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

Steam Cloud

Steam Cloud is one of those features that I never knew I wanted until I had it, and now I look for it when considering what games to buy or play. For those who do not know/use it: Steam Cloud is a cloud save system for your Steam games’ save files. Just like you can re-download your games at any time, you can re-download your save files at any time.

Steam Cloud lowers commitment. I can try a game and not feel the need to finish it “now or never.” Granted, that probably increases the number of “never” finishes, but it substantially lowers the number of “never” starts. Anything that decreases the cost of exit effectively decreases the cost of entry. It definitely lowers the number of games that I leave half-finished on my desktop, along with the games never started because of all the ones half-finished.

: Zubon

As a related economic story that has been going on for years, consider French employment law. The harder it is to fire someone, the riskier it is to hire them. The French unemployment rate has been hovering around 10%, above 20% for youth unemployment.

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

Spirits of the Forest

Spirits of the Forest is the next game from ThunderGryph Games. As usual, it is being launched on Kickstarter, and I am promoing them as a Founder’s Club member. I just received their last game to ship, Tao Long, although I have not had a chance to get it on the table yet.

“Learn in five minutes” seems like a good tagline. This weekend, I played Gaia Project, which is good fun but commitment to learn, even already knowing Terra Mystica.

Something I like about reputable tabletop game projects on Kickstarter is that they almost always have a downloadable PDF of the rules. I have absolutely gotten burned by paying full price for games without knowing whether I would like them, but I feel like that is my own fault in a world where I can download the rules and often a print and play version to try it out. If the rules are not linked with the game, they will be available on BoardGameGeek. Spirits of the Forest has the bonus that it (and all the other ThunderGryph games) is on Tabletopia, so I may try it out soon. I may try a lot of things on Tabletopia now that I am reminded of its existence.

: Zubon

[TT] Valletta

Valletta is a deckbuilding game with elements of city-building, resource management, and worker placement. While the feel is different, the design space is somewhere between Dominion and Deus. My friends approvingly described it as doing nothing new but doing it well. I think Blizzard’s empire is founded on that principle.

In Valletta, you are helping to build the capital city of Malta. You accumulate resources to build buildings, which provide you new cards to play. New cards give you more resources, manipulate resources, or award victory points. Your goal is to combine buildings that synergize, build as well and quickly as possible, then end with the most victory points.

There are several high quality design decisions in this game.

  1. Valletta has less complexity than it seems at first because of commonalities between buildings. The buildings are each in categories, so once you understand the categories, there is less mental weight to carry.
  2. Valletta has a good balance of rewarding specialization and rewarding diversity. Mass resource accumulation is a good approach, but resource buildings produce the fewest victory points directly, and each resource synergizes only with itself (and you generally need all four). You might get better synergy from branching into resource manipulation or direct victory points, which may require different resources.
  3. When the endgame is triggered, players reshuffle their decks and discard piles, then play through the whole thing once. That is a great mechanic for preventing the common situation where you got something cool but never get to use it because the game ends. You will always get to use every card at least once.
  4. Valletta balances large and small decks by the same means. You can eliminate cards from your deck, producing efficient turns and letting you go through your deck more times. And then the endgame starts and you get fewer turns because you have fewer cards. The big, inefficient decks get to trundle on for extra turns at the end. Do you want more turns or better turns?
  5. Gameplay is quick. Each turn is playing three cards, and each card is simple. The synergy is not more complex than counting.

This is not the best game that I have played recently, but it seems solid and consistent. A feature that different people will call a “pro” or “con” is that there is a substantial “turn zero”: all the cards are laid out at once, and you can spend a while staring at them all to understand your options this game. You might have 30 options, so being able to see a good strategy across them (and adapt when someone else sees the same one) is a skill to develop. It is the sort of thing I did not much like about Agricola, but it seems less overwhelmingly necessary here. You can play pretty well just fumbling through, so long as you have some strategy.

: Zubon

The game doubles as a promo for Maltese tourism, including an ad in the rulebook.

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