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

Talent Tree as Loot

I have seen some versions of this in games, but I would like to see more: replace loot with a talent tree. Have something like LOTRO’s legendary item system, or otherwise just make the loot another skill/talent tree. Instead of finding a stream of disposable loot, with the occasional upgrade, just build the loot into the character. This especially goes for games with ridiculous amounts of trash loot, like Diablo or Borderlands.

We probably still need some sort of grind or loot accumulation, but build that in too. Instead of picking up vendor trash, have monsters drop crafting components. You need 200 green floozles and 10,000xp to give your staff Healing Floozle, whatever. It must be an easier setup than hundreds of different loot objects.

I am probably odd, and Diablo-style loot seems popular. People like that slot machine. I find it dull, and the occasional good hit on a slot machine makes the rest even more dull, because I know all the loot below color X is vendor trash. You know what rarely excites me in games? Vendor trash, nor its friend inventory maintenance.

: Zubon


Trying something other than my usual playstyle, I have been playing Titan Quest as a Rogue. When they offered me another mastery, I doubled down on melee DPS and went with Warfare. Assassin, ho! I stab things, until I get to things that are big and scary, at which point I use DoTs, a trap, and kiting.

Rogues can put points in a “disarm traps” ability. This is standard RPG fare, something that rogues and thieves do. Titan Quest is an action RPG though, so it does not have D&D style traps. Well, there are trapped sepulchers, but you cannot disarm those. Instead, traps are huge structures that shoot fireballs and such. You disarm them by killing them, like any other monster. Rogues just get a bonus to damage against them and a reduction in damage from them. This ability also applies to construct monsters.

This seems not just thematic but mechanically necessary. Rogues get a lot of their damage from poison and bleeding. Guess what does not affect traps? Actually, I am not 100% sure that is true in-game, and it looks like I have successfully poisoned and bled skeletons. But these things presumably have high (or 100%) resistance, so rogues need something else to keep up. The undead remain a problem.

This is a factor in some D&D editions, notably 3rd. There are entire categories of abilities that do not work on non-biological targets, the most prominent of which is a Rogue’s sneak attack damage. Rogues hate undead, constructs, and oozes. At least one of those gets knocked off the list in Titan Quest.

: Zubon

Cycle of Violence

As I play Titan Quest, I get the strange sense that it is all pointless violence. That is not exactly a critique, so much as the point of the game. It is not quite the same feeling as “I have killed this goblin 10,000 times before,” more of wanting more from a central quest perhaps. It does not really matter what the story is; so long as I kill in the relatively straight line available to me and click on the NPCs with !s over their heads, I get loot and power and an official victory.

Some of that is the side quests, with the feeling of “I have saved this farmer 10,000 times before.” Someone in town wants me to go kill monster X because it killed his goats, stole his dowry, or kidnapped his daughter. Great, maybe I will see monster X along the way. It is all an excuse plot to give you a reason to go kill a few thousand things. I sometimes wonder if my presence in the world makes things worse, due to the common mechanic that certain enemies do not spawn unless you have the quest for them. The only reason the monsters exist is that I am there to kill them; had I never come to this town, the monsters would never have spawned and attacked it.

But the class listed on my character sheet is Assassin, so perhaps I am not worried about whether monster X deserves to die. Click, there it goes.

: Zubon

Mythical Monsters

I started playing Titan Quest this weekend, because why not play the updated version of a decade+ old game? It definitely feels like a standard action RPG, maybe a bit less dynamic than Diablo II. Par for the course.

Steam achievement - nobody did this - defeat polyphemus And then Polyphemus walked out of his cave and I was sold. Despite knowing that I am playing a game in Greek mythology, I am still delighted every time I come across a significant, named monster. Nessus was nothing terribly special, but it seemed very appropriate to find Arachne as the spider boss.

Apparently that is all it takes to please me. Take a cyclops, make it 20 feet tall, and put the right name over its head. The name of the achievement was an extra bonus.

: Zubon

On Binging

Playing West of Loathing has reminded me of months spent with Kingdom of Loathing. Man, I played that game hard, bouncing between massive bingeing and massive burnout. My comments on that game can hardly have been fair, both gamer stereotypes of fanboy and whiner.

Kingdom of Loathing gives you a limited number of turns per day. As you advance, you learn how to add more turns with consumables. That can dramatically extend your playtime per day, but it remains rather low at the start of a run. Kingdom of Loathing also has an ascension mechanic that allows for nearly endless runs through the game. You can keep playing more to get just a little bit stronger, along with the roller coaster of starting over weaker (but stronger than your last re-start) and going back to that early game with fewer turns (especially in hardcore mode).

I should note that some of this may have changed in the years since I last played. I may be referring to mechanics and modes that no longer exist. Sorry about that, this is more about me as a gamer than about the game itself. Continue reading On Binging

More from the West

I don’t think I did a good enough job talking up West of Loathing, so I am going to do a bit more. If nothing else, I feel like I owe them for the amount of time I spent in Kingdom of Loathing over the years.

West of Loathing supports many units of play. Sometimes you want “bite-sized gaming,” something you can play for five minutes between things. You can do that in West of Loathing, visiting a new location or advancing a quest a step. That is usually a sufficient unit of play, delivering a small story or a few jokes, with an increment of advancement. You can put several of those together and clear a side quest. You can methodically work your way across the map, visiting all the locations and trying to do all the things. You can focus on the main quest and complete the game in an hour, or you can explore every detail and spend a dozen hours. You can grind if you want to cap every skill, but the difficulty curve does not require it. The game length is not padded with repetition. West of Loathing supports both casual and hardcore play, at your option.

West of Loathing also supports casual and hardcore play in its mechanics. By default, the difficulty is low, the attack grid is off, “nerd mode” is off, and experience will automatically be spent to level evenly. You can leave the mechanics to worry about themselves on auto-pilot, and it will not make bad choices. They may not be optimal choices for the strategy you have chosen to pursue, but then you can turn off auto-pilot and take control. You can see all the combat details or just whack things. You can turn difficulty way up simply by putting on the right hat (with many warnings about that hat). West of Loathing lets you decide how you want to play the game.

West of Loathing has surprisingly great graphics. It is stick figure art, but it is good stick figure art. It is stylized, not cheap. These are stick figures who carry mobile light sources with dynamic shadows, and they do crossfit. Today’s attempts at photorealistic graphics will tax your video card and look lousy in five years; stylized stick figures will still look good twenty years from now. I long ago got tired of pixel art, as the generation that grew up with 8-bit graphics started making their own games (just like the weekly reboot of some ’80s media). High quality stick figure art is a good aesthetic.

West of Loathing is funny. It has verbal and visual puns. It has literary and pop culture references. It can be silly, including a toggle for silly walks. It has gamer humor and winking meta humor, without descending into the postmodern irony that panders with a tone of “you’re too smart for the usual thing, which we are going to do anyway while rolling our eyes.” It can mock itself and affectionately parody genres while remaining friendly. It can be smart and even esoteric without getting pretentious (stick figure art helps that). It is light and positive fun, even when it mixes in dark and brooding elements.

You should play West of Loathing.

: Zubon

West of Loathing

West of Loathing is a comedic RPG western from the makers of Kingdom of Loathing. If you have never played KoL, you probably should. It is free and it is one of those pieces of online gaming literature that everyone should know.

West of Loathing is good. It takes several of the better aspects of Kingdom of Loathing, distills them, and places the in a coherent package. Kingdom of Loathing is many great things, but it is designed to be played over a long time span, and it was built by gradual accumulation. If you had the chance to start it over from scratch as a single project, you might get West of Loathing.

West of Loathing is your quest from the humble beginnings of Boring Springs, west into adventure and prosperity! Along the way you will find dysfunctional towns, evil cows, agreeable goblins, and all manner of comical characters. There is a main quest line and a long list of side quests, all of which are optional and lines of which will follow you across the game. While the main goal is to get the train west, you might decide to track down what is happening with robots, killer clowns, or necromancy, or maybe just find band members for the first town’s saloon.

The game has a variety of puzzles. The robots have machinery you can configure. There are variations on classic word and logic puzzles. There is a wargaming minigame. At one point, you can to combine ciphers, morse code, braille, and acrostics to piece together puzzles and a metapuzzle. Or you can ignore almost all of it and rampage across the map with fist and pistol.

The combat is very straightforward and not terribly difficult. Unless you turn on hard mode, in which case wandering encounters will beat you up. Losing gives you a buff, in an interesting game mechanic. If you lose a fight, you get Angry. Each stack of Angry buffs your stats. You can even insult yourself to increase your anger intentionally. But if you get too Angry, you pass out and wake up the next day with a clean slate. That also resets other buffs you accumulate throughout the day (food, booze, potions). That can be a useful thing, as you might have used some early foods and now want to upgrade to the ghost pickles that you found in the midgame.

I enjoyed West of Loathing, and I will keep poking at it a while longer to explore side quests and see what unlocks achievements. There are many little bits you can fiddle with for a long time, if you are so inclined. You can also blitz through; I am told that you can speed run hard mode in 20 minutes, so the game experience is as long as you want it to be. I advise lingering. The core story is nothing special. The joy is seeing the little touches in the game, the atmospheric humor.

: Zubon