Monday, October 16, 2017

Who will be my teacher?

I have been playing a bunch of Agricola on the board game site boiteajeux.  It took a bit of getting used to but I am getting comfortable with it now.  Any time you swap UIs, particularly from a physical gameboard to a computer game, it is a bit of a transition as you miss things and screw things up by accident.

I signed up for a tournament to start and my results have been mixed.  My first game I misread a card called Ceramics and doing so caused me to completely screw up my game.  It turns out Ceramics only works with ovens and not with other cooking facilities but by the time I went to click the button to make Ceramics and couldn't do so I had already committed to the line.  That caused me to have a poor game and wind up 3rd of 4 players.

In all three of my other tournament games I am currently sitting in first place though so I am cautiously optimistic.  I don't expect to win all those games because the score in Agricola can change quite dramatically in the final turn or two, and it is easy to wind up with somebody gaining 20 points in their final turn in a game that often is won at 40 points.

I wanted to play more than just four tournament games every three months though, so I looked around for other games to join.  The first thing that popped up was games that required someone to fill in for a person that had abandoned the game.  I like the idea of helping people out to finish games when a player ditches and I feel like this will give me a useful breadth of experience.

One of the things that happens in online Agricola is that when you are drafting occupations and improvements you can use online tools and lists to tell you what to draft.  They aren't perfect but they can make sure you don't take total garbage and that you don't miss the bombs.  However, using those tools means I will end up consistently drafting good cards and ignoring my bad ones.  That will teach me how to use those good cards but it won't teach me about all the ways that the bad cards are bad.

But boy you sure can learn about bad cards when you fill in for players who have ditched.  I find myself in all kinds of horrible situations where it is clear the person who was playing left because their game state was completely untenable.  I get to see the cards they slammed down and how they used them and I have been able to learn a lot about what cards just don't end up helping you the way you think they will.

The main takeaway is that a lot of people don't develop a food engine.  I have been regularly in the situation of having a good point total but no food and having no reasonable way to acquire food.  Often this results in me desperately taking spaces that have just two food on them and trying to survive that way and it has consistently been a disaster.  Not that I had any better choice given the situation I landed in, but it has certainly taught me a lot about coping with catastrophe.  I am also getting really comprehensive lessons about how food engines work and which ones don't cut it, which is helpful in the long term.

The end goal of all of this is to get practice with a huge variety of effects and situations.  There are a lot of other Agricola cards out there and new ones are going to get printed and I think that it will be useful to practice all kinds of strategies and test all the cards out so that when I run into new cards my experiences will have more breadth to them and I will be able to evaluate those cards more effectively.

I don't know if this strategy is actually the right one in terms of educating myself.  Right now I am letting random people on the internet teach me how to be bad at Agricola, which isn't useless, but maybe I should try to select for better teachers than random people on the internet.  For winning tournaments it is probably better to just play whole games through and practice drafting the standard cards over and over until I master them all.  But there is a huge amount of fun in parachuting myself into an unknown situation and then trying to extricate myself from it, so that is a good time at least.

And either way I expect to be able to put up much more of a fight when I go after the real sharks in the Agricola tournament at WBC next year.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Rats with pointy bits go squish

This week was week 2 of my fall Blood Bowl league.  I lost last week, largely due to playing poorly / too aggressively, and this week I was determined to right that wrong.  I was up against Skaven, and those sneaky rat men had a pretty normal crew with one particularly dangerous rat who had both Claw and Mighty Blow.  I was determined to smash that rat to bits to keep him from hurting my dwarves.

I won the flip and elected to kick the ball to the rats.  Things went badly right away as the rat with the pointy bits on him immediately injured a dwarf but that was just the start of that rat's amazing game.  By turn five it had injured out two more dwarves and KOd yet another!  I sent blocks at that rat but it would always fall over, not get hurt, and then stand up and remove yet another dwarf.  Thankfully I was taking out rats at a similar rate so the field was clearing out quickly. 

Around turn five I cleared out all the rats in the midfield and was suddenly able to put pressure on the ball which had been kept deep in my opponent's territory.  His only real play to get the ball to safety was a really long throw and it failed.  I capitalized quickly and grabbed the ball, running it almost to the TD line.  I had a choice - stay two spaces away from the line, and leave a possible blitz on my ball carrier requiring a double go for it and some dodges, or take a single go for it myself to get to complete safety.  I had a reroll available, so taking the go for it to secure the ball seemed like the right choice.

I rolled a 1, rerolled it into a 1, and my dwarf fell down.  This would *still* have been just fine and dandy if the dwarf was just prone as he could stand up and score next turn anyway.  But he injured himself with his fall and was stunned, out of the play.  This catastrophe let the ratmen grab the ball, double go for it, throw the ball, catch, double go for it, hand off the ball to the rat ogre (which, it should be noted, is TERRIBLE at catching and running with the ball) and the rat ogre ran in for a turn eight touchdown.

We started the second half with me fielding nine dwarves and my opponent having seven rats.  I bashed his team around a bit and moved my pile of dwarves up the pitch, and was faced with a dilemma on turn thirteen.  I could either just stick with the cage and lock in a 1-1 draw, or I could score and desperately hope to take the ball away from the rats and score again in the last three turns of the game to secure a victory.

I think the sensible play here is to go for the draw.  I was in an extremely secure position and my chances of getting that second touchdown in three turns were not good.  But I don't want to draw!  I want to WIN.

So I rushed in for the touchdown and hoped for a lucky break.  I got my break because the rat assigned to collect the ball developed a bad case of butterfingers and I was able to run the dwarves in and make his life really difficult.  On the next turn the first rat assigned to throw a block knocked himself down and I easily scooped up the ball and ran in for a touchdown, winning the game 2-1.

I think my play was wrong, but it sure worked out for me.

The after game was pretty sad for the rats and pretty great for me.  I got four levels and the rats got none.  All three of the injuries on me were just Badly Hurt, so all the dwarves are still good to go for next game.  The rats, on the other hand, had a Blitzer die and two Gutter Runners are missing the next game with serious injuries.  Their position going forward is ... not good.

Their incredibly devastating rat petered out in terms of success after its amazing run at the start of the game.  It managed to escape the game unscathed but also didn't succeed at taking out any more of my dwarves, in part because it was part of the ridiculous scoring run and in part because I kept bashing away at it to keep it facedown.

My levels weren't exciting but do seem good.  I got Dodge on a runner which is solid and another random lineman got Guard.  I decided to give a troll slayer Stand Firm so he would be better at pushing people out of bounds and not getting pushed out himself.  I also gave my blitzer Strip Ball, as I think having one copy of that on a team is a fine plan as it can force the opponent to play around it.  Still, the dwarves both got better at bashing and also at playing the ball, so I am pleased with the way the team is working out.

Monday, October 9, 2017

The rust, it is real

I haven't been playing Blood Bowl much the past little while and in the first game of my new season it showed.  I was playing dwarves against dark elves, a matchup I generally like.  I kicked to my opponent to start and got a lucky turnover that let me grab the ball and dominate the field.  I crunched five elves and scored right at the end of the half to be up 1-0.  My position was excellent, though unfortunately between the apothecary and elves waking up from KOs my opponent still had a full roster for the second half.

In a small bit of hubris I even used my troll slayer to get the touchdown because he really needed the experience.  I don't normally do this a lot, but I figured with the entire elf team lying on the ground, having given up on the half, it was worth the risk.

But although the first half went great, the second half was a catastrophe.  I received the ball and made a crucial error.  I could have just decided to hold onto my lead and cage as hard as possible right off the bat but instead I left the ball back field some with the ball carrier guarded.  I put a ton of pressure on the elves all over the place, and it looked like my opponent had pretty crappy chances at the ball carrier.  However, he made a ton of dodges and go for its and managed to get a single die block on the ball carrier which worked.  Then my counter attack failed to do anything useful and he made a bunch more blocks, dodges, and a pickup and scored.

My play wasn't monumentally stupid, but it wasn't correct.  I should have just let the elves do whatever they wanted and rushed the ball to the middle of the field.  Doing that would have meant more blocks on my lower armour characters, and probably real difficulty moving the ball, but that didn't matter.  I didn't need to score again, I just needed to keep the dwarves in a pile that the elves couldn't penetrate.  I successfully forced my opponent to roll a ton of dice and they came up favourably for him, but I could have made it harder.  I could easily blame luck, but I don't think I should.

With the game tied 1-1 I received again and got the ball into a good strong cage.  The elves attacked hard, risking their poor, snappable necks, and I was faced with a decision.  I could just rebuild the cage and accept a tie or I could go for it and try to score to win.  I wasn't at all sure that I could win if I just sat there because I had already burned several turns of the second half and dwarves are not fast.  I figured out a configuration where I could get the ball carrier far away from all the elves and have a dwarf with guard protecting him.  My opponent needed an absurd number of dodges to get elves onto the ball, and also a bunch of go for its.  I decided that I should go for the win rather than just sitting tight and hoping for a draw.

I watched my opponent test out various lines of play to try to get the ball and some of them involved single elves rolling six different dice, each of which would end their turn if failed, and there were still other elves rolling a bunch of dice that would be required to stop me.

So the elves rolled all of their dice, made all of their rolls, and took the ball.  Every turn I did my best to make the elves roll as many dice as possible to try to get the ball back, and every turn they made their rolls, and on the last turn of the game the elves made a collection of dodge rolls, walked around the dwarves with ease, and scored to win the game 2-1.

It is tempting to blame luck when your opponent rolls a huge number of dice and makes improbable plays come home.  I know that a lot of the key plays were statistically like to fail, but worked anyway.

But I shouldn't have allowed those key plays to happen the way they did.  If you keep giving the opponent a 25% chance to take the ball, you can't complain when it comes home sometimes.

It is tricky sometimes when trying to deconstruct my play when we are on 2 minute turns.  It is simple to criticize plays from your armchair when you have all the time in the world to consider and you can see the dice results already.  I don't expect that my plays will be perfect when I look at them this way.  However, I think it is important to write down what I screwed up and why.  I had reasons for my plays at the time, but those reasons were not good enough.  I need to play more like dwarves, and make sure that if my opponent gets a shot at the ball it is with a player that is surrounded by dwarves and who will get crunched even if they succeed.  I need to play tighter, and be willing to grind out tough 1-0 wins.  I don't need to get more points, I just need to make sure my opponent gets none.

Now I hope I can put those hard lessons into practice in my next game against the rats.  Thankfully the rats are squishier than the elves so I should have an easier time getting a numbers advantage on them.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Actual things

It is a huge shift for me to go from game theory and design to actual crafting.  There is a weird thing where it feels like they are part of the same process and yet are so different as to have nothing to do with one another.

One of the big things is my perfectionism.  When I am talking about numbers and formulas I can and will iterate without end.  I can always find a better way to do things, always improve.  But when I am building a physical model I manage to cut that part of me out of the equation and just get the thing done.  Obviously I want a prototype to be good, but I am able to effectively manage my time so that it is good but not wasteful.  When I am building something theoretical I am much worse at the whole 'just get something out the door' part of it and I just sit there building and tinkering for years at a time.

The two things are similar in that I can really get into the zone doing either.  When I am cutting things out with scissors or a knife and then getting ready to glue all the pieces together there is a real calm there, a sense of flow, similar to what happens when design is really working.  The physical act of building also seems to make me feel better in the same way that chores do.  When I do the dishes or clean the bathroom or other similar things I get a sense of calm accomplishment.  Doing so makes me feel good about the world.  I can be happy about designing a game purely theoretically but it isn't quite the same thing - it makes me happy in a different way.

The game I am building today is Dot.  It is the fourth copy of the game in the world, and although this particular copy probably won't ever be played for the amount of time I spent building it I am still pleased to be doing so.  There is something in my brain that is deeply pleased that my designs will be out there on somebody's shelf, occasionally coming down for a dust off and a playthrough.

This latest craft is going to nearly run me out of foam board.  I bought two sheets roughly ten years ago when I first started building game prototypes and I have been consistently using it to create boards and tiles since then.  It is ideal in that it is easy to pick up, light, cheap, and no problem to cut exactly as I want it.  When I have to go back to the store for another sheet it is going to feel like an era has ended. 

I wonder which game will cause me to finally go back out and buy some more.


Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Always war

I have been playing more Civilization 6, testing out the various win conditions.  I have mixed feelings on this issue because while I like a lot of the innovations and subgames of the various win conditions I really don't like the balance of the game in terms of how you go about winning via the various conditions.

The fact that the religious game requires you to balance fighting with regular units of soldiers and fighting with religious units is kind of neat.  There isn't much variety in religious units but I liked the decisions I had to make about which ones to make based on what I was trying to do and layering religious combat over the rest of the game felt good to me.

Also the fact that your religious units fight by throwing lightning at each other never gets old.  Boom!  Crack!  Kapew!

I also enjoyed immersing myself in the culture game.  I built tons of archaeological museums and sent my archaeologists all over the world fetching things.  I made art museums and directed Mark Twain and Jane Austen to various cities to write their novels and impress visitors.  I enjoyed figuring out how to theme my museums and chasing particular kinds of great works to fill out the museums I had.  It was an enjoyable subgame to the rest of the Civilization game.

But in both cases I was just kidding myself.  I conquered an early opponent or two, then just sat there building my stuff for the rest of the game.  I built all this culture stuff but it would have been far easier just to keep on with the conquest, smashing my enemies beneath my feet.  I could have just removed every opponent except one, and left that one opponent with a single city that had every tile pillaged.  Then I could win a cultural or religious victory quickly and effortlessly.

By far the best way to win one of these other win conditions is to simply kill every opponent but carefully avoid taking their last capital so you don't trigger the domination victory condition, and then do whatever you want.  The AI is bad at war so this is practical. 

Civ 5 had this same issue in a lot of ways.  Players could keep their units alive forever by retreating and healing and using ranged units effectively.  If the player couldn't heal their units, or if they couldn't pay gold to upgrade obsolete units to new ones, this wouldn't be much of an issue.  Warring players would need to build new units constantly to replace old ones and that would be a huge drain on their other endeavours.  But as it is you can just build one army and keep using it throughout the entire game, with only occasional replacements needed for units that die.

If replacing units was the norm then there would be much more meaningful tradeoffs between conquering and building, which I would really like.

At the moment I am thinking about ways to implement this in Civ 6, which apparently means I am staring directly at the rabbit hole.  I spent most of a year modding Civ 5 and while I enjoyed it greatly it really took over my life.  I know that my alterations would not improve the game for everyone, but from reading forums I have found that most people agree with me that conquest is far too easy.

There are other things that make conquest too simple in addition to unit healing.  Upgrading armies slowly over time is important, but instant upgrades are also a problem.  When your civ researches Crossbows and then instantly your entire army becomes Crossbowmen that is a problem.  The instant power increase is immense.  So both the fact that you don't have to make new units and that there are enormous power spikes is an issue in my mind.  The other thing is simply that ranged units are too good. 

Slingers have a range of 1.  They are mediocre - good at defending cities and encampments, fragile in combat.  When Slingers upgrade to archers though they acquire a range of 2 and are absurd.  You can hide them behind melee units, tear down walls, and a clump of them will annihilate any melee unit that gets too close.  Crossbows also have a range of 2 and are equally brutal, as are Field Cannons.  But when you upgrade them again to Machine Guns they suddenly drop down to having a range of 1 again and then they suddenly aren't particularly powerful anymore.  Strangely the attack values of ranged units and bombard units all proceed in a predictable, linear fashion, but the range of the units appears to not have been accounted for in their cost or overall effectiveness.

Archers, Crossbows, and Field Cannons are fantastic units, far too good against the AI.  It just can't figure out how to attack entrenched ranged units and when you use a bunch of them you can just slowly march forward, massacring their units, and then blow up their city defenses when you get there.  If these units had a range of 1 the game would be a lot harder on the human player because their primary way of killing enemies without incurring losses would vanish.

Implementing these changes is widely variable in difficulty.  I don't know that you could remove healing without wrecking the game - the AI in Civ 5 certainly couldn't handle it and kept trying to heal anyway.  Destroying unit upgrades is a lot more feasible, and I suspect the AI could handle it just fine.  Nerfing the range of Archers, Crossbows, and Field Cannons I know the AI could deal with.  One other advantage to the nerfing of ranged units is that bombard type units would suddenly have a reason to exist.  If it is really hard to tear down cities with ranged units (because they have to walk up right next to the city and risk being beaten up) then having a catapult or two that have a ranged 2 attack to bombard the city walls suddenly sounds a lot more appealing.  I like the idea of rewarding intelligently created mixed armies instead of just 'spam the best unit' as a guiding principle.

Now I need to sit back and decide if I am going to take the plunge and dedicate a couple thousand hours to making this next version of Civ into the game that I most want to play.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Eureka

One of the core mechanics in Civ 6 research is Eurekas.  These are specific events that immediately grant you half of the science or culture required for an advance.  For example, if you build a Water Mill you get a Eureka for Construction.  When you kill a unit with a Knight, you get the Eureak for Military Science.  Eurekas can require kills, owning units, buildings, wonders, diplomatic actions, and more.  In the early going this is really cool because many of the Eurekas make a lot of sense, and it feels exciting to see advances in specific technologies or policies because you are already doing that thing.

However, this mechanic leads to some strange situations.  For example, I don't usually build Privateers.  They are middle game ships that are invisible unless you are beside them but I usually don't find time to make them.  However, if you own 3 Privateers you get the Eureka for Electricity, which gains you 625 science.  Each Privateer costs 280 production, so you invest 820 production to get 625 science.  That isn't a particularly great rate of return... but you still get 3 Privateers that can run around exploring or shooting enemy units!  The first and second Privateers aren't especially good unless you really need boats, but that third Privateer is *ludicrous*.

This mechanic is found all over.  Workshops are pretty horrible buildings.  They cost 195 production to make and only make 2 production a turn.  97 turns to return their cost is wretched.  But you get a Eureka for owing three Workshops, and that Eureka is worth 422 science, so while the first two Workshops are awful that third one is the best.

This mechanic is a massive driving force in maximizing your power.  There are times when you can't get a Eureka because the AI won't cooperate or you are under attack, but the great majority of the time when you look at the cost of whatever it is you are doing to get the Eureka you absolutely must make it happen.  If a unit or building is even close to reasonable in a vacuum, then when it gives you half of a technology in addition it is better than anything else you could be doing.

This leads to strange consequences.  Spearmen are basically junk units, good for nothing.  But there is a Eureka for killing a unit with a Spearman so I build exactly one and figure out some way for it to get a killing blow.

This gives the game a jarring feel sometimes.  Like even if I want to have a massive production based game once I have built the third Industrial Zone I really don't want to build the fourth.  At least not until I have 2 Theatre Squares, 2 Campus, 3 Commercial Hub, 1 Encampment, 2 Harbour, and 1 Aqueduct to hit all the Eurekas.  The Eurekas create these very odd breakpoints in utility that feel out of line with the rest of the game.

This also pushes the game towards a lot of sameness.  That isn't necessarily an issue, because having some incentive towards a balanced approach isn't a problem.  It is perfectly fine to have some game elements rewarding players who build a bit of everything so that extreme strategies aren't quite so powerful.  Unfortunately if you don't have a ton of cities to do different things in you are generally going to want to build your civ the same way a lot of the time, or at least with a really standard sort of core.

I was thinking about how the system could work to accomplish similar things without the same level of sameness in every game.  For example, if instead of having a Eureka based on having 2 Banks, what if each Bank gave you a 50% chance to get the Eureka?  If you structured all of the Eurekas this way you could set it up so that each time you fail a Eureka your next Eureka attempt of any sort goes up to 60%, stacking up 10% each time you fail.  When you succeed, it drops 10% instead.  This ensures that over time you will get the right amount of Eurekas, but you won't be doing the same thing every game.  Overall Eurekas should stay about the same level but you will have a lot more differences in each game, and you won't have the same weird breakpoints.  Three Industrial Zones to go for the Workshop Eureka is fine, but four is a little better yet as it gives you more opportunities to get it, and two is also ok.

Obviously that isn't going to happen, but I like it better as a system to keep the game fresh and new each time.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Everything sucks

I have been playing a bunch more Civilization 6, and while the addiction is strong there are some fairly serious frustrations I have with the game.  One of the things that the theme of the game supports is the idea that wonders of the world are really important and powerful.  They are unique in that only one copy of each can be built, they often have tricky placement rules and requirements, and they all have cinematics and quotes associated with them.  Finishing a wonder is obviously supposed to be a big deal.

It usually isn't.  In fact much of the time finishing a wonder is mostly just a good time to mourn all of the production you poured into making it, and wonder why you didn't spend that production on something useful.

There are certain kinds of bad wonders that I have no problem with.  For example, I don't think that Stonehenge is a good wonder.  It is useful if you want a religion because it gives you one right away, but if you go for Stonehenge and someone else beats you to it your early game position is awful because you threw away all that production on something that isn't new cities, infrastructure, or military.  It isn't good for a religious game particularly because if you are doing that you want to build holy sites and shrines and such anyway.  I don't think there is a strategy in which Stonehenge is the best build.

Big Ben is another crazy wonder that doubles your current treasury.  If you are in the late game and the other players let you stockpile 10,000 gold and double it then sure, Big Ben is ludicrous.  So what though?  If you have done that you have already won the game anyhow.  In any game where you pull off a massive Big Ben you are just winning more.

Both of these wonders have unique effects, but I doubt they are ever actually relevant or a good idea in terms of optimal play.  This is fine!  The wonders I have a problem with are the ones with boring effects that are also bad.  There are wonders that are basically comparable to generic buildings, but they suffer from the possibility of getting blown out if someone else finishes them, they occupy a space on the map, and they have restrictions on placement.  Plus they take a really long time to make so they come online slower and make timing other builds more annoying.

A wonder is a risk, and comes with real costs, so it should be exciting.  You can make something exciting by doing something unique, like Stonehenge or Big Ben, or you can make something exciting by making it powerful.  But if you make a wonder like The Hermitage, you have a wonder that is barely better than a regular building and costs an enormous amount of production, in addition to the basic risks of placing a wonder.  It is an embarassment.

I don't want wonders that are as powerful as wonders were in Civ 1 and Civ 2.  Those were world shattering in many cases, easily meaning the difference between a sweeping victory or crushing defeat on their own.

One serious struggle in terms of wonder design is long vs. short term.  The game really shouldn't go beyond turn 250, and a lot of late game wonders can't possibly pay for themselves in less than 50-100 turns.  They literally can never be worth the production you pour into them before the game is over.  Some wonders, like Big Ben or Oxford University, immediately give you their benefits so they are surely worth building.  Others, like Forbidden City or Colossus have slow benefits and those are going to rarely pay off sufficiently.

All of this is mostly sad because when I look at a city build queue I should be excited by my options.  I should wonder if I ought to take the risk of building Forbidden City for that huge payoff when it arrives.  Instead I pretty much just ignore the wonder section because there isn't any point.  I would be far better off just building normal buildings, infrastructure, or troops.  The real kicker is that even if there was no risk of someone else building it out from under me I wouldn't want to build most of the wonders anyway!  Risk should come with reward, and the way the game is now most of the risk comes with no reward at all.

All this makes me want to get back into modding.  I spent a year tinkering with Civ 5 and I absolutely loved doing it.  One of the most critical things I was doing there was making sure that each wonder, building, or troop had a place.  They don't all have to be good in every game, nor even part of optimal lines of play at the highest difficulties.  They just have to have some way to shine, some reason to be there.  You don't have to say that Forbidden City is the thing to rush for, but you should at least be able to say that when you finish it you look at what it does and are excited that you snagged it.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Invisible walls

Recently I got involved in a dungeon crawl 5th edition DnD campaign.  It is meant to be a short run, no roleplaying, grind through the insane dungeon sort of thing.  I find this tricky sometimes because I like roleplaying games, and I like games where you try to win with tactics, but this particular iteration combines them in a way that is pretty absurd.

We started out being told that a incredibly powerful wizard who somehow is still alive after more than a millennium has stolen several artifacts from their place of safekeeping and left behind a note to tell everyone where his hideout is.  Our job is to go into the hideout and get the weapons.

This is preposterous.  Look, if the villain specifically says "I am right at the X on the map" my first assumption is that the villain is definitely not there.  Pretty much anywhere else, really, but definitely not where they say they are.  Why in the world would they do that?  Any villain with two brain cells to rub together would just put the X in the middle of the most dangerous place on the planet and hope some fools were stupid enough to try to go there to get their stuff back.

And we are fools that are exactly that stupid.

This same scenario happened to me in a game many years ago.  The villain sent us a message about his dastardly plan.  For no reason other than to brag, apparently.  We all agreed he must be lying to us to trick us to we assumed he was doing something else.  The GM got furious at us because the villain totally got away with his plan since we didn't just go where he told us to go.  Why would we believe the villain?  That dude is EVIL and tricky and certainly would lie, so why would he give us the truth?  The game blew up after that in part because I was so disgusted with the GM ranting at us for not doing what the villain told us to do!

Anyway, we are gigantic idiots who do exactly what villains say.  This is our life.

And because this module is silly, presumably this will actually help us to some extent instead of being a pointless way to die.

We get into the dungeon and right away we discover that when we step in the wrong place a wall of force stops us.  We do not have any magic capable of breaking it, nor can we teleport past it.  We can, however, answer the riddle of a Sphinx to lower the wall of force.

But then we traipse on through the dungeon.  Into the lair of a wizard who has demonstrated that he can cause walls of force to appear at will.  Why exactly he wouldn't just have a trap right before his room that causes two walls of force to appear in the corridor, pinning us in place, and then fill the corridor with gas / fire / ice / acid / whatever is completely unclear.  Our characters have faced the certainty that whatever is in here has the capability to kill us easily, and without us having the slightest chance to defeat it.

But we soldier on, because we are suicidal idiots relying on plot armour.

Now I get being brave.  Sometimes you face down hard odds to do the right thing.  But we are just mercenaries here, being paid to get back some weapons that are just rotting in a dungeon.  Who cares if they are in the dungeon?  Nothing bad is happening!  We should really start to worry only when the weapons leave the dungeon and threaten people.  Going into this dungeon (which, in any sensible world, wouldn't have the stuff we are looking for) to fight this enemy (which, if we consider the stuff we know it can do, can dispose of us effortlessly) isn't brave, it is just a quick way to die.

I like roleplaying brave.  But to play these modules I have to roleplay a blithering idiot with no sense of self preservation... and to survive it I need to roleplay an extremely intelligent, careful, cautious person.

Good thing we insisted from the start that this was just a puzzle game, not a roleplaying game.  The puzzle part has been okay so far, which is good.  If you refuse to roleplay at all and just try to beat the game with the character you have, munchkining as hard as possible, then it is a fine thing to do.  Just don't ever consider your motivations.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

I got beat

I played my Blood Bowl semi final match last week against Umbra's orc team and I lost 1-0.  This wasn't surprising as I didn't particularly like my odds, but some things changed before the match that really swung it against me.  Umbra fired his goblin and thrower so his team had absolute maximum armour and minimum ball moving.  This was a good move against me, I think, as it trimmed his team value down and made him as tough as possible.  He was left with just 11 orcs on the team, but I decided to keep an extra dwarf around and run with 12 players.

The way the game played out was I received and then we both took out a couple of each other's players in the first half, and I found myself with a good scoring opportunity.  I screwed up though because I forgot that it was a blizzard so when I did a double go for it with my ball carrier to get in prime scoring position I slipped on the ice, fell down, and got stunned, and that was the end of the first half.  I had a reroll back but it turns out it wasn't enough.  The half ended 0-0 and we both fielded full teams for the second half of the game.  I had other plays that were superior if the weather wasn't a blizzard and this was definitely a screw up on my part.  Even still it was likely to work... but that is dice rolling for you.

In the second half Umbra got lucky and injured a bunch of my players out quickly.  He made a terrible misplay by running his ball carrier right up next to my dudes for an assist (forgetting where the ball was...) and while I knocked the ball carrier down I did not get lucky in doing so and he easily recovered the ball.  I kept making more and more desperate plays as I was down a lot in numbers but eventually he locked me out and scored to secure a 1-0 victory.

I say that Umbra got lucky but I don't want to imply I deserved the victory or anything.  His team building against me was strong and he played well.  I do think he got better luck on the injury dice in particular than I did, but since nobody in the league had inflicted an injury on me the entire season thus far I can't complain about my luck overall.  I suppose I can complain that my bad injury luck all concentrated in my semi final game, but I lost to a good player in a tough matchup and that is just how Blood Bowl goes.

I have been thinking about what I might do to change the odds in my favour, in the event of a theoretical rematch.  There are some ways I can trim team value off of my team and that might well have been enough to give me a real shot at victory.  I recently levelled up a dwarf to get Leader which grants a bonus reroll and I think I should get rid of one of my regular rerolls.  This would have dropped me by 50k team value and put me below Umbra's team which is a big advantage.  Secondly I could fire my extra dwarf on the bench to free up another 70k of room.  If I did this I would have 90k of inducement money to work with and I could have easily thrown another 60k of cash at it to get a wizard.  That would definitely be enough to swing the game my way, at least potentially.

My real problem though was that my team didn't have enough gas in the tank in terms of raw power.  Rather than a wizard I think what I would really want is 4 or 5 extra skills on my players to make up that 90k difference.  If I take my current team and add 2 copies of Guard and 2.5 copies of Mighty Blow to make up that 90k I am much more likely to be able to just outbrawl Umbra.  I still don't think it is a great matchup but at that point I have better ball handlers than him, vastly more Guard, Mighty Blow and Block.  He has strength, certainly, but the game looks a lot more even.

So what I need to do this season is level up like crazy, getting good skills on all the players that need them, and be prepared to trim down my team as necessary.  I need to make sure that every point of team value is absolutely maximized, and I do that by getting more Guard and Mighty Blow and cutting back in the two ways I can cut back.

In terms of play during the game I clearly need to pay attention to the weather.  My play was a strong one under normal circumstances, but I made a mistake.  Still, with 2 minute turns stuff like that is going to happen.  There was one thing I did that generated some discussion though, which was to run a dwarf around to Umbra's backfield to pressure the ball carrier.  Both Umbra and Ziggyny thought this was a terrible plan because dwarves need to be in a pile to use all their Guard and win the fight.

In general I agree with that.  The Guard should be in the pile.  However, one of the dwarves I sent to the backfield to harass Umbra's ball carrier was my runner.  My runners don't have Guard or Mighty Blow so I don't get much from having them in the pile, and the runner caused a high strength orc to dash off to pin him down and I think that is actually good for me.  I can't win the pile if all the orcs are there because I only have two more copies of Guard than Umbra does and I have way less strength.  Using the runner to get rid of a powerful orc seemed good to me, or at least as good as anything else that runner was doing.

However, I also sent a blitzer to the backfield once, and that blitzer had both Guard and Mighty Blow.  He did draw off two orcs, which is great, and honestly if I can consistently get two orcs to run off after a single dwarf I should do that every time!  However, I could have probably found a stupid lineman to accomplish the same goal and not wasted the blitzer on it.  I think it is a fine plan to send a dwarf to the back field to make protecting the ball hard, but I should have made sure the dwarf doing it was always someone who is has little else to offer.

I can't complain about my season.  I got a third/fourth place result in a group of sixteen players, and I lost only two games in the entire season - one due to not being able to show up, and one to the eventual champion, Umbra.  I learned a bit about how to handle that particular matchup, and I will be more ready next season to crunch the necks of whoever gets in my way.

Time for more Blood Bowl!

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A bashdown

I am in the semi finals of my Blood Bowl league.  It turns out that Ziggyny decided to just concede to me via not waking up for the game so instead of me bashing his elves to bits I just got my free win.  Tomorrow I will need to face down a team of Orcs coached by Umbra and I am a lot less confident of my chances in this matchup.  Orcs and Dwarves are two of the most bashy teams with both teams lacking in speed and ball handling.  It will be a brutal slugfest.

I have some real advantages.  I have Block on my entire team, and my opponent is missing 3 copies of it.  That helps me.  I also have 2 extra copies of Guard, and 2 extra copies of Mighty Blow.  I rate to get more assists and do more damage.  Plus I have Thick Skull on my entire team, which normally isn't a big deal, but against another powerful bash team it will keep my dudes from getting KOd, in fact it reduces 'off the field' injuries by a full 33%.

This all sounds great!  I have better blocks, more assists, and superior injury and armour rolls.

But.

The Orcs have strength.  They have four dudes with Str 4, and one with Str 5.  This is a serious problem for me.  That additional strength means that I am going to have a really hard time pushing through their lines, and when their Str 4 dudes manage to single out one of my dwarves the dwarf is getting dominated.  I do way better in a massive dogpile where my superior Guard numbers help out, but I am worried that Umbra will be able to punch through my lines too easily.

My opponents so far have been way behind me in overall fighting ability, mostly through me having lots of Guard and them not having much or any.  The one game I won where my opponent had more strength they didn't have any Guard to speak of.  Umbra has both lots of strength and lots of Guard and this means that I can't rely on a line of dwarves to hold.  Umbra is going to roll more dice than me, and I am going to have better odds on each die rolled.  Overall though... I think he has the advantage.

However, I do have one ace up my sleeve, which is that my team value is lower, just enough so that I can buy a Wizard for our game with the extra cash I get to compensate.  A Wizard can do a nasty 3x3 fireball once a game and since my opponent's strategy is almost certainly going to involve caging around the ball carrier I have a great tool to blast that cage wide open.  The Wizard can potentially turn a half where I am just getting beat into a half where I score, or at least one where nobody scores.

And while I generally rely on the game plan of beating my opponents into bloody submission, I can't expect that against the orcs.  They are almost all 9 armour, and that means it is going to be extremely difficult to actually get a man advantage on them.  Umbra, of course, is facing down roughly the same dilemma.  It is even harder to get a man advantage on the dwarves, because of Thick Skull, but he at least has better options for getting good blocks in.

When I look at the four top teams I see a Chaos Dwarf team, Ziggyny's Dark Elf team, my dwarves, and Umbra's Orcs.  I think the Orcs are the team I am most scared of.  I really like my odds against the Chaos Dwarves, and although elves normally rate to beat dwarves I think my chances of beating Ziggyny's Dark Elves are pretty good.  Meeting what I consider to be my toughest matchup in the semis is not the result I wanted, but there is nothing for it but to hope that my singular fireball can swing the match to me and catapult me to the finals.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Hang out next to the kitchen

I played Castles of Mad King Ludwig last night and was asked a tricky question at the end of it.  I was in seat 4 and won the game by about 15 points or so, and the player in seat 2 asked what I thought of her arrangements of the tiles during her master builder turns.  2 had the issue that she ran low on cash in the middle of the game and felt like she just hadn't been able to make enough money.

It is tricky sometimes to figure out whether arrangements were correct when you didn't know at the time what everyone's cards were.  I might look askance at a placement but if a tile has 5 bonus points on it from secret cards it really changes how you think about it, and how the placement goes.  That said, I thought her placements were fine and she certainly wasn't giving up money like crazy.

So why was it that 2, who should have had more money than me because I was 4th chair, struggled with cash?  Also why was it that I ended the game rich?

A big part of the answer is yellow rooms.  Yellow rooms give you extra turns and you usually want to use those extra turns when you have the best selection, so most of the time you use them when you are the first player to choose tiles.  Also when you use yellow rooms you end up paying a ton of money out all at once, so you really want to do that right before your own master builder turn so that going low on cash won't break you.

When I thought about this I looked at the board and lo and behold the player after me in position 1 had three completed yellow rooms and I recalled distinctly that I got paid off on the turn when he activated two of them.  Not only did he buy three things, but the other players also bought stuff and I sold all but one of the tiles in front of me.  That happened on turn 4 and it took me from nearly broke to rolling in cash.

Part of this was deliberate of course because I priced those yellow rooms to move.  I wanted to get paid so I let people have some sweet buys to build up my bankroll.  But part of it was just luck because those tiles might well have come out differently.

I think the key is that you want the player after you to buy yellow rooms.  When they do that you can set it up so that they have multiple good buys and make sure that the options get scarce, which means that other players after them will often end up paying more for things than they would otherwise.  Cash itself may not be that great but I noticed during the game that I had plenty of chances to pay about X money for X points and that means that if I can sell an additional tile at 8 bucks it is absolutely amazing for me and could easily raise my final score by 8, assuming I am cash limited at any point.

Getting yellow rooms into the hands of the player after you is a hard thing to take advantage of.  Aside from giving away yellow rooms for really cheap on your own master builder phase it isn't exactly an easy thing to do and is highly luck dependent.  I think though that it strongly emphasizes the strength of giving people good deals on your turn when they have yellow rooms out no matter which seat they are in.  You don't want to give away the farm obviously but if you make sure that they are at least strongly tempted to use both turns you rate to get paid.  You can't afford to let them get a deal on a tile for 1 coin but any intermediate amount is pretty solid.  The trick is that they are going to spend those turns buying stuff.  Once they have the yellow room that much is a given.  What you can control though is whether or not those extra turns and the associated income come to you, or to somebody else.

That concept is a key thing to grasp in many games and I see a lot of players fail at it.  They often see someone setting up something big and do everything they can to stop it but fail to consider whether or not that interference will actually work for the whole game.  If someone sets up a big score and you know that they are going to cash in on it at some point you shouldn't desperately try to delay it; rather you should figure out how to cash in as much as possible personally when they finally do make their thing work.  Making sure people with yellow rooms use them on your master builder turn to get yourself paid is a great example of this.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Just one more turn. Hardly any time at all.

I am one more turning really hard this week.

I finally got around to installing Civilization 6, and it is a beast of a game.  Unlike Civ 5, 6 is actually super complicated right out of the gate.  5 had fairly simple mechanics, not much more challenging than the earliest Civ games, and had some really enormous balance problems.  6, on the other hand, is ridiculously complicated in all kinds of ways.  I am a veteran gamer, played 5 for 1500 hours, and I am struggling to keep everything straight.

It is marvellous.

Hell, there are still a couple of major mechanics and victory conditions that I have absolutely no idea how to handle.  Starting a religion and having religious battles is a core mechanic in the game and yet because I didn't get in quickly to found a religion I can't do any of that stuff at all.  There is an entire subgame that the AIs are playing against one another involving pushing their various religions and while I can see them bashing away at one another with religious units I have no idea how all that works.

There is this thing about tourism that is apparently a win condition and I have no idea how that works.  How 'come visit my booth' is a win condition on par with 'conquer every other civilization on the planet' I don't know, but even if you set aside how bizarre it feels I don't know how it works.  I know how to hang paintings in my buildings, and apparently people like to come look at those, but there is all this stuff about stealing tourism from other people and trade routes and geez I have no idea what I am doing.

I decided to just go for a scientific victory since that seemed at least vaguely similar to previous Civ games.  Just stack a lot of science, build a spaceship, win.  Doing this made sure I would have competitive units at least, so if I get attacked I won't be sitting there with a bunch of fancy artwork and books while the enemies burn my cities to the ground.

There are just so many things to think about.  Some districts want to be near mountains, some near rivers, some near other districts.  Some like pretty settings, and others want to be nestled in the mines.  Farms want to be in tight groups, and every city needs a mix of production and food to go along with all the districts.  Plus you have to factor in which districts your cities each want based on your win conditions and what tiles they currently have access to and which they will eventually have access to... it is just so much.

I have to keep in mind also all the random stuff the city states are demanding and the Eureka criteria for all of my scientific advances and my cultural stuff.  Some of these rewards are building related and some are about using specific units.

Usually when I play a Civ game I can figure out how everything works.  Finding the optimal strategy can take time, but the mechanics themselves have mostly been easy.  6 is not like that.  I have multipliers all over the place for various things and I just don't know where it all comes from.

This complexity is overwhelming, especially when I consider that I am playing on easymode - Prince difficulty should be a cakewalk for anyone with the amount of hours invested into Civ that I have.

I think this is a worthy entry into the Civ lineup.  Anyone itching for more complex gameplay is going to find it here.  There are so many things to think about and to do - you could spend an hour analyzing a single city placement to consider every thing it might build in the future to pick the perfect location.  Whether or not the numbers are all correct isn't something I can figure out with not even a single playthrough under my belt, but so far nothing felt egregiously wrong.

Civ 6 feels like a game I will need one hundred hours of play in before I will really know how things work.  That is a good feeling, to be delving deep into something really challenging to master.

So far, two big thumbs up.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Run or die

My final game of the Blood Bowl regular season is against Ziggyny.  He is running Dark Elves, which are generally a pretty good matchup for dwarves in my opinion.  Once his whole team levels up a bunch he will be better off, I suspect, because he will be in a much better position to dodge away all the time but right now he has some Dodge but not enough.  I will be able to consistently counter it with the five copies of Tackle I have on my starting lineup.  He also has four copies of Tackle... but this is worthless to him because I don't have any Dodge at all.  In fact his team is only barely better than a starting team against me and my team is a monster against him.  I have tons of Guard and Mighty Blow so he absolutely cannot fight me, but he simply doesn't have enough Dodge to be able to run away consistently.

His team is well built for our league where there are two other elf teams, Brettonians, and a Lizardman team.  Against those his Tackle is good, and three of those are the teams that are at the top of the rankings with him.  The Tackle is worthless against the two Dwarven teams, but I think it is pretty reasonable to build a team to try to dominate the majority of the league and just accept that you are going to get beat by a small section of it.  Ziggyny's build is hoping that I get beat by somebody else in the semifinal and he doesn't have to face me in the finals, and that seems like a fine strategy.

Ziggyny is considering just conceding to me.  I don't know if he will, but it is a thing to consider.  My team is extremely good at bashing now and is ideally matched against him.  I am at the top of the league at the moment so if he fights me to a 1-1 draw I still win our division and get a bye into the semi finals.  If he wins he gets a bye and I have to fight my way in.  However, in either case he has the problem that I rate to injure a lot of his dudes and after the match with me he may be in no condition to fight anyone.  It is terrible to be against the Dwarves when the Dwarves are perfectly happy to draw, because if they score once they just have to get the ball and completely surround it with dudes.  He won't be able to break in without getting absolutely wrecked, and a 1-1 draw is worse than a loss for him because he rates to get beat up.  There is a really good chance that losing or drawing with me causes him to lose his next match, whereas if he just concedes he goes into his next game with a healthy team and a much better matchup.

I think numerically it is clear:  Ziggyny should concede to me and find someone else to fight for a finals berth.  His team is built to do exactly that.

But the numbers aren't the whole story.  Ziggyny wants to play football!  If you don't want to play football, then why sign up for a football league?  Also I want to play football, and obviously I will take a concession if I get it but in every game so far I have gotten more experience than a concession will get me and won the game, so science says I should want to play!

Also bloodlust says I should play because I can crunch some flimsy elfses under my big Dwarven boots.  CRUNCH.

I don't get to decide though.  I am playing, and if the elves want to slide their slender, snappable necks under my feet, well then I will just have to oblige them by crunching them.  If they run away and leave me victorious, that is fine too, and I will mock them savagely for their cowardice.

Now I just need to wait and see.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Run away, its the dwarves!

This past week my Blood Bowl game was a blowout.  It was another good matchup for me against a team that has some Dodge, but not enough to be able to dance around me.  The Dwarves love playing against people that have a little bit of Dodge so they can use their Tackle to lock the board up.  My opponent was The Thief who was running Brettonians who were levelled just enough to have Dodge on all their Blitzers and a small collection of other skills.

My ability to negate Dodge on my enemies and their base Agility of 3 meant that it was going to be a slugfest.  The Thief couldn't plausibly run away from me consistently so he had to stand and fight.  Unfortunately for his fighting chances his team has much lower Armour and he had only 2 copies of Guard to my 6 copies of Guard.  His team is faster of course, (since everyone is faster than the Dwarves....) so I rated to have positioning struggles and would be slow on scoring but I liked my odds.

I actually had some real fun before the match.  I had 160,000 gold over the cap, and a Deathroller costs 160,000.  Deathrollers are extremely powerful but they have the problem that they get kicked off after a single drive.  I didn't think a Deathroller was worth it because my opponent didn't have a Big Guy I could push around with the Deathroller but I had nothing else to do with the money so I bought one.

And of course after buying it I yelled a lot about how I was going to crunch The Thief with the Deathroller.  People told me I was being stupid because Deathrollers are bad, but they seemed to believe me.  I guess I have built enough table cred for doing dumb but hilarious stuff!  Right before the game started I fired the Deathroller, hoping it had done its job of intimidating The Thief.  I doubt very much that it had any impact at all, aside from momentarily confusing him when we got to the game start screen and my team value had dropped from what he was expecting.  However, I enjoyed his momentary confusion followed by immediate understanding of what I had been doing, so there was that.

My odds got a lot better when on my first action I injured one of his dudes with Guard.  Every dude counts in a slugging match, but losing that copy of Guard was particularly awful.  On turn 3 he got in position to take a shot at my ball carrier but he had to take some dodges to manage it.  The first dodge failed and his dude fell down and got injured, removing his other copy of Guard from the game.

It was pretty much over at that point.  I was actually thinking he might concede, but I think The Thief believes in bashing through the game because the whole point of being in the league is to play, not give up!  With no Guard left The Thief had no prospect of getting decent blocks in a big brawl and was going to get punched around the field for the remainder of the game.  I sealed the deal by injuring another two random dudes during my push up the field, and then used Barik Farblast, the Star Player I recruited for the match, to foul another player and injure him out.

When Barik fouls someone he shoots them with a cannon!  That sounds unfair enough that even the Blood Bowl referees won't put up with it.

At halftime there were five injuries on The Thief's side, I had a touchdown in the bag, and another one of his dudes was still KO.  He started the second half with only six dudes.  I proceeded to beat the hell out of them, injuring two more, and the last turn saw his team on field reduced to two dudes, both of whom were on the ground and did not get up again.

My team is now 5-1, and that single loss came from a game I could not show up for so my opponent got a free win.  I have three wins at a score of 2-0, all of which were absolute slaughters.  I have two wins at 2-1, both of which were against elves, and both of which I won solidly but not without some difficult moments.  Since joining the league I have sustained zero deaths or serious injuries and in fact I am fairly sure I have never activated my apothecary.

I wonder how much of this is luck.  Make no mistake, this extremely strong record has both luck and skill components.  I am a good Blood Bowl player, having many hundreds of games under my belt.  Lots of those are against the computer, but even against the computer you have to practice what to do against a variety of formations and skill sets and those games help.  I am one of the top players in the league, this I am confident of.

But I have also gotten ass lucky.  My dwarves haven't been knocked down much compared to other teams, but I have gotten knocked down.  I should have taken some injuries by this point.  That isn't relevant in terms of money because I have so much I have no idea what to do with it and I just set it on fire after each match.  However, losing players who have experience is a real threat especially because most of my most experienced players are the ones with lower armour.  Part of my lack of injuries is playing tight and being a super bashy team, but a big part is just the dice going my way.

I have also been pushing my luck.  My ball carriers should have a ton more experience than they do, but instead of pushing levels on them I have been handing off the ball to other random dwarves to try to level them up.  This is kind of ridiculous to do in a league against other humans, but it is a thing you can get away with when you are in a really dominant position.  Sometimes you are guaranteed to win and you just want to give the ball to a random lineman so he can get some experience and level up, and I have had opportunities to do this, and taken them.  When the elimination rounds come about I am going to be a lot less aggressive and just take the best line to win the game regardless of the experience situation.

At any rate I think I had a good matchup against The Thief and my early success with taking out his dudes with Guard made the game easy for me.  There was a combination of early luck and the skill to capitalize effectively on it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The end times

Knowing the duration of a game is critical.  So often strategy games come down to various players building plans that will peak at different points in the game and the winner ends up being the person who manages to get the game to end just when their strategy peaks.  Puerto Rico is a great example, where the builders want the game to end as fast as possible because their strategy peaks right when their second big building finishes, while the shippers peak right when the last shipping point leaves the pile.  If the builders manage to finish the game quickly they will win because their strategy peaks much sooner.  Generally that means that in a game with three people shipping and one building the builder loses because all three shippers refuse to take actions that end the game and the shippers will help each other lengthen the game to generate more points from the Harbour and Wharf.  Similarly a single shipper will lose to three builders, with the winner almost always being the person who builds the Guild Hall.

During my birthday party on Saturday this was on display quite clearly.  I didn't get my timing perfectly right but on my last turn I completed my second Basement room and also finished off my big purple room to rescore it for 9 points.  I had thought the game would go one more turn and if it had I would have done better but I can't complain because I did manage to complete all of my major plans, albeit a bit awkwardly.  I won the game by a big margin, which wasn't a surprise because I was teaching all three of the other players the game.

Some of the other players asked what they had done wrong and why they lost, and as usual the obvious errors were mostly the placement of the best tiles on the 15k space.  In an auction game you don't want to let people get good stuff cheaply, but you can't keep the good stuff out of their hands indefinitely so you really want to sell it to them at a high price rather than having them buy something else for cheap.  The best tiles shouldn't be put out of reach - the optimal placement for them is *just barely* within reach.  That is when you get paid, and being rich gives you options, including the option to pay a ton for a tile if you really want to.

However, I don't think their tile placements were the reason I won by a lot.  The main factor was that I knew when the game was going to end.  I bought one big purple room and focused my game around bulking it up and completing my other stuff opportunistically.  The other players bought multiple big purple rooms and aimed to complete everything and they all ended up with a bunch of rooms incomplete.

There is nothing wrong with incomplete rooms in theory but you have to pick which ones you will leave out.  Buying a cheap 4 point room for 1 or 2 coins and sticking it on to close a door is a great play even if you make no attempt at all to finish it.  Paying 6 coins for a 2 point room that has a huge completion bonus and then never completing it is a disaster.  It isn't always true that buying a second big purple room to build around is a bad choice but you have to be really careful that you don't bite off more than you can chew.

One of the key tricks is knowing when to take the money and run.  I bought the big purple room that gives a 4 point bonus for each attached yellow room.  I quickly slammed another tile onto it that wasn't yellow because hoping to get a full 4 yellow rooms attached to it is just too optimistic.  You need to know when to start closing doors and accepting that you won't get the maximum points possible.  You can spend the game desperately trying to score 34 points from that room, but the likely result is that the game ends and you get 9 instead.  Being willing to accept a lower payout that is much more likely to come home is how you make 18 points like I did, and that is the more likely path to victory.

Knowing when to start finishing up is a skill that takes time to hone.  If you give up too quickly you won't score many points because you attach the wrong stuff, but if you wait too long you don't finish your room.  You want to end the game with every major completion bonus done, but only just barely.  Too soon, and you miss opportunities to max out.  Too late, and you get nothing.

It should not be taken that the people I played against were bad.  They played well, for first time players.  Castles is a game that is extremely sensitive to the timing of game end and I think that skill is actually one of the hardest ones to master when playing a new game.  You need a full understanding of the way the game flows before you can really make any decent decisions in that regard anyway, so until you have played a number of times figuring out how to design your plan to peak right at game end isn't really plausible.


For anyone looking for a best guess on how fast to finish up your rooms, I would suggest assuming that you need twice the number of plays as you have doors available.  If your big room has three open doors and there are about five turns left, start closing them off with anything you can.  If you have eight turns left, chill and wait it out.  With brick rooms you can generally assume about the same since there are more tiles that work and you don't get nearly as much from finishing it so you really don't want to slam crappy things on there.  Leaving a brick room incomplete isn't so bad because you got most of your points when you dropped it, so you can afford to be picky.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Kid games

Today I played some board games with Pinkie Pie and her friend at the cottage.  Being as it is an old cottage it comes with the mandatory collection of garbage old games that are just coin flips that take an hour or ten to resolve.  It does have a few real games though, so today I tried to teach the girls Pente.  This is a simple old 2 player game that looks like Go in that you place markers on a grid but the rules are quite different.

The thing about Pente is that it has no randomness aside from who goes first.  I am not good at the game by any means, but I can't lose to the kids without deliberately setting out to do so.  We tried playing where I alternated turns with them as per normal rules but they quickly realized they were going to lose and had no interest whatsoever in that.  Then we tried a version where I play red and take a turn, then they both take a turn with yellow.

It should come as no surprise that in a game with no randomness if you take two turns to your opponent's one turn you win.  Nothing can possibly let me get a victory, and after smashing me effortlessly three times they got bored.

The trouble is that the girls want to win.  They aren't interested in learning, or practising.  They just want to beat people.  Since they are horrible at every game this means that they lean towards games that have effectively no decisions (or perhaps one decision that is completely trivial) so that they win as often as anyone else.  They don't want to get a handicap either, because then they don't feel like they were winning, so stupid old coinflip games are where it is at.

This is a cruddy situation.  I love games, and everyone knows it, so they want to play with me.  But when we play I am bored to tears because either we are just pushing tokens around all day with no thought or I smash my opponents immediately.

It is tricky because I don't want to say to them that games against them are boring as hell for me, but that is simply the truth.  I would play games where I win and they learn, or games where I have a reasonable handicap, but neither is acceptable to them.  They only want pure randomness.

So we have a shared hobby that we cannot share at all.  At least, not while everyone involved actually enjoys themselves.

People have told me that this will change as Pinkie Pie gets older but I don't see it.  I remember myself at roughly her age, and I liked challenging games.  I liked figuring them out.  She doesn't have that desire, or the mindset to be really good at games.  It just isn't a thing I share with her, much as I might want to.

I have been thinking about this a lot because while I was at World Boardgaming Championships a few weeks ago people were asking if my daughter would be coming along one year.  The honest answer was no.  She doesn't want to lose, and she would.  She doesn't want to play interesting games, and WBC has lots of those.

And, to be fair, I want WBC to be my week of total hedonism, not my week of being resentful while I follow my daughter around and skip out on seeing cool people and playing games I love.

Whatever I end up sharing with my daughter, I don't think games are it.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Degenerate hunting

I have a strategy for the board game Shadow Hunter.  It can be roughly summarized as Git Em.

I played Shadow Hunter a few times this past week and the other players seemed surprised at the level of aggression I displayed in the game.  The way the game works is you have hidden roles and identities for each player.  You can either be a Shadow, a Hunter, or a Neutral.  Generally Shadows win by killing all the Hunters, Hunters win by killing all the Shadows, and Neutrals have weird win conditions.  In my five player games there were 2 Shadows, 2 Hunters, and 1 Neutral.  Throughout the game you have opportunities to figure out which team or individual the other players are.

My fellow players seemed to really like the idea of playing it cagey.  They would pass up opportunities to attack other players on the basis that they didn't know who they were attacking and thus the attack might make their situation worse rather than better.  They usually waited until they knew exactly who to attack before getting aggressive.

I, on the other hand, came out swinging.  I figured that since I was a Shadow and I had to kill 2 Hunters to win I should always be attacking somebody.  If I kill the Neutral that is probably just fine, and if I kill my fellow Shadow that is bad, but if I attack a Hunter then all is well.  That means that I am happy hitting 3 of my 4 possible targets so I might as well hit whoever I can whenever I can.  I will of course try to figure out who the other players are but I don't need to wait to be sure before bashing some faces!

I won both games in part because of good luck, but in part simply because my aggressive strategy worked out.  I did injure my ally in both games but I put far more damage onto the Hunters I was trying to kill and they ran out of hit points before I did.  In a game with five players and no second place I think you usually want to favour high risk, high reward strategies.  Especially if the other players are being really timid you will do very well by spreading out damage on everybody but yourself, and while occasionally you will kill your ally and lose badly most of the time you will win.

I like to think of it in extreme terms.  If I do nothing then I stay even with everyone else and presumably have a 20% chance of victory.  If I lay out an absurd beating and everyone else dies I am a heavy favourite to win, probably 80%+.  (You might think it would be 100%, but the game has weird mechanics I am not getting into.)  The closer I can swing the game towards that 80% win situation, the better off I am.

The unfortunate thing about this conclusion is that everyone should employ it.  The neutral characters sometimes really don't want other people to die because of their weird mechanics but for all the Hunters and Shadows you generally want to attack all the time.  If everyone does this then the game doesn't work all that well because everyone dies in an extreme hurry and there is little in the way of strategy.  By the time you figure out who some of the other players are the game has ended one way or the other.  It feels as though the game creators wanted to build a game where people spent time ferreting out their opponent's secrets and working out complex guesses about hidden information, but what the players should be doing if they want to win is just murdering anyone they can as fast as they can.  That results in a game that is quick, random, and thoroughly uninteresting.

This sort of issue crops up all the time in games.  Puerto Rico is a good example, where the game designer clearly had ideas about large scale production and shipping dominance, as evidenced by the design and cost of the Hospice, Large Warehouse, and Wharf.  But instead what usually happens is one person builds all the production facilities and quickly ends the game with enormous Mayor phases and the Guild Hall.  The optimal line of play is not actually one that makes the game enjoyable because it forces a narrow style of play that leaves much of the game in the dust.

The base set of Dominion is similar.  There are all kinds of interesting cards to buy but most of them flat out aren't good enough to be worth it.  It is far too common that the optimal line of play is to buy a single copy of the best Action card on the table and then just buy Silver - Gold - Province.  What a snooze fest.  Thankfully for Dominion the expansions are much better.

If you want a game to have any longevity and good replayability this is important.  Clearly optimal play is going to be different from weak play, but it is important that optimal play incorporate all the major game elements and have good feel.  For example, in Agricola an optimal player still wants to build some rooms, grow the family, and collect some of all the types of goods in the game.  That player is going to do all the things, they are just going to do it more efficiently, and they are going to make lots of interesting choices in the process.

It is important that optimal play support both interesting decisions, varied lines of play, and allows for a high skill cap.  Shadow Hunters fails on all three counts.  Optimal play involves few decisions that have little effect, the same experience every time, and makes the game highly random.

It is too bad, because I like a lot of the lore and the ideas behind the game.  I just can't get behind the final design.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A concession in the real league

Last week I played another round of Blood Bowl in my real league against a bunch of people I am connected to IRL.  My dwarves were 2-0 so far, but both of my previous opponents were Dark Elves, and that is a great matchup for early progression dwarves.  This past week I was up against Undead, who are a much more difficult matchup.

In theory.

In practice I smashed the Undead from one end of the pitch to the other.

The Undead received the first kickoff and KO'd one of my dudes on the first turn.  It wasn't a good start, but I returned the favour, KOing one of them.  Then I got a couple of dwarves next to the ball carrier and knocked down a bunch of their team.  My opponent decided to run a Mummy over to rescue the ball carrier but they failed a Go For It, used their reroll, and then the dwarf knocked the Mummy down on a double Both Down result.

That sort of thing is rough.  It meant that on my next turn I got the ball away from the opponent, scooped it up, and knocked down most of the enemy team.  My opponent tried a crazy Dodging Mummy play (roughly 7% to succeed) and it failed and he left the rest of his team on the ground.  I ran the ball to the end zone and my dwarves spent the rest of the half standing menacingly over his prone players while we each hit End Turn.  I scored on the last turn of the half and was up 1-0.  I had KOd two of his units and injured another, but he had a huge bench so he was still fielding a full team.

We started with me grabbing the ball and knocking down a few of his dudes.  He tried to fight back, but ended up in a terrible position where I pushed one of his two Mummies off of the field and injured or KOd another two random dudes.  I had the ball in a safe position and was definitely giving him the beatdown and my opponent said that he thought he should concede.

This was a difficult spot.  I was up 1-0, in scoring position, and clearly dominant in the hitting game at that point.  My opponent had only a tiny chance to win.  However, even if he was a real long shot to win, staying in the game would give him 5 experience from earning an MVP and would also get him the cash from the game.  Conceding gets him out without any serious injuries but left him without any experience from the game and still broke.

I wasn't sure how to respond.  I wanted to continue to play, and I really wanted to play in a league where people fight to the bitter end, but his position was terrible and the most likely result is that I beat his dudes up for another five turns and beat him 2-0.  I think my opponent would be better off fighting on, mostly because he had lots of cheap linemen to spare, so if I injure them it hardly matters.  Getting more experience on his important units was critical enough to stay in and take the beating, I think.

But I don't want to be pushing people to play if they don't want to play.  If a person wants to duck out, then I don't like harping on them to fight on.  I did well with his concession - I got 17 experience in total, tons of cash, and a win.  You can't ask for better, especially since I took no injuries.

Now I am 3-0, like two other teams in the league.  I am among the highest in team value, and my team has a max bankroll and no injuries.  I am in a great spot to compete for the trophy, and that makes me happy.

I am of two minds about this week overall.  On one hand I like winning and doing well in a tournament.  On the other I like games that are hard fought and tight, and this one felt like a blowout where I just smashed my opponent.  The concession two thirds of the way through cemented that.  I don't exactly know if I want other opponents to go the same way or not!  I want to win... but I want to win *just barely*.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

What kind of game is it anyway?

At WBC this year I was introduced to a variety of games, of which two in particular stood out:  Orleans and Terra Mystica.  Orleans was enjoyable, and fairly obviously an engine game where you have to set yourself up to have lots of powerful actions to generate points in the later game.  I liked it a lot, but don't have a lot more to say about it.

Terra Mystica, on the other hand, was a bit confusing.

I showed up for a TM heat and Umbra had approximately 2 minutes to teach me the game.  If you know TM you know that you can't possibly teach it properly in 2 minutes, even to someone who picks up games really fast.  What Umbra managed to get across to me was that the points scoring turn tiles are the key to the game, and I should just listen to them and do whatever they say.  Umbra insisted that TM pretends to be an engine game, but it is lying, and it is instead a game where I build points based on what the turns tell me to.

Cool.  I didn't know what the resources were, or in fact what most of the game mechanics were, but I was ready to play.  Obey the turn tiles!  I can do that!

I ended up leading through most of the game but ended up third in the final scoring.  For someone who really didn't understand how most of the game even worked before starting to play this is a pretty solid result.

Later on I played another game of TM and ended up winning by a substantial margin, though I think I got kind of lucky in terms of being able to capture the territory I needed.

Afterwards I talked to Pounda about TM and he gave me a totally different speech.  Pounda told me that people will tell you that TM is not an engine game, but in fact it is an engine game.  You get a temple, buy the favour that gives you bonuses for each dwelling you put down, and then put down as many dwellings as possible.  Don't even worry about what the turn tiles say, instructed Pounda, just get your dwelling engine online and win.

So now I have a conundrum.  Two strong players gave me different instructions.  Now, Umbra did tell me that the favour that Pounda liked so much was the best one, so they aren't that far apart, but their philosophies differed quite substantially even if their actual game choices seemed similar.

I want the game to be the way Umbra paints it.  I like the idea of a game where you have shifting priorities in each playthrough so you have to develop a different strategy based on what each set of turn tiles brings.  So I know what I want the game to be, the question is:  which game is it really?

Is TM an engine building game where you just focus on doing the same thing each game, trying to be slightly more optimal than your opponents, or is it a game of shifting priorities where each playthrough you must develop a new strategy?  Damned if I know, I have only played twice.

I guess the solution is to play it one hundred times until I actually know what I am doing.  Rough work, but somebody has to do it.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Expectations of success

Last week was World Boardgaming Championships week.  I had thought I might write gaming posts from the event itself, but the wifi was shoddy enough and the games were distracting enough that I never did get around to it.  This week I am to remedy that to some extent.

The short version is that I racked up eight semi final qualifications, played in six of those semi finals, advanced to the finals twice, and have a third place plaque for Castles of Mad King Ludwig to go with my second place plaque from last year.  I also got a fourth place in Santa Fe Rails, though for that I didn't get any hardware to clutter up my home.  Maybe that is a good thing?

Overall it was similar in terms of success to last year.  Both years saw two finals tables, though last year had better results at those tables.  In both years my team game was Puerto Rico, and in both years I failed my team by scrubbing out in the semi finals.

Also in other silly news I skipped the semi finals of Lords of Waterdeep both years to participate in a Puerto Rico heat.  I also missed the semi finals of Monsters Menace America for a heat, but that game is kind of silly and fluffy so I didn't mind so much.

Overall the experience at the convention was a good one, but I had a few moments that really weren't great.  The first was in a semi final for Santa Fe Rails where it was me, my teammate, the GM of Santa Fe Rails, and a dude I didn't know.  The game was about to end and the GM had a decision to make.  He could either give four points to me and to the random dude, or give fourteen points to my teammate.  Now normally this is an easy choice and you give four points to two people, especially when one of those two is clearly last place.

But instead of doing that the GM explained that he was sure that my teammate was winning, so he wanted to hurt me as much as possible to secure second place for himself.  He handed my teammate fourteen points and the game ended.

I felt almost ill.  I felt like I had played well, and was pretty sure my teammate was really close behind me, so it really sucked to have someone throw points away from me in such a fashion.  It would not have been fun to lose like that.

But instead it turned out that I was way ahead, more than anybody thought.  I won the game anyway, with points to spare.  But because my teammate got those fourteen points he pulled ahead of the GM and got second.

Ouch for the GM.  Onward to the finals for me!

Then later on in the week I was in my Puerto Rico semi final, and again I was playing against the GM of Santa Fe.  He was fourth chair and quickly sold a corn, bought a coffee roaster, and sold coffee.  His game was looking amazing.  However, I decided that it was my mission to prevent any more coffee sales and I jammed the trading house as hard as I could.  This was helped by lefty and righty both having tobacco to sell so nobody was able to safely craft.  I managed to wrangle selling sugar, and it was the third last turn of the game before someone finally sold a tobacco to clear the trading house.  When the game ended there were two Offices that had never been used, a Small Market that had never been used, and a Small and a Large Market that got used once.  Totally nuts.

I realized on about turn six or seven that all three opponents were going hard for Guild Hall.  Everybody was buying up production buildings as fast as they could.  I decided that the only chance I had was to get it myself, so I saved up cash and snagged it right before two other people could step in and buy it.  All three opponents were unhappy as all of them would have gotten far more points from it than me.  I ended up getting six from the Guild Hall so it was still the best choice for me but two of the others would have gotten the full ten.

The GM from Santa Fe Rails then announced that he was deliberately throwing the game to my right hand opponent because he had been jammed so hard this game.  He ended the game instead of trying to score more points himself, and was left in last place.  I came second and failed to advance to the finals, though I did crush lefty and the GM across from me by huge margins.

So this one guy went to great lengths to throw the game away from me in two semi finals this year.  Once it worked and made me lose (though I might well have lost anyway, to be fair) and the other time it just screwed him over and did nothing to stop me.

Not the ideal way for games to go.

Thing is, I don't regret losing Puerto Rico that way.  I think I played a brilliant game.  I stopped my opponents from running their game plans, I had perfect tempo when I grabbed the Guild Hall, and I wrangled a strong endgame position from a terrible early game situation.  I played great, and crushed both downstream opponents mercilessly.  The guy upstream of me really isn't my problem - I can't do much to stop him, that is the job of the player to his right!

But despite doing things right I lost, partly due to spite, partly due to the other two people not jamming my righty enough.

So while I wish I had managed to win to help support my teammates, I don't find any blame for myself here.  I did the right things and I lost anyway.  That happens.  However, next year I am definitely not making Puerto Rico my team game.  It is so frustrating to have a game where you do it all right and lose anyway, and Puerto Rico really jams up my schedule.  Maybe I will make my team game Castles of Mad King Ludwig next year.  I am apparently consistently good at that, and I love playing it.

Lessons learned.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Squish the elves, again

I finished the second week of my new Blood Bowl league and it was shockingly similar to the first.  I played against a Dark Elf team for the second week in a row, won 2-1 for the second week in a row, and injured three elves for the second week in a row.  The injuries this week were less punitive because none of the elves died or took permanent penalties but all three are skipping next week's game to recover, same as last week.

I have had an easy ride of it so far.  Dark Elves are a good match for me, especially in the early going.  They rely on their Dodge ability heavily, and since Dwarves get to cancel Dodge at low cost the elves have a rough time of it.  This opponent in particular had a ton of Dodge on his team and it was not particularly helpful.  My next few matches are going to be rougher, I am sure of that.

One thing I have that nobody else in the league has (that I know of) is an upgraded stadium and an enhancement.  There are lots of enhancements available, though each team can only get one of them.  They are symmetrical in theory, but that doesn't quite work out in practice.  For example you can get soft turf that makes people less likely to get hurt if they fall down by running too far, or both sides can get a wizard.

The two enhancements that were most interesting to me were the ones that grant both sides a Bribe during the match and the one that reduces the cost of Star Players by 50,000.  Note that you have to be playing in your home stadium for the enhancement to matter so you only get the benefit half the time; this will be important.

Dwarves have a really powerful unit called a Deathroller.  It is the strongest unit in the game and is a total wrecking ball when it is on the field, but it gets sent off by the ref after the drive when it is on the field.  You can use a Bribe to try to get the ref to ignore the Deathroller once, but the Bribe only works 83% of the time.  A lot of people seemed to think that the Bribe enhancement combined with a Deathroller on the team would be really good but I don't think it works out that way.  The problem is that the combination of only playing in your stadium half the time and the 17% failure rate means that the Deathroller gets sent off 58% of the time anyway.

Also in many cases you field the Deathroller and use the Bribe, but the opponent has one turn left before halftime and the Deathroller ends up on the field and gets kicked out again immediately.  You can fix this by having lots of dwarves on the bench so you make sure the Deathroller doesn't *have* to be put on the field, but then you have a ton of Team Value devoted to dwarves on the bench, which sucks.  I think the consensus is that the Deathroller costs too much and you would be better off with more skills on your other dwarves than an unreliable trick like the Deathroller.

Dwarves are also in a uniquely good position to use the Star Player cost reduction.  Most Star Players cost 300,000 or more gold to hire, and they are generally badly statted and overcosted.  Reducing their cost by 50,000 is irrelevant; nobody wants them anyway.  However, dwarves have a Star Player called Berik Farblast who only costs 60,000.  He is good at picking up and throwing the ball, but this isn't especially useful as I don't want him to get the touchdowns because he will leave the team at the end of the game and the experience will be wasted.  Berik's abilities really are generally bad and I would never pay 60,000 for him, especially because he has a secret weapon and gets sent off at the end of a drive just like the Deathroller.

But I would pay 10,000 for him!  At 10,000 Berik is a steal.  Not because you use him to play the ball, but because he can foul.  The problem with fouling normally is that you often lose the player you are fouling with to the ref.  Berik is getting sent off anyway and cost almost nothing to hire so I lose very little when he exits the game.  I can run him around and foul like crazy and I don't care if he gets sent off.  He is also useful as a speed bump.  Dwarves are tough but I still don't want them to die.  If there is someone really scary then Berik can just stand next to them and get punched.  If he dies, I don't care.  If he lives to get punched again, then my 10,000 value loser is tying up 100,000+ worth of enemy.

Really, the point of Berik is not his unique abilities but just that he is a dude.  A dude that can stand places and step on necks.  It turns out that a dude like that is really useful if they are cheap enough.

And to give Berik credit, he does have some cool stuff.  If I desperately need a long pass gambit he is actually really good at that.  If I need to throw the ball to the other end of the pitch to keep my opponents from scoring, Berik has the Hail Mary Pass ability, which I would never actually select, but which could come up.

I will only buy Berik when I am playing at home and have the 50,000 cost reduction so half of the time I will just be a normal dwarf team.  The other half of the time I will have a cute little benefit that makes my team just a little better.  The best part about this plan is that I can play completely normally if I want to - I don't really commit anything, and it will never help my opponent.