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.


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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I am a Fox

Last night I played an escape room challenge called the Mad Fox society.  I won't be spoiling any of the puzzles directly, at least in part because my team got the best time to date of over 600 teams and I don't want to get beat!  We are all Mad Foxes now, whatever that means.

The game has a success rate of about 11% and has a time limit of one hour.  We won in 44:32, and the second team that went after us won in 57 minutes.  They had some technical difficulties though, so it is hard to compare.

I really enjoyed the game in general.  There were a large variety of puzzles from word puzzles, crosswords, visual puzzles, and math problems.  Plus there were some puzzles that I don't even know how to describe without giving them away completely.  This escape room was somewhat different from the first time I tried it a few years ago because there was a GM with us in the room to keep us on track.  She didn't solve puzzles for us but she kept us from completely misinterpreting things and going totally off track.  For example, one clue contained a > symbol, which I took to be 'greater than'.  It was intended to be an arrow though, and having someone to clarify that seems quite reasonable.  Figuring out that it was supposed to be an arrow was not supposed to be part of the challenge!

Unlike my first experience with escape games this one didn't have much of a physical component.  In my first game I had to yank a chunk of furniture off a wall and succeed at a puzzle that required strength, dexterity, and communication.  This one was purely a mental exercise because every physical manipulation required was extremely straightforward and you couldn't fail.  In this particular group of hardcore geeks and puzzle nerds I think I am a lot more valuable as the jock than as just another geek, so I didn't have the same defined role as last time.

This time I mostly solo solved a math/algebra puzzle.  One thing that made me a bit disappointed was that the GM gave me a hint about how to solve it halfway through even though I didn't ask for one.  I suspect the great majority of people would struggle with it, which is why she gave me the hint, but I really wanted to do it all myself.  Looking at the line of reasoning I was following I am sure I would have gotten it but it would have taken me an extra ten or twenty seconds without the clue.  I would have felt a lot better about that had I done it without any assistance at all.

One thing I really enjoyed about the game was that you didn't have to solve everything.  There were a couple small things we didn't quite finish but we were able to figure out how to proceed anyway.  It is an interesting twist to have people guessing at an answer with only partial knowledge and the dilemma of locking in guesses vs. grinding away at puzzles to be absolutely sure is one I enjoy.  You only have so much time and brainpower and trying to make leaps to get on to the next stage without doing everything is a cool strategy.

The only real downside to escape rooms is the cost.  I spent $32 for 45 minutes of entertainment and while I don't feel bad about that (because it was a lot of fun!) it is a really expensive way to spend time.  The trick is probably to look at it as the cost for an entire evening and spend time before and after socializing and discussing the puzzles.  It certainly provided a lot to talk about and consider so looking at it in that light is best, rather than a simple $/min calculation.

However, that is still enough money that I can't really make myself want to do it all the time.  I think if I suddenly had boatloads of money I would do every escape room available though.  It is a hobby that makes me feel good in all kinds of ways and I like that it is something I can pursue with a bunch of other people that isn't an environmental mess, which an awful lot of group activities are.

Friday, March 24, 2017

No time

Something really weird is happening in the current WOW expansion compared to previous iterations.  In times long past people would often wait 8 months for new content, and sometimes the wait would even go over a year.  Hardcore guilds in particular would grind like maniacs for a couple of months to beat the current tier and then go into maintenance mode for half a year or more waiting for something challenging to do.

Of course a lot of guilds weren't hardcore, so they would slowly farm their way through the difficulties slowly grinding their way up the ladder.  A guild wouldn't necessarily be a Normal guild, or a Heroic guild, because they could quite reasonably spend that 8 months working their way through one difficulty after the other.

The current expansion, Legion, isn't like this.  The expansion has been out for seven months and we are now seeing the fourth tier of raid content added into the game.  Blizzard is on a pace to add a new raid every two months, though admittedly one of those raids was quite small.  The difference here is that most guilds do not have the time to grind all the way through the game before something new arrives on their doorstep.

If your guild wants to get through all of a big raid in the roughly nine weeks allotted then you have to kill a new boss every week.  If, like many guilds, you want to be a Mythic guild but need time to farm up gear in Heroic first then you have to kill Heroic *really* quickly before moving on to Mythic.  The top tier guilds do this in a single week of course, but guilds like mine took a few weeks to kill Heroic and are going to be looking at a new raid having only beaten 3 bosses in Mythic mode.  My guild *might* kill a fourth boss before the new raid lands but I would bet against it if I had to bet.

This accelerated schedule is really weird.  I am used to the idea of cleaning up easy bosses fairly quickly but spending weeks and weeks grinding away at the hardest bosses to accumulate enough gear and practice to get them down.  This new way where you get nine weeks to beat everything and then you move on is a serious departure.

I think it is great.

I bet the most hardcore guilds will experience massive burnout because of it.  They go so hard that their players *need* six months break between spikes of playing to have their lives work at all, and when they get eight weeks of insanity followed up with one week of downtime it isn't sustainable.  Some guilds will simply find the small core of people who are willing to play twelve hours a day for the foreseeable future, but most of them will give up and go way more casual.

But what does this mean for people in the middle like me?  I play a lot when new content comes out to see all the stuff and power up, but I usually quit WOW when faced with the looming prospect of farming the same stuff for eight months.  How will I react when there is constantly something new to do?  I was feeling a little burned out this week, not sure I wanted to keep on raiding, but a new raid, new stuff to do, new power to gain, at a reasonable rate of return on time.... that might change things.

What it means long term is that instead of lots of guilds slowly grinding their way through content there will be a lot more churn.  Get it done fast, or don't get it done at all.  However, moving past old content quickly and having a steady stream of new stuff will probably make Blizzard a lot more money as it will keep people like me paying into the system.

I also think this will push a ton of guilds out of Mythic difficulty.  Many of them are just there because they need something to do when Heroic is cleared out, but if there just isn't much time to get Heroic down there isn't the pressing need to push into the hardest difficulty.  Mythic, with its fixed twenty person roster size, is a giant pain to organize, and if you can avoid that mess you probably want to.

My guess is that a quick release schedule like this will lead to greater stratification in guilds, pushing them to just stick to one difficulty setting or another.  It will smash a bunch of the top guilds, but be good for the masses of players because there will be so much to do.  Blizzard has been saying for a decade or more that they want a faster release schedule, and it seems they are finally in a place where they can deliver it.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A new take on control

It took Magic The Gathering a long time to figure out what sort of deck is fun to play against and force the competitive scene to look like that deck.  Having seen the first reveals of the new Hearthstone set I think Hearthstone is being deliberately pushed that same way.

People like games that are over in a predictable time span.  They like decks that try to do exciting things.  They want to see big swings.

What they don't like is games where a control deck just kills everything the opponent puts out and then sits there waiting for them to die.

In Magic the control deck that was most hated was the permission deck, where the permission player constantly counters anything the opponent tries to do.  It just sucks to sit there watching all of your schemes fall apart while your opponent prepares to bore you to death.

Don't get me wrong, I loved playing those decks, but my opponents generally did not, and that was the problem.  It isn't that nobody loves permission decks, just that most people don't, and the fact that their games take forever to finish is frustrating for casual players and a problem for tournaments.

Hearthstone has a similar sort of thing with Control Warrior.  CW sits there gaining health and killing your stuff and waiting for you to die.  It isn't fun.

In the last expansion Blizzard put out a new archetype called Jade.  Jade cards make Jade Golems, which start out at 1/1 and grow by +1/+1 each time.  Those cards start out weak but eventually the Jade Golems become 10/10 or more, and the opposing player just folds under the pressure.  A lot of people talked about how as long as Jades are in the game no other control deck can succeed because eventually Jade Golems overwhelm any other deck.  Many people posited this as a problem.  I think it is the solution, and is quite deliberate on Blizzard's part.  We just need more things like it.

The reason I think it is deliberate is the selection of new cards coming out in the next expansion.  The most obvious example is this Lakkari Sacrifice, which gives you the following card:

Nether Portal is a new type of card that sits on the battlefield like a minion, but cannot be removed.  Each turn it makes a pair of 3/2 Imps, one on each side of it.  Actually getting the Nether Portal card requires a lot of investment but once you get it you reap the value every turn thereafter.  Unless your opponent has some source of extreme value themselves you will absolutely crush them in the late game, no question.

This card *crushes* CW.  If your opponent plays this you can't just sit there trying to gain health and clear their board because they will have far more than you can handle.  Just like Jade decks this card is designed to flat out beat any deck that isn't able to proactively attack them.

What this means for the metagame is that people will be playing control decks that quickly get to a powerful win condition that cannot be stopped.  The only solution is to either crush them quickly with an aggro deck, or to set up your own amazing win condition faster or better than they do.  I think this second option is what Blizzard is aiming for.  They think, and I agree, that the game is most fun when people are battling for board control and life totals and ratcheting up the stakes each turn.  When both players have totally nutty things they can do that will end the game one way or the other the game is never going to coast or get boring.  Each turn is going to contain steps towards something game changing happening.

CW is going to *suck* in that metagame.  This is a good thing for Hearthstone, just as permission decks sucking was a good thing for Magic.  That doesn't mean that all decks should be control decks, and it certainly doesn't mean that everyone is going to include these win conditions, but if the design team does their work at all well, a lot of people will.  That struggle towards victory with people threatening their gigantic bomb cards is a lot more fun than a long attrition match.

This style of game will mean that control vs. control matchups will be exciting, much quicker than before, and involve a lot of early game action.  People will be pushing to get their engine going rather than just sitting there staring at one another.

Whether or not they get the numbers right is a real question.  I can't answer that yet, both because I haven't seen all the cards, and because predicting that sort of thing is extremely difficult.  However, I can say that I love the concept of control decks with powerful win conditions and I think the games that come out of that will be more exciting to play and to watch.  I am really looking forward to seeing what else is in the next expansion and watching the metagame that comes out of it.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The wall

In the Nighthold raid in the latest WOW patch there are 3 clear tiers of bosses.  The first 3 must be done in order and are easy, the next 4 can be done in any order you like and are moderate in difficulty, and the last 3 are extremely hard.  This has lead to a situation where a huge number of guilds, several thousand at least, have defeated the first 3 bosses but are stuck unable to defeat anything else.

Recently I joined a new guild in order to be able to raid Mythic difficulty and I think we are the classic example of one of these guilds.  We have some really good players who could find a spot in a top guild if they were willing to play 40 hours a week but since they aren't they hang out with a 6 hour a week guild like the one I am in.  We have some solid players who are good enough to do the medium difficulty bosses, and we have a few people who aren't good enough to be in Mythic difficulty at all but are getting carried along.  This has translated to us beating the first 3 bosses without serious difficulty but being totally unable to get any further.

Many people are complaining that the step up from boss 3 to boss 4 is too much.  I think that is a fair complaint, but it isn't necessarily that boss 4 is too hard but rather that boss 3 is too easy.  When people wander into an instance and find a nice difficulty curve from boss to boss you don't end up with all the guilds stuck at one spot and every new boss you fight feels like a real success when you finally down it.  When a middling boss is trivial but the next is a serious challenge then people get frustrated because they are used to easy wins and suddenly they can't get anything done.

The hardest boss of them all is the roster boss.  You can't maintain a roster of 25 good players because you can only bring 20 players so you have to bench 5 of them every night.  If you try to do that those 5 benchwarmers leave to find guilds where they actually get to play.  You can maintain a roster of 20 good players and a couple hangers on, but then when a couple of your good players quit you suddenly have to bring the scrubs along just to fill up the raid and they make you lose.  It is really difficult to recruit people because nobody wants to be the 23th raider because they get benched and nobody wants to be the 18th raider because then their guild is carrying scrubs to fill the last two slots.

You also have the problem that since there are thousands of guilds at the same point in progression you are fighting with everybody else for a limited pool of recruits.  It is hard to differentiate yourself from the pack, and you pretty much have to hope that your raiding schedule uniquely suits the potential recruits that are looking for a home.

My guild is having all these issues.  We get some new recruits but mostly they are terrible players.  We can't just bench them freely though because we don't actually have enough good people to fill those spots.  What do you do when a new recruit fails totally at doing important parts of the fight?  Kick them, and run with 19 people?  That isn't a good plan.  Just run with them and let them suck?  That makes your good raiders mad because they are carrying people who are bad or lazy.

It is a complicated mess, and right now my guild is dealing with all of this.  We are just one of the thousands of guilds stuck trying to get a 4th kill, and our roster is enough to fill a 20 person raid, but just barely, and we often end up bringing along terrible recruits or puggers.

The raid itself is a lot of fun though, I can't deny that.  It is just the logistics that are a nightmare.  This is pretty much the way it has always been, and I am just glad I am not the one whose job it is to do the logistics.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

One dimensional

I think my approach to building games is too focused.  That focus makes sense because I am playing to my strengths, but I suspect that I would be a much better designer if I were working on a small part of a large project.

The thing I do is numbers.  When someone tries to tell me that I ought to rewrite the metaphysics of my world I nod and think seriously about it.  When people ask for big changes to the descriptions of a race, class, card, or flavour text I am generally happy to do whatever they ask.

But ask to change a 3 to a 4?  Bite my shiny metal ass.

That 3 is a 3 for a *reason*.

Yesterday I was driving and chatting with In The Hat and he made a couple of great suggestions about theme in Heroes By Trade, my roleplaying game.  Theme is a thing I think about once I have all the numbers built.  It is the pretty frame around the combat system, the necessary fluff required to make my beautiful numbers have some reason for existing.

Right now Heroes By Trade has a system where most people are just normal people.  They can be good at stuff, learn magical Rituals, and be important to the world, but they don't have the raw power that a Shard has.  A Shard is a person that has a shard of one of the ancient gods in them.  They are magical by nature and this means they tend to be stronger, faster, and smarter than the average person.  They learn Rituals more easily, wield fearsome magic in combat, and bend the world around them just by showing up.

But up to this point the fact that a person had a shard in them was just a convenient reason to give them big numbers.  It didn't really have much in the way of theme or depth.  In The Hat suggested that shards within people should have their own agendas or goals, some kind of thing that they were doing that might not jibe at all with the character's goals.  That is a pretty neat idea!  The idea of a power source within you that you have to negotiate with to some extent seems like it could generate all kinds of adventures and drama.

Adventures and drama are the thing we want!

I am not sure how it would play out, but it could be like the Nature/Demeanour dichotomy in the World of Darkness game.  It isn't exactly the same, but roleplaying a dual nature or conflicts in how a person usually is vs. some internal drive leads to great scenes.

If I wanted to build a system around this I don't think I would let the player control it.  If you did let the player control it the obvious thing would be that players could get some sort of bonuses when doing what their shard wanted.  I suspect that would lead to players hoarding shard bonuses if they were limited, or just being super overpowered if the benefits were always available.  It also would mean that characters with shards that align with their own goals would be flat out better, and I want to reward entertaining conflict, not punish it.

Probably a lot better would be to put the shard under the GM's control.  My first idea would be that either the player or the shard would currently be dominant, and when the player is dominant they can add a 1d8 bonus to a roll that the shard is in favour of.  However, this makes the shard dominant.  When that happens the shard gains the ability to penalize the player 1d8 on a roll of the shard's choice when the player is working against its desires.  Once it does this the player becomes dominant.

What this would mean is that players that always do what their shard wants get one bonus, then nothing much.  Players that are always fighting their shard take one penalty, then nothing much.  Players who are sometimes in agreement with their shard and sometimes not have exciting lives.  Things that the shard wants go really well, and things it hates go badly.

Instead of boring 1d8 bonuses though I could do something similar with a lot more pizzazz.  Basically I would say that players can tap into their shard's power to have it do something amazing to help them when they need it.  However, doing this means that the shard is now dominant, and it will do something horrible to stop the player when they are working against it.  Maybe it will mind control them temporarily, or cause a terrible moment of weakness at a critical juncture... who knows?

Now that system sounds like a bundle of joy for me as a GM and as a player.  I would be pumping that shard ability all the time.  Whatever wild shenanigans the GM comes up with to stymie my plans has to be fun, even if it wrecks the character's day.

This is the kind of stuff I need help to get going.  Maybe at some point in my life I can find myself on a team with people who pour out all the ideas and I can happily there simulating combats to figure out how much damage a longsword will do.

Until then I have to be the jack of all trades, it would seem.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The adjudicator

Chess is simple.  There are clear rules.  No ambiguity, no uncertainty.  There aren't obscure clauses you have to know or timing tricks - just a series of clear, logical steps.

So running a chess tournament should be the easiest thing in the world.  Just make sure the clear, simple rules are followed, right?

Hah!  Ten year olds take your simple rules and laugh.

Today I was helping to run a chess tournament and had to deal with some real head scratchers.  The biggest problem in running tournaments for kids is that they consistently forget about the king being in check.  If the game made any damn sense then leaving the king in check would be perfectly legal.  Stupid, maybe, but legal.  However, today I faced a situation where I walked over to a board and noticed that the black queen had the white king in check.  The white player had just moved her pawn forward to promote it and I had to inform her that the move had to be taken back because she had to get out of check.

Of course the obvious thing is to ask what the previous moves were to try to restore the game to a legal state.  The players thought that the king had probably been in check for ten turns and there was no way to get back to the way the board was when it was legal.  I looked at the board and had a conundrum.  Clearly the solution was to leave the board the way it was and inform white that she had to make a different move.  Normally I would say "You must either block the piece checking your king, move the king out of check, or capture the piece checking your king."  Kids need to know that all three of these things are possible.  Trouble is, the pawn that had been moved back could capture the queen that was checking the king.

(You might wonder why the pawn hadn't taken the queen in the first place.  Kids are BAD at chess.)

If I make it explicit that white can capture the queen to end the check, she probably will, but her opponent might feel that I was giving her moves to help her win.  He would have a point there.  If I don't say it, white will just move her king out of check and lose the game.  I don't think there is any way I can give the white player a proper understanding of her options without cluing her into a move that is completely devastating.

I don't know what a proper tournament director would do in this situation.  Declare both players the loser for failing to maintain a legal board state?  Declare a tie?  Beats me.

What I do know is that a game that seems so totally logical and solid suddenly becomes a complete mess when children are involved.  They can't agree on whose turn it is.  They can't agree which space a piece occupies.  They can't remember what the last move was.  One of them is obviously stalling, and I don't have a chess clock, and I can't just stand over her board for the entire time because there are other children who need help.

I just stand there trying to make up ruling on the fly, desperately hoping I seem impartial and consistent when I know I am not.

At least they weren't playing Monopoly?

Friday, March 3, 2017

Fire Turkey: Ultimate value

We got a glimpse of the new Hearthstone cards coming in the Journey to Un'goro expansion recently, and one in particular caught my eye.

Now this is a fun card.  It starts out as a 2/2, then a 6/6, then a 10/10.  All of the stat lines are low for the cost, but you get all 3 cards for the price of 1, and that is big value.  Most responses to the card have been negative, as people seem to think that it isn't worth running.  After all, why play 3 cards if they are all bad?

You could look at the card as a 2/2 that draws you a card.  This is a strong card that would see all kinds of play.  The 6/6 that draws you a card is also excellent and would see just as much play.  The 10/10 that draws nothing is trash and sees zero play.  However, I don't think that looking at the card like this is the best approach.  It isn't drawing you towards combo pieces or answers, so it isn't the same as drawing a card.  So how *should* we think about this?

The answer is that you have to think carefully about what cards do in your overall strategy.  Obviously no aggressive deck is going to run this because they don't want late game value.  However, control decks all run really expensive late game cards to win the game, so we ought to compare this against other late game cards to see how it stacks up.  The most critical element here is that if you run a gigantic dragon that costs 9, as many of them do, then it does NOTHING until turn 9.  It is useless against all deck types.  Pyros, however, is not like this.

Pyros has the huge advantage that if you don't happen to have much to do on turn 2 you can just slam it down.  It isn't massive but it is something, and something is far better than the nothing your other late game cards offer.  It gives you options.  That is actually quite a useful thing to do against other control decks because they often stare at each other not wanting to commit to the board and having something you can just slam down that they have to deal with is relevant.  It is also useful if you have nothing else good when playing against an aggro deck.  Not ideal, but again, far superior to the nothing that another late game card offers.

In the late game a regular late game card will be better than a 10/10 for 10.  However, if your opponent has poured removal into the 2/2 and the 6/6 then the 10/10 could be just the value you need to push the game in your direction.  It is just one more damn thing they have to kill, and eventually they will run out of ways to kill your stuff.  However, if you draw this in the late game when your hand is empty it isn't nearly as good as a regular big dragon.  It is slower out of the gate and gives the opponent more time to find answers and figure out how they will cope with it.  Still, the first stage of Pyros can often be brought out in the same turn as another high value card so unless your hand is totally empty it isn't going to be a dead turn.

My sense is that against a control deck this is a high value card.  It generates a ton of stats without digging into your deck, and that is great if you are grinding it out.  Against an aggro deck it isn't great by any means but it is still hugely better than your other late game value options because it does something instead of nothing.

The trick with Pyros is that it is consistent.  Normal big dragons are either rubbish or super powerful depending on who you are playing and when you draw them.  Pyros is always okay no matter when you draw it and is relevant against every opponent.  That consistency is important.

I don't think Pyros is broken, nor do I think it will suddenly be in every mage deck.  I do think that if you are looking for a high value endgame card for a control mage archetype this will be a real contender.  It has some big advantages against all other endgame value cards and might be even better than that because it has both the elemental type and deathrattle which are likely to have significant synergies in the new set.

My feeling is that you will see this card in most control mage archetypes once it launches.  Whether or not control mage is good enough to be a contender is a question we can't possibly answer right now, but if it is, Pyros should be a part of it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A world on a disc

I played the board game Discworld last week.  It, like Arkham Horror, the last board game I reviewed, is not a type of game I generally enjoy.  Discworld is a competitive game set in the world of Discworld, a set of novels by Terry Pratchett.  I have read a subset of those novels and generally enjoyed them but I wouldn't say I am a big enthusiast of the setting - it is fine but nothing special to me.

The main thing about Discworld that isn't my cup of tea is the win condition.  Each player is dealt a random win condition from a pile and you only reveal your win condition when you win or when someone else wins.  This leads to a game where everyone knows all of the win conditions and as soon as anyone is in place to score one of them everyone gangs up on them to prevent it from happening.  That isn't the sort of game I like.  It is frustrating to know that any attempt to interfere with an opponent is likely to have no effect at all because it probably isn't affecting their game plan but if I don't interfere there is a good chance I just lose on the spot.

Throughout the game we played the most experienced player kept telling everyone that they had to punish me because I was pursuing the 'get tons of cash' victory condition.  That was in fact true but the only reason I was accumulating cash was because all of my cards were 'gain cash' cards.  That my win condition was about cash was only incidental.  Of course people did listen to her and tried to punish me but all that accomplished was letting her win because her win condition was simply to prevent other people from winning.

Discworld is also really random.  There are a lot of cards that gain you 2 or 3 money, and there are also random events that can cost you 18 money.  Those kinds of swings based on drawing random cards and not even knowing what your opponents are trying to accomplish means that there isn't a lot of skill in the game.  Just keep doing stuff that seems like it generally forwards your plan and then wait and see if someone blows you out with random cards, pretty much.

The theme of Discworld is fine but isn't all that well integrated with the cards.  It isn't terrible, as there is a map of the city of Ankh-Morpork (the central city in the Disworld books) and the various win conditions are tagged to characters from the novels in reasonable ways but it doesn't *feel* much like Discworld.  If you love the source material you will probably be satisfied, but it isn't brilliant.

However, unlike my last review, I think that Discworld is a reasonable game if you want a game of hidden win conditions and random card draws to see what happens.  You can't really have any kind of long term strategy because your actions are limited to whatever random cards you draw so what skill there is mostly is short term tactics.  You are going to play some cards, draw some cards, laugh at random events mucking up the board, and then somebody will win.  Which somebody?   Who knows!  You can't even tell one turn before game end who is in the lead!

Discworld isn't my game.  But if you want a game themed on a fantasy city you know and love and like randoming your random, it seems well enough put together.

One thing I can't help but wonder is if there isn't some kind of more strategy based game hiding inside Discworld.  If the randomness of the events was way toned down or removed it seems like you could actually have a game where people really tried to fool each other into preventing the wrong sort of victory condition.  As it was though strategy and mind games seemed overwhelmed by the draws.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Doing it up proper

This week I joined a new guild in WOW.  My primary goal in swapping guilds was the same this time as last time I did so, just a month ago:  I want to do harder things.  My previous swap got me into a guild doing more challenging stuff, with a higher skill level, but even then it was still obvious that there were three top damage dealers and then a ton of people who really weren't playing well.

More to the point was the way it ended up feeling.  I sat there thinking that if everyone was as prepared as I am and was playing as well as I was the fight would be over in no time and we would move on.  That sense that I have beaten my personal chunk of the fight but that the rest of the group had not beaten theirs was not fun.

At some point I feel like I have beaten a fight, that I have surmounted its challenges.  There is also a moment when the boss dies.  If the boss dies first, it means I am still crap and I got carried.  Not fun.  If the boss dies much later than my mastery peaks, then I am carrying people.  Also not fun.

My new guild is much better this way.  They are a lot more aggressive, skilled, and demanding.  We move quick, expect that people be efficient, and insist that people show up, be prepared, and pay attention.  We also operate on a 6 hour raid schedule with optional stuff on other nights, and that suits me.

It also feels like Mythic difficulty fights are the ones that are actually complete.  For example, on the first Mythic boss we beat last night summons lots of scorpions.  The random trash mobs before the boss have an ability that puts down green splats of poison, but on the Normal and Heroic versions of the boss no such splats occur.  In Mythic those same sorts of scorpions that make the green splats appear and you have to dodge the green, just like on the trash mobs before the boss.  I appreciate those points, and the boss feels better designed because it is anchored in the world more completely.  These bosses feel like they are done properly, and the lower level versions are just cutouts that try and fail to deliver the full experience.

The numbers also feel right.  We have to play correctly, cope with mechanics every time, and come up with ways to handle difficult situations.  We can't just screw up and push through it anyway.  That makes winning feel far more rewarding.  Our victory came right about the time that I felt I was mastering the encounter, that I was able to keep all the bits in my brain and execute properly.

Matching group mastery of a challenge with individual mastery of a challenge is a deeply satisfying thing.

I remember in years gone past this challenge coming up.  Sometimes a specific encounter would be really hard for one particular group and the rest of us would have to just keep on executing it until that group figured it out.  Maybe it was really hard on the healer (solo healing Saurfang heroic says hi) or maybe it was complicated for the tanks (Sarth 3D comes to mind) but in any case there are going to be times that you have a thing figured out and you need to wait for your partners to catch up.

My new home does seem like a good place so far for this.  I am doing fights that I have to think about, playing with people who are good, and learning together.  I have missed that, and I think I will greatly enjoy slamming myself into challenges with them.

Friday, February 17, 2017

The numbers, they are scary

In the Mythic+ 5 person dungeons Blizzard introduced in this expansion they really have a hit.  A lot of people are playing them and I personally love that there is scaling 5 person content that is really challenging.  It also is interesting because it uses different sorts of abilities than larger raids do.  Stuns and interrupts and other such things are valued in M+ while being usually ignored in raiding situations.

One issue they have had so far is the balance of the additional mods on dungeons. As you get to level 4, 7, and 10 a new mod shows up on the enemies.  Volcanic causes each enemy to randomly spawn a volcano under players every few seconds, while Bolstering gives all nearby enemies 20% more health and damage every time an enemy dies.  There are a bunch of mods, which is great, but one problem is that some are far more challenging than others.

The real issue is that some mods can be beaten with skill, and some need gear.  Sanguine, for example, creates a pool on the ground when a monster dies and that pool heals enemies and injures players.  This is occasionally annoying but most of the time you just keep moving the enemies out of the pools as their friends die and nothing bad comes of it.  This takes concentration and skill but adds little in terms of output requirements.  If you play correctly it hardly matters at all.

On the other end of the spectrum is Necrotic where each enemy attack stacks up a debuff on the player that reduces healing they receive by 3%.  Very quickly the player becomes unhealable and dies no matter how much gear they have so the tank must use a movement boost and run away from monsters to get rid of the healing penalty debuff.  This drastically reduces the damage your group deals because monsters are running around everywhere and increases the healing you have to output to cope with the debuff.  Skill matters, but when Necrotic is up you need a ton of extra gear to overcome it.  Also because Necrotic takes 10 seconds to drop off you absolutely must wait 10 seconds between fighting enemy groups.

It turns out that all the mods that just take skill are considered the easy ones and the mods that force actual numbers increases are the hard ones.  In groups with weaker skill the difference isn't that large, I suspect, but there is no question that on weeks with really difficult mods there are far fewer people playing because they are stuck doing much lower level dungeons than they are used to.  The people pushing really high level dungeons who expect high skill notice this the most.

Blizzard is making some changes to the M+ system in an attempt to address this disparity.  Their changes are moving in the right direction, I think, but aren't going to change the fundamental situation that any mod that can be ignored via skill will end up being the easy one for those pushing their limits.

  • New Affix: Bursting (level 4)
    • When slain, non-boss enemies explode, causing all players to suffer 10% of their maximum health in damage over 4 seconds. This effect stacks.
  • New Affix: Fel Explosives (level 7)
    • Creatures have a chance to summon an Explosive Orb at a nearby location that will explode, inflicting damage of 50% of the player’s maximum health.
  • New Affix: Quaking (level 7)
    • Periodically, players will Quake, inflicting damage of 20% of the player’s maximum health and interrupting spell casts of themselves and nearby allies.
  • New Affix: Grievous (level 7)
    • While below 90% health, players are afflicted with Grievous Wound.
  • The Overflowing affix has been removed.
  • The Bolstering affix range has been reduced to 30 yards (was 45 yards).
    • Developers’ notes: The intent of this change is to allow players more opportunities for crowd control.
  • Necrotic Rot will now expire after leaving combat. Duration reduced to 8 seconds (was 10 seconds).
    • Developers’ notes: This should eliminate the situation where players were waiting for Necrotic to fall off after killing enemies, and it should give tanks more opportunities for resets while in combat.
  • Skittish threat reduction has been lowered to 75% (was 80%).
  • Fortified damage bonus lowered to 30% (was 40%).
  • Tyrannical damage bonus lowered to 15% (was 20%).
  • Sanguine radius increased to 8 yards.

The Overflowing affix has been removed, and while they don't justify this, it is easy to see why they chose to do it.  Overflowing causes any healing in excess of the player's maximum to create a *negative* healing debuff of the same size.  Some healing classes rely on big critical hits on their heals, and Overflowing punishes this brutally.  Other classes rely on healing over time buffs, and those create small healing penalties that are immediately cured again.  Removing Overflowing was mostly just acknowledging that druid healers were outrageously overpowered during Overflowing weeks and that wasn't particularly balanced.

Sanguine, easily the easiest mod, has had the size of the pools increased from 5 yard radius to 8.  This is a serious buff because the total area covered by Sanguine is now 2.56x as much as before.  Players will still be able to avoid Sanguine much of the time, but in enclosed spaces it will actually become a real problem to deal with and may require dragging groups of enemies long distances to find open areas to fight in.

Probably the most hated mod was Skittish, which reduced tank threat by 80% and randomly added threat to damage classes.  This meant that melee classes were pretty worthless as the enemies would constantly turn around, 1 shot the melee, and then turn back to the tank.  Blizzard is changing Skittish to reduce tank threat by only 75% instead of 80%.  This is actually a really large change and will mean that there will be many less random deaths.  Skittish will still punish melee over range disproportionately but at least it won't be the case that I just want to skip the entire week when it is Skittish week.

The mod I hated most as a tank was Necrotic, and it is being changed to make it easier to drop the debuff (8 seconds instead of 10), and as soon as all enemies are defeated the stack vanishes.  This will eliminate the mandatory standing around part of Necrotic and that makes me happy.  It will still be a serious issue on challenging encounters, but it won't be nearly as much of a pain in the ass.

I like these changes a lot.  They are taking the joke mod and making it real.  I think people will initially still laugh at Sanguine, but once they try out the new size they will find it a real challenge.  I like that the mods that made me refuse to tank or refuse to do damage on a given week are being altered so they are less gruelling.  I don't know how all these new mods will play out of course because we don't have ranges or frequencies but they look quite reasonable at a glance.

Under these new mods each week will be different requiring new tactics and priorities.  However, I think there will be less of a difference between the trivial weeks and the brutal ones, which is good.

It won't fix everything though.  The absolute best runs will still be Sanguine / Volcanic, where the enemies are quickly moved out of the pools and the players adeptly dodge the Volcanic bursts.  When people are pushing themselves to the limit of their gear if you can get mods that don't actually influence the numbers you have to take them.  However, these changes will even things out considerably and that is a good direction to go in.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Grind forever

In World of Warcraft there used to be really serious limits on how good you could make your character outside of raiding.  Once you finished up with dungeons you never needed to go back, generally speaking, and once you finished a raid there was little point in returning.  If you wanted to get better you threw more time into trying the boss you were stuck on, and if all the bosses were dead you could log off.

These days that isn't the case.  Now you can never really consider yourself finished.  The grind to maximize your artifact power is an enormous one and even though I play a lot I still haven't made it to the cap on a single weapon, much less on all my weapons.  It is certainly possible to hit the cap, as I am at 51 of 54 right now, but the time investment is huge.  In the next patch Blizzard is going to raise the cap again and the initial estimates are that after the 75 day setup period it will take around 1000 dungeon runs to get to the new cap.

A lot of people hate this.  There is a real perception that unless you are absolutely at the peak of your ability you are letting your team down.  There will be a ton of hardcore raiders who will feel pressure both internally and externally to play 10 hours a day, 7 days a week to get their 1000 runs in within two months.

This of course is hardly relevant for people a little ways down the ladder of competitiveness.  That last 250 hours of grinding to get 3% more effectiveness is not in the cards for the great majority of players, and honestly they would gain far more just from the practice of playing that 250 hours than they would the numerical bonuses.  Most people are going to look at that impossibly high cap and laugh.

The thing I have been wondering is how much it matters that the cap exists.  If people were allowed to grind forever but the cost of each new point kept increasing then at some point people would have to say that they have done enough.  The game wouldn't have a preset 'you are finished' marker and so people would stop when they wanted to.  My sense is that as long as a cap exists top players are going to insist that they and their teammates must be at that cap, no matter how absurd getting there might be.  They could do that now, of course, and the great majority of the playerbase does so, but the top players would have to be like the rest of us and accept that they cannot be perfect.  They would have to admit that their time was a real constraint on their power level.

Having an unlimited progression scheme does have its risks though.  Blizzard greatly underestimated how hard people would farm for artifact power in the early going of the expansion and that led to the first raid being badly undertuned.  It was true throughout the raid but was most obvious on the final boss who simply didn't do enough.  People's numbers were simply too high.  The current raid is much more appropriately tuned though because Blizzard had a hard cap to work with and could tell exactly how much damage people would be capable of.

If their new cap is unachievable under any reasonable playstyle then Blizzard is going to be in guessing mode again.  They will have to decide just how nuts people will be and guess at how much time the most hardcore will sink into the game when tuning encounters.  In previous expansions this might have been a huge issue for the slightly less hardcore players but right now it actually works out just fine for people who are a bit behind the curve.  They can just take an extra couple of weeks to farm more gear from the instance and make up the difference that way.

This is of course drawing data from the public test realm.  Things are subject to change.  However, it does make me wonder if Blizzard truly intended for the current system to be effectively endless and were surprised when it came to an end all of a sudden.  It might be that the completely outrageous new cap is actually intended to be outrageous.

If I were designing the new cap myself I would make it endless.  With any hard cap people are going to complain that they are 'forced' to get to the cap.  With a soft cap they can figure it out for themselves.  If each new point cost 30% more than the previous point and each new point gave a .5% increase then people would fairly quickly stall out.  Sure, the most hardcore players in the world would be doing 5% more damage than me, but they would also be playing 11x as much, so that seems fine.  I have a feeling that people would then just decide for themselves when it was enough.  Some of them would presumably always feel inadequate if they weren't the best in the world, but there isn't a lot I can do about that.  They will likely always feel that way.