Author Archives: Zubon

Quick Review: Gone Home

Gone Home is an interactive story, not a game. I loathe visual novels but I enjoyed Gone Home a great deal. It is a small story, about which not much can be said without spoiling it, but the comments are open for spoiler-filled discussion.

Gone Home has a short play time, around two hours. There are no monsters nor puzzles nor combat, just exploration and discovering the story at your own pace. You arrive home from the airport to find the house deserted. Go inside and find out what happened.

Two things made the game for me. First, Sarah Grayson’s voice acting as Sam. She’s great, especially when [spoiler]. Second, I really enjoyed the contrast between what the game seems to be and what the story is. Negatives: the main story is not something you cannot find better in a book; the side stories are more sketched than written (also perhaps their strength); the locked doors that structure the narrative are an obvious artifice. But seriously, Sarah Grayson.

I got Gone Home on sale, and I might hesitate to recommend it even at the 75% off, $5 price point versus “worth playing if you get it in a Humble Bundle.” I found it worth the time.

: Zubon

Metacritic reviews are very polarized, with the negative anchored by folks who missed the “no puzzles or combat” thing and spent $20 for a 2-hour non-game.

[TT] Kingdom Builder (First Impressions)

I have played my first few games of Kingdom Builder. My first impressions are very favorable, but I have not played enough to speak comprehensively. I also have not tried any of the expansion content. My “big box” came with two expansions and three mini-expansions, so I have a lot to explore.

Kingdom Builder is the Spiel des Jahres “Game of the Year” from 2012, designed by Donald Vaccarino, who also won it in 2009 for Dominion. Like Dominion, this is a simple-to-learn game that you can play with non-gamers, with components that vary by game to extend replayability and reduce the extent to which the game has a single, solvable “best” way to play.

Gameplay is the same for each game, but the board changes as does how you score points. That last is important: scoring rules change each game, 3 rules drawn from a deck of 10, so in one game you want to build a big kingdom by the water and in another you want a long horizontal row that borders a mountain range. There are 120 possible combinations of scoring rules, although that exaggerates the variation because some rules are similar (miners/fisherman give points for building next to water/mountains). The board changes because you pick 4 maps (from 8 in the base set, 2 orientations to each) and combine them to build the board, which gives you 26,880 potential boards, but again that overstates the variation because it counts different sets of 4 as well as different arrangements, and ABCD probably plays a lot like ABDC (ignoring arrangement gives you 70 boards). Each board has a unique location, so farms let you build more on plains while oases let you build more in the desert (again, templated variation). By the most generous counting, the base game comes with 3,225,600 different game configurations, but even a really stingy counting will put you in 4 digits, and running out of variation after a few thousand hours is not a bad payoff for a board game. And expansions come with more boards and scoring rules.

That variation is there for you, the dedicated repeat player. For casual folks who will play maybe once or twice, the important thing is that the rules can be explained in a couple of minutes. Basic gameplay: draw a terrain card, place three settlements in that terrain, bordering your existing kingdom if possible; if you built next to one of those unique locations, you now have an optional ability each turn (place or move settlements). When someone places his/her last settlement, the game ends after everyone has an equal number of turns. That’s pretty much it. A new player needs to learn a few simple rules, the four optional abilities, and the three scoring rules.

I am always on the lookout for good games I can play with people who would not self-identify as “gamers.” My first games were fun, and non-gamers were willing to play again.

: Zubon

Differing Perspectives

Blizzard has announced Overwatch, a sci fi FPS. I’m not sure how you do Overwatch:TF2 :: WoW:EQ, given that TF2 is already a cartoony FPS minus the parts you hate, but let’s not dwell on that.

Our friend Keen says it will almost assuredly be something he’ll enjoy, but he’s a bit grumpy about it.

Our friend SynCaine is just grumbling about interns and “where’s the real Blizzard?”

And that’s not unfair. Is the current Blizzard “the real” Blizzard? I played Torchlight instead of Diablo III largely under the premise that the key people behind Diablo II made Torchlight as the spiritual successor, and Diablo III went in a bit different direction in terms of many game design decisions. Hasn’t WoW had something like 100% turnover? How much developer continuity do we have from WC3 to SC2 to WC4?

There is something to be said for perpetuating corporate culture so that the company can be consistent even if the staffing differs. I just don’t know.

: Zubon

Blogroll of the Fallen

I haven’t inventoried the KTR blogroll in a while to check for defunct/moved blogs. I know many are in a tentative, “I don’t really have much to talk about” state, but many of us have been hovering in that state in a weak year for MMOs (advantage: group blog). If you know any to be dead/moved, please mention in the comments.

My personal RSS is a mix of highly active and completely dead blogs. There are a couple of literal deaths on that list, but I have not had the heart to remove them while the blogs are still online.

Jeff Freeman’s old blog is still available via the Internet Archive.

: Zubon

Customer Service

When you support an online application, you are supporting the entire computer. This past week, I have troubleshot network connections through VPNs, pop-up blockers in Internet Explorer, and file problems caused by the latest update for MS Office for Macs. Anything that keeps the user from using your system is a problem for you to solve.

: Zubon

I still don’t have a solution on that last one, but I have a workaround.

“Contested”

I’m typing this while listening to David Sirlin’s new podcast. Around 20:12 he discusses “contested” skills, which I think is a good term and one I may start using. This reaches back to a comments discussion from 2012, where we had a brief exchange about the fundamental nature of PvP. I think “contested” is the distinction we were looking for, and preferences for or against contested actions determine many opinions about gameplay.

For those not listening, “contested” means that actions are brought into direct conflict and you must react to opponents’ actions to be successful. SynCaine’s apt term contrasting competitive PvE from PvP is “PvE with a leaderboard.” Golf and bowling are non-contested sports. Football of either sort is contested. Golf and bowling are competitive, but your game does not vary at all based on who you are competing with. Games with less interactivity are less contested, so many Eurogames try to have relatively few contested elements. A game of Dominion with no attacks is almost perfectly uncontested (although someone else could buy out the cards you want).

Some players, like David Sirlin, really like contested skill competitions. That is the heart of gaming for them. These are PvP enthusiasts. They want skills to be brought into opposition. Some people favor engaging in non-contested activities. The heart of the activity for them is individual excellence, developing a skill and seeing how well they can do, where they would consider reacting to an opponent to be a distraction from the core activity. Later in the podcast, David refers to winning by best exploiting their opponents, not by playing optimally. In a contested game, reacting and exploiting opponents is vitally important. But if “optimize” has a better emotional valence for you than “exploit,” you might be more interested in something like less contested like running or Freecell.

: Zubon

Growth Mindset

Yesterday I tossed something important in as a one-liner. Let’s unpack the concept a bit and apply it to gaming.

“Growth mindset” is the idea that your abilities are not fixed. Failure is not final, just an early step in learning. It is the difference between “I can’t do that” and “I can’t do that yet.” A fixed mindset leads to conservatively sticking with what you’re good at, because “what you’re good at” is fixed. A growth mindset embraces neuroplasticity.

Most games inherently encourage growth mindset. If you fail, you try again. You get better, face greater challenges, and save the world. At its best, gaming is a system of productive optimism.

Some gaming communities are toxic. They talk about “bad players” instead of people who are still learning. People are good or bad, in a way that reminds me of the Spanish distinction between “ser” and “estar.” Some games and communities make it hard to start and implicitly drive away new players. Some games are structured with painful learning curves that punish failure or create long-term costs for common learning mistakes.

Or am I exhibiting a fixed mindset to say the communities are toxic? Are they just not good communities yet? Riot has gone to great effort to reduce LoL community toxicity. Some games and forums seem to be moving as fast as they can in the other direction.

: Zubon

Best Player Wins?

A friend recently speculated that he was having trouble getting people to play Hyperborea because the best player tends to win. Hyperborea has some variability between games but a very small amount of uncontrolled randomness. It is not as pure a strategy game as chess or go, but it is far to that side of the continuum even for a Eurogame. If someone is significantly better than you, you lose.

I can see why that would not be fun. I frequently object to games where it is unknown whether victory is even possible. This is the opposite case: victory is known to be possible just exceedingly unlikely. All your decisions are meaningful, but the outcome is still pretty certain because you do not (yet – growth mindset!) know how to make better decisions. Instead of the frustration of an unavoidable loss that is out of your control, this is an unavoidable loss that is entirely your fault. You can still have Theory of Fun fun in learning to play better, but many people are not excited about diving into a lost cause.

This is a frequent theme in skill-based PvP games. In a fair fight, half the players will be below average, and the average skill of your opponent tends to increase as s/he plays more and the worse players quit. Even if everyone is friendly, polite, and supportive of you as a learning player rather than cursing you as a newb, the average player would rather be a wolf than a sheep.

For tabletop games, this is often less a worry because you are playing with your friends, which is usually the point of playing. Rivalry is friendly, and more casual players can use how much they lost by as a measure of progress (serious but poor players are harder to satisfy there). Another player I know counts herself as “not losing” so long as she is not in last place. In friendly games, the stronger player might take a handicap or provide advice to competitors.

Players want a chance to win. If that means devolving the game to almost pure chance, so be it. I am reminded of children who like to play ridiculous variations on existing games, partly because kids will try most anything as a game but partly because it nullifies others’ experience with the standard game. A work event at a bowling alley included three “fun frames” whose main purpose was to keep the serious bowlers from getting too far ahead; if you have trouble bowling 100, bowling between your legs or with your off-hand won’t make you do much worse, but it forces the pros down to the novice level again. Randomness helps the weaker party.

Personally, I find little satisfaction in winning through no merit of my own, although it can still be nice to win. I don’t have a reference handy, but I recall that many (most?) people would happily trade getting credit for their merits so long as they did not get blame for their faults. It seems an even easier trade to say you’d rather win through no merit than lose by your own fault.

: Zubon

[GW2] Living on the Edge

How is gameplay in the Edge of the Mists these days? My experience was a distillation of the WvW experience to almost pure karma-training.

There are three zergs of random sizes, each capturing objectives in a spiral, with the occasional overlap or intersection that leads to a one-off fight. There is little to no incentive to defend beyond the free points of catching unaware opponents from behind. I have never seen anyone care about the reward for having the higest score, and I do not even know what it is.

GW2 players were asking for more permanent PvE zones. I do not know if the developers meant to create one in WvW or if that is just a statement on the GW2 playerbase. But hey, it’s been a while, so maybe things have changed since my last visit.

: Zubon