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.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The horror!

Yesterday I played Arkham Horror for the first time.  It is a cooperative board game for 1-8 players themed around Lovecraftian monsters coming into the world, eventually followed by some sort of horrible evil Elder God.  The players are investigators trying to fight or evade the monsters and either close all the gates to other worlds or defeat the Elder God.

I hate Arkham Horror.

Part of it is Arkham Horror's design flaws and part of it is simply the type of game it is, which isn't necessarily a flaw but makes it a game I dislike.  Arkham Horror is one of those cooperative games where players all have the same information so instead of each player deciding things on their own they all can make decisions together.  This is pretty much the definition of the Alpha Player Problem where newer or less aggressive players get told what to do by the better or more yelly players.  It is also extremely random and involves drawing lots of cards that either ruin you or help you, and rolling lots of dice to see how encounters come out.

I dislike both random games where you just do stuff and see what happens and games where one player can just run the board.  They make me sad.  You might like those games but I have no use for them whatever.

Let us imagine for a moment that I am the sort of person that likes the kind of game Arkham Horror is.  Does it do that well?

No, not really.

The quality of the pieces and art is great.  The theme is well done and I like the characters and events.  There is all kinds of fluff and lore that is well made and enjoyable.  Unfortunately the play of the game is rubbish.  In the game I played I just did the same thing over and over again because there was no reason to explore or do anything interesting.  The cards that came up were extremely favourable so we just walked through the game effortlessly and it hardly matters what we did at all.  We won handily, never felt like there was any real threat, and honestly spent much of our time not having anything to do.  People just wandered to random locations to draw random cards to see what would happen because there was nothing useful to accomplish.

I read a strategy guide written by someone who had played a lot and who read all the cards and the optimal strategy is to just sit in one place that has mostly really helpful cards and do nothing else if you can avoid it.  When the strategy guide is "Just sit in the Newspaper office all game" then the game itself seems extremely weak.  It is fine to have some areas be good for some things and not others, and it is also fine for some areas to be risky but with big payoffs, but when you just stay in one place because it is flat out the best then the game is not well made.

Arkham Horror feels like a game that was built by someone who liked the Lovecraftian lore, got lots of nice art made, and had no clue how to build a good game.  It is the Monopoly of modern cooperative games - trivial strategy, extremely long, and unpleasantly random.

Two thumbs way, way down.