Sentinels of the Multiverse

I have been playing more Sentinels of the Multiverse and digging it. I have been playing the solo, computer version, so I cannot speak to the original, intended experience, but this has been entertaining.

I was initially down on the game, as the link suggests. The base game has some content, but most of it comes from its various expansions, so you start the game and immediately see that 90+% of the content is behind a paywall. It’s not even a bad monetization system. The base game is inexpensive, and the additional content is available both in discounted packs and in very small units if you want only a subset. But it is not a good welcome to the game.

After being down on it, I played through all the original content at all difficulty levels, because I started having fun after giving it a fair shake. It is entertaining. You get superheroes, you beat up supervillains. The difficulty is not that high, except when it is; different villains and environments have different difficulty ratings, and some of them synergize, and some heroes work better or worse for each. Not knowing going in, you basically have a crapshoot and may end up with a team missing something really important for that villain, or you may steamroll. With some foreknowledge of what is in each deck, you can definitely steamroll even the higher difficulties, although ridiculously perverse pulls from the villain deck are possible (and counterable, if you have the perfect cards in hand).

Lately, I have been unlocking the variant characters. You can do this for free with a click, but I have been going through the story challenges. Some of those are simple, like “put Bunker in all three of his modes during one game.” Others can be extremely particular, like defeating a villain with a specific card with another card in play after using two other specific cards in a certain order, or recursively demanding. I was listing what you need to do to unlock the Freedom Five, but it was so long I got tired in the first phase of it. You need to unlock ten characters and intentionally lose at least four games, and then you can set up a particular lengthy fight. Basically, you are recreating part of the backstory of the game, and over time the developers have been defining “recreate” more narrowly or using more complex bits of story. Engineering the right circumstances can be an interesting juggling act as you need the fight to go long enough to cause X, but you cannot cause Y, and hero A must be incapacitated but hero B cannot and maybe C needs to deal the final damage.

And then you can stop that nonsense and go back to an old fashioned slugfest, which is the base fun of the game. You get to play superheroes, have some neat abilities, and fight villains with neat abilities that you can counter or just brute force through.

An acquaintance was enthusiastic about the original version of this game a long time ago. I probably should have listened then. This is not the best cooperative game I have seen, but it has been fun enough for me to want to buy more of it and play with the other heroes, villains, and environments. And the latest stuff has team and villain modes, which I have not touched yet, so there are still multiverses to visit.

: Zubon

Customizable Difficulty

One feature I enjoy in Slay the Spire and Spirit Island is that both games have highly customizable difficulty, both in type and degree. This lets you pick how difficult (or easy) you want your game to be.

Slay the Spire has its base game and then Ascension. There are 20 levels of Ascension, each of which dials up the difficulty a little more, usually by adjusting a number or two. About half the levels are increasing the damage, health, and movesets of normal, elite, and boss enemies.

Slay the Spire also has custom runs, which let you pick one or many modifiers to the game. Want more control over your starting hand? Here are several options. Want more randomness? More options. Harder fights, easier fights, trading off one thing for another? Screens of options. Or try the daily mode for a random set.

Slay the Spire also supports mods now, so you can adjust the game to the limits of your competence.

Spirit Island has its base game and then adversaries. You can decide that your invaders come from one of four European nations, each of which has base modifiers and then levels 1-6 of increased difficulty. The “base” difficulty of each nation varies, so the game comes with a chart showing how each adversary & level ranks on a scale of 1-10. (They considered having the “levels” just be the difficulty level, but it caused more confusion trying to explain why the numbers might be “1, 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10,” and then people referred to the top level as “six” anyway.) The next expansion adds more adversaries and a way to combine them for stacking difficulty. And then there are two levels of lowered difficulty (which can stack). (I should try dialing difficulty all the way up and all the way down at once.)

Spirit Island also has scenarios, which let you pick a set of modifiers to the game. Most of these make the game more difficult. All of them make the game different. One makes everything faster, one focuses on guarding the island’s center and another the island’s coast, and another adds a chance for random buffs to the spirits or invaders. Several add and remove win and loss conditions. I am particularly fond of one named “Second Wave” that lets you keep the same island after completing a game, reset some variables, then keep playing with new spirits.

Sometimes you want to try new things. Sometimes you want to challenge your limits. Sometimes you want to faceroll.

: Zubon

Charterstone

We played through the campaign of Charterstone. It was OK?

Charterstone is a legacy worker placement game. “Worker placement” is a game type where you place workers around the board to take actions like harvesting clay, building buildings, and turning in completed quests. “Legacy” means that the game changes over the course of the campaign, rather than being a series of isolated games. In a non-legacy worker placement game like Lords of Waterdeep, you expand the buildings available over the course of the game then wipe it out when you’re done. In Charterstone, your village grows over time as you add and replace buildings. There is also a storyline across the games, with rules and complexity added over time as well as changing the rules to simulate story events.

I like the idea of it more than the execution. I have several worker placement games already, including a better one from the same creators, so the gameplay is not the big draw. The storyline, surprises, and legacy aspect must be. There are a few of those that are rather good, but those are one-time surprises that lack the replayability one expects in a boardgame. (The game has rules for playing with Your Unique Village after the campaign, but that is again just the novelty of having Your Unique Village.)

The storyline is OK. There are several points with delightful surprises, particularly the end of game 4. More or less anytime a new gameplay element was introduced, especially a new component from the sealed boxes, that was great. Those combine the joys of a storyline twist with opening a wrapped present. (Spoilers are allowed in the comments, if you have played and want to discuss.)

The game is not a massive, branching path, so player decisions have almost no effect on the storyline. There is a cumulative effect, and there is a climactic battle determined by earlier decisions, but you make those decisions with little information and no indication of future impacts. You are familiar with this in games: make a decision right now that will have permanent effects, with little context and no explanation of its implications. This is usually considered bad design. The quick tip here is that making the mechanically disadvantageous decision is usually the one that gets you closer to the “good” ending. And the entire difference between the “good” and “bad” endings is the flavor text on two cards.

We played Charterstone with two players. It is a 12-game campaign, and you want people to commit to the whole thing before playing. That’s kind of rough, especially if you want a full game of 6 players and have trouble getting them to commit for a regular gaming event. Even if they want to commit, life happens. 7th Continent has rules to drop in or out; Charterstone has them only for dropping out.

In a two-player game, we missed most of the gameplay conflict, as there is lots of space on the board, and the range of options was somewhat limited as the other parts of the village filled up with random buildings over time. There were always lots of options, but “fill in the empty charters with random buildings” gives you a mix of poorly developed options, while your own part of the village has the custom engine you have built up over the course of the game.

The rules explanation is just bad. In an attempt to keep the new mechanics a surprise, the rulebook starts mostly empty, and you fill it in over time. That can lead to references to things that do not exist. The first game explanation seems inadequate, so watch the recommended video. There is an official FAQ, but by reputation its “mild spoilers” are not all that mild, which makes sense given the thinness of the story. Also, just looking at the questions will give away things being asked about.

I really wanted to like Charterstone. If nothing else, it seems like good discipline to treat a game as something temporary, consumable, and alterable, rather than something I must keep pristine and preserve. You probably have many games you have never played a dozen times, so if you run through the campaign, you are getting your money’s worth. I just think you would get better time value out of better gameplay, and you can read the storyline in about five minutes.

: Zubon

Victory and Loss, In Parallel or as Opposites

Also note that the win condition (fear, kill invaders) is totally decoupled from the loss condition (too much blight, no presence). That means you can be very close to winning *and* very close to losing at the same time. This is not a coincidence, by the way. It was a very intentional part of the design. The result is that players can be much closer to winning than they thought because they were only thinking about whether they will lose. In most games, being close to losing means far from winning, so it feels like you’re further than you are.

The upshot is that you can often win at higher difficulties than you’d otherwise expect. One of the things Spirit Island does well is making easy games feel challenging. Players like feeling challenged and they like winning. Spirit Island delivers both.
Ted Vessenes, designer on Spirit Island

A common feature in Eurogames is a scoring mechanic (sometimes hidden) that keeps all players in the game until the end. You can recognize that someone is ahead of you, but you do not face a loss condition that eliminates you from the game. Contrast this with games like Monopoly or Risk, where eliminating opponents is the point of the game. Contrast this with games that do not have win conditions as such, just that you can lose The Game and the goal is to not-lose.

When we play a game with a loss condition, losing tends to mean being far from winning. The losing player has few playing pieces, little power, etc. Losing is far from winning. A mechanic more common in survival games is a race. You are trying to win before you lose, which seems like a tautology but plays differently from games where you are not racing against a loss condition but rather against other players’ attempts to win first or against other players who win by making you lose.

Spirit Island victories tend to feel either really amazing or kind of trivial. Racing against a loss condition can feel like kind of a cheat, as you steal victory from the jaws of defeat. A game like Blood Rage makes that a central mechanic, where it is Loki’s strategy is to win by losing. American games and stories tend to favor action heroes over guile heroes, so we are culturally primed to see “a trick” as generally a bad thing. You are supposed to smash your enemies, not win by getting a ninth fear card as they are on the verge of overwhelming the island. But that can also be an amazing feeling, as you see the race happening and roll under the closing door like Indiana Jones.

Other times, you are clearly ahead in the race but will take a while to claim technical victory. There are rules to bring about the end one way or the other, but if you get an early lead and just need to check off one box to win, it can become a dull waiting game as you try to whack that last mole. This is rarer and usually a sign you should dial up the difficulty.

But sometimes this creates the most amazing crescendo, where the only anticlimax is that your big turn at the end is so overwhelming that you do not get to play it all out. Your power accelerates as the enemy’s does, which gives you more targets and more ways to crush them. It is not uncommon to have a problem area festering on the map throughout the game, only to wipe it out in a turn or two, sweeping the invaders from the land while generating large amounts of fear, potentially hitting both win conditions on the same turn. The enemy buildup creates tension, and big tension leads to big explosions.

Finally, as the developer says, the games tend to feel closer than they are. The enemy is building up and spreading as you are, so even if you are way ahead of the curve, you can still get these hordes of enemies you are trying to contain. Unless you are very safe, you do not feel safe, and even then the next wave is coming.

As a gameplay note, I recommend having someone actively monitoring the win condition and calling it out at the start of the turn. It feels less like winning “just happened” if you can see that you are building towards it. “We are at terror level 2. We have 2 cities and 5 towns to clear out. We win if we eliminate all the buildings, or if we can clear those two cities and get 11 more fear. Invaders ravage in mountains this round then build in sands.” This is especially helpful for new players, because it focuses them on what is more important in the game right now.

: Zubon

Games of the Year

Computer game: Slay the Spire. There is nothing I have played or enjoyed more. It is a great rogue-like deckbuilder at an indie price, with lots of variation and replayability. It has a very high skill ceiling, and you can also dial up the randomness if you prefer that.

Board game: Spirit Island. It is a deep strategy cooperative game with variable powers and strong theming. It places you in the opposite of the usual game role, driving off the settlers. This can also be played in modes that are almost purely predictable or with increasing randomness. It also plays excellently as a solo game. I have played Spirit Island every two days since I learned the game. It is great, although difficult to introduce to large groups.

What are your top games this year?

: Zubon

[TT] Spirit Island

The game of the weekend was Spirit Island, which I liked. Spirit Island is a cooperative game with some similarities to Pandemic, only the plague you are fighting is European colonization. You play as spirits of the land, protecting your natives and driving away the invaders who are spreading quickly and ravaging the land. Each spirit has its own powers and progression, and you can customize the difficulty with a variety of modifiers.

The theme is fun. It is basically the opposite of most things you play. Someone was recruiting players by describing it as Catan, where you play the island and hate the Settlers. The invader minis are white plastic, so you are trying to wipe out the white people. They spread faster than you can imagine, but then you are an ancient spirit of the land, slow to rouse to anger. The spirits are distinct both in fluff and crunch: Vital Strength of the Earth is your simple earth elemental, slow and defensive, while Lightning’s Swift Strike is pure offense and River Surges in Sunlight is a control-based water spirit with flooding that grows over time.

The game is both very complex and less complex than it seems. Continue reading [TT] Spirit Island

[TT] Back on the 7th Continent

Coming back around to the 7th Continent (previously), I think I’m landing on “I don’t like it.” I think it does what it sets out to do, I’m just not having much fun playing it. There are three entwined negatives for me: survival gameplay, punishing exploration, and static replayability.

Ultimately, I think the fact of the survival gameplay is going to turn me off to the game. Most games I enjoy have a foundation in building up: RPGs, RTSes, deckbuilders, all the sorts of games where you are putting together an engine and become stronger over time to meet greater challenges. There is a bit of that, and the goal is to keep yourself ahead of the curve, but it feels more like a constant stream of loss rather than a constant stream of gain, and the goal is to win before you run out of resources and chances. Instead of accumulating power and resources, you are in a race to win before you run out. I did not enjoy that aspect of gameplay.

Tied to that, the act of exploring punishes you by taking resources. It has some of that old adventure game feel: sometimes you get punished for putting your hand in the hole, sometimes you cannot advance unless you put your hand in the hole, and there is no way to tell in advance without putting your hand in the hole. Sometimes you profit, more often you get punched in the face for your trouble. That ties to the survival gameplay: keep trying things, find the path to advance before you get punched in the face too often. But since you do not know whether exploration will be required or punished this time, it creates a sense of learned helplessness. You try it, feel pleased if it goes well, shrug about the inevitability of death if not.

Which leads to the third point: players who like the game seem to like the fact that you learn these over time and playthroughs. The second time, you know not to bother with X because at best you break even. You know that you need to find Y and Z. Memorization is not a fun sort of learning. You are not learning how to play better, just which particular actions have better outcomes in fixed circumstances, and any “how” you learn is the metagame of how the developer thinks.

There are some neat things going on in 7th Continent, but I don’t think it is for me. My order included some to-be-delivered expansion content, so maybe that will change up the game in ways that will be appealing. But probably not. I think some of the reviews I had seen either embraced the survival gameplay, used an unlimited easy mode to turn it into a casual exploration game rather than survival, messed up (or intentionally changed) the rules to nullify the “punch in the face” dwindling resources, or were coming off the high of winning after X tries. Some people were really excited about going back to the first island knowing how everything worked, while for me that seems like eliminating the point of the game. It is not solving the riddle, just knowing the answer because you have heard that one before.

The 7th Continent is ambitious, but I found myself having more moments of “ugh, this” than “ooh, neat.” It is trying to capture the “choose your own adventure” and video game experience in a massive web of cards. Like the dog that plays backgammon, the amazing thing is that it works at all, not whether the dog plays well. I also played the computerized “choose your own adventure” of 80 Days recently, and had a similar reaction; at least that handled bookkeeping efficiently by using a computer, rather than giving you huge stacks of cards to work it out.

: Zubon

Non-Pejorative “Ameritrash”

The term “Ameritrash” has some pretty clear negative connotations, although I think of it as a technical term contrasting with Eurogames. Eurogames tend towards abstract play, minimal theming, low randomization, and indirect competition. Ameritrash games tend towards very strong theming, downplayed mechanics, significant randomization, and direct competition.

As someone focused on mechanics in my games, I tend to favor Eurogames and don’t mind the negative connotations of “Ameritrash,” especially having grown up with quite a few board games that were clearly being sold as tie-ins to more popular intellectual properties, with nice theming but the quality you expect from a movie tie-in video game. The Tick: Hip Deep in Evil comes to mind as my personal awakening to horrible, horrible products being sold under the auspices of something popular. (Not that The Tick was that popular, but I liked it.)

Villainous seems to be Ameritrash done well. I have seen some of a game but have yet to play it. A friend who owns it and is also into deep strategy gaming described it as the sort of game you could maybe play once or twice as each villain, but it lacks depth and you will understand everything after a playthrough or two. Not a lot of A Theory of Fun style learning: easy to learn, easy to master. On the other hand, it clearly embraces its theming and embodies it well, with exceedingly high production quality. It may not be mechanically deep, but it does what it sets out to do. It also seems like the sort of game that could have a long stream of expansions (every Disney villain) and be a commercial hit, but I could not tell you how well it is selling. I know it is in mainstream stores like Target, not just game shops.

Do you have games you enjoy that would clearly deserve the label “Ameritrash”?

: Zubon

Conventions and Adaptations

I was playing the video game version of Sentinels of the Multiverse (in the current Humble Digital Tabletop Bundle), and it reminds me of the intro to Harlan Ellison’s script for I, Robot. Specifically, the intro notes that adapting a story to a different medium often calls for changes in the story or its presentation, because what works well on the page may not work well on the screen. Whether an adaptation is good, whether it is faithful to the source material, and whether it is faithful to the spirit of the source material can all be separate questions.

Sentinels of the Multiverse opens on the villain’s turn, which is when all the setup happens. In most tabletop games, you spend a while sorting out stacks of cards, putting together a board, something like that. In Sentinels, that is the villain’s first turn. The villain deploys robots, minions, powers, whatever. Other than that, setup is pretty much just putting the decks on the table.

In a tabletop game, setting up can be part of the game. Laying out your Settlers of Catan tiles is an important ritual. Building your board is building you world, with all the opportunities and threats it brings.

In a video game, that is just a long cut scene standing between you and the game. If the computer-controlled villain is the only one acting for the first minute or two of the game, you the player are just sitting there, watching it happen. You take damage, lose cards, whatever, without any chance for input. It is not the opening ritual that it is with physical cards; it is exactly the sort of thing you expect the computer to take care of and streamline when playing on a computer.

And an additional problem is that I do not know that you can streamline it away given the other mechanics. The “one at a time” nature of how the cards stack up can matter, and just throwing it all at the player in one pre-computed lump could get incoherent. Some of the villains are straightforward, but others have multiple, interacting effects, and it would be confusing just to start the game down 15% of your health and need to figure out what happened from the message log. A Settlers of Catan board could spring forth fully formed, and that is in fact what you want from a computer version.

The beauty of board and card games that start on computers, never having a physical version, is that they take advantage of what the computer has to offer. And I imagine some of those are now making physical versions that face similar problems in reverse.

And now we are getting recursive versions, where Gloomhaven and 7th Continent are physical versions of what would otherwise be computer games, and Gloomhaven at least is getting a digital adaptation. Yomi is another of those circuits: take the feel of an arcade fighting game, adapt it to a card game version of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, and then an online version was made. I cannot speak to how well any of those re-adaptations have gone.

: Zubon

Kingdom Builder Kickstarter

Long ago I mentioned Kingdom Builder, which we have consistently enjoyed. It is a good board game for both hardcore gamers and casual players, with two players or a full table. I also mentioned that we bought the “Big Box” but only ever use the base game and first expansion, because to my mind the second added more complexity than its additional gameplay were worth; I have not tried later expansions.

Currently on Kickstarter is a Kingdom Builder Family Box, which is the base game plus first expansion for slightly more than the cost of the base game on Amazon. That seems like a pretty good deal. They also have a new edition of the Big Box with everything and some bundles with other games. I cannot speak to how great of deals those are, except for the intrinsic lust for More Board Games. Which I should resist.

This is one of those Kickstarters that is more of a pre-order than a project that would not get off the ground without your help. Queen Games is established and can meet a timeline, which seems like a rarity on Kickstarter. If you back, you will almost certainly get your games before Christmas. I do not have any connection to these people, I just like Kingdom Builder and saw it at Kick the Table.