly with the other cards.  If you want a bunch of blues, for example, it is going to be extremely difficult to also get the variety needed to fulfill one of these cards.

In summary, I think the strategy for keeping starting utility cards can be summarized by a priority list.

Yellow or Purple Colour   2 cards
Other Colour / Size    16 cards
Completed Rooms / Open Entrances   2 cards
Cash/Round Rooms/Square Rooms/Corridors/All Colours/Stairs   6 cards
All Sizes/Hallways   2 cards

Now I want to consider how we combine this with the King's Favour pucks.  Say the King's Favour has the green room puck.  Everyone now has an added incentive to build green rooms.  If you also have the green room utility card, should you keep it?  Generally I see people keeping cards that match the Favours because they think that since they are going to want green cards anyway, might as well score even more for them!

This is not the right approach.  The thing about rooms affected by the Favour is that everyone wants them and there is a real incentive to get at least one of them.  Having a single Favoured room gives you 1 point at worst and often more than that.  Moreover it puts you in contention to jump into first place and score up 8 points if other people get stuck at single Favoured room and you can scoop up a second one.  Even if you just tie with one other player at two Favoured rooms each you grab 6 points, so threatening to do that is powerful.  It is common for one player to corner a lot of a particular colour or size of room under normal circumstances, but doing so when it is the Favoured one is rare and extremely costly.

The key is to remember that nearly every room will be bought at some point.  It isn't as though the ones that aren't worth a ton of points are ones you will just ignore.  You will end up with low value rooms and it will be a lot easier to collect a bunch of them if other people aren't aiming for them particularly, especially if they don't feel that they need at least one.

Ideally you want to take utility cards that give bonuses to the rooms that *aren't* part of the Favours.  You want to be able to cash in on stuff that other people will hand over for cheap, and you don't want to be hunting for room types that everyone wants one of.

So if you see green rooms in the Favours and you have a green room card and a orange room card, keep the orange.  You have a much greater chance of being able to grab a ton of orange and get an outstanding result.

This is especially true because in a four player game you will win more if you take risks.  A player who gets 5 guaranteed points will not win as often as a player who takes a series of coin flips for 10 or 0 points.  You have to have a big score to beat all three players so fighting for the same thing as everyone else and getting predictable, moderate scores is not the ticket.  Aim for something different and try to catch em all.

How much does this matter?  14 of the pucks are coloured ones, and there are 10 other pucks.  (I count the corridor pucks among the 'other' because they work so differently from the coloured pucks.)  When a coloured puck is out that matches a starting card of yours, I would downgrade the card by one tier.  Much of the time this won't matter because even if a blue card is worse when blue pucks are out it is still vastly superior to garbage like the 'collect all' cards or the hallways card.  You will probably still have some other trash you can safely dump but if you happen to have 3 similar cards drop the one that matches the Favour.

Strangely I think the corridor Favours work the opposite way.  Even if they are in play people aren't going to be spending their turns spamming hallways or stairs, it just isn't efficient.  If you happen to have the stairs card or the corridors card when a corridors Favour is out, I think it becomes a really reasonable keep and I would upgrade them both by a tier.  You can pretty easily scoop the Favour and a bunch of points for your cards and that could be quite the coup.

The cash Favour works in favour of the cash card, like I said earlier.  It incentivizes people to complete greens and keep their money around on their Master Builder turn instead of launching it off to the bank.  There will be more money around as people fight for the cash Favour, which helps you get more points off of the cash card even if you don't win the Favour.

The other Favours are broad, so I don't think they have a significant effect on card valuation.

That is quite the wall of text, so I will give a quick summary:  Keep the starting utility cards that give bonuses for room colours (except corridor ones) or sizes.  If you have to choose between those, keep the ones that are different from the Favours.  If you have to choose between lesser cards, keep the ones that match the Favours instead.

*Edit:  I changed the advice regarding the Stairs card because I didn't know the rule that you can't attach Stairs to Stairs, which makes a heavy Stairs strategy a lot harder to do.  It is still possible, but it is much weaker.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Increasing utility

I played a couple of games of Castles of Mad King Ludwig over the past couple days and have been smashing my brain against the approximate value of the utility cards in the game.  For those that haven't played, Castles is a game where you build a castle out of a bunch of differently shaped and sized rooms that you fit together into something wild and crazy.  The rooms have a variety of properties like colour, shape, door number and location, and scoring bonuses or penalties.  Utility cards are cards each player gets in secret and they award points for various things.  You might get 3 bonus points for each size 400 room, for example, or 7 bonus points if you have a room of every colour.

Initially I thought the utility cards were worth about 3 points each.  This is important because you have opportunities to acquire more utility cards throughout the game and it is really useful to have a ballpark for what you can get out of them.  It is theoretically possible to get as much as 28 points out of a single card, but generally the high is around 12 with a minimum of 0.  In my game at Naked Man's place I got 28 points from my four cards and he questioned my estimate of 3 points per card, so I thought I would take a look at what utility cards are usually worth.

I took a castle that I finished a game with on Saturday that was pretty middle of the road and figured out what each utility card would have been worth if I had been awarded it at game end.  The high was 12, five of the cards were worth 0, and the average was 3.04 points per card.  Pretty good so far!

But there is more to it than that.

When you get new utility cards you get dealt two of them and you choose one to keep.  When you take the distribution of cards I got from Saturday's game and choose the best of two of them you get an average of 4.49 points per card instead.  So getting a fresh card on the last turn of the game is likely worth close to that value.  There are two cards that give a lot of points if you have fulfilled a difficult condition and if you happen to have a castle that has already done both of those things your expected value rockets up to 5.54 instead, and you know this before you make a play to get a card.  If you don't want to bother counting up your castle it is likely right to count a new utility card for 5 points, which is rather a large number.  It means that unless any other option has some really powerful benefit utility purchases on the last turn are likely to be top notch.  For certain if you feel like you are in a bad position in the game you should go for utility cards at game end to try to luck your way out.  If you bust and get no points you are still losing, but if you get lucky and hit a 10 or 12 point card it might eke out a victory.

However, that is only the easy part of the calculation.  The hard part is figuring out what a utility card is worth partway through the game.  At the start of the game you get three utility cards and you keep two of them.  These help guide your building by changing your evaluation of the tiles.  My initial impression was that early utility cards would be extra powerful because you can then tailor your builds towards them as the game progresses.  Knowing that I get bonus points for size 400 rooms means I can load up on them, right?

Not exactly.

The problem is that even though I know that I get bonuses for such rooms I often can't capitalize anyway.  Sometimes those rooms just don't come out or the person ahead of you is grabbing them all for unrelated reasons.  Even if you do get them you are usually giving something else up for them.  If I take a 4 point tile because I have a utility card that grants 3 bonus points on it I only really make the full 3 points if I pass up another 4 point tile.  Often I end up passing up a 6 point tile to get 4+3, which is still a benefit, but not nearly as large as the point values from the utility cards make it appear at endgame.  You usually lose something to alter your gameplan to maximize your utility cards.

The other reason that early utility cards aren't great is that your choice isn't terribly useful.  You might get offered a orange bonus card and a green bonus card, but since you haven't seen which tiles come out during the game your choice is often really just a guess.

But when you get a choice at the end of the game it is *much* better.  You can know which will give you more points for sure so you don't end up with a worthless card very often.  Utility cards at game start have higher potential but higher tradeoff and a far greater chance to totally whiff.

It is pretty easy to come up with a useful range for early utility cards even if it would take an enormous amount of data to get a really firm average.  Even if you don't bother to look at the card at all you have a floor of 3 points per card, as noted above.  That means that you definitely do better than that since you can alter your plan slightly to maximize your value there, at least some of the time.  I can't imagine you could exceed 5 points per card though as you would have to double its expected value while giving up only .5 points / card and from experience I can say that doing so isn't practical.  My experience and instinct tells me that the value is somewhere between 4 and 5.

I imagine that the optimal time to get a utility card is in the middle of the game.  By that point you can see whether or not you have a basement set up, which tiles you are already hunting for to finish off your big point rooms, and you know what right hand opponent is angling for so you can avoid that.  You also can see some of the tiles that will come out in the next turn so you can make some good guesses about what will be available to you later.

Combine that information with the flexibility to spend the last five turns of the game picking the tiles that work with your utility card and I feel like the midgame is the ideal place to farm up utility cards.

In any case talking about the ideal point in the game to take the utility card is kind of silly because if they fluctuate in value between 4 and 5 throughout the entire game there isn't much real sense in shifting your internal valuation as time passes.  Simply put, I think the utility cards in your initial hand where you have no information are worth about 4 points, but since you are simply handed those at the start you just take the best of what you have.  Once the game is going and you have a grasp of what is happening I think you should assume that utility cards are worth 5 points, but never forget that their high variability favours buying them when you are losing.

Tomorrow I will write about which utility cards are most valuable and discuss strategies based on which King's Favour pucks come out at the start of the game.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A downward spiral

One of the things about Blood Bowl in ongoing league play is that teams can hit a really bad streak and enter a downward spiral that is hard to halt.  As a team's value gets higher they start taking penalties to their income and this can mean that they end up with little cash in the bank and find it quite difficult to make more.

As long as their players stay mostly healthy this isn't an issue, but when you hit a bad game and lose some players to critical injuries or death it can be a nasty situation.  You start the next game without a full team of real players and often this leads to more of your players getting injured, which makes the next game worse, etc.  It eventually stops when you get a game where you luck into not collecting any serious injuries and your team value has been lowered enough that you can make money and start buying back players to rebuild the franchise, often at a *much* lower team value than before.

While playing tournaments against the AI I assumed it was just cheating to avoid this issue.  The AI teams always seemed to have lots of high level players and plenty of cash and there were never any ongoing injuries plaguing their teams.  Even when I suffered a setback I always had to fight full strength teams, so I assumed the AI just generated new teams for each game and didn't have any continuity.

That doesn't feel great.  I am playing a team of horrible monsters with claws who like to knock people over and then jump on the prone bodies.  I want those injuries to *last*, dammit!  That is my raison d'etre!

I started up a tiny league with just my team and 3 AI teams to see if the AI really was just cheating up new teams for each game.  It turns out not only does the AI play mostly fair, but in a small league like this its algorithm becomes a huge problem for it in the long run.

My team of murderous killers wasn't effective in a league with 40 teams because when the AI plays against itself it doesn't seem to assign long lasting injuries.  The players just gain points and level up and the AI stockpiles cash.  But against my savage murder machines the AI suffers constant deaths and brutal injuries that permanently penalize its players and can't make enough cash to buy them back, and in a league with 4 teams it has to face me every third game!

In an average game I kill one enemy player and deliver an ongoing injury to another one.  Given my league size the AI can only rebuy its dead players about as fast as I kill them on average, but those injuries keep piling up.  There are now players on the enemy teams that have 3 ongoing injuries penalizing their performance and the AI just keeps them on the roster.  I don't know if this is because the AI is too stupid to know it should fire those players or because it simply doesn't have the cash to hire a new player to replace them at the moment.  When you don't have a full team it makes sense to keep injured players around and just fire them when you can afford to buy a new rookie.

When I started this little league experiment I faced full teams with complete rosters of important players.  The Khemri, for example, have a bunch of relatively normal Strength 3 players and four Strength 5 players called Tomb Guardians.  In my first game against the Khemri I killed two of their Tomb Guardians, and they have been down to just two of them ever since.  I killed another one, but they managed to replace it, but their remaining Tomb Guardian has an injury that reduces its speed from 4 to 3, which is a brutal penalty.

This four team league started with four teams at roughly 2300 team value.  It now has my team at 2550, and all three other teams are around 1700.  An 850 point difference in team value is ludicrous and certainly insurmountable in terms of actually winning the game, and it is even worse than that because those teams all have a collection of injuries that penalize their performance and also have key positions that aren't filled because I keep killing those players.

I am riding high.  My team is incredible at smashing enemies and they are still gaining levels.  There is a problem though... my team value is so high that I barely make any money, even when I win.  The enemy teams still knock my dudes over fairly regularly, and at some point they are going to make a death or ongoing injury stick and I will struggle to find enough money to buy a new player.  The game needs some kind of system for reining in out of control teams like mine, and I guess this system works well enough.

It does seem kind of silly just constantly bashing AI teams into submission.  It isn't hard to win these games.

But it is IMMENSE fun.  I don't doubt that I will win each game, but winning it optimally is still a serious challenge.  Responding to all the shifting circumstances and pressures of game situations is interesting and enjoyable.

Plus I really want to find out what will happen in the long run.  Will the AI teams just continue to collect injuries and become more and more hopeless?  Will they eventually figure out that they have to fire their players and expect the state to support them on some kind of disability pension for retired murdersport players?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Finishing touches

I am playing a lot of Blood Bowl 2.  The game itself, inasmuch as it recreates the board game, is wonderful.  I love it so, just as I have for almost 20 years now.

That line makes me feel kinda old.

But the implementation of BB2 leaves a lot to be desired.  One of the things that frustrates me about the game is the camera and how limited it is.  What I want in a camera, ideally, is the sort of control I have over it in WOW.  I want to be able to swivel around, shift side to side, zoom out, and look at the whole damn field any way I want.  Right now I am stuck with a restrictive set of camera angles that often leads me to be unable to easily get the information I need.  For example, at a particular zoom level I can't mouse over people in the injured box - they are off the screen and I can't scroll far enough down to see them.  I have to zoom out a couple levels to be able to figure out who on my team is mangled.  Ideally I would want the freedom to set up my camera so the football field is horizonal rather than vertical to fit better on my screen, but that isn't possible right now.

It also irritates me that the cinematics are so limited in terms of choice.  I find it hard to imagine someone who wants to watch a cut scene of a generic Blood Bowl player knocking down another generic Blood Bowl player on every block, but that is what the game defaults to.  What I want is to have cinematic for touchdowns and trophies, but otherwise just keep the game grinding onward.  How hard could it be to have some checkboxes to determine which cutscenes I want?  Instead there are four settings that don't let me get of knockdown cut scenes at all.  

I understand that changing the camera would take a bit of work but offering simple checkboxes for cinematics would be utterly trivial to code and would give players a lot more choice in how they want to waste their time.  I also would like the ability to speed up certain interactions in the game.  When I am knocking someone down and I have a choice of which square to knock them to, I need to click.  Fine.  But when I have one choice and literally cannot do anything else, I still have to click that space.  I don't see why that should be and the player should just get pushed there.  However, if they want to keep the extra totally pointless clicks in then there should be a checkbox that lets me ignore that bit if I want to.

In a similar vein I wish there were keyboard shortcuts for things.  I would like to be able to hit F or S for Follow or Stay after a block, rather than clicking, and that should be incredibly simple to put in.  These sorts of oversights confuse me because there is an awful lot of complicated work that goes into making the graphics and connecting the players for a game like this, and the sorts of modifications I want are so trivial that you could have the intern do it in a couple hours.

I think I am spoiled in this regard because I am used to WOW, which has had 13 years to improve its UI, and I can just stack in the mods I want to fix whatever the game itself doesn't handle well.  I have come to expect settings menus that have dozens of options to tweak the bits of the game I want just the way I like them.

Blood Bowl is fantastic.  The computer program shell that is built around the current Blood Bowl game though... has some issues.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Over a heap of corpses

I quit WOW last week.  It is a lot like a breakup with someone that I had an on again, off again relationship with.  Every couple of years I go back, and it is so good at the start.  We are happy together, all smiles and flushed cheeks and amazing sex.... and then eventually boredom sets in.  We fight about the same old things, remember why the relationship has always soured, and eventually have a bitter breakup.

But as years go by I will forget the bad things.  I will forget the grind, the scheduling annoyances, the waiting for exciting times to come and putting up with boredom in the interim.  WOW is like a clingy lover who requires constant reassurance and always has good things coming but they are never as good when they arrive as they were purported to be.

The sex is super hot though, in this weird WOW/lover analogy.

Anyway we broke up.  As always, I had to do it, because WOW never has the decency to break up with me when times are getting rough.  At least it won't ever ghost on me, and now I get to go through the euphoric period where I just ended a dysfunctional relationship and I feel free as the wind.

Never fear though, it took me no time at all to find a new and exciting addiction.  Or, at least, kind of new.  Blood Bowl 2 isn't really that different from the original in many ways, but hopefully it loses some of the frustrating bugs that plagued BB1 in single player mode.  It still has all the multiplayer problems that drove me away from the original, in that you have to cope with real people and time crunches so you can't just pause the action when you need to go, and your opponent will often take outrageous glee in running all of their clocks to the last second so you spend most of your time doing nothing.

But complaints about the players of Blood Bowl notwithstanding, Blood Bowl is as amazing as ever.  I so love crunching through enemy teams, watching their players get ground into hamburger by my evil monsters.  Stacking up those red crosses in the enemy bench, watching my opponents be unable to field a reasonable team of players due to the injuries I have inflicted, these things make me smile.

Blood Bowl combines my love of character progression and planning with an excellent tactical board game in a way that is deeply satisfying.

I have one real complaint though, and that is Campaign Mode.  This seems intended to be an introduction to the game for people who have never done it before, and it achieves this by removing most of the mechanics from the game for the first match and then slowly introducing them as you go along.  In theory that might sound okay but remember that Blood Bowl games take awhile.  I am five games in, I think, and I am still not playing proper Blood Bowl.  This wouldn't be such an issue except that removing those rules makes Blood Bowl a *stupid* game.  Removing injuries, Star Player Points, and even rolls to do basic things turn Blood Bowl into a snorefest, and make much of the game nonsensical.  The game only makes sense when there is risk to your players and when they can progress, otherwise it feels all wrong, and more importantly, not fun.

If you start a new game and you are hours into it and still aren't done the tutorial that is likely to be a problem.  It is even more of a problem when the tutorial sucks big time and isn't fun.  If I was a new player I would probably ditch this game 3 hours in and tell everyone I knew how crap it was.

Many game companies try to take complicated games and build an introduction that is really easy to try to collect more players.  WOW did it with levelling, which went from an interesting test of skill and planning to brainless button mashing.  When you can't lose, you can't win either.  Blood Bowl did the same thing, making the tutorial trivial, long, and crappy.  It won't bring new players into the fold, rather it will drive them away.

Nobody starts a new game and tells their friends excitedly "Oh hey, you have to play New Game #4!  You can't lose, and nothing interesting ever happens, and your decisions are irrelevant!"

You know why I loved Skyrim so much?  When I first went to a dungeon there were archers there, and they shot arrows at me, and I almost died and ran away.  After an hour of prowling around, sneaking behind cover, and madly dashing in with my axe to chop at them, I finally cleared them all out.  Then I told everyone how fucking awesome Skyrim was.  Write that shit down, game companies.

At least in BB2 you can just ignore Campaign Mode and play the real game.  WOW hasn't gone quite that far yet, but perhaps it should, and then change the levelling game so that it is fun again.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A roomie

I am heading back to the World Boardgaming Championships this summer at the end of July.  I am excited about trying to defend my good showings in Vegas Showdown and Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and also to try to make up for my sub standard results in Puerto Rico last year.

More than anything though I am super excited about getting to hang out with all kinds of cool people that I met last year (as well as my gamer friends who are more local) and play a bunch of great games.

However.

I don't yet have a room!  The hotel is full at this point too, so I am either going to need to find a place with someone who already has a room and needs a roommate, or I will find a place close by but off site.  In any case if any awesome gamers want share a room with me then please ping me so we can talk.

It isn't panic mode because I am sure I can find an AirBNB or something in the vicinity but obviously the earlier I sort this out the better.

So pumped.

Now to figure out where I am ditching my kid for the week while I go cavorting...

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2 days

Lounge Day is upon us once again.  That day where a bunch of UWaterloo mathies go back to the Math and Computers building to sit in the lounge and play games all day.  Also the day where a bunch of people who aren't mathies but ended up there anyway follow us to our day of festivities.

If you are a gamer sort and want to come, you should do that.  There are some old faces that were gone for some time but which are back!

Today I was thinking about what games I am most looking forward to.  I play a lot of random stuff on Lounge Day, but in previous years I remember trying hard to find people to play Puerto Rico with.  I wouldn't mind that, but it definitely isn't the big draw for me this year.  I think that title goes to MoneyBu.  That is, Barbu, for money.

I have come out a substantial winner over the past few years (though there was one year in particular where my winnings were decidedly negative...) but I just love that game, win or lose.

Winning is better, don't get me wrong.  But even losing is pretty good.

Part of it is the trashtalk.  Most board games don't seem to engender quite so much mockery and derision.  I suspect it is the money element, because when you really want somebody to double you so you can smash them and take their sweet, sweet dollars it can pay to publicly doubt their fortitude and courage.  What, no double?  Are you chicken, or just bad?

The other thing that has me juiced is Camp Nightmare distribution.  There are still a bunch of copies here and I want to get them out to all the people who haven't collected theirs yet.  I figure I will GM at least one game to teach anyone who wants, and I quite enjoy watching people play my games for the first time.

And the day after that I launch off to Hawaii!  Likely I won't be making any posts here for the week because I will be too busy snorkelling and digging holes in the beach.

Life is grand.

Friday, April 7, 2017

What is my win condition?

A few weeks ago I played a game of El Grande.  (Thinking about a game that is called 'The Big' makes me giggle inside.)

I got blown out.  I haven't played El Grande in a decade or so and I certainly didn't play perfectly so I can't say I am surprised that I lost.  However, the game did illustrate one mechanic that I found frustrating.  Oftentimes I try to figure out how I could change a game to avoid mechanics that bother me but in this case I think the mechanic is inherent to the game.  The mechanic that troubles me here is the freedom to attack any player you want, without a clear way to figure out what you should try to accomplish with your attacks.

Early on in the game I was in a terrible spot.  I got blown out by one spectacularly brutal card coming up at the absolute worst possible time, and I was dead last at 15 points while the leader was at 35.  Not only that but she had far more units on the board than I did so I rated to get a lot less points on each scoring round thereafter. Given that my chance to win was vanishingly small at that point I decided that my new goal was to not come last.

Once my goal is to not come last, everything changes.  Instead of trying to smash the leader, my optimal play is to punish the third and fourth place players, those just ahead of me.  Of course those two players aren't going to like this conclusion as they would quite rather I attack the leader, giving them the best chance to win.  But if I spend all my efforts attacking the leader then I rate to end the game in last place.

It is frustrating to be in last and to have to reevaluate your win condition, but it is just as frustrating to be in third and have the last place player clawing you down, gutting your chance to win.  The key problem here is people don't agree on what your win condition is.  If you don't agree on what you are trying to do, you aren't going to agree on what course of action is reasonable.

You might have a particular idea about how a player should play when and if they conclude that they are out of the running for the win, but there simply isn't any widespread agreement.  Even then, players also have to be concerned about table presence.  If a person attacks you to set you back, you can either ignore it or strike back.  Retribution is often terrible in the game in which is occurs but its primary use is to build a table presence for later games.  Who wants to go after the player who will strike back relentlessly, starting a cycle of mutually assured destruction?

There are ways to get around this problem.  Some games just make it difficult or impossible to strike at a particular player.  For example, Le Havre is a game in which attacking one player is possible but difficult.  It doesn't suffer from this issue.  Settlers on the other hand has the revenge problem all the time but because it is so random you can rarely conclude that you are completely out of the game.  Even if you are behind it is quite plausible that you could run into a really fortuitous run of the dice and be back in contention, so going after the third place player is rarely a good choice.

One other way to deke around this problem is lack of information.  In Castles of Mad Kin Ludwig you can see who is ahead on points but you don't know what cards people hold.  This hole in your knowledge makes it far harder for you to figure out who is winning and also to be sure that you are actually losing.  That sort of arrangement, alongside the fact that the game doesn't often present you the ability to smash particular people, means that you don't have that same problem of figuring out who you want to attack.

You can make it really hard to do anything to the opponents like Dominion does.  Or you can obscure people's positions like Castles does.  Or you can make the game really random so that everyone can always win and attacking the leader is always right.

However, none of those solutions can be easily implemented into El Grande.  Even then, this isn't the sort of flaw that everyone sees as a flaw.  Some people like always hitting the leader no matter what, or just having fun punishing people at random while cackling like a madman.

Any of those is fine, if that is what winds your clock.

But for me, I really like to know ahead of time what my goals are.  I like to know what my opponent's goals are.  I don't want to be in a situation where people will be going after completely different goals partway through the game and knowing that I will be a casualty of war.  I also don't enjoy a game where partway through the leader is already determined and the rest of the group spends the game spiting each other, squabbling over second place because they have already given up.

It doesn't mean that El Grande is bad, but it does mean that it has a lot of potential to be really irritating, and I try to avoid games like that.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ultimate power

Character progression in WOW is in an awkward spot.  Blizzard wants people to feel more powerful with time, but they have designed themselves into a place where power has increased too much.  Right now my character does about 5 times as much damage as I did when I first got to maximum level.  Those increases have come from a variety of sources, but the end result is that instead of combat with a random monster taking 15 seconds and having some risk involved, I simply explode anything I attack with two button presses.

This is going to get worse, of course.  I fully expect that by the end of the expansion I will be doing more like 7 times as much damage as I did at the start, and if that number is wrong, it is almost certainly because it is too low.  Combat no longer makes any sense at that point and every task simply becomes about travelling as fast as possible because nothing presents any threat whatsoever.

Blizzard tried to fix this in the latest patch by having monsters scale with character gear.  The backlash against this was massive, and justified.  For example, I discovered that if I simply remove my rings and amulet monsters lose about 1/3 of their health because the game thinks my item level has utterly tanked.  However, those gear pieces were only giving me a damage boost of 25%, so I am actually *more* powerful when I take off my gear.  This is clearly unintended, and feels utterly wrong.

The fact that the playerbase is now doing this, just 24 hours after the patch launched, is a clear failure on Blizzard's part.  We as a community strive to maximize our power and if they let us do it in awful, frustrating ways we will do it that way, but we will feel terrible about ourselves.

There are easy ways to address this if Blizzard wants to approach it from a numbers standpoint.  Right now the problem is that a beginning character comes in with all of their gear being item level 800 or so, and characters with good gear like mine are at item level 905 now.  However, if I remove three pieces of gear the game assigns a value of 0 to those slots, so my average item level drops below 800.  I am still pretty close to as powerful as before, but the monsters scale as though I am the newbiest newb there is.  They can fix it by simply putting a floor of 780 on gear for the purposes of this calculation.  That way you can't game the system - putting on low level gear or leaving slots empty won't ever help you.

Fixing the problem numerically is easy, but fixing the perception is harder.  People want to be more powerful.  They don't like the feeling that when they get a new piece of gear the game will simply give the monsters more health to compensate.  They *really* hate monsters scaling with their gear.

However, people also find utterly trivial monsters to be a bore.  They would like things to be interesting, and if everything dies to a single swing the world stops feeling dangerous, real, and important, and becomes just another grind.  Unfortunately with the crazy scaling in this expansion there is no way to keep old monsters relevant - you cannot give characters 5 times damage and 4 times health and think that enemies will retain any sort of threat.

Blizzard has put themselves in this bind and I don't see any good way out of it.  They need to use my numbers suggestion if they insist on keeping the scaling with gear mechanic, but that mechanic is going to be intensely unpopular.

So what is worse?  Better gameplay but the players are bitter, or worse gameplay but the players are happy?  In the long run bad gameplay and bitter players both cause subscription losses so it isn't at all clear to me what they should do from a financial standpoint.  From a consistency and loyalty standpoint though I think the answer is to get rid of this scaling with gear thing.  People hate it when Blizzard suddenly nerfs them, and for good reason.  They put in a ton of time trying to get more powerful, and when that gets minimized or wiped out by a patch it is really frustrating.

If it were me, I would tell people that the scaling was a mistake and walk it back.  I am curious to see how that plays out though, because they have a lot more data on hand than I do.