Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Shhhh

Hearthstone has a troubled history with silence effects.  In the game silence removes all buffs, debuffs, and abilities of any kind, reducing the minion it targets to its base stats.  This is a difficult mechanic to balance correctly because it varies so wildly in power.  Right now silence effects are being run in a huge number of decks because there are a variety of really powerful cards that are absolutely ruined by silence.  While any kind of play needs some sort of counterplay I feel at the moment that silence effects are too good and are making the game worse.

One of the really fun things in Hearthstone is to try to make enormous minions with crazy abilities.  People really like trying to pull off their crazy thing but when they do it is regularly met with a silence effect that ends all the fun.  As an example, consider Carnivorous Cube:


This card is hilarious thematically, and really powerful.  You can bash your minion into an enemy, leaving it at 1 health, then eat it with the cube.  When the two new copies pop out, they are at full health!  That is a huge swing.  The problem is that when you try to do this the fun police show up and silence your cube, preventing the minion you killed from being spawned.  This massive loss of tempo is often game losing, so nobody uses the cube.

Except warlocks.  They use the cube.  Do you know why?
Warlocks use the cube in a deck called CubeLock, and the reason they do is because they can kill their own minions efficiently.  Playing the cube and then immediately killing it without giving the opponent a chance to silence it is a key part of this deck.  This is a ridiculous statement of the way the game works at the moment; a class can have a format defining minion that is only good because they can kill it *themselves* better than any other class can.

Two years ago we had a similar situation going on.  People were running Ironbeak Owl in way too many decks because it was a cheap 2/1 minion for 2 mana that silenced an enemy minion.  Blizzard didn't like how prevalent it was and how much it suppressed the fun and wacky stuff people wanted to do.  They nerfed Ironbeak Owl to cost 3 mana instead, and it hasn't been seen since.  At the time it was clear what the natural successor to Ironbeak Owl was - Spellbreaker.


Spellbreaker is 1 more mana for +2/+2 in stats, and is the new standard for silencing things.  In fact we see two copies of Spellbreaker in all kinds of decks, ready to be the fun police for anyone trying anything too entertaining.  Spellbreaker needs a nerf.  Not because it is especially overpowered, but because the fact that it gets run a lot just eliminates all kinds of fun and interesting stuff from the metagame.  You can't play a Lynessa Sunsorrow deck in any environment where there is a lot of silence, and I want Lynessa Sunsorrow to be good, dammit!

Lynessa isn't overpowered.  If you let people run all kinds of buff spells then she becomes a really powerful but vulnerable finisher.  She can still be killed by all kinds of single target removal, but at least that means people are running single target removal to stop big threats like her.  When she just gets demolished as a side effect of people running Spellbreaker for other reasons entirely that is a sad state of affairs.

Hearthstone is more fun when people get to try their big exciting things and get paid off.  If you want to avoid getting demolished by gigantic scary stuff then run cards like Assassinate or Deadly Shot.  I don't mind the silence cards that belong to classes like Hex, Polymorph, and Silence - at least those are deliberate choices that only some decks can use.  What I don't like is masses of silence effects out there raining on the parades of people wanting to play minions that aren't just big piles of stats.

I say this even though right now I am running Spell Hunter and silence effects are pretty much worthless against me.  Hell, I want every opponent to be running as much of it as possible so I can laugh at them.  But I do want a metagame where I can run Carnivorous Cube or Lynessa and have them be effective without me having to kill my own stuff right away.  I think Blizzard is going to come to the same conclusion and nerf Spellbreaker, most likely by increasing its mana cost to 5.  Good riddance.

(Yeah, yeah, aggro decks need Spellbreaker to cope with turn 6 Void Lord.  The problem in that scenario is Void Lord, so that may need to get addressed on its own.)

Monday, February 12, 2018

Holding pattern

Recently Hearthstone introduced some changes to how their ranked play system works.  Currently the way it is set up is players start at rank 25 and can work their way up to rank 1.  After rank 1 they become legend, which basically is a separate system that ranks everyone by assigning them a place in the group - for example, only one person can be legend 1, and there are something like 10,000 total legend players.

You rank up by winning games.  Each win gets you a star, and for most ranks you need 5 stars to advance.  You get a bonus star if you win 3 or more games in a row.  You lose a star each time you lose, but you can't actually lose stars until you get to rank 19, and you can't go below rank 20, 15, 10, or 5 by losing.  Once you get there it is a floor.  At the end of the month everyone gets their rank taken away and they drop a *ton* of ranks, leaving players who were in legend suddenly fighting people at rank 13 again.

The changes seem largely designed to solve the problem of new players getting mauled by good players over and over again.  My usual experience each month was getting to rank 15, then getting reset back to rank 22 or so.  I would log in and half of my games were against players who had mostly complete decks like mine, and the other half were against people who clearly had no collection and were using terrible basic cards.  I smashed those people and it wasn't very interesting. 

There are two reasons for this issue.  Firstly there is a problem with there not being enough room at the entry level.  It only took a few wins to get from rank 25 to rank 20, and tons of people like me are sitting at rank 20.  This meant that there was basically no safe place for the newbies to battle each other.  The other silly thing is that people like me would get set back so far each month that there was no realistic way for me to *not* be battling the noobs.  Every time the month ticked over I would lose the great majority of my progress and the only way back to where I was involved mashing new players for a long time.

The new system actually addresses both of these concerns pretty reasonably.  Firstly they added a lot more room to the early ranks so new players would spend more time gaining their first few levels.  This means they will take longer to start off, but that longer start will be played against other people with hardly any cards or experience, which is great.  The ideal is that people will slowly fight harder opponents using better cards and more refined decks and they can see which cards and decks they like before buying in.  Instead of getting pounded by perfect decks found on the internet right away they have more time seeing their competition ramp up.

The other good change is that people lose exactly 4 ranks at the end of a month.  Instead of all the pro players grinding out wins against much weaker players for days people will spend a lot more time fighting even matches.  All the pros will get set back from legend to rank 4 at month's end, so if you want to avoid them just get yourself to rank 5 each month and then get set back to rank 9.  You don't have nearly as far to grind to get to your happy place and you will more consistently fight against appropriate opponents.  Previously it was silly to play much at the start of a month because the ladder was full of strong players beating people up for stars, climbing to their equilibrium point.  That mechanic isn't removed entirely but it is drastically lowered, and that is a big plus.

It is also now much clearer how much you have to play to reach an equilibrium each month.  In any given game the winner has a roughly 25% chance to have won their 2 previous games, which would earn them an extra star.  Also there is a approximately 4% chance that the loser is located on a threshold rank so they can't actually lose a star if they lose.  This means each game gains the players involved about 29% of a star.  To gain 4 ranks of 5 stars each you need 20 stars, so you need to play 138 games of Hearthstone to get your 4 ranks.  If each game takes 10 minutes you need to commit to 23 hours of competitive Hearthstone a month to maintain your rank.  If you want to rank up even more, play more!  (Or, you know, play better.  Or play a faster deck.)

One certain effect of this change is that there will be more legend rank players, and more people in all the higher ranks in general.  The time commitment required to maintain any given rank is less, so all things being equal we expect to see the higher ranks swell.  While this will reduce the prestige of any given rank I think it is good for the game.  Those masses of high ranked players will be drained out of the beginner levels and leave a lot more room for new players to fight even fights.

Most collectible games have huge issues with bringing in new players.  The companies running games like Magic or Hearthstone really need to find the right equilibrium where new players see the powerful cards and want to buy them but also can actually find some games against other people who don't have many cards and get some wins in.  You don't want people to just get crushed constantly because that encourages them to quit, not buy in, but you do want them to run into cool stuff that they can aspire to own someday in order to sell packs.

For a long time Hearthstone has leaned way too hard towards the side of showing people the powerful cards they could have by crushing them over and over.  I think this new design will shift the ladder experience towards a much gentler introduction and the game will be the better for it.  People will have a lot more time fighting with their basic cards and having some kind of a chance, and a much gentler slope up the hill of competitive play.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Gods like buildings

Recently the board game Santorini came into my household and I wanted to write about it because I think it is an excellent game for parents to acquire to help bridge the gap between complicated strategy games and trivial children's games.


The board is a 5x5 grid with each player having 2 workers to move about.  Every turn you move a worker and then that worker builds 1 unit of a building next to themselves.  The buildings have a maximum height of 4 units, and when the little blue top cap is put on you can't move onto it anymore.  You win by moving onto a building of height 3, and since you can only move up 1 level at a time there is a lot of strategy in terms of blocking opponent's plays and working on your own plans.

The game is actually pretty great for little kids who want to make up their own rules and just play with the pieces.  The buildings can be fun to build and even if a little kid hardly knows how to win they can easily enjoy themselves just using the bits.

A slightly older kid will be able to play the game properly and have fun with it even if they aren't much good at it.  The rules are incredibly simple but the possible ways the game can play out are extremely varied.  It is like chess or go in terms of possible number of plays but dead simple to get started on.

The game as described so far would seem to be solved, or at least repetitive, but there is a wrinkle.  It can be played just as is for small children but better players get a God card to change their abilities.  Some Gods can move twice in a turn, some can destroy enemy workers if they move a particular way, yet others have new win conditions.  There are dozens of Gods available and each one drastically changes the strategy so the game has an enormous number of different configurations. 

Advanced players will find all kinds of interesting challenges depending on which God cards are in play, and if any particular card emerges as being obviously too powerful there is a way to play that fixes it:  Player 1 picks two God cards and Player 2 decides which player gets which one.  This strikes me as a good competitive structure to use and certainly keeps a single unbalanced card from wrecking the game.

The game can be played with 2, 3, or 4 players and my limited experience suggests that the 2 and 4 player variants are the best ones.  4 players play on 2 teams of 2 players each, which works, but the 3 player version did not seem ideal to me.  It was a lot of people forcing other people to defend against the 3rd player's win condition and then kingmaking occurred.  I think in a well played 3 player match it would nearly always be decided by kingmaking and that sucks.  For non competitive players or small children this probably isn't an issue, but for good players I think the 3 player version is bad.

Santorini does a bunch of things well.  It is a good toy for small kids, a good introductory game for medium ones, and seems to have deep strategic potential for adults.  It is dead simple to explain but optimal strategies are hard to calculate, and that combination makes for a great game.

I don't know that I would play a lot of Santorini competitively but for a hybrid game that can be good for all ages and skill levels Santorini is top notch.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Fetch me a roc

In my Heroes By Trade game with my family things are going really well.  Pinkie Pie enjoyed the first simple adventure she got to play in but was only so so on the treasure at the bottom of the sunken temple - a ring of silversteel entwined with roc feathers called Breeze.  She was in love with the idea of grabbing a fancy axe and chopping her enemies to bits, and the fact that she is a warlock who uses implements like wands, flutes, and silversteel rings entwined with roc feathers hardly deterred her.  Wendy and I eventually convinced her that since her character is a warlock who uses magic to attack people an axe is not the correct weapon but she still eyed the new special weapon with suspicion.

But oh, I changed her mind.

After her character carried around Breeze for a few days I had her character have a dream where she carried Breeze up to a roc (a bird the size of a large building) and when the roc gave her a feather she built it into Breeze and then flew away on new magical feathery wings.

She was delighted.  She figured out that Breeze meant for her to find a roc and get a feather and immediately started asking where she could do this.  Breeze had gone from a treasure she had little care for to the most interesting thing in the world.

I was so pleased.

This design is part of the core of Heroes By Trade.  When you find a magic item it usually doesn't do anything right away.  Most of the time you have to figure out what the item wants, what its purpose is, and perform some kind of difficult task.  Some tasks are challenging but straightfoward like getting a roc feather but some can be extremely difficult indeed.  Thing is, once you have taken the time to figure out where rocs are, gone to locate one, figured out how to get a feather without getting eaten, and finished up your magic item you are never going to forget it.  The powers you unlock will be all the sweeter because you earned them and they have a story attached.

I am not going to make her wait forever to get a roc feather.  I know she wants to fly and I want to let her have her fun.  But I am going to make sure the adventure is a big one and she remembers finally activating Breeze.  One thing I really want to make sure of is that when people play Heroes By Trade the magic items they find are memorable and never interchangeable - so far it is working out perfectly for Pinkie Pie.

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!