Civ VI: Price Point Opinions?

I have had Civilization VI on my wishlist since before it released, but it has not reached a price point where I would buy it. And I really have mixed feelings about those hours for each game, but let’s set aside whether I should play 4Xs.

Civ VI is the “bonus game right now” for the February Humble Monthly. $12 for the game plus two DLC is a good price point. Except I am not sure, given that there are already four other DLC and a pending expansion. Hmm, that still sounds not horrible, because if I can get the remaining DLC half-off at some point, that is still cheaper than the digital deluxe version at half off. The real target is 75% off, but an extra $6 to have most of it right now has some merits. Or should I reasonably expect a better package in the near future?

Part of the point of this DLC nonsense is to hide the inflation. It is an $80 game, being sold as a $60 plus optional DLC (or just give them the $80). Plus an expansion. Plus who knows what else more, probably more if the current stuff sells. That probably worked better the first few times. Now I have a reasonable expectation that more will be added on, but not enough information to know when I will know what all of that is. Which pushes me towards “wait until there is some sort of game of the year edition, with a good sale, in a year or two.”

But I cannot say that I would be hurt by having spent $12 while waiting for that year or two.

Your opinions are sought on both the particular case and how you are dealing with this in general. I frequently find myself dealing with it by ignoring the latest and greatest in favor of the many Steam games I am still gradually trying out.

: Zubon

Gain a Random Card

After completing my set of Hearthstone dungeon runs, I have kept on for more completions and many more attempts. The more I play, the more I see a common problem: overuse of the features that online card games allow.

For folks who did not click through for those old posts, let me summarize. When you take a card game online, you get exciting new options that are difficult or impossible in physical card games, like cloning cards, altering them in a variety of ways, and bringing random cards into the game. Hearthstone has many of this last, especially in the dungeon runs: many cards summon other random cards. And we find that once you can do something, you find lots of reasons and opportunities to do it. A narrow option can take a slippery slope to become a central feature.

In one sense, it is pretty cool to spin the wheel and get a random card. So very much of game monetization plays on our desire to open the box and see what’s inside. That is awesome, especially when it works out for you. And then it keeps happening and becomes the deciding factor of the game. To the extent that your decisions are not deciding the outcome of the game, you are watching it happen rather than playing.

This is bad game design. A bit of randomness adds spice, prevents the game from falling into a single solvable state, and rewards flexibility. A lot of randomness makes the player irrelevant.

Hearthstone does that a lot, and the dungeon run seems built around it. The NPC decks are chock full of cards with “summon a random X” effects. Blackseed upgrades minions randomly. Whompwhisker recruits random minions from each deck. King Togwaggle gets random treasures. Xol gets cards from a small random set of beams. Pathmaker Hamm damages random minions, then plays more minions that damage random characters, and kills himself roughly half the time I encounter him. Several bosses multiply the effects of randomness by multiplying cards: doubled battlecries, deathrattles, or minions in a mode with lots of ‘cries and ‘rattles that summon random minions.

Luck can dominate these fights, and you need only one bad run of luck to end your dungeon run. Sometimes you will crush Whompwhisker quickly because he will recruit your biggest minions or ones with interesting deathrattles; other times, he recruits his biggest minions along with your cheapest or your minions that are only worthwhile for their battlecries (recruiting ignores battlecries). Blackseed’s upgrades might create a minion that hurts him, or maybe something really powerful that is normally balanced by a costly battlecry.

Hearthstone seems to recognize this problem and attempt to mitigate it sometimes with discover and choice effects. Those combine randomness with player choice: pick one of three options. They may all be great or lousy or not fit with your deck, but you get a choice. (That is the current tavern brawl: every card in your deck is “discover a spell or minion.”) The same applies to the deckbuilding aspect of dungeon runs: you pick one of three options, like a permanent “discover” effect. You might pick up a quest and then never get options that complete it, or you might start with doubled battlecries and get jade golem cards every time you pick.

When Hearthstone launched, it quickly developed a reputation for low skill gameplay. There were few interesting choices to make and not a lot to decide on any given turn. Expansions have added more options, but also more randomness. “More” is both more options to introduce randomness and a broader range to draw from when rolling that die. For example, a card that summons a 1-cost minion had a limited number of options when the game launched, and now there are pages of 1-cost minions. Randomness stacked on randomness.

These are not bad features! They can be used well! Half a decade ago, when CCGs were going online and just starting to experiment with these kinds of features, it was a wonderful use of a new medium. But the dose makes the poison, and something that is medicine in small amounts can kill you if you have too much.

: Zubon

FreeCell Quest

FreeCell Quest (in the current Yogscast Jingle Jam 2017 Humble Bundle) is FreeCell with RPG elements. Each city on the map that you rescue is a hand of FreeCell. You get spells that let you cheat a bit. If you take too long, the cards attack you. Advancement throughout the game is leveling up, adding spells, gaining equipment, and unlocking more free cells. “Explore 533 cities while collecting cards, gold, levels, armor, and spells on your EPIC QUEST OF CARD SORTING!” (Actual game advertisement.)

It does not quite work. The basic gameplay is FreeCell, which is good. The RPG elements do not really add much, and in some cases take away. FreeCell is not the kind of game where you can cheat “a little.” If the cards are dealt properly, there is always a non-cheating solution, which you might break by cheating. That solution might require a certain number of free cells; locking them behind advancement can create situations where you cannot beat the current level without cheating or leveling up.

It sounds like an RPG that uses FreeCell as its combat mechanic, but really it’s FreeCell with a leveling up mechanic. I like FreeCell, even if I have not played in years, so this is amusing both in the base gameplay and the embellishments. But they are not great embellishments.

: Zubon


I have written about AlphaGo, which in its more recent incarnation threw aside all human guidance and became the world’s greatest Go player simply by playing itself a lot. It is better than the version that no human can beat.

This has now been generalized into AlphaZero, which “can achieve, tabula rasa, superhuman performance in many challenging domains. Starting from random play, and given no domain knowledge except the game rules, AlphaZero achieved within 24 hours a superhuman level of play in the games of chess and shogi (Japanese chess) as well as Go, and convincingly defeated a world-champion program in each case.”

I don’t have commentary to top the simple description.

: Zubon

Hat tip: Slate Star Codex

The Draw of Randomness

I think much of the appeal to randomness comes from shallow understanding/efficacy and this rubber duckie analysis. “Interesting things are in the sweet spot where they make enough sense you can form expectations and not so much sense that your expectations are wholly sufficient and the follow-through completely predictable.” The more you understand and can influence a process, the less desirable randomness is unless it is your only chance. The less understanding you have, the more random results fit your understanding while remaining unpredictable. The less control you have, the more random results are likely to be to your benefit (versus where others might push results).

When I was 12 and exploring D&D books, long tables of random values were awesome. It was a draw from a fixed pool of values, so I could have reasonable expectations but never be sure, with wild swings to make unlikely expectations occasionally viable. I had not really grasped that I could take the setting in my hands, as opposed to following what was laid out in the books, so adding randomness was closer to putting things in my control. It at least took it out of someone else’s control. Plus, young men seem bred to throw their fate to chance and hope for the best.

When I play games now, I like known conditions. I understand, plan, master. Rarely can randomness help me, at most foiling reasonable expectations. It is reasonable to have some range of expectation of how much damage your fireball might do; it is not reasonable that the fireball might cause the target to turn into a pink sheep, or whatever else a wild mage or wand of wonder might do.

Chaos is great for people with no long term plans. They have no intentions to foil, they can always insert more chaos if the results are bad, and at worst they can absolve themselves because they had little control over the outcome. Alternately, there is Littlefinger, who starts behind and inserts chaos to create new opportunities to get ahead. The young are revolutionaries who want to overthrow the current order; the old are invested in the current order, know how to get ahead under it, and have something to lose.

Go to a casino and observe who plays what. Some people study odds and think of themselves as masters of their own fate. They play card games with lots of decisions, preferably ones where you play against other people rather than the house. Some people trust to luck, the big win, the quick score. They are at slot machines or the roulette wheel, where the main decision is how quickly to lose your money.

Randomness prevents knowledge, foils plans, counteracts skill. That is a draw to some.

: Zubon

I remember having a work bowling outing, where every third frame had a different requirement like bowling with your off-hand, between your legs, or with your eyes closed. That was the great equalizer between league players and people who hadn’t bowled in 20 years.

Random Draws

I should probably stop playing Hearthstone, but it is a compelling trainwreck of randomness.

I have completed the dungeon run on five classes. It is frequently unwinnable because you were not offered any cards that work together, or you meet a boss that is overpowered or a hard counter to what you have built, or just random draws of the cards. You can even lose the first fight if Bink the Burglar gets the best possible draw and you get the worst (on some classes). But the dungeon run also offers powerful upgrades, fun combinations, and easy access to cards beyond the reach of new players. When it comes together, you get to do amazing and awful things like using Boots of Haste, doubled battlecries, and Coldlight Oracle to play multiple late game creatures on your first turn. I even had both sides come together: Thaddock the Thief got a perfect draw, completed her quest on turn 2, and cast Crystal Core on turn 3; I still won with an even more overpowered combo.

As a new player, it is hard to play the normal mode with the basic cards you are given, after seeing the dungeon mode. I suppose it could work as an advertisement for people who might drop money on card packs to get those cards they saw.

I played a round of Casual Play over lunch. It advertises, “Find an opponent of equal skill, and play for fun!” I was paired against someone with a golden hero, meaning they had won at least 500 ranked games on just that hero. I know Blizzard’s matchmaking algorithms have a wide margin for “close enough” on player rankings balanced against time to search for a closer match, but it paired “less than a week newbie” with “played at least 1000 games.” Look, maybe it is making a good assessment on “equal skill,” but it is not like my small box of imaginary cards has any chance against the deck they can field.

In this way, Hearthstone lets you feel good about your wins but wave away your losses. If you lost, it must have been an unfair match or a bad luck of the draw. While I might otherwise mock that like FPS players who always die due to lag and hackers, that is entirely valid in Hearthstone! The many stacks of randomness in the game mean you can easily get extreme swings with no difference in player skill or choice. But you can mostly ignore that when you win, because the things you were trying to do came together, and you reap the rewards. You did make some good choices along the way, and no absurd fortune happened to keep you from winning this time. And maybe you can observe some absurd fortune happening to your opponent, but it’s not like you can see their cards. If you had bad luck, it was pretty visible and you are not to blame; if your opponent had bad luck, that information was mostly hidden from you except the results, and it is easy to credit yourself for having won a fair-looking match.

: Zubon

Hearthstone: Deeper in the Dungeon

hearthstone screenshot showing 2 complete dungeon runs in 2 tries I decided to give Hearthstone a little more time by trying out the dungeon run with each class. It seemed like a good way to unlock all the basic cards. And, well, see the screenshot. Either the Druid has an easier time, Hearthstone times rogue-like is as random as suggested, or I am just that good.

: Zubon

I doubt I am just that good.

Hearthstone: Kobolds & Catacombs

The game of the weekend has been Hearthstone. I had never played before, but I was lured by the advertisement of the latest update and the surety that I had a bunch of free bonuses from various Blizzard promos. The new content is Hearthstone’s take on rogue-likes. It is a series of eight battles against increasingly powerful NPC decks, where the player accumulates cards and upgrades as he progresses. Rogue-like elements include facing a variable cast of foes from a set list, variable foe stats based on which “level” you find them, picks from randomized loot bags, and picks from themed, randomly selected pools of cards.

The good is that the design addresses many of the issues seen in rogue-likes. Each upgrade is a pick from three upgrades, and while you may not have the best upgrades on the list, you do get a chance to customize your deck around your preferences or a common theme. The theming of the content is good, a mix of kobolds, adventurers, and monsters.

The bad is that it combines the low-skill play Hearthstone is known for, minus most of the deckbuilding aspect, plus the randomness and degree of fairness you have come to expect from rogue-likes. Some of the NPC decks are vastly harder than others, or vastly harder for some classes or decks. Draw one of those and you will probably lose. Sometimes you will get several upgrade options in a row that build on one another, or maybe none of your three picks fits well with what you have. You may get the perfect options to go with your passive upgrade or few to none that work with it. And then there is the usual trust in the Heart of the Cards that comes with CCGs. The new mode claims massive replayability, which is to say there are many random variations (of varying degrees of difficulty) when you have several layers of randomization.

This leads to unproductive forum discussions where some people got through on their first try and others are hitting walls, or someone tried twice in a row and lost early then got really far without any real change. When the game stacks random enemies that can appear at different levels against several classes that get random items and seven picks from random card sets, plus randomization in the cards and some cards with random effects, the results can be explained at best statistically. All that randomization can even out to the expected experience or something radically off the rails. It needs to work out eight times in a row for the player to clear the dungeon run; the first two or three are free, the last two or three are a bit of a roll of the dice even under perfect play, just from the way some NPC decks are hard counters to player decks.

The dungeon runs are not dependent on which cards you own. The cards are provided along the way (and not kept). This makes it a good way for new players to see the game and be on even footing with veterans, and to unlock the basic cards for each class. To the extent that Hearthstone can be skill-based, this is more skill-based than standard CCG play, minus most of the deck-building aspects. As someone new to the game, it seems more compelling than entertaining. It is very slick and nicely done, with the sort of predictably mediocre gameplay we have come to expect from MMO PvE. It seems like a fine game for decompressing after work or to play absently on a bus. I feel like I have already experienced most of what Hearthstone has to offer after a mix of dungeon runs and normal games over a weekend. I do not suspect it is meant to have deep gameplay for me to discover.

: Zubon

Human: Fall Flat

This week’s game is Human: Fall Flat. You play Bob, a drunk ragdoll trying to complete physics puzzles to find his way out of his floating dream environments. Bob starts with humble tasks like walking, climbing stairs, and putting boxes on buttons. He then moves on to greater things like climbing mountains, destroying dams, lighting coal power plants from the inside, and raiding an Aztec temple.

The game starts fun and becomes somewhat less so over time. The early levels have that Portal feel of directed activity. The puzzles are fairly simple, and it is mostly a matter of learning execution. As you go on, the puzzles have less direction, so your main guide is knowing that you want to get out, along with the metagame thoughts of “what does the designer want from me here?”

Playing is mostly fun. Bouncing around with no consequences is freeing. If Bob falls, he just crashes a few steps back. Toss around boxes, play with wires, ram things with boats. Bob is built like a toddler and has similar gross motor skills. This becomes a source of frustration at points, for example in the platformer/parkour level. “Drunk toddler parkour” probably streams well, but it can be frustrating when Bob reaches between his legs instead of straight forward, or he steps off a ledge when you turn to look around. If it happens a few times, that is part of the fun; when it happens repeatedly, you want to smack Bob’s physics engine.

As in my standard adventure game complaint, what you consider intuitive may not match the level designers. You may beat your head against a few walls, and it can be hard to tell whether you are doing the wrong thing or just having trouble executing the move with a drunk ragdoll. I know there are some puzzles I “solved” the wrong way, and a few I circumvented entirely. It made more sense to do X, and it turned out that X skipped a quarter of the level. At one point, I was having trouble with a puzzle, and I thought I would try to strafe-jump around the wall I was trying to get past. Yep, that worked, next puzzle. On two maps, I managed to get on top of the walls, which lets you run past almost everything, and the hard part is trying to figure out in what direction the exit is. I am not sure if I fulfilled or frustrated the game’s intent.

It is a short game, on the order of 5-10 hours based on how you approach the game. There is multiplayer now, so maybe I can try a little more with friends. Drunk Bob party!

: Zubon

Disney and EA Pricing Models

Anyway, as it turns out Disney had to step in and yank EA’s chain to get them to stop shitting all over the Star Wars franchise just before a big movie launch next month. So I suspect we won’t see EA suspend their temporary moratorium on predatory practices and straight up pay to win until Star Wars: The Last Jedi makes its billions in screen revenues and toy sales.
Wilhelm, The Ancient Gaming Noob

In my experience, while Disney would like to monetize everything, they recognize that every price point is a pain point. Disney will give you as many chances as you like to give them money, but their Parks and Resorts model encourages all inclusive prices, “buy the box” not microtransactions, and they want to put a fig leaf over the microtransactions so you do not think of them as separate expenses.

For example, if you go to Walt Disney World, Disney would like to sell you a “Magic Your Way” package. They want to pick you up from the airport, take you to a Disney resort, have tickets for the theme parks, provide transportation within Disney territory, and provide all your meals while you’re there. Is that expensive? Yes, even after the discounts to encourage you to do that. But it is one big purchase, and then you can forget it. Extra purchases while you are there are hidden behind your MagicBand, and the wristband scan that gets you through a line quickly or uses one of your pre-paid meals does not feel quite like pulling out your wallet. The model is to keep you from ever leaving Disney territory. Every time you need to make a separate spending decision, you might buy that a la carte piece somewhere else. Better to give you an incentive to spend everything all at once.

You can opt out and pay for each piece separately. Pretty much every one will have a reminder that you could have the all-inclusive package instead.

But that’s my experience, and I have not explored say the microtransactions in their mobile games. Your experiences?

: Zubon