Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Just a little less spite

I played Terraforming Mars again this weekend and my impressions of it weren't much changed from the first two times.  The game is well themed, well made, and has some stuff in it that bothers me.  I still don't like the way a lot of the cards punish other players because they so often have no choice in who they attack.  Letting players punish the leader is one thing, but having lots of cards that will usually only be able to attack one target means that the game feels really capricious.

I am not going after the game's balance here; I don't have enough knowledge to do that.  I am just talking about enjoyment and feel.  The cards that destroy stuff suck as far as I am concerned but I am sure if they all went out of the game the balance would massively shift.  My best first guess is that plants would become completely the dominant strategy if the meteors that blow up plants were removed and I don't think that is a good thing.

The other thing that bothered me was the drafting element.  Lots of the time I would open a pack of four cards and see nothing much interesting for me so I would simply hate draft the the the next player needs.  I would often see two good cards I couldn't use so I would make sure to take the one the next player needs so that they would hate draft against the player after them.  This honestly isn't much fun.  Having players talk about the great cards they took from you while you go turn after turn not seeing the stuff you need is crappy.  They usually aren't even using the cards either, just tossing them away into the trash.

The drafting part of the game also adds a lot to the duration.  With quick drafters it wouldn't be much of an issue but in all the games I played I am sure the draft added on most of an hour to the game time all in all.

I thought of a couple ways to address these concerns.  The simplest way to speed up the game is to simply not draft and just deal each player four cards.  That reduces the skill component a little but would definitely speed things up so overall I think that is a better way to play.  There is another solution though which doesn't speed the game up but which does mean that each player would be more likely to get cards they want and you would be a lot more likely to find the big payoff cards for the strategy you are employing.  The idea is that you pay for cards as soon as you draft them rather than waiting until the end of the draft and tossing cards out if you don't want them.

Right now you draft one card from each pack and usually pay to keep 1-2 of them.   The rest go in the garbage.  I would rather a system where you must pay for any card you draft at all.  Each pack would still go around the table once and you could only take 1 card from a pack when it passes you but you don't have to take a card, and if you do take one you must pay your 3 bucks for it.  This would mean that hate drafting would have a real cost, and while it sometimes would be worth it to spite people out of their cards you wouldn't end up just spiting everything by reflex.  I don't think we need to eliminate hate drafting completely, I just want to tilt the game towards positive drafting that builds your own strategy and away from constant hating.

I suspect this alternate game style would inflate scores.  You would have some money that just gets thrown out of the game when people draft and pay for cards they can't use at all but people would get their big payoff cards substantially more often and would end up with higher scores overall.  More relevantly though I think you would see new and/or weaker players actually get to have their strategies work out.  They wouldn't be so penalized for not knowing exactly what their opponents are doing (because hate drafting has a much larger cost) and they would end up with their cool stuff more often.

I really like the idea of people getting to finish off their strategies more and I am completely willing to give up some skill emphasis to achieve this.  I also think it would be a better game to teach and people just starting would enjoy it more.

I guess it says something that I have so many issues with the game and yet I am invested in trying to improve it; Terraforming Mars certainly does some things right, just not quite enough things.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Murderhobo: The Next Generation

My daughter Pinkie Pie has been clamouring to play Heroes By Trade for some months now.  She built a character quite some time ago and has been wanting to play, and I couldn't quite tell if it was a real desire to play roleplaying games or more just curiosity about the game I have built.  In any case we finally got around to playing last night and Pinkie Pie got to test out her elven warlock.

Wendy played too, and I decided that a three person party was best so I ended up running an NPC to follow them around.  As is usual for these sorts of things I made a character that was a tank, designed to run in and block for the two ranged characters that Wendy and Pinkie Pie were playing.  I also made sure that my character had a few skills the group otherwise didn't have but was a quiet sort, not much inclined to negotiate or make decisions.  That way the players would be able to make the choices rather than me, but I would have access to a vehicle for producing suggestions should it be necessary.

The character I was running was a troll called One Ear, named in a practical sense in the way that trolls do in Heroes By Trade.  Pinkie Pie immediately decided that he should be called Steve and took great delight in addressing him as Steve throughout the game.  She was thrilled when I roleplayed One Ear being all grumpy at being called Steve and seems determined to make this into a regular feature of our game.

Of course when you play RPGs with children you need to railroad them pretty hard.  If you just let them act completely of their own accord the game is a mess and nothing happens, so I had the characters start in a bar and a local ran in to try to sell them a treasure map.  It so happens that the map was real and the temple it showed the location of even had treasure locked away deep inside.  I didn't have to make anything up from scratch though as I had used this adventure as a testing ground for HBT years ago and I just picked it up and ran it again.

One potential issue with getting the adventure done is Pinkie Pie's tendency to seize on things and pursue them relentlessly.  When she heard about an old gold mine that was all mined out and abandoned as part of the adventure backstory she desperately wanted to run across the endless jungle to find it.  I wanted to keep the group on track, for the first adventure at least, but thankfully Wendy could tell what I was trying to do and insisted on following the actual adventure instead of just heading to a random cave to see what was inside.  Having an adult around who can mostly let the kid run free but shove her back into a useful path occasionally is excellent.

I wasn't particularly sure that Pinkie Pie would enjoy the game once she finally tried it.  I thought there was a real chance she would get bored halfway through.  However, she had an absolute blast and wants to play again as soon as possible, as often as possible.  She figured out what her character was good at that the rest of the party wasn't good at and looked for opportunities to shine, but she was perfectly content to let other people do their thing; One Ear is talented at smashing stuff and she took great joy in asking him to shove things around and break stuck doors and such.

Pinkie Pie's introduction to RPGs is going to be so much better than mine was.  I just found Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay at the bookstore and puzzled out how to game by myself while she is getting an introduction tailored to her from a grizzled veteran.

It feels good to be back in the GM's seat.  I think this is a thing I need to do more of, and not just for Elli.  I think it is time to run another campaign; I need a creative outlet and building a world and a story is a grand way to do that.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Feed me

In December I posted about my Agricola league where I was expecting to notch two 1st, one 2nd, and one 3rd place finishes in my four games.  That might well have been good enough to win my division and move up to the next division but it turns out I actually got three 1st and one 2nd place finish to come in an overall 1st place finish with a commanding lead.

My last game to finish was this one.  In the middle of the game I thought of myself as being mid pack, likely to not lose but I didn't figure on winning.  Instead I won 42-37-30-20, a big victory.  So why did I guess my game situation so badly?  With that big a margin of victory I feel like I should have been able to tell easily.  I did have a great last turn wherein I grabbed 13 points but much of that was set up ahead of time and I should have accounted for it.

Looking back on the game I think I simply didn't add up the food situation properly.  I had a massive investment in food infrastructure given that I had the Well (5 food), Fruit Tree (6 food), Spindle (1 food), Laybout (6 food), and Sheep Farmer/Fireplace (14 food).  I had most of that set up fairly early on so I was able to focus on racking up a ton of points in the later stages of the game while my opponents regularly spent their latter turns scooping up loose food on the board or grabbing animals to cook them immediately. 

Looking at all four games I played this round there is a trend.  In three of the games I set up an excellent food engine and won the game.  One of those games was the one I just described where my engine was just a bunch of food generating cards, but both of the other games involved fast renovating into the Manservant, which is a food plan all by itself once you get it out.  In the fourth game I didn't get a food engine set up properly and I came second.  I think this is where I am at in terms of Agricola now - I really love the strategy of building one room, growing once, and setting up a food engine in the first seven turns.  Then I can spend the last seven turns of the game grabbing all the points I can, and only getting my fourth dude when I manage to get my turn at Family Growth Without Room.

At any rate I am now moving up a division so I will get to test myself against stronger opponents in the next round.  There were some good players in my division, but also some people who were fairly weak, and I don't really expect the top players to get much better in the higher division but I do expect that the minimum level of skill will rise dramatically.

Onward and upward!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Endless corridors

This year on my annual trek to Thunder Bay I got in a couple games of Castles of Mad King Ludwig and they had one odd thing in common with one another - in both games the bonus point favour pucks had the bonus for number of corridors and also square footage of corridors.  When you have both of these in play it warps the game quite substantially as everyone rushes to build hallways instead of ignoring them as is usual.  Also the 350 corridor rooms which are normally the worst cards in the deck end up being quite powerful and often sat in the 15,000 spot because people were terrified of others getting all that corridor space.

My feeling is that when the corridor favours are both out the game really favours experienced players.  Most of the favours aren't that difficult to sort out - if purple rooms are the bonus, then you think of each purple room as being worth +2 points.  Not exactly complicated, and at the end of the game you can math out their exact values to you fairly easily.  Corridor rooms cause a lot more consternation though because you have to figure out how to sequence your plays to get lots of them at just the right time.

In the second game my second last turn was simply playing the second last Stairs.  Not what you want to do with your second last turn most of the time!  However, my last turn was playing a basement room to finish those stairs, getting a bonus stairs up out of the basement room, using that basement room completion to take another turn, building a yellow room on the end of the stairs going up, using my free bonus hallway (emptying the hallways) to finish the yellow room, getting another turn, and using that final turn to by the 350 corridor to snatch both most corridors and most square footage of corridors.  Five tiles laid in a single turn was enough to absolutely blow out the game in my favour.

Setting that up and realizing that you will get to do it is not something a starting player is going to do, even if they are good at games in general.  It takes time to get used to how best to use extra turns and extra Hallways/Stairs and if you have that all sorted you can do some nutty things.  Beginners at the table found themselves cut out of Stairs and Hallways unexpectedly and that can be really key if you have been building your game around getting a specific amount of those things on the board.

This has made me like Castles even more than before.  The changing favours really keep you thinking and make new playthroughs different.  You can't just develop a simple metric for how good each room is so you have to recalculate everything each time through.  While eventually you would get used to the favours that come out something is always going to be a bit different in the game to keep it fresh and new.

Note to self:  In a game with all the Corridor favours out, Hall of Mirrors is *really* good, even if you get it halfway through.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Serving the man

In my current Agricola league games I am doing really well.  I have 1 first place finish already, another game that is going to end with me in first unless something crazy happens, and a third game where I am coming in third place.  The fourth game is only in round 10 of 14 so far so I don't know for sure, but at a glance I appear to be in a strong position.  At the very least I am secure on food and have lots of ways to generate points, so I can't complain too much.

In the both the game I won and the game I am coming in third I played the Manservant on turn 8.  That netted me 17 food for a single action, when a normal food gathering action is about 4 food.


This card is crazy powerful, but also has a steep cost.  3 food per turn is monstrous, particularly if you can get it out early, but the problem is that renovating to stone early means you give up the ability to continue to expand your house and you have to compete for the necessary resources and renovate spots.  It means giving up other important things, essentially.

Getting it out as early as I did in both of these games is a coup.  17 food for a single action is bonkers, and when I managed that I figured I had the game in the bag.  Not that you always win when you do this of course, but in both cases I had 3 family members and my opponents didn't seem to have taken advantage of my focus on renovating to do something scary.  My position looked solid.

In the game I won it certainly seemed like an amazing play.  I ended with 48 points and my farm looked very pretty indeed.  That massive glut of food let me spend all of the late game setting up max fields and pastures and grain and veggies and even get 8 points from animals and 3 from stables.  I didn't do anything interesting in terms of other cards - I just made a food engine and then built all the things.

In the game where I am coming in third I think I must have boned it up somewhere but I don't really know where.  If I get a 17 food action I feel like I should have a dominant in the endgame, but I will end up either at 39 or 41 depending on how the last couple actions go.  I know I gave up something to get the Manservant out so quickly but I really thought it wasn't so bad as all that.

This card is a bit of a newbie trap I think.  Much like the Animal Pen it is really strong but if you decide you are just going all in on it from the start of the game you rate to get wrecked, I think.  The trouble with these cards is that they require a massive investment of stuff that you are competing for.  There are certainly games where the Manservant just happens to work out great, but if you decide you are doing a renovate early strategy and people block your stone or Renovate comes out late you could end up completely screwed.


Both of these strike me as middling draft picks.  You don't want to commit to taking them first off because you will find them unplayable a lot of the time.  However, you don't want them sitting in your opponent's hands because if they happen to be able to use them you rate to get blown out.  Take them middling, I would say, somewhere between 3rd and 5th pick.  They are great to have in your arsenal if you happen to be able to work them in, but you don't want to commit to them until you see the lay of the land.

In any case I am pretty happy with my results this season.  Last season I came 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 3rd in my games which is by no means a disaster but also isn't great.  The 3rd only happened because I misread a card - I am confident I come second in every game if I realize what my cards actually do! 

Clearly this season is going better, especially if I do manage to score up a three 1st place finishes.  That almost certainly puts me at the top of my group and on the way to a higher ranked group next season.  I expect to lose there, but it will definitely educate me and that is a big part of the fun.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Enter Cave, Fight

The latest Hearthstone expansion brought with it some fantastic single player content - Dungeon Runs.  I think people would agree generally that it is by far the best single player content the game has ever had, and has far more replay value than anything before it. 

The idea is that you start off with a tiny deck of cards standardized for your class.  You then fight a series of 8 bosses which start off completely trivial and get harder as you go.  If you ever lose a game, the run ends.  After every boss you get 3 new cards to add to your deck, chosen from 3 stacks of 3 cards each.  Each stack is themed, so you can try to build a deck around a specific mechanic or card if you like.  The trick is that there are lots of themes so if you try to build a Jade Shaman deck you might not get offered any Jade cards... or worse, you take Jade cards early and then never get any more and they end up being terrible.

You also get 4 special items as the run progresses.  After boss 1 and boss 5 you get a choice of a passive item that buffs you, and after boss 3 and 7 you get an active item that is a card in your deck.  All of the items have powerful effects, some moreso than others.  The combination of passive and active effects with the variable sets of cards and random boss selection means that the games play out in all kinds of interesting ways and things change each time you do a run.

The biggest problem with previous single player content in Hearthstone was that it got repetitive super fast.  Any boss that was a serious challenge would have ludicrous abilities and would destroy you effortlessly, so you simply build a deck that has some possible combination that beats the boss and then play over and over until RNG favoured you.  You might be simply restarting until you got 2 Molten Giants in your hand by turn 2 on Lich King - Hunter, or maybe you were trying to land Innervate / AlarmoBot on Chromaggus.  In any case these old fights were often tedious to beat because even once you figured it out you just played the optimal deck over and over until you hit just the right combination of cards.

Dungeon Runs don't suffer from this.  While there is definitely RNG in terms of what cards and items you get on your runs the games are different each time and there are many ways to succeed.  Even if it is frustrating to lose to a particular combination you can try again and build a new deck and face new bosses.  The sense of pointless grinding isn't the same at all, and I am enjoying playing Dungeon Runs still despite having beat a full 8 boss run on every class.

One thing I did notice is that my intuition about what cards are good wasn't correct when I started out.  I remember the first choice I had between various passive items and one of them was the Potion of Vitality, which doubles your health.  Instead I took a Crystal Gem, which gives you 1 extra mana crystal.  I liked the idea of having more mana for better tempo far more than I liked a bunch of health.  Who wants to be tough when you can just steamroll your opponents?

That was a mistake.  In the first few encounters where the bosses are easy that extra mana crystal is huge.  It lets you quickly overpower them.  However, when you get to the later stages the bosses often have board wipes and have a ton of health so you can't just stick a couple early minions and win - that tempo advantage isn't nearly enough to let you win the game.  Since you have 40-50 health in the harder matches the health doubler is giving you a *huge* health increase, which is really important against bosses that try to burn you out with spells or if you try to fatigue opponents out. 

If we look at the effect of having one more mana crystal we can compare it to a spell that does that - Wild Growth.  This effect is better than Wild Growth because it works on turn 1 and 2 and doesn't cost 2 mana to cast, but we can safely say it is a similar effect that gives about 4 additional mana.  Roughly speaking, it is worth a card and 4 mana.  The health boost is a much larger effect, when considering cards, because best card to compare it to is Greater Healing Potion, which restores 12 health for 4 mana.  That card isn't all that exciting though, so perhaps we should only give the Vitality Potion credit for being as good as 12 mana and 4 cards.  12 mana and 4 cards is a *lot* better than 4 mana and 1 card!

The Vitality Potion is even better when you can usefully leverage that extra health.  Classes with weapons can safely chop away at enemy minions without worry when they have Vitality Potion, and if you manage to get a full heal card it is even better.

The decks you end up with at the end vary quite a bit in power.  Certain classes have a much higher peak than others, particularly any class that has the Jade mechanic "Summon a Jade Golem.  The first Jade Golem is 1/1, and each subsequent Jade Golem is +1/+1 bigger."  The treasure that doubles Battlecries means that the first Jade card you play summons a 1/1 and a 2/2, the second one summons a 3/3 and a 4/4, etc.  With a bunch of Jade cards and doubled battlecries you can steamroll anything.  Classes that don't have Jade as an option can't highroll the same way, although there are two treasures called the Hilt of Quel'Delar and the Blade of Quel'Delar, and if you get both they turn into a weapon that basically instantly wins you the game.  You can only get it for the 8th fight of the run and you have to pick the first half of Quel'Delar before knowing if you will even get offered the second half, but when it works you just win.

I have found it super interesting that people have wildly differing ideas of the power level of various items.  Some are obvious, such as the Captured Flag which gives your minions +1/+1.  It is excellent, one of the best for every class and strategy.  However, there is one in particular, the Cloak of Invisibility, that seems to have some serious disagreement on its strength.  It makes all of your minions permanently have stealth so your opponent cannot trade into your minions and they cannot target them.  You can dictate all trades and protect your minions with special effects, but you do have the real problem that you lose access to Taunt.  If you need to protect your face from enemy minions you are screwed because your dorks are all hiding.

I love the Cloak of Invisibility.  One of the huge benefits of it is hard to see, but is really important.  Some enemy decks have a truckload of removal in them and it can end up clogging their hand badly when they can't target your minions.  The first time I beat Vustrasz he played 2 little minions and then just sat there beating on me with them doing nothing, eventually discarding a card each turn.  Clearly he drew all targetted removal spells and other minions he couldn't play and my invisible minions happily beat him to death.  Things don't always go to that extreme of course, but oftentimes bosses will end games with 5 cards in hand that they haven't played and it is clear that the Cloak of Invisibility was responsible for stranding all that removal in their hand.

On a somewhat lighter note I must say I really like the feel of the Dungeon Runs too.  The monsters are varied and there are some rare fights with fun rewards.  You actually have to use a lot of different strategies depending on what you are facing and they really stuck the feel of delving into an old school dungeon.  Giant Rats as your first opponent, and dragons, demons, and The Darkness at the end (with a Lava Filled Chamber in the middle, naturally) hit all the right notes.

If you haven't played Hearthstone in awhile this is a plenty good reason to pick it up again.  The solo content is free, and you get a bunch of free stuff for logging in during the expansion.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Greenery

I played Terraforming Mars for the first time a little while ago and I have been mulling over my feelings on the game.  It is a competitive board game with a vaguely cooperative theme in that everyone is trying to terraform Mars as quickly as possible and the ones who do that the best win the game.

The game combines a grid of hexes representing Mars upon which everyone makes cities, lakes, and forests with a system of drafting and playing cards.  The cards have a lot going on, in that they can cost temporary resources or reduce your income, and they can generate temporary resources or permanently increase income.  There are lots of kinds of resources and income too, and also the cards have lots of symbols on them that interact with other cards.  Thankfully the design of the cards is really well done and with minimal practice you can easily figure out what each card does.

The cards seem largely well built, both in graphic design and balance.  I am not anywhere good enough at the game to make proper evaluations but my first pass was a favourable one for sure.  You can play a balanced game looking for all the best deals at a given moment or you can really go all in on one strategy and hope to cash in on the cards that reward the particular thing you are doing.

One thing I found really odd was that the main way of getting points was linked to income.  If you get a point, you also get a buck every round.  This worried me initially because it seemed like anyone who did well at the beginning would just steamroll their way to victory but there are ways to score points that don't increase income and ways to raise or lower your income without getting points, so it didn't end up being a problem.  In most games you end up either building your engine or generating points and you have to figure out when it is time to stop creating infrastructure and just start making points as the game closes down, but in Terraforming Mars you often end up just doing both at the same time. 

The game does have other ways of generating tipping points though because there are three good ways to score points that have a fixed number of them that can be cashed in.  When there are ten temperature bumps left to go nobody cares much but when you get down to the last few suddenly everyone scrambles to get their temperature bumps in before the opportunity to score off of them vanishes.

The theme of the game is well done.  For example, as terraforming proceeds the oxygen % goes up, and that means that eventually you can build cities without domes.  However, once the oxygen gets high enough you can't build a city with a dome anymore because nobody wants to live in a domed city when the air outside is breathable.  The cards reflect these sorts of things effectively and the themes feel like they tie into the mechanics in immersive and enjoyable ways.

There is one thing about the game that I don't much like though, and that is the number of cards that punish a player of your choice when you play them.  Throughout the game people would draw cards that could do something bad and then they would have to pick which person to hurt.  I don't like that mechanic in Lords of Waterdeep and it isn't any better here.  I like mechanics where you can play against another person's strategy, but cards that simply say "Pick who gets screwed" are not fun for me.  This is pretty much the only catch up mechanism in the game so I imagine with excellent players it would usually mean that the player in the lead gets beat up, but that kind of mechanic usually means that the players in last place end up kingmaking (when people are good) or people end up punishing the person they don't like (when people are bad at the game).  Neither is fun.

Overall I think the designers of the game did a great job.  The game looks slick, the information is presented effectively, and the theme is well integrated into the mechanics.  I like the way new players can be handed a faction that gives them a simple starting situation that is balanced, and I the replayability looks good.  But that card mechanic of "Pick who gets screwed" .... I don't like it.  I will play the game more times for sure to figure out what I think of it, but overall I expect it is a game I will continue to enjoy despite that one significant drawback.