Whether or How

I frequently rail against games where winning or losing mostly comes down to a roll of the dice, on the basis that a game is taking away players’ agency if randomness is more powerful than their decisions. But I just had a game where I enthusiastically embraced randomness and had a great time, and I may want to elaborate on an old distinction between variability and uncontrolled randomness in play. Or as I am thinking of it this morning, randomness determines how you win, not whether you win.

The classic example from that link would be games with variable powers. You get a random character, faction, whatever at the start of the game, and you plan around it. Maybe this time you are the warrior king or the kobold mercenaries, with their different playstyles or win conditions. You get variation in the field of play, and your decisions build upon it.

I played yet another round of Slay the Spire this morning, still loving it. Continue reading Whether or How

Project: Gorgon on Steam Early Access

Project: Gorgon is now on Steam and currently on sale. Those of you who have heard us talk about this boutique MMO over the years may be excited about this prospect. Those of you who have no idea what I’m talking about may want to pursue the link or our archives in that category.

I am not sure I will ever pick up another MMO, but this is the top prospect for bringing me back to the genre.

: Zubon

Opinions Sought: Current Kickstarter Projects

[Update: after consideration and discussion with folks who responded outside comments, I am not backing any of these. This falls under the same rubric as not pre-ordering games without great confidence in them, along with the tabletop equivalent of “wait for a Steam sale.” The attractions of the deluxe game at full price are not great, and there is nothing exclusive to be lost by waiting. Still, please do back anything you’re really excited about, although don’t kid yourself that any of these would not have been printed without that support.]

I am interested in hearing from folks who have looked at/into the following projects, because I am considering backing but indecisive about getting yet another tabletop game without having played first. I have a mixed record of that on Kickstarter, with some gems acquired early and cheap, others that I have had trouble giving away.

Dice Settlers looks like an interesting mashup of mechanics with custom dice, empire building, and technology unlocks. The basic mechanic of the game is a bag of dice that you acquire over the game (deckbuilding), which you roll to determine your options for the round. You build the map as you “explore.” Lots of variation, several interesting mechanics, but expensive due to the fancy custom components and potentially just a mess of “throw in everything” design. Or maybe it works perfectly. [RULES LINK]

Edge of Darkness looks like a hella gamer game, although probably smaller than it looks when the components are in perspective. Still, just that box looks threateningly huge. There is a lot going on there with card-building (insert sleeves to change cards over time), group deckbuilding, variable locations, and worker placement. I like most of those, but it seems like there is a lot going on here and I have not digested it all. I haven’t even read all of this one, I am just taken by the apparent scope of it. [RULES LINK]

Sorcerer City is the other game I had looked at recently, but if I never played Carcassone that much, I cannot see me playing Carcassone plus Dominion plus whatever.

My recurring theme here seems to be that these games are tossing together a lot of mechanics, and I am not sure if that is exciting or a mess. Your thoughts?

: Zubon

“Language Independent”

I frequently see games try to minimize the use of text. This expands their market, internationally as well as across ages. I frequently see games do this badly.

You can see the reasons to do this. If your game is really intuitive (and of course it seems intuitive to you, you made it!), it should need minimal explanation. How often do you really check the manual (ha!) or help files, or go back to a tutorial? Some people are more visual than verbal, or they prefer what they can see at a glance to what they can read in detail. For an international market, localization is easier if there is little to nothing to translate. You see this outside games too; witness the action blockbusters targeting the overlap of the American and Chinese markets. Transformers translates better than Little Miss Sunshine.

Kingdom is an example of not explaining what is going on, then pretending that is intended difficulty or discovery rather than weak design. You can triple the playtime of your game by making players learn through trail and error, then make them lose for errors. Kingdom Builder and Hyperborea are games that try to replace all in-game text with icons. Some of those are clear, some of them are too similar to be clear, and some are completely incomprehensible unless you already know exactly what they are supposed to mean.

Language independence is good. Elegant designs frequently need little text to support them, and it is unfortunate if your board game needs a companion book of rules clarifications and explanations of edge cases. But you cannot just take the explanations out of your game and pretend it still works as intended.

I must also see this done well, but the better this is done, the more invisible it is. You notice more when the lack of text is incomprehensible, rather than transparent.

: Zubon

[TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

I was not enthusiastic about Ascension after a little while with it, but I have been exploring the expansions to the game, and it has grown on me. It is not exactly deep strategy, but it is a fun little game that does some interesting things.

The best suggestion I saw was to try most sets in pairs. Where most Dominion sets do pretty well all thrown together, Ascension favors having one or two sets of cards. The link there has a good guide to which mechanics pair well together. I tried throwing a bunch in at once, and the game just stops working. All of the interesting interactions and synergies stop working, because each set explores a different design space without much overlap. The unique mechanic in each set is not shared between sets, so mixing 4 or 5 just dilutes everything interesting. Continue reading [TT] Ascension Standalone Expansions

Kingdom: Classic

My game of the weekend has been Kingdom. It is enjoyable and difficult.

In Kingdom, you are a monarch on a horse who solves problems by throwing money at them. Literally, you have a bag of gold, and your only action is to put money somewhere: recruit peasants, buy them equipment, upgrade buildings. It is a survival game, with nightly attacks. You need to clear four portals from which these attacks are coming.

A key but bothersome part of the difficulty is the lack of save points. If you make a significant mistake, you lose, start over. If you think that you are ready for the next portal and are wrong, monsters destroy everything. There is also no way to know how big the counterattack from the portal will be until you hit it. You need to be aggressive before the attacks become overwhelming, but you also lose for being too aggressive.

If you could save, the big decision points would lose their difficulty; “oh, it’s that big, I should reload and build up for a few more days.” I am not really fond of that school of difficulty. If I know how prepared I need to be, I win; before I know, I either massively over-prepare or lose, find out, then try again. Apart from learning execution, the game should take you about 3-5 tries, learning about how much defense you need before you try each level of offense.

That doesn’t sound very good, but the gameplay is interesting enough for its simple mechanic. There is an economy of recruitment and gold farming (again, literal: you have farmers whose harvest is immediately converted to gold), and the daily flow of expanding by day and staying safe by night. I do not play enough similar games to know whether it stands out, but it has a mix of strategy, economics, and tower defense. It is satisfying to see your kingdom grow and to watch your archers shoot down waves of greedy demons.

My only other complaint of the game is something by design: travel time. As you expand, you can get a kingdom where it takes most of an in-game day just to ride across. This can be mitigated by taking over the portals in the late game, and it is part of the design that movement is limited, but it is just annoying to take that thirty second ride yet again. It would be nice to have a mechanic balancing expansion that did not leave the player just holding down an arrow key and waiting.

Cerebral fun, not action-packed. Recruit, expand, build your Kingdom.

: Zubon

[TT] Hardback

Hardback is a deckbuilding word game. Every card is a letter; to get their benefits, you must use them in a word. Earn cash to buy more letters, use ink to press your luck, and become the most prestigious author of your era.

The deckbuilding aspect is key to winning but feels minor in play. The “press your luck” and word game aspects take on greater prominence. Continue reading [TT] Hardback

Assessment Literacy

We have been learning about academic assessment at work, and standardized testing has more in common with game design than you might expect. You want a good test of your knowledge, skills, and abilities.

You want a clear target of what you are trying to evaluate. Well designed tests and games present a particular, intentional form of challenge. What skills are you trying to challenge or bring into conflict? A strategy game that is primarily decided by clicking speed or a roll of the dice fails as a strategy game. Some games test visual acuity or memorization far more than their intended primary mechanic. Tests have a similar structure: “construct validity” is the degree to which a test measures what it claims to measure. Bad tests have confusing wording or rely on knowledge not relevant to the construct.

You know that bit where your first person shooter has a required vehicle section? Where your strategy RPG puts a reward behind casino games? Where any F2P game devolves into a cash shop grab? That is the same sort of thing as a test with questions worded like, “Which of the following isn’t incorrect?” or math questions that assume you know the rules of a sport or of soybean future trading. Badly designed games and tests both fail you for no reason you could reasonably anticipate, or you pass by no merit of your own.

Good testing systems need clear and timely feedback. If your result is a single number or an opaque wall of words, it does not help you grow. If you get the results long after the test, you forgot the details of the test or they became moot. This is also a difference between formative and summative evaluation: a final test of what you have learned can be more of a thumbs up or down, but there should be many evaluation points along the way that provide guidance on whether you are on the right path.

“Formative assessment” is a concept some games lack. They jump straight to The Test. You learn by failing and trying again. That can work, depending on the scale of “fail”; dying is not always losing or failing in video games. This is my recurring theme that a game should be at least theoretically beatable on a first playthrough. Your first encounter with something should not always result in failure; it should be forgiving enough to provide a chance to learn, recover, and succeed. A “gotcha” that is impossible without foreknowledge and trivial with it is not good design. A more insidious version is an early cost or damage that guarantees a later failure; you survived that particular challenge, but you are a dead man walking.

Final bosses and final tests should have new elements. Novelty creates interesting and meaningful challenges, not just rehashes of what you already did. But they should be extensions of (and culminations to) the learning process, not something wildly unrelated. If you have ever walked into a final exam and felt ambushed, that was probably bad design, either of the test itself or the materials leading up to it. That does not mean you should always pass the test, but you should have a chance to realize you are struggling before failing. There should be a clear connection between what you learned and what you are being tested on. Platformers that lead to non-platforming puzzle bosses are throwing in a new minigame as a final exam.

: Zubon

Small Units And a Sense of Success

Slay the Spire and Monster Slayers do well in giving the player a sense of progress and accomplishment within a run, even if you are objectively not any closer to victory than you would be under large units of progress.

Both games take place across three stages. Slay the Spire has a more fixed length, since you will traverse the exact same number of levels each game. Monster Slayers gives a bit more control there, letting you skip some encounters per level and still reach the level cap. Both give minor rewards after each fight.

Monster Slayers fares better on small rewards, in that you skip half the rewards in Slay the Spire but almost always want at least one of the options in Monster Slayers. Monster Slayers offers fewer card rewards, but it offers more rewards that are not cards, which is often what you want. One of the relics I always like in Slay the Spire lets you gain permanent hit points when you skip a card reward.

Contrast with Hearthstone’s dungeon run, with at most eight wins and eleven awards. The first two are free, barring outrageous fortune, so you cannot exactly feel proud of killing a Giant Rat. You also get only so much pride out of a lucky combo that leads to a big win by turn four; you do not have much time to bask in it, and you know very well that it depended on a lucky draw. One way or the other, there are not a lot of games that feel close enough for your skill to make a difference.

Slay the Spire and Monster hunters have lots of little wins. You get to see the results of your deckbuilding repeatedly as you cycle through your deck and see the effects of upgrades. You get to counter enemy attacks and have better or worse turns based on your play (and what gets dealt to you). You can choose to seek or avoid fights, to pursue risk and/or reward. The peaks are smaller, but the troughs are certainly milder, and you still have “win condition” cards that feel like really big rewards even if they are not Hearthstone’s artifacts that can be instant wins.

Losing halfway through the Spire means you beat a boss and a few elites, along with proving your deck against a dozen smaller opponents. Losing halfway through Hearthstone’s dungeon run means you beat two trash mobs, had an easy fight and a fair-ish one, then ran into a bad draw and/or a hard counter to your deck. Hearthstone’s dungeon run feels a lot more epic if you think of it as All Boss Fights!, but after the first few times, it is hard to think of those first few fights as “bosses.” Meanwhile, Monster Slayers starts using what would be boss monsters from its first two maps as regular enemies on the third.

: Zubon

[TT] Ascension

I have been trying the deckbuilding game Ascension on Steam. Good sale, and it includes a bunch of expansions, so it seemed like a very inexpensive way to try the game. I have not tried all the expansions to see what design space the game has explored, but the first couple sets seem pretty shallow.

The natural comparison is between Ascension and Dominion. Ascension is a much more tactical game, based on its use of an offer row of cards rather than a fixed set of kingdom cards. In Dominion, 10 stacks of kingdom cards are available for purchase each game, in addition to six stacks of standard cards. In Ascension, 6 cards from the the entire deck are available for purchase each turn, in addition to three stacks of standard cards. In Ascension, potentially any card in the game could appear any turn, but you never know in advance which cards will be available to purchase on your turn.

This makes Ascension more tactical, Dominion more strategic. in Dominion, you should sketch a plan for the game before the first turn. In Ascension, you have no idea what options will exist three turns from now. In a four-player game, your options each round are effectively random; BoardGameGeek recommends it is a two-player game.

Ascension has fewer attacks than Dominion. The game has less interaction between players. Defeating some monsters affects opponents, but most interaction is indirect, through buying or banishing cards from the center row when you expect other players to want them.

Ascension’s dual currencies are a great response to Dominion’s victory points. In Dominion, victory point cards do nothing in the early game and are the only things that matter in the endgame. During the game, they are completely uninteresting, just dead cards. That is a catchup mechanic, as a player with lots of victory points has a deck clogged with dead cards, but that is not exactly exciting. Dominion more or less immediately set out to alleviate that with new cards: victory point cards that do other things or interact with other cards, ways to earn points without cards, and ways to remove cards from your deck but keep their points. Ascension addresses that problem from the beginning because the main use of its second currency is to buy honor points by defeating monsters. Honor points are tracked by tokens, not cards. This gives you the same need to balance cash- and point-generating cards across the game, but you are not penalized for early honor nor is the late game slowed under the weight of dead cards.

Ascension is much easier in terms of setup. Dominion starts with picking, laying out, and learning a set of cards. Lots of reading, lots of time. Ascension flips over six cards and goes. In the physical game, shuffling the single huge stack of cards must be troublesome, more so if you want to mix expansions. That is a huge stack of cards, and you are going to get unmixed lumps.

The computer version is nice in that it alleviates that problem and takes care of the bookkeeping. The Steam version is an unambitious port from mobile, not even bothering to eliminate “swipe” from text. Use of activated construct abilities is clunky, because those cards are held mostly off-screen. It takes four clicks to view, activate, and dismiss the construct. In person, you just say you are drawing a card, maybe tap the construct to show that it is used. But the computer always remembers passive abilities like construct income. Similarly, the game will give you a warning if you try to finish a turn without taking all possible options, which keeps you from forgetting to kill cultists. It also keeps giving you that warning every time you decide not to buy a low-value card or use an ability that would require banishing one of your cards.

It is not a bad game. It is quicker and easier than Dominion, and it works better with two players whereas Dominion works better with four. Maybe the later expansions shore up its weak points without taking away the simplicitly that makes it attractive to players who do not want to strategize the whole game before it starts.

: Zubon