Monday, October 16, 2017

Who will be my teacher?

I have been playing a bunch of Agricola on the board game site boiteajeux.  It took a bit of getting used to but I am getting comfortable with it now.  Any time you swap UIs, particularly from a physical gameboard to a computer game, it is a bit of a transition as you miss things and screw things up by accident.

I signed up for a tournament to start and my results have been mixed.  My first game I misread a card called Ceramics and doing so caused me to completely screw up my game.  It turns out Ceramics only works with ovens and not with other cooking facilities but by the time I went to click the button to make Ceramics and couldn't do so I had already committed to the line.  That caused me to have a poor game and wind up 3rd of 4 players.

In all three of my other tournament games I am currently sitting in first place though so I am cautiously optimistic.  I don't expect to win all those games because the score in Agricola can change quite dramatically in the final turn or two, and it is easy to wind up with somebody gaining 20 points in their final turn in a game that often is won at 40 points.

I wanted to play more than just four tournament games every three months though, so I looked around for other games to join.  The first thing that popped up was games that required someone to fill in for a person that had abandoned the game.  I like the idea of helping people out to finish games when a player ditches and I feel like this will give me a useful breadth of experience.

One of the things that happens in online Agricola is that when you are drafting occupations and improvements you can use online tools and lists to tell you what to draft.  They aren't perfect but they can make sure you don't take total garbage and that you don't miss the bombs.  However, using those tools means I will end up consistently drafting good cards and ignoring my bad ones.  That will teach me how to use those good cards but it won't teach me about all the ways that the bad cards are bad.

But boy you sure can learn about bad cards when you fill in for players who have ditched.  I find myself in all kinds of horrible situations where it is clear the person who was playing left because their game state was completely untenable.  I get to see the cards they slammed down and how they used them and I have been able to learn a lot about what cards just don't end up helping you the way you think they will.

The main takeaway is that a lot of people don't develop a food engine.  I have been regularly in the situation of having a good point total but no food and having no reasonable way to acquire food.  Often this results in me desperately taking spaces that have just two food on them and trying to survive that way and it has consistently been a disaster.  Not that I had any better choice given the situation I landed in, but it has certainly taught me a lot about coping with catastrophe.  I am also getting really comprehensive lessons about how food engines work and which ones don't cut it, which is helpful in the long term.

The end goal of all of this is to get practice with a huge variety of effects and situations.  There are a lot of other Agricola cards out there and new ones are going to get printed and I think that it will be useful to practice all kinds of strategies and test all the cards out so that when I run into new cards my experiences will have more breadth to them and I will be able to evaluate those cards more effectively.

I don't know if this strategy is actually the right one in terms of educating myself.  Right now I am letting random people on the internet teach me how to be bad at Agricola, which isn't useless, but maybe I should try to select for better teachers than random people on the internet.  For winning tournaments it is probably better to just play whole games through and practice drafting the standard cards over and over until I master them all.  But there is a huge amount of fun in parachuting myself into an unknown situation and then trying to extricate myself from it, so that is a good time at least.

And either way I expect to be able to put up much more of a fight when I go after the real sharks in the Agricola tournament at WBC next year.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Rats with pointy bits go squish

This week was week 2 of my fall Blood Bowl league.  I lost last week, largely due to playing poorly / too aggressively, and this week I was determined to right that wrong.  I was up against Skaven, and those sneaky rat men had a pretty normal crew with one particularly dangerous rat who had both Claw and Mighty Blow.  I was determined to smash that rat to bits to keep him from hurting my dwarves.

I won the flip and elected to kick the ball to the rats.  Things went badly right away as the rat with the pointy bits on him immediately injured a dwarf but that was just the start of that rat's amazing game.  By turn five it had injured out two more dwarves and KOd yet another!  I sent blocks at that rat but it would always fall over, not get hurt, and then stand up and remove yet another dwarf.  Thankfully I was taking out rats at a similar rate so the field was clearing out quickly. 

Around turn five I cleared out all the rats in the midfield and was suddenly able to put pressure on the ball which had been kept deep in my opponent's territory.  His only real play to get the ball to safety was a really long throw and it failed.  I capitalized quickly and grabbed the ball, running it almost to the TD line.  I had a choice - stay two spaces away from the line, and leave a possible blitz on my ball carrier requiring a double go for it and some dodges, or take a single go for it myself to get to complete safety.  I had a reroll available, so taking the go for it to secure the ball seemed like the right choice.

I rolled a 1, rerolled it into a 1, and my dwarf fell down.  This would *still* have been just fine and dandy if the dwarf was just prone as he could stand up and score next turn anyway.  But he injured himself with his fall and was stunned, out of the play.  This catastrophe let the ratmen grab the ball, double go for it, throw the ball, catch, double go for it, hand off the ball to the rat ogre (which, it should be noted, is TERRIBLE at catching and running with the ball) and the rat ogre ran in for a turn eight touchdown.

We started the second half with me fielding nine dwarves and my opponent having seven rats.  I bashed his team around a bit and moved my pile of dwarves up the pitch, and was faced with a dilemma on turn thirteen.  I could either just stick with the cage and lock in a 1-1 draw, or I could score and desperately hope to take the ball away from the rats and score again in the last three turns of the game to secure a victory.

I think the sensible play here is to go for the draw.  I was in an extremely secure position and my chances of getting that second touchdown in three turns were not good.  But I don't want to draw!  I want to WIN.

So I rushed in for the touchdown and hoped for a lucky break.  I got my break because the rat assigned to collect the ball developed a bad case of butterfingers and I was able to run the dwarves in and make his life really difficult.  On the next turn the first rat assigned to throw a block knocked himself down and I easily scooped up the ball and ran in for a touchdown, winning the game 2-1.

I think my play was wrong, but it sure worked out for me.

The after game was pretty sad for the rats and pretty great for me.  I got four levels and the rats got none.  All three of the injuries on me were just Badly Hurt, so all the dwarves are still good to go for next game.  The rats, on the other hand, had a Blitzer die and two Gutter Runners are missing the next game with serious injuries.  Their position going forward is ... not good.

Their incredibly devastating rat petered out in terms of success after its amazing run at the start of the game.  It managed to escape the game unscathed but also didn't succeed at taking out any more of my dwarves, in part because it was part of the ridiculous scoring run and in part because I kept bashing away at it to keep it facedown.

My levels weren't exciting but do seem good.  I got Dodge on a runner which is solid and another random lineman got Guard.  I decided to give a troll slayer Stand Firm so he would be better at pushing people out of bounds and not getting pushed out himself.  I also gave my blitzer Strip Ball, as I think having one copy of that on a team is a fine plan as it can force the opponent to play around it.  Still, the dwarves both got better at bashing and also at playing the ball, so I am pleased with the way the team is working out.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The rust, it is real

I haven't been playing Blood Bowl much the past little while and in the first game of my new season it showed.  I was playing dwarves against dark elves, a matchup I generally like.  I kicked to my opponent to start and got a lucky turnover that let me grab the ball and dominate the field.  I crunched five elves and scored right at the end of the half to be up 1-0.  My position was excellent, though unfortunately between the apothecary and elves waking up from KOs my opponent still had a full roster for the second half.

In a small bit of hubris I even used my troll slayer to get the touchdown because he really needed the experience.  I don't normally do this a lot, but I figured with the entire elf team lying on the ground, having given up on the half, it was worth the risk.

But although the first half went great, the second half was a catastrophe.  I received the ball and made a crucial error.  I could have just decided to hold onto my lead and cage as hard as possible right off the bat but instead I left the ball back field some with the ball carrier guarded.  I put a ton of pressure on the elves all over the place, and it looked like my opponent had pretty crappy chances at the ball carrier.  However, he made a ton of dodges and go for its and managed to get a single die block on the ball carrier which worked.  Then my counter attack failed to do anything useful and he made a bunch more blocks, dodges, and a pickup and scored.

My play wasn't monumentally stupid, but it wasn't correct.  I should have just let the elves do whatever they wanted and rushed the ball to the middle of the field.  Doing that would have meant more blocks on my lower armour characters, and probably real difficulty moving the ball, but that didn't matter.  I didn't need to score again, I just needed to keep the dwarves in a pile that the elves couldn't penetrate.  I successfully forced my opponent to roll a ton of dice and they came up favourably for him, but I could have made it harder.  I could easily blame luck, but I don't think I should.

With the game tied 1-1 I received again and got the ball into a good strong cage.  The elves attacked hard, risking their poor, snappable necks, and I was faced with a decision.  I could just rebuild the cage and accept a tie or I could go for it and try to score to win.  I wasn't at all sure that I could win if I just sat there because I had already burned several turns of the second half and dwarves are not fast.  I figured out a configuration where I could get the ball carrier far away from all the elves and have a dwarf with guard protecting him.  My opponent needed an absurd number of dodges to get elves onto the ball, and also a bunch of go for its.  I decided that I should go for the win rather than just sitting tight and hoping for a draw.

I watched my opponent test out various lines of play to try to get the ball and some of them involved single elves rolling six different dice, each of which would end their turn if failed, and there were still other elves rolling a bunch of dice that would be required to stop me.

So the elves rolled all of their dice, made all of their rolls, and took the ball.  Every turn I did my best to make the elves roll as many dice as possible to try to get the ball back, and every turn they made their rolls, and on the last turn of the game the elves made a collection of dodge rolls, walked around the dwarves with ease, and scored to win the game 2-1.

It is tempting to blame luck when your opponent rolls a huge number of dice and makes improbable plays come home.  I know that a lot of the key plays were statistically like to fail, but worked anyway.

But I shouldn't have allowed those key plays to happen the way they did.  If you keep giving the opponent a 25% chance to take the ball, you can't complain when it comes home sometimes.

It is tricky sometimes when trying to deconstruct my play when we are on 2 minute turns.  It is simple to criticize plays from your armchair when you have all the time in the world to consider and you can see the dice results already.  I don't expect that my plays will be perfect when I look at them this way.  However, I think it is important to write down what I screwed up and why.  I had reasons for my plays at the time, but those reasons were not good enough.  I need to play more like dwarves, and make sure that if my opponent gets a shot at the ball it is with a player that is surrounded by dwarves and who will get crunched even if they succeed.  I need to play tighter, and be willing to grind out tough 1-0 wins.  I don't need to get more points, I just need to make sure my opponent gets none.

Now I hope I can put those hard lessons into practice in my next game against the rats.  Thankfully the rats are squishier than the elves so I should have an easier time getting a numbers advantage on them.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Actual things

It is a huge shift for me to go from game theory and design to actual crafting.  There is a weird thing where it feels like they are part of the same process and yet are so different as to have nothing to do with one another.

One of the big things is my perfectionism.  When I am talking about numbers and formulas I can and will iterate without end.  I can always find a better way to do things, always improve.  But when I am building a physical model I manage to cut that part of me out of the equation and just get the thing done.  Obviously I want a prototype to be good, but I am able to effectively manage my time so that it is good but not wasteful.  When I am building something theoretical I am much worse at the whole 'just get something out the door' part of it and I just sit there building and tinkering for years at a time.

The two things are similar in that I can really get into the zone doing either.  When I am cutting things out with scissors or a knife and then getting ready to glue all the pieces together there is a real calm there, a sense of flow, similar to what happens when design is really working.  The physical act of building also seems to make me feel better in the same way that chores do.  When I do the dishes or clean the bathroom or other similar things I get a sense of calm accomplishment.  Doing so makes me feel good about the world.  I can be happy about designing a game purely theoretically but it isn't quite the same thing - it makes me happy in a different way.

The game I am building today is Dot.  It is the fourth copy of the game in the world, and although this particular copy probably won't ever be played for the amount of time I spent building it I am still pleased to be doing so.  There is something in my brain that is deeply pleased that my designs will be out there on somebody's shelf, occasionally coming down for a dust off and a playthrough.

This latest craft is going to nearly run me out of foam board.  I bought two sheets roughly ten years ago when I first started building game prototypes and I have been consistently using it to create boards and tiles since then.  It is ideal in that it is easy to pick up, light, cheap, and no problem to cut exactly as I want it.  When I have to go back to the store for another sheet it is going to feel like an era has ended. 

I wonder which game will cause me to finally go back out and buy some more.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Always war

I have been playing more Civilization 6, testing out the various win conditions.  I have mixed feelings on this issue because while I like a lot of the innovations and subgames of the various win conditions I really don't like the balance of the game in terms of how you go about winning via the various conditions.

The fact that the religious game requires you to balance fighting with regular units of soldiers and fighting with religious units is kind of neat.  There isn't much variety in religious units but I liked the decisions I had to make about which ones to make based on what I was trying to do and layering religious combat over the rest of the game felt good to me.

Also the fact that your religious units fight by throwing lightning at each other never gets old.  Boom!  Crack!  Kapew!

I also enjoyed immersing myself in the culture game.  I built tons of archaeological museums and sent my archaeologists all over the world fetching things.  I made art museums and directed Mark Twain and Jane Austen to various cities to write their novels and impress visitors.  I enjoyed figuring out how to theme my museums and chasing particular kinds of great works to fill out the museums I had.  It was an enjoyable subgame to the rest of the Civilization game.

But in both cases I was just kidding myself.  I conquered an early opponent or two, then just sat there building my stuff for the rest of the game.  I built all this culture stuff but it would have been far easier just to keep on with the conquest, smashing my enemies beneath my feet.  I could have just removed every opponent except one, and left that one opponent with a single city that had every tile pillaged.  Then I could win a cultural or religious victory quickly and effortlessly.

By far the best way to win one of these other win conditions is to simply kill every opponent but carefully avoid taking their last capital so you don't trigger the domination victory condition, and then do whatever you want.  The AI is bad at war so this is practical. 

Civ 5 had this same issue in a lot of ways.  Players could keep their units alive forever by retreating and healing and using ranged units effectively.  If the player couldn't heal their units, or if they couldn't pay gold to upgrade obsolete units to new ones, this wouldn't be much of an issue.  Warring players would need to build new units constantly to replace old ones and that would be a huge drain on their other endeavours.  But as it is you can just build one army and keep using it throughout the entire game, with only occasional replacements needed for units that die.

If replacing units was the norm then there would be much more meaningful tradeoffs between conquering and building, which I would really like.

At the moment I am thinking about ways to implement this in Civ 6, which apparently means I am staring directly at the rabbit hole.  I spent most of a year modding Civ 5 and while I enjoyed it greatly it really took over my life.  I know that my alterations would not improve the game for everyone, but from reading forums I have found that most people agree with me that conquest is far too easy.

There are other things that make conquest too simple in addition to unit healing.  Upgrading armies slowly over time is important, but instant upgrades are also a problem.  When your civ researches Crossbows and then instantly your entire army becomes Crossbowmen that is a problem.  The instant power increase is immense.  So both the fact that you don't have to make new units and that there are enormous power spikes is an issue in my mind.  The other thing is simply that ranged units are too good. 

Slingers have a range of 1.  They are mediocre - good at defending cities and encampments, fragile in combat.  When Slingers upgrade to archers though they acquire a range of 2 and are absurd.  You can hide them behind melee units, tear down walls, and a clump of them will annihilate any melee unit that gets too close.  Crossbows also have a range of 2 and are equally brutal, as are Field Cannons.  But when you upgrade them again to Machine Guns they suddenly drop down to having a range of 1 again and then they suddenly aren't particularly powerful anymore.  Strangely the attack values of ranged units and bombard units all proceed in a predictable, linear fashion, but the range of the units appears to not have been accounted for in their cost or overall effectiveness.

Archers, Crossbows, and Field Cannons are fantastic units, far too good against the AI.  It just can't figure out how to attack entrenched ranged units and when you use a bunch of them you can just slowly march forward, massacring their units, and then blow up their city defenses when you get there.  If these units had a range of 1 the game would be a lot harder on the human player because their primary way of killing enemies without incurring losses would vanish.

Implementing these changes is widely variable in difficulty.  I don't know that you could remove healing without wrecking the game - the AI in Civ 5 certainly couldn't handle it and kept trying to heal anyway.  Destroying unit upgrades is a lot more feasible, and I suspect the AI could handle it just fine.  Nerfing the range of Archers, Crossbows, and Field Cannons I know the AI could deal with.  One other advantage to the nerfing of ranged units is that bombard type units would suddenly have a reason to exist.  If it is really hard to tear down cities with ranged units (because they have to walk up right next to the city and risk being beaten up) then having a catapult or two that have a ranged 2 attack to bombard the city walls suddenly sounds a lot more appealing.  I like the idea of rewarding intelligently created mixed armies instead of just 'spam the best unit' as a guiding principle.

Now I need to sit back and decide if I am going to take the plunge and dedicate a couple thousand hours to making this next version of Civ into the game that I most want to play.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Eureka

One of the core mechanics in Civ 6 research is Eurekas.  These are specific events that immediately grant you half of the science or culture required for an advance.  For example, if you build a Water Mill you get a Eureka for Construction.  When you kill a unit with a Knight, you get the Eureak for Military Science.  Eurekas can require kills, owning units, buildings, wonders, diplomatic actions, and more.  In the early going this is really cool because many of the Eurekas make a lot of sense, and it feels exciting to see advances in specific technologies or policies because you are already doing that thing.

However, this mechanic leads to some strange situations.  For example, I don't usually build Privateers.  They are middle game ships that are invisible unless you are beside them but I usually don't find time to make them.  However, if you own 3 Privateers you get the Eureka for Electricity, which gains you 625 science.  Each Privateer costs 280 production, so you invest 820 production to get 625 science.  That isn't a particularly great rate of return... but you still get 3 Privateers that can run around exploring or shooting enemy units!  The first and second Privateers aren't especially good unless you really need boats, but that third Privateer is *ludicrous*.

This mechanic is found all over.  Workshops are pretty horrible buildings.  They cost 195 production to make and only make 2 production a turn.  97 turns to return their cost is wretched.  But you get a Eureka for owing three Workshops, and that Eureka is worth 422 science, so while the first two Workshops are awful that third one is the best.

This mechanic is a massive driving force in maximizing your power.  There are times when you can't get a Eureka because the AI won't cooperate or you are under attack, but the great majority of the time when you look at the cost of whatever it is you are doing to get the Eureka you absolutely must make it happen.  If a unit or building is even close to reasonable in a vacuum, then when it gives you half of a technology in addition it is better than anything else you could be doing.

This leads to strange consequences.  Spearmen are basically junk units, good for nothing.  But there is a Eureka for killing a unit with a Spearman so I build exactly one and figure out some way for it to get a killing blow.

This gives the game a jarring feel sometimes.  Like even if I want to have a massive production based game once I have built the third Industrial Zone I really don't want to build the fourth.  At least not until I have 2 Theatre Squares, 2 Campus, 3 Commercial Hub, 1 Encampment, 2 Harbour, and 1 Aqueduct to hit all the Eurekas.  The Eurekas create these very odd breakpoints in utility that feel out of line with the rest of the game.

This also pushes the game towards a lot of sameness.  That isn't necessarily an issue, because having some incentive towards a balanced approach isn't a problem.  It is perfectly fine to have some game elements rewarding players who build a bit of everything so that extreme strategies aren't quite so powerful.  Unfortunately if you don't have a ton of cities to do different things in you are generally going to want to build your civ the same way a lot of the time, or at least with a really standard sort of core.

I was thinking about how the system could work to accomplish similar things without the same level of sameness in every game.  For example, if instead of having a Eureka based on having 2 Banks, what if each Bank gave you a 50% chance to get the Eureka?  If you structured all of the Eurekas this way you could set it up so that each time you fail a Eureka your next Eureka attempt of any sort goes up to 60%, stacking up 10% each time you fail.  When you succeed, it drops 10% instead.  This ensures that over time you will get the right amount of Eurekas, but you won't be doing the same thing every game.  Overall Eurekas should stay about the same level but you will have a lot more differences in each game, and you won't have the same weird breakpoints.  Three Industrial Zones to go for the Workshop Eureka is fine, but four is a little better yet as it gives you more opportunities to get it, and two is also ok.

Obviously that isn't going to happen, but I like it better as a system to keep the game fresh and new each time.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Everything sucks

I have been playing a bunch more Civilization 6, and while the addiction is strong there are some fairly serious frustrations I have with the game.  One of the things that the theme of the game supports is the idea that wonders of the world are really important and powerful.  They are unique in that only one copy of each can be built, they often have tricky placement rules and requirements, and they all have cinematics and quotes associated with them.  Finishing a wonder is obviously supposed to be a big deal.

It usually isn't.  In fact much of the time finishing a wonder is mostly just a good time to mourn all of the production you poured into making it, and wonder why you didn't spend that production on something useful.

There are certain kinds of bad wonders that I have no problem with.  For example, I don't think that Stonehenge is a good wonder.  It is useful if you want a religion because it gives you one right away, but if you go for Stonehenge and someone else beats you to it your early game position is awful because you threw away all that production on something that isn't new cities, infrastructure, or military.  It isn't good for a religious game particularly because if you are doing that you want to build holy sites and shrines and such anyway.  I don't think there is a strategy in which Stonehenge is the best build.

Big Ben is another crazy wonder that doubles your current treasury.  If you are in the late game and the other players let you stockpile 10,000 gold and double it then sure, Big Ben is ludicrous.  So what though?  If you have done that you have already won the game anyhow.  In any game where you pull off a massive Big Ben you are just winning more.

Both of these wonders have unique effects, but I doubt they are ever actually relevant or a good idea in terms of optimal play.  This is fine!  The wonders I have a problem with are the ones with boring effects that are also bad.  There are wonders that are basically comparable to generic buildings, but they suffer from the possibility of getting blown out if someone else finishes them, they occupy a space on the map, and they have restrictions on placement.  Plus they take a really long time to make so they come online slower and make timing other builds more annoying.

A wonder is a risk, and comes with real costs, so it should be exciting.  You can make something exciting by doing something unique, like Stonehenge or Big Ben, or you can make something exciting by making it powerful.  But if you make a wonder like The Hermitage, you have a wonder that is barely better than a regular building and costs an enormous amount of production, in addition to the basic risks of placing a wonder.  It is an embarassment.

I don't want wonders that are as powerful as wonders were in Civ 1 and Civ 2.  Those were world shattering in many cases, easily meaning the difference between a sweeping victory or crushing defeat on their own.

One serious struggle in terms of wonder design is long vs. short term.  The game really shouldn't go beyond turn 250, and a lot of late game wonders can't possibly pay for themselves in less than 50-100 turns.  They literally can never be worth the production you pour into them before the game is over.  Some wonders, like Big Ben or Oxford University, immediately give you their benefits so they are surely worth building.  Others, like Forbidden City or Colossus have slow benefits and those are going to rarely pay off sufficiently.

All of this is mostly sad because when I look at a city build queue I should be excited by my options.  I should wonder if I ought to take the risk of building Forbidden City for that huge payoff when it arrives.  Instead I pretty much just ignore the wonder section because there isn't any point.  I would be far better off just building normal buildings, infrastructure, or troops.  The real kicker is that even if there was no risk of someone else building it out from under me I wouldn't want to build most of the wonders anyway!  Risk should come with reward, and the way the game is now most of the risk comes with no reward at all.

All this makes me want to get back into modding.  I spent a year tinkering with Civ 5 and I absolutely loved doing it.  One of the most critical things I was doing there was making sure that each wonder, building, or troop had a place.  They don't all have to be good in every game, nor even part of optimal lines of play at the highest difficulties.  They just have to have some way to shine, some reason to be there.  You don't have to say that Forbidden City is the thing to rush for, but you should at least be able to say that when you finish it you look at what it does and are excited that you snagged it.