Ramp-le

May 22, 2011

I don’t feel a compelling need to keep commenting on each week’s various activities, not even my experience yesterday playing an online LARP (LAORP?) which was, on balance, negative, even though it was predictable that the rewards wouldn’t make sense to me.

I was trying to think of five V:TES cards that hate me.  Not cards I necessarily hate but cards that don’t work when I play them and work well against me.  Major Boon was the inspiration for trying to think of a list, but I was struggling to think of other cards, even though I know they exist.

I might have continued to ponder such, but I decided to read Mark Rosewater’s Daily Magic column for Monday, 5/23 – http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtg/daily/mm/144

Mana Action is all about how the cost system in Magic makes the game what it is.  I find this topic interesting in two ways.  First, as much as Mark defends the system as making the game better, I don’t agree with some of the details.  Second, the article does bring up an area of CCG play that is worthy of a lot more consideration.

Difference of Opinion

Taking each of his sections, let’s begin with #1.  Mark is saying that the cost system is a necessary point to making Magic a CCG.  I agree.  When we look at CCGs, we typically see some sort of costing system.  CCGs that don’t try to tie power to cost (I can’t think of one off the top of my head, but I recall ones that at least felt that way.  Wyvern?) come across as primitive and/or broken.

Moving on to #2.  Here is a quote of a section I have problems with:

Now you can start to see what the mana system is preventing. Magic is more fun if only one or two cards get cast a turn, especially in the early game. The mana system allows a slow buildup as players get to cast larger and more powerful spells. The mana system serves as a release valve that helps ensure that something happens each turn, but not too much.

While I believe that there should be a control on the flow of the game, what I find to be the largest problem in my Magic games is how little happens in many turns.  Sure, there are times when flurries of cards get played that twist the game in all sorts of directions.  And, yes, certain formats where you see more cards, have more exciting turns.  But, I am completely against the idea that only 1-2 cards should be played a turn in a CCG.  That’s far too dull.

The question, though, is how many cards should be played a turn?  What other CCG is better for card flow?

For whatever reason, maybe because it’s the game I playtested the most, I tend to think about how Babylon 5 does things first when these sorts of questions come up.  Babylon 5 can easily have too many actions, if not necessarily too many cards played, in a turn.  That was less true earlier in the game’s history when influence replenishment was less common and there wasn’t the ability to do the “I gain 20 Shadow Marks in one turn” deck or a lot of the other engine decks.  I like Event cards.  I like how they make games unpredictable.  But, many are sufficiently cheaply costed that it’s reasonable to say that too many can be played.  At least card play is more interesting than the supporting/opposing/attacking mechanic that takes up numerous actions.

Anyway, I’m getting away from card flow.  Babylon 5 clearly has a problem with hand size, in that there’s no maximum, so it’s easy to have 30+ cards in hand.  The card draw rate seems fine, but if you think about how expensive it is to put permanents into play and how easy it is to have a lot of permanents in play, there’s something off in the math of the game.  Perhaps the problem with permanents is how hard they can be to remove from the board.  Still, I often find that I have too many conflicts in hand or other cards that I never have any need to play.

For comparison, as a relative of Babylon 5’s, there is Wheel of Time.  Wheel of Time was not a great CCG.  I never would argue that it was.  But, I liked it.  What I didn’t like was random resource generation.  That the early game generation was subject to very high variance was particularly a problem, at least for the enjoyment of the game, even if better decisions could mitigate the pain of the randomness.  That the first expansion brought in starting characters who were far more consistent was huge.  Anyway, at first, resource generation was massively important because certain cards were card drawing engines and fed off of extra symbols; as well, the game was always exponential in growth, so small differences at the beginning meant large effects by the end.  However, after the first expansion, I’d say the game was more about how many cards you drew or searched out.  Playing cards as fast you could draw them became easier, in general.

If I were to complain about one thing in Magic, it wouldn’t be mana.  It would be card drawing.  Magic’s one card per turn is a lot of the reason you see so few cards played.  Wheel of Time is far ahead of Magic in having two cards per turn, though card drawing or searching is easily the most broken thing in Wheel of Time.  Getting back to costing, that you should generally be able to play your hand in Wheel of Time shows that the costing system is wrong.  Constraints are mostly about card draws and the inequality of strength of cards, which also supports that the costing system is off.

What of Vampire: The Eternal Struggle?  Is the card flow appropriate?  While getting it right for different decks can be tricky, this area likely being one of the most crucial to building better decks, I don’t find that the flow seems off.  Perhaps the restrictions on when cards can be played are so great that there’s really no fair comparison.  Constant replenishment of one’s hand is to me one of the better ways to do card drawing, but that in certain ways there’s no resource cost associated to many card plays means that the game is highly reliant on game mechanics not relevant to Magic.

As for Ultimate Combat!, which is only minimally different from Magic in basic structure, it has a very similar cost ramping system, with similar issues of how hard it is to correctly cost cards so that there’s a balance throughout the curve.

What I find amusing about reading #3 in his article is that his description of how things should be sounds okay for a CCG, great for a RPG, and is pretty much the opposite of how most Magic games turn out.  There’s rarely a sense of things building up.  Rather, some early play may be so much better than another that the disfavored side struggles to ever get back in the game.  Or, one card pretty much decides the game.  On the other hand, I don’t really see other CCGs capture the idea of fights getting more serious with interesting twists in what is happening.  V:TES is more about attrition of resources to where the “fights” become more serious as blood and pool get taken off the table.  WoT may build and build and build, but without any sort of meaningful removal, the game becomes one of whoever has a more optimal build with not a lot of endgame surprises.  Actually, this is a case where Ultimate Combat! is clearly superior to Magic.  Attacks get more brutal, yet the ability to win off the back of a single card is so much less.

Too many options, #4, is overblown with other games.  Sure, Babylon 5 has too many cards in hand and can easily put too many permanents into play that may be used.  But, it’s far better to be able to play multiple cards in a turn then not.  Of course, the two games have very different types of turns.  In B5, early game turns are generally simple and boring while everyone is building and the heart of the game is only a small number of turns after everyone has spent time building an infrastructure.  Now, that might have only been two turns early in the game’s history when going from 10 power to 20 power might have been two conflicts, some cheese, and 5 power off of an agenda.  Or, it might have been many more turns later in the game’s history when the ability to stop people from winning was greatly increased.  But, on average, the turns you cared about in B5 were a few epic ones of many plays, while a Magic game had more turns with fewer things happening, even if epic things happened on occasion.

An interesting question, which #4 really brings out, is:  how many cards should be played in a turn?

To me, the breakdown in the article shows a clear flaw in trying to have fun in Magic.  Late game, there shouldn’t be few cards.  Playing off the top is one of the most annoying features of Magic as it smacks of randomness.  While I can see limits, I would think a correlation between length of game and volume of cards played would be better than trying to have some sort of flat curve of card flow.

Many a CCG has around 7 cards in a hand.  If I were to put a number on about how many cards should see play in a meaty turn (midgame on), I’d probably say about six cards in a turn.  Some games have mechanics where you end up playing more than you should; I vaguely recall Buffy seeming to be like that, but I could be mistaken.  Obviously, some games have different card types that have very different frequencies.  B5 has conflicts, which are usually no more than one a turn.  In a B5 turn, I figure I’d want people to play 1 conflict, 2 permanents, 2-3 events, 1 aftermath … rather close to that 7 number, even though those numbers are highly variable and fall under different types of game restrictions.

Another way to look at it, still keeping in mind hand size, is how much of a hand should change from turn to turn.  Should you essentially have a new hand every turn?  In which case, that’s again about 7 cards a turn.  Or, should there be some holdover?  In V:TES, at least with my playstyle, there tends to be quite a bit of holdover from turn to turn.  I played a tournament round where I averaged half an hour a card played.  On the other hand, with V:TES, easily the most common horrible situation to be in is being handjammed.  Seven combat cards, for instance, tends to be a pretty awful hand that will get you ousted.

A typical CCG sees 60 card constructed decks.  If a game lasts 10 turns, 6 cards a turn would see running through the entire deck (ignoring the opening hand or saying that your initial draw is a “turn”).  What does this tell us?  Again, with Magic, it’s easy for a game to be decided in the first 20-30 cards.  That’s clearly not going through enough of one’s deck.  On the other hand, the norm with WoT of drawing your entire deck may not be optimal, either, as it seems like a good thing to have some inconsistency in what you draw over the course of a game to where maybe about 25% of one’s deck being undrawn sounds more right.  So, with an average of 5 cards a turn, with a 60 card deck, that means 9 turns is about how long the game should last.  What does this mean?  I don’t really know.  But, it seems fairly interesting to see how different CCGs fall on number of turns and percentage of deck remaining as a way to back into how many cards get played on average per turn.  Of course, that still leaves the question of variance in card flow.

I don’t find cutting down on the number of unique cards in a deck, #5, being all that meaningful.  First of all, there is an argument that card limits are a crutch, not only in V:TES, a game that didn’t design with them in mind, but in any CCG.  Magic didn’t originally have card limits and it could have remained without them by designing new cards without card limits in mind.  If you look at pritnear any CCG with card limits, you will find that people max out better cards and only run inferior cards because of card limits.  I find Magic decks that are something like x24 lands and nine x4’s to be pretty boring from a deckbuilding standpoint.  On the other hand, I do agree that having 40+ different cards in one’s decks is too much text that people have to process.  Note that Magic, and other CCGs, could easily reduce the number of unique cards by having lower deck size limits.

While I’m all in favor of variance, #6, I find that Magic has far too little variance in good things.  Redundancy is a big deal in Magic because you will only see a third to half of your deck much of the time.  Really, playing lands is not interesting.  The reason I play CCGs is to play cards, and I don’t consider basic resource generation to fall under “playing cards”.  Games would have a lot more interesting things going on if it were actually reasonable to play 6 cards turn after turn.  Meanwhile, the game has far too much variance in bad things.  Mark is trying to suggest that mana screw is a feature, not a bug.  Whatever.  Not being able to play what you draw because it’s too early … and late will never happen because you have already lost … is not in any way fun.  Rather than the typical game where even something like a 6-cost card may never get played because you are dead (or essentially dead) by the time it would come down, I want to see the tradeoff being playing at least one high cost card and other stuff going on or multiple lower cost cards that have significant impact turn after turn.

I don’t dispute that understanding how cards flow in CCGs requires skill, #7, so I’ll move on.

The Right Answer

I got somewhat into questions of how things could be or should be done to make for better, more fun CCGs.  Given the length of this post so far and how much there could be to say on this subject, I think I’ll try to do a part 2.  Of course, how motivated I’ll be to continue on with this topic I’m not so sure.

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Delicate

May 15, 2011

I seem to be in the mode to review recent gaming.

Delicate threat balance – Tuesday, I ran City of the Lost.  The mod is very strange in one particular way:  if you do what you should do, it’s absurdly easy; if you don’t, it seems brutal.  Now, deciding to do things the easy way is easy.  My table (as a player) had much the same experience that my players had – things were stunningly easy.  Sure, I could have increased encounters, made it more likely the players would fight enemies in the mod, or do anything so that they were truly threatened rather than just in a state of expecting doom.  But, should I have?  While Shadowlands mods in general aren’t as nasty as players expect them to be, the ease of this mod may give the incorrect idea that the others are not particularly dangerous.  Still, because of the rewards, the story, and the acclimation advantage, it’s the obvious Shadowlands mod to run first.

Delicate party composition – Friday, I got my first taste of a RuneQuest campaign that has been running for a while.  I wasn’t terribly surprised at the incredible levels of metagaming, in this case, in terms of the focus on profit.  It is my nature to try to have a coherent world view with my characters and my concept’s world view has a hard time integrating with the greediness.  Does that mean creating a new character?  Probably means getting killed early on since the others lack any sort of desire to have someone with different ethics around.  I could cave, of course, and just be a spearchucker in the party with no personal interests or goals, much like how I play my Conan character almost all of the time after I realized the Conan group was very metagamey, if not nearly as much over money/stuff, more so on whatever sounded like action or the direction the GM expected, even if other (more logical) choices ended up with the same level of action and the GM didn’t care what direction the party decided upon.

Delicate Negotiations – That would be the name of mod SoB07 of HoR3, which I played Saturday.  I keep getting reminded of how I don’t like using Skype for audible, vastly preferring Ventrilo.  That aside, this was easily my favorite mod of the new campaign.  It had way more structure.  Personal efforts mattered for more than just personal side stories.  There was logic to how things worked and plenty of possibilities for doing different things.  While I couldn’t really accomplish anything that wasn’t written into the mod with my efforts at furthering personal interests (I guess fictions will have to be done to further my personal interests), my character was highly successful at achieving mod goals, mostly because he was suited to the mod’s requirements but also because I found what I was doing interesting.  Even the rewards, which is something I often complain about as seeming arbitrary, made sense to me and didn’t offend me even though in a minor respect they could be highly unfair.

Delicate deck desirability – I built a new deck, today, for our V:TES session.  It’s of a very different style from my norm in that it’s fairly focused.  I can see the deck being interesting in a deck matchup sense, but it was fairly boring to play.  Sure, that I could annihilate people with Lightning Reflexes is something so different from my norm of passivity in all things that it has amusement value, but the random combat nature of, say, my Dem/Vic deck is so much more appealing.  Even my !Nos fight/vote deck that plays lame cards like Carrion Crows and Immortal Grapple has been more interesting than “I hit for 2.  Do I want to nuke you?  Yes.  I hit for 2 a lot more times.”  I played my Greatest Fall deck with some tweaks and that was much more interesting though I didn’t do much that the deck was supposed to do.  When the deck was borrowed for the third game, it did almost everything it was supposed to, which was amusing to watch … for a while.  I really need more decks like my Dem/Vic deck where random cards just appear and, while the card quality is decent and its strategic play is somewhat coherent, it’s unknown at the detail level how it will play from turn to turn and game to game.

Games are delicate.  Usually, one can speak of the delicate balance that either exists or doesn’t in a game.  Try to fix one thing and likely create just as big a problem elsewhere.  But, there’s also a delicate element to flavor.  It’s harder to demonstrate, of course, but some games, particularly RPGs, can suffer a lot if the flavor lacks the right feel.  I’d argue that the Scorpion Clan in L5R has a huge concern with capturing the right balance between being “official” bad guys, not really being bad guys, and being competent at dirty tricks without being grossly overpowered because they get to use tactics no one else does.


Betwixt

May 7, 2011

I have this sense that something in the last week should be remembered better, so I’m just reviewing the last week’s worth of gaming.

Last Saturday played Winter Court: Kyuden Hida, SoB08 of HoR3.  It went quite a while.  Even if we would have played faster, the mod seemed to have more depth than most of the HoR3 mods.  As with every Winter Court mod I’ve seen for HoR, I believe there are too many characters and, especially, too many characters that don’t matter.  I realize that a living campaign needs to have diversity to cater to a large group of players, but it’s really hard on the GM whether the NPCs have interesting stories or not.  I think I’m getting more and more feel for my main character, who has played about half as much as my alt.  I rebuilt the character specifically for the mod since the character didn’t need to be finalized until after the mod, when I had played it three times.  I did a really good job of predicting what was important, I just couldn’t pull the trigger on taking an obscure skill that would have been useful, which would have been amusing even if the die rolls would have suggested that it wouldn’t have mattered.

Sunday, we expected four for V:TES.  I don’t really need to explain events, as Brandon http://brandonsantacruz.blogspot.com/2011/05/update-and-game-re-cap.html has already done so.  I do need to do something about breaking down some of my lamer decks.  The 3e-only deck is fine if I didn’t also make it a 4cl deck.  The Stray Bullets deck is just not something for me to give other people until I identify whether it’s viable or not.  Games like Wings of War are always funny with me since I’m so bad spatially that I don’t really know where plotted movement takes me.  The Greatest Fall deck had an interesting crypt, since only my favorite vampire mechanically in the game was the one I least wanted to bring out from my uncontrolled region, but the library was fairly dull.  I should probably make some changes on my Jyhad-only 4cl Toreador tap vote deck, but I guess it’s matchup dependent no matter what, where I badly want my prey to have titled vampires.

It was late enough in the day that I didn’t feel up to posting many of these comments on May Day.

Not knowing whether one of the regulars was playing my HoR2 campaign Tuesday, I prepared to run one mod and had another printed as a backup plan.  Went with the backup plan, which nobody seemed happy about.  It’s an uninspired mod that was okay for me when I played it resultswise but not all that interesting.  That lack of inspiration coupled with how I think my group is just really bad at investigation made it drag and nothing all that interesting happened except an ending that I’m sure is fairly rare.

Only Andy out of my players will probably read this – I don’t understand why following up on leads and asking the right questions is such a challenge.  I’m perfectly fine avoiding investigative mods/situations (to the extent it’s possible in a campaign where investigation is the primary activity) if the party isn’t interested, but the party is so close so often on doing what it’s expected to do (and probably wants to do) and then goes and does something else that doesn’t end up being terribly productive … and never comes back to a far more productive line.

Thursday, I blew off class to do boardgames with the old South Bay group.  First up was Scepter of Zavandor, a variation on Outpost.  I like the game.  It has some of the problems that Outpost, which I hate playing because it’s so limited and unforgiving, has.  It probably lacks the variety that I perceive it has for me at this stage.  So, it’s not great by any stretch of the imagination.  But, there are enough roles that I haven’t played a lot of different strategies (subtle as the differences may be), so my fascination with strategic variety is stimulated.  Well, whatever.  It’s good to not be bored with a game.  Speaking of bored with a game, we played Settlers because it was easy.  It was a blowout, as many of our Settlers games are, as I couldn’t care less what actually happens in Settlers games anymore.  I spent the entire game working on largest army and never got to three soldiers – that’s not a comment on the quality of the game or my competitive effort – it’s just a note that relates to how I find the game completely unsatisfying, whether competitively or not.

Yesterday, I finally made an appearance with Jeff’s RPG group.  We played All Flesh Must Be Eaten.  It went well, especially from a narrative standpoint.  My rancher character got to use First Aid a lot when the vet kept getting the crap beaten out of him by zombies, .50 caliber machine gun fire, and whatnot.  I never took any damage.  After all, the driver is probably never going to get hit by machine gun fire going through the engine block, right?  On the flip side, I could never find a gun, so the only damage I did was a two-fisted blow to the back of a head of a zombie … for 1 point of damage.  Go Strength of 1.  Go Strength of 1!  The two jocks kept leaving us behind, since their Ferrari and motorcycle lacked the problems our stolen vehicles had.  The trucker never ended up driving a truck, but he did get to shoot some zombies … Perhaps we could organize our resources better – M-16 to the rancher who has Guns: Rifles and a low Strength, truck to the trucker, vet tends others rather than getting tended to, etc.

Next week, with the group, is likely to be RuneQuest, where I get to hack and slash.  Been a while.

So, the takeaways from all this are what?  HoR is HoR – it isn’t likely to be perfectly suited to a particular group of players.  I’m still working on how to better suit my players.  I think the Shadowlands mods, the more I reread them, are more what the campaign should be like as they are less likely to drag.  I need to be building more interesting (to play) decks for V:TES and not lend out decks that only “work” when I play them.  Maybe I need to find another boardgame to be a staple of play so that I don’t get stuck playing ones I really have no desire to ever play again.  Unfortunately, most of the few I own fall into the category of not being ones I actually want to play.

Finally, the RPG book I ordered on April 13th has finally shipped.  Not that I’m doing a good job of delving into material I buy, but I really should do more to support the industry, so putting in an occasional order for something, even if it takes a month to ship, makes sense.