Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Run away, the dwarves are coming!

I am getting ready for a new season of Blood Bowl.  I decided that I should play dwarves because I apparently love the idea of being incredibly slow and bad at football.  My league allows us 7 preseason games on the open ladder to get levelled up a bit, so I started up a new team and queued up for a game.  My first game was against Chaos, a team that is slightly faster than my dwarves and about equally terrible at actually doing anything with the ball.  Bashy team vs. bashy team.  Bash!

Both teams are pretty heavily armoured so we spent the entire first half bashing into each other accomplishing very little.  Beastman knocks dwarf down, dwarf stands back up.  Dwarf knocks beastman down, beastman stands back up.  However, I managed to control the left side of the board and with a little luck I injured one enemy and ran my ball carrier to one space shy of the enemy goal line.  My opponent made a desperate play requiring 3 rolls of a 6 sided die where each roll needed to be 2 or above, and made a block hoping to knock one of my dwarves down.

On the second 'please please not a 1' roll my opponent rolled a 1 and his player fell over, ending his turn and guaranteeing me a touchdown just before halftime.  I was in a good position at this point with one enemy player out and me being up 1-0, but my opponent was going to receive and certainly had chances.  I went to move the ball into the zone and score... and I couldn't enter the command.

Then I noticed that my opponent had disconnected, which prevents me from taking any actions.  I had to sit for 5 minutes waiting for them to come back, and I couldn't just do something else because if the opponent did return I would need to be there to play the rest of the match.  For the entire 5 minutes I looked at my ball carrier who had been told to score the TD but who was eternally stuck, waiting for an opponent that I did not need.  Finally the clock wound down and I got the victory, and all of my opponent's bonus cash and experience that comes at game end.

Now it is possible that my opponent just randomly disconnected, but that seems extremely unlikely.  Having just tried a desperate gambit to prevent me scoring and having failed it seems that my opponent not only wanted to concede the match but also wanted to annoy me by having me wait around for 5 minutes too.  Either that or they just ragequit without any thought, hard to say.

I was credited with a 2-0 win but I didn't get the experience for scoring those 2 touchdowns.  I did get 5 extra experience because my opponent conceded, but I would have gotten 3 experience instantly as soon as my dwarf scored the TD, so 5 isn't much of a reward.  I got all of my opponent's winnings though, and at the outset like this a big chunk of cash is actually quite useful.

I netted 12 experience and 80,000 gold.  That isn't amazing, but I didn't collect any injuries and I got a fairly normal amount of experience and a windfall of gold, so I shouldn't complain... but I am going to complain anyway.  It sucks to have an opponent ditch on the game.  I wanted to play!  I fought for an advantageous position and I wanted to see if I could maintain it.

What really got me is that if I had realized my opponent was likely to quit I would have clicked really fast to get that TD first.  I could have grabbed the points for the TD and then got all the bonuses for a concession too.  Next time I am in that position I will make sure to be faster to avoid getting screwed.

In any case it was time to queue up for game 2.  This time I was matched against orks, so it was bashy team vs. bashy team again.  Round 2, bash!  This game was a morass of orks and dwarves bashing each other in the middle of the field, and by the time the first half was over the enemy troll had injured itself trying to push over a dwarf and the fans had knocked one of the orks out cold.  The ball never moved more than 1 space from where it landed on turn 1, so it was still 0-0.  Lots of game left here, I thought!

Then the victory screen popped up as my opponent had conceded.  At least this time they actually conceded instead of just disconnecting so I didn't have to wait for 5 minutes, and I wasn't about to score so I didn't miss out on much, but it was still frustrating.  Again I had played well and gotten myself into a strong position and I wasn't able to have fun leveraging the advantage generated.

Don't get me wrong, having people concede to me on my first 2 games has been pretty good.  I have no injuries, I have lots of money, and I have a reasonable amount of experience for being 2 games in.  But it sucks to play chunks of games like this, and it makes me wonder if this is just a feature of playing on the open ladder.  I would totally get it if a team was getting butchered and they wanted to get away from the bashing they were taking but both concessions had only one injured opposing player and they had real chances at winning the game.

My victories also just don't feel REAL.  Sure I logged 2-0 both times, but I feel like I didn't actually win.

I was trying to figure out if conceding made sense when you were losing the game at halftime.  You get nothing from the concession but you do get to queue up again right away and hope for better luck or weaker opposition.  If you play another half game you get 35,000 gold and roughly 7 experience, 5 from the automatic experience and 2 from random stuff you accomplish.  That also assumes you lose the game, and you could win and do better than that.  If you quit and requeue you get 40,000 gold and 11 experience over a whole game.  That requeue option takes twice as long and doesn't get you anywhere near twice as much stuff, so at first glance it seems terrible in terms of reward per unit time.

But!

Requeuing could make sense if you are in a league where lots of people concede.  If you think you have a reasonable shot of being clearly in the lead at halftime then you stand a chance of your opponent conceding and giving you all the money and stuff in only half a game.  In a heavy concede based metagame you are really incentivized to duck out of a losing game to try to get into a game where you do well early and get conceded to.

Conceding also helps you get out of games where you are being dominated, and that probably means lower injury rates for your dudes.  Not a guarantee, but it helps.

In any case I hope that this conceding thing isn't a widespread thing.  I want to play!  I know that there is some restriction on conceding, something like 5 concedes per season, but I don't know what happens if you violate that limit.  Are you kicked out of the league?  Just can't hit the concede button but can still disconnect?  I don't know.  I definitely won't concede myself unless things are truly absurd.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A little bit of thievery

Lately I have been thinking about what I could do if I had a normal Blood Bowl team that could steal just one type of unit from any other team.  This includes the number of those units, so normal Skaven can field 4 Gutter Runners, and any team that steals Gutter Runners can similarly have 4 of them on the roster.  What is the best or most interesting thing you could do using this?

The obvious place to start is to pick a team that has glaring, nasty flaws and see if you can prop them up some.  Blood Bowl restricts team to having either players with 4 Agility or 4+ Strength, but you don't get both.  (Barring a single Big Guy).  Adding high Strength players to an already high Strength team probably won't help much because you won't be able to afford them all and by the time you can your team value will be enormous and you will lack Block.  You can surely make a better team this way, but not much better.

The real trick is taking a slow team that is awful at football and making it suddenly a terrifying threat for scoring.  Gutter Runners are certainly the first unit I thought of stealing because they are maximally fast, have 4 Agility, and you get 4 of them.  Dwarves are normally tough and slow but have no quick scoring threats and are unreliable at playing football.  A dwarf team with 13 players including 4 Gutter Runners on it can still field 9 brawling type dwarves on defence and bench 2 Gutters and have plenty of punching power if they want, or switch it up and field all 4 Gutters to create some crazy passing plays if they don't have much time to score.  That team would be terrifying, because they still have the normal slow cage progression tactic available but you have to break that cage FAST or a Gutter will dash in for a touchdown.

On the other side you have teams like the elves or skaven who are great at scoring and have lots of potential for big plays but they have huge problems with getting pushed around.  They also have the struggle that their linemen are fragile and all units need constant replacement.  There are a couple ways you could go there - you could grab Chaos Warriors to have 4 copies of 4 Strength and 9 Armour which would solidify their line immensely, or you could use 6 Saurus instead, which provides absurd amounts of Strength, though it is hard to develop all those Saurus due to them being clumsy.

If you want to go totally nuts you could recruit Ogres and get 6 hitters with Strength 5.  That is the absolute pinnacle of beatdown but does have the huge issue of cost.  At 140k you will only be able to add in 1 Ogre at most to a normal team so it would take a really long time to purchase them all.

When I try to figure out how I would add units to a midrange team like humans I come up short.  They would like both Gutter Runners or Sauruses, as they could develop into a real scoring or bashing team depending on the pick, but no configuration is particularly scary.  To do something awesome with this setup you really want a team that already has one thing they do really well, not a team that is mediocre at everything.

There are actually some teams out there that would make me consider taking linemen on as my choice.  Ogres, for example, are super expensive and you can normally only afford them because they are accompanied by worthless Snotlings.  However, if you grabbed Ork Linemen instead of Snotlings your money problems are worse (they cost 50k instead of 20k) but they actually have 3 Strength so the opponents can't just massacre them effortlessly and they still have 3 Agility so they are capable of playing the ball.  They can't play the ball *well*, mind, but they can play as well as a Snotling and instead of being made of paper they are tough as nails.

On a team like Lizardmen I would be tempted to grab Dark Elf Linemen as my pick.  They are good at playing the ball and have midrange armour so you could play a really serious bashing game with your Sauruses without worrying that every turn one of your squishies is going to die.  You might use a pair of Skinks as dirty players or scoring threats potentially (because your elves can throw the ball) but mostly the team would be just Saurus beatdown and elf football.

In any of these configurations the trick is to make sure you don't commit to more cost than you can afford.  Dwarves are expensive, for example, so swapping some of them out for Gutter Runners or even Elf Linemen is no problem.  You can't just swap out cheap units for expensive ones though, so fixing up teams like Nurgle or Ogres takes more care.

Off all these options I think the dwarves with Gutter Runners scares me the most.  They slot in easily because you can just skip out on buying Dwarven Runners at identical cost, and if you want 4 Gutters to start you just drop 1 Troll Slayer and 1 Lineman to start and you are good to go.  You have a tremendous beatdown game and a sturdy core of players so when your Gutters die you should have spare cash around to buy new ones.  You have a legit quick scoring threat, great caging ability, and a rock solid financial plan.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The stair gambit

When talking about Castles of Mad King Ludwig recently I opined that the Utility Card that gives bonus points for Stairs wasn't so great.  It has substantial potential if you can effectively corner the market on Stairs, but otherwise it isn't exciting.  A game of Castles recently saw me go turbo Stairs to test this theory, and it worked out superbly well giving me a 136 point finish with a wide margin of victory, largely on the back of getting 5 Stairs.


We had Kings Favours for both square footage and number of corridor rooms so the game was ripe for a hardcore Stairs opening.  I started off with the Utility cards that benefit Utility rooms and 200 rooms, and after building 4 sets of stairs I scooped up the Stairs Utility Card!  I would have built more Hallways than I did but one opponent went nuts and scooped up 3 Hallways in a single turn leaving my last Stairs looking lonely and sad.

My board doesn't look that super at first glance but my Utility cards are strong coming in at 10, 8, 6, 6, and 3 points.  I also have 14 points from Stairs and Hallways, and the 200 stack emptied so the fact that I was collecting those was fantastic for me too.  The last two King's Favours were doorways (where I scored 1) and purple rooms (where I scored 0).  However, I cleaned up the two Favours for Corridors and Corridor square footage so I got a solid 17 points from Favours.

One thing that I was wondering was how good Basement rooms are in general.  Clearly if you already have Stairs you might as well build Basement rooms if they look tasty, but are they really worth it?  Do you give up much by simply not having any Stairs at all?  The interconnectedness of the points of various rooms makes this calculation quite challenging, but I am going to have a stab at it on this board.  It won't be easy to generalize it to all games, obviously, so take this as a data point, not a thesis.

I will assign points from cards to the Utility Rooms that generate the cards, not the rooms.  The points from my starting cards will be assigned to the rooms.  I will ignore the 350 Corridor I bought because it was obviously purchased only for King's Favours and isn't representative.

Utility Rooms:  12, 9, 5
Green Room:  5 + 10 coins
Blue Room:  4 + (empty 200 stack = 8 - 3.33 = 4.66)  = 8.66
Yellow Rooms:  4, 4 + (2?) bonus turn(s)
Basement Rooms:  11, 7, 6, 5, 1 + 5 points + bonus turn

My upper rooms generated 6 points + 1.25 coins + .25 bonus turns.
My basement rooms generated 7 points + .2 bonus turns.

The difference between the two set is quite small.  The basement rooms come out on top if you count the kitchen as not completing, but if you treat it as though it completed they are very much on par.

Looking at this board it appears as though my basement and upstairs were similar in scoring on a per room basis.  In that case it appears as though Stairs were a fine investment even aside from the massive stack of bonus points they got me as I did well on basement rooms and having the flexibility to buy them was excellent.  I am not yet convinced that being the third person into Stairs is strong in a game unless the Favours or Utility cards benefit Stairs, but I am eager to see what data other people have in this regard.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cultural Divide

Recently I watched a video by Brian Kibler about the differences in culture between Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone.  He correctly notes that Hearthstone has a culture focused around the idea that the game is all luck and skill doesn't matter, while MTG has a culture that supports the idea of skill being paramount.

These aren't all or nothing ideas!  Obviously there are plenty of MTG players who whine about getting mana screwed and Hearthstone players who correctly acknowledge that the game has a pretty large skill ceiling.  That said, the trend of Hearthstone players talking about RNG and MTG players talking about skill is real.

Kibler thinks that this is in part because of explicit randomness in a lot of good Hearthstone cards - cards that summon a random minion or make a random spell, for example.  MTG has less of that.  Also the average MTG player plays in tournaments, whether they be small scale Friday Night Magic kind of tournaments or Pro Tour Qualifiers.  Hearthstone players play on ladder and only a tiny percentage take part in tournaments of any sort.

He also thinks that MTG content creators tend to write serious strategy articles while Hearthstone creators make silly decks to play on twitch and youtube and this changes how they are perceived.  While Firebat may bring really tight decks to tournaments he still makes stupid Blood Bloom / Doom decks to play on his stream because those bring more viewers in, so people see top Hearthstone players doing stupid crap all the time and don't see the skill that goes into perfecting and practising a deck.


Kibler's points are right on, but there is more to it, I think.

I remember when I was playing MTG a lot back in Thunder Bay when I was a teenager and it was easy to see that skill was a defining factor.  I won about 25% of the tournaments I entered, and one of my close friends won another 25%.  Mostly anyone else who won was also somebody I knew because generally we were all in the top 8 in nearly every tournament.  When much of your life in a hobby involves tournaments and you see the same people winning every time you really get the impression that skill is the dominant factor.

When I played against good players in top 8 situations I played tight and quiet but it was entirely different in the early rounds against newbies.  If I rolled over someone whose deck really needed some tuning I would often sit after the match and go over their deck to give them pointers.  We would talk about cards they needed, land ratios, what decks other people were playing, etc.  Usually those people would leave some new ideas and also with the definitive impression that I beat them because I was better, not because I got lucky.

In Hearthstone you never get that experience.  When you get beat you just lose and queue up again.  Nobody who crushes you on their way up the ladder sits down with you to say "Hey, you know, your deck could probably use a couple more 1 drops and cut a few expensive dragons."  You don't get people saying "You would have beaten me if you had just Fireballed me in the face on your second last turn."  Lacking those cues it is easy for the player to just rail about getting unlucky and move on.

Hearthstone players also consistently play people of a similar skill level.  The ladder pairs you against people who have won about as much as you, and tournaments are full of top tier players.  You just don't have the newest scrub going into a big tournament, meeting a pro, and getting beat because the pro plays better, at least not nearly as often as it happens in MTG.

When you play against people who are equally skilled, *of course* the victory comes down to RNG.  There is room for individual skillful plays, but on average against a similarly skilled player you would expect somebody's luck to break better and take the victory on that basis.

So while there is an advantage to pitting all the noobs against one another, it does make them think that the game is just RNG based, and the pros end up in the same boat.  Hearthstone pros don't have as much experience at grinding through noobs as the MTG people do, so their games often come down to a single instance of good or bad luck because skill is already controlled for.

This isn't something that needs fixing.  It is just an emergent, accidental property of the way the games are played, marketed, sold, and viewed.  Both companies are doing it right, considering those considerations, but those choices really do affect the way players think about the games they play.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Two states

Being 'in combat' is a bizarre and ridiculous thing.  When playing tabletop RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons there is usually a sense of combat time in which characters take turns doing things on a short time scale.  People act sequentially, which is ridiculous from a realism standpoint, but is the only practical way to have tactical combat in this sort of scenario.  It leads to all kinds of weird things - for example, two characters can't walk down a hallway together.  One has to go first, then the other when it is their turn.

Outside this silly (but necessary for our purposes) framework things flow much more naturally in a state I call narrative time.  People can do things simultaneously and even perform activities that don't fit into discrete six second chunks.  You could, for example, give a speech without having to check if every person in the room passes their turn!

The other day Naked Man asked me a rules question that touches on this strange construction.  He wanted to know how to rule it if a player was readying a spell over multiple turns.  If they say "I shoot a Magic Missile at any enemy that walks around that corner" and nobody walks around the corner by their next turn is the spell lost?  Can they just choose to continue readying it?  Can they keep the spell and do something else?  Finally, if they can do all these things, can the players just wander through the dungeon constantly declaring that they are readying spells to attack at all times so the instant they see an enemy they unleash a barrage of magic?

I know what my GMs in highschool games would have done to anyone who tried to ready spells for extended periods like that.  They would have said "oh, rocks fall, you die" and then waited for the player to stop being an ass.  Or they might have had low level spellcasters cast illusions of monsters that walked around corners so the players unleashed fusillades of spells at an illusory beholder.

However, if I want to answer the question of how to handle this in general for a wide swath of players I think I would like to be a bit more thorough and within the rules.

I would definitely allow players to continue to ready a spell against a particular circumstance should it not arise.  If you ready a Magic Missile against an enemy coming around a corner and nobody does, I would say you can just abandon that and do something else next round without losing the spell.

But as soon as anybody says they are readying a Magic Missile during their entire walk through the dungeon, well now that is a different thing.  Readying a spell is a combat action.  It makes no fucking sense outside of the combat time construct, so any time the players are operating in narrative time rather than combat time I would forbid combat actions completely.

If a player said "I am keeping a special watch on that well in the corner in case anything crawls out of it to attack us" I would absolutely take that into consideration and perhaps give them a bonus on a surprise roll or a roll to notice the monster leaping out of the well.  Could even just decide that if a monster does come out they are definitely not surprised.  What I definitely wouldn't do is let them ready a Magic Missile against that eventuality, because they are in narrative time until combat starts.

And since I am the GM in this case, *I* decide when we are in combat time vs. narrative time.

That is kind of a ridiculous solution, but I think it is the only one consistent with the rules of the game.  Combat time is silly but it is an intrinsic part of DnD and you should make use of it when it is helpful, and keeping players from doing silly things with combat actions all the time is exactly the sort of place where you want to enforce the strict duality of game state.

My solution has the nice benefit of feeling elegant (once you accept the combat time construct) and also keeping people from doing abusive things.  Readying spells and then not using them in combat isn't powerful, so there is no need to try to quash it.  After all, you missed an entire turn and did nothing!  All we need to do is prevent players from doing dumb stuff like trying to ready actions for hours on end, and combat vs. narrative time solves that neatly.

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Final Death

In playing Blood Bowl against the computer one of my goals has been to injure their entire team so that they cannot field a single player.  It is not an easy thing to do.  Partly there is the issue of getting all of their players off of the field at all, which is quite a challenge, but even if you achieve that many of their players will be knocked out rather than injured.  They aren't playing right now but they can wake up and come back on!

I played a lot of Blood Bowl 1 and I don't think I ever achieved my goal.  I remember getting a goblin team down to a single player left with fifteen players injured but that last player was stubborn and would only get KOd instead of injured.

I haven't played nearly as much BB2, but today I managed to completely clear the enemy team off the field permanently.  I was playing in my small experimental league with only four teams, trying to find out what would happen if I built a team purely to kill as many opponents as possible.  Would the computer be able to survive in the long run with me in the league?

 There we are.  Eight opponents injured and out of the game, and five more dead, only able to play on as skeletons or zombies.  The opponent was unable to field another player for the rest of the game, and it was only on turn 12 of a 16 turn game!  What a slaughter.  After I scored a touchdown on turn 13 I expected to be able to continue to play, but the game brought up an error message that went like this:

You are unable to field any players.  Both players lose two turns and the opponent scores one touchdown.

What?  It is the enemies that cannot field any players, not me!  Thankfully what happened was the game instantly ended, I was awarded two touchdowns to win 5-0, and things continued on.  I guess they didn't often get to test the error messages that happen when a team is completely injured out of the game so they let this slightly erroneous one slip through.  I was curious what kind of team they would have left after this debacle, and here is what they were going to field for the next game.

They have two players.  Three more are still on the roster but can't play the next game due to injuries, so this team is going up against a 2000 ranked team with only two players.  Naturally they will get tons of inducement money to try to even the score, but even then this is a ludicrous situation.

Also notice the Saurus with 4 Movement Allowance.  He also has a niggling injury, courtesy of yours truly.  The Skink with a penalty to Agility and Armour Value has a niggling injury too!

I checked later on to see what happened in that game, and the Scale of the Sun, despite having only two players, won the game 1-0.  The computer does not take into account team composition when figuring out who wins games between the AIs, it would seem.

So now I know what happens when you play a team of brutal killers in a four team league.  Eventually you absolutely destroy a team and leave them with a collection of horrifically injured players and not nearly enough of those to field a legal team.

For some reason accomplishing this makes me feel good about my life choices.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Just pass

When I started playing Castles of Mad King Ludwig I thought that passing a turn was a pretty crappy thing to do.  Normally on each turn you spend some cash to buy a room to add to your castle, but if you want you can skip buying to collect 5 coins.  My thought in my first few games was that this was a rubbish choice, one only made by people who mismanaged their money and ended up broke.  I am still convinced that mostly it is taken by people who screw up their money management, but I think it deserved a closer look to figure out if it is a good thing or not.

The key to managing your cash is to realize that if you get really low on funds your opponents can use it to really jam you up.  They can put powerful rooms just barely above the amount you can pay and scoop them up for far less than they should.  They can use basement rooms to put you in a position where you can't buy anything at all and are forced to pass and take 5 coins.  You always want the option to buy things up to 8 cost because then if somebody makes a terrible mistake you can capitalize and nobody can really punish you for being low on cash.  You might want to buy the room at cost 10 or 15 but it is not often going to be such a deal that you get blown out by missing it.

However, if you keep too much money on hand you find out that it is nearly worthless at the end of the game and you might miss out on great upgrades in the interim where you could have bled off excess cash to get more points.

The key is figuring out a ratio of cash to points so you can know when to buy the awesome room at 8 instead of the pretty good room at 2.  How many points more do you need to get for that 6 bucks to be a good choice, given that you have a decent bankroll and aren't worried about going broke?

Some things to think about.  44 room cards are in the deck, generally you go over by 2, and generally 2.5 blue rooms finish, so that leaves about 51 room cards in play.  Mostly 3 of them are left at the end, so that leaves us with 12 rooms per player on average.  Assuming an average score of 110 for good players I think we should model an average purchase giving 9 points.  On each turn where you buy a room you spend 4 coins (I can't defend this mathematically or anything, but a did some figuring and it seems about right for the groups I have played with) and you also give up the option to take 5 coins by passing.  That means that a pretty normal turn where you purchase a room costs you 9 coins and gains you 9 points.

Keep in mind those 9 points are often coming from King's Favour pucks, empty stack bonuses, utility cards, and room completions so the points on the room itself will clearly be far less than 9.

This 1:1 ratio isn't the be all and end all, but it gives us a useful point of comparison.  If you can spend 6 additional coins and get 9 points, it is probably a good exchange.  Next time you are third chair you can skip what is likely a mediocre purchase, take your 5 coins, and you are probably ahead of the game.  If you manage to get more points than the coins you spend you will almost certainly be able to get that money back and be ahead on points in a later turn when your choices happen to be poor.  That is a good rule of thumb!

It also means that if you are staring at a board where you can spend 6 coins to get 3 points it is likely a poor proposition.  Of course if game end is imminent you take the points, but when money still matters you probably don't want to take deals like that because keeping your opponents poor and you rich is important leverage.

One thing all of this analysis ignores is the effect on your opponents.  When you spend money one of your opponents gains money (except when you are master builder, of course) and that matters.  Buying an expensive room because it happens to match your utility cards is good, but if it ships a cheaper room down the line to your opponent that could be a poor choice.  Those are complicated to fit into the basic formulas though, so I have ignored them for now.  I suspect that neither of these things changes the conclusion overmuch.

The real takeaway I have from this is that I really need to consider the cost of skipping 5 coins when buying something.  Buying a garbage room for 1 coin is deceptive as I am actually losing 6 coins to take it.  Usually you will be able to get 1:1 on something on the board but when you don't have a ton of cash you should really think about whether or not to take the money instead.  Paying 4 coins instead of 2 isn't double the price, it is 9 instead of 7.  The absolute differences are the important thing, not the ratio of costs.

I also really need to mind that rooms have a lot of random points attached to them.  Between utility cards, Favour bonuses and empty pile bonuses people accrue roughly 40 points in a game.  That only leaves 70 points for room completions and the actual points on rooms themselves, so when I look at a room and see it is worth 5 points I should really tack on an extra point to account for all the bonuses it might give that I don't know about yet.

So for those looking for a simple set of instructions to figure out how to spend money:  Make sure you don't go so broke that people can take advantage of your poverty, but otherwise just look for deals where you can gain more than 1 point for each additional coin you spend.  1:1 extra purchases are meh, and lower than that is bad unless money doesn't matter anymore.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Starting utility

At the start of a game of Castles of Mad King Ludwig every player gets 3 utility cards and must choose 2 of them to keep.  These cards give bonus points at the end of the game based on the castle you have built.  There is a pretty fair range in the quality of the cards, and some are clearly more powerful than others.  There are two questions to answer.  First, which cards are better in general, and how does the existence of the King's Favour change the value of the cards?

Among the utility cards that give you bonus points based on room size there is serious equality:  All of them either give 3 points per room with 6 copies of each room in the game, or they give 2 points per room with 9 copies of the room in the game.  In either case you have 18 points available in the game.  Taking a bunch of copies of a single size does make it easier to get a bunch of points if you empty out that stack, so these are a little better than the 18 points would indicate.

However, the cards that award points based on room colours are much more imbalanced.  When you multiply the card point value by the number of those rooms in the game you get the following amounts:

Purple:  28
Yellow:  27
Blue:  24
Brown:  24
Green:  22
Grey:  20
Orange:  18

This means that colour based utility cards are generally about the same quality as size based cards when you account for the 2 points per depleted stack benefit for stacking size, but the purple and yellow cards seem like clearly the top of the heap.  

There are also cards for round rooms and square rooms, and they both have a value of 15 which makes them quite weak because they are harder to focus on to generate big numbers.  You could potentially combine them with size cards to get a lot of points for each purchase but generally I think they are not good.

The cards that give you points for completed rooms and open entrances seem to cluster really tightly around 4 points per game.  You can get higher, but I don't think I have ever seen them go above 6 points.  They are extremely reliable, require no investment to pay off, and are a fine fallback.

The three utility cards that give points for various corridor cards are really different from each other.  The one that boosts hallways is garbage.  It is extremely difficult to get more than 3 points out of it, and mostly you will get 1.  The one that gives 1 point for every corridor is okay, almost never exciting, and strictly better than the hallway one for some reason...?  The third one that gives 2 points per stairs is tricky.  In the late game it is trash.  On most normal boards it is trash.  But it is possible but quite involved to build tons of stairs and basement rooms completing each other and do really well.  If you empty the stairs stack you rack up 4 points for each of them which is decent.  However, it is a big investment for a not spectacular return so the card overall isn't great.

One card gives you points for every 5 coins you have left at game end.  It isn't great and getting a big score off of it requires you to waste a huge amount of currency.  Mediocre at baseline.

The last two cards give you 8 points for having all 10 room sizes or 7 points for having all 8 room types.  I don't think either of them is great, but I like the 7 point one for all room types much better.  There are at least 9 of every room type and only 6 of each room size for some sizes, so the room type is a much easier condition, plus I find it is actually useful to have all of the room types in your castle whereas having all room sizes has no obvious utility.  Both of those cards suffer from the fact that you can't reliably plan around them in the early game because you don't know what you will lack in the endgame.  They often revolve around desperately hoping you get to buy a room you don't much want on the last turn and often the people aiming for them fail.  I really don't like the idea of a bonus card that you spend resources trying to fulfill and end up scoring 0 points for.  Perhaps the best argument against these all or nothing cards is that they combine terribly with the other cards.  If you want a bunch of blues, for example, it is going to be extremely difficult to also get the variety needed to fulfill one of these cards.

In summary, I think the strategy for keeping starting utility cards can be summarized by a priority list.

Yellow or Purple Colour   2 cards
Other Colour / Size    16 cards
Completed Rooms / Open Entrances   2 cards
Cash/Round Rooms/Square Rooms/Corridors/All Colours/Stairs   6 cards
All Sizes/Hallways   2 cards

Now I want to consider how we combine this with the King's Favour pucks.  Say the King's Favour has the green room puck.  Everyone now has an added incentive to build green rooms.  If you also have the green room utility card, should you keep it?  Generally I see people keeping cards that match the Favours because they think that since they are going to want green cards anyway, might as well score even more for them!

This is not the right approach.  The thing about rooms affected by the Favour is that everyone wants them and there is a real incentive to get at least one of them.  Having a single Favoured room gives you 1 point at worst and often more than that.  Moreover it puts you in contention to jump into first place and score up 8 points if other people get stuck at single Favoured room and you can scoop up a second one.  Even if you just tie with one other player at two Favoured rooms each you grab 6 points, so threatening to do that is powerful.  It is common for one player to corner a lot of a particular colour or size of room under normal circumstances, but doing so when it is the Favoured one is rare and extremely costly.

The key is to remember that nearly every room will be bought at some point.  It isn't as though the ones that aren't worth a ton of points are ones you will just ignore.  You will end up with low value rooms and it will be a lot easier to collect a bunch of them if other people aren't aiming for them particularly, especially if they don't feel that they need at least one.

Ideally you want to take utility cards that give bonuses to the rooms that *aren't* part of the Favours.  You want to be able to cash in on stuff that other people will hand over for cheap, and you don't want to be hunting for room types that everyone wants one of.

So if you see green rooms in the Favours and you have a green room card and a orange room card, keep the orange.  You have a much greater chance of being able to grab a ton of orange and get an outstanding result.

This is especially true because in a four player game you will win more if you take risks.  A player who gets 5 guaranteed points will not win as often as a player who takes a series of coin flips for 10 or 0 points.  You have to have a big score to beat all three players so fighting for the same thing as everyone else and getting predictable, moderate scores is not the ticket.  Aim for something different and try to catch em all.

How much does this matter?  14 of the pucks are coloured ones, and there are 10 other pucks.  (I count the corridor pucks among the 'other' because they work so differently from the coloured pucks.)  When a coloured puck is out that matches a starting card of yours, I would downgrade the card by one tier.  Much of the time this won't matter because even if a blue card is worse when blue pucks are out it is still vastly superior to garbage like the 'collect all' cards or the hallways card.  You will probably still have some other trash you can safely dump but if you happen to have 3 similar cards drop the one that matches the Favour.

Strangely I think the corridor Favours work the opposite way.  Even if they are in play people aren't going to be spending their turns spamming hallways or stairs, it just isn't efficient.  If you happen to have the stairs card or the corridors card when a corridors Favour is out, I think it becomes a really reasonable keep and I would upgrade them both by a tier.  You can pretty easily scoop the Favour and a bunch of points for your cards and that could be quite the coup.

The cash Favour works in favour of the cash card, like I said earlier.  It incentivizes people to complete greens and keep their money around on their Master Builder turn instead of launching it off to the bank.  There will be more money around as people fight for the cash Favour, which helps you get more points off of the cash card even if you don't win the Favour.

The other Favours are broad, so I don't think they have a significant effect on card valuation.

That is quite the wall of text, so I will give a quick summary:  Keep the starting utility cards that give bonuses for room colours (except corridor ones) or sizes.  If you have to choose between those, keep the ones that are different from the Favours.  If you have to choose between lesser cards, keep the ones that match the Favours instead.

*Edit:  I changed the advice regarding the Stairs card because I didn't know the rule that you can't attach Stairs to Stairs, which makes a heavy Stairs strategy a lot harder to do.  It is still possible, but it is much weaker.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Increasing utility

I played a couple of games of Castles of Mad King Ludwig over the past couple days and have been smashing my brain against the approximate value of the utility cards in the game.  For those that haven't played, Castles is a game where you build a castle out of a bunch of differently shaped and sized rooms that you fit together into something wild and crazy.  The rooms have a variety of properties like colour, shape, door number and location, and scoring bonuses or penalties.  Utility cards are cards each player gets in secret and they award points for various things.  You might get 3 bonus points for each size 400 room, for example, or 7 bonus points if you have a room of every colour.

Initially I thought the utility cards were worth about 3 points each.  This is important because you have opportunities to acquire more utility cards throughout the game and it is really useful to have a ballpark for what you can get out of them.  It is theoretically possible to get as much as 28 points out of a single card, but generally the high is around 12 with a minimum of 0.  In my game at Naked Man's place I got 28 points from my four cards and he questioned my estimate of 3 points per card, so I thought I would take a look at what utility cards are usually worth.

I took a castle that I finished a game with on Saturday that was pretty middle of the road and figured out what each utility card would have been worth if I had been awarded it at game end.  The high was 12, five of the cards were worth 0, and the average was 3.04 points per card.  Pretty good so far!

But there is more to it than that.

When you get new utility cards you get dealt two of them and you choose one to keep.  When you take the distribution of cards I got from Saturday's game and choose the best of two of them you get an average of 4.49 points per card instead.  So getting a fresh card on the last turn of the game is likely worth close to that value.  There are two cards that give a lot of points if you have fulfilled a difficult condition and if you happen to have a castle that has already done both of those things your expected value rockets up to 5.54 instead, and you know this before you make a play to get a card.  If you don't want to bother counting up your castle it is likely right to count a new utility card for 5 points, which is rather a large number.  It means that unless any other option has some really powerful benefit utility purchases on the last turn are likely to be top notch.  For certain if you feel like you are in a bad position in the game you should go for utility cards at game end to try to luck your way out.  If you bust and get no points you are still losing, but if you get lucky and hit a 10 or 12 point card it might eke out a victory.

However, that is only the easy part of the calculation.  The hard part is figuring out what a utility card is worth partway through the game.  At the start of the game you get three utility cards and you keep two of them.  These help guide your building by changing your evaluation of the tiles.  My initial impression was that early utility cards would be extra powerful because you can then tailor your builds towards them as the game progresses.  Knowing that I get bonus points for size 400 rooms means I can load up on them, right?

Not exactly.

The problem is that even though I know that I get bonuses for such rooms I often can't capitalize anyway.  Sometimes those rooms just don't come out or the person ahead of you is grabbing them all for unrelated reasons.  Even if you do get them you are usually giving something else up for them.  If I take a 4 point tile because I have a utility card that grants 3 bonus points on it I only really make the full 3 points if I pass up another 4 point tile.  Often I end up passing up a 6 point tile to get 4+3, which is still a benefit, but not nearly as large as the point values from the utility cards make it appear at endgame.  You usually lose something to alter your gameplan to maximize your utility cards.

The other reason that early utility cards aren't great is that your choice isn't terribly useful.  You might get offered a orange bonus card and a green bonus card, but since you haven't seen which tiles come out during the game your choice is often really just a guess.

But when you get a choice at the end of the game it is *much* better.  You can know which will give you more points for sure so you don't end up with a worthless card very often.  Utility cards at game start have higher potential but higher tradeoff and a far greater chance to totally whiff.

It is pretty easy to come up with a useful range for early utility cards even if it would take an enormous amount of data to get a really firm average.  Even if you don't bother to look at the card at all you have a floor of 3 points per card, as noted above.  That means that you definitely do better than that since you can alter your plan slightly to maximize your value there, at least some of the time.  I can't imagine you could exceed 5 points per card though as you would have to double its expected value while giving up only .5 points / card and from experience I can say that doing so isn't practical.  My experience and instinct tells me that the value is somewhere between 4 and 5.

I imagine that the optimal time to get a utility card is in the middle of the game.  By that point you can see whether or not you have a basement set up, which tiles you are already hunting for to finish off your big point rooms, and you know what right hand opponent is angling for so you can avoid that.  You also can see some of the tiles that will come out in the next turn so you can make some good guesses about what will be available to you later.

Combine that information with the flexibility to spend the last five turns of the game picking the tiles that work with your utility card and I feel like the midgame is the ideal place to farm up utility cards.

In any case talking about the ideal point in the game to take the utility card is kind of silly because if they fluctuate in value between 4 and 5 throughout the entire game there isn't much real sense in shifting your internal valuation as time passes.  Simply put, I think the utility cards in your initial hand where you have no information are worth about 4 points, but since you are simply handed those at the start you just take the best of what you have.  Once the game is going and you have a grasp of what is happening I think you should assume that utility cards are worth 5 points, but never forget that their high variability favours buying them when you are losing.

Tomorrow I will write about which utility cards are most valuable and discuss strategies based on which King's Favour pucks come out at the start of the game.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A downward spiral

One of the things about Blood Bowl in ongoing league play is that teams can hit a really bad streak and enter a downward spiral that is hard to halt.  As a team's value gets higher they start taking penalties to their income and this can mean that they end up with little cash in the bank and find it quite difficult to make more.

As long as their players stay mostly healthy this isn't an issue, but when you hit a bad game and lose some players to critical injuries or death it can be a nasty situation.  You start the next game without a full team of real players and often this leads to more of your players getting injured, which makes the next game worse, etc.  It eventually stops when you get a game where you luck into not collecting any serious injuries and your team value has been lowered enough that you can make money and start buying back players to rebuild the franchise, often at a *much* lower team value than before.

While playing tournaments against the AI I assumed it was just cheating to avoid this issue.  The AI teams always seemed to have lots of high level players and plenty of cash and there were never any ongoing injuries plaguing their teams.  Even when I suffered a setback I always had to fight full strength teams, so I assumed the AI just generated new teams for each game and didn't have any continuity.

That doesn't feel great.  I am playing a team of horrible monsters with claws who like to knock people over and then jump on the prone bodies.  I want those injuries to *last*, dammit!  That is my raison d'etre!

I started up a tiny league with just my team and 3 AI teams to see if the AI really was just cheating up new teams for each game.  It turns out not only does the AI play mostly fair, but in a small league like this its algorithm becomes a huge problem for it in the long run.

My team of murderous killers wasn't effective in a league with 40 teams because when the AI plays against itself it doesn't seem to assign long lasting injuries.  The players just gain points and level up and the AI stockpiles cash.  But against my savage murder machines the AI suffers constant deaths and brutal injuries that permanently penalize its players and can't make enough cash to buy them back, and in a league with 4 teams it has to face me every third game!

In an average game I kill one enemy player and deliver an ongoing injury to another one.  Given my league size the AI can only rebuy its dead players about as fast as I kill them on average, but those injuries keep piling up.  There are now players on the enemy teams that have 3 ongoing injuries penalizing their performance and the AI just keeps them on the roster.  I don't know if this is because the AI is too stupid to know it should fire those players or because it simply doesn't have the cash to hire a new player to replace them at the moment.  When you don't have a full team it makes sense to keep injured players around and just fire them when you can afford to buy a new rookie.

When I started this little league experiment I faced full teams with complete rosters of important players.  The Khemri, for example, have a bunch of relatively normal Strength 3 players and four Strength 5 players called Tomb Guardians.  In my first game against the Khemri I killed two of their Tomb Guardians, and they have been down to just two of them ever since.  I killed another one, but they managed to replace it, but their remaining Tomb Guardian has an injury that reduces its speed from 4 to 3, which is a brutal penalty.

This four team league started with four teams at roughly 2300 team value.  It now has my team at 2550, and all three other teams are around 1700.  An 850 point difference in team value is ludicrous and certainly insurmountable in terms of actually winning the game, and it is even worse than that because those teams all have a collection of injuries that penalize their performance and also have key positions that aren't filled because I keep killing those players.

I am riding high.  My team is incredible at smashing enemies and they are still gaining levels.  There is a problem though... my team value is so high that I barely make any money, even when I win.  The enemy teams still knock my dudes over fairly regularly, and at some point they are going to make a death or ongoing injury stick and I will struggle to find enough money to buy a new player.  The game needs some kind of system for reining in out of control teams like mine, and I guess this system works well enough.

It does seem kind of silly just constantly bashing AI teams into submission.  It isn't hard to win these games.

But it is IMMENSE fun.  I don't doubt that I will win each game, but winning it optimally is still a serious challenge.  Responding to all the shifting circumstances and pressures of game situations is interesting and enjoyable.

Plus I really want to find out what will happen in the long run.  Will the AI teams just continue to collect injuries and become more and more hopeless?  Will they eventually figure out that they have to fire their players and expect the state to support them on some kind of disability pension for retired murdersport players?

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Finishing touches

I am playing a lot of Blood Bowl 2.  The game itself, inasmuch as it recreates the board game, is wonderful.  I love it so, just as I have for almost 20 years now.

That line makes me feel kinda old.

But the implementation of BB2 leaves a lot to be desired.  One of the things that frustrates me about the game is the camera and how limited it is.  What I want in a camera, ideally, is the sort of control I have over it in WOW.  I want to be able to swivel around, shift side to side, zoom out, and look at the whole damn field any way I want.  Right now I am stuck with a restrictive set of camera angles that often leads me to be unable to easily get the information I need.  For example, at a particular zoom level I can't mouse over people in the injured box - they are off the screen and I can't scroll far enough down to see them.  I have to zoom out a couple levels to be able to figure out who on my team is mangled.  Ideally I would want the freedom to set up my camera so the football field is horizonal rather than vertical to fit better on my screen, but that isn't possible right now.

It also irritates me that the cinematics are so limited in terms of choice.  I find it hard to imagine someone who wants to watch a cut scene of a generic Blood Bowl player knocking down another generic Blood Bowl player on every block, but that is what the game defaults to.  What I want is to have cinematic for touchdowns and trophies, but otherwise just keep the game grinding onward.  How hard could it be to have some checkboxes to determine which cutscenes I want?  Instead there are four settings that don't let me get of knockdown cut scenes at all.  

I understand that changing the camera would take a bit of work but offering simple checkboxes for cinematics would be utterly trivial to code and would give players a lot more choice in how they want to waste their time.  I also would like the ability to speed up certain interactions in the game.  When I am knocking someone down and I have a choice of which square to knock them to, I need to click.  Fine.  But when I have one choice and literally cannot do anything else, I still have to click that space.  I don't see why that should be and the player should just get pushed there.  However, if they want to keep the extra totally pointless clicks in then there should be a checkbox that lets me ignore that bit if I want to.

In a similar vein I wish there were keyboard shortcuts for things.  I would like to be able to hit F or S for Follow or Stay after a block, rather than clicking, and that should be incredibly simple to put in.  These sorts of oversights confuse me because there is an awful lot of complicated work that goes into making the graphics and connecting the players for a game like this, and the sorts of modifications I want are so trivial that you could have the intern do it in a couple hours.

I think I am spoiled in this regard because I am used to WOW, which has had 13 years to improve its UI, and I can just stack in the mods I want to fix whatever the game itself doesn't handle well.  I have come to expect settings menus that have dozens of options to tweak the bits of the game I want just the way I like them.

Blood Bowl is fantastic.  The computer program shell that is built around the current Blood Bowl game though... has some issues.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Over a heap of corpses

I quit WOW last week.  It is a lot like a breakup with someone that I had an on again, off again relationship with.  Every couple of years I go back, and it is so good at the start.  We are happy together, all smiles and flushed cheeks and amazing sex.... and then eventually boredom sets in.  We fight about the same old things, remember why the relationship has always soured, and eventually have a bitter breakup.

But as years go by I will forget the bad things.  I will forget the grind, the scheduling annoyances, the waiting for exciting times to come and putting up with boredom in the interim.  WOW is like a clingy lover who requires constant reassurance and always has good things coming but they are never as good when they arrive as they were purported to be.

The sex is super hot though, in this weird WOW/lover analogy.

Anyway we broke up.  As always, I had to do it, because WOW never has the decency to break up with me when times are getting rough.  At least it won't ever ghost on me, and now I get to go through the euphoric period where I just ended a dysfunctional relationship and I feel free as the wind.

Never fear though, it took me no time at all to find a new and exciting addiction.  Or, at least, kind of new.  Blood Bowl 2 isn't really that different from the original in many ways, but hopefully it loses some of the frustrating bugs that plagued BB1 in single player mode.  It still has all the multiplayer problems that drove me away from the original, in that you have to cope with real people and time crunches so you can't just pause the action when you need to go, and your opponent will often take outrageous glee in running all of their clocks to the last second so you spend most of your time doing nothing.

But complaints about the players of Blood Bowl notwithstanding, Blood Bowl is as amazing as ever.  I so love crunching through enemy teams, watching their players get ground into hamburger by my evil monsters.  Stacking up those red crosses in the enemy bench, watching my opponents be unable to field a reasonable team of players due to the injuries I have inflicted, these things make me smile.

Blood Bowl combines my love of character progression and planning with an excellent tactical board game in a way that is deeply satisfying.

I have one real complaint though, and that is Campaign Mode.  This seems intended to be an introduction to the game for people who have never done it before, and it achieves this by removing most of the mechanics from the game for the first match and then slowly introducing them as you go along.  In theory that might sound okay but remember that Blood Bowl games take awhile.  I am five games in, I think, and I am still not playing proper Blood Bowl.  This wouldn't be such an issue except that removing those rules makes Blood Bowl a *stupid* game.  Removing injuries, Star Player Points, and even rolls to do basic things turn Blood Bowl into a snorefest, and make much of the game nonsensical.  The game only makes sense when there is risk to your players and when they can progress, otherwise it feels all wrong, and more importantly, not fun.

If you start a new game and you are hours into it and still aren't done the tutorial that is likely to be a problem.  It is even more of a problem when the tutorial sucks big time and isn't fun.  If I was a new player I would probably ditch this game 3 hours in and tell everyone I knew how crap it was.

Many game companies try to take complicated games and build an introduction that is really easy to try to collect more players.  WOW did it with levelling, which went from an interesting test of skill and planning to brainless button mashing.  When you can't lose, you can't win either.  Blood Bowl did the same thing, making the tutorial trivial, long, and crappy.  It won't bring new players into the fold, rather it will drive them away.

Nobody starts a new game and tells their friends excitedly "Oh hey, you have to play New Game #4!  You can't lose, and nothing interesting ever happens, and your decisions are irrelevant!"

You know why I loved Skyrim so much?  When I first went to a dungeon there were archers there, and they shot arrows at me, and I almost died and ran away.  After an hour of prowling around, sneaking behind cover, and madly dashing in with my axe to chop at them, I finally cleared them all out.  Then I told everyone how fucking awesome Skyrim was.  Write that shit down, game companies.

At least in BB2 you can just ignore Campaign Mode and play the real game.  WOW hasn't gone quite that far yet, but perhaps it should, and then change the levelling game so that it is fun again.

Monday, May 1, 2017

A roomie

I am heading back to the World Boardgaming Championships this summer at the end of July.  I am excited about trying to defend my good showings in Vegas Showdown and Castles of Mad King Ludwig, and also to try to make up for my sub standard results in Puerto Rico last year.

More than anything though I am super excited about getting to hang out with all kinds of cool people that I met last year (as well as my gamer friends who are more local) and play a bunch of great games.

However.

I don't yet have a room!  The hotel is full at this point too, so I am either going to need to find a place with someone who already has a room and needs a roommate, or I will find a place close by but off site.  In any case if any awesome gamers want share a room with me then please ping me so we can talk.

It isn't panic mode because I am sure I can find an AirBNB or something in the vicinity but obviously the earlier I sort this out the better.

So pumped.

Now to figure out where I am ditching my kid for the week while I go cavorting...

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.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

One dimensional

I think my approach to building games is too focused.  That focus makes sense because I am playing to my strengths, but I suspect that I would be a much better designer if I were working on a small part of a large project.

The thing I do is numbers.  When someone tries to tell me that I ought to rewrite the metaphysics of my world I nod and think seriously about it.  When people ask for big changes to the descriptions of a race, class, card, or flavour text I am generally happy to do whatever they ask.

But ask to change a 3 to a 4?  Bite my shiny metal ass.

That 3 is a 3 for a *reason*.

Yesterday I was driving and chatting with In The Hat and he made a couple of great suggestions about theme in Heroes By Trade, my roleplaying game.  Theme is a thing I think about once I have all the numbers built.  It is the pretty frame around the combat system, the necessary fluff required to make my beautiful numbers have some reason for existing.

Right now Heroes By Trade has a system where most people are just normal people.  They can be good at stuff, learn magical Rituals, and be important to the world, but they don't have the raw power that a Shard has.  A Shard is a person that has a shard of one of the ancient gods in them.  They are magical by nature and this means they tend to be stronger, faster, and smarter than the average person.  They learn Rituals more easily, wield fearsome magic in combat, and bend the world around them just by showing up.

But up to this point the fact that a person had a shard in them was just a convenient reason to give them big numbers.  It didn't really have much in the way of theme or depth.  In The Hat suggested that shards within people should have their own agendas or goals, some kind of thing that they were doing that might not jibe at all with the character's goals.  That is a pretty neat idea!  The idea of a power source within you that you have to negotiate with to some extent seems like it could generate all kinds of adventures and drama.

Adventures and drama are the thing we want!

I am not sure how it would play out, but it could be like the Nature/Demeanour dichotomy in the World of Darkness game.  It isn't exactly the same, but roleplaying a dual nature or conflicts in how a person usually is vs. some internal drive leads to great scenes.

If I wanted to build a system around this I don't think I would let the player control it.  If you did let the player control it the obvious thing would be that players could get some sort of bonuses when doing what their shard wanted.  I suspect that would lead to players hoarding shard bonuses if they were limited, or just being super overpowered if the benefits were always available.  It also would mean that characters with shards that align with their own goals would be flat out better, and I want to reward entertaining conflict, not punish it.

Probably a lot better would be to put the shard under the GM's control.  My first idea would be that either the player or the shard would currently be dominant, and when the player is dominant they can add a 1d8 bonus to a roll that the shard is in favour of.  However, this makes the shard dominant.  When that happens the shard gains the ability to penalize the player 1d8 on a roll of the shard's choice when the player is working against its desires.  Once it does this the player becomes dominant.

What this would mean is that players that always do what their shard wants get one bonus, then nothing much.  Players that are always fighting their shard take one penalty, then nothing much.  Players who are sometimes in agreement with their shard and sometimes not have exciting lives.  Things that the shard wants go really well, and things it hates go badly.

Instead of boring 1d8 bonuses though I could do something similar with a lot more pizzazz.  Basically I would say that players can tap into their shard's power to have it do something amazing to help them when they need it.  However, doing this means that the shard is now dominant, and it will do something horrible to stop the player when they are working against it.  Maybe it will mind control them temporarily, or cause a terrible moment of weakness at a critical juncture... who knows?

Now that system sounds like a bundle of joy for me as a GM and as a player.  I would be pumping that shard ability all the time.  Whatever wild shenanigans the GM comes up with to stymie my plans has to be fun, even if it wrecks the character's day.

This is the kind of stuff I need help to get going.  Maybe at some point in my life I can find myself on a team with people who pour out all the ideas and I can happily there simulating combats to figure out how much damage a longsword will do.

Until then I have to be the jack of all trades, it would seem.