Lost Cavern

The brawl map of the week for Heroes of the Storm is Lost Cavern, HotS’s version of LoL’s ARAM. In many ways, it solves some of the problems with both HotS and ARAM.

The basic problem of HotS has always been that minigames trump laning and fights. ARAM removes any objectives except team fights in one lane.

ARAM is as random as the name suggests. Lost Cavern lets you pick from three heroes and shows you team comp while you do. Controlled randomness, rather than absolutel chaos. You can still win and lose on team comp, but not utterly and before the game starts.

: Zubon

Rubber Duckie

A friend blogging at The Unit of Caring writes about rubber ducks as the ideal of gaming … if you are a baby. Excerpt:

… the reason we enjoy different media at different ages is that interesting things are things that are the right amount of surprising and comprehensible. … Interesting things are in the sweet spot where they make enough sense you can form expectations and not so much sense that your expectations are wholly sufficient and the follow-through completely predictable.

And to a baby, the most delightful game in the world is ‘throw the duck out of the bathtub; throw the duck back into the bathtub’

She discusses what “the right amount” means to us and to a baby. Please do read for a delightful vignette. “Merlin” is the baby in question; she is not bathing an ancient wizard of inestimable power (or if she is, that is a different person).

: Zubon

The blog name is a reference to this post, discussing a concept better known as “earning to give.”

Card-Based Rogue-likes

Two games in my recent rotation are Guild of Dungeoneering and Hand of Fate. Both use card-based mechanics and a bit of deckbuilding alongside roguelike elements. Both games set you against fixed challenges, where the path there is built from a player-influenced set of cards. Your weapons against them are player-influenced sets of cards.

Hand of Fate gives you more control over the enemy deck but less on how it comes into play. You pick out what cards (challenges) are in the dealer’s hands, subject to restraints like fixed cards for each quest and based on your progress through sidequests. Once that happens, it is all in the dealer’s hands. The dealer lays out cards on a path you must follow, sometimes with paths you can choose, but always with cards face-down. That is its most rogue-like element. You never know what you’re walking into until the card flips over, and there are few chances to flip cards other than walking into them. In Guild of Dungeoneering, the player has no control over which cards form the dungeon, but the player chooses which, where, and how many to play each turn. You are occasionally dealt nigh-impossible cards for your hero, but it feels like a lot more control. The interesting decisions in Hand of Fate come during deck construction, while they come during gameplay for Guild of Dungeoneering. Score one for Guild of Dungeoneering, since most of your time is spent playing.

Both games let you customize your hero and equipment. Guild of Dungeoneering gives you an expanding roster of heroes to pick from. Hand of Fate has an expansion that lets you pick “Fate” modifiers (characters). More choice up front for Hand of Fate, at an extra dollar cost, but less choice throughout the game. Equipment generally comes with victories in both games. Guild of Dungeoneering lets you pick one of a few choices for each victory. Hand of Fate has far fewer choices but more equipment slots and a fair number of shops to buy and sell equipment. You customize a deck of possible equipment finds at the start of each Hand of Fate game; Guild of Dungeoneering unlocks more cards with the same cash pool that lets you unlock more heroes, and all cards are available each time. Better equipment customization options in Hand of Fate, and more individual choices in Guild of Dungeoneering.

Hand of Fate has a lot of random events. Most of them are a card-based “subgame,” although the whole game is “pick one of four face-down cards.” Not a terribly interesting decision. Equipment and curses can influence it, which has led me to the question of whether the odds are as they appear or if the cards are simply a graphic covering a percentile chance, as the wheel is in Renowned Explorers: International Society. In REIS, the wheel always likes to show a very close spin, nearly winning or losing on each. In Hand of Fate, there is equipment that straight up eliminates a “fail” card from the mix, but other equipment refers to changing odds in a way that makes no sense if you have a 25% chance of getting each card. Hand of Fate also has a combat subgame, which is somewhat entertaining but not great; if you see combat as the centerpiece of a game, and why wouldn’t you in a fantasy quest about getting loot and killing foes, it is not a strong centerpiece.

Guild of Dungeoneering uses a card game as its combat. Each character and monster has base abilities and skills, which translate into cards. Your equipment adds skills, which adds cards. Specialize, and you get stronger cards. Diversify, and you get more variety in cards, but you still play just one per round. The card game is nothing enormously special, variations on two types of attacks and blocks along with some exotic effects. It is entertaining, but most of the decision seems to be made by how well your class/equipment plays against this sort of monster plus whether one of you gets extremely bad luck. That makes your play in the other level of card game very important, but there are relatively few chances to feel like your beautiful mid-combat play saved the day. You can play well, but stacking the odds in your favor is stronger than playing the odds.

On the graphics and atmosphere side, Hand of Fate is dark and brooding. It has an aura of mysticism, although it seems skin deep. Guild of Dungeoneering is cartoony and cute, its narrator somewhat meaner. Hand of Fate has a bitter fortune teller laying out the cards and commenting on your progress. Guild of Dungeoneering has a bard taunting death for every quest. Graphics for either game are decent enough for what they are trying to do.

I think I have been enjoying Guild of Dungeoneering more, because its card game combat is better than Hand of Fate’s combination of random choices and action combat. The card game combat is not top tier, but it does one thing pretty well as opposed to having two “meh” mechanics.

: Zubon

Early Endgame

What I have often found dissatisfying about the tabletop games Pandemic and Agricola is that the endgame starts now. If you do not start with the end in mind, you will do badly.

A usual plan in games as in stories is to have a satisfying beginning, middle, and end. In games, that often means a bit of feeling out the game and exploring the space, seeing how the variability came out in this game, with some balance between rewarding exploration and early specialization. I feel like Pandemic and Agricola are games that require almost immediate pursuit of long range plans to be effective, otherwise you get behind necessary curves and realize you needed to be planning ahead several turns ago, in a game with not that many turns per player. Commenters: care to recommend other games that do this well or badly?

In a competitive game, accelerating the endgame can be a strong strategy, although it can be taken to absurdity. Most games that allow an early rush to the finish have an easy counter to it, so there is the standard rock-paper-scissors of early rush, balanced defense, and immediately building for the late game. Is calling for “no rush” games still a thing, for people who want paper to be the only option? I remember Blizzard discussing that in Starcraft balance, explicitly considering an early rush a legitimate and risky strategy, so no they were not nerfing scissors. (Pandemic is cooperative and Agricola has a fixed length, so perhaps this paragraph is just digression before the topic comes up in comments.)

I tend to be a strong strategy gamer, and there are certainly times that I like being reward for immediately being goal-oriented, but I do like a bit of wiggle room for exploration and unfocused fun, and it feels like a nasty surprise on the other players who were not starting their endgame plan on turn two. It feels a lot like games that give you lots of options, but on the highest difficulties only one or two of them are really viable. In a competitive game like Agricola, you can just play with people who are also content with somewhat lower scores and we all play in that league. In a cooperative game like Pandemic, we all lose if someone is not on the ball, so it leans towards the degenerate problem of one player effectively making the decisions for everyone.

: Zubon

West of Loathing

If you have never played Kingdom of Loathing, you probably should. It is one of those big, classic pieces of online gaming literature.

But literature has been defined as something you want to have read but not something you want to read. Maybe you want the newest and flashiest, not the classics? The makers of Kingdom of Loathing just released West of Loathing, a comedy western.

I have yet to try it, but “from the makers of Kingdom of Loathing” is self-recommending.

: Zubon

Second Winds

I often find myself trying a game, getting really into it for a day or a week, setting it aside for some reason or another, and then never getting the taste to pick it back up. I binged on Mini Metro but barely played it after the first week. (Still worth it, for the time and the money.) I have a dozen games on my desktop started but incomplete. I think I could binge the rest of the way through them if I started, but I have not had the intersection of mood and time to binge on them. And then I hesitate to start another with a dozen waiting there.

Years ago, this was summer vacation and I could burn through those games. Now I am thinking about cleaning out my house, and procrastinating from both cleaning and gaming.

: Zubon

Second Chances

Do you often give games a second chance after a bad first experience? So many games, so little time. You chanced an hour or two, do you want to chance more? After all, it takes a while to get the swing of a game or learn the rules.

That is an odd experience for games. Rules mastery is usually a requirement for having a meaningful opinion. There are few movies anyone would say you should try watching a few times to see if it grows on you. There are TV shows people will recommend watching until they grow the beard. Even then, it can be hard to suggest someone sit through about 10 hours of weak Buffy the Vampire Slayer until “School Hard.”

There are plenty of games I am not offering a second chance, like the DC deckbuilding game. Deus has kind of meh, but maybe it will grow on me.

Video games often run 40 hours. If the first two hours are weak, do you even press on to four?

Kill Ten Rats started as an MMO blog. Those run 1000+ hours. Can you really say you even tried World of Warcraft after two hours? But I remember mostly liking the first two hours I played way back when. And my wife tried it, saw it as similar to Guild Wars (which she did not care for), and for her purposes I cannot say she was wrong.

What game did you give a second chance? Did it work out well?

: Zubon

[TT] Cultists of Cthulhu

I played Cultists of Cthulhu, which is in the vein of Betrayal at House on the Hill or Arkham Horror. If you clicked the link, you know I was not a fan of Betrayal, but I kind of wanted to be (I am told the second edition is better). I was hoping that Cultists would be a better version of Betrayal. I did not enjoy it much.

Like Arkham Horror, Cultists is a much longer game than Betrayal, about two hours. Like Betrayal, it has multiple scenarios, although far fewer and with the traitor role known (to the traitor) in advance. There is more strategy and gameplay than Betrayal’s interactive story, but there can also be a lot of randomness. Like the first edition of Betrayal, the first edition of Cultists has unclear rules with ambiguities and misprintings. It does not have a lot of rules, but enough to make your first game(s?) clunky rather than elegant.

We just did not have a lot of fun, which is about as big and simple an indict as I can give a game. The game felt cumbersome, slow, and little under our control, even for a first playthrough. In retrospect, some of that was a rules misunderstanding. The rules as written are susceptible to that and could use a bit more editing. With only five scenarios in the game, they could have playtested a bit more to check for obvious edge cases.

What were our big negatives?

  • There were apparently no monsters in our scenario, and it was unclear what was supposed to happen with the one tentacle that spawned; we walked around it without it ever touching anyone.
  • The stars mechanic became completely irrelevant after the cultist was revealed.
  • The cultist found her experience completely unsatisfying because her reveal just gave her a cool gun. Which blew up on the first roll, slightly damaging her and not damaging any of the heroes.
  • Two unlikely dice rolls swung the game.
  • One of our players was colorblind. The cards use red, green, and blue icons to indicate what is going on. Ouch. Even for those of us not colorblind, the shades of blue and green could be mistaken for each other in low lighting.
  • Our scenario had a misprint. Instead of the Elder Sign, it showed “G” (“good”). Small thing, but again, there are only five scenario cards to proofread. There were also ambiguities in the scenario, as the rules say a scenario ability can only be used (successfully) once, but ours required using it three times. So is it only that one that could be used three times?
  • Characters can die and get stuck watching. Did I mention that a game can run two hours? The cultist’s goal is to kill the academics, so we should expect at least one academic to be sitting out at least a third of the game, with more players having nothing to do as the game progresses.

We liked the atmospherics, the variety of characters to choose from, the several options you had each turn, and the feeling that you had some control over your destiny. We had a good time accusing each other of being cultists. We were amused when thematic elements came together, like the fellow who drew a shotgun and trenchcoat.

Maybe it would play better on a second playthrough. But I played with random people at a board game party, so unless I take to playing this with a regular group, it is usually going to be someone’s first time on a multi-hour game. I cannot say that I can recommend the game at this point. I welcome others’ experiences in the comments.

: Pietro

Portal Review

Ingress has been e-mailing me a lot lately. They are getting around to reviewing some of the portal submissions I made two years ago. Apparently quite a few of them are duplicates now.

There is nothing in the e-mails to stop these notifications. I think I would need to re-download the game and update settings. Maybe I should just start marking them as spam or something.

: Zubon