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.