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

Monster Slayers

I enjoyed Monster Slayers enough to beat it with all 12 classes, so that is an endorsement.

The early game is bad. Monster Slayers has an upgrade grind, and you will not beat the game without spending some time on it. How long is a bit of a question, since because you will be learning the game at the same time, so it is unclear how much of that is “I am failing because I do not know the game yet” and “I am failing because I do not get all my abilities until I fail X times.” (There is also better equipment you can buy in later zones but not equip until you die and start over.) My early game was probably extended because I started with the Cleric.

Start with the Rogue. Continue reading Monster Slayers

Roguelike Deckbuilders

I picked up the nearest competitors to Slay the Spire: Monster Slayers and Dream Quest. If you were to put them on a spectrum from “roguelike” to “deckbuilder,” Dream Quest seems clearly the most roguelike, Slay the Spire the most of a deckbuilder. Hearthstone’s dungeon run stands beside them as a mess of randomness that has elements of the two genres without doing much coherent. I am setting it aside for this discussion.

The frustrating thing about these two other games is the need to grind to unlock things. There are unlocks in Slay the Spire, but not just 6 for each class, and they are not necessary to beat the game. Monster Slayers and Dream Quest both have many unlocks, and you need to grind to have a chance at the later maps. A skilled player could sit down to a fresh install of Slay the Spire and beat it. I do not think that is mathematically possible with Dream Quest or Monster Slayers. There are just too many upgrades that you unlock.

Dream Quest was not a lot of fun, so I set it aside after what seemed like a fair test. Bonus points for having poor stick figure graphics that show what West of Loathing is doing the right way.

Monster Slayers is a better game, but it lacks an enjoyable beginning, middle, and end. If you have not completed enough unlocks, you cannot reach the end. If you have enough upgrades to reach the end, the beginning is trivial. It shows growth across runs, but within a run, the first half or so is of trivial difficulty, and you are just seeing how your deckbuilding options fall out. I am interested in seeing how the lategame looks now that I have enough grinding under my belt to get to it. At least the grinding is once overall then once per class, rather than needing to be repeated per class. Most of the upgrades are shared across classes.

Of the four implementations I have tried, I favor Slay the Spire. Please mention if you have seen other variations on this theme or deckbuilding games making use of the options that computers bring.

: Zubon

Higher in the Spire

After many dungeon runs in Hearthstone, I decided that I liked this idea of roguelike deckbuilder games and picked up Slay the Spire. It was exactly what I wanted, and I immediately enjoyed a four-hour binge.

A great virtue of Slay the Spire is that it is designed to be what it is. The Hearthstone dungeon run is grafting the idea onto an existing game, which has been done quite well in Blizzard games (tower defense, DOTA) but ultimately bears its full flower in a dedicated game. Hearthstone’s dungeon run starts with much greater resources in terms of art, already developed cards and mechanics, and a minion-based combat mechanic. Hearthstone’s dungeon run is bigger and bolder, flashier, and more random and frustrating. Bringing along the infrastructure of Hearthstone brings along the baggage of Hearthstone.

Slay the Spire almost certainly must have configurations that are impossible. It is a roguelike still in early release. It seems to have less opportunity to stack perverse randomness on top of more perverse randomness. With practice, I have become rather good at the Hearthstone dungeon run, but I would be surprised if I could sustainably win more than a third of the time. I get the sense that Slay the Spire takes the same idea and gives it a much higher skill cap, along with more manageable randomness.

: Zubon

Sequel and Expansion Exhaustion

I started Civ VI, but it failed to grab me. It felt a lot like going back to an old MMO after a few expansions: all the mechanics are slightly different, in a way that either inspires or alienates you. Some of the mechanics have the same name but changed, some are more or less the same thing but were renamed to a new system, and there are a few new things that synergize with all of that. I feel like I would need to relearn a game I have already learned at least five times.

It feels like an uncanny valley. If it were less similar to what I already know, I could start on a clean page. If it were more similar, it would be a new edition of something I already know, off to the races. It is disorientingly somewhere in between, where the familiarity makes it more alien.

I like the notion of breaking new ground. Veteran players do not always like that (see hatred of hexes from the last edition), but if we just wanted a new version of something we have already played 20 times, we could get the latest Madden or FPS. Trying something new does not always work, but I already have several versions of Civ. I wouldn’t need to buy a new one if this were just the same thing, started over without the systems that DLC will put back in.

Also, my first game started surprisingly cramped. Within a 7-10 hex radius, I have at least two other civilizations and three city states (or whatever they are called this time), and the only reason I don’t have more is because I started near an ocean. This is after having less than the standard number of nations on a map, so either the map is smaller than I think or the other continents must be really empty. On the forums, people speak of starting with other nations literally within visual range. The game is 15 months old, but there is perhaps some work needed before it is ready for release.

: Zubon

One Mana Cards

Low cost cards are one of the interesting balance decisions in Hearthstone. The real cost of a card is its mana cost plus any built-in penalties plus the fact that it is a card.

As an example of the first two, Squirming Tentacle is a 2/4 minion with taunt that costs 3 mana, and Vulgar Homunculus is a 2/4 minion with taunt that costs 2 mana and does 2 damage to you when you summon it. There are many ways to have costs, and there is synergy in building decks that avoid costs.

The cost of the card itself is a reason why 1-mana cards are more powerful than you would expect. The mana is less of a cost than the fact that you are using up a card. It is an opportunity cost; those cheap cards are only great in the first few turns or to burn extra mana around your stronger cards. If you have played all your cards by turn 5, drawing a 1-mana card when you have 6 mana available is suboptimal. You get one card per turn, and you have seven spaces for minions on the board.

This means that fast, aggressive (“aggro”) decks will always remain fairly effective, like classic “weenie” decks in Magic the Gathering. There are fairly inexpensive counters to large numbers of cheap cards, but cards that are card-inefficient are likely mana-efficient, or else they are just trash cards you would never use. If I can get a 2/4 minion with a special ability for 3 mana and 1 card, I better do better than a vanilla 1/2 minion for 1 mana and 1 card. The only way to keep cheap cards from being overpowered for their mana value is to make them underpowered for their card value.

The full cost of a card includes the card itself. This adds value back to cards that include a draw, although deck-thinning in that way can be a cost or a benefit depending on the context. In Dominion, cards that provide a card plus an action plus something else are popular because they have no opportunity cost that turn; the card refunds both the card and the action you used to play it. But the “plus something else” is usually pretty small unless the card is expensive, and there is still the opportunity cost that you used up the buy for a turn on that Village, when you could have got a Smithy.

: Zubon

Roguelike Deckbuilding Dungeon Crawls

Does Slay the Spire look like the sort of thing Hearthstone’s dungeon run is trying to do? Both are basically what the title says. Monster Slayers is another that came out last year, which I had not noticed. Guild of Dungeoneering does something similar, although there is limited deckbuilding scope within each dungeon run, and the dungeon opponents are less randomized than is common in roguelikes. (Hand of Fate from that post uses constructed decks, rather than deckbuilding within the dungeon, with a lot of roguelike randomness.)

This could be a new sub-genre.

: Zubon

The Hedgehog and the Fox

Yesterday‘s quote, “luck is where preparation meets opportunity,” is of disputed origin. There are several possible attributions, with an interesting one being a line that Seneca the Younger attributes to Demetrius the Cynic:

“The best wrestler is not he who has learned thoroughly all the tricks and twists of the art, which are seldom met with in actual wrestling, but he who has well and carefully trained himself in one or two of them, and watches keenly for an opportunity of practising them.”

I feel like I could mine that quote for hours.

For reference, consider the hedgehog and the fox. The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one important thing. Continue reading The Hedgehog and the Fox

Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity

I am still indulging in a bit of Hearthstone. I am not interested enough to invest the money it would take to be competitive, so I have mostly played modes where your card collection matters little or not at all: Tavern Brawl and Dungeon Run. (I could also play Arena, but there is a gold cost there.)

In both modes, I must say that the skill ceiling is a little higher than advertised. I would not say a lot higher, but there is clearly better and worse, and you can see worse decisions being made. Tavern Brawl may tend towards very messy randomness, but understanding how to use that randomness can be the difference between winning and losing. I have won several games I should have lost because my opponent kept rolling the dice after reaching a decisive lead. As in, they could win simply by attacking, but instead they triggered a random effect that wiped the board. This is a skill important in many games (and outside them): recognizing that you have already won and taking your victory.

Continue reading Luck Is Where Preparation Meets Opportunity