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

[TT] Munchkin Shakespeare

Munchkin Shakespeare is Munchkin with lots of Shakespeare references. If you like either or both of those two things, this is for you.

When I think of Steve Jackson Games, I think of Ogre, GURPS, and Illuminati. I think of hardcore gamer games with niche appeal. And then they published Munchkin, which apparently pays for everything else they do. If you are not familiar with Munchkin: it is a casual, humorous card game, distilling fantasy RPGs down to “kick open the door, kill the monster, loot the room, stab your friends in the back.” It is light, but it is entertaining. There are now several dozen versions, some of which have more than a dozen expansions. They cross all genres and frequently cross over with other games. This is SJGames’s equivalent of Monopoly (except that Monopoly is kind of horrible).

Munchkin Shakespeare had a successful Kickstarter, so much so that they made a deluxe edition. The deluxe Munchkin games come with decorate bits that add fluff but no crunch, primarily a board. People seem willing to pay more for bigger boxes and a board than for decks of cards you could store in a sandwich baggie. The board is genuinely useful for tracking levels. (If you ever want a safe Kickstarter campaign, Steve Jackson Games is good for that. Unlike folks making their first game, they have been doing this for almost 40 years. They deliver what they say they will, on time, even stretch goals extend the project. These are professionals.)

Our friends liked Munchkin Shakespeare over the (few) other sets they have seen. It has the usual mechanics, refined and clarified over the course of a decade. The humor is good, with lots of bonuses for literature majors. It is entirely appropriate to pause the game for a soliloquy. You might fight Two Bees, or the more dangerous Not Two Bees. You might wield the Slings and Arrows of outrageous fortune. And those are just the first Hamlet jokes that come to mind. Many of the jokes are obvious or explained, others are left as Genius Bonuses.

It’s fun.

: Zubon

AlphaGo Zero

Last year, I mentioned that DeepMind (Google) put together a computer that mastered Go, the game that was going to be one of the last games where humans could consistently beat computers because it had too many possible moves and was computationally intractable. Note the past tense. AlphaGo did not just beat the best human player(s) in the world, it did so in ways that were so beyond the human commentators that they thought it was making mistakes the whole time. But AlphaGo did lose one game, so DeepMind made a better version that stopped losing at all.

Two bonus notes:

  • This is not a supercomputer. The early versions were distributed networks, but the better versions are single machines.
  • The pace of progress is fast. 2015: an early version of AlphaGo gets the first computer win against a professional human player. 2016: the famous version of AlphaGo beats the human world champion. 2017: the latest version of AlphaGo beats that 2016 version 100:0.

AlphaGo Zero is that latest version. It is not yet perfect, as there was a generation between what I was describing as the 2016 and 2017 versions, which can win against AlphaGo Zero 11% of the time. So AlphaGo Zero is better, but “vastly better than the previous best computer” is only so much of an improvement when that in-between version was literally better than any human. There is only so much better one can get at Go. You can only win so hard.

The really impressive thing about AlphaGo Zero is that no one taught it. The previous versions were taught by watching master players. AlphaGo Zero was given the rules of Go, left to play 5 million games against itself over the course of 3 days, and was then better than the best human in the world, beating the version that beat the human world champion. It took another 18 days (+30 million games?) to reach the level of the previous best that DeepMind had made with human guidance, then 19 more days to exceed all the old versions. I presume it is even better now, if they left the computer running. That was earlier this month, so short time frames kind of matter here.

Let’s say that again: tutoring previous generations of AlphaGo by showing it the best human games and players in history made it worse. AlphaGo Zero started from first principles on its own. It took 3 days to surpass every human and 40 days to surpass every previous computer. That is one computer with four TPUs. That is an amazing demonstration of the speed and power of machine learning. Here is AI researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky on the same topic.

: Zubon


Next thing to try this weekend: Endless Legend. Yes, another game from 2014. I have a deep Steam library to get through. This is not actually a discussion of Endless Legends in particular; I played a few hours, it was entertaining but did not knock my socks off.

No, this is about the struggle to get into a new 4X game at all. 4X games are commitments. One full game is going to take hours. Just the tutorial was about 30 minutes. And like with an MMO, you cannot say you really know the game after that first game. You need to invest a lot of hours to get a feel for its mechanics. While you would think you at least know whether it is fun for you in that time, you might be expecting it to be like previous games, missing a major mechanic, and otherwise be too clueless on your first playthrough. “Oh, that was a horrible experience because I went with Strategy X for my first 50 turns, which was optimal in Game Y but lousy here.”

I was looking for bite-sized gaming last year largely to avoid this, and I guess I still am. I don’t want to invest 23 hours in a television season or more than 100 in a series only to find it craps out at the end. I am unlikely to start The Wheel of Time when most seem to say that you want to skim/skip several thousand pages in the late Jordan years. And how much do I want to invest 20+ hours to see if I like a game? I have a friend who encourages me to join them for Twilight Imperium, where even if I accept that it will be a great experience, I will be investing 3+ hours to learn an 8-hour game that I might play twice.

Movies are looking pretty good in terms of benefit-cost. Games that do not feel the need to pad themselves to 40 hours are looking pretty good.

And the funny thing is that I love commitment. I want to dive in and invest deeply. I have thousands of MMO hours under my belt. Maybe that is it: after a combination of burnout and disappointment with the entire MMO genre, I am hesitant to commit and get burned anew. I am still recovering from a divorce.

I would pick up Civilization VI, because I feel already invested in that series, but I am waiting for a good sale. I have plenty of years-old games that I am still sifting through, and a few good ones will see me through to the Christmas sales.

: Zubon


This morning I fell down a rabbit hole and became aware of sites that sell shovelware bundles of Steam games. For example, Go Go Bundle will sell you about a dozen lousy games for about a dollar. These seem to be mostly low quality and poorly translated. At some point, Steam lowered the minimum bar to clear to put a game on Steam.

I am not sure why someone would want these. Better flash games are available free. I can only guess there are a few ways to game the system, which might also point towards why you would want to buy 50-packs of these Steam keys at a discount. Yeah, 50 copies of the same shovelware. My first guess was card farming, since one game’s worth of Steam cards sells (sold?) for about a dollar, so a pack of a dozen games could net you about $10 if that is still true. Or farming Steam levels, so you get 50 accounts and farm cards to send yourself? Neither seems worth the effort or electricity, although never underestimate the ingenuity of people with access to automation and someone else’s electricity.

screenshot of game achievements, all labeled "another second in the game." Total achievements - 5000 Or achievement farming? If I will put in some effort to earn an achievement, I can totally see someone dropping a few dollars to add more achievements to their Steam profile. And then I saw Bitcoin Clicker in one of the packs. Bitcoin Clicker is an idle game with 5000 achievements. You are awarded an achievement every second you are in the game. Need to bulk up your Steam achievements count? Just $0.99, or the same price for a pack of bundle of similar quality games. With Steam trading cards! This might have been stepped on by the time you read this post. (Bonus: the developer listed it as an MMO with full audio in 27 languages. And it is apparently a very minor reskin of an example game.) Total achievements: 7166. NEW_ACHIEVEMENT_NAME_1_21 NEW_ACHIEVEMENT_DESC_1_21All of this has led me to the Achievement Spam Steam curator that tracks games like this. I feel dirty just scrolling through the list. Apparently the idea is to steal some content, slap on achievements, and see how many copies you can sell for a dollar.

I hesitate to give exposure to crap, but holy crap.

: Zubon

Telltale Games

I am trying to play “Game of Thrones – A Telltale Games Series,” but it is a visual novel with quicktime events. If there are two things I have never enjoyed in gaming: visual novels and quicktime events. I am led to believe that all the popular Telltale Games games are basically this same thing, plus or minus some quality, thematics, and how much your choices affect the game.

Is this wrong? They seem to be doing pretty well for themselves and getting popular IP. What do you like about these games?

: Zubon