Hearthstone: Kobolds & Catacombs

The game of the weekend has been Hearthstone. I had never played before, but I was lured by the advertisement of the latest update and the surety that I had a bunch of free bonuses from various Blizzard promos. The new content is Hearthstone’s take on rogue-likes. It is a series of eight battles against increasingly powerful NPC decks, where the player accumulates cards and upgrades as he progresses. Rogue-like elements include facing a variable cast of foes from a set list, variable foe stats based on which “level” you find them, picks from randomized loot bags, and picks from themed, randomly selected pools of cards.

The good is that the design addresses many of the issues seen in rogue-likes. Each upgrade is a pick from three upgrades, and while you may not have the best upgrades on the list, you do get a chance to customize your deck around your preferences or a common theme. The theming of the content is good, a mix of kobolds, adventurers, and monsters.

The bad is that it combines the low-skill play Hearthstone is known for, minus most of the deckbuilding aspect, plus the randomness and degree of fairness you have come to expect from rogue-likes. Some of the NPC decks are vastly harder than others, or vastly harder for some classes or decks. Draw one of those and you will probably lose. Sometimes you will get several upgrade options in a row that build on one another, or maybe none of your three picks fits well with what you have. You may get the perfect options to go with your passive upgrade or few to none that work with it. And then there is the usual trust in the Heart of the Cards that comes with CCGs. The new mode claims massive replayability, which is to say there are many random variations (of varying degrees of difficulty) when you have several layers of randomization.

This leads to unproductive forum discussions where some people got through on their first try and others are hitting walls, or someone tried twice in a row and lost early then got really far without any real change. When the game stacks random enemies that can appear at different levels against several classes that get random items and seven picks from random card sets, plus randomization in the cards and some cards with random effects, the results can be explained at best statistically. All that randomization can even out to the expected experience or something radically off the rails. It needs to work out eight times in a row for the player to clear the dungeon run; the first two or three are free, the last two or three are a bit of a roll of the dice even under perfect play, just from the way some NPC decks are hard counters to player decks.

The dungeon runs are not dependent on which cards you own. The cards are provided along the way (and not kept). This makes it a good way for new players to see the game and be on even footing with veterans, and to unlock the basic cards for each class. To the extent that Hearthstone can be skill-based, this is more skill-based than standard CCG play, minus most of the deck-building aspects. As someone new to the game, it seems more compelling than entertaining. It is very slick and nicely done, with the sort of predictably mediocre gameplay we have come to expect from MMO PvE. It seems like a fine game for decompressing after work or to play absently on a bus. I feel like I have already experienced most of what Hearthstone has to offer after a mix of dungeon runs and normal games over a weekend. I do not suspect it is meant to have deep gameplay for me to discover.

: Zubon

Human: Fall Flat

This week’s game is Human: Fall Flat. You play Bob, a drunk ragdoll trying to complete physics puzzles to find his way out of his floating dream environments. Bob starts with humble tasks like walking, climbing stairs, and putting boxes on buttons. He then moves on to greater things like climbing mountains, destroying dams, lighting coal power plants from the inside, and raiding an Aztec temple.

The game starts fun and becomes somewhat less so over time. The early levels have that Portal feel of directed activity. The puzzles are fairly simple, and it is mostly a matter of learning execution. As you go on, the puzzles have less direction, so your main guide is knowing that you want to get out, along with the metagame thoughts of “what does the designer want from me here?”

Playing is mostly fun. Bouncing around with no consequences is freeing. If Bob falls, he just crashes a few steps back. Toss around boxes, play with wires, ram things with boats. Bob is built like a toddler and has similar gross motor skills. This becomes a source of frustration at points, for example in the platformer/parkour level. “Drunk toddler parkour” probably streams well, but it can be frustrating when Bob reaches between his legs instead of straight forward, or he steps off a ledge when you turn to look around. If it happens a few times, that is part of the fun; when it happens repeatedly, you want to smack Bob’s physics engine.

As in my standard adventure game complaint, what you consider intuitive may not match the level designers. You may beat your head against a few walls, and it can be hard to tell whether you are doing the wrong thing or just having trouble executing the move with a drunk ragdoll. I know there are some puzzles I “solved” the wrong way, and a few I circumvented entirely. It made more sense to do X, and it turned out that X skipped a quarter of the level. At one point, I was having trouble with a puzzle, and I thought I would try to strafe-jump around the wall I was trying to get past. Yep, that worked, next puzzle. On two maps, I managed to get on top of the walls, which lets you run past almost everything, and the hard part is trying to figure out in what direction the exit is. I am not sure if I fulfilled or frustrated the game’s intent.

It is a short game, on the order of 5-10 hours based on how you approach the game. There is multiplayer now, so maybe I can try a little more with friends. Drunk Bob party!

: Zubon

Terra Mystica Tiers

I played Terra Mystica for the first time this weekend. It was fun, a very dense game. It made me think of Settlers of Catan crossed with Seven Wonders, except that there is no uncontrolled randomness: no dice, no hidden cards, just player choices. The headlining feature is that it has 14 asymmetrical factions. Having read a bit online, most people agree that the factions are imbalanced. They just disagree on which factions are weak or strong.

There are some consistencies. Many people argue the factions are balanced enough, so it does not matter below competitive play (and there are balancing methods there, since you can start with more or fewer victory points). Most ratings have some overall similarities: Darklings and Mermaids are strong, Giants and Fakirs are weak. Then you start seeing radical differences in assessments, some of which are backed by data, and some of the data seems conflicting (which should diminish at larger sample sizes). Grabbing the first few examples I found on Google: are Cultists “worse than terrible” or the winningest faction? Or darklings were mid-tier those statistics but #1 in this larger pool of statistics. I see Alchemists ranked both in the top 4 and the bottom 4. Or this thread is a good example of divergent opinions being professed with or without support.

The answer I favor after a lot of reading is “it depends,” which has more nuance than you might think. Like Smash Up, some factions do better or worse with more or fewer opponents. Some do better or worse against particular other factions or combinations of factions. Some do better or worse on particular maps, or with particular bonuses in the game. Some are more straightforward while others require unusual strategies or expert play. Some factions will be better than others given your usual play environment. This is especially true if your usual play environment includes people who consistently pick the same faction or strategy and are particularly good/bad. I am convinced that most cries of imbalance in games can be traced back to who is the best player in your gaming group and their play preferences. That differs, so different players see radically different results on whether a game favors or penalizes combat, quick expansion, or a particular branch of the tech tree.

Which is not to say that there cannot be imbalances. Maybe one degenerate approach is particularly strong, or it is easier to excel with a certain strategy, or a configuration that favors X is more common. One of the fun rankings is those links is about how resilient the faction is: some are situationally powerful but often weak, while another might be a consistent B across most options. Of course, given that Terra Mystica is a game with all information available at the start, reading the board and knowing which faction to pick (and factoring in others’ picks) is an expert-level skill. See also players who refuse to think about team composition in League of Legends or switching to counters in Overwatch.

This can also poison data-driven rankings. The strongest faction could easily come out ranked mid-tier because everyone knows it is the strongest faction, so the weaker players flock to it as a handicap, and they still lose. Meanwhile, expert players both know their situational strategies and recognize those situations, so some of the weaker factions can rack up wins punching above their weight. When someone makes a weak pick, you rarely know if they are too bad to know better or too good for you to see their reasoning.

: Zubon

Disney and EA Pricing Models

Anyway, as it turns out Disney had to step in and yank EA’s chain to get them to stop shitting all over the Star Wars franchise just before a big movie launch next month. So I suspect we won’t see EA suspend their temporary moratorium on predatory practices and straight up pay to win until Star Wars: The Last Jedi makes its billions in screen revenues and toy sales.
Wilhelm, The Ancient Gaming Noob

In my experience, while Disney would like to monetize everything, they recognize that every price point is a pain point. Disney will give you as many chances as you like to give them money, but their Parks and Resorts model encourages all inclusive prices, “buy the box” not microtransactions, and they want to put a fig leaf over the microtransactions so you do not think of them as separate expenses.

For example, if you go to Walt Disney World, Disney would like to sell you a “Magic Your Way” package. They want to pick you up from the airport, take you to a Disney resort, have tickets for the theme parks, provide transportation within Disney territory, and provide all your meals while you’re there. Is that expensive? Yes, even after the discounts to encourage you to do that. But it is one big purchase, and then you can forget it. Extra purchases while you are there are hidden behind your MagicBand, and the wristband scan that gets you through a line quickly or uses one of your pre-paid meals does not feel quite like pulling out your wallet. The model is to keep you from ever leaving Disney territory. Every time you need to make a separate spending decision, you might buy that a la carte piece somewhere else. Better to give you an incentive to spend everything all at once.

You can opt out and pay for each piece separately. Pretty much every one will have a reminder that you could have the all-inclusive package instead.

But that’s my experience, and I have not explored say the microtransactions in their mobile games. Your experiences?

: Zubon

The Joy of Side Soup

Previously: Krepost.

In Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!!, the two big, new mechanics are holding stations and side dishes. A simple bowl of soup shows how well these mechanics play into both gameplay and theme.

Holding stations are places to prepare food in quantity. If someone wants a slice of ham or a roll, you do not custom cook a single slice of ham or one roll. Well, you did in the original game. In CSD2, you have a holding station where you can prep in quantity. For some dishes, this is all you do. You bake a tray of muffins, and when someone orders a muffin, you give them a muffin. Done. For other dishes, you have more work to do, such as adding toppings. Then there are some dishes where the holding station is optional: you can grill a bunch of hamburgers, or you can cook them as people order. Soup has gone from “cook one complicated bowl of soup every time someone orders” to “make a pot of soup,” which serves several customers.

Side dishes are never ordered on their own, but they add a bonus to perfectly cooked foods and increase customer patience. Customers will wait longer for a burger and fries than for a burger alone. Maybe they are spending more time looking at the menu. Each side dish takes up a holding station slot. You make them in quantity, then they get doled out along with main dishes. Part of managing rush hours is keeping your side dishes going, because you remember to re-load before the lunch hour hits, but then you are serving furiously and suddenly there are no fries! and the customers are getting impatient and angry, and you have to hurry and get another batch of three sides going while people are threatening to walk out the door, and oh why did you decide to run an entire restaurant all by yourself?

Some foods have both main dish and side dish versions. You might have a bowl of soup for dinner or a cup of soup as a side. CSD2 includes this. The soup recipe is still complicated, with a fairly long cooking time, and it takes up a holding station. (Sadly, you cannot just make one pot of soup and use it for both.) Whereas the main dish soup serves about a half-dozen people, the side soup serves a dozen or more. It is a small investment that returns a medium return over a length of time. It is perfect for that lunch rush because a big pot of chili will make a lot of side orders.

A side soup is a very simple idea, but it brings together the new mechanics, shows the sequel’s mechanics better fit the theme than the original, and gives you a significant benefit in the game.

: Zubon

Back on the Grill

I am back to Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! and enjoying it. I had planned to shelve it until the next update, when custom keybindings were to have been added, but that was delayed after the entire update was delayed about a month. Good game, one person development team, weak project management. *shrug*, it happens.

Custom keybinding is harder than it sounds. Let’s assume that CSD2 was programmed with that in mind, since CSD1 had it. That means you do not hardcode “chicken=K” but instead set it to a variable that is more easily changed, and set that variable to K. Okay, but to give the player control over that, you still need to give them an interface to change that. CSD2 has almost 200 foods, some of which have more than a dozen keybinds. Building a user interface that lets you usefully look at potentially 2000 options is non-trivial. I think the game really needs that feature, for reasons previously explained, but it is not unplayable without it. And the new update promises the interface needed to manage all those foods, which seems like a step towards an interface to manage all those keys.

So I went back to play more in anticipation of next week’s update. If nothing else, I wanted some money in the bank for the new upgrades. I found the harder levels still hard, significantly because of the inconsistent keybindings across foods, so I decided to try more of the easy levels. The “campaign” included at launch, and the new big thing for CSD2, is “Cook For Hire,” a series of restaurants where each “day” is a fixed challenge: a pre-selected menu with set “buzz” and modifiers. Earlier days have fewer options and customers, later days are a constant rush of people and juggling options. (Another theme of CSD2: you pick your difficulty level.) I had been playing through each restaurant, first day to last, until I got a gold medal on each. I hit a wall, somewhere around the edge of my skill level and managing several different keys for chocolate and mangoes on the same menu, which is where I left the game a month ago. Coming back, I tried more of the first days across restaurants.

That has been great. I have been exposed to more of the breadth of the game, found more things that I like, and went through some to climb the difficulty because I really liked the recipes and challenges for those restaurants. I found that I enjoy the recipes that take advantage of the holding stations, CSD2’s new functionality where you can prep food in advance. You do not make soup for each customer as they order it; you prepare a pot of soup, and you serve from that. Dishes like sliced meats and side soups take a long time to cook but feed a lot of people. Soup in particular has gone from one of the most difficult foods in CSD1 to something complex but worthwhile when you make an entire pot of soup.

Asian foods tend to be horrible. That may not be fair, since I have not tried them all, but I have tried restaurants with like four variants on stir fry, each of which has a dozen recipes, most of them somewhat similar but different enough to mess you up if you rely on muscle memory, and then they have some inconsistent keybindings. Ugh. Or lots of finicky details. Or keybindings that would probably make sense if I had time to practice the recipes, but I am seeing them for the first time when customers order them. (Another improvement that I hope is coming: let us practice/preview the recipes from the screen listing what foods are on the menu that day. Give me an easier way than noting all the foods then going back and forth through several screens to find them.) And then there are the foods that have special instructions at the bottom other than ingredients, like rolling and slicing and wrapping. Also the Taiwanese Shaved Ice whose keybindings I have already complained about. I do not know if the Asian foods picked are more complex, if they are new and have not had the streamlining that might come with “if I had this to do over,” they are just unfamiliar to me, or they are intentionally more difficult out of some orientalist exoticism. But sliced ham feels really easy after making gourmet tofu dishes.

Good game. Worth buying. If you have not yet, I would say it is worth full price, and Steam sales happen all the time (maybe next week, for the update?).

: Zubon

[TT] Battle Sheep

Battle Sheep is an abstract game of territorial control themed around sheep. The visuals and theme are cute and light. The play is surprisingly cutthroat.

The entirety of the rules fit on an index card, so this is an elegant game getting a lot of distance out of very simple mechanics. A full game with four players takes about ten minutes, so your investment is low. It is simple enough to teach anyone but has surprising strength for serious gamers.

The whole game is assembling a pasture (so it is not identical every game), starting with a stack of sheep on the edge, and dividing a stack each turn. When you move sheep, they carry on in that direction until they hit something (an edge or another sheep). Your goal is to occupy the most space in the pasture, preferably herded together. That’s it. That’s the whole game.

How does this give rise to interesting decisions? The main one is how many sheep to take or leave each time you split. You want to box in your opponents while avoiding being boxed in yourself. You can project a lot of power all at once, but that also means most of your sheep are headed right next to an opponent who could be countering you. Project too little power, and opposing sheep will just walk around you.

The game is quick, simple, competitive, cute, and strategic. The components are high quality. I have never heard anyone describe this as a “must play,” but I stumbled on it and found that it beat my expectations. The next game up that night was the much more highly rated Istanbul, and I found myself thinking, “but is all this added complexity worth it?” Battle Sheep does a lot with very little.

: Zubon

Expansion Fatigue

Wilhelm asks:

This is the problem with expansions; they eventually stretch an MMO out to in crazy directions and, unless you keep up and never take a break, it is easy to feel left behind or to ask when enough is enough?

This is a factor that keeps me from going back to MMOs. When you log in and see three expansions’ worth of change, do you say, “Oh boy, it’s like a whole new game to learn!” or “Oh crap, it’s like a whole new game to learn!” The game you played before is gone, you need to relearn at least half your character’s skills and all the mechanics, every piece of loot you ever acquired is now vendor trash, and the population center is 20+ levels thataway. Welcome back!

What MMO does well in welcoming back players who have been gone for more than a year?

: Zubon

Another Try with Visual Novels

I gave “Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series” another shot and watched the first episode. I leave it at “watched” rather than “played” because I do not feel like my interactions were especially meaningful, and the gameplay remains a visual novel with quicktime events. Extra points lost for having sections with player control of movement where the only option is to walk forward. I am not sure how much the choices a player makes matter (by reviews: not much), but it seems true to the source material in that all options lead to death. Embracing “I am playing a role a tragedy” enhanced the experience. (There are several takes on “Guardians of the Galaxy as The Avengers playing an RPG,” and one of my favorite has Thor as Drax. After being told that calling up the Big Bad at level 2 will get them all killed, he revels in what a glorious tragedy it shall be.)

futurama screencap. robot devil says you cant just have your characters announce how they feel! that makes me feel angryI found the writing poor. There were several rounds of direct characterization, with characters remarking on how wise, brave, etc. the other characters are. There are at least two times in the first episode when you are put in control so you can click on pictures or objects to have the POV character say a series of, “Alice, she is so strong. Bob, I hope is still as playful as when I left,” etc. If the whole thing lasts about 12 hours, watching the game takes about as long as watching a season of Game of Thrones. The show sounds more entertaining.

I went on to try Doki Doki Literature Club, which has a lot of buzz. It is another visual novel. The fact that I can’t tell you the buzz about Doki Doki Literature Club without giving you a spoiler is itself a spoiler … as are the content warnings and “horror” tags. Checking a couple of reviews, it looks like I made it about a quarter of the way to the twist. Maybe I could try again, but the whole thing clocks in at 4-5 hours of visual novel. Maybe the full text is posted somewhere, and I could read an actual novel instead?

Folks have advocated Tales from the Borderlands as the best Telltale Games game, and Fate/Stay Night remains that one visual novel piece of gaming literature on the “someday” list. So I have some more to try sometime, but I am about at the point of accepting that this format is not for me. Walking simulators are borderline.

: Zubon