Author Archives: Zubon

[TT] Tiny Epic Kingdoms

Having played only a few games, Tiny Epic Kingdoms strikes me as Hyperborea writ small: tiny box, fewer pieces, fewer mechanics, shorter playing time, but still a game of building and territorial control with a strong strategic element. I could never play Hyperborea with my non-gamer wife, but she would be happy to play TEK again, and I can happily play it with gamer friends.

In TEK, each player gets a faction (race) and a home territory card. The factions differ only in their tech tree: “magic” you unlock by spending the mana resource, so constructs are stronger in the mountains while merfolk are stronger around water. Each territory card has five territories, and you have frequent opportunities to move around your board or send meeples (pawns) to other boards. There are three resources (food, mana, ore) and four ways to score points (food -> more meeples, mana -> more magic, ore -> tower, meeples -> territorial control). Each turn you choose one of six actions from a board, everyone else either does that or collects resources (based on territorial control), and you cannot repeat actions until the action board resets (after five have been chosen). Battle is handled by sealed bids, high bid wins. There are no random elements beyond selecting territories, but there are unpredictable elements as multiple players are making choices on the same battlefield.

There is some strategic depth in this simple game. You have three methods of building, one of which helps you build faster, one of which gives you more abilities, and one that is worth more points. You are juggling development and expansion, attacking or defending against enemies, and preparing for a late game that starts early. The territories do not seem to affect strategy much (a few details around the edges), but your race does affect your strategy. Things get more complicated with more players because one strong attack or defense leaves you vulnerable to everyone else on the table.

With 16 factions, I would be shocked if the game were really balanced. Some are obviously better with more or fewer players, such as the halflings’ bonuses to alliances (no alliances in the 2-player game) or the goblins’ ability go gain food whenever anyone gets a new meeple. But with 16 factions, there is probably at least one that fits your playstyle, which is often more important than precise balance, because that mathematical advantage does not help you much if you don’t have the playstyle to use it.

Pretty easy to teach with variety and a bit of depth. It’s a nice, small package.

[CoX] Bouncing Here and There and Everywhere

Back when City of Heroes was live, my supergroup made an alternate guild on another server. Everyone used the huge model, as small as possible, dressed to look pudgy, with animal ears, and in a bright color. Everyone took super jump. Everyone had a name with some variation on “gummy bear.”

Oh, the joys of silly theme days in-game, remembering that it is a game. High adventure that’s beyond compare.

: Zubon

Kickfinish

I was enthusiastic about Kickstarter projects a while ago, but I have recently been seeing fewer that excite me. What has been exciting recently is the arrival of things I backed a while ago. My Tinker Dice arrived last week (the d6s look especially good, but I now covet the copper ones, having seen how they came out). Tiny Epic Kingdoms arrived yesterday (quick review Tuesday; it plays like a pocket-sized Hyperborea). Kingdom Builder is shipping now. After a lengthy drought, I am being flooded with tabletop games.

I hadn’t realized how long Kickstarter has been around. It has had some great, successful releases and some games still under development “Estimated delivery: Oct 2012.” Developers may not always be the best project managers, which is I suppose why I have a job.

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: Diablo Clones

Do we have a term like “MOBA” for Diablo clones yet? “Action RPG” feels too broad. I think we’ve settled on “Diablo clones,” even if that is a bit pejorative. There are quite a few games like Titan Quest, Torchlight, or Marvel Heroes that are Diablo II plus or minus x percent. Personally, after Diablo II and Torchlight I, I feel tired of the genre. I have tried others and seen improvements to the formula, but the difference is not enough to give me anything that feels new or fresh, so I guess I’m comfortable with “Diablo clone.” Despite that, I tried a couple that looked promising this week. One thumbs up, one thumbs down.

Path of Exile is best known for its talent tree, “a vast web of 1350 skills that provide passive bonuses to your character.” Customization, great! Starting out felt very Diablo II, except everything looked darker. The graphic were better than they were back in 2000, but the game is clearly a Diablo clone. When I got to start on that talent tree, all I could see was the prospect of grinding for hours on a loot and level treadmill, plus the expected effects of having a cash shop, plus the community that comes with a F2P game. I played a few zones and uninstalled. This is not so much a fair review as a reasonable expectation of grinding and grinding, one 3% passive improvement at a time. I did like the use of scrolls as a standard currency.

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was another Humble Bundle acquisition, the first in a while that I would recommend. It bought a lot of benefit of the doubt by not having those same expectations. It is a small scale Diablo clone, a single player game where you buy the box. It has on the order of 10 hours of gameplay for 100% completion of the base story (I have not tried anything else in it), so it has little of the fake longevity garbage you have come to expect from Diablo clones. It is more of a Torchlight clone for its “remove the annoying bits” take on the formula. You start with your “pet,” a sassy ghost who can tank or shoot, can be specced to fight or buff you, and who will even do the Torchlight “go sell my trash loot” trick. “Town Portal” and “Identify” are not scrolls but rather skills you start with. I’m spending most of my time here talking about what Van Helsing isn’t, because that is what was so refreshing to me: not having the things that annoy me about Diablo clones. The Quarter to Three review is pretty fair (there have been some improvements since initial release), except that most things he counts as negatives about the game, I count as positives. No, I don’t want to play through Nightmare 10 times to try to complete a set. And oh look, I completed three sets during one playthrough of Van Helsing.

So what is TIAoVan Helsing? Diablo clone, leaning Torchlight in its details, in a steampunk setting. It mixes dark and humor. Katarina, your ghost assistant, is one of the better bits of that; the final boss leans a bit silly for my taste. You do all the standard things of fighting/stabbing monsters and running quests from people with exclamation points over their heads. The game rewards a bit of exploration with non-obvious quests that announce themselves as you stumble upon them or gradually assemble them over the course of the game. The gameplay is a bit easy, particularly with the practically no death penalty (outside the hardcore mode). The gameplay is on the good side of standard. It borrows liberally from other games, from the Torchlight bits above (including a fame rank for defeating champion enemies) and a “glory” system like Borderlands 2’s badass points. The content is not quite varied enough for its length; you will notice maps repeating, including one particularly egregious re-use of a large map. Still, it rarely pretends to be what it is not, and I strongly prefer a game that does pretty well in 10 hours what most games stretch to painfulness over 40.

: Zubon

Selective Quoting

Featured review on the Steam page for Eador: Masters of the Broken World: “Eador’s design is worth your time – a testament to its strength.” If you follow the link to the review, you see that is the second half of a sentence. “Despite its often-disastrous implementation…”

It seems like a fair assessment. The ideas underlying the game are great. The implementation is poor, from the frustrating controls to the useless battle difficulty estimates to the strong randomness that can swamp strategy and leads many players to recommend save scumming.

“Worth your time” seems somewhat dodgy based on the amount of time you are willing to spend. Playing through the whole campaign will take hundreds of hours, with most of those replaying the early game enough times to unlock late game options, the same thing that drove me from Reus. But perhaps skipping the campaign and playing a one-map game would be more interesting.

: Zubon

Roguelikes

I have been trying some roguelikes and games with roguelike elements.

Roguelikes seem shaky on the concept of a difficulty curve. They tend to have difficulty cliffs. Start, maybe a tutorial, good luck. And you know I’m all about the new player experience; creating an unwelcoming experience for new players is just poisoning your game, making sure it dies except for a dozen grognards who populate the last forum about the game and curse out new players looking for help as lazy idiots who should go play Angry Birds because they’re not willing to put in the time to learn how to play properly. Some roguelikes have heard about difficulty levels, but those tend be levels, not curves; either it adjusts the height of the cliff or makes it a plain. And too many games think that adjusting the numbers is an interesting way to scale difficulty.

Roguelikes seem shaky on the concept of balance. Players enthusiastic about roguelikes seem to be of the opinion that it is okay for difficulty to randomly vary between “doable” and “not even theoretically possible” because it is random. That’s the full justification: yes, you have effectively been given a 1000-piece puzzle with only 998 pieces, but you never know how many pieces are in the box until you put them together, and you’re not supposed to be able to put every puzzle together, so just keep reloading until you get a puzzle that does have all the pieces. I have seen advocates of balance via save scumming. I rather find it a large design problem if you can make all the right decisions and still lose. Which is to say, there was no “right” decision, so you had no meaningful decisions to make. But people like slot machines, too.

This is certainly not all roguelikes. Sturgeon’s Revelation still applies: 90% of everything is crud. But roguelikes that fail often tend to fail hard and do so in ways that are not immediately obvious whether the game has hidden depths or is just broken. I’m perfectly happy to invest small amounts of time in the face of randomization, but then you find creatively horrible ideas like “how about a 4X with roguelike elements?”

: Zubon

[RR] D&D 5th: Classes

The first thing that strikes you about the 5th Edition classes is how many there are. As with races, 5th Edition has embraced the expanded core, with barbarians, sorcerers, and warlocks all in the base PHB. You expect editions to add and subtract from the core classes as experiments did or did not work, but 5th has leaned towards as many “add”s as possible. Previous posts in this series have mentioned my brothers’ reactions; they started back when there were four core classes, and they seemed ambivalent between whether these were a variety of exciting options or an excess of bloat.

Classes are the main area where D&D turned around and fled from 4th Edition. 4th Edition treated classes and abilities fundamentally differently from every other edition of D&D, and 5th looks a lot more like 2nd Edition. That will tie into combat and spellcasting mechanics. Everyone used the same system of daily and encounter abilities in 4th Edition, while 5th Edition returns to the familiar attack actions and daily spells.

Does this bring us back to linear fighters and quadratic wizards? It certainly moves in that direction, but the section of the book on spells will tell us just how far. A 4th Edition innovation was severely curtailing the scope of high level spells. From the classes section, we see that 5th Edition is curtailing the number of high level spells, with lots of access to low level spells but capping at 1 9th level spell per day.

As noted previously, all classes have a core and specialization framework. You choose what sort of Fighter, Rogue, or Wizard you want to be, which dictates your abilities at certain levels. All Wizards are specialists now, but that means less than in previous editions. One big thing for 5th Edition is “no dead levels.” Every class gets something every level, such as a new ability or a new level of spells.

Finally, 5th Edition has quietly thrown open the gates on multiclassing again. The rules are tucked away, but they are freer than 3rd Edition, complete with a unified multiclass spellcasting level computation. (If that last phrase made no sense to you, just read it as “there was an issue in 3rd Edition.”) The layout of information and the class design encourage single-class play, but the mechanics are there for optimizers to cut loose. That seems a “best of both worlds” situation.

: Zubon

Quit Curves

The corner of a difficulty curve often becomes a quitting point, partly because it is a change in the game, partly in the way an extreme one feels like a betrayal of the relationship the game had been establishing, and sometimes because it indicates the developers are not very good. While Portal perhaps goes too far in making the first half+ of the game a gradual tutorial, it does have that transition into “and here are some harder puzzles, and now you’re on your own.” Do you have a favorite example of a game that says, “here are some tutorials, and now we’re jumping straight to the highest difficulty”? The Witcher 2 is notable for making that jump before completing the tutorial. Either the developers did not recognize that they turned the dial from 2 to 8 or they thought that was a good progression, and neither implies, “these people probably made good design decisions in other areas.”

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: PC Ports

Another weekend of “meh” from Humble Bundles.

Deadlight is a side-scrolling zombie survival platformer. Run away from the zombies, sometimes shoot or chop them, climb walls, and jump from ladder to ledge to avoid the electrified ground. The atmosphere is nice, and I found any plot incoherence appropriate given that people make bad decisions in crises. I played the first third of the game but stopped there due to dodgy controls. I presume it works better on a controller; someone must have tested the PC port but been ignored when they explained that it is a horrible idea to have a move that requires left-shift, left-control, and A or D. Also having different keys for opening visually indistinguishable types of doors, unnecessarily many moves because parkour, and some generally bugginess or finickiness in navigating obstacles. Not bad if you can get past some dodgy controls, but a basic requirement of a platformer is not to have dodgy controls.

Smallworld 2 I stopped before even starting the game. I may try again due to recalling some acclaim for the board game, but from the first screen the interface is horrid. I can see how it might work better on a tablet, but it misses things you would want on a PC like labels, flipping through the main menu without loading times, and a coherent display of information. Something about “Watch the Tutorial” rather than “Play the Tutorial” immediately put me on my guard, probably because of having seen the next note before it.

AdVenture Capitalist (not from the Humble Bundle) had a recent major update. The developers took a while between updates because they realized there could be money in this thing and made a mobile version, then replaced the PC version with a port of the mobile version. This reduced functionality, again with lousy menus, and any visual improvements were offset by new visual problems. They quickly walked back some of the visual problems, yielding an interface that is slightly prettier and significantly less functional than it was before the update. I have said that a rule of thumb for shipping the update is, “Does it make some things better and no things worse?” They took the opposite path.

On the non-PC port front, I played through The Blackwell Legacy, which was a sufficiently enjoyable point-and-click adventure game, and I say that as someone who has long since stopped liking point-and-click adventure games. The developer commentary is harder on himself than I was as a player in terms of exposition dumps and absurd adventure game puzzles. I only had one real guide dang it moment, in that to get the best ending you must stop and look at your notebook during the climax of the game. Borderlands players will remember that as “wow, the game is really starting to click here, I better stop and look at my inventory.” Setting, characters, and story are pretty good, enough that I will try a sequel.

: Zubon

Don’t Explain the Joke

There comes that moment in the game where you have crossed some threshold or achieved something notable, and you want to tell someone about it. And you realize that your non-gamer friends, family, and/or significant other would not understand what you are talking about; that it would take so long to explain to them that you would probably lose the emotional high from trying to explain its significance; and that they would still probably comprehend at the level of “he did a good game thing.” And then, in some games, where you would still need to explain a bit to your gamer friends, and then they would probably ask, “why are you playing that?”

But just so I can say it: I did a good game thing. Thank you.

: Zubon