Thursday, May 10, 2018

Stay low

Last night my group finished our fourth scenario in Gloomhaven.  We are having a blast delving into dungeons and bashing monsters and I am so far really impressed with the difficulty of the game.  The first scenario we had no idea how it worked and we barely scraped through but ever since we have beaten everything with some room to spare.  However, we have consistently felt like we were on the verge of failure and the smell of desperation was in the air.  That all the scenarios so far felt like we just barely scraped by tells me that the difficulty is right on.  About 2/3 of the way through this last scenario the whole group agreed that we were screwed and we were going to lose - something about opening two rooms at once and having the party split up, facing two stacks of monsters simultaneously has that effect.  But even though it looked grim and one of our characters dropped out of the dungeon 3 rounds before the end we prevailed.

In the adventure last night we had some choices about where to go.  Some of the choices would have required us to figure out which NPC we believed and pick sides, but we elected to go into a dungeon that we knew was full of undead.  Killing undead and the people that summon them *has* to be right!

I felt great emerging from the dungeon as I managed to vacuum up 8 loot tokens, get 19 XP (before story award), and also collect the big chest at the end.  I also got my checkmark for completing my battle challenge.  In fact 8 loot tokens and 19 XP are both records for my group.  Everything's coming up Milhouse.


The funny thing is that getting a ton of XP is actually a penalty.  The monsters scale with your level, and so as you level up things get harder.  That might sound like it doesn't matter what level you are but that isn't quite the case, because the monsters are more difficult at higher levels and that is normally offset by having more perks, gear, and upgrades.  If you want to be as effective as possible you want to get as little XP as possible and as many other improvements as you can because the difficulty of the game does not scale with gear, perks, or upgrades.

You can't avoid getting XP.  You get some just for completing adventures and your abilities inevitably generate more.  The thing is that you can play the game attempting to maximize your XP gain or you can avoid it.  In nearly all other games maximizing your XP is the way to go, but not in Gloomhaven.  I really should be doing everything I can to avoid XP so as to keep the monsters weak relative to my character power.

Obviously I am not doing that!  XP is a number and I can make that number bigger so I am damn well going to make that number as big as possible.  What else do we play RPGs for but to make numbers bigger?!?

It does feel weird though to know that I am actively pursuing something that will make encounters harder and my character less effective against my foes.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Half a game

Over the past little while I have been playing a lot of Castles of Burgundy and Castles of Mad King Ludwig with just 2 players.  I really like both games, though certainly Mad King is the better of the 2 castles games, but I am struggling to love the 2 player versions because the level of randomness is ratcheted up in ways I disapprove of.

This weekend I played 2p Mad King against Naked Man and came out victorious.  He had beaten me the past 8 times we played so this was good for my ego, though honestly when many of those victories came down to just a couple of points either way one should hesitate to draw significant conclusions from a streak.  When we play 4p we both consistently clobber the other players so I don't have to sit up at night worrying about being total rubbish.

The weird thing about both Castles games is that the tiles that appear in the 2p version are roughly half the ones that appear in the 4p version.  In the 4p game you can predict things.  You can assume that there will be basements in the game in Mad King, and you can expect the "Points for shipped good types" tile in Burgundy.  You can plan!

But when half the tiles are removed from the game randomly you have no idea what sort of stuff is coming up.  You can decide to go for sheep in Burgundy and then never see another sheep tile.  You can finish a blue room in Mad King and dig into a pile looking for more blue rooms and find none at all.  I had this come up in my last game because I was staring at 4 200 size tiles knowing that there might be 2 blue rooms in there, which would be great, or there might be none.  The mean and mode of the distribution is 1, but you just don't know what it is until you invest resources to find out.

This doesn't make them bad games, but it seriously changes the flavour of the game.  Memorizing all the tiles and planning around them is great and I enjoy it but you can't rely on your knowledge when you don't know what stuff is available at all, which forces you into either safe plays or big gambles.

The 2p version of Mad King also has greater randomness in the bonus card draws.  When all the tiles are in play you have a lot more control and you know with greater accuracy what stuff will come out so all bonus cards have potential.  But in 2p some cards that you select correctly will end up being rubbish with little you can do about it.

This effect doesn't make these games bad.  It just changes them in ways that feel like they break the feel of the game.  It isn't just a new set of strategies, it is a new game entirely in terms of the way randomness and preparation affect results.  It is odd particularly because most games that scale down to 2p seem to up the skill factor a lot, and while these two games do that, they also ratchet it back down again by randomly tossing out half the game without anyone knowing *which* half.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

I've been working on the railroad

Railroading is one of the things people complain about a lot in roleplaying circles.  GMs that force players down a single unavoidable path are generally not good at their job, and most of the time the players feel it.  They aren't telling their own story, they are just reading a script.  Thing is though, railroading isn't an I/O kind of thing.  There are degrees of railroading, and you can easily do it too little as well as too much.

I think in my home campaign with Wendy and Pinkie Pie I have been railroading too little.  Pinkie Pie likes running around a fantasy world exploring and brawling and getting into trouble but she has trouble making good decisions when the consequences aren't clear. 

Case in point:  The characters beat up a notorious gangster and his gang.  Then they went to the gangster's house to find information they needed.  While they were robbing the house the town watch appeared nearby, and the characters noticed this from the window of the gangster's house.  I figured that the characters would immediately run but instead they sat around looting more thoroughly, taking their time.  Then the watch finally came to the front door of the house and arrested everyone.  It turned out that Pinkie Pie figured that since they killed the gangster they were entitled to his stuff...  these sorts of misunderstandings are rife in the game so far.

I try to give characters lots of rope to hang themselves, should they have a mind to.  I give them plots to pursue, but I am fine with them pursuing whichever of those plots they have a mind to, in whichever way they want.  This works for mature gamers but has some real issues with smaller folks who have less experience.  They just don't understand how all their adult level decisions will play out.

So they joined the army.

I didn't force them into the army, exactly.  I just had important people recognize their exploits and offer them a cushy job in the Empress' Swords, the unit of powerful people that handle most security in the realm.  (There are also people called the Empress' Daggers that are the spies and scouts, but the characters in the group are good at bashing, not deception and trickery.)  The characters were a little suspicious of the Empress and her motives but the villains in the story so far are dedicated to taking down the Empress so the characters ended up being willing to work for her since the enemy of my enemy and such.

Now they have a home base and missions to go on.  I am definitely going to keep their missions exciting and unpredictable so they aren't railroaded too hard but they seem to like the idea of actually knowing what to do instead of starting each session with "so... where are we going to go now?"  I probably should have done this in the first place, as having a bunch of organized, planned excursions is a good way to be introduced to a world and you can slowly give the characters more freedom from that point.

I led off with 25% railroading in my eagerness to avoid 100% railroading.  I think that my new strategy of 60% railroading will be more successful though, with this group at least.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

A fine flock of sheep

Last night I played Castles of Burgundy in person for the first time.  I have been playing a bunch on the board game site boiteajeux but this was my first experience with the board and physical pieces.  I must say I really enjoy the functionality of having the computer handle all the randomization and point counting but I think I should really play games in person the first time.  It helps a lot in figuring out how all the mechanics work when I have to maintain board state myself.  I finished a couple of games of CoB online without even understanding how the turn order worked!

I won the game by about 30 points, roughly 256 to 226/215/205, which is a pretty large margin of victory for that game.  Funny thing is that I honestly can't pin down why I won by so much.  I had the least tiles on the board of anyone with 9 empty spaces at the end, and although I completed a full 5 field of sheep two of the other players completed 5 fields of cows and pigs respectively so they were keeping up.  I never got a mine, so you can't chalk up my victory to an early mine snowball.

P C C Y
P P C Y B
P P B Y B B
W W W C W W W
B B M B B P
B M Y B B
M Y Y B

This is the board I was on.  I filled everything except the lower yellow section, the lower left brown section, and the mines.

You might wonder if I only won because of miscounting points.  That is a reasonable suspicion, but I do not think it is right in this case.  Naked Man is good about maintaining board state and scoring correctly, and he was watching me like a hawk.

One thing that went really well is my boat usage.  I kept two boats ahead of the others for most of the game and this let me scoop up 2 resource tiles on 4 of my 6 boats.  I hadn't really considered how powerful it was to always be ahead and have the best selection on grabbing tiles like that, but it certainly came home.

I think the best way to attribute my win is simply to efficiency.  My 3 yellow tiles were worth 16 points (animal activations), 8 points (animal types), and 8 points (tower x 2).  That is a fantastic set of tiles, and exactly filled my size 3 yellow group.  I sold 13 resource tiles over the game, most of them in sets of 2 or 3.  That is an extremely high number for a 4 player game.

The early part of the game didn't look too exciting for me as I was just putting down boats and sheep.  Other people were doing the mining thing and getting yellow tiles that gave them workers and it seemed like they were building powerful engines.  I was just getting points.

But I think just getting points is how this game works.  Most brown buildings give zero points, but I had 2 watchtowers giving me a total of 8.  I got tons of points from selling stuff, maximized my completion bonuses, and had only a single tile that gave me workers because I was super tight with my workers all game.

I didn't try to build any sort of engine, I just rammed as much point generation into my board as is possible, and that led to a big margin of victory.  I honestly thought that the guy who got to 3 mines and had the mines -> workers yellow tile super early was going to walk away with it but he ended up coming third, though admittedly since it was his first game it was unlikely he would win.  He did manage to vacuum up 4 large bonus tiles and 1 small though, which is phenomenal for a first outing.

I guess the lesson in this game is that there is no engine.  The important thing is simply turning every resource into points as efficiently as possible.  It feels exciting to chain buildings with bonus actions on them into one another but that doesn't actually make you win.  In the end if you complete a size 5 group of brown buildings in only 5 actions you still only get ~20 points for them, and 4 points per action is weak.  That can be good enough if you can get a bunch of the same building and grab the associated yellow point tile, but otherwise isn't exciting.

This doesn't make me dislike the game though.  It just means I have to play it differently than I had thought and continue to iterate on my strategies.  It certainly does make me less inclined to take mines at the outset though if I have to expend a lot of resources to do so.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Fighting women

I am running an ongoing campaign using my RPG system Heroes By Trade.  My players are Wendy and Pinkie Pie, and I am running an NPC to go along with them.  My character is a large furry troll who is really good at being tough, breaking things, and doesn't talk much.  A perfect NPC.  :)

One of the things I am making a point of is making the world have lots of women in positions of influence and importance.  Fantasy worlds are usually terrible at this and have men doing everything.  This is something I would think about a lot in any case but it is particularly important because I want Pinkie Pie to have the experience of adventuring in a world where women aren't relegated to support roles all the time.

I have actually found it pretty easy to do this with the important people.  There is an Empress, not a King, and keeping some kind of gender balance among the powerful and wealthy has been simple.  I even have one race in the game that has no sex or gender at all so non gendered people are a thing this society is used to and they appear here and there.

But I find it takes a lot more concentration to not default to male pronouns for random dorks.  When I am building people with motivations, names, distinguishing features, these people end up in some kind of good gender spectrum.  But when the characters get attacked by a bunch of random gangsters I find that I default to calling all of them 'him' as they get mowed down like chaff.

Isn't saying 'mowed down like chaff' kind of ridiculous?  I haven't ever mowed down chaff!  I have no idea how easy that is.  Maybe it is actually really difficult and I have been lied to by this saying all my life.  I wouldn't know if that was the case.  Now I need to head to wikipedia and look this up...

I don't think this is a huge problem, because I try to stay on top of and mitigate it, but it is interesting that this is the way my brain processes it.  I am probably inured to this norm by all the action movies I have watched, which certainly have a huge male bias for the main villains and heroes but a much larger bias among the henchmen.  Specifically, that they are henchmen, not henchwomen.

There are lots of reasons for that, and I am sure at least a part of it is that you can't sell a male hero who busts into places and then punches all the women he sees in the face until they are unconscious.  You can have a male hero do that to men no problem though and audiences won't freak out about it.

Pinkie Pie doesn't obviously react to people in the game based on gender.  I was a bit surprised by that because she is really focused on gender in real life, and being a girl rather than a boy is a huge part of her identity.  I am creating a world for her where violence solves most problems and societies need singular powerful people to save them from evil, and those aren't exactly things I want to impart even if they are fantasy staples.  But I can avoid making the world she romps through full of just men though, so I am going to do that, if nothing else.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Boss fight

I played my second game of Gloomhaven last night.  The first game I played a few weeks ago we eked out a victory over the forces of evil by the tiniest of margins - it all came down to a 10% chance of victory on the final roll.  Last night was the opposite experience.  We smashed the dungeon easily and wasted lots of resources at the end trying to vacuum up loot while disrespecting the last couple of enemies. 

This scenario introduced us to boss mechanics and overall I quite like them.  At first reading the rules seemed to suggest that the boss would attack us and use both of his special abilities every round.  We couldn't see any possible way to win against that setup because one of the boss' abilities was to summon about 10 health of creatures, the other was to attack us with 20-30 health of creatures, and then he still had his attack.  We can't possibly beat that much health since we only usually output about 15 damage a round.

But after looking at the cards we hadn't flipped over yet we realized that the boss does only one of those things each round.  This is still a really scary enemy, but only facing one attack or ability every round made the fight seem possible instead of ludicrous.

It turned out to be far easier than that.  We cleaned up the dangerous monsters quickly and then blew the boss up.  Massacreing all the remaining enemies turned out to be a trivial affair and then the only trick was trying to collect every treasure in the game before somebody killed the last enemy for experience and we ended up leaving only a single treasure token in the dungeon.  Much profit!

This left me wondering why this scenario was so much easier than the last one.  There are a few reasons for sure, and one of the biggest is that in our first outing we cheated a lot... in favour of the monsters.  When we flipped over their action cards we had them always attack and move in addition to whatever the card said, but they aren't supposed to do that.  When the monsters get extra moves and attacks for no reason the scenarios suddenly seem a lot rougher!

In our defence Gloomhaven has a *lot* of rules.

We also played a lot better.  We used our elemental bonuses effectively and combined our attacks in powerful ways.  We also stopped wasting our cards on Lost abilities early and took it easy, which really helped us have the time we needed at the end of the game.  Funnily enough I was actually playing too cautiously because I had a battle goal to only have 3 cards left in my deck by the end of the game and I nearly missed it.  I had to throw away multiple cards for no benefit at all in order to get my hand size down enough on the final turn.

I wonder now how the first scenario would have gone if we went back and redid it with our newfound expertise and understanding of the rules.  Would it still be hard, or would we just clean the place out easily?  I suspect the second, but I don't know for sure.

One thing that I found interesting was that even when we were absolutely certain of victory there was still lots of tension in our choices.  Everyone was trying to maximize their experience and gold gain so even when the only enemy left was a slow melee enemy that was ineffectually wandering towards us we still were thinking hard.  I do like that about the game.  It would be easy to make this sort of game work like DnD does, which is that when a fight goes well in the early going the last half of the fight is a boring slog towards inevitable victory.  You know you will win, you just have to beat through all of the hitpoints the enemies have remaining.

Gloomhaven doesn't allow that, long, irrelevant grind to occur.  You are going to run out of cards, and as the fight comes to a close everyone is in a mad scramble to use all of their high experience cards and grab loot, which often means that you are playing badly and risking losing it all.  Having multiple dimensions of success (victory, loot, XP, battle goals) means that no matter how well the run is going you still really want to think about how you will play and the choices matter.  I like that a lot.  This means that Gloomhaven is still a blast whether or not you are getting your asses kicked, having a tight encounter, or just steamrolling on through.

The game is ridiculous in many ways.  The amount of stuff you keep track of is hilarious.  But the core mechanics are really excellent and the game is delivering on tactical fun in a way that is rare. Games with this much fluff rarely have such satisfying crunch.  I approve.

Friday, April 6, 2018

The big choke

I did well in my Thurn and Taxis and Agricola leagues last time.  In both I was promoted and I was feeling good about my chances this time around and hoping to put in a good showing, if not get promoted again.  My feelings of confidence were unwarranted as I look likely to be bumped down a rank in both leagues. 

In Thurn and Taxis my problem is kind of ridiculous.  One of the players in one of my games never accepted the invitation, and then we remade it and it still didn't get accepted, and then all of the other games were done and this one game was still not complete.  The game being incomplete is partly my fault as I should have gone to the moderators about it instead of just shrugging and waiting.  I don't quite know how to apportion blame here because the person who simply ignored the invites and refused to acknowledge the emails is at fault, but I have some degree of fault for not getting on it and pushing it harder.

Now I may get relegated to a lower league simply because our game is never going to get done in time and so the people being bumped down will end up being selected from that group of players.  I don't envy the moderators that have to sort out this crap because there are no good solutions.  It sucks extra hard to get bumped down based on this kind of thing rather than just plain ole' getting beat but there aren't exactly a lot of other options available to the mods, so no blame there.

Definitely not the triumphant romp I had hoped for.

Agricola is going badly for entirely different reasons, mostly to do with the interface and me screwing it up.  One game I came third 47-42-39-38 on the back of a disastrous play where I Renovated before growing with Farm Steward in play, turning the Steward from a strong power play into a total waste.   Throwing away a high draft pick, an action, and a food is terrible, especially considering Church Warden was in the game so doing this cost me an extra 3 points just for fun.  I would have easily gotten second place without that terrible blunder and could have threatened for first.

In another game I had a plow down that lets me plow three times when I take the plow action, and I could do this twice a game.  After I plowed the second time I realized that I had only five fields - which shouldn't be possible when I get to plow three fields two times!  Somehow I had managed to only click twice to plow fields so I just missed out on an absolutely free point.  And of course that single point mattered in the end, and it may get me relegated.

Both of these errors are things I could have easily fixed in a live game.  I realized my disastrous mistake with the renovate just seconds after hitting Confirm, but in a game in person I would simply have taken the renovate back and done it properly.  Same with the fields, I would just have put the extra field on.  But you can't do that online, once you hit that Confirm button it is all over.

That isn't to say I have played perfectly otherwise!  Far from it, I am still learning.  But it seems like I may get bumped down in both leagues and in both cases meta issues really influenced the outcome.  I guess that is the struggle with a game run by the computer.  You get all kinds of benefits but the rules are enforced in the strictest possible way, so you have to play right.

All my fault, no doubt.  But these sorts of errors are the most annoying kind!