Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2 days

Lounge Day is upon us once again.  That day where a bunch of UWaterloo mathies go back to the Math and Computers building to sit in the lounge and play games all day.  Also the day where a bunch of people who aren't mathies but ended up there anyway follow us to our day of festivities.

If you are a gamer sort and want to come, you should do that.  There are some old faces that were gone for some time but which are back!

Today I was thinking about what games I am most looking forward to.  I play a lot of random stuff on Lounge Day, but in previous years I remember trying hard to find people to play Puerto Rico with.  I wouldn't mind that, but it definitely isn't the big draw for me this year.  I think that title goes to MoneyBu.  That is, Barbu, for money.

I have come out a substantial winner over the past few years (though there was one year in particular where my winnings were decidedly negative...) but I just love that game, win or lose.

Winning is better, don't get me wrong.  But even losing is pretty good.

Part of it is the trashtalk.  Most board games don't seem to engender quite so much mockery and derision.  I suspect it is the money element, because when you really want somebody to double you so you can smash them and take their sweet, sweet dollars it can pay to publicly doubt their fortitude and courage.  What, no double?  Are you chicken, or just bad?

The other thing that has me juiced is Camp Nightmare distribution.  There are still a bunch of copies here and I want to get them out to all the people who haven't collected theirs yet.  I figure I will GM at least one game to teach anyone who wants, and I quite enjoy watching people play my games for the first time.

And the day after that I launch off to Hawaii!  Likely I won't be making any posts here for the week because I will be too busy snorkelling and digging holes in the beach.

Life is grand.

Friday, April 7, 2017

What is my win condition?

A few weeks ago I played a game of El Grande.  (Thinking about a game that is called 'The Big' makes me giggle inside.)

I got blown out.  I haven't played El Grande in a decade or so and I certainly didn't play perfectly so I can't say I am surprised that I lost.  However, the game did illustrate one mechanic that I found frustrating.  Oftentimes I try to figure out how I could change a game to avoid mechanics that bother me but in this case I think the mechanic is inherent to the game.  The mechanic that troubles me here is the freedom to attack any player you want, without a clear way to figure out what you should try to accomplish with your attacks.

Early on in the game I was in a terrible spot.  I got blown out by one spectacularly brutal card coming up at the absolute worst possible time, and I was dead last at 15 points while the leader was at 35.  Not only that but she had far more units on the board than I did so I rated to get a lot less points on each scoring round thereafter. Given that my chance to win was vanishingly small at that point I decided that my new goal was to not come last.

Once my goal is to not come last, everything changes.  Instead of trying to smash the leader, my optimal play is to punish the third and fourth place players, those just ahead of me.  Of course those two players aren't going to like this conclusion as they would quite rather I attack the leader, giving them the best chance to win.  But if I spend all my efforts attacking the leader then I rate to end the game in last place.

It is frustrating to be in last and to have to reevaluate your win condition, but it is just as frustrating to be in third and have the last place player clawing you down, gutting your chance to win.  The key problem here is people don't agree on what your win condition is.  If you don't agree on what you are trying to do, you aren't going to agree on what course of action is reasonable.

You might have a particular idea about how a player should play when and if they conclude that they are out of the running for the win, but there simply isn't any widespread agreement.  Even then, players also have to be concerned about table presence.  If a person attacks you to set you back, you can either ignore it or strike back.  Retribution is often terrible in the game in which is occurs but its primary use is to build a table presence for later games.  Who wants to go after the player who will strike back relentlessly, starting a cycle of mutually assured destruction?

There are ways to get around this problem.  Some games just make it difficult or impossible to strike at a particular player.  For example, Le Havre is a game in which attacking one player is possible but difficult.  It doesn't suffer from this issue.  Settlers on the other hand has the revenge problem all the time but because it is so random you can rarely conclude that you are completely out of the game.  Even if you are behind it is quite plausible that you could run into a really fortuitous run of the dice and be back in contention, so going after the third place player is rarely a good choice.

One other way to deke around this problem is lack of information.  In Castles of Mad Kin Ludwig you can see who is ahead on points but you don't know what cards people hold.  This hole in your knowledge makes it far harder for you to figure out who is winning and also to be sure that you are actually losing.  That sort of arrangement, alongside the fact that the game doesn't often present you the ability to smash particular people, means that you don't have that same problem of figuring out who you want to attack.

You can make it really hard to do anything to the opponents like Dominion does.  Or you can obscure people's positions like Castles does.  Or you can make the game really random so that everyone can always win and attacking the leader is always right.

However, none of those solutions can be easily implemented into El Grande.  Even then, this isn't the sort of flaw that everyone sees as a flaw.  Some people like always hitting the leader no matter what, or just having fun punishing people at random while cackling like a madman.

Any of those is fine, if that is what winds your clock.

But for me, I really like to know ahead of time what my goals are.  I like to know what my opponent's goals are.  I don't want to be in a situation where people will be going after completely different goals partway through the game and knowing that I will be a casualty of war.  I also don't enjoy a game where partway through the leader is already determined and the rest of the group spends the game spiting each other, squabbling over second place because they have already given up.

It doesn't mean that El Grande is bad, but it does mean that it has a lot of potential to be really irritating, and I try to avoid games like that.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ultimate power

Character progression in WOW is in an awkward spot.  Blizzard wants people to feel more powerful with time, but they have designed themselves into a place where power has increased too much.  Right now my character does about 5 times as much damage as I did when I first got to maximum level.  Those increases have come from a variety of sources, but the end result is that instead of combat with a random monster taking 15 seconds and having some risk involved, I simply explode anything I attack with two button presses.

This is going to get worse, of course.  I fully expect that by the end of the expansion I will be doing more like 7 times as much damage as I did at the start, and if that number is wrong, it is almost certainly because it is too low.  Combat no longer makes any sense at that point and every task simply becomes about travelling as fast as possible because nothing presents any threat whatsoever.

Blizzard tried to fix this in the latest patch by having monsters scale with character gear.  The backlash against this was massive, and justified.  For example, I discovered that if I simply remove my rings and amulet monsters lose about 1/3 of their health because the game thinks my item level has utterly tanked.  However, those gear pieces were only giving me a damage boost of 25%, so I am actually *more* powerful when I take off my gear.  This is clearly unintended, and feels utterly wrong.

The fact that the playerbase is now doing this, just 24 hours after the patch launched, is a clear failure on Blizzard's part.  We as a community strive to maximize our power and if they let us do it in awful, frustrating ways we will do it that way, but we will feel terrible about ourselves.

There are easy ways to address this if Blizzard wants to approach it from a numbers standpoint.  Right now the problem is that a beginning character comes in with all of their gear being item level 800 or so, and characters with good gear like mine are at item level 905 now.  However, if I remove three pieces of gear the game assigns a value of 0 to those slots, so my average item level drops below 800.  I am still pretty close to as powerful as before, but the monsters scale as though I am the newbiest newb there is.  They can fix it by simply putting a floor of 780 on gear for the purposes of this calculation.  That way you can't game the system - putting on low level gear or leaving slots empty won't ever help you.

Fixing the problem numerically is easy, but fixing the perception is harder.  People want to be more powerful.  They don't like the feeling that when they get a new piece of gear the game will simply give the monsters more health to compensate.  They *really* hate monsters scaling with their gear.

However, people also find utterly trivial monsters to be a bore.  They would like things to be interesting, and if everything dies to a single swing the world stops feeling dangerous, real, and important, and becomes just another grind.  Unfortunately with the crazy scaling in this expansion there is no way to keep old monsters relevant - you cannot give characters 5 times damage and 4 times health and think that enemies will retain any sort of threat.

Blizzard has put themselves in this bind and I don't see any good way out of it.  They need to use my numbers suggestion if they insist on keeping the scaling with gear mechanic, but that mechanic is going to be intensely unpopular.

So what is worse?  Better gameplay but the players are bitter, or worse gameplay but the players are happy?  In the long run bad gameplay and bitter players both cause subscription losses so it isn't at all clear to me what they should do from a financial standpoint.  From a consistency and loyalty standpoint though I think the answer is to get rid of this scaling with gear thing.  People hate it when Blizzard suddenly nerfs them, and for good reason.  They put in a ton of time trying to get more powerful, and when that gets minimized or wiped out by a patch it is really frustrating.

If it were me, I would tell people that the scaling was a mistake and walk it back.  I am curious to see how that plays out though, because they have a lot more data on hand than I do.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I am a Fox

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

No time

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

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

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

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

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

I think it is great.

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

A new take on control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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