Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn

The last game I learned at our post-Gen Con game night was Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. I use “learned” loosely. We mostly learned how to play, but we were not sure that we had the rules right because we went mostly from someone’s explanation rather than having everyone read the rules, and when we did consult the rules we found things the explanation had missed and a few points that might have been missed in the rules entirely and need a FAQ. Or maybe we just did not find the right page in the rules in the midst of play.

Ashes is a living card game of the sort becoming popular after the relative decline of collectible card games. Android: Netrunner and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game would be in the same category. Instead of buying blind booster packs, you buy an entire set and construct decks from that, then expansions and such come along.

We played a couple of games using the recommended decks. It seemed entertaining, although using recommended decks skipped the deckbuilding experience, and we did not have enough play experience to do much more than learn the basics (and maybe not well). So this is not so much a review as some vague impressions.

The cards are pretty. Continue reading Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn

Low Hanging Design Fruit in Online Card Games

I’m trying Magic Duels, and the story mode is mostly bad. You do not get to pick your cards, and they change after every win, so you do not even know what they are in advance. In theory, this means the difficulty of your deck and your opponent’s can be finely tuned to face each other. Because luck of the draw is a large factor, you can do exactly the same thing two games in a row and either win undamaged or lose before you get a fourth land (or draw a fourth card other than a land). Part of the point of CCGs is that you control the randomness through deck design. When the game controls your deck and what random cards are available to each side, your skill as a player is dwarfed by factors outside your control. And then the white deck is tuned and stacked for guaranteed wins, plus tutorials inside in tutorials.

The particular bit of randomness that is galling me is mana flood/screw. Streakiness is an aspect of true randomness, more so than most people believe. It is a fact of life in physical card games because you cannot get a relatively even spread of land throughout a deck without stacking the deck. But you know what computers can do? Randomize within limits. They can be programmed with rules like, “If a deck has 20/60 lands, the deck should not have 5-card streaks of all lands or no lands.” The lands need not be evenly distributed throughout the deck; toss in a bit of randomness to keep it from being predictable, it’s a card game. But if you have a computer that can keep the most ridiculous extremes of randomness from happening, why would you let them happen other than thinking that is a feature of the game? “Yeah, the dice came up that you had a near-guaranteed win/loss. Great game, eh?”

I have won games because my opponent did not draw a third land until its health was in the single digits, and I have lost games because of drawing 12 lands by turn 10. Neither of these were good games, and these are entirely preventable problems when a computer is in charge of the deck.

: Zubon

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Given my recent binging on online Mafia, I was keen on seeing Bezier Games, the Ultimate Werewolf folks. Like Town of Salem, One Night uses a variety of roles with special abilities, and the One Night variation advertises itself as no moderator, no elimination, no boring parts. It has proved popular enough to get an expansion (Daybreak) and a spinoff (One Night Ultimate Vampire). My impressions are based on game demos at Gen Con, not deep and repeated play.

One Night achieves “no moderator” via app. You tell your phone/tablet which roles are in play, hit the start button, and it reads off who should open their eyes when. That works well, assuming you can operate within strict time limits. Even with strict time limits, this is a long section of the game. At least a third of the game will be spent with your eyes closed while things happen outside your control or knowledge. That seems to concatenate the boring parts, rather than eliminating them, although there is some excitement because you know that mysterious and important things are happening on the other side of your eyelids.

The physical implementation of this stage is difficult, especially with a large group or short people. Playing at a con helps because there is background noise and movement. In a more intimate game, it will be difficult to avoid noticing who is reaching across the table as roles are called out. Werewolf/Mafia is not meant advantage long arms, narrow shoulders, and quiet chairs.

This nighttime phase is either brilliant or horrible, but I am undecided on which. About half the roles involve changing roles. The Robber swaps roles with someone else, the Drunk swaps roles with a center card (without looking at it), the Troublemaker swaps others’ roles, and more. You not only do not know who is on your team, you do not know which team you are on. The Insomniac has the surprisingly strong power of just checking her role at the end of all that swapping. Part of me wants to say this is horrible random chaos. Part of me wants to say this brilliantly expands the daytime game of deduction to including deducing your own role, so you should expect to see someone suddenly realize she is no longer a Werewolf. A good Troublemaker can evoke that moment, and a great one can lie, get a Werewolf to reveal herself, reveal whose cards she really swapped, then convince the rest of the village to lynch the Werewolf. All in 5 minutes or less.

Eliminating the nighttime elimination mechanic wonderfully eliminates the “you randomly sit out this game” effect. It also quietly changes a fundamental mechanic while keeping the fluff. Werewolf is no longer a killing role; it is now entirely a hiding and lying role. Those people who want to be Werewolf/Mafia because that is the active killing role? I wonder how long it takes them to notice that the Werewolf does not kill anyone, instead just hiding from the villagers.

I have not tried One Night Ultimate Vampire. I am told that it removes the team-swapping in favor of a similar goal-changing mechanic: vampires are always vampires, but now you are in love with that mortal and need to keep him alive at all costs.

: Zubon

[MtG] Duels: Origins – Pain and Gain

There’s a new Stainless produced Magic the Gathering game out on Steam and Xbone after having started earlier in July on fancy i-Things. It no longer follows the earlier naming conventions of Duels 201X, and now it is simply called Magic Duels. Even watching hipster Magic players get to romp around a few weeks before me, there has been a lot of salt that has hampered a really good trajectory that Stainless is taking the game.

The Free-est MtG

Magic Duels is free-to-play. Of course you are instantly wondering where’s the catch or paywall. In Magic Duels, which slightly mirrors the paper card game, the gaining of new cards is in the form of boosters. 150 gold per booster, and each booster gets 3 commons, two uncommons, and a rare+.

Playing the story (more on that), playing random matches, and doing daily quests all net you more gold. The limit is 400 gold gain / day, which is more than 20-25 games / day. You can of course spend some cash to get more gold. Very Hearthstone-y. Continue reading [MtG] Duels: Origins – Pain and Gain


The vendor hall is one of the big draws at Gen Con. See the latest games, get the latest games, look for discounts or stuff you did not know you wanted but now desperately need. I seem to be unusual in that I can say, “I should not spend money on this,” and then I do not spend money on it.

For my friend group that attends Gen Con, the vendor hall is more or less what they do. You can spend all day playing demos with the developers. You can learn classic games you have not played, try the latest releases, and even try games that are still in development. Last year we loved Asmodee and Hyperborea. This year, friends are all about Cryptozoic and keep saying, “Attack on Titan is in hard alpha.”

I find myself in the Steam sale dilemma. I have trained myself not to buy (almost) anything on Steam unless it is 75% off or I will play it that day. I tend to group game prices at Gen Con into three brackets:

  1. Full price, new release or early release: potential buy because it is not available elsewhere and we likely will play it tonight
  2. Full price, 30% off on Amazon: do not buy unless I know we will play it tonight. Fun now is worth some money, but otherwise I can have it delivered to my house before I would otherwise play it. The later we get in the con, the less likely we are to play it tonight because of games from #1.
  3. Discount, better than I can find on Google in a minute: potential buy, double bonus if it is an older game/book that is hard to find at a reasonable price and it is on discount

That is for commodities like boxed games you can get from dozens of sources (although the con sponsors reportedly have it in the contract that they get exclusive rights to sell their stuff in the vendor hall, which means almost everything from Paizo and Mayfair is in #2). If you are looking at clothing and game accessories, you might prefer to try them in-person rather than shopping online, and many people start wearing those hats, goggles, T-shirts, and everything else immediately.

And I remain resolved to get Geek Chic furniture for my next home.

: Zubon

Changing Trends

Either the market for zombie-themed everything is so saturated that few new zombie-themed games came out this year, or the market for zombie-themed everything is so saturated that I do not even notice zombie-themed games anymore.

This year’s trends that I notice at Gen Con are sequels and saturating the options. Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like there are more expansions, add-ons, and otherwise building on previous successful games this year. I know, that is always happening, but it feels like the balance this year has shifted somewhat more towards building on existing games than launching new IPs, converting non-game IPs to games, or trying existing game IPs as a different sort of game. Maybe everything already got its deck-building game in the past few years. Still lots of new things, maybe we are just having a year a little more like the movies or video games.

By “saturating the options” I mean trying a “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” variant. If you liked Werewolf more with 12 roles instead of just villager/werewolf, how about our online Mafia with 150 roles? Coup: Rebellion G54 has 25 roles instead of 5 from the original game. The Pathfinder Adventure Card Game is currently marketing a subscription for monthly class deck releases, with variants in each class. I like more options, but at some point you have more than the game can handle, and when you get into the dozens of options you are inevitably going to have some serious balance issues, which can get worse as combinations can multiply that problem. Says the man with so many Dominion expansions that he needed a “storage solution.”

: Zubon

My People

I am not much of a con-goer, but there is something special about arriving at Gen Con and seeing my people. Most of you are on the other side of your monitors, and I game with fairly few people in person, whereas Gen Con has 50,000 nerds. I appreciate enthusiasm, and there are few more enthusiastic than nerds.

I have decided that I am more excited about outfits than costumes. Some people are dressed up as characters, but you have more who look just a bit unusual, because this is the sort of place that embraces that. Fox ears? Celebrated, not mocked. Steampunk hat with goggles attached? Many, and more as people visit vendors that sell them. Any kind of hat? Yes. Real life has too few grand hats. This is a place where you see more corsets and kilts than usual, some people wearing both. Lots of hair outside the normal human spectrum, lots of little details and accessories. I know some people who might cosplay at work, but coming from a differently professional environment, you see few people visibly out about nerd interests.

I played two new gamer games, which I will review at greater depth later. Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents and Blood Rage are both Kickstarted strategy games with multiple paths to victory. There are broad similarities despite the very different themes, as the former has you developing technology to build projects across America while the latter has you upgrading vikings to pillage villages across Midgard. Both have more variation than randomness.

More new games to try today, I am sure. That is a big point of Gen Con for the group I’m hanging with here: spend the day seeing new things and harvest a few, spend the night playing the best of the harvest.

: Zubon

Shifting Balance

Playing Town of Salem in Chaos (any/all) has felt pointless since the last update, but I don’t know if that is the effect of the new scrolls or just a run of bad luck. The new scrolls let you pay for better odds of getting a particular role. Here is what I am seeing this weekend:

  • fewer Town in any/all. I have not counted in games where I am not Town, but my four games as a townie today have had 6, 6, 6, and 5 Town. That is out of 15, and Town’s odds drop towards zero when Town is less than half the population. I have won as a 3-person town, but you’d be a fool to bet that way. You do not play any/all to play Town; you get all the Town roles and more consistently in the normal game, so you play any/all to see the neutral and Mafia roles that do not come up in the normal game. So this is where you play using the new scrolls.
  • 2+ Town suicide immediately. Seeing 5 suicides per game has been common. Maybe the game’s connection has gone to heck, but I’m guessing those are people who did not get their scroll role or were otherwise playing for all the reasons noted in the previous point.
  • Combine the two above and see that it becomes increasingly rational to immediately suicide as Town. The instant you get a green role, you suspect your odds are horrible due to low average Town population, then to drop again due to high suicide rates. You could stick around in your 2- to 4-person Town and hope for luck, or you can see which way the wind is blowing and bail.

Of course, this could just be absurd luck this weekend. But if the scrolls let you raise the odds of getting non-Town roles, they pretty much finish killing any/all.

: Zubon

ETA: I’ve also been disconnected twice this weekend after ~0 before that. If servers are in trouble with post-update downloads, that could speak to some of the suicide problem. I’ve also had an invisible game where cosmetics never loaded.

Deceptive Honesty

Honesty can be an amazing tactic in Town of Salem. No one sees it coming. Almost every time I have gotten lynched as Jester, I told people I was Jester. “Surely no one would admit to that, he’s just trying to avoid getting lynched!”

When people expect lies, truth is a great way to trick them. That works well with people playing one level of recursion below you. The problem is people playing two levels below: they don’t know enough to be bluffed or double-bluffed. This leads to the common and exciting dynamic, “is this person playing dumb or actually stupid?”

: Zubon