No Way Out

June 29, 2013

Lot of minor things I’ve had on my mind in the past couple of weeks.  While just as minor for any given instance, what I’m posting about today cuts across a number of instances.

Time to dwell on choice/variety again.  As I say, boardgames just don’t compel me like RPGs and CCGs because they have nowhere near the variety … variety of experience that is.  When you tell a story about a boardgame, it’s more like “then I forked his rook and queen, 15 moves later, I won”, which may be significant, but it’s not distinct.  Sure, hearing about the exploits of one’s RPG character is pretty painful for people who weren’t there, but it’s great when it’s reminiscing among people who were there.  Can look at my last V:TES tournament win for why I embrace CCG variety –

Key play in the game?  After my first Villein, I played another master – Powerbase: Madrid.  It ended the game in the same state as it had been four turns after I played it – full of counters and unused.

Let me see if I can work backwards a bit on recent experiences and how they relate to choice/variety.

Last night, we played the first session of our RuneQuest campaign since escaping from the dungeon we were trapped in for 4 or so months (it felt like at least 6 to one of our core players).  It was a perfect example of everything defining about our RQ play.

First, there are no meaningful options.  Sure, there are different choices.  But, they all lead down the twin paths of either minimizing screwage or not minimizing screwage.  What was highly amusing, to an extent, of this session was how happy people felt to be out of the dungeon only to engage in exactly the same behavior and experience that is SOP for the group – try to leave town to make progress on a party goal, find random loot and/or random encounter, turn back to town to evaluate loot and/or lick wounds, find out details about unusual treasure and/or heal up, set out from town, find random loot and/or random encounter, turn back to town to evaluate loot and/or lick wounds.

Now, I got a bit away from the real examples of the lack of meaningful choices.  Just thought that paradigm might amuse people.  First, there’s only one way to build characters.  I always get the same armor.  I always either get weapon package A (poleaxe) or weapon package B (not poleaxe – whatever weapon can’t do enough damage to matter much).  Everyone gets Disruption, Heal 2+, Protection, Bladesharp (or Bludgeon) as battle magic.  None of us play to our cults strongly, as, if I did, I’d never adventure with the rest of the party.  In fact, I try to find the optimal cult for having no agenda whatsoever as personal agenda means no plausible way I’d hang out with the rest of the party.

Then, combat is always the same.  Last night, there was a procession that included tied up slaves.  I turned invisible and went to free the slaves, trying to do something more interesting than just standard stand in a line and exchange blows until one side is a mess.  It achieved nothing.  The slaves were combat useless, which meant all I did was take actions that could have been standing with my two comrades and exchanging blows with the monsters.  Then, I didn’t bother casting Protection and Bladesharp at the start of combat as I hoped to not have to do SOP combat.  Then, I get one-shotted (dead, a frequent result), where, if I had Protection up, I would have only been unconscious and bleeding to death rather than dead.  I wanted to use my broadsword as I need to get my skill up to 90% in that as a Runelord requirement, but I can’t because broadswords don’t do enough damage to matter in real fights, and we don’t get minor encounters.

Then, the system has no (standard) reroll mechanics, so there’s no way to control bad results, meaning that everything is a randomfest of randomness.  But, I realized something yesterday or early this morning:  as much as our RQ play is just a series of random die rolls to resolve everything, there’s no deviation in play that makes any sense.  There’s an optimal way to build (fast and weak = useless, weak physically and magically inclined = useless, low armor = dead, etc.), there are optimal tactics given that the party never embraces group tactics of a different strategic sort, greed is essential.

For example, of the last, I gave a bunch of money away to a group of elves who gave us money for helping with an undead problem that is affecting the entire region.  I wasn’t expecting that to be an optimal choice for my character, but not only was there no benefit to doing so, a drawback of not having the money for other uses, but also that I had to make a roll just to avoid offending folks I just dumped more money on than I’ve ever had.  Again, there are no choices in this campaign – optimal greed is optimal advancement, which is what the campaign is all about.

Okay, what are some other instances of lack of choices, or, at least, the perception of such?

Friday’s article on Daily MTG from the developer dude, Sam Stoddard, spoke about having variety in limited play.  For instance, losing to four different “dragons” that nuke your board position is not all that interesting, even if the specific “dragon” is different.  As usual, I try to compare and contrast with how V:TES plays.

Some folks complain about the lack of variety in V:TES, but there’s just no evidence of that when you look at what people play in environments outside of your own.  Which isn’t to say that V:TES couldn’t use some different choices.  It’s just not a problem.  If anything, relating to Sam’s article about limited play in Magic, I feel like limited play of V:TES suffers from lack of variety.  It always amazes me that people go on about how you see cards you don’t see in constructed but ignore that the way decks play (or should play if you built/drafted correctly) isn’t really that varied.  Sure, I can’t predict what’s going to happen when using four different sets in balance or whatever, but, when there is a predominance of one or two sets, it’s not hard to have an idea of the key cards/strategies.

I’ll skip commenting upon my Tuesday night experiences as those highlight very different problems, problems that are largely my fault rather than the game’s fault.

But, to finish up, how about a boardgame example?  Le Havre, to me, is not the most obvious example since the game is all about too many choices of how boardgames lack variety, but actually, from a high level standpoint, I feel like every game is the same precisely because every game is about wanting to achieve steel, shipping, building while having too many choices and not enough actions after the first few turns.  When looked at, at the game level rather than the action level, boardgames just scream repetition of experience.

So, what’s the point?

I guess the points, by game type, are:

  1. RPGs – Variety of character builds and player/PC actions should be viable.
  2. CCGs – If you think the game lacks variety, build something different, anyway.  You may be wrong.
  3. Boardgames – Prioritize other games that have more varied experiences, at least if you have a personality like mine.


June 14, 2013

I backed a Kickstarter campaign

Which might seem odd, given that I have no Shadowfist collection, have played very little in my life, and have never been all that interested in it before.

Before getting into the why’s, not being an old hand at Kickstarter, I was curious as to what the chances were that the last $5,000 would be made.  Unsurprisingly, campaigns seem to do most of their funding early and late.  I found some analysis around successful versus unsuccessful patterns, and momentum is huge.  Of course, what I wonder is how often a campaign that’s close to hitting its target sees the project owner arrange supplemental funding to hit the target and what threshold “close to hitting” is.

So, why?

I think it’s a bunch of small reasons that are just enough critical mass to get me to invest to a degree in the game.

While my Feng Shui Tu Huo campaign isn’t standard Feng Shui, having the cardgame to reference may help the players understand aspects of my campaign better.

While Shadowfist has recently embraced a LCG model, calling it Dynamic Card Game or some such, I respect its collectible card game history.  I also have liked the local Shadowfist community.  In a way, I’m less concerned about my playing the game (which, again, I’ve done very little of, having spent more time watching people I know play than play myself) than in supporting the people who always were fans of the game.

While I game enough, having something along the lines of a Tuesday night, Friday night, Saturday, and every other Sunday gaming schedule, I feel like some variety.  I used to miss playing a two-player CCG after Wheel of Time died, but now, I just kind of miss having more involvement in any CCG (customizable card game to cover both collectible and living).  Yes, one could argue that this has been brought on by not having new V:TES sets.  But, even new V:TES cards lack a level of freshness that I could get more into.  V:TES is bloated.  Shadowfist, the TCG, is also bloated, but the DCG is not.  And, I lack familiarity with the Shadowfist cardpool, so things are new to me.

Which means that now is a relatively not bad time to get into the game – I can live in the DCG world (Modern), if I want, live in a full blown world and try to play some with Merlin and whoever, or live in some hybrid world, like I used to for Jyhad/V:TES.

There’s one more element that comes to mind as impetus for getting into something new(ish), and that’s that much of my gaming is driven by me.  I’m running two RPG campaigns and running mods for Heroes of Rokugan.  While I don’t promote V:TES in direct ways virtually at all, anymore, I do it from the shadows by doing things like having this blog.  My Friday night game is highly dependent upon me to show up and help determine what RPG we do (in that I prefer playing what we usually play because anything else has enthusiasm problems).  My Saturday game seems dependent upon my pushing activity for things to happen.  Just playing something (even though I would probably be the person pushing play with, say, my FSTH group) has a more relaxing, comfortable feel.  As for why not just play more boardgames, where I don’t take lead, has to do with how much more interesting I find CCGs or RPGs.  Boardgames, to me, really have no investment.  Sure, I may think about them and what strategies to employ when not playing them, but it’s nothing like CCGs and RPGs.

Maybe not exactly the same element, but maybe it’s another facet of last paragraph’s is the sense of belonging to a gaming community.  I think KublaCon did a good job of pointing this out.  I no longer run up to San Francisco to play RPGs with Brad and the crew.  I am part of essentially five gaming groups at this point, one of which doesn’t get together that often, but there is some overlap, and, because HoR3 doesn’t make me feel like I’m part of the larger living campaign but just gives me linked adventures to play, I don’t feel like I’m part of that many communities … for whatever reason.  Which could be because I’m running more and being a player less, which is why I’m not sure whether this is part of the above or not.

Ultimately, just looking for something new to embrace.  That’s not a new pattern.  I often cycle through games I own, when left to my own devices.  May only play ones which other people play but end up spending thought on a “circuit” of games I don’t play.

We are supposed to be starting a new RPG campaign Sunday, one I’m not running.  That might be enough of a freshness kick to stop me from looking around for something new, but if the Shadowfist Kickstarter happens, then I might try to play some by the Fall, possibly a game day in July, as well.

For A New Generation

June 10, 2013

Over the weekend, had both boardgames and V:TES.  Will take a while to get to V:TES.

For boardgames, played Outpost twice to start things off as it was recently discovered that it had been reprinted and we all were curious as to what it would be like to play it for the first time in like a decade.  Outpost is especially relevant to us due to The Scepter of Zavandor being one of our favorite games, arguably our favorite game.

For those that don’t know, Outpost has been around since 1991 and uses an engine of buying production thingies that generate money in the form of cards that, in turn, are used for more production or bidding in auctions for upgrades that improve production directly or indirectly.  In other words, the game is all about making money to make more money.  Things you buy generate victory points, so there is some distinction between production power and end game results, but better production is the strategy.

What I remembered about playing Outpost was that it was a harshly unforgiving game, where an early mistake crippled your long term production and left you irrelevant.  Then, with no brakes on leaders, the game was very snowbally.  When we started playing Scepter, I was amazed at how different it was from Outpost even though it had the same core engine.  Scepter addressed the problem of leaders running away with built in brakes – artifacts (upgrades in Outpost) cost more for the first two players.  Scepter also made some other changes that produced a much more forgiving game, which I prefer, such as being able to make change.

Anyway, the first game we played without the expansion, to refresh our memories and/or learn the differences in rules.  For the most part, I was reminded of why I prefer Scepter, but some of the arguable improvements in Scepter do affect play in such a way that one could argue that Outpost is a better thinking game.  Not that spending a lot of time thinking is all that appealing to me with boardgames.

For instance, not being able to get change, roll together buys of different types, and not having the ability to sell assets all make money management require more planning.  In Scepter, “megas”, what you can get if you could get four of the same type of resource card, are always the correct play, returning more value and having less of a burden on hand size constraints.  In Outpost, they are optional because they don’t give any relief on hand size and you can’t make change.  On the flip side, that Scepter has a relatively predictable artifact replacement system and Outpost has a rather random upgrade replacement system makes planning ahead in Outpost a lot riskier.

Speaking of hand size, I find it to be largely irrelevant in Scepter.  Only if you start on a low hand size track should it matter in the early game, and, then, it just stops mattering as you rarely get stuck in the game.  Meanwhile, Outpost, where you can’t buy something and sell it off later at half price, and where you can easily get stuck by one of your constraints or by how random the process is for needed upgrades to appear makes hand size a significant consideration.

The first game, I got two Nodules to eliminate problems with my Colonist population limit.  I tried somewhat to prevent others from being able to get around the starting limit of 5 Colonists, but having three Nodules available and an early Robots meant that I couldn’t do a lot about it.  I couldn’t do Titanium, so used my massive population for a lot of Water.  Brian got an early Scientists and rode that to victory.  The other two were just out of the game, while I bought three Ecoplants for the VPs to stay in first, but Brian’s production easily outstripped mine in the later game to where he bought bigger endgame stuff.  The game was not terribly fun.

But, we try to play “new” games two or more times.  We played with the expansion in the second game, which adds Kicker cards and it had minor impact.  Brian picked up the Wily Trader in the beginning and used it on me mostly for the entire game, only occasionally hitting Christina late, when her production got massive.  The only other Kicker ever bought was the era three one worth 25 VPs.  This game was far more balanced, with the end VPs ranging from 79 to 89.  Christina and I tied at 89.  She crushed me in the tiebreaker.  Notable about this game was that hand size really hurt me.  I desperately needed an Outpost at a certain point as I was discarding cards every turn of the midgame and endgame, which certainly cost me VPs.  Brian got an early advantage on production with a bunch of Titanium, something Christina and I avoided for a while because of Wily Trader – she never got into it, whereas I had no real choice but to take the Wily Trader hits.  But, Christina and Gary had big endgame production strategies.  I made some buys for VPs as I ran into constraints and Scientists and Orbital whatevers didn’t show up until late.  The 5 VP difference between the Kicker and “just” a Moonbase caused Christina and I to tie, with her production being 30-40 higher than mine at the end.

I really like how modern boardgames put mechanics on player tracking boards and on the game pieces.  Outpost is much less of a fog of constraints to me, now, with playing a lot of Scepter helping immensely with the basic ideas in the game.  Though some aspects might have some advantages, I still find Scepter a vastly more fun game to play.  Change is good.  Being able to sell gems to have higher auction limits is good.  Penalties to the leaders is good.  Not being able to jump back into auctions after passing is very, very good, as it’s just annoying to have auctions go on and on.  And, not being utterly hosed by missing out on a key upgrade/artifact just makes for a better game.  I can tolerate Outpost, but I don’t see ever embracing it.  Kickers were pretty much meaningless to the enjoyment of the game.  It’s sad that Scepter doesn’t have an expansion.

We followed up with the short game of Le Havre, had dinner, then played Settlers.  Really none of my preferred games.  Le Havre because there are too many things you want to do.  Settlers because it’s not really that compelling of a game after you’ve become familiar with it.

Okay, 1000 words and still haven’t gotten to V:TES.  Try to quick this up a bit.

Had four players Sunday.

Game 1:

Brandon (Hektor Eats the World) -> Ian (Dive Into Madness redux) -> Andrew (borrowed Samedi Force of Will) -> David (Dominate Crypt Machine)

Brandon had to go backwards, giving me some time to develop.  Artemis got a Dive.  Andrew brought out only Jorge and played Little Mountain Cemeterys.  I should note that I didn’t have time to put together new decks, so I modified around three existing decks.  I pulled Lilith’s Blessing from my Dive deck, though I brought up the idea of playtesting a change to LB.  Andrew’s deck was my old tournament winning Samedi deck with quite a few changes as the original deck was not only goofy but not really interesting for people to play.  Still, hardly what I would do today.  David didn’t go forward hard enough to prevent Hektor from annihilating his position and turning his Amaranthing eyes upon my minions.  I lost Jason and Theron in one turn.  At this point, lot of wondering why the Hektor deck isn’t seen more often and my pointing out that it really isn’t all that good at winning, which others disagreed with.  Andrew kept complaining about the Samedi deck, playing the midgame with just Jorge.  Brandon was low on pool.  I was not but only had Artemis.  Andrew finally brings out Reg.  One Force of Will bleed with bounce can kill Brandon.  David doesn’t have a wake but ousts Brandon on his turn with Bonding.

I start working on a new minion now that combat isn’t relevant.  Andrew bleeds out David, finally drawing some Forces of Will.  I have six bleed on the table between Artemis with two Dives, Ian Forestal, Tasha Morgan, and Heidelberg.  Andrew Minion Taps a couple of times, putting him out of reach, and his four Samedi bleed me out.

Andrew keeps wondering how my old tournament winning decks actually won.  Now, the Ravnos deck was horrid.  That was a matter of barely getting into the finals and having winnie Dominate as my prey such that everyone at the table ganged up to kill my prey.  But, the Samedi deck was utterly dominate in the tournament I won with it, having 9.5 VPs going into the finals, 1.5 of that coming in the third prelim round when I was the only player to oust anyone.  Sure, it didn’t Dominate in the finals, but I was one action from ousting my prey, and the only other person in trouble was arguably in less trouble than my prey – nobody really did much in the finals.  Sure, the Samedi deck had terrible card choices in terms of running Ashes to Ashes, but the reality is that the metagame was very different at the time.  Early on, in my tournament life, decks were very aggressive and people looked left all of the time.  When I started winning tournaments was a time when decks became a lot more diverse and less intent on ousting.  I metagamed heavily against combat and hardly ever expected to get diablerized, so Ashes to Ashes was not quite as absurd.  I even nuked a War Ghoul with one of my two Compresses in the tournament.  I would say that these days players have a much better idea of how to be dangerous, such that the limitations of the Samedi deck could matter a lot more (like zero vote defense).  But, whatever.  Mindless forward decks from the 90’s would likely suck these days, as well.

Game 2:

Brandon (Ani/Pro) -> David (as above) -> Andrew (borrowed !Ventrue Grinder) -> Ian (LotN Assamites)

I couldn’t put any pressure on Brandon all game.  In hindsight, once I realized the match up, I could have used Blood Awakenings forward to try to clear some of the Losses in my hand.  But, I played a defensive game that repeatedly stymied Andrew as I would just Nest of Eagles bounced bleeds and when he bled me, taking only 1 pool damage from a 4 bleed through much of the game.  I also had plenty of wakes to keep stopping stuff.  David brought out Chas Giovanni Tello and we made fun of him, rightly so as Andrew Sudden Reversaling Chas’s bleeds stopped David from ousting.  See, I’ve been around long enough to know how bad Chas is in actual play.  Yet, people don’t believe me on stuff.  Brandon rushed David, never bleeding to clear David of bounce.  Smiling Jack came down, though it didn’t matter much to me, except my attempts to get rid of it were blocked.  Andrew finally ousted me, though a Famed, torped minion helped.  David finally got taken out, and Brandon easily won the endgame.

Game 3:

Andrew (Scout and friends) -> David (Horde) -> Ian (LotN Ravnos) -> Brandon (Khalid Night Moves)

I had David test my thought on Lilith’s Blessing.  I’m not enthused about making major changes to the card, and I’m perfectly happy for promo cards to suck, so I knew my change was going to be weak.  The question was whether it would be so weak that no one would ever play it.  David’s deck wasn’t a bad deck to test that theory.  Certainly, he wouldn’t have played LB with my changes.

I bring out Neel.  Neel, on turn two, got a Vessel.  I put out The Path of Paradox.  And, Neel got Karavalanisha Vrana … look up Neel for how funny that is.  The plan was to move it to Chavi, later.  The card is a coaster, even when you put it on a vampire with Chimerstry and have younger vampires in your uncontrolled region.  My guess is that it was too good at some point in playtesting and got overnerfed before playtesters could point out how useless it is.  While trying to get my defenses in order, David bled me for a lot.

With Brandon burning my Path right away and preventing me from taking the Edge, predictably, I had no way to survive after Andrew Shattered away David’s game and ousted him.  The rest didn’t take that long, as I was Fame Shattered and no longer had any intercept to stop stuff.  Brandon spent much of the game fishing for Khalid, so he was far too slow to put any pressure on Andrew.


June 2, 2013

As someone who spent many years building Champions characters, I’m used to intricate character building.  As someone who no longer just builds characters for the joy of building characters but actually wants to play the characters I build these days, I have no patience for involved character creation, anymore.

Was building a character for BattleTech: A Time of War and could not believe the lifepath system.  Sure, the game has a number of ways you can build characters and the straight point buy system looks fine, but the lifepath stuff is just a hideous monster of inanity.  That it’s aimed at people who like detail doesn’t excuse that most of the bonuses are meaningless when you go to “optimize” (i.e. make your character playable) your character.  All flexible spending can just be dumped into an attribute pool, etc.  I like the idea of lifepaths but have yet to see them justify the effort involved.

But, besides being tedious, going through the process reminds me of a few things that all tie into my new age thinking that games need to focus on what is fun.

Any sort of lengthy character creation only takes time away from actually starting play.  Even with campaign play, the most important thing is to play.  The more you play a character, the more the character comes alive.  Much of the time, backstory elements don’t end up mattering.  A GM can only incorporate so many individual character elements, and the ones that the group will remember are the ones shared between the group, which are the ones that happen after the campaign begins.  One defining feature/hook to a character is enough, in my mind.

Note, on a tangent, that I utterly despise fake storytelling mechanics in character creation, like having one person’s weakness be another person’s strength, or whatever that FATE nonsense I had to go through for one campaign was about.  Cooperative party design is not advantaged by mechanizing thematics.

Similarly, I might finally be getting to the point of not statblocking all of my NPCs in all of the excruciating detail one might for a PC.  Yeah, I still full character sheet too much because creating characters (for some systems) is fun, but I’m starting to not bother for ones who are purely thematic and only having relevant abilities for others.  Not doing full character sheets is a huge GM time saver.

Since this post isn’t intended to cover everything about my new world thinking but to focus on speed, let’s see if I can come up with a few more things that only relate to quick play.

There are other aspects of campaigns that don’t need to be fully fleshed out prior to starting.  It helps to have players who are more flexible about what mechanics a campaign uses, as you don’t get balkiness when you want to create or modify a campaign mechanic.  I’m not even that concerned about whether PCs are fully mechanically built.  But, then, one of the things playing HoR has shown me is that it’s more important that players like their characters than worry overmuch about their stats.  Of course, the flip side of this is that I want to know enough about PCs and player NPCs that I can incorporate their individual characteristics into the game, something that has been teeth-pulling with one of the campaigns I’m currently running.

Once you start play, there’s not getting bogged down in:  descriptions; rules; not knowing rules; decision-making; other.  Some of this is RPG-101, like not obsessing over rules.  But, I really don’t see why decisions need to take a long time.  Most often, this will come about when making some sort of strategic plan.  But, this can also come up during combat, when people don’t know the mechanics for their characters.  A bit different from wasting time because of the rules aspects of not knowing mechanics, by the way – I see both problems at times.

Or, in the realm of CCGs, people who obsess over building perfect decks rather than just throwing something together and playing.  Much of the time, playing a deck will tell you what you need to change that worrying about contents for an unplayed deck won’t.  Again, some of my nutpuncher decks were not intended to be such – I only discovered after play that they didn’t work as expected.

While I prefer RPGs and CCGs, both of which have substantial pre-play commitments, I’ve very much moved to a philosophy of just start playing the game.  Playing the game is supposed to be fun.  If it is fun, spend more time doing.

Then, when playing, move things along.

We had two other MechWarrior campaigns a couple years or so ago.  I don’t recall a lot.  What I do recall is spending time on character construction that largely didn’t matter.  I recall spending a lot of time deciding what to do without having a clear idea how to do it.  Flailing about is not my idea of fun.  The plot and the characters with it should always be in motion.

Then, there are other sorts of games where set up and/or break down can be lengthy.  While I enjoyed BattleTech at KublaCon, an hour of set up for a new scenario is non-trivial.  I don’t make any effort to encourage mahjong play with my boardgaming group as it’s a time intensive game.  Games like Arkham Horror don’t enthuse me as much as a boardgame that can be quickly started.

Spending a bunch of time reading rules also doesn’t do it for me.  I’ve never been much for learning games from reading; learning from others is my standard method of learning anything.  But, it’s even less pleasant when everyone in a group needs to read a bunch to play a game.  While I’m kind of stretching this post beyond what inspired it, having one person learn the rules and explain to everyone else is better than having everyone try to learn the rules on their own.

I can see where some people might find travel time to play games or the like to be unfun, but I actually like it when you travel with others whom you can speak to about the game.  I even tend to not have a problem with the travel time when it’s just me, as I do think about games while undergoing the boredom that is driving or public transportation.  Still, maximizing game time is something I can see being an issue for groups.

Maybe it’s due to gaming more than I did when younger.  Maybe it’s a been there, done that perspective.  Maybe it’s just a factor of getting older.  But, I see increasing value in quick start and rapid developments with games.  Games that don’t offer such seem to me to be limiting their markets.  Which, I suppose, is one reason V:TES isn’t more popular.  Even if you can get people to throw together decks and not get paralyzed by the multitude of options, games (in my experience) rarely have rapid developments and timely conclusions.  (Though, to be fair, V:TES games I play in with rapid developments tend to be horribly unbalanced and aren’t any more satisfying.)