Sunday, May 21, 2017

Increasing utility

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

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

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

But there is more to it than that.

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

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

Not exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

A downward spiral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Finishing touches

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

That line makes me feel kinda old.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Over a heap of corpses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 1, 2017

A roomie

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

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


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

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

So pumped.

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